Really experience South-East Asia

JENNIFER ENNION
Last updated 05:00 04/01/2013

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We're lured far and wide, yet it's our some of our nearest neighbours we're drawn back to over and over again.Luang Prabang

You could put it down to our proximity and cheap airfares to South-East Asia but I'd say it's more the rituals, chaos and friendliness of the people we're attracted to.

So next time you venture to the land of a million elephants, be sure to tick these musts off your list:     

LUANG PRABANG, LAOS

There's something magical about Luang Prabang in the north of tiny Laos.

Perhaps it's the presence of multiple monasteries and their orange-robed disciples that stroll the streets at dawn.

Or it could be the gently flowing muddy waters of the Mekong and Khan rivers, and the chestnut-coloured children that splash at their shores.

Yet, when you visit this former French colony you must ensure you head to the aromatic night markets.

I'm not talking about the souvenir section either, although if you're after some fisherman's pants that's where to go.

No, I'm talking about venturing down the hidden side alley where locals char grill delicious cat fish and skewer them whole onto a stick of bamboo, served with a cheek of lime on a square of banana leaf. Grab some chopsticks and a table among the backpackers and enjoy a local specialty.


Siem ReapSIEM REAP, CAMBODIA

Once you're exhausted from traipsing around Angkor temples under a harsh sun, follow your instincts and make your way to Pub Street.

This strip in the centre of Siem Reap is unashamedly touristy but it's a lot of fun and by the size of the crowds each night, it's clearly popular for a reason.

While many of the restaurants here offer Western dishes, my suggestion is to scour the menus for fish amok and promptly pull up a chair and place an order.

Basically a stew, fish amok is a sweet coconut milk delight served in a banana-leaf basket. It's a perfect traditional meal for those who can't handle Asian spices.     

HANOI'S OLD QUARTER, VIETNAM

The Old Quarter is a wonderfully vibrant corner of the northern Vietnamese city of Hanoi.
Hanoi, Oold Quarter
Hostels offer snake-blood tours to game backpackers, locals happily welcome tourist dollars at pavement restaurants and motorcyclists whizz you around at all hours of the day and night.

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Yet, if you slow down for just a moment you'll experience another side of life here.

Grab a map from your hotel and head to Hoan Kiem Lake in the early afternoon. There's no need to play tourist and go to the pagoda (although that's nice too), just simply take a spot on a bench seat among the groups of wrinkled men, all dressed in white and fanning themselves in the humidity.

The paved banks of Hoan Kiem Lake, with its shady weeping willows, is a great spot to view these men, the schoolboys eating ice-creams and young couples strolling hand in hand.

Best of all, it doesn't cost a thing.    

Phuket, ThailandPHUKET, THAILAND

Ah Phuket, the hearts and souls you have destroyed but trusty reader do not fear.

I'm not recommending you venture to seedy Patong with its relentless touts, Aussie-themed bars and ping pong shows. I'm encouraging you to venture further afield.

Bypass Patong and head to Phuket Town instead. It's grittier, devoid of sleaze and has a locals-live-here vibe.

It also has a strong Indian influence, with plenty of textile stores, and much cheaper accommodation. (Phuket Town is also where the opening hostel scenes of The Beach were filmed.)

To be honest, there isn't much to do here but that's the point, it's not set up for tourists.

Explore the weekend produce markets, have a massage, dine at quiet restaurants in tranquil streets and simply enjoy the peace.     

* The writer travelled at her own expense

- AAP

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