I am really excited about my first trip to SE Asia later this year but can't decide whether I should visit Thailand and Laos or Cambodia and Laos. I have done a lot of reading on Travelfish and other online resources about both options but can't seem to make up my mind. I know that everyone has very subjective opinions about the "best" places to visit but am just really divided about whether to choose Thailand which is more touristy but an easier place to get around or Cambodia which I expect is a bit more challenging but possibly more rewarding.
I have a total of about 3 weeks to travel in December and will be traveling by myself for the first half and with my father (in his late 60s but super-healthy) for the second half of the trip. Both my father and I are experienced low to mid-range travelers who have traveled a lot in Central and South America but this will be our first trip to SE Asia. We want to see as much as we can without being exhausted by traveling from place to place, want to get a bit off the main tourist track, and see both urban and rural areas. I definitely plan to take other future trips to SE Asia but this may be my father's only visit to the region.
We are flying home from Luang Prabang and are planning to spend our last 4-5 days of the trip there (we are going to be using frequent flyer miles and this is the only city I can get return tickets from). Based on my research so far (and where we can fly into using our miles), here are two very rough itineraries I have developed:
1. Fly into Krabi and visit 1-3 surrounding islands, fly to Chiang Mai and explore surrounding areas for 3-5 days, meet my father in Chiang Mai and spend 3-4 days, visit Chiang Rai for 1-2 days, bus to Laos border and take slow boat to Luang Prabang, last 4-5 days in Luang Prabang.
2. Fly into Phnom Phen and take taxi to Kampot, 2-3 days in Kampot/Kep, 1-3 days on an island off of Sihanoukville, bus to Phnom Phen and stay 1-2 days, bus or boat to Battangbang and stay for 1-2 days, meet my father in Siem Reap and stay for 3-4 days, plane to Luang Prabang, and last 4-5 days in Luang Prabang.
I would greatly appreciate any thoughts/suggestions and am totally open to other possible itineraries. Thank you so much!!!
#1 remsam has been a member since 26/3/2014. Posts: 5
Your second option doesn't give you much chance to get anywhere off the main path in Cambodia. Your first option gives you a lot more time to explore around Chiang Mai, but you're missing the chance to really get into Northern Laos that offers a number of spots (Luang Nam Tha, Muang Sing, Nong Kiaow, Mung Ngoi to name a few). Once you enter, the slow boat is a two day trip with one night in Pakbeng and the area around Luang Prabang, while very nice and not to be missed, offers little in the way of getting off the track.
Basically, in three weeks to get, " get a bit off the main tourist track" is not so easy if you want to cover a lot of distance/visit a lot of places, but you do have a good bit of time set aside for just one base-camp (Chiang Mai) that gives you the best opprontuity to explore farther afield.
However, the last point I'd make is that if it is your father's only trip to SE Asia, it is hard to give Siem Reap a miss. There is nowhere near the single impressive historical/cultural highlight on your option 1 trip as that - while Luang Prabang is a great cultural spot, it is perhaps best paired with Siem Reap and Cambodia as an exploration of the cultural-history of SE Asia for a one time trip and Northern Thailand would be well saved as an adventure travel. That really depends then on what your father is interested in exploring.
Thats all touristy. Go to issan if u really want to get away from.the touristy stuff which i doubt. So many say that then they plan a trip to all the touristy spots.
Loei, phrae, kamphaeng phet, lampang and phayao in the north
Surin, phanom rung, ubon and khong chiam in the east
Trang, nakhon si thammarat in the south.
But i doubt u will. Few do.
Another option you might consider is to Fly into Pakse and then move up the Laotian panhandle. You could hit 4,000 Islands area, Pakse, Savanakhet, Tha Khek (Konglor Caves), Vientiane, VV and Luang Prabang. This would give you a mix of less touristy and very touristy spots. Leonards suggestion is not invalid, but I agree you probably aren't up for that kind of vacation.
For a truly off the beaten track experience I would also agree with Madmac as I've enjoyed that area -- I guess that would assume you are landing in BKK originally. It would eat a little time but you could also take the night train from BKK to Ubon Ratchitani and then overland to Pakse , you'll be there by lunch. Plenty (too much) to really do just in the South region alone around Pakse you could eat up 2-3 weeks, I found the highlight of the ara was not 4,000 Islands but rather Champasak and motorbiking the Bolavan Plateau. That said, you'd probably be best meeting your dad at a spot like Vientiane, and I'm not clear how many days you have before he arrives (10-12?). Could be a bit of a stretch and you'll only be seeing Laos. As it is your first trip and perhaps your dad's only trip, you may be better off taking a faster 'highlight' tour as I suggested above.
Thanks so much for all the feedback so far! You're right that I probably won't be able to get too far off the tourist track on this trip.....I wish I had longer to travel but 3 weeks is definitely the longest vacation I can manage at this point. I guess it's more accurate to say I just don't want to be surrounded by package tourists and drunk 20 year olds all the time (I was one at one point but am slightly beyond that stage in my life).
Based on limitations with my frequent flyer miles, it looks like I can fly into Bangkok, Krabi, Phuket , or Phnom Phen. I thought I would keep Bangkok for a future trip and Phuket seems to be full of package tourists.
I am mostly trying to figure out if Cambodia or Thailand will provide a better overall introduction for me to the region. Thailand is obviously easier but I am afraid it may be too overwhelmed with tourists....especially around the Christmas holidays. I have read wonderful things about Cambodia but am a bit concerned it might too jarring an introduction. If it helps to provide guidance at all, I have been to both China and India. I adored my time in China but found the noise, pollution, and chaos in India a bit too overwhelming to really enjoy.
#6 remsam has been a member since 26/3/2014. Posts: 5
3 weeks is only long enough for one country and if you pick Thailand that still isn't enough. If you are set on seeing 2 countries then I would say head to northern Thailand for a week and then head over and check out northern Laos for a couple weeks. Even at that you won't be able to see anything in really good detail.
Cambodia isn't anything like China, and does offer a friendly introduction to the region. Both Thailand and Cambodia are easy options as far as getting around and seeing things, the most jarring thing about Cambodia will be the heart-wrenching history you will encounter. They both offer a good introduction in terms of culture, friendly people, food and history. I think it really comes down to if you have something you want to see specifically, and a trip to Angkor Wat with your father will certainly have a lasting impression for you both. When my mom visited China a few years ago we skipped the Great Wall, but had other sites we hit out west that were equally iconic - and I recommend that sort of experience of the highlight when you travel with a parent.