Where to go? That is the question. Our general advice is always that less is more.
Open an atlas and Southeast Asia looks kind of small, so it can be very tempting to try and see a lot, but distances can be deceiving. With than in mind, here's some advice on designing an itinerary.
If you want to see a few countries and don’t want to fly much (if at all), then Thailand, Laos and Cambodia fit together perfectly. If you have more time, add Vietnam or Burma. More interested in working south? Add Malaysia and Singapore instead.
Both geographically and logistically, Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok and Singapore are the logical hubs to fly into. They are all well integrated with the other countries in the region through a network of low cost flights, trains and buses.
Because of its size, length of visa, and logistics, Indonesia fits into a regional trip in bite-size chunks. For example, you could visit Sumatra or Java from Malaysia, and Bali or Sulawesi from Singapore, but if you’re looking at an east-to-west road trip across the archipelago as part of a greater Southeast Asian trip, then you will need a lot of time—as in at least six months (and you'll need to depart every 30 or 60 days to get new visas).
When drawing up a rough regional itinerary, you’ll repeatedly encounter the time versus money question. To travel from Luang Prabang to Hanoi takes roughly one to two days overland, or just one hour on a plane. Bali to Jakarta: two days or two hours. Singapore to Bangkok: Same.
While the romance of sitting on a train day in, day out is not undeserving, doing the same in a crammed, maniac-driven minibus through the mountains of Laos and Vietnam is not quite the same experience. Ask yourself what your time is really worth. Especially for short trips, a short flight is often worth a lot more than what you pay for it.
How much time do you need to “see” a place? The answer is invariably “it depends”. Using some very broad generalisations, we suggest the following.
For a jetsetting trip you can see the mainstream highlights in as little as a week, but we’d recommend restricting yourself to Yangon and its surrounds with just a week. Two weeks allows for a saner pace, three weeks more destinations and, if you’re planning to see the north and south properly, four weeks is a sensible minimum as you’ll need two weeks just for the south.
As with Burma, if you just want to see Angkor Wat, four or five days is sufficient, though a week will allow you to see there and another centre. Two weeks is a minimum if you want Angkor and some islands, three weeks for a few more far-flung spots and a month is a solid base for a good poke around.
Any visit to Indonesia of less than two weeks should be limited to a single island. A typical trip covering Java, Bali and Lombok would require two months to do in any depth at all while traveling at a sane pace. Sumatra or Sulawesi require two months each for a decent look around. The more eastern islands such as Sumbawa, Flores and Sumba each require a minimum of two weeks unless you are only travelling to one part of each of the islands. The travel in Indonesia can be very slow and at times uncomfortable. Be wary of trying to bite off too much.
Many spend a week covering Vientiane, Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang, but we’d see two weeks as being a more comfortable stretch. Three weeks is a good period for a decent exploration of the north, while the south can be covered to a decent degree in 10 days to two weeks.
If you’re just looking at trucking down the west coast of Peninsular Malaysia (Langkawi, Penang, KL and Melaka) then as little as two weeks can be a good starting point. Want to hit the west coast including the Perhentian Islands, along with Taman Negara National Park? Add two more weeks, please. Heading to east Malaysia, Sabah deserves an absolute minimum of two weeks (but is more comfortable with four); Sarawak is worth another two. Luckily, Malaysia offers a two-month visa-free stay to many nationalities.
A couple of days will allow you to take in some of the city-state’s best museums and eating opportunities, but four or five is a better first swing through. We once stayed here six weeks and did something different every single day—there is a lot packed in here, but it can be hard on your wallet.
A week will give you Bangkok, an island and maybe one more spot. Two weeks lets you add in Chiang Mai or another upcountry spot. Three weeks and you’ll have time for a trek, or an extended hammock spell. A month is a decent starting point for a quick look at much of the country, but we’d say Thailand is certainly worth double that. Two months will allow you enough time to have a good look around, mixing multiple islands with upcountry destinations.
If there was one country where people almost uniformly try to cram too much in, Vietnam is it. If you have a week, limit yourself to one part of the country, be it north, centre or south. You’ll need a minimum of two weeks to travel the country top to tail as a sane pace, but three weeks is more comfortable. A month will allow enough time to take in some of the Central Highlands or the Mekong Delta as well.
See our itineraries section for more detailed itinerary suggestions for travel across the region.
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.