One Month in Southeast Asia

One Month in Southeast Asia: Itinerary + Planning Insights

UPDATE (July 2020): We are back from an incredible trip exploring some of Southeast Asia’s most famous cities, towns, and natural wonders. Below you’ll find links to our completed adventures as well, with some highlights and takeaways! 

I typically begin sharing about our fall adventure earlier in the year but this season got away from me. The countdown is officially on and we’re departing in two weeks for a bucket list trip that I’ve been dreaming about for over a decade. Southeast Asia has made our shortlist conversation every year when we debate how to spend our month away in the fall. It’s an area that really requires enough dedicated time to make any sort of dent and with the luxury of a bit of time on our side, we’ve always brainstormed what a month in this magnetic region would look like. After months – well, years, in some ways! – of giving thought to our perfect itinerary, we’re there. Below, I’m sharing our itinerary for one month in Southeast Asia, plus some planning insights and booked tours and experiences. Many of the itineraries that I’ve found online for a trip this length skew towards the backpacking/hosteling bunch so if you’re looking for a more luxe take on a similar itinerary (which, by the way, is still a great value in the scope of global travel), I hope this is helpful!

Shanghai, China {3 Nights}

One Month in Southeast Asia

HOTEL: Shanghai EDITION {Bookable through Marriott Bonvoy points}

My sister just moved to Shanghai so we’ll be kick-starting our adventure with three nights in Shanghai to visit her in her new home town while we acclimate to our new time zone. For beginning your trip in the region, major airports include Bangkok, Hong Kong and Singapore as well, with many direct flights from the US. Singapore Air recently announced its Newark – Singapore direct flight, and there are direct flights to Hong Kong available from many major US cities including LA, Dallas, New York, and San Francisco.

During our three nights in Shanghai, we’ve booked a couple of swanky dinners, rooftop lounges for drinks with a view, and a breakfast tour through Shanghai with Untour Food Tours. More details on our three days in Shanghai forthcoming – after we depart! – plus I’ll be sharing a full post on our food tour as well.

TIP 👉🏼 Traditionally American citizens require a visa to enter China. There are a few exceptions to this though for shorter stays. Recently, China has changed the policy to allow 72 hours visa-free in a selection of cities and up to 144 hours in some other major cities. If you’re going this route, plan on having your exit flight details printed to show upon entry.

READ MORE ON OUR ADVENTURES IN SHANGHAI ✧ A Breakfast Tour Through Shanghai • Visiting Shanghai through China’s Visa Free Transit Program

Chiang Mai + Golden Triangle, Northern Thailand {6 nights}

One Month in Southeast Asia

HOTELS: 137 Pillars House (Chiang Mai) + Anantara Golden Triangle (Chiang Rai/Border Region)

From Shanghai, we begin the core of our adventure in Southeast Asia, starting in Northern Thailand. One of the major pieces in decision-making in terms of mapping out this itinerary was the way in which flights would work to be most sensible. When possible, I wanted one flight – no connections – between cities so we wouldn’t be wasting too much time in transit. We’ll be flying China Eastern from Shanghai to Chiang Mai direct (booked on AirFrance points, which is a great value if you have a Chase Sapphire card). We’ll have three nights in Chiang Mai including one day with a private guide (I’ll share more about that in forthcoming specific posts). Our time in Chiang Mai is followed by three nights at Anantara’s Golden Triangle Elephant Camp & Resort where we’ll be touring the three countries (Laos, Thailand and Myanmar), enjoying a bit of pampering, and delving into some elephant learning experiences.

NOTE: We have the luxury of time during our one month in Southeast Asia. If your time is more limited, you could combine Chiang Mai + Chiang Rai into a more condensed window. Many people do a day trip to Chiang Rai from Chiang Mai for a brush with the elephants. Also note that we exclusively opted to focus on Northern Thailand during our time in the region. We live in a beach destination so the beach scene further south wasn’t as compelling for us. Your itinerary and time in Thailand may look different from this if you prefer the Thai beach scene to the jungles and temples in the north.

TIP 👉🏼 Tourist visas for Thailand are granted upon arrival for a 30-day period for US citizens. A number of visa points require a passport-sized photograph for entry. We each have 4 photos prepared for entries just in case! Again, in this instance, I’m keeping physical printouts of all ongoing flights to show departure information in case required.

READ MORE ON OUR ADVENTURES IN CHIANG MAI ✧ Three Days in Chiang Mai • HOTEL INSIDER: A Stay at 137 Pillars House, Chiang Mai

READ MORE ON OUR ADVENTURES IN THE GOLDEN TRIANGLE ✧ HOTEL INSIDER: A Stay at Anantara Golden Triangle Elephant Camp & Resort Delving into Anantara’s Elephant Encounters A Three Country Tour with Anantara

READ MORE ON OUR ADVENTURES IN MYANMAR ✧ A Three Country Tour with Anantara

Luang Prabang, Laos {4 nights}

One Month in Southeast Asia
Photo by Scott Flinders via Creative Commons

HOTELS: Luang Say Cruise (1 Night, Downriver), Belmond La Résidence Phou Vao (Luang Prabang)

From Vietnam, we head downriver to Laos. Getting to Luang Prabang was one of our biggest question marks in this process but we knew that if possible, we’d prefer to skip the airport scene and opt for a more peaceful route. Flying from Chiang Rai or Chiang Mai would involve a layover in Bangkok and kill too much precious time with layovers and in airports. Instead, we opted to cruise downriver from the Golden Triangle to Luang Prabang on a 2 day/1 night cruise with Luang Say (they also have a hotel in Luang Prabang if you want to combine those offerings). The cruise includes a stop in a traditional Laotian village, an overnight in Pakbeng at their accommodation, and then a stop at the Pak Ou Caves. Some of our interest in Laos generally was in visiting some smaller villages so this cruise is acting as transport, lodging, and sightseeing for us on this overnight.

From there, we’ll spend three nights in Luang Prabang at Belmond’s La Résidence Phou Vao. Our days include the morning Alms Giving Ceremony, a trip to Kuang Si Waterfalls and Bear Sanctuary, plus some sightseeing and temple visits in town.

TIP 👉🏼 Coordinating the cruise from the Golden Triangle to Luang Prabang was the biggest difficulty of the entire planning process. As you’d imagine, many of the cruises depart on specific days depending on whether you’re going upriver or downriver and depending on the season. Even after planning our schedule to accommodate for this we found that many of the boat operators wouldn’t take our booking as we were just two people and no one else had yet booked for our required day. A minimum of 4 people is generally required for the boat to go. I asked about paying more to compensate for being a lighter load but that wasn’t a viable option. I also asked about putting my name on a list so if other queries were to come through we could join forces to get a boat moving. Again, no luck with any operators. We were turned down flatly in almost every instance. As time drew closer and I began investigating flights I reached out to Luang Say yet again in my last-ditch attempts to finagle my way on to a cruise. As luck would have it, it was operating and we were able to get on board. All that to say that this requires coordination and you shouldn’t bank on being on a cruise until you are actually confirmed by the company. Also don’t be afraid to continue reaching out to verify options. If you’re a group (4+ people) this should be an easier proposition.

As far as visas are concerned, the Lao government issues visas on arrival for 30-day stays. A passport-sized photo is required and $30 – $42 for the visa fee is due upon arrival.

READ MORE ON OUR ADVENTURES IN LAOS ✧ Cruising to Laos Aboard the Luang Say • Exploring Luang Prabang with Orange Robe ToursITINERARY INSPIRATION: Three Days in Luang Prabang

 Vietnam – North to South {13 nights}

One Month in Southeast Asia

HOTELS: O’Gallery Premier Hotel & Spa (Hanoi), Indochina Junk (Halong + Bai Tu Long Bay), Little Riverside (Hoi An), Le Meridien Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City)

In some ways Vietnam is the core of our trip. It was the anchor when we started our planning and it’s also where we’ll end up spending the most time over the course of our month in Southeast Asia. Vietnam’s makeup, being long and skinny, means that travel times between cities can require flights as going overland can take days to make a given journey.

We’re starting our time in Vietnam in Hanoi where we’ll have three nights, allowing us to enjoy a walking tour, the night market, a vegetarian street food tour and more. From there, we’ll be transferred to the starting point of our Indochina Junk cruise which provides us 2 days and 2 nights touring Halong Bay and Bai Tu Long Bay. Halong Bay is undoubtedly the most famous trip for visitors to the region but many friends who’ve visited encouraged us to add-on the additional night to get out to Bai Tu Long Bay where it’s more peaceful and clean, and where fewer tourists go on traditional trips. There are a range of operators for boating near Halong Bay, but we chose Indochina Junk because their boutique voyages appealed to us immediately with offerings like morning Tai Chi on the deck and plush staterooms.

We’ve pre-arranged transfers from our boat completion point to Cat Bi Airport (HPH) where we will catch a flight to Hoi An (Da Nang Airport) where we have 3 nights based at Little Riverside. We’re slated to spend two days in Hoi An exploring and have pre-booked a cycling adventure to My Son with Grasshopper Adventures for one of our days.

After three nights in Hoi An, we catch our final flight within Vietnam to Ho Chi Minh City where we’ll complete our time with three nights based at Le Meridien Saigon (bookable through Marriott Bonvoy points at a decent value). We’ll be doing some requisite tours in HCMC like the Cu Chi Tunnel Tour, but I’m most excited for our evening excursion with XO Tours where we’ll be jumping on motorbikes with a female-led team to eat our way through Saigon!

Click here for the Beginner’s Guide to Vietnam.

HOMEWORK: If your knowledge of Vietnamese history is a bit muddled, I’d highly recommend the docuseries that we’ve been watching on Netflix simply titled, The Vietnam WarIt’s an 18-hour documentary done over 10 episodes and it’s incredibly dense and super informative; an amazing primer before your trip!

TIP FOR VIETNAM VISAS 👉🏼 Vietnam is the one country that we needed to apply for visas in advance. Starting in Hanoi, we’re eligible for visas on arrival as US citizens as we’re coming in by air to a designated port. Those coming in by sea (on a cruise for example) would need to apply for visas in advance of arrival. A Visa on Arrival still requires a visa approval letterThe process is simple enough: you’ll send in your details, pay a processing fee, and receive a document to print and show at the border when you arrive. The Vietnam visa costs $25 payable at the border if you go this route (the visa approval letter fee is additional).

READ MORE ON OUR ADVENTURES IN VIETNAM ✧ Exploring Halong and Bai Tu Long Bay with Indochina Junk Cycling the Hoi An Countryside with Grasshopper Adventures A First-Timer’s Guide to Tailor-Made Clothing in Hoi An Exploring Saigon’s Food Scene by Motorbike with XO Tours ITINERARY INSPIRATION: Two Weeks in Vietnam

You can do this easily through iVisa – the cost is $20 per person (10% off through September 15th with this link). See if you’re required to obtain a visa:

Siem Reap + Angkor Temples {4 nights}

One Month in Southeast Asia
Photo courtesy of Gordy Adsit via Creative Commons

HOTEL: Jaya House River Park (Siem Reap)

We’re ending our month in Southeast Asia with a bang by visiting Angkor Wat, one of the seven wonders of the world and the largest religious monument on the planet. Flights from Ho Chi Minh City to Siem Reap are readily available. We’ll be flying on Cambodia Angkor Air, which we booked directly through their site. When we began brainstorming our trip, Vietnam and Cambodia were the core of what we wanted to experience. A visit to Siem Reap has been on my wish list for what seems like eons and I think it’ll be a special ending to a whirlwind experience in the region. We’ve carved out four nights for Siem Reap and in addition to visiting the temples a couple of days, we’ve shortlisted a visit to the APOPO Center (to see the HeroRATs in action) and the Phare Circus (a Cirque du Soleil type offering).

There are many great hotels to choose from in Siem Reap, but we wanted something boutique-y and unique and opted for Jaya House River Park, which has an associated NGO supported through the property.

TIP 👉🏼 Cambodia also offers a visa-on-arrival program if you’re arriving into Siem Reap (or Phnom Penh) and as with the other visa processes, you’ll want to have a passport-sized photograph ready upon arrival to expedite the process.

READ MORE ON OUR ADVENTURES IN CAMBODIA ✧  Exploring Temples in Siem Reap Siem Reap ⏤ A Taste of Jaya Discovery ITINERARY INSPIRATION: 4 Days in Siem Reap

If you’re planning one month in Southeast Asia, this itinerary could take many forms and much of how you edit down your itinerary will be a reflection of what you prioritize personally when you travel. A month seems like a lot of time but you’ll find that the days slip away quickly when you’re trying to incorporate all of your highlights in a region this large. Transit time is something to consider as well, and that reality helped shape this itinerary in part. Where we could cut out time in airports or limit time on planes, we worked on planning to make that happen. With time constraints, we had to skip southern Thailand entirely, had to cut out Sapa in Northern Vietnam, and had to opt out of visiting the town of Pai, a hippie enclave in Northern Thailand that visitors rave about. Across the board, we opted for around three nights per city, which we hope will at least give us a taste of each area. For anyone else working on a more luxe take on a month in Southeast Asia, I hope this is useful for planning! Please feel free to drop any recommendations, questions, or insights in the comments below!

Shannon Kircher, The Wanderlust Effect

More about Shannon Kircher

Shannon Kircher is the founder and editor of The Wanderlust Effect. Founded in 2009, she has continued to document her international escapes as an expat in Europe and the Caribbean. Additionally, Shannon is the founder of Compass & Vine, a luxury boutique travel design firm, and is the Director of Marketing for the Frangipani Beach Resort. Shannon holds an MSc in Social Policy and Development from the London School of Economics and is a current candidate for WSET Level 3 in Wines & Spirits.