One Week In Southeast Asia
November 5, 2008 11:11 PM   Subscribe

Where would I have the most fun for one week -- Cambodia? Viet Nam? Or Laos?

I'm in the enviable position of living in Asia right now and I need to start thinking about my vacation. It'll probaby be some time in the Spring (April maybe?), and I'd be going for about a week. I'm leaning towards Cambodia, but I'm open to other suggestions.

I would be 1) travelling by myself 2) with a backpack 3) ideally renting a scooter to get around 4) interested in seeing as much local culture and scenic beauty as possible 5) but not averse to doing a little partying as well. Oh, I'm also fine with cheap. I've been to Thailand and stayed in places that would make a lot of Americans have a seizure. Not that I don't like clean and modern, but down and dirty is OK. It's kind of what I'm looking for, actually. Comfortable is always nice though, I'm just not a picky person.

Information regarding visa and/or health requirements (shots) appreciated (I'm a Yank). But honestly, I'd love to hear some people's impressions of vacations in these places.

Oh, and I speak bar and restaurant French. Would that come in handy?
posted by bardic to Travel & Transportation (12 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: All good options, although I haven't been to Laos so I won't comment on it.

I'd vote for Vietnam since I consider it to have more "scenic beauty" than Cambodia, and both have "local culture."

Cambodia has Angkor Wat, of course, which is impressive and worth visiting, but somewhat touristy. Phnom Penh doesn't have many sights, although it's an interesting, underrated city nonetheless. One week is enough to visit both PP and Siem Ream/Angkor (some people would say it's too much time), although not quite enough to go many other places since travel can be slow.

One week is good for exploring *part* of Vietnam: don't be too ambitious and try to go everywhere. Perhaps start in HCM or Hanoi and then spend a few days at the beach or in the countryside. In both Cambodia and Vietnam, you'll need to get out of the cities to find "scenic beauty."

I'm not into "partying" so I can't provide info on this.

You could also consider Myanmar. No shortage of culture or beauty there. Like Vietnam, a week is not much for such a big country, so choose destinations wisely. However you may not be able to rent a scooter and I suspect there is no party scene.

Visas: Cambodia you can buy on arrival, Vietnam (and Myanmar) you would need to get in advance.

Health: Check out the CDC for health recommendations for specific destinations. IANAD, but I think Hep A, B, and typhoid are good choices, since once you get these, they are good for years. For a one week visit, I personally wouldn't bother with anti-malarials and their side-effects, although more cautious friends would. Best to discuss this with a doctor who knows the region. (But in any case you should take efforts to avoid mosquitoes. Bring a mosquito net and repellent, especially if you're planning on budget accommodation.)

French: if you speak English, French is pointless. While some people speak French, there's a high probability they also speak English. Most locals in the travel industry will have some English ability.
posted by blue mustard at 1:39 AM on November 6, 2008 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Cambodia and Laos are both nice.
I had tons of fun in both countries.

You can get a visa when you arrive in the airport in Laos or Cambodia. Cambodia also gives them out at the land border crossing too. Just don't forget to bring you own visa photos or they rip you of for more money.
No health requirements that I ever heard of for either country.

In cambodia in the capital, Phnon Pehn you can go to a shooting rang and rock out with some fully automatic rifles or full machine guns for about $20 per 30 bullets. The AK47 really is more reliable than the m16 that kept jamming. Or you could check out Siem Reap, see Angkor Wat and a bunch of other temples. They were in Tomb Raider 2. Or on the other end of the country, sihanoukville, really nice beaches and partying.

In Laos the capital is pretty nice, but the most fun I had in that country was in Vang Vieng. You rent an innertube and they drive you up the river and then you just float down it for a few hours. Along the side of the river there are bars that have cool rope swing or zip lines, you have to buy a beer to use them, so by the time you float back to town you are pretty wasted. Also, there are some cool caves along the side of the river, kids will give you tours of them for a few bucks.
I'm pretty sure theres more french speakers left in Laos.

If you are into drugs, dont worry, these countrys aren't all crazy like Malaysia or Singapore. The river bars at Vang Vieng also sell opium tea, the people taking that were really relaxed going down the river.
In Sihanoukville a couple of the bars on the beach literally give pot away for free, to help with their food sales I would guess.

In both coutries you can get really cheap rooms, $3-5, crapholes to $20 ok with A/C. In sihanoukeville some of the beach bars even have places for you to stay for free, you just have to eat there or give out flyers on the beach for them.
posted by Iax at 1:54 AM on November 6, 2008

Best answer: I didn't go to Laos, but heard a few good and a few bad stories about it. YMMV there.

Cambodia has terrible roads, really kind and friendly people, good food, and cheap hostels. If your into the herb, Cambodia is a very friendly place about this (unlike Thailand). In Phnon Pehn there's even a pizza place called Happy Herb's Pizza. You do the math. Super cheap backpacker hostels. I think the cheapest place I stayed at was US $2 a night. It was a shithole, but I was tickled to get a place so cheap.

Angkor Wat is great. You can get a one day pass or a three day pass, for - I think - 30 US dollars and 40 US dollars, respectively. One day isn't enough time, so if you go there, plan for three days, and at least two. I hired a guy to take me around on the back of his motorcycle for about $10 a day. He knew where everything was and was able to take me to most places (it's a really huge area).

Vietnam has some astoundingly beautiful landscapes and beaches. The roads are good, especially compared to Laos and Cambodia. The people are also very friendly, but the touts in the cities and tourist towns can be a royal p.i.t.a. Be firm but friendly if you don't want to buy something, which someone will try to sell you all the time. Vietnam hotels are actually considerably nicer than others in SE Asia, and a bit more expensive to boot. I remember experiencing an A/C room and cable TV for the first time in 3 months when I was in Vietnam.
posted by zardoz at 4:12 AM on November 6, 2008

Best answer: Tough call.

If you prefer "discovering local culture" I would recommend Laos, particularly Luang Prabang. From there you can take 3-day trips into the jungle and meet up with the Hmong hill tribes, or you can check out local waterfalls, meet some monks--you get the idea. While it's technically possible to score drugs in LB, I wouldn't advise it (being a World Heritage site, the place is too high-profile). Veng Vieng would be better for that sort of thing, but you probably won't have enough time to do both.

If you prefer "attractions" I would instead go with Cambodia. Angkor is a tough attraction to beat. It is Fucking. Amazing. There are plenty of temples in Angkor Thom (old city) to explore. And from there you can check out the floating villages on the Tonle Sap as a little side-trip. Lots of good photos. Drugs were abundant in Siem Reap last time I was there.

French isn't going to help you much in Laos. It will not help you at all in Cambodia, unless you meet up with some fellow backpackers that hail from France or Quebec. Most people you'd run into either speak a smattering of English, or are clever enough to communicate through pantomime. A friend of mine bought this fucking BRILLIANT book before we left the States, and it ended up being the only way we were able to communicate with the people in some of the more remote tribes. But it was all we needed to hold conversations that lasted hours.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 4:20 AM on November 6, 2008 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Great tips, thanks to all. I'll just clarify: at my advanced age of 34, my idea of partying is "drinking beer with friendly people." Not that I mind people doing drugs, but I probably should have phrased it a little differently.

(Has Thailand really cracked down on in-country pot smoking? It was pretty much everywhere and no big deal when I was there. Then again, that was 1995 or so.)
posted by bardic at 4:45 AM on November 6, 2008

Songkran in Chiang Mai was an awesome experience. Takes place in Mid-April. A three day (but really longer) water fight. Hep A & B shots highly recommended. It takes place all over Thailand (and Laos, and a few other places), but, with the moat surrounding Chiang Mai's old city, I can't imagine anywhere being more Songkran-friendly.

It's definitely a good party, but probably doesn't fit the bill for the rest of your demands. It might be worthwhile to do a couple of days in Chiang Mai and finish off the trip elsewhere. Siem Reap would certainly be on my Southeast Asia Essential list. Hanoi, Vietnam has a lot to do in the area - you can do an overnight boat cruise on Halong Bay, and Sapa is a night-train away, and worth seeing for at least one day. I really enjoyed the city of Hanoi itself.
posted by backwards guitar at 4:49 AM on November 6, 2008 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I was in North Vietnam (10 days), Angkor Wat (3 days) and Luang Prabang (5 days) this summer. I would recommend the latter two for a vacation -- LP is seriously beautiful, and I went on a mountain bike ride into the hills outside of town, which was also gorgeous. I was able to make friends with fellow tourists and locals, over beers in one of the little bars.

AW has to been seen. The town, Siem Reap, is touristy, in that it has a strip that is just bars and restaurants aimed only at tourists, but it so small that it doesn't matter, and the people are friendly.

I flew between AW and LP and it wasn't expensive.

(I loved North Vietnam as well, but it was more work, somehow. It could be because I arrived there from Canada, had never been to Asia, and was still getting my bearings for the first half of my time there.)
posted by girlpublisher at 5:16 AM on November 6, 2008

Best answer: Of all your proposed destinations, Cambodia is the only one I've been to, but I thought it was amazing and would recommend it whole-heartedly. As a single, small white girl traveling along, I felt safer there than any other place in the world I've visited. As others have said, a week is long enough to start out in Siem Reap or Phnom Penh and visit both cities. Angkor Wat is stunningly beautiful and worth spending a few days just wandering around the temples. Siem Reap is a nice, sleepy little town in the center of it, if you can avoid the huge tourist hotel areas. Because there are so many tourists, it's a bit more expensive than other parts of the country. There are hiking and jungles outside Siem Reap (guides required on account of landmines).

Phnom Penh is a lovely, friendly city with lots to see and do, and you could easily spend a few days there as well. Unlike what others up-thread have said, I didn't find many people that spoke English in any sort of conversational way, but many people asked if I spoke French, so I do think that might come in handy for you. If you do end up in Phnom Penh, I'd recommend a visit to the National Library, the Killing Fields, Genocide Museum, National Museum, and if you can find a way out there, Phnom Tamao animal sanctuary. For me, it was fascinating to see so much destruction and degradation that was never repaired after the genocide, but to see people so friendly and happy despite all of that. There are a number of bars and hotels along the quay where you can relax with a nice cool Angkor beer and just enjoy the view.
posted by booknerd at 9:12 AM on November 6, 2008 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I've been to all three, and all three have quite a lot to offer. Truth is, you can't go wrong with any of them.

Norther Vietnam would be my top recommendation. I just think if you are only going to get to see one place, this is it. I felt that Hanoi has some great local culture, and two of the top 100 most scenic areas in the world (Sapa and Ha Long Bay) can be visited on 2-3 day trips. I was there in February, so I don't know what sort of weather you should expect, but it'll probably be nicer than when i was there. (and as for grabbing a few beers with friendly people, Bia Hoi is a great option). Get your visa ahead of time. I don't remember specifically what shots were required for that area.

Laos was probably my favorite country out of the three. I felt it was easier to meet locals here than anywhere else. There is absolutely no shortage of scenic beauty either. Vang Vieng is great, but I'd probably recommend Louang Phrabang as your base of operations. (Unless you are looking to go more off the radar, then Louang Namtha (somewhat off the radar) or Muang Ngoi (very off the radar) might suit you well). Again, you'll have no problem finding locals and travelers to grab a beer with here either.

As for Cambodia. Angkor Wat is obviously the big tourist destination. And it shows. It probably is worth seeing (like the pyramids), but the whole atmosphere may not be for everyone. That said, the very best day I had in Asia in 3 months was in Cambodia. I was along the southern coast in the towns east of sihanoukville. I rented a scooter and just got lost, riding around the countryside. It was great.

In my experience, the visa advice you got is mostly accurate for these two countries. Both countries you can get visas at various border crossings too, but at least in the case of Laos when i was there, where you get your visa dictates the length you can stay (though in no case is the visa 1 week or less).

Have fun.
posted by NormandyJack at 9:17 AM on November 6, 2008

Best answer: Hey! I just did this trip a few months ago! Cambodia to Viet Nam to Laos.

Cambodia was really awesome, Angkor Watt is pretty cool, but 2 or 3 days is all you need. Phenom Penh was a pretty cool city i thought. I spent only 4 or 5 days in Cambodia, but it may have been my favorite days in SEA.

Vietnam was pretty cool too. I liked Hanoi better then Ho Chi Mihn City, it was more laid a bit friendlier. Also the guest house in Hanoi vs the one i found in HCMC was maybe 1000x better. Cambodia was about the temples where as Vietnam was about the cities. Hue felt a little like a cultural Disneyland, but i still enjoyed it.

I only got to Vientiane in Laos. It was a bit like Thailand in the sense it was just a backpackers retreat. There were a few things to see like the Buddha Park, but really it was just about eating and drinking. Extremely laid back.

I would suggest Vietnam or Cambodia. No matter where you go be prepared for incredible food!!!
posted by Black_Umbrella at 10:50 AM on November 6, 2008 [1 favorite]

Oh, and not to be too self-promoting or anything, but if you want to see photos of the places I mentioned... [flickr]
posted by booknerd at 11:10 AM on November 6, 2008

Response by poster: Wow. Awesome information guys. Thank you.
posted by bardic at 4:17 PM on November 6, 2008

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