South East Asia is one of the most friendly destinations for LGBT travellers on this planet. Cambodia, Thailand, Myanmar and Vietnam certainly rate very high in terms of friendliness and safety for gay and lesbian travellers.
I don’t like rushing when I am on holidays just in order to add as many places to my “been there” list as possible. Two weeks is the most common length of holiday the for majority of people and the question is – what can I/We see in two relaxing weeks in South East Asia? Well, it depends on what sort of holiday you are looking for – adventure, quiet beach resort, culture and history, food exploration…. If you want to experience great night life in this part of the world go no further than Bangkok.
How about making a holiday that will mix some culture, history, food and seeing places that were off travellers limits for quite some time and are being discovered again? In this case I would consider two countries and four destinations – Vietnam and Cambodia covering Hanoi and Sapa in Vietnam and Phnom Penh and Siem Reap in Cambodia. The new International Airport in Hanoi (Noi Bai) is well connected with the rest of the world and is well placed to serve as an arrival/departure hub for this holiday. Quite many people who are concerned with current instability in Thailand are turning to Ho Chi Min City (HCMC – formerly Saigon) and to Hanoi as their travelling hubs for visiting this part of the world.
Showcasing sweeping boulevards, tree-fringed lakes and ancient pagodas, Hanoi is Asia’s most atmospheric capital. Just don’t expect a sleepy ambience. It’s an energetic city on the move, and Hanoi’s ambitious citizens are determined to make up for lost time.
As motorbikes and pedestrians ebb and flow through the Old Quarter’s centuries-old commercial chaos, hawkers in conical hats still ply their wares while other locals breakfast on noodles or sip drip-coffee. At dawn on the shores of Hoan Kiem Lake, synchronised t’ai chi sessions take place beside goateed grandfathers contemplating their next chess moves. In Lenin Park, choreographed military drills have been replaced by chaotic skateboarders, while Hanoi’s bright young things celebrate in cosmopolitan restaurants and bars.
Real estate development and traffic chaos increasingly threaten to subsume Hanoi’s compelling blend of Parisian grace and Asian pace, but a beguiling coexistence of the medieval and the modern still enthrals.
Established as a hill station by the French in 1922, Sapa is the one place in the northwest where tourism is booming. It’s now firmly on the European and North American package-tour circuit, and well-equipped trekkers are a common sight around town.
The town is orientated to make the most of the spectacular views emerging on clear days. It overlooks a plunging valley of cascading rice terraces, with mountains towering above on all sides. Views of this epic scenery are often subdued by thick mist rolling across the peaks, but even if it’s cloudy, Sapa is still a fascinating destination, especially when local hill-tribe people fill the town with colour.
The town’s French colonial villas fell into disrepair during successive wars with the French, Americans and Chinese, but following the advent of tourism, Sapa has experienced a renaissance. The downside is a hotel building boom, and because height restrictions are rarely enforced, the Sapa skyline is changing for the worse.
Inherent in this prosperity is cultural change for the hill-tribe people. The H’mong people are very canny traders, urging you to buy handicrafts and trinkets. Many have had little formal education, yet all the youngsters have a good command of English, French and a handful of other languages.
Phnom Penh (ភ្នំ ពេញ): the name can’t help but conjure up an image of the exotic. The glimmering spires of the Royal Palace, the fluttering saffron of the monks’ robes and the luscious location on the banks of the mighty Mekong – this is the Asia many dreamed of when first imagining their adventures overseas.
Cambodia’s capital can be an assault on the senses. Motorbikes whiz through laneways without a thought for pedestrians; markets exude pungent scents; and all the while the sounds of life, of commerce, of survival, reverberate through the streets. But this is all part of the attraction.
Once the ‘Pearl of Asia’, Phnom Penh’s shine was tarnished by the impact of war and revolution. But the city has since risen from the ashes to take its place among the hip capitals of the region, with an alluring cafe culture, bustling bars and a world-class food scene.
The life-support system for the temples of Angkor, Siem Reap (see-em ree-ep; សៀមរាប) was always destined for great things. It has reinvented itself as the epicentre of chic Cambodia, with everything from backpacker party pads to hip hotels, world-class wining and dining, and sumptuous spas.
This is good news for the long-suffering Khmers riding the wave, but it can make the town a little bling in places. Authentic it is not, although just a short distance away lies Siem Reap Province and the real Cambodia of rural beauty. Explore floating villages and rare-bird sanctuaries or just cycle (or quad bike or pony trek) through the paddies as an antidote to the bustle of town.
Angkor is a place to be savoured, not rushed, and this is the base to plan your adventures. Still think three days at the temples is enough? Think again, with Siem Reap on the doorstep.
Welcome to my home town! What can I say about Angkor Wat and other Angkor Temples that has not been already said? Do your homework folks and you will be itchy to buy that ticket and fly as soon as possible. LGBT travellers feel like at home in Siem Reap. You might even come to see Richard and I – you are welcome – we are at River Queen Guesthouse.
That is all folks!
Feel free to make comments and suggestions