Backpack SE Asia: Where to go

There are different ways you can explore Southeast Asia, each as exhilarating as the last. I had the opportunity to backpack Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia and Malaysia and would like to share my incredible journey and what I learned along the way.

Thailand

Whether it’s trekking through the jungle, sampling exotic foods or lounging on a white sand beach, this friendly country will offer you the chance to do things you never thought possible.

Bangkok is one of my favorite cities in the world. If you’re looking for fun, stay on the famous Khaosan Road (I recommend The Green House). Try the different street food vendors or drink the infamous buckets. One stroll up this road and you’ll understand why so many people come back. This is a great area to meet fellow backpackers and ask for advice about what you may want to do (or avoid) the rest of your trip.

If you want to go slightly off the beaten path, head north to Chiang Mai. Here, you’ll have the opportunity to hike through the jungle, bathe in waterfalls, ride elephants, dine with locals and captain bamboo rafts. Find a hostel or travel agency that can arrange the details for you, but do your research and make sure you get the most for your money. We organized our trek through Backpacker’s Meeting Place. We found the staff and our tour guide to be knowledgeable, though the hostel was not located near the city center.

If you go from Bangkok to Chiang Mai, I suggest taking a bus. We found the overnight buses were generally more comfortable and affordable. We took this journey early in our trip and decided to book an overnight train. This was a terrible decision. The train broke down and was delayed several hours, we had no air conditioner and our bed was littered with bugs. If you do take the train, please pay the few extra dollars and upgrade to VIP. It’s well worth it.

I’ve heard wonderful things about all the islands in southern Thailand. Phuket is probably the most famous of them all. It’s enjoyable and offers plenty to do, though it is more commercialized than the other islands. Koh Samui is good for diving and snorkeling, while Koh Phangan provides great parties almost every night of the year, the most famous being the full moon party (Coral Bungalows is a good hostel to stay at for this event, but make sure you book in advance). Do some research, decide what you want to do, then pick an island and do it.

Looking for something different to try in Thailand? How about a cooking class? Prices and courses offered will vary, but a quick browse through pamphlets or a stop in any travel agency will provide you with all the answers you need. We took a course offered by Siam Rice Thai Cookery School in Chiang Mai and had a wonderful time. 

Laos

Though we didn’t spend much time in Laos, it still proved to be a remarkable country with amazingly kind people. It offers a huge variety of things to do, whether you’re looking to get a little crazy or just soak up the culture.

Getting to Laos can be exhausting. Your best bet is to take the slow boat that leaves from Thailand every day. I don’t know the exact schedule, but you can find it with a quick google search or simply ask around. We took the morning boat from a border town near Chiang Rai (which is near Chiang Mai) and it took a total of two days, with a stop in the dainty little town of Pek Bang, where you’re better off to just get dinner and go to bed. You can also take a speed boat, but don’t risk it in order to save a few hours.

Luang Prabang was my favorite city that we visited in Laos. The entire city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s clean, well developed and safe. There are people waiting for you as soon as you get off the boat offering hotels and good deals at restaurants and bars. We walked for a while then finally gave in and let someone pestering us take us to a hostel, though it ended up working just fine. While here, you can rent a bike to explore the city, visit the numerous temples and markets or (my favorite) do an Alm’s Giving. Wake up around 4 am, buy some rice or candy and offer it to Buddhist monks. When else can you have this experience?

After we left Luang Prabang, we headed to the infamous Veng Vienne. I was underwhelmed, to say the least. If you want to party and get a little wild, this is the destination for you. VV is famous for tubing where you can float all day, drink, make various stops along the river to drink more, play games, and drink some more. We chose to opt out due to rumors of strong currents and recent injuries, but you’ll be fine as long as you stay smart and in control.

We were only in Vientienne, the capitol of Laos, for a flight so I don’t have much advice on what to see or do. There are numerous Western restaurants and a fantastic night market, but I’m sure you could find much more with an extended amount of time.

Vietnam

I’ll admit, I’m a little disappointed in how our Vietnam experience turned out. I talked to people who had terrific things to say about the country, but we just didn’t come away feeling like that. We attributed this to the weather, which was terrible and unfortunate. We heard the rain was being wacky this year and we just couldn’t seem to outrun it, no matter where we went.

When you arrive, I suggest getting a hop-on, hop-off bus pass that will take you up and down the country. Pay the price and you get a set number of rides to various destinations. You can buy these at any travel agency or hostel for a decent price; it’s worth it.

We spent about a week in Ha Noi and I really enjoyed this city at first, though I think we overstayed our welcome. I recommend staying at the Ha Noi Backpacker’s Hostel which turned out to be one of our favorites. Ha Noi is chaotic so you have to be aware of your surroundings. Seriously, you’ll get hit by a motorbike if you look the wrong way.

Halong Bay is a must see for anyone visiting Vietnam. Our experience there was absolutely incredible and we got to witness some of nature’s most extravagant artwork. You can find a junket that best suits you and your budget at any travel agency (or through the above mentioned HBP hostel). Go for one night or two, but whatever you do, go.

We stopped in Hue next and truth be told, there’s not a lot to say about it. The weather ruined most of our plans, so we only got to explore the citadel in the middle of the city. While still interesting to see, I’m not sure it was worth the stop.

Our next destination was Hoi An and I think this is where the rain proved to be most troublesome. We got clothes made, as most people do, but be careful when choosing what you have made. Most shops specialize in tailored clothing, so consider getting a nice suit, jacket or winter coat made. This city also has an incredible waterfront, and due to the rain, we were only able to explore it on our last day. Rent a bike or walk there and hang out, it’s really quite beautiful to see.

The next stop was Nah Trang where we finally got some sunny skies. You’ll find a nice beach here and tons of places to hang out with fellow travelers. We rented bikes and rode them to a temple and numerous markets, which proved to be a great way to discover any city. If you do decide to rent a motorbike or bicycle, be careful in traffic. It’s insane.

Our last destination was Ho Chi Minh City, formerly known as Saigon. One word: ridiculous.

Fair warning: Vietnam was expensive compared to the other countries we visited in SEA. Expect to pay a bit more for food and accommodation. 

Cambodia

Unfortunately and perhaps unfairly, I divide the time I spent in Cambodia into two categories: before I was robbed and after I was robbed.

Before I was robbed: We made our first stop in Siem Reap. This is a little backwards, as Phnom Penh is much closer to Thailand if you enter by land, however we had friends we had to meet and a few more hours on a bus was nothing by this point. Siem Reap is home to Angkor Wat, and really I don’t need to say much to convince you to go here. Be warned, the tickets are a little pricey at $40 for a 3 day pass, but so worth it. Make friends with a tuk-tuk driver that can pick you up from your hostel and take you to the temples every day. Take time exploring and try not to get too overwhelmed, it’s absolutely intoxicating. After a mind-blowing day, you can hang out on Pub Street. Cheap drinks, cheap food and tons of shops.

After I was robbed: We made our way back to Phnom Penh in order to learn more about the genocide that occurred not so long ago. It’s important to educate ourselves about the tragedies that took place, as horrific as they may be. You can easily visit the killing fields and high school turned prison turned museum with the help of a tuk-tuk driver, but make sure you reserve enough time to walk around. If you’re feeling a little overwhelmed or lost, we found it helped to hire a tour guide at the museum. She spoke perfect English, explained everything in detail, and even shared her heroic story about her experience during the genocide.

Malaysia

I stayed in Kuala Lumpar (The Explorer’s Guesthouse was great), though I could have easily visited nearby islands or Singapore. Time and a lack of money prevented me from doing so, but if you find yourself in KL, this is always an option. There’s a good amount to do in this city and the skyline is breathtaking. Visit the Batu Caves, stroll along the Golden Triangle or be awed by the Petronas Towers. There is a surprising amount of green, so you can seek refuge in the numerous bird or botanical gardens if you desire. You’ll find a never ending amount of delicious Indian food and the markets are top notch. I enjoyed my time here, but should have done more research to truly make the most of it.

Visas

Visa regulations are different with every country you visit and it seems the requirements are always changing. Make sure you understand what you need before you cross any border to avoid trouble or time wasted.

Thailand’s visa upon arrival was quite simple: 15 days if you enter by land and 30 days by air. If necessary, it’s easy to receive a 7 day extension at an embassy for a small fee once your visa is finished. Laos and Cambodia offered visas upon arrival for about $25-30. You fill out the paper work once you arrive, just make sure you have cash (USD is usually the way to go) and spare passport photos. Vietnam’s visa process may have been the most complicated as it’s best to get your visa before entering the country. To make it as easy as possible, we used My Vietnam Visa to receive a letter that granted us a visa upon arrival. It cost $20 and we received the letter within a week (understand that you have to pay another fee once you arrive at the airport). This method only works if you enter Vietnam by air at certain airports and you have to be pretty certain of the date you will arrive. I’m not sure about visa requirements when entering by land, but this website should provide some answers. You are not required to pay for a visa in Malaysia and should receive 90 days as a tourist.

Regardless of where you go or how long you spend there, I’m certain you will have an incredible experience. Remember to keep an open mind, try new things and make the most of your time in any one of these fantastic destinations.

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6 thoughts on “Backpack SE Asia: Where to go

  1. This is such a comprehensive account, and really helpful with all the tips – it’s so nice getting advice first hand from someone who’s been there. I went to Thailand a few years ago and loved it, but haven’t explored any more of SEA – yet. I’ll be rereading this post when I finally get back there…

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