Forget your annual trip to Cabo — become a world traveler by trekking the globe to Thailand (and beyond).
When you hear someone say “a world away,” chances are good they’re talking about Southeast Asia. Seemingly a separate universe from life as we know it in Seattle, Southeast Asia is a region rich in culture, cuisine, double-take-inducing landscape and unique experiences.
Been feigning for an out-of-the-ordinary getaway? Here’s a sample of what Southeast Asia has to offer.
The 411: If New York is the city that never sleeps, Bangkok is the city that never stops. The estimated 9-million-plus residents and countless year-round tourists swarm city streets at all hours. And residents and business owners have filled the 600-square-mile metropolis well.
From the frenetic maze of shops and food stalls in Yaowarat (Chinatown) to the breathtaking historic sites of Banglampoo (the historic district) and the bustling Bangrak (business district), boredom is easily thwarted no matter how long you decide to stay. Just be forewarned: the city has a magical way of sucking you in.
Agenda Must-Haves: Chatuchak Weekend Market, Grand Palace, Golden Mount, Wat Pho, Chao Phraya River tour, Damnoen Saduak Floating Market, sunset dinner or cocktail at Banyan Tree’s Vertigo and Moon bar, spa indulgences.
Chiang Mai, Thailand
The 411: A scenic six-or-so-hour drive (or a quick-and-painless plane hop) from Bangkok, Chiang Mai – the largest city in the north – is a refreshing spin on urban life, and a keystone of any well-rounded Thailand trip.
Chiang Mai’s charm is that, despite its growing competitiveness with other comparable modern metropolises, it still maintains its rich history and cultural heritage. And the quaint, moated and walled old city (now considered the city center) is just one testament to that – spend a day on a bicycle just getting lost within the confines of the moat, and you’ll understand why. The fact that the city is surrounded by lush, verdant mountains doesn’t hurt the tourism draw either.
Agenda Must-Haves: Take in a view of the city and admire the beautifully imposing Wat at Doi Suthep, bicycle and Wat-hop through old city, Elephant Nature Park (home to approximately 30 rescued elephants), the Night Bazaar along Rachadamnoen Road, rent a motorbike and cruise out of the city for an afternoon at Huay Tung Thao lake.
The 411: Ok, so there are reasons why this city to the south is named the “Las Vegas of Thailand.” (All-night parties, infamous sex shows and what-happens-here-should-probably-stay-here inducing activities.) But there are even more reasons why Phuket can be considered a cultural, historical and tropical-beach-vacation hotspot.
The recovery from the 2005 tsunami is complete and now this large island in the Andaman Sea is an ideal place for a sun-soaked getaway. If you want “Vegas,” make a stop in Patong beach. For pristine sun-soaked white-sand beaches, Kata and Karon are highlights. Scuba certified? The Andaman Sea boasts dive sites considered to be among the top 10 scuba destinations in the world.
Agenda Must-Haves: Kayak around Phang Nga Bay, Old Phuket Town, motorbike up to the Big Buddha, shop (and party) in Patong, beach hop, dive or snorkel day trips.
Add Ons: If you have extra time on your hands, add these stop-worthy spots to your Southeast Asia destination list.
1. Island Hopping. So many islands, so little time. Depending on your sport — rock climbing, scuba diving, snorkeling, kayaking, wind surfing, jungle trekking, spa pampering or full-moon partying — there’s an idealistic island for everyone.
But island hopping in this world isn’t about finding perfection, it’s about living perfection. The impossibly turquoise waters surrounding each silky-sand, picture-perfect paradise make it difficult to focus on anything but just being. And good thing, because you have a tan to achieve.
2. A slowboat down the Mekong River and Luang Prabang, Laos. A frenetic sightseeing pace eventually calls for some forced relaxation. An overnight slowboat trip down the Mekong River, from the border crossing in Chiang Khong, Thailand, to the time-untouched town of Luang Prabang, Laos.
Expose yourself to a countryside that few have seen, and even fewer have touched, as you make your way down the muddy waters of the Mekong. Then give yourself at least a few days to take in the street fairs, sample the cuisine, jump off waterfalls, swim in hot springs and cheers the locals with as much lào-láo as you can handle in the historic royal city of Luang Prabang.
In the still of the morning you might be lucky enough to catch saffron-robed monks making their way between centuries-old monasteries. Whether or not you’re supposed to pronounce the “s” in Laos is likely the biggest stress you’ll have during your time here.
3. Siem Reap and Angkor Wat, Cambodia. Siem Reap may just be best known as a jumping-off point for Angkor Wat, but its city center holds enough tourist clout for at least an evening of exploration — and Cambodian food enjoying. The short stretch of Pub Street and Pub Street Alley can keep your stomach full and quench thirst well into the night.
But the real reason you’re here is for Angkor Wat, so refrain from pub-hopping too late — a day spent at Angkor Wat is best started at sunrise. Made by the Khmer kings in a process that lasted almost four centuries, this magnificent area had been abandoned and encompassed by the forest, to be re-discovered by a French man about 150 years ago.
Now one of the most visited archaeological sites on the planet, Angkor Wat stretches over some 400 square kilometers and includes the remains of the different capitals of the Khmer Empire, from the ninth to 15th centuries.
4. Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City), Vietnam. Similar to the bustle of Bangkok, Ho Chi Minh City is nonstop. Thanks to the metropolis of nine million people, your experience there is what you make it — fine dining to unrivaled street food, designer boutique shopping to mom-and-pop markets, casual strolls through city parks or a fight-for-your-life war against scooter traffic.
The Cho Ben Thanh (Ben Thanh market) is an expansive sprawl of eye candy, full of handicrafts, textiles, souvenirs and local cuisine. The Vietnam War Remnant Museum offers unseen insight into an era many try to forget.
The rooftop bar at The Rex Hotel is a perfect perch from which to take in the sprawling city below (and finally enjoy a finely crafted cocktail). And the city itself is a great jumping off point to experience a customized tour of the Mekong Delta. In the city of Saigon, your itinerary will know no lull.
5. Hanoi and Halong Bay, Vietnam. As far as a visit to Vietnam is concerned, time spent in the country’s capital is a clear must. A city where at once time stands still and Parisian colonialism persists and the dynamic pace of modern Asian life pervades, Hanoi is unequivocally a paradox of paces to be experienced.
Store keepers in conical hats hawk their wares, an incessant herd of scooters swarm the streets and locals casually sit sipping coffee watching it all pass them by. Ornate mansions line grand boulevards, lakefront parks permeate the city and a universal respect for a romanticized past seemingly brings the frenetic pace of the city to a standstill. But only temporarily.
So when you’ve had enough of the craze, a few days away at Halong Bay is just what the holistic doctor ordered. The majestic World Heritage site is a natural wonder rising from the sparkling emerald waters of the Gulf of Tonkin.
Think of it as Mother Nature’s sculpture park, with more than 3,000 limestone islets dotted with beaches and grottoes created by the elements sprawling throughout the sea. Experience the bay in style by booking a luxury boat cruise — Ma Nature wouldn’t want it any other way.