Having traveled 7 months through 9 countries in South East Asia we have seen many awesome places and it is hard to decide which was the best experience. I have already written an article on big cities but these are not the true highlights of the region. Tastes are different and contrary to many other travel blogs you will not find Thai beaches, Laos, Halong Bay or Hoi An in Vietnam on this list.
These are my top 10 places which are a good mixture of beach and island paradises, mountains and volcanoes, pleasant towns and awe-inspiring temples.
1. Volcanoes | Indonesia
I could not decide whether Mount Lokon on Sulawesi, the Bromo or the Ijen on Java was the most impressive volcano on this journey. All these volcanoes connect directly to the powerful forces of earth beneath our feets. You can feel it, you can hear it, you can smell it. They are not only an adventure to climb and a great sight, but it is also a deeply spiritual experience – so close to the inner core of earth and yet the surroundings made me feel like being on another planet.
2. Yogyakarta with Prambanan and Borobodur | Java, Indonesia
The city of Yogyakarta is a cultural center and a real gem for the backpacker in Indonesia. The whole island of Java is often overlooked in favor of other places like Bali. Yogyakarta combines its treasures with the flair of a traditional Indonesian city and still is not a crowded and overdevelopped package tourism place. It is not only pleasant to stay, has a Sultan’s palace and is the epicenter for Batik clothes – it also offers two impressive ancient UNESCO world heritage sites in its vicinity: The huge Buddhist stupa of Borobudur and the majestic temples of Prambanan, the largest Hindu temples in Indonesia.
3. Bantayan | Cebu, Philippines
Bantayan is an island paradise. Its beaches are of supreme quality, fine white sand, the swimming is lovely, no rocks. And the beach is situated directly on the shores of the tranquil small town of Santa Fe, just walk out of your hotel and you are there. Except for christmas and easter the place is peaceful and quiet. And still – thanks to the expat community – there is a good choice of restaurants and bars on this island. No wonder why people choose to get old here. You will not find noisy parties or a young crowd here. It is just a place to sunbathe, swim, and relax in beautiful surroundings.
4. Bagan | Myanmar
To be honest, Myanmar in the whole was one of the few disappointments on our journey, with one big exception: Bagan and its thousands of Buddhist stupas scattered a long a wide plain close to the Ayeyarwaddy river. The views are magical, particularly at sunset. It looks like being in another time – in a fantasy world. You can spend days exploring the different pagodas by bicycle or electric scooter and still you have covered only a fraction of what is built there. Despite its awesomeness Bagan is not yet too crowded and offers a pleasant tourist infrastructure which cannot be taken for granted in Myanmar.
5. Sagada | Luzon, Philippines
At first, the area around Sagada looks like a average place with forests and hills in Germany, not like a wild exotic place. This is no disadvantage, actually it is one of the most pleasant hill stations we found in South East Asia. What makes it so special is the unique burial culture – you can see coffins in caves and hanging from rocks – and the possibility of exploring caves which was one of the most exciting adventures in my life. Adding to this, you find beautiful rice terraces and waterfalls close.
6. Ubud | Bali, Indonesia
Bali is probably the first “classic” popular travel destination on this list, and deservedly so. The island belongs to the places I still love despite being crowded and extremely popular with all kinds of tourists. Ubud is the undisputed spiritual center of the island with temples, spas, classical music and dance, yoga and meditation studios, organic Indonesian restaurants, vegetarian cooking classes, rice paddies – it is a heaven on earth for people who like to explore their spiritual side. I went to Ubud three times already and would still find so much new to experience and do in this town.
7. Bunaken Island | Sulawesi, Indonesia
If you judged Bunaken by its beaches or paradise island qualities, it would not rank too well. However it is a calm island and the mangroves are great to explore. The real treasures of Bunaken are beneath the water surface – the reefs and drop-offs around Bunaken are premium world-class diving and snorkeling sites. A snorkeler will experience a lot of colorful fish, a great variety of corals, I spotted countless turtles and there are big fish like manta rays. Divers see even more like colorful nudibranches or sea horses.
8. Siem Reap and Angkor Wat | Cambodia
The ancient Buddhist-Hindu temples of Angkor Wat are world-famous and simply awe-inspiring. Exploring the whole area would require a lifetime, but even restricting yourself to the most important sites keeps yourself busy for days until you cannot distinguish all the temples anymore. For sure, it is hot and expensive and crowded, but it is worth it. The nearby city of Siem Reap is an important city and tourist hub in Cambodia. It is a surprisingly pleasant place to stay and to spend the days in French bakeries and local or international restaurants. And if templed out, there are spas and yoga and meditation retreats like the wonderful Hariharalaya.
9. Batad | Luzon, Philippines
Like Angkor Wat, the rice terraces of Batad are a UNESCO world heritage. The Ifugao people constructed these terraces 2.000 years ago. These terraces in more than fifty shades of green are iconic to South East Asia, not only beautiful to look at but culturally important showing what the cultivation of rice means to the region.
10. Togian Islands | Sulawesi, Indonesia
These islands in the Gulf of Tomini surrounded by the larger island of Sulawesi are hard to reach, but it is definitively worth the hassle and the long way. Sea gypsy villages, private beaches, jungle, remoteness, and good places for snorkeling and diving. These islands are truly a place to forget about the big world and all its troubles.
I had a relaxed beach time on the Gili Islands in Indonesia. Gili Meno is the best, Gili Air second. The Spanish colonial architecture and the atmosphere in the Philippine city of Vigan were a nice surprise, I guess its treasures will soon be more known among foreign tourists. Staying on the island of Koh Ta Kiev in Cambodia was a special Robinson adventure, and I enjoyed the mainland beaches in Sihanoukville a lot.
It is fair to say that the majority of the amazing places on this list are located in Indonesia, the Philippines come second and Cambodia third. This reflects also my preference if I had to rate the countries.
Do you agree with this list? If not, I would be happy to read a comment about your favorite place in South East Asia.