We are a middle-aged fit couple going to SEA for 3 weeks in July (Rain!!). Don't like tours (except for maybe a half-day here or there for educational purposes), prefer to do our own thing. We are travelling from Montreal, Canada and don't know when we'll get to that part of the world again, so we are trying to squeeze in whatever we can without burning ourselves out - but the planning seems so complicated. Flights are booked (Bangkok), vaccinations done, visas prepared, guide books purchased, backpacks (Osprey Kestral) purchased. The plan: Bangkok to Chang Mai to Laos (Vientienne & Luang Prabang) to Hanoi, Hoi An, Hue, Maybe Halong Bay if weather permits, HCM City to Siem Reep, Phnom Pen, back to Bangkok, maybe for some beach time. Is it possible? Which destinations should we fly to and which require buses or trains or boats? Can we fit in a boat ride up or down the Mekong in Laos? Does anyone know how to get a "regional Asian Air pass" - is it worthwhile? Are we missing some "must-see" places? If we had to cut anything out due to the time limit, what should it be? We are so excited, but the stress of planning this "free-hand" is keeping us up at night! Would love any advice on these topics.
#1 Lorimar has been a member since 5/6/2012. Posts: 5
Personally I think that's way too much for three weeks. You've got about ten destinations listed in four countries, so even if you fly most legs you'll be looking at one travel day per destination with only one full day to actually see the place, and that's assuming the three weeks doesn't include travel time to/from Montreal (also doesn't include Laos slow boat). You'd need a holiday to recover from your holiday.
While it is possible to fly a lot of these routes (you'd want to book flights fairly soon and would be wise to use airlines like Air Asia, Jetstar, and Nok Air) keep in mind that land travel in these countries (especially Laos, Cambodia, and to a lesser extent Vietnam) is painfully slow. With careful planning and a lot of pre-booked flights, it is probably possible to hit all those destinations, but the constant travel would seem to be more stressful than enjoyable.
In three weeks, I personally wouldn't attempt more than two countries, and would probably not focus on more than five or six total destinations, although that could include some day trips from those destinations. All of the places you listed are great choices, so it's difficult to say what should be cut out -- ask ten different people and you'll get ten different answers. I will say that my personal favorites of what you've listed are (in no order) Bangkok, Hoi An, and Siem Reap/Angkor, although I've never been to Luang Prabang or Phnom Penh.
Bangkok, Chiang Mai , Luang Prabang, Vientiane , Hanoi , Halong Bay, Hoi An, Hue, HCMC, Siem Reap, Phnom Penh, Bangkok in 3 weeks? That's pretty ambitious and you'd end up on the move almost every other day, barely having time to soak up what's around you. I would remove some of those destinations, maybe just do north Thailand and Laos or Cambodia, or fly to Hanoi work your way down to HCMC and fly back to Bangkok.
For example Bangkok to Chiang Mai either by sleeper train or direct flight, spend a few days in the Chiang Mai area, then up to the border and slow boat on the Mekong you're looking at 3 more days to Luang Prabang. Spend a couple days there and move on to Vang Vieng (all the way to Vientiane in one day is a stretch) and a couple days in Vientiane. That's already at least 2 weeks.
You see what I'm getting at here - unless you fly point-to-point, realistically you have to take slow sometimes unreliable transport into consideration. Trying to include Vietnam from north to south as you suggest takes ages via bus/train. Or in Laos during rainy season when landslides are not uncommon, a single blocked road could mess up your whole plan. And if you do fly point-to-point you're spending half your time dealing with airports. Maybe do a flight or two but I would also simplify your itinerary a bit.
As for airlines, check out AirAsia.com, LaoAirlines.com, and JetStar.com
Dluek and bob are being generous. Your plan above is insane. Could you do it? Maybe. Would it totally suck (as opposed to being an enjoyable experience) absolutely. One country. Three weeks - one country. Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Kanchanaburi and a beach. That's what you've got time for if you don't want it to begin to suck.
#4 MADMAC has been a member since 6/6/2009. Posts: 6,957
Oh and you can throw in Ayudahya.
#5 MADMAC has been a member since 6/6/2009. Posts: 6,957
Thanks so much to all who replied - it was a big help. We realize we were dreaming too big for the period of time (3 weeks) we have in SEA. So, what do we give up? Or do we settle for an organized tour of the countries we want to see (not my favourite thing). What are the must-sees? Also, how do we book regional flights in the area if we don't know where we will be when? This is driving us crazy! Since we have heard that it's much cheaper to book those flight in advance, how can we commit to where we will be on certain dates? Has anyone bought an Asian Air pass from overseas?
#6 Lorimar has been a member since 5/6/2012. Posts: 5
Sorry, never had an Asian air pass or known anyone who has. Apart (maybe) from that, I don't think anyone can tell you how to book regional flights without knowing where you'll be when -- you'd just have to show up at a travel agent, the airport, or an airline's website, hope for the best, and be prepared for long bus/train rides if it doesn't work out.
As for "must-sees", as I said before, every destination you listed previously are "must-sees" and there are many many more depending who you ask.
Personally, I don't look at travel in terms of checking off as many "must-sees" as I can, but rather in terms of the whole experience of it. For example, if I were going to China for three weeks, I would spend that time staying in two, maybe three spots -- probably one city, one rural area, and maybe hit one or two major sights.
I'd want to relax, soak up the culture, take some photos, and hopefully experience something new. I wouldn't stress if I didn't make it to the Great Wall, the Forbidden City, or where ever. I would definitely research travel in China before I went and have a good idea of the options, but I'd want to stay relatively flexible. I also wouldn't book many, if any flights or tours, because I like to see a place first before deciding if I want to linger and explore deeper or move on.
I've been to lots of SE Asia's "must-sees", but what good is a "must-see" if you hardly have the time to "see" anything? My most cherished travel experiences have been things like spontaneously being invited into the home of central Vietnamese locals for dinner, or meeting a 97 year-old Thai monk whose believed to be enlightened. You can't really plan or force things like that -- you just have to be there and see what unfolds.
This is just my own personal idea of how travel is most enjoyable for me. I know people who prefer to have everything planned before-hand and hit as many destinations in as short a time as possible. They have good experiences, so more power to them. But life in SE Asia moves at such a slower pace, and I prefer to put myself on that level.
But that's just me. You should do what's right for you, and if I had only three weeks I'd probably want some kind of loose itinerary too. However, it seems like you're lacking any clear direction. Have you considered narrowing your scope considerably? Like, just Thailand with maybe a side trip to Siem Reap/Angkor or into Laos via the Mekong, saving Vietnam for another trip?
I think the thing that is most difficult for people first coming here to understand is that when it comes to things to see, SEA takes a back seat to a lot of other places in the world. Not that there's nothing to see. There is. But it's not about the sights. It's about the pace of life and the overall personal freedom you have here. Europe is a great place to go see things. SEA is a great place to chill. That is difficult for us to get our heads wrapped around. We are used to party destinations and sight-seeing destinations. The idea of just going someplace without seeing "highlights" doesn't work for most westerners. But in fact seeing things here is, at least in my view, utterly unimportant. Coming here and enjoying the vide of the environment and taking your time to relax in the moment is what makes this place special.
As for "must sees" - well obviously I don't subscribe to that, but given what appear to be your inclinations I would say a short "loop" that starts and ends in Bangkok (Bangkok, Kanchanaburi, Ayuhdaya) and then a flight to Siem Reap to check out Angkor Wat for about four days.
#8 MADMAC has been a member since 6/6/2009. Posts: 6,957
What you described so eloquently is exactly the type of trip I usually prefer to do. "It's about the journey, not the destination". The only reason we were so frantic about "what to see", is because SEA is so far (and therefore so explensive to fly to) from the east coast of Canada, that we wanted to get the most "bang for our buck", but I can see that this is a ridiculous notion and I appreciate you spelling it out for me so clearly. We will have to make some choices at this point and go with the flow . I can see now that the only way to get in all that I mentioned earlier in terms of itinerary, is too book a fully organized tour for the 3 weeks, something that makes my stomach turn. BTW - due to the weather that is prevelant at that time of year (July), do you foresee any beach time? Any cycling recommendtions? (I have heard that Hoi An is good for those 2 activities) Any hiking possible in North Vietnam?
#9 Lorimar has been a member since 5/6/2012. Posts: 5
I'm a motorcycle guy, not a bicycle guy, so I can't comment on the "cycling" thing. But were I you, I wouldn't go to Vietnam at all. A more challenging tourist environment than Thailand for sure. And I am assuming you are flying into and out of Bangkok, adding travel time and cost. You don't have enough time to see or experience even one of these countries, so nothing is to be gained by going to another one. IF, however, you want to see Vietnam, then skip Thailand and just go to Vietnam. But Vietnam and Thailand with the time you have? It doesn't make much sense.
#10 MADMAC has been a member since 6/6/2009. Posts: 6,957
I don't know Mac, 21 days - that's ten days in two countries, which is at least enough for a taste of each.
True that Vietnam is not as accessible for tourists as Thailand, but if just flying Bangkok to Saigon, maybe a couple days there then a flight to Da Nang (near Hoi An ) would be manageable. I love Hoi An for the culture, and true the countryside around there is spectacular to cycle around. Not sure how it would be in July... I was there in mid June once and it was just hot. Beach is good there, very easy to find long stretches with just a few local fishermen and beach dogs about.
Then you could fly back to Bangkok and explore around there (maybe side trips to Kanchanaburi, Ayutthaya, even Khao Yai is doable). With ten days a trip up to Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai, or a 4 or 5 day trip to Angkor and back is even doable.
My opinion is if you're really psyched on Vietnam then go. More of a challenge, yes, but overall it's more picturesque than much of Thailand (only my opinion, and I love Thailand too).
Great advice, THANK YOU! I will take everything into consideration (if I don't lose my mind first). We have 21 complete days of travelling, aside to the 2 days to fly to and from Bangkok. Can somewone comment on Chang Mai. I have read a lot about it - can't decide if we should try to fit it in or not. What is the main difference in vibe between Chang Mai and Bangkok? Also, how safe is the street food? (It all looks so yummy!) Anyone get sick?
#12 Lorimar has been a member since 5/6/2012. Posts: 5
Never been to Chiang Mai, but lots here on travelfish concerning that place. Generally gets good reviews. This is as good a place as any to start:
As for Street Food, I'm a quasi expert because I eat it all the time (it makes budgetary sense and it's fast and easy to get since the nightmarket is a stones throw from my house). But unlike a lot of people here, I am no fan. Some of it is OK (it ain't fine dining), and yes, sometimes my wife and I do get sick from it. Not too often, but often enough. Still, My wife, daughter son and I all eat it with regularity and if you want a feel for how people here typically eat, then it's the way to go. Just be realistic in your expectations. You get what you pay for, and it's cheap...
#13 MADMAC has been a member since 6/6/2009. Posts: 6,957
"What is the main difference in vibe between Chang Mai and Bangkok?"
A very frequent comment by travelers who've landed in Bangkok and spent a few days there then come up here to Chiang Mai is "wow it's so relaxed!" or something like that. But it's still a vibrant place with tons of temples/markets/food/activities, plus it's in the hilly north so there's plently of opportunities to explore hilltops, hilltribes, trekking, waterfalls, elephant camps and such. The city traffic is busy in the early morning/evening, but ironically the closer to the old city center you get the more peaceful it can be. Definitely worth a visit, just a matter of fitting it into your already busy itinerary.
It's a tough call how to fit in all you propose in that amount of time, but imagne something like this:
Bangkok - Chiang Mai - Luang Prabang - Hanoi (Halong Bay) - Danang (Hoi An) - HCMC - Phnom Penh - Siem Reap - Bangkok. Spend 2-3 days in each place and fly between each of them. Again, check out AirAsia.com, LaoAirlines.com, and JetStar.com for regional flights and get them pre-booked. The only way to stay loose and be more spontaneous is to lighten up the agenda significantly and just plan to visit about 3-4 places.
Quickly, on Chiang Mai - I love it. I live in Bangkok and also love it for its gritty energy, but Chiang Mai is so laid back for a big city, and such friendly locals there. Overall, north Thailand is one of my favorite regions in Thailand due to its stunning scenery, amazing food, culture, history, temples, etc. Definitely worth a trip, but would be good to get out into the countryside (Chiang Rai, Pai, Mae Hong Son, even just Lamphun and/or Lampang).
As for street food, I eat it all the time and rarely have problems. Of course, the more time you spend in Asia the more accustomed your stomach becomes to the food and the fewer problems you have. However, I don't entirely agree with the statement that "you get what you pay for" when it comes to food in Thailand.
I've gotten sick (and I mean actually sick, more than just upset stomach due to too many chilies) from food in Asia four times total, once really bad from salmonella poisoning. Every one of those times has been from food I've eaten at enclosed restaurants. The fact is, these countries have virtually no health standards on food for any restaurants, so there's a fine chance that an air-con restaurant's kitchen is going to be dirtier than a street kitchen (at least on the street you can see what they're working with). There's also no way of knowing if the quality of ingredients are better in enclosed restaurants.
In other words, there's no way to be entirely safe apart from eating only at high end corporate hotel restaurants, so I just eat everywhere, scope out the food to make sure it's clean before indulging, never eat anything questionable like undercooked meat, and hope for the best.