The wanderlust bug seems to bite more and more frequently these days, with absolutely no care for my crying wallet. The good thing about living in Singapore though, is that we’re kinda central to where all the action is – South East Asia-travel wise anyway.
It would be quite the feat to conquer this marvellous region in one backpacking go, so unless you’ve decided to take the year off, I’d recommend breaking the trip down and doing it right. Here are 8 backpacking routes to conquer South East Asia on a budget.
Recommended Time: 4 – 5 weeks
Route: Sumatra – Jakarta – Yogyakarta – Gunung Bromo – Bali – Lombok – Komodo and Rinca – Flores – East Timor
Indonesia is SO much more than just Jakarta and Bali, so the next time you’re itching for an adventure, try this route on for size. Start in Sumatra and visit Bukit Lawang and Danau Toba, taking in the wonders of Indonesian biodiversity and seeing some of the last semi-wild orang utans in the world.
Head to Jakarta and Yogyakarta to experience the balance of culture and city life, visiting the famous Borobudur and Prambanan temples. Definitely take some time to trek to Gunung Bromo for amazing views and horseback riding.
Move on to immerse in island living in Bali and Lombok, and don’t miss out on the Gili islands and climbing Mount Rinjani if you feel up to it. The Komodo and Rinca islands are also worth a visit if you’re a fan of getting up close and personal with komodo dragons in their natural habitat.
End the trip in Flores and visit the famous Kelimutu three coloured lakes or if you’ve money to spare, scuba dive in some of the clearest waters in the region.
East Timor isn’t usually on your average travel itinerary but if you’re a determined traveller, securing visas to visit this young independent country is not impossible and worth the effort, especially if you’re already in Indonesia.
Recommended Time: 5 – 7 weeks
Route: Melaka – KL – Cameron Highlands – Penang – Langkawi – Taman Negara – Tioman Island – Kuching – Bornean Jungle – Gunung Mulu National Park – Bandar Seri Begawan (Brunei) – Kinabalu National Park – Semporna Archipelago
Being the closest country to Singapore, Malaysia is quite often overlooked as a prime holiday destination. If you’re guilty of only the occasional trip to KL for shopping, perhaps it’s time to take that month off and truly explore this neighbouring state.
Start in Melaka for some great food and street shopping before doing the mandatory visit to KL, and perhaps try something different like visiting the canopy walk at the KL Forest Eco Park in the heart of the city. Then, move on to take on the winding roads up to Cameron Highlands and visit some of the many tea plantations.
Penang is another excellent stop for amazing local food before heading to Langkawi for its pristine beaches. Continue your adventures in the wilds of Taman Negara and Tioman Island, take in old colonial building architecture in Kuching before diving straight back into some unique wildlife appreciation in the Bornean Jungle.
Climb through cave systems in Gunung Mulu National Park before flying to Miri where you can take a bus to Bandar Seri Begawan in Brunei. Cross back into Malaysia and visit Kinabalu National Park before winding down your trip, wading in the clear waters of the Semporna Archipelago in Sabah.
Recommended Time: 3 – 4 weeks
Route: Phuket – Koh Phi Phi – Krabi – Koh Lanta – Krabi – Ko Samui – Ko Pha Ngan – Ko Tao – Bangkok
To get the most out of Thailand, I highly recommend breaking your trip into two parts. There’s just way too much to see and do, especially if you’re a backpacker with time to spare.
Island hopping isn’t actually as expensive as it sounds as long as you stagger the number of activities that you want to do at each stop. Start by flying into Phuket and choose between day trips to the famous James Bond Island or Koh Panyee to soak up some sun.
Head to Koh Phi Phi for white sandy beaches and great nightlife before stopping off in famous Krabi to hang out with a few locals and experience the bustle of the night markets in Krabi town. Do a day trip to Koh Lanta for less touristy coral-fringed beaches and mangroves before moving on to Thailand’s second largest island, Ko Samui.
If an epic party is what you’re after, plan your trip around the world famous full moon party, which takes place on the Thai island of Ko Pha Ngan. Nurse your inevitable hangover in Ko Tao before completing your trip back in the bustle of Bangkok.
Recommended Time: 2 – 3 weeks
Route: Bangkok – Kanchanaburi – Ayutthaya – Sukhothai – Umphang – Chiang Mai – Pai – Santikhiri (previously known as Mae Salong)
If you’re looking for a trip bursting with culture and sights, this backpacking route through the North of Thailand will keep you busy. Start by taking in the crazy sights and sounds of Bangkok before heading to Kanchanaburi to learn more about the history of Thailand through the many memorials and museums.
The ruins of the old city of Ayutthaya are well worth a visit before you move on to Sukhothai to explore the historical park and partially restored 13th and 14th century palaces and temples. The Umphang district offers a glimpse into Thai wilderness and a chance to go off the beaten track.
Head to the city of Chiang Mai in the mountains and visit some of the hundreds of elaborate Buddhist temples there before stopping off in Pai to experience the slower life in a small Thai town. End your trip in Santikhiri for a complete change of scenery before you have to leave this beautiful country.
Recommended Time: 2 – 3 weeks
Route: Yangon – Mawlamyine – Hpa-an – Kyaiktiyo – Kalaw – Inle Lake – Mandalay – Bagan
Myanmar is probably the most underrated place to visit in the South East Asia Region and should most certainly not be discounted. It’ll be easiest to fly into the beautiful and former capital of Yangon, where you have to visit the golden splendour that is the Shwedagon Pagoda.
Get your fill of city life before moving on to Mawlamyine, where waking up early will help you make the most of meandering through the markets and many temples. Backpack to the picturesque town of Hpa-an and explore the surrounding caves and mountains before heading to Kyaiktiyo to get a picture with the famous golden rock.
Trek around the hill town of Kalaw and make time to visit Inle Lake to stay in a relatively cheap over-the-water bungalow. The restored Mandalay palace in Mandalay is also a must visit before you end your trip in Bagan, the so called Machu Picchu of Asia where, if you budget correctly, you can indulge in a hot air balloon ride to remember.
Recommended Time: 3 – 4 weeks
Route: Phnom Penh – Siem Reap/ Sihanoukville – Phnom Penh – Kampot – Kratie – Si Phan Don – Champasak – Savannakhet – Vientiane – Vang Vieng – Luang Prabang – Houay Xai
Get ready for an adventure of a lifetime when you take on a backpacking trip through Cambodia and Laos. Begin in the busy Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh where you can stroll along the river front and take in the sights rich in history.
Carry on to Siem Reap and prioritise a visit to the famous Ang Kor Wat temple which is truly a sight to behold. If you’re after more of a beach holiday, head to Sihanoukville instead for white sandy beaches before going back to Phnom Penh and making your way to check out the plantations in Kampot.
The central marketplace in Kratie will keep you busy before you get on a mini bus to check out the waterfalls in Si Phan Don in Laos. Continue to explore the Khmer ruins in the other part of Champasak and relive old Laotian life in Savannakhet.
Enjoy a sunset in the capital of Vientiane before getting ready to party in nearby Vang Vieng. The next leg of the trip will bring you to Luang Prabang, which may be on the tourist path but certainly retains most of its old charm.
End your entire journey with a two-day trip up the Mekong River to Houay Xai and enjoy some of the best views that the region has to offer.
Recommended Time: 3 – 4 weeks
Route: Ha Tien – Can Tho – Ho Chi Minh – Vung Tau – Mui Ne – Da Lat – Nha Trang – Hoi An – Hue – Ha Noi – Ha Long – Lao Cai – Sapa
If you want to combine Cambodia and Vietnam instead, start in Ha Tien which is close to the Cambodian border. Visit the popular Mui Nai beach before you head to Can Tho, where the floating markets and canal network are truly a sight to behold.
The city of Ho Chi Minh is a necessary assault on the senses and you simply must indulge in the incredible street food. Hop on the hydrofoil after to the port city of Vung Tau and spend a bit of time at the beaches there.
I wouldn’t usually think ‘beach resort’ when I think of Vietnam, but Mui Ne is a must visit for you adventure seekers who would love this isolated stretch of beach, perfect for activities. Dalat on the other hand, is a highland city boasting hills, pine forests, lakes and waterfalls that would make for a different kind of adventure.
Grab a cable car ride in beach resort Nha Trang before cycling or floating around beautiful Hoi An. The 19th century citadel in Hue is a spectacular must see before you go back to the bustling city life of Ha Noi.
It would be an absolute shame not to spend a night or two floating around the famous Ha Long Bay before taking on mountainous Lao Cai. You definitely have your work cut out for you with this itinerary and should wind down with a home stay in the hilly Sapa region of Vietnam.
Recommended Time: 4 – 5 weeks
Route: Manila – Coron – El Nido – Puerto Princesa – Cebu (& Bohol Island) – Camiguin – Siargao – Malapascua and Bantayan – Boracay – Cordillera
Set aside a bit of time to take on this adventure folks. The Philippines is yet another bustling destination in South East Asia with so much to offer and a proper backpacking itinerary should allow you to make the most of it.
There’s no better place to start than throwing yourself right into the heart of it all, Manila. There’s so much you can learn about the country and culture here by visiting the many museums and churches.
Opt for a complete change of scenery by visiting Coron in Palawan after and explore its amazing marine life and Japanese shipwrecks. El Nido offers a similar experience and equally clear waters to snorkel and relax in.
While in Palawan, you have to check out the limestone caves and underground river in Puerto Princesa before you make a move on to the city of Cebu. Make a trip out to Bohol Island to gawk at the amazing geographical formations known as the Chocolate Hills.
For a less touristy experience, visit the relatively untouched island of Camiguin with its blue waters and springs. If a great surf is what you’re after, Siargao is a must visit which also boasts lagoons, sand bars and caves that deserve a good three to four days to explore.
Continue the island life on Malapascua and Bantayan and maybe even go on a shark dive if you dare! You can’t visit the Philippines and not spend a bit of time in Boracay, one of its most popular islands. Despite the heavy tourism in recent years, it’s still pretty darn great.
If you’ve had enough of beaches and sand, Cordillera would be a great place to end your adventure, with breathtaking mountain views. Stay at an inn to get the most bang for your buck!
These routes and estimated timings are meant to be flexible, getting you the most out of each place. The budget does not take into account flights to and from the country, so harness all the kiasu in you and camp on budget airfare websites for the best deals.
There’s just so much to see and experience in South East Asia alone, so if you’re one of the lucky few with lots of time to spare, combine these routes for an adventure of a lifetime. Just be prepared to grit your teeth to stretch that budget.
You may end up pretty broke after, but there’s no doubt you’ll be the richest in experience.
Related guide: Undiscovered Destinations in Asia
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