The Southeast Asian region, which spans 11 countries, thousands of islands, hundreds of traditional cultures, and innumerable natural treasures, may take a lifetime to completely explore. For the most discerning travelers, each of these 15 destinations has something unique to offer.
Angkor Wat, step aside. While the ancient Khmer ruins are unquestionably lovely, Bagan’s towering Buddhist structures have a peculiar charm that hasn’t been tainted by crowds of tourists. A 42-square-kilometer (16-square-mile) desert-like plain ringed by the foggy Bago Yoma mountain range in the distance is home to 10,000 Buddhist temples, pagodas, and monasteries. Each of the structures was constructed between 1057 and 1287, when the kingdom was conquered by the Mongols. Unesco has repaired and preserved them since since. The best way to experience this trip back in time today is to rent a bicycle or one of Bagan’s famous electric bicycles and tour the vast grounds at your leisure, accompanied by a local guide.
The secluded village of Sa Pa, high in the Hoang Lien Son highlands of Northern Vietnam, is more reminiscent of South Asian hiking attractions than regional jungles and beaches. Aside from the breathtaking beauty of the highlands, the Lao Chai Province of Vietnam has developed a culture distinct from the rest of the country. The province is home to several ethnic tribal groups who settled in the region generations ago and have since established their own autonomous identities following decades of conflict between Vietnamese independence fighters and French imperialists. Today, the crowning summit of Sa Pa, Fan Si Pan, stands at 3,143m (10,311ft) above sea level, making it Vietnam’s tallest mountain. Hoang Lien National Park, on the other hand, offers a stunning mountain panorama dotted with terraced rice terraces, as well as a unique forest ecology home to several endangered species and small tribal communities for the casual hiker.
This tranquil little surfing town, not to be confused with Kuta Bali, has all the beachy moods and coastline appeal of its Balinese cousin, but without the heavy marketing and curated tourism industry – at least for the time being. Instead, the hamlet maintains its reputation as a fishing community, unaffected by the tourism boom, having adapted to the modest number of people who pass through. With multiple sites offering surf cresting into magnificent white sand or volcanic rock beaches, surfers of all levels will find it difficult to leave this world-class destination. Kuta’s coast is also an excellent starting place for exploring Southern Lombok and adjacent Sumbawa.
For years, Palawan Island has been a top-rated tourist destination, and as visitors flock to El Nido to see firsthand where Alex Garland got his inspiration for his novel The Beach, a few hundred kilometers north lies Coron Island, El Nido’s quieter, more pristine, and often more budget-friendly sibling. Coron’s seas, along with Palawan’s magnificent limestone cliffs, are the ultimate resting place for numerous WWII-era ships, the majority of which sank during an air raid on the Imperial Japanese Navy in 1944. They are now among the best-preserved shipwrecks on the planet. Coron Island’s mainland also has some odd lakes with a combination of fresh and salt water.
The decaying colonial homes that dot the countryside were formerly significantly impacted by French occupation, as evidenced by the dilapidated colonial mansions that dot the countryside today. The town is built around its namesake river and is surrounded by the Elephant Mountains, with outdated highways leading out into the countryside, which is home to salt fields, rice paddies, and water buffalo. The nearby area of Kep is known for its world-class pepper plantations and crab markets, which make for a winning mix. Visitors can buy crab right as it is being plucked out of the water from local fisherman and have it cooked with the region’s unique peppery flavor. The Irrawaddy dolphin, a rare species that can live in both salt and freshwater habitats and looks more like a beluga or orca than a regular dolphin, can also be found along this region.
The Gulf of Thailand is a destination unto itself, a vast arc that stretches along the coasts of Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia, and even Vietnam. The Chumphon Archipelago, to the west, includes the islands of Koh Tao, Koh Samui, and Koh Phangan; tiny and, in some cases, underdeveloped islands with a vast variety of activities and breathtaking scenery that are nearly tailor-made for the discerning tourist. The Vietnamese island of Phu Quoc and its 27 largely uninhabited islets, notably Hon Thom, Hon Xuong, and Hon Thom, lie across the Gulf to the east, connected to the main island by the world’s largest over-the-sea cable car. Back near Koh Chang, the tranquil island of Koh Mak offers long-term sustainability as a slice of true paradise, focusing solely on ecotourism and limiting daily visitor numbers to ensure that it retains its undiscovered island charm.
Malacca, a food-centric city with a diverse culture, has been a bustling port for centuries, attracting traders from India, China, the Middle East, Portugal, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom. Each visiting culture left its mark, which can be seen today in the diversified architecture, unique Malaccan cuisine, and ingrained culture that feels like it’s a world away from Kuala Lumpur. The region’s early history is contentious, with the few permanent records recording narratives mixed in with local mythology and myth.
This archipelago, sometimes known as the Four Thousand Islands, is stretched throughout the Mekong River Delta in southern Laos. The number of islands varies depending on the season, as several are submerged by monsoon rains, but Don Det and Don Khon consistently provide the finest experience. You can kayak with the endangered Irrawaddy dolphins, trek to Khone Phapheng Falls, Southeast Asia’s tallest waterfall, and witness the region’s stunning sunsets over seaside campfires all from these bases.
Indonesia’s largest island, situated precisely on the equator in the country’s mountainous west, is the world’s sixth largest. If you travel to the north of the island, you’ll come across Lake Toba, the world’s largest volcanic lake, which has its own embryonic island, Palau Samosir, which was developed 75,000 years ago and is the world’s largest island within an island. The original peoples of Samosir, the Batak tribes, have a rich and exotic past, and many aspects of their traditional customs are being practiced and adhered to today. Sumatra is also one of just two areas on the planet where wild orangutans can be found.
Between Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam’s old capital city is located on the central coast. The city, which is on the banks of the Perfume River, was the seat of the Nguyen Dynasty until 1945. The essence of this coastal town is steeped in Vietnam’s rich history, and experiencing the intricacies of Vietnamese culture here is like walking through a textbook. Hue’s Imperial Citadel is the city’s focal point, with religious pagodas stretching for kilometers beyond it. Then there’s the royal tombs and the renowned Forbidden City, which isn’t quite as crowded as its Chinese equivalent. Finally, don’t leave without trying the Banh Khaoi pancakes, a local specialty.
This small island off the coast of Dili, the capital of East Timor, is the stuff of tropical fantasies. In fact, scientists estimate that Atauro’s surrounding seas are among the world’s most biodiverse, home to hundreds of colorful fish and marine life, including many rare and unusual organisms and species. On land, the island’s shape is defined by its conical mountains, which provide amazing trekking opportunities and small settlements that are rich in the region’s unique culture and history. Apart from improving English fluency, the indigenous people speak four different languages, and everything from architecture to cuisine has been affected by them in some way.
This location is enveloped in magical tradition, deeply embedded mythology, and tumultuous history, and is known for world-class scuba diving. The country’s earliest settlement dates back to 30,000 BCE, and the Bugis people – famed for their early dedication to Animism, the concept that all objects, places, and creatures have a distinct spiritual essence – established a supremacy in the region that has lasted to this day. The term boogeyman was invented by early traders in the area, inspired by the Bugis’ mastery of sailing and the waters. Bugis custom is still strongly held today, particularly in traditional areas such as Toraja. Bugis customs are still practiced in this historic city.
The majestic, amphitheater-like Ifugao rice terraces, hailed as the world’s most distant and beautiful, frame this tiny community of less than 1,500 residents. The trek to Batad, which is said to have been erected by hand more than 2,000 years ago, is half the adventure, as it is only accessible by jeepney – modified, generally brightly painted military vehicles left by the US Army after WWII – and blissfully devoid of much internet or cellular connection. Beautiful vistas, the Tappiyah Waterfalls, and a tiny sub-village named Patpat Sitio are all located outside of the core hamlet. Visitors are also invited to see aspects of the area’s traditional economy, such as handcrafted Infu.
Bangkok’s northern sister has all the trappings of Thai city life, including vibrant night markets, world-class cuisine, and as many temples as you can bear – but with a decidedly Thai flavor. The city is also a great place to start exploring some of the country’s most gorgeous places and scenery. The walled city, which dates from the 13th century and has more than 30 temples and monuments, is the historical heart of the city. You may explore the Bua Tong Waterfalls in Sri Lanna National Park, the Elephant Nature Park, trek to hill tribe settlements, mountain bike on Doi Suthep mountain, and even take a short excursion to Pai, a small, diversified mountain range just outside the city.
The historic capital of Laos is now a quiet hamlet at the confluence of the country’s two major rivers. The town retains a strong French colonial impact, particularly in its architecture, which is uniquely combined with the indigenous population’s well-preserved religious and cultural traditions. The daily alms ceremony is a deeply ingrained cultural practice. Buddhist monks in saffron robes have been collecting alms of rice from prostrate villagers every morning since the 14th century. Outside of the main hamlet, there is an abundance of natural beauties to discover, including the Phou Si hill, Vat Cieng Toug, the city’s oldest monastery, Kuang Si Falls, Pak Ou or ‘Buddha’ Caves, and Tad Sa.