How to Plan an Extended Trip in Southeast Asia

Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam

Editor’s Note:  BootsnAll is going to focus on a different region each month in 2013, with Southeast Asia being the focal point for January.  This is the perfect time to start planning that trip to the one of the most popular indie travel regions in the world.  Be on the lookout for more articles, travel guides, tips, and resources throughout January 2013  for planning your trip in Southeast Asia.

Southeast Asia has long been a major stopping point for backpackers around the world.  Exotic destinations, beautiful beaches and mountains, bustling cities, fantastic food, friendly people, a well trodden tourist trail, and super cheap prices all contribute to one of the top regions in the world for traveling.

From the smiling faces and pristine beaches in Thailand, to the incredible, fresh food in Vietnam, to one of the most impressive sites in the world in Cambodia, to the sleepy, still undiscovered lands of Laos, Southeast Asia is ripe for the picking if you love to travel.

What to expect

Expect stunning scenery, historical site after historical site, fantastic food that is as cheap, fresh, and as good as you’ll find anywhere in the world, and ease of travel.

Sure, you may not always be comfortable (hello, minibuses in Laos), but what you give up in comfort you get back in the wallet.  One of the most surprising things about travel in SE Asia was just how easy it truly is.  Unless you really get off the beaten path, the language barrier is pretty much nonexistent as most everyone, especially those involved in tourism, speaks English.  Because the region has been a popular travel destination for the better part of 50 years, they have it down and know how it’s done, so enjoy the ride!

Planning your trip to Southeast Asia

A lot goes into planning your trip to Southeast Asia – how to get there, how to get around once you are there, best time of the year to go, which vaccinations you need, and what the visa situations are.

Check out our Southeast Asia Travel Guide

Getting around

Getting around SE Asia is pretty easy (though it may not be the epitome of comfort all the time), with many options depending on your budget.

  • Air- Air Asia is the main budget airline in the region, and if you are flexible and on top of things, you can get dirt cheap flights between major cities (Bangkok, Saigon, Hanoi, Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, etc.).
  • Bus- Bus quality varies from country to country and even city to city.  Thailand and Vietnam have some decent buses, some of them the sleeper variety, but some flat out suck, too.  Be sure to check the information below to see specifics on overland travel in each country.
  • Minibuses- While not the most comfortable transport in the world, minibuses are in all Southeast Asian countries in some form or another (costing practically nothing).  The unifying factor amongst bus transport is that it’s dirt cheap.
  • Train- Trains are available in all countries as well, with some really nice ones in Thailand, in particular.  There are different types and different classes of seats, with sleeper compartments as well (that are really nice), so do your homework.
  • Boat- One of the coolest modes of transport around Southeast Asia is by riverboat.  Some slow boat trips (Thailand into Laos) are said to be pretty brutal, but others are amazing (Vietnam into Cambodia).  Boat travel is becoming less and less common, though.

Search for airfare to Asia and be sure to read the article about overland travel in Southeast Asia for more information.

Costs

In order to travel on a super, super cheap budget (think under $20-25US/day), you’re going to have to rough it a bit in Southeast Asia.  While you can find beds for under $5/night, you get what you pay for (think dorm beds, no a/c, and questionable cleanliness).

As long as you’re willing to eat street and market food (which you should as it’s the best), you can eat like a king for a few dollars a day.  A huge plate of pad thai costs about $1US on the streets of Bangkok, a steaming bowl of Pho in the alleyways of Hanoi about the same, and as long as you eat locally, even in restaurants, it’s still not going to run more than a few dollars for a meal.

But if you have the money to splurge just a little bit (think $35-40/day), you’re going to have nice, private rooms with air conditioning, you’ll be able to splurge on a western meal you may crave every once in a while, and you’ll be able to take a sleeper train and nice bus in certain situations (sometimes a crappy minibus is your only option).

Thailand and Vietnam are a little more expensive than Laos and Cambodia, but if you plan on $35US/day for these four countries, you’ll be traveling well most of the time.

Read Cheap Southeast Asia: How to Pretend You’re Rich in Bangkok

Vaccinations

When it comes to vaccinations, everyone has their own opinions, so how careful or reckless you want to be is completely up to you.  The best advice we can offer is to go see your primary care doctor and/or a travel physician and take his or her advice. According to the CDC, your routine vaccinations of MMR (measles, mumps, rubella), DPT (diphtheria, pertussis, tetanus), and polio should be up to date, but they aren’t required.  Hepatitis A and B are also highly recommended.  Typhoid and Japanese encephalitis are also recommended, as is rabies.

When it comes to malaria, everyone has an opinion.  Some take some form of malaria meds, some take none.  Again, speak with your doctor about vaccinations and do whatever you’re comfortable with.  And if you do decide to get any/all vaccinations, shop around as prices vary wildly, particularly in the United States.  Most malaria medication is extremely expensive, and you can purchase them for a much cheaper price once you’re in Southeast Asia.  The problem is that most malaria meds advise travelers to start taking them a few weeks before arrival.  But you can get some at home and then re-up once you’re there.  We bought malaria meds over the counter in a pharmacy in Vietnam when we were close to running out.

To find more in depth information about vaccinations, check out these articles:

Visas

For Americans, Vietnam is the only country out of these four where you need to take care of your visa before arriving.  Travelers can get visas on arrival in Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia.  Visa rules are different, though, depending on how you arrive.  For example, if arriving in Thailand by land, it is standard to only receive a 15-day tourist visa, but if you arrive by air, you receive a 30-day visa.  Laos and Cambodia both offer 30-day visas upon arrival.  It is recommended to have US dollars for visas, and make sure they are crisp bills with no tears and little wear (I argued for 15-minutes with a visa officer entering Laos because a few of my bills weren’t in good enough condition).

Check out our visa service and visa application page 

Where to go

Southeast Asia encompasses more than just these four countries, and we’ll get to Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, the Phillipines, and Burma in a future article.  As far as where to go, we highlight many of the top destinations within each country and offer some off-the-beaten-path locations as well.  Some travelers can blast through all four countries in a month, seeing the highlights and moving fast.  Others can take months or even years to explore the region.  It all depends on how much time and money you have.

Thailand

Thailand is a land the evokes many images for travelers.  White sand beaches in the south, one of the biggest, bustling metropolises in the world in Bangkok, and peaceful hill stations in the north.  There is a reason Thailand is one of the most popular travel destinations not only in Southeast Asia but in the entire world.  The beauty all  over the country is unmatched, the food absolutely mouth-watering, and the people as friendly as can be.  It’s not called the Land of Smiles for nothing.  While some may complain that it’s over-touristy, and there are plenty of tourists, it still has an unmatched beauty that will have any travel lover falling in love and wanting to return again and again.

To read more about Thailand, check out the following articles and resources:

Vietnam

Mountains, jungles, beaches.  History, culture, cuisine.  It’s no secret why Vietnam is becoming a top travel destination around the world.  It really does have it all, and with a well trodden tourist trail, travel around this country is rather easy.  The people may not be as friendly as nearby Thailand or as laid back as neighboring Laos, and not everyone has an affinity for travel here, but once you get used to the chaos, Vietnam offers all travelers an unforgettable experience.

To read more about Vietnam, check out the following articles and resources:

Cambodia

When people think of Cambodia, they automatically connect it with one of the world’s greatest wonders, Angkor Wat.  Rightfully so, as it is one of the most visited and spectacular sites in the world.  While Angkor steals the spotlight, there are plenty of other fantastic places to visit in this beautiful Southeast Asian country.

To read more about Cambodia, check out the following articles and resources:

Laos

After being off the tourist radar for so long, Laos is quickly becoming that next great destination for budget travelers in Southeast Asia.  A country that has been pounded by war and still seeing the effects, this sleepy country is drop dead gorgeous.  Laos has lots to offer for those looking to get off the beaten path a bit.  Don’t wait too long, though, as the rest of the world is catching on, and it won’t be long before Laos is just as popular as neighboring Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam.

To read more about Laos, check out the following articles and resources:

Planning a trip to Southeast Asia, whether for a few weeks, months, or years, is a traveler’s dream.  There aren’t many regions in the world that offer what Southeast Asia offers, particularly with these low prices.

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Are you planning a trip to Southeast Asia?  What’s on your must-see list?  Have you traveled to the region before?  What can you recommend?  Comment below to share your thoughts and expertise on this well-traveled region of the world.  

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  • Wee Wanders said at 2014-05-14T15:07:05+0000: Amazing advice - your site is a dream for someone like me (I set off on my travels in 6 weeks and I am a newbie to travel blogging too) Thanks for the info!
  • Keep calm and Travel said at 2013-08-16T04:36:21+0000: ahhhh memories! I remember reading this before starting my trip to Asia! still need to visit Vietnam and Laos, plus many other places on my list. I fell in love with Indonesia though and can't wait to go back there!
  • Chinh Vuthi said at 2013-05-22T07:53:00+0000: REALLY NICE INFORMATION.
  • Jamy Garcia Persel said at 2013-02-24T04:50:27+0000: What are the attitudes/laws in SE Asia in regard to medical marijuana?
  • Van Loen Adventures said at 2013-01-14T09:01:52+0000: Great article and information here - thanks Adam! We're using all of this to plan out our next 5 months in SEAsia - perfect timing!
  • SeeYouSoon Travel said at 2013-01-06T19:35:09+0000: Great overview of the region. I spent 5 months backpacking through SE Asia (and getting down into Malaysia, Singapore & Indonesia) in 2011/12 and loved it. Everything above is right on the money. Bring your patience, leave your hairdryer at home, and go with the flow. You won't regret it!
  • Getting Stamped said at 2013-01-06T03:56:41+0000: Great article! Will reference it when we land in Asia on our RTW trip! We have 5 months for Asia!
  • Sheri Bolton said at 2012-10-17T19:51:04+0000: Great article! Thanks for all the helpful advice.
  • Paula Morgan said at 2012-05-18T00:06:15+0000: Yes don's miss Malaysia - we are about to take our 5th trip there - so many off the beaten track sites, amazing food and few language issues.
  • Ferdz Decena said at 2012-01-11T16:14:13+0000: Hmmm... Why no Philippines? it's more fun here :P
  • Best InChennai said at 2012-05-18T05:45:33+0000: Great Article.Simply Superb. http://www.bestinchennai.com/Travels
  • Steve Aronoff said at 2012-01-17T17:15:24+0000: Among the bad things about Bangkok that was left out is that it's very polluted. My wife and I couldn't wait to get out. We used our hotel room as a storage facility and hired a bird watching guide to take us out of there for three days. However, the round trip to Ayyuthaya is not to be missed, especially for the variety of life on and along the river.The advice to plan an extended trip to see the Angkor Wat complex is spot on. We spent four full days there with a guide and didn't see everything. A great find was that no two temples in the complex were alike. A surprise find for us was that the temple of Angkor Wat itself was not the highlight. Stunning!
  • Denise Pulis said at 2012-01-15T10:59:17+0000: Adam, may I ask when you visited Vietnam. Recent research suggests that prices have gone up from what you mentioned, but I don't know if what I found is correct. Mainly, I was told it's no longer possible to get a filling meal in Hanoi for 1 dollar.
  • Kevin Kato said at 2012-01-12T04:18:15+0000: Sage advice on Ha Long Bay - the place is a revolving door of soulless and, in my experience, quite unfriendly tourism. If I could do it again I'd splurge and find a guy with a boat and pay him to take me around for a couple days. Some good ideas in here, Adam. May I add Mae Salong and Chiang Saen in northern Thailand, Trat and nearby Koh Chang (minus the tourist beach) on the way to Koh Kong, Cambodia, the karsts of Ninh Binh a little south of HaNoi, and generally places where English is not spoken. And let me say for SE Asia, cycling those out of the way places (beware the psycho drivers in Vietnam) can hardly be rivaled as an incredible travel experience. Oh yeah, in peninsular Malaysia Cherating is a cool little beach town. Bottom line, SE Asia is as you say a traveler's dream. Cheers!
  • Tara Ketner said at 2012-01-13T06:17:02+0000: Perfect timing on the article! Taking off for Nepal in April and then onto SE Asia for an undetermined amount of time. Any additional SE Asia articles would be AMAZING, thanks for the great read!
  • Jennifer Miller said at 2012-01-11T15:43:38+0000: LOVE IT! Thank you! Perfect timing as we launch for SEA for at least a year! I appreciate all the hard work that went into this post!