Let’s be honest: there are a lot worse places in the world to go than Southeast Asia if you’re looking to travel and take great photos while you’re at it. The region is jam-packed full of eye candy that even the most inept of photographers can take great photos of. It’s got the whole kit and caboodle: dramatic landscapes, lush greenery, colorful traditional cultures, friendly people, abundant tropical beaches, ancient temples, bellowing volcanoes…and the list goes on. In fact, Southeast Asia makes looking like a professional travel photographer downright easy -I would know!
I began my foray into photography as a traveler in the region four years ago and now do it professionally. Since then I’ve been on countless photography trips covering nearly every country in the region including most of its major hotspots. In that time I’ve learned a thing or two about where to go if you want to capture beautiful travel photos.
Here’s a list of the most beautiful and photogenic places I’ve been to in Southeast Asia, and some that are still on my bucketlist –and should be on yours, too!
Admittedly, I may be a wee-bit biased on this one –I lived there for two years, but if you’re looking for a place with endless possibilities for photography, few places in the world can compare to Krabi on a per-square-kilometer basis.
Combine the dramatic karst formations of Vietnam’s Halong Bay with the clear waters of Indonesia, then add in a smattering of traditional Buddhist and Islamic influences along with incredibly lush tropical vegetation, favorable weather year-round, and famously friendly people –and you’ll start to get an idea of how picture-perfect Krabi really is.
Then consider this: from practically anywhere in Krabi, you’re never much further than a bout an hour from your choice of more than 200 tropical islands, natural geothermally heated hot springs, countless caves, waterfalls, hidden western-facing beaches, abundant temples and more. Adding Krabi to this list is sort of a no-brainer. Be sure to visit the Phi Phi Islands (where The Beach, with Leonardo DiCaprio was filmed), Poda Island, the Hong Islands, Railay, Tonsai Beach, Tiger Cave Temple and the Namtok Ron –literally translated as “Hot Waterfall.”
How could a place known as the “Island of the Gods” not make this list? But, aside from the name, what credentials does Bali have as a fantastic photography destination? Crystal clear water? Check. Gorgeous white and black sand beaches? Check. Mystical culture rooted in ancient Hindu traditions (the only of its kind in the region)? Check. Lush tropical jungles, mist-shrouded volcanoes and paradisaical weather? Check. Check. Check.
In fact, just about anywhere outside of the main hub of Bali, Denpasar and Kuta, is perfect lens fodder for anyone wishing to take travel photos –and you don’t have to go very far to find these places! If you’re looking to photograph culture, you can’t go wrong in Ubud. If it’s beaches that you seek, there’s something to photograph almost anywhere on the island -but the beaches in the South are particularly dramatic. If you’re feeling adventurous, check out Ganung Ugung or Ganung Batur –both volcanoes, the former has the highest peak on the island, allowing you to see both the Java Sea and the Indian Ocean at the same time, or the latter, which is the most active volcano in Bali.
As someone who loves taking photos of people, Sapa has a special place in my heart. Although it’s only a relatively short drive (about 4 hours) from Vietnam’s capital city, Hanoi, it feels like an entirely different world. Aside from your run-of-the-mill Viet people, there are no less than 5 ethnic minorities inhabiting the area: Hmong, Dao, Tay, Giay and Xa Pho. Each group has their own distinctive (and beautiful!) traditional attire –and most ethnic minorities in Sapa proudly display their ethnic heritage in everyday life, making cultural photography a breeze.
To boot, Sapa happens to be in a drop-dead gorgeous frontier region near the border with China at the foothills of the Himalayas. So not only is there abundant opportunity to photograph traditional culture, but you have some pretty stunning mountains, rice terraces and waterfalls as a backdrop.
That said, due to its proximity to Hanoi, Sapa can seem a bit crowded and touristy at times. Fortunately, it’s not hard at all to get off the beaten path and explore wild, seemingly untouched areas. If you’re looking for cultural immersion (always a plus as a travel photographer!), a pro-tip is to try a homestay while you’re there –it’s an experience you won’t forget that will almost certainly result in some fantastic portraits you wouldn’t otherwise be able to take.
If there was only one thing to see around Mandalay it would more than qualify to make this list. Ubien Bridge –a simple 1.2 kilometer long teak-wood bridge connecting one side of Taungthaman Lake with the other could very well be the most photogenic place in Southeast Asia –and the world!
It’s really hard to put what makes Ubien so special into words. At the end of the day, it really is just an old dilapidated wooden bridge. During sunrise and sunset, though, the bridge comes to life in ways that really must be seen to be fully appreciated. Colorful and interesting locals from all walks of life mill back and forth as some of the best light you’ll find anywhere shrouds the entire area with an incredible golden hue. Add in the texture of the teak wood, a misty background, and virtual free-reign to photograph things as you wish, and the combination is nothing short of magical. If you’re interested in travel photography and only visit one place on this list (not advisable!), Ubien Bridge would be a solid choice.
As if that wasn’t reason enough to hop on a plane and head to Mandalay right now, there is also a plethora of temples and cultural relics in the area as well. The Mahamuni Paya Pagoda is second only to Schwedegon Pagoda in terms of its religious importance to people in the area and, in addition to being nearly 4 meters tall and covered in 14-carot gold, it’s said to house the actual spirit of Buddha! There’s also Mandalay Palace, the Golden Palace Monastery, Mandalay Hill, the ancient capital of Amarapura and “Little Bagan” at Sagaing –all of these places are virtually guaranteed to result in fantastic photos.
Burma has no shortage of photogenic destinations. In fact, if it wasn’t necessary keep this list somewhat balanced, I could easily slot in at least half of the destinations from Burma. Somewhat reluctantly, I have to place Bagan over the likes “The Golden Rock” of Kyaiktiyo and the “Lost City” of Mrauk U because….well, Bagan is pretty amazing –although any of those other destinations could easily qualify as well.
More than just a city and ancient capital, Bagan is a collection of some 2,000 religious monuments. The sheer abundance of temples and pagodas dotting the arid and slightly other-worldly landscape is simply mind boggling. If there’s one problem with approaching Bagan from a photographic standpoint, it’s certainly not its lack of choices –it’s the opposite. There are so many things to see and photograph that it presents somewhat of a quandary for those who are short on time.
One of the best ways to “fix” this quagmire is with a sunrise hot-air-balloon ride over Bagan. It’s pricey, but if you’re looking for the ultimate visual feast –and you want to take pictures that will leave you and your friends in awe, it’s possibly the single greatest experience to be had in the region. Before leaving, make sure to check out Popa Mountain Temple, Dhammayangyi Temple, and the surprisingly photogenic Nyuang U Market, where a hive of local activity can be found wandering between endless columns that provide the perfect backdrop for photography.
Probably not the first place people think of when they think of photogenic places in Southeast Asia but, if you’ve never been there before, let me assure you: Singapore is gorgeous. Obviously, it’s a different sort of gorgeous than, say, Bali –but it’s nonetheless gorgeous. Never mind that it’s one of the cleanest and most well-manicured places on earth (it isn’t known as the “Garden City” for no reason!)–the modern architecture will amaze you. Snap your camera on a tripod, head out to Marina Bay at night, and try to take a bad photograph –I dare you! If you want to have your mind blown –particularly if you’ve never been to an Asian super-city, be sure to time your visit to Marina Bay Sands for between 8 and 9:30 and 11pm (on the weekends). There’s a 13-minute showcase of visual effects –laser and water- at the waterfront that is utterly astounding.
There’s more to Singapore than just futuristic cityscapes, though. The ethnic enclaves within Singapore serve as perfect bases for a foray into street photography. Head to Chinatown to capture the Dutch-Portuguese architecture and the interesting people that use it, or the incense-filled Temple of the Buddha’s Tooth. Alternatively, head to Little India and capture daily interactions between local street vendors around Mustafa Centre or the intricately constructed Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple (say that five times fast!).
Other sure-fire places in Singapore to find great photos are Jurong Bird Park and the Singapore Zoo, where you can get surprisingly close to the animals for some faux “wildlife” photography, the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Singapore Botanical or Orchid Gardens, or even the Pagoda Twins at Chinese Garden –be sure to look for the Giant Water Monitor Lizards wandering around the lake there!
The world’s most visited city may also be one of the world’s most photogenic. A sprawling urban center with nearly nine million people, Bangkok isn’t the most paradisaical place on earth –but what it lacks in beaches and mountains it makes up for in spades with culture, temples and pure vibrancy.
If you’ve never been to Bangkok and aren’t sure what to expect, envision something along the lines of the city in the 1980’s movie Blade Runner, but in place of flying cars you’ve got tuk tuks decked out with neon lights and, in place of flame-spewing towers, you’ve got narrow alleys filled with cough-inducing clouds of spicy street food wafting through the air. Bangkok really is a full-on assault on the senses -in a good way, and it’s for this very reason that it’s such a paradise for photographers.
Of additional photographic merit in the city of Bangkok is the huge abundance of picturesque and legitimately cultural destinations such as the Grand Palace/Wat Prakeaw, Wat Pho, Wat Arun, the floating market of Damnoen Saduak, and the Chao Phraya River and its network of waterways –as well as some of the friendliest people you’ll ever meet in a major metropolitan city.
One of the things that has always amazed me –and many others, I’m sure – about Bangkok is its cultural resiliency. Despite arguably being the most international city in Asia, it still has a steadfast grip on what it is. Bangkok is Bangkok, and you will never mistake it for any other city. It’s this sense of authenticity that fuels photographic inspiration –so if you’re planning a visit to Bangkok, be sure to bring your camera!
Angkor Wat, Cambodia
The prize for “most unexpected” definitely won’t be going here. As what may very well be Southeast Asia’s most iconic destination, it’s doubtful that many people have a hard time imagining the photographic potential of this stunning temple complex.
Let’s face it: you can’t really spell Angkor Wat out as a “novel” choice for photography; it’s probably one of the most photographed places in the world. Also, let there be no mistake about it: even on a slow day it’s absolutely crawling with tourists.
That said, what makes Angkor Wat so special is that, in spite of all of this, it still somehow transcends all expectations and negates the otherwise negative spin that hordes of tourists would put on it. I always compare Angkor Wat with the Taj Mahal in this regard. Yes it is touristy. No, it’s not likely that you’ll take a photo from an angle that nobody has ever thought of. But will it absolutely stun and amaze you despite this? Yes. Will you take some amazing pictures that will blow your friends back home away? Absolutely. You can take that to the bank.
Halong Bay, Vietnam
Also joining the “least surprising” club is Vietnam’s Halong Bay. Popular as it may be for travelers, any list of Southeast Asia’s most photogenic destinations would be remiss not to at least mention it. Legend has is that a dragon once descended upon Halong Bay spewing gems and pearls into its jade waters. These coalesced to form the dramatic karst formations that we see today –some 2,000 of them in all! Whether or not you believe that they are the result of magical dragon puke or not, most will agree on one thing: they are absolutely stunning!
With jungle-clad limestone mountains that seem to rise out of the bay’s calm waters like the arms of swimming giants, and countless traditional “junk boats” careening gracefully through the bay, Halong Bay is one of those places where you will almost certainly wish you had brought a few extra memory cards. For sure-fire places to take great photographs, try the viewpoint on Ti Top Island, Cua Van Fishing Village or Cat Ba Island.
While it may seem a bit unfair to place Bali’s neighbor, which sits a mere 35 kilometers away, on this list, Lombok really is beautiful and unique enough to warrant a mention. First of all it’s, almost literally, an entirely different world. In the small gap between Bali and Lombok you pass over an imaginary line known as the “Wallace Line.” This line represents the faunal transition between Asian and Australian species. When you arrive to Lombok’s shores from lush Bali, be prepared for a bit of a surprise.
In place of vibrant tropical rainforests, you have a somewhat arid but hauntingly beautiful rolling hills surrounded by some of the clearest and bluest water you’re likely to see anywhere. Aside from the landscape and nature, though, what really sets Lombok apart from its neighbor is its sense of authenticity and the mystical allure of its people.
Despite its proximity to Bali which is, by all measures, a giant in tourism, Lombok retains a bit of that “you’re in the middle of nowhere” kind of feeling. You really feel like you’re exploring something undiscovered -the same can’t really be said of Bali.
And while Lombok may not be home to the region’s last outpost of Hindus, as Bali is, it does boast some pretty unique and fascinating culture. The Sasaks, for example, have inhabited the island for time immemorial –nobody really knows when they arrived on the island. While most on the island practices Islam, the Sasaks have fused these relatively “modern” beliefs with ancient pre-historic animist ones to create a culture that is truly unto itself in many ways. To boot, they’re pretty darn friendly, too!
Aside from the crystal-clear waters, fascinating wildlife/nature and interesting local culture, Lombok also happens to be home to Mount Rinjani –one of the most active, imposing, and physically beautiful volcanoes in the region.
If you’re looking for a more relaxed place to take photos in Lombok, be sure to check out the Gilli Islands, just off the coast. Popular with day trippers and party-goers from Bali, these small islands aren’t especially remarkable in themselves, but they waters surrounding them are some of the clearest and bluest you’ll ever see. It’s the perfect place to try your hand at a bit of underwater photography.
Because there are almost endless places to place on this list, and because I haven’t been to a few of them, here are some other options to consider if you’re looking to take great travel photographs in Asia:
Sabah, Malaysia: Home to the region’s tallest and picturesque mountain, Mount Kinabalu, Sabah is also home (sort of) to one of the world’s most unique ethnic minorities –the Bajau Lau “Sea Gypsies” whose entire lives are lived at sea in the crystal clear waters between Sabah and Philippines. Sabah is also home to some of the world’s best diving in areas like Sipadan Island, and some of the world’s most dense tropical rainforests. I haven’t been to Sabah, but it’s certainly on my list!
Luang Prabang: Again, I haven’t been here yet but it’s on my list! Luang Prabang is the sleepy capital city of Luang Prabang Province which boasts an abundance of temples, caves, and what may be the most beautiful waterfall in the region: Kuang Si Waterfall. Of additional merit are its famously laidback and friendly locals.
Borobudur, Java, Indonesia: Yet another bucketlist item of mine, Borobudur is officially the world’s largest Buddhist temple. Originally built in the 9th century, it wasn’t rediscovered until the 1800’s. Its huge tiered walls are reminiscent of ancient Mayan or Aztec architecture. Sunrise and sunset at Borobudur is supposed to transformative.
Inle Lake, Burma: Similar to Ubien Bridge in the way that it’s not exactly what you see in the area as much as how it comes to life, Inle Lake is a truly unique and wonderful photographic paradise. Home to several interesting ethnic minorities, Inle Lake is also said to be the only place on earth where people row boats single-legged while standing up.
Hanoi, Vietnam: The city where I currently reside. The crumbling French architecture, abundance of traditionally dressed “flower ladies” and vibrancy of Vietnam’s capital may not qualify it as the most “beautiful” place in the region, but they certainly make it photogenic!
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