Top 3 Destinations in Southeast Asia
People always ask what my favorite destination is but favorites are tricky. Every city has something special to offer and whether you're looking for a bustling city or a sunny beach, Southeast Asia has it all.
During my twenties, I spent four years teaching English in South Korea. Living in Korea was an amazing time in my life that afforded so many opportunities. It's where my love of travel began and where I learned I'm capable of so much more than I ever imagined (hello, solo travel).
There's no question, Korea will forever have my heart and I can't help mention Malaysia, Singapore, Vietnam and Taiwan BUT all things considered, my top three favorite countries in Southeast Asia are Cambodia, Thailand and Indonesia.
Siem Reap, Cambodia
Siem Reap is magical. You must first fly into Phnom Penh and make the trek to Siem Reap. We drove through the night in a wild taxi for hours. I wasn't sure we'd ever make it, even having to switch vehicles at one point (it was terrifying at the time). Something to think about, never leave your luggage in the trunk of a taxi if you step out. You risk it taking off with your belongings inside.
Pretty quickly we found a local guide who offered us transportation for the next few days. Savuth drove a motor bike with a cart attached called a tuk tuk and charged us a daily rate around $20 US. We soon became good friends and would treat him to lunch each day.
Temple by temple, Savuth drove us around to all the best spots. He'd wait at the entrance of each temple for us to finish up and then move on to the next. We visited the most well known temple first, Angkor Wat, and then on to Angkor Thom and Bayon.
Some temples were spread out and took hours to explore, while others were quite vertical and needed to be climbed. Locals sold artwork and handmade goods at the entrances of each temple and kids chase you down just to sell tiny trinkets. Yes, please.
Everyone we met was so kind and helpful. The energy was so peaceful. Some temples were nearly empty and the only thing you could hear were crickets chirping.
Savuth invited us to his family's home for dinner one evening. We rode for hours into the countryside and finally reached his tiny home built on stilts. As the sun began to set we sat outside in the grass among his family members talking and laughing and playing games with the little ones. I remember grasshoppers jumping into our food and drinking beer so dark it was nearly black. Moments like these will always stay with me.
The following day we visited Banteay Srei and Preah Khan, the temple where Tomb Raider was shot. Banteay Srei was beautiful and I fell in love with the children playing on the grounds. I couldn't help but buy everything they were selling.
Preah Khan was one of the final temples we explored. Locals were playing beautiful music at the exit. The grounds were massive and there were multiple ways out so be careful not to get lost. I nearly panicked when I couldn't find my group after hours of exploring.
A sweet little girl had an animal on a string as her pet and asked me for some candy. I didn't have any but I gave her a piece of gum instead.
And with that, Cambodia will forever stay in my heart. It's one of those places you'll never forget. My time there reminds me of a quote by Anthony Bourdain:
Koh Phi Phi, Thailand
The Phi Phi Islands are located just off the coast of Thailand near Phuket. Once in Phuket, take a boat over to the main island. Views along the way are out of this world. Cars are not even allowed on Koh Phi Phi but it's small enough to get by on foot.
Once on Koh Phi Phi, don't miss the long tail boat island tour. It's pretty amazing. The colors of the water, so incredible and picture perfect weather. Koh Phi Phi is a true paradise.
Our first stop on the long tail boat was Mosquito Island for snorkeling. Each of us jumped into the water and began exploring underneath the surface. The turquoise waters were warm and full of colorful fish.
Then, on the way to Maya Bay we passed the Viking Caves, cavernous limestone formations with wall paintings and bird nests.
Maya Bay was gorgeous. It's the beach where the film, The Beach, with Leonardo DiCaprio was filmed. The bay is set back - almost hidden - and surrounded by rocky mountains on each side.
After swimming at the beach, take a little hike up the backside where you'll find ponds of fish willing to give you a pedicure. The little fish nip at your feet biting off dead skin.
Our final stop was Bamboo Island where we had time to eat lunch and relax. The waters were so clear it looked like boats were floating on glass.
Back on the main island, shops and delicious restaurants lined the streets. Our hostel was super cute and even had an outdoor shower. After the sun set, we danced on the beach in the moonlight with our new friends. I even got a bamboo tattoo from a local artist which hurt more than I'd care to admit (even after a few drinks).
Every moment was nothing short of incredible (and don't even bother visiting if you're not into spicy green curry and fruit smoothies - my daily routine in Thailand).
The island of Bali is incredibly diverse. We visited several areas - Kuta, Ubud, Semiyak and Tanah Lot. Kuta was a bit touristy for my taste but the rest were amazing. In the forests of Ubud, you'll find Monkey Forest. Seminyak is a little beach town full of delicious restaurants and super cool shops - my favorite is called Home. Tanah Lot is a floating temple that’s gorgeous during sunset.
Ubud was my favorite spot and home to the monkey sanctuary known as Monkey Forest. It's filled with hundreds of Balinese long tailed monkeys who will do just about anything for a banana. Hold one over your head and they'll climb up your body and sit on your shoulder to enjoy it. They’ll get a bit aggressive so watch your pockets but they’re sure adorable.
Another wonderful sight in Ubud were the terraces. Explore the grounds of Kopi Luwak Coffee Farm and stop to have a coffee and tea tasting. We were lucky enough to try the most expensive coffee in the world - $100 a cup in some places. It's made with coffee beans excreted by the luwak, a raccoon-like animal. The coffee tasted super strong and gritty.
One of my favorite moments of the trip was a sunrise hike up Mount Batur. Beginning at 2 a.m. we started our guided tour up the active volcano. It was completely dark and incredibly steep but totally worth it once we reached the top. Each of us sat down to eat a snack and watch the sun rise over the landscape. The sky was on fire and the air was full of fog. It was so beautiful.
Later on, we ate lunch overlooking Mount Batur and finally saw the volcano we had hiked in the dark. No one had any idea how massive it really was.
Last up, if you remember the book, Eat Pray Love, we had the opportunity to visit the home of Ketut Liyer, the Balinese medicine man who stared in the book by Elizabeth Gilbert. What a crazy adventure. Oh, and make sure to see a Balinese fire dance!
If I could offer one piece of travel advice, it would be this - open your heart and your mind when you're in a strange place. Eat the food. Talk to the locals. And learn as much as possible. Try everything. There's no question you'll get sick or lose money or get lost or miss a flight but just remember to take one step at a time. It's all part of the adventure.
Safe and happy travels.