Why Everyone Should Try Backpacking Southeast Asia

Why Everyone Should Try Backpacking Southeast Asia

I recently got back from a three-month-long trip, backpacking Southeast Asia. Over the course of that quarter of a year, I had the time of my life. Starting in Thailand, I made a loop around all the larger countries and ended in Singapore. Each day brought something new to explore, take a picture of, or eat (or… all the above, sometimes). Backpacking Southeast Asia was equal parts challenging, eye-opening, and amazing, and I learned a lot while traveling, both about Asia and myself. I experienced things that are truly once in a lifetime and gained a deeper appreciation for travel. I’ve come to the opinion that everyone should take a backpacking trip, and I’ve compiled a list to explain why.

1) You’ll Learn How to Say “Water” and “Bathroom” in New Ways

I’ve traveled to eight different countries in Asia. Now I can say “rice” in all eight national languages. I’m still not sure if that’s an interesting personality trait or just a cool party trick, but it sure came in handy many times over. There is something oddly comforting (and a little unnerving) about getting to a new country and not being able to understand street signs, eavesdrop on conversations, or ask where the closest bathroom is. When you step foot in a brand new country, you’re instantly filled with wonder, amazement, and curiosity. With every new syllable gained a greater appreciation for learning something new grows.

2) You’ll Become Okay With Being Uncomfortable

It’s no surprise that different countries are, well, different. They have different cultures, different customs, different bathrooms. And with different often comes uncomfortable. I can’t tell you how many times I got funny looks for asking a simple question — but after a while, it just becomes second nature. You start to learn that it is okay to ask for help or to be a beginner at something. It’s okay to embarrass yourself and use the ketchup machine wrong. And with every wrong move you make, you learn that that’s how other people sometimes feel when they explore your home. You gain empathy for people that try something new or are still learning. You learn to be okay in the discomfort that comes with being uncomfortable while backpacking Southeast Asia.

3) You’ll See Once in a Lifetime Sights Backpacking Southeast Asia

I probably don’t have to explain this one. Anywhere in the world will have amazing sights, but Asia is the only place I’ve been where you can truly see it all. If you’re into temples, museums, and history, try Cambodia. If you want nature, waterfalls, and beautiful hikes, Indonesia or the Philippines is your place. Maybe the city and metropolitan lifestyle is more your speed, in which case, Singapore is one of my favorite cities I’ve ever been to. Whether it’s Angkor Wat in Cambodia, pink beaches in Indonesia, or the famous Marina Bay Hotel in Singapore, SE Asia has any type of beauty imaginable.

4) You’ll Learn the Value of Ordinary Things

Something odd about Indonesia: hand soap isn’t a guarantee in bathrooms. The germaphobe that I am, I started lugging around a bar of soap in my 23kg carry-on. And when you’re backpacking, everything you own must be carried around. So for that bar of soap, something else had to go. When you have to lug everything you own, you start to really question just how many T-shirts and pairs of socks you actually need. Backpacking inevitably produces minimalism, and minimalism produces a greater sense of appreciation for the things you own. With less stuff, the greater you’ll value the stuff you already have.

5) You’ll Learn How to Sleep Anywhere

Traveling by train through Vietnam was probably one of the coolest things I’ve ever done and definitely something I’ll never forget. However, it was my favorite — but, probably not for the best reasons. On our second week into the trip, we were on an overnight train traveling a few hundred kilometers southward through the country. Shortly after we boarded, my travel companion and I noticed our chairs sat bolted up-right and made for people a foot shorter than us. We also noticed that there were roaches. And, it didn’t seem like the fluorescent lights would dim any time soon.

To say we were uncomfortable was an understatement. At the time I wanted to cry, but by the end of my three months, I probably wouldn’t have even batted an eye at all of the discomforts. You gain a deeper appreciation for the small things, and, in turn, the small things (even the small roaches) start to become less scary. 

6) You’ll Pick up the Coolest Christmas Presents

I came back two weeks before Christmas, so I knew it would look bad if I came home after all of my travels empty-handed. I started collecting things to put under the tree. And as heavy as my bag weighed when I got home, it was totally worth it to see all of the neat artifacts and beautiful souvenirs that were taken home by family and friends. I’ve said before that stuff is sometimes just stuff — but some stuff can also be really special. When I gifted a handmade Batik painting from Indonesia or a thrifted porcelain elephant from Thailand, I got to share a really spectacular time in my life with really important people in my life.

7) You’ll Eat Tons of Delicious (and Weird) Foods

A lot of people’s favorite part of traveling is eating — and I can’t say I blame them. This is especially so in places like Asia, where food is cheap, exoctic, and amazingly delicious. I’m not exaggerating when I said the majority of the food we ate costed around $3 a meal. I’m talking rice, vegetables, and chicken curry; Or barbequed chicken, pork, and shrimp that you eat with your hands. Maybe even a huge bowl of chicken noodle soup and a beer.

Some places don’t have English menus, and sometimes you’re not exactly sure what you’re eating, but it’s always yummy. Restaurants are usually family-owned and are typically farm to table, so you’re always getting fresh food. It’s always prepared by someone who absolutely knows what they’re doing. Asian food is amazing for so many reasons, and an excuse enough to travel there yourself.

8) You’ll Meet Lots of New People 

It just happens naturally and constantly. I think it would almost be hard to backpack in Asia, stay in a hostel, and explore a country without meeting people and hearing all types of stories. And it’s fun! I classify myself as an introvert, and still one of my favorite parts of traveling is meeting new people, chatting about their travels, and learning about their life. Once we were in the Philippines, in a beach town called Moalboal, and we met an older man from Germany who had lived in Spain for thirty years. He had retired in the Philippines. Needless to say, his story was exceptional and we got to hear about history and culture in ways history textbooks can only dream about. You learn about the world and history and people, and it’s hard not to let your heart grow and your compassion becomes more secular.

9) Your Patience Will be Tested in Unprecedented Ways

Anyone that’s ever been in an airport anywhere can attest to this one. Traveling is stressful and overwhelming, and can really boil your blood at times. But the quickest way to learn patience would have to be to spend three months in a part of the world that was founded on the practice of patience and stoicism. Thailand’s red lights are 180 seconds long. Cambodia’s most widely used transportation is a tuk-tuk that can’t move faster than 35mph. Your bus ticket in Malaysia will say departing at 10:05, but you’ll still be sitting at the bus stop 45 minutes later. It happens.

Your patience will get tested, and then tested again. But in all of that time you spend waiting, you’ll learn that the innate western need to “get going” isn’t all that important. There’s no prize for hurrying and there’s not a competition of who can finish life faster. When you’re forced to stand still, you find out it’s really not so bad, after all.

10) You’ll Develop a Deeper Appreciation for People and Culture

This one might seem a little obvious, too. It’s one of my favorite reasons for traveling and is the biggest aspect that always makes me want to keep going. I love talking to the taxi driver who has stories about the school systems in Malaysia. Going to lunch and conversing in broken English with the grandma who started the restaurant feels awesome. I love sitting on a beach and getting approached by a fourth grade class who is practicing their English and dream of going to America one day. It’s no exaggeration when I say it’s life-changing. You’re reminded of just how insignificant and trivial the stresses of our lives are. When you share a joke with a street vendor who is just trying to pay for his children to go to school, you begin to learn what life is all about. 

Why Everyone Should Try Backpacking Southeast Asia

Backpacking anywhere is tough and not for the faint-of-heart. But, boy, is it rewarding. You learn new things, eat new things, and become comfortable with new things. You collect memories and souvenirs. At the same time, you learn what is worth holding onto. You set out for an adventure and come home with a new perspective on life.

Interested in learning more about traveling in Southeast Asia? Check out this guide to Laos.

33 thoughts on “Why Everyone Should Try Backpacking Southeast Asia

  1. I have backpacked Europe three time, morocco once and then India a couple of times. I have never been to any countries in south east asia but this sounds interesting. You have named some amazing talking points that one learns while backpacking and getting away from the comfort of our backyard. Loved this piece

    1. Backpacking is truly a life changing experience – isn’t it?! I loved my trip and I’d love to adventure to all of the places you’ve been one day! I’d love to hear more stories about your trips.

  2. I really like your second point about learning to be okay with being uncomfortable. I think that something that could benefit all of us in general — I think too much of getting stuck is because of the “W no.” If we found a way to be if not comfortable with being uncomfortable, but at least not being afraid of it, maybe we would have more adventures.

    1. That’s so true. The best adventures come from stepping outside of our comfort zone – and not just in places like Asia! It could be beneficial for any and everyone. Thanks so much for reading and commenting.

  3. Yes!!! To everything listed. I am in love with traveling around South East Asia! It sounds like you had an amazing adventure & one for the books, for sure :) As you said about hand sanitizer, I have learned to bring a roll of toilet paper, when in remote locations :) Ha ha! Cheers to learning the hard way! LOL! Safe and happy future travels!

    1. Haha! That’s so true. I guess the best travel tips can only be learned from trial and error… Thanks so much for reading and commenting! I’d love to hear about your own travel adventures. SEAsia is such an amazing place.

  4. You do make it sound appealing. (Perhaps not that train journey with the roaches) It’s always good to meet new people and learn new customs. And yes, I imagine you returned home with some amazing gifts.

    1. Thanks for your comment! Asia is amazing and my best advice to anyone who has (even a small) desire to backpack is to try it. Tons of memories – and souvenirs – to bring home!

  5. One of my dreams is to travel to Southeast Asia! All these reasons you give for backpacking Southeast Asia can be applied to so many travel experiences. Stepping out of your comfort zone and being okay with it is one of the things I like most about travelling! I haven’t tried backpacking, but I’m entertaining the idea! :) Your pictures are amazing and have spiked my wanderlust!! We can learn so much from travelling!

    1. Take the leap!! SEAsia is amazing and I highly recommend backpacking to anyone who is interested! You learn so much about yourself and the world – in ways you never expected. Good luck with your future travels and wanderlust! ;-)

  6. So my niece backpacked across Southeast Asia years ago and did come back with the coolest Christmas present for me. Its a cart type vehicle that use for transportation in Vietnam made out of a Chang classic beer can. I’ve had it in my office ever since. Unique for sure. She did this trip by herself and met the most interesting people along the way.

    1. Wow! I’m sure your niece has some amazing stories. It really is a life changing experience. And I can picture that Chang tuktuk perfectly! ;-) Vietnam was one of my favorites.

  7. Backpacking through Southeast Asia sounds like a very humbling experience. I love how open you are about the challenges and rewards you experienced. It’s so important to show gratitude and appreciation for the small things we take for granted every day in Canada or the States-like soap! lol

    1. Thanks so much for your comment. I’m so glad you liked the article! Humbling is a fantastic word for my trip. I learned so much about myself and the world around me. It was definitely challenging at times – but I would do it all again in a heartbeat!

  8. I really enjoyed reading this. Backpacking through Southeast Asia would be such an amazing experience. I wish I’d done it when I was younger.

    1. Thanks for your kind comment. Backpacking is a once in a lifetime experience that everyone should try. And it’s never too late! ;-)

  9. Sounds like you’ve had some great (and well, some not so great!) experiences – loved your little stories with every point! I’ve had a lot of similar experiences growing up in India so I can imagine your reactions – especially things like the dirty trains and patience testing stuff, all coupled with great people and great food!

    1. Wow! I’ve never been to India, but it’s on my list! I’m sure you have some amazing stories. You’re so right that backpacking can be challenging – definitely worth it though! :-)

  10. Great lessons and reasons to give it a try. I’ve never been to southeast Asia, but I have been backpacking many times as part of my love for camping and I agree 110% with the fact that it forces you to embrace minimalism creating a greater appreciation for things. You don’t realize how much you take for granted until you no longer have it!

    1. Thanks so much for reading and I’m so glad you can relate! Isn’t it cool how having just a few things can make you appreciate them so much more? I just love it. Happy travels!

    1. The nature of Southeast Asia is stunning and simply indescribable. You’ve got to see it for yourself! I hope you make it there soon!

  11. This article has actually encouraged me to try back packing. Maybe one day i might just wake up and leave the house to Asia!!! At the end of day, there is so much more to explore out there than what we know

    1. Wow – I’m so glad you liked the article! And yes, you should totally make the leap! It’s so rewarding and you’ll thank yourself when you get home with stories and souvenirs.

  12. Living in Asia, in India I have seen more of Europe than Asia. The next few years would be spent discovering more of the beauty of Asia. Every travel teaches us so many new things. New people, new culture, new food, new experiences and new challenges. Loved every bit of your backpacking experience and your learnings.

  13. I love that! You’re so right – I learned so many new things about myself and the world. I’m sure you have so amazing stories of your own! Good luck in all of your travels!

  14. This would be such an amazing adventure to go on! I love all of the wilderness, and I bet you’d meet some interesting people along the way. Great article!

  15. This was very good and interesting. I am glad that there are people out there who have tried all this stuff and share it with others so we can know what to expect beforehand. For instance, I’m not sure I would make it on the train very well with florescent lights and roaches. I seem to be able to handle bugs much better outside where it is expected. I would have been afraid that I would carry some with me in my pack. I also am not sure I would do well eating the different foods. I’m sure if I had taken a trip like this when I was younger I would have seen it more of an adventure and some of those things would be more tolerable.

  16. Sounds like a great adventure and learning experience, Emma. I backpacked Europe at your age and then did Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand when I retired at age 50…we call it flashpacking now…using a backpack on wheels :) You don’t have to carry it as often but it’s much smaller. Like you say, you learn to live with less…like so many of the simple but happy people you met. Great stuff…carry on girl!

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