Photo: Not another tourist in sight.

There is no one “right” way to travel and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

Some like to travel in a group, others like to tackle the road solo. Some like to plan everything down to the finest detail, others prefer to make it up as they go. Some fly when they can; others take the cheapest bus.

Doing an organised tour

Independent travel isn’t for everyone. For some, doing an “adventure tour” to Southeast Asia can be the perfect blend of adventure and convenience with a not unreasonable price-tag.

One of the best things about tours is that the operator takes care of everything. Sure they’re called adventure tours, but they’re not so adventurous that you need to argue with unscrupulous tuk tuk drivers, berate hoteliers whose toilets are blocked, or fume at corrupt immigration officers. There’s generally a guide on hand to look after all aspects of your trip.

If you’re travelling solo and are a bit nervous about meeting other travellers, a tour can be an ideal way to get an instant group. Of course, it might not be a group of people you actually like, but that’s a separate issue.

Planning a four-day trip to Cambodia, Laos and Thailand? They don’t call an organised tour organised for nothing. If your time is limited and your planned itinerary certifiable, then a tour is the way to go.

Because you’re already travelling in a group, there’s no wasting time hanging out waiting for enough people to form a group to visit this or that—this or that being some prohibitively expensive mini-adventure if you’re travelling solo.

If you’re booking with a proper tour company, then the operator should be bonded and fully insured. So if they go broke, you’ll not have to walk home. If the operator is not bonded, don’t use them.


There’s nothing worse than budgeting $2,000 for a month-long trip only to run out of dough after 10 days. By taking a tour, a very large part of the cost is settled—upfront. Sure, you may still run out of petty cash, but you’ll still have a bed for the remainder of the nights and a flight home.

If you’re not up on the lingua franca and would rather consume a few gallons of beer on the flight than the first few chapters of a phrase book, then you’ll also be in safe hands with a tour company. Tours invariably engage local guides (they’re often legally required to do so) who double as translators.

If you opt for a small group adventure tour, chances are you’ll have a group size of under 10 people. With a group this small there’s often some opportunity to customise the trip—obviously this will depend on the operator, but you may be surprised just how much customisation is possible.

Of course, there are tours, and there are tours, but generally tour operators know the highlights of any country or town and they take you to them—as efficiently as possible. Yes, you might miss a funky little cafe that only the locals know about, but you might have had to hang around for a month to find it yourself anyway.

Don’t get distracted by the price—$100 a day isn’t as much as it sounds when you factor in it's covering the cost of your accommodation, transport, food, drinks (probably not alcohol) and the sights. Tour companies do make a margin, but they’re saving you a lot of time and effort. Consider your relationship between time and money. Yes, nine times out of 10 you could do the same trip independently for less money, but you’d spend a larger amount of your time getting from A to B, finding a room and so on. Also keep an eye out for special deals—you’ll often see deals of up to 25% off adventure travel trips. Adventure tours are selling the convenience as well as the experience, so don't do your shopping on price alone.

When you’re looking for a tour operator, be sure to check they’re fully licensed and insured. Make sure you have travel insurance yourself (legitimate operators generally make this mandatory). Check their itineraries carefully and read the small print for hidden extras. Make sure that your guides will be proficient in the language you require. Be sure to ask after maximum group size and likewise check about minimums—some companies run tours with just one passenger and that may not be what you’re after.

Travelling independently

On the flipside, there are plenty of reasons why Southeast Asia is best explored by travelling independently.

Travelfish regulars will be familiar with the Thailand on 250 baht a day thread over on the forum—it’s the tale of a guy who spent 22,500B travelling in Thailand for three months. With independent travel, you can keep your costs down, without needing to nick water out of bank water machines. One of the big hidden costs of longer-term travel is the cost of getting around, but by travelling slow you keep this down. Your bottomline won’t be blown out by tour group hotels, and instead you’ll be able to take advantage of the cheap flophouses across the region.

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A few too many Mekong buckets last night? Want to stay in bed? Stay in bed. Really enjoying your time lazing around on Ko Sukorn? Stay another week—or another month. One of the great things about independent travel is the flexibility that comes with being the boss. You make up the rules, you decide where and when you’re going and so on—as long as you have the money for it. When you meet other travellers and you want to join them for a while, you can, and you can just as easily split again as your plans diverge.

Southeast Asia is full of independent travellers, and if you’re travelling in the region you’ll have a great deal of trouble avoiding them. Traveller hubs like Khao San Road, Vang Vieng, Pai, Ko Pha Ngan, Hoi An and Ko Rong Samloem draw them in like flies to sticky rice and mango. As long as you’ve got some modicum of social skills, you’re likely to meet up with others—if you want to.

It can be a great experience hanging out with your peers from around the globe, and without wanting to sound like a great advocate of the Global Love In, it can break down a lot of prejudices and opinions you may have held before you met someone from ABC—hell they might even be fun to travel with.

There is more to travel than getting drunk around a beach bonfire with a bunch of foreigners—you’ll often find locals to be just as eager to socialise. When travelling on an organised jaunt, you’re most likely to mainly deal with the locals on a transactional basis—be it in a cafe, at a hotel or on a minibus. As an independent traveller, you’ll also have this, but because of your flexible timeframe you’ll have more opportunity to get to know locals and hang out with them to some degree. This can be fun—yes, you may even need to go to karaoke—but it can also be an interesting learning experience in seeing what goes on in a local's life outside of the guesthouse foyer.

Chatting away to a local in English is one thing, but chatting away to them in their native language is a whole new adventure. The great thing about independent travel in a foreign country is that, if you wish, you can totally immerse yourself in the local language. With foreign language, the more you need to speak it, the more you will, and the more you speak it, the quicker you’ll learn.

Assuming your travels involve something more than laying on the beach and snogging other travellers, in a fairly short time you’ll learn a lot about the country you’re in. For travellers new to a country, it can be a shattering experience to find that wow, Thailand isn’t all just beaches, elephants and exotic locals—it’s a military-run nation facing a diverse range of political and social challenges. As you travel through, talking to locals and reading books and the local newspapers (online or real), you’ll slowly gather a better understanding of why things are how they are (of course, you’ll never gain a complete understanding—even Thais are happy to admit they don’t understand their own country.)

Independent travel can be hard. It can be physically demanding. You’ll have long nights on crappy buses driven by speed demons and in flophouse lodgings not fit for lab-bunnies. You’ll walk under withering sun and through flooded back sois. You’ll enjoy a thousand new taste sensations and be assured your stomach will not enjoy all of them. You’ll meet people you don’t like and you’ll get so sick of wearing the same clothes you’ll consider burning them. But you know what—all this doesn’t matter. Independent travel is worth it, because...

Independent travel can bolster, well, your independence. All the crappy bus rides, the annoying people in guesthouses, the sulphuric sun and the bubbling bubonic curries are character building. Believe me when we say you’ll encounter situations you would never encounter in your home country. You’ll need to figure out how to sort things out.

Yes, you’ll make some bad calls, but you’ll also make some great ones and, as everyone’s Mum says, you learn from your mistakes. Travel can break down barriers, it can help you better understand the world, and it can help you develop empathy for the people you have to share it with—now that’s gotta be a good thing, right?

Picked an adventure tour to Southeast Asia? Once you’ve selected the trip your planning is largely done. Independent travel, on the other hand, can be a bag of laughs to plan—especially if you’re underemployed at an office with a good high-speed internet connection and a screen nobody can see. Go surf the web, check out Travelfish.org (oh, you found us already), buy some guidebooks, or better still, go get some good travelling books. Watch some movies set in the region or sample some pho at your local Vietnamese joint.

As we said earlier, you’re the boss and independent travel doesn’t actually need to be planned at all. Get yourself a plane ticket, some travel insurance and get yourself to Southeast Asia. Throw yourself into the swirling mix and you’ll most likely come out a better person down the road—you may like it so much you’ll end up living there.

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Further reading

Planning well is an integral part of getting the most out of your trip. Be it picking the right backpack, the right vaccinations or the right country, the simple decisions are often the most important.


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