Southeast Asia is a remarkable part of the world. The region is bursting with vibrant cultures, wild jungles, alluring beaches, exotic temples, natural beauty, and fascinating cuisines, making it one of the most desirable destinations for travelers. Despite the ever-growing tourist trail that people typically follow, there are still a few places here and there that still make you feel as if you’ve discovered something special. Here were some of my favorite spots during my three month trip through Southeast Asia:
1. Secret Waterfall | Bali
The Bali highlands are littered with gorgeous waterfalls, some more well-known than others. We planned on spending a day finding some that we read about on Google, but after a chat with our scooter rental man, he advised us of a beautiful set of falls hidden somewhere deep in the mountains that not many westerners ever make it to. So off we went on our scooters through a maze of back roads that brought us up and down steep, jungle-claded hills, through rice farms, narrow paths, and towards the end a long, steep staircase into a canyon where we had to cross a small stream before finally reaching the falls. There were actually five in total, gently cascading down through luscious green foliage clinging to the rock wall. Although I’ve seen much bigger falls in the past, these were especially memorable because of the crazy journey it took to get there–and we nearly had the whole place to ourselves!
2. Ubud Rice Terraces | Bali
Just outside of the Balinese cultural center of Ubud, you can find yourself wandering through vibrant green rice farms and rice terraces. There are plenty around to get lost in, including the famous terraces of Tegalalang, but one of my favorite spots was only a 20 minute walk out of town at a little restaurant called Cafe Pomegranate. Built overlooking the rice fields, coming here in the evening hours is an enchanting experience as the sun goes down and the fireflies come out. Their coconut curry is also some of the best I’ve ever had!
3. Angkor Wat | Cambodia
While Angkor Wat is perhaps the most well-known destinations in all of Asia, it’s immense size allows for opportunities to leave the crowds and explore the ancient ruins in solitude. It’s so huge that there plenty of places away from the main attractions that see scarcely any visitors. Although we did see the big sights such as Angkor Wat temple and Bayon (which are incredible), we found it amazingly simple taking a side road to other less-visited temples set back further into the jungle. There was even one decent-sized complex that we had all to ourselves! Sometimes it pays to go one way when the crowds go the other.
4. Koh Rong | Cambodia
A few years ago this place was lying pretty low on the traveler’s radar and was considered a hidden gem. Today, the island gets much more visitors as the secret has gotten out, but compared to other SE Asian tropical islands it’s still relatively undeveloped. And while it rained during the majority of our visit, there was something enchanting about this island. Maybe it was serene atmosphere that came with the absence of cars and motorbikes (there are no roads on the island). Maybe it was, when the sun actually was out, the stunningly blue seas and beautiful white sand beaches. Whatever the reason may be, Koh Rong was for sure one of my favorite places in Cambodia.
5. White Sand Dunes | Vietnam
On the southeastern coast of Vietnam is a little fishing town called Mui Ne, and just outside of Mui Ne is a landscape that will make you believe you are in Saharan Africa rather than Southeast Asia. Huge mountains of sand rise up here, a stark contrast to the green countryside that’s typical in Vietnam. You can rent an ATV to get around on the dunes, but they’re rather noisy and get stuck in the sand easily. The best way is to just walk, feeling the warm sand between your toes and hearing only the wind blow.
6. Tam Coc & Trang An | Vietnam
One of my favorite places in Vietnam, the area around Ninh Binh looks very similar to the famous Ha Long Bay just a few hours away, only it’s located inland among rice fields. The landscape here is breathtaking with beautiful karst formations that rise up from the earth resembling the backs of dragons. Taking a boat trip on the Tam Coc and Trang An rivers are the highlight of this area, taking you through some epic scenery and mesmerizing grottoes beneath the mountains. Best of all, the area is somewhat off the main grid that so many travelers in Vietnam follow. On my ride up the river in Trang An, I was the only westerner and had a great trip connecting with some of the local Vietnamese tourists in my boat, making for an enriching experience!
7. Hoi An | Vietnam
If you ever ask anyone where to go and what to do on a trip to Vietnam, there is a really good chance they will mention Hoi An. Hoi An is a beautiful little town on a river with a long history of Chinese and Japanese traders settling here. Although there really isn’t much to do here per se, Hoi An is well-known simply because of its relaxed, yet vibrant atmosphere. On any given night, the lantern filled streets and archaic buildings almost seem like a scene out of a Miyazaki film. It’s also a great foodie destination. Some of my favorite Vietnamese foods originate from Hoi An. It’s a place not to be missed when traveling in Vietnam!
8. Kuang Si Waterfalls | Laos
This place is a real gem, situated about 18 miles outside of Luang Prabang in central Laos. Consisting of several tiers of turquoise-colored pools amidst a lush green tropical Laotian jungle, it might as well be paradise. Especially on a hot day, a swim in the pools is so nice and refreshing!
9. Ko Nang Yuan | Thailand
Somewhere in the Gulf of Thailand are three little islands interconnected to one another by a beautiful white sandbar. The island, just a short hop away from the diving mecca known as Ko Tao, is a perfect place for a day trip relaxing on the beach or snorkeling among the coral gardens in the shallow clear blue waters.
10. Maya Bay, Ko Phi Phi Leh | Thailand
Made famous by the movie “The Beach”, this beautiful place is often extremely crowded and overrun by tourists by day. Fortunately you can avoid the crowds by going later in the evening or early in the morning. I came here on an overnight boat trip and as the sun went down the numbers dwindled, and we literally had the whole beach to ourselves. There is nothing like watching the stars come out while laying on the sand, which literally felt as fine as flour, with the turquoise blue sea gently lapping at your feet. We even went swimming at night to see the phosphorescent plankton–a truly magical experience!