Be my tour guide guide, please!
March 21, 2011 1:20 PM   Subscribe

Help me find the laid-back path to Laos & Cambodia around Songkrang!

Hi Mefites! I could use some help planning my SE Asia itinerary. I'll have 5 weeks in Laos, Cambodia, and Thailand, starting next week. I fly into Bangkok first, and would like to spend 2 weeks in Laos & Cambodia, go back to Bangkok for Songkran (sometime around April 12 - 17) to visit friends, and then end my trip somewhere in Southern Thailand for yoga/cooking classes/chilling out.

My goal is to have a laidback trip and am happy to let someone else plan my SEAsia itinerary. I've always always planned my own itinerary and logistics in the past, but this time around want to see a country through the eyes of an expert, use some free time for reading/studying (maybe 2 hours a day), and don't want to hoof it alone as a single female traveler.

I've read through a lot of the threads already here, and have a few questions:

1. I'm having trouble finding packages online, especially before Songkrang - any input on how to do this? I'm sure there's a correlation to availability and Songkrang, but I would prefer to visit Laos/Cambodia before my Thailand plans, and I'm hoping Mefites may be able to help me here!
2. Corollary: Is it better/feasible to do Laos and Cambodia before or after Songkrang? Will it be pretty impossible to get back to Bangkok once the festivities start? My friend in Bangkok had advised me already that it's busy, but would like to hear if anyone has any firsthand experience.
3. I would like to hear about any tour experiences (Gap Adventures, other tour packages) as to whether they were worth the cost and if they were fun. In particular, does anyone have experience with Lonely Planet World Expeditions? This cycling/adventure tour sounds interesting, and I especially like that there's 2 - 3 days in Siem Reap, so I can spend time exploring Angkor Wat and other sites. Especially interested in tours that are active, with people btw 21 - 40. Any input on the routing/tour itinerary would be appreciated.
4. Is Phnom Penh a must see? I don't know if I should choose a tour that covers that city as well, or if it's easy enough to get around in Phnom Penh without a guide.

Any other tips on must-see sights in Laos & Cambodia would be appreciated!
posted by hampanda to Travel & Transportation around Laos (7 answers total)
Best answer: Well, for starters, you want to be in Chiang Mai and not Bangkok for Songkran if you can help it. I'm sure Bangkok is nice and all, but Chiang Mai seems to be the place to be. It's surrounded by a moat, and it's a water festival. It was a great experience.

I did it the opposite way you're planning - I celebrated Songkran in Chiang Mai (it was busy, but I was able to find a room pretty easily. Things like cooking classes were a lot busier than normal, but still available) then took the slow boat from Chiang Rai to Luang Prubang (two day trip - you stop in a small town half way for rest). There definitely seemed to be a pilgrimage of backpackers following the route I took from Chiang Mai to Laos and eventually Cambodia. I kept running into the same people again and again in different cities. I'm not sure this is a negative. The slowboat was definitely crowded.

Phnom Penh interested me more than Bangkok, but I'm not sure it's really must see. Siem Reap definitely is. The Four Thousand Island region of Laos (on the Cambodian border) was really nice, but probably more so if you can spend a few days doing nothing. Great sunsets. In Laos, I really liked Luang Prabang. I did some rock climbing in Van Vieng - super touristy, but very nice surroundings. Wasn't a fan of Vientiane at all. I wouldn't bother with Phonsavan (the Plain of Jars) either.

The scenery on the drive between Luang Prabang and Van Vieng is breathtaking, but the drivers are insane.

There was a question within the last two weeks about tour experiences in Thailand. I think it was geared toward older people, but you might find it useful.
posted by backwards guitar at 2:27 PM on March 21, 2011

Response by poster: Thanks, backwards guitar. I hadn't considered a boat option, so will look into that. With friends and family in Thailand, I think I'm pretty well covered there. Any additional input on Cambodia/Laos guided tours is appreciated!
posted by hampanda at 2:44 PM on March 21, 2011

Best answer: I'll no doubt sound like a real kill-joy here, but if I were in your position I'd avoid Songkran. The idea of a water festival during the hottest season is better in theory, imo, than practise. Although I've only seen Songkran in Bangkok, it might be a different experience elsewhere.

Also I'd disagree with your friends/family in Bangkok. It won't be busier there, it'll be quieter during Songkran, a lot of Thais will go home for a few days to toss water at their friends/family. For instance there won't be so much street food to choose from (though still some) and some independent businesses (market stalls, bars, massage shops etc.) will be closed as well.

In Bangkok for about 4 days there'll be groups of (by 2pm) drunk people on a lot of the streets crowded around barrels of water with handfuls of talcum powder tossing both over everyone they can (even motorcyclists & through bus windows).

One practical note: during Songkran remember to put your mobile phone/paper money/valuables in a sealable plastic bag every time you step outside.
posted by selton at 3:03 PM on March 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I just got back from Cambodia and Vietnam. Two Christmases ago I went to Laos.

Cambodia and Laos are by far my favorite countries in SE Asia. As for the holiday, I'd mention that for Vietnamese New Year (which is the same as the Chinese/Korean one) it's absolutely the worst time to travel in that country. Everything is closed, basically, and the locals all head to grandma's house in the countryside for a family gathering. I'm not as familiar with Songkran, but if it's anything like the New Year's celebrations in the rest of Asia, it's not a great time to go there. Then again, if you have friends to stay with that sounds OK.

Siem Reap is great. I flew there directly and the same guy who picked me up at the airport on his Tuk-tuk became my tour guide to Angkor Wat for the next day. He wanted 15 USD, I paid 20. (As in Laos, you really don't need to change USD into the local currency but you do want to make sure you have lots of small bills. Whenever you have to break anything bigger than a 10 you'll probably get ripped off unless you do it at a bank.) All the hotels rent bicycles and scooters as well, so it's easy enough to go do your own thing if you want.

I loved Phnom Penh. It's easy and cheap to take a bus from Siem Reap that way, or vice versa. You've got tourist stuff like the Royal Palace, but it's a nice city for walking along the rivers as well (Tonle Sap and Mekong). Have a drink at the "F" (Foreign Correspondents' Club) and watch the sunset. Really great. You shouldn't miss Tuol Sleng prison, in the southern part of the city, and for about 10 bucks you can get a driver to take you out to Cheng Ek ("The Killings Fields) and take you back into town as well.

As for Laos, I thought Luang Prabang was great (everybody does). I did a few day-trips out of the town -- one to a waterfall and animal preserve, another to a Hmong village. There are travel agents on every street who can set these things up for you no problem. Vientiane was OK, but not too exciting. It is cheap though (cheaper than LP), so it's not a bad place to hang out and do some reading at one of the many cafes. I didn't make it to the Plain of Jars, although I wanted to. My friends couldn't say enough good things about Van Vieng, but it sounded far too tourist and frankly, annoying for my taste (lots of white kids on dope).

Both countries are very foreigner-friendly. Tourism is the major industry for both now, so even if you don't plan things out too far ahead you'll do fine. Use or expedia to make hotel reservations in advance, and the rest is pretty easy. Most hotels will even book trips and buses for you, so you don't even need to find a travel agent (and if you do, they're everywhere).

Have fun!
posted by bardic at 9:00 PM on March 21, 2011

Response by poster: Thanks everyone, this is awesome! Lots of great tips here. selton and bardic - thanks for the advice on Songkran. I'll be with family and friends so should be fun, nonetheless. Based on your advice, I'll save Laos & Cambodia for my post-Songkran experience. I may do the slow boat to Luang Prabang as backwards guitar recommended, check out some other sites, still go for the cycling tour (bonus exercise while on vacation), and striking out on my own afterwards in Phnom Penh. Umm, marking every answer as best as each one helped with my super-long question.
posted by hampanda at 1:42 AM on March 22, 2011

Just as a follow-up - I'm not sure I am recommending the slow boat, but it is one option. The seats aren't exactly comfortable, but you can buy padded cushions in Chiang Rai. You'll need to pack a lunch, and it takes two days (which is a fair bit of time on a five week trip). It is also hot, and (in my case) fairly crowded and there really isn't too much to see.

That said, it was a good experience, cheap, and I met a few interesting people. I'd probably do it again, unless I could find a very cheap flight.

Just didn't want you cursing me out 5 hours into the second day of the trip.

Have fun.
posted by backwards guitar at 5:22 AM on March 22, 2011

On a similar note, the bus from Luang Prabang to Vientiane (or vice versa) is really long and a bit treacherous. It will also take a whole day, so if you have the cash I'd recommend booking a flight. There is some amazing scenery, but it's probably not worth 12 hours on a hot bus. (Maybe longer if there's an accident or a flat.)
posted by bardic at 8:22 PM on March 22, 2011

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