Each country in the region is a destination in its own right, or can be combined to create a program that offers cultural diversity and greater understanding of the region as a whole. Whilst the varying experiences that you can have are too long to list here, what we have attempted to layout in this section are some of the major highlights for each country so as to give you an idea of what we feel are important and worth including budget and time permitting.
The ‘Land Of Smiles’ as it is known offers a fantastic blend of culture and natural wonders for the visitor. In the north, day trips of longer treks can be enjoyed in the mountains and jungle, visiting hill tribes and waterfalls, bamboo rafting or whizzing through the jungle canopy on a zip line. The two main towns of the region, Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai both feature great night markets and temples to explore.
The centre of the country features ruined temples at Sukothai and Ayuthaya before giving way to the sprawling metropolis of Bangkok. This colossal city offers shopping, relaxation, entertainment and sightseeing options galore, with the Grand Palace, Wat Pho and Wat Arun being ranked amongst the must see highlights. Exploring the cities vibrant canals by klong boat is also a must.
Not far from Bangkok you are thrust into the more modern history of the country at Kanchanaburi. It was here that the Bridge on the River Kwai was built, and the allied cemetery and various museums pay tribute to this dark part of history. Visitors often choose to stay a night in a floating raft house on the River Kwai, a truly unique experience whilst also stopping to visit the Tiger Temple and get close up with these majestic beasts.
South of Bangkok you will discover beaches galore. Some are on the mainland, others on islands but they are plentiful enough that you can always find a suitable beach depending on your time of visit. With the rock formations of Phangna Bay to explore by kayak or the idyllic beach of Phi Phi Leh to snorkel along, there really is no limit to the enjoyment of sun and sand.
The magic of Myanmar has only really become available to the global traveller in the last couple of years or so and with the doors being flung open so challenges are being encountered. Demand far exceeds supply, hotel rooms are a prized commodity yet these challenges can be overcome by the right team.
Yangon, the capital is starting to wake up to its potential. The beautiful Shwedagon Pagoda dominates the skyline and is a must for all visitors. Downtown with its faded colonial charm is a delight to walk around and its always fun to stop into a bustling local tea house and rub shoulders with the locals whilst imbibing the hot sweet milky concoction.
A short flight north takes you to Mandalay, with its ancient teak bridge providing breathtaking photographs at sunset. The crumbling temple stupa of Mingun, abandoned before completion gives the chance to enjoy the river and a short ox-cart ride is a popular distraction.
A longer river trip takes the visitor to Bagan, a site of antiquity to rival the temples of Angkor or Sukothai in Thailand. The brick work stupas are most awe-inspiring at sunrise, and a very popular method of viewing is by hot air balloon.
For those seeking to get away from it all then a hotel on the banks of Inle Lake is an ideal option. The area teams with bird-life, and fishermen with their unique rowing methods cast their nets as they have done for centuries before. Trekkers will enjoy a visit to the hill station of Khalaw, popular with the colonial Brits seeking to escape the oppressive heat in Yangon that resulted in the ice melting too quickly in their gin and tonics.
Ngapoli, the country’s main beach-side resort shares the same coastline as Thailand, however is developed to a fraction of its richer cousin to the south. The visitor is treated to vast expanses of golden sand barely touched by other tourists. A true escape from it all and a wonderful end to a journey through this fascinating country.
There are few countries so strongly lodged in the public psyche as Vietnam. Its a fascinating country offering rich cultural, historical highlights throughout its length and breadth. In the north the hill tribe region around Sapa is a photographer and walkers dream, a harmonious blend of man and nature rewards with terraced rice paddy, vibrant markets and humble villages. The natural wonder of Halong Bay is essential to all who visit the region, with its rock formations jutting out of the sea offering hidden caves and entire floating communities to explore.
Hanoi, the capital is a myriad of busy streets, the old quarter is best explored on foot or by cyclo. Each street specialises in a particular product with each trader vying for business from the people outside. The Temple of Literature is a must, a 1000 year old University and it is common for the visit to pay their respects to the founding father of modern Vietnam Ho Chi Minh at his mausoleum. Evenings are spent enjoying the delicious Vietnamese cuisine or watching a performance at the unique water puppet theatre.
Moving south, Hue was once the seat of power in the company, and the visitor can take time to explore the various tombs and the citadel where the Royals once lived. A relaxing boat ride takes you to the Thien Mu Pagoda, standing like a sentinel on the Perfume River. Continuing South, you pass through rice fields before arriving at Hoi An, one of the most delightful towns in the region. Largely untouched by the war, this small fishing town is now a Mecca for local artisans and it is common for people to get tailor-made clothes, handbags, shoes and lamps whilst here. Boating a pristine coastline and links golf courses, the area offers much to the leisure visitor as well.
Ho Chi Minh City, or Saigon is a city that highlights the earlier French colonial past, with its wide boulevards, street patisseries, and architecture. The War Museum reminds us of the recent violent history that gave birth to this thriving nation and a visit to the Chu Chi Tunnels some 70 kms north gives you first hand experience of the ingenuity and tenacity of her people in achieving their independence.
When considering a trip to the country, the easiest way is to remember to include all the ‘H’s. Hanoi, Halong Bay, Hue, Hoi An and Ho Chi Minh City. Extras to add on to this include Sapa, Dalat, Nha Trang and the Mekong Delta…
There are few countries in the world that can boast that one of their main attractions is the smiles of their people, but Laos is most certainly one of them! This small land locked country offers cultural and natural wonders whilst at the same time engendering itself so well to the visitor that it often becomes one of their top 5 destinations of all time.
In the north of the country, trekking through pristine rice paddy around Luang Nam Tha sees the visitor passing through untouched villages where children still run out to say hello and their parents great you with a smile and a wave. The small town of Ban Houeisai is the starting point for a 2 day leisurely cruise down the Mekong, taking time to stop at small villages along the way and perhaps purchase some cloth weaved on the loom sitting below the stilted houses.
These 2 day 1 night cruises end with the arrival in Luang Prabang, one of the real treasures of the region. This old colonial town has been immaculately preserved and never fails to charm her visitors. With small bakeries, relaxing spas and a fantastic night-market there never seems to be enough time spent here. Outside of town the Kuang Si Waterfalls are pure paradise, whilst the Pak Ou Caves with its ‘retired’ Buddha statues has a charm all of its own.
The town of Vang Vieng is surrounded by karst scenery and has become quite a party town on the ‘backpacker circuit’. Vientiane, the sleepy capital offers some interesting attractions for the visitor but is charming in its own right for being perhaps the most laid back capital in the world. A short flight from here are the Plain of Jars, a World Heritage Site comprising of a number of fields containing gigantic stone jars. No one is really sure what they were used for, but the fact that they have survived so much over the years is a mystery in itself. This region was heavily bombed during the late 1960’s and in fact Laos holds the title of being the most heavily bombed country in history. Any visit to the area should include a visit to learn about the ongoing bomb disposal efforts in the region.
The south of the country remains untouched by time and is only recently making its mark on the tourist map. The ‘4000 Islands’ treats with spectacular sunsets as the Mekong drifts by, and ancient temple ruins fill the days for the avid explorer. Elephant riding and trekking on the Bolaven Plateau are also highlights, whilst a night in the regional capital Pakse allows you to kick on to Cambodia or Eastern Thailand for the next leg of your journey.
Cambodia is a fascinating country in itself, and when you add the rich cultural history and natural wonders to the mix it really earns its reputation as a country that never disappoints the visitor.
The scenic coastline offers beach escapes to those seeking sun and sand. Sihanoukville is the most well known of the resort areas, however Rabbit Island and Kep are both drawing stronger followings now and offer the opportunity to explore more rural life at the same time. Inland the country is embracing sustainable tourism and special mention should go to the idyllic Four Rivers Floating Lodge, a fine example of how leisure and nature can operate in harmony.
Heading north all roads lead to the capital Phnom Penh. The National Museum here houses treasures from the Angkorian Temples scattered across the country whilst the Royal Palace gives you an idea of how revered the Royal Family are in the kingdom. The city also holds a darker past, one where the Khmer Rouge ravaged the land and her people. The S21 internment camp gives the visitor a grasp of how impossibly desperate it was for the Khmer people, whilst a visit to the Killing Fields at Choeng Ek are a sobering reminder of the human cost of ideological madness.
Continuing north allows the visitor to witness the rural life of the kingdom, from sampling deep fried tarantulas in Skoun to taking a leisurely cycle ride through the villages around Kompong Cham. More remote towns such as Battambang, Kratchie and Rattanakiri takes those prepared to forego luxury on a trip into the past on a road less travelled. A visit to the communities living on the Tonle Sap, SE Asia’s largest fresh water lake is a fascinating experience. Whole communities live on stilted or floating houses, with schools, shops and even snooker halls bobbing with the wake of each passing boat.
Siem Reap is the town located just outside of the immense Angkorian Temple complex and is offers a complete range of hotels and restaurants to suit any budget. The temples themselves rival any man made structures on earth, and whilst bearing the scars of modern conflicts continue to give one a sense of their invincibility. Angkor Wat is the most famous of them all, others whilst not being on such a grand scale also offer awe-inspiring wonders. A knowledgeable guide is essential to get the most of what you are seeing, whilst the occasional moment to sit and merely reflect are thoroughly encouraged!