There are just so many diverse and alluring attractions – natural and man-made – across this fantastic region, that selecting the best Southeast Asia attractions could be classed as a near-on impossible task – albeit fascinating. However, we’ve managed to compile some top attractions in Southeast Asia, covering our highlight countries, that will hopefully inspire your travels in this wondrous corner of the globe!
Cambodia’s star attraction is stupendous Angkor Wat, set within Siem Reap’s Angkor Archaeological Park, a World Heritage Site containing hundreds of ancient temples and monuments of an ancient Khmer Empire. Built in the 12th century, Angkor Wat is one of the world’s greatest ancient wonders and largest religious monuments, a testament to the impressive Khmer civilization and a revered national symbol – its iconic five-tower structure even features on the Cambodian flag.
This incredible sandstone temple complex takes a good few hours, even days to explore, soaking up all the incredible architectural detail and history. One of the best ways to appreciate Angkor Wat’s magnificence is at dawn, watching the sun casting its auburn-orange rays over the silhouetted towers and lotus flower-strewn moat.
There is a big chance that you will spend some time in Hanoi on your Vietnam endeavors. Hoan Kiem lake is an unexpected oasis of tranquility and beauty at the heart – literally – of Hanoi, Vietnam’s thousand-year-old capital. One of many lakes in Hanoi, Hoan Kiem is the most beloved, awarded ‘Special National Relic’ status. Translating as ‘Lake of the Restored Sword’ and steeped in legends, today, ringed by age-old trees and picturesque with Tortoise Tower and Ngoc Son Temple set on two separate islets, Hoan Kiem Lake makes a lovely place to relax any time of day.
Be sure, however, to come at sunrise, when Hanoians flock here to exercise on the lake’s shaded shores and on weekend evenings when the usually frenetic streets surrounding the lake are off-limits to traffic. Hoan Kiem’s vibrant pedestrianized zone is thronged with locals and visitors strolling past the open-air music performances and cultural activities.
As the name suggests, Komodo National Park, a dramatically beautiful cluster of islands amid the Indonesian archipelago, is where you can spot the elusive Komodo Dragons in their natural habitat. It is here, especially on the Park’s main islands, Komodo, Padar, and Rinca, that the now endangered Komodo Dragon has peacefully existed for millions of years, the only place on the planet where the planet’s largest reptiles can be observed.
Take a guided tour in the volcanic hills and rainforests for wild encounters with these dinosaur throwbacks. However, if fork-tongued dragons aren’t your thing, this Park, embedded within the Coral Triangle, boasts some of the planet’s richest and pristine marine environments with astonishing biodiversity – providing some of the most spectacular diving sites imaginable. And amongst dazzling white sand beaches, a stunning pink beach, one of only seven on the planet!
Komodo is a national park, so you will be most likely staying on the island of Flores, with Labuan Bajo being the nearest port. Some amazing cruises can take you deep into the park – to dive, kayak, or meet the dragons. Otherwise, rent a local boat or a guided tour, as you can’t explore the area on your own.
Explorer Marco Polo once described Bagan, the ancient capital of several Burmese Kingdoms in central Myanmar, as one of the ‘one of the world’s finest sights’ – and there’s a good chance you will too, once you see this otherworldly scene. From the original 10,000 or so temples, stupas, pagodas and monuments constructed between the 9th and 13th centuries, only around 2,200 still stand today.
However, sprawled across vast plains beside the Irrawaddy River, Bagan’s collection of religious sites now form one of Asia’s richest archaeological zones and a recently designated World Heritage Site, emanating an evocative sense of history like no other. Each of Bagan’s majestic treasures has its own unique story to tell, but all are superb examples of ancient Burmese architecture.
The best way to explore these ancient relics is by hot air balloon; the bird’s eye, panoramic views over Bagan’s dreamy plains is even more spectacular, timed as the sun dramatically rises or sets over the dozens of mist-shrouded spires.
Formerly known as Faifo, Hoi An was once a thriving Silk Road trading port, dating back to the 16th century. Today, revered as one of Southeast Asia’s oldest towns and a designated World Heritage Site, utterly charming Hoi An ranks amongst Vietnam’s top drawcards. Set alongside picturesque Thu Bon River, the narrow streets of Hoi An’s beautifully preserved Ancient Town are crammed with centuries-old cultural treasures, historic sites, and quaint buildings, a hybrid of the port’s Chinese, European, and Japanese architectural legacies.
As a compact pedestrianized zone, the Ancient Town’s fascinating attractions are easily walkable, so too, the open-air restaurants lining the river, where you can watch the fishing boats chug past and sample the famed local delicacy, freshly grilled fish. This old quarter is at its most atmospheric at the monthly Full Moon Lantern Festival when the streets are beautifully aglow with hundreds of multi-colored silk lanterns and filled with joyous crowds and traditional festivities.
Hoi An airport is in Da Nang, central Vietnam, making it a great stopover between Hanoi and Saigon. Planning your Vietnamese holiday, do put Hoi An on the map of must-see places in Vietnam.
Thailand’s dynamic capital, Bangkok, or ‘City of Angels,’ ranks as one of the world’s most popular city destinations, providing an endless list of things to see and do. It’s almost impossible to travel to Thailand without visiting Bangkok.
One of Bangkok’s top tourist attractions and most famous landmarks is the majestic Grand Palace, the official residence of Thai kings since 1782, with the monarch, his court, and royal government based in the sumptuous grounds until 1925.
Today, partially open to the public, the palace compound is still used to host royal ceremonies, official events, and state functions and remains the spiritual heart of the Thai Kingdom. Staggering in both historical significance and Thai craftsmanship, there are more than 100 impressive buildings here, including royal halls and pavilions, set around manicured gardens and courtyards. Part of the palace compound is dedicated to Wat Phra Kaew, or Temple of the Emerald Buddha, Thailand’s most sacred Buddhist site, housing a highly – revered Emerald Buddha image carved from a single block of jade that dates back to the 14th century.
If you think of Bali, set in the Indonesian archipelago and one of the world’s leading holiday destinations, a number of iconic images come to mind. But perhaps emerald-green rice fields peppered with coconut palms, or terraced down idyllic hillsides, is the most quintessential Bali image of all. In fact, no visit to this ‘Island of the Gods’ is complete without marveling at these beautiful rice fields, or better still hiked through on early morning guided walks.
The omnipresent rice paddies are highly important to the island’s culinary heritage, a sacred component in Balinese Hindu beliefs and display ancient Subak culture (co-operative irrigation systems). No matter where you stay in Ubud, lush rice fields are never far away, but for the most striking terraced varieties, head to stunning Tegallalang, just outside town. The gorgeous s western regency of Tabanan Regency, is Bali’s rice bowl and where you’ll find Jatiluwih Rice Terraces, a spectacular World Heritage Site and Bali’s most celebrated rice fields, cascading down volcanic foothills that meet the sea.
Enchanting Luang Prabang tops most lists of favorite destinations in Southeast Asia and is an essential part of any trip to Laos. In fact, this former royal capital, nestled at the confluence of two rivers surrounded by mountains, is so mesmerizing, countless travelers have ended up staying far longer than expected. The town’s infectiously relaxed ambiance, ethereal setting, and centuries-old Buddhist traditions and spirituality are just some of the reasons for Luang Prabang’s popularity.
But mainly, the well-preserved Old Town, not a tourist attraction per se, but its atmospheric narrow streets are home to many cultural treasures, striking Indochinese and Lao architecture, and key landmarks. Highlights include the former stately residence of Laos royalty, 30-plus golden pagodas, of which, the most spectacular is Wat Xieng Thong, and sunset watching from the summit of Mount Phousi.
Southwest Thailand’s sparkling Andaman Sea is renowned for its breathtaking islands, bay, and beaches. One of the most popular natural attractions is Phang Nga Bay, distinctive for its sheer limestone karsts and towering cliffs jutting out of the emerald-green sea. Many of the peculiar-shaped islets are uninhabited, revealing caves and pretty beach coves. The best way to savor Phang Nga Bay’s jaw-dropping scenery and abundant wildlife is on a leisurely boat tour, either a traditional longtail boat, speedboat, or private chartered yacht.
Protected by a marine national park, with calm, shallow waters, this bay is perfect for boating. The more adventurous should opt for sea-kayaking, paddling deep into hidden hongs – collapsed cave systems open to the sky and rich in flora and fauna. Don’t miss boating around the iconic pinnacle, ‘James Bond Island,’ so-named after featuring in the Bond movie, The Man with the Golden Gun. Its top-heavy formation is a spectacular wonder, as is the surrounding water world. Stop off at quiet coves and a fresh seafood lunch at Koh Panyee, a traditional Muslim fishing village built over the sea on stilts.
Located on Java Island, resting atop a hill ringed by volcanoes on tranquil plains, the magnificent Borobudur temple complex is the world’s largest and most celebrated Buddhist monument and one of its greatest archaeological sites. Constructed in the 9th century to resemble a pyramid-shaped mandala, Borobudur was abandoned after catastrophic volcanic eruptions, lying buried under layers of ash and jungle for around a millennium.
Today, this well-preserved monument is one of Southeast Asia’s greatest religious relics and a magnet for Buddhist pilgrims. This Mahayana Buddhist temple is best experienced at dawn, not only to avoid the stifling daytime heat, but when it’s at its most spiritually charged. In the early hour’s darkness, ascend the seven stone terraces ringed with dozens of Buddha sculptures leading up to an uppermost central stupa. From this sacred perch, watch the sunrise over mist-shrouded volcanic peaks. Afterward, explore the intricate bas-reliefs lining the temple walls, allegedly the world’s largest ensemble.
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