The Ultimate 3 Month Guide to Experiencing Southeast Asia

Say the words, ‘Southeast Asia‘ and you’ll draw mental imagery of long-tail boats, white sand beaches, lazy rivers and rolling mountains, gorgeous temples, flaming street food, scooters on every corner, thundering waterfalls, lush rainforests, and ruins of civilisations past.

It’s a part of the world that can overwhelm first time visitors with how much there is to see and experience. The warm weather, wealth of attractions, natural beauty, and the captivating culture of each country makes it (as a region) the perfect holiday destination.

During my nine months bouncing around Southeast (SE) Asia in 2019, I visited Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Vietnam, The Philippines, Indonesia and Singapore. On my trip, I had the luxury of time, largely because I worked remotely, which allowed me to travel for months on end, while balancing adventuring with digital consulting and teaching English.

This post is a build upon a two week, ‘see and do as much as possible’ itinerary I created for first time visits to Southeast Asia. Much of the advice here will be the same, with location and travel advice expanded.

Where to Start With Planning

There are guidebooks galore, but to keep my travel load light, I favor Instagram (bookmark posts; save them to folders), Pinterest, and online travel resources when it comes to trip planning.

Typically, before any trip, I start a Google sheet, where I track details about a place, things I want to do, reservations, logistics (hotel/hostel info, flight details, arranged transportation, booked tours, etc.). Having everything in one place makes it simple to access or add to on the go via my phone, as well as easy to share with family and friends so they know what I’m up to.

Before I left for my trip to SE Asia, I looked up key bits about every country I wanted to visit to help me roughly outline where I wanted to go, and how long I may want to spend in each place. I’ve provided a sample itinerary below, but there’s so much to do in every country, your own research will help you figure out which places are the most interesting to you.

If you’re feeling stressed about planning so much in advance, don’t. Plan the first few weeks, and then look things up as you go. Chances are, you’ll befriend other travellers, and they always have the best advice.

While there are things that make every part of SE Asia special, don’t feel pressured to see and do everything. Take your time when you need it, rest along the way, appreciate the journey above anything else.

Essential bits to make sure you look up and have taken care of before leaving: 

  • International driver’s license (if you plan on renting a motorbike)
  • Understanding of which countries you need a visa to enter (based on your passport)
  • Extra copies of your passport photo for visas^^ (I brought six to have extras, just in case)
  • Copies of your credit cards/bank cards/passport (digital and one printed version)
  • Travel insurance (while I travelled SE Asia, I was insured through World Nomads, and then Safety Wing)
  • 1-2x digital bank cards (in addition to a debit card and credit card – easier to replace; less risk in having your funds hacked)
  • Travel vaccinations (consult with your GP before leaving)

How Much to Save for Backpacking SE Asia

When I ventured around SE Asia, I worked as a digital consultant and English teacher, but was between ‘9-5 jobs’. However, because I had steady cash flow on the road, I often paid a bit more to stay at places with stable, high speed wifi and was able to treat myself to splurges at nice hotels, as well as experiences that I may not have been able to afford if backpacking on a slim budget in my early 20s.

If your budget is limited, you’ll likely want to travel much slower to get the most out of each destination.

In terms of actual budget, range can vary significantly. I know people who’ve travelled on less than $2,000 for three months, and others who spent +$2,000 a month. I tracked my expenses with Trail Wallet to help me understand how much I was spending in different places. Vietnam, Laos, Malaysia and Thailand were notably cheaper to travel than Singapore and Indonesia (specifically, Bali).

Key Expenses to Account For In Your Budget ($, USD): 

  • Flights/buses/trains to get to/from Southeast Asia, as well as around: Buses are usually under $10 for 5-6 hour rides, and flights are often $20-50 for domestic travel, and +$30 for international (cost varies widely internationally, depending on the distance travelled, but is still far less than you’d pay for a flight in the US)
  • Baggage fees: You pay by weight, not necessarily number of bags. I usually ended up paying $6-12 per flight for 15-20 kg of baggage. Book before you’re at the airport for the best rates
  • Visa entrance fees: Usually between $30-50 when required. As an American, I paid visa fees to enter Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. Everywhere else I visited was free to enter on a short stay (sans Indonesia, which I paid for because of the length of time I stayed)
  • Accommodation: Shared hostel rooms may be found for as low as $3-5 or under $20, it varies widely depending on where you are. As a general rule of thumb, islands will always cost more than cities and there’ll be less availability, so it’s usually better to book in advance than elsewhere if your dates aren’t flexible and you care about quality of stay. I stayed in private hostel rooms or my own Airbnb (with decent internet), to have privacy to work, and averaged $15-50 per night. A few times, I treated myself to nice hotel stays in Bangkok and Bali for $100-130 per night
  • Tours: Depends on the length and country. A 3-4 hour food tour in Hanoi was under $15, whereas twice, I spent $60-80 on day trips in Indonesia with custom itineraries and private transportation
  • Food: Again, this’ll vary widely. I’m partial to upmarket cafes for great coffee and ‘get work done’ vibes, but also love street food, both for its flavour and cost efficiency. A mix of both is usually how I like to see and experience a place. Either way, as long as you’re not eating every meal out at upscale places, this is the budget area where you can likely flex the most – easy to scale up or down, depending on your needs
    • To give you a sense of how far your money can go, while in Indonesia and staying in trendy Canggu, I put myself on a $15-20 per day food budget, which often covered 1-2 nice coffees, a smoothie bowl, plus vegetarian lunch and dinners at nice cafes. I could have definitely done Canggu on less, but loved the abundance of fresh, healthy eats and treated myself daily

More than any specific budget guidance I can provide here, where you go, how you travel and how long you travel will depend how much money you need. And, if your travel timings are more flexible, consider working from the road. Teaching English is a great way to earn a bit of cash on your own schedule with little experience (aside from a college degree) needed.

If you really need to cut costs, look up walking tours and other free activities, eat street food, stay in hostels, do your own laundry. There are tons of ways to save on the road.

When to Visit SE Asia

Do your research before booking. SE Asia is composed of islands, mountains, countryside and buzzing cities- each country experiences different weather throughout the year.

I started travelling Southeast Asia in mid-March, which meant I had ideal weather conditions in many of my destinations. There were a few missteps, such as visiting Cambodia at the end of their dry season when it was unbearably warm, and visiting Ho Chi Minh City at the start of their rainy season, but overall, I planned things well.

If you’re curious about how I timed things, see below. But, note, my trip evolved a lot as I went, and if I planned it again from the beginning, I’d follow more of a ‘route’, rather than doubling back through some places.

March: Singapore; Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia; Thailand
April: Cambodia; Laos; Vietnam
May: Vietnam; Penang, Malaysia; (& South Korea and Taiwan)
June: Indonesia
July: Indonesia
[August: Australia & New Zealand] 
September: Singapore; Indonesia
October: Indonesia
November: Malaysia; Myanmar

When your’e planning your trip, also consider holidays. Visiting Thailand and Laos during Songkran and the New Year was intentional, but also a water filled couple of days. I loved it, but being doused in water all day may not be for everyone.

How to Get Around Southeast Asia

If you want to see as much as possible in the time you have and have the budget for it, fly. An abundance of air carriers, like Air Asia, make doing so easy peasy. You’ll find flights usually aren’t that expensive, but if you’re on a budget, overland travel (trains, buses) may be more your style. Plan on ferrying between islands in Thailand, and flying between the Andaman and Gulf sides.

Not sure about the best route to take, per the time you have and available budget? Google your question. Loads of travellers have come before you, take their advice.

Once you reach a place, grab a taxi to your hotel/hostel if you’re trying to save time, or look into public transit options. In some places, like Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur and Singapore, there’ll be plenty of public transit options available.

Things You Must Pack

First and foremast, pack light. When you’re on the move,  you don’t want to cart around a ton of baggage. Plan on doing laundry once a week, and leave room for things you want to bring home. Even if you’re not a souvenir person, as I’m not, you may find yourself excited to bring things like coffee from Thailand or custom tailored clothes from Vietnam back with you.

If you’re struggling to pare down clothes, keep in mind you’ll find international chains, like H&M, in big cities (Bangkok, Singapore, Hanoi), in addition to boutiques and local market stalls just about everywhere, so it’s simple to pick up items while travelling.

This is the full list of everything I packed to backpack the world through different climates for a year- all of which, fit into a 55L Osprey backpack.

5 ‘Can’t Forget’ to Pack Items:

  • Sunscreen / aloe vera
  • Mosquito spray
  • Luggage locks
  • Global charger
  • Light, breezy casual clothing, and a scarf or sarong to cover legs or shoulders at temples

Ladies, consider wearing sports bras only. Seriously, it’s so hot and humid, I can’t even imagine wearing a normal bra. Low impact sports bras are where it’s at- the last thing you want are things chafing and sticking.

While we’re talking about sports bras, women, you’ll need to cover your legs past your knees, and shoulders/upper arms when entering temples. I usually wore a midi / maxi dress or trousers and brought a scarf to ensure I was covered on top. If you forget, many temples let you rent items for a small fee. Always check a temple’s rules before visiting- if they don’t have a website, try TripAdvisor for tips from others who have visited.

And, always carry local currency. Most places, unless they’re upmarket, are cash only. And, even if they do accept card- there’s likely a minimum spend. No need to exchange at an airport- just withdraw from an ATM, I use global digital banking cards like Revoult so there are no foreign transaction fees.

One last thing to keep in mind when it comes to packing- if you’re on the move a lot, you’ll spend a decent amount of time in airports- don’t spend even more time in them by checking luggage or waiting for it to arrive. Carrying on translates to ease of travel throughout your trip.

Key Advice to Know Before You Leave for Your Trip

Before you travel, research whether you’ll need visas to enter each country you intend to enter. Of the ones I’ve listed here, visas are required for American travellers visiting both Cambodia and Vietnam- others are visa exempt for short stays.

If you’re able, bring an unlocked phone. You’ll find wifi at most upmarket places (cafes, hotels, hostels, restaurants), but the benefits to having service to call a tuk tuk or taxi, check currency conversions or language translations, or even look up directions or opening hours for something are endless. If you’re only in each country for a few days, pick up a SIM at the airport when you land- you’ll be surprised by how affordable they are.

Download a few apps to help make your travel plans and time in each country easier.

Research how to say basic greetings in the primary language of each country you’ll visit, as well as key cultural customs to know. While many people you’ll encounter will speak at least transactional English, don’t expect everyone to. Google Translate is my go-to when I need help communicating.

// 21 Things I Wish I Knew Before Travelling to Thailand //

Don’t do anything in a temple you wouldn’t do in a church (or other place of worship). Temples are a place of worship. Be respectful with photography or video and in observing anyone who is worshipping.

If taking a taxi, insist the metre be turned on ahead of getting in.

Bring hand sanitizer and tissues. Sometimes, there won’t be toilet paper in public bathrooms (cue the tissues). And, in public bathrooms and cities, I find having hand sanitizer critical. Especially if eating street food while wandering.

Whether you’re coming from the United States or not, withdraw $50-100 USD. You never know when having USD will come in handy- especially in places like Cambodia which use USD flexibly alongside their own currency, and where you’ll want it to cover visa fees. I also like to keep a few small bills ($5, $10) handy in a second wallet in case I ever run into ‘trouble’ and need a ‘bribe’.

Make sure you understand the rules of renting a motorbike, as well as the potential risks before doing so. And, if you need it, be sure to arrange an international license before you travel.

Places You Can’t Miss: A Sample, Jam Packed Itinerary

If you’re backpacking SE Asia on a set timeframe, it’s likely because you’re travelling only for the amount of money you’ve saved, or you’ve taken a sabbatical from work and/or are taking a break to travel in between jobs.

Whatever the reason to travel, I’d recommend planning to spend time in Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam and Indonesia.

I’ve left off the Philippines, as the islands are notably more expensive than other places in SE Asia, and the transit infrastructure isn’t as developed as other places (e.g. Thai islands), so it can take a bit longer to get from island to island.

It was also a conscious decision to leave Myanmar off this itinerary, given ongoing political distress (read: a military coup and genocide) occurring in the country. You’ll also notice Timor-Lester and Brunei aren’t on this SE Asia itinerary, both because they can be more expensive to travel to, and because I haven’t been to either.

I’m providing an outline of roughly how much time to spend in each country, and key stops to make, but also would only plan the first couple of weeks if you’re starting off on a longer trip to SE Asia.

I traveled the region for over nine months, and I planned the first six weeks too much and regretted not having more flexibility to spend another day or two in places that really appealed to me. For the rest of my trip, I didn’t book exit flights/plans until I was in a destination and understood just how much time I wanted to spend there. That decision led to some beautiful, unplanned adventures to places I never imagined I’d visit on my trip as a result of flight deals (Taiwan, South Korea, Sri Lanka, India).

While it’s good to have a general plan, and do a bit of research for each place before you your trip starts, don’t over-pace yourself or over plan. You’ll meet people along the way and will appreciate having the flexibility to switch things up at leisure.

The below day allotments are only recommendations, flex up or down based on what appeals to you in each place, and how your trip goes as you’re on it. Generally, the below route follows an upward and over progression, but you could switch it up based on flight deals, or any other factor.

In some places, like Luang Prabang, I’ve suggested a few more days than you ‘need’ to see the key sights because, some spots are magical places to slow down and chill out.

Singapore: Start your trip here– 4 days (+1-2 days more than you ‘need’ to account for jet lag)
Malaysia: Kuala Lumpur, Penang, Langkawi – 10 days
Thailand: Andaman Islands, Gulf Islands, Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, Bangkok- 23 days
Cambodia: Siem Reap, Phnom Penh- 6 days (more if you’re heading to the islands, e.g. Koh Rong or Koh Rong Sanloem)
Laos: Luang Prabang- 5 days
Vietnam: Hanoi, Sa Pa, Ha Long Bay, Hoi An, Ho Chi Minh City- 26 days
Indonesia: Bali, Flores, Gili Islands- 19 days

The Best Things to Do in Each Destination

SINGAPORE:
10 Things You Must See, Do & Eat in Singapore
The Caffeine Lovers Guide to Singapore
A Whirlwind Day in Singapore

MALAYSIA:
Everything You Must See & Do in Penang, Malaysia
8 Cafes You Can’t Miss in Penang, Malaysia
The Best Street Art in SE Asia, Found in Penang
Three Places to Find Excellent Coffee in Kuala Lumpar
Off the Tourist Track: Visiting the Federal Territory Mosque in Kuala Lumpar
5 Things You Must Do in Kuala Lumpar

THAILAND:
Two Weeks to Travel the Best of Thailand
Finding Serenity in Bangkok, A Review of the Banyan Tree Hotel
Living Luxuriously in Bangkok: Five Star Hotels On a Budget
21 Things to Know Before Traveling to Thailand
Finding Floating Markets in Thailand
Three Temples You Can’t Miss in Bangkok
Four Cafes in Bangkok Worth Your Baht
Chiang Rai, Thailand: A Sleepy Mountain Town with Stunning Scenery
Three Temples You Can’t Miss in Chiang Rai, Thailand
The Best Cafes in Chiang Rai
Visiting an Ethical Elephant Sanctuary in Thailand
Why You Should Try a Gong Bath in Thailand
Getting on Island Time: 48 Hours in Koh Tao
The Best Places to Watch the Sun Set in Koh Tao, Thailand
Affordable Island Luxury at the Charming Fox in Koh Samui
Discovering Pristine Island Paradise on Koh Nang Yuan
Cafes You Can’t Miss in Chiang Mai
Three Temples You Must Visit in Chiang Mai, Thailand
The Best Places to Eat in Chiang Mai for Vegetarians
The Ultimate Guide to 3 Days in Chiang Mai
Dramatic Limestone Cliffs + Lush Jungle in Railay, Thailand
A Thai Island Day Trip That’ll Leave You Speechless: Hong Island
Relaxing in the Maldives of Thailand, Koh Lipe
The Most Beautiful Day Tour in the Thai Islands: Snorkelling, Caving & Idyllic Beaches
3 Reasons Koh Lanta is My Favourite Thai Island
The Case for Visiting Thailand’s Phi Phi Islands
A Ranking of the Thai Islands: ‘Must Visit’ to ‘Okay to Skip’
The Complete Guide to Ferrying Between the Thai Islands
Celebrating the Water Festival, Songkran, in Bangkok
4 Places I Still Want to Visit in Thailand

CAMBODIA:
A Two Day Guide to Seeing the Best of Angkor Wat
Four Cute Cafes in Siem Reap You Can’t Miss
Four Things to Do Your First Time in Siem Reap
A  Magical Sunrise in SE Asia: Angkor Wat at Dawn

LAOS:
How Luang Prabang in Laos Stole My Heart in 3 Days
Cruising the Mekong River at Sunset
Three Beautiful, Chill Cafes You Can’t Miss in Luang Prabang
Observing an Ancient Ritual in Luang Prabang, Almsgiving
The Most Beautiful Waterfall I’ve Ever Seen, Kuang Si Falls in Laos

VIETNAM:
Two Weeks to Travel the Best of Vietnam
A Love Letter to Vietnam
Discovering Coffee Mania in Sai Gon
The Ultimate Guide to Sai Gon, Vietnam
The Only Tour You Need to Take in Sai Gon: A Motorbike Street Food Tour
Every Kind of Coffee You Must Try in Vietnam
The Best Vegetarian Banh Mi I Ate in Vietnam
How Da Nang Stole my Heart and Became One of my Favourite Places in SE Asia
Slowing Down in Hoi An: Why I Loved Fell For This Historic Slice of Vietnam
A Guide to Getting Clothes Custom Made in Hoi An, Vietnam
Charming Cafes to Visit in Hoi An, Vietnam
A Night Cruising Vietnam’s Stunning Ha Long Bay
Why You Should Consider Visiting Sa Pa in Vietnam
The Ultimate Guide to Hanoi: Must Do’s & Can’t Misses
Pho Cocktails? Where to Find this Unique Drink in Vietnam
Eating Hanoi, Vegetarian Street Food Style
A Coffee Lover’s Guide to Hanoi

INDONESIA:
Why You Need to Visit the Gili Islands on your Bali Holiday
The Ultimate Guide to 3 Days in the Gili Islands
The Ultimate Guide to 72 Hours in Labuan Bajo, Flores
The Best Day Trip to Take in Indonesia
The Ultimate Bali Planning Guide
The Ultimate Guide to Jungle Paradise in Ubud
Every Cafe You Must Visit in Ubud
Chasing Waterfalls Near Ubud
10 Things You Can’t Miss in Canggu, Bali
15 Cafes in Canggu for Your Smoothie Bowl & Latte Fix
5 Spas in Bali I Loved Enough to Return to Time After Time
5 Sights in East Bali That’ll Take Your Breath Away
The Best Places to Workout & Zen Out in Bali
A Magic Day in the Mountains of Munduk
The Best of Uluwatu in One Day
A Night at Munduk Moding: An Eco-Luxe Hotel With One of Bali’s Best Infinity Pools
Going Off the Beaten Path in Bali, Finding Serenity in Seririt
Seeing the Best of Breathtaking Nusa Penida on a Day Trip from Bali
Three Luxury Hotels in Bali That’ll Take Your Breath Away

Have you ever travelled Southeast Asia? Where would you go on a long trip to explore the region? 

Other Posts You May Enjoy

An Unforgettable Two Weeks Exploring Southeast Asia

Say the words, ‘Southeast Asia‘ and you’ll draw mental imagery of long-tail boats, white sand beaches, lazy rivers, rolling mountains, gorgeous temples, flaming street food, scooters on every corner, thundering waterfalls, lush rainforests, and ruins of civilisations past.

It’s a part of the world that can overwhelm first time visitors with how much there is to see and experience. The warm weather, wealth of attractions, natural beauty, and the captivating culture of each country makes it (as a region) the perfect holiday destination.

During my nine months bouncing around Southeast (SE) Asia in 2019, I visited Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Vietnam, The Philippines, Indonesia and Singapore. On my trip, I had the luxury of time, largely because I worked remotely, which allowed me to travel for months on end, while balancing adventuring with digital consulting and teaching English.

Although I had time, I also moved around a lot- keen to see and experience as much as possible. It was my first visit to this part of the world, but it won’t be the last. Since returning, I’ve had many ask about ‘two week itineraries’ for SE Asia. Even with the pandemic, many are looking forward to a time when they’ll be able to travel again.

Why two weeks?
Often, that’s the amount of time most can take off from corporate jobs without preparing for a longer period of leave, or using too many/all of their allocated vacation days. That said, the longer you have, the better. There’s so much to see and do in each country far beyond what’s represented here. For a first taste of Southeast Asia though, this guide is designed to maximize your experience.

Every place in Southeast Asia has something special to offer, no place is the same- even within a country, things vary significantly from north to south. I’ve included Thai islands, but not an entire week lounging at the beach. You’ll move around a lot, so if that’s not your preferred travel style, consider spending more time in a place. But, if you’re keen to see as much as possible, this guide may be right up your ally.

Where to Visit in Southeast Asia?

Narrowing down places to highlight was difficult. In some ways, this guide is controversial. Often, recommendations for first time visitors to SE Asia center in picking one country and exploring one or two places. While that’s a fine way to travel, I also tend to oscillate between trips where I see and do a lot, and others where I travel slow, spending more time in a single place.

If visiting SE Asia for the first time, I’d definitely want to experience as much as I could. There are 11 countries in SE Asia- Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Timor-Lester, and Vietnam.

If you’re short on time and out to see as much as possible, I’d recommend venturing to 4-5 of my favorite countries, and picking one place to see in each- Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam.

In Singapore, spend time seeing the city.
In Malaysia, soak up the sights of Kuala Lumpar.
In Thailand, go island hopping.
In Cambodia, visit the ancient ruins of civilizations past.
And in Vietnam, eat all the street food. Seriously, all of it.

Will you see and do a lot in a short span of time?
Absolutely.

Will it be a relaxing, rejuvenating vacation?
Perhaps not. But you’ll learn a lot, see a lot and experience a lot. Which, for me, always sparks joy in the moment and long after I’ve returned home.

I’ll also say this- if you’ve haven’t travelled much, this is not the itinerary for you. You may do better visiting one or two places vs. bouncing from spot to spot. But if you’ve travelled quite a bit, enjoy fast paced trips and aren’t bothered by repacking or being on the go, this adventure packed itinerary may be of interest to you.

When to Visit in Southeast Asia

Do your research before booking. SE Asia is composed of islands, mountains, countryside and buzzing cities- each country experiences different weather throughout the year.

I visited Singapore, the Andaman Islands in Thailand, Bangkok, Siem Reap and Hanoi in late March / early-mid April, and would recommend that as an optimal time to visit. Siem Reap will be at the end of the dry season, and it may be unbelievably hot, but it’s tolerable for a short period of time, and much better than visiting in the rainy season.

How to Get Around Southeast Asia

If you’re short on time, fly. An abundance of air carriers, like Air Asia, make doing so easy, peasy and affordable.

Once you reach a place, plan on taxing a Grab or taxi to your hotel/hostel, again, to save time (and stress of navigating a new place). And, depending on where you are, plan on either walking places or using ride sharing (Grab & Go Jek are the ‘Uber’ of SE Asia) to save time and allow you to see more with the time you have.

Must Bring Packing Essentials for Southeast Asia

First and foremast, pack light. When you’re on the move throughout your holiday, you don’t want to cart around a ton of baggage. Trust you’ll be able to either do your own laundry or send out at least once during your trip, and leave room for things you want to bring home. Even if you’re not a souvenir person, as I’m not, you may find yourself excited to bring things, like coffee from Vietnam back with you.

This is the full list of everything I packed to backpack the world through different climates for a year- all of which, fit into a 55L Osprey backpack. If you’re only spending two weeks in SE Asia, pack clothes you can mix and match.

5 Must Pack Items:

  • Sunscreen / aloe vera
  • Mosquito spray
  • Luggage locks
  • Global charger
  • Light, breezy casual clothing, and a scarf or sarong to cover legs or shoulders at temples

Ladies, consider wearing sports bras only. Seriously, it’s so hot and humid, I can’t even imagine wearing a normal bra. Low impact sports bras are where it’s at- the last thing you want are things chafing and sticking.

While we’re talking about sports bras, women, you’ll need to cover your legs past your knees, and shoulders/upper arms when entering temples. I usually wore a midi / maxi dress or trousers and brought a scarf to ensure I was covered on top. If you forget, many temples let you rent items for a small fee. Always check a temple’s rules before visiting- if they don’t have a website, try TripAdvisor for tips from others who have visited.

And, always carry local currency. Most places, unless they’re upmarket, are cash only. And, even if they do accept card- there’s likely a minimum spend. No need to exchange at an airport- just withdraw from an ATM, I use global digital banking cards like Revoult to minimize foreign transaction fees.

One last thing to keep in mind when it comes to packing- if you’re on the move a lot, you’ll spend a decent amount of time in airports- don’t spend even more time in them by needing to check luggage or wait for it to arrive. Carrying on equates to ease of travel throughout your trip.

Key Things to Know About Visiting Southeast Asia

Before you travel, research whether you’ll need visas to enter each country you intend to enter. Of the ones I’ve listed here, visas are required for American travellers visiting both Cambodia and Vietnam- others are visa exempt for short stays.

If you’re able, bring an unlocked phone. You’ll find wifi most upmarket places (cafes, hotels, hostels, restaurants), but the benefits to having wifi to call a tuk tuk or taxi, check currency conversions or language translations, or even look up directions or opening hours for something are endless. If you’re only in each country for a few days, pick up a SIM at the airport when you land- you’ll be surprised by how affordable all are.

Download a few apps to help make your travel plans and time in each country easier.

Research how to say basic greetings in the primary language of each country you’ll visit, as well as key cultural customs to know. While many people you’ll encounter will speak at least transactional English, don’t expect everyone to. Google Translate is my go-to when I need help communicating.

// 21 Things I Wish I Knew Before Travelling to Thailand //

Don’t do anything in a temple you wouldn’t do in a church (or other place of worship). Temples are a place of worship. Be respectful with photography or video and in observing anyone who is worshipping.

If taking a taxi, insist the metre be turned on ahead of getting in.

Bring hand sanitizer and tissues. Sometimes, there won’t be toilet paper in public bathrooms (cue the tissues). And, in public bathrooms and cities, I find having hand sanitizer critical. Especially if eating street food while wandering.

Whether you’re coming from the United States or not, withdraw $50-100 USD to carry throughout your trip. You never know when having USD will come in handy- especially in places like Cambodia, which use USD flexibly alongside their own currency, and where you’ll want it to cover visa fees. I also like to keep a few small bills ($5, $10) handy in a second wallet in case I ever run into ‘trouble’ and need a ‘bribe’.

Finally, make sure you understand the rules of renting a motorbike, as well as the potential risks before doing so.

A Sample, Jam Packed Itinerary

For the purpose of outlining an itinerary, I’ve started the trip in Bangkok. Based on where you’re originating, you may find it’s better to fly in Singapore or Kuala Lumpar and start there. If you do that, then you could easily switch up this itinerary- all three are cities with major international airports. There’s plenty to see and do in each, but if you only have a day in one or two of them, you can still hit up some of the highlights.

Growing up it the US, it was usually advised to book return flights when traveling, but if you’re trying to see and do as much as possible in SE Asia, I’d book one way there and back (price pending, of course). Doing so gives you more flexibility in where you visit, and how much you’re able to see.

One more note about the below- it’ll look like a lot of travel days, but in reality, you’ll likely only need to block a quarter or half day to do things like flying from Phuket to Siem Reap, or Siem Reap to Hanoi. The reason I’ve blocked the day as a travel one is to give you flexibility, but depending on your flight times, you’ll be able to use part of those days to sightsee as well.

Day 1: Fly into Bangkok
Day 2: See Bangkok
Day 3: Fly to Krabi
Days 4-6: Spend 2-3 days in Railay or Ao Nang; Ferry to Phuket to depart Thailand
Day 7: Fly to Siem Reap
Day 8: Explore Siem Reap
Day 9: Fly to Hanoi
Days 10-11: Explore Hanoi
Days 12-14: Fly to Singapore or KL
Day 13: Explore Singapore or KL
Day 14: Transit home

Where to Stay in Each Place

Where you stay should reflect both what you plan on doing (proximity for ease of adventuring), as well as your budget. I’ve made recommendations in every post I’ve linked for each destination below, but Booking.com and Airbnb are great places to check, based on your schedule. Before booking, be sure to read the reviews on their sites, as well as Google- they’re always telling.

Must-See Highlights in Each Place

BANGKOK

Thailand’s capital, Bangkok, is a bustling metropolis- to say the least. The intense, constant grid lock is enough to cause sensation overload in even the most seasoned traveller. Mix in the dozens of beautiful temples, vibrant street markets, hundreds of restaurants and cafes, and infamous nightlife, and you’ve got a city with more to see and do than anyone could possibly find the time for.

  • Favorite things to do: Visit Khao San Road; Have sunset drinks at one of the city’s swank hotel rooftops
  • Favorite place to eat: Chinatown for great street food
  • Favorite places for coffee: Bangkok’s cafe scene is worth your baht. Toby’s, Not Just Another Cup, and Rocket Coffeebar are a few of my favorites
  • Favorite cultural site (museum; temple): Temple hopping: The Grand Palace; Wat Arun; Wat Pho

// Two Weeks to Travel the Best of Thailand //

RAILAY / AO NANG

The soaring cliffs and pristine beaches of Railay, Thailand have hovered near the top of my travel ‘wish list’ for years.

Every time I saw photos, I couldn’t believe it was a real place.
It appeared to be actual paradise.

Many people actually think Railay is an island, but it’s actually part of mainland Thailand. It is, however, difficult to reach. Because of the cliffs and dense jungle, you can only access Railay East or West by taking a long tail boat. The isolated location lends an island feel, which manifests as secluded relaxation.

If Railay is too tough to get to in the time you have, you could stay in adjacent Ao Nang to be more central with the benefit of proximity to exploring Railay.

  • Favorite things to do: Go for a morning walk on Railay Beach; Do two day trips to Hong Island, Four Islands, or Koh Phi Phi. Day trips often start early (8/9 am) and return mid-afternoon (3 pm), so you’ll still have time to hang around when you return
  • Favorite place to eat: The food scene didn’t impress me too much in Railay, but I also need to be overtly careful, because of my food allergies
  • Favorite places for coffee: Coffee Station

// Dramatic Limestone Cliffs + Lush Jungle in Railay, Thailand //

SIEM REAP

Siem Reap is a gateway to the ancient world.

With history dating back to the year 802, it’s somewhat hard to believe Siem Reap was a sleepy town in the Cambodian countryside until the world found out about Angkor Wat. If you’re visiting Siem Reap, chances are you’re there to see Angkor, and by extension, Angkor Wat. And, while the ancient temples should be at the very top of your sightseeing list, there’s plenty more to do in Siem Reap.

  • Favorite things to do: Sunrise at Angkor Wat (you’ll need to get temple tickets the day prior); Get a Khmer massage; Wander Siem Reap’s markets
  • Favorite place to eat: New Leaf for Khmer curry and Khmer noodle soup; The night market
  • Favorite places for coffee: Little Red Fox
  • Favorite cultural site (museum; temple): Angkor

// Four Things to Do Your First Time in Siem Reap //

HANOI

Just the name of Vietnam’s capital, Hanoi, conjures images of motorbikes, street food flames rising up from the sidewalk, its infamous train street, French colonial architecture, charming cafes, and chaos- always chaos. Vietnam is the kind of place that awakens your sense and pulls you in from all angles. The country’s capital, Hanoi, best illustrates this- it’s a crazy, beautiful, historic place.

You could say it was love at first sight my first night in Hanoi. The city’s charm snaked its way into heart, and as I explored back streets over the course of a few weeks, I couldn’t deny how hard I was falling for Hanoi. I call Vietnam my favourite country in Southeast Asia, a title it earned but not without fierce competition from Indonesia, Laos and Malaysia.

  • Favorite things to do: Vegetarian street food tour; Sipping beers at Bia Hoi junction; Wandering the old quarter
  • Favorite place to eat: Banh Mi 25 (best vegetarian banh mi)
  • Favorite places for coffee: Cafe Dinh (egg coffee, old school style); Cong Caphe (frozen coconut coffee)
  • Favorite cultural site (museum; temple): Temple of Literature

// The Ultimate Guide to Hanoi //
// Two Weeks to Travel the Best of Vietnam //

SINGAPORE

Ah, Singapore- the clean, futuristic, cultural city has a lot to interest travellers. With Sing’s airport being a major international hub for connecting flights around Asia, there are often flight deals to be found, with long layovers to see a bit of the city.

  • Favorite things to do: Gardens by the Bay (Supertree Grove and Cloud Tree Forest, in particular); Nightly light show at Marina Bay Sands; Wander colorful Kampong Glam and Koon Seng Road
  • Favorite place to eat: Hawker Centres, in particular Tekka in Little India
  • Favorite places for coffee: Free the Robot; % Arabica; Common Man. Coffee not your thing? Try cheese foam fruit tea at Hey Tea
  • Favorite cultural site (museum; temple): ArtScience Museum

// 10 Things You Must See, Eat & Do in Singapore //

KUALA LUMPAR

Famed for its skyscrapers and shopping malls, Kuala Lumpar (KL) is the capital of Malaysia. It’s a melting pot of culture with a vibrant mix of Malay, Indian, Thai and Chinese. The food is fantastic and there’s no shortage of things to do.

  • Favorite things to do: Climb to the top of Batu Caves (free); Gawk at some seriously good street art; Watch the sunset or sunrise at a rooftop pool
  • Favorite place to eat: Merchant’s Lane for brunch; Connaught Night Market or Bangsar Baru Night Market (more touristy) for nasi lemak, satay and roti canai
  • Favorite places for coffee: VCR; Pulp by Papa Palheta; Feeka Coffee Roasters; Lim Kim Cafe
  • Favorite cultural site (museum; temple): Admire Thean Hou Temple

// 5 Things You Must Do in Kuala Lumpar //

A Final Note

Know your plans may not work out. As with travel anywhere, things can go wrong.

If you need a long tail boat to get to a resort but it’s storming, you may have to spend a night on the mainland. It’s just how it goes, and why travel insurance is so important- I always use Safety Wing or  World Nomads. Remember, you’re experiencing a new country, full of unfamiliar sights, sounds and things. It’s okay if everything doesn’t work out exactly ‘to plan’- you never know what you’ll discover, sometimes it may be even better than what had imagined.

Have you ever been to Southeast Asia? Where would you recommend people visit on their first time in this part of the world? 

Other Posts You May Enjoy

A Two Day Guide to Seeing the Best of Angkor Wat

A TWO DAY GUIDE TO ANGKOR WAT

Siem Reap is a gateway to the ancient world.

With history dating back to the year 802, it’s somewhat hard to believe Siem Reap was a sleepy town in the Cambodian countryside until the world found out about Angkor Wat.

Processed with VSCO with c3 preset

I say somewhat because you can’t ignore or overlook the Khmer Rouge’s reign. Tourism was nonexistent in Cambodia for a reason.

That all changed, of course, when Tomb Raider was released.

Guides offering tours of Angkor will regale you with tales of what filming the movie was like- not enough hotels in town for the cast and crew, barely restaurants or bars to go out to. It’s a very different scene from what Siem Reap has become today.

Processed with VSCO with c3 preset

If visiting Angkor isn’t on your travel bucket list, it should be.

The temples, not to be mistaken as one, were constructed in the 12th century by the Khmer people.

Processed with VSCO with c3 preset

The area of Angkor is full of thousands of buildings and temples, it’s an impressive experience for even those less impressed by history, and truly spiritual for those who awed by the past.

Once, Angkor served as the country’s capital and largest city. Temples are a mix of both Buddhist and Hindu monuments.

It’s hard to describe the feeling of walking through what used to be the heart of the Khmer empire, a place that is still the spiritual heart of Cambodia today.

Processed with VSCO with c3 preset

Dubbed a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1992, restoration has been ongoing at Angkor Wat- really, only beginning to ramp up in 2004.

Imagining the creation of the temples you’ll see in Angkor is enough to leave anyone awestruck.

Each temple is truly a masterpiece.

Processed with VSCO with c3 preset

Short on time when visiting Angkor? 

As was I.

I only had two days to see the best of Angkor, and even at that, really only spent two mornings seeing temples.

When I visited in early April, it was the hottest time of the year in Cambodia and simply too hot to consider seeing more or staying longer. By the time late morning rolled around, I was more than ready to head back to my hotel and spend the afternoon in the pool or relaxing in one of Siem Reap’s air conditioned cafe.

Processed with VSCO with c3 preset

How to See the Bet Temples: A Two Day Guide to Angkor Wat

The first thing you need to know is that Angkor is not the kind of place you can just rock up to. You need to do a bit of planning, especially if you want a guide or to see sunrise at Angkor Wat.

Things like reserving a tuk tuk in advance of your sunrise visit and ensuring you have tickets in hand will help you maximise your time and make the most out of your time in Angkor.

I opted not to have a guide because I did a fair amount of research ahead of visiting and had constructed a route for both days that was a bit different from the typical tourist path. Also, an attempt to save money.

I haven’t shared the nitty gritty details of each temple’s history here, but this website is awesome for getting an in-depth overview of each place you’ll visit. Be sure to read up before you visit, cell service isn’t great throughout Angkor.

And, yes- you need to hire a tuk tuk (or car/van driver).

Angkor is a massive complex, some people bike from temple to temple (which feels like it’d be pretty difficult in the heat), but you definitely can’t walk- the temples are simply too spread out.

86551426-51BB-48A2-9187-F9B3F2A21F79

Day 1: Bayon, Terrace of the Elephants, Ta Prom, Angkor Wat

On my first day, I left my hotel at 6:30 am to head to the Angkor ticket office. About 20-30 minutes from Angkor Wat, it’s a critical first stop in acquiring tickets for your visit.

Tickets in hand, we headed toward Angkor and our first stop.

Processed with VSCO with c3 preset

Bayon Temple: Best known for the massive stone faces carved into the sides of towers, it’s estimated there were originally over 200 of these faces.

Bayon is further back in Angkor, which meant it’d be easy to see Ta Prom and Angkor Wat on the way out. Most tour groups doing the reverse route for the small circuit.

Sure enough, getting there around 7:30 am meant there were few people exploring alongside me.

This temple was spectacular, a definite can’t miss. The detail on the carved faces and wall patterns took my breath away.

A short walk from Bayon, you can also visit Wat Preah Ngok before leaving the area. It’s a large pyramid overlooking a temple, worth a quick look before heading to your next temple.

Processed with VSCO with c3 presetProcessed with VSCO with c3 presetProcessed with VSCO with c3 preset

Terrace of the Elephants: This wasn’t a stop per se, but something we slowed down to view as we drove past. Terrace of the Elephants was formerly used by the king as a viewing platform so he could see his returning army. Be mindful of the monkeys here, there are lots.

Processed with VSCO with c3 presetProcessed with VSCO with c3 preset

Ta Prohm: Easily recognised by most visits because of its feature in Tomb Raider, large vines cover the ruins of Ta Prohm.

Similar to Ta Prohm, it’s also worth stopping at nearby Preah Khan. You’ll see 500 year old trees interwoven into the temple walls, and beautifully carved buddha icons.

Processed with VSCO with c3 presetProcessed with VSCO with c3 presetProcessed with VSCO with c3 preset

Angkor Wat: The biggest and said to be most spectacular of all the temples at Angkor, it’s also the largest religious monument in the world and one of the new 7 wonders of the world.

Angkor Wat has a moat and other wall that stretches over 3.6 kilometers. Within the walls, you’ll find a large garden and the main temple.

It’s impressive before you even enter the temple itself.

I say ‘said to be the most spectacular’ because this wasn’t my favourite temple. I much preferred some of the quieter temples I visited. Although, this also could be because I visited those in early morning when it was cool outside, instead of near mid-day with the sun beating down hard overhead. Don’t get me wrong, I found Angkor Wat impressive- it just wasn’t my absolute favourite temple of all the beautiful ones I saw.

Processed with VSCO with c3 presetProcessed with VSCO with c3 preset

Day 2: Sunrise at Angkor Wat, Preah Khan Temple,  Neak Pean, Ta Som, East Mebon (skipped Pre Rup because it’s similar to East Mebon)

On my second day, I had an early wake up planned to see sunrise at Angkor Wat. I’d also planned to hit more of the temples on the ‘grand circuit’ given their proximity.

I’d wanted to also visit Banteay Srei, further north from the Angkor complex but felt too tired late morning to make the trek up there. Known for boasting some of the most intricate stone carvings in all of Cambodia, Banteay Srei would be worth visiting if it’s not too hot, you have an air conditioned car or simply more time in Siem Reap.

Sunrise at Angkor Wat: I’ve shared my tips for sunrise here, but I’ll say this much- you can’t miss this experience. It’s unbeatable.

39687CDC-5721-4158-831C-81DD148A8EAC34F34741-68B0-4D91-8E96-09AFE420AC3A36B2A444-CE7B-4794-A637-3853A000A01B

Preah Khan Temple: One of Angkor’s larger temple complexes, I loved wandering Preah Khan in the early morning without many people around. Guarded by lion statues, the temple name translates to ‘holy sword’. Some legends even claim thousands of servants (I’ve heard upwards of 100,000) serviced the temple’s royalty.

Processed with VSCO with c3 presetProcessed with VSCO with c3 preset

Neak Pean: This temple is unique in that it’s located in the middle of a lake, and has a long, beautiful wooden walkway to the shrine. It’s the epitome of picturesque.

Processed with VSCO with c3 preset

Ta Som: As with other temples on the ‘grand circuit’, little restoration work has been done on Ta Som. This was another one of my favourite temples to wander, less crowded than Ta Prohm, but still boasting native vegetation overtaking some of the temple walls. It’s a temple I’d best describe as, uniquely beautiful.

Processed with VSCO with c3 preset

East Mebon: Stopping here was an impromptu decision on my way back to the hotel. I’d heard the views from the top would be some of the best I’d find, given my temple route, so I decided to check them out. East Mebon ended up being one of my favourite stops- loved the stone steps, gorgeous elephant carvings and as expected, views from up high.

Processed with VSCO with c3 presetProcessed with VSCO with c3 presetProcessed with VSCO with c3 preset

Have you ever visited Angkor? Which temple was your favourite, or which temple would you want to see first on a trip to Siem Reap? Would you add anything to this two day guide to Angkor Wat?

Enjoyed this two day guide to Angkor Wat? Pin it. 

Other Posts You May Enjoy

A Magical Sunrise in SE Asia: Angkor Wat at Dawn

TIPS FOR SUNRISE AT ANGKOR WAT IN CAMBODIA

Admittedly, sunrise at Angkor Wat was the main reason I was interested in visiting Cambodia.

I knew there was more to the country, and even Siem Reap, than a beautiful sunrise over an ancient temple, but still, seeing a gorgeous sunrise was the number one priority during my time in Siem Reap.

So much so that I even considered going both mornings I had in Siem Reap to ensure I didn’t miss an available opportunity.

In the end, I decided to only go one day and hoped for the best. The week I visited in early April was rain free with clear skies, so I felt good about my chances.

Processed with VSCO with au5 preset

I’d long dreamed of sitting in front of Angkor Wat, watching the sun peak its way over the top of the temple spikes for so long. When the moment came, it was more beautiful than I could have ever imagined.

If Siem Reap is on your ‘must do’ travel list, these are my top tips for sunrise at Angkor Wat. Visiting this exceptional piece of history at the break of dawn was nothing short of incredible. 

Processed with VSCO with au5 preset

7 Planning Tips for Sunrise at Angkor Wat

Buy your ticket the day before: The most important item on this list- buy your ticket in advance.

Before you visit the temples, you need to head to the ticket office- a ~20 minute drive from Angkor, to buy a 1-day, 3-day or 7-day ticket pass. The office opens at 5 am each day.

Read: By the time you’d get there, wait for a ticket, and get to Angkor Wat, you’d miss the best part of sunrise.

If you can’t go the day before and are limited on time in Siem Reap, see if a tour guide or your hotel can purchase for you. Regulations on this are pretty strict- I was asked for my passport as part of buying, but I’ve heard there are sometimes ways around buying in-person if you’re with a registered tour provider.

In my case, I bought a 3-day ticket since I wanted to go to the temples on two days. The first day, I went to the ticket office early, and then headed to Angkor to explore some of the temples further back in the complex while the sunrise crowd meandered Angkor Wat.

On my second day in Angkor, I went for sunrise and then went to see a few other temples before heading back to my hotel.

I didn’t have a third day to spend, but even if I did, I don’t think I would have opted to do so, instead of staying in Siem Reap. I visited in April, which meant it was insanely hot, humid and sunny. After a few hours in the sun on two mornings, I wasn’t interested in heading back for a third go.

Processed with VSCO with c3 preset

Book your Tuk Tuk Ahead of Time: You can either find a driver recommendation on TripAdvisor forums or ask your hotel to recommend someone. I had a list of which temples I wanted to see each day, and asked my hotel to recommend a driver.

Reserving a driver at least a half day in advance of going to see sunrise is critical as you’ll be leaving early in the morning, and don’t want to chance finding one in the streets.

Processed with VSCO with au5 presetProcessed with VSCO with au5 preset

Time Your Sunrise Right: After your tickets and tuk tuk driver, the most important thing you need to do is time your visit right. Look up the time of sunrise, in my case it was 6:21 am.

I’d heard the best time to actually be at Angkor Wat was 15-25 minutes before sunrise, when the sun’s light first touches the sky. When this happens, you’re more likely to see shades of pink, purple and even blue.

The gates to Angkor Wat open at 5 am, and I wanted to be there for opening. My hotel was about ~20-30 minutes from Angkor Wat, so I asked for my tuk tuk driver to pick me up at 4:30 am.

Once your tickets are checked, you need to walk across a pond, and then through the first temple before crossing the yard in front of Angkor Wat. By the time I was in and settled, it was already 5:20 am.

So, in actuality, I only waited about 15-20 minutes for the sky to start putting on a morning show.

Worth the early wake up.

Processed with VSCO with au5 preset

Pick the Right Spot for Sunrise: If you’re standing directly in front of Angkor Wat, I chose a space on the right side in the middle of the pond- perfect for that famous reflection shot.

I’ve heard views from the left side are also good, and in some spaces, give a good view of all five towers.

The best advice I can offer, which I received from a guide, is that it depends on time of year. If it’s the dry season, the ponds may only have partial water and thus, one side may be way better than the other for a reflection shot.

When you walk into Angkor Wat, you’ll be closest to the right side, so I’d recommend scoping out the view here first. If you’re with another person, perhaps have them save your space and then head over to the left side to see if you think that view is better.

Being early means you’ll have the best pick of front row seats before the crowds descend (usually starting in mass around 5:30/5:40 am).

And, if you come later, please don’t snake your way down to the front and then sit down in front of people who arrived much earlier than you. Get up early or stand in the back.

Processed with VSCO with au5 preset

Bring the Right Supplies with You: Namely, something to sit on (plastic bags work great, and your hotel can usually provide one), mosquito repellent (necessary for the morning critters), a flashlight (or back-up battery for your phone if you’re planning to use that one), and breakfast.

If you’re staying at a mid-tier to luxe hotel, chances are they’ll offer to pack you a breakfast. Take them up on the offer- even the touristy food stalls at Angkor Wat don’t open until later in the morning.

I shot at Angkor Wat with an iPhone X, which perfect captured what I wanted. If you own a DSLR, don’t forget your tripod.

Processed with VSCO with c3 preset

Dress Appropriately, Angkor Wat is a Place of Worship: As with temple etiquette pretty much anywhere in SE Asia, clothes should cover your knees and shoulders. You will not be permitted entry if you’re not dressed modestly.

Wait Long Enough to Really See the Sun Rise: Interestingly, a lot of people leave after the sun first peaks over the horizon, which you can usually see through the temple.

Don’t be one of those people. Wait another 15-20 minutes.

You’ll be treated to the sun rising over the temple peaks, washing everything it touches in a soft, morning glow.

Post sunrise, many people head further inside Angkor Wat.
I chose not to do so, and instead, asked my driver to take me to other temples, all of which were almost completely empty at 7:30/8 am.

My route for visiting Angkor had me seeing Angkor Wat on my first day, in the late morning. Yes, it was hot, candidly- almost too hot, but it also meant fewer people were there.

Processed with VSCO with c3 preset

Finally, the best tip I can really offer is to do what feels right to you.

On the morning I went, my hotel said the sunrise wouldn’t be good and advised I skip the early wake up. They believed clouds from a late night storm would linger in the early morning.

They were wrong.

Sunrise was spectacular, and I would have missed it if I took their advice. Now, if the weather had predicted 100% chance of thunderstorms, I may not have went.

But, seeing sunrise was important to me, so I decided to take a chance and still go. I got lucky, but even if the sunrise isn’t everything you’ve imagined, that doesn’t mean it won’t be a moment ripe with magic.

Is seeing sunrise at Angkor Wat on your bucket list? Would you add anything to these tips for seeing sunrise at Angkor Wat?

Enjoyed this post? Pin it. 


Other Posts You May Enjoy

Four Things To Do Your First Time in Siem Reap

Siem Reap is a gateway to the ancient world.

With history dating back to the year 802, it’s somewhat hard to believe Siem Reap was a sleepy town in the Cambodian countryside until the world found out about Angkor Wat.

I say ‘somewhat’ because you can’t ignore or overlook the Khmer Rouge’s reign. Tourism was nonexistent in Cambodia for a reason.

That all changed, of course, when Tomb Raider was released.

Guides offering tours of Angkor will regale you with tales of what filming the movie was like- not enough hotels in town for the cast and crew, barely restaurants or bars to go out to. It’s a very different scene from what Siem Reap has become today.

Processed with VSCO with c3 preset

If you’re visiting Siem Reap, chances are you’re there to see Angkor, and by extension, Angkor Wat.

And, while the ancient temples should be at the very top of your sightseeing list, there’s loads more to do in Siem Reap.

When planning my trip, I only gave myself three days in Siem Reap, which didn’t feel like anywhere near enough time to really experience Cambodia. If doing it again, I’d give myself at least five- 2-3 days to spend at Angkor, and then, more time to see other parts of Cambodia.

If you know me offline, you may have chuckled at the ‘see more of Cambodia’ part of that sentence.

Processed with VSCO with c3 preset

Cambodia was, and remains, my least favourite country in SE Asia.

I’ll be the first person to say I didn’t spend much time there, and admit, I’d like to see other parts of the country someday- Phnom Penh and Koh Rong, to start.

While I loved my time spent seeing Angkor, and found Siem Reap okay enough, it wasn’t a place that deeply moved me.

The biggest reason for this was likely the time of year I visited- April is known for being one of the worst months to visit Cambodia- unbelievably hot, sweltering sun, and the end of the dry season. I was prepared for hot weather, but I wasn’t prepared for power cuts that lasted 8-12+ hours a day, which are common at the end of the dry season.

Many businesses and hotels have back-up generators, but those generators aren’t meant to sustain for such long periods of time day in and day out. Inevitably, they’d start limiting WiFi or aircon access around hour six of the blackout.

Processed with VSCO with c3 preset

I understand Cambodia is a developing country, but the same can be said for a lot of other places in Asia (and the rest of the world).

I’d have less of an issue with this if Cambodian hotels and tour operators notified tourists about it. Instead, whenever I asked about what was happening, I was met with short responses. I’d been told hospitality in Cambodia was unlike anywhere else in Asia- friendly and accommodating- but I didn’t quite experience that during my stay.

The other reason Siem Reap didn’t quite resonate with me was the fact I felt taken advantage of at every exchange. More so than anywhere else in SE Asia.

In Siem Reap, you can pay with Cambodian currency, but most places auto convert to USD. The prices are insane for SE Asia, and not in a good way. In my experience, more than Bali (which is by far, the most Westernised of SE Asian places) and +2-4x what I’d see in Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam and Laos.

I understand the country has a horrific history and is still reeling today. I’d be okay with paying more for food, drinks, purchases, etc. to put more back into the community if that was the case every time, but the skeptic in me has a hard time believing every business operates like that. Of note, for those places that did donate a percentage of proceeds to local charities or workers, I made sure to visit as many times as I could.

Processed with VSCO with c3 preset

These aren’t reasons not to go to Cambodia.

You may have a very different experience than I did, I have several close friends who love Cambodia.

But, I do think it’s important to acknowledge, and discuss when and where expectations fall short. As incredible as Angkor is, I don’t believe in romanticising the experience of visiting the temples and glossing over other details.

I’m also not the kind of person who has unrealistic expectations of what places or travel should be like. Vietnam is one of my favourite places in SE Asia, and it’s also where I was assaulted and robbed.

Things happen. That’s, in my purview, the beauty of travel. You get exposed to a spectrum of things, good and bad.

I don’t think the daily blackouts or extortionate pricing were the only reasons I didn’t fall in love with Siem Reap. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but it just wasn’t my kind of place.

But, I’d still encourage you to go. And experience it for yourself to form your own opinions.

Need a bit of convincing?

Processed with VSCO with c3 preset

Four Reasons to Plan a Trip to Siem Reap

VISIT ANGKOR

If visiting Angkor isn’t on your travel bucket list, it should be.

The temples, not to be mistaken as one, were constructed in the 12th century by the Khmer people.

The area of Angkor is full of thousands of buildings and temples, it’s an impressive experience for even those less impressed by history, and truly spiritual for those who awed by the past.

Once, Angkor served as the country’s capital and largest city. Temples are a mix of both Buddhist and Hindu monuments.

It’s hard to describe the feeling of walking through what used to be the heart of the Khmer empire, a place that is still the spiritual heart of Cambodia today.

Dubbed a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1992, restoration has been ongoing at Angkor Wat- really, only beginning to ramp up in 2004.

Imagining the creation of the temples you’ll see in Angkor is enough to leave anyone awestruck.

Each temple is truly a masterpiece.

Processed with VSCO with au5 presetProcessed with VSCO with c3 presetProcessed with VSCO with c3 presetProcessed with VSCO with c3 presetProcessed with VSCO with c3 presetProcessed with VSCO with c3 preset

GET A KHMER MASSAGE 

The best massage I’ve had in all of SE Asia was at the Lemongrass Garden Spa in Siem Reap.

My only regret?

Waiting until my last day to go- I would have had many more treatments if I knew how good they were.

Here, I had an aromatherapy massage. Upon entering, I was given a cooling welcome drink, and asked to pick my own oil. Then, I was led to a curtioned section of an air conditioned room, and asked to change and lock my belongings away.

Therapists at Lemongrass Garden Spa use the Khmer technique, which feels like little fingers pressing on all the right acupressure points. You walk away feeling like you’re floating.

It’s seriously dreamy.

Processed with VSCO with c3 preset

RELAX AT THE CITY’S CAFES 

I found no shortage of great cafes in Siem Reap- many of which are local owned or employ and donate a percentage of their funds to the Khmer people.

My two favourite cafes: New Leaf Cafe & Little Red Fox.

New Leaf Cafe: If you only visit one cafe on this list, make it this one. Their food is excellent, I’d actually recommend visiting for lunch or dinner. And, their teas and smoothies are great as well.

The Khmer curry and Khmer noodle soup were especially- flavourful and affordable.

The biggest reason I loved this airy, calm cafe? They donate 30% of profits to Cambodian education programs, and 20% of profits to their locally hired employees (on top of their working wages).

Little Red Fox Cafe: My favourite spot for working, with two stories, strong wifi and aircon. The menu boasts an interesting combination of Western-inspired dishes with Khmer flair. Little Red Fox was my go-to for breakfast/early lunches.

Big fan of their vegetable-packed omelets, beautiful salads and smoothie bowls with local fruits- the mango coconut one was perfection. Also enjoyed sipping on their lemongrass teas and lattes. I wasn’t drinking coffee while in Siem Reap, but Little Red Fox is regarded as the best coffee shop in Siem Reap by many visitors.

Processed with VSCO with c3 presetProcessed with VSCO with c3 presetProcessed with VSCO with c3 presetProcessed with VSCO with c3 preset

WANDER SIEM REAP’S MARKETS

Like any major city in Asia, there’s no shortage of markets in Siem Reap. Three that I stopped by and enjoyed-

Made in Cambodia: Opens at 12 pm daily, serving as a showcase for Cambodia design and craftsmanship. Over 40 stalls sell scares, wallets, and beautiful handmade homewares.

Phsar Chas: Also known as the old market, Phsar Chas opens early at 7 am. Here, you can get a real feel for a Cambodian market- lots of colorful spices, fresh produce and interesting meats (read: chicken feet).

Angkor Night Market: Opening daily at 5 pm, come here for a delicious and cheap dinner. Options are more plentiful for meat eaters, but even as a vegetarian, I found enough to keep me happy. Don’t miss the fruit shakes! As with Thailand, ask for ‘no sugar’ if you don’t want them to be saccharine.

Processed with VSCO with c3 presetProcessed with VSCO with c3 presetProcessed with VSCO with c3 presetProcessed with VSCO with c3 presetProcessed with VSCO with c3 preset

Processed with VSCO with c3 preset

EXTRA KNOW BEFORE YOU GO INFO

  • Language: Khmer. Transactional English is common in Siem Reap
  • Currency: Officially, the Cambodian Riel but USD is preferred. Bring cash or withdraw from an ATM- every one I used offered USD as an option
  • Getting There: I arrived via Siem Reap’s airport, but there are also buses from other parts of Cambodia and Asia. If you’re flying in, Bangkok and Phuket are popular places to arrive from/depart too (read: cheaper flights)
  • Getting Around: Walk or hail a tuk tuk if it’s too hot. The downtown is fairly small, and definitely walkable. Tuk Tuks are plentiful- you’ll have no problem finding one
  • When to Visit: Go at the beginning of the dry season or beginning/end of the wet season. I went at the end of the dry season, when it hadn’t rained in months, and it was brutal
  • Wifi Access: Wifi was easy to find (when the city wasn’t under a blackout)
  • Negotiating: As with elsewhere in SE Asia, the rule is: If you don’t see a posted price, it’s open to barter. I negotiated hardest for tuk tuk rides after checking with my hotel staff for what average rates should be for a few distances across the city. Don’t be afraid to walk away- there are loads of tuk tuks, and I promise you’ll find someone that’s willing to work within your budget

Enjoyed this post? Pin it.

Other Posts You May Enjoy

Have you ever been to Siem Reap? What did you think of it? Would you recommend others visit? 

Processed with VSCO with c3 presetProcessed with VSCO with c3 preset

Four Cute Cafes in Siem Reap that Support the Community

FOUR CAFES IN SIEM REAP TO CHECK OUT

I didn’t have many expectations for Cambodia.

I knew it wouldn’t be as developed as Thailand, but with three days in Siem Reap, that didn’t matter to me. I was heading to Cambodia with one thing to see: Angkor Wat.

I’d planned on spending two days at Angkor Wat of the three I was in Siem Reap. I considered extending my stay to visit the Kulen Mountains, Thousand Lingas River and floating village at Tonie Sap Lake, but visiting in the midst of the dry season meant everything was, indeed, dried out.

Instead, I decided to see more of Siem Reap and relax in my hotel after a hectic month spent traversing Thailand.

Processed with VSCO with c3 preset

I didn’t know much about Siem Reap, the city, before visiting. I’d heard there was a street popular with backpackers (Pub Street) with flowing drinks on offer, and knew there were a few good night markets to check out. But, that was about it, initially.

Doing a bit of research, I learned there was a growing digital nomad scene in Siem Reap. I care about that scene because it usually means decent wifi, good cafes and interesting places to visit.

Sure enough, I found no shortage of great cafes in Siem Reap- many of which are local owned, or employ and donate a percentage of their funds to the Khmer people.

At the end of my three days in Siem Reap, I found myself wishing I could stay a bit longer. I’d developed a routine of sorts- sightsee in the morning and then spend the hottest part of the day- afternoon- working from one of the city’s air-conditioned cafes.

And in the evenings, I hit up the city’s night markets and then went back to my hotel for a late night swim.

It was easily a schedule I could have continued for a few more days.

Although, when I think about where the next few months may take me, I don’t see Cambodia on that list.

During my visit, I’d expected basic-decent wifi but was met with city-wide, daily power blackouts that would last anywhere from 6-10+ hours. Working from the road on generator power and backup WiFi is far from the ideal daily routine.

That said, if you’re visiting Siem Reap to see Siem Reap, you’ll be just fine. And if that’s the case, these are my recommendations for can’t miss cafes, many of which serve incredible eats.

Processed with VSCO with c3 preset

Four Cafes in Siem Reap to Check Out on Your Visit

New Leaf Cafe: If you only visit one cafe on this list, make it this one.

Their food is excellent, I’d actually recommend visiting for lunch or dinner. And, their teas and smoothies are great as well.

The Khmer curry and Khmer noodle soup were especially delicious- flavourful and affordable.

The biggest reason I loved this airy, calm cafe?

They donate 30% of profits to Cambodian education programs, and 20% of profits to their locally hired employees (on top of their working wages).

Processed with VSCO with c3 presetProcessed with VSCO with c3 presetProcessed with VSCO with c3 preset

Little Red Fox Cafe: My favourite spot for working, with two stories, strong wifi and air con. The menu boasts an interesting combination of Western-inspired dishes with Khmer flair.

Little Red Fox was my go-to for breakfast/early lunches.

Big fan of their vegetable-packed omelets, beautiful salads, and smoothie bowls with local fruits- the mango coconut one was perfection.

Also enjoyed sipping on their lemongrass teas and lattes. I wasn’t drinking coffee while in Siem Reap, but Little Red Fox is regarded as the best coffee shop in the city by many visitors.

Processed with VSCO with c3 preset

Crane Cafe: With lush plants lining the entrance, it was love at first sight with Crane cafe for me.

I enjoyed this cafe’s smoothies (the avocado, guava, pineapple, coconut one is extra delish), but they’ve also got a solid coffee line-up, and a few light eats on the menu.

As an added bonus, this cafe sells homewares made by Khmer people, which helps support the community.

Processed with VSCO with c3 presetProcessed with VSCO with c3 presetProcessed with VSCO with c3 preset

The Hive: I only visited this cafe once, to grab an iced tea while strolling around in the Cambodian heat, but liked what I saw on the menu for food and drinks- think lots of fresh juices and healthy eats.

It’s near Little Red Fox and Crane, so easy to check out if you’re in that area of Siem Reap.

Processed with VSCO with c3 preset

Have you ever visited Siem Reap? Did you discover any cafes in Siem Reap you’d recommend to someone visiting for the first time? 

Enjoyed this post? Pin it.

Other Posts You May Enjoy