It’s already September which means only one thing for us northern travel nuts: time to start thinking about winter travel! If you’re like most people (sorry skiers) you’re imagining warm weather, sun, possibly sand and surf. Of course as a person with a curious mind, you need culture too, and great food! Is there any place that checks off all those boxes?
Actually, there is a whole region: Southeast Asia! It includes Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Myanmar, Indonesia, and the Philippines. These countries are not only great for independent travellers, they’re perfect for solo travellers too!
With the exception of Singapore, you can travel comfortably on US$50/day (or less) in Southeast Asia. This includes a comfortable room with private bathroom and hot water, three meals a day, overland transportation, and sightseeing. (I haven’t included flights or pricier activities like snorkelling, zip-lining, and cooking classes in this estimate.)
This number is also based on my expenses as a solo traveller, so if you’re two or more people travelling together and willing to share a room, the expenses will go down even more. The single rooms I rented in Southeast Asia as recently as 2014 cost between US$20 and US$35 a night.
If you look at packaged tours to the region, you’ll quickly realize how much cheaper it is to organize the trip on your own. Because these countries see so many independent travellers, the infrastructure, transportation, and activities available are good to great in most places of interest. Which brings me to the next point.
You’ll find a variety of landscapes, climates, cultures, and activities to suit all tastes in Southeast Asia. You can laze on some of the most beautiful beaches I’ve ever seen, explore Buddhist temples, take cooking classes, learn to scuba dive, hike, attend cultural performances (the dances in particular are mesmerizing), visit hill tribes, and more.
You can easily sign up for most of these activities even if you’re solo. The snorkelling and diving trips are usually cheaper for a small group, so see if you can join others.
Great weather during the northern hemisphere winter
November to February corresponds to the dry and cool season in Southeast Asia. Cool here means “not broiling hot”, so don’t worry, you’ll be wearing T-shirts and sandals most of the time. The exception is Indonesia where the seasons are reversed, which means it will rain on most days (but not all day). Indonesia is hot and humid all the time unless you climb up some volcano! December in Bangkok is actually very pleasant, and you’ll need a sweater after sunset in Luang Prabang in winter. If you want steamy hot, just keep going south!
Easy to meet people
Southeast Asia has been firmly on the backpackers trail since the 1960s. Lonely Planet’s first guidebook published in the mid 70s was about backpacking through Asia. Independent and solo travellers will have no problem making friends in Southeast Asia. Parts of Thailand have even become mainstream and cater to families now. Whether you’re a beach bum, culture vulture, or foodie, you’ll meet plenty of kindred spirits.
Staying in a small guesthouse, or joining group outings (hikes, cooking classes, snorkelling trips) are good ways to meet other travellers. Or even just sitting by yourself having a beer at an outdoor bar. People will talk to you if you look approachable (unless you’d rather stay alone).
The locals are friendly as well, although some cultures (Thailand, Laos) are more reserved than others (Cambodia, Philippines). In Singapore, Malaysia and the Philippines, English is spoken to some degree by most of the population, and elsewhere you can still manage with the basics.
Talking of foodies, the region offers some of the best and cheapest food in the world. You probably know Thai and Vietnamese food already, but Cambodia, Laos, and Malaysia feature their own delicious and unique dishes, such as fish amok (Cambodia) and orlam (Laos).
All the main cities offer western-style restaurants with English menus and air-conditioning, but one of the true joys of Southeast Asia is the night markets, where you can browse dozens of food stalls and eat your fill for a few dollars. More casual local restaurants also exist everywhere. The price of your meal often doubles if the restaurants has AC or if you drink imported alcohol, but it’s still dirt cheap by western standards. In Thailand I ate three meals a day including a local beer and a cappuccino for about US$14.
Safe even for solo women
Despite occasional unrest in some parts (Myanmar in 2007 and Thailand in 2014 come to mind), the region is overwhelmingly safe for travellers, if you take basic precautions. Like everywhere else in the developing world, don’t walk around showing off expensive jewelry and electronics, and pickpockets won’t be tempted to rob you. Steer clear of any protest or manifestation if you encounter them.
Asian men are mild-mannered, respectful, and not aggressive toward foreign women. In areas that don’t see many tourists, you may be stared at if you’re a solo female or asked “where is your family”, but that’s about as far as it goes.
If you have pale skin, you may get a few admirers, as there seems to be a local obsession with “skin whitening” in Southeast Asia. Just take a look at the products on pharmacy shelves! It’s all pretty harmless though.
The main dangers are actually quite mundane: traffic that does not stop for pedestrians, and broken or cluttered sidewalks. And of course in tourist areas you’ll find the usual scams.
In fact, I find that being a solo traveller allows me to pay more attention to what’s around me and deflect a lot of the “dangers”.
Lots of transportation options
The most common form of travel throughout the region is by bus, which span the gamut from VIP super-comfortable big buses with AC to clanky sardine cans.
Trains run from Singapore, through Malaysia and up into Thailand as far as Chiang Mai. There is also a train between Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi in Vietnam, as well as a few side routes. You can travel cheaply overland between Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam.
The Mekong also offers some interesting river travel (Luang Prabang to Thailand for example).
Finally, AirAsia is a discount airline with hubs in Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur which flies to several destinations around the region (and to Australia as well). Just book a few weeks in advance to get the best prices.
Indonesia and the Philippines, being archipelagos, are a little more difficult to travel around, relying on ferries and planes of variable punctuality.
Within cities, you can take regular taxis of course, but you also have the option of cheaper and more fun rickshaws, moto-remorques, or tuk-tuks.
Have I convinced you?
Southeast Asia is an excellent region for independent and solo travellers. I’ve been four times already (always on my own) and visited each of the nine countries at least once.
The main drawback for many is the distance from North America and Europe. The flight is likely to be your main expense. If you start looking now though, you should be able to find good deals. The cheaper flights from Canada usually go through a US hub and/or an Asian one (such as Hong Kong or Tokyo). Two years ago, I got a return flight to Bangkok from Toronto for a little over CAD$900 (with two stopovers).
Want to learn more about how you can travel independently to Southeast Asia cheaply and safely? Consider buying my e-book on how to organize your own amazing trips to Southeast Asia which goes into details about how to prepare and what to watch out for. If you act fast, you can get 50% off by using discount code THIRDBIRTHDAY (good until end of day EDT Sept 12 only).
Let me know where you end up!