Beyond beers & beaches: the best South East Asian experiences

Disclaimer: I say South East Asia… but actually I’ve only been to Myanmar, Cambodia and Vietnam, so the list isn’t incredibly comprehensive. Enjoy, anyway.

South East Asia has long been one of the top destinations for backpackers around the world. The region has many qualities to explain its fame: the prices are cheap, the weather is good, and it’s exotic without being dangerous. While you could spend days just wandering around old colonial cities and partying the nights away, there are a few special experiences that can add something special to your trip.

Mandalay, Myanmar

Moustache Brothers

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This comedic trio reaped fame in the 1990s with their unapologetic slapstick humour. In the name of comedic integrity, they censored very little – and in the Burma of the time, controlled by military government, political jests landed two out of three brothers in prison a few times. Nowadays just one of the brothers, Lu Maw, remains to keep up the tradition. Officially he has been prohibited from performing the show in Burmese, so nowadays it can only be heard in English.

The show is a bizarre mixture of slapstick humour, traditional dances, political jokes and reminiscence of the trio’s glory days. Neither the audience or Lu Maw’s wife (the cover girl of Lonely Planet’s 90s Myanmar edition in Italy) is spared from jests shot out in a thick, almost unintelligible accent. While the show might not be funny in a manner that we as Westerners are accustomed to, it is an entertaining spectacle that now serves as an honour to tradition. Even though Lu Maw’s brothers are deceased, the performance is still a family business, featuring not only his wife but also his daughter and adorable, 8-year-old granddaughter. If you arrive early, you have a good chance of meeting the family before the show.

Moustache Brothers performs on 39th St, 80/81. Tickets can be bought at the door and cost 10,000 Myanmar kyat (approx. 7 e or 8 USD).

Kampot, Cambodia

Arcadia Backpackers

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Kampot itself is a beautiful, chilled out colonial town on the coast of Cambodia and only a short scooter ride from the Mount Bokor National Park (which is also definitely worth seeing!) However, have you ever stayed in a hostel that is an attraction on its own account? Arcadia Backpackers is just that! Located outside of the main town by the river front, it provides a platform for all things fun & wet. There are Tarzan swings into the river; platforms to jump from; a Russian swing; even a big blob that you can use to launch yourself into the air. All this is adjacent to a bar that serves beers and delicious meals. In case you don’t like getting your hair wet, not to worry – there’s also billiards and table tennis in the bar. They also offer other activities, such as sunrise boating on the river and tubing down rapids.

The best part about Arcadia? You only hear about it word-of-mouth. It isn’t listed on any booking website, so to secure a booking you’ll have to give them a ring or fill in a form on their website. Ask anyone who’s been to Arcadia – it is an experience you don’t want to miss.

Tip: Due to Arcadia being far from the town, it’s worth splitting your stay in Kampot in half between Arcadia and another place. I stayed in Mad Monkey which is a great place if you’re craving for a proper woodfire pizza or a pool party – and Mad Monkey also contributes to local charities!

Arcadia’s located about 7 km from Kampot and a tuk-tuk ride there should cost about 5 USD. You can make a booking on their website on arcadiabackpackers.com.

Siem Reap, Cambodia

Phare Circus

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If you’re thinking about elephants and clowns, think again. Phare the Cambodian Circus is the product of an NGO school created to help disadvantaged Cambodian youth get out of poverty through education and arts. In 1994, after the fall of Khmer Rouge, nine young Cambodian men returned home from a refugee camp and started teaching street kids how to draw. They themselves had learnt art at the camp. Nowadays their school has more than 1,200 students, of whom 500 attend the arts programme, and the education is free.

The circus was established in 2013 and draws full audiences every night even during the low season. Trained acrobats perform dances and breathtaking acrobatic acts to the music coming from a live band. The performances are inspired by both Cambodian folklores and more recent stories and history.

Tickets are a bit pricey (starting from 18 uSD), but about 75% of the profit goes directly back to the school. Tuk-tuk from the city to the venue of the circus costs about 2-3 USD. You can find out more information on pharecircus.org.

Dalat, Vietnam

Canyoning

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Canyoning is one of the best adventure activities you could do in Vietnam. The tour that I took takes you from a couple of dry cliffs to the “washing machine”, a small waterfall drenching you from head to toe while you abseil down a steep rock face. On the way there you get to try natural water slides, cliff jumping and jungle trekking. The path winds through clear-watered streams and at points challenging, muddy trails through the peaceful, beautiful jungle. It is not only a great adventure but also a fantastic way to bond with the group you’re with. The best part? The staff takes pictures of you at every activity, so you don’t need to worry about bringing your GoPro with you.

A few people I went with were a little bit freaked out because of the news of the three Britons that were killed in Dalat during a canyoning experience earlier this year. However, the trio had gone with an unlicenced tour operator that took them to a restricted part of the park. As long as you go with a reputable company, you should be fine. (However, do bear in mind that canyoning under any circumstances is still an adventure sport – that’s why they make you sign a waiver!). I went with Highland Sports Travel and couldn’t have been happier. They provided three local guides who spoke good English and were in equal measures encouraging and understanding – it was the first time abseiling for me as well as to many others in the group, but they taught us well enough for everyone to make it through the tour with flying colours. The company runs three groups of about a dozen people daily.

The cost of the tour (including safety gear, guides, transportation, lunch and a free drink in the evening) was only 40 USD. I booked up my tour through my hostel, The Cozy Nook. If you’re looking for a place to stay in Dalat, I can’t recommend this hostel highly enough!

Sapa, Vietnam

Homestay with a local family

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Sapa is possibly the best area in Vietnam for trekking. Located in Northern Vietnam, the Sapa Valley is a region with rolling mountains embracing a multitude of green rice fields. The town of Sapa is not much to look at so many opt for a traditional homestay in one of the many villages. When you get off the bus in Sapa, you’ll immediately be surrounded by Black H’Mong women dressed in traditional garb, advertising their homes or selling trinkets. That’s the trick with homestays in Sapa: you can’t really book one up online, you just have to show up or get a number for one.

I stayed with Mama Tu, whose number I had got from a Dutch guy a few weeks earlier. It was truly what overly eager backpackers would call authentic. She picked us up from Sapa as the sun was rising, and after I hopped on the back of a motorbike off we went, through mountain passes and flooded roads, over gravel and stones and big dents. After the path got too narrow for the motorbike, I followed Mama Tu over a few streams and stepping stones until I got to her house. Her family provided me with breakfast, lunch and dinner, and took me trekking through the beautiful landscape. Her whole family was really welcoming and warm, and I couldn’t be happier that I opted for a homestay instead of a hostel and an arranged tour.

Cat Ba Island, Vietnam

Fish massage

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If you’ve been to Siem Reap, you’ve probably seen the fish tanks and “Fish Can Massage!” signs littering the facades of massage parlours, with pictures of laughing people plastered all over the walls. In Siem Reap you pay 3 USD to put your feet into a tank of small, hungry fish that nibble the dead skin off your feet. In Cat Ba Island (and probably elsewhere in South East Asia as well) I found a creek where you can do it for free.

It’s a weird sensation. It doesn’t hurt (because duh, fish don’t have teeth) but it tickles. I mean, tens of toothless gummy mouths are ripping dead skin off your feet, what else can you expect? It’s not directly unpleasant but it takes getting used to. However, you’ll come out with the softest feet you’ll ever have.

Kalaw, Myanmar

Trekking

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Lonely Planet lists trekking from Kalaw to Inle Lake one of the best “off the beaten track” experiences. However, this trek has already become immensely popular among backpackers and many name it the highlight of their trip in Myanmar. The trek takes you through a moderately easy path through Burmese countryside. It’s impossible to do the trek without a guide since there are no signs posted along the way, and the path at times turns into abandoned railway tracks, rice fields and shortcuts that would be impossible to follow on your own.

It’s possible to trek both ways, but starting the walk from Kalaw is more popular and generally considered to be easier since it’s mostly downhill that way. You can book up a two-day, one-night trek, but I highly recommend going for the full three days. Day one takes you through the valleys and hills, so the landscapes are amazing, whereas day two mostly leads you through local villages. The Lonely Planet guide warns you not to attempt the trail during the rainy season, which I of course did. You’ll have to be lucky: day one was beautiful, day two not that much so. The trails get slippery and difficult to walk when it rains.

There are three or four equally good trekking companies in Kalaw. The one I went with was called Ever Smile. My guide, Phyo, spoke excellent English and was interested in learning about life in our home countries as well as provided a lot of interesting information about the life in Myanmar. The three-day trek cost 40,000 Myanmar kyat (approximately 28 euros or 32 USD) and covered the guide, accommodation, food excluding snacks and a boat ride from the last village into Nyaung Shwe at Inle Lake. Do tip your guide at the end of it – they make ridiculously small money for their amazing effort.

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Have you experienced any of these or would you like to? Yet again, I enjoyed writing this guide a lot even though it digresses from my usual travel narrative a bit. Would you like to see more guides on the blog?

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