Siem Reap – colourful, chaotic and intoxicatingly teeming – is nothing if not infectious. Even in a city forever associated with the glorious temples of Angkor Wat, it’s impossible to leave without snapshots of its street life imprinted in your memory. If ever there was a city that looked great on camera, it’s here.
Justifiably though, it’s Angkor Wat and its galleried temples dedicated to gods and demons that draw the crowds. Explore this landscape of pilgrimage and ritual, of saffron-robed monks and long-tailed macaques, then take a sunset shot while savouring the view from Phnom Bakheng hilltop. But remember: Angkor Wat is to Siem Reap what a first step is to a child: only just the start.
Strikingly beautiful, albeit with a few rough edges, Bagan is bound to a complex history that needs a keen mind to understand its genesis. Founded in the second century near Mandalay, it filled out the Ayeyarwady River plains with more than 10,000 temples, pagodas and monasteries, of which around 2200 survive today.
More bamboozling still, there was a time, pre-Aung San Suu Kyi in the late-2000s, when visitors were such a rarity it was possible to explore its greatest stupas – the 50m-high corn-cob Ananda Pahto, the colossal Dhammayangyi Pahto – almost entirely alone. The result of Myanmar’s fresh appeal today is skies filled with bucket-list air balloons and boutique B&Bs with interiors echoing Victorian poster boys, Rudyard Kipling and George Orwell.
The rose of the north. That’s what locals otherwise call Chiang Mai, and it’s more than an appropriate moniker. Far removed from the attitude of Bangkok and the hedonism of the south, it’s charming, carefree and laidback. In the historic square-mile centre, for instance, there are more stupas, chakra-balancing spas and spiritual centres than you could shake an ethically sourced, jasmine-scented incense stick at.
Yet the city is also renowned as the gateway to northern hill tribes, elephant habitats and primeval villages. Here you can hike into the cloud belts of the lush Doi Suthep and Doi Pui mountains, bamboo raft down steamy jungle rivers in the Mae Sa Valley, or encounter the kind of multicoloured, smiling personalities most visitors only see on a postcard.
Vietnam die-hards will know this former hill station is where to come for a whiff of heart-shifting Southeast Asian scenery. Established by the French in the 1920s as a summer escape from the north’s blasting heat, its popularity has ballooned in recent years, but the adventures remain time-worn. Hike to tiered rice terraces in the plunging Muong Hoa valley, overnight in mist-wrapped hills, or ascend Mount Fan Si Pan, the highest peak in Indochina and an unbeatable experience in the smoky light of dawn.