You Need to Add these Popular Destinations to your Southeast Asia Itinerary
As we continue to showcase incredible destinations in the world as chosen and loved by travel writers across the globe, our next installment features a very popular region explored by thousands every year. Backpackers, tourists, expats, and many other travellers flock to Southeast Asia to soak up the culture, eat the amazing food, and become educated on a world incredibly different from their familiarity. Here are the nominations for destinations to include on your Southeast Asia itinerary.
Halong Bay, Vietnam
Nominated by Allison of Flights to Fancy, Instagram
I had been itching to go Vietnam for many years before I finally made it happen in late 2017. Halong Bay was at the very top of my ‘must-do’ list for my lightning visit to this incredibly diverse country. Situated in the Gulf of Tonkin, Halong Bay is officially recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is one of the most spectacular seascapes I have ever seen.
The very best way to explore the 1600 odd islands and islets that dot the area is on a cruise and the cruise that you choose can absolutely make or break your visit. We chose Orchid Cruise and I truly believe they offer the best luxury overnight cruise in Halong bay. Halong Bay is possible as a day trip from Hanoi but I highly recommend staying at least 1 night in the bay. Orchid Cruise departs from Hai Phong which is just 1 ½ hours from Hanoi and maximises your time in Halong Bay. Their route covers a less crowded area of the bay meaning you won’t have to jostle with a hundred other boats for position. Once on board you will be able to relax on your private balcony and watch the incredible vista glide by, enjoy a swim and a kayak on the bay, view Cat Ba Island and the caves up close and personal, feast on incredible food and sip cocktails while watching breathtaking sunsets from the top deck. I only wish I had booked two nights!
El Nido, Palawan, Philippines
Nominated by Brian and Amanda of Eat Work Travel, Instagram
El Nido, Palawan in the Philippines gets our vote for best destination due to one standout feature: water! The water colors, landscapes and clarity are unlike anything we have ever experienced. A week’s itinerary can be packed full of activities related to this stunning feature. It is no wonder that Conde Nast Travellers list El Nido as one of the 20 Most Beautiful Beaches in the World! It’s not only on the list, it takes the number 4 spot! The beauty of El Nido is created due to the limestone formations that shoot up from the turquoise waters. These formations create a color contrast that is unlike anything we have ever seen.
There are over 50 beaches found on the islands of El Nido so no shortage of areas to explore. There are several boat tour options to find the secluded spots. We guarantee you will find each spot better than the last! Board one of the popular pump boats as you explore all the hidden beaches and lagoons. Make sure to make time for snorkeling and if you are considering getting diver certified, this is the place to do it! We enjoyed spotting various fish, starfish and turtles as we snorkeled through the colorful corals in the water that was clear as glass! For a luxury experience, hire a private pump boat. This will allow you to break from the crowds at the popular spots and truly find secluded paradise. Hollywood finds El Nido gorgeous as well with many films shot on their beaches. Most notable is The Bourne Legacy in 2012. Don’t miss an opportunity to take in the beauty of the islands of El Nido!
Book a Tour: Puerto Princessa Island-Hopping Tour in Honda Bay
Chiang Mai, Thailand
Nominated by Gina of Jet Set and Forget, Instagram
If you do not have Chiang Mai, Thailand on your bucket list, then you are missing out. What makes this Northern Thai city so awesome? The fact that there are tons of outdoor day trips that you can take, without needing to hire a tour guide! There is so much to do no matter what the Chiang Mai weather.
The list of things to do is extensive and most them are outdoors. You can rent motorbikes and ride around the Mae Hong Son Loop for an all-day trip, stopping along the way to eat at local restaurants and see waterfalls. Or you can take a songthaew to Mon Cham and pick fresh strawberries and drool over the views.
If you prefer to be on foot for the day, head to Monk’s Trail and hike up Doi Suthep Mountain and see the most serene temple in all of Thailand, Wat Phalad. Keep heading north on that same trail and you will end up at Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep, the golden temple overlooking the city, and catch the sunset.
Tired of the touristy food in Chiang Mai? Grab a bicycle and head to Huay Tung Tao Lake and dine at Restaurant #2 where you will eat in a bungalow overlooking the lake.
Some people will argue that the rainy season is the best time to visit, as the flowers and trees are in full bloom in the mountains. However, if you prefer to not be rained on every day, come from November – February Chiang Mai weather is dry and cooler at night.
Komodo National Park, Indonesia
Komodo National Park in Indonesia is a stunning place to explore, both above and below water. You can wander amongst real life (Komodo) dragons, marvel at stunning sunsets and scuba dive along some of the most beautiful coral reefs in the World. Komodo is made up of so many pristine islands you can spend weeks island-hopping around the picturesque Komodo National Park.
One of the most famous islands to start your exploration is ay either Rinca or Komodo where you can spot the famous Komodo Dragons. They’ll likely be basking in the midday sun or scampering around the shady forest, just don’t get too close as these enormous deadly reptiles pack a venomous bite and can easily outrun you!
Hike up any of the stunning islands of Komodo for epic views of the volcanic islands and sparkling turquoise waters. One of the most famous viewpoints in Indonesia is on Padar Island, within Komodo National Park, and is breath-taking. For one of the best sunsets you’ll ever witness take the relatively easy hike up Gili Lawa Darat and don’t forget a cold beer!
Under the water even more adventures await. You can spot sharks, graceful manta rays, adorable turtles and miles of colourful corals. Although the scuba diving out here isn’t the easiest, you can have a blast with some of the exhilarating currents, especially on The Cauldron dive as you whizz past the fish gathering to feed in the currents.
Myanmar’s Yangon has every right to be nominated for the Traveller’s Academy Awards. It’s a diverse city that has plenty to offer. It will most likely be your first stop in Myanmar, as most flights arrive here. However, try to spend more time here, don’t rush to Bagan or Mandalay. Try to discover Yangon’s charm as well.
Just wandering around the streets of Yangon will get you mesmerized by its people. They will smile at you for no reason. They will offer to help you no matter what you need. There is no doubt that they will make you feel the Burmese friendliness. Our favorite street activity was going to the market. There you can explore the local fruits, vegetables and maybe even do some clothing shopping.
However, the number one reason for which Yangon deserves to be nominated is the incredible Shwedagon Pagoda. It is a symbol for Yangon; no traveler passes the city without admiring the golden pagoda. The Shwedagon Pagoda is situated on a hill so that you can see it from almost anywhere in the city. Four walkaways lead to the Pagoda, and you will pass numerous vendors that will try to allure you with their souvenirs.
The best was to visit the Shwedagon Pagoda is by getting a guide. This way you will get insights on the secrets and the legends surrounding this fascinating landmark. So yes, give Yangon a chance, try to get lost in it and then you will see that it does deserve to win the Academy Award.
Book a Tour: Golden Eagle Ballooning in Bagan
Sarawak, Borneo Malaysia
Sarawak, the Malaysian Borneo, is an often-overlooked eco-adventure destination. Travelers might think of Borneo as a rural region but it’s cities are modern by Malaysian standards and it’s a unique budget destination where you can explore delicious Borneon food while spotting wildlife in its natural habitat.
You can spot orangutans in the wild at Semenggoh Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre, a sanctuary which rescues endangered Borneon orangutans and sets rehabilitates them by setting them in the reserve jungle. Another favorite for travelers and families, is Bako National Park, an island which houses and protects the endangered proboscis monkey, known for its large protruding nose. On the Bako National reserve, you can hike photogenic trails, while crossing paths with macaques, bearded pigs, exotic birds (they’re generally unfazed by people) and at night, you can wield flashlights or headlamps, to hunt flying lemurs, snakes and all the creepy crawlies that awake at night. Lastly, taking a Borneon cooking class allows you to delve deeper into the tribal history, cooking techniques and flavors, which influence contemporary Sarawakian cuisine today.
Kuching is a safe, clean and sleepy city but an ideal base-camp for the start of your wildlife adventures. Many of the sights in Kuching can be either reached on foot, taxi or conveniently by public bus (the public transportation is very good) and are significantly less than the cost of visiting Disneyland.
Con Dao, Vietnam
Con Dao, a small archipelago off the coast of Vietnam that formerly served as a prison island, briefly came into the spotlight in 2011 when movie stars Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt visited the island, but somehow managed to continue to stay relatively off the radar since then.
This means that you can still have Con Dao’s natural wonders and pristine sandy beaches mostly to yourself. The small and relatively quiet main town of Con Son features a couple of great cafés serving both local and Western cuisine as well as a small market selling basics you can pack for a beach picnic, making it a great base for independent travelers.
From there, the island is a great exploring ground with rugged jungle hiking trails where you’ll likely encounter more monkeys than tourists. At the end of your hike, you’ll be rewarded with stunning beaches that are just developed enough to have a beach shack or two that will sell you a fresh coconut or ice cold Saigon beer to indulge on while you relax in a hammock.
For divers and snorkelers, the island and surrounding archipelago also boasts some of the best underwater life in Vietnam. And should you wish to enjoy all of this in absolute luxury instead, there’s always that one five star resort on the island that Brad and Angelina went to!
Book a Tour: Ho Chi Minh City: Mekong Delta Small Group Tour
Nominated by Sarah of Suitcase Six, Instagram
I’m nominating Singapore as the Best City for Eco-Tourism after my visit last March, which blew me away! One of Singapore’s most notable attractions is the Gardens by the Bay. This enormous complex of plants and greenery blends wildlife and the natural environment with modern design and technology. The gardens are designed with sustainability in mind and provide homes to incredible volumes of wildlife, given Singapore is a major city. They also use leftover compost from gardens across the city to fuel the gardens’ energy needs. The gardens were even featured on Planet Earth as an example of city-life living in harmony with animals!
Aside from the Gardens, there are marks of a focus toward sustainability everywhere you look. Most buildings in the city of skyscrapers sported mini-gardens on rooftops and patios. The subway, an eco-friendlier mode of transport than driving, was also remarkable efficient and tidy. This effort to maintain a clean environment may seem intense at first glance (like steep fines for gum chewing or littering). Still, I found these restrictions to be indicative of the Singapore’s efforts to become a major eco-tourist location, and why I’ve nominated Singapore for the Best City for Eco-Tourism.
Book a Tour: Singapore River Cruise
Nusa Penida, Indonesia
Nominated by Tom of Travel Tom Tom, Instagram
We all know Bali and although it is getting more and more touristy we keep on going back there. Just under an hour boat ride away there is a magical island away from the tourist trail and not yet discovered by mass tourism. Nominating Nusa Penida for the travel Oscars may put this amazing destination on the list of all travelers and lose its charm. But I can keep this place for myself!
I expect Nusa Penida in 10 years time to be a hot spot and a well known travel destination but so far you can still find untouched nature, amazing coastal roads, an incredibly rough but beautiful coastline, deserted beaches and incredible hiking trails. There is a whole list of spectacular things to do in Nusa Penida. and on top of that the islands marine life is unrivaled as well. Scuba diving around Nusa Penida means getting up close and personal with Manta Rays, an abundance of turtles and if you are lucky you can even spot the rare Mola Mola. Sending travelers on an adventure is good fun but sending them to Nusa Penida you know they are gonna thank you afterwards. The natural beauty together with the authentic local lifestyle are the perfect ingredients for a fabulous trip. Nusa Penida will blow every travelers mind! Put this island on top of your bucket list before mass tourism takes over in a couple years.
So there you have some of the most gorgeous hot spots Southeast Asia has to offer. Which will you add to your Southeast Asia Itinerary? Will you head to Nusa Penida? Will you head to Thailand and experience the Chiang Mai weather in the rainy season? Or will you check out the orangutans in Borneo? These and many more await you – the incredibly curious traveller.
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Fill My Passport collaborated with other travel writers on this post. All opinions are our own and none was influenced by Fill My Passport.