The insider advice on this page is from one of Wendy’s Trusted Travel Experts for Southeast Asia: Sandy Ferguson and Ethan Crowley of Asia Desk.
Sandy and Ethan craft tailor-made itineraries that take travelers to multiple destinations in Southeast Asia and combine five-star creature comforts with authentic local experiences. Both grew up in the region: Sandy graduated from the International School of Bangkok in 1969 while his father was serving in the Vietnam war and has planned trips to the region for more than 30 years; Ethan was raised in Cambodia and is fluent in Khmer. Sandy now splits his time between Saigon and the U.S., while Ethan keeps the office running in South Carolina. This team is always candid about what works best for travelers, and, just as important, what doesn’t. They have a vast network of powerful contacts in the hotel industry—which translates into status for you—and a wonderful selection of on-the-ground hosts, all charismatic locals whom Sandy considers family (some of them really are!).
What to See and Do
Mekong Delta, Vietnam. Many people have heard that Saigon (the French district of Ho Chi Minh City) is boring and not worth a visit, but in fact it’s one of Asia’s most civilized cities, and it’s small enough that you can see it all in a day. If you have more time, make the three-and-a-half-hour drive to Can Tho, the biggest city in the Mekong Delta (Asia’s breadbasket), and the next morning experience a real floating market—not staged like you’ll find in Thailand. Delta folks are the friendliest in the country, with an outstanding variety of cuisines and regional dishes.
Southern Laos, a paradise known as “Four Thousand Islands.” With the arrival of quality accommodations such as the River Resort in Champasak, visiting the mysterious pre-Angkorian tenth-century temple of Vat Phou, the islands of Don Khong and Don Khone, the Tad Somphamit (Liphi) waterfall, the famed Irrawaddy River dolphins, and the other attractions of the region is now a lot more comfortable. See it now, before word gets out!
Every weekend in Hanoi, the circular road around Hoan Kiem Lake is closed to vehicular traffic. The area fills with performances by local musicians, full stage shows in the park next to the post office, an array of traditional Vietnamese family games, and vendors of all sorts. Hanoians turn out in full force for the event, with entire multigenerational families attending together, making it a wonderful cultural experience for visitors as well.
Most overrated place
Phuket, Thailand has great beaches, but it’s overdeveloped and rife with traffic jams and mass-market tourist scams. Amanpurii and The Surin share a lovely private beach on Pansea Bay, but that’s about the only place you’d want to go.
Most underrated place
Luang Prabang, in northern Laos, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site with few international chains—no Starbucks, no Burger King, no 7–11—and the region’s only PETA-endorsed elephant experience, the Mandalao Elephant Sanctuary.
Only Sandy can arrange for you to see sunrise at Phnom Krom Pagoda in Siem Reap, which sits on a hill overlooking the Tonle Sap Lake and Angkor Wat. The experience is often the high point of a traveler’s entire visit to Cambodia. It begins with a departure from your hotel just after 4 a.m. to join the monks at the pagoda for their morning prayers and meditations. The abbot is an old friend of Sandy’s and you will meet him just before dawn, as the monks begin a purification ceremony that includes chanting, prayers, a sermon (which your guide translates), and a final blessing with holy water. The ceremony concludes just as the sun has risen and spreads light throughout the Angkor plain, with the great lake and temples of Angkor in sight. Step out of the temple to a picnic breakfast that is waiting for you on an excellent perch overlooking it all. After breakfast, you will bid the monks good-bye, climb back down the hill, and return to your hotel with many fond memories of this truly rewarding experience.
Start early in the morning at the fresh market in Kep-sur-Mer, Cambodia and spend the rest of the day cooking with expert guidance at the Knai Bang Chatt Resort, until it’s time to eat the fruit of your labors. After the meal, a hammock will do you right in this colonial-era seaside resort, just down the Cambodian coast from Kampot and Sihanoukville. Kep, which has the feel of an old colonial ghost town replete with casino, has no beach; there is instead a grand breakwater that stretches the length of the old town. The Gulf of Thailand forms a bay here with Kep on one side and the Vietnamese island of Phu Quoc on the other, so the water is as calm as a lake, with many piers jutting out.
Where to Stay and Eat
Best-value splurge hotel
Mandarin Oriental Bangkok. This is without a doubt one of the finest hotels in Asia and the best value you will find at the luxury end of the spectrum—it may be expensive, but you get so much more here than you would for the same price in London, New York, or Tokyo. The service is better than in most top-notch European hotels, because the Mandarin Oriental pays well and retains talent; everyone on the staff takes a lot of pride in the place. The hotel also has a great location right on the river (wherever you stay in Bangkok, make sure it’s on the Chao Phraya), and it has recently undergone a complete room renovation. The Deluxe rooms in the River Wing are just fine, but if you want the prime view, book one of the eight Staterooms, which face the river head-on.
Restaurant the locals love
Charin, a family-run restaurant on the river road from Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai, serves the best pies (yes, pies) you will ever taste. Owner Khun Charin, who is in her 90s, spent more than 20 years living in San Diego and developing her baking skills before returning to Thailand to open this place. All of her ingredients—including pumpkins for the absolute best pumpkin pie in the world—are organically grown in her garden.
Dishes to try
Khao soi is a simple northern Thai/Lao/Burmese curried chicken or beef soup with hearty noodles, coconut milk, and a rich depth of flavor. Be sure to throw in the deep-fried crispy egg noodles, pickled cabbage, and shallots, and squeeze a lime over it all.
Bánh Xèo—literally “sizzling cake,” named for the loud sound it makes when the rice batter is poured into the hot skillet—is a Vietnamese savory fried pancake (it resembles a French crepe with a crispy edge) made of rice flour, water, and turmeric powder, and stuffed with slivers of fatty pork, shrimp, diced green onion, and bean sprouts. They are served wrapped in mustard leaf or lettuce leaves, and stuffed with mint leaves, basil, fish leaf, and other herbs, then dipped in a sweet-and-sour diluted fish sauce. The southern-style bánh xèo you get in Saigon also contains coconut milk.
Meal worth the splurge
Eon 51, on the 51st floor of the Bitexco Financial Tower right in the heart of old Saigon, is a sky-high restaurant taking fine dining to a new level in Saigon—quite literally. But be warned: If you’re scared of heights, better give this open-theater kitchen a pass. Book in advance, as the restaurant is limited to 30 diners per night in order to ensure that the experience is amazing.
Prime picnic spot
Tad Sae Waterfall, Luang Prabang. Follow the Nam Khan River to a great spot just below this waterfall, a stunning limestone cascade with fluorescent turquoise pools. Here also lies the tomb of the nineteenth-century French explorer Henri Mouhot, the first European to see Angkor Wat and to visit the Royal Kingdom of Luang Prabang. Many Lao people picnic here, so come early on weekends to get a good spot.
May: You’ll find great weather in Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam while simultaneously avoiding all peak periods and pricing.
Chinese New Year (or Vietnamese Tet, which is celebrated at the same time, usually late January or early February), when every single tourist attraction is crowded and hotels double their rates. It is a site to behold, but your nerves and wallet will be the worse for the wear. Go instead in the weeks leading up to the lunar new year to see preparations being made.
Trying to put a 50-pound trip into a 30-pound sack! Allow yourself at least two or three nights at each destination; three to four is ideal. Based on this formula, it takes a minimum 28 nights to see Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia—and that’s not counting Myanmar or any beach time.
Sunrise or sunset at the ancient Thai city of Sukhothai. Just over 100 miles southwest of Chiang Mai, Sukhothai was the northernmost citadel of the mighty Khmer empire, situated to take advantage of the rise and fall of the sun; today it is a UNESCO World Heritage site. In the early 13th century, a Thai chieftain overthrew the ruling Khmer overlord, making Sukhothai the first independent Thai kingdom. Decades later under the reign of King Ramkhamhaeng, Sukhothai reached the zenith of its power, building a great city whose ruins today encompass a beautifully manicured historical park great for sunset bike rides. There are many vantage points to get some incredible shots, but come out before dawn for the best light.
A bamboo-leaf conical hat. This headgear can be found throughout Southeast Asia, but it’s mostly seen in Vietnam. It can be used as a hat, wall art, or a lampshade, and you can just as easily buy four as you can one, because they nest for travel (though you may well end up carrying them, as they are awkward to pack). This style of hat is used primarily as protection from the sun and rain. If you have one in natural bamboo, it can be dipped in water and worn as an impromptu evaporative-cooling device.
“Hello, my friend, are you from America?” Watch out for anyone who approaches you at random speaking excellent English. Most scams in Asia (and particularly Thailand) start with a charming “front” person who will end up luring you to a shop, or maybe some more illicit activity. The most common is a shopping ploy along the lines of “I was just on my way to my uncle’s shop, would you care to come along?“ This most often ends up with you buying counterfeit jewelry or overpriced goods.
Google Translate’s app will translate your text from English to Thai, Lao, Burmese, Khmer, and Vietnamese and from those languages to English. It is very easy to use and will come in handy if you are on your own, especially in more rural areas.
XE Currency can be a lifesaver in Vietnam: The exchange rates mean that every time you go to the ATM you will be a multimillionaire, and you’ll be forking out hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese dong for lunch.
The workers who go through your carry-on bags in Bangkok are very conscientious about their jobs and confiscate lots of stuff—so be sure to know what is and isn’t permitted. If you are not being met by one of Sandy’s local hosts, avoid the “freelance taxis” at all airports, and instead take a car service (there are stands in the arrivals hall) or a metered taxi from the taxi queue outside the arrivals area. If you’re not carrying too much baggage, the fast train from Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi International Airport to the city center is an easy and convenient way to get to town. It connects to the Skytrain metro system and can save you time as you won’t have to contend with traffic.
Give $1 per bag to porters, $5 per night to housekeeping, and a few dollars to restaurant waiters, since this will not be thrown into the tip pool but kept by those who actually served you. In a taxi, round up to the nearest couple of denominations: If it’s 7, give 10 and hop out. You can always use U.S. currency for tips, so take along at least $20 per day in small bills to do that without running out; $2 bills are considered “lucky money” in Southeast Asia, so bring lots of them.