Southeast Asia Travel Guide
Southeast Asia is completely a different world. Westerners would find it strange, mysterious, and savage. But the sights, smells, and life in this region have a uniqueness about it that goes beyond the boundaries of nations and unites the region under the name of Southeast Asia. You cannot call Southeast Asia to be ancient, yet the ‘past’ still thrives in the provinces and hearts of the people. Be it Buddhism or other religious practices, the ancient way of life, or the traditional cuisine, Southeast Asia presents the past to the modern world, in a way as it was centuries ago.
Southeast Asia is composed of eleven countries: Brunei, Myanmar, Cambodia, Timor-Leste, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam. It is also one of the most dynamic areas of the world economically, a factor that largely accounts for its growing international significance.
Southeast Asia Destinations
Southeast Asia is not only about traditions and customs. The modern cities of Singapore, Bangkok, and Kuala Lumpur transport visitors to an ultra-modern lifestyle that is not even prevalent among the people of all the developed countries. These extraordinary cities take you to a world of the future. Tradition and modernity, past and the future, clash, survive, and thrive in the Southeast Asia region. Nature lovers will find Southeast Asia to be like paradise on earth. From dense forests to serene beaches, hiking trips to underwater exploration, Southeast Asia offers every kind of experience to the adventure traveler as well as the luxury traveler.
So, it’s time to pack your bags folks Tie your shoelaces and get set go. for the dreamland of Southeast Asia is not far away. Plan your trip or go on an unplanned one, travel by air, water, or land. Southeast Asia is waiting to welcome you with open arms (in the manner of the West) and with folded hands (in traditional Southeast Asian style).
Brunei Darussalam is one of the smallest nations in the world, but also one of the richest in natural resources. Located on the northeastern coast of Borneo, Brunei greets travelers with unexpected warmth and unforgettable attractions. Spend a few days in the capital city of Bandar Seri Begawan, or take an inspiring adventure into Brunei Darussalam’s undisturbed rainforests.
Brunei Darussalam has been blessed with an oil-rich maritime territory, making it a pocket-sized nation with enormous wealth. However, the capital city is unlike other lavish, oil-rich capitals such as Dubai, being quite a modest town.
The first stop on your agenda should be the Sultan’s Royal Palace, Istana Nurul Iman, which is the largest palace in the world. Other attractions not to be missed include the Brunei Museum, Royal Regalia Museum, Jame’Asr Hassanal Bolkhia Mosque, and just outside the city, Taman Peranginan Tasek, an extensive parkland ideal for tranquil strolls and picnicking.
Beyond the capital city awaits a vast, almost untouched rainforest. The best way to see Brunei’s rainforests is by visiting Ulu Temburong National Park. Tourists can experience the abundance of flora and fauna, hike through the many jungle trails, enjoy a walk in the treetops on the world’s longest canopy trek, and for real adventurers, embark upon a two-day walk to Bukit Belelong, protected as part of Belelong National Park.
Accommodation in Brunei Darussalam ranges from five-star luxury hotels to unrated hostels. Some of the more elegant hotels include the Sheraton Utama and Centrepoint Hotel, which have rates in line with top European hotels. Cheap to moderate lodges and guest houses are available, and suitable for those travelers desiring basic accommodation for a reasonable price.
Although Brunei Darussalam is only a small country, it has an extremely reliable and comfortable airline carrier, Royal Brunei Air. Travelers fly in and out of Brunei International Airport, which is only 10 km from the center of Bandar Seri Begawan. Serasa Ferry Terminal received regular ferries from Sarawak, Malaysia.
Visiting Burma (Myanmar)
Formerly known as Burma, Myanmar is a country rich in history and culture and has a language with roots that go back 1,200 years. For the most part, Myanmar remains untouched and tensions between the dictatorship and ethnic minorities in favor of democracy have had a negative impact on tourism. Its culture is primarily based on Theravada Buddhism and is heavily influenced by its neighbors.
The former capital of Yangon (Rangoon) is the country’s largest city with a population of four million. Despite this, it still feels like quite a green city, full of trees, which make it quite picturesque. At night, Yangon is a hive of activity with its wide boulevards filling up with street sellers offering traditional food, farm produce, handmade ornaments, and an array of other cheap products.
Bagan, in Mandalay province, is a marvelous city to visit. The former capital of the Bagan kingdom is a fascinating city that still has thousands of ancient pagodas spread across the plains with the Ayeyarwaddy River running through the middle. The city itself was destroyed in 1287; however, the pagodas still remain and it is one of the most remarkable sites in Asia.
The city of Mandalay is the epicenter of culture and the most authentic city in Myanmar. It was the last capital before the British took over and is the second-largest in Myanmar. Mandalay province contains some spectacular scenery, with winding rivers, rising mountains, and glorious sweeping plains. Much of the province still remains totally virginal.
It is advisable to stay in medium to high-end hotels as low-budget hotels are generally pretty dirty and can be unsafe. That said, mid-range hotels are comparatively cheap. The cuisine has been influenced by China, India and Thailand but still has its own unique flavor.
Yangon International Airport is the primary international airport in Myanmar and operates flights domestically as well as to a small number of destinations in Southeast Asia and two in India (Gaya, Kolkata). Travel inside Myanmar is relatively restricted due to poor infrastructure and certain areas being no-go areas. A rail network connects Yangon to most of the country; however, van hire is the best way to get around.
Despite Cambodia’s turbulent history, this small Southeast Asian country has developed into an unforgettable destination. Boasting pristine tropical waters, luscious highland forests, World Heritage landmarks, and warm welcoming people, Cambodia invites travelers to experience its amazing culture and painful history.
Once upon a time, Cambodia’s borders were primarily crossed by backpacking travelers searching for a getaway off the beaten track. Today, tourism is Cambodia’s second-highest source of income, with over two million people visiting its beautiful landscape in 2008.
Cambodia’s capital city, Phnom Penh, is located upon Asia’s largest and most important waterway, the Mekong River. Beyond the markets and motorbikes of Phnom Penh’s bustling streets lies a city drenched in cultural splendor, historical influence, and alluring attractions.
Visitors will be amazed at the Silver Pagoda and its 5,000 bedazzling silver tiles. Those interested in Khmer arts mustn’t miss the National Museum and its display of Khmer sculpture. Or take a tour of Tuol Sleng Museum and learn about Cambodia’s genocidal past and the horrors that occurred during this dark chapter in world history.
Undoubtedly, Cambodia’s most famous tourist attraction is the alluring Angkor Wat, part of Angkor Archaeological Park. This stunning structure is the central figure of the Angkor World Heritage site and never ceases to astound tourists with its phenomenal carvings and religious significance. Cambodia also provides breathtaking beach resorts along the coast, specifically Sihanoukville. With white, sandy beaches and top scuba diving spots, this destination is not to be missed.
Accommodation in Cambodia is extremely varied, from five-star resorts to inexpensive hostels. If travelers are looking for comfort rather than luxury, then Cambodia has a plethora of cheap hotels with basic amenities. Cambodian cuisine is outstanding and generally cheap. A decent meal in a Cambodian restaurant won’t cost you much; however, there are some upper-class restaurants that are more expensive and opulent.
Getting to Cambodia is generally done through Vietnam or Thailand. Visitors usually fly into Bangkok or Ho Chi Minh City, and then board a flight to Phnom Penh International Airport Siem Reap – Angkor International Airport. Alternatively, buses from Bangkok to Cambodia are relatively inexpensive but journeys can be tough. Buses from Ho Chi Minh City also cross into Cambodia.
Timor Island or West Timor, with its capital Kupang, is a hub for adventurous people and has an abundance of tourist attractions. The islands of Semau and Kera, the sacred houses of Belu, exploration of the limestone caves, diving and swimming and simply taking in the white sandy beaches lined with palm trees throughout the island are popular pastimes.
A well-established dive fest among the world diving community, Timor Leste has some of the most interesting diving in the region, including freshwater caves, wrecks, and big fish diving. In addition, you can enjoy the natural beauty of the rugged sub-tropical bushlands tranquil waterfalls, and clear rock pools or Lasiana beach where coconut palm trees touch the edge of the sea. Charter a boat for some game fishing for Marlin and Sailfish on Timor Island, Rote, and Sumba.
The capital Kupang is a cosmopolitan and bustling city with its Portuguese and Dutch colonial legacies and architecture and famous for its fresh seafood restaurants. A trip to Komodo Island is a tremendous adventure with the Komodo Dragon and Ora roaming and hunting freely over the island for more than half a million years.
Accommodation in Kupang is reasonably expensive by Indonesian standards with rooms often dated and basic. Mid-range rooms are available through travel agents offering three and four-day all-inclusive tours of the outlying islands.
West Timor is accessed through Nusa Tenggara Airport with daily flights to Jakarta and weekly to Darwin Australia. There is also a direct road link to Timor Leste and ferry ports link all the regions through the Pelni shipping line.
Indonesia is located in South East Asia. This country is actually nestled in an archipelago. Jakarta is the capital of Indonesia. Some of the islands of Indonesia are Sumatra, Java, Sulawesi, etc. Some of the active volcanoes of Indonesia are Krakatoa. The country has been struck by natural catastrophes like tsunamis, earthquakes, etc. The climate of Indonesia is tropical in nature. Indonesia has a myriad of varieties of flora and fauna.
There is a delicate ecological balance prevailing in the coral reefs, estuaries, and beaches. Orangutan is a type of monkey that is found in Indonesia. The Indonesian language is spoken in all parts of Indonesia. Indonesia is the melting pot of various cultures. The rich cultural heritage of Indonesia is conspicuous in its dance, handicrafts, and architecture. Javanese and Balinese are dance forms immensely popular in Indonesia. Chinese, European, and Middle Eastern are some of the popular cuisines of Indonesia. The economy of Indonesia is on the verge of attaining sustained growth.
There is a plethora of excellent restaurants and hotels in Indonesia that brim with the warmth of hospitality. Some of the provinces of Indonesia are Java, Papua, Sumatra, Sulawesi, Kalimantan, Maluku Island, etc. The best time to visit Indonesia is at Christmas.
Located in Southeast Asia, Laos is a landlocked country bordering Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Myanmar (Burma) and China. In recent times, Laos has become a popular tourist destination and it is easy to see why, with friendly locals, a warm climate and a beautiful landscape, as well as its comparative cheapness.
Vientiane, the capital of Laos, is relatively small compared to other Southeast Asian capitals, with only 500,000 citizens. It is a quiet city too, offering little to do other than visit the city’s temples and markets. Nightlife in Vientiane is the most vibrant in the country; however, if you are coming in from Bangkok, then you will likely be disappointed.
Luang Prabang in the north receives the largest number of tourist visitors per year. It offers tourists both a historical insight into Laos country as well as some of the most beautiful scenery in the region. The Kuang Si Falls and the Pak Ou Caves are amongst the highlights for those who like to immerse themselves in beautiful natural surroundings. For history lovers, the Haw Kham Royal Palace Museum and the Wat Xieng Thong temple are must-sees.
Vang Vieng is the other main town in Laos worth a mention; in recent years it has become a real haven for backpackers. Made famous for its ‘tubing’ down the river, it also has some wonderful scenery and it is easy to see why it has become a popular hang-out.
Luang Prabang and Vientiane offer the most variety in terms of places to stay, catering to everyone from backpackers to high-end tourists. Luang Prabang, now a World Heritage site, is home to the most expensive hotels and restaurants in the country, with some hotels charging several hundred dollars per night. Hotels in Vang Vieng are all backpacker digs, with the most expensive accommodation still in the budget price bracket.
Wattay International Airport and Luang Prabang International Airport serve a number of Southeast Asian countries, so if you want to arrive from further afield then you will need to change planes at one of the regional hubs. You can also take the boat along the Mekhong River from China, Thailand, Burma or Vietnam. You can also access Laos by road from Thailand, crossing over from Nong Khai. Once in Laos, buses connect all the major cities and are the easiest mode of transport.
Malaysia is a country that is rich with culture, with Malays, Chinese, and Indians along with a number of other ethnic groups, all living together to give it a unique feel. With giant skyscrapers overlooking bamboo huts, spectacular scenery, and divine cuisine, it is truly must must-visit in Southeast Asia.
The country’s capital city, Kuala Lumpur, is a clean, hassle-free city made famous by the Petronas Twin Towers, the second tallest building in the world. This monster of a structure dominates the city and looks stunning at night when lit up. You can also find the Kuala Lumpur Tower, the fifth tallest freestanding tower in the world. Visitors can take a trip up the tower and there is even a revolving restaurant that provides spectacular views across the city.
In the Malaysian part of the island of Borneo, you can find the Kinabulu National Park, which covers 754 square kilometers surrounding Mount Kinabalu. It is a haven for wildlife and the climb to the summit is well worth the effort, with an orangutan sanctuary at the top.
Beach lovers can make their way to Penang just off Malaysia’s northwestern coast. Georgetown, the island’s capital, is the oldest British settlement in Malaysia and is the country’s biggest seaside resort. North of Penang you will find Pulau Payar Marine National Park, with crystal clear waters and a whole array of marine life.
Hotels in Malaysia range from the very basic to the exquisite. In Kuala Lumpur, Chinatown offers a variety of budget options, and high-end hotels can be found around KLCC (KL City Centre), which is the area surrounding the Petronas Towers. If you decide to make the trek up Mount Kinabulu, accommodation is basic, usually either camping or wooden huts.
Kuala Lumpur International Airport is a major aviation hub in Asia. Fifty-seven different airlines operate out of the airport, allowing travelers to reach Malaysia from all over the world. Malaysia is also accessible by road and rail from Thailand and Indonesia and is connected to Singapore by a bridge.
Visiting the Philippines
The Philippines is a collection of approximately 7,000 beautiful islands with a culture that combines Eastern and Western influences from Spain and Mexico. The cosmopolitan capital city of Manila, with its bustling markets, historic buildings, and museums boasting of their one-of-a-kindness, as well as the idyllic white sandy beaches of the islands, make a trip worthwhile.
Cebu City is a vibrant metropolis of historic monuments and beautiful natural scenery, with a rich history and numerous attractions. Busay Hills provides the best view of Cebu City and the surrounding areas. Vigan, where historical remnants of the Spanish legacy can be found, is an excellent place to immerse yourself in the culture. Vigan, a UNESCO World Heritage site, has well-preserved colonial structures and museums that allow visitors to immerse themselves in the 17th-century atmosphere.
Millions of visitors each year are attracted to Singapore’s diverse culture reflected in its colonial, Chinese, Malay, Indian, and Arab histories. Consisting of 63 islands, including mainland Singapore, it has a clean-cut image with little traffic congestion, a timely transport system covering most of Singapore’s public venues, and plenty of shopping.
Top tourist destinations include the Orchard Road district, which is perhaps Singapore’s tourist center with its multi-story shopping malls and hotels. Explore Singapore Zoo with its hidden wet and dry moats separating the visitors from the animals and Jurong Bird Park with its varied amazing collection of birds. Considered to be something of a tourism mascot of Singapore, The Merlion can be found on Fullerton Road and symbolizes the courage, strength, and resilience of the Singaporean people.
The three quays on the Singapore River with its restaurants, clubs, and bars are a magnet for tourists along the riverbank. Clarke Quay markets offer shopping bargains and unique mementos. The Indian Sri Mariamman Temple is Singapore’s oldest temple with its variety of wall and rooftop carvings and frescoes is a must-see for visitors. The fire walking festival of Thimithi is a big tourist draw.
Singapore City has a multitude of hotels to choose from ranging from plush five-star residences such as Pan Pacific Singapore to mid-range places such as Hotel 81. As you would expect with the shopper’s paradise of Orchard Road, there are many international chain hotels located here. Hotels in Little India and Geylang tend to be more reasonably priced.
Singapore is the airline hub for Southeast Asia. Singapore Changi Airport has been rated as one of the best international airports by international travel magazines. Getting around Singapore is very easy as the transport system is known for its efficiency with a metro, an overground rail link for the Singapore city center, and a rail link connecting further afield. There is an excellent bus network system and the taxi system is cheap and efficient.
With its varied nightlife, sandy beaches, hundreds of islands, diving sites, World Heritage sites, museums, hill tribes, culinary delights, flora, and birdlife, Thailand truly does have something for everyone. Tourism is massive in Thailand and it is ranked in the top 20 worldwide destinations visited each year.
The first stop for most people entering Thailand is the bustling metropolis of Bangkok where old meets new with ancient temples, modern shopping malls, and street markets selling everything one can imagine. Must-see attractions include the Grand Palace with its impressive grounds housing the Wat Phra Kaeo. Close to Bangkok is Ayutthaya, famous for its historic temples including Wat Phra Si Sanphet, Wat Mongkhon Bophit, Wat Na Phra Meru, Wat Thammikarat, Wat Ratburana, and Wat Phra Mahathat which are dotted throughout the city.
Further north of Bangkok is the second-largest city, Chiang Mai. A base for trekkers looking to explore the vast jungle it has a modern and international flavor. Sitting around 1,000 meters over the city on the Doi Suthep Mountain is the famous Wat Phra That. Popular island destinations include Koh Samui and Koh Tao; a haven for divers and Koh Phangan, which is popular with backpackers and its parties. By far the largest and most populated island is Phuket with its fabulous beaches including Patong Beach.
There is an abundance of hotels and hostels in Thailand catering to all types of budgets from five-star hotels in Bangkok such as the Hilton Millennium Bangkok to the mid-range Maenamburi on Koh Samui and backpacker hostels and beach bungalows for the traveler. Tourists will never be short of things to do with many travel agents offering day trips to many of the popular destinations such as the River Kwai.
The main gateway to Thailand is Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok and access to many of the islands is via domestic flights. There is an efficient bus service around Bangkok connecting the major cities and Bangkok has both a sky train service and a metro line connecting the main districts.
Vietnam is a country steeped in history. The occupation of the country by France, China, and the US has made the culture and history intertwined and rich. The country is packed with attractions and memorials. The cities are astonishingly diverse and the coastal areas are pleasant.
The capital Hanoi is the second-largest city. Packed with colonial French houses, dreamy parks, and stunning lakes you will not be short of things to see. Hanoi’s most famous attractions to explore are the Hoan Kiem Lake, the Museum of Ethnology, the Temple of Literature, and the One Pillar Pagoda.
It is said the heart of Vietnam is found in Ho Chi Minh City. As Vietnam’s largest city, it is here you will fall in love with this bustling country. Discover the story of the past by visiting the War Remnants Museum. Learn about the city with a visit to The Ho Chi Minh City Museum. Discover the French influence by visiting the Notre Dame Cathedral and relaxing by the Saigon River.
Dalat is surrounded by highlands. Explore Emperor Bao Dai’s Summer Palace and the amazing unchanged French Quarter. For a romantic stroll visit Stroll around the Xuan Huong Lake. Explore caves and enjoy refreshing views. Hué is a cultural and religious hub. Be stunned by visiting the Thien Mu Pagoda, while beach lovers can head to Nha Trang.
Each city has a variety of accommodations. Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City offer top-of-the-range five-star hotels. However, visitors will also find four and three-star hotels. There are plenty of backpacker hostels for those on a tight budget. Accommodation is cheaper than that in Europe.
You can fly to Vietnam and arrive at either Hanoi’s Noi Bai International Airport or Ho Chi Minh City’s Tan Son Nhat International Airport. Many airlines operate flights from Europe. Those traveling by land can enter from the borders of Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and China by bus services. Many companies in Europe also offer completive priced cruises to Vietnam.