Old Quarter, Hanoi. Image courtesy of Mike Clegg
Mike Clegg, a traveling photographer, joins us for a guest post that recaps a three-week itinerary he’s blazed himself. The photos here only scratch the surface of Mike’s work in Southeast Asia – you can see the rest of his photo oeuvre at mikecleggphotography.com. Mike blogs at travelanddestinations.com; you can follow him on Pinterest, Facebook and Twitter.
South East Asia has been one of the most amazing places I’ve ever visited. From the amazing mix of fantastic architecture, delicious cuisines, a fascinating history and beautiful landscapes, I couldn’t have been more impressed.
Based on one of my recent trips to Asia I’ve created this travel itinerary where you’ll be visiting three countries – Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand – in the space of three weeks. The suggested itinerary is designed to provide you with experiences similar to mine: visiting cities, ancient temples as well as relaxing on stunning beaches.
Day 1-8: Fascinating Vietnam
Start your trip in Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam. You’ll find this city to be the perfect introduction to your South East Asia experience. I found Hanoi to be a fascinating city: it was easy to spend hours wandering the streets and watching the locals going about their busy daily routines.
A few highlights of Hanoi include:
- Exploring the Old Quarter: The Old Quarter of Hanoi is a wonderful place to explore, and you can go on walking or cyclo tours to learn more about the history. Walk towards the south of the Old Quarter, and you’ll come across Hồ Hoàn Kiếm, a beautiful lake that is lit up at night.
- Whilst walking around this lake I saw kids playing games, locals playing music, all within a captivating atmosphere that couldn’t help but make you smile.
- Visiting the Temple of Literature: This serene complex consists of five large courtyards and various beautiful buildings and temples. It is dedicated to sages, scholars and the philosopher Confucius. You’ll often see people praying and donating food and money here.
- See the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum: One of the most famous attractions in the city, this imposing structure is the final resting place of Ho Chi Minh, the father of the Vietnamese nation. Occasionally you’ll be able to visit inside, otherwise you’ll be able to gaze from the outside and the gardens. I found this Mausoleum and the gardens particularly entrancing when it lights up at night.
Sapa rice fields, Vietnam. Image courtesy of Mike Clegg
From Hanoi, you can make a detour to either Sapa or Ha Long Bay, both of which veer off in opposite directions from the capital.
Whichever you choose, either make for a great excursion away from Hanoi, and can be visited for just a few days. Although you may be able to book these trips online, it’s best to organise either through your hotel, or from a travel agency, which you will find throughout the city.
You’ll then most likely get either a bus or a train from Hanoi. Getting to and from these places will take a bit of time, hence why you should save around four days for the entire trip.
- Sapa is located around 300km northwest of Hanoi; the landscape is rural and mountainous, with rice fields everywhere. The peace and chill air makes Sapa a great place to relax and unwind. Hiking is a major local activity; you’ll find lots of locals offering tours for a low price.
- Ha Long Bay is a 160km, three-hour drive to the east of Hanoi. Its picturesque landscape consists of thousands of small islands jutting out of the sea. Most people go here for boat tours.
Angkor Wat, Cambodia. Image courtesy of Mike Clegg
Day 9-12: Ancient Angkor in Cambodia
From Hanoi, take a flight to Siem Reap and the nearby ancient city of Angkor.
The temples of Angkor are one of the most popular attractions in Cambodia, and consist of an impressive 400-square-kilometer complex of temples and architecture dating from the 9th to the 15th century. I wrote a guide to the area covering 24-72 hours’ sightseeing.
A few highlights worth seeing in Siem Reap include:
- Tour the Temples: Head on a tour of the Angkor temples, where you’ll learn about these wonders of the world and about the ancient civilisation that built them. I did a tour like this through my hotel, where the driver takes you around the temples. I also arranged to get picked up at 4.30am so that I could see the sunrise behind Angkor Wat.
- Watch an Apsara Show: Apsara dancing is a traditional dancing technique in Cambodia and is wonderful to watch. A good place to see this is at Koulen Restaurant, where you’ll have a large buffet selection of food to enjoy whilst watching the show. I found the show very entertaining and definitely worth the price, which was only $10 USD when I went.
- Relax along Pub Street: One of the more popular streets in central Siem Reap is Pub Street, where you’ll find countless bars and restaurants, with many serving ridiculously cheap beer for as low as 50 cents. It’s also very lively, a great place to go at night.
- Visit the markets: Two of the best markets in the city include the Old Market and the Night Market. The Old Market contains fruit, veg and other items, whilst the night market has more clothing, ornaments and such items that would be great to take home with you.
Phuket Old Town. Image courtesy of Mike Clegg
Day 13-21: Sunning it at Thailand’s Beaches
After the heat of Siem Reap, fly down to Phuket in the south of Thailand. Here you can stay in the colourful old town for two nights, before getting the ferry across to the beautiful Ko Phi Phi Islands.
Visiting the Islands was one of my favourite experiences: the scenery is breathtaking, the water enticing.
Phuket (two days). When arriving to Phuket International Airport you should first stop at Phuket Old Town for a day or two. I recommend staying in one of the hotels around Thalang Road.
Highlights of Phuket:
Self Walking Tour: Explore and go on a self walking tour of the Old Town. Head to the tourism agency along Thalang Road to see the route and get a map. I found it doesn’t take too long and you get to see some nice temples and streets.
Visit Chillva Market: Just north and a short taxi ride away from the Old Town is Chillva Market. This market is great to visit at night, where you’ll find street food, stalls selling clothes and other items, and sometimes live music. I particularly enjoyed the buzzing atmosphere at this market and it was probably one of my favourite experiences during my short visit to Phuket.
Long-tail boats on Ko Phi Phi. Image courtesy of Mike Clegg
Ko Phi Phi (six days). A visit to the Ko Phi Phi Islands may be the ultimate highlight of your trip!
These are a collection of islands with huge towering rocks covered in lush green foliage. Surrounding these rocks is exotic turquoise water which you’ll struggle to stay out of.
Some people consider Ko Phi Phi as a bit of a party island, as there are lots of bars in the center. However I found avoiding the bars and party atmosphere is extremely easy and you can stay in resorts and hotels that are far from it.
A few highlights of Ko Phi Phi include:
- Boat tours: An unmissable experience is to go on a boat tour, where you’ll explore some of the famous areas such as Maya Bay (from the Movie “The Beach”), see Viking Cave and Monkey Beach, and get to snorkel with exotic fish. A good company to go on such tours is Arisa Speed Boat Tours. You’ll be able to book these at outlets around the island. For me this was one of the best experiences of my life and as a photographer I couldn’t put my camera away.
- Head up to the viewpoints: The viewpoints provide an exceptional aerial view over the island. They take a while to get up to, but it’s worth the effort. You could head up during the day, or it’s particularly nice at sunset.
- Diving: If you love diving or want to take a basic course, you will find countless places around the island selling these services.
- Party and nightlife: Around the main centre are bars, as well as Loh Dalum Beach where you’ll enjoy good music all night long.
Read my guide to Ko Phi Phi Islands & Maya Bay for a closer look.
If your flight is early on the last day of your trip, then you may want to head back to Phuket the day before so it’s easier to get to the airport. If you have a late flight, then consider getting a morning ferry back to Phuket from Ko Phi Phi Islands.