First thing I noticed about Thailand (besides the humidity) was how easy travel became.
Take note that I just arrived from Africa, and by comparison, Thailand (and to lesser degree, its neighbors) felt much more, oh, about a gazillion times much more accommodating to travelers.
Which is why whenever someone asks us, “Where should I go as a first time traveler?” I say – “Thailand” or “South East Asia” then gush about why I ended up falling in love with the region.
It’s Easy to Get Around in South East Asia
In the spirit of making broad generalization – I’d like to say that South East Asia is an easy place to get around. The roads are decent, the border crossings are well documented, and the public transportation options are relatively comfortable and clean.
Although to be honest, after my brother was stuck in a piss-smelling, cramped train compartment in Vietnam for 12 hours – it’s not perfect. But for the most part, they’re…endurable.
But the big reason why it’s easy to get around in SE Asia is because there’s an established infrastructure to ferry backpackers around (see below).
There’s an established backpacker’s trail in South East Asia
This was another thing that came as a pleasant surprise for me. Not the fact that it’s popular with backpackers (I knew that) – but how much I enjoyed what it actually means.
Traveling in a region popular with other backpackers mean everything things are as streamlined and as efficient as it can be. Because thousands of others have walked on the trodden path.
Trying to figure out how to get from Phnom Penh to Vietnam? You’re not the only one who want to do it.
The Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos (and to a certain degree, Myanmar) circuit is a well trodden path with few variations. Wherever which way you’re planning to go, most likely others have done it in the past and many others are planning to do so at the same time as you are.
There are many companies who offer transports and there’s plenty of information about the best way to get there (land, river, ocean?), however you want to get there (In a bus, a minivan, a private taxi?), whenever you want to get there (now, next hour, in a few hours?).
Even better, guesthouses in South East Asia can provide you with this information. While in South America and Africa I had to rely more on guidebooks or online. Here, all I had to do was come down to the common area and look at the community board. Oh, the mind boggling options (land, river, ocean? In a bus, a minivan, a private taxi? – you get the gist). All easily arranged through the guesthouse.
South East Asia is cheap, traveling there feels like a vacation
Because your dollar stretches further, the little things that make traveling become so much more than sight seeing – like ducking in for a quick Thai massage, or renting a scooter to drive around an island, or renting a private beach cabin – is affordable.
I had never felt so… rich. I remember thinking to myself, “This is the kind of lifestyle I’ve always wanted to have – but can never afford back in the states.”
Having said that, SE Asia is not as cheap as a lot of people think. This was a sentiment I heard quite a bit from other travelers. I actually found that my daily cost there was about twice as much as South America.
South East Asia people are friendly
Yet another broad generalization. Which I usually hate to make (or hear). But in my limited personal experience, this is true. Especially in Thailand and Myanmar where the locals would get out of their way to help the lost and confused tourists.
Smiles, like humidity and strange looking fruit, was something that come in abundance in South East Asia. Even those who want to rip you off do so with a smile.
If you like Asian food (or good food, in general), you’ll find that South East Asia is the place to be.
I can go on and on about the variety of food and how easy it is to find food. For me, like many others, having not only good food, but easily accessible good food regardless of what time it is, is almost important as having good wifi. Almost.
When we were traveling South America, food was aplenty, but most of the times it was just ok. It wasn’t bad – but it wasn’t like, “Omg, that trucha frita was to die for!” because fried trout is just… fried trout (in Peru, the food did get better).
In Morocco, I knew there’s more than just tajine, but how come all restaurants only serve tajine? I don’t get it.
Meanwhile, I’d go back to Thailand in a heartbeat just for the food and I know my brother would love to go back to Vietnam for some awesome pho.
(Here Jack would like to add that Tokyo is still his favorite foodie place – and I’d like to add, “Japan doesn’t count. It’s not even in South East Asia.)
Cheap, cheap, cold beer
Yes Asia can be hot and humid. But Asia is also the land of 50 cent draught beer. Brilliant!! Yes, some of them taste like water buffalo’s piss – but here’s my beer recommendation (not all available as draught): Beer Lao (Laos and Thailand), Angkor (Cambodia), Larue (Vietnam), Batavia Lager or Anker (Indonesia).
Wifi Is Everywhere
You won’t have an internet withdrawal syndrome. I think it’s partly because it’s so popular with the younger crowd, the South East Asia gringo trail is well served with wifi. It’s widely available in coffeeshops and honestly, finding a guesthouse that does not have wifi might as well be the more challenging task.
For first time backpackers, this will definitely ease the anxiety of being away in a foreign land. Plus, how else can you brag about your travels other than uploading all of your pictures on Facebook?
English is Widely Spoken in South East Asia
With the exception of Vietnam, we found that we could get by with only knowing English. Which is great, because even though I always strive to learn the basic words in local language, the tonal language and the crazy characters are daunting.
South East Asia is Safe (with regular precautions)
Because South East Asia is so popular with backpackers, and because there’s a big disparity between our purchasing power and that of the locals – the region is also rife with scams. Some of them are pretty creative ones, like the fake embassy on Thailand – Cambodia border, to the “the temple is closed, come with me on a shopping spree” in Bangkok.
Fortunately, most scams are harmless. And regardless of how you feel about bribes, know that in most situations, a little bribe can go a long way in smoothing them out.
There will be some unexpected things that don’t go as planned.
But in a way, that story would be much more interesting than “We went to see this tourist site and everything went very well according to plan.” If you and I ever meet in person, ask me about Ethiopia. Or Vietnam. Boy, do I have stories to tell you.
I never planned to go traveling in South East Asia. The opportunity just presented itself and I took it with the, “Well, might as well” attitude. But I surprised myself by how much I enjoyed my time there and I think it was mostly because how accommodating everything was.
So yes, I have no reservation in recommending first time travelers to go backpacking South East Asia. Or even seasoned travelers. It’s easy enough, but with a dash of challenges thrown in to make it exciting. I personally can’t wait to take Jack to Thailand. I know he’d love it there.
Do you agree? Where do you think first time backpackers should go?
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I think it depends where you are coming from. When you live in Europe, it's quite far and maybe a cheap east-europe destination may be also nice to experience backpacking the first time.
But sure, you have some reasonable points, especially the language-part and the budget-travel.
[…] Also climbing higher and higher on our list. Backpacking South East Asia – Even You Can Do It […]
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Agree. I went to Thailand in January and it was my first time in SE Asia. I loved it! It's cheap, and easy to travel around. For the first time in my life I felt totally free. I'm going back there in January and can't wait!
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Great post! These tips are real helpful since I am planning a solo backpacking trip across SE Asia this summer. Keep up the good work and happy travels.
Lovely post! I'm heading to SE Asia in two weeks after traveling through Latin America for 10 months. Can't wait to eat some pho and tantalize my senses with everything available there!
Good advice, I always tell people to go to Thailand to start and "work your way from there". It's so different than where I'm from that it really impresses you but it's relatively safe and very organized.
Africa… Different game altogether and I'm talking about solo travel, not some overland truck or tour group.
This post makes me incredibly excited to travel through South East Asia! My boyfriend and I are starting our backpacking trip in Japan, then heading over to South Korea and China before starting up with South East Asia. Most of all I am definitely excited for the food!
I totally agree. I'm Southeast Asian, and I still totally enjoy exploring countries in the region. Most people are surprised to find out that I'm from the region too. The vibrant atmosphere that most places along the SEA backpackers' trail is fun and perfect to make new friends from all over the world.
Local transportation in most areas is easy to use, and even if you go off to some off the beaten paths, where locals have very limited English, their willingness to help more than makes up for it.
[…] Also climbing higher and higher on our list. Backpacking South East Asia – Even You Can Do It […]
Yep, southeast Asia certainly is very very easy to get around and that does make it pleasant. A totally different experience to some other parts of the world. But as you'd know, one place in southeast Asia that isn't easy is Indonesia. In fact, it's a bit of a nightmare which makes it all the more rewarding. You also don't come across as many party hard types that couldn't give two shits about which country they're getting smashed in today. 🙂
Jill, I agree from everything I've learned from friends Asia and particularly Thailand is an agreeable and easy place to begin a journey as a backpacker. I haven't yet been to Thailand but it is high on my list.
I just returned from Laos and I do recommend anyone who's visiting Southeast Asia to go to Laos as well. They have everything Southeast Asia is famous for – beautiful temples, super friendly people, laid-back atmosphere, and my favorite: fresh and delicious local food! (by far, Lao food is the best local food I've ever tasted in my life).
Yes, yes, and yes! And the fact that most stuff is so cheap means that it's easier for travelers to get themselves out of a sticky situation. Travel mishaps become much more manageable when it costs $10 to fix the situation instead of $100.
Great post. I totally agree with you. I have been living in Cambodia for six months now and have traveled to Malaysia and Vietnam whilst here. Although things are of course very different, it is not too much of a culture shock I think as you will always get your Western comforts if you need them (i.e. food, internet etc.). I love how friendly the people here are (apart from HCMC/Vietnam perhaps, where they seemed to be very rude and always tried to rip us off). Whatever hardship people are going through, they have the biggest and loveliest smiles in the whole wide world. I definitely recommend SEA as a first destination.
@TammyOnTheMove – Sorry to hear it (your rude/rip off experience in Vietnam). I've been living here for more than 6 months now (all over the country, but settled primarily here in Saigon.)
We each can't help but form a stereotypical view from our personal experiences even with but a brief dip into a given country as we travel the globe. But I must say – I've found the folks here in Vietnam to be most friendly and amazingly honest, so I'm genuinely sorry that your stay here was less than warm and fuzzy.
Thanks Dyanne@TravelnLass. I am sure most people in Vietnam are lovely. I was probably just unlucky, although I did get ripped off by moto and taxi drivers three times in one day. But you are right, it is unfair to stereotype and I guess everybody has different experiences. I definitely want to go back to Vietnam though and experience the northern parts.
We are just finishing five weeks in SEA as part of our 14 month, around the world trip. We traveled to Singapore, Malaysia, Laos and Thailand. I would agree with this being a great place for first time travelers, especially Thailand, which is so touristed and easy to navigate. We did got off the beaten path in Northern Laos, which was challenging, but there were no tourists and one could really experience local life. So good to do both types of travel.
Thailand is the best country in SE Asia if you are a first time traveller. It's easy to get around and has a well etablished tourist trail. Mass tourism has also brought lots of problems to Thailand, but there are ome amazing NGOs and tourist businesses working hard to promote sustainable tourism across the Kingdom. My advice is once you have seen the tourist areas, get off the beaten track (inspire of what you hear it is still possible). Head to the north east known as Issaan and really experience Thai culture at it's best!
Definitely agree. I think what makes it a good place for first time traveler is because it receives tons of tourists. I remember feeling weirded out when out on the streets and half of the people (or so it seemed like) were westerners. I'd love to back and see more off the beaten path areas we didn't get a chance to explore. And there's the food as well 🙂
You had to show a perfect picture of khao soy, didn't you? Now I need to go to SE Asia or hunt it down here in SF!
oooh, let me know once you find it!
The way this blog is written has a very personal yet informative tone. Content wise i find it very fulfilling, especially being interested in travelling myself. Briefly touching on aspects of food, transport, accommodation,culture and even internet availability leads me to think that this blog is aimed at promoting South-East Asia, and does so very effectively.It seems a very useful source for people looking to travel. Particularly how it presents the contrasting views(eg: the quality of public transport) and the truth in your personal experience helps to understand simply how others perceive South East Asia, and how traveling can open your eyes to the real value of places. I really like the layout of the blog, the use of subheadings makes it easy to follow and the photographs bring the words to life.
I've never been, but it is high on my list. Definitely a fan of having some decent infrastructure, safety, and awesome new food to discover.
It was def a nice break from a more rustic traveling we'd been doing up until that time.
Damn, I'm hungry now, after seeing that photo. Nice article. And yes, nothing wrong with doing "the circuit", especially for newbie travellers. PS. You can get more than just Tajine in Morocco, you just have to know which restaurants to go to.
we were so sick of Tajine by the time we left Morocco (we did find some non-tajine – but definitely had to work for it), but now – I'm craving it. Funny how it works.
I agree. Thailand, Thailand, Thailand! It's such an easy place to travel for all the reasons you listed. Plus, it has enough to make you keep wanting to go back! I've been twice now and can easily see myself going again in the future. Such a lovely country.
Great post and excellent tips! So many tidbits to comment on:
"…they’re…endurable." LOL! Yup, we backpackers are experts on nothing, if not "endurable". 😉 Indeed. But of course "…piss-smelling, cramped train compartments" aren't the exclusive domain of Vietnam. Such handy, if dubiously comfy transport can be found throughout Southeast Asia, indeed the globe, no?
And not sure I'd agree with your "…pleasant surprise" regarding the "…circuit is a well trodden path with few variations." True. "well trodden" can be quite helpful to "first time travelers" (to which I well understand your post is primarily directed). But I must say "streamlined" and "efficient" aren't exactly the first two adjectives that spring to mind for we veteran travelers when setting out to explore a new region of the globe.
Yes, handy for covering a lot of territory swiftly and easily, but the good news is – even for newbie travelers – there are indeed LOTS of "variations" all along the way. Indeed, often it's just a matter of sliding sideways off the "circuit" to a neighboring small village, or even just down a side alley or three – where you'll often find the locals going about their (authentic) day-to-day lives.
That said, I love, love, LOVE your line:
"Smiles, like humidity and strange looking fruit, was something that come in abundance in South East Asia. Even those who want to rip you off do so with a smile."
Yup, smiles come in all flavors (i.e. genuine and monetarily-driven) here in SEA – but I find it so in most every corner of the world, no? Well o.k. perhaps notsomuch in Egypt where sadly, I found most ALL smiles to be of the latter flavor – sigh…
Incredible food, check, 4-bit beer (though not always icy), check. And yes, g-knows wifi is oh so happily ubiquitous here in SEA.
And likewise your brilliant comment about "…a little bribe can go a long way." Indeed, it's a given. A way of life here. Part and parcel of the culture. So no point in grumbling about it. Just cough up the (paltry by Western piggy-bank standards) few dong, reals, baht, whatever and go on about your business (of uh, flying to 'n fro the globe on spendy plane tickets.)
And finally your genius wrap-up: “We went to see this tourist site and everything went very well according to plan.” g-knows our travels would prove mighty boring were they not spiced with at least a modicum of mishap along the way. Indeed, as I've often said in my travel classes on Belize and Costa Rica (ancient times: think: pre-internet) "Thou can't expect to find things as thou hast at home, for though hast left home to find things different."
Sorry to be so long-winded. Truly a great post offering an excellent set of tips to encourage those who might otherwise shy away from exploring the fascinating lands of SEA.
Dyanne – lol, appreciate the lengthy discussion. I found the whole region to be a nice break from a more rustic traveling we'd been doing up until that time. What a relief! I understand that most times you do want to get away from everything and the word 'streamlined' evokes an image of a conveyor belt moving tourists through (which to a certain degree, that's what it is), but for me — man, it was nice to follow the crowd so to speak for a change. Do you know what I mean? I think along with first time travelers, I'd probably recommend the region for those who are looking for 'vacation' from their long term traveling 🙂 That's def what it felt like to me.
As I am from one of the countries in SE Asia myself, I am totally proud to hear you singing praises for the region!:-) Yes, the people are friendly and helpful wherever you go and most of them survive on the little English they know but with a bit of gesture and action here and there, they can guide you though as you mentioned, do beware of potential conmen. Do drop by Malaysia too; it's just so near to Thailand, and you might just enjoy it as much as you did Thailand 😀
Hi Christy, ok – I have to admit that since I was born and raised in Indonesia, I might be a little biased. But still 🙂 Hey, we're neighbors! Embarass to admit that I still haven't made it there.
I think you make a lot of great points about why SEA is a great place for newbie travelers to cut their teeth. I have done some traveling already, but never to this area, and I'm personally looking forward to the food most of all! (On our upcoming RTW trip, my husband and I intend to spend some serious time in SEA, but we're actually going to be starting our whole trip in Japan, then doing 2 months in China, and then finally making it to the region).
When I did my first long trip, my friend and I backpacked through Europe and the UK. I'd say that Europe is probably the least intimidating place to start backpacking, with the major caveat being that it's not cheap. But transportation is easy, and they are so used to foreigners that even my parents (who are not really hardcore travelers at all) can get around there!
You do have a point there. Our very first backpacking trip (before we were even married) was to Europe, and it was indeed easy yet expensive.
Totally agree. Thailand is a great place to start for first time backpackers. I was in Phuket for the month of March – loved it.
Phuket – as part of the cruise? People seem to have strong opinions about Phuket. They either love it or hate it.
I recommend it to a lot of people as well for all the same reasons you listed.
I will give a shout out to the GlobeTrotterGirls, they are in South East Asia and visiting a lot of places on AND off the backpacker trail. It's made me rethink going back there.
Too many places to go, not enough time 🙂