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12 Best Places to Visit in South East Asia

Koh Sak National Park, Thailand

South East Asia is composed of eleven countries with impressive diversity in religion, culture and history. SE Asian countries share an overlapping history with a mixture of cuisines and cultures influenced by many ethnic groups and ethnic minority groups. There are thousands of years of storytelling; tales of war tragedies, liberation and achievements.

These can be experienced today by sightseeing monuments, walking tours, bicycle tours, and jeep tours run by specialist guides explaining everything you need to know, incorporating food tastings, cooking classes, water puppet shows and circuses performed in intimate settings sharing folk stories with traditional instruments. The natural beauty of limestone karst islands, land locked countries, rivers, beaches, mountains and volcanoes can be explored by boat, hiking trips and scuba diving; on land and off land.

1. Palawan, the Philippines

The Philippines is one of the most talked about travel destinations at the moment, and we can see why with its beautiful white beaches. It’s definitely one of the best places to visit in South East Asia and you CANNOT miss a trip to Palawan. Palawan is one of the larger islands of the Philippines and it is a traveller’s haven. You could easily spend weeks here exploring all of the hidden beaches, taking boat trips around the islands and islets, exploring the hidden lagoons, scuba diving and snorkelling to see life under water, and watching the sunsets in the every afternoon.

One of the best places to catch sunset is Las Cabanas Beach in El Nido. And if you’re not afraid of early mornings, then the sunrise hike to Taraw Peak is a must do for your bucket list. Palawan is renowned for its breathtaking landscapes and seascapes, and the most popular destinations visited from here are El Nido and Coron.

One of the best times to visit Palawan is April, and make sure to do the underground river cruise, diving in Coron around the old war ship ruins, and try out Balabac for your off the beaten track activities with limited tourists around. It’s easy to explore the secluded beaches by kayaking around the coastlines, witnessing Indigenous  fishing communities, seeing limestone cliffs, exploring the marine reserves and testing out your diving skills at one of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites: Tubbataha Reef.

Palawan is also actually home to another UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Saint Paul Subterranean River National Park. This underground river system is surrounded by well-preserved limestone formations, and a forest full of wildlife, making it a must visit destination for nature lovers.

best beaches in the Philippines

Image source:Contiki

2. Sabah, Borneo, Malaysia

Sabah is a state of Malaysia located on the northern portion of Borneo, in East Malaysia. Sabah’s signature attractions range from nature-based activities like hiking, diving, visiting geoparks, and cultural attractions to promote the indigenous villages on the island.

Sabah is all about conservation and preservation making it an excellent holiday destination for sustainable tourism lovers. This tropical paradise has beautiful beaches, an abundance of marine life, striking sunsets, and a natural ambience. Some of the main attractions on the island are: Maliau Basin, Bohey Dulang, Danum Valley Conservation Area, Mount Kinabalu and the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre.

Wildlife safaris along the Kinabatangan River and Weston River give you the opportunity to see rare water bird species, fireflies, crocodiles, and if you’re lucky enough orangutangs too. Inland you can explore the tranquil rainforest of Malaysia’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site and Geopark: Kinabalu Park.

In Kinabalu Park you can face your fears on the world’s highest via ferrata, Mountain Torq, located at Mt Kinabalu’s Panalaban rock face. The walk starts at 3,200m above sea level and ends at 3,776m above sea level. If you’re into diving, a 45 minute flight from Kota Kinabalu will take you to Sipadan Island, renowned for being one of the world’s best dive sites. There’s 40 acres to explore, composed of corals, more than 3,000 species of fish, green and hawksbill turtles. You are permitted to have your Open Water Divers certification to dive in this zone. 

3. Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Kuala Lumpur is a federal territory and the capital city of Malaysia. Kuala Lumpur has undergone rapid development in recent decades and is home to the tallest twin buildings in the world, the Petronas Towers. The Petronas Towers have become an iconic symbol of Kuala Lumpur and one of the main focal points around the city.

Below Petronas Towers is the popular KLCC, Kuala Lumpur City Centre, a multipurpose development area and one of the best shopping malls in the city. Kuala Lumpur is known for the cultural diversity and ethnic groups. The three major religions in Kuala Lumpur are: Islam, Hinduism and Tao Buddhism. A popular tourist site to visit in Kuala Lumpur is Batu Caves. The translation for Batu Caves is Rock Caves, and is famous for the Hindu shrine of the God Murugan. The statue was unveiled in 2006 and took 3 years to construct. The statue stands at 43m tall, and behind it lie the famous rainbow coloured stairs.

The Kuala Lumpur Central Market was built in 1888 originally as a wet market. Known to the locals as Pasar Seni, it is easily accessible on the major public transport lines and today is used as a centre for Malaysian culture, art, craft and cuisine. Getting off at Pasar Seni station, it’s a short walk to the market complex which has been newly renovated across 2023 and 2024. The market has a brand new Makan Hall (Food Hall), and an array of local shops, vendors and handicrafts.

The stalls rotate and feature locally made products from Malaysia. Here you can buy copper water vessels with health benefits, traditional batik styled clothing, enjoy delicious local foods like nasi lemak, asam laksa, and hydrate on fresh coconuts. There are small stationery shops with brightly coloured postcards for sale, and stamps making it convenient to ship home from here. Just a 5-10 min walk from Central Market is Chinatown. You can spend the afternoon here between the hustle and bustle of negotiating for knock offs at the market, taste testing more local treats, and spending the afternoon wandering around the old buildings, looking at graffiti temples and trying your luck to find the secret bars all around here.

Batu caves, Kuala Lumpur

Image source:Rhiannon Bryant

4. Singapore City, Republic of Singapore

Singapore is a sunny, tropical city-state island off the Malay Peninsula, and is one of the smallest countries in the world. Singapore is surrounded by 62 smaller islands, and famous for being a global financial centre.

It’s one of the most densely populated cities in the world, but at the same time is balanced with being one of the greenest places in the world. Known for the Jewel Waterfall in Terminal 1, of Changi Airport, having the UNESCO World Heritage Site Botanic Gardens, and of course the boat shaped hotel, Marina Bay Sands. The Marina By Sands opened in 2010, and at this time it was deemed the world’s most expensive standalone casino property at $8billion SGD. The resort includes 2561 rooms, convention centres, a museum, a theatre, restaurants, and bars in the 3 sky towers.

A must do when in Singapore is heading to the SkyPark observation deck to see the incredible views of Singapore, or head to Ce La Vie for an afternoon refreshment and watch the sunset over the skyscrapers of the city. Below Marina Bay Sands is the iconic Gardens by the Bay, home of the cloud forest which hosts many interactive shows throughout the year, and in the Supertree Grove you can see the nightly light shows at 7:45pm and 8:45pm.

The best place in town to experience a Hawker food centre is Lau Pa Sat, every cuisine you could think of is available, and easily accessible by public transport: the most efficient way to get around Singapore. A few days is needed to explore the city so you can properly get lost in the alleyways that surround Haji Lane, Arab Street, and Bali Lane. Here you will find boutique shops, vintage clothing stores, record shops, bakeries with fresh sweets, authentic Persian rugs, handmade perfumes and oils, textiles and walls lined with graffiti.

Singapore’s maritime past, as a port city has shaped the atmosphere and look of the city throughout the years. Dutch and Portuguese styled buildings, painted vibrant colours, that have gone from merchant sellers, to residential buildings, to touristic hot spots. Singapore is full of hidden pockets to explore like Little India and Chinatown, and how could you forget the wonderful museums, the world’s first ever night zoo, sky walks and cable car, man-made waterfalls, and the famous Raffles built in 1887 by Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles.

5. Krabi, Thailand

It’s time to visit Krabi, Thailand. Known for its beautiful beaches this destination is definitely one of the best places to visit in South East Asia. Krabi has something for everyone, beaches, parties, hiking, lagoons, kayaking, Muay Thai, street food, rock climbing and more. Krabi province is split into Krabi Old Town, and Aonang.

Just a short long tail boat ride away is the mesmerizing Railay beach. Here you can enjoy the quiet beaches, explore the coastline and sip on fresh coconuts before heading back to Aonang for an evening of street food at the new Landmark Night Markets, watch the fire shows at Reeve Beach Club, bargain with the locals whilst shopping at all the local vendors, see live rock bands at Boogie Bar, and on the weekends witness the local Muay Thai fights happening at the stadium.

Not to miss is one of the most famous Buddhist temples in the south: Tiger Cave temple. There aren’t any tigers (sorry) but you will get one of the best panoramic views you’ll ever encounter! It’s a challenging 1237 steps to the top, but totally worth it. This is a religious site, so templewear (shoulders and knees covered, loose clothing, covered mid-riff) is required once you reach the top.

If you’re after a challenging hike, you can try the Dragon Crest Trail (Ngon Nak Nature Trail), the round trip can take anywhere between 3-5 hours depending on your fitness levels. A nice easy walk can be found to the left of the main Aonang Beach, it’s called Monkey Trail and will take approx. 15-20 mins to walk over to the secluded private beach at Centara Grand.

Krabi Old Town is famous for its authentic flair. It’s best to visit the Old Town on the weekend to enjoy the local traditional markets, walk along the pier, explore the caves, or venture to some of the small Buddhist temples. Sound amazing? We’ve got plenty of Thai Island Hopper trips that’ll take you to Krabi and so many more gorgeous islands!

Koh Sak National Park, Thailand

Image source:Rhiannon Bryant

6. Khao Sok National Park, Thailand

Khao Sok National Park is located in Southern Thailand and is one of the best kept secrets the country has to offer. Aside from Thailand’s beautiful white beaches, there are approximately 150 national parks throughout Thailand, each with its own character and providing visitors with a number of unique experiences.

Khao Sok National Park is said to be the remnants of one of the oldest rainforests in the world, dating back further than the Amazon Rainforest. Not only is the National Park full of rainforests, it has jungles, breathtaking views, limestone karsts, deep valleys, lakes, caves and many wild animals. Khao Sok is an adventure lover’s heaven situated between Phuket, Krabi and Koh Samui making it an easily accessible destination in Southern Thailand.

Surat Thani is a city close by which is a transport hub connecting all of the best places throughout Thailand, by air, road and marine options. One of the most interesting and stunningly beautiful places to see in the National Park is Cheow Lan Lake. A man-made freshwater lake that offers overnight stays on floating raft houses and luxury tents.

You can spend the afternoons exploring the jungle hikes, seeing Pakarang Caves (Coral Caves) full of stalagmites and stalactites. Khao Sok’s landscape blends tropical evergreen forest, and rainforest hosting about 200 different floral species per hectare marking it is a biodiversity haven. The rich habitat welcomes many species of wildlife including 48 mammal species, 311 bird species, more than 30 bat species, reptiles and insects and not to forget the unique Rafflesia.

Known for being the largest flower in the world, with a strong smell, the Rafflesia was named after the Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles who was the leader of the expedition through this area in 1818. The Rafflesia is the official flower of the province of Surat Thani. These flowers are seasonal and most likely to be seen between January to March, sadly numbers are decreasing and becoming rare due to habitat losses and collection by humans. To uncover the Khao Sok National Park (and so much more), hop onto our Bangkok to Singapore adventure!

7. Chiang Mai, Thailand

Hidden amongst the borders of the Golden Triangle (Thailand, Myanmar, Laos), lies a beautiful city in Thailand, Chiang Mai. One of the best times to visit Chiang Mai is during the high season, November-April. February being one of the most vibrant months for the Chiang Mai Flower Festival, or celebrating Songkran (Thai New Year) for a wet and wonderful celebration with parades and water fights.

Chiang Mai is one of the most historically significant cities in Thailand, and was once the capital of the Lanna Kingdom (Kingdom of a million rice fields). Chiang Mai is now known as the culture capital of Thailand. Here you will find 33 Buddhist temples inside the walls of the Old City and one of the best bucket list items for Chiang Mai is Wat Chedi Luang. This Buddhist temple is still used for worship and practice today. Onsite you have the incredible opportunity to participate in Monk Chat, during the afternoon you can sit down and practice your Thai and help the Monks to practice their English.

When you stop in Chiang Mai, you’ll may want around 3-5 days to explore the city and the surrounds. There are Sticky Rice waterfalls, the Golden Stupah Doi Suthep, the National Park, street food tours, vespa tours, professional Muay Thai fights, lots and lots of markets (Saturday and Sunday walking street are the best) and a day trip to Chiang Rai to see the infamous White, Black and Blue Temples.

A must try food in Northern Thailand is Khao Soi. An egg noodle soup in a curry paste broth, served with meat, topped with crispy fried noodles, pickled veg and fresh limes. For all this and more, discover Contiki’s Northern Thai Highlights!

elephants in elephant sanctuary in chiang mai

Image source:Contiki

8. Luang Prabang, Laos

There’s no better time to visit one of South East Asia’s best kept secrets, Luang Prabang. Luang Prabang is often mistaken as the capital city of Laos. It was once the old capital, but is now known as the cultural capital. Luang Prabang is situated on the fork of two rivers in Laos, the Mekong and Nam Khan River.

Laos is a landlocked country heavily dependent on agricultural opportunities. The country is very mountainous with many different ethnic groups living along the river’s edge of the lowlands, the midlands and then the Hmong people who call the mountains home. Luang Prabang is a listed UNESCO world heritage site. The city is infamous for its French colonial styled buildings, beautiful Buddhist temples, romantic ambience and slow paced living. It’s a traveller’s dream and should be on your SE Asia bucket list. 

Contiki actually offers an in-depth travelling experience through SE Asia on the Cambodia and Laos Uncovered trip. The trip is 8 days long and starts off in the beautiful Luang Prabang, Laos and finishes in Siem Reap, Cambodia. This in-depth tour unveils the devastating periods throughout history which Cambodia and Laos have faced. It also highlights many positive aspects of tourism and includes multiple MAKE TRAVEL MATTER® Experiences to raise awareness and promote the importance of sustainable tourism and how to be involved.

9. Siem Reap, Cambodia

Flying into Siem Reap is an eye-opening experience to the vastness of Cambodia. If you have flown from the capital city Phnom Penh, or other neighbouring countries like Thailand or Laos, you will see the flat plains of Cambodia, lined with hundreds and hundreds of Cambodia’s national trees from your flight; Borassus Flabellifer, a type of palm tree, known as a Tnaot in Khmer language.

These trees are iconic to Cambodia, and Khmer territory. And when you’re in Siem Reap, it’s time to visit the UNESCO World Heritage Site, Angkor Wat. It is the largest religious monument in the world, and the only building on a national flag. Angkor Wat began construction in the 12th Century by King Suryavarman II and was designed as a Hindu temple, the religion of the ruler at the time.

However, by the end of the 12th Century through architectural differences it was then considered a Buddhist site. Angkor Wat is one of the most important archaeological sites of Southeast Asia, it consists of temples, basins, reservoirs, canals, and communication routes. For centuries it was the centre of the Khmer Kingdom.

Angkor Wat is historical proof of exceptional civilizations exemplifying cultural, religious and symbolic values, as well as containing architectural and artistic significance. Around the Angkor complex you will see lots of rice paddies. The communities who live in the complex area come from a long line of agricultural farmers who racticed rice cultivation, their ancestors dating back to the times of Angkor.

Siem Reap is a beautiful, laid back city with lots of activities to see and do. A 3-day pass for Angkor Wat is popular to explore all the ruins and temples, see sunrises and sunsets, explore Bayon temple with the many faces, or run through the ruins of Ta Phrom like you see on Tomb Raider.

Angkor Wat, Cambodia

Image source:Contiki

10. Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

Ho Chi Minh City, formerly known as Saigon up until 30th April 1975, has long been one of the cultural, economic and political centres of Vietnam. Ho Chi Minh City’s dynamic cityscape draws together old and new Vietnam in the most compact of spaces which represent the city’s past and future.

The city has always been one of the best places to visit in South East Asia and you will always hear backpackers and travelers telling you about their Ho Chi Minh City experiences. The international airport Tan Son Nhat is open to 6 domestic airlines, and 40 international airlines, serving approximately 13 million international passengers and 15 million domestic passengers per year.

HCMC is an easily accessible point in Vietnam to start off your adventures, close to the Mekong Delta to fully immerse yourself in local cultural experiences, day trips to the Cu Chi Tunnels and War Remnants Museum, and see the mesmerizing A O Show Bamboo Circus at the Saigon Opera House. With HCMC as your starting point, once you get used to the chaotic traffic, the delicious new cuisine, handling a new currency and navigating your way through the city, you’ll have the confidence to tackle the rest of Vietnam’s best destinations.

11. Ha Long Bay, Vietnam

Ha Long Bay in northeastern Vietnam is a well-known UNESCO World Heritage Listed Site, and is famous for its limestone karts and mountains that rise up from emerald waters, formed thousands of years ago.

This archipelago of islands was named one of the ‘New 7 Natural Wonders’ of the world in 2011. The jaw dropping scenery in Ha Long Bay makes it a very popular destination for domestic and international travelers for day trips, or overnight stays on junk boats. As you sail through the limestone karst islands that surround you, see the green jungles, mountain tops and crystal clear waters you can’t help but feel you have stepped foot onto a movie set.

Ha Long Bay has hosted many film sets over the years, some of the most famous being Pan (2015) using the vast caves of Hang Son Doong with the underground rivers and reflecting pools which were perfect for bringing Neverland to real life, Kong: Skull Island (2017) and James Bond: Tomorrow Never Dies (1997).

Vietnamese folk stories say that the islands and islets of Ha Long Bay are the jewels that the dragon spat out when defending the Vietnamese against China. Ha Long translates to “descending dragon” to pay homage to the Mother Dragon for protecting the Viet people. Vietnamese people believe that they have dragon origins and that is why these creatures are used in storytelling and can be seen throughout history. This year during February, the Vietnamese people celebrated TET, and welcomed in the new year, the Year of the Dragon.

Ha Long Bay in Vietnam

Image source:Contiki

12. Bali, Indonesia

One of the most beautiful places in South East Asia, famous for its beautiful beaches, the luscious green rice terraces, and the gateway to Nusa Penida. Rice is an important staple food throughout Asia. The way the rice is cultivated varies depending on the different regions.

In Indonesia, rice terraces are step like fields which are carved into the hillsides. They allow for efficient use of limited land, and water resources in mountainous areas. The terraces decrease both erosion and surface runoff, and can easily support crops that require irrigation systems.

Subak is the Balinese word for the traditional irrigation systems that are used in the rice terrace farming, and it’s said to date back as far as the 8th century. It is a popular farming technique used in Bali, and throughout Indonesia.

Two of the most beautiful rice terraces found in Bali are Jatiluwih and Tegallalang. Tegallalang is a UNESCO World Heritage Site offering visually delightful shaped rice fields. It’s approximately a 20 minute drive from Ubud making it one of the most popular and most accessible terraces to visit as part of a day trip. Ubud is a popular destination for yoga classes, health food cafes, retreats and getaways.

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