Few regions of the world embody our ideal vision of paradise: emerald forests, turquoise waters lapping at palm-fringed beaches, an all-embracing and peace-loving religion, and a simple way of life even amidst the bustle of a sweeping metropolis. The nations of Southeast Asia show varying shades of all these things, and so much more. And for many visitors, what stands out is the relaxed ease and welcoming smiles of its residents. Gate 1 Travel helps you experience it all, with the help of our experienced local guides, who know the ins and outs of these enigmatic and beautiful lands.
Bangkok: A Polished Jewel
Bangkok is Thailand’s bustling and electrifying capital. Thais call it Krung Threp, or City of Angels. The more western name by which we know it translates into “riverside village of wild olives.” No matter what you call it, it’s sure to mesmerise you with its floating markets teeming with longboats, its ornate architecture and tropical gardens, and its glittering temples. It’s also a culturally diverse city, where paper dragons adorn the windows of Chinatown and the fragrance of curry wafts through the streets of Little India.
The city’s largest and oldest temple is Wat Po, the Temple of the Reclining Buddha. Within these hallowed halls, its namesake golden-hued deity is massive, stretching 150 feet long. The soles of its feet are intricately etched in mother-of-pearl. It is an extravagant show of spiritualism – and an echo of the nearby temple complex of the Grand Palace. Home to monarchs until 1925 and the fairytale setting of The King & I, today the Grand Palace serves a ceremonial function and is open for enraptured travellers to explore. Its Emerald Buddha in the Royal Temple is considerably more petite than the Reclining Buddha, standing only 26 inches, yet it is the most revered statue in the nation.
Vestiges of History
Statues such as the Reclining Buddha and the Emerald Buddha serve as spiritual touchstones for the Thai people. There’s another destination right outside Bangkok cherished by locals as the spiritual birthplace of the city: the ancient capital of Ayutthaya. The golden era of Thai history unfolded among what are now temple ruins and incredibly preserved streets. This was once a powerhouse of Southeast Asia. Its palaces, monasteries and temples inspired French King Louis XIV to compare the burgeoning metropolis to European capitals. It fell to the Burmese in 1767, after which the capital was moved to the riverside site of present-day Bangkok.
In Kanchanaburi province, a dark chapter in Thailand’s history is memorialised at the Bridge over the River Kwai & War Museum. In 1942, here in the tranquil countryside, the Japanese forced POWs to construct a 255-mile railway across Thailand in the blazing heat. More than 7,000 conscripted workers died. The bridge was the frequent target of Allied bombing and gained notoriety as the subject of the 1957 Alec Guinness movie by English director David Lean.
In central Thailand, a vast archaeological site tells ancient stories of Thailand’s founding. In fact, Sukhothai is to Thailand as Giza is to Egypt. Before Ayutthaya, this was Thailand’s first capital through the 13th and 14th centuries and its artistic and architectural remains are astounding. Part of what makes this city so fascinating are the philosophies under which its kings ruled: Sukhothai’s leaders respected the wishes of the people. Cultural and religious freedom set the tone for this flourishing civilisation. The UNESCO World Heritage Site enjoys a lush setting among leafy hills and peaceful lotus ponds.
Lush Northern Cultural Capitals
Established in 1262, Chiang Rai is one of the oldest cities in Thailand. This is the heart of Thailand’s northern Lanna Kingdom, the “Golden Triangle” historically shaped by its proximity to the borders of Burma (today’s Myanmar) and Laos. Gate 1 travellers have the chance to visit these countries, ascending a mountain in Myanmar for views of the stunning countryside and embarking on a serene cruise to the small Laotian island of Don Sao. Thailand’s renowned hill tribes eke out a living in the hills around Chiang Rai, too. An optional tour ventures into the jungle to introduce you to the fascinating and welcoming Akha, Long Neck and Salong tribes.
The capital of the Lanna Kingdom, Chiang Mai, hugs the banks of the Ping River among green hills. Elegant temples, cultural emporiums and long leisurely strolls await you in this graceful city surrounded by a canal. Chiang Mai is mostly known for its crafts culture, which you can dive into at the shops along Sankampang Street. Silk, lacquer, silver, wood and bronze are all transformed into intricate artwork here and you’re sure to come across a demonstration or two by craftspeople who keep their traditions alive.
If the cultural heart of Thailand lies in the central and northern parts of the country, then a beach-going, laid-back spirit lounges around in the south. But it’s not all sun, sand and surf. In Pattaya on the Gulf of Thailand’s East Coast, break up your beach time with forays into a lively city and with a visit to one of the largest Floating Markets in the world.
On the island of Phuket, a traditional way of life lingers among infinite blue horizons and breathtaking natural beauty, as you’ll see when you browse the local Thai village, admire the Sino-Portuguese architecture and witness serene monks making their rounds for alms. Without question, it is the perfect island paradise for relaxation and doing nothing at all. But if you do want to explore, you can consider a visit to the mangrove jungles and towering limestone peaks around Phang Nga Bay and Lawa Island.
But perhaps no other Southeast Asia country is as linked to the sea as Vietnam.
A Rich History and Colourful Culture North to South
Hanoi recently celebrated its 1,000th birthday. For much of its history, it has been the political and cultural capital of the country. During the nation’s more turbulent times, it was the capital of French Indochina (1902-1954) — during which its elegant colonial-era buildings were constructed — and of North Vietnam (1954-1976). More than 50 ethnic groups have shaped Hanoi and the surrounding region; many of their stories and cultural relics are on exhibit at the Museum of Ethnology. But perhaps nowhere is the nation’s heritage more dramatically represented than in the world-renowned water puppetry that originated here. These fascinating shows are performed over a pool of water, depicting ancient folktales and long-cherished lore set to traditional music and Cheo, a form of opera.
Nearby, more than 3,000 islands rise from the shimmering waters of Halong Bay, many of them several hundred feet tall. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is shrouded in myth and legend. According to one tale, the gods sent dragons to this coastline to protect the country and they spat out jade and other jewels into the water. These precious stones protected the land from enemies approaching by sea. Gate 1 takes you sailing among this breathtaking archipelago of karst cliffs on a traditional junk. Floating fishing villages and inviting sandy beaches cling to the shores and vast echoing caves have been carved within the hulking rocks over millennia.
Though Hue was the capital of Vietnam for only 143 years, from 1802 to 1945, its cultural influence on the region has been immeasurable. This may be because the Nguyen Dynasty that ruled from here constructed such a vast and imposing complex of palaces and fortresses. Their Imperial City has undergone remarkable restoration. Its most notable structures are the 1.5-mile wall that surrounds it, the Imperial Enclosure, Thai Hoa Palace (or the Hall of Supreme Harmony), Hall of the Mandarins and the Forbidden Purple City, named after its Chinese counterpart.
For a stroll through Vietnam’s past, there is no place in the world like Hoi An, a remarkably preserved trading port. The buildings and streets of its Old Quarter remain much as they were more than 500 years ago. As far back as the 8th century, a thriving spice trade brought unprecedented wealth into the region. Much later, a vibrant trade with Japan, China, India and Holland lured settlers here from those countries. With such a rich past, it’s easy to understand why Hoi An is an important UNESCO World Heritage Site. The spirit of its origins live on in the fascinating Old Quarter as artisans fashion paper lanterns and residents carry goods in wicker baskets hanging from sticks slung over shoulders.
Like in Hanoi, the city’s French colonial influence is prevalent in the glorious architecture and wide boulevards of Ho Chi Minh City, in the nation’s south. The twin-spired, neo-Romanesque Notre Dame Basilica was built with materials imported from France. The Saigon Opera House carries echoes of the Petit Palais in Paris. Even the Post Office was designed by a Frenchman, one Gustave Eiffel. The true Vietnam here lives in the city’s vibrant and mesmerising markets. Dong Khoi Street captures the pulse of the city with its colourful shops and aromatic food stalls. At the intoxicating indoor emporium of Ben Thanh Market, all things Vietnamese can be found, from handicrafts to ao dai, the traditional silk tunic worn by women. And at the city’s fascinating floating markets, ancient houses and canal-side stalls are orbited by traditional longboats laden with all manner of goods and produce plucked from local farms.
An entirely different culture greets you right next door. Indeed, you are sure to be enchanted by Cambodia’s authentic charms and Khmer legacies.
Grand Temples & Cultural Treasures
The centerpiece of any visit to Cambodia is the ancient city of Angkor, 40 square miles of stupendous architectural treasures unrivalled anywhere in the world. Its famous temple, Angkor Wat, took 25,000 workers 37 years to complete. Many historians call it the largest single religious monument in the world. Its five lotus-style spires are said to represent the five peaks of Mount Meru, home of deities from Hindu mythology. Its walls and moat symbolize Meru’s surrounding mountains and ocean. Remarkable in scale and design, it is considered a perfect example of the high classical style of Khmer architecture.
The bustling and laid-back city of Siem Reap is the gateway to this spectacular site. Its streets lined with colonial and Chinese-style architecture are a delight to explore, and the city’s artful Apsara dancers cast their spell on all who attend a performance. The city is also a launching point to one of the region’s most fascinating natural phenomena: Tonle Sap Lake. Loosely translated as “Great Lake,” Tonle Sap has an unusual geographic feature that affects village life on its shores. The flow of water exiting the lake changes direction twice a year. The lake empties into the Tonle Sap River, which later spills into the Mekong River and the Mekong Delta. During most of the year, the lake is fairly small and just three feet deep. But during monsoon season, the delta backs up. The resulting backwash reverses the Mekong’s flow and pushes water up the Tonle Sap River into the lake, enlarging its size six times, increasing its depth to 27 feet, and setting in motion the fishing season for surrounding villages.
Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh, is the nation’s historic and cultural centre. One of the prettiest French-built cities at its colonial height, it was known as the “Pearl of Asia” and was named for 14th-century Wat Phnom, still the city’s tallest structure. Elegant architecture and gracious boulevards set a sophisticated tone here, and the city’s temples are simply spellbinding. The Royal Palace, especially, boasts magnificent treasures such as the Silver Pagoda, with its floor of 5,000 shimmering tiles and bejeweled Buddha statues.
Explore Even More of Southeast Asia at a Terrific Value
If you’re travelling this far, it would be a shame to miss out on all the riches that make Southeast Asia one of the most mesmerising destinations in the world. Gate 1 Travel makes it easy and affordable. Many of our itineraries combine the above destinations into one scintillating itinerary. Plus, you can indulge in even more experiences that bring this magical region to life. Step into Laos and explore the unspoiled charms of Luang Prabang, participating in a baci welcome ceremony, giving alms to orange-robed monks, and marvelling at the hundreds of Buddha statues during a boat trip to Pak Ou Caves.
Or marvel at the more than 2,000 pagodas, stupas, and temples that dot the golden plains of Bagan, Myanmar, just one exciting highlight of an enlightening cruise along the fabled Irrawaddy River.
With Gate 1 Travel, your possibilities in Southeast Asia really are endless. And our value is matchless. Feature for feature, you won’t find a program that beats our price and quality. Come and discover Southeast Asia for yourself!