If you’re thinking about taking a trip to Southeast Asia, I highly recommend making stops in Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam. A friend and I had the opportunity to visit each of these countries and continue to debate over which country was our favorite.
To help you plan your own trip to Southeast Asia, I’ve put together a list of my favorite experiences. I hope you have an incredible trip!
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1. Take a cruise of Halong Bay, Vietnam
This is one of my top 5 travel experiences of all time. If you do nothing else in Southeast Asia, take this cruise in Halong Bay.
To visualize Halong Bay, check out my pictures below. It’s absolutely breathtaking. Pristine waters and incredible rock formations, each one more interesting than the last one.
Plan on humming the Jurassic Park theme song while you’re cruising through Halong Bay. It’ll feel like you’ve journeyed back to a pre-historic time with untouched natural beauty.
Read more about the incredible, awesome, and amazing Halong Bay in this post. (Can you tell this was my favorite part of the trip??)
2. Journey through time in Siem Reap, Cambodia
The ruins of Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom, and Ta Prohm are spectacular. And you can find them all in Siem Reap, Cambodia.
You’ll feel like you stepped into an Indian Jones or Tomb Raider movie while touring these locations.
At Angkor Wat, intricate towers leap out of the jungle and create an imposing sight. Giant carvings of faces catch your eye at every turn at Angkor Thom. At Ta Prohm, the surrounding jungle has partially recaptured the ruins, with towering trees wrapping their roots around the stones.
I recommend getting a local tour guide to walk you through these ruins. You won’t find signs to explain the ruins or point out interesting features. You’ll need a guide to fully understand what you’re seeing.
There is a specific protocol for what you can do and what you can wear in the temples inside these ruins. The local guides can explain all of this to you so that you don’t cause an international incident!
Plus, the local guides are incredibly informative and so, so friendly.
3. Experience inexpensive luxury in Phuket, Thailand
Overall, Southeast Asia is very affordable and a little can go a long way.
In particular, we found that Phuket offered amazing luxury at a very affordable price. The hotels there are resort-level, with beach-front locations, massive pools, and amazing food. The service was first-class and all at a very affordable price.
We only stayed a couple days there and that was one of my biggest regrets of the trip. I wish we had stayed a few more days at the beginning of our trip to recover from jet lag and just soak up the environment.
TIP: If you’re staying at a hotel with a breakfast buffet, make sure you take advantage of it! I would go back to Southeast Asia just for the breakfast buffets. They offered an incredible variety of food and all of it was delicious.
4. Explore the Grand Palace in Bangkok, Thailand
Visiting the Grand Palace in Bangkok is definitely a must for anyone visiting Thailand. The Grand Palace once served as the official residence for the Kings of Thailand. It’s now used for official royal and state ceremonies.
Intricate mosaics, elaborate rooflines, and ornate statues are everywhere you look in this enormous complex.
This is another location where I’d recommend using a local tour guide. There are strict guidelines to follow within the Grand Palace and a guide can help you figure it all out.
Our tour guide asked me to change prior to our tour of the Grand Palace because my pants were a little too body-conforming. A little embarrassing, but it would have been a lot worse if I wasn’t allowed to enter the Grand Palace because I wasn’t wearing appropriate attire. A friend tried to visit the Grand Palace a few weeks after we did, but wasn’t allowed inside because her shoulders were exposed. Better to have a local guide to help you navigate these requirements than to be denied entrance.
5. Be in awe of traffic
When I came home from Southeast Asia, people asked me what I found the most interesting. My response? “The traffic in Vietnam and Cambodia.”
Seriously. The traffic in these two countries is incredible. Scooters, small trucks, and cars zoom around the roadways with seemingly no rules or restrictions. And the most amazing thing? It works!
It made me wonder if all the rules of the road that we impose on drivers in the U.S. are really helping or hindering. The traffic in Vietnam and Cambodia certainly didn’t need all those requirements to work well!
I choose my vacations for the landmarks I’d like to see but end up loving those places for the interesting people and culture I encounter. In this case, it was a treat to watch people navigate the crowded roadways with respect and compromise. And I’ll try to keep that in mind as I navigate my home streets of Washington, DC!
6. Consider using a tour company
I mentioned a few times above that I recommend using local tour guides.
When we went to Southeast Asia, we used a tour company to plan our entire trip, which included scheduling local tour guides in each of the countries we visited.
I’ve had several friends visit Southeast Asia without using a tour company and they still had wonderful experiences. However, they did run into several snags, including visa problems in Vietnam and not knowing the proper attire or protocol for temples. Because we used local tour guides for our trip, we didn’t run into any of those problems. And I felt we had a better experience because we had someone local to answer all our questions and provide interesting background that you wouldn’t get reading a guidebook.
We used Indochina Odyssey Tours to plan our entire trip and I highly recommend their services. They arranged all our hotels, local flights, and tours. What’s even more amazing – we had a driver and local tour guide assigned to us the entire time we were in each country. This gave us a chance to bond with our tour guide and made me feel more comfortable because I knew someone was watching out for us. Plus, like many things in Southeast Asia, it was incredibly affordable.
In My Suitcase: Top Travel Picks for Southeast Asia
I did a lot of research before visiting Southeast Asia to make sure I had the right gear for my trip. Here are the items I recommend for your own trip to Southeast Asia:
- Loose, full-coverage clothing: There was a lot of sweating going on in Southeast Asia. And it showed on the people who wore cotton. Skip the cotton and aim for loose clothing that wicks away sweat. Make sure you bring plenty of full-coverage options, like long pants, long-sleeved shirts, long skirts, and/or a scarf so you’re fully covered for temples.
- Rain jacket: Plan for it to rain on you while you’re visiting Southeast Asia. Bring a light jacket that won’t be too hot to wear in the humidity.
- Umbrella: An umbrella in Southeast Asia will do double-duty for you: shade when it’s sunny and coverage when it’s pouring.
- Hiking sandals: You’ll be walking around a lot in the hot sun. Hiking sandals give you support while also giving your feet a little ventilation.
- Towel: You’re going to get hot. And you’re going to want to wipe away your sweat. Bring a small, water-wicking towel along in your backpack for the win.
- Insect repellent: Insect repellent is your friend. Use it generously.
- Sunscreen: Don’t leave home without it. The sun can be intense in Southeast Asia – make sure you’ve got adequate sun protection.
- Headphones: It’s a long flight over to Southeast Asia. These headphones cancel out the noise and connect to the in-flight entertainment for movie-watching.
I loved Southeast Asia. I hope these tips help to make your own trip an incredible experience. Happy travels!