Although technically part of Asia, this part of the world is so well ingrained in the backpackers psyche that it deserves a category all of its own. South East Asia has been a favourite haunt of backpackers for the past 50 years with popular and well trodden routes commonly and lovingly referred to as the banana pancake trail, and it is more than easy to see why.
Like Asia, South East Asia boasts a unique fusion all of its own that blends a variety of religions, cultures, ancient temples and bustling cosmopolitan cities that are surprisingly easy to travel through with fantastic infrastructure and for the most part very few visa hassles. Perfect tropical islands with long stretches of untouched white sand litter the landscape like sparkling confetti, you can sample some of the tastiest and most diverse cuisine in the world and meet some of its most friendliest people, and all at prices that could see even those travelling on a budget live like a king. South East Asia has been described as a backpackers paradise, and it has done more than enough to earn that moniker.
Unfortunately in recent years the package tourists have started to cotton onto this beautiful corner of the world, prices have started to rise, the beaches are becoming filled with high rise complexes and the backpackers are beginning to move on to more untouched countries. However, South East Asia is still one of the most popular destinations for first time backpackers and travellers, and that is unlikely to change for the foreseeable future.
When to go.
South East Asia is tropical, and is warm or hot all year round with high humidity and rainfall. Basically people put too much stock into when to avoid the rainy or monsoon seasons, but it is not always necessary. Travel is possible and easy throughout the region all year round. Equatorial areas such as Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Borneo and the Philippines have two seasons, wet, usually in the winter months, and dry in the summer months. Indochina, including Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos has three seasons, hot, wet and dry. These seasons can vary quite considerably from country to country, and even from year to year. The Monsoon season sweeps upward through the region from roughly June to November, and again although many travellers decide to head to the region outside of that time, it is still quite easy and pleasant to travel during the monsoon season, the weather will still be warm and sunny most of the time. The only considerations that should be made is to head to islands where the monsoon has either passed or has not yet hit if you want to island hop or dive, as services can sometimes shut down.
Although generally the dry season is peak tourist season with warm but comfortable temperatures, bright sunshine and calm conditions, you should not be put off by travelling to South East Asia at any time of the year. The wet seasons typically see sudden, short and sporadic bursts of rainfall, most often in the afternoon or overnight, and then it is often blue skies and bright sunshine for the rest of the time, plus there is the advantage of less tourists and cheaper prices. The hot season is still quite comfortable to travel in provided that you take precautions for the heat, and this is the time many people choose to head to the cooler highlands or mountain regions.
With the exception of Singapore, South East Asia is an amazing budget destination, and even Singapore is great value for money by Western standards. You can travel very cheaply on a budget, staying in hostels and eating fantastic street food without compromising too much on comfort or experiences, or you can live it up on a mid range budget. Even splurging once in a while can get backpackers a level of luxury they are unlikely to be able to experience in Westernised nations.
Vietnam and Myanmar are the only countries that require a visa in advance for most backpackers. Everywhere else either does not require a visa at all and allow visitors a period of time to stay in the country dependent on where they are from, or offer visas on arrival at little or no cost. See individual country guides for more detailed information.