“Whoever said money can’t buy happiness, never bought a plane ticket.”
Southeast Asia is everything you would imagine and more. It’s beautiful, it’s messy, it’s chaotic, it’s tranquil; it was better than I had even anticipated. My senior year of college my friends and I decided to plan a backpacking trip to Southeast Asia as our last big adventure before entering the “real world”. We checked out a couple tour companies to see what they offered and were baffled when we saw most of them offering 10 Day Tour Packages for around $3000. Lol no thanks. We decided to tackle all the planning on our own and I’m here to show you how we did it and how you can do it too!
Step One: Book Main Flight
With sites like Google Flights and SkyScanner, you can snag some seriously great deals. We wanted to go to Asia after graduation around the end of May so we started browsing flights three or four months beforehand. (Remember to try to search for flights on a Tuesday, in a private browser, and explore your options on Google Flights with their price calendar) In February, we found a flight from Chicago to Bangkok, returning from Singapore to Chicago, for $729, for three weeks. Hollllla. $729 might sticker shock you (as it did me) but this is where it comes in handy to have a credit card. Credit cards can be a slippery slope but if you’re smart about them, they are life savers when it comes to traveling. I have a CapitalOne QuickSilver card that I was able to put the flight on and not only get cash back, but it also allowed me to pay off the flight little by little instead of all at once. Cause as a college student, I did not have that kind of cash just lying around..
We had our arrival and departure dates and so next step: deciding where to divide our three weeks between!
Step Two: Deciding Where To Go
Southeast Asia has soooo many beautiful places to see, we felt kind of overwhelmed when it came to deciding where to go. Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Philippines, Singapore, the options are endless. This is where a little research and advice comes in. (I will admit this took a good chunk of time and where most people get discouraged when planning a trip on their own. I personally could spend hours looking up places to go and things to see, but I realize it’s not for everyone! If you feel totally lost, find an itinerary on someone’s blog and tweak it to make it your own) I looked up “Top Southeast Asia Destinations” on Pinterest, browsed blogs that had backpacked SE Asia, talked to friends who had done it before, and made a list of the places they recommended. We found that most of the places we wanted to see were in Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, and Indonesia but we didn’t want to cram too much into a small amount of time so after discussing, we decided on Thailand, Vietnam, and Singapore!
In Thailand, due to personal preferences, we chose to see Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Phuket, and the Phi Phi Islands. Bangkok for the temples and to see the main city of Thailand, Chiang Mai for a less hectic city and to play with elephants, Phuket as a place to explore a bit before taking the ferry to Phi Phi, and the islands because who doesn’t want to take a longtail boat ride in the crystal blue waters of paradise?
Vietnam has three main cities; Hanoi in the north, Hoi An in the center, and Saigon in the south, which makes it a popular country to tour from top to bottom. I wish we had spent more time in Vietnam because it was one of my favorite places I’ve ever visited but since we really wanted to see Ha Long Bay, we chose to land in Hanoi and spend a few days there instead of doing a whole trek of Vietnam. I’ve heard great things about Saigon and am sad I missed it but it gives me a reason to go back ;)
Since our flight was out of Singapore, we dedicated a couple days to explore the “cleanest city in the world”. Beware, it’s an expensive city so if you’re really on a budget, I would either try to spend no more than a couple days here or flying out of another city.
Honorable mentions: This was my first Asia trip and my friend’s first solo international trip so we didn’t want to bite off more than we could chew. If I had to do the trip differently, I would have spent less time in Chiang Mai, skipped Phuket, spent more time in Vietnam and maybe added a week to try to incorporate Laos and Indonesia. There were so many mind blowing places I wanted to see in these two countries but since we were short on time, we didn’t get the chance to go. Laos and Indonesia are way more outdoorsy and cheap to travel but when choosing countries to visit, it’s all about your personal preferences! Big cities, beaches, mountains, rice fields, whatever you want to see, Asia’s got it.
Step Three: Book Transportation
Europe has Ryanair, Asia has AirAsia. We wanted to have all our transportation and accommodation booked before we left but this isn’t absolutely necessary! AirAsia is extremely cheap and you can usually get cheap flights whether you book a month in advance or a day. But to ease our worries, we went ahead and booked everything before we left that way we at least had an idea of when we were arriving and leaving. Below is our itinerary:
May 17th Arrive in Bangkok
May 19th Leave Bangkok at 22:00 on sleeper train to Chiang Mai and arrive 12:00 $34
***It’s impossible to bypass Bangkok with flights. For example, Chiang Mai to Bangkok, Bangkok to Hanoi was cheaper than a direct flight from Chiang Mai to Hanoi
May 23rd Leave Chiang Mai, Arrive Bangkok at 14:50 $45. Leave Bangkok, Arrive Hanoi at 20:55 $55
Ha Long Bay 2 day 1 night cruise (booked through hostel when we arrived) $125
May 27th Leave Hanoi, Arrive Bangkok 10:50 $18. Leave Bangkok, Arrive Phuket 14:00 $37
June 1st Ferry from Phuket to Phi Phi Islands $6 (booked day of)
Island Longtail Boat Tour (Half Day) $40 (book when you get to Phi Phi)
June 5th Ferry from Phi Phi to Phuket $6. Leave Phuket, Arrive Singapore 15:30 $50
June 8th Leave Singapore to go back to US
Step Four: Book Accommodation
I’m usually a “hostel or nothing” girl but it is worth checking out Airbnb for Asia because you can find villas or penthouses for the same price as a nice hostel in Europe. Below is where we stayed:
Bangkok: D Hostel ($15 a night)
Chiang Mai: Airbnb https://www.airbnb.com/rooms/11641365 (split between 4 of us, $50 each for 3 nights)
Hanoi: Tomodachi House ($8 a night)
Phuket: Westin Resort (We knew somebody who knew somebody and landed 5 nights for free)
Phi Phi Islands: Blanco Beach Hostel ($12 a night)
Singapore: Airbnb https://www.airbnb.com/rooms/8525879
Step Five: Research What You Want To Do!
As always, this step is optional depending on what type of traveler you are. I know some people who plan nothing and figure it out when they land and I know people who plan everything to the hour. I personally like to do a mix of both since I like to keep room for serendipity but I also want to be sure not to miss the main sights. Look at Tripadvisor, Pinterest, Lonely Planet, Blogs, Travel Groups, and any other resources you can think for ideas!
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