We’ve just finished a 13 week sabbatical in Southeast Asia.
And the results are in!
We decided to put our favourite things about the trip in order.
It was hard, and a little controversial, but we did it.
(P.S. this is just for fun!)
Best Countries in Southeast Asia
We visited Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, but we had differing views on the best countries, so we’ve put together two lists.
Best Places in Southeast Asia
To stop this from getting out of hand, we’ve only included places we stayed for two nights or more.
- Luang Prabang, Laos | Waterfalls, sunsets, monks, temples and amazing architecture all situated in the jungle right beside the Mekong. This was the Asia we dreamed of finding.
- Chiang Rai, Thailand | It’s hard to explain exactly why we loved Chiang Rai so much (I try to here), but the combination of a small-town feel, rolling countryside, endless temples and friendly people made us not want to leave.
- Hoi An, Vietnam | There’s a reason Hoi An is a designated UNESCO world heritage site, it’s spectacular. Colonial architecture and narrow shops butt up against a picturesque river that fill with traditional boats an hundreds of lanterns at night. Once seen, never forgotten, this is the Asia of Instagram dreams!
- Tam Coc, Vietnam | Right in the middle of ‘Halong Bay in the Rice Fields’ Tam Coc is a touristy town on the edge of the most picture-postcode friendly landscape in Vietnam. Hiring a scooter and winding through the rural lanes or being paddled through imposing valleys in tiny boats, was the most relaxed we felt on our entire trip.
- Champasak, Laos | Never heard of it? Us neither! Used as a base for the UNESCO site of Wat Pho, Champasak’s dusty road (there is only one!), French style architecture and Mekong view made it a beautiful escape from the busy Asian cities.
- Hanoi, Vietnam | We arrived in the middle of a storm, but the wet few days didn’t dampen our enjoyment of Hanoi. The history and architecture is jaw-dropping, the food scene enough to stuff you for life and it was the first city we saw in Vietnam that managed to balance pedestrians and traffic, with numerous little side streets and condoned off walking-streets to explore.
- Bangkok, Thailand | Our first town in Asia, and we were expected to be overwhelmed. Instead we fell in love with the markets, temples and parks, staying for nearly a week rather than our planned three days.
- Chiang Mai, Thailand | We didn’t fall head-over heels in love with Chiang Mai as some travellers have, but it was a stunning base for some awesome adventures such as an elephant sanctuary and Thai cooking class.
- Siem Reap, Cambodia | A town that centres around tourism, but we spent so long here it started to feel like home. Get away from pub street, into the dusty roads beside the river, meet up with some locals and you might just feel the same.
- Vientiane, Laos | The Mekong makes for an impressive view, and the Old Quarter is fantastic. Not sure we spent enough time here to truly appreciate it, maybe we’ll have to head back!
- Hue, Vietnam | The Citadel is awe-inspiring, but it’s surrounded by a rather forgettable town.
- Phnom Penh, Cambodia | Beautiful riverfront, and temples but we never quite felt comfortable here.
- Nha Trang, Vietnam | Beautiful beach, but a town overrun with tourism and development.
- Phonsavon, Laos | The Plain of Jars is fantastic, but Phonsavon feels a bit unloved.
- Pakse, Laos | A town for travelling through rather than travelling to.
- Ayutthaya, Thailand | Amazing historical ruins, but the town itself is completely neglected. A real shame.
- Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam | This place is just too busy to enjoy. The infrastructure just cannot support this many people, though I do fancy doing a cruise to get there from Cambodia next time. Maybe arriving by river will make it seem more appealing.
- Cat Ba, Vietnam | Beautiful island, ruined by a terrible town with awful hotels and cheap karaoke bars.
- Lopburi, Thailand | The fact that it’s ruled by monkeys should tell you everything you need to know. Ugly, dirty and should be nothing more than a day-trip.
Best Experiences in Southeast Asia
We experienced and learned so much in Southeast Asia, that we’ve had to keep this list just to our favourites, otherwise it might have gone on for a very long time!
- Plain of Jars, Laos | Mix an ancient mystery, panoramic views, huge vessels spread across 400 sq/km and the odd unexploded bomb and you have the indelible Plain of Jars. Never have I felt more like Indiana Jones, exploring the numerous jar sites, many rarely visited by tourists. This was adventure, travel and discovery all rolled into one.
- Learning to dive, Nha Trang, Vietnam | As a poor swimmer, and with a fear of deep water this is something I NEVER expected to do. But this is why we travel together, each pushing ourselves to try new things. This was the most expensive few days of our trip, booked as a wedding anniversary present, but seeing a whole new world under the ocean, made it completely priceless. Something we will definitely do in the future.
- Angkor, Cambodia | It’s hard to know where to place Angkor. Let’s be clear, it was the most spectacular sight we saw in Asia, bar none, but we were expecting that. Where we were truly blown away by most things on this list was them exceeding expectation. With Angkor, it gets slightly punished because our expectations were just so high, it could only ever meet them, not exceed. It was made even better by my dad joining us for his 60th birthday, and an incredible tour guide called Jimmy who took us for two of the most informative and unforgettable days.
- Thakhek Loop, Laos | There’s a theme among most of our top experiences, and that is escaping the crowds. Whilst the Thakhek look is a well ridden trail, there are so many little dirt roads to find, it’s easy to feel like you’ve got a slice of Laos to yourself. With sand from the Outback, skylines from Patagonia and caves from the Alps, our three day drive around the Thakhek loop was just one incredible memory after another.
- Wat Pho at Night, Bangkok, Thailand | Want to experience one of the most beautiful locations in Bangkok by yourself? Well it turns out they open Wat Pho at night, and don’t really tell anyone! It’s rare to be alone at big tourist sites, but to do so in the most visited city on the planet, that’s something very special indeed.
- Elephant Sanctuary, Chiang Mai, Thailand | We were disappointed at the lack of the ‘wild’ in wildlife in Southeast Asia. We made numerous trips to National Parks and reserves to try and find elephants, but never found them. We consoled ourselves with a trip to Chai Lai Orchid on the outskirts of Chiang Mai, where they look after these magnificent creatures, and it turned out to be one of the most thrilling experiences of the entire trip.
- Road Trip, Chiang Rai, Thailand | In an attempt to forge our own path, we hired a car in Chiang Rai and headed out around the province for three days. It was one of the best decisions we made on the trip. From the sunrise at Phu Chi Fa, a treetop walk at Mae Fah Luang Gardens, and hours driving along the mighty Mekong, this was a three days that flew by in an instant!
- Scootering around Trang An, Vietnam | The landscape of Trang An is so big, and so striking it’s almost hard to take in. Towering limestone cliffs lead down to lush valleys, bisected by small waterways leading to caves and grottos carved into the landscape. In amongst all this are ancient cities and gravity-defying temple complexes that make for a memorable adventure.
- The river after dark in Hoi An, Laos | Hoi An after dark could be torn from the film-strip of a Disney movie. Paper lanterns holding tiny candles, ripple around traditional boats paddled by local women in conical hats.
- Bat caves at Khao Yai National Park, Thailand | We came to Khao Yai National Park in search of elephants, but left in awe of a unique 15 minutes which saw two million bats fly out of a small cave in the middle of nowhere into the night sky.
- Sambor Prei Kuk, Cambodia | About two hours out of Siem Reap, Sambor Prei Kuk suffers due its close proximity to Angkor. Put this anywhere else in the world and it would be the biggest highlight of the area! Awarded UNESCO site status last year, it won’t be long until this collection of crumbling collection of eight-sided temples lost in the forest will be right on the tourist trail. Right now, the ancient capital of Ishanapura is almost untouched, the day before we visited only nine people had made the trip.
- Hanoi’s Old Town, Vietnam | Narrow buildings, stacked high and sprawling out onto the street. Hanoi’s Old Town is the architectural and retailing centrepiece to this magnificent city. We wandered miles, fuelled on pho, banh mi and egg coffee, taking in the jagged structures, peaceful parks and thriving markets.
- Wat Pho and Champasak, Laos | Wat Pho was part of the Angkor empire, that ruled well outside the boundaries of modern-day Cambodia. Set on a jungle-covered mountainside, it’s easy to feel like you’ve stepped through the screen into an adventure movie. The views back down the misty valley over the top of these restored buildings
- My Son Sanctuary, Vietnam | About an hour outside of Hoi An, My Son Sanctuary is part of the network of abandoned ancient cities that criss-cross Southeast Asia. If you were a time-travelling tourist you could visit Angkor, Ayutthaya, Sambor Prei Kuk, Hue and My Son and be wowed by the unique architecture at each one.
- Cooking Course in Chiang Mai, Thailand | And now for something completely different! An entire day of making springs rolls, stir fry, curries and desserts. This after an early-morning trip to the market, and picking ingredients from the farm gardens. Whilst we didn’t become chefs, we learned alot and met some amazing people.
- Cycling Ayutthaya, Thailand | As an avid cyclist, I’ve seen alot of things from a saddle, but Ayutthaya is full of some very unusual sights. Towering ancient chedi, giant Buddhas and dark red brick structures are littered around the historical park of Ayutthaya, once the capital of Siam and the biggest city in the world!
- Food Tour, Hanoi | Meeting up with local people always makes such a difference to understanding a country. Whether in Thailand, Laos, Cambodia or Vietnam we found local guides to be friendly, knowledgable and very honest. One of our best experiences was going out with a local student in Hanoi on a food tour of the Old Quarter. Hanging out in small local eateries, sampling street food and my first introduction to the incredible egg coffee.
- Markets, Everywhere! | To paraphrase Anthony Bourdain, markets are the heart of every community. Wherever we went we stopped into the morning food markets, and were greeted with smells, colours and sounds that could only be from Asia.
Best Food & Drink in Southeast Asia
- Beef Lok Lak, Cambodia
- Pho Bo (beef noodle soup), Vietnam
- Lemongrass Skewers, Vietnam
- Mango Sticky Rice, Thailand
- Egg Coffee, Vietnam
- Banh Xeo (crispy pancakes), Vietnam
- Green Curry, Thailand
- Spring rolls, Laos
- Fish Amok, Cambodia
- Peach Tea, Thailand & Vietnam
- Vietnamese Iced Coffee, Vietnam
- Fried rice, Everywhere!