Backpacking Southeast Asia: Must See Destinations

Backpacking Southeast Asia: Must See Destinations
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Backpacking Southeast Asia: Must See Destinations

Backpacking Southeast Asia (SEA) is practically a rite of passage for travelers these days. SEA is a traveler’s dream: cheap, beautiful, easy to navigate, and ladened with friendly travelers and locals alike. 

The hardest part about planning your backpacking trip is choosing where to spend your time – unfortunately, trips can’t last forever (for most, anyways #goals) and you do have to prioritize certain destinations and pass on others. 

We spent an incredible, adventure-packed two months backpacking throughout Southeast Asia, collecting memories and laughing over inevitable travel mishaps.

Check out our list of must see destinations to make your backpacking trip an adventure you’ll be telling stories about, forever. 

The Philippines

Philippines, Backpacking Southeast Asia: Must See Destinations

After having lived in the Philippines as Peace Corps volunteers for 2.5 years (and being the birthplace of where we met and fell in love), we may be biased in saying the Philippines is the most remarkable destination on the list – but, we stand by that statement, nonetheless!

Philippines, Backpacking Southeast Asia: Must See Destinations
Philippines, Backpacking Southeast Asia: Must See Destinations

The Philippines is often skipped by travelers when planning their Southeast Asia trip because of its secluded location, but that’s half of its charming allure! The Philippines has all of the beauty (more, actually) with half the amount of tourist as other, more popular, destinations in Asia.

Philippines, Backpacking Southeast Asia: Must See Destinations
Philippines, Backpacking Southeast Asia: Must See Destinations

The Philippines has it all, from mountain-town adventures to tropical oasis getaways, and everything in between. To this day, having dove famous spots all of the world, the Philippines still has the most magical underwater landscapes we’ve ever seen. If you’re a diver you’re not going to want to miss these dive sites.

Philippines, Backpacking Southeast Asia: Must See Destinations

When planning this leg of your trip, make sure to include stops from all of the three main regions of the country to truly appreciate its diversity: Luzon, Visayas, and Mindanao. Some of our favorite destinations and adventures around the country included traversing the rice terraces in the Cordillera Mountain Region, diving with thresher sharks in Malapascua, leaping into waterfalls in Cebu, snorkeling alongside whale sharks in Donsol, cruising down backroads in Siquijor, and wreck diving in Coron. 

Malaysian Borneo

Malaysian Borneo, Backpacking Southeast Asia: Must See Destinations

We honestly had no idea what to expect when we arrived in Malaysian Borneo, as we were the first of our friends to add it to our bucket list. Our main draw to the destination was summiting Mount Kinabalu, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, so every other additional adventure had there was purely serendipitous. 

Mount Kinabalu, Malaysian Borneo, Backpacking Southeast Asia: Must See Destinations
Mount Kinabalu, Malaysian Borneo, Backpacking Southeast Asia: Must See Destinations

We instantly fell in love with everything the island had to offer, but the real draw was the slow and simple lifestyle. By the time we left, it was hard to tell if we had been there for days or weeks – time seems to work differently in Borneo. 

Kinabatagan River, Malaysian Borneo, Backpacking Southeast Asia: Must See Destinations

When stopping over in Malaysian Borneo, don’t pass up a chance to dive the World class Mabul or Sipadan Islands, spot a proboscis monkey while cruising up the Kinabatagan River, or catch a sunrise atop the 13,435 foot Mt. Kinabalu.

For a more in depth look at our favorite Malaysian Borneo adventures, check out our post 3 Reasons to NOT skip Malaysian Borneo on your next Southeast Asia Trip.

Malaysia

Armenian Street, George Town, Backpacking Southeast Asia: Must See Destinations

Spending more time in Malaysian Borneo than we had originally planned, we had only a short time to explore Malaysia. We strayed a bit from our typical adrenaline-pumping adventures and opted, instead, for the art scene of George Town. 

Street Art, George Town, Backpacking Southeast Asia: Must See Destinations
Street Art, George Town, Backpacking Southeast Asia: Must See Destinations
Street Art, George Town, Backpacking Southeast Asia: Must See Destinations
Street Art, George Town, Backpacking Southeast Asia: Must See Destinations
Street Art, George Town, Backpacking Southeast Asia: Must See Destinations

Located on Penang Island, George Town is famous for its street art, which lines the buildings of the charming town. Strolling through George Town can, at times, feel like a step back in time. Made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2008, much of the town’s culture and architect remain intact. 

Architecture, George Town, Backpacking Southeast Asia: Must See Destinations
Architecture, George Town, Backpacking Southeast Asia: Must See Destinations

While in George Town, snag a map and begin a DIY street art scavenger hunt, grab some authentic (and cheap) dinner and a Tiger, Hawker-style, at Red Garden, and catch some live music on Love Lane.

Cambodia

Battambang, Cambodia, Backpacking Southeast Asia: Must See Destinations

Landing in Cambodia we had one thing on our minds: Angkor Wat, the largest religious complex in the world. To combine both our love for adventure and wonder of the temples and their history, we decided to experience the temples via bike with Grasshopper Adventures

Siem Reap, Cambodia, Backpacking Southeast Asia: Must See Destinations
Siem Reap, Cambodia, Backpacking Southeast Asia: Must See Destinations
Siem Reap, Cambodia, Backpacking Southeast Asia: Must See Destinations
Angkor Wat, Siem Reap, Cambodia, Backpacking Southeast Asia: Must See Destinations

Doing so, allowed us to avoided the heavily trafficked roads and, instead, explore the backroads and trails leading to the temples. We recommend visiting the temples with a guide to learn about the deities and demons depicted in the stone carvings adorning the walls of the temples. Oh, and definitely wake up to watch the sunrise over Angkor Wat, even if you’re not a morning person – you wont regret it. 

Mondulkiri, Cambodia, Backpacking Southeast Asia: Must See Destinations
Mondulkiri, Cambodia, Backpacking Southeast Asia: Must See Destinations

Apart from exploring Angkor Wat, don’t miss out on catching the river boat to Battambang, gazing at the millions of bats exiting the Bat Caves, learning of the tragic history at the Killing Fields, and caring for the elephants with the Modulkiri Project. 

Cambodia took us by surprise with its sense of adventure, deeply humbling history, and authentic culture. For a deeper look into our Cambodian adventures read our full Cambodia travel guide. 

Vietnam

Hanoi, Vietnam, Backpacking Southeast Asia: Must See Destinations

With so many points of interests, Vietnam is one of those countries that will make you wish you had endless time to explore. From Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi you’ll experience the history and culture, obsess over pho, bahn mi, and egg coffee, stroll through lantern-lit streets, and marvel at the vastness of Ha Long Bay. 

Vietnam, Backpacking Southeast Asia: Must See Destinations
Hue, Vietnam, Backpacking Southeast Asia: Must See Destinations
Vietnam, Backpacking Southeast Asia: Must See Destinations

Some of our favorite Vietnam adventures consisted of another bike tour with Grasshopper Adventures through Hoi An, drinking a beer on the empty beaches of Hue, taking the sleeper train from Hue to Hanoi, and cooking with a local family thanks to Traveling Spoon

Vietnam, Backpacking Southeast Asia: Must See Destinations
Vietnam, Backpacking Southeast Asia: Must See Destinations

One of the most magical moments of my life? Sipping a glass of wine while watching the sunset from the upper deck of our boat as it sailed through Ha Long Bay. 

Learn how to make sure you get the same experience in Ha Long Bay, where to find the best egg coffee, and much more, in our backpacker’s guide to Vietnam. 

Laos

Vang Vieng, Laos, Backpacking Southeast Asia: Must See Destinations

Okay, I know we said the Philippines was our favorite spot on this list, but Laos is truly an adventurer’s paradise, and, hands down, one of our favorite places that we’ve ever visited. Ironically enough, just like the Philippines, Laos is often skipped by Southeast Asia backpackers.

Laos, Backpacking Southeast Asia: Must See Destinations
Laos, Backpacking Southeast Asia: Must See Destinations

We should have known we were going to fall in love with Laos the moment we stepped foot in Vientiane, the country’s capital, and were welcomed by quiet, empty streets. The hustle and bustle of backpacker-filled alleys quickly become a distant memory, and in its place golden temples and incense-filled air. 

Oh, and did I mention the food? I still, to this day, dream of eating larb – the unofficial national dish – while sitting in a hole-in-the-wall local eatery. 

Laos, Backpacking Southeast Asia: Must See Destinations
Laos, Backpacking Southeast Asia: Must See Destinations

Going back through my travel journal I found a doodle I’d scribbled above Vang Vieng that reads, “it was every definition of the word adventure.” If that doesn’t make you want to book a one-way ticket there right now, I don’t know what will. Vang Vieng, once known for its drunken backpacker scene, re-invented itself as a launching point to the outdoors. 

Laos, Backpacking Southeast Asia: Must See Destinations

Stopping over in Laos while backpacking Southeast Asia will inevitably have you telling stories to your friends about that time you floated down the Nam Song River, wandered into unmarked caves, rented scooters with nowhere to go, bartered for souvenirs in Luang Prabang, watched an alms giving ceremony at sunrise, and scaled the treetops in the unforgettable adventure that is The Gibbon Experience

Laos, Backpacking Southeast Asia: Must See Destinations
Laos, Backpacking Southeast Asia: Must See Destinations
Laos, Backpacking Southeast Asia: Must See Destinations
Laos, Backpacking Southeast Asia: Must See Destinations

If raw, unplanned adventure is what you’re into, Laos is the country for you.

Thailand

Thailand, Backpacking Southeast Asia: Must See Destinations

There are not many seasoned travelers out there that haven’t been to Thailand, so adding it to your Southeast Asia itinerary is a no brainer, and where we ended our two month adventure. 

Thailand, Backpacking Southeast Asia: Must See Destinations
Thailand, Backpacking Southeast Asia: Must See Destinations

Even though we spent three weeks in Thailand, I’m sure no amount of time would seem sufficient enough to fully appreciate the beauty and diversity of the country. We started our journey in Chaing Mai and ended it in Krabi, nearly 1,000 miles later. 

Thailand, Backpacking Southeast Asia: Must See Destinations
Thailand, Backpacking Southeast Asia: Must See Destinations
Thailand, Backpacking Southeast Asia: Must See Destinations

In short, we drooled over our cooking class with Smile Organic Farm, fell in love with Pai’s laid back vibe, rafted (and went overboard) down the Pai River, marveled at Bangkok’s floating markets, rock climbed in Krabi, and dove the underwater world of the Similan Islands. 

Thailand, Backpacking Southeast Asia: Must See Destinations
Thailand, Backpacking Southeast Asia: Must See Destinations
Thailand, Backpacking Southeast Asia: Must See Destinations

Believe it or not, that list just barely scrapes the surface of the adventures to be had in Thailand. 

Philippines, Backpacking Southeast Asia: Must See Destinations

Like any trip, your backpacking adventure is bound to be filled with missed trains, lost money, mysterious sicknesses, bus rides from hell, dishonest tuk tuk drivers, and hostels that make you utter out loud, “This does not look like it did online.” 

But, behind every travel blooper is a friendly local who recommends a hidden gem, a motorcycle ride with yours hands outstretched and free, a sunset watched from a rooftop while drinking a 50 cent beer (usd), and a real life memory – all your own – of a place you’ve been dreaming about for years. 

Travel isn’t always beautiful, easy, or worth writing home about, but, even when it isn’t — it is. 

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We’d love to hear about your experience backpacking Southeast Asia, or your plans to do so! What places have you been dreaming about? 

As always, keep adventuring x 

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