The Ultimate Southeast Asia Bucket List
How many have you ticked off?
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Southeast Asia is a travel rite of passage. Before one can call themselves a true traveller, one must eat their body weight in street food, laze on innumerable paradisiacal beaches, become one with the Mekong and experience at least one morning of dustiness after a night of buckets (damn you Sihanoukville). From the spoils of Luang Prabang to the bustle of Kuala Lumpur, this right here is your guide to exploring the best cities SE Asia has to offer.
How do you say ‘read on, friends’ in Khmer?
Despite its reputation, you don’t have to be a fully-fledged yogi to get your travel vibes on in Ubud (although it helps). You’ve just got to appreciate the beauty of the rainforest, enjoy top-notch organic produce and get a kick out of interesting Balinese culture. Make sure you head to Ubud when you’re needing a zen break from Seminyak. There’s only so much Kuta one can handle.
Must dos: Firstly, you’ve gotta go full downward dog at Yoga Barn. With a plethora of very good, very zen international teachers, you can experience everything from liquid hatha to Tibetan bowl meditation evenings. Secondly, get blessed at the Pura Tirta Empul water temple, one of the most sacred sites in Bali. Thirdly, stroll the Tegallalang rice terraces. Because nothing says ‘Ubud’ more than a sunset rice paddy Insta shot.
Yangon, Myanmar (Burma)
After decades of international isolation, Myanmar is well and truly opening its incredible doors to travellers. And the important first stop on every backpacking route is Yangon. Derelict in areas and strikingly beautiful in others, this city is one of the last vestiges of ‘the old’ Asia. Go there now for a taste of Southeast Asia as it would’ve been 20-years-ago and get educated on one of the most interesting histories in the region.
Must dos: At the top of the must-do list is seeing the sunrise at Shwedagon Pagoda. Shwedagon is the heart and soul of Yangon; an incredible, golden feat of Buddhist architecture. Next hit up the Bogyoke Market for jade, get fitted for a longyi (traditional skirt) or exchange your cash on the black market. Later, find a plastic seat down Chinatown street for the best late night BBQ this side of the Mekong.
Luang Prabang, Laos
Languid and laid-back, Luang Prabang is a proper chiller of a place. With French architecture, gilded wats and Indochinese villas, this UNESCO Heritage-listed town is an ode to old world romance. If you’re after a travel shangri-la, love hazy green mountains and don’t mind a spot of kayaking, then Luang Prabang is your SE Asia soulmate.
Must dos: For the exercise enthusiasts, climb the 355 steps to Mount Phou Si and experience a mountain temple like no other. Afterwards, jump in a tuk tuk and pack your swimwear for a dip at the pristine Kuang Si waterfalls. Follow it all up with a spicy, traditional laarb gai dish (spiced mince salad) washed down with a Beer Lao.
Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Admittedly, Cambodia’s capital city can be chaos – it’s all motorbikes and tuk tuks and red-robed monks by big rivers – but it also makes for incredibly rewarding travel. I mean, this is Asia, damn it. That said, there is a lot more to PP than late night massages and crazy street food. This is a place with a complex political history and national story, so it requires a lot of attention to truly get under its skin.
Must dos: First up, get educated at the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. Prepare for the emotions though and allow yourself a couple of hours, it’s an incredibly moving gallery. For more history, wander the golden Royal Palace and marvel at the architecture before hitting up the chaotic Russian Bazaar, maybe even testing your tastebuds on a little fried tarantula.
Siem Reap, Cambodia
As the stepping off point for one of the world’s greatest wonders, Angkor Wat, Siem Reap never fails to bring good travel times. Make this town your base for exploring the temples of Angkor and you’ll be able to go full Indiana Jones by day and then party party come sunset. Best of all the worlds, guys.
Must dos: Okay, this one is a no-brainer. When in Siem Reap, one must go full Angkor. Spend a few days wandering the ancient Angkor city and test out your best Indiana Jones impersonation. When you’re templed out, float a little while on the freshwater Tonle Sap river before treating yourself to the ultimate Cambodian indulgence – the fish foot massage.
Ko Samui, Thailand
If you’re after paradise, then Thailand’s islands are probably the closest you’re going to get to nirvana. Just a speedy ferry from mainland, Ko Samui is all blonde beaches and shaggy palm trees that look straight outta The Beach. With both the upscale resortlands and the low-key south and west, this isle has a travel style to suit every budget.
Must-dos: Heeelllllooooo seafood. Stuff your face with all the saltwater deliciousness (BBQ prawn is a must-eat), then swim it off at the famous Lamai Beach. Or just soak up some glorious Thailand sun. If you’re up for a bit of culture, walk out to the Big Buddha Temple.
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
People often cite KL as being only worthy of a layover, but I beg to bloody differ, friends. Kuala Lumpur is at once cosmopolitan and exotic. You can wander down alleyways in the centre of town feasting on street-side laksa, or you can delve into the designer world and buy a Louis V handbag (y’know, if that’s your thing). With a kick-ass skyline and top-notch public transport, getting around this big city is a breeze.
Must dos: Cut into the side of a limestone mountain, the Batu Caves are a series of caves and temples dedicated to the Hindu Lord Merugan. Join the pilgrims on the climb to the top, then go window shopping (unless you can actually afford Prada) at Suria KLCC shopping centre. End the day with a food baby (laksa, dosa, nasi lemak, you name it, they’ve got it) at the Jalan Alor night market.
Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
HCMC energy levels are high. This is a town on the go, all the time. Formerly known as Saigon, Vietnam’s most vibrant city is now a medley of skyscrapers and incense-infused temples. Head here for a history lesson and a big morning bowl of pho (pronounced fu-hr, btw).
Must dos: For the weary traveller, there is nothing better than checking into HCMC and indulging in a late night mani/pedi. Afterwards, sink a couple of street-side bia hois (fresh beers) and relax. The next day, ignore your claustrophobia down in the Củ Chi tunnels. Once used as hideout spots during times of conflict, the massive network of underground tunnels can today be explored with the help of a guide.
If we’re talking bucket list Asian cities, how could we possibly leave off Bangkok? Every good SEA journey either begins or ends with a bucket on Khao San Road and a metric tonne of cheap pad thai. It’s dirty, it’s hurried, sometimes it even smells, but Bangkok is a golden beauty if you only take the time to get to know her streets.
Must dos: First up, pick a favourite and cheer on a local at a muay thai fight. Those head kicks are impressive. Next, cruise the floating river markets and haggle by boat with the ladies selling flowers. Finally, top off your Bangkok experience by embracing your inner backpacker at the Khao San road strip. Must include several Singha beers and one fried scorpion.
(Lead image: Jeff Hitchcock/Flickr)