If you are planning a trip to Southeast Asia follow this most important tip: Go for backpacking instead of staying 3 weeks in one hotel at one beach. There are so many beautiful destinations and it is incredibly cheap to change location in most southeast Asian countries.
Summary of the must-go places in Southeast Asia:
- Gunung Leusur National Park, Sumatra, Indonesia
- Pulau Kapas, Malaysia
- Bagan, Myanmar
- Halong Bay, Vietnam
- Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
- Koh Rong, Cambodia
- Siem Reap, Cambodia
- Inle Lake, Myanmar
- Sapa, Vietnam
- Thai New Year, Chiang Mai, Thailand
So where to go? I’m gonna show you my personal favourite places in Southeast Asia, some insider tips and hidden gems as well as some well-known must-sees. I’m not going to recommend Thailand’s party destinations, like a fullmoon party in Koh Phangan or „The beach“ – beach Koh Phi Phi which is overcrowded, hence overrated for me. I’m gonna show you original destinations, beautiful nature and must-see places. I’m an easy-going traveller who likes culture, nature and remote and relaxed places. If that’s what you are looking for, read on!
Gunung Leuser National Park, Sumatra, Indonesia – Watching the last wild Orang-utan – insider tip!
A REAL JUNGLE EXPERIENCE can be found in Gunung Leuser National Park which is the only park left with a wild population of Orangutans in Indonesia. Go to a small, remote village in the mountains, called Ketambe and take a 2 or 3 day-jungle-trek with an experienced guide. A good starting point is Friendship Guesthouse which is run by very friendly, open-minded locals. They will organize a trek just for you and your mates according to your wishes. Also, the food is extraordinary in this hostel. They provide experienced guides, equipment for the trek, a tent (or rather 4 sticks and a canvas), cooking utensils as well as a guy who helps to carry and cooking. They know the jungle like the back of their hands and will make a unique experience out of your trip. Expect not only Orang-utans but a unique flora and fauna as well as animals like rhino bugs or the white-breasted Thomas leaf monkeys.
Please do me a favour and DON’T go to Bukit Lawang, Sumatra where tour operators bring buses over buses for owatchingwatchting. The REAL TRUTH is that the guides there feed the Orang-utans to show up for tourists and their pictures and by doing so destroy the natural eco-system and instinct of the animals.
Pulau Kapas – Malaysia’s hidden gem
White powder beaches, take-it-easy-atmosphere, crystal blue water and a good snorkel offers this tiny island on the east coast of Malaysia which is still a secret insider tip about which only few people know. So go there before tourism is conquering the island! Accommodations range from one modern and well-maintained hotel to low budget options, so even for families this island is suitable. There are three little beaches on the west coast combined by little stairs and few more around if you are seeking for a lonely beach. Besides beach and relaxing there is not much to do on the island. No streets, no hustle bustle and no shops – just paradise! If you are not convinced yet, read my blog post about Pulau Kapas or check out the following pics:
Be aware that on public Malay holidays many locals might go there for a day trip, so avoid these times.
I have been there 4 years ago and I’m wondering if it is still the remote paradise island as I got to know Pulau Kapas. If you have been there lately, feel free to drop your comment and give an update.
Bagan, Myanmar – feel the energies in this religious plain
I love Myanmar because of the people. Yeah I know, that’s what many people say after their holidays in any country. But the people in Myanmar are different than in other southeast asian countries. They are surprisingly open-minded, curious and like to speak to you and learn more about the world and the culture you come from – even if the military dictatorship ended already 8 years ago people seem not to now much about the world outside of Myanmar. They are not just nice and supporting you because they will ask for tip for their help 5 minute after like in Thailand. They are peaceful and friendly and happy about the upturn the country went through the last years.
Bagan, the place which impressed me the most in Myanmar, is an area of about 104 square kilometers of hundreds of ancient temples in the center of Myanmar. Rent a bike and take the little bumpy paths to discover them and soak in the mystic atmosphere of the whole area. It is worth to get up early in the morning and see the sun rise from the top of a bigger temple like Shwesandaw Paya, Buledi, or Tan Kyi Paya. Be aware that it is super hot (like 40 degrees) in Bagan in dry season between March and May, still it is possible to go, I was there during this time.
Halong Bay, Vietnam – amazing views, amazing sunsets, amazing time!
It’s not a secret that Halong Bay is truly amazing and definitely you’re not going to be the only tourists there. Nevertheless taking a cruise for 2 or 3 days in Halong Bay is so worth it. About 2000 limestone islands are rising out of the sea in the north east of Vietnam and form an amazing view during the whole cruise – not to forget about the sun rises and sunsets! Many tour operators offer hiking, snorkeling, kayaking or fishing during your stay on boat. Choose your tour operator wisely as the quality of boats and cruises vary a lot. You get what you pay for – cheap cruises often come up with a different program as booked or refuse to refund you in case the cruise didn’t take place due to the weather conditions (which is not rare). So check the conditions of cancelation and refund before booking.
Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia – a unique city on an island full of street art, culture, food and backpacking vibes
People who come to Penang expect another paradise island like Koh Tao in Thailand which is definitely not the case. Penang is a former British Colony and due to it’s geographical location at the Strait of Melacca an important commercial spot. It combines the two halves of Asia. What makes Penang, also called Pearl of the Orient, very interesting is its mixed population which consist of Malay people, Indians and Chinese. Georgetown, the capital of Penang and a big city which is Unesco World Heritage Site, reflects this culture mix and you’ll find Hindu temples, buddhist temples and Mosques in the same street. Parts of Georgetown, especially the area around Chulia Street (Lebuh Chulia) developed to an alternative district with fancy little coffees, cosy breakfast places or bagel corners, like Junk or Rainforest Bakery. A must-go is also China House in Lebuh Pantai, a mix of coffee shop, art gallery and live music with super delicious cakes. Another aspect which makes wandering through Georgetown’s street so beautiful, is the fantastic street art which can be discovered in the whole center and contributes to the unique atmosphere of this alternative Malaysian city.
Koh Rong, Cambodia – the paradise with glowing plankton you’ll never want to leave
Koh Rong is an island in Cambodia and the perfect get-away from the hustle bustle in the rest of the country, for instance Phnom Penh. You can reach Koh Rong by boat from Sianoukville. There are just few very basic accommodations on the eastern beach of the island and you will be warmly welcomed on arrival by the Spanish guy at the pear. There is not much to do on the island than relaxing at the beach or kayaking. But what makes the island unique is the hippie, family like atmosphere, when almost all visitors of the island meet in Coco Bar in the evening for a drink and sit together chatting about life in candle light after 12 when there is no more electricity on the island. Absolutely the highlight is the glowing plankton when you go swimming at night! I’ve never experienced any more beautiful natural spectacle than this! Truly! Try it out and be surrounded by the sparkling plankton in the sea and the sparkling stars in the sky – amazingly beautiful!!
There are no streets on the island, but you can hike through the jungle to the other side of the island to a remote, wavy beach. When I was there in 2014 there was no civilization on this part of the island. However I heard from travelers that Koh Rong turned way more touristy. Can anybody give an update about that? Just drop a comment and tell about your latest experience in Koh Rong!
Siem Reap, Cambodia – discover one of the new 7 wonders of the world
I’m not a fan of visiting temples, but Siem Reap is so impressive, I was even amazed by these 1000 year old impressing stone creations. Definitely check out the Ta Prohm temples which you know from Tomb Raider – it is truly impressive how hundred years old trees grow on the temple. Another must-see temple is Bayon Temple which is characterized by gigantic stone faces on the towers and within the temple. This was the most impressing one for me. Siem Reap is especially famous for Angkor Wat which is the largest religious site of the world, a must-see temple of course. But be aware that the whole area is super touristy and crowded, full of tuk-tuk drivers and sellers who want to offer their services. When visiting the temple area pick wisely, you don’t need to see every single temple, it is not even possible! Also consider that smaller, lesser known temples such as Neak Pean might be more worth it due to fewer people and the off-the-beaten-path location.
Inle Lake, Myanmar – relaxed place with a decent backpacker scene
Inle Lake and the village Nyaung-shwe is a relaxed destination with some backpacking scene. The lake is around 22 km long and 10 km wide. The main mean of transportation are motorized boats which you can rent including a driver. You can also rent bikes and cycle along the lake (we didn’t manage to go around). There is a very calm, beautiful atmosphere on the lake in the early morning. You can watch the sunrise from the boat and enjoy the epic scenery around. Don’t miss to observe the unique way how locals drive their long flat boats, one leg wrapped around the paddle, and the fisherman with their special nets.
Sapa, Vietnam – the green get-away
If you need a break of the hustle bustle in Hanoi or Saigon, take the night train to Sapa and enjoy some days in the more chilly mountains in the north of Vietnam. You can go for mountain biking or hiking, surely you’ll gonna enjoy amazing views on rice terraces as well as green valleys and waterfalls. You’ll hike through little villages where kids are riding on water buffalos and men still plow their fields with horse carts. But be aware that Sapa is nevertheless touristy and many beggars and even kids who sell bracelets will cross your path and follow you.
Thai New Year in Chaing Mai – unique water splashing festival – fun non stop for 3 days
13th of April – remember this date when booking your Thailand travel! It is when Thai people celebrate Thai New Year, so called “Sonkran” which will definitely influence your travel. Traditionally pouring water on Buddha status, which represents purification of all sins and bad luck, is considered as a ritual on this holy day. And Thais take this very serious! The tradition has been extended to a massive water splashing festival. No spot of your body will stay dry. We experienced everything from normal water bazoukas to buckets full of ice water, even pick ups with huge buckets of ice water on the truck bed or sneaky grandmas with a water gun looking like a ice cream cone! Be aware of everybody who approaches you during 13th and 15th of April – not kidding! The tradition of Sonkran was originally born in Chiang Mai. That is why the water splashing event is celebrated excessively in this town in the north of Thailand. But also Kao San Road in Bangkok is a good spot to be part of the festivities. They are even taking Sonkran to a next level by splashing some white mud (feels like flour with water) in addition to water.
Definitely a big blast – not to miss out!