A Beginner's Guide to Southeast Asia

A haven for student backpackers, off-the-beaten-track travellers and self-proclaimed foodies, Southeast Asia draws in a diverse crowd for good reason. But exploring a new subcontinent for the first time can be a little overwhelming, which is why we’ve put together this bite-sized guide to get you started.

Singapore 🇸🇬

More than just a layover destination, Singapore is the finest introduction to Southeast Asia you could ask for. It’s hard to even leave the Jewel Changi Airport alone when there’s 300 shops to dip into. But if you thought this airport meets super mall was impressive, wait until you catch a glimpse of the Gardens by the Bay with the Marina Bay Sands a short distance away. It’s only a matter of time before Singapore makes its sci-fi blockbuster debut.

Gardens by the Bay and Marina Bay Sands at night.

Singapore embraces expensive taste but it’s still possible to keep your trip budget-friendly if you stick to eating at Hawker Centres, which are open-air food courts. Here you’ll get to know Singapore’s down-to-earth attitude and find out why its nicknamed “Instant Asia” first-hand. The multicultural influences are every bit as spicy and satiating as you’d expect and more. It’s also one of the most vegetarian-friendly destinations globally, so everyone can feel included on the menus.

Telok Ayer Market in Singapore.

Thailand 🇹🇭

When you imagine Southeast Asia, Thailand may be the first country that comes to mind. It’s almost unfair how much this destination has to offer, from the buzz of Bangkok to the golden temples of Chiang Mai and Instagram-worthy moments inside Phuket. And that’s not even accounting for the 1430 islands Thailand calls home.

Doi Inthanon, Chiang Mai Province of Thailand.

Thailand’s nightlife can be intense for inexperienced travellers, and so you might feel more comfortable exploring this as part of a group: whether that means taking a guided tour or visiting with friends. You’ll need to take extra precautions in Pattaya and at Koh Phangan’s Full Moon Party, but don’t feel put off of Thailand altogether. Bangkok’s enthralling qualities peak at night, transforming the city into an intoxicating fusion of neon lights, steamy street food and a party animal spirit that is second-to-none.

This all may sound like an introvert’s nightmare, but travellers looking for a peaceful beach vacation needn’t worry. You don’t have to travel for hours to reach it, either. Krabi may be most famous for Koh Phi Phi, but one of its best-kept secrets is the low-key island Ko Lanta.

Row of longtail boats in Koh Phi Phi.

Vietnam 🇻🇳

If it’s your first time in Southeast Asia but you have some experience travelling abroad, Vietnam could be the next step up you’re craving. Even crossing the road requires a ballsy attitude (the trick is to walk at a steady pace without stopping or speeding up) in this action-packed, ever interesting country.

Motorbike madness on the streets of Hanoi.

Whether you’re looking to drive the Ha Giang Loop on a motorbike rental, or are looking to take a circle tour of Vietnam’s best city breaks, this destination leaves a striking impression. But since Vietnam’s terrain is mostly low mountains and hills, the best way to feel culturally immersed in this country is a trip to the countryside.

The Sapa Valley Trail in the North of Vietnam is the most notable, but a short trip away from Hanoi to Mai Châu is highly recommended for homestay visits. If you’re hoping to strike a balance between tourist hotspots and off-the-beaten-track opportunities, you’ll feel satisfied after a journey around Vietnam.

Ninh Binh, also nicknamed ‘Halong Bay on land’ after the karst pillars and caves.
Header image is of Hội An, Quảng Nam, Vietnam.
Starting from Skratch? Here are some links to help you get started:
Step outside of your comfort zone with our First Time Traveller series.

Visiting Southeast Asia — 5 Tips for First Timers

  • Get all your necessary vaccination shots before leaving.
  • Don’t drink the tap water; stick to bottled water.
  • Eating more basic food like hot soups, noodles, kefir yoghurt and porridge is recommended for the first few days to let your stomach adjust.
  • Wear breathable, modest layers to counteract the natural humidity and the cold shock of AC on transportation.
  • Purchase an eSIM so you can use your electronic devices while abroad.

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Hannah Douch
June 2, 2024

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