Long-Term Backpacking Guide in Southeast Asia
They march on their flip-flops with huge nylon tubes on their backs searching for cheap guesthouses. They hem the blinding white sand beaches for that awesome holiday tan. They fill the party venues and they do it hard and wild. We see them year-round in Southeast Asia. They’re the happy backpackers and yes, many of them are on serious long-term journeys.
Most backpackers gravitate in this part of the world either to escape the cold winter chills of the West or to slip into a career break and fill the fancies of spontaneity and nothingness. They spend it in Southeast Asia because of the following reasons:
It is a lot cheaper than anywhere else. Relative to necessary costs like accommodation & in-land transportation, food & booze, your travel budget will make you see more places in one swing.
Visa and other travel requirements are easy to secure. Citizens of Southeast Asian member nations are even on visa-free entries.
Tourist attractions and activities come in countless choices from mountains to seas, from temples to colonial buildings, from sky diving to reef diving and a whole lot more.
Southeast Asians are generally hospitable and friendly to tourists. This standout character makes moving around easy and memorable.
Party places are awesome. From posh superclubs to beach and street parties, Southeast Asia is flaming hot and exciting.
But extended travels are a contrast of many things beautiful and ugly. You may have heavyweight euros and dollars that could buy you more than just your sunset cocktails by the beach for months but do you have the right attitude to survive long-term backpacking in Southeast Asia?
There’s more to life here than being an affordable travel destination. I listed some of the basics that most backpackers know but still many choose ignore.
Be culturally sensitive.
We always like to think that with an all-time high on international tourism in Southeast Asia, the value of modesty has liberally changed. The hard truth is NO.
While kissing may be a universally accepted gesture of friendliness and affection, doing it with tongue in public like temples, cafes, parks and trains are still considered scandalous and offensive. Even in open capital cities like Bangkok, Manila and Singapore, too much public display of affection may put you in shame.
Dress appropriately. Sure, you can be in your bikinis on the beach but not when you’re in town walking back to your hotel. Western tourists in Vang Vieng, Laos rampantly ignore this despite the advisories. Cover up when you get into temples and churches or you’ll be denied entry. In predominantly Muslim countries like Indonesia, Malaysia & Brunei, your half-butt exposures may well earn you jail time.
Be mindful too in sporting tattoos of religious images like Buddha in any part of your lower body because in Myanmar and Laos, this could potentially bring you to expulsion.
Learn the different nuances of culture in each of your host destinations to avoid harassments or embarrassments. Always remember, we are just foreigners in a foreign land.
Travel light. Lighter. Lightest.
If you ever think of bringing an entire caboodle of wardrobe to wow your Instagram fans with different outfits for different posts, forget it. Carrying a heavy load will only mean 2 things: either you break your bag or your back!
Think about the long walks searching for cheap hostels, hopping into uncomfortable rides or running after flights and paying expensive excess baggage fees.
The weather in Southeast Asia is just either dry or wet so you only need lightweight clothing to give you a little breeze during humid days or a plastic rain cover to keep you dry. I met Matilde, a 60-ish lady from Spain who has been tramping Southeast Asia for nearly 2 years with only one 30-liter bag. Her tip: buy cheap shirts on the road and master the art of wash-wear-donate-repeat.
Stash the cash!
It is good to bring credit cards to pay for big bills like hotel and airfare but most of the spending in SEA like food, attractions, border fees, bus tickets are only done in cold cash. Euros, US or Australian dollars can be easily exchanged anywhere.
However, in Myanmar, only crisp and crease-free US Dollar bills are accepted for exchange with Burmese Kyat otherwise face the worst travel nightmare. In Cambodia, US Dollars are widely accepted even in small stores but bring smaller bills like $1s, $5s, $10s for convenience.
Some tourist hotspots may not have banks or ATMs too like in El Nido, Philippines. Cash is precious anywhere in SEA.
Work or Volunteer.
Kill the romance that nomadic passion conquers all because in reality, that will not buy you a bus ticket to the next town. Before leaving home, make sure you have enough money to fund your entire length of travel.
Getting to your destination is easy but sustaining it is the hardest. Many long-term travelers have to work on the road by bartending, giving out flyers, teaching or even farming in exchange for free food and bed. Lucky if you have an online job that pays even when you’re on travel otherwise you’ll only be as good as where your budget allows you.
Westerners are preferred over Asians because business owners like in Sihanoukville and Koh Rong think that it is easy to persuade fellow Westerners to dine in their restos or stay in their guesthouses.
Many backpackers scrimp too much on their budget because they want to see more places. But it is not the quantity of places you’ve been to that matters but the quality of experience you gather in your travels.
Some choose more bottles of beer over a museum pass or eat bread all the time over occasional indulgence on decent meal. What’s the point of traveling in a far away land only to just stay in the hostel or bars?
Food anywhere in Southeast Asia is generally affordable. Make sure you budget at least $2 for a decent meal to $10 for a fancy one. Explore couchsurfing and home-stay accommodations because these options abound in this region. Beer and cigarettes are cheap but consider that too much of it might make you miss a 7th century temple pass or a bus ticket to the next town.
Low-cost airlines like Air Asia, Cebu Pacific, Jetstar & Tiger Air have year-round promo fares. It might be worth checking them first than choosing long bus rides or boat sailings.
Be mindful of the dangers of flesh trade.
This reality is something that no one likes to talk about but it is rampantly happening even among younger backpackers. Take it to the streets of Pham Ngu Lao, Malate, Sukhumvit, Pattaya, Pub Street and you’ll see how things change as night falls.
Sure, you may find Southeast Asian features to be exotic but when you date a local make sure you do it with caution. There are many reported cases of tourists fall on a date scam & get robbed or worse, get repeatedly extorted for false rape charges. You don’t want to get locked-up abroad, do you?
If you are dating a fellow backpacker, do not do it in dorm rooms. It is disgusting and disrespectful to other occupants. Many backpackers staying in party hostels in Siem Reap are so popular for this careless behavior.
Smoking marijuana is prohibited.
This is punishable by law and depending on which country you are in, the penalties could be jail time to death. In some western countries, you can buy this in the open. In SEA, trading exists but always under cover. Do not ever take the risk.
Know your host destination.
Careful planning is essential because aimless wandering can be costly and unproductive. Gather information about your host countries like its people, culture, attractions, food and transportation. Southeast Asia is a wealth of attractions. Create the big picture on your head but leave the nitty-gritty discovered on-ground.
Successes in long-term travels come by your flexibility to swing some spontaneous destinations out of your planned routes.
Long-term travel is not at all just gallivanting and it’s not about racing who makes the most destinations. It is about proper pacing and sound strategies to sustain a fulfilling journey. Ditch that 70s hippie-ish concept of travel because even with the excesses of money and time, without strategic moves, you will not last long.
Congeniality is not only an award given in beauty contests; it is also the operative word in long-term travels, especially when you are wandering solo. Grumpy, picky, too opinionated and freeloaders normally end up alone. Finding joy in the company of others and opportunities in adversities surely helps in surviving extended journeys.
After a while, you’ll surely be hit with temple and palace overloads, curry, chili and coco milk tolerance, beer and party hangover, bus and train ride fatigue. And that vagabonding syndrome of waking up in the morning and sometimes forgetting where you are will ultimately become a familiar experience.
Southeast Asia is one great host in fulfilling your wanderlusts but surviving it is all up to you. Just be mindful of the necessary travel rules and you’ll have fantastic experiences more than what you can imagine.