Of course, there are almost infinite things to see and do in South East Asia, and no one has time to do it all. I may have only visited the three classic South East Asia loop countries of Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam, but one day I hope to get back to explore Myanmar and more. Until then, here are my top ten places to see in South East Asia.
Angkor Wat is quite the sight to behold. If you go to South East Asia and don’t go to Angkor Wat, quite frankly, I don’t think we could be friends. Angkor Wat is an adventurers dream. Constructed in the 12th century, it is the largest religious monument in the world. Fun fact: Angkor Wat is still an active religious sight today. This is why you will see monks around the temple, especially in the morning for prayer (this is also why you should dress respectfully). You should wake up early to avoid heat, and witness sunrise above the temple, which not only makes for great photos, but is also a Buddhist spiritual experience. The grounds of the temple are vast with a lot to explore. And if you find the right guard, you can bribe your way up to the roof of the temple!
Spending time with elephants in Chiang Mai, Thailand, was one of the happiest times of my life. How can you not be happy when you are swimming with an elephant, or receiving an elephant “kiss?” If you are a responsible tourist, you will learn about the terrible conditions that Asian Elephants are currently in and the poor treatment and abuse many of them are subjected to. Don’t spend your money encouraging the terrible circus like acts you may see on the sidewalks of Bangkok, but instead go spend time with retired and rescued street elephants at the Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai, or an elephant reserve or experience that takes care of their elephants responsibly. You can read in more detail about my elephant encounters here.
Bangkok was a city of many identities. From modern malls and sky trains, to the emerald Buddha, there is a lot of great stuff to see and do in Bangkok, highlights include the Royal Palace, Emerald Buddha pagoda, Wat Pho, the Weekend Market, amazing Pad Thai, and beyond. Here is my post on my favorite things in Bangkok!
Ha Long Bay
Ha Long Bay is such a natural beauty, and was my favorite piece of Vietnam. Never in my life have I seen Karst Mountains rising up out of the ocean. And the chance to kayak through caves there was so much. If I was to replan my trip, I probably would have chosen to spend more time here. You can read my full post on Ha Long Bay here.
Ta Prohm and Angkor Thom
When you visit Angkor Wat, you have to make sure you see some of the other major sites there. Ta Prohm is amazing and was also used in a tomb raider scene. You’ve probably seen it before. The iconic old temple with a tree growing over it. It looks just as cool in real life. My other favorite site in Angkor was Angkor Thom, the ancient gateway to the city. You can read more about my day in Angkor here.
Ok, so this isn’t a “place,” but what was probably the most exhilarating experience I had in Thailand was mopedding down the side of a highway in Chiang Mai. My friend Anna convinced me to rent mopeds, and omg it was very scary at first riding these through actually streets with cars and trucks. Thank God we didn’t die. Once we got the hang of it (only took twenty minutes or so) we were whizzing around the outskirts of Chiang Mai, and stumbled across that famous tiger zoo where everyone takes photos with sedated tigers. We kind of looked around, not sure what it was. It was kind of weird/sad seeing all of these tigers laying around clearly drugged out of their minds while people posed with them. Animal rights isn’t really a thing in Thailand yet, I guess. But we did see these aby puppies playing on the side of the road, and it was one of the best moments of my week (what can I say, I missed playing with dogs.). For dog lover out there, don’t worry, these puppies clearly belonged to the family living nearby, they were not strays.
If for some reason you are really limited on time and can’t visit Angkor Wat, Ayutthaya is the next best thing. Another ancient city in Thailand with many old ancient temples similar to that of Angkor, minus the huge Angkor Wat piece of it. The city contains, palaces, temples and monasteries, and most famously, this very interesting Buddha head in the roots of a tree. So interesting.
Traveling to Saigon as an American is really interesting because you don’t know what to necessarily expect. Most Americans know the name “Saigon,” (and if you don’t know it that’s sad) as the base for US troops during the Vietnam war, and generally did not identify with the communist government of the north. The city was renamed Ho Chi Minh City after it fell to the communist regime as a way to culturally dominate the south. However, locals still refer to Saigon, as Saigon. Interestingly, I did not here one person refer to it as Ho Chi Minh City while I was there. The city is the largest and economic hub of Vietnam. There are a few sights definitely worth seeing, as well as the museum on the Vietnam war. They had some old American fighter planes that had been downed during the war, and later recovered for the sake of this museum. As an American, seeing those planes on display for tourists, people taking photos in front of them, knowing that the man that flew that plane died a horrible death, seemed disrespectful, and made me sad, but this must be how any patriotic person would feel despite what country they came from. We also made time to see a water puppet show, which was so weird, but a really unique art form from Vietnam, so I definitely recommend seeing one just for the tourist aspect of it.
When we first planned coming through Phnom Penh, we imagined as more of a layover day before heading to Siem Reap for Angkor Wat, but we were pleasantly surprised at the abundance of beautiful Khmer architecture. We also unexpectedly learned a great deal about the terrible genocide brought on by the Khmer Rouge, which you can read more about here.
Bonus: I didn’t spend a lot of time on the beach, but the beaches of Thailand are absolutely gorgeous, so I can’t not include that here.