Last Updated on August 7, 2022 by travelingwithsunscreen
Southeast Asia, or SEA in travel-speak, is a classic backpacker destination. It’s warm, fun, extremely interesting, has some of the world’s best food, and yes, it’s CHEAP. What’s not to like? We’ve been to the SEA region a few times and love it – we can’t wait to go back.
But if you’re planning a trip, you might be unsure about where to go. After all, there are lots of countries in the region! Which to go to first? What if you only have a short time? Well, you’ve come to the right place. Whether you’re backpacking southeast Asia or planning a more luxurious trip, one of these Southeast Asia itineraries will be perfect.
Southeast Asia Itinerary: 2 weeks
Two weeks is just enough time to do the classic SEA route: Vietnam – Cambodia – Thailand. Or the reverse. Since you don’t have a ton of time, you’ll want to fly between destinations. Overland travel in SEA can be extremely time consuming (but also great if you’ve got the time!). But fortunately, flights are insanely cheap on AirAsia – think $20-50 per flight – perfect for exploring southeast Asia.
But those are big countries! Where to go specifically? Here are a few options.
Ho Chi Minh City (6 days) – Siem Reap (Angkor Wat) (2 days) – Bangkok (6 days)
This is the most basic SEA experience – but that’s not to say that it’s bad! This is in fact the exact trip I did on my first time to SEA, and it was amazing. Ho Chi Minh City is one of the ultimate backpacker destinations. You can’t go wrong by starting there – and after you figure out how to cross the streets amid the swarms of motorbikes, the rest of the trip will be easy! (This actually took me some time to figure out. You just walk in front of them at a constant pace and they part for you! It’s like magic.)
From there, you can fly directly to Siem Reap, the town near Angkor Wat, the classic UNESCO world heritage site, in 45 minutes and for under $100. This is probably one of the most expensive routes you’ll find in Southeast Asia. AirAsia unfortunately doesn’t fly it, so you’ll want to take Cambodia Angkor Air or Vietnam Airlines for a nonstop flight. Or, if you have time, you can take Jetstar with a connection in Singapore for potentially less money.
You can also make this journey overland, but it will take 12 – 24 hours. The trip has gotten easier in recent years, however, with a variety of bus companies operating on at least parts of the route. But there is no direct bus, so you’ll at least have to transfer in Phnom Penh. Wikitravel has a great description of the route if you’re interested!
Siem Reap is not my favorite place – it is extremely touristy and crowded. But that’s to be expected for a town right next to one of the world’s most amazing sites – the temples of Angkor Wat. My only advice for visiting Angkor is to GO EARLY – like before sunrise. Yes it’s a nightmare, but during the day it is crowded and HOT. Really hot: 44°C when I was there, nearly unbearable for walking around all day. And also the temples are the most beautiful in the morning light.
Then on to Bangkok, a critical part of any Southeast Asia itinerary! You can fly for under $50 on AirAsia, again in about 45 minutes. Or you can take a lengthy overland journey. But if you only have two weeks, the quick flight is probably the way to go. Note that Bangkok has two airports, DMK and BKK. All AirAsia flights go to DMK, which is a ~1 hour taxi ride from most of the city.
Bangkok itself is by far the most developed of the three destinations on this itinerary. There is tons to do, a metro system, and a great river boat which will take you to many of the cities iconic neighborhoods. My suggestion, though, is to wander away from the built up areas and into the narrow alleys and markets that are all over the city.
There are tons more great destinations in all of these countries, if you have time. Chiang Mai, Hanoi, Da Nang, Phnom Phen, and much, much more. You could spend months in these three countries and never run out of things to do or tasty foods to eat.
What if you have 3 weeks?
Go to Myanmar! Yangon (4 days) – Bagan Temples (3 days)
If you have an additional week, you could do the above trip through Vietnam, Cambodia, and Thailand, and then continue on to Myanmar! From Bangkok, you can fly to Yangon, the capital of Myanmar, again for quite cheap. Myanmar is nothing like Thailand. Bangkok, especially, is quite westernized — or at least the parts that most tourists see are. This is not the case in Yangon, although the city is rapidly changing.
Crazy traffic, non-existent or severely damaged sidewalks, insane bundles of electrical wires stretched between buildings, and abundant tasty street food stalls are all a constant in Yangon. And: the pagodas! So many pagodas. Including the classic, extremely large, golden Shwedagon Pagoda in the middle of the city. And, unlike in Thailand, there are so few tourists that you’ll largely be alone with the locals at most of these sites. It’s really quite cool.
And if you’re spending a week in Myanmar, you must go to the Bagan temples. Check out our Ultimate Myanmar Guide for more, but here I’ll just say that these are amazing. I’d recommend at least 4 days in Yangon – although there’s enough to see and do and eat to stay much longer than that! From there, you can fly to Bagan from Yangon in 45 minutes and about $100. Not bad compared to the 18 hour overnight bus! Do note that you’ll actually be flying to the Nyaung U Airport, about 15 minutes by taxi away from the Bagan temples.
Alternatively, go to Laos! Luang Prabang (4 days)
Laos is another fantastic option. You can easily get there on a flight from Bangkok, again on AirAsia. BUT – if you’re looking for a more interesting trip, you can make your way to Chiang Mai, in northern Thailand, and from there you can take either a slow or fast boat to Luang Prabang (the boats actually leave from Chiang Khong, on the Thai-Laos boarder, but boat tickets usually include a ~5-6 hour bus ride from Chiang Mai). We met some people who took the fast boat – they had a great time, but were a bit rattled from going 50+ mph over the water for hours!
However you get there, you must get to Luang Prabang as it’s an unexpectedly great little city. It’s right on the Mekong, and you can sit at one of the many restaurants and bars along the river at sunset. There’s also a market and various shops and cafes to hang out in during the always-hot Laotian weather!
As anyone who has been to Laos will tell you, time slows down a bit here. Maybe it’s the heat, who knows. But come prepared to laze about and you’ll have an awesome time!
While in Luang Prabang, don’t miss the Kuang Si Waterfalls, which are just a 30 minute drive away. You can get a taxi, tuk tuk, or just ride in the back of a pickup truck, all for a couple dollars. Alternatively, if you want to rent a motorbike, you can get one in Luang Prabang and get out to the falls on your own schedule. The falls are AMAZING – and there is a bear sanctuary as well where you can see rescued sun and moon bears!
Once you get to the falls, though, don’t just turn around. There is a small trail that leads over a bridge right near the base of the waterfall, and after that bridge will take you up a very steep slope to the top of the falls. It can be a somewhat treacherous climb if it’s wet, but it’s worth it. Really. At the top, you’ll find an odd water park-like scene in the shallow and slow moving river that leads to the falls. There’s even a (flimsy) wooden fence at the top of the falls so you can go right up to the edge!
Whatever itinerary you pick, go to Southeast Asia ASAP!
Really – it’s one of the most enjoyable regions to travel in. The food is great, the countries are interesting, the landscapes are beautiful, and the prices are low! What more could a traveler want? Not much as far as we’re concerned!