An Adventurous Backpacking Route Through Southeast Asia
The Southeast Asian region, particularly Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos has become increasingly popular among adventure backpackers. Travelers visiting the region, however, are frequently faced with a dilemma: which path to take.
A backpacker who intends to spend a few days in each of these places would need at least three months to complete their journey in Southeast Asia. The route suggested below is one of many options for the backpacker who is in it for the long haul.
Tourists have the option of walking, or taking public buses, trains, and boats. They are all widely available modes of transportation. Each of these is typically full of adventures. Of course, a tourist can also locate more comfortable modes of transportation as per his or her preferences. The route offered below is just one of many options an adventurous backpacker can take through a portion of Southeast Asia.
The journey would start from Bangkok, which offers a wide range of tourist-friendly sites, activities, and scenery. It is a beautiful place which you would have a hard time leaving.
After you’ve had your fill of Bangkok, head north to Chiang Mai. Train travel is popular; it can be done overnight, or during the day to see the gorgeous scenery.
Chiang Mai is less crowded than Bangkok and has some stunning scenery. A fantastic cooking school is also available! Chiang Mai is a great place to start exploring Thailand’s smaller towns. The public bus makes a loop to the lovely village of Pai, which is nestled in foggy valleys surrounded by verdant rice farms. From there, take a bus or a boat to Mae Hong Son and then take a bus back to Chiang Mai.
Continue north from Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai, then on to Chiang Khong. On the opposite bank, in Huay Xai, you’ll cross the Mekong River by boat and reach your second country, Laos. You can travel to Luang Prabang by slow boat or rapid boat, with an optional overnight stop in the rustic village of Pacbeng.
After a few days in Luang Prabang, you can take a side excursion to one of Laos’s small northern villages, or travel south by bus or air to Vang Vieng, a laid-back town. However, you need to be aware that the road to Vang Vieng is sometimes a target for robbers, so keep an eye on recent news in the area. Air travel is also an option, however, there have been concerns expressed regarding safety records.
Vang Vieng provides kayaking, cycling, and caving, so plan on spending a few days there before continuing to Vientiane, the capital city. It is not very interesting, considering it is a capital city, except for the Buddha Park which is quite fascinating and one of the few things which would make you want to spend time in the city.
Take the bus from Vientiane to Hanoi, passing through the mountains and crossing the Cau Treo border into Vietnam. There are quite a few interesting side trips you can take from Hanoi: Sapa is a charming highland village, while Halong Bay, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, provides breathtaking views of thousands of towering limestone karsts rising out of the water.
You can purchase an “open tour” bus ticket in Hanoi that will take you south to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). The route has regular stops, but you can purchase an add-on that allows you to get on and off at any time. Ninh Binh and Dalat are two towns worth visiting. Ninh Binh is the entrance of the Cuc Phuong National Park.
You can travel from Ninh Binh to Hue for a day or two, then to Hoi to visit the great beaches. If you want to party, spend a day in the beach town of Nha Trang before heading to the highland town of Dalat. You can take a stop at Mui Ne for some quiet relaxation or a trip to the local market.
After leaving Dalat or Mui Ne, you can go to Ho Chi Minh City. There are many activities to choose from, and you can even have a message for a few bucks at the Vietnamese Traditional Medicine Institute.
Crossing into Cambodia
You can enter Cambodia from Ho Chi Minh in several ways. Firstly, a bus ride to Phnom Penh, followed by a boat tour of the Mekong Delta, which leaves from Phnom Penh. Cambodian roads are filthy, bumpy, and slow, but the scenery is spectacular if you are up to it.
Phnom Penh receives mixed evaluations, but there are a couple of must-see attractions before continuing: the Killing Fields and S-21. When you decide to continue, you can take a bus or a ferry to Siem Riep to see Angkor Wat, the world’s greatest religious monument. The bus is popular because of the spectacular vistas and insight into the life of the rural people.
Return to Bangkok
After spending time admiring the magnificent ruins of Angkor Wat, you can fly or take a bus back to Bangkok. Poipet will be visible if you take a bus. As you travel from Cambodia’s poverty to development, you’ll notice a significant difference.
This route can be completed in three months if you skip every side trip specified (doing so will require an additional couple of weeks). If you figure it out, you’ll be able to stay a few nights at each location, but don’t make the mistake of planning an agenda. Take care in managing your time since you will want to spend a lot of your time in some areas, and very little in others, and you will not know which until you get there. Don’t be rigid, but do keep in mind that the main point is to have fun!
After you have returned to Bangkok, you can either travel southward to any of the surrounding islands like Koh Samet, Koh Pha Ngan or Koh Talu before moving on to other countries like Malaysia and Indonesia, or you can wait until your next trip to Southeast Asia to continue exploring the region. Certainly, you WILL want to return to Southeast Asia again.
Tonya Fitzpatrick, Esq. is co-Founder of World Footprints, a social impact travel storytelling content hub she runs with her husband, Ian, that has been recognized as Best Social Impact Travel Media Company by CEO Monthly. She is an award-winning travel and business journalist, global public speaker, and 3-time TEDx speaker. Tonya regularly shares her insights on career transitions, DEIA in travel and the transformative power of travel to audiences all over the world. Recognized as Black Travel Journalists of the Year—an honor she shares with Ian, Tonya contributes her time and leadership to several boards and commissions in the travel community including SATW, The Explorers Club (DC), North American Travel Journalists Association (NATJA) and JourneyWoman.