Backpacking in South East Asia


Written by Rachel Tahmassebi

For many middle-class British teenagers finishing their A-Levels, this trip can be likened to a right of passage, just
before heading to university. Like with many activities at that age, alcohol is often the main focus and this is no different in South East Asia. From drinking shroom shakes at the Koh Phangan to drunk tubing in Van Vieng to getting wasted on a 3 day castaway cruise off the coast of Vietnam, South East Asia caters to all your drinking and partying needs at a very low cost. I am inclined to believe that the party scene, is what this region is most recognised for, these days, perhaps due to the occasional assumptions you can receive when telling someone you’re headed to Thailand (alcohol or sex tourism, which one is it?).

Either way, I think this is a shame if it is putting anyone off from experiencing the cultural and natural beauty this region has to offer. Hey, I’m not trashing it. In fact, I did it myself the first time round. These days I’m sober and let’s say, for whatever reason, you are too. Or maybe you want to experience the region without all the parties. It can seem a little bit intimidating at
first. I am here to help you navigate the region if you want to avoid the frantic bar crawls and first time backpacker crowd.

Choosing your location

Although difficult these days, given the extensive Lonely Planet press coverage of the region, off-the-beaten-path in South East Asia generally helps getting away from this scene. Attracted to the serene beaches of Koh Phi Phi? Try Koh Lanta or Koh Yao Yai. Want to experience the Gili’s without the party crowd? Try Gili Meno Bangkok without the craziness? Try anywhere except Khao San Road! I realise that not everybody likes to travel off the beaten path, so here are some recommendations which are very much on the tourist path.

Koh Samui – a controversial entry on the list, I realise, however, this is the main island hub on the Thai gulf and the wide range of options for accommodation, activities and types of traveller allow me to believe this is a good choice.

Malaysia – everything in this country is just slightly pricier than its northerly neighbours and with Islamic law, culture and traditions, the party scene does not extend far south of Langkawi. In this country you can see all that Thailand has to
offer, in terms of landscapes, however, with a very different culture and history.

Indonesia – similar to Malaysia in terms of Islamic culture, much of travel in Indonesia largely consists of cultural and natural experiences, minus the Gilis and south of Bali.

Ubud – this village in Indonesia deserves a subtitle for itself for its laidback, holistic, health conscious atmosphere. The drink of choice in this hippy haven is an ultra nutritious vegan super smoothie.


Maybe I’m boring, but I actually enjoy going to sleep at a reasonable time and waking up at the crack of dawn. I will never tell my loud roommates to shut up because I realise this is the nature of hostels but I found many hostels were difficult to accommodate my travel needs in this way, so I have some tips.

Price – the general rule is that cheap hostels usually bring the party crowd in.

Images – the hostel chooses drinking and bar crawls as their top photos? This is a party hostel! Avoid. In cities you have to be pickier – as a general rule, the quiet, more laidback hostels are usually in more nature-oriented locations (think mountains, not beaches) and party hostels are most commonly found on islands or cities.

Alternative ways to travel

Spending more money

Like it or not, one way to travel this region without all the parties is definitely to spend more money on your experience. If you want to avoid the party experience and you also don’t want to spend your time away volunteering or couchsurfing, spending a little extra really helps. Bear in mind, many couples and families do travel in South East Asia so there are alternatives to the backpacker scene, and it is still extremely cheap by international standards.


Couchsurfing is not for everyone and most women have some bad experiences with this, but I would recommend this for those who are particularly interested in the cultures of South East Asia. Stay safe by meeting your host beforehand and checking the reviews.


In my opinion, this is the best way to travel. These sites offer work or volunteering for a small number of hours per week in exchange for accommodation and sometimes food and pay, too. Often the work is with children, families or on outdoor
projects, so this is a great way to see a different side to the region. It’s also a great way to build up your CV if you are just starting out your career, due to the fact hosts on these websites offer work experience which can be slightly more difficult to
otherwise gain experience in in your host country (for example, NGO work).


Yoga and meditation retreats are relatively cheap by international standards and usually alcohol free. I have not personally tried this one out yet but I have read others’ experiences of doing this whilst in South East Asia at an older age, and they
have said that it greatly improved their experience by allowing them to meet a wider range of personalities.
Meeting people Ok, so, meeting people. How on earth are you going to meet people, without alcohol involved? Well, luckily for you, I have tried and tested a few ways.

Couchsurfing Hangouts

Although many people use this as a dating app now, the purpose of couchsurfing is to connect with locals and other travellers in the city that you are visiting. You can do this by downloading the app and making yourself available to hang out, and either joining or creating your own activity (for example, “grabbing a few bears” or “going for a walk in the park” etc)

Tinder or BumbleBFF

Maybe you didn’t come out on this trip to date, yet dating apps are one of the most useful ways to meet people whilst travelling. Being able to read a person’s bio allows you to pick and choose personalities you match with and want to hang out with.


There are many subreddits for travellers, such as r/solotravel, r/travel with threads facilitating travel meetups. Some countries even have entire subreddits for tourism, such as r/VisitingIceland or r/JapanTravel. Alternatively, you could check out the
subreddit of the country or city you’re visiting, such as r/London, to meet other travellers or locals.

The old fashioned way

There are many apps designed to help us socialise, but nothing beats the old fashioned way of simply cracking up a conversation with someone on a tour, at your hostel, or whilst out and about. I’ve made some of my fondest connections this way and it is a great method for building confidence.


I realise this probably contradicts everything I’ve been telling you in this article. However, I’d just thought I’d throw this in there to remind you that drinking is not compulsory to partake in nightlife! Take advantage of the relaxed atmosphere to get
to know others or enjoy the music or with the comfort in knowing you’ll wake up early tomorrow with no hangover.

That concludes my tips on enjoying South East Asia, outside of the party scene. In all seriousness, I hope this encourages you to go and visit the region. There are plenty of other ways to enjoy travelling in these countries without alcohol – plus, you save a lot of money