Trip reports forum
5 weeks in SEA trip report
4th January, 2013
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I recently got back from 5 weeks in SEAsia -- I used this website for a number of inquiries and everybody was really helpful. I wanted to at least put up a trip report so explain how everything went.
I think given my rapid itinerary and negative tone in a few areas will land me some criticism -- that I didn't spend enough time here or there, that I did not do things the best way, etc. People really love this area of the world but I didn't enjoy everything. This is not to say that it's bad -- but it was for me.
My basic itinerary was --
Land in Bangkok
Travel to Chiang Mai
Travel to Lao border
Travel to Luang Prabang
Travel to Vang Vieng
Travel to Vientiane
Vientiane/Night train to Bangkok
Head to Ko Chang
Travel to Siem Reap
Travel to Phnom Penh
Travel to Ho Chi Minh City
Plane to Singapore
BANGKOK: I stayed in Bangkok at a hostel called SaPhaiPae. It's in Silom district, which I selected exactly because it was far away from the sideshow of Khao San Road. It's a hostel, not a guesthouse, but was immaculate and a nice oasis from the unrelenting heat of Bangkok. That being said, I have no positive things to say about Bangkok. In my 5 weeks, I met no one who enjoyed their time there. The Grand Palace and other sights are absolutely astounding, but one could see these and leave town in a hurry. If you have a passion for sitting in gridlocked traffic, having your brain steamed in your own skull by stifling heat and humidity, and seeing the world's densest collection of Seven-Elevens, you'll love Bangkok. It was without a doubt the lowlight of my trip (well -- . except for a bit in Singapore, but more on that later).
TRAIN TO CHIANG MAI: I took a train from Bangkok to Chiang Mai. Initially I wanted a night train to save on a night's accommodation and a not having to burn a day traveling, but the trains were booked solid. All night trains were booked for several days down the line -- only a day train was available. It was 14 hours that seemed like 48. The scenery was amazing and we were served good food, but it was a long time to be cooped up.
CHIANG MAI: Chiang Mai was much nicer than Bangkok. The climate is much more relaxing and it lacks the insane traffic and population density of Bangkok so it is much more laid back. The night is entertaining -- I went to a plaza where you can sit at a bar and be served ringside next to a Muy Thai ring. The fights were extremely amateur, and when a dwarf laid out a tattooed monstrosity, it would also appear completely rigged. But good fun nonetheless. I went on an elephant trek and to the Tiger Kingdom. On one hand, they were amazing experiences. Both animals are incredible and to be so close and interact with them is truly special. On the other hand, rumors abound about how the elephants are treated and whether or not the tigers are drugged (some were docile to borderline comatose, but others were running around, jumping, and fighting with each other with as much energy as any other animal I've seen, so the jury is out). The choice is up to you whether or not it's a good idea. What I will say, is to go into town and shop around for prices. I was terribly ripped off by booking at the guesthouse I stayed at, The Green Tulip. The hostel itself was great and good value at only $4 a night but I'm guessing they make up the cheapness by pimping out exorbitant excursions (which they are quite pressuring about).
TRAVEL TO LUANG PRABANG: I posted this in another thread, but I took the slow boat to Laos. It was not the usual Huay Xai /Pakbeng way. Instead, it was a minivan shuttle through Nan, to the Thai border of Huai Kon. We went through the border and visa on arrival is available to foreigners. They didn't even care that I did not have a photo and did not charge me. On the other side, a shuttle took us to the Lao border town, Nan Ngeun. Most people stayed in guesthouses, but 5 of us were taken to stay with a family. It was really amazing -- I had Lao foe for the first time. The rooms we stayed in were absolutely horrific. The walls were wet at all times and mold was everywhere. Not thrilled about that part. I went to sleep at around 11 PM -- at roughly 6 AM, a rooster crowed and I realized that it would be time to wake up for my 7:30 boat soon. I had planned on laying there for another half hour or so -- when I was assaulted by music. The entire house was quaking from this music playing -- I felt like Manuel Noriega. It sounded like it was playing inside my own head. I went outside and the music was playing all around the countryside. One of the others who stayed here was outside smoking and laughing -- he said that when he was in Lao in the 90's, huge speakers were placed in the countryside to wake everyone up for work and blast communist propaganda. I had never heard about this before, in all my readings on the web or in the Lonely Planet. Standing out in the mist, looking at the mountains with a Lao coffee, the music echoing everywhere -- I won't forget that anytime soon. A shuttle arrived to bring us to the boat. After reading other reports of the slow boat, I was expecting 100 people crammed into 50 seats and a generally uncomfortable ride. However there was less than 20 people on the boat. It was very spacious and the boat ride itself was amazing. The scenery was breath-taking and it did not feel like a 'travel day'. We arrived at about 5:30 PM. I paid 1700 baht for this whole experience (visa not included) and it is a whole day less than the Huay Xai route -- I very much recommend it.
LUANG PRABANG: This was probably the highlight of my trip. This town is just special. Unfortunately the whole was booked. Our group of 5 walked endlessly trying to find (affordable) rooms. I finally ended up staying at Xayana Guesthouse, which is not unpleasant. A good location and only 40,000 kip, but about as spacious as a shoebox. I went to Kuang Si Falls, to the opposite side of the Mekong, all around the town, up Mt. Phu Si (jokes aplenty from that name) -- really really amazing. A person in our unofficial group suggested we go to the night food market for dinner. It's on a small road off the main night market street. The food was great -- the same person recommended getting some Mekong fish grilled up. Generally I have a personal rule stating that I will not eat seafood in developing nations -- I relented after much insistence and I'm glad I did. It was probably the best fish I've ever had in my life. I even ate the fish skin which had always repulsed me. While seeing the blackish looking fish on a stick is unappetizing, I still recommend it. The nightlife in Lao is very much up my alley as well. Much more subdued, and with a countrywide curfew of 11:30, a lot of the riff raff is shut down. Walking home at night in pitch blackness with packs of stray dogs roaming the street was interesting. My last morning, I had a minivan shuttle to Vang Vieng booked for 10 AM so I decided to get up extra early to catch the alms. I almost regret doing it. The alms ceremony almost ruined all the other greatness of Luang Prabang. I was on the opposite side of the street and felt that I was far too close. However apparently other tourists do not feel this way. Getting right up to the monks, getting in their face, getting on the sidewalk to give alms despite the ceremony having zero meaning to them -- it was utterly disrespectful and embarrassing. I was ashamed to even be there. The worst were east Asian tourists who have no sense of decorum or personal space, grabbing a monk and throwing up the peace sign/V sign and cheesing like an idiot while a family member takes a picture and then switching places. I was fuming mad and wished I had some sort of localized E.M.P. blast I could have unleashed on the area. I walked away from it before long, absolutely disgusted. The plus side was this -- when I left, I realized that I almost literally had the town to myself. All the stupid tourists were doing the alms thing and the whole town was empty. No fruit shake stations, no tuk tuks, no vendors hocking 'Same Same But Different' t-shirts -- silence. Bicycles. Morning fog. I wholeheartedly recommend skipping the alms ceremony -- give the monks their peace and enjoy the serenity that often eludes this tourist town. And especially walk down to see the mist rising from the Mekong early in the morning.
TRAVEL TO VANG VIENG: I took a minivan that cost about 105,000 kip. I had heard travel in Laos is slow. It's a poor country, roads aren't great, etc. What I did not expect were the roads to be so harrowing. The roads are extremely high up in the mountains without guardrails -- there were 1 or 2 hairy moments. Not for the faint-hearted.
VANG VIENG: This place is just plain confused. Tubing is much quieter since the crazy days and people aren't as sure what to do with themselves. It's a very scenic location, undoubtedly, but I get a sense that Vang Vieng is at a crossroads. To be fair, I spent the majority of my time at Pan's Place, where I was staying. There is currently a thread in the Laos forum about this place. I was stricken with diarrhea so I spent quite a lot of time in my room, nervous to move too far from my toilet. I probably can't give the most accurate account of this place.
TRAVEL TO VIENTIANE: The bus from Vang Vieng to Vientiane was a simple (albeit non-air conditioned) bus ride. Unfortunately, there is very little onward transportation from the city's far flung Northern Bus Terminal so extortionate tuktuks want 60,000 kip. I asked them how much and they made some vague attempt at saying '6'. I asked them to write it down and he wrote down a suspiciously low number of '6000'. Another guy said '60,000' so I knew something was a bit off here. However, he had definitively written 6,000 so I kept that on me as proof. When we got to my accommodation, he announced that it was 60,000, not 6,000. I pulled forth the note he had written but continued demanding 60,000. The staff at the hostel got involved. The tuktuk driver and a secretary were going back and forth and somehow I made out that he was pretending to claim that he had driven me all the way from Vang Vieng so I stopped and shouted that it was a lie. She scolded him. We settled on 20,000 as a "fair" price and ran off. So I guess just be careful.
VIENTIANE: I stayed at the blandly named Vientiane Backpackers Hostel. If you ever wanted to know what a guesthouse run by disorganized hippies looks like, I present you with this place. It's not terrible for the money, really. However the place is absolutely infested with mosquitos, and later, i would find out, bed bugs as well. As booked up as Luang Prabang was, Vientiane was even worse and people were roaming around with backpacks unable to find anywhere to stay. I just decided to get out of town altogether. I cut my stay here short (as shown on my itinerary) and the extra day ended up in Ko Chang. From the bit I saw, Vientiane itself is not as much a backwater as I was led to believe. The French and Lao influences are well complemented and I wished I could have stayed one more day, but c'est la vie.
TRAVEL TO KO CHANG: What a mess this was. I booked my train ticket through the hostel. Like the train to Chiang Mai, these were absolutely booked solid. I had few choices and had to opt for a A/C bunk instead of the cheaper fan one I wanted. A person from the hostel's travel service gave me the ticket and ran off. Unfortunately, the dummy accidentally gave me someone elses ticket -- it was a fan bunk. Although that was what I originally wanted, I was very angry that I paid for a more expensive ticket. I sat there for an hour or two. Eventually, a woman passed through to the dining car. For some reason she recognized me asked how I got the fan bunk -- she wanted one but got 'stuck' in the A/C bunk. We realized that we had the switched tickets then. I was eternally grateful that she was willing to relinquish the cushier bunk for the cheaper. The bunk I ended up in was comfortable. We arrived in Bangkok the next morning -- I took a taxi (after agreeing upon a price) to the bus station that went straight to Laem Ngop. Caught the ferry (that broke down halfway across the bay), then caught a shared taxi to Lonely Beach.
KO CHANG: Lonely Beach is lonely in name only. Like Vientiane and Luang Prabang, the joint was booked inside and out. Overall, I recommend having accommodation in advance -- it's just safer. I ended up (by like 10 PM) finding Easy Guesthouse. Being in Ko Chang, prices are high and I was paying 500 baht a night for a private bungalow. Well, 'private' if you don't include the foot and a half long gecko that resided inside. Truthfully, it really was a good place and I would recommend it. The two proprietors are extremely kind and funny and if you are really at a loss for finding accommodation, they will do their best to arrange anything they can. Ko Chang itself -- I can't decide whether I like this place. The beach is quite narrow and the alabaster skinned, potbellied eastern European men with matted back-hair and miniature Speedos can really dominate your peripherals on such a thin spit of sand. The beach itself is by no means ugly, but not exactly postcard perfect. Lazing around and letting your circulation slow to nearly stopped is nonetheless addicting and it was nice to hang out coming from the mad transport-a-thon I had been through (and knowing my next leg to Siem Reap would not be fun either). Ko Chang is useful as a convenient beach location if, like me, you won't be making it to the south of Thailand, but it really did not blow me away. This was really the theme of Thailand for me. Unending scams for the travel equivalent of blue balls. I feel like I just don't "get" Thailand. People are extremely passionate about the country and it has quite a mystique about it that entices visitors back time and time again -- but I really don't understand why. Those that love the place will probably be indignant and argue that I did not spend enough time or go to the right places -- not wrongly so. But if my 'sample pack' of Thailand is any indication, it really is not the place for me. I understand that in any place where privileged individuals run aground of extreme poverty there will be snakes and there will be scams and there will be desperation. Although I understand this, the utter amount of duplicity in Thailand is wretched. If Morocco and India didn't seem to make grifting and harassment a national pastime, Thailand would hold the crown. When the threat of being grifted overrides security, it turns into paranoia and Thailand has crossed that threshold. I'm not sure where I am. Should I ask for directions? Do I even bother? They probably will just send me to a restaurant/jewel shop/tailor. How much does a taxi cost to X? Should I even bother asking? If he says something too high, I'm being scammed. If he says something too low, there's some kind of scam. If he says something in the middle, well, I don't know how, but this must have some kind of a trick to it as well, because why would anyone in Thailand give me a fair price? The annoyance factor just far outweighs the (far overstated) benefits that Thailand offers. Perhaps the south of Thailand is much better and deserves exploration before judgement is made, but if the contingent of farang characters with dreadlocks, embarrassingly cliche Thai tattoos, and gag-inducing body odor is as high as I suspect it is, it won't help too much. The food is mind-blowing. The crowds, the scams, the underwhelming everything of Thailand -- not so much. You can keep it.
TRAVEL TO SIEM REAP: Yikes. Let's just get to it -- it's unpleasant. I decided to go with a travel service just for the convenience. Prices around the island seem to range between 300 and 2000 baht for the Siem Reap service -- I paid 350, but there are options. I knew in advance the visa would be a completely foolish 1200 baht but accepted this as a compromise for the convenience of the travel -- the expensive visa with a cheaper travel service ends up being only slightly more expensive than a normal visa with the complete series of busses and ferries. The best idea -- get an e-visa. Pay for the $25 e-visa, then use the travel service -- by combining these you can have a relatively affordable and streamlined transportation and the travel agent sharks demanding you pay 1200 baht for a visa (and quite happily offering to take you to an ATM, if need be) didn't say boo about it. The border is grueling. There is enough literature written about that. But eventually we were dropped off at the Siem Reap bus station. And by Siem Reap bus station, I mean we were dropped off at a dirt patch in the middle of nowhere with nothing other than a few tuktuks and drivers. So there were not options unless you enjoy being stranded. It was only $2 from this dirtplot to my accommodation, but just this little indignity was strangely enraging at the end of an exhausting day.
SIEM REAP: I really enjoyed Siem Reap. The Angkor complex is absolutely amazing, there's really nothing I can say in words to convey it. Strangely, I was a bit underwhelmed by Angkor Wat itself. The surrounding area is beautiful but Angkor Wat was much smaller than I imagined. My absolute favorite was Bayon. So ornate and complex -- and enormous. While Angkor Wat was absolutely infested with tourists, there are endless nooks and crannies and hidden rooms in Bayon that you can always end up finding a nice place of solitude to feel thrown back in the time of Angkor. The town itself of Siem Reap is very nice as well. It's clearly a total tourist town, but it's still loads of fun. Pub Street was a blast, although when I was there it was during Sihanouk's funeral, so for the entire duration no loud music was blasting and the bars closed early. I wasn't bothered by this, as permanent hearing loss isn't really my thing and I'd rather talk to the people I'm with instead. Bucking my early accommodation trends, I stayed in the Mad Monkey. It's a complete party hostel with a younger crowd. Guests throwing up on the floor, having sex in a dorm of a dozen people, everybody coming in loud and screaming at 4 or 5 AM -- stay away if these things bother you. The rooftop bar with the sandy floor was really attractive, however and people from surrounding hostels/guesthouses all congregated here as it really is pretty nice.
TO PHNOM PENH: Very straight forward bus ride. Picked up right at the hostel.
PHNOM PENH: I ended up staying at the Mad Monkey's Phnom Penh branch as well. Much, much quieter than the Siem Reap branch with a decent restaurant downstairs and walking distance from the Silver Pagoda and Tuol Sleng. Phnom Penh does not have a great reputation and understandably so. The place has a very eerie atmosphere. Given the history, this is certainly understandable, but I can see why many people would not enjoy the city. I am very fascinated by the Khmer Rouge history so maybe I "enjoyed" (maybe not the right word) this city more than most. Imagining the enormous city and streets being forcibly evacuated is chilling. Tuol Sleng was a very sobering experience, as were the killing fields at Choeng Ek. The horror that occurred is unimaginable. I was extremely relieved by the sensitivity of other visitors as well. The brand of traveler I had met across southeast Asia was seemingly immature by nature with little to no regard for local decorum (see: Luang Prabang). Other than an old British couple walking through the middle of a mass grave, I was relieved to see that proper respect was not something that people felt was unnecessary to observe because it was their holiday. I arranged a Vietnam visa at my hostel. Looking at my itinerary, it doesn't seem too smart to blow $65 on a visa for the 2 or 3 days I would be spending there, but the Vietnam portion became abridged when I realized what a hassle it would be to travel pre-Tet. I did not need to provide a photo for this visa.
TO SAIGON: Other than the bus being 45 minutes late showing up, this is fairly uneventful. Being that Saigon has about half a dozen bus stations, I was unsure about where this bus (Sorya) would drop us off, but it ended up being at the station on Pham Ngu Lao if that should be of interest to anyone.
SAIGON/HCMC: The place I had booked into (Ruby Guesthouse) had apparently moved and now became the Saigon Backpackers Inn (something along those lines, I can't remember the exact name) on Le Lei. This place was great. The staff was extremely helpful, and there is a great roof top bar overlooking Saigon. I did not have much time here -- my goal was to eat some pho (not as good as Laos', sorry) check out some sites, and move on with my limited time. I went to the Reunification Palace which was severely underwhelming, in my opinion. There doesn't seem to be much in the way of giant "sights" (although I hear the War Remnants Museum is totally worth it) but Saigon is a very fun city. Pre-Tet meant that traffic was crazy and at times it felt like I was living on the inside of a beehive, but it was another city that had mixed feelings from people I asked and was pleasantly surprised. Perhaps setting my expectations low for some places (Phnom Penh, HCMC, Vientiane) helped me to enjoy them more.
FLIGHT TO SINGAPORE
SINGAPORE: This was just plain miserable (by no fault of Singapore). I arrived on the eve of Chinese New Year. I went to the "Wonderfull" fountain show in front of the Marina Bay Sands before heading off to Chinatown to watch the festivities. The festivities themselves were amazing. The fireworks, the decorations, the food -- really, very special and although originally I was hesitant to come to Singapore during this time period because I was fearful that everything would be closed, I am so glad I decided to come when I did. Quick rant here -- on Chinese New Year's Eve, there is a countdown leading up to midnite, followed by a massive fireworks display. The entire crowd counted down and as the fireworks began shooting off, the crowd almost collectively tilted their heads downward -- and this enormous crowd suddenly became a giant sea of humans holding up iPhones and iPads. Recording the fireworks. RECORDING THE FIREWORKS. But not actually watching them. What the hell is the point of that? Most tourists I saw had been living their entire trip through the tiny window of their viewfinder, not actually experiencing anything. East Asian tourists seem to be the worst with this incessant need to photograph every microscopic piece of silt and then three more pictures of said silt with stupid poses in front of it, but everyone else is just as guilty. It seems like more people are traveling for the sake of racking up a collection of Facebook profile pictures than they are with actually seeing or experiencing anything of substance. The misery starts shortly after Chinese New Year. I arrive back at my accommodation (a decent place called Traveller@SG) and from that point at 2 AM until two days later I was fixed to the toilet with sonic diarrhea. At the worst point I was on the toilet for 5 straight hours. It was terrible. I believe it was something I ate in HCMC, but I really can't be sure. The time I had in Singapore that was not sent evacuating my bowels was very enjoyable. Once my stomach settled, the food in Singapore is extremely diverse and delicious -- the sights of Singapore are not mind-blowing, but just eating my way around the city (on the air-conditioned, cheap, and robotically efficient MRT) was a fun way to spend my healthy moments.
If there are any other details anyone wants, I can include those... anyways, that's my trip.
#1 Posted: 16/2/2013 - 20:07
Great trip report -- thanks a lot
Interesting about the route you took via Nan to Luang Prabang - sounds like a good one.
(I edited the OP to remove some funny characters)
#2 Posted: 16/2/2013 - 21:48
2nd April, 2013
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That's Great! Thanks for sharing this but this is very long.
#3 Posted: 16/4/2013 - 02:48
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