Hopping on a plane and heading to Southeast Asia soon? Get ready for some incredible views, welcoming locals, and a few wild experiences… as well as a few surprising and unexpected twists and turns! Here’s my top Southeast Asia travel tips and what you need to know to prepare for your trip.
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My first real adventure destination. Southeast Asia.
A magical land filled with affordable countries, delicious food, loads of likeminded backpackers, mind-blowing historic sites, irresistible beaches, otherworldly islands, and breathtaking views… this places holds a special place in my heart!
But when I first traveled there as a solo backpacker in 2017, I had no idea what to expect.
I mean, sure. I read up on “the best” itineraries, what to do and what not to do, how to act as a foreigner, and more, but it seemed like so many blog posts and articles left out crucial advice that could have made a big difference in my overall experience.
Which, of course, is why I want to help you have the ultimate Southeast Asia backpacking trip by putting together a big fat list of the top tips you need to know before heading there!
After traveling around Southeast Asia two different times and spending nearly a year there in total, I’ve come to know the ins and outs of this incredible corner of the world like the back of my hand.
So, are you ready? Here’s what you need to know before traveling through Southeast Asia.
Table of Contents
- 1 WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW BEFORE BACKPACKING SOUTHEAST ASIA
- 1.1 Preparing for Your SEA Trip
- 1.1.1 1. Pack Lightly (!)
- 1.1.2 2. Read Up on Common Scams
- 1.1.3 3. Grab Some USD
- 1.1.4 4. Consider Vaccinations
- 1.1.5 5. Get an ATM Card
- 1.1.6 6. Pack Along a Filtering Water Bottle
- 1.1.7 7. Bring Warm Clothes
- 1.1.8 8. Don’t Pack Clothes You Care About
- 1.1.9 9. Make Sure Your Passport is Valid
- 1.1.10 10. Load Up on Passport Photos
- 1.1.11 11. Unlock Your Phone
- 1.1.12 12. Bring Sunscreen With You
- 1.1.13 13. Females, Bring Sanitary Items
- 1.1.14 14. Get Proof of Onward Travel
- 1.1.15 15. Bring a Sarong
- 1.1.16 16. Buy Luggage Locks
- 1.1.17 17. Join Facebook Groups
- 1.1.18 18. Invest in Plastic-Free Items
- 1.1.19 19. Download the Right Apps
- 1.1.20 20. Pack a Small First Aid Kit
- 1.1.21 21. Don’t Forget Imodium
- 1.1.22 22. Get Travel Insurance
- 1.1 Preparing for Your SEA Trip
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW BEFORE BACKPACKING SOUTHEAST ASIA
Psst… one thing I have to tell you before you start reading the following tips… please — please — don’t travel to Southeast Asia without reading every single tip. These are here to help you have the best time ever!
Also, because I didn’t want the post to be a bajillion words long, I’ve broken this Southeast Asia travel guide up into 4 parts — preparing for your trip, what to expect when you’re there, how to stick your SEA budget, and just general things to know and whatnot.
Anywho, let’s get on with the show, shall we?
Preparing for Your SEA Trip
1. Pack Lightly (!)
I cannot stress this enough… you must pack lightly. More times than not, you’ll be carrying your bag for long distances, whether it’s walking to your accommodation or heading to the bus station.
(Tip: You shouldn’t need anything bigger than a 60L bag. Anything more than that and you’ll fill it up with unnecessary stuff, as well as not be able to carry it on planes.)
2. Read Up on Common Scams
It seems as though there are scams on every corner of the street in Southeast Asia (and there likely are). So, before you head out, make sure to read up on the most common ones. I particularly like this post on Southeast Asia scams.
3. Grab Some USD
Whether you’re in Thailand, Laos, or Vietnam, the locals love USD. Not to mention it can really come in handy if you need to pay someone off (let’s hope you don’t have to do that!).
Plus, you might need it to pay for some visas. But anyways, just make sure to always have some USD on you, just in case.
(Tip: Stash your cash in different places! For example, stick a few dollars in your socks, another few in your backpack, and some more in your wallet. This helps in making sure not all of your cash is gone if someone steals it! Additionally, if you prefer a money belt to hide it on yourself, I like this one.)
4. Consider Vaccinations
In many Southeast Asia countries (okay, most countries) mosquitoes are abundant. And they carry nasty diseases like malaria and Japanese encephalitis.
Not to mention dogs spread rabies and humans spread meningitis. If you want to be on the safe side, start taking anti-malaria pills before you go and throughout your trip.
5. Get an ATM Card
This might seem silly Southeast Asia travel tip to include but don’t forget to pick up an ATM card before you hop on the plane!
Even better, try to get one with zero or small ATM fees — you can visit this post for more info on what cards are best for foreign travel.
6. Pack Along a Filtering Water Bottle
So many other travelers say to stick to bottled water… but considering you need to drink at least 64 oz (almost 2 liters) of water everyday, that’s a lot of unnecessary plastic!
That’s why I always pack along a filtering water bottle to both have clean drinking water everywhere I go and help reduce plastic pollution.
7. Bring Warm Clothes
Sure, it’s blazin’ hot in SEA. Like super duper hot. And humid. But the weather can vary significantly from region to region.
For example, it can actual snow in northern Vietnam from late October to February. And in Pai, Thailand, the nights can get pretty chilly. So, make sure to bring along some long pants and a light sweatshirt to keep you comfy!
(PrAna is one of my favorite brands for high-quality, sustainable clothing! If you need a lightweight sweatshirt for your Southeast Asia trip, check out this one. Or these sustainable leggings — which I LOVE!)
8. Don’t Pack Clothes You Care About
When backpacking Southeast Asia you’ll seriously get dirty. Like grimy, sweaty (thanks, Humidity), and dusty.
Thus, don’t pack any clothes you really care about, because they’ll just get ruined. Plus, if you do overpack, you’ll want to shed some things to lighten the weight (and who wants to get rid of clothes they love, right?).
9. Make Sure Your Passport is Valid
For many countries in SEA, as well as most of the world, you’ll need at least 6 months validity on your passport to enter. So this is a must-do before backpacking Southeast Asia.
Speaking of passports…
10. Load Up on Passport Photos
Many countries in Southeast Asia will require you to submit a passport-sized photo for their visa application.
And instead of running around a foreign city looking for a weird little shop that does these photos, just pack enough before you leave if you plan on visiting various places, such as Cambodia and Vietnam.
11. Unlock Your Phone
In another section below I talk about SIM cards… but with many SIM cards, in order for you to actually use them your phone will need to be unlocked. You can read up on more info about unlocking your phone for international travel here.
12. Bring Sunscreen With You
It’s SO expensive buying sunscreen in Southeast Asia! Like about 3X cheaper than what you can buy at home. Make sure to pack it along before you travel through Asia.
Not to mention, most creams and lotions in SEA tend to have whitening additives (more on that in part 2 of my backpacking Southeast Asia series).
13. Females, Bring Sanitary Items
If you prefer to use tampons, make sure to bring plenty along, as they can be a bit difficult to find. Or, if you want to reduce your environmental footprint, switch to a menstrual cup! You can find out the one I travel with here.
14. Get Proof of Onward Travel
Don’t ignore this rule! More than once I’ve had to prove, not to immigration but to the airline, that I had proof of onward travel (or else they would literally not let me on the plane). So plan your itinerary or trip accordingly. (Or take a look at this blog post for cool onward travel proof tips.)
15. Bring a Sarong
I cannot stress this enough. Bring a sarong! With most (if not all) temples in Southeast Asia, you’ll need to cover up or you won’t be let in. So make sure to pack along a sarong. And, if you’re a girl, a light shawl, too (for the shoulders).
16. Buy Luggage Locks
Who likes getting their stuff stolen while traveling? Probably not you. Which is why it’s essential to get luggage locks before you go on your Southeast Asia trip.
17. Join Facebook Groups
By doing so, you can connect with other travelers who are currently in or have backpacked Southeast Asia.
This can help you plan your itinerary, get inside deets on what’s currently happening in the countries, or — my personal favorite — find other travelers to meet up with!
18. Invest in Plastic-Free Items
Plastic is a huge problem in Southeast Asia, as you’ll come to find out. It’s literally everywhere — in the mountains, on the beaches, floating in the oceans, and filling up the roads.
Thus, I recommend you invest in as many plastic-free and plastic-preventing items as you can before you travel to Southeast Asia.
Here’s a small list of plastic-free things I love:
- Reusable Filtering Water Bottle (as mentioned above).
- Metal Straws
- Reusable Produce Bags (because you’ll want to buy fresh fruit, believe me!)
- Reusable Tote Bag (this one folds up and fits into a tiny little pouch — perfect for stuffing in your backpack)
- Bamboo Utensils
You can read more about tips for traveling plastic-free here.
19. Download the Right Apps
Depending on the countries you’re traveling to, it might be worthwhile to look into what types of apps are great for each specific place.
For example, while Uber is abundant through Thailand and Vietnam, you’ll want to opt for the ride share app called Grab, which typically ends up being cheaper than Uber.
Additionally, if you’re traveling to Bali or Indonesia, you’ll want an app called GO-JEK, which is the country’s own ride app.
Also, don’t forget to download local maps, or go for the app called Maps.me, which doesn’t need Wifi to work.
20. Pack a Small First Aid Kit
There’s one thing that really got me when traveling Southeast Asia… and that was how painfully slow wounds healed. After a couple minor motorbike accidents, I had a few bumps, cuts, and scratches.
After the first couple days, it seemed like it wasn’t healing fast. Then some guy told me I need to cover it with the right stuff to ward off the flesh-eating bacteria.
Yep — tropical flesh-eating bacteria.
So, make sure to pack along a small first aid kit with the right topical treatments — such as hydrocortisone cream, iodine liquid (to kill bacteria), or even vaseline, which can help the wound stay sealed to external bacteria.
21. Don’t Forget Imodium
If one things for sure: your stomach is not going to like the food you’ll be eating (at least, not at first).
You will get some questionable poos and some nasty stomach aches but that’s why you should always pack Imodium in case things get a little too liquid-y. (Yes, I’m totally okay with talking about poo if you are.)
You can pick it up at your local store or get it here from Amazon.
22. Get Travel Insurance
Last but not least, this is another thing I cannot stress enough… get travel insurance! When backpacking Southeast Asia, unexpected events and accidents are bound to happen. And you’ll want to be protected when they do.
SO many travelers get into motorbike accidents, have their flights delayed or cancelled, or even break an arm or two. I mean, heck, I even had a couple motorbike accidents. Thank goodness they were minor and I was fine but I had travel insurance anyways to stay covered!
Reputable travel insurance makes sure you don’t have to dig into your travel budget in order to pay for these things out of pocket. And the good ones always have your back.
You can take a look at my favorite international backpacker travel insurance here.
Ready to read part two of my backpacking Southeast Asia travel guide? This one includes what to expect during your travels!
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