Southeast Asia is an amazing mélange of spirituality, hedonism, beauty, filth, deep history and roaring modernity: a place that can enchant or repulse. It is a place that may be deeply appreciated on a shoestring: I stayed in hostels and shared beds for around US $1.50-$3.00 a night, hitchhiked and took local busses, ate fresh local food and refilled a metal bottle with purified water at hostels and restaurants. Southeast Asia is relatively safe. The people are lovely, welcoming and warm, as is the weather (outside of monsoon season). Time operates in different ways around Southeast Asia – you may hear people talking about ‘Thai Time’ and ‘Laos Time’ or ‘Cambodia Time’: the result of infrastructural and cultural realities that can distort time to operate about 30 to 60 minutes slower than almost-clockwork Singapore Time.
You can come away from Southeast Asia with some profound experiences and some great friends.
I lived outside of Chiang Rai for a month and a half volunteering at the New Life Foundation, a Buddhist foundation for recovering addicts. Chiang Rai has some beautiful spots including the White Temple and the Black Temple. The city of Chiang Rai itself is quite small but has a large night market with tons of clothes and trinkets and delicious food.
There are many places in Thailand to volunteer or work at in exchange for food and accommodations. I had to pay a small amount (~$1.20) every day to supplement my room/board, but got three fresh/healthy/delicious meals a day and a private room with an en-suite bathroom. The compound had a swimming pool, a yoga/meditation hall, and several other outbuildings for art/activities. The surrounding countryside was beautiful and great for biking and exploring. Volunteers do farm work (planting/picking/cultivating/pruning/irrigating) and general maintenance work and whatever else they could do to help. Those with knowledge of mechanics helped with maintaining tractors/vehicles and those who could teach yoga held yoga classes etc. I helped them find a better Internet service provider and install a receiver and then helped them set up a blog and social media presence that has since grown enormously. I also started a small bike co-op there for the residents and volunteers.
To find opportunities similar to that, helpx.net has hundreds of listings in Southeast Asia.
There are several small villages to the northwest of Chiang Rai, close to the border of Myanmar, that may be of interest – the one my friend and I visited, Mae Salong, is largely populated with Nationalist Chinese who escaped from Communist forces during the Chinese civil war that ended in 1949. The inhabitants still speak Chinese (public announcements in Mandarin and store signs in characters) and there’s a small museum in town that explains their history. We hitchhiked there in the back of a pick-up truck and the views of the terraced hills were breathtaking. Public transportation off the main highways can be difficult/impossible to find. Hitchhiking seems quite safe and people are extremely helpful and nice.
Chiang Mai, nestled in the mountains southwest of Chiang Rai, is a beautiful city. There are many things to do and eat in Chiang Mai’s Old City. There’s a huge night market there and a number of beautiful temples. You can head into the mountains to Chiang Mai’s west to see more temples or Hmong tribes that grow coffee. One of the most beautiful places I went to was a Hmong coffee plantation in the mountains – a Shangri-La of cherry blossoms and fruit trees. One of the best parts was riding up and down the winding mountain roads on a moped.
While in Northern Thailand you can also visit Myanmar by road. We went for a day and got a visa-on-arrival at an overland crossing in Mae Sai, Thailand. We hired a driver, toured around the town of Tachileik, Myanmar, enjoyed some amazing food and visited a large golden stupa and several temples. Everything is extremely inexpensive.
Other places in Thailand outside of Bangkok in central Thailand to consider might be the historic city of Lopburi. Lopburi’s old town is the site of dozens temples built by several empires including the Khmer, with ruins dating back over 1000 years. The town, including the ruins, is also infested with monkeys. Lopburi can be reached by train or bus from Chiang Mai and Bangkok.
In terms of islands in the Gulf of Thailand, I would highly recommend Ko Tao. It has some of the most affordable scuba diving courses in the world and beautiful water and beaches. Everything is easy to get to since it’s a small island. Tons of good food and places to hang out and watch the sunrise/sunset. If you’re in the mood for the debauched Full Moon Festival, head to Ko Pha Ngan. Another island, larger than Ko Pha Ngan, to consider might be Ko Samui. From Bangkok, you can buy passage on several routes to get to the islands – usually, train-bus-ferry or bus-bus-ferry combinations.
Laos is a beautiful, rough, relatively untouched country. In the north, from a town called Chiang Khong in Thailand, you can cross the national border across the Mekong River, get a visa on arrival, and take a slow boat (overnight) or speed boat down river to a town called Luang Prabang. There’s a night market to hang out at as well as a Chinese bowling alley. There are some very cute French bed-and-breakfast places. A fun place to go out of town is a series of waterfalls and crystal clear natural pools. At the top of the waterfall is another place to bathe and there’s tons of jungle to explore while you’re there. For breakfast, lunch, and dinner, you can find the ubiquitous baguette stalls offering a wide selection of meats and vegetables on fresh baguettes and using imported Laughing Cow brand spreadable cheese.
On the way to the capital, Vientiane, you can stop at the tourist hedonism capital of the Laos – a town called Vang Vieng. There is a disturbingly surreal feeling about the town when you notice all the cafés are playing the same re-runs of Friends and Family Guy on TV, their cushioned seats and couches filled with entranced stoned/wasted youth. Plenty of drugs (mushroom and marijuana mostly) are available at bars and restaurants in town in the form of milkshakes and pizzas. For further debauchery, you can rent an inner tube and head upriver to float downstream while getting drunk at the various riverbank bars along the way. Several tourists die every year from being intoxicated while trying to use the huge rope-swings and/or concrete slides that the bars have. Instead of renting a tube, you can also walk upstream and swim down while enjoying the rope swings and slides for free. At night there are bonfires and parties around the town, with most bars offering ‘buckets’ of alcohol for low prices (literally small, colorful beach pails filled to the brim with booze).
If you can draw yourself away from the party scene in Vang Vieng, there are many wonders to be discovered in the beautiful surrounding countryside. We rented mountain bikes and headed out to a series of caves to go spelunking. Definitely bring a flashlight or a cellphone with an LED light if you want to check out the caves. There is tons of great hiking, biking, and climbing to be done around Vang Vieng, and it’s relatively uncrowded.
Vientiane, the Laotian capital, has a great riverfront on the Mekong. During the dry season there’s a huge sandbar that forms a beach several miles long along the elbow in the river. You can swim and play Frisbee and hang out with locals on the sand bar while cattle graze on sparse tufts of grass. Good cafes and food can be found in the heart of the city.
After Vientiane, you can do a self-guided tour of some caves/falls on the The Thakek Loop that can be traveled by moped or motorcycle. You can rent motorcycles or mopeds in Thakek and complete the ~450km loop in several days. The loop passes through several different topographies – all with beautiful scenery. Many of the loop’s roads are unpaved and dangerous, and gas must be purchased in coca cola bottles at shacks along the way. A great account of the loop, with pictures, can be found here.
At the bottom of Laos are the 4,000 islands. You can stay in bamboo huts at hostels and guesthouses on many of the small islands and see a huge series of waterfalls that flow into Cambodia at the end of the islands. We stayed on an island called Don Det.
You can get a visa-on-arrival in Cambodia on most overland routes.
Phnom Penh is a bustling city with many attractions. The most noteworthy, we found, were related to the brutal reign of the Khmer Rouge (1975-79). The Security Prison 21 (S-21) Museum, a high-school-turned-execution-center, is located within the city, while the Killing Fields memorial is located about 17km outside of the city in a town called Choeung Ek. Both are worth a visit, but are tough to stomach. They are akin to visiting other sites of mass genocide around the world. Phnom Pehn’s National Museum of Cambodia is a great place to see ancient history and unwind and there are several temples within walking distance. You can also take nice walks along the Tonlé Sap, Mekong or Bassac rivers that flow through city.
In Cambodia’s south, Otres beach offers a beach getaway a safe distance from the debauched nightlife of downtown Sihanoukville. Otres beach has numerous beachfront bungalow and guesthouse options that affordable. Beach activities include kayaking, wind surfing, and nighttime swimming with bioluminescent plankton. There are several islands off of Sihanoukville worth checking out such as Koh Rong.
In northwest Cambodia, Siem Reap offers the splendors of world-famous Angkor Wat, an enormous temple complex that requires at least 2 days to fully take in. Tonle Sap lake and Battambang are also worth visiting while in the area. The lake, the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia and a UNESCO ‘biosphere’, is home to many floating villages that can be explored by boat or ferry. The ferry to Battambang across the lake is great for sightseeing – just take an umbrella or parasol in case they stick you on the boat’s hot metal roof. Battambang’s surrounding countryside has several Killing Cave monuments that are easily reachable by motorcycle. For nature, there are also some great jungle hikes outside of Battambang that extend all the way to the Thai border. Just be careful of tigers. The bat caves outside of Battambang are also an amazing spectacle – at dusk every evening, millions of bats stream out of a gaping cave opening and flow out into the fading light like a massive, writhing snake.