I spent three weeks traveling through Thailand, Laos and Cambodia and I have to admit, stepping off the plane in Southeast Asia for the first time was probably the biggest jolt of culture shock I’ve ever received.
Not that I was expecting any less; after all, that’s part of why I chose to visit the region in the first place. I was itching for something well and truly different from anywhere I’d ever been. And that’s precisely what I got.
While I knew I’d appreciate Asia, I wasn’t prepared to fall as madly in love with it as I did – what with its wild, unapologetic, chaos of a personality, melding sights and sounds and smells and tastes all into one and presenting it on a platter gilded with gold. Southeast Asia is absolutely incredible – and here are just seven reasons why.
1. The hustle and bustle
The stereotypes you hear about the traffic in Asia are all true. It is wild over there – and that’s coming from someone who lives in Los Angeles. There are seemingly zero traffic laws in existence (or at least none that anyone follows) and the streets are teeming with taxis, buses, cars, motorbikes, and tuk-tuks alike cutting each other off like nobody’s business.
Despite the traffic terror, there’s something oddly comforting about the hustle and bustle – aside from serving as a reminder of just how populated the area is, it’s an indication of how much possibility lingers in the air. There’s beauty in the chaos.
2. The sights
Whether it’s 360-degree views above Bangkok on some bougie 64th-floor terrace bar, or racing atop a tuk-tuk through dense jungle dotted with elephants, Southeast Asia is an incredibly scenic place. Everywhere you turn, there’s something to catch your eye – gold-dusted Buddhist temples holding court on the side of the road, limestone karsts rising dramatically out of turquoise Andaman bays, rice fields shimmering beneath the sunset, or ancient ruins to make you feel like you’re playing Temple Run IRL.
Though the humidity in the region’s southern zones (think Bangkok, Vientiane, the Thai islands, and basically all of Cambodia) can be brutal – as in, take-two-showers-in-one-day brutal – the endless summer nature of the place only adds to its appeal. Southeast Asia is downright beautiful, there’s no denying it, and your head will be reeling from attempting to soak it all in.
3. The street markets
Fried scorpions, rats on a stick, cow tongue, shots of snake blood whiskey – they seemingly have it all in SE Asian street markets (but let’s not get too dramatic here; they also have their fair share of mouthwatering fried rice, noodles, curries, spring rolls, and fresh fruit – some of the best food you’ll eat anywhere). Simply walking through the market stalls is an experience, what with the mixture of sights, sounds, and smells.
On top of the edible options at Asian street markets, there are dozens of stalls selling elephant pants, silk scarves, bracelets, artwork, lanterns, tea, and other souvenirs – many of which are hand-made and all of which are incredibly cheap. Street markets are captivating places, and despite their obvious catering to tourists, they are an experience you cannot (and won’t be able to) pass up.
4. The opportunities for adventure
Southeast Asia is teeming with activities to let your inner adventurer go wild – in all capacities. Think river kayaking, cave tubing, playing with elephants, chasing waterfalls, ATV-ing through Cambodian rice fields, snorkeling mojito-colored waters, clambering over temple ruins, and gliding down the Mekong watching the world go by.
Even just taking a tuk-tuk across Bangkok is an adventure. You’ll be coasting from Wat Arun to Sukhumvit like a maniac, clinging onto your seat and watching city lights whiz past as your body lights up like someone experiencing what it means to be alive.
5. The people
Arguably my favorite part about Southeast Asia. The locals I met during my travels
there – whether they were a tuk-tuk driver, shopkeeper, tour guide, local tribesperson, or boat captain – were some of the friendliest, most genuine people I’ve met.
Many were very eager to share their part of the world with me, and had killer senses of humor to match. It didn’t matter if we spoke different languages or read different alphabets – the people I interacted with were patient and understanding. On top of that, they radiated a warmth and realness that I find myself missing more often than not.
6. The backpacker culture
This pocket of the globe is well-known for its backpacker culture, partly attributed to how cheap it is – a bed at a hostel goes for $2 a night, an average plate of pad thai will cost you about $1.50 and beer is $1. All of that, combined with the ease of travel within the region and the abundance of beautiful sights to see means there are backpackers aplenty at any given time. And with heavy backpacking traffic comes a heavy party scene – we’re talking bars and clubs on every street corner from Khao San Road to Pub Street filled with people dancing on tables, throwing back jello shots, and ingesting literal buckets of booze (take it from me, those things are dangerous…).
But party-hard lifestyle aside, the backpacker culture in Southeast Asia means the region is filled with dozens of interesting, curious individuals with fascinating stories to tell and eyes for adventure. You never know who you might befriend or what you might learn.
And hey, where else can you wear elephant pants to the club and it’s totally acceptable?
7. Its wisdom
If there’s one thing Southeast Asia is, it’s wise. Asia itself is an ancient part of the globe, and this particular region has a rich and complex history. The ways of life I experienced while in the area were eye-opening and enlightening.
Southeast Asia imparted wisdom on me in the sense that it taught me to be patient, introspective, grateful, and aware – of what I had and what I had yet to gain. The spirit, generosity and beauty of the region instilled a yearning in me for more, and I’m itching for my next opportunity to return.
While I can’t say for sure whether you’ll receive the same impact I did, there’s only one way for you to find out – get packing!