This itinerary could be comfortably fit into a 6 month jaunt, and could be covered in 4 or 5 if you can afford to fly / take more premium modes of transport. We loved exploring these cultural gems of South East Asia, as every country has its own individual influences and flavours from years of colonisation and various religious reforms. We found often the most culturally interesting places also have the best food as they’re firmly on the tourist trail, so take time each day to try new local delicacies – you’ll miss them when you’re home!
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- Bangkok: Sweaty heaving Bangkok is very full-on, but it offers some cultural gems if you look beyond the Koh San Road. The Sunday Chatuchak market sells anything and everything; the air-conditioned Sky Train and ferry can take you to sights like the Grand Palace with its Emerald Buddha; flower markets; Wat Pho with its huge reclining buddha; Dusit Park with its ornate Exhibition Hall and Vivanmek Mansion. Eating on the street is a great way to get to know local dishes, and super cheap. Drink tons of iced coffee to fuel your humid days!
- Chiang Mai: Foodie Chiang Mai is the best place to do a cookery course and over-indulge in Thai delicacies like Kao Soy curry. Eat on markets, check out the famous walking street market for cheap and wonderful souvenirs, and visit misty Doi Suthep temple on the hill via local songthaw trucks. Out of town, elephant sanctuaries offer unforgettable daytrips, feeding and bathing elephants (but don’t ride them!)
- Nong Khai: On the border with Laos, Nong Khai is a super-chilled little town on the Mekong River, with the main attraction being the crazy and brilliant Sala Keoku sculpure park, with its 20m+ high sculptures of Hindu and Buddhist mythology. We were lucky enough to be here for the end of Buddhist Lent, so we also caught a local festival with incredible street food markets, a local beauty contest (!) and dragon boat racing.
- Luang Prabang: Pretty, French-influenced river-side town of Luang Prabang hosts some wonderful temples; great massages, and the best food you’ll eat in Laos. Try a set menu in a riverside cafe or the buffet stir-fries/bakery goods on the market. Great nearby days out include stunning turquoise Kuang Si Waterfalls where you can trek and swim in the falls; and for a night out you can’t beat the post-curfew bowling lanes!
- Ifugao Rice Terraces: A bit of a trek from Manilla, but totally worth it. Spend a few days touring the towns of the Ifugao Rice Terraces: Banaue is a natural first stop to see the lookout at the top of town, and meet some travel buddies to go onwards to Batad which was our favourite town – a stunning amphitheatre of rice terraces with a tiny village in the middle, a bracing waterfall, and hostels with great views. We also visited Bontoc for a more authentic town, which had a great Hill Tribe museum. Also heard Sagada was great.
- Siquijor Island: Another favourite from our 1.5 months in the Philippines, Siquijor is a gorgeous island full of adventure. A fantastic place to ride a motorbike (or tuk-tuk) around, you can visit its ancient Belete Tree, ancient Lazi Convent and its adjacent church, stunning Cahugay waterfalls and many little beaches. There’s a super laidback friendly vibe here, with plenty of streetside barbeques and karaoke bars.
- Ho Chi Minh: HCM has it all: great street-food, world-class museums, and a great night out. Drink bia hoi on tiny plastic stools, get chatting to locals, and eat all the food you can stomach! The War Remnants Museum is a sobering but necessary introduction to South Vietnam’s perspective on the Vietnam War, and the Reunification Palace is excellent. Take the night train from here to Hoi An for an unforgettable journey!
- Hoi An: Easy-to-love Hoi An is a favourite with travellers. The city is is effortlessly pretty, with coloured lanterns glowing over every street. Buy a historical pass and visit the city’s various temples, museums and shophouses. Also check out the water puppet show for some innocent fun! Nearby An Bang beach and Cham ruins My Son are also worth a look, as are cookery courses and the food market with its local specialities.
- Hue: The real attraction of Hue are its historical sites, like the ancient Citadel from the 1800s, with its sprawling temples, palaces, pagodas, painted walls, and even an old theatre! The rest of town left us a little cold, with the Perfume River and town centre being quite polluted and grey, but worth a visit if you’re into history – there are also some ancient tombs nearby.
- Hanoi: Chilly Northernly Hanoi is another cultural delight of a city. From the Ho Chi Minh museum and mausoleum to the wonderful Women’s Museum, this city is a great place to get lost for a few days. Do a self-guided food tour (see our food blog for favourites!) around the Old Quarter and try all the Northern specialities. Drink bia hoi and delicious Vietnamese coffee, and spring-board to the far North from here.
- Dalat: European-influenced Dalat has a very French vibe, from its strawberry farms and balconied-houses to its lake and mini eiffel tower. A home for aristocrats and royalty, Dalat was spared bombing during the Vietnam war, and so remains intact. Visit eccentric ‘Crazy House’, 30s art deco Emporer Bo Dai’s summer palace, dress up like royalty, and mainline caffeine in pretty glass coffee shops overlooking the lake.
- Phnom Penh: Essential in understanding Cambodia’s heartbreaking history, Phnom Penh hosts sobering artefacts of the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot’s mass genocidal regime, from the S21 Prison (a former high school converted into a torture chamber) to the nearby Killing Fields with its memorial statue and excellent audio commentary.
- Siem Reap & Angkor Wat: Siem Reap is touristy but pretty, with great food and a little river running through town. Angkor Wat deserves a few days to really explore – we bought a three day pass which was enough – we cycled around the complex, past temples and lakes with monkeys hanging in trees. There are tons of temples to explore as well as Angkor Wat itself – Bayon and Ankor Tom were our faves.
- Georgetown Penang: the kitsch, pretty old town of Georgetown is well worth exploring, with its colourful mosques, temples, Chinese shophouses and British colonial buildings. Eat your way through street food markets and incredible thalis in Little India, check out the eccentric street art tour, and visit at least one of the old mansions like the ‘Blue House’. Don’t miss the stunning Kek Si Lok temple a short bus ride from town.
- Melaka: pretty, Dutch inspired, red brick Melaka features a church square, canal inhabited with little dragons, and some fantastic museums (Ethnography Museum was our fave), as well as the oldest mosque in Malaysia (complete with excellent tour from its inhabitants); an old Chinese buddhist temple where you can watch prayer; the touristy Jonker Street market; and many local delicacies such as Nonya pineapple tarts. There are also some huge old navy replicas to check out on the river. A great microcosm of Malaysian culture!
- Ubud: known as the cultural centre of Bali, Ubud has sold out a little in the last few years, so expect lanes full of boutiques and overpriced cafes, but Ubud still retains some of its original charms. Here you can find hippy warungs, the wonderful Monkey Sanctuary, homestays, overtouristed rice terraces, and great traditional dancing (though we opted to see this in Yogyakarta instead)
- Yogyakarta: cultural Yogyakarta is still an Indonesian city – i.e. overcrowded, fumy, and frantic – but there’s a lot to see here. Check out the Kraton palace for bargainous up-close traditional Rayamana ballet and Gamelan singers; barter in batik shops that overflow into the streets. Definitely visit Borobudur temple with its stunning relief work, buddhas and bell lattice sculptures (but skip the spenny sunrise tour)
- Tana Toraja: prepare yourself to enter into the unique world of the Torajans, an indigenous group with truly fascinating belief systems. As a tourist, you’re welcomed into their world, where you can pay respects at days-long funerals that include animal sacrifice; visit caves of ‘tau tau’ (hanging coffins guarded by effigies of the dead); visit (or even stay in) a traditional Tonkian hut; bike or bus around enjoying the beautiful scenery.
- Sarawak: Kuching was our favourite town in Borneo, as it most resembles a regular Malaysian town. There’s a lot to love here – good food; day trips to local (and faraway) museums and ‘living museums’; and very relaxed locals. There’s also nearby Bako National Park where you may be lucky enough to see the penis-nosed probiscus monkeys but you will definitely see snorting wild boars and lots of wildlife aside.