I have to confess: Southeast Asia is like an addiction to me.
I arrived for the first time in Thailand way back in 2012. I was fresh off the plane, wide-eyed, with no idea what incredible things would await me. My plan was to go backpacking for one month, but I loved it so much I continued to wander around the region for a year. And ever since, I’ve been coming back to Southeast Asia for more!
The best countries to visit in Southeast Asia depend hugely on what you’re looking for. They’re all great in their own ways, but there are always subjective reasons to prefer one over another.
The countries in Southeast Asia can also be hugely different depending on which places you visit within them. For example, I thought Vietnam was overcommercialized and ‘too touristy’ when I first visited, but it turned out I had only skimmed the surface. The second time I visited different places in Vietnam and learned just what a truly exhilarating country it is. It was almost like I’d been to two different countries.
Scroll along as I share with you a few insights from my many trips in Southeast Asia…
Don’t miss my Southeast Asia itineraries page with recommended travel routes that include several (or even all!) countries in the region.
Pandemic note: at the time of updating this post (November 2021), Singapore, Thailand, Cambodia, and Indonesia have reopened for international tourists, while other countries are making plans to do so.
Ahhh yes, 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 may now beat faster for more remote destinations, I need to recognize just what an amazing country Thailand is. Especially for a first-time Southeast Asia trip.
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.
It’s true that Thailand has long been known for its mass tourism (in pre-pandemic times of course). In all honesty, in some places that shows. If you are seeking some pure undiscovered frontier, you probably don’t want to head for the beaches of Phuket! Luckily, mass tourism is also concentrated in just a few areas, so it’s easily avoided if it’s not your vibe.
One fun aspect of Thailand is that you’ll never struggle to meet other travelers if you’re looking to socialize. It’s an especially great destination for solo travelers. Because there are so many guesthouses, hotels, and hostels around, it’s easy to improvise on a trip to Thailand and just take things one day at a t ime.
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. The resorts along the coast meanwhile are popular with those looking for some luxury at friendly prices.
Interested in a more authentic (or simply quieter) Thailand? It’s 100% there if you know where to look. For example, I’ve much enjoyed exploring the quieter southeastern parts near Cambodia, especially the town of Trat and the Koh Chang archipelago. Northern Thailand also has plenty of off-the-beaten-track places, such as the Mae Hong Son loop.
Since Bangkok has so many international flight connections, Thailand makes for a great 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 be a popular place these days, but who cares? It’s easy, fun, a little wild (in places), and truly has something for everyone.
Sure, sleepy Laos is not nearly as energetic as Thailand. But if you enjoy the Buddhist calm, Mekong river views, unspoiled nature, and authentic villages, then Laos is simply amazing.
Admittedly, Laos is somewhat lacking in huge iconic sights, like Vietnam’s Ha Long Bay or Cambodia’s vast temple complex of Angkor. The country is landlocked and there isn’t something ‘epic’ to draw people to Laos, but that’s also exactly why it’s so lovely to travel there.
Laos is the perfect destination for adventurers. Thanks to its many 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.
Life in Laos is mostly pretty quiet and rural. Due to midnight curfews, there also isn’t much of a party scene (contrary to what you may have heard). These factors have conspired to preserve Laos as an incredible ecotourism and adventure travel destination. Can you tell it’s one of my personal favorites?
Don’t miss the lazy 4000 islands archipelago in the Mekong, or rent a motorbike and explore the countryside. 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.
The cities in Vietnam are truly on another level — among the most vibrant and chaotic in the entire region. In Hanoi and 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. Even more so than Bangkok or other capitals, the Vietnamese cities are such frenetic and exciting places to explore.
The central and northern parts of Vietnam are also dominated by dramatic mountain landscapes. 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, though don’t expect to be alone at this highly commercialized UNESCO World Heritage Site. (A quieter alternative is Bai Tu Long Bay.)
One thing that can be a bit off-putting in Vietnam at times are the local tours. If you do the standard day-trips and tours in the famous spots, like the Mekong Delta, Halong Bay, or the Chi Chi Tunnels, you might feel like you’re trapped in a bit of a tour factory, with quite impersonal treatment or inauthentic experiences. Some tourists who’ve only been on these trips may complain that Vietnam is overcommercialized or tell stories of tourist scams. However, this is not the real Vietnam!
I talk about this more in my backpacker’s guide to Vietnam, but if you diverge just a little bit from the standard itineraries, Vietnam becomes totally different. Among my personal favorite places are Phong Nha, Ninh Binh, and Ha Giang, for example, but there are loads more. Don’t miss my 12 must-visit places in Vietnam.
By the way, one of the best ways to travel Vietnam is by motorbike or scooter. Many travellers consider Vietnam the ultimate motorbiking country in the region, letting you see a side of Vietnam that not every tourist gets to see.
Cambodia is a relatively smaller country with somewhat fewer sights, so it is commonly treated as an add-on to a trip to Thailand or Vietnam.
The main destination 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 archaeological park.
But there is plenty more to keep you in Cambodia longer. I really like the Cambodian islands, which are still relatively less developed compared to those in Thailand or Vietnam. Koh Rong and Koh Rong Sanloem (among other islands) have a fun backpacker vibe and offer much more cheap accommodation than some of the Thai islands that by now have their own airports and large-scale resorts.
One thing that’s a bit of a bummer is that Cambodia has been ruled by the same dictator for decades, so the locals don’t have much freedom of speech, there’s loads of corruption, and there’s little regard for nature conservation (with only some exceptions). I didn’t notice these things on my first trip to Cambodia, but on a second visit when I went a bit deeper these issues were far more obvious.
Don’t bother visiting Sihanoukville, a seedy resort that’s been sold off to Chinese developers to build casinos. There are sadly some signs the lovely laidback Kampot is heading this way as well, with a large casino complex planned inside Bokor National Park. Cambodia’s dictator must be very pleased with the kickbacks he’s received.
Nevertheless, despite the situation, there are some amazing ecotourism opportunities in Cambodia. For example, Chi Pat is a small village in the middle of one Asia’s last truly uninterrupted rainforests and is focused on sustainable ecotourism. The town of Kratie is also well worth a visit; a quaint town along the Mekong River with remnants of French colonial architecture, with a chance to see rare Irrawaddy dolphins in the waters.
My guide to Cambodia has more tips on how to cherry-pick the best of Cambodia.
While Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam were countries once colonized by France, Malaysia was once part of the British empire. That gives its historical cities a different character. Malaysia also often feels more cosmopolitan and multi-cultural, as it is 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 that charms many Western travelers in the other countries, but it also means Malaysia is 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 organized.
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, 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). While Borneo is dominated by uniform rows of palm oil plantations, the wilderness further inland is absolutely thrilling.
By the way, be sure to budget a little 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.
The city-state of Singapore makes for an interesting visit, especially 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 more remote places in 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, though parts of the city can also feel quite business-ey and too neatly maintained. It’s been getting more creative and vibrant though and the architecture and gardens are stunning. 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 though; I’ve listed some free or cheap things to do in Singapore.
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.
The Philippines is not usually the first country in Southeast Asia that travelers go to, yet it is truly a gem and not to be overlooked!
Since most Filipinos speak fluent English, you can also 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 stress enough how much of a difference this makes.
The Philippines also happens to have the most amazing beaches and islands, hands down. Although the word has certainly gotten out about some spots like the islands and lagoons around El Nido, there are far fewer tourist crowds overall.
The Philippines has over 7,000 islands, so it won’t be running out of amazing places to go any time soon! Palawan is always a big hit but definitely also go to the central Visayas — particularly islands like Bohol, Cebu, Siquijor, and Camiguin.
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. Many Western travelers complain about the food, and I can definitely see why compared to the amazing Thai cuisine for instance, though if you look well enough there’s something to anyone’s taste.
Thanks to its incredible islands, stunning rice terraces, volcano hikes, lovely people, and a fascinating cultural melting pot, I think the Philippines is easily one of the best countries to visit in Southeast Asia. Be sure to check out all of my articles on the Philippines.
One tip though: it’s not worth staying in the capital Manila for too long, as it’s super congested and not the nicest destination in this otherwise gorgeous country.
Sometimes countries take some steps back, and that is sadly the case with Myanmar. I visited some years ago when there was excitement in the air about the new democratic government and the borders opening up to international tourism. Now, Myanmar is embroiled in a civil conflict, and it’s unclear when it’s safe or responsible to visit it again.
What I loved when I visited before the recent problems is the relative lack of cynicism towards tourists in Myanmar, and how the country was still very much untouched by globalization.
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. It’s amazing taking a train at least once: the creaking old carriages may be slow as a snail but they are something to experience.
Hopefully, the political situation in Myanmar will improve in the future.
Still not sure where to go in Southeast Asia?
As should be obvious… Southeast Asia is a big region!
If you’re feeling a bit overwhelmed while planning your trip, I understand. Trust me… I’ve been there.
Honestly, all the countries in Southeast Asia are amazing (I truly think so). Try simply choosing some countries that sound most interesting to you and that fit your budget. If your budget is pretty tight, consider northern Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, or Cambodia. The other countries are not that much more expensive though. You can see my Southeast Asia backpacker budgets for more information.
You may also find my in-depth book helpful to you. Readers of Travel the World Without Worries have said it feels like having a friend sit down with you to mull over your travel dreams and turn them into real plans. I wrote most of the book after travelling through Southeast Asia, so it’s the perfect companion if you’re planning a trip. You can read the first chapter for free.
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