20 best places to visit in Southeast Asia

Southeast Asia offers a dazzling spectrum of things to see and do, from superlative beaches to cosmopolitan cities and handsome old towns, mountain resorts and fascinating ancient sites. Here are our top 20 unmissable highlights of a trip to the region
Outdoors sea view near Tanah Lot temple with line of people, Bali.
Outdoors sea view near Tanah Lot temple with line of people, Bali.

Tanah Lot Temple, Bali, is one of Southeast Asia's top attractions. Photo: Fotolia


1. Angkor Wat, Cambodia

One of the world’s premier ancient sights and the high point of classical Khmer architecture. This massive temple, unsurpassed by any other monument of its kind, is surrounded by a square moat and covered in miles of bas reliefs. The scale of Angkor Wat and the detail of its carvings are breathtaking and a trip here is a must for anyone's bucket list – see it for yourself on our Khmer Cultural Treasures tour, which takes you to the complex and sets it in the context of other ancient Khmer civilisation remnants you will discover.


2. Bangkok, Thailand

From the magnificent Grand Palace to the floating markets, cosmopolitan Bangkok is a fascinating city. For many travellers, Bangkok is a major regional hub city, so chances are you may fly in and be able to enjoy a city break here, no matter what else you're planning. Join our 5-day Bangkok Culture city break to immerse yourself in Thai culture, from superb food and Thai boxing to canal-side shrines, markets and temples. 


3. Bali, Indonesia

The icon of tropical resorts, this mountainous Indonesian island is known for its friendliness, and its outstandingly rich culture of music and arts that come together during its many vibrant festivals. Base yourself on the south of the island for sandy beachside frolics, but don't miss Ubud in the hills – it is the epicentre of the island's artistic soul, with painters, sculptors and carvers drawing visitors who seek a spiritual, luxe-hippy vibe. You can discover everything the island has to offer on our Best of Bali trip, which takes you to temples, on treks and into the crystal-clear waters for snorkelling.


4. Georgetown, Malaysia

The main centre on the Malaysian island of Penang is a lovely old town with a Chinese heart. Named by the British after King George III, the town grew into a fascinating, buzzing amalgamation of places of worship, clan associations, traditional trade shops and bazaars. The multicultural aspect of Georgetown has also resulted in a distinctive culture, called Baba-Nonya (Chinese-Malay) and a truly fantastic local cuisine. Unlike in many parts of Malaysia, heritage architecture has been preserved and there are many gems to discover. Book our 7-day Hidden UNESCO Sites of Malaysia holiday to really get a sense of the town and other Malaysian historical highlights. 


5. Hue and Hoi An, Vietnam

Surrounded by high walls and a moat, the Imperial City beside the Perfume River in Hue, central Vietnam, is a romantic highlight. Nearby are the magnificent tombs of the Nguyen emperors, while a short journey to the coast brings you to the picturesque town of Hoi An. Both destinations are part of the trip on our Ancient Meets Modern tour through Vietnam, which starts in Hanoi and ends in Ho Chi Minh City. Central Vietnam is a repository for fascinating Cham culture ruins, lovely sandy beaches and well-preserved fishing and craft traditions, and this is the most relaxed part of the country.


Exploring the ancient pagodas of Bagan is an unmissable highlight of a trip to Southeast Asia. Photo: Fotolia


6. Boracay, Philippines

This beautiful island, with probably the highest-profile of any of the 7,107 in the Philippines, has a deserving reputation for powder-fine white sand of crushed coral, tall swaying palms and an aquamarine sea where diving is a sheer delight. Located off the northwestern tip of Panay Island in the Sulu Sea's waters, Boracay is the quintessential tropical paradise, even now it is well on the international radar. Activities, entertainment and upmarket resorts and restaurants continue to sprout along White Beach, which offers everything needed for an Asian beach holiday.


7. Bagan, Myanmar

One of Asia's most venerable wonders – and indeed, home to the temple of omniscience – Bagan is an ancient and deserted city full of awe-inspiring pagodas. There are few sights so striking as the view across the plain of Bagan, one red-brick pagoda after another rising above the flat land on the dusty eastern shore of Myanmar's greatest river. One great way to get a sense of the landscape is to take a hot-air balloon ride over it – you can do this on our Myanmar Highlights tour, which is the ideal way to explore this mysterious country.


8. The Andaman Coast, Thailand

Some of the world’s most perfect tropical beaches can be found on Thailand’s west coast, from Phuket to stunning Krabi and Ko Phi Phi. It is the perfect place to head for some sun, sea and relaxation, and despite its long-term popularity, there are many unspoiled corners and idyllic stretches of sand still. Add our Krabi Beach Escape to your Thailand itinerary for rainforest tours, island-hopping, snorkelling and much more.


9. Chinatown, Singapore

Night markets are a feature of Southeast Asia, and the one in Singapore’s Chinatown is always worth visiting. With over 200 stalls selling both traditional Chinese goods like calligraphy, masks and lanterns as well as contemporary items such as jewellery and accessories, the market deserves a leisurely trawl. During the day, teahouses and medicinal emporia are full of delights, too. Book our Uniquely Singapore trip to experience a fascinating food tour of Chinatown.


10. Borneo, Malaysia

Home to the iconic orang-utan, Malaysia's Bornean states of Sabah and Sarawak harbour unique rainforest, flora and fauna and indigenous tribes, some of whom still live in traditional longhouses, although the head-hunting culture of yesteryear is thankfully in the past. You can trek up Mount Kinabalu, visit orphaned orang-utans at rehabilitation sanctuaries and go caving at Gunung Mulu National Park, an inland expanse of diverse terrain and limestone features. Go off the beaten track and discover this extraordinary island on our Experience Nature in the Wilds of Sabah tour.


Borobudur is a highlight of both Indonesia and the whole of Southeast Asia. Photo: Fotolia


11. Yogyakarta, Java, Indonesia

Ancient temples, royal palaces, batik, gamelan, dances, and puppet performances are the attractions of this traditional Javanese destination. Fertile rice lands blanket the surrounding area, while Yogyakarta today is a vibrant city and a major draw for young people from across the country, ensuring a buzzy environment. Meanwhile, there are as many as 75,000 artisans in the area, hand-crafting fine art and souvenirs. Join our Java Discovery holiday to explore this fascinating Indonesian island, with a two-night stay in this most important Javan city.


12. Luang Prabang, Laos

The former royal capital of Laos on the banks of the Mekong, Luang Prabang is a beautiful city crowded with temples – notably the winged-roof Wat Xieng Thong – and quiet streets lined with colonial buildings. Don’t miss the Royal Museum. Our Historical Laos trip takes in a visit to this magical UNESCO World Heritage Site, one of the most romantic cities in Asia.


13. Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Cambodia’s capital of wide boulevards and chic riverside restaurants maintains its traditions. The royal palace in the Silver Pagoda is a place of riches, and still home to King Norodom Sihanouk and his family. Discover the city on our Cambodia Explorer tour, which includes a couple of days here to get to know the modern side of the city, as well as its historic attractions and the sobering memorial to the Killing Fields, nearby.


14. Borobudur, Indonesia

Java's Borobudur is home to the world’s largest Buddhist monument, built between AD 778 and 856 and for centuries concealed beneath volcanic ash. The magnificent stupa is a geometrical aid for meditation, which pilgrims climb, passing extraordinary sculptures to reach its zenith. It is estimated that 30,000 stonecutters and sculptors, 15,000 carriers and thousands more masons worked for 20 to 75 years to build this astonishing monument. Insight's Indonesia Island Hop trip includes a visit to this incredible sight.


15. Northern Thailand

The mountains, jungle, rivers and waterfalls of the far northwest of Thailand offer some of the best trekking and rafting in Asia. Chiang Mai is the local hub and our trip, Chiang Mai Safari Adventure, includes myriad activities and cultural excursions. Meet local hill tribes, take a hot-air balloon ride, sample a local feast and meet elephants up-close.


Hanoi's Old Quarter should feature on your trip itinerary to Southeast Asia. Photo: Fotolia


16. Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon, Myanmar

Pagodas don’t come much more fanciful than the Shwedagon, built as a keepsake for eight hairs of Gautama Buddha. One of the most spectacular sights anywhere in Asia, the glorious bell-shaped stupa of the Shwedagon soars nearly 100 metres and is plated with a total of 8,688 solid gold slabs – said to contain more gold than the Bank of England. The tip of the stupa is set with 5,448 diamonds and 2,317 rubies, sapphires and topaz. See it for yourself on our Myanmar's Ancient Treasures itinerary, a fantastic exploration of this country, which is only just opening up fully to tourism.


17. Gardens by the Bay, Singapore

So ground-breaking in its dazzling urban environmental scope, it featured prominently at the conclusion of Sir David Attenborough's Planet Earth II, Singapore's Gardens by the Bay offer extraordinary sights, including a dozen towering Supertrees, two of which are connected by the OCBC Skyway, and all of which support lush flora and fauna. Don't miss seeing the trees lit up at night at the city-state's already-iconic attraction. Our Gardens by the Bay experience is well-worth adding to your Singapore trip.


18. Hanoi Old Quarter, Vietnam

Attractive French colonial architecture, narrow shopfronts and commercial frenzy combine to create urban Asia at its most romantic, and most exciting. Hanoi, the political and cultural capital of Vietnam, is a huge, sprawling place, but the old French quarter slows the pace down with tree-lined, villa-dotted streets where many of the city's most thoughtful sights, including the Temple of Literature and the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, are located. Do it in style on our Luxury Vietnam trip, which includes a stay in Hanoi.


19. Northern Highlands, Luzon, Philippines

Twisting mountain roads lead from the city of Baguio through the forested highlands of the Philippines’ far north to reach the spectacular rice terraces of Banaue. To see the most impressive of these verdant rice fields cut into the sides of mountains requires a certain amount of hiking and rough roads, but the majestic views are worth the effort. 


20. Plain of Jars, Laos

Why these giant vessels are scattered across the lonely plateaux of northeastern Laos, nobody really knows. Various key questions remain unanswered about these fascinating and mysterious ancient megaliths. Who constructed them, why and when? Puzzle out the answers on our Plain of Jars tour, the perfect addition to your Laotian experience. 


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