Where to spend 18 days in Southeast Asia
November 7, 2011 12:58 PM   Subscribe

We've got 18 days in Southeast Asia - where should we go?

We will be arriving in Bangkok very early hours of 29/12. We will be leaving from any major city in Southeast Asia on 16/1. I do not want to commit the sin of "too many places."

Right now our plan is 3 days in Bangkok, fly to Siem Reap, 3 days there, fly to Luang Prabang, 3 days there. then we start to lose a clear sense of purpose. Spend 3-4 days travelling up to Muang Khua via Muang Ngoi and Nong Khiau by boat? Then make our way back around to Oudomxay and then to Vietiane and then the last few days on a beach somewhere? Where should we go to the beach?

Or go straight from Luang Prabang and spend 8 days in Vietnam? If we only have 8 days in Vietnam where should we focus our time? Hanoi? Hoi An? Hue? Ho Chi Minh City?

Or should we take a boat up the Mekong into Thailand and check out Chiang Mai or Chiang Rai? (Not too into the elephant thing - we went on Safari in '10 - loved it, but not looking for a repeat yet)

Figure money isn't so big of an issue and neither is flying. This is our first trip to SE Asia. Married, Early 30's. Reasonably seasoned travellers. Like a drink or two, but not looking to "Party"
posted by JPD to Travel & Transportation (16 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Bangkok -> Siem Reap -> Luang Prabang means spending a lot of time in very popular tourist areas, although Luang Prabang is more laid-back than the first two. I would want to balance that with places that are not full of other tourists and the businesses they attract, even if they're not so spectacular as the big draws. Many of my best memories of that part of the world involve empty temples, quiet towns and meeting people who don't do daily business with foreigners.

To answer your questions:

I haven't been to Muang Khua, but Laos is fantastic; I doubt I'll ever visit as chilled a capital city as Vietiane.

A lot of Vietnam is very crowded and I didn't enjoy the cities as much as those of other countries in the region. (Although L’Apothicaire spa in Ho Chi Minh almost made up for the noise and dirt) Were I to return to Vietnam, I'd take another cruise on one of the Bassac boats on the Mekong Delta and get off the beaten track along the coast, possibly doing some cycling.

Chiang Mai is another tourist centre, but it's a lovely city and there are plenty of things to do. I know you're not looking for Elephants, but the Elephant Nature Park was the highlight of two separate visits to Thailand for me.

Another option you might want to look into is wandering around Cambodia. I enjoyed chilling out at the Vine Retreat (though some might feel there's not enough to do there) and looking past the mess in Kep to see the history behind it.

Of course, this is all very personal. Others might hate what I love and vice versa.

(Oh, and you didn't ask, but I can't recommend Veboul Oung highly enough as a driver in Siem Reap. Friendly, helpful, honest, cheap. He used to have his own website, but it seems to have vanished.)
posted by Busy Old Fool at 1:43 PM on November 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

Halong Bay is kinda touristy by now, I expect (it's been a long time since I was there), but even so it's pretty goddamn scenic and is easily combined with Hanoi.
posted by aramaic at 1:45 PM on November 7, 2011

In Siem Reap, get a guide and a driver and consider going to some of the more far-flung sites. Normally I'm more of a DIY kind of traveler, preferring to wander and explore and suss things out on my own, but Siem Reap is worth making an exception. With a car you can cover more ground more quickly, and get to some of the more remote places more easily, and a good guide knows so much about the sites, it's really worth it. Angkor Wat is always full of people, but we made the trip to Beng Melea and were the only westerners there, with maybe a dozen other people there total during our visit. It's a chance for a completely different kind of temple experience. Beng Melea is also where Tomb Raider was filmed, so you can imagine Angelina Jolie running around doing stunts while you are there.

You don't mention it in your question, but on the off-chance that you SCUBA dive, there is fantastic diving in Indonesia that is well worth the trip. Bunaken, Lombok, Raja Ampat. It's extraordinary, so I'm throwing it out there.
posted by ambrosia at 2:01 PM on November 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: No diving, my wife can't clear her ears.

Def getting a guide at Angkor - that's the feedback I've gotten from everyone who has been, also to check out the outlying sites.

The Bassac boats + biking sounds great - is there an outfitter you'd rec for the biking?
posted by JPD at 2:03 PM on November 7, 2011

Just weighing in, but L’Apothicaire spa, though very lovely indeed, gave both my girlfriend and I *terrible* food poisoning. Should you end up in Saigon, I would go somewhere else...

If you have 8 days in Vietnam, you should make the choice to go north, or south. If you choose south you can make Saigon a base, there is plenty to do around there and there's even time to fit in a trip to the Mekong delta or Phu Quoc island for a more resorty experience.

Hoi An is very pretty but it's tres touristy and 8 days there would be a really long time, even factoring in day trips to Danang, and the marble mountains, Hue etc.

If you go North, Hanoi makes a good base. Frankly, I would skip Ha Long Bay - it's pretty but for a world heritage area almost mind-blowingly polluted and crazy busy. Also, Ha Long City is a wretched den of scum and villainy. Great if you're looking for "massages", not great for anything else.

Instead, take the overnight train to Lao Cai and then bus up to Sapa. It was the highlight of our 4 week trip, no doubt about it. Stunningly beautiful mountainscapes and terraced hills, amazing hill tribes, just great. We did have a guide, which I think made a significant difference. Don't be afraid to engage a guide or go on a tour for parts of your trip, they can add a lot of value by way of information etc. If you end up in the highlands, either up north or around Dalat, there are numerous motorcycle tour companies that are pretty cool by all accounts.

Enjoy yourself whereever you end up - I'm very jealous!
posted by smoke at 2:05 PM on November 7, 2011

Glad you're going to more outlying spots in Siem Reap, one of the highlights of my time in SE Asia.

I don't have any more suggestions other than nthing checking out the chiang mai elephant park. Chiang Mai on the whole was a big tourist center in my experience as a westerner visiting there, and while I prefer more off the beaten path trips, it was really fun for short, fast paced vacation. Also, you said you've been on Safari, and to me that means savanah with wild African Elephants as opposed to the jungle with the friendly Asian Elephants that you can ride, feed, etc. I'm not really an animal person but being so close to something so magnificent was really a memorable time, for me. Of course, there are also Elephant rides in Siem Reap when I was there.
posted by midmarch snowman at 2:32 PM on November 7, 2011

Seconding smoke's recommendation to choose either Hà Nội or Hồ Chí Minh City as your base in Việt Nam. Eight days is not nearly enough time to visit both.

Sa Pa is definitely worth seeing. I feel I should correct smoke on Ha Long, however I stayed east of the bridge, away from the tourist area, so while his statement may be accurate I didn't experience any of that. Though he is correct that you're only going there to see the rock formations and caves, and unless that especially interests you, your time could be better utilized elsewhere. The temperature will be in the 60's in January there (you'll be on the water), and plus it's a 3.5-4.5 hour drive from Hà Nội depending on how crazy your driver is. Đà Lạt is great, but it's temperature is going to feel chilly in January (of course, Sa Pa is going to be cold as well). I was just there 2 weeks ago and already the locals were in heavy jackets, especially true at night and early in the morning.

Since you're interested in beaches, and do mention the Mekong Delta already, staying in the south might be your best bet. Head to Nha Trang, or Đà Nẵng, if you want to spend some time on a beach. Read this comment for some ideas about the Mekong Delta, and Monkey Mountain (near Đà Nẵng). Regardless of where you visit in Việt Nam, you really can't go wrong.
posted by trueluk at 2:57 PM on November 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

I liked Vietnam. Hoi An (alright beach), Sapa, and Hanoi (and Ha Long Bay) were nice.

The Four Thousand Islands area of Laos was nice.

Vientiane didn't do a lot for me. I'd go rock climbing in Van Vieng instead (the drive from LP is long, but the countryside is amazing).
posted by backwards guitar at 4:50 PM on November 7, 2011

Just got back from two weeks in Thailand and John Gray's Hong by Starlight was the absolute highlight of the trip - visiting completely enclosed lagoons only accessible by kayaks through sea caves. Spectacular.
posted by zanni at 5:25 PM on November 7, 2011

If you're not looking to party, I'd recommend avoiding Vang Vieng like the plague - it's a backpacker's mecca, with people floating down the river in rubber tubes from one bar to another, getting drunk as skunks. Amplified music from all the bars destroys the serenity of the area, even though the landscape is beautiful & you can get away from that scene, unfortunately the scene is where you'd have to spend your nights.

I quite enjoyed the relatively tourist-free towns downstream from Vientiane, like Savannhakhet (spelling?), which can fit what Busy Old Fool was recommending about "places that are not full of other tourists and the businesses they attract, even if they're not so spectacular as the big draws."

If it were my choice, I'd probably spend the final 8-9 days just bumming around those kinds of places in Laos, rather than trying to fit in another country. As a general rule of thumb, the coolness of the people & the hassle-freeness of the travel is on a continuum as you head eastwards from Burma - Laos - Cambodia - Vietnam, with Burma the most laid back & Vietnam the most aggressive. Your mileage may vary, of course.
posted by UbuRoivas at 5:29 PM on November 7, 2011

Sounds like a perfect time to check out something like "The Gibbon Experience," which is basically 3 days of ziplining from treehouse to treehouse high above the Laotian jungle. It's incredible, not touristy, and worth every penny. (Despite the name, you're unlikely to actually see any gibbons -- it's more like you're the gibbon.) Pictures here.
posted by danceswithlight at 7:40 PM on November 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

I didn't do The Gibbon Experience that danceswithlight mentioned, but I heard amazing things about it.
posted by backwards guitar at 7:48 PM on November 7, 2011

I agree that BKK/SR/LP is a good busy first half and after that you should take it easy. I think it's less stressful in Laos, so chilling in Vang Vien is nice, or heading back to the coast in Thailand. I'd skip Vietnam if you're only there for 18 days, too much of a gong-show circuit.
posted by furtive at 8:53 PM on November 7, 2011

I loved Chaing Mai. It's a fairly small city and easy to navigate around, though I didn't spend much time in the actual town. I did an elephant ride and wasn't impressed but I was very impressed with the trekking. You can spend pretty much as long as you want wandering around the jungle (with a guide, of course). No hard climbing, just mild hiking, though you are walking for hours and hours each day. You can visit and sometimes stay with the mountain tribes like the Karen. It was lovely and a great way to de-Bangkok. There are several Thai food cooking schools you can go to, and I spent a day in the city at one of these, it was a lot of fun.

Vietnam has gorgeous land, and Hanoi is really beautiful--plenty to do there and in the outskirts. When I went there about a decade ago, though, the touts in Vietnam were extremely aggressive, sometimes to the point of absurdity and a few times to the point of anger and frustration. Be prepared to say "no" a lot, firmly and politely.
posted by zardoz at 9:46 PM on November 7, 2011

The Bassac boats + biking sounds great - is there an outfitter you'd rec for the biking?

Sorry, there isn't. To make my comment clear, I took a trip on one of the Bassacs and it was excellent (vastly superior to a homestay tour which I also took from Cần Thơ, although much pricier too). I didn't do any cycling, but heard about bicycle tours and checked out the terrain and roads from the train, which to my (fairly cycle-tour experienced) eyes looked great. If I was returning to Vietnam, I would definitely look into renting a bike.

I have also heard that Vang Vieng is only suitable for the young, hard-partying crowd.

I did an elephant ride and wasn't impressed

If this was in response to my comment, I was not suggesting elephant rides or attractions in general around Chiang Mai, but one specific elephant sanctuary which doesn't do elephant rides, elephant football or elephant painting. I've taken elephant rides and, even with operators who treated the animals well, there was no comparison with the above park. They take in maltreated and injured elephants and look after them within an 800-hectare sanctuary. Visitors are able to help with feeding and bathing the elephants, which are (except in particular circumstances, such as estrus) not chained. I'm trying not to go on about it too much, but I've spent a lot of time holidaying in SE Asia and it was easily one of the top 3 attractions I visited.

You can visit and sometimes stay with the mountain tribes like the Karen.

Probably obvious advice, but if you do this, choose your operator carefully. There are a lot of 'meet/stay with tribal people' tours in northern Thailand which are exploitative and disrespectful.
posted by Busy Old Fool at 2:10 AM on November 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

I love Vietnam, but I think you're doing too many countries. Laos, Cambodia and a bit of Thailand will be more than enough for 18 days.
posted by cyndigo at 5:53 PM on November 8, 2011

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