It’s no surprise that Thailand attracts so many repeat visitors. With idyllic islands, fabulous food and amazing accommodation, the kingdom has much to offer. But Thailand is also the ideal springboard to discover more of South-East Asia. Whether you’re looking to laze on the beach, soak up some culture or channel your inner Indiana Jones, there are plenty of choices in this part of the world to keep even the most finicky of travellers content. Take a trip to the incredible Angkor Wat in Cambodia, set sail for the Mergui Archipelago in Myanmar or enjoy the period charm of Penang in Malaysia. There are many diverse destinations within striking distance of Thailand and with excellent connections from Bangkok and other Thai airports, Thailand is the perfect base to explore more of this fascinating region.
The fact that Angkor Wat features on the Cambodian national flag is testimony to how important this ancient site is. The huge temple complex at Angkor is one of the most magnificent sites in all of South-East Asia. The temples and ruins are spread out over a larger area than many people realise, so try to allow yourself at least two or three days here. Most visitors to Angkor Wat stay at the nearby town of Siem Reap which is surprisingly lively with a good selection of hotels, restaurants and bars. In the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh, the Royal Palace is a highlight of any visit. And in the evening, pull up a stool in the old colonial building that houses the Foreign Correspondents’ Club, order a cocktail or cold beer and enjoy the view of the Tonlé Sap River.
The sites associated with Cambodia’s troubled past can be difficult places to visit, but nobody should ever forget what took place here. The atrocities committed by Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge regime left an indelible stain on Cambodian history. Visits to the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek and the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (S-21 Prison) in Phnom Penh are incredibly moving.
For independent travellers exploring the east of Thailand, it’s quite a straightforward hop over the border from Thailand’s Trat province into Cambodia. From here, head down to the beaches of Sihanoukville and the lovely islands of Koh Rong and Koh Rong Samloem. Further along the coast, the towns of Kampot and Kep both make for interesting places to while away a few days.
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Land-locked Laos may lack the beaches and islands found in Thailand, but there are some outstanding areas of beauty here. There are many similarities between Thailand and Laos which are both home to some of the friendliest people you will find anywhere in the world.
Vientiane, the capital of Laos, is just a short distance away from the Thai border. If you’re travelling in the Isaan region of Thailand it’s easy to cross over the border at Nong Khai for onward travel to Vientiane. This charmingly understated city on the banks of the Mekong River doesn’t always get the praise it deserves. Don’t miss the national symbol of Laos and one of the most important sites in the country, That Luang (‘Golden Stupa’). And in the heart of the city, the atmospheric old temple of Wat Si Saket houses thousands of Buddha images within its cloisters. By way of contrast, the modern structure of the Presidential Palace is just a stone’s throw away and heading further along Lane Xang Avenue brings you to Patuxai, the Victory Monument which offers impressive views of the city from the viewing platforms at the top.
Foodies visiting Vientiane should make a beeline for the outstanding Doi Ka Noi restaurant which serves up authentic and delicious Lao cuisine in a homely setting. The street food scene in Vientiane isn’t as developed or as diverse as you will find in Bangkok or other cities in Thailand, but you’ll find some decent options in and around the main tourist area close to the Nam Phou Fountain and along the banks of the Mekong River. The French influence is in evidence with baguettes for sale at roadside stalls and, together with a cup of fresh coffee, it’s a fine way to start the day.
For many people, the highlight of a visit to Laos is a visit to Luang Prabang, the UNESCO World Heritage Site in the north of the country. The former capital of Laos is full of lovely temples framed by a picturesque mountain backdrop. Another area of natural beauty can be found at Vang Vieng with its sweeping rivers and stunning limestone mountains. It’s unfortunate that Vang Vieng hasn’t enjoyed the best of reputations over the years, but things are changing for the better. To see more natural attractions in Laos, take a trip to the 4,000 islands or a river cruise along the Mekong.
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Multi-cultural Malaysia makes for an excellent addition to a trip to Thailand. The diverse country offers up tropical islands, modern cities and a host of natural attractions. Peninsula Malaysia is easy to reach from southern Thailand with convenient access to the islands of Langkawi and Penang in addition to the capital city, Kuala Lumpur. The Malaysian capital is a mix of the old and the new with a thriving food scene which reflects the cultural diversity of the country. For a bird’s-eye view of the city visit the Kuala Lumpur Tower or the iconic Petronas Twin Towers which was the tallest skyscraper in the world up until 2004.
Head north out of steamy Kuala Lumpur for the cooler climes of the Cameron Highlands. This scenic location holds a link to Thailand because it was from the Cameron Highlands where Jim Thompson, the American who helped revive the Thai silk industry, disappeared in the 1960s.
For history and culture lovers, the UNESCO World Heritage sites at George Town (on Penang Island) and Melaka are a delight to explore. For an island getaway take a trip out to Langkawi which can also be combined with trips to Ko Lipe and Thailand’s southern islands in the Andaman Sea. On the opposite coast, the Perhentian Islands are a popular draw for sun-seekers and divers.
A short journey across the South China Sea brings you to Eastern Malaysia where you will find Borneo and the Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak. One of the big draws for travellers heading to Borneo are the orangutans. There are a number of different locations on Borneo where the primates can be seen including the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre in Sabah.
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Political change in Myanmar (Burma) has seen the country open up more in recent years. The tourism infrastructure isn’t as developed as in Thailand, but Myanmar is a rewarding destination for visitors with a sense of adventure and romance.
A highlight of any trip to ‘The Golden Land’ is a visit to the plains of Bagan. The ancient kingdom of Bagan was once home to over ten thousand temples and pagodas. The remains of more than two thousand can still be viewed today, with balloon flights over the plains a captivating way to see the ancient ruins. One of the most important Buddhist sites in Myanmar can be found on top of top of Mt. Kyaiktiyo. The Golden Rock Pagoda balances delicately on top of the mountain and, according to legend, doesn’t topple over because it is attached to a strand of the Buddha’s hair. But the most famous religious site in the country is the glistening Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon.
A visit to scenic Inle Lake is another Myanmar highlight. The vast freshwater lake is home to wooden houses on stilts and a fishing community famed for their use of conical fishing nets and a unique rowing style. The fishermen of Inle Lake stand on one leg at the back of the boat whist wrapping their other leg around the oar. This style of rowing might look odd, but is borne out of practicality enabling the fishermen to see over the reeds.
A gorgeous string of islands in the Andaman Sea, the Mergui (Myeik) Archipelago are a joy for sailing enthusiasts. With some excellent diving here and proximity to the Thai town of Ranong, the Mergui Archipelago is another convenient add-on for a trip that includes southern Thailand.
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Super sleek Singapore provides a distinct contrast to much of South-East Asia. Life in the ‘Lion City’ is more organised compared to its near neighbours and there is certainly a very different vibe here. Singapore is a confident, cosmopolitan country that has emerged as one of the world’s leading financial centres. But beneath the modern facade, you’ll find colonial architecture, traditional hawker stalls and some wonderful green spaces.
If you are looking for sun, sea and sand, Sentosa Island is the place to go. There is plenty to keep all members of the family happy at Sentosa with shopping, theme parks, restaurants, bars and a golf course amongst the attractions.
For panoramic views of the city, take a ride on the giant observation wheel, the Singapore Flyer. And for close-up views of the natural beauty of Singapore, don’t miss the historic Botanic Gardens which enjoy the distinction of being the country’s first UNESCO Heritage Site. You’ll find world-class shopping at Orchard Road and Marina Bay and a host of restaurants, clubs and bars all around the city. If you want to sample the signature Singapore Sling, there is nowhere better than the Long Bar at the iconic Raffles Hotel. And if you are hankering after the luxuries of that bygone era, take a trip on the Eastern and Oriental Express with this classic train travelling between Singapore and Bangkok.
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With direct connections between Bangkok and Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam is another of the ASEAN nations which is easy to reach from Thailand. The capital of Hanoi is home to some beautiful old colonial buildings and important historical sites. And the northern city is also handily placed for a visit to the gorgeous Halong Bay. Further south, Ho Chi Minh City is Vietnam’s largest and most dynamic city. This is where visitors will see the most evidence of Vietnam’s vibrant economy and the rise of a new generation of entrepreneurs.
With a coastline that stretches for around 2,000 miles, there are countless beaches to choose from in Vietnam. Amongst the best of the bunch can be found at Phu Quoc Island and Nha Trang. For a stylish resort with beach views take a look at Mia Resort Nha Trang. If you can drag yourself away from the coast, make time to explore the scenic interior of the country. Dotted with paddy fields, rugged mountains and river deltas, rural Vietnam is quintessentially Asian. Go trekking in the hills around Sapa, observe the traditional way of life and enjoy those lovely views over the rice terraces. Delightful Hoi An is regarded as the most charming town in Vietnam. The historic port town is a UNESCO Heritage site and a photographer’s dream – make sure your Vietnam itinerary also includes the old imperial capital of Hue with its sublime setting on the Perfume River.
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British and Irish tourists can enter Thailand for an initial stay of 30 days without a visa. This is known as a visa exemption. For longer stays, UK passport holders can check the information on the Royal Thai Embassy (London) website. Irish passport holders can check with the Royal Thai Consulate for Ireland. For entry requirements to Thailand’s neighbouring countries, please see the links below:
There are direct flights from London to Bangkok with British Airways, EVA Air and Thai Airways. Check prices and deals available with Flight Centre. For onward flights in the South-East Asia region, visit Air Asia, Bangkok Airways and Thai Airways.
by Roy Cavanagh www.thaizer.com
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