Tips for Backpacking Southeast Asia

Southeast Asia is phenomenal.

Here is where you will spend lazy days on marvellous beaches and eat the most sumptuous dishes of your life. You will have adventures in weather that warms the soul, and every corner of the region holds the secret of something new.

The language barrier is almost non-existent and Southeast Asia is an ideal location for those who are nervous and new to travel. Not to mention that this part of the world is extremely cheap, something I read about on other blogs, but never believed until I mustered the courage to venture there myself.

On this blog I sometimes focus on the romantic side of travel and leave out the grittier side; the squat toilets, the long bus rides, the nuisance of hawkers and even the backpacker culture itself.

Bathroom Etiquette

So let us get begin with what you should expect from bathrooms in Southeast Asia. Hostel toilets will almost always be the western toilets you know and love. You just won’t be able to flush the toilet paper; the sewage system can’t handle it. Instead there will be a little bin next to the toilet to throw your poo paper – don’t look at it directly, it’s pretty disgusting. The courteous thing to do is to place your used paper in the bin facing down – but not everyone does that.

It gets better too. Sometimes you’ll find yourself facing a squat toilet. Mostly you’ll come across them in bus stations and during rest breaks on long bus rides. They are awkward to use at first, especially for women and success is not peeing in your shoe. The benefit is that squatting is excellent for pert buns. There are foot holds on each side of the toilet to place your feet and there will never be any toilet paper in there so carry some with you. You’ll also notice a hose (or bum gun) next to the toilet for a different kind of clean, not something I used because I couldn’t imagine how to avoid getting myself soaked when trying to manoeuvre in a tiny cubicle.

Still feeling unsure? Check out No Set Address' Squat toilet survival guide.

Drinking water

Don’t drink the local water. One litre bottles of water are about 20-30c to buy chilled, or sometimes you can refill your bottle from coolers at convenience stores for 10c. There are debates among travellers as to whether it’s safe to brush your teeth with tap water and I say its fine. Your mouth is already full of bacteria and so long as you don’t swallow it, you’ll be fine.

Overnight bus rides

Night buses, the bane of a backpacker’s existence and chances are you’ll need to take at least one. Buy a neck pillow; they make all the difference when you’re spending the night sitting in a reclining seat. Sometimes you’ll find that there are bunk beds built into the bus (like in Laos ) and you may find yourself sharing a mattress with a stranger (of the same gender), but you can buy two tickets should you really want your own bed.

Southeast Asia love air conditioning and aren’t shy about using it. Bring a jumper for the long bus rides, or you will freeze.

The more bus rides you do, the easier they get. Soon you'll be able to fall asleep anywhere.


First of all, people in Southeast Asia call all types of bikes 'motorbikes' or 'motos' even if it's a 50cc scooter. And second, even if you're inexperienced, renting one out for the day in smaller towns to explore is a great way of getting off the beaten path. My advice is to go with others, bring a map, fuel up before you leave town and drive along the side of the road so other drivers who know the roads better can overtake easily. Avoid driving in wet conditions or in large hectic cities.

It's also a super cheap way of getting around. About US$12 to rent for the day and US$5 to fill the tank.

Oh and remember, in Southeast Asia the larger vehicle has the right of way, so as the smaller vehicle give way to everyone. That’s really the only road rule you’ll need.

Nothing is too big to be transported by moped, I saw people carrying TVs with the power cord dangling down by the tires or families of five squished in on a single bike, alternating parent and child, with baby sitting on the front handlebars. So transporting your luggage by bike isn’t a problem. Always insist on a helmet.

Last but not least, get travel insurance – always! I go with World Nomads although I’ve never had to claim with them, setting up insurance with them is easy enough for me to want to stick with them.


I found it was just as cheap to eat out at restaurants as it was to cook my own meals at my hostel – so you may as well experience the local food. Also worth noting is that your food will just arrive when it’s ready. So that one person at your table has finished eating just as the last person gets their food. That's just the way it is there.

You will begin to penny pinch. Every dollar is fought for. Restaurant meals over $3 will seem far too expensive. Try not to lose sight of the value of your dollar. It's not worth it to spend 10 minutes bartering over that extra $0.50.

Toiletries cost the same as back home. So if there’s a particular brand you like you may as well bring it from home. Forget bringing makeup, it’ll just melt off your face.

There’s not much that money can’t buy. Want to throw a grenade or shoot a bazooka? You probably could make it happen in Cambodia.


Southeast Asia is very safe. In Laos, many don’t bother with doors on their homes; it’s just an open doorway all day and night. As a solo traveller I didn’t always have friends to eat with and would walk around at night alone looking for food, I stuck to lit areas to be on the safe side but otherwise I never felt unsafe.

Pick-pocketing is an issue though. Keep a tight hold on your camera when taking photos in crowded areas, lest someone on a 'moto' swoops past, grabs it and is gone in seconds.

In Southeast Asia no safety measures are in place to look out for you. If you want to hang off the train between carriages, then you can, no one will stop you. If something happens in doing so, it’s also on you.

Stray animals are everywhere; it seems to be the norm in developing countries. I don’t think getting a rabies shot prior to your trip is necessary and instead just stay away from stray animals. If you do get bitten, take it seriously and seek medical attention immediatly.


There is almost no language barrier and people love to practice their English with you. Learning to say ‘hello’ and ‘thank you’ in their language is always appreciated.

Second hand book shops with English language books are everywhere so there’s no need to bring a kindle, instead pick up a book you wouldn’t normally read - a dog-eared, much loved book that’s been passed around a few times and then trade it on to other travellers.

Culture shock

Culture shock is defined as: the feeling of disorientation experienced by someone when they are suddenly subjected to an unfamiliar culture, way of life, or set of attitudes.

For the first week you'll feel pretty uncomfortable. You'll wonder why you came to Southeast Asia, you'll want to go home, especially if you're travelling solo. Everything will be overwhelming and strange. Maybe you'll feel like sitting in your hostel common room and watching t.v. all day. Or you might want to sleep all day and drink all night. It's all pretty normal, no matter how you deal with it. Just know that it'll pass and you'll find yourself embracing the adventure you've set off on.

Finally, there will be reverse culture shock. After five months in Southeast Asia, New Zealand felt too quiet and orderly. People drove where they were supposed to and crossed the road at designated points. Nobody tried to sell me something I didn’t want. I found it strange that people kept to themselves. It’s a difficult feeling to explain, when the familiar becomes unfamiliar, but it’ll only last a few days before you re-accustom yourself back to being in your own country's culture again.

Planning a trip to Southeast Asia? I have my budget breakdown here.

Pin it to your Asia travel board:

#singapore #malaysia #vietnam #thailand #laos #cambodia #Myanmar #Indonesia

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Hey, I'm Emma

Fuelled by wanderlust, curiosity and a little restlessness, a natural at budget travel, so naturally, a travel blogger. An experienced chef, a proud kiwi, and a burgeoning photographer. And my old friends reading and writing? We go way back.

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