Ready for a backpacking adventure? These 10 Southeast Asian destinations should not be missed from your itinerary.
10 top destinations in Southeast Asia
Spanning 11 countries and thousands of islands, the region of Southeast Asia has so many places to explore that it's hard to know where to start when planning your travels. From growing metropolises to tropical island paradises with mile-long sandy beaches, here are 10 must-see destinations that are a bit off the beaten tourist-track that we recommend you should add to your backpacking itinerary.
You won't find a more stunning sunset than the one in Bagan, an ancient city in Myanmar, as the descending light casts a golden glow across the thousands of temples on the desert-like Bagan plains. Bagan is considered to be one of the world's greatest (and largest) archaeological sights, rivalling even the more famous Machu Picchu and Angkor Wat, as it is the home to the largest collection of Buddist temples and stupas in the world. Around 10,000 Buddhist temples, pagodas, and monasteries used to stand on the plains of the former Kingdom of Pagada between the 9th and 13th centuries but now only 3,800 monuments remain in varying states of repair. As Bagan is considered an area of archaeological importance and is protected by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site, you have to pay an entry fee. But once paid, you can hire one of Bagan's signature electric bikes and explore the expansive grounds at your own pace. But the very best way to see the city is by hot-air balloon. Both sunrise and sunset rides are available so that you can drift above the clouds and enjoy the stunning bird-eye view of the temples below.
Luang Prabang, Laos
Laos's ancient capital city, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, lies between the confluence of two rivers. The city's streets are lined by French colonial guesthouses, bamboo huts and dozens of ancient temples and shrines with magician-like spires including the golden That Chomsi at the top of Mont Phousi. Wake up at dawn and you'll see the streets flooded by streams of orange-robed Buddhist monks partaking in the daily alms-giving ceremony, a cultural tradition that dates back to the 14th century where kneeling villagers present offerings (usually food-centred) to the monks. Just outside the city, the multi-tiered Kuang Si Falls are also worth a visit. Several of turquoise-coloured pools you can bath in and some have rope swings and jungle trees you can jump from but remember to take note of the 'no swimming' signs in certain areas of the falls as the local population considers these pools to be sacred. Alternatively, you can explore the Pak Ou Caves, famous for their hundreds of miniature Buddha sculptures, or head to the equally beautiful Tad Sae Waterfalls, which has its own 1,000m zipline. Also nestled deep in the Laotian jungle is the Tat Kuang Si Bear Rescue Centre, a bear playground with hammocks, tires and tiered wooden platforms for the bears the sanctuary has rescued from poachers.
Chiang Mai, Thailand
Instead of Bangkok, why not head to the mountainous city of Chiang Mai in northern Thailand. The city's colourful street markets, delicious cuisine and ancient temples even rival that of Thailand's capital. The city is also renowned as a gateway to some of Thailand's most stunning landscapes. Inside of the walled historic centre itself you'll find over 30 temples and monuments dating back to the 13th century but outside of the city's walls are the Bua Tong Waterfalls in Sri Lanna National Park, known as Sticky Waterfalls because the falls are carved from easily climbable (with the help of ropes) and grippy limestone, The Elephant Nature Park, and Pai, a small, laidback mountain community that's become an eccentric hotspot for backpackers in recent years thanks to its promise of beautiful landscapes and top-notch food. Trek to other hill tribe villages, mountainbike on Doi Suthep mountain, bamboo raft down jungle rivers in the Mae Sa Valley or enjoy one of Chiang Mai's many annual festivals. In February, the city celebrates its annual Flower Festival and every November the people of Chiang Mai release lanterns into the night sky and candle-filled baskets down the river for the Loi Krathong festival.
Hoi An, Vietnam
Hoi An in Vietnam is an exceptionally well-preserved example of a Southeast Asian trading port dating from the 15th to the 19th century. From wooden Chinese shophouses to ornate Vietnamese tube houses and even an 18th-century wooden bridge - the Japanese Covered Bridge - with its sweeping pagoda, the town's incredible diverse history is reflected in the architecture and its fascinating mix of eras and styles. The city's Old Town is also postcard worthy with its mustard-yellow shopfronts lining the city's famous canals. And unlike Ho Chi Minh and Hanoi, Hoi An is a Vietnameese city that hasn't procured an obsession with motorbikes. Cars and motorcycles are in fact banned from the city centre's tourist area during most daylight hours. Instead of the thundering of motorbikes and the honking of car horns, the historic centre is filled with the ringing of bicycle bells as a dozen cyclists try to navigate some of the city's narrowest streets and alleys. For those wanting to escape city life, Hoi An is also home to some stunning sandy beaches where holidaymakers can kick back and relax on a sun lounger with a cocktail in hand.