“I haven't traveled much. Where should I go?”
Well that all depends. There are so many considerations: time, budget, interests, comfort level, experience. But if you are just getting started with the travel thing, you can't do much better than Southeast Asia.
Mainland Southeast Asia – including Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Burma, Malaysia and Singapore – offers some of the safest and friendliest semi-exotic travel around for people of all budgets and ages. For new and seasoned travelers alike, this region offers heaps of cultural and visual stimuli, a developed tourist infrastructure, endless activities, safety, and incredible food. And best of all, it's relatively cheap.
Our first visit to Thailand at the end of 2004 actually helped plant the seed for our current around-the-world journey. Not only did that first Thailand experience open our eyes to the fact that we could travel comfortably and inexpensively for long periods, but it also helped us realize that there was a world to explore beyond Europe, our home at the time.
So it is that we began our current journey in December 2006 in Southeast Asia. We spent five months in the region, only to return later for a few more. We found that the travel options are endless.
Where does one begin? Here's a brainstorming guide to give you some ideas and help you get started.
For first-timers to this part of the world, Bangkok makes for an introductory course in the ways of Southeast Asia: heat, traffic, street food stalls, friendly faces, and tuk-tuk drivers swearing to be your new best friend.
One's experience with traffic can make or break a relationship with the city; travel by boat or Skytrain to avoid the mind-numbing traffic jams. While making your rounds of the Buddhist temples mentioned in your guidebook, you absolutely must sample loads of street food.
More reading on Bangkok:
- Bangkok’s 15-Course Street Meal on the Cheap
- Bangkok Travel Guide for Food Lovers and Eating Thai Food website are both great resources for Thai cuisine with specific Bangkok food recommendations. The founder of both sites, Mark, took us around on a great walking food tour in Bangkok years back.
More laid back than Bangkok, this northern Thai city is dotted with requisite Buddhist temples and markets, but the educational and lifestyle activities are the main appeal. For example, we took a one-day cooking course at Chiang Mai Thai Cookery School and we've been cooking Thai food ever since. Round out your DIY tour with a visit to an elephant conservation center where you can observe and spend time with these gentle giants. As tempting as it may be, avoid elephant places that advertise elephant rides as often the animals have been abused in order to tame them to this point. Recommended elephant experiences and organizations in Chiang Mai include Elephant Nature Park.
- A Chiang Mai Best of Everything Roundup
- Chiang Mai Travel Guide on Legal Nomads
- The Truth About Riding Elephants in Thailand
- Elephants in Asia, Ethically – a free ebook about ethical engagement and activities with elephants in Asia.
- A Guide to Living in Chiang Mai
Forget that you have a job (or even that your office exists) by relaxing on one of Thailand’s epic white sand beaches. The choice of postcard quality venues in Thailand is overwhelming. We have a soft spot for the cheap bungalows along Haad Yao beach on Koh Pha Ngan Island. Koh Lanta also features some laid back beaches and inexpensive beach bungalows.
Much more than just Angkor Wat, the Angkor temple complex in northern Cambodia comprises over 1000 temples spread across 60 square miles. Warning: as amazing as the temples are, pace yourself as temple fatigue sets in quickly. For a different perspective, visit the Cambodia Land Mine Museum in Siem Reap for a sobering look at Cambodia's relatively recent history under the Khmer Rouge.
Although Battambang is Cambodia’s second largest city, it retains a distinctly small-town feel and offers an easy option to explore rural villages and temples on the back of a motorbike. Brush up on your Cambodian cooking skills with a market tour and cooking class at Smokin' Pot (great name, right?).
More Reading: What's Cookin' in Battambang? and Battambang on a Motorbike
Filled with Buddhist monks lingering in temple courtyards, this sleepy French colonial outpost on the Mekong River is about as laid back as it gets. We also recommend a visit to the local market and cooking course. For more exploration, take a trip across the river to visit Ban Xieng Maen or trek to the Hmong and Khmu villages in the nearby hills (we went with White Elephant Adventures).
More Reading: Laying Back in Luang Prabang, Three Levels of Hill Tribes, and Lao Food Lowdown
Hanoi’s streets are ablaze with activity, from women carrying fruit and goods on baskets over their shoulders to impromptu sidewalk restaurants outfitted with miniature plastic stools. Overwhelming to the senses, Hanoi is a photographer’s and foodie's dream.
More Reading: Hanoi Under the Skin and A Taste of Hanoi
Only a few hours from hectic and frenzied Hanoi rests peaceful Halong Bay, the Bay of the Descending Dragon, whose arrangement of 2000 limestone islands have earned it iconic status. After Hanoi, a visit to Halong Bay is pure relaxation.
More Reading: Hanging in Halong Bay
An overnight train ride north of Hanoi serves as a portal to a visually spectacular part of the world characterized by mountainous terraced rice fields and hill tribe villages. Arrange a trek through this region with a local guide. For total sensory overload, spend Sunday at the market in nearby Bac Ha. Here, you’ll find everything for sale — from embroidered skirts to horses — as hill tribe villagers pour out of the mountains to do their trading for the week.
A former trading outpost located in central Vietnam, Hoi An is famous for its architecture, tasty Central Vietnamese cuisine and plentiful and reasonably priced custom clothing shops (over 200 of them!). Spend a few days, take some cooking classes and come away with some new duds.
More Reading: Hungry in Hoi An and Sizing Up Hoi An
Honorable Mention – Burma (Myanmar)
We absolutely loved Burma (Myanmar). It's visually spectacular, but the spirit of its people is what takes the prize. Virtually every visitor to Burma echoes the same sentiment. The only reason we haven't included Burma in the main list above: its infrastructure is a bit less developed that its neighbors'. This may provide a challenge for first-time travelers, but if you're up to it, we cannot recommend it enough.
More Reading: Visiting Burma – How to do it Responsibly and An Introduction to Burmese Cuisine
By no means is this list exhaustive. It only covers mainland Southeast Asia and it really only scratches the surface. Consider it a starting point to plan and explore. Regardless of your itinerary, you won't be disappointed and you'll likely find yourself planning your second visit before your first is even over.
Practical Advice for Planning a Trip to Southeast Asia
Planning an itinerary
Although it's tempting to try and visit all these sights in two weeks, resist the urge and spend more time in fewer places. It is very easy to travel independently. Flights between countries can be inexpensive.
When to go
High tourist season in this region is between December and February, as most locations are experiencing the cool and dry season. If you travel during this time, you’ll be competing with more tourists for accommodation, but options will almost always be available due to the volume of choices. Travel during the low season and you’ll encounter more heat and more rain, but cheaper rates and fewer tourists.
Bangkok is the airport hub for the region, with inexpensive flights to carry you to virtually anywhere in the region. Air Asia flies the discount banner in this part of the world; other carriers such as Bangkok Airways, Thai Airways, Vietnam Airlines, and Lao Airlines also service the region. Unlike other parts of the world, prices on one-way tickets are reasonable and usually don’t require long advance-purchase windows.
Roughly, a couple can sleep comfortably for $15 to $20 per night in most places. But the range is wide, and can go as low as a couple of dollars a night in some locations to luxury options for those with more outsized travel budgets. If you don’t know where to begin choosing accommodation, determine your budget, then read our suggestions at the end of the articles linked above, or visit sites like Travel Fish for reviews of accommodation in your price range. Agoda is also a good resource for finding hotels in Southeast Asia, usually at a last minute or other discount deal. We also use Booking.com regularly as its app uses GPS to find hotels in your vicinity. Airbnb has also improved their listings in Southeast Asia in recent years. If you plan to stay in a place for more than a week, it might be worth finding your own apartment. Use Airbnb discount code to get $25 off your first Airbnb rental.
As always, the best and freshest information these days usually comes from other travelers. Unless your arrival coincides with a festival or holiday (e.g., Tet, Vietnamese Lunar New Year), accommodation should be easy to come by and even possible to arrange once you arrive. Consider booking a night or two for your arrival and seeking out better options once you are on the ground.
Bottled water is inexpensive and available everywhere. Food-borne stomach ailments, by no means endemic, do happen in this part of the world. For tips on staying healthy on the road, read: How to Travel Without Hugging the Bowl.
Eating from street food stalls should not be entirely avoided. Street food offers some of the best tasting and most culturally satisfying experiences to be had in this part of the world. The destinations listed above are accustomed to serving Western tourists, meaning that the level of hygiene is generally better than in more remote areas and the level of spice is dialed down to accommodate Western palates. A couple can dine very well for a couple of dollars in many places. $20 and up will land you a feast.
Travel vaccinations and other medical concerns
After determining your itinerary, pay a visit to your local travel medical clinic to determine whether you need any vaccinations or preventive medications against malaria. The main tourist destinations and travel routes mentioned above are mostly malaria-free. If you are going to be far off the beaten track, then it’s best to take precautions. For basic medical concerns, take some medications with you for headaches, tummy troubles, and motion sickness. Be sure to bring plenty of sunscreen and mosquito repellent.
Realize, however, that virtually all medications you may require will be available once you arrive — and they are likely to be much cheaper than they would be at home.
More Southeast Asia Tips and Resources for Travelers and Expats
Recommended Southeast Asia Travel Guidebooks and Other Reading
Southeast Asia on a Shoestring, Lonely Planet: We used this guidebook through most of our travels in Southeast Asia. It's geared towards backpackers, so lots of budget travel options. Be sure to get updated information with some of the other websites and resources listed on this page.
Travelfish Ebooks: A series of ebooks (some free, some a few dollars), from best Bangkok hotels to 52 weekends of travel, put out by one of our favorite websites for Southeast Asia travel information.
Nancy Chandler's Map of Bangkok: This hand-drawn map of Bangkok is wonderful, with all of Nancy Chandler's favorite spots for markets, shopping, food, and drinks.