Southeast Asia is a wonderfully varied subcontinent where each country has its own very distinct culture, cuisine, history and geography. However something that they all have in common is their spots of truly stunning scenery, from heavily wooded areas to stretches of coastline, white sand beaches to vast mountain ranges – name it and you can find it somewhere in Southeast Asia.
It is therefore unsurprising that here you can find some of the world’s most picturesque places to take a road trip. Although Southeast Asia is also known for being a bit crazy on the roads – and this is certainly true a lot of the time – there are also places where you can enjoy a serene and scenic ride. Below we’ve explored some of Southeast Asia’s best loved routes.
Hai Van Pass, Vietnam
The Hai Van Pass, meaning “Ocean Cloud Pass” or “Pass of Ocean Mist” is a 21-kilometre stretch of national route that traverses the mountains and coastline that run between Hue and Hoi An/Da Nang in central Vietnam. The route is famous as one of the most scenic stretches of road in the world and is a must do on a tour of Vietnam. It was even featured on Top Gear’s “Vietnam Special” where it was named a “deserted ribbon of perfection”.
Most visitors take the trip on motorbike and you can easily rent motorbikes at either end of the pass. There are also many companies from which you can rent motorbikes and do a group tour following a guide or even sit on the back and be driven if you prefer. If that is not your thing, there are car and van options too. It is worth noting that although the route is known for its beauty, it is also known for its difficulty and we would only recommended experienced riders take to the Hai Van Pass on motorbike.
Once you hit the road there are many places to stop and things to see on the way from A to B. The road goes through the Annamite Mountains, which have a very unique and distinct tropical rainforest ecosystem. Look out for the very rare annamite rabbit, the saola (the rarest large mammal in the world that resembles an antelope) and the Chinese pangolin, which looks a bit like an armadillo generally around half a meter in length. Or perhaps you want to soak up the sun for a bit while you stretch your legs? Then stop off at Lang Co Beach, a 10-kilometres stretch of pristine white sand beach running alongside a turquoise lagoon. It is a much quieter spot than a lot of Vietnam’s more famous beach destinations – in fact it is generally more popular with Vietnamese day-trippers than Western travellers, meaning that it feels rather untouched.
Halsema Highway, Philippines
The Halsema Highway is a 150-kilometre stretch of highway that goes from the city of Baguio to Bontoc passing through eight different municipalities and four mountain towns. It was built in the 1920s taking eight years to complete and was originally built as a foot path. Therefore it can be pretty treacherous in places so do be vigilant, particularly in wet weather. That being said, it is an incredibly beautiful route; at its highest point it reaches nearly 2,300 metres in altitude making it the country’s highest highway.
On a trip down this highway you will be treated to views of the Ambuclao Dam, Mount Pulag, Natubleng’s vegetable terraces, huge bunches of wild lilies and local food stalls buzzing with people. In fact you really are afforded a privileged glimpse into the life of the local population and there are lots of places to stop on your way. The Philippine Pali, in Cattubo, Buguias, Benguet, is the highest point of any Philippine highway. A viewing point has been erected here and it is well worth stopping to take some photos of the incredible views stretching over the mountain ranges beyond. Thanks to its high altitude, it gets pretty chilly up here so you will want to wrap up fairly warm.
For an entirely different but no less awe-inspiring view, the Sabangan Stop gives you panoramic views of steeped rice fields that resemble something from a fantasy film. Mount Polis has a bus and coach stop, which offers visitors yet another different view and a seemingly different climate. Sitting on a high peak, this stop is often steeped in a thick fog covering its tropical foliage (it is an area famed for its biodiversity). Here you can enjoy a cup of coffee and some light breakfast whilst enjoying the view – or what you can see of it – including the wonderful juxtaposition of a large statue of the Virgin Mary next to an even larger phone signal tower.
This is slightly different to the two trips above: rather than a specific road here we’re looking at a specific route – a route that takes in some of the fantastic places that northern Thailand has to offer. We’d recommend taking your time with this journey as there is plenty to see en route and of course it can be tailored to suit your preference. The most common way to do the route is by starting in Pai and ending in Lampang with stops in Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai and Doi Phu Kha National Park.
Pai is a small town in northern Thailand that is fast becoming one of the major stopping points on a visitor’s tour of the country. Although it has plenty of guesthouses, bars, restaurants and tour companies, it still retains a sense of its small town charm. Pai is surrounded by mountain ranges and misty jungles making it an area that is particularly good for trekking. From Pai it is about 150 kilometres to our next stop: Chiang Mai. Chiang Mai is Thailand’s most populous city in the north and is a big and bustling place with plenty to do. Top activities here include markets, temples and exploring the city’s historic old town. The surrounding area abounds with waterfalls, rainforest and hot springs – all just a short drive from the city itself.
Once you’ve managed to tear yourself away from Chiang Mai, it is about a three hour drive to Chiang Rai. Chiang Rai is a beautiful little city that is completely steeped in local culture. Main things to do here include sampling some local delicacies, visiting the Mae Fah Luang Art & Culture Park and taking in some of the city’s many museums and temples. From Chiang Rai it is 250 kilometres to the Doi Phu Kha National Park. This national park is a top spot for hikers although any nature lover will enjoy the various hidden caves, rivers and waterfalls that make up the park. The final leg of this journey from Doi Phu Kha National Park to Lampang takes around 4.5 hours. In Lampang you can enjoy seeing some of the area’s many elephants, elephant sanctuaries and temples.
Some other suggested routes
The above article has given you a taste of some of Southeast Asia’s road trip routes; however, there are so many more. Where should you start on a tour down some of this sub-continent’s most beautiful trails? To help get you started below we’ve got a few more suggestions of routes that you won’t want to miss out on.
- Cambodia’s “Route 66” or the Angkorian Highway is the road that connects the ancient temple cities of Preah Khan and Angkor. It is an ancient route that has been standing for over 1,000 years and offers visitors a unique road-tripping experience. Some parts are newer and have clearly been repaired where you may see minibuses with tourists but some parts are pretty derelict and they really feel like a piece of untouched history.
- The Philippines has lots of incredible road trip routes and another of their really spectacular ones is the Cagayan de Oro-Bukidnon-Davao route, which crosses the island of Mindanao. The drive takes about 5.5 hours depending on how long your stops are. The biggest attraction along the way is the views of Ver Overview and Nature Park. Stunning scenes of the rolling hills and wildlife that is hard to drag yourself away from.
- For those feeling adventurous and with plenty of time, the Ho Chi Minh Highway in Vietnam is a great option. The route runs from Hanoi in the North to the Kon Tum Province in Central Vietnam covering a whopping 1,200 kilometres. As you can imagine there is plenty to see along the way and we’d recommending spending a couple of weeks doing it if you have the time.