I’ve been lucky enough to spend the past four months in Southeast Asia alone traveling, working, volunteering, writing, discovering, and living. The trip crossed a lot of my bucket list, including some specific tourist attractions I was dying to see, the chance to travel alone, and the chance to spend more than a week or two in one destination in Southeast Asia. Now, four months later, it’s time for me to pack up and head back to the Big Apple.
With some strategic work (and luck!), I was able to land a job back in New York while I’m still in Thailand (if you’re curious about how I pulled that off, I share the story here). I couldn’t be happier with my upcoming position! Still, seeing this adventure come to an end is not easy. I’m searching high and low for ways to reflect and organize my experiences. It’s so much to take in and I’ve been so fortunate. To begin, I decided to rank everywhere I visited from best to worst. Though of course, even the “worsts” are still pretty dang amazing.
Please note that this list is based solely on my experiences in these places, and not the places overall. I saw Southeast Asia through very intentional lenses. I didn’t come just to backpack. Rather, I stayed in a couple of places for weeks at a time. I tried really hard to meet locals and build strong relationships with other Expats. Whenever I could, I volunteered, went to local meetings, and even worked at random jobs throughout the trip! Because of this approach, I truly feel I was able to get so much more out of this experience than just backpacking. I have a network and new skills that I can take with me wherever I am in the world.
Without further delay… here is:
The definitive ranking of my Southeast Asia travels
(All photos are my own)
17. Sihanoukville, Cambodia
I didn’t even take a photo. That’s how I felt about Sihanoukville.
16. Huey, Vietnam
I didn’t spend much time in Huey, so I didn’t really give it a fair shot. I think that I was scheduled to spend longer there, but I just physically could not leave myself to leave Hoi An (further down on my list), so that really cut into my experience in Huey. There wasn’t anything bad about the city, but it didn’t stand out to me. The most important parts of Huey are the Vietnam War memorials and museums. If I could do it over, I would’ve stayed in Hoi An even longer and skipped Huey altogether.
15. Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
During my first pass through Southeast Asia, I really didn’t enjoy being in the cities at all. I think that it was because I live in Manhattan and I strongly believe no city can match up to it. When I’m traveling away from Manhattan, I also usually want to be away from the city life. The point is to have a break from the hustle and bustle, and Ho Chi Mihn City is even more hectic than NYC! It’s an unbelievably bustling city that you can’t really imagine until you experience it. Crossing the street in that city is basically playing real-life frogger with yourself and your life.
The Vietnam war museum, the war tunnels, the people in HCM and the incredible, cheap food definitely make the city worth the visit. But, the visit was certainly an overwhelming one for me and I’m in no rush to return.
14. Phnom Penh, Cambodia
A city with such a heartbreaking history, Phnom Penh is a must during your Southeast Asia trip. But don’t underestimate how truly heartbreaking it is. The Khmer Rouge history is so, so dark. The hardest part is that it wasn’t that long ago, so walking through the city you can’t help but think about how nearly ever Khmer you see was impacted by that tragedy. For me, it made for quite a somber trip.
13. Cat Ba Island, Vietnam
It’s the budget backpacker’s way to see Ha Long Bay, and the “budget” aspect shows! The island is an interesting place and frankly, not the nicest part of Southeast Asia. They do have plenty of affordable day tours to Ha Long Bay. So, if you’re trying to see Ha Long Bay on a budget, it’s definitely a good option, it’s just such a pain to get there. The best part was that when the boat has not yet officially reached Ha Long Bay’s borders, you can jump off the boat! My first back flip was in the waters right outside Ha Long Bay thanks to Cat Ba Island.
12. Nha Trang, Vietnam
I was a bit disappointed in Nha Trang. The beach was beautiful and some of the bluest water I’d ever seen. But, the town itself was different than I thought. It was a weird mix of tourists that were way out of character considering the rest of what I had experienced backpacking. The food was delicious and the beach was nice, but Vietnam and other parts of Southeast Asia have such incredible beaches that I’d probably head to before Nha Trang next time.
11. Inle Lake, Myanmar
Inle Lake was a beautiful lake and a beautiful town. The Burmese people are such gentle and kind people. The only reason this isn’t ranked lower down on this list is because I was so surprised by how touristy the lake was. The rest of Myanmar is not very touristy (yet) and incredibly un-Westernized. I didn’t find anywhere that took credit cards, wifi is few and far between, and a lot of the culture just seems a bit back in time. You’d think that Inle Lake, a town on top of the lake in the middle of the country, would be the least developed of the country. Yet nearly everywhere on the lake took credit cards! It was bizarre. But, the lake was absolutely stunning and seeing the famous one-leg row was unforgettable.
10. Yangon, Myanmar
Yangon is a crazy city, but full of beautiful people. You certainly feel like you step back in time once you get there. The highlight for me was the Shwedagon Pagoda. I was not prepared for how incredibly, breathtakingly beautiful it was. Going to the top of the stairs and entering the temple is like entering a city of gold. It was so stunning and I had never been moved so suddenly by a national landmark. To be honest, the Eiffel Tower and Empire State had nothing compared to this unbelievable beauty. You can’t miss it if you’re in Asia.
9. Koh Rong Salom, Cambodia
The islands of Koh Rong and Koh Rong Salom in Cambodia are basically as beautiful as the Thai islands (in my opinion) but with so many less tourists. Koh Rong Salom is no exception to that. These islands are paradise and actually not too difficult to get to once you get to Sihanoukville. No wifi, no outlets, I highly recommend spending some time here to truly unwind.
8. Koh Phi Phi, Thailand
This only beats Koh Rong Salom because of the scuba diving! The Thai islands are every bit as beautiful as their reputation delivers. I chose to spend the most time at Koh Phi Phi because I had heard from fellow backpackers it was the prettiest, though Koh Tao was a close second. I was bummed to miss the diving of Koh Tao, but at the end of the day, they’re both pretty amazing.
7. Hanoi, Vietnam
I honestly didn’t care for Hanoi the first time around. It’s a hectic city (though even less so than HCM, the Vietnamese don’t hold back with their cities!). But the old city in Hanoi is undeniably charming, the food is amazing, and beer is $.50. If you have the patience for the traffic, it’s really a wonderful place to be. There’s no shortage of things to do or see, and you’ll meet some great people along the way. I hope to spend more time in Hanoi the next time I come to Vietnam (which will be soon- I loved Vietnam).
6. Luang Prabang, Laos
Luang Prabang has deservedly earned its reputation of one of the most beautiful and scenic parts of Southeast Asia. With some of the world’s most stunning waterfalls, world class restaurants at low prices, and elephants to ride (!!), it’s a town for the outdoorer in you. For me the highlights were all the waterfalls I was able to climb and jump off, riding the elephants, and a particularly memorable experience at a local Laos bar with one of my tour guides.
If you do choose to ride elephants in Southeast Asia, please do careful research about the background of the company. Only ride elephants in an ethical way! This is not part of the backpacking experience you should be budgeting on!
5. Bangkok, Thailand
The first couple times I came to Bangkok, I wasn’t a huge fan of it (are you sensing a theme with my opinions on cities?!). It’s huge, it’s hot, and it’s dirty. Trying to see all the temples and markets is exhausting. But, deciding to spend two months in Bangkok was the best decision I could’ve made for myself. Once you check off the tourist attractions of Bangkok, you can experience what it’s like to (sort of) live there, and there’s so much opportunity.
In one month in Bangkok, I was able to work on a grant toward women trafficking, speak at Rotary events throughout the city, tutor English and teach web design, meet an incredible family that I became a part of, work with the Rotary, and explore rooftop bars (my favorite thing). It’s an incredible city and also a pretty fun time if you put yourself out there!
4. Siem Reap, Cambodia
My beloved Siem Reap. This city is glazed over by tourists only here to see Angkor Wat. I get it. Asia is big, there’s a lot to see and a lot of ground to cover, and it seems Siem Reap only has Angkor Wat. But the tragedy is in the people you’re missing. The Cambodians are the kindest, most gentle people on earth. They have been through literal hell, and seeing their resiliency is the sort of moving moments that you hope to experience while traveling. Stay in Siem Reap, enjoy yourself and get the feel for the beautiful Cambodians.
Oh and Angkor Wat is just about the most incredible visual sight on the planet, so there’s that, too.
3. Hoi An, Vietnam
This just might be the most charming place on the planet. Everyone you meet whose been through Vietnam has something great to say about Hoi An, but you can’t really quite describe the magic of it unless you’ve been. It’s got the small town feel yet still has incredible restaurants and shopping. The people are so kind and happy. There’s a beautiful river that runs right through the town and a beach just a 15-minute bike ride away. There’s just something perfect about this place. The only downside? It’s a huge pain to get to. Town-wise, this is my favorite place in all of Southeast Asia.
2. Ha Long Bay, Vietnam
I was lucky enough to experience the jaw-droppingly beautiful Ha Long Bay with my boyfriend, who flew all the way across the world to visit me! There are so many options on how to explore Ha Long Bay. You can via overnight boat, hotel, an island with day trips, a party cruise, etc. When planning our trip, we knew that Ha Long Bay was probably the most unique place we had ever been to together, so we decided to hold nothing back. We decided on a three-day cruise through the bay on a boat with private terraces so we could spend as much time enjoying the outdoors as possible. There’s nothing quite like waking up in that bay and I don’t think either of us will forget this trip anytime soon!
1. Bagan, Myanmar
Pulling up to Bagan on the over air conditioned night bus, I couldn’t believe it was really happening. I remember seeing a photo of the temples of Bagan at sunset on StumbleUpon when I was maybe 18? It was on my bucket list ever since. The city and the temples did not disappoint.
People often compare the temples of Bagan to the temples of Angkor in Cambodia. It makes sense. They’re both massive, ancient, beautiful, and essentially impossible to describe until you can see them in person. The fundamental difference, however, is that Angkor Wat was recently named the best tourist destination on the planet, and the crowds show it. The crowds aren’t unmanageable at all, nothing like Disney World, but the temples of Bagan are empty. I remember climbing to the roof of the first temple in Bagan and no matter how far I looked on all 360 degrees of the roof, I couldn’t see the end of the temples. It was incredible.
On the morning I made it up at 4:30 AM to catch the sunrise over the temples, I was discouraged because it was the rainy season. That doesn’t make for great sunrises. With some help from coffee, I was able to make it just in case. It was very overcast, but there was one sliver of an opening in the clouds. Just enough to perfectly see the round sun peek up and greet us, and illuminate the beautiful and ancient temples of Bagan. Tears flooded my eyes effortlessly and suddenly. How could it be that I was lucky enough to be put on this earth and experience such beauty in my lifetime?
For more info about how I freelanced through Southeast Asia, grab my guide to begin freelancing below.