If you're seeking a destination which possesses in abundance unbelievable landscape, beautiful beaches, warm people and some of the most incredible food on the planet, then Southeast Asia is the place to board that plane for.An area which encompasses some 12 individual territories, a plethora of languages and thousands of years of history, Southeast Asia has endured as a popular spot both for those seeking luxurious relaxation or transcendental enlightenment.
In the first of this two-part guide, we look at some of the countries which together comprise what's known as Mainland Southeast Asia: Laos, Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia. Prepare to have that travel appetite whetted.
This landlocked nation was until recently overlooked as a holiday hotspot. That's changed, thankfully, helped when two of its landmarks were classified UNESCO World Heritage sites - the town of Luang Prabang in the north and Wat Phu, an ancient temple, in the south. According to Lonely Plant, Laos now welcomes around one million tourists every year and that figure is growing.
With a predominantly mountainous terrain, the country's tourist slogan 'Simply beautiful' is more than fitting. Though basking on the beach might not be on the cards, many visitors love to cruise along the famous Mekong River and enjoy the laid back way of life.
Starting in the north, beautiful Luang Prabang is a small, yet mighty city. The former capital, it consists of traditional wooden huts, temples, green hills and European architecture, nestled where two rivers meet and is deserving of its heritage status. Favourite activities include watching the Alms ceremony, in which local people (and some tourists) offer rice to monks along the Sakkaline Road and taking in the view from Phou Si, possibly watching the sun set, too. Those on a budget should avoid the restaurants and hotels in the main streets, instead heading for the banks of the Mekong.
Centrally-located capital city, Vientiane, has been described as 'sleepy' when compared with neighbouring capitals. Evidence of its French colonial past remains and when fused with a gently bustling Asian atmosphere creates a delightful place. The main area is Setthariat Street, situated on which are plenty of hotels, hostels, cafes, restaurants and the Nam Phu fountain, which draws lots of people. From here, you can take in the stunning Pha That Luang temple - Laos's most important religious monument - and Patuxai (Victory Gate), which is a local version of the Arc de Triomphe.
In Southern Laos is the Champasak province, the largest city of which is Pakxe/Pakse. Most people visit the region to see the Khmer ruins - especially the eerie Wat Phou - and the Big Buddha complex. Bikers might like to hire a machine and ride towards Pak Song, while those in need of some TLC will find no shortage of spa and massage parlours.
A firm favourite with holidaymakers, regardless of budget, the 'Land of Smiles' certainly prompts a grin or two. With some of the loveliest coastline, the most vibrant cities and, well, pad thai, it's little wonder that Thailand is consistently listed among the most popular destinations on earth.
This proud monarchy provokes all the senses, whether you're tearing round Bangkok's streets in a tuk tuk, visiting a serene palace, downing alcohol from a bucket on Koh Phi or swimming in those blue waters. A deeply religious country, Thailand is a fascinating mixture of the spiritual and the social - Buddhist monks are frequently seen passing groggy backpackers.
Most travellers start in Bangkok, either braving a cheap hostel on the famous Khao San Road or enjoying a more upmarket alternative on the Sukhumvit Road. It's a busy, noisy place where temples like Wat Pho, Wat Phra Kaew (home of the Emerald Buddha) and the majestic Grand Palace of Old Bangkok vie for attention against the shops, bars, cafes and nightlife establishments (of varying reputation) of other districts. For most people, a few days are enough before they travel elsewhere.
Chang Mai and Chang Rai to the north are favoured for elephant trekking, rafting and exploring the jungle. Chang Rai is the third point on the 'Golden Triangle' where Thailand meets Laos and Myanmar. To the south are the popular beach resorts of Phuket and Krabi - both highly-developed and perfect for families and sun-worshippers.
The backpacker trail traditionally leads to Thailand's various and beautiful islands; typically to Koh Samui on the eastern coastline, where you'll find accommodation and activities to suit all preferences. Visit the gold-leaf-covered Big Buddha en route to the Namuang Waterfall or enjoy a show at the Moulin Rouge Cabaret. Though there's nothing nicer than simply feasting on some fresh pineapple while lazing on Chaweng Beach. It's from Samui that revellers catch the boat to Koh Phangan for the famed Full Moon Parties.
Cambodia hasn't always featured on the tourist trail, suffering unimaginable horrors only a few decades ago. Yet the authorities have pulled up their socks and are trying hard to create resorts the like of which might entice all travel-lovers (not just backpackers), improving its reputation as a holiday destination immeasurably. Though a poor country, it has one of the fastest growing economies in Asia and tourism has become Cambodia's second biggest revenue stream.
Phnom Penh is the capital city, situated in the Mekong Lowlands region. It still bears the scars of the terrible Khmer Rouge regime, appearing a little on the unkempt side. Don't be put off, however, as it's slowly developing and does offer something that Bangkok and the like don't. Tourists typically head for riverside boulevard, Sisowath Quay, to people watch and have a drink or visit the Royal Palace and the glorious Silver Pagoda. Anyone visiting Cambodia would be remiss not to visit the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and/or the Killing Fields, though these aren't for the faint-hearted, obviously.
Siem Reap in the northwest province is a popular spot, from which most tourists explore the Angkor Archaeological Park - a UNESCO World Heritage site. The park is home to stunning Khmer ruins dating from the 9th Century, Angkor Wat being the most commonly photographed. There's a fairly laid back atmosphere in the city itself, making it a nice place to stay. There's also plenty to see and do, including the McDermott Gallery, Angkor Silk Farm or even a cookery class.
If it's magnificent beaches you seek, Sihanoukville in the south west should be your next stop. Like the rest of the country, it's still getting back on its feet, demonstrated by the 'encouraging' number of construction sites you'll notice. From here, you can visit pretty fishing villages, take boat trips to tropical islands or simply lie back on one of the four beaches. It's a haven for backpackers with lots of cheap food and accommodation on offer. Do exercise some caution though; you're advised not to wander out alone after dark.
Another Southeast Asia country with an incredulous past of invasion; Vietnam draws visitors with its beautiful landscape and enchanting atmosphere, both of which just beg to be explored - whether you're a thrill-seeker or someone who wants to learn more about Vietnamese culture.
Since the 1990s, it has been an important holiday destination, with many people flying in to the capital, Hanoi. Mixing the traditional with French influences, Hanoi features many attractions: museums, palaces, temples and parks. You'll have no trouble finding somewhere to stay which suits your budget. A few hours away is Halong Bay is one of those places you've seen either in photographs or your dreams; mist rising off the emerald waters, punctuated by forest-topped rocky outcrops, with wooden boats completing the vision. From here you can take fishing tours, go scuba diving or hike. This is a definite must-see.
In the central region is Hue, formerly the seat of Vietnam's emperors. The town is located on either side of the Perfume River, boasting temples and palaces galore. Big attractions are the Tombs of the Emperors and Thien Mu Pagoda, a prime photo spot and the official symbol of Hue. Further south is
Hoi An Old Town - a UNESCO World Heritage site and beautiful city which comprises Chinese architecture and delightful little streets. Since the classification, lots of shops and restaurants have taken over, removing some of the original charm and be aware that the prices of nearly everything are hiked up in this popular tourist spot, so you may need to do some negotiation. However, it's still a lovely place to stop.
These four countries of Mainland Southeast Asia may share borders, some languages and beliefs, but each possesses an individual attraction which makes them all worth visiting in their own right. From the food to the natural beauty, the beaches to the rolling rivers, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam should certainly be added to your bucket list.
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