Ladies and gentleman, welcome to tonight’s main event: the ultimate travel showdown between three of Southeast Asia’s best travel destinations.
They were the first three countries visited on my epic backpacking trip through the region and, as a result, they’re the ones that I feel I know best, having had more time to travel through them extensively.
And now, imagine I’m a boxing commentator because we’re about to pit them up against each other in the ultimate grudge match.
A tourism showdown for the ages, a travel smack-down of epic proportions; it’s neighbour versus neighbour, friend versus friend in this, the boxing match of the decade, The Rumble in Southeast Asia.
And here come the challengers now…
In the red corner: the land of the dragon, a country of budget backpacker delights, the one and only Vietnam!
In the blue corner, a feisty up-and-coming land of backpacking opportunities, a country where time practically stands still: Laos!
And finally, in the green corner, a young country of budget travel and cultural delights: Cambodia!
Let’s get ready to rumble!!
Round 1: the best food
The bell for the first round rings and Cambodia comes out swinging, trying to land a solid right hook on Laos. Cambodia’s emphasis on simple but delicious food seems to have the small nation stunned.
Cambodia’s curry amok, a coconut milk curry and arguably the country’s most famous dish, is more than a match for anything Laos can throw back: sticky rice, the minced meat dish laap pork and mok paa, a dish consisting of steamed ingredients such as meat wrapped in a banana leaf.
Unfortunately for Cambodia, Vietnam is now joining the fight – landing punch after punch in the form of popular – and delicious – Vietnamese dishes. Its ubiquitous pho, a simple yet delightful noodle soup dish, wins the round for the South East Asian powerhouse.
Round 2: the best beaches
The bell rings and Cambodia once again takes the ascendancy, raining down a flurry of punches on Vietnam in the form of the many brilliant beaches in and around Sihanoukville – only for Vietnam to fight back with Nha Trang and Mui Ne, arguably the best beach in Vietnam.
Unfortunately for land-locked Laos, its 4,000 islands are no match for either Vietnam or Cambodia; the latter wins this round on points – but only just. Sihanoukville’s peaceful, laid-back vibe and cheap beach barbecues prove too strong for the more touristy Vietnamese beaches.
Round 3: the cheapest in South East Asia?
Now things are getting interesting. South-paw Cambodia boasts cheaper beach-side accommodation while Laos’ budget accommodation – cold-water showers and fan rooms – leaves Vietnam battered and bruised.
Vietnam wobbles a little bit and counters with a lower price for air-conditioned accommodation and the cheapest beer in Southeast Asia – a deadly combination. Vietnam’s wild haymaker miraculously connects with both opponents, causing Laos to kiss the canvas and Cambodia to stumble to the ropes.
Round 5: the best beer
Laos’ trainer must have hit the right button because the country of 6.5 million people already has Vietnam – a country of roughly 90 million people – in the corner, hitting it in the old bread basket. Cambodia tries to interject and it, too, is now on the ropes.
Beerlao is proving to be more than a match for anything Vietnam or Cambodia can throw at it. Bia Saigon, 333, Bia Hoi, Biere Larue, Angkor and Anchor are all very fine beers but Beerlao reigns supreme in this Southeast Asian contest.
Round 4: friendliest people
The bell rings and Vietnam’s caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place, paying a heavy price for its dodgy taxi drivers and unscrupulous tour operators. Meanwhile, Laotians and Cambodian rejoice as their nice-guy images seemingly put them on the front foot when it comes to Southeast Asian tourism.
But Laos may just be too laid back and friendly for its own good. Long waits in Laotian restaurants because their proprietors are a little too relaxed costs the nation dearly and Cambodia takes the points – but only just.
Round 6: the best cultural sights
We’re moments away from what will be the final and arguably the most important round in this contest. After all, great cultural experiences, tourist attractions and wonders is what travel – and backpacking in particular – is all about.
The bell rings and Laos immediately fends off a barrage of punches – but the plucky nation is unable to get out of its own corner. The collective cultural wonders of Cambodia and Vietnam are too strong; Laos is knocked cold and now just two challengers remain.
Vietnam’s rich history seemingly gives it the advantage as we come into the final 30 seconds of this travel boxing match. It unleashes the intensity of the War Remnants Museum and Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum only for Cambodia to counter with its own raw and incredibly moving monuments to its tumultuous past: S-21 and the brutal Killing Fields of Choeung Ek.
In the end, it all comes down to this: the man-made wonders of Angkor Wat versus the natural mystique and wonder of Halong Bay.
You can’t put Angkor Wat in the corner, nor Cambodia’s many other wonderful backpacker delights: beautiful beaches, friendly people and a fascinating culture and history.
Cambodia is thusly crowned the heavy-weight travel champion in South East Asia – at least of the three nations competing in this contest.
Do you agree? How would you have called this contest, bearing in mind that the other four countries I visited – Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia – were not invited to compete purely due to time constraints?