South East Asia is one of the most popular regions for many backpackers heading out on their gap year or round the world adventures, yet it seems every first time traveller always has the same questions and worries. Here are the top 10 most frequently asked questions about travelling through south east Asia, and my answers based on over 20 years travelling through the entire region.
I love South East Asia with a passion, of all of my travels around the world it is easily my favourite region and country by country it is by far the one region that I get asked the most about. Based on the many emails, comments and messages I get asking me for tips, hints and advice on travel through South East Asia, I’ll attempt to answer the most common questions as best as I can based on my comprehensive travel there.
Is It Safe To Travel Through South East Asia?
HELL yes! Let me state this very clearly so there is no misunderstanding. South East Asia is in general a very safe place to travel, with on the whole much lower crime rates than many Western cities and countries.
Does that mean there is no risk? Of course not. Does that mean you shouldn’t prepare and take reasonable common sense precautions for your own personal safety and security? Of course not. What it does mean is that you don’t have to be overly concerned as long as you are sensible and use your common sense, and you certainly should not be scared.
Look, bad things can happen to anyone, anywhere and at any time, and that includes those who stay at home their entire lives equally as much as it does those who travel, but that does not mean that travel to South East Asia is inherently unsafe. By doing your research on things like common scams and travel safety warnings, using your common sense and taking reasonable and sensible precautions, you can reduce any risk to your safety and security to more than acceptable levels and enjoy your trip through South East Asia safely and uneventfully. And yes that goes for both genders equally. Despite what the media will have you believe. Remember, hundreds of thousands of backpackers and travellers return home from South East Asia safe and sound every single day.
How Much Does It Cost To Travel Through South East Asia?
In general terms although not as budget friendly as it used to be as a region south east Asia is pretty cheap to travel through, but this can be entirely variable based on how comfortably you want to travel and which country you travel to.
Obviously an ultra budget traveler staying in the cheapest hostels and staying away from various activities will travel much more cheaply than those staying in nice hotels and living it up with as many experiences as possible. Likewise countries such as Singapore or Brunei and bigger cities such as Bangkok are a lot more expensive than say Indonesia or smaller rural areas.
In general however, South East Asia is very cheap and most travellers can travel comfortably with a well thought out budget plan.
Hostel dorm rooms will still cost you just a few pounds a night whilst a private room can be £10 GBP upward. The food is sublime across the region and dirt cheap if you eat at street stalls (often the best places) and activities cost a fraction of what they do elsewhere in the world.
So on very average terms, (and for average think limiting times in more expensive areas, staying in a mixture of cheap hostels and nicer guesthouses, eating street food but occasionally splurging on a restaurant and taking the odd taxi or internal flight as well as public transport), then you can do pretty well in most of South East Asia on £1000 GBP per month. Of course by budgeting well (or slowing down your travel on longer trips) you can spend less, but you can also splurge and spend much, much more too.
Do I Need Vaccinations For South East Asia?
In general terms and answering in my professional capacity as a qualified nurse, yes you do. In more specific terms exactly what vaccinations you need can vary from country to country and your own past medical history and personal circumstances, and it is always best to discuss your individual trip with a qualified professional at a travel clinic before you go.
There are a whole range of travel vaccinations that you need to consider. Some will be very strongly recommended and others should be considered on a case by case basis depending on your individual plans and which countries you will be travelling through.
I know they are expensive, and I know you are probably on a tight budget, but if you need them you need them, it is that simple. As a qualified nurse I generally recommend getting even the ‘sometimes recommended’ vaccinations, especially on a longer trip. It is always better to take precautionary measures if at all possible, and you can’t put a price on your health.
Do I Need Antimalarials For South East Asia?
I get asked if antimalarials are necessary for travel all the time, and the scariest thing about it is the sheer amount of misinformation and unqualified nonsense ‘advice’ out there, so this is the definitive advice from a qualified professional.
The risk of Malaria is divided up into two primary categories. Low to no risk, and high risk, and then your individual risk factors are taken into account. If you are spending time in a high risk area, antimalarials are strongly advised. If you are sticking to low to no risk areas, antimalarials are generally NOT advised.
The confusion comes when trying to figure out exactly where the high risk areas are, as some countries have both high risk and no risk areas. Thailand for example is generally low to no risk through the entire country and antimalarials are generally not recommended gor most of the country, but parts of the border regions of Loas, Burma, Cambodia and Malaysia are considered high risk, so again it depends on where you are planning to spend your time.
A good place to check up to date information on this are the Malaria Maps from the NHS’s Fit To Travel website, which has individual maps for each country. These can change frequently so check regularly.
However there are also other individual circumstances to take into consideration such as the length of time in any given area, if you will be spending a significant amount of time in rural areas and near bodies of water, if you will be volunteering in rural areas for an extended period, your own past medical history and countless others, so it is still always best to check with a qualified professional if you are unsure. And I do stress the words qualified professional, not other travellers. I don’t care if that bloke you met on the night bus told you not to take them because they made him see aliens, he is not a qualified professional.
Is Street Food Safe To Eat?
Oh god yes! Not only is it generally safe, it is also some of the best food in the world! I guarantee you haven’t lived until you’ve tasted some pad thai from a vendor in Bangkok or tried some of the tastiest street food ever in Singapore! South East Asia is a culinary dream, and street food is an essential part of that experience.
On the whole street food is safe and the stalls are cleaner than many restaurants where you can’t even see what the kitchens are like! A good dose of common sense is needed here too though, and you should obviously stay away from pre prepared food that looks like it has been sitting out for a while or the guy who is coughing all over the food and picking his nose. It’s just common sense. (Luckily instances like that are in the absolute minority). A good rule of thumb is if there is a big queue of locals, it’s bound to be good so join it!
When Is The Best Time To Visit South East Asia?
As soon as possible!
Facetiousness aside, South East Asia does have dry seasons and wet or monsoon seasons, but quite frankly it doesn’t matter. Honestly people worry way too much about this. You can travel through the region all year round and enjoy amazing weather. On the flip side to that you can also get bad weather even in the dry season! It’s the weather! It’s unpredictable. Personally I think the rainy seasons are the best time to travel in South East Asia, as you still get great weather and blue skies most of the time, it is easy to duck into somewhere for a drink or a snack if the heavens do open (they are usually quick but heavy downpours), the air is fresher, the land lusher and greener and it is cheaper to travel with less tourists and travellers around!
Where Is The Best Place To Go In South East Asia?
This is such an open ended question it is almost impossible to answer. South East Asia literally has something for everybody and quite frankly only you can know what will appeal to you and what won’t.
Many backpackers stick to the well worn and popular banana pancake routes such as the Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos loop, or overlanding from Singapore to Bangkok (or vice versa). But there are so many amazing and underrated countries in South East Asia that are worth a look too, and depending how long you have to travel then there is no reason you can’t check out as many as you like!
By all means check out some of the more popular places such as Thailand on your trip, it is after all popular for very good reason, but do your research and see what other places appeal to you as well. There’s no need to stick to any one path. If you want ancient temples then Cambodia or Thailand are great, Malaysia is awesome for amazing food and stunning beaches, the Philippines are renowned for its islands, or if you want some adventure travel and volcano trekking then how about Indonesia? Or even Borneo for some wildlife spotting? Just have a think as to what appeals to you then do a little research. These South East Asia travel guides should help you start planning your trip.
The joy of going backpacking or taking a gap year is the absolute freedom, and you don’t have to stick to any one route or itinerary.
Do I Need To Take An Organised Tour?
In general terms no, not at all.
When people ask this they generally mean the larger tour companies such as G Adventures or STA travel that you book before you even leave home and who organise entire trips with grandiose names like the Indochina adventure or the Grand Southeast Asian Experience.
I get why some people do take tours with large tour companies, if you are travelling for the first time, travelling alone or a little nervous, then they can be a good way to dip your toe into the water and gain a little confidence. If that is what you need then that’s fine. But they are very overpriced for what they are and you will be paying a premium for that little bit of hand holding, and quite frankly you just don’t need a guided tour of South East Asia.
South East Asia is so full of other backpackers and travellers, and has such a well established traveller infrastructure for everything from transport or accommodation, that it makes the whole purpose of an organised tour completely redundant. So no, is the simple answer.
Saying that though, when travelling through the region you will come across a ton of smaller independent travel operators offering temple tours, hiking routes or specific adventure activities. Some of these will be essential if you want to do specific activities such as climbing mount Kinabalu in Borneo where tours and guides are mandatory, but in general terms where they are not mandatory it is always worth doing one or two as they can generally be awesome and relatively cheap ways to do certain activities or see certain places within a country, and you’ll be helping out the local economy too. If you want to do any of these then they are super easy to organise when you get there and there is no need to pre book anything.
How Do I Get Around Once In South East Asia?
Very easily is the simple answer. South East Asia has a very strong transport infrastructure that is both easy to use for travellers and very cheap by Western standards.
For long distance travel there are long distance trains or overnight ‘sleeper’ coaches (although these aren’t the most comfortable option), or even an extensive budget airline network with Air Asia or Lion Air and many others.
For everything else there are public transport options such as buses, or taxis and tuk tuks.
All of these are very easy to organise on the ground as and when you need to, there’s really no need to book too far in advance and indpendent travellers can keep their options open as to where they want to go next.
How Long Do I Need To Travel Through Each Country?
How long is a piece of string?
The truth of the matter is will eleven distinct countries in the region alone, not to mention dozens of provinces and countless islands, you could spend a decade travelling through the region quite easily and still not see everything. In fact I have. Two in fact! Many travellers go to the other extreme and try to fit as many different places into a short trip as possible. Neither extreme is a great idea.
Obviously you want to spend as long as possible in every country you visit, but when that isn’t practical then on very average terms about a month is a good time to travel around one single country. Some countries such as Singapore or Cambodia can take less time (if you want to limit the expense of Singapore or limit a visit to one site only such as Angkor Wat in Cambodia for example), but in general terms anything less than a month per country and you’ll be rushed, and other countries such as Indonesia can demand a lot more time still because of their sheer size.
No matter how long you spend you will have an amazing time, and you should always incorporate a little time for spontaneity or rest time into your trip as well. As a strong advocate for slow travel I recommend at least 1 week of free time for every month of travel.
So lets just say you fly in and out of Bangkok and have three months to travel. How about a month in Thailand, a weeks rest and a week visiting Angkor Wat in Cambodia, a month in Vietnam before heading back to Thailand for your last couple of weeks?
Or maybe you have six or seven months? Even better! Do the same itinerary as above and then slowly travel down through Malaysia for a month and then over to Indonesia for the last two?
Whatever you decide to do the whole point is that these are just suggestions and it is entirely up to you!
What about all of you? Are you planning a trip to South East Asia soon? Do you have any questions not on this list? If so please feel free to ask them in the comments down below.
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