Asia

THE ULTIMATE SOUTHEAST ASIA BUCKET

15 Epic Southeast Asia Bucket List Experiences

The Ultimate Southeast Asia Bucket List: hot air balloons in Bagan, Myanmar
Sunrise in Bagan, Myanmar

Southeast Asia is a backpacker’s dream. Millions of tourists make their way along the Banana Pancake trail every year and it’s easy to see why.

Want to explore an ancient wonder? Head to Angkor Wat, check out the pagodas in Bagan or ponder the mysterious Plain of Jars in Laos.

After great food? Southeast Asia has no shortage. Pad Thai, cao lau, banh mi, amok curry… here you’ll find some of the tastiest food in the world.

Picturesque beaches?  Tick! Friendly people? Yes! Affordable prices? Ah, yes.

Most of all Southeast Asia offers the chance to have an adventure. This guide will have you zip lining through the jungle, playing with elephants, and camping overnight in the third largest cave in the world.

Excited? Read on to discover the ultimate Southeast Asia bucket list.

A couple stand next to an elephant with a flower in it's ear, Southeast Asia
Elephant Nature Park, Chiang Mai

The Ultimate Southeast Asia Bucket List: 15 Epic Experiences to Have in Southeast Asia

Thailand Bucket List

1. Play With An Elephant at Elephant Nature Park

When you think of bucket list Thailand experiences playing with an elephant is probably top of your list. But because you’re a stand-up human, you want to do it in an ethical way.

Elephant Nature Park is an elephant sanctuary located outside of Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand. The park is home to a large herd of free-roaming elephants that have been rescued and rehabilitated. A lot of these beautiful creatures had a tough life before being brought to the park, either working in the logging industry or in tourism. It’s heart-breaking to see their scars and broken hips but today the elephants lead a much better life.

For a truly special experience you can spend the night at the park. You’ll enjoy tasty vegetarian food, spend more time getting to know these gentle giants, and watch the sunset over the herd in the fields below.

The Overnight Elephant Nature Park experience costs 5,800baht ($185 USD).

2. Learn How to Whip Up a Thai Feast

Thai food is one of my favourite cuisines in the world. Pad Thai, curries, mango sticky rice… everything the Thai people whip up manages to be fresh, flavourful and delicious.

Wanna learn how to prepare your own Thai feast? Learn the secrets behind Thai cuisine and take home recipes to wow your friends with a Thai cooking class.

There are TONNES of Thai cooking classes all over Thailand. One of the best cooking classes I did was in Chiang Rai with Suwannee Thai Cooking Class.

Suwanee’s cooking class began with a tour around a local food market where we got to taste delicacies such as fragrant fried donuts and banana pancakes. We then went back to Suwannee’s house and a small group of us whipped up four Thai dishes. Suwannee was a patient and informative teacher, and we even got to make our own curry paste from scratch!

Trust me; a Thai cooking class is without a doubt the tastiest bucket list experience around.

Handmade Pad Thai with onion and lime garnish
Red Thai curry with king prawns in yellow dish

3. Explore the Thai Jungle in Khao Yai National Park

Want to get a little wild? Head deep into the jungle in Khao Yai National Park for a chance to get up close and personal with some of Thailand’s four-legged friends. And the eight-legged kind. And those that slither…

The best way to explore Thailand’s first national park is a tour with Greenleaf Guesthouse & Tour. Greenleaf offer half and full day jungle tours for 500 baht and 1500 baht respectively (roughly $16 & $47 USD). We did the full day tour, and got to see monkeys, gibbons, a snake, hornbills, and a crocodile. We also heard wild elephants in the distance!

Girl stands wearing leech socks in front of forested valley behind, Southeast Asia
Khao Yai National Park, Thailand

Read More: The Ultimate 3-Week Thailand Itinerary

Myanmar Bucket List

4. Hike From Kalaw to Inle Lake

A 3-day hike may not sound like your cup of tea, but this is a hike that definitely deserves to be on your Southeast Asia bucket list.

On the 3-day hike from Kalaw to Inle Lake in rural Myanmar you’ll have the opportunity to meet and stay with local people. You’ll sleep in villages with no electricity, shower under a bucket, and get to play with cheeky children. The Burmese food prepared by your guides will be some of the tastiest you’ll come across in Myanmar. You’ll see men herding water buffalo, women in the fields planting, and maybe a sweet old lady who will gladly give you a handful of chilis for your dinner.

We booked our hike with Eagle Trekking. We had a small group of six and were led by two fantastic guides. The price varies depending on group size but it ranges from $50-$70 USD. You’ll also have to pay $10 USD for the Inle Zone entrance fee.

A train kicks up dust from the tracks in rural Myanmar, Southeast Asia
A train in rural Myanmar

5. See the Sunrise From a Hot Air Balloon in Bagan

Have you ever dreamed of floating through the sky in a hot air balloon? Does it sound even better if I tell you you’ll get to watch the sunrise? And that as the sun comes up, you’ll be flying high above a landscape strewn with thousands of ancient pagodas?

Seriously, if you ride a hot air balloon anywhere, make it Bagan.

As we drifted slowly across the sky the temples below came into focus. We could see some of the important sites, but were also able to fully appreciate just how many temples there are in Bagan (a lot). After landing we were served sparkling wine and left to ruminate on an incredible experience.

We paid $399 USD per person for our hour long balloon ride. While that’s a pretty steep price, it was more than worth it for this once in a lifetime Southeast Asia bucket list experience.

The silhouette of a hot air balloon against the rising sun, Bagan, Myanmar
A balloon floats past at sunrise in Old Bagan, Myanmar

6. See the Floating Houses of Inle Lake

Touristy? Yes. Over-priced? Yes? Still worth including on your Southeast Asia bucket list? Absolutely.

Inle Lake is one of those places you have to see at least once in your life.

The vast lake, in Myanmar’s Shan State, is home to a unique culture and way of life. Take to the water to see the stilt-house villages and gold-clad Buddhist temples. Explore the fascinating local markets and floating gardens, or pause for a moment to spy the Intha fisherman propelling their boats along with their unique leg-rowing technique.

Read More: The Ultimate Guide to Backpacking Myanmar

Laos Bucket List

7. The Gibbon Experience

Laos is an adventure-lover’s playground, and the biggest adventure of all can be found in Huay Xai. From this sleepy riverside town you’ll be transported deep into Nam Kan National Park for an epic few days zip lining through the jungle.

The Gibbon Experience has three tours; Classic, Express and Waterfall. We chose the 3-day, 2-night Classic Tour as it offers the best opportunity to spot gibbons. Plus, you get to make the most of your experience by spending 2 nights in the jungle.

There is a fair amount of walking involved and you do need a moderate fitness level. But get your walking shoes on because the chance to zip line through the trees cannot be missed. More than anything the Gibbon Experience offers visitors a unique perspective of the jungle below. Flying along more than 15kms of combined zip lines from treehouse to treehouse is an unforgettable experience.

The Classic Tour cost 3,107,000 Lao Kip ($360 USD), with 10% of that fee going into reforestation and aid projects. While pricey on a backpacker’s budget, The Gibbon Experience is a once in a lifetime opportunity to fulfil a childhood fantasy.

Close up on a gibbon in tree

8. Explore Luang Prabang

Luang Prabang is one of those places that will make you fall in love with Laos. A sleepy riverside village, it would seem at first that there’s not much more to do than see the ornately-decorated temples and lazily watch young monks in their vibrant robes.

But you’d be wrong.

While indulging in the laid back lifestyle is part of Luang Prabang’s charm, the region is also home to a range of activities. If you’re feeling adventurous you could catch a tuk tuk out to the terraced Kung Si Falls. Make sure to pack your togs; the turquoise pools make a great place to cool off in the tropical Laos heat. Another site worth exploring is the Pak Ou Caves, home to 6000 tiny Buddha statues.

Luang Prabang is unquestionably deserving of a spot on your Southeast Asia bucket list.

Girl in grey tee shirt watches terraced falls, Laos
Kung Si Falls, Laos

9. Discover the Mysterious Plain of Jars

Laos’ Plain of Jars is larger and more impressive than Stonehenge, but most traveller’s have never even heard of it.

Located in Phonsavan, a long, windy mini bus trip from Luang Prabang or Vang Vieng, the Plain of Jars is home to thousands of ancient stone jars. They date back around 1500-2000 years, and it is believed that the jars were once used to store either human remains or rice wine.

How they got there and what their true purpose was is a mystery, and something you can ponder while wandering around the ruins.

Man in white tee shirt stares into large stone jar, Plain of Jars
What’s inside? Head to the Plain of Jars to find out

Read More: The Complete Guide to Backpacking Laos

Vietnam Bucket List

10. Stay the Night in the Third Largest Cave in the World

Located in Central Vietnam, Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park contains hundreds of caves, many of them extraordinary size and length. The best part? You can hike down into the park and spend the night in Hang En Cave, the third largest cave in the world.

Oxalis, a locally operated tour group, offers several experiences within Phong Nha-Ke Bang. We chose the Hang En Adventure, and the 2-day tour was one of the most magical things I’ve done in my life.

You’ll begin by clambering down a steep hill, crossing several rivers and hiking through the jungle. In the afternoon you’ll arrive at Hang En Cave wet and tired, only to be rendered speechless by the view before you. The colourful tents are tiny from where you’re standing, and the river winds its way lazily through the vast cavern.

The price for the Hang En Adventure tour is 7,600,000 Dong (approximately $330 USD).

Man wearing lifejacket adjusts his headtorch in cave with water, Vietnam
In the depths of Hang En Cave

11. Ride a Motorbike From Hue to Hoi An

Southeast Asia is the perfect place for a motorbike ride through the countryside.

But, unless you have a lot of experience riding motorbikes, I wouldn’t recommend doing it alone. In 3 months travelling through Southeast Asia I saw my fair share of tourists with shins, elbows, and other body parts completely skinned after motorbike accidents. Plus, the traffic and driving in Southeast Asia is crazy, and road rules are seemingly non-existent.

Instead, why not indulge your motorbike riding fantasy with a tour with Le Family Riders? They’re well-known for their tour from Hue along the coast to Hoi An and it makes for a fantastic day.

Along the way you’ll get to stop and explore Elephant Spring, drive through the spectacular Hai Van mountain pass, and visit the Marble Mountain in Da Nang. The guides are funny, warm and knowledgeable, and the experience is likely to be a highlight of your time in Southeast Asia.

You can choose to ride on your own if you have enough experience or ride on the back with a guide from Le Family. The tour costs 1,360,000 VND ($58 USD).

12. Go Canyoning in Dalat

Dalat was supposed to be a short stop on our 3-week Vietnam trip, a way to break up the long drive from Hoi An to Ho Chi Minh. But, quite accidentally, I ended up falling in love with this temperate Vietnamese city.

While in Dalat take the opportunity to explore the countryside on motorbike. We did a 1-day tour with Through Vietnam and got to explore a flower farm, rice wine distillery, silk farm (we got to eat silk worm grubs!) and the thundering Elephant Falls. We even got to try weasel poo coffee. Don’t knock it til you try it; the coffee was surprisingly delicious.

More adventurous travellers should make sure to try Dalat’s most thrilling activity; canyoning. Make sure to research the company you go with as the safety standards are probably more lax than what you’re used to. Still, it’s a fun way to spend a day abseiling down waterfalls, bashing your way through streams and sliding head first down rapids.

Read More: Backpacking Vietnam: A 3-Week Itinerary

Cambodia Bucket List

13. See the Sunrise at Angkor Wat

Ankor Wat is one of the world’s ancient wonders, and visiting should definitely be on your Southeast Asia bucket list.

Built in the early 12th century as an earthly representation of Mt Meru, Angkor Wat is one of the largest religious monuments in the world.

Today, it’s one of Cambodian’s most important historical sites and features on the country’s national flag. While it’s easy to get templed-out in Southeast Asia, Angkor Wat is stunning and will leave you in awe of its impressive scale and intricate detailing.

For the ultimate Angkor Wat experience catch a tuk tuk to the complex and watch the sunrise. The most popular viewing point is from across the pond at the temple entrance, and it’s an enchanting sight to see the sky slowly lighten and reflections in the inky water start to materialise.

Angkor Wat opens at 5am, although the upper level is only open from 7:30am.

Silhouette of Angkor Wat is reflected in pond as the sun starts to rise
Sunrise at Angkor Wat

14. Discover Paradise on a Cambodian Island

When you think ‘Southeast Asian island’ your mind goes straight to Thailand, doesn’t it? And while I can’t deny the beauty of Thailand’s islands, there’s a hidden paradise waiting for you in Cambodia.

If you’re the kind of person who loves tropical beaches, Koh Rong needs to be on your bucket list. But wait, I hear you thinking. I’ve heard of Koh Rong, and isn’t it kind of a party island? Is there really anything special about it? Well friend, let me let you in on a little secret.

For the ultimate Cambodian island experience you need to head to Lonely Beach. Lonely Beach is situated in a remote bay in the north of Koh Rong, located far enough away from the party beach that you can only reach the inlet by the Lonely Beach boat.

As it’s an eco-resort don’t expect luxury, but you can anticipate a few days of blissful relaxation. You can spend your days in hammocks on the white sandy beach or go snorkelling in the clear, warm waters. Watch the sunset while sipping a mojito at the beach bar, and at night see if you can spot the sparkling fluorescent plankton.

Silhouette of a man on swing with the ocean and sunset in background
Swinging into paradise on Koh Rong
Rustic beach sign decorated with shells reads 'Bungalow No 4., Lonely Beach', Southeast Asia
Girl in black swimsuit swings on beach with palm tree in background, Cambodia, Southeast Asia

15. Fall In Love With Khmer Cuisine

I already knew I’d love Thai food before I went to Thailand. Vietnamese food was on my radar, though stuff you get in Vietnamese takeaways is nowhere near as good as what you’ll find in Vietnam. But Cambodian food? That was a pleasant surprise, and one that ended up being one of the highlights of my time in Cambodia.

From Khmer curry and sweet amok curry, to Kampot pepper crabs and beef loc lac, Cambodian cuisine is as diverse as it is flavourful. It’s not as spicy as Thai food and the curries are a little thicker, and honestly, I really wish there were as many Cambodian restaurants around the world as there are Thai.

Some of my favourite foodie haunts in Cambodia include Friends the Restaurant and Kabbas in Phnom Penh. In Battambang make sure to check out Coconut Lyly for delicious curries (they also hold a cooking class, so get amongst). A little outside of Kampot you’ll find Khmer Roots Café, where the food is some of the best I’ve ever had. Seriouly; the curries were prepared from scratch right in front of us. Delish!

Read More: The Ultimate Cambodia Backpacking Guide

Girl snaps selfie while standing on Angkor Wat ruin, Cambodia, Southeast Asia
Sunrise at Angkor Wat

Tick these adventures off your Southeast Asia bucket list!

Travel is about the little things. You’ll remember the cao lau you stumbled across at an unassuming food stall in Hoi An. That street market you discovered in Nan will become one of your favourite Southeast Asian markets. A day exploring little-known Pyay fast becomes one of your fondest memories of Myanmar.

But equally for me, travel is about having an adventure. It’s about finding once-in-a-lifetime experiences that enhance your travels and create memories you’ll treasure forever. Whether that’s adrenaline fuelled, like zip lining through the jungle in Laos, the dreamy magic of riding a hot air balloon in Myanmar at sunrise, or the sheer awe of standing in the third largest cave in the world, Southeast Asia has an adventure for everyone.

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The Ultimate Southeast Asia Bucket List
The Ultimate Southeast Asia Bucket List