I’m a fool.
Until recently, I’d not wanted to visit Southeast Asia.
Other destinations interested me more — like Japan. Japan was high on my list when planning a Christmas trip last year. Despite disliking snow and cold weather, shunning Thailand’s beaches for a Japanese winter seemed like a great idea. I’d even rationalised the high cost of travelling in Japan.
One day last year, common sense struck me. I realised that Southeast Asia had everything I wanted. It was cheap, with warm weather, fun parties, amazing food and lots to do.
I booked the damn ticket to Bangkok. My decision to travel around Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam turned out to be one of the best I ever made.
Because you aren’t as idiotic as I am, you probably don’t need to be convinced to visit Southeast Asia. If you are in doubt, then read on. Southeast Asia offers everything to the young traveler.
1. It’s unbelievably cheap
$5 for a bed. $2 for dinner. $1 for a beer. It makes a twenty Euro hostel in Italy hard to stomach.
Good accommodation is $5 to $10 a night. It’s easy to find a dorm with a comfy bed, secure lockers, personal wall charger (a must!), wifi, and free breakfast for the price of lunch back home.
Private rooms are affordable, and can even be cheaper than a dorm if you share with someone.
However, dorms really are the best place to stay. Initially, the lack of privacy and seclusion can be jarring, but it soon becomes normal and makes meeting people easy. I would have missed out on many experiences if I had stayed in private rooms my whole trip. I met zero people at the one place where I stayed in a private room. By staying in dorms, you’ll find it’s impossible not to make new friends.
Eating & drinking
Food is so cheap in Southeast Asia. That pad thai which costs $15 at home is only $1.50, and tastes a thousand times better.
European food is available, but costs more. It can also be riskier from a health perspective, as it is not the locals’ area of expertise. Wait until you’re asked whether you want your chicken burger done medium rare, then you’ll understand.
The price of a meal in Cambodia hovers around the $4 mark. This isn’t expensive, but it’s twice the cost of a meal in Thailand or Vietnam.
Alcohol however, is dirt cheap in Cambodia. Beer is 50 cents; a cocktail $2.50. Thailand is more expensive. A big bottle of Chang is about $2.50. The local Thai rum, Sangsom, is a great deal at $8 a bottle. Buy some Thai Red Bull (it’s like speed) for $1 and make your own bucket.
Vietnam steals the crown though. The legendary “bia hoi”, which is homebrewed beer, sells for 25 cents a glass. In Hoi An, a round of ten beers cost my group $2! The hard part is not spending your entire trip in a drunken haze (I struggled).
Getting around is straightforward. Taxis are universally affordable — most trips should only cost pocket change. Tuk tuks are generally a rip-off in Thailand, but are essential in Cambodia. Buses will take you anywhere, but comfort levels vary. I enjoyed my seven-hour overland trip from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh with Giant Ibis (it had air-con and onboard wifi!). By contrast, a short bus ride I took in Thailand was terrifying. It’s luck of the draw.
Internal flights are inexpensive, but should be avoided where an overnight train is also available. Flight delays will turn a quick journey into a long one, and extortionate airport taxi prices must be factored.
Overnight trains on the other hand are a fun cultural experience. They are safe, and allow you to travel while you sleep — saving you time, and money on accommodation. The rocking rhythm quickly puts you to sleep, and failing that, some store-bought valium will do the trick. I planned my trips using The Man in Seat 61, a valuable resource.
2. Incredible food
The food in Southeast Asia is reason enough to go. I love trying new dishes, and discovered much about the local cultures just from the food. Eating is educational — so don’t feel guilty when you are having your fifth bánh mì of the day.
Thai food is common and predictable at home in New Zealand. Thai food in Thailand has a whole new meaning. It’s far superior to anything I’d eaten at home. The dishes are spicier, have deeper flavours, and use strange new ingredients.
Whether you’re enjoying a pad thai or a scorpion at Khao San Road, sipping a tom yum gai on an island, or eating the spectacular khao soi in Chiang Mai, every meal is a happy memory. Almost. The only bad Thai meal I ate was when I was in hospital on Koh Phangan. We can agree that this was a pretty unusual set of circumstances though!
Cambodian food is less spectacular. I enjoyed it, but not as much as Thai food. Perhaps this is because I only spent a week in Cambodia — not enough time to properly sample Khmer cuisine.
The dishes I had were milder in flavour and spiciness than Thai cooking. This is typified by the fish amok, a coconut curry served with rice. Despite looking like a Thai green curry, it doesn’t scorch the roof of your mouth. A friend of mine who didn’t like the richness or heat of Thai food greatly enjoyed Cambodia’s.
Also worth trying is the beef lok lak. This is marinated beef served on a bed of greens with rice and a fried egg. The best I had was at a restaurant in Siem Reap called Genevieve’s. This business is worth supporting. Not only is the food delicious, but the Cambodian workers are paid a fair wage and given development opportunities. Cambodia’s poverty is heartbreaking, but businesses like this one are helping to solve it.
What surprised me the most was the thriving cafe culture in Siem Reap. I ate at cafes which could have been plucked straight from the trendiest suburbs of Auckland or Melbourne. From the music to the décor, the similarities are uncanny. The only difference is that the eggs benedict cost $5 instead of $20. I could get used to that.
Vietnam’s food might be even better than Thailand’s (hard to believe I know). Vietnamese cooking is simple and fresh. The flavours of the phở (noodle soup) will blow you away every-time. Even the airport phở is good! It’s also pretty special eating at a street-vendor in Hanoi, knowing that the same dish has been made in that spot for over a hundred years.
History flows through the food in other ways. The French influence is unmistakable, and the bánh mì encapsulates this. The bread is fluffy in the centre yet crunchy on the outside, and bursts with flavour from the cilantro, chillis and cured pork. It’s possibly the greatest sandwich you’ll ever eat.
Special mention goes to Vietnamese coffee. Served black, it is chocolaty and super strong. Condensed milk is added for those who like it sweet.
Go to Vietnam on an empty stomach. You’ll regret it if you don’t.
3. The parties
It’s no secret that Southeast Asia has great partying. The Full Moon Party on Koh Phangan, Thailand, is legendary and infamous in equal measure. It’s worth experiencing, and despite the massive crowds, is a good time.
Cambodia is low key, but arguably more fun. Siem Reap is home to Pub Street, a road devoted solely to bars and restaurants (but no pubs weirdly). There are few places in the world where you can dance on the road holding a beer in one hand and a fried tarantula in the other. It’s also pretty strange getting drunk in a club and then watching the sun rise over Angkor Wat three hours later. Being biblically hungover at a UNESCO World Heritage site is not my proudest moment.
The historical divide between north and south Vietnam is shown by its drinking practices. Saigon is hedonistic, making for an exhilirating night. Experiences range from the distinctly local, like at Phố Tây Bùi Viện, to the international, with Berlin DJs playing until sunrise. Barreling down the boulevards on a motorbike taxi late at night is awesome.
Travel north to Hanoi and the beer still flows, but the bars must shut at midnight. In reality the bars stay open by bribing the police. The doors are closed so that from the street the bar looks dead (although the pounding bass is a bit of a giveaway). A bar owner told me that he pays the police $200 a night to keep his bar open. It’s a reminder of Vietnam’s corruption.
4. Temples, elephants, history
There’s no shortage of interesting attractions in Southeast Asia. Bangkok is a treasure trove of resplendent temples that boggle the mind. From the glittering Wat Phra Kaew, to the vertigo inducing Wat Arun, each is spectacular in its own fashion.
Chiang Mai is similarly magical. Mountain-bike one day and go to an elephant sanctuary the next. Visit Doi Suthep, a temple in the clouds. The cooking classes on offer are extremely worthwhile and reveal the genius of Thai cooking.
Cambodia is synonymous with Angkor Wat, and this ancient complex deserves the hype. Equally impressive are the surrounding temples and grounds, which are less crowded and more serene.
In Siem Reap you might even be as lucky as I was, and get invited to meditate with a Buddhist monk.
Although harrowing, everyone should visit the Killing Fields and Tuol Sleng Prison in Phnom Penh. This is essential to understand modern Cambodia.
History also abounds in Vietnam. Chinese, French and American influences are everywhere. Saigon, once known as the “Paris of the Orient”, bursts with French architecture. It even has its own Notre Dame Cathedral. At Cu Chi, outside Saigon, you can crawl through Viet Cong tunnels or fire an AK-47.
Further north is Hoi An, a picturesque ancient fishing town that is impossibly pretty. Catch a train over the breathtaking Hai Van Pass and you will arrive in Hue, the former imperial capital. Hue is home to Vietnam’s own “Forbidden City”, which was severely damaged during the 1968 Tet Offensive. The bullet scars in the Citadel walls bear testament to those who fought and died there.
Hanoi has its own war remnants, including the infamous “Hanoi Hilton” prison, and the wreckage of a downed B52 bomber. You haven’t lived until you’ve experienced the thrill of riding a motorbike in Hanoi at rush hour. Doing it with a local is recommended.
With Sapa north of Hanoi, and Halong Bay to the east, there is so much to do in this part of Vietnam, let alone the rest of the country.
Southeast Asia – just go
Southeast Asia is an incredible place. Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam will surprise and delight you at every turn. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Burma, Laos, Indonesia and Malaysia all beckon. I’d already made plans to return before my plane touched down in Auckland.
Book your flight now – you won’t regret it.
Do you want to go to Southeast Asia? Do you have any questions about Southeast Asia? Leave a comment below