Monks, Bangkok.

12 Reasons We Are Smitten With South East Asia

We spent a lot of time in 2011 in South East Asia. Based out of Bangkok for four months while researching a book and working on stories, we bounced across the region on assignments, around Thailand, along the Mekong, and to Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. It’s since we left, while posting our Asian stories, that we’ve realised how besotted we’ve become with South East Asia. Before we start posting our Australian stories, we thought we’d tell you why. These are the 12 reasons we are smitten with South East Asia.

The 12 reasons we are smitten with South East Asia

Friendly People

The people of South East Asia, especially Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam, must be the friendliest people on the planet, and the most laidback, easygoing and generous — even when they have nothing. Some travellers complain about scams and being ripped off, but aside from an irritating tuk-tuk driver or twenty, we’ve never had any encounters so bad they’ve put us off a place. It’s not just the locals who are lovely either. The steamy temperatures and relaxed lifestyle do something to the expats too, most of whom perpetually wander about as if they’ve just had a massage. And they seem set to stay forever too, like Mason Florence who has been in Asia 20 years. Bo in Bangkok, Hack in Luang Prabang, Audrey in Saigon, Vibol in Phnom Penh, and Janet in Siem Reapchefs, fashion designers, artists, musicians, and boutique owners, we loved meeting them all. Especially shopkeeper Boun Vanh of Nyoy Hai who reminded us of the importance of saying hello.

Chaotic Cities

Frenetic and fast-paced, with their gridlocked traffic and millions of motorbikes (most on the footpaths), it’s the chaos, craziness, and colour of cities like Saigon, Phnom Penh and Bangkok that we find so appealing. Life takes place on the pulsating streets, not behind closed doors — people eat, drink, socialize, even snooze (on their motorbikes!) on the streets, making it hard to ignore, and impossible not to get caught up in. It’s invigorating, exhilarating, and intoxicating. Each day you walk out your door, your senses are assaulted. It’s hard not to be stimulated by such places, and that’s what makes them so addictive for writers and photographers.

Tranquil Escapes

And when the cities, with their smog, smells and traffic snarls become too much — because they do — what we love is that there are always quiet Zen-like places to retreat to: tranquil parks and luxuriant gardens, peaceful temples, serene spas, and beautiful boutique hotels. Or you can get away from the cities completely — cheap flights (and even cheaper buses and trains) and plenty of low-cost airlines make this a breeze. You can slip away to languid riverside escapes like Luang Prabang, to the enigmatic Mekong to do a cruise, or to sleepy rural towns like Khon Kaen and Chiang Rai, where chic retreats like Supanniga and PhuNaCome are ideal for getting away from it all.

Delicious Food and Drink

Asia is the only part of the world we can travel and never tire of the food. After a week in New York we were looking for a Thai restaurant, in Berlin we ate Vietnamese, Thai and Indian. Yet in South East Asia we can happily eat Thai and Vietnamese, Cambodian, and Lao cuisine every day of the week. From street food snacks to degustation menus at fine diners in Bangkok, Siem ReapPhnom Penh, and Saigon, the food was nearly always sublime. At worst, it was good. And so you don’t have to miss the food too much when you leave, wherever you look there are cooking courses to do. Terence did them everywhere from Bangkok (at the Mandarin Oriental and with Poo) to Luang Prabang (with Tamarind and on an organic farm). Then there are cool cafes and bars, in Siem ReapPhnom Penh, Saigon and BangkokVietnamese coffeeSingha beer; and the Asian cocktails made with zingy ingredients like lemongrass and lychee, ginger and galangal. Some of the things we’re really missing: Soul Food restaurant in Bangkok; Isaan chicken and som tam, especially in Khon Kaenpho and thit bo kho in Saigon; Lao khao soi in Luang Prabang; and mango and sticky rice on Soi 38.

Lively Markets

From Klong Toey market in Bangkok to Phousi market in Luang Prabang, the markets across Asia are lively and endless intriguing. We recently visited Melbourne’s markets, and while they were busy and the produce was beautiful, the atmosphere just doesn’t compare to the buzz of Asian markets in Phnom Penh or Saigon, and the sheer variety of produce, herbs and spices on offer. But it’s not only the fresh food markets that are fantastic in South East Asia. Bangkok is home to two of our favourite markets, the retro ‘train market’ Talad Rot Fai, a hip and happening spot beloved by the city’s vintage-loving Thai hipsters, and the sprawling Chatuchak or JJ Markets, with its cowboy bands and fortune tellers, popular with tourists as much as locals.

Rituals and Traditions

Life in South East Asia is a spiritual one with everyday life imbued with countless rituals, ceremonies, festivals, and customs, from making offerings during the early morning alms-giving to local monks in the neighbourhood, made famous in Luang Prabang, to making merit at a mass event attended by 12,600 monks, as people did in Bangkok to commemorate Visakha Bucha Day.  Wherever you go, incense is being burned, flowers are being placed, temples are being blessed, wishes are being made, and futures are being foretold. Even if you’re not religious or even slightly spiritual, it’s hard not to be touched in some way.

Diverse Landscapes

It was by no means our first trip to Thailand — we’d criss-crossed the country on previous trips updating guidebooks — but it was our first time in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, after years of dreaming about travelling there. It wasn’t until this trip, however, that we fully appreciated the diversity of the region’s landscapes, from a car on our road trip through Thailand’s Isaan region, where we took in the bucolic countryside of the Loie Province and the gently undulating hills around Dan Sai, from planes as we flew across the lush, wet rice fields of Vietnam and Cambodia; and from a boat, as we cruised the coffee-coloured waters of the Mekong River. Sigh…

Historical Riches

Ancient archaeological sites, glittering temples filled with golden Buddhas, and hilltops dotted with stupas, South East Asia is rich in historical treasures. Cities like Bangkok abound in them, from the Grand Palace to Wat Arun, while Siem Reap is almost surrounded by them, from the spectacular archaeological ruins of Angkor Wat to other equally evocative temples with splendid carvings such as Bayon. But the most rewarding riches from a travellers perspective were the enchanting Khmer temple sanctuaries in Thailand’s Isaan, particularly Prasat Phanom Rung and nearby Prasat Muang Tam, in rice country a two-hour drive southeast of Nakhon Ratchasima, and the Prasat Hin Phimai, slapbang in the centre of Phimai, both virtually devoid of tourists when we visited.

Traditional Arts and Crafts

You see the vibrant arts and crafts of South East Asia in abundance in the markets, especially in Bangkok’s Chatuchak and in Chiang Rai, Phnom Penh and Saigon, from the vibrant bags and clothing of ethnic minority tribes such as the Hmong to the polished traditional lacquer-ware of Vietnam. But there’s nothing quite like visiting the creative source, from the traditional mask-makers of Dan Sai to the silk weavers in Chonnabot and at Ock Pop Tok in Luang Prabang, to really gain an appreciation for what it takes to make such exquisite things. Knowing how many days and weeks it can take, and the skills, patience and hard work required, makes it hard to ever bargain again.

Creative Fashion

I rarely get excited by clothes these days — it’s all the same, it’s faddish, what’s ‘in’ one season can’t be worn the next. Yet there’s something exciting about fashion in South East Asia. It’s fresh, it’s colourful, it’s elegant, and it’s fun. What I like most is that it’s often inspired from cultures and places from across the globe and across time. While there are gorgeous things being created by locals and expats everywhere, in Siem Reap (such as Eric Raisina), Saigon (Mai Lam) and Phnom Penh (Ambre), Bangkok is where it’s really at. Bangkok is where the most idiosyncratic and adventurous fashion is being made by the likes of Asava, FlyNow, Theatre, Tipayaphong Poosanaphong, Tube Gallery, Greyhound/Playground, 27 Friday/27 Nov, Wonder Anatomie, Palette, It’s Happened to be a Closet, etc. And the best thing about it is that it’s accessible and affordable. If you’re in Bangkok in April, try and get to Bangkok International Fashion Week and you’ll see what I mean. Or just check out the stores in Siam Centre and Siam Paragon next time you’re in town.

Contemporary Art and Design

Art galleries are dotted all over South East Asia’s cities, sometimes in surprising places, such as the café Java in Phnom Penh, which shows continually changing exhibitions, and 1961 on the riverbank in Siem Reap, which began as a musicians retreat and developed into one of the town’s most vibrant art spaces. Then there’s contemporary design, from quirky interior design products to more serious things of beauty being produced at a level of craftsmanship as refined as anything from Scandinavia, such as the fine furniture of Thai designer Jitrin Jintaprecha, whose work caught the international design world’s attention when it showcased at the prestigious 2011 Salone del Mobile in Milan. Makes us want to set up home in Asia.

Vibrant Nightlife

And, lastly, what’s not to love about the nightlife? After dark is when Asian cities really come alive — and I’m not talking about Kao San Road or ping pong shows. All over South East Asia’s capitals, there are sublime spots to sit on a drink while you watch the sun go down, like The Deck in Saigon, and interesting little bars where you can listen to live music or check out a photography show while sipping a cocktail like Iron Fairies and WTF, respectively, in Bangkok. The variety of live music venues would put many cities to shame, from burger joints where you can see rockabilly bands to dedicated music venues for everything from folk music to heavy metal, and dimly lit jazz spots, everywhere from Phnom Penh to Saigon.

They’re the things we love — and miss — about South East Asia. What about you? Share the love in the Comments below, and feel free to include links if you have similar posts on SEAsia.

There are 29 comments

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  1. Colleen Setchell

    Fantastic article. That’s really got the excitement going – I’m heading over to Thailand in August 😀

  2. Lindsey

    You’ve totally nailed it! The frenzy you speak of is something I saw even in China – it’s much different than the speedy chaos you might find in parts of Europe and it’s definitely a sign of being far from home. Thrilling!

  3. Lara Dunston

    Thank you so much, Lindsey. Very true, but I guess you’ve got to like big cities, and if you do then that chaos and colour is appealing. What I love about these cities though – especially Bangkok, Saigon, Phnom Penh – is that there’s always somewhere to go to escape it too! 🙂 Thanks for dropping by!

  4. lila fox

    hiya lara,
    it’s lila, i was one of the ones who won your Grantourismo + LUXE competition, and guess what? i’ve rallied a few girlfriends to take a part of that dream itinerary with me – headed to Thailand over the New Year! loving your articles on Southeast Asia, any musts for ringing in 2013 in Bangkok?


  5. Lara Dunston

    Hi Lila – fantastic! How exciting! Thanks so much for the feedback on the stories too 🙂 Musts for New York in Bangkok? Celebrate it with locals rather than other tourists. Have fun!

  6. Alyx

    I’m from South East Asia (Singapore) but has yet to visit Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, they are now in my to-visit list 🙂 Definitely agree with the delicious (and cheap) food, trendy fashion and buzzing nightlife from Thailand!

  7. Lara Dunston

    So pleased to hear you love SE Asia too. Living with a family would have been an insightful experience. Thanks for the link – we’ll check it out 🙂

  8. Katie

    I think when we move away from SE Asia I’m going to miss the food the most. Everything from great fruits to certain hawker dishes like char kway teow just can’t be recreated on the other side of the globe.

  9. Lara Dunston

    The food is just incredible, isn’t it? At all levels too, from street food to fine dining, and then the fresh food – there are few things more sublime that a fresh ripe mango and sticky rice in my opinion.

    Asian food isn’t always terrible authentic in Europe or the US or UK, but we were so impressed with the Asian food in Australia that we’ve eaten over the last year. It’s easily as authentic as it is here – partly because the country is so multicultural, but also because the waves of immigrants and foreign university students haven’t stopped.

    As a result the tastes of their homelands are still very fresh in their mind and they’ll settle for nothing less than authentic. You can always do a trip Down Under if you’re missing Asia but want a change of scenery? 🙂

  10. Veronica May

    I love Thailand so much for all the reason you mention, the people and food are just amazing! The craziness of Bangkok mixed with the picturesque islands. Lovely photos too! I look forward to reading your blog 🙂

  11. Casey-A Cruising Couple

    Great list, and we totally agree! I think the food might be the number one reason why we love it 🙂 We live in Taiwan, and although it’s not really Southeast Asia, it definitely makes travel in the area way easier.

  12. Naomi

    I love all of these reasons! Which bar is that – the one with the red interior and portraits on the wall? I can’t tell if it’s in Laos or Vietnam!

  13. Becki | Backpacker Becki

    I’ve been living and travelling in the region for over a year now and couldn’t agree more. I first fell in love with it years ago when I first touched-down in Vietnam. I don’t think I will be leaving anytime soon! I love the chaos, the food and the people if I had to choose a quick top three things!

  14. Lara Dunston

    Three great reasons there, Becki! Yes, we’re head over heels too. Coming to the end of our second month in Siem Reap and now torn between here and Hoi An. We fell in love with Vietnam too this year after spending 7 months there. We think we’ll do a year in Cambodia and then return to Vietnam next year to live indefinitely. We’re hooked. Where are you basing yourself now?

  15. Lara Dunston

    We’re glad you agree, Naomi! The bar is actually here in Siem Reap in Cambodia – it’s called Miss Wong and it’s a beautiful bar serving up the best cocktails in town. It’s become so popular the owner Dean has added an adjoining room that’s equally atmospheric.

  16. Chris

    Great article. My wife, 2-year-old son and I are on an indefinite nomadic adventure, currently in Thailand. We’ve explored Vietnam and Cambodia along with Thailand so far and the best thing by far is the food. Although I must admit I’m rather sick of rice! My best advice for potential visitors is get out of the cities and explore rural and country areas. Less time in Hanoi and Saigon and more time in Sapa and Hoi An, less time in Phnom Penh and more time in Siem Reap, less time in Bangkok and more time in Chiang Mai 🙂

  17. Lara Dunston

    Glad you agree! Australia is extraordinary – especially if you travel through the Outback. But, yes, they are very different in a lot of ways, although Australia is also very Asian. Walk around Sydney or Melbourne now and many of the faces are Asian – it’s wonderful! I love my country’s cosmopolitanism. I’m loving focusing our lives around Asian now but I won’t miss it when we eventually return to Australia as it’s there too.

  18. Lara Dunston

    Hi Chris – we never tire of the food at all. When we’re not travelling, most nights of the week we are cooking Cambodian, Thai, Vietnamese, Malaysian, even Sichuan. Great advice too! We love all the cities you mention but there’s nothing like getting out into the countryside and enjoying the landscapes and experiencing village life. The people are so much friendlier too. Enjoy your trip! Don’t ever hesitate to let us know if you need any advice.

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