Travel Guide to Southeast Asia
Well known for its pristine beaches, sumptuous cuisine and low cost-of-living, Southeast Asia is a favourite for backpackers and adventurers on a budget. The year-round tropical climate is also a big draw card for those looking to escape less than favorable weather at home.
Map of Southeast Asia
But Southeast Asia isn't just about relaxing in the sun. Adventure awaits in the form of scuba diving, surfing, mountain climbing, volcanic exploration, and long-distance trekking. And again, with such a low cost-of-living, these activities are much more accessible to the average traveller.
A Region of Increasing Stability
Southeast Asia hasn't always been a safe destination. The region has endured wars, civil unrest, terrorism and the odd coup d'état. But with more than a decade of relative stability, visitors can now focus more on cultural immersion.
Some may challenge the claim of increased stability, citing recent terrorism and conflict. But the region has come a very long way, possibly the furthest of any. And fortuitously for travellers, that means Southeast Asia has a lot of lessons up its sleeves. So plan a trip before the costs catch up with the creature comforts.
Southeast Asia | Must See
There's always so much to see, but so little time. Here are a few must-see cities to add to your next itinerary.
Vietnamese, French and Chinese influences combine to give Hanoi a seductive blend of old-world charm and modern expression. And this modern expression isn't tempered either; strangers regularly converse with one another, making the city a paradise for outgoing travellers.
It's best to travel to Hanoi in Spring or Autumn because the intense summers and winters can become hard to bear. If refuge is required, the Red River is adorned with parks, lakes, temples and pagodas, all worth visiting throughout the year.
Malacca is a maritime city that grew from large volumes of cargo and travellers passing through its port. Today, the Town Centre holds much of this history, while the outer suburbs hold the bulk of residences, businesses, and amenities.
The night market on Jonkers Street is especially recommended, but be warned that most museums, restaurants and shops close on Tuesday. For some contrast, see the handmade stilted huts on the banks of the Malacca River. These fishing villages seem untouched since the 15th century.
Luang Prabang, Laos
Visitors cannot help but be amazed by the cleanliness of Luang Prabang, perhaps the most charming city in all of Southeast Asia. This former capital of Laos is largely characterised by golden-roofed wats, Buddhist murals and blossoming flowers.
Luang Prabang has a nightly curfew that can hinder party goers. But the curfew is mostly a godsend since it helps you rise in time to watch the distinctive ornage-cladded monks receiving their morning alms. As the monks walk the streets, women hand them rice and other spare food.
Southeast Asia | Must Do
The road less travelled is rarely in plain sight. But these must-do activities are sure to get you on the right track.
Without a doubt, cycle touring is one of the finest ways to travel a region where hospitality comes as second nature. It gives you a local-eye-view of the customs, the culture, and the chaos, while keeping costs low and the body slim.
So whether you're cycling through the jungles of Borneo, the mountains of Vietnam, the steppes of Mongolia, or the alleyways of Bangkok, be sure that you'll meet inspiring local people and experience diverse cultures and culinary delights.
Ride in a Tuk Tuk
A Tuk Tuk (or auto rickshaw) has an open steel frame, a canvas roof with drop-down sides, a small cabin for the driver, and seating for up to three passengers. They're affectionately called "baby taxis", but there's nothing baby about how they're driven.
Tuk Tuks are driven with just as much fervour and angst as their larger taxi cousins. But this is what makes the experience of riding in one so memorable. The white-knuckled fear of zipping through crowded streets with nary a hair's breadth between the steel tubes and unconcerned citizens will stop your heart.
Southeast Asia has a huge collection of rivers where monsoonal rains mean excellent rapids of grade one to five. Although there are grade six rapids in parts of the region, they are considered unnavigable and far too dangerous.
Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand are the top white water rafting and kayaking destinations in Southeast Asia, while Laos and Myanmar have some remarkable spots for paddling. Make sure you join a reputable tour company though, because when the water gets rough, you'll need all the help you can get.
Southeast Asia | Must Try
If you want more than sights, sounds and smells, give the place a good taste test. Check out these must-try local favourites.
There are hoards of connoisseurs who travel the globe in search of the ultimate laksa. In an odd way, this dish is a barometer of a nation's culinary competence. It's no wonder then why laksa is a must-try dish for visitors to Southeast Asia.
Laksa plays off silken rice noodles against rich, velvety gravy of coconut milk, spices, dried shrimp and chilli, with relishing of fresh prawns, sliced fishcake and cockles. You may also find variations with lobster, tofu, chicken and even more chili.
Massaman curry is a southern Thai dish of Muslim origin. In fact, the word "massaman" is thought to derive from the word Muslim, in some roundabout way. It is mostly made with slow-cooked beef, but can also be made with duck, chicken or tofu.
If you're at a Thai restaurant and feeling a little overwhelmed by the thick coconut gravy, ask the staff to "sai toong", which simply means you want a doggy bag. You'll received rubber-banded bags with massaman goodness for tomorrow's dinner.
Usually made by street vendors in the evening, martabak manis are pan-cooked, using a custom-shaped pan. After cooking, the pancake is topped with a variety of possible ingredients: cheese, chocolate, peanuts, condensed milk and sesame seeds.
Ordinary martabak is made throughout the Middle East and Southeast Asia, but it's the martabak "manis" that deserves special mention. Unlike other variaties, the manis is sweet and available throughout the cities and suburbs of Indonesia.