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Craft an Epic Southeast Asia Itinerary

I sometimes find myself arguing with people that yes, they are, in fact, creative. So many people assume only those in the traditional arts like music or painting have claim to that particular trait. I’m a firm believer that creativity at its heart is about turning tradition on its ear. Independent travelers – you’re the new creative class. (Just check out the collaborative travel dance and film project Alaine Handa is working on, or the badass dystopian costume design Faith Roswell makes for Wasteland Warriors all over the world.) When you charge forward into the world without guidebooks and travel agents dictating your every move, you’re creating something. In this latest addition of my itinerary series – designed to unleash your creative planning power, rather than give you a copy-and-paste blueprint for your trip – we’ll explore one of the most popular backpacking destinations in the world: Southeast Asia. Its bottom dollar price tag makes it one of the best starter destinations for budget backpacking in the world, but there’s so much more to it than that. If this corner of the world wasn’t filled with sublime natural beauty, rich cultural traditions, and some of the most banging food across the globe, no amount of budgeting would be worthwhile. Read on for must-have information on some of the highlights you might choose to include in your own Southeast Asia itinerary.

Halong Bay | Hanoi Vietnam | Southeast Asia Itinerary

The Basics of Itinerary Planning

No matter where you’re traveling, your top three concerns are likely to be time, money, and interest. The first step in any travel planning is deciding which of those is your number one priority. Are you a creative professional or digital nomad, relying on your on-the-road income to support your travels? Budget is probably at the forefront of your mind. Are you taking a break from your day job with only so much PTO to use? Chances are, you care more about making the most of your limited time. Have an abundance of both? You can focus purely on your interests, you lucky dog. Don’t feel you have to adhere to someone else’s checklist – even my own! Seek out things that will fulfill you and give you a meaningful travel experience, even if it means passing up a supposed bucket list attraction.

When you know how much money and time you have for your trip, you should take a moment to consider your pace of travel. Some people like to hit the highlights with one or two days in each spot. Some prefer to settle in just one major city and thoroughly explore a region. Personally, I prefer slow travel, but whatever pace you choose will be a major guideline of what places you visit on your trip. Let your preferred pace determine your destinations, not the other way around!

Table of Contents

Heads up – this is going to be a long post. While reading the whole thing top to bottom might make you my new best friend, I certainly won’t blame you for using these jump links to find the parts you’re most interested in. Just click a city below to skip to its section. In any section, you can click “Back to top” to return here.

Bangkok * Chiang Mai * Luang Prabang * Vang Vieng * Hanoi * Hue * Hoi An * Nha Trang * Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) * Phnom Penh * Siem Reap * Ubud

Bangkok Grand Palace | Southeast Asia Itinerary

Bangkok

What to do

Often called the New York City of Southeast Asia, Bangkok is the bustling capital of Thailand filled with high-rise buildings and a wealth of shopping, dining, and drinking.

The top cultural attraction in Bangkok is the Grand Palace, a royal complex including the King’s residence and the splendorous Temple of the Emerald Buddha. (In October 2016, Thailand bid farewell to its beloved king of 70 years, Bhumibol Adulyadej, and entered a year-long period of mourning, during which thousands of Thai traveled from all over the country to pay tribute at the Grand Palace.) The complex also includes a display of Thai coins and regalia. Other temples easily accessible from the Chao Phraya River include Wat Pho and Wat Arun.

Street food is central to Thai culture, particularly in Bangkok. Every day at lunch, you’ll see locals from all walks of life filling sidewalks, markets, and alleyways for meals. Silom Road is a prime lunchtime hub for great street food, while Yaowarat Road in Chinatown is particularly busy on weekend evenings with both locals and tourists. Another prime spot for street food is the weekend Chatuchak Market, an attraction in its own right. With large sections for clothing, pets, flowers, food, and pretty much everything imaginable, the Chatuchak Market seems to stretch on forever. For indoor shopping, check out Terminal 21, where each floor is styled after a different country. Middle Eastern lanterns light the halls of the Istanbul floor, while a larger than life replica of the Golden Gate Bridge dominates the San Francisco floor’s food court.

For a nightcap, Khao San Road is backpacker central, but it’s a good idea to set aside a splurge night to enjoy a cocktail from one of Bangkok’s sky bars. Distil on the 64th floor of the State Tower is a good choice close to Old Town, where you can find cheap accommodations without being in the middle of Khao San Road.

How to get here

Bangkok has two major airports. The older Don Mueang (DMK) serves regional destinations across Southeast Asia, while the newer Suvarnabhumi airport (BKK) receives larger international flights, including those from the US.

Hua Lamphong, near Old Town and Chinatown, is the main train station for the Thai capital, with railways reaching major destinations all over the country. There are also train stations at Don Mueang airport and at Thonburi across the river.

There are three bus terminals in the city, one for each region of Thailand. Northern and northeastern routes, including those to Chiang Mai and Isaan, depart from Mo Chit station, near Chatuchak Park. Eastern routes, including those to Pattaya, leave from Ekamai. Southern routes, including those to Phuket, Krabi, and other beach hotspots, depart from Sai Tai Taling Chan near Thonburi.

How much to spend

Thailand is famous for giving tourists a lot of bang for their buck in the accommodations department. A bed in a high-quality hostel starts at about 200 baht, or $7, per night. Mid-range hotel rooms average roughly 1000 baht, or $30 per night. A luxury property could cost you only 3000 baht or $100 per night.

Street food is often around 50 baht, less than $2. With a little searching, you can find sit down restaurants that are just a step above street food, where meals cost 100 to 150 baht, or $3-5. Nicer sit down meals can easily be found for less than $10, or in the 300 baht range.

Entrance to the Grand Palace is 500 baht, or roughly $15. You can catch a movie at Terminal 21 for a little over 150 baht, or $5. Drinks at nicer sit down places on Khao San Road run 100 to 150 baht, or $4-5, while for a cocktail at a swanky sky bar, you’ll have to shell out at least 600 baht, or $20.

When to visit

Because of its wealth of flight connections, Bangkok is an excellent place to either start or end your trip.

How long to stay

If you love shopping and the day-to-day of city life, you might enjoy a longer stay in Bangkok. But many travelers are disappointed with the relative lack of cultural attractions and prefer to move on to either the north or south of the country after 1 to 3 days.

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Elephant Nature Park | Chiang Mai Thailand | Southeast Asia Itinerary

Chiang Mai

What to do

Thailand’s second city, Chiang Mai, has become something of a digital nomad mecca in the 21st century. Promises of a low cost of living, a pleasant pace, and strong WiFi are big draws for folks looking to adopt the “expat” way of life.

The city itself is brimming with temples. On Sundays, many of their courtyards are crammed with vendors for Walking Street, the weekly night market. You can chat with a Buddhist monk on the weekend at Wat Chedi, or get up early for a spectacular sunrise view from Wat Doi Suthep. In addition to the temple’s famed viewpoint, this mountaintop is home to a waterfall and a jade museum.

Get closer to northern Thailand’s incredible wildlife with a visit to Elephant Nature Park or Elephant Jungle Sanctuary. These two properties are true elephant sanctuaries, rescuing gentle giants from the abuses of illegal logging and the tourism industry. (Please guys, don’t go on elephant rides.) You can spend the day helping feed and bathe elephants while learning the stories of their rescues, or set aside a week to do more heavy duty volunteer work.

Chiang Mai is also an excellent base for Thai cooking classes. Mama Noi’s school has an especially good day-long program where you’ll tour the local market to learn about the key ingredients to Thai cuisine before going to the school’s beautiful organic garden setting. There you’ll make a soup, a stir fry, a curry, an appetizer, and a dessert, as well as Thai iced tea. There are several recipes to choose from in each category, and all students go home with a cookbook detailing all the options (so even if you don’t make green curry on the day of your class, you’ll be able to try it at home).

How to get here

Chiang Mai does have an international airport, with most flights coming from Bangkok, but many other routes serving cities across Asia.

The city’s train and bus station is located less than five kilometers from the walled Old Town. There are frequent connections to and from Bangkok. Red songthaews (pronounced ‘song tail’) and taxis are fairly easy to find from the station.

How much to spend

Hostel dorms are at least 150 baht, or $4-5, per night (though I think you may be better off spending a little bit more here). Midrange hotels average a little over 1000 baht, or $30 per night. Luxury properties start at 3000 baht, or $100, per night.

At the night market, you might pick up some street food for 50 baht, or about $2. The city is filled with work-friendly cafes, where you can have a meal for about 150 baht, or roughly $5. A nicer sit-down dinner is unlikely to cost you much more.

Temple entrance fees are minimal, rarely costing more than 30 baht, or $1. A visit to Elephant Nature Park is about $70. A cooking class will cost you about $35.

When to visit

If you’re up for a connecting flight in Bangkok, you could reasonably begin your trip in Chiang Mai. But if you’re visiting countries other than Thailand on your trip, this will probably fit in the middle of your itinerary.

How long to stay

If you’re working while traveling, Chiang Mai is an excellent place to slow down and spend a couple weeks. If you’re just interested in hitting the highlights and moving on somewhere else, you would probably enjoy a stay of two or three days here.

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Silk Road Cafe | Ock Pop Tok Weaving Class | Luang Prabang Laos | Southeast Asia Itinerary

Luang Prabang

What to do

Luang Prabang is the biggest attraction of northern Laos, an under-the-radar landlocked country in Southeast Asia. Surrounded by the lush jungles banking the Mekong River, and filled with UNSECO World Heritage-listed colonial architecture, Luang Prabang is a charming city to add to any Southeast Asia itinerary.

A walk around the city center is of course a must, and be sure to return after dark when the town’s main street hosts one of the best night markets in Southeast Asia. In addition to the clothes, teas, and things you may be used to seeing at Asian markets, many vendors in Luang Prabang sell bracelets supposedly made from unexploded ordnance leftover from the Vietnam War. If you plan on buying war jewelry in Luang Prabang, do be sure to ask questions about where it came from and how the pieces were made. Many of the locals, oftentimes children, trying to salvage scrap metal for sale are not trained in safe bomb handling and wind up getting injured by these cluster bombs. It’s important to make sure that your interest in unique jewelry as a tourist isn’t hurting locals.

The main natural attraction near Luang Prabang is Kuang Si Falls, a stunning three-tier waterfall surrounded by opalescent pools and swimming holes. You can wander into the city center any day and secure a tuk tuk to the falls. Be sure to pack your swimsuit for a dip in these turquoise waters and only swim in designated areas. (Some parts of Kuang Si Falls are sacred to locals.)

For a taste of local culture, take a swing through the Ock Pop Tok boutiques in town. This fair trade organization helps locals preserve traditional weaving techniques and make money selling their products. At the register, you can also sign up for a silk dying or weaving class, where you’ll head to the organization’s riverside Living Craft Centre to work one-on-one with a local master weaver to make your own silk placemat.

How to get here

Luang Prabang has a small international airport serving routes across Southeast Asia. There is no major overland terminal in town, but vans and minibuses do connect the city to other parts of Laos.

By far, the most interesting way to arrive in this part of Laos, is by boat. The famed slow boat down the Mekong takes three days to travel from Chiang Mai in Thailand to Luang Prabang.

How much to spend

A small hostel dorm near the center of Luang Prabang will run about 50,000 kip, or $5-7 per night. Mid range hotels might be in the 300,000 to 400,000 kip range, or about $35-50 per night. Luxury accommodations start at 1,600,000 kip, or approximately $200 per night.

Prices in Laos are a tad higher than those in other Southeast Asian countries. A sandwich from a street stall might cost you about 30,000 kip, or $3-4. Lunch at a Western-style bakery or cafe might be closer to 40,000 or 50,000 kip, in the $5 range. Dinner and a drink at one of the nicer fusion restaurants on Luang Prabang’s main drag can easily cost 100,000 kip or $10-15.

Weaving classes at Ock Pop Tok are about $60 for a half day. You can get a private tuk tuk to Kuang Si Falls for 200,00 kip or $25, but if you’re wiling to wait an hour or two for the driver to secure other passengers, you’ll only pay 50,000 kip, about $6.

When to visit

Laos is relatively remote for Southeast Asia. It’s best to keep Luang Prabang in the middle of your itinerary.

How long to stay

Creative professionals, particularly those with their own WiFi hotspot as the city’s internet can be a little patchy, might find themselves so enchanted by the area’s beauty and pace of life that they want to stay for at least a week. If you’re sticking to major sights like the UNESCO World Heritage city center and Kuang Si Falls, you will probably find two days sufficient. If you are arriving by slow boat, don’t forget to account for your travel days in your total Southeast Asia itinerary tally.

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Vang Vieng Tubing | Vang Vieng Laos | Southeast Asia Itinerary

Vang Vieng

What to do

Vang Vieng has become quite well known among the backpacker circuit for its river tubing – and it’s admittedly not the most sparkling of reputations. In the last five or so years, however, the Lao government has cracked down on this notorious party destination to clear out illegal drugs and limit the number of bars open at once to ensure that travelers can still enjoy the city’s most famous attraction while staying safe and being less disruptive to locals. Currently there are four bars open at once on the river, and the dangerous rope swings have been removed. Now, you’re just as likely to see local families having picnics and playtime by the river as you are to see a group of partying tourists.

There are also other attractions in Vang Vieng. For a different take on tubing, you can try a cave tubing excursion, or you can see the Nam Song river from a kayak or zipline. The Blue Lagoon is also a popular destination with many tour operators and tuk tuks prepared to take you there.

How to get here

Be prepared for a bumpy ride. While there are minibuses and vans available for tourist transport from Luang Prabang or Vientiane – both of which have airports – roads in Laos are still rather rough in places.

How much to spend

A private room in a hostel or guesthouse costs about 80,000 kip or $10 per night. You can find midrange hotel rooms for 200,000 kip or $25 a night, and up. A four-star resort might start at 1,000,000 kip or about $120 per night.

You can pretty easily find breakfast or lunch in a guesthouse in the 15,000-40,000 kip or $2-5 range. A sit-down dinner, particularly if you’re craving more Western food, is going to be at least 60,000 kip or $7.

Tubing rental costs 55,000 kip or about $6, but you also have to put down a deposit of 60,000 kip ($7) which you will only get back if you return your tube by the time the office closes at 6pm. Entrance to the Blue Lagoon is 10,000 kip (just a dollar and change), but you will have to hire a tuk tuk to get you there, which will bring your total cost up to 40,000-60,000 kip or $5-7.

When to visit

Vang Vieng is best kept squarely in the middle of a Southeast Asia  itinerary, being one of the more remote destinations I’ve highlighted.

How long to stay

A day or two is enough to experience the area’s prime attraction: river tubing. But there are other things to do in Vang Vieng, and you might like to extend your stay to three or four days, particularly if you enjoy soft adventure travel.

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Things to Do in Hanoi | Hanoi Vietnam | Southeast Asia Itinerary

Hanoi

What to do

Each city in Vietnam truly has its own character, and Hanoi is an excellent place to start.

Life in Hanoi takes place out in the street, and that includes meals. You’d have no trouble finding places to try street food in the city, but if you want to know you’re getting safe, good quality food, try a tour like Vietnam Awesome’s Food on Foot tour. A local guide will show you to 6-8 excellent stalls in the Old Quarter. Some Vietnamese foods you might want to look out for include banh xeo and egg coffee.

Other evening entertainment might include the Thang Long water puppet theater. Water puppetry is a traditional art you can find anywhere in Vietnam, but this theater is one of the best. It’s located right next to Hoan Kiem Lake, a major city landmark and popular hangout for locals both day and night. During the day, you might catch a rickshaw to the Temple of Literature, an ancient Confucian academy and a haven of quiet in the busy capital.

Hanoi is also a popular base for day trips to the surrounding region. Halong Bay is a UNESCO World Heritage Site comprised of several limestone karst islands rising from emerald waters. Junk boats cruise this popular destination on one-, two-, and three-day excursions. Many travelers in Hanoi also strike out to Sapa for village homestays and trekking among terraced rice paddies.

How to get here

As the capital city of Vietnam, Hanoi is home to the country’s largest airport with routes all over Asia, some reaching as far as Istanbul and Doha. If you’re traveling from North America, Europe, or Australia, you will definitely have to connect.

There is a train station near the Old Quarter and Hoan Kiem Lake, with routes reaching Hue and Da Nang.

How much to spend

You can find a dorm room in the Old Quarter for as little as 80,000 dong or $3.50 a night. Three-star hotels can be found starting at 450,000 dong or $20 a night. You can get a luxury room for upwards of 2 million dong or $100 a night.

Budget meals are easy to find for 50,000-70,000 dong, or about $2-3. A Western-style meal in a sit-down restaurant will likely cost over 200,000 dong or about $10.

Guided tours and day excursions often start at $25-30. The water puppet theater is $5. Entrance to the Temple of Literature is minimal.

When to visit

You could start a trip to Vietnam and the rest of Southeast Asia here, but if you are not already in the region, you may find you can score a better deal on airfare to Ho Chi Minh City or Bangkok. Hanoi would make a better middle or end point.

How long to stay

If you’re focused on highlight attractions in the city itself, you might find a few days to be enough. Hanoi is a great base for excursions to Halong Bay and trekking in Sapa, so you may want to add on a few days for each. Personally, I love the general vibe of Hanoi and spent nearly a week here.

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Hue Imperial Citadel | Hue Vietnam | Southeast Asia Itinerary

Hue

What to do

Hue’s prime draw is its Imperial Citadel, the former seat of the Vietnamese emperor until the city was bombed out in 1945. Walking around its largely unrestored grounds, it looks like it has been abandoned for centuries, not just since World War II. This is a great spot to learn more about Vietnamese history. You can also tour the royal tombs, visit Thien Mu Pagoda, or take an excursion down the Perfume River.

How to get here

The Hue train station has frequent connections to Hanoi, Da Nang, Nha Trang, and Ho Chi Minh City. It sits about a 30-minute walk from the Imperial Citadel and the modern city center. Open bus services link the city to Hoi An. There is an airport near Hue, but it has limited domestic service only.

How much to spend

A bed in a homestay’s dorm room costs 90,000 dong or $4 per night. Midrange hotels average 700,000 dong or $30 a night. Luxury properties can be found at similar price or for up to $150 per night.

Most restaurants in the city center offer meals at 70,000-90,000 dong or $3-4. Street food will, of course, cost less. (Hue has a few local specialty dishes like nem lui and bun bo Hue, which are both worth a try.)

Admission to the Imperial Citadel is 150,000 dong or about $6.

When to visit

This should fit into the middle of your itinerary. Hue would be a difficult city to reach for the beginning of a trip. If you have to pass through Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City anyway, you should make the most of it!

How long to stay

A day or two is enough to see the Imperial Citadel, and likely enough for any other attractions you may be interested in. There isn’t much to the modern city center, to be honest.

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Full Moon Festival | Hoi An Vietnam | Southeast Asia Itinerary

Hoi An

What to do

Hoi An’s top attraction is its ancient city center, famous for a monthly full moon festival. Even outside the full moon, evenings are a special time in Hoi An with paper lanterns strung between historic buildings. Its riverfront location made it a major trading post for Vietnam, and as a result, you’ll see lots of Chinese, Japanese, and even Dutch influence. The Japanese Covered Bridge is an icon of the city.

You can sign up for a lantern making workshop to learn more about the signature local art, or venture off the beaten path a bit to tour a nearby pottery village. There are also several cooking schools in the area – Vietnamese food is excellent at balancing core tastes of sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and umami. Surrounding the ancient town, you’ll see several tailors, and a custom dress or suit is a highly popular souvenir for visitors.

How to get here

Open bus services connect Hoi An to Hue, Da Nang, and Nha Trang. You can often make transportation arrangements through your accommodations.

How much to spend

Most hostel dorms are in the 100,000 to 250,000 dong or $5 to $10 range. You can get a comfortable private room in a homestay near An Bang beach for 450,000 dong or $20 per night. A large luxury hotel is more likely to be 2,500,000 dong or over $100 per night.

Budget meals are mostly 40,000-60,000 dong or $2-3. Many restaurants in the central ancient town have meals starting at 100,000-130,000 dong or $5-7.

The Hoi An tourist ticket costs 120,000 dong or about $5 and grants you admission to your choice of five out of roughly two dozen attractions. A half-day cooking class runs 750,000 dong or a little over $30.

When to visit

Since most connections to Hoi An are via bus or taxi, this city needs to be in the middle of your itinerary.

How long to stay

If you are taking advantage of the excellent custom tailoring services in Hoi An, you’ll want to give yourself at least three to five days for your order to be completed. If you just want to have a quick wander around the Old Town, a day or two will be enough.

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Beach in Nha Trang Vietnam | Southeast Asia Itinerary

Nha Trang

What to do

Nha Trang’s main tourist appeal is its beautiful beach and active nightlife. Snorkeling and diving are popular day excursions.  There are also a number of spas in the area, including a set of mineral mud baths. Many accommodations are able to arrange day trips and excursions for guests.

How to get here

There is a domestic airport serving Nha Trang, and the city’s train station connects it to Da Nang and Ho Chi Minh City. Like many towns in central Vietnam, there are open bus services linking it to places like Da Nang and Hoi An.

How much to spend

Hostel dorms are about 100,000 dong or $5 per night. (Being something of a backpacker party destination, some hostels have free beer happy hours.) Midrange hotels start at 450,000 dong or $20 per night. Luxury hotels range 1,000,000 to 2,000,000 dong or $50-100 a night.

For budget meals, you’ll want to seek out street food, which is priced comparably to the rest of Southeast Asia. Sitting down to a meal will cost you at least 70,000 to 100,000 dong or $3-5.

Snorkeling and diving tours are available at a wide range of prices. The mineral mud baths offer a variety of packages as well, but the basic mud bath service for one person is 550,000 dong or about $25.

When to visit

With mainly domestic connections, Nha Trang is best kept to the middle of a Southeast Asia itinerary.

How long to stay

Nha Trang is an excellent place to visit if you’re feeling a bit burnt out on travel. Take as much time as you need to slow down, enjoy the beach, and recharge for the rest of your trip.

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Ho Chi Minh City | Saigon | Vietnam | Southeast Asia Itinerary

Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)

What to do

Ho Chi Minh City has a number of quality museums, where you can learn about the history of the Vietnam War. The Independence Palace is the former home of South Vietnam’s president, and the War Remnants Museum is often marked in tourist itineraries as a haunting, but worthwhile experience. Many tourists interested in the history of the war also book a day tour of the nearby Cu Chi Tunnels. The city is home to a great deal of French-inspired architecture, including the beautiful Central Post Office designed by Gustave Eiffel himself. Sky bars are quite popular in the evenings, and HCMC is also a prime gateway to the Mekong Delta.

How to get here

The airport in Ho Chi Minh City is the busiest in Vietnam, with routes serving a huge range of international destinations.

The Saigon Railway Station is about a 15-minute taxi ride from the historic city center. Trains serve the entire country from here.

There are also a number of bus services, linking the city to domestic destinations and Phnom Penh in Cambodia.

How much to spend

Hostel dorms are a bit more expensive here than in the rest of Vietnam, costing roughly 150,000 dong or $6-7 per night. Midrange hotels cost 800,000 dong or $35 per night. Luxury accommodations run about 3,000,000 dong or $130 per night.

As in other parts of Southeast Asia, street food is your cheapest option. Meals in cafes, whether Eastern or Western flavors, cost 90,000-130,000 dong or $4-6.

Admission to museums is minimal, rarely more than $1 or $2.

When to visit

Ho Chi Minh City airport has loads of flights available, often at affordable prices, making it an excellent place to start or possibly end your trip.

How long to stay

If you like to travel at a fast pace, you could potentially squeeze all Saigon’s major attractions into one day. Naturally set aside a separate day for excursions to the Cu Chi Tunnels or Mekong Delta. If you prefer to take things slow and explore very thoroughly, you could fill a week in HCMC.

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Phnom Penh Cambodia | Southeast Asia Itinerary

Phnom Penh

What to do

Top attractions in Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, include the Royal Palace, the Silver Pagoda, and National Museum. There are also many attractions focused on Cambodia’s difficult history, such as the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and the Killing Fields used by the Khmer Rouge.

How to get here

Phnom Penh airport is the largest in Cambodia, with routes across Asia. Train service has recently been reintroduced to the country, and the Phnom Penh railway station connects the capital to Kampot and Sihanoukville. Bus services are available to Siem Reap or to cross the Vietnamese border.

How much to spend

Dorm beds cost at least $5 per night. (The Cambodian riel is quite weak and most places accept US dollars.) Midrange hotels run $30-45 per night. A luxury hotel might average $120 per night.

If you’re sticking to restaurants near the riverfront, you’re likely to pay $5-10 for most meals.

Most cultural attractions in the city are about $10. Admission to the genocide museum is $5, while an audio tour of the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek is $6.

When to visit

You could potentially start your trip here, but you are probably better off beginning and ending in Thailand or Vietnam.

How long to stay

Two to three days is plenty of time to see the top attractions of Phnom Penh. But particularly if you are just starting to travel in Southeast Asia, this can be a challenging city to visit, so you may want to give yourself ample time to get over any culture shock.

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Angkor Wat | Siem Reap Cambodia | Southeast Asia Itinerary

Siem Reap

What to do

Siem Reap is the gateway to the crowning glory of any Southeast Asia itinerary: Angkor Wat. Angkor Wat is actually just one temple of a much larger complex, the Temples of Angkor. Other highlights of this ancient complex include Bayon and Ta Phrom, which is famous for appearing in Tomb Raider. The Angkor National Museum is a great place to visit for greater context on the temples’ history.

While the temples are the great draw for tourism, there is more to Siem Reap. There is a large nighttime art market, and many artisans at work in the area. You can visit a silk farm or take a free guided tour of the Artisans Angkor showroom and workshop. Most backpackers also spend at least one evening drinking on Pub Street. Touristy yes, but also fun.

How to get here

There is an airport in Siem Reap with flights all over Southeast Asia, though the most common and popular routes are to Bangkok or Phnom Penh. You can also reach Phnom Penh by bus. It is possible to cross the Cambodian-Thai border overland, but you will have to change buses and trains while traveling.

How much to spend

You can get a dorm room in Siem Reap for as little as $3 per night. Boutique hotels are available at $20-25 per night. Luxury hotels have a wide range of prices from $50 to $350 a night.

You can find meals for $5, but if you’re on Pub Street and especially if you indulge in Western-style food for a meal, you’ll be paying at least $10.

Prices for permits to visit the Temples of Angkor went up considerably in 2017. A one-day pass is now almost $40. You will also need to pay for a driver and/or a guide. Intrepid’s Urban Adventures runs an excellent one-day tour of the top temples, including lunch, for a little over $100. (If you’re itching for that classic sunrise view over Angkor Wat, however, you’re better off making your own arrangements or finding an independent guide.)

When to visit

You could begin your trip here, but I think Angkor Wat actually makes a great cap to a trip.

How long to stay

You can technically fit the biggest highlights of the Temples of Angkor into a one-day tour, but most recommend taking at least two or three days to enjoy this expansive attraction. Add more time as you like for other activities in the Siem Reap area like the arts market.

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Yoga Barn Ubud | Ubud Bali | Indonesia | Southeast Asia Itinerary

Ubud

What to do

When many people think of Bali, they may not realize just how big this little island is. There are so many different towns and experiences you can have here. Kuta is a bustling backpacker beach, while Seminyak is packed with glitzy resorts and shopping. Meanwhile, Ubud is more isolated at the island’s center and forms the cultural heart and soul of Bali.

There are several temples in town – Bali is unique as a Hindu island in a predominately Muslim country – and you can learn about offering making, among other things, at the Puri Lukisan Museum. The Ubud Palace next door is a popular destination and also hosts traditional dance performances, including the Ramayana Ballet, each night. The Ubud Monkey Forest is one of the best known animal attractions in Southeast Asia. Yoga classes and day spas are popular places to unwind. You can also join traditional Balinese cooking classes, often hosted by families in their homes, or sign up for a trekking excursion.

How to get here

The only airport on the island of Bali is in Denpasar. Many accommodations will offer a transport service to pick you up at the airport and it’s best to accept. The cost of hiring a private driver on your own is about the same, and the trustworthy taxi service on Bali (Blue Bird) doesn’t serve Ubud. Public transportation on the island is very limited and does not serve the route between the airport and Ubud.

How much to spend

You can find some dirt cheap hostel dorms in Ubud – there are properties with high ratings and prices as low as 30,000 rupiah or $2.50 per night! If you prefer a private room, there are bungalows available on Airbnb for as little as $10-15 per night. Nicer hotels are about $100 per night.

Central Ubud has a number of nice cafes and restaurants. Balinese small plates at a more traditional warung will be 40,000-50,000 rupiah or $3-4. A Western-style meal will be in the $5-10 range.

Tickets to a dance performance are 100,000 rupiah or about $7.50. A full day at a local spa, including lunch, costs about $100. An introductory yoga workshop is just under $10.

When to visit

Since you have to fly in and out of Bali anyway, it makes sense to stick it to the very beginning or very end of your trip. Personally, I recommend the end – Ubud is one of the best places in the world for slowing down and recharging. It is an excellent place to end a Southeast Asia itinerary and just relax after your travels throughout the region.

How long to stay

Is it possible to have enough time in Bali? Give yourself at least a week here, and if you’re traveling long term, bump that minimum up to a full month!

BACK TO TOP

Putting it all together

These are just some of the major cities you might include on a Southeast Asia itinerary. (One thing I’ve learned while traveling is that there is always more out there.) These principles of itinerary planning, however, can take you to any destination of your dreams.

Not ready for a big DIY trip to Southeast Asia? No problem. I also have itinerary planners for Italy and the Balkans.

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4 Comments

  1. This is so great and so glad you put the time into crafting this. I’m going to pass this onto friends who are planning a trip to South East Asia! Thanks for sharing.

  2. This is one of the most detailed Southeast Asia itineraries that I’ve read. I always like it when prices are included. And you also had me at street food. I don’t have any short-term plans to visit. But when I do, I’ll make sure to review this guide.

    • Danielle Bricker

      November 24, 2017 at 5:27 pm

      Thanks Victoria! Southeast Asia is definitely one of the best regions in the world for street food. Hope you make it out someday.

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