Where is the best place in Southeast Asia for ...

First published on 19th January, 2015

A simple question, with rarely a simple answer. Where is the best beach/party/temple/breakfast in Southeast Asia? Below we tackle ten typical queries and take a (highly personalised) stab at why I reckon somewhere in particular is the best in Southeast Asia. One proviso -- the Philippines and Brunei are not included in the mix as we're yet to head to either -- maybe this year...

Ancient ruins

Your top shelf items here are Angkor Wat in Cambodia, Bagan in Burma and Borobudur in Indonesia. I'm going to go out on a limb and declare Borobudur to be the best. Yes, it has a higher admission fee for foreigners and yes, it is a very compact site so it can easily get overcrowded -- but much comes down to timing. We were lucky enough to share Borobudur with barely a dozen other people for dawn, with Merapi smouldering and the jungle valley to the right bathed in mist. It was magnificent and remains one of my most memorable moments of 25 years in Southeast Asia.

Bagan in the dry season is ... dry.
Bagan in the dry season is ... dry.

We'd place Angkor second (preferably during the monsoon, which brings out the birdlife and lush jungle vibe) and Bagan third. While Bagan doesn't get overcrowded nearly to the extent of Angkor, the ruins are brick and lack the individual beauty up close that you get at Angkor. Bagan is a big picture destination -- see it from a balloon or climb a chedi at dawn or sunset to see a bunch of temples. Angkor is a much more intimate, up close and personal, destination.

One more point in Borobudur's favour: you need just a few hours on site. While people "do" Angkor or Bagan in as little as 12 hours, I'd say you need at the very least one to two days to get much out of a visit. Time-strapped? Borobudur.

Also rans: My Son south of Hoi An, Sukhothai and Kamphaeng Phet in Thailand, and the myriad other Khmer ruins in Cambodia, Thailand and Laos, with a particular call out to Wat Phu in southern Laos.

Beaches

So many beaches, so little time. Do you prefer a picture postcard white sand beach with turquoise water without a ripple in sight, or are you more a rugged surf creature, with the less development the better? We're dedicated beach bums, with a particular fascination for grains of sand, and while some of the most gorgeous grains of sand in the world are in Indonesia, we're going to give the gold star to Thailand.

High season at Mekaki Beach, Southern Lombok.
High season at Mekaki Beach, Southern Lombok.

Like everywhere in the region, the beaches of Thailand often bear the brunt of overdevelopment, pollution and greed, but, if for no other reason than the diversity, Thailand pips Indonesia (though if you're surf inclined I'd reverse these). We'd place Cambodia third and Malaysia a distant fourth. While Indonesia has its fair share of calm water tropical isles, rubbish -- especially plastic -- remains an enormous problem across the archipelago. Sadly, if the current and wind is not in "your favour" you're often best advised to not even get in the water.

Personal favourites? For absolute stunning cliches, in Thailand the beaches of Ko Kut in the east are very difficult to beat, along with some of the still-blissful back corners of Ko Pha Ngan. In Indonesia, southern Lombok has some gobsmacking surf beaches while Komodo and Flores are no slough when it comes to calm waters and white (or pink) sand.

Food

Now that we've offended both budding archaeologists and beach lovers let's move on to the foodies. Food in Southeast Asia is really a two-horse race -- Thailand and Vietnam -- and we're going with Thai -- the food of the northeast has a place in our heart as warm as the heat of its chillies.

Vietnam: Must eat everything.
Vietnam: Must eat everything.

Both Thai and Vietnamese food are really as diverse as the countries themselves: cheap, fresh and totally delicious.

Honourable mentions to Malaysia and Singapore with a full bellied nod to Burma's mohingya.

Mountains and trekking

Walk off all that eating with a bit of trekking or mountaineering. While Thailand remains the trekking hub for the region, those with a more serious mountaineering obsession will be well satisfied in Indonesia where no shortage of climbable volcanoes beckon, including Bali's Gunung Agung and Lombok's Gunung Rinjani.

Bali from above.
Bali from above.

Malaysia has Mount Kinabalu -- don't make the mistake (as we have) of calling it Southeast Asia's highest peak -- but it is still plenty high enough to allow you to work off some of those servings of curry mee you've been scoffing. Just wear boots and cut your toenails beforehand.

Vietnam also has its mountainous north, with Sapa the go-to spot, but this is more a walk in the hills than an arduous adventure -- and the same goes for the developing scene out of Luang Nam Tha in northern Laos.

River trips

How could you even consider another river when the mighty Mekong touches so much of Southeast Asia? Be it catching a slowboat from Huay Xai to Luang Prabang in Laos, seeing dolphins near Kratie in Cambodia, or floating around on its rich diverse tributaries in the Mekong Delta, the Mekong is the snaking soul of Southeast Asia.

Snack stop on the Chindwin.
Snack stop on the Chindwin.

If we wanted to give a nod to another, it would be the Chindwin River in Burma, where you can take overnight (and longer) freighters-cum-ferries up and down the river, enjoy fantabulous scenery, villages and towns and in all likelihood, not see another backpacker -- and at a quite reasonable cost. Double thumbs up for a developing must-see.

Notable mentions go to the Mae Kok River in northern Thailand, the Tonle Sap in Cambodia and the Kinabatangan River in Sabah.

Savouring the city

This is easy. Yangon (Rangoon). There is no more “Southeast Asian” city than Yangon, but go today, not tomorrow -- it's changing fast. For now it still lacks the modernising trend -- be it fast food (good) or mass transit (bad) -- that you'll find in other Southeast Asian capitals.

Typical Yangon scenes.
Typical Yangon scenes.

It remains a beautiful albeit clapped-out city, with stunning colonial vestiges, delicious food and some of the best people-watching from a pavement perch in the region. Yes, the traffic can be ghastly, half the joint floods in the wet season, the power fails and the internet is crap, but these all just make us love Yangon all the more.

Chilling out

Laos. More exactly, swinging in a hammock somewhere in the 4,000 islands. Our choice would be Don Khon, but plenty more go for Don Dhet. There are not all that many easy-to-reach places left in Southeast Asia where you can swing in a hammock with water views without spending the earth, but the 4,000 islands, way down at the southern tip of Laos' panhandle, remains such a place. Nong Khiaw and Mong Ngoi in the north are also ideal locales to tune out and take a holiday from a holiday.

Don Dhet: Where the river slows faster than the time.
Don Dhet: Where the river slows faster than the time.

Other favourites include Soppong in North and Sangkhom in Northeast Thailand, some of the quieter spots on Ko Pha Ngan in southern Thailand or anywhere on Ko Bulon Lae in far southwest Thailand. You can't talk about chilling out without talking about Cambodia, and Kampot is an obvious choice -- along the river, somewhere.

Romance

What if you want to chill out with just one special person, rather than an entire tribe of backpackers, in a really special place?

It's difficult to get closer to the river than at Loy La Long.
It's difficult to get closer to the river than at Loy La Long.

If it fits your budget, you want either the Black Room at Loy La Long, which hovers over the waters of the Chao Phraya River in Bangkok, or if you'd prefer to be more hidden away but still over the water, you want Bann Makok on Ko Kut in eastern Thailand.

They're both a bit hard on the wallet (but well worth it), so for a more budget option for lovers, we'd suggest Keranji Beach Resort on the Perhentians, Malaysia or Kanawa Island (despite its many flaws) off Flores in Indonesia.

Long-term travel

Indonesia. With 17,000 islands, rather slow transport infrastructure and absolute bucketloads to see, Indonesia should be where it is at. Unfortunately, a relatively short tourist visa (effectively two months for most) means some planning and international flights will be required to allow sufficient time to better explore the archipelago. We suggest you take around 17 years in total.

Next ferry is in a week.
Next ferry is in a week.

If you're put off by the visa and need for flights, Thailand is our second choice for longer-term travel. Like Indonesia, it offers a relatively short tourist visa, but as there are plenty of overland crossings, it need not be expensive nor onerous to get more visas and keep exploring. One could easily spend a year exploring Thailand with little need to visit the same place twice. Just do your research and get your ducks in a row visa wise.

Short-term travel

While any city works for a short two- or three-night stay, if that's all we had, Singapore would be our pick. If you're looking for a single quick dose of Southeast Asia, Singapore is a terrific option for first timers to the region.

Random Singapore food photo: It's all good.
Random Singapore food photo: It's all good.

Yes, it is expensive (relatively), and yes, it's most definitely first world, but the food if fabulous and affordable, excellent museums and other attractions are a big lure, and a visit is straightforward and usually hassle free. If you're looking for something a little more down to earth, Georgetown, Penang is another favourite.

Islands

Sure, Indonesia has 17,000 of them, but a bunch of those are rocks that don't really count, and it's really about the quality not the quantity, right? That being the case, Thailand comes in first with well over two dozen easy-to-reach, (mostly) semi-intelligently developed islands to choose from. Just about all interests are catered for, with islands for stoners and islands for weddings, and islands for stoned weddings for that matter, along with more family-friendly getaways. Most if not all are within an hour or so of the mainland, so reaching them isn't an endurance test.

Meet Ko X.
Meet Ko X.

For runner up, we give the silver star to Cambodia, where the developing scene there is yet to be totally screwed up -- though we are not optimistic. For now the islands are largely gorgeous and most budgets are catered for somewhere, on one of the many slivers of sand. Just watch out for those damn sandflies.

Getting off the beaten track

Getting off the beaten track right across Southeast Asia is dead easy. Go to the bus station, get on the first bus to a place not in your guidebook and go. See? You're welcome.

Burma's warming up, so be quick.
Burma's warming up, so be quick.

If you're looking for something a bit more advanced than a trip to the bus station, Burma is where it's at. The country is changing fast. Areas are opening up (and closing down) with regularity and if you really want to have that "I'm the only backpacker within X kilometres" feeling then Burma is a great fit (though northern Bangkok is cheaper, easier and also devoid of backpackers). Head north into Sagaing Division or south along the spindly coast fronting onto dozens of islands and the Andaman Sea. Foreigners are still very thin on the ground -- as are services -- but that's what you want, right?

Everything

Southeast Asia is so diverse and boasts such a wealth of various attractions, distractions and experiences, that you could easily ignore all the above and have an even better, more memorable time. So even if you put aside our suggestions, please do make the time in 2015 to explore a slice of Southeast Asia.

About the author:
Stuart McDonald co-founded Travelfish.org with Samantha Brown in 2004. He has lived in Thailand, Cambodia and Indonesia, where he worked as an under-paid, under-skilled language teacher, an embassy staffer, a newspaper web-site developer, freelancing and various other stuff. His favourite read is The Art of Travel by Alain de Botton.


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