If you’re looking for the best places to visit in Southeast Asia, then you may have already stumbled upon quite a few ranked listicles. Most of these feature the same 10 or so most iconic sites, which is kind of a bummer.
What I thought I’d do instead is share my overall take on each country in Southeast Asia, which could then help you jump off into further research on countries or regions that you like the sound of. This is really the best method for finding interesting places that aren’t yet in all the top 10’s!
While I’ve not been everywhere (has anyone?), I’ve traveled the region for a combined 14 months on trips from 2013 to 2019.
Other recommended posts
This article is mostly about where to travel, but I’ve also written plenty about how to travel in Southeast Asia. While you’re here, you might not want to miss these other resources for planning a trip to Asia:
Awesome starter country!
Cheap flights to Bangkok, Koh Chang archipelago, Mae Hong Son, Khao Sok national park, amazing tourist infrastructure, incredible food, fun, party central
Hella touristy in most places, party central
I still remember what it was like to arrive in Bangkok for the first time. The temples, the neon lights, the smells of cooking oil from street food vendors, the tuk-tuk taxis whizzing past… it was like stepping into a whole new world.
Even though my heart now beats faster for more offbeat destinations, I have to recognize what an amazing country Thailand still is. Southeast Asia can be bewildering at first, but Thailand lets you ease into things; it’s exotic enough to feel adventurous, but the travel logistics are easy, and the famed Thai hospitality will make you feel at home even when almost nothing is familiar.
That said, over 35 million people visit this country every year, and in all honesty, it shows — especially along the beaches and islands in the south, where mass tourism has truly taken its toll.
You will rarely be alone. That, of course, can also be a good thing — and it’s no coincidence that so many (first time) solo travellers love Thailand so much.
To get the best of Thailand you have to select your destinations wisely. For example, if you don’t like mass tourism, don’t go to Phuket or Koh Phi Phi. Then again, if you’re coming to Thailand as a first-time backpacker you may just as well find yourself planning very little at all and simply going along the well-established circuit. Chances are that you’ll have a great time!
If you’re simply looking for some sand and sun, then Thailand has got you covered. There is also a renowned party scene, particularly in Bangkok (Khaosan Road) and on the islands of Koh Phangan and Koh Phi Phi, attracting many younger holidayers and gap year travellers.
Interested in a more authentic (or simply quieter) Thailand? It’s still there if you know where to look. I’ve much enjoyed exploring the quieter southeastern parts near Cambodia, especially the town of Trat and the Koh Chang archipelago. I think this little corner is secretly the best part of southern Thailand. Northern Thailand also has plenty of off-the-beaten-track places.
Since Bangkok has a lot of international flight connections, Thailand makes for as a convenient gateway to the rest of Southeast Asia. And to so many globetrotters addicted to travel (like me), Thailand was their first rite of passage. It may not be the world’s most original or adventurous choice, but who cares? It’s easy, fun, a little wild (in places), and truly has something for everyone.
For more tips, see my travel guide to Thailand and sample itinerary.
Remote jungles, quiet rural places, river journeys, motorbike loops
No big cities, very little nightlife (if that’s what you want)
There’s something special about Laos that I just love. If you’re looking for a bit more authenticity and calm than you’ll typically find in Thailand, you might want to start looking here. It’s seriously amazing, though I’ll admit that Laos probably appeals mostly to a certain type of traveller.
Sure, Laos lacks iconic sights, the way Vietnam has Ha Long Bay or Cambodia has the vast temples of Angkor Wat. There is nothing necessarily ‘epic’ that draws people to it, but that’s also exactly why it’s so good to travel there. Go there for its nature, its Buddhist calm, and Mekong river views.
I think Laos is the destination for adventurers. Thanks to its pristine jungles and karst mountain landscapes, it may well be the best country in mainland Southeast Asia for hiking and trekking. It’s also an excellent place for other outdoor activities like kayaking, zip-lining, caving, and rock climbing.
Landlocked Laos has been mostly overlooked by the masses more easily enticed by a tropical beach. Due to midnight curfews, there also isn’t much of a party scene (unlike what you may have heard). These factors have conspired to preserve Laos as an incredible ecotourism and adventure travel destination. Filled with quiet delights, I think it’s one of the true backpacker highlights of the region. (Can you tell it’s one of my personal favourites?)
Old guidebooks talk about how difficult Laos is to travel. Actually, the infrastructure has improved, and it’s now quite easily accessible. You might still need a bit of patience, but travel times have improved, and there are now bridges connecting Laos with Thailand at the borders.
Don’t miss the lazy 4000 islands archipelago in the Mekong, or rent a motorbike and explore the countryside independently. And consider a stay at the Gibbon Experience, which lets you sleep in treehouses high in the jungle canopy and fly around using zip-lines, giving you a unique perspective on the rainforest.
Go to Laos – you won’t regret it.
Read more in my in-depth guide to Laos.
Exhilarating cities, food, train travel, stunning caves, war museums
Cookie-cutter tours (see below)
I think of Vietnam as a conflicting place — one that can be both deeply fascinating and potentially frustrating at times.
To start with the positives, it truly has some of the most vibrant cities around. If you’re a bit of an urban explorer then you’ll surely love wandering around the leafy traditional capital of Hanoi, or the frenetic commercial capital of Ho Chi Minh City (a.k.a. Saigon). Snarls of scooters and small motorcycles will constantly pass you by, loaded with anything from construction materials to entire families. The local food markets are dizzying beehives of activity, enveloping you in a delightful sensory overload.
Dramatic landscapes also dominate the central and northern parts of Vietnam. At Phong Nha-Kẻ Bàng, you can visit some of the biggest caves in the world. The famous bay of Ha Long is dotted with countless limestone cliffs, feeling a bit like a mystical pirate’s hideout. You can go on a 1, 2- or 3-day cruise around these breathtaking islands, but don’t expect to be alone at this highly commercialized UNESCO World Heritage Site. (A quieter alternative is Bai Tu Long Bay, which is further away and out of reach of day-trippers.)
But while the culture, delicious food, and history are a big draw, the Vietnamese attitude to tourism can be a bit off-putting at times. They just know how to package certain experiences in a factory-like manner, and if you stick too closely to the usual itineraries, you might soon feel like you’re just being rushed from one tourist trap to the next. The cheap but cookie-cutter tours to places like the Mekong Delta, Halong Bay, or the Chi Chi Tunnels are not the best this country has to offer.
For that, you should aim to explore independently. This is really the number one tip I have for Vietnam: going the DIY route for most of your sightseeing trips is what can make 100% of a difference in how you’ll experience this country. Possibly the best way to do this is to rent or buy a motorbike and go on a road trip. You’ll see a different — much warmer, much more human — side of Vietnam that many tourists in their mad rush towards Ha Long Bay won’t get to see.
One unfortunate aspect of Vietnam is that scams targeting tourists are still a real problem, perhaps more so than in other countries. This is mostly an issue in the cities and key tourist sites. You might want to be on your guard a bit more, though don’t let a negative encounter ruin your entire experience. Again, if you avoid the standardized tours and venture beyond the usual top 5 places, you’re likely to leave with a far more interesting impression of Vietnam.
For more tips, check out my Vietnam guide (due to be updated in 2019).
Temples of Angkor Wat, laidback islands, Cardamom Mountains
Sihanoukville & Chinese casino takeovers
There are essentially two big reasons why you’ll want to go to Cambodia.
Firstly, there is the spectacular Angkor Wat, which is one of the largest ancient temple complexes in the world. This sprawling site can take days to explore properly, and it’s easily of the top sights in Southeast Asia. The nearby city of Siem Reap has become a fun-filled base from which to take excursions into the Angkor Wat archeological park.
Secondly, Cambodia has some of the nicest islands in the region, which are still relatively underdeveloped compared to those in Thailand or Vietnam. Koh Rong and Koh Rong Sanloem (among other islands) have a funky vibe and their beaches are mostly unspoiled. It won’t stay that way forever, so go there now.
Apart from this, Cambodia also has its share of quaint towns along the Mekong River with remnants of French colonial architecture. While the Cambodian government puts little priority on nature preservation, the country does have some amazing national parks; I especially recommend going to Chi Pat for excellent ecotourism adventures.
Just a little tip, don’t bother with the resort city of Sihanoukville. It’s a bit of a dump, and anyone recommending it is just lazily copy-pasting information from 10 years ago. My guide to Cambodia has more tips on how to cherry-pick the best of Cambodia.
Hassle-free, multicultural, nicer islands than Thailand, Borneo wildlife
More conservative, Borneo not quite as untouched as you’d imagine
While Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam which were once colonized by France, Malaysia was once part of the British empire. That gives its historical cities a different character. It also often feels more cosmopolitan and multi-cultural, home to a mix of Malays, Chinese, Indians, and various minorities.
Malaysia is a bit more wealthy, orderly, and conservative than its neighbors. It may be lacking that rough-and-tumble feel, but it also means it’s not as over-the-top as Thailand. Its beaches and islands (such as the Perhentian Islands) are relatively low-key, and most of its other destinations are family-friendly and well set up for visitors.
I have to say that my knowledge of Peninsular Malaysia is a bit patchy (despite two visits), though I think the cities of Penang and Malacca are very interesting. I aim to come back sometime to explore more areas off the western coast.
As an adventure traveller, I was more enticed by the other part of Malaysia on the island of Borneo. I spent most of my time in the eastern state of Sabah, where you can climb Kota Kinabalu (the highest mountain in Southeast Asia), go scuba diving at Pulau Mabul and Pulau Sipadan (easily some of the best diving I’ve ever done), and visit national parks such as the Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary (where even on a bad day you can spot countless monkeys, hornbills, crocodiles, and so much more). It’s all pretty damn epic around these parts!
By the way, be sure to budget a bit more for Malaysia. Accommodation and food are great value, but local tours, hiking trips, or entries to national parks do add up a bit faster here.
Super clean, organized, modern, amazing food courts, and has more creativity/charm than you might at first expect (see the Gardens by the Bay, Chinatown, Haji Lane, etc.)
The city-state of Singapore makes for an interesting visit, given how strongly it contrasts against other nearby destinations. It’s spotlessly clean and high-tech, and is truly a world apart from all the chaos, smells, and congestion elsewhere. It’s a meticulously designed place, often making you feel as though you’re wandering through the glittering futuristic visions from an architect’s dream.
The modern comforts can be a refreshing change if you’ve spent some time in less developed parts of Southeast Asia. The food in Singapore is also phenomenal and no visit is complete without going to one of its many hawker centers (a type of food court) where you can sample virtually any Asian cuisine — very cheaply and with hygiene standards much higher than the street food in other countries.
Singapore is an easy and comfortable destination, although much of the city can feel quite business-ey and too neatly maintained. It’s been getting more creative and vibrant though and it’s got plenty of interesting areas to check out. Singapore makes for a gentle introduction to Southeast Asia or can serve as a convenient pit stop on a larger trip.
Do keep in mind that prices in Singapore (apart from the food) are essentially at Western levels. That doesn’t mean it’s impossible to stay there on a budget; I’ve listed some free or cheap things to do in Singapore.
Volcano hikes, unspoiled beaches, snorkeling/scuba, wildlife, and a whole world to explore
Congested Jakarta and overtouristed Kuta on Bali
To state the obvious: Indonesia is huge.
It is, in fact, wider than the United States. It’s so big that if you were to write a complete guide to Southeast Asia, you’d probably have to do a separate Volume II just to cover Indonesia.
Most travelers focus only on a tiny part — the resort island of Bali — but beyond it lies a vast area to explore, with incredible potential for off-the-beaten-track adventures. Blessed with 17,000 islands and numerous volcanoes, Indonesia is a prime destination for surfing, trekking, diving, and wildlife spotting (with a chance to see orangutans). It is culturally diverse as well, with different islands following the Muslim, Hindu, Catholic or Protestant religions.
If you’re pressed for time, then spending a week on Bali is honestly not the worst idea. Its capital of Kuta may be nauseatingly commercial and focused totally on mass tourism, but dive deeper into Bali and you’ll discover plenty of beautiful Hindu temples, green rice paddies, and laidback beaches.
A typical longer itinerary has you starting in the city of Yogyakarta on Java, then visiting the ancient temples of Borobudur, the epic volcano of Bromo, and then ending in Bali. This post tells you, incredibly, how this can be done in one week — though I recommend at least 2 or 3 weeks for this route.
Lombok, the island that is adjacent to Bali, is filled with surfer spots, waterfalls, and quieter beaches. Further east, I loved exploring rural Flores and seeing the Komodo dragons at Komodo National Park.
So far I’ve been on two big trips to Indonesia, and I’m itching to go back. The next one will probably take me to the less-explored parts of Sumatra, Sulawesi, or West Nusa Tengarra. Indonesia feels to me like one of the final frontiers of Southeast Asia.
The country seems oddly overlooked among travel bloggers (at least outside of Bali), but I’ll go out on a limb and say it’s one of the real highlights of Southeast Asia.
For more, check out my run-down of all the Indonesian islands.
Rice terraces, incredible island hopping, easy contact with locals (they speak English), tons of underwater wonders, truly unspoiled beaches
Meh food, congested Manila, El Nido might have gotten too popular
This is Asia’s best-kept secret. I adore the Philippines and keep recommending it to everyone.
Since many Filipinos speak fluent English, you can get a lot closer to the culture. I’ve found myself travelling together with Filipino backpackers, made friends in many villages, and sung karaoke with locals. Elsewhere in Southeast Asia the language barrier can put you in a bubble, but much less so here. I can’t emphasize enough how much of a difference this makes.
The Philippines also happens to have the most amazing beaches and islands, hands down. The island of Palawan does seem to get a few too many tourists these days as word spread rapidly about the islands and lagoons around El Nido, though the crowds are also easily escaped if necessary by going to the nearby island of Coron or the small town of Port Barton.
Fortunately, the Philippines has over 7,000 islands, so I don’t think it will be running out of amazing spots any time soon! Palawan is definitely beautiful but my personal recommendation is to go to the central Visayas — particularly islands like Bohol, Cebu, Siquijor, and Camiguin. Besides beaches, there are more diverse activities there and you’ll probably have a better chance of getting to know the local life.
The Philippines used to be a Spanish and then an American colony, which is reflected in the religion, architecture, and language. The food does take a lot of inspiration from American fast food or Spanish asado and seems less concerned with Asian spices. That’s a bit of a bummer, though this is also clearly a matter of taste.
Thanks to its incredible islands, stunning rice terraces, volcano hikes, lovely people, and a fascinating cultural melting pot, I think the Philippines is a genuine highlight.
One tip though: it’s worth departing the capital of Manila quickly, as it’s super congested and not very nice.
Be sure to check out all of my articles on the Philippines.
Temples of Bagan, wonderful train travel, completely undeveloped beaches, tourism is still in its infancy in most places
Difficult political situation at the moment
Myanmar is a relative newcomer to the Southeast Asia backpacker circuit, as prior to lifting of international sanctions in 2012 it was difficult to go here. While it’s been rapidly opening up, you’ll still find authentic culture and a relative lack of cynicism towards tourists in Myanmar.
The thousands of ancient temples at Bagan provide some true pinch-me vistas, particularly at sunset. Burmese cuisine is hugely underrated and a foodie is going to have a great time. Take a train at least once: the creaking old carriages are something to experience.
Putting a slight damper on things more recently is the government’s prosecution of the Royingha minority, which the UN has characterized as ethnic cleansing. Myanmar is clearly going through some tough issues right now, although boycotting would also hurt the incomes of many locals who are entirely uninvolved in these events. The travel community is often bitterly divided on these issues and I think it should probably just be up to the individual.
Recent headlines aside, Myanmar is a really pure travel destination without any party scene and barely any beach resorts. Until recently, it was even entirely untouched by globalization (though the first Starbucks popped up in Yangon in 2017). Much like Cuba, it’s a see-it-before-it-changes kind of place.
You can read my tips for travelling in Myanmar, including information on how to get visas and which areas of the country are permitted to travel in.
Southeast Asia cost of travel
Apart from going to the countries you think will be interesting, another factor to keep in mind is the cost of travel around Southeast Asia.
Not everywhere in Southeast Asia is equally cheap. Be sure to check out my Southeast Asia backpacker budgets along with average accommodation prices and up-to-date costs for various popular tours, trips, and park entries.
If you’re on a shoestring budget it’ll be easiest to stick to northern Thailand, Laos, Vietnam or Cambodia. These countries are the cheapest (aside from the Thai beaches) and they also form quite a compact circuit, cutting down on transportation costs.
If you have a little room in your budget, then other destinations will give you excellent value as well. Countries like Indonesia or the Philippines are formed of islands and are more fragmented, so keep in mind you may have to budget a bit more for flights there.
Need more help?
As should be obvious… Southeast Asia is a big place!
If you’re feeling a bit overwhelmed while planning your trip, that’s understandable (trust me, I’ve been there). Fortunately, I’ve also got something that can make things a little easier.
My in-depth guide to traveling will help you plan, pack, and prepare for your trip. Readers have said it feels like having a friend sit down with you to mull over your travel dreams and turn them into real plans. With my expert guide, you’ll be able to better research your destinations, create a realistic but adventure-filled route, and prepare yourself for anything Southeast Asia might throw at you. While it can be used for travelling anywhere, the book is filled with many lessons I learned (sometimes the hard way) while traveling around Southeast Asia for many months on end. You can check it out here.
P.S. I’ve not yet been to Brunei or Timor-Leste! Perhaps I’ll have a chance to add these countries here in the future.