Travel Blog #16 – South East Asia ‘Top 5’ Highlights

Over seven weeks last summer, I was lucky enough to travel through South East Asia with my brother Sam. We visited some incredible places along the way – from international cities like Shanghai and Hong Kong, to Guilin’s stunning scenery and Ha Long Bay’s unforgettable landscape. The region has a turbulent history that is still evident as you travel through it (especially in Vietnam and Cambodia), but that doesn’t stop everyone you meet having a smile on their face. Spend time exploring this beautiful part of the world, and you can’t help but being infected with its’ charm.

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Me (left) and Sam (right), after an unforgettable afternoon riding elephants through the jungle and Mekong River, Laos.

I’ve written about each stop on our travels in my Travel Blog series, and here I will try and compile some highlights from the trip that covered China, Hong Kong, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, and Thailand. With so many places and experiences to remember, I’ve picked out my Top 5 places, experiences, meals, museums, and accommodation options.

[For individual travel blogs, browse the Travel section.]

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We started our trip in a very rainy Shanghai. [Note – all photos taken in 2015.]

 

Top 5… Places we visited:

  1. Yangshuo, China.
  2. Ha Long Bay, Vietnam.
  3. Luang Prabang, Laos.
  4. Angkor Wat, Cambodia.
  5. Hong Kong.
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I could have spent hours taking in Yangshuo’s Jurassic Park-like scenery.

 

At the top of this list is Yangshuo. Take a boat down the Li River between Guilin and Yangshuo, and you’re treated to a new stunning view around every corner. Our day exploring Yangshuo’s surrounding area on bikes was one of the most rewarding parts of the trip. Similarly, the unique setting of Ha Long Bay provided endless picturesque views. I had high hopes of Ha Long Bay before getting to Vietnam, and the excursion didn’t disappoint. It’s slightly swamped by other tourist cruises, but I soon forgot that as I watched the incredible sun set with a cocktail in my hand!

Next, our stop in Luang Prabang was a last minute decision, and I only wished we’d planned it sooner to spend more time in the amazing country of Laos. We trekked into the surrounding hills, got drunk with a local community, and rode elephants next to the Mekong River – what’s not to love?

In fourth and fifth place are the most opposite of place we visited – Angkor Wat, Cambodia, and Hong Kong. Angkor’s remote 900-year old Khmer temple complex in the Cambodian jungle is a place I didn’t know was even on my bucket list, while Hong Kong is exactly the busy city you’d expect. However, the contrast between the Western-style business Hong Kong island and bustling Asian high-rise atmosphere in Kowloon Island was something I wasn’t expecting. The sunset from Victoria Peak is not a secret, but it’s something that every visitor to Hong Kong should experience.

Top 5… Experiences:

  1. Trekking and riding elephants – Luang Prabang, Laos.
  2. Cycling and boat trip – Yangshuo, China.
  3. Scuba Diving – Hoi An, Vietnam.
  4. Exploring Angkor’s temples – Angkor Wat, Cambodia.
  5. Cave trek – Phong-Nha Ke Bang National Park, Vietnam.

I’ve already mentioned our trek in Luang Prabang, but I can’t help but smile when I remember the two-day walk through the Laotian hills and elephant riding either side of an overnight stay at a local village. All for $25 too! That memory just pips the day we spent cycling around Yangshuo, China (above). The karst mountains in this region provide Jurassic Park-style views at every opportunity, and a beer onboard a bamboo raft on the river after a long day cycling was the perfect way to experience the area – just make sure you take an accurate map!

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Sunset in Hoi An

The beautiful town of Hoi An has a good reputation for Scuba diving, and it was easy to see why after spending an afternoon learning how to dive. I’d always wanted to scuba-dive, and it’s something I’ll definitely try again! I’d also always wanted to be an explorer, so climbing through the ruins of Angkor Wat (below) and watching the sunrise over the main temple were a perfect opportunity to make my ten-year-old self extremely jealous.

Another exploring highlight was the 7km cave trek in Phong-Nha Ke Bang (below). With only head-torches to guide us, I’d recommend this excursion to anyone looking for a unique way to explore a part of Vietnam that many won’t see.

Top 5… Meals:

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Cocktails after a stunning seafood meal in Ha Long Bay.

 

  1. Pho – Vietnam.
  2. Seafood in Ha Long Bay, Vietnam.
  3. Beer Duck – Guilin, China.
  4. Chicken – Phong-Nha National Park, Vietnam.
  5. Saigon Beer overlooking Saigon – Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

You can’t travel through Vietnam without eating pho for almost every meal. Walking into any canteen or restaurant and simply asking for pho was how we negotiated most meals as we travelled down the country. Vietnam is also home to some great, fresh seafood and I’d never really been a fan of prawns, crab or fish before visiting the country. Maybe it was the setting of Ha Long Bay, or the fact the food was so fresh, but we didn’t have a better meal throughout the whole trip.

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Beer Duck – Guilin.

 

At Number 3 is the Guilin delicacy, Beer Duck. I like beer, I like duck, and I also loved Guilin, so the combination of all three was the makings of a memorable meal. For a supposed delicacy, finding a place serving beer duck was surprisingly difficult, but it was worth the effort!

Speaking of fresh, the chicken we had at ‘The Pub With Cold Beer’ in Phong-Nha Ke Bang was certainly fresh. There was probably nothing special about the chicken itself, but having spent the day cycling (and unexpectedly having to kill the chicken myself…), this meal was so tasty! Cold beer was also on the menu for the ‘meal’ at Number 5 – admittedly this beer wasn’t really a meal, but our Saigon beer overlooking Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) in the Sky Bar was a perfect way to end our travels through Vietnam.

Top 5… Museums:

  1. War Remnants Museum – Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.
  2. Killing Fields and Tuol Sleng Prison Museum – Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
  3. History Museum – Hanoi, Vietnam.
  4. Reunification Palace – Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.
  5. Angkor Wat – Cambodia.
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Helicopters outside the War Remnants Museum

Throughout our travels through South-East Asia, the importance of learning about each country’s history became more and more important. In Hanoi, the National History Museum is a good introduction to Vietnam’s proud but turbulent pre-war history and is worth a visit to contextualise your travels.

As the US-Vietnamese War affected the whole region, there are a number of informative museums that show the impact of the conflict on the country. The War Remnants Museum, HCMC has a number of war-time vehicles and aircraft as well as some graphic photos that show the conflict from both sides. Also in HCMC is the Reunification Palace, which is displayed as it was on the day tanks crashed through its gates in 1975. It’s full of 60’s and 70’s architecture, and it’s a really interesting place to explore. Another interesting visit is to the Hoa Lo Prison, Hanoi, which has been used to detain enemies of Vietnam’s various ruling forces throughout the 20th century.

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Outside the Reunification Palace

Neighbouring Cambodia is another country still feeling the effects of their recent history. The Killing Fields and Tuol Sleng Prison are uncomfortable visits that show just how brutal Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge regime was, but our day at both locations around Phnom Penh was one of the most important on our trip. A contrasting aspect of Cambodian history is the mightily impressive Angkor Wat – I’ve mentioned it before, but it’s worth another Top 5 place.

Top 5… Accomodation:

  1. Trippers Carpe Diem/Cosy Garden Hostels – Yangshuo, China.
  2. Ha Long Bay Cruise, Vietnam.
  3. Easy Tiger – Phong-Nha Ke Bang National Park, Vietnam.
  4. Local Village – Luang Prabang, Laos.
  5. Downtown Kowloon – Hong Kong.
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View of the village near Luang Prabang where we spent the night.
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View from the balcony at Trippers Carpe Diem, Yangshuo.

 

Our hostels in Yangshuo were well run, cheap, and in such a lovely location. Choose one, though, because they’re literally a minute apart so there’s no need to stay at both like we did! Location was also the memorable factor behind May De Ville Hostel, which is right in the heart of Hanoi’s old quarter, but more importantly they also provided us with an excursion to Ha Long Bay, which allowed us to wake up with the most spectacular of views from our cabin window.

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Our morning view in Ha Long Bay.

Excursions are the selling point of Easy Tiger, Phong-Nha Ke Bang National Park – as well as a lively atmosphere, the hostel has a range of activities on offer including the 7km Cave Trek and Mud Cave. Over in Laos, our trek into a local village in the hills around Luang Prabang was truly memorable, with limited electricity and water – but plenty of alcohol!

Finally, the accommodation in Kowloon itself was cramped and expensive. Saying that, staying in the high-rise apartment blocks in such a busy area full of so many sights and smells was the only way to experience Hong Kong.

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A blurry picture of the 24-hour train through China.

 

I should also mention two contrasting accommodation options that I often think back to. Firstly, our 24-hour overnight train from Ningbo to Guilin, China, was definitely an experience, and something I don’t have to do again! Secondly, our stay at a Novotel in Bangkok was hardly luxury, but after weeks of hostels and sleeper-coaches, it felt like a palace and was a great way to finish our time in South-East Asia.

For any questions about anywhere we visited, stayed, or ate, feel free to add a comment.

After our travels through Asia, my next trip abroad was a city-break to Madrid, Spain with my girlfriend. It was a totally different holiday to backpacking in Asia, but we still took in everything the Spanish capital has to offer on a small budget. Check out my blog on Madrid here.

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