Southeast Asia: Top 20

Southeast Asia is awash with unforgettable experiences — here's our guide to the region's top 20

By National Geographic Traveller (UK)
Published 11 Apr 2013, 16:55 BST, Updated 30 Jun 2021, 13:11 BST

1. Editors' pick: Mekong, Laos

I'll tell you one simple fact about this ribbon of water: the Mekong is seriously good-looking. Mist rises from its banks as dawn breaks in the shadow of limestone bluffs; fishermen shyly nod while panning through the shallows; and the jungle closes in on passersby; its blend of greens as intoxicating as the rice whiskey knocked back in villages along the way.

I'd quickly realised this while journeying down the mighty meandering river on a two-day boat trip, having thrown my backpack onto the long-tailed boat at Huay Xai on the northern Thai border, bound for the quiet Laotian town of Luang Prabang.

Serene from a distance, it churns up pockets of whitewater that had us veering from one side of the river to the other as we headed to the little town of Pakbeng, our halfway point, where we were to bed down for the night.

That evening, after a couple of chilled beers and a chicken curry, I gazed, spellbound, as fireflies bounced across the inky sky and the gurgle of water competed with croaking frogs and chirping crickets. For less than £20, this is one extraordinary water-bound experience. Helen Warwick

2. Editors' pick: Pai, Thailand

Pai was once a well-kept secret. Hidden away in a valley, enclosed on all sides by tree-covered mountains, this little Thai town near the Burmese border attracted just a trickle of tourists, who did nothing more than eat, sleep and listen to the sound of a million noisy geckos.

Now that secret is out, and that trickle has become a flood. But although it can get crowded in high season, Pai has retained just enough of its famous laid-back charm. If you're a backpacker, it's still the perfect place to lose yourself for a week or two.

And there's plenty to do these days, whether it's exploring the surrounding countryside on a scooter, visiting local waterfalls and hot springs, or taking in a bit of live music. Although many still just prefer to eat, sleep and listen to the sound of a million noisy little geckos. Glen Mutel

3. Meet the Sultan, Brunei

Totems of grandeur aren't hard to find in this tiny sultanate. But there's nothing quite as illustrious as the royal seal of approval: during the festival of Hari Raya, there's a chance to greet the Sultan himself, Hassanal Bolkiah, inside the world's largest residential palace. A tour of Buckingham Palace suddenly doesn't quite cut it.

4. Two-wheeled tour, Indonesia

For a real challenge, slog up Sumatra's volcanic craters around the hill town of Berastagi; cut a path through the jungles of Bukit Lawang — home to orangutans — and glide past Bukittinggi's rice paddies, stopping at roadside markets before bedding down in homestays.

5. Cocktail hour, Singapore

Inject some serious sophistication into your trip by mingling with the stylish set over a Singapore Sling where it was invented in 1915 — in the revered Long Bar at Raffles Hotel

6. Editors' pick: Thai boxing, Thailand

Many travellers flit through Bangkok — ticking off the Grand Palace, a boat trip on the Chao Phraya River and some retail therapy — but few get into its soul. For a chance to delve beneath the veneer, head to the city's Lumpini Boxing Stadium and witness Thailand's national sport. Muay Thai, or Thai boxing, is a graceful and exciting sport, displaying none of the brutal attributes you might expect of a martial art using fists, elbows, knees and feet. Part with anything from THB1,000-2,000 (£22-45), depending on whether you choose to splurge and sit ringside, or among the cheering locals standing on the upper concrete levels. It's the gambling that will really grab your attention, though — a baffling flurry of hands waving, like traders on a stock market floor, with seemingly no sense of what anybody's betting on, or how it's all working. It's a far cry from many of the sanitised tourist options in Bangkok. Pat Riddell

7. Perhentian Islands, Malaysia

Off the northeast coast of Malaysia, the sand-fringed, jungle-topped islands of Kecil and Besar have long been a hub for savvy backpackers. If you want affordable beach huts, seafront hammocks and technicolour sunsets, there are few more perfect Southeast Asian destinations.

8. Kayaking, Indonesia

Swap the beaches of Bali for a kayaking trip around the Komodo National Park — a UNESCO World Heritage Site that's home to the Komodo dragon. Snuggle up and stargaze on uninhabited islands by night, with days spent paddling, plunging into waterfalls, and searching for these fearsome lizards.

9. Chaul Chnam Thmey, Cambodia

Shun the commercialism of water-mad Songkran in Thailand for a soaking at the Cambodian New Year festival of Chaul Chnam Thmey, held in pockets of the country. Dodge talcum powder bombs and rise early for temple trips and processions. (13-15 April).

10. Nan, Thailand

Until the 1980s this was a government-designated 'remote province', thanks to border issues and bandits. Roads and infrastructure have vastly improved but this friendly rural region still has a wonderful, secluded atmosphere. Explore sleepy villages with traditional Hindu/Khmer architecture and trek to low-lying hill tribes to experience a Thailand of yesteryear.

11. Tattoo design, Bali

The blend of Chinese, Indian, Indonesian and Malay cultures make Bali's decorative arts intricate and unique. Add to this a tradition of migrating European artists and a thriving arts scene, and Bali is one of the best places to have a tattoo designed. We don't advise you have one inked here — but pay for a design and finish off your souvenir at home.

12. Hot air ballooning, Burma

Moments don't get much more atmospheric than this. Hit a new high and float above the pagoda-filled landscapes of Bagan as the sun melts into the horizon, with distant views of the Ayeyarwaddy River beyond. Spellbinding.

13. Meet the monkhood, Laos

Take time out in the town of Luang Prabang, beside the Mekong, where backpackers wax lyrical about their Asian adventures and orange-robed monks arise at first light for tak bat — the silent dawn walk to collect alms.

14. Editors' pick: Bohol, Philippines

If ET, Yoda and a gremlin ever found themselves in an unholy romantic tryst, the resulting love child would surely resemble a Philippine tarsier. Just four inches tall, it's not only one of the word's smallest primates but also one of its most peculiar (and rare) creations, with fewer than a 1,000 left in the wild, on the islands of Bohol, Samar, Leyte and Mindanao. With its rat-like tail, bat ears, furry frogs legs, head that can rotate 180 degrees, saucer eyes and a freakishly elongated middle finger, I wasn't sure if I found them cute or grotesque on a tour of Bohol's tarsier sanctuary — a forested enclosure dedicated to the preservation of the island's endemic population. Either way, to see these curious and perilously endangered creatures in their natural habitat was a fascinating if sobering reminder of the diversity and fragility of nature. Chris Peacock

15. Road trippin', Vietnam

'Get your motor running, head out on the highway, looking for adventure and whatever comes our way.' Steppenwolf's Born to be Wild captures the liberating feel of a road trip. And nothing quite beats burning tarmac atop a motorbike. Hire a Belarusian Minsk for less than a fiver a day in Hanoi and cruise north west, to the cool climes of Sapa — a former French hill station in the Hoang Lien Son range, where villagers traverse mountain paths and buffalo pick through rice terraces. Often cloud-shrouded at 5,000ft, it's an enchanting spot to relax in for a few days before revving your engine all the way down to Hanoi.

16. Diving, East Timor

East Timor's tourism infrastructure may be seriously lacking, but isn't that the point when following the road less travelled? Under the thumb of Portuguese and Indonesian rule until independence in 2002, it exudes an unforgettable charm and cultural rhythm. Charter a boat from Dill towards Pulau Atauro Island and sink below the surface, eyeing schooling barracuda, dazzling fish shoals, and weirdly shaped coral gardens in one of Southeast Asia's most pristine dive sites.

17. Editors' pick: Yogyakarta, Java, Indonesia

It was the screaming I'll remember. Having checked in to our Yogyakarta inn, the gecko had been the unwelcome surprise. Trying to shoo it out of the room at god-knows-what-o'clock was more than I'd expected. But the unexpected is part of the experience here on Java.

Jakarta may be the island's capital and Bali Indonesia's top beach resort, but Yogyakarta is Java's quietly beating cultural heart — no more so than when I'm surrounded by Bernigharjo Market's hawkers, or the warungs (family businesses) and shops of Jalan Malioboro. Exquisite wooden furniture, handicrafts, statuettes and batik are the norm. Heading back to the inn, we hop on a becak (similar to a rickshaw) — uncomfortably challenged by the purchases of a set of triangular wooden drawers and a statuette.

On our visit we'd discovered Yogya is surrounded by sights worth seeing: Prambanan, Southeast Asia's biggest Hindu temple, 13 miles away; the ninth-century Buddhist Borobudur temple, 24 miles away; and Parangtritis Beach, 18 miles away. But for now, we've the gecko to look forward to. Maria Pieri

18. Singapore's food markets

Singapore… boring, right? Not for food. Many complain the city's street-food markets have become too sanitised but we think there are still superb eats to be had. Case in point: Tiong Bahru Market in the Art Deco district. Try dao suan, a sugar-syrup-drenched porridge (yummier than it sounds), chwee kueh (glutinous rice cakes topped with preserved radish as oily sweet as caramelised onions) and superb examples of the classic Singapore Chicken.

19. Island-hopping, Philippines

Boracay and its famous White Beach may be the archipelago's darling, but that's all set to change — travellers are slowly starting to take note of sedate Palawan, the enigmatic, rocky islands stretching between Mindoro Strait and Borneo, with a coastline largely devoid of people. Jump in a dug-out canoe and hop around the Calamian Islands, with their blissful beaches, volcano-heated lagoons and unforgettable wreck diving.

20. Halong Bay, Vietnam

Pull up to one of Southeast Asia's most photographed bays and hop on board one of the traditional wooden junks for an overnight cruise. Spend the day sailing or kayaking around Halong's floating villages, as postcard-perfect as the mossy-topped, limestone mountains and green waters that surround them, then bed down at night on deck, under a canopy of stars.

Read more in Southeast Asia, distributed with the May/Jun 2013 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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