Laos Backpacking Budget

Laos backpacking budget

(Map of Laos from wikitravel, can be re-used under CC BY-SA 3.0)


Daily Travel Costs in Laos on a Shoestring Budget

US$20 | 160,000 Laotian Kip

Laos has always been very good value and that is still the case although prices have increased slightly in recent years and it is perhaps a bit more expensive than Cambodia but still cheaper than Thailand. Travelling around the country is pretty slow and not always entirely comfortable but it is at least cheap. Accommodation and eating out is also great value although a few more expensive places are cropping up so you do have to be a bit selective in that sense now so to avoid the places that are clearly not geared towards budget travellers or locals.

Our Laos backpacking budget of $20/day will require a bit of discipline as there are lots of cool trips that you can do in the country not to mention ways to spend your money in the evening with small but often lively backpacker party scenes in several of the main towns.

See where Laos ranks on our World Budget Travel Table.

Backpacking costs in all Southeast Asian countries


More Comfortable Laos Backpacker Budget

US$30 | 240,000 Laotian Kip

The shoestring budget of $20 is very possible but when you are in a cheap country, the tendency is to not really keep tabs on your spending and daily costs can quickly mount up. In recent years the Lao government appears to be making an effort to attract wealthier tourists particularly from China and that has pushed the price of tours and trips up for everyone else so if you are planning to do a lot of that then $30/day would probably be more realistic.


Sample Prices in Laos

Bus from Luang Prabang to Vang Vieng (6 hours) – 100,000 Kip ($12)

Meal in a budget restaurant – $2

Large Beer Lao in a bar or restaurant – $1.20

Dorm bed – from $4/night

Budget private Double or Twin room in Vientiane – from $10/night

Tubing in Vang Vieng – 55,000 Kip ($7)


Money

Currency – Laotian Kip (also known as Lao)

£1 = 11716 Kip

€1 = 9204 Kip

US$1 = 8106 Kip

(All exchange rates are correct as of June 2016)

Unlike neighbouring Cambodia, US Dollars aren’t used all that often with local currency preferred in almost all circumstances.


MFT Recommends

The overall standard of healthcare in Laos is very low and getting ill or injured can turn into a real nightmare and an expensive one so it is essential you have travel insurance. We recommend World Nomads who specialise in backpacking trips.


laos art

sketches in Luang Prabang, Laos (via shankar s.CC BY 2.0)


Share your Travel Costs!

If you’ve been to Laos recently, please let everyone know your typical daily costs by commenting below 😉


This article was published in June 2016.

Get our Backpackers Guide to Southeast Asia 2017-2018 for an overview of budget travel in the region.


Tubing in Vang Vieng – Latest Update

MFT gets lots of questions from readers about the current situation in Vang Vieng with regards to the tubing. After receiving varying reports, some suggesting it had almost completely shut down, we decided to give it a visit in November 2015 and see for ourselves.

Latest Update on Tubing in Vang Vieng – November 2015

First things first, tubing is still very possible in Vang Vieng. There is one place in the village close to the river-side which rents out the tubes. They cost 55,0000 Kip (roughly £4.50, €6, US$7) for a day with a 60,000 Kip deposit, which is returned in full provided you return your tube prior to 6:00pm. The price also includes a free tuk-tuk to the start of the tubing route, which is several kilometres up-stream and it takes 5-10 minutes to drive to the top. Tuk-tuks only leave when there are 4 people ready to go though, which can be a problem later in the day but for 20,000 Kip you can scrap the waiting around and get the guy to take you to the top. You can hire tubes out at any time up to 4:00pm but it’s best to go a bit earlier as it takes about 1 hour 30 minutes to tube (time varies depending on speed of the river when you visit) all the way down to the village even without any stops.

Tubes on top of a tuk tuk in Laos
The free tuk-tuk ride up to the start of the tubing route.

The tubing experience itself is now rather more sedate than in yesteryear. In the ‘glory years’ of Vang Vieng, the river was lined with lively bars, enormous rope swings and dodgy looking makeshift slides that kept drunken visitors entertained on the way down. From the mid 2000s onwards it grew to become arguably the biggest backpacker party destination in all of Southeast Asia. However unsurprisingly given that in 2011 alone, it is said that 27 travellers died doing the activity, a rate of over one per fortnight, the Lao government decided to clean up its act and crack-down on the party aspect of tubing in Vang VIeng.

As of November 2015, almost everything has shut down besides the tubing itself. There are still 4 or 5 bars that are open along the route but when we visited only the 1st one was really anything resembling a party with blaring music and a crowd of perhaps 100-200. There was one other bar that had a guy trying to entice tubers in for party vibes but it was almost dead and the other few potentials stops were little more than quiet riverside restaurant/bar places where you could stop for a bite to eat or a drink.

Tubing is back to what it probably was intended to be originally. A relaxing, peaceful way to experience the stunning countryside and limestone hills around Vang Vieng. This will come as a disappointment to many but was almost inevitable giving the alarming statistics.

The river is far from completely deserted though now and the local authorities are making a clear attempt to attract less alcohol-fuelled maniacs and a slightly older, wealthier crowd mostly from other parts of Asia. As you tube along, many groups of kayakers pass by as do other motorised boats giving people tours of the river at a faster pace. Later in the day this is especially true and there has been a noticeable increase in Korean, Japanese and Chinese tourists in recent years as Laos and Vang Vieng tries to broaden its appeal.

The remnants of Vang Vieng’s tubing heyday still linger on though. Deserted, rotting bars that were closed down during the government’s crackdown, still eerily hug the riverside, while plenty of giant rope-swings are still evident but most are tied up to prevent people using them. As for the ominously named ‘death slides’, they have completely disappeared and you won’t find any remnants of them.

As we tubed down the river, we encountered numerous large sharp rocks, just a few cm below the surface but not visible from above given the waters are fairly murky. Just heading slowly and soberly in a rubber ring, you have to be a bit careful so it’s no real surprise that so many injuries occurred from people jumping off swings and flying off slides into the water.

The tubing route still ends back in the village and you get off on the left hand side of the river just before a small footbridge opposite two or three bars perched above the river. It’s only a 2 minute walk from there back to the place where you got your tube, which is also obviously where you return it and get your deposit back. After 6:00pm you will only get a partial refund and after 8:oopm they’ll presume you’ve just lost it. It’s a good idea to walk down to the river to get your bearings before you head up in the tuk-tuk as it isn’t immediately obvious where you need to get off.
The final bar has a large sign saying ‘end of tubing’ and offers promises of free drinks but like most of the others it’s fairly quiet and you don’t have to get off there as the actual ‘end of tubing’ is another few hundred metres down the river.

Vang Vieng Tubing Update
Taking it easy on the River!

Tubing Tips

It’s advisable to carry the bare minimum as there is no special compartment where you can keep things dry and if you carry a bag, you’ll need to carry it on your lap while you tube and it will most certainly get wet, especially in the bumpy parts. Guides leading kayaking tours also seem to find it hilarious to splash tubers so watch out for that.

Therefore don’t carry anything like a mobile phone or camera unless it is waterproof. If you plan on stopping off in the bars then obviously you’ll need to bring some money but if not then you really don’t need anything besides yourself and a swimming costume or some clothes you don’t mind getting wet. You can leave items in the tubing place but it’s better to just show up with the 115,000 Kip you’ll need to pay them and then head off. Walking around town in just a bikini or swimshorts is generally frowned upon though as it’s still a conservative country but many travellers ignore such suggestions.

If you want to stop at some of the bars and make a day of it then certainly leave earlier rather than later. It gets dark quickly around 6:00pm depending the time of the year and as well as making the actual tubing more difficult as the rocks will be impossible to see, you may also not know where to stop after nightfall. You will also fail to get all of your deposit back. 12:00-1:00pm is perhaps the peak time for people to set off.

Finally you shouldn’t assume that tubing is now 100% safe and doing something stupid like jumping in the water from a swing or just the side of the river isn’t a cool idea, especially after your third bucket. There are loads of rocks in the river and you are taking a risk any time you do that as it is impossible to know what lies just beneath the surface.

Practical Info about Vang Vieng

Budget accommodation is plentiful although if you arrive late in the day, then the better places can sell out. There are many backpacker hostels with cheap dorms as well as some riverside bungalows and plenty of cheap guesthouses with decent private rooms. A few bigger hotels have sprung up in recent times and when we visited a couple more were being constructed. There is no need to book accommodation in advance, just walk around town when you arrive and look for somewhere.

It is a small place built around two main roads that run adjacent to the river and the main village sections are no more than 1km in length so you can walk everywhere. It’s very typical of a small touristy town on the backpacker trail in Southeast Asia and comes with everything you might expect. Dozens of street vendors sell pancakes for 10,000 Kip and other cheap tasty snacks, while there is an excessive number of massage parlours, mostly without any customers and there are at least 10 bar/restaurants that just play the US sitcom Friends all day every day.

watching Friends in Vang Vieng
A typical restaurant in Vang Vieng.

There are plenty of ATM’s that were all working fine when we visited and plenty of Lao, Thai and international restaurants, with everything from Mexican food to Korean BBQ’s on offer. Nobody goes to Vang Vieng just to visit the town or for an authentic Lao village experience, which it most certainly isn’t. However it has everything you could possibly need and despite an increase in other types of tourists, it still has a real backpacker vibe to it.

There is even a hospital and a few pharmacies although Lao healthcare is not to be relied upon and if you are unfortunate enough to get seriously ill or injured, you’ll probably need to go to Thailand, which is at least 4 hours by road.

Buses and minivans regularly depart South for Vientiane (50,000-60,000 Kip, 4 hours) and North for Luang Prabang (90,000-100,000 Kip, 6-8 hours) which are the next destinations for almost everyone in Vang Vieng. There are also daily direct buses to Udon Thani and Nong Khai in Thailand although you will find it cheaper but more time-consuming to just buy a ticket to Vientiane and then take one of the reasonably regular buses (roughly hourly) that head South of the border from Vientiane Bus Station near the Morning Market in the City Centre.

There are dozens of small travel agencies dotted around town selling bus tickets and tours, while your choice of hostel/guesthouse will almost certainly do likewise. There are small differences in prices so it is worth comparing places before booking.

Is Vang Vieng still a Party Destination?

Yes! There have been numerous posts from the past few years by bloggers offering the latest update on tubing in Vang Vieng and most agree that to some extent the party has just moved from the dangerous river banks and into the town. Party lovers will still find it the liveliest destination in Laos (which isn’t saying much admittedly). Given how small VV is, there are still plenty of choices of where to drink. Lazy riverside bars are the perfect place to chill out in the afternoon, watch the sunset and get ready for the evening. There are few lively bars in town, the most popular of which seems to be Sakura Bar and its famous ‘Drink Triple, See Double, Act Single’ slogan and after a couple of drinks you’ll be the proud owner of one of its cheaply produced t-shirts baring its message.

Like much of sleepy Laos though, most things end early and there’s not a great deal that remains open past midnight including Sakura, which shuts down at 12. There are two clubs in town that are open after that though and they open on alternate nights so there is alway somewhere to go, while on Fridays the Jungle Project, outside of town opens late and includes a 1am fireshow. It offers free tuk-tuks from town but there is a 30,000 Kip cover charge. There also some bars more geared towards locals on the other side of the old airstrip, which you could check out, for a more authentic Lao party.

Despite the crackdown on tubing, the local police authorities still seem to have arrangements in place with some local bars and restaurants, which continue to pretty openly sell drugs. Many of the restaurants boast ‘happy menus’ which serve joints for around 30,000 Kip (roughly US$4), mushroom shakes and pizzas, opium pizzas, happy pizzas, happy omelettes, happy garlic bread and well you get the picture. If that’s your scene, you’ll have fun here but it’s best to consume everything on premises as there are numerous reports of plain-clothed police arresting travellers and threatening them with prison time if they fail to pay a very hefty fine, which basically amounts to a bribe.

Is Vang Vieng just a Tubing/Partying Destination?

No! There is so much more to do in and around Vang Vieng besides tubing and partying and you could easily spend days in the town without doing either. There are also plenty of other activities, trips and little adventures that you can do and most can be done either independently or as part of a tour.

You could easily spend a couple of days exploring some of the countryside around the town. There are plenty of typical Lao villages with really friendly locals that you could visit while there are numerous caves, waterfalls, lagoon and other secluded spots for swimming and relaxing. You can do this by tour of course but you can also just rent out a bicycle, motorbike or even a quadbike and do it all independently with a solid map.

The skies above Vang Vieng.
The undisputed best views of the area are to be had from one of these things!

Rock climbing is another popular activity in Vang Vieng and options are growing while for a more chilled out experience, hot air balloons set off on a daily basis and offer stunning views of the area.

Many nearby villages remain barely affected by the tourism boom in Laos and despite a period of political stability, there are still numerous problems in Laos and a fair bit of poverty. There are many volunteering options in the area, the best of which is perhaps the SAE LAO Project is the best with its aim of sustainable development for the local people.

Verdict – Is Vang Vieng still worth Visiting?

Absolutely. There is something for everyone in the Vang Vieng area and it’s still the sort of place you can hang around for a while.

Although the tubing isn’t what it was, in reality it couldn’t have remained that crazy and dangerous forever given the numbers of young people with bright futures who were continually dying as a result of one reckless and usually drunken or drug-fueled day in Laos. The authorities were right to crack down on it, even if their reasons for doing so were probably more to do with concerns over the damage such negative press could do to their international reputation rather than health and safety concerns, which are still rather absent from many aspects of Lao life.

Although if you get wrecked and get in the water, the risks still remain, it’s not as easy to get sucked into the scene and many of the more dangerous elements have been removed. Vang Vieng is a stunning place and even if the party element completely disappears in the future, which you sense is still a fair way off, it is still most certainly worth coming to.

 

Get our Southeast Asia Backpackers Guide 2017-18 for a full overview of travel in the region.


This article was published in November 2015.


Backpacking Budget for Southeast Asia

Southeast Asia Backpacking Budget

This page aims to give you a rough idea of what a typical shoestring backpacking budget for Southeast Asia might be.

southeast asia

(Map of Southeast Asia from wikitravel, can be re-used under CC BY-SA 3.0)

Daily Travel Costs in Southeast Asia

Southeast Asia is one of the cheapest parts of the world to travel in and your money really can go a long way! Here’s an idea of shoestring travel costs in South East Asian countries. Click on the links for more detailed info on each country including a shoestring & more comfortable backpacker budget as well as sample prices for thing like buses, beds and beers:

$20/day : Cambodia, LaosVietnam

$25/day : Thailand, Malaysia, IndonesiaMyanmar

$30/day : The Philippines

$45/day : Singapore

(The US Dollar is the reserve currency in most countries and often accepted)

These figures are all based on staying in cheap hostels and eating/drinking in budget or local restaurants and bars. It allows for a bit of partying but if you’re going out getting drunk almost every night you will end up spending more than this!

There are big regional variations in some countries particularly Malaysia and Indonesia. Away from Java and Bali, Indonesia is as cheap as anywhere in the region but the large amount of travelling needed to get around and the island nature of the country makes it a bit more expensive to travel around. Mainland Malaysia although much richer and more developed is cheaper than Malaysian Borneo for the traveller due to the poor infrastructure in Borneo which makes life more complicated and more expensive for getting around.

Monthly Backpacking Budget for Southeast Asia

A realistic shoestring monthly backpacking budget for Southeast Asia, allowing for a few connecting flights in the region but not your main flight to/from SE Asia is therefore around:

1 month – £660, €760, $800

2 months – £1320, €1520, $1600

3 months – £1980, €2280, $2400

4 months – £2640, €3040, $3200

5 months – £3300, €3800, $4000

6 months – £3960, €4560, $4800

(Exchange rates are correct only as of January 2017. Use Dollars as a guide & convert to your currency on current exchange rates if in doubt.)

This is still designed as a shoestring budget and if you don’t have experience of travelling on the cheap you might want to allow for a little more. If you wish to go to the Philippines or parts of Indonesia that will require extra flights, you might want to increase it a little bit too. Everywhere else is accessible by land or short ferries and getting around in the region is typically very cheap. Think $1-2/hour of travel if you take the cheapest available option. If you’re just visiting Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and/or Vietnam then you can get by on a bit less if you’re smart but these countries have a big backpacker party scene which can eat away into any travel budget.

Remember there are still going to be quite a few extra expenses on top of this in terms of sorting out flights to/from the region, vaccinations and travel insurance. The latter can be quite costly but is important. We recommend World Nomads for excellent travel insurance packages for backpackers.


More on Budget Travel in SE Asia

Get our Backpackers Guide to Southeast Asia 2017-2018 for an overview of budget travel in the region.

If you have a slightly larger budget than suggested above but are limited on time, you might want to check out Stray Travel’s Southeast Asia Flexi Tours. They will help you cram a lot into a short time and are also a nice idea for anyone who’s a bit nervous about travelling alone.


The Cost of Travel in Other Regions

South America | Central America | Europe


How much did travel in Southeast Asia cost you?

If you have travelled recently in the region then please use the comments section below to share with us your experiences of backpacking costs in SE Asia. Budgets really do vary considerably amongst travellers here so there will never be a definitive right figure for each country but the more people who comment, the easier it is for us to keep this page as accurate as possible. Thanks!


 This page was last updated in January 2017.


Popular Backpacking Route in Southeast Asia

asia/oceania routes

southeast asia | thailandmyanmar | vietnam | indonesia | india | australia | new zealand


Backpacking Route in Southeast Asia

Backpacking around South East Asia is ever popular and it’s not hard to see why. It’s very cheap, home to unique and varied cultures, fantastic weather and scenery but with such a thriving backpacker scene, home comforts are never hard to find. Perhaps it has lost some of the mysticism it had back in the day when traveller numbers were still relatively small but there is still undeniably a certain magic about this part of the world.

The route on this page aims to give you a basic idea of what a typical backpacker itinerary in Southeast Asia looks like. It’s not the definitive answer to travelling around the region so don’t treat it as such but hopefully it will help shape your plans for travelling around this wonderful part of the world.


TIME NEEDED – 3-4 MONTHS

Could just about be squeezed into two months but would be a rush. If you’re not limited on time you could easily spend six months travelling in Southeast Asia.


POSSIBLE BUDGET – £2500 €2850 $3000

Figures are based on prices and exchange rates as of January 2017. For more specific info see backpacking budget for Southeast Asia.

These figures don’t include cost of flights to/from region or other pre-trip expenses such as getting travel insurance. They allow for a bit of partying and the odd organised tour/trip in the day-time but if you are planning on doing lots of that then you will spend more!

This is a realistic shoestring budget for Southeast Asia and it’s possible to get by on less if you stick to local food rather than tourist options. However on the Southeast Asia backpacker trail, temptation lies at almost every corner and it’d be easy to blow this budget if you aren’t great on self-discipline! If it’s your first time travelling then you’d be wise to budget for more.


VISA REQUIREMENTS FOR SOUTHEAST ASIA

Most nationalities do not require a visa for Thailand (30 days) or Vietnam (15 days) but will need to get a visa on arrival in Laos and Cambodia, the cost of which depends on where you’re from. You don’t need to do anything in advance, just show up at the border with your passport and some US Dollars.

Use our visa check tool to confirm which countries you will need a visa for.


TRAVEL INSURANCE

We recommend World Nomads who specialise in providing cover for backpacking trips.


GROUP BACKPACKER TOURS

Not ready to travel solo or only have a limited amount of time? Check out Stray Travel’s Southeast Asia Flexi Tours.


FUNKY GUIDES – BACKPACKERS GUIDE TO SOUTHEAST ASIA 2017-2018

Ebook – £2.99 | €3.49 | $3.79

Paperback – £4.99 | €5.49 (+ VAT) | $5.99


Southeast Asia Backpacking Route

The route begins in the traveller hub of Bangkok before heading into mystical Northern Thailand and then crossing through lazy, chilled-out Laos. Next stop is Vietnam, a rapidly developing country with a fascinating history before looping back around into the crazy kingdom of Cambodia. Back in Thailand and returning to Bangkok for the trip to the beach paradise of Southern Thailand. After a few weeks of island hopping, the route takes in the length of Malaysia before finishing off in the exciting city state of Singapore.


Thailand

Bangkok – The Thai Capital is in many ways the best place to start your South East Asian trip. For starters it’s a major airline hub so it is very easy to get to, and flights are more reasonably priced than ones to other South East Asian cities which often pass through Bangkok anyway. It is the most Westernised city in the region so the culture shock is less than if you landed straight into Vietnam or Laos. It offers you a chance to stock up on anything you may need for your trip, with prices much cheaper than back home but still with great choice. Bangkok is very much base camp for travellers in Southeast Asia. Love it or loathe it, chances are you’ll return at some point on your trip.

As for the city well it’s the sort of place that divides opinion. It’s certainly something of a backpacking Mecca centred around the famous Khao San Road (below), possibly the most international street in the world. It is a huge place with many different districts and lots of sights to see. Then there’s the seedy side of Bangkok and its infamous sex industry, which is almost unavoidable and probably what the city is most known for around the world.

backpacking route in Southeast Asia


MFT RECOMMENDS – The Aris Hostel, Bangkok 

Just 100m from Khao San Road, the perfect place to begin your SE Asian adventure.


Ayutthaya – Ancient city and former capital of Siam. Ayutthaya is effectively an island in the middle of three rivers. History buffs will love it and for everyone else it makes for a nice stop on the way to the North of Thailand.

Phitsanulok – Not a on the regular hit-list for people backpacking in Thailand, but it is somewhere to break up the journey between Bangkok and Chiang Mai. Explore the nearby Sukhothai Historical Park and visit some of the temples and museums in town.

Chiang Mai –
The Northern city of Chiang Mai is an intellectual kind of place with an alternative vibe and many travellers prefer it to Bangkok. It’s a good spot to study traditional Thai practices such as massage and meditation. It is also the best place to base yourself for exploring or trekking into the jungle and ethnic minority villages near the city.

Chiang Mai is also a good place for joining up with our backpacking route for Myanmar.

Chiang Khong – Right on the border with Laos, it has a real traveller vibe to it with people heading in both directions. It is in the Golden Triangle, a famous opium growing region which covers areas of Thailand, Laos and Myanmar. Chiang Khong is also a market town and attracts local hill tribes such as the White Hmongs. Explore the mountainous region, visit some of the other villages and learn about the opium trade which has been cut out in Thailand but still thrives over the nearby Lao and Burmese borders.

Border Crossing from Thailand to Laos:
Chiang Khong and Houay Xai are right next to each other so it’s fairly straightforward and you can purchase a 30 day Laos tourist visa for around $30-40 at the border.


Laos

Houay Xai – For a border town, Houay Xai is very pleasant and it may be worth hanging around for a day or so to adapt to the chilled out Lao lifestyle and enjoy sitting on the banks of the Mekong or consider visiting the nearby Bokeo Nature Reserve. It’s a decent spot to psyche yourself up for the long journey to Luang Prabang. (Backpacking in Laos isn’t as easy or anywhere near as comfortable as in Thailand thanks to dodgy roads and a basic to non-existent transport system).

Luang Prabang – French and Indochinese culture met here and resulted in an enchanting city, one of the highlights of Laos. The Old Quarter on the banks of the river is home to an array of temples and museums that are worth visiting. The night market is another big draw and there are plenty of companies offering trekking, biking and kayaking opportunities.

Vang Vieng (below) – This is another hugely popular backpacking destination in South East Asia. Hop on a rubber tube and make your way between the various bars along the river. This is the main attraction here but there’s plenty of other adventurous stuff you can do around the ramshackle town of Vang Vieng, which has a real chilled out backpacker vibe. The tubing is not as crazy or dangerous as it once was thanks to a government crackdown but injuries and deaths are not uncommon.

Update on state of tubing in Vang Vieng (November 2015)

tubing in laos

Vientiane – A capital city it may be but don’t let that deceive you. Vientiane is about as friendly and laid back a place as you’ll find anywhere. Set on the Mekong River, this French influenced town is pleasant and picturesque and the perfect place to chill out for a few days.

Tha Khaek – A small town with a large market selling all sorts of weird stuff including unorthodox dishes like snake and squirrel frogs. Its main use for travellers is as a base for exploring the Phou Hin Boon National Park. Don’t miss the giant Konglor Cave, which is basically a river beneath the surface that can be navigated on boat trips. You can also visit the Tham Nong Pafa Cave discovered as recently as 2004 and home to 200 mysterious Buddha statues.

Savannakhet – Second biggest city in Laos, but again it is very chilled out, with a combo of French and traditional Lao feel to the city. Stuff to do here includes a visit to the Dinosaur Museum which exhibits various dinosaur remains found in the area. There’s also a museum about the problem of unexploded bombs from the Vietnam War that still litter the Eastern side of the province. The city also hosts many different festivals throughout the year which you may be lucky enough to catch.

Border Crossing from Laos to Vietnam:
Buses are fairly high quality with air-con and run from Savannakhet to Dong Ha in Vietnam and take around 8 hours. Enquire in town for bus times. Depending on how long you wish to stay in the country, you may need to arrange your Vietnam visa in advance, which is probably best done at the Vietnamese Embassy in Vientiane.


Vietnam

see our full Vietnam backpacking route here!

Dong Ha – The Socialist Republic of Vietnam is very different to Laos and it will take a little time to adjust to the increased pace of life here. The main sight near Dong Ha where the buses from Savannakhet arrive is the former de-militarised zone (DMZ) which used to separate North and South Vietnam. You won’t want to stay in Dong Ha more than a day, if that and many travellers head straight to Hue.

Hue – Ancient city on a musty coloured river with dragon boats. Lots of Vietnam War sites nearby and a pretty decent traveller scene. Good place to try Vietnamese food. It rains a lot.

Hoi An (below) – This riverside town is pretty damn cool. It’s the place to buy tailor-made clothes of all varieties and then prance around like a prize nutter in your new bright purple suit. The beach is a short moto-taxi ride away and is one of the finest in the country. There are also some surprisingly cool bars here catering to a variety of music tastes. It made our Top 10 New Backpacking Hotspots a few years back.

Hoi An Boats


Nha Trang –
Nha Trang has a fairly seedy traveller area and a dirty beach but there are a few positives. A peaceful temple near the bus station is home to a giant white Buddha. There’s also a decent beach club that serves cheap cocktails and stays open till much later than anywhere you’re likely to find further north. Some decent water sports on offer here too.

Dalat – 1500m above sea level, Dalat has distinctly different feel to it to the rest of the main places to visit in South East Asia. With a temperate climate that makes nights chilly, it comes as a refreshing change and with lakes, forests and waterfalls that surround the town, it is a paradise for fans of the great outdoors. Hiking and cycling opportunities aplenty here and there’s a few villages nearby home to ethnic minority groups.

Mui Ne – The nearby sand dunes are good fun if you can stand the heat. There is one road, it’s very long and runs parallel to the 20km or so long beach which is largely deserted. Good place to unwind but not much going on.

saigon crazy trafficHo Chi Minh City (Saigon) –
It is the biggest city in the country and has by some considerable margin the largest backpacker scene in Vietnam. Hit the Pham Ngu Lao traveller area and you will find numerous cheap places to eat, sleep and drink. The area is busy until late and has cuisines from literally all over the world. The moto drivers here will compete for your business non-stop so it’s easy to get anywhere else in town. Lots of sights relating to the war here in this ever growing and somewhat crazy city. The traffic is mental!

More about Saigon here!

Border Crossing from Vietnam to Cambodia:
Buses from Saigon to Phnom Penh are cheap and regular taking around 6 hours. You will have to get off at the border and most bus companies seem to rather annoyingly take your passports off you on the bus and charge $25 to sort out the Cambodian visa as opposed to the official $20. If you refuse and demand to sort it yourself, you risk being left at the border, while your belongings hurtle towards Phnom Penh!


Cambodia

Phnom Penh – On the surface Phnom Penh is a pleasant, aesthetically pleasing and surprisingly peaceful capital city with lots of monks. Dig a little deeper and it’s a lawless, poverty stricken place where just about anything goes. Welcome to Cambodia.

Backpackers here depending on who you speak to get up to just about anything from blowing up cows with rocket launchers to attending cock fighting matches and getting off their faces on ridiculously easily available drugs. If none of that really sounds like you, then you can spend some time reflecting and trying to understand the horrors that took place here all too recently during the days of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge by visiting the Killing Fields and a former prison where unimaginable horrors took place. There’s also some stunning temples and palaces which could grace any of the finest cities on the planet. Inequality is everywhere in Cambodia and Phnom Penh demonstrates it better than anywhere.

Check out our 5 Funky Things to do in Phnom Penh!

Sihanoukville –
 24 hour bars and unspoiled beaches are the order of the day here. It’s a bit like some of the Thai beach destinations would have been like 20 years ago before they became commercialised. Much like Phnom Penh there’s a majorly psychedelic backpacker scene.

Battambang – Travelling to Battambang from Sihanoukville is likely to involve going back to Phnom Penh and changing buses such is the limited transport network in the country. The city is full of statues and interesting Wats and has plenty of river based activities to entertain travellers. Once you’re done hop on a boat north to Siem Reap. It may be worth checking the estimated length of the journey as it depends on water levels and can take up to 12 hours, in which case you may well prefer the less scenic bus route.

Siem Reap
(for Temples of Angkor Wat) –
Siem Reap has grown from nothing into a thriving little town thanks to its proximity to the country’s main pride and joy, the magnificent Temples of Angkor Wat, an essential stop for anyone backpacking in Cambodia. If you’re a fairly well travelled person you’ve probably been to some ancient ruin that’s in all the guidebooks and been left thoroughly disappointed at the crappy little pile of rocks that you’ve payed to come and see. Angkor Wat however is in a different league with hundreds of impressive ruins spread out over a large area of jungle, it’s a pretty amazing place and you’d have to be very hard to please not to be impressed by the scale of it. In Siem Reap itself there are few sights but some decent bars and plenty of great food.

temples of angkor wat


For more on Cambodia see our Backpacker’s Guide to Cambodia (old article but some handy tips).

Border Crossing from Cambodia to Thailand: Take the bus from Siem Reap to Poipet, a Cambodian border town which is a total hellhole. Your main objective ought to be to cross the border as quickly as possible while trying not to get scammed. The Thai side isn’t as bad but you are likely to have your luggage sniffed by dogs either at the border or once onboard your onward bus which will probably be stopped by police at some point early on in the journey. They are looking for drugs and penalties are severe if caught. Once you’ve got through immigration, take a tuk-tuk to the bus terminal in Aranya Prathet from where there are regular buses to Bangkok taking 4 hours or so.


Thailand

Bangkok – Kick back on the KhaoSan Road or hop straight on a night train south depending on how much you enjoyed the city first time around. Having completed the big loop around the North of Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia it’s time to hop on a night train and head for the beach paradise of Southern Thailand.

Ko Samui- A large and very westernised island that tends to attract more mainstream tourism than people travelling in South East Asia on a budget. Hat Chaweng and Hat Lamai are party central for the tourist masses but there are plenty of quieter spots to explore with a vast choice of beaches to choose from and you’ll probably have to pass through here to get the boat to Ko Pha-Ngan.

Ko Pha Ngan fire displaysKo Phangan (right) – This island is probably the most famous backpacking destination in the world. A tropical paradise it certainly is and the options are endless when it comes to finding a beach to spend the day on. There are no major developments here so accommodation is basic and dirt cheap with plenty of traditional beach bungalows still available. Hat Rin is the place to party and home of the famous full moon parties which attract thousands at that time of the month. The other beaches are considerably quieter and great places to relax and enjoy your days in peace.

Ko Tao – Express boats travel the 45km between Ko Pha-Ngan and Ko Tao taking around two hours. This is the place to come to delve into the ocean and experience diving or snorkelling in beautiful clear waters with lots of marine life. It almost goes without saying that this is also another great island to soak up the sun and laze around on the beach all day. Hat Sai Ri’s bars are the centre of the drinking action, but Ko Tao’s nightlife is nowhere near as lively as that on Ko Pha-Ngan or Ko Samui.

Krabi – Back on the Thai mainland and now the Andaman Coast, hit the popular beaches of Ao Nang, Tang Sei and Rai Leh. Crash out in the cheap guesthouse or bungalows on one of the beaches. There’s also more opportunities for the active traveller here so if you’re bored of lazing around all day, try your hand at rock climbing, a popular activity on Hat Ton Sai and Hat Rai Leh (Railay Beach).

Ko Phi Phi – Ever popular with backpackers in Thailand, this is where the movie ‘The Beach’ was filmed (below). The main action, and again a very lively party scene, is on the larger island though and you will have to stay on it (Phi Phi Don). It’s a bit pricier than some of the other Thai beach destinations and isn’t exactly a secret paradise any more but it’s still beautiful despite being badly affected by the 2004 tsunami and a recent large influx of Chinese tourists.

ko phi phi


Ko Tarutao National Marine Park – Over 50 little islands in the far south-west of the country. So far it has managed not to become at all commercialised or overrun by foreigners and isn’t regularly visited by peeps backpacking in Thailand. You can rent out a tent on one of the few accessible islands and enjoy a day or two in unspoilt natural surroundings.

Border Crossing from Thailand to Malaysia:
Boats travel between Satun, Thailand and Pulau Langkawi in Malaysia taking 1 hour 30 mins and costing around 300 Baht. Violence sometimes flares up in the largely Muslim provinces in the far south of Thailand so if in doubt it’s best to head straight to Malaysia.


Malaysia

Penang – A small island off the West Coast of Malaysia that is well worth visiting. Hit Georgetown, for a taste of British colonialism and experience the town’s famous markets and religious sites of various faiths. Elsewhere on the island there are some decent beaches and plenty of quaint little fishing villages.

Ipoh – There’s lots of nice sights in Ipoh, even the train station is something of an architectural masterpiece. It is a mysterious kind of place, home to haunted castles, secret passages, weird statues and various caves. You can also go trekking in the surrounding jungle, visit nearby hot-springs, enjoy a day at the water park or for the adventurous try your hand at caving and white-water rafting.

Taman Negara Park BridgeTaman Negara National Park –
It can be a bit of a pain to get to but is well worth the effort. You don’t really need a guide so you can wander around the jungle terrain at your own leisure. There are some beautifully clear lakes to swim as well as some spectacular water cascades and a 500m long suspension bridge (right) which cuts through the jungle canopies. Longer treks deeper into the jungle can be arranged as can mountain climbing and 4WD safaris.

Kuala Lumpur –
The Malaysian capital is a developed modern city. There’s some excellent shopping and lively nightlife here in the Golden Triangle home of the Petronas Twin Towers, two of the tallest buildings in the world. It is considerably more expensive than most places on the route but still very cheap by Western standards.

Malacca – Another one of these World Heritage Sites, Malacca is considered one of the backpacking highlights in Malaysia. It’s a rather old city having being founded over 600 years ago but there’s still plenty of buzz about Malacca today. There are plenty of interesting and centuries old streets and squares to kick back in, and there’s a good choice of local dishes and drinks to try.

Read about the cost of travel in Malaysia.

Border Crossing from Malaysia to Singapore:
Heading to Singapore, one way or another you’ll need to get to the town of Johor Bahru which is connected to Singapore by a 1km long causeway. There are frequent buses from Johor Bahru’s bus station north of the city and Queen Street Station in Singapore. They all stop at both immigration checkpoints where you will need to get off with your luggage and then re-board once you’re through passport control.


Singapore

singapore skyline

Check out these 5 funky things to do in Singapore!

Singapore – The glamorous city state of Singapore is full of flashy skyscrapers and is a complete contrast to most of South East Asia. The city is is very multi-cultural and has lots of fascinating districts to explore and foods to taste. The law here is famously strict so behaviour that is considered perfectly acceptable in Cambodia and Laos could be punished by the death penalty so don’t take any chances. Even chewing gum is illegal here!

As far as budget travel in South East Asia goes, Singapore is firmly on the expensive side of the scale. Beer here is probably ten times the price it is in other parts of the region and although not everything is extortionate, it’s a good idea to ensure you’ve not totally blown your budget by the time you get here.


Singapore has probably the best airport in the world and is very well connected to locations all over the world so is the perfect place to end your trip and fly home or onwards to a different part of the world. Alternatively you could make the short sea crossing to Indonesia and continue your travels there.

Many travellers then take a flight down under from Singapore and you might find some more inspiration in our backpacking route for Australia and 5 week New Zealand travel itinerary.


Budget Accommodation in Southeast Asia

Advanced booking isn’t really necessary in the majority of places on this route but it’s a good idea for your first destination (probably Bangkok) as you’re likely to be tired from a long flight. Also a good idea during festivals and certainly in or around the full moon on Koh Phangan.


What did we miss out from the Itinerary?

Northern Vietnam especially Hanoi and Halong Bay are well worth visiting and perhaps the most notable exclusions from our route. The problem is they are farily inaccessible from Laos by road. The trip is very long and bumpy so if you do fancy it, your best bet is probably to follow the route to Vientiane and then fly to Hanoi. Check out our backpacking route for Vietnam which follows the Re-Unification Express trainline from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, where you can rejoin this route.

Indonesia is a huge place and could justify 6 months travelling in its own right with the possibility of continuing onto Australia and New Zealand. Check out our suggested backpacking route in Indonesia if you’re interested. The Philippines is also a huge collection of islands and is less popular with travellers, possibly because it is off the South East Asian mainland and parts of it have a somewhat dangerous reputation.

Daytrips to Burma can be arranged from the North of Thailand and longer visits are becoming increasingly popular. For some inspiration have a read of our 3 week backpacking route for Myanmar. If you do decide and are able to visit then you will find a fascinating country with as much to see as any of the others in the region.


Pics courtesy of jjcb (singapore), flip.01 (malaysia national park), bruno (Ko Pha Ngan), JonasPhoto (tubing in Laos) and Argenberg (Ko Phi Phi) on flickr
.


Backpackers Guide to southeast Asia

For a more complete overview of budget travel across the region, get our full 2017-2018 Backpacker’s Guide to Southeast Asia. It includes a similar route to this plus itineraries for Indonesia, Myanmar & the Philippines. You’ll also find more on vaccinations, visa rules and border crossings for all countries as well as the best festivals, activities, full moon parties and historical sites plus the answers to some FAQ’s we’ve received from first time travellers in Southeast Asia.


This article was last updated in January 2017.