First trip to SE Asia? I wrote this post to share my overall experience from my first trip to this part of the world and help you get a glimpse of what to expect.
My first trip to SE Asia was actually a kind of surprise for me. Unlike many other travelers, the SE Asia region has never been on the top of my dream destinations list. I mean, not that I haven’t got the desire to visit this region of the world one day, no, it just hasn’t been a big dream of mine. Anyway, I’m happy that I ended up in SE Asia and I would return at any time as there are many other places that I would love to visit in this part of the world.
So how did I end up in SE Asia then? It was August or September 2017 when I first came up with that idea of going to SE Asia. And why not? Everyone knows that it’s cheap to travel in this part of the world and for a budget traveler like me it was a great idea.
The first time when I thought of where to go in SE Asia, I was thinking about visiting Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, and Myanmar. Then, I decided that I want to go to the Philippines. Then, I wanted to fit Indonesia, Taiwan, and South Korea too. With so many choices, I was already lost of any real idea of where I’ll be going. After a while I knew: I wasn’t going to visit Thailand, but the Philippines I couldn’t miss.
Sunset in the Philippines
So, when I booked my flight to the Philippines and after I went there, I didn’t know where I’ll be going next. But that was fine because after all no plans are the best plans and I like to keep my travels a little bit more flexible about when, and where.
My first trip to SE Asia started at the beginning of January 2018 and it last until the beginning of April 2018. In these three months, I visited 5 countries (7 if we count the ones I spend a few days in on my way to and back from SE Asia) and made many lifetimes lasting memories.
I have written separate posts for each of these destinations and I would leave links to the other related posts after the country section if you want to go and read them as well. Those other posts are more detailed, including essential things to know, tips, and suggestions of where to go to and things to do.
Time spent: 4 weeks
The Philippines became one of my favorite places not only in Asia but in general. It’s so easy to fall in love with the Philippines – pristine beaches, amazing people, wonderful nature. Once you go, you won’t want to leave.
The Philippines have a slogan that says: ”It’s more fun in the Philippines” and that’s so true. There are so many things to do in the Philippines and so many islands to choose from.
One of the absolute best things to do in the Philippines is diving and snorkeling. The Philippines have one of the clearest waters in the world and the visibility is great. Another awesome thing to do in the Philippines is getting a motorbike and exploring the islands, chasing waterfalls, discover off the beaten path beaches, etc.
El Nido & Casaroro Waterfall
The only thing that I, unfortunately, didn’t like was the food. Most of the food that I had in the Philippines was tasteless, but I really hope that the problem was in me and I just didn’t eat at the right places most of the time.
For my 4 week trip to the Philippines, I visited Manila, Boracay, Cebu City, Bohol and Panglao, Siquijor, Dumaguete, and Palawan. However, 4 weeks were just not enough to go everywhere I wanted to go and to do everything I wanted to do.
Manila and Cebu city, in my opinion, you can totally skip. Boracay is fun and if you’re looking for a party, that’s the place to go to (although you can also enjoy a proper vacation at the same time).
There are awesome places where to go to in Dumaguete, so it’s a great destination for day trips and exploring the area. Siquijor is my favorite one. <3
Palawan is, of course, a must. Bohol and Panglao are right next to each other, so you can easily visit them both altogether. I suggest staying in Panglao and heading on your Bohol itinerary from there. Some of the best tourist spots in Bohol include the Chocolate Hills and the Tarsier Sanctuary.
I don’t understand why, but many travelers visiting SE Asia are skipping the Philippines. Yes, it is a little bit further away from the mainland, but it’s one of the best places you’ll ever go to!
If you’re planning your first trip to SE Asia, I would definitely recommend starting from the Philippines, or at least include it in your itinerary.
The Philippines was my first stop on my first trip to SE Asia and although I wanted to explore more countries I also didn’t want to leave. The Philippines made a great first destination for the first trip to SE Asia. I had so much fun there and I also meet so many cool people.
And seriously, once again, the Filipino people!! Those people are the warmest and friendliest people. They are always smiling and they welcome foreigners with arms wide open. I wish they were more people like the Filipinos.
Beach on Panglao Island
Time spent: 2 weeks
Malaysia was my second stop on my first trip to SE Asia. I fell in love with Malaysia, too. Not as much as I did with the Philippines, but still, Malaysia is a great place to travel to.
Sadly, many travelers are skipping Malaysia as well. The capital, Kuala Lumpur, is a great transport hub and thus many people use it as a flight hopping destination. However, those who decide to see more of Malaysia and to explore this amazing country will find out that is absolutely worth it.
In my opinion, Malaysia is the most underrated country in SE Asia and I cannot explain myself why – there are many things to do in Kuala Lumpur, the beaches are dreamy, the landscapes are spectacular and the food is now one of my favorites in the world!
KLCC Park, Kuala Lumpur
Char Kuey Teow
My two weeks Malaysia itinerary took me through the highlights of the country and I loved every second of it. If you ask me, I’ll definitely recommend you to put Malaysia on your bucket list of places to visit. Malaysia is multicultural, it has wonderful landscapes, lovely white sand beaches, great wildlife, the food is amazing and it offers varieties of fun activities throughout the country.
The Cameron Highlands, which are one of the most touristy places in Malaysia, are truly gorgeous. In that same area, there is much more natural beauty and jungle treks are very popular too.
The food in Malaysia, oh, my!! I would travel back to Malaysia for the food alone, seriously, I like it so much. Especially the Char Koay Teow, this is now one of my favorite dishes in the world. I like the food in Malaysia so much that when I was in George Town, I spend the majority of my time tasting and eating good food.
The locals in Malaysia are nice and friendly as well. I even had a great time hitchhiking in Malaysia, and that’s one of my best memories from my trip to the country.
Actually, although I knew I want to visit Malaysia and I knew that at some point I’ll go there, I didn’t know when exactly. My first trip to SE Asia started in.. Dubai. I fly from Sofia to Dubai and then from Dubai to Manila. When I was boarding the plane in Dubai, I was asked to show a return ticket that I didn’t have. Then, I needed to book a return ticket so they can allow me to board the plane. Instead of booking a flight to Malaysia, I booked a flight to Hong Kong that in the end, I didn’t even use. Anyways, once I decided that I’m not going to Hong Kong after the Philippines, I booked the ticket to Kuala Lumpur straight away.
Batu Caves, Jungle trekking in Tanah Rata & Cameron Highlands
Malaysia as the second stop on my first trip to SE Asia has been incredible. Malaysia is also one of the countries that I would love to return to one day and I already have some ideas in my head of new places to visit and things to do.
READ NEXT: Fun Things to do & Experience in Malaysia
READ NEXT: Hitchhiking in Malaysia
Random cat in Tanah Rata, Street art in George Town & Langkawi
Time spent: 5 days
Singapore is so much different from all the other places that I visited while backpacking SE Asia. It is known as one of the most developed countries in the world, and as a place with the best investment potential and global commerce, finance, and transport hub. On top of that, there are so many things to do in Singapore despite its small size.
Singapore also has the reputation of being one of the most expensive cities in the world. Living there is certainly expensive, but visiting doesn’t necessarily need to be so. Going out, however, it’s a very expensive thing to do.
The food in Singapore is great as well. In Singapore, you can find food from all over the world and the best is that there are numerous hawker centers around Singapore, where you can find delicious and cheap food! Also, in Singapore, you can find one of the cheapest Michelin starred meals in the world. How cool is that?
Marina Bay Sands
Singapore is definitely an interesting place to visit and I would love to go again as there are still things that I haven’t seen or done. I really like the Tiong Bahru neighborhood, the street art, the food, how clean it is, and the local people, too. I meet a few locals who showed me around some nice places and shared some Singapore secrets with me.
One of the weirdest things about Singapore that I am aware of is that gums are forbidden. You cannot find them and buy them in grocery stores. The only place where you can buy gums is in the pharmacy, and you need to have a prescription for them. I actually don’t chew gums for a long time now, so I wasn’t looking for any, but I was told about this and still found it weird, although, in my opinion, is not that bad. Gums are not good for you anyway.
Selling gums is not the only thing you might find weird to be illegal in Singapore. Singing songs in public that might be considered offensive in some way is also illegal in Singapore, spitting isn’t allowed as well. Feeding pigeons is a no-no in Singapore and might cost you a $500 fine. It’s also being considered as hacking if you connect to another person’s Wi-Fi network and this might cost you $10 000 fine or even get you in jail?!?!
Yes, Singapore has some weird laws, but it’s still a unique place to visit that you shouldn’t skip.
In Tribe Theory Hostel & Haji Lane
Time spent: 16 days
Cambodia, what can I say about this country… The truth is that I have very mixed feelings about Cambodia that I really find hard to express. I have written a separate post on Cambodia, where I talk more about it and how I felt about the country. So, I’ll leave this here like this and if you like, you can go and read my other post dedicated to Cambodia.
READ NEXT: Cambodia: The good, the bad & the crazy
Sunset in Koh Rong
Time spent: 19 days
Vietnam, along with Cambodia are the two countries that I wasn’t planning to visit at all on this trip, but when I extended my stay, I decided to include them in my itinerary right away. Vietnam was my last stop on my first trip to SE Asia.
Luckily, by a random Google search and thanks to some other travelers that I met earlier on this trip, I found two more off the beaten path places in Vietnam that I decided that I want to go to. Because of that, and the time that I have left, I skipped the whole middle of Vietnam, which is the most common backpacker’s route. On my trip to Vietnam, I visited Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Hanoi, Cat Ba Island, and Ha Giang Province.
Saigon and Hanoi are both awesome cities to visit. You can check this post for inspiration for things to do in Hanoi.
I arrived in HCMC, Vietnam by bus from Phnom Phen, Cambodia. I spent the first few days of my trip to Vietnam in HCMC where I had some awesome time and drink a great egg coffee. After that, I fly straight to Hanoi, where I didn’t spend much time before heading to Cat Ba Island. Cat Ba Island is a great alternative to the famous Halong Bay (check this post to find out how to choose the best Halong Bay cruise).
Egg coffee in HCMC & the streets of Hanoi
I spent a few relaxing days exploring Cat Ba Island and then I went on an adventurous journey in the Ha Giang Province. After I visited the two places that I wanted to visit the most in Vietnam, I head back to Hanoi. I spent a little bit more time in the Vietnamese capital this time having lots of fun and a great time. Those were the last few days of my first trip to SE Asia.
Generally, I found the majority of Vietnamese people nice and friendly. Plus, in Vietnam, there are also many things to do, and one of the most popular ways to explore Vietnam is by getting a motorbike and visiting all these places that I missed.
Unfortunately, I cannot say much about the Vietnamese food that every other traveler freaking loves. The truth is that ever since I was a little child, I know that Vietnamese people eat dog meat. I don’t know how common this is nowadays, but I just couldn’t imagine myself eating any meat at all. I love dogs sooo much!! That’s why I was eating mainly vegetarian dishes while I was in Vietnam and lots of Banh My’s. The food that I had was great, but I still don’t think that I can be very objective about it.
And yes, sadly, I saw a dog that was killed, with his skin taken off and being left to be eaten I guess. It happened just once, in a remote village, but I don’t want to see this ever again!
Something that I was surprised by was the fact of how many Vietnamese people know Bulgaria and about our famous roses. Apparently, as my mom informed me, there have been many Vietnamese people living in Bulgarian back in the ’80s, or at least in the city where I live.
P.S. If you, unlike me, decide to go through the central part of the country and explore some other wonderful places, check this Vietnam three week itinerary from North to South.
Kayaking on an island tour in Cat Ba Island
Favorite places on my first trip to SE Asia:
The Philippines – Siquijor Island
Exploring Siquijor Island is one of the best parts of my trip to the Philippines. The island is extremely beautiful, very relaxed, and a bit off the beaten path. On top of that, there are many things to do in Siquijor Island, every sunset is spectacular and generally is an amazing place not to be missed when you travel around the Philippines – you’ll easily fall in love with it!
Why is Siquijor Island my favorite place in the Philippines? Honestly, I don’t know what made Siquijor my number 1 place in the Philippines. I guess we were just meant to be. Maybe the mysterious charm of the remote, or the lazy days by the beach or maybe all smiley faces of the local people who were waving at me as I was passing by on a motorbike.
Siquijor, you are missed!
Malaysia – Langkawi Island
Langkawi is a beautiful Malaysian island to go and explore. Driving a motorbike around and enjoying the wonderful beaches are some of the best things to do there. As well, the food, of course!
The Island of Langkawi is situated on the Malaysian west coast, close to the border with Thailand. It has white sand beaches, clear blue waters, great waterfalls, beautiful nature, and there are monkeys living there, too.
Well, Singapore is just an awesome place to go and explore. My favorite areas from what I visited are the Tiong Bahru neighborhood and the Ann Siang Road area, which was where I was staying.
Cambodia – Koh Rong Island
Koh Rong is a real paradise! If it wasn’t Koh Rong, I was probably going to leave Cambodia earlier than I did and I was not going to have many good memories from my trip to Cambodia.
Once I arrived in Koh Rong everything changed. I really fell in love with this place and I had a fabulous time. It was probably the first week of my first trip to SE Asia when I almost didn’t do any work and I was having a real, proper vacation. On top of that, Koh Rong was very different than the other places I visited in Cambodia before that, and I was enjoying it so much. I was planning to spend only 2 nights there but then ended up extending my stay to a week, which was a week full of fun and relaxes.
Koh Rong is not perfect, but it was perfect for me.
Vietnam – Ha Giang Province
Ha Giang is Vietnam’s northernmost province, lining the Chinese border. The North of Vietnam is filled with towering mountains, deep valleys, winding rivers, and overall breathtaking views. Ha Giang is interesting with its gorgeous scenery, diversity, ethnic villages and curvy roads surrounded all over by high karst plateaus.
Unlike the famous Sapa, which everyone has heard of, Ha Giang is a lesser-known and much less explored region often described as the most beautiful place in the North of the country.
The Ha Giang Extreme Motorbike Loop is Vietnam’s off the beaten path thing to do and those who have done it, would tell you the same as I do, it’s no doubts the best and the most amazing things to experience in the country.
I can easily say that The Ha Giang Extreme Motorbike Loop 3 day itinerary has been one of the best parts of my trip not just in Vietnam, but in SE Asia in general. I highly recommend everyone visiting Vietnam, who wants to go off the beaten path, as well as looking for a memorable experience to do the Ha Giang Extreme Motorbike Loop.
What I love about SE Asia
Generally, I love everything about SE Asia and it is really a great place to travel to. Asian people are friendly and welcoming. There are many things to do everywhere, so you’re definitely not getting bored. Also, nature is amazing and there are many stunning beaches, although many of them are very dirty, and they aren’t worth it.
What I don’t like about SE Asia
I didn’t like the poverty in many places and the fact that the only thing that most travelers are seeing is full-moon parties and cheap alcohol. Although there’s nothing bad to travel and have fun, SE Asia is not only for this. There are places that some people are going to and they spend all of their time being drunk and high. If that’s what you’re after, you’ll definitely find it here, but you can also spend your time doing so many other things.
Another thing that I didn’t like is the lack of education and the fact that the local people, themselves, are the biggest pollutants to the environment. It’s sad to see that they don’t keep their homelands as beautiful as they are.
And maybe what I didn’t like the most is the fact that the local people living in these countries are seeing us, the foreigner, as something a lot more than them. Maybe we do have a better life in the West, but that doesn’t mean that we are anything better than them. It’s also somehow weird how everyone is looking for what he doesn’t have – they want to have lives similar to ours, and we are dying to go there and to experience a bit of the life that they have.
Those things don’t apply to Singapore and in some ways to Malaysia as well.
Please note that those are the thing that I didn’t like from my personal experience and the people I meet, both locals and travelers.
What would I do differently?
Honestly, I wouldn’t change anything from my first trip to SE Asia. Next time when I go to this part of the world, I would definitely visit the Philippines again and perhaps Malaysia, too. I would also love to go hiking volcanoes in Indonesia and visit Laos, as I heard so many amazing things about this place from fellow travelers.
Go to SE Asia, it’s a beautiful place to go to and it’s so much fun to explore!
Thanks for reading,
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