After over twenty years of travelling the world there are so many places that I genuinely love and even many that I would happily call home, but no region has ever affected me more than south east Asia. This diverse, enigmatic and enchanting region just keeps drawing me back time after time, and I will never tire of it. Here is why I absolutely love south east Asia, and why you will fall in love with it too.
South east Asia is just the best. It is. I love it here. It is such a stunningly beautiful, enigmatic, sometimes contradictory and often awe inspiring region, and is the traditional first stop on many first time gap year itineraries for very good reason.
I have visited every single country in south east Asia at least once, many of them multiple times and have trvelled through slowly and extensively enough to know them very well. A few of those countries I have stayed in often enough and long enough for me to consider them second homes, and it is without doubt my favourite region on the planet.
Don’t get me wrong, I like other countries, regions and continents too, a lot of the places I have visited over the years are special in different ways, but in all my travels none have ever even come even close to south east Asia, a region that may not be my birthplace but I am always happy to call home.
But what is it exactly that this relatively small region has has that enthralls me so much? What is it that keeps me coming back time and time again?
Don’t get me wrong, I have had some awesome adventures all over the world and I have loved every one, but there is something about the stories I have from south east Asia that hold a special place in my heart.
I ‘m not exactly sure why, perhaps it is because many of these adventures were had during formative or life changing periods, maybe it is because of the sheer ability to be able to tell stories about hiking up active volcanoes, trekking through the jungles of Borneo or nearly getting run over by a speedboat when diving in Thailand, all of these adventures and so many more, is just an awesome thing in and of itself.
I honestly don’t know.
But I do know all of these adventures have become a large part of how I define myself. I’m not just a nurse, a writer, a brother, a son. I’m a guy who can look back when I reach the end and say I did all those things and it was awesome!
Of course there are so many adventures and memories from around the world, but south east Asia, perhaps more than any other region, has given me that.
The Feeling Of Home.
Have you ever felt an instant connection with somewhere that isn’t your place of birth or the place you grew up? A feeling of safety, of familiarity, of being welcomed and completely at ease? I can’t explain it, but there is something about south east Asia that makes me feel instantly at home the second I arrive.
The comfortable familiarity of backpacker havens like Khao San Road, the easy going vibe of the islands, the eclectic buzz of the cities, there is a very special feeling I get in south east Asia. Some places more than others admittedly but still, there is an inescapable vibe in this part of the world where I am instantly in my comfort zone no matter where I am, where I can arrive off a plane and instantly just relax.
The Varied Cultures.
Apart from a few forays into Europe on more traditional holidays, like many backpackers south east Asia was my first introduction to travelling the world independently, and on reflection it was an almost spiritual experience that truly opened my eyes to a wide range of cultures and religions.
One of the best things about south east Asia is its sheer diversity. Almost every religion is celebrated here, with over 100 ethnic groups and countless more local cultures, languages and dialects.
The stark contrasts and glaring similarities hit you almost immediately as you travel through what is a very diverse and yet at the same time very multicultural region. Nowhere else on earth has the same ability to have such diversity of culture in such a small space and accept it as universally normal.
The Cost Of Living.
Okay, so this isn’t the primary reason I love south east Asia, far from it, but I would be remiss if I didn’t at least give it a passing mention because the fact is the cost of living throughout most of south east Asia is very low, or at the very least extremely good value compared to back home, and what is there not to love about that? Even at its most expensive in places like Singapore, prices are very reasonable.
Coming from the UK in particular where the cost of living is almost punitive, living – even for short periods – at such a low, comfortable cost is very attractive.
When anyone thinks of southeast Asia they think of lush tropical jungles and pristine white sand beaches, they think of hopping around endless tropical islands and waking up in tiny beach huts, and all of that is absolutely true! But it isn’t all there is to south east Asia, and that is another reason I love it here.
From the hustle of Bangkok to the cosmopolitan Singapore, south east Asia has more than its fair share of iconic, must see cities where you can find a lifetimes worth of epic experiences with every modern comfort you can imagine. And with some of the best low cost airlines and the worlds premier travel hubs, you can be laying in a hammock sipping mango juice on a desrted tropical beach one day, and dressed to the nines sipping a cocktail at a swanky rooftop bar the next.
The world is a beautiful place, it really is, and there are mind blowing vistas and stunning panoramas on every continent, no doubt.
But south east Asia just redefines the word paradise. From lush, tropical jungles to stretches of white sandy beaches and everything in between, it is easy to be lured into falling in love with such a stunning region.
The food. Oh my god, the food! The street stalls of Bangkok, the food courts of Malaysia and Singapore and the tiny little plastic chairs plastered all over the pavements everywhere else hold a special place in every foodies heart, and for good reason. It really is that good!
The food in south east Asia is absolutely legendary across the world, with Singapore being widely considered as the worlds premier culinary destination and almost every country on the planet adopting at least a few of the regions dishes as their own, south east Asian cuisine is almost universally loved.
And who am I to argue with that?
The first time I arrived in Bangkok at the start of my very first gap year fifteen odd years ago, the first thing I did one leaving the airport – even before I had found a hostel and dropped my then oversized pack – was find a street food stall near Khao San Road, take a seat on the pavement next to some locals and order meal after meal of Pad Thai! It was some of the best food I had ever tasted, and that’s not just because I had just been subjected to 10 hours of the gassy poison they call airline food!
But it really isn’t just the taste of south east Asian cuisine, it is the experience itself. It is sitting on a bunch of plastic chairs next to a bunch of locals who laughed at my early attempts at using chopsticks before showing me how, or sitting elbow to elbow with other diners on a long bench; often looking as out of place as the Incredible Hulk at a child’s tea party but still managing to meet new people. You get a deeper cultural understanding and a deeper connection to the people simply by eating with them in south east Asia, far more so than anywhere else in the Western world.
It is the joy of exploring fresh markets, smelling the smoky satay from a roadside barbecue or pointing to something cooking over an open fire in an attempt to ask what it is I was about to eat. It is gaining an insight into the culture of where I am through the eyes of the people’s culinary dishes, from the traditional fare of Thailand, the eclectic fusion dishes of Singapore or the often insane inventiveness of the food in the Philippines. The experience of the food in south east Asia is as important as how it tastes, and that is why I love it.
It Helped Me Find My Way.
I don’t mean to be too melodramatic here but like many people I have had times of my life where I have been broken, lost or where my life has been in transition from one part to the next and I have had no clue which direction to go – figuratively speaking at least.
I won’t bore you with the details, everyone struggles through their own challenges in life in their own way and everyone has their own demons to face, but when my own have threatened to become overwhelming, south east Asia has helped me heal.
I know that sounds self indulgently mawkish but it really isn’t.
Each time I have felt like the fight was getting too much or life threw a hard curveball at me I somehow found myself somewhere in south east Asia, and each time the region gave me exactly what I needed to pick myself up and get back in the ring. It was as if the universe knew I was treading water in an open sea, and allowed the region to move me to shallower waters and openly guide me back onto a path that was right for me.
Somehow, just travelling through south east Asia gave me balance, an innate sense of equilibrium that allowed me to take stock and evaluate my life. Every single time I have visited, even for brief periods, it has helped me rejuvenate, regenerate, and be ready for whatever else the world can throw at me in the future.
The draw of south east Asia has not left me since that very first trip over 20 years ago. I have always somehow found a way to head back there at least once a year, and since that time the magic and the lure of this eclectically mesmerising region has only grown stronger.
Of course everywhere I have travelled over my lifetime has left a mark in some way, but my memories and experiences in south east Asia have no doubt helped shape my world view and who I am as a person today is a reflection of that. South east Asia is a big part of who I am today, and I look forward to seeing how the region will help me shape who I will be tomorrow.
What about you? Do you love south east Asia as much as I do? Or do you have another region that your spirit calls home?
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Why Thailand is the ultimate first time backpacking destination.
Great list and great motivation for me to find my way back there!
Thank you so much! Hope you get back there soon!
Oh my god you make it all sound so amazing and tempting! I need to travel here soon. 😞
Glad to hear it! You really should! What’s stopping you? Haha
Haha gassy poison! That is definitely the best description of airline food ever! I agree with all your points here but the food I definitely one of my favourite things about se Asia too! It has ruined takeaways for me now I’m back home!
Oh I know exactly what you mean Sam! It just isn’t the same is it?
This is so, so true! I love south east Asia for exactly the same reasons!
Loved reading this and I can resonate with a lot of those things too. I only spent a few months there earlier this year but fell in love with the places for exactly the same reasons. Now I just need to go back!
Thank you so much, I’m really glad you enjoyed reading it.
I love seasia! Spent 6 months in Thailand Vietnam and Cambodia last year, cant wait to go back!
That’s awesome, would you see the rest of the region when you go back? Where would you go?
Man, I need to start booking some tickets!
I’m planning a big trip to southeast asia now, planning to do the traditional route through Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia but then maybe add on a month for another more off the beaten track country like Borneo or Malaysia. This post has got me even more excited than I have been! I can’t wait!
That sounds like an awesome trip Dawn, and whichever you choose Malaysia and Borneo are both amazing! Have a great time!
I love it so much I’m on the 4th year of my gap year out here. Living and working in Bangkok and loving it! Your article was spot for on, once more!
Dead right! Brilliant place to start and end up staying. I’m on the 4th year of my gap year – having travelled all the way round by myself I have ended up living and working in Bangkok. There is always something that surprises or amuses me about these people. The city is bonkers but vibrant and fascinating. I love it here. I couldn’t settle in the UK after my year out and made my way back out here within a month. I read your article about returning home and it resonated with me. The gap I had left behind had changed but then so had I. Love your articles!
Aw thanks Angela, you are dead right it can be hard settling back down after travel has changed you so much, but go you on your 4th year! That is awesome! Thanks so much for reading.
Have to agree with ya! Love Southeast Asia.
Best region in the world! Every time I go I feel like I’m going home! Must have lived there in a past life. 🙂
I loved this article. It is so true. My husband and I go every year for 3 weeks with our backpacks (and we are already 48 y and 50 y now 😉 ) Been to Thailand several times, to Vietnam twice, to Kambodia, to Laos and next year planning to see Malaysia. I am happy there the moment I step of the plane… I am totally with you.
What I hate is people traveling trough SEA in 2 weeks total… banana pancake trail and so on… To get the spirit you need to take your time, you need to “go with the flow” 😉 And you need to learn about the country you visit – about its people who struggle to make a good life, their hopes and dreams. I always try not only to “consume” a country like I would eat a cake 😉
That’s a great way of putting it Simone, I know what you mean about people trying to do everything in two weeks, but the Banana Pancake trail is awesome, when you travel through it slowly and meander off it to discover a few other places too. Enjoy Malaysia, you will have an awesome time there, it is one of my favourite countries! Don’t forget to check out the destination guide! ;D