Updated November 30th, 2017.
There are so many amazing places to travel to in South East Asia, but where to start? Do you want to lay eyes on a perfect beach? Get lost in ancient culture and civilizations? Or get off the beaten track deep in the heart of the rainforest? Let us give you a few places that we think you shouldn’t miss! (Thanks to Juan Martinez for the article!)
1. Luang Prabang, Laos
Definitely one of my favorite places in the world. Luang Prabang is located in the north central part of Laos surrounded by amazing waterfalls and beautiful mountains. The journey to Luang Prabang already feels like an adventure, whether you go by bus over windy mountain passes, via the two-day slow boat from Thailand, or by small plane.
Temples tower over the main market in the small city
Whichever way you travel, you will enjoy dramatic mountain landscapes from every angle complete with wild elephants and monkeys! You really start to understand how unspoilt this land-locked country is. Once you’ve arrived in Luang Prabang, you’ll be immediately charmed by a lovely town that’s full of colorful markets, arty cafés, great restaurants serving delicious French/Lao food, colonial architecture and history. Get lost on a rickety bicycle and be sure to pay a visit to the amazing Kuang Si Waterfalls just a tuk tuk ride outside of the city. Read more about Luang Prabang here.
Will you bike there? Beautiful Kuang Si Waterfalls just outside Luang Prabang
2. Bali & the Gili Islands, Indonesia
Bali can be described in four words; Relax, beach, surf and sunset – not a bad start is it? If this sounds like the your idea of a dream trip then what are you waiting for? Located in the west of Indonesia, with Java to the west and Lombok to the east, this paradise on earth is famous for its amazing beaches, breathtaking landscapes, unique Hindu culture (the rest of Indonesia is Muslim) and a notorious nightlife.
Surfing at Dreamland Beach, Bali
Head to southern Kuta for wild parties and surfing, travel inland to Ubud for culture, art, yoga and alternative therapies (made famous by Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love) and visit Amed on the east coast for serenity and great diving. If you’re feeling adventurous you can also tackle some of the island’s volcanoes – such as Mount Batur or Mount Agung. And if all that isn’t enough – just off shore lie arguably some of the world’s most beautiful islands… The Gili Islands – Gili Trawangan, Gili Air and Gili Meno. Read more about Bali here.
Paradise on the Gili Islands
3. Bangkok, Thailand
If South East Asia had a capital, it would definitely be Bangkok – ‘The City of Angels’. This 24-hour, crazy, hot, hectic, pulsating city is located smack bang in the middle of Thailand and South East Asia, making it a perfect place for flight connections all around the continent and the place that most backpackers arrive for their backpacking adventures. With the mighty Chao Phraya River running through it, Bangkok (once known as ‘Venice of the East’) is a maze of canals and waterways making it unique and fascinating to explore by boat, or by foot.
Sellers on the Chao Phraya – floating houses in the background.
From ancient glittering temples and palaces to atmospheric China Town, amazing Chatuchak Market, the crazy traveller bars of Khao San Road and world class spas and hotels – if you’re bored in Bangkok, you’re bored of life! This is a city that never sleeps. On a par with the great cities of the worldl Hong Kong, New York, Paris – Bangkok and it’s unique personality will leave you hungry for more! Read more about Bangkok here.
4. Siem Riep, Cambodia
Siem Riep is the first place that comes to my mind when I hear that someone is going to South East Asia. This small town is located in the north center of Cambodia and is famous for being the primary gateway to the incredible 13th-15th century Angkor Archeological Park, making it obligatory destination if you are traveling around South East Asia. Find out more about Angkor Temples here.
Aside from the famous temple ruins that were the setting for Anjelina’s Tomb Raider, the city itself is a charm! Walk around or hire a bicycle for a few dollars a day and enjoy its scruffy colonial french architecture, learn how to prepare some tasty and delicious Khmer Cusine (my favourite in the world), or check out the central market for interesting souvenirs. Make sure you venture off Pub Street to enjoy a fascinating little city full of friendly people!
Despite tourism, Siem Reap is very poor – villages just outside the city
5. Koh Phangan, Thailand
Koh Phangan is a magical little island in the south of Thailand that backpackers can’t help but fall in love with. Located in the Gulf of Thailand inbetween the equally famous islands of Koh Tao (famous for diving) and Koh Samui (holiday destination), Koh Phangan is remembered for one thing – The Full Moon Party. Originating in the 90s with hippie backpackers raving on the beach under the light of the full moon, the Full Moon Party has become a notorious beach party and thousands of travellers head to Haad Rin Sands every month to dance the night away until Sunrise.
The notorious Full Moon Party
However, there is much much more to Koh Phangan than meets they eye! Koh Phangan is not only for party fiends, this is also a place to relax, dive, snorkel, hike, or expand your knowledge of yoga, meditation, reiki or massage in any number of the incredible schools or alternative therapy outlets on the island. Over the past years, Koh Phangan has certainly become a magnet for hippies and new age types! Read more about yoga and holistic therapy here. The island contains beautiful national parks, beaches and hiking trails as well as some great little restaurants and atmospheric bars! You can easily avoid the tiny destination of Haad Rin and party central and find yourself in a tropical paradise that otherwise you may have written off! Read more about Koh Phangan here.
A more relaxing side to Koh Phangan
Read more about the other side of Koh Phangan in this article – Will the Real Koh Phangan Please Stand Up!
6. Halong Bay, Vietnam
This spectacular place located in the north of Vietnam around 150km (three hour bus ride) from the capital Hanoi is famous for its amazing topography. The jagged limestone karsts once formed part of an ancient coral reef that extends all the way from Guilin in China to Krabi in southern Thailand where similar landscapes can be seen. Taking a tour around the UNESCO World Heritage site is surely one of the highlights of any trip in South East Asia and one of the most beautiful landscapes in the world…
Amazing karst scenery jutting out of Halong Bay
You can take a guided trip where you spend a night on an old Chinese Junk in the middle of Halong Bay or even stay in one of the amazing private islands in the more peaceful, Cat Ba National Park. Check out the best Halong Bay trip for backpackers here! Kayaking amidst the limestone karsts, by floating villages and in and out of the ancient caves is not to be missed! Read more about Halong Bay here.
Fancy staying on Castaway Island?
The Lion City is located south of the Malay Peninsula, this city/state is one of the most expensive countries in South East Asia but that doesn’t stop backpackers heading there. Singapore is clean, modern, expensive and weirdly futuristic. The spectacular ‘Gardens by the Bay’ and Marina Bay Sands Hotel will make you feel like you are in The Jetsons!
Marina Bay Sands Hotel
Immerse yourself in a different side of Singapore wandering around Chinatown or Little India, head out to Sentosa Island and spend a day at the beach, or spoil yourself with a famous ‘Singapore Sling Cocktail’ at Raffles Hotel! This place might feel like the rest of South East Asia but that’s just what’s so interesting! The Malay, Indian, Chinesse and Western colonial cultures that have lived there over the years have created this unique, successful state. Chinatown, Singapore – the best place for Chinese food and beer!
8. El Nido, Philippines
Probably my favorite place in the world, El Nido is located south of the Palawan Island in the west side of the Philippines. This small paradise is surrounded by some of the most beautiful marine life on the planet and is a place you just can not miss during your stay in the Phillippines. No wonder that this is the place that inspired author Alex Garland to write the book of ‘The Beach’ later filmed with Leonardo DiCaprio. The place has a cool backpacker vibe and much opportunity for exploration off shore on any number of the deserted tropical islands. Hire a banca (a traditional Philippine sailing boat and head off into the sunset!)
Sunset on El Nido
9. Jogyakarta, Indonesia
This buzzing city and major tourist destination is located in the southern part of central Java, Indonesia and is a memorable part of anyone’s trip to South East Asia. Surrounded by amazing Buddhist temples and beautiful landscapes, (including extinct and active volcanoes!) this places is a paradise for adventurous travelers.
The world’s largest Buddhist temple, Borobodur, Indonesia
Prices here are probably the half of the rest of South East Asia and the activities to do are countless; walk around the beautiful town of Jogyakarta, enjoy a relaxing (and very cheap) spa day or get dirty with an intrepid day of trekking in the mountains and volcanoes. Home to the famous Ijen Sulphur Mines and spectacular Mount Merapi. Read more about Java here.
Mount Merapi Volcano, Indonesia
10. Bagan, Myanmar
All I can think when Bagan comes to my mind is that this must be the most beautiful place to watch a sunset in the world. Much less visited than the temples of Angkor, this spectacular temple complex, consisting of over 4,000 temples was built between the 11th and 13th centuries. Read more about Bagan here. It’s a photographer’s paradise!
The temples of Bagan, Myanmar
Located in the central region of Myanmar, the area was only opened for tourism in 2009 so the area is still in many ways untrodden. You can still find a temple to climb at sunset and watch the sunset without another person in sight! Enjoy scorching hot days cycling amidst amazing ruins watching hot air balloons float over the landscape, wander around countless pagodas and find hidden places without a single tourist. Bagan should be on your bucket list of places that you should visit in your lifetime!
About the writer: Juan Martinez is a Colombian who left his home country in 2009 at the age of 17 years old. Since then, he has been living in places like Germany, India and Singapore; something that inspired him to travel as many countries as possible with the idea of budget travelling and promoting Colombia as an amazing travel destination. Follow Juan’s blog or check him out on Facebook – Traveler’s Buddy to get daily updates of articles, tips and other travel stories.
South East Asia Backpacker's Chosen Resources!
"These are the companies that we put our trust in during our travels in Southeast Asia. If you're going to book flights, hotels or buy travel insurance, please support our website by using the affiliate links below. That way, we'll receive a small commission - at no extra cost to you!" (Nikki & Dave - SEA Backpacker Editors)