Five of the best backpacking routes in southeast Asia

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Southeast Asia, home to 11 countries and stretching from Myanmar to the Philippines, is packed with different cultures, customs, landscapes and languages. To give you a sense of the scale, Indonesia alone has more than 18,000 islands. The diversity is what makes southeast Asia so compelling — alongside being terrific value and highly accessible via a network of budget flight and rail routes. To guide you through the richness of the region, we’ve picked the most spectacular journeys and highlighted key attractions along the way.

First-timers can experience southeast Asia’s highlights — rich nature, buzzing cities, epic beaches — in a journey between its top travel hubs, Bangkok and Singapore.

In Bangkok, visit Ratchada Night Market, sip cocktails at BKK Social Club — one of the city’s best but with a price tag to match — and feast on Michelin-starred street food at Jay Fai. Then head to Phuket, a one-hour flight or 12-hour bus ride away. For extra room, book the 24-seat “VIP” sleeper buses that depart from Bangkok’s Southern Bus Terminal in the Taling Chan district.

Five days affords enough time to idle on some of Phuket’s 30-plus beaches — including seven-mile Mai Khao — and a visit to Phuket Town. Here, colourful 19th-century buildings house dim sum shops, boutique hotels and hostels, and lively bars and cafés, including cocktail haunt Dibuk House.

Take a flight or overnight bus to Penang and wander around Unesco-recognised George Town. Gorgeous Sino-Portuguese architecture sits next to Buddhist shrines, Hindu temples and mosques while hawker centres serve everything from Hokkien noodles to nasi lemak (Malay-style coconut rice with sides) and roti canai (flaky Indian flatbread with curry).

Then take a train to Kuala Lumpur. Malaysia’s efficient trains are among the region’s best, and you’ll reach the capital in around four hours. Take three days to eyeball the Petronas Towers, visit the underrated Islamic Arts Museum and explore the Batu Caves, the Hindu pilgrimage site known for its statue of Murugan, the god of war.

Venturing two hours south to Malacca allows you to explore the Unesco-listed city, which showcases its British, Dutch and Portuguese influences in windmills, forts, shophouses and fusion dishes such as Portuguese-style devil’s curry.

End your adventure in Singapore, but beware the backpacker budget might go out the window here if you’re not careful. Hostels are more expensive and the city is known for its luxury hotels and Michelin-starred restaurants; instead head to the hawker centres for the best no-frills food. Look for the stalls with the longest queues and it’s hard to go wrong.

Best hotels in Bangkok
Best affordable hotels in Singapore

2. Vietnam from south to north

A restaurant in central Hoi An (Alamy)

A restaurant in central Hoi An (Alamy)

Recommended time two weeks

For intrepid travellers, tackling Vietnam on two wheels is a rite of passage. But those who don’t want to drive motorcycles on the country’s notorious roads can do the same journey via the Reunification Express, the train linking Ho Chi Minh City with Hanoi.

After slurping pho and visiting markets and museums in frenetic Ho Chi Minh City, travel to Dalat, the cool highland escape encircled by pine forests, lakes and waterfalls. Visit Vietnam’s beachy Nha Trang for two days of R&R, then hunker down in Hoi An. The Unesco site enchants travellers with its boutique shops, cooking classes and cultural shows — try to visit during the full moon, when lanterns light up the town and local people stage traditional performances on the river. Nearby Danang might be less majestic, but the rapidly developing city is also a great base, thanks to its big-brand hotels, restaurants and craft breweries.

Step into the past in Hue, where Nguyen dynasty emperors once ruled. Although Hue suffered significant damage during the war, the imperial city has been carefully restored. Then finish in Hanoi, where centuries-old architecture lines the capital’s lanes. Do as the locals: settle into tiny plastic stools for buncha (grilled pork balls with noodles) and bia hoi, the beloved — and staggeringly cheap — fresh beer. Budget extra (from £30 to £100 per person depending how fancy you want to go) to spend a night on a junk boat among the karst in Ha Long Bay, too. Note though that the bucketlist site has been plagued with rubbish for several years; a rowing boat trip in Tam Coc has become a popular alternative for its equally splendid landscapes minus the floating heaps of plastic.

Best things to do in Vietnam
Best hotels in Vietnam

3. Northern Thailand, Laos and Cambodia

Recommended time three to four weeks

A girl in traditional dress in Thailand’s Chiang Mai Province (Alamy)

A girl in traditional dress in Thailand’s Chiang Mai Province (Alamy)

Most travellers start in Bangkok, but Thailand’s underrated second city, Chiang Mai, can captivate you for weeks. The former Lanna kingdom capital has teak and brick temples such as Wat Phra Singh, mellow Burmese-influenced dishes like khao soi (yellow curry with egg noodles) and vibrant streets with snacks, shopping, music, streetside massages and more. The city also serves as a gateway to adventure travel, offering treks to Karen and Hmong villages, plus thundering waterfalls like the 280m-tall Mae Ya.

For an extended adventure, take a minivan to Chiang Rai province, four hours north, and explore its diverse attractions: blissful eco-lodges, national parks, the blue and white temples Wat Rong Suea Ten and Wat Rong Khun, and the Choui Fong tea fields in Doi Mae Salong.

Consider the overnight slow boat from Thai border town Chiang Khong to Luang Prabang, Laos’s imperial capital. This one-of-a-kind journey rumbles along the Mekong, past dense Laotian jungles, offering snapshots of rural life you won’t find elsewhere. Otherwise, nonstop flights from Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai can take you directly to Luang Prabang.

Unwind in Laos’s cultural capital, immersing yourself in the city’s numerous temples, the turquoise Kuang Si waterfall, the daily tak bat (dawn alms-giving ritual) and a Lao massage.

For about £15, a new high-speed train takes you to Vang Vieng in an hour. This revamped backpacker hub is now Laos’s outdoor adventure hub, primed for bike roads and treks around the stunning limestone karst formations.

Take the train once more to the capital, Vientiane. After exploring the Patuxay Monument — Laos’s answer to the Arc de Triomphe — head to the riverside for larb with a cold Lao beer.

Then either work your way south by bus or fly to Phnom Penh. After exploring the Cambodian capital, which now has hip bistros and markets alongside its devastating genocide museums, end your tour in Siem Reap. Nothing tops watching the sunrise over Angkor Wat.

Best places to visit in Thailand
Best things to do in Thailand

4. Borneo to Bali

Bingin beach in Bali (Alamy)

Bingin beach in Bali (Alamy)

Recommended time two weeks

Journeys to Borneo tend to start in one of two places: Jakarta or Singapore. While the Indonesian capital has its charms, Singapore’s transport infrastructure (including Changi, frequently ranked the best airport in the world) makes it the easier choice.

From here, fly to Kota Kinabalu to hike up 4,095m Mount Kinabalu for sunrise, then join a tour to see orangutans in the jungle. If time is limited, go to the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre instead.

After a one-stop flight to Bali, spend a week exploring the Island of the Gods. Bali is well-trodden, but you can still find places away from the crowds. For example, skip over-run Kuta and Seminyak in favour of the brilliant white-sand beaches of Bingin or blissful Nunggalan in Uluwatu. Take a day trip to Nusa Penida island to hike, dive or lounge in the sand, or head to backpacker hub Ubud, where you’ll find plenty of others who want to join you in a visit the Tegallalang rice terraces and Tirta Empul, the sacred water temple.

If you have more time, take the ferry to the car-free Gili islands, which are prime spots to snorkel and encounter sea turtles, or neighbouring Lombok, a larger island known for its pink beach and hikes around Mount Rinjani, an active volcano. Of the three stunning Gili islands, Gili Trawangan has a lively party scene, while Gili Air and Gili Meno are much quieter.

Best hotels in Bali

5. Island-hopping in the Philippines

The Bacuit archipelago at El Nido (Getty Images)

The Bacuit archipelago at El Nido (Getty Images)

Recommended time one to two weeks

Manila, the capital of the Philippines, is your starting point for this island-hopping adventure. Skip the city’s chaotic traffic and make straight for the beach with a one-hour domestic flight to Coron. This island is full of postcard-worthy scenery: limestone cliffs tower above electric-blue waters in Twin Lagoon and sugary sands line Banol beach, where rustic huts hang over the water.

Next is El Nido, at the tip of Palawan island, via a four-hour ferry ride from Coron. To explore El Nido, it’s mandatory to book one of four island-hopping excursions, labelled A, B, C and D. The most popular, tours A and C, take you to lagoons and hidden beaches, including the can’t-miss Big Lagoon and Helicopter Island. Book in advance through a reputable tour operator such as Discover El Nido or Hello El Nido. While you can book these tours privately, group trips are great ways to meet other travellers.

Take a bus four hours south to Puerto Princesa and fly to Bohol. The jungle-covered island is best known for its Chocolate Hills — thousands of grassy hills, scattered across 50 sq km of land, that turn brown in the dry season. Budget five days here to go cliff-diving into turquoise pools with Kawasan Canyoneering; spot the tiny tarsiers at the island sanctuary; and unwind on Panglao, an island with white-sand beaches linked to Bohol by a bridge.

If there’s time to spare, take the two-hour ferry from Bohol to Siquijor. Meet the island healers who cast off evil spirits with their bolo-bolo rituals, cool down in emerald Cambugahay Falls or explore the 23 coral reef dive sites, before taking one of the regular ferries to Dumaguete City on Negros — a 50-minute trip — and flying back to Manila.

Best beaches in the Philippines

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