Get settled...this is a long post.
So I live in Japan, I have two months off in Feb/Mar, will be going to Bhutan on a private tour for ten days in mid-March which will end with the Paro Festival. To get to Bhutan I have to fly in and out of Bangkok and my airline tickets are booked with dates from February 16th to March 21st. I basically have to be back in Bangkok by the 10th of March so I can go to Bhutan, which leaves me three weeks to do whatever I want. I would like to hear from people who've been or lived in the places for some thoughts and advice. This trip is primarily a photographic one, and I'll be travelling by myself, so basically can do what I like. That being said, I'd like to keep costs down, as well as minimize the amount of travelling between different areas.
I basically have three choices: spend the three weeks either in Myanmar or Thailand, or split the three weeks between Laos and Thailand. I've been to Cambodia (twice) and Vietnam, so don't really feel the need to go back there at this time. I've also been to Thailand three times, but mostly on the beaches of Krabi and Hua Hin, a couple of days in Bangkok, and a day at Ayuthaya...so there's plenty I haven't seen or done in that country. Also, the times when I went there were pre-serious-amateur-photography, so I don't mind revisiting some areas as I will have a new perspective this time round. I'm not interested in going to the beach, so that eliminates one possibility.
Choice One: Myanmar
Spend some time in Yangon, Mandalay (including U Bein's Bridge), Bagan (3-4 days), Mt. Kyaiktiyho (Golden Rock), and possibly Mrauk U (although that adds additional flights). Inle Lake doesn't really hold a lot of interest for me. I will be adding a few days in Bangkok on either side of a trip to Myanmar as a buffer in case anything goes wrong/delays.
Choice Two: Thailand/Laos
Go to Luang Prabang, maybe the elephant festival in Hongsa, Phonsavan (Plain of Jars), and possibly Vientienne. I've always wanted to go to the Plain of Jars (for various reasons) but I'd like to know if it's worth the 8 hour trip (one way) to get there (well, to Phonsavan from LP) -- is it just a one-day deal, would two be overkill, is it possible to get a private tour (to avoid mid-day light)? After that I would probably go to Chiang Mai, spend at least a week there (maybe 10 days) doing cooking courses and day trips in that area.
Choice Three: Thailand
As above, spending a week in Chiang Mai area, possibly Chiang Rai as well, Sukhothai, maybe revisit Ayuthaya, Phanom Rung historical park (Khmer ruins), Bangkok.
In the end, I know that I'll enjoy wherever I decide to go, but at the same time I always appreciate any advice/insight from others who have been to the these places (or others not mentioned here) -- not only for knowing where to go, but also where not to go - especially for areas that over-rated or over-touristed.