Help me plan a 3 month trip to Southeast Asia: Thailand,Laos,Vietnam,Cambodia, and Malaysia
December 30, 2012 12:44 AM   Subscribe

I will be backpacking in Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Malaysia, so any tips and advice would be greatly appreciated.

Plan - I plan to travel from around end of Feb or Early March until June-July.
I want this trip to be full of relaxation, sight seeing, self exploration, and most likely not as much technology/partying.

Budget - My budget is going to be 5000$ Canadian dollars. I want to try many things such as cooking classes, yoga, meditation, art classes, beach relaxation, ride elephants, see animals, TREKS; essentially experience as much Asian culture as I can w/ the least amount of exposure to the typical partying and etc.

I will first be going to Taiwan to visit my family for a week or two before I depart.

With that being said, my friend recommended my first stop at Thailand and to make a few backpacker friends and hopefully plan a trip with them that way.

Route - Do you guys think it's necessary? or would it make more sense to arrive at North Vietnam? Based on the geography, I think it might make more sense to start at North Vietnam then make my way down South, then Cambodia, then Laos, then North Thailand, then South Thailand to Malaysia Singapore, then crossover to Brunei.

To me, 3-4 months seem to short and I am afraid of running out of money, so I feel like maybe Malaysia might be a little too much? Thoughts?

Transportation - Since I am backpacking, I don't have a STRICT itinerary, but I do want to experience the culture and live at these places more than spending a majority of my time moving around. So would the scenery from buses and cars be worth it?

Experience - I am aware that mileage may vary, but what are some highlights of your trips and what are some places or sites that you think wasn't worth the commute because of the sights or food etc.

From what I have read so far, Plain of Jars in Laos wasn't really THAT worth it. And Cambodia's Angkor Wat was the best attraction, but anything else could be easily replaced by Thailand.

Aside from that, I hear a lot of great reviews about Laos and Vietnam.

Based on what I've read so far, these are the things I've found interesting:

Vietnam - Halong Bay, Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh, hoi an, Sapa (rice fields), mui ne (sand dunes for sand boarding and beaches), Phong Na-Ke Bang park (limestone stights), hue (citadel).

Cambodia - Angkor Wat, Phnom PEnh, mondulkiri (elephant trekking), Koh Rong Islands (beach), Kampot, Kratie, Battambang,

Laos - Luang Prabang, Tham Kong Lo Cave, Gibbon Experience, Nam Ha Park, Nam Ou River, Si Phan Don.

Thailand - Bangkok, Ko Tao (diving), Mae Hong Song (experience Myanmar influence),ayutthaya, surin and similan islands, SongKran, Full moon Party, Ko Samui, Chiang Rai, Hua Hin, Chiang Mai, khao sok, phetchaburi, kanchanaburi, phanom rung, Ko samet.

Malaysia - Mt Kinabalu, Taman Negara, Palau Perhentian (snorkelling), beach hopping, food markets!!

A lot of these are highlighted in Lonely Planet and also quite well reviewed on tripadvisor, I was just wondering what you MeFites think as well as what other suggestions do you have that are off the beaten path?
posted by Trinergy to Travel & Transportation (9 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
I recently did Bangkok and Cambodia, but not the others, so my advice is kind of limited. All the same, here it is:

When we were in Cambodia, we started in Battambang, which is a super cool little town. There's a restaurant there called "Smoking Pot" that does daily cooking classes, and I highly recommend them. Go to the restaurant and sign up directly, don't do it through your hotel unless you want to spend more money. In Cambodia (and probably in all the other places except Bangkok, but hopefully someone else will have first-hand experience) you can rent a tuk-tuk for the day (which, again, you can just ask anyone and negotiate a price, you don't have to do it through your hotel) to take you around to the touristy sites. We did this in Battambang, and for like 12 bucks we went out all day and saw a couple old temples, the killing caves, the bamboo train stop (we didn't ride it, and I think we made the right call there, but YMMV), and at the fall of evening a cave where tens, maybe hundreds, of thousands of bats come pouring out forming a living river in the sky. Do that.

From there we took the riverboat to Siem Reap (the city near Angkor Wat) which is also great. The riverboat will pick you up right in Battambang, but it drops you off kind of far from Siem Reap, so you'll need a tuk-tuk there, too. Which you can get for a dollar, or just call the hotel you want to stay at before you leave and they'll have someone waiting. We actually ended up snagging one of those even though we hadn't called that hotel, because we'd made friends with a couple who were going to stay there and it sounded like a good enough place. It doesn't matter too much where you stay; Siem Reap is bigger than Battambang but still not terribly big. We ended up at a place in a little alley on the north side of town, so not near Bar Street (which is like a frat row), and that suited us. And put us nearer Angkor Wat, which was handy since we decided to bike there two of our three days. Bike rental is about a dollar a day for a cheap one-speed, and if you're up for it, it's a really nice way to see the closer temples. If you go that route, I'd suggest a written guide of some sort. We got a small architectural guide for my Kindle that was ok, but not very comprehensive so I'm not really moved to post a link for you here. If you're really interested though, you can MeMail me. As for the temples themselves, Angkor Wat is cool, but don't spend all your time there, there's a LOT more. Explore. Angkor Thom is fantastic. So is Banteay Srei, definitely definitely go there - you may not want to bike though, or if you do get a good bike, it's about 40km north of Angkor Thom. Oh, also when you go up that road you'll see the Landmine Museum, which is not an official government-sponsored museum, just the thoughts and collections of a dude who spent a lot of his childhood laying mines and all of his adulthood clearing them. We didn't end up going to that, but unlike the bamboo train, in retrospect I think we made the wrong call there. One random thing we did was see Beatocello, an act by this guy who plays his cello to raise money for his children's hospitals. My feelings about his aid philosophy are mixed, and an awful lot of the "concert" was actually asking for money, but you don't HAVE to give much (or anything), and my girlfriend who majored in cello said the guy was a legit professional musician. (I mean, I liked the music too.)

I've heard eastern Cambodia is the best place to go to really see Khmer culture, there's almost no tourism in that part of the country. We didn't have the time to do that, though.

Be aware that in Cambodia you'll need American dollars. The exchange rate of riel to dollars is around 4000 to 1, so generally people use dollars, with riel as equivalent to quarters when you need smaller change.

In Thailand, one thing we noticed was that for public transport, there's usually a tourist-y version selling tickets right alongside the non-tourist-y version, and everyone goes out of their way to make it unclear which is which. You want the non-tourist; tourist transport is more expensive without any added value, plus if you use it to get to a border they may very well stop somewhere to try to sell you visa assistance you don't need (that scam may be exclusively at the Cambodia border, though, and since you're going the other direction you're probably fine). This applies equally to buses and to water transport, so make friends with someone local and ask them to explain to you how they would go somewhere. In Bangkok itself, there are only two rail lines, but they're really all you need. We were told that there it is *not* a good idea to get a taxi/tuk-tuk to take you around, because they'll only take you to places where they know the vendors. That's fine, you don't need them. When you get a Thai massage (get. a. Thai. massage.), try to find a massage school in a temple - very cheap, and you know you aren't anywhere shady. Oh, and I definitely recommend doing a fish spa, it's a little creepy and a lot weird but really fun. Full disclosure: if my girlfriend were reading this over my shoulder, she would make me delete that recommendation, she didn't care for it.

We didn't get to see the Jade Buddha in the royal palace because it turns out they close early on Saturdays. Don't make our mistake! Speaking of that part of town, the temple with the Reclining Buddha was, you can (we did) spend hours there. Also, almost right outside of it there's an amulet market, and people take amulet collection really seriously; you'll see people out there with jeweler's loupes and everything. We were worried it meant there were forgeries, but a friend who lived there for years assured us that no, it's just that different amulets come from different places and represent different people/things and were made on different days, and people collect them the way some folks in America collect stamps or coins; there are even magazines devoted to the topic. So don't be afraid to wade in and buy something that looks cool - and many of them are SUPER cheap. Of course, ideally you'll find someone to translate them for you.

Oh, and this may be obvious, but you should eat the street food. Someone selling something out of a cart? It's going to be delicious. Little non-tourist open-air restaurant that just has noodles and chicken? It's going to be delicious. Well, 99 times out of a hundred, anyway (we did one time get something that turned out to taste like pure fermented fish paste, that was not great).

Re: budget, I think you're really fine, as long as you shop carefully for flights, that's the only big expense. Lodging will be cheap, especially if your friend's advice works out and you find a roommate, but you're looking at around $25/night in Bangkok, and $5/night almost everywhere else. Street food you can eat for $2-$5 per meal. Even diving shouldn't be too expensive.

Re: transportation, what is your question exactly? Do you mean buses as opposed to flying? I say buses, you'll hardly lose any time once you factor in more fixed flight schedules, getting to the airport early to go through security, worrying about connections, etc. I don't know that I'd ever ride a bus for the scenery, though; it's much easier to sleep through the bus ride when you can.

Oh, and a final thought: no I don't personally think you need to re-arrange your itinerary just to start in Bangkok to meet other backpackers. You'll see them everywhere; in fact, it might be harder in Bangkok than other places because it's such a big city. I'm sure it has a lot more tourists than many of the other places we visited, but we saw a lot less of them when we wandered around because of its size (and a lot of those we did see were really obviously sex tourists, which, ew).
posted by solotoro at 3:00 AM on December 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

Oh goodness! I nearly forgot: you can arrange lodging pretty much everywhere in advance via AirBnB, and you'll find some great deals. You can also just show up and find stuff, and you'll be fine, but if you like knowing you have a bed before you get there, AirBnB is the way to go.
posted by solotoro at 3:06 AM on December 30, 2012

I've been to many of the places you listed [*], so here are some quick comments which wasn't covered by solotoro.

Your budget should be fine, it is more than enough for what I consider "high end backpacker" lodging and travel, i.e. air-condition and hot and cold water in the shower.

South-East Asia is not really that large, so going by bus and train is no problem, I used to go a lot by night-bus (bring earplugs), that way you don't lose a day on travel, and the cost of the bus is about the same as a night in a backpacker lodge. It is also a good way of meeting people, even if most of them will be other backpackers. It can be really cheap to fly, there are low-cost airlines such as AirAsia where you can get really good deal on distances such as Bangkok-Hanoi. For Thailand and parts of Vietnam (and Malaysia) the trains can be a really good alternative as well.

I would recommend bring a cheap unlocked GSM Android phone, you can pick up a SIM card in any kiosk, that way you can check your email on the way, and you can call the place you're staying if the tuk-tuk driver can't (or won't) find the place you're staying. Also, you can cache maps and locations with Google Maps, which makes navigating a foreign city a lot easier. (I usually booked a day ahead at most, using recommendations and phone numbers from web sites such as

The biggest problem I see with your plans is that the places you've listed will have a lot of other tourists and backpackers. Most of the places are what you might consider tourist-traps, what you'll see is "adapted to tourism culture", where most of the local people make their living from the tourists in various ways. With everything adapted to tourists it is of course really easy to travel - there will be lots of competing bus companies, lots of places to stay and lots of restaurants catering to tourists. Your budget is large enough that I would recommend going off the beaten track a bit. Perhaps something like Thailand - Myanmar - Nepal, back to Thailand then Cambodia and maybe Laos? Myanmar is really quite excellent, you can walk around for hours even in one of the big cities without seeing a single backpacker or tourist. It might be a bit complicated (ok, next to impossible) to go from Myanmar to Nepal by land, but that way you can have a real adventure.

From your list:
Vietnam: Halong Bay is a cheap day trip from Hanoi. Hanoi it self can be missed, same with Ho Chi Minh really. Hoi-An is nice, but only tourists and tailors (hire a bicycle and go out of the city -I was invited to a funeral there, lots of fun). Hue was also nice, but touristy.
Cambodia: Angkor Wat is well worth going, but consider it a huge outdoor museum. Some of the best ruins in the world thought. Phnom Penh is a nice enough city. Kampot is not very interesting, but a place you switch buses (as far as I recall). Oh, and Sikuthvile is a good place to get a visa for Vietnam, at least when I went there.
Laos: I would recommend the islands in the part of the Mekong delta close to Cambodia - those were really relaxing. (I've been to some of the other places in your list, but they didn't really register. Lots of early-20-something people go there for cheap drugs and parties.)
Thailand: Bangkok is really nice. Ko Tao is a very good place for diving, but stay on the other side of the island from the main pier - the water is not so shallow there. Oh, and the island is 90% tourists, all you can do is dive and have a massage (or a massage training course). Most of the islands are much the same, Ko Tao is the most quiet one. Northern Thailand is nice, but oh so many backpackers and package travel tourists..
Malaysia: Taman Negara is ok, but it is just a big rain forest - you can go to similar places in Thailand if you want.

Oh, and bring DEET from the US, it really works better than what you can buy locally.

*:In 2007 I went Nepal - Thailand - Malaysia - Singapore, 2008 was Thailand - Laos - Cambodia - Vietnam, and 2012 I went Thailand - Myanmar. Well, that was the SE-Asia part of the trips anyway.
posted by Baron Humbert von Gikkingen at 6:28 AM on December 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

The Elephant Nature Park sanctuary and rehabilitation centre was by far the highlight of my trip to Thailand. I'd recommend at least a full day there. It's a really well-run centre and you'll be able to help feed and bathe the elephants.

I'm a water girl, so I thought I'd want to spend a lot more time around the islands, but I found them to be too touristy and not very relaxing. I really enjoyed my time up north. Pai is well worth a visit - it's a laid back, hippy town and it's a great place to explore around on a scooter (you can get insurance and the roads are quite empty).

I think you've got a great plan for your itinerary. Definitely be open to veering off your schedule though - in my experience, the best travel memories are always a result of being open and willing to change plans at the drop of a hat.
posted by Pademelon at 7:34 AM on December 30, 2012 [2 favorites]

I also loved the Elephant Nature Park when my husband and I went on our honeymoon in Thailand. I'd also highly, highly recommend Joy's Guesthouse in Chiang Mai for at least one night. It's about $50-60 a night which may cost more than your average hostel, but our time there was so fundamental as to why we loved Chiang Mai so much. The place itself is gorgeous, with bungalows arranged around an open-air kitchen and commons spaces. They can arrange for cooking classes with the owners' small, ancient grandmother who takes you to the market and teaches you how to buy the best produce and meat. They're also affiliated with a lovely orphanage outside the city that take care of hill tribe kids (Hmong, Akha, Karen) whose parents were killed (mainly in drug trades) or too indigent to care for them. I know an orphanage sounds depressing, but it's not - the kids and their caretakers work on a beautiful organic farm, learn English from the visitors and volunteers (a major advantage in Thailand's tourist economy), and play badminton after their homework is done. You spend the whole day with the kids when you visit, mainly hiking, cooking food the kids harvested themselves, and playing games. It's surprisingly idyllic for an orphanage, honestly, and was a huge highlight of our trip.
posted by zoomorphic at 7:49 AM on December 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

You'll meet traveller's all over the place in SA. I kept running into the same people over and over again. I wouldn't worry too much about meeting people. I'm pretty introverted, and met tons of folks.

I personally like to travel at night if I can - but if you don't sleep on buses, you may as well be up and able to see the country as you drive through it.

3-4 months really isn't too bad for that area, but it probably wouldn't hurt to keep Malaysia as a "if there's time" alternative. Do keep in mind that one beach/temple/waterfall/market really isn't all that different from the next beach/temple/waterfall/market. So while you may have a strong desire to see temples all over the place - you may be sick of them after a while. That's why I liked festivals like songkran - they were unique and memorable. Although I was tired of being soaked with water when I left my hostel by about day three.

I'd try and be conscientious about the elephant trekking - make sure they're treated well!

Your list looks pretty good, but here are just a couple of notes based on my experience:


Songkran in Chiang Mai is worth checking out, if you can swing it (mid April, I think). Lots of cooking classes in CM too, and a main base for treks.

I really liked Krabi / Railay - good for rock climbing, but you can do this in Laos too - Van Vieng being one of the more popular places.

Did a nice evening boat tour of the various wats in Ayutthaya - recommended.


Yes, skip the plain of jars. Way out of the way, not much of a destination.

Harrowing but beautiful is how I'd describe the drive between Luang Prabang and Van Vieng (recommended for rock climbing, otherwise it's youngish travellers watching Friends and Family Guy in restaurants - which is an interesting experience, but not a necessary one). You drive through mountains with some beautiful jungle surrounding you.

The 4000 Islands area (south, on Cambodia border) is quite nice. Very laid back.

There are some falls near LP that were quite nice - but I can't recall the name. We swam at the top - quite nice.

Friends who live in SA and have travelled extensively there raved about the Gibbon experience


Hue Citadel is alright, but this is probably skippable. I ended up checking it out because I was waiting for a bus to Hoi An (nice beach - lots of clothing makers), but it wasn't a trip highlight.
posted by backwards guitar at 5:00 PM on December 30, 2012

I've been to all of these places except for Malaysia.

My favorite was Laos (Luang Prabang, and even Vientienne is worth spending a couple of days in but skip Van Vieng) but you have to see Angkor Wat as well. I thought a day was enough, but lots of people will tell you you need at least three. Phnom Penh was kind of special and strange, IMO. Get a drink or dinner at the FCC (Foreign Correspondents' Club).

Vietnam was a mixed bag for me. I loved the south and HCM, really really loved Hue (my favorite part of Viet Nam) and also Hoi An. As mentioned, it's a touristy beach town but hey, I was in the mood to lay on the beach for a few days. As I got further north the weather turned sort of grey and depressing, and honestly Hanoi is a pretty ugly city. Halong Bay is supposed to be great, but literally the day before I got there a boat went down and ten or so tourists drowned.

Thailand is OK (I'd go back to Laos or Cambodia before I'd go back to Thailand). It's going to be more expensive in general than the other countries you listed except for Malaysia. I did Ko Samui and Ko Phang Gang, lots of tourists, but I don't really get the need for a "pure" experience in any of these places. Get out of Bangkok as soon as you can because it's awful.

Also, it's SE Asia. You will be backpacking and see many backpackers. Period.

I guess my only piece of advice is that in Laos and Cambodia you'll be using US dollars. It's probably cheaper for you to buy them before you come to SEA, so try and figure out how many you'll need. Also, try and bring small bills (lots of ones, preferably) because if you want to buy a bottle of water they'll ask you for one dollar and if you only have a five they won't make change for you. In Vietnam and Thailand you'll use local currency.
posted by bardic at 1:33 AM on December 31, 2012

Response by poster: THANK YOU ALL for the great responses.

Based on your suggestions, I have decided to just pick one or two places of each destination and just play the rest by ear. I will most likely want the experience to be more relaxing and flexible than strict anyway.

I have always thought about Nepal and Myanmar, but I am just not too sure of how I'd approach them or include them in the itinerary.

I heard Myanmar was expensive and also quite hard to get into and from what I've read on the travel advisory board of Canada, their current political status is quite unstable with lots of civil unrest and banditry, so I think it might be too risky.

Nepal isn't that hard (always wanted to do everest base camp trek) and I've always wanted to see the architecture and art. But I am afraid that I might not have enough time in 3 months to be able to include them. I guess what it comes down to is that if I don't enjoy other places as much, it might increase my budget and also increase my time so I might be able to make time for them?

I am only worried about me being squeamish to bugs or w/e since they'll be much bigger compared to the ones I usually deal with in the city. Either way, I think I should be able to adjust so long as they aren't poisonous. I guess another thing I am worried about is just safety, in terms of reputable tourist agencies and treks, like if problems do happen, I know that they can take care of it. Do you guys have any recommended tour guides/groups or trips/treks?
posted by Trinergy at 3:10 PM on January 2, 2013

If you're considering Nepal, then consider China too. Yangshuo is amazing, but a bit out of the way, but Dali, Lijiang and Tiger Leaping Gorge are close together, and worth seeing.
posted by backwards guitar at 8:09 PM on January 2, 2013

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