Five weeks gives you plenty of time to explore the length and breadth of the Southeast Asia experience, in all directions. Beaches, then cities. Culture, then street food. Temples, then markets.
You'll have a shot at all these colorful contrasts in this four-country itinerary that cuts a swath through Southeast Asia's heart.
You'll begin in Singapore's hypermodern city landscape, feeling like a time traveler turning the clock back as you hop through Penang's colonial streets and Bagan's ancient temple plain. You'll find yourself sunning on Phuket's beaches, browsing through markets along Inle Lake, and finally circumambulating the massive Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon at the very end of your five-week trip.
Even with all that crossed off your to-do list, you'll still only feel like you've scratched the surface of Southeast Asia.
Four Days in Singapore, Southeast Asia's High-Tech Heart
As you fly in via Singapore's Changi International Airport, you'll enter one of Southeast Asia's top international airline hubs and its most modern city, bar none.
Singapore benefited from careful planning and tightly-managed government to reach heights never expected of a former colonial trading port with a serious shortage of real estate (the whole island is no larger than El Paso, Texas).
What to do in Singapore. Four days is plenty for a leisurely trip around this island state. You'll cover plenty of ground traveling via Singapore's MRT system to the country's different, almost opposite facets.
Contrast the modernity of the Marina Bay business district, home to the Marina Bay Sands, the Singapore Flyer and the Gardens by the Bay; to the old-fashioned cultural cachet of Singapore's ethnic enclaves, among them Chinatown and Kampong Glam. The latter reflects Singapore's multicultural roots as a trading port populated by Chinese, Malay and Tamil Indian workers subject to a British colonial power.
Singapore's gleaming cityscape aside, take off and enjoy the resort and theme park fun of the neighboring resort island Sentosa, home to a massive aquarium and a Universal Studios theme park.
All through your stay, you can indulge in Singaporeans' two favorite activities – shopping (thanks to the multiple connected shopping malls throughout the island) and eating (thanks to the hawker centers on almost every street corner).
For a closer look at what makes Singapore an excellent first stop in Southeast Asia, check out this list of top reasons to visit Singapore.
Where to stay in Singapore. Both budget and high-flying travelers can take their pick of Singapore hotels that suit their budget – even backpackers and budget travelers can choose from a healthy selection of Singapore budget hotels, such as the ones in Little India and Singapore's Chinatown.
For other options, compare rates on Singapore hotels via TripAdvisor.
Four Days in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia's Soaring City
Both cities have singular roots – “KL” and Singapore were both trading posts essentially established by the British and nourished by colonial business – but their paths have since diverged. Kuala Lumpur feels a little more spontaneous than its more orderly cousin down south, with scruffier street food stalls and more crowded streets that yet yield aspirational architecture rising from their midst.
What to do in Kuala Lumpur. With four days, you can take the city's train system to hit Kuala Lumpur's top neighborhoods at leisure.
Start at Chinatown, where you'll find KL at its oldest and most authentic, with old shophouses, messy wet markets (Pasar Seni not included), crowded streets, and aging kopitiam waiting around almost every corner.
The modern flipside of KL can be found in the neighborhood called the Golden Triangle: KL's most iconic contemporary buildings loom over its streets, including the Petronas Twin Towers in the Kuala Lumpur City Centre (KLCC) and Menara KL near Jalan Raja Chulan.
Shopaholics resort to the malls in KLCC and Bukit Bintang to take their pick of the world's most luxurious brands. Getting around is no problem either – Kuala Lumpur's Free Go KL City Bus winds through both KLCC and Bukit Bintang.
Finally, you can unwind at a 92-hectare botanical garden, one of the largest within Southeast Asian city limits. Perdana Lake Gardens contains several historical and natural wonders, its jogging track linking sites like the Hibiscus Garden (home of Malaysia's national flower) and the Orchid Garden (home to over 800 species of its namesake species).
Where to stay in Kuala Lumpur. The business hotels in Bukit Bintang offer high-end visitors the top creature comforts their Malaysian ringgit can buy, though budget travelers have plenty of choices, too. Compare rates on Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia hotels via TripAdvisor.
Three Days in Penang, the Jewel of the Straits
The old Peranakan “towkays” (tycoons) of Penang – as citizens of one of Britain's former “Straits Settlements”, along with Malacca and Singapore – prided themselves on being more British than the British, with their fervent allegiance to the Empire and their fostering of European style institutions and architecture throughout the island.
This is all to modern Penang's benefit: the island's capital George Town earned UNESCO World Heritage recognition due to its old colonial-era shophouses, many of which have been repurposed as hostels, boutique hotels, restaurants and bookstores. The ancient streets now become virtual street food festivals after dark; visit Lebuh Chulia (pictured above) to explore the stalls and their wares, among them some of the tastiest laksa on Earth.
What to do in Penang. Take a bus beyond George Town and see the side of Penang that looks more to the East than the West: temples like the Snake Temple (and its resident creepy-crawlies) and the Kek Lok Si Temple (with its mish-mash of influences and colors) cater to the locals' spiritual side.
Penang's peripheries hold a number of surprises, too. A former British army base to the north of the island now serves as the site for the Penang War Museum, one of Southeast Asia's creepiest places to visit. The country's smallest national park and the islands hinterlands – Penang National Park and Balik Pulau Penang respectively – also provide an interesting contrast to the island's more well-traveled trails.
Where to stay in Penang. The Eastern & Oriental Hotel near George Town, one of Southeast Asia's most historic hotels, caters to rich visitors to Penang; travelers with less can book one of George Town's hostels or boutique hotels. For other options, compare rates on Penang, Malaysia hotels via TripAdvisor.
Three Days in Krabi, Launching Pad to the Andamans
Malaysia's far north connects with Thailand's southern reaches quite handily; you can choose to take a train from Penang's Butterworth Station up all the way to Bangkok, or take it slow and ride a bus or shuttle, either straight to Krabi or with an overnight stopover at Hat Yai, Southern Thailand's transport hub.
What to do in Krabi. All roads lead to Krabi, whose immediate access to southern Thailand's most pristine beaches makes it a hot draw for millions of tourists a year. From Krabi town, beach-crazy tourists can take a songthaew to Ao Nang, a palm-tree-lined beach made for sunning, swimming and the occasional shopping excursion along the beachfront road.
More adrenaline-addicted travelers can make a short boat trip further out to Railay, a peninsula whose limestone cliffs come studded with some 700-odd rock climbing routes leading up to magnificent views of the Andamans.
Ferries from Krabi town take travelers beyond the mainland to where the magic really happens: on one of the many island groups around the Andamans. Two of the most popular stops from Krabi include Ko Phi Phi, Thailand's largest marine park and home to some of the most naturally beautiful islands in Asia; and Koh Lanta, a laid-back, less-developed island beloved by backpackers.
Where to stay in Krabi. Travelers have plenty of accommodations to choose from around Krabi town, Ao Nang and Koh Lanta. Compare rates on Krabi Province, Thailand hotels via TripAdvisor.
Three Days in Phuket, Beach & Party Central
Phuket exemplifies Thailand's party-hearty beach reputation: an island thronged by tourists who come for the white-sand beaches, the sleepless nightlife, and the surprisingly good golfing to be had around these parts. Better-developed than Krabi, Phuket pulls out all the stops for the international visitor coming to see what the fuss about Thailand is all about.
What to do in Phuket. You can't go wrong by starting your Phuket jaunt at Patong Beach – Phuket's most famous beachfront, a wide, white-sand beach fringed with bars, restaurants and other entertainments. But the Phuket experience doesn't end there.
Phuket's other beaches – among them the Patong-side Kamala Beach, the family-friendly Surin Beach and the two-parter Kata Beach – can be easily reached once you've had your fill of rowdy old Patong. Read about Phuket's top beaches here.
The town has a surprising cultural side not much seen by the usual Phuket tourist crowd. As a major 19th-century trading port, Phuket was a major Southeast Asian Chinese port, supported by the tin mining industry throughout the peninsula. The tin-trading “towkays”, or tycoons, lived in Chinese-style shophouses, whose remnants can still be seen along Phuket's Dibuk, Yaowarat, and Krabi Roads. After visiting the shophouses, stop by the Phuket Thai Hua Museum for a hit of context.
Where to stay in Phuket. As southern Thailand's hottest destination bar none, Phuket offers an endless assortment of hostels, luxury hotels, golf resorts and homestays for your enjoyment. Prices depend on proximity to the beach and booking dates (expect to pay exorbitant rates for bookings during the high season between November and May). Compare rates on Phuket, Thailand hotels via TripAdvisor.
Four Days in Bangkok, Thailand's Hyper-Busy Capital
When the Thai kings built their new capital here after their old one was destroyed by the Burmese, they could hardly suspect that they were laying the groundwork for one of Southeast Asia's most energetic cities. The travelers who fly here by the millions every year find plenty to see and do, even before they hop off to the next leg of their tour.
What to do in Bangkok. The Chao Phraya River that winds through Bangkok serves as a handy highway to some of the city's most popular tourist destinations, among them the Grand Palace, the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, and Wat Arun, all brimming with a mix of royal favor and religious mystery.
Go further down the river and you'll find yourself sailing past Ayutthaya, the ruins of the former capital decimated by a rival Burmese kingdom.
After seeing Bangkok's top temples, go shopping at one of the city's many markets and malls. Start very early at the Bangkok Flower Market for a pre-dawn look at an authentic Thai marketplace, then check out Khlong Bang Luang's riverside hipster wares. Weekend markets offer an even greater selection – travelers schedule their trips around the Chatuchak Weekend Market and the Talad Rot Fai Market (open between Thursday and Sunday after sunset).
Tourists love Bangkok for its great value for money, as seen in its ample selection of cheap but delicious street food; the rowdy (if somewhat sordid) nightlife along backpacker districts like Khao San Road; mostly connected by Skytrain, from city center all the way to Suvarnabhumi Airport.
Try this two-day Bangkok itinerary for a template to follow for your short stay in this city.
Where to stay in Bangkok. From Khao San Road's hostels to the five-star hotels lining the Chao Phraya River, you'll be spoiled for choice in Bangkok, whatever budget you've got. Compare rates on Bangkok, Thailand hotels via TripAdvisor.
Three Days in Mandalay, Myanmar's Last Royal Capital
The former royal capital of Mandalay in Myanmar can be reached by a direct flight from Bangkok. Located in Myanmar's very core, Mandalay's central location and position by the Ayeyarwady River made it a natural choice for a royal seat.
Time has not been kind to the royal presence in Mandalay; all that remains today is a reconstruction of the teak-wood royal palace, all that remains of an original that burned down in World War II. Only the central complex was restored; the rest of the large square that made up the royal forbidden city now belongs to the Myanmar Army.
What to do in Mandalay: Mandalay's religious and cultural sites have fared better than the royals over the years, and make up some of the city's best places to visit.
Major Buddhist sites in and around Mandalay include Kuthodaw Pagoda, home to the world's largest book; the Mahamuni Temple, where they say the Buddha himself breathed his likeness into the gilt statue within; the Shwenandaw Monastery, a former royal apartment converted into a place of worship; and the gold-leaf-beating workshops around the intersection of 36th and 78th Streets.
Go further away from the city and you'll find yourself in the former royal capital of Amarapura, notable for the U Bein Bridge, the longest teak-wood bridge in the world (pictured above), built from remnants of the former royal palace that once stood in the city.
Where to stay in Mandalay: this traveler was lucky to book a room right next to the palace, at the Sedona Mandalay Hotel. For other accommodation options, compare rates on Mandalay, Myanmar hotels via TripAdvisor.
Four Days in Bagan, City of 2,000 Temples
From Mandalay, you can take a bus or slow boat (via the Ayeyarwady River) to another major former capital, this one located in an arid plain still dotted with remnants of over two thousand temples: Bagan.
In the Pagan Kingdom's heyday between the 9th and the 13th centuries AD, there must have been over 10,000 temples standing around Bagan, mostly built by devout kings, ministers and wealthy commoners as an act of conspicuous piety. The majority of the temples can be seen within the Bagan Archaeological Zone, though a few less-known temples stand beyond the Zone's walls.
What to do in Bagan. Before entering the Bagan Archaeological Zone, you must purchase a temple ticket for use when temple hopping; tickets may be requested at random within the Zone.
With only four days to spare, we suggest you hire a car (see your transportation options in Bagan) and visit the area's must-see temples in daylight; before the day ends, head off to one of these Bagan temples with a view of the sunset to see the most gorgeous view of the sun dipping below the Ayeyarwady River.
Beyond the temple trails, pick up some of Myanmar's finest lacquerware at the Myin Ka Par Village that specializes in producing finely crafted lacquer bowls, jars and trays; or stop by one morning at the Nyaung U Market to take in the local color (and buy a souvenir or three).
Where to stay in Bagan: the hostels and hotels around Bagan are divided between the area known as “new” Bagan (a settlement created for the former residents of the Bagan Archaeological Zone, who were forcibly moved out by the government) and the town of Nyaung U. For a full list of accommodation options in the temple town, compare rates on hotels in Bagan, Myanmar via TripAdvisor.
Three Days in Inle Lake, Sanctuary of Tradition
Inle Lake was long a backpackers' secret, but now that the secret's out, the Shan state's largest lake now attracts a growing tide of tourists seeking out the laid-back culture on the lakeside villages.
Getting here requires a flight from Nyaungshwe to Heho Airport, the main airport servicing Inle Lake and surrounding districts. Ride a taxi from Heho to Nyaungshwe, a backpacker neighborhood and the main jump-off point to Inle Lake.
What to do around Inle Lake. It's not so much the lake that's the attraction, but its villages: home to the Intha ethnic group of Myanmar, who have adapted to the monsoon cycle's effects on the lake. You can see this first-hand on the “floating gardens” around Kayla village, where locals grow vegetables on floating farms made from lake weeds; anchored into place, the gardens rise and fall with the lake's water levels, allowing fertile planting all year round.
The villages around the lake specialize in Shan traditional crafts, with the tourist trade providing a thriving market. Silversmiths in Ywama village produce fine hand-made jewelry; weavers in In-phaw-kon Village work at looms producing a special cloth using threads extracted from lotus stems. And Nam-Pan village produces a wide range of traditional Shan wares, from cigars to knives to woodworks (produced by boatwrights as a side business).
Social life in these villages revolves around the Buddhist pagodas, among them Inle Lake's most-visited house of worship, the Hpaung Daw U Pagoda, home to five golden Buddhas encrusted in gold leaf to the point of unrecognizability. The other major Buddhist temple, the Shwe Indein Pagoda, is actually two groups of stupas in Shwe Indein village that date back as far as the 8th century.
Read this article for a complete run-down of the Inle Lake experience.
Where to stay in Inle Lake: a number of resorts along the Inle Lake villages have cropped up to service mid- to high-end travelers, among them the Thahara Inle Lake, worth a stay if you want to give back to the local community. Budget travelers tend to stick to the hostels and budget hotels around Nyaungshwe. Compare rates on Nyaungshwe, Inle lake hotels in Myanmar.
Three Days in Yangon, Myanmar's Colonial City
Planned by the British in the 19th century as an idealized European colonial entrepot, the city of Yangon – then known by its Anglicized name “Rangoon” - grew around a symmetrical grid laid by British engineers around already established structures like the Sule Pagoda and Shwedagon.
What to do around Yangon. The old colonial structures – neglected for decades by Myanmar's post-war military dictatorship – now serves as Yangon's second-biggest tourist draw (next to the massive gold spire of Shwedagon). The old town center allows travelers to walk to some of the most important destinations in Yangon, including Mahabandoola Garden and Bogyoke Aung San Market – the latter a must-see place for avid shoppers aiming to get good bargains on clothing and jewels.
Shwedagon is a longer drive away from the city center, but well worth the effort: the most venerated site in all of Myanmar provides a unique opportunity to capture the local color and to see how the Burmese sell, eat and worship, all in one spot.
Even further, you'll find key tourist attractions outside city limits, including the Kyaiktiyo Golden Rock pagoda and the Taukkyan War Cemetery, both worthy of the history- and culture-minded traveler.
Where to stay in Yangon: For this writer's money, the classic Strand Hotel in Yangon offers an unbeatable package: a centrally located stay in a historic structure with immediate access to some of Yangon's most historic sites.
For other accommodation choices in Myanmar's former capital, compare rates on Yangon hotels via TripAdvisor.