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How to Spend 40 Days in Southeast Asia

by Travelbag on 18 July 2019, 09:07AM

Southeast Asia

Throughout July we’re celebrating 40 years of Travelbag – so we’ve been sharing a series of incredible 40-day itineraries to encourage you to get out and explore some of our favourite destinations. This one focuses on Southeast Asia – by far one of our all-time most-booked regions.

With its blissful beaches, captivating history, and lively cities, it’s not hard to see why so many people love this part of the world. If you fancy travelling to Cambodia, Vietnam or Thailand but you’re just not sure where to start, read on – as always, we’ve got you covered.

 

Days 1–10: Angkor Wat, Koh Rong, Phnom Penh and Ho Chi Minh City

Your trip around Southeast Asia begins in the Cambodian city of Siem Reap. This is the gateway to Angkor Wat – the UNESCO World Heritage-listed temple complex which is Cambodia’s most popular tourist attraction. Witnessing an Angkor Wat sunrise is a truly unforgettable experience, so we recommend heading there early and spending a full day exploring the archaeological park. Besides Angkor Wat itself, other must-see temples include the elaborately-carved Bayon temple, at the centre of Angkor Thom, and crumbling Ta Prohm – also known as the Tomb Raider temple. For when you’re all templed-out, Siem Reap offers extensive dining options, from roadside stalls to upmarket restaurants, and an impressive cultural scene which includes the country’s answer to Cirque du Soleil – Phare, The Cambodian Circus.

You’ll travel onwards from Siem Reap to Sihanoukville, where you’ll catch a boat to the beautiful island of Koh Rong. If you’re a fan of a party, stick around the popular stretch of beach at Koh Touch, which is lined with hotels, bars and nightclubs – or, if you’re looking for a more tranquil experience, head to Lonely Beach, Palm Beach or Long Set Beach. After a couple of nights of island living, it’s time to make your way to the capital city, Phnom Penh. Here, you’ll have a few days to learn about Cambodia’s dark history with visits to the infamous Killing Fields and the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, before exploring the magnificent Royal Palace complex. 

Leaving Cambodia behind, you’ll cross the border into Vietnam, where your first stop will be Ho Chi Minh City. Sprawling out from the Saigon River, this vibrant and energetic city is Vietnam’s largest. Key attractions include Cho Quan Church, Ben Thanh Market, and the War Remnants Museum. You can sample some of the city’s best cuisine on a delicious street food tour, or embark on a day trip to the nearby Cu Chi Tunnels, used during the Vietnam War to house troops, transport supplies, and mount surprise attacks.

Angkor Wat

 

Days 11–20: Hoi An, Hue, Tam Coc and Hanoi

Travelling north, your second destination in Vietnam will be the relaxed riverside town of Hoi An. Famed as the tailoring capital of the world, this is the place to treat yourself to a special souvenir and get some cheap made-to-measure clothes. Hoi An is also known for its diverse and flavoursome food – many reckon its culinary scene ranks among the best in Asia – so, if cooking’s your thing, it’s a great place to try your hand a cooking class. Alternatively, just eat your way through its wonderful restaurants and street food stalls, being sure to try local specialities such as authentic cao l?u and banh bao banh vac (white rose dumplings).

Hoi An Ancient Town is a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site. Pass over the beautiful Japanese Covered Bridge and you’ll find old wooden-fronted shophouses, Chinese temples and ancient tea warehouses lining the cobbled streets, with some modern bars, boutique hotels and travel agents thrown in for good measure. If you fancy a culture break and want to spend some time lazing on golden sands, there are two wonderful beaches in Hoi An – An Bang Beach and Cua Dai Beach. Alternatively, why not hire bikes for a day and discover some of central Vietnam’s most enticing scenery?

The spectacular vistas will continue as you leave Hoi An and make your way over the Hai Van Pass to Hue. Perched on the banks of the Perfume River, this medieval city was once the capital of the Nguyen dynasty. Its most popular attraction remains the 19th-century citadel which encompasses the crumbling Imperial City. Spend a day exploring what remains of the pavilions and palaces before packing your bags again and making your way to Tam Coc.

Located in the Trang An Landscape Complex, within Ninh Binh province, this will be the third UNESCO World Heritage Site you tick off on this trip. With its lush green rice paddies and dramatic limestone karsts, Tam Coc is best explored by sampan – a traditional wooden boat which local men and women row with their feet. Once you’ve finished floating through grottoes and caves, head to nearby Hoa Lu where you’ll find another ancient citadel.

Vietnam’s dynamic capital, Hanoi, will be your next stop. A compact city in the heart of the Red River Delta, Hanoi seamlessly blends old and new. With its French colonial architecture and aromatic gastronomy, it’s a real treat for the senses – and there’s no shortage of things to do in Hanoi. Take a stroll along the tree-lined banks of Hoan Kiem lake towards the Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre – one of the best places in the country to witness the traditional Vietnamese art of water puppetry. On the north shore of the lake you’ll find Hanoi Old Quarter, where mopeds zip around a web of narrow lanes, all lined with historic guilds from which locals still try and flog their wares. If you want to immerse yourself further in Vietnam’s history, you should check out the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, Hoa Lo Prison, and the Temple of Literature – Vietnam’s first university and a Confucian temple.

An overnight trip from Hanoi to Halong Bay is an absolute must for all visitors. An area of true natural beauty, its name translates to ‘where the dragon descends to the sea’. On a Halong Bay cruise you’ll sail past tiny islets and marvel at the hundreds of rocky pillars that rise from the Gulf of Tonkin’s emerald waters. You could spend another night here on Cat Ba Island – the largest member of an archipelago that sits on the west of Halong Bay. The only settlement on the island is Cat Ba Town – a former fishing village which is fast redefining itself as a tourist settlement. Much of the rest of the island forms Cát Bà National Park, home to 32 types of mammal including most of the world's remaining white-headed langur, the most endangered primate on the planet.

Halong Bay

 

Days 21–30: Chiang Mai, Bangkok and Khao Sok National Park

Having reached the half-way point in your trip, it’s now time to catch a flight to Chiang Mai – Northern Thailand’s largest city. Picturesque and easily navigable on foot, Chiang Mai has an air of serenity and a carefree charm. The moated old city is a medley of elegant temples, fascinating museums, traditional handicraft shops, and bare-bones eateries. Early in the mornings you’ll witness barefoot monks in flame-coloured robes collecting alms, while the evenings see vendors line the streets, peddling their wares. Outside the old town, Nimmanhaemin Road is the epicentre of modern Chiang Mai. This mile-long road, and those immediately around it, is awash with boutique shops, trendy cafes and cool bars.

While there are plenty of things to do in Chiang Mai itself, it’s also worth spending some time exploring the surrounding countryside. The temple that sits atop Doi Suthep – the mountain just to the west of town – is one of northern Thailand's most sacred, and a hike up to it in clear weather provides panoramic views over the valley of the Ping River. Slightly further afield lies Doi Inthanon – the highest mountain in Thailand. Boasting a cool climate and multiple waterfalls, the park that surrounds it is one of the few places in Thailand where you can see and smell pine trees.

Chiang Mai

From Chiang Mai you’ll travel south to Thailand’s colourful capital, Bangkok. With its heady mix of tropical heat, snail-pace traffic jams and pavements packed with food carts – all scored with a symphony of car horns – Bangkok can initially seem chaotic and overwhelming. But, if you scratch below the surface – and avoid the backpacker hub of Khao San Road – you’ll uncover a complex and culturally diverse metropolis which rewards exploration.

Rattanakosin Island, to the east of the Chao Phraya river, is Bangkok’s historic centre. It’s here that you’ll find the Grand Palace and temples such as Wat Phra Kaew (the Temple of the Emerald Buddha), Wat Pho (the Temple of the Reclining Buddha) and Wat Mahathat. Other important temples in the city include Wat Traimit, which houses the world’s largest solid-gold Buddha; Wat Arun; and Wat Benjamaborpit – also known as the marble temple.

If you’re visiting Bangkok over a weekend it’s worth braving the mammoth Chatuchak Market. With more than 8,000 stalls spread over 35 acres, it’s the largest market in Thailand, and – if you can navigate the crowds – you’ll be able to find just about anything your heart desires. If, however, you need some respite from the hustle and bustle, you should head to Lumphini Park – a green oasis in the heart of the city.

For a complete change of pace, though, you’ll leave Bangkok after a few days and journey to Khao Sok National Park. Located approximately half way between the southern peninsula’s two coasts, Thailand’s not-so-secret garden is inhabited by an abundance of plants and wildlife, including bears, gaurs, tapirs, leopards, more than 300 species of bird, and even a few tigers. Perhaps the most famous residents, though, are the elephants. In addition to many wild elephants, Khao Sok is also home to Elephant Hills – a luxury tented jungle camp and ethical elephant sanctuary. Besides having the opportunity to feed and bathe elephants here, you can spend your time in Khao Sok exploring mysterious mangrove swamps; cruising along stunning Cheow-Lan Lake in a traditional long-tail boat; river tubing past bird-filled trees; or seeking out the rare rafflesia flower on a jungle trek.

Khao Sok National Park

 

Days 31–40: Koh Lanta, Phi Phi and Phuket

You’ll spend the last part of your Southeast Asia adventure island hopping in the Andaman Sea. You’ll begin in laidback Koh Lanta, in Krabi province. Easily accessible from the mainland, Koh Lanta proves popular with a diverse range of travellers, including backpackers, couples, families and expats. While creature comforts such as Wi-Fi and ATMs are readily available, the island has remained pleasantly underdeveloped and still maintains an air of authenticity. Fringed by mangroves, the east coast has been particularly untouched by the tourist industry – with the exception of Lanta Old Town – while the west coast is largely a string of beaches, which become more secluded and rugged the further south you go. The island is famed for its epic sunsets, and the gorgeous Koh Lanta beaches certainly make for the best viewing spots.

After a few nights on Koh Lanta you’ll catch the ferry to Phi Phi. Once the very definition of a remote island paradise, this group of islands became immensely more popular when, in 2000, Phi Phi Leh’s Maya Bay was used as the filming location for Hollywood blockbuster The Beach. While certainly not as tranquil as they used to be, the Phi Phi islands still remain some of the most spectacular in Southeast Asia. Whether you choose to spend your time here snorkelling, rock climbing or partying, you can’t fail to be blown away by the islands’ beautiful soft sands, jungle interiors and crystal clear waters.

The final stop on your trip will be Phuket. Thailand’s largest island, the ‘Pearl of the Andaman’ has something for all tastes and any budget. Along the lower section of Phuket’s west coast you’ll find popular beaches such as Patong Beach, Karon Beach, Kata Beach and Kamala Beach, all of which draw tourist crowds in large numbers. If you fancy something more mellow, though, head further north to Nai Thon Beach, or maybe try Rawai in the far south. For a cultural interlude from beach life, you should journey to oft-overlooked Phuket Town. A testament to Phuket’s history, it’s distinctly different from the rest of the island – but its Sino-Portuguese architecture, hipster coffee shops, vibrant street art and impressive walking street market make it well-worth a visit. On one of your days in Phuket we recommend joining a boat trip to Phang Nga Bay – home to the famous James Bond Island – where you can explore the sea gypsy village of Koh Panyee and kayak between caves and lagoons. It’s a great way to savour a bit more of Thailand’s stunningly beautiful landscape, before you finally have to make your way to the airport and head home.

Thailand Beaches 

Feeling inspired? If you’re ready to book your trip to Asia, give one of our travel experts a call now on 020 3944 3420.

Or, if you’ve already ticked off Asia and want to try somewhere new, find out how to spend 40 days in South America.


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