In planning that big trip to Southeast Asia (SEA) there are a lot of logistical challenges, not the least of which is where you will stay. The easy answer might be to book your accommodations in Southeast Asia with rewards points through a big chain hotel, with a name you recognize and are confident in, but perhaps you want to go a little deeper than that.
Perhaps you’re interested in a more local stay, one where your dollar spent will more directly benefit the local economy. Or, perhaps you’re looking for a more authentic experience in the countries you’re visiting. Maybe you just want to experience something very different and stay in the places that local travelers would stay in.
The good news is that there are lots of options, from posh resorts where you’ll be pampered and relax, to home rentals that will allow you to truly “live local.”
Which countries are we including in our definition of Southeast Asia?
- Burma (which is opening, slowly, and is trickier. Don’t expect to find as much online.)
Table of Contents
- Hotels Under $150
- Boutique Hotels
- Vacation Rentals
- Unusual Accommodations
- Digital Nomads
- Tourist Offices
Southeast Asia is a hotspot for luxury resorts and beautiful hotels; particularly if you’re staying near a popular travel destination like Phuket, Thailand, or near the beach in Indonesia. There are luxury hotels in nearly every main city, and some resorts have gone so far as to claim their own private islands. Most resorts come with their own accommodation style, from villas perched precariously on stilts over the clear waters of a Vietnamese lagoon, to modern clifftop architecture. Imagine spending your days on the beach, or lounging in an infinity pool, and your evenings sampling Southeast Asian culinary delights crafted by your very own personal master chef. Ooh la la!
That said, you’re not going to find too many Marriotts, or Sandals Resorts, lurking around most of Southeast Asia. The luxury hotel chains most Western travelers usually rely on are in short supply here and are often limited to city centers. If you stay in them, expect to pay the same rates as a luxury hotel chain in Europe, or North America. If you’re looking for something truly luxurious in Southeast Asia, give up the idea of staying in a chain hotel, and go for something more unique. Local luxury is easy to find here, and you’ll get more bang for your buck. Phuket, Thailand has the world’s cheapest luxury resorts.
Four Seasons: One of the classiest resort chains out there, Four Seasons has 24 locations in SEA, all of them stunning. Four Seasons really caters to all types, with resorts in city centers, jungle settings, or on the beach.
Six Senses Ninh Van Bay, Nha Trang: Overlooks the East Vietnam Sea and offers beaches, gardens, and modern architecture that incorporates traditional Vietnamese design.
Pangkor Laut : This absolutely stunning resort is on a private island three miles off the West Coast of Malaysia. Sea villas stand on stilts in the bay, with other accommodation including beach, garden, and hillside villas.
La Residence Phou Vao, Luang Prabang: Located in Laos and designed in a traditional style, this hotel is famous for its accommodations and spa.
Amandari, Bali: Near the popular expat town of Ubud, Amandari is a classic Southeast Asian resort, complete with tropical gardens, infinity pools galore, and cultural events.
Alila Uluwatu, Bali: This resort has an unusual, artsy vibe. Set on limestone cliffs sweeping down to a perfect beach on the ocean, it’s famous for its food and views.
Novotel: A go-to for hotels in general. Novotel has a long list of hotels to suit most price ranges. Keep in mind that Novotel hotels are generally found only in big cities, in this case: Bangkok, Singapore, Bali, and Jakarta.
Alila: Most of the Alila hotels are located in Bali. All are luxury, unique hotels with an emphasis on modern architecture and natural scenery.
Aman: With luxury hotels in Indonesia, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Vietnam, and the Philippines, Aman has luxury resorts in SEA pretty much covered.
Hotels in SEA under $150 are very easy to find. When I was there, I used Agoda to book most of my hotel stays and often had beautiful rooms for less than $30 USD a night. It is also perfectly doable to find a room upon arrival without much prior planning in most places. Plan according to where you’re headed, and when. For example, finding a room is simple during the off-season, or when traveling off the beaten track. Headed to Phuket in tourist season? Book way ahead of time if you want to get a good deal. Tourist season makes prior planning essential, especially if you’re staying in, or near, a tourist hotspot, or on the coast.
Keep in mind that some countries are going to be less expensive than others. Vietnam is the ideal destination for the budget traveler, while Singapore is famous for being pricey. Check the average room prices ahead of time for a good estimate of how much cash you’ll be dishing out.
Tips for saving money on a hotel in SEA:
- Contact the local tourist board before you arrive to check for the best local budget hotels – some may not be listed online.
- Trust that there will be available rooms. Unless you’re traveling in a popular area during tourist season, there WILL be something available. If you’re willing to wing it, you may save on booking fees and find special deals.
- Stay away from Western hotels. Look for locally run businesses, and you’ll find local prices to match.
- Choose accommodation further away from festivals or big events.
- Adjust your expectations. What do you really need from a hotel? You’ll save money by doing without fine dining and a pool.
Keep an eye out for hotel deals on the following sites:
Travelfish: One of the single most useful websites for finding SEA accommodation, Travelfish is an independent travel guide that focuses specifically on SEA. Use it to find hotels, restaurants, tours, and top destinations. Great for finding off-the-beaten-path adventures.
Agoda: Plug in your destination and dates here for a comprehensive list of available hotels and the sorts of rooms they have available. The ratings and recommendations feature of this site is specific to various types of travelers, so you’ll find ratings based on business travel, family travel, romantic travel and more. This is super helpful in choosing a hotel that will be a good fit. Agoda is also good for last minute planning, as well as reservations in advance. I’ve been known to sit in the lobby of a hotel, after being quoted one price at the desk, and find a better deal at the same hotel through Agoda, book it online, and check in with a smile.
Expedia: Reliable service when looking for the comfort you’re used to, but won’t always give you the best deal. Check your prices against another booking agent, if getting the lowest price is important to you.
Travelocity: A personal favorite no matter where I’m traveling. Travelocity brings up over 200 hotels in Thailand alone, and is one of the only travel sites to bring up hotel options for Burma and Brunei.
Hotels.com: Hotels has you covered, no matter where you’re going. Similar to Agoda, Hotels is one of the best ways to find budget hotels all over Southeast Asia, in even the most remote locations.
A boutique hotel is any small hotel with under 100 rooms. By that definition, you’re going to be able to find a “boutique” hotel in nearly any town in SEA. Personally, I believe that a boutique hotel needs to have a certain measure of style and uniqueness before it’s earned its title.
SEA spawns your average cheap hotel by the thousands, but finding a truly unique small hotel here can be a challenge. Unlike in most other destinations around the world, SEA boutique hotels generally cost a good deal more than an average hotel stay, some even bordering on outright luxury prices. If you find the hotel of your dreams, it may be worth it. However, after a bit of digging, I’ve found a few great boutique hotels that won’t break the bank.
iescape: The best site out there for finding the perfect boutique hotel, in my opinion. The hotels it recommends for Thailand and Indonesia are especially stunning.
Mr & Mrs Smith: A boutique hotel finder built for honeymooning couples, but perfectly usable for the average traveler. Stunning boutique hotels in Cambodia. Pricing on this site is often very high.
Samar Villa and Spa Resort, Siem Reap, Cambodia: Near the ruins of Angkor Wat, this resort is priced at under $100 USD for the off season, which makes it a great deal for a SEA boutique resort.
Sireeampan Boutique Resort and Spa, Chiang Mai, Thailand: Considered one of the top ten boutique resorts in Asia, Sireeampan was originally built as a place for family and friends of a Thai real estate developer to relax and vacation together.
Sekeping Hotel, Serendah, Malaysia: Not far from Kuala Lumpur, this minimalist boutique hotel is a simple, but beautiful, forest retreat.
Manta Dive, Gili Air, Indonesia: Stay in beach bungalows during the night, dive and snorkel during the day, starting from $70 USD.
If you plan to stay in SEA for a more than a few weeks, a vacation rental may be the way to go.
Not only are vacation rentals far more comfortable and private, they may save you money in the long run. Vacation rentals are my first choice nearly everywhere I travel. Living in a fully furnished home and being able to cook all my own meals is far more sustainable for a stay of a week or more. In Thailand, I spent a glorious few months in a vacation rental on Phuket, just a short walk from the beach. Feeling like part of the community, shopping in the market alongside my Thai neighbors and enjoying Thai cuisine from the local beach restaurants, was what made it home away from home.
Vacation rentals offer a very uniquely immersive travel experience, and are fairly easy to find.
Booking through any of the online agencies is, absolutely, possible; however, booking on the ground is often the better way to go. A bit of bravery and some flexibility are required. Just turn up, book a couple of nights in a hotel where you want to spend more time, and pound the pavement. All of our best home rentals, in SEA and elsewhere have been located through locals on the ground.
How do you do it? Find a local real-estate agency and ask for a referral to a rental agent, or, rent a motorbike and ride around writing down the phone numbers from signs on the gates of rentals. They are out there, by the hundreds, trust me.
Wimdu: 500+ properties in Thailand alone, more spread out across SEA. One of the most popular vacation rental websites out there.
Vacation Rentals: Affiliated with Homeaway and VRBO, provides a comprehensive list of all the rentals in the area you’re searching in.
Airbnb: Possibly the most well-known vacation rental and B&B locator on the web. With thousands of properties in 150+ countries around the world, it’s a go-to for house-hunting.
Roomorama: An easy to use vacation rental booking site that allows you to narrow your search from thousands of homes to the perfect stay for you.
To be honest, camping in SEA is generally not recommended. Camping is not impossible, it’s just more difficult to do than in other places in the world, and may be more trouble than it’s worth, for a few reasons. According to travelers who have tried it, these include:
- High population density
- Wildlife – jungle = insects
- Landmines. No seriously… Cambodia and Laos
- Campground fees are often higher than cheap hotel prices
- Also: gear
Travelled Paths: Lists their top 10 places to sleep out under the stars in Southeast Asia.
SEA is chock-full of unusual accommodations, but most of them you won’t find online. The most unusual accommodations are the ones you tend to stumble across accidentally along the way. Spending a night in the palace of the last king of Laos was a totally unexpected serendipity.
Some things can’t be planned. That said, there are a few unique accommodations that you can check out in advance. Varying in price, some may be the height of luxury, while others are very affordable and simple.
Permai Rainforest Resort, Kuching, Malaysian Borneo: An incredible eco-lodge in the rainforests of Borneo with a “back to nature” theme. Swim in a jungle pool, sleep in a treehouse, and enjoy a BBQ.
The Secret Sanctuary, Kuching, Malaysian Borneo: This place is a treasure and truly a secret find. It looks like nothing from the outside. Inside, it’s the private hideaway of my friend Cyril. He’s created a private paradise that he shares with a few lucky guests at a time. He’s also a master chef, so make sure you ask him to cook for you. Jellyfish salad never tasted so good. And when he makes a recommendation for an outing with a friend of his, take it.
Alexa, Komodo Islands, Indonesia: The only organized yacht tour for two. A crew of 11 takes on two passengers for a romantic, luxurious, and private trip through Indonesian waters, wherever you want to go.
Crazy House, Dalat, Vietnam: Perhaps you have seen pictures of this weirdly twisted hotel in Vietnam. Designed to reflect the natural shapes of the jungle, the Crazy House looks like something out of Dr. Seuss.
Time Capsule Retreat, Pahang, Malaysia: Stay in a “time capsule” tube in Pahang, Malaysia. With a back to the basics feel, the Time Capsule Retreat is a family-run business.
Champasak Palace Hotel, Pakse, Laos: The palace of the last king of Laos. Stay here. Be sure to go all the way up to the roof top terrace overlooking the river and discover the beautiful round room with amazing paintings around the walls and in the dome. Whisper with the ghosts of royalty.
Rarely, is it necessary to stay at a hostel in SEA; simply because you can generally find hotels for low prices, and it’s often worth the extra buck not to hear the guy in the next room snoring loudly.
Miserable, describes the night I spent, somewhere in Borneo, wrapped in an incredibly thin (read: useless) sheet, having opted out of the community shower, which was suspended directly above a particularly dirty pit toilet, wondering who had left the bed smelling of armpit. The quality of hostels in SEA varies widely.
Find a cheap hotel instead and you’ll generally be better off. That said, if you’re a serious hostel fan and want to give it a go, these sites will help you to find what you’re looking for.
HostelWorld: Relied upon by backpackers around the globe, HostelWorld has a decent selection of SEA hostels to check out.
Southeast Asia Backpacker: If you’re hosteling SEA, treat this site like your golden handbook. With information on all the best (and worst) hostels, as well as everything you need to know to backpack SEA, this site is a must-read.
Agoda: Easily book hostel rooms as well as hotel rooms.
Hostel Bookers: Similar to HostelWorld, works on an international level and showcases a large collection of SEA hostels.
Southeast Asia is a hotspot for digital nomads. Thailand and Indonesia, in particular, are popular with digital nomad and expat crowds. With vacation rentals going for such affordable prices, fantastic destinations, amazing food, and vibrant cultures, it’s easy to see why SEA is the place to be for anyone who can work remotely.
If you’re a digital nomad planning to be in SEA for a while, here are some things you should know:
Wifi is Decent
In major cities, or communities with a high population of expats/tourits/nomads, you’ll find that there’s generally decent wifi availability. Outside of these communities you’ll need to find your own solution. Internet dongles are often available on a pay as you go basis from cell phone providers. Check the nearest 7-11 to get started.
Co-Working Spaces Exist
- HUBUD, in Ubud Bali, was started by a friend
- Stash & Hatch, in Phuket, Thailand
- Punspace, in Chiang Mai, Thailand
- WorkSaigon, in Saigon, Vietnam
- Dreamplex, in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
- ProjectHub, in Yangon, Burma, is a pilot for entrepreneurs and startups
- Coworking Singapore, lets you search by the type of space you need
Travel Within SEA
- Once in SEA, travel is inexpensive on local airlines
- Visas in SEA can be tricky, particularly in Thailand, where you can’t obtain a tourist visa from within the country, and the situation in Vietnam changes often
- Language barrier is rarely a problem; as advertised at my favourite beach restaurant in Thailand, “Broken English spoken perfectly here!”
- Thailand is the best for great food, cheap accommodation, and decent infrastructure & internet
The tourist offices contain friendly people, most of whom speak English, and are a wealth of information on local accommodations, attractions, food, culture, special events and just about anything else you might need. Contact them.
Southeast Asia is an increasingly popular travel destination, with idyllic beaches, wild jungles, and bustling cities.
- Accommodation in Southeast Asia ranges from luxury resorts and hotels (Phuket has the cheapest luxury resorts in the world) to $20 hotel rooms, and ultra-affordable hostels
- Vacation rentals allow you to live like you would at home while exploring Southeast Asia’s sights and sounds
- Camping is not recommended
- Digital nomads can live like kings here if they choose their new home wisely
Though Southeast Asia is wildly different from any other destination in the world, travelers will feel safe, comfortable, and pampered here.
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