DESKTOP, Ha Long Bay, Vietnam. Photography by Gemma Edwards

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SOUTH EAST ASIA | Three Destinations for the Cultural Explorer

5th December 2022

Floating Village, Cambodia. Photograph by Gemma Edwards.

From lush jungles to ancient temples to ice-blue waterfalls, South East Asia is a treasure-trove of stunning natural landscapes for the adventurous spirit.

If you have a curious nature, love the wilderness, and want to explore cultures in a deep and meaningful way, here are our Top 3 destinations for you – broken down by archetype.


Angkor Wat, Cambodia. Photographs by Gemma Edwards.


CAMBODIA | Battambang – For the Humanitarians and History Buffs

It’s often said that if Indiana Jones and Lara Croft had a lovechild, it would be Cambodia.

And as you might know, the star of the latter – Angelina Jolie – was so moved by her time spent filming in Cambodia, she dedicated much of her life to charity work in the country. Jolie also adopted her first child (Maddox) from Cambodia, who helped her direct her 2017 Golden Globe nominated film First They Killed My Father, which based on the memoire of Cambodian human rights activist Luong Ung. It’s a heart-wrenching watch, if you’re interested, shedding light on the terror endured during the Khmer Rouge regime. If this human rights and war history is your main interest in travelling Cambodia, consider a hiring a guide in Battambang.


CAMBODIA | Angkor Wat – For the Archaeologists and Adventurers

If the Indiana Jones / Tomb Raider side of things (think jungle treks to ancient temples) is more your speed, then you of course must visit Angkor Wat and the surrounding temples. I highly recommend hiring a local guide (mine was amazing – hit up SokSan tours if you go!), who taught all of us on the tour so much more than we could ever have researched or identified ourselves.

She knew and shared knowledge on everything – from where certain shots were filmed (for the cinema buff), to the materials used to build the temple (cutting coral underground then letting it harden with oxygen exposure), to the mythological elements and stories in each of the carvings.
I personally have a deep fascination for world religion, and we chatted the whole tour about the meticulous and brilliant planning that went into the design and build of Angkor Wat – at the Equinox, the sunrise is perfectly symmetrical, and even the 12 steps have astrological associations. Every layer is imbued with symbolism, and you can also receive a blessing from a monk.

We visited four temples on our tour, and all of them remain vivid in my memory today.


CAMBODIA | Floating Village – For the Anthropologists and Cultural Travellers

However, my favourite place in Cambodia was unplanned, unexpected, and both heartbreaking and beautiful.

Our SokSan tour took us to these beautiful picnic gardens in huts floating on lotus flowers, then from there to a village floating on water.

This Floating Village was born out of devastating necessity and genius – due to both poverty and racial violence, immigrants (and those who could not afford land) built a village on the water. This community has all the basics you need to survive – a grocery store and even a school, all floating on Tonle Sap Lake, and travelled between by boat.

There is something bittersweet about this village that I’m entirely unqualified to explain. Despite the tragedy endured; high mortality rate (especially in children due to drownings, malnourishment, and waterborne diseases); and physically demanding and dangerous work that leave many children orphaned; the people are warm, relaxed, kind, and live in harmony with nature. The lifestyle is both difficult and tranquil – and as a foreigner privileged enough to travel here in comfort – it’s difficult to reconcile such conflicting emotions. All I can say is that it’s a place that stirs the heart, so if you get the chance to go, it is well worth the visit. And if you can, support the locals by purchasing their wares, cuisine, etc.



To travel Cambodia, you’ll need to take Cambodian Riel (KHR). There is also an unofficial dual-currency system, and the United States Dollar (USD) is widely accepted. We'd recommend taking USD to make things easier!


Kuang Si Falls and Luang Prabang, Laos. Photographs by Gemma Edwards.


LAOS | Kuang Si Falls – For the Ecologists and Waterfall-Chasers

Laos is a little bit off the beaten path. It’s nestled in the north of South East Asia, wedged between Vietnam and Myanmar (Burma), just above Thailand and Cambodia. Most people on their island tours will miss the landlocked country entirely, but it’s a stunning destination abundant in natural wonders.

While I was only lucky enough to have a brief stay in Laos, I fell in love with the lushness and beauty of the country, and it’s definitely somewhere I would love to visit again.

In particular, Kuang Si Falls is not to be missed.

I’ve seen many waterfalls in my time, from Niagara Falls in Canada, to several in Bali and beyond… but Kuang Si Falls might be the most beautiful I’ve seen in my life.

The icy terraced pools seem to glow with green-blue tones, and swimming in the crystalline water felt almost how you’d imagine swimming in an opal; the water was milky yet clear – caught somewhere betwixt opaqueness and translucence – soft, shimmering, and stunning beyond belief.

I must have sat on a rock for more than an hour, just basking in the beauty of it all.

To get there, you’ll need to stay in Luang Prabang (which is so quaint and gorgeous in its own right) and take a motor-scooter to the falls. There’s a decent hike to the waterfalls, so be prepared for that. At the base of the trek is also a sunbear and moonbear sanctuary, where the bears have been rescued from illegal trade.


Laos uses the Lao Kip (LAK), though the US Dollar (USD) and the Thai Baht (THB) are also widely accepted (though not official currency). We recommend taking USD, and exchanging it based on need - this allows you to also travel to several surrounding countries too.


Hanoi and Ha Long Bay, Laos. Photographs by Gemma Edwards.

VIETNAM | Hanoi – For the Architects and Foodies

Full disclosure? Vietnam had never been super high on my bucket-list. In fact, South East Asia in general wasn’t my first point of call. But chance (or the universe) happened, I landed in Vietnam, and it opened my mind to a magnificent new world.

The majority of my short stay in Vietnam was concentrated in the North. I stayed in the Old Quarter in Hanoi; renowned for its centuries-old, eclectic blend of French and Chinese architecture. The bustling streets are flanked with tall, narrow, balconied buildings, with almost-hidden alleyways pocketing tiny little temples.
It’s an absolutely gorgeous city, and definitely one to add to your travel itinerary.

Hanoi is also wonderful for foodies – the street food scene is unreal (shout out to my friends at Smile Banh Mi, who made the best Vietnamese Baguettes in town, as well as the blessed concept of condensed-milk-sweetened coffee).

Plus, it’s only a couple hours away from the picturesque Ha Long Bay.


VIETNAM | Ha Long Bay – For the Island-Adventurers and Photographers

By the way, Ha Long Bay absolutely lives up to the hype. There’s something surreal about bouncing from island to island on a boat, exploring caves, and then hiking to a viewpoint with what feels like a hundred island speckled beneath you. It takes your breath away.

I only did a day trip on the boats, hoping to swim at the beach later. If I had my time over again, I would definitely recommend staying on an overnight boat tour. Also a heads-up, you’ll want decent fitness levels as there’s a lot of walking involved – nothing extreme, but it can get tiring climbing so many steps.


To travel Vietnam, you’ll need Vietnamese Dong (VND). Fun fact, you’ll probably be a Vietnamese millionaire – for tips, read our Travel Money Oz Vietnam Currency Guide

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