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33 Awesome Ways to Travel the Planet

Southeast Asia: Pearls on a Shoestring

  • Two-Week Itineraries
  • Two-Month Itineraries
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    After a decade of relative stability in the region, an increasing number of travelers are moving beyond perennially popular spots like Thailand and Malaysia to formerly isolated countries such as Laos and Cambodia, and even the far-flung islands of Indonesia.

    So while Southeast Asia's well-developed infrastructure, low cost, and famously easygoing locals make it a prime destination for first-timers, the biggest challenge will come not in finding your way around but in finding your own way.

    All prices in U.S. dollars


    Golden Triangle Circuit

    Traveling between the royal cities of Chiang Mai in Thailand and Louangphrabang in Laos is a great way to experience the culturally rich, mountainous north.

    Start in the walled city of old Chiang Mai, with its temples, museums, outstanding cuisine, and busy bazaars such as the Warorot Market. Take a bus about four hours northwest to the bohemian river village of Pai, full of art galleries and nightly music. Budget four days for rafting, mountain biking, and trekking to seldom visited hill tribe villages (www.activethailand.com).

    From Pai, take a local bus east into the Golden Triangle, where Myanmar, Thailand, and Laos converge; cross into Laos at Houayxay. On a two-day freight-boat trip down the Mekong River, carve out deck space amid rice sacks and chicken coops, overnight in a $2 guest house in Pakbèng, and float down to Louangphrabang. Allow yourself several days in this sleepy artistic heart of Buddhist Laos.

    Breakfast on baguettes and Lao coffee before hiring a three-wheel tuk tuk or renting a motorbike at your sleep spot (Hotel Souvannaphoum; +856 71 212200) and touring the countryside. Kuang Si, a small park of turquoise pools and waterfalls, is a must-see, as are the sunsets over the Mekong.

    Rock climbers make time for Vangviang, five hours south (www.wildside-laos.com).


    Surf and Turf Circuit

    The south of Thailand offers fantastic beaches (and beach bumming), but also active adventures.

    Take an overnight train from Bangkok to Chumphon, then a morning ferry to Ko Tao, Thailand's dive-training capital. The best conditions are between January and May. Three-day open-water courses here cost around $260, including lodging (Beach Club Diving Resort; www.hotelthailand.com). Island-hop to Ko Phangan and Ko Samui to soak in the party scene before returning to the mainland at Surat Thani. Then catch a local bus to Khao Sok National Park, home of tigers, elephants, Malayan sun bears, and many gibbons. Several trails lead into the backcountry, and the best time to see these animals in the park is during the June-to-October monsoon season.

    Take a long-tail boat to the floating bungalows on Chiaw Lan Lake (local guest houses can arrange boats and guides), then set off on a predawn canoe trip along the shoreline.

    From the park, continue by bus to Krabi, where the big draw is rock climbing on limestone headlands and in the nearby karst mountains (www.texrockclimbing.com). You can also go sea kayaking in Phangnga Bay (www.seacanoe.net).

    For memorable diving, go northwest to Ban Khao Lak and take a live-aboard boat out to the Similan Islands and Richelieu Rock, where whale sharks and huge manta rays abound (Sea Dragon Dive Center; www.seadragondivecenter.com). Return to Bangkok via a flight from Phuket (Thai Airways; +66 26 282000).



    Island Sampler Circuit

    The route from Sumatra to Bali includes a good cross section of Indonesia's islands.

    Head south past the stunning volcanic shores of northern Sumatra's Lake Toba (a favorite travelers' hangout) to the laid-back mountain town of Bukittinggi. Hire a guide—ask fellow travelers to help you navigate the abundant prospects—for a ten-day side trip to the island of Siberut to visit local tribes in their untouched rainforest homeland.

    Once back on Sumatra, take a plane or long-haul bus with a ferry connection to Java. Yogyakarta makes a good base; the national parks on Java's eastern end, such as Bromo-Tengger-Semeru, are surprisingly pristine and untraveled. Save at least two weeks for Bali's white-sand beaches and traditional dancing.


    Indochina Circuit

    With two months, you'll have enough time for an overland crossing of Indochina—Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam. Take a train from Bangkok to the Cambodian border (six hours) and endure the rugged truck ride to Siem Reap, the staging area for Angkor.

    Schedule at least three days for the Khmer ruins, with a detour 18 miles [29 kilometers] north to the intricate temples of Banteay Srei. Continue by ferry to edgy, "Wild East" Phnom Penh.

    Saigon is a few hours southeast by bus; allow a few days to explore the Mekong Delta's islands before busing north to the beach town of Nha Trang. Continue 675 miles [1,086 kilometers] north to Hue; visit the tombs of the Nguyen emperors in this former royal capital.

    Then head to Hanoi, noted not only for its colonial villas but also for old-quarter markets and the surreal museum housing the body of Ho Chi Minh. From there, branch off to Sa Pa for mountain trekking (ask at a local guest house) among the Hmong people.

    To enter Laos, you'll have to backtrack to Da Nang by bus before crossing the border at Lao Bao. Go south from Savannakhét to see the ruins of Wat Pho near Champasak, then hang out for a few days at the low-key 4,000 islands area of the Mekong River, where floating markets and rickety footbridges span canals, before returning to Bangkok by bus via Ubon Ratchathani.



    Who'll Stop the Rain Circuit

    Monsoon seasons can turn a year on the road into a year in the mud, so plan carefully.

    Begin in March on Thailand's southern beaches. Let the rains push you down through Malaysia and, by late June, to Singapore. From there, hop over to Indonesia, where it's dry season until October. By then, climatic conditions should be right at the Angkor temples.

    Head next to Hanoi, and then veer left by December toward northwestern Vietnam, southern China, and Laos. By February, you should be back in Thailand, as dry as a bone.

    —Jim Benning



    Southeast Asia Map


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    Contact: Farang magazine (www.farangonline.com) is an irreverent, reliable look at travel in Thailand, Cambodia, and Laos. For official information, visit www.embassyworld.com.

    Visas: These countries issue visas on arrival: Thailand (two months); Indonesia (two months); Cambodia (one month); and Laos (15 days). A renewable 30-day visa must be obtained before arriving in Vietnam.

    Medical: Besides vaccinations or boosters for the usual developing-world maladies, trekkers should consider a Japanese-encephalitis shot. Dengue, plague, and schistosomiasis (a parasitic freshwater fluke) occur throughout the region, so swim only in saltwater. Take the antimalarial doxycycline or Malarone in Thailand's border areas; the local strain is resistant to mefloquine (Lariam). For details, visit the U.S. Centers for Disease Control Web site (www.cdc.gov/travel).


    Airfare to Hub Cities
    East/West Coast U.S. to Bangkok: $800/$700
    East/West Coast U.S. to Kuala Lumpur: $800/$700
    East/West Coast U.S. to Singapore: $700/$600

    $30 (includes food, lodging, and local transportation)

    Indonesian Safety Update
    Political turmoil puts some areas off-limits, including Aceh on Sumatra and Solo on Java. For a complete list, visit the U.S. State Department Web site (www.travel.state.gov).

    Pedal Power
    Vietnamese buses? Dicey. Trains? Slow. Biking? It could be your best bet. Visit www.bikeaccess.net for airline restrictions and packing tips.

    Full Bloom
    Bengkulu, Sumatra, has one of the world's biggest flowers—the three-foot-wide [one-meter-wide] Rafflesia arnoldia.

    Related Web Sites

    Kayaking Vietnam
    Hear author-explorer Jon Bowermaster's dispatches from his sea kayak odyssey down Vietnam's "Dragon" Coast.

    TravelWise: Kuala Lumpur
    Find information on entry requirements, accommodations, and activities with links from Traveler magazine.

    Webcast: Kunming to Bangkok by Bike
    Starting in Kunming, China, and ending in Bangkok, Thailand, adventure cyclist Steve Williams embarked on a 1,600-mile [2,575-kilometer] solo bike tour encompassing Laos's lawless Golden Triangle.

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