Have been meaning to post this since I completed a personal goal of visiting all 11 Southeast Asian countries in November last year, but have decided to give a good thought before I post what is probably the most candid entry in this blog so far.
As a traveler, I consider myself privileged to be living in one of the most diverse geographical locations on the planet. I could not imagine any other region (apart from Central Europe, maybe) with so many varied destinations within a 3-hour radius. Southeast Asia is not merely a hodgepodge of people but also notably full of biodiversity hotspots, ancient empires in ruins, and it is also home to some of the world’s most interesting cities.
In my travels through these eleven countries, I found the distribution quite uneven. There were some countries that I really liked, have made multiple trips to and would enjoy returning to in the future. Then, there were also countries where I felt a 7-hour trip was more than enough.
I shall make mention of all these. But a warning to the reader – do note that I am being subjective and providing a personal assessment of these places I have visited. For those who disagree with my views, they’re very much welcome to provide me with return tickets for me to have another look-see.
#11 – Brunei
A tiny, oil-rich sultanate in Borneo, Brunei to me gains the distinction of ” most boring country in Southeast Asia” with its capital gaining the distinction of “most boring capital city in Southeast Asia.” I visited on a 7-hour layover and thought that was enough. However, I was quite impressed with the white Omar ali Saifuddien Mosque in downtown Bandar Seri Begawan. Too bad I didn’t get to see it lighted up at night.
– Omar ali Saifuddien Mosque
– Cheap food
– No nightlife
– Lack in vibrance
– General lack of attractions
What I covered: Bandar Seri Begawan, Gadong
#10 – Malaysia
This country prides itself as “Truly Asia” but I’m not too sure about that. Despite occupying a relatively large area, and having quite a number of sights – both natural and cultural – most if not all are inferior to those of neighboring countries. The country’s biggest attractions are the twin towers of Petronas which have long been surpassed by other buildings for the title of “world’s tallest.” Other key attractions are less impressive than those in neighboring countries. Malaysia is not the place to seek the exotic side of Southeast Asia nor is it the place to have a quick sampler of the myriad facets of the region (Singapore can provide a more convenient walkthrough) But its saving grace lies in its street food and in this group of islands tucked away in Eastern Sabah.
– Sipadan and the other islands near Sempornah in Sabah
– Really cheap and good hawker food. Wide variety, too!
– People are not as friendly as in other Southeast Asian countries
– Lack of any major, awe-inspiring attractions
– The taxis in KL
– Relatively sterile
What I covered: Kuala Lumpur, Malacca, Penang, Johor Bahru, Genting Highlands
#9: East Timor
Southeast Asia’s newest country didn’t do too badly in my list. Never mind that it’s sorely lacking in tourism infrastructure. Never mind that there’s no real tourist scene in the country. And never mind that it always looks as if a riot can erupt at any time. East Timor has some of the friendliest people in Southeast Asia. Having no tourism scene means that you can often have a place right to yourself and overcharging tourists isn’t common! There is lots to see – from the colonial styles in Dili and Baucau to the pristine beaches in Jaco Island and the majestic landscape in the country’s northern coast.
– The scenery during the drive from Dili to Baucau
– The local music
– Bright Portuguese architecture
– Hard to get any decent accomodation
– Any trip to the country ultimately boils down to some sacrifice in comfort
– More expensive compared to other Southeast Asian countries
What I covered: Dili, Baucau, Manatuto
This country is often marketed as a slow-paced destination and I couldn’t agree more. Southeast Asia’s least densely populated nation takes things as they come. Laos is a backpacker’s haven, from the notorious rites of passage in Vang Vieng to the UNESCO World Heritage town of Luangprabang. I visited for 6 days and my overall impression of the country remains quite subdued. Maybe because this was my last country in the list and I’ve seen similar attractions elsewhere? Nevertheless, the food is great, especially French! And costs are low which makes it a bargain destination in my opinion.
– French food
– Cafes / relaxed pace of life
– Cheap to go around
– Lack of a major “Lao” tourist attraction
– Main attractions are quite similar to those of neighboring countries and can make the traveler weary especially if it is the 100th temple visited in the trip
What I covered: Vientiane, Luangprabang, Vang Vieng (short stop only)
# 7: Singapore
This country is efficiency, cleanliness and security all rolled into one. Despite the many things to see in the region, it can sometimes be tiring to get around, what with the red tape, heat and occasional lack of hygiene. Singapore offers a temporary respite from all that. It gives travelers a Disney-esque, bite-sized peek into what the region can offer, through its multi-ethnic neighborhoods of Little India, Kampong Glam and Chinatown. Singapore is also the best place in the region to seek the high life. There are establishments to cater to any indulgence (except for chewing gum), all regulated by “Big Brother” of course.
– Convenience, efficiency, cleanliness and security in one place
– Food of all sorts, available here!
– A shopper’s haven
– The people here are probably the most unfriendliest bunch in Southeast Asia; the locals can be a bit paranoid sometimes, even when it comes to simple, everyday matters like asking for directions. Seriously, the people need to lighten up! (still, the situation is much better here compared to this other city-state far north which Singapore has often been compared to and which I shall not name)
– It is the most expensive country in Southeast Asia for travelers (this includes food and lodging)
– The country is basically one big city of 5 million people, yet it is duller than most cities its size
Two words : Angkor Wat. That alone merits the #6 ranking in my opinion. A fine testament to the sophisticated empires that ruled the region a thousand years ago, the ruins in Angkor is certainly a major highlight for any trip to Southeast Asia. Visitors can easily spend a few days getting immersed in the countless sites in the area without visiting any other place in Cambodia.
– Ruins of Angkor
– Cheap place to travel
– Angkor now getting extremely touristy
– It’s hot, hot, hot at any time of the year
What I covered: Angkor ruins, Siem Reap
Probably my least covered among all the Southeast Asian countries, this country nearly suits me to a tee. The local food is my favorite Southeast Asian cuisine. Most people can barely speak English, but who cares when they’re friendly and willing to help. I only managed to visit Ho Chi Minh City and there are still a lot of places I want to go – Hanoi, Halong Bay, Sapa, Hue… a proper cross-country trip would have to take 10 days at the minimum.
– Vietnamese cuisine (especially pho and the steamed spring rolls)
– Colonial architecture in Saigon, Hanoi and in the smaller cities
– This is probably the cheapest country in Southeast Asia for travelers (for food, lodging, shopping)
– Simply because it’s so easy to become a millionaire here
– Too many motorcycles; crossing the street can sometimes be a hair-raising experience
– Hygiene can be questionable at times
What I covered: Ho Chi Minh City
It’s hard to be objective if one’s home country is included in a ranking like this. If I were to be as objective about it as possible, I would probably put the Philippines at #4 by virtue of the natural wonders and biodiversity that’s second only to Indonesia in the region. There’s just to many things to see here – but problem is they’re all spread out and it’s hard to cover everything in one go.
– Natural wonders (Palawan, Chocolate Hills, Mayon Volcano, etc)
– Warm and friendly people who stay happy despite the odds
– Most tourist attractions are not as crowded as in other countries
– Lots of red tape; can sometimes be chaotic to get around
– Major cities can be quite unpleasant for travelers
What I covered: Metropolitan Manila, nearby provinces, Palawan, Negros Occidental
Burma is a hidden gem in the truest sense of the word. A lot of tourists shun the place as their general impression comes from all the negative publicity and trade embargoes. There is a never-ending debate on whether tourists should go to Burma or not. My opinion is that tourist dollars do more good than harm as long as transportation and lodging options are chosen wisely. Going to Burma is like going back in time. It’s a place where men wear skirts and where cars from the 1980’s are still chugging along in the city streets. It is certainly a unique experience – very very different even when compared to neighboring countries
– Bagan, probably the most picturesque out of Southeast Asia’s 3 most well-known ancient sites
– This country is one of the most exotic in Southeast Asia. Whatever your background is (unless you’re a local), you’ll find this country exotic
– Poor infrastructure; the cars are ageing and look ready to malfunction anytime
– This country is more suited for cultural trips and to some extent, ecotourism. But not much in terms of the dining, shopping and pampering kind… which is actually fine by me.
What I covered: Rangoon, Bagan, Mt Popa, Pindaya, Heho, Inle Lake
Thailand is as touristy as can be and is a natural sell to tourists. The Thai Tourism Agency can spend zero on marketing and at least ten million tourists would still visit the country. With a culture that is centered on making others feel good, it is a destination that is hard to hate. The local attractions are also very well-rounded – culture, entertainment, food, shopping, extreme sports – Thailand is recognized as the quintessential Southeast Asian destination. And no amount of effort by neighboring countries to lure tourists away seem to work.
1. Krabi and the karst formations found in surrounding islands
2. Bangkok, the city of angels, my favorite Southeast Asian capital
3. Offers the best balance between value and comfort in the region
1. Too touristy
2. Can get very hot in Central and Southern Thailand throughout most of the year
3. Communication barrier despite the hordes of tourists the country sees every year
What I covered: Bangkok, Hua Hin, Phuket, Udon Thani
With over 17,000 islands to choose from, Indonesia probably offers the most adventurous destinations in the region. Most people confine their Indonesian experience to Bali which is a great destination by itself, and perhaps to Jakarta – without venturing afield to the headhunting tribes of West Papua or the Komodo Dragons in its namesake island. The country is known for many extremes – biggest volcanic eruption (Krakatoa); biggest Buddhist temple (Borobudur); largest volcanic lake (Lake Toba). There’s just plenty to see.
1. Very diverse attractions
2. It’s not often mentioned but I personally found Indonesians to be friendly in general
3. The awe-inspiring Borobudur and Prambanan in Central Java
1. Some attractions can be hard to get to. The fact that Indonesia is a large archipelago means it’s costlier / more difficult to go from one place to the other.
2. Despite recent efforts to step up security, there is still a relatively high risk of terrorist attacks in certain parts of the country
3. The environment can sometimes make the traveler weary quite easily
What I covered: Yogyakarta (Borobudur/Prambanan), Gedong Songo, Bali