Southeast Asia is split into two parts; Mainland (known historically as Indochina) and Maritime (known historically as Nusantara or the East Indies.) Mainland Southeast Asia comprises parts of Northeast India, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, Myanmar, and West Malaysia. Maritime Southeast Asia comprises of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands of India, Indonesia, East Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines, East Timor, Brunei, Christmas Island, and Cocos Islands.
Whichever parts of Southeast Asia you’re hoping to visit, you’ll find plenty of tourist attractions to amaze and delight. From ancient sites to fun activities, mesmerizing wildlife to bustling cities, there’s so much to take in. Which of these epic locations will you be making a beeline for on your backpacking trip to Southeast Asia?
Angkor, Siem Reap, Cambodia
One of the most iconic Hindu temples in the world, Angkor Wat was built by 300,000 workers and 6,000 elephants in the 12th century. Surrounded by an impressive moat, the temple is known for its exquisite detail and has become the beating heart of the country. It’s the largest temple complex in Cambodia and more than 50% of foreign travelers name it as their number one reason to visit this beautiful country.
While Hindu temples normally point east, this one point west – a direction which Hindu culture associates with death. Experts still can’t agree on why this is, but it’s undeniable that there’s something special about Angkor Wat. The Ta Prohm Temple is part of the complex and probably the highlight of the trip. Known for the immense tree roots that wind and weave their way around and through the ancient structures, this was the set for the movie Tomb Raider at a cost of $10,000 per day to use as the iconic scene.
The capital city of Laos is a backpacker’s paradise. Near to the border with Thailand, (another top spot for Southeast Asian backpackers) the city is right on the Mekong River. If you don’t know anything about this incredible body of water, look up the documentary ‘The Mekong River with Sue Perkins’ to see this British comedian’s travels through a truly epic and changing landscape.
Pha That Luang is one of the most significant monuments in Vientiane. The gold-covered Buddhist Stupa is at the heart of the city; an imposing structure both in the daytime and at night. Other unmissable attractions in this small but memorable city include the Wat Si Muang temple, the bustling morning market called Talat Sao, and the Buddha sculpture park.
Koh Samet, Thailand
Looking for an idyllic escape? Think tropical weather, white sandy beaches, sparkling water, coconuts with straws sticking out of them, dazzling nightlife… yes, you’re there. A three-hour drive from Bangkok, hop on a ferry and find yourself on a paradise island that’s straight out of a fairy tale.
The largest of this cluster of islands, Koh Samet is still only 6.8 kilometers (4.2 mi) long. It’s a popular weekend getaway from the city if you want to relax on the beach, grab something to eat and generally feel pampered. Away from the hectic fast-paced chaos of Bangkok, Koh Samet will feel like a whole new frame of mind. It will be a welcome break for the weary backpacker in South-eastern Asia.
Scuba Diving In Malaysia
Whether you’re a seasoned diver or have always wanted to give it a go, nothing will feel better than getting off the road and into the water when you’re backpacking in Malaysia. There are several places that are recommended for excellent scuba diving, such as Mabul Island and Sipadan Island. Diving requires a permit so make sure you’ve checked out all the info properly.
If you want a bit more guidance on when and where to go or would prefer to have it all organized for you on a package deal, one company that’s highly recommended is Liveaboard. As well as the two most popular dive sites, the experts can also take you to Froggy Lair, Crocodile Avenues and Kapalai Sandbar for something a bit different.
Monkey Around With Southeast Asian Wildlife
Often rated as one of the top attractions in Indonesia, the Ubud Monkey Forest in Padangtegal village, Bali, is so much more than a place to hang out with picture-perfect primates… though of course, with over 700 monkeys, they’re certainly the main attraction! Open daily, an adult ticket costs IDR 80,000 (less than $6) making this a top attraction if you like getting bang for your buck!
If you’re heading to Borneo, you can’t consider a visit without going to the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre. Founded in the 1960’s, the center is a sanctuary for young orangutans who need to learn vital skills to survive the wild. Open daily (ticket counters closed over the lunch period) it costs 30MYR to enter, which is about $7. There is a small fee to pay if you’d like to use your camera in the center. However, it’s another memorable trip that will cost you very little.
The tarsier mightn’t be a monkey (though they are primates) but it sure looks like one. So, if you’d like to meet some of these super-cute critters, head to the Tarsier Visitor’s Centre in Bohol, the Philippines. This absolutely works a visit at only 60 PHP which just over $1 to get in. The tarsier is rare and endangered so don’t expect to see a whole bunch of them. However, if you love small, adorable animals then it’s worth supporting this center by paying them a visit.
Chiang Mai, Thailand
If you want to visit a modern city with an old heart, head to Chiang Mai in northern Thailand. Backpackers will enjoy being around the modern conveniences that the city has to offer. However, the more traditional elements of Chiang Mai life are still there alongside newer attractions. Pick up the perfect souvenir at the Saturday walking market, or head to Talat Pratu in the morning or evening to grab a bowl of something fresh and delicious. Markets are the best way to soak up a local vibe. And if you stick around in Chiang Mai for a lengthier visit, these places will start to feel like ‘your local’ shopping destinations.
Kuang Si Falls, Laos
Want to go swimming somewhere a bit more unique? How about at the foot of an epic waterfall? There are shallow falls up the hillside, but the main drop of the fall is about 60 meters (200 ft). Pay a small fee to enter and enjoy the idyllic surroundings. Most of the pools are open to swimming so remember to bring your bathing costume! This popular tourist spot is a photogenic place to relax in.
The Golden Rock, Myanmar
If you’re a backpacker who loves hiking and seeing unique monuments, head to Kyaikto in southeast Myanmar. Located 1,100 m above sea level (3,600 ft.), the Golden Rock Pavilion looks like it’s about to take a tumble straight down the hill from where it’s precariously perched. It’s a breath-taking sight, and the whole complex is ornate and photogenic. Reaching the pavilion by public transport can be long-winded and confusing. So, you might be the best booking on an organized tour.
Royal Regalia Museum, Brunei
Opened in 1992 by the Sultan himself, this specialty museum houses regalia of the Sultan and the royalty of Brunei. The spectacular domed building is home to golden chariots, draped in flags and decorated in gold, as well as special seasonal exhibits. See the ceremonial gowns, jewel-encrusted crowns and other artifacts of interest.
The Andaman Islands, The Bay Of Bengal
This location hit the news in 2018 after the death of John Allen Chau; an American missionary who ignored warnings about traveling to the forbidden island of the Sentinelese community. He had been hoping to convert the uncontacted natives. However, there are places in the Andaman Islands where visitors are allowed, though permits must be acquired where necessary.
There are over 500 uninhabited tropical islands in the archipelago, with Havelock Island’s Radhanagar beach being given the title of ‘Asia’s Best Beach’ in 2004 by the TIME magazine. Other attractions include colonial jails (for a slice of history), elephant tourism, stunning mangroves, and unrivaled beaches. Needless to say, it would be extremely unwise to try and approach any native aboriginal tribes in their designated areas.
If you like to set yourself a challenge when you’re backpacking, you’ll find no limit to the trials you can face when hiking around Indonesia. Merapi Volcano is a great place to start. It’s got an elevation of 2,968 m (9,738 ft) and is the most active volcano in Java.
Mount Agung is another one worth visiting. It’s 3,031 m (9,944 ft) tall and has also been erupting in recent years. Visitors to Mount Rinjani can trek right to the caldera. Also, the surrounding National Park is known for its incredible beauty. A must-see for any backpackers heading through southeast Asia.