Backpacking Southeast Asia has been a popular choice for many people on their gap year or post-uni trip for a few decades now. Southeast Asia appeals to people for its great food, beautiful weather, nature spots, and friendly people. It’s also a great choice for anyone on a solo budget as most Southeast Asia countries are still very affordable to travel.
There is so much to do when backpacking Southeast Asia that it can be a little intimidating when planning your trip. Here are 15 places in Southeast Asia that you really don’t want to miss.
Of all the Southeast Asia countries you cannot beat Thailand, especially Northern Thailand. You may well have heard about Chiang Mai city but have you been told about Pai? This small town located just a short 3-hour taxi ride to the North is a gem. Expect a lot of hippies, live music, cocktails, and tasty food. Aesthetically, the town of Pai is beautiful and quaint which you can explore via scooter.
Pai is famous for its laid back and bohemian vibe. You will find young people from all over the world here relaxing and having a good time together. Be sure to visit the natural Sai Ngam hot springs to swim amongst the forest trees. Pai Canyon is also a great spot of interest for some scenic views of the area. At night, tuck into some amazing street food down the Pai walking street and after pop into one of the many chilled bars to enjoy some live music.
Hoi An, Vietnam
Hoi An is a truly special place in Central Vietnam. When backpacking Southeast Asia you can expect to be told about this place by many other backpackers. It’s unlike any other place you will visit in the country with a very Europeanesque feel. The architecture here is French with cobbled roads, fine dining restaurants, and wine bars. Hoi An is most famous for its lantern festival each year in September but if you go, expect big crowds. You can also buy the Hoi An lanterns from many of the street sellers to take a piece of the city home with you.
Here you will find great opportunities for shopping with handmade goods and insanely beautiful lanterns up for a very good price. The food here is also famous within Southeast Asia, it’s very different from the traditional food you will find elsewhere in Vietnam and should not be missed!
Whilst Bali has now become an incredibly busy tourist spot, you can still find some peace and serenity here. Bali is known for its beautiful nature, pristine beaches and good times. If you’re looking to kick back and enjoy an exotic beach holiday at a fraction of the price compared to the Maldives then this is the place for you.
With its recent rise in popularity, there is no shortage of beautiful places to stay and incredibly tasty foods to indulge in. It’s also a vegan food mecca, so expect a lot of great plant-based food options. If you like surfing, there is no better place in southeast Asia than Bali to hit the waves or learn for the first time.
Angkor Wat, Cambodia
Make sure you get here for sunrise for a truly spectacular moment on your Southeast Asia travels. The temples of Angkor Wat are a stunning sight and steeped in amazing Hindu and Buddhist history. Get there early to experience the eerily beautiful atmosphere of the place before the big crowds arrive.
If you are interested in learning about the place, you can pay for a guide at the entrance for a small amount of money and they don’t disappoint. There are many opportunities for great photos here so make sure to take your camera!
No backpacking Southeast Asia trip is complete without visiting the Philippines. Often overlooked because of the difficulty and expense of getting there but the Philippines is well worth it! So, technically this is not one place but an entire island with many awesome places to visit along the way. Palawan is home to incredible beaches, mountains and is a fantastic place to go diving.
The key places to visit include El Nido, a colonial Spanish sea town filled with gorgeous Mediterranean food and beachfront bars and restaurants. Port Barton is a small off-grid sea town with pristine turquoise waters and white sand beaches. Coron is the diving hotspot at the North of the island, offering very cheap diving lessons and PADI certification courses. A great choice for those on a solo budget.
When backpacking Southeast Asia, people tend to skip Singapore because it’s a big city and very expensive. However, going to Singapore is worth it just to see it. Singapore is small and its transportation is excellent. Hence you can get around the city and marvel at architecture with ease.
The Gardens by the Bay is the most popular place for tourists, it’s a 101-hectare fantasy land of futuristic tree-like buildings and natural gardens. It’s an absolute wonder to behold and should not be missed. By night, go check out the street food markets of Singapore and try some of their famous spicy noodles or any other dish from the 1000’s of options.
Hanoi is an experience, one not to missed when backpacking Southeast Asia. Yes, it’s busy. Yes, it’s noisy. But, you should not miss the opportunity to walk around Hanoi’s Old Town and just take in the sights and smells. Hanoi is always bustling with local people and motorbikes zipping down the tiny narrow streets. There are many opportunities to try some tasty Vietnamese street food and cheap local beer.
There are many things to do in Hanoi but you may find the best thing is to sit outside a cafe with a fresh Vietnamese coffee and people watch for hours. You will not get bored.
Borneo has some of the most amazing wildlife and jungle in the world. If you manage to stop there you can try climb Mount Kinabalu, one of the richest places on the planet for plant diversity. Expect epic landscape photo opportunities!
In Borneo, you will also have the opportunity to go see the Orangutans in their natural habitat. Be sure to travel responsibly, only book tours with reliable agencies and those that support the conservation of these beautiful creatures.
What is a trip to Southeast Asia without visiting the capital of Thailand? If you like food then Bangkok is where you need to be. The street food here is some of the best in the world and you will struggle to pay anymore than $1 for each meal.
Bangkok is home to some of the most vibrant street life in Southeast Asia, you will have no shortage of sights, sounds and smells as you explore the city. It’s also a very well connected city with good public transport, so it is easy to navigate around.
Ha Long Bay, Vietnam
Ha Long Bay is a magnificent sight to behold. Thousands of huge sea stacks make up this incredible UNESCO world heritage area. You can choose to take a number of different boat tours around the islands. There are relaxing boats focused on sightseeing or party boats focused on having a good time where you will find most young backpackers. Some boat tours even let you stay on one of the small islands for the night.There are a number of activities offered by the boat companies such as cliff diving, snorkeling, and island hopping too. Make sure you do your research before you book.
You may well have seen the iconic photo above before but with hot air balloons rising above into the sky. This is Bagan, the ‘Land of Pagodas’ and an area of epic scenery. You can take a Bagan has an interesting history that you can learn about via guides on-site if interested.
The best time to be in Bagan is sunrise, the area is known for high levels of tourism so get there nice and early Make sure you take a good camera with you and enjoy the spectacular experience. After the sun is up, feel free to roam around and explore the intricate details of each pagoda.
Here in Bohol, the sea and white sands are just as pristine as Palawan mentioned above and just as beautiful as the more popular Boracay. However, Bohol is home to some impressive landscapes including the mind-boggling geographical abnormality that is Chocolate Hills (pictured above).
Keep a lookout for the crazy looking primate Tarsier. They are the smallest primate in the world and can only be found on the island of Bohol.
Perhentian Islands, Malaysia
Not often discussed amongst travelers in Southeast Asia are the small but beautiful Perhentian Islands off the North-East Coast of Malaysia. As a result, the island has not been affected too much by tourism. Expect to jump off the boat and be one of many backpackers walking around looking for a place to stay. You will find great bars all along the beach as well as some quaint B&B style accommodation.
The island is chilled by day and comes alive at night. You will meet many like-minded people on this island all in search of exotic nature and that island life. Keep an eye out for the monitor lizards that freely roam the island!
Krabi/Ao Nang, Thailand
When backpackers talk about beautiful Thailand beaches they usually refer to Koh Samui, Koh Phangan, Koh Phi Phi or Phuket. In 2019, a lot of those places, unfortunately, have lost their charm to over-tourism. If you’re in search of what Thailand beaches used to be like it is worth taking the trip to Krabi and Ao Nang (20-minute drive).
Here, you will find pristine beaches, chill bars and seafood restaurants that are all reminiscent of old Thailand. The top beach, Railay Beach, is only accessible by boat for a small fee from the main beach in Ao Nang.