The Cultural South East Asia Itinerary

Each itinerary in this series might take up to six or seven months to complete, but if you’re rushed, you could probably race through it in three or four. We spent eight months in each continent (South America, Asia), and covered off all the places in these itineraries at quite a leisurely pace, so go figure. 

All destinations mentioned here link to our full travel journals, so if you want to find out more detail about these wondrous places, click on the place name to be taken to the detailed portrayals of our adventures…

THAILAND

  • 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.

LAOS

  • 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!

PHILIPPINES

  • 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.

VIETNAM

  • 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.

CAMBODIA

  • 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.

MALAYSIA

  • 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!

INDONESIA

  • 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.

BORNEO

  • 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.

The Nature Lover’s South America Itinerary

Each itinerary in this series might take up to six or seven months to complete, but if you’re rushed, you could probably race through it in three or four. We spent eight months in each continent (South America, Asia), and covered off all the places in these itineraries at quite a leisurely pace, so go figure. 

All destinations mentioned here link to our full travel journals, so if you want to find out more detail about these wondrous places, click on the place name to be taken to the detailed portrayals of our adventures…

ARGENTINA

  • Puerto Iguazu (Iguazu Falls): Take an early local bus to avoid the tours, take the first train in the park and run along the walkways to the Devil’s Mouth for jaw-dropping views. Take a walk along the various trails for high panoramas and low trails for close-ups of the falls. It will be REALLY busy, but trails such as the 3.5K to the falls where you can swim offer some respite. If you have an extra day and cash for the visa, check out the Brazilian side for the best panoramas.
  • Puerto Madryn & Punta Tombo National Reserve: Head to this tiny seaside town to tour (or drive) into the Punta Tombo park for an unforgettable encounter with hundreds of thousands of penguins, from fluffy baby chicks to adults. Walk along the trail and pause whilst they cross in front (there are no barriers!); watch them swim and waddle; look into the distance and see nothing but endless penguins. Cuteness overload.
  • El Calafate & the Perito Moreno Glacier: Town itself is essentially just a tourist trap, but El Calafate is worth the trek for its star feature, the Perito Moreno glacier. You can reach it by local bus (don’t get drawn into a tour!) and go late in the afternoon, when the glacier is hottest and you’re likely to see a huge chunk of marbled white-blue ice (the size of several houses) smash down into the turquoise lake. There’s also great hiking in nearby El Chalten, but our knees were ruined after Torres del Paine so we skipped it.

CHILE

  • Puerto Natales & Torres del Paine National Park: This cool outdoorsy town full of micro-breweries and tasty Patagonian lamb is a great place to base yourself before trekking the ‘W’ route in the Torres del Paine park. Stunning glaciers, unreal turquoise lagoons, pebble beaches, bluebell woods and vibrant green mountains await as you scale mountainous peaks, ending with the granite ‘Torres’ spires themselves.
  • San Pedro de Atacama: Prepare yourself for a desert that’s 2438m above sea level. It’s dry, hot, and (at first) difficult to breathe, but this landscape rewards you in abundance. Numerous brilliant tours – from star gazing; to visiting geysers at dawn as they explode in the sunrise; thermal springs; salt caves and flats; jaw-dropping desert-scapes dotted with alpacas and desert foxes; and stunning Valle de la Luna. Also, eat llama! Delicious.

BOLIVIA

  • Salar de Uyuni (Salt Flats): Needing little introduction, Salar de Uyuni is one of the best experiences of South America. Four days spent exploring deserts, stunning lakes of white, green and pink, flamingos flocking and flying, competing with llamas for attention, driving through quinoa fields and staying in hotels made of salt. That’s without mentioning the mesmerising flats themselves, Fisher Island made of cacti, the old railway cemetary, and the crazy fun bond you’ll make with your fellow jeep mates. Unmissable.
  • La Paz & The World’s Most Dangerous Road: We weren’t huge fans of La Paz as it’s quite built-up and polluted, but there’s the Witches’ market for textiles and llama fetuses (!) and a cable car for great views. Our favourite activity here was cycling the ‘Death Road’ – from high altitude to jungle – on death-defying hairpin bends with sheer drops (and no barriers!), under waterfalls, through stunning mountain sides and local farming communities. A truly white-knuckle unforgettable experience!
  • Coroico: A great place to end the ‘Death Road’ cycle, or just for some R&R. Coroico boasts several eco-reserves set in semi-tropical paradise in this jungle town. Kick back by the pool, star gaze, go tropical bird-watching, swing in a hammock, do some yogo, or do nothing at all. Bliss.
  • Isla del Sol: Beautiful Isla del Sol is the closest Bolivia has to a sense of the sea, as it’s set on gigantic Lake Titicaca which extends beyond its horizon. Spend a few days climbing Inca steps, walking through pretty farms and cornfields, saying hello to backyard llamas, eating fresh trout, and watching the unique ‘moon rises’ on the clear horizon. Take plenty of sunscreen and jumpers as you’ll get burnt in the day and freeze at night!

PERU

  • Cañon de Colca Trek: When we heard about the Colca Canyon, I imagined dusty rocks and a gravel path, but this couldn’t be more different. Verdant green mountains snake around trails, with buzzing wildlife, springs to bathe in, cacti and tiny villages where you can eat local delicacies like alpaca and sleep in huts. We even gained a little furry trekking buddy in the form of Perro, a stray dog, who walked with us for three days!
  • Machu Picchu: Undeniably a highlight of South America, this ancient Inka site is a true marvel, perched high above Peru seemingly floating, surrounded by incredibly advanced irrigated farming. There’s many ways to do it, but we conquered the trek independently for £45, walking through jungle, rivers and train tracks, stopping at little guesthouses en route. We even built in time for hot springs! You can usually buy entrance tickets the night before you want to go in nearby Aguas Calientes. Download offline maps (maps.me) and go for it!
  • Slow boat to Iquitos (Amazon Jungle): There are quicker ways to get to the Amazon Jungle, but the long boat is arguably the most immersive and atmospheric. For a crazy cheap price, you can spend 2-3 nights travelling down the Amazon, passing stilt villages to drop off/pick up cargo, mingle with local families, swing in a hammock in the open breeze and watch the best sunsets you’ll ever see. See our blog article for details.
  • Amazon Jungle Lodge: An absolute must for Peru, the Amazon is just incredible. Book a lodge for 5+ days, and you’ll spend your days on boats cruising the river with guides pointing out exotic creatures like monkeys, sloths, giant lizards, pink and grey dolphins and (if you have the stomach) adders, tarantulas and bats! You can trek the jungle for giant bugs and killer snakes, swim in the river, and fish for piranhas. We had an amazing guide and stayed in an excellent Lodge (Libertad) and we learnt and saw so much. We will definitely return!

ECUADOR

  • Baños: This pretty, quaint Ecuadorian town offers some stunning lookouts, as it’s in a basin surrounded by beautiful mountains. You can walk up to the ‘Bellavista’ white cross mirador; there are also local ‘chiva’ bus tours to surrounding countryside, and a swing positioned off the edge of a huge mountain. In town itself, we had a great time in the local hot springs, where you can duck under an exhilarating waterfall that flows right in.
  • Puerto Lopez: Tiny Puerto Lopez isn’t much more than a few dirt tracks, but the seaside town boasts some great sunsets, and also nearby Parc Nacional Machalilla which is really stunning and worth a daytrip, to see some beautiful deserted coastline, swim with boobies, and take n the miradors. You can also whale watch here (but we didn’t)
  • Montañita: Stoner surfer bliss, this little dusty town moves at a sloth-like pace, from beach to cafe, enjoying a chilled pace of life that proves addictive. We camped here for a week, sunbathing on the wide, beautiful beach and eating our weight in pancakes, fresh fruit and granola. There’s delicious fresh seafood, great bakeries and plenty of bars and clubs to keep you occupied. Kick back and relax!
  • The Galapagos Islands: Words truly escape me. Even if you think you can’t afford it, go. We did it independently and it was surprisingly affordable. The park entrance and any day tours are the main costs, but you can 100% do it easily without a cruise. Snorkel with sealions and giant Galapagos turtles; swim with a pyramid of golden stingrays and nurse sharks; meet the Northern-most penguin and tiny seahorses; see Sally Lightfoot crabs with their galaxy-patterned shells and pink lakes of flamingos; gawp at gnarly marine iguanas and unique blue-footed boobies; spend days on the beautiful sands and in the clear blue seas; go to the great free museums like the Darwin Centre and the Interpretation Centre; snorkel lakes with volcanic cores. This is only half of it! See our blog articles for full details. Oh, and be prepared for sea-sickness!

COLOMBIA

  • Salento: Epicentre of Colombia’s coffee district, Salento is a picturesque colonial town surrounded by mountains, with a permanent-holiday vibe. The town centre buzzes with stalls selling patacones and venues for playing explosive throwing game Tejah. Brilliant, cheap coffee tours abound at Don Eduardo’s plantation and nearby Valle de Cocora with its towering wax palms and hummingbird farm is an excellent day trip.
  • Sapzurro & Capurgana: A bit of a trek from Colombia, these tiny islands on the border with Panama offer a slice of hidden paradise for those who can brave the rocky boat to reach them. Avoid rainy season as it’s unrelenting, but otherwise these isles offer crystal clear water, white bays and hammock-hanging locals, and it’s easy to lose a few days here.
  • Tayrona National Park: Get lost in this beach and jungle paradise. Stay a few days (or a week!) and camp out under coconut trees, cook your meals on an open fire, and spend days wondering through the undergrowth spotting rainbow lizards and monkeys overhead. Swim in stunning turquoise bays, and sunbathe on peachy sands. The further you go, the more deserted the beaches, but this is firmly on the tourist map so don’t expect solitude!
  • San Gil: Gorgeous colonial town San Gil is a great place to base yourself for a few days of outdoor adventuring. Wild swim with ducks in Pescadito lake; raft down the terrifying class three rapids of the Rio Fonzo; daytrip on cheap local buses to the falls of Cascadas de Juan and sunbathe at the top with brave locals; relax in town and enjoy the great food markets, cheap lunch menus and people watching on the town square.