Say the words, ‘Southeast Asia‘ and you’ll draw mental imagery of long-tail boats, white sand beaches, lazy rivers, 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.
During my nine months bouncing around Southeast (SE) Asia in 2019, I visited Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Vietnam, The Philippines, Indonesia and Singapore. On my trip, I had the luxury of time, largely because I worked remotely, which allowed me to travel for months on end, while balancing adventuring with digital consulting and teaching English.
Although I had time, I also moved around a lot- keen to see and experience as much as possible. It was my first visit to this part of the world, but it won’t be the last. Since returning, I’ve had many ask about ‘two week itineraries’ for SE Asia. Even with the pandemic, many are looking forward to a time when they’ll be able to travel again.
Why two weeks?
Often, that’s the amount of time most can take off from corporate jobs without preparing for a longer period of leave, or using too many/all of their allocated vacation days. That said, the longer you have, the better. There’s so much to see and do in each country far beyond what’s represented here. For a first taste of Southeast Asia though, this guide is designed to maximize your experience.
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. I’ve included Thai islands, but not an entire week lounging at the beach. You’ll move around a lot, so if that’s not your preferred travel style, consider spending more time in a place. But, if you’re keen to see as much as possible, this guide may be right up your ally.
Where to Visit in Southeast Asia?
Narrowing down places to highlight was difficult. In some ways, this guide is controversial. Often, recommendations for first time visitors to SE Asia center in picking one country and exploring one or two places. While that’s a fine way to travel, I also tend to oscillate between trips where I see and do a lot, and others where I travel slow, spending more time in a single place.
If visiting SE Asia for the first time, I’d definitely want to experience as much as I could. There are 11 countries in SE Asia- Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Timor-Lester, and Vietnam.
If you’re short on time and out to see as much as possible, I’d recommend venturing to 4-5 of my favorite countries, and picking one place to see in each- Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam.
In Singapore, spend time seeing the city.
In Malaysia, soak up the sights of Kuala Lumpar.
In Thailand, go island hopping.
In Cambodia, visit the ancient ruins of civilizations past.
And in Vietnam, eat all the street food. Seriously, all of it.
Will you see and do a lot in a short span of time?
Will it be a relaxing, rejuvenating vacation?
Perhaps not. But you’ll learn a lot, see a lot and experience a lot. Which, for me, always sparks joy in the moment and long after I’ve returned home.
I’ll also say this- if you’ve haven’t travelled much, this is not the itinerary for you. You may do better visiting one or two places vs. bouncing from spot to spot. But if you’ve travelled quite a bit, enjoy fast paced trips and aren’t bothered by repacking or being on the go, this adventure packed itinerary may be of interest to you.
When to Visit in Southeast Asia
Do your research before booking. SE Asia is composed of islands, mountains, countryside and buzzing cities- each country experiences different weather throughout the year.
I visited Singapore, the Andaman Islands in Thailand, Bangkok, Siem Reap and Hanoi in late March / early-mid April, and would recommend that as an optimal time to visit. Siem Reap will be at the end of the dry season, and it may be unbelievably hot, but it’s tolerable for a short period of time, and much better than visiting in the rainy season.
How to Get Around Southeast Asia
If you’re short on time, fly. An abundance of air carriers, like Air Asia, make doing so easy, peasy and affordable.
Once you reach a place, plan on taxing a Grab or taxi to your hotel/hostel, again, to save time (and stress of navigating a new place). And, depending on where you are, plan on either walking places or using ride sharing (Grab & Go Jek are the ‘Uber’ of SE Asia) to save time and allow you to see more with the time you have.
Must Bring Packing Essentials for Southeast Asia
First and foremast, pack light. When you’re on the move throughout your holiday, you don’t want to cart around a ton of baggage. Trust you’ll be able to either do your own laundry or send out at least once during your trip, and leave room for things you want to bring home. Even if you’re not a souvenir person, as I’m not, you may find yourself excited to bring things, like coffee from Vietnam back with you.
This is the full list of everything I packed to backpack the world through different climates for a year- all of which, fit into a 55L Osprey backpack. If you’re only spending two weeks in SE Asia, pack clothes you can mix and match.
5 Must Pack Items:
- Sunscreen / aloe vera
- Mosquito spray
- Luggage locks
- Global charger
- Light, breezy casual clothing, and a scarf or sarong to cover legs or shoulders at temples
Ladies, consider wearing sports bras only. Seriously, it’s so hot and humid, I can’t even imagine wearing a normal bra. Low impact sports bras are where it’s at- the last thing you want are things chafing and sticking.
While we’re talking about sports bras, women, you’ll need to cover your legs past your knees, and shoulders/upper arms when entering temples. I usually wore a midi / maxi dress or trousers and brought a scarf to ensure I was covered on top. If you forget, many temples let you rent items for a small fee. Always check a temple’s rules before visiting- if they don’t have a website, try TripAdvisor for tips from others who have visited.
And, always carry local currency. Most places, unless they’re upmarket, are cash only. And, even if they do accept card- there’s likely a minimum spend. No need to exchange at an airport- just withdraw from an ATM, I use global digital banking cards like Revoult to minimize foreign transaction fees.
One last thing to keep in mind when it comes to packing- if you’re on the move a lot, you’ll spend a decent amount of time in airports- don’t spend even more time in them by needing to check luggage or wait for it to arrive. Carrying on equates to ease of travel throughout your trip.
Key Things to Know About Visiting Southeast Asia
Before you travel, research whether you’ll need visas to enter each country you intend to enter. Of the ones I’ve listed here, visas are required for American travellers visiting both Cambodia and Vietnam- others are visa exempt for short stays.
If you’re able, bring an unlocked phone. You’ll find wifi most upmarket places (cafes, hotels, hostels, restaurants), but the benefits to having wifi to call a tuk tuk or taxi, check currency conversions or language translations, or even look up directions or opening hours for something are endless. If you’re only in each country for a few days, pick up a SIM at the airport when you land- you’ll be surprised by how affordable all are.
Download a few apps to help make your travel plans and time in each country easier.
Research how to say basic greetings in the primary language of each country you’ll visit, as well as key cultural customs to know. While many people you’ll encounter will speak at least transactional English, don’t expect everyone to. Google Translate is my go-to when I need help communicating.
Don’t do anything in a temple you wouldn’t do in a church (or other place of worship). Temples are a place of worship. Be respectful with photography or video and in observing anyone who is worshipping.
If taking a taxi, insist the metre be turned on ahead of getting in.
Bring hand sanitizer and tissues. Sometimes, there won’t be toilet paper in public bathrooms (cue the tissues). And, in public bathrooms and cities, I find having hand sanitizer critical. Especially if eating street food while wandering.
Whether you’re coming from the United States or not, withdraw $50-100 USD to carry throughout your trip. You never know when having USD will come in handy- especially in places like Cambodia, which use USD flexibly alongside their own currency, and where you’ll want it to cover visa fees. I also like to keep a few small bills ($5, $10) handy in a second wallet in case I ever run into ‘trouble’ and need a ‘bribe’.
Finally, make sure you understand the rules of renting a motorbike, as well as the potential risks before doing so.
A Sample, Jam Packed Itinerary
For the purpose of outlining an itinerary, I’ve started the trip in Bangkok. Based on where you’re originating, you may find it’s better to fly in Singapore or Kuala Lumpar and start there. If you do that, then you could easily switch up this itinerary- all three are cities with major international airports. There’s plenty to see and do in each, but if you only have a day in one or two of them, you can still hit up some of the highlights.
Growing up it the US, it was usually advised to book return flights when traveling, but if you’re trying to see and do as much as possible in SE Asia, I’d book one way there and back (price pending, of course). Doing so gives you more flexibility in where you visit, and how much you’re able to see.
One more note about the below- it’ll look like a lot of travel days, but in reality, you’ll likely only need to block a quarter or half day to do things like flying from Phuket to Siem Reap, or Siem Reap to Hanoi. The reason I’ve blocked the day as a travel one is to give you flexibility, but depending on your flight times, you’ll be able to use part of those days to sightsee as well.
Day 1: Fly into Bangkok
Day 2: See Bangkok
Day 3: Fly to Krabi
Days 4-6: Spend 2-3 days in Railay or Ao Nang; Ferry to Phuket to depart Thailand
Day 7: Fly to Siem Reap
Day 8: Explore Siem Reap
Day 9: Fly to Hanoi
Days 10-11: Explore Hanoi
Days 12-14: Fly to Singapore or KL
Day 13: Explore Singapore or KL
Day 14: Transit home
Where to Stay in Each Place
Where you stay should reflect both what you plan on doing (proximity for ease of adventuring), as well as your budget. I’ve made recommendations in every post I’ve linked for each destination below, but Booking.com and Airbnb are great places to check, based on your schedule. Before booking, be sure to read the reviews on their sites, as well as Google- they’re always telling.
Must-See Highlights in Each Place
Thailand’s capital, Bangkok, is a bustling metropolis- to say the least. The intense, constant grid lock is enough to cause sensation overload in even the most seasoned traveller. Mix in the dozens of beautiful temples, vibrant street markets, hundreds of restaurants and cafes, and infamous nightlife, and you’ve got a city with more to see and do than anyone could possibly find the time for.
- Favorite things to do: Visit Khao San Road; Have sunset drinks at one of the city’s swank hotel rooftops
- Favorite place to eat: Chinatown for great street food
- Favorite places for coffee: Bangkok’s cafe scene is worth your baht. Toby’s, Not Just Another Cup, and Rocket Coffeebar are a few of my favorites
- Favorite cultural site (museum; temple): Temple hopping: The Grand Palace; Wat Arun; Wat Pho
RAILAY / AO NANG
The soaring cliffs and pristine beaches of Railay, Thailand have hovered near the top of my travel ‘wish list’ for years.
Every time I saw photos, I couldn’t believe it was a real place.
It appeared to be actual paradise.
Many people actually think Railay is an island, but it’s actually part of mainland Thailand. It is, however, difficult to reach. Because of the cliffs and dense jungle, you can only access Railay East or West by taking a long tail boat. The isolated location lends an island feel, which manifests as secluded relaxation.
If Railay is too tough to get to in the time you have, you could stay in adjacent Ao Nang to be more central with the benefit of proximity to exploring Railay.
- Favorite things to do: Go for a morning walk on Railay Beach; Do two day trips to Hong Island, Four Islands, or Koh Phi Phi. Day trips often start early (8/9 am) and return mid-afternoon (3 pm), so you’ll still have time to hang around when you return
- Favorite place to eat: The food scene didn’t impress me too much in Railay, but I also need to be overtly careful, because of my food allergies
- Favorite places for coffee: Coffee Station
Siem Reap is a gateway to the ancient world.
With history dating back to the year 802, it’s somewhat hard to believe Siem Reap was a sleepy town in the Cambodian countryside until the world found out about Angkor Wat. If you’re visiting Siem Reap, chances are you’re there to see Angkor, and by extension, Angkor Wat. And, while the ancient temples should be at the very top of your sightseeing list, there’s plenty more to do in Siem Reap.
- Favorite things to do: Sunrise at Angkor Wat (you’ll need to get temple tickets the day prior); Get a Khmer massage; Wander Siem Reap’s markets
- Favorite place to eat: New Leaf for Khmer curry and Khmer noodle soup; The night market
- Favorite places for coffee: Little Red Fox
- Favorite cultural site (museum; temple): Angkor
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.
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.
- 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
Ah, Singapore- the clean, futuristic, cultural city has a lot to interest travellers. With Sing’s airport being a major international hub for connecting flights around Asia, there are often flight deals to be found, with long layovers to see a bit of the city.
- Favorite things to do: Gardens by the Bay (Supertree Grove and Cloud Tree Forest, in particular); Nightly light show at Marina Bay Sands; Wander colorful Kampong Glam and Koon Seng Road
- Favorite place to eat: Hawker Centres, in particular Tekka in Little India
- Favorite places for coffee: Free the Robot; % Arabica; Common Man. Coffee not your thing? Try cheese foam fruit tea at Hey Tea
- Favorite cultural site (museum; temple): ArtScience Museum
Famed for its skyscrapers and shopping malls, Kuala Lumpar (KL) is the capital of Malaysia. It’s a melting pot of culture with a vibrant mix of Malay, Indian, Thai and Chinese. The food is fantastic and there’s no shortage of things to do.
- Favorite things to do: Climb to the top of Batu Caves (free); Gawk at some seriously good street art; Watch the sunset or sunrise at a rooftop pool
- Favorite place to eat: Merchant’s Lane for brunch; Connaught Night Market or Bangsar Baru Night Market (more touristy) for nasi lemak, satay and roti canai
- Favorite places for coffee: VCR; Pulp by Papa Palheta; Feeka Coffee Roasters; Lim Kim Cafe
- Favorite cultural site (museum; temple): Admire Thean Hou Temple
A Final Note
Know your plans may not work out. As with travel anywhere, things can go wrong.
If you need a long tail boat to get to a resort but it’s storming, you may have to spend a night on the mainland. It’s just how it goes, and why travel insurance is so important- I always use Safety Wing or World Nomads. Remember, you’re experiencing a new country, full of unfamiliar sights, sounds and things. It’s okay if everything doesn’t work out exactly ‘to plan’- you never know what you’ll discover, sometimes it may be even better than what had imagined.
Have you ever been to Southeast Asia? Where would you recommend people visit on their first time in this part of the world?
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