Wrapped in rainforests, edged by golden sands, crowned by volcanoes, studded with ruins of lost civilisations: this is Southeast Asia as you’ve always imagined it.
The soul of Southeast Asia has been forged by the elements. Mighty volcanoes have thrust the land up, and raging rivers have carved it down. Coral reefs have formed islands, and sea spray has sculpted them into surreal karst outcrops. Millennia of monsoon rain have created cultures defined by the seasons, and by the annual flooding of rivers, which double as super-highways through impenetrable jungles. In this region of rivers, oceans and islands, you're as likely to travel by boat as by road, following trade routes that were old when the great powers of Europe were young.
Spirituality swirls around Southeast Asia like the smoke from incense sticks swirls around its myriad temples. At dawn in Buddhist nations, monks flood into the streets to gather alms in endless monochrome chains. In Muslim countries, the call to prayer rises in a multi-throated chorus above rooftops. In Taoist temples, devotees fill the morning air with thick incense smoke, while tribal people in remote villages mark the new day's arrival with arcane animist rituals. Every aspect of life here has a spiritual dimension, from the food people eat to the religious geometry that dictates the layout of centuries-old mosques and temples.
Southeast Asia's mighty megacities are stepping boldly towards the future with one foot planted firmly in the past. Skyscrapers rise above streets like crystal gardens, while at street level, traders hustle, food-hawkers hawk, and temples bustle with devotees toting their offerings. For many travellers, the first taste of the region is the urban chaos of Bangkok, or the organised modernity of Singapore, but each of Southeast Asia's capitals has its own unique character, defined by religion, culture, geography and, in most cases, by centuries of colonialism and feuding dynasties. Learning the rhythms of each is part of the magic here.
Southeast Asia is both a melting pot and a cooking pot, where the flavours of some of the world's greatest cuisines melt into one another, throwing up ever more mesmerising combinations. The region's spices were once valued more highly than gold, and combined with one notable import – the South American chilli – they've created a cooking palette that inflames the senses and leaves the taste buds begging for more. This is a region where humble hawker stalls come with Michelin stars, and where a meal at a roadside canteen or night market can be as memorable as a five-star, dim sum banquet.
Why I Love Southeast Asia
Part of being a traveller is working out which places get your juices flowing. I first encountered Southeast Asia on a round-the-world trip in the early 1990s, and something clicked. It might've been the waft of incense, the gleam of gold leaf, lotus blossoms floating in a temple pool, or the roots of jungle trees thrusting through Angkor Wat's ruins. I’ve never stopped being amazed at how every country in Southeast Asia offers its own unique version of the East, but all drawn from the same narrative of faith, lost empires and the ebb and flow of the monsoon rains.
Budget: Less than US$50
- Cheap guesthouse: US$10–20
- Night-market meal: US$1–5
- Local transport: US$1–5
- Bottled beer: US$1–5
- Midrange hotel room: US$20–75
- Restaurant meal: US$6–10
- Motorcycle hire: US$6–10
Top end: More than US$100
- Boutique hotel or beach resort: US$100+
- Dive trip: US$50–100
- Hiring a car and driver: US$25–50
Regions at a Glance
Bruneian cuisine may not be well known, but we can guarantee you’ve never eaten anything like ambuyat (made from sago starch), or delicious kueh – rainbow-coloured Malay-style sweets made from rice, tapioca or mung-bean flour.
Ulu Temburong National Park preserves 40% of Brunei’s virgin rainforest, so there's a good chance of spotting wildlife on a jungle hike, or from elevated walkways through the canopy.
River cruises penetrate the forested interior, but you'll see a different side to life in Brunei in Kampong Ayer, the world’s largest stilt village, perched above the Brunei River.
While the scars of recent history are still visible – particularly at Tuol Sleng Prison and the Killing Fields near Phnom Penh – ancient history is the big drawcard, particularly at Angkor. These ancient Hindu and Buddhist temples are wonders of the world.
Meeting the Khmers
Community-based tourism projects are turning former poachers into trekking guides and rural village homes into captivating homestays. Few things are as fascinating as seeing a country through the eyes of its inhabitants.
A laid-back alternative to the crowded sands of southern Thailand, the squeaky-clean beaches and islands along Cambodia's short coastline are every bit as beautiful, but with lower costs and half the crowds.
Empires too numerous to count have risen on the Indonesian archipelago, leaving behind majestic ruins such Borobudur. Then there are Indonesia's tribal cultures, as rich and varied as the islands themselves.
East Java's Gunung Bromo is just one of dozens of active volcanoes calling like a beacon to hikers. The experience of bursting through the cloud layer to the smouldering summit of an Indonesian volcano will linger for a lifetime.
Charming Bali blends rich culture with stupendous sands, and just across the channel are the Gili Islands for diving, Sumbawa for surfing, Flores for discovering and Sumba for simply getting lost.
The former royal capital of Luang Prabang is studded with historic temples and relics from French Indochina. Homestays in nearby mountain villages promise encounters with Laos' hill-tribe peoples.
Laos has an abundance of undisturbed wilderness and 20 designated reserves promising magical natural encounters. Eco-oriented programs such as the Gibbon Experience add ziplines and sleep-outs in the canopy.
Rivers are the lifeblood of Laos, and life moves to their ebb and flow. Laze beside the muddy waters, kayak deep into the hinterland or use the river as a highway from Luang Prabang to the Golden Triangle.
Malaysia is one of the world's great melting pots, and its kitchens fuse the spices of India, the cooking know-how of China and the rich culinary traditions of the Malay peninsula.
Sands & Sealife
Malaysia’s beaches are postcard perfect, and the vibe is less frenetic than in neighbouring Thailand. Hobo hang-outs such as Tioman and Pulau Perhentian combine sparkling sand with stunning scuba dives offshore.
The fabled jungles of Borneo are accessed by evocative boat rides along tea-coloured rivers, and encounters with orangutans are top of the bucket list. On the peninsula, rainforests even spill into the middle of downtown Kuala Lumpur.
Across Myanmar, stupas gleam like gold above the rooftops, a reminder of the nation's Buddhist soul. A tide of pilgrims swirls around Yangon's Shwedagon Paya, whisking visitors along on the spiritual journey.
From the surging Ayeyarwady to the mill-pond calm backwaters of Inle Lake, Myanmar's waterways call out to be explored. The overnight trip from Mandalay to Bagan offers a mesmerising window into the life of river communities.
Myanmar's big festivals – the Thingyan water festival and Tazaungdaing, festival of lights – are show-stoppers, but just as fascinating are the nat pwe held in rural villages to propitiate animist spirits.
The Philippines is a stir-fry of ingredients from the powers who have coveted these shores: Catholicism and mysticism from Spain, bravado and bling from America, and beneath it, a complex native tribal culture.
Volcanoes soar above the skyline across the Philippines, and trekking to their summits, or relaxing in the natural hot springs that surround their bases, are favourite pastimes.
With 7000-plus islands to choose from, it's no trouble finding your own perfect strip of sand in the Philippines – typically with stunning scuba diving and boat rides to isolated islets offshore.
East and West come together in sophisticated Singapore, where grand colonial mansions and traditional Chinese shophouses double as swish boutiques, gourmet restaurants and upbeat nightspots.
Banquet halls abound, but Singapore is the home of the Michelin-starred hawker. The city's food centres serve up treats to rival the showiest restaurants, and locals graze from dawn until long after dark.
When the shiny skyscrapers close in, break for the jungle. The Botanic Gardens and futuristic Gardens by the Bay serve up tame versions, or try Bukit Timah Nature Reserve or the Southern Ridges for real jungle experiences.
The death of King Bhumibol marks a new chapter in the spiritual life of Thailand, where religion and royalty meld and mingle, but the pulse of the nation beats on in its spectacular shrines and temples.
With crystal waters, fringing palms and shimmering sand, Thailand’s southern beaches are the real deal, with added party appeal. Expect late nights and lazy days of sun-soaking, scuba diving and spa indulgence.
Feted as one of the world's top cuisines, Thai food draws on a fabulous palette of herbs, spices and seasonings. Don't just eat it, learn to cook it too – courses are offered in traveller towns across the kingdom.
A National Journey
Timor-Leste's journey from European colony to Indonesian province to independent nation is etched into the national psyche, and marked in the country's churches and shrines, and in Dili's moving museums and burial grounds.
Catholic Timor-Leste has mystical leanings, with mountains as spiritual sites. Sacred Mt Ramelau boasts a summit Virgin Mary statue and spectacular sunrise views over two coasts.
Often overlooked in favour of its famous neighbours, Timor-Leste is gaining a growing following for scuba diving on the pristine reefs off the north shore and around Ataúro Island.
Everyone from China to France and the USA tried to claim Vietnam, but it still emerged as a proud independent nation. Martial history is painted large in its ancient monuments, imperial palaces and 20th-century battlegrounds.
Vietnam's beaches were propelled into the popular imagination by GIs on R&R during the Vietnam War. Take your pick from built-up Nha Trang, dune-backed Mui Ne, or peaceful escapes at Con Dao and Phu Quoc.
Vietnam’s cuisine almost dares to rival Thai cooking, mixing concepts from China, Southeast Asia and colonial France. Where else can you enjoy noodle soup with a baguette and a drip-filter coffee?
- Lonely Planet (www.lonelyplanet.com/southeast-asia) Destination information, hotel bookings, traveller forum and more.
- Travelfish (www.travelfish.org) Popular travel site specialising in Southeast Asia.
- Agoda (www.agoda.com) Regional hotel booking website.
- Bangkok Post (www.bangkokpost.com) In-depth analysis of current events in Southeast Asia.
- Learn the scams: phony guides, dodgy transport, touts.
- Roads are crazy; drive defensively and cross the road even more carefully.
- Most supplies (mosquito repellent, umbrella) can be bought locally.
- Take your cue from the locals when it comes to appropriate dress.
- Take digital pictures of important documents and cards in case of theft or loss.
- Tell your bank where you are travelling, and keep their phone number handy in case they block your card.
- Know your passwords! Many websites run security measures when accessed from a new location.
- Keep your passport and other valuables in a hidden waist pouch or similar beneath your clothing.
- Watch your bags while out and about; grab and run is a common form of theft.
- Pay for accommodation first thing in the morning, or the night before if leaving early.
- State Railway of Thailand (Thailand)
Thailand's once neglected railways are receiving some much-needed investment, with gleaming new rail cars on the popular traveller route north from Bangkok to Chiang Mai and the northeast.
- Vang Vieng Challenge (Laos)
Ziplining is becoming the must-do activity around Vang Vieng, and the Vang Vieng Challenge ups the ante with via ferrata, climbing, abseiling and ziplining on a two-day mountain adventure.
- Bukit Timah Nature Reserve (Singapore)
After two years of improvements and renovations, Bukit Timah Nature Reserve reopened in 2016 – complete with a new visitor centre and improved jungle trails, just 12km from the heart of the city.
- Craft Beer in Phnom Penh (Cambodia)
- Concubine Lane, Ipoh (Malaysia)
The one-time red-light district in Ipoh has been reborn as a foodie, arty quarter, making good use of its fine heritage buildings.
- Crocodile Rock Villas, Pulau Perhentian Kecil (Malaysia)
Taking backpacking upmarket at Pulau Perhentian, Crocodile Rock Villas offers grown-up glam-packer accommodation and great eats in a quiet island corner.
- Hanoi Drinking Hours (Vietnam)
Hanoi's famously strict licensing laws have been relaxed at weekends in the Hoan Kiem district, pushing closing time for bars and restaurants back to 2am from Friday to Sunday.
- Bambu Indah, Ubud (Bali, Indonesia)
This lovely and lavish boutique hotel has expanded its appeal, with new glamping tents, set on a jungle mountainside above a river flanked by natural splash pools.
- KLM Insos Raja Ampat Liveaboard (Raja Ampat Islands, Indonesia)
Liveaboards are no longer the preserve of the well-heeled, thanks to this backpacker-friendly budget dive safari, with discount rates including meals, cabin and dives.
- Airport train, Jakarta (Indonesia)
The new rail link to Jakarta's Soekarno-Hatta International Airport will make getting downtown a breeze once all its stations open in 2017 and 2018.
- Blue Fire at Ijen (Java, Indonesia)
Not content with bubbling lava? Then perhaps a midnight trek to see the surreal blue flames that flicker around the crater of the Ijen volcano will appeal.
- Poblacion, Makati, Manila (Philippines)
Once tacky and seedy, P Burgos St has relaunched itself as a hip hang-out, with boutique digs, craft breweries and streetside eats.
When to Go
High Season (Jun–Aug & Dec–Feb)
- Dry, cool winter months.
- Chilly in the mountains.
- Travel is difficult during Tet in Vietnam.
- Summer rains across most of the region.
Shoulder Season (Mar & Nov)
- Hot, dry season begins in March.
- November sees lower prices, before the rush.
Low Season (Apr–May, Sep–Oct)
- Travel difficult during April’s new year festivals in Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Thailand.
- Easter festivities in the Philippines.
- Wet season (Sep–Oct); flooding, typhoons, transport cancellations.
- Dry season begins in Indonesia (Apr–May).