Southeast Asia is an extremely popular backpacker’s destination, but it can also be a big culture shock coming from the Western world for the same reasons. The cheap prices make it a very attractive region, but the poverty that comes along with low prices can be jarring. The hospitality many people associate with Southeast Asian could just as easily be perceived as pushiness bordering on harassment. The carefree nature of life also leads to crazy and dangerous traffic. First timers heading to Southeast Asia looking for a nice introduction into the region before making their way into the more rural areas might want to start with these places:
Chiang Mai, Thailand
Of all the countries in Southeast Asia, Thailand is probably the easiest introduction. It is one of the more developed countries and has a lot of Western amenities and familiar restaurants. Thai cuisine is also something most Westerners are familiar with and fond of. Chiang Mai in northern Thailand is perhaps the best city to start with. It’s the second biggest city in Thailand after Bangkok so transportation in and out as well as around the city is easy. It’s a very liveable place with a large number of coffee shops and restaurants ranging from budget to expensive, but it also has all the night markets and cheap food people associate with Thailand. It’s also a great jumping off point for a number of other, more rural trips.
Some of the best beaches in this region are in southern Thailand. Popular places for travelers are Koh Samui and Krabi. Here, you can experience the beautiful scenery, be surrounded by fellow travelers to make you feel more at ease, and then potentially head out to more exotic or remote islands with your new friends.
Siem Reap, Cambodia
Siem Reap is the town in which those looking to explore the ancient temples like Angkor Wat will base themselves. One of the best ways to integrate yourself into a region, a new culture, is to visit the big attractions you’ve always wanted to see. You thereby distract yourself from the culture shock by staying focused on these amazing sights you can’t see anywhere else and by the time you’re done exploring them, you’ll subconsciously be more used to the culture.
Luang Prabang, Laos
This laid-back town is a former French colonial outpost and still has remnants of that culture today. There are tons of temples and monks to quench your fancy, but the slow pace of life and beautiful scenery in Luang Prabang make it a nice introduction to the region. The night market offers a chance to walk around and practice your bartering skills which will be needed all through the region, but because of the smaller size of the town and less crowds, the vendors aren’t quite as pushy.
Southeast Asia is a beautiful region with an endless array of activities. From the beaches to the jungle, from Bangkok madness to peaceful small villages, you can find anything you’re looking for here. First timers should remember that it’s not a scary place, you’ll meet hundreds of people just like you, and you’ll have a great time.