Southeast Asia is a collection of related but dissimilar states squeezed between the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean. The area has long been a favorite corner of the world for globe-tramping backpackers, well-known for its perfect beaches, tasty cuisine, low prices, and good air connections.
Southeast Asia is one of the world's most popular tourist destinations, and for a reason: a tropical climate, warm (or hot!) all year around, rich culture, gorgeous beaches, wonderful food and last but not least, low prices. While its history and modern-day politics are complex, most of it is also quite safe for the traveller and easy to travel around in.
Southeast Asia's culture is dominantly influenced by the Indians and Chinese as well as its colonizers. Thai, Burmese, Cambodian and Lao culture is heavily Indianized as well as Chinese-influenced in areas such as faith, folklore, language and writing. Malaysia and Indonesia are also influenced by the Indians, Malays and Chinese with a touch of Arab culture due to the large Muslim populations. Vietnam is the most Chinese-influenced country while Brunei's culture is Malay-influenced. East Timor's culture is influenced notably by the Portuguese and the Malays. Singaporean and Philippine cultures are the most diverse: Singaporean is a mix of Malay, Indian, Peranakan, British, American and Chinese cultures while the Philippines is heavily influenced by American, Spanish, Malay, Japanese, Portuguese and Chinese culture with less influence from the Indians, Mexicans and other Europeans, making it as the most westernized nation in the region.
Accommodation in Southeast Asia is really cheap. You can find dorm rooms for as little as 8,000-20,000 KHR or 16,000-40,500 LAK ($2-5 USD) in parts of Cambodia and Laos. In Thailand, you will typically pay 200-440 THB ($6-13 USD) per night. In Vietnam, expect to pay 100,000-175,000 VND ($5-8 USD). In Indonesia, between 100,000-135,000 IDR ($8-10 USD). Throughout the region, you typically expect to pay around $15-20 per night for a private room with A/C. Prices are higher in the cities and touristy areas (and especially on the touristy islands) and lower in rural areas. You can usually stay cheaply by booking hostels and guesthouses, so Couchsurfing and Airbnb don’t really need to be used here. Budgeting $10-20 USD per night for accommodation is pretty safe no matter where you go in Southeast Asia.
There is no need to book accommodation in advance when traveling around Southeast Asia. Backpackers have the tendency to just show up and book a room on the spot. I only book the first night’s accommodation in any city (which is only because I’m usually too tired to walk around looking for a place to sleep at that point).
Food is very inexpensive in Southeast Asia and if you are spending a lot of money on food, you are doing something wrong. Even with a balance of Western meals and local dishes, I rarely spend more than $15 USD per day on food unless I decide to feed my sushi addiction.
In Southeast Asia, street food is the most popular form of eating. On average, these meals cost no more than $1.50 USD. You find these stalls throughout this region lining major streets and at the markets. In Thailand, you even find markets specially for street food. In Singapore, you’ll find street food (or “hawker stands” as they are called there) to be around 4.25 SGD ($3 USD) for a meal. Even if you go into small local restaurants, the price does not increase that much. Food you can find for $1.50 USD at a street stall will only cost $3-5 USD at a local restaurant. Western meals, including burgers, bad pizza, sandwiches, cost around $5 USD for cheaply made food. This is going to be the most expensive part of your food budget. If you want something that actually tastes like it does back home, you’re looking at spending at least $10 USD for your meal. In the mood for a really nice bowl of pasta? $8 USD. Want a deliciously made steak? At least $20 USD. In short, even though the food is cheaper than back home, it is expensive by local standards and eating a lot of western food will diminish your ability to spend little in this region.
The easiest and cheapest way to get around Asia is by bus. A bus will take you everywhere and anywhere you want to go, no matter how far. The backpacker trail is so worn that there is a very well established and oiled tourist bus system to take you anywhere. Buses costs vary between $5-8 USD for a 5-6 hours journey. Overnight buses cost $10-15 USD depending on distance. Local public transportation costs from a few pennies to a few dollars. In Bangkok, the public bus costs 4 THB (10 cents) while in the above and underground trains (they one of each) costs 35 THB ($1 USD). In Singapore, the local train system starts at 1.40 SGD ($1 USD).
Taxis and tuk tuks (small shared taxis with no meter) will require a bit of haggling and cost more than local transportation. Taxis and tuk tuks are normally double to triple what the local transportation is and you often have to haggle for the price. They start really high and you work towards something you are willing to pay. Eventually you come to a conclusion, which is usually about half the price they started with.
Outside of Thailand and the Singapore-Bangkok train (which is long and overpriced), train service is limited and not worth considering.
For flights, Air Asia and Tiger Airways can get you around the region cheap and fast. They often have incredible sales so if you’re in a rush, these two airlines can get you where you need to go!
Activities here are pretty cheap. Most day tours only cost around $20 USD, often times less. Learning to scuba dive will set you back a few hundred dollars and the multi-day pass to Angkor Wat is 160,000 KHR ($39 USD). For everything else, check the country and city guides for prices on various activities.
Moreover, never book anything before landing in any city because that’s a sure-fire way to overpay. Always wait until you get there. There are tons of tour operators and small shops dotting the backpacker streets that you can negotiate with to get a good price.
Suggested daily budget – $25-35 USD (Note: This is a suggested budget assuming you’re staying in a hostel, eating out a little, cooking most of your meals, and using local transportation. Using the budget tips below, you can always lower this number. However, if you stay in fancier accommodation or eat out more often, expect this to be higher!)
Top Things To See And Do in Southeast Asia
There is a lot to do in Southeast Asia and trying to list everything on a continent would be too difficult to do. Below are some of my favorite activities. Clicking on the city and country links in this article will help you branch off and get more details.
Explore Bangkok – Bangkok is the hub of travel activity for Southeast Asia. You’ll be able to get anywhere you want from here, experience amazing food, find cheap shopping deals, and experience a great nightlife that will keep you up until dawn. I hated it when I first went, but after a few days, I saw just how amazing this city was.
Eat in Singapore – Thought Thailand had great food? Try the hawker stalls of Singapore for great eats. Don’t forget to also visit Little India and Chinatown. They have some of the best and cheapest food in Asia!
Dive Sipidan – Located off Malayasian Borneo, Sipidan is one of the best dives sites in the world. If you have your dive certificate, make sure you venture out here. Not a lot of people make it to this part of Malaysia but there’s a lot to see here besides diving. Go the extra mile, and make your way off the tourist trail a bit.
Get your temple overload – There’s a lot of everything in Southeast Asia – lots of food, islands, clothes, drinking, and lots of temples. You can’t turn a corner without seeing another temple. You’ll get temple overload at some point, but visit as many as you can as each is unique to the country and region of the temple.
Fall in love with Bali – Bali is the most popular destination in Indonesia. It’s famous Kuta beach (overrated) and is known for its parties and surfing. However, there is much more to Bali than just wild nights and sun-soaked days. Many beaches are great for families, while the rice terraces in the center will show you what green really is, and Ubud is an artistic town with great food and traditional dancing.
Watch the sun rise over an Indonesian Volcano – One of the most popular tourist attractions on Java is Mount Bromo and its National Park. You’ll not want to miss out on getting a snap of the smoldering Bromo volcano as it lies surrounded by the almost lunar landscape of the Sea of Sand. If you’re there in mid-August, you’ll be just in time to see Upacara Kasodo, the monthly ritual which the Tenggerese take part in. Get up early to catch one of the most memorable sunrises of your life.