The Southeast Asia Highlights: Backpacking Around SE Asia!

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To bucket-list or not to bucket-list? I find that if I don’t do my research on a place in advance, I often end up missing out on experiences and places I would have liked to see. When Contiki asked me to share some bucket-list worthy experiences, I immediately thought of Southeast Asia. That’s where I spent most of last year and my time there was full of highlights. I’ve written about my favourite destinations in Southeast Asia before, but today I thought I’d share the experiences that made my time there extra special:

The Southeast Asia Highlights: Backpacking Around SE Asia! Hiking a volcano in Bali to watch the sunrise - one of my Southeast Asia Highlights

Climbing an active volcano in Bali

I’m not much of an early riser, but in Bali I made the exception in order to climb Mount Batur, an active volcano that stands at 1,717 meters above sea level. I’m not going to lie to you and tell you it was easy, but it was one of the coolest things I have ever done. Reaching the summit involved clambering up the mountain in the pitch black with little headlamps that only illuminated a few inches ahead of you. It was arduous, it was steep, and as we began to near the top, we were on all fours trying to pull ourselves up uneven volcanic rock. Finally reaching the summit was awesome, and getting to watch a spectacular sunrise unfurl through the clouds was priceless.

Elephants at the Elephant Nature Park - one of my Southeast Asia Highlights

Bathing and feeding elephants in Northern Thailand

Elephants are such majestic creatures and coming face to face with them was one of my happiest days in Thailand – I seriously don’t think I stopped grinning the whole time I was there. After I learned about the phajaan (a form of torture elephants endure in order to break their spirits so that they can enter the tourism industry), I didn’t feel right riding one. This is why I was happy to visit the Elephant Nature Park, which happens to be a safe oasis for elephants that have been abused. Here you can interact with elephants by feeding them, and bathing them in the river. What better way to experience their company than out in their natural environment where they are free to roam and be themselves?

Cruising Halong Bay aboard a junk boat in Vietnam

Cruising Halong Bay aboard a junk

Halong Bay is one of those places that you have to see with your own two eyes to believe it’s real. Jagged karsts and small islands with sandy shores emerge from the emerald waters, and to add a bit of magic to it all, in the mornings the bay is often shrouded by a curtain of fog. Waking up to views like that right outside your boat is ethereal and almost unreal.

Relaxing in the scenic Cameron Highlands, Malaysia

Enjoying quiet mornings in the Cameron Highlands

I didn’t actually do anything in the Cameron Highlands. There were no trips to strawberry farms or the Mossy Forest, but I enjoyed my time there nonetheless. There’s something so peaceful about old hill stations perched up in the hillside. The temperatures are cooler, life goes by a little bit slower, and you feel as though you can almost watch time go by. My favourite part of the day? Heading down to the town and grabbing a seat on a plastic chair where I could enjoy a piping hot cup of chai at breakfast time. It’s all about the little pleasures.

Going on a 2 day trek of Sapa in Northern Vietnam

Trekking through hillside villages in Sapa

One of the many ways that travel changed me over the past year, is that it forced me to become a bit more athletic. I’ve never been a sporty girl, but this past year saw me biking, kayaking, and yes, even trekking. While in Sapa I got the idea to join a 2-day trek through the hillside stopping at various villages along the way. I won’t say it was grumble free, but it was the best way to experience the natural landscapes, and I also enjoyed the feeling of accomplishment that came at the end of the day.

Watching the sunrise over Angkor Wat, Cambodia

Exploring the temples of Angkor at sunrise

The main reason for travelling out to Siem Reap was to visit the temples of Angkor, and because we were there during the hottest time of year, all of our temple visits took place really early in the morning. Sam and I were able to find a very gracious tuk-tuk driver who agreed to our ridiculous 5 a.m. wake-up call, and every day we would set out towards Angkor under the cover of night. The long drives out to the further temples were just as much fun as actually getting there and wandering around these ancient structures hidden deep in the jungle.

The hippie town of Pai in Northern Thailand

Scootering around the hilly town of Pai

I had a ‘no scooter’ rule while I was travelling around Southeast Asia , but I threw caution to the wind when I visited Pai. Located in the hills of Northern Thailand, the scenery surrounding this town is stunning! There was no way I was going to get to see it all on my own two feet, so I did what I always tell people not to do and I rented a scooter with no prior experience.

It was a bit unnerving as I had to drive the scooter out of the busy main street so that I could practice on an empty back street (not very sensible, I know!), but once I got a bit more confident I took the bike out for the day and had one of the funnest days of exploring. I rode past farms, rice paddies, and even visited some nearby waterfalls. Bonus: I didn’t get any Thai tattoos a.k.a. road rash that day.

Gardens by the Bay at nighttime in Singapore

Marvelling at the Gardens by the Bay

Singapore left me with my mouth agape. Every time I thought I had seen it all – the mind-boggling architecture, the perfectly trimmed gardens, the spotless shopping centres – it threw me another curveball. Walking through the Marina Bay Sands was unbelievable, but then reaching the other side and seeing the Gardens by the Bay at nighttime was nothing short of amazing.

Travelling down the Mekong Delta in Laos

Travelling down the Mekong Delta

While travelling from Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang via the Mekong Delta wasn’t the most comfortable of journeys, I can’t say it was all bad. There may have been a lot of hiccups along the way, but there were also beautiful mornings where I got to watch the fog lift to reveal the lush vegetation, and there were sunny afternoons spent alternating between the beautiful scenery and the book in my hand.

And those are just a few of the highlights! I’m sure there are others that currently escape my memory, but now it’s your turn…

What are some of your Southeast Asia highlights?

Join the Conversation


  1. says: Sarah

    I think mine would probably be eating in some of Saigon’s best restaurants, scuba diving in Sulawesi, Island hopping in The Philippines, partying on Singapore’s rooftops and scootering around Ubud, Bali- if I only name 5 🙂 For some reason I missed the Gardens by the Bay… Still don’t really understand how that happened! Thanks for sharing this, I love reading about other peoples favourite travel experiences!

  2. says: Ashley | Ashley Wanders

    Lovely photos! My Southeast Asia trip was also filled with many amazing experiences. Riding on a motorbike in Ho Chi Minh City, lounging on the beaches of Railay, cycling around Hoi An, and exploring the temples of Angkor are a few of my favourites!

  3. Great post. Yes, Southeast Asia is by far one of our favorite destinations! Cruising Halong Bay aboard a junk boat is one of our highlights, as well. We also enjoyed renting a motorbike and taking it along the coast in Vietnam, stopping at a few hidden destinations with in the mountains. Such a beautiful country!

  4. says: Naomi

    All about Cameron Highlands! I’ve only been to Malaysia but Cameron Highlands was a pretty memorable experience, the only thing we did really do was a great guided nature tour. It was fascinating. Otherwise, we ate and drank and chilled – grand!

  5. All of these places sound simply amazing. I am really touched by your bathing and feeing elephants experience. Since moving to Korea, I’ve seen some pretty sad scenes with animals and it breaks my heart, I have such a hard time shaking it. It’s nice to know there are sanctuaries for all types of animals all over the world!

  6. says: Kendra (the Escapologist)

    So many pictures here are amazing. Especially the Halong Bay picture. It makes me wish I was leaving for my SE Asia adventure sooner!

  7. says: Nichelle @ Airline Miles Experts

    I love your photo of Cameron Highlands. Quiet mornings for me are the best – a time to meditate and marvel over nature’s wonder. With that scenery, I could never complain. Great as always when you get to see that view every morning and enjoy a cup of coffee .

    1. says: Audrey

      Hi Andrea,

      We used a company called ET Pumpkin to book our train journey to Sapa – they had a private compartment on the train, which was really nice for the price we paid! Once we got to Sapa we booked our guided trek directly through our hotel “Mountain View Hotel”. Alternatively, you can also book treks through the tourist information office in the centre of town. I hope you guys have a great time out there! 🙂

    2. says: Grace

      I wholeheartedly recommend using Sapa Sisters! This organisation is a bit pricier than the hostel-led tours, but there is no middle man – all of your money directly supports the all-female Hmong guides. Hmong women in Vietnam are subject to much discrimination and setbacks just because of their gender. As they are seen as a possession of their husband’s family, there is little oppotunity for their own economic advancement. Sapa Sisters is a great organisation set up to allow the Hmong ladies, all of whom speak excellent English, to continue their ancestral way-0f-life on the rice terraces and get a fair income.

      I trekked with the company last year and I was really happy with my experience. Ker, my lovely guide, took us through Sapa on whichever route suited us (hilly, not hilly, up high – it’s up to you). Ker spoke English really well, and was quite chatty, telling us about her history, the culture and what the future held. It was an unforgettable experience! Go with Sapa Sisters!!

  8. says: Katie

    I’m so glad you mentioned the elephant sanctuary, I see so many people put riding an elephant on their list and it makes me sad. Especially when there are great places like ENP or BLES to head to in Thailand. Anyway, that’s the only one I’ve been to on your list, clearly I need to do more traveling around SE Asia! I just love that part of the world!

  9. says: Rashaad

    I’ve been to Southeast Asia three times and my favourite experiences were randomly finding a game of takraw in Chiang Mai as well as by chance, meeting a cool Thai dude on the ferry to Ko Samet (who I’ve still kept in contact with throughout the years).

  10. I haven’t been to Southeast Asia yet, but I really enjoyed following along when you went there 🙂 I didn’t know the bit about the elephants – I think ‘breaking the elephant’s spirit’ may be one of the saddest sentences I’ve ever read. I’m glad you are able to share about an organization that helps these guys!

  11. says: Ryan Biddulph

    Hi Audrey,

    Awesomeness. I’ve been all over SE Asia and have done a few things.

    My fave highlight by far was going through the national park in the Phang Nga Area, in Vietnam. Ke Bang National Park was not only stunning, with the cave complex being one of the largest in the world, the tour put out by Ben and his wife was just ridiculous. We actually did something at the end that I wouldn’t dream of doing, in 10,000,000 years. I can’t give it away, it’s one of the fun, secret things he does on each tour, and it FORCES you to examine your fears, but it’s oh so rewarding.

    I recall speaking to a guy in Hoi An, Vietnam. He’d been all over the world. He said Angkor Wat was awesome but that this tour buried it. Not sure of that, but the Ke Bang Tour with the Aussie Ben, through his homestay, was the coolest thing I’ve done in SE Asia as far as a tourist day. Do it. You won’t regret it.

    As for short term stuff, or, the coolest thing I’ve done in my life, petting tigers in Mae Rim, Thailand beats it all. I’ve never felt a combo of terror, delight, fear, joy, and 100 other emotions at once. Sitting in the cage with three, 400 pound tigers, one of whom was pretty darn active (shut up you folks who say they’re drugged, because these cats WERE’T!), was something I recall in vivid detail, to this day.

    Thanks so much Audrey, what a fab list of experiences. Maybe we’ll do the volcano climb in Bali in 6 weeks.

    Tweeting now.


  12. says: Petra @ We've Got The Bug

    Ahh, I love Southeast Asia so much! This list is great. Our best SEA experience (and perhaps overall travel experience) was doing a three day trek from Kalaw to Inle Lake in Myanmar. So amazing!

  13. says: Renuka

    Southeast Asia is incredible from your eyes! I especially loved your Cameron Highlands experiences. I love such slow travel experiences when you don’t have anything particular on your mind and you simply immerse in your surroundings.

  14. says: Franca

    There are so many places mentioned here that I still have to go to in SEA. I miss that part of the world sometimes and how different everything is over there. I’d go back to the amazingly green Cameron Highlands right now, I loved the tea plantations over there 🙂

  15. Ooh this post is eye candy!

    I think it’s great you’re paying some attention to the the way elephants get treated around there (and everywhere else in the world). I always thought it was so tempting to ride an elephant until I started thinking about why it’s so ‘easy’ to ride these creatures. I think it’s a way of educating people about the do’s & don’t around these animals. Besides, isn’t being next to these giant creatures a wonderful experience as well? I’d be so happy to help them bathe instead of riding them 🙂

  16. says: Chan Peng

    Hi,being living in one of the countries in SEA, I’ve been to all countries in SEA. I have been to most of the places mentioned in the comments. One place that is not mentioned and should not be missed in BAGAN in Myammar. It tops my list !
    Time stops there. Not yet touristry and commercialised . The life, the people, the pace. Everything is still as if it is in the 1950s’. And of course the thousands of pagodas ! It is out of this world. You will have to experience it for yourself.

  17. Great bucket list! We have done all of them except we skipped Halong Bay as the weather wasnt great and we were just in the Philippines and weren’t sure how different it would be. Would you list it as a must do? We are headed back to Asia in December so might get back there to tick it off!

  18. says: Backpacking Panda

    I’ve only traveled to China in Asia, but I definately plan to do a long term travel around Southeast Asia someday. The photos are beautiful, I especially want to visit Halong Bay and the temples of Angkor, those places looks magical.

  19. Lovely photos Audrey! You reminded me of some of my favourite moments in South-East Asia! I wish I got to go to Sapa and Pai though, they sound really good. I finally got over my scooter fear in Goa this year, but I didn’t even ride one on my own! 🙂

  20. says: Mary @ Green Global Travel

    Amazing list where each one is an amazing trip by itself already! Stunning photos for each one too! Thanks for sharing!

  21. says: Seong

    recently I am following your post and l luv it!
    Can I ask you what type of camera that you are using it?
    I am now planning to travel Southeast Asis for about 6 months..
    .. need to know alot more about the backpacking!
    Thanks for sharing your wonderful exprience.

  22. says: Sheila

    Great list! Will definitely try not miss any of these! We were able to experience the majestic temples of Angkor. Next on our list, will be Halong Bay. 🙂

    Thank you for sharing!

  23. says: Frank

    I’m starting to have a real bug up my butt about Elephant Nature Park. We went there back in 2008 before it became a regular on the blogger circuit. Yes, it’s great, and what they do for elephants is outstanding. But how many other elephant foundations/sanctuaries have other bloggers been to?
    My issue is that if all foundations/sanctuaries in Thailand are compared to ENP then all the other ones are screwed because they just don’t have the kind of funding to have the same conditions available for elephants. Couple of weeks ago I wrote about another elephant foundation in Hua Hin, just to spread the word of the good they are trying to do, and got crapped on by some left wing nut jobs who can’t see anything beyond the ENP model. I just think people have to see the bigger picture about elephant foundations and promote foundations/sanctuaries OTHER than ENP – because there are lots of other elephants out there who need help. I had actually approached other, bigger bloggers who are all about eco-tourism, and got a deaf ear. And I’m quite disappointed because Elephant conservation in Thailand should not be ALL about one place.

    I’m not crapping on you by the way, it IS a great place 🙂 But I’d just encourage people to also support other non-profit elephant sanctuaries who are also trying to make a difference.

    Frank (bbqboy)

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