Help me travel SE Asia as cheaply and amazingly as possible, please
December 15, 2008 2:27 PM   Subscribe

So I'm going to be going over to SE Asia for the first time in a couple weeks and I'd love some advice on where to go and what to do...

I've read previous questions here on metafilter but would love some more advice.

I will be spending time in Seoul and around Toyama, Japan to start with. I have friends and family in these places, so they should be able to tell me what's good to do. However, suggestions for things to do around these places are definitely welcome. I will then be traveling with my father and brother for January 22 - February 1st. (Tentatively Shanghai, Hong Kong, Cambodia, Vietnam.) I will then go off on my own, traveling by myself for about 2 weeks. I will then be in Seoul for about 10 days before I head home.


1. I will have two days in Tokyo, one after I fly in, before I take the overnight bus to Toyama and another, after the bus from Toyama, before I fly out (Fri Jan 9th and Mon Jan 19th.) What to do in Tokyo during the day?

2. Where should I go when traveling on my own? I want to travel as cheaply as possible, so I reckon I will be taking buses. I'm thinking about Laos and Thailand (where to go within Thailand?) but I've heard now might now be a good time to go there. Can anyone tell me if it is a serious bad idea to go to Thailand now or is it just people being paranoid?

3. I will have some free time in Seoul (feb 18th - 21st) after my dad leaves. My brother will be there but he will be working during the day. I will have already done a lot of the main, typical things to do in Seoul with my dad. Any suggestions on what to do in Seoul? I'm not against travelin, but thinking about stickin around Seoul since I'll have a place to stay for free. I'll be in downtown by seoul station and city hall. I've checked out these previous questions.

4. Suggestions on packing? I'm a low maintenance kinda guy and will be taking just one moderately sized backpack. I've read onebag and these threads but those seem to be about the warmer season. I would love any more suggestions. I'm going to try and play it real light, guessing I can get pretty much anything I need when I'm there. Also, is it going to be crazy cold?

5. This will be my first time in Asia and my first time out of North America besides a week in Italy when I was in high school. Also, my first time doing serious traveling alone. I'm not foreseeing any problems but still, any general culture/travel advice?

6. If I am in a place where I can stay somewhere for real cheap, I will get a room. Otherwise, I'm going to try couchsurfing. Any suggestions for ways a broke stranger can say thank you for letting him stay on your couch? I'd love to cook a meal or draw some beautiful picture but I'm not much of a cook or artist.


1. While I won't be quite broke, I won't have very much money so the cheaper, the better. I don't get grossed out or uncomfortable easily.

2. I understand that it's impossible to see everything in just a few weeks but I am leaning more toward staying in each place just a couple days and moving on, to see as much as possible (without going crazy) as opposed to really getting to know one or two areas.

3. Anywhere I go when traveling on my own, I will have to get back the Vietnam-area (most likely Saigon) to fly back to Seoul so I can fly back to the US. Round trip tickets...

Any general travel advice is great too.

Sorry for the many questions and thanks so much in advance!
posted by saul wright to Travel & Transportation (11 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
> before I take the overnight bus to Toyama and another, after the bus from Toyama

first off, if you have the extra $40 I recommend taking the shinkansen to echigoyuzawa then transfer to the train to Toyama. You're exchanging 6+ hours in Tokyo for one of the crappier experiences you can have in Japan to save a measly $40?

>What to do in Tokyo during the day?

Shibuya . . . the sheer density of enjoyment of that place is mind-boggling. I used to work there 4 days a week and never really appreciated how awesome it was until I left.

Akihabara -- you've got to see it to believe it.

The Ameyoko shopping district begins off the north edge of Akihabara and runs to Ueno station, about a 25 minute walk altogether. Ameyoko is great for a last fading glimpse of what pre-first class "Showa Bubble" smooth Japan was like back in the ramshackle post WW2 days.

Go up to the top of the Tocho building in Shinjuku -- it's free and quite a world-altering view -- you're basically looking at the sum total of what a nation of 100M people can build up over 60+ years.

Don't bother with Ikebukuro unless you're doing the bus thing after all. It's still dumpsville, or at least it was last I was there (2002).

The parks and gardens aren't so hot in the middle of winter (think yellow lawns and skeletonal trees so I guess that's out. Ginza's great for the Sony Building, Ito-ya stationery store, and the awesome Hakuhinkan toy store, not to mention lunch. There's also a pretty good sushi chain restuarant -- Sushiko right next to Ginza in Tsukiji (Google Streetview. This is right across the street from the main fish market so this is going to be as good a sushi as you're going to find IMO.
posted by troy at 3:06 PM on December 15, 2008 [2 favorites]

You can avoid most of the trouble in Thailand right now by flying in/out of somewhere besides BKK, or by getting there by land from either Cambodia or Laos. Thailand is still a very safe place.

If you go to SE Asia without visiting Angkor Wat then you might as well just stamp FAIL on your passport.

Laos is great, you'll love how laid back it is compared to Vietnam.
posted by furtive at 4:49 PM on December 15, 2008

In Tokyo, definitely go to Shibuya, just to look around. Hit Harajuku, but stay off Omotesando if time is limited, it's just overpriced brand name goods now. Take a look at Takeshita-dori, which is still not as good as it used to be, but it hasn't been totally ruined yet. Go to Meiji-jingu, island of calm and quiet in the middle of Tokyo (you can get there from Harajuku). Of course, you can also go to Asakusa. Everyone does it, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't take a look.

For your other trips, I spent nearly a month in southwest China, in Dali and Lijiang. Absolutely fabulous places ten years ago. No idea what they're like now, but quite nice. If you need to go budget, southern and western China is the place to go. If you get that chance, check out Guilin (tourist trap) or Yangshuo (backpacker haven) for the stunning scenery.

If not China, try Bali. I went to Thailand and found it quite expensive. Of course, I made the mistake of going to Phuket, and there are definitely better places. Still, I enjoyed Bali much, much more. Staying there can be incredibly cheap, though you won't be staying it the Ritz, you're still, for all it's worth, in paradise. Check out Ubud, and, well, for backpacking, Kuta. Incredibly nice people, stunningly beautiful island.

Hong Kong is also not bad, great views of the city from Kowloon. If you're going cheap, look at the Mirador Mansions rather than the Chungking Mansions. Not quite as dirty, and every time I've been to HK (4 times) I've seen ambulances and firetrucks in front of Chungking. Both of them are firetraps, but you can get a room for under $10 US.

Still, on a budget, I'd recommend Bali. It's a bit further than most, but it's fantastic.
posted by Ghidorah at 6:54 PM on December 15, 2008

Ten days is nothing. You can catch a few good places if you fly (which could be bad carbon karma). However...

I would fly into Siem Riep, Cambodia and stay a couple of days looking at the Angkor complex (one day is not enough and SR is cool - check out the crocodile farms!). Then I'd fly to Luang Prabang, Laos, stay there a day or two (it's a stunning world heritage Indochine city after all) then catch a bus south to Vientienne so you can see some of the glorious countryside, maybe staying a night a long the way at some groovy place. From Vientienne, I'd fly south to Phuket for some beach time and then fly from Phuket to Siagon. Bingo! Ten days.
posted by Kerasia at 7:01 PM on December 15, 2008

Best answer: As regards Hong Kong, stay (as in sleep) on Kowloon-side rather than Island-side, as it will be much, much cheaper. Chungking and Mirador Mansions have already been mentioned, and both are perfectly safe with just the tiniest bit of common sense. The little takeaway Indian food stalls in Chungking are also amazing, and cheap, but that's the only thing I'd every buy in the place. Most everything's within a generous half hour of you (or much less, often) on the MTR (underground) or with busses, and public transport is quite cheap in HK (or was, three years ago or so when I lived there). Make sure to go to Sham Shui Po, and find the street market - it is quite something else, and as a bonus, you'll be wondering round what is quite possibly the most densely populated part of the planet.

Of course, there are all the standard fare things like the Peak (worth the trip on a good day) and Mid-Levels (side streets, side streets, side streets!) and so on, but you'll hear about all that without making any effort at all.

Cheap eats can always be had at Dai Pai Dongs, if you can find them, and convince someone to get you some food without any mutual language (and I mean none, not just a little). The food is usually quite good as well, but just be aware that hygiene in the Western sense isn't that much of a biggie (e.g. you'll just take chopsticks from a big water-filled cup of them in the centre of the table, and replace them when you're done). I have never gotten ill eating at one of these places, though, and nor do the locals, obviously.

A walk down Nathan Road can be worthwhile, particularly if you duck around the side streets a bit, and can lead up to an excellent night stroll along the harbourside (which is also a must, particularly around Christmas or Chinese New Year - the decorations should still be up in your timeframe). For bars, avoid Wan Chai or Lan Kwai Fong on the Island (unless you like paying through the goddamn nose and drunken idiot gwai lo expats) and, if you must get your high-paying jollies, go for Ned Kelly's Last Stand (mix of locals and expats, really good live big-band jazz) or Chicago Blues (pretty much all locals, big musician's hangout, lots of live blues jamming going on, and tad cheaper) both within walking distance of Tsim Sha Tsui MTR station. The traditional thing after closing time is to go to the nearest 7-11, grab a few beers, some microwave ha gau (which you heat in-store) and maybe a pack of smokes, then sit yourself down on the pavement outside and make conversation as best you can with the drunken locals.

On that last point, incidentally, it can get reasonably cold in Hong Kong in winter, though not excessively so. Around 12 degrees as the low on a cold day is not unusual, and an absolute minimum of 6 to 8 degrees can occur, though only a few days a year. (All temperature measurements in celsius, of course).

One piece of general advice, insofar as possible, try to avoid looking like a stupid tourist, as they're often a good source of money. Try to look like a moderately intelligent recent expat, instead, if you can. Hong Kong is excellent, and you won't get cheated anywhere near as much there as pretty much the rest of South East Asia (excluding perhaps Japan, haven't been, so can't say, and non-KL Malaysia, which is just fucking awesome), despite my dire warnings. Enjoy it!
posted by Dysk at 8:22 PM on December 15, 2008

Best answer: Hi from Seoul!

Lots of questions, and a few answers. At the risk of tooting my own horn, I make it a point to see at one new place every weekend around Seoul / Korea for my blog - feel free to steal some ideas on where to go, what to see. A few recommendations anytime of the year are Hongik University (local party scene and lots of energy almost any night of the week), the Seoul Tower (take the cable car to the top or hike the mountain if you like), and much more. MeFi mail me if you'd like to hang out - I may even have a room free :)

Packing light? Bring your one jacket you can wear anything else with. Korea has gotten bitterly cold, but you make it since you're probably not standing outside with the wind hitting you all the time. There's almost always a convenience store for some cheap (and hot) eats/drinks.

General culture / travel? Observe the locals intently. It's always interested me how they eat their food, where they sit, order things, shop, and so on. Are you staring? Yes, a little bit, and they stare right back at you since you're different. Korea has a rather xenophobic side that gets old real quick, but thankfully that's limited to the older generation who I don't spend much time with. You won't be expected to know everything... When I first arrived and realized most non-touristy places had menus only in Korean, I literally would point and smile - and had some great food in the process... Another option is to hang out with the college students - some will want a foreigner friend, while others might just want to practice their English. Either way, you make a friend and get some great advice.

Best of luck - and have a great trip!
posted by chrisinseoul at 9:09 PM on December 15, 2008

I will then be traveling with my father and brother for January 22 - February 1st. (Tentatively Shanghai, Hong Kong, Cambodia, Vietnam.)

Goodness, that's not nearly enough time for those 4 places.

Another thing to consider is that the week starting Jan 26th will be Chinese/Lunar New Year. Travel in mainland China and (I think) Vietnam is usually a massive clusterfuck during that time.

Kerasia's itinerary is pretty good.
posted by alidarbac at 11:25 PM on December 15, 2008

Um, when you go to a Dai Pai Dong in Hong Kong, don't just put your chopsticks back in the cup in the centre of the table. Just leave them on the table next to your bowl and the waiter will remove them and wash them in a tub out back and then come and put them back in the cup on the centre of the table.

Sadly Chicago Blues isn't there anymore (another live venue bites the dust). Ned Kelly's is still there though, as is the Wanch in Wanchai (54 Jaffe Road - try and get there on January 17 to see some very good rock, rockabilly and country), and has live music every night (but avoid Sundays). Also check out The Underground for a good live music night, featuring local bands who play originals only.

Given that you're worried about your budget, stay away from Mid-Levels - it ain't cheap - mostly a collection of over-priced mediocre Western restaurants. There is one nice bar there called Club 71, which has a beer garden (kinda) and is cheap.

Final piece of advice for traveling in Asia - IMO appearances matter. Dress nice. You don't have to wear a suit or anything, but close toed shoes, clean shirt, neat hair etc matter.
posted by awfurby at 12:45 AM on December 16, 2008

Angkor Wat is absolutely not to be missed! And 2-3 days, please, 1 is not enough. Get beyond just the main temple and see Bayon, Ta Phrom, etc. Cambodia and Laos are cheap and safe. Thailand, outside of Bangkok and resort areas is also cheap.
Onebag is right, you need far less than you think you do. If you really need it while you are there, buy it while you are there. That being said, I never really thought that I would need a flashlight, until I stayed in a bungalow where the electricity went off at 8pm.
As for Shanghai, as cheesy/touristy as I thought it would be, I really enjoyed a riverboat tour. That and an evening at a rooftop bar or an afternoon brunch on The Bund. Not cheap, but a great view of the city.
posted by ActingTheGoat at 1:15 AM on December 16, 2008

Best answer: 1.Shopping and visiting temples. Harajuku is convenient for this, there's a ton of shops and Meiji Jingu which is one of the nicest temple in Tokyo. You can find cheap business hotels in tokyo but they are really depressing so you should definitely try to couchsurf there.
2.Don't know about Laos, Thailand is nice. I was there last week, absolutely no problem whatsoever. Of course it could change but it seems things are back to normal. If you're paranoid avoid the south. Bangkok got what they wanted by ousting the PM so it's should be allright there.
In the south it might be another matter but even there i wouldn't worry too much.
If you plan on travelling by buses be aware that this can take some time, if you're short on time it might not be the best idea. There are lots of low cost airlines in the region that might be worth it. Air Asia, Bangkok Airlines, Jetstar, Tiger Air etc... If you plan ahead you can travel cheaply by plane.
3. I don't know seoul really well so i can't help a lot. last time i went there the best thing i did was going to the shaman Hill, it's not really called shaman hill but it's a small hill with shamans living there in the middle of the city. It's in the lonely planet.
4. Seconding taking a flashlight, Besides that, pack light and remember that can you can have your clothes washed for as low as 2 dollars in almost every cheap hotels you'll be staying at.
Don't pack a towel buy a sarong there and use it as one, it's pretty, cheap and you can keep it as a souvenir.
5.Don't sweat it too much. The only thing that's can be a bit weird is the bartering. You almost always have to talk the price down. Be aware of what the locals are paying and try to get as close as possible. You're a walking wallet for a lot of people in SE Asia. It's just business, people will try to get the most money out of you, it's not personnal. Keep smiling and try to get the price down.
In general, people in SE asia are laid back, so aggressivity is really frowned upon. So if you realize you're getting ripped off, take your time, be perseverant, let them now that your determined to get your money back but don't threaten or yell.
6.Rooms can be had for cheap. As always talk the price down whenever it's possible. As for couchsurfing, a personal rule of mine is to spend half the money i would have on a room as presents for my host. I'll offer meals, beers etc...
posted by SageLeVoid at 4:25 AM on December 16, 2008

Response by poster: y'all are amazing...this is great. Thanks!
posted by saul wright at 7:01 AM on December 16, 2008

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