Southeast Asia has long inspired fantasies of jungle treks, ruins of ancient civilizations, dazzling temples, and drool-worthy street food in far-flung villages. Intrepid explorers have enjoyed these very real treasures for centuries, but today even casual travelers can experience the exotic region thanks to the concerted efforts of Thailand to make the area more accessible. Southeast Asia comprises ten nations in total, but it’s Thailand’s tireless internal improvements to infrastructure, public health, safety, and hospitality that have created a glittering gateway to a land previously inaccessible to many. Manhattan Digest was recently invited to experience a jaunt through Cambodia, Vietnam, and Thailand, and here are a few of the pro tips we learned to make your adventure more meaningful.
Angkor Wat at Sunrise is Worth the Work
Atop many an Instagram bucket list is the coveted shot of Cambodia’s Angkor Wat at sunrise, but snapping it is no easy feat. Getting into Cambodia requires a visa, the underdeveloped nation isn’t exactly overflowing with accommodations, and the temple complex itself requires its own photo ID badge that’ll have to be purchased at a designated pavilion before arriving at the famed spires. You’ll need to rise around 4AM to conquer the entry requirements and multiple security checkpoints before daybreak. But it’s worth it. Instagram isn’t the best reason to jump through these hoops, and please do your best to actually observe the temple with your own eyes as the sky above it shifts dramatically from royal purples and blues to fiery oranges and reds, but this quiet experience in the Cambodian jungle is intensely personal, despite the hundreds of people around you. You’ll also have the bonus of exploring the world’s largest religious monument in the early morning hours before the crowd explodes to Disney-level and before the afternoon sun becomes unbearable.
River of Life in Can Tho
Waterways have been key to many Southeast Asian regions, but in the southern Vietnamese city of Can Tho, the Hau River still is king. Despite the surrounding city that now supports modern industry, life against the river offers an honest look at humble homes that depend on it for survival. For many, the use of the river extends beyond transportation from housekeeping to personal hygiene. Taking a ride up the river you’ll pass homes that extend over (and, when the water rises, into) the water, where families wash the pots and pans hanging, intricately arranged, on fences serving as walls above. The same goes for the brightly colored clothing dangling precariously above the water on clotheslines strung from tin roofs and houseboats. Travelers are drawn to the floating markets, restaurants, and hotels that make Can Tho popular, but train your eyes on the very real life passing by on the shores en route to these destinations, and notice how artfully arranged and carefully kept the few possessions of these families are as they live life literally on the edge.
Dinner and a Movie? Lunch and a Puppet Show
You can find any type of show in Bangkok (any type). But if you’re looking for more of a cultural experience than a raunchy shocker, take a canal ride to Baan Silapin, the Artist’s House, in a less urban area of the otherwise bustling city. This two story, centuries’-old teak home has been restored and now houses the work of local artists upstairs, and a can’t-miss, outdoor puppet theater in its courtyard, which is home to a 600-year-old chedi that serves as a backdrop for the show. Arrive early and have a sprawling lunch so intimate and authentic you’ll forget this house isn’t actually lived in, then grab a seat on a sofa, bench, or the floor (this is the best seat) and watch the actors as they are dressed in elaborate costume through in an intricate, nearly hour-long process that oozes tradition and artistry. Daily performances rotate stories of Thai mythology, immersing you in history, religion, and art simultaneously, and maintaining a delicate Thai tradition that is increasingly difficult to encounter.
Thai Island Decompression
The entirety of Southeast Asia is packed with cultural gems ranging from the curious to the mind-boggling, but travel through some of its nations can be more trying than others. For this reason, it’s wise to decompress in Thailand before heading home, and there’s no better way to do this than by spending a couple of days on one of its many idyllic islands. From the Phi Phi Islands in the Andaman Sea to the Gulf of Thailand’s Koh Samui and Koh Samed, the nation’s surrounding waters are overflowing with specks of tranquil paradise, and Thailand’s well-developed infrastructure will get you to them seamlessly. A retreat to any of these islands will ease your transition back to “real life” as you prepare for your journey home. Think of it as that vacation after your vacation that you always yearn for.