Last Updated on January 19, 2020 by Audrey Scott
“I haven't traveled much. Where should I go?”
Well that all depends. There are so many considerations: time, budget, interests, comfort level, experience. But if you are just getting started with the travel thing, you can't do much better than Southeast Asia.
Mainland Southeast Asia – including Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Burma, Malaysia and Singapore – offers some of the safest and friendliest semi-exotic travel around for people of all budgets and ages. For new and seasoned travelers alike, this region offers heaps of cultural and visual stimuli, a developed tourist infrastructure, endless activities, safety, and incredible food. And best of all, it's relatively cheap.
Our first visit to Thailand at the end of 2004 actually helped plant the seed for our current around-the-world journey. Not only did that first Thailand experience open our eyes to the fact that we could travel comfortably and inexpensively for long periods, but it also helped us realize that there was a world to explore beyond Europe, our home at the time.
So it is that we began our current journey in December 2006 in Southeast Asia. We spent five months in the region, only to return later for a few more. We found that the travel options are endless.
Where does one begin? Here's a brainstorming guide to give you some ideas and help you get started.
For first-timers to this part of the world, Bangkok makes for an introductory course in the ways of Southeast Asia: heat, traffic, street food stalls, friendly faces, and tuk-tuk drivers swearing to be your new best friend.
One's experience with traffic can make or break a relationship with the city; travel by boat or Skytrain to avoid the mind-numbing traffic jams. While making your rounds of the Buddhist temples mentioned in your guidebook, you absolutely must sample loads of street food.
More reading on Bangkok:
- Bangkok’s 15-Course Street Meal on the Cheap
- Bangkok Travel Guide for Food Lovers and Eating Thai Food website are both great resources for Thai cuisine with specific Bangkok food recommendations. The founder of both sites, Mark, took us around on a great walking food tour in Bangkok years back.
More laid back than Bangkok, this northern Thai city is dotted with requisite Buddhist temples and markets, but the educational and lifestyle activities are the main appeal. For example, we took a one-day cooking course at Chiang Mai Thai Cookery School and we've been cooking Thai food ever since.
Round out your DIY tour with a visit to an elephant conservation center where you can observe and spend time with these gentle giants. As tempting as it may be, avoid elephant places that advertise elephant rides as often the animals have been abused in order to tame them to this point. Recommended elephant experiences and organizations in Chiang Mai include Elephant Nature Park.
- A Chiang Mai Best of Everything Roundup
- Chiang Mai Travel Guide on Legal Nomads
- The Truth About Riding Elephants in Thailand
- Elephants in Asia, Ethically – a free ebook about ethical engagement and activities with elephants in Asia.
- A Guide to Living in Chiang Mai
Forget that you have a job (or even that your office exists) by relaxing on one of Thailand’s epic white sand beaches. The choice of postcard quality venues in Thailand is overwhelming. We have a soft spot for the cheap bungalows along Haad Yao beach on Koh Pha Ngan Island. Koh Lanta also features some laid back beaches and inexpensive beach bungalows.
When the day’s most difficult decision is “mango or pineapple shake?” it's really hard to leave.
More Reading: Bungalows, Beaches, and Banana Shakes and Krabi and the Andaman Beach Scene
Find a hotel in Koh Pha Ngan or Koh Lanta
Much more than just Angkor Wat, the Angkor temple complex in northern Cambodia comprises over 1000 temples spread across 60 square miles. Warning: as amazing as the temples are, pace yourself as temple fatigue sets in quickly. For a different perspective, visit the Cambodia Land Mine Museum in Siem Reap for a sobering look at Cambodia's relatively recent history under the Khmer Rouge.
More Reading: Temples of Angkor, First Impressions and The Other Side of Siem Reap
Although Battambang is Cambodia’s second largest city, it retains a distinctly small-town feel and offers an easy option to explore rural villages and temples on the back of a motorbike. Brush up on your Cambodian cooking skills with a market tour and cooking class at Smokin' Pot (great name, right?).
More Reading: What's Cookin' in Battambang? and Battambang on a Motorbike
Filled with Buddhist monks lingering in temple courtyards, this sleepy French colonial outpost on the Mekong River is about as laid back as it gets. We also recommend a visit to the local market and cooking course. For more exploration, take a trip across the river to visit Ban Xieng Maen or trek to the Hmong and Khmu villages in the nearby hills (we went with White Elephant Adventures).
More Reading: Laying Back in Luang Prabang, Three Levels of Hill Tribes, and Lao Food Lowdown
Hanoi’s streets are ablaze with activity, from women carrying fruit and goods on baskets over their shoulders to impromptu sidewalk restaurants outfitted with miniature plastic stools. Overwhelming to the senses, Hanoi is a photographer’s and foodie's dream.
More Reading: Hanoi Under the Skin and A Taste of Hanoi
Only a few hours from hectic and frenzied Hanoi rests peaceful Halong Bay, the Bay of the Descending Dragon, whose arrangement of 2000 limestone islands have earned it iconic status. After Hanoi, a visit to Halong Bay is pure relaxation.
More Reading: Hanging in Halong Bay
An overnight train ride north of Hanoi serves as a portal to a visually spectacular part of the world characterized by mountainous terraced rice fields and hill tribe villages. Arrange a trek through this region with a local guide. For total sensory overload, spend Sunday at the market in nearby Bac Ha. Here, you’ll find everything for sale — from embroidered skirts to horses — as hill tribe villagers pour out of the mountains to do their trading for the week.
More Reading: Sapa, First Impressions and A Day at the Market – Bac Ha
A former trading outpost located in central Vietnam, Hoi An is famous for its architecture, tasty Central Vietnamese cuisine and plentiful and reasonably priced custom clothing shops (over 200 of them!). Spend a few days, take some cooking classes and come away with some new duds.
More Reading: Hungry in Hoi An and Sizing Up Hoi An
We absolutely loved Burma (Myanmar). It's visually spectacular, but the spirit of its people is what takes the prize. Virtually every visitor to Burma echoes the same sentiment. The only reason we haven't included Burma in the main list above: its infrastructure is a bit less developed that its neighbors'. This may provide a challenge for first-time travelers, but if you're up to it, we cannot recommend it enough.
More Reading: Visiting Burma – How to do it Responsibly and An Introduction to Burmese Cuisine
By no means is this list exhaustive. It only covers mainland Southeast Asia and it really only scratches the surface. Consider it a starting point to plan and explore. Regardless of your itinerary, you won't be disappointed and you'll likely find yourself planning your second visit before your first is even over.
Our 5-Month Itinerary Through Southeast Asia
Please excuse the fact that the map below looks like it was scribbled on by a 2-year old.
December: Bangkok – Koh Pha Ngan – Bangkok – Hanoi
January: Hanoi – Halong Bay – Sapa – Bac Ha – Hanoi – Luang Prabang – Nong Khiaw – Luang Prabang – Vang Vieng – Vientiane
February: Vientiane – Da Nang – Hoi An – Saigon – Phnom Penh – Siem Reap – Battambang – Bangkok
March: Bangkok – Patong (Phuket) – Ranong – Khao Sok – Phang Nga
April: Krabi – Ao Nang – Ko Lanta – Railey Beach – Krabi – Bangkok
Practical Advice for Planning a Trip to Southeast Asia
Planning an itinerary
Although it's tempting to try and visit all these sights in two weeks, resist the urge and spend more time in fewer places. It is very easy to travel independently. Flights between countries can be inexpensive.
When to visit Southeast Asia
High tourist season in this region is between December and February, as most locations are experiencing the cool and dry season. If you travel during this time, you’ll be competing with more tourists for accommodation, but options will almost always be available due to the volume of choices. Travel during the low season and you’ll encounter more heat and more rain, but cheaper rates and fewer tourists.
Transportation in Southeast Asia
Bangkok is the airport hub for the region, with inexpensive flights to carry you to virtually anywhere in the region. Air Asia flies the discount banner in this part of the world; other carriers such as Bangkok Airways, Thai Airways, Vietnam Airlines, and Lao Airlines also service the region. Unlike other parts of the world, prices on one-way tickets are reasonable and usually don’t require long advance-purchase windows.
Accommodation Options in Southeast Asia
Roughly, a couple can sleep comfortably for $15 to $20 per night in most places. But the range is wide, and can go as low as a couple of dollars a night in some locations to luxury options for those with more outsized travel budgets.
If you don’t know where to begin choosing accommodation, determine your budget, then read our suggestions at the end of the articles linked above, or visit sites like Travel Fish for reviews of accommodation in your price range. Agoda is also a good resource for finding hotels in Southeast Asia, usually at a last minute or other discount deal.
We also use Booking.com regularly as its app uses GPS to find hotels in your vicinity. Airbnb has also improved their listings in Southeast Asia in recent years. If you plan to stay in a place for more than a week, it might be worth finding your own apartment. Use Airbnb discount code to get $25 off your first Airbnb rental.
As always, the best and freshest information these days usually comes from other travelers. Unless your arrival coincides with a festival or holiday (e.g., Tet, Vietnamese Lunar New Year), accommodation should be easy to come by and even possible to arrange once you arrive. Consider booking a night or two for your arrival and seeking out better options once you are on the ground.
Bottled water is inexpensive and available everywhere. Food-borne stomach ailments, by no means endemic, do happen in this part of the world. For tips on staying healthy on the road, read: How to Travel Without Hugging the Bowl.
Eating from street food stalls should not be entirely avoided. Street food offers some of the best tasting and most culturally satisfying experiences to be had in this part of the world. The destinations listed above are accustomed to serving Western tourists, meaning that the level of hygiene is generally better than in more remote areas and the level of spice is dialed down to accommodate Western palates. A couple can dine very well for a couple of dollars in many places. $20 and up will land you a feast.
Travel vaccinations and other medical concerns
After determining your itinerary, pay a visit to your local travel medical clinic to determine whether you need any vaccinations or preventive medications against malaria. The main tourist destinations and travel routes mentioned above are mostly malaria-free. If you are going to be far off the beaten track, then it’s best to take precautions. For basic medical concerns, take some medications with you for headaches, tummy troubles, and motion sickness. Be sure to bring plenty of sunscreen and mosquito repellent.
Realize, however, that virtually all medications you may require will be available once you arrive — and they are likely to be much cheaper than they would be at home.
Recommended Southeast Asia Travel Guidebooks
Southeast Asia on a Shoestring, Lonely Planet: We used this guidebook through most of our travels in Southeast Asia. It's geared towards backpackers, so lots of budget travel options. Be sure to get updated information with some of the other websites and resources listed on this page.
Travelfish Ebooks: A series of ebooks (some free, some a few dollars), from best Bangkok hotels to 52 weekends of travel, put out by one of our favorite websites for Southeast Asia travel information.
Nancy Chandler's Map of Bangkok: This hand-drawn map of Bangkok is wonderful, with all of Nancy Chandler's favorite spots for markets, shopping, food, and drinks.
89 thoughts on “Southeast Asia: A Beginner’s Guide”
THANK YOU FOR THIS POST. I was looking for something exactly like this — a post that would show my parents that Southeast Asia is a great place for first-time backpackers and not a totally insane place to go. I’ll be forwarding it to them. Great piece!!
Wow this is really amazing!!! It is short to the point & captures it all. I knew I was doing SEA in my RTW trip but wasnt sure what to do or where to go. This is going to help me a lot. I have bookmarked and will use for my planning!!!
One country that has a lot to offer but unfortunately gets ignored by most people is the Philippines:
easy to get arround by plane, stunning landscapes, great diving and almost everybody speaks English.
They have no culture or architecture however.
No culture? What a thing to say.
Some great tips! I definitely agree that Southeast Asia is a great place for a beginner traveller to start. I was in Kuala Lumpur for the first time the other week, and I thought it would be the best place for someone a little unsure about travel in Asia to start. Everyone speaks English, there’s a huge range of largely safe food to eat, lots to see and not as much as hassle as some of the other countries in the region. And still super cheap.
And, with Air Asia, you can get almost anywhere in Asia from KL!
GREAT advice! Asia is a fantastic destination for any traveler, though I think sometimes it can be overwhelming for the first-time traveler just because it is SO different from what we know from a Western perspective. I’m currently traveling with two travelers new to Asia, one new to traveling in general. and they are both having a hard time dealing with the dirtiness, the poverty, the street food culture, the cramped modes of transportation, the staring, etc. I think the most important thing for anyone traveling to Asia is to remember that being different isn’t always a bad thing and sometimes, you just have to go with the flow. So what if you were supposed to have been at your destination 3 hours ago and the bus you’re on is crammed with fish and eggs? You will eventually get there and traveling from A to B is part of the overall experience so just enjoy it!
@Adventurous Kate: And if your parents have any further questions about the safety of Southeast Asia, just send them our way! For our parents, this region was associated with strife and war for so many years that it’s sometimes hard to understand that it’s very peaceful and safe now (safer than many places in the States and Europe). We think SE Asia is really a fantastic place to go for first time backpackers.
@Jaime: Glad this list will come in handy for planning your trip. We have been asked for advice on planning itineraries in this region so much, that we figured we should put it into an article so others can benefit from the information. Just be in touch if you have other questions or need more advice.
@David: Good suggestion. We haven’t visited the Philippines yet, but hope to do so one day. There is supposed to be some incredible diving and the cities sound crazy (in a good way). We have gotten emails from people reprimanding us for not visiting the Philippines yet – it’s a big world, we’ll get there at some point!
@Megan: We debated putting in Kuala Lumpur – it is a great first-time destination as well. You have the foreign stimuli, but there is a lot of English spoken and a level of development that makes people more comfortable. And, the food is incredible! Yes, love Air Asia for getting around the region cheaply and hassle free.
@Connie: You bring up some very good points and Southeast Asia might be a bit overwhelming if the person does not know what he/she is getting into. Managing expectations and reminding people that different isn’t always a bad thing is so important. It sounds like you’ve got a good approach. Southeast Asia forces you to let go of some of that control and pushes you outside your comfort zone, but without a lot of risk of physical danger.
I agree that for better or worse, SE Asia is a pretty easy travel destination. Of course, with that comes many tourists, but, hey, there’s a good reason that they’re there: excellent food, vibrant cultures, easy-to-access adventures and all for a ridiculously low price. Sure, there are the normal “culture shock” things to deal with but as far as getting from point A to point B and doing the things you want to do, it’s pretty easy. At some point, we’ll want more of a challenge, but for now, being in SE Asia is just right.
Hopefully, we’ll get to Burma here soon as the word is that it is an amazing destination! Gotta do a visa run at some point, right? 🙂
Completely agree with authors choice! SEA is really great and easy for traveling, espessially for beginners)
ps.First photo is amazing)
Great primer to SE Asia. I’ve only been to Thailand – Bangkok, Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai and I enjoyed re-living my experiences through the post. The cooking school (outdoors!) was fun, the elephants unbelievable, the people so nice. It was a great trip.
@Kyle: There are still many ways to get “off the beaten path” in SE Asia, but we found that the beaten path was still very enjoyable. There’s a reason why this region has become such a popular destination for travelers of all ages and digital nomads wanting to spend a few months in a fun and interesting destination. As for Burma – YES!!
@Joan: It was also really fun for us to put together this post and assemble the photographs – almost akin to looking through an old photo album and remembering the story behind each photo. Before we left Prague, our friends joked that the best Thai restaurant in town was in our kitchen and that was thanks to the cooking course we took in Chiang Mai.
@Adam: Glad this was helpful!
@Natalie: That first photo (from Cambodia) is one of my all-time favorites. What is not captured in the image were the giggles and laughs from these kids as they tried to run up this hill and kept slipping in the mud. So infectious – wish I could have bottled it for bad days.
This is just what I needed to read… Thanks for this!
Awesome round up. I agree with all the above place. Like you, Thailand was our inspiration for our longer trip years later. There is something magical about that place that once you visit it it makes you want to travel more. South East Asia is an awesome place to start around the world travels.
I really enjoyed this piece. I travelled solo to SE Asia when I was 18 and it was one of the most wonderful experiences of my life. I was worried about safety but found with basic common sense there was no need for concern. I loved Malaysia and Indonesia most though, particularly taking the jungle train in Malaysia, and visiting the amazing jungle-dense Sumatra. My boyfriend and I have since returned to Thailand and Malaysia, with a little less time and more cash, and really loved the Malaysian islands. My fav bit was still the train though- this time from Bangkok to the Malaysian border! Great stuff 🙂
@Philippa: Glad to hear your experiences in SE Asia when you were young were so great and impressionable on you. We didn’t spend very much time in Malaysia, but now I’m intrigued to go back and explore the jungle and beaches more.
@Dave & Deb: Funny how Thailand was also the place that inspired you two for long-term travel. Thailand has that way of releasing the hard core travel bug!
SE Asia is the region of the world that first drew me into traveling as well. And I still return as often as possible because even though it receives its fair share of tourists, there are endless options to get off the beaten track as well. One of my favorite regions of Thailand is Isan (the Northeast Province) and when I spent a month there, I ran into no more than 5 or 6 other foreigners while traveling all over the area. Yet one bus ride away and you’re back in Bangkok or Chiang Mai, ready to take advantage of all that those exciting cities have to offer.
That combination of comfort (well-traveled areas) and opportunity for exploration (less-visited regions) definitely helps make this part of the world a perfect place to start ones travels.
Such a thorough write-up by the way, truly a gem of a post!
@Earl: Thanks for the kudos and a terrific comment. Your perspective that you can go off-track but get back to civilization fairly quickly — in Thailand in particular and in SE Asia in general — is spot on. This feature is a luxury and one whose value to all travelers cannot be overstated.
@soultravelers: Our observations of traveling families throughout SE Asia suggested that the region was exceptionally family friendly. That said, satisfaction with one’s experience can pivot on individual decisions. Regarding health risks, I think you’ll find medical systems and doctors’ offices approachable and surprisingly high-value.
Can you do independent travel in Southeast Asia? For us, it’s possibly the easiest most independent-travel minded place we’ve traveled to so far. The tourist trail is well-beaten, but there’s a reason for that: the experiences are satisfying. If you would like to get off-track, it’s not that difficult. You can do as Earl above suggests (by going to a region that’s accessible in a matter of a few hours by bus) or you can seek out pockets of real people in tourist-thronged places like Phuket, Thailand:
It’s all there in Southeast Asia. I think it’s just a matter of using your travel compass to find what suits you.
Great post and perfect timing as we are about to head off to spend our first winter in SE Asia ( after spending the last 4 in Europe on our world family tour). We only spend 10 to 15 dollars a night in Europe, so it will be interesting to see if we can save any money in Asia. I must say I am somewhat worried about the heat and humidity, crowds, small spaces, crossing streets etc as I’ve heard so many complaints about that ( and somewhat about the health risks for my child).
Can you really do independent travel in Asia? I hear it is all one big tourist trail & we always prefer to avoid the crowds, backpacker or expat saturated areas and find hidden gems if possible. I just spoke with a friend who loves SE Asia, but when she took her well traveled parents, they absolutely hated it. ( Made me a bit nervous as it seems Thailand & some of these places can bring a love or hate reaction…so obviously hoping we run into the love one). 😉
I can’t say I am pulled at all to Asia, but we weren’t pulled to Morocco or Turkey and loved them & glad our child’s education led us there. 😉 ( I’ve been to Haiti and Azerbaijani etc, so not an inexperienced traveler.) We will spend the next several winters in Asia so our daughter can immerse deeply in her Mandarin & Asian culture as I think it will be important in her lifetime. Looking forward to getting to know that part of the world!
We still love Europe, even though we have seen and experienced more of it than even most Europeans, so we will continue summers in Europe as there is always more to see here & it’s awesome for those less traveled too. Adding planes will be very different for us, something I hate, but kidlet loves.
Great photos as always…looking forward to getting our own of this area. Thanks!
@Amy: Jodi is wonderful and another great resource for this region. Thanks for checking out the link on her Facebook page to come here. If you have any other questions about this region, just let us know!
@Brian: Thanks for the kudos on this post. It is hard to compress such a diverse region into one article. Completely agree with your last statement, “what more could you ask for?”
Saw this on Legal Nomads’ facebook page – thanks for the overview of SE Asia. It is all really helpful. We’ll be heading there in December, and I’m really looking forward to it.
I think you did a fantastic job summing up such a diverse region in a blog post. I love the region and think it is a great place for people who want to travel internationally, especially women who are nervous about traveling solo. Not much worry about crime or sexual harassment in SEAsia. The food is great, the accommodations cheap and there is plenty to do. And it’s warm year round. What more could you ask for?
Nice summary of the region and it’s sure pretty to look at eh? Definitely the best region of the world for those on a budget, the best bang for your buck overall.
@Tim: Thanks. And yes, easy on the eyes. Based on our experience so far, we are inclined to agree: you can’t beat Southeast Asia for value.
I absolutely LOVE Haad Yao beach on Koh Pha Ngan and the town of Hoi An in Vietnam. I have to say though, I wasn’t too impressed with Bangkok. Although, that may only be due to the fact that I try to stay away from large crowds of people. Great post! Makes me want to go back!
@Christy: Good to see you in the neighborhood. We’ve probably written elsewhere on this site that we didn’t like Bangkok at all upon our first visit. But we grew to like it — so much so that when we were traveling in Asia, we began to view it as a second home. Hopefully you stayed away from Khao San road? Staying in Banglamphu and the area near Phra Artit also makes Bangkok a little easier to stomach for some.
Khao San road is exactly where we went! Lol. Although, that area didn’t really bother me because we didn’t stay there too long. Maybe, we will have to give Bangkok another chance. Thank you for the suggestions!
Many thanks for this comprehensive article on a Beginner’s Guide to Southeast Asia. Since my daughter is planning a trip there in the near future, I feel better about her choice after reading your blog. I am hoping to meet up with her in Bangkok, so this was very helpful to me also. Adventurous Kate’s Mom
@Christy: I highly recommend giving Bangkok a second chance. As Dan mentioned above, we liked it more and more with each visit.
@Debbie: Thanks for stopping by and letting us know that this article was helpful! As you see, your daughter was the first one to comment on this piece 🙂 It will be really wonderful for you to meet up with Kate in Bangkok – it’s such a fascinating city. Here’s another article that might be useful for your trip – how to eat local without falling sick all the time: https://uncorneredmarket.com/ten-tips-for-staying-healthy-on-the-road/
And just a helpful pointer, if you’re going to SE Asia in wet season, protect yourself from mosquitoes!! Dengue Fever is pretty rampant there (especially in Thailand) and there aren’t any vaccines to prevent it. My boyfriend and I both got it in Chiang Mai and it is not fun. So, wet season = no tourists which is awesome, but don’t forget the bug repellent at all times!
@Anna: Yes, protection against mosquitos is important, especially now with the dengue outbreak in the area. Dengue mosquitos hang out during the daytime while malaria mosquitos usually come out at night, so it’s important to prevent getting bitten at ALL times. I usually try bug repellent but also wear clothes to protect exposed skin – it’s hard though when it’s hot and humid out!
I’m really sorry to hear about you and your boyfriend coming down with dengue in Chiang Mai. Dan picked it up many years ago on his first trip abroad to India and it was the worst thing he’s ever experienced. I hope you’re both feeling better and have your health back.
Don’t forget about the Philippines, Now they are the number 1 shopping destination in South East Asia.
@Ryan: When it comes to Southeast Asia, The Philippines are still on our list and we are constantly reminded by people who live there that we should go. We will indeed. But shopping won’t be at the top of our list.
Hey,, u miss one beautiful country in SE Asia, Indonesia,, many beautiful islands in there…
@Helena: It looks like we might be headed to Indonesia soon…Bali, at least. But we hope to spend a lot of time in the whole of Indonesia one of these days.
@Sarah: Of all the places we’ve traveled, Southeast Asia is one of the easiest, cheapest, and safest. I’d like to think our trip (in Southeast Asia and elsewhere) is a testament to the fact that you can travel inexpensively and safely at the same time.
The key is awareness, staying alert to things around you. You do that, and you are fine. As a traveler, that doesn’t mean worrying all the time, but just staying tuned in.
A couple of other article resources that I recommend on staying healthy, traveling smart that you might find interesting:
The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Travelers
How to Travel Without Hugging the Bowl
Poo, Pills, Parasites: Travel Health Tips
I hope these help.
Unlike the other responders, I am the MOM whose son and daughter-in-law are going on a 6 month trip through Southeast Asia and Israel.
My daughter-in-law was born in Vietnam and although she left as an infant, she is fluent and has family living there.
I have concerns about their health and their safety; they will be travelling cheaply. For 6 months, they have to. They are both 30. Can you assuage this overly-anxious mother?
Thank you so much for this! We haven’t made it to SE Asia yet, but I’m bookmarking this to reference back to when our plans lead us there! Halong Bay sounds like just my kind of place. Happy New Year guys!
@Dayna: So glad to hear you’re thinking of traveling to SE Asia – it really is a special area with so much to experience in a relatively small area. And yes, Halong Bay is so relaxing – a great way to come down after the bustle of the cities. Thanks to your new year’s greetings – wishing you a happy & adventurous 2012!
Awesome photos, and great recommendations! We’re planning to visit SE Asia this fall — Cambodia and the Philippines. If we have time, Vietnam!
@Ellen: Glad this post was helpful in planning your trip to SE Asia later this year. We haven’t been to the Philippines yet, but have heard wonderful things about visiting there. Enjoy!
This article is exceptional; I wish I had read this before heading that way.
@DestSavvy: Glad you liked it. Now you know where to look for budget Southeast Asia travel inspiration and info. Happy trails 🙂
Unlike you, I have traveled extensively but for my profession. I am now at that point in life where I can VISIT AND SEE many of the places at a place that I can set. My only regret is that my wife has passed away and I do not have a travel companion. Dinner for one (1), irrespective of what it may be or where it is located is not as enjoyable as when it is for two
@Cornell: We are so sorry to hear about your wife. Despite your loss and grief, we hope you are able to find an opportunity to travel. Thank you for sharing your story with us and our readers.
Cool and informative blog you have here! Keep it up! 🙂
@Achtung: What a great name. Are you planning to travel to Southeast Asia?
Hi @Daniel! Nice meeting you too!
Yes, I will be going to Thailand and Cambodia on Feb 14 – 17 and plan to have a backpacking experience. You have and travel tips for me? 🙂
This travel will be part of my new travel blog.
@Achtung: My general recommendation, given the amount of time you have, is to go deeper into any destination in Southeast Asia that you visit. Perhaps a day trip outside of Bangkok (assuming that’s where you are flying into) might work.
Where is the Philippines in your list? I can tell you, Philippines is better than all of these countries together. I’ve traveled all across South East Asia and after visiting the Philippines I knew I would probably never return to any of the other countries. In March I’m returning for the 5th time back to the Philippines. So PLEASE don’t forget to visit this wonderful country. I wrote a post about my love to this country, if you’re curious please have a look… Read more here:
@Sab: Yes, the Philippines are on the list to visit. We’re planning a visit when we have the proper time to do the country justice. Regarding the article, you might notice that although it’s entitled Southeast Asia, the introduction calls out that the focus will be mainland Southeast Asia. Readers can take issue with the fact that it doesn’t include Indonesia, another worthwhile destination in the region. As for your use of the phrase “better than all of these countries together,” I’d be careful with such superlatives . Not sure if you’ve visited all the countries listed here, but even if you had, travel has taught us to avoid unsubstantiated sweeping generalizations, particularly of the variety that compare people’s homes (e.g., their countries). Although the Philippines may be your preference, our and others’ experience says that the countries listed here are pretty wonderful, too.
Great guide to all the essential stops in Southeast Asia. Did this circuit in 2005, and I am itching to return.
@Ted: I can imagine that lots has changed in this region since 2005, but the essentials and fundamentals have stayed the same with people, food, life. Hope you find a way to return soon!
@Ted: Nice plan you have there! I want to do that too ! 🙂
I’m from the Philippines and I’ve traveled a good deal around the country. We’ve got plenty of foot-print free, white sand beaches (I’ve been to many and “owned” them for the day); lots of mountains to climb; awesome dive spots; colorful and riotous (even bloody) festivals; equally delicious street foods. If by architecture you mean Buddhist and Hindu temples, we have a bonanza of centenarian Catholic cathedrals built during the Spanish conquest. We yet have to catch up with museum madness and camping craze, but we’re getting there. Our definitions of heaven on earth may be as varied as we are, but if you are looking for peace and quiet (and beauty!), there’s plenty of places to find it here. It just takes research and looking past appearances. The fact that Filipinos are always eager to help and ably handle conversations in English should make your quest easier.
@Bic: Love that: “…owned them for a day” One of these days, the Philippines for us. You’ve done a very nice job pitching the country — and all of its dimensions — in a relatively limited space. When we go, we’ll definitely be in touch!
Looking to do some traveling in SE Asia this summer – ideally for July and August – and have heard many mixed reviews about the weather… Granted I know there is no way to predict how rainy it will be, but have any of you been there during this time and if so how was it?! I’ve heard since its the low season travel is much cheaper and it’s not as crowded, but I also don’t want to be soaked and miserable the entire time. Any input would be great!! Thanks!
Katie: July and August is high season in Bali, Indonesia. There is plenty to see around Bali and Lombok and the weather should be fine 🙂
@Katie: We have not been in SE Asia in July and August so I can’t really advise based on first hand experience. The latest we’ve been in the area was May. One thing to check out whether some areas are dryer than others – sometimes there are regions that are dry while others are experiencing monsoon. Also, sometimes the rains are for a short period during the day and then it’s fine to travel around after/before.
@Sab: Thanks for sharing your experiences from Bali at this time!
Travelling in July and August would be a good choice because the weather is sunny and rainfall is unlikely. You can always check the weather forecast of the country you intend to visit. But generally weather is great for all SEA countries in the month of July and August. Ideal places to visit will be the beach areas such as phuket, Bali, koh samui, krabi or boracay and cebu. Shopping in bangkok awesome too. It depends on what your ideal trip would be. Thai massage is a must do when you come to SEA, the best massage for the cheapest price.
Nice post. I think its great to let people know that Asia is a safe and easy travel spot. I find that a lot of Americans are a bit apprehensive about it in general.
What would you do/go if only have 10 days (January) to travel to SE Asia?
@Jess: Hard to suggest with too much detail without knowing your travel preferences (e.g., sites, temples, culture, beach, adventure, food, etc.). But, if I had 10 days in SE Asia I’d suggest some combination of the following:
– Cambodia – Siem Reap (Temples of Angkor).
– Thailand – Bangkok & either Chiang Mai (temples, cooking class) or Koh Lanta/Koh Pha Ngan (beaches)
– Laos – Luang Prabang and possibly Mekong River tour
With that limited time, I’d choose 2 countries (max) and you’d have to do flights between. Air Asia usually has good rates if you can book early.
If you have other questions, let us know!
nice guide. really hoping that youll be able to visit the philippines particularly the islands of palawan and the mountains of the cordilleras.
@Dong Ho: The Philippines is still high on our wish list. We know we need more than just a week to visit so trying to find a chunk of time that we can dedicate to traveling around.
Great advice! I wouldn’t have thought to initially recommend South East Asia for beginner travelers but it really does make sense, there’s some culture shock but not so much that it’s overwhelming. The budget-friendly aspect is nice too, it allows you to travel in a little more luxury than you might in other places.
@Sarah: Glad to hear that your Southeast Asia experience confirmed what we wrote. Absolutely a great region for value travel and value-luxury.
My friend and I are planning on going to south east Asia next year. Neither of us have traveled much so reading this was very helpful. We are both wonder how safe it is to stay in a bungalow compared to staying in either a hostel or a hotel?
@Grant: We’ve stayed in many bungalows throughout Southeast Asia without any problems. Bungalows can come of all shapes and sizes and luxuries. The most basic ones are made from simple materials which, if someone really wanted to he could get through to break in. If we’re staying in a place like that we do usually take our valuables with us (e.g., passport, money, camera) and lock everything away.
With hotels the risk of theft comes more from hotel staff and with hostels it could be from fellow travelers and hostel staff. Best advice is to keep things out of sight (so people don’t know what valuable stuff you have) and lock things up as much as you can.
Hi, wow this is a great article.. was contemplating whether to visit Myanmar this year.. and I was quite worried because they just opened their doors and to be honest, there’s nothing much to be seen from what I have heard… although business and opportunities are springing up, maybe I can consider..
Also, I find your travel itinerary very interesting(in a good way) – Many would consider Malaysia and Singapore (maybe Thailand too) as their “beginner” to-go list when it comes to Southeast Asia as these countries are more developed and more tourist friendly. But i realized that Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and Myanmar is really a travel haven because of their rich history and culture.
Myanmar (Burma) is an excellent travel destination, Lee. We have not been there for a few years, but if you are debating whether to go or not, I would lean towards going. There’s plenty to see across the country: culture, food, hiking/trekking, etc. Yangon/Rangoon, Mandalay, Bagan, Tuangoo, Kalaw, Inle Lake (and the trek between the last two) are just a few of the ideas.
And for us, yes. The travel havens of Southeast Asia (at least of the countries that we have experienced) are those where there’s rich culture and history to explore.
Well, we are tour operator in Vietnam. I’ve been in tourism industry for nearly 10 years. I quite agree with what the author has indicated. I just want to update some points for anyone who are wondering about South-East Asia (SEA).
– We can be sure to say that SEA is the safest place to travel now. People are very friendly. You can meet and talk to local people on the way while touring.
– Backpackers can find good accommodations almost anywhere, price for a couple per room per night ranging from US$10-US$15 in rural areas and provincial towns and US$15-US$20 in big cities like Hanoi, Saigon (HCM City) etc.
– Traveling by air between the countries in the region and by train is expensive. Backpackers may travel by local and inter express buses. You can enjoy watching good views and talking with local people.
– There are plenty of good food for your selection: from local food to overseas food like western, Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Indian, Muslim etc. even for vegetarians.
Thanks for the thoughts and additional information regarding travel in Southeast Asia, Dick. The point regarding the ready availability of all sorts of transport (buses, boats, and flights) is definitely worth a mention.
I completely agree. I started my travel adventures with a month long solo trip to Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. I was pretty terrified the day I arrived in Hanoi but after I’d plucked up the courage to venture out of my hotel room, I quickly started to fall in love with the place. Laos is one of my all time favourite countries. A few years later I spent two weeks in Burma and absolutely loved it. SE Asia is a beautiful part of the world, filled with spectacular sights, fascinating culture and some of the loveliest people you could ever hope to meet on your travels.
I can definitely relate to being terrified upon first arriving in Hanoi. Took up some time to get the courage to cross some of those streets with the mayhem of motorbikes, cars and bicycles moving quickly. But, once you do it you begin to get the hang of it. And then you find something new that terrifies you to tackle 🙂
Thanks for sharing your experience in SE Asia with us! It’s been at least a year since we’ve been…would love to return soon!
This is very good advise and I like the bit about Chiang Mai (my hometown).
South East Asia is an amazing destination and think starting in Thailand is the best place for a beginner. All are welcome. Come visit soon.:-)
Thanks, Jai. Ah, Chiang Mai, the once epicenter of the digital nomad. Although we haven’t necessarily called out Chiang Mai here, we visited it 10 years ago (just after the time of the tsunami) and really enjoyed ourselves.
This is such an in depth post that covers so many aspects of traveling Asia.. My boyfriend and I also spend a really long time in Southeast Asia and learnt a few things.
Halong Bay was definitely one of the highlights and your description is spot on! we were actually surprised how many people there were and a little disappointed on how much rubbish there was.
We had a bunch of funny stories that we published in our Asia travel section if you are interested in a good read or just want an idea of things to do and things to skip!
Thanks for sharing 🙂
After my travel mate and I had spent just 24 hours in Siem Reap, I said to him that we have to get back here. Such was the welcoming atmosphere of the people, the buzz of the markets and wonder of the temples. So we returned a year later. Nothing stays with me like Siem Reap, for all of the above and timeless wonder that is Tonle Sap lake. Oh, and Lok Lak is now my favourite meal I have ever tried.
Good guide to the area. – we havent’ been to Vietnam yet and it always seems to be the forgotten country. Have heard great things about Hoi An. Our little slice in paradise is Nong Khai on the Thai/Lao border which is just a beautiful little town. I know travelers like to settle in Chiang Mai but honestly you’ll see everyone in the world there….really suggest a visit here.
We were just in Siem Reap a month ago. Amazing.
Love that photo of Halong Bay!
Thank you so much! Leaving in a few months to this beautiful place and reading this made me even more excited, thanks again!
You’re welcome, Ilse! Wishing you a wonderful time on your Southeast Asia adventure!
My 82 yr. old mother would like me to accompany her on an escorted tour (such as Overseas Adventure Travel) to SE Asia. Mom has traveled extensively, always with escorted tours, which she feels safer on and peace of mind, having it all planned for you. I, on the other hand, have never taken a “tour”, preferring the cheaper “do-it-yourself” method, staying in cheap hotels, etc. We are interested in traveling to SE Asia and I’m wondering if you would recommend a tour such as the above-mentioned, or are there other “in-between” options that might suit both of us better?
Great question here. Most of our travels in SE Asia have been independent, putting things together on the go and staying in mostly cheap guesthouses and taking public transport. A few years ago we decided to take a G Adventures tour in Bali to see what it was like traveling with a group in a place that had a good travel infrastructure. We had a lot of fun with the people in our group and actually kind of enjoyed having the logistics (transport and accommodation) taken care of for us so that we could just focus on the activities during the days. Our tour had a lot of independent/free time so we could still customize a lot of what we wanted to do. Here’s that story: https://uncorneredmarket.com/travel-snobbery-tour-bali/
I do believe that it’s worth giving an organized tour a look, especially given that your mother may want a bit of comfort (e.g., private bus vs. chicken bus) or have some special needs due to her age. Also, having a local guide who really knows the area well can be quite invaluable. What I would look for in a tour (and tour company) is:
1) The estimated size of the group. The smaller the better, less than 10-15 as ideal.
2) Amount of free/independent time on the trip. This means that you will have time to go off on your own to go an explore — whether it’s to a market, street food stand, temple, etc. You don’t need to do everything with the group.
3) Number of meals included in the tour. While it may sound good to have meals included in the tour, some companies offer buffet meals for this. We prefer when we have more flexibility to choose our meals and where we want to eat.
We’ve heard good things about OAT, but have never traveled with them. We have traveled quite a bit with G Adventures, from Haiti to Iran to Bali (Disclosure: they are one of our partners). They offer different levels of tours, so given that you don’t want things too fancy/luxurious the Classic or Standard tours would probably be a good fit for you.
Another option would be to not take an organized tour, but instead work with a travel agent to put together a sort of personalized tour for the two of you that includes accommodation, transport, guides, etc. That may be a bit more work and more expensive, however.
Good luck and hope you enjoy traveling together in SE Asia!
i’m sorry but i really need to write on maximum english blogs because after 6 months of travel in South East Asia, it is my duty to tell it to the maximum people from countries such england or australia
Everywhere we went, thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Philippines, Burma, Malaysia, and Laos, we meet the same type of travelers, loud, arrogant, completely disrespectful of other travelers and local poeple or places..A on several occasions we had to change guesthouse to find a more quiet place, especially away from you english people.
You have a tendency to shout rather than speak, to make noise, in couple or group, always acting as if you were alone in earth..Even if you know that the owner of the guest house sleeps just next door, even if his childrens have to sleep to go at school the next morning, it will not matter, you continue until late at night yelling like pigs, in total disrespect of your neighbors .I therefore ask you this: learn to respect your neighbors, stop believing you higher because the whole world must understand you and speak your language when you do not speak any other language except yours..the local bad feel towards overseas is due in large part to your behavior..Vang Vieng but the Thai islands are the best examples of your behavior incredibly bad.English women love to put almost naked, where the local dress head to toe in all sacred places or elsewhere, you English women you absolutely don’t respect the modesty of local people, in bikini everywhere..we think that you really behave badly, the whole world hates you for that, but you don’t care and continue..if ever someone notice it to you, you laugh..You, English, you must to know it, please, SHUT UP, and respect local cultures and your neighbors..your culture based on “easy friendship”, “nudity in public places”, and “shouting rather than talking” must stop!!!.Please be respectful and forget your huge egos!!! … you are the shame of Western europe in abroad countries …you have to know and to behave in consequence please..if some of you think that i’m exagerating, just look and listen, everywhere in South asia, and certainly everywhere in the world..you are in holidays, ok..but maybe your neighbors or the local people around you are NOT in holidays!!!
-so 1 : be quiet
-2 : stop wearing bikinis and show your muscles to the whole world..
if people come here to read these comments, be advise that you are not really appreciated in the world…especially because of young travellers who just care about themselves, and just think about making party…
I had no bad idea about english or autralian before, not at all..now after six month travelling, i just hate you, and can’t stand anymore your fucking behaviour..
This is a great article! Thailand too, was our first South East Asian experience and our first trip lead to a second, where we spent six months living in Bangkok. Laos and Vietnam are next on our list- I can’t wait!
Thank you for your grat article
I confess to became shocked with what they do to the elephants in order to break their spirits. I wish I could do the same to these men in the movies you posted.
I was in tears some minutes ago watching the movies.
Two friends and I are planning to travel to Southeast Asia and your article will help us a lot.
Ghislane, great to hear that this article is helpful for your upcoming trip to Southeast Asia and that the video/information about elephants was educational…albeit very sad as well. Until a few years ago I also was not aware of what elephants went through to be broken in to carry tourists. We’re trying now to raise awareness about this treatment so that travelers may choose other activities instead of elephant riding. Have a great trip!
What a great article, Audrey. Takes me back to my time at Singapore where I was on a business trip but then turned it into a leisure trip after one of the people we met suggested some cool places. The Marina are is fabulous and we loved the museums there. Lots of great sculptures installed right in open road – it was mind-boggling. Thanks for making me miss those days!!!!
Glad this article brought back some good memories for you, Rena!