For many of us Westerners, just traveling to Southeast Asia is an adventure in itself. Not everyone speaks fluent English, the cultures are vastly different from our own, and the sights and sounds of the countries just seem so exotic. You can get a rush from exploring an ancient Buddhist temple or bargaining in a local market. Even eating the local cuisine can take some nerve.
While you might expect Southeast Asia to be a cultural adventure, you may not realize this region provides excellent physical challenges as well. Whether you prefer to hike, bike, kayak, swim, or snorkel, you can get your adrenaline fix in a variety of ways.
The five trips mentioned below get our top rating for combining cultural exploration with physical activity at an affordable price. These unique vacations let you get off the tourist track so you can really experience the disparate destinations of Southeast Asia.
Trek through hill tribe villages in Thailand
Thailand is a hot destination right now and also tends to be an affordable place to visit. You’ll encounter all kinds of urban adventures in Bangkok, but you’ll find a completely different cultural experience when you head to the mountains of Northern Thailand. GAP Adventure’s Northern Hilltribes and Villages tour combines the best of city and village life, with plenty of cultural and physical activities to satisfy the most adventurous travelers.
The trip starts in Bangkok, where you’ll visit the open-air markets, Royal Palace, and pagodas, or take half-day trips to see Buddha statues or floating markets. Then you’ll head north to Chiang Mai, a hillside city, where you can explore on your own or participate in optional meditation sessions or Thai cooking classes. The area is an important Buddhist center, with more than 300 temples, and has an impressive night bazaar, where locals sell handicrafts.
The highlight of the trip is the three-day trek through the northern hill-tribe villages of Thailand’s ethnic minorities. You’ll walk four to five hours per day and spend the evenings in local villages. This is your chance to live and interact with the villagers and learn about their unique cultures. Activities include elephant riding and bamboo river rafting.
This trip is geared for independent travelers who don’t mind basic accommodations in guesthouses, overnight trains, and village huts. The average age of participants skews young, from about 18 to 30, because of the low cost, lack of frills, and relatively unstructured nature of the tour. The seven-night trip costs $295 plus a $100 local payment, and includes seven nights’ accommodations; two breakfasts, lunches, and dinners; and the use of a local guide. Optional classes and day trips will incur extra costs.
GAP offers this popular trip year-round, but the best time to go is from October to March, when the temperatures are cooler. Round-trip airfare from Los Angeles to Bangkok starts at $655 on Philippine Airlines, not including additional taxes or fees.