How long should I spend in Southeast Asia?

Thinking carefully about how long you should spend in Southeast Asia is certainly worth doing before you skip off for a month or more. Many a traveller here has complained of fatigue and a general apathy for ancient ruined temple complexes, because they've simply spent way too long experiencing the same thing, or as close as damn it, over the previous week or so. Staring at ceiling fans, opting out of 'yet another temple tour' and longing for Marmite on toast are all symptoms that your stay in Southeast Asia may have gone on too long, and no one wants to develop the thousand yard stare captured by Martin Sheen, aka Captain Willard in Apocalypse Now.

So, how long should you spend in Southeast Asia? Quality over quantity should certainly become your mantra. Although there’s no point whizzing from country to country ticking off temples as you go, it is possible to take a shortish tour of two weeks or even nine days that allows you to understand where you are and what you're experiencing. There are also three and four week tours that will give you a richer experience of the region, leaving you eagerly anticipating coming back for more.

What to see with a week in Southeast Asia

A week is a wee bit too short if you're looking to visit more than one country in Southeast Asia. To be fair, it's not really responsible to fly all that way and stay for just a few days in only one country. Once you've got over the jet lag and counted the costs of the carbon air miles you'll be heading home again. Anyone making the long haul flight from Europe to Southeast Asia should certainly think twice about environmental impact.

We recommend spending at least nine days on the ground in Southeast Asia if you're travelling direct from Europe. This sort of duration gives you an instant and exciting sense of culture shock, as well as time to relax and take it all in. Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand, for instance, can be visited overland in nine days with the route from Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam to Bangkok in Thailand via Cambodia’s Angkor Wat achievable as part of an organised small group tour.

What to see with 2 weeks in Southeast Asia

Now, a two week holiday in Southeast Asia will give you much more Bang(kok) for your buck, although most holidays of this length stick to just two countries, rather than three or four – Cambodia and Vietnam, say, or Northern Thailand and Laos. Two week breaks are generally small group tours, and offer an authentic and insightful experience without too much packing and unpacking and whizzing from place to place. You can also pick a tailor-made tour, designed specifically for families, that explores Cambodia before relaxing on a Thai island, with biking and river boats, swimming and snorkelling.

Although it can be tempting to tick off the temples and fly from country to country, we think it's much more preferable to make the most of one country at a time before moving on to the next. Comparing and contrasting two or more different cultures on one trip is fascinating and far more stimulating than just ticking off sights.

What to see with 3 weeks in Southeast Asia

Three week tours of Southeast Asia are going to give you an opportunity to travel more extensively, and reach more remote locations, in Northern Thailand and Laos, for example. A three week adventure creates time to meet local people, too. You could explore in the mountain foothills along Vietnam’s Chinese border and hike in the bamboo forests close to the town of Sapa, discovering the lifestyles of the Hmong and Dzao hill tribes before taking the overnight train to the capital, Hanoi, where a cultural contrast over French coffee awaits. This sort of time frame encourages loads of interaction with local people in the most natural of circumstances including nights in homestay accommodation, well off the typical traveller trail.

In three weeks you can dip your toe into each of the four Indochina countries (Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam), travelling from Bangkok to Vientiane and Luang Prabang, on to Angkor Wat and the Mekong River, before exploring Vietnam via Ho Chi Minh City, Hoi An and Hanoi. Tailor made tours tend to include a private driver, but three weeks in Southeast Asia is easily enough time to get around using public transport, and it’s often incorporated into a small group tour. Travelling by overnight trains and public buses lets you watch the world go by as tranquil countryside scenes become replaced with exciting urban alternatives.
Travel Team
If you'd like to chat about Southeast Asia (Indochina) or need help finding a holiday to suit you we're very happy to help.

What to see with a month in Southeast Asia

If you've got the time, and the energy, then why not travel in Southeast Asia for a month, or more? Our recommended small group tours take into consideration cultural burnout and the need to balance free time to explore with guided sightseeing tours. Overland travel allows for plenty of time to catch your breath between border crossings as well as packing in an interesting combination of rail, road and river experiences.

Making the most of a month in Southeast Asia as part of a group will also provide more opportunities to get to know your travelling companions. Bonds are always going to form over this sort of time frame and solo travellers will often discover they're far from alone just after a few short days into a trip.

Although a month might seem like a long time, it tends to fly by and it’s definitely worth taking the time, if you can afford to, for the breadth of what you will see once on the ground. At Responsible Travel, we’re advocating taking fewer but longer holidays, to cut down on our personal carbon footprint until aviation cleans up its act. Longer trips of course carry a higher price tag, with the fast paced and affordable trips designed for younger travellers, aged from 18 to 30 years.

Just remember…

Whatever length of time you spend in Southeast Asia, make sure you choose a trip that's right for you. Shorter trips – nine days or so – are a great taste of the region, but you simply won’t have time to cram everything into one. They offer an exciting overview, perfect if you’re new to the region and short on time.

Longer trips – over two weeks – are likely to include at least a couple of days in each location. This gives you more time to unwind in between travelling as well as more opportunities to do some optional activities like cooking classes, Thai massage or just watching the world wander by while you sip an ice cool glass of Chang. Southeast Asia has been around for a while and it will, hopefully, be around for many more years to come. Make sure you visit each country and meet different people with respect and with open eyes rather than blurring and merging everything into one mind blowing Captain Willard-style mission up the Mekong.
Written by Chris Owen
Photo credits: [Page banner: dia_n] [Intro: Colton Jones] [Three weeks: sasint] [A month: Chris Slupski]