Whether it’s a quick weekend trip to a new city in the US, or an international excursion, we’ve noticed an increase in students who have acted upon their feelings of wanderlust. If you’re ready to answer the sweet siren song of travel but are concerned about your budget, consider backpacking Southeast Asia. How long and where you go is up to you.
Some people try a quick two week trek while others opt for a slower four month adventure. Either way, Southeast Asia has exactly what you’re looking for. As backpacking has grown in popularity, many countries in Southeast Asia have responded to the rising demand of tourism. We spent about three months traveling throughout Southeast Asia and were able to make it to six countries. The amount of activities to do paired with the affordability makes Southeast Asia a top backpacker destination.
Depending on how much you want to spend on your trip, you could spend anywhere from $20-$100 a day. We stayed on the lower end, spending about $30 a day. This included housing, food, transportation, and excursions. We stayed in hostels to keep costs low and to meet other backpackers. Street food was usually our go to, and other than a day with elephants at a sanctuary in Thailand, excursions were never more than $20 a person. While many Southeast Asian countries can be very similar in culture, they also have their own quirks. The three countries that left a unique impression on us while backpacking southeast Asia are Malaysia, Cambodia, and Vietnam.
We didn’t know much about Malaysia when we decided to visit, so most of the things we did were based off suggestions from friends and what our hostel recommended. Malaysia is a great country to visit at the beginning of your trip because it’s a nice in-between of Eastern and Western culture. While we only spent time in Kuala Lumpur, some popular cities you can also visit are Penang, Melaka and Borneo. A melting pot of cultures, you can find all kinds of food at an affordable price in Malaysia. Note that alcohol is on the expensive side compared to other Asian countries. However, there are some great bars such as the Helipad Bar which offers a stunning view of Kuala Lumpur. There are also shopping centers all across Kuala Lumpur if you’re looking to get some last minute shopping done.
We also visited Batu Caves, one of the coolest sites we saw in Kuala Lumpur. Batu Caves is one of the most popular Hindu Shrines outside of India and is fairly easy to get to via public transport. It’s also pretty cheap to split a taxi or Uber between 4-5 people. Entrance is free, but make sure you’re dressed modestly as it is a temple. The steps might look a bit daunting, but the caves are nice and cool and fun to explore. There’s even a cave tour if you’re interested in learning more about the wildlife that calls the cave home. Malaysia was a city mixed with different cultures that allowed us to truly jump headfirst into our backpacking adventure in Southeast Asia.
Being culture and history enthusiasts, we knew that we had to make a trip to Cambodia to experience Angkor Wat for ourselves. Angkor Wat is a UNESCO heritage site located in Siem Riep and is the oldest and largest temple. It is also the only temple that pairs Hinduism and Buddhism due to the history of colonization in Cambodia. Many travelers opt into visiting Angkor Wat at sunrise, but we suggest you skip the early morning and go when you wake up. Regardless of what time you go, Angkor Wat is guaranteed to be full of eager tourists taking photos. To truly appreciate Angkor Wat, we recommend hiring a tour guide (the official guides are in yellow shirts) to share their knowledge with you. It’s fairly inexpensive and truly helps you wrap your mind around all the time and effort that went into building the temple hundreds of years ago.
There are actually many more temples for you to explore. A pass to Angkor Wat also includes entrance into the rest of the temples as well. The best thing to do is hire a tuk-tuk driver for the day. They’ll drive you to all the temples you want to see. You can usually haggle your driver for about $12-$20 for the day. One of our goals while backpacking southeast Asia was to learn about the history of each country we visited. After Siem Riep, we traveled to Phnom Penh to see visit S21 Genocide Museum and the Killing Fields. It was a harrowing and eye-opening experience to learn about and see the remnants left behind during a tumultuous time in Cambodia’s history.
If you’re looking for a country that will give you the most bang for your buck, visit Vietnam. There is so much to do and see. Many backpackers rent a motorbike in Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City and make their way through the country. If riding throughout Asia sounds a little intense to you, no worries. You can also travel quite affordably via plane, trains and buses. Getting a visa for Vietnam requires a couple of steps, but is fairly easy to acquire. The recommended method would be to get a welcome letter to use at customs to receive your visa on arrival. There are many companies who can assist you, but make sure you do your research and choose a legitimate one. The most popular visa options are either a 30 day or 3 month visa.
From exploring caves to lounging on the beach or checking out historical sites, there’s something for everyone. Prepare for foodie paradise. Each city you travel to will have their own signature dishes, as well as a unique spin on popular Vietnamese dishes such as pho or banh mi. In Hoi An, we did a foodie biking tour with Hoi An Express Tours, and biked through the beautiful countryside. We visited an organic farm where many local restaurants source their veggies, and got to see the farmers at work. We then went to a restaurant where we learned how to make Hoi An’s famous rose dumplings. From there, we biked back to Old Town for a bowl of Cao Lau noodles and ended our trip at a restaurant near the river where we learned the history of a local food called banh dap.
If food isn’t your interest, there’s also tons of museums for you to visit. In Hanoi, we visited the Temple of Literature, which is a Confucius temple and hosts the Imperial Academy, Vietnam’s first national University. We got to learn more about Confucianism and the history of the students who used to walk throughout the compound. There was even a display of photography from Vietnamese artists to add a modern twist to a historic place. If you’re not sure what cities to visit in Vietnam, start with Ho Chi Minh City, Nha Trang, Hoi An, Hue, Halong Bay, Sapa, and Hanoi. If you’d like to go a bit more off the beaten track, head down south to the Mekong Delta or Phu Quoc Island, and then go to Quy Nhon, Da Lat, Mui Ne, Ninh Binh and Pho Nha caves.
There’s really no going wrong when it comes to planning your Southeast Asia trip. Do some research on things you want to do, and places you’d like to see. Some people like to plan their entire trip in advance to save money. We learned very quickly that we preferred to book as we go. It was a bit more expensive but allowed us more freedom to stay longer in places we enjoyed and to leave places we weren’t feeling.
Most people backpacking Southeast Asia are probably doing a similar route to you, so it’s very likely you’ll part ways with new friends and run into them again somewhere along your journey. Our favorite part about Southeast Asia had to be the backpacker camaraderie. We met amazing people from all over who were also experiencing Southeast Asia like we were. If you’ve been on the fence about taking the trip, book the flight! It’ll be hot and humid, but will also be the trip of a lifetime that won’t break your bank.