Southeast Asia encompasses more countries than you probably realize. Of course there’s Thailand, Vietnam, and Cambodia, but you may pause for a moment before remembering Singapore, Myanmar, Brunei, and several others. Although some similar influences crop up in neighboring countries, the cultures and attractions are strikingly diverse in each destination. To help you decide where to go, we put together a quick guide on some of the most popular places to visit in Southeast Asia.
No trip to Cambodia would be complete without a visit to the temple complex of Angkor Wat. Angkor was once the largest pre-industrial city in the world, flourishing between the ninth and 15th centuries and supporting as many as a million people. Today, it’s home to more than 1,000 temples — some of which are wonderfully restored architectural masterpieces, and others that are scattered piles of rubble. If you stay in nearby Siem Reap to tour the ancient home of the Khmer empire, you can find upscale dining, excellent street food, and even miniature golf.
Bangkok, the capital of Thailand, is a unique mix of upscale indulgence, holy shrines, and street market bargains. Over the last 40 years, this onetime trading post has matured into a regional hub for finance, health care, and transportation. That influx of cash has also brought in world-class restaurants like L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon and Nahm (considered by some critics to be the best restaurant in Asia). You don’t need to plunk down a lot of baht to get a great meal, though. Soi Rambuttri and Silom Road have street-food delicacies for the equivalent of just a few dollars. Shopping also comes at several levels, from the ultra-luxe Siam Paragon to Chatuchak, a market with more than 15,000 stalls. For something a bit more spiritual, check out one or several of the city’s heavenly temples, including Wat Phra Kaew, Wat Pho and and Wat Arun.
3. Ha Long Bay, Vietnam
North Vietnam’s top tourist destination is a bay with over 1,600 towering limestone islands topped with lush jungle vegetation. Many of these monoliths have caves filled with stalactites and stalagmites. A couple of the islets — Tuan Chau and Cat Ba — are large enough to support inhabitants. To get a close-up of the hundreds of species of fish and mollusks in the bay, you can catch a ride on one of the numerous boats that tour the waters. These range from touristy afternoon excursions to two-night trips on the Paradise Peak, which has private butler service and costs about $700 per person.
Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam, has been occupied by the Chinese, French, and Japanese over its 1,000-year history. That mixture of cultural influences can be seen today in the architecture and food. The Gothic architecture of St. Joseph’s Cathedral echoes Paris’ Notre-Dame. Chinese lanterns are just one of the many products sold in the shops of Hanoi’s bustling Old Quarter. And in some sections of the city, like the Old Quarter, crossing the street can be a challenge with so many scooters and tuk-tuks whizzing by. For those interested in history — namely, the Vietnam War — the Hoa Lo Prison (a.k.a. the “Hanoi Hilton”) and Vietnam Army Museum are worth a visit. Hanoi’s cuisine ranges from upscale French-Asian fusion to tasty street noodles. While in town, be sure to see a water puppet show, explore the Van Mieu (Temple of Literature), and sip a little Vietnamese coffee.
Considered by many to be the heart of Laotian culture, Luang Prabang is encircled by mountains and filled with awe-inspiring temples. Every morning, monks walk in a procession through the city. Beyond the holy shrines, there a few standout sites: Mount Phousi, which rises almost 500 feet above town, and the Royal Palace. In addition to Mount Phousi, there are several nearby natural wonders to see: the Kuang Si Falls, Tat Sae Waterfalls and Pak Ou Caves. To relax from all that walking, you can take a slow boat down the Mekong River and see villages and picture-perfect jungle scenery.
6. Borneo Rainforest
The tropical and subtropical forests in Malaysia’s Borneo lowland are home to 10,000 plant types, as well as hundreds of bird and mammal species. You can duck in and out for a few days to catch a quick glimpse around the area, or stay at a lodge for an in-depth look at the protected region. The Semenggoh Nature Reserve gives visitors the chance to see orangutans up close. Nanga Delok Longhouse has members of the Iban tribe, many of whom still live a traditional life. Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park consists of five tropical atolls that are surrounded by rich marine life (best seen by snorkeling) and dusted with manicured beaches. Meanwhile, the Maliau Basin is home to variety of animals, including some rare creatures, like the pygmy elephant, clouded leopard, and the Sumatran rhino. You likely won’t be able to see the entire rain forest, but whatever you can witness will be amazing.
Singapore is only half the size of Los Angeles, but the island city-state is a business and cultural powerhouse that punches far above its weight class. Worldwide, the small country ranks close to the top for quality of life, technical capabilities, and safety. Those plusses also come with a high cost of living (it’s one of the most expensive cities in the world) and, as a tourist, you’ll probably be paying a bit more for accommodations and food that are similar to other parts of Southeast Asia. However, many of Singapore’s top attractions are free. Planted in between the city’s shiny, modern skyscrapers are neatly manicured parks such as the Gardens by the Bay and Singapore Botanic Gardens. Singapore’s numerous well-to-do residents need a place to spend all of their dollars, and Orchard Road and The Shoppes at Marina Bay Sands offer plenty of designer items to browse and buy. If you want something a little more affordable, neighborhoods like Little India and Chinatown offer up bargain souvenirs and vittles. When you need to decompress, head out to the island of Sentosa, which has been redeveloped into an enormous amusement park with rides and golf courses.
While Vientiane, Laos’ capital, is often overlooked for the more rapturous Luang Prabang, the city still has a lot of beautiful architecture and museums worth seeing. Like Vietnam, Laos was occupied by the French and Japanese at different points in its history. After the Thai army burned and looted Vientiane in 1827, the French came in, rebuilt the city, and eventually turned it into a protectorate until the mid-20th century. Lane Xang Avenue in the older part of the city is known as the Champs Elysées of Vientiane. Colonial French influences can be found when you look up at the red-tile roofs and detailed shutters, and down on plates filled with croissants and baguettes. Temples such as Wat Si Saket, Wat That Foon, and Wat Si Muang have wonderful details. The Lao Textile Museum showcases the Laotian people’s extraordinary history with fabric design. The United States’ secret battles with Laos during the Vietnam War are also covered in detail at the Cope Vientiane rehab clinic, which helps victims of the bombings and is open to visitors.
After several isolated decades under military rule, Myanmar slowly started transitioning to a democracy in 2010. Yangon, the country’s former capital, is also home to impressive examples of English colonial architecture, left over from an era when the city was a commercial hub for British Burma. For example, the stately Immigration Building was once Rowe & Co., the grandest department store in Asia. You’ll also find more culturally relevant sites, like the gold-plated Shwedagon Pagoda, where monks regularly place offerings in front of Buddha statues. The Bogyoke Market sells fruits, spices, street food, and swatches of local fabric. Even with all that’s enticing about Yangon, it’s impossible to overlook the tragic plight of Myanmar’s Rohingya community, the subject of brutal ethnic cleansing for the past several years. Due to this practice, which has been condemned by the United Nations and led to hundreds of thousands of refugees, many travelers are staying away. Many others still visit, however, hoping to find ways to help the Rohingya.
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia’s only global city, has undergone rapid development in the past few years. The Petronas Towers, the tallest twin buildings in the world, look like they’d fit in a cityscape of the future. But those aren’t the only impressive buildings in town: The Kuala Lumpur Tower also functions as the Islamic astronomy observatory and a base jump center. Anyone looking for more traditional Malaysian grandeur can find it at the Sultan Abdul Samad Building. Filled with ornate archways, it’s the location where the country declared its independence from British colonial powers in 1957. For a natural and cultural experience, the Batu Caves are packed with shrines, temples, and wildlife.
Jakarta is one of the most populated cities in Southeast Asia, with over 30 million people. The city’s high standard of living attracts residents from around the world. A mix of cultures — Javanese, Malay, Chinese, Arab, Indian, English, and Dutch — have influenced the area’s art, food, language, and architecture. Jakarta’s iconic structures, like the National Monument, Jakarta Cathedral, and Istiqlal Mosque, are sleek and massive. The Istiqlal Mosque can hold up to 200,000 people. Kota Tua (the Old Town) maintains relics from the Dutch colonial era. Jakarta is more than a big history lesson, though. In addition to beaches (Jakarta is on the island of Java), family fun can be found at Taman Mini Indonesia Park, which celebrates local culture, and Ancol Dreamland, which features roller-coasters and other rides.
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