Indochina assaults the senses of the first-time Western visitor, with its explosion of colours, scents, and sounds – wholly unlike anything they’ve experienced before. Southeast Asia has everything: teeming cities, sleepy villages, ancient temples, exotic cultures, and untamed jungles. Indochina literally buzzes with life.
You could spend months touring Indochina and still not see everything. Don’t worry if you haven’t all the time in the world, as you can at least sample the best of the region.
Below are the top five, must-see highlights for a first-time Indochina tour.
Spend a few days getting to know the Cambodian people and culture, and you’ll fall in love with this proud country that has struggled to rebuild after a devastating civil war. Siem Reap, once a dusty village, has turned into a tourist haven as the gateway to the astonishing temples of Angkor Wat, certainly one of the most important cultural sites. If you have three days in Cambodia, here are the key attractions to see.
Rise before dawn and watch the sun spotlight the Angkor Wat, your first must-see destination, in all its splendid glory. This ancient temple city is an archeological wonder and lasting tribute to classical Khmer architecture. If you have energy left after exploring Angkor Wat, visit the Prasat Bayon and continue to the south gate of the Angkor Thom and the Terrace of the Leper King.
4-Day Angkor Wat In Depth
Spend a day in the capital city of Phnom Penh, where the heavy influence of French colonization still permeates the architecture. Visit the National Museum and the Royal Palace. Sample the street food and plan a sumptuous cosmopolitan dinner at one of the city’s exquisite restaurants.
The country’s history is both extraordinary and horrific, but to truly understand the Cambodian people, a visit to the Genocide Garden (Tuol Sleng), and the Killing Fields (Choeung Ek), is important. These places evoke intense emotions, however, so consider their emotional impact before you think about visiting.
It’s tempting to define Vietnam by its historical giants, Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi, strangely modern cities punctuated by tranquil boulevards and gorgeous colonial architecture. However, the wooden pagodas, decayed temples, and dramatic landscapes of the rural countryside are also an essential part of any Vietnam tour. The country’s snaking S-shape will have you exploring from either south to north (Cambodia to Laos), or vice versa.
The second must-see marvel on your Indochina vacation is Halong Bay, an other-worldly panorama of ghostly limestone karsts rising from the glittering South China Sea. A Halong Bay cruise is by far the best way to experience this natural wonder.
2-Day Halong Bay Paradise Cruise
Known as the “land of smiles,” Thailand is legendary for the warmth and friendliness of the Thai people – from the bustling crowds of Bangkok, to the peaceful villagers of northern Thailand’s hill tribes. Phuket and the fabulous beaches of the Andaman Coast, the hottest destination for the international beach crowd, is a popular stop on any tour of Thailand, whether it be done on a budget, or as a luxury beach escape.
You’ll have to head north for the third must-see, Chiang Mai, and a trek to the hill tribes.
4-Day Hilltribe Trekking, Elephants and Rafting
You can expect once-in-a-lifetime adventures such as elephant rides, bamboo rafting, and even meals and overnights with some of the local tribes. Don’t forget to check out the colourful markets of Chiang Mai before you leave northern Thailand.
Laos is laid-back and full of gentle and devoutly Buddhist people, who genuinely enjoy welcoming visitors to their gorgeous country. Its capital, Vientiane, is a sleepy, slow-paced city, lacking the imposing architectural sites of other Southeast Asia capital cities, but there are lovely temples and gorgeous flowering trees. One of the highlights of a Laos vacation is the spicy papaya salad and abundant sticky rice.
Laos is home to the fourth must-see: tak bat, or morning alms, in the mesmerizing city of Luang Prabang. In this early morning ritual, hundreds of monks, in silent meditation, walk single file through the streets receiving their ration of sticky rice.
3-Day Luang Prabang Stopover
The suboptimal infrastructure in Laos makes travel a challenge, which makes the fifth must-see, a Mekong cruise, almost a necessity to really experience the country in all its glory. As the 12th longest river in the world, the Mekong winds its way through Laos, revealing cultural and historic treasures at every turn, including local riverside villages where you’ll experience firsthand how the people of Laos live and work.
12-Day Laos Revealed Mekong Cruise – Upstream
Your time in Indochina won’t feel like enough, but with a well-planned itinerary, you’ll still fit in the five most awe-inspiring adventures the region has to offer.
14-Day Cambodia and Vietnam Explorer