Backpacking Southeast Asia: What You Need to Know

©istockphoto/Joel CarilletSo you’ve been dream­ing of back­pack­ing through South­east Asia. When the Banana Pan­cake Trail beck­ons, how do you make your vision a reality?

Get­ting There
Flight is prob­a­bly your best bet, espe­cial­ly if you’re a solo adventurer—although there are options for trav­el by ship, these can be either cost­ly or unre­li­able. Look­ing up the best (largest) air­ports and the best (safest) air­lines in South­east Asia is a good place to begin your research.

Plug your cho­sen des­ti­na­tions into the Google Flights tool. This tool is the best! You can include near­by air­ports and look at prices for any date in the cal­en­dar drop­down. Look for rewards pro­grams offered through rep­utable sites like Expe­dia to snag the best deal possible.

Now that you’ve booked your flight, the dream just got real, and you need to tack­le the least glam­orous aspects of your trip. It’s logis­tics, but it’s imper­a­tive that you fig­ure these con­cerns out soon­er rather than later.

Visas
Visa poli­cies dif­fer by coun­try. Viet­nam requires a visa in hand before you can enter the coun­try, unless you are arriv­ing by air, in which case you can pre­arrange for a visa. Indone­sia offers 30-day visas on arrival for rough­ly $25.

Cam­bo­dia offers 30-day visas that you can pick up at a bor­der or an air­port, while Thai­land also offers a 30-day visa for those arriv­ing by air and a 15-day visa for those arriv­ing by land…but guess what…they’re free! Malaysia also offers free 90-day visas on arrival.

For longer visas and visas for oth­er South­east Asian coun­tries, this arti­cle cov­ers the var­i­ous oth­er require­ments. It also rec­om­mends pay­ing for any fee-based visas in West­ern cur­ren­cy to get a deal.

Vac­ci­na­tions
You should con­sid­er a vari­ety of vac­ci­na­tions when vis­it­ing South­east Asia. Some fall into the “you should just have these vac­ci­na­tions in your reg­u­lar life” cat­e­go­ry and some fall into the “you should have them for your trip” category.

Accord­ing to the Cen­ters for Dis­ease Con­trol, you should already have your measles-mumps-rubel­la (MMR) vac­cine, diph­the­ria-tetanus-per­tus­sis vac­cine, vari­cel­la (chick­en­pox) vac­cine, polio vac­cine, and your year­ly flu shot. If you haven’t had these, get them.

For your trip, you might con­sid­er Hepati­tis A and Typhoid. If you’ll be vis­it­ing mul­ti­ple coun­tries, Hepati­tis B, Japan­ese Encephali­tis, Malar­ia, Rabies, and Yel­low Fever also fall under the list of pos­si­ble vac­ci­na­tions. Dis­cuss options with your doctor.

Learn the Language
The main artery of the Banana Pan­cake Trail is the Khao San Road, which winds through Bangkok. Know your basic Thai phras­es. As you ven­ture from Thai­land, most vis­i­tors can prob­a­bly get by with Viet­namese, Khmer (spo­ken in Cam­bo­dia) and Burmese. If you make it to China’s Yun­nan Province, brush up on your South­west­ern Mandarin.

Learn to say hel­lo, good-bye, par­don me, sor­ry, where is and how much. Short phras­es and ques­tions (spo­ken in your fal­ter­ing, clear­ly non-native accent) should make it obvi­ous that you want to con­nect on a mean­ing­ful level.

Guides, restau­rant own­ers, and shop­keep­ers who cater to tourists are a great resource for expand­ing your vocab­u­lary fur­ther. They fre­quent­ly speak some English.

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Nav­i­ga­tion and Transportation
Keep a map handy. If you man­gle the name of the city you wish to vis­it, just point to it on the page.

Trains routes are eas­i­er to make sense of than bus­es. Check all timeta­bles short­ly before you depart. You’ll real­ly get to know your fel­low thrill-seek­ers on these jour­neys, mak­ing them an ide­al time to com­pare trav­el notes and adjust your route.

If you just want to go from point A to point B, these inter­na­tion­al­ly rec­og­nized taxi ser­vices can be accessed from your phone.

For those moments when trans­porta­tion is more a mat­ter of expe­ri­enc­ing the sights and sounds of the region than about arriv­ing at a spe­cif­ic loca­tion at a giv­en time, your options will vary accord­ing to coun­try: slide on the back of a xe om motor­bike taxi in Viet­nam or catch a tuk tuk in Cambodia.

Putting It All Together
If the nec­es­sary plan­ning and poten­tial for cul­tur­al mis­com­mu­ni­ca­tion seems over­whelm­ing, just remem­ber: we’ll nev­er under­stand each oth­er as glob­al cit­i­zens until we take the jour­ney. So get out there and explore!