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The post-collegiate path to self-discovery has taken many turns over the years. First, it was a cross-country emulation of Kerouac. Then it led to Nepal. In recent years, to Prague and Thailand. Now the compass is pointing to Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia and their $15-a-day nomad circuit of cheap digs, beautiful scenery, and exotic cultural immersion. Each country offers something a little different: “There’s still a ‘forbidden’ vibe with Vietnam,” says Gordon Candelin, a Phnom Penh expat and founder of the student travel site Urbanlowdown.com. “Laos is for people into unspoiled nature, and Cambodia feels a little dangerous.” (Not to worry: The “danger” is more likely to involve moped collisions than unexploded ordnance, even though the U.S. dropped about four times more bombs in the area than it did during all of World War II.) You can get a one-month visa for each corner of this golden triangle, where overland travel is much like tripping on the local opium—everything goes in slow motion—so take your time.
Start in Vientiane, the sleepy capital of Laos, and don’t miss the forest temple of Wat Sok Pa Luang, where the spiced steam from a boiling cauldron set under a wooden sweatbox on stilts is the perfect $1, karma-balancing herbal sauna. Take a bus up bandit-plagued Route 13 to chill out for a week at the backpacker ghetto at Vang Vieng, a rustic bamboo village that offers $4 guesthouses, the latest English-language DVDs in every café, and an abundance of drugs, hammocks, and couches under shady banyan trees. If you crave some tranquillity instead of a hemp-wearing mini–U.N. village, escape to a more authentic Laos by strolling among the Buddhist monks and temples in the saffron- and gold-hued village of Luang Prabang. From here, the slow boat up the Mekong chugs northward toward the hill tribes near Muang Sing, a tiny, ramshackle jungle base where you can rent a mountain bike to explore Akha and Hmong villages and bomb some tough single-track (just watch out for villagers on the way to market).
Loop south again to cross the border into Vietnam and shop Hoi An. One peek into a store and you’ll be pulled in, offered tea, presented with 50 bolts of Italian silk blends, and—in your one nod to the job interviews awaiting you back home—soon be walking out with a beautifully tailored, $25 knockoff suit (try Dong Phuong; 84-510-861-422). Over the next month, kayak Halong Bay, trek Sapa, and compare notes with Vietnamese college students on graduating, MTV Asia, and the war none of you experienced over bowls of pho in Ho Chi Minh City.
Put that archaeology elective you took on a lark to use at Cambodia’s Angkor Wat, and slip a few thousand riels to a guard to get your Lara Croft vibe on in some closed temples. E-mail your digital photos to friends back home (preferably friends in cubicles) from one of the many Internet cafés in Phnom Penh’s laid-back Boeung Kak Lake area. Need a final dose of waterfalls and welcoming, unjaded villagers? Ratanakiri’s a remote region of jungle and rolling hills just barely on the backpacker’s map. Wrap up the last week relaxing with Cambodia’s NGO crowd on Ochheuteal beach in Sihanoukville—rawer, and emptier, than any Thai island. If you haven’t found yourself by now, you can always extend your visa.
In Vientiane, stay at Haysoke Guest House (visit-laos.com/hotels/haysoke; from $10); in Vang Vieng, Dok Khoun I (856-21-219362; $4); in Luang Prabang, the Sok Dee Guesthouse (lao.ch/sokdee; from $4); in Hoi An, Pho Hoi Hotel (84-510-861633; from $4); in Ho Chi Minh City, Hotel 64 (84-8-8365073; about $15); in Siem Reap, near Angkor Wat, the Dead Fish Tower Inn (talesofasia.com/cambodia-deadfish.htm; from $10); in Phnom Penh, the Dara Reang Sey Hotel (855-23-428181; $8); in Ratanakiri, the Yaklom Hill Lodge (yaklom.com; from $6); and in Sihanoukville, Coasters (855-12-752181; bungalows from $10).