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 from my mail and social media, and my answers based on many years travelling through the entire region.
I love South East Asia, 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 largely much lower crime rates than many Western cities.
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.
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, countless travellers return home from South East Asia safe and sound every single day.
How much does it cost to travel through South East Asia?
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 cost you a few pounds a night whilst a private room can be £10 GBP upward, and the rise of the sharing economy means that you can even bypass that expense every once in a while. 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?
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 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 to take antimalarials?
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. 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. It really is that simple.
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, but all of the areas close to every border except 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.
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 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.
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 go?
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. 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 should I go?
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, they don’t mean the small on the ground trips to a specific temple or hiking route (which can generally be awesome and relatively cheap ways to see certain places within a country).
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.
How do I get around?
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 any given 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. 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.
You should always incorporate a little time for spontaneity or rest time into your trip as well, and as a strong advocate for slow travel I recommend at least 1 week of free time for every month of travel.
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. I would love to hear your thoughts and questions in the comments section below or on my Facebook or Twitter pages and please feel free to share it with any or all of the social media buttons. If you want to get more great backpacking tips, advice and inspiration, please subscribe to updates via email in the box to your right.