Highs and Lows of Backpacking South East Asia

 

 

I had just finished teaching for the first time in South Korea. Able to save some cash and already in Asia I decided to embark on a backpacking journey in Southeast Asia. My first stop – Bangkok.

Bangkok

Temple in Bangkok - wanderdolls.com

I did a bit of planning beforehand. Had made some connections via couch surfing to stay at a place called Khaosan River Inn. I used couch surfing before and it went well, so I wasn’t too worried.  It was dark when I arrived, I hopped on the subway to get into a more central area of the city. This part was easy. A few taxi people approached me. I picked the wrong one. The man literally drove in circles ‘showing me places I should check out.’

It was dark when I arrived, I hopped on the subway to get into a more central area of the city. This part was easy. A few taxi people approached me. I picked the wrong one. The man literally drove in circles ‘showing me places I should check out.’

After telling him multiple times to please just take me to my hostel I arrived after spending a few hundred baht more than anticipated.

It was late when I got there, this hole-in-the-wall kind of place. An ‘Inn’ meant to hold maybe 15 people had much more. There were people with sleeping bags on the floor and others sharing beds. Not what I had in mind. Thankfully the person I had communicated with beforehand was there and nice.

Nice or not, this place was not exactly as described. Crowded with people and filthy, I quickly found a place to crash and left early in the morning after some searching on Agoda for a new place to stay.

I found a cab and went into the city. I decided upon Aris Hostel – it was only one block behind the infamous Khaosan road, was cheap, and had decent reviews. It didn’t have lockers like it had advertised, but I had locks for my bag so I wasn’t too concerned.

My four days in Bangkok consisted of meeting some fantastic people at my hostel, visiting some beautiful temples, meeting up with some folks from my job in Korea, ending up at Nana’s playground, going to a ping pong show, walking out of a ping pong show, and making the terrible decision of booking my next three weeks of travel in advance.

Views on Bangkok: Low

Not for me. It’s all about the party and shopping. The temples are beautiful but you can see them in a day or two. It’s a fairly grimy place and in most bars, I went to with friends there were sad looking half naked girls dancing around. It’s an interesting city with lots going on – but it’s a bit much for me. Oh – but I ate a scorpion and that was kind of cool.

Siem Reap

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My journey getting to Siem Reap wasn’t ideal – long bus rides and a frustrating border experience, but that’s another post. I spent only four days here as well and was the only city I visited in Cambodia, though I felt I could’ve spent more time in both the city and the country.

The food was fantastic and you could find anything from bugs to eat, spicy Khmer dishes, to your regular western fare of burgers and fries.

Pub Street in Siem Reap is expat central. Full of a variety of different restaurants, bars, pubs, clubs, and shops; you’ll find what you need with ease. Temple Bar & Club was my favourite. You could watch a show of traditional dance during your dinner and if you wanted to later visit the club attached.

The market (best at night) was also a major highlight of Siem Reap. So many interesting things to buy and look at. There are galleries throughout to pass through, souvenirs, antiques – anything really. I ended up buying a hammock!

Angkor Wat is, of course, the biggest draw of visiting Siem Reap. A quick tuk-tuk ride from town will bring you to the largest religious monument in the world and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Views on Siem Reap: High

There is so much to see and do here. You don’t get the same ‘attacked’ feeling of people trying to sell you things like I felt in Bangkok, and the history, culture, and food here is wonderful. A little small for a city, but it left me wanting to see more.

Southern Thailand: Aonang/Krabi/Railay

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Easily the most relaxing part of my trip. I spent a week in this part of southern Thailand relaxing and reading on the beach for the most part. Eating delicious food (I recommend Cuckoos Nest Bar & Restaurant) and drinking out of coconuts is how I spent most of my days.

I stayed at the Aonang Lake Side Bungalows. Close enough to walk to the beach, but far for going into town. I’d suggest this place if you’re travelling as a couple, but when you’re by yourself, having your own little bungalow isn’t ideal for meeting people. I certainly appreciated the privacy for the two days I was disgustingly sick.

I had a few day trips in and out of Aonang. My favourite was easily the rock climbing trip with Real Rocks Railay. I also took a cooking class and learned how to make Thai Green Curry, spring rolls, and chicken pad thai.

Views on Southern Thailand: High

Great place to go for relaxing on the beach and overall having a good time. It’s a very calm and chilled out atmosphere so if you’re looking for relaxation, head here. I wish I had a chance to check out Koh Phi Phi, but it leaves something to look forward to for next time!

Thai Islands: Koh Phangan and Koh Tao

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I ventured to Koh Phagnan first for the infamous Full Moon Party. Having never been, this was a bucket list item. I booked my hostel well in advance as the prices shoot up the closer it gets to the party. I stayed at lucky crab hostel in Haad Rin.

This is quite central in a town that was filled with restaurants, cafes, and bars. Also scattered about were shops to get neon shirts that said “Full Moon Party.”

My favourite spot was the phantom food market in Thong Sala. What is just a parking lot during the day transforms into a giant market of food vendors of all different kinds of foods freshly prepared each day.

I also ventured out to a herbal sauna one day and a yoga lesson on the other end of the island another day. The others were spent lounging in these half outdoor cafes drinking shakes, writing, and attempting to rest up for the full moon party.

There were many parties leading up to the full moon party – waterfall party, jungle party, and then finally the full moon one. I only went out for the full moon party as the others cost a few hundred baht just to enter, where the full moon party was free!

With all the hype surrounding it, I had fairly high expectations. The night of the party the streets were flowing with people, one big stream down to the beach. Lining the streets were vendors selling literally buckets of booze and doing glow in the dark paint.

Music surrounded you. Frankly, I was too sober. I should’ve drank with people beforehand, but I had only really met one other person at the hostel and we didn’t get up to much. Wandering around for a while it was fun to watch people jump the fire jump rope and do poi. We left early considering it was an all night event.

Later the next day I left for Koh Tao. I hindsight I wish I would’ve spent more time there and less in Koh Phagnan. This place was an island paradise with amazing food beautiful beaches. With only one full day there I spent it snorkeling and partying on the beach. I met some amazing people there that I went out with that night to go on to win a beer pong tournament at a hostel and watch fire poi on the beach.

Views on Koh Phagnan: Low

Koh Phagnan is over hyped and a complete brofest. Expect lots of neon and sunglasses at night. For a party trip with friends, go for it. Going outside of full moon party time, it’s a lovely island; otherwise, I’d either spend a short time there or pass altogether.

View on Koh Tao: High

I will be going back here. I’m not sure when – but it’s back on the list. For divers or snorkellers, there’s tons to see, or you can relax and enjoy. It is very touristy but not in an overly sales-y way. The whole place is simply comfortable and enjoyable. More pricey than mainland Thailand, but worth it.

Chiang Mai & Pai

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I flew in here from Bangkok after meeting up with my friend and immediately rented a car from the airport. Renting a car in Chiang Mai was easily the best decision we made in this area. It made getting around so easy and we didn’t need to be herded around at early morning group tours.

Staying at the Ban Sabai Resort and Spa was a bit out of the way, but gorgeous and worth it. We visited the elephant sanctuary and the tiger kingdom. These places were fantastic. The animals were treated well and we got lots of one on one time with them. It was surreal to be so up close to the magnificent creatures.

The city of Chiang Mai isn’t the easiest to drive around, but once you’re in it there’s tons of restaurants and nightlife. Beautiful to walk around in as well.

We took a drive up to Pai and the trip was fantastic. A mountainous drive that we stopped regularly on to stop and take pictures. When we got closer to the town there was an elephant walking down the road!

We found our way to the Pai treehouse hotel and were directed to our cabin. We could park directly outside of it, and when we went in there was a tree going directly through it! The cabin itself was fairly small but in a way that was cute and woodsy. The grounds were beautiful – trees and cabins scattered about, lovely gardens and a giant hut that was their restaurant.

We ventured into town for food and were pleasantly surprised by the number of options. We first grabbed lunch at a café called Fat Cat. They had some awesome healthy options and was vegetarian-friendly – which we weren’t specifically looking for – but they had good options either way.

While only there for two days, (I wish we could’ve stayed longer), we visited the Pai Hotsprings Resort to enjoy the lovely hot spring pools they had to offer. It was really convenient to not needing to be staying there as we just got a day pass. We spent a lot of time strolling around the town and sampling a variety of street food – there were so many options it would be impossible to list them all. I just wanted to eat everything I saw. There were also massage shops everywhere, so we enjoyed one both days we were here.

On the evening of our second night we stayed at a guesthouse in the town so we could enjoy some drinks out as the treehouse we’d either have to drive to/from or get a taxi out. The second place was just a random building with a painted sign on it. It was very cheap, only about 300 baht a night, and surprisingly clean and comfortable for the price. We went to Edible Jazz Garden and Bar where we could enjoy our drinks in a hammock listening to live music.

View on Chiang Mai and Pai: VERY High

This was easily my favourite part of my trip. I’d even be willing to say that I’d live here at some point. There’s so much more I still want to see and do (circus hostel anyone?) and it’s so much fun I can’t imagine not going back.

Luang Prabang

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We flew in here from Chiang Mai and this city in Laos had a very European feel to it. It had a strong French colonial influence and was gorgeous. A nice mix of European and Asian architecture.

My favourite part of this city was the night market – and frankly, there wasn’t much else to do at night here. The food section of the night market had a massive buffet style spread of Laotian BBQ and is probably the best BBQ I’ve ever had (sorry Korea).

Also, the dinner cruise on the Mekong river was amazing. During the dinner, you could watch traditional dancing with live music and enjoy a three-course meal.

During the day there are some temples to check out, and a nice short hike up Mount Phousi gives you a beautiful view of the city.

View on Luang Prabang: High

A nice change when backpacking in South East Asia. A small place, and I’d say we spent just the right amount of time there – 4 days. A few days more than that would be fine, but by a full week or more you’d likely get bored.

Vang Vieng

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Famous for the drunken and drug infused river parties, we arrived at this town after a long and nauseating bus ride. Much less developed compared to Luang Prabang it doesn’t look like much when you arrive.

We were dropped off at a bus station out of the town and grabbed a truck into the main centre found what we deemed a suitable guesthouse (i.e. it was fairly cheap and looked clean).

Wandering around there was a plethora of restaurants, bars, and small shops. There were this cafe/bars that I called ‘friends bars’ only due to the fact that the show friends was constantly on. Many people spent their days here to avoid the heat, have food regularly brought to them and just relax.

There was lots of partying in this town. Although the major party of the river and drugs have been heavily cracked down on (too many deaths of tourists), it’s still a great time. Sakura bar was my favourite – I even bought the T-shirt. Cheap drinks, fun music, and balloons filled with laughing gas if you wanted to give that a try.

When you spend your day floating down a river – which you definitely will if you visit here – give yourself ample time, as you have to return your tube at a certain time or lose your deposit. It’s easy to lose track of time as there are people on the side who will throw you a rope and pull you into shore! Along the side are a few different bars and restaurants – some with hammocks, others with basketball courts and beer pong tables!

One night we ventured out a jungle party and it was a blast. Out in the middle of nowhere, you were essentially at the mercy of the tuk-tuk driver if you wanted to head back early – thankfully we were good to go until the end. This was outdoors, huge dancing area, a large bar with cheap drinks, and a covered picnic table area off to the side. There are bathrooms but I hope you’re comfortable using squatter toilets!

Views on Vang Vieng: High

Definitely visit this little town. Most others here are also backpacking. When you go it will look like everything is under construction and there’s not much going on – but you’ll find some hidden gems. Be sure to check out Gary’s Bar – a fun little Irish pub near Sakura bar.

Final Thoughts

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Backpacking in South East Asia was one of the highlights of my year. I was solo for a few weeks of it and with friends for the rest. Honestly, I think that is the best way to do it. You still have some alone time to learn new things and see everything for yourself as well as meet new people, but you don’t get lonely when you know you’ll be meeting up with people soon.

I spent only six weeks on my backpacking journey and in hindsight I wish it was longer. Travelling slower is not only easy but much cheaper. I took an odd route that with a little more planning would’ve made more sense.

Lessons Learned

Don’t plan too far in advance. When your transportation and accommodation is already booked, it doesn’t allow for flexibility should you want to change your plans. Also, if one leads to the other and you don’t like the first one, you’re either out money or stuck there.

Stay in hostels. I had a few private rooms along the way. I thought they’d be a nice change, but really they just made me feel lonely. It was much harder to meet new people when you’re separate from them.

 

 

 

 

 

By | 2017-01-16T23:01:55+00:00 January 15th, 2017|Asia, Cambodia, Chiang Mai, Laos, Thailand, Travel|1 Comment

One Comment

  1. Lynda January 15, 2017 at 10:01 pm - Reply

    I’ve always wanted to stay in a treehouse and would love to get up close and personal with elephants and tigers – so Chiang Mai and Pai is some place that I would love to go with my daughter.

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