So you want to plan a trip to southeast Asia? Great! You're in for a treat (quite literally, in the form of heaps and heaps of mango sticky rice. I enjoyed it nine times over the span of two weeks and returned eight pounds heavier, but I digress...).
While you may be throwing darts at a giant map to finalize your travel itinerary, I'm here to walk you through the highlights of three beautiful and wonderful country options: Vietnam, Cambodia, and Thailand.
Put down the hammer and apologize to your piggy bank. As you begin to book your hotels and excursions, you may be surprised to find that southeast Asia is actually quite affordable. In fact, most of the money my friends and I spent was on souvenirs, day trips, and fancy cocktails served in oversized coconuts (#noregrets).
This is the perfect opportunity to book that business class ticket you've always dreamed of, because sleep—as you'll learn when traveling long distances—is absolutely of the essence. And nothing, I repeat, nothing comes close to the comforts of top shelf champagne and a flat bed on an international flight.
EVA Airline's Royal Laureate is in a class of its own. Not only do you get the Krug and premium seat you never knew you needed in life (and trust us, you do), but also a fleet of the nicest flight attendants in the business. This was the first time I actually ditched the Xanax and looked forward to flying, which I credit entirely to watching Moana on repeat (because duh) and the staff who pampered me with booze, pajamas, and blankets from the moment I sat down.
The food, unsurprisingly, was also excellent. From caviar-stuffed shrimp and lobster salad, to a post-nap, mid-flight hamburger (who even knew they could prepare that on board?), everything was delicious, well-portioned, and served as if you were dining in a white tablecloth restaurant.
If you're debating whether or not the upgrade is worth the investment, go for it. Your credit card bill may sting a little, but not as much as your back after 16 plus hours in economy.
STAY While it may seem a bit inauthentic to stay at a Swiss chain in the middle of Asia, the Mövenpick's location serves as an ideal respite from the hustle and bustle of Hanoi's city center. Their brunch is also one of the best we had during the entire trip. Featuring a drool-worthy bread and pastry bar, along with plenty of traditional Vietnamese cuisine (do not leave without getting the heavenly red bean bao buns), it was certainly an excuse to get three cranky boys out of bed each morning.
DO Avoid being killed by a motorbike. Seriously. There are hundreds of thousands of them and traffic laws are essentially non-existent. My approach was to pretend they were NYC cabs, close my eyes, and recite an Our Father, but that probably isn't the safest way to go about crossing the street.
An overnight cruise in Ha Long Bay is absolutely essential. It was, arguably, the most beautiful moment of our trip as we kayaked through the bay's Jurassic Park-esque islands during sunset. We booked our tour through Indochina Junk and don't have a single regret (other than not making our trip a day longer).
Visit the Hỏa Lò Prison museum and question everything you ever knew about the Vietnam War, world history, and Senator John McCain. There are two sides to every story.
EAT A trip to Hanoi wouldn't be complete without sampling street-side delights like seafood and meat-heavy banh canh and pho, though our most memorable meals, shockingly, came from the capital's diverse array of vegan restaurants. Ưu Đàm Chay was a standout with sweet durian pizza, fried lotus root, and a variety of fresh teas.
STAY Cambodia is well-known for its friendly and more-than-accommodating locals, but nothing surpassed the service we received at Lotus Blanc Resort. The open air, French-inspired architecture of its newest wing was both an inviting and modern entrance to our cozy, wood-clad room with a massive walk-in shower. The hotel's real gem, however, is its heated pool that sits among the property's lush grounds. It was the perfect escape after a long and brutally sweaty day of exploring the city's sites.
DO Angkor Wat is the most obvious choice and should be number one on your list of musts, but I highly recommend a detour into Siem Reap's many street fairs (including the floating village). Aside from purchasing souvenirs and sampling local cuisine, you get to interact with the locals, who were probably the most warm, welcoming, and gracious people we met the entire trip.
EAT Here's your chance to ditch your Americanisms and be a little adventurous. Bugs? Fried rice with ants? Snake skewers? The possibilities are endless. Just be sure to pack the Pepto. You're going to need it when things come out scarier than when they went in.
STAY Where you stay depends entirely on the tone you want to set for the trip. Those looking for ping pong shows (no judgment, you do you) and MTV Spring Break-style debauchery should reside in Phuket's southwest side of Patong, while relaxation-seekers may consider the island's less populated outskirts like Cape Panwa and Ko Sire. The decision is yours, but choose wisely–there's no convenient way to hop around from place and to place and the taxis can get quite expensive.
DO Since Phuket is very much like Cancun, you'll obviously want to spend the majority of your time on the water. You'd be remiss to not visit the postcard-worthy Phi Phi Islands, which boast turquoise water, baby powder sand, and decent snorkeling. I am a frequent traveler to the Caribbean and these hidden beaches (Bamboo being my favorite) rivaled those of the Turks and Caicos, which is a very bold statement that my mom is going to give me crap for.
EAT There are literally thousands of restaurants to choose from (and the area you stay in will certainly dictate where you eat), but I highly recommend an adorable oceanside spot called The Cove. The cocktails are creative and chock full of local produce, while the seafood-driven menu is a safe bet for even the most picky of eaters. If you want a pizza, order a pizza, but the peppercorn-crusted tuna steak is their signature dish, and deservedly so. Be sure to pet a fat and friendly feral cat on the way out.
STAY One of the most interesting aspects of Chiang Mai is its dichotomy between modern and traditional. If you fancy the former, the Akyra Manor is for you. This boutique-style hotel, featuring a rooftop pool and rooms with outdoor tubs, is a star. It's evident that thought and purpose went into every design detail, from the ornate light fixtures (and horse lamp!) in the lobby, to the plush, floor-to-ceiling curtains that line the walls of each floor. I love a hotel that goes out of its way to make it look like the really care, and the Akyra Manor achieves just that.
DO Visit one of over 300 Buddhist temples (wats), but don't be swayed by what's popular. Pick a temple that really speaks to you and your personal interests (like Wat Buppharam, which hosts an array of Disney statues. No Moana, unfortunately.).
Zip line through the mountains and rain forest. Jungle Flight features a line that's over 1200 meters with panoramic views of endless greenery. It may be cliché to say "it took my breath away," but I quite literally gasped (and maybe peed a little) as I dangled hundreds of feet in the air...at a speed of 40 mph...all to take in the untouched beauty.
Become besties with an elephant. Unlike Phuket and Bangkok, most of Chiang Mai's elephant sanctuaries are safe havens for these gentle giants. Though there is still some controversy over whether or not you should ride them, we chose Patara, as they pride themselves on being "basket-free." The babies are squeal-inducing adorable and you'll want to add your flashy mahout (elephant trainer) garb to your summer wardrobe.
EAT Everything you can get your hands on. Chiang Mai was our favorite food city because its culinary influences come from all over the world. Akyra's ITALICS is home to charismatic Chef Phubase 'Base' Chuprakong, whose inspired cooking blends techniques from both the south and north of Thailand, as well as Italy (he also teaches cooking classes on the property). His kao soi, a traditional Chiang Mai dish with tender egg noodles, mild curry soup, pickled cabbage, and chicken, was perhaps the most memorable dish of the entire trip.
STAY It may seem counterintuitive to end an exhausting trip in a city that rivals New York's energy, but the Mandarin Oriental is a hidden oasis. This is your opportunity to stay in a hotel that would cost you nearly $600/night in America, but less than half the price in a foreign country. The rooms are spacious and tastefully-decorated with a blend of Victorian elegance and modern upgrades, while their pool (our saving grace after days of walking and walking and walking some more) features an adorable man who will literally serve you coconut ice cream, chair-side, with nothing but a smile on his face. Frankly, it was difficult to leave the property to take full advantage of Thailand's capital.
DO While the temples are stunning, impressive, and very, very gold, the highlight of Bangkok, for me, is its nightlife. Check out the gay district in Silom for a fun evening of bar-hopping, dancing, and avoiding trouble at all costs. The latter is a difficult feat, but you don't want to be stuck negotiating with Tuk Tuk drivers at 3 AM while holding the street-side fried chicken you just ordered for the ride back. Not that I have any experience with this whatsoever.
EAT I'm going to flip the script on this one and encourage you to drink. Whether it's an innovative mushroom vodka cocktail at The Bamboo Bar or a round of Singhas (Thai beer), it seems like Bangkok is the authority when it comes to booze. Be sure to nosh on toasted grasshoppers at the bar as a salty substitute to peanuts and pretzels. They're quite healthy and pack an addictive crunch!
Joey is editor-at-large at Chowhound. When he's not writing or eating french fries, he's probably listening to Beyonce, playing volleyball, or practicing his stand-up comedy routine. You can preorder his debut cookbook, BASIC BITCHEN (Aug. 4), at bit.ly/BasicBitchen.