The concept of ‘cool’ is a subjective one. One traveller’s cool may be another’s nightmare, which is why Southeast Asia is arguably one of the best places to travel: there’s something for everyone here. Famous for its chaotic cities, stunning beaches and legendary parties, Southeast Asia offers a plethora of experiences for eager travellers ready to explore the region's culinary, cultural and cosmopolitan draws. Here's our pick of the best places to visit.
Packed with history and steeped in antiquity, this scenic city retains imperial character from a bygone age. Enchanting narrow streets lead you past wooden shopfronts and houses where traditional lanterns dangle, illuminating the alleyways and casting magical reflections along the Thu Bon River. It's also the place in Vietnam for tailoring, don’t miss out on bringing home that unique three-piece suit made to order, or your dream perfectly-fitting dress.
An hour’s boat ride from the east coast of Malaysia brings you to the gob-smackingly beautiful Perhentian Islands . Island living at its best, there is little to do here during the day other than to snorkel, dive and chill. Come nightfall, you won’t find the throbbing neon nightlife that has become so synonymous with Southeast Asia. Instead head to the beach where a mix of travellers and locals hang out drinking beer and enjoying the slower pace of life.
When it comes to variety, Komodo National Park does not disappoint. With a staggering mixture of biodiversity, the park is home to a plethora of land and marine species, most famously providing sanctuary for the extremely rare Komodo dragon, which is found nowhere else in the world. We don’t recommend cuddling up to these guys; rather, take a back seat to witness nature at its most rampant. If you’re a wildlife fanatic, it doesn’t get cooler than this.
Love it or hate it, Bangkok – known to locals as the City of Angels – offers a kaleidoscope of experiences to the flocks of visitors it welcomes each year. Whether a first-time traveller or seasoned globetrotter, this frenetic capital won’t fail to excite. From the Khao San Road , where you’re equally likely to find an Irish pub as you are a decent pad Thai, to the soaring skyscrapers, swanky rooftop bars and exotic architecture of royal palaces and temples: this city has something for travellers of all sensibilities.
Whilst many of those touching down in Laos head straight to Vang Vieng to hit the tubing circuit, these hordes of revellers should not deter the less party-inclined. Anyone craving a little more charm would enjoy spending time in the pretty and chilled-out town of Luang Prabang . Here, cute cafés and bookshops dot streets lined with a mixture of traditional East Asian and colonial architecture. There’s plenty of greenery to enjoy, and nearby Kouang Si waterfalls is a cool oasis to explore and swim.
Witness magical mist rising off the ancient rice terraces of Banaue as you set off on a day’s hike or dare to plunge into the pool of a cascading waterfall after a challenging jungle trek. The largest island in The Philippines archipelago has all the credentials to excite adventurous travellers. With some of the world’s most active (and symmetrical!) volcanoes to climb, and gigantic whale sharks for snorkelling companions, this island sets itself apart from your average Southeast Asian pristine-sands/aquamarine-ocean package.
For the best food in Thailand , head north to the city of Chiang Mai . Renowned as a foodie destination, here you will find variety and freshness to take you away from standard tourist food. From round-the-clock roadside stalls hawking tasty snacks, to market cafés and slicker restaurants run by savvy locals, you won’t be short of options. You might even achieve that Instagram-worthy snap of your mate devouring deep fried insects (a delicacy no less!).
In the uplands of Bali you will find the town of Ubud , where a commitment to tradition and celebration of local arts and crafts has cemented its reputation as the cultural capital of Indonesia . An ideal destination for the creative and spiritually minded, you’ll want more than a couple of days to enjoy this arty haven. During your stay, visit the Ubud Hanging Gardens – this retreat with its terraced infinity pools surrounded by plush rainforest, offers a unique and out-of-this-world experience.
Nestled alongside Fan Si Pan, the dazzling mountain range that boasts Vietnam’s highest peak, many people use this small market town as a base for trekking further afield. Yet the landscape of sweeping terraced rice paddies surrounding Sa Pa is a sight to behold itself. Once you’ve tired of summiting peaks, take the time to explore. The markets here are particularly good for souvenirs, just remember that conical hat might seem nonchalant on your mountainside self but it’ll look far from cool back home in the pub.
Since the tourist ban was lifted, Myanmar has fast become a destination for those looking for a slice of untouched Asia. While it's one of the most touristed places in the country, this is still exemplified no better than at Inle Lake , where a unique way of life makes visiting this freshwater oasis a truly remarkable experience. Keep your eyes peeled for the fishermen who paddle one-legged in acts of artful balance; observe enchanting floating pagodas and hovering gardens growing fruit and vegetables alongside stilted houses, with walkways made from weeds and bamboo providing a stable landing for the Intha families of the lake.
Divided between Malaysia , Indonesia and Brunei, rugged Borneo rises from the ocean in wild, undulating beauty. A paradise of mythological proportions, the island is home to rare, tropical plants and fantastic creatures such as giant butterflies and pygmy elephants. Imagine waking up to the catcalls of the forest’s primate population, before hiking through dense jungle and along canopy walkways that take you above the trees themselves. Sounds like fantasy right? Cool doesn’t even begin to describe…
You don’t have to be a geology buff to appreciate the incredible limestone rock formations of Ha Long Bay , the name meaning ‘descending dragon’ in Vietnamese. Scattered with thousands of karst islands that emerge nobly from the green crystalline waters of the bay, nobody can dispute the awesomeness of this UNESCO world heritage site, which is imbued with legend and a distinct aura of other-worldliness. A boat trip here is an unmissable expedition.
Known as Vietnam ’s rice bowl, the Mekong Delta is a fertile stretch of flatland that churns out a large proportion of the country’s food crop. Meandering through the quiet waterways of rice paddies and small villages by paddle boat, or on bicycles or mopeds, may well be the most relaxing way to discover this stunning, laid back world. For those needing R&R from Southeast Asia’s sometimes exhausting pace of life, we cannot recommend some downtime in the Delta highly enough.
Do you possess a penchant for hidden worlds and lost cities? Are you an adventurer with a voracious aptitude for archaeology? Look no further than Angkor Wat . Famously a location of Lara Croft’s tomb-raiding escapades and the largest religious monument in the world, the mystique of this sprawling, crumbling site has not been totally eclipsed by tourists. You do get the odd day-tripper wielding finger guns for Facebook photos, but immerse yourself in the history here and your experience will be a far sight cooler.
Thanks to a world-renowned tech industry and its consumerist culture, Singapore is often criticised for its lack of spirituality and character. But peel away the layers and you’ll not only discover a shrine to ultramodern architecture but some stunning scenery and excellent cuisine. As the birthplace of the Singapore Sling cocktail and home to the spectacular Singapore Botanic Gardens, we challenge you to not enjoy the effortlessly cool cityscape.
Top image: Bali dancer @ Shutterstock