Travel Southeast Asia: The Essential Guide
Southeast Asia offers everything from vibrant modern cities to small traditional villages. It is a place to experience new things and activate your senses. Taste exotic cuisine, travel on tuk tuks and long-tail boats, witness rare and critically endangered wildlife, and open your eyes to many different cultures and religions.
Most of Southeast Asia makes for unforgettable holidays that are both safe and friendly. However, just as you’ll find anywhere in the world, there are regions that should be avoided due to conflict or other dangerous situations.
Whether you plan on hopping from one country to another by air or booking a Southeast Asia cruise, it always pays to make sure your travel insurance covers the regions you will be visiting. Places like East Timor and other risky or unstable regions may not be covered by your policy.
Whether your ideal holiday consists of relaxing on tropical beaches, visiting temples, or trekking through the jungle, travelling Southeast Asia offers a wide range of incredible experiences. The key is to not overload your itinerary with too many stops and instead try to take the time to fully immerse yourself in the culture and landscapes of a selected few destinations. Southeast Asia is definitely not a region you can tackle in one trip.
Planning several separate Southeast Asia getaways may be a better option, and you may want to look into annual multi-trip travel insurance which can save you money if you plan on taking multiple holidays in a single year.
The following is a comprehensive guide to Southeast Asia travel. Find out everything you need to know for visiting this incredible region along with main highlights the region has to offer.
Many Southeast Asian countries allow Australian tourists to visit without having to obtain a visa for stays of less than 30 days. However, it pays to always check the visa requirements of each destination you plan on visiting as requirements often change.
Currently, countries such as Thailand and Indonesia do not require you to obtain a visa for tourism stays of less than 30 days. Singapore allows you up to a 90 day stay for tourism purposes. Other countries within Southeast Asia such as Cambodia do require you to obtain a visa which you can apply for online via the Cambodian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation.
It is important to ensure your passport is valid for at least six months from the date you intend to return to Australia and it is always a good idea to carry a recent passport photo in case you need a replacement passport while overseas.
If you plan on working or studying in a Southeast Asian country, note that you will most likely need to obtain a visa which allows you to undertake these activities. Note you may have to register with the local government or police if you plan on staying at a private residence as opposed to a hotel.
Never overstay your visa or travel allowance as this can lead to prosecution, fines, deportation, and possibly being banned from future visits.
Safety and Security
It pays to always check the up to date travel advice offered by the Smartraveller website. This site will advise you as to what degree of caution you should take when visiting various countries within Southeast Asia.
Civil unrest, political tension, and terrorism may be a greater threat when visiting certain Southeast Asia countries. Avoid protests, demonstrations, and large gatherings which can be a target for violence. It is also a good idea to be aware of dangerous border crossings when travelling by land.
Remain alert at all times and avoid walking the streets at night. Theft is common, so it is a good idea to secure valuables you carry with you or keep them locked in your hotel room.
Consuming alcohol is not recommended as drink spiking is common as well as sexual assault. Be careful when using ATMs, only choosing secure locations to withdraw money, and monitor credit card transactions during your travels. Avoid any contact or use of drugs as Southeast Asian countries enforce extremely harsh punishments for drug possession.
Renting scooters can be a great way to get around many Southeast Asian countries, but it can also be dangerous. Always wear a helmet and be aware that road quality may be poor due to lack of maintenance. Note that many drivers often don’t adhere to traffic laws.
It is a good idea to visit your doctor for a health checkup before your travels and get all the required vaccinations needed for travelling to Southeast Asia. Mosquito-borne illnesses such as malaria, dengue fever, and the Zika virus are present, so take precautions such as covering skin and using insect repellent.
Stick to bottled water and avoid raw fruits and vegetables without a protective skin. Although street food is both cheap and popular in most Southeast Asian countries, consuming such food can lead to illness due to improper handling or undercooking. Avoid contact with animals, especially dogs and wild animals such as monkeys, as rabies is present in many Southeast Asian countries. Feeding animals can lead to infectious bites.
Purchasing travel insurance is a good way to help cover you from the costs of sickness or injury whilst you’re overseas, should you require treatment during your travels to Southeast Asia.
Another popular trend throughout Southeast Asia is medical tourism, where many travellers seek cosmetic surgery at greatly reduced rates. Travellers should be aware that medical standards may be poor, which can lead to serious and possibly life-threatening complications. Not only this, but medical tourism is not covered by travel insurance, so if a procedure goes wrong, your travel insurer can’t help.
There are a range of natural disasters that can occur around Southeast Asia so it is important to purchase travel insurance well before any such event has occurred to ensure you’re covered.
Indonesia in particular has seen a number of recent dangerous natural disasters including earthquakes, tsunamis, and volcanic eruptions. Avoid travelling to an area when natural disasters are more likely to occur, such as during typhoon season. Note that different areas of Southeast Asia experience wet and dry seasons in different months.
Familiarise yourself with emergency procedures for each possible natural disaster that may pose a threat and make contingency plans in case you’re affected. Natural disasters can disrupt domestic and international flights as well as access to necessities. If a natural disaster is threatening your chosen destination, contact your airline and place of accommodation to confirm flight schedules and bookings.
Much of Southeast Asia makes for a low-cost holiday. Of course, there are certain cities which are much more budget friendly than others. Cities such as Hoi An or Hanoi in Vietnam, Manila in the Philippines, and Chiang Mai in Thailand are the some of the cheapest destinations, while places like Singapore can be rather expensive.
A great way to save money while travelling through Southeast Asia is to adopt a backpacking travel style. Booking hostels or other shared accommodation is readily available throughout the region and very economical.
Luxury name brand hotels can be found as well but often reflect prices of Australian hotels. Consuming local food will be more economical than choosing upscale western-style restaurants, but street food is definitely not recommended as it will likely cause illness. And when it comes to transportation, public transport such as buses will be much cheaper than using taxis.
Using credit cards with no foreign transaction fees is a great idea but note that some locations and vendors may only accept cash payments. It is best to avoid converting money at airports and hotels where exchange rates are poor. You may want to exchange your money in a local bank when you arrive for the best rates.
Haggling is both common and welcomed in many Southeast Asian countries. Feel free to ask for better prices on goods in markets, but be respectful by not trying to haggle too low. Goods are often priced very low to begin with by Australian standards and a few extra dollars can greatly help locals of many countries in the area.
What to Pack
Southeast Asia sees warm temperatures most of the year, so most of your wardrobe should consist of lightweight clothing. You should also pack a lightweight rainproof jacket and small portable umbrella, especially when travelling during the monsoon season.
Many Southeast Asian countries are conservative and respect for local norms should be shown by covering your shoulders and legs when not on the beaches. It is often required that you wear closed shoes, pants or a long dress, and long sleeves when visiting temples, mosques, and shrines. A sarong can be used as a great cover-up as well as a makeshift beach towel.
You may not wish to pack a lot of clothing, as laundry can be done very cheaply in many locations. If you do not wish to deal with laundry, be aware that humid conditions may necessitate several changes of clothing each day. Pack sturdy hiking shoes if trekking, comfortable shoes for walking the city streets, and thongs for the beaches.
A small daypack is handy for daily excursions and water purification tablets or devices may be a good idea if going on a wildlife or culture tour to remote regions where bottled water may not be readily available. Pack insect repellent, sunscreen, lip balm, hats, and sunglasses to protect your skin.
Carry a universal travel power adapter for your electronics since outlets and voltage can differ throughout the region.
Pack any prescriptions you might need as they may not be readily available at your destination. However, make sure any prescriptions you do bring with you are allowed in the country, due to the strict drug laws.
A waterproof phone case is a good idea if you’re planning on hitting the beaches and a VPN can be helpful for freely browsing the internet. Be sure to bring plenty of SD cards for capturing your travel moments on camera, unless you simply plan on using your camera’s phone. Bring a portable power bank along to extend the life of your phone.
Where to Visit
To both inspire and help you find the Southeast Asian destination that’s perfect for you, we have created the following Southeast Asia destinations travel guide to shed light on some of the region’s top countries and experiences to be had. We encourage you to engage in responsible and ethical tourism, by avoiding attractions or activities that mistreat animals or harm the local environment. Whether you plan on backpacking on a self created itinerary or are looking at booking guided tours, try to give something back to the areas you visit and come away with a new outlook on the world.
If you’re looking to focus on a single country for your S.E. Asia holiday, Thailand may be the answer. There is enough on offer in Thailand to last a lifetime. Popular with Australian travellers for some time, Thailand offers something for any travel style. Relax on white sand beaches by day and visit lively night markets as the sun goes down. Notable night markets include Bangkok’s Patpong Night Market and Asiatique the Riverfront. Be sure to check out the city’s massive Chatuchak Weekend Market with more than 15,000 stalls, offering art, clothing, souvenirs, food, and more.
Activate all your senses in Bangkok, the country’s busy capital. Here you’ll find the Grand Palace, the giant reclining Buddha of Wat Pho, and the Wat Arun riverside temple.
Head to the large island of Phuket for the country’s most popular beaches, seaside resorts, lively nightclubs, and all the pampering you can ask for in terms of getting Thai massages, manicures, pedicures, and your hair styled. Phuket is also great for kids, offering them activities such as learning to surf, zorbing, the Patong Go-Kart Speedway, and KidzSole Flying Trapeze.
While visiting Thailand’s major cities such as Bangkok and Phuket is a must, don’t miss the many unexplored gems that often go overlooked. Visit the 10th century Hindu Khmer temple complex known as Phanom Rung, which is similar to Angkor Wat without the mass tourism. Experience Thailand’s more wild and natural side by visiting Khao Sok National Park with its waterfalls, caves, and emerald waters of Cheow Lan Lake. Wildlife in the park includes elephants, tapirs, hornbills, and the gigantic rafflesia flower. Visit Koh Phra Thong, and island off the country’s west coast, to take advantage of less crowded beaches and great dive spots where you may spot sea turtles.
Other notable locations to experience include Phang Nga Bay with its limestone karsts, the stunning Phi Phi Islands, and the Damnoen Saduak Floating Market.
This densely populated country has managed to move past its history with war to become a major tourist destination. Age old customs blend harmoniously with modern progression. Find relaxation on the beaches of Phu Quoc and Nha Trang or hike the Muong Hoa Valley to view the rice fields. Set sail along the Mekong River and see the world famous paradise that is Hạ Long Bay on a junk boat tour, with its thousands of islands and limestone karsts.
Playing a pivotal role during the Vietnam War, Ho Chi Minh City allows visitors to learn the country’s wartime history through sites like the War Remnants Museum, Reunification Palace, and the secretive Cu Chi Tunnels.
For a truly traditional look at Vietnamese culture, visit Sa Pa where you can arrange a homestay that will allow you to experience working in the rice fields, dressing up in local attire, and tasting regional cuisine.
Other notable locations include the idyllic beach resorts of Phú Quốc and the Sahara-like Mui Ne Sand Dunes. See the ancient town of Hội An, a UNESCO World Heritage Site offering temples, pagodas, canals, and bridges. The city is beautiful both day and night.
Turning our attention to Maritime Southeast Asia, Malaysia is split between the Malay Peninsula and the island of Borneo. The country is home to Kuala Lumpur and the world recognised Petronas Towers, the world’s largest twin towers. Eat your way through Jalan Alor in the heart of Kuala Lumpur and hope you have plenty of extra room in your luggage before hitting the BBKLCC shopping district.
Visit the 100+ islands and beaches of the Langkawi archipelago or be entertained in Genting Highlands with its theme parks, casinos, bars, restaurants, nightclubs, and malls. See the colonial architecture of George Town in Penang and the many museums and galleries of Malacca.
Over on Borneo, witness orangutans at the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre in Sabah. Take a Klias River cruise to see proboscis monkeys and giant hornbills. A and be sure to check out the caves of Gunung Mulu National Park.
By far the most visited country in Southeast Asia by Australians, Indonesia offers much more than just Bali. Island hopping may be the best way to see the world’s largest island country, made up of more than 17,000 islands.
The world’s fourth most populated country combines a wide array of cultures, making it feel as though you’re holidaying in numerous countries all at once. Dive right into the chaotic melting pot of surprises in the country’s capital, Jakarta. Jakarta showcases the many cultures found in Indonesia and offers endless activity and attractions.
Head to Sumatra for a wildlife safari unlike any other as you seek out tigers, elephants, sun bears, clouded leopards, Sumatran rhinoceroses, and orangutans. You then have the mighty dragons of Komodo National Park which are found on islands such as the aptly named Komodo Island.
Bali will of course always be one of Indonesia’s hot spots due to its beaches, resorts, and nightlife. There are, however, alternatives which offer just as much beauty and relaxation such as Lombok and the Gili Islands. Go a bit more off the beaten track and visit Sulawesi and nearby islands. Here you’ll find indigenous cultural experiences along with world class dive sites.
With direct flights from many Australian capital cities, Singapore makes a perfect starting point or stopover for exploring other Southeast Asian countries. Singapore offers a rich modern travel experience, where you’ll find major luxury hotel brands, world class shopping, and numerous Michelin starred restaurants.
This small island sovereign city-state packs quite a punch in terms of attractions and experiences to be had. A simple stroll along Marina Bay will reveal the massive Marina Bay Sands Resort and many of the area’s main attractions. Make your way over to the Gardens by the Bay and their nightly Garden Rhapsody sound-and-light spectacular or be overwhelmed with excitement on Sentosa Island. Here you will find a giant playground for both children and adults. Enjoy Universal Studios, Adventure Cove Waterpark, Madame Tussauds, Sentosa 4D Adventure Land, and the Singapore Flyer. There are also a number of wildlife experiences such as the S.E.A. Aquarium, Butterfly Park & Insect Kingdom, and Dolphin Island.
Head off Sentosa to explore more wildlife attractions such as the Singapore Zoo, Jurong Bird Park, Night Safari, and River Safari. For a more authentic natural setting, you can check out reserves such as MacRitchie which offers great hiking trails and a treetop walk to spot local wildlife.
You’ll find high end shopping along Orchard Road and intriguing cultural experiences in Chinatown and around Arab Street. Singapore’s incredibly easy Mass Rapid Transit system allows you to safely and economically see just about everything.
Another island-hopping paradise, the Philippines is made up of more than 7,000 islands. Nature reigns supreme here, with natural disasters such as typhoons always threatening.
Boracay, with its pure white beaches, has accumulated numerous “Best Islands of the World” awards. Most come here to relax, but there is also plenty of outdoor recreation to be had in the form of scuba diving and kiteboarding.
The Philippines is known as the zipline capital of the world, offering the longest island to island zipline in the world at nearly 2km in length, found in Sablayan.
Don’t miss the beautiful Banaue Rice Terraces, check out active volcanoes, and visit the magical Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park. Of course it would be difficult to miss the chaotic metropolis Manila with its massive malls, Spanish colonial architecture, and the lovely city Baywalk.
A country with a painful history, Cambodia has gone from the mighty Angkor Empire to civil war and the genocidal rule of the Khmer Rouge. A visit to this beautiful country will allow you to experience the unbreakable spirit of its people and the history they have experienced.
Cambodia is most well known for being the home of Angkor Wat, one of the largest religious monuments in the world. Siem Reap is the gateway to exploring this great wonder of the world and is known as the City of Temples. Phnom Penh offers up the Royal Palace, the Silver Pagoda, and the National Museum.
Cruise the Mekong River in search of Irrawaddy dolphins or search for other rare and elusive wildlife in Virachey National Park. Be sure to check out Cambodia’s floating markets too, they are truly charming.
No matter what you choose to do, Southeast Asia is a treasure trove of natural beauty, captivating, unique cultures, and unforgettable experiences. We hope our guide helps you create many delightful memories on your next trip to this beautiful part of the world. Happy travels!
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