There’s a reason why millions of people – avid backpackers and tourists – have been visiting this part of the world so much for the last 50 years, and that reason is – abundance.
Southeast Asia grants an abundance of incredibly diverse countries, cities, and cultures, but also some of the nature’s most alluring wonders. Beautiful beaches, steamy forests, coral reefs, and an incredibly rich wildlife. All this, in a combination with low costs, yummy cuisine, and a good travel network, offers some of the best experiences for even the most adventurous travelers.
Southeast Asia holds a country with the largest Muslim population in the world, but also with the most conspicuous Buddhist regions, and perhaps the most compelling Christian, Animist and Hindu communities in the world.
Southeast Asia is where you can experience it all – and then some. However, it’s unfortunate that most of us will never experience everything that it has to offer, not unless you plan on moving there for good!
That’s the exact reason why I wanted to share this list with you. I wanted to showcase what I think are some of the most noteworthy places to visit in Southeast Asia. So, in order to save you time on researching all the places and points of interest, here’s a summary of the best stuff:
1. Perhentian Islands, Malaysia
Located off the cost of Malaysia, the Perhentian Islands have recently become a very attractive visiting location. They’re made out of multiple islands, but only two are habitable – the Perhentian Besar (Greater Perhentian) and the Perhentian Kecil (Lesser Perhentian).
Whichever you go to, you’ll find yourself amazed by the beauty of their white coral palm-fringed beaches, which lead into the alluring turquoise blue sea. The main language is Kelantanese Malay, but English is widely understood and accepted.
This location is particularly interesting because it can accommodate both the adventurous backpacker and a wholesome family of four as well. Kecil is more common for the partying type, while Besar is more peaceful, quiet, and perhaps more suitable for families with children.
2. Phuket, Thailand
Speaking of islands, Phuket is perhaps the most visited location in all of Thailand, well, perhaps after Bangkok. Phuket provides a wonderful combination of a beach-like perspective, but with a very dynamic nightlife. On top of that, there’s also a prominent hiking scene.
However, it’s also a place where you can go for profound relaxation. Besides taking a swim during the day or partying throughout the night, you’re welcome to enjoy its many shops, restaurants, breathtaking spa resorts or simply relax with a massage on the beach.
3. Gili Islands, Indonesia
It looks like we’re on a roll here – another island! Well, actually, there are three of these. The Gili Islands represent three tiny islands found in northwest Indonesia, close by to Lombok.
While the Perhentian Islands and Phuket seem to try and offer both the relaxation and all the partying, the Gili Islands offer only one of these things. This location is just perfect for anyone looking to get out of all the rush and hassle and just relax and take their time.
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There are no cars, or any other motor vehicles allowed here, and everyone’s expected to travel either by foot, bicycle or by taking a horse carriage. Suffice it to say, relaxation is the primary objective here and you will not be easily disturbed.
Apart from breathtaking beaches and a beautiful sea surrounding it, these islands are also often home to divers and snorkelers, so there is some activity after all. Check out this post from Life is a Trip for more highlights of Indonesia.
4. Chiang Mai, Thailand
Back to Thailand, but not to another island. This time, I take you inland and into a 13-century city, Chiang Mai, which sits on the Ping river, and is surrounded by some of the greatest mountains in Thailand.
Chiang Mai boasts over three hundred Buddhist temples, and is filled with interesting social activities, such as the night market which is known for skilled handicrafts. It’s also home to Thai festivals and all this, and so much more, make it one of the most culturally compelling cities in Thailand.
Some of the most visited locations in Chiang Mai include temples: Wat Umong, Wat Phan Tao, and the Wat Phra Singh. The Royal Park Rajapruek and the Elephant Nature Park are also quite popular.
5. Taman Negara, Malaysia
All of the places I’ve shared so far can be of interest to pretty much anybody, so that’s why I wanted to include something of particular interest. Taman Negara is a national park in Malaysia, and it’s located in the country’s Titiwangsa Mountains.
If you’re someone who really likes to take part in ecotourism, and really want to delve into a tropical jungle, then this is perhaps the most obvious location for you in all of Southeast Asia. Besides hiking through the jungle, crossing movie-like rope bridges, you’re also welcome to enjoy rock climbing, camping, fishing and whitewater rafting.
There’s an abundance of activities in these forests, but only for those with enough endurance. You’ll need a lot of energy to experience everything these mountains have to offer.
6. Sapa, Vietnam
If you’re a fan of trekking, you’ll notice that this quite little town is often used as a base. But besides a good starting point, Sapa is also great for visiting rice paddies, going about traditional villages and seeing various tribes in the hills.
However, if don’t like the idea of going too far out, the tribes will come to you. Different ethnic tribes often gather in the town in order to showcase and offer their handicrafts. But while you wait for your souvenirs to come, you might as well explore a number of French colonial sites. There are dozens of truly amazing hikes all across Asia, visit this post for some hiking inspiration.
7. Hanoi, Vietnam
Hanoi is another place in Vietnam I’d like you to visit. And it’s nowhere remote as Sapa is, not at all. Hanoi is actually the capital of Vietnam, and while there are no hill tribes, there’s a plethora of other interesting things to see and experience.
From the famous open-air museum of historic French and Asian architecture to various art museums and ancient temples, Hanoi is a place of history and wonder. But it’s also a place of fun exploration and learning, as tourists often praise places like the Temple of Literature, the Hoa Lo Prison, the Ho Chi Minh Presidential Palace, and a dozen of other very attractive spots.
8. Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
Kuala Lumpur is not only the capital of Malaysia, but it’s also the country’s most populated city. It’s filled with breathtaking landscapes which boast some of the most beautiful architectural design in the region – such as its famous Petronas Twin Towers.
The whole city is home to culture, wonderful people, and a rich history. If you go, definitely visit the Islamic Arts Museum, talk a walk on the Bukit Bintang bridge, and perhaps the city’s bird park, which is actually the largest aviary in the world.
But that’s even near to what this city has to offer. The Batu Caves, the Thean Hou Temple, the Kuala Lumpur Railway Station… The possibilities and things to see and experience are endless.
9. Angkor, Cambodia
Here’s something that’s going to either pull you in fully or just not interest you at all. Angkor, the capital city of the Khmer Empire, once boasted a thriving population of one million people, and today, it’s an amazing archeological site.
Located in northern parts of Cambodia, the city of Angkor lets you take in some of the most crucial remains of the culture. The site is enormous, but some of the most noteworthy mentions include the main Buddhist temple Ta Prohm, the massive Angkor Wat temple, and all the stone faces of the Bayon Temple.
10. Bali, Indonesia
There are 17,000 islands in Indonesia, and if you’ve ever heard of any one of those – it’s probably Bali. This island is home to multiple little towns, each with their own offerings, such as Kula or Ubud, which are known for their artistic art skills and performances.
Bali is also home to beautiful beaches, exhilarating marine-diverse waters, and colorful forests. Rice terraces and coral reefs are also a part of all this, and at this point, it’s no wonder that this island has been dubbed the tropical paradise.
Some of the noteworthy experiences in Bali include exploring its many temples, trekking up a volcano and wondering about its beaches which are filled with black sand. It’s also a great place for surfers!
11. Ha Long Bay, Vietnam
Ha Long Bay, found in northeastern Vietnam, is the perfect place to visit if you’re looking for relaxing beaches but with a hint of adventure. There are literally thousands of tiny islands all over Ha Long Bay, all in different shapes and sizes.
Not all, but plenty of these islands are home to beautiful lakes and an incredibly rich wild life, where the occupants of floating fishing homes hunt for over 400 kinds of mollusks and over 200 different fish.
Put together, it all looks like a fantasy world, and this is why it got on this list. It’s an amazing place to visit and explore, to take in and be a part of. It’s really one of a kind in this part of the world, and this is what makes it so unique and worth visiting.
12. Bangkok, Thailand
From a simple trading post 500 years ago, to being home to more than 8 million people, Bangkok is the capital of Thailand. While a big part of it no different from any other city, there are however, a number of things you can only see and experience in Bangkok.
Some of the most popular tourist spots in Bangkok include the Chatuchak Weekend Market, Jim Thompson’s House, the Wat Arun, the Grand Palace & Wat Prakeaw, Dusit Palace, and Wat Traimit. And once you’re done going through all that, you might need to take a stroll in Lumphini Park the next day. It’s a great place to relax after exploring the city or going out. Take a paddle boat ride, or simply sit, lie down or even take a nap in this beautiful park.
Singapore is often called a place where the East meets the West, due to the vast diversity of the cultures, sites, and people that it houses. Being a British colony, it doesn’t lack history either, and naturally, this location is home to multiple exhilarating sites to see and things to do.
If you’re into Southeast Asia’s night markets, I’d suggest you visit Singapore’s Chinatown. It features over 200 stalls and offers anything from jewelry, accessories, calligraphy, masks, lanterns and hundreds of other items. You never know what you’ll find here.
But that’s just scratching the surface, its other popular tourist sights include various gardens, museums such as the Buddha Tooth Relic museum, and the city zoo is always fun as well. Then there’s the Raffles Hotel, the Orchard road, the central business district, and much, much more. For more awesome intel on Singapore, check out this post on 25 epic places to visit in Singapore and this excellent guide to Singapore.
14. Small Village, Laos
If you’re more interested in visiting a unique, remote village than a modern city, then you need to head to Laos. Small Village is particularly known for housing over 40 different ethnicities, many of which adhere to their ancestor’s traditions and practices. This makes Laos an amazing place to visit and take in the daily life of people who’ve been here for centuries.
15. Borneo Rainforest, Brunei/Indonesia/Malaysia
The third largest island in the world is called Borneo, and its home to some of the most amazing sights in nature in this part of the world. The Borneo rainforest is home to over 10,000 plants, about 400 bird species, and multiple mammal species, such as the proboscis monkey or orangutans.
If you’re fan of ecotourism, then Borneo must be on your bucket list, as it is believed to provide the best opportunities for experiencing diverse wildlife in the world.
16. Chiang Rai, Thailand
Chiang Mai, which we already covered in this guide, is the much more known Chiang of the two, which is unfortunate because the Rai counterpart has plenty to offer as well!
Found in northern Thailand, Chiang Rai is home to several points of interest, such as the Wat Rong Khun (White Temple), Baan Dam Museum (Black Temple), and the Clock Tower.
Chiang Rai is also an excellent place to try Khao Soi, the typical Thai dish, and the culinary experts here seem to have it just right. After an afternoon snack, you’re likely to visit the Night Bazaar, a market filled with Thai souvenirs, clothing, silk scarves, plenty of handicrafts, and much more at a bargain! Check out this post for a whistlestop guide to Chiang Rai.
17. Sri Lanka
A land with many wonders that often feels as if it’s been hiding in plain sight. Sri Lanka is a wonderful country with gorgeous natural details. Its people are incredibly welcoming, and easily some of the friendliest in all of Southeast Asia.
A visit in one of the holiday villas in Sri Lanka can easily be a wonderful experience. The surrounding rainforests and beaches all feel like treasures that someone had forgotten to unearth.
It’s a very affordable country with plenty of destinations filled with wonders of all kinds, be they man-made or natural, so no matter which part of Sri Lanka you choose you’re bound to have a fantastic time.