The following is a guest post from Diana, a travel blogger, busy exploring our beautiful world and building her home after moving from Russia to Bulgaria. She shares travel guides and tips to inspire you to travel more so that you, too, can go out there and discover new places, connect with people, create valuable memories, and navigate the world on your own. You can read and learn more on her blog, Travelling with Diana.
Backpacking in Southeast Asia has become very popular in the past few years, and for good reason! The area is home to unique and fascinating cultures and beautiful landscapes, and the low prices, delicious food and the opportunities to meet amazing people make it a top choice for many. If you’re thinking about backpacking solo in Southeast Asia, I highly recommend it. However, to be fully prepared there are some tips I’ll share with you so that you can get the most out of your trip.
1. What to pack for Southeast Asia
The weather in Southeast Asia is very hot and humid, although in countries like Vietnam, you may experience cool temperatures in the North at certain times of the year. The region is also prone to monsoon storms so do your research before you go.
Overall, though, try to pack only very lightweight clothing. Do NOT overpack, and don’t bring your whole wardrobe “just in case”. You’ll easily be able to find laundromats who charge as little as $2-3, and even if you find that you don’t have enough clothes, you can always go and buy whatever you need at one of the many markets you’ll come across. Prices are very affordable and feel free to bargain. This may feel weird at first, but the locals expect you to and won’t be offended – just remember to smile (and never get argumentative!). Your market buys will make very nice and useful “souvenirs” to bring back home too.
Southeast Asia is filled with temples, holy sites and beautiful old palaces, and it’s customary to dress modestly when visiting them. Knees and shoulders must be covered, so pack in a sarong that can be wrapped as a skirt and a light-weight cotton shirt that you can layer over your tank tops (sarongs will have a million uses on your trip and your cotton shirt is great for sun protection).
Consider your footwear too and find a pair that you’ll be able to take on and off very easily as it’s very common to take off your shoes in temples, tourist and ticket offices, laundry places and even on night buses between the cities. Bonus if they’re super comfortable and rubber-soled too as you may get caught in an occasional rain shower.
Sunscreen can be very expensive and the sun very strong, so invest in a large bottle at home and take it with you.
Asian bathrooms may take some getting used to! It’s common for them to not have toilet paper and only a bucket of water — so it’s a good idea to have tissues with you at all times!
2. How to meet people while travelling solo in Southeast Asia
It’s natural to feel lonely on some days when you’re travelling solo, so here are some options for meeting people on the road.
Check out the Couchsurfing app — it will show you which meetups are happening in your area.
Join some Facebook groups in the country that you’re visiting and check out events happening when you’re there or post yourself when you have free time.
Don’t be afraid of doing different tours, even on your own. There are loads of free or cheaper tours in SE Asia if you’re on a tight budget and it’s a great way to get your bearings and meet other travellers.
Staying in shared accommodation like a hostel is also a great way to meet people!
If you need more help on how to plan a perfect trip without going crazy, you can check my list of things that I do here.
3. Be aware of cultural sensitivities
Always respect the culture of the country you are in. It’s always a good idea to do some quick Google research of any cultural sensitivities you have to be aware of. In Thailand, for example, it’s considered rude to point to anything with your feet. This means not resting your feet on seats or up in a car/transport.
Trying to learn at least some phrases, like hello and thank you, will also make a huge difference in your dealings with people. Even if you don’t agree with local traditions, remember that you’re a visitor to their country, so treat everything and everybody with respect.
4. Where to stay in Southeast Asia solo
This will largely depend on your budget and your needs and priorities. What makes SE Asia such an amazing destination to travel to, is that you have a huge variety to choose from.
There are loads of luxurious resorts with all the trimmings and you’ll find them in the middle of jungles surrounded by lush greenery and on beautiful white sandy beaches. They obviously come with higher price tags, but many are still surprisingly reasonably priced. Great for a treat or when you simply have to have some comfort during your travels!
Hotels run the gamut from low-to high-end hotels and you’ll be spoiled for choice. Do your research carefully and cross-reference reviews online before parting with your money. Hotels are a good option if you still want a piece of luxury but with more affordable prices.
I opt for hostels most of the time as there are so many options to choose from. Hands down it is the cheapest option in every country (you can find a nice place for $2-4 a night). Apart from the low price, they’re also my favourite because, especially when travelling solo, it’s the easiest place to meet other like-minded people. You’ll be able to create new connections and even find other people to continue your travels with if you like.
When booking your hostel it’s a must that you read the reviews (I use websites like Booking.com and Hostelworld.com), look at their photos and always check the location of a place and how to get there.
5. Getting around Southeast Asia
Download the Grab app (the SE Asian equivalent of Uber) as it will be the most convenient way of transportation in the cities — and it will save you from having to bargain all the time.
For inter-city travel and getting around countries, there are lots of different options, including flights, buses, trains, and ferries. Check out the different price points before booking! There are also travel agencies where you can book onward travel, for example, if you want to get a bus, then ferry, then another bus, they will set it all up for you and get you the tickets. You can get a few quotes before choosing who to go with.
6. Safety tips for solo travel in Southeast Asia
For the most part, SE Asia is a safe region to travel to, which is probably why it’s so popular with solo travellers. However, as with any other country, you have to use common sense and be careful about some things.
Be aware of your surroundings at night and know where you are and how to get back to your hotel. Have the address loaded onto your phone, or keep the hotel card in your wallet (makes it easier also if you need to ask for directions from a local or when taking a taxi).
Watch your alcohol intake and don’t overdo it (I’ve witnessed a lot of incidents in bars). Spiked drinks are also a danger to watch out for, so be sure to only drink something that was opened in front of you.
Bag snatching is another very common hazard, especially in Cambodia. Get yourself a long-strap, cross-body day bag. Don’t be distracted by using your phone when walking around. Keep your valuables in your bag, with the zips facing your body.
You’ll see many travellers renting and driving motorbikes, as it’s a very cheap and convenient way to get around. However, do it ONLY if you feel comfortable with driving a motorbike as traffic can be chaotic, and the rules of the road are probably very different to what you’re used to back home. Always wear a helmet, make sure that you have a valid international driving license, and please check the insurance details when you sign the agreement.
7. Finding clean drinking water
Do not drink tap water. Bring your own reusable water bottle wherever you go to reduce the consumption of plastic. It’s very likely that your accommodation will offer free water or you can refill it in restaurants and cafes. Another thing that you can do, if you still can’t find drinkable water anywhere, is to buy big 5l bottles from the supermarket and refill your bottle that way.
8. Getting access to cash
Cash is king, and it’s very common for cards to not to be accepted (even in some popular restaurants). So it’s always good to check your bank fees for withdrawing money and carry cash with you on your daily explorations.
There are travel cards which will have fewer fees than some traditional banks or allow you to store different currencies on the same card to withdraw when you get there.
There are generally ATM’s about, although some charge more fees than others. In Vietnam, there is a low limit for how much cash you can get at once from an ATM. You might find you need to put your card in multiple times, or get some in the morning then later again in the day/the next day. In Cambodia, USD is actually used more.
9. Be prepared to bargain
My least favourite part of travelling in SE Asia is the constant bargaining (except for hotels and restaurants that have set prices). For any tuk-tuk rides and purchases at the market, negotiate the price with a smile and be clear to set a price before agreeing to anything. For example, don’t wait to find out the price after you have taken a tuk-tuk journey.
Realise that you’re expected to go in lower than what you actually want to pay and then come to an agreement, don’t just go in with what you want to pay or you’ll always end up paying more!
10. Eat like the locals do
Don’t be afraid to eat local street food as it’s delicious! Go to the busy stalls where the locals go – that way you’re guaranteed freshly-made, authentic food at non-tourist prices.
The food in South East Asia is really varied and there’s sure to be something you’ll like to keep trying different things.
Southeast Asia is an amazing part of the world to discover – beaches, jungles, culture, food – it has it all (and it won’t break the bank either). So with a little bit of basic preparation, you can be off on the adventure of a lifetime!
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