You may wonder what is Southeast Asia famous for? Southeast Asia is primarily known for its stunning temples, welcoming people, delicious food and affordability.
Places like Thailand, The Philippines, Vietnam and Cambodia are prime targets for tourists from around the world looking to experience unique travel experiences in Southeast Asia.
Because Southeast Asia is a vast region, I will only talk about a handful of countries I was fortunate to visit and can have an opinion about.
Therefore, this blog post will look at Thailand, The Philippines, Vietnam and Cambodia. To help you decide which of these Southeast Asian countries might be the ideal destination for you.
If you want to learn more about the region, I recommend checking out this blog post too:
When people talk about Southeast Asia, they immediately associated it with Thailand. And it is for a good reason! Thailand is perhaps one of the most famous destinations in the region, if not the most famous!
Thailand is the (main) reason why Southeast Asia is famous worldwide!
I do not know about you, but I have met so many travellers whose first trip to Southeast Asia started in Thailand. And one can easily see why.
Thailand is famous for its retreat & meditation centres. Its gorgeous Buddhist temples, out-of-this-world beaches and unique cuisine attract millions of visitors every year. Because it is relatively cheap, Thailand also attracts many low-budget travellers and digital nomads. To this day, I have not met anyone disappointed after visiting Thailand.
Because Thailand is so popular, tourists visit the country almost all year round, especially during the colder months in Europe (October-February). This is mainly because if you plan to visit Thailand, these are the best months to visit the country. I visited the country in December, and the weather was perfect. Highs of at least 30 degrees Celsius with long sunny and dry days.
Visa Requirements to enter Thailand!
If you visit Thailand, you must check whether you need a tourist VISA to enter the country. The tourist VISA process tends to be relatively straightforward, however, I would argue it is slightly more demanding compared to other Southeast Asian countries.
If you need to apply for a visa on arrival, I suggest you have cash on you. That’s because, before the customs, there aren’t any ATMs. And you cannot take out money. The only thing that saved me back then was a credit card which they did accept, and this way I could withdraw money. However, this is risky, and I would not recommend it.
*Please, make sure you do your research and are clear about what type of tourist visa you are required to enter Thailand. The example I provided was based on my experience as a European passport holder.
Once you get the stamp, there aren’t any other things you need to worry about, except for finding your way to where you’re staying.
There are lots of places in Thailand that tourists choose to visit. One of these places is the Chang Mai region (in the northern part of Thailand), known for authentic travel experiences.
Chang Mai is also known for the Lights Festival, a famous festival organised every year that people attend to admire thousands of lanterns being released in the sky.
Then there is Bangkok, the capital city of Thailand and the biggest city in the country. Almost everyone visiting Thailand visits Bangkok as well. Like every capital of the world, Bangkok is a vibrant city with many Buddhist temples you can explore.
You can visit most of the temples in Bangkok free of charge. Some might charge, but the entrance ticket is not significantly high. One piece of advice here.
To visit Buddhist temples, make sure you are dressed appropriately. Most of the time you are not allowed inside the temple unless you cover your arms and head with a scarf. Sometimes even if you are covered, if you wear a top and not a t-shirt underneath, you might be denied entry. It happened to a girl I travelled with in Thailand. Also, you will be required to be barefoot before entering a temple.
Every visitor is requested to take their shoes off and leave them in a secure place before entering the temple. This is common practice not only in Thailand but also in India.
Now that you are aware of the basic rules of visiting a temple in Thailand, let’s have a look at some of the most beautiful temples you should visit in Bangkok.
There were so many temples I visited during my stay in Bangkok. However, this is my personal top of the most beautiful temples one should visit in Thailand’s capital:
- Wat Arun is a spectacular temple and one of my favourites to visit in Bangkok. You can spend a good amount of time admiring the intricate architecture.
2. The Temple of the Emerald Buddha is another temple I recommend visiting. The temple is part of a complex that includes impressive buildings and other temples. You can spend a good amount of time visiting everything.
Tip: Usually, you need to pay to visit this temple. However, on special days, you are allowed to visit it free of charge. I was lucky to be in Bangkok on one of these special days and did not have to pay to visit the temple. However, the queue was impressive and the place was packed with locals and tourists trying to make their way into the temple.
3. Wat Prayun is another spectacular temple I recommend adding to your list. People are attracted to it thanks to its white colour. It may not come as a surprise that people nicknamed it the white temple.
4. Ayutthaya Temples is yet another complex of temples worth visiting. Ayutthaya is outside Bangkok, yet it is worth booking a day trip to visit the ancient city and its temples.
5. The Temple of Reclining Buddha is another temple I liked and recommend visiting. The temple attracts an impressive number of tourists thanks to its giant Buddha statue.
There are perhaps thousands of Buddhist temples sprinkled all over Bangkok. I visited many more than the list above. However, in my humble opinion, the top 5 I presented above should not be missed when visiting Bangkok.
Some of the things you don’t want to miss in Bangkok is the Thai massage. It is part of the experience to book yourself a Thai massage session. You can choose to either book a session online or simply walk down the street and get into one of these massage centres. They are literally everywhere and take customers without a reservation too.
The Stunning Thai beaches that made Southeast Asia famous around the world
Everyone visiting Thailand must consider visiting some of the many Thai islands. Located in the south of the country, the Thai islands are home to some of the most breathtaking beaches in the world. Some of them became so popular that they got flooded with tourists who damaged the local ecosystem.
According to a BBC news article published in 2019, Maya Bay, on the island of Phi Phi Leh, was temporarily closed after officials said a sharp rise in visitors had severely damaged the environment.
Fortunately, other Thai beaches were able to cope with the increased visitor numbers and are open to the public all year round.
If you have never visited the south of Thailand, I suggest your start your visit in Phuket. Phuket is the largest Thai island and is easy to travel to from Bangkok. You can either take a bus or a direct flight from the Thai capital to Phuket.
From Phuket, you can easily reach other Thai islands via a ferry service. You can also opt for booking speed boats if you want to travel between islands faster as the ferry service usually takes longer. However, booking a speed boat will be more expensive.
Tip: As a personal preference, while in Thailand, I booked my tickets 2 days in advance, through my accommodation or local companies. However, if you travel in high season, there is always a risk of not finding tickets available for the day you want to travel because they have sold out. In this case, I recommend looking into booking your tickets in advance.
There are many ferry ticket providers. It really depends which Thai islands you intend to visit. Please note that some Thai islands might only be accessible via a speed boat. Some others offer more transport options and you can travel either by ferry or speed boat.
When I travelled to Phi Phi, I purchased my ticket through www.phiphiferrytickets.com
The Phuket Island
As I previously said, Phuket is the largest Thai island and has some lovely beaches. If you make it to the south of Thailand, make sure you allocate a few days to enjoy Phuket and the beach too.
Tip on where to stay in Phuket: Although the island is incredibly touristy, you can choose to stay on the SE of the island. This way, you will have easy access to local markets, and have the chance to mingle more with the local population because most of the residents live on this side of the island.
The beaches are mostly located on the west side of the island. That’s where most of the resorts are too. However, if you are like me and want to live among the locals and experience a bit of the local culture, then booking your accommodation on the SE side of the island is advisable.
For budget accommodation in the SE of Phuket, I cannot recommend enough Hugger Guest House. The staff was so helpful and the place so clean. They were mindful of their guests and even offered a western breakfast.
The Phi Phi Island
Once you finish exploring Phuket, I definitely recommend visiting the Phi Phi island.
Phi Phi is a typical Thai beach with blue waters, golden sand and stunning views. The island is not big and can be visited in 1 day. Or you can stay for a few days on the island since accommodation options are available.
Personally, I found it a bit too touristy as I would have liked to find more of the Thai culture. Nevertheless, the island is gorgeous and should be considered since is so close to Phuket.
Delicious Thai Food
One of the things Southeast Asia is famous for is the food. And Thailand is no exception to the rule. On the contrary, Thailand is perhaps one of the most popular destinations in Southeast Asia because of its food. Thai cuisine is known worldwide for its intense flavours and unique textures.
Since Thailand is very reliant on international tourism, there are plenty of local restaurants across the country that prepare incredible local dishes. I ate in different places, from family-run businesses to chain restaurants, because it is an excellent way to connect with locals and eat delicious meals.
Thai dishes are predominantly meat-based (whether it is red meat, chicken or seafood). However, vegetarian options are also available.
Based on my experience, although vegetarian/vegan dishes are available, there is not that much variety compared to meat-based dishes.
The Philippines is another reason South East Asia is famous worldwide
The Philippines is yet, another SE Asian country mostly known for its stunning islands & beaches. However, there is so much more to explore in the Philippines. Although most tourists head to the south, where the beach area is, people should not ignore the northern part of the country either.
The Rice Terraces in Banaue/Batad:
Banaue/Batad is a gorgeous Northern region, popular for rice terraces.
You can easily spend a day in Batad and hire a tour guide to show you the rice terraces. The tour takes a solid 5 to 6h to complete and can be quite physically demanding. However, you can always tell your tour guide to slow down.
The best time to visit the rice terraces is when they are green. This usually happens during April-May or October-November. I visited Banau in mid-November, and this is what the rice terraces looked like:
The best way to travel to Banaue Rice Terraces is from Manila. There is a direct bus to the region. However, the journey takes quite long, up to 9h and it is done overnight, so get ready to spend a night on the bus. Make sure you bring some extra layers with you. The AC is on the entire time and you cannot switch it off. I am not sure if this has changed since I travelled with them.
You will get to Banaue early morning, so it is up to you if you start the hike right away or you take a day off to recover. You can find accommodation in the area through booking.com. Your accommodation can usually recommend a tour guide. This is how I found mine. It is better if you visit the rice terraces as part of the group because it is cheaper to hire a guide.
My advice is to hire someone to show you around. The route is not exactly marked, and from what I remember the phone signal is not strong in the area either. You can always negotiate the price if you think it is expensive.
Bases leave Banaue only in the afternoon. There is usually the morning bus that comes from Manila into Bananue and an afternoon bus which leaves Banaue for Manila. Make sure you make the necessary arrangements with your accommodation because the arrival times can be quite unfriendly.
Manila (the capital nobody wants to visit)
Although Manila is not exactly a tourist destination, there are a few things you can visit while in the capital city.
Some of the places I recommend visiting are:
- The Rizal Park
- Fort Santiago
- The Manila Cathedral
As a former Spanish colony, you will notice the cultural link the country still has with Spain. For example, the Filipinos use the Spanish numeric system, while some of them have Spanish names.
The cultural past and its ties with Europe are well embedded into Manila’s architecture. You will also notice a modern vibe Manila tries to transmit, more so around the promenade area where you have all these new, office-looking buildings facing the water.
All in all, there might not be much to visit in Manila. However, it gives you a taste of what the country is like. Plus, it is the biggest travel hub in the country. It is usually from here that you can get anywhere in the Philippines either via a bus or via plane.
Visa entry requirements
The Visa entry requirements for tourists are relaxed (more so if you have an EU/UK passport). In this case, the only requirement is having a valid passport (it should be valid for at least 6 months).
If I were to describe the Filipinos, I can definitely say that they are one of the most welcoming nations I ever visited. Everyone there is willing to help, and that is much appreciated, especially when you cannot speak the local language.
The local cuisine
The Filipino cuisine is very much based on pork meat. Although everything is delicious, this might be a hurdle for vegans/vegetarians. There are no meat dishes too, but you are likely to miss out on the traditional Filipino cuisine if you opt for it.
The ATM fees
Another thing I would like to stress is the ATM withdrawal fees. I believe it is in the Philippines that I paid the highest withdrawal fees. Therefore, my advice is to pay by card as much as possible to avoid the fees (it was around 5$ per transaction when I visited the country).
Despite some downsides, the Philippines remains one of the most affordable countries to visit in Southeast Asia, as well as one of the most welcoming nations among SE Asian countries too. Therefore, I cannot recommend it enough to prospective visitors.
Cambodia is famous among SE Asian nations for its temples
Cambodia lies between Thailand and Vietnam and is one of the most popular countries to visit in Southeast Asia. If you are doing a tour of Southeast Asia, you can fly to Cambodia from Thailand.
Regional flights to Cambodia from Thailand are affordable and quite often. I flew to Phon Phen from Phuket, but there are flights from the Thai capital too. You can search for regional flights on Skyscanner. This is how I booked mine.
There are also bus options. However, as you would expect, the journey takes longer. Be prepared to allocate extra time, if you intend to travel by bus.
I found the Visa entry requirements for Cambodia are more relaxed compared to other countries in the region (as an EU passport holder).
Usually, Western passport holders benefit from a visa on arrival. The fee is paid in US dollars before entering the country (it was 30$ when I travelled).
It is good to know that
You can use either US dollars ($) or the national currency to purchase anything in Cambodia, from food to booked tours, pay for your accommodation etc.
What to visit in Cambodia?
Siem Reap is without a doubt the most famous place in Cambodia. Mainly for its stunning temples. Please see a collection of the photographs I took while visiting the temples in Siem Reap below.
Some American blockbusters like Tomb Raider were filmed here which increased the popularity of the place among travellers.
Our tour guide told us there are hundreds of temples in the area, also known as Angkor Wat. If you book a tour (like I did), you will visit some of the most important ones. When booking a tour, there are various options. You can choose between 1 to several days of wandering around these ancient temples.
The tours can be booked online via popular sites like Viator or locally by contacting agencies while you are in Siem Reap. I opted for the second option and booked my tour after researching the options I had once I arrived in Siem Reap.
If you are not a big fan of organised tours, you can negotiate with a tuk-tuk driver to drive you around. Some people prefer this option too. Note that private tours are more expensive, however, they also offer more flexibility when it comes to how much time you want to spend in a place and which temples you want to include in your itinerary.
Impressions of Siem Reap
If you wonder what to expect from Siem Reap, I have to say that the city
is very similar to Agra (in India), in the sense that the city looks quite poor and run down. However, the temples (a vast area located outside of Siem Reap) are well looked after and tourist ready because it is the main source of income for the people in the region.
Phnom Penh is the capital city of Cambodia and the largest city in the country.
Most travellers choose to include it in their itinerary because it is quite an interesting place to visit.
While Siem Reap is mainly known for its ancient temples, Phnom Penh is excellent for those interested in the recent history of the country.
Phnom Penh hosts quite a few interesting places if you want to learn about Pol Pot’s regime.
One of the biggest attractions in Cambodia’s capital is the Pol Pot regime’s legacy, a cruel dictatorial regime which caused the death of so many innocent people. Pol Pot’s brutal regime has shocked the world and traumatised the people through unimaginable torture methods. Former torture buildings and the infamous killing fields attract nowadays so many tourists.
Some of the places & activities I recommend here are:
-A trip to The Killing Fields and a visit to the Genocide Museum
You can easily book a day trip to the Killing Fields and arrange a visit to the Genocide Museum. To make the most of your visit to the Genocide Museum, make sure that when purchasing the ticket you also include the audio tour.
-The National Museum
-Take your time and visit pagodas (religious sites). There are many scattered all over the city.
-Book a trip on the Mekong river. The trip usually includes cultural activities and sunset pictures.
For those of you who don’t know, Cambodia has some stunning beaches in the south that started becoming popular among water lovers. I meet a few travellers heading to the south after visiting the capital city.
Cambodia is a beautiful country to visit and found it extremely safe for a solo female traveller. You can learn so much about their more recent and past history by visiting Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. You can also adventure further into the country and explore the Mekong River, visit villages and get to know a bit more about the people.
Vietnam, a country of contrasts
Vietnam is a country of contrasts. On one hand, you have Asian-looking cities like Hanoi. On the other hand, you have places like Ho Chi Minh aka Saigon, which could easily be mistaken for any western city.
Despite its bloody recent past (a bit like Cambodia), Vietnam is nowadays a thriving country with many places to visit and delicious foods to try out. That’s why Vietnam is such a popular SE Asian nation and has become one of the top destinations in the region for tourism.
There are so many places to visit in Vietnam. from the South to the north of the country, each region is famous for a tourist attraction.
Ho Chi Minh
The South of Vietnam is mostly known for Ho Chi Minh and the famous tunnels (used by the Vietnamese soldiers in the Vietnam war as a refuge).
Nowadays, Ho Chi Minh is a hub for digital nomads, especially Americans who choose the city for its affordability, nice weather and entertainment options.
Ho Chi Minh is a wonderful example of how the Asian culture coexists with western culture. The city is dominated by skyscrapers and Asian architecture. As one of the biggest cities in Vietnam, the day-to-day life in the city is quite chaotic. And this gets reflected very well in the traffic.
For those, of you familiar with India, the traffic in Vietnam resembles very well to Indian traffic. The streets are inundated with vehicles and at peak hours everything stops.
Nevertheless, Ho Chi Minh is more than horrendous traffic and tall buildings. This city, once colonised by the French, hence its second name is Saigon, is also a centre for knowledge and history.
The city hosts a few places dedicated to the Vietnam War. Also, just outside the city, the country still preserves the Ho Chi Minh tunnels which are daily visited by an overwhelming number of visitors.
Da Nang & Hoi An
Halfway between Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh are the cities of Da Nang and Hoi An. They are famous for the beach area and the many luxury resorts being built in the area.
However, Hoi An is rather famous for the lanterns (that’s why it is advisable to visit Hoi An in the evening). The region is also famous for the Golden Bridge.
I found the golden bridge quite interesting to visit. However, the village and the garden have not impressed me much. Maybe because they were a replica of the French architecture. And as a European travelling to Vietnam, I was hoping to see more of the local culture. Nevertheless, everyone seemed to be very pleased with the place. It is definitely worth a visit.
Hanoi and Hanoi Bay
You cannot leave Vietnam without a visit to Hanoi. I found Hanoi more Asian than Ho Chi Minh, in the sense that more Asian architecture was dominating the city’s landscape.
The traffic is as chaotic as it is in Ho Chi Minh and India. Therefore, be prepared for it.
Hanoi Bay is something most people visit when they get to the north of Vietnam.
if you have time, make sure you visit Sapa in the North of Vietnam. If you do not make it to the rice terraces in the Philipines, Vietnam also offers this option. I met many travellers travelling further north to visit Sapa and get a grasp of the Vietnamese rice terraces. Personally, I ran out of time and could not do it. Plus, I visited Batad in the Philippines. Yet, from what I was told it is definitely worth a visit.
From north to south Vietnam is worth visiting. The country is packed with history, natural beauty and delicious food.
Hopefully, my opinion based on the trips I made in SE Asia has given you a flavour of what is Southeast Asia famous for. There are definitely many other countries worth visiting. But as I said at the beginning, because SE Asia is so vast, I only focused on the countries I travelled to and formed an opinion about.