They call it the Banana Pancake Trail.
The tired backpacking route across the Southeast Asian peninsula — Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam — is known in the travel world as the Banana Pancake Trail, so called for the many stalls selling banana pancakes that are widely sold in the cities along the trail. Over the years, as more backpackers explore further and longer, the trail has grown to span a few previously off-the-beaten-path stops and sometimes other ASEAN countries like Malaysia and Myanmar.
This route is popular for a reason. It’s exotic, “tourist-friendly”, and most importantly, cheap, the qualities that make a destination perfect for both seasoned and newbie backpackers, especially those traveling alone. Despite being hackneyed, it is still something I can recommend to first-time backpackers.
When I quit my full-time job in 2012, the first thing I did was head for the Banana Pancake Trail to have my solo backpacking debut. It was one of my most unforgettable trips to date. For a Southeast Asian like me, although the region looks, tastes, and sounds different, it still fosters an atmosphere that made me feel like home. It is no surprise that we returned later that year, and every two years since.
- 2012: Siem Reap, Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Vang Vieng, Luang Prabang, Ha Long Bay, Hanoi
- 2012: Singapore, Malacca, Kuala Lumpur, Langkawi, Penang, Cameron Highlands
- 2014: Phuket, Krabi, Bangkok, Ayutthaya, Siem Reap, Ho Chi Minh City, Phan Thiet, Mui Ne
- 2016: Myanmar
In this article, we’ll be sharing with you how we plan our backpacking trips across Southeast Asia. Note that this will heavily focus on Continental ASEAN (Indochina) + Singapore. We will be writing separate posts for the Philippines and Indonesia.
If you’re interested in just one destination, here are our specific posts:
- Siem Reap Travel Guide
- Bangkok Travel Guide
- Phuket Travel Guide
- Chiang Mai Travel Guide
- Ho Chi Minh City Travel Guide
- Hanoi Travel Guide
- Bagan Travel Guide
- Langkawi Travel Guide
- Malacca Travel Guide
- Singapore Travel Guide
- Yogyakarta Travel Guide
- Gili Islands Travel Guide
But if you want to go on a multi-country journey across the ASEAN region, here’s a guide on how to build your itinerary and plan your trip.
WHAT'S COVERED IN THIS GUIDE?
1. Determine your budget and travel duration.
How much time and money do you have? If you’re working full time just taking a break, how many days can you spare for this trip?
If you’re holding a Philippine passport, know that you are only allowed the following days visa-free:
- Brunei – 14 days
- Cambodia – 21 days
- Indonesia – 30 days
- Laos – 30 days
- Malaysia – 30 days
- Myanmar – 14 days
- Singapore – 30 days
- Thailand – 30 days (up to 2 visits per year if not arriving by air)
- Vietnam – 21 days
2. Pick your travel dates
Much of continental Southeast Asia enjoys a tropical climate, with a few exceptions in the Northern parts of Vietnam and Myanmar. The weather is generally hot and humid year-round. But it’s not really the temperature that can put a damper on your travel plans; it’s the rainfall. Monsoons come with a lot of rain, and in some places, typhoons. Here’s a list of countries and their wettest months:
However, data change depending on specific location. Once you have decided on your stops, check the weather again in that city. You may use this tool by the World Bank: Climate Change Knowledge Portal.
Generally speaking, the months of January to April are your driest, safest bet. But here’s the catch: this period is also the peak season, and the prices flights, accommodations and tours tend to be a bit higher. Expect most attractions to be super, mega-crowded. Because of this, I prefer traveling in the shoulder months, the period that is technically part of the rainy season but it hasn’t gone crazy yet. I’ve traveled in June twice and never had a problem with the weather. I also traveled in October, and the only time it poured was in Bangkok. (It was awful, though. I got stranded for hours because the streets were flooded.)
Another thing to consider when choosing dates: events and festivals.
Do you have a specific event that you want to see?
- Wanna see the Yi Peng Lantern Festival in Chiang Mai? Go in early November.
- Want to experience Songkran? Make sure you’re in Thailand on April 13.
- How about Malaysia’s Hari Raya? End of Ramadan.
- Excited to ride a hot-air balloon in Bagan? Visit between mid-October and mid-March.
3. List down all your must-visits.
Are there specific attractions that you want to see?
Note that these are places that you MUST visit. Meaning, these are the reasons why you’re doing this trip in the first place. Don’t include places that you can do without.
For example, let’s assume these are your NON-NEGOTIABLE MUST-VISIT places. In this post, let’s call them as simply “MUST-VISITS”:
- Angkor Wat in Siem Reap
- Sand Dunes of Mui Ne
- Temples of Ayutthaya
Here’s what my map looks like at this point:
4. Decide on your entry point.
If you’re like me, you’re probably waiting for an airline to hold a seat sale. That’s okay, but as much as possible, don’t book roundtrip. A roundtrip ticket will prove counterproductive because you will have to return to your first destination. Just book one-way first and then book the return flight after you have built your itinerary.
What’s a good entry point? Bangkok. Most long-term travelers choose to start their trail here because:
- Bangkok lies smack at the heart of the region, which is why it is often dubbed the epicenter of the backpacking culture. Many other destinations in Indochina can be easily accessed from Bangkok: Vientiane is just a bus-ride away. Siem Reap can be reached within the day.
- It’s one of the busiest and most connected cities in the world. If you’re living in a major city, chances are, there’s a direct flight from where you are to Bangkok.
- It is also tourist-friendly. Locals are used to tourists, and scams notwithstanding, it is relatively safe.
Bangkok is an ideal first stop. If you think this backpacking thing is a game, Bangkok is Level 1. It only gets harder from here, but you wouldn’t even notice because Bangkok would subtly prepare you for it.
If you’re coming from the Philippines, flights to Bangkok are some of the cheapest, probably just behind Singapore and Kuala Lumpur. I did a quick check with Cebu Pacific and these are their current rates:
5. Plot your route.
Now that you have listed down your must-visits and entry point, use them as the backbone of your itinerary.
Get a map and mark your must-visits. If we use the example above, mark Ayutthaya, Siem Reap, and Mui Ne.
Figure out where it makes sense to spend your nights. For example, Ayutthaya is actually pretty accessible from Bangkok. If you’re just after the temples, do you think you can do it in a day? If yes, maybe you should stay in Bangkok instead, where there’s much more to see and do?
Now look at the areas surrounding these marked places and the areas in between. Are there any other destinations that would be nice if you could visit? Phnom Penh is along the way; would you like to make a stop here? How about Sihanoukville? It’s not along the way, but you can easily make a detour there from Siem Reap.
Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) also lies along the path from Siem Reap to Mui Ne. And it is actually the major city closest to Mui Ne. And because it is a major city, plane tickets might be a lot cheaper here, making it an ideal choice for an exit point.
Decide how many days you want to stay in each city. Personally, I find 3 days per stop the minimum for the trip to still be comfortable. But that’s just me. I know travelers who stay for only 2-3 days per stop. For this post, let’s place the minimum at 3 for your must-visits and 2 days for the other stops.
So now we have the following stops for sure:
- Day 1-4: Bangkok + Ayutthaya
- Day 5-7: Siem Reap
- Day 8-9: Phnom Penh
- Day 10-12: Mui Ne
- Day 13-14: Ho Chi Minh City
To be honest, I still find that a little too tight. Maybe because I’m old. Haha. Don’t be afraid to remove a stop if you’re not that convinced.
If it were me, I would just skip Phnom Penh and spend more time in Ho Chi Minh City and Siem Reap.
- Day 1-4: Bangkok + Ayutthaya
- Day 5-8: Siem Reap
- Day 9-11: Mui Ne
- Day 12-14: Ho Chi Minh City
Important: Be flexible. In this post, I’m just demonstrating how I plan an ASEAN trip. BUT I understand that nothing is set in stone. Often, I only plan to have a general direction and have a ballpark figure for the budget, but I don’t really book anything way in advance because I don’t want to be trapped in a rigid itinerary. When you’re already out there, follow your heart. If you feel like staying longer at a destination or skipping others or even change your plans entirely, do it. No one is pointing a gun to your head to stick to your original plan.
6. Research lodging costs.
You’ll be surprised by how cheap rooms are in this part of the world. Hotels are inexpensive. Hostels and guesthouses are insanely cheap. When I was in Chiang Mai, my bed was at 180 baht (P260) per night. When I was in Luang Prabang, I was just walking along the Mekong when someone offered one of his rooms for only 40,000 kip (P250). That room in Luang Prabang was huge, had an ensuite toilet and bath, well-ventilated, and located in the town’s historic core!
Singapore is an exception, though. Cheap takes a very different definition in Singapore. Haha
Here are more tips.
- If you’re traveling alone and you’re concerned about the budget, consider booking dorm beds. It’s waaay cheaper than booking a private room. It’s also a great way to meet other travelers and make new friends.
- If you’re a pair, you may consider booking two dorm beds or a private room, depends on the situation. If you’re a duo wanting to meet people, the dorm is still a good choice. If you’re a couple on a romantic getaway or a honeymoon, my god, please get a private room (haha!). Note, though, that in many hostels, the bedrooms may be private but the toilet and bath are sometimes shared. Check the arrangement before booking.
- If you’re a group of three, you may find Triple Rooms. You may also check their policy on extra person on Double/Twin rooms. It’s a great way to save!
Here are the usual costs of budget accommodations per night.
Since we’re in the budgeting stage, DON’T BOOK YET. Just take note of the costs!
A good way to do it is to visit Agoda, enter the city, and check if there’s something that interests you. You can also sort it by PRICE.
You may also search here: Southeast Asia Hotels
Using our example above, here’s how much I’ll be spending on accommodations:
That’s USD 78 (P3,900) for the entire 13 nights.
(Actually, only $73 because from Siem Reap to Ho Chi Minh, you’d be taking an overnight bus instead of spending another hotel night in Siem Reap.)
7. Build your itinerary.
Now it’s time to build a specific itinerary. Even if you’re not the itinerary-type traveler, know that it is a requirement when applying for a visa. Here’s a sample:
For more sample Southeast Asian itineraries, read:
8. Book Flights, Hotels, and Transfers.
Flights. If you’re a Filipino, you should definitely book an outgoing flight AND a return flight because the Immigration Officers will look for it before leaving the country.
Hotels. When it’s off-season, I usually just book a room for my first stop, in this case, Bangkok. But in succeeding destinations, I would book just the first night in advance. For example, I’d book a room for my first night in Siem Reap and only the first night. When I finally get there, I’d assess if I like the place. If I don’t, I’d scout the area for another, better hostel. Again, I only do this when it’s off-peak. If you’re traveling in peak season, go ahead and book in advance.
Transportation. I have the same rule when it comes to trains and buses. If it’s off peak, I book when I’m already there. For intercity travels with border crossing, set aside $25 for total fare. That already has a bit of allowance. Bangkok-Siem Reap costs only $20 in total. Siem Reap-HCM is also $20.
But if it’s peak season, it would help if you take care of your tickets beforehand.
For your bus and train needs, book here: 12Go.asia
9. Allocate budget for food, tours, and other daily expenses.
Set aside $15 per day for your meals and water. That’s actually way more than I spent per day. You’ll find rice meals or a bowl of noodle soup for less than $2. Drinks cost less than $1. On “transit days”, make sure that you buy food before boarding because these are long rides and there’s no telling when the next stop will be.
Other ways to save:
- Choose a hostel that serves breakfast.
- For dinner, you can spend whatever is left of your daily food allowance. If you decide to splurge one evening, balance it out by going for cheap options the next day. This is much easier to do if you’re not alone and have someone to split the food and the bill with.
- Watch your booze expenses. Sure, beer is cheap and blah blah, but they add up. Don’t drink every night.
For our 14-day example, prepare $210 (P10,500) for food.
On average, set aside $30 per day for tours, but don’t count the “transit days” and “rest days”. Transit days are those days when most of your time will spent traveling from one stop to the next and you won’t be able to tour or explore. “Rest days” are those when you would be more relaxed. It doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll just stay in your room. You can still visit attractions but only near ones.
Why only $30? Because many of the attractions can be explored DIY-style. In big cities like Bangkok and Ho Chi Minh, you can use public transportation. In smaller destinations like Siem Reap, Chiang Mai, and Ayutthaya, you can simply rent a bike.
As always, $30/day has a big margin and should only serve as a guideline. If you spend $50 on a tour today, then adjust your activity spending tomorrow.
In our example above, there are only 9 tour days, which means you should prepare $270 (P13,500).
Recap: Breakdown of Expenses
Using our example, here’s how much the whole 14-day journey needs to become reality.
You can round it off to P40,000. It still is a big amount, but consider that it includes non-promo airfare. If you’re able to snag a cheap ticket at a seat sale, you can bring the cost down.
Also, it has a lot of allowance for good measure. To give you an idea, on one of my trips, I spent only $1000 (P50,000) over 1 month in Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam.
Again, this post isn’t supposed to be prescriptive. It’s just a guide to show you how I planned my multi-city tours across ASEAN. At the end of the day, it’s up to you.