When you travel through a region you want to try to visit all the best places available! South East Asia is such a varied and exciting place that luckily, you can never run out of places to visit and things to do! Thailand has crazy cities mixed with beautiful tropical islands, and both are waiting to be explored! Laos, a communist country, is very laid back and a lot less developed than its neighbours, however, it contains Luang Prabang – one of my favourite cities in the world. Vietnam has the craziest cities ever but also beautiful seaside towns that are just like little oases. Whilst Cambodia has the famous Angkor Wat temples, beautiful jungles and a dark history waiting to be explored.
With all this on offer, how do you plan your journey through SE Asia so that you can take in the splendour of the region, backtrack as little as possible, and not go home thinking “Ah I should have gone there!”. This travel route takes the classic Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia trip and is pretty much a loop around the region allowing you to see so much! This trip is a favourite for backpackers and especially gap yah students exploring the world before they turn into a sloth at university!
P.s I know this blog is mainly about Europe and the USA, but every now and then I like to delve into somewhere else 😉
Start by flying into Bangkok.
Bustle bustle bustle. Bangkok is thriving. It’s modern skyline mixes seamlessly with the traditional way of life and the ancient temples that dot the city. Sure, you can visit the Temples like Wat Arun and the Grand Palace. However, what you really want to do is take a trip to Lumphini Park which has an awesome zoo as well as a lake which you can peddle around – just watch out for the giant monitor lizards that can reach up to 8ft long! Also, visit Siam Park City for an awesome day of splashing around in wave pools and slides. At night take a trip to the markets and visit one of the ladyboy shows if you dare.
Just north-west of Bangkok lies Kanchanaburi. You can reach the town from Bangkok by private taxi for $20 or train from Thonburi station. This small town has a host of surprises that will thrill. The first is Erawan waterfalls, this is a series emerald waterfalls in the middle of the forest that flow into each other. In the surrounding forests there are cheeky monkeys and some of the rocks in the pools have formed natural slides for you to enjoy! When you’re not splashing around check out the original Bridge Over the River Kwai and Hellfire Pass which are modern day reminders of World War 2 and are absolutely enthralling
Hua Hin is a popular beach town that still retains the small town vibe. Hue Hin Beach is nice but has many sellers so head further north or south to avoid them. There’s a lot of beach activities such as jet skiing that if you haggle for, can be quite a reasonable price. Black Mountain Water Park is a great day out and has a myriad of slides, a lazy river and an Infinity pool (I’m a water baby so led this!). When it comes to eating out, there are hundreds of good restaurants just a short stroll from your hotel, check out Joes Bar for a personal touch and a game of Connect 4 with the host! The easiest way from Kanchanaburi to Hua Hin is air conditioned mini van (£10 each).
Ok, this is literally my favourite place on earth at the moment. This small island in the middle of the Gulf of Thailand is beautifully lush, rocky and has great bays and beaches. Not only this, it has some of the world’s best diving and snorkelling sites; you literally take your first step into the sea and you’re surrounded by fish. Definitely, hire a moped/quad to explore the island and all its bays which can easily be done in a day. Visit Tanote Bay, where in the middle of it there is a big rock (pictured) with a death-defying climb and a crazy ass jump. To get here from Hua Hin book a combined bus and boat package through Lomprayah.
Another Lomprayah ferry will take you to Koh Phangan which is known as a bit of a party island, and yeah you can go to Full Moon if that’s your thing. However, this island is mostly paradise on earth. Its beaches are out of a postcard, its hotels are majestic, its fishing villages are a marvel and if you pick the right spot it often feels like you’re the only ones there. Book a fishing trip through your hotel with local fishermen for an authentic experience. Fancy watching a Thai tradition? Head over to Diamond Muay Thai to watch some boxing and hopefully a KO! The rest of the time you can chill on the islands perfect beaches, Thong Nai Pan Noi is my fave!
The largest and most populous island of the three is Koh Samui. The island has a bit more bustle to it but you can easily find a quiet beach that you will practically have to yourself, my favourite is Maenam Beach on the North of the island. To explore nature in its fullest book a trip to Angthong National Marine Park where you can kayak or hike to explore the rich environment. For a 5* Star cooking and drink-making experience visit The Thai Experience for an awesome few hours where you might get a little tipsy!
After flying back to Bangkok and maybe staying a night there (depending if you want to take things slower) you can head up the north of the country! Chiang Mai is famous for its cooking classes and leaving without completing one is a sin! During the day you can take a trip to the beautiful Buak Hard Public Park where you can feed the fish, take part in yoga and admire the scenery! Feeling adventurous you can go on The Flight of the Gibbon ziplining experience through the jungles! Feeling slightly more relaxed? Head to Bua Thong Waterfalls to be surrounded by pristine waters!
From Chiang Mai, you will start your epic river journey into Laos. Organise a trip through your accommodation that will take you up to Chiang Rai on the border with Laos. From here you will head to the border and take an unforgettable 2 day trip along the Mekong on a slow boat – read my experience here. This will take you to your first destination in Laos – Luang Prabang.
Luang Prabang is the second city in Laos but is probably the most visited and popular. The city is beautiful; it is situated within the green and lush mountains of Laos and French architecture runs through the city. There is a sprawling market that offers a wide array of trinkets and you have to try the Crepes and custom fruit shakes! Of a night the only place to go to is Utopia, then you should head to the bowling alley in town. Ask any tuk-tuk driver and they will know what you mean – it’s open till 3 am!
From Luang Prabang, you will head to the capital Vientiane. With all the will in the world, I urge you not to get a bus on this journey. I honestly thought I was going to die. The buses have to go over a mountain range that has some crazy hairpin turns on the edge of cliffs, the drivers don’t slow down for these and I wished the whole time I would have flown! The bus was also non-air conditioned sweaty and cramped! My mate had a panic attack and tried to get off the bus!
Vientiane is definitely skippable but contains a great gem of a museum that you will remember for years. The COPE Museum is an exhibition documenting the realities and effects of the bombing raids conducted by the US airforce over Laos. Some of these bombs were dropped to target Vietnamese soldiers in Laos whilst the majority were dropped for disposal before landing after bombing raids over Vietnam. Many of these bombs didn’t explode and are still littering the country.
Fly smack bang into the capital of Vietnam to start your adventure. Hanoi is a vibrant and rich city and has been influenced by Asian countries and particularly the French colonists. The city is begging to be explored wit tonnes of museums, markets and restaurants. Take a visit to the old quarter as well as the nearby Hoan Kiem Lake (pictured). For a fun day visit the Royal City’s underground water park and take a swan ride on Tay Ho Lake. By night visit Hanoi night market on Hang Doa Street.
Sa Pa is a beautiful hilly region home to many hill tribes that live off the land. A trip to Muong Hoa Valley and Fansipan Mountain is a must and there are many trekking tours you can book from your accommodation. You can also book tours online or in Hanoi that includes return transport from Hanoi, accommodation and tours. Home-stays with the local villagers are a very popular accommodation option here.
Ha Long Bay
After popping back to Hanoi from Sa Pa, take an excursion to this UNESCO world heritage site. You will find hundreds of huge limestone towers jutting out of the bay covered in wildlife and lush greenery. If you stayed at Vietnam Backpackers Hostel – Downtown, they offer a wild party tour where you stay on a boat for one night and a private island for another and all transfers are included. Fancy something a bit calmer? check this site out for tours ranging from £40-£400!
Phong Nha National Park
Another UNESCO World Heritage Site, this national park is a hidden gem. You won’t hear much about it and I have no idea why because it houses the fricking largest cave in the world! If that wasn’t enough for you, It also houses the 3rd largest cave in the world and a myriad of other smaller caves. The awesome thing is you can go on trips to all these caves. The largest cave in the world, Hang Son Doong, is a 1-week expedition whilst the 3rd largest cave in the world (the one I went to) is a two-day trip. Both of these once in a lifetime expeditions can be booked through Oxalis. Read my adventure here.
Hue is full of enthralling history just waiting to be explored. Take a visit to the ancient Citadel and Forbidden City which is guarded by nine holy bronze cannon made from melted trinkets from the Tay Son Dynasty. The Japanese bridge was built in the 18th century and is beautiful to visit. Hue has the largest market in central Vietnam called the Dong Ba Markets where you can immerse yourself in the stalls.
From Hue to Hoi An you can hire a motorbike taxi that will stop off at multiple locations along the famous and beautiful Hai Van Pass. You could also hire a moped to drive along the route and drop it off in Hoi An. Not a fan of bikes? You can hire a private car for around $40 that will take 4 and will stop off at all the scenic areas.
The Journey from Hue to Hoi An is a spectacle in its self that will be a highlight of your trip. This beachside town is famous for its tailor industry. Made even more famous by the old Top Gear trio, you can buy tailor made suits for around $100. The Ancient town is beautiful and on the full moon, every month plays host to the lantern festival . From Hoi An you will have to travel the short distance to Da Nang by taxi for around $10 where you can either fly or get the train to Nha Trang.
Nha Trang has beaches and islands in plenty. The islands house many coral reefs which you can explore through snorkelling or scuba diving and you can book tours once you’re there. take a trip across on the cable car to Vinepearl Amusement Park for a fun day out then head over to I resort for a relaxing mud bath. You will then head onto Da Lat and can take the 4-hour bus ride for $10-$15. Book through Mai Linh bus Co or Phuong Trang bus Co online or through your accommodation.
The City of Eternal Spring is situated in the hills and known for its forests, lakes and waterfalls. YOU HAVE TO GO CANYONING (pictured) it will get your adrenaline pumping! Take a trip to Elephant falls to see the power of nature and go to Datanla falls for the roller coaster ride there where you control your own little pod!
Your accommodation will have a list of bus companies that will take you on the 5-hour journey for around $5-$10, try Phuong Trang bus Co. Another alternative is to hire an easy rider – your own personal bike/tour guide for $160.
This town is super chill with great beaches and has a great surrounding area to explore. the town has great sand dunes (pictured) that are about an hour out of town. The best way to get to these along the amazing coastal roads so hire a moped for the day and take the trip! The beaches are gorgeous and windsurfing lessons are very popular.
You can get the train from Mui Ne to Saigon Here’s the link to the website. Or you can get on a bus for the 5-hour journey for $10, Phuong Trang Bus Co are a good one to go with.
Ho Chi Minh City
This city played a huge part in the Vietnamese war and you can visit the famous Chu Chi tunnels and explore what it was like to be a soldier during the war underground. Once you’ve had your fill of history visit one of the many markets in the city. There are so many markets where you can buy your last minute presents such as
Saigon is famous for its lofty sky bars. Although not outside, the highest is the Eon 51 Heli Bar which has the best views in town. This place also turns into a good night out so hang around till the early hours. It’s located on the 51st floor of Bitexco Financial Tower and is open until 2 am, happy hour is from 5 pm until 8 pm where cocktails and wine cost less than £5!
On to Cambodia.
The countries bustling capital is situated along the mighty Mekong that you travelled along in Laos! Along the river, you will find plenty of parks, restaurants, cafe’s, and bars for you to relax in. The city itself is full of french architecture as well as traditional golden spires of the many temples that dot the city.
Situated on the Gulf of Thailand this coastal city contains beautiful beaches for you to laze on that are a sun worshipers heaven. There are many islands situated just offshore that you can explore through guided tours as well! The city its self is pretty drab but its all about the beaches there’s party ones and chilled out ones!
The famous temples reside here that are the largest religious monument in the world. there is a myriad of little temples and nooks and crannies for you to explore at your own pace, each one slightly different and some have trees growing out of them! A sunrise trip to these ancient relics will stay in your memory forever.