This post is mostly to share some photos that didn’t fit in along the way, plus a few overall thoughts from our four months in Southeast Asia. We came nowhere close to seeing everything this region has to offer, but I think we’ll be back – we found traveling here to be easy, very affordable, and best of all, consistently amazing!
We spent 122 days traveling through Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, and Indonesia:
This means that we only saw half of the countries in this area at all – we didn’t see Myanmar, Laos, the Philippines, or (aside from a brief stop in Kuala Lumpur) Malaysia. These are all places that – based on other travelers we spoke with – have a lot to offer, we just didn’t make it there.
A Random List of Stats
Hottest temp: 40C+ Hue, Vietnam
Best bananas: Angkor, Cambodia
Worst food poisoning: Kampot, Cambodia
Bumpiest bus ride: Mui Ne to Dalat, Vietnam
Most repeat meals: Mama’s Chicken Shack, Tonsai, Thailand
Best kebab: Sinbad’s, Mui Ne, Vietnam
Best place to pet cats: Tonsai Beach, Thailand
# of flipflops blown: 5. Once the first pair goes, you’re screwed: all the ones here are terrible.
# pairs of sunglasses: 5. Scratched, crushed between my head and something, lost overboard, and just generally low quality.
Best sunset: Railay Beach, Thailand. (Gili Air, Indonesia, in close second.)
Most ants: Bakong, Cambodia
Worst accommodation: Cat Ba, Vietnam
weirdest meal: Krabi, Thailand
best street noodles: Nguyễn Trung Ngạn Alley, Saigon, Vietnam
What We Were Nervous (and Wrong) About
We’d never been to this part of the world and so we had a few things that made us a bit anxious beforehand, ranging from the somewhat reasonable to the rather ridiculous.
Communication: a wide range of completely new tongues – some unreadable to boot – plus reportedly little English had us wondering how difficult it would be for us to get by day to day. This turned out to be a complete non-issue. Southeast Asia is full of polyglots, many of them learning some English in school along with multiple local languages, making it embarrassingly easy to communicate. The few phrases and words we learned came less out of necessity and more to at least show we were trying. In the cases where we were far enough out of the way as to run out of English speakers, gesturing worked fine with the friendly and patient locals.
Crowds: picturing Asian cities brings to mind street food, pollution, and… dense crowds. Would it be nerve-wracking? Nope. Granted, there may be times and places where the crowds really are something else (festivals, etc) but otherwise it’s just like any other busy city. We’ve been in tighter (and smellier) quarters packed in the Paris Metro than we were anywhere in Kowloon or Bangkok.
Beds: maybe edging toward the sillier side, but we both have had lower back issues off and on and I was worried that the reputably rock-hard beds would be problematic. Yes, we encountered many hard beds, but fortunately it’s been fine!
Height: you can laugh at this one but I’m 6’2″ (188cm) – significantly taller than your average Southeast Asian. How many times would I hit my head? Results are in: a lot. The temples of Angkor in particular were a hotspot of head bumps. Ah well, I survived!
Safety: reading about others’ travels it’s easy to get concerned about scams, theft, or worse. It turns out Southeast Asia is just like anywhere else in the world and these are only issues if you are dumb or drunk or perhaps exceptionally unlucky. Common sense prevailed and we had no issues!
Health and Food: we were really excited about touring through Southeast Asian cuisine, but also apprehensive: would it be sanitary, or would we get sick all the time? Would everything be insanely spicy? Again, these were pretty much unfounded fears. There were occasional bouts of discomfort and one real food poisoning (I pushed my luck at an idle Cambodian street cart) but overall no more problems than on any overseas travel. As for spiciness we only had a handful of times when we weren’t given a choice or warning ahead of time. Again, common sense (and some Pepto) goes a long way.
The Top Highlights
Exploring the temples of Angkor: climbing around on thousand-year-old ruins, dozens of sites each with unique things to see, and a crash course in local history and art along with it. This is a special place.
Diving in Komodo National Park: our Southeast Asia travel happily led to us discovering scuba diving as a new passion for both of us. The grandeur and excitement of this amazing location combined with us learning a ton made this one of the best things we’ve ever done, period.
Caving in Phong Nha: swimming through granite and limestone tunnels underground, combined with enjoying the gorgeous natural scenery above, made this a really unique and fun destination.
Eating our way through Vietnam: we really liked Vietnam. The culture and people, the value of accommodation, and of course the food. All the stuff you know already (pho, spring rolls, bahn mi, bun thit nuong) and plenty that was new (bun cha, egg coffee, mi quang, grilled squid…) – it’s all amazing. Even the basic stuff – fruit, peanuts, eggs – were fabulous. Saigon, Hoi An, and Hanoi were tops for food.
It’s not really fair to only list a few top items, though. So much was amazing, with nearly every day bringing us something new and beautiful!
A Quick Country Comparison
We were surprised by how unique each country and region of Southeast Asia is. Even a short border crossing on the mainland brings a whole new world to explore. The differences felt much more pronounced to us than traveling between nations in Europe or Latin America (though perhaps this is partly due to the newness of everything Asian to us!).
Thailand: as advertised – approachable, fun, and tasty. This was a good country to start with because it’s so easy to travel as an English-speaking foreigner. Some areas were certainly heavily touristed but we never felt too far from the local culture and food scene. There’s something for everyone here with beaches and karst, jungle and hills, temples and markets, and the most varied (and cheap) street food.
Cambodia: we had some highlights in Cambodia – especially Angkor – but overall this was our least favorite country to visit. We found it to be quite dirty and relatively unremarkable, with good food hard to come by. Phnom Penh was our least favorite city in S.E. Asia for the same reasons. We certainly can’t hold it against them – the Khmer have been through some seriously hard times in recent history! We don’t regret visiting at all but I don’t think we’ll be hurrying back.
Vietnam: our favorite. There’s rich culture and history, beautiful mountains and coastline, and for the most part excellent and varied food. The people are friendly and hard working, the streets largely clean, and the value for accommodation was the best we found. Getting around the country is easy with a good network of buses and cheap flights. It wasn’t all perfect, of course: some places just didn’t work for us (namely, Cat Ba), others were mobbed by hordes of Chinese tourists, and the summer heat could be overwhelming especially as we got further north. Overall, however, Vietnam won a special place in our hearts.
Indonesia: is huge, scattered, and hard to travel efficiently. I think it would have taken something like six months before we could say we saw as much of Indonesia as we did with one month in Vietnam. So there is much of the country that we did not visit and therefore can’t describe – nearly four weeks on Sulawesi alone covered only some of that one island! Indonesia was our longest stint at two months but this was due to our new infatuation with scuba diving. If it weren’t for the numerous incredible sites for this activity I think the repetitive food and challenging logistics would have worn thin sooner. But we were off the beaten track for a while – if you don’t mind having a lot of tourists around, Bali seems like a great cheap destination. Overall: I expect we’ll be back for some more diving – and when we do, we’ll be more than ready to dig into more nasi campur and ayam taliwang!
What’s Awesome About Southeast Asia
In our opinion, of course!
Travel value – doing anything and everything here is so much less expensive than in most other places on our planet. Bargains for food, lodging, and transport are everywhere, and even bigger costs like diving are cheaper. Sure, you can pay a lot to visit Southeast Asia – stay in plush hotels catering to Westerners, book glossy packages, and eat and drink the food you’re used to rather than local fare. But then you’re not only paying way more than you need to, you’re missing out on so much of what makes traveling fun!
Street food – okay, maybe stating the obvious here, but it’s nearly everywhere in one form or another, often delicious, always cheap, and a good bet for a pleasant surprise (or at least a learning experience). The indicator for good street food is ubiquitous across S.E. Asia: tiny plastic stools in the road or sidewalk packed with locals.
Fruit – the fruit in S.E. Asia is insanely good. Not only is there huge variety and plenty you’ve never seen before, but even the ‘normal’ stuff (bananas, mangoes, pineapple, etc) is so much better than you can get in the States. Back home I rarely like mangoes and can’t stand papaya, but in Thailand I was eating them every day!
Markets – are fun concentrations of people, color, sights and smells. Temporary street markets take over long stretches of streets to entertain tourists and locals alike while covered daily markets show you the local specialties and personalities (as long as you don’t mind walking through fishy wet floors). Not all markets are equal but most are worth checking out and many are quite a lot of fun!
Tropical coasts – so much incredible coastline and blue water (where it isn’t marred by plastic garbage). I don’t really like jungles with the heat and humidity – I prefer being high up in the mountains, which isn’t really a thing here – but I also like being on the ocean. Indonesia takes the win here but Thailand and Vietnam also have great waterfront.
Outdoor activities – we kayaked, rock climbed, snorkeled and scuba dived, hiked, and mountain biked, and that’s only a subset of the really affordable activities available in S.E. Asia. Now of course there are some outdoor things that aren’t easy – even just walking from A to B can be a pain as sidewalks are often nonexistent or full of scooters or holes! Also, most of these activities aren’t “normal” for the local culture so it can be a bit convoluted sometimes to actually find a hiking trail, equipment, or map.
Temples – Buddhism and Hinduism means lots of eye-catching sites to visit that really aren’t like anything you can find in the Western world. They’re beautiful and peaceful, ornate yet often simple. More often than not there’s at least one nearby that’s worth visiting.
Bummer! The Not So Great
Plastic, plastic, plastic – bottles, bags, containers, it’s everywhere and has nowhere good to go so it ends up in the ocean. It’s really sad to see a gorgeous beach marred by garbage dunes or to watch plastic bags drift by while diving a beautiful reef. The worst part is it’s hard to avoid being part of the problem, because:
Drinking water – is hard to find outside of the aforementioned plastic bottles. Some places are better than others – Bangkok has a bunch of reverse-osmosis dispensers around the city that cost next to nothing – and sometimes we’ve been able to filter tap water. But a lot of times we’ve had to buy water and unfortunately it’s a lot easier to find small bottles than bigger, more efficient ones.
Native wildlife – hoping to see that local furry or feathered critter? Good luck, it’s most likely been eaten or deforested pretty much out of existence. Thinking about conservation isn’t really part of the culture here. Unless there’s money to be made from it, but that doesn’t always get the best result: feeding animals to attract them to certain locations, elephant ‘sanctuaries’ with questionable practices, or that one tree in the park where the guides bring everyone to see the same tarsier family (I think 90% of the amateur photos out there must be the same tarsier).
What Would We Do Next Time?
After talking to travelers and expats along the way there are a few specific things that we would really like to come back to Southeast Asia for, in addition to revisiting some of our favorites.
Diving in Raja Ampat: this is by all accounts an amazing place to dive in Indonesia, but it’s both far out of the way and relatively expensive. A liveaboard trip here would be fantastic I’m sure.
Exploring the Philippines: we elected to skip the Philippines this time due to the political climate, but we’d both really like to go. It sounds unique, beautiful, and fun. In particular I would like to dive some of the many WWII wrecks among the islands and bays.
Malaysian Borneo: we were actually very close to going here for the combination of hiking and diving. A last minute decision to hop over to Japan for a few weeks preempted this but we’re keeping it in mind for next time!