Since many backpackers visit multiple Southeast Asian countries in one trip, I decided to compile a list of all the best things to do in Southeast Asia from nature to culture and food.
There are so many additional items you could add to your Southeast Asia bucket list but half the fun is finding them along the way. These 101 items should give you a solid start!
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Southeast Asian countries
Just to clear up what’s meant by Southeast Asia, the official definition is:
Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, the Philippines, Myanmar, Brunei and Timor-Leste.
In terms of the popular countries for backpackers, it’s this list minus the last two. In this Southeast Asia bucket list, I’ll be including my favourite things to do in these nine amazing countries.
If you’re wondering how to string these experiences together, check out my 3 month Southeast Asia itinerary.
Things to do in Southeast Asia
I did a lot during my two year-long trips to Southeast Asia, the first from 2015-16 and the second from 2018-19. During the first, I backpacked around seeing everywhere with fresh eyes. During the second, I spent longer getting to know my favourite places in-depth while working online.Both trips were special in their own way and I’ll never get tired of this unique and wonderful region of the world.
These are some of my must-dos and sees around Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, the Philippines and Myanmar. Enjoy!
Related read: 101 backpacking Asia travel tips
Southeast Asia bucket list – Thailand
Thailand is a fantastic introduction to Southeast Asia for many backpackers thanks to its friendly locals, ancient temples like Ayutthaya, spectacular islands, lively nightlife and delectable street food.A pet peeve of mine is foreign travellers deeming it ‘too touristy’ after having travelled exclusively to tourist places. There are plenty of places to get off the beaten path in Thailand so be adventurous!
Don’t miss the following…
1. Eat street food in Bangkok (not just pad Thai)
If you begin your trip by flying into Bangkok, this might be one of the first things you do. Bangkok is renowned as one of the best foodie cities in the world. While the infamous Khao San Road attracts plenty of backpackers, I would recommend delving deeper into the many places to eat street food in Bangkok.Don’t miss papaya salad, pad kra pao (Thai basil stir-fry) Khao kha moo (pork leg rice) and the classic Thai dessert, mango sticky rice.
I especially loved the food in Bangkok‘s Chinatown where you can try classic Thai dishes as well as authentic Chinese cuisine. To find all the best bits, I’d recommend a food crawl with A Chef’s Tour.
2. Find paradise on the Thai Islands
There’s a Thai island for everyone. Maybe you want to party in Koh Phangan, cruise Maya Bay (where The Beach was filmed) near Koh Phi Phi, rock climb on Railway Beach near Krabi or ditch the crowds and relax on a lesser-visited Thai island.
My personal favourite is Koh Lanta which doesn’t feel too touristy despite having excellent beaches, nightlife, restaurants and nature.
3. Explore over 300 temples in Chiang Mai
Wat Pha Lat accessible via jungle hike
The city of Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand is one of the temple capitals of the world with over 300 in a small radius. Spend 3 days in Chiang Mai visiting top temples like Wat Chiang Mai, the oldest in the city with beautiful elephant carvings; Wat Chedi Luang known for its huge serpent statues; and Wat Sri Suphan carved entirely from silver.For temples further afield, hike the Monk’s Trail to Wat Pha Lat in the middle of the forest and visit the King and Queen Pagodas in Doi Inthanon National Park.
The temples aren’t the only reason to visit Chiang Mai. The city within Chiang Mai’s Old City Walls has no chain restaurants or cafes, just independent Chiang Mai coffee shops and lively night markets. The food in Chiang Mai is different to Southern Thai cuisine – eat as much as possible!
4. Visit Bangkok’s Grand Palace
Grand Palace, Bangkok
It may be busy and touristy but Bangkok’s Grand Palace should be on every traveller’s Southeast Asia bucket list. Not only is it the official ceremonious home of the Thai royals, but the grounds are full of shrines and Buddha statues, including the greatly revered Emerald Buddha, the most important relic to Thai Buddhists.
Make sure it’s included in your Bangkok itinerary!
5. Try Muay Thai boxing
The national sport of Thailand is a type of martial art practiced for centuries. While in Thailand, tick it off your Thailand bucket list by taking a full Muay Thai training course, a lesson, or simply jumping in the ring and tackling another tourist during a competitive evening show.
6. Feel the vibe in Pai
There’s more to Northern Thailand than Chiang Mai. A particularly special place to add to your Southeast Asia bucket list is the mountainous town of Pai. This hippie paradise on the banks of the Pai River is known for its natural sights like Pai Canyon, Tha Pai Hot Spring and Mo Paeng Waterfall.
In the heart of Pai town, there are hippie cafes, a delectable night market serving everything from Thai street food to sushi, and some unusual backpacker hostels like Pai Circus School.
7. Experience a full moon party in Koh Phangan
One of the best things to do in Southeast Asia for backpackers is attend the iconic full moon party on Koh Phangan. Held each month on – you guessed it – the full moon, this celebration of up to 30,000 partygoers goes throughout the night until daylight.
Grab your rave paint and a bucket of booze and see how long you last!
8. Go inside off-beat White Temple in Chiang Rai
Another iconic place to visit in Northern Thailand is Chiang Rai. Unlike the 800-year-old temples of Chiang Mai, some of the temples in Chiang Rai are brand new, built by wacky Thai artists.This includes the White Temple (Wat Rong Khun) which, despite looking elegant from the outside, is full of Minion art and even an ode to Michael Jackson! If it wasn’t on your Southeast Asia bucket list before, add it there for novelty factor.Other things to do in Chiang Rai include visiting the equally new and impressive Blue Temple, the gigantic Goddess of Mercy (Wat Huay Pla Kang) on the hillside and Baan Dam, otherwise known as the Black House, home to Thai art and animal skeletons. Gulp.
Take a tour from Chiang Mai if you don’t have time to stay overnight in Chiang Rai.
9. Learn to dive in Koh Tao
Not only is diving one of the best things to do in Southeast Asia but it’s a right of passage for backpackers to get their Open Water diving license in Koh Tao since it’s one of the cheapest places in the world to get PADI or SSI qualified.Book your Open Water course including accommodation, equipment and lessons for $380 USD.
Unfortunately, the steady flow of wannabe divers coming to Koh Tao has negatively impacted the sealife of Koh Tao. I didn’t see much but once I had my qualification, I moved onto other dive sites in Southeast Asia.
10. Experience the Lantern Festival Chiang Mai
If you’re visiting Chiang Mai towards the end of the year, I would highly recommend adding a November festival to your Southeast Asia bucket list. Yi Peng is a lantern festival symbolising the release of bad energy. Paper lanterns drift into the skies in their throngs as their owners make wishes down below.
It’s celebrated alongside Loy Krathong, an equally important Thai festival held to honour Mother Nature. During these celebrations, offerings are released into the rivers rather than the skies.
11. Celebrate Songkran
Another of the best things to do in Southeast Asia is celebrate Thai New Year in style. Unlike in the West where we pretty much drink away the old year, Thai people wash away their sins and bad luck with an enormous, chaotic water fight.
Participants grab water pistols and buckets to drench passersby. You won’t want to walk down the street with non-waterproof valuables on you during Songkran! For a fun and memorable experience, head to a designated Songkran zone in Bangkok.
Southeast Asia bucket list – Vietnam
My favourite country in Southeast Asia and, let’s face it, the world is Vietnam. I’ve wracked up months of experience in this country and believe many of the best activities in Southeast Asia are located here, from visiting the largest caves in the world in Phong Nha to exploring hidden gems in Quy Nhon beach town.
12. Attempt to cross the road in Hanoi!
Crossing the road as a Southeast Asia bucket list item? Once you see the throngs of scooters winding through Hanoi with no apparent rules or lanes, you’ll see why!Crossing the street in Hanoi is more than a necessity; it’s a rite of passage in Vietnam. My best advice is to relax and focus on the other side. The scooter drivers of Hanoi are skilled at weaving around obstacles, which include bemused tourists!
For another crazy road crossing, check out Train Street Hanoi.
13. Fall in love with Hoi An
Is there a more perfect place in Asia than the crumbling yellow UNESCO Heritage Centre of Hoi An in Central Vietnam? With colourful lanterns and charming Hoi An cafes, it’s nothing short of enchanting. Saying that, Hoi An Ancient Town is pretty packed with tourists these days!You can spend 5 days in Hoi An exploring not just the Old Town’s heritage houses, Japanese Bridge, sampling Hoi An street food and night markets, but travelling further afield to An Bang Beach, Tam Thanh Mural Village and Tra Que Vegetable Garden.
You can also take day trips to the Cham Islands, My Son Temples and Marble Mountains in Da Nang.
14. Explore artisan guilds in Hanoi Old Quarter
Sure, you’ll see other travellers in Hanoi Old Quarter but there’s enough local life to feel the mad rush and charming chaos that is Vietnam. As the name suggests, this area is the oldest part of the capital with over 2,000 years of history.Originally a collection of 36 artisan guilds, the streets sell the same items today. Hang Gai Street is known as the place to buy silk clothing while Hang Ma sells paper products and Lan Ong Street sells herbal medicines.
You’ll get lost wandering Hanoi Old Quarter but that’s half the fun. The other half is grabbing lunch at Bahn Mi 45 and sipping coffee in one of the many Hanoi cafes. Other adorable neighbourhoods to discover afterwards include Ngoc Ha and Truc Bach.
15. Cruise through Ha Long Bay
One of my favourite memories from Northern Vietnam is cruising by boat through Ha Long Bay, a collection of 1,600 islands translating as ‘descending dragon’. Kayaking through the craggy islands and eating fresh seafood on deck is a must for any Southeast Asia bucket list.
The boat I spend two days aboard
After visiting Ha Long Bay twice, I would recommend spending longer than one night in the region. By choosing a boat cruise that includes a second night on Cat Ba Island, you’ll get deeper into the bay and leave the other tourist boats behind, observing floating villages and fishing farms en route.
Take a 2-day Ha Long Bay cruise including return bus travel to Ha Long port.
16. Get an outfit made in Hoi An
Hoi An has a reputation as one of the cheapest places in Southeast Asia (and possibly the world) to get clothes custom-made. You can go into any tailor in Hoi An and show them a dress, suit or another item of clothing. The staff will mock up your measurements and have it ready in a couple of days, often for less than $20 USD. Bargain!
17. Try egg coffee
Say what? Egg coffee sounds weird but tastes like delicious liquid tiramisu. Whipped egg white stirred into bitter black coffee makes for the perfect blend of sweet and bitter. Drinking egg coffee in Hanoi is your best bet since the drink was invented when the city was short of cow’s milk during the War.
Take a coffee-lovers walking tour with GetYourGuide.
18. Go sandboarding in Mũi Né
A fun sport to add to your Southeast Asia bucket list is sandboarding in Mũi Né. This city on the south coast of Vietnam is known for its golden dunes which you can ride in the early morning before the sand gets too hot. Other things to do in Mũi Né include watching sunrise over the dunes and visiting the magical Fairy Stream.
19. Wallow in a mud bath in Nha Trang
Nha Trang may not be the nicest city in Vietnam but most travellers pass through to break up the long journey between Hoi An and their next stop of Da Lat, Mũi Né or Saigon. Luckily, there’s one very cool attraction in Nha Trang: mud spas!
Hire a private egg-shaped bath for 100 VND (less than $5 USD) at 100 Eggs Spa and wallow to your heart’s content in oozy mud.
20. Trek in Sapa
Another bucket list item for Southeast Asia is trekking in Sapa, a mountainous hill station in Northern Vietnam. This magical region in the clouds feels totally different to the rest of the country, not just because it’s chilly throughout the year.You can spend around 3 days in Sapa, staying in homestays and taking guided treks with the locals. It’s also a fantastic place to meet and learn about Hmong people, an ethnic group with their own languages and style of dress.
Compare prices on Sapa tours.
21. Learn about the Vietnam War in Saigon
One of the most important things to do in Southeast Asia is learn about the war that shaped much of the region. Not only was Vietnam devastated by the 1955-75 war with the US, but neighbouring countries, Cambodia and Laos were heavily bombed to halt supply of smuggled goods and weapons.
In Saigon, also known as Ho Chi Minh, you can visit the Cu Chi Tunnels, an intricate maze of narrow tunnels where Vietnamese soldiers lived for years. You can also visit the War Remnants Museum, one of the most powerful and heartbreaking museums in Southeast Asia.
22. Experience ‘Ha Long Bay on land’ in Ninh Binh
Craggy cliffs in Ninh Binh
If you don’t get your fill of mountainous islands in Ha Long Bay, a second fantastic destination for your Southeast Asia bucket list is Ninh Binh. This gorgeous natural region just a couple of hours south of Hanoi is most famous for Tam Coc, a series of striking limestone cliffs that can be cruised through by small rowing boat.
Other things to add to your Ninh Binh itinerary include hiking to the Mau Caves viewpoint (pictured), visiting Bich Dong Pagoda and taking a second boat cruise at Bai Dinh, the quieter and less touristic version of Tam Coc.
23. Sail the Mekong Delta from Saigon to Cambodia
The Mekong Delta is a maze of rivers and islands taking up much of southern Vietnam and Cambodia.
One of the best adventures I had in Southeast Asia was taking a cruise from Saigon, Vietnam to Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Granted, it took a lot longer than the bus (three days to be precise) but we had plenty of experiences along the way including visiting temples, riding in basket boats and shopping at floating markets in Can Tho.
24. Visit ancient temples in Hue
The Imperial City of Hue, also known as Hue Citadel, is a must for temple lovers visiting Southeast Asia. This historical walled city was once the imperial capital of Vietnam before it was destroyed during the War. Most of the colourful temples have been restored and can be easily visited while staying in the Central Vietnamese city of Hue.Once you’ve seen the Citadel, you can spend 2 days in Hue exploring the ancient capital’s other sites: The Royal Temple of Tu Duc, Tu Hieu Pagoda, The Tomb of Khai Dinh, Minh Mang Tomb, The Temple of Literature and Linh Mu Pagoda.
If you travel afterwards to Hoi An, make sure to take the Hai Van Pass.
25. Find the cheapest bia hoi you can (my record was 8p)
The beverage of choice for Vietnamese locals and foreign backpackers is bia hoi, a type of fresh beer brewed by the barrel in local bars and restaurants. I once paid 2,000 VND (10 cents) so I challenge you to find it cheaper than that!
The most atmospheric place in Vietnam to drink fresh beer is Bia Hoi Corner in Hanoi Old Quarter.
26. Eat pho, banh mi and bun cha
Who could pick just one type of Vietnamese food? The food in Hanoi is some of the best in the world thanks to dishes like bun cha (smoky pork in a tangy broth with noodles and crispy spring rolls), pho noodle soup and banh mi baguettes. Take a Street Food Hanoi Gastronomy tour to experience it fully.In Hoi An, don’t miss white rose dumplings, Mi Quang noodles with pork, prawn and quails eggs, and famous cau lau noodles made by one local lady with the recipe. There are also some great vegetarian restaurants in Hoi An.
The best foods in Saigon include com tam (smoky pork with rice and a gooey fried egg), bun riêu (crab noodle soup) and some of the best banh mis in Vietnam.
27. Break into the Abandoned Waterpark in Hue
This off-beat attraction in Southeast Asia has become popular in recent years despite the offical line being that you’re not allowed inside. Hue Abandoned Waterpark in Central Vietnam was a tourist attraction before it was shut down and abandoned.
Bold backpackers who bribe the security guide or trek through the undergrowth can explore the roaring dragon tower and empty water slides. It’s weird but definitely wonderful!
Southeast Asia bucket list – Laos
The small landlocked nation of Laos is a bit of an underdog where tourism is concerned. For several years, it was known predominantly for tubing in Vang Vieng but when it was deemed too dangerous, Laos returned to its roots of nature and eco-tourism.Laos is a country with a troubled history. Many regions today remain littered with American landmines, product of the Vietnamese War. All the more reason to visit and support tourism in this friendly and beautiful nation.
Vientiane may be Laos’ capital but there’s not much to do. Luang Prabang is the cultural capital with exquisite temples, night markets and cafes.
28. Swim in Kuang Si Falls, Luang Prabang
This gorgeous three-tier waterfall just outside of Luang Prabang is one of the best you’ll visit in Asia. With shallow temperate pools, it’s almost like a refreshing bath! You can catch a songtaew (shared local taxi) from Luang Prabang and spend half a day climbing the falls and relaxing in the water.
29. Experience eco-tourism in Vang Vieng
Beautiful Vang Vieng
A little tubing still goes on in Vang Vieng but most of the bars have closed down after several tourists died as a result of mixing alcohol with risky river rapids.Luckily, tourism in Vang Vieng didn’t dry up with the tubing scene. There are plenty of amazing locations for eco-tourism thanks to Nam Song River and the many limestone caves and mountains.
Activities include rock climbing, abseiling, canoeing, trekking and kayaking. Don’t miss Kaeng Nyui Waterfall, Pha Ngeun viewpoint, Tham Chang Cave and the Blue Lagoon.
30. Zipwire through the jungle on the Gibbon Experience
An activity I still need to tick off my Southeast Asia bucket list is zipwiring between treehouses in Nam Ka National Park. If you’re lucky, you’ll spy elusive gibbons during your time in the misty Laos rainforest.
You can visit as part of a 3 day, 2 night tour with the Gibbon Experience which includes food, treks, treehouse accommodation and guides. It’s pricey for Laos at $209 but sounds like a most memorable experience.
31. Eat at Luang Prabang Night Market
Luang Prabang Night Market
Ever eaten Laos food before? One of the most iconic dishes, which can also be found in Thailand, is larb, a rich meat salad flavoured with lemongrass, chilli and mint. You can eat it all over the country or do what I did and make it from scratch during a Laos cooking class.
Another bucket list item for foodies is visiting Luang Prabang Night Market. There’s affordable food galore served buffet-style.
32. Kayak with dolphins around Laos’ Four Thousand Islands
One of the more underrated things to do in Southeast Asia is explore Southern Laos. Many people visit Luang Prabang and Vang Vieng in the north but don’t go further. While I do understand why (take a look of a map of Laos to see how far away the Four Thousand Islands are), it would be a shame to miss staying in a $3 bungalow and watching sunset over the islands.You won’t exactly find the Four Thousands abandoned and untouristy; the larger islands like Don Det are known for their tourist cafes playing Friends all day and serving mushroom milkshakes. If you prefer, you can skip this scene and book on a kayaking tour to spy pink river dolphins.
Despite once being on the verge of extinction, Irrawaddy Dolphin numbers are growing. They can only be found in this stretch of river measuring just over 100 miles separating Laos and Cambodia.
Southeast Asia bucket list – Cambodia
With its impressive Angkor temples and beautiful beaches, Cambodia is a popular addition to the Southeast Asia tourist circuit. The following Cambodia stops comprise some of the best things to do in Southeast Asia…
33. See sunrise over the Angkor Wat temples
No Southeast Asia bucket list would be complete without Angkor Wat which even appears on the Cambodian flag. As the largest religious monument in the world when measured by area, you can spend several days exploring the temples and still only make it to a fraction. A few of the most popular include like Ta Phrom, Pre Rub and Bayon.
The best place to stay is the nearby city of Siem Reap. A temple pass is expensive these days at $62 but you wouldn’t want to miss it. Take an early morning Angkor Wat sunrise tour, return for a nap then explore again later in the day.
34. Find peace on Koh Rong Sanloem island
Once a hidden gem, the gorgeous island of Koh Long Sanloem is very ‘discovered’ yet still feels like paradise. With a dense jungle at its heart and white sand beaches around the outside, it’s prime for snorkelling, boat trips and relaxing on the beach. While Koh Rong is a party island, you can escape to smaller Koh Rong Sanloem for a more laidback feel.
35. Cruise Siem Reap floating villages
One of the more unusual things to do in Southeast Asia is explore floating villages where locals live, work, fish and eat from houses on stilts. The best example is probably Tonle Sap Lake, a huge body of water in Cambodia home to four floating villages. You can easily visit as a day tour from Siem Reap.
36. Watch the Cambodian circus
A must for experiencing Cambodian culture is a trip to Phare, The Cambodian Circus. Ambitious aerobics, dance and circus tricks characterise this lively show which can be seen in Siem Reap. It’s a chance to support talented young Cambodian performers as they share folk stories passed down through generations.
37. Ride the Battambang bamboo train
One of the most unique attractions in Southeast Asia is surely Cambodia’s Battambang bamboo train. The ‘norry’ train is nothing but a flat plank on wheels that trundles along the tracks with a unique twist: traffic runs both ways.
When two cars meet, the one with the fewest passengers has to be folded and removed from the tracks to let the other pass. The Cambodian government say they may be replacing the iconic bamboo railway soon so add it to your Southeast Asia bucket list while you can!
38. Eat fish amok
Cambodian food isn’t as well known around the world as Thai or Vietnamese but there are some tasty Khmer dishes you shouldn’t miss. My favourite is fish amok, a chilli, lemongrass and coconut curry served inside banana leaves. Yum!
Southeast Asia bucket list – Myanmar
Formerly known as Burma, this friendly and fascinating country in Southeast Asia was the location of my first ever solo trip.
Following 50 years of civil war and military dictatorship, Burma only recently opened to foreign travellers. Tourism may be in its infancy compared to Thailand or Bali but things are changing fast. Visit sooner rather than later…
39. Explore Bagan, Myanmar’s ancient temple site
Exploring Bagan is one of the best things to do in Southeast Asia
Myanmar’s answer to Angkor Wat is Old Bagan, the former royal capital of Burma. This UNESCO World Heritage Site boasts more than 3,500 temples dating back 1,000 years. Hire an e-bike and explore the archaeological site, stopping at popular temples like Ananda, Thatbyinnyu and Shwesandaw. The visual mix of gold domes and red stone temples was like nothing I’d seen before.
A bonus Southeast Asia bucket list experience is a hot air balloon over the temple site at dawn!
40. Climb 777 stairs of Mount Popa
Summiting a 1518m volcano to reach a Buddhist shrine at the top couldn’t be more bucket list-worthy. It takes about two hours to hike the 777 steps up Mount Popa but the views from the peak are worth it. The extinct volcano is in Central Myanmar, a 2-hour drive from Yangon.
41. Marvel at the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon
One of the first sites to be seen in Myanmar’s capital, Yangon, is Shwedagon Pagoda. This 99-metre gold stupa can be seen from all round the city. You can visit any time of the day and also at night when the gleaming religious site is particularly mesmerising. Ancient legend says that a hair from the Buddha resides inside.
42. Read from the world’s largest book in Mandalay
As an avid reader, I was intrigued to visit Kuthodaw Pagoda in Mandalay, home to a set of stone scriptures dubbed the world’s largest book. Wandering between the 700 stone slabs was indeed a bucket list Southeast Asia experience though, alas, I couldn’t decipher the ancient texts.
43. Eat Burmese street food
One of my favourite things about visiting Myanmar was joining the street parties on every corner. Locals sit and sip tea and eat delicious local dishes like Burmese tea leaf salad. There’s street food all around Asia but there’s something special about joining the locals in friendly Myanmar.
Another spot not to miss is 19th Street in Yangon, otherwise known as Myanmar Barbecue Street. Tuck into a whole grilled fish with stir-fried greens and a cold beer. Bliss!
44. Trek from Kalaw to Inle Lake
There are few better places to get immersed in the countryside in Southeast Asia than Myanmar where many regions are totally untouched by the modern day. Spend three days trekking and observing local life while eating and sleeping in local homes on the trek from Kalaw to Inle Lake. It’s an experience I’ll remember forever!
Arrive into Kalaw and find Sam’s Family, a restaurant and tour operator who organise three-day treks (sending your main luggage by car to your next hotel so you don’t need to carry it – woo!). Prices may have inflated since 2015 but I recall paying about £20 for the whole tour.
Finish the Kalaw to Inle Lake trek by seeing this unique sight
45. See one-legged fisherman in Inle Lake
Once you’ve completed the Kalaw to Inle Lake trek, you’ll want to relax. The best way to do this is by enjoying a wooden boat ride around the unique floating villages of Inle Lake. As well a seeing how the locals live and stopping at crafts markets and a famous cat monastery, you’ll spy the famous one-legged fisherman.
Relax, they don’t actually have one leg! This unique style of fishing sees the fisherman row with one leg while watching fish. They’ll either row with one leg and hold their fishing basket with both hands or row with one hand and hold the basket with a foot. It’s a bizarre yet fascinating sight to see.
46. Take a pilgrimage to the Golden Rock near Yangon
Kyaiktiyo Pagoda is a temple like no other, built on top of an enormous gold rock and adventurously named… the Golden Rock 😉
Buddhists travel from far and wide due to an ancient legend proclaiming that it’s balanced upon a hair from the Buddha.
Southeast Asia bucket list – Malaysia
Malaysia isn’t as popular on the backpack trail as Thailand or Bali and it’s underrated in a totally different way to Laos and Cambodia. It’s modern and developed with higher prices and more English spoken than the countries above.
Malaysia has a bit of everything from glitzy cities, heritage towns like Georgetown and spectacular nature. Large Chinese and Indian communities mean there are Hindu temples, Buddhist temples (like Kek Lok Si), churches and mosques. Don’t miss…
47. Street art in Georgetown
Thanks to an artist named Ernest Zacharevic, Malaysia has become a street art hub. Some of the best pieces can be found in Georgetown, the capital of Penang Island. These interactive works of art incorporate real furniture and bicycles which can be sat upon for photo opportunities. An afternoon exploring Penang street art is time well spent.
48. Drink with a skyline view of the Petronas Towers
Briefly the tallest set of buildings in the world, the iconic Petronas Towers remain dominate KL’s skyline. While you can head to the pricey sky deck at the top, I would recommend instead visiting SkyBar on the 33rd floor of Traders Hotel. This bar opposite offers unrivalled views of the towers while you sip your drink.
49. Visit a Malaysian Chinatown
Some of the best food and most colourful temples in Malaysia can be found in Chinatowns. I’ve visited these in Kuala Lumpur, Ipoh, Melaka and Penang. Eat Hainanese chicken rice, wander incense-lined Taoist temples and observe the Chinese Malay community going about their daily lives.
50. Eat everything in Penang
Chee cheong fun
Penang Island, in particular the city of Georgetown, is known as one of the foodie capitals of Southeast Asia.As well as modern Penang cafes, you’ll find endless Penang street food including char koay teow (flat stir-fry noodles with prawns), assam laksa (tamarind noodle soup), Indian-inspired roti canai and Chinese-inspired wantan mee noodles and chee cheong fun.
There’s also plenty of healthy food in Penang if you need to detox after.
51. Visit the colourful Batu Caves
A must for your Southeast Asia bucket list
This colourful destination just outside of Kuala Lumpur is the most iconic place in Malaysia, especially since it got a facelift. A few years ago, the huge staircase leading up to the gold statue and set of limestone caves was painted in rainbow colours.
The Batu Caves make for a fantastic photoshoot, especially if you beat the crowds and get there early.
52. Visit communities of sea gypsies in Semporna, Borneo
One of the most unique things to do in Southeast Asia is visit communities of sea gypsies off the coast of Malaysian Borneo. The Bajau Laut are a nomadic community who spend most of their lives at sea, rarely setting foot on dry land. The best way to visit them is by booking a dive or boat trip from Semporna.
53. Wander charming Melaka
This quaint city halfway between Kuala Lumpur and Singapore is known for its low-rise heritage houses and cultural blend of mosques and Chinese and Indian temples.
Spend 1-2 days exploring the many things to do in Melaka which include eating delicious Melakan food along Jonker Street walk, spotting street art, taking a trip to Melaka Straits Mosque (known as the Floating Mosque) and hopping between the charming coffee shops in Melaka.
54. Walk canopy bridges in Taman Negara
Taman Negara translates as ‘national park’ and is one of the best places to explore the sights and sounds of Malaysia’s 130 million-year-old rainforest. There’s a small village at its heart, Kuala Taman, which is best reached by riverboat.
From here, you can experience daytime and nighttime nature walks, gingerly cross hanging bridges and observe the traditions of local tribespeople. There are even tigers in the forest but they’re very rare.
55. Visit endangered orangutans in Malaysian Borneo
As well as experiencing the culture of the Bajau Laut, one of the best things to do in Borneo is support orangutan conservation and observe these fascinating animals in their natural surroundings. Head to Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre in Sandakan where orphaned orangutans are cared for.
You can fly to Sandakan from Kuala Lumpur for $50 and it’s easy to reach the rehabilitation centre from the city.
56. Visit cave temples around Ipoh
With a similar small town vibe to Melaka, the sleepy city of Ipoh in Central Malaysia is another of my favourites in Southeast Asia.
There are plenty of activities to enrich an Ipoh itinerary including posing with interactive street art on Market Lane and Mural Art’s Lane (don’t miss the Ernest Zacharevic street art in Ipoh), eating delicious Indian and Chinese-inspired cuisine, and taking a trip to the atmospheric cave temples around Ipoh.
Southeast Asia bucket list – Singapore
I’d heard Singapore described as boring, expensive and polluted before my trip. I’ve since been three times and couldn’t disagree more!
The tourist attractions and upmarket restaurants can be expensive but there’s also incredibly affordable (world-class) street food and lots of culture to be seen in Chinatown and Little India. I would recommend spending 2 days in Singapore to do the following things…
57. Eat the world’s cheapest Michellin star meal
The food in Singapore can’t be missed. You’ll find many dishes similar to those in Malaysia like laksa, kaya toast and nasi lemak, as well as Singapore classics like chilli pepper crab.
Try the world’s cheapest Michellin star meal for less than $2 at Liao Fan Hawker Chan. They serve soya sauce chicken with rice or noodles which, to be honest, didn’t blow me away. Make your own mind up by ticking them off your Asia bucket list.
58. See the Gardens by the Bay
The emblem for Singapore needs to be on your Southeast Asia bucket list. Wandering around beneath the 50m futuristic sky trees is surely how it feels to be an ant!
You can go to the top for a cocktail and stick around in the evening for the OCBC Garden Rhapsody where thousands of colourful bulbs dance in time to music.
59. Wander colourful Koon Seng Road
Koon Seng Road
In addition to the Singapore street art, a colourful Singapore attraction is Koon Seng Road, a collection of Peranakan Chinese houses with photo-worthy windows, doors and shutters. Catch a bus or Uber there from central Singapore and spend a while wandering around.
60. Drink a Singapore sling
One of the fanciest things to do in Southeast Asia is surely visit Raffles Hotel for an iconic Singapore sling. This gin-based cocktail was invented in 1915 by bartender, Ngiam Tong Boon. Today, it’s popular for tourists to splash out $30 SGD to try one in its birthplace.
Southeast Asia bucket list – Indonesia
First thing’s first: Indonesia is so much more than just Bali!While many tourists deem Bali over-rated these days, I’ve enjoyed both my trips. As long you work a little harder, you can get off the tourist trail. Saying that, there are so many other worthwhile islands to visit in Indonesia; I loved my 2018 trip to Yogyakarta city on Java island, partly due to the delicious Javanese cuisine.
Here are my top Southeast Asia bucket list items for Indonesia…
61. Snorkel with turtles off Gili T
Some of the best things to do in Southeast Asia are free, like grabbing a snorkel and sticking your head in the shallow waters surrounding Gili T.
This small island is one of three in the Gili trio, just off the coast of larger Lombok. Gili T is home to enormous Green and Hawksbill turtles which you can see without an organised boat trip or diving tour.
62. Visit ancient temple site, Borobudur
Borobudur temple site near Yogyakarta (on Java island) was high on my Southeast Asia bucket list after missing it during my first trip in 2015. When I finally made it to the world’s largest Buddhist temple site, it was just as magical as I’d expected. If you can, arrive in time to watch sunrise over the bell-shaped sculptures.
63. Hike Mount Bromo
Also on Java island, this active volcano is yet to be ticked off my Southeast Asia bucket list. Summiting 2,000m Mount Bromo requires a midnight start to reach the peak for sunrise. The views from the top over the surrounding volcanos within the Sea of Sand look truly mesmerising.
If you don’t make it over to Java, hike Mount Batur as a day trip from Ubud instead.
64. Visit the colourful village of Malang, Java
There are few places in the world more colourful than Malang on the island of Java. Every house is a different rainbow hue and there’s plenty of street art in the alleyways. The best bit? Local’s painted it themselves as an inspiring community project.
Malang would be a perfect stop if travelling Java overland as it sits between Yogyakarta city and Mount Bromo.
65. Take a yoga class in Bali
While Eat, Pray, Love is probably my least favourite film ever, you can’t deny it put Ubud on the map as a spiritual hub for yoga-loving expats. There are plenty of popular places in Ubud to take yoga classes, the best-known being The Yoga Barn.
In north Ubud, there are studios where you can take classes amidst the rice fields.
66. Eat vegan food in Ubud
For a break from the meaty street food of other Southeast Asian countries, tuck into the plant-free food of Ubud. From the stylish Ubud brunch cafes to local Balinese food, it’s all delicious.The best bit? If you eat at authentic warungs in Ubud, it’s very affordable. I ate pumpkin, coconut and jackfruit curries daily, washing them down with soya lattes and vegan cake at Ubud cafes like Sawobali.
There’s also a lot of excellent vegan food in Canggu if you head over that way.
67. Find the hidden gems of Bali
After exploring the main things to do in Ubud and Canggu, you should venture further afield. Instagram feeds will show you well-photographed places like Lempuyang Temple but I preferred finding the lesser-known spots.
Use my hidden gem Bali guide to shake off the crowds and find abandoned ghost hotels, sleepy beaches and hidden waterfalls.
68. Spot manta rays around the Nusa trio
A bucket list experience in Indonesia is hopping the Nusa islands. In order of size, these are Nusa Penida, Nusa Lembongan and Nusa Ceningan. Here you can go snorkelling or diving with enormous manta rays.Nusa Lembongan is the most touristic Nusa Island which is why I’d recommend escaping to Nusa Penida too. Many people visit Penida as a speedboat day tour from Bali but if you have the time, it’s best to spend 3 days in Nusa Penida to explore fully.
While staying on Lembongan, you can easily take a day trip across the Yellow Bridge to Nusa Ceningan by scooter or on foot.
69. See dragons on Komodo Island
Another item yet to be ticked off my Southeast Asia bucket list is Komodo Island. The island is home to 4,000 Komodo dragons, many measuring more than 3 metres in length. It can be tricky to visit Komodo Island on a budget but it is doable! I hope to get there someday soon.
70. Learn to surf
Bali is known for its fantastic surf. It’s a great place to ride waves whether you’re a beginner or pro. Uluwatu is known as an intermediate destination whereas Kuta and Canggu are perfect for beginners to take affordable lessons. Book a class here.
Southeast Asia bucket list – Philippines
Backpacking the Philippines was one of my favourite adventures during my first Southeast Asia trip. The diverse and friendly nation of the Philippines has over 7,000 islands so you should dedicate enough time to see a fair few, especially since getting between the islands can be long-winded.
71. Dive with Thresher Sharks on Malapascua island
Many of my favourite bucket list experiences in Southeast Asia involve the underwater world. The best was diving with rare Thresher sharks which can only be seen daily around Malapascua, a small Filipino island off the north coast of Cebu island.
Don’t let the long journey from Cebu city deter you; not only is the diving amazing, but Malapascua is a little slice of paradise, worth a visit even for non-divers. Nearby Kalanggaman sandbar also shouldn’t be missed.
72. Visit the dancing jail in Puerto Princesa, Palawan
This won’t appear on many lists of things to do in Southeast Asia, yet I believe it deserves a slot. Palawan, the gritty capital of Puerto Princesa island, is little more than a stopover for many backpackers arriving by air and heading north to the beaches of El Nido.However, I spent a couple of weeks volunteering in Puerto Princesa and discovered Iwahig Prison where convicts perform daily dance shows to raise money for their rehabilitation. I stayed several hours after the show chatting with the prisoners (most of whom were detained for minor offences under the harsh Filipino justice system) and listening to them beatbox.
They were so friendly; it’s something I’ll remember forever!
73. Trek the Banaue Rice Terraces
Dubbed the Eighth Wonder of the World, the Banaue Rice Terraces are said to be so large they’d cover half the planet if laid out end-to-end. Rather than being a natural wonder, they were carved out by Filipino farmers around 2,000 years ago. You can reach Banaue from Manilla by 10-hour bus or 1-hour flight.
74. Island-hop in El Nido
The most famous thing to do in the Philippines is island-hop around popular beach town, El Nido on Palawan island. It’s no longer a hidden gem: El Nido is very touristic and busy these days, but you can’t deny the turquoise waters and striking craggy islands are bucket list-worthy.
You can choose between boat cruises A, B, C, D which can be booked in El Nido town.
75. Party in Borocay
I debated including this activity in my Southeast Asia bucket list. Borocay Island, AKA Filipino party central, is tacky as hell but I can’t deny I had a great time.
Boracay was recently shut due to overtourism and pollution so make sure to visit responsibly, clean up after yourself and bring your own metal straw to reduce waste. As long as you do those things, there’s no shame in enjoying the hostels and bars of Borocay.
76. Visit a healer in Siquijor
Another off-beat thing to do in Southeast Asia is explore Siquijor island near Cebu. Not only is this a gorgeous and less touristic island with deals to be found on beach hotels, but you can also experience a unique part of the local culture: healing magic.
There were no hospitals on the island until recently which is why the locals developed their own forms of medicine. Ask a local driver to take you up the hill at the centre of the island to visit a healer. My sister and I had our auras cleaned with bulo-bulo magic. I have no idea if it worked but at least it’s a tale to tell!
77. Dive a shipwreck in Coron
Coron island north of Palawan is another of Southeast Asia’s best dive sites. If you’ve always wanted to dive a shipwreck, this is the place to do it. If you have time, catch a multi-day boat cruise from El Nido, sleeping on the boat and stopping to snorkel and fish.
78. Find the sardine run in Moalboal
One of the best things to do in Southeast Asia for nature lovers is find this famous shoal in Moalboal, Cebu. Although snorkelling for sardines may not sound in the same league as whale sharks and manta rays, this experience is incredible.
I grabbed a snorkel and ducked my head underwater to find millions of shimmering sardines, moving together in complete symmetry. It was mesmerising.
Anywhere Southeast Asia bucket list
79. Take a cooking class
Cooking classes are fun anywhere in the world but they’re super affordable in Southeast Asia. So far, I’ve taken Vietnamese, Thai, Laos and Balinese cooking classes and I’d love to try some others, too. Often they include a colourful local market trip and, in Hoi An, even a boat ride to reach your cooking school. In Bangkok, you can even stay in a home cooking hostel.
80. Get stuck into hostel life
For the complete Southeast Asia experience, stay in hostels to meet other travellers and enjoy the nightlife. Many have private rooms so you don’t need to sleep in a room of ten smelly strangers if you don’t want to.
Also, staying in hostels will stretch your Southeast Asia budget and keep you travelling for longer.
81. Learn at least a few words of a new language
Unlike travelling in South America, it’s not necessary to equip yourself with basic language skills in Southeast Asia. Languages vary between countries and even within countries. However, it’s best to be polite and learn a few hellos and thank yous. Here are a few ways to say hello:Xin Chao (Vietnamese).Sawasdee Ka (Thai).Om Swastiastu (Bali).
Choum reap sor (Khmer).
82. Sample each country’s local beer
If you’re on a backpacker budget, you’ll want to drink whatever’s cheapest. This is always beer. Look out for the following:Saigon Beer (Vietnam).Bintang (Bali).Angkor Beer (Cambodia).
Beer Lao (Laos).
83 – work online
If you’re thinking of starting a blog, passion project or anything else, the low living costs of Southeast Asia are undeniably appealing. Check out my nomad guides:
To finish my guide, here are a few quick specific bucket list items!
Things to do in Asia for foodies
84. Take a night market food tour by Vespa (best in Vietnam!)85. Buy lunch at a floating market in Thailand86. Sample fresh crabs in Kep, Cambodia87. Graze through the many night markets in Chiang Mai88. Have a floating breakfast in Bali (one for Instagrammers!)89. Flip your own banh xeo (crispy pancakes) in Hoi An, Vietnam90. Sip refreshing Thai tea in Thailand91. Eat halo halo in the Philippines92. Experience the fear factor – try a cricket or a preserved ‘century egg’ in Thailand
93. Try smelly fruit, durian!
Things to do in Asia for adrenaline junkies
94. Kayak around Ha Long Bay, Vietnam95. River raft the Ayung River in Bali96. Rock climb in Railay and Ton Sai near Krabi, Thailand97. Zip line above Langkawi, Malaysia98. Go trekking in Northern Thailand99. Try canyoning in Da Lat, Vietnam100. Base jumping in Singapore (if you’re really brave!)101. Try off-road biking in Laos
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Things NOT to do in Southeast Asia
Don’t put paper in the toilets.Don’t drink the tap water.Avoid anything unethical with animals – this includes tiger temples, elephant rides, civic coffee plantations (also known as weasel poo coffee, a process where the animals are severely mistreated) and interacting with marine life in environments where they’re fed to alter their natural migration patterns.
Do NOT treat locals like they’re there to accommodate your holiday or serve you. Don’t be rude or lose your temper if their English is limited. Don’t be a d*ick, basically.