South East Asia Backpacking Routes
Its hard to find useful backpacking routes on the web, so I have assembled several routes in Google Maps.
Your chosen route will be influenced both by time and budget. Most backpackers that travel to South-east Asia have at least 2 weeks to explore and you will need this if you want to see everything. Some people just travel Thailand whilst the majority travel Thailand and Laos. Use these routes as a guideline for planning your trip, you may be worried about transport links to some destinations, however every place listed on these routes can be reached without hassle by both public and private transport.
I think the most important thing to do when planning a route is to be logical and make sure you’re not adding unnecessary distance to the trip. Plan your route in round trips rather than forwards and backwards.
Thailand – The Full Shebang
Bangkok – Surat Thani – Koh Samui – Koh Phangan – Krabi – Koh Phi Phi – Koh Lanta – Bangkok – Ayutthaya – Lopburi – Sukhothai – Chiang Mai – Chiang Rai – Pai – Bangkok (2-4 Weeks)
Bangkok – The starting point for 90% of the travellers in Southeast Asia. I’d recommend staying in Bangkok for 2 nights. You can see most of the stuff in this time and you will more than likely be returning several times before your trip is over. Bangkok is situated more or less in the centre of Thailand, so at some point you will need to consider your first move, do you go north or south. A lot of people you will meet in the Khaosan area of Bangkok will be planning their move around the full moon dates. If you are going to the party, than you will probably be heading south. But for those of you are not, central Thailand has some great attractions and scenery that get overlooked by most visitors.
Surat Thani /Islands – Take the overnight sleeper train or bus down south. You will end up in Surat Thani, the dropping off point for the Eastern Islands, from here you can get a boat to either Koh Phangan or Koh Samui. If you want to go to Koh Tao, you could get a boat from one of the other islands but the best bet is to visit this island first and continue south to the other islands. To do this you will need to get a bus or train from Bangkok to Chumphon, then get a ferry to Koh Tao.
Koh Samui – A very popular island that has its own airport. If you’re short for time and on a bigger budget, you can take a plane straight from Bangkok to Koh Samui. From here you can easily get to Koh Phangan and Koh Tao as well as Ang Thong National Marine Park. Personally, I think this is one of the worse islands. It’s very touristy and over developed. But if you’re looking for a sun tan look no further, Koh Samui is the biggest of the Eastern Islands and has developed beaches in every corner.
Koh Phangan – Home to the full moon party of course. Tourism on the island centers around lunar phases. In the week approaching the party, the island will start filling up, especially in Haad Rin. Every night on the Haad Rin Nok (Full Moon Beach) sees a mini party, in anticipation for the big one. You may think that all this island has to offer is all night parties, fire games and cheap buckets, but Koh Phangan is much more than that. There are many secluded beaches, waterfalls and jungles. Spend a few more days on the island and check them out!
Krabi – After the full moon a popular destination are the islands off of the Andaman Coast. Not too far from the Eastern islands in distance but getting to them will take all day. First a boat back to Surat Thani, then a bus to Krabi and another boat to the next island. A lot of people pass through Krabi un noticed, however it’s a town known for rock climbing and adventure activities.
Koh Phi Phi – Coined as the most beautiful island of Thailand, Koh Phi Phi Don and Koh Phi Phi Leh are insanely popular with backpackers, package holiday makers and day trippers. You wont find much culture here, just a constant flow of visitors to the beach where ‘The Beach’ was filmed. Over development has took the edge of this island but the 2004 tsunami actually restored some of the beaches to there natural glory. Still nice but not so secret.
Koh Lanta – Another island off the Andaman Coast, there’s many to choose from so I’m just going to add this one in. If you’re planning island hopping for this part of your trip you should already know the best destinations. An island and national park known for its nine white sandy beaches. More popular with the older crowd.
Bangkok – After your island hopping adventure and fix of sun, sand and sea, you may want to continue your trip in cooler climates. The north of Thailand will offer a nice contrast and give you the opportunity to explore less traveled areas. To tackle the vast distance to the north, you should plan to stop over at several places on route. The next few are some suggestions. Take an overnight bus or train back to Bangkok.
Ayutthaya – A quick and easy train or bus connection from Bangkok will get you here, the ancient capital of Thailand. I went here earlier this year and although it was low season I was surprised with how few tourists there were in this beautiful city. Ayutthaya is an island at the confluence of three rivers: the Chao Phraya river, the Lopburi river and the Pa Sak river. And the island is littered with ancient temples and religious structures. I’d recommend a few nights to see everything, you will not be disappointed with this place.
Lopburi – One of the oldest cities in Thailand and another former capital. Recently featured on an episode of Karl Pilkington – ‘An Idiot Abroad’. There’s no place in Thailand like this and as for experience I rate this one a ten. A short third class train from Ayutthaya costs around £1, it’s great! Quite a small town with a population of 30,000 but famous for its monkeys. The Crab-eating Macaque’s run this town. They can be seen swinging from everything and plotting against unknowing tourists. There’s even a monkey temple where they all hang out.
Sukhothai – Around 6 hours on the train from Lopburi, getting here will take you about 70% of the way between central Thailand and the north. This makes it a great stopping off place en route to Chiang Mai. The city is a popular tourist destination because it is located near the ruins of the ancient city of Sukhothai. Spend a day exploring the ruins, I recommend renting a bicycle.
Chiang Mai – AKA the undisputed heavyweight champion of the north. Surrounded by mountains and countryside, Chiang Mai is a great base in which to explore the nearby attractions. A much more peaceful and quiet city, than the hustle and bustle of the capital. A lot of people come here for jungle trekking and adventure activities. Chiang Mai can be easily reached on an overnight train from Sukhotthai or direct from Bangkok if you don’t have time to go anywhere in between.
Chiang Rai – Even further north of Chiang Mai is Chiang Rai – the main city in the golden triangle. More of a base city for exploring the surrounding landscapes. Lots of trekking and elephant riding opportunities here. Less popular and much quieter than Chiang Mai.
Pai – Set in a particularly picturesque valley north of Chiang Mai, Pai is a predominantly tourism-oriented town, offering a relaxed atmosphere with a broad tourist and backpacker scene. Wherever you go in Southeast Asia you will meet a backpacker that recommends this place for its beauty and laid back atmosphere. You can only reach this place by bus and you may have to go back through Chiang Mai to get here.
Thailand & Laos Backpacking Route – The Tubing Route!
Bangkok – Surat Thani – Koh Samui – Koh Phangan – Krabi – Koh Phi Phi – Koh Lanta – Bangkok – Ayuttaya – Lopburi – Sukhothai – Chiang Mai – Chiang Rai – Pai – Vientiane – Vang Vieng – Luang Prabang – Bangkok (4-6 Weeks)
A popular route for young tourists, planning to go both to the islands and tubing in Laos. This is the same route as the Thailand loop, but adds in a few destinations in Laos, I’ll skip straight to these.
Vientiane – The capital city of Laos, although much more like a river town. Getting here may be a bit of a pain if you’re coming from the north. A common route is to come from Chiang Mai straight to either Vientiane or Vang Vieng. You can only do this by bus, so you could be in for a long ride here. If you are coming from Bangkok you can get a train straight here and then another over the border. So its pretty accessible no matter where you are coming from. A lot of backpackers pass straight through this city on pre arranged buses to Vang Vieng. I’d recommend staying here for a night or two to break the journey up. There’s not a lot to see or do here but the place has a laid back vibe to it. It’s funny because lonely planet put this for almost every destination, but this is the only one that lives up to it in my opinion.
Vang Vieng – Tubing! Tubing! Tubing! Float down the river in that big inner tube and chill out whilst staring at the towering mountains that look like a set from Jurassic Park. Another ten out of ten experience. I can’t rate it enough and if you’re a backpacker you will most certainly be planning this place into your route. As well as tubing, there are also a plethora of other adventure activities on offer here from rafting to rock climbing.
Luang Prabang – The next big place after Vang Vieng. Known for its monks that line the streets at dawn to collect their only meal for the day. Also famous for its Buddha caves and waterfalls. A very picturesque town that’s definitely worth a visit. This town is normally the end of the road for most travellers, you will have to go back through Vientiane to get back into Thailand, however if you’re going to Vietnam you will be able to reach Ha Noi with the transport connections from this town.
Thailand, Laos and Cambodia Backpacking Route – Tubing & Angkor Wat of course!
Bangkok – Surat Thani – Koh Samui – Koh Phangan – Krabi – Koh Phi Phi – Koh Lanta – Bangkok – Ayutthaya – Lopburi – Sukhothai – Chiang Mai – Chiang Rai – Pai – Vientiane – Vang Vieng – Luang Prabang – Nong Khai – Aranyaprathet – Siem Reap – Battambang – Phnom Penh – Sihanoukville – Kampot – Bangkok (5- 7 Weeks)
Again a similar route to the previous two but this one’s for the 6-8 week backpacker. If you can get the time, this route will not disappoint. Cambodia is the addition here and Angkor Wat is the centrepiece!
Aranyaprathet – This is the border town between Thailand and Cambodia. Accessible by train from Bangkok but not directly accessible by train from Vientiane. Plan this part of the trip into your route accordingly. There’s no perfect way to see all these countries, at some point you are going to have to go back on yourself, but my recommendation is to go to Laos first then get a bus to Cambodia. This should be at the end of your trip and the logic behind this is that you wont be too far from Bangkok when it gets to the end of your trip, thats if you’re flying back from Bangkok.
Siem Reap – 4 hours by bus from the Thai/Cambodia border. Home to the worlds largest religious building. Angkor Wat of course! When I went to Angkor Wat I was blown away, this is one that can not be missed.
Battambang– Home to the bamboo railway. Another ten out of ten for experience and one of the highlights of my trip. Also check out the bat cave. Every night at around the same time the bats fly out of the cave and there are millions of them. An incredible spectacle. One of my favorite places in Cambodia.
Phnom Penh – The capital of Cambodia, always worth a visit. Just like every other destination in Cambodia, this city can only be reached by bus. There are no functioning train routes in Cambodia, although they are being rebuilt. I wouldn’t plan too much time here because the city can start to get on your nerves. The tuk tuk drivers are amongst the worse I’ve met and constantly pester you. But on the upside check out the shooting range, it’s crazy!
Sihanoukville – The coastal heavyweight of Cambodia. The backpacker is set around the central beaches, but if you venture further away from the town you will find some real gems. If you’re going to Vietnam this is the place to get your visa. It’s easier to do it here than it is to pre arrange it before you go. The walk in service takes 15 minutes and costs $40. I think Vietnam has increased its visa cost!
Kampot – Known for its pepper! Surrounded by the elephant mountain range that supports Bokor National Park. This is another genuinely laid back town. Not too far from the cost but actually a river town. Not too touristy but has the essentials. My favourite place in Cambodia. Again if you’re going to Vietnam this is a great place to stop off then pick a bus up to the Vietnamese border, around 3 hours I think. If you’re ending your trip here you could either get a bus to Phnohm Penh and get a flight back to Bangkok or take the bus back to the Thai border and do the overnight train back to Bangkok. But no challenge to get back.
Vietnam Backpacking Route – The entire length!
Ha Tien – Can Tho – Ho Chi Minh – Vung Tau – Mui Ne – Da Lat – Nha Trang – Hoi An – Hue – Ha Noi – Ha Long – Lao Cai – Sapa (2-3 Weeks)
There won’t be too much variation in any Vietnam backpacking route. Your route will either be from north to south or south to north. The majority of travellers fly into Vietnam, it may be hard to get here overland in any tight schedule. A good route to fit into a longer Southeast Asia trip would be to head south to the coastline of Cambodia, pick up a visa in Sihanoukville and then enter Vietnam on the chosen date through the Ha Tien border crossing in the South-West corner. Another good route for overland travellers is from Luang Prabang, although this will be a 20+ hour bus trip you will get to Ha Noi trouble free. This suggested route goes from South to North and is the route I travelled earlier this year.
Ha Tien – The border town on the Vietnamese side, not a lot to see or do here. However you can pick up buses to any town in the Mekong Delta area as well as Ho Chi Minh City.
Can Tho – The largest city in the Mekong Delta and a great base for exploring the nearby villages. A very different Vietnam can be seen here, which more resembles Cambodia. Surprisingly this area used to be called lower Cambodia and can be seen as Cambodia on old maps. Get a taste of river life in this area as the mighty Mekong meets its final destination.
Ho Chi Minh – AKA Saigon, A huge city buzzing with millions of motorcycles. Much busier and more capital like than Ha Noi. Lots to see and do around here, plan a few days. From here you can pick up the train from where you can travel the rest of the country. It takes 30 hours from top to bottom on the train. Don’t underestimate the size of Vietnam whilst planning your time. You may want to consider a domestic flight if you need to get back to Bangkok when the trip comes to an end.
Vung Tau – A hidden gem in my opinion, a short journey from Saigon by bus or hydrofoil. More popular with Vietnamese tourists and weekender’s escaping Saigon, Vung Tau is a beautiful coastal town, known for its statue of Christ which stands at 32m high.
Mui Ne – An attraction that will blow your mind. Right in the middle of the humid lands are expanses of sand dunes. The red sand dunes are on the outskirts of the town, whilst the more beautiful white sand dunes sit next to Lotus Lake, a 40 minutes drive East. Although the town is overdeveloped this does not take anything away from the beauty of the secluded dunes. Definitely a must see!
Da Lat – See a weird part of Vietnam. A strong French influence has styled this town, with its Eiffel Tower radio/tv mast. The town sits on a plateau at 1500m above sea level and is surrounded by mountains that top 2500m above see level. Waterfalls flow in every corner providing untouched beauty and supporting a large variety of plants and animals. A very picturesque part of Vietnam, and a highlight of my trip. The climate is much cooler here and on a clear night the stars look incredible.
Nha Trang – Vietnam’s premier beach resort town. A lot more of a family orientated destination as well as the beaches there are lots of spas that have natural thermal baths. Quite overdeveloped and not too much culture left here, but you will definitely come away with a nice sun tan. For the food lover, Nha Trang provides restaurants from any corner of the globe, as well as serving the best Vietnamese dishes found anywhere in the country. Nha Trang is another destination available on open tour buses, although I wouldn’t recommend getting one of these. It’s much better to take the train.
Hoi An – A genuinely beautiful city, built beside the river Hoi An is unlike any other place I went to in Vietnam. Hoi An Ancient Town is an exceptionally well-preserved example of a South-East Asian trading port dating from the 15th to the 19th century. Its buildings and its street plan reflect the influences, both indigenous and foreign, that have combined to produce this unique heritage site. Once you reach this town you will be halfway to Ha Noi in the north.
Huế – Located on the banks of the Perfume River Hue is another town bursting with history. The centrepiece is a huge Citadel that houses the ruins of the ancient Forbidden City a very important place in Vietnamese history. A more laid back town that can be easily reached by bus or train. For most people this will be the last stop before Ha Noi City. There’s an option to take a domestic flight to Ha Noi for those on a bigger budget or take the overnight train, 15 hours I think but great value for money.
Ha Noi – The capital of Vietnam, spend a few nights here exploring the city. A much nicer city than Saigon but equally as annoying with constant orchestra of horns. From here you can easily take a trip to Ha Long bay or even travel independently, although much harder. The trip to Halong City will take 4 hours.
Halong City – The gateway to the incredible Ha Long Bay. This will obviously already be on your itinerary. One thing to consider when planning this part of your trip is the weather. Although more predictable in the dry season, trips to Halong Bay get regularly cancelled due to bad weather, so you may end up camping in Hanoi for longer than planned.
Lao Cai – Welcome to the mountains, from here you can get the bus to the mountain town of Sapa or organise a trek to Fansipan, the highest mountain in South East Asia, standing at 3143m above sea level and known as the roof of Indochina.
Sapa – A mountain village surrounded by terraced fields reminiscent of Machu Picchu. Home to eight ethnic minority groups. Definitely the most beautiful part of Vietnam and not to be missed.
Southeast Asia… Pretty much everything!
Bangkok – Surat Thani – Eastern Islands – Krabi – Western Islands – Bangkok – Siem Reap – Battambang – Phnom Penh – Sihanoukville – Kampot – Ha Tien – Can Tho – Ho Chi Minh – Vung Tau – Mui Ne – Da Lat – Nha Trang – Hoi An – Hue – Ha Noi – Ha Long – Lao Cai – Sapa – Luang Prabang – Vang Vieng – Vientiane – Chiang Mai – Chiang Rai – Pai – Sukhotthai – Bangkok (8 weeks+ not to be rushed!)
Got 2 months and a nice budget? Why not see all of Southeast Asia. This route is a combination of all the other routes on this page, so I haven’t re-written summaries of each place. This route can be travelled 100% by cheap public transport and 75% of it can be done on the train. Cambodia and Laos don’t have any trains, so you will have to take the bus through these countries. The borders that this route crosses are relatively hassle free. The border at Cambodia is riddled with commission based scams so be aware of these before you cross and you will be okay.
Got a question? Let me know below.