Tips on Planning a Southeast Asia Itinerary

by Feb 14, 2012Itinerary, South East Asia2 comments

Planning a Southeast Asia Itinerary can be a daunting task.

There are amazing places to see everywhere, everybody has an opinion on where you HAVE to go (or where you HAVE to avoid going) and along with that you have a bunch of confusing issues to think about like how strict are those visa requirements, how much rain is there really in low season, should I prebook everything?, should I go with a tour or do it myself?, and how much alcohol do they fit in a bucket?

We’re planning a more comprehensive itinerary guide for when we return to Southeast Asia (likely to be in 2016 – YAY!) that will incorporate all the mistakes we’ve learned from. In the meantime, we’ve highlighted the key things to think about when planning your own Southeast Asia Itinerary below and we’ve also included our two month itinerary for our trip with our original thoughts before we left.

Where to Go in Southeast Asia

There’s a few to choose from! We only had 2 months planned for our first time in South East Asia and knew we’d most likely be back one day. So, we picked:

We still have a few great ones to go back for on our next trip:

  • Brunei
  • East Timor
  • Indonesia
  • Laos
  • Myanmar
  • Philippines

matt and dayna angkor wat cambodia

Best time to visit Southeast Asia

Shoulder or Low season! (in our opinion at least)

Avoiding high season (mainly December/January)  means it’s cheaper and easier to find a deal plus the crowds are smaller. There are two main complicating factors for choosing the shoulder seasons or low seasons over the peak high season: rain and heat. These are often manageable and vary greatly between months so you shouldn’t automatically rule out a spot because it is the low season (although sometimes the low season does coincide with the shutting down of local tourism especially on some of the smaller islands so in that case you should avoid the spot).

Southeast Asia has a variety of regional weather patterns that are reasonably consistent each year but also very different in places that are relatively close together.

I’d recommend you try and avoid the height of wet seasons and hot seasons (although it’s worth noting that low season monsoons are often isolated to heavy showers at regular times of the day so they can be easy to dodge).

As an example April in Siem Reap is unbearably hot while September and October can be very wet (a consistent theme among a number of places in the region). The months in between can be a great time to go though. Do your research on each spot to find out how frequent and heavy the rainfall is and how high the temperatures can get (some places can exceed 40 degrees Celsius and you do not want any part of that believe me!).

Some of the islands in Thailand have great weather during the same months that other places are flooding with monsoons. Koh Samui/Koh Tao and Koh Phangan are great options to look in to for low season options. Southeast Asia is too large to cover off the weather trends for each and every place so I’d recommend focusing on looking up the detail place by place once you’ve got a shortlist for your itinerary of where you want to go. Once you have your shortlist, just google “weather in placename in month” and you’ll get several sites that will give you what you need.

Matt on Mekong Delta Vietnam


How long to spend in Southeast Asia

As long as you can get leave from work for!

The biggest cost is usually your flight over (we stick to staying at nice places and eat well in Southeast Asia but still budget only around £40 total per day there for a couple) so make sure you plan to spend as many days there as possible.

As a rough guide for how long to spend in each country as a minimum I’d suggest planning:

7-12 days – One country only
12-21 days – Two countries
21-30 days – Three countries
31-45 days – Four countries
45-60 days – Five countries
(adding about 15 days per country added as a minimum from there)

You could easily spend a busy month in just one country so I’d use the above suggestions as a guide to show when you are trying to pack too much in rather than an indication of when you’re planning too long in one country (which is hard to do).

There are some exceptions too. If you have your heart set on Siem Reap’s Angkor Wat then it is possible to set aside even just a couple of days to trek there and back from Bangkok. You would be missing out on a bunch more to see in Cambodia but the distance isn’t huge and as a side trip it would be worth adding.

Southeast Asia Visa Requirements

Tip number 1 – never trust a travel blog on Visa requirements!

Always go to each country’s official immigration website as blogs, articles and guidebooks can be misinformed or outdated with rules changing frequently.

I’d also go further to say don’t trust a travel agent or anyone else when they give you advice on visa requirements – always research the visa rules thoroughly and make sure you have what you need and know when you need to get out by. Pay attention to when you need to prove onward travel as well as some countries won’t let you in if you can’t prove you’ve got a flight out booked (annoyingly this appears to be selectively enforced so you never know when you will really need to have this).
Southeast Asia is a mix of countries with generous and simple visa rules (Malaysia with a free 90 day visa for tourists) and those that are more difficult or expensive to navigate (like Vietnam where you have to get it in advance or at least organise it before arrival and pay a chunk of cash for the pleasure).

Be sure to know how long you can stay in each country before you book anything (especially where some countries like Thailand have a limit of 30 days or less depending on the type of visa you get).

petronas towers

Should you book in advance or sort it all there?

You will nearly always be better off and get things much cheaper if you wait and book it when you’re there. The only exception to the rule of waiting to book things would be around high season when you’re not at all flexible on timing – it may then be best to lock it in to make sure you don’t miss doing a tour. This is particularly true for trains to and from Sapa and places like that where they can book out on certain days.

Generally, tours and day trips are very easy to book and organise in Southeast Asia at short notice (for the next day). For example, Sinh Cafe is the go to place in Vietnam (although find the “official” one online to be sure you don’t get stuck with an imitator) and you can also often book through your hotel/guesthouse or book online.

You often have the odd situation where someone has paid £70 for a day trip that they booked in advance through a travel agent 6 months ago versus someone else paying £15 the day before.

For accommodation, I’d recommend prebooking the first night in a destination and then looking around the next day before negotiating a rate but again, in high season it is tougher to have this luxury due to low vacancies. People still successfully do it year round though!

DIY or a package tour in Southeast Asia?

This all depends on your level of travel experience and whether you’re travelling alone or not.

If you’re a novice traveller, alone for the first time in the big, bad world then I’d recommend going through a package tour for at least a large chunk of your trip (preferably at the start). This allows you to comfortably get to know a place, make friends along the way and you can relax and enjoy your trip a bit more. You can easily combine this with a period of travel on your own after the group tour has finished.

Overall though, if you are a reasonably experienced traveller or travelling in a group then I would always recommend travelling and doing it all yourselves rather than choosing a tour. This is because Southeast Asia is relatively cheap and easy to travel around, there are numerous places you can book day trips and excursions and the tour companies tend to have hectic schedules aimed at doing as much as possible in as little time as possible. Doing it yourself allows you to take it slower, really get to know a place and its people and relax when you need to.

We do love the slow travel approach and we learnt the hard way that this is how we should plan things.

Our Two Month Southeast Asia Itinerary

So we were going to write a quick run down of our plans for our 2 months in Southeast Asia BUT pictures are so much easier and quicker so here is where we are going: (starting in Singapore)

SE Asia Trip Map

You can view a Full Size interactive version of the travel map by clicking here (done at Travellerspoint).

This itinerary involves a little bit of backtracking (which we have to do it because that’s where we will be travelling out of) but we think it’s a pretty good plan.  We have a few internal flights booked but after flying Kuala Lumpur to Hanoi, we don’t have anything booked until we fly out of Siem Reap (despite the map making it look like we are flying out of Hanoi).  So we have a long overland trip to make up as we go the length of Vietnam and then across Cambodia.  Hopefully the overnight trains are comfy!

Some (of the many) highlights we’re looking forward to are:

A more detailed breakdown of our two months in Southeast Asia

If you’re interested in where we stayed and for how long then see below as we break it all out by nights and hotels.

4 days in Singapore

Singapore – 4 Nights @ Bayview Hotel Singapore (pricey but nice and good location)

10 days in Malaysia

Kuala Lumpur – 4 Nights @ Tune Downtown Hotel, 1 @ Tune KL Airport Hotel (loved both of the Tune hotels – a great concept and such good value when you only have to pay for what you need)

Langkawi – 5 Nights @ Federal Villa Beach Resort Langkawi (another great deal – you get to share the pool area with a more expensive resort so value for money with a beautiful beach and great food nearby)

23 days Vietnam

Hanoi – 3 Nights @ May De Ville Backpackers, 1 x O/N sleeper train to Sapa (May De Ville was great, and the overnight train was surprisingly not too bad)

Ha Long Bay – 2 nights on a “Party” tour boat booked through our Hotel (we had a great time – very glad we skipped the options that involved a night on Cat Ba island that everyone we’ve talked to has said was rubbish)

Sapa – 2 Nights @ Sapa Luxury Hotel (really nice with a great view – we even got a free bottle of vietnamese wine on arrival)

Hoi An – 4 Nights @ Hai Au Hotel (one of our absolute favourites – the staff were great here as well)

Nha Trang – 1 x O/N sleeper bus to Dalat, 2 Nights @ A nameless hotel (I can’t even remember this place but I think it was OK – I think maybe a nicer resort might be the way to go in Nha Trang anyway though)

Dalat – 2 nights @ again, missing the hotel (a little bit weird – OK overall but we’d try somewhere different next time I think)

Ho Chi Minh City – 4 nights @ Golden Wind Hotel (we chose this one primarily because the name made us laugh but it actually was nice once you found it down some little lanes)

8 days in Cambodia

Phnom Penh – 2 Nights @ Silver River Hotel (it was fine)

Siem Reap – 2 Nights @ Mom’s Guesthouse (they were nice but they hand washed everything and the sheets made us itch like crazy so we switched hotels), 5 Nights @ Mother Home Guesthouse (I was very ill at this point and we loved the move around the corner to this spot – highly recommend it)

13 days in Thailand

Phuket – 1 Night @ Baan Phil Guesthouse (we changed rooms then cut our stay short at this spot)

Kata Beach – 8 Nights @ Villareal Heights (we LOVED it here especially the free use of DVDs and the amazing, comfortable beds and lovely owners)

Bangkok – 3 Nights @ Baan K Managed by Bliston (our little splurge of luxury at the end of our trip – very nice and huge but expensive for Southeast Asia – we also got upgraded!)

*Some of the links used above are affiliate links – there is no difference in cost to you but there is a small commission paid if you book through the link. As always, we only ever recommend and link to accommodation that we have stayed at and thought was good.

Anything we’ve missed? Let us know if you have any questions in the comments below!


plan a southeast asia itinerary