This post was originally published in September 2013 and updated in June 2019.
Glittering white beaches. The intoxicating smells from food stalls, full of sizzling meat and juicy, bright fruits. Modern skyscrapers that grow taller than even the birds can fly. Colourful fabrics line bazaars and souks, as shopkeepers hawk their hand-crafted wares. Temples, ruins, natural wonders and big smiles.
All of these things are Asia, a continent so diverse there is not a single word that could sum it up. It’s no wonder that backpacking southeast Asia is a rite of passage for many young travellers, who are drawn to beach locales and budget-friendly spots like Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines and Bali. So what can one expect when heading to the far east? Well…just about anything, and that’s the fun of it! Here are my top 10 tips for backpacking through Asia.
1) Be sure to barter
In many Asian countries it’s customary to barter for just about everything from the cost of a taxi, bike or boat ride, to how much you’ll pay for that prawn curry bowl. The practice is most common in Southeast Asia, as well as places like the Philippines, India, and over in Turkey. However, you’ll likely be met with confused looks if you try to strike a bargain in more developed countries like Japan, so know before you go!
If you do end up bartering somewhere, it helps to have an idea of how much something should cost before you try to make a deal, by double-checking online or asking a local. That way, you’ll know if you’re being totally hosed by that cab driver (at which point you should get out!) or if you’ve struck a fair bargain.
It’s important to remember that while you’re sitting there negotiating with a single mother trying to make her only sale of the day, that sometimes you’re bartering over a mere dollar. Remember: it’s best to do your part and pay her what she asks—you can afford it, she can’t.
2) Dress appropriately
It’s the ultimate irony. Southeast Asia travel destinations are some of the hottest places in the world…and you can’t wear a tank top?! Well, that’s the way it is in some of these countries, and unless you want people staring you down, ignoring you or making nasty comments, cover up!
Some countries in Asia are Muslim, and as a result men are at the very least expected to wear shorts that go past their knees and shirts that cover their upper arms and shoulders. Woman should do the same—and make sure you’re not showing off the ‘ladies’ if you know what I mean. Something like a maxi-dress with a light cover-up is always a good choice, as it provides lots of coverage but is still breathable on those crazy hot days. Brunei, Myanmar and Bangladesh are places where such a dress code comes to mind.
If you plan to visit any mosques or temples you’ll be asked to comply with stricter dress codes, and in some cases women will need to cover their heads with a scarf. This is the case at the popular Blue Mosque in Istanbul, but fortunately these are provided on site if you don’t have one handy.
Of course if you’re hitting the pool or beach in a place like Thailand or Vietnam anything goes, so go ahead and strut around in that bikini if you’d like. That said, try not to look like a surfer that got lost if you’re heading to a more progressive country like Singapore, China or Japan.
3) Prepare for the smells
They say that the smell that hits you when you get off the plane in India is something that stays with you forever. You have been warned.
Sadly, such memorable stenches are not contained to India, and you can expect to come across some pretty dodgy areas as you travel through Asia. It’s all thanks to 40+ degree temperatures, unforgiving humidity and suspect garbage pickup practices. Of course this isn’t an issue in the more developed metropolises, but you should prepare to see sewage in the gutters, huge rats and cockroaches and dumpsters overflowing with garbage as you get a bit more off the beaten path. Try not to let it damper your experience, and remember…you can always take a nice, long shower when you get home.
4) Bring an underwater camera
The underwater world is simply breathtaking in Asia, more so than anywhere else I have been in the world (sorry, Caribbean!). If your experience is anything like mine, you’ll kick yourself if you don’t have a way to document the turtles, tropical fish, bright coral, snakes and even sharks (!) you’re sure to come across. One of my top Asia travel tips is to invest in an underwater camera or GoPro, since chances are you’ll end up snapping some of your fave shots below the surface or from under a waterfall.
5) Keep your valuables close
Similar to backpacking in South America and Europe, pickpockets can be a problem in Asia so it’s important to keep a close eye on important things like passports and credit cards, lest you find yourself without either one day before you’re supposed to fly home (trust me, this has happened to many a backpacker!). My favourite way to do this is by wearing a money belt. Obviously you have to wear it UNDER your clothes for this to be effective (can’t believe I have to point that out, but actually know people who have worn it like a fanny pack with disastrous results.)
Some other tips as you travel Asia:
- Take advantage of amenities like an in-room safe if you can, or bring a lock so you can seal your suitcase when you leave your hotel/hostel/tree house.
- Split your money up between your group and in different bags, so that if one gets compromised you’re not stuck without anything.
- Make photocopies of your passport so someone back home can help you out if you find yourself without that all-important document, and have a picture of it available on your phone or by e-mail. It’s still going to be a pain to get to the embassy in Bangkok while you’re beaching it on Ko Phi Phi, but it will make the process of getting a new one a bit easier.
READ MORE: How to avoid being robbed on vacation
6) Embrace the customs
It’s safe to say you didn’t fly 20 hours to lie by the hotel pool all day, so chances are you’ll be out and about trying to learn the ways of these foreign lands. And you know what? Even if you have no idea what’s happening, it’s fun to at least try and pretend! Some of my favourite memories from Turkey are when I simply wandered the side streets found myself being welcomed into stores for a chat and some apple tea. From what I gathered, this is an extremely popular way to pass an afternoon in Istanbul, and I was happy to get a tiny taste of a ‘day in the life.’
Oh, and when we went to Japan, do you think I was going to sit in a CHAIR? Get real. I’ve seen those pictures of diners sitting on floor mats, and was determined to do the same, even if the hostess tried to lead us over to a booth.
And if someone offers you a snake to eat in Cambodia? Just freaking do it already. At the very least it will make a good story later.
7) Know when to brave public transportation
Even something as simple as getting from Point A to Point B is an exercise in contrasts on this continent. Take Singapore, whose subway system is totally mind-blowing. First off, I have never seen stations that are so clean, and on top of that they have special walls along the tracks with openings that line up with the train doors, to keep peeps from falling in front of an approaching train. Oh and if you’re going to Japan, you might be unnerved by how quiet it is, since all the commuters sleep the entire way home. How they know to wake up as their stop approaches, I’ll never know.
In Bali renting a scooter to zip around the island is a popular pastime, and over in Sri Lanka riding the rails on one of the world’s most incredible, scenic train trips is an absolute must-do. Sometimes, taking public transportation is the best way to travel around Asia.
But when it comes to some other countries…total freakin’ chaos. I’m a big fan of taking local transportation on holidays to keep costs down, but after my experience with buses in Borneo I wish I’d just ponied up some extra bucks for a cab. The rickety, big brown bus that I hopped on in Kuching, Malaysia looked like it was going to break down any second, not to mention there weren’t actually any designated stops so you just had to run down the road when you saw one approaching and hope it stopped for you. Or how about that time in Brunei, when the bus that was supposed to take us from the airport to the city centre never showed up Thank goodness for the generous airline worker who took pity on us after an hour of standing in the blazing hot sun with our big suitcases, who ended up driving us himself.
However, even paying more to get to your destination doesn’t ensure a smooth ride. Take our experience in Manila, Philippines when our taxi driver actually HIT SOMEONE. I wasn’t terribly confident as a pedestrian after that.
My advice? Map it, or get clear directions from someone at your hotel about where you’re supposed to go, as even taxi drivers can get confused. And hey, when that bus doesn’t show up? Well…hopefully you’re wearing comfortable shoes.
8) Make sure you have money, honey
As every traveller knows, it all comes down to the budget. If you’re backpacking during a gap year and are trying to get by on $30 a day, traveling around southeast Asia is your place. Stick to countries like Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam where a dollar goes much further than more developed places like South Korea or Hong Kong, and you can make it work. Another tip for saving cash? It’s all about doing as the locals do. Dinner from a food stall in the centre of Kuching will set you back $3 for a big dish and an ice cold beer—but if you head over to a chain hotel popular with business travellers you’re going to shell out $15 for a crappy club sandwich.
Lodging will likely be one of your biggest expenses, but you don’t have to make do on a cot infested with bed bugs to stretch your dollar. Avoid those brand-name hotels and stay in a guest house or hostel. Some of them are actually really cute, and you’ll get more of an authentic experience that way. I mean, you didn’t travel all the way to that picture-perfect Indonesian island to watch CNN at the Hilton, now did you?
9) Be prepared for all seasons
Asia is one of the hottest places on the planet. That being said, anyone venturing out in rainy season or who has plans to hike through a rainforest or up a mountain during their Asia trip needs to be prepared for some downright chilly weather. I live in Canada which is probably one of the freaking coldest places on earth, and yet I’ve never been so convinced I was about to lose a finger to frostbite as I was while climbing Mount Kinabalu in Malaysia. Be sure to check the weather forecast for wherever you’re going before you pack your suitcase, as it’s no fun to be caught unprepared.
The other 90 per cent of the time, you’ll probs be dying of heat exhaustion unless you happen to be swimming, so keep that in mind if you’re heading out for a day trip. Keep a huge water bottle on hand at all times, both for drinking and to use as a cool compress against your dripping forehead. Sunscreen is crucial as no one wants to come home from their southeast Asia vacation looking like a lobster, and something as simple as a cheap paper fan from a souvenir stand can provide welcome relief.
10) Be open to trying crazy things
Finally, travelling is all about making memories, so why not add something you’ve never done before to your southeast Asia itinerary? Say, learning how to dive in the Philippines. Shooting a blow dart in Malaysia. Myanmar is famous for its hot-air balloon rides, or you could head to Nepal to hike up part of Mount Everest. You see what I’m getting at here? Asia is full of incredible spots and is the perfect place for adventure seekers, so make the most of it!
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