Whether you're looking for a thrilling spelunking adventure or a leisurely afternoon of river tubing, Southeast Asia is a treasure-trove for every kind of nature lover.
While growing city skylines and scaling skyscrapers are popping up all over Southeast Asia, the true beauty of the region is still seen in the natural landscapes. From expansive caves to towering waterfalls, the countries of Southeast Asia truly demonstrate the power of Mother Nature. Located in the countries of Vietnam, Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia, we’ve managed to narrow down our favorites to a list of 25 natural wonders.
Ha Long Bay
With around 2,000 islets sprawling across an indescribable landscape of almost 600 square miles, there’s no wonder Ha Long Bay was named one of the New Seven Natural Wonders of the World. Named as a UNESCO Natural World Heritage Site, the bay’s floating mountains and emerald-green waters are said to have inspired the animated landscapes of Avatar, and have been used as the set for films like Kong: Skull Island and Pan (it really is the perfect childhood rendition of Neverland). Located in the northern coastal region of Vietnam, there are several junk-boats that offer daily and multi-day sails with included excursions such as kayaking, cave expeditions, and in-depth tours through some of the last remaining fishing villages inside the bay.
INSIDER TIPHa Long Bay’s closest major city, Hanoi, is over a three and a half hour drive. Many of the bay’s cruises will provide free ground transportation to and from the city—make sure to keep this in mind when deciding which company to book.
A township nestled within the mountains in northwestern Vietnam, Sa Pả, is home to the highest mountain in Vietnam (Fan Si Pan), picturesque rice fields, and several remaining tribal groups. Known for its adventurous trekking and natural landscapes, Sa Pả is the ideal vacation destination for those looking to break a sweat while also enjoying the unique flora and animals native to the region. If you like a little luxury with your nature, there are dedicated spas and resorts that overlook the greenery, mountains, and rice fields.
INSIDER TIPMany of the local villagers love the idea of sharing their home and neighborhood with visitors. If possible, try booking a homestay experience for one of the nights you’re in town. You’ll enjoy an authentic dinner, stories of the region, and a unique immersion into local customs and culture.
Phong Nha Caves
Home to an expansive underground lake, as well as one the largest underground rivers in the world, Phong Nha is a must-see for travelers heading to northern Vietnam. Located inside Phong Nha-Kẻ Bàng National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the caves serve as the park’s main attraction. In fact, the name of the park translates to “wind and teeth,” inspired by the main cave opening where stalactites and stalagmites resemble a monster’s teeth. Best of all, most of the caves inside the park are still a mystery, as only one percent (or so) of the 300 caves have been explored.
INSIDER TIPIf looking to travel by boat through the featured Dragon Cave, make sure to visit during the dry season (November to April), as boats do not run at high water levels.
Sơn Đoòng Cave
The largest cave in the world, Sơn Đoòng Cave was carved by underwater springs over three million years ago and was recently opened to the public starting in 2013. It is said that more people have climbed up all 1,576 steps of the Empire State Building than have ventured into Sơn Đoòng Cave so you’ll want it on your list for bragging rights alone. Given the incredible size of the cave, measuring five miles long and over 600 feet tall, explorers witness the development of Sơn Đoòng’s own underground ecosystem.
INSIDER TIPFor those looking to book an expedition through the Sơn Đoòng Cave, you’ll want to dedicate at least six days (and nights) for the tour and book quickly as availability is limited. The expedition is strenuous so you will need to be in good physical health and fitness.
The Sand Dunes of Mui Ne
Sand dunes in Southeast Asia? Crazy as it sounds, it’s true. Located four hours from Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam, Mui Ne is comprised of both the Red and White Dunes as well as the Fairy Stream (which is one of the most Instagrammed locations in Mui Ne). The two dunes are popular boarding/sledding spots, while the Fairy Stream is a pathway of red sand surrounded by greenery. It’s recommended to snap your sunset pictures while on the red dunes to capture the beautiful sun rays reflecting off the colored sand.
INSIDER TIPIf looking to participate in sandboarding activities, try heading over to the white sand dunes as the terrain is higher and easier to navigate.
Located thirty minutes from the Sa Pả region, the Silver Falls (referred to as the Thac Bac Waterfalls), were given their nickname after tourists standing beneath the falls noticed the glistening grey-white color that reflects off the rocks. Note: you will have to trek quite a bit through rough terrain and Vietnamese jungle to reach the falls.
INSIDER TIPIf visiting the Silver Falls, don’t forget to visit the sister waterfall—the Love Falls.
Ba Vi National Park
Spread out over a three-capped mountain range with hidden peaks covered by clouds, Ba Vi National Park is the perfect nature escape if staying in the Hanoi area. On top of the mountains stand two temples visitors shouldn’t miss once inside the park: Bac Ho (also called Ho Chi Minh) and the Tan Vien Peak (where the iconic shrine to the Mountain God stands). Active types should hike or mountain bike up the mountains to reach both sites, or you can rent or hire a car to drive up the mountain.
INSIDER TIPPlan on visiting Ba Vi National Park during the late spring and fall months, as the clearer views from the top of the mountain range will allow you to see the city of Hanoi in the distance.
Thi Lo Su Waterfall
Reaching over 800 feet tall and almost 1,500 feet wide, Thi Lo Su Waterfall is the largest waterfall in Thailand. While you can’t bring your own vehicles into the waterfall’s park site, you can take local transportation close to the falls. From the drop-off, there’s a 30-minute trek through the jungle to reach Thi Lo Su, but it’s more than worth the journey.
INSIDER TIPFrom May to October, Thailand’s rainy season, make sure to check if Thi Lo Su Waterfall is closed or under observation due to the heavy amount of water run-off.
Doi Inthanon National Park
Made up of the Himalayan mountains, dozens of waterfalls, various hiking routes, and its very own flower garden, Doi Inthanon National Park encompasses every potential manifestation of natural beauty. Since the mountain is located in the Chiang Mai region, it’s fitting that the mountain is named for the last king of Chiang Mai, King Inthawichayanon. It is also named for the tallest mountain in the range (and the entirety of Thailand), Doi Inthanon.
INSIDER TIPOne of the best ways to get to Doi Inthanon and avoid the pricey tours is to hire your own Red Car (otherwise known as local taxis) in the city of Chiang Mai.
Bua Thong Waterfall
Known to locals as the Sticky Waterfalls, the name comes from the grippy, almost spongelike texture of the rocks which allows for Spiderman-like climbing—unlike most other slick and slippery falls. A calcium-rich spring at the top pours over the rocks to create the grippy texture and prevent algae from adhering. There are five different levels of waterfalls to climb, as well as nature trails, picnic areas, and natural pools located throughout the park site.
INSIDER TIPWhile most of the rocks are “sticky” some of the rocks at the bottom or the top of the falls have grown algae covering the surface and can be very easy to slip on if you’re not careful. For these sections be sure to use the provided ropes.
Phang Nga Bay
Located in Phuket, Phang Nga Bay is a breathtaking natural phenomenon. Made famous by movies like The Man with the Golden Gun, visitors are mesmerized by the countless limestone karsts emerging from crystal turquoise waters. Renting kayaks or paddle boards is the easiest way to explore small caverns and unexplored nooks to where boats can’t venture.
INSIDER TIPDon’t miss out on visiting Koh Panyee on Phang Nga Bay, where an above-water village makes its home on the side of a karst.
Mae Hong Son
On the northern border of Thailand close to Myanmar, lies the city of Mae Hong Son. Considered a remote destination and made for travelers wishing to seek out their next adventure, this lakeside city offers varied and incredible jungle treks. Mae Hong Son houses the famous Namtok Mae Surin National Park, so guests can wander to the ‘Nam Hu Hai Jai Cave and the Mae Surin Waterfall.
INSIDER TIPIf hiking to the ‘Nam Hu Hai Jai cave, be sure to linger a while to catch water bursting through the cave walls (which occurs every 25 minutes or so).
Phae Muang Phi Canyon
Once a sacred location to the ancient villagers of Toong Hong, Phae Muang Phi Canyon is now a popular tourist destination, offering rock shelves almost 100 feet tall. This natural wonder was created by the erosion of sandstone over time, which created a dynamic landscape with different shapes, heights, and carvings. In addition to the canyon, the park is comprised of many nature walks, trails, and gardens with rare plants native to the northwestern region of Thailand.
INSIDER TIPDon’t skip the trail walks in the park, as one of them leads to a stunning aerial view of the canyon.
Wat Chaloem Phra Kiat
Approximately a two and a half hour drive from Chiang Mai, Wat Chaloem Phra Kiat is the perfect example of humans incorporating nature into breathtaking structures. Over a decade ago, monks discovered the beauty of these mountains and decided to dedicate them to the 50th anniversary of King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s claim to the throne. Many call this area the home of the floating pagodas, as monks built religious Buddhist temples and shrines on top of the mountain peaks. More impressively, the monks built these structures by hand, walking each piece of building material up the mountain.
INSIDER TIPThis can be popular so try scheduling your visit when the park opens at 7:30 a.m. Not only will you skip the crowd, but the morning fog adds another layer of beauty to the scene.
Red Lotus Sea
Officially called Nong Han Kumphawapi Lake, this at times normal old lake transforms into a most spectacular and magical sight during the cooler months (November to February), when it’s blanketed in rose-colored lotus flowers in full bloom. The only way to truly soak in its beauty is to take a boat ride (narrow channels in the flowers allow boats to move through with ease).
INSIDER TIPPrivate, wooden boats can be self-chartered, so there’s no need to set up a ride with a tour beforehand.
A favorite location of many backpackers and travelers heading to northern Thailand, Pai is home to many hot springs, mountains, and (most notably) canyons. The journey to Pai from Chiang Mai is four hours of winding roads through Thai jungle and countryside. If stopping on your journey to visit local hot springs, make sure to test the water, as some can be scalding hot and unswimmable. Once in Pai, you’ll notice the calm “hippie” vibe of expats and locals versus the crazy and hectic chaos of the other Thai cities.
INSIDER TIPMake sure to rent a scooter if spending more than a day in Pai, as not only is it the easiest way to get around, it’s a nice way to take in the natural scenery. Unless extremely comfortable, avoid renting scooters to drive to Pai as the journey can be dangerous with the winding roads.
While the Mekong River runs through most of the countries in Southeast Asia, and even part of China, there are many reasons why Laos should be the go-to destination if looking to take a stroll down the Mekong. For starters, you can take in three countries at once! Starting your journey on the Mekong (most likely from the city on the Thai-Laos border, Huay-Xai) the views of Myanmar, Thailand, and Laos are all visible from the boat. During the boat tour through the Mekong, learn about the opium trade and how the Mekong Delta once served as the black market center for narcotics. Listen as the guide explains how all three governments came together to help stop the corruption.
INSIDER TIPIf taking a full day or multi-day tour through the Mekong, opt-in for one the luxury boat rides. As the price is a little higher, the trade-off is worth having space, lunch served, and comfortable seats.
Tham Khong Lor Cave
Over 200 miles south of Vientiane, the bustling Mekong River port of Tha Khek is known for its access to stunning surrounding countryside and access to natural attractions in Phu Hin Bun National Park, including the Blue Lagoon and the phenomenal Thanm Khong Lor cave. Riding a narrow boat through the dark, impressively long cave for up to an hour and then emerging to a wide green river, framed by lush green vegetation and limestone cliffs—and maybe buffalo cooling in the water—is an otherworldly experience.
Make sure you wear proper footwear, as going barefoot is not allowed and there are moments where the paths lead into water or through slippery rocks.
INSIDER TIPAs one third of Laos is still contaminated with unexploded IEDs left over from the Vietnam War, it’s important to venture to and from the cave with a reputable guide.
Kuang Si Falls
An hour tuk-tuk ride from Luang Prabang, these stunning tiered falls offer cascades of milky-blue waters tumbling from lush jungle into perfectly-formed pools where visitors can take a refreshing dip. Hike to the top where you’ll find quieter pools, incredible views of Lao countryside, and beautiful forest.
Si Phan Don
The landlocked country of Laos is also home to Si Phan Don, a sleepy archipelago in the Mekong River. The name means “4,000 islands” and they range from small boulders to fully inhabited stretches of land. The most visited-islands are Don Det, Don Khon, and to a lesser extent Don Khong. Book overwater bungalows and rent kayaks to explore and even, count, the islands.
INSIDER TIPMost places in Si Phan Don do not take credit cards, so make sure you have plenty of cash on hand.
Nam Song River
Not your average waterpark lazy river, The Nam Song River is the real, lazy deal. Grab a floatie and tube down the water at your leisure, and if tubing isn’t for you, vendors have kayaks to rent. Known as a party spot in the early 2000s, backpackers would originally come to Nam Song River to, well, float down the river intoxicated. Recently the government of Laos made some safety modifications, which included removing many lakeside bars and setting parameters on the lake. So what was once a relatively wild and dangerous party spot, has now turned into a relaxing country oasis.
INSIDER TIPIf looking to add a little adventure into your trip, try walking across the iconic bamboo bridge or mountain-climbing by the river.
Tonle Sap Lake
One of Southeast Asia’s biggest lakes, the Tonle Sap swells and shrinks seasonally based on fluctuations in the Mekong’s water levels. Once a year, the lake’s tributary experiences a reversal of flow that Cambodians celebrate with an exciting festival, Bon Om Touk, in November.
Tours run in the wet and dry season. In the rainy season, guides will take you through the lake explaining the way of life for those living in the village. During the dry season, many of the tours take place on foot as the water levels drop exponentially.
INSIDER TIPDuring the rainy season, don’t skip venturing through the mangroves on provided bamboo rafts.
Virachey National Park
One of the most protected pieces of land in Cambodia, Virachey National Park is the largest park in the country as well as a home to many rare and endangered species of plants and animals including Asian elephants, gibbons, clouded leopards, and sun bears. While Virachey is on many visitors’ must-see list and the park is trying to protect its lands, so make sure to organize a tour or trek beforehand as exploring on your own is forbidden.
INSIDER TIPConsider booking multi-day tours and treks, as they include camping overnight within the park’s grounds.
Many think of Thailand or Bali when choosing their beach destinations in Southeast Asia, but some of the coastal cities in Cambodia (like Sihanoukville) are breathtakingly beautiful, unpolluted, untouristed, and offer crystal blue waters and pearly white sands. When visiting the Sihanoukville region, be sure to check out Ochheuteal and Serendipity beaches as they tend to be the most popular and offer a wide variety of restaurants, hotels, and bars.
INSIDER TIPHire a boat for the day to take you to one (or many) of the islands out in the Gulf of Thailand.
Phnom Kulen National Park
Thirty minutes north of Siem Reap and the popular temples of Angkor, Phnom Kulen National Park is home to Kulen Mountain. Along with its beautiful and natural landscape with breaktaking views, Phnom Kulen National Park is believed to be where the Khmer Empire was founded. Visitors can witness pilgrimages on special holidays and weekends up to the mountain, as this where their former kings were crowned. In addition to the sacred mountain, you can cool off at the waterfalls, hike through nature trails, and see ancient carvings along the River of a Thousand Lingas.