Backpacking through Southeast Asia is becoming a rite of passage for young travelers. The budget is on point, the landscape is beautiful, and the culture is rich and diverse. Not to mention the food–you can’t forget the joyous thing that is Southeast Asian cuisine. Any type of traveler can find a place in the region: luxury or budget travellers, outdoor junkies and spirituality seekers.
I planned my time in Southeast Asia along the way, forgoing sidetrips to Laos, Vietnam, and Malaysia when I felt a longing to spend more time in Thailand and Cambodia. The result was a budget-friendly itinerary that covered all my bases: beaches, temples, mountains, food, history, and the chance to gain a sense of the true lifestyles in these countries. I spent more time exploring, learning, and feeling free than on buses, planes, and trains.
Without further ado:
Six Weeks in Southeast Asia: A Sample Itinerary
Money Spent: $1500 or $35/day
Countries Visited: Thailand and Cambodia
Cambodia: Phnom Penh, Sihanoukville, Kampot, Siem Reap
Thailand: Bangkok, Ayutthaya, Chiang Mai, Chaweng (Koh Samui), Mai Nam (Koh Samui), Boput (Koh Samui)
Forms of Transportation: Airplane, bus, train, boat
Phnom Penh Day 1, 2, 3, 4
Phnom Penh is an interesting place to start a backpacking adventure. The scent of rotting fruit lingers in the air while children tote around hangers loaded with string bracelets. It’s a hard-hitting place. You’re time here may take you from the harshness of the Killing Fields back to the gold and luxury of the Royal Palace, into the roughness of the city or along the more touristy and clean Sisowath Quay. Phnom Penh is a great place to begin an adventure with the right attitude, that of consideration and understanding of the harsh reality that is poverty and the things that cannot always be covered up and made clean.
Sihanoukville Day 5, 6
Sometimes thought of as a dirty backpacker beach town (and perhaps maybe this is true), Sihanoukville is still worth a visit. The bus ride alone will give you a glimpse into rural living, the dense jungle and landscape. Skip crowded Serendipity beach and ride your motorbike to Otres, around 10 km away. Here, the clear water and sandy beach is cleaner and less crowded, a place where you can sip your coconut water (or cocktail) in peace.
Kampot Day Day 8, 9
Walk, or bicycle, easily around this smaller city. Cleaner and less crowded, it’s a sleepy and chilled place to spend a few days. Visit the famous pepper farms and the abandoned French casino at Bokor National Park. Read more about Kampot here.
Kampot – Phnom Penh – Siem Reap Day 10
It’s a long bus ride from Kampot to Siem Reap. Tuktuks will wait to pick you up when in Siem Reap, make sure that you are very clear about where you are staying and that you already have a place booked. They’ll also try to rope you into booking them for your sightseeing in the Angkor Archeological Park. Standard prices I’ve heard have been $12-$15 per day for a tuktuk. You can purchase a 1-day ($20), 3-day ($40). or 7-day ($60) pass. So, keep this in mind. I’d recommend getting a tuktuk. It’s a cheap and easy way to see a large part of the park, as some parts are very spread out and bicycling isn’t the easiest method.
Siem Reap Day 11, 12, 13, 14
I spent three days in Angkor and felt it was a perfect amount. The day before, I got an opportunity to explore Siem Reap. This city feels like Cambodia’s pride and joy. It is much more well maintained and tourism driven. Visiting the Angkor National Museum is an awesome experience and a great way to have a bit more background for your visit to the park. The Old Market in the city is a great stop if you’ve neglected to buy any souvenirs up to this point, and Pub street is nearby for dinner and drinks later (though it can be a bit messy and sad in itself).
Assuming you’ll spend three days exploring Angkor, seeing the famed sunrise (go early and check the weather beforehand), you’ll find your days pretty packed here. Read about our time in Angkor on Tim’s blog here.
Fly Siem Reap to Bangkok Day 15
My first night in Bangkok, I went out on Khao San Road, which can be quite overwhelming for an introverted traveller, but is something to experience. This is a wild part of the city where backpackers flock to drink and party all night long. Not a great place if you were hoping to steer clear of tourists and get to know the local way of life.
Bangkok Day 16 – 20
Honestly, I got sick in Bangkok, which is something you also may have to account for if you are traveling in the region. I won’t go into detail, but it’s a tough thing to avoid–though some people do! Be smart, but you don’t need to be overly cautious. I never let fear of getting sick stop me from trying street food or having a cocktail at a bar. But, if you do get sick, it might be a perfect time to spring for a private room with your own bathroom. It just makes the whole situation a lot more comfortable.
After recovering, I spent some time in a hired tuktuk with a tourist map, driving to various temples and interesting sites. It’s amazing what you can find tucked away in this vast modern and crowded city.
Ayutthaya Day 21, 22
If you’re looking for a more traditional, historical, and culturally significant experience, stop by Ayutthaya. The capital of the Ayutthaya Kingdom (1351-1767), the old city is preserved as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Ayutthaya can be explored in a day or two, bicycling to forest ruins or hiring a tuktuk to take you to the more famous (and spread out) sites. Read more about Ayutthaya here.
Chiang Mai Day 22 – 30
I could have stayed in Chiang Mai alone for weeks. It is a beautiful and interesting city with plenty on offer. Many visit the city with the purpose of trekking in the jungle and spending time with traditional hill tribes. It’s a great place to take a cooking class, visit the “top of Thailand” in Doi Inthanon National Park, visit Doi Suthep (pictured below), and visit the huge Chiang Mai Night Market. Sidenote: if you are at the Market, and see a stand selling crispy fried pork, buy it. It is the best pork I’ve ever tasted. Best to go to the Market on an empty stomach!
With so much on offer in Chiang Mai, it’s important to remember that you must be careful not to support the unethical treatment and exploitation of animals. Do your research before you go. In particular, beware elephant camps and the Tiger Temple.
Bangkok Day 31, 32
I took the train to and from Chiang Mai in the north (read my train tips here), before flying from Bangkok to Koh Samui. This is a journey that can be taken by train and boat, but cheap flights are pretty enticing when your time is limited.
Koh Samui Day 33 – 42
The most popular beach on Koh Samui is Chaweng, but I was pretty unimpressed and escaped to Mae Nam after a few days. The sand is more yellow than white and not quite as fine, but it is clean and big and there is plenty of free space. There aren’t as many options for food in the area, but the ones that are there are fantastic. There is lots the do around Koh Samui, and one of my favourite things was visiting Ang Thong Marine National Park, the original inspiration for the novel The Beach. Read more about Ang Thong Marine Park here. Visit the Fisherman’s Village in Bophut or some of the temple sites, or just relax on the beach, which I did a lot of.
My itinerary for Thailand and Cambodia was simple, yet incredibly rewarding. It was my first big travel adventure, and taught me a lot about the whole planning process. This is just a short summary of some of the experiences I had, but a general idea of the trip.
What sorts of activities do you prioritize while trip-planning? Hiking, sightseeing, adventure activities, food touring? Let me know!
Thanks for reading!