South East Asia travel guide

2 minute summary

To explore Indochina is to immerse yourself in four completely different but utterly complementary countries. Thailand is exceptionally hospitable, a land of hidden beaches and hill tribes set against a fantasy backdrop of mountains and riverine valleys. Laos is its beguiling neighbour: enchanting and unspoiled, the country retains a very old-fashioned charm, it’s architecture vying between the stilted wooden huts of its shabby riverside settlements and impeccably preserved French-Indochinese temples. Vietnam’s cities are frenetic, urban sprawls, yet they still manage to be safe and friendly with pockets of French-style tranquility in which to stop and sit. And then there’s Cambodia, painted as a one-trick pony, home to the magnificent temples of Angkor Wat and little else, this preconception could not be more wrong - the smiling Khmer people are what universally astounds travellers to the country and they welcome visitors with open arms, the most extraordinary food and an unforgettable spirit.
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Laos Ratanakiri, Cambodia Chiang Rai, Thailand Con Dao Archipelago, Vietnam


Landlocked Laos is often overlooked by travellers in favour of its more infamous neighbours, but what it lacks in wow factor, it gains in seductive seclusion, a dreamy old world magic and an effortless sense of cool and calm that pervades its every pore. To not explore this intriguing country as part of an ultimate Southeast Asian adventure would be an incredible opportunity missed.

Ratanakiri, Cambodia

Sparsely populated, this far-flung province borders Vietnam and Laos, and the flat Cambodian landscape gives way to the rolling hills, waterfalls, mountains and dense jungle characteristic of the rest of Southeast Asia. It’s a dream for hikers and kayakers. You can also visit some of the local hill tribes for an alternative cultural experience; each tribe retains its own language and traditions.

Chiang Rai, Thailand

Chiang Rai for living in the shadow of its louder neighbour, Chiang Mai, but actually has some noteworthy sights of its own. Besides beautiful surrounding countryside, ripe for outdoor activities and spotting exotic wildlife, it’s also a great spot for experiencing traditional Thai life through the eyes of a hilltribe – clans live together in bamboo houses and each village has a distinct character.

Con Dao Archipelago, Vietnam

It’s hard to believe that this outstandingly beautiful archipelago was once an island prison. Today, it forms part of a national park, sheltering nesting sea turtles, primary rainforests, thriving reefs and endemic species. Con Dao is starting to receive attention from tourists and hotel chains – but thanks to its remoteness, development has been sluggish, and there’s still time to make the most of that.


Complete Indochina Halong Bay, Vietnam Angkor Wat, Cambodia Golden Triangle, Thailand

Complete Indochina

For full-on Southeast Asian flavour and a trip that won’t leave you lacking, a combination of all four Indochina countries is the only way forward. Full-throttle Thailand mixed with the rural Vietnamese life of the Mekong Delta coupled with the astounding culture of Cambodia, and the lackadaisical charm of Laos makes for a heady and truly captivating Southeast Asian cocktail.

Halong Bay, Vietnam

This dreamy seascape is one of Vietnam’s most distinctive scenes. A UNESCO Site, Halong is the world’s largest marine karst landscape, with over 2,000 giant limestone boulders emerging from the waters. Sail on a classic wooden junk, paddle into secluded caves and admire the sunset over the karsts from the deck of your boat.

Angkor Wat, Cambodia

It’s a testament to the temple’s ancient architects that no matter how many thousands of tourists pour into this UNESCO World Heritage Site each day, the sight of the sun rising over the stone towers never fails to excite and amaze. Visit during rainy season or cruise around by boat for an alternative view of these wild, jungle-clad ruins – and escape the crowds by doing so.

Golden Triangle, Thailand

Formerly the world’s most prolific producer of opium, the Golden Triangle is the point in northern Thailand that converges with Laos and Myanmar where the Ruak joins the mighty Mekong River. The Thai side is littered with historic buildings and ruins that date back to the Lanna era; further downstream into Laos you’ll find the semi-buried remains of 5th century city, Souvanna Khomkham.


Kanchanaburi Tiger Temple, Thailand Vang Vieng, Laos Nha Trang, Vietnam Sihanoukville, Cambodia

Kanchanaburi Tiger Temple, Thailand

The Tiger Temple in Kanchanaburi is an extremely popular tourist attraction, as visitors can pet captive tigers and have their photos taken. There are serious concerns over animal welfare and illegal breeding programmes at the temple, which are not being done for conservation purposes, but rather to fuel the illegal yet lucrative trade in endangered species. Not cool.

Vang Vieng, Laos

Put politely, Vang Vieng’s appeal is subjective - over the years it’s gone from being a very quiet riverside town to a backpacker mecca, which is great if you’re a backpacker, but is hugely at odds with its serene karst river scenery. As a result, it’s become somewhere that travellers who used to love staying there now swerve and is sadly far more techno and tubing than reading and romance.

Nha Trang, Vietnam

Vietnam’s answer to the Costa del Sol is not your postcard-perfect beach setting at all. The country’s fastest growing resort is jam-packed with tourists along with Chinese and Russian investors. If you do find yourself here on your Vietnam holiday, head out by boat to more remote coastal spots, sail to whale island or take a tour with local fishermen, who have fished in the same way for centuries.

Sihanoukville, Cambodia

Cambodia’s biggest beach resort is a mess of high-rise hotels, half-built plots, the commotion of construction and street hawkers trying to cash in on the tourism boom. This is not your dream Asian beach destination; head out to one of the unspoiled nearby islands, such as Koh Rong, for true rustic luxury on your Cambodian holiday: a hut, a hammock and a cocktail in hand.

Food, shopping & people


Eating & drinking in Indochina

‘Lao-lao’ = Laotian homemade rice whiskey. It costs about £1; you’ll have the best time of your life, but your head will pay in the morning.
In Phnom Penh, have lunch at the Lotus Blanc Restaurant, managed by a charity that works with street children.
Vietnam has the world’s cheapest beer. Bia hoi is brewed daily and delivered to little street-corner bars in jugs – a glass can cost as little as 12p.
Try rolling your sticky rice into a ball as an “edible utensil”

Thailand is the only country in Southeast Asia that has never been colonised by Europe. Thais call their homeland the “land of the free".

People & language

Thailand is largely ethnically Thai, with descendents of Chinese, Indian, Malaysian, Burmese, Lao and Khmer tribes amongst others and unlike much of Southeast Asia, Cambodia has just one ethnic group – the Khmer, 95% of whom are Buddhist. There are 54 ethnic groups in Vietnam and Vietnamese is the main language spoken, whereas Laos has over 130 different tribes divided into 4 language groups: the Tai-Kadai are the largest ethnic group and the Sino-Tibetan are the least developed ethnicity, they still hunt and gather and have no written alphabet.

Thank a Khmer: “aw-koon”

The tricky ‘s’ at the end of Laos is a source of constant debate, but we’re sticking our neck out. It’s Laos as in ‘house’ and Lao as in ‘cow’ – the Lao people live in Laos.

Gifts & shopping

Chiang Mai is the best place for lacquerware, created using the black resin of the lak tree – hence the name. The lacquer may be inlaid with gold or mother of pearl.

Saoban is a fairtrade outlet in Vientiane that supports local women and sells their artisan silk and cotton products.

Look out for sought-after Kampot peppercorns in Cambodia; said to be the tastiest pepper in the world. You can buy them from markets – but taste them to ensure authenticity!

54 Traditions gallery in Ho Chi Minh City references all of Vietnam’s 54 tribes.

Fast facts

Adultery holds a prison sentence in Laos; half way through the sentence the cheated is given the option to free the cheater (or not).

How much does it cost?

Basic lunch: 50p - £1.50
A beer: 12p – £1
Entry to Angkor Wat: £11.90 per day
Bus/boat ticket (7 hours): £4 - £7
Kilo of fruit: 30p - £1.50

A brief history of Indochina

The term ‘Indochina’ is used to denote a particular part of Southeast Asia, specifically the Indochinese Peninsula, which is specifically occupied by the countries of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, although Thailand is often included too because Bangkok is a great jump on and off point in terms of flights and many people choose to enter Laos by river from Chiang Mai. Bordered by Thailand and Burma on one side, and China and the South China Sea on the other, Indochina today is a staple part of a traveller’s route around this mesmerising part of the world.Read more ▼
Photo credits: [Ratanakiri, Cambodia: Du Hangst] [Chiang Rai, Thailand: Alessandro Caproni] [Con Dao Archipelago, Vietnam: VanLap Hoàng] [Complete Indochina: VanLap Hoàng] [Kanchanaburi Tiger Temple, Thailand: Isabelle Acatauassú Alves Almeida] [Vang Vieng, Laos: Prince Roy] [Nha Trang, Vietnam: P4ntt] [Sihanoukville, Cambodia: Damien @ Flickr] [Eating & drinking: L'amande] [People & culture: Adam Baker] [Gifts and shopping - lacquerware: Gisling] [How much: Ronald Tagra]
Written by Polly Humphris
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