SE Asia in Five Easy Pieces
The five SE Asian countries of Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar have one thing in common: extremely friendly people. The Thais inhabit the land of smiles and are equaled if not surpassed by the Burmese and Shan in Myanmar and the lovely Vietnamese. The friendly Cambodians continue traumatized by their Khmer Rouge history while the Lao are the most laidback and reserved people in the area, making Latin Americans look frenetic. All five countries are utterly safe for travel, far safer than most first world countries.
Ah, the sights, a major reason to come to SE Asia. Cambodia offers one of the three major antiquities on the planet, commonly referred to as Angkor Wat though Angkor Wat is only one of the 275 temple complexes around Siem Reap. The other major archeological site in SE Asia is Bagan in Myanmar, 4022 temples erected to guarantee 4022 favorable reincarnations, of which a few dozen are major complexes, spread over ten square miles on the mighty Irriwaddy River. Thailand comes in third with ancient ruins at Sukathai and Ayutthaya, shiny temples everywhere else. Laos offers Luaung Prabang's World Heritage temples sprawled along the Mekong River. Vietnam's treasures were bombed out of existence.
For sheer scenic beauty go see the north Thai hills and the south Thai beaches, though the latter are slightly over-touristed and relatively overpriced. Myanmar offers exotic Inle Lake stilt houses above perfectly reflecting waters, canals with leg-rowed canoes past silk weavers, cigar factories and cheap silversmithing, treks to mountain temples past kids riding water buffaloes. Laos sprouts karst hills and caves along a crystalline river at Vangvieng, waterfalls on the Bolovens Plateau and multiple fractured waterfalls below the sanctuary of 4,000 Islands in the Mekong River along the border with Cambodia. Vietnam's top scenery is Halong Bay, a World Heritage Site with 1969 karst limestone islands jutting from mirrored waters, scrumptious seafood restaurants and a national park for mountain views. Tourists throng the tribal markets in Vietnam's far northern hills where colorfully costumed ladies shop til your camera droops. There's little scenery in Cambodia except its far south beaches and islands off Sihanoukville.
The religions of SE Asia are Buddhist, Buddhist and Buddhist with many Catholics in Vietnam. The governments are terminably corrupt, from the odious military dictatorship in Myanmar which conscripts slave labor to build roads and golf courses, to the flaky Communist governments, mostly in name only, in Laos and Vietnam, the vestiges of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia and the screwball democracy in Thailand providing favors to and shielding the elite, barely contained by a philosopher king. But the governments never bother tourists because tourism is their major industry. The SE Asian cultures will delight you and occasionally drive you nuts but are never ever boring and are extremely cheap for those from first world countries. Go when you can and where you have time to go and I guarantee, you'll have a blast.