Bagan, Myanmar

Move over, Angkor Wat. While the ancient Khmer ruins are undeniably beautiful, the towering Buddhist monuments of Bagan retain a rare magic unsullied by droves of tour groups. Some 10,000 Buddhist temples, pagodas, and monasteries sweep across a 42 square kilometre desert-like plain encircled by the misty Bago Yoma mountain range in the distance. Each of the structures were built nearly a century ago – between the years 1057 and 1287, at which point the kingdom fell to invading Mongols – and have been since restored and protected by Unesco. Today, the best way to experience this step back in time is by renting a bicycle or one of Bagans signature electric bicycles to tour the enormous grounds at your own pace, joined only by passing tourists on their own routes, groundskeepers and local villagers going about their day, and the occasional monk.

Top 5 Best Destinations in Southeast Asia
Photo: Agoda
Sapa, Vietnam

High in the Hoang Lien Son mountains of Northern Vietnam is the remote village of Sa Pa, itself more reminiscent of the South Asian trekking hotspots than of regional jungles and beaches. Aside from the breathtaking beauty of the highlands, the culture that has developed over time in the Lao Chai Province of Vietnam is unlike the rest of the country, home to several ethnic tribal groups that settled in the region generations ago and have since established their autonomous identities after decades of strife among Vietnamese independence fighters and French imperialists. Today, Sa Pa’s grandest attraction is its crowning peak, Fan Si Pan – the highest mountain in Vietnam at 3,143 meters above sea level. For the casual hiker, however, Haong Lien National Park offers the picturesque mountain landscape sprinkled with valleys of terraced rice paddies, and a unique forest ecosystem home to several endangered species and small tribal villages.

Top 5 Best Destinations in Southeast Asia
Photo: Du Lich Vietnam

BangKok, Thailand

Bangkok’s little sister to the north offers all of the trappings of Thai city life, with colourful night markets, world-class cuisine, and all the temples you can handle – but with a distinctly Thai vibe. The city also acts as the perfect jumping off point to check out some of the country’s most beautiful areas and landscapes. The historical centre is the walled city, itself containing more than 30 temples and monuments dating back to the 13th century, and just outside the city you can visit the Bua Tong Waterfalls in Sri Lanna National Park, The Elephant Nature Park, trek to hilltribe villages, mountainbike on Doi Suthep mountain, and even take a short trip to nearby Pai, a small, diverse mountain community that’s become an eccentric hotspot for backpackers in recent years. Don’t forget to check out Chiang Mai’s extensive festival schedule before arriving – from its February Flower Festival to November’s Loi Krathong lantern release, there’s nearly always something going on in the bustling culture centre of the north.

Top 5 Best Destinations in Southeast Asia
Photo: Travellive

Malacca, Malaysia

A food-centric city home to a number of expressive cultures, Malacca has been a destination for centuries as a vibrant port drawing traders from India, China, the Middle East, Portugal, the Netherlands, and the UK. Each visiting culture left traces of its influence seen today through the diverse architecture, unique Malaccan cuisine, and entrenched culture that may as well be worlds away from nearby Kuala Lumpur. The region’s early history is hotly debated, with the only permanent records detailing accounts mixed with myth and legend, tracing roots southbound to Sumatra and the Northern pressure of the Ayutthaya Kingdom, or today’s modern Thailand.

Top 5 Best Destinations in Southeast Asia
Photo: Inner

Si Phan Don, Laos

Laos’ ancient capital city is today a UNESCO World Heritage Site, a sleepy area at the intersection of the country’s two main rivers. The town maintains a deep French colonial influence, particularly in its architecture, blended with the well-preserved religious and cultural heritage of the indigenous population. One deeply entrenched cultural tradition is the daily alms ceremony. Each morning at dawn since the 14th century, Buddhist monks in saffron robes collect alms of rice from kneeling villagers. Outside the main village, there is seemingly endless natural beauty to explore – from the Phou Si hill, Vat Cieng Toug, the oldest monastery in the city, Kuang Si Falls, Pak Ou or ‘Buddha’ Caves, and Tad Sae Wateralls, which has its own 1,000m zipline.

Top 5 Best Destinations in Southeast Asia
Photo: Asia Travel Gate