Southeast Asia is a rite of passage for backpackers, given the dazzling array of places to visit. But if you’re on a shoestring budget and want to discover as many countries as you can, The Banana Pancake Trail is the perfect route.
It’s an introductory trail for a good reason. In fact, many Westerners and Asian backpackers agree that it’s the epitome of budget travel.
The Banana Pancake Trail got its name from the sweet banana pancakes sold abundantly as breakfast to backpackers in the region. Traditionally, the route covers Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia. But the name now serves as a metaphor for Southeast Asian countries that are popular among Western backpackers.
Getting around is smooth, safe, and inexpensive – perfect for beginners and solo travelers. And it also helps that locals have adapted well to the influx of tourists, hence the profusion of accommodations and endless activities to add to your itinerary. While the route is incredibly friendly to all sorts of travelers, there are still plenty of things to know to make the most of the experience.
Allow me to share a few tips to make sure your trip goes well.
Planning Your Trip
Though the Banana Pancake Trail may seem like some well-established route with rules to follow, it basically serves as a guide to open you up to Southeast Asia. Any of the countries I mentioned previously is a good start-off point, and it’s your preference if you want to go where other travelers are going or be spontaneous with your itinerary.
But some degree of planning is still necessary, whether you take the conventional route or not. Long before your trip, consult guidebooks like Lonely Planet and people you may know who’ve been there. It’s OK to consult tour operators, but don’t limit yourself to their recommendations.
Be aware of the visa requirements for each country you’ll visit and have all the necessary documents ready. While the visa rules in these countries aren’t as rigid in other countries, make sure to stay within the allowed length. And to avoid any delays, it’s best to obtain the visas directly from an embassy or consulate prior to arrival.
If you want to stretch your budget, book your accommodations ahead of time. When it comes to this, it’s wise to do your research and compare as many accommodations as you can. I’ve learned that Agoda is the best App to use for Southeast Asia because it has all the best deals and so much variety. While hostels and homestays are the cheapest, include hotels in your search, too. I found that in some locations, you can book hotel rooms with better rates. Just because you’re backpacking doesn’t mean you need to “slum it” to save money. So keep an open mind when it comes to booking a room.
Make sure to pack ultralight, as well. It’s easier and cheaper to move around with a lighter pack, especially if you want an authentic experience. When you hire a scooter or tuk-tuk ride or walk around, the last thing you want is a pack weighing down on you.
Try As Much of the Local Culture as Possible…
…but be responsible. Western tourists often get into hot water because their curiosity gets the better of them and they take part in a local cultural attraction without realizing the implications. For example, a few years ago, I was traveling in Bangkok with a few friends. As we made our way to the Wat Pho temple complex where the famous reclining Buddha is located, I spotted another group of western travelers in the area. They were a bit loud, which is understandable considering their excitement. There’s generally nothing wrong with that, but when they entered the place where the reclining Buddha was, a few of the ladies in the group tried to enter without covering their legs.
Now, I understand that, for some westerners, the heat of Southeast Asia can be oppressive. Never the less, local culture dictates that people show respect to the Buddha. It doesn’t matter if you’re not Buddhist, you MUST respect the culture of the country you’re visiting. Another example of misplaced tourism: elephant rides in Thailand. While it might seem like an exciting and unique experience, please do your research. Many of the elephants they use for these rides are maltreated, and taking part in these rides only perpetuates the abuse that these poor, majestic animals go through every day.
Be a conscientious traveler and take part in the culture of the place you’re visiting, but always show respect, admiration, and appreciation. Never try to dictate to the locals what you think is right, and never go around thinking that your culture is better than others.
Expect Nothing, Appreciate Everything
Southeast Asia is a mixed bag of cultures, so expect to have a dynamic, event-filled trip on the Banana Pancake Trail. Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia became hotspots long before Tony and Maureen Wheeler introduced them to the world. These countries are rich with dazzling beaches, incredible food, charming towns with friendly locals, and many other unique experiences that are accessible to all.
Even with the influx of tourists, these destinations have managed to preserve all these. I’ve heard horror stories of tuk-tuk drivers, tour operators, and vendors overpricing their services or tricking unsuspecting tourists. But I’ve come to accept that these things can happen anywhere. The key is to do your research on the prices, get local insights prior to the trip, and not hesitate to say “no” if you think you’re being charged too much. Wherever you go, it’s normal for locals to charge extra, especially in places where tourism is a primary livelihood. Just be aware of the best tourist prices to make sure you still manage your budget.
Manage your expectations if you don’t want to be disappointed. After all, you’re there to learn and explore new things. Whichever corner of the world I’m in, I find that embracing this mantra really allows for a rewarding, memorable experience. So, when you take to the trail, don’t forget to make friends, soak in the scenery, eat local cuisine, and try to do what the locals are doing. Don’t be afraid to be pushed out of your comfort zone because that won’t take you anywhere. After all, getting local is the best way to stretch your budget.
Finally, be intrepid. After exploring the trail’s mainstays, explore a little further from the tourist spots. The farther you go, the more authentic the experience will be. Thailand, for example, is full of remote places that are not overrun by tourists and where the cost of living is cheaper, but you won’t find all these if you stick to your itinerary. A good map will come in handy, as well as insider tips from locals, or fellow intrepid vagabonds.
With a spirit of adventure and a few dollars in hand, the Banana Pancake Trail offers infinite possibilities. It’s the easiest route I’ve taken, but also one of the best, one that I’d recommend even to the most seasoned traveler.
After graduating from university, Nikolaj went off to backpack across South East Asia to recharge himself for the next chapter of his life. Realizing there was more to explore, he ditched his return flight home and decided to wander some more. While he sees backpacking as an expression of freedom, Nikolaj gets easily attached to a place, and stay there longer than usual. Over the course of three years, he’s had several jobs, usually at hostels where he stays, bookstores, and restaurants. He’s met people from all walks of life and still keeps in touch with them. If he has time to spare, he reads and writes voraciously, much of which is dedicated to this blog.