There are few better introductions to world travel than the enigmatic region of Southeast Asia. For many first-time travellers, it’s a toss up between backpacking around Europe for a couple weeks or heading for the beaches, temples, and jungles of Southeast Asia, where dollars stretch infinitely further, for longer-term adventures.
My first foray into Southeast Asia was on a trip across Indonesia from Jakarta to Bali. This first taste did the trick. Ever since, I’ve been unable to shake the region from my consciousness.
Every trip—whether to the islands of Thailand, the colonial quarters of Vietnam, the untamed jungles of Malaysia, the hawker stands of Singapore or white-sand beaches of the Philippines—showcases a different facet of this incredibly diverse region. Even each country’s flavours, although seemingly similar, spike palpable tongue-pleasing differences.
The term “adventure of a lifetime” is thrown around too often. In the case of Southeast Asia, it might be true. One long trip, sweeping across the whole sub-continent and taking in as much as possible, feels like a lifetime worth of travel. Even if you never step foot anywhere else again, the sights, sounds, and tastes of Southeast Asia linger around to remind of a life well-lived.
Looking to check out destinations outside of Southeast Asia? Check out this Asia Travel Guide!
When to visit Southeast Asia
I’d caution against relying on simple advice on choosing the best time to visit Southeast Asia. Like many things in the region, the weather can get a little complicated.
Weather patterns here don’t follow the usual four-season routine most of us are used to. In most of the countries of Southeast Asia, there’s two distinct times of year: dry season and rainy season.
Even that’s a little misleading on its own. Dry around these parts is relatively, and even visiting at these times, you should expect to catch a tiny (or massive) shower at any given time.
In general, Southeast Asia is hot, humid and wet throughout the year. Temperatures throughout much of the region hover around the 30ºC mark throughout the year with varying degrees of wetness.
I’d hesitate to recommend any one time of year to visit Southeast Asia as the regional variations—even within a single country!—are too big to predict. Instead, you’ll need to pinpoint exactly where you want to go (or what time of year you have available) and decide from there.
Need some help discovering when to go to Southeast Asia? Take a look at these resources:
Where to go in Southeast Asia
For first-time backpackers, there’s hardly a better place than Southeast Asia. Whereas in previous generations the go-to route to cut your teeth on was Europe, budget-conscious travellers of today seem to drive towards the cheap and satisfying delights of Southeast Asia with vigour.
It’s hard to lay much fault on anyone for that. Just about everything you’d dream of doing on a trip of a lifetime can be done in Southeast Asia with ease and at a price that will keep your wallet happy.
That’s not to say you need to adopt the 40-litre life to enjoy yourself here. Beyond the beach-bumming backpacker scene, you’ll find a spate of mature destinations that shun the region’s rambunctious reputation and open wide the eyes of older travellers who crave clear-headed sunrises over foggy sundowners.
Want to get started planning out where to go in Southeast Asia? Get started with these destinations:
I always hesitate to pick favourites, but, in the case of Indonesia, it’s hard to restrain myself. No destination, other than Japan, has kept me as intrigued long after returned home as this massive Southeast Asian archipelago.
Stretching across nearly the entire region, it’s not surprising that the diversity of Indonesia is through the roof. From the otherworldly site of active volcanoes spurting ash into the air and the calming seaside relaxation of its islands, there’s a whole lot to keep you busy as you scoot across Indonesia.
That’s not to say it’s all easy going. Distances here are large, and journeys are long; you’ll need plenty of time to fully savour Indonesia’s prime goodness. Even then, don’t expect to fit it all in. Just stick to the basics, however, and you’ll still discover a Southeast Asian destination that will capture your heart as much as any place on earth.
Not sure where to get started planning your getaway to Indonesia? Take a gander at these travel resources:
- The Ultimate Bali Packing List
- 10 Days in Bali: A Complete Itinerary
- Where to Go in Bali: 7 Destinations for Your Getaway
- Where to Stay in Bali: The Best Hotels & Areas from Travellers
- Best Temples in Bali
In many ways, Malaysia is like Asia for beginners. This diverse country picks a little of everything from every corner of the continent. Whether you’re shopping for saris in KL’s Little India, chowing down on Hokkien noodles in Penang’s Chinatown or tracking animals in the wilderness of Sabah, it’s obvious that pinning down Malaysia won’t be an easy task.
What’s most easy to love about Malaysia is that you’re able to experience much of the country devoid of major hassles. Aside from the rough-and-tumble wilderness of Sabah and Sarawak on Borneo, Malaysia is an easy place to travel around. Buses, train and planes scoot regularly between all the major tourist destinations making it easy to get a quick change of scenery should your mood shift.
Craving a chance to plan a trip to Malaysia? Check out these resources from our Malaysia Travel Guide:
- One Day in Kuala Lumpur: A Complete Itinerary
- Best Things to Do in Kuala Lumpur: Top Attractions & Places to Visit
- Where to Stay in Kuala Lumpur
- Three Days in Penang: A Complete Itinerary
- Things to Do in Penang
- Reasons to Visit Penang
- Where to Stay in Penang: The Best Hotels & Areas for Travellers
While not exactly holding up to Southeast Asia’s enigmatic image, the city-state of Singapore is an essential urban stop on any tour through the region. Whether that’s simply because it’s one of the most popular regional air hubs or a fascinating destination in its own right is up to you to decide.
To help you out, I suggest you go with the latter. Although it’s clean, efficient & orderly—qualities that I can attest aren’t common among many cities in Southeast Asia—Singapore is no less interesting than less tamed cities like Bangkok or Hanoi.
Singapore’s a place where dollars seem to flow as freely as the city’s famous cocktail, the Singapore Sling. It’s undoubtedly Southeast Asia’s best place to shop and paw at the lap of luxury if your travel budget needs some loosening.
Perhaps the best trick up Singapore’s sleeve though is its food. The city’s multicultural fabric has given way to a truly unique palate, fusing the best of Chinese, Indian and Malay cooking to form what could only be considered one of the world’s finest “micro”-cuisines.
Ready to plan a trip to Singapore? Get started with these travel resources from our Singapore Travel Guide:
- One Day in Singapore: A Complete Itinerary
- Best Day Trips from Singapore
- Best Things to Do in Singapore: Top Attractions & Places to Visit
- The Ultimate Singapore Packing List: What to Pack for Every Season
- Where to Stay in Singapore: The Best Hotels & Areas
Legions of travel bloggers are already well ahead of me in exclaiming how Thailand is a must for your travel bucket list. In fact, there’s a good chance that Thailand’s now—or will at least soon be—the backpacker capital of the world. (Sorry, Europe.)
Before I send the mid-range & luxury travellers running for Bali or Japan, know that Thailand is more than just the cheap budget destination that you’ll see among party-going, Instagram-obsessed millennials. For every Patong or Chaweng, there’s a Pai or Ko Lanta—you know, those special places you’d love to keep all to yourself.
Not sure where to start planning your trip to Thailand? Here are some resources from our Thailand Travel Guide:
- One Day in Bangkok: A Complete Itinerary
- Reasons to Visit Bangkok
- Best Things to Do in Bangkok: Top Attractions & Places to Visit
- Where to Stay in Bangkok: The Best Hotels & Areas for Travellers
- One Day in Chiang Mai: A Complete Itinerary
- Best Things to Do in Chiang Mai: Top Attractions & Places to Visit
- Where to Stay in Chiang Mai: The Best Hotels & Areas for Travellers
There’s hardly a more polarizing destination in Southeast Asia than Vietnam. Ask a random sample of travellers who’ve “rode the Dragon,” and you’ll get answers ranging anywhere from falling in love at first sight to “get me the hell out of here now!”
(And, hey, maybe the opinions all right in their own way.)
If you can put aside the difficulties of travelling here—from the uncooperative weather at certain times of year to the hassles & scams that are all too prevalent—Vietnam might well become one of your favourite destinations. Despite its drawbacks, Vietnam is a country of immense natural beauty and a rich cultural heritage.
As you slide up or down the coast on a classic Vietnam itinerary between Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, you’ll experience nearly everything you’d expect to find in Southeast Asia, whether its stumbling upon glorious temples & palaces, relaxing on pristine beaches, hiking among misty rolling rice paddies or eating delectable street food to the drone of an endless stream of motorbikes.
Not sure where to start planning your trip to Vietnam? Here are some resources from our Vietnam Travel Guide:
- What to Do in Northern Vietnam in 14 Days or Less
- What to Pack for Vietnam: The Ultimate Packing List