Southeast Asia is many people’s top choice for a first backpacking trip. This is not without reason, because the continent has a huge diversity in nature, culture, cities and beaches. In most countries you can go for a long time even on a small budget and traveling from point A to B is often easy.
So backpacking in Southeast Asia is popular for a reason. But which countries are the most fun or easiest to travel through alone? And what are the most beautiful beach destinations? In short, what are the best countries for traveling in Southeast Asia? I’ll help you choose the most fun travel destination in Southeast Asia with these country comparisons!
Comparing countries in Southeast Asia
In this article:
- Best countries to travel alone
- Cheapest countries in Southeast Asia
- Most beautiful beaches
- Most wildlife
- Best public transport
- Best English speaking countries
- Spiciest food
- Best nightlife and parties
- Best countries for digital nomads
- Most family friendly countries
1. Best countries to travel alone
Something I could recommend everyone is to once travel alone. And Southeast Asia is a perfect region to try solo traveling for the first time. But which countries in Southeast Asia are best for traveling alone?
Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines are perfect countries to travel alone in. They’re very safe destinations and are visited by large numbers of backpackers each year. As a result, there are plenty of hostels and guesthouses with both cheap dorms and double rooms. As a solo traveler, you won’t actually ever be alone there!
Cambodia and Laos are also great countries to travel through alone, but rank a little lower because they’re visited a little less often compared to their neighbors. However, there are more than enough hostels for solo travelers.
Singapore, on the other hand, is visited a lot by tourists, but slightly less by solo travelers.
The reason for Myanmar’s lower ranking, is because the country has only recently been discovered by tourists. As a result, you won’t find the same amount of accommodation choices as most other countries and there just aren’t as many (solo) travelers yet. This can sometimes make it a little more difficult to meet other backpackers, but not impossible. It is a fantastic country to travel through and I can absolutely recommend it to seasoned solo backpackers!
2. Cheapest countries in Southeast Asia
Travelling isn’t cheap usually, but it doesn’t have to be expensive either. After the biggest purchase of a plane ticket, you’ll be fine in Southeast Asia on a small budget. These are the cheapest countries in Southeast Asia.
Cambodia is one of the cheapest countries to travel in Southeast Asia. Food, as well as accommodations and transportation, are very cheap.
Prices in Thailand are also low there despite the large influx of tourists, allowing you to travel for a long time in the country on a small budget. In the south of Thailand, however, prices are a bit higher than in the north.
Vietnam, like Thailand, is also growing increasingly popular as a tourist destination. Despite this, you will still pay very little for both food, places to sleep and transportation.
Laos is known for being about 20 years back in time compared to Thailand and the population is very poor. Prices for food and accommodations are very low, but transportation is slightly more expensive. Where in Thailand a bus ride will cost a few bucks, in Laos you often pay 10 times more.
In Indonesia, the budget depends very much on the location where you are traveling, as is the case in most countries. But to realize that the country consists of more than 16,000 islands, prices vary quite a bit. In general, Indonesia is also a very affordable destination.
Even though Malaysia is a bit more developed than most countries in the continent, it is still a very inexpensive travel destination in Southeast Asia.
The Philippines was long known as one of the cheapest countries in Southeast Asia. However, prices have increased at a rapid rate as tourism continues to grow. Nevertheless, it’s still easy to travel in the Philippines on a small budget.
Singapore is the most expensive travel destination in Southeast Asia because of its thriving economy, but is still a very affordable destination for Western wallets. The street food in particular is dirt cheap but the accommodations much more expensive.
3. Most beautiful beaches
If you travel in Southeast Asia, you will probably spend plenty of time at the beach. These countries offer the most beautiful beaches in Southeast Asia.
One of the most beautiful beach destinations in Southeast Asia are the Philippines. Swaying palm trees and clear seas from which giant rock formations rise.
As the largest island state in the world, Indonesia is also dotted with beautiful beaches. Visit the popular beaches on Bali and the Gili Islands, tour deserted beaches on the island of Flores, or travel to authentic and yet undiscovered Sumba island.
Southern Thailand anually attracts many visitors because of its tropical beaches. Krabi is one of the most popular beach destinations and not without reason. But also further south on the border with Malaysia you will find the tropical island of Koh Lipe. But the slightly more adventurous travelers can visit the remote tropical Surin islands with untouched jungle.
Malaysia features beautiful beaches in both the east and west of the country. For example, the beaches on Langkawi are lovely and you will able to find beautiful tropical beaches with colorful marine life on the Perhentian Islands.
With its small coastline, Cambodia still ranks high on the list of most beautiful beaches. The islands of Koh Rong and Koh Rong Samloem are paradises where you would probably like to stay for a long time.
Despite Vietnam’s nearly 3.5 km long coastline, the true tropical gems can be counted on one hand. Nevertheless, you can enjoy the beach in Vietnam as well.
Small Singapore is surrounded by sea, but the most beautiful beaches are to be found in the south on Sentosa Island. Unlike natural beaches in other countries, Singapore’s beaches are artificial and feature beach clubs and other entertainment.
With a long coastline and as a neighbor to Thailand, Myanmar also boasts beautiful beaches, although the country has not yet been discovered as a beach destination. The northwest coast has a negative travel advisory due to the conflict situation with the Rohingya fleeing to Bangladesh. Other beach destinations such as Ngapali Beach and Ngwesaung are safe, but are also difficult to reach due to limited public transportation.
Laos does not have a coastline and therefore falls off the list of beach destinations.
4. Most wildlife
Something I love to do when traveling is visiting national parks in hopes of spotting wildlife. These countries are the best places to spot wildlife.
Indonesia is known for its great diversity of flora and fauna both on land and in the seas. An absolute once in a lifetime experience is spotting orangutans in Sumatra. But also a boat trip in the Komodo national park is a great experience where it’s possible to come face to face with Komodo dragons, turtles, dolphins and maybe even manta rays and whale sharks.
Also in Thailand, there’s a good chance of seeing wildlife in the national parks including hornbills, monkeys and snakes in Khao Sok National Park and perhaps wild elephants in Khao Yai National Park. But the country also has a beautiful underwater world filled with colorful tropical fish and other marine life.
The colorful reefs in the Philippines are home to numerous tropical marine life. With some luck, you’ll be able to swim with whale sharks, dive with sea turtles in Moalboal, and there are nearly 700 different species of birds including eagles..
Offering several vast national parks, Malaysia is home to rich flora and fauna. One of the best places to see wildlife is in Malaysia’s green heart: Taman Negara. There is a significant chance of seeing hornbills, anteaters and an array of insects and frogs during a night tour there. On the island of Pangkor, you will even come face to face with hornbills. In addition, you can further tick off your bucket list after seeing orangutans in Borneo.
Despite the massive biodiversity in Laos, the chances of spotting wildlife are relatively slim due to illegal hunting and trading. The greatest opportunity to spot wildlife in Laos is during The Gibbon Experience where you fly ziplining through the jungle and spend the night in towering tree houses with the sounds of the jungle all around you.
Vietnam also has great biodiversity with monkeys, elephants and bears as its inhabitants. Nevertheless, it is difficult to see these animals in the wild due to population expansion and agricultural purposes that have greatly reduced the forests.
In the jungles of Myanmar, tigers and leopards are common. Bears and monkeys have also made it their home a long time ago. But because hardly any jungle tours are actually offered, the chances of seeing these animals in the wild are very slim.
Wildlife spotting in Cambodia is not easy. Because of the Khmer Rouge and the Vietnam War, Cambodia’s flora and fauna has hardly been mapped. Now it’s still difficult to spot animals thanks to the presence of old mines in the jungle. For bird lovers, though, a boat trip on the Mekong is recommended!
Although Singapore is the third most populous country in the world, there’s a small chance to spot monkeys and otters in the wild, among others. The highest chances are in the early morning at Lower Peirce Reservoir Park.
5. Best public transport
Public transportation in Singapore is one of the best in Southeast Asia. The entire inner city is connected by a subway network and busses. Fast and comfortable!
The roads in Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam are often paved and in good condition so the infrastructure between cities and towns is mostly good. In these countries you’ll travel mainly by (night)busses and occasionally by train. Tickets are easily booked at your hostel or at the local transport company. The good road quality also makes scooter riding in these countries very enjoyable. But not everywhere are the roads good and between small villages often are unpaved roads. In Vietnam, you really can’t escape the infamous or famous nightbus used to travel the greatest distances.
Indonesia has it all: super deluxe seats in the trains on the island of Java, rickety boats or ultra speedboats between the islands and minibuses on Bali. The quality of public transportation depends mostly on the popularity of your next destination.
While tourism in Myanmar is not yet as developed, traveling the country is quite comfortable with the spacious long-distance busses equipped with air conditioning and Wi-Fi. Don’t be surprised if, in the middle of the night at one of the toll booths, you are dropped from the bus for a moment because it is too heavily loaded to continue. By the way, the workers at the toll booths don’t seem surprised once passengers happily get back on the bus after the barriers.
The infrastructure in the Philippines is averga with the bus as the main mode of transportation. These busses are generally reasonably comfortable with air conditioning and sometimes WiFi. But also the boat is regularly used as means of transportation between islands and sometimes you have to rely on the plane because the distances between the major islands are enormous.
In Laos and Cambodia, road quality is quite poor. Paved roads can be found, but mostly containing potholes and loose stones. Scooter riding is still fine, but drive carefully and be prepared for bumpy roads. Again, you will travel mostly by bus. Don’t be surprised if the aisle is filled with bags of fruit, cages of chickens or sleepy locals.
6. Best English speaking countries
When traveling, don’t be surprised if the majority of the population, including regular tourists, don’t speak English. This is not at all strange, because having knowledge of the English language is often not necessary for the locals. These are the best English speaking countries.
If there is anywhere English is spoken well, it’s in Singapore. Education is even conducted in English which means that even children speak it fluently. Besides English, Mandarin, Malay and Tamil are also considered official languages.
Also in the Philippines, English is widely spoken. The language has been declared the second official language, besides Filipino, and is used by the government, in education and within commerce, among others.
Many different languages are spoken in Malaysia with Bahasa as the official language of communication. Even though the government would like to see Bahasa used more, English is the most widely used language in commerce, education and law.
The English level of the population in Thailand, Indonesia and Vietnam has increased substantially in recent years thanks to rapidly growing tourism.
In Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar, people hardly speak English. This is due to the lack of or minimal English in education and slow-rising tourism. Nevertheless, you can usually get by just fine with non verbal communications, gestures and Google Translate.
7. Spiciest food
Asian cuisine features a huge variety of herbs and spices which can make food quite spicy. The spiciness of dishes also varies greatly from country to country.
In Thailand, your taste buds burn immediately after eating a curry. If you can stand spicy food pretty well, then curries taste great though. Definitely try a Massaman curry and a Penang curry. Sliiightly less spicy Thai specialties are Pad Thai and Papaya salad.
It has happened to me more than once that tears ran down my cheeks while eating. I can’t stand spicy food at all, so I quickly find something too spicy. But even my traveling companions have catched fire several times by all the chili. If you order “not spicy,” the food is often still extremely spicy.
Also in most areas in Indonesia chili and sambal is eagerly used to enrich dishes. For the real taste of Indonesia, skip the fancy restaurants and try one of the many Nasi Padang eateries. With steamed white rice as a base, you can choose as many side dishes as will fit on your plate. For example, choose from chili eggplant, steamed vegetables, fish curry, and my personal favorite slow-cooked Rendang. One of the most commonly eaten dishes is Nasi Goreng, fried rice with vegetables and chicken.
Malaysia also has many influences from Indonesia and even has Nasi Padang restaurants, although the food there is generally a little less spicy.
Laos has many influences from Thai and Vietnamese cuisine, yet the food here is often less spicy. The national dish is Laap, a salad with minced meat and various seasonings. Noodle soup is also offered in different varieties in almost every eatery.
Singapore has many influences from China, Malaysia, India and Japan. In the culinary Hawker centers, there is plenty of choice of delicious dishes with different levels of spiciness.
The food in Cambodia has influences from Thailand and Vietnam, although dishes are served less spicy and slightly more sour. Cambodian specialties include Amok, a steamed fish curry in banana leaves, and the Khmer soup with vegetables and with egg for breakfast.
Vietnam’s cuisine features delicious specialties which are generally not very spicy. Some well-known dishes are the noodle soup Pho, fresh or fried spring rolls and rice pancakes Banh Xeo. One of the most commonly used condiments in Vietnam is fish sauce and you can really find it in bottles on the table everywhere.
Myanmar’s dishes have many influences from Thailand, India, Bangladesh and China, among others. In general, the food is not very spicy.
Whereas in most countries in Southeast Asia a lot of chili is used in dishes, in the Philippines this is almost not the case and dishes are usually very mild in taste. Filipino cuisine is a mixture of Spanish influences, due to colonial times, and Asian flavors and products.
8. Best nightlife and parties
The popular backpacker destinations Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia and the Philippines offer plenty of fun parties.
In Thailand, you can go wild at the full-moon parties on Ko Phangan, as well as in Phuket and Koh Tao, among others. Both bustling Hoi An, and the metropolises of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam are perfect destinations for partying. Jakarta in Indonesia may not be a fun city during the day, but at night it’s the place to be. Bali also has plenty of hip clubs, and beach parties in Gili are also a must. In the Philippines, you can enjoy rooftop bars in Manila, to beach parties in Siargao.
Besides cool nightlife spots in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia is not that known for a vibrant nightlife. But if you like small beach parties with other backpackers, then tiny Tioman Island is the place to be.
The best and fanciest rooftop bars can be found in Singapore. If you prefer not to wait until dark, you can go to one of the many Ibiza-style bars on Sentosa Island.
In Laos, Vang Vieng was known for years as the party destination with cheap alcohol and tubing parties, although the wild parties have been pretty much curbed after government intervention after several accidents. Nevertheless, you can still have a great time in Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang until midnight, with an occasional jungle party.
You don’t travel to Cambodia for the wild nightlife. Still, on tropical Koh Rong you will find fun beach parties every day. In addition, the “pub streets” and riverside boulevards in Siem Reap and Phnom Penh offer the best chance for a fun night out.
In Myanmar, you won’t find clubs like we are used to. Here you drink a beer on a plastic chair in one of the many streets of Yangon or enjoy a drink in riverside restaurants in Bagan.
9. Best countries for digital nomads
Traveling and working is increasingly in demand and the term digital nomad is a hot topic. Then it’s also useful to know in which countries you can best work remotely with good WiFi connections and comfortable workplaces.
Of all these countries, in Singapore you will find by far the best Internet as well as comfortable workplaces, although daily living costs are also the highest here.
Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia is known to be one of the best cities in the world for expats to live and work in. In addition, the country has announced a new visa for digital nomads that puts it down as the next big hub for remote working in Southeast Asia. Besides the capital, Penang is also known as an excellent workplace for foodies.
Thailand has become such a popular tourist destination that there are plenty of hip coffee places and ho(s)tels with reasonable WiFi in the most visited locations. Chiang Mai in particular is a popular destination for digital nomads, but Bangkok is also worth mentioning.
If we take Bali as a starting point, Indonesia would be number one in this list without a doubt. The fancy hostels and hip restaurants in places like Canggu and Ubud are perfectly set up for digital nomads. On the rest of the 16,000 islands, this is not always so obvious and can sometimes be challenging to find a quiet workspace with stable Internet. But as long as you travel past the tourist attractions, you will find quite a few places to work comfortably.
Vietnam also has plenty of places suitable for remote working. For example, Hoi An is a cheap and cozy place with cheap long-term accommodations and has an official co-working space (Hub Hoi An). But Ho Chi Minh and Da Nang also offer plenty of opportunities for digital nomads.
Cebu in the Philippines is popular among expats, tourists and digital nomads and has several co-working spaces. Manila is hated by travelers and locals alike, but does have the best amenities in the country. In addition, you could find yourself in laid-back Siargao in one of the many coffee shops.
You won’t often find a stable Internet connection in Cambodia. Siem Reap and Phnom Penh are exceptions and even have co-working spaces including Angkor Hub (in Siem Reap) and The Desk (In Phnom Penh).
Also in Laos, stable Internet is rare and almost unfindable outside the larger cities. The best chance of a reasonable working environment is in Luang Prabang, Vang Vieng, Vientiane or Pakse.
In Myanmar it’s quite difficult to find a good workplace with stable Internet, besides your little room in one of the hostels. Power outages are still common, internet access is generally expensive and unreliable
10. Most family friendly countries
Faraway family travel is something more and more people are venturing into. It’s a lot more adventurous than traveling more Western countries, which is exactly what makes it so much fun for travel-loving families.
Singapore and Malaysia are among the most child-friendly countries in Southeast Asia thanks to good infrastructure and transportation, hygiene and safety. In Singapore, you will find spotlessly clean public facilities, spacious stroller-friendly sidewalks and plenty of entertainment on Sentosa Island. In Malaysia, Kuala Lumpur, Langkawi and Penang are especially popular family destinations.
Thailand, Indonesia and Vietnam also rank high in terms of child friendliness. Among others, Krabi, Koh Lipe, Koh Samui and Chiang Mai are ideal family destinations with many clean and comfortable facilities. One of the most child-friendly destinations in Indonesia is Bali. But Java and Lombok also offer reasonably good facilities. In Vietnam, Sapa, Hoi An, Phu Quoc and Ninh Binh, among others, are fine destinations for the family.
In the Philippines, the trpoical Bohol and El Nido are great destinations for the whole family. There are plenty of fun beach activities and trips to take.
In Laos, it is generally harder to find comfort, although Luang Prabang offers plenty of options.
Because of lesser amenities and more limited infrastructure, Myanmar and Cambodia are a bit lower on this list and thus are for the more adventurous families. Yangon and Inle Lake in Myanmar are great places for the family, and in Cambodia, Koh Rong Samloem is highly recommended for a quiet and safe destination.