Landlocked Laos is often overlooked by travelers in favour of its more infamous neighbours, but what it lacks in wow factor, it gains in seductive seclusion, a dreamy old world magic and an effortless sense of cool and calm that pervades its every pore. To not explore this intriguing country as part of an ultimate Southeast Asian adventure would be an incredible opportunity missed.
Sparsely populated, this far-flung province borders Vietnam and Laos, and the flat Cambodian landscape gives way to the rolling hills, waterfalls, mountains and dense jungle characteristic of the rest of Southeast Asia. It’s a dream for hikers and kayakers. You can also visit some of the local hill tribes for an alternative cultural experience; each tribe retains its own language and traditions.
Chiang Rai for living in the shadow of its louder neighbour, Chiang Mai, but actually has some noteworthy sights of its own. Besides beautiful surrounding countryside, ripe for outdoor activities and spotting exotic wildlife, it’s also a great spot for experiencing traditional Thai life through the eyes of a hilltribe – clans live together in bamboo houses and each village has a distinct character.
It’s hard to believe that this outstandingly beautiful archipelago was once an island prison. Today, it forms part of a national park, sheltering nesting sea turtles, primary rainforests, thriving reefs and endemic species. Con Dao is starting to receive attention from tourists and hotel chains – but thanks to its remoteness, development has been sluggish, and there’s still time to make the most of that.
For full-on Southeast Asian flavour and a trip that won’t leave you lacking, a combination of all four Indochina countries is the only way forward. Full-throttle Thailand mixed with the rural Vietnamese life of the Mekong Delta coupled with the astounding culture of Cambodia, and the lackadaisical charm of Laos makes for a heady and truly captivating Southeast Asian cocktail.
This dreamy seascape is one of Vietnam’s most distinctive scenes. A UNESCO Site, Halong is the world’s largest marine karst landscape, with over 2,000 giant limestone boulders emerging from the waters. Sail on a classic wooden junk, paddle into secluded caves and admire the sunset over the karsts from the deck of your boat.
It’s a testament to the temple’s ancient architects that no matter how many thousands of tourists pour into this UNESCO World Heritage Site each day, the sight of the sun rising over the stone towers never fails to excite and amaze. Visit during rainy season or cruise around by boat for an alternative view of these wild, jungle-clad ruins – and escape the crowds by doing so.
Formerly the world’s most prolific producer of opium, the Golden Triangle is the point in northern Thailand that converges with Laos and Myanmar where the Ruak joins the mighty Mekong River. The Thai side is littered with historic buildings and ruins that date back to the Lanna era; further downstream into Laos you’ll find the semi-buried remains of 5th century city, Souvanna Khomkham.
The Tiger Temple in Kanchanaburi is an extremely popular tourist attraction, as visitors can pet captive tigers and have their photos taken. There are serious concerns over animal welfare and illegal breeding programmes at the temple, which are not being done for conservation purposes, but rather to fuel the illegal yet lucrative trade in endangered species. Not cool.
Put politely, Vang Vieng’s appeal is subjective - over the years it’s gone from being a very quiet riverside town to a backpacker mecca, which is great if you’re a backpacker, but is hugely at odds with its serene karst river scenery. As a result, it’s become somewhere that travelers who used to love staying there now swerve and is sadly far more techno and tubing than reading and romance.
Vietnam’s answer to the Costa del Sol is not your postcard-perfect beach setting at all. The country’s fastest growing resort is jam-packed with tourists along with Chinese and Russian investors. If you do find yourself here on your Vietnam vacation, head out by boat to more remote coastal spots, sail to whale island or take a tour with local fishermen, who have fished in the same way for centuries.
Cambodia’s biggest beach resort is a mess of high-rise hotels, half-built plots, the commotion of construction and street hawkers trying to cash in on the tourism boom. This is not your dream Asian beach destination; head out to one of the unspoiled nearby islands, such as Koh Rong, for true rustic luxury on your Cambodian vacation: a hut, a hammock and a cocktail in hand.