The Most Beautiful Place to Visit in Every Country in Southeast Asia
From stilt villages to sky-high gardens.
When you’re traveling throughout Southeast Asia, it’s impossible to shake the feeling of FOMO—there are so many sites to see you will definitely be missing out on more than a few. Even trying to figure out which country to visit is enough of a challenge—and something I constantly faced during my two months of backpacking.
Stretching from eastern India to China—and encompassing both the mainland and a constellation of (large) islands in the surrounding seas—Southeast Asia’s 11 countries are dotted with rainforests and rivers (old trade routes that are traversed as frequently as roads), ancient temples and cutting-edge skyscrapers, and a cornucopia of cuisine that swings from street food to Michelin-starred hawker halls.
With more than 40 UNESCO World Heritage sites alone, it’s not exactly easy narrowing down the sole attraction to see in each country—or even practical, for that matter—but if you have to choose just one in each spot, here are our picks you should definitely check off your list.
Kelimutu National Park
At the top of Indonesia’s Kelimutu volcano lies three crater lakes that change colors—one is usually blue, while the other two are usually red or green, but each shifts under its own power (we don’t yet fully understand why, other than it having something to do with minerals). Summer is the best time to see the colors at their most vibrant, and we highly recommend hiking in at dawn to see them at sunrise.
Brunei’s most beautiful sight is consistently listed as the Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque, which is indeed stunning. But it’s hard to ignore the fact that this mosque is Brunei’s most popular attraction simply because Brunei does not have a lot of attractions—or at least not on the scale of tourism heavy-hitters like what you’d find in Indonesia or Thailand.
But nothing quite compares to Kampong Ayer, the world’s largest “floating” village. The “Venice of the East” is home to 30,000 people scattered throughout more than 40 stilt villages. The only reason you don’t hear about it more often is because it hasn’t gotten as glamorous a treatment by photographers as, say, Bali—but it’s certainly just as scenic.
Kuang Si Falls
Tucked away in the jungle near Luang Prabang, the three-tiered waterfall creates a series of shallow pools with clear, turquoise-blue water. Your first and only question should be whether you can swim in them, so I am delighted to inform you that yes, you can swim at Kuang Si. However, at least one of the pools is sacred to locals, so if you see a “no swimming” sign where you were about to take a dip, it’s probably best to skip over this one.
Tun Sakaran Marine Park, Borneo
The Malaysian part of this island is where I saw pygmy elephants, giant orangutans, and sunbears. It’s also home to Tun Sakaran Marine Park (which also goes by the name Semporna Islands Park), a protected area comprising eight small islands. A few thousand people live there, many of them in stilt houses, but it’s still somewhat off the tourist track (meaning you’ll need to come prepared with your own snorkel if you want to explore the dive sites).
Banaue Rice Terraces
Among the most beautiful sights in the Philippines are the Banaue rice terraces set against the mountains of Ifugao. The UNESCO World Heritage site isn’t always the easiest to access, but if you’re willing to get a bit wet and muddy on the walk in, it’s absolutely worth it. Time your visit for October, when the paddies are lush and at their most vibrant shade of green.
Atauro Island, which sits a few miles north off the coast of East Timor and has a population of around 8,000 people (concentrated in two villages on the eastern side of the island), is surrounded by some of the most biodiverse waters in the world. There are hundreds of different species of fish—some of which have only ever been spotted around this island. This, of course, makes it a spectacular dive site, but you don’t have to be a scuba pro to enjoy the stunning reef and marine life; you’ll see plenty from the surface while snorkeling, especially if you go at the end of dry season (around November), during the last part of the whale migration.
Gardens by the Bay
While the architecture throughout Southeast Asia centers more around archaeological sites, Singapore is a place where you want to give infrastructural beauty like Gardens by the Bay the respect it rightfully deserves. Technically not one but three gardens, the nature sanctuary unfolds near the Marina Bay Waterfront and features everything from the world’s largest glass greenhouse (a dome with plants and flowers from five continents) to a mist-filled cloud forest and sun pavilion with more than a thousand desert plants. The 250-acre nature park was designed to make the urban center of the island feel greener, kind of like what city planners in Manhattan did with Central Park. Central Park, however, does not look like something out of Avatar.
Widely hyped attractions can often disappoint when you finally see them in real life, but the ancient temple of Angkor Wat, to me at least, definitely delivered. The complex—the largest religious monument in the world—is often crowded, so you’ll want to go as early as possible—meaning you should head over before dawn. Carve out at least half a day if you really want to explore, and rent a $1 bicycle to get around.
Each November, fireworks and hot air balloons fill the sky above the ancient city of Bagan for Taunggyi Tazaungdaing, the annual Festival of Lights. Bagan itself is filled with impossibly ornate Buddhist temples and stupas (the largest collection anywhere in the world, in fact). For anyone who’s ever been fascinated by archaeology, it’s one of the most coveted destinations to reach. You’ll be charged a fee to enter, but once you’re in, you’re in.
Lan Ha Bay, Cat Ba Island
The floating village of Cat Ba Island, which contains around 200 homes, dates back thousands of years. The bay itself is home to several hundred islands, of which Cat Ba is the largest (you can rent a boat to explore, or spend the day swimming). There are well over 100 hotels in the immediate vicinity, so you can take your time if you (understandably) want to stay in the area a while.
Islands like Koh Phi Phi and Phuket are among the most popular with tourists visiting Thailand, but one that is equally beautiful and far less hyped is Chiang Mai, the mountainous northern city where you’ll eat some of the best food in your life. If you’re there around the full moon in November, you can catch not one but two iconic light shows: the Loy Krathong festival of lights, when people release candle-filled baskets into the river, and the Yi Peng lantern festival, when people release lanterns into the night sky.