Thinking back to the past few months, I am still surprised by all the things we experienced on our whirlwind SE Asia tour. We visited 5 countries in about 3 months, starting with Vietnam, and moving on through Thailand, Malaysia, Cambodia and Indonesia. Mulu National Park in Malaysia was the late add that really drove our roundabout travel pattern.
Here’s some of my favorite highlights, notable negatives, and favorite adventures from each country. I couldn’t recommend our itinerary in it’s entirety to anyone with a straight face, but I wanted to give a few recommendations for each place.
You can expect a separate post soon about our spending by country, so you can start budgeting for your own SE Asia adventure!
- Highlights: Coffee, oh sweet delicious coffee, food in general, people were incredibly friendly, everything was inexpensive. Hoi An was one of our favorite towns, we spent our time there sight-eating and riding bikes to the beach.
- Negatives: The sweltering heat made us slightly vampiric.
- Favorite Adventures: It’s hard to choose one! I loved our hiking and overnight train combo tour of Sapa and exploring Cat Ba island in Halong Bay.
- Local Recommendations: Drink iced coffee, eat everything, and more specifically, do the Sapa tour with Vega if you want to hike, and the War Remnants Museum in HCMC. When you’re in Hoi An, do Vy’s Market Cooking Class if you want high value, but do Neville Dean’s food tour if you want a good but pricey tour plus discount recommendations for tailors, jewelers, dentists, massages, and more.
- Although we spent a week in Thailand, mostly on scuba paradise Koh Tao, I wasn’t inspired to write any major blog posts. On our trip, we raced through Bangkok to Koh Tao. We found the town unremarkable for the region, plus it’s full of tattoo parlors, cheap hotels, and bars. It’s unfair to judge Thailand based on one week in one spot we didn’t love, so I promise to go back as soon as possible to complete my evaluation.
- Highlights: Koh Tao is a scuba town. If you are thinking about getting certified or just want to rack up a bunch of dives, come here. The many dive shops compete fiercely on price and safety. Our two tank dives were about $60 each, with a small group.
- We especially enjoyed the The Koh Tao Gym with reasonable entrance fees and $3 protein shakes. We also rode another overnight train.
- Negatives: Very touristy, and the food wasn’t as good as we’d hoped, especially compared to what we’d enjoyed in Vietnam.
- Favorite Adventures: Scuba! I have never seen as many fish as we saw during our first dive to the Chumpon Pinnacle. Riding a scooter all over the island is a close second.
- This is another tough one to write about because we spent our one week in Malaysia out in the boonies while caving at Mulu National Park. Unlike Thailand though, we loved our stay, so I’d recommend it.
- Highlights: The caves, obviously, plus the food wasn’t too bad.
- Negatives: It turns out I am not a huge fan of being inside a cave for extended periods of time. Caving is a little expensive since you need a guide, and the town is a bit pricey for what it is because it’s so remote.
- Favorite Adventures: In addition to the previously mentioned caving and hiking, we had fun riding bikes around the tiny town and drinking celebratory beers on a bridge.
- While we stayed in Cambodia over a month, we barely spent a week doing real touristy things and instead split the time between living like ex-pats in Phnom Penh and living like monks at our meditation retreat.
- Highlights: Our ten day silent meditation retreat, our time in Phnom Penh, and seeing the circus in Battambang. Angkor Wat and the temples of Siem Reap was our one big touristy adventure, and my personal final highlights were drinking the tap water and getting USD from ATMs.
- Negatives: None come to mind.
- Favorite Adventures: Too many to count! We especially loved getting our pump on at CrossFit Amatak with Mike and Jenny and riding bikes around Phnom Penh.
- Craziest Thing: Checking out dinner and a show at a North Korean restaurant
- Like Thailand, I felt like we only saw a really small part of Indonesia, as we didn’t leave Bali. We spent half of our two week stay getting spoiled by Adam’s family in a quiet villa and then spent the second half learning to surf in Kuta and Seminyak.
- Negatives: Very few. While we ate like kings in the family villa, the food wasn’t great in Kuta. I ate Nasi Goreng, a traditional Indonesian fried rice dish, about 2-3 times a day and got slightly sick of it by the end.
- Favorite Adventures: Learning to surf at Kuta Beach. There was also that time that we were the sweatiest people in Indonesia when we visited the local gym.
It’s never easy to pick favorites, but I have forced myself to name a few. Phnom Pehn, Cambodia was our favorite city to visit, largely because we got to act like locals rather than tourists. Hoi An, Vietnam was a close second. I expect the silent meditation retreat in Cambodia will be the most life-changing experience for me over the long term. Surprisingly, that’s the thing I am most glad we did on our trip. Caving in Mulu National Park in Malaysia was our most challenging adventure, while surfing in Bali was my favorite day to day activity. And finally, Vietnam was our favorite overall country to visit thanks to the delicious and highly varied food, strong coffee, friendly people, and extremely low prices. Just watch out for the heat!