South East Asia has exploded. From quaint backwater to unmissable destination, the region has rapidly become the number one choice for travelers on their first major trip away from home. Are you looking for things to do in South East Asia? As usual, RV has got you covered…
South East Asia is not short of draw cards; dazzling smiles, insanely cheap booze, random encounters with ladyboys, effervescent sprinklings of culture, buying a t-shirt that says “same same but different…” Yet it’s the ease of travel that makes it so appealing. Exoticism is omnipresent, but that’s blended with the comforts of being at home; the locals speak English now, hostels offer quality, and air-conditioned tourist buses have replaced rickety tuk tuks.
Here are 15 essential experiences for your South East Asia bucketlist.
Iconic and Unmissable
The elegance and serenity of Laos is defined by Luang Prabang, the cute riverside town that combines old-world colonial charm with mystical coatings of spirituality. Wake at sunrise to watch barefooted red-robed monks wander through the streets, laze away a morning in a French cafe on the river, spend an afternoon exploring temples, and then hit the bowling alley for the town’s premier night out. It’s both a gentle introduction to South East Asia, and the perfect stopping point to recharge the batteries amongst local culture.
Tiger Temple and Too Many Temples
Temples are everywhere. There’s ancient temples, hidden temples, incense temples, forest temples, temples stuffed with pagodas, golden temples, silver temples, and temples with no other purpose than to rape tourists of money. Within a week you’ve seen so many temples you’d rather punch a monk than step foot in another one. Be selective. The most bizarre is the Tiger Temple near Bangkok, where you walk and stroke live Bengali tigers. They’ve clearly been drugged up (despite the claims that the tigers are spiritual) but it’s an experience you won’t forget.
South East Asia’s tropical colors always bring offerings of natural beauty. The limestone karsts of Vietnam’s Halong Bay dramatically jut out of the South China Sea and were recently proclaimed one of the seven natural wonders of the world. Wooden junks take you around, essentially live-aboard boats that float between the karsts. Waking up in the heart of Halong Bay, with the mist rising to reveal the karsts, is as unmissable as it comes.
Drunk in Sihanoukville
South East Asia means party. Like, really party. The eclectic conglomeration of young backpackers mixes with ridiculously cheap booze and a tendency to mix in strange local narcotics. Thailand’s beaches are particularly famous although Cambodia’s Sihanoukville is starting to take the mantle as premier drunk party spot. Some will love it. Others will hate it (and if that’s you, try staying a little out of town on the more chilled Otres Beach). Expect to never be sober for the duration of your stay.
Taman Negara Rainforest
Malaysia provides a change of pace. It’s the same landscape and smiling locals but the country’s loftier economy is clearly on display. Taman Nagara in the heart of the country claims to be the world’s oldest rainforest. It’s a surreal place of weird sounds, immense trees, and the odd monkeys swinging around. For the most intimate experience, take a tent and camp in the middle of the trees.
Uncovered and Off the Beaten Track
Cambodian / Vietnamese Live-Aboard Dive Trips
Thailand’s diving is world famous, the tropical reefs alive with everything from sharks to vibrantly iconic reef. Everybody dives Thailand, especially the beginners that bob around in the water like confused inflatables. Cambodia and Vietnam share the same waters and live-aboard trips unveil reefs with the same plethora of life. Except, there are few other divers spoiling the view and crashing into the reef because they can’t control their buoyancy.
Chilling in Pai
South East Asia is all about chilling. About lying in a hammock, smoking, drinking, and completely losing track of time. You can do this just about everywhere and you’ll probably not want to leave. Pai, in Northern Thailand, is one of the most idyllic spots, an enchanting town surrounded by forested hills and local culture. Everyone is smiling and wearing a watch is serious no no.
Muang Ngoi and Munag Kwa
Continuing the theme of lazing away days in blissful quietude are the Laotian riverside villages of Muang Ngoi and Muang Kwa. They’re completely engulfed in jungle and only accessibly by boat, the absolute lack of roads making it wonderfully tranquil. Bamboo shacks overlook the river, banana fritter smells cascade through the village, and you could easily lose weeks doing nothing. Make sure you check out the bomb shells that lie around the villages, they’re leftover from the US Vietnam war and are now mostly used as flower pots. A few people end up losing months in the opium dens around here.
Islamic Heritage in Kuala Lumpur
Extremism is giving Islam a terrible rep. Hyped up media reports certainly don’t make the religion sound like it’s something to add to your bucketlist. Which is a shame. Kuala Lumpur provides a charismatic introduction to the beauty and ways of Islam, the city filled with elegant mosques and the resonant call to prayer. This isn’t like being in Saudi Arabia. Dress modestly and the locals are keen to show you around the religious buildings.
Thailand’s Forgotten Beaches
Thailand has so many islands and beaches it’s almost running out of luxury hotels to put on top of them. If you’re looking for pristine white sand and solitude then try to avoid any island with an airport, or any beach considered off the beaten track by Lonely Planet. Each year a new island or beach emerges as a tourist destination, complete with wooden shacks, terrible roads, and virtually no development. After five years there’s a four star resort and more concrete than sand. Ask around, venture into places that don’t have tourist buses, and you can still find a beach that’s yet to be discovered.
Weird and Wonderful
The Vietcong Tunnels
The US Vietnam war needs little introduction. Central to the Asian country’s success was a labyrinthine network of underground tunnels. These tunnels are also iconic and unmissable, however, they are seriously bizarre. Anyone with a penchant for fried food is unlikely to be slim enough to crawl into the tunnels and nobody leaves without endearing impressions of ingenuity and weirdness.
Ping Pong Shows in Bangkok
Bangkok is famous for its ping pong shows. Essentially, a group of drugged women perform bizarre acts with their vagina, each one leading up to firing out ping pong balls at the crowd. It’s certainly not erotic, and in many ways, pretty sad. But it’s funny. And these women are insanely talented. They fire darts out of their vagina and pop balloons on the wall above your head, the accuracy of the ten meter shot worthy of Olympian status. Shows have been trying to outdo each other on the weirdness scale and the things that can magically appear from a vagina will blow your mind.
Watching the Wasted People Tubing in Vang Vieng
Jump on a tire, float down a river, and stop at a dozen bars to drink cheap whiskey cocktails and marijuana shakes. Tubing in Vang Vieng is South East Asia’s most iconic drunk experience. Every single day, a huge crowd of foreigners cruise down the river getting wasted. For the ultimate giggles, sit on the riverbank at the foot of Vang Vieng and wait for the mess of drunk people to complete the course. Boobs come out of bikinis, tripped out youngsters can’t find the way home, and nobody will remember what has happened.
Thailand celebrates the new year by having huge water fights in the streets. You can’t go anywhere without getting soaked, especially as foreigners get singled out for double punishment. Buckets of fluid get smashed in your face, tuk tuks crash on the slippery streets, and the whole country descends into a week of madness. Part riot and part party, this water festival is one of Random Vacay’s 52 experiences for 2015.
Hide and Seek Angkor Wat
Ahhh…no more temples! You’ll need to be seriously inspired to visit another group of temple. Angkor Wat is a series of ancient temples in the forest, the majority of them overgrown by greenery and wrapped around 400 year old trees. Some stand in evocative states of ruin, others have been fastidiously rebuilt, and the whole site deserves a few days of your time. They hum with camera snapping tourists. So why are they weird and wonderful? Angkor Wat’s gates are closed at dusk. Hide in a temple and wait for security to complete their rounds. Then drink something, smoke something, and spend the night playing hide and seek in one of the world’s most impressive archaeological sites. It’s like being in a Tomb Raider video game.