Now that I’m back in Southeast Asia it’s becoming increasingly clear to me why I just can’t stay away from this part of the world. I spent a large chunk of the past year backpacking around the region. I visited six amazing countries and relished my time in each and every one of them. Now that I’ve started a new chapter of my life in Indonesia, I was inspired to share six reasons why I love Southeast Asia.
Why six? In order to highlight the best that Southeast Asia has to offer, I chose my favorite cities from each country I traveled to – from the first country I visited to the last.
My 6 favorite places in Southeast Asia!
1. Railay, Thailand
Thailand is a country I find myself returning to time and again. Before I set out on my big Southeast Asian odyssey last year, I’d already visited Thailand twice. But somehow I’d failed to ever make it to the country’s world-famous Andaman coast. So, as soon as I touched down in Thailand last August, I made a beeline straight for Railay.
Railay is home to some of the most stunning coastline I’ve ever laid eyes on. This magical hamlet is famous for the towering limestone formations that dot the turquoise waters. It’s an incredibly unique landscape, and it’s not difficult to see why Railay ended up being one of my favorite beach destinations in Southeast Asia.
Railay is a quaint beachside retreat. The tiny town is made up of narrow dirt roads, rustic beach bars, a smattering of 5-star hotels and plenty of budget-friendly hostels. What makes this place particularly special is the fact that the giant karsts act as a natural barrier separating Railay from the rest of Thailand. Since there isn’t a road that connects Railay to the rest of the world, the only way to actually reach the beach is on one of Thailand’s signature long tail boats. Its isolation adds to the feeling that Railay truly is a traveler’s private paradise.
2. Don Det, Laos
Located on the southern tip of Laos, near the Cambodian border, is the utopianesque island of Don Det. Obviously Laos is a landlocked country, which means that this particular island is located in the middle of the Mekong River. And it makes up one tiny part of the archipelago known as the 4,000 islands.
Don Det has become a backpacker magnet during the past decade. And to be honest I was pretty skeptical about visiting. But during the few days I spent on this four-kilometer-long island, it was pretty easy to see why travelers love this place so much. There’s not much to it, really. It’s the perfect place to just chill. It’s a hippie haven where you can rent a bungalow right on the river and spend your days lounging in a hammock. Or, for those who are feeling a bit adventurous, you can ride a bike to the neighboring island of Don Khon to check out its impressive waterfalls or kayak around the Mekong to spot some rare Irrawaddy dolphins.
As for me, I visited the 4,000 islands during the rainy season and – you guessed it – it poured during the majority of my time on Don Det. This meant the river was a chocolate brown instead of a clear blue and I didn’t get to see as much of the islands as I would have liked. But in no way did the weather ruin my time. Rain or shine, Don Det has a way of bringing travelers together. I had blast making fast friends at the Reggae Bar and drinking Beerlao late into the night. Don Det is an easy place to be and if I hadn’t already arranged my visa to neighboring Vietnam I easily could have stayed for weeks.
3. Nha Trang, Vietnam
As I mentioned in a previous post Aaron and I had to take quite a few breaks from our travels so that he could apply for university jobs. So after traveling for two months through Thailand and Laos, we decided to call the city of Nha Trang home for three weeks. Nha Trang is located right on the coast of central Vietnam and it’s a huge tourist destination for locals and foreigners alike. Now that I’ve spent a fair amount of time there, I totally understand why it’s so popular. It has everything from colorful buildings to ancient Cham architecture to a jaw-dropping coastline. There’s even a little shack to buy cheap burritos!
Aaron and I rented a little studio apartment for $23 a night (everything in Vietnam is ridiculously affordable!) and time just floated by. We made home-cooked meals in our tiny kitchen. We became masters of the art of crossing the street – a dangerous feat in this motorbike-crazed country. We gorged ourselves on banh mi chay (vegetarian Veitnamese sandwiches) from roadside stalls. And we savored every drop of fresh bia hoi (Vietnamese beer). We even flirted with the idea of staying in Vietnam forever. After two months on the road it was nice to call a place home, for a little while. And it was the first time I realized just how easily I could see myself living in Southeast Asia.
4. Camiguin, Philippines
It’s difficult for me to choose a favorite place in the Philippines, because I seriously loved it there! It was one of the more challenging countries I’ve traveled in but somehow it’s one of my favorites. From the world-famous beaches of Boracay to the bizarre Chocolate Hills, this country has so much to offer and I know I’ll be back many times in my lifetime. Hey, I might even call it home someday!
But, if I have to choose one place, I’ll pick the island of Camiguin. Also known as “the island born of fire” this tiny island is made up of seven volcanoes, one of which is still active. Our decision to travel there was a bit random. In an effort to avoid the steep prices that plague the Philippines during the Christmas and New Year’s holidays, we decided to get off the beaten path and get a taste of local island life.
We didn’t know too much about the island beforehand, but it ended up being a very pleasant surprise. We spent our days motorbiking around the island – we cooled off underneath an eden-like waterfall, stopped to ponder the constantly steaming Mount Hibok Hibok (which last erupted in 1951) and watched local families play in the warm hot springs.
We spent New Year’s drinking in the streets with friendly islanders, watching homemade fireworks light up the night sky and toasting the new year with a welcoming Filipino family. Our time there is just chock full of amazing memories we will never forget!
5. Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
Now that I’ve gushed about the Philippines, I have to say that it is not a friendly country for vegetarians. And traveling there for two months as a non-meat eater was downright brutal. Enter the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur.
I’m not really a foodie, but I do love to eat and staying in the capital’s Chinatown was a dream come true for me. The main tourist drag of Jalan Petaling was full some of the best street food I’ve ever tasted.
There were cheap buffets where I bought heaping plates of vegetarian delights – including creative fake meat concoctions like drumsticks and orange chicken – all for less than $5. There was real coffee (unlike the Nescafé that fueled me during my time in the Philippines) prepared with sweetened condensed milk.
Plus, I learned that Kuala Lumpur has a huge Indian population and is home to some of the best Indian food in the world. Ok, I haven’t actually been to India, but the Indian food in KL was to die for. I found samosas and other fried Indian treats at food stalls for as little as $0.30 and sampled some of the best curries I’ve ever had.
6. Gili Trawangan, Indonesia
Gili T – as it is known – was another pleasant surprise. It’s one of those places that’s marred by its reputation as a hedonistic party place. And with all of my preconceived notions, I came so close to skipping it entirely. But I can’t convey how happy I am that I landed on this picture-perfect little island.
Gili Trawangan belongs to a cluster of three perfectly-rounded islands that radiate off the coast of Lombok. Since it only takes a couple of hours to circumnavigate, Aaron and I took a quick stroll around the island on our first day. It was immediately apparent that Gili T is a tiny sliver of paradise. The water is a perfect kaleidoscope of blue. Sea turtles can be spotted munching on sea grass. And the neon-pink sunsets are out of this world.
Life is simple on Gili Trawangan. My days consisted of lounging on flawless white sand beaches, floating in the refreshing ocean and playing with the adorable kitties that inhabit the island.
I was so enamored by this place that I ended up staying for two entire weeks. And I honestly could have stayed longer. My only regret is that I didn’t branch out and stay on one of the neighboring islands of Gili Air and Gili Meno – oh well, all the more reason to go back while I’m living in Indonesia!
What are your favorite destinations in Southeast Asia?