How To Plan A Cross-Country South East Asia Trip
Planning a trip to one country can be overwhelming. You have to look for a place to stay in; book cheap flights; and research where to eat, what to do, and where to go. But planning a trip to three (or more) countries? It's a whole new level of crazy. Even for someone who loves to research for trips and make itineraries (i.e, me), planning my cross-country trip to three South East Asian countries was a challenge. If you're thinking of doing the same, this post might help. Read on!
Believe it or not, this was my first time to go abroad which is why I gave myself a year to plan and save up for it. At first, I thought of visiting five countries: Singapore, Malaysia, Cambodia, Thailand, and Vietnam. But I decided to save Thailand and Vietnam for a separate trip because I wanted to stay there longer. So I focused on planning for the first three countries.
A word of caution though, this post isn't the " How To Go On A Cross-Country South East Asia Trip for XX Thousand Pesos Only" kind. I'll only let you guys know the ballpark figures of how much money you're probably going to need and an estimation of how much my friend and I have spent. You see, there are many different types of travelers. Our budget might not be ideal for you and the list of places we went to might not appeal to you too. This is simply a guide that you can use when researching for your trip.
Also, to get this out of the way, we didn't book any organized tour. Not that we have anything against it, but we simply wanted to go to places at our own pace. With organized tours, you don't have a lot of freedom and you have to keep other members of your group in mind. But if you want to lessen the hassle of planning, organized tours are the best option especially if you're going in large groups.
Now, if you're still up for a DIY trip, let's move on to the next part!
Where do you want to go?
This is one of the most important questions you have to ask yourself before planning your trip. Do you want to go to Singapore and then Malaysia? Or maybe you want to go to Thailand, Cambodia and then Vietnam? What route are you thinking of taking? Do you want to do a land trip? Or riding planes is a much better option for you?
Going from Singapore to Malaysia is easy via a land trip. The same is true when you're thinking of going from Thailand to Cambodia and then to Vietnam.
If you're still unsure of where to go, like what Camie said, "Google is your best friend." I use the search engine for almost everything! I type in questions like "How to go from Singapore to Malacca?" and "How to book a bus for Malacca to Kuala Lumpur?" I can't stress this enough: Google will help you a lot.
Here's what we did:
My friend and I wanted to go to Singapore first, then Malaysia and Cambodia. Knowing that it was possible to travel to Malaysia via bus (and that we can still do a side trip to Malacca), we booked buses from Singapore to Malacca and then from Malacca to Kuala Lumpur instead of catching a flight. It was a cheaper option and also, we wanted to experience riding a hop-on and hop-off bus.
Then from Kuala Lumpur, we booked a flight to Siem Reap because it was the fastest and most convenient option. Doing a land trip from KL to Siem Reap is possible too (via train and bus), but you have to go through Thailand and that wasn't part of our plan anymore.
So the route that we took was:
Cagayan de Oro to Cebu ✈ Cebu to Singapore ✈ Singapore to Malacca City, Malaysia 🚌 Malacca City to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia 🚌 Kuala Lumpur to Siem Reap, Cambodia ✈ Siem Reap to Manila, Philippines ✈ Manila to Cagayan de Oro ✈.
How long are you planning to stay?
The countries in the ASEAN region are visa-free for Philippine passport holders, but for a specific period of time only. Not all countries have the same rules when it comes to your duration of stay. In Singapore, for example, Filipinos can stay for up to 30 days. But that doesn't apply when you visit Vietnam where Filipinos are only allowed to stay for 21 days. It's good to do a little research about this, especially if you're thinking of going away for a month or maybe a year.
Here's what we did:
We wanted to stay in Singapore for 3 full days; in Malaysia for another 3 full days, and Siem Reap for 2 full days. This is excluding the days spent on traveling from one country to another. In total, we were away for 12 days. This is how we counted it:
DAY 00 - Cagayan de Oro to Cebu to Singapore
DAY 01 - Singapore
DAY 02 - Singapore
DAY 03 - Singapore
DAY 04 - SG to Malacca
DAY 05 - Malacca
DAY 06 - Malacca to Kuala Lumpur
DAY 07 - Kuala Lumpur
DAY 08 - Kuala Lumpur
DAY 09 - KL to Siem Reap
DAY 10 - Siem Reap
DAY 11 - Siem Reap
DAY 12 - Siem Reap to Manila to Cagayan de Oro
Now, let me emphasize this: never ever overstay your welcome. It's risky because these countries have unforgiving laws. If you're thinking of studying abroad or looking for a job, do it the legal way. Apply for a visa!
For a complete and detailed list of visa-free countries for Filipinos, you can check out this blog post by the Two Monkeys Travel Group.
The Nitty-Gritty Details
I consider this as the "bloodiest part" of the planning. I've lost count of the number of sites I've visited and articles I've read. My Google search history and bookmarks tab will prove how crazy I was with knowing and taking note of almost every teeny tiny detail. It pays to be ready, you know haha!
This part can be overwhelming, but take it easy by working on it one section/category at a time 😉
Depending on the type of traveler you are, the list of places to stay is endless. For me, there are only three things that are like my "criteria" whenever I look for a place to stay in anywhere I go: price, location, and reviews. The place's rate has to fit my budget. It should be located near most of the spots I'm going. And most importantly, it has to have good reviews and is rated at least 3 out of 5 stars.
There are booking websites like Agoda that will help you look for hotels and hostels depending on your budget. If you prefer to stay in a local's place for a reasonable price, booking a room through AirBNB is a good idea. I suggest booking an entire home or apartment if you're traveling in large groups since it's a cheaper option compared to booking family rooms in a hotel. I personally have used both websites and didn't have a bad experience yet (and hopefully not ever!).
Here are the places we stayed in:
Singapore: We knew that Singapore is going to be pricey so our budget for our accommodation was pretty tight. We stumbled upon 60's Hostel and decided to book beds there. It's a budget-friendly place and is great for solo travelers. It's a hostel so it means you'll get to share the room and the amenities with other travelers. If you don't mind that at all, then this place is perfect for you.
60's Hostel is reasonably priced. We paid Php 885 (17.70 USD) each per night and it already includes breakfast. What I love about the place is that they have washing machines, dryers, and iron that you can use. Also, they have a water heater in their shower; a drawer (with a lock and key) under the bed; and curtains all around the bunk beds to keep your privacy. Not bad for its price!
Malacca: This time around, we stayed in a room that we booked through AirBNB and it's our first time to do so. We stayed at Voyage Cottage Lodge and all the hard-to-miss spots in old town Malacca were several steps away from this place. Not to mention, it was located right in front of the Malacca River and has a charming cafe that serves heavenly Margherita pizza. Andrew (I'm guessing is the owner) and the rest of the staff was super friendly and nice too. We paid around Php 700 (14 USD) per night for a twin-bed room, breakfast is excluded.
Kuala Lumpur: Our room in KL is probably the best place we've ever stayed in during this entire trip. Again, we booked it through AirBNB and we paid Php 857 (17.14 USD) per night. Breakfast is excluded but we can cook in the kitchen if we wanted to. We stayed in Sky Vista Residences. We shared the unit with three other people: Bernard (the owner), Isaac and his dad who are also renting rooms. It's located a bit far from the downtown area but it was nice because I loved the peace and quiet.
Since we were staying in a condo, we had access to the building's facilities like the infinity pool, sauna room, and gym. Commuting was a bit challenging because of the building's location but we still managed because of ride-hailing apps like Grab and Uber. There's a train station that's a few minutes away but we didn't try it because we relied on Grab haha.
The best part about our stay at Bernard's place? The gorgeous view of the Kuala Lumpur skyline that we got to see day and night!
Siem Reap: We stayed in a twin room with our own bathroom at Owl Inn (which we booked through AirBNB again) for Php 669 (13.38 USD) per night, breakfast not included. The place was several meters away from the Angkor Night Market and Pub Street. They have a small cafe downstairs where we worked and ate. Also, they have adorable fluffy doggos!
What I disliked about our stay was the bright yellow light inside our room. We had to turn the bathroom lights on and open the door to let the white light inside all the time. Nevertheless, it was a great place to stay especially for its price, location, and cleanliness.
If you're thinking of booking a place through AirBNB, use my link to get Php 1, 600 (30 USD) travel credit!
There are tons of options when it comes to transportation. From trains, buses, taxis, private cars booked through ride-hailing apps, and tuk-tuks, to airplanes, boats or even ships — for sure there's at least two or three of these modes of transportation available in every country you're going to visit.
If you're going to Singapore, one of the inexpensive and easy ways to go around the city is through their trains. You have to buy an EZ-Link card from ticket offices inside any train stations for SGD 12. You can also use it for a lot of things aside from riding trains and buses (more info on where to buy the cards and where it can be used is all in the FAQ section of their website).
In countries where there are no mass rapid transit systems or ride-hailing apps like Cambodia, there are tuk-tuks, taxis, and vans available.
When you're traveling from one country to another, there are several ways of doing this. If land trips sound okay to you, you can book buses through websites such as EasyBook like we did. Rome2Rio can help in figuring out how to get from country A to country B too and you can book tickets directly on their site.
Of course, there are flights available. In the event when there are no promo airfares yet, you can search for cheap flights and book it through SkyScanner.
What To Do & Where To Go
Now, this part can be very stressful. Most people try to fit as many places as they can in their itinerary without thinking that they need to take a breather in between the spots they're visiting. Don't be that kind of person. Chill besh!
The strategy that worked so well for me when it comes to deciding what to do and where to go is this: first, I research all the spots and activities that interest me (The best search engine to use for this is Pinterest!) and then I list them all down in one Google Document. I label each place as "can't miss" if it's a must-go place like the Angkor Wat or the Petronas Twin Towers; "eat/drink" if it's a cafe or restaurant; and so on.
Second, I do another round of search again. This time I make sure to take note of their location, ticket prices (if it's required), opening and closing hours, and reviews. If it's a cafe or a restaurant, I look through their Facebook page or Instagram account and check out their menu (Zomato usually has cafe/restaurant menus) so I'd get an idea of how much money to allocate for that place.
Lastly, I go through my list and look them up on Google Maps to check how far they are from each other and how long it will take to go from point A to point B. Then I cross off the places that aren't worth visiting anymore. Also, I make sure to group spots according to neighborhoods/districts/areas and as much as possible, I try to visit the farthest places first so I won't go back and forth.
How much money should I spend? How much money should I bring with me during the trip? The answers to these questions depend on the country you're going, the duration of your stay, your accommodation, your transportation, and the activities you're thinking of doing.
For the three countries and four cities that we visited, here's an estimation of our expenses (computed per person):
Airfares (Cebu Pacific & AirAsia flights) - Php 12, 600 (252 USD)
Bus fares (707 Inc & Mayang Sari Buses) - Php 1, 550 (31 USD)
Accommodation - Php 6, 700 *including AirBNB fees (134 USD)
TOTAL = Php 20, 850 (417 USD)*November 2017
Please note that we only scored two promo airfares for this trip: our Cebu to SG and KL to Siem Reap tickets. The rest are regular/year-round fares, which is why our Siem Reap - Manila tickets cost around Php 6K per person.
The prices for airfares, bus fares, and accommodation changes drastically. I suggest booking your plane and bus tickets, and accommodation at least two months in advance since I found out that it's a hella' lot cheaper that way. Also, keep your eyes peeled for promo airfares! Follow their social media accounts and enable notifications so you'll get first dibs whenever they announce their promos.
When it comes to daily living costs, you have to set your budget depending on the country you're going. Do a quick Google search and for sure there are tons of articles about this. For us, we set Php 2, 000 (40 USD) as our budget for Singapore, but for the rest of the countries, we only set Php 1, 500 (30 USD). This includes our budget for extra stuff other than food and transportation.
Don't forget to set aside money for an emergency fund too! You'll never know when it'll come in handy. It's best to bring extra than to run out of money. Most ATMs outside the Philippines deducts a large fee when you use your PH debit card to withdraw from their machines.
EDIT: Also, when you're bringing cash to another country, be careful about the amount. Most countries have a maximum limit to how much cash you can bring. Do a quick Google search about how much cash you're allowed to bring to another country before leaving. Most countries usually have around 40,000 to 50,000 pesos limit. Any amount you bring beyond that should be disclosed in customs when you arrive in the country you're going. For more info, read this forum in TripAdvisor.
The best way to go about this is to bring only cash that you will be needing right away when you arrive in the country you're going to. Then leave the rest of your budget in your debit card or credit card. Call your bank (before leaving the Philippines or your home country) and let them know that you will be doing international transactions during a specific period of time.
Ahh... we're almost at the end of this blog post! Are you still there? Haha here are some tips that I've learned while I was planning and enjoying my cross-country trip to hopefully help you out!
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- Use Google Documents to make your itinerary - I've abused this free tool during my planning stage since it's super easy to make changes and sharing the file with my friend was a breeze.
- Download helpful apps - Apps like Grab, Uber, Waze, Google Maps, and offline maps will come in very handy when you're out there. There's a huge chance that some drivers don't know how to get to a particular place, so if you have the address plotted on Waze or Google maps, you can show it to them.
- Buy a local sim card and load it up with data or rent a pocket wifi to stay connected always
- Bring copies of important documents other than your passport and plane tickets - Okay so generally you're only required to submit your passport and plane tickets (both your departure and return tickets) to immigration officers, but it's best to bring copies of important documents too. These documents can be Certificate of Employment, Leave of Absence, recent Bank Statement, company IDs, latest Income Tax Return, and client contracts (if you're a freelancer like me).
Immigration officers have the power to stop you from getting on your flight or deny you entry in the country if they catch a red flag about you and/or your trip. They're trained to be meticulous so it's best to have documents to present whenever they ask for it. Keep in mind though, only give them documents when they ask for it. Don't present anything if they don't require it. Also, answer their questions confidently and don't ever lie to their faces haha!
For my case, I was only asked to present all my plane tickets and wasn't questioned about my occupation or why I was traveling alone (my friend already went ahead of me lol). I've read horror stories about how they were offloaded because they didn't have proof that they are employed or they were subjected to secondary inspection because they were traveling alone.
For tips on how to avoid being offloaded, this blog post by The Poor Traveler have tons of them.
- Don't overpack! - I know it's very tempting to pack your entire closet into one luggage but you'll most likely regret it once you're out there. Not only will it be expensive (since you have to pay for baggage when it weighs over 7 kilos), it will be difficult lugging it around because of its weight. Bring only clothes that go well with the rest of your stuff. Basic shirts in neutral colors and bottoms that you can pair with anything are the best ones to bring. Also, leave space for souvenirs, clothes or other stuff you're going to buy!
- Never book flights that are too close to each other's arrival and departure time - If you're booking a connecting flight on your own, never ever chose the one with a departure time that's close to your previous flight's arrival time.
For example, our expected time of arrival for our Siem Reap to Manila flight was 2:55AM so I booked a 6AM Manila to Cagayan de Oro flight just in case the previous one gets delayed. It's so much better to wait than to run like hell to your next boarding gate or worse miss your flight!
- Respect the country's religion, tradition, and cultural practices - You're not in your home country anymore so rules and regulations are totally different to what you're used to so be respectful. Generally, just be a good person regardless if you're traveling to a new place or not.
There you have it, folks! I hope this guide will help you in planning your own cross-country South East Asia trip. Let me know if this has helped you too! I'd love to read all about your stories. Also, if you think I've missed out on several details and if you have travel tips that you want to share, don't hesitate to drop them all below in the comments section.
Good luck and I wish you more travels! 🌏