Southeast Asia is one of the most popular travel destinations for good reason! There are beaches, mountains, historic cities and so much more to explore. We backpacked around Southeast Asia for a little over two months and absolutely loved our time there. While traveling through this region is fabulous, you will face challenges while experiencing this climate and the amazing cultures. Here are 50 Southeast Asia travel tips you need to know before backpacking through this region!
Southeast Asia travel planning tips
1. Check if you need a visa
Each country has different Visa requirements depending on your origin country. In most cases you can get a visa upon arrival but it is always smart to research ahead of time. Vietnam for example, you can do all of the visa work ahead of time and easily enter the country. If you do it upon arrival, there is tons of paperwork to fill out on the flight.
2. Make sure your passport has more than 6 months before it expires
This is a general travel tip but definitely a necessity in Southeast Asia. Many countries will not allow you to enter if you have less than six months before it expires or you have less than two pages to stamp!
3. Make physical and digital copies of your travel documents
This is another general travel rule of thumb but you should always have printed copies of your passport, ID and Visas. Hopefully you will never need to use them, but you’ll be thankful you did this if you do!
4. Download apps before you go
These are the best travel apps to download before your next trip but especially important when traveling to Southeast Asia. You will need to use these apps as soon as you land!
5. Check if you need any vaccines
If you are just traveling to the major cities, then you should be ok. We received tetanus and Hepatitis B before we left but later learned that it was not necessary from other travelers. We are not medical professionals though so always check with your doctor!
6. Purchase travel insurance
This is absolutely necessary whenever you travel out of the country. World Nomads will cover everything from stolen items to sickness while traveling!
7. Use 12Go to book ground transportation
U12 is a similar website as Rome2Rio and built specifically for Southeast Asia travel. This is a great resource to book your transportation between cities.
8. Always plan your airport transportation ahead of time
You will be haggled for a ride as soon as you get off your flight and these options are usually a scam. Research beforehand and know what your plan is going to be to get to your destination from the airport! You don’t need to have your grab or uber actually scheduled ahead of time, but you should know what your plan will be. We fell for a scam in China and never made that mistake again.
Southeast Asia packing tips
9. Pack light…literally!
Asia is HOT! Leave the jeans and heavy coats at home, you will not need them. You’ll also want to have as little luggage as possible. We always suggested using a backpack instead of a rolling suitcase because it is much easier to move around cities and different types of transportation.
10. Dress comfortably and casually
It is tempting to get all dolled up and whip out the heels but it is really not necessary while backpacking Southeast Asia. We went out bar hopping with other travelers most nights in shorts and tank tops. Backpacking is a judgment free zone focused around fun not style.
11. Bring your own laundry machine and detergent
In our experience, laundromats were not really used in Southeast Asia. We bought a portable washing machine and our own detergent strips to get laundry done whenever we needed it. Oftentimes you can pay your hostel or housing to do laundry for you but it can be pricey. That is a great option when you have a really full load but the portable machine is handy if you just have a few undergarments and light items to clean.
12. Bring a neck pillow
No matter if you are staying in a hostel or a 5 star hotel, more often than not the pillows are very thin in Southeast Asia. We recommend this neck pillow to provide some more comfort!
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13. Bring extra tampons
If you need to use tampons, highly recommend that you pack plenty extra. They are not always available in convenience stores.
14. Make sure to bring plenty of sunscreen
Sunscreen is hard to come by in Southeast Asia. We packed lots of spray bottles to try and last a few months. There are options if you run out but you are better off preparing as best you can.
Southeast Asia health and wellbeing travel tips
15. Prepare for stomach sickness
Certainly you have heard of the infamous Delhi Belly, Montezuma’s revenge etc… The reality is that there is a 99% chance it will happen to you. Dramamine, Pepto and other basic medicines may provide some relief but won’t cure it.
When the sickness happens, go to a pharmacy and ask for Smecta. This is a tablet that dissolves in a water bottle and soothes your stomach. It is a huge help! Smecta is much cheaper in some countries compared to others. In Vietnam it was less than $1 and in Thailand it was $7-10. Stock up in the countries where it is cheaper!
16. Bring plenty of Insect repellant
Bugs are everywhere in Southeast Asia. Make sure to pack insect repellent with deet. This will protect you from the nasty buggers! Always put it on before going outside and wash it off before bed. Trust us, you do not want to be covered in bug bites! This is the bug spray we travel with when we go to bug heavy areas.
17. Pack western medicine
There are few options when it comes to medicine in Southeast Asia. We are all about a holistic approach until there’s a nasty cold going around and no DayQuill to be found. We recommend packing standard cold and stomach medicines in case you get sick.
18. Don’t drink the water
This may be common knowledge but definitely important to note. We recommended using a Larq water bottle while backpacking. There are also tons of 7/11s and convenience stores all around Southeast Asia! Most of the time we ended up just buying jugs of water bottles and refilling our reusable ones.
19. Brush your teeth with clean water
Everyone knows not to drink the water but this Southeast Asia travel tip often gets overlooked because it is second nature to brush your teeth from the sink. Have extra clean water in your bathroom so you are prepped to brush!
20. Check the ice in your drinks
If the ice in your drink is round with a hole in the middle, then it came from an ice bag and is clean. If the ice looks like it came from an ice tray, then it may be frozen tap water and will make you sick. This is not always 100% accurate but a good thing to check!
21. Always have toilet paper with you
If you remember any of these Southeast Asia travel tips, remember this one. Most public restrooms will not provide toilet paper so it is important to always keep extra in your bag or pocket! You do not want to find yourself stuck on the toilet with no toilet paper.
General Southeast Asia travel and backpacking tips
22. Just accept it, you will feel dirty
Between the heat, bug spray, sunscreen and general dirt, you will feel kind of gross while backpacking Southeast Asia. The good thing is that everyone is in the same boat! There’s no judgment.
23. Things will go wrong
Traveling in Southeast Asia is messy. Transportation gets delayed, credit cards get lost and phones get stolen. As long as you have your passport, everything will be ok! Don’t sweat the small stuff. Remember that you are there for enjoyment, not stress.
We were so nervous when we first started backpacking Asia to make friends and approach other backpackers. One day we just got over it and started approaching other travelers. We made some friends for life and some groups wanted nothing to do with us. If you want to make other backpacking friends, you have to put yourself out there! The worst that happens is someone doesn’t want to be your friend, who cares?
25. Avoid unethical animal activities
Unfortunately, this is a huge issue worldwide and Southeast Asia is no exception. The good thing is that there are plenty of sanctuaries and safe activities to try instead! Research before embarking on any excursions with animals. Any place that offers you to ride the elephants is an automatic no!
26. Don’t take time too seriously
Time is relative in Southeast Asia. It’s like island time, but sometimes slower and sometimes faster! There were times that we had a bus scheduled to pick us up and it arrived an hour early and then times that it was 2 hours late! Give yourself a buffer when it comes to pick up times.
27. Try the local street food
When we were first backpacking Southeast Asia, we were so scared to try street food because we didn’t want to get sick. Then we got sick even though we were so careful! Moral of the story, if there is something you want to try, just go for it. Chances are that you will get sick no matter what, that’s travel for you!
28. Know that most establishments will have Wifi
Almost every bar or restaurant has wifi set up so there is not a huge need for cell service. It is always safe to have it just in case, but you can get by with just the public wifi.
Safety and scams to avoid in Southeast Asia
29. Determine your taxi or tuk tuk price before you start your ride
This Southeast Asia travel tip is crucial to avoid getting overcharged on these rides. Many drivers will speed up their meters so they can charge more for the ride. If you set a price beforehand then you do not need to worry about this. In cities that use Grab (Asia’s uber), this option is always preferable because the app will set the price for you and pay in the app. In this circumstance, you do not need to worry about that conversation.
30. Watch out for motorbikes
Motorbikes ride recklessly everywhere in Southeast Asia, especially in big cities. Most times the driver expects you to move out of their way vs the other way around. Be aware of your surroundings while crossing the street and on the sidewalks!
31. If renting a motorbike, take pictures beforehand
This is a classic Southeast Asia travel scam. Rental companies at times will accuse you of damaging the bike even though you did not! If you have pictures of the bike before you left the shop, then they cannot accuse you of the damage.
32. Prepare for loose safety standards
There were a few hikes and boat tours where we felt like, “ummmm are we going to die?” Be aware of your surroundings and footing and if you feel uncomfortable, don’t be afraid to move a little slower and speak up!
33. Beware of monkeys, not all of them are friendly
Travelers love to play with the monkeys in Southeast Asia but the reality is that sometimes they are used to steal items from you! There are incidences of the monkeys stealing your phone or purse and then a gypsy will overcharge you to get it back. Again, be alert of your surroundings.
34. Be alert of your phobias
Sometimes snakes, bugs and spiders will appear in the most unlikely places. Have someone be on lookout if you have an extreme phobia. We both are horribly scared of different things (Maddy = snakes, Seth = spiders)! Anytime we enter a bar or local market, we are each other’s lookouts to make sure we are safe.
35. Watch out for purse snatchers
We know so many travelers who had their bags stolen. It can happen in a crowded bar or simply walking on the sidewalk. Sometimes people will target bags on their motorbike and grab it before you can even see who it was. Keep your personal items close to your body and zipped up!
36. Always check for bedbugs
This is a common travel occurrence, no matter the location. You can do a quick check for bedbugs by looking under the corners of the mattress. If there are little bugs or brown spots, then it is not a good sign.
37. Always lock your bags
Unfortunately, there are tons of horror stories of travelers getting their passports and electronics stolen in hostels and hotels. Always lock your valuables in a bag when you leave the room for a period of time. This should hopefully deter theft although it is not 100% effective!
38. Do not interact with stray animals
This one is tough because it is difficult to see strays and not want to give them lots of love. Unfortunately, lots of strays in Southeast Asia have rabies and are sick. It can be dangerous to interact with them.
39. Don’t do drugs
We get it! It is tempting between full moon parties, ping pong shows and spicy clubs to want to indulge in offerings from the locals. Oftentimes this is actually a trap and undercover cops will use this as a way to arrest tourists. There are huge drug penalties in Asia and it is not worth the risk!
Culture and lifestyle tips in Southeast Asia
40. Respect the culture
This is so important when backpacking and traveling through Asia. Always respect the local culture and follow their rules. It is straight up disrespectful to do otherwise! Take your shoes off when requested and always have a shawl to cover your shoulders and knees as needed.
41. Don’t flush toilet paper
The septic systems in Southeast Asia are not able to handle toilet paper. Simply do your business and throw it in the nearby trash can. This always feels weird at first but after a day or two, you’ll get used to it!
42. Learn to love the bum gun
Ahh the beloved bum gun. If you haven’t used one before, you are in for a treat! This is the easiest way to clean yourself after using the bathroom and it makes very little mess. Don’t make it weird, just adapt!
43. Drink the local beer
The local beer in Southeast Asia is both GOOD and CHEAP – score! When traveling on a budget, this is the way to go. It’s a bonus that you are also experiencing local culture.
44. Prepare for the locals to want to take your picture
Many children and locals are not used to seeing humans of other cultures and they may ask to take a picture with you. This is coming from a place of kindness and curiosity, not hostility. Be kind in return to others even if you are not comfortable with posing for them!
45. Be ready for rain and big storms
Even during the dry season, the rain is no joke while traveling in Southeast Asia. Be prepared to take shelter and hunker down when a storm comes.
46. Window shopping is a challenge
When it comes to window shopping and picking a place to eat, you will be pressured to enter as soon as you show any interest. Especially when traveling on a budget, it is hard to compare restaurant prices because someone will immediately try to seat you even if you simply glance at the menu. Try and hold your ground and respectfully say no when they insist on your business immediately.
47. Use the local language
It is polite to speak the local language. Try to say hello, goodbye and thank you in each country!
Finance tips in Southeast Asia
48. Bring extra USD
USD will come in handy at times. We recommend having $100 in USD handy in case you need it while backpacking Southeast Asia.
49. Watch out for ATM Charges
It is mixed between establishments if you can pay with a credit card so you will have to take out cash while traveling in Southeast Asia. We talk about this in more detail in our post about how to prepare for long term travel, but you really should get a debit card with no international ATM fees. We saved thousands on our original trip around the world because of this. Charles Schwab is the best US bank for this!
50. Be ready to haggle
You can haggle for most things in Southeast Asia but especially on Tuk Tuk rides and trinkets! Be respectful of the sellers but also be aware of potential scams. We always like haggling if we are both buying something. Try to work out a 2 for 1 deal if possible!