Waterfalls and Landmines: Embracing the History and Promise of Southeast Asia with Teenagers

AsiaHistory Lesson

By Emily Korff

Vietnam. Cambodia. Laos. Jungle warzone or up-and-coming tourist hotspots? Gen Xers like myself probably conjure up memories of Viet Kong, Khmer Rouge, and Agent Orange.  However, my teens, grew up with less jaded view of the region, and see it as a place which brought them nail art and Pho. 

Mainstream American tourism to parts of Southeast Asia like Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos is a relatively new phenomenon.  In fact, it’s still not possible to get a direct flight from the U.S. to any of those countries. So more developed places like Singapore and Hong Kong serve at the launching points.  Our trip there took three flights, over 20 hours in the air, and required three visas. But if you’re a family with well-traveled teens looking for a place full of good food, affordable experiences, and rich in history, this is the trip for you.  

Making Time for History 

War Remnants Museum | Travel with Teens

Much to the dismay of this international-relations-major mom, my teens aren’t particularly excited about history.  They haven’t covered modern world history in any great detail yet in their schools. Their understanding of the Vietnam War and American involvement is minimal.   I don’t think they had even heard of the Khmer Rouge. But we would have been remiss if we didn’t take the opportunity for them to learn more while there.  

There are a couple of teen-friendly sites in Ho Chi Minh City to help understand the “American War” as the Vietnamese call it.  The War Remnants Museum features American war machines like tanks and aircraft, and an indoor photography exhibit with photos from wartime taken by photojournalists on the front line, as well as an exhibit with photos highlighting the lasting effects of Agent Orange.  The photos can be hard to look at, but take the exhibit at your own pace. My teens were surprised how close the photojournalists got to the action, and how many died while documenting the action.

Cu Chi Tunnel | Travel with Teens to Asia

For a more active learning experience, the Cu Chi Tunnel tours offer a look into the work of the Viet Kong resistance in South Vietnam.  This elaborate tunnel system pre-dated the war, but the Viet Kong adopted them for use use to move around and hide from foreign forces. Our visit ended up being a rainy day, which added to the experience. We could get a feeling of what it must have been like for American military to wander through the same wet jungle in a foreign land trying to avoid the many traps laid out by their opponents.  My daughters were able to climb into secret hiding holes and through part of the tunnel system into underground rooms.  

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Remnants of war in Cambodia are still fresh with people living amongst unexploded ordinance and landmines. While most of our time in Cambodia centered around visits to the temples in the Angkor Wat complex, we also took the time to visit the APOPO Visitor’s Center.  The organization is working in Cambodia to use large specially-trained rats to detect landmines. Our tour guide gave us some background about the types of landmines they encounter and introduced us to one of the working rats.  Meeting the rat and seeing the demonstration of how they work in the field was definitely a highlight of the visit for the kids.  

Experiencing a Rich Culture

Gondola Ankgor Wat Cambodia | Travel with Teens
Hotel pool Luang Prabang  Laos | Travel with Teens
Lanterns | Travel with Teens to Asia

Southeast Asia is full of beautiful, ornate temples, but when visiting with teens you are likely to experience temple-overload.  I equated it to the “not another cathedral” plea many parents get when visiting Europe. There are a lot of other fun, hands-on experiences for families to keep the kids interested and engaged.  

Hoi An, Vietnam is a beach town easily accessible from the Da Nang Airport. It had a similar vibe to beach towns we had visited in Australia.  Our kids loved spending time in the hotel’s pool, and the little town was safe and easy to explore even without a guide. Here we were able to have custom clothing created by their famous tailors—my husband bought a new tux, and my daughter had a dress designed from one she had seen on Instagram with fabric she chose.  Another highlight of Hoi An is the magical experience of the water lanterns. Around sunset the river fills with small boats and candle-lit paper lanterns are released. My daughter was only disappointed that the sunset didn’t look as beautiful in the photos as it did it real life.  

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The jungle oasis of Luang Prabang, Laos offers a great experience for families with teens.  We got knee deep in mud with a water buffalo while learning how rice is produced at the Living Land Farm.  We swam in the Kuang Si Falls—one of the most beautiful waterfalls in the world—and hiked the butterfly-filled landscape.  The Belmond Hotel, where we stayed, featured a gorgeous freshwater infinity pool which made it a destination on its own. In the evening we explored the bustling night market filled with food and crafts. 

Angkor Wat  | Travel with Teens

Siem Reap, Cambodia offered a chance to imagine ourselves in the world of Lara Croft and enjoy the temples where the movie was filmed.  A sunset gondola ride on the moat of Angkor Wat was one of the highlights of our stay, and the more modern aspects of the city kept the kids engaged.  My girls loved riding in the tuk-tuks (motorcycle-powered open air taxis) and shopping at the night market. My daughter was brave and tried the fish pedicures—a teen bucket-list item.  

Bringing my teen-aged girls with me, helped this lived-during-the-Cold-War mom experience the region from a fresh new perspective.  We learned that Southeast Asia values tourism and what it can do for the economies of the region. Vietnam is working to improve airport security with hopes to attract direct flights from the US.  Laos and Cambodia worked with UNESCO to certify their world heritage sites, improve airport and hotel options, and train more English-speaking guides. Hopefully as more tourists come in they will be able to maintain their authentic charm. 

Related: Want to Raise Expert Travelers? Don’t Pack Your Kids’ Suitcases

Teen Travel Tips:

Travel Tips for Southeast Asia with Teens
  • Be prepared with “temple-ready attire” for all active and historic temples and most museums.  That meant almost every day on our trip. Plan to pack shirts that cover your shoulders and bottoms that cover your knees.  Even though the temperatures were sticky hot, tank tops and short shorts weren’t worth the space in our suitcase.
  • We didn’t have to exchange any money in Laos or Cambodia.  All of the vendors we encountered either took US dollars or credit cards.  The US dollar is the official currency of Cambodia. We did exchange some Vietnamese Dong.  Be careful when negotiating with Vietnamese vendors—they will take advantage of your exchange rate confusion. (At a rate of 23,208 Dong to 1 USD mental math is a little challenging).  
  • Booking flights to the region will likely require a little creativity with ticketing and multiple airlines.  Our flight schedules changed several times after we booked them. As a result, we had to do some shuffling to make things work.  Be vigilant about checking your itineraries as your trip gets closer.  

Contributor: Emily Korff is a Virginia-based photographer. She put her international development career on hold to be available for her kids while her husband built a cyber security business.  Now instead of traveling for work she sees the world with her husband and two high-school-aged girls. Together they have explored all continents except Antarctica (but that is on the future to-go list). Locations such as the Galapagos, South Africa and Alaska with a lot of wildlife to photograph have been amongst her favorites. However, as a lover of history, she enjoys the archaeological sites like Machu Picchu and Angkor Wat.  

All photos ©Emily Korff

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