How to choose where to go in Southeast & South Asia

When I started solo traveling in my early 20s, I had an interest in Southeast Asia but had no idea where to start. Fast forward 4 years, and I’ve completely fallen in love with this part of the world. I’ve spent a total of 8 months across 9 countries in SE and South Asia. From my travels, I wanted to share my take on the different countries and help anyone who might be figuring out where to go. I hope this is helpful, and as always, feel free to drop me a comment about your experiences!

Countries included in this post: Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Philippines, Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, India

Countries not included: Myanmar, Laos, and Nepal.


Thailand: classic starter country for social backpackers

Thailand is often seen as the intro to SE Asia for backpackers, i.e. if it’s your first time solo traveling and/or your first time to SE Asia, go to Thailand. I have to say, I agree with this as Thailand was my first solo trip in 2018, and I loved it so much that it inspired my big Asia gap year… 😉

Given the volume of tourists, Thailand has solid tourism infrastructure and is fairly easy to travel. Thailand also has a very social backpacker’s scene…think fire dancers and cheap Singha beers on the beach. I also found the backpacker scene to be quite young (18-25) and party-centric, so make of that what you will. There is a lot to do in Thailand, and you can find all the classic SE Asia activities here – jungle trekking, temples, elephant sanctuaries…you name it. For these reasons, Thailand is a great choice for those who want an easy, approachable intro to this part of the world.

Pros:

  • Great tourism infrastructure. Thailand is slightly more developed and easy for tourists than other countries in SE Asia. It was easy to find hostels, tour operators, and comfortable restaurants.
  • Robust, young backpacker scene. Thailand is backpacker central! So you won’t have any trouble meeting friendly backpackers here.
  • Diverse scenery. Thailand is very beautiful and has every type of scenery: countryside and mountains in the north, rainforest in the center, beaches in the south, etc.

Cons:

  • Distance between cities. Thailand is one of the bigger countries in SE Asia, so it might be hard to see “everything” in limited time. You will also have to take more domestic flights than in other countries.
  • Very touristy. Given Thailand’s popularity, every nice spot has crowds of tourists. I felt it was harder to get that authentic, off-the-beaten-path experience compared to other countries on this list.
  • Repetitive to other countries. Thailand provides a very middle-of-the-road, “standard” SE Asia experience, so if you’ve already fed elephants and trekked in the jungle, Thailand won’t really provide a unique experience.

Perfect for:

  • Social backpackers who love to party. Younger travelers looking to meet their peers.
  • First-timers to southeast Asia who want a classic experience with solid tourism infrastructure.
  • Those with more time to travel given Thailand’s size (3+ weeks).
  • Those looking for a quick and cheap diving certification – I got mine in Koh Tao (the main diving island).

Top 2 gems:

  • Pai. My favorite city in Thailand! Pai is a relaxed, hippie backpacker paradise in the northern countryside. Almost every backpacker who visits here typically agrees it was a highlight of Thailand.
  • Khao Sok National Park. Not on the typical backpacker trail, but this jungle/lake experience was a major highlight for me. I stayed in a treehouse in the rainforest as well as a bungalow right on the lake, and it was just heaven.

Vietnam: rougher, touristy country with an aggressive culture

Similar to Thailand, Vietnam is often seen as another starter country to SE Asia, but this time, I do not agree! Vietnam is similar to Thailand in its large size and beautiful scenery, but I found it was much less developed, less comfortable, and more difficult to navigate. I also found the culture was quite short & aggressive, which wore off on me over my month there.

While I have wonderful memories in Vietnam, I don’t feel like it features Asia’s “best,” and there are other countries on this list that will provide a better experience for first-timers. For this reason, I think Vietnam is more appropriate for people who have already experienced other countries in this region and are looking to fill in the gaps.

Pros:

  • Beautiful scenery. Vietnam’s popularity comes from its scenery. It really is a beautiful country, particularly the north – think rice fields and rugged mountains. The Ha Giang region is one of my favorite places ever.
  • Inclusive backpacking scene for broader ages. I really enjoyed the backpacker crowd here – a wider age range than Thailand (18 to late-20’s) and lots of first-timers.
  • Transportation. I was pleasantly surprised with how comfortable the night buses were – be prepared to take a few as they are the main way to get around.

Cons:

  • Short & aggressive culture. This was really a sticking point for me. I’ve dealt with all types of people across Asia, but for some reason, the coldness in Vietnam wore off on me the most. I felt like there was an overall “eat or beat eaten” attitude and lack of warmth in the culture. While I did meet some very lovely Vietnamese friends, I found it harder to connect with locals here compared to other countries.
  • Super touristy. The crowds here were insane. Everyone goes on the same north-to-south trail in Vietnam, and it’s rare to get an off-the-beaten-path experience.
  • Undeveloped, rough conditions. Vietnam is less developed than its neighboring countries; I felt like I was roughing it more here.
  • Difficult to communicate with locals. Vietnamese locals don’t have very good English compared to other countries, even those working in tourism. I was surprised by how often I had to translate on my phone for everyday dealings.
  • Difficult to drive a motorbike. Insanely unpredictable drivers! I drove a motorbike in every country on this list and was the most stressed out in Vietnam.

Perfect for:

  • Those with more time to travel given the size of Vietnam (3+ weeks). If you have less time, I would choose between the North and the Central/South. If you have to choose one – the North is the hero.
  • Those looking for an epic motorbike trip…Ha Giang is the most iconic road trip in SE Asia. It was truly breathtaking.
  • Those with some experience traveling to less developed countries. Those with patience and thick skin who are willing to rough it.

Top 2 gems:

  • Ha Giang motorbike loop. This was one of the most meaningful experiences of my gap year, and pretty much every backpacker I met who did it said the same thing. Just do it and you’ll see why. 😉
  • Hoi An. This quaint, colorful town was a gem. It’s a city where many backpackers get “stuck.” I ended up spending a whole week here.

Philippines: the authentic underdog with the friendliest people

I’m just going to say upfront that the Philippines was my favorite country in SE Asia! And that was 100% due to the locals here. While the Philippines is probably the least developed country on this list, the vibrant & warm culture here made up for it. There was such an authenticity to the entire country – even places full of tourists – that you’ll feel like you’re getting an off-the-beaten-path experience the whole time. It’s certainly an underdog on this list, but I’m here to say GO TO THE PHILIPPINES!

Pros:

  • Warm people and open culture. The friendliness here was on another level. It was so easy to strike up a conversation with locals and find help for the small things. Also, locals here know how to par-tay! The positive, easy-going way of life was infectious and left a lasting impression on me. I’ll never forget showing up on a random, remote island on a Tuesday afternoon and getting invited to a family’s drunken reunion with open arms. Or driving through remote villages in the countryside with children running to greet me on my scooter…so special.
  • Not super touristy. The perfect balance of feeling like you’re off-the-beaten-path and feeling like you’re not alone.
  • Mature backpackers. The backpacker crowd in the Philippines was slightly more mature (ages 25-35). A nice change from the younger crowds.
  • Everyone speaks English. English is one of the national languages of the Philippines. Very convenient.
  • Easy for motorbike drivers. A very pleasant place to ride a scooter with the usual amount of craziness, but not on the level of Vietnam.

Cons:

  • Undeveloped. It felt like the budget options were very rough, and the high-end hotels weren’t that nice. You may have to take a bucket shower or two, but don’t let that stop you!
  • Beaches are not very nice. Before my trip, I expected the Philippines to have the most pristine beaches in Asia, but in person, they weren’t that nice. There was a major trash problem, and I didn’t see any beach that blew me away.
  • Islands are far apart. The Philippines is a large collection of islands, so you’ll have to take some domestic flights or long ferry rides.

Perfect for:

  • Those who love island life. Life here is slow and unstructured.
  • Those looking for a unique off-the-beaten-path experience. Those who get joy from meeting locals and who don’t require the nicest accommodation.
  • More mature backpackers looking to meet their peers.
  • Divers (Coron Island).

Top 2 gems:

  • Cebu Island. Cebu is the perfect spot to experience real Filipino island life with fewer crowds than more popular places like El Nido. The best way to experience it is by motorbike – you’ll see coastal views, the countryside, hidden beaches, and waterfalls.
  • Tao boat tour (Coron to El Nido). This was one of my favorite experiences of my life. It’s a 5-day boat trip, where we stopped at remote islands and slept in bamboo huts on the beach. It was rugged, genuine, and so memorable. Check out their tours HERE.

Cambodia: for slow rustic travel with religious and historical significance

Cambodia is a small rustic country with the Thailand-overflow crowd. Overall Cambodia felt “lesser” in many ways… less people, less stimulating, less scenic, and less things to do. But with that, it was authentic, manageable, and oh-so relaxing. Overall, the culture is more reserved than other countries on this list (i.e. locals are quieter and less open), but there is still warmth and pleasantness in everyday dealings.

Cambodia is for those who enjoy “vibing” versus needing to do something all the time. Cambodia was the country that taught me how to travel slow…one of the most valuable lessons in my solo travels. And with that, it goes down as a very worthwhile country on this list.

Pros:

  • Not very touristy, but it didn’t feel empty either.
  • Chill backpacker scene. Similar crowd to Thailand with less emphasis on partying.
  • Small and manageable. It’s certainly doable to see everything in 2 weeks. Although, I spent a month here and loved going at a slower pace. After flying into the country, you’ll be able to get to each city by bus.
  • Best beaches in SE Asia. Koh Rong Sanloem had the prettiest, cleanest beaches I’ve ever seen – a rarity among the plastic-filled, party beaches across SE Asia – perfect for relaxing.
  • Easy for motorbike drivers. Some of my favorite memories were renting a scooter and driving through the countryside. Cambodia is not very high-traffic and had fairly predictable drivers.

Cons:

  • Not the easiest to communicate. The local’s English here wasn’t the strongest.
  • For women – dress conservatively. I felt like I couldn’t dress freely and needed to cover up more due to the conservative culture (e.g. long pants, covered shoulders, no cleavage).
  • Food was one-note. I love fish amok, but not every day! All restaurants in Cambodia basically cook the same 3 dishes.

Perfect for:

  • Those who are looking to connect with their spiritual side at Angkor Wat. It is magical!
  • History buffs who want to learn about the Cambodian Genocide. While I’m not a history person, it’s still very worthwhile to learn about this. First They Killed My Father is the book that everyone reads for Cambodia…it’s very good.
  • Those who love the countryside. Grab a motorbike and explore the backcountry roads of Siem Reap, Battambang, and Kampot… all extraordinarily beautiful.
  • Those with more time who enjoy traveling slow versus needing to do something all the time.

Top 2 gems:

  • Kampot. Kampot is a sleepy riverside town and poppin’ among backpackers right now. It features the best of Cambodia in my opinion – authentic small-town life with lots to do and a solid backpacker/expat scene. I stayed for 9 days and it was the highlight of my month in Cambodia.
  • Koh Rong Sanloem. The best beaches in SE Asia! KRS is the chiller, more scenic of the two main beach islands in Cambodia. The island is large and there are multiple sides to choose from. I loved my time in M’Pai Bay – a small, rugged 2-street village featuring “real” Cambodian life. On the other side, Saracen Bay had pristine white sand beaches and upscale resorts.

Indonesia: choose your own adventure beyond Bali

Did you know Indonesia is the 4th most populated country in the world (behind China, India, and the U.S.)? The country is HUGE with over 17,000 islands. With that, Indonesia has something for everyone, and there is SO much more to Indonesia than Bali (although it’s popular for a reason). The islands differ greatly from each other, and you can get creative in creating your dream experience. I spent 3 weeks on Sumatra Island, aka the adventure lover’s paradise.

Overall, Indonesia is a solid choice for pretty much everyone, although it can be overwhelming to plan given all the options. Also, unlike Thailand/Cambodia/Vietnam, there also isn’t a clear backpacker trail, as everyone spreads out over the different islands. So forget about trying to see everything – just pick 1-2 islands and enjoy. 😉

Pros:

  • Very friendly people. Indonesians are very warm, and it was easy to connect with locals. I’ll never forget meeting a new Indonesian friend at a random restaurant in Berastagi, and she took me around for 2 days. 🙂
  • Authentic feel. Indonesia has a solid volume of tourists, but there was still a genuine feel to every city. It’s pretty easy to get off the beaten path given the vast options of islands to visit.
  • Natural beauty. One of the most beautiful countries on this list.
  • Large country with many islands to choose from.

Cons:

  • Food. Similar to Cambodia, I thought the Indonesian food was pretty homogenous.
  • For women – dress conservatively. Indonesia is primarily Muslim, and at least in Sumatra, it was important to cover up. I imagine it’s more relaxed in Bali.

Perfect for:

  • Everyone! The only country on this list that I’ll say this for. 🙂 There is truly something for everyone.
  • Nature lovers, especially in Sumatra. Wildlife enthusiasts can spot wild orangutans here.
  • Couples. I noticed Indonesia tends to attract couples/honeymooners. I surprisingly didn’t come across many solo travelers in Sumatra.
  • Surfers & divers of all levels.

Top 2 gems (Sumatra):

  • Nias Island. “What Bali was 30 years ago”…there are not many tourists passing through besides some advanced surfers, so I felt like I got to experience “real” island life in Indonesia. Note, because of the lack of westerners, the island is very conservative, so dress accordingly!
  • Berastagi/Sibayak Volcano. Berastagi is often skipped over by visitors to Sumatra, but I think it’s well worth a stop solely to climb the Sibayak Volcano. I did a sunrise hike and I’ll remember those views for the rest of my life.

Singapore: easy country with the modern feel of East Asia

I’m pretty sure everyone who visits Singapore falls in love with it. 😉 A small nation comprising of many Asian ethnicities, Singapore has an undeniable “wow factor” and packs a culture punch. It’s an international hub and the gateway to SE Asia, but the vibe is much closer to East Asia (e.g. Japan, China). The modern, clean, and efficient society is simply so pleasant.

There are more options for upscale hotels than budget hostels, giving Singapore one of its few flaws – lacking a backpacker scene. As a solo traveler, I found it was more challenging to meet others. For these reasons, Singapore is great for couples/traveling groups who can keep each other company and split costs. Singapore is also great for those who have never been to Asia before…I can’t think of a country that will leave a better first impression.

Pros:

  • Food. The best food I had during my gap year! I still think about the meals at hawker stands…
  • Melting pot culture. Singapore has influence from China, India, Malaysia, and many other Asian countries. There were also plenty of western expats here.
  • Super small. You can see everything in 3 days.
  • Everyone speaks very good English.

Cons:

  • Expensive. Singapore is considerably more expensive than every other country on this list.
  • Lacking a backpacker scene. Given its price, there aren’t as many backpackers coming to Singapore. I found it was hard to meet people, and I spent a lot of time alone.

Perfect for:

  • First-timers to Asia who want to ease into it with more conveniences.
  • Those with a higher budget or who are traveling in a group
  • Those who have an interest in other Asian ethnic groups (Chinese, Indian, Malaysian, etc.)
  • Foodies and those who love city life.

Top 2 gems:

  • Gardens by the Bay. Very popular but for a reason. The free light show at night was extraordinary.
  • Chinatown. I have been to Chinatowns all across the world (as well as China itself), and Singapore’s Chinatown is my #1 favorite!

Malaysia: underrated tale of two islands with the best of both worlds

Malaysia is often overlooked and not at the top of people’s lists, but I have to say, Malaysia is one of the most underrated countries. Culturally, Malaysia is a cross between Singapore and Indonesia. As Singapore’s neighbor, Malaysia is also modern, easy, clean, and a melting pot. But it is still rough around the edges, giving it a similar rustic feel to Indonesia (not to mention the cheaper SE Asia prices).

With that, Malaysia has the best of both worlds and is truly an enjoyable country to visit. Malaysia consists of two islands: West Malaysia (where the highlights are big cities), and Borneo (rugged jungles, wild orangutans, and beaches). The two islands provide vastly different experiences, so Malaysia is suited for those who enjoy urban life with more amenities (West Malaysia) as well as adventure seekers (Borneo).

Pros:

  • Perfect balance of backpackers. There are enough tourists coming here where hostels are social, but not too many where it’s overwhelming and crowded. Overall, the backpacker scene tends to be more mature (25-35).
  • Food. I thought the food in Malaysia was neck-and-neck with Singapore with similar cuisines as well.
  • Melting pot culture. A cross between Singaporean, Chinese, Indian, and Indonesian.
  • Small country. Can see “everything” in 2 weeks.
  • Everyone speaks very good English.

Cons:

  • Slightly more expensive than other SE Asian countries, but cheaper than Singapore.
  • Need to take domestic flights. For a small country, I was surprised at how many flights I needed to take between cities.

Perfect for:

  • Those who have already traveled to other parts of Asia (e.g. Indonesia, India, China, Singapore) and who would appreciate the melting pot culture.
  • Foodies and those who love big cities (West Malaysia).
  • Nature lovers & adventure seekers (Borneo).

Top 2 gems:

  • Kuala Lumpur. This is my #1 favorite big city in Asia. Again, SUPER underrated and just an all-around pleasant, vibrant city.
  • Penang. The second biggest city in Malaysia and known as the “culinary capital.” All my favorite eats were in Penang, and I think the spectacular food itself is worth the visit.

Sri Lanka: smaller version of India that may be stressful for some

Now we’re getting to South Asia…Sri Lanka is a small island-nation off of southern India. Sri Lanka is quite far in geography from these other countries, but somehow, it’s considered part of the SE Asia backpacker trail. Culturally, it is very different as it is much closer to Southern India (but more third-world…more on this below). Sri Lanka is popular among backpackers as it has everything…beaches, jungles, mountains, tea plantations…all in a manageably-sized country. For these reasons, Sri Lanka attracts backpackers who want an “India-light” experience and who may be intimidated by its larger counterpart.

Pros:

  • Small country. You can certainly see the main sites in 2-3 weeks. Cities are close together, so besides your roundtrip flight, you won’t need to fly within the country.
  • Solid backpacking scene. A lot of westerners come to Sri Lanka, unlike India.
  • Locals speak good English.
  • Diverse scenery. Beaches, mountains, and jungles, oh my!

Cons:

  • Harassment. I experienced the most severe male harassment here over any other country. You can find my post on it here.
  • Stressful. Overall, I found the culture to be slightly aggressive which added some unpleasantness to everyday dealings. I also visited at the peak of Sri Lanka’s economic crisis, which understandably made locals anxious.
  • Food. I found the food in Sri Lanka to be rather one-note, e.g. all restaurants served the same few dishes.
  • Underdeveloped. I felt Sri Lanka was more third-world than India, making it less pleasant to travel.

Perfect for:

  • First-timers to South Asia without much time on their hands.
  • Nature lovers.
  • Beginner surfers. Lots of people come for the surf camps in the south.
  • Tea enthusiasts. There are plenty of tea plantations to visit – they are truly beautiful!
  • Those willing to rough it and deal with harassment & aggressive locals.

Top 2 gems:

  • Ella. The quintessential city of Sri Lanka that shouldn’t be missed. There are tea plantations, hikes, waterfalls, and plenty of easy roads to ride a motorbike on. You may have heard about the iconic train ride from Kandy to Ella, and it truly lives up to the hype.
  • Mirissa. There are many beaches to choose from in the south, and Mirissa is the most popular among tourists. The whole town is easy and made for westerners, and the beach was very impressive.

India: colorful & unique country that will give you street cred

Last but not least…India! India is not on many traveler’s lists due to its dangerous reputation and portrayal in the media (e.g. Slumdog Millionaire). Because of this, tackling India is considered a “badge of honor” in the backpacking community.

But I’m here to debunk these myths – it was my favorite country during my gap year and I’ve spent the most time here. India was surprisingly developed and open-minded, and I felt very safe traveling alone as a female (I generally experienced the most harassment in less developed countries, e.g. Sri Lanka, Vietnam, and Cambodia). However, I do think it helps to have some solo travel experience and exposure to other Asian countries before coming here…at the end of the day, it’s still rough around the edge and you’ll have to keep your wits.

When people think of India, they probably think of dirty crowded cities, but there is SO much more! India is huge and there is truly something for everyone. If you want the beaches, go to Goa. If you want to get your yoga certification, go to Rishikesh. If you’re looking to learn about religions, go to Pushkar or Varanasi. If you want to ride a camel in the desert, go to Jaisalmer…the list goes on and on.

The large size can be overwhelming, but traveling is very manageable. There also aren’t a lot of western travelers, so most backpackers I met at hostels were other Indians, and I loved getting to know the culture that way. If you can’t tell already, I love India and just want to tell the world to GO HERE!

Pros:

  • Safe for solo females. Throw all the rumors away because India is totally safe for females!
  • There’s something for everyone. There is so much more to India than the large cities.
  • Not a lot of westerners. Most travelers you’ll meet at hostels are other Indians. I absolutely loved meeting natives and getting to know India that way.
  • Beautiful scenery. India’s scenery is so underrated. I spent a month in the Himalayas (Himachal Pradesh) and it’s my favorite place ever.
  • Vibrant, expressive people. I simply fell in love with the culture…the colorful dresses, the music, the dancing, the films, and the beautiful melding of the east and the west.
  • Locals speak very good English.
  • Food. Every restaurant had endless options of Indian dishes, unlike Sri Lanka which was more one-note.

Cons:

  • Huge distances between cities.
  • Navigating the blunt culture. I learned quickly that Indian people are not afraid to be upfront and say what’s on their minds. It took some time to adjust to not taking things personally.
  • Big cities are insanely stressful. I will say, the big cities in India (e.g. Delhi) are as unpleasant as they sound. Spend as little time here as possible.

Perfect for:

  • Open-minded travelers who want to experience something different from the usual backpacker trail.
  • Desert lovers, mountain trekkers, spiritual seekers, yogis, history buffs, city lovers…and on and on.
  • Travelers with some solo travel experience, preferably in other Asian countries.
  • Those who are not afraid to be the only westerner in many spots.
  • Those with more time. India is huge!

Top 2 gems:

  • Himachal Pradesh (Himalayas). The best part of India in my opinion! You can’t go wrong with any of the hill stations (Dharmashala, Kasol, and Manali). I spent a month working at a hostel in Manali, and it was the best month of my gap year.
  • Pushkar. A chill desert town and a spiritual pilgrimage site for Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs. I spent a week here and it opened my mind to other religions I never took the time to learn about.

One thought on “How to choose where to go in Southeast & South Asia

  1. *gasp* you take that back. Malaysia has superior food to Singapore 😛

    So awesome to see you in my part of the world. Great thoughts on the neighbouring countries too, which I agree with you. I hope more people read this to discover more about SEA!

    Like

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