Southeast Asia: Each Country is Unique
If you are faint-of-heart, forget about crossing the street in in Ho Chi Min City (Saigon),
Vietnam. About two million scooters, mopeds and motorcycles swarm like bees along the thoroughfares. The skill needed to cross them is bravado.
Many people who have been to Vietnam think they have experienced all of Southeast Asia. Not true. Each mainland country – Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar (Burma), Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam – is unique. Here is a tiny sampling of each.
Cambodia’s two most interesting destinations are the capital, Phnom Penh, and Siem Reap (Angkor Wat). The Royal Palace in Phnom Penh has baubles like a solid gold Buddha, an emerald Buddha and a 25-carat diamond. A stark contrast is Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, a prison during the treacherous Khmer Rouge’s Pol Pot regime (1975-79). The Killing Fields, a communal burial ground, has remains of almost 9,000 of the victims.
Though Killing Fields exist in Siem Reap, tourists come to see Angkor Wat, the world’s largest religious monument (approximately 400-500 acres). Built in the 12th-century, it was originally a Hindu shrine. Now a Buddhist temple complex, banyan tree roots override many of its structures. This World Heritage Site is jaw-dropping, especially at sunset.
Mountainous and landlocked, Laos (pronounced Lao) boasts pristine beauty, ancient Buddhist temples, friendly people and brutal traffic in its capital, Vientiane. Climb 150 steps to the top of Patuxai, Vientiane’s Arc de Triomphe, for an awesome view. And don’t miss Talat Sao, the bustling market.
The countryside’s lush mountains and limestone cliffs present a sharp contrast to the crowded city. Stilted houses, rice paddies, farm animals, spirit houses and fuchsia-colored, water-lily-filled ponds border the road. Rafting and hiking by Poukham Cave are a popular pursuit in Vang Vieng.
You can’t go very far without passing a temple in the former capital, Luang Prabang. The reception and throne room murals plus delicate inlaid colored glass wall mosaics in the Royal Palace Museum embody Laotian festivals and traditions.
Though it may have leaped into the 21st century and progressed from headhunters to oil barons, part of Malaysia’s charm is that the culture hasn’t modernized as quickly as the country.
Kuala Lumpur (KL), the capital, beckons visitors with its smart attitude and sleek altitude. Skyscrapers, world class shopping, five-star hotels and spas abound. Walking the skybridge connecting the lofty Petronas Towers will either exacerbate your acrophobia or make you feel on top of the world. The blue and white tiled entrance of the 1,381-foot-high Menara KL Tower resembles an old-world mosque.
Kota Kinabalu, capital of Sabah, Borneo island, is laid back. Don’t miss the Monsopiad Cultural Village, a 20-minute drive from Kota Kinabalu. It celebrates the Kadazan people with tribal dancing, skills like sling shots and stilts. www.tourismmalaysia.gov.my
To see the diversity in Yangon (Rangoon), Myanmar’s capital, just visit the morning food market. See people dressed in longyis (long skirts), monks in cinnamon or ruby-colored robes, Muslim ladies in black and others in western-style dress. Ladies with white paste cheeks and sacks on their heads navigate the narrow streets. Contrasting 11th-century architecture of the gilded Shwedagon Pagoda are the early 20th-century British Colonial buildings.
Pagodas (temples) abound in Bagan. Climb atop the Brick Monastery, make a 360-degree turn and the spires of 1,000 temples and stupas unfold.
Find gold leaf crafts, pagodas and monasteries in Mandalay. Many people walk to the top of Mandalay Hill to watch the sunset, about 800 steps. (I prefer driving.)
Beautiful sunsets, stilt houses, pagodas, restaurants and floating gardens are commonplace on Inle Lake. Fisherman paddle with their feet and a long stick and trawl with cone shape nets.
Think fascinating culture, stunning beaches and lovely people.
Bangkok’s contemporary buildings, exotic chedis (temples) and prangs (Buddhist temple towers) all duel for air space. Musts for first time visitors are a palace and Reclining Buddha visit, plus Chao Phraya River and canal (klong) cruises. Check out day trips like the Ayutthaya ruins or the Bridge on the River Kwai, built as part of the World War II Japanese Burma Railway.
Northern Thailand’s hill tribes make Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai most exotic. At the luxurious Golden Triangle Elephant Camp & Resort in Chiang Rai, go elephant trekking riding on its neck and holding its ears. On the Mekong and Ruak rivers, nearby Sop Ruak borders Myanmar and Laos. Check out the giant golden Buddha and huge filigree walls that honor the former queen.
Built to honor the beloved, deceased King Rama IX, the White Temple (Wat Rong Khun) sits near Chiang Rai. It sparkles in the sun. Inside, a mural depicts 20th-century events and icons like 9/11, Elvis and Osama Bin Laden.
Another magnificent temple, Chiang Mai’s Wat Phra That Doi Suthep has a 300-step staircase with a slithering serpent-crafted handrail. Tourists and saffron-robed monks weave through 400-year-old buildings. Bargain for everything at Chiang Mai’s famous night markets.
There is nothing more calming than a walk on white powdery sand or immersing yourself in the warm, crystal waters in southern Thailand (Krabi, Koi Samui and Phi Phi).
Pho, a delicious broth with noodles, herbs, vegetables, and meat is a Vietnam staple. It is hawked on the streets of Saigon, (Ho Chi Min City) where Chinese, American and French Colonialism influence makes the city fascinating. Independence/Reunification Hall still has U.S. artifacts from the war. The Cu Chi Tunnels, which played a key role in guerilla warfare are still a curiosity.
Hanoi also has pho stands as well as the 100-year-old opera house and the Metropole, Hanoi’s grand old hotel. At the Ho Chi Minh Memorial, the old general’s “waxy” body lies in state. Hoa Lo Prison (Hanoi Hilton) where Senator John McCain was incarcerated (1964-73) still looks dismal.
Halong Bay is drop dead gorgeous. The inlet brims with erupting rock formations, caves colorful houseboats and junks flaunting brown, fan-shaped sails. www.vietnamtourism.com
No matter where you go in the mainland of Southeast Asia, you cannot help but be charmed by its beauty and diversity.