The Ultimate Southeast Asia Backpacking Itinerary including: route, destinations, tips, and time needed

My plan for backpacking was simple: get there and then figure it out.  

I would talk to people on the road. Read some guide books. Google some cities. 

It wasn't perfect, and it was often stressful (see: crying in Phnom Penh because I had no clue where to go), but here I am: 2 months and 20 stops later. 

Spontaneity might not be for everyone, so here is the perfect layout for your Southeast Asia backpacking trip.

Yes, I am just one girl and these are my opinions.... but DAMN. I wish someone had handed this to me when I hit the ground in Hanoi on day 1 of my trip.

I have included a map and list of everywhere I visited with: 

  • The location
  • How I got there
  • The highlight of the stop
  • An overall rating out of 5
  • Time I spent there
  • Time you need to spent there

I also threw in places I missed for whatever reason along the way. 

Without further ado, from someone who has done the damn thing......

SOUTHEAST ASIA BACKPACKING ROUTE: 

VIETNAM

1: HANOI, VIETNAM

hanoi vietnam

LOCATION
GETTING THERE: Flight from Taipei
HIGHLIGHT: Food
RATING: 1/5 - Touristy, aggressive, overwhelming
SPENT: 3 days
NEED: 1 days

2: HA LONG BAY, VIETNAM

ha long bay

LOCATION
GETTING THERE: Bus from Hanoi
HIGHLIGHT: Cruising around in a boat
RATING: 4/5 - Touristy, but beautiful
SPENT: 2 days
NEED: 2 days, but 3 or 4 would be nice if you have the time

3: SA PA, VIETNAM

LOCATION
GETTING THERE: Bus from Hanoi
HIGHLIGHT: Trekking and homestay
RATING: 5/5 - Slightly touristy but incredibly beautiful
SPENT: 3 DAYS
NEED: Minimum 2, but 3 would be nice
 

4: NINH BINH, VIETNAM

LOCATION
GETTING THERE: Bus from Hanoi
HIGHLIGHT: Tam coc
RATING: 4/5 - Tam coc is beautiful (though crowded), and the town is Ninh Binh authentic and affordable
SPENT: 1 day
NEED: 1 day

TO VISIT IN BETWEEN: Phong Nha Caves
A typhoon flooded the caves when I was supposed to go.

5: HUE, VIETNAM

LOCATION
GETTING THERE: Overnight bus from Ninh binh
HIGHLIGHT: Food
RATING: 4/5 - Great food, the "sights" are fine
SPENT: 1 day
NEED: 1 day to feel satisfied, but really 2 to see everything

TO VISIT IN BETWEEN: Da Nang
I stopped through (to go to the hospital) but this is a great city I wish I had spent more time in.  More authentic than Hoi An, with great beaches and restaurants.  

6: HOI AN, VIETNAM

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LOCATION
GETTING THERE: Motorbike from Hue
HIGHLIGHT: The beaches and getting clothing tailored
RATING: 2/5 - Overhyped, touristy and crowded. nice beaches
SPENT: 5 days (I was sick and in the hospital) 
NEED: 2 days

TO VISIT IN BETWEEN: Nha Trang
I heard it was over crowded with tourists so I didn't go. 

7:  DA LAT, VIETNAM

LOCATION
GETTING THERE: Overnight bus from Hoi An (around 16 hours, longest day of travel by far)
HIGHLIGHT: The weather and Swiss feel of the city
RATING: 4/5 - Great weather and people, not too crowded.  Favorite city in Vietnam
SPENT: 2 days
NEED: 2 days, but 3 would be nice

TO VISIT IN BETWEEN: Central highlands
I didn't have time but it is beautiful and not crowded with tourists. 

8: MUI NE, VIETNAM

LOCATION
GETTING THERE: Motorbike from Da lat (2 day trip with tour of the area, HIGHLY RECOMMEND - booked through Wolfpack Hostel which I also highly recommend) 
HIGHLIGHT: Fairy pools and sand dunes
RATING: 3/5 - beautiful but incredibly touristy
SPENT: 2 days
NEED: 2 days

9: SAIGON (HO CHI MINH CITY), VIETNAM

LOCATION
GETTING THERE: Bus from Mui Ne
HIGHLIGHT: Easy to get out of tourist areas
RATING: 4/5 - Most people find it overwhelming, but I thought it was a fantastic large city... very easy to get off the beaten path and explore local restaurants or cafes
SPENT: 1 day
NEED: 1 day, but 2 or 3 could be nice if you like it and have the time

10: MEKONG DELTA, VIETNAM

LOCATION
GETTING THERE: Bus from Saigon
HIGHLIGHT: Nothing
RATING: 1/5 - A complete waste of time, not interesting or beautiful... very hard to get off the tourist path and the floating market is just boats... better floating markets in Thailand
SPENT: 3 days
NEED: 0 days

CAMBODIA

11: PHNOM PENH, CAMBODIA

LOCATION
GETTING THERE: Boat up the Mekong (cool in theory, not worth the time in reality)
HIGHLIGHT: Killing Fields are very powerful & the city has great food
RATING: 3/5 - A cool city with a lot of awesome restaurants, though not a ton of "sights" (not a bad thing)
SPENT: 3 days
NEED: 1 or 2 days (depending on how active you are) 

12: KAMPOT, CAMBODIA

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LOCATION
GETTING THERE: Cab from Phnom Penh ($40 split with 3 other people)... also can book a bus through Giant Ibis, just don't wait until the day before as it will be fully booked
HIGHLIGHT: Food and exploring the surrounding areas by Tuk tuk
RATING: 5/5 - Wonderful city that changed my opinion on my entire trip.  Great restaurants and atmosphere... good balance between tourism and authenticity
SPENT: 3 days
NEED: 2 days (There are no real sights so stay as long as you like...you'll probably like it more than you expect. I could have spent months here.)

13: KRATIE, CAMBODIA

LOCATION  
GETTING THERE: Bus from Phnom Penh
HIGHLIGHT: Dolphin watching and the Kratie Meditation Center
RATING: 4/5 - Cool little town, interesting to people watch, unique sights and not too crowded with tourists
SPENT: 1 full day
NEED: 1 full day

14: BAN LUNG, CAMBODIA

LOCATION
GETTING THERE: Bus from Kratie
HIGHLIGHT: Volcanic crater lake  - bring a drone here if you have one (and it's legal?)
RATING: 4/5 -  Nice to get a break from tourists and interact with locals.  Easy to jungle trek  
SPENT: 3 days
NEED: 1 or 2 days to explore area nearby, 3 or 4 if you want to jungle trek

15: SIEM REAP, CAMBODIA

LOCATION
GETTING THERE: Bus from Kratie (all roads in Cambodia lead to Siem Reap)
HIGHLIGHT: Angkor Temple Complex
RATING: 4/5 - Angkor is incredible, the city has good restaurants, bars, markets, and vibes
SPENT: 5 days
NEED: 2 or 3 days

LAOS

16: 4000 ISLANDS, LAOS

LOCATION
GETTING THERE: Bus from Siem Reap to Don Det(actual hell trip) 
HIGHLIGHT: Relaxing and watching the sunet
RATING: 5/5 - Most relaxing and beautiful place I visited
SPENT: 6 days
NEED: 3 days

17: CHAMPASAK, LAOS

LOCATION
GETTING THERE: Bus from Don Det
HIGHLIGHT: Wat Phou Temple
RATING: 4/5 - Sleepy and beautiful town and beautiful temple... hard to believe a city can be this tiny
SPENT: 1 day
NEED: 1 day

18: PAKSE, LAOS

LOCATION
GETTING THERE: Tuk tuk from Champasak
HIGHLIGHT: Sunset at the Golden Buddha, or the 3 day motorbike loop around the that starts here (if you have the time)
RATING: 3/5 - It is a fine city, mostly a travel hub
SPENT: 1 day
NEED: 1 day, or as long as it takes to get somewhere else

19: THAKHEK, LAOS

LOCATION
GETTING THERE: Bus from Pakse (Be warned: This is a local bus that is also used to transport goods and can take anywhere from 6-12 hours depending on how many stops the bus makes. The local bus from Pakse to Thakhek is easily the biggest adventure in Laos.)
HIGHLIGHT: Not much in the city itself, Konglor caves nearby//the famous 3 day motorbike loop that starts here
RATING: 3/5
SPENT: 1 night
NEED: 1 day, or as long as it takes to get somewhere else

20: KONGLOR CAVE, LAOS

LOCATION
GETTING THERE: Private car from Thakhek... the caves are 200 kilometers from Thakhek.  A car is expensive (over $100).  It is possible to take a public bus, but is often around 6-8 hours and I wasn't willing to do this. Take a car and split the cost. BRING A HIGH FLASHLIGHT
HIGHLIGHT: The amazing caves!!
RATING: 5/5 - Incredible experience! 
SPENT: Half a day
NEED: Half a day, apparently the close town of is nice to stay in if you have time

21: VIENTIANE, LAOS

LOCATION
GETTING THERE: Car and bus from Konglor.... Use the car to get to the main highway and then hail down a public bus heading to Vientiane (they come every hour) 
HIGHLIGHT: The food
RATING: 4/5 - A clam and authentic city to explore
SPENT: 2 days
NEED: 1 or 2 days

22: VANG VIENG, LAOS

LOCATION
GETTING THERE: Bus from Vientiane
HIGHLIGHT: Tubing
RATING: 4/5 - Touristy, but sublime setting with very relaxed vibe
SPENT: 2 days
NEED: 2 days, will probably want to spend 3 or 4

23: LUANG PRABANG, LAOS

LOCATION
GETTING THERE: Bus from Vang Vieng (very windy road, beware if hungover)
HIGHLIGHT: The night market
RATING: 3/5 - Touristy, but there is a lot to do
SPENT: 5 (because I lost my money)
NEED: 2-3 days

24: CHIANG RAI, THAILAND

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LOCATION
GETTING THERE: Bus from Luang Prabang
HIGHLIGHT: The White Temple and delicious Pad Thai
RATING: 5/5
SPENT: 1/2 a day
NEED: 1 day (but more would be fun)

25: CHIANG MAI, THAILAND

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LOCATION
GETTING THERE: Bus from Chiang Rai
HIGHLIGHT: The sticky falls outside of the city
RATING: 3.5/5
SPENT: 3 days
NEED: 2-3 days

26: PAI, THAILAND

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LOCATION
GETTING THERE: Bus from Chiang Mai (aka the worst bus ride of my life)
HIGHLIGHT: The night food market
RATING: 2.5/5 (too touristy)
SPENT: 2 days
NEED: 2 days

27: BANGKOK, THAILAND

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LOCATION
GETTING THERE: Overnight train from Chiang Mai (horrible, horrible, horrible.... didn't sleep for single second)
HIGHLIGHT: Chinatown
RATING: 4/5 (loved! a wonderful "big city")
SPENT: 3 days
NEED: 3-5 days

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