I blindly flew into Bangkok this June with really no idea what I was getting myself into. I was in Asia for three months, tentatively flying out of Jakarta at the end of September. In my mind, I thought I could hit Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Malaysia, Singapore, before wrapping up in Indonesia. Of course, very few things in my life ever actually go according to plan and a combination of passport issues and laziness forced me to cut out a few countries out of that original plan. I ended up visiting Laos and the Philippines as well, and despite a few roadblocks, I ended up having one of the best trips of my life.
It was hard to narrow this list down to just ten places, but in the end, these were the ten that stuck with me.
10. Vang Vieng, Laos
The backpacker town of Vang Vieng is undeniably Laos’ most touristy spot, but there is a good reason for that. Although it gets a bad reputation for its infamous activity of drunkenly tubing down a river, it has a lot more than just that in its repertoire. From an abundance of outdoor activities to a fun nightlife scene, it has everything the adventurous traveler could desire. Rock climbing, spelunking, and bicycling are some of the fun activities that you can do while you explore this beautiful region of South East Asia’s most overlooked country.
9. Koh Phi Phi, Thailand
The laid-back vibe of this island made it one of the hardest places for me to leave. It is smaller and has fewer things to do than Thailand’s other islands, but it packs a lot of fun in its small space. Everything is within walking distance, and I had no qualms with lazing my days away on the beach and then partying at one of the many beachside dance floors. While the island is undeniably set up for tourists, it is everything you could dream of for an island getaway. Lots of good restaurants, bars, massage parlors, stores, and pristine beaches make it a perfect destination for a carefree holiday. Check out my guide to Koh Phi Phi here.
8. Ha Long Bay, Vietnam
Dubbed one of the Seven New Natural Wonders of the World, Ha Long Bay is beyond gorgeous. Over three thousand islands call Ha Long Bay home, and taking a cruise through them is nothing short of mind-blowing. Aside from checking out the islands, there is not much else to do in Ha Long Bay, otherwise it would be way higher up on this list. You should definitely check out Cat Ba island and its national park while you’re here. Leisurely kayaking my way through the islands of Ha Long was one of my favorite activities on this trip.
7. Siem Reap, Cambodia
Although mostly known for Angkor Wat and other archaeological sites, Siem Reap is a pretty cool town on its own. With a poppin’ nightlife scene and a number of good restaurants and markets, it is a fun place to hang out and relax or party after exploring temples all day. Exploring Angkor Wat and the other archaeological sites, like Angkor Thom and Preah Khan, were among the most memorable adventures of my trip. You can’t find anything like this anywhere else in the world, so take it all in while you’re here.
6. Hoi An, Vietnam
After rampaging through northern Vietnam, kicking back in Hoi An was a much-needed change of pace. I needed to chill for a while, and Hoi An couldn’t have been a more perfect place. The town is a lot calmer than the bigger cities of Vietnam, and the beach is a quick scooter ride away. While Hoi An is quite touristy, and even more so at night, you will still feel a bit of magic when you first see the lanterns in Old Town lit up. The night market is one of my favorites in South East Asia. It is a good place to hang out before checking out the bar scene where you’re guaranteed to have a good time.
5. Pai, Thailand
Thailand’s weird little hippie community has become a must-visit destination for backpackers. The vibe of Pai is hard to describe, but life just feels better while you’re there. Renting a scooter and exploring the surrounding nature is a great way to pass the days in Pai. There’s no doubt that it’s a much better way to explore a place compared to the strict guided tours that you’re probably getting sick of. The town of Pai itself is small, but that doesn’t mean that you’ll ever get bored while in Pai. The abundance of restaurants, bars, and street food stalls can turn any night into a fun night. Make sure to go to Don’t Cry bar if you’re wanting to experience Pai’s nightlife to its fullest.
4. El Nido, Philippines
Despite the bumpy ride through a rainstorm, seeing the mountains of El Nido pop out of the ocean lifted my spirits immediately. El Nido and its surrounding islands are an unbelievable paradise. The area rivals Ha Long Bay and any of Thailand’s islands. El Nido also has a little town that serves as a home base for exploring the wonders the area offers. Island hopping was an amazing experience. Balancing exploring with relaxing and partying was a perfect start to the Philippines after a hectic time in Vietnam. While El Nido is gaining popularity as a tourist destination, it is still relatively untouched. Read my thoughts on why now is the best time to go El Nido.
3. Sa Pa, Vietnam
Everywhere you looked, Sa Pa was stunning. The lush rolling hills, valleys, and rice terraces were among the greenest scenery I have ever seen in my life. I could have given my phone to a baby to take pictures and everything would have still been Instagram-worthy. Trekking through the rice terraces with local guides and fighting for pathway-space with water buffalo was an experience of a lifetime. Sleeping in a Vietnamese family’s barn was also quite the unique sleeping situation. The scenery of Sa Pa was mind-blowing, and it was no doubt my favorite spot in Vietnam. Considering the world-renowned beauty of places like Ha Long Bay, Phong Nha, and Ninh Binh, that says quite a lot.
Mark Koh Phangan down as one of those places that will unexpectedly steal your heart. Known mostly for its epic Full Moon Party, I got to the island with a farang state of mind. Despite the living up to its reputation of an epic party island, Koh Phangan offered far more than just the renowned debauchery that most backpackers go to the island for. Maybe it was the amazing group of people that I met on the island, but I’ve never had as much fun as I did on Koh Phangan. The island has so many great locations to explore. If chilling is more your thing, there no shortage of beaches to relax on. When nighttime rolls around, the parties are unlike any other. There is something for everyone here.
1. Bangkok, Thailand
Anyone who has kept up with my blog towards the end of my trip knows it’s no secret that Bangkok somehow worked its way to becoming one of my favorite places in the entire world. The intensity and the chaos of the city might be off-putting for some but it was the place I fell in love with the most in South East Asia. There is no shortage of things to do in the city, and a year wouldn’t be enough to experience everything Bangkok has to offer. From the sites to the food to the nightlife to the quirky things that you can literally only find in Bangkok, the city is unlike any other.
20 million tourists visit Bangkok every year. It is a shame that the vast majority of those only consider it to be a quick stopping point because I consider Bangkok to be one of the best places in South East Asia, if not the best.