Although you’ll learn quickly on the road, there are a few things to know before backpacking in Asia. Heading out to an unfamiliar continent for a long backpacking trip is exhilarating, nerve-rattling, and full of unexpected twists.
We’ve rounded up a few things that tend to catch backpackers by surprise on their first jaunts to Asia.
Hostel Dorms Aren’t the “Norm” in Southeast Asia
Unlike when traveling in Australia, Europe, Japan, and the U.S., staying in backpacker hostel dorms is not very common in Southeast Asia -- that is unless you opt to do so on purpose. Accommodation is pretty well cheap enough that you can have a private room or bungalow to yourself every night. Some budget guesthouses have shared dorms but not all.
The dorm-style hostels that do exist in Southeast Asia are often found in big cities such as Singapore or Kuala Lumpur, and also in popular places to party such as Haad Rin on Thailand’s island of Koh Phangan. Backpackers opt to stay in dorms to be more social and to meet other travelers. But don’t plan to get much sleep in a dorm during Full Moon Party week!
You’ve got the best chances of staying in dorm-style/shared rooms in Singapore, Yangon, or when reserving the longhouses in national parks around Malaysian Borneo.
Solo Travel Is Extremely Commonplace
Many solo travelers begin by backpacking in Asia; quite a few meet and change travel mates several times throughout a trip. Forget the myth that you’ll mostly be alone if you don’t travel with someone from home. Meeting other travelers along the Banana Pancake Trail in Asia is remarkably easy.
Don’t despair as a solo traveler when it seems that you’ve just arrived in a place dominated by traveling couples; there’s often more to the story!
Friendships and romances form quickly on the road. Many of those “couples” you’re seeing were probably traveling solo initially and met along the way.
You Will See Friends Again
Although running into new friends again seems unlikely, there’s a good chance that you’ll cross paths randomly on the road at some point. Travelers tend to congregate and circulate along the same routes; accidental reunions are commonplace when backpacking in Asia -- even months later in completely different countries!
If fate isn’t enough to help you cross paths with newly met friends, keeping your current location updated on Facebook certainly helps.
You’ll Spend More Money Than Expected
This certainly isn’t what most backpackers want to hear but it’s true. Although budget surpluses are a rarity, the good news is that traveling in Asia is still cheaper overall than in many other parts of the world, Latin America included.
The top reason for backpackers blowing budgets tends to be drinks and socializing. The intrepid few brave enough to meticulously track weekly expenses are often embarrassed to find out that they spent more money on drinks than food.
Other common budget-blowing culprits are big purchases for electronics, falling for scams, motorbike crash repairs, you-only-live-once adventures (e.g., pricey liveaboard scuba diving excursions), and I-deserve-it splurges such as shopping and Western food.
Traveling With Someone Can Save Money
Regardless of whether you prefer to travel alone or with someone, the truth is that duos typically manage to save more money on a backpacking trip.
At the very least, you’ll be able to split accommodation costs, although some countries in Asia charge by occupancy rather than by the room. In many hostels, a private room costs the same as two dorm beds; you may as well opt for the double room.
When it comes to negotiating power, the more (travelers) the merrier. You’ll certainly have extra leverage when negotiating discounts for accommodation, booking tours, transportation, and purchases if you team up with other travelers.
You’ll Most Often Interact With Other Travelers
Getting to know locals takes mindful effort. As a backpacker passing through, you’ll more often than not end up fraternizing with other travelers, probably people you met at your guesthouse or on transportation. Interactions with local people often end up reduced down to transactions and ordering food.
The good news is that chatting with other travelers will enable you to learn about cultures and languages all over the world. But to really get to know the place you are traveling, jump at opportunities to meet some local friends.
You’ll Probably Get Sick at Some Point
No matter how many yoga poses are done in front of landmarks, many travelers eventually get sick on long trips -- it seems to be a rite of passage. More often than not, those mysterious fevers or general feelings of malaise go away on their own.
Burnout Is a Real Thing
If your trip is lengthy enough, there may come a day when those 800-year-old temple ruins simply don’t excite you as much as they should. You could care less about the monkeys doing mischievous things (you’ve seen hundreds already) or that there is a family of seven locals passing by on a motorbike.
People talk about culture shock a lot, but it's burnout that eventually creeps up on all long-term travelers. If you find yourself spending more and more time on social media rather than getting out and exploring a locale or trying to meet travelers in the room, it’s time for a reset to remember why you're traveling in the first place.
Smoking Is Very Common in Asia
Don’t be surprised if your taxi driver in China turns around to offer you a cigarette. More than half of adult men in many Asian countries smoke; rates are even higher within the low-income groups who often provide services to travelers. In some Asian countries, local-brand cigarettes cost less than US $1 per pack.
While the U.S. ranks 51st in cigarettes consumed per capita, South Korea comes in at 13th. You’ll never be forced to smoke, however, in some cultural scenarios you’re better off accepting someone’s offer of a cigarette rather than risking the loss of face by refusing it. You can give them away later when making new friends.