Tuesday, March 18, 2014

My SE Asia route

Here's my itinerary to give you an idea of where to go and what to do:

Thailand: Bangkok >> Chiang Mai 
I landed in Bangkok and went straight to the other airport, and flew right up to Chiang Mai via Air Asia. If I had more time, I would have taken the train through the countryside. 

Chiang Mai is a mini-Bangkok. Easy to navigate as the city is a big square. There are many temples, lots of great food, and some of the cheapest hostels and smoothies! Also a great place to play with baby tigers, trek with elephants, or learn how to cook Thai.

>> Pai >> Chiang Mai 
From Chiang Mai I took a short bus to the backpacker town of Pai. Super chill place, lots of hippies, lots of hammocks and lots of great food...even decent mexican burritos and all-you-can-eat-sushi if you're craving something other than Thai. I'd recommend Darling Viewpoint Bungalows across the river.

Vietnam: Da Nang >> Hoi An >> Hue >> Ninh Binh >> Hanoi
Again, for lack of time, especially with the upcoming Vietnamese Tet (New Year), where it is recommended to not be in the country unless you know a family to spend it with, I flew from Chiang Mai to Da Nang. I had reserved the flight months in advance on Vietnam Airlines, but apparently hadn't actually booked the flight, so had lost my seat. Thankfully I was able to buy the flight on sight, but at about $60 more. 

As the cheapest option, and with some time to spare, I took a city bus to Hoi An from Da Nang. A bit confusing, but I made it. Hoi An is a beautiful small city of love, situated inland just a short cruiser bike ride from the coast. I'd recommend the Sunshine Hostel - and book in advance! This is the place to buy silk clothing. The waves were also small but powerful enough to try my legs at surfing. Afterwards, I celebrated with my new French friend at a restaurant called Bale Well tucked in an alley, and had 4 cent glasses of the daily brewed beer.

I left Hoi An for Da Nang and Hue, but wouldn't really recommend either of them, even though there is some history there, it didn't seem relevant (like the Vietnam war memorials closer to Ho Chi Minh City, which I thought would be too overwhelming for me but other travelers loved it!). I took the last seat/bed on the scenic train up to Hanoi, although it's not so scenic at night! Beware those who are claustrophobic, as the trains aren't exactly Amtrak.

Fellow travelers told me that Halong Bay was too touristy and too overcast that time of year, so I chose the 'mini' Halong Bay of Ninh Binh, a very long and confusing city bus ride from Hanoi. Regardless, I made it, rented my first motorbike, and attempted to find this park. Lost in translation with a hand drawn map, it was still a beautiful scenic drive outside of a big city.

Laos: Vientianne >> Pakse >> Don Dhet (4,000 islands)
I flew from Hanoi to Vientianne, taking a $5 taxi which took me to the wrong hostel as soon as the sun had set. A couple hours later I found my hostel. The city had delicious French and Italian food, from it's European roots. And cheese! The first I had in weeks. Otherwise, the city didn't offer much that interested me. While I should have backtracked north to go floating in a river of Vang Vien or Luang Probang, I took a fancy sleeper overnight bus south to Pakse. It was basically like sharing a twin bed with a stranger, but thankfully she was a nice German, also a freelance designer, also about my age. Pakse was another small city, not much to do, but I did have a wonderful 90-minute $9 swedish massage.

Next stop was a 4-hour bus ride to the 4,000 islands, right near the border of Cambodia, along the Mekong River. From the bus stop, long boats take you a short ways to a small island, which is about 3 miles in circumference. I paid $6/night for a couple's bungalow, with both sunrise AND sunset view. I ran into previous backpackers, including my German bunkmate, and sat on the beach and rode around the island on bike cruisers for the next couple days.

Cambodia: Siem Reap >> Phnom Penh 
I took the long bus ride to Siem Reap, which ended up being a bus ride that packs people with bags of rice, as tight as sardines. Everyone needs to try it at some point in their life. This is also a time where you've hopefully figured out how to use pit toilets. In my humbled opinion, I think they are better than the seatless South American toilets anyhow...as long as you don't have a 25 pound pack on your back.

Siem Reap is a must. Ankor Wat is an easy bike ride away to save you from renting a driver for the day. I'd also recommend stopping at the hospital afterwards to donate blood to the locals who are in desperate need. After you've done your good deed for the day, celebrate with a beer and happy pizza at Happy Herb's, and proceed with caution to the adjacent street's bar scene and begging families.

Next stop, Phnom Penh, where the Genocide Museum / Killing Fields is another place you must stop. You will look at these people with a much softer eye and much warmer heart. 

Thailand: Bangkok >> Koh Phangan >> Bangkok >> USA
I flew from Phnom Penh to Surat Thani, then took the last ferry to Koh Samui, and a speed boat to Koh Phangan. Avoid the extra expensive speed boat by not missing the last ferry! I stayed with friends in Tantawan Bungalows on Haad Yao beach, which is the NW part of the island. As tough as I thought I could be to bike around the small island, it would be strenuous with the hills, so we rented a scooter, or we walked everywhere. Koh Phangan is known for its full moon parties, which I did not desire to partake in, but I would recommend going if you have someone to go with. Even if you're a few years older than 21 :) Haad Yao beach was beautiful with the calmest waters I've ever seen. You won't see the limestone formations until taking the ferry back to the airport. If you care to scuba dive, Koh Tao is the next island over for that.

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