Southeast Asia is the first place that I went as a solo female traveler. I didn’t know a soul on the other side of the world and I had absolutely no plans, and nothing accompanying me apart from my carry-on backpack.
Though I didn’t know it in my planning stages, it turned out that I couldn’t have picked a more perfect place to backpack alone for the first time.
Not only did its natural beauty stun and amaze me, but I came to find that I never had to be alone there, which was my chief concern. Additionally, it is such high value for the money, it’s safer than other parts of the world, the beaches are amazing, it’s warm year-round, and there is so much to do. Each country has its own unique culture, food, and landscape. I also loved that I could generally plan everything spur-of-the-moment, basing my decisions on who I met and wherever the wind took me.
If you are a woman who travels alone, consider going to Southeast Asia. This guide will help you make the most of your trip there.
The Best Spots in Southeast Asia for Solo Female Travelers:
Though most of Southeast Asia is great for women traveling alone, these spots in particular stood out to me for their welcoming vibes, the cool and laid back travelers they attracted, the feeling of safety, and the gorgeous scenery. This list is by no means exhaustive, but it’s a great place to start:
1. Luang Prabang, Laos
This beloved city in Laos’ north is picturesque and full of things to do. The French colonial architecture, the waterfalls outside the city, the sunset cruises on the mighty Mekong River, the bowling alley that somehow stays open far after Laos’ curfew, and the night market all combine to make this one of the best spots in Laos and all of Southeast Asia for solo travelers.
Though the whole of Laos is fantastic, Luang Prabang in particular impressed me with its beauty and wealth of activities.
2. Pai, Thailand
One thing that makes me love Pai so much is how many interesting, spiritual, and fun-loving people I meet there. Jack Kerouac might call them Dharma Bums.
It’s hard not to love a place where local kids are jumping into the waterfalls right after you, where a land split makes way for hibiscus jam and juice, where each adventure is just a motorbike ride away, and the local beauty is still wild yet accessible. There’s reason why I have been back twice – it’s just a nice place to be.
3. Lombok, Indonesia
Lombok is, in a word, enchanting. This island next to Bali receives far fewer visitors and yet it’s equally, if not even more, beautiful than its famous neighbor. There are stunning waterfalls to admire, beautiful and quiet beaches to relax on, as well as mountains to climb, and nearby small islands (mentioned below) to explore. You can base yourself in Kuta, which is dotted with cute cottages, cafes and yoga studios.
4. Nusa Islands, Indonesia
I’ve logged some time on all of the Nusa Islands, a speed boat away from Bali. The smallest and most popular, Nusa Lembongan, has lots of surf and the Devil’s Tear, and it’s just a motorbike ride away from Nusa Ceningan, with its baby blue water. My personal favorite is Nusa Penida, with its rugged landscape and cliffs above the ocean. Prepare for bad roads, lots of stairs, and the opportunity to experience what Bali was 30 years ago. I love this island! Read my full itinerary for the Nusa Islands here, and don’t forget to check out the treehouse.
While we’re on the topic of islands, the Gilis off of Lombok are worth checking out too, especially if you plan on going to Lombok to check out Rinjani or Kuta. Both Gili T and Gili Air are gorgeous, known for their fantastic diving and snorkeling spots, are affordable, and have a laid back vibe that I love. If you don’t have time for both, read my comparison of the two here.
5. Lonely Beach, Koh Chang, Thailand
Though Lonely Beach on Koh Chang, Thailand’s third-largest island, isn’t so lonely anymore, it’s still a far cry from the crowds you’ll find on Koh Phi Phi or Koh Samui. It’s another diving hub with just one main strip of open-air bars and restaurants along a dirt road. It’s easy to meet people there and it’s also one of the cheapest islands. Here’s a guide with more info.
6. Hoi An, Vietnam
Hoi An’s old town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, sitting on the beach, famous for its delicious food, where you can get custom clothes and shoes made for cheap. Need I say more? Read the guide here.
7. Siargao, Philippines
Siargao is one of few touristy places that I actually love. There’s so much to do there as a solo traveler from surf lessons to day trips like island hopping and the enchanting Sugba Lagoon. You’ve got two main areas to choose from, including General Luna and Pacifico. You can read more about my ideal 5-day itinerary here and read more about the Philippines here.
What to Pack:
Southeast Asia is hot and humid pretty much everywhere you go. So things like jeans don’t make a lot of sense. It is also more on the modest side, so bringing lightweight clothing that covers your shoulders and upper legs is also a good idea, particularly in Malaysia and Indonesia.
I tend to like leaving some room in my backpack for purchases in Southeast Asia. If you want some of the funky tank tops and harem pants, they are much cheaper if you wait until you get there and haggle at the night markets. You can also get your laundry done for real cheap (we are talking about less than $2 for a week’s worth of clothes here) so there’s no need to overpack. Here’s a complete packing list for Southeast Asia.
How to Meet Others:
One of the reasons why I think Southeast Asia is so fantastic for beginner solo travelers is because it is so easy to meet other people. It is as simple as picking a hostel on Hostelworld that you like the description of, and sitting in the common room. You almost have to work hard not to meet other people.
Even if hostels aren’t your thing, I have also met other people on buses, boats, in restaurants, bars, and on diving trips. I generally find that travelers are friendly people and since Southeast Asia has a well-trodden backpacker trail, you can pretty much count on meeting others, even if you’re the shy type.
How to Stay Safe:
Another reason why I love Southeast Asia for solo female travelers is the safety. Though some of the countries do have a bit of political unrest from time to time, it hardly ever affects tourist safety. For example, I was in Thailand a few years ago during the coup d’état and other than a curfew, it was not all-out mayhem like I would have pictured a coup to be.
Your biggest concerns will be bag snatching thieves. They run rampant in the big cities in Vietnam and Cambodia. Usually they target people who have straps that look easy to cut. I have a listing here of bags that are harder to slash and go across the body. It’s also advisable to keep your phone and other valuables hidden until you are in a place where you can safely check them. You can also turn your back towards the buildings and face the street if you absolutely must check your phone, as it makes it harder for thieves on motorbikes, which is their usual method, to drive up behind you and snatch your phone without you seeing them coming. Learn how to protect yourself and practice the same precautions as you would back home. Here are 31 safety tips for solo female travelers from the experts.
The other thing is poisoned alcohol. It doesn’t happen often, but when it does it’s usually all over the news. To avoid this, I would suggest buying beer which is opened right in front of you and is much harder to tamper with. Alcohol also presents a big problem if you drink too much of it, regardless of whether you are at home or abroad. Take it easy, and if you know that you have a problem with limiting your consumption, consider abstaining. I don’t drink (anymore) and I still had an amazing time!
How to Get Around:
If you are confident on a bike, get yourself an international driving permit and you are pretty much set for your trip in Southeast Asia! In most countries, renting a bike is easy and cheap, and often the best way to get around. This should go without saying but always have your helmet on and being in a foreign country does not give you permission to be reckless. I have seen people with bandages everywhere in Southeast Asia – trust me, you do not want that! On that note, it’s taking a gamble to travel without insurance. It’s not that expensive to get travel insurance, and it can cover you if you need to be evacuated, something big happens, or if you need a family member to be flown to your side. I have used World Nomads for the past seven years because I like that their explorer plan covers the activities that I love, like hiking, skiing, SCUBA diving, and a lot more.
What if you are not comfortable riding a bike? Don’t worry, download the Grab app, which is Southeast Asia’s answer to Uber, and again, you are all set. Grab rides are much more reliable and cheaper than regular taxis, you can avoid getting scammed by taxi and tuk-tuk drivers by using Grab. I also like taking local buses, which can be quite confusing as they tend not to have fixed schedules and stops, but you can always check with your hostel and as long as you let the driver know where you want to go, they should let you know when you’re at your stop – this has always worked for me.
For long distance travel, buses and trains are cheap albeit not always comfortable. In countries like Myanmar and Laos, you might encounter hand-me-down buses from Korea and Japan. It is worth the extra $1 to go with a more reputable bus company. In Vietnam, go for Futa Bus; in Cambodia, stick with Giant Ibis; in Malaysia, Aeroline is great. I also highly recommend signing up for AirAsia’s flight alerts. Sometimes, it could be cheaper to fly than taking land transportation. I once bought a flight from Kuala Lumpur to Borneo for $11!
How to Make the Most of it:
Once you arrive in Southeast Asia, it will be easy to see why so many people love coming here and spend years traveling around the region. If you can stand it, try to leave your trip as open-ended and unplanned as possible. Major holidays are a time when you do have to book ahead, but otherwise Southeast Asia is the perfect place to coast without any hard plans.
Food: Go on a foodie adventure! The food in Southeast Asia is absolutely delicious. Portions may be slightly smaller than western standards, but that just means you can try more things. The best food you can find is usually tucked in a small corner, with no English menu. Just order what the locals are having! Now, you’ve probably heard of Bali Belly or Bangkok Belly, aka stomach problems as a result of consuming unhygienic food. Throughout my years of traveling in Southeast Asia, I have never encountered any food-related stomach problems, but it’d be wise to bring some probiotics with you, just in case. My method is usually street food, which sounds like the worst option, but hear me out! Street food is usually cooked right in front of you with items that were bought fresh from the market that day. It’s super cheap, at usually $1 per meal, and I just pick the places that are popular with locals. If they eat there, I can too. In restaurants, you can’t see what’s going on.
When selecting street carts, you should avoid food items that have been left out on the counter for a while – I always try to have my food freshly made. Consider bringing your own cutlery and water bottle. Note that except for Singapore, tap water in Southeast Asia is NOT safe for drinking, though in places like the Philippines, it’s becoming more common for places to offer water from bigger bottles so that you can refill. There are also water machines in Thailand to refill at for dirt cheap. If you are a vegan, here are my best tips on traveling vegan. Tipping is appreciated but generally not expected.
Local Customs: Be respectful of local customs. For example, in Thailand, it is considered rude to point your feet at people. You may not agree with certain local practices, but remember you are the guest and setting an example for your country. Learn a few simple phrases in the local language. I find that a smile, and a simple hello and thank you will make a world of difference.
I go into a lot more detail about how to travel alone for the first time in my book, Conquering Mountains: How to Solo Travel the World Fearlessly. You can also find more resources on my solo female travel page.
I came to find that Southeast Asia is ideal for solo female travelers, or really any kind of traveler at all. It is a fantastic part of the world, welcoming, warm, and easy. I also found it to be incredibly social, beautiful, easy on the budget, and full of friendly people. It groomed me for adventures all over the world, and I will always feel at home there.
So if you get a chance, go there on your own, it’s a fantastic life experience.