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Experiences Worth Having in Southeast Asia

I’ve talked about plenty of things I don’t think are worth it in Southeast Asia, namely things that other people think are fun that I’m not overly interested in. The Full Moon Party. Elephant rides. Tubing in Vang Vieng. Selfies with tigers at Tiger Temple. Shooting off guns in Vietnam. Halong Bay party cruises. But what are the experiences worth having in Southeast Asia? Only you can answer that based on what you enjoy doing, but here are a few suggestions that I think are important additions to any itinerary.

Volunteering with Wildlife

southeast asia

Southeast Asia is, unfortunately, one of the places in the world where much of the wildlife isn’t protected. Animal tourism is a large market, especially for the ones running it, which is why elephant trekking, tiger temples and night safaris have become so popular. But thankfully the tide is turning and some places are starting to help the animals who have been abused over the years. Spend time volunteering with the elephants in Chiang Mai, the sun bears in Cambodia or the orangutans in Borneo.

Try the Local Cuisine

southeast asia

Skip the chains as much as possible for the most authentic, and cheap, dining experience. You’ll find that the local cuisine is much fresher and more delicious anyways. I regularly gorged on red curry, mango sticky rice and khao soi in Thailand, as well as chicken amok and rice cakes in bamboo in Cambodia. And Vietnam was on an entirely different level in terms of delicious food. I can honestly say I’m addicted to bun cha, crusty French style bread and cao lau. Whatever it is, give it a try at least once and don’t hesitate to ask the locals what they recommend. That’s how I’ve found some of my favorites!

Give Back to a Community

southeast asia

Begging is a common occurrence throughout Southeast Asia, so prepare yourself for it. There are mixed opinions about whether you should give to people, especially children, who beg on the streets. It’s up to you whether you decide to or not, but it’s typically not recommended. Instead, seek out ways to give back to communities. Avoid orphanage tourism, which gives money to the owners of the orphanage, and instead seek out restaurants that employ locals or give back. Restaurants like HAVEN in Siem Reap, Friends the Restaurant in Phnom Penh and KOTO in Hanoi give career training to orphaned children in the area.

Explore the Temples

southeast asia

You can’t go to Asia without visiting temples. It would be like going to Europe without stepping foot in a single church. Doi Suthep in Chiang Mai, the White Temple in Chiang Rai and all of the Angkor Wat complex are must-sees. It’s easy to get temple fatigue if you’re visiting most of these countries, but choose a few you don’t want to miss and plan accordingly. It’s okay to skip a few, but make sure you’re dressed appropriately when you do go.

Splurge on a Swanky Night

southeast asia

The exchange rate for most countries makes traveling in Southeast Asia very cheap, so if you’re going to splurge on a fancy dinner or hotel room, this is the place to do it. I did this a handful of times when Sammi and I were feeling sick of grubby guesthouses. I swam in a gorgeous infinity pool overlooking Bangkok at Siam@Siam Design Hotel & Spa and went out for rooftop cocktails at Patio Hotel & Urban Resort in Phnom Penh for a change of scenery.

Get Out on the Water

southeast asia

Water is life in Asia, particularly the rivers that run into the Gulf of Thailand. So whatever you do, get out on the water. I skipped tubing in Vang Vieng, but had an afternoon on the slow river at the Elephant Nature Park and went diving in Koh Tao with Big Blue Diving Resort. I went on a cruise of Ha Long Bay and took ferries between islands in Thailand.

Shop at the Markets

southeast asia

Nearly every major town in Southeast Asia has their version of a night market, where you can buy souvenirs and local crafts. I’m not afraid to say that much of it is crap that’s made in China and resold to the same markets all over Asia, but there are a few worth checking out. Pai, Thailand in particular has quirky handicrafts and the north as a whole is known for Hilltribe pattern fabrics, clothing, jewelry and bags. The megamalls of Bangkok and Saigon have their merits, but not for much other than electronics and knockoff H&M clothing.

Clean Up After Yourself

southeast asia

This last one is a personal request. I heard so many great things about the beaches of Southeast Asia, but I was disappointed with almost all of them, especially Koh Samui, Thailand and Mui Ne, Vietnam. Trash washes up on them every time waves come up. Littering is a major problem on party central Koh Phangan, so even if you see other people, including locals, leaving their trash on the ground or beach, clean up after yourself. It’s common courtesy.

What are your experiences worth having in Southeast Asia?

Mentioned in this post
  1. HAVEN
    Restaurant in Siĕmréab កម្ពុជា

    Siĕmréab កម្ពុជា
  2. Friends the Restaurant
    Restaurant in Phnom Penh Cambodia

    Phnom Penh Cambodia
    012 802 072
  3. Doi Suthep
    Attraction in Mueang Chiang Mai District Thailand

    Mueang Chiang Mai District Thailand
  4. White Temple
    Attraction in Mueang Chiang Rai Thailand

    ทางหลวงแผ่นดินหมายเลข 1208
    Mueang Chiang Rai Thailand
    053 673 579
  5. Angkor Wat
    Attraction in Angkor Cambodia
  6. Siam@Siam Design Hotel & Spa
    Hotel in Bangkok Thailand

    865 Rama 1 Rd
    Bangkok Thailand
    02 217 3000
  7. Patio Hotel & Urban Resort
    Hotel in Phnom Penh Cambodia

    Phnom Penh Cambodia
    023 997 900
  8. Elephant Nature Park
    Attraction in เมืองเชียงใหม่ ประเทศไทย

    Sridonchai Rd.
    เมืองเชียงใหม่ ประเทศไทย
  9. Big Blue Diving Resort
    Attraction in Koh Tao Thailand

    Koh Tao Thailand
    077 456 415
  10. Ha Long Bay
    Region in Vietnam

  11. Pai
    City in Thailand

    Pai Thailand
  12. Koh Samui
    Koh Samui Thailand

    Koh Samui Thailand
  13. Mui Ne
    City in Vietnam

    Phan Thiet Vietnam
  14. Koh Phangan
    Koh Phangan Thailand

    Koh Phangan Thailand

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One Response to Experiences Worth Having in Southeast Asia

  1. Laura August 12, 2014 at 11:06 pm #

    I’m in the process of planning my travels around South East Asia (to commence early next year!) so this is a great list to start off with. I have read a lot about volunteering with the elephants, it sounds like an amazing experience! It’s also good to know a bit of information about those restaurants that help local children. Thanks for the tips!

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