Should I bring my tent to Southeast Asia?

Are we still in Lao? Looks the same!Many bicycle tourists will tell you that there’s very little point in bringing a tent to Southeast Asia.

Not everyone agrees with this view, but the advice to leave the tent at home was what we heard most often before arriving in Thailand. We were initially skeptical. Camping had become part of our lifestyle and we tented frequently, both to enjoy the wilderness and to save money. For these reasons, we packed the tent and all the associated gear (sleeping mats, sleeping bags, etc..) on the back of our bicycles.

This turned out to be a heavy and fairly useless load. We toured Thailand, Cambodia, Malaysia and Laos for 6 months and we used our tent precisely twice. Every other night we found a hotel or guesthouse to sleep in. Accommodation almost never needs to run more than $5-10 U.S. a night.

For us, several issues made camping in Southeast Asia unappealing:

  • High population density – There are people everywhere you look and, if they’re not in their homes, they’re outside cultivating every possible square inch of land. Finding a place to put your tent will be your biggest problem.
  • Wildlife – We’re not talking so much about tigers here as insects. We camped once in a forest park in Thailand, which was great until ants ate through our groundsheet and attacked us during the night. When we woke up to the invasion, it took us 3 hours to clean the ants out of everything we owned. There are also many snakes and spiders around, and leeches in the wet season. You can’t just go off into the forest in search of a flat place to pitch your tent.
  • Landmines – This one applies to Cambodia in particular, although Laos also has some areas that are littered with UXO. Because so much of Cambodia is still mined, it would be unwise to go off the beaten path looking for a place to sleep for the night.
  • Campground fees – Where formal campgrounds do exist, mostly in Thailand, you’ll find the fees are so prohibitive that there’s no point. The entry into the best national parks was 400 Baht (about $13 U.S.) per person in 2009, so although the camping itself is cheap the total bill for one person is more than a hotel room! If you want to see the National Park, you might not mind paying the fee, but if you just want to camp it’s a high price to pay. We stopped at a private campground once and found the same situation. There are some free forest parks but they’re hard to locate ahead of time.

For all of these reasons, we wouldn’t bring a tent to Southeast Asia. It’ll just add extra weight and go unused.

What if there are no hotels?

This can happen once in a while, especially because the light doesn’t last long into the evening. Cycling until 9pm – even in the summer – unless you have good lights or a full moon, is out of the question.

You can ask at a wat or temple for a place to stay. The monks will never turn you down. We did this once in Thailand and it was a fascinating experience. Remember to leave a donation for the monastery and don’t abuse this option. Use it only when needed.

Another good idea for the dedicated camper would be to leave the tent but instead bring a sleeping mat or a hammock and buy a mosquito net when you arrive in Southeast Asia. All over the region, you’ll find little huts in the farming fields and rural shelters where you could sleep for the night very easily. You’ll need a sleeping bag if you want to try this high in the mountains of Laos and Vietnam. It can get chilly there.

Another point of view…

The advice to leave your tent at home is only our personal perspective. Some bike tourists disagree with us, including Tyler & Tara. In their experience, wild camping spots were easy to find, and if they returned to Southeast Asia they would definitely bring a tent.

Their advice is that you don’t need camping gear, but you might miss it:

They also point out that a lot depends on how far you like to ride on an average day.

An ideal day for us is 50-70km, but we were regularly riding 80-100+ kilometer days in Cambodia to get from one guest-house to the next — certainly within reasonable reach, but a bit further than we liked to go.