Indochina– the geographical area of Southeast Asia that’s bordered by India to the west and China to the north– offers a melting pot of indigenous cultures.
Comprised of Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Singapore, this area was deeply influenced by its neighbors, as well as by French colonizers. However, the name of the region didn’t originate until the early 1800s.
When you travel to Indochina today, there are an array of deep and rich cultural, natural, and historical traditions you’ll want to include in your itinerary. Here’s a look at the highlights of Zegrahm’s Intriguing Indochina expedition in Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam, with details on what makes each site special.
Siem Reap is perhaps best known for the UNESCO World Heritage site Angkor Wat, an archaeologically and spiritually important temple complex at the center of the Khmer Kingdom.
Angkor Wat showcases 500 years of Khmer art (from the 9th-14th century), and has an interesting history. Built as a Hindu temple in the 12th century, it was later converted to a Buddhist temple, then a military base. Archaeologists have also found older towers– possibly the remains of shrines– dating from before the construction of Angkor Wat, as well as over 200 hidden paintings.
This enormous temple (the largest religious monument in the world), which is surrounded by a moat, was ordered built by King Suryavarman II. He worshipped the Hindu god Vishnu, of whom you can see a statue near the entrance. It’s estimated that it took 300,000 workers over 30 years to build Angkor Wat, and it remains unfinished. Every bit of the temple is covered with carved art. Angkor Wat is so important to Cambodia that it is featured on the Cambodian flag.
Have you ever wanted to explore a floating village? Take a cruise on Tonle Sap Lake, a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve and the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia. The fishing on this lake, which is part of the Tonle Sap River, provides 60% of the protein intake for Cambodians. On Tonle Sap Lake, there are numerous floating villages, with stilt houses and even a floating church and elementary school. Depending on the season, the great lake will be smaller or larger: Seasonal flooding reverses the flow of water and increases the size of the lake considerably.
There is much to explore here in the capital of Cambodia, which is home to four mighty rivers. Start with the Royal Palace, built in 1860 and the official residence of Cambodian royalty since then. The current King, who is in residence, is King Norodom Sihamoni. What will you see at the Royal Palace? Khmer architecture with a definite French influence.
Perhaps focus on the Silver Pagoda, which is located on the south side of the Royal Palace complex and features a royal temple filled with national treasures. The floor is covered with 5,000 silver tiles, and there are many beautiful Buddhas (including a pure emerald one, plus a gold Buddha covered with thousands of diamonds) on display.
While in Phnom Penh, take time to visit the National Museum. Here, you can see the world’s largest collection of Khmer art, from sculpture and ceramics to ethnographic objects dating from prehistory to the modern day.
Delve into Cambodian history at the Killing Fields and Tuol Sleng Museum of Genocide, which is also known as S21 Prison. Learning about the horrific genocide by the Khmer Rouge is critical to understanding Cambodia today.
The town of Luang Prabang (which is actually 58 adjacent villages) was designated a UNESCO Heritage site for its creative fusion of traditional Laotian architecture and culture with European colonial influences.
Visit some of the many temples, explore local architecture, and be sure to shop the night market for locally-made goods. Within the city you’ll find an important sacred site, Mount Phousi. Climb the hill to see several Buddhist shrines and two temples: At the top, Wat Chom Si has a gilded stupa and incredible views.
Visitors can learn about Laos history at the National Museum, which is housed in the former Royal Palace. The monarchy was overthrown in 1975, and the palace was turned into a museum featuring the main throne room, preserved royal apartments, crown jewels, and even gifts from visiting dignitaries. Of particular note is the ornate Wat in the palace gardens, which was built to showcase Pha Bang, a gold Buddha.
More history can be gleaned at the Traditional Arts and Ethnology Centre, a relatively new non-profit museum that focuses on preserving traditional arts and culture of more than 30 of Laos’ ethnic groups. If shopping is your thing, there’s a boutique on-site that features the work of indigenous artists. Permanent exhibits include Hmong New Years Celebrations; Akha: The Diversity of an Ethnic Group; Tai Lue: Cotton Clouds to Cloth; and more.
Located about 25 km north of Luang Prabang at the mouth of the Ou River, there are two caves – a lower cave (Tham Ting) and an upper cave (Tham Theung). Inside you can see thousands of small wooden Buddhas. While cruising the Mekong River to return to Luang Prabang, many visitors stop at small, local villages, including Whiskey Village. There you can sample fresh lao lao, a local alcoholic beverage brewed from rice.
Another culturally significant event to experience in Laos is the baci ceremony, a traditional Lao blessing. The ceremony has several steps, with “an emphasis of the value of life, of social and family bonds, of forgiveness, renewal, and homage to heavenly beings.”
Having grown from a small trading post into a bustling metropolis of 14 million, Bangkok has more things to see and do than most cities in Indochina.
Most renowned is the Grand Palace, which was built in 1782. On the grounds of the Grand Palace is Wat Phra Kaew, the Temple of the Emerald Buddha. The 14th century Buddha itself is small (just 19 x 26 inches), carved from jade, and clothed in gold. But the temple is the most important Buddhist temple in the country. Also on the grounds of the Grand Palace is the Museum of the Emerald Temple Buddha, where visitors can see artifacts, architectural pieces from the Palace, art, coins, the seasonal robes of the Emerald Buddha, and more
Another can’t-miss temple is Wat Pho, the Temple of the Reclining Buddha, which contains the largest collection of Buddhist images in the country. There’s also a Thai school of medicine and an enormous reclining Buddha that measures 46 meters long! Built in 1832, the Buddha has interesting feet: They’re 3 meters high and inlaid with auspicious symbols and a chakra point.
If in all the bustle of Bangkok, you need an oasis of calm, then the Prasart Museum is the place to go. Privately owned and open by appointment, the museum is located within serene gardens. The owner, Prasart Vongsakul, has assembled an extraordinary collection of architectural replicas of Thai houses, palaces, and royal residences. This ode to Thai antiquities includes historic books, important manuscripts, and terracotta art.
No trip to Bangkok would be complete without a cruise on the Chao Phraya River and the manmade khlongs (canals) in Thonburi, the old Bangkok capital known as “the Venice of the East.” Exploring the Thonburi khlongs via longboat will give visitors an entirely different, more personal, and slower glimpse of the city. Also located in Thonburi is Wat Arun or the Temple of Dawn. This magnificent Buddhist temple, which has been recently restored, celebrates both Hindu and Buddhist traditions through its design and art.
Chiang Mai is the largest city in northern Thailand and has been designated a UNESCO Creative City. With over 300 Buddhist temples, it’s hard to know which ones to visit. But two of the most interesting are Wat Chedi Luang and Wat Phra That Doi Suthep.
Wat Chedi Luang dates from the 14th century and was the early home of Bangkok’s Emerald Buddha. It now features a reclining Buddha and several items that are believed to protect the city, such as the City Pillar (Sao Inthakin) and three Dipterocarp trees.
Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, which is located in a national park atop a mountain just 15km from Chiang Mai, is a Buddhist temple with Hindu additions, including a statue to Ganesh. There’s an interesting founding legend that tells of a shoulder bone shard from Buddha and a sacred white elephant. On-site is also a Vipassana Meditation Center. Visitors can climb 300+ steps to enter or take a cable car to the top.
Chiang Mai is an excellent place from which to explore Thailand’s indigenous hill tribes. There are several major hill tribes (Akha, Hmong, Karen, Lahu, Lisu, and Yao) as well as other minor tribes. Before visiting a village, you can learn more at the Tribal Museum, an ethnographic museum which shares cultural and architectural aspects of hill tribe life.
Ho Chi Minh City (a.k.a. Saigon)
The largest city in Vietnam is most famous for the pivotal role it played in the Vietnam war. The Cu chi tunnels, part of a War Memorial Park, are important to experience if you want to understand the Vietnam War and the Viet Cong guerilla troops.
Reunification Palace (also known as Independence Palace) was rebuilt on top of the Norodom Palace, which bombed in 1962. It’s best known as the site where the Vietnam War ended on April 30, 1975.
Other important museums to visit include the War Remnants Museum, the Museum of Ho Chi Minh City, the Museum of Traditional Vietnamese Medicine, and the Museum of Vietnamese History. French colonial influence can still be seen throughout the city, but especially at the Opera House and the Central Post Office.
In Da Nang, exploring the Cham Museum is a must for art and history lovers. The Champa, a historical civilization in Vietnam which lasted from about 500BC to 1000AD, had an extraordinary artistic tradition that encompassed Hinduism, Buddhism, and indigenous beliefs, as seen in stone carving, sculpture, and buildings. French archaeologists and scholars contributed to the salvaging and display of Cham sculpture.
Hoi An is another Vietnamese city where French colonial history is remarkably well-preserved. In addition, Hoi An Ancient Town was designated a UNESCO Special Natural Cultural Heritage Site as an example of a Southeast Asian trading port from the 15th to 19th centuries.
Ha Long Bay
No photo album of Indochina travels would be complete without pictures of the magnificent archipelago of Ha Long Bay, another UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The 1,900+ islands there are mostly limestone karsts, located within a uniquely biodiverse ecosystem that boasts dozens of species of endemic flora and fauna. Several of the hollow islands contain grottos: Some of these caves feature stalactites, stalagmites, and even 19th-century French graffiti.
Other islands feature freshwater lakes within them (Dau Be Island has six). Around 40 of the islands in Ha Long Bay are inhabited. Archaeologically, remnants of civilizations from as far back as 16,000BC have been found on these islands.
Vietnamese culture comes to life in Hanoi, a city also known as “the Paris of the East” for its French colonial influences. From the Presidential Palace to the Opera House and Central Station, classic French colonial architecture can be seen just about anywhere you look.
Hoa Lo Prison was built by the French in the late 1800s, and transferred to Vietnamese rule when France left Hanoi under the Geneva Accord in 1954. During the Vietnam War, U.S. prisoners of war were held here. They gave it the nickname “Hanoi Hilton” in defiance of the horrible conditions and torture that occurred there. Most of the prison has been demolished now, although a small part of the original building remains as a museum. Museum displays showcase a different history than that often told by American POWs.
The Temple of Literature, which was built in 1070 as a Confucian university, is a beautiful place filled with gardens and traditional architecture. This site is also the location of Vietnam’s first university (dedicated in 1076, closed in 1779), which is known as the Imperial Academy.
Hanoi’s many museums are worth visiting, including the National Museum of Vietnamese History, the Vietnamese Museum of Ethnology, the Vietnam Museum of Revolution, and the Vietnam Military History Museum. Of special note is the Vietnamese Fine Arts Museum, the country’s largest art museum. Located across the street from the Temple of Literature and built in the 1930s (as the French Ministry of Information), it became the Fine Arts Museum in 1966. Collections there range from prehistoric to post-war artists.
One Pillar Pagoda, which is located next to the Ho Chi Minh Museum, is a unique wooden temple built atop stilts on a lake. Dating from 1049, the lotus-shaped Pagoda you see now was rebuilt in 1954 after the First Indochina War.
With a long tradition in Vietnamese folklore (dating from the 11th century), water puppetry is truly a wonder to behold. Lacquered wooden puppets are controlled by hidden puppeteers, who stand in the water but are hidden by a screen. The puppets appear as if they’re moving from under and across the “stage” of water. Water puppet performances are works of art and are traditionally accompanied by a live orchestra and singers. The performances are folklore-themed, but also include legends and bits of Vietnamese history. –Jessie Voigts
BIO: Jessie Voigts has a Ph.D. in International Education, has lived and worked in Japan and London, and traveled all around the world. She’s published 8 books about travel and intercultural learning (including guides to Cambodia and Vietnam), with more on the way. Jessie is constantly looking for ways to increase intercultural understanding and is passionate about sharing the world through her site, Wandering Educators.