Comprising of a group of unique countries bookended between the Indian and Pacific oceans, Southeast Asia never fails to enthrall the millions of visitors that flock here – and repeatedly return. As irresistible Southeast Asia comes blessed with spectacular natural beauty, filled with endemic fauna and flora, countless vibrant cities, historic sites, and ancient ruins, diverse ethnic communities, and more, it may take a lifetime to tick-off a Southeast Asia best places to visit wish list. To help make any decisions, or simply inspire you, we’ve compiled a Top Ten ‘Best places to visit in Southeast Asia’ for our highlight countries.
Nestled at the confluence of two rivers and encircled by mist-shrouded mountains, Luang Prabang is not surprisingly one of Southeast Asia’s most alluring destinations. A former Laos royal capital now protected by World Heritage status, this riverside town emanates an almost ethereal ambiance and is considered the heart of Laotian culture and Buddhist spirituality.
Evocative narrow streets in the historic Old Town reveal a bewitching blend of faded French Indochina and traditional Laotian architecture, besides dozens of gilded Buddhist wats (temples) and cultural treasures, including the stately Royal Palace Museum.
Even more, attractions lie in the surrounding countryside, including jungle-engulfed Kuang Si Falls – one of Laos’ most spectacular natural attractions – the sacred Pak Ou cave temples, and much more. However, Luang Prabang’s infectiously languid vibe makes this a wonderful place to simply just relax and soak up the atmosphere.
Formerly known as Faifo, Hoi An was once a thriving Silk Road trading port, dating back to the 16th century. Today, one of Southeast Asia’s oldest towns and a designated World Heritage Site, utterly charming Hoi An is amongst Vietnam’s top drawcards and a favorite spot during tours through Vietnam. Set alongside picturesque Thu Bon River, the narrow, pedestrianized streets of Hoi An’s beautifully preserved Ancient Town reveal heaps of cultural treasures, historical sites, and lovely old buildings, all of which are easily walkable.
A fusion of the port’s multi-national architectural legacies, admire the Chinese shophouses and vividly colored temples, faded French colonial-era mansions, and Japanese Covered Bridge, an iconic town emblem. After sightseeing, relax at open-air, riverside cafés and restaurants, watching the boats chug past and sampling mouth-watering regional cuisine. Beyond here, cycle out to pretty beaches and traditional farming lands, or take a boat ride along the river for sunset.
Thailand’s southern regions, namely, amid the sparkling Andaman Sea, are home to some of the most stunning beaches, not only in Asia but on the planet; a beachgoer’s paradise and tropical playground providing endless water sports activities. Whether located in hidden coves, or on forested islands big and small, the southern Andaman Sea provides diverse and countless varieties of beaches, generally stretch of fine white sands, shaded by swaying palm trees and lapped by warm, emerald-hued waters teeming with colorful fish and corals.
The most popular tourist hotspot is beautiful Phuket, the largest of Thailand’s many islands, known as the ‘Pearl of the Andaman Sea’ and regarded as one of the world’s top beach destinations, with at least 30 gorgeous beach choices to choose from. Nearby Krabi Province is also popular for its postcard-perfect scenery, crammed with pristine beaches and dazzling islands, including Koh Lanta and Koh Phi Phi, a mini-archipelago instantly recognizable for its spectacular limestone karsts.
Little wonder Thailand’s pulsating capital, Bangkok, ranks amongst the world’s top favorite city destinations. If nothing else, this ‘City of Angels,’ displays the finest example of a thriving Southeast Asia metropolis successfully balancing ancient and modern and exotic Oriental and contemporary western. More than just a mere gateway to Thailand’s outlying attractions, Bangkok offers so much to see and do that you may well stay longer than intended.
This dynamic city is a popular tourist magnet for its omnipresent Buddhist culture and golden-topped wats (pagodas), captivating landmarks such as the Grand Palace (home to Thailand’s revered Emerald Buddha), along with glitzy shopping malls, lively nightlife, vibrant markets, and boat forays along historic Chao Phraya, the ‘River of Kings.’ Bangkok is also regarded as one of the planet’s top culinary destinations and Asia’s unofficial food capital, famous for its distinctive and deliciously spicy street food.
Extending towards the Chinese border, Vietnam’s northern mountainous regions boast not only some of Southeast Asia’s most dramatically beautiful landscapes but are also home to nearly two-thirds of Vietnam’s 54 or so diverse ethnic groups.
The most convenient base for this breathtaking region is Sapa, an alpine-style, former French hill station nestled amid the northwest mountain ranges, surrounded by sweeping valleys, terraced rice fields, and mist-shrouded peaks – including Mount Fansipan, the ‘Roof of Indochina.’
Trek through verdant paddies to outlying rustic stilt villages for a fascinating insight into the traditional daily lives of ethnic communities, especially the colorfully attired Hmong and Red Dao. Further afield, literally, head off the beaten track, deep into forested mountainous terrain for weekly ethnic markets, which few tourists get to experience.
Centre-stage in Indonesia’s spectacular archipelago and its primary tourism hotspot, Bali repeatedly ranks as one of the world’s top holiday destinations. Heading to Indonesia, you should not look away from this amazing place.
This tropical island is hugely popular for its stunning and diverse landscapes, from smoking volcanic peaks and terraced rice fields to gorgeous beaches, along with world-class surfing, relaxed beach life, hedonistic nightspots and rich arts and crafts heritage.
The aptly named, ‘Island of the Gods’ is further imbued with a unique Balinese Hindu culture and spirituality, where mystical traditions permeate daily life and thousands of Hindu temples and shrines litter the island. Bali has also evolved as one of the world’s leading epicenters for spas, wellness and yoga, especially in tourist favorite, Ubud, plus boasts a multitude of award-winning luxury resorts. Every type of traveler – from nature lovers and families to partygoers – will find something of interest on amazing Bali.
Considered one of the planet’s greatest natural wonders, World Heritage Site Halong Bay tops everyone’s bucket list on Vietnam visits. Within this ‘Bay of Descending Dragons,’ more than 2,000 limestone islands and islets mystically rise out of the Gulf of Tonkin’s emerald-hued waters. Overnight cruises are the ideal way to experience this ethereal seascape and all the many caves and grottoes it reveals, although don’t miss sea-kayaking to some of the secluded lagoons.
Halong Bay may be vast but it is extremely popular with day and overnight cruises. To avoid the crowds, sail on to its southern extension, the stunningly beautiful Lan Ha Bay, a relatively new tourism destination that with fewer boats around, offers a more tranquil scene. In addition to the equally stupendous karst-studded scenery of its illustrious neighbor, further attractions extend to Cat Ba Island, the Bay’s largest island, perfect for jungle treks and spotting wildlife and snorkeling off coral beaches.
Siem Reap is best known as the gateway to Angkor Archaeological Park, a gigantic World Heritage Site containing hundreds of temples and monument remnants of an ancient Khmer civilization. The most celebrated is Angkor Wat, a temple complex ranked as the world’s largest religious site and one of its most magnificent architectural wonders. This charming provincial town however offers so much more than crumbling Khmer treasures, reinventing itself as a stand-out destination in its own right.
In fact, amongst the Chinese-style shophouses and Indochina-era architectural legacies, this former capital of a mighty ancient kingdom displays Cambodia’s new modern-day face, with thriving art and cultural scene, renowned dining, and lively nightlife. Siem Reap positively brims with art galleries, markets, museums, upscale resorts, and stylish bars and restaurants. It also makes an ideal launchpad for the surrounding mountainous countryside, where you’ll find adventure sports, waterfalls, and more remote temple ruins.
Tonlé Sap, Southeast Asia’s largest freshwater lake, where you can take leisurely boat cruises to explore the picturesque floating villages and waterbird reserves.
No Southeast Asia top ten list would be complete without including some steamy jungles and our recommended pick is Indonesian Kalimantan, sprawled across the southern parts of exotic Borneo, the planet’s largest island.
For nature enthusiasts and adventurers, wildly beautiful Kalimantan provides the playground for unforgettable journeys, swathed in some of the world’s oldest, most biodiverse rainforests, home to indigenous ethnic groups and endangered species such as the clouded leopard, proboscis monkeys and orangutans.
Like an Indiana Jones-style adventure, cruise along remote waterways on a traditional Kalimantan vessel deep into primeval rainforests, protected by world-acclaimed national parks. Amid the jungle, encounter riverside Dayak communities and endemic wildlife at play, especially, wild orangutans, swinging through the canopies in one of their last remaining natural habitats.
If you’re seeking peace, serenity, and natural beauty, with traditional Burmese culture and historic gems thrown in, head for the hills, namely the Shan Hills, deep in Myanmar’s highland interiors. One of Myanmar’s most iconic destinations and the planet’s most picturesque bodies of water, magnificent Inle Lake is the nation’s second-largest freshwater lake and elevated at 2,900 feet, one of its highest.
Part of a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve and Wetland Wildlife Sanctuary, Inle Lake is the natural habitat to exceptional flora and fauna and around 200-plus floating villages, housing some of the local ethnic communities. Explore this magical watery world on a wooden long-tail boat, gliding past rustic stilt-houses, floating gardens and legendary Intha fishermen, who uniquely row their boats with one leg wrapped around an oar. Here, discover a traditional way of life, from artisan handicraft workshops to vibrant, colorful markets, as well as revered lakeside sites such as Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda.
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