Travelling in Southeast Asia isn’t just about getting from A to B, on almost every trip the journey is part of the experience. Here’s our pick of the best journeys across Southeast Asia. Check out The Rough Guide to Southeast Asia on a Budget for everything else you’ll need to plan your trip.
1. Thailand–Burma Death Railway, Thailand
Treat the Bridge Over the River Kwai as a destination in itself and you could find its simple steel structure mildly disappointing. Ride the rails here from Nam Tok though and you’ll get the full impact of this world-famous railway journey – one that is more about the pain of history than the river scenery (though beautiful) you’ll see en route.
This is of course the bridge built by Allied prisoners of war, and crossing it is a poignant moment.
Begin the journey with a taxi ride out to Hellfire Pass, or Konyu Cutting, just north of Nam Tok. You’ll take a moving walk through the jungle where many died, before boarding the train at Nam Tok to ride south to Kanchanaburi and cross the bridge thousands toiled over, and died for.
2. Luang Namtha into Nam Ha, Laos
There’s no danger of running into hordes of other hikers on this trek, as the Nam Ha National Protected Area‘s ecotourism project ensures all trekking operators cooperate to keep visitors spread out and not all descending on the same villages.
Dinner is collected en route (wild herbs and vegetables) and cooked in your forest camp with bamboo tubes before heading deeper into the forest, where you might even see monkeys.
A second night is spent either at Ban Namkoy of the Lanten tribe or Ban Nalantai of the Khmu, where you can meet locals and swim in the river.
Some say the five-hour journey from Phnom Penh in Cambodia to Chau Doc in Vietnam is too slow, but we say that’s the beauty of it. Climb aboard the Victoria boat in the Cambodian capital and take in the scenery as you head southwards along the mighty Mekong towards the border – look out for floating markets, bamboo-stilt houses and local farmers at work in the bright green rice paddies.
After crossing into Vietnam, you’ll disembark directly outside the Victoria hotel, a breezy French colonial place with a terrace overlooking the waters you’ve just cruised down.
4. Through the streets of Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Getting around the Cambodian capital is all about travelling in style. You’ll see locals loading the ubiquitous cycle rickshaws (or cyclos) up with everything from bushels of bananas to gaggles of younger family members, and tourists can use them to tour the city.
It’s only about 2.5km from Wat Phnom to the Central Market, but doing the journey by cyclo means seeing Phnom Penh in a way that gets the adrenalin pumping as you whizz between cars and motorbikes and swing around roundabouts.
Try to relax: these drivers have been bobbing and weaving like this for years.
5. Pinnacles summit trek, Gunung Mulu National Park, Malaysia
It might not be the easiest journey – or the most forgiving – but this three-day trek to Gunung Mulu National Park’s Pinnacles is worth the effort. The reward? Triumphing over Gunung Api’s razor-sharp limestone spires, which look like they’ve been plucked from a sci-fi film.
It starts with a boat trip along the Melinau River to Kuala Berar (and if the water is low the boat must be pushed over the rocks) before trekking through the jungle to reach camp.
Day two is toughest, ascending some 1200 metres through moss forest and past limestone debris, before ropes and ladders aid your climb to the top of the rocky outcrop above the Pinnacles.
Don’t expend all your energy on the way up, the descent back to camp can be even tougher, but regular stops to admire the epic scenery will provide a welcome break.
6. The road to Mandalay, Myanmar
It’s hard to imagine a more romantic Southeast Asian journey than this one, aboard Belmond’s Road to Mandalay. The journey from Bagan to Mandalay along the Irrawaddy river takes three days and two nights, but that will seem far too quick on this cruiser.
Sip cocktails on the teak decks as you pass golden pagoda spires, saffron-robed monks and lush junglescapes. Disembark for a tour of Mingun (home to the ruined pagoda of King Bodawpaya and the world’s largest un-cracked bell) en route.
Explore more of Southeast Asia with the Rough Guide to Southeast Asia on a Budget. Compare flights, find tours, book hostels and hotels for your trip, and don’t forget to buy travel insurance before you go.