How to make the most of your two-week vacation in Southeast Asia

Bangkok Chao Praya

If you are a cube dweller, just like us, then you know exactly well how precious annual leaves are. You are saving your day offs as treasures checking on them regularly just to find enjoyment in seeing them still being there. But you know very well that one day you need to use them and then they are gone. Forever. Or at least for that calendar year.

I usually feel bad spending my annual leave at the same place and always strive to make the most out of it  – in case you also have an itch to be on the move then this itinerary can be a good source of inspiration for you.

After our first year in the Philippines, in 2015, we decided to invite our siblings (Tibi`s brother and my sister) for a 2 weeks long Southeast Asian expedition to share with them all this beauty and uniqueness we are being part of.

The meeting point was Hong Kong and we ended the tour in Bangkok. Given that Hong Kong is still a huge hub in East Asia it`s easily accessible on reasonable price from Europe as well (they were flying out from Budapest and we from Manila).

Let me share a brief summary on our itinerary – we could have squeezed in more or either less, but this intensity worked for as pretty well.

Day 1

Arriving to Hong Kong

Why I love Hong Kong is the mix of old Victorian facades and skyscrapers, Chinese dried fish stores and English pubs, contemporary street arts and century old Confucian temples.  East meets the West – and they get along pretty well.

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Neo-gothic cathedral, skyscraper, palm tree
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Street art in the Soho

Get local and stay in Mong Kok (Kowloon Island),  the real heart of Hong Kong. Have a hearty dinner at Victoria Harbor Roasted Goose Seafood Restaurant in Golden Era Plaza to refresh and recover. If you are in an experimental mood you can actually prepare your own food here by steaming it in giant bowls at the table. This is real fun though the staff is ready to help you out in case you don’t intend to play the cook.

Day 2 – Hong Kong

Visit one of the local eateries in Mong Kok for a typical Chinese breakfast then take an easy walk to a small local market nearby. Take the MRT to Central Station at Hong Kong Island and head to Western Market by a double-decker tram.  Start a walk from there to explore Hong Kong`s colonial heritage mixed with contemporary street arts: turn over Morrison street and continue on Queen`s Road West stopping by herbal and incense shops. Take a U turn to Hollywood street and head to the Soho with a short visit to Man Mo Temple, one of the oldest temple in the Central. Cross the Central Market and along the Des Voux Road you end up in Statue Square surrounded by the Former Legislative Council, a neo-classical building opened in 1912 and renovated recently in 2015. The other remarkable landmark on the square is the original Bank of China Building, an art deco tower though built in 1952.

Hong Kong doubledecker tram

Take a short walk in Hong Kong Park then head towards Central Star Ferry Peer to cross the Victoria Harbor with the famous Star Ferry operates from 1888. Arriving back to Kowloon take a stroll at the peer around Hong Kong Museum of Art. Unfortunately Avenue of Stars, a lovely promenade at the bay still closed for reconstruction  – in case you want to say hello to Bruce Lee anyway, he is temporarily  located in Garden of Stars. Finally finish your day at Ladies Market with bargaining on some dodgy souvenir.

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The peer at Kowloon Island

Day 3 – Hong Kong

Get up early to catch the cable car to Lantau Island before the crowd to visit Tian Tan Buddha, a 23 m high sitting bronze Buddha statue. Tian Tan Buddha

Get some veggie snack in the restaurant of Pin Mo Monastery after visiting the Buddhist complex. Get back to Hong Kong Island and queue for a ride with The Peak Tram to Victoria Peak, where the summer residence of Hong Kong`s late governor is also located. In clear weather the view is great to the Victoria Harbor and they sell pretty good gelato on the top. At night discover the pubs and brews of the Soho and Lang Kwai Fong.

Victoria Peak
View with gelato from Victoria Peak

Day 4 – Arriving to Taipei, Taiwan

My choice to stay was Datong district – very central and historical neighborhood.

Start from a birds eye view then zoom to the details: Climb up to Taipei 101, once the tallest building in the world – now it is 5th in the rank – to check the magnificent view of the city. Take the MRT back to Zhongsan district to have an authentic Taiwanese dinner at #21 Goose and Seafood under 21 Jinzou street. Don’t miss the locals’ favorite drink, Kaoliang, an extra strong spirit made of sorghum, a type of grain.

Taipei
#21 Goose and Seafood
Taipei 101
View from Taipei 101

Day 5 – Taipei

Start your day at The National Palace Museum: one could spend days here easily but let`s squeeze in the most important displays to a half day. This museum basically showcases the essence of the old Empire of China before the Cultural Revolution. Loads of treasures were rescued here after Mao Zedong took the power. Let`s take another historical journey and head to Datong district in the afternoon for a guided walk. Finally close the day with a beer in one of the hidden cafes at Dihua street – my personal favorite was this small bar.

Datong
Medicine shop in Datong

Day 6 – Arriving to Manila, Philippines

Have a mid-journey break and take your time in Manila. Stay in the newest and most hyped business and residential neighborhood, Bonifacio Global City. Have breakfast with an amazing latte in Wildflour Café & Bakery then get a refreshing massage at the Spa. After collecting some local delights at Market! Market! do not miss to taste the Philippine mango, the sweetest mango on earth! To get to know modern Filipino cuisine, have a hearty dinner at Sentro 1771. Their signature dish, the cornbeaf sinigang is my all-time favorite.

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Street art in BGC
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Market! Market!
Bonifacio Global City
BGC by night

Day 7 – Manila

Visit Manila`s old town center, Intramuros, which means ”walled city” as this was a fortified district and the actual city center during the Spanish colonial era.  Manila once was called the Pearl of the Orient however only a few streets carry the district`s old patina now – the structure of Intramuros suffered extreme damages during the siege led by McArthur`s troops for liberation of Manila in WW II. The way tropics meet the century old baroque ornaments is still magical though.

Intramuros

Start your walk from Fort Santiago then visit Manila Cathedral. The church was sadly almost entirely reduced to rubble in the Battle of Manila but was rebuilt in the rehabilitation period of the 1950`s. The only building survived the WWII almost unharmed is the San Augustin Church, which was listed as World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1997 – definitely worth a visit. Should you be interested in old colonial lifestyle drop by Casa Manila just across San Augustin.

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19th century residential building
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Gate of Fort Santiago
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Fort Santiago

To have a better understanding on precolonial times in the Philippines head to Ayala Museum in Makati and check out its permanent display, Gold of Ancestors, on the rich trading and crafting culture before the 16th century. Stay for dinner in the neighborhood and try one of the hundreds restaurants and bars of Greenbelt Makati.

Day 8 – Arriving to Siem Riep, Cambodia

There are plenty of options for great and cheap accommodation in the center, though we picked up a nice boutique hotel by the river just outside the center – they had a lovely pool and great breakfast with strong Vietnamese style coffee. After all the hassle with the visa on the airport it’s good to chill out by the pool and relax before the all day tour to Angkor. Get to Siem Riep`s city center for dinner and for a night stroll – we had a great night out at Cambodian BBQ  where you can actually prepare your own food on table top BBQ grills.

Cambodian BBQ Siem Riep

Day 9 – Siem Riep (Angkor)

I have to admit I had mixed feelings towards Angkor: I knew that this was the largest sacred monument on earth, but heard lots of critics about being overcrowded thus less enjoyable. I must say, yes it is overcrowded – but there is a reason for that. When you are staring at the marvelous craved stone structures you realize that an empire which used more stones than they did for the Egyptian pyramids must have been once one of biggest empires in Southeast Asia.  Angkor, the ancient capital city of Khmer Empire still has that stamina.

Though majority of the guidebooks recommend to split the tour to 2-3 days we only had one full day to cover the main sights. Indeed it was intense but with hiring a local guide it was manageable. Browse Tripadvisor for recommended companies – we picked up Angkor Special Tours and had a very good experience with them.

The city was built and continuously extended in the heyday of Khmer Empire, between 900 and 1200, and according to present archaeological knowledge this was the largest urban agglomeration before the Industrial Revolution.  The Angkor Archaeological Park includes 72 major temples with hundreds more urban constructions or religious sites. The highlights of the park are the Bayon Temple, Tra Prhon Temple, the Royal Palace with Phimeanakas temple as well as the Terrace of the Elephants and at last but not least the magnificent Angkor Wat.  The entire site is a real wonder indeed.

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Inside Angkor Wat
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Angkor Wat

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Angkor
Bayon Temple

Day 10 – Arriving to Bangkok, Thailand

Stay in the bohemian Banglamphu which still carries Bangkok`s old charm. The streets are invaded by backpackers and I can see why: accommodations are available on reasonable price, the district is very central, close to the Royal Palace and to Chao Praya river, not to mention the numerous cafes and bars with their funky terraces. Pick one on Rambuttri street and enjoy the vibe.

Banglamphu
Rambuttri street

Day 11 – Bangkok

Take a self-guided heritage walk to the Grand Palace. Start from Rambuttri street then head towards the river stopping by Pom Phra Sumen, an 18th century watchtower remained as memento of the former fortification surrounded Bangkok. Walk along the riverside crossing the yard of Thamassat University – this is the second oldest university in Thailand and famous for having been the center of the pro-democracy protest movement that led to a bloody uprising on 14 October 1973. Continue on Mahat Rat Road passing by the Amulet Market and finally arriving to the walls of the palace.

Visit the lavish complex of Grand Palace and be amazed by how every tiny little detail is designed and decorated.

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Grand Palace
Grand Palace Bangkok
Grand Palace

After a couple of minutes walk you`ll reach Wat Pho where you can admire the giant reclining Buddha. The illuminated stupas offer a spectacular view at night as well.

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Reclining Buddha
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Stupas in Wat Pho

Finish your day with a race by tuk tuk for the best pad thai: book a guided night food tour to spoil yourself with the best street food in town.

Day 12 – Bangkok

Take the orange flag boat to Nonthaburi Market to get a real taste from local life. On your way back get off at Wat Arun, the temple of dawn. Finish the day in one of the rooftop bars of Bangkok, my personal recommendation is Jham Jhun Bar & Bistro in Banglahmpu – the food is superb!

Bangkok Chao Praya
Life by the Chao Praya river

Day 13

Saying goodbye to Bangkok and heading back home after an amazing 12 days.

Gosh, I would do this tour again starting tomorrow 🙂

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