10 Must-See Destinations for Backpackers in Southeast Asia

This is a guest post by Will Peach.

Southeast Asia casts an allure like no other. From pristine beaches to bustling cities and everything in between, this magical part of the world is hugely popular with backpackers the world over.

Picking a top 10 of must see destinations from Southeast Asia is no easy feat. In a region so varied it’s no real surprise that everyone has their own favourite part.

Surely some of these would be on your list however?

1. Halong Bay, Vietnam

Ask any backpacker what the most unmissable sight is in Vietnam and Halong Bay, the countries breathtaking series of limestone islands and rocks that jut out the ocean to the north, will be firmly on their list.

Home to over 3,000 islands of varying shapes and sizes, Halong Bay features some of the worlds rarest species of flowers that grow amid its lush topography.

Catch a junker, tour the various islands and descend into the cracks and caves of its hidden lagoons for a chance to get up close and personal.

Hopping off at Bai Tu Long Bay, one of the larger parts that makes up this UNESCO World Heritage site, is a must. There you can climb stone mountains, wander through its mangrove forests or laze for a while on its long stretch of beach.

Thanks to the increasing popularity of Vietnam as a tourist destination, its probably best to visit Halong Bay soon. In the future it might not be possible for everyone to squeeze into the enchanting caverns of places like Song Sôt cave.

Blue skies over Angkor Wat

Halong Bay (photo: Herr-Bert)

2. Angkor Wat, Cambodia

Southeast Asia’s not short of temples but there aren’t many as memorable as those of Angkor Wat, Cambodia.

This temple complex, dating back to the 12th century, features the world’s largest religious building that is still very much active today with Buddhists and people of all faiths.

Crawl over the fallen and tree-covered ruins of Tah Prohm (made famous by the film Tomb Raider) for Indiana Jones like adventures, take a tuk-tuk across the length and breadth of the complex and don’t miss the earth-shattering experience at sunset from the top of Bakheng Hill.

The nearby backpacker town of Siem Reap is heaps of fun too!

Boat Quay (photo: inoc)

5. Bangkok, Thailand

Thailand’s got it all, amazing beaches, beautiful people and flavourful food. But nowhere does its magic all come together more than in its capital Bangkok.

While the true hippie mecca of Khao San road, in the middle of Bangkok, is a must for any self-respecting backpacker, it’s also worth paying attention to the cities other glorious ages with a trip on the modern BTS Skytrain and a wander around the 19th century temple of Wat Arun.

There’s also Patpong if you fancy a spot of ping pong too. Just don’t be expect to be playing!

Vientiane (photo: David Lee)

6. Vientiane, Laos

Little known Laos may be slightly off the backpacking radar but its capital Vientiane is bags of fun.

Smaller than most other Southeast Asian capitals its laid-back feel makes it great for hanging out and checking out sites like the funky (and weird) statues in Buddha Park.

The morning market at Talat Sao is a great place to pick up a nice bottle of snake wine too.

7. Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Malaysia’s capital, alongside Singapore, is one of the most cosmopolitan sites in Southeast Asia and a thriving hub of fantastic art, unbelievable architecture and enough malls and shops to blow your entire backpacker budget.

Petaling Street, KL’s bustling Chinatown, is a prime budget eating spot away from the glitzy restaurants and cafes of the Golden Triangle.

Head in early February and you can catch the city in full swing during Thaipusam, the Tamil’s ode to their hero Murugan killing the evil demon Soorapadam.

Hong Kong at night

Dili (photo: yeowatzup)

9. Hong Kong, China

Hong Kong’s inclusion in a list of top Southeast Asian destinations, as a key tourism hub of China, might be a little debatable but that’s largely beside the point. With attractions like Victoria Peak, Tsim Sha Tsui and Ocean Park, Hong Kong offers an unbeatable range of things to do.

Backpackers needn’t be put off by Hong Kong’s densely packed population, its expansive skyline makes for one of the most dazzling views on the whole of the continent.

10. Yangon (Rangoon), Burma

Having been shrouded in mystery for years due to the secrecy of its military government, Burma, and more specifically Rangoon, is suddenly exploding into life as a newly opened backpacking destination.

It’s newness doesn’t mean that there isn’t much to see however. The 2500 year old Buddhist shrine of Shwedagon Pagoda, Aung San Suu Kyi’s house and the national museum all make for interesting viewing. The beach at nearby Ngwe Saung is also one of the best, and most unspoilt, in the whole of Southeast Asia.

The above are just some of the great sights and attractions that you can see travelling around Southeast Asia. You can also check out some of Go Backpacking’s other top recommendations in its list of top destinations for 2011. [gbicon]

So what about you? Where are you thinking of heading to next in Southeast Asia?


About the Author: Will Peach is one of the site editors over at Gap Daemon, the gap year community website for backpackers and gap year travellers. You can also catch him writing about his latest adventures on his other blog My Spanish Adventure and on Twitter.


    • says

      So Christine is finally heading to Asia?! Excellent. I wish I’d gone to Burma while I was there. I was scared away by a recent Typhoon and the political issues.

  1. says

    I’m so glad you included Dili in your list. East Timor is one of the most beautiful places I’ve been to. And if you go there soon you’ll experience a country that hasn’t been ‘ravaged’ by tourism yet (like many of the other destinations in this post).

    • Craig says

      I have been in Dili, East Timor for several times. It has beutiful and untouch beaches, mountains. I have been to Jaco Island which is located in the most Eastern side of Timor-Leste. It is very incredible place…no words to explain.

  2. Travis says

    Not quite SE asia, but in israel, I went on an awesome military tourism trip. We got to shoot a bunch of guns, throw grenades, learn krav maga, go offroading, and even went skydiving! it was crazy exciting. you guys should look into it. this is the company i went with http://www.lionops.com

  3. Eric says

    Hi! I am planning a 3-4 week trip to southeast Asia in the Summer of 2012. I figure I cant do all 10 of above although I want to! Im not fluent in the geography of SE asia so anyone willing to tell me the best places you think I could explore in 3-4 weeks? I am flexible and am willing to travel although I also like to relax when I get somewhere.
    Thanks for the tips!

    • says

      Eric, if you’ve only got 3-4 weeks, I’d recommend sticking to the mainland. It’d be really tight, but you could visit Bangkok, an island or two, Angkor Wat in Siem Reap, Phnom Penh, and then either Vietnam or Laos.

  4. KayZie says

    Great list. My plan was to spend a year in South-East starting March 2012,but unfortunately that’s not going to happen,because i didn’t develop a location independent business i can live off on the road.

  5. Alison Fazackerley says

    Hi, just found your site and its soooo useful for a novice!!
    My husband and I (in our 50’s) are planning our first backpacking trip to SE Asia, we will be on a budget (not a strict one!) but luckily with no real time constraints or fixed destinations except finishing off in Perth to visit our son!
    Plan so far includes : Bangkok ; Ko Samui & Ko Pangnan; Penang; KL; Singapore; Bali, Lombok&Gili Isles then fly to Perth.
    We plan to do most travel by train, bus, ferry etc but want to know if we have missed anywhere out that is a ‘must-see’!! (We plan to do another trip where we will visit Vietman, Cambodia, Laos)
    Any guidance would be most gratefully received!!

    • says

      Hi Allison, thanks so much. I’m excited for you! It looks like you have an excellent itinerary. I haven’t been to Malaysia, but I can attest to the places in Thailand, Singapore, Bali and the Gili Islands.

      On Koh Phangan, my favorite beach was not Haad Rin where they have the full moon party, but Thong Nai Pan Noi (small, quiet beach at the north end of the island).

  6. says

    The pictures of cities even great ones never impress me as do nature pictures. I vote for Halong Bay!
    Stunning cliffs – I must go there and see them with my own eyes.
    Thanks for the idea :)

  7. Global Travel Guides says

    I’ve visited Kuala Lumpur and it’s a great city. You can easily walk around the Golden Triangle with lots of bars and restaurants. Highly recommended for backpackers!

  8. says

    Thanks very much for the list. reading about Angkor Wat brought back some happy memories of my time spent there. I hope to return in the near future!

  9. says

    I have been to all of those except East Timor (which I really wanted to visit), Lake Toba, and Hong Kong. I think my favorite on the list would be Halong Bay, and Bangkok (I lived there for five years). Halong is my favorite place in Vietnam! How awesome is East Timor? Maybe I’ll try to find my way back to SE Asia to visit. Great Post!!!!

  10. says

    After just coming from Hong Kong, I totally agree. There’s some cool culture shock there and that cityscape view is priceless. Wasn’t so keen on Vientiane though. I really didn’t know what to do when I was there, but Luang Prabang felt more vibrant. Still want to go to Burma.

  11. says

    We loved Vientiane the most. Awesome vegan food, not too many tourists and inexpensive hostels. The only downside was their crappy visa policy forcing to exit the country every 30 days.

  12. Deborah Mesa says

    Wonder why Miri isn’t in the list, nevertheless a stones throw away is the beautiful land of Brunei. You’ll love the nothing to do land.

  13. says

    Great list! Have checked off about half and will be back to to the rest! Burma is one place that tourism is really starting to open up in!

    Can’t wait to be back to visit the rest!

    Jennifer Kolbuc

  14. says

    I definely agree that Halong is a top travel destination for backpacker in SE Asia. But I do recommend Bai Tu Long bay which is off the beaten path, it would be unique and memorable travel experience for a cruise trip.

  15. says

    Great list! I would also like to suggest Sapa in the Northern highlands of Vietnam as a great spot for incredible trekking and homestay experiences!

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