The Thailand-Cambodia-Vietnam-Laos tour of South East Asia is a tried and tested route for backpackers the world over.
Typically, this involves hitting the capital cities (Bangkok, Phnom Penh, Vientiane and Hanoi), soaking up the rays on a couple of Thai beaches and doing a spot of elephant trekking in Chang Mai or tubing in Vang Vieng before heading home via Singapore.
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with doing this – it’s a fail-safe option (I pretty much followed that exact route a couple of years ago and had an incredible time) – however, by doing so you miss out on some of the best that South East Asia has to offer, like seeing the sun rise over Angkor Wat (pictured below):
So, if you are looking for something more from what for most of us is a once in a lifetime experience then you might want to consider incorporating somewhere slightly different into your tour of South East Asia.
Featuring deserted beaches, ancient monuments, great nightlife and stunning diving locations here’s our guide to the best of South East Asia on a budget.
1. Yangon, Burma
Famous for its leafy avenues and fin-de-siècle architecture, Yangon is one of the most beautiful cities in the world. However, it is also amongst the lesser known, making it a great place to explore if you want to get off the beaten track.
The former Burmese capital is a veritable hot-pot of different cultures, and there are examples of this everywhere from the colonial buildings – a legacy of British rule – to the ancient stunning Schwedagon Pagoda – the city’s most famous landmark.
The Zoological gardens, Kandawgyi National Park and Bogyonke Aung San Market are also very popular, while the city’s fusion food combining the best of British, Chinese and Indian recipes and flavors is among the best in South East Asia.
However, justifiably it’s the Schwedagon Pagoda that’s the city’s biggest real lure. The towering pagoda is visible from all parts of the city and inside is adorned with 8,000 gold plates and jewels including diamonds, rubies, sapphire and topaz- a truly jaw dropping sight and unforgettable travel experience.
2. Koh Tao, Thailand
Situated in the heart of the Andaman Bay, Koh Tao may be the smaller and lesser known of the Andaman Bay islands but is by far the best of the three.
The island has everything that’s good about Koh Phangan or Koh Samui (think mile after mile of talcum white sandy beaches, palm trees and turquoise seas) and none of their drawbacks (think hungover tourists, tacky souvenir shops and Western bars).
So, while the masses head to Koh Phangan for full moon parties, copious amounts of alcohol and drink related frivolity, those in the know head to Koh Tao for relaxation, tranquillity and some of the best diving opportunities in the world.
Beyond the diving opportunities and the stunning coast line there isn’t much else to see and do but the vibe is laid back and the island is the perfect place to go for a spot of rest and relaxation. Plus, it’s only two hours away from Koh Phangan if the lure of the Full Moon Party proves too strong to resist!
3. Luang Prabang, Laos
Forget busy Vientiane and the drug and alcohol fuelled river rapids of Vang Vieng, Luang Prabang – home to gilt Buddhist temples and stunning architecture – is the place to go in Laos.
Luang Prabang is less touristy than Vientiane, meaning that it is a great place to immerse yourself in Lao culture while it is also the perfect base from which to explore some of the country’s most stunning natural scenery.
From Luang Prabang you can visit the breathtaking Kuang Si Falls – a large, multi-layer waterfall – and the world famous Pak Ou ‘Buddha caves’ which are a popular tourist attraction that can be combined with a visit to the village where they make Lao-Lao whisky.
Luang Prabang itself is a beautiful mixture of traditional Lao wooden houses and the odd hint of European Architecture which serve as a reminder of when Laos was part of the French territory of Indochina.
In Luang Prabang you’ll enjoy architecture, temples, mosaics, murals, hillside view and riverside dining in beautiful surroundings on a budget of next to nothing. Well worth a look.
Where to stay… Offering rooms from just €4.38 pppn Luang Prabang Hostels are a good budget option, however Lakhangthong Boutique Hotel, our top-rated accommodation in town as voted by you our fellow backpackers, is probably your best bet.
4. Hue, Vietnam
Hue is a UNESCO-listed imperial city that gives Angkor Wat a run for its money. But in terms of being a site for historical and cultural heritage, Hue is one of those places that’s often overlooked by backpackers who are following the tried and tested route up the Eastern seaboard of Vietnam from Ho Chi Minh in the south to Hanoi in the North or vice versa.
Hue is one of those places that is big enough to be interesting but small enough to cycle around and there is no shortage of things to see and do.
Here you’ll find Chinese pagodas, tombs, palaces and fortified citadels which overlook the Perfume River on one of the numerous forested hills that surround the main city.
In fact, there’s so much to see and do that you can spend a good 3-4 days in Hue. However, if you’re pressed for time and are not able to stay for more than a day, make sure you take in the Forbidden Purple City.
This was once the seat of the Emperor and his retinue and features a 77 storey octagonal Pagoda that is more than worthy of any Emperor, King or deity – a truly amazing sight.
Where to stay… There are lots of choice for backpackers in Hue but Hue Holiday Hotel is as good a bet as any. It offers a private hotel room featuring a TV, comfy bed and even your own mini bar for less than €7 – outstanding value for money!
5. Boracay, Philippines
With more than 7,000 tropical islands featuring stunning golden sand beaches, clear oceans and coral reefs teaming with fish and ocean plant life waiting to be explored, you would have thought that the Philippines would be most backpackers dream destination. Wrong.
Despite the archipelago’s undoubted beauty, the Philippines has fallen into relative obscurity and slipped off the tourism radar in recent years.
However, as the Philippines’ most popular destination besides Manila, Boracay bucks the trend. This is yet another picture perfect beach destination with jaw-droppingly beautiful white sandy beaches and corals full to bursting with marine life.
It’s also a great party destination that buzzes in the evening. Along the 2.5 mile long beach are dozens of restaurants, bars and genuine massage and therapy parlors (in complete contrast to the seedy massage parlors that offer happy endings in Bangkok!).
The occasional strong breezes make it a popular place for sailing, kitesurfing, parasailing and other various water-sport activities, while there’s even an 18-hole golf-course to keep the golfers amongst you happy. What more could you possibly want?
Where to stay… There are loads of hostels in Boracay for backpackers to choose from. Prices start from as little as €4 pppn.
6. Siem Reap, Cambodia
As the home of the renowned World Heritage site of Angkor Wat, there really is no surprise that Siem Reap has made our list of the best of South East Asia.
Watching the sun rise or set over the temple of Angkor Wat with its 5 minarets is the undoubted showstopper but there is so much to see and do besides including exploring the ruins of Ta Prohm which lie in the thick jungle and partially hidden from view by giant fig tree roots and the four-sided Bodhisattava faces from the temples of Bayon.
Beyond Angkor Wat, there’s not all that much to see and do in Siem Reap itself; although when you’ve got something as impressive as Angkor Wat to look at, in all honesty this really doesn’t matter!
Bar Street is the place to go in the evenings. Here you’ll find a selection of bars, cafes and restaurants where you can sit back and unwind after a busy day spent exploring the beauty that is the Angkor Wat complex.
You’ll need at least a couple of days to do Angkor Wat justice. Oh, and eat at least once at the Red Piano. This is amongst the more expensive places to eat in Siem Reap but it’s also among the best. Angelina Jolie ate there almost every day during the filming of Tomb Raider and the milkshakes are to die for!
7. Yogyakarta, Indonesia
Situated at the foot of the volcano of Gunung Merapi, Yogyakarta is a wonderful place famous for its walled kraton (that’s Sultan’s palace to you and I) and the ruined water gardens of Taman Sari.
Featuring private colleges and a university, it is also the cultural capital of Java and is full of young, up-and-coming Indonesians. This ensures a cool, local vibe which is missing from the likes of Jakarta or Kuta which are full to bursting with tourists and have lost a bit of their character.
From Yogyakarta you can visit the greatest Buddhist monument in the world Borobudur and the Prambanan temple complex which was built in the honor of the Hindu gods Brahma, Shiva and Vishnu.
In short, Yogyakarta is vibrant, interesting and eclectic – you can be exploring the city’s ancient remains and history one minute and be shopping or lying down on the beach the next.
8. Sarawak, Malaysia
The Malaysian state of Sarawak has been described as Asia’s Best Kept Secret. It’s the home of the World’s richest and most diverse ecosystem, it’s the land of the hornbill and orangutan monkey and it’s the largest of Malaysia’s states.
It’s also the home of 27 different ethnic groups; each of which have their own distinctive language, culture and lifestyle. Only in Sarawak can you have dinner with the locals and listen to stories in the jungle in one of their longhouses that date back generation after generation.
The Gunung Mulu National Park with its ravines, canyons and natural rainforest is a good starting point for exploring but the more intrepid amongst you may want to visit the caves that were inhabited 40,000 years ago or go trekking in the jungle.
If exploring isn’t your thing and the mere thought of the jungle gives you the heebie jeebies, Sarawak also has more than enough breathtaking beaches and calm, clear coves for you to relax and unwind.
Where to stay… Just 2km from Bario airport, stay at JK view lodge for unrivalled hospitality and a superb Bario rice and pineapple curry!
Do you have a favorite place or a hidden gem to share in South East Asia? Are you planning a backpacking trip this summer? Let us know your plans, or a review your latest experience and share your tips with other travelers!
Thanks scatterbrained, sofauxbo, marfis75, reinkim, flydime, permanently, fyunkie, chem7, Deede Kharisma & bingregory for the fabulous Flickr images. Please note that all images were used under the Creative Commons license at the time of posting.
- Tips for First-Time Travellers in South East Asia
- The Philippines: The Secret Asia Backpacking Experience
- Thailand Tourist Traps: How to Avoid a Scam
- Best Hostels in Asia
- Malaysia travel