Tuesday, March 18, 2014

SE Asia backpacker circuit

Heard good things about traveling to Thailand? Sure, it's not so unheard of anymore.

So as long as your making the big trek over the little pond, why not make the trip worthwhile? Why not stay a few more weeks and visit some nearby countries while you're there?

Here's a visual:

There's no one defined loop that all the backpackers take, but generally speaking, it is easiest to fly into Bangkok then go up to northern Thailand, across to northern Laos, northern Vietnam down the coast to southern Vietnam, then Cambodia, back to Bangkok, and possibly down to a Thai island...or in reverse.

Here are some things to consider when planning your travel:

1. How much time can you be there?
The loop would take a minimum time of 1 month, hitting up 1-2 towns in each country for 2-3 days at a time, via bus...the cheapest and most adventurous mode of transportation!

2. How much are you willing to rough it...or how much are you willing to spend? 
As mentioned above, buses and trains are the cheapest options, but will cost you in time. It also means there will be more natives, less English, less Western toilets, but you will see much more of the countrysides.

Hostels are great for budget travel, and serve almost as little English-speaking embassies. If there are dorms, they will be your cheapest option, some as low as $3/night to share with 3-9 other roommates. Most all of them are safe and provide lockers to hold your bag (pack your padlock). Some even offer nightly activities that give you a chance to meet other hostelers. Chances are you'll be so tired that you could fall asleep anywhere! 

More remote areas only offer private rooms, so even if you're one person, you will have to pay for two people. All the more incentive to make a friend!

3. How do I get around the cities?
In order of most expensive to least expensive
- Taxis: mostly in the capital cities, just like in the US with a meter
- Tuk-tuks: everywhere. Negotiate the rate BEFORE you get into the tuk-tuk!
- Scooters/moto-bike: mostly in Vietnam and Cambodia. Just like a tuk-tuk, negotiate price first.
- Songthaew: Covered trucks with bench seats, basically a shared taxi to popular destinations. Negotiate price before getting into the truck.
- Public transportation: in the biggest cities. I've found that trains are generally way easier to navigate than bus systems. And city buses will have very few English speaking people to assist.
- OR if you have the time and the spirit, BUY a motorcycle or scooter and make your way across the country on your own time, then sell it back at the end of your trip! And if you're a real adventurer, bring your camping gear and set up tent every night (might not seem the safest, but it's been done many times before, so you won't be the first).
- Whatever you take, leave extra time for travel!

4. Are you a city or a country gal (or guy)?
Chances are that if you enjoy the city lifestyle in the US, you will appreciate all that the cities overseas offer. However if you really want to get to know the natives and hear their stories, the country folk, like in the states, are generally more laid-back and friendly. Same goes for costs. City folks can generally get by trying to make a buck off of a foreigner and after awhile you can start to feel like they are taking advantage. Country folks are more likely to offer you a plate of dinner and a room at their home, even though you are a complete stranger. Go with your gut...just don't let one person ruin your experience of the entire country!

That being said, restaurants in the bigger Vietnam cities had their daily brew on sale for 4 cents a glass, or 25 cents a pitcher. That was not a rip-off!

5. How much culture do you want to experience?
Keep in mind that the islands are beautiful, but touristy compared to other mainland locations. I found a remote bungalow on Koh Phangan for $20, which doesn't seem terrible, but tack on the little bit extra for transportation to get there, plus the little extra that meals and drinks cost, and suddenly you're going through money a lot faster than you were on the mainland.

You can scuba dive, play with baby tigers, ride an elephant, or take an Asian cooking class, and it's up to you to decide if they will be a worthwhile part of your experience or not. Remember to do it for you, not for Facebook.

And if you have more time than a month, consider Burma, Singapore ($$), or the Philippines. In my next articles I'll highlight where I went, and what to pack!

What are you waiting for?!

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