15 Useful Tips for Your First Southeast Asia Backpacking Experience

15 Useful Tips for Your First Southeast Asia Backpacking Experience

Backpacking in Southeast Asia for the first time? Here are some tips to help make your planning simpler.

Planning your maiden backpacking experience around Southeast Asia may seem daunting because of the immense array of choices you have before you. From finding a comfortable but affordable accommodation to choosing a route that lets you cover your interests, there are so many ways to maximise your trip in the region. Here are 15 tips that’ll help make your first SEA backpacking trip a success!

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1. Make street food your dining staple

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The region’s most prized dishes aren’t in fanciful restaurants, but found conveniently along the streets. Southeast Asia is brimming with delicious local street food sold at hawker centres, night markets, and even small roadside cafes. For as cheap as a dollar, you can get delicacies like Penang’s signature laksa dish, or a hearty bowl of Tom Yum soup. Not only are they an inexpensive alternative to costly dining options, street food is also a great way to discover the region’s food culture. You may have reservations about eating food sold along the roadside, but we can assure you that your worries are unfounded! When backpacking around Southeast Asia, street food is a must-try and is definitely, the best value for money.

2. Bring lots of snacks along

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You may feel that packing snacks in your bag is an unnecessary hassle and waste of that precious space. However, doing this could actually save you much time on your backpacking trip! Depending on the route you choose to take, there may not be plenty of stops for affordable meals along the way. This is especially so if you’re on a tight schedule or on long bus rides – travelling off your course just to hunt down food is simply not practical. Rather than settling for an overpriced food outlet to satisfy your hunger pangs, pack some tasty snacks to munch when you’re hungry! And while you’re at it, you can even pick up some cheap local snacks for a quick fix on the go.

3. Stay in hostels

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This tip is backpacking 101 for saving money on your travel accommodations! Chances are that you’ll be spending most of your day out exploring the country, and thus won’t have much time to enjoy the facilities of a lavish hotel anyway. As such, opt to stay in hostels which often offer an affordable option for your daily accommodation. While you’re there, enjoy the friendly social environment – you’ll get to hear stories from other travellers and even pick up useful tips from their personal experience.

Before you book your bed, check out online reviews to make sure your hostel is both safe and a bang for your buck. There are plenty of recommended hostels for budget travellers in Southeast Asia which, with the right precautions, will definitely make for a pleasant stay. Staying in communal rooms is also a great way to make friends, especially if you’re a solo traveller!

4. Check out dorm rooms in hotels

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A lesser-known accommodation choice for backpacking in Southeast Asia would be hotel dormitory rooms. Just like hostels, they’re communal rooms where you’ll get to meet fellow backpackers. Although their prices are a little steeper than that of hostels, you can enjoy hotel facilities like gym access as well as complimentary breakfast buffets. The latter would come in handy on lazy mornings when you don’t feel like scouting for food by yourself!  

However, one of the best things about backpacking in Southeast Asia is not having a concrete plan. The beauty about exploring multiple countries at once is the flexibility of it all! As such, you probably won’t pre-book all your accommodation as where you spend the nights pretty much depends on where you go. Admittedly, finding the perfect place to stay on the go can be a little tricky. Instead of camping out at WiFi spots or using someone else’s data plan, check out Singtel’s ReadyRoam 1GB 30 Days plan available across 9 destinations for just $12 (U.P $15)!

ReadyRoam lets you stay connected in 9 different countries, including Australia, Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, New Zealand, Philippines, and Thailand, for just $12/GB (U.P. $15/GB). With no additional cost, you can enjoy flexibility sans the need to buy different SIM cards when you travel through the different Southeast Asian countries! You can activate your ReadyRoam plan 14 days prior to the start of your backpacking trip. Get instant connection across 9 countries now!

5. Walk to your destinations if possible

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A common mistake of backpacking in a foreign country is taking a taxi or bus when your destination is actually within walking distance. This is especially so in the urban jungle of cities like Singapore and Kuala Lumpur where many attractions are, in reality, within close proximity of each other. Needless to say, relying on your two feet is completely free of charge and on occasion, can also save you loads of travelling time. With data roaming, you can navigate your way around and find the ideal route without worrying about getting lost!

6. Take public transport

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However, if you prefer getting to your destination on wheels, simply hop on public transport! Taking public trains and buses are much, much cheaper than travelling by taxi. It may be confusing at first but, with a little planning and research, you’ll soon be as savvy as the locals. For example, Phnom Penh’s city bus line takes you from the airport all the way to the city for less than 50 cents! Apart from these conventional options, taking local transport like Thailand’s traditional tuk-tuk and the habal-habal motorcycles of Philippines would certainly be a unique experience as well.

7. Agree on a fixed price before boarding a taxi

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However, should you want to take a taxi, have some necessary safeguards to prevent yourself from getting overcharged. For starters, if the taxi you hailed isn’t a metered one, settle on a flat price before boarding. Stories of scams in Southeast Asia where taxi prices skyrocket upon arriving at the destinations are aplenty, so don’t let your backpacking experience be another of them! Another option would be to take an Uber or Grab where the drivers can pick you up from your exact location. Arguably, with its tracking function, you’ll be able to prevent your drivers from making unnecessary detours too. Use these tips to travel safely and smartly!

Want to have data access to book your taxi when you’re travelling? Or perhaps get directions to your next destination? There’s no need to buy a local SIM card or rent a portable Wi-Fi router, Singtel’s ReadyRoam is an extremely affordable solution!

8. Avoid tourist traps

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Tourists traps are attractions that lure unsuspecting tourists in only for them to discover that they have been overhyped and misrepresented online. Often, these places are extremely crowded, and overcharge tourists with prices marked up to even triple the rate elsewhere. As a first-time backpacker, don’t fall for these traps! Before embarking on your journey, search for alternative places to visit and in turn, escape the crowd without compromising on your Southeast Asian experience. More often than not, there will be close substitutes free of such gimmicks.

9. Look for free things to do

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To take it one step further, you can experience the rich culture of numerous Southeast Asian countries without spending a single cent! Hunt for free attractions to avoid burning a hole in your pocket. Some common ideas include exploring a forest trek in Laos, or visiting the historic Mahamuni Buddha Temple in Burma to immerse yourself in the local heritage. Malaysia even offers free guided tours of Dataran Merdeka in Kuala Lumpur to give an insight to the country’s colonial heritage.

10. Interact with locals

What better way to discover the true quotidian culture of the country than by talking to the locals themselves? From experience, most passers-by are friendly folks that are more than willing to lead you to your destinations and recommend the best places to visit in their country. Before you set out, learn a few basic conversational phrases in the local language, or make Google Translate your best friend! Understanding the diverse perspectives of Southeast Asia through the eyes of its own locals will definitely be an immersive and unforgettable experience!

11. Try an overnight sleeper bus

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The sleeper bus is a common form of transport for tourists travelling long-distance across Southeast Asia. For budget backpackers, this not only saves you a considerable amount of money otherwise spent on accommodation, it also frees up your time since you’ll be sleeping on the bus! Corresponding to their prices, the buses range from reclining chairs with just enough legroom, to ones that give you an entire private pod for sleeping. Since you’ll be on the bus for long hours, it’s worth investing in a pricier option to ensure your comfort throughout this leg of your journey. Also, having data to occupy you during these long journeys is a total lifesaver. Grab Singtel’s ReadyRoam 1GB 30 Days plan and you’ll never be bored!

12. Invest in a dry bag

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Southeast Asia is home to a multitude of picturesque coastal shores. From the crystal clear waters of Koh Rong to the popular favourites in Langkawi and Palawan, your trip will not be complete without a day at the beach. As you take a swim in the ocean or try your hand at some extreme watersports, it would be unwise to leave your valuables away from you on the beach. Keeping an eye out for your belongings as you enjoy yourself can also be burdensome.

So what options do you have? Invest in a waterproof dry bag to keep your essential valuables with you as you enjoy your beach day! If you are camping on your trip, the dry bag can be used to separate damp clothing before you get to dry them at a more convenient location.

Whilst you’re there, do remember to take some gorgeous pictures of your travels as a souvenir. With Singtel ReadyRoam, you can take it one step further and upload your photos on the go!

13. Pack light

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A common mistake first-time backpackers frequently make is over-packing for their trip. Ditch the excess clothing as well as unnecessary bulky appliances, and stick to bringing only essentials with you. Having only one bag would be a cost-saver if you’re planning on taking budget flights – AirAsia, Jetstar and Scoot are popular favourites, especially as there’s no need to pay an extra fee to check in additional baggage. Furthermore, it is almost certain that the initial empty spaces in your backpack will be filled up by souvenirs as you travel. Be sure to end your route in the places you’re going to do the most shopping at – yes, that means making Bangkok the last leg of your trip no matter how excited you are to thrift shop at its famous night markets. This way, you won’t have to lug your shopping around the other legs of your journey!

14. Don’t buy currency at the airport

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Similar to the marked up prices at tourist traps, the exchange rates at airports are extremely poor, causing you to get less foreign currency for your dollar. Unless you’re in desperate need of cash, avoid buying currency at the airport. Instead, go to smaller money changers around the area or, better yet, plan ahead and change enough foreign currency way before embarking on your trip. You’d be able to wait for the lowest exchange rates to make the most out of your dollar. On a similar note, it would be useful to carry some small change with you as some vendors in markets do not accept large notes.

15. Always bargain

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Part and parcel of backpacking in Southeast Asia is bargain shopping at the local markets. Although you may feel uncomfortable at first, haggling for prices is widely accepted and even expected in many shopping districts. If you are a seasoned shopper, you can even lower prices to a third of its original! All in all, the key to getting a good bargain is to be confident but not push the limits of the vendor. Just remember that it’s a normal portion of your shopping experience, so there’s no need to be nervous about it.

Are you ready to embark on your first Southeast Asia backpacking trip? With these tips, we hope that some of your worries are gone! Part of the fun of backpacking is going wherever the wind takes you so, as you plan your journey, be sure to leave some room for impromptu detours and we can guarantee that you’ll have an exciting eye-opening experience!

To make the most of your backpacking trip, subscribe to Singtel’s ReadyRoam 1GB 30 Days plan to be connected on the go. You’ll be able to search for directions and the best deals of the area wherever you travel! For just $12/GB (U.P. $15/GB), activate the roaming service and surf across multiple destinations including Australia, Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, New Zealand, Philippines and Thailand!

Travel with ease with Singtel’s ReadyRoam plan now!

Now that you’ve conquered Southeast Asia, why stop there? Embark on a road trip in Australia, or New Zealand next! Since you can use Singtel’s ReadyRoam plan across these countries at no additional cost within the 30 day validity period, your future trips will be made easy. With data roaming at your fingertips, search for the best things to do, the best places to visit, and stay connected as you travel!

Brought to you by Singtel.

About Author

Stephanie Lauw
Stephanie Lauw

Stephanie is an English literature and film student who has succumbed to the occupational hazard of over-analysing her favourite TV shows. She enjoys theatre and music, and dabbles with both by writing bad plays and experimenting with her band. Her current dream is to island hop the filming locations of all the seasons of Survivor.