South by Southeast: Top 10 Southeast Asia

There’s a lot to see in Southeast Asia. Over the past five months, as I’ve traveled through this amazing region, it’s something I’ve experienced firsthand. From mind-blowing jungle ruins to outstanding food and world class beaches, there’s a never-ending wealth of curiosities for visitors. But with so much to see and do, it’s hard to know what to prioritize. Is Angkor Wat really as awesome as you’ve heard? Where should you go in Vietnam? Is it safe to eat the street food?

If you’ve been thinking about that dream trip to Southeast Asia but didn’t know where to start, today’s post is for you. We’re going to run through ten of Southeast Asia’s most amazing attractions, from the outstanding food to the best adventures and most awe-inspiring sights. Expect to find a few of the Southeast Asia’s most famous spots, along with my favorite “off-the-beaten path” Southeast Asian destinations from more than five months on the road. Ready to visit one of the world’s most fascinating regions? Keep reading below for our top ten picks…#10 – Bangkok’s Khao San Road
You simply can’t make a top 10 list on Southeast Asia without mentioning Bangkok’s Khao San Road. Love it or hate it, it’s the standard first stop for most Southeast Asian itineraries. The sheer volume of travelers, sizzling street food and range of shady characters ensure there’s always a good time and a story waiting to happen.

#9 – Street food in Ho Chi Minh City
The variety, quality and value of eating in Ho Chi Minh City, also known as Saigon, is beyond compare. From the freshest ingredients to crispy French baguettes to the most extreme culinary adventures, the food scene in Saigon is sure to amaze and delight. Check out Gadling’s “South by Southeast” investigation of eating in Saigon if you want to learn more.

#8 – Thailand’s Tarutao National Marine Park
It’s really hard to pick a favorite island in Thailand. There’s literally hundreds of them. But when we saw the secluded beauties that make up the Tarutao National Marine Park in Southern Thailand, we were hooked. This chain of wild, jungle islands offers beach camping, peace and quiet and some amazing snorkeling. Though Ko Lipe has gotten rather busy, Ko Adang, Ko Tarutao and Ko Rawi remain delightfully undeveloped.

#7 – Exploring Angkor Wat
With almost two million visitors a year, it’s clear that Angkor Wat is one of Southeast Asia’s most popular tourist attractions. When you first set eyes on the stone giant that is Angkor’s main temple, you’ll understand why. The intricate carvings and sheer size of this ancient archaeological marvel are simply mind-blowing. If you’re heading to Cambodia for a visit make sure to check out our 5 Angkor Wat tips.

#6 – Burma’s Taunggyi Balloon Festival
Burma (Myanmar), is the forgotten country of Southeast Asia. Visitors stay away because of the country’s hard-line military government. But those who make the trip inside this cloistered country come away awestruck by the sights and humbled by the friendly, welcoming citizens. This is particularly true at the annual Balloon Festival at Taunggyi, where hundreds of giant hot air balloons are launched into the sky over an eight day event. Make sure you read up on responsible travel to Burma if you want to go.

#5 – Wandering Luang Prabang
Is Luang Prabang the world’s most beautiful city? Achingly beautiful colonial French architecture, serene Buddhist temples and elegant palaces make this former royal capital of Laos a must on any Southeast Asia itinerary. Make sure to enjoy the town’s top-notch eating at spots like Tamarind and enjoy Luang Prabang’s buzzing night market.

#4 – Motorbiking the Golden Triangle
The Golden Triangle, a remote region bordering Northern Thailand, Laos and Burma, just might be one of Southeast Asia’s last great exotic destinations. The area’s curvy mountain roads and remote villages make it haven for motorcycle trips. Increasingly popular routes, reliable maps and cheap bike rentals make it easy for even novice cyclists to grab a helmet and hit the open road. Check out our guide to motorcycle trekking to get started.

#3 – The Gibbon Experience in Laos
Want to feel like a kid again? Try sleeping in a tree house and flying around on zip lines in the jungles of Northern Laos, home to the legendary Gibbon Experience. This one-of-a-kind eco park is pioneering a new model of forest conservation and sustainable tourism. Not to mention you might get to see some wildlife and it’s a crazy good time too.

#2 – Trekking in Luang Namtha
Chiang Mai has Southeast Asia’s most popular treks, but they are often overcrowded and disappointing. Instead, head to Luang Namtha in Northern Laos, an increasingly popular base for hikers looking to visit remote hill tribe villages. Imagine waking to the sound of roosters, bathing in a river and drinking moonshine with a village chief.

#1 – The ruins of Bagan
Move over Angkor Wat. There’s a new champion in town. The ruins of Bagan, a stunning complex of over 2,000 deserted temples in Myanmar, is quite possibly the world’s most amazing sight. Spend your days exploring the ghostly structures by horse cart or bike, discovering ancient Buddhist murals and climbing hidden staircases to gorgeous 360 degree views. If you want to read more about Myanmar, check out our guide to ethically visiting this fascinating country.

Gadling writer Jeremy Kressmann spent the last five months in Southeast Asia. You can read other posts on his adventures “South by Southeast” HERE.

Zip line fun at The Gibbon Experience

Ever had a chance to ride a zip line? It’s basically a steel cable stretched between two points, allowing adventurous travelers to clip on a harness and ‘zip’ along at speeds of up to 100mph. We recently put together a list of 10 great zip lines from around the world here at Gadling, but there’s maybe one more to add to the list. As part of my recent travels through Southeast Asia, I had a chance to visit the Gibbon Experience, an eco-preserve in Laos where I slept for two nights in a tree house and played around on the park’s numerous zip lines. Want to see what it’s like? Here’s a video of me crossing one of the longer stretches. Girlish screaming while you watch is optional…

South by Southeast: The Gibbon Experience

As a kid, did you ever fantasize about living in a tree house? Of climbing into your own hideaway stocked with chocolate bars, hanging out with monkeys and doing as you please? If you’ve ever wanted to feel like a kid again, it’s time to visit The Gibbon Experience, a magical realm of tree houses, waterfalls and exotic wildlife hidden deep in the dense jungle of Northern Laos.

The Gibbon Experience is one of the world’s most unique adventure travel concepts. Visitors have the chance to eat and sleep in their own personal tree house, suspended hundreds of feet above the forest floor, immersed in a symphony of cackling birds, humming cicadas and shrieking monkeys. Best of all, guests get around on a series of sturdy steel “zip line” cables, connecting the tree houses to forest paths. It’s the equivalent of waking up in the morning, strapping on a body harness and throwing yourself out a 10-story window. The experience is at once terrifying and exhilarating – a realization of long-dormant childhood dreams.

Not only is The Gibbon Experience great fun, it’s also tourism that’s good for your conscience. The project is pioneering a totally unique model of conservation, sustainable tourism and grass roots local support. If you’ve ever wanted to live out childhood tree house fantasies and help support a great cause, keep reading below for more…
What Is It?
Southeast Asian travelers talk about The Gibbon Experience with the sort of hushed tones reserved for religious visions. But travelers that have braved the long journey to the Laos border town of Huay Xai come back raving about what they’ve seen. For 180 Euros (around $270 USD), guests are treated to a three-day, two-night stay within the confines of one the world’s last great untouched nature preserves, home to tigers, Asian Black Bears and Gibbons, a small species of ape that gives the project its name.

During your stay, you’ll get to take it all in from a bird’s eye view, nested high in the tree tops of one of project’s seven tree houses. All guests have 24-hour access to local guides, unlimited access to the park’s zip lines, three meals per day and basic-but-comfortable tree house sleeping arrangements. Those looking to experience the Preserve’s ample wildlife and scenery can opt for additional guided treks through the jungle.

Welcome to the Jungle
My own Gibbon “experience” began with a brisk hike through the woods, moist green sunlight pouring down through the forest’s dense undergrowth. Thick jungle trees towered above like sacred monuments, trunks knotted with snaking vines reaching for the heavens. In the distance was the faint squawking of mysterious creatures, howling with glee. Soon a tree trunk wrapped with a steel cable popped into view, hiding behind a clump of palm leaves: it was our first zip line.

My pulse raced as I stepped onto the zip line’s rickety wooden platform for my first jump. I clipped my roller cable and safety line onto the wire, took a deep breath and jumped off the edge into nothing. I was now a human tennis ball, served in a giant volley between two distant trees. The metal wheels of my roller sang on the wire with a high-pitched shriek as I catapulted forward at great speed, wind howling and the jungle tree tops whizzing below my shoes. It was a feeling of terror and euphoria rolled into one…as if I had fallen off a cliff and discovered I could float like a bird, all within a few seconds. All too quickly my first “zip” was over, feet landing with a thud on a wooden platform hundreds of feet away.

My tour group headed on to our sky-high accommodations, a colossal tree crowned by a real-life fantasy tree house. The “house” was little more than a large wooden platform encircled by railings on all sides, a thatched roof on top, the tree’s branches jutting up through the center. Inside was a simple array of sleeping mats, hammocks, and a small sink and propane stove. After dark the “house” was lit by two puny solar-powered bulbs. Entering or exiting my “house” required attaching oneself to a zip line, stepping off a platform into thin air, feet dangling above the tree tops below.

So did I encounter any Gibbons? Save a few small geckos and moths, I saw scant wildlife during my three-day visit. But despite the lack of Gibbon sightings, there were signs they were around. Each night, the sun plummeted below the horizon, plunging the jungle into pitch-black night. It was during this darkness that the forest sprung to life, erupting with a sounds of strange hoots and whistles and barks. The wildlife was out there…it just didn’t want to be found.

A New Tourism Model
While I was in the jungle swinging around on zip lines, The Gibbon Experience has been busy reinventing the future of tourism in Southeast Asia. Not only did my visit provide funds to help preserve the fragile jungle ecosystem of Northern Laos, the project is also working to include the people of Laos in the park’s success.

All the guides employed by The Gibbon Experience live in the towns and villages surrounding Bokeo Nature Reserve, and a portion of the profit from each visitor is pumped back into these local communities. It’s hoped this model will provide added incentive to keep this wonderful forest intact for future generations. In Southeast Asia, a region oft-threatened by unchecked development, it’s just the type of model that will ensure visitors can enjoy this special place in the years to come.

Gadling writer Jeremy Kressmann is spending the next few months in Southeast Asia. You can read other posts on his adventures “South by Southeast”