Southeast Asia Recommendations
June 28, 2004 10:12 AM   Subscribe

Have you been to Southeast Asia? What was your favorite country to visit? I'm in the early stages of planning a trip, and I'm trying to find out which country/ies people like best - both from a touristic/comfort-travel perspective (my parents), and an off-the-beaten-path perspective (myself).
posted by gottabefunky to Travel & Transportation (15 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
My family and I visited Singapore & Thailand in the late '80s, we really enjoyed both countries. I would definitely recommend you visit both places. Singapore is tiny enough to be covered in about two or three days at most. We visited Bangkok & the beautiful, atleast back then, Pataya beaches in Thailand, it was really great.
posted by riffola at 10:38 AM on June 28, 2004

Vietnam is absolutely fantastic -- easy to travel, lot's to see and do:
-Saigon/ Ho Chi Minh City
-American war relates stuff -- museums, tunnels, DMZ, etc.
-Mekong delta
-Beaches: Nha Thrang, Mui Ne
-Hoi An - "tailor town"
-Halong Bay

Travelling there is very easy, one doesn't need advance reservations in hotels, easy to fly, take train or tourist buses. Everyone speaks English.

The places that I missed, but would very much like to go are Laos & Cambodia.
posted by zeikka at 11:22 AM on June 28, 2004

Chiang Mai, Thailand. The city itself is westernized enough for comfort, but is located in the North of Thailand, near plenty of interesting off-the-beaten-path options. You will love it.

By the way, November is probably the best month to go. It's after the rainy season, headed into the "cool" season.
posted by konolia at 11:40 AM on June 28, 2004

Wherever you go in SE Asia, Bangkok makes a great 'home-base,' and is definitely worth seeing, even if it can get a little overwhelming after a few days. You can often purchase tickets for other SE Asian destinations there more cheaply than if you booked them beforehand, with all the usual caveats about watching out for scammers and shady travel agents.

Beyond Bangkok, I recommend Southern Thailand for it's incredible beaches (depending on the location you can find anything from upscale resorts to backpacker bungalows - check a travel guide).

And let me second the Vietnam recommendation, especially Northern Vietnam. I loved Hanoi - it didn't feel at all like the communist capital I was expecting, but more like a lively provincial town. And Halong Bay is beautiful, and an easy day trip from Hanoi.
posted by varmint at 11:45 AM on June 28, 2004

When I was a kid, my family stayed as a resort in Penang, Malaysia. It was lots of fun, posh, with great beaches and I think pretty cheap.

Singapore is also great.
posted by scarabic at 12:06 PM on June 28, 2004

I've spent a decent chunk of time in SE Asia, including Vietnam, Thailand and Cambodia. I absolutely loved Cambodia, but please realize that getting through Angkor Wat is not something that is easily done by "less than limber" people. Getting through some of the temples and climbing to the top of others is tricky.

I also got to spend a couple of weeks in Vietnam. It is an absolutely wonderful place. The people are amazing, the food is incredible, and I truly believe that Halong Bay is one of the most beautiful places in the world. If you do go to Vietnam, I strongly urge you to use a travel agent -- the prices for drivers, hotels and guides are ridiculously cheaper than by booking yourself. I completely recommend Ann Tours for the task -- it's a well run and reasonable outfit.

Thailand was officially, well, okay. Kinda pretty and all, but to be honest, I only sat at the beach in Samui for a week so I'm not the best person to offer advice about that country. I will say that the prostitution there was oppressive. If you're looking for a good beach, there is a wonderful resort in Nha Trang in Vietnam (China Beach). Gorgeous and extremely well-appointed.

Feel free to email me with any questions. SE Asia is probably my favorite part of the world, and if it didn't take 36 hours to get there I would certainly go more often.
posted by hummus at 12:09 PM on June 28, 2004

konolia- Did you venture out of Chaing Mai proper into any of the villages? My gf and I were researching eco-tourism venues, and found a bunch of places in northern Thailand that sounded great.
posted by mkultra at 12:53 PM on June 28, 2004

Been to every country in SEA, and seen most of it all -- the posh nightlife in HK and Sing, the jungles of Cambodia and Laos, even got Malaria and almost died. With those qualifications, I'll give you my recommendations.

1. Laos. This one is easy. Laos has everything you could want (except big cities, but the cities do have a distinctness to them).
  • Vientienne still holds on to its French roots with pastry shops and old colonial buildings.
  • The entire city of Luang Prabang is a world heritage site, with more temples then you can shake a stick at -- and these are actually being used, unlike Angkor.
  • Vang Vieng is perhaps the most relaxed city I've ever been to -- smoke some opium and sail down the Tonle Sap river or get lost walking through the surrounding rice paddies. Drug use is not technically legal, but it won't get you thrown in prison for thirty years like Thailand, or executed like in Sing.
  • The people are the friendliest I've ever encountered on the planet.
  • The "hill tribes" you can go trekking in don't have the "package tour" feel that similar places in Thailand have.
  • You get to experience a real-life Communist country, which is neat.
  • Finally, there just aren't that many tourists that head up to Laos, and the ones that do are usually the ones who've had enough of all the SEA crap and just want some peace and quiet.
2. Cambodia. Cambodia really should just be called "Angkor," because that's the reason to go (yes, there's also the Killing Fields, and a fantastic artillary range near Phnom Penh where you can fire off AK-47's for $5). Siem Riep is one of the most amazing places on Earth -- Angkor Thom (the entire city "complex") is far larger than just Angkor Wat, but if you go playing Indiana Jones you should be on the lookout for landmines. Generally pretty safe country, and very cheap to get transport if you're budget-conscious (e.g., $3 for a ride from the Thai border to Siem Riep vs. $350 to fly from BKK to Siem Riep).

3. Hong Kong or Singapore. These two are tied, just because I thought Singapore was so wonderfully organized and clean (and the girls were amazingly beautiful), but Hong Kong is the future. Seriously, it's like Blade Runner without the flying cars. Awesome place. After travelling around the grungier parts of SEA, both of these places will be a welcome change of pace.

4. Thailand. Thailand is lower on this list than many might give it, but the reason is because Thailand is so "overdone" as to make most people wretch. Bangkok is crazy-fun if you stay off Khoh San Road. The people are very, very friendly. But there are better beaches off the Phillipines or Indonesia, better cities elsewhere (HK or Sing), better temples in Cambodia -- what I'm basically trying to say is, you can find a better anything than Thailand's version in the surrounding area, and save yourself the huge headache of people trying to scam you 24/7. If you're only going to one country, on the other hand, might as well make it Thailand, because it's got it all.

Malaysia has great cuisine, and Penang is just beautiful, but the only reason you'd check it out normally is if you're heading down to Singapore from Thailand. This is actually a bit unfortunate, since there are some pretty nice beaches in Malaysia. KL is a very, very dull city, but the Petronis Towers are, well, big. Vietnam is nice for the reasons hummus mentions above, but given the choice between 'Nam or Laos (as they're both kind of out of the way, but in different directions) I'd recommend Laos in a heartbeat.

Bottom of the list: Indonesia. God-awful sewer of a country, the situation's always dangerous there, the touts don't just bother you, they rob your ass, cut off your head and put it on a pike. There are some notable exceptions -- The Gili islands off of Lombok and a couple of small villages in Bali, for instance. But trust me, even if nothing bad happens to you there, you never feel "safe" and settled while in-country. Avoid.

Until the Burmese government changes their nasty ways, I can't recommend Myanmar to anyone.

Whew! So that's my advice. :)
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 1:08 PM on June 28, 2004 [6 favorites]

As long as you're in the neighborhood, check out mainland China. Theoretically it's possible to get a 6month unlimited entrance visa at the HK airport (when you come out of baggage claim, go left towards the transit station/hotel and talk to the girls from the bus lines.)
posted by nathan_teske at 1:41 PM on June 28, 2004

I love Thailand - safe, accessible, great food. Laos is good, too, if you're a bit adventurous, and Vietnam if you're a little more adventurous.

CD is right - Thailand is overdone - but there is still great places elsewhere - the hills above Chiang Mai are easy to get to and full of wonderful Hmong villages that are very eager for visitors. Skip the southern islands - Koh Chang is closer and must less touristed. If I could, I'd move there right now.
posted by luriete at 2:10 PM on June 28, 2004

I could rant about this for hours, so in the interest of being brief I'll simply put in my votes, organized by your "travel preference".

Comfort Travel: Singapore, Hong Kong, northern Thailand.

More adventurous: northern Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, bits of Malaysia.

Still more adventurous: Myanmar

Myanmar is a little tricky, for political reasons & economic reasons that I won't get into here, but I f**king loved it. Yangon has Shwedagon Paya, which is plain freaky cool. Mandalay has a nice hill temple thing with great views over the city, the Mingun area has several fascinating attractions, and Bagan simply rocks the house down.

...but if you're politically sensitive, Myanmar is a bit complicated. It's tough (but possible) to avoid giving money to the military dictatorship. Also, you need to plan ahead -- last year Myanmar was *still* disconnected from the global finance system, so you can't get any money once you're in-country, so you've got to budget.

Finally, stay the hell away from Jakarta or Manila. Please.
posted by aramaic at 2:40 PM on June 28, 2004

Southern Thailand is like Southeast-Asia Disneyland, except way tackier. I spent a few weeks there, and while towards the end I found some really cool places, it wasn't worth the headache of dealing with Sura Thani/Ko Samui. The other islands around Samui are nice, although Ko Pha Ngan (sp?) does get infested with sweaty Israeli and German ravers, but that's better than the sweaty British and German fifty-somethings in speedos that infest Samui... I guess. Friends of mine have been to Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam and all say it is far nicer and more relaxing than Southern Thailand. I haven't been up north to Chiang Mai but apparently that is also pretty nice. If you must go to Southern Thailand for the beaches, go as far South as possible, and if you have to stay in the Ko Samui region, stay on the island that caters to the divers (forget the name, the third largish one that's not Samui or Pha Ngan).
posted by dvdgee at 2:55 PM on June 28, 2004

konolia- Did you venture out of Chaing Mai proper into any of the villages? My gf and I were researching eco-tourism venues, and found a bunch of places in northern Thailand that sounded great.

I took a day trip into a little village-I think it was Mae Chaim (darn I don't remember how to spell it...)

Go for it. Just do research first. There are some places near the Burmese border that are not that safe for farangs. But on the whole there is a lot to see and do in Northern Thailand. The people are wonderful. And even if you still stay fairly close to Chaing Mai itself, make sure to visit Doi Inthanon (The highest peak in Thailand.) Some of the most beautiful waterfalls I have ever seen.
posted by konolia at 4:26 PM on June 28, 2004

I second all those recommending Thailand.

I live in Malaysia and I lived in Singapore. And you can pretty much give those two places a miss because once you've been to Thailand and the rest of Indochina, Malaysia and Singapore will look like a Sunday morning drive to Schumacher.

Best times I've had were on the great beaches of Thailand. In fact, I make it up there two to three times every year, even in the monsoon. There are very few other places in the world with nicer beaches. But you do have to put up with the 10 million British tourists who are already there ahead of you :-)
posted by timyang at 7:43 PM on June 28, 2004

Oh yeah, if you do like beaches, I recommend a nice out of the way island called Koh Lipeh in southern Thailand.

Do give us a ring when you get here, I'll buy you a drink and take you to a great Chinese restaurant with steamed fish that's so tender, it just melts off its bones!
posted by timyang at 7:49 PM on June 28, 2004 [1 favorite]

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