I first came to Southeast Asia in 1987 on a flying visit passing through on my way to New Zealand, that it took me 18 years to return is something that still baffles me to this day. I adore the region, its people and its culture. There are so many unmissable things here that I thought I’d jot a few down. Most people have either a very real bucket list or at least a loose idea of things they really want to do. I think it is easy to come up with a Southeast Asia bucket list; the problem is whittling it down to 10. This is mine.
1. Angkor Wat, Cambodia
No contest really, this had to be number one. It is the largest religious site in the world and the most important Buddhist Temple anywhere, despite the fact that it was actually built as a Hindu Temple. It really does live up to its reputation. I found the experience incredibly moving and it left me with memories and a longing to return; something I have done twice. Built by King Suryavarman in the 12th Century in honour of the Hindu God Vishnu, it later converted to Buddhism. The fact that it was completed in just 32 years seems almost beyond belief; the sheer volume of incredible relief work is amazing.
Of course nobody goes to Angkor Wat and misses all the other incredible temples. Angkor Wat is the most famous but the whole of Angkor Thom with the unbelievable temples of Ta Phrom and The Bayon, provide memories that will last a lifetime. Recent laser imaging has shown that all the temples were in fact all once part of what was the largest conurbation in the world in its day. Angkor Wat would be impossible to leave off any Southeast Asia bucket list.
2. The Mekong Delta, Vietnam
This is the stuff of legend; the mighty Mekong flows 2700 miles before it reaches its destination in the Eastern Sea. The road to Mandalay as Kipling called it, is a mysterious life-bringing force that passes through 6 countries. As it nears journey’s end in Southern Vietnam, it splits into hundreds of rivers and rivulets. This is the Mekong Delta. Home to 17 million people, it covers an impressive 15,000 square miles.
Can Tho, the region Capital is a great little city with plenty to see and do. The Cai Rang floating Market is one of the most famous in all of Southeast Asia. Boats start arriving before daybreak resulting in a riotous colourful affair as traders and customers vie for position on the river.
3. Bangkok, Thailand
No Southeast Asia bucket list could possibly be complete without the inclusion of Bangkok. In most years it is the most popular tourist destination city in the world as 18 million visitors stream into this amazing city. The nightlife is legendary, go-go bars, girlie bars, pubs, clubs, restaurants and nightclubs abound in this most incredible city. Population estimates vary between about 8 and 12 million and it is almost impossible to guess which is correct.
Not many names of Cities anywhere in the world can conjure up such mystery and magic as Thailand’s capital city. Anyone who has ever spent time in this city will understand the appeal. It is a vibrant 24-hour party town coupled with fascinating culture and some of the finest restaurants and street food in the world.
4. Bagan, Myanmar
Located in the Mandalay Region of Myanmar, Bagan had the highest number of Buddhist Temples ever assembled in one place. Over 10,000 were built originally and while many have since disappeared the 2,229 that remain, make for a spectacular sight. Many now claim that it is as impressive and as important as Angkor Wat. Built between the 10th and 13th centuries, they dominate the landscape and viewed from the air they are simply jaw-dropping. A hot air balloon ride is a must. Bagan is in an earthquake zone and suffered 400 recorded quakes between 1904 and 1975, the last serious one on July 8th 1975 caused irreparable damage to many of the temples. In a desperate attempt to boost the fledgling tourist industry here the military government tried to repair and restore many in the 1990s, but their efforts drew widespread condemnation from art historians and preservationists from all over the world. Myanmar is now approaching half a million tourist per year; most of them visit Bagan.
5. The Marina Bay Sands, Singapore
Singapore is one of the most spectacular cities anywhere in the world, when they do things here they do it big and brash. Things do not come any bigger or brasher that the Marina Bay Sands. The triple towers are joined at the roof, some 55 storeys above street level, by a huge platform that serves as a resort. This is the most expensive building ever built anywhere in the world, at a colossal $4.7Billion. The hotel has 2,561 luxury rooms and the sky park as it is called has restaurants, gardens, an observation deck covered by the world’s biggest cantilever roof and an enormous 150-metre infinity pool. There are 800,000 square feet of retail and restaurant space, housing many top designer names. Called the Shoppes, it has a canal running through its entire length. The world’s largest Louis Vuitton store is found here. Every night there is a 13-minute laser, light and water show called Wonder Full. This really is one of the most spectacular locations in the world, whilst this type of building will not suit everyone; it is a magnificent achievement of both design and build. I would suspect that this has been added to most people’s Southeast Asia bucket list in recent years.
6. Halong Bay, Vietnam
This UNESCO World Heritage Site is one of the most beautiful places on earth and should never be left of any travel itinerary in Vietnam. 1600 square miles of sea contain 1960 limestone karst islands that jut imperiously out of the water to provide the most stunning scenery imaginable. Hundreds of tour boats ply their trade here; taking tourists round to see the sights, which include the spectacular Sung Sot Cave (Surprise Cave). The bay is also home to floating villages that have houses, schools, police stations and even a basketball court. Cat Ba Island is the largest of all the islands in the bay with a surface area of 110 square miles, over half given over to the Cat Ba National Park. This is home to the famous Cat Ba Langur, one of the world’s most endangered primates. The bay offers different experiences at different times of the year, and is thought by most to be at its most beautiful on winter’s mornings when mist blankets the whole area, then lifts as the day warms up.
7. Lake Toba, Indonesia
Indonesia has many fabulous attractions, but this geographical wonder on the Indonesian island of Sumatra, part lake and part volcano, has to be one of the finest. This was in fact the location of a super-volcanic eruption some 69,000 years ago that changed the world’s climate and wiped out most of humanity. Thankfully things have settled down and it is now home to the Batak people who live and eke out a living here. It is quite simply a paradise. Life is just about as laid back as it can get, here. It is five or six hours by road from Sumatra’s capital city, Medan. Though it can be reached by sea, with ferries arriving in the port of Parapat. The guesthouses around the lake are inexpensive and very comfortable. The lake is huge, over 60 miles long and is the world’s largest volcanic lake. Local fishermen cast their nets in the early morning, paddling their boats out onto the lake.
8. Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
KL as it is known to most, is a riotous city full of life and excitement. Starting life as a shantytown it has developed in a unique manner. It never seems to take itself seriously and nothing demonstrates this more than the multi coloured monorail that runs round the city centre. The monorail is part of a very impressive internal network of public transport. It is enormous covering about 94 square miles and being home to about 7 million people. KL is home to the Malaysian parliament and has 11 Districts. Tourism is a huge part of the local economy, it is the 6th most visited city in the world with 9 million tourists coming every year. The Malaysia Grand Prix also is here and is held out by the airport. The city’s street food is legendary. The famous Petronas Twin Towers are the city’s most well known buildings. These iconic monoliths stand half a kilometre high and were for a while the tallest buildings on earth. The Petronas Towers in their own right would be in my Southeast Asia bucket list.
9. Hoi An, Vietnam
This is quite possibly the prettiest town in Asia. A small old shopping port on the Central Coast of Vietnam, it is famous for some of the best food in the country, tailors’ shops, lanterns, the Old Town and possibly the cheapest beer on the planet. The restaurants that line the waterfront conjure up the most picturesque scene of an evening with thousands of lighted lanterns providing photo opportunities at every corner. The tailors here are amazing, for about $100 they will take your measurements, offer a fitting on the second day and have your three-piece suit finished possibly later that day or certainly the day after. Amazing quality and unbeatable value. The Ancient town is an UNESCO World Heritage Site. It was once the largest deep sea port in the region, until it silted up coinciding with the development of Danang, which overtook it. The beaches here are delightful and the Cham Islands just off the coast provide a lovely backdrop to life on the beach.
10. Luang Prabang, Laos
As the Mekong River meanders its way through Southeast Asia, it creates a unique lifestyle to local people. As it passes through Laos about 190 miles north of the country’s capital Vientiane, it forms a confluence with the Nam Khan River at Luang Prabang. The city has a population of just 50,000 and a unique ambience. The whole city is formed by just four main roads on a peninsula between the rivers and is home to many Buddhist monasteries and temples. The monks from these create a striking image every morning in their orange robes as they stroll through the streets collecting alms. It is a delightful town and in one of the best areas of Southeast Asia. Having the Mekong River running through, is simply the icing on the cake. The Mekong River at Luang Prabang is surely worthy of inclusion in any Southeast Asia bucket list.
So there you have it. Not complete and not perfect. But a damned good starting off point for anyone. Let us know if you disagree or of any special places in the region that I might not know about.