Millions of travellers visit Southeast Asia every year in search of bustling city life, natural beauty, distinct culture, fascinating history or all of the above. Not two journeys are the same, yet some routes or itineraries have become so popular with travellers that they can be considered almost iconic. Here are a few of our favourite routes in the region.
Mekong River Cruises
From its origin in the Tibetan plateau, the Mekong River flows through China, Burma, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam, making it the world’s 12th longest river. Its ebb and flow have given life not only to Southeast Asia’s diverse plant and animal life, but also to its many ancient civilisations.
Although still an important source of food and energy, the Mekong River has also become a popular tourist attraction, especially in the region of the former French Indochina, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. Here traditional communities still live along the river, sustaining themselves by fishing and subsistence farming as they have done for centuries. Cruising the river offers a unique experience and insight into the daily life of these communities as well as an opportunity to submerge yourself in the rich natural surroundings where exotic plant and animal life thrive in their natural habitat.
Especially in Laos has the Mekong River played an important role in the country’s tourism industry. The stretches of river near Luang Prabang in the north of the country and around Vat Phou and Lakse in the south are particularly beautiful and full of cultural life such as traditional village communities and ancient temples. The southern journey takes passengers past the majestic Vat Phou, an 11th century Khmer temple complex which was in 2001 designated a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Cruises in the northern part of Laos will typically involve a visit to the former royal capital of Luang Prabang which is known for its eclectic mix of French colonial heritage and traditional Laotian architecture. In the old city the streets are lined with beautiful French mansions, some of which have been turned into hotels and guesthouses. The Royal Palace in Luang Prabang is also well worth a visit. This was where King Sisavang Vong and his family resided until the communist coup in 1975 when it was turned into a museum.
Ha Long Bay
Located some 170 kilometres east of Hanoi, Ha Long Bay is a must for anyone travelling to this part of Vietnam. Although the bay has changed a lot in the last decade and some travellers complain that it has become too crowded, it still offers some truly unique scenery and escaping the crowds is only a matter of choosing the right travel agent or simply doing it independently.
The main attraction of Ha Long Bay is the almost 2,000 karst islands, which gives the bay an almost mystical atmosphere. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Ha Long Bay is best explored by boat and there are several ports from where boats depart, including Ha Long City and Hai Phong, which are the most popular. There are several view points but these tend to get very busy, especially during the weekends.
Day trips are popular but if you really want to explore the bay and reach less touristed areas, allow for at least two days, while opting for a three day, two night cruise gives you the opportunity to reach areas that are otherwise difficult to get to. Planning the trip is easy, simply visit any travel agency in Hanoi or northern Vietnam.
Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore by Train
Made famous by the luxury Eastern and Oriental Express, which takes passengers from Thailand to Singapore at the height of luxury, the journey through the Southeast Asian peninsula can be travelled on public trains for a fraction of the price.
If you’re going north to south, the journey starts at Bangkok’s Hua Lamphong station, an imposing Neo-Renaissance-style building from 1916 and takes you through Thailand’s southern provinces and into Malaysia before it finishes in bustling Singapore. Unlike doing the distance by plane, taking the train gives passengers an opportunity to see more of each country and along the journey you will see everything from rural farm land to small towns and dynamic regional centres for culture, economy and art.
Doing the trip in one stretch will take less than 24 hours but it’s advisable to make stops along the way, for example in Butterworth, from where ferries leave for Penang, known for its rich culture and heritage, or in Kuala Lumpur, an eclectic melting pot of cultures where new meets old, west meets east.
- It can be difficult to figure out which river cruise to choose but most travel agencies in places like Luang Prabang and Vientiane in Laos will be able to guide you in the right direction, depending on your wishes.
- Ha Long Bay is accessible all year round but the best time of the year to visit is March to June when the weather is good and the visibility is best. Check out the local calendar and avoid weekends and public holidays.
- Train tracks between Thailand and Singapore are modern and safe and trains generally leave on time. For up to date train schedules and itinerary suggestions, visit http://www.seat61.com