Travel is our baby. We have no more pets, and we have no children, our lives revolve around travel. We thrive on real journeys to exotic places and always leave wanting to discover more and visit again. Since Malaysia is centrally located in Southeast Asia, our travel choices are limitless. There are quite a few must-see places in Southeast Asia that shouldn’t be missed. We have explored a fair bit of the region since moving here, but we still have a lot more to unearth.
There are 11 countries in SE Asia:
10. East Timor
The only three we haven’t been to are Brunei, East Timor, and Myanmar. But it’s just a matter of time.
Here is my very abridged version of the must-see places in SE Asia.
Mark and I have spent a considerable amount of time in Bali. We wrote a book for International Living about retiring there. We’ve traversed the island staying in each town we thought would cut the mustard for retirees and expats. Bali is a must-see for anyone traveling to this region. It has a little bit for everyone.
Nature addict? If you are a nature lover, there is everything from verdant green rice paddies to waterfalls in the middle of the jungle. The surf is world-renowned, and surfers from around the globe descend on the southern Bukit Peninsula to get their fix. Most places aren’t for beginners, but if you want to take some surf lessons (which I totally recommend), there are loads of schools to choose from.
Art lover? The Balinese are some of the most creative, talented, and skilled artisans I’ve ever met. From painting and dancing to mask and furniture making, if you can dream it up in Bali, someone can make it for you.
Culture vulture? There are more than 17,000 islands in the Indonesian archipelago. Bali is the only one that is Hindu. It’s a unique type of Hinduism called Agama Hindu Dharma, which adds Buddhism into the mix. You can’t spend more than one minute in Bali without feeling the spirituality of the people.
Where to go in Bali
It is easy to spend a month on the island and not see it all. But if you only have a short time I suggest spending a few days each of these places:
- Ubud–the spiritual heart of the island
- Canggu–the trendy hipster spot
- Amed–the remote location for snorkeling/scuba diving without the crowds
- Uluwatu–the top surf area of the island
- Sanur–old school Bali without the crowds
There is more to Indonesia than Bali, so check out this full two-week itinerary if you have more time.
One of my must-see places in SE Asia is Thailand. It is extremely diverse, and we have barely scratched the surface!
If you go to Chiang Mai in the north, you can spend a day playing with elephants. Historically, the Thais used elephants as work animals. Although we may not agree with that, and that idea is changing, elephants are still used in some of the more remote places.
There are several elephant reserves and sanctuaries all around the country. Some are more ethical than others. Do your research and make sure they have good reviews because some of them chain up the gentle giants at night or keep them in pens. Do not, I repeat, DO NOT, in any circumstance, ride an elephant.
In Chiang Mai, there is a place called Elephant Nature Park. There you can spend the day feeding, hugging, loving, and washing elephants in the river. No riding is allowed here.
If that is not reason enough to go to Chiang Mai, then I don’t know what is. But if you need more, you are in luck, the city itself has palaces, markets, and incredible temples (including this one made entirely out of silver) to visit.
Bangkok is a must-see place in Southeast Asia. It is frenetic, intense, crazy, and beautiful, all at the same time. One visit to the Royal Palace and you’ll never want to leave. There are ornate temples, incredible shopping and nightlife, cool neighborhoods, and a river running through it all.
You can eat everything from street food to Michelin starred restaurants. Netflix has a great show called Street Food. One of the episodes is about Jay Fai, the quirky 70-year-old street food legend that has one Michelin star. If you want to taste her street food, you’ll have to make a reservation.
Out of the 1430 islands in Thailand, we have only been to a few. They each have their unique vibe, and of course, we have our favorites.
Phuket is by far the largest island in Thailand. We have been there several times for holiday as well as for International Living. There are some seedy parts of the island and some idyllic spots, and everything in between.
Our favorite area of the island is called Nai Yang. It is up north, only a few minutes from the airport, but surprisingly not touristy. There isn’t much to do there, which is why we like it. However, it has the essentials for our perfect getaway–a couple of rows of bars, some restaurants, and a few spas.
Phuket is super close to Penang (about one hour flying time), so we end up popping over there regularly for a quick getaway. We are heading over there in a few days so get ready for a few blog posts about Phuket.
Koh Lipe-my favorite island on the must-see list
Koh Lipe isn’t as easy to get to as Phuket. Which is a good thing. There are no flights, just ferries. It is part of the Tarutao National Marine Park, so the snorkeling and scuba diving are incredible.
It is small; we walked around it in a few hours.
It is quiet; no cars are allowed.
And the water is idyllic; it’s that perfect postcard kind of place. And one of our all-time faves.
A lot of Americans, especially those who were around during the war, can’t understand why we would want to travel to Vietnam. They have this image in their mind from the 1970s. The past may be ugly, but it’s the past. The Vietnamese people aren’t dwelling on it, and they couldn’t be more beautiful.
The history of this country is part of what makes it so fascinating. The people are survivors, and it shows. The country is thriving now, and tourism is booming. It is one of our favorite countries in Southeast Asia.
I’ve only listed 2 places to go, but for more, read this full Vietnam itinerary
Ho Chi Minh City or Saigon
HCMC is one of the most vibrant bustling cities I’ve had the pleasure of visiting. It is fast-paced and has so much history. There are loads of museums, markets, and temples not to be missed. You can take in the city from a riverboat or the back of a scooter, depends on how daring you feel.
Either way, you will love it.
You can have fancy cocktails on the rooftop of more than a dozen different skyscrapers, and eat a $2 meal on a plastic chair sitting on the sidewalk. I adore that dichotomy; it is one of the things I love most about HCMC.
Hoi An is one of those super quaint towns that we visit again and again. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Ancient Town, so there is a lot to discover just roaming the streets.
If you forget something off of your Vietnam packing list, don’t stress. You can also get a new wardrobe custom made for you in a few days…seriously, right down to new shoes. And the quality is excellent.
If you have enough time you should rent bikes and ride to the beach, you might spot a water buffalo working in the paddies along the way. An Bang Beach is the closest to Hoi An, it’s quiet, clean, and you might have it all to yourself.
One of the best things to do in Vietnam is to eat. Anthony Bourdain had a few favorite spots around the country, and Hoi An was one of them. Do yourself a favor and eat a bánh mì at Banh Mi Phuong. If you’re like us, you’ll eat one, and then order another for dessert because it is that good.
To get there, you have to take a quick flight from HCMC to Da Nang, and then drive about 45 minutes south along the coast.
Cambodia is a very high-spirited, up and coming country. We’ve been a few times to Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, which is where you’ll find the Angkor Wat temple complex.
This is definitely one of those magical must-see places in Southeast Asia.
It is one of the largest and most important religious monuments in the world. It was built at the beginning of the 12th century and took more than 30 years to complete. It began as a Hindu temple and was transformed into a Buddhist temple late in the 12th century. It adorns the Cambodian flag and is a symbol of the country’s strength to endure and overcome.
There are around 50 temples within the grounds so you’ll need to spend a few days there. One day isn’t enough. I recommend taking a tuk-tuk and getting a local tour guide; they are incredibly knowledgeable, and without them, you won’t really know what you are looking at.
I also recommend staying at a hotel with a pool. It can be sweltering there, and there is nothing better than a dip after a long day of temple touring.
I do NOT recommend going there for sunrise. You and every other traveler will be there fighting for a spot, and you’ll have more pics with the back of heads and iPhones than of the temple. It didn’t feel like an incredibly peaceful moment–it was aggravating, and people were pushing for the perfect shot. I’d say go at sunset, the colors of the sky will be just as magnificent, and there will be fewer people.
Of course, I believe Malaysia is one of the must-see places in Southeast Asia. There are a ridiculous amount of things to do here. And truthfully, it is underrated.
I am working on a full guide to Malaysia, so I will only give you a couple of snippets here.
Malaysia is a multi-cultural country that has postcard-perfect beaches, endangered wildlife, warm people, and ridiculously good food; all reasons why we moved here. It is a very safe country with affordable but first world transportation options. Almost everyone speaks English making travel super easy.
KL, as the locals call it, is the capital of Malaysia. Like any big city; it’s fast-paced, bustling, and is full of culture, food, and sights.
Food is king in Malaysia, so if you see a line of people waiting for food, get in it. It won’t be a long wait; most dishes take only a minute or so to prepare. There are hawker stalls (food courts) everywhere, even in the basement of high-end malls, so dig in while you are there.
Stroll through China Town and Little India to get a feel for how multicultural Malaysia is. You can visit dozens of significant Holy Sites peppered throughout the city. You’ll find Buddhist, Taoist and Hindu temples, and mosques around every corner.
The Islamic Arts Museum is fascinating and a must-do. Best to go during the midday heat to keep yourself cool.
Visit the Batu Caves; it’s one of the most significant pilgrimage sites for Hindus around the world. With a rainbow-colored staircase and a 42.7 meter (140 feet) golden statue of Lord Murugan, it is unlike any other holy site.
Penang-A must-see place in Southeast Asia
I could gush for days about Penang. But I want to give you an overview of why it’s a must-see place in Southeast Asia. George Town, the island’s capital, is the reason we moved to Malaysia, we were entranced after the first week!
Wander the streets and get lost in its maze of back alleys. Discover the UNESCO heritage zone and the nearby Clan Jetties. You’ll feel like you are stepping back in time.
In the middle of all the traditional heritage sites, you’ll see modern street art.
You can visit clan houses and holy sites: Khoo Kongsi, Kek Lok Si, Kapitan Keling Mosque, and the oldest Hindu temple in Penang, the Sri Mahamariamman Temple.
If you feel the need to reconnect with nature, the botanical gardens are gorgeous. There are rare species of plants, as well as two types of monkeys, giant squirrels, and loads of butterflies and birds.
If you only have time to do one thing in Penang, you should eat. Penang has won awards for the best street food in Southeast Asia. People will argue for days about the greatest char kway teow or curry mee.
Go to Chulia Street at night for Wanton Mee and Char Kway Teow. Joo Hoi for laksa and chendul, and check out Red Garden and CF food courts for everything under one roof.
The Wrap Up
One of the most notable benefits of living in Malaysia is affordable travel. It is one of the reasons we chose to live here. If we had moved to Costa Rica, it wouldn’t have been as simple or as cheap to explore.
My original plan was to write about my top three places to visit, but I couldn’t stop adding in countries. It wasn’t easy to narrow it down, especially when Laos, Philippines, and Singapore are so amazing as well.
My must-see list gets longer by the day; there is so much to discover, and not enough time.
Living in Southeast Asia has provided us with extraordinary travel experiences. I’ve been surfing, leopard trekking, elephant hugging, cave rappelling, and temple hopping. Stayed in overwater huts, learned to cook, and listened to monks chanting. My life, without a doubt, is richer for living here.