In 2004 I backpacked in South East Asia for 2 months. This included Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, and Laos. It was my first big trip and I had to say I had an excellent time. This is just a recap of it for those interested in going. I’ll summarize right away and read on if you feel like it. Remember that the names of places will not always be spelled the same. It is just the closest someone has spelled it in English so that it pronounces the same as their language. My spellings of places are from my books and maps.
If you are wondering if you should go to this area here is an overview of the pros and cons.
- Cheap, cheap, and even more cheap. Your money goes a long way here. My most expensive guest house was $5 and my cheapest was 50 cents. Keep in mind a usually went without hot water and air conditioning ($5 got me that though).
- Easy to travel. Tourism is their industry and it is reasonably safe. Hopping public transit or finding a tourist bus is very simple.
- Weather. You can dress light and you don’t need anything special.
- Lots to see within the region.
- Being so cheap and having a lot of pretty, slight girls attracts the seedy crowd. You know, 40 year old men who can’t find a girl in their own country so they come here for a “holiday”.
- Things run on their own time (like a lot of tourist destinations) so you can get frustrated if you have a tight schedule and are backpacking it on your own.
- There are the occasional scammers trying to sell you jewels or take you on the “scenic route” in their tuk-tuk.
I honestly can’t say too much bad about it. I just put these points in so I’m not totally one sided. I would recommend everyone to go.
Should I Backpack or Book a Tour
I’m always going to write my opinion on this for every trip. Why? Because it is nice to know. You have the two different types of travelers and they will always beat their heads against each other in argument over which is better. I’m not going to get into that, you can read about it in my article
Tours Versus Backpacking. I will just say what I think. South-east Asia would be fine doing it either way. But, if you want to try backpacking, this is the cheapest and easiest place I have seen so far to do it in. It is a lot safer and very, very easy to get around in (compared to Africa and South America). The only bad thing I will mention is that these people move at their own speed, so if you are in a hurry you might get frustrated, so a tour might help alleviate this.
What You Need
This is a tough one. Check out websites and read up a bit on what you will want to do. Get yourself a copy of South East Asia on a Shoe String, one of the Lonely Planet books. It will give you the basics of how to get around. There are lots of other good books, that is just the one I used.
Each country has its own currency. Bangkok and Vietnam will have ATM’s in the major cities, but take lots of cash into Cambodia and Laos because that might be all you have while you are there. I’m sure Phnom Penh and Vientienne had some banks, but we never say any that were convenient. Basic rule of thumb for me was to have enough cash to make it between Bangkok, Ho Chi Minh City, and Hanoi. Anywhere else I didn’t plan on being able to get any money.
Time of Year
I went in April and May. This is the hot season. I was worried at first that it would put a damper on the trip and it was the only time I could go, but it turned out to be awesome. Warm nights and we didn’t see one spot of rain for the entire 2 months. This is outside the brunt of the tourist season so it helps when trying to line up tours and transporation on the fly.
I flew from Calgary, Canada. It was pretty cheap at that time. I paid $999 for a round trip flight into Bangkok with Asiana Airlines. This included a stop over in Seoul, South Korea for as long as I wanted. They are a cheap airline, but the service was great so who can complain.
When I Arrived
I arrived at night and I had an address of a friend where I was going to go stay. Beware!!! As soon as your walk out the front of the airport there are taxi drivers and limousines that want to take you into town (at that time for around 400 Baht). If you look around there is a booth with a couple of ladies working in it where people are lined up. They speak English and will write your destination down on a piece of paper to give the regular taxi drivers who line up there and charge you a meter rate. Was only 130 Baht for us to get into town with these taxis. My wife learned a trick too. To leave from the airport there is a toll and the taxi drivers make you pay it. Taxis who drop people off (on the second level) have already paid it on the way in, so when they leave they don’t have to. She went up there and got a taxi that was leaving and saved herself the toll.
Getting Around Bangkok
Not too difficult. Learn a little bit of Thai and grab yourself a map. There BTS Skytrain is awesome. Get yourself down to Koh San Road. This is basically a backpackers haunt. Kind of creepy really. Hotels, guest houses, restaurants, and travel shops galore. If you are looking to do day trips and line up other activities you can come here and get hooked up. If you want the “au naturale” experience from your holiday I would stay away from here.
Taxis and tuk-tuks are a great way to get around. If you want to figure out the bus sytem, it will be the cheapest. I also used the BTS Skytrain. It is excellent.
Grand Palace – Bangkok
You have to go here. It will seem incredibly gaudy, but there is a lot to see. Dress appropriately. Girls need there shoulders covered and no sandals allowed in here.
Note: There are tuk-tuk drivers who will tell you that the palace is closed when you are walking to it. They want to take you somewhere else (a jewel store most likely). The Grand Palace is open every day of the week so ignore them.
View From the Grand Palace in Bangkok
River Tour and Temples
There are lots of temples and buddhas to be seen and a river boat tour is nice. We took the sky train to the river and purchased a one way ticket on the boat upriver.
Markets – Bangkok
You need to go to the markets day or night to at least see them. One of the largest is a weekend market called Chatuchak. The best way to get there is to take the Skytrain to Mo Chit station. This is basically the end of the one line I think.
Kanchanaburi and the Floating Market
I took a day trip to the floating market and Kanchanaburi by purchasing the tour on Koh San Road. Kanchanburi is a WWII historic site, the floating market is a tourist trap but interesting, and they stop at a couple other destinations on the way (Nakhon Pathom). Was interesting.
The Floating Market
I caught a public bus from the public station in Bangkok to Aranyaprathet on the Cambodian/Thailand border. Paoy Pet is the town on the Cambodian side. Basically a hole, you’ll want to get out of here as soon as possible. Most people head on to Angkor Wat from here, but I caught a pickup truck and went to a town called Batdambang. This turned out to be one of the highlights from my trip. Cheap place to stay and I had a personal tour the whole day on the back of a motorbike to different sites around the town. My guide was named Pou (pronounced Pow) and my cousin’s guide was Jay. Their English was near perfect and they had lots of useful tips. There are the Killing Caves, various temples, and a ride on a hand driven rail car.
We left the next day by boat to Siem Reap. This was a nice day, but it does take 8 hours by boat to get there. You will see hundreds of houses and people living on the side of the river. Truly memorable. You will cross the Tonle Sap lake at the end and pass by some floating villages.
Men With a Clothes Washing Machine in the River
This was the big up and comer for tourist destinations when I was there. Angkor Wat had really taken off and there were guest houses and restaurants everywhere with more being built. Angkor Wat was $20 a day and I paid a driver $20 to show me around for the day. Now a lot of people get the 3 day pass and some even the week one. One day was enough for me. If you are really interested in temples and history then go for it, but I had seen enough by that point.
By having our own driver we got to go to 3 of the main destinations. The Bayon, Angkor Wat, and Ta Prohm. I thought this was a good mix because Angkor Wat is a given, the Bayon had neat architecture with the many faces engraved, and Ta Prohm had that old, untouched look to it. Ta Prohm, for your info, is where parts of Tomb Raider have been filmed. Massive trees just exploding out of walls that have crumbled. Looks incredible.
Angkor Wat From a Nearby Hill
We left Siem Reap on a bus to Phnom Penh, but we wanted to go to Krati so we hopped off at a town called Skuon. This was one of my more nervous moments since we were the only ones who did this on our bus and there wasn’t much english here. The people knew what we wanted to do though and they got us on a minivan full of locals that was on its was to Krati.
At Krati there are an endangered species of fresh water dolphins living in the Mekong River. They are used to seeing a few tourists here and you can easily find yourself a motorbike ride up to the area to check it out. Still, we only saw about 5 other foreigners the whole time we were here.
From here we caught a river boat (runs every other day?) to Phnom Penh. This was one of the funniest (but serious) moments on the trip. Sitting on the top deck of this boat, the Cambodians would be drinking and eat and just throwing their plastic bottles and garbage right back into the river without thinking anything of it.
This is the capital and you can see the palace here, the Killing Fields, walk along the river. From here I went into Vietnam.
This was my first night in Vietnam. A few things were different here. They wanted my passport to stay at guest houses which made me really nervous. From here I booked a tour on the Mekong Delta by boat which was nice. It finished off in Ho Chi Minh City.
Ho Chi Minh City
Toured the city and seen the different museums, the old palace, and eat some very good food. Went to the Cu Chi Tunnels as well. It is quite interesting. You can shoot an AK-47 if you want.
There is a backpackers’ area here as well, but I can’t remember that name of it. This is where all the tour shops and restaurants are. It is walking distance to most of the museums and the old capital building as well. You will most likely be dropped off here when you arrive.
Night Scene in Ho Chi Minh City
Heading North in Vietnam
I purchased a 5 stop bus pass in Ho Chi Minh that worked out well. I went to Dalat, a cool little town in the mountains. Very cool climate which was nice for a change. It is actually a honeymoon spot for people in Vietnam. We did a day tour of waterfalls, botanical gardens, a buddhist sanctuary, and other stuff.
We went to Nha Trang, but only stayed a couple hours. It is a beach town and we were running out of time. If you want the opportunity for beah time and would recommend you stay. Further south is Mui Ne which is supposed to be excellent as well, but we never went.
Then on to Hoi An where I bought more clothes than I could bring home. It has hundreds of tailors that custom make your clothes. So I boxed them up and paid the postage. You really need to go here and stay a couple days. One day to order everything and the next day you will pick it up and get any alterations.
Hue was the next stop where we saw the Citadel (ancient capital) and did a river tour. A lot of history is here.
I ended up in Hanoi after that. This is a cool city. You stay in what is called the Old Quarter. Lots of guest houses, restaurants, and tourist shops. There is a water puppet show and quite a few different restaurants.
From here I caught the overnight train to Sapa. This is up in the mountains close to the Chinese border. Some of Vietnam’s indigeneous people live up here. Lots of colorful clothes and you can do some hiking and home stays for a reasonable price. We booked this whole trip from a tourist shop in Hanoi.
Market Near Sapa
Warning: There are not copyright laws (or they aren’t enforced) in SE Asia so becareful. We were told to use the Sinh Cafe for booking our tours. But there are, like, 5 of those. If one is successful then copycats spring up all over the place.
Later, I went back to Hanoi and then went out to Halong Bay. Cool limestone formations are everywhere. YOu can take a liveaboard boat for a reasonable price. They take you into some caves and such and you can even do some swimming if you want to brave the waters.
As soon as I got back I caught a 24 hour bus to Vientienne, Laos. This was probably the worst transportation experience of my life. It is such a long trip and you are trying to sleep and it just doesn’t work. Part of the way I started popping gravol, but to no avail. Anyhow, it is the cheapest way to get there and you get to see some crazy mountain roads. Next time I would take a flight from Hanoi to Vientienne though.
I especially enjoyed this country. A little less touristy (I’m sure this has changed by now) made it feel a bit more like an adventure. Vientienne is the capital. Find a guest house and have dinner along one of the restaurants on the river. There is also a market here you can check out. I purchased DVD’s and CD’s here.
Note:With the lack of copyright laws, you will be able to buy a million different CD’s and DVDs in the night markets for $1 or $2 each. Burned copies of course.
If you want to feel rich, just exchange some money in Vientienne. 10000 laos dollars to 1 US. Check out the picture after we went to the bank in Vientienne.
Our Laos Money
I went up to Vang Vieng which is kind of a funny town. Nothing but pizza shops playing movies all the time. A town for backpackers to just hang out. You can go tubing, but I just went to some caves and swam in one of the little lagoons.
Lagoon in Vang Vieng
Luang Prabang and Muang Ngoi Ngoi
I went up to Luang Prabang and from here went to Muang Ngoi Ngoi. This was hard to get to as it was not the normal path for tourists, but there were a few others with the same idea as us. We took a bus north for 4 hours from Luang Prabang and then a river boat for another 2 hours. At points we had to get out and walk because the river was too shallow and the boat would have bottomed out.
Arriving at Muang Ngoi Ngoi was awesome. Basically a little village where some of the locals have built little guest cabins off their homes. The only power is from turbines that have been put in the river that charge car batteries. They run their very, very few devices off these in the daytime and then turn the power off in the early evening. No lights, no nothing. We had the privilege of staying in the only place with a television so the locals were lined up outside every night watching some show on the television. It was quite funny to see. We went fishing with the father of the house and basically just vegged for 3 days. The guest house was the Banana Cafe and I would definitely recommend it.
The Banana Cafe Where We Stayed
Back Into Thailand via “The Fast Boat”
We returned to Luang Prabang and then caught the “fast boat” into Thailand. Now if you have traveled in Laos, there are these backpacker “stories” about how people get killed on the fast boat. I don’t know if this is true, but I will tell you that it can be very scary. They basically put 8 of us into a long skinny boat. Stack the luggage in the front and squish the passengers in the middle. There is a honda engine for a car mounted on the back with a ten foot long rod going down into the water at an angle with a propeller at the end. You all wear crash helmets with visors, ear plugs because of the engine noise, and just speed up the river, narrowly missing large rocks and other things. I honestly thought I would ask to get let out right after we started. Anyhow, after 10 minutes you must get desensitized, becase I relaxed and even dozed a bit. When I say you are jammed in, I do mean jammed in. My feet were jammed so hard against the seat in front of me I had bruising for the rest of the trip.
The Fast Boat
Back Into Thailand
The dropped us off at the border and we caught a van to Chiang Mai. This is a popular town now. A lot of backpackers head up here to do the “trekking” tours. We just relaxed here since we did our trekking at Sapa in Vietnam. You can take courses (I took a Thai Massage course and my cousin took cooking).
Phuket and Koh Tao
From here we caught an overnight bus to Phuket. This was a shock. The prices were way higher than everywhere else we had been. It was kind of disappointing so we hopped a van and went to Surat Thani. Here we caught an overnight ferry to Ko Tao. This is the lesser known island of the 3 islands in the Gulf of Thailand. It has the cheapest diving, but that is all this place is about so I wouldn’t go unless you’re planning to dive. I stayed here for a week and then caught the catamaran back to the mainland, hopped a bus back to Bangkok, and flew out that night to Seoul.
Seoul is cool. Remember it is far more expensive than what you will have been used to. I went to see the border and look into North Korea with my own eyes. Toured the different markets and seen the celebrations for Buddha’s birthday. Go sing karaoke somewhere too.
Money Changes at the Market
I was back home by the end of May and didn’t get sick once so I say it was quite the success.