5 Places in Southeast Asia I Fell for Head Over Heels

Say the words, ‘Southeast Asia‘ and you’ll draw mental imagery of long-tail boats, white sand beaches, lazy rivers and rolling mountains, gorgeous temples, flaming street food, scooters on every corner, thundering waterfalls, lush rainforests, and ruins of civilisations past.

It’s a part of the world that can overwhelm first time visitors with how much there is to see and experience. The warm weather, wealth of attractions, natural beauty, and the captivating culture of each country makes it (as a region) the perfect holiday destination.

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During my nine months bouncing around Southeast Asia in 2019, I visited:

Every place in Southeast Asia has something special to offer, no place is the same- even within a country, things vary significantly from north to south.

You’ll notice a lack of beach destinations in this round-up.

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That’s because I’m a city gal, through and through. Give me cool cafes, great eats, historic ‘old towns’, ornate temples, and open-air yoga studios over a SE Asia beach any day.

My biggest complaint, if you will, with many of Southeast Asia’s beaches?

Many have been over-developed, and as a result, lack a cultural connection to what makes their home country so incredible to visit.

That said, I loved the Gili Islands in Indonesia and Koh Lanta in Thailand- just not enough for either to rank as one of my favourite spots in the region.

And, I know there are more ‘off the grid’ locations in every ocean-front country- hopefully, I can return to these incredible places to visit some of those one day.

These five places are by no means the only spots in Southeast Asia you should visit- even though I travelled the region for months, I’m keen to return and see even more of each country.

5 Places That Should Be High On Your Southeast Asia Travel List

Hanoi, Vietnam

Truthfully, this entire list could be places in Vietnam, but I’ve exercised restraint by just choosing one.

Just the name of Vietnam’s capital, Hanoi, conjures images of motorbikes, street food flames rising up from the sidewalk, its infamous train street, French colonial architecture, charming cafes, and chaos- always chaos.

Vietnam is the kind of place that awakens your sense and pulls you in from all angles.

The country’s capital, Hanoi, best illustrates this- it’s a crazy, beautiful, historic place.

What’s more, Vietnam is a coffee mania. It’s the second largest coffee producing country in the world, so you know they mean business when it comes to brew.

You could say it was love at first sight my first night in Hanoi. The city’s charm snaked its way into heart, and as I explored back streets over the course of a few weeks, I couldn’t deny how hard I was falling for Hanoi.

I call Vietnam my favourite country in Southeast Asia, a title it earned but not without fierce competition from Indonesia, Laos and Malaysia.

If I had to choose just one (okay, more than one sometimes) for each of the below-

  • Favorite things to do: Vegetarian street food tour; Sipping beers at Bia Hoi junction; Wandering the old quarter
  • Favorite place to eat: Banh Mi 25 (best vegetarian banh mi)
  • Favorite places for coffee: Cafe Dinh (egg coffee, old school style); Cong Caphe (frozen coconut coffee)
  • Favorite cultural site (museum; temple): Temple of Literature

Post I’ve written about Hanoi: A Coffee Lover’s Guide to Hanoi // Every Kind of Coffee You Must Try in Vietnam // Eating Hanoi, Vegetarian Street Food Style // Pho Cocktails? Where to Find this Unique Drink in Vietnam // The Ultimate Guide to Hanoi: Must Do’s & Can’t Misses

Penang, Malaysia

Killer street food, mountains and sea views, a plethora of cool cafes, brilliant street art, and a thriving culture. No reason comes to mind you shouldn’t visit Penang, Malaysia. In so many ways, it’s the best of both worlds.

Since being designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2008, Penang has done a fantastic job blending the old with the new. Walking down the old streets of George Town, you’ll see crumbling, pastel buildings, eclectic street art, sacred temples, modern cafes, and local markets.

Before visiting, I’d heard the street art scene, in particular, was the stuff legends were made of, but still wasn’t prepared to be so blown away.

As if Penang couldn’t get any better, Penangites love coffee. Small, traditional shops can be found on just about every corner. At these shops, you’ll find kopi tiam style coffee. Best to visit these if you’re just looking for a morning cup of joe. Not the kind of place you’d necessarily crack open a laptop.

Fear not, because with a more modern coffee culture emerging in George Town, there are plenty of modern cafes to also visit.

Whatever you decide to do in Penang, you really can’t go wrong. It’s a place brimming with things to see and do.

If I had to choose just one for each of the below-

  • Favorite thing to do: Search for epic street art
  • Favorite place to eat: Macallum Connoisseurs Coffee Company (best for brunch and jackfruit smoothies)
  • Favorite place for coffee: Secawan ‘n’ Such
  • Favorite cultural site (museum; temple): Kek Lok Si Temple

Posts I’ve written about Penang: The Best Street Art in SE Asia, Found in Penang // 8 Cafes You Can’t Miss in Penang, Malaysia // Everything You Must See & Do in Penang, Malaysia

Ubud, Bali, Indonesia

When you think of Bali, chances are you envision gorgeous temples, sweeping rice terraces, thundering waterfalls, fresh smoothie bowls, swinging monkeys, dramatic cliff vistas, yogis twisting into different shapes, or streams of incense floating in the air.

Ubud is a spiritual haven.

Think: lush jungle, rice paddies, temples, monkeys, and still, a strong sense of Balinese culture.

Over the course of three months, Ubud became so synonymous with ‘home’ to me that I had a dot for it tattooed on my finger (along with four other dots for the other places in the world that are ‘home’- Austin, New York, London, Amsterdam).

I could wax poetic about Ubud for ages, but the most important thing I can say is likely this- visit, but go off the beaten path. Don’t try to cram Ubud into one or two days, you’ll miss its magic if you do.

If I had to choose just one for each of the below-

  • Favorite things to do: Waterfall hopping; Crystal sound bath or yin yoga at Yoga Barn
  • Favorite places to eat: Kafe (healthy eats, a mix of Indo favorites and Western staples with a twist); Bali Buda (delicious and sustainable)
  • Favorite places for coffee: Gangga Coffee; Monkey Cave Espresso; Expat Roasters
  • Favorite cultural sites (museum; temple): Tirta Empul Temple; Pura Gunung Kawi

Posts I’ve written about Ubud: Chasing Waterfalls Near Ubud, Bali // Every Cafe You Must Visit in Ubud // The Best Places to Workout & Zen Out in Bali // 5 Spas in Bali I Loved Enough to Return Time after Time // The Ultimate Guide to Jungle Paradise in Ubud // The Ultimate Bali Planning Guide

Chiang Mai, Thailand

Everyone told me I’d love Chiang Mai, and of course, they were right.

Temples, gong baths, meditative yoga, Thai iced teas, all of the cold brew, lovely massages, and some seriously good night market eats.

It’s modern, but still feels Thai.
It’s more laid back than Bangkok, but much more affordable than any of the Thai islands.
It’s years and years of history steeped in temples, mixed with an excellent coffee scene and cosy cafes.

It’s a city that I left feeling like it was made just for me.
I’d never been somewhere before that felt so different to my normal reality, but simultaneously familiar.

It’s a place I miss every day and am already plotting a visit to again.

If I had to choose just one for each of the below-

  • Favorite thing to do: Indulging in a massage at any of the city’s excellent spas, especially the lush Fah Lanna
  • Favorite places to eat: Khao Soy Nimman (insane khao soy); The yellow pad Thai stall at the night market
  • Favorite places for coffee: Aka Ama (great coffee); Ponganes Espresso (fantastic Thai iced tea); My Secret Cafe (low key vibes)
  • Favorite cultural sites (museum; temple): Gong bath at Yoga Tree; Temple hopping in old town

Posts I’ve written about Chiang Mai: Cafes You Can’t Miss in Chiang Mai // The Best Places to Eat in Chiang Mai for Vegetarians // Three Temples You Must Visit in Chiang Mai, Thailand // Visiting an Ethical Elephant Sanctuary in Thailand // The Ultimate Guide to 3 Days in Chiang Mai

Luang Prabang, Laos

Gorgeous Luang Prabang.

In only a matter of days, Luang Prabang became one of my favourite places, not just in SE Asia, but in the world.

Since the airport modernised in 2011, more and more visitors have been pouring in to see this sleepy town in north central Laos for themselves.

The old town is dubbed a UNESCO heritage site with its French colonial buildings, dozens of Wats, hazy, green mountains, and flowing, mighty Mekong.

There wasn’t a specific thing I loved the most about Luang Prabang. Really, it was the wandering that I fell in love with.

The slow pace of life encouraging days without real plans, just waking up and deciding what to do. Meandering town, popping into cafes, enjoying strong cold brew and delicious, salty khao soi.

And, it’s not just a physical beauty. No disputing Luang Prabang is a beautiful place, but its appeal also comes from its spirit. Everyone I met in Laos was friendly, kind and welcoming.

Luang Prabang is a place so peaceful, you feel calmer just by being there. Almost as if you’re able to absorb its vibe.

If I had to choose just one for each of the below-

  • Favorite things to do: Hike and swim at Kuang Si Falls; Cruising the Mekong
  • Favorite place to eat: Indigo (don’t miss the khao soi and khao nom mor thod)
  • Favorite places for coffee: Saffron (phenomenal cold drip); Utopia (backpacker paradise)
  • Favorite cultural site (museum; temple): Observe the ancient practice of Almsgiving

Posts I’ve written about Luang Prabang: Three Beautiful, Chill Cafes You Can’t Miss in Luang Prabang // Observing an Ancient Ritual in Luang Prabang, Almsgiving // Cruising the Mekong River at Sunset // The Most Beautiful Waterfall I’ve Ever Seen, Kuang Si Falls in Laos // How Luang Prabang in Laos Stole My Heart in 3 Days

Have you ever travelled to Southeast Asia? Which country or location was your favourite? 

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2 thoughts on “5 Places in Southeast Asia I Fell for Head Over Heels

  1. Haven’t been to SE Asia yet, but I’m dying to go! Singapore and Malaysia are at the top of my list, and your list/photos inspire me to head over sooner than later (at least, when COVID-19 is over)! Thanks for the inspiration!

    • Oh, I feel like you’ll looooove SE Asia. It’s a region that quickly became one of my favorite parts of the world, and somewhere I’m seriously considering living long-term one day.

      The only thing I’m not wild about? The heat.

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