JR Harrison III
Atlanta, GA

Five years ago I decided to stop living my life vicariously through others, ditch the "all American dream" to a routine life and travel the world. Since then I have traveled to over 65 countries & 6 continents, seen 6 of 7 wonders, climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro & Mt. Kinabalu, volunteered in India & Africa, dived with great white sharks, jumped off the highest bungee in the world, and re-discovered myself. I've created Savvy Vagabond to show the beautiful world as I see it, share my tips & tricks for backpacking on a shoestring, and most importantly, to inspire others to Refuse to Live Vicariously

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“The very basic core of a man's living spirit is his passion for adventure. The joy of life comes from our encounters with new experiences, and hence there is no greater joy than to have an endlessly changing horizon, for each day to have a new and different sun”
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Asia Blog

Opinion: Where Should I Go in Southeast Asia? NOT Thailand

By on December 9, 2017

After spending a total of about 8 months over the years exploring Southeast Asia, meeting the travelers, and getting to know the people – i’ve come to have a very strong opinion about Thailand.

Thailand: Then & Now:

During the 70’s & 80’s, Thailand became a booming destination for travelers, offering a cheap and safe country that was still off the beaten path – with a culture of its own, a focus on buddhism, and a population not yet accustomed to tourists. With Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar, Philippines, and Cambodia still in repair and disarray after years of war and dictatorships, Thailand provided the perfect alternative to people wanting to experience the Southeast Asian way of life. By the time the late 80’s and 90’s came around, Thailand’s tourism industry started to boom, making way for hotels, resorts, and vacationers. Soon enough, day by day Southeast Asia became less and less taboo.

The days of Thai authenticity and secret beach hideaways like “The Beach,” have since long gone – making way for oversaturated tourism, drunk young unruly backpackers, grumpy money hungry locals, and  a culture based around elephant pants, alcohol, and drugs. With each and every year, every quiet city in Thailand becomes more and more like Bangkok or Phuket – endless swanky questionable spa’s, massive strip club bars with girls (or ladyboys), ridiculous amounts of traffic, dirty rat filled streets, American fast food restaurants on every corner, and endless amounts of terrible restaurants cooking “Western” or “Italian” food (or worse, half ass cheap Thai food catered to western tourists a.k.a chicken fried rice or Pad Thai).

The long history of tourism, over-construction, and well traveled routes has, in my opinion, taken away the authenticity of the culture and made it completely dependent. Business has moved from the rice fields and family businesses, to t-shirt stands & shady tour agencies. Compared to other Southeast Asian countries (and of course there are exceptions), I have found Thai people tend to be:

  • Greedy
  • Less friendly
  • More likely to scam you and/or lie

In addition to all of this, a lot of the reasons people go to Thailand have become a fallacy based on popularity, a picture of Mango Beach, and little known knowledge about other alternatives.

  • If you are going to Thailand for beaches: the sand is more white, the beaches are cleaner, and the water is much much clearer in Philippines
  • If you are going for that island paradise: Indonesia has thousands of better ones.
  • If you are going for beautiful rice patties, authenticity and culture: Myanmar (Burma) is #1
  • If you are going for food (this might anger people): Vietnamese is hands down the best
  • If you are going for people: Malaysia, Myanmar, Vietnam, and Lao people are much nicer and hospitable.
  • If you are going for elephants: the elephant sancuaries in Lao and Burma are much more humane and don’t keep them chained up all day being whipped.
  • If you are going for cheapness or a 5 Star experience: Vietnam is cheaper and just about every country on earth can give you a 5 Star experience if you pay for it.
  • If you are going to pet a tiger: well, you really shouldn’t because they are all drugged up.

Who is Thailand Great For?

  1. The 18-21yr old Backpacker looking for a fun/wild first time experience in Asia that consists of mainly drinking cheap beer, joining a Castaway tour, and going absolutely mental with a bunch of Brits, Kiwis, or Australians while staying monstrous party hostels and selling your soul to the Full Moon Party.
  2. The inexperienced 1-2 week vacationers who are too lazy to plan adventurous off the beaten path trips and want a vacation catered to them and their needs because they are more willing to pay the money than put in the legwork.
  3. The cautious travelers that think that Thailand is more safe than the others and that people speak better english there. This is of course, not necessarily true.

So Should I Even Bother Going?

Now don’t get me wrong, Thailand can be a lot of fun and I have had a good time there in the past especially in my younger years, but It all depends on what you are looking for and also your knowledge of other options. The reason for this post is not to stray people away from ever visiting, its to stray people away from thinking this is the ONLY and BEST destination in Southeast Asia. What I want is for backpackers is to take 4 of their 6 weeks spent in Thailand during their Southeast Asia tour and spread it on to other countries that are more deserving. It’s a wonderful way to start your trip getting accustomed to Asian culture, but a terrible way to end it.

What is Thailand great for?

  • Are you looking for a badass party? Thailand’s are pretty much bar-none. The Full Moon & Jungle Parties on Koh Phangan are some of the most ruthless, wild and raunchy parties on the planet. Bang-La & Kao San Rd are two of the most sinful scandalous streets ever to exist since Sodom and Gamorrah. The Ladyboy show’s are hilarious, the alcohol is cheap, the women are beautiful, and the music is loud and goes all night
  • Are you going for food? Well even though I think Vietnamese is better, you have to give it to the Thai, their food is absolutely delicious. The curry’s there are so good and plentiful. The only hard part now is finding the authentic non-BS places in each city.
  • Are you going to learn how to dive? Koh Tao has some of the cheapest rates in the world to get an Open Water & Advanced License for diving (choose Roctopus :P)
  • Are you going because it’s popular and easy? Well traveling around Thailand is just about as easy as navigating around Costa Rica or Cancun, Mexico and the path is VERY WELL traveled. Whether you find that fun or not, is up to you 🙂

If you do decide to go, I recommend a 2 week trip going a little something like this:

  • Start in Bangkok – 2 days max of living it up in the Vegas of Asia
  • Take the night train to Chiang Mai – spend 5-7 days visiting the hilltribe villages, visiting an elephant sanctuary, and exploring the monasteries
  • Take a day trip to Chiang Rai (1day) to see the White Temple
  • Rent scooters and drive to Pai (2days)- enjoy the hippy weird atmosphere, reading a book in a hammock during the day, then drinking beers with backpackers at night
  • Take a flight to Krabi (2days) – a lively little mainland beach town with a port giving you ferry access to some of the best islands Thailand has to offer
  • Take a ferry out to Koh Phi Phi (3days) & Koh Lanta (2days) and live the Island life.
  • Snag a flight back to Bangkok via Phuket or Krabi, or move down the trail to other countries.

 

SO….Where Should I Go?

Myanmar (Burma)

Sunrise of Hot Air Balloons in Bagan, Myanmar

I got to spend a lovely month here back in 2016, and it was absolutely incredible. Myanmar is unique in Southeast Asia in that it has only been open to travelers since March 2011. The country has been blocked and protected from Western influence and the effects of oversaturated tourism for over 30years. Every place you visit (maybe with the exception of Bagan) feels like you just found an undiscovered secret and something special. Never in my life have I been offered so much help, so many rides, or so many smiles just for stopping in a shop.

Why Should I Go?

  • Channel your inner tomb-raider and climb atop the 2,200 Buddhist temples of Bagan to catch the sunrise, or better yet, a hot air balloon.
  • Hop in a long boat to jet around the “venice of Asia” – the beautiful lakeside villages of Inle Lake
  • Trek through the hillside villages from Inle Lake to Kalaw and live like the locals
  • Enjoy endless amounts of street food, and the biggest Buddhist temple in the world in Yangoon
  • The authenticity of the culture is unmatched… straw hats and rice fields, carts pulled my buffalos, some places with no electricity, barely any western influence.
  • The food is absolutely delicious: a combination of Thai, Indian influence, Western Asian styles.
  • It’s extremely cheap – think Philippines or Malaysia, not Vietnam or India
  • The people are extremely trustworthy – I remember having a conversation with a few other travelers about how we could almost never bargain with Burmese folk, because the first quoted price was usually the lowest price they could actually offer. Which can become mind boggling coming from a place like Thailand or India where you have to bargain for your life!
  • People are ridiculously nice – Couchsurfing can be huge here since they have not had that many years or experiences with Westerners, people are more willing to open up their homes.
  • It’s extremely safe

 

Philippines

Philippines had been high on my list for quite some time because of my family history with the country. I finally got to travel there for over 3 weeks, and it really blew me away. I have to admit, the big cities like Manila and Cebu City have literally nothing for travelers except big shopping malls, traffic and fast food restaurants. The local cuisine is also, not my favorite. The gem’s here lie in its many islands, northern villages, genuinely kind people, incredible wildlife, plentiful seafood, and untouched paradise beaches. Despite what the media tells you, Philippines is extremely safe – you just want to stay away from a couple key islands, both of which I wouldn’t recommend you to visit anyway.

Why Should I Go?

  • Out of all the countries I have visited, Philippines had the most beautiful white sand beaches with the clearest water in the world.
  • Banaue Rice Patties: located on the main island in the Northern villages, these rice terraces were carved into the mountains there over 2,000 years ago and are frequently called the 8th Wonder of the World.
  • The Bacuit Archipelago of El Nido – thousands of limestone cathedrals, private beaches, and azure lagoons
  • Incredible Diving – whether it be the WWII shipwrecks of Coron, or with the sharks off Malapascua Island.
  • Hike the Chocolate hills of Bohol
  • Hop in the Jeepneys for the ride of your life – the asian version of Central American chicken buses.
  • Lounge and sunbath on the beaches of Borocay.
  • Surf your ass off on the island of Siragao.
  • Swim with Whale Sharks and hop off waterfalls in Cebu.
  • Hop beach towns and enjoy the rustic untouched island of Palawan.

 

Vietnam

Vietnam is by far my favorite country in the region for a multitude of reasons. The country has it all: nice genuine people, ridiculously cheap, very easy to travel, authentic villages, beautiful mountains and lakes, beautiful beaches & islands, best food on earth. There are not very many places where you can buy a motorcycle for $250 and “legally” drive throughout a country and go where ever you want.

Why Should I Go?

  • Hanoi, the city of organized chaos – a mind boggling mix of delicious street food, ancient Vietnamese culture and temples, beautiful oil paintings, ancient streets and street vendors, famous cuisine, egg coffee, and madness.
  • Ho Chi Minh – the booming, loud, but utterly beautiful city of Vietnamese business and rising young professionals
  • The Northern mountains hugging the boarder of China with untouched villages and hill-tribes, offering beautiful treks, authentic family meals, and some of the best motorcycle journeys to exist.
  • Beautiful train journeys down the coast-line.
  • Best food on the planet – enjoy a street food tour in every city
  • Beautiful days trekking, hiking and lounging in Cat Tien & Phong Nha National Parks
  • Tour around Halong Bay surrounded by limestone cathedrals.
  • Get a suit made for $100-150 in Hanoi by some of the best tailors in Asia.
  • Buy a motorcycle and tour across the country.
  • Enjoy beach life in Nha Trang, Mui Ne or the Con Dao Islands
  • Shop in the floating markets of the Mekong Delta

 

Some Honorable Mentions:

Laos

Indonesia

Malaysia

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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