After a difficult few years, 2023 promises to bring an element of normality back to travel in Southeast Asia and backpackers may once again flock to the region’s infamous “banana pancake trail”. Below you will find an extensive Southeast Asia backpacking route featuring the best of Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and Malaysia. You can easily tailor it to your own interests and time restrictions.
To follow it in full, you would start out 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 complex history before looping back around into the crazy kingdom of Cambodia. Back in Thailand and a short stop in Bangkok to connect for the trip to the southern beach paradises. After a few weeks of island hopping, the route takes in the length of Malaysia before finishing off in the swanky city state of Singapore.
Table of Contents
- Southeast Asia Itinerary
- Central & Northern Thailand
- Southern Thailand
- Southeast Asia Map & Itinerary Overview
Mainland Southeast Asia Backpacking Route Info
TIME NEEDED – 3 to 4 MONTHS
You will need at least two months to backpack Southeast Asia and visit all of the most popular countries without it feeling too rushed. Three months would probably be about right for this itinerary but there’s something to be said for taking it a bit slower and doing it in four months.
POSSIBLE SHOESTRING BUDGET – £2500, €2850, $3000
Figures are based on three months travel in Southeast Asia as a budget traveller staying mostly in hostel dorms with prices and exchange rates as of the beginning of 2023. For more specific info and a more comfortable backpacker budget for the region see our article on the cost of travel in Southeast Asia.
Note that the above budget allows for a bit of partying and the odd organised tour/trip in the day-time but if you are planning on doing lots of either then you will almost certainly spend more! On the Southeast Asia backpacker trail, temptation lies at almost every corner. It’d be easy to blow this budget if you aren’t great at self-discipline! If it’s your first time travelling then you’d be wise to budget for more than the figures above.
TRAVEL INSURANCE FOR BACKPACKERS IN SOUTHEAST ASIA
The cost of travel insurance isn’t included in the budget figures above. If you require travel insurance for backpacking Southeast Asia, you can get a quote in under a minute from Heymondo who offer well reviewed international travel insurance, even for trips of more than 3 months.
Getting more extensive cover will help ensure you’re protected if you get injured doing higher risk activities (water sports, rafting etc). So you want to do your research and think about what your trip will involve, before settling for the best cheap backpacker travel insurance.
SOUTHEAST ASIA BACKPACKING JOBS & WORK EXCHANGES
One way to save money and potentially learn a few new skills whilst travelling in Southeast Asia is to look for work exchanges or other short-term jobs as you go. Sign up to Worldpackers to get access to 191 work exchanges in SE Asia (at the time of writing). You can get $10 off the annual membership fee by using the Worldpackers promo code “MYFUNKYTRAVELWP”.
Southeast Asia Itinerary
Central & Northern Thailand
Bangkok is the most obvious place to start backpacking in Southeast Asia. For starters, it’s a major airline hub so it is very easy to get to. Flights also tend to be more reasonably priced than ones to other Southeast Asian cities which often pass through Bangkok anyway. It is one of the most westernised cities in the region so the culture shock is less than if you landed straight into Vietnam or Laos. It also 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 be back again before too long.
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 which is possibly the most international street in the world. It is a huge metropolis with many different districts and you will ideally need several days (although you will return later in this Southeast Asia backpacking route so don’t stress if you can’t fit everything in). There is also, unquestionably, a seedy side to Bangkok and its infamous sex industry, which is almost unavoidable and probably what the city is most known for around the world.
An ancient city and the 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.
Not on the regular hit-list for people backpacking in Thailand, but it is somewhere to break up the train or bus journey between Bangkok and Chiang Mai. Perhaps the best thing to do in Phitsanulok is to explore the nearby Sukhothai Historical Park. There are also a few temples and small museums in town.
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.
It’s also a good place to hang around for a few months if you fancy living in Southeast Asia as opposed to merely travelling through it and it has grown into one of the world’s most popular digital nomad destinations.
Right on the border with Laos, Chiang Khong has a real Southeast Asia backpacker 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 which brings in local hill tribes such as the White Hmongs.
Take some time to explore the mountainous surroundings, visit some of the other villages and learn about the opium trade which still thrives in parts of the region.
Border Crossing from Thailand to Laos: Chiang Khong and Houay Xai are both border towns that are very close 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. ASEAN nationals do not require a visa.
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 psych 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 some dodgy roads and a relatively basic transport system).
French and Indochinese culture met here and resulted in an enchanting city, one of the highlights of travelling around Laos. The Old Quarter on the banks of the river is home to an array of temples and museums. Meanwhile the night market is another big draw for travellers. There are also plenty of companies offering trekking, biking and kayaking opportunities.
This is another hugely popular backpacking destination in Southeast Asia, or at least it was. This is where you can hop on a rubber tube and make your way leisurely down the river. There used to be a lot of bars, rope swings and slides along the way too but the tubing is not as crazy or dangerous as it once was thanks to a government crackdown following lots of injuries and some fatalities. It remains 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.
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. Be sure to visit and support COPE Laos which helps the country’s many people with mobility related disabilities.
A small town with a large market selling all sorts of weird stuff and dishes based on a variety of meats including snake, squirrel and frog. 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.
This may be the second biggest city in Laos, but again it feels pretty small and is very chilled out with both French and Lao influences. Things to do here include a visit to the Dinosaur Museum which exhibits various dinosaur remains found in the area (it has received mixed reviews). 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: There are limited direct bus services from Savannakhet to Hue via Dong Ha but it’s a long trip. Enquire in town for the latest bus times. Depending on how long you wish to stay in the country and your nationality, you may need to arrange your Vietnam visa in advance. As of December 2022, citizens of many countries (including all EU countries, the UK, USA, Canada & Australia) can get a 30-day Vietnam e-visa for $25.
Note that this route skips out Hanoi and Ha Long Bay – two very popular stops with Southeast Asia backpackers. Should you wish to visit both, then consider taking a flight from Vientiane to Hanoi and skipping Tha Khaek and Savannakhet before loosely following a typical Vietnam itinerary down to Hue.
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 though and many travellers head straight to Hue.
Hue is an ancient city on a musty coloured river with dragon boats. There are lots more Vietnam War sites nearby and a pretty decent traveller scene. It’s a good place to try Vietnamese food but again you won’t need too much time here. It’s also worth noting that it rains a lot in this part of Vietnam with torrential downpours common from September to December.
This riverside town is pretty damn cool. It’s the place where backpackers buy tailor-made clothes of all varieties and then prance around like fools in their bright, new and utterly impractical purple suits. 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’s a nice spot to hang around for a few days and there are loads of cheap places to eat in Hoi An where you can enjoy local or international food.
Nha Trang is Vietnam’s “beach resort” city and has a fairly seedy traveller area and a dirty beach but there are a few positives. A surprisingly peaceful temple near the bus station provides a contrast to the rest of Nha Trang and is home to a giant white Buddha. There used to be some good bars and decent beach clubs that served cheap cocktails and stayed open late (many drinking joints are forced to close by 11:00 p.m. in Vietnam). However many closed down during the pandemic so it’s unclear what the nightlife scene is like now. By day, there are some decent water sports on offer here too.
1500 metres above sea level, Dalat has a distinctly different feel 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 tribe villages nearby that are worth heading out to.
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 20 km or so long beach which is largely deserted and one of the best on this Southeast Asia backpacking route. It’s a good place to unwind but there is not much going on in terms of socialising or partying.
Ho Chi Minh City
HCMC (AKA Saigon) 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. Ho Chi Minh City also has lots of sights relating to the war such as the Cu Chi Tunnel but the modern day city centre is also a quite unique, although often overwhelming experience with crazy traffic and very busy neighbourhoods.
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 the Cambodian visa on arrival costs $30 (ASEAN nationals don’t require a visa) for 30 days in the country. Some bus companies will collect your passports and take care of the formalities (whilst adding a bit onto their fare). If you refuse and demand to sort it yourself, you risk being left at the border while your belongings hurtle towards 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 an often lawless, poverty stricken place where just about anything goes. Welcome to Cambodia.
It’s easy to lose yourself in Phnom Penh and in the past you would hear all sorts of bizarre stories of everything from backpackers supposedly blowing up cows with rocket launchers, attending cock fighting matches and taking easily available drugs. The infamous lakeside district where many backpackers used to stay is no more and the city has calmed down a little as a result from a traveller’s perspective.
It is though, still a place with a dark history and 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 are 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 else.
Sihanoukville & Islands
Wild bars and beaches are the order of the day here. It’s a bit like some of the Thai beach destinations would have been like before they became commercialised, although Sihanoukville is heading that way too with much more organised tourism here now. Depending on your scene and idea of the perfect beach destination, you may prefer to head out to islands such as Koh Rong and Koh Rong Samloem which feature in our Cambodia backpacking itinerary.
Travelling to Battambang from Sihanoukville is a mission and likely to involve going back to Phnom Penh and changing buses. 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 but faster 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 or indeed Southeast Asia as a whole.
If you’re a fairly well travelled person, you’ve probably been to some ancient ruin that was in all the guidebooks and been left thoroughly disappointed at the crappy little pile of rocks that you paid to go and see. Angkor Wat however is in a different league with hundreds of impressive ruins spread out over a large area of jungle. In short, it’s a pretty amazing place. In Siem Reap itself there are few sights but some decent bars on Pub Street and plenty of great food.
Border Crossing from Cambodia to Thailand: There are direct international buses from Siem Reap to Bangkok taking around 8-10 hours. Thailand has more relaxed entry requirements than Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam with tourist visas not required for many nationalities.
If you fancy saving a few dollars, first take the bus from Siem Reap to Poipet, a Cambodian border town which is quite frankly a bit of a hellhole. Your main objective ought to be to cross the border (which was closed during the pandemic but reopened in May 2022) as quickly as possible whilst 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 on board 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 4-6 hours depending on traffic.
Kick back on the Khao San Road for a few days or head 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.
It is also possible to fly from Bangkok to Southern Thailand but note that domestic flights don’t typically go from Suvarnabhumi, rather the city’s other major airport – the older Don Mueang which features in our list of the most dangerous airports in the world (it’s not quite as bad as it sounds!).
A large and very westernised island that tends to attract more mainstream tourism than people travelling in Southeast Asia on a budget. Hat Chaweng and Hat Lamai are party central for many visitors but there are plenty of quieter spots to explore with a vast choice of beaches to choose from and you may have to pass through here to get the boat to Ko Pha Ngan anyway.
Ko Pha Ngan
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 not many major developments here so accommodation is mostly basic and dirt cheap with plenty of traditional beach bungalows still available in the north of the island.
Hat Rin is the place to party and home of the famous full moon parties which attract many thousands at that time of the month and are on many a Southeast Asia bucket list. The other beaches and particularly the northern parts of the island are considerably quieter and great places to relax and enjoy your days in peace.
Express boats travel the 45 km 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.
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 a cheap guesthouse or bungalows on one of the beaches. There are 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 AKA Railay Beach, another favourite spot with anyone backpacking Southeast Asia.
Ko Phi Phi
Ever popular with anyone backpacking Thailand, this is where the movie ‘The Beach’ was filmed and is still screened virtually every night at some point in Phi Phi town. The main action, and again a very lively party scene, is on the larger island 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 adding to the already growing international crowds.
Note that as of December 2022, beautiful Maya Bay on Phi Phi Leh is open again having been closed by the government for nearly four years to help protect it from the damage caused by mass tourism.
Ko Tarutao National Marine Park
Over 50 little islands in the far southwest of the country. So far it has managed not to become at all commercialised or overrun by foreigners and isn’t that regularly visited by backpackers in Thailand. You can rent out a tent on one of the few accessible islands and enjoy a day or two in unspoiled natural surroundings.
Border Crossing from Thailand to Malaysia: Boats travel between Satun, Thailand and Pulau Langkawi in Malaysia taking 1 hour 15 minutes and costing 350 Baht – $10 (at the time of writing). You may wish to stay in Langkawi for a few days or head on to Penang if you’re all beached out. Malaysia can be entered visa-free for most nationalities and many visitors get a 90 day stamp on arrival.
A small island off the west coast of Malaysia that is well worth visiting. Hit Georgetown, for a taste of British colonialism in this part of the world. Also be sure to check out Penang’s famous markets and religious sites of various faiths. Elsewhere on the island there are some pleasant beaches and plenty of quaint little fishing villages.
There are lots of cool sights in Ipoh and 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 spooky 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 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 in as well as some spectacular water cascades and a 500 metre long suspension bridge which cuts through the jungle canopies. Longer treks deeper into the jungle can be arranged as can mountain climbing and 4WD safaris if you’re backpacking Southeast Asia on a larger budget.
The Malaysian capital is a developed modern city. There is some excellent shopping and lively nightlife here in the Golden Triangle, home of the iconic Petronas Twin Towers, two of the tallest buildings in the world. It is more expensive than most places on the route but still very cheap by Western standards.
Another World Heritage Site, Malacca is considered one of the backpacking highlights in Malaysia. It’s a rather old city having been founded over 600 years ago but there’s still plenty of buzz about Malacca today. There are plenty of interesting, centuries-old streets and squares to kick back in, and there’s a good choice of local dishes and drinks to try.
Border Crossing from Malaysia to Singapore: There are regular 3-4 hour services from Malacca to Singapore. They all stop at both immigration checkpoints. All EU, UK, US and Australian nationals get 90 days visa-free in Singapore while most other nationalities can enter for 30 days.
The glamorous city state of Singapore is full of flashy skyscrapers and is a complete contrast to most of Southeast Asia. The city 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 seems to often be 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 Southeast Asia goes, travel costs in Singapore are firmly on the expensive side of the scale. Beer here can be ten times the price it is in other parts of the region. 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 also has probably the best airport in the world and is very well connected so this is the perfect place to end your trip and fly home or onwards to a different part of the world. There are cheap connecting flights to Bangkok if you originally booked a return flight to the Thai capital.
Alternatively you could make the short sea crossing to Indonesia and continue your travels there. Another option would be to take a flight down under from Singapore and you might find some more inspiration in our backpacking route for Australia or 5 week New Zealand travel itinerary.
Southeast Asia Map & Itinerary Overview
This route can be loosely split into two parts. Part one is the loop starting and ending in Bangkok (can be done in either direction). Part two is the long line south through the Thai islands and Malaysia before finishing in Singapore.
Southeast Asia Backpacking Route – How long to spend in each place?
|Thailand||Chiang Mai||2-4 Days|
|Thailand||Chiang Khong||1-2 Days|
|Laos||Houay Xai||1 Day|
|Laos||Luang Prabang||2-3 Days|
|Laos||Vang Vieng||2-3 Days|
|Laos||Tha Khaek||1-3 Days|
|Vietnam||Dong Ha||1 Day|
|Vietnam||Hoi An||2-3 Days|
|Vietnam||Nha Trang||1-2 Days|
|Vietnam||Mui Ne||1-3 Days|
|Vietnam||Ho Chi Minh City||2-3 Days|
|Cambodia||Phnom Penh||2-4 Days|
|Cambodia||Sihanoukville & Islands||3-7 Days|
|Cambodia||Siem Reap||2-4 Days|
|Thailand||Ko Samui||2-3 Days|
|Thailand||Ko Pha Ngan||3-6 Days|
|Thailand||Ko Tao||3-6 Days|
|Thailand||Ko Phi Phi||3-5 Days|
|Thailand||Ko Tarutao||2-4 Days|
|Malaysia||Taman Negara||1-2 Days|
|Malaysia||Kuala Lumpur||3 Days|
Take the suggested timeframes outlined above as a guide and remember there will be some days which are largely spent getting from A to B. You can easily tailor it to your own preferences and interests by skipping some destinations or extending your time in those that really appeal.
It wouldn’t be that difficult to trim down this Southeast Asia itinerary into 1 month or 2 months by selecting only certain parts of it and missing a few places out. If you only have 2 or 3 weeks to backpack Southeast Asia, it may be wise to focus on one or two countries rather than trying to cram them all in.
Other Southeast Asia Backpacking Routes
|Route||Start & End||How Long?|
|Thailand||Loop starting & ending in Bangkok||2 Months|
|Vietnam||Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City||3 Weeks|
|Laos||Luang Prabang to Si Pha Don||2-3 Weeks|
|Cambodia||Siem Reap to Koh Tansay||3 Weeks|
|Malaysia||Malacca to Taman Negara||3 Weeks|
|Myanmar||Yangon to Mandalay||3-4 Weeks|
|The Philippines||Manila to Dumaguete||4 Weeks|
|Indonesia||Jakarta to Flores||5-6 Weeks|
There are plenty of other options for backpacking routes in the region including Indonesia, a huge country that could justify 6 months travelling in its own right. The Philippines is another large collection of islands that is generally a bit less popular with travellers, possibly because it is off the Southeast Asian mainland, although its beaches rival the best in the region. We also have slightly different routes for some of the countries featured on this page if you want to focus in on one specific destination which you can see outlined in the table above.
Above all, remember that Southeast Asia is one of the most popular backpacking regions and the route above is designed to show you what a typical budget traveller’s Southeast Asia itinerary might look like. You don’t have to follow it blindly and will probably discover far more about Southeast Asian culture and its people by veering off it.
The Southeast Asia backpacking route on this page was last updated in December 2022.