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 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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.