Travel

The Most Beautiful Place to Visit in Every Country in Southeast Asia

From stilt villages to sky-high gardens.

Sam Spicer/Moment/Getty Images
Sam Spicer/Moment/Getty Images
Sam Spicer/Moment/Getty Images

When you’re traveling throughout Southeast Asia, it’s impossible to shake the feeling of FOMO-there are so many sites to see you will definitely be missing out on more than a few. Even trying to figure out which country to visit is enough of a challenge-and something I constantly faced during my two months of backpacking.

Stretching from eastern India to China-and encompassing both the mainland and a constellation of (large) islands in the surrounding seas-Southeast Asia’s 11 countries are dotted with rainforests and rivers (old trade routes that are traversed as frequently as roads), ancient temples and cutting-edge skyscrapers, and a cornucopia of cuisine that swings from street food to Michelin-starred hawker halls.

With more than 40 UNESCO World Heritage sites alone, it’s not exactly easy narrowing down the sole attraction to see in each country-or even practical, for that matter-but if you have to choose just one in each spot, here are our picks you should definitely check off your list.

Wirestock Creators/Shutterstock
Wirestock Creators/Shutterstock
Wirestock Creators/Shutterstock

Indonesia

Kelimutu National Park
At the top of Indonesia’s Kelimutu volcano lies three crater lakes that change colours-one is usually blue, while the other two are usually red or green, but each shifts under its own power (we don’t yet fully understand why, other than it having something to do with minerals). Summer is the best time to see the colours at their most vibrant, and we highly recommend hiking in at dawn to see them at sunrise.

Richie Chan/Shutterstock
Richie Chan/Shutterstock
Richie Chan/Shutterstock

Brunei

Kampong Ayer
Brunei’s most beautiful sight is consistently listed as the Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque, which is indeed stunning. But it’s hard to ignore the fact that this mosque is Brunei’s most popular attraction simply because Brunei does not have a lot of attractions-or at least not on the scale of tourism heavy-hitters like what you’d find in Indonesia or Thailand.

But nothing quite compares to Kampong Ayer, the world’s largest “floating” village. The “Venice of the East” is home to 30,000 people scattered throughout more than 40 stilt villages. The only reason you don’t hear about it more often is because it hasn’t gotten as glamorous a treatment by photographers as, say, Bali-but it’s certainly just as scenic.

Det-anan/Shutterstock
Det-anan/Shutterstock
Det-anan/Shutterstock

Laos

Kuang Si Falls
Tucked away in the jungle near Luang Prabang, the three-tiered waterfall creates a series of shallow pools with clear, turquoise-blue water. Your first and only question should be whether you can swim in them, so I am delighted to inform you that yes, you can swim at Kuang Si. However, at least one of the pools is sacred to locals, so if you see a “no swimming” sign where you were about to take a dip, it’s probably best to skip over this one.

Paulo Henrique Vilella/Shutterstock
Paulo Henrique Vilella/Shutterstock
Paulo Henrique Vilella/Shutterstock

Malaysia

Tun Sakaran Marine Park, Borneo
The Malaysian part of this island is where I saw pygmy elephants, giant orangutans, and sunbears. It’s also home to Tun Sakaran Marine Park (which also goes by the name Semporna Islands Park), a protected area comprising eight small islands. A few thousand people live there, many of them in stilt houses, but it’s still somewhat off the tourist track (meaning you’ll need to come prepared with your own snorkel if you want to explore the dive sites).

R.M. Nunes/Shutterstock
R.M. Nunes/Shutterstock
R.M. Nunes/Shutterstock

Philippines

Banaue Rice Terraces
Among the most beautiful sights in the Philippines are the Banaue rice terraces set against the mountains of Ifugao. The UNESCO World Heritage site isn’t always the easiest to access, but if you’re willing to get a bit wet and muddy on the walk in, it’s absolutely worth it. Time your visit for October, when the paddies are lush and at their most vibrant shade of green.

Faiz Zaki/Shutterstock
Faiz Zaki/Shutterstock
Faiz Zaki/Shutterstock

Timor-Leste

Atauro Island
Atauro Island, which sits a few miles north off the coast of East Timor and has a population of around 8,000 people (concentrated in two villages on the eastern side of the island), is surrounded by some of the most biodiverse waters in the world. There are hundreds of different species of fish-some of which have only ever been spotted around this island. This, of course, makes it a spectacular dive site, but you don’t have to be a scuba pro to enjoy the stunning reef and marine life; you’ll see plenty from the surface while snorkelling, especially if you go at the end of dry season (around November), during the last part of the whale migration.

Matyas Rehak/Shutterstock
Matyas Rehak/Shutterstock
Matyas Rehak/Shutterstock

Singapore

Gardens by the Bay
While the architecture throughout Southeast Asia centres more around archaeological sites, Singapore is a place where you want to give infrastructural beauty like Gardens by the Bay the respect it rightfully deserves. Technically not one but three gardens, the nature sanctuary unfolds near the Marina Bay Waterfront and features everything from the world’s largest glass greenhouse (a dome with plants and flowers from five continents) to a mist-filled cloud forest and sun pavilion with more than a thousand desert plants. The 250-acre nature park was designed to make the urban centre of the island feel greener, kind of like what city planners in Manhattan did with Central Park. Central Park, however, does not look like something out of Avatar.

Tanison Pachtanom/Shutterstock
Tanison Pachtanom/Shutterstock
Tanison Pachtanom/Shutterstock

Cambodia

Angkor Wat
Widely hyped attractions can often disappoint when you finally see them in real life, but the ancient temple of Angkor Wat, to me at least, definitely delivered. The complex-the largest religious monument in the world-is often crowded, so you’ll want to go as early as possible-meaning you should head over before dawn. Carve out at least half a day if you really want to explore, and rent a $1 bicycle to get around.

TZIDO SUN/Shutterstock
TZIDO SUN/Shutterstock
TZIDO SUN/Shutterstock

Myanmar

Bagan
Each November, fireworks and hot air balloons fill the sky above the ancient city of Bagan for Taunggyi Tazaungdaing, the annual Festival of Lights. Bagan itself is filled with impossibly ornate Buddhist temples and stupas (the largest collection anywhere in the world, in fact). For anyone who’s ever been fascinated by archaeology, it’s one of the most coveted destinations to reach. You’ll be charged a fee to enter, but once you’re in, you’re in.

CravenA/Shutterstock
CravenA/Shutterstock
CravenA/Shutterstock

Vietnam

Lan Ha Bay, Cat Ba Island
The floating village of Cat Ba Island, which contains around 200 homes, dates back thousands of years. The bay itself is home to several hundred islands, of which Cat Ba is the largest (you can rent a boat to explore, or spend the day swimming). There are well over 100 hotels in the immediate vicinity, so you can take your time if you (understandably) want to stay in the area a while.

Bule Sky Studio/Shutterstock
Bule Sky Studio/Shutterstock
Bule Sky Studio/Shutterstock

Thailand

Chiang Mai
Islands like Koh Phi Phi and Phuket are among the most popular with tourists visiting Thailand, but one that is equally beautiful and far less hyped is Chiang Mai, the mountainous northern city where you’ll eat some of the best food in your life. If you’re there around the full moon in November, you can catch not one but two iconic light shows: the Loy Krathong festival of lights, when people release candle-filled baskets into the river, and the Yi Peng lantern festival, when people release lanterns into the night sky.

Kastalia Medrano is Thrillist’s Travel Writer. You can send her travel tips at [email protected], and Venmo tips at @kastaliamedrano.

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Travel

Ditch your Phone for ‘Dome Life’ in this Pastoral Paradise Outside Port Macquarie 

A responsible, sustainable travel choice for escaping big city life for a few days.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

The urge to get as far away as possible from the incessant noise and pressures of ‘big city life’ has witnessed increasingly more of us turn to off-grid adventures for our holidays: Booking.com polled travellers at the start of 2023 and 55% of us wanted to spend our holidays ‘off-grid’.  Achieving total disconnection from the unyielding demands of our digitised lives via some kind of off-grid nature time—soft or adventurous—is positioned not only as a holiday but, indeed, a necessity for our mental health. 

Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, an accommodation collection of geodesic domes dotted across a lush rural property in Greater Port Macquarie (a few hours’ drive from Sydney, NSW), offers a travel experience that is truly ‘off-grid’. In the figurative ‘wellness travel’ sense of the word, and literally, they run on their own independent power supply—bolstered by solar—and rely not on the town grid. 

Ten minutes before you arrive at the gates for a stay at Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, your phone goes into ‘SOS ONLY’. Apple Maps gives up, and you’re pushed out of your comfort zone, driving down unsealed roads in the dark, dodging dozens of dozing cows. Then, you must ditch your car altogether and hoist yourself into an open-air, all-terrain 4WD with gargantuan wheels. It’s great fun being driven through muddy gullies in this buggy; you feel like Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park.  As your buggy pulls in front of your personal Nature Dome, it’s not far off that “Welcome…to Jurassic Park” jaw-dropping moment—your futuristic-looking home is completely engulfed by thriving native bushland; beyond the outdoor campfire lie expansive hills and valleys of green farmland, dotted with sheep and trees. You’re almost waiting to see a roaming brachiosaurus glide past, munching on a towering gum tree…instead, a few inquisitive llamas trot past your Dome to check out their new visitor. 

To fully capture the awe of inhabiting a geodesic dome for a few days, a little history of these futuristic-looking spherical structures helps. Consisting of interlocking triangular skeletal struts supported by (often transparent) light walls, geodesic domes were developed in the 20th century by American engineer and architect R. Buckminster Fuller, and were used for arenas. Smaller incarnations have evolved into a ‘future-proof’ form of modern housing: domes are able to withstand harsh elements due to the stability provided by the durable materials of their construction and their large surface area to volume ratio (which helps minimize wind impact and prevents the structure from collapsing). As housing, they’re also hugely energy efficient – their curved shape helps to conserve heat and reduce energy costs, making them less susceptible to temperature changes outside. The ample light let in by their panels further reduces the need for artificial power. 

Due to their low environmental impact, they’re an ideal sustainable travel choice. Of course, Tom’s Creek Nature Domes’ owner-operators, Cardia and Lee Forsyth, know all this, which is why they have set up their one-of-a-kind Nature Domes experience for the modern traveller. It’s also no surprise to learn that owner Lee is an electrical engineer—experienced in renewable energy—and that he designed the whole set-up. As well as the off-grid power supply, rainwater tanks are used, and the outdoor hot tub is heated by a wood fire—your campfire heats up your tub water via a large metal coil. Like most places in regional Australia, the nights get cold – but rather than blast a heater, the Domes provide you with hot water bottles, warm blankets, lush robes and heavy curtains to ward off the chill.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

You’ll need to be self-sufficient during your stay at the Domes, bringing your own food. Support local businesses and stock up in the town of Wauchope on your drive-in (and grab some pastries and coffee at Baked Culture while you’re at it). There’s a stovetop, fridge (stocked as per a mini bar), BBQs, lanterns and mozzie coils, and you can even order DIY S’More packs for fireside fun. The interiors of the Domes have a cosy, stylish fit-out, with a modern bathroom (and a proper flushing toilet—none of that drop bush toilet stuff). As there’s no mobile reception, pack a good book or make the most of treasures that lie waiting to be discovered at every turn: a bed chest full of board games, a cupboard crammed with retro DVDs, a stargazing telescope (the skies are ablaze come night time). Many of these activities are ideal for couples, but there’s plenty on offer for solo travellers, such as yoga mats, locally-made face masks and bath bombs for hot tub soaks. 

It’s these thoughtful human touches that reinforce the benefit of making a responsible travel choice by booking local and giving your money to a tourism operator in the Greater Port Macquarie Region, such as Tom’s Creek Nature Domes. The owners are still working on the property following the setbacks of COVID-19, and flooding in the region —a new series of Domes designed with families and groups in mind is under construction, along with an open-air, barn-style dining hall and garden stage. Once ready, the venue will be ideal for wedding celebrations, with wedding parties able to book out the property. They’ve already got one couple—who honeymooned at the Domes—ready and waiting. Just need to train up the llamas for ring-bearer duties! 

An abundance of favourite moments come to mind from my two-night stay at Tom’s Creek: sipping champagne and gourmet picnicking at the top of a hill on a giant swing under a tree, with a bird’s eye view of the entire property (the ‘Mountain Top picnic’ is a must-do activity add on during your stay), lying on a deckchair at night wrapped in a blanket gazing up at starry constellations and eating hot melted marshmallows, to revelling in the joys of travellers before me, scrawled on notes in a jar of wishes left by the telescope (you’re encouraged to write your own to add to the jar). But I’ll leave you with a gratitude journal entry I made while staying there. I will preface this by saying that I don’t actually keep a gratitude journal, but Tom’s Creek Nature Domes is just the kind of place that makes you want to start one. And so, waking up on my second morning at Tom’s —lacking any 4G bars to facilitate my bad habit of a morning Instagram scroll—I finally opened up a notebook and made my first journal entry:

‘I am grateful to wake up after a deep sleep and breathe in the biggest breaths of this clean air, purified by nature and scented with eucalyptus and rain. I am grateful for this steaming hot coffee brewed on a fire. I feel accomplished at having made myself. I am grateful for the skittish sheep that made me laugh as I enjoyed a long nature walk at dawn and the animated billy goats and friendly llamas overlooking my shoulder as I write this: agreeable company for any solo traveller. I’m grateful for total peace, absolute stillness.” 

Off-grid holiday status: unlocked.

Where: Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, Port Macquarie, 2001 Toms Creek Rd
Price: $450 per night, book at the Natura Domes website.

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