3 of the best places to go in Southeast Asia

Daniel Higginbotham, Editor
July, 2018

Some of the world's most popular gap year hotspots can be found in Southeast Asia, so find out which of the region's fascinating countries you want to explore…


This friendly and vibrant nation welcomed nearly 30 million international tourists in 2015. Its rich history is fused with a Western influence, meaning that it's the perfect place to start for those visiting Southeast Asia for the first time. It has everything: stunning beaches, towering mountains, buzzing cities and beautiful national parks.

Thailand is a backpacking haven - and organisations such as Gap360, Go Overseas, Plan My Gap Year, Xtreme Gap Year and One World 365 provide experiences lasting from five days to more than one year, costing between £299 and £2,579. Popular ventures include teaching English in schools, meditating and working with Buddhist monks, learning diving or Muay Thai boxing, and preserving and conserving natural heritage or wildlife.

The capital city, Bangkok, is famed for its architectural beauty and wild nightlife, and is a must-see destination. But it is by no means the only one. Other top destinations on the mainland include:

  • Ayutthaya - This former capital city, in the centre of Thailand, is home to the Historical Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
  • Chiang Mai - The largest and most culturally significant city in northern Thailand, this relaxed location is home to the incredible Elephant Nature Park.
  • Chiang Rai - The start of most treks, Thailand's northernmost large city is in a jungle-ridden, mountainous location, and the gateway to Myanmar.
  • Kanchanaburi - The famous Bridge on the River Kwai is located in this western city.
  • Nakhon Pathom - This central city is home to the tallest Buddhist monument in the world, the Phra Pathommachedi.
  • Pai - A small and friendly town in the north.

No visit to Thailand is complete without sampling at least one of its incredible islands. Phuket is the most popular destination, but also consider:

  • Ko Chang, if you fancy trying out one of the world's finest sea kayaking spots;
  • Koh Lipe, Ko Lanta or Ko Samet, if you're looking for a stunning yet quiet retreat;
  • Ko Pha-Ngan, if you fancy partaking in the Full Moon Party, a world-renowned monthly dance music festival;
  • Ko Tao, if you want to dive with the critically endangered Hawksbill sea turtle.


Just like Cambodia, tourism is fairly new to this incredible country, as a result of its turbulent history. However, it has a similar picturesque beauty, boasting jungles, tropical forests, tribal villages and bustling cities, plus thousands of miles of incredible coastline. What's more, compared to Thailand, this hilly, tree-covered country is extremely cheap.

Organisations such as Real Gap Experience, Plan My Gap Year, Go Overseas, Gap360, Xtreme Gap Year, One World 365 and Projects Abroad provide experiences lasting from one week to more than four weeks. Costs vary from £459 to £1,250, with many opportunities focused around disabled or disadvantaged children.

One popular backpacking route is travelling between Hanoi, the capital, and Ho Chi Minh City, arguably the country's most significant location. This is because the railway from the north to the south is safe and reliable - and there are lots of places to visit along the way.

Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon, is full of nightlife, bustling markets and great street food. You could visit Independence Palace, Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica of Saigon, war museums and the grave of Ho Chi Minh. Hanoi, meanwhile, is full of evidence of the city's French colonial past, such as tree-lined boulevards. Other destinations include:

  • Cu Chi - Here, you can explore the Viet Cong's underground tunnel network.
  • Da Lat - This beautiful city is surrounded by forests, hills and waterfalls.
  • Ha Long Bay - This northern UNESCO World Heritage site allows you to scuba dive in the South China Sea.
  • Hue - The ancient capital, found on the shores of the Perfume River, boasts 19th century palaces and pagodas from the Nguyen Dynasty.
  • Mekong Delta - This south-western watery landscape is home to quaint villages and friendly locals.

If beautiful beaches are your thing, visit Da Nang, Nha Trang or Mui Ne. The latter is one of the world's top kite surfing destinations. Phu Quoc is an amazing-yet-expensive place that offers brilliant adventure excursions.


While it is still developing as a tourist nation, Cambodia is home to stunning and diverse landscapes - from the waterfalls and ancient crater lakes of the northeast to the jungles and mangroves of the south-western Cardamom Mountains, where you can kayak or enjoy a canopy walk.

Most gap year opportunities revolve around working with children, from teaching in schools to helping disadvantaged youngsters. Organisations such as Real Gap Experience, Plan My Gap Year, Go Overseas, Projects Abroad, Camps International, Year Out Group and GapGuru provide experiences lasting from one week to more than a month, catering for all budgets.

The two main cities are Phnom Penh, the capital, and Siem Reap, nicknamed the Temple Town. Both are home to bustling markets, lively bars and tempting restaurants, many serving chocolate-tasting coffee and the country's national dish of Amok - baked fish with lemongrass, chilli and coconut. Somewhat fewer serve one of the country's more acquired specialities: deep-fried tarantula.

In the hectic-yet-charming Phnom Penh, you can see the Silver Pagoda and the Royal Palace. You can also learn about the devastating Khmer Rouge regime - which ruled the country under dictator Pol Pot during the 20th century - by visiting the National Museum of Cambodia or the Killing Fields where more than one million people were murdered and buried.

Siem Reap, the former capital, is home to the temple complex of Angkor Wat, the world's largest religious monument, and an absolute must-visit at sunrise. Other popular destinations include:

  • Angkor Thom - An historic walled city packed with monuments, including the Bayon, a 13th century temple.
  • Battambang - This north-western town is home to bat caves and the ancient temples of Prasat Sneung.
  • The Mekong - Take a boat ride down this river and observe freshwater dolphins, or follow the waterway's course by motorbike.
  • Mondulkiri - In this eastern province, you can meet elephants at the Mondulkiri Project or trek into untamed jungle.
  • Sihanoukville - A seaside city full of nightlife where you can relax and cool down, plus visit the Ream National Park, and the nearby islands of Koh Rong and Koh Rog Samloem.

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