Backpacking Southeast Asia

posted in: Blog, Travel | 2

In six weeks, Allain and I visited twenty cities in five countries, three of the Seven Wonders of the World, and experienced a culture far removed from the American way of life that we had grown accustomed to. We began our journey in Bangkok, Thailand, which was nothing short of out of control and in your face. We then headed north to the jungles of Chiang Mai, across the mountainside on the backs of elephants, down the Mekong River, and later spent hours of our days cruising motor bikes through the rice terraces sprinkled through the Laotian countryside.

After departing ways with Luang Prabang, a quaint but colorful little town, we flew into Ha Noi, the biggest city Vietnamese city north of Ho Chi Minh. Walking across the street in Ha Noi was nothing short of a real-life Frogger experience. The biggest difference being that I only had one life left. After about five minutes of looking for a gap in the non-stop flow of motorbikes passing by, it occurred to us that the flow of motor bikes is literally never ending. Instead, you must simply walk out into the street, refraining from making any sudden or quick strides, calmly walking across as all the motorists fly by, making just enough room to your left and right so they don’t hit you. As we stepped outside of the busy streets of Ha Noi, we experienced a real change of pace as we began our three day cruise through Ha Long Bay, one of the Seven Wonder of the World. What a site to see – the hundreds, if not thousands, of small islands, projecting straight into the air. As we made our way down the coast of Vietnam, we experienced the calmer culture of Hoi An, as well as Da Nang, the home of the world’s largest cavern. In the process of visiting these caves, Allain crashed his bike, sliding across the wet pavement. As he got to his feet and began pulling the gravel from his cuts, it had not occurred to us that he would be battling infection for the remainder of our time together.

Just outside the Ho Chi Minh, we visited the most famous remnants of the Vietnam War, the Cu Chi tunnels. Here, we explored some of the underground cities the Viet Cong lived in, and the multitude of death traps used to kill American soldiers. Here, we saw different tactics used to combat the “enemy,” such as manufacturing the soles of the shoes backward to confuse anyone following their tracks, or placing pungent spices in the ant hills they used for ventilation in order to interfere with U.S. sniffing dogs.

Although our “itinerary” was never planned more than three days in advance, we knew that we would be visiting the temples of Angkor Wat. Among several memorable moments of this trip, I will never forget laying in bed as I heard my Tuk-Tuk driver honking outside, somewhere around five in the morning. I rushed out the door and was excited to witness a sunrise at the main temple of Angkor Wat. As the sun gained height into the early morning, I began exploring many of the other marvelous temples scattered throughout this spiritual place of worship, some of which were even used to film clips from Laura Croft Tomb Raider and Indiana Jones. It was fascinating to the how the encroaching jungle had mingled its way into carved stone, essentially becoming one of the same.

Read my travel advice below for a complete destination itinerary, including the Philippines, Hong Kong, Indonesia, and diving in Thailand. I will complete this journey entry when I have time.

Travel Advice:

35 Days

June – July

Bangkok, Thailand:
Allain and I flew into Bangkok, Thailand, and that is a pretty solid in/out location for a number of reasons. It is central to the surrounding countries, and it is a major hub, so flights into and out are generally cheaper and more frequent. You will only want to spend minimal time in Bangkok. It is a large city and relatively trashy. Neat things to do, but there is much much better value elsewhere. I would budget two nights or at the beginning in Bangkok, then move on.
Chiang Mai, Thailand:
Allain and I took a flight up north to Chaing Mai. This is the jungle-scene of Thailand. Elephant riding, hiking, muay tai (Thai boxing), etc. Alternatively, you could take a bus up there which would be incredibly cheap, maybe $30, but it takes more time. You will realize time becomes more valuable than money in some instances. Flights were around $100 or so. If you go to Chiang Mai, do your research on what to do there ahead of time. Allain and I just kind of winged it a booked a guided trip. Looking back, we could have done more with our time there. A good hiking and elephant riding experience nonetheless.
Luang Prabang, Laos:
From there we took a long bus ride over to Laos and rode a river boat down the Mekong River. It is the “Nile” or “Amazon” of Asia. It’s big with some cool scenery along the way. You can do a one or two day ride; looking back, I would never encourage someone to take the two-day boat ride. That would be brutal. In all honesty, it wasn’t a life changing experience in the sense that after the first couple of hours, I felt I had seen everything. Nevertheless, that was the best way to get to our next city, Luang Prabang, and I have no regrets. Luang Prabang, Laos, was possibly my favorite city. It was very quant and cute, for lack of a better set of adjectives. It had huge beautiful tress overlooking the Mekong River, which is what the city was built around. Lots of cool restaurants, bars, etc. Furthermore, we rented motorbikes and that was one of the most liberating experiences of my life, driving through the rice terraces and dodging cows on the road. Google search Luang Prabang waterfalls. I believe they are called the Kuang Si Falls. Unbelievable.
From Laos, Allain and I flew into Ha Noi, which is the northern part of Vietnam. This city was nuts. It was hilarious trying to cross roads with the thousands of motorbikes driving by. A good experience, but similar to Bangkok, it is just a major city with a convenient airport. We immediately left for Ha Long Bay, which I HIGHLY recommend. It is one of the seven wonders of the world, and it is very obvious why. If I am not mistaken, Allain and I did a 3 night, 2 day cruise, all food included through Ha Long Bay for about $180. Great experience, and a real highlight. We also stopped by Catba Island. If you go, consider checking that out. After returning to Ha Noi, we took a train down south to Danang, which is home to the world largest cave (google caves and vietnam), and then to Hoi Ann. Both city were pretty neat, but not the highlights of our trip but they did have some nice beaches and cool things to do and see. It was the logical series of destinations to visit as we headed down south, but I would almost suggest flying from Ha Noi to Ho Chi Minh city depending on how much time you have. After those two cities, we arrived in Ho Chi Minh city which is a must if you go to Vietnam. They have these historic war tunnels from the Vietnam war which was pretty intense. Side note: I did NOT get to visit Sapa, which is super far north Vietnam, You would go there from Hanoi. Allain visited there after I left and I am super jealous I didn’t make it there (or really even know about it). All countries we went to we did hiking or outdoors stuff; Vietnam, was the one exception (caves were somewhat outdoors), but Sapa would have been the perfect destination for this. I highly recommend this stop if possible, not above Ha Long Bay though.
From Ho Chi Minh City, it is very easy to get into Siem Reap, Cambodia, where the Angkor Wat tunnels are. Cheap flights or cheap bus rides. That is a running theme in SE Asia. Just depends on the time and money situation. Nevertheless, if you are in this part of the world, it would be a huge mistake to not go to Angkor Wat. Furthermore, I strongly suggest getting there before sunrise so you can get the cool photo in the morning and then check out the surrounding temples when they aren’t many others around. You can hire a tuk tuk driver/guide for like $12 a day, something like that. Do that.
We made a long flight from Cambodia to Indonesia. Wasn’t cheap but Indonesia was arguably my favorite destination. We flew into Bali, got scuba certified, it was a pretty low key part of the island we were on. Next, we went to Gili Trawangan. If you can swing this, do it. This was the highlight of my trip and provided me with the neatest experience of my life. Gili T. is a super small island. No cars, lots of bars and scuba diving. They also have magic mushrooms everywhere. Amazing to say the least.
Thailand Beaches:
We then flew into Phuket, Thailand, which was cool but once again, not the main highlight. We stayed one night which was good. It’s basically a major city that borders a lot of beaches. We rented motor bikes and saw a lot of cool beaches. It was fun, but more importantly, it allowed us to take a boat to Koh Phi, Phi, which was a super cool island. Google search this. The diving there was nuts, as well as the partying (hug fire parties), the beach there was insane, and we also kayaked to nearby islands which was super cool. Next, I went to Koh Tao, on the opposite side of Thailand. Very very cool, good diving, lots of partying. I liked this place for motor biking and exploring the island. Sadly, this was my last stop. I took a simple boat and bus ride back to Bangkok, and flew home.
If you can go to the Philippines, I highly suggest it. There are so many islands you can hop to and from. It’s a really really special place. Boracay was super cool, and I know there are countless other places. I did this on a separate trip and would love to see more of the country.
Hong Kong:
If you can swing this, I highly recommend it. I liked it way more than NYC. This city is nuts. Really really cool. Great food. Amazing experience. It is not like any of the other countries I have previously written about, but there are some amazing sites and experiences here.

Final thoughts. I hope this sparks some questions in your mind. Looking back I wish I would have given you a better timeframe in regard to the number of days I stayed at these places. I don’t have time to go back and edit now, but definitely feel free to ask me any questions and I will get back to you. This is an awesome trip and I really hope you make it happen. One last thought.. You could consider flying into and out of Singapore. If you look at Tiger Air Specials (google it), they have amazingly cheap flights into and out of Singapore. Just a thought.

2 Responses

  1. Kathleen Champlain
    | Reply

    Great pictures Kevin!!!!!!!

  2. Ansel
    | Reply

    absolutely stunning!
    great stuff kevo

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