Upon planning our first trip to SE Asia, I was a little overwhelmed. Trying to explore a large corner of the world, with a culture that is completely different from my own, and with a myriad of places to see, left my head spinning. My Pinterest travel page filled up rapidly. I looked at my husband and told him, "We're going to need at least 6 months to see all of these places in Asia!" Well, unfortunately, spending six months traveling just wasn't a reality for either of us.
My first confession for you is that I went to SE Asia and did NOT go to Halong Bay or Angkor Wat. For that reason, you won't find them on this list. Crazy, right?! I mean, these places are established as two of the biggest wonders of the WORLD, let alone the region of Southeast Asia!
But listen: it was my first trip to this part of the world, and I couldn't see EVERYTHING. I had to decide. Covering all of SE Asia in only three weeks takes some serious consideration and planning. You have to decide what's important to you: mountains, city, or beach? Culture, seclusion, or tourist hotspots? If you don't have six months to travel, then you aren't going to be able to see everything. You just have to decide what to focus on and what to eliminate.
After a ton of planning, I was able to make some clear decisions about our trip. In the end this meant skipping Angor Wat, Halong Bay, and even the northern region of Thailand, Chang Mai and surrounding, even though many travel blogs include these three locations as major attractions.
I wasn't the least bit disappointed not having included these places. I experienced so much in SE Asia, even some lesser-known, out-of-the-ordinary places! It was a whirlwind adventure that gave me an awesome sense of SE Asian life and culture.
Because remember, there's so much more to these countries than just hitting the big-name tourist spots and then dashing on to the next one. There are numerous adventures waiting in each little town, each little corner of these countries. Try some of the lesser-known locations for a truly unique and unforgettable experience!
And keep in mind that it takes a lot more time than you may have anticipated to tour each country. This is partly because travel between places takes at least half a day to an overnight ordeal. So plan your SE Asia trip with enough time to not only see, but appreciate a region, and to account for enough travel time between each place.
So now that's out of the way...
Here's 12 amazing places we went in SE Asia. It can be a daunting task, choosing only 12 places out of all of SE Asia! But I feel like we made a good decision on our first trip, packing in as many places and adventures as we could. Enjoy!
1. Hong Kong
Whenever I start telling someone about my SEA trip, I always start with a recommendation of stopping in Hong Kong. It's a city for everyone because of its diverse layout and landscape.
Hip, trendy neighborhoods? Check. Upscale shopping and dining? Check. Cheap street markets? Check. Chinese culture, temples, and food? Check. Scenic cable car ride and mountainous hiking? Check. Beaches and secluded island getaways? Check. Disneyland for the kids? Check. Jaw-dropping photo ops? CHECK!
Hong Kong has something for everyone and I will continue to recommend it to everyone who asks me about exploring Asia! The main island of Hong Kong and its counterpart, the Kowloon side, feel very similar to New York City. On one hand, like NYC, it's older, crowded, a little dirty, and just exploding with skyscrapers, market, neon signs, and dazzling nightlife.
However, it's also very different from New York City because many of the islands that make up greater Hong Kong are covered in uninhabited forests. This wilderness makes you feel like you're thousands of miles in the middle of nowhere, not in a city with 7.5 million people nearby. And it's all connected by a 20 minute railcar ride!
Hong Kong is also a great starting place for Westerners to immerse themselves into the culture of China, without actually having to visit China itself, since Hong Kong is an autonomous territory. This just means you don't need a visa to visit HK in the same way you would need one mainland China! Score!
2. Hanoi, Vietnam
Our starting place for Vietnam was Hanoi. And what a starting place it was! What Hanoi lacks in picturesque beauty it makes up for in charm and enjoyment. It was just downright fun! Exploring the old quarter at night was one of our highlights of our entire trip. We only allocated 2 nights in Hanoi, and only wish we had made for more time there.
Hanoi is the capital of small, plastic outdoor seating! You must experience the street dining in Hanoi. I recommend the Pho Bo and Bac Ha to start!
3. Sapa, Vietnam
The next place on our SEA itinerary was Sapa, the rustic jewel of Vietnam's northwest. It's a project to get there from Hanoi--6 hours by van or car, or 10 hours overnight by train. But we had always heard the views around Sapa was worth the trek. I was excited about the prospect of spending a night with a local, native family and doing some hiking in the terraced rice paddies built into the hillsides.
Well, maybe it had something to do with the weather, but our Sapa experience wasn't all I had hoped it to be. It rained the entire two days we were there. Hiking was out of the question. It was cold, damp, muddy and foggy during our time in Sapa. Spending two whole days getting there and back, to only see four meters in front of you because of the fog, was really disappointing. It wasn't until our van ride out of town, I kid you not, that the fog finally cleared. The driver was nice enough to pull over to we could get pictures of the view we had been missing for several days!
We did meet get to venture into a local hilltribe village during our time there. We ate dinner with a woman and her family from the Black H'mong. However, we ended up not staying at their place since their accommodations were a little too rustic for us! It was, however, a once-in-a-lifetime experience and I would still go back. It was incredible experiencing a different culture and seeing a completely different corner of the world for us!
4. Hoi-An, Vietnam
Hoi-An is easily Vietnam's most picturesque town. It's such a tourist draw, though, that the streets are absolutely flooded with people as the sun is setting in the evening. Especially on a weekend, and especially during the full moon, be prepared to push your way through thousands of other tourists. Luckily, Hoi-An still maintains its charm, even with its hoards of people roaming the town, posing in front of the lanterns for sale or browsing the nightly street market. Opt to go during the week and definitely shop its quiet streets during the day. It had some of the best handmade goods at the cheapest prices we've seen all over Asia. Tourist trap or not, its still one of the most dazzling and charismatic places I've ever been!
5. Ninh Binh, Vietnam
About an hour and half south of Hanoi is the region of Ninh Binh. Also known as the Halong Bay of the land, Ninh Binh is home to some familiar-looking karst topography, but instead of being surrounded by water, as is Halong Bay, it is surrounded by mostly land and a few rivers.
We opted for Ninh Binh as an alternative to Halong Bay for several reasons. Reason #1: unfavorable reviews of the area. We were scheduled to be in Halong Bay the following day, and I still hadn't made travel plans or booked a tour guide. I just couldn't find a tour with superb reviews. Most reviews were mediocre at best and lamented about the garbage in the water and the amount of tourists packed into the bay. And let's be honest, a tour there was pretty pricey for Vietnam. Was I really keen on spending the money for a tour I wasn't going to like? Reason #2: I wasn't excited about spending another 5 hours in a van/bus heading to Halong City after spending the equivalent traveling from Sapa. Ninh Binh seemed like a great alternative, and much less travel time from Hanoi.
I was really pleased with our decision. We booked a tour that included exploring Hoa Lu, a 10th century ancient city of Vietnam, a boat ride through Ninh Binh, and a bike ride through rice fields. Check out the pictures and consider Ninh Binh as an alternative or even an add-on in your Vietnamese tour.
6. Danang, Vietnam
Most tourists only know Danang for its airport. It's the closest major airport into the central region of Vietnam, including to Hoi-An and Hue. However, we ended up liking Danang as a travel destination in itself! It has a lot to offer, including the Marble Mountains, the Am Phu Cave and Thuy Son Mountains, the Lady Buddha and Temple on the peninsula, and fantastic beach and seafood along the water.
The Marble Mountains are five seemingly random monoliths that jut directly out from the landscape. Inside the mountains, temples and shrines have been carved, including the cave of the Nine Buddhist Layers of Hell.This was really interesting and a little creepy! We only made to the third layer of hell!
Climb up the mountain and you've reached Heaven at the top of Thuy Son mountain!
After exploring the mountains and caves of the area, head to the peninsula to see the Lady Buddha statue and temple. It also offers spectacular views of the ocean. This place is relatively unknown to most non-Vietnamese tourists.
Once you've had enough sightseeing for one day, head to the beach! We found a superb place serving up fresh drinks right on the beach while fishermen swim out using the traditional basket boats to get catches of the day. It is a truly beautiful slice of tropical paradise.
7. Bangkok, Thailand
Bangkok is essential for its temple and street markets. BK is not very tourist friendly. But that might be why so many people love it--it's not for the shallow tourist. It has a rich culture and history, and given enough time, I'm sure you could reveal its secrets. Bangkok would be a city to know-a-guy, and have him take you around as a guide.
However, we didn't have a guide, and we had some disappointing experiences with places being closed and/or being overrun by tourists. I didn't love Khao San Road or any of the hostel-scenes. And lastly, I found the food to be far superior in other places in Thailand.
However, that being said, I did include Bangkok on my list for its temples. If you have only one day in Bangkok, or you can plan it so you only have one day, spend the entire day touring some of the many temples in the Phra Nakhon area, including the Grand Palace, Wat Pho, and Wat Suthat. Khao San Road is relatively nearby if you want to check that out. Lastly, the other sight I enjoyed was the Flower Market, which is just south of Wat Pho.
Looking back at the pictures reminds me how stunning these temples are, and for that reason I would recommend stopping over in Bangkok. Just don't stay there too long, as there are many other stunning places in Thailand!
8. Phuket Elephant Sanctuary, Thailand
Visiting the Phuket Elephant Sanctuary was one of the top three experiences in SE Asia. The elephant has become the symbol of Thailand, and experiencing an elephant up close and personal has become iconic for many travelers here.
Of course, this draw hasn't always been beneficial for these gentle giants. With tourism came a shameful history of animal cruelty. And while tourism brought pain to these animals, we are hoping that tourism will also shed light on their suffering and change things for the better. It is for that reason that I implore everyone who travels to Thailand to please AVOID any elephant encounters that are not true sanctuaries and are unethical!
Without getting into all of the details, understand that elephants are wild animals and you should avoid any place that allows you to ride or swim with elephants. This is because the fact remains that the only way to entirely train a wild animal like an elephant to interact with humans is to break their spirit, and make them fear humans. >The only way to do this is by torturing the animal!<
So, if you want to support a true elephant rescue sanctuary, while still having that iconic elephant experience in Thailand, you can do both with this rescue center. At this sanctuary, you will learn about the elephants and their struggles in Thailand, meet the rescued elephants, and even feed and pet them. You can watch them run, play, and even bathe at a respectful, but still very close, distance! You CAN have the elephant experience of a lifetime while respecting nature and donating to a worthy organization! Not to mention the staff of the sanctuary were cheerful, knowledgeable, and made the experience really enjoyable. Sign up ahead of time because the tour is several hours and they only do one tour a day!
The Phuket Elephant Sanctuary is located in the northern part of Phuket Island. Do not confuse this with the other elephant "sanctuary" on Phuket Island which does let you ride the elephants, and is not a true sanctuary!
9. Phang Nga, Thailand
The picture above says it all! Can you imagine a more picturesque beach? This is that iconic tropical destination in Thailand you've been looking for! Phang-Nga is one of the most beautiful places on the planet! This was our big splurge in SE Asia and stayed on nearby Koh Yao Noi at Paradise Koh Yao. This place was beautiful but still a complete steal for the area. Phang Nga is really only accessible by boat so make sure you book a great tour. I booked through Paradise Koh Yao and had an incredible experience complete with kayaking through the hongs, a stop at James Bond Island, and a picnic lunch at our own private beach. What a truly once-in-a-lifetime experience!
10. Railay Beach, Thailand
Another picturesque location, famous Railay Beach is only accessible by boat. We opted to stay at nearby Krabi, but I would skip it and just head directly for Railay Beach instead. Although we did enjoy climbing the Tiger Cave Temple stairs to the top to see the grand buddha! The climb was intense, 1,200 steps (that's 120 staircases!), but the view was so worth it!
11. Batu Caves, Malaysia
When I saw this image of Batu Caves in Malaysia, I was fascinated. When I found out this unique sight was only 30 minutes outside Kuala Lumpur, I knew we had to go check it out. And I wasn't disappointed! The caves themselves are impressive, but add to that the fact that they have been converted into a Hindu Temple with a 43 meter high statue of the deity Murugan guarding the front, and you get one impressive sight. In addition to the Batu Caves, the city of Kuala Lumpur is a wanderlust traveler's paradise! Don't forget to check out Thean Hou Temple in KL, which was closed when we went. It's another can't-miss location for travelers!
The darling city of SE Asia is a cannot-miss destination. We ended our trip in this city and we wished we had stayed longer to really get a chance to discover all it has to offer. However, we only had two days here! We at least had time to check out the Gardens-by-the-Bay and Marina Bay Sands, the Singapore Botanical Gardens, and several gawker marketplaces to round off our amazing trip! Definitely plan to spend at least a few days in Singapore! Although keep in mind it's much more expensive than every other place on my list and can be quite a shock after traveling other countries in the region!
That concludes my introduction on 12 places to visit in SE Asia! I'll be going into detail about each place much more in the near future, but this was a good starting place for me to list out all of the places we went. We spent about one month visiting all five countries and incredible locations around the region! I was very pleased with the selection of places we chose for our first SE Asia trip and there are very few things I would change about it. Stay tuned for more details! Happy travels!