The Mainland Southeast Asia circuit is a travel classic, and a dirt-cheap one at that. The loop thru Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia is chock-a-block with highlights, and can be done in as little as four weeks (though you'll have a far better time if you budget six to eight!) It's a region that offers something for everyone -- good diving, astonishing temples, amazing food, mountain trekking and parties galore -- made all the better by an excellent network of guesthouses and (mostly) easy transit connections. It's a great place for first-timers to start on their first "big" trip, and offers nifty travel bona-fides like overnight train journeys and international land-border crossings. Best of all, this is a trip that can be made to suit any budget: students can largely get by on $25 a day, and those who want a little more luxury will find their options hugly expanded by a small bump up to $40 per day. And of course, in big cities like Bangkok, the sky's the limit if you're looking to splash out.
I did this trip with my 60-year-old father, Steve, sometimes known as the Steveasarus. He was a travel rookie and I was 9 months into a yearlong trip, and we agreed to meet up in Bangkok on his birthday in mid-September. I'm told that the awesomeness of the next six weeks actually made up for all the trouble I caused him as a teenager.
Bangkok, of course, is an awesome place to start -- food! temples! partying! food! (did I mention food?) -- followed by an overnight sleeper train ride up north to Chiang Mai (you'd be a fool to cheap out and take the bus!). Chiang Mai's touristy "hill-tribe" treks are something to give a miss to, but its superb and colourful weekly Sunday Walking Market is unbeatable. Buy a Beer Chang while you walk the streets and nosh and shop like a local. If you want to hit Northern Thailand's best backpacker scene, head to nearby Pai, which hasn't gone to tourist hell in the ways that Chiang Mai has.
From Pai or Chiang Mai it's an easy minibus ride to the Laos border at Huay Xai, and after you've stamped out of Thailand and taken a ferry across the Mekong, you can get a Lao visa on arrivial from the immigration post on the other side. Huay Xai is a sleepy river town that exists because of the border, but it's also the jumping-off point for the superb eco-ziplining adventure of The Gibbon Experience. You'll need to register beforehand online, and it will cost you, but few experiences are more memorable than trekking into the pristine Lao cloud forest with a local guide, and then buckling in to whiz hundreds of feet above the forest canopy suspended by nothing more than a harness and a steel cable. You spend the evening high up in a treehouse with your group, and waking to see the sun rise over the forest in this remote place is unforgettable.
Of course, back at ground level the next day, you can rest up on the two-day slow boat journey down the Mekong to Luang Prabang. Your butt might get numb from the long hours in the boat, but the scenery is, of course, spectacular, with candid views of river life. Remember to bring lots of snacks.
Luang Prabang, of course, is famous mostly for its dawn almsgiving ceremony, which has now turned into something of a tourist circus and is in many ways a little sad to watch. You shouldn't let that deter you, however, because there's much much more to LP than just almsgiving. The town is quiet, charming, and gracious, with fine temples, excellent colonial-era guesthouses, and an incredible dining scene.
When you're ready to move on, it's a full-day bus-and-boat journey from Luang Prabang to the tiny riverside hamlet of Muang Ngoi. Muang Ngoi has, at the time of writing, no roads, no internet, and no electricity except that supplied for a few hours each night by generators. Check into a riverside bungalow and get yourself a chilled drink with local Mekong whisky, and you may find yourself never wanting to leave. (Though of course it is worth it to spend one day floating in an inner-tube down the muddy Nam Ou River!)
Four hours upstream by boat lies the town border town of Muang Khua, where you can catch a dawn minibus over shockingly bad roads through the backdoor into northern Vietnam (arrange your visa in Bangkok beforehand) and onwards to the historic town of Dien Bien Phu, where the Vietnamese fought the battle that finally expelled their French colonizers in 1954. It's another long day on hellish roads from Dien Bien Phu to the lovely (if touristy) northern mountain town of Sapa -- the perfect place to eat, drink, and take long walks in the surrounding hills (though be forewarned that it may get muddy).
When you're ready, you can hop on a sleeper train from the nearby railhead at Lao Cai and be in Hanoi by dawn, an awesome place to soak up the atmosphere of the Old Quarter, drink the world's cheapest draft beer, and gorge on awesome food. In town, book a tour onto Ha Long Bay with a reputable agency, and be sure to spend a night out on the water on a junk (one night is likely enough, though Cat Ba Island does have its attractions if you've got some extra time in your schedule).
From Hanoi, it's an easy sleeper train to Da Nang on the central coast, and then a short taxi ride to the lovely UNESCO-listed colonial centre of Hoi An (a perfect place to get clothes tailor-made while you lounge on the beach for a few days sipping mojitos). Then back to Da Nang and off on a sleeper train to Saigon (Ho Chi Minh CIty). Saigon, with it mess of traffic and aggressive tourist culture, probably won't win any awards for friendliness, but the excellent War Remnants Museum is a must-visit.
From Saigon, it's an easy bus ride across the border (get a visa on arrival) to Cambodia and the lovely riverside capital of Phnom Penh. The infamous and sobering Killing Fields and Tuol Sleng prison aren't to be missed, but Phnom Penh is also a city with excellent cuisine, gracious people, a good bar scene, and a cracking waterfront. It's worth spending a few days here to soak it up. When you're ready, it's another easy bus ride north to Siem Reap and the temples of Angkor (you can try your luck with the boat up the Tonle Sap, but you may get stuck along the way!).
Siem Reap is perfect: the service town to the single greatest group of ancient monuments in the world, and a place to eat, drink, shop and be merry in between your excursions to the ruins. Devote at least two days to seeing all of Angkor, and hire a motorbike or tuk-tuk driver to take you around.
From Siem Reap, it's an easy bus over the border back to Bangkok (beware of shenanigans at the border!). Shop for souvenirs at the weekend Chatuchak Market, or if you have a few extra days head down to one of the Gulf Coast islands to party (Ko Pha Ngan), dive (Ko Tao), or lounge out at a resort (Ko Samui).
Congratulations -- you've just made more awesome memories in six weeks than most people make in six years. =)
Southeast Asia's "Mother City" -- Bangkok has it all. Check out awesome temples like Wat Pho and Wat Arun, delve into the street markets of Chinatown, take in SE Asia's biggest and best backpacker ghetto at Khao San Road, cruise down the Chao Phraya river, have a Thai massage and nosh on street meat in Silom. The city's excellent Skytrain and Metro systems make getting around a breeze, but don't bother with the crooked tuk-tuk drivers and be sure your taxi isn't taking you for a ride.
Serving the fiery Isan cuisine of northern Thailand, this is the place to head for cheap-and-dirty, ultra-authentic grilled chicken laarb and green-papaya salads. One of my favorite restaurants in the world.
Everyone goes to the Grand Palace and the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, which are therefore constantly mobbed. Instead hit up the Khmer-style spire of Wat Arun across the river.
Then hit up the sprawling temple complex of Wat Pho. Bring a wide-angle lens for the colossal reclining Buddha.
This mall houses the excellent Kinokuniya bookstore if you need English-language reading, as well as an astonishing gourmet basement food court. Plus delicious, icy air-con.
The best sunset drink in Bangkok, on the 63rd floor of the Banyan Tree Hotel in Silom. Drinks are pricey, but come with nibbles. Bring a camera. No tank-tops or sandals for men.
Thailand's second city. It's a bit of a tourist hell, but be sure to be here for the Sunday Walking Market.
Ziplining adrenaline in the pristine cloud forest of northern Laos, plus the coolest treehouse sleepover ever. Book ahead.
One of the loveliest towns in the world. Relax, enjoy the atmosphere, check into a great guesthouse and avail yourself of the awesome dining opportunities and surrounding sights.
Awesome day-trip from Luang Prabang. In the dry season, have a swim; in the rainy season, marvel at the power of mother nature.
The world's most chilled-out riverside town, and one of my favorite places in the world. Walk in the surrounding rice paddies and forests, and take a day to inner-tube down the river.
Northern Vietnam's tourist centre, Sapa offers excellent mountain scenery and walks, and a host of colorful local minority populations.
One of my favorite hotels in the world -- great value rooms with nice decorative touches and with excellent mountain views.
Park yourself on a stool in the Bia Hoi (draft beer) street of Hanoi's Old Quarter, and watch the world go by.
A bit out of the centre, it's more than worth making the journey to this set of "street kitchens" set around a central courtyard for an excellent sampling of gourmet Vietnamese street food.
Have a suit or some shirts made while you chill out in this lovely colonial town.
Don't want to get ripped off for your tour to Ha Long Bay? Try Vega Travel in Hanoi's Old Quarter -- they're not perfect, but they're certainly legit.
Vietnam has had a rough go of things for the last 70 years. Get a sobering (if sometimes biased) view of what that has meant for the country's tens of millions of people.
Visit the Killing Fields and the Tuol Sleng Prison, but don't neglect to just hang out by the excellent waterfront.
A great place to check out the best of Khmer cuisine while you're taking in the temples from Siem Reap. Try the sampler for best results.
The bar that started Siem Reap's party scene back in 1998 is still going strong. A great place to start, or end, the night.
The single most impressive "tree-in-temple" site in Angkor, with none of the crowds of similar site Ta Phrom.
Up at Mo Chit station, this is the spot to go for all your shopping needs in Bangkok before you fly home. Excellent food here too.
The single best-value lodging I've found in Bangkok, located in the central Silom neighborhood. Rooms are midrange-standard, but the mattresses can be a bit rock-like.
Good budget lodging in a fine location in Siem Reap. Staff unfailingly helpful and super-friendly.
This is Thailand's biggest party island -- the one that hatched the infamous "Full Moon" parties. Nowadays, there's a big party happening at least 3x a month, though watch out for crooked cops, robbers and petty thieves.
If you're looking to dive or snorkel, this is the most popular spot on Thailand's Gulf Coast. That popularity means, of course, that the reefs here has gotten pretty beat up in a lot of places, but it's still a nice spot. For best results stay down in Chalok Bay on the south coast.