Southeast Asia has long been a major stopping point for backpackers around the world. Exotic destinations, beautiful beaches and mountains, bustling cities, fantastic food, friendly people, a well trodden tourist trail, and super cheap prices all contribute to one of the top regions in the world for traveling.
From the smiling faces and pristine beaches in Thailand, to the incredible, fresh food in Vietnam, to one of the most impressive sites in the world in Cambodia, to the sleepy, still undiscovered lands of Laos, Southeast Asia is ripe for the picking if you love to travel.
What to expect
Expect stunning scenery, historical site after historical site, fantastic food that is as cheap, fresh, and as good as you’ll find anywhere in the world, and ease of travel.
Sure, you may not always be comfortable (hello, minibuses in Laos), but what you give up in comfort you get back in the wallet. One of the most surprising things about travel in SE Asia was just how easy it truly is. Unless you really get off the beaten path, the language barrier is pretty much nonexistent as most everyone, especially those involved in tourism, speaks English. Because the region has been a popular travel destination for the better part of 50 years, they have it down and know how it’s done, so enjoy the ride!
Planning your trip to Southeast Asia
A lot goes into planning your trip to Southeast Asia – how to get there, how to get around once you are there, best time of the year to go, which vaccinations you need, and what the visa situations are.
Getting around SE Asia is pretty easy (though it may not be the epitome of comfort all the time), with many options depending on your budget.
- Air- Air Asia is the main budget airline in the region, and if you are flexible and on top of things, you can get dirt cheap flights between major cities (Bangkok, Saigon, Hanoi, Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, etc.).
- Bus- Bus quality varies from country to country and even city to city. Thailand and Vietnam have some decent buses, some of them the sleeper variety, but some flat out suck, too. Be sure to check the information below to see specifics on overland travel in each country.
- Minibuses– While not the most comfortable transport in the world, minibuses are in all Southeast Asian countries in some form or another (costing practically nothing). The unifying factor amongst bus transport is that it’s dirt cheap.
- Train- Trains are available in all countries as well, with some really nice ones in Thailand, in particular. There are different types and different classes of seats, with sleeper compartments as well (that are really nice), so do your homework.
- Boat- One of the coolest modes of transport around Southeast Asia is by riverboat. Some slow boat trips (Thailand into Laos) are said to be pretty brutal, but others are amazing (Vietnam into Cambodia). Boat travel is becoming less and less common, though.
In order to travel on a super, super cheap budget (think under $20-25US/day), you’re going to have to rough it a bit in Southeast Asia. While you can find beds for under $5/night, you get what you pay for (think dorm beds, no a/c, and questionable cleanliness).
As long as you’re willing to eat street and market food (which you should as it’s the best), you can eat like a king for a few dollars a day. A huge plate of pad thai costs about $1US on the streets of Bangkok, a steaming bowl of Pho in the alleyways of Hanoi about the same, and as long as you eat locally, even in restaurants, it’s still not going to run more than a few dollars for a meal.
But if you have the money to splurge just a little bit (think $35-40/day), you’re going to have nice, private rooms with air conditioning, you’ll be able to splurge on a western meal you may crave every once in a while, and you’ll be able to take a sleeper train and nice bus in certain situations (sometimes a crappy minibus is your only option).
Thailand and Vietnam are a little more expensive than Laos and Cambodia, but if you plan on $35US/day for these four countries, you’ll be traveling well most of the time.
When it comes to vaccinations, everyone has their own opinions, so how careful or reckless you want to be is completely up to you. The best advice we can offer is to go see your primary care doctor and/or a travel physician and take his or her advice. According to the CDC, your routine vaccinations of MMR (measles, mumps, rubella), DPT (diphtheria, pertussis, tetanus), and polio should be up to date, but they aren’t required. Hepatitis A and B are also highly recommended. Typhoid and Japanese encephalitis are also recommended, as is rabies.
When it comes to malaria, everyone has an opinion. Some take some form of malaria meds, some take none. Again, speak with your doctor about vaccinations and do whatever you’re comfortable with. And if you do decide to get any/all vaccinations, shop around as prices vary wildly, particularly in the United States. Most malaria medication is extremely expensive, and you can purchase them for a much cheaper price once you’re in Southeast Asia. The problem is that most malaria meds advise travelers to start taking them a few weeks before arrival. But you can get some at home and then re-up once you’re there. We bought malaria meds over the counter in a pharmacy in Vietnam when we were close to running out.
For Americans, Vietnam is the only country out of these four where you need to take care of your visa before arriving. Travelers can get visas on arrival in Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia. Visa rules are different, though, depending on how you arrive. For example, if arriving in Thailand by land, it is standard to only receive a 15-day tourist visa, but if you arrive by air, you receive a 30-day visa. Laos and Cambodia both offer 30-day visas upon arrival. It is recommended to have US dollars for visas, and make sure they are crisp bills with no tears and little wear (I argued for 15-minutes with a visa officer entering Laos because a few of my bills weren’t in good enough condition).
Where to go
Southeast Asia encompasses more than just these four countries, and we’ll get to Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, the Phillipines, and Burma in a future article. As far as where to go, we highlight many of the top destinations within each country and offer some off-the-beaten-path locations as well. Some travelers can blast through all four countries in a month, seeing the highlights and moving fast. Others can take months or even years to explore the region. It all depends on how much time and money you have.
Thailand is a land the evokes many images for travelers. White sand beaches in the south, one of the biggest, bustling metropolises in the world in Bangkok, and peaceful hill stations in the north. There is a reason Thailand is one of the most popular travel destinations not only in Southeast Asia but in the entire world. The beauty all over the country is unmatched, the food absolutely mouth-watering, and the people as friendly as can be. It’s not called the Land of Smiles for nothing. While some may complain that it’s over-touristy, and there are plenty of tourists, it still has an unmatched beauty that will have any travel lover falling in love and wanting to return again and again.
Mountains, jungles, beaches. History, culture, cuisine. It’s no secret why Vietnam is becoming a top travel destination around the world. It really does have it all, and with a well trodden tourist trail, travel around this country is rather easy. The people may not be as friendly as nearby Thailand or as laid back as neighboring Laos, and not everyone has an affinity for travel here, but once you get used to the chaos, Vietnam offers all travelers an unforgettable experience.
When people think of Cambodia, they automatically connect it with one of the world’s greatest wonders, Angkor Wat. Rightfully so, as it is one of the most visited and spectacular sites in the world. While Angkor steals the spotlight, there are plenty of other fantastic places to visit in this beautiful Southeast Asian country.
After being off the tourist radar for so long, Laos is quickly becoming that next great destination for budget travelers in Southeast Asia. A country that has been pounded by war and still seeing the effects, this sleepy country is drop dead gorgeous. Laos has lots to offer for those looking to get off the beaten path a bit. Don’t wait too long, though, as the rest of the world is catching on, and it won’t be long before Laos is just as popular as neighboring Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam.
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