Southeast Asia is a dream for the curious traveller, with ancient temples, bustling markets, postcard-perfect beaches and everything in between. The region rewards those who go off the beaten track, but there's also plenty of the big hitters that you simply shouldn't miss. Here are 30 things to consider for your first trip:
30 things to do on your first trip to Southeast Asia
1. Get lost in Bangkok’s Grand Palace, Thailand
Explore the temples and courtyards of this vast complex on the Chao Praya River. See the Reclining Buddha in neighbouring Wat Po, and take the river ferry at sunset to the temple of Wat Arun.
2. Enjoy Bangkok by night, Thailand
Whether it’s the backpacker bars of Khao San Road, the street stalls off Sukhumvit, an al fresco evening foot massage, or the cool rooftop bars in trendy Sathorn, Bangkok is most definitely a city that doesn’t sleep.
3. Go sea-kayaking in the Andaman Sea, Thailand
There’s no better way of exploring the limestone karsts of southern Thailand, paddling past pristine beaches and tropical mangroves into quiet lagoons – until macaque monkeys come out to play.
4. See the jungles of northern Thailand
Pick your base, and explore the lush, hilly northern Lanna region: "the land of a million rice fields". Choose an ethical company for thoughtful treks that respect the hill tribe communities.
5. Visit the Mekong Delta towns of Vietnam
From farms producing coconut oil to waterways rammed with boat vendors, this region of swamps, paddy fields and fruit orchards is one of Vietnam’s most interesting. Stay overnight if you can, or book a day trip from Ho Chi Minh City.
6. Hike the trails in Vietnam
After Hanoi and Ha Long Bay, head to the soaring peaks and terraced rice fields of northern Vietnam, a hiker’s dream. Serious climbers can test their legs on mighty Fansipan while less strenuous trails are found in the country’s national parks.
7. Take a cooking class, Vietnam
If eating as much local food as you can isn’t enough, learn to cook it too. Book a class almost anywhere and learn everything from banh mi fillings to classic pho soup recipes.
8. Try the tailors of Hoi An, Vietnam
From bespoke bikinis to winter coats, the talented dressmakers of Hoi An can often fix you a new outfit overnight; and if you have favourite items, get them replicated here.
9. Get up for sunrise at Angkor Wat, Cambodia
It’s crowded but worth it to see the first rays light up Cambodia’s most famous temple. Stay in Siem Reap long enough to enjoy the temples, restaurants and bars, and the pretty paddy field surroundings.
10. Stay at the Wildlife Rescue Centre, Cambodia
Learn from the gamekeepers caring for Cambodia’s endangered animals at this simple, two-room jungle lodge near the community tourism town Chi Phat in the western Koh Kong province.
11. Laze on a Cambodian beach
Even Sihanoukville has a handful of decent beaches at Otres, but head to the islands of Koh Rong, Koh Rong Samloem and Ko Ta Kiev for a taste of Cambodia’s white-sand-blue-sea experience.
12. Make the most of Phnom Penh, Cambodia
See the Royal Palace, S-21 museum and Killing Fields, then take a sunset cruise, cycle to Silk Island, admire colonial and Khmer architecture, and get your fill of the capital’s growing food and drink scene.
13. Slow down in Luang Prabang, Laos
Many a traveller has stayed on way longer than planned in this UNESCO riverside town where delicious food, beautiful temples and a gorgeous setting make it genuinely hard to leave.
14. Trek, tube and relax in Vang Vieng, Laos
This once out-of-control backpacker hub has cleaned up its act. Its mountain and river setting remains spectacular, it’s hot on ecotourism, and there are wonderful treks and waterfall walks; and the river tubing is a little more sober.
15. See the mysterious Plain of Jars, Laos
Scattered across Xiangkhoang Plateau in northeastern Laos, nobody quite knows what these jars, some of them over 3m high, were used for; some say for rice wine, others for keeping the dead. Head to the hub town of Phonsavan to start your exploration.
16. Go transport-mad in Hong Kong
Cross the harbour on the historic Star Ferry (running since 1888), take the trolley tram to The Peak, Hong Kong’s highest point, and ride the double-decker ding ding trams, rattling along these streets since 1904.
17. Hit Hong Kong’s many, many markets
Kowloon is one of the best neighbourhoods in Hong Kong for aimless wanderings, traditional cafés and markets. Barter your way to a bargain at the Ladies Market and Temple Street Night Market but be savvy at the Jade Market.
18. Get your food fix in Macau
Sample Macau’s potted history through its mix of southern Chinese and Portuguese flavours. Try Macanese fusion dishes such as tacho stew and see how many Portuguese pastel de nata tarts you can get through.
19. Experience Javanese culture in Yogyakarta, Java
Javanese culture is living and breathing here; hear gamelan (percussion) orchestras, pick up beautiful batik prints, and find delicious Javanese cuisine. Yogya is also the ideal base for visiting the archaeological sites of Borobudur and Prambanam.
Ubud isn’t all yoga, temples and restaurants overlooking rice fields. It’s also a centre for crafts, culture and dance. Head to the community-run Pondok Pekak Centre for well-priced classes.
21. Find your beach paradise in the Gili Islands, Lombok
As a rule, it’s Gili T (Trawangan) for party people, Gili Meno for mellow stays, and Gili Air for a bit of both, but these tiny islands off the northeast coast of Lombok all offer a tempting collection of beaches, bars, yoga classes and cycling trails.
22. Get a sense of old Malaysia in Georgetown
The capital of the island state of Penang, UNESCO-listed Georgetown, epitomises Malaysia’s multicultural, colonial past with its fascinating architecture, from clan houses and Chinese temples to mosques, Buddhist temples and forts, and an equally diverse food scene.
23. Relax in Malaysia’s Perhentian Islands
A tiny archipelago consisting of two islands, Besar and Kecil, some say these are home to Asia’s finest beaches. Diving and snorkelling aside, these mainly uninhabited isles are also great for kayaking – and doing absolutely nothing.
Get your intro to Myanmar with a stay in the old capital, the beating heart of this nation, and home to colonial architecture, lively markets and the country’s holiest site, the Shwedagon Paya (pagoda).
25. Take a balloon ride over Bagan, Myanmar
It’s hard to comprehend the scale of the 2000-plus Buddhist monasteries, temples and stupas scattered over the plains at Bagan on the Irrawaddy River, but a bird’s eye view is one way to see this extraordinary sight.
26. Stretch out on a Borocay beach, The Philippines
When you see them, it’s a no-brainer why this island is often voted the world’s best beach destination. Its 12 beaches are referred to as "boat stations"; pick the one to suit your budget and need (or lack of) to party.
27. Visit the Banaue rice terraces, The Philippines
Head to the island of North Luzon to see one of the Philippines’ most eye-catching sights: the 2000-year-old Banaue rice terraces carved out of the mountainside, and stretching for some 20,000 kilometres. They’re so impressive, they’re UNESCO-listed.
28. Cycle around car-free Pulau Ubin, Singapore
Take the old-school bumboat from Changi Point to this green island, great for trekking and cycling. Find abandoned quarries and explore the wetlands of one of Singapore’s important ecosystems.
29. Go on a cultural tour of Singapore
Little India’s Serangoon Road, Chinatown, Arab Street in the Malay/Muslim area of Kampong Glam and the old colonial district, home to the historic Raffles Hotel, go a long way to summing up the melting pot that is Singapore.
30. Soak up urban life in Brunei
Bandar Seri Begawan (BSB) is the place to get a feel for Brunei. Alongside shopping and restaurants, there are also exquisite mosques, mangrove forests and water villages to explore.
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