Prepare for an assault on the senses. Southeast Asia has a bellyful of thundering motorbikes, fiery volcanic peaks, seething jungle temples and pungent markets. Yet we also love it for its squeaky-clean sands, barely believable islands and pagodas overlooking lily-topped lotus ponds. From temples to tropical rainforests, here are the top ten places to visit in Southeast Asia – as voted for by you.
The best places to visit in Southeast Asia – as voted by you
Pinned on the map midway down Vietnam’s South China Sea coast, Hoi An feels a world apart. Unlike Ho Chi Minh and Hanoi, which have unholy obsessions with the motorbike, Hoi An is lost in a Zen-like communion with days gone by, a legacy of the French, Portuguese, Japanese and Chinese who once traded here. From stopped-clock tea warehouses to traditional tailors, its Old Town is framed by mustard-yellow shopfronts and cut through by sinewy canals. Cars and motorbikes are banned from the town centre, so it’s a cycling nirvana: follow dozens of threadbare routes from rice paddies to temples and magazine-cover beaches.
9. Siem Reap and Angkor Wat, Cambodia
Siem Reap – colourful, chaotic and intoxicatingly teeming – is nothing if not infectious. Even in a city forever associated with the glorious temples of Angkor Wat, it’s impossible to leave without snapshots of its street life imprinted in your memory. If ever there was a city that looked great on camera, it’s here.
Justifiably though, it’s Angkor Wat and its galleried temples dedicated to gods and demons that draw the crowds. Explore this landscape of pilgrimage and ritual, of saffron-robed monks and long-tailed macaques, then take a sunset shot while savouring the view from Phnom Bakheng hilltop. But remember: Angkor Wat is to Siem Reap what a first step is to a child: only just the start.
Strikingly beautiful, albeit with a few rough edges, Bagan is bound to a complex history that needs a keen mind to understand its genesis. Founded in the second century near Mandalay, it filled out the Ayeyarwady River plains with more than 10,000 temples, pagodas and monasteries, of which around 2200 survive today.
More bamboozling still, there was a time, pre-Aung Saan Suu Kyi in the late-2000s, when visitors were such a rarity it was possible to explore its greatest stupas – the 50m-high corn-cob Ananda Pahto, the colossal Dhammayangyi Pahto – almost entirely alone. The result of Myanmar’s fresh appeal today is skies filled with bucket-list air balloons and boutique B&Bs with interiors echoing Victorian poster boys, Rudyard Kipling and George Orwell.
7. Chiang Mai, Thailand
The rose of the north. That’s what locals otherwise call Chiang Mai, and it’s more than an appropriate moniker. Far removed from the attitude of Bangkok and the hedonism of the south, it’s charming, carefree and laidback. In the historic square-mile centre, for instance, there are more stupas, chakra-balancing spas and spiritual centres than you could shake an ethically sourced, jasmine-scented incense stick at.
Yet the city is also renowned as the gateway to northern hill tribes, elephant habitats and primeval villages. Here you can hike into the cloud belts of the lush Doi Suthep and Doi Pui mountains, bamboo raft down steamy jungle rivers in the Mae Sa Valley, or encounter the kind of multicoloured, smiling personalities most visitors only see on a postcard.
Vietnam die-hards will know this former hill station is where to come for a whiff of heart-shifting Southeast Asian scenery. Established by the French in the 1920s as a summer escape from the north’s blasting heat, its popularity has ballooned in recent years, but the adventures remain time-worn. Hike to tiered rice terraces in the plunging Muong Hoa valley, overnight in mist-wrapped hills, or ascend Mount Fan Si Pan, the highest peak in Indochina and an unbeatable experience in the smoky light of dawn.
The one major disadvantage of always being in fashion is the need to keep reinventing yourself. That explains why Bali improves with age. It’s a layer cake of a proposition with cutting-edge five-star hotels, cafés and bars that go above and beyond the realms of convention. But it’s also the clichéd beach and jungle paradise you hope for. While the coastline has world-famous surf barrels at Kuta beach, Padang Padang and Uluwatu, the real balm is Ubud, a spiritual wonderland of heritage canals, stilted gazebos and pool villas located at the heart of island life.
The grand dame of Thai islands, Ko Samui’s coastline is softened by crystalline waters, breezy palms and many of the country’s most celebrated beaches, namely Chaweng and Mae Nam. Here, bumper-to-bumper five-star resorts seem cosseted from the outside world, but real Thailand is close at hand. Try a southern curry served in a blow-it-down wooden shack at Fisherman’s Village, or take the slow boat to the limestone karsts of Ang Thong National Marine Park, a wistful archipelago of 42 islands straight from the pages of Alex Garland’s bestseller The Beach.
3. Borneo, Malaysia
You cast off down the Kinabatangan River in a puttering motorboat, the tangled jungle wrapped in a soft focus haze. Around you branches shake from proboscis monkeys and ginger-haired orangutans, the water highway ahead leading to the great river lands of the mythical headhunters. This is Borneo in a nutshell, an indelibly wild place stashed with over-the-top wildlife and spirited adventures.
North of here, the jungle gives way to Mouth Kinabalu, the highest mountain in Southeast Asia and a two-day badge of honour for avid hikers. To see the dawn split the heavens, overnight at Laban Rata, before beginning the red-eye morning ascent to reach 4095m-high Low’s Peak.
2. Bohol, the Philippines
Located in the country’s midriff, the pristine Visayas are the Philippines’ blockbuster destination. There is the same sun and soul-stirring sea as in Palawan, and the powder-blue sky is as blinding as on Boracay. But what makes this nugget-shaped island special is its bushy jungle interior, home to the bug-eyed tarsier, the world’s smallest primate, and the Chocolate Hills, a hyper-realised geological abnormality of pyramid-like mounds.
1. Luang Prabang, Laos
Laos’ most beguiling city is an Indochinese romance sprung from folktale to life, set on a finger-like peninsula crammed with magician-hat spires, colonial-era guesthouses and and dozens of UNESCO-protected temples. More than that: it’s a hipster river town overlooking the confluence of the Khan River as it curls into the mighty Mekong, overloaded with a juxtaposition of bamboo huts and cocktail lounges, teak-blanketed slopes and coffee roasters.
All images: Shutterstock.
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