Things have been quieter than usual around here since just after New Year's. And there's a good reason for that: I've been traveling around Southeast Asia for the past 6 weeks!
I will slowly be writing about the whole adventure in detail, but now that it's at an end, I've decided a nice wrap-up is in order.
Here's what I've been up to on this trip:
Countries visited: 4 — Hong Kong, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand
Cities visited: 12 — Hong Kong, Hanoi, Hue, Hoi An, Saigon, Phnom Penh, Siem Reap, Battambang, Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Krabi
The tops and bests
Favorite city: Hoi An, Vietnam
This little city in central Vietnam is a little bit touristy. A little bit Westernized. And yet still totally awesome. The Old City of Hoi An is recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and is filled with traditional-style buildings and lots of colorful hanging lanterns. Add to this a lot of great dining options, a lively riverfront, and some great tailoring shops, and Hoi An swiftly became one of my favorite cities in Southeast Asia.
Least favorite city: Phnom Penh, Cambodia
I'm not going to lie… I had a hard time with Cambodia. Yes, the people are generally friendly and the temples at Angkor are incredible. But the extreme poverty and corruption in the country (added to its painful recent history during the Pol Pot years) made my heart ache. And Phnom Penh? Definitely not my favorite. It was dirty and kind of depressing. And after hearing so many warnings about pickpockets and motorbike thieves (even from locals), I felt like I couldn't relax anywhere in the city.
City that surprised me the most: Saigon, Vietnam
Vietnam in general really took me by surprise, but Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) probably surprised me the most. It's a quickly developing city; much more modern than I expected and quite clean, too. I can understand why some of my blogging friends have decided to make Saigon their base in Asia. Plus, I think being in the city as it celebrated Tet (the lunar new year) made it extra special.
Favorite city escape: Lantau Island (Hong Kong)
I visited Hong Kong for the first time in January, but it was actually my morning trip out of the city that was my favorite part. Visiting the Big Buddha statue on Lantau Island was definitely a highlight — including the glass-bottomed cable car ride that it took to get there! The island is so different from the nearby city, and this contrast was nice to see and experience.
Favorite ancient temple visited: Bayon (Cambodia)
I visited quite a few temples at the Angkor complex in Cambodia, but I think Bayon — with its gigantic serene faces — was my favorite. It's a temple somewhat in disrepair and still quite touristy, but I found it really interesting visually.
Favorite modern temple visited: Wat Prah That Doi Suthep (Thailand)
My favorite newer temple was definitely the one atop Doi Suthep mountain in Chiang Mai. The temple is extremely well-kept — and covered in gold. It was gorgeous. Just a tip, though: go early in the morning in order to avoid the crowds.
Most stunning natural landscape: Ha Long Bay (Vietnam)
I was worried that the famous Ha Long Bay in Vietnam would be a bit of a letdown. But thanks to good weather, a great tour group, and a boat with character, my overnight cruise on the Bay more than exceeded my expectations. We went kayaking, visited a cave, saw a great sunset, and were able to experience Ha Long Bay at its best. It was a great start to my time in Vietnam.
Most amazing water: Phi Phi Islands (Thailand)
I didn't see as many Thai islands as I would have liked to. But I can tell you that they are just as stunningly beautiful as they look in all the postcards. The area with the most jaw-dropping water, though? Definitely around the Phi Phi Islands on Thailand's Andaman Coast. It was the most brilliant turquoise color, and oh so clear.
Favorite market: Chatuchak Weekend Market, Bangkok
I was only in Bangkok for two nights, but luckily the full day I had there was over a weekend. And the Chatuchak Weekend Market in Bangkok is probably one of the best markets I have been to. Ever. You can find everything there, from clothing to books to gardening equipment. There's also a really cool section dedicated to young, up-and-coming local designers, which I loved.
Favorite beach: Tie between Pranang (Railay) in the morning and Klong Nin (Koh Lanta)
The only beaches I really got to enjoy on this trip were in Thailand. But thankfully they absolutely lived up to everything I'd heard about them. Pranang Beach on the Railay Peninsula made this list for its sheer beauty, though I will admit that it can get very crowded in the afternoon (hence why I went in the morning!). My favorite chilled-out beach, though, was definitely Klong Nin on the island of Koh Lanta.
Most emotionally-draining place I visited: Killing Fields in Phnom Penh (Cambodia)
For four years during the 1970s, Cambodia experienced a devastating genocide, during which more than 1/3 of the country's population was systematically murdered. There are many “killing fields” all over Cambodia, but the most well-known is near Phnom Penh. Visiting was very sad and quite chilling (especially when our guide was pointing out bits of bone and human teeth that are still surfacing from the mass graves), but I think it's important to subject yourself to history like this.
Most terrifying experience: Cycling in Hanoi, Vietnam
Okay, maybe “terrifying” is slightly exaggerating. But doing a bike tour that included riding through crazy Hanoi traffic WAS pretty stressful.
Most claustrophobic experience: Cu Chi Tunnels (Vietnam)
If you are a person that doesn't like tight spaces (and/or live bats), then the Cu Chi Tunnels in Vietnam are not for you. Going to the Tunnels in and of itself was a slightly uncomfortable experience (mostly because of a tour guide who talked about killing Americans with pure glee), but going down into the tunnels themselves was bordering on claustrophobic, even for me.
Most rewarding experience: Volunteering with elephants (Thailand)
I spent a week of this trip volunteering at Elephant Nature Park in Thailand. This is a park that rescues injured and mistreated elephants and cares for them at a facility in the northern mountains, trying to make the rest of their lives as happy as possible. Volunteering here for a week was beyond rewarding; it's something I would recommend to anyone traveling to Thailand.
Coolest cultural experience: Being in Vietnam for Tet
I had no clue when I was planning this trip that I would be in Asia for the lunar new year — but I was! I ended up in Saigon for the culmination of the Tet celebrations, which included huge street parties, elaborate decorations, and a great fireworks show.
Favorite souvenir: Tailored dresses from Hoi An, Vietnam
Before going to Vietnam, I was already looking forward to visiting Hoi An for one reason: getting some tailored clothing made. The experience ended up being the highlight of Hoi An for me: picking a design, choosing fabric, getting measured, going to fittings… I unfortunately was in Hoi An just a few days before Tet, meaning many of the tailors were closing down for the holiday, but I still got 2 summer dresses made and love them!
Favorite place I stayed: Sri Lanta Resort (Thailand)
By the end of my trip, I was doing really well with my budget. And so, simply because I could, I booked into a super-nice resort on the Thai island of Koh Lanta. It was located towards the southern end of the island, on Klong Nin beach. I had my own private Thai-style bungalow, and the resort was one of those that seems to think of everything: pool, beach towels, multiple beach bars, a restaurant, massages, sun umbrellas, comfy lounge spots, etc. It WAS pricey for Thailand, but I would have easily paid five times as much if this resort was anywhere else in the world. Sri Lanta was the perfect place to end my time in Thailand.
The random stuff
Methods of transport taken: plane, train, taxi, tuk-tuk, songthaew, utility truck, mini bus, speedboat, bamboo train, long tail boat
Number of flights: 14
Number of trains: 1 (an overnight one in Vietnam)
Number of times in a kayak: 2
Days spent on/near the beach: 6
Pairs of hippie pants purchased: 2 (3 if you count a pair for my sister)
Grand palaces visited: 2 (in Phnom Penh and Bangkok)
Monkey encounters: 3 (including one where a monkey got into our mini bus in Cambodia!)
Number of times I got sick: 1 (mild food poisoning in Cambodia)
Photos taken: 1,751
Places I want to visit next time: Sapa, Vietnam; Chiang Rai, Thailand; Pai, Thailand; more Thai islands (like Koh Tao, Koh Lipe, and others); Chiang Mai for the Yi Peng festival, and Boracay, Philippines.
Yup, I'm definitely not done with Southeast Asia! I have a feeling I'll be pulled back again soon…
Which of my SE Asia adventures would you most like to read more about?
Amanda Williams is the award-winning blogger behind A Dangerous Business Travel Blog. She has traveled to more than 60 countries on 6 continents from her home base in Ohio, specializing in experiential and thoughtful travel through the US, Europe, and rest of the world. Amanda only shares tips based on her personal experiences and places she's actually traveled!