Traffic in Phnom Penh, Cambodia - first trip to Southeast Asia

Planning Your First Trip to Southeast Asia – Step by Step Guide

In Asia, Travel Tips by Kaspars MisinsLeave a Comment

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In 2012 we with Una went on our first trip abroad. Before that we had no travel experience at all. We didn’t even know, what you need to do at the airport and what is checked baggage, for example. Nevertheless, we decided to do everything on our own. And we did it. It was a trip to Portugal with 2 day stopover in Italy.

One year later we went on our first trip to Asia. We went to India to cycle across it. We had no idea as what to expect from India or how it is to cycle for thousands of kilometers. Yet again we did it. During the following years, containing of traveling, volunteering and working abroad, there have been many more first times. So, you see, we know how it is. We know how you feel, when embarking on something completely unknown for you with an uncertain outcome.

To help you to prepare for your first independent trip to Southeast Asia / South Asia, I have created this step by step guide. Following it hopefully will make the process of preparation not only easier, but also less stressful. And your journey – better.

TRAVEL INSURANCE: For travelers to Southeast Asia we recommend World Nomads Explorer! 

Let’s start!

Swimming in waterfall - near Trang, Thailand

Swimming by the waterfall – near Trang, Thailand

Planning Southeast Asia Trip: Choose a Destination

Choose one country, that you are interested in most, and read about visa requirements. Do you need visa? How you can get it? What is necessary to obtain it? For how long time it allows you to stay in the country?

Most people are traveling to Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia. Thus tourism infrastructure there is better. A smaller number go to Philippines, Myanmar and Brunei.

  1. Out of all these countries only for Vietnam and Myanmar we, Latvians, need to do something prior to arrival.
  2. When traveling to Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Indonesia we only need to have enough cash (USD or local money – check it before!) to pay for visa and passport photo sized photos.
  3. Traveling to Malaysia, Singapore, Philippines and Brunei all we need is to have a passport with us.

When you have decided, read about visa requirements one more time! These rules for all the countries of Southeast Asia look similar, but they are different. For example, in Thailand visa on arrival allows us to stay only for up to 14 days. At the same time in Cambodia we can easily get a 30 day visa, simply by filling a form at the airport and paying 30 USD.

Rules are different for different nationalities.


Things to think about, when planning a trip to more than 1 country and/or for more than 2 weeks – Will you take a flight or travel overland? How and where will you cross the border? If you need a visa, can you get it at that border crossing point? How you can get visa for this long period of time? Can you get visa at the airport or border crossing point or you need to obtain it in advance?

Parrot sitting on camera in Kuala Lumpur Bird park

Parrot sitting on my camera – Kuala Lumpur bird park, Malaysia

Planning Southeast Asia Trip: Choose Few Points of Interest

Think about what you want to see. What to do? What to experience? Check out travel blogs, ask us, google, check out TripAdvisor and Lonely Planet. And then choose a few cities, where you can do it!

For your first independent trip to Southeast Asia I recommend you to choose not more than 3-4 destinations within a country. That’s assuming, that you are going on a 2-3 week trip. If you are going on a longer trip, you will be able to fit in more.

Next step – look how far are they from each other. If it’s like 200 – 500 kilometers then bus or train should be good enough mode of transportation. And cheap as well. Though, do remember, that it may take you up to 24 hours of travel time to go for these 400 – 500 kilometers. Mostly you will be fine booking a bus or train ticket just a day or two in advance, or even on the same day.

If it’s more than 500 kilometers between those places, check out the flights! There are more than few low cost airlines operating in Southeast Asia. And these 1-2 hour flights usually cost only like 20 – 50 EUR. So not too much. If you are planning to fly, better book a week or more in advance. Though, we have had very good deals (1 hour flights in Malaysia with AirAsia for 10 EUR) also when booking just few days in advance.

In most of situations night bus or night train also could be a good option for a long distance travel in Southeast Asia. If you are lucky and you can have a good sleep, we have had both good and bad experience, this way you will also save money, which otherwise you would spend paying for a night in hotel or hostel.

At this point it should be clear – yes, I want to travel to [your next destination in Southeast Asia].

Long tail boats - near Krabi, Thailand

Long tail boats – near Krabi, Thailand

Planning Southeast Asia Trip: Buying a Ticket

We usually use Skyscanner or Google Flights to find the cheapest flights, and then book on the official website of the airline. Because otherwise, if there will be any problems, you will need to deal with an agent or middleman, from whom you bought a ticket. We prefer to deal directly with customer support department of the airline.

UPDATE, May 2017: Lately we have been using momondo.com. And if the price difference is more than 10-20 EUR, then we book through booking sites recommended by Momondo.

Cheapest tickets usually are from and to the biggest airports. In Europe these are airports of London, Paris, Frankfurt, Helsinki and Amsterdam. In Southeast Asia – Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, Hong Kong and Bangkok.

Even if you are going to, let’s say, Manila in Philippines it might be cheaper to buy a flight from Europe to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, or Singapore. And from there to book a flight with, for example, AirAsia. Air Asia is one of the most popular low cost airlines in Southeast Asia. We have traveled with it quite a few times, and we can recommend it.

In this case, don’t forget to count in possible visa fees. Because if, for example, we are flying to Bankok, Thailand, where we need visa, we need to acquire it and pay for it even if we aren’t leaving the airport and our next flight is from the same airport on the same day. That’s the case, ONLY if you are buying separate flights from different companies.

Very good price for a return flight from Europe to Southeast Asia is about 300 – 400 EUR. 400 – 600 EUR is still a good offer.

Book the tickets!

Planning Southeast Asia Trip: Book a Hotel for the First Days

When we don’t know the place, where we are going, we simply find where is the central part of the city. And then, we go to booking.com or Agoda (our favorite in Southeast Asia), choose the dates, set our budget and look for the hotels and hostels on a map.

And then we just search for the best rated hotels in the area, where we want to stay. It’s always good idea to double check on Google Maps, how far your chosen hotel is, for example, from the train station or anything else, that is important for you. We have had situations, when on a map it looked like a central area of the city, where we were looking for hotels, when in fact it was about 7 kilometers away from the city center.

If you are sure you are fine with more or less everything, then – cheap and decent double rooms in budget hotels in Southeast Asia usually cost around 15 – 20 EUR per night.

If it’s not during some big celebrations (Google it! Because there are many big celebrations you most probably have no idea about.), when you are traveling, for the rest of your trip you can book hotel rooms just a day or two in advance. When you will know, when exactly and where are you heading further.

In Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

In Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Getting Ready for Your First Trip to Southeast Asia

And here are the last things to do / think about before heading to the airport to start your first journey to Southeast Asia.

  • Check one more time, if you know everything about arrival! Visas. Money. Do you have enough cash to pay for visa. For example, here you can read more about visa on arrival (VOA) in Thailand and download a form to fill it prior arrival. Doing so will allow you to process through immigration faster.
  • Getting from the airport to hotel. When you will arrive? Is there a public transport from the airport? How to find it? How much a taxi ride to city center usually costs? Where to find it? Read about most popular scams in that country. To be better prepared for what’s coming.
  • Download a map of the country/city on your phone or tablet. Having an offline map (map, that works also without internet connection) helps a lot. We use Here Maps (search for it on App Store or Google Play) and Google Maps. To use them without internet, don’t forget to download a map, while still at home. When you have a map, find and save an address of the hotel that you have booked to find it later, once you will arrive.
  • Read about options of getting a local number number. Most probably you will have a chance to buy it without leaving an airport. Using local mobile number almost always (if not always) is much cheaper, than using your number from home.
  • Check your mobile contacts. In order to call your contacts back home using a local number in Southeast Asia you will need to enter country code of your home country before mobile number. Check out at least few most important contacts and edit them if needed, adding a country code. This way you will be able to call them both while in your home country and while abroad.
  • Vaccines. There are some vaccines recommended for those traveling to Southeast Asia. We two are vaccinated against Hepatitis A, B and Yellow Fewer. We got our Yellow Fever vaccines only because we were going on a long term travel and then we didn’t know, where exactly we will travel to. Asides from that be careful with mosquitoes. Because here in Southeast Asia they are carrying several diseases. To deal with it on your first day of the trip visit a nearby to you pharmacy and buy a mosquito repellent cream or spray. Remember – this is just our experience, and we aren’t doctors. If in doubts, discuss this with your doctor.
  • Travel insurance. It’s probably not the wisest choice, but so far we have bought travel insurance only few times. Only then, when we couldn’t go without it. For example, to obtain hiking permit in Nepal you need to have a travel insurance. After reading countless good reviews of World Nomads, we chose them ourselves.
  • Money. Most of the time we just go to an ATM in the country, where we are, and withdraw cash. Using MasterCard Debit cards we haven’t had any serious problems. There have been times, when one ATM doesn’t accept my or Una’s debit card, but then we just went to next one and got cash there.
  • Do some research about other things. Public transportation. Tickets. Getting to points of interest. Renting a motorbike, car, bicycle. Often it’s possible to sort out these things and get necessary information right from your hotel.

And remember – leave your big backpack at home, when traveling to Southeast Asia! You don’t need too much things, when traveling to this part of the world. Click on that link to read more about, why we think so.

But here you can see, what are the things, that I have in my backpack. Una has more or less the same things.

Well, and that’s it! Now you are ready!

Phnom Penh, Cambodia

In Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Don’t worry if that first trip to Southeast Asia, that you are preparing to, still worries you. That’s normal. We are always afraid of unknown. Do the preparation necessary and just go for it! You will be fine. Like you always are.

If you still have some questions about traveling to Southeast Asia, send us an email or Facebook message!

Disclosure: some of the links on this page are affiliate links. This means – if you choose to book accommodation, buy some products or services through these links, we may earn a small commission. This has no effect on the price for you.

Kaspars Misins

Author: Kaspars Misins

Kaspars is a long term traveler and a travel blogger from Latvia. He loves going on long walks, reading non fiction books and spending time outdoors. Together with his girlfriend Una they have been traveling – volunteering – working abroad since 2013. On We Are From Latvia they share their experience and things learned along the way.

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