Vanuatu has had one of the most turbulent histories of any island nation in the region due to repeat recolonization. As a result, the country has an unusual mix of cultures and buildings present and sadly has a lower population than when the first contact was made with Europeans. In my opinion, Vanuatu has a fantastic atmosphere to it, a very happy and welcoming atmosphere, more so than New Caledonia. A key highlight of visiting Port Vila is the central marketplace, which acts as a hub for the entire town. In this market, you will find every fruit, vegetable, and meat available in the country. Additionally, you will find a traditional food area serving all local dishes, as well as goods market which sells every manner of tourist nicknacks and garments. I also suggest making the walk to the top of the central hill in town as it offers a beautiful view of the island in all directions. The city also has a fantastic kava shop, stocking every variation of kava available. If you are not familiar with kava, it is a traditional substance consumed throughout the Pacific. It is a sedative that causes relaxation and numbness and is normally used in large social settings. Port Vila overall is a nice place to spend a relaxing day and take in Vanuatu’s culture and cuisine.
New Caledonia is a Pacific Island nation located just east of Brisbane Australia. The nation is a former French colony and has a rich mix of French and traditional tribal culture. Noumea is the largest and most developed city in the country, as well as being the nations capital city. In Noumea, you will find some fantastic markets and some great French and traditional cuisine. If you have some time, make sure to visit St Josephs Cathedral in the center of the city, aside from being a beautiful and historic building, it offers a great view of the city. Mare, by contrast, is mostly undeveloped and still has a traditional tribal feel to it. Most residents either still live in traditional thatched huts or small more modern shacks. The island is home to beautiful beaches and palm/pine forests. Here you will find traditional foods and beverages, along with fresh coconuts and French beer. Mare is a fantastic way to spend a day on the beach, eating traditional food and drinking cheap French beer, soaking in the Pacific Island sun and making the most of the clear blue waters surrounding the island.
Cat Ba Island is, in my opinion, the highlight of Ha Long Bay. The island has one smallish port town with numerous hotels, hostels, bars, markets, and restaurants. I suggest spending at least two days on the island in order to really see what it has hidden. Staying in town is a fantastic base, where you can rest and relax, but also rent a motorbike or scooter to explore the inland areas of the island. The main town area houses some fantastic markets where a traveler can pick up a large amount of pearl based jewelry for a very small cost. You can also find numerous floating restaurants throughout the harbor serving fantastic food. Inland on the island, the first real item of note is a small hidden stairway just off of the main road, leading to a cave. Inside the cave, you will find a secret medical facility built beneath the earth during the Vietnam War. When I happened to visit, the cave was completely empty, so I was the only person there making it an extremely creepy experience. The atmosphere inside of the facility is haunting, especially knowing that numerous people died within its walls from their sustained wounds. The complete silence and dim lighting add even further to the already creepy atmosphere. I definitely suggest checking it out even if you find it a little unsettling. The next and probably main attraction on the island for me is Cat Ba National Park which you can find in the center of the island. Whether or not I took the correct route is unclear, but for me to get there I had to park my bike and walk through an abandoned village, whose only inhabitants were wild dogs and deer. This setting was also somewhat creepy, but after visiting the hospital cave, not so much. The hike to Ngu Lam Peak, an excellent observation point located in the park should not take more than an hour or so each way. The view from the peak was fantastic and looked over the landscape in every direction, showing nothing but jungle covered peaks for the most part. My only piece of advice would be to cover your body head to toe in insect repellant and to make sure that you are taking malaria tablets because mosquitos will eat you alive on this hike, more so than any other hike I have ever been on. Apart from the inland attractions, make sure to explore the town’s markets and bars for a very enjoyable experience. Also, make sure to try horse show crab and mantis shrimp if you have a chance, both are delicious. Cat Ba makes for a fantastic few days if you have the time.
Ha Long Bay is a natural wonder of the world, a Unesco protected region and a world famous tourist destination and as such needs no introduction for most people. For those who are not familiar with this location, the bay is located in NE Vietnam near Hanoi and draws in tourists from all over the world. What makes this location so unique is the seemingly endless mountains, spires and rock formations of limestone that emerge straight from the ocean and are covered in thick lush plant matter. This unique formation coupled with bright blue, almost teal water and Vietnamese junks and floating villages and pearl farms are what makes this location so unique and enticing. I would suggest booking one to three-night cruises in the bay if you are budget conscious, if not stay as long as you possibly can and take in all that the bay has to offer. For my visit, I booked a three-night cruise but decided to stay an extra night on Cat Ba Island, so just left my cruise group and took the morning boat back to the mainland aboard another boat operating a day behind ours. Some of the attractions to look forward to apart from Cat Ba are ocean kayaking, cave exploring, visiting pearl farms and floating villages, as well as karaoke and cooking lessons onboard the boats. Even if it’s just for a night, I highly suggest experiencing what Ha Long Bay has to offer and checking one of the natural wonders of the world off of your list.
The Four Thousand Islands is a large island group located in the Mekong River near the Laotian border. These islands primarily house farmland and small villages but are also home to some fantastic hostels and bars. I suggest spending at least a day or two on these islands, the largest and most tourist-friendly of which is Don Det. There are several places to eat and some great bars in the main town area on the island. My favourite of all of these was Adam’s Bar, a restaurant/ bar where you can spend the day relaxing, watching the latest pirated movies or playing Xbox, or watching turtles swim in their encolsure. The bar was also famous for selling other, non-standard edible and smokable items. The two main things worth doing on the island are cycling around and between islands, and tubing. Sadly for me tubing was not possible a the time of year that I visited, due to the water levels of the Mekong being dangerously high. As far as the cycling side of it goes, I suggest just renting a bicycle and going off down one of the island paths ad seeing where they take you, you will find some very cool locations. Just make sure to relax, enjoy and explore the natural beauty of the islands and the relatively cheap cost of everything compared to the larger cities.
Sihanoukville is Cambodia’s answer to Phuket, on a far smaller and less touristy scale. The town is built right on the beachfront and is the gateway to Cambodia’s tropical islands. The town itself isn’t overly large, but outside of the town, you will find plenty of beachfront rentals and small bungalow housing resorts. My advice would be to rent a bike and drive between the town and the beachfront areas and just explore the area. You will have plenty of options as far as which island you would like to visit and stay on from Sihanoukville itself. I personally chose Koh Tah Kiev to get the unique experience of staying in a treetop jungle hut connected to a central canopy hotel by boardwalks. If you are more into the party scene, then I suggest Koh Rong, as that island is party central.
Koh Ta Kiev
Koh Ta Kiev is to date one of the coolest experiences I’ve had, wading out into the water to climb onto a boat to a jungle island to stay in the tree tops. The island’s resort has no electricity or running water and uses a wood-fire oven to cook all food. The rooms are all open to the elements and come with a mosquito net to keep all insects and reptiles out of your bed at night. To make up for its lack of electricity ( which is all part of the experience), the island houses an absinthe distillery, which is supposed to rival other contenders for the title of the world’s strongest genuine absinth. Whether or not it actually is the strongest, is irrelevant as it is definitely strong enough to get you where you want to be. You can tour the jungle distillery and meet the owner Johan who is one of the most interesting people I’ve had the pleasure of having a drink or 6 with.
Kanchanaburi is Thailand’s western province, bordering Myanmar. This part of the country is far removed from the tourist hub of Phuket or the hustle and bustle of Bangkok. In Kanchanaburi you will find farmland and lush forest landscapes. This part of the country is however home to a number of famous tourist attractions including the infamous Tiger Temple, which I had the common sense to avoid due to its horrific animal cruelty and black market smuggling activities. Aside from that, you will find Erawan Falls, Thailand’s famous floating markets, the bridge over the river Khwae and Death Railway amongst others. If you have a spare few days in Bangkok, I would suggest spending it here instead as it isn’t a far drive and there are plenty of tours available to take you. If you have yet to see monkeys in the wild, this is the place to do it, because they are literally all over the place in this region. Floating hotels built on the rivers are common in this area too if you would like a unique experience.
The floating markets are one of Thailands best known attractions and normally feature on the walls of Thai restaurants in other countries. These markets are an amazing experience, but an enormous tourist trap. I recommend browsing at these markets for fun, but buying elsewhere, as you will find the exact same items for a fraction of the price. If you pay for a markets tour, you will be taken by boat through the floating market place itself and then on a brief tour of the canals in the surrounding area, passing through farms and housing areas. It’s a great experience and definitely worth doing.
Erawan Falls are part of Erawan National Park and are a protected area with some of the most stunning sites I have ever seen. The waterfalls and pools in this park are cleaner, clearer and bluer than anything I had ever seen before or have seen since that day. You can easily spend hours exploring the park, swimming in the pools and having a free foot massage from the local fish.
Bridge on the River Khwae
This bridge is what inspired the famous 1957 film, The Bridge on the River Kwai, which went on to win 7 academy awards. The film focused on the building of the bridge for the Burma Railway, a horrific two year project by the Japanese during WW2 which led to the deaths of 330,000 labourers through forced labour conditions. Of theses deaths, the vast majority were civilians and prisoners of war, all dying in order to construct a 415-kilometre stretch of railway between Thailand and Burma. The bridge and the railway still stands and operates to this day. The bridge has become a pilgrimage for many who fought in the war or who lost family or friends in the war, as well as for film enthusiasts wanting to see the bridge from the movie. In actuality, the film was shot in Sri Lanka using a similar looking bridge, but the meaning of this bridge remains the same regardless.
Death railway as discussed above was the forced labour project of Japan during WW2, resulting in the deaths of 330,000 prisoners of war and civilian labourers. The railway still operates and can be ridden in order to experience a portion of what was build at such an immense human cost.
You will find plenty of floating buildings including hotels built on the Khwae River. If you get a chance, I highly recommend staying in one for a unique experience and the chance to watch the sun rise and set over the river.
If you still have yet to see monkeys in the wild in SE Asia, then this region is the place to go, as there are plenty of them to be found and they are relatively friendly and playful.