If you are thinking of taking your first trip to the region, here are travel tips for first-timers interested in backpacking Southeast Asia!
Once you’ve decided that backpacking Southeast Asia is going to be your gap year experience, it. Is. On. Or you may simply just happen to have two months laying around with nothing to do, so you can start thinking about where to go, what to bring, what to avoid and how to prepare. Find a word of advice and some travel tips below, to get the most out of your backpacking experience in Southeast Asia.
Scams, shakedowns and thievery
Generally speaking, I have never felt safer than in Asia. But at the same time, I have to acknowledge that Asia is rife with scams aimed at the gullible. A great rule of thumb to stay ahead of scammers is that if something seems too good to be true, it probably is.
What this means, is that if you are in a touristy area, and someone seems particularly friendly for no apparent reason, you are probably being hustled. Whether it is a fortune teller, two students trying to lure you into a ‘traditional tea ceremony’, a Tuk-tuk driver offering to drive you around ‘for free’, or a monk who insists his (expensive) amulets have magic power.
For a more detailed round-up, simply google something like ‘scams in Southeast Asia – what to look out for’ and you will be adept at recognizing any scam from over a mile away.
Another potential pitfall which is a little harder to get out of are the police shakedowns. Let’s say you are suddenly fined a ridiculous amount of money for flicking a cigarette butt away, or even worse, your roommate has allegedly some drugs from an undercover cop who wants your entire travel budget to ‘make this go away’.
The best advice I can give here is not to get into these situations in the first place. Tourists have found themselves in very precarious situations by simply being ignorant. Whether they tore down a flag, switched of an amplifier in a temple, or most famous of all, stole a piece of propaganda from their hotel room.
Nine times out of ten people tend to get away with these things, but when the book is thrown at you in Southeast Asia, they certainly take a swing. So try not to do anything you would not do in your own country either.
Dealing with child beggars when backpacking Southeast Asia
While I can’t say Europe is without beggars, they are certainly on a league of their own in Southeast Asia. Every bigger cities has at least a few homeless people, but while I don’t doubt their unfortunate circumstances, none of them are as gutwrenching as child beggars in Asia.
Imagine having a great time with your new-found friends in one of the hostel areas, and all of a sudden the cutest little girl pops up under your nose, thrusting a bunch of flowers in your face. You notice someone went through the trouble to make her look impossibly cute, plus she is barefoot.
The first time this happens you are instantly guilt-ridden (over something you have absolute no control over), and I get it when people feel the need to give them some money. After all, it’s little trinkets for you and it probably means the world for her and her family, am I right?
Well, no. You are wrong. Firstly, most of the child beggars strolling the tourist areas are much more organized than you think. And rest assured that someone else takes your money from them later than night. Maybe not all, but I guarantee you that someone is getting paid.
And the more you do your research about child beggars and beggars with sleeping babies, the more evidence you find about a world of misery. Which begs the question, are you helping someone with your money, or are you perpetuating a business model that exploits children?
I would go with the latter, and if you really want to do something, there are alternatives. In every country in Asia, there are numerous foundations and NGO’s active that help these children and your money is much better spent with them. If you want to make sure your donation is appropriated correctly, have a look at www.charitynavigator.org.
If you want to do something locally, give pens or notebooks, but don’t ever buy anything from children. Their parents or handlers know that dressing them cute or putting them in filthy rags triggers an emotional response with you. And get this; what do you think happens to these kids when they are no longer considered ’cute’ or ‘heartbreaking’?
Backpacking Southeast Asia packing list
I’ve said this before in a different article, and I’ll say it again. It is theoretically possible to fly into Southeast Asia with a phone charger and a deodorant roller for on the way. Literally everything that you require for a two-month trip up and down Asia can be bought and found in Bangkok for a fraction of the price it will set you back in your own country.
However, I do realize not everyone is that adventurous, and if you are already sitting on your state-of-the-art backpack, you might as well fill it up for the journey, am I right? There’s a bunch of basic rules that will lighten your load and help you quickly find anything you need. The number one rule is that you shouldn’t bring jeans.
They are heavy and because of the climate, enormously impractical. Lightweight long pants work though, and a hoodie for those long trips in air-conditioned busses, trains or airplanes really do help a lot as well.
The ‘Duuh!’-factor might be big in the next rule, but try to keep your essentials in a smaller bag that contains the likes of cameras, phones, passports, cash, driving licenses, etc. (also, it is a great idea to keep a copy of your passport around, along with a set of 20 passport pictures for future VISA requirements).
Cut down on unnecessary stuff like mosquito nets (most hostels have them already if you need one at all). Multiple pair of shoes, excessive make-up, books or raincoats (every 7/11 sells ponchos for a few cents) is unnecessary too. Avoid anything else you can think of that is heavy and likely to not see any use either.
I know some travelers insist on bringing survival equipment like torches, Swiss army knives and first-aid kits, but personally I have never had to use them. And whatever Southeast Asia travel destinations I got into, a 7/11 with all the basic necessities was never far away.
Underwear can get very problematic, especially in the more rural areas of Asia, so you may want to stock up on those at a higher rate you would normally do (that spicy food will come at a price eventually).
I also tend to bring a Sounddock wherever I go. Most smaller models will fit virtually anywhere, and especially crappy hostel rooms and dorms tend to feel that much better with some nice music of your own. I am not one of those guys pissing off other travelers with Metallica’s finest played at 03:30 in the morning, but there is something about ending up in an unknown environment, grabbing a beer and watching the sun go down with your own music in the background. Highly recommended!
Note that you can buy these anywhere in Asia, but if they are being sold on the street or a sketchy shop far below normal retail prices, you are looking at a fake, and it will probably crap out after several hours of very poor play.
Costs of Backpacking Southeast Asia
I remember a thread of a young couple a few months back, complaining about everything being super-expensive, and not at all what they had expected when they decided to travel to Southeast Asia. I followed that topic for a few days, because I wanted to see what had happened. In the end, it turned out that both of them were scared to eat street food and stuck to restaurants exclusively, preferably in Western tourist areas. On top of that, one of them had a gluten allergy, and the other one insisted on a vegan diet.
Gradually, people started pointing out in the thread that you will have to adjust your expectations a little when you intend to travel to Southeast Asia on the cheap. For instance, getting over your fear of street food (justified or not) is an absolute must.
I think I had my first try at street food when I walked out of a nightclub early in the morning with a drunk friend, when he suddenly stopped at a little stall and pointed at a blackened barbecue and something that looked like a fish, covered in a salty crust. “I want that in my mouth!” he said, and a few seconds later we were sitting on the side of the road, eating the best and tastiest white fish I’ve ever eaten in my life, while a stray cat looked at us with jealous eyes.
In all the years I’ve lived here, I have had food poisoning twice, and it happened in upscale restaurants both times. Unsurprisingly, any possible germs that ever resided on the fish we ate that fateful night had been killed hours ago in the fire. In my experience, street food is delicious, and you can easily tell where the “good stuff” is being sold.
If a place is packed with locals, it is a very good sign and I recommend you sit down and simply try something that looks like you just might be able to stomach it. In all likelihood, you are going to be pleasantly surprised, and the whole “cheese-sandwich at 7/11 and banana pancake diet” comes to an end that day.
Also keep in mind that the further you move away from the typical tourist areas, the cheaper things tend to get. Sure, the hostel or home-stay you ended up may not be at ground-zero of the backpacking area, but that may actually be a good thing.
Pro tip: Whatever is on your ‘backpacking Southeast Asia packing list’, make sure there are 20 sheets of toilet paper hidden somewhere in there. You’ll thank me later.
The Southeast Asia travel itinerary or, ‘how to stay away from the banana pancake trail’
The last time I went on a visa run into Cambodia, I came across some Europeans and we hung out for the rest of the evening. Since we all were at Siem Reap, they were very excited about seeing the sun rise over Angkor Wat.
It’s a great temple complex and certainly one of the must-sees in Cambodia, but my advice to them was to get off the beaten path once they cleared Angkor Wat. Simply too many backpackers stick to the usual hang outs and destinations. Talk to anyone familiar with Asia, and they can tell you all about the Full-moon parties, the Snake cocktails in Vietnam and the Temple complexes in Cambodia.
Seasoned travelers may have been to Chiang Mai and Myanmar, or talk to you about other famous Southeast Asia travel destinations, but the bottom line is that the more detached you are from any tourist activities, the more likely you are to see the real face of Asia and to collect some genuine memories.
Partying with other westerners at bottom-prices is probably going to be some of the best fun you will ever have in your life, but the problem is that you will probably remember very little of it. Ending up in a sleepy town in the middle of the Thai dustbowl, or venturing into an Ulaanbaatar karaoke bar is going to be an unforgettable experience, and you get the chance to connect with locals who are not spoiled by the easy money that comes with the tourist industry.
There may not always be a local event that you can attend, and there certainly is something to be said for getting your Open Water PADI certification, even if it is the total cliché thing to do.
A great way to get the best of both the real Asia and the best tourist experiences is to plan ahead. Pick a few typical activities, but make sure you travel there in the most unconventional way possible. Rent a car to get from one town to another, or take a two-day detour through a national park when heading for a group of islands.
There are many ways to stay away from the banana pancake trail, but you are probably on it right now if you are surrounded by young westerners on their gap year. Don’t deprive yourself from some amazing experiences and make sure to stay away from the herd every now and then. In the end, it all comes down on how you want to spend your time backpacking Southeast Asia…
Alexander Grootmeester is an copywriter/online media expert living in South-east Asia for the better part of a decade. Asked what he likes best about living there, he usually answers that it’s “the tightly organized anarchy”.
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