Is it usually better to travel around SE Asia on a pre-planned trip with the itinerary already planned out? Or is it better to do everything on your own rather than through a formal travel agency? Safety is also a consideration with booking it through a company, but I have heard that the flexibility of planning it on your own is nice. I also don't want us to miss out on any potentially great experiences that you might only be able to get through a formal tour group!
It will be a group of 4 females, including myself, as a post-grad trip this coming June. We plan to be travelling for a month, and ideally want to travel on a budget.
It really depends what your main priorities are, seeing lots of places or having more of an experience but not seeing as much.
You will see more on a organised tour because you will be on a set itinerary and see lots of sites and cities.
I think you will have more experiences if you organize it yourself because you will choose the people you travel with and how long you stay in each place but you do risk staying in one location for too long because you enjoy it and not seeing a lot of sites.
There are lots of young backpackers traveling throughout SE Asia so you will make friends at any hostel/guesthouse to travel with who will also help you with plans anyway.
I usually look at organised tours for an idea of timeframe and sites to see, then I copy the tour but do it myself so it's flexible if I meet people I can change plans or adjust how long I spend in each location.
Either way I'm sure you'll have an amazing time.
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Southeast asia is pretty easy to wing it. Tons of internet access, lots of busses, plenty of signs where people speak english. It's also a great place to let the wind blow you where it may-- you'll meet amazing people with great ideas on a town that's worth visiting... So I'd try not to be over-scheduled.
We spent 2+ months in Southeast asia and only once did we have trouble booking something last minute (because there was a huge festival in town).
Note that this extends to air travel as well. Unlike in the US (where same-week plane tickets are painful), quick-hop flights in SEA can be very cheap booked same week (momondo.com and skyscanner.com are way better than Kayak for the region, for what it's worth).
I did a post-grad trip across Thailand and Indonesia a few years back. It was me and my now husband, so we did half the trip solo and half the trip group travel. We started in Phuket and Koh Phi Phi for a week, which was super low key and easy to do on your own. We felt safe and found it really easy to get around using the Tuk-tuks, and it wasn't hard to schedule activities when we were there. We joined up with a group tour (2-weeks) in Bangkok and did trekking up north near Chiang Mai and ending in the south with stops at Khao Sok National Park, Koh Samui, and Koh Tao. It was definitely a budget group tour and we were so glad we did it - we met a TON of amazing people and our local guide was awesome and knew all sorts of off-the-beaten path places to see and things to do. We also had a lot of free time so we didn't exactly feel tied down to a strict schedule. We still keep in touch with the people we met, and our guide and we'd do another tour with him in a heartbeat. After that we flew on to Bali for a week on our own and it was super easy to plan day trips and activities when we were there- the people are very friendly, and as long as you use common sense you shouldn't have any safety issues! I think it's totally about preference - SEA is a great place, enjoy it!
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I haven't traveled extensively across SEA, but you can pretty much plan it on your own. What my friends do is travel by bus across
Cambodia, then end up in
Thailand. There are also cheap airlines like AirAsia and Philippine Airlines that travel across the region if you don't want to travel by bus or boat.
I've been told to avoid
Phuket and go to
Koh Phi Phi instead. But if you want to go to the beach, consider going to the
Philippines and try our white sand beaches in
Boracay Island (very touristy) or
El Nido. Here's a list for you to consider: http://edition.cnn.com/2014/02/13/travel/philippines-best-beaches-and-islands/. We don't have temples (333 years of Spanish rule), but we do have amazing churches and our history and culture is pretty much different from our neighbors.
Good luck with your planning!
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SEA is easy, cheap, and generally safe to travel through- this is why it is such a popular destination for backpackers. I'd say you can plan a rough itinerary to cover the major spots/countries your group collectively decides are absolute must see places, and then just wing the rest.
Don't worry so much about safety in most of SEA. Generally, if you act with safety in mind at home, you'll be o.k. here. If you buy tours and such when you get here, it'll save you lots of $$. The premium of buying things in a packaged tour range from 50 - 500%.
As far as missing out on things, there are some activities that require that you go as part of a tour, though not many come to mind. I'd say, go independent, millions before you have done just that!
Go with the flow is right! When in SE Asia you'll meet travelers just like you on the "SE Asia Tour". You'll be surprised how often you will run into familiar people weeks and countries apart.
There is really no need to book anything ahead. Maybe the first night in a hotel when you land just to get your bearings. But then I would recommend going the hostel route. Even if you are traveling alone, you'll meet people going your way, or maybe you'll go theirs, it's very easy and cheap to explore there.
Please, please, please travel on your own and stay in hostels. This is especially true if you're trying to keep on a tight budget since you can heavily negotiate the prices on everything from snacks to your boat ride to the next island. Staying at hostels will help you make friends and also get great travel advice on were to go and how much things costs.
I spent 3 months in South East Asia and it was the best 3 months of my life. And i did it all completely alone....You can do it!