How to Plan Your First Trip to Southeast Asia: 7 Easy Steps
Your first trip to Southeast Asia is really exciting, and while you are preparing to set off on your travels, we can help you with your final preparations!
Whether you are looking for information on where to go in Southeast Asia or how to plan your first trip to Southeast Asia, read on for more information on visas, vaccines, packing, insurance, and more!
1. Choose Where to Go
While you can’t expect to see all of Southeast Asia at once because there are so many different parts of it, there is also no need to stick to only one country when you are in Southeast Asia. We’ve listed 5 of the top spots in Southeast Asia, depending on how much time you have available for your trip!
1) Bangkok and Chiang Mai, Thailand
Thailand is the travel hub of Southeast Asia, and Bangkok and Chiang Mai are two of the most popular destinations in Thailand. When planning a trip to Thailand, you definitely can’t skip the capital Bangkok to soap up the history, culture, and amazing food, while Chiang Mai, the second most important city in Thailand, gives access to nature, beautiful temples, ancient ruins, and more incredible things to eat.
2) Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
When thinking about visiting Vietnam, the capital Hanoi and biggest city in the south of the country, Ho Chi Minh City, are likely to pop to mind.
Hanoi is a must because of the incredible, buzzing Old Quarter offering up history at every turn, while Ho Chi Minh City is Vietnam’s most fashionable city, known for its amazing food but also a must-visit for everyone with an interest in history and museum due to its many museums!
3) Luang Prabang, Laos
Heading somewhat off the Southeast Asia beaten track, Laos is a beautiful and tranquil nation offering UNESCO World Heritage sites, charming old towns, stunning natural scenery, tribal villages, diverse ethnic arts, adventure, outdoor activities, and amazing food.
Luang Prabang is its most popular destination, while not its capital, as a result of the many beautiful historical sites and the unique surrounding scenery.
4) Siem Reap and Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Its capital city Phnom Penh is a busy city known for its beautiful temples and plentiful handicrafts at local markets, but Siem Reap is most popular for its incredible temples, including the world famous Angkor Wat. Take your time to plan your time in Siem Reap because there is a huge amount to see there.
5) Bali, Indonesia
Known locally as “Island of the Gods,” Bali is just that. It is a beautiful tropical paradise that offers everything from water sports to yoga, delicious Indonesian and international restaurants, a wild nightlife, beautiful beaches, incredible resorts, friendly people, and shops to shop until you drop. It is one of the most popular destinations in Indonesia, and once you get there you will instantly understand why.
2. The Best Time to Travel to Southeast Asia
While best times to visit Southeast Asian countries will differ depending on the country, around December, January and February is the best time overall. This is when there is less rain throughout, and there is slightly cooler weather throughout, comparatively (generally speaking, Southeast Asia is warm and humid regardless of when you visit!).
For specific countries, there is a longer window when the weather is best in each, with different monsoon, typhoon and rainy seasons to avoid.
- Best Time to Visit Vietnam: Vietnam is a little tricky as it is a very long country. The best time of the year to visit throughout is February, the best time to visit north of Vietnam is February, March, April, October or November, the best time to visit central Vietnam is November through to July, and the best time to visit southern Vietnam is between November and March.
- Best Time to Visit Cambodia: The best time to visit Cambodia is between November and March, as the rest of the time is rainy season, with March to May also being extremely hot and humid.
- Best Time to Visit Laos: Laos is best visited in the dry season between November and April, because it rains more between May and October.
- Best Time to Visit Thailand: The best time to visit Thailand is between November and February throughout the country, however, Thailand also has different seasons between its east and west coasts. The west coast (where you’ll find Phuket and Krabi) is best visited between December and April, while the east coast is best visited between January and September.
- Best Time to Visit Myanmar: Myanmar is best visited during its cooler, dry season from November until February. During other months, while prices are lower and there are fewer people around, you may experience a lot of monsoons.
- Best Time to Visit Indonesia: Indonesia is a little different as it is further south than the abovementioned Southeast Asian countries. It is generally best visited between May and September, when days are dry and it is sunny. However, wet season’s rainfall comes very quickly and only lasts up to a couple of hours, meaning there is still lots of time to explore even in the rainier season.
- Best Time to Visit the Philippines: The Philippines are best visited during the dry season, which is between November and April.
3. Consider Where to Start
Choosing your starting point in Southeast Asia is really important, and will depend on your starting point. Bangkok is usually a great place to start as there are more international connections there than to Luang Prabang or Siem Reap.
From the United States, you can fly with United, All Nippon Air, Japan Air, Northwest connect through Tokyo Narita and into Bangkok, Thailand. Flying time is between 18 and 21 hours. Alternatively you can fly through Hong Kong with Cathay Pacific, which takes approximately 19–20 hours.
If you want to fly from the United States over the Atlantic, you can go via London Heathrow with British Airways, from the East Coast of the United States the total journey is between 19 and 22.5 hours. Via Germany, you can take Lufthansa through Frankfurt, for a journey time of between 17 and 21 hours.
To get to Vietnam from the United States, you can also fly via Hong Kong with Cathay Pacific, via South Korea on Korean Airways, or via Japan on Japan Airways for similar flying times as the above. Alternatively go via Frankfurt in Germany on Lufthansa, Paris on Air France, or British Airways via Heathrow.
Cambodia does not have any direct flights into Europe or North America, so you will have to fly in between countries in Southeast Asia once you are there, but thankfully there are many connections between Southeast Asian countries by airplane. The same goes for Laos and Myanmar.
You can take all the trouble out of planning with our 28-Day Grand Indochina Tour in which we will take you through Myanmar, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, and Thailand! It’s customizable to your requirements.
4. Check Visa and Vaccine Requirements
Before setting off you will want to check your visa and vaccine requirements too, as most Southeast Asian countries require vaccinations as well as a visa before arrival.
Before visiting Vietnam, Thailand, Myanmar, Laos or Cambodia, the CDC as well as the WHO recommend having the following vaccinations done (apart from childhood vaccinations): hepatitis A, hepatitis B, and typhoid. If you’re staying for more than one month you might also need a vaccination against Japanese encephalitis, and you may need to take Malaria medication depending on where in the country you go: talk to your doctor about this.
Click to see Travel Vaccines and Health Advice for Southeast Asia.
As for your visas, most foreigners will need a visa for most Southeast Asian countries. You can check the following pages for country-specific information:
5. Buy Your Travel Insurance
A trip to Southeast Asia definitely requires some travel insurance, and you should get this sorted before you head over. You’ll likely want to get medical insurance as well as travel insurance covering your luggage and valuables you’re taking abroad (cameras or laptops, for example).
You can find travel insurance almost everywhere, from your own bank or an international institution such as Letsgoinsure, Bengo Travel, Holidaysafe, or more traditional providers such as Allianz, Zurich, or Columbus Direct.
6. Make Your Packing List
Packing is the best way to get excited about an upcoming holiday! Make sure you have to following on your list for a trip to Southeast Asia.
- Passport and tickets, hotel booking confirmations (we also recommend taking photos of everything including your passport photo page and saving a digital copy in case they are lost!)
- Medication and toiletries (regular prescriptions, diarrhea treatment, allergy medication if needed, first aid kit, pain killers, toothpaste, toothbrush, shampoos, lotions)
- Mosquito spray
- Proper footwear for walking, and flip-flops for the beach
- Sunscreen and a hat, as well as sunglasses
- Travel adaptors and chargers
- Tissues, wet wipes, anti-bacterial hand gel
- Clothing (do bring an extra layer for a chilly airport even though you’re going to a hot country, as well as long trousers and shirts for temple visits where you’ll have to cover your knees and shoulders)
- Female hygiene products (these are not easy to find in Southeast Asia)
- Local currency (we recommend bringing either US dollars or Euros and changing these upon arrival in Southeast Asia for a better rate) and bank cards
- A small bag or backpack for day trips
- Ear plugs and a travel pillow for the airplane/journeys
- A quick-dry towel
- Extra contacts and contract lens solution (this isn’t always readily available)
7. Beware of Taboos and Etiquette in Southeast Asian Countries
It is important to note that there are different taboos and etiquette in Southeast Asian countries than there are at home. One of the most important ones is not to touch children’s heads, and also for women not to touch Buddhist monks or their belongings.
In Thailand, make sure you never insult the king, and in general it is better not to discuss politics as this may lead to some sensitive situations. If you do find yourself in any kind of awkward situation, do not raise your voice as many Buddhist cultures place high importance on harmonious social interactions.
When entering temples or mosques, make sure you are wearing long dresses and trousers as well as shirts that cover your knees as well as your shoulders. You can usually rent or borrow these at the big tourist sites if you do happen to forget this on the day.
If you are entering a house, it is polite to take off your shoes. This also goes for some temples, where you might notice a pile of shoes at the front door. If you do see this, please remove your shoes to follow suit.
Click to see What Not to Do While Traveling in Southeast Asia.
Let’s Tailor-Make a Southeast Asia Tour for You
We, at Asia Highlights, specialize in tailor-made holidays and our experienced travel consultants can help you customize your perfect holiday in Southeast Asia. From special excursions to fully personalized travel itineraries, we can help you create your dream tour. Let us know your requirements to see what we can do: inquiries are free.