Backpacking Southeast Asia (SEA) is practically a rite of passage for travelers these days. SEA is a traveler’s dream: cheap, beautiful, easy to navigate, and ladened with friendly travelers and locals alike.
The hardest part about planning your backpacking trip is choosing where to spend your time – unfortunately, trips can’t last forever (for most, anyways #goals) and you do have to prioritize certain destinations and pass on others.
We spent an incredible, adventure-packed two months backpacking throughout Southeast Asia, collecting memories and laughing over inevitable travel mishaps.
Check out our list of must see destinations to make your backpacking trip an adventure you’ll be telling stories about, forever.
After having lived in the Philippines as Peace Corps volunteers for 2.5 years (and being the birthplace of where we met and fell in love), we may be biased in saying the Philippines is the most remarkable destination on the list – but, we stand by that statement, nonetheless!
The Philippines is often skipped by travelers when planning their Southeast Asia trip because of its secluded location, but that’s half of its charming allure! The Philippines has all of the beauty (more, actually) with half the amount of tourist as other, more popular, destinations in Asia.
The Philippines has it all, from mountain-town adventures to tropical oasis getaways, and everything in between. To this day, having dove famous spots all of the world, the Philippines still has the most magical underwater landscapes we’ve ever seen. If you’re a diver you’re not going to want to miss these dive sites.
When planning this leg of your trip, make sure to include stops from all of the three main regions of the country to truly appreciate its diversity: Luzon, Visayas, and Mindanao. Some of our favorite destinations and adventures around the country included traversing the rice terraces in the Cordillera Mountain Region, diving with thresher sharks in Malapascua, leaping into waterfalls in Cebu, snorkeling alongside whale sharks in Donsol, cruising down backroads in Siquijor, and wreck diving in Coron.
We honestly had no idea what to expect when we arrived in Malaysian Borneo, as we were the first of our friends to add it to our bucket list. Our main draw to the destination was summiting Mount Kinabalu, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, so every other additional adventure had there was purely serendipitous.
We instantly fell in love with everything the island had to offer, but the real draw was the slow and simple lifestyle. By the time we left, it was hard to tell if we had been there for days or weeks – time seems to work differently in Borneo.
When stopping over in Malaysian Borneo, don’t pass up a chance to dive the World class Mabul or Sipadan Islands, spot a proboscis monkey while cruising up the Kinabatagan River, or catch a sunrise atop the 13,435 foot Mt. Kinabalu.
Spending more time in Malaysian Borneo than we had originally planned, we had only a short time to explore Malaysia. We strayed a bit from our typical adrenaline-pumping adventures and opted, instead, for the art scene of George Town.
Located on Penang Island, George Town is famous for its street art, which lines the buildings of the charming town. Strolling through George Town can, at times, feel like a step back in time. Made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2008, much of the town’s culture and architect remain intact.
While in George Town, snag a map and begin a DIY street art scavenger hunt, grab some authentic (and cheap) dinner and a Tiger, Hawker-style, at Red Garden, and catch some live music on Love Lane.
Landing in Cambodia we had one thing on our minds: Angkor Wat, the largest religious complex in the world. To combine both our love for adventure and wonder of the temples and their history, we decided to experience the temples via bike with Grasshopper Adventures.
Doing so, allowed us to avoided the heavily trafficked roads and, instead, explore the backroads and trails leading to the temples. We recommend visiting the temples with a guide to learn about the deities and demons depicted in the stone carvings adorning the walls of the temples. Oh, and definitely wake up to watch the sunrise over Angkor Wat, even if you’re not a morning person – you wont regret it.
Apart from exploring Angkor Wat, don’t miss out on catching the river boat to Battambang, gazing at the millions of bats exiting the Bat Caves, learning of the tragic history at the Killing Fields, and caring for the elephants with the Modulkiri Project.
With so many points of interests, Vietnam is one of those countries that will make you wish you had endless time to explore. From Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi you’ll experience the history and culture, obsess over pho, bahn mi, and egg coffee, stroll through lantern-lit streets, and marvel at the vastness of Ha Long Bay.
One of the most magical moments of my life? Sipping a glass of wine while watching the sunset from the upper deck of our boat as it sailed through Ha Long Bay.
Okay, I know we said the Philippines was our favorite spot on this list, but Laos is truly an adventurer’s paradise, and, hands down, one of our favorite places that we’ve ever visited. Ironically enough, just like the Philippines, Laos is often skipped by Southeast Asia backpackers.
We should have known we were going to fall in love with Laos the moment we stepped foot in Vientiane, the country’s capital, and were welcomed by quiet, empty streets. The hustle and bustle of backpacker-filled alleys quickly become a distant memory, and in its place golden temples and incense-filled air.
Oh, and did I mention the food? I still, to this day, dream of eating larb – the unofficial national dish – while sitting in a hole-in-the-wall local eatery.
Going back through my travel journal I found a doodle I’d scribbled above Vang Vieng that reads, “it was every definition of the word adventure.” If that doesn’t make you want to book a one-way ticket there right now, I don’t know what will. Vang Vieng, once known for its drunken backpacker scene, re-invented itself as a launching point to the outdoors.
Stopping over in Laos while backpacking Southeast Asia will inevitably have you telling stories to your friends about that time you floated down the Nam Song River, wandered into unmarked caves, rented scooters with nowhere to go, bartered for souvenirs in Luang Prabang, watched an alms giving ceremony at sunrise, and scaled the treetops in the unforgettable adventure that is The Gibbon Experience.
If raw, unplanned adventure is what you’re into, Laos is the country for you.
There are not many seasoned travelers out there that haven’t been to Thailand, so adding it to your Southeast Asia itinerary is a no brainer, and where we ended our two month adventure.
Even though we spent three weeks in Thailand, I’m sure no amount of time would seem sufficient enough to fully appreciate the beauty and diversity of the country. We started our journey in Chaing Mai and ended it in Krabi, nearly 1,000 miles later.
In short, we drooled over our cooking class with Smile Organic Farm, fell in love with Pai’s laid back vibe, rafted (and went overboard) down the Pai River, marveled at Bangkok’s floating markets, rock climbed in Krabi, and dove the underwater world of the Similan Islands.
Believe it or not, that list just barely scrapes the surface of the adventures to be had in Thailand.
Like any trip, your backpacking adventure is bound to be filled with missed trains, lost money, mysterious sicknesses, bus rides from hell, dishonest tuk tuk drivers, and hostels that make you utter out loud, “This does not look like it did online.”
But, behind every travel blooper is a friendly local who recommends a hidden gem, a motorcycle ride with yours hands outstretched and free, a sunset watched from a rooftop while drinking a 50 cent beer (usd), and a real life memory – all your own – of a place you’ve been dreaming about for years.
Travel isn’t always beautiful, easy, or worth writing home about, but, even when it isn’t — it is.
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We’d love to hear about your experience backpacking Southeast Asia, or your plans to do so! What places have you been dreaming about?
As always, keep adventuring x