50 Things to See in ASEAN Countries
On August 8, 1967, five countries banded together to form the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). These are Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, Singapore and the Philippines. Now, the ASEAN marks its 50th year and it has grown into 10 countries, which now includes Brunei, Laos, Myanmar, Cambodia and Vietnam.
I realized that I have visited all ASEAN countries save for one, which is Myanmar. It is a big help that I am a citizen of one of these member-countries since it provided me with the privilege of traveling to any of these countries without the need of applying for a visa, with an allowed stay to maximum of 30 days.
Southeast Asia is a great region to explore — from breathtaking lakes and beaches, to wonderful natural attractions, to awesome heritage sites, to diverse religious and cultural flavors — it is not difficult to fall in love with the countries in this part of the world as well as with their friendly and lovable people. What’s more, the cost of food and other basic necessities are quite low here compared to other regions in the world.
In celebration of ASEAN’s 50th anniversary, I have come up with a list of its attractions. If you plan to tour around Southeast Asia, here are 50 interesting things you can see in the ASEAN region, for a start.
Brunei is a tiny country, but it’s a rich kingdom. Here, private vehicles seem to grow alongside its small population. It became a member of ASEAN in 1984. My three blog posts First-time in Brunei, Food Trip in Brunei, and 15 Places in the Brunei-Muara District provide a more detailed narration of my trip and why this unique beauty is aptly called “The Kingdom of Unexpected Treasures”.
1.) Omar Ali Saiffudien Mosque – they say that the main dome of this mosque is made of pure gold. I have entered its doors but was not allowed to take photos. The mosque’s exteriors and interiors just took my breath away at how beautiful its entirety.
2.) Kampong Ayer – this village made on stilts was described by Antonio Pigafetta as the “Venice of the East”. It’s a heritage site in itself as it shows how the locals lived then before many of them moved inland, while there are still a number that remained in this kind of lifestyle.
3.) Istana Nurul Iman – the palace of the reigning sultan is considered as the world’s largest residential structure of a head of state, declared by no less than the Guinness Book of Records. The palace is only opened once a year, during the Hari Raya Aidil Fitri.
4.) Jerudong Park – Jerudong has an amusement park, a polo club and a beach. A free concert by the King of Pop, Michael Jackson, once took place in this venue.
5.) Jame’Asr Hassanil Bokiah Mosque – this is the biggest mosque in Brunei and its lavish design and amenities bear testament to the wealth of its kingdom.
ASEAN, now on its 50th year, welcomed Cambodia — its latest entrant — into its circle in 1999. This nation has a rich history and colorful past that makes it a fascinating place to explore. It is no wonder that many gallivants find their way to this country. It helps that it is within the Indochina part of Southeast Asia as it shares land borders with three other countries, making traveling a lot easier. But it is its allure that draws people to its territories.
I have traveled to Siem Reap and Phnom Penh, and I shared my experiences in my blog posts: First-time in Siem Reap, First-time in Angkor Archaeological Park, and First-time in Phnom Penh. But I must admit that there’s more in Cambodia that I still need to see. Below is a mix of places I have been to and those which I yearn to see in the future.
6.) Angkor Archeological Park – the whole complex is a treasure trove of various historical structures. The most popular is Angkor Wat and it is also the largest among the Angkorian temples. The park also has attractions like Ta Prohm, Bayon Temple, and the royal capital of Angkor Thom.
7.) Tonle Sap – Tonle Sap is a lake that flows to the Tonle Sap River and towards the Mekong River. This largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia is home to many ethnic groups and diverse species, making it a significant part of Cambodia since the Angkorean civilization.
8.) The Royal Palace – Cambodia’s Royal Palace, located in the capital of Phnom Penh, houses many beautiful buildings. However, a huge portion of the complex, including the living area of the king, is still closed to the public.
9.) Preah Vihear Temple – on top of Dangrek Mountains, at the border of Cambodia and Thailand, sits the Preah Vihear Temple. It was built during the Khmer Empire era and is declared as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
10.) Sihanoukville – Since many travelers make their way to Southeast Asia because of the beautiful beaches found in the region, Cambodia’s answer to such demand is Sihanoukville, or also called Kampong Som. It has white sand beaches, rivers and several outlying isands.
Several years ago, when digital cameras, smartphones and mobile apps are still a rarity, I was stationed for work in Indonesia for almost a year. My home then was Jakarta (READ: First-time in Jakarta), but had a few opportunities of traveling to Bekasi, Bandung, Yogyakarta, Solo and Surabaya, all within Java Island. Most were business trips except for that time when I scaled Borobudur (READ: First-time in Borobudur, Yogyakarta). Despite the length of my stay in this country, I have not fully explored Indonesia, which merits me a return visit anytime soon.
But Indonesia, one of the original members of the ASEAN, has over 17,000 islands and has the largest land area among all member-states. Coming up with only five attractions is a very difficult feat. What I have included here are places that are in my must-visit list, except for Borobudur which I have already been to, yet I still plan to revisit. I almost made it to Bali, that time when I was residing in Indonesia, but it was the year when the ill-fated event that rocked the island and the whole world happened. Thus, my travel plan was nipped in the bud and I returned to the Philippines without even stepping on Balinese soil.
11.) Borobudur and Prambanan – these two temples, located in Yogyakarta, are popular among tourists. Borobudur is a Buddhist temple while Prambanan is a Hindu temple. Both are UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
12.) Komodo National Park – home of the Komodo dragons where the place got its name, Komodo National Park is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Komodo dragons are the largest and heaviest living species under the lizard family. But apart from these animals, there are also a rich biodiversity in the Komodo National Park.
13.) Bali – it is a popular destination in Indonesia because of its beaches, culture, heritage sites and serene landscapes. Despite the setbacks this island went through, many five-star hotels and resorts are built in this island and further development were seen and are still being expected.
14.) Mount Bromo – I have heard of Mount Bromo countless of times when I was still in Indonesia. It is part of the Tengger caldera and is eye-catching because it spews off white smoke constantly.
15.) Lake Toba – located in Sumatra, Lake Toba is the largest volcanic lake in the world. It sits within a caldera of a super volcano and contains an island, called Samosir.
Laos is the second country I have visited outside of my own. It was a spur of a moment decision when we had a seminar in Bangkok, Thailand and we suddenly thought of heading to Vientiane, Laos for the Songran Festival (READ: First-time in Vientiane, Laos). But we spent only a few days in this quiet country, packed with so much fun and adventure. Its official name is Lao People’s Democratic Republic (PDR), a landlocked country surrounded by Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, and China. It was admitted into the ASEAN in 1997, the same time as Myanmar.
16.) Patuxai – this victory monument is a distinct image in the Vientiane scenery. Though it has Lao design, the arch resembles the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, France, hinting the French influence in Lao history. We climbed this structure to see a wonderful view of the city.
17.) Pha That Luang – the golden surface of Pha That Luang, meaning “The Great Stupa in Lao”, glistened under the sun. This religious monument in Vientiane is a national symbol with a beautiful architecture.
18.) Luang Prabang – this is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the country. With its several temples and a royal palace, Luang Prabang is declared as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It also has many natural attractions that draw visitors to this northern part of Laos.
19.) Vang Vieng – with its cliff mountains and serene rice fields in the backdrop, Vang Vieng is making waves to backpackers and rock climbers. While thrill-seekers can do heart-pumping activities here, it also provides tranquility and relaxation to weary travelers.
20.) Buddha Park – just outside of Vientiane, the Buddha Park is an interesting attraction that houses over 200 religious statues, a combination of Buddhist and Hindu images, including a huge reclining Buddha.
One of the five original members of the 50 year-old ASEAN, Malaysia is a multi-cultural federation that is divided into two major parts — the Peninsular Malaysia and East Malaysia in Borneo. With a tagline “Malaysia, Truly Asia”, the country is very aggressive when it comes to promoting its tourism industry.
I visited Kuala Lumpur twice, roamed the administrative capital of Putrajaya, did an adventure in Langkawi Island at the northern part of Peninsular Malaysia, and enjoyed a fun day at Legoland Malaysia in Johor. My blog posts on Malaysia are: First-time in Kuala Lumpur, First-time in Putrajaya, First-time in Langkawi, and First-time in Legoland Malaysia, among many others.
21.) Petronas Towers – the twin towers of Petronas in Kuala Lumpur reigned the skies as the tallest building in the world from 1998 to 2004. But as more skyscrapers topped its 1,483 feet height and dethroned it as the tallest building in the world, Petronas remain as the tallest among all twin towers in the world.
22.) Putrajaya – Putra Mosque, Perdana Putra, Palace of Justice, Putra Bridge, the China-Malaysia Friendship Garden, Putrajaya Lake Recreation Centre, Agriculture Heritage Park, and Putrajaya Botanical Garden are among the interesting sites in Putrajaya. Because it is the administrative capital, it has many beautiful structures and major landmarks.
23.) Batu Caves – Just near Kuala Lumpur is the Hindu shrine of Batu Caves. One has to climb 272 steps to get inside Batu Caves.
24.) Langkawi Island – the white sand beaches, the Langkawi cable car, the rich marine biodiversity, waterfalls and adventure activities make Langkawi a popular tourist destination, located near the border of Thailand. It is also dubbed as the “Jewel of Kedah”.
25.) Mt. Kinabalu – the highest peak in Borneo is home to lush greens and a rich flora and fauna species. Mountain climbers and nature lovers find their way to Mt. Kinabalu to scale its summit.
My home. With more than 7,000 islands, the Philippines is a paradise in the Pacific. This archipelago does not share land borders with any country. Also part of the five original members of the ASEAN, the Philippines was under Spanish rule for over 300 years, which explains why it is the only nation in the ASEAN that is predominantly Christian.
Since I spend most of my travels exploring my own backyard, majority of my blog posts are about the Philippines and, lately, concentrated on what to see and do in my hometown, Bacolod City. But for those who plan to travel to my wonderful country, a piece of paradise on earth, here are articles to help you: Tips for First-time Travelers to the Philippines, How to Have the Best DIY Travel in the Philippines, It’s More Fun in the Philippines for a First-time Traveler, and My Favorite Snorkeling Sites in the Philippines.
26.) Underground River – A few hours from the Palawan’s provincial capital of Puerto Princesa is the famed Underground River, which is now part of the New 7 Wonders of Nature. Off the shore of Puerto Princesa itself is the small islands in Honda Bay that have been popular among tourists and vacationers.
27.) Banaue Rice Terraces – more than 2,000 years ago, indigenous tribes in Ifugao carved these terraces. It is a great engineering feat during the time when modern technology came into existence.
28.) Chocolate Hills – these lumps of earth in the island of Bohol is an interesting natural phenomenon. But apart from these lovely mounds, Bohol is also a preferred destination for travelers because of its white sand beaches, old churches, and the small primate called tarsiers.
29.) Rolling Hills of Batanes – the northernmost province in the Philippines is known for its boulder beach, the cascading hills, and the zigzag cliffs. Frequented by typhoons, the local residents of Batanes, called Ivatans, wear the Vakul which they use as a headdress against the extreme weather. Homes are made of stone houses to protect them from storms.
30.) Islets in Coron and El Nido – limestone formations and breathtaking underwater scenery are aplenty in the postcard-perfect Coron and El Nido, which are located in the province of Palawan. Each has its own allure, yet both offer a welcome respite from city life and provide a close encounter with nature.
The smallest in the Southeast Asian region, Singapore is also the most progressive among all member-states. The one-fifth of the founding members of the ASEAN is considered as an Asian Tiger because of its strong economy. In fact, other nationalities come to this nation-state to look for opportunities, making it as the most densely populated country in Southeast Asia. It is one of my favorite places to visit and some of the articles I have written are First-time in Singapore and Singapore Revisited. And though it is a tiny nation, there are plenty of things to see in Singapore.
31.) Marina Bay Sands – shaped like a ship that is held by three legs, Marina Bay Sands is a resort complex that has a hotel, shopping area and other attractions. It has become a modern icon in Singapore.
32.) Gardens by the Bay – just behind Marina Bay Sands is Gardens by the Bay is this futuristic park that houses many flora and fauna, where visitors can learn more about biodiversity without living the city.
33.) Sentosa – when it comes to recreation, Sentosa Island is the top choice of both locals and visitors. Beaches, rides, hotels, restaurants and other entertainment areas are located in this island. Universal Studio is also found in Sentosa.
34.) Singapore Zoo – this is one of the largest zoos I have visited where I have seen the panda, polar bear and white tiger, among many other species. Singapore Zoo is an impressive place that is well kept. Within the complex is the River Safari and the Night Safari.
35.) Chinatown – there’s a Chinatown in every part of the world, they say, but with Singapore’s history tracing its roots to the Chinese, it is but apt to have a Chinese community within its nation. The Chinatown here has several temples, eateries and stalls that makes it a shopper’s haven.
The fifth of the original members of the ASEAN, Thailand is a country that has not been colonized by any foreign force. This kingdom is my most frequented place outside my own country and the destination of my first trip abroad. Thailand thrives in its tourism because of its culture, beaches, affordable lifestyle and strong government support on its tourism programs.
I have been to Bangkok and Chiang Mai several times and a number of these blog posts are testament to those: First-time in Bangkok, First-time in Chiang Mai, Thailand Medical Tourism Blog Contest, My Comfy and Suite Stays in Bangkok, Wats in Chiang Mai, Thailand as a MICE Destination, Sadly, I haven’t been near to any of its beaches or islands. Two of my trips were related with medical tourism in Thailand, as well as its booming MICE (meetings, incentives, conventions, events/exhibits) industry.
36.) Grand Palace – the Grand Palace is a top destination in Bangkok. It rises beautifully at the Chao Phraya River bank. It is near many important temples, such as the Wat Phra Kaew or the Temple of the Emerald Buddha and Wat Pho, where you can find the reclining Buddha. Also close by is Wat Arun.
37.) Floating Markets – Damnoen Saduak, Taling Chan, Bang Ku Wiang and Amphawa are among the known floating markets. It’s interesting to buy items through canals, giving us a peek as to how Thais buy their goods in olden days.
38.) Temples of Chiang Mai – Doi Suthep, Chiang Mun, Chedi Luang and many more are the wats in Chiang Mai that locals and foreigners visit. Each have interesting stories , designs and interiors.
39.) Ayutthaya Historical Park – during my first trip in Thailand, an acquaintance brought us to Ayutthaya, a place where the ruins of temples and remnants of the second capital of Siam are found.
40.) Queen Sirikit Botanical Garden – situated in the upland portion of Chiang Mai, toward Mae Sa, houses a collection of various plant species. And a short ride from the garden are other attractions for nature lovers like the Mae Sa Waterfalls and the Bai Orchid and Butterfly Farm.
Vietnam joined the ASEAN in 1995. Since its unification and its economic reforms, Vietnam has shown a lot of promise when it comes to economic growth. This appears to be true during my trip in Ho Chi Minh City wherein I shared about my adventures in my First-time in Ho Chi Minh City. Still, I hope to return to this country to explore its northern parts.
41.) Halong Bay – limestone islands and islets, topped with green vegetation, dot the scenery of Halong Bay, which remains to be a favorite postcard photo of tourists. Boats and ships cruise around Halong Bay, giving travelers the many facets of its beauty.
42.) Hoi An – the fishing village, which is often referred to the “Venice of Vietnam”, is an international port since hundreds of years ago and is now a tourist attraction.
43.) Chu Chi Tunnels – a network of narrow passages that used by Viet Cong guerrillas during the Vietnam War is now a tourist attraction. But it is not for the faint-hearted as those with claustrophobia might not stand getting trapped underground, even for a few minutes.
44.) Ho Chi Minh City Hall – its French colonial façade is an eye-catching attraction to anyone walking the street in front of the Ho Chi Minh City Hall. The park across it has the monument of Ho Chi Minh. There are also other interesting buildings around and near the Ho Chi Minh City Hall.
45.) Imperial City in Hue – history lovers will love to explore the old capital of the Nguyen dynasty. The Imperial Citadel, with its rich architecture and design, gives us a glimpse of ancient Vietnam.
Myanmar, or formerly Burma, joined the ASEAN in 1997, together with Laos. This is the only country in Southeast Asia that I haven’t set foot, yet. That’s the operational word — “yet”. It’s in my must-visit list and I think it will happen very soon. Meanwhile, here are the places I want to visit in Myanmar.
46.) Bagan – the temples in Bagan are tourist drawers as I know of friends who visited this place or those who are still planning a trip in this part of Myanmar. Hot air balloon rides are available to those who want to see the entire area from above.
47.) Golden Rock – the sight of a pagoda on top of a large boulder at the edge of a cliff is a pretty one. Many believed it is a miracle by Buddha and others come here for pilgrimage.
48.) Taung Kalat – a monastery at the summit of an extinct volcano neck is another breathtaking view in Myanmar. It’s a 777-step climb to the monastery but getting there seems to be all worth it.
49.) Shwedagon Pagoda – often referred to as the Golden Pagoda, Shwedagon Zedi Daw is found on Singuttara Hill and considered the most sacred pagoda in Myanmar. Belief has it that it contains relics of Buddha.
50.) Mrauk U – another important archaeological attraction is Mrauk U with all its ruins, stupas and temples. It used to be an Arakan capital (now the Rahkine State of Myanmar) and believed to be a powerful trading center.
There you have it! You got 50 things to start your exploration of Southeast Asia. And what better time to do it than this year with the 50th year of ASEAN’s founding? Or, if you have an attraction not found here but you are eager to see it for the first-time, send in your suggestion through the comment section below.
I wish you an exciting adventure on your first-time travels!