Has Southeast Asia become too touristy?


Thailand, Laos and Cambodia

Vang Vieng

Every time I travel, I always consider going to a country in Southeast Asia.  When I was a school teacher I would travel during my six week vacation. Thailand was the first country I visited, where I went alone.

 
I intended to go to Vietnam and Laos on that trip but ran out of money. Travelling alone, I thought it was best to stick to Thailand. Laos seemed a lot more hardcore to me back then.
 
Four years later, my husband and I were deciding where to go, we both agreed that we should go to Laos and Cambodia.  Neither of us had been to those countries before.  
 
We started off in Thailand and spent only two nights in Bangkok. We didn’t get off to a great start as my husband left his bank card in the cash machine at the airport. We realized when we got back to the hotel.

 
Thankfully someone was kind enough to hand it in at the bank. Whoever you are, thank you! After that rocky start, we made our way to Laos and planned to do a lot of outdoor activities.

 

Luang Prabang

 
Our first night was in Luang Prabang.
 
This was a nice city that has a night market and a lot of good restaurants.  We particularly liked the stews in Laos; the Mekong Fish Stew was our favorite.
 
We planned a three day trekking trip with Tiger Trails. Our guide was a very nice man and we met some other cool people along the way.
 
We stayed at two villages and visited three in total. Our hotel was in a bamboo hut just like the other villagers. There was a mat on the floor with a blanket and a mosquito net. There were traditional Asian toilets outside with cold showers.
 
There was electricity for the outside lights, generated by a tractor, it went off at 10 pm.
 
Throughout the three day trip we did: biking, hiking, kayaking and elephant riding. It was pretty intensive but if you were reasonably fit, it was not a problem. I thoroughly enjoyed this experience.
 
My only disappointment was that there was not much interaction with the villagers. To be honest, they didn’t seem that interested in our presence and I was always cautious about intruding on their privacy
 
In total there were 7 tourists there. But, our guide told us that during peak season there could be up to 40 tourists. It seemed funny to me that even visiting the village in a remote region could be very touristy.

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The Village

Vang Vieng
We decided to go to Vang Vieng for our next trip. People told us some horrific stories. How at least one tourist every month died as a result of drug or alcohol related accidents or overdoses.   
 
We had no idea Vang Vieng was known as; the party capital of Southeast Asia. I guess we were kind of out of the loop, to say the least.  The bars along the riverside and the partying activities had completely shut down, due to the frequent deaths.   We really wanted to try the outdoors activities that were available there so we decided to go. We were never interested in the party scene so it didn’t bother us that everything shut down. 
 
We had a great time! We cycled to the Blue Lagoon, which was a very bumpy ride and quite uncomfortable. There, we saw the cave and went swimming.
 
We also climbed to the top of mount Pha Ngeun.  It was only a 45 minute climb but it was uphill all the way.    The Lonely Planet book talks about children coming to greet you, which did not happen with us.

Rock Climbing

We did Rock climbing for the first time, with Green Discovery. This was excellent, we were fortunate to be the first ones there. We had nearly finished, when about 4 other group of climbers came, then the place was packed. If we had come later I would not have enjoyed it as much because the area became very crowded. People would watch you climb. 
 
We also did the infamous tubing down the river. No drunken people in sight and you could see all the empty bars along the way.  Only one or two were open. It was a very relaxing experience. 
 
Watch out for the kids at the end who offer to guide your tube to the shore. They expected a tip for it. They are very insistent. It was quite funny though.
Rock Climbing

Rock Climbing

Laos was very touristy, much more than we expected. Many Westerners are flocking there because it inexpensive. The two of us were able to eat out for under five dollars. Alcohol is also very cheap there, so you can imagine the scene. 

 
Laos attracts many young people who are on a break from college. Many of whom are on their first trip abroad since graduating. We could have found more remote parts but we didn’t have the time as we were also going to Cambodia.
 
What can I say about Cambodia? It was an experience like no other, and for all the wrong reasons! This was our own fault though. We went to the super touristy parts and I’m sure if we had visited the countryside, it would have been a different story.  
 

Angkor Wat didn’t disappoint.  We saw the excellent craftsmanship of all the different temples. If you are into religious and historical sites, you would have been impressed.  It was all very Indiana Jones.  However, the vendors around the different temples kind of ruined the experience. They were always harassing us to buy their “cold drinks” and other random stuff. We can laugh about it now but at the time it became very tiresome.

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Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat

 

Serendipity Beach

Then we went to Sihanoukville’s Serendipity Beach.

This was a nightmare from the onset. Trying to lay down and sunbathe was impossible! Sellers would soon surround us, many of whom included young children.  I made the mistake of nodding when one seller told me I should come to him if I wanted a bracelet. Not exactly a promise, just a nod in my frantic attempt to get him to go away.

Then I made the mistake of buying a bracelet from another seller (again to get her to go away). Well, when the guy I nodded at saw me wearing a bracelet, he told me off for buying one from someone else. This was the final straw; we decided we had to get out of that place.

Exhausted from all the outdoor activities; we went to the beach to rest. We wanted the last part of our trip to be more relaxing. It was anything but relaxing!

Even when eating at the restaurant of our beach hut, waiters and waitresses would try to sell us things. These were people who worked there, so there was no escaping them.

Someone told us about a quieter beach called Otres Beach. We went there and stayed at the Mushrooms Point. The food there was brilliant and the owners were super nice! The staff was also very friendly.

This beach was quieter and there were fewer sellers.

Fortunately, they were also much less aggressive in their approach. They would usually leave on the third “no thank you”. Whereas the others on Serendipity Beach never gave up!

One thing I would say about this beach was that the surrounding areas were pretty dirty. When you are driving up to the beach it is quite concerning to see.  Anyway, we were able to do some relaxing for the last couple of days and met some cool people.

A successful fishing trip in Cambodia

A successful fishing trip in Cambodia

We are unlikely to return to Cambodia and if we do, we will make every effort to travel to the remote countryside.
 

Lessons Learned

Next time we travel to Southeast Asia, we will do things differently. This is what we learned from our trip:
 
  • If you are travelling for a couple of weeks (we had three weeks in total) do not try to cram in three different countries. I would advise you to stick to one. If we had just concentrated on Laos, we could have explored it further and visited more villages.  We had planned to go to the North-West regions but we didn’t have enough time.
     
  • If we had only concentrated on Cambodia, we would have visited the countryside. Going to the remote areas would not have left such a bad impression.
 
Thailand
 
  • Southeast Asia is touristy but I still believe you can always find the non touristy parts. For example when I went to Thailand I was there during the peak season. But I avoided the Full Moon Party in Koh Phangan (not my thing).
  • Instead, I went to the Bottled Beach, which I found to be super quiet and serene. It was much further out than the other beaches and you had to take an extra boat or two to get there but it was worth it. The North of Thailand is also beautiful; places like Pai are worth visiting.
 
Cambodia
 
  • When in the touristy parts of Cambodia, do not think that the sellers are genuinely interested in you. They only care about your money, so do not engage in any form of conversation with them or they will not leave you alone.
     
  • Just keep saying, no thank you. Whatever they say to you; respond with “no thank you”.
     
  • If they say they will come back later, say “no thank you”, or they will take it as a “promise” to buy something from them later.
     
  • Bear in mind that any children selling should be in school. Education is free up to high school in Cambodia. So buying from child sellers will encourage them to stay on the beach all day, instead of going to school.
  •  I would advise you not eat at the stalls set up around Angkor Wat. These outdoor restaurants have no nearby bathrooms or running water. So there is nowhere to wash your hands.
     
  • Guess what? The people serving you food do not have access to soap and water either. As we were eating, we noticed that the people preparing the food would go into the nearby forest to pee. Needless to say we didn’t finish our food and politely left. ‘Cringe!’
 
Laos
 
  • In Laos we found that the locals are quite reserved. So to interact with them, you have to make an extra effort. They really appreciated this and we found them to be super nice as a result. You just have to start the conversation.
 
  • In our opinion Laos had the most beautiful scenery, especially if you like mountains. It would have been better to spend more time there to explore it thoroughly.
 
Guidebooks
 
  • Lonely Planet’s; Southeast Asia on a Shoestring is only suitable as a general outline. It highlights the main touristy areas of every country featured in the book. If you want to find out about remote regions, buy the individual guidebook for that country. Also, do your own research on the internet; do not rely on the guidebook alone.
 
What do you think about Southeast Asia? My favorite part is still the Philippines! But I am yet to visit many other countries. Share your experiences and top tips below.

Thoughts?