11 Local Experiences You Can't Miss in Southeast Asia

Michelle Leong

Southeast Asia is one of the world’s most popular tourist destinations—and for good reason! But if you’re looking to avoid the crowds and see beyond the tourist traps, take a look at our guide to the 11 best local experiences in the region.

A homestay in a Thai Village

There’s more to Thailand than you could ever imagine. This popular rite-of-passage destination offers you Theravada wats, palaces-turned-museums, orgasmic food, islands that look photoshopped, and joyful, welcoming people.

So, what better way to experience it all than staying with locals in a rural Thai village?

A traditional Thai village house

Meeting orangutans in Borneo

Indigenous to the rainforests of Borneo, orangutans (derived from the Malay phrase, orang utan, literally “person of the forest”) are beautiful creatures, and are a wonder to watch at play.

A family of orangutans in Malaysian Borneo

Climbing active volcanoes in the Tengger Caldera, Indonesia

Whether you’re here for the view, the hike, or the spiritual experience, the Tengger massif will give you an adventure like no other.

The view over Mount Bromo, from Tengger Semeru National Park

The most well-known of the Tengger Caldera volcanoes is Mount Bromo, an active volcano that often sizzles and seethes. Depending on volcanic activity, you may or may not be able to climb up the mountain, but there are nearby hills from which to perch and drink in the view.

A colorful floating market in Kanchanaburi

Kanchanaburi is Asia’s answer to Venice’s popular floating market. Colorful, noisy, and brimming with fruits, vegetables and home wares, this is the place to hit if you want a raw turnip, some khanom krok (rice pudding), or simply to watch how the locals barter.

A woman selling fresh produce on a boat in Kanchanaburi’s floating market

The Tha Kha Floating Market is about as local as it gets (being small and not too touristy), and is close to the novel and mind-boggling Maeklong Railway Market (a market that literally operates on railway tracks).

Trekking through local villages to get to Inle Lake, Myanmar

Named after the Intha people, the Inle Lake covers 44.9 square miles (116 square kilometers), which is about the size of the Kaho’olawe island in Hawaii.

Begin your trek from Kalaw (an old hill station) and move through extensive rice fields, vegetable plantations and local homes built with wood and bamboo. After the long walk, you’ll be rewarded with the stunning Inle Lake, where houses are built on stilts above the water and fishermen row with their legs, catching prey in their conical nets.

Inle Lake, Maing Touk Village, Myanmar

Laughter yoga in Vietnam

Laughter yoga has become such a trend in Hanoi that you’ll find crowds of hundreds gathered together to guffaw their morning away. Participants can be found waving, clapping, marching, making silly faces, and having a swell time.

People having fun during laughter yoga

Scaling the tallest mountain in Southeast Asia

Mount Kinabalu has carnivorous pitcher plants, oriental small-clawed otters and the world’s largest flower (the Rafflesia)—and we haven’t even started on the view.

Climbers going up Mount Kinabalu, Sabah

At 13,435 feet (4,095 metres) above sea level, Mount Kinabalu is the summit of the Borneo Crocker Range. Not for the weak-willed or the unfit, climbing Mount Kinabalu is a revelatory experience—it’ll make you a different person.

Hunting for dragons on Komodo Island, Indonesia

First documented by the Dutch, the Komodo dragon is the largest living lizard species today, typically weighing in at around 154 pounds (70 kg). These creatures can be found in the Indonesian archipelago, especially on Komodo Island.

Komodo dragon in the Komodo National Park

When you’re done locating your dragon, the island also offers snorkeling opportunities, a pink beach, and a national park.

Taking a slow-boat trip down the Mekong River

The Mekong River runs through China, Myanmar, Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, and Cambodia, and offers financial and practical sustenance to all.

Framed on either side by lofty limestone karsts and natural caves, the Vang Vieng in Laos offers an impressive view of the Mekong River, as well as the mulberry farms just outside of town.

Vang Vieng, Laos

Learning about Cambodia’s tragic past in Phnom Penh

During Pol Pot’s reign, the Tuol Svay Prey High School was converted into a security prison, where thousands were tortured, killed, or worked to death.

By death toll, the Cambodian genocide remains one of the largest in history, and the country lost approximately 1.5 to 3 million people at the hands of the Khmer Rouge.

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (once Tuol Svay Prey High School), Phnom Penh

Visiting Tuol Sleng (the prison-turned-museum) and the killing fields of Choeung Ek is a sobering experience, but an important one—especially if you want to learn more about Cambodia’s history.

Visiting the hanging coffins of the Philippines

For two millennia, the Igorot people of Echo Valley, Sagada, have practiced the ancient tradition of wrapping the corpses of their deceased loves one, smoking them (to prevent fast decomposition) and placing them in coffins nailed to the sides of cliffs. It is believed that this will bring them closer to their ancestral spirits.

Hanging coffins in Sagada, the Philippines

If you are looking to have a responsible and adventurous time in Southeast Asia, check out Intrepid Travel.

Culture Trips launched in 2011 with a simple yet passionate mission: to inspire people to go beyond their boundaries and experience what makes a place, its people and its culture special and meaningful. We are proud that, for more than a decade, millions like you have trusted our award-winning recommendations by people who deeply understand what makes places and communities so special.

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