Wild Camping in South East Asia: How-to Guide & Tips

Jan Brelih

Jan Brelih

Explorer, Author & Audio field recorder

Southeast Asia, a highly-populated place with thick jungle, full of crawling spiders, deadly insects and dangerous predators? Last place you would think to wild camp. Or is it? How can you really do it in such an exotic place? Welcome to the rare guide of wild camping in SE Asia. With useful tips from an ordinary guy that did it.

I traveled to SEA with intentions to experience authentic local life, discover nature and have a meaningful journey. My mission was to explore and document remote areas (through sound & film) while wild camping for the most part. By now, traveling this way has become already quite an ordinary routine for me. I practiced it around Europe and North Africa in forests, beaches and even urban areas. But can I (or you) do it in SEA also? Well, by seeking answers on the internet, most likely not! But as always — let’s try anyway.

Here, you will not find information about the legal aspects of wild camping in SEA countries. To be honest, i was never really familiar with the local laws but i believe there is no true enforced rules that would specifically prohibit a traveler to wild camp – except in some strictly protected nature areas. For me, everything went good and believe for you can go too – as long you do it in the right way. During all 5 months traveling many different countries, i did not encounter any officials giving me any trouble, in fact, sometimes they were even happy to help. But hey, that’s my experience.​

Also, I want to let you know that the style of this article tends to be focused mainly on providing raw, practical information and knowledge that I learned during my activities. It might not be a dreamy or convincing read intended to inspire a person that never even thought of doing something like this – but more somebody who is already a bit into this kind of adventures. Although (wild) camping can be also very comfortable and “instagram like” – do not expect to find this way of talking here :)

Although saving money is one nice side effect of wild camping, this article is not focused on “we want all for free” kind of travel but really on experiencing Southeast Asia natural places and countryside freely with chance to immerse yourself into adventure and authentic local life. That`s why i do it.

SELECT YOUR ENVIRONMENT

I believe camping in SEA can be possible for almost anybody. In general, i found wild camping in the North; Vietnam, Laos, Thailand to be really easy — mountains, riverbanks, farming areas, national parks. For most of the time, i had no trouble finding good places. The more South i went, the more tricky it became. As for one side, there is a higher possibility of densely populated places and on the other side, a plain wilderness or impenetrable vegetation. Of course don’t take this as a rule, trust me, great places can be found all around SEA and here you can find out how.

An official camping ground in one of Borneo`s national parks in Sarawak, Malaysia. The fee for using camping grounds here was around 1€ per night.

1. City, densely populated urban areas

Mostly difficult, annoying and not fun. If your goal is to travel from one city to another mostly through tourist, highly populated areas and not paying for accommodation… Than wild camping may not be the right choice for you. I have done this a few times but it was not easy and I felt much more unsafe than all alone deep in the jungle. In my opinion, this takes away the point and magic. When traveling through these areas I would suggest you book a room (it can be really cheap) or staying with locals if friendly.

2. Coast, beaches, islands

I remained mostly at inland areas but also spend some weeks at the coast. Wild camping at the South East Asian coast turned out to be actually really great & easy — always feeling most relaxed and safe. Being in these areas i met some friendly local people and fishermen. Once i was even invited for a local beach fish BBQ. So definitely suitable for most adventure seekers.

In Central Vietnam, near Bach Ma national park there is a long, lonely sandy coast where for the first time I could finally enjoy the moment with peace, without feeling hassled by people.

In Malaysia, Langkawi island i have walked and hitchhiked all over the island for 2 weeks while easily wild camping every night without any issues.

In Bali, i was wild camping on remote and even famous beaches (next to fancy resorts) for 2 weeks straight without any issues. I met many nice people. I’m sure there are many other great coastal areas all around SEA especially on the islands.

3. Countryside, farming areas

Once you get out of the city mess, things start to get calmer. In countryside, farming areas you can find many vast fields with nobody around or, if you see some local farmer you can ask (or show) if it is ok to stay for the night. In Vietnam, some 15km walking from Sapa, i did exactly that. Wondering through rice fields and at the end was invited into an authentic family farmhouse where they offered me food cooked on an open fire and even their own bed! All without demanding or even want accepting any money. It was the most unexpected and authentic local homestay.

Language can be a barrier but don’t be scared to try to approach locals with a smile. In most cases, good things come out of it. On the other side, I also encountered some villages where people were less open and inviting or areas that were not suitable for camping. It really can depend on the various factors which we, visitors, usually cannot predict. In this case, i just moved on soon. I camped in countryside areas mostly when on the move. I’m happy I did it as I had a chance to experience and was invited into a local lifestyle on a few different occasions. Pure experiences money cannot buy. Favorite parts for this environment was the North countryside parts of SEA (North Vietnam, North Thailand, Laos).

4. National parks camping grounds

In most SEA national parks I’ve been (around 15 in Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia), It is officially not allowed to just freely wild camp in the forests, although not impossible. The good news is that most of the parks actually have really nice designated camping grounds for you to camp. This my was my biggest surprise. Going national parks can really be a great way to start doing these activities. official campgrounds are usually very cheap (1–3€) or even for free — although 3 of 15 parks i visited did not offer even “normal” camping. In this case, you need to book a basic (about 10€) accommodation in the park.

Always try to find information about the specific park to be sure. As already said, camping in these national park campgrounds is a very good starting point for you to start wild camping in SEA. You are basically in the stunning wilderness but still, there are some people around and even some basic facilities (like a toilet or mini-market). You might meet friendly rangers, park workers and in some cases a lot of tourists or local people camping as well. In many cases, I have chosen such a “off the beaten path” national park that i was there all alone together with park officials — or sometimes just two guys in a bamboo hut cooking rice and eggs. That made the experience feel even more authentic.

Some of the best memories I have are from “hidden” national parks. In Thailand one park ranger even invited me to stay in a very unofficial accommodation, one of their rooms!

5. Wilderness (hills, mountains, jungle)

It can be the most amazing and rewarding but really suitable when you have a bit more experience. I did in in Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonesia. Feeling the raw life that is Nature and being exposed to all elements. I’m not and don’t have myself for a professional outdoor expert, All the skills that i gained was by just doing of wild camping on a regular basis. Starting in a familiar environment (local forest) and gradually taking it further to the point where I can now feel ok to sleep alone in the wilderness. It is like riding a bicycle, first you learn to stay up and not fall then one day you might go downhill with it. I find it also be an interesting challenge giving the opportunity to face our human fears of pure wilderness, which  basically used to be our home. (More specific about this in my next blog post).

Taman Negara national park, Malaysia — Nighttime. Wild camping at the riverbank, 3 hours walking into the jungle.

SELECT YOUR EQUIPMENT

So i guess you already have a backpack, you wild backpacker. Next thing, you may want to invest in some other equipment that will eventually come to good use while wild camping in SEA.

HAMMOCK: it can be done from bamboo but you might want some more modern shelter to keep you from outdoor elements ;) For tropical environments like SEA, i would suggest you getting a hammock. Some types can be also used on the ground as a bivi tent. Be sure to get one with included tarp to make it waterproof or you will need to get a separate one and some extra ropes to set it up.

SLEEPING PAD: With a hammock, you will want to have some pad. A good pad makes sleep more comfortable and can protect you from cold nights. Yes, believe it or not even in SEA in the North it can get pretty cold and wet at night.

SLEEPING BAG: If you stick in the North of SEA, especially in the wintertime the temperature can drop as you would never expect in a tropical place. In this case, a good, warm sleeping bag can save your night’s sleep. Otherwise, a cheap, summer sleeping bag will be fine and can be always useful.

PILLOW: The top important thing to make your camping experience enjoyable in longer-term, because you deserve a good sleep after a long day!

RAINJACKET OR PONCHO: If the rain comes and you are out there, it is smart to keep dry. Good waterproof jackets can be expensive. A cheaper good alternative is the good old poncho. You might look funny to somebody but it will serve the purpose good. The poncho can also cover your backpack (big plus right?)

CLOTHING: Good hiking shoes, long pants with pockets, shirt with adjustable sleeves, good socks and a hat for the sun. All can serve you well in this environment.

COOKING POT: If you will stay near more populated areas you might not need to make your own food but if you want to stay in the wild for many days having some kind of cooking system is a good idea.

WATER FILTER: Very good to have. I managed to survive SEA with rarely buying bottled water in all 6 months. How is this possible? Well, I was in the countryside where you find some little streams (above villages) or forests, jungles. Most times I used a small water filter to filter the water to drink and sometimes i even drink straight from the mountain stream. At the end, I always filled my two stainless steel water bottles.

RECHARGEABLE FLASHLIGHT: When the dark comes it is good to have a good flashlight that you can count on.

POWER BANK: An essential tool to charge your phone, flashlight or camera batteries while you are on the move many days.

POCKET KNIFE: I believe knives are illegal in most SEA countries. But i carried a small Swiss knife and never got bothered or questioned about it. I passed many borders.

WALKING STICKS: With a backpack full of stuff, walking sticks can help hike long distances or trekking on the mountains. They even might be used as a simple weapon (dogs) or useful tool for whatever reason like supporting a tarp for shelter.

OFFLINE MAPS: You should never count on technology 100% but some good offline maps can help you finding and staying on otherwise hidden trails. I used Backcountry PRO it is an app to purchase but it is diverse with many helpful capabilities. Actually to be honest, without Backcountry app I would miss many hidden amazing places or have much more difficulty finding them. The trails are usually very precise and it can make a difference between finding an actual place or just wondering.

One night in North-West Thailand with two friends.

MALARIA AND OTHER TROPICAL DISEASES

The best is to know how to avoid the situation, then how to solve it afterward. Wear long sleeves and pants, light clothing, get a spray. Actually, in some areas I visited in the North was far less mosquitoes than expected. Other than that, i don’t want to be any specific on this topic, as i don’t have any really concrete and certain information. You might be bizarre enough to come so far reading these risky camping activities but on this one, really, don`t ask me. I went to SEA totally without any vaccines. I wild camped in jungles, drank filtered water from the streams and ate local food for 5 months straight. I stayed completely healthy and strong, not even a diarrhea… Until I came back to my home town in Europe and went camping in the local forest — I got ticks that infected me with the Lyme disease which almost killed me. I was in the hospital for 2 weeks and was after recovering for almost 1 year.

BEWARE OF LANDMINES

As you might know, some of the SEA countries (Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia) are in some areas still full of potentially lethal, dangerous landmines. Therefore always keep that in mind, be careful, inform yourself about the area and don’t go off track just everywhere​.

EXPECT TO BE UNCOMFORTABLE

I don’t want to draw you away from traveling this was but sorry, just being honest. I don`t want to tell you only about idealistic bogus dream picture of travel. Real life wild camping is not just about dreamlike moments that you might imagine or see on Instagram. Many times, you will be uncomfortable. Of course It depends a lot on where and how you will choose to do it. Obviously wild camping on the beautiful beach or in the tropical forest can be very different.  But being sometimes uncomfortable is a charm of this kind of travel which makes you appreciate more your modern everyday comfort that we usually today take so much for granted. At the end when the adventure is over, it’s all totally worth it and you learned alot! (new blog post coming on tips how to stay more comfortable during travel).

Central Vietnam, Bach Ma National Park. After 3 days of wild camping in the mountain forests with no break of rain. Walking 17km back down to the valley while still raining did not help the morale at the moment but looking back now — what an amazing place i’ve been and time i had!

JUST GET A ROOM OR GO VOLUNTEERING

Didn’t expect that? ;) Well, i admit in all 5 months time i did “cheat” a bit and also got a room. Ok, i understand there probably aren’t many weirdos out there that would plan to wild camp in SEA for so long anyway, but still. Sometimes it is just smart to get a room and a break from crazy adventures. In one period, i fall into a routine to forcefully wild camp all the time everywhere. Of course, if you count 100% on wild camping while coming unknown places, there might be some moments when you will not do it becaouse you want but because you need. But If this becomes a repeating thing out of necessity instead out of wish then eventually, it takes away the joy of it.

 

LISTEN TO YOUR FEELING

Brain, the most powerful human tool ever? Use common-sense, consider your abilities, be aware of surroundings, think positive — my best advice to succeed in whatever you do. In the forest, there can be many sounds which might sound intimidating to a person that doesn’t know what’s there, but once you learn them and get used to them it is really enjoyable. Most fears of the wild are in our minds, crafted from all the movies we watched. You can choose to be smart, always observe what is going on around you and act accordingly. Until today I have never encountered any bad or very dangerous situation while wild camping and you can do the same. I was never trained or instructed by anybody.

Sunset at a remote beach in Bali — A perfect example of a dreamy, comfortable wild camping experience!

HAVE FUN

At the end, just don’t stress too much and keep an open mind for new experiences. Even if this is your first time doing wild camping if you put into practice some of the above tips and make a basic plan, you should be fine and have the adventure of your lifetime! There will be ups and downs like everywhere but once you overcome the initial fear and get into the feeling, wild camping can be more simple than booking a room — but with higher satisfaction and more extraordinary, unforgettable experiences.

Beach in Bali. End of the trip.

There surely might be something i forgot to mention here and might left some basic question unanswered to a person which never did something like this. I`m happy to answer any questions. Also, there is new upcoming content where I’ll be going into details and specific aspects of my outdoor experiences. Stay safe.

Some other Asia wild camping articles:

This one can be useful:
https://wanderingourworld.com/2019/04/29/wild-camping-southeast-asia-rules-every-country/

This one is for when you need a good laugh:
http://travellingtwo.com/resources/southeast-asia/tent

Just to let you know, this is not an official guide to camping in Asia. Wild camping can be easy and fun but there are always some possible dangers or risks involved, some maybe not mention in here. I am not telling you what to do or what not to, I am only sharing with you my story and some of the practical information on what I did.

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Eddie
Eddie
2 years ago

The best part of jungle exploration, wild life and nature in the entire Malaysia is Sabah – and yes you decided to skip it and opted for less.

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