Where to start? South East Asia is truly stunning, and if you can navigate your way past the droves of other backpackers, there are some unspoilt gems to be found. We found that going during shoulder season also really helped, with even some parts of Thailand being fairly empty. This is one of our longer itineraries, and involves a lot of travel around islands which can take longer than expected (especially in Philippines and Indonesia!) so I would allow at least six months to cover this off properly – you won’t want to leave any of these places so allow for extra days to daydream and enjoy!
Click on the hyperlinks in the place names to see the full photo journal
- Krabi & Railay: Railay was the closest we came to finding the beach you imagine when you think Thailand. A tiny island reached only by longtail boat, Railay West beach is a little slice of heaven. All karsts, clear seas, white sands and incredible sunsets. There are a fair few expensive resorts here, but you can still find cheap backpacker places – just ask the boatmen who drop you off.
- Ko Lanta: We’ve heard Ko Lanta is a great place to bike around (we were too scared!) as there’s a sea gypsy village on one side of the island that’s apparently great, but we spent a relaxing few days just chilling on the wide peach sand beach and eating in the great (untouristy) restaurants in town and hitting up the Moon Party for fire-spinners and general revelry.
- Luang Prabang: Pretty, French-influenced river-side town of Luang Prabang hosts some wonderful temples; great massages, and the best food you’ll eat in Laos. Try a set menu in a riverside cafe or the buffet stir-fries/bakery goods on the market. Great nearby days out include stunning turquoise Kuang Si Waterfalls where you can trek and swim in the falls; and for a night out you can’t beat the post-curfew bowling lanes!
- Si Phan Don (Four Thousand Islands): A place to drop hat and chill for a few days, Si Phan Don is a rustic set of islands that have been adopted by hammock-swinging stoners. Watch the Mekong float by for a few days, but make sure you hire a bike to explore all the islands on a day trip, as the views en route (and the little villages) are really cool. There are also little beaches and waterfalls (and beer places) to stop cool off en route!
- Tad Lo: Adorable sleepy Tad Lo is a popular stop on a famous biking route, and is the epicentre of some really great waterfalls nearby. Give yourself a few days to properly unwind, drink some coffee (this is a coffee growing district!) and go sunbathe/swim at some pretty falls. Town itself is great for a potter around – cute goats and pigs cross the little roads and hang out at the temple as locals wash clothes in the river.
- Ifugao Rice Terraces: A bit of a trek from Manilla, but totally worth it. Spend a few days touring the towns of the Ifugao Rice Terraces: Banaue is a natural first stop to see the lookout at the top of town, and meet some travel buddies to go onwards to Batad which was our favourite town – a stunning amphitheatre of rice terraces with a tiny village in the middle, a bracing waterfall, and hostels with great views. We also visited Bontoc for a more authentic town, which had a great Hill Tribe museum. Also heard Sagada was great.
- Coron: Coron arguable offers some of the best nearby beaches, lagoons and snorkelling in the Philippines, and we regret not staying here longer. The island itself is cute but lacks beaches as it’s on a jutting rocky peninsula, but high quality boat trips take you to all the best spots in the vicinity (there are about 5 popular tours – we’d recommend Tour B!). There’s also amazing wreck diving here.
- El Nido: A must for any Philippines itinerary, El Nido is a tourist hub for overnight boat tours to visit pretty (if crowded) lagoons, beaches and snorkelling spots. We took an unforgettable tour (A+C combined tours) camping overnight on a tiny desert island with unlimited rum and inevitable skinny dipping! The tour stops are really stunning, and town itself has a decent beach – Coron Coron – a short drive from town.
- Apo Island: What this tiny rocky island lacks in sandy coastline, it more than makes up for in personality and world-class diving. The locals are crazily friendly, and the dive shop guys want to be your best friend. We did our first few dives here post-Open Water and it was a perfect place to take the plunge. You can also snorkel with turtles straight off the bay (they nest here!) and drink rum and catch live music at Mario’s homestay.
- Bohol: cutesy jungley Bohol is a great place to unwind for a few days, and there’s a few fancy jungle hut lodges on the river to choose from (like Nuts Huts). If you fancy day trips, check out the adorable tarsiers at the local sanctuary, the firefly trees or the weird phenomenon of the ‘Chocolate Hills’! Failing that, just swim in the river and swim in the hammock for a few days and watch the world go by.
- Siquijor Island: Another favourite from our 1.5 months in the Philippines, Siquijor is a gorgeous island full of adventure. A fantastic place to ride a motorbike (or tuk-tuk) around, you can visit its ancient Belete Tree, ancient Lazi Convent and its adjacent church, stunning Cahugay waterfalls and many little beaches. There’s a super laidback friendly vibe here, with plenty of streetside barbeques and karaoke bars.
- Halong Bay: We are including this entry as more of a deterrent than a recommendation! Halong Bay was very disappointing, and we met lots of travellers with the same view. It’s over-polluted, over-touristed, and (on most days!) very misty and grey. Tours constantly under-deliver, and it’s tricky to do independently. Perhaps in great weather it could be ok, but there are far prettier karst bays elsewhere – like any in the Philippines!
- Ko Pha-Ngan: We hit up Ko Pha-Ngan on our way from Cambodia to Malaysia, and found a quiet, stunning corner in the North West called Haad Salaad. We refrained from the Full Moon party after hearing bad things, but the beaches were really fabulous and we even found a (fairly!) ‘local’ vibe restaurant away from the tourist throngs. A nice place to wile away a spare week.
- Cherating: Chilled surfer town Cherating boasts a wide, pretty beach and plenty of wooden beach hut chalets back from the main road. Unmissable: an incredible, magical tour of the local fireflies that live in trees lining a river. You can take a boat out and learn all about the asynchronous fireflies’ lifestyles from an enthusiastic expert, and watch them light up the blackness. Really spectacular!
- Pulau Perenthian: although pretty touristy compared to other islands like Rawa, the Perenthians are still undeniably beautiful and there are walks to deserted beaches and fishermens’ villages that make these islands still feel authentic, with largely domestic tourists here. Friendly dragon lizards roam; there are turtles and sharks to see whilst snorkelling; and you may be lucky enough to catch an exciting lightning storm!
- Ubud: known as the cultural centre of Bali, Ubud has sold out a little in the last few years, so expect lanes full of boutiques and overpriced cafes, but it still retains some of its original charms. Here you can find hippy warungs, the wonderful Monkey Sanctuary, homestays, overtouristed rice terraces, and great traditional dancing (though we opted to see this in Yogyakarta instead)
- Gili Trawangan: Gili T is also a little over-touristed these days. A few years ago it was quite raw, full of psychadelic hippies, shrooms and dive shops. Now it’s quite fancy in parts – lots of private villas and spenny seafood restaurants. Snorkelling tours from here around the Gilis are good; you can also cycle around the island and check out late-night dancing with DJs playing on the strip outside Rudy’s.
- Togean Islands: the closest we came to a slice of true paradise, the Togeans are notoriously hard to reach, but once you get there, prepare for nothing but pure relaxation. Stunning tiny islands of clear turquoise sea and blinding fine sands await, with rustic all-inclusive beach hut ‘resorts’ (tiny islands); great snorkelling and diving; a lagoon full of stingless jellyfish; BBQs on the beach with the freshest fish; and the friendliest locals.
- Komodo National Park: from its absolutely world-class diving (where else can you see mantas and white tipped sharks in one afternoon?) to its tours of the hideous, terrifying komodo dragons themselves, Komodo is unmissable. We wish we’d spent longer here. Snorkel or dive manta point for close-ups of these majestic beauties, and take the 2-day Komodo tour including Rinca, Komodo and a hike up stunning Padma Island.
- Sabah: heartbreaking deforestation caused by the palm oil trade is prevalent in Borneo, and much of its wildlife has sadly been destroyed. However, for a chance to see orangutans in the semi-wild, you don’t get much better than the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation centre, where you might encounter them on a trail. There are cool jungle lodges to stay nearby, and plentiful tours (including river tours) but with mixed reviews.
- Sarawak: Kuching was our favourite town in Borneo, as it most resembles a regular Malaysian town. There’s a lot to love here – good food; day trips to local (and faraway) museums and ‘living museums’; and very relaxed locals. There’s also nearby Bako National Park where you may be lucky enough to see the penis-nosed probiscus monkeys but you will definitely see snorting wild boars and lots of wildlife aside.