Backpacking Advice for planning South East Asia Trip
Question: We are a couple of New Zealanders (aged 26-27) wanting to plan our trip to Asia.
We want to possibly fly into Singapore then carry on through Malaysia, the islands in Thailand, Bangkok, Chiang Mai, into Laos (visiting main cities). Then onto Cambodia to see Angkor Wat, Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. We are also considering Vietnam but we're unsure.
We have between 2-3 months to do this trip. Could you recommend the best route for us to take (we are concerned about the visa and time restrictions in Thailand), what modes of transport you would advice and also a daily or weekly budget (either in US or NZ dollars please). We have approximately $5000 NZ dollars each.
What would you recommend to be the best attractions and activities to see and do in these countries? We are very much into experiencing culture, adventure and of course fun.
Any other advice would be much appreciated.
Michelle and Wiremu :)
Answer: Hey, a lot of questions here. I'm going to divide this into sections :-)
First of all, I would just like to comment that 2-3 months in all these countries is very short. You could easily spend at least one month in Malaysia, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.
If you like speed traveling, this is of course a manageable route if you combine night buses/trains and/or flights.
A suggestion of a route according to 3 months (= 12 weeks) would be:
Singapore (half a week), Malaysia 3 weeks, Thailand 4 weeks (1 week in Chiang Mai, 2,5 weeks on the islands of south Thailand and a couple of days in Bangkok) Laos 2,5 - 3 weeks, Cambodia 1,5 - 2 weeks.
Start in Singapore --> cross the border to Malaysia --> and travel to Melaka (a historical city with Portuguese influence -- never been there myself but a lot of travelers have raved about it) --> Kuala Lumpur (a must-see city with vibrant life and multi-cultured, cheap and fascinating food, islam museums) --> travel all the way to Pulau Langkawi near the Thai border where you can just relax and hit the beaches.
--> Cross the line to Thailand by border crossing or take the boat directly from Pulau Langkawi to Koh Lipe (island in Thailand) which is also popular for its underwater life. From Koh Lipe you can take the ferry to Ko Phi Phi near Krabi.
More of this crossing on Route Planner South Thailand
I personally think that Phi Phi is worth the trip even though it's touristy. It's just gorgeous out there! You can rent a boat for the day to snorkel/dive and watch colorful fish and corals (at least they were colorful in 2007/2008), eat freshly BBQ sea food in Ton Sai village and go bar-hopping during the evening.
From Phi Phi, you can travel all the way to Surat Thani to take the ferry to Koh Phangan or Koh Tao. I like both islands -- but I probably enjoyed Koh Phangan a lot more. It's got everything; moon parties, quiet beaches, elephant riding, snorkeling and diving, waterfalls, yoga, muay thai and much much more.
But if you want to dive, it's recommended to do this on Koh Tao, the neighboring island of Koh Phangan.
From Koh Pha Ngan/Koh Tao, make your way to Bangkok and stay there for a couple of days to soak the atmosphere of Khao san road and Soi Rambuttri. Get good cheap thai massages and spa treatments. Visit the Snake farm which is quite impressive; you can hold a snake and there are snake shows as well! :-)
I also enjoyed the Big Buddha in Bangkok -- it was fascinating to witness a 46 meter long Buddha.
More on attractions in Bangkok
From Bangkok --> Chiang Mai. In Chiang Mai the highlight is trekking and visiting hilltribe villages.
Attractions in Chiang Mai
From Chiang Mai, cross the border to Laos and visit lovely Luang Prabang. If there's one place I want to return to in Laos, it's definitely Luang Prabang.
It's not a nightlife town, but compensates with culture. I took the weaving class through Ock Pop Tok and it was one of my favorite moments. I was also impressed by Tat Kuang si waterfalls (day trip), and the book shops where you can read books/watch a movie and just relax.
If you're stopping by Luang Prabang, make sure you don't miss the monk procession in the morning (if you already haven't done that).
Activities in Luang Prabang
You can probably stay 5-7 days in Luang Prabang if you're the cultural types :-) I stayed there for a week!
After that I would suggest 4 days in Vang Vieng to try the tubing and definitely the CAVING! Fascinating stuff!
Caving in Vang Vieng, Laos
After Vang Vieng you can stop by Vientiane, the capital of Laos. For me, it wasn't that exciting. I enjoyed the cozy fish dinners right by the river during the evening, but otherwise there wasn't much life in this town. You can probably spend max 1-2 days in Vientiane (that's my opinion).
Then head for Savannakhet in south Laos. I wish I visited this city because my Australian friends who I met on the road back then, were raving about Savannakhet and its home stays. Try a home stay -- it's a memory for life!
If you're done with Savannakhet, you can travel all the way to Pakse where you can hire a moped and take a day trip to Bolaven Plateau. I thought that day to Bolaven Plateau was worth it -- visiting waterfalls in our own pace and stopping by villages along the road. Awesome!
Then cross the border to Cambodia, via Stung Treng and go all the way to Phnom Penh. I did this by minibus which I booked at an office on 4000 islands.
Highlights of Phnom Penh: Killing fields and Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum.
Otherwise, Phnom Penh is a melting pot of culture and art, slums, huge markets and cheap food. If you happen to have time, stop by Tiny Toones org. They help street children by giving them some education, dance lessons and more. I got the impression that this was not a typical thing to do for a backpacker visiting Phnom Penh. But I recommend it!
Tiny Toones org
Then off to Siem Reap: Angkor Watt as you proposed. One day is enough for the Angkor temples if you just want to see the most important temple sites.
Sights and Activities in Siem Reap
More about Angkor park
Then from Siem Reap you can cross the border to Thailand and back to Bangkok (if that's where you're departing home).
Visa and time restrictions in Thailand:
Citizens of New Zealand are not required to have a tourist visa, if they're only staying in the country for 30 days. If you follow the route in Thailand as I mentioned above, you don't need to worry about getting a visa. It's the reason I limited the time in Thailand with 4 weeks.
Only if you're planning on spending more time than 30 days, then you have to apply for a visa.
More information on Thai Tourist Visa
This 30 days-policy applies as long as you don't cross the border before it has expired. So if you go border crossing from Malaysia, you will get 30 days automatically. When you're finished in Chiang Mai, it's likely that your 30 days are ending soon, depending on what you decide to do.
Transport is very easy in SE Asia. The infrastructure is good in Thailand and Malaysia, and better the last couple of years in Cambodia and Laos. I traveled most of my time by government buses/VIP-buses and minibuses. That's the common transport in SE Asia.
Considering you got 5000 NZD, you should think about choosing cheap transport like government buses and you can sometimes use minibuses.
As I've written on this website, your budget depends on the type of standard you want to travel in, activities and how long you're going to travel.
More about Budget
Since you have 5000 NZD, you can combine dorms/guesthouses, and cheap food/better quality food. This way, you'll have money for cultural destinations and money to have fun.
Daily budget can be anything from as low as 8-10 USD to 40-50 USD a day. This only includes accommodation, food and beverages and local transportation). It doesn't include visa fees, alcohol, recreational costs and activities.
There are regional variations within a country. Be prepared to pay more when you're in Siem Reap for the Angkor trip.
Hope this helps! :-)