The beauty of living and taking a tour of Southeast Asia is there’s always somewhere different to visit. The cultural and geographical diversity in such a relatively small land area is astounding. With a three-month escape, you can explore the traditions of dozens of different ethnic groups, unearth the secrets of ancient civilizations, wonder at architectural masterpieces, and immerse yourself in some of Mother Nature’s most spectacular scenery.
Countries which had expensive and complicated entry procedures in the past have eased visa requirements considerably, meaning that you can venture farther afield from traditional favorites like Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Bali, and Vietnam. Destinations like Myanmar, Laos, and the Philippines have made a concerted effort to boost visitor numbers in recent years, and now is the perfect time to get there before they get too popular.
Land transport is affordable in the region, plentiful and convenient, and budget airlines like Air Asia, Jetstar, and Malindo Air make flying extremely affordable with international flights between cities and flight hubs for as little as $50 oneway. Laos, Myanmar, and the Philippines are also some of the cheapest countries to visit in Asia. A couple can travel extremely comfortably for less than $100 per day.
While you could easily spend months in any of these countries, two to three weeks will let you experience the highlights. In three months you can visit all three and still have time to explore your favorite mainstream destinations.
Start your trip with a visit to Myanmar, formerly Burma. Since the lifting of international sanctions in 2016, visitor numbers to this warm and welcoming country have increased exponentially, and for good reason. This predominantly Buddhist country has some of the friendliest people on earth, is cheap and easy to get around independently, and the sites and scenery are spectacular and varied.
Nothing can prepare you for the magnificence of Shwedagon Pagoda, a 300-foot-high gold-plated temple with the diamond-studded spire set on top of a small hill in downtown Yangon. Or the surreal experience of watching the sun rise over thousands of temples and pagodas, peeking above the trees and mist as far as the eye can see at Bagan. Explore the waterways of Inle Lake and discover village life unchanged for centuries.
Finish off your Burmese adventure with a few days on the pristine and relatively undiscovered beaches on the west coast like Ngapali, with its four miles of white palm-fringed sand and the turquoise waters of the Bay of Bengal.
Next, head to Laos via Kuala Lumpur or Bangkok. Laotians are gentle and quietly spoken. Time seems to work differently in this culturally and visually rich former French colony, so don’t expect anything to happen in a hurry.
Spend a couple of days in the capital, Vientiane, before heading up to the spectacular countryside around Vang Vieng. This small town sits on the Nam Song River and is surrounded by dramatic limestone karsts. It’s a hub for outdoor activities like rafting, kayaking, and hiking. But less adventurous folk can relax on one of the many hotel terraces with sunset cocktails, wander among the surrounding rice fields, or take a hot air balloon flight over the scenic surrounds. (Actually, that last option is, admittedly, quite adventurous.)
Luang Prabang, farther north, is a must-see destination. Arguably the prettiest town in Southeast Asia, this UNESCO World Heritage site is a perfect blend of French colonial and deeply spiritual Buddhist culture. The old town, with its gorgeous architecture, quaint coffee shops, bustling markets, and laidback bars and restaurants is a pleasure to wander. Excursions farther afield to waterfalls, caves, gardens, and local villages can keep you occupied for days.
Round out your stay in Laos with a visit to one of the many eco-resorts in the northern jungles; a visit to Si Phan Don, “the 4,000 islands” just north of the Cambodian border; and a tour of the Bolaven Highlands in the south.
Next stop, the Philippines. With over 7,000 islands, you’ll barely scratch the surface of this incredibly hospitable and friendly country. Unsurprisingly, with over 22,000 miles of coastline, it has some of the best beaches and diving in the world.
You’ll likely fly into the chaotic capital Manila, but transfers to other more tranquil parts of the country are easy and affordable. Start with the idyllic paradise that is Palawan. Stellar beaches, azure water, towering mountains, hidden lagoons, limestone caves, and a five-mile-long underground river mean you can be as active or chilled out as you please.
Snorkel with whale sharks in southern Luzon.
Boracay is another picture-perfect beach destination and has some of the best sunsets I’ve ever seen. Snorkel with whale sharks in southern Luzon, and visit the incredible Banaue rice terraces in the north. Dive at Puerto Galera, Dumaguete, or Apo Island, or hike one of the jungle trails or to the top of a volcano.
The problem with having three months in Southeast Asia is not how to fill in your time. There’s so much to choose from for every taste and budget, you might just find yourself wanting to stay.
The article How to Take a Slow Tour Through Southeast Asia by Tim Nilsen first appeared on International Living.
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