I was extremely fortunate to have 6 weeks between Semester 1 and Semester 2 in which I could embark on the hugely popular backpacking route around South East Asia: beginning and ending in the crazy but amazing city that is Bangkok! This circular route took myself and fellow exchange students through Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia. I thought it would be useful to sum up my trips, the route, some logistics, to encourage people to do the same! Since Singapore is perfectly situated to take this trip – why go home for Christmas when I could take this once in a lifetime opportunities, which is just on my doorstep?! Singapore is also one of the world’s biggest aviation hubs, meaning cheap flights are aflow, costing about 30-50 pounds to get to any of these places (Vietnam, Camodia, Laos, Thailand).
Basically overall, South East Asia is extremely backpacker friendly; you meet so many people likewise travelling on this popular route; and it is very cheap, meaning you can live very well/eat nice food in restaurants three times a day/shop for lots of “stash”, i.e. cheap clothes (but nice!) and cheaper electronics. Pampering yourself, with massages and foot spas on the street are also ideal, costing you only 3 or 4 pounds a go!
From all destinations, they best plan tends to be to fly into and out of Bangkok International Airport.
Destination 1: THAILAND:
The best islands, situated in the south, in my opinion, are Koh Phi Phi and Koh Phangen. The latter is where the monthly, and infamous, full moon party is held. Check the dates to try and coincide your visit with one of those – they’re usually around the 15th-20th of the month, obviously depending on when the full moon falls!
Thai beaches, food, sights, countryside, parties, clubs, shopping, etc are just one word: amazing. The holiday vibe is very strong across Thailand, and you can’t help but just feel happy and buzzing on life! Some of the most delicious thai dishes include massaman curry, penang curry, yellow green and red curries also, chicken & cashew nut, and the finest Pad Thai – a must try! Street sellers are everywhere selling the dishes. Try to go to a Thai cooking school to learn how to make some of the dishes. And rent a moped if you’re feeling brave. Try an elephant trek (Chaing Mai, up north) and try a Thai Massage! In Bangkok, all the action is on Khao San Road, so aim to get accommodation there. However the Royal Palace, Temples, Buddhist Monument are all definitely worth seeing. The Palace is covered in gold, sparkles and jewels and against the blue sky is look phenomenal!
Destination 2: LAOS
From Bangkok (or Chaing Mai is even closer to the border if you go there for the trekking), you can get an overnight sleeper train to Vientiane (the capital of Laos) which is very easy and reasonably comfortable. Much more so than a bus up through the rocky Laos roads! The train from Bangkok takes about 10-12 hours, and costs about £15. Spend a few days (3-4 days) in Vang Vien which is 3.5 hours from Vientiane, if just grab a private taxi van from the border crossing and you’ll be there in no time. This costs about £5 (Laos is SO cheap). Vang Vien has the famous “tubing” event which is the most fun ever. It is a line of bars down a river, kicking off at 12 noon, and you float between each in a rubber ring. There’s lots of rope swings and zip lines and other water activities. Other places to visit in Laos include Luang Prubang and the 4000 Islands. These tend to be the only other places that are touristy in Laos.
Those on a tighter time schedule tend to just see Vang Vien, and then move onto the wonders of Vietnam!!
Destination 3: VIETNAM
Now you take a 30 hour bus overnight (and a day) to Hanoi, which is in north Vietnam, and the country’s capital. This ride is notoriously horrendous, but once you see and experience Vietnamese life, it is worth it. Without doubt.
This year I have been so fortunate to see so many countries in Asia, but I can safely say that Vietnam was my favourite destination that I’ve been to over the entire year, for several reasons.
It has a very easy-to-follow 5 stop backpacker route, and at Stop 1, you’ll most likely meet the same people you met in Vang Vien in Laos, since most tend to follow the same route across all 4 countries.
The 5 stop route in Vietnam takes you through Hanoi, Hue, Hoi An, Nha Trang and Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). There are also 2 or 3 beach locations in the south that you can go to if you take the extended pass, or if you have more time to spare. Each leg of the journey costs about £6, or you can buy the “hop on hop off pass” which costs about £30. Since Vietnam is so huge (long and skinny!) each leg takes about 12-14 hours overnight. Whilst this sounds grim, it is a dream compared to the Laos-Hanoi bus, and these buses in Vietnam have flat beds so you can get a good sleep. Seeing all 5 stops can take from 2-3 weeks. We had 2 weeks but these only left us 2-3 nights in each place, meaning we did have to rush quite a bit, and be well organised. It was definitely do-able, but if you have more time, then you could easily spend 3-4 weeks in Vietnam alone! The history regarding the Vietnamese War is very upsetting/chilling, but very interesting and it gives you a different perspective on the subject.
In Hanoi, stay at “Hanoi Backpackers” which is a western/european style hostel with bunk rooms, common room, a hostel bar, and a free breakfast. It is VERY sociable and what is good about it is that the hostel workers actually take you out in the city both during the day and at night; best way to know where’s good to go, and such a good way for everyone to stick together. You can then go to Ha Long bay which is one of the most Iconic sites in the world! There are thousands and thousands of small islands, mostly uninhabited, and you sail for 2-3 between them all, on a big party boat! Then you come back to Hanoi, to start the next 4 stops of Vietnam. Overall, Hanoi feels like “paris on steroids” – so it feels very european, but with a distinctly asian vibe: street food sellers everywhere, motorbikes everywhere, vietnamese triangle hats. It is incredible what they can carry on the back of a bicycle! The War Museum is also an interesting thing to see, the Hanoi tower, and the preservation of Ho Chi Minh’s body!
The next stop is Hue, and “Hanoi Backpackers” also have a hostel here, under the same company. Try and stay here again! Visit the old walled city for the empire.
From Hue, you can take the “Top Gear motorbike experience” to the next stop: Hoi An. These are really the only two Vietnamese cities between which you can realistic motorbike. Hue and Hoi An are about 130 km apart so you can get there within a day . The other cities are simply far too far apart, and since there is nothing really between the cities (just a very very long highway) you wouldn’t have anywhere to stay. If you want to do this motorbiking, it is more economical to not buy the “hop on hop off” bus ticket, and instead just buy 3 separate ones. But always shop around the travel agents and barter hard! The starting prices in South East Asia are never ever intended to be anywhere near the final amount!
Hoi An is hugely famous for its fantastic tailoring. Get a nice and good quality suit for extremely cheap (around £70, but equivalent of a £500 suit if purchased in the UK). There are no more hostels after Hue, but by this point, the backpacking crowd you’ll meet have become good enough friends from being in Hanoi, Ha Long bay and Hue together (in those hostels) that you end up meeting up in Hoi An despite the fact your all in different guesthouses.
Nha Trang is “the beach of Vietnam” with some sights in the city to see and take a mud bath as well!
Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) is in the south, and is the most developed of the Vietnamese cities. It has a huge amount of culture to see, history and museums. The War Museum is a MUST, the cathedral, the Palace, the Chu Chi Tunnels, and you can also take a trip to the Mekong-Delta river.
Destination 4 – CAMBODIA
The bus from Vietnam across the border to Cambodia takes about 12 hours. Do not buy your visa UNTIL you get the border, just insist you wish to wait. Since this one of the most corrupt border crossings, people will try to sell you visas along the way but just decline, and insist you wish to wait until the border. The capital of Cambodia (Phenom Penh) has the Killing Fields from the Cambodian massacre, and the Genocide S21 Museum. Both are definitely worth seeing, very very sad, but an important visit. Spend most of your time in Cambodia in Siem Reap. Really what everyone comes here to see are the Anchor Watt temples (just outside the town). They are unreal – words do not do justice to describe them. We spent over 9 hours there, mesmerized by their sheer size. The one that was featured in Tomb Raider is also an exciting find! In “pub street” in the town of Siem Reap is where all the restaurants and bars are, and you can eat drink and dine like a king (or queen) or incredibly cheap. Make sure to try the Cambodia BBQ, where you cook it at your table!
Now, you can take the 8 hour bus across the border back into Thailand to Bangkok. Sadly, my trip ended here. But what a fantastic 6 weeks. So memorable. Wonderful places with wonderful people. Without going on exchange to Singapore, I would never have been able to afford to come here, time or money wise!
I do hope others get to have the same experience I did 🙂