It’s widely believed that Southeast Asia is one of the best parts of the world for solo travellers to get their feet wet. It’s affordable; you’re likely to meet plenty of likeminded backpackers on your journey; it’s well enough travelled that you’re easily catered for; and the threats from crime – though present – are relatively low compared with other traveller destinations.
Still, there are risks, and some of Southeast Asia’s big cities are daunting even for the seasoned traveller. If you’re looking for a good starting point for solo travel in Southeast Asia, you might want to consider one of the following five cities, which cater extremely well for backpackers.
There were over 29 million international tourists to Thailand in 2015. Bangkok was ranked number 2 last year in a list of the most visited cities worldwide and it’s set to take prime position by the end of 2016.
It’s with good reason that this capital city has gained such popularity with travellers. It has a palace, temple or shrine on virtually every corner, markets and street stalls to tickle the tastebuds, and a fantastic network of trains, buses, taxis and tuk tuks to help you get around. While the pavements tend to clutter with stalls and motorbikes, it’s also possible to explore on foot during the daytime.
If that wasn’t enough, Bangkok is home to the famous Khao San Road – a street lined with souvenir stalls and Western-style bars offering 2 for 1 buckets and your chance to chew down on a fried insect. With fake ID, dodgy tattoos and undesirable ping pong shows on offer, this is perhaps not the best representation of Thai culture, but it’s become a rite of passage for most backpackers who choose to visit Southeast Asia.
KUALA LUMPUR, MALAYSIA
If you ever saw the 1999 Sean Connery classic ‘Entrapment’, you’ll instantly recognise Kuala Lumpur’s most iconic building – the Petronas Towers – and no visit is complete without a gawp from below and a pre-booked trip to the viewing deck.
The city also boasts a bird park, a landmark communications tower, an historic square and the nearby Batu Caves, which house a Hindu temple.
Bukit Bintang is the place to go for shopping and nightlife, but if you do your research you might also be able to find a swanky rooftop pool offering happy hour cocktails. Ladies nights, where women drink for free, are also common.
Singapore is like nowhere else in Southeast Asia. It’s ridiculously indulgent. Accommodation ranges from reasonably plush capsule hotels to swanky offerings like the Mandarin Orchard Singapore (find out more on Traveloka.com) and the Marina Bay Sands. The latter of these supports the highest elevated infinity pool and its neighbouring botanical gardens look like they came straight out of a sci-fi movie. It’s a playground for the rich and famous and, of course, that comes with a price tag.
While your budget might suffer if you stick around too long, there are some amazing attractions in Singapore that won’t break the bank, and even budget travellers can survive a few days while recovering from jet lag and readjusting to life on the road.
With so many airlines using it as a transport hub, travellers on longer trips might find themselves passing through Singapore on numerous occasions. Treat yourself to a stop over. It might be the respite you need.
If there was one place in Indonesia that’s built for tourism, it’s Bali, and Bali’s main city Kuta is a Mecca for first-time solo travellers. There’s one main street, which runs parallel to the coast, and it’s lined with restaurants, bars, nightclubs, tour operator shacks, spas and tattoo parlours. Just off the main strip are hundreds of cheap hostels and hotels. It might not be your most authentic Southeast Asian destination, but it’s the perfect way to get familiar with aspects of a new culture while not missing too many home comforts.
Backpackers tend to congregate in Kuta – and it’s a brilliant place to meet people you might want to explore further afield with. If you prefer a more mellow scene, Ubud and the nearby Gili Islands are just a short bus or boat ride away, and they also cater to solo travellers extremely well.
LUANG PRABANG, LAOS
Laos still appears to be taking a backseat to neighbouring Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia as far as popular countries for solo travel in Southeast Asia go. However, thanks to attractions like river tubing in Vang Vieng and the 4000 islands at its southern tip, more and more backpackers are stopping by.
Unlike most Asian countries, its capital, Vientiane, has little to grab your attention, except perhaps a buddha park and its embassy, where visas can be obtained.
It’s Luang Prabang to the north that really captures the imagination. This vibrant city has something for everyone: buddhist temples, colourful festivals, music and evening entertainment, eclectic nightlife, bustling street markets, world-renowned restaurants, and a surrounding landscape of pristine jungle and aquamarine waterfalls perfect for hiking, river kayaking, swimming and mountain biking. There is also a strong focus on responsible tourism in Luang Prabang and there are plenty of opportunities to support the local communities through hands-on experiences.
Of course, there are plenty more fantastic cities to explore throughout Southeast Asia. Those less travelled may be a bigger challenge to navigate, but often they’re more intriguing too. Whether you start with the easy ones and build up your confidence or throw yourself in at the deep end, it’s an incredible part of the world to explore either on your own or with friends.