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Backpacking in Southeast Asia: The Highlights

Southeast Asia has been good to me. It was the first place I travelled (after living in Taiwan for a year) and that 6 month stint of backpacking in Southeast Asia morphed into a lifelong passion for travel. I met the love of my life while working in Singapore and filled in some of the gaps that I missed on my first trip. Since leaving my job in April I’ve filled in even more of those gaps, and now I’m waiting for a flight to London to continue a trip that will eventually take me around the world.

Here are some of my highlights from my time spent backpacking in Southeast Asia…

Best big city: Singapore

I’m not a huge fan of cities but Southeast Asia is home to a few worthwhile ones. Bangkok is full of energy and Phnom Pehn is chaotic and fun, but for me, Singapore comes out on top . It’s definitely not as lively as some of the other big cities in the region but it really does have it all, from history, culture and amazing food to jungle walks and beaches.

Further reading: Take a look at my “Singapore section” for heaps of posts about this tiny city state.

Backpacking in Southeast Asia: Best City - Singapore

Best town: Hoi An, Vietnam

Hoi An is famous for 2 reasons: It’s full of tailors who will throw you together a cheap suit or dress, and it’s home to some of the most atmospheric historical streets, temples and bridges in Asia. Despite its popularity, walking the streets of Hoi An is one of the best things you can do in the region, and you can also take a tour to see the ancient My Son ruins, go on a boat ride and eat some great Vietnamese food. If you’re going backpacking in Southeast Asia definitely don’t miss Hoi An!

Backpacking in Southeast Asia highlights: Best small town - Hoi An, Vietnam

Best village: Muang Ngoi, Laos

Tourists can only reach Muang Ngoi by boat, and the journey itself is worth straying from Laos’ tourist hotspot Luang Prabang. Muang Ngoi is surrounded by imposing karst mountains and most of its accommodation options treat their guests to some amazing views. The Nam Ou River floats past the hammocks at a serene pace – If you’re looking for a place to relax in Southeast Asia Muang Ngoi is a great option.

Further reading: Read a full post on Muang Ngoi (an honourable mention goes to Kampong Ayer in Brunei, the largest water village in the world, but at over 35,000 people I’m not sure it really counts as a village!).

Backpacking in Southeast Asia highlights: Best village - Muang Ngoi, Laos

Best Journey While backpacking in Southeast Asia: Bangkok to Vientiane night train

I’ve done this journey twice (and once in the opposite direction) and it’s always fun. The dining car is a great place to meet locals (and other travellers) over a few cold beers and the beds are almost as comfortable as you’ll find in your typical Southeast Asian guesthouse. Backpacking in Southeast Asia often requires some uncomfortable journeys, so make the use of trains when you can!

Best temple: Bayon (Angkor Thom), Cambodia

You’ve probably heard of Angkor Wat, but what you may not know is that there so many other temples in the area. Angkor Thom is only a few minutes from its more famous friend (you can access all of the temples in the area by purchasing 1 ticket), but it’s a lot quieter and a bit more surreal. The coolest temple in the Angkor Thom complex is Bayon, which has hundreds of faces carved into it and is in more of a “crumbling state” than Angkor Wat. Even crumblier is Ta Phrom, where parts of the movie Tomb Raider were filmed.

Backpacking in Southeast Asia highlights: Best temple - Bayon, Cambodia

Best Mosque: Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin Mosque, Bandar Sari Begawan, Brunei

Apart from exploring Kampong Ayer, there isn’t a whole lot to do in Brunei unless you have enough money for an extortionate jungle tour, but the Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin Mosque is definitely worth checking out.

Further reading: Interested in visiting Brunei? Check out my post!

Backpacking in Southeast Asia highlights: The Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin Mosque in Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei

Best Sunrise: Mt Batur, Bali

I’m not really a morning person which means I haven’t see too many sunrises while backpacking in Southeast Asia, but when I do see one it usually means I’m at the top of a volcano or mountain. I went to Bali for a weekend escape from Singapore and spent my time in Ubud (AKA that place Julia Roberts ruined) and teamed up with an American couple for the 3 am climb. This sunrise made getting out of bed at that unbearable hour worth it.

Further reading: “Avoiding Julia Roberts in Ubud, Bali

Backpacking in Southeast Asia highlights: Sunset at Mt Batur, Ubud, Bali, Indonesia

Best Sunset: Don Det, Laos

I’ve seen plenty of amazing sunsets while backpacking in Southeast Asia, but the ones I saw on Don Det definitely come out on top.

Further reading: Click here to a read a full post on this unique island on the Mekong River in Southern Laos.

Backpacking in Southeast Asia highlights: Best sunset - Don Det, Laos

Best Food: Singapore

This was a hard one. I love Thai food and Indonesia is home to some dishes I could eat every day. The beauty of Singaporean food (and Malaysian as it’s very similar) is that it comes from so many different influences. Indian, Chinese and Malay styles combine at hawker centres throughout the island, giving you almost unlimited choice of what to eat. I lived in the suburbs of Singapore for 2 years and within a 10 minute walking radius there were about 80 different food stalls/restaurants to choose from.

Best Beer: San Miguel, Philippines

The best thing about beer in Southeast Asia is the price – you can often get a pretty decent beer for around a dollar – and on Pub Street in Siem Reap you can get a cold glass of Angkor Beer in a restaurant for 50c! San Miguel is definitely my favourite beer in Southeast Asia – not only is it cheap but it tastes great, and there’s nothing like a cold beer on a hot day in the Philippines.

Backpacking in Southeast Asia highlights: Best beer - San Miguel, The Philippines

Cleanest country: Myanmar

According to my (now world famous) Rat Factor, Myanmar is the cleanest country in Southeast Asia. Read my full post and see if you agree!

Further reading: Thinking of planning a backpacking trip to Southeast Asia? Check out travelfish.org; it’s got a lot of useful info including accommodation, transport and ideas of things to do. I remember reading a lot of articles while dreaming about/planning my first trip!

You can now read part 2 here.

Have you been backpacking in Southeast Asia? What were your highlights? Let me know!

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Jon Algie

Jon Algie

A travel blogger from New Zealand who hates talking about himself in the third person and has no imagination when it comes to naming websites.
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11 Comments

  1. October 18, 2014 at 11:23 pm — Reply

    Jon,
    Weird. The first letter of each line is not displayed, so hopefully I won’t make any mistakes. I have traveled SE Asia since the mid 70’s and absolutely love every country for one reason or another.

    Singapore had the best coffee I have ever tasted. Bangkok (before all the kiddy porn) had a restaurant called Nick’s #1 that was so good, but it has since closed down.

    The canals in Bangkok were filled with vendors in the old days, not segregated like today. Loved Manila. Loved Saigon. Loved Japan, especially Kyoto. Seoul was in the middle of a DMZ violation and was a little scary.

    One thing remains though and that is the people are still so friendly and open. The food is the best in the world. You will miss it. I guarantee you!
    Mike

    • Jon Algie
      October 19, 2014 at 4:53 pm — Reply

      Cheers Mike, I’m sure this is a region of the world that I’ll keep returning to, it really is the perfect place to travel. I still haven’t been to Japan and Korea, hoping to get there sometime soon though!

  2. October 20, 2014 at 10:20 am — Reply

    Hi Jon,

    You must have had the most incredible experiences over the 3 years. You have inspired me to fit in South East Asia as a more longer/permanent option in the future. I’m motivated by Singapore and Vietnam as destinations I have previously visited and cannot wait to return, and then Laos and Cambodia as my bucket list destinations. Can I ask if you think setting up in Singapore is the best option for working and accessing SE Asia? Or are you bias? 😉

    Thanks for some great coverage! Singapore is definitely a special city…

    Keep Wandering

    Carissa

    • Jon Algie
      October 20, 2014 at 4:19 pm — Reply

      Cheers Carissa, you’ll love Laos and Cambodia! Singapore is a great place for a base but it depends what you’ll be doing for work. It’s the most expensive place to live in the region but also has the best paying jobs, but if you’re looking to live cheaply and work online Thailand seems to be the best place. In terms of ease/quality of living it’d be hard to beat Singapore though.

  3. November 10, 2014 at 4:25 am — Reply

    Thanks for sharing. looking forward for my next trip in South-East Asia! I definitely agree that Singapore is the place to go for food!

    • Jon Algie
      November 10, 2014 at 10:11 pm — Reply

      Thanks, I really miss the food in Singapore!

  4. November 10, 2014 at 9:46 pm — Reply

    Thanks for mentioning Angkor Thom – we’ll be going to Angkor Wat in a couple of weeks and had never heard of it.
    ‘Rat’ factor. Also cockroaches. I swear I didn’t use to see so many of them in the past. But have been in Bnagkok/Hua Hin the last 2 months and damn have I seen a lot of both.
    Frank (bbqboy)

    • Jon Algie
      November 10, 2014 at 10:12 pm — Reply

      Nice, spend at least a couple of days exploring the temples, some of the outer ones are really quiet and peaceful.

  5. December 5, 2014 at 7:25 pm — Reply

    I truly enjoyed reading this article Jon! It grew my wanderlust even more…planning to explore south east Asia in 2015 so I will definitely bookmark this article!

  6. December 18, 2014 at 8:34 pm — Reply

    I think that dining table by the muddy river is the one for me.

  7. November 3, 2015 at 1:51 am — Reply

    I just arrived in the U.S. after a couple of months in SE Asia and aside from a couple of the places you’ve mentioned, can personally agree with you on some. That mosque in Brunei has me kicking myself that we didn’t go there. I feel like mosques were something that we didn’t really get into until that first visit to Malaysia. They’re so beautiful and almost more so than some of the temples I’ve visited.

    I’d rate Borobudur up there but you nailed it with Bayon. You can’t compete with the temples of Angkor and that one stands out for me as well. Singapore wins with food in so many ways, from Kaya toast for breakfast to chicken and rice for every other meal. Lol, I can go on. I’d go against one poster and say that Vietnamese Coffee wins for taste and for heartattack factor, lol.

    I could go on with a piece by piece breakdown of your list but let’s save that for another time. I loved going through this, Jon. Thanks for sharing.

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