Writing this list was no easy task.
The truth is that there were so many ideas bursting forth into my stream of consciousness when I first had the idea for this post that I basically couldn’t figure out how to write it for a number of weeks.
There are literally hundreds of epic spots in South East Asia. You could spend a lifetime in the region and would still find new marvels, delights, and wonders.
I ultimately decided to simply go with my nine personal favourites.
If I’ve missed any amazing places and you care to share them or feel I haven’t done this list justice by leaving them off it, please feel free to drop a comment below or heckle me if you feel it is necessary.
South East Asia has something for everyone, no matter what your preference. I’ve tried to balance this post with a little of everything.
So, here we go.
9 Top Travel Spots in South East Asia
The Gili Islands, Indonesia
Imagine three little dots nestled in the emerald-green Java sea. Imagine no motor transport, no bothersome crowds, no hassle and basically no worries.
The Gili Islands are possibly the most relaxed and secluded islands I have ever had the pleasure of visiting. There isn’t much to do other than bask in the sunshine, snorkel on the beautiful reef, take sunset boat tours and marvel at the magnitude of the milky way as you stare up at the unpolluted night sky full of gleaming stars.
Getting to the Gili Islands involves travel from either Bali or Lombok (both worth a visit in themselves). You’ll need at least a week to fully enjoy all three of the islands and partake in all of the activities. If you have Indonesia on your itinerary, don’t miss the Gili Islands.
Koh Phangan, Thailand
Koh Phangan is a gorgeous tropical island in the South of Thailand. The great thing about it is that you can both party all night long at one of its multiple full moon (or any kind of moon) raves, or you can decide to get away from it all and travel through the jungle clad mountains to one of the more secluded beaches where you can relax, unwind and meet up with backpackers from all over the world.
Koh Phangan has virtually every activity known to man readily available for your pampering and pleasure. From full body massages on the beach to dirt bikes to rent for a few bucks a day to diving, snorkeling, trekking and everything in between.
If you don’t like hoards of party-goers then avoid the full moon party as they literally swarm the place. At any other time of the month, however, it is possible to enjoy the relaxed side of Koh Phangan and kick back with a beer on one of the most beautiful islands in Asia.
Angkor Wat, Cambodia
I fully admit I was not a big fan of Cambodia as a whole. The place was too much for me and the sheer suffering of its people and the levels of poverty and distress overwhelmed me and I had to leave early. That being said there was one diamond I will never forget as long as I live: Angkor Wat.
Made famous in the Tombraider movies which converted Angelina Jolie to a lifelong advocate of the place, Angkor Wat is a world heritage site and is basically a series of ancient temples which were lost in the overgrown jungle until someone rediscovered them in the 1500’s.
These temples speak of an ancient civilization the world knows very little of today but which was clearly highly advanced. These are some of the world’s finest architectural wonders and they were built waaayyyyyy back when most of the rest of the world was living in huts and caves.
You can easily arrange a tour from Siem Reap at any hotel either before you get there or after you arrive.
Negros Island, The Philippines
I have decided to include Negros Island on this list as it is where I currently reside and is one of the most beautiful places I have ever visited. It receives very little tourism compared to some other places in the Philippines even though it has just as much (arguably more) to offer.
Unspoiled beaches, untouched natural wonders, an epic volcano, the seaside resort of Dumaguete, miles and miles and miles of sugar fields and a laid back pace of life make for one of the most relaxing places on earth.
One of the things I find most appealing about Negros is the people. They are genuinely interested in you, they have not become sick and tired of hoards of tourists as in some other places (since there are virtually no tourists here), and they always have the time to party and enjoy life!
I recommend you do not come here. I want to keep it all for myself!
Pai, North Thailand
If you’re looking for a hustling, bustling mega town you should FORGET about Pai.
Pai is actually just a crossroads in the middle of the mountains with a couple of bars, hotels and chic shops lining its main street. There is something about it, however, which captivates people and hundreds of backpackers end up spending months of their lives there (I am one of them).
Pai has a little of the hippie vibe to it and live music, 50 cent beers, the surrounding mountains and rice paddies and a quaint river which is lined with bamboo huts make for one of the most enchanting, captivating little towns I have ever had the joy of visiting.
I went for 3 days and stayed for 3 months. I still can’t tell you exactly why. It’s just the Pai effect. Miss this little wonder at your peril!
Ujung Kulon National Park, Indonesia
This one is little known to the masses of backpackers, but you will need to see it to believe such a natural paradise exists.
When I traveled to Ujung Kulon I did not see another human being other than the people I went with for four days. This is a chain of untouched islands which you have to rent a boat and a guide to take you around as it is not open to mass tourism. It is worth every penny and you will see what the world would have been like before humans took a massive dump on it.
Crystal clear waters, desert islands, rhinos, monkeys and powder white sand in total and absolute seclusion! What are you waiting for?
To get to Ujung Kulon, you’ll need to travel to the West coast of Java to a town like Carita and make plans with one of the local tour guides. Just ask for “Bobo” and he will set you up. This is a place you will not believe exists until you experience it.
Luang Prabang, Laos
If you want to feel like you have entered a time machine and found yourself back in the year 1820 I highly recommend a trip to Luang Prabang or Laos in general.
When I crossed the mighty Mekong and first entered the country I was flabbergasted by how laid back and chilled everything was. Old women chewed tobacco and spat it out and smiled toothless smiles while blissed-out monks floated by in waving orange robes.
When I took the slow boat down the river to Luang Prabang I was doubly impressed. This is an old French-style town with a Laotian twist built along the banks of the Mekong River. Old cafes with shutters on the windows sit side by side with golden-roofed Buddhist temples and farmers markets full of fresh produce as the smell of sweet incense fills the air.
It is somewhere you can relax, unwind, set down your bags for a few days and simply enjoy. Laos is still one of the best places I have ever been, and Luang Prabang is the best Laos has to offer!
A trip to South East Asia would not be complete without taking in the most fun city it has to offer.
Bangkok will likely send you packing within hours the first time you arrive, the sheer scale and hustle-bustle of it terrifying the first time Asia traveler. However, there is something alluring about her busy streets, hidden cafes, pumping nightclubs, sordid ping pong shows (yes, that kind of show), mouth-watering street food and the globalized population that will draw you back in again and again.
I couldn’t get out fast enough the first time I arrived in Bangkok but have been back multiple times since. There is nowhere in the world with quite the same mixture of mental-yet-mellow and nowhere you can have everything your mind has ever imagined possible in one single place.
In fact, just writing about it has given me the urge to go back. I guess I know where I’m headed over the next break.
Boracay, The Philippines
My Filipino friends and family will probably chastise me for including Boracay on this list, but nonetheless it has been named the world’s best beach multiple times for a reason.
Boracay probably had its heyday twenty years ago and admittedly it is a little overcrowded and jam packed with tourists from everywhere on earth. I still think, however, it is somewhere not to be missed.
You can do pretty much anything you want in Boracay from sipping iced coffees and relaxing in a cafe to getting blind drunk by completing a vodka-shot marathon which will earn you a T-Shirt and a photo on the wall. You can also take a yacht around the island if you hook up with a group for just about $20 per head for the day including drinks and food.
Boracay IS a tourist hotspot, so if you’re looking to get away from it all this is not a place you will enjoy. If you’re looking for no-frills fun in the sun, a party vibe and a lot of outdoor activities on one of the world’s most beautiful, powder white beaches then Boracay is the place to be!
So what have we missed? What are your favourite spots in South East Asia? Where would you recommend to other travelers and backpackers?