Southeast Asia offers as many wonderful travel plans as there are travellers. For some people, the perfect plan need not be anything more than “I’m going to Southeast Asia for four months”. For others, especially those with limited time and a desire to see a lot, careful planning can be prudent.
Where should you head if you're coming to Southeast Asia for the first time?
For a first-time visitor to the region who is looking for a relatively inexpensive holiday with a mix of beach and mountain time, Thailand is difficult to beat. Cross-country travel is reasonably comfortable and tourist friendly, an enormous range of hotels and guesthouses are spread around the kingdom, and the tourist infrastructure is extremely well developed. Predominantly Theravada Buddhist, Thais are famous for their easygoing mai pen rai attitude and in general offer a warm welcoming to international visitors. Ethnic minorities live in the hills of the north, while the far south is home to Muslim communities. The food is delicious, the weather always good somewhere, and the variety of things to do exceptional.
Heading south, neighbouring Malaysia is similarly easy to travel throughout. Peninsular Malaysia in particular offers a compact mix of beaches and natural beauty, though we’d say East Malaysia (on the island of Borneo) is the more compelling section of the country with regards to wildlife and nature. The population is predominantly Malay Muslim, with significant South Asian and Chinese populations too. In the east and northeast regions of Peninsular Malaysia, the people tend to be more conservative, and this may impact on how foreign visitors are expected to behave. It can be a bit of a shock when travelling down from freewheeling Thailand.
Continuing even further south, we reach the city-state of Singapore, easily the most Westernised city in Southeast Asia. A multicultural and modern metropolis, Singapore is best known for its shopping, food and museums. For many travellers, the country features as a brief part of a regional trip rather than as a standalone destination. Prices are higher than elsewhere in Southeast Asia, and Singapore lacks the lure of jungles and pristine beaches found in its neighbours, but it's nevertheless an easy and fun spot to dip your toes into Southeast Asia.
Slightly more challenging to travel through than Thailand, Laos and Cambodia are excellent destinations in their own right, but equally fit well into regional itineraries. Outside of the main tourist centres accommodation can be a bit more basic, and thanks to their turbulent histories, the poverty some of the people endure can be confronting. Both countries are relatively small geographically, with the popular tourist highlights concentrated in just a few centres that can be easily visited over a week or two weeks each.
Cambodia’s highlight is undoubtedly the magnificent ruins of Angkor Wat. But the kingdom also has a relatively new island scene that's becoming the new backpacker crashpad of the region. In Laos, romantic and atmospheric Luang Prabang is the headline attraction, with a developing ecotourism scene showing promise. Both countries are also predominantly Theravada Buddhist, and the vibe tends towards low-key and relaxed versus more industrious Vietnam.
Vietnam vies with Thailand for offering the best food in the region, but travelling around can be a bit more challenging than the already mentioned countries thanks to the deceptively large distances involved. Highlights in the north include Ha Long Bay and Sapa, while Hoi An, Hue and Phong Nha in the centre should not be missed, while in the south the Mekong Delta and Phu Quoc Island are the key drawcards. The capital Hanoi and commercial capital Ho Chi Minh City meanwhile should each be considered destinations in their own right.
While it has a good domestic train and flight network, Vietnam is not a country without scams and scam artists; it can wear a traveller down. Because of this, Vietnam lends itself being more suited to a second-time Southeast Asian visit, rather than a first-time one, though many do hit it up first time around and survive to tell the tale. Primarily Mahayana Buddhist, Vietnamese society can be seen as being a transition point between Southeast Asia and East/Northeast Asia.
Heading in the other direction, off Thailand’s western border Burma (Myanmar) in many ways represents another transition point, this time from Southeast Asia to South Asia. In food and culture, Burma demonstrates heavy South Asian influences. The country is mostly Theravada Buddhist, and is also home to significant numbers of ethnic minorities, including Muslim and Christian communities. Large-scale tourism remains fairly new in Burma and the comfort and tourist friendliness of the infrastructure reflects this.
The highlights of the country can be touched on in as little as a week to 10 days (with some domestic flights), but we’d argue you need at least two weeks for Burma to be worth your while. Travellers looking to cover both the centre and north along with the south should set aside four weeks. The far south promises much in the way of beaches and islands, but for now development remains limited. Parts of the country in the north and west remain off limits to foreign tourists due to low-level fighting with regional groups. The west of the country has been blighted by state-sanctioned violence towards the Rohingya. Travellers planning to go off piste in Burma should make an effort to keep abreast of the news.
Last but not least, Indonesia is Southeast Asia’s largest archipelago. Along with the Philippines, it represents the best of off-the-beaten track tourism the region has to offer. Indonesia’s tourism scene is heavily concentrated in just a few destinations, notably Bali and Lombok, parts of Java, Sulawesi and Flores. It offers tremendous beaches and islands, volcano climbing and jungles, but travelling around can be challenging and time consuming. Sadly, the general tourist visa is too short to allow for really expansive travel.
First-time visitors often opt for Bali, Java and perhaps Lombok, with returnees opting for some of the more far-flung destinations. Most of the country is near devoid of foreign tourists, and the tourism and accommodation infrastructure reflect this. Indonesia is a Muslim-majority nation, but is home to large centres of other religions, notably Bali (Balinese Hinduism), Flores (Christian) and Sumba (animism). Very generally speaking, the further west you are, the more conservative the Muslim outlook will be; Aceh, at the western end of Sumatra, enforces Sharia law. Bali and Lombok can easily feature in a first-timer's visit to Southeast Asia, while the rest of the country can be considerably more challenging (though certainly still doable).
Putting aside the ease (or difficulty) of travel in each country, deciding on where to go will also depend on what you want to do while you're travelling. In the next few sections we outline some general attractions for travellers to Southeast Asia.
Planning well is an integral part of getting the most out of your trip. Be it picking the right backpack, the right vaccinations or the right country, the simple decisions are often the most important.