It’s your first time visiting Southeast Asia and you’re quickly discovering that there is so much more to see and do than your time and/or funds will allow. So where do you start? It’s a dilemma for just about everybody. And, it can be overwhelming. What follows is a guideline as to which destinations make the most sense, based on how much time you have to spend – along with which countries are most easily combined with other countries.

Unless you have very specific interests that would clearly dictate going to a specific destination, it’s best to start with the main attractions. Yes, they might be touristy. But, they’re touristy because they’re worth seeing. You wouldn’t go to Paris without seeing the Eiffel Tower and you wouldn’t go to Cambodia without seeing the Angkor temples. So, even though you might fantasize about being completely off the beaten path, for a first trip to Southeast Asia, with limited time to spend, I suggest focusing on the must-see sites.

SCENARIO #1: Your trip duration is just one week and you want to fit as much as possible.
Ideally, you would focus on two or three destinations within just one country.

1) Thailand is an excellent choice because you could visit Bangkok to see the Grand Palace and major temples + Chiang Mai to have some adventure experiences and enjoy the vibe of this hip city + a couple of days on one of the islands for snorkeling or relaxing.
2) Alternatively, you could consider Vietnam. In one busy week you could visit Hanoi in the north + Hue or Hoi An in Central Vietnam + Saigon in the south. This would give you a quick overview of the country with a focus on history and the everyday life of the locals.
3) Let’s say that instead of spending the whole week in one country, you would prefer to visit a couple of smaller countries, saving Thailand and Vietnam for a longer trip. In that case, Cambodia + Laos would be a perfect choice. In Cambodia you could focus on history and architecture with a visit see the Angkor temples and the capital city of Phnom Penh. In Laos you could spend a few days in the charming town of Luang Prabang which, in addition to seeing temples and crafts, would give you an opportunity to get out into the surrounding countryside.

SCENARIO #2: Your trip duration is no more than two weeks and you want to visit two countries at a busy, but not crazily hectic pace.
Ideally you would spend a week and a half in one major country + a few days in a smaller country.

1) Thailand + Cambodia are a very good combination because flying between the two countries is easy and some of Southeast Asia’s most iconic sites are in these two countries. You’ll be able to mix city life, temples, breathtaking scenery and even a little downtime at a beach.
2) Vietnam + Cambodia are a perfect combination for visitors who have a strong interest in history (both recent and imperial). You would have time to visit the Angkor temples in Cambodia along with the major cities of northern, central and southern Vietnam. There might even be time to fit in an overnight stay on Halong Bay and/or the Mekong Delta. Or, perhaps a couple of nights at the beach.
3) Though most first-time visitors to Southeast Asia begin with Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia, don’t rule out the truly exotic country of Myanmar. You could easily spend two or three days in Chiang Mai or Bangkok, followed by a visit to Myanmar where a week and a half would allow you to visit Yangon, Bagan, Inle Lake and possibly Mandalay.

SCENARIO #3: You can stretch your trip to two and a half weeks.
Now you can get a little more creative.

1) With this many days you could hit the highlights of both Vietnam and Thailand.
2) Another option would be to visit Vietnam + Cambodia + Laos
3) Or, you could combine Thailand + Cambodia + Laos.
4) A trip to Myanmar could be combined with two destinations in Thailand.
5) Visit Myanmar + Hanoi and Halong Bay in the north of Vietnam.
6) There are other possibilities with this amount of time. But, so as to avoid spending too much time getting from place to place, I suggest limiting the trip to three countries.

With three weeks to spend in Southeast Asia you’ll have lots of destination combinations to consider. With four weeks or more you can comfortably visit five countries. But, for travelers with limited time, I hope that the above scenarios are helpful.

Diane Embree
October 24, 2018