Help me refine my trip to SE Asia.
June 20, 2009 6:54 PM   Subscribe

I'm planning a trip to SE Asia for one month. When is the best time to go? How much is it realistic for me to do? Definitely would like to go to Laos and Cambodia. Possibly Vietnam.

I just got back from Thailand, and would like to plan a trip to some other countries for next year. I've read some of the other threads, and talked to some backpackers on my trip, and everyone seems to say Laos and Cambodia.

I enjoyed travelling in Thailand during June because it was off-peak, tourist places weren't packed full, and prices were slightly cheaper. It was very hot, and it did rain for about an hour a day, but it didn't bother me too much.

Also, would it be reasonable for me to add Vietnam to this, or is that pushing it? I would like to be able to travel at a moderate place, not moving too quickly from one place to the next.
posted by hazyspring to Travel & Transportation (7 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Since 'low end' prices really don't vary by season, and tourism is way down because the world economy is in the shitter, I'd suggest going when the weather is good (November - March).

One month... I assume you'll be flying into Bangkok. Perhaps grab your visas while you're getting over your jet lag. Take a minibus to the Cambodian border (about 4 hours) at Poipet. From there, you head on to Angkor Wat (Siem Reap) for a couple days. Phnom Penh is also worth a look and it has many interesting things to see. Make sure you hit up the original Happy Herb's Pizza, if that sorta thing interests you.

Becuase the roads are so shit, and you are so limited for time, you can get a cheap one way plane ticket (rather than 3 days by road) up to Ratanakiri - not many tourists, waterfalls, jungle, etc. You can rent a motorbike and head through the villages on the Vietnamese border. In Ratanakiri, you can get a one day transport to Stung Treng and then a boat from there to Lao. The border guards can be pricks, but it's quite easy to bargain down the bribe they demand. In both Cambodia and Lao, carry USD - some in small denominations.

You can head to the 4000 Islands (Si Phan Don). The last time I was there (2000), Don Det wasn't well known, but there may be less touristed islands than that these days. From there, you can travel up to Vientianne and onto Vang Vieng. Across the river from VV is a group of bungalows, which are both stunning and quiet. Perhaps they are called Mae Lyn's Bungalows? Not hard to find - cross the Nam Song River bridge and they're right there. Luang Prabang is your next obvious stop. Up from there is Muang Ngoi - a nice chilled out spot with some good treks to be had just north of there. Muang Khua and Phongasli in the hill country may also be of interest. In the north, you can cross back into Thailand at the Huay Xai - Chiang Khong border.

Forget Vietnam if you only have a month and are looking to travel at a moderate pace.

I am jealous.
posted by gman at 7:47 PM on June 20, 2009 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I second the rec to forget Vietnam - I spent 4 weeks just in Laos and could have done more. My time there was also a long time ago - holy crap, 8 years! But in 2001, my favorite parts of my Laos trip were:

- Boat ride from Nong Khiaw to Phongsali. Stunning karst scenery, way more "authentic" and fun than the standard backpacker slowboat from the Thai border to Luang Prabang. Phongsali is in the mountains and feels like it's at the end of the earth. When I was there, the restaurant across the road from Phongsali Hotel was amazing. Try the stir fried buffalo with tomatoes and garlic.

- The Buddha caves near Luang Prabang are really cool - just caves on the side of the Mekong, full of miniature Buddha statues.

- The Plain of Jars is really weird - rolling plains littered with large (human-sized) stone jars. No one knows for sure how the stone was carried there or what they were used for. Also, you'll see a bunch of craters made by American bombs in the Vietnam War era. Sobering. The jars are near Phonsavanh, which is hard to get to by road, but it's a good adventure. Phonsavanh itself has kind of a dusty, frontier feel to it.

- Luang Prabang is tourist central, but you can see why when you get there. It's really lovely, a great place to experience lots of Lao culture - textiles, temples, food, visual art, music/dance. There are also lots of nice places to stay - old French-era houses turned into inexpensive (by Western standards) hotels. Vientiane is also nice - it's got to be one of the quietest capital cities on earth, but it has charm.

I don't know if I would recommend Laos in the rainy season though. I was there at the beginning of it (May) and it was definitely more disruptive than Thailand's rainy season, mainly because of the mountainous terrain and lack of paved roads. Those roads wash out really easily, which is inconvenient at best and dangerous at worst - I had one 12-hour bus trip turn into 26 hours because the bus kept getting stuck in the mud, but I also saw a few trucks at the bottoms of washed out ravines. Scary! There are better roads on the beaten path, but Laos isn't really about the beaten path, except Luang Prabang.

Still...I'm also jealous.
posted by lunasol at 9:02 PM on June 20, 2009 [2 favorites]

Personally, I preferred Vietnam to both Laos and Cambodia - but it's one or the other, as there's too much to see in just one month.

Laos - Luang Prabang is a nice town, and the 4000 Islands was easily my favourite part of the country. Van Vieng was super touristy, but quite nice, none the less. You can do some rock climbing, and see some nice caves.

Ponsovanh is 5-7 hours out of the way, and frankly the Plain of Jars wasn't really all that impressive. I'd possibly recommend it if it was an hour out of your way, but you lose a lot of time travelling, otherwise.

Vientiane didn't do much for me either, but you may want to stop for a day or two. It's a less interesting Phnom Penh. Pakse was quiet - but you can visit some coffee/tea plantations and see a couple of waterfalls, if you're so inclined. It's slow travelling in Laos, but the scenery, especially between LP and VV is really breathtaking. I talked to a few people who suffered from motion sickness on the winding roads (most of the locals seem to too, judging by the number of sick passengers I saw), but I was fine. You can do a night bus between Vientiane and Pakse (and then from there on to the 4000 islands) - which will save you travelling during the day.

I only went to Phnom Penh and Siem Reap in Cambodia, but I'd say they're both worth seeing. Heard good things about the beaches too.
posted by backwards guitar at 10:25 PM on June 20, 2009

I haven't been to Laos (though I hear it's amazing), but I would recommend adding Vietnam. Surprisingly, Saigon felt far more crowded and uninteresting than Hanoi, which has far more cultural institutions. On the other hand, Saigon gets you closer to the Mekong area, which is quite worth visiting (there are day boat trips up the Delta). Other highlights of my trip, besides the obvious things, included the Cao Dai Temple (off the beaten path for most visitors, but thoroughly beautiful and crazy at the same time) and watching a motorbike packed full of live ducks drive past on the highway.

The Angkor complex outside Siem Reap is a must see, truly a world wonder. Be sure to visit the landmine museum; it's a decent drive away from the city center, but you can get there by tuk-tuk and it's certainly heartbreaking. Make sure to stop in at the Dead Fish Bar for a trip to the bathroom, just look down and to the right as you cross the footbridge inside. I too like traveling at a moderate pace, but I can't imagine staying more than a few days in Siem Reap: by all means take the time to explore the temples, take an elephant ride, etc..., but I don't think it needs to be a particularly long stop.
posted by zachlipton at 11:20 PM on June 20, 2009

I backpacked around SE Asia in 1997. I spent a couple months in China, then four weeks in northern Vietnam and three weeks in Laos. I didn't feel hurried but it wasn't that much time to absorb local culture. I think I enjoyed Laos more than Vietnam, but that might have been because the pace of life there is slower and I was getting pretty worn out from the backpacker lifestyle. Visiting Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam in one month is certainly realistic, but it's a lot to take in at that pace.

I never made it to Cambodia, but everyone I've met who's been to Angkor Wat says it's incredible.
posted by Loudmax at 1:39 AM on June 21, 2009

Response by poster: Great, so Laos and Cambodia it is. Vietnam on my next trip. And I'm going to shoot for March. At worst, April.

Thanks for the suggestions of where to go. That's my next step, planning the itinerary.
posted by hazyspring at 8:01 AM on June 21, 2009

Just a note that April can be busy in Laos and Cambodia. I think it's because of Songkran - people are in Chiang Mai in Mid April for the main festival, and then head to Luang Prabang and south from there. It's not difficult to find a room or anything like that, but you will find yourself running into the same people over and over again most likely (the towns are small, and there aren't that many that tourists go to).

That said, songkran was pretty interesting in Chiang Mai - if you don't mind spending a bit of time in Thailand, you may want to check it out.
posted by backwards guitar at 12:40 PM on June 21, 2009

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