Like a bar mitzvah or a grad party, backpacking the well-worn trails of Southeast Asia is nothing short of a rite of passage. For the budding traveler, the trodden route that links electrifying Bangkok to the temples of Angkor and the rolling surf of Bali is a chance to discover what street food and tuk tuks and hostel pub crawls are all about.
But the circuit isn’t a modern phenomenon. It’s been going since the days of The Hippie Trail and the first influx of tourists to Southeast Asia. They call it the Banana Pancake Trail, on account of all the fruit-infused flatties you’ll be served for breakfast along the way. It encompasses fascinating, hedonistic, and stunning destinations all over the region, and can chop and change depending on your preferences.
Here, we take a look at some of the hotspots that await between Thailand, the sand-fringed isles of the Philippines, the jungles of Malaysia, and beyond. It’s an itinerary that’ll evoke your inner gap yearer, and get you glugging bucket cocktails in no time!
Hey, who wouldn’t want to kick start their Southeast Asia backpacking trip with deep-fried crickets, knock-off beer tees, and bucket cocktails filled with god knows what? Viola: Khaosan Road awaits. It’s a heady mix of go-go bars, DJ clubs, bazaars, tailors, and massage parlors, all rammed into the gritty alleys of Bangkok’s Banglamphu. But this vast capital is about more than the area made famous by DiCaprio in The Beach. It’s also got the Grand Palace (home of the Thai king) and the pulsing Chatuchak Market (the largest in the country). A perfect mix of history and culture, Bangkok travel holds a little something for everybody.
After the heady haze of Bangkok, make room for the chilled town of Kanchanaburi. It straddles the River Kwai (yep, the one from the film) around three hours to the west. There, tuk tuk convoys and pub crawls are replaced by the misty outlines of the Tenasserim Hills and the murky waterways of the Kwai itself. Try to choose a place to stay that backs onto the river from the north banks – sipping a Chang with the sunset is one of the very best things to do in Thailand. During the day, make a trip to Erawan for natural fish exfoliation in tiered waterfalls hidden in the jungle.
Whoever said backpacking Southeast Asia can’t be educational? Well…the UNESCO-tagged town of Phra Nakhon Si Ayutthaya certainly is. It was constructed by the old kings of Siam back in the 1300s, lasting more than 400 years before it was razed by the Burmese in the 18th century. What remains is a vast complex of half-crumpled temples, soaring prang (stone spires), and reclining Buddhas. Rent a bike and cycle the sites; it’s the most pleasant way to navigate. Itineraries should certainly include Wat Mahathat and its haunting statues writhed in teak trees, and Wat ChaiWatthanaram, which reflects beautifully in the Chao Phraya River.
Move north from ancient Ayutthaya to the fabled Monkey City of Lopburi. Zip up your bags and keep your pockets sealed, though – the 1,000 or so crab-eating macaques that share the Old Town with the locals have been known to steal all sorts! You can encounter those cheeky simians at Phra Prang Sam Yot. It’s a half-ruined Khmer shrine with red brick stupas. And it’s the home of the city’s monkey colony. Around that, the streets sizzle with noodle stalls and beer bars where you can munch pad thai while watching macaques swinging on the telephone wires.
You might be roughing it in hostels and eating banana pancakes for breakie, but there are always moments of wonder on this Southeast Asia backpacking trail. Cue Sukhothai Historical Park. A UNESCO World Heritage Site and a place that’s sure to get the jaw a-dropping, it’s a vast reserve that covers more than 27 square miles and a whopping 193 individual ruins. They are all of what’s left of the ancient Sukhothai Kingdom of the 13th century, offering glimpses of the Wat Sa Si and its emerald ponds or the Lanka-style elephant niches of Wat Chang Lom.
Chiang Mai is the stuff of Southeast Asia backpacking legend. It’s Thailand’s second city and you’ll find it tucked into the jungle-covered hills deep in the north of the country. It perfectly melds the old and the new Land of Smiles. The wood-carved cottages and moat-rimmed ancient walls hearken back to the days of the Lanna kingdom. Then come the rows of cocktail joints and the hip coffee roasteries where digital nomads tap away on laptops. After dark, Chiang Mai Night Bazaar is a must. It unfolds just outside the main town with electronics hawkers, spice emporiums, budget Thai food, candle shops, jewelry sellers – you name it.
And relax…Pai, Thailand’s hippie paradise, is on the horizon. It might take a stomach-churning 762 turns in the road to reach this hidden hill station on the cusp of Burma, but boy is it worth the rollercoaster! The town spreads around the Pai River in a patchwork of crooked bamboo shacks and eco hotels. There are reggae bars lining the main street, along with New Age crystal shops and vegan curry outlets. During the day, you can relax in steaming hot springs or hike the knife-edge ridges of Pai Canyon. At night, head for Spirit Bar, where fires crackle under the stars and homemade tie dye is the apparel of choice.
The Mekong River
The great move eastwards through Southeast Asia will inevitably fling you into the course of the mighty Mekong River. Thankfully, there are longboats at hand to help you conquer the courses of the great waterway. You can board them at the Thai-Laos border in Huay Xai. Then, it’s a two-day sail down the muddy waters as you delve into the real wilds of the continent: think endless jungles of emerald green, mist-haloed karsts, and the sounds of gibbons echoing in the mountains.
Often ignored but rarely forgotten, Laos is one of our favorite off-the-beaten-path travel destinations in Southeast Asia. Longboats down the Mekong often stop at the ancient, and UNESCO, city of Luang Prabang. It rarely disappoints. Carved Laotian houses mingle with gold-shimmering stupas here as the chants of amber-robed monks emanate from the meditation halls. Grab a French baguette and sip a coffee to watch the sunrise over the Nam Khan River. Or, escape to the rainforests to encounter the paradisiacal Kuang Si Waterfalls.
There was a time when Vang Vieng meant one thing and one thing only: tubing. Yep, this was the rubber ring and whiskey capital of Southeast Asia. But boozy trips down the Nam Song River all but ended in 2012 with a government crackdown, leaving VV to be reclaimed by locals and adventurers. The town sits in a stunning bowl of karst mountains. They spike the horizon like dragon scales surrounded by waterfalls and jungle. So head here for trekking, climbing, kayaking, and caving – but don’t expect the hedonism of old!
Moving southwards from the karst mountains to the capital of Laos is a trip worth savoring: vistas of forest-filled valleys and rustic villages hemmed in by rice paddies dominate the whole way. Then the city itself awaits. Curiously infused with French culture, it’s a chilled town with coffee shops, baguette bakeries, and expat bars on virtually every corner. A glimpse of the gold-glowing Pha That Luang is probably about as glitzy as things get. But you also might like the carnivalesque array of Buddha effigies at the Xieng Khuan sculpture park.
Si Phan Don
The Mekong gets to its most dramatic as it tumbles over the rocky plateaus of Southern Laos and into the jungles of Cambodia. The region is known to locals as the Si Phan Don. You might have heard of it as the 4,000 Islands. The name is apt, what with countless outcrops of rock jutting from the eight-mile-wide waters. Some are gnarled like giant’s fingers, others are dressed in dashes of emerald forest. Oh, and this is also prime territory for glimpsing the rare pink river dolphin, so be sure to consider an aqua safari!
Charge the camera, folks – Krong Siem Reap is the home of Angkor Wat. A wonder of the world, it spreads over a mega 402 acres just outside of the town. It’s a mix of Hindu shrines and Buddhist worshipping spots that go back all the way to the 12th century. Pick a tour that gets you to the main Angkor Wat temple for sunrise, and be sure to include a stop at Ta Prohm, where silk-cotton trees have writhed and grown around ancient carvings. Back in Siem Reap’s center for the evening, a colorful night market and a pulsing Pub Street keep the action going.
The bus trip from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh crosses the heart of Cambodia. Rice farms, water buffalo, the glimmering surface of huge Tonle Sap Lake – there’s no end to the sights you’ll see. Then it’s onto the capital. Darker tales await there, what with the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in S-21, an erstwhile school turned torture camp under the Khmer Rouge. You should also visit the monuments at the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek, where mass graves and sobering memorials spread around a Buddhist stupa.
After backpacking through Southeast Asia’s endless rainforests and rice paddies, you’re sure to be pining for the sea. It comes with Koh Rong and the glistening waters of the Thai Gulf. Shaped like an egg timer, this island sits off the jetties of Preah Sihanouk with its ramshackle bamboo huts and reggae bars. It’s a fine combo of party island (think bucket cocktails until four) and beach mecca (the sand here is cotton white and lapped by see-through waters). The best of the coastline comes with Sok San Beach and its deluxe villa resort, and secluded Long Set Beach, where the twilight heralds shows of bioluminescent plankton along the shore.
Koh Rong Sanloem
Just when you thought you’d seen paradise, you add a Sanloem and things get even better! Yep, Koh Rong’s smaller brother sits just to the south. You’ll need to negotiate with a local longboat driver to get there (the ride should cost a couple of dollars). Then, it’s across the choppy strait and into wide Saracen Bay. There, you can expect to find charming clutches of bamboo bungalows thatched with palm fronds, all facing sugar-soft sands, and a sea that’s a perfect turquoise. If you’re up for a trek through the jungle, Sunset Beach has stunning evening light shows to the west. Just be wary of the snakes!
Ho Chi Minh City
Kiss goodbye to your lonely hammock and coconut husks – Ho Chi Minh City is up next! This colossal megacity is one of the largest in all of Southeast Asia. It was once known as Saigon and saw some hard-fought sieges during the Vietnam War. These days, it’s a hubbub of tofu-touting, crab-cracking street stalls and bazaars like Ben Thanh Market. Backpackers tend to coalesce around body-packed Bui Vien Street and bubbly Vietnam rooftop bars at night. It’s a whole strip of ramshackle bars where Asian babushkas refill your tumbler with uber-cheap beer whenever you’re finished. During daylight, be sure to hit the whizzing slides and space bombs of the Dam Sen Water Park; rides like the Kamikaze are aptly named!
Nha Trang means it’s time for a taste of Vietnamese sand and sea. A bumping, buzzing resort town that’s arced around a big bay on the South China Sea, this one’s got miles of palm-speckled shoreline to laze on from morning until night. Talking of night…the city shows its hedonistic side when the sun disappears. This has long been the place in Vietnam to hop on a Vietnam booze cruise, which whisks you away into the jungle-topped karst islets of Nha Trang Bay, with unlimited G&Ts included, of course. Then, you can return to Tran Phu Street for seafood broths and parties until morning.
Hoi An isn’t like anywhere else in Vietnam. Here, you’ll wake to the sound of water buffalos splashing in the rice paddies. You’ll whiz on rickshaws between paint-peeling coffee shops. You’ll wander narrow alleys laced with Buddhist shrines and noodle kitchens. Try to stay somewhere within reach of the old center; it’s UNESCO listed and oozes atmosphere. Those looking to bolster their wardrobe might want to get a three-piece made because Hoi An is the tailoring capital of Asia (BeBe is a trusted place to go). Alternatively, rent a bike and cycle through the gardens to An Bang Beach, a long run of powdery sand backed by casual bars.
Hue is the place to go to get in touch with the glorious past of old Vietnam. It was once the epicenter of the Nguyen Empire, whose influence stretched north to China and west to Thailand. Visions of the Imperial Citadel and the half-ruined Forbidden Purple City offer a glimpse into the grand court rooms and palaces that were raised during that age. Meanwhile, on the far side of the Perfume River, modern Hue bustles with its parklands, eateries, and motor rickshaws. Hue is also the start of the Hai Van Pass, a crazy winding road that overlooks Vietnam’s best beaches and rocky cliffs.
An overnight ride on the Reunification Express takes you deep into the heart of North Vietnam. First stop: Ninh Binh. The Vietnam of the travel brochures, this is a land of needle-like rock spires and dramatic karst mountains, all dropping down to flat valleys patched in rice paddies and wiggled through by riverways. Cycling is perhaps the most adventurous way to get around (if you’re feeling particularly brave, try bikepacking in North Vietnam). A bike will let you navigate to the mysterious ancient capital of Hoa Lu and the photogenic rural landscapes of Tam Coc, which is particularly Insta ready in June when the rice shoots turn daffodil yellow.
Ha Long Bay
Get the sharpie ready – you’re about to shorten that bucket list because this is one of the best things to do in Vietnam! Yep, the gasp-inducing Ha Long Bay is the sort of place you’ll be talking about for years to come, much to the irritation of home friends. It stretches over a whopping 1,500 square kilometers in the South China Sea, unfolding in a series of craggy hoodoos, grottoes, colossal cliffs, and islets for as far as the eye can see. A popular way to explore the UNESCO site is on a traditional junk boat or by private plane for an other-worldly birds eye view.
You’ve got to admit that the French probably knew what they were doing when they chose Sa Pa as a hill station back in the 1880s. Of course, today’s Southeast Asia backpackers are hardly drawn by the mild climate and fertile soils. They come to spend evenings in traditional Vietnamese longhouses. They come to learn local cooking techniques in homestays. They come to trek the well-worn trails that weave under FanSiPan mountain (the highest in the country). Whether you’re looking for a day of adventure or a day of rest, Sa Pa is one of the best places to visit in Vietnam.
Look one way and there’s a USSR-style mausoleum holding the remains of revered Ho Chi Minh. Look another and you’ll spy an incense-smoking Buddhist shrine. Take one turn and you’ll be lost in old guild markets where car batteries and lightbulbs and spices all spill from the stalls. Take another and you’ll find bumping backpacker bars and sizzling noodle-soup kitchens. Welcome to Hanoi, the sleepless and enthralling capital of Vietnam. If you ever need a break from it all, mosey across to Hoan Kiem Lake, where joggers move past the handsome 18th-century temples of Jade Island.
Manila will welcome you to the Philippines in one frenetic haze of hurtling jeepneys and gritty port areas. A colossal city, you’d do well to focus your time on the district of Intramuros. That’s the old Spanish heart of the capital, a maze of cobbled lanes fringed with Mexican-looking cantinas, all ringed by age-stained fortification walls. Day trips from the center can also reveal some of the startling wonders of Luzon island. They include the mighty volcano of Taal, where you can trek a submerged crater on the Pacific Ring of Fire.
Siargao has gone from Philippine backwater to fodder for drone-shot Youtube travelogues in the space of about five years. It’s a vogue place to travel right now, so it comes as a relatively modern addition to the classic Banana Pancake Trail. But there are plenty of reasons for its newfound fame. It’s the surf mecca of the Philippines for starters, touting roaring tube breaks like Cloud 9 next to the accessible novice wave at Jacking Horse. There are the Magpupungko tidal pools that shimmer emerald blue. And there’s a rollicking jungle party that takes place under the palms just outside of General Luna on Friday nights.
Let’s put it this way: no backpacker jaunt through the Philippines could possibly be complete without a pitstop in Palawan. Like a long finger pointing westwards through the Sulu Sea, this one is unlike anywhere else in Southeast Asia. El Nido is the star of the show. A lively town on the north shore, it’s considered a scuba and snorkeling paradise. Hop on a day-long boat trip and you’ll find yourself swimming in the company of curious jellies, bulging brain corals, and zebrafish! The hidden beaches of Port Barton are also worth checking. They’re chilled and chalk white, with hammocks and bamboo bars galore.
Imagine a place where you can pull on the board shorts, dive off a cliff, and be swimming in the company of turtles. Well…that’s Cebu. An island in the heart of the famous Visayas chain, it’s blessed with plenty of things to keep the pancake-munching backpacker busy. Make for Moalboal if you want to snorkel with our shell-backed buddies, along with schools of sardines and black-wringed sea kraits (keep your distance from those!). Inland, days of canyoneering can reveal the luminescent plunge pools of the Kawasan Falls. Meanwhile, little Oslob in the south offers chances to meet hulking whale sharks.
Kuta lets you bid farewell to the Philippines and om swastiastu to Bali in a whirlwind of rooftop parties and bumping pub crawls. This is the most energetic and happening town on the whole Isle of the Gods. Legendary clubs like Sky Garden and the Engine Room pulse with shots and buckets here until the early hours. When the sun rises, everyone reaches for the surf wax and hits Kuta Beach. It’s considered the place to learn how to ride in Indo. A mere $25 gets you a lesson from a local, and the waves tend to be small, glassy, but with just enough punch!
To steal a phrase from Guns N’ Roses: welcome to the jungle! That’s what surrounds Ubud up in the highlands of Bali north of Kuta. Swirled in plumes of mist and crowned by clumps of monkey-swinging teak trees and palms, this is perhaps the most mystical part of the isle of the gods. Bali is both a top-notch destination for yoga lovers, and it’s drawn artists for decades – the countless galleries and museums attest to that. Hindu temples poke above the woods at the Monkey Forest, where you’ll need to keep an eye on your wallet as you stroll the stupas and dodge the macaques. Take a Bali bicycle tour for a mix of culture and history, and for dinner, don’t miss Dewa Warung: a traditional, down-to-earth Indonesian tavern with mouthwatering tempeh satay skewers!
Bali’s twin brother sits just to the west. It’s a primeval place, watched over by the sleeping giant of Mount Rinjani: an active volcano of 3,726 meters in height that you can climb in two days if you’re feeling it. If you’re not, no worries. The shoreline of Senggigi is a glimpse of what Bali was 40 years ago, stretching with black-tinged sands past rows of lanky coconut trees. To surf, make for Kuta Lombok in the south. Timber shacks huddle just meters back from a big bay there, while fishermen double as taxi rides out to rolling reef breaks.
The Gili Islands
Hold the phone, folks! Tropical paradise beckons. At least that’s how most people talk about the Gilis: a chain of three tiny specks of land in the Bali Sea, they are best accessed from Lombok on a fast boat transfer. The main island is Gili Trawangan, which has garnered a rep for hedonism on account of its rambunctious Irish bars and tri-weekly parties. Then there’s Gili Meno and little Gili Air, where mangroves frame lux resorts that offer yoga pads and hammocks. Whichever you choose, you can look forward to alabaster sands and seas of azure blue, ringed by some of the most pristine coral gardens for miles around.
Roll out the yoga mat and prepare to align those chakras, Yogyakarta is about as close as you can get to Rishikesh on the Banana Pancake Trail of Southeast Asia. A magnet for New Agers and hippies, it’s a whole city of temples and gamelan music, of batik workshops and yogi schools. Its spirit resides in the complex of the Sultan’s Palace (also called the Kraton): an ancient walled town filled with bazaars and mosque minarets. A short trip into the volcanos nearby can bring you to the eye-watering complex of Borobudur, too. That’s a jaw dropper, rising with countless stupas to claim the title of the world’s largest Buddhist temple.
You might want to ring fence a little of the budget for this one: Southeast Asia backpackers have been known to survive on budget Singapore street food (plus a fair share of insta-noodles and 7/11 mashed potatoes) in these parts. And it’s true, the prices crank skywards in this modern megalopolis. It’s a banking and business hub with some of the cleanest streets and the coolest airport on the globe. Still, a couple of days is all it should take to explore the curious mismatch of districts. There’s Chinatown, lit by red lanterns and sizzling with soy-doused noodles. There’s Little India, where Keralan thali meals are served on banana leaves. Oh, and don’t miss the Marina Bay, with its futuristic Supertrees and skyscrapers.
Portuguese explorers, Malay sultans, and British colonists have ruled and shaped Malacca over the centuries. Its tactical location on the Asian straits made it an important place for controlling trade throughout the continent. These days, that rich past is still palpable at the red-painted clocktower and Dutch-style town hall that stand in the center. Around that, walking streets play host to buzzing night bazaars. And there’s Capitol Satay Celup, a legend on the Malay dining scene, where skewers of veg and meat are dipped into boiling cauldrons of capsicum-peanut sauce.
The bright lights of KL are another must on any backpacking circuit of Southeast Asia. An injection of big-city life comes with the neon haze of Bukit Bintang and its walking markets, which brim with knock-off Ray Bans and designer trinkets (it’s a real Rolex, honest!). The dual spires of the Petronas Towers command the horizon overhead, and there’s Hindu mysticism on offer at the nearby Batu Caves. Try to score yourself a bed in Reggae Mansion. With a cinema and a rooftop bar, it’s hailed by some as the most deluxe poshtel going! Wander a few hours outside of the city and find the hidden river banks of Kampung Kuantan filled with twinkling fireflies.
If you think it’s just about time for a tea break on your Banana Pancake Trail, you’ve come to the right place. Draped over the cool plateaus of central Malaysia, the Cameron Highlands are a blanket of endless greenery. To sip your own hot brew and hike muddy paths between the farms, head for the BOH Tea Plantation. There, jungles crown the tallest ridges overhead, but undulating stretches of tea leaves dash through the valley bottoms.
Few cities on the planet can match the sheer multiculturalism of George Town. One moment you’ll be transported to the spice-scented streets of Jaipur as you dodge the Bollywood CD emporiums and smell Rajput curries in Little India. The next, you’ll see Peking duck and hairy crab being cooked up in the steamy kitchens of Chinatown. Or, you’ll meet ancient clan people on the rickety Jetties of Penang. If you’re short on time, head up the funicular to Penang Hill for 360-degree views of the whole island.
Koh Phi Phi
Oh, the Phi Phi isles. This is quintessential South Thailand, rising with dappled karst cliffs straight from the pearly blue Andaman Sea. Only a short ferry ride from Phuket, they await with scenes of shimmering gold sand and bobbing longboats. The only populated island in the group is Koh Phi Phi Don. Alight there and you’ll find a buzzing town of beer bars and open-air clubs, all spilling out onto gorgeous Ton Sai Bay. Be sure to organize an outing to Phi Phi Leh and Bamboo Island, too, where snorkeling with turtles and sharks is on the menu.
Loveable Lanta is a hidden gem of an isle that’s still not totally in the spotlight. While backpacking Southeast Asia, ride the ferry from the Phi Phis to the port at Ban Saladan and then jump on a shared jeepney down to Long Beach. The always-smiling folk at Joker Bar will welcome you with a cold Chang and games of Jenga. Just behind, a run of pristine sand dips into a sloshing Andaman Sea. A jaunt to Lanta Animal Welfare is another must; they’re always looking for travelers to help walk the pups! For the sunset, make for Secret Beach, which lurks down a palm-lined track that ends with a single pad thai noodle cook and a stunning cove.
Last, but certainly not least, on the ultimate Banana Pancake Trail circuit is the legendary home of the Full Moon Party. Ever since the first long-haired hippies came here in the 60s and 70s, Koh Phangan has been the hedonistic hub of the Thai Gulf. Yes, it’s got daffodil-hued beaches and crystal waters, but it’s really the lunar shindigs that draw the crowds. Bring your backpacking jaunt to a wild close by joining the 30,000 revelers right on the sand with bucket cocktails and fire shows and more!