How much time do you have?
This is the first question you should ask yourself. While a one week trip to Southeast Asia may be more interesting than sitting on a beach in Malaga, it takes around 13 hours via plane to get to Bangkok from Europe. Travel around Southeast Asia also takes a long time. It takes 14 hours on an (overnight) train to get to the north of Thailand, or the south to reach the beaches. We have included one week itineraries but we recommend starting at two weeks to get the most out of your time in Southeast Asia.
There are several areas in Southeast Asia that the time of year may affect your planning. The north of Vietnam and the mountains of Da Lat can get quite cool in the months from December-February. Similarly, the Thai islands in the south are situated on either side of the mainland (the Gulf of Thailand and the Andaman Sea) which experience different monsoon seasons. These alternate, so one side might be experiencing strong winds and torrential downpours while the other side is sunny and calm. This can change from week to week at times so if there is a big storm in rainy season that is likely to last several days, you can always swap your plans to islands on the other side of the mainland.
The islands on the west side (Andaman) have their monsoon season from June-October and the islands on the east (Gulf of Thailand) from October-January. This isn't a foolproof schedule though and it is always good to leave plans open enough that you can change them. Unlike the rest of the region, bad storms on the islands can leave you with not very much to do! Storms aside, even in rainy season the rains tend to be intense and short-lasting, and shouldn't rule out trips here at this time of year. The landscape is lush and green and a rainstorm can break the humidity.
Itineraries for Southeast Asia
Below are some great examples of itineraries and routes for people planning their first or second trip to South East Asia. There are of course many other places to visit in all of these countries and this list is by no means exhaustive. These are a good building point to add personal choices, or a way to include the 'best bits' within time limit.
Related article: What to pack for Southeast Asia
One Week Itineraries
While one week and under is not recommended, we understand that a lot of people want to explore the region and don't get a lot of time off work, so we've included some options here. All these trips involve a day in Bangkok to see the Grand Palace/Wat Arun, or shop at Chatuchak weekend market/shopping malls such as Siam Square/MBK.
1. 'Island life' - Fly into Bangkok, fly straight to a) Phuket/Krabi or b) Koh Samui/Surat Thani for 2 days. From a) Phuket/Krabi take a boat to Koh Phi Phi for 3 days, return to Phuket or Krabi for a flight back to Bangkok. One night in Bangkok before flight home. From b) Koh Samui, take a boat to Koh Phangan or Koh Tao for 3 days, before returning to Samui/Surat Thani for flight back to Bangkok. One night in Bangkok. Includes - great seafood, parties on the beach, scuba diving/snorkelling, boat trips and lots of chill.
2. 'One week in the Kingdom' - Fly into Bangkok and then onwards to Siem Reap or Phnom Penh. 4 days in Siem Reap, an overnight bus to Phnom Penh for 2 days before flying back to Bangkok for a day/night. Includes - the incredible Angkor temples, the Killing Fields & S:21 genocide museums, great markets, sunset trips of the Tonle Sap lake & floating villages, lots of delicious food.
3. 'Laos Life' - One week is just enough to fly into Vientiane (for 1 day) or Luang Prabang (for 3 days). After, travelling to the other via Vang Vieng if you enjoy nightlife and tubing, or Phonsovan to see the beautiful Lao countryside and the ancient 'Plain of Jars'. Buses (or cars) are the only way to travel around Laos, and time can be saved travelling on night buses.
Related article: Transport around Southeast Asia
Two Week Itineraries
One and two week trips don't have a lot of time to waste on long trains and buses so flights have been included instead. This is obviously more expensive than if you were doing a longer trip and have the time to spend getting around more economically. All of these trips involve a day in Bangkok to see the Grand Palace/Wat Arun, or shop at Chatuchak weekend market/shopping malls such as Siam Square/MBK.
1. 'Thailand Quick Tour' - 'Island Life' above, plus a flight or overnight train to Chiang Mai. 4 days in Chiang Mai, minibus to Pai for 2 days before returning to Chiang Mai for flight or train to Bangkok. Includes - Hiking/Treks in the mountains, elephant sanctuaries, cookery courses, ziplining and other adventure activities. Also waterfalls, motorbiking, weekend markets, ladyboy cabaret shows, northern Thai food, and a lot of fun.
2. 'Brief Thailand & Cambodia' - Half of the 'Thailand Quick Tour' (whichever half appeals to you more) and one week in Cambodia. A flight from either the north or south of Thailand to Siem Reap for 4 days or Phnom Penh for 2 days (and then the reverse), followed by a flight back to Bangkok for 1 day before flight home.
3. 'Cambodia II' - 'One week in the Kingdom' plus a trip to the beach! 7 days on a combination of: Sihanoukville, Koh Rong, Koh Rong Sanloem and Koh Tonsai (Rabbit Island). These can be reached inexpensively from Phnom Penh via bus/bus + boat.
4. 'Two weeks in 'Nam' - Two weeks is just enough to use the new, free 15-day visa for Vietnam (see: Visas for more info), but isn't enough time to see everything Vietnam has to offer. Choose 14 days of the 21 below in 'Vietnam x3'. As Vietnam, is a long, thin country the places to visit are listed from north to south or vice versa in the order that you will probably visit them. To shorten this to two weeks you can skip places and stay on the trains or take a cheap flight from major airports in Hanoi, Hue, Da Nang (Hoi An) and Saigon. The best way to get around Vietnam is by sleeper train! (see: Transport)
Related article: What visas do I need for Southeast Asia?
Three Week Itineraries
1. Any 1 week + 2 week combo of the above options. With three weeks you can start to reduce the amount of flights and replace for overnight trains and cheaper buses. See Transport around Southeast Asia for the most effective ways of getting around.
2. 'Vietnam x3' - In three weeks you can see a good amount of what Vietnam has to offer and is our recommended minimum trip. Starting in either Saigon or Hanoi and working your way north or south, three weeks gives you enough to do: 3 days in Hanoi (visits to the 'Hanoi Hilton' prison, Ho Chi Minh, museums, the French Quarter, Tai Chi by the lake) + a trip north to Sa Pa for two days of motorbiking around the mountains, and a two day trip to Halong Bay. 3 days in Hue to see the citadel, the mausoleums and take a trip out to the DMZ to see the Vịnh Mốc tunnels (much less touristed/claustrophobic than the Cu Chi tunnels near Saigon) and other war relics. 3 days in Hoi An (an ancient Chinese port town set on the river, visits to the beach, the best place to get a suit tailored, excellent quality leather goods, and probably the best food selection in the whole of Vietnam - a few foodie days!) 3 days in Nha Trang for some parties and beaches (if that's your thing), visits to the waterpark - 'Vinpearl' set on an island a gondola ride away, mud baths, seafood on the beach and a lot of tourist friendly bars and restaurants to while a few nights away. 2 days in Mui Ne (particularly if you are into watersports) to see the quaint seaside town, quad bike on the sand dunes and see some pretty waterfalls. Alternatively, visit Da Lat for 2 days. Finishing off with 3 days in Saigon (must see: War Museum, Reunification Palace, miles of colonial architecture and leafy lined streets) before your flight back to Hanoi/home.
3. Burma - 3 weeks is the minimum we recommend to visit Burma. There really is so, so much to see and it seems such a shame to visit and not see it properly! Areas of Burma open and close frequently so it is worth researching where you would like to go and what you are able to visit without permits. A three week trip would probably include the following: Yangon, Bagan, Mandalay, Inle Lake and surrounding area, Hpa-An and potentially a visit to the far north/south.
One Month Trips
1. Combos - A combination of 3 weeks in Thailand + 1 week in Laos or Cambodia, 3 weeks in Burma + 1 week in Thailand/Cambodia/Laos or 2 x 2 week trips from above.
2. Full Vietnam - the above three week trip with the addition of Da Lat (canyoning, outdoor activities, hiking, and cooler mountain climate) for a few days and Phu Quoc Island (for stunning white sandy beaches and crystal clear water) + The Mekong Delta (where the Mekong finally meets the sea, the most populated part of Vietnam and well worth an explore.)
Tip - the best way to explore the Mekong Delta is get to Can Tho and rent a little local boat to take you out exploring. Packaged tours from Saigon are often just tourist traps and see little of the actual delta.
3. Full Thailand - One month gives you time to properly explore what Thailand has to offer. You can spend two weeks going north (for example - Kanchanburi, Ayuthaya, Chaing Mai & Pai) and two weeks down south to the islands with a few days in Bangkok. As mentioned at the top of this article - you can plan your islands by the time of year/which kind of island life appeals to you. Some are very chilled and laid back (Koh Lanta, Koh Lipe, Koh Tao etc) and some are good for the partying types (Koh Phi Phi, Koh Phangan etc), or are you the kind of people who want to stay in resorts/honeymooners? (Koh Samui, Phuket)
Related article: Transport in Southeast Asia - The best ways to get around
Two Month Trips
We always try to get a good balance between temples, trekking, culture, and relaxation/beaches, but this is total personal preference.
Good combos for two months are:
3 weeks in Thailand, 3 weeks in Vietnam and 2 weeks in Cambodia.
4 weeks in Vietnam, 1 week in Laos, 1 week in Cambodia and 2 weeks in Thailand.
3 weeks in Burma, 3 weeks in Thailand and then 1 week in Laos/Cambodia or 2 weeks in either.
Just remember that getting around takes up quite a lot of time and energy and you would be better off doing one country more extensively than trying to cram in as much as possible and not enjoying it as much!
Three Month Trips
Three months gives you the time to do:
The Grand Tour - Going either clockwise or anti-clockwise and starting in Bangkok/Hanoi/Saigon (the biggest international airports to fly into from Europe/US.) Bangkok is listed here for ease.
Starting in Bangkok, spend two weeks heading north through Ayuthaya, Chaing Mai and Pai and then up to Chaing Rai to cross into Laos.
A two day slowboat from Chaing Rai to Luang Prabang. One week in Laos covering Luang Prabang, Vang Vieng/Phonsovan and then a day in Vientiane to fly to Hanoi (or a 24 hour bus!)
4 weeks in Vietnam, covering all on the 21 day tour above. Travel from either Saigon/Phu Quoc over the border into Cambodia.
2 weeks in Cambodia making your way from Kampot/Kep/Koh Tonsai to Sihanoukville/Koh Rong/Sanloem and then up to Phnom Penh and across to Siem Reap. A flight or a long and stressful bus/border crossing at Poipet to reach Bangkok.
Train down to the south of Thailand for 2 weeks on the Islands of your preference. Travel around the islands is relatively easy and there are regular boats/a bus to reach the other side of the mainland.
If you add those up, it totals 11 weeks, and not 12. This is to give you an extra 7-10 days to play with and add onto places that you particularly enjoy and want to spend extra time in, to recover from a few days of inevitable sickness, or for meeting some amazing travel companions that make you want to alter your route! Flexibility is key and we try not to book anything in advance in case our plans change. This is easy enough to do March-November, but caution should be taken in high season (December, January and February) as things may get booked up more quickly, and around events such as the Full Moon Party where accommodation books up pretty fast.
If you have any questions or would like help planning an itinerary drop us an email: email@example.com
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