I'm planning a first-time trip to SE Asia for 4 weeks in december, and I'm finding it hard to decide where to go. We're a small group of friends, aroud 24 years old, and we'd like to check out the highlights of the area. Big cities, discos and especially shopping are definitely NOT a priority, I'd much rather visit temples, riversides, calm beaches, countryside, tasting good traditional food,... The budget is not super high, but I'd prefer paying 100+euros for a 1h plane than 20euros for a 2-day bus ride.
I drafted a plan, and my concern is if maybe I'm covering too many places, or also if the places I've chosen are only the mainstream spots and perhaps there are better options that I haven't heard of. Here it goes:
Arrive in Bangkok, stay there for 2 days;
Take a train to Ayutthaya for a day trip;
Take the night train to chiang mai and stay there for maybe 4 days;
Then I'd really like to hit Luang Prabang, and here is where I think it's probably better to fly, and stay there for 4 days;
Night bus down to Vientiane (do you think a day or 2 in vang vieng is worth it?) and 3 days there;
Fly to phnom penh for 2-3 days;
Boat to siem reap (is the boat trip worth it? Should we take the bus?) and 3-4 days there;
Bus to Bangkok to hit some island/coastside spot for the remainder of the trip (~6 days) - what islands/coastside places do you recommend for a relaxed stay at the beach, with good food, natural beauty, few people and no KFC...? From the photos, ko phi phi and phuket seem nice, but the more I read about it, the more I fear it will be a packed, "westernized", used-to-be natural beauty...
So basically, my main questions are:
1-too many places?
2-are these good choices?
3-time in each place ok?
4-where should we end the trip?
Thanks in advance, and congrats to this amazing community, I'm super excited about this trip and much of this excitement comes from reading so many things here!
I have made quite a few daytrips to Ayuthaya from Bangkok, and would recommend that you stay there for a night and not double back to Bangkok ... especially if you are considering catching a train to Chiangmai. There are lots of great options for sleeping there and it's less expensive than Bangkok. Having said that, I think that Bangkok justifies more than just two days, especially if you spend the first one jet-lagged.
There are many great places in between Bangkok and Chiangmai worth seeing besides Ayuthaya. It's easy to hop-scotch from town to town on buses and the train. You may not have much time in each place, but you get to see a lot of the country that you'd otherwise pass-by in the dark.
I think that Vang Vieng is worth a stop. The area is stunning! And I don't recommend a night bus to Vientiane from Luang Prabang, either. The countryside that you'll go through is some of the most beautiful and dramatic in all of Southeast Asia.
I've never taken the bus from PP to Siem Reap , but I did take the boat and thought it was fantastic. If you do take the boat, make sure you get your ticket a day or two in advance and try and get a seat at the very front. Don't bother sitting on the roof. Not sure if you are allowed to these days, but if it's still permitted know that people who do start off freezing and then get scorched in the sun and are soon clambering to get inside the boat.
On that note, why not fly to Siem Reap and then work your way down to PP. With only 4 weeks, I wouldn't bother going to the south of Thailand. There are excellent islands in Cambodia that you can get to easily from PP. Otherwise, consider one of the islands near the Cambodian border ... Koh Kut, Koh Chang, Koh Mak, Koh Wai? These places are practically on the way to Bangkok from Cambodia, and you won't have to spend any more time or money traveling long distances.
To answer your questions ... I don't think that you have too many places, they are all good choices, your time in each place looks good (if you are really into temples I would add a day to SR), and I think you should stick around Trat Province or Southern Cambodia for your island time instead of the south of Thailand.
Hope you have a great time wherever you get to.