Southeast Asia is a group of diverse tropical countries between the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean, featuring cultures influenced by both India and China and hosting large communities of Overseas Chinese. The region includes Indonesia, the most populous Muslim country in the world, as well as very prominent Buddhist countries, and quite significant Christian, Hindu and Animist communities. Southeast Asia has long been a favourite corner of the world for globe-tramping backpackers, known for its perfect beaches, tasty cuisine, low prices, and good flight connections.
A tiny, oil-rich sultanate in Borneo, little visited but full of tranquil mosques and cultural sites not yet commodified by mass tourism
Home of the ancient city of Angkor and other remains of the once-powerful Khmer empire, is still recovering from decades of war
|East Timor |
One of the world's newest states, a former Portuguese colony on the eastern half of the island of Timor, boasts excellent diving and an unique culture in the region
The world's largest archipelago nation with over 16,000 islands and the largest Muslim-majority country in the world, but also nominally secular and deeply influenced by Hindu and Buddhist culture
The only landlocked country in the region and the most sparsely populated, mainly Buddhist Laos has stunning natural scenery and charming laid-back towns
Multicultural country (including Muslim Malays, mainly Buddhist Chinese, mainly Hindu Indians, and many Orang Asli aboriginal people, especially in Borneo) that ranges from skyscrapers in Kuala Lumpur to jungle-dwelling tribes in Borneo
|Myanmar (Burma) |
Ancient country with staggering ethnic diversity, whose history includes both an indigenous empire and being part of the British Empire, now emerging from isolation under a strict military junta and opening up to tourism
A unique fusion of the Asian traditions of non-confrontation and respect for elders combined with Spanish ideas of machismo, romance and sophistication (plus modern Americanization), the largest Christian nation in the region, and second largest archipelago with 7,641 islands – most with beautiful tropical beaches, warmth and friendly smiles
Prosperous, clean and orderly island city-state, with a Chinese majority but with strong Malay and Indian communities, the main business and financial hub of the region
Rich culture and cuisine with frenetic cities, chilled-out beaches, and remains of Buddhist kingdoms, making it a very popular destination with visitors returning time and again
Firmly marching down the road to capitalism as one of the world's fastest growing economies, Vietnam has a blend of Southeast Asian and Chinese values and culture, and a huge diversity of both natural and cultural attractions
Disputed territories in the region are:
- Paracel Islands – administered by China but also claimed by Vietnam, not visitable by foreign tourists
- Spratly Islands – a bunch of mostly uninhabited islands and reefs subject to a dizzying mess of territorial disputes with islands controlled by several different countries, but the only destination of note is the dive resort Layang Layang.
Aside from East Timor, the other ten nations listed above are members of ASEAN, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
- 1 Bangkok — Thailand's bustling, cosmopolitan capital with nightlife and fervour
- 2 Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) — The bustling metropolis that has become Vietnam's largest city and main economic centre
- 3 Jakarta — the largest metropolitan city in southeast Asia, and beautiful life in the evening
- 4 Kuala Lumpur — grown from a small sleepy Chinese tin-mining village to a bustling metropolis
- 5 Luang Prabang — a UNESCO World Heritage City known for its numerous temples, colonial-era architecture and vibrant night market
- 6 Manila — a crowded, historic, bustling city known for its unique blend of cultures and flavors, with many places to see and experience
- 7 Phnom Penh — a city striving to reclaim the name of "The Pearl of Asia", as it was known before 1970
- 8 Singapore — modern, affluent city with a medley of Chinese, Indian and Malay influences
- 9 Yangon (formerly Rangoon) — the commercial capital of Myanmar, known for its pagodas and colonial architecture
Outside of major cities here are some of the most rewarding destinations:
- 1 Angkor Archaeological Park — magnificent remains of several capitals of the Khmer Empire
- 2 Bali — unique Hindu culture, beaches and mountains on the "Island of the Gods"
- 3 Borobudur — one of the largest Buddhist temples in the world
- 4 Gunung Mulu National Park — fantastic limestones caves and karst formations
- 5 Ha Long Bay — literally translated as "Bay of Descending Dragons", famous for its scenic rock formations
- 6 Komodo National Park — the only home of the komodo, the biggest reptile in the world
- 7 Krabi Province — beach and water sports mecca, includes Ao Nang, Rai Leh, Ko Phi Phi and Ko Lanta
- 8 Palawan — an ecologically diverse and relatively unclogged island at the western fringe of the Philippines with some of the most rewarding diving and swimming sites in the world
- 9 Preah Vihear — cliff-top temple pre-dating Angkor Wat
Southeast Asia is one of the world's most popular tourist destinations, and for a reason. Some of the countries here have it all: a tropical climate, warm (or hot!) all year around, rich culture, gorgeous beaches, wonderful food and last but not least, low prices. While its history and modern-day politics are complex, most of it is also quite safe and easy to travel around in.
Pre-historic Southeast Asia was largely underpopulated. A process of immigration from India across the Bay of Bengal is referred to as the process of Indianization. Exactly how and when it happened is contested; however, the population of the mainland region largely happened through immigration from India. The Sanskrit script still used as the basis for modern Thai, Lao, Burmese and Khmer has its roots from this process. On the other hand, population of the archipelagos of East Timor, Indonesia and the Philippines, as well as Malaysia on the mainland is thought to have come about through immigration from Taiwan and southern China.
Before the arrival of the Europeans, Southeast Asia was home to several powerful kingdoms. Some of the more notable ones were the Funan and the Khmer Empire in the Indochinese peninsula, as well as the Srivijaya, the Majapahit Kingdom and the Melaka Sultanate in the Malay Archipelago.
Southeast Asian history is very diverse and often tumultuous, and has to an important extent been shaped by European colonialism. The very term Southeast Asia was invented by American Naval strategists around 1940. Prior to WWII, Southeast Asia was referenced in terms of their colonial powers; farther India for Burma and Thailand, with reference to the main British colony of India, although Thailand itself was never formally colonised; Indochina referred to the French colonies of Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos, while Indonesia and parts of maritime Southeast Asia were called the Dutch East Indies. Peninsular Malaysia and Singapore were known as British Malaya, while Sabah was known as British North Borneo. Sarawak, on the other hand, was the Kingdom of Sarawak, ruled by a British family known as the White Rajahs. Brunei was also made into a British protectorate, with the British taking charge of its defence and foreign affairs. The Philippines was named the Spanish East Indies during the initial period of Spanish colonial rule, and later came to be known by its current name in honour of King Philip II of Spain, a name which stuck even after the islands were transferred from Spanish to American colonial rule. East Timor was colonized by Portugal for 273 years, then occupied by Indonesia for 27 years before becoming the first nation to gain independence in the 21st century. This massive colonisation effort was fueled by the lucrative spice trade, which in turn encouraged heavy immigration of workers to support the harvest and sale of plantation crops like nutmeg, rubber and tea.
World War II was disastrous to Southeast Asia (see Pacific War for a detailed guide), and also saw the beginning of the end of European colonialism, as the European powers surrendered to Japan one by one in disgrace. By the end of 1942, the Japanese had conquered virtually the whole of Southeast Asia, with only Thailand remaining unconquered, as the Thais signed a treaty of friendship with the Japanese which allowed the Japanese to establish military bases in Thailand, and allowed Japanese troops free passage through Thailand. The Japanese occupation was a time of great hardship for many of the natives, as the Japanese took all the resources for themselves, and exploited and in many cases outright enslaved the locals for their own gain. They were also for the most part more brutal than the Western colonial powers to the people under occupation, especially towards the ethnic Chinese. However, the Japanese occupation convinced many locals that the European powers were not invincible after all, and thereby had the effect of helping the independence movements to gain pace after the end of the war.
After the war, the decolonisation process started in Southeast Asia, with the Americans granting independence to the Philippines in 1946, while the British granted independence to Burma in 1948, followed by Malaya in 1957 and eventually Singapore, Sarawak and North Borneo in 1963, which federated with Malaya to form Malaysia. After some ideological conflicts, Singapore was expelled from Malaysia in 1965 and became a sovereign state. In contrast to the relatively peaceful withdrawals by the British and Americans, the Dutch and the French fought bloody wars in an effort to hold on to their colonies, and earned humiliating defeats. Indonesia gained independence from the Dutch in 1949, and Indochina forced the French military to withdraw and separated into the countries of Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam in 1954; see Indochina Wars. However, Vietnam would be split into two, with Ho Chi Minh establishing a communist regime with the support of the Soviet Union in the north, and Ngo Dinh Diem establishing a capitalist regime with the support of the United States in the south. This ideological conflict would spark off the Vietnam War in 1955, and it only ended in 1975 when a North Vietnamese tank drove into the Presidential Palace of South Vietnam in Saigon, and unified the country under communist rule.
European colonialism came to an end in Southeast Asia in 1984, when Brunei was granted full independence by the British. Indonesia occupied East Timor in 1975 after it declared independence from the Portuguese following a coup in Portugal, and only left in 1999 following a United Nations referendum. East Timor was then occupied by a United Nations peacekeeping force, before finally becoming independent in 2002. The 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami was devastating to parts of the Indonesian island of Sumatra (especially Aceh, which lost well over 100,000 people to the roiling waters), Thailand, Myanmar and Malaysia.
Since the 1990s, Southeast Asia has had a relatively high rate of economic growth, with Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam often being called the "Tiger Cub Economies" (in reference to the original East Asian Tigers of Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan and South Korea). Nevertheless, despite being one of the most fertile and resource rich regions in the world, widespread corruption means that poverty is still an issue in many countries, with much of the wealth concentrated in the hands of an elite few.
Southeast Asia's culture is dominantly influenced by the Indians and Chinese as well as its colonizers, and also natives of the Malay archipelago. For at least 2000 years (and to this day), Southeast Asia has acted as a conduit for trade between India and China. Large-scale immigration, however, only began with the advent of the colonial era. In Singapore, the Chinese form a majority of the population, but there are substantial Chinese, Indian and other minorities, assimilated to varying degrees, across all countries in the region.
Many large businesses in Southeast Asia are owned by ethnic Chinese, who tend to have a disproportionately large economic clout relative to their population. They have long been resented by other segments of the population, and are often the target of discriminatory laws and in extreme cases, even ethnic violence. However, progress is being made, with some countries such as Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam having since repealed many of the said discriminatory laws.
Thai, Burmese, Cambodian and Lao culture is heavily Indian- and Chinese-influenced in areas such as faith, folklore, language and writing. Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei are also influenced by the Indians, Malays and Chinese with a touch of Arab culture due to the large Muslim populations. Vietnam is the most Chinese-influenced. East Timor's culture is influenced notably by the Portuguese and the Malays. Singaporean and Filipino cultures are the most diverse: Singapore's is a mix of Malay, Indian, Peranakan, British, American and Chinese cultures while the Philippines is heavily influenced by American, Spanish, Malay, Chinese, Japanese and Portuguese influences with less coming from India, Mexico and non-Iberian parts of Europe, making it perhaps the most Westernized nation in the region.
Although Hinduism used to be dominant in the region, these days most Southeast Asians adhere to either Islam, Christianity or Buddhism. However, vestiges of Hinduism continue to survive in the folk tales and cultural practices of many Southeast Asians regardless of religion, and some nominally Muslim Javanese people practise a syncretic religion known as Kejawen that fuses Muslim, Hindu and animist beliefs.
Southeast Asia is religiously diverse. Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei are predominantly Sunni Muslim, while East Timor and the Philippines are predominantly Roman Catholic. Buddhism is the dominant religion in Thailand, Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, with Mahayana Buddhism being the dominant form in Vietnam, and Theravada Buddhism being the dominant form in the other countries. Singapore does not have a majority religion, though Mahayana Buddhism forms a plurality.
However, religious minorities exist in every country. The ethnic Chinese minorities in the various countries practice a mix of different religions, including Taoism and Mahayana Buddhism. Hinduism is still observed in parts of Indonesia, most notably Bali, as well as by the Cham community in Vietnam, and a sizeable proportion of the ethnic Indian communities in Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and Myanmar. The southern parts of Thailand and the Sulu Archipelago of the southern Philippines are home to ethnic Malays who mostly practice Islam, and the Philippine island of Mindanao is also home to a sizable Muslim community. Christian minorities also exist in Indonesia, most notably in Papua, East Nusa Tenggara and North Sulawesi, as well as in East Malaysia, and in the border area of Thailand and Myanmar. Animistic tribal religions are also practised, especially by some of the people living in remote jungle or mountainous areas.
Southeast Asia is tropical: the weather hovers around the 30°C mark throughout the year, humidity is high and it rains often.
The equatorial parts of Southeast Asia, including Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia, Singapore and the Philippines, have only two seasons, wet and dry, with the dry season somewhat hotter (up to 35°C) and the wet season somewhat cooler (down to 25°C). The wet season usually occurs in winter, and the hot season in summer, although there are significant local variations.
In Indochina (north/central Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Myanmar), the seasons can be broken down into hot, wet and dry, with the relatively cool dry season from November to February or so being the most popular with tourists. The scorching hot season that follows can see temperatures climb above 40°C in April, cooling down as the rains start around July. However, even in the "wet" season, the typical pattern is sunny mornings with a short (but torrential) shower in the afternoon, not all-day drizzle, so this alone should not discourage you from travel.
Southeast Asia is also home to many mountains, and conditions are generally cooler in the highlands. In equatorial Southeast Asia, highland temperatures generally range from about 15-25°C. Some of the highest mountains in Indonesia, Vietnam, and Myanmar are so high that snow falls every year, and Indonesia and Myanmar are even home to permanent glaciers.
In Malaysia, Brunei, Singapore, and parts of Indonesia (notably Sumatra and Borneo) and the Philippines (notably Palawan), haze from forest fires (usually set intentionally to clear land for agriculture) is a frequent phenomenon in the dry season from May to October. Haze can come and go rapidly with the wind.
English is a traveller's most useful language overall, although for longer stays in almost any Southeast Asian country except Singapore, picking up at least some of the local language is useful, and may be essential outside the cities.
The main language groups are:
- Austroasiatic - Vietnamese and Khmer are spoken in Vietnam and Cambodia respectively.
- Austronesian - Malay, Indonesian, Tagalog, Cebuano, Ilocano, Tetum and related languages are spoken throughout the island nations of Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, East Timor and Brunei, and by a significant minority in Singapore. Malay and Indonesian are very similar to each other, and speakers of either language can generally understand the other.
- Tai–Kadai - Thai and Lao are spoken in Thailand and Laos respectively. Both languages are mutually intelligible to a certain extent.
- Sino-Tibetan - Burmese is closely related to Tibetan, and more distantly related to the Chinese family of languages. Mandarin is an official language of Singapore, and widely spoken by the ethnic Chinese minority in Malaysia. Various Chinese dialects are spoken by the sizeable Chinese communities throughout the region.
The Chinese languages have a large influence, with Mandarin being an official language in Singapore and southern variants such as Cantonese, Hokkien, Teochew, Hakka, Foochow and Hainanese being spoken in ethnic Chinese communities across the whole region. In addition, due to centuries of Chinese cultural dominance, much of Vietnamese vocabulary consists of loan words from Chinese. Southeast Asia is a prime destination for China's rising tourism industry, and Mandarin is becoming more prevalent in order to cater for it.
Various Indian languages are also spoken by much of the Indian diaspora in the former British colonies of Malaysia, Singapore and Myanmar, the most widely spoken of them being Tamil, which is one of the official languages in Singapore. Due to a long history of Indian influences in the region, many Southeast Asian languages, including Malay, Indonesian, Thai, Lao, Burmese and Khmer contain many loan words from Sanskrit.
English the main language of business and administration in Singapore, and a common second language in the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei. In areas popular among tourists in the region such as Bali, Phuket and Luang Prabang, English is widely spoken by people working in the tourism industry, although with various degrees of proficiency. Business people who deal with international clients generally speak a decent level of English.
Many people in Singapore can speak a creole of English known as 'Singlish' which borrows heavily from many other regional languages and has rather different grammar and intonations. It may sound like an unrelated language to the native English speaker at first, but give it time and it will become clearer to you!
French is still spoken and taught in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, although its situation varies by country. In Vietnam, it is known by many educated Vietnamese, especially those schooled before 1975, though today English is the more preferred second language among youths. In Laos, French is widely used among the educated populace and features on most public signage. In Cambodia, French is limited chiefly to urban and elderly elites and a handful of university educated students.
The other languages of the former colonial countries are generally not spoken so widely anymore or at all. You may notice English words in Malay, Dutch words in Indonesian and Spanish words in Tagalog (Philippines).
Southeast Asia's most visited countries, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Indonesia, do not require visas obtained before arrival from most visitors. Cambodia, Laos, and East Timor offer visas on arrival at most points of entry. Vietnam and Myanmar require advance paperwork for most visitors.
Travellers to ASEAN nations (all nations covered in this article except East Timor) may need to be aware of the effects on visas. ASEAN citizens are entitled to visa-free tourist travel to other ASEAN countries, and agreements are in place with nearby nations such as China which affect visas in either direction. Visa-free travel may be for a shorter period than travel with a visa, limited to as little as 14 days. A common ASEAN travel area, similar to the Schengen Agreement for Europe, is planned but has not yet been implemented. Visitors from outside the ASEAN area still need to consult the specific visa requirements for the countries they are visiting. Business travellers may wish to take advantage of tariff reductions and other economic measures between the nations. For visitors, however, normal duty free limits on cigarettes, alcohol, perfume and the like, apply when travelling between them.
The main international gateways to Southeast Asia are Bangkok (BKK IATA), Singapore (SIN IATA), Kuala Lumpur (KUL IATA), and Jakarta (CGK IATA). Other airports with good connections outside the region include Manila (MNL IATA), Denpasar (DPS IATA), Phuket (HKT IATA), Ho Chi Minh City (SGN IATA) and Hanoi (HAN IATA). Hong Kong also makes a good springboard into the region, with many low-cost carriers flying into Southeast Asian destinations.
Singapore Airlines, Malaysia Airlines and Thai Airways are all known for their great service and safety records. Philippine Airlines is the oldest airline in this part of the world still flying under the original name, while Vietnam Airlines and Garuda Indonesia are slowly but surely growing their intercontinental networks. Rapidly expanding AirAsia flies out of its Kuala Lumpur hub to many major East Asian and South Asian cities, as well as long-haul routes to Sydney, Melbourne, Perth and Auckland, with connections available to other Southeast Asian cities through its Kuala Lumpur hub. AirAsia also operates several secondary hubs in Jakarta, Bangkok and Manila, as well as a dense network into Singapore. In addition to AirAsia, long-haul budget flights can be booked into the Jetstar and Scoot hub in Singapore or the Cebu Pacific hub in Manila.
Travellers to ASEAN nations are starting to benefit from the ASEAN Single Aviation Market policy, a gradual process of opening up the markets which is moving slowly but surely.
The only railway line into Southeast Asia is between Vietnam and China, and on to Russia and even Europe. There are no connections between Vietnam and other Southeast Asian countries yet, although there are plans for links through both Cambodia and Myanmar onward to the existing Thailand-Malaysia network. Such plans have existed since the colonial Era, but the rise of China has injected them with new vigor and capital.
Southeast Asia is a popular destination for round the world cruises, and many of them make several stops in Southeast Asia with the option to go for shore excursions. Popular ports of call include Singapore, Langkawi, Penang, Tioman, Redang, Phuket, Nha Trang, Ha Long Bay, Ho Chi Minh City and Ko Samui. In addition, Star Cruises also operates cruises from Hong Kong and Taiwan to various destinations in Southeast Asia.
With the exception of Singapore, public transport networks in Southeast Asia tend to be underdeveloped. However, due to reckless driving habits, driving is also usually not for the faint-hearted. Most of the time, plane, bus or rail travel tends to be the best way to get around.
There are local means of transport based on converting a motorcycle, truck, van or even bicycle to haul passengers. These include jeepneys and traysikels in the Philippines, songthaews and tuk-tuks in Thailand, and similar vehicles elsewhere. Unmodified motorcycles also provide taxi services in various places. All these modes of transport are generally cheap and rather colorful, but somewhat uncomfortable and perhaps dangerous.
Be aware of various scams when crossing national borders. If someone offers to help you obtain a visa for the next country, or tries to direct you to a "health check", you can be certain that that person is trying to scam you. In Thailand, Vietnam, Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos, it is not uncommon for immigration officers to ask for bribes to stamp you in or out of the country; this is not a problem at airports, but bribes of US$1-3 per person are often demanded at land borders.
Much of Southeast Asia is now covered by a dense web of low-cost carriers, the largest being Malaysian carrier AirAsia and its Thai, Indonesian and Filipino affiliates, making this a fast and affordable way of getting around. Bangkok, Jakarta, Kuala Lumpur and Singapore are the main hubs for budget airlines in the area. Due to the popularity of budget carriers, flights on full-service carriers are not as widespread as they used to be, with many routes now being served solely by budget carriers. Nevertheless, the respective national airlines still offer options between major cities in the region, while Singapore Airlines regional affiliate Silk Air continues to have a relatively extensive network from its Singapore hub. The larger multinational budget airlines and most national carriers are respectable, but some of the smaller airlines have questionable safety records, especially on domestic flights using older planes. Do some research before you buy.
Services along the main Jakarta-Singapore-Kuala Lumpur-Bangkok business corridor are extremely frequent, with frequencies almost like a bus service in the daytime, meaning that competition is stiff and prices are low if you book in advance.
Due to the high rates of road accidents in most the region, trains in Southeast Asia are generally considered to be a safer option than buses, especially during the night, although in several cases the journey by train takes longer than by bus.
Thailand has the most extensive network, with relatively frequent and economical (albeit slow, compared to most buses) and generally reliable services. The main lines from Bangkok are north to Chiang Mai; northeast via Nakhon Ratchasima (Khorat) to Nong Khai and also east to Ubon Ratchathani; east via Chachoengsao to Aranyaprathet and also southeast via Pattaya to Sattahip; and south via Surat Thani (province) to Ko Samui, Ko Pha Ngan, Ko Tao and Hat Yai, through Malaysia via Butterworth, Kuala Lumpur, and Johor Bahru, to Singapore.
Vietnam has a line linking the country from north to south but again, speeds are rather low.
The networks in Indonesia and Myanmar are more limited and decrepit and perhaps best experienced for their nostalgic value. Cambodia's railways were badly hit by the civil war and have been going downhill ever since. The only remaining passenger service connects the capital Phnom Penh with the seaside resort town of Sihanoukville, and takes longer to arrive than a reasonably determined cyclist. It is no longer possible to go all the way through Cambodia to Thailand by rail.
There are no high-speed rail lines in Southeast Asia. The fastest train in the region is the electrified train (ETS) in Malaysia between Butterworth and Gemas, passing through Kuala Lumpur, which reaches speeds of up to 140 km/h. A "semi-high speed rail", of speeds of up 160 km/h, is being built between Vientiane and the Chinese city of Kunming, crossing the northwest of Laos, and it is expected that another high speed rail will link Vientiane to Bangkok, in Thailand, although the project has being dragging for many years.
International ferry links are surprisingly limited, but it's possible to cross over from Malaysia to Sumatra (Indonesia) and from Singapore to the Riau Islands (Indonesia) and Johor (Malaysia). Star Cruises also operates a fleet of cruises between Singapore, Malaysia, and Thailand, occasionally venturing as far as Cambodia, Vietnam, and even Hong Kong.
Domestic passenger ferries link various islands in Southeast Asia, particularly in Indonesia and the Philippines, but safety regulations are often ignored, boats overloaded and sinkings are not uncommon. Be sure to inspect the boat before you agree to get on, and avoid boats that look overcrowded or too run down.
Getting around continental Southeast Asia as well as intra-island travel in the various islands of Southeast Asia by car is possible, but definitely not for the faint-hearted. While you can drive yourself around Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and Brunei without any major problems after giving yourself some time to get used to the relative lack of road courtesy, traffic conditions elsewhere range from just bad to total chaos. As such, it is advisable to rent a car with a driver, and not try to drive yourself around.
Landscapes and nature
- See also: Wildlife in South and Southeast Asia
From active volcanoes to spectacular coastlines, from pristine rainforests to equatorial glaciers, and from impressive rice terraces to great river systems. Southeast Asia has it all. There are fourteen natural UNESCO World Heritage sites in the region, with dozens more on the tentative list, and hundreds of national parks and otherwise protected nature areas.
Most countries in Southeast Asia have impressive mountain ranges. The highest mountains of the region (more than 5,000 m) can be found in the eastern end of the Himalayas in Northern Myanmar, but almost equally high are the mountains of the Lorentz National Park of Indonesia's Papua province, known for their equatorial glaciers. Another high mountain (almost 4,100 m), that is easier to reach and therefore popular for climbing, is Mount Kinabalu in the Malaysian part of Borneo. As Southeast Asia is on the Ring of Fire of the Pacific Ocean, there is a large number of (active) volcanoes, mainly in Indonesia and the Philippines. The highest volcano of the Philippines is Mount Apo. The Indonesian archipelago has more than 100 active volcanoes, with the most active one being Mount Merapi (most recent eruption in 2010), and the most popular tourist destination being Mount Bromo.
Tropical rainforests dominate the landscape in much of Southeast Asia, from the monsoon forests of the mainland to the equatorial evergreen rainforests of the islands of Indonesia and the Philippines. Some of the key rainforest national parks on the mainland include Khao Sok and Khao Yai in Thailand and Taman Negara in Malaysia. The rainforests of Sumatra and Borneo are known as the habitat of the orangutan. Many of the rainforests and other landscapes in Southeast Asia are home to (critically) endangered animal species, such as several primate species in Vietnam's Cuc Phuong area, the Javan rhinoceros in Indonesia's Ujung Kulon lowland rainforest, and the Indochinese tiger in several areas of Southeast Asia's mainland, notably the Thungyai-Huai Kha Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuaries. The Komodo National Park in Indonesia is home to the world's largest lizard, the Komodo dragon.
The key river of Southeast Asia, often called the lifeblood of the Indochina region, is the Mekong, that flows from China towards the South China Sea, passing five Southeast Asian countries on its way: Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam (the Mekong Delta). In Cambodia, the Mekong creates the unique ecological phenomenon of the Tonle Sap lake. Also in Cambodia, around the town of Kratie, river dolphins can be found. The second-longest river of the region is the Salween, flowing mostly in Myanmar. An interesting river is the subterranean river of Puerto Princesa in the Philippines, with 8 km in length possibly the longest underground river in the world. Apart from Tonle Sap, other large lakes in the region include the densely populated Inle Lake of Myanmar, and Indonesia's Lake Toba, that is actually a huge volcano crater. In several places in Southeast Asia, rivers and lakes are used for floating markets or villages, with famous examples including the floating villages surrounding Siem Reap (Cambodia), and the floating markets of Thailand including Damnoen Saduak and of Indonesia including Banjarmasin.
Geological formations and landscapes of interest are plenty in Southeast Asia. Prime examples include the karsts of Vang Vieng in Laos, the chocolate hills of Bohol in the Philippines, and the caves and grottos of Phong Nha-Ke Bang in Vietnam. Interesting coastal and marine landscapes include the limestone rock formations of Ao Phang Nga in Thailand, and ocean karsts at Ha Long Bay in Vietnam and Raja Ampat in Indonesia. More information on spectacular beaches (including for surfing) and underwater life (for diving and snorkelling) can be found in the Do section below.
In addition to natural landscapes, also many agricultural landscapes in Southeast Asia are spectacular. The key crop in most of the region is rice, with five Southeast Asian countries in the world's top 10 of rice producing countries. Some regions that are known for their stunning rice terraces include the Cordillera region of the Philippines, the region surrounding Sa Pa in Vietnam, and the Indonesian island of Bali. The cultural landscape of Bali, including the traditional subak irrigation system dating back to the 9th century, is on the World Heritage List. Other common crops in Southeast Asia include coffee, tea, rubber, sugar, tobacco, and a wide variety of tropical fruits. Famous regions with extensive tea plantations include the Cameron Highlands of Malaysia, and the Puncak mountain pass area of Indonesia.
All of the larger cities in Southeast Asia boast a range of museums, with the capital cities standing out. The region's best-known culture and history museums include Singapore's National Museum (in Orchard) and Asian Civilisations Museum (in Riverside). Also most of the other capital cities have a National Museum focusing on the country's culture and history, including Bangkok (Rattanakosin), Jakarta (Central), Phnom Penh, Hanoi, Manila (Ermita), and Kuala Lumpur (Brickfields). Also in Brickfields, the Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia provides the largest collection of Islamic art in the region. The Vietnamese capital, Hanoi, also has several great culture and history museums, such as the Fine Arts Museum and the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology.
Throughout the region, there are museums commemorating specific events in the regional and local history. This includes for example the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City on the Vietnam War, the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh on the Cambodian genocide, the Aceh Tsunami Museum in Banda Aceh, Indonesia on the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami that killed about 250,000 people (more than half of them in Aceh), and the Resistance Museum in Dili on the East Timorese struggle for independence.
Among the key places to go for modern art collections are Singapore (for example the National Gallery in the Riverside district) and the town of Ubud in Bali, which boasts dozens of art galleries and museums.
Botanical gardens are plentiful throughout the region. The most extensive and well-known among them include the Botanic Gardens in Singapore's North and West district, the Nong Nooch Tropical Garden near Pattaya in Thailand, and the Botanical Gardens of Bogor in Indonesia.
Archaeological sites and precolonial heritage
Southeast Asia has a huge number of archaeological sites, ranging from prehistoric remains of early humans that may be more than 1 million years old to great Hindu and Buddhist temples from the 8th to 14th centuries. Historic sights from the precolonial era are covered in this section, while colonial heritage is covered in the next section.
Three prehistoric archaeological sites in Southeast Asia are on the World Heritage List. The so-called Sangiran Early Man Site can be found near Solo in Indonesia, with fossils of early humans (related to the 'Java Man') that are estimated to be between 700,000 and 1,000,000 years old, possibly older. In Malaysia's Perak state, the Lenggong Valley contains four archaeological sites with tools, weapons jewellery and other equipment from various ages, and the 'Perak Man' skeleton. The archaelogical site of Ban Chiang near Udon Thani in Thailand includes pottery that was painted red and dates to 2,000-4,000 years ago.
Nowadays, Hinduism in Southeast Asia is mostly limited to the Indonesian island of Bali and the Indian communities of Malaysia, Myanmar and Singapore, while Buddhism is concentrated in Indochina, Thailand and Myanmar and among overseas Chinese communities throughout the region. However, from about the 4th to the 15th centuries, Hinduism, Buddhism and a combined observance of both were adhered to by the vast majority of Southeast Asians, and this led to the construction of many Hindu and Buddhist temples across the region. Two world-famous Buddhist temples, and major tourist attractions, are Borobudur in Indonesia (8th-9th centuries) and Angkor Wat in Cambodia (12th century, and partly a Hindu temple complex). Major Hindu temples include My Son (4th-14th centuries) in Vietnam, Prambanan (9th century; near the Borobudur temple) in Indonesia, Preah Vihear (11th-12th centuries) in Cambodia, and Vat Phou (11th-13th century) in Laos. All of these temples are World Heritage Sites.
Other key historic sights in Southeast Asia from precolonial times include the Sukhothai Historical Park in Thailand that used to be the capital of the Sukhotai Kingdom (13th-15th centuries), the Pyu Ancient Cities in Central Myanmar (2nd century BCE to 11th century), the ancient town and trading port of Hoi An in Vietnam (15th to 19th century), and the ancient capital of Ayutthaya in Central Thailand (14th century). Myanmar also boasts the archaeological sities of Bagan and Mrauk U, which were once the great capitals of ancient kingdoms of the Bamar and Rakhine ethnicities respectively, and each home to literally thousands of ancient temples. Near the city of Mandalay is Inwa, which served as one of the last capitals of the Burmese kingdom before it was conquered by the British. Two famous old citadels can be found in Vietnam: the 11th-century Hanoi Citadel and the 14th-century Citadel of the Ho Dynasty in the Central Coast region. The Central Coast also boasts the city of Hue, the last capital of the Nguyen Dynasty, which continued to rule in name under French suzerainty until 1945.
With the exception of Thailand, all Southeast Asian countries were under European colonial rule for varying lengths of time between the 16th and 20th centuries. As a result, there is a considerable colonial heritage in the region, including fortifications, infrastructure and buildings. Despite remaining independent, even Thailand did not escape European influence, and it too boasts several impressive European-style buildings.
One of the key historic towns of Southeast Asia is Malacca, the capital of the Malacca Sultanate that was subsequently under Portuguese, Dutch and British rule. Some of the highlights of Malacca include the Portuguese fortress A Famosa (1511) and St. Paul's Church (1521), and the Dutch Stadthuys (city hall, 1650). British colonial architecture can be found among others in Central Kuala Lumpur (such as the Government Offices built at the end of the 19th century) and in Singapore's Riverside area. Arguably the greatest concentration of British colonial architecture can be found in George Town and Yangon.
From 1619 to Indonesian independence, the capital of the Dutch East Indies was Batavia (present-day Jakarta). A huge number of colonial remnants can therefore be found in the city, ranging from the Batavia City Hall (built 1707-1710, now the Jakarta History Museum) in West Jakarta to the Neo-Gothic Jakarta Cathedral (built 1891-1901) in Central Jakarta. Also throughout the rest of the Indonesian archipelago, virtually every city and town has sights from the colonial time, such as the 17th-century Fort Rotterdam in Makassar, the 18th-century Fort Vredeburg in Yogyakarta, and many early 20th-century Art Deco masterpieces in Bandung. In the early 19th century, the Great Post Road was constructed across Java, enabling quick trade and development of the entire island.
A large number of Catholic churches were built in the Spanish Philippines, with four baroque churches listed on the UNESCO World Heritage List (among others the San Agustín Church in Manila's historic centre and the Miagao church in Iloilo). The historic town of Vigan is a Hispanic town well known for its cobblestone streets and unique mixed European-Oriental architecture. After the Philippines came under American rule, many Art Deco civil government buildings were constructed.
French colonial architecture can be found throughout former French Indochina. The former capital of Laos, Luang Prabang, is on the World Heritage List for its well-preserved blend of colonial and pre-colonial architecture. Similarly, the old towns of Hanoi and Hoi An in Vietnam have lots of buildings in French Colonial style, while its largest city, Ho Chi Minh City, is also home to several impressive French colonial buildings such as the Saigon Central Post Office, City Hall and the Saigon Opera House.
There are dozens of cities with a population of more than a million in Southeast Asia, and many of these have impressive cityscapes. The main modern city of the region is Singapore, whose Marina Bay area has a particularly recognizable skyline. The other main cities also have a large number of skyscrapers and office towers, notably Jakarta, Kuala Lumpur, Manila, Bangkok, and Ho Chi Minh City. The administrative capital of Malaysia, Putrajaya, is a planned city with a surreal mix of modernity and tradition.
Brunei is the only country of Southeast Asia that is a sultanate, and the residential palace of the sultan, Istana Nurul Iman, is considered the largest palace in the world. However, it is usually not accessible to the public. Throughout history, numerous sultanates have reigned over several parts of Southeast Asia, with some of the most powerful ones being the Mataram Sultanate (of which the remaining sultanates of Solo and Yogyakarta are successors) and the Malacca sultanate. Sultan palaces and related museums can be found throughout the region, especially in Malaysia and Indonesia.
With Malaysia, Brunei, and Indonesia being majority Muslim countries, there are many mosques in the region. Prominent mosques include the Istiqlal Mosque in Central Jakarta (the largest mosque of the region, with a capacity of 200,000), the Blue Mosque in Shah Alam, and the Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque in Bandar Seri Begawan.
War-related sights (apart from the museums mentioned above) can be found in most of the countries in the region. In Cambodia, the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek near Phnom Penh offer a reminder of the Cambodian Genocide. In Vietnam, there are many sights related to the Vietnam War, such as the Demilitarized Zone around the former border between North and South Vietnam, and the Cu Chi tunnel system. In Indonesia, there are numerous sights related to the War of Independence, such as the Monas national monument in Central Jakarta.
- Scuba diving is a major draw for visitors to Southeast Asia, with Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Thailand all boasting world-class diving locations.
- Surfing is also an increasing popular sport especially in Indonesia (with Nias and Bali the top draws) and the Philippines.
- Sailing is popular, especially in Southern Thailand
- Try wake boarding at Southeast Asia's largest wake boarding centre in Camarines Sur, Philippines.
- Explore one of the world's longest underground rivers in the Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park located in Palawan, Philippines.
Southeast Asia, in particular Indonesia and Thailand, is well-known throughout the world for its traditional massages. While the conditions of massage parlours vary, those in major hotels in touristy areas are usually clean, though you would generally pay a premium for them. Nevertheless, prices remain much lower than in most Western countries, with 1-hour massages starting from around USD5–20.
- Southeast Asian Games - Known in short as the SEA games, it is held every two years among the 11 countries of Southeast Asia in odd-numbered years. It is structured similarly to the Olympics, albeit on a much smaller scale, and also features several sports that are only popular within Southeast Asia such as sepak takraw (essentially volleyball played with the feet instead of hands, known for its spectacular overhead kicks), and silat (a Malay martial art). The last edition was held in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia in 2017, and the next edition will be held in Davao, Philippines in 2019.
Every Southeast Asian country has its own currency except for East Timor. The US dollar is the official currency of East Timor, the unofficial currency of Cambodia and Laos, and (for larger payments) is widely accepted in some Southeast Asian cities. Euros are also widely accepted in the major cities, although rates are rarely as good as for dollars. Thai baht are widely accepted in Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar. As Singapore is considered to be the main financial centre of Southeast Asia, Singapore dollars would generally be accepted in major tourist areas if you're in a pinch (and are legal tender in Brunei), though the conversion rate might not be very favourable. Exchange rates for Southeast Asian currencies tend to be very poor outside the region, so it's best to exchange (or use the ATM) only after arrival. Alternatively, Singapore and Hong Kong have many money changers who offer competitive rates for Southeast Asian currencies, so you might plan to spend a night or two in transit for you to get your money changed.
Southeast Asia is cheap, so much so that it is among the cheapest travel destinations on the planet. USD20 is a perfectly serviceable daily backpacker budget in most countries in the region, while the savvy traveller can eat well, drink a lot and stay in luxury hotels for USD100 per day.
Some exceptions do stand out. The rich city-states of Singapore and Brunei are about twice as expensive as their neighbours, while at the other end of the spectrum, the difficulty of getting into and around underdeveloped places like Myanmar, East Timor and the backwoods of Indonesia drives up prices there too. In Singapore in particular, the sheer scarcity of land drives accommodation rates up and you would be looking at more than USD100 per night for a four-star hotel.
Southeast Asia is a shopping haven, with both high end branded goods and dirt cheap street goods. The most popular city for shopping in Southeast Asia is Bangkok, although Jakarta, Kuala Lumpur, Manila, Ho Chi Minh City and Singapore all have extensive arrays of exclusive shopping malls stocked with haute couture labels. On the other end of the spectrum, street markets remain a part of daily life (except in Singapore) and are the place to go for dirt cheap or counterfeit items. Some towns like Chiang Mai in Thailand and Ubud in Bali, Indonesia are well known for enormous markets selling traditional artworks, and it's often possible to buy directly from local artists or have dresses, jewellery, furniture, etc., made to order.
Clothes and accessories of international brands are usually just as expensive as in developed countries, or even more expensive. Branded products that seem considerably cheaper (such as Polo Ralph Lauren shirts in Indonesia) are typically counterfeit, even when they are not sold in the streets but in a legit-looking shop or air-conditioned shopping mall. If you need a good compromise between low price of street sold items and the quality of branded products, look for stores of domestic brands such as Malaysia's F.O.S or Philippines' Bench.
Bargain in public markets and flea markets where prices aren't fixed. Southeast Asians actually will give you a bargain if you make them laugh and smile while naming your price; if they don't, try saying bye bye and smile and maybe the vendor might change his mind and give you a discount. When bargaining for simple things like watches, sunglasses, and shoes remember that these are often marked up hugely and, given some bargaining skill, can often be brought down to something like 20% of the asking price. If you can't seem to get them down to a reasonable price, then you're doing it wrong. See Bargaining for more tips.
As a general rule of thumb, if a price is not explicitly posted, you need to haggle for it. However even posted prices can often be haggled down as well.
Southeast Asian cuisine reflects the countries' diverse history and culture. It can be roughly split into continental Southeast Asia (Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar) and maritime (Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei, Indonesia, East Timor), and even then still differs considerably from area to area depending on cultural influences. The Philippines' food culture is the most varied due to their additional influences from Spain and America.
Street vendors or hawkers are a culinary cornerstone of the region, offering wonderful food at a very inexpensive cost; if you're scrupulous about hygiene, go for the char-grilled, deep-fried or boiled-silly options. Thai and Vietnamese dishes like the ubiquitous pad Thai and beef pho have been widely exported around the world after the Vietnam War, followed closely by Malaysian restaurants, but a common refrain is that they simply cannot compare with a fresh bowl served by the roadside. Singapore probably serves as the easiest introduction to street food, though Bangkok and Penang have the better hawkers, with Ho Chi Minh City not far behind.
Rice is the main Southeast Asian staple, with noodles of all sorts an important second option. It's common to take a rich soupy bowl of noodles or some congee (rice porridge) for breakfast. Roti canai in Malaysia, known as roti prata in Singapore, is based on the Indian paratha (flatbread) while Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos have a fondness for French baguettes courtesy of their colonial history, epitomised by banh mi (Vietnamese sandwich).
Love of the spicy chilli is also shared throughout the region, and many of its most famous dishes incorporate chilli whether as a core ingredient or as a separate garnishing, from Thai curries and tom yum soup to the Indonesian beef rendang to Malaysia's assam laksa to Cambodia's amok. The unsuspecting diner may end up downing glass after glass of water to try and quench the burning sensation, but the local advice is to drink hot tea instead. Asking the cook to tone down the spiciness will not always work, and often your eyes will water when eating an adjusted version even as nearby locals happily slurp down their meals. Chilli is just one of the many spices used in Southeast Asian cooking, with lemongrass, tamarind and cloves popular choices to lend strong aromatic flavours to dishes.
Living next to seas and rivers, seafood is a crowd favourite. Fish and prawns feature prominently, with fermented fish sauce and shrimp paste frequently used in everyday cooking, although shellfish such as Singapore chilli crab is much more expensive and usually saved for special occasions or enjoyed by the well-off.
A variety of delicious fruit is available everywhere in all shapes and sizes, and pretty much all year round thanks to the tropical weather. Mangoes are a firm favourite among travellers. The giant spiky durian, perhaps the only unifying factor between Southeast Asia's countries, is infamous for its pungent smell and has been likened to eating garlic ice cream next to an open sewer. Other distinctive Southeast Asian fruits are the purple mangosteen, the hairy rambutan and the jackfruit-like cempedak, whose exteriors hide juicy fleshy insides. Pay attention to what's in season for better taste and prices.
Fine dining is increasingly an option in the more developed countries of Southeast Asia. Bangkok is generally considered to have the best fine dining scene in Southeast Asia, with Singapore not too far behind, though there are also good options to be found elsewhere. Although fine dining is far out of the reach of the average working class Southeast Asian, with the notable exception of Singapore, prices tend to be a lot more affordable than food of a similar standard in Western countries and East Asia.
Western restaurant review websites such as Yelp are not generally reliable for South East Asian countries, as locals do not often post reviews there. Instead, there are local review websites that cover South East Asian countries, such as Eatigo, Openrice and Zamato.
Rice-based alcoholic drinks — Thai whisky, Tuba, lao, tuak, arak and so on — are ubiquitous and potent, if rarely tasty. In some areas, notably the Philippines, rum is also common, made from the local sugarcane. As a rule of thumb, local booze is cheap, but most countries levy very high taxes on imported stuff.
Beers are a must try in Southeast Asia, and are often very inexpensive. Check out San Miguel (Philippines), Singha, Chang beer (Thailand), Bir Bintang, Angker Beer (Indonesia), Tiger Beer (Singapore and Malaysia), Saigon Beer, Hanoi Beer, Huda Beer, 333 Beer, Bia hơi (Vietnam), Beerlao (Laos), Angkor and Angkor Stout (Cambodia). Lager is by far the most popular style, although stout (especially Guinness) is also popular and the larger cities have plenty of microbreweries and imported brews. Beer in SE Asia is primarily consumed by locals to simply get drunk, and not for taste. As such, by Western standards, most locally produced SE Asian beers are often of comparable quality to a low-end Western beers. Don't be surprised by the local habit of adding ice to your beer: not only does it help keep it cool, but it dilutes the often high alcohol content (6% is typical) as well.
Hampered by heavy taxation and a mostly unsuitable climate, wine is only slowly making inroads, although you can find a few wineries in central and northern Thailand, Bali, and Vietnam. Don't buy wine in a restaurant unless you're sure it's been kept properly, since a bottle left to simmer in the tropical heat will turn to vinegar within months. The exception is the former French colonies of Laos and Cambodia which have a respectable collection of vintages available in the larger cities of Vientiane and Phnom Penh.
Nearby Australia exports a good deal of wine to this region; it will be found mainly in high-end hotels or restaurants, though places catering to the budget/backpacker part of the tourist trade may have some as well. The cheap local restaurants generally will not have any.
Fruit juices and coconut water are widely available, especially among Muslims, and in other communities where alcohol is not customary.
Violent crime is rare in Southeast Asia, but tourists have been attacked in beach resorts in a few isolated but well publicised cases.
Opportunistic theft is more common, so watch out for pickpockets in crowded areas and keep a close eye on your bags when travelling, particularly on overnight buses and trains.
Major dangers are very poor road safety, as well as little or no oversight of physical activities such as white water rafting and bungee jumping.
In 2004 an Indian ocean tsunami killed an estimated 230,000 people, with Thailand and Indonesia's Aceh province being severely affected. Many foreign tourists were injured or killed in this very rare yet very dangerous event.
While plenty of narcotics are produced, distributed and consumed around the region, most countries (especially Thailand, Singapore and the Philippines) have harsh penalties for possession of small amounts, and capital punishment for organized drug trafficking. Neither foreign citizenship nor bribes will save visitors from sentences.
Singapore and Thailand are two of the world's main medical tourism hubs. In Singapore, the healthcare system is of a high standard in both government and private hospitals, though prices are also the most expensive in Southeast Asia (but cheaper than most Western countries). Healthcare costs in Thailand are much cheaper than in Singapore and Western countries, making it a popular medical tourism destination for people on tight budgets. While private hospitals in general conform to international standards, and some private hospitals in Bangkok are widely regarded as among the best in the world, public hospitals often leave much to be desired.
Malaysia and Brunei in general have high standards in both private and public hospitals. In the Philippines, while the standard of care is uniformly good at both public and private hospitals in Manila, conditions are often bad in rural areas and smaller cities. In Vietnam and Indonesia, while public hospitals most certainly lag far behind the standards of the West, there are internationally accredited private hospitals in the major cities that are run to international standards. Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia and East Timor generally have poor healthcare standards, so you will almost certainly want to travel to Thailand or Singapore for any major procedures; ensure that your insurance covers this.
The Joint Commission International accredits hospitals internationally based on U.S. standards; though you will be paying a premium for these hospitals, you can ensure that the care and treatment you receive will be aligned to Western standards.
You may be asked to take off your shoes quite often, especially when entering temples or guesthouses. Wear shoes that can be slipped on and off easily, particularly if you're planning to visit a lot of temples, and make sure your socks aren't full of holes. At Buddhist temples, the areas where you have to go barefoot differ by country; in Myanmar, you will have to take your shoes off before entering the entire temple complex, while in Thailand, you are only required to take your shoes off before entering temple buildings.