SE Asia Tips for Solo Lady?
October 13, 2013 1:19 PM   Subscribe

I'm a solo female traveler with 3 weeks free in Dec/Jan. Thinking of checking out SE Asia - maybe Laos + Cambodia. Do you have other suggestions?

Previous questions have been helpful but I'm undecided on country, and my focus is on places where it's relatively pleasant to be a solo traveler. (Easy to meet other people, less harassment, don't need to book a private tour to see the sights, etc.)

Interests: local culture and beautiful sights. I'd like it to feel authentic/off-the-beaten path - though I accept it's a busy season along a major backpacking route.

Looking online, people seem to love Laos. It sounds more laid-back and less-developed than its neighbors, which is something I'd love to experience while I can. I've considered hitting Luang Probang + surrounds, 4000 Islands, Phnom Penh, Angkor Wat. I'd love to see some beaches, but might need to save that for the future.

Yet, Vietnam is also really appealing! I just don't know if I can do it justice in 3 weeks, or if it'd be a pleasant experience for a solo traveler. I'm hoping to mostly travel overland; some flying is fine, but shoestring is preferred.

I'm open to totally different suggestions for countries, even outside the region. Thoughts?
posted by Solon and Thanks to Travel & Transportation (10 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
I did this! Well, I visited Thailand and Vietnam, for a month, two years ago. As a young, (I was 18 at the time!) solo female traveller, it was an amazing experience.

Even of you had all the time in the world, there still would be more to see in any one SE asian country, so no matter where you're going, don't feel under pressure to try and see everything, it's just not possible. As it was for me, I felt rushed with two weeks in each country.

I went to Ho Chi Minh City, Hué and Hanoi in Vietnam. In all of them, I could rent a bike and get out and explore the countryside in a way I wanted to. If you want to stay off the beaten path, stick to smaller cities, like Hué. They'll still have some amenities, but it's easier to leave the backpacker areas behind. (And then return when you need a break!)

In both Thailand and Vietnam I felt completely safe, the main irritation was that I was obviously a tourist, so I had to develop a pretty thick skin in saying "No thank-you.".
posted by Braeburn at 2:05 PM on October 13, 2013

Three weeks is not a lot of time, but personally I would spend one week in Bangkok and northern Thailand, then go to Angkor for 4 days, then go to Myanmar for at least one week.

Laos is certainly much poorer and less-developed than even Cambodia, but there is a very well developed tourist industry, where people follow exactly the same route. Myanmar is a much better alternative for getting away from the crowds of tourists. An example: When I went there in April last year I walked around in Mandaly, a city 1.2 million people, for hours without seeing a single other westerner. OK, this was early in the morning, but still, in Thailand you can't throw a rock without hitting a tourist. (Not that I condone throwing rocks at tourists! ;)

Air travel in Asia is generally very cheap, but if you want to save money taking an overnight bus can save you some hours waiting at the airport, and the cost of a room for the night.

IMHO Laos is more laid back and relaxed if you want to hang out with other tourists, go to parties, and perhaps experiment with drugs. There are some islands in the south of the Mekong delta which are really quite relaxing, but there is just not that much when it comes to culture and sights.
posted by Baron Humbert von Gikkingen at 2:07 PM on October 13, 2013

Best answer: I took a 3 week trip through Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, and Thailand early this year...and it turned into a 6 week trip because I pushed my flight back so I could see more. You could pick one country and still only see a very small part of what it has to offer.

In Cambodia, definitely go to Angkor. It really is amazing. On the coast of Cambodia there's supposedly a very cool, rustic place called Rabbit Island. Phnom Penh has some cool stuff, but try to get off the beaten path there - the main tourist drag is depressing. Try to make it out to the killing fields, which are a few miles outside the capitol.

I only went to Si Phan Don in the south of Laos (the 5,000 islands). The style of life there is very slow, and filled with youngsters who love to party. But hey, maybe that's your thing!

Enjoy! Be reasonably safe & smart, and you'll have a great experience.
posted by boghead at 5:45 PM on October 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: "Off the beaten path" means Myanmar if you want the cultural experience (versus finding some village at the end of a long dirt road in Thailand).

I'd split it between any two countries and figure out some off-the-beaten-path stuff when you get there. If you manage a Myanmar visa I'd spend all the time there with maybe a few days in Bangkok for some regional contrast.
posted by MillMan at 9:27 PM on October 13, 2013

Response by poster: Awesome advice so far. The tourist party/drug scene is exactly what I'm not looking for, so it sounds like I got the wrong impression of Laos. Great to know.
posted by Solon and Thanks at 10:58 PM on October 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

I traveled in Thailand and Laos as a solo female traveler about a decade ago (so that's a caveat) and had a great time. I felt very safe and met lots of interesting fellow travelers, especially in Laos. When I was there, the Laos backpacker party scene was mostly confined to Vang Vieng, and I've heard that's still mostly the case. Though I didn't make it to Si Phan Don.

Laos is a great country to travel in: friendly, relaxed culture, but lots of adventure to be had and so many interesting things to see. Though I definitely preferred the north: Luang Prabang, Phongsali, Muang Noi.
posted by lunasol at 11:43 PM on October 13, 2013

Best answer: Laos is stunning in places and although there are backpacker drags, even vang vieng is worth seeing IMO because of the natural beauty. It's also a very easy place to travel esp in comparison to the degree of hassles/scamminess of Cambodia and Vietnam. Both of which I loved and found easy to travel in as a female solo traveller, really (about 10 years ago) but there is quite a bit of pressure to buy things, esp in Vietnam. Of course people are living in poverty and this is understandable, but it does make Laos so lovely and chilled by comparison.
posted by jojobobo at 12:05 AM on October 14, 2013

Best answer: Apparently Vang Vieng has been "shut down" - it is still a backpacker town but the crazy party is gone (there was a thread on mefi about it maybe a year ago). For what it's worth I enjoyed the spectacle when I was there in 2009 when the place was going full tilt. I will say the scenery and caves nearby are spectacular as jojobobo also noted. Myself and the people I was with rented scooters and rode over the the caves which were spectacular. It was a fantastic day.
posted by MillMan at 6:07 PM on October 14, 2013

Response by poster: Thanks so much for the input, everyone! I marked everyone's answer as 'best' until I realized that's probably not useful for future reference. So I picked and chose the tips that best helped me make my decision.
posted by Solon and Thanks at 11:38 AM on October 22, 2013

Mod note: Final update from the OP:
I found all these tips spot-on. I ended up visiting Angkor, doing a circuit of northern Thailand, and working my way down the Laos tourist trail. I mostly stuck to the touristy highlights, though I did get off the beaten path for a few days. There's a guy outside of Siem Reap who runs the "Cool Cambodia" tours. He's a local who takes you out to his village to have a meal, go fishing, etc. Highly recommended as a day trip.

For a first-time traveler to the area I found doing the tourist circuit surprisingly fun and interesting. Found lots of the backpackers to be obnoxious but was nonetheless glad at the ease with which I could make travel buddies. Big pro was how easy it was to get around.

Vang Vieng is indeed mostly shut down - the river has 3 bars and it's a pretty quiet scene now. Beautiful area though, really nice for decompressing if you've been traveling hard, and you can kayak down the river. The locals were ridiculously nice. Luang Prabang was totally gorgeous but more intensely touristy, focused on rich fly-in Europeans whereas VV had a more backpackery feel. Tourist towns in Laos had a bit of a weird dynamic but I'm glad I saw them nonetheless.

If I went back I would explore more of Cambodia. Myanmar sounds like the new go-to place for "harder than thou" backpackers, so it'll probably become the new Laos shortly.

Thanks for the tips!
posted by mathowie (staff) at 11:59 AM on December 14, 2014

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