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Winding roads through densely forested mountains in O Quy Ho pass, Sa Pa, Vietnam

South East Asia Travel Guide

Beautiful, diverse, and infinitely affordable, Southeast Asia is the dream destination for gap year travellers (it’s also a great stop if you’re travelling on to Australia or New Zealand!)  From ancient temples and lush jungles to bustling street markets, paradise beaches and unique wildlife, the region offers a wealth of sights and experiences no matter what you’re into. The well-trodden backpacker route offers a great infrastructure, but with tons of hidden gems, and unspoilt regions, the adventurous traveller can easily get off the beaten track too. 

In one trip you can dive headlong into the charming chaos of Bangkok’s city streets, cruise the jewel-like waters of Vietnam’s Ha Long Bay, sun yourself on the most beautiful beaches in the world in the Philippines, explore the floating markets of the Mekong Delta, and watch the sun come up over Angkor Wat, and that’s just for starters. 

You’ll come back with a full camera reel and memories that’ll last a lifetime, from partying under the full moon on Koh Phangan, and seeing orangutans in Borneo, to eating street food with the locals in Hanoi. What are you waiting for?

Key Facts

  • Affordability: Southeast Asia is renowned for being budget-friendly, making it ideal for gap year travellers looking to explore without breaking the bank.
  • Vibrant traveller community: The region’s popularity among backpackers means you’ll meet a diverse mix of fellow adventurers from around the globe, making friendships that’ll last a lifetime.
  • Stunning beaches: From the serene shores of Thailand to the pristine coasts of the Philippines, Southeast Asia is home to some of the world's most breathtaking beaches.
  • Hospitality: The warmth and friendliness of the local people adds a real layer of richness to the travel experience.
  • Natural wonders: Beyond its beaches, the region is jam-packed with natural beauty, with lush jungles, dramatic mountains, and majestic waterfalls.
  • Culinary delights: With the best street food in the world and a diverse mix of local cuisines you’ll go on a gastronomic journey that's as delicious as it is affordable.
  • Tropical climate: You can expect warm weather year-round, and even during monsoon season there’s plenty of dry spells. 
  • Cultural heritage: The region is steeped in history and culture with ancient temples, colonial architecture, and vibrant festivals to discover.
  • Adventure activities: Whether it's diving in crystal-clear waters, trekking through national parks, or exploring bustling markets, Southeast Asia is a playground for the adventurous spirit.
  • Strategic location: Southeast Asia’s position makes it a perfect launching point for further travels to neighbouring regions or as a stopover on the way to Australia or New Zealand.

  • Ha Long Bay (Vietnam): Cruise through the bay’s emerald waters on a live-aboard boat, gazing in awe at towering limestone islands topped with rainforests. Exploring atmospheric caves by kayak adds to the adventure.
  • Hoi An (Vietnam): Wander through the ancient town, known for its beautifully preserved ochre architecture, vibrant lantern-filled streets, and bespoke tailor shops. Don't miss the chance to take a Vietnamese cooking class!
  • Mekong Delta (Vietnam): Dive into the ‘Rice Bowl' of Vietnam on a boat trip through the tranquil waterways of the Mekong Delta. See lively floating markets, traditional villages, and lush rice paddies.
  • Angkor Wat (Cambodia): Tick a big one off your bucket list with sunrise at the world's largest religious monument. Then check out jungle-smothered Ta Prohm, the film set for Tomb Raider with Angelina Jolie! 
  • Phnom Penh (Cambodia): Visit the majestic Royal Palace and the sobering S21 Prison and the Killing Fields for a deep insight into Cambodia's tragic past.
  • Bangkok (Thailand): Explore the gleaming spires of the Grand Palace and Wat Pho, shop at Chatuchak Weekend Market, and experience the vibrant nightlife of backpacker Mecca, Khao San Road.
  • Chiang Mai (Thailand): Head to Thailand’s second city and its cultural heart for ethical elephant sanctuaries, Thai cookery classes, bamboo rafting, and hill tribe treks. 
  • Bali (Indonesia): Enjoy the spiritual atmosphere of Ubud, surf in Canggu, and relax on the beautiful beaches of Uluwatu. Don't forget to catch a traditional Balinese dance performance.
  • Gili Islands (Indonesia): Bliss out in paradise with a stay on these car-free tropical gems that are as lively by night as they are beautiful by day. 
  • Komodo National Park (Indonesia): Walk on pink beaches, see the mighty Komodo dragons in their natural habitat and snorkel in the crystal-clear waters surrounding the islands.
  • Boracay (Philippines): Bask on white sandy beaches, try kite surfing, and party the night away on this jewel in the Philippines’ crown. 
  • Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia): Head to Malaysia’s capital for colourful streets lined with food stalls and banyan trees, the Batu Caves, and the iconic Petronas Twin Towers.
  • Penang (Malaysia): Discover George Town, a UNESCO World Heritage site known for its historic architecture, street art, and culinary delights.
  • Borneo (Malaysia): Explore the steamy rainforests of Malaysian Borneo and see orangutans in their natural habitat. 
  • Luang Prabang (Laos): Tuck into delicious French fusion food in a street-side cafe, witness saffron-robed monks gathering alms at dawn, explore the stunning Kuang Si Falls, and visit the Pak Ou Caves filled with thousands of Buddha statues.

Southeast Asia is a big player in the global culinary scene and for good reason! With a diverse range of flavours, from the fiery kick of Thai curries to the intricate spice blends of Indonesian rendang, the food is as vibrant as the region, and it’s super affordable too. Noodles and rice are the backbone of many meals, often served with rich, aromatic sauces and fresh, zesty salads. Street food culture is massive here, with everything from satay and pad thai to more adventurous options like fried insects! Dine at street markets, for the best food on a budget along with an insight into local life. Wash it all down with a sweet and creamy Vietnamese coffee or an ice-cold Singha beer.

Southeast Asia enjoys a largely tropical climate, with hot, humid weather year-round. The monsoon seasons bring significant rainfall - the southwest monsoon typically from May to October, and the northeast monsoon from November to March, affecting different regions at varying times. While rain showers can be heavy, they often come in quick bursts, providing a refreshing respite from the heat. The hottest months across the region are generally March to May, before the onset of the monsoon rains. For beach lovers, the drier months, particularly November to early March, offer the ideal conditions for sunbathing and water sports, with clearer skies and cooler temperatures. That said, Southeast Asia's natural beauty, cultural festivals, and vibrant street life make it a compelling destination at any time of the year.

Visas

Visa requirements vary from country to country across Southeast Asia. Visa regulations and passport requirements are subject to change, so it's important to consult the most current information directly from the relevant embassies or through trusted visa specialists.

  • Vietnam: Visa not required for stays of 45 days or less.
  • Cambodia: Apply for a 30-day e-visa at least 4 days before you enter the country, or pick up a visa on arrival (you will need to provide a photo and pay in US dollars). 
  • Thailand: You can enter Thailand for up to 30 days without a visa. If you intend to stay for longer you need to apply for a visa before you travel. Contact your local Thai embassy for more information. 
  • Indonesia: You can apply for a 30-day e-visa before arrival on the Indonesian immigration website, or pay for a visa on arrival. 
  • Philippines: UK passport holders don’t need a visa to visit the Philippines for 30 days or less. 
  • Malaysia: British nationals do not need a visa to visit Malaysia. You will normally be allowed to stay for 90 days on arrival. For any longer, or for a non-tourist visit, you will need a visa.
  • Laos: Visa on arrival is available at Vientiane’s Wattay International Airport, and Luang Prabang’s airport, but not at all land borders. You can apply online for an e-visa but you need to submit your application at least 3 days in advance of your arrival.
  • Singapore: You don’t need a visa to enter Singapore. 

Gap 360 has partnered with The Travel Visa Company, a leading authority in UK travel visa services. Their website, along with embassy resources, offers detailed insights into specific entry requirements for all countries in Southeast Asia.

Passports

Many countries require at least 6 months on your passport for entry. Your passport is your key to the world so make sure it’s in excellent condition, as travellers with damaged passports may face difficulties at immigration. 

 

Languages across Southeast Asia are as diverse as the region itself, with each country boasting its own official language, from Bahasa in Indonesia, to Tagalog in the Philippines. Despite this linguistic variety, you’ll find that English is widely spoken in major tourist destinations, making communication relatively straightforward. Southeast Asians are known for their warmth and hospitality, and they often enjoy practicing their English skills with visitors. Don't be surprised if you hear them using popular English idioms or slang in conversation, adding a touch of humour and camaraderie to your interactions. That said, engaging with locals in their language, even if just to say "hello" or "thank you," can open doors to more authentic cultural experiences and deeper connections during your journey through this vibrant and diverse region.

Electricity standards across Southeast Asia vary by country, with the majority operating on a voltage of 220V and a frequency of 50Hz. However, the types of plug sockets encountered can differ significantly, ranging from the two flat-pronged American-style plugs in the Philippines, to the British-style three-pronged plugs in Malaysia and Singapore, and the two round-pronged Europlug common in countries like Vietnam, Thailand, and Indonesia. 

Given this diversity, you’ll want to carry a universal adapter that can accommodate various socket types, ensuring that your electronic devices stay charged and ready for use throughout your journey. Additionally, it's wise to check the voltage and frequency compatibility of your appliances, as some may require a voltage converter to safely operate on the 220V standard prevalent in the region.

Local laws and customs can vary significantly from country to country in Southeast Asia. Across the region, showing respect to religious symbols and sites is important; always dress modestly (covering shoulders and knees) when visiting temples or mosques, and remove your shoes before entering. 

It's also wise to familiarize yourself with each country's specific gestures of politeness, such as the Filipino 'mano' (a sign of respect to elders) or the Malaysian and Indonesian slight bow with hands pressed together. Public displays of affection are generally discouraged, especially in more conservative areas.

Legal restrictions on items like drugs are extremely stringent throughout Southeast Asia, with severe penalties including death for trafficking. Similarly, laws around e-cigarettes and vaping vary, with some countries imposing strict bans and penalties for possession or use. Laws regarding criticism of government officials or royalty can be strict; for example, similar to Thailand's Lèse Majesté laws, actions or speech perceived as disrespectful can lead to severe consequences. 

Always ensure you have the correct visa for your stay, as overstaying or working illegally can lead to fines, deportation, or imprisonment. 

Health

Before you travel, visit your GP to discuss your trip and ensure you’re up to date with vaccinations, with common recommendations including diphtheria, tetanus, polio, hepatitis A and B, and typhoid. Depending on your itinerary, vaccinations for Japanese encephalitis and rabies may also be advised, especially if you plan to spend a lot of time outdoors or in rural areas. Malaria may be a risk in certain areas of Cambodia. Travellers coming from regions with Yellow Fever will need to present a vaccination certificate upon entry to certain countries.

To avoid common health issues, do not drink tap water anywhere in Southeast Asia; opt for sealed bottled water instead, and avoid ice in drinks. Street food, while a vibrant part of the local culture, should be approached with caution; opt for stalls where food is cooked fresh in front of you. Be careful about consuming only well-cooked meats and seafood, and ensure fruits and vegetables are washed in purified water to avoid gastrointestinal issues. Medical facilities vary across the region, with urban areas offering better services than rural ones. It's wise to have comprehensive travel insurance.

Safety

Southeast Asia is generally welcoming to travellers, but it's important to stay alert. Petty theft and scams can occur, particularly in tourist hotspots, so keep valuables secure and be wary of too-good-to-be-true offers, particularly those related to gem sales. 

Drug laws are extremely strict throughout Southeast Asia, with severe penalties for possession, trafficking, or use. Always carry identification, as failure to produce it when asked by authorities can lead to fines or detention.

We do not recommend hiring motorbikes, scooters, ATV vehicles, quad bikes or other types of motorised vehicles whilst abroad. Safety and quality of vehicles vary considerably and the traffic conditions can be much more dangerous than what UK travellers are used to. Should you wish to go against this advice, you should ensure you are hiring from a reputable company and that your travel insurance covers you for such activities.

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