Backpacking Southeast Asia with only a bag and a few bucks is a lot different than it used to be. Globalization, tourism and technology have completely redefined the experience, and now backpacking is easier and more popular than ever before. These days, anybody can do it – but that kind of accessibility also has a dark side. To see and experience another culture is a privilege that so many people actually take for granted.
If you’ve backpacked before, you get it. There’s no comparison between following a pre-made itinerary of tourist activities and making your own adventure as you go along. So for those who want to see Southeast Asia no holds barred, here are a few tips on how to do it as a backpacker:
1. You can’t go to Thailand without seeing Laos and Cambodia.
So many young people come to Southeast Asia only to hit Thai islands like Koh Samui and Phuket. But these areas have become so over-developed over the years it’s arguably not the real Thailand anymore. For a more authentic experience, go off the beaten path and get lost somewhere between Thailand and its neighbour countries Laos and Cambodia. I love Thailand (I lived there for two years), but I wouldn’t trade anything for the genuine interaction with locals I had in places like Vang Vieng and Sihanoukville.
2. Go to Myanmar.
Since Myanmar’s military junta was dissolved, the country has grown at an exponential rate. In a few years, it won’t even be recognizable compared to how it is now – the government plans to bring in 7.5 million tourists by 2020 and that means huge development to the infrastructure. Go to Myanmar now to see it in the midst of its change.
3. Go it alone, not on a group tour.
Traveling on an itinerary that’s been used over and over again is not real backpacking. Plus, it’s impossible to experience the culture of Southeast Asia if you’re only hanging around the same 20 foreigners all the time. Creating your own trip may be more work, but you’ll have so many more good stories to share.
4. Don’t get stuck in the hotel room.
Getting homesick is a reality, but the remedy is definitely not sitting in bed on Skype all day. Never lose sight of your adventure, because you may end up regretting it. There are endless experiences to have and new people to meet on the road.
5. Know the culture and always be respectful.
Sometimes tourists can be rude without realizing it, and it’s only because they don’t understand the local culture. For example, in Thailand it’s considered extremely disrespectful not to give up your seat to an elderly person. In Southeast Asia in general, an understanding of Buddhist traditions goes a long way, for example appropriate dress for visiting temples and how to act around monks.
6. Learn a few words in the local language.
I can’t tell you enough how much locals appreciate it when foreigners try to speak their mother tongue. When a tourist can’t even say “thank you” or “hello” in the local language, it can come off as pretty lazy and impolite. The best is to learn numbers, which can help in bargaining and maybe even garner a better price. For picking up basic Thai, for example, there’s plenty of good material on YouTube.
7. When shopping: look first, bargain second.
There are a couple times I’ve really kicked myself for buying something, and then seeing it at another stall nearby for a lesser price. A lot of vendors tend to have the same souvenirs and goods, so take a proper browse around before buying. And don’t forget to always bargain – the first price you get is usually never the best one.
8. Go off the beaten path.
Don’t be afraid to stray away from touristy hotspots and get lost in small towns and the countryside. This is where you’re sure to have the best memories and most authentic experience in Southeast Asia. Traveling through impoverished areas where little to no English is spoken can also be a personal learning experience too.
9. Booking ahead isn’t always a good idea.
When arriving at a new destination, you never know where you’re going to end up – from your favourite beaches to how long you even want to stay. Book a room for the first night, but any longer than that doesn’t make much sense. In Southeast Asia, you won’t save much on a longer reservation, anyway.
10. Take a VIP bus at least once.
You can get really far for $10 CDN with one of Thailand’s infamous VIP buses. It’s definitely not as comfortable as a flight (and certainly takes a lot longer) but it’s another local experience to add to the list. You’ll get a window-view of the countryside and perhaps even get to meet a few Thai people, too.