7 of the best places to visit in Southeast Asia

Traveling through Southeast Asia is a rite of passage for many backpackers on a budget, but this stunning region also appeals to adventurers and nature lovers too, with people coming back year on year. Whether you are learning how to drive a motorbike or heading out in scuba gear to dive with reef sharks, Southeast Asia offers fantastic experiences at a fraction of the price found elsewhere.

Leading with curiosity and patience will serve travelers well as they navigate their way through the region. There are many highlights, but the spots that you stumble upon are likely to be the ones you remember most fondly. To help you plan your route, and find your own favorite places, here are our picks of where to visit in Southeast Asia and what makes them so special.

A large multi-level wooden structure and walkway our to sea near a surf spot
The world-class Cloud 9 surf break draws people to Siargao © ValentinAyupov / Getty Images

1. Siargao, Philippines

Best for surfing 

Siargao is a tropical paradise known for its quality surfing, which includes the Cloud 9 break, regarded as one of the best waves in the world. Surfers can take a boat out to Rock Island or Daku, or ride the left reef break at Stimpy’s. Not quite ready for that yet? Surf lessons are available for all levels, then make time to see the island beyond the waves. 

Enjoy live music performances at local bars and cafes, such as the Extension or Strum, ride a motorbike out to the North to visit caves, or go to a yoga class and take an ice bath. Whatever you decide, expect to be welcomed warmly into the local community.

Planning tip: Base yourself in General Luna. By staying at least a week on Siargao, you’ll be able to experience the best of the island and explore beyond the main town. 

2. Amed, Bali

Best for diving and snorkeling sites

Amed — a coastal area located in northeast — has maintained the local charm and warm welcome that initially made the island of Bali so popular. Snorkelers and divers in particular love it here because it’s home to iconic dive sites like the Japanese Shipwreck – shallow enough to snorkel – and Jemeluk Bay, packed with colorful coral. From here, take a trip to Bali’s famous Gates of Heaven, Pura Lempuyan, to see one of the holiest temple complexes on the island. Sunsets here are stunning: go to Lahangan Sweet viewpoint or Sunset Point for views over Mt Agung, Bali’s highest peak. 

Planning tip: From Canggu, it takes about four hours to get to Amed by taxi. However, if you come from Lombok or the Gili Islands, the ferry is less than two hours depending on the season.

A many tiered waterfall with a bamboo raft full of tourists in the pool
Cao Bang is not a regular stop on the backpacker route © Mohammed Moses / Shutterstock

3. Cao Bang, Vietnam

Best for getting off the beaten track 

Cao Bang, in the north of Vietnam, has some of the most impressive natural sites in the country, but without the crowds. Start at Phat Tich Truc Lam, a temple near the Chinese border, that offers wonderful views over the region’s rolling hills. Ban Gioc Waterfall – one of the most magical waterfalls in Southeast Asia and the largest in Vietnam – cascades over multiple tiers and can be visited on a boat trip or bamboo raft. The nearby Nguom Ngao Cave system extends for several kilometers underground, and is home to many breathtaking stalactites and stalagmites. 

Planning tip: This is a place to get a glimpse of true rural Vietnamese culture, so be prepared to taste dishes you’ve never heard of and expect to rely on Google Translate to help you with communicating. Even though it is far off the typical backpacker route (for now), Cao Bang is very safe and has great infrastructure for visitors. It takes about six hours from Hanoi by car.

4. Khao Sok National Park, Thailand 

Best for animal lovers 

Khao Sok is a stunning national park that is home to hundreds of animal species including bears, monkeys, leopards and wild elephants. If you’re lucky, you can see them wandering around on a safari or boat trip. Located just a few hours north of Krabi, Khao Sok National Park also boasts ATV tours, cave trekking, and Elephant Hills, a sanctuary where rescued elephants are allowed to roam freely in the nature park. 

Chiaw Lan Lake’s limestone cliffs and dense rainforest will make you feel like you’ve been transported to another planet. For the ultimate experience, book a night on the lake in a floating bungalow where you can soak in the park’s natural beauty from late-night stargazing to a sunrise safari.

A row of monks in orange robes pass in front of a temple collecting money off people
Almsgiving takes place daily in Luang Prabang, an important center of Buddhist culture © chanchai duangdoosan / Shutterstock

5. Luang Prabang, Laos

Best for Buddhist culture

The former royal capital of Laos, Luang Prabang, is nestled in a valley in the north. It remains an important site for Buddhist culture with its wonderfully preserved temples (wats) and other spiritual sites.

Those who visit are encouraged to participate in almsgiving, a centuries-old daily ceremony where monks collect alms from locals and visitors. Wat Xieng Thong is one of the most spiritually significant temples in Laos. It was built in 1560 for coronations, and is home to large mosaics and an elaborate library. Another important site is Phu Si, which translates to “sacred mountain” and is dotted with temples and shrines. 

Luang Prabang is also close to one of Southeast Asia’s dreamiest waterfalls, Tat Kuang Si, made up of three tiers that cascade into natural pools of mineral-rich water colored milky white by limestone. 

Planning tip: For those looking to delve even deeper into Laos’s natural beauty, Luang Prabang is a great jumping point to Nong Khiaw, a village known for its limestone cliffs and outdoor activities.

A man stands by a rickshaw outside a temple with Chinese-style red lanterns
George Town in Penang has retained its authenticity while still welcoming tourists © Marek Poplawski / Shutterstock

6. Penang, Malaysia

Best for history and culture 

Penang, Malaysia is a vibrant mosaic of Malay, Chinese and Indian cultures, all of which are reflected in its food, architecture and traditions. 

The capital of this tropical island, George Town, manages to transform its heritage into something that can accommodate tourists all while tastefully maintaining its authenticity. In just one city, you can tour through Chinese clan houses, mosques, Hindu temples, and British Colonial buildings. 

Outside of George Town, Penang National Park is home to beautiful beaches and hiking trails through the jungle. Learn more about local fauna at the Tropical Spice Garden packed with spices, medicinal plants and deadly natural poisons – guided tours are available.

Planning tip: As a general rule, it’s wise for female travelers to cover their shoulders, chest and knees. While most sites do not require you to cover your head, you may want to bring a head scarf or sarong to enter certain religious or government buildings.

7. Gili Air, Indonesia

Best for relaxation

The Gili Islands — located between Bali and Lombok — consists of three small islets: Gili Trawangan, Gili Meno, and Gili Air. Each island offers its own, unique atmosphere, but for someone looking for peace, relaxation and serenity, they will want to linger on Gili Air with its strong focus on wellness. Motorbikes and cars are not allowed on the island, so visitors can lay back and truly relax on the white sandy beaches, with yoga classes and affordable spa treatments and massages.

One of the top attractions among the Gili Islands are the underwater sculptures, Nest, by artist Jason deCaires Taylor. This site is best enjoyed in the early morning before the crowds arrive, so be sure to book the earliest boat trip possible. There are also opportunities to scuba dive with the area’s many turtles.

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