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If you have decided to pack your bags and start traveling for a while, I would strongly recommend you to spend time exploring Southeast Asia. This part of the world is beautiful, fun, interesting and cheap!
I have been twice to Southeast Asia, first time spending over a year and the second time around four months. And in case you were wondering: Yes, I love it!!
But why? Because its the perfect place to do a backpacking trip while you are young. I am not saying that if you are old you will not like it, but maybe it will be more fun while you have the energy to put up with some of the adventures that you can find in this part of the world.
Buy a motorcycle in Vietnam and cross the entire country with it. Take several boat trips around the islands of Indonesia. Explore the beautiful, although crowded, beaches in Thailand. Get lost in the temples of Cambodia and Myanmar. Enjoy the best street food in Malaysia. Have fun with the people of The Philippines. Do not miss the natural landscapes that Laos offers or, visit Timor Leste if you feel like getting off the beaten path.
Taking into account that there are thousands of things to do and see in Southeast Asia, I have decided to make a short list of the places that you should not miss if you plan to visit this place for the first time (or the second, or third).
1. Bagan, Myanmar
Bagan is an ancient town located in the province of Mandalay in Myanmar. It is home to the largest concentration of Buddhist temples, pagodas, ruins and stupas. Nowadays, this is considered to be the main tourist attraction in Myanmar. In my opinion, it is the most interesting place to visit in Southeast Asia.
When the weather conditions are good, hot air balloons fly over the sky in Bagan for sunrise. The scenery is incredible and the atmosphere cannot be compared to any other one in Asia. It is peaceful and beautiful.
There is an entrance fee to the Old Town in Bagan which costs approximately USD 20 (2017).
Read more about my trip in Myanmar here.
2. Angkor Wat, Cambodia
Angkor Wat is the largest religious temple in the world. It is located in the province of Siem Reap in Cambodia and hosts hundreds of visitors on a daily basis.
This temple was built during the Khmer kingdom as a place to worship Vishnu, the Hindu God. Years later, Angkor Wat shifted from Hinduism to Buddhism, which is why you can find both Hindu and Buddhist structures inside the complex.
The prices have drastically increased from one year to the other. When I visited Angkor for the first time, the entrance fee was USD 20 for a day pass. Currently, the price increased to USD 37 for the day pass.
Read more about my trip in Cambodia here.
3. Maya Bay, Thailand
Welcome to the place where you will find the most famous beach in Thailand and the world! Maya Bay was used as a location for the movie The Beach with Leonardo Di Caprio.
Yes, its very touristy and can get very busy during the afternoons, but Maya Bay is without a doubt one of the most beautiful places in Southeast Asia. White sand beach, crystal clear water and limestone formations surrounding the bay, just incredible.
It is located in the province of Krabi in Thailand and can be reached via many of the islands on the Andaman Coast. My recommendation would be staying at Ko Phi Phi Don and arranging a day trip from there. Companies offer different prices and packages but the cheapest one that I found was Pimprapa Travel and Tour for 800 baht that includes the entrance to Maya Bay (400 baht) and breakfast and lunch.
4. El Nido, Philippines
I believe that this is Maya Bay´s strongest competitor in Southeast Asia. El Nido is located in the island of Palawan and offers stunning beaches and limestone formations that can take your breath away. The best plan here is to go island hopping.
The day tours include visits to different lagoons, beaches and islands that are stunning. I would recommend going on the Tours A and C that take you to the Big Lagoon, Small Lagoon, Secret Lagoon, the Hidden Beach and more.
Read more about my trip to Philippines here.
5. Bali, Indonesia
I believe that everyone is entitled to have their own opinion about Bali and the only way to do it is visiting this island. Bali has different atmospheres for every type of traveler. There are yoga and meditation centers, Hindu temples, volcanoes, nightclubs, surfing beaches, rice terraces, fancy restaurants, and more.
Make sure to include in your itinerary the following places Ubud, Tanah Lot, Uluwatu and Nusa Penida.
Read about more things to do in Indonesia here.
6. Halong Bay, Vietnam
As a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Halong Bay offers some of the most beautiful scenarios in Southeast Asia. The whole site is full of limestone formations and isles in different shapes and sizes.
If you are backpacking through Asia, my advice is definitely staying at Cat Ba Island where you can enjoy the landscapes, the party and the vibes for a very good price.
Other options include taking a day and/or overnight cruise around the bay to have a better look of Halong Bay.
Read more about Vietnam here.
7. Luang Prabang, Laos
Luang Prabang is the prettiest city/town in Laos. It was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995 and when you visit it you will see why. The streets are very cozy, the temples are beautiful and the vibe is very relaxed.
Besides visiting town, I would recommend making a day trip to the Kuang Si Waterfalls. The color of the water is impressive and it is worth visiting. Although, I was surprised to find a few black bears while walking towards the waterfalls. I felt as if I was in a zoo. The Entrance fee to Kuang-Si Waterfalls is 20,000 Kip.
Read the following guide on how to get to the Kuangsi Waterfalls: http://www.laos-guide-999.com/Kuang-si-falls.html
Read more about Laos here.
8. Pai, Thailand
This place has become one of the biggest backpacker destinations in Asia recently. I have to admit that the vibe in Pai is one of the best ones that I experienced in Thailand and deserves to be in this list, although I can understand if someone is against it.
This small town is located in the north of Thailand, just a few hours away from Chiang Mai and used to be considered far “off the beaten path” for travelers. With time, Pai has become more and more touristy and receives a big amount of tourists on a daily basis.
Surrounded by mountains, rivers and waterfalls, this place is rich in nature and the perfect place for you to get stuck for a while. Bungalows are cheap, there is a great variety of food and parties can go til late.
The only downside that I see to Pai is that it has become very “Westernized” and with time, it has been losing its essence. Therefore, I recommend visiting this place before its too late. Go to Pai and “chill”.
9. Penang, Malaysia
Penang is an island located at the northwest coast of Malaysia. Its capital Georgetown has been inscribed as part of the UNESCO World Heritage sites due to its incredible architecture and unique street art. The small alleys are beautiful and the designs of the buildings are very interesting.
But Penang is also famous for something else: Street Food!!! This is the best street food that I had in Asia. They offer a great variety of dishes that will make your belly happy but craving for more. I was eating probably 5 times a day. Food is great, delicious and cheap. Don´t forget to try the Laksa!!!
Read more about Malaysia, here.
10. Yogyakarta, Indonesia
There is a high chance that you will stay in here if you want to visit Borobudur and Prambanan temples.
Borobudur is the largest Buddhist Temple in the world and part of the UNESCO World Heritage sites. This place offers some of the most spectacular sunrises that you will ever see in Southeast Asia.
Borobudur has hundreds of Buddha statues and Buddhist stupas worth seeing. The only problem is that it is one of the main attractions in Indonesia, which is why constantly visited by hundreds of tourists every day.
The most developed city-state in Southeast Asia. Singapore can be a bit expensive in comparison to the rest of the countries from the region but it is worth a visit. My favorite attraction is the light and sound show at Gardens By The Bay every evening at 19:45 and 20:45. Free entrance.
Read more about the things to do in Singapore here.
12. Atauro Island, East Timor
Timor Leste or East Timor is usually not included in the ordinary backpacker itinerary of Southeast Asia. Nonetheless, if you want to get “off the beaten path” I recommend you visit.
This country became independent in 2002 and has opened to tourism recently. Accommodation can be expensive but local food is quite cheap.
The capital of East Timor is called Dili but the main tourist spot is called Atauro Island. This place is great for diving and relaxing on a hammock while watching red sunsets.
Besides the above, you can also go hiking in Atauro Island. I went on a day hike to Mount Manucoco, the highest peak in the island but you will definitely need a guide for it, since the trail is not very clear.
Read more about my time in East Timor here.
13. Lombok, Indonesia
One of my favorite islands in Indonesia. Lombok is less crowded and more quiet than Bali but still offers a beautiful scenery, adventure and a few parties.
There are four main things that you should do while you are in Lombok: 1. Hike Mount Rinjani; 2. Party at Gili Trawangan; 3. Explore the southern beaches and 4. Go on the boat trip to Flores stopping at Komodo Island.
14. Hoi An, Vietnam
This ancient and peaceful town is a “must” if you are traveling through Vietnam. Hoi An hosts many temples, pagodas and the ancient homes that with beautiful designs that make it unique. The design of the buildings has been highly influenced by Chinese and Japanese architecture and in 1999 it was declared as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Hoi An is also the best place for you to get a tailor made suit, in case that you are looking for one. The quality and price of the clothes here is pretty good and well known worldwide.
There is also a beach located a few minutes outside of town that can be easily accessed by motorcycle or taxi. This place has many things to do during the day and evening and is worth a visit.
15. Phnom Penh, Cambodia
I did not want to include the capital cities on this list but I think this one is worth mentioning. Between 1975 and 1979, almost 3 million people in Cambodia were killed by the Khmer Rouge regime, led by Pol Pot. This has been considered one of the most horrendous genocides in history but not many people know about it.
Phnom Penh is home to the Tuol Sleng (S-21) Museum and the Killing Fields where you can learn more about the genocide and the Khmer Rouge history in Cambodia. I believe that everyone that travels through Asia should see this to learn more about the history of this country, which is worth a visit.
Besides the museum and the fields, you can also visit the Royal Palace, which is home to the king of Cambodia. The Palace offers an impressive scenery and beautiful Buddhist architecture.
I hope that you enjoyed reading through this list and enjoy your trip around Southeast Asia. See you on another occassion.
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