”The region“ refers to all of Southeast Asia, a part of the world that covers a whole lot of land and sea. For the purposes of travel planning, it might be better to think of this vast swathe of the earth in two parts.
“Upper” Southeast Asia comprises Burma (Myanmar), Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. These countries all share land borders with some of the others and, with the exception of Burma, are all classic stops on the regional routes that backpackers have been travelling since the 1990s.
Then there is “lower” or “outer” Southeast Asia, including Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia, as well as the Philippines and the small countries of Brunei and East Timor. These largely island-based countries collectively cover a much larger expanse than upper Southeast Asia.
It’s possible to hit both sides of this coin on a single trip. But you’ll need plenty of time to do it—say three months to a year if you’re not travelling by private jet. Otherwise, focus on one side or the other.
Even then, keep in mind that Southeast Asian countries are not as small as they look when compared to giants like China and Australia on a map. Overland travel tends to be slow and while flights now connect many of the dots from country to country, ask yourself, what am I really after?
Does your idea of a great trip involve jetting from one spot to the next every couple of days? If the answer is yes, more power to you. Yet we think that slow travel with room for spontaneity is the most rewarding way to soak up the region. If you agree, don’t cast too many plans in stone because you won’t know which places you love the most until you get there.
Also keep visa issues in mind, as each country has its own requirements. While the region is open to foreign travellers as a rule (discounting global pandemics), some countries (hello Thailand!) have instituted odd sticking points in recent years. Others still require many nationalities to apply for visas ahead of time.
This is where itinerary planning really becomes fun. Be sure to check up on our visa, border crossing and visa sections to make sure you're not trying to do the impossible. Also, remember you're planning a holiday -- not a military expedition.
Where to go, how long to stay there, where to go next, east or west, north or south? How long have you got? How long do you need? Itinerary planning can be almost as maddening as it is fun and here are some outlines to help you get started. Remember, don't over plan!
Burma lends itself to a short fast trip with frequent flights thrown in or a longer, slower trip where you don't leave the ground. There isn't much of a middle ground. Ground transport remains relatively slow, so be wary about trying to fit too much in.
Roughly apple-shaped, you'd think Cambodia would be ideal for circular routes, but the road network isn't really laid out that way. This means you'll most likely find yourself through some towns more than once, so work them into your plans.
How long have you got? That's not long enough. Really. You'd need a few lifetimes to do this sprawling archipelago justice. Be wary of trying to cover too much ground - the going in Indonesia can be slow.
North or south or both? Laos is relatively small and transport is getting better and better. Those visiting multiple countries can pass through here a few times making for some interesting trips.
The peninsula is easy, with affordable buses, trains and planes and relatively short distances. Sabah and Sarawak are also relatively easy to get around.The vast majority of visitors stick to the peninsula but Borneo is well worth the time and money to reach.
So much to see, so much to do. Thailand boasts some of the better public transport in the region so getting around can be fast and affordable. If time is limited, stick to one part of the country.
Long and thin, Vietnam looks straightforward, but the going is slow and the distances getting from A to B can really bite into a tight trip plan. If you're not on an open-ended trip, plan carefully.