Best Places to Visit in Southeast Asia for First-Timers

Best Places to Visit in Southeast Asia for First-Timers

By CindyUpdated Oct. 22, 2021

From Thailand and Vietnam to Singapore and Laos, Southeast Asian countries are full of vibrant places known for their beaches, temples, nightlife, and food. For a first trip to Southeast Asia, new travelers are overwhelmed with the vast choice of great destinations available.

That’s why we have considered the highlights of each destination as well as our local experts’ recommendations to round up the best vacation destinations in Southeast Asia. Use this list to help you make the right decisions and plan a trip that’s suitable for you.

Songkran Festival In Thailand

Top 3 Countries to Visit for Your First Trip in Southeast Asia

First time to Southeast Asia? Don’t know where to go?

Southeast Asia is a huge region and it is very diverse and full of things to do. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that deciding which areas to visit can be difficult.

There are 11 countries in Southeast Asia. If you want to visit Southeast Asia for the first time and visit multiple destinations, we would like to recommend that:

  • If you would like to spend 4 weeks or more there, you can consider Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, and Myanmar in your itinerary.
  • If you have 2–3 weeks, you can spend your time in Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam.
Recommended Articles


Thailand is the most visited country in Southeast Asia. It is loved by visitors due to its rich historical heritage, abundant natural resources, convenient transport, and relaxed visa policy.

It is easy to stay in Thailand for 10 days to visit its top destinations, including its main cities – Bangkok, Chiang Mai, and Chiang Rai – and its pristine beaches and islands — Phuket, Koh Samui, and Krabi.

If your time is limited, make sure you don’t miss Bangkok and Chiang Mai.


Bangkok, the vibrant capital, is usually used as the main gateway to Thailand and Southeast Asia. You can spend 3 days there to visit the Grand Palace, see some interesting floating markets, such as Bang Nam Phueng, take a boat ride on the Chao Phraya River, and take a side trip to Ayutthaya Historical Park.


Chiang Mai

Chiang Mai enjoys a high reputation in Thailand. The food is delicious and the atmosphere is friendlier than in other parts of Southern Thailand.

You can enjoy a leisurely walk around the Old City to see temple spires and barefoot monks and take a short bike or scooter ride out of the town to discover the countryside with its dense rain forest.

See Top 15 Things to Do in Chiang Mai.

chiang mai

A Classic Itinerary

As part of a classic itinerary, you will enter Thailand via Bangkok, continue your trip to the old Lanna capitals of Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai, and end your trip on the island of Koh Samui, which is known as the one of the world’s finest beach destinations. See the detailed itinerary of the Best of Thailand for inspiration.

Grand Palace And Wat Pra Keaw In Bangkok, Thailand
Recommended Itinerary


Cambodia is well-known for its magnificent temples in Angkor, a rich diversity of wildlife, and its French colonial legacy.

Two destinations you should not miss are Siem Reap and Phnom Penh, which are worthy of a trip for 3–5 days. If you plan to stay for more than 5 days, move through the country from the north to the south to see Battambang and Sihanoukville.

Siem Reap

Siem Reap is known for its many historical and religious sites. The most famous attraction in Siem Reap is Angkor Wat, an archaeological site with an amazing array of stone temples.

Make sure to spend some time touring the ruins of Angkor Thom, the former capital of the Khmer Empire. You can also enjoy a trip to a floating community on Tonle Sap Lake — Kampong Phluk.

See Top 10 Things to Do in Siem Reap.

Siem Reap

Phnom Penh

Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, attracts worldwide travelers as it offers plenty of heritage sites, intriguing markets, a charming café culture, and a delicious food scene.

You can spend one or two days experiencing the Khmer culture and visiting the historical heritage sites, such as the Royal Palace and the Silver Pagoda, and to sample the delights of the local food available.

See Top 8 Things to Do in Phnom Penh.



With beautiful beaches, French colonial architecture, diverse activities, and a vibrant culture, Vietnam is a must for your first trip to Southeast Asia. 

There is a wealth of places you can visit from the charming capital city of Hanoi, the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Halong Bay, the idyllic Sapa, the delightful ancient town of Hoi An, and the dynamic Ho Chi Minh City to the “rice bowl” of Vietnam — the Mekong Delta.

It is no problem to spend over 2 weeks in the country. For first-timers, you can take a 10-day trip to cover the most famous destinations, as detailed below.

Recommended Itinerary


In Hanoi, you can take a walk through the street markets in the Old Quarter, stroll around the tranquil Hoan Kiem Lake, and visit the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum Complex and the Ho Chi Minh Museum. See the Top 8 Things to Do in Hanoi.


Halong Bay

After one or two days in downtown Hanoi, you can go to Halong Bay for a 2-day cruise. It is a magnificent natural wonder, consisting of over 1,600 limestone islands and islets.

You can enjoy some leisure time on the cruise and experience a variety of activities, such as kayaking, swimming, and diving, as well as visiting uninhabited islands and a floating village.

See more interesting things to do in Halong Bay.

Halong bay, Vietnam

Hoi An

Hoi An is a well-preserved example of a Southeast Asian trading port city. It is a great place to see typical Vietnamese countryside villages, experience a fusion of indigenous and foreign cultures, and spend time on the beaches.

See the Top 8 Things to Do in Hoi An.

Hoi An in Vietnam

Ho Chi Minh City

Ho Chi Minh City, the largest city in Vietnam, is a noisy and dynamic metropolis. It is very popular among travelers because of its fascinating culture, classic French architecture, ornate temples and pagodas, and tasty food combining French, Chinese, and local Vietnamese cuisine.

You can enjoy a one-day city tour to visit the War Remnants Museum and Reunification Palace. Have a glance at Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica of Saigon, the Saigon Central Post Office, and Dong Khoi Street.

See the Top Things to Do in Ho Chi Minh City.

Ho chi minh

The Mekong Delta

The Mekong Delta is a network of distributaries in southwestern Vietnam. It is very popular to take a one-day or two-day trip to shop in the famous floating markets, discover the villages surrounded by rice paddies, visit local orchards, take sampan rides through natural tunnels, and sample an amazing variety of fruits.

the mekong delta

A Sample Southeast Asian Trip for First-Timers

Here is a sample itinerary of a first trip to Southeast Asia, for your reference:

Day 1: Bangkok arrival

Day 2–3: Bangkok sightseeing

Day 4: Bangkok to Siem Reap, Cambodia

Day 5–6: Siem Reap sightseeing

Day 7: Siem Reap to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

Day 8: Ho Chi Minh City sightseeing

Day 9: Ho Chi Minh City to the Mekong Delta

Day 10: the Mekong Delta to Hoi An

Day 11: Hoi An sightseeing

Day 12: Hoi An to Hanoi

Day 13: Hanoi sightseeing

Day 14: Hanoi to Halong Bay

Day 15: Halong Bay back to Hanoi

Day 16: Hanoi departure

See more of our Southeast Asia tours for inspiration.

If you have any questions or would like to tailor-make a Southeast Asia tour, please feel free to contact us.

Recommended Tours

The 5 Most Romantic Destinations in Southeast Asia

With a lot of breathtaking islands and beaches, Southeast Asia is the perfect place for a honeymoon. Among the 11 countries, Thailand, Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam, and Malaysia are recommended.

If you are looking for a trip with your loved one, keep reading for some inspiration.

Recommended Itinerary

1. Palawan, the Philippines — for Beach-Loving Couples

Palawan, known as the ultimate island for honeymoon trips, has repeatedly been voted as having the most beautiful beaches in the world. It has an abundance of white sandy beaches and mysterious lagoons. It offers a great variety of different activities for couples, such as diving and snorkeling.

a beach in southeast asia

2. Bagan, Myanmar — for Temple-Loving Couples

Bagan, home to more than 2,000 surviving monuments, is one of the most stunning temple sites across Southeast Asia. If you are interested in visiting temples, don’t miss it.

It is romantic to take a hot-air balloon ride over the temples to experience an unforgettable bird’s-eye view of Bagan. You can also enjoy beautiful sunset views from Bagan's temples or take a bike or e-scooter to discover the views around the temples.


3. Siem Reap, Cambodia — for Adventure-Loving Couples

Siem Reap is famous for the famed ruins of Angkor Wat. It offers a lot of romantic experiences. You can watch the beautiful sunrise over Angkor Wat, take a walk around the most romantic temple, Ta Prohm, take a tuk tuk tour around Angkor Wat, or take a helicopter ride over the floating villages on Tonle Sap Lake.

Angkor Wat

4. Chiang Mai, Thailand — for Food and City Vibe-Loving Couples

Chiang Mai is a popular romantic destination. You can enjoy a couple’s spa and massage, savor the delicious Thai cuisine, visit Chiang Mai Night Bazaar, and pay a meaningful visit to an elephant sanctuary.

Thai Massage

5. Halong Bay, Vietnam — for Natural Scenery and Cruise-Loving Couples

Halong Bay is a natural wonder with emerald seas, majestic limestone karsts, watercolor skies, fresh sea breezes, and a quiet twilight. Cruising along Halong Bay cannot get more romantic. You can enjoy some leisure time on the deck, soak up the sun on a beach, go kayaking, and swim in the calm water.

Halong Bay, kayaking, Vietnam, cruise

The 5 Best Vacation Destinations in Southeast Asia for Families

Are you looking for family vacation destinations in Southeast Asia? All of these beautiful places will make the perfect family vacation for your bucket list!

Recommended Itinerary

1. Singapore

Singapore, a clean and modern city, is one of the most family-friendly destinations in Southeast Asia. It is welcomed by families due to the arts, fashion, culture, and big-name events.

You can take your kids to visit one of the biggest aquariums in the world, S.E.A. Aquarium, enjoy a breakfast with the orangutans at Singapore Zoo, stroll around Gardens by the Bay, walk around Chinatown, and visit the Chinatown Heritage Center.


2. Chiang Mai, Thailand 

Chiang Mai, with a calm and relaxed atmosphere, is one of the best family-friendly destinations in Thailand.

There are many kid-friendly activities, such as seeing elephants in Elephant Nature Park, seeing temples in Chiang Mai Old City, and taking a bike ride through the countryside.

chiang mai

3. Penang, Malaysia

Malaysia is a combination of multiple diverse cultures. You and your kids can experience a mixed culture of Malay, British, Indian, and Chinese traditions. Penang is one of the best places for a family vacation in Malaysia.

You can visit Tropical Spice Garden, walk in Entopia by Penang Butterfly Farm, hike to Turtle Beach, and so on.


4. Bali, Indonesia

If you are looking for a tropical and relaxing getaway, then Bali is the place for you! There is some family-friendly accommodation and numerous restaurants to make your stay very easy.

You can discover Bali’s culture and animals at Bali Safari and Marine Park, ride an elephant at Elephant Safari Park, go jet skiing, go white water rafting, feed and swim with sharks, as well as visit a turtle conservation center.


5. Hoi An, Vietnam

With beautiful landscapes, a rich culture, and varied food, Vietnam is a famous country in Southeast Asia for family travel. There are many cities from north to south that are suitable to visit for families.

Hoi An is an ancient town where you can enjoy a tranquil moment with your family. You can visit the beaches and temples, go shopping, and take a food tour around the old town.

Hoi An

Discover Southeast Asia with Us

We, at Asia Highlights, specialize in tailor-made vacations and our experienced travel consultants can help you customize your perfect vacation in Asia. From special excursions to fully personalized travel itineraries, we can help you create your dream Southeast Asia tour. Let us know your requirements when you make a free inquiry to see what we can do.

Why Travel with Asia Highlights

  • Tailor-made experience: All of your ideas/needs will be carefully considered to create your ideal trip.
  • Worry-free planning: Every step of your trip, you will be looked after by your 1:1 travel consultant based in Asia.
  • No-risk booking: We refund as much as we can and adapt flexibly to unexpected changes.

More Travel Ideas and Inspiration

Get Inspired with Our Sample Itineraries

At Asia Highlights, we create your kind of journey — your dates, your destinations, at your pace. You can have any trip tailor made for your travel.

We are here to help you...
Start planning your tailor-made Asia tour with 1-1 help from our travel advisors. Create My Trip
About Us
At Asia Highlights, we create your kind of journey — your dates, your destinations, at your pace. Not just any journey, but the unique trip with the exceptional experiences you're looking for — whether it's a family vacation, a honeymoon, or your annual break. more ...
Rated 4.8 out of 5 | Excellent
Featured on