Bordered by the Indian subcontinent to the west, and by China and Japan to the north and east, Southeast Asia is a tropical region of volcanoes, rainforest, ricefields and coral reefs, whose constituent countries – Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam – together make one of the most stimulating and accessible regions for independent travel in the world. Here you can spend the day exploring thousand-year-old Hindu ruins, and the night at a rave on the beach; attend a Buddhist alms-giving ceremony at dawn and go whitewater rafting in the afternoon; chill out in a bamboo beach hut for a fortnight or hike energetically through the jungle looking for orang-utans.
In short, there is enough diversity here to keep anyone hooked for months, and the average cost of living is so low that many Western travellers find they can actually afford to be here for months. In addition, the tourist infrastructure is sufficiently developed to make travel reasonably comfortable and straightforward, and there are recognizable tourist trails that span the region.
The most popular destination in Southeast Asia is Thailand, and the vast majority of travellers begin their journey through the region in Bangkok, tempted both by the number of cheap flights from the West, and by the well-established backpackers’ scene there. Thailand offers some of the best beaches in the world, as well as many moderate hilltribe treks, and has fast, inexpensive road and rail links to neighbouring Malaysia and Laos. Conveniently, Bangkok is also the easiest place in the world to get hold of a visa for Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia. The most popular trans-Southeast Asia route takes travellers down to one of the beaches in south Thailand, from where they get a train or bus into Malaysia.
Slightly less touristy, Malaysia boasts equally nice beaches, particularly on the east coast, good diving, and some rewarding national park hikes. East Malaysia, which shares the large island of Borneo with Indonesia’s Kalimantan province and the little kingdom of Brunei, is much more off the beaten track and offers adventurous (if costly) travel by river through the jungle and nights in tribal longhouses.
Marooned in the middle of Malaysian Borneo, the tiny independent kingdom of Brunei is expensive and dull, so most people stop here only when obliged to by plane schedules.
Overland travellers with plenty of time might stop off for a couple of days in hi-tech Singapore, which sits at the southern tip of Peninsular Malaysia, but as it’s relatively pricey and has no unmissable sights, Singapore’s main appeal is the boat service across to Sumatra, the northernmost island of Indonesia (travellers who don’t fancy Singapore generally opt for the boats from Melaka or Penang to Sumatra).
Indonesia vies with Thailand as the region’s most visited destination, with fantastic volcanic landscapes, plenty of hiking opportunities, an unparalleled diversity of tribal cultures, decent beaches and diving, and lots of arts and crafts. There are so many islands in Indonesia that it could take you a lifetime to explore the whole archipelago, but the classic itinerary takes you through Sumatra, across to Java and then on to Bali and Lombok. With extra time, you could continue east as far as Flores, from where it’s just a few hours’ flight to northern Australia.
Stuck way out beyond both Thailand loops, the Philippines is often omitted from Southeast Asia trips because it has no overland access – most people fly there via Hong Kong. Once you have made the commitment though, the Philippines archipelago boasts some of the best beaches and most dramatic diving in the whole region, along with good volcano hikes, plus some exceptionally exuberant festivals.