The phrase ‘banana pancakes trail’ is the stuff of legend in Southeast Asia’s backpacker route. Along the banks of the Mekong, across many a dorm room and questionable dive bar, backpackers come to learn the story of the first tourists to travel ‘on the ground’, making a conscious effort to immerse themselves in local life. Decades later, their influence is having transformed the region: tourism here is now the fastest growing on Earth, receiving a quarter of total travelers worldwide. 

When you travel through Southeast Asia these days, it is hard to imagine that tourism was almost non-existent just a half century ago. Here is the story of how hippies, guidebooks and banana pancakes helped to create one of the most famous backpacker routes in the world.
 

When travel became counterculture

It all started with the hippies, those counterculture zealots of the 1960s. The Vietnam war was still raging, and young people in the West were feeling disillusioned by society and their institutions. They were increasingly attracted to Asian religions and philosophies, and many traveled to find out more about these foreign lands, including influential celebrities like The Beatles and Allen Ginsberg. Their journeys between Europe and Asia became known as the “Hippie Trail” – a precursor to the Banana Pancake Trail.

In those early years, there were no tourist hubs of travel agents, hostels, sports bars and all the other businesses you’ll find today in places as varied as Luang Prabang and Jakarta. But local entrepreneurs were quick to figure out what kind of home comforts these travelers wanted. They wanted cheap beds and free breakfasts – and since bananas were plentiful and pancakes were hearty enough for western tastes, the Banana Pancake Trail was born.

Why Banana Pancake?

The Banana Pancake Trail is thought to have received its name from the sticky-sweet banana pancakes often served by street vendors and in guesthouses that offer free breakfasts. Street carts and restaurants often sell banana pancakes, even though they are by no means a local creation, to travelers in popular destinations.

Even Jack Johnson sang about banana pancakes in his song of the same name, and yes, you will most likely hear the song more than once along the way!

Truly off-the-beaten-path

Bangkok’s Khao San Road and Kuta, in Bali, were two of the earliest stops on the trail, each catering specifically to western tourists. From there, backpackers would chat in their hostels about hidden gems like Chiang Mai, in Thailand, and the trail would grow. This was long before the internet, so word of mouth was how you learned about off-the-beaten-path places, back when that term actually meant something in Southeast Asia. Then one travel brand changed everything.

Lonely Planet published its first travel book in 1973, called Across Asia on the Cheap. That book, along with their second, Southeast Asia on a Shoestring (1975), perfectly coincided with the surge of tourism in the region, and both are now classics. These books tapped into the counterculture zeitgeist of the time, which held travel up as the ultimate expression of self-fulfillment. They made travel safer, more predictable and accessible to millions. It’s easy to forget how much we rely on technology to plan our travels these days, reading reviews and itineraries from the many who have gone before us. But back then, Lonely Planet was just about all the information you had, so every restaurant, hotel and worthwhile destination mentioned in those books soon became part of the Banana Pancake Trail.

What exactly was the Banana Pancake Trail?

Like the Silk Road before it, the Banana Pancake Trail isn’t actually a physical route. In fact, it has changed a lot through the years. When tourism first began to surge in the region, there was still war in Vietnam, Cambodia and parts of Laos, so the Banana Pancake Trail consisted primarily of the Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand, Myanmar, Nepal and India. By the late 1980s, however, tourism in Vietnam and Cambodia had opened to the West, and the Banana Pancake Trail expanded to include places like Sihanoukville, Siem Reap, Ho Chi Minh City and Hoi An. Nowadays, the most common route is a loop that runs through Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos, often done by motorbike.

Where Is the Banana Pancake Trail?

The hub of the Banana Pancake Trail could arguably be Bangkok's infamous Khao San Road. Loved and hated, Khao San Road is a circus of budget travelers coming and going from other points along the Banana Pancake Trail. Cheap flights and an excellent travel infrastructure make Bangkok the perfect starting point for many long trips.

Traveling the Banana Pancake Trail is social and includes many rites of passage for partygoers such as tubing in Vang Vieng and attending a Full Moon Party in Thailand. The partying is often balanced with nature excursions and visits to UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Asia.

Although disputable, the core of the Banana Pancake Trail could be Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Myanmar, and Cambodia. Travelers with more time expand the Trail to Malaysia, Indonesia, and Boracay in the Philippines. The far reaches of the Banana Pancake Trail extend to stops in China, India, and Nepal.

Places to Visit along Banana Pancake Trail: Country Breakdown

Each country that makes up Southeast Asia has something incredible to offer. The landscapes, people, culture, food, religion are all very unique to each individual country. Which countries are best to visit in Southeast Asia? Every country in Southeast Asia is god-damn epic!

One universal truth seems to be that if this is your first time backpacking through Southeast Asia, you will experience a series of cultures that is very unlike anything you have ever come into contact with (if you grew up in the west).

Given the options of where to go backpacking in Southeast Asia, the sky is the limit. Whatever you have heard there is much, much more to Southeast Asia than drinking buckets, crazy parties, motorbike traffic, and drunken hippies.

Southeast Asia is an incredibly cheap, diverse, beautiful, and spiritual land filled with adventure possibilities. If ever there was a backpackers paradise on earth, it is an easy argument to say that the place is called Southeast Asia and if you’re a first-time traveler Southeast Asia is the perfect place to go traveling – it’s affordable, safe, diverse and friendly.

Backpacking Thailand

For many first-time backpackers, Thailand is the image at the forefront of their imaginations when it comes to destinations in Southeast Asia. Finding a Thailand backpacking route is easy, as many routes are well-established and there is plenty of backpackers on the ground to grab tips from.

Thailand truly is a special country packed with non-stop fun. Stunning natural beauty, world-class diving, killer street food, well-developed infrastructure, and super friendly people. In addition to its natural splendour, Thailand boasts some of Southeast Asia’s most dynamic cities, especially if you are wanting to settle in somewhere long term as a digital nomad. Both the town and surrounding area of Pai as well as the city of Chiang Mai rank high on the list for sure.

Thailand is rapidly becoming the digital nomad capital of the world. Thailand receives more visitors annually than any other Southeast Asia nation by a long-shot so if you’re looking for an off the beaten path destination, this isn’t it. Over 35 million people visited Thailand in 2017.

That said, backpacking Thailand is a total blast and a definite rite of passage for first-time backpackers looking to sink their teeth into Southeast Asia. You’ll undoubtedly meet heaps of cool travelers at Thailand’s near-infinite backpacker hostels, and the resulting adventure will be grand!

Backpacking Vietnam

Over the last few decades, Vietnam has charged to the head of the line as a top destination for backpackers. Delicious cuisine, low prices, cheap places to stay, historical sights, and mind-boggling wonders are just a few of the draws that make up the charm in Vietnam.

Backpacking Vietnam offers an incredible opportunity to get off the beaten track… Explore dramatic mountains in the North, stop in for some corn wine and a friendly chat with the locals before heading south to party the night away.

If you are wanting to explore Southeast Asia by motorbike, then Vietnam is the best place to go. The country is long and thin, so it is perfect for a road trip and bikes with Vietnamese plates can enter most other countries in Southeast Asia (this is pretty unique).

Backpacking Laos

Laos is truly a special country in Southeast Asia and one that has managed to retain its easy-going identity in the era of mass-tourism. Wild jungles, river deltas, smiling locals, and amazing treks make Laos the backpacking paradise that it is.

Places in northern Laos, like the areas in and around Luang Prabang, experiences cooler temperatures in the mountains and rainforest. While the south is more of the agricultural heart of the country. Each hold substantial significance for backpackers. Laos is the perfect country for backpackers wanting to experience Southeast Asia within a short time frame.

One can easily see the highlights and experience the country off the beaten path in 2 weeks to a month. Take it easy though. Laos is a country that is not to be rushed through. You will see when you get your boots on the ground that nothing happens quickly in Laos anyway… This is a land of chill.

Backpacking Cambodia

The temples at Angkor Wat are an obvious draw to Cambodia and are truly impressive. Cambodia is a country rich in culture, beautiful beaches and islands, the Mekong River Delta, and bustling markets.

The nation of Cambodia is a country still pulling out of an extremely dark recent past. A staggering 1.5 – 3 million people were killed by the Khmer Rouge, led by tyrant Pol Pot. It happened only 35 – 40 years ago and is still very fresh and raw to the Cambodian people.

Despite the tragic history, the local Khmer people are some of the kindest humans in the world. The country is still recuperating, rebuilding, and moving forward, however, corruption is hindering its rehabilitation.

Cambodia is one of my favorite Southeast Asian destinations to travel; I loved it so much that I ended up overstaying my visa. From the awesome backpacker accommodations, cheap prices, and epic off-the-beaten-track travels, Cambodia seriously has it all. See it for yourself and you will fall in love too.

Backpacking Myanmar

In recent years, backpacker travel to Myanmar has exploded. The country has been opening its doors to foreigners for the first time and travelers are flooding in. There are some truly epic travel experiences to be had in Myanmar.

The temples at Bagan are unbelievably beautiful and are best explored by e-bike. Bring along a good tent and camp out so you can catch the sunrise over the temples.

I first visited Myanmar in 2013 and fell head over heels in love, it was one of the most rewarding countries I had ever traveled too and blew my mind.

Whilst Myanmar is one of the best backpacking adventures to be had in Southeast Asia, the current political situation there has put a dark cloud over the country. Because of the unspeakable actions of the government, Myanmar finds itself on my country blacklist for the time being.

Backpacking Malaysia

I love Malaysia. Somehow, Malaysia has managed to stay below the radar of the general population of backpackers on the Southeast Asia backpacking circuit. To write off Malaysia as uninteresting would be a mistake! Malaysia should be your next backpacking destination!

For one, I found Malaysia to have some of the lowest prices in all of Southeast Asia. The country is extremely clean, the roads are in great shape, and the people speak decent English. Malaysia is also a majority Muslim country, which I found to be a stark contrast to the Buddhist majorities of the countries to the north.

Tioman Island is one of Southeast Asia’s best-kept secrets. Getting your PADI open water certificate is cheaper on Tioman than anywhere in Thailand. Also, the diving is better in my opinion. The coral reefs are not experiencing the same level of bleaching as they are in Thailand. I saw plenty of turtles, sharks, and more vibrant reef systems generally. Malaysia is also home to the worlds oldest rainforest at Taman Negara. Malaysia is perfect for some crazy adventures!

Then there is Malaysian Borneo. Parts of Borneo are surprisingly well developed. That said, there are giant swaths of the island that are still wild and teaming with rhinoceros, orangutans, and other rare wildlife. I look forward to my triumphant return to Malaysia someday soon!

Backpacking Singapore

Singapore is the smallest country to make our list. This tropical island city-state nation might be a blip on the map, but it is a regional economic and cultural powerhouse.

Backpacking Singapore has the reputation of being an expensive place to visit in Southeast Asia. Whilst Singapore is certainly more expensive when compared to its relatively cheap neighbors, there is still plenty to do for backpackers on a budget.

Some of the best street food in the world can be found amongst the food stalls of the various markets. Singapore is a multi-cultural melting pot so it is possible to taste the influences of many different cultures in a single dish. Rub elbows with locals and chow down on some epically delicious cheap eats.

Visit Chinatown, explore Arab Street, and be sure to grab a curry in Little India. Just based on the neighborhood names alone, you can gather that many ethnic groups are represented across this city-country.

If you are visiting Singapore for the weekend or longer, be sure to check out the nature reserves surrounding the city. Few people realize that just outside of Singapore’s urban centers there are some great day hikes to be had in the surrounding jungle. There’s also plenty of local life to be experienced beyond the neon landscape.

Singapore is a city that has something for every backpacker. Whether you are just passing through or coming to SEA specifically to backpack Singapore, you can be sure that there is always something awesome (and tasty) to get into here.

Backpacking Indonesia

As a vast archipelago nation composed of over 17,000 islands, Indonesia is one of the most fascinating countries in the world. The country is so big and so spread out that exploring it can feel overwhelming.

Backpacking Indonesia is an adventure like no other. For starters, you can climb active volcanoes, encounter orangutans in the jungle, visit ancient temples, and enjoy world-class diving. All along the way, you’ll be welcomed in by some of the most friendly people out there while you enjoy the varied and delicious cuisine. Best of all,  you can easily backpack Indonesia on a budget.

Bali is definitely the backpacker magnet of Indonesia and for good reason. Along with a blossoming digital nomad scene and tons of epic places to see, Bali is also surf and party central. If you are wanting to become a yoga teacher, there are countless programs being offered all across the island.

Bali is worth a visit, but be sure to visit some of the other islands as well. Though fun, I would argue that Bali is not at all what the rest of Indonesia feels like. The country is jam-packed with off the beaten path exploration potential. 17,000 islands bro! Get yourself out there and explore some of them and you will quickly fall in love with this massive island nation.

Backpacking The Philippines

Cheap beer, beautiful beaches, adrenaline-pumping activities and some of the most friendly, genuine, people in all of Asia; the Philippines truly captured my heart. I made some incredible friends in the Philippines and I have to say, it is one of the easiest countries in the world to travel around as the locals are so friendly. Getting around the Philippines as a backpacker and finding a sweet and cheap place to stay (and a sweet and cheap thing to eat) is breezy.

There are thousands of islands to choose from. This translates into world-class scuba diving, snorkeling, and fishing. If you have never tried spearfishing, you should absolutely give it a go. Spearfishing doesn't get much better than in the Philippines where the visibility is insanely good.

If you love trekking like me, then you will be pleased to find some epic hiking opportunities in the Philippines. Caves, rivers, mountains, you name it, one can find all the outdoor playgrounds here. There are heaps of adventure opportunities in The Philippines if you're equipped for the job!

There are endless trekking options in the Philippines: remote hill hikes and active volcanoes, gentle strolls, and multi-day backpacking trips. Some popular treks include Cordillera and its rice terraces + Mt. Pulag. Not too far from here you can reach Sagada and hike in the hills. Bohol and the Chocolate Hills are a great place to trek as well. The Philippines is home to 25 active volcanoes that can be climbed to the summit!

What to do along the Banana Pancake Trail?

There is a lot to do and see in Southeast Asia and trying to list everything on one page would be too difficult to do. Be sure to visit our country travel guide for Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia, Myanmar, and Laos for specifics on what to do and see in those specific countries. You will get extensive lists! However, below is a list of my top places to visit while backpacking around Southeast Asia:

1. Go jungle trekking

No matter where you do it, jungle trekking is a must for any traveler. The area is covered in amazing jungles with a diverse wildlife. These lush forests contain a lot of wildlife and camping opportunities. You’ll be able to see cool waterfalls too. The best jungle treks are found in northern Thailand, western Laos, and Malaysia Borneo (these are also the hardest and most intense).

2. Attend the Full Moon Party

The biggest one-night party in the world can sometimes see up to 30,000 people. Party until dawn covered in glow paint and dance the night away with new friends on the island of Ko Phangan in Thailand. As the name would suggest, the party is on the night of the full moon. If you miss it, there’s always the half-moon party, quarter-moon party, and black-moon party. Really, every night is a party here on Koh Phangan. There’s no airport on the island, so everyone comes by ferry. You can come via Surat Thani on the mainland or from the nearby island of Koh Samui.

Here is our detailed guide for Full Moon Party in Koh Phangan, Thailand

3. Learn to dive

There are many great dive sites around the region. Learn to dive here at a fraction of what it would cost back home. Some of the best places are Ko Tao (Thailand), Sipidan (Malaysia), as well as Indonesia and the Philippines. Ko Tao is especially a great place to learn how to dive, and the typical diving course is completed in three days. A PADI course will typically run you 9,800 THB ($300 USD), including three nights’ accommodation, though at smaller schools you can often negotiate down to 9,000 THB ($275 USD). An SSI course will not go above 9,000 THB ($275 USD) with accommodation. If you’re arranging your own accommodation, you can get a PADI course for 8,500 ($260 USD) or an SSI for 7,500 ($230 USD).

4. Eat in Singapore

Thought Thailand had great food? Try the hawker stalls of Singapore for great eats. Don’t forget to also visit Little India (where great Indian meals cost as little as $5 SGD/$4 USD!) and Chinatown. They have some of the best and cheapest food in Asia! If you’re looking for a nice place to sit down and eat, then the best time to eat at Singapore’s famed restaurants is during lunch when restaurants offer 20% off, making them a great deal. The set lunches will give you dinner food at a discount and allow you a bit more variety in what you’re eating.

5. Get your temple overload

There’s a lot of everything in Southeast Asia – lots of food, islands, clothes, drinking, and lots of temples. You can’t turn a corner without seeing a Buddhist temple. You’ll get temple overload at some point, but visit as many as you can as each is unique to the country and region of the temple. Check out Chiang Mai, Bagan, Angkor Wat, Hue, Hoi An, and Luang Prabang for places with high concentrations of ornate and beautiful temples.

6. Dive Sipidan

Located off Malaysian Borneo, Sipidan is one of the best dives sites in the world. If you have your dive certificate, make sure you venture out here. Not a lot of people make it to this part of Malaysia but there’s a lot to see here besides diving. Go the extra mile, and make your way off the tourist trail a bit. Sipadan is arguably one of the best five dive sites in the world. The place is teeming with life. You will see turtles, cave systems, sharks, dolphins, schools of fish, bright coral, bright fish, and everything in between.

7. Fall in love with Bali

Bali is the most popular destination in Indonesia. Its famous Kuta beach (overrated) and is known for its parties and surfing. However, there is much more to Bali than just wild nights and sun-soaked days. Many beaches are great for families, while the rice terraces in the center will show you what green really is, and Ubud is an artistic town with great food and traditional dancing. Cheap guesthouses and hostels usually cost around 120,000-200,000 IDR ($8-13 USD) per night. Most hostels do not offer private rooms, though free WiFi and free breakfast are generally included.

8. Take in Ho Chi Minh City

Frantic, chaotic, and crazy, Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam is the embodiment of the controlled chaos that rules Southeast Asia. You can’t quite figure out how this teeming mass of people and cars work together, but it does.

9. See the sunrise over an Indonesian Volcano

One of the most popular tourist attractions on Java is Mount Bromo and its National Park. You’ll not want to miss out on getting a snap of the smoldering Bromo volcano as it lies surrounded by the almost lunar landscape of the Sea of Sand. If you’re there in mid-August, you’ll be just in time to see Upacara Kasodo, the monthly ritual which the Tenggerese take part in. Get up early to catch one of the most memorable sunrises of your life.

10. Visit Khao Sok National Park

Located in the south of Thailand, Khao Sok National Park is constantly rated as one of the best in Thailand, with incredible trekking, camping, limestone karsts, cooling rivers, and a glistening lake. You’ll find semi-challenging hikes, tons of wildlife, walking paths, and incredible sunsets. Park entrance costs 200 THB ($6 USD).

11. Visit Kampot

Most people come to Kampot to enjoy the scenic riverside views, as well as the rolling hills that surround the city. Since you can explore easily enough on foot or by bicycle, Kampot is a great place to slow down and relax. Don’t miss the pepper farms, the mangroves, and the national park.

Be sure to visit our Southeast Asian country travel guides for more detailed information about what to see and do in each place:

Consideration before making your backpacking plan in Southeast Asia

Don’t bite off too much

This is easily the most important tip I can share about creating your route for Southeast Asia.

I know you will be intensely tempted to include every highlight listed in your travel guide. But unless you have all the time in the world, chances are your route is already too ambitious.

It is usually better to focus. Think about it: do you want to see loads of stuff only very superficially (and tire yourself by continually moving from place to place in a hurry)?

Or do you want to pick a more realistic number of places and then see them in a more meaningful way?

If your answer is still the former, that’s okay! Not everyone likes to travel the same way. But personally, I think it is better to pace yourself.

I often see people asking if, say, three weeks is enough to see Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. While it is technically possible, I do not recommend it. You would probably need another holiday just to recover from such a hectic schedule. And when you are frantically pinballing around the region, you are likely to experience many places only very fleetingly.

Cutting back and streamlining your itinerary can actually improve your trip. Here are a few reasons why:

  1. You will have more time to truly get to know a country instead of just ticking things off a list.
  2. A tighter route typically means more time available to experience things, and less time wasted in transit.
  3. You will have more opportunity to go beyond just the obvious tourist hubs.

Not to mention, traveling long distances can be tiring! While infrastructure is improving in Southeast Asia and budget flights are increasingly available, it is still easy to underestimate the time and distances involved, especially if your goal is to travel mostly overland.

Balancing your Asia itinerary

Okay, so maybe you don’t want to stretch yourself too thin.

Apart from that, I also recommend having a nice mix of Big Things as well as small things in your itinerary.

What do I mean?

Well, in your research, much of your attention will inevitably be drawn to Big Things. I am talking for instance about UNESCO world heritage sites and other famous places. Maybe you’ll read about the towering limestone islands of Ha Long Bay in Vietnam, or the epic temples of Angkor Wat in Cambodia, or the famed beaches and islands around Krabi in Thailand.

I am not saying these places aren’t worth it. They usually are. But they are usually also rammed with tourists and drones and selfie sticks. It is definitely cool to have some major sights in your itinerary, but it should never be an obligation. Personally, I think it is fun to mix them in with some slightly less-known places that might have some more local character.

Many of my favorite travel memories in Asia are actually not of grand or iconic locations. I often think back fondly just to riding a scooter through rice fields in northern Thailand, watching the sunset over the Mekong river in Laos, or enjoying a delicious bowl of Pho noodles at a market in Vietnam. 

If you are finding it impossible to fit in all the big bucket list items, do not beat yourself up about it. Your route simply may not be able to capture them all. Just know that between the famous sights are plenty of smaller things you may enjoy just as much.

Now enough with the disclaimers… let me share a few actual suggestions.

Recommended backpacking plans in Southeast Asia

Backpacking Southeast Asia in 2 Weeks

Two weeks is honestly not a whole lot to be thinking about an entire region. You’ll have some tough decisions to make.

Some 2-week itineraries out there suggest flying everywhere and spending just two or three days per country, but I think that’s a huge waste. Consider just picking one country.

Think about what sort of activities you like and pick a country that you most like the sound of.

If you’re new to Southeast Asia, then Thailand is always a safe bet. The food is phenomenal, travel logistics are easy, and you’re spoiled for interesting attractions. From Bangkok, you could also make an excursion into Cambodia to see the sprawling temples of Angkor Wat, though Thailand also has its own ancient temple ruins at Ayathuya and Sukhothai.

Vietnam is also a good choice for a shorter trip. It’s a pretty big and stretched out country but transportation options are good, including many railway connections (with sleeper trains too). Seeing all the highlights would take at least 3 or 4 weeks, so with 2 weeks you may want to choose to see either the south or north. (Personally, I like the northern and middle parts the most.)

Backpacking Southeast Asia in 4 Weeks

4 weeks gives you more to work with, but it’s realistically still too tight for hitting up all of mainland Southeast Asia. My suggestion is to focus on the two countries that appeal to you most and that are easily combined.

For example, you could combine Thailand with Laos. While Thailand is more developed, Laos is mostly rural and sparsely populated, which also makes it an amazing destination for jungle and mountain trekking. Northern Thailand and northern Laos go together well, letting you travel in a neat little loop.

Or you could combine Vietnam and Cambodia. You could start in northern Vietnam, visit Halong Bay, and work your way south. Vietnam alone could take you 2,5 or 3 weeks; keep at least one week free to dip into Cambodia and see the temples of Angkor Wat and maybe one or two other highlights. End your trip with some quality beach time on the Cambodian islands.

Of course, if you do not want to travel strictly overland, you can easily spend 2 weeks in one country and then fly off for another 2 weeks somewhere totally else.

I am not saying you must stick to just two countries: you could easily decide to do more or less. But two countries in four weeks will probably give you a nice unhurried pace.

Backpacking Southeast Asia in 2 Months or More

2 months is the perfect minimum time to enjoy all four countries in mainland South-East Asia without having to rush.

You can follow the complete so-called ‘Banana Pancake’ trail, a well-trodden Southeast Asia backpacker route that runs through Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam.

In case you were wondering, this trail was named after the guesthouses that were all starting to sell banana pancakes back when hippies were trailblazing around this region in the 1970s. At the time this pancake breakfast offered the only relief from the usual rice-based meals. The name does not make that much sense anymore, but it’s what stuck!

Due to having so many flight connections, many people start their trip in Bangkok. (Though Kuala Lumpur and Singapore are also common entry points into the region.)

You can get some ideas for how to kick things off in Thailand on my Thailand itineraries page. Head north up to Chiang Mai and Pai, then head for Chiang Rai and the Laos border.

Many backpackers like to take the two-day slow boat from the Laos border to Luang Prabang along the Mekong. It’s nice to see the landscape slowly change and to get a glimpse of the locals living along the river. The boat is also a great way to meet other travelers. On my first Southeast Asia sojourn, I kept meeting people from the boat for months after.

Be sure to spend some time in northern Laos. I think it’s incredibly scenic and a totally underrated part of the region.

If you’re following the classic route from Luang Prabang down to Vang Vieng and the capital of Vientiane, it may be worth flying to Vietnam from there. While infrastructure is gradually improving in Laos, overlanding from Vientiane to Hanoi still makes for an epic 25+hour journey that you may wish to skip.

Work your way down Vietnam, then through Cambodia, and end your trip lazying on the Thai islands.

Alternative Banana Pancake Route

The route above is roughly suitable for a first-time backpacker following more or less the beaten path.

For a more experience backpacker, we would recommend a different route, with more focus on nature and rural regions, and a bit less focus on cities and the most touristy areas.

Some of the most important differences: 

  • This route leaves out Vientiane in Laos, as I (humbly) think it’s one of the dullest capitals in the region
  • More focus on central and north Vietnam instead of the south (but this could be added back in if you wanted)
  • Added southern Laos for a quiet Mekong river experience, in favor of the busier Mekong Delta in southern Vietnam
  • Less time spent in southern Thailand, which I think can (at times) be overly commercial and less adventurous

Some of the highlights along this route:

  • Do the Mae Hong Son loop for a great slice of rural Thailand
  • Luang Namtha in northern Laos is an excellent jumping-off point for hill tribe and jungle hikes.
  • Visit the UNESCO world heritage city of Luang Prabang, known for its French colonial architecture and Mekong river views
  • Go to Nong Khiaw for waterfall treks and other adventure activities. The landscape and things you can do here are similar to Vang Vieng but without the cheesy nightlife. 
  • A quick stopover in Phonsavan just to break up the overland journey to Vietnam
  • See lush rice fields and karst landscapes around Ninh Binh. (Consider staying overnight instead of doing this as a day trip from Hanoi.)
  • Explore Vietnam’s traditional capital of Hanoi, with potential route extensions into the mountainous northwest of Vietnam
  • Take a cruise to Bai Tu Long Bay instead of Ha Long Bay. This takes a day longer but has much fewer crowds
  • Stop at Phong Na for caving adventures. You’ll find here some of the most unique and largest caves in the whole world.
  • Go to Hoi An, a pleasant town known for its colourful lanterns at night. There are some decent beaches near Hoi An where you can find your first sun & sand on this trip.
  • Head to Pakse and consider exploring the Bolaven Plateau, which has some of Laos’ prettiest waterfalls.
  • Chill at the riverine archipelago of Si Phan Don
  • See the temples of Angkor Wat near Siem Reap
  • Relax on the islands of Cambodia and/or southeast Thailand. These islands are often less commercialized than the more famous ones in southwest Thailand (like Koh Phi Phi). Or consider the Perhentian Islands in Malaysia.

Of course, there are a million ways to travel through Southeast Asia and this is just one other way. If you’re not sure how to get from point A to B, try putting the two places into Rome2Rio (though journey times are not always correct and local minivan services aren’t usually listed).

Expanding your Asia Route

So far, I have focused on the four core countries as they connect well overland. But with more time to spare or with some added flights, there is clearly a whole other chunk of Southeast Asia to consider.

Malaysia makes for an obvious extension from southern Thailand. It is a more conservative country with quieter beaches than in Thailand, while Malaysian Borneo has some of the best wildlife experiences and the tallest mountain in the region.

But some of my favorite backpacking destinations are actually on Southeast Asia’s periphery. I’m a big fan of Indonesia, which is hyper touristy on Bali but rather low-key and uncrowded elsewhere. I like Flores and the Komodo Islands a lot. Mount Bromo and the Ijen Plateau are amazing.

I also love The Philippines. I know, it’s a bit far removed from everywhere else, but it’s totally worth it. It has some of the friendliest people and best beaches and islands! El Nido on Palawan is getting a bit overcrowded these days, but you can’t go wrong with a trip through the Visayas or Northern Luzon, other parts of Palawan, and literally countless other islands.

Myanmar is another fascinating destination, with much less developed tourism (especially outside of Bagan and Lake Inle).

Or… listen to the call inside you!

So far I’ve merely shared some of the common wisdom for backpacking Southeast Asia. But maybe you have different ideas, in which case you should not let anyone tell you what to do!

I have traveled a lot in Asia but, in the end, I am just some guy with a blog who has some biased opinions. All is subjective and everyone has different travel goals.

Don’t be afraid to go off the beaten track and make whatever crazy route you want. Just be realistic about how much time you have, as I tried to caution earlier.

Not everything has to be planned out in advance, especially for a longer trip. Improvisation is pretty easy in Southeast Asia, so you can always just wing it and see where adventure takes you!

How much does the Banana Pancake Trail Cost?

Some typical costs

Accommodation 

Accommodation in Southeast Asia is really cheap, especially if you are traveling on a budget or backpacking. You can find dorm rooms for as little as 8,000-20,000 KHR or 16,000-40,500 LAK ($2-5 USD) in parts of Cambodia and Laos. In Thailand, you will typically pay 200-440 THB ($6-15 USD) per night. In Vietnam, expect to pay 100,000-175,000 VND ($5-8 USD). In Indonesia, between 100,000-135,000 IDR ($8-10 USD). Throughout the region, you typically expect to pay around $15-20 per night for a private room with A/C.

Simple guesthouses throughout Southeast Asia generally cost $10 USD per night for a basic room, fan (sometimes air- conditioning), and hot water. If you want something nicer that includes a more comfortable bed and a TV, expect to pay $15–20 USD per night. If you want the bare basics (small rooms and not the comfiest beds), you can find rooms for as little as $5 USD per night, especially in rural areas.

For backpackers, budgeting $10-20 USD per night for accommodation is pretty safe no matter where you go in Southeast Asia. If you’re looking for something higher end or with A/C, expect to pay $20-50 per night for a room. Anything over that and the sky is the limit!

Food

While traveling Southeast Asia, street food is the most popular form of eating. On average, these meals cost no more than $1.50 USD. You find these stalls throughout this region lining major streets and at the markets. In Thailand, you even find markets specifically for street food. In Singapore, you’ll find street food (or “hawker stands” as they are called there) to be around 4.25 SGD ($3 USD) for a meal. Even if you go into small local restaurants, the price does not increase that much.

Food you can find for $2 USD at a street stall will only cost $3-5 USD at a local restaurant. If you went into a restaurant in Thailand, you’d pay around 135 THB ($5 USD) for a pad Thai that would have cost 35 THB ($1 USD) on the street. In Cambodia, street food, which isn’t as abundant as I would like it to be, is around 4,070 KHR ($1 USD), while restaurants charge around 12,215 KHR ($3 USD) for a local dish like amok (coconut milk dish) or luc lac (pepper gravy beef).

Western meals, including burgers, bad pizza, and sandwiches, cost around $5 USD for cheaply made food. This is going to be the most expensive part of your food budget in this region. If you want something that actually tastes like it does back home, you’re looking at spending at least $10 USD for your meal.

Additionally, in the big cities like Bangkok, KL, or Singapore, you’ll find world-class Michelin star meals. There’s a growing cutting-edge foodie scene in the region and, if you want to splurge, you’re going to find some really good meals.

Activities

Activities in Southeast Asia are pretty cheap. Most Buddhist temples throughout the area are free to enter, though some of the more famous and larger ones, like Wat Phnom in Phnom Penh, Cambodia; Wat Pho in Bangkok, Thailand; the Temple of Literature in Hanoi; and Vat Xieng Toung in Luang Prabang, Laos, cost $3–5 USD to enter. Most day tours only cost around $20 USD, often times less. If you are going jungle trekking, seeing elephants, climbing mountains, or doing overnight trips, prices can go as high as $50 USD.

Learning to scuba dive will set you back $300-400 USD, but on the island of Ko Tao in Thailand, the course is 9,930 THB ($300 USD) and includes free accommodation for the duration of the course, which lasts three or four days. The three-day pass to Angkor Wat is 252,820 KHR ($60 USD). Jungle trekking costs 1,000-1,685 THB ($30-50 USD) per day, though you can usually get better prices in groups. White-water rafting will cost around 200 MYR ($45 USD). For everything else, check the country and city guides for prices on various activities.

Recommended budget for Banana Pancake Trail

How much does it cost to visit Southeast Asia? Not that much! In Southeast Asia, if you are backpacking and traveling on a budget, you need around $25-35 USD per day to get by. This is a suggested budget assuming you are staying in a hostel (dorms or cheap guesthouses), eating out at local markets and street stalls, not drinking a ton, and using local transportation. Southeast Asia travel does not have to be too expensive.

If you want to live a little and spend more, you are looking at closer to $50 USD per day and that would include nicer accommodation, more Western food, flights, and nicer bars! However, in general, the region is pretty cheap and if you stick to doing what the locals do, you’ll be hard pressed to spend much money.

Country Dorm Bed Local Meal Bus Ride Average Daily Cost
Thailand $4-10 $1-3 $2-10 $20-50+
Vietnam $5-10 $1-7 $3-15 $20-40
Laos $4-6 $1-3 $2.50 per hour $20-35
Cambodia $3-8 $1-4 $2-7 $20-40
Myanmar $10-20 $2-6 $3-10 $20-50+
Malaysia $5-10 $2-4 $5-10 $25-55
Indonesia $10-15 $2-5 $3-8 $30-60
The Philippines $5-7 $1-6 $3-10 $30-55+

 

Money Saving Tips

Backpacking Southeast Asia is really cheap. You can get by on as little as $15 USD per day if you want (though $25 USD is more realistic). There’s little opportunity to really spend a lot of money since everything is already so inexpensive. The two reasons why most people end up overspending is that they eat a lot of western food and drink way too much. If you want to save money while traveling in this part of the world, cut down your drinking and Western food. After all, did you travel halfway around the world to eat a crappy burger? Doubtful. If you drink a lot or eat Western food, you’ll end up spending close to $35-45 USD per day.
How do you save money in Southeast Asia then? Here are a few hacks to cut down your costs:

  1. Couchsurf – Accommodation is cheap in Southeast Asia, but nothing is cheaper than free! Use Couchsurfing to stay with locals who have extra beds and couches for free. You will meet great people too that can show you around. It is one of my favorite travel services out there and I always walk away with friends.
  2. Book tours and day trips as a group – You have more negotiation power when you are with a group of people buying multiple things. Traveling alone? Meet a friend at a hostel and see if they want to join the same tour as you.
  3. Don’t book in advance – Don’t book any tours or activities before you get to your destination. They will be much cheaper when you arrive as you will be able to negotiate a lower price. Anything you see online is going to be more expensive than you need to pay!
  4. Eat on the street – You can pick up tasty local fare for cheap! Street side snacks, soups, and noodles will keep your wallet fat! Markets are your best bet for finding seriously cheap and delicious food. Street stalls are the staple diet of locals in the region and should be your staple too. The food is the best too.
  5. Bargain hard – Nothing is ever at face value here. Bargain with sellers as most of the time, the price they have quoted is way higher. There is a haggling culture in the region so play the game and save some money. You will never get the local price, but you might come close!
  6. Minimize your drinking – Drinks really add up. Even with cheap drinks, if you are not aware, you’ll end up spending more money on beer than on food and accommodation.
  7. Pack a water bottle – A water bottle with a purifier will come particularly in handy in Southeast Asia since you cannot drink the tap water. Save money and thousands of plastic bottles and get a bottle that can purify the tap water for you. 

When to Go to Southeast Asia

The best time of the year to visit Southeast Asia is from November to April, when temperatures are more mild. This is the regions high season too. However, temperatures vary drastically in this region. It may be mild in Thailand in January and hot in Malaysia but in Northern Vietnam, it’s cold!

Here is a breakdown of each country so you can know when to visit:

In Indonesia, the best time to visit is April to October. Temperatures average 24-30ºC (75-86ºF), and the weather is mostly dry. July to September is peak holiday season and when you can expect to pay the highest rates. December to February is the rainy season.

In Malaysia, January-March and June-September are the best time to visit, as these months have the lowest average rainfall. It will still be hot and humid, though! The rainy season is from October to December. Singapore’s climate/weather is much like Malaysia’s.

In Vietnam, the weather varies. In Central Vietnam (like Hoi An and Nha Trang), January to May is the best time to visit because it is dry and the temperatures average 21-30ºC (70-86ºF).

June to August is also okay. If you want to stick around Hanoi, March to April is great, or October to December (for mildest temperatures). Rainy season is May to September.

Thailand has three seasons: hot, hotter, and hottest. It is always warm, though the weather is nicest between November and February (which is also peak tourist season). April and May are the hottest months and the rainy season is June-October. The gulf islands get pretty rainy from August to December. November to the end of February is the best time to visit Thailand. Bangkok is “coolest” during this time (but still averaging a hot 29ºC/85°F), and the driest. Avoid rainy season (July to October).

The dry season in Cambodia is from November-May, and the cool season is from November-February (this is when most people visit). Temperatures during this time are still high, but humidity is lower. Laos has the same cool season as Cambodia, which dry season running from November-April.

Overall, if you are visiting Southeast Asia, November-April is generally the best time to visit.

Read more on best time to visit Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia, Myanmar, and Laos

How to get to Southeast Asia

No doubt, the best way to get there is by taking a flight. Usually, people will first fly into Bangkok, which offers the most convenient route, cheapest flight ticket, and easier to connect with other parts of Asia.

However, in case you plan to start in other countries, we have the detailed guide on how to get the cheapest flight to Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia, Myanmar, or Laos

How to Get Around Southeast Asia

The easiest and cheapest way to travel around Southeast Asia is by bus. A bus will take you everywhere and anywhere you want to go, no matter how far. The backpacker trail is so worn that there is a very well established and oiled tourist bus system to take you anywhere. Buses costs vary between $5-10 USD for a 5-6 hours journey. Overnight buses cost $10-15 USD depending on distance. Local public transportation costs from a few pennies to a few dollars.

Taxis and tuk-tuks (small shared taxis with no meter) will require a bit of haggling and cost more than local transportation. Taxis and tuk-tuks are normally double to triple what the local transportation is and you often have to haggle for the price. They start really high and you work towards something you are willing to pay. Eventually, you come to a conclusion, which is usually about half the price they started with.
In Singapore and Indonesia, taxi drivers do put on the meter. In Bangkok, you can get taxi drivers to use the meter, but if you are hailing one in a tourist area, he might try to avoid using it. In Vietnam, the meter is usually rigged, but if you can get a reputable company like Mai Linh, you will not have any problems.

Train service is limited in the region and not something to really consider when you travel Southeast Asia. It just does not go many places. You can take a train up and down the coast of Vietnam, though it is slow and expensive. Thailand is the only country that has an extensive train system that let’s you travel all its regions (and onward to Singapore) from Bangkok.

The train prices in Southeast Asia are determined by distance and class, so the farther you go, the more you pay. Night trains with sleeper cars are more expensive than day trains. The night train to Chiang Mai from Bangkok takes twelve hours and costs 965 THB ($30 USD) for a sleeper seat. However, that same train during the day is 300 THB ($10 USD). In Vietnam, trains run up and down the coast and cost 1,445,445 VND ($60 USD) from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City.

In short, do this to get around when you’re backpacking Southeast Asia (or just looking to use local transportation): Take the train as often as you can in Thailand, take buses everywhere else, take the train in Vietnam if you have the time. Remember day trains are always cheaper.

Read more on getting around in Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia, Myanmar, and Laos

What to pack to Banana Pancake Trail?

Here are a few pointers/must packs for your Southeast Asia trip:  

A quality travel backpack

Variable terrain and lots of walking make a travel backpack the perfect luggage choice. Leave the roller suitcase at home (you’ll thank me later). If you need a new pack, the Khmer Explorer Travel Set was built exactly for this type of adventure.

An everyday backpack or bag

Carry your water-bottle, a raincoat, camera, or beach gear with a great everyday backpack.  For maximum flexibility check out the customizable Kiri collection.

Shots & medication

Determine if you require any vaccines before traveling to your destination. If you haven’t traveled to an equatorial region before, it’s highly likely you’ll need at least a few.

Vaccination can be a comprehensive process, so it’s a good idea to look into this a few months before departure.

Travel insurance

One accident is all it takes to end your vacation and make it a trip that takes a lifetime to pay back. Check out World Nomads for comprehensive coverage and options for adventure activities including motorbiking and scuba diving.

Unlock your cell phone

Call your network provider to ensure your phone is unlocked. This way you’re all set up to grab a new SIM card upon landing and avoid the pains of massive roaming charges and the sometimes questionable wi-fi (data is often way better and crazy cheap). All the countries along the Banana Pancake Trail tend to have dirt cheap SIMs readily available (although they often do not work when moving from one country to the next (ie. Vietnam SIMs won’t work in Cambodia).

Notify your bank

Many banks no longer require you to directly notify them of international travel to prevent an unwanted account freeze, that said, best to check the policy to be sure. Thousands of miles from home with no access to money is not a fun way to start.

Bring a bit of cash

A first stop after disembarking the plane is usually the cash machine. That said, the last thing you want to deal with when you land is a broken ATM and no money (been there). So take $100 USD in cash (small denomination is usually best). In a pinch you usually find a money exchange at the airport with poor rates (a necessary evil at times).

Bring a water bottle with water purification tabs or a Steripen

It’s hot. You’ll sweat. A lot. I wouldn’t recommend drinking the tap water unless you wish to tempt giardia or worse. Thinking of buying bottled? Please don’t. Traveller water bottle garbage is a HUGE problem for plastic pollution in the ocean. Bring your own bottle and use a Steripen or tablets to purify the water if you can’t find any that is safe to drink (many hostels have water coolers you can fill up from).

Pack a portable power bank

Comes in handy when you need to charge your phone/tablet in a bind.

Choose clothes you feel comfortable in

I’m not going to tell you to bring 2 t-shirts, 1x, and 1y, because everyone is different. Some of you may view it worthwhile to pack a pair of jeans for a fancy night out in Bangkok or HCMC, others may find that proposition crazy. Some of you may want to bring your favourite tapered sweatpants, that’s fine too I guess… Before I hit the Banana Pancake Trail, I loaded up on breathable gear for a hot climate (thanks Dad…). I ended up wearing none of it, giving away a lot of it, and carrying the rest around for the duration of my trip…

The weather in Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, and Thailand is tropical and hot. There are generally two distinct seasons: rainy (several hours of intense rain) and dry.  Higher elevations (such as parts of Northern Vietnam) may be chilly at night. So pack items you’re comfortable in based on this. No need to redo your wardrobe…

A sheet sleeping bag liner

I helped a good pal of mine pack for his first big trip and I told him to get a sheet sleeping bag liner. He wondered why he was lugging this little thing around until one night he was forced to crash in a place with questionable cleanliness. Suddenly, he wasn’t wondering why I insisted he brought this.

Read more on what to pack for Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia, Myanmar, and Laos

Is it safe to backpacking in Southeast Asia?

Southeast Asia is an incredibly safe place to backpack and travel – even if you’re traveling solo, and even as a solo female traveler. Violent attacks are rare. Petty theft (including bag snatching) is the most common type of crime in Southeast Asia. There are some common scams around, like the motorbike scam where vendors try to charge you for damage to their bike, but for the most part, this is a safe place to travel. People are nice and helpful and you’re unlikely to get into trouble. The people who do tend to be involved with drinking or drugs or sex tourism. Stay away from that stuff and you’ll be fine.

Always trust your gut instinct. If a taxi driver seems shady, stop the cab and get out. If your hotel is seedier than you thought, get out of there. You have every right to remove yourself from the situation. Make copies of your personal documents, including your passport and ID. Forward your itinerary along to loved ones so they will know where you are.

If you do not do it at home, don’t do it when you’re in Southeast Asia. Follow that rule and you will be fine.

The most important piece of advice I can offer is to purchase good travel insurance. Travel insurance will protect you against illness, injury, theft, and cancellations. It is comprehensive protection in case anything goes wrong. I never go on a trip without it as I have had to use it many times in the past. 

Worried about travel scams? Read more on how to travel safe in Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia, Myanmar, and Laos

The Future of the Banana Pancake Trail

As travel becomes more and more accessible to people from all over the world, tourism along the Banana Pancake Trail will continue to have more and more of an impact on developing countries. While tourist dollars do help poor areas in these countries, they also bring change -- sometimes unwanted -- and cultural mutation. We have a responsibility to preserve the places that we visit.

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Hello, my name’s Jordan and I’m obsessed with travelling overland. Seeing how cultures change while travelling slowly captivates me; and doing so in an eco-friendly way, preserving the cultures and landscapes that so many travellers yearn to explore, has given me my travelling purpose.

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