There’s a reason that traveling to Southeast Asia has become so much more popular in recent years. There’s the scenery (with everything from beaches and mountaintops to jungle temples and terraced rice fields), the food, the friendly locals…the list goes on, but many will tell you that the best part is the adventure of linking it all together. Of course, you’ll have to be prepared for the heat and humidity and navigating the language barrier, but once you accept that the challenge itself is part of the reward, you will be mentally equipped to enjoy the best of Southeast Asia.
Here are our best tips on what to bring and where to go once you land.
WHAT TO BRING
Planning ahead makes a big difference in getting the most your of your trip. Traveling with a backpack is generally a good idea in this region for several reasons. First, busy, uneven streets and metro stations without stairs make carrying a wheeled bag awkward at times. (And who wants to try to try and roll their carry-on across a sandy beach anyway?)
Second, expect to spend some time getting wet, especially during the rainy season. A water-resistant backpack (with a waterproof rain cover for downpours) will make a big difference in keeping your things dry.
To get the most out of your trip, equip yourself to be light and flexible. Focus on the essentials and clothing that is versatile. You can, of course, bring tanks, shorts, and swimwear for the lazy days, but for an active itinerary where you travel from the city to the mountains to the river and back for dinner without stopping, you need clothes that are durable, breathable, quick-drying, but will also work in a restaurant. A waterproof jacket is a good idea, and Royal Robbins has several good options, including the Oakham Waterproof Jacket from for men and the Mobile Waterproof Trench for women.
Pack long pants and sleeves that can protect you from sun and abrasion, but also dry quickly after a sudden downpour and wash easily after trudging through the mud. You want clothes that fit comfortably—clothing that is too tight makes the sticky humidity feeling worse and too baggy can be a hazard on crowded streets or overgrown trails.
Even if you aren’t usually an outdoor person, you will find yourself outside a lot, traveling on foot, by bike, or in open-air tuk-tuks. Therefore, other protective clothing like a wide-brimmed hat, sunglasses, and comfortable close-toed shoes should be on your packing list. One heavier layer is a good idea, too, especially during the cooler months. While hot and humid are the norm, conditions vary with elevation and season. Nights or rainy days may be surprisingly chilly in mountainous areas.
As for personal hygiene, don’t expect to always be able to find what you need. Basics like shampoo are usually easy to find, but other supplies you might consider essential, like contact lens solution, are surprisingly hard to come by anywhere. Arrive prepared with your necessities, then plan ahead when you are running low, and set aside a day in a good-sized city to restock. Once you leave the cities, bringing along some toilet paper or baby wipes isn’t a bad idea.
Obviously, you must carry money. Cash is still king in most places, and currency will be different in every country you visit. ATMs are usually common and tend to be the simplest and most cost-efficient way to obtain the local tender. If you are crossing the border in a more remote area where you may not find an ATM quickly, however, consider buying some money from an exchange before you enter. In general, traveling in Southeast Asia is safe, but you should keep your wits about you, as on any trip.
WHERE TO GO
Here is a quick rundown of some of the best backpacker-friendly destinations you can visit in Southeast Asia, and a bit about what to expect from each.
When in Thailand, you can’t miss out on the beach. Sparkling sand and shimmering waters are in no short supply along the country’s southern shores, and there are plenty of beach cities from which to choose. In Thailand’s northern interior, whitewater rivers carve the mountainsides, and ancient temples riddle the jungle.
TONSAI AND RAILAY
The top spots for beach adventures are Railay and Tonsai, two tiny towns tucked in a blue-water bay, walled in by sheer limestone towers. Rock climbing, sea kayaking, and beach life are the main attractions. If you plan to climb, bring as much of your own equipment as you can. Rentals are available but not guaranteed, and it may not be the same gear you’re comfortable using.
Up north, Chiang Mai sits in a valley that has it all. With many hostels, laid-back cafes, and walkable streets, this city is practically built for backpackers. Ride a motorbike to hike in cool mountain air by day and return for the Night Bazaar, a lively market and nightlife scene.
Landlocked between Thailand and Vietnam, Laos is the least visited country in the region by Western tourists. But it still supports a relatively strong tourist industry, especially around its points of interest.
A vividly historic city with modern amenities, Luang Prabang is definitely a tourist hot spot, but budget accommodations are abundant and leaving the city is easy. The region is a UNESCO World Heritage Site because of its intact French Colonial architecture and thriving Buddhist practices. In the uncrowded countryside, you’ll find temples, elephant sanctuaries, waterfall hikes, and swimming holes.
Vang Vieng is a lively village that’s particularly fun for backpackers and falls off the radar of many other travelers. There are many hostels and guesthouses here, along with affordable restaurants and bars. The river flowing through town is popular for lazy tubing trips. The surrounding hills have trails and caves to explore. Prepare to spend long hours in the heat, water, and woods, then kick your feet up with a homestyle meal and cold drink to end the day.
South of Thailand, Cambodia is best known for its inspiring ancient temples. These creations are some of the most impressive man-made creations on the continent, but you’ll also find a country filled with natural beauty.
The temples at Angkor Wat are the must-see attraction in Cambodia for any traveler. Siem Reap is the urban hub for these and other temples in the region. See them quickly or linger as long as you like, touring the sites by motorbike, bicycle, or foot. Pack for full days in the sun, and stock up in city stores on snacks and other necessities before venturing out to the temples.
Kampot is a quiet town on an idyllic river delta, not too far from the capital city Phnom Penh. Here you can stroll unhurried streets and browse shops and restaurants inside colorful colonial buildings. Stay at a guesthouse on the river and paddle a canoe right from your back door. Ride a motorbike to nearby Bokor Mountain for a stunning view over the valley or head to the beach for a dose of sand and salt.
Vietnam may be one of the last communist countries left on the planet, but in the last two decades it has opened its borders to international tourists, and the results have been astounding. You’ll find a country that is increasingly modern, yet still filled with unexpected finds for those willing to explore.
Vietnam’s capital is a modern, bustling city, but the central Old Quarter is surprisingly walkable and offers a variety of accommodations from budget to luxurious, and shops from quaint to extravagant. From downtown, you can ride a motorbike to mountain trails and waterfalls of Ba Vi National Park. Take a bus to the coast for a weekend tour of picture-perfect Ha Long Bay or live the island life on scenic Cat Ba.
To experience Southeast Asia’s tallest mountains, head to Sa Pa, a quiet town tucked among terraced rice fields and steep slopes of the northern highlands. This place is a basecamp to endless trekking, bike touring. In town are many hostels and cafes and out in the mountains are remote guesthouses awaiting visitors. In this rugged country, you will need to be especially prepared with gear to withstand the elements.
Written by Jesse Weber for RootsRated Media in partnership with Royal Robbins.
Featured image provided by Christopher P. Michel