I’ve had the good fortune to have traveled some pretty amazing places in my life. But this trip to Southeast Asia – from northern Thailand to Laos and Cambodia – was the best yet. For so many reasons: elephant sanctuaries, slow boat cruises on the Mekong, cities of golden-tipped temples, Lao coffee, motorbike trips into brocade jungles, hidden waterfalls and bayou river islands and ancient temple ruins, learning the other side of a history I thought I knew, pepper farms and crab markets, museums of murder, an abandoned mountaintop fortress camouflaged in perpetual clouds, and post-apocalyptic ruins in a seaside town that had once been slated for bigger things. Here’s an overview of the best things I did in Southeast Asia.
Traveling Thailand, Laos & Cambodia
One-Month itinerary in Southeast Asia
Our month-long trip to Southeast Asia followed this route (numbered 1-12) from Northern Thailand to Laos, and then south to Cambodia. We crossed the border into Laos at Chiang Khong, Thailand, and flew from Pakse in southern Laos to Siem Reap, Cambodia. We “only” had a month, and the pace was brisk. The same trip could easily be stretched out into months – there’s really so much to savor along this route.
Below, I’ve jotted down some impressions with my favorite pictures of each place, and posted a few links to the sights, hotels, and restaurants I really liked. I’ve also linked to other parts of my blog where I’ve written more in depth about the destination or the experience of the place.
In case you ever find yourself in this part of the world.
1. Chiang Mai Travel
It was my second time to Chiang Mai but it still felt like the first time. What must be one of the most magical cities in the world didn’t lose any of its magic upon revisiting it.
It’s one of the only places I’ve been in the world where tourist masses don’t dampen the mood. Everyone who comes is charmed by the city. It somehow manages to convince everyone they’re the only ones being let in on a big secret.
Chiang Mai is 300 golden temples that glow under the sun during the day, and shine under white lights at night. Traveling Chiang Mai is also night markets and street food so good there’s no need to eat at restaurants. Coffee shops. Monk chat. Cooking classes. Massage by rehabilitated prisoners and meditation. Further afield in Northern Thailand, hill tribes and mountaintop temples and elephant sanctuaries.
2. Chiang Khong Border Crossing to Laos
From Chiang Mai, we took a bus to the Thai border crossing at Chiang Khong. It’s a friendly border town on the Mekong that is a proper destination in its own right. We stayed here just one night before crossing into Laos, but we could’ve lazed around for much longer. If only to catch another sunrise like this over the Mekong.
The next day, we crossed the Chiang Khong border crossing into Huay Xai, Laos and our Laos adventure began.
3. Mekong Slow Boat Cruise to Luang Prabang
The steady flow of the Mekong, a big, muddy, slow-moving river, sets the contemplative pace of life in Laos. It only seemed appropriate to travel Laos the old fashioned way – the Mekong was, until quite recently, one of the main ways in or out of this country of impenetrable jungles and mountains. The two-day Mekong cruise to Luang Prabang on a traditional wooden slow boat was one of the best things I did in Laos.
4. Luang Prabang Travel
Another magical city of shining temples that feels like it’s chosen to reveal itself to you.
Empty streets shaded with palms. A royal palace and mountaintop temple rule over the city. Heavenly coffee. At dawn, monks in saffron robes file down the road, collecting alms from townspeople and tourists. Temples flood with early morning light as monks sweep the grounds. Handicrafts markets at night and street food. Further afield, bear sanctuaries and elephant camps and waterfalls with water so turquoise it looks like a movie set – too technicolor to be real. But it is.
5. Vang Vieng Travel
The road from Luang Prabang to Vientiane zig zags dangerously through mountains with peaks like jagged rows of teeth. I don’t know what the locals call these mountains, but I’m sure the shapes suggestive of serpents and other wild beasts have given them some colorful names.
Mountain flowers and fields of ferns soften the landscape. We drove this route with a rented F-150 pickup truck and were glad we had: at a rest stop, a bus heading to Vientiane let off queasy, pale passengers.
As we approached Vang Vieng, the landscape slouched into plains, with lush limestone karsts soaring unexpectedly out of rice paddies. In Vang Vieng, we found a laid-back river town colonized by drunken backpackers, but there’s also blue grottos and caves and rivers to raft.
6. Vientiane Travel
Vientiane is the biggest city in Laos, but like everything else in Laos, things move at a different pace here than might be expected of a capital city. Roads remain unpaved near the center. Here, the countryside encroaches on the city, not the other way around.
Vientiane is a city of monumental architecture and the seat of a one-party government. It was here we learned about Lao’s unfortunate history as the most bombed country in the world.
From Vientiane, we traveled to Pakse in the south by overnight sleeper bus, barreling down the highways in the pitch dark in a top-heavy double-decker. It wasn’t a mode of transportation for the faint of heart.
7. Laos Bolaven Plateau Travel
Pakse is center of southern Laos, and the gateway to the Bolaven Plateau to the east and the 4000 Islands to the south. Driving the Bolaven Plateau motorbike loop was one of the best things I did in Laos, where we waded through jungle and took in plunging waterfalls and learned how to brew the best coffee in Laos.
8. 4000 Islands Si Phan Don Travel
A Laotian bayou at the southernmost tip of the country. A place where the road ends, and turns into slow moving swamp before the water comes tumbling over boulders and canyons at the Li Phi Falls. The 4000 Islands is the only part of the Mekong River, from China all the way to Vietnam, that is unnavigable. Another end of the road.
The 4000 Islands are the kind of place where I felt that if I stayed too long, I’d have never worked up the energy to leave. It’s the laziest place I’ve ever been, and I mean that in the best possible way.
We did manage to escape the inertia of a couple very slow days here in the 4000 Islands and traveled back to Pakse, where we caught a flight from a tiny airport to Siem Reap, where our Cambodian adventure began.
9. Siem Reap Travel
I didn’t expect Siem Reap to be like this. The town of Siem Reap, gateway to Angkor Wat, is the Orlando of Cambodia. It’s commercial and artificial and unlike anything else I saw in Cambodia. Full of the people who come here to experience the magic promised by the ruins of Angkor Wat and the people capitalizing on that dream. Towns adjacent to special places are just often like this, anywhere in the world.
You have to deal with Siem Reap to go to the temples. Unlike Orlando, though, the main attraction is really worth it.
Angkor Wat is actually just one temple of a vast temple complex. The ruins stretch for miles in every direction, and there’s still temples being uncovered. It’s the largest religious site in the world.
But it’s not this sacred space set apart from the secular world. Vendors hawk food and drinks, monkeys and pigs dart out in front of tuk-tuks, and streets cut noisily through the complex – conducting not just tourists, but schoolkids and monks and commuters.
I’m not sure everyone finds the magic at Angkor Wat that brought them here. It tends to get muffled by the crowds and selfies.
But we did. Not during the mountaintop sunrise or sunset over the reflecting pool outside of the main temple, but at Ta Nei, a temple off a dirt road hidden in the jungle. At Ta Nai, we wandered, just the two of us, over the mossy stones as the late-afternoon sun wove through the trees, shining down just so.
Other things I didn’t expect in Siem Riep: the graciousness and the hospitality of the locals. Having one of the best meals of my life. Being invited to a housewarming party. Learning the songs of Sinn Sisamouth, the king of the golden era of Cambodian oldies. I hummed “Champa Battambang” to myself for the rest of the trip.
10. Phnom Penh Travel
Before we left Siem Reap, our driver warned us to be careful in Phnom Penh. Watch your back, he said. The people there can’t be trusted.
But when we got there, the people we were alarmed by were the other westerners. Almost all tourists were old, white men. Traveling alone. There are streets and streets of prostitutes waiting for them. At a park, an old white man grabbed a little girl by the jaw, prying open her mouth, inspecting her like a horse.
Phnom Penh is also riverside promenades and theaters and a golden palace and gracious boulevards and chic boutiques and bustling markets and street food.
And museums of murder. We visited the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, an old high school that the Khmer Rouge used to process and torture prisoners before dispatching them to the Killing Fields. Tuol Sleng is in a quiet resident district, and the Killing Fields in an industrial area on the hem of the urban outskirts. At Tuol Sleng, a genocide survivor told her story to a room of visitors. She was in her mid-40s. She looked too young to be a survivor. But it wasn’t that long ago. It’s a whole city, and country of survivors.
Phnom Penh is a place that has stayed with me, that I haven’t been able to shake. In Phnom Penh, everything’s all out pretty much out there in the open. At the very least, it’s honest.
11. Kampot Travel & Bokor Hill Station
Kampot is synonymous with pepper, and Kampot pepper is said to be the best in the world. The little riverside town near the Cambodian coast is quaint and quiet. We had the place mostly to ourselves, taking in the French colonial architecture of town, and motorbiking through nearby pepper plantations and salt flats.
Just past Kampot, a huge mountain juts out of the low-lying coastal plains. A long windy road weaves up the mountain. Up past the clouds, there’s an enormous Chinese gambling resort complex with practically no one there. It seems abandoned, with only a handful of guests at a place that could accommodate tens of thousands. A few staff scurrying around, like the last ones aboard a sinking ship. Abandoned lots with hotels and apartments left in various states of construction, none ever to be completed. An airport hanger and no airplanes. A field of metal piles for a runway that never came to be.
Before this, Bokor was a cool mountain retreat for French colonial servants and their families. Just past the airport runway that never was, there’s an abandoned brick cathedral that seems so improbable, here on a mountaintop in Cambodia, and further up the road, the imposing ruins of the Bokor Hill hotel. It’s a haunted, and haunting place.
The clouds at the top of the Bokor Hill mountain are said never to clear.
12. Kep Travel
Kep is one part Cambodian fishing village, known for its crab market and beaches, and one part post-apocalyptic ruins, where the skeletons of mid-century French seaside villas and wide, empty boulevards testify to grand ambitions that never came to pass.
Even knowing better now, those mid-century villas still insist on a naive optimism about the future.
Kep is a place where I felt like I could still see how it might’ve all have gone if things had just turned down another path at some decisive fork in their history. But the place it ended up, despite all the difficulties along the way, still feels right.