Popular Backpacking Route for Thailand

asia/oceania routes

southeast asia | thailandmyanmar | vietnam | indonesia | indiaaustralia


Thailand Backpacking Route

The Thailand backpacker scene has changed dramatically over the past 20-30 years and some would say for the worse but travellers continue to flock to the so-called ‘land of  smiles’ in ever-increasing numbers. The main backpacker destinations, particularly the most popular islands in the South have become much more commercialised and predominantly party-orientated, which is great if you want to party all night and recover by day on beautiful golden beaches. If that’s not your scene, it’s not hard to find quieter more peaceful destinations sometimes even on the same island.

Bangkok remains the beating heart of the country, a true city of sin which love it or hate it makes for a truly intoxicating travel experience. It’s almost impossible to visit Thailand and Southeast Asia for that matter without passing through Bangkok at least once or twice given it is the core of the country’s transport network and home to the biggest two airports. The North still retains much of its old charm and places like Chiang Mai are the ideal spots to really get to grips with ancient Thai culture while there are plenty of natural wonders to be discovered outside of the towns.

Many of the destinations on this backpacking route for Thailand have already been covered in our South East Asia travel itinerary but split into two separate parts to get around the need for a visa (see bottom of this page for info on sorting out a visa for this route). However given it remains the most popular backpacking destination on the planet, we figured it could use its only dedicated route and here it is!


TIME NEEDED – 2 MONTHS

Allow 2 months to get round the whole route although it could be done in less time particularly if you are not so fussed with the party/beach element.


POSSIBLE BUDGET – £1250-1650 | €1400-1900 | US$1500-2000 | 50,000-70,000 THAI BAHT

Backpacker budgets in Thailand vary dramatically depending on the kind of trip you want to have. The lower figure we have quoted is a real shoestring budget and would involve staying in the cheapest places, eating local food and not going wild on the partying. The higher figure is perhaps a more typical backpacker budget these days but still requires some self-discipline as even though Thailand is cheap, there is temptation to spend almost everywhere, particularly if you are a party animal, in which case you should definitely allow for a bit more.

These figures were updated in January 2017 but DO NOT include the cost of flights to/from Thailand, visas, vaccinations or travel insurance.

Read more on the cost of travel in Thailand.


VISA REQUIREMENTS FOR THAILAND

Most nationalities do not require a visa for Thailand (30 days) but this route is for 2 months. We have detailed info on how to deal with that at the bottom of the page.


TRAVEL INSURANCE

We recommend World Nomads, who specialise in backpacking trips and cover all kinds of activities that are typical for backpackers in Thailand.


FUNKY GUIDES – BACKPACKERS GUIDE TO SOUTHEAST ASIA 2017-2018

Ebook – £2.99 | €3.49 | $3.79

Paperback – £4.99 | €5.49 (+ VAT) | $5.99


Backpacking route for Thailand


 BANGKOK & AROUND

Time Needed – 10 days should be more than adequate.

backpacking route from Bangkok

Bangkok

(3-4 days)

Logical starting point with flight connections to all 4 corners of the world. The Thai capital has many faces and chances are you will find one that is to your liking. It has a reputation as a real life Sin City and certainly it’s seedy sexual side is hard to ignore but there is plenty more to it than that. Great shopping, vibrant nightlife, buzzing street markets, delicious food and a few stunning palaces mean you will never be short of things to see and do in Bangkok. Most backpackers head straight to the Khao San Road which is the biggest backpacker hub in Southeast Asia and the perfect place to make some travel buddies, which is handy in those lonely early days, particularly if it’s your first time travelling alone.


MFT RECOMMENDS – The Aris Hostel, Bangkok 

Just 100m from Khao San Road, Aris is a good place to base yourself in Bangkok.


Ayutthaya

(1 day)

Can be done as a long day-trip from Bangkok or with an overnight stay. This ancient city, the 2nd capital of Siam was the largest city in the world in the early 18th century with 1 million residents. It is a shadow of its former self now but the remnants of its heyday are still spread across town and give clues to its former grandeur.

Kanchanaburi 

(2-4 days)

This chilled out riverside town has becoming a big backpacker destination in recent years. The bridge over the River Kwai is the main point of an interest and most of the sights relate to the dark history of the so-called Death Railway to Burma during World War II. Nature lovers will also find plenty of thrills around the town and there are several interesting historical sites dotted about too with highlights including the Tiger Temple (very popular but has come in for fierce criticism from animal rights groups), Hellfire Pass and Erawan National Park.

Hua Hin 

(1-2 days)

Thailand’s oldest beach resort is getting its groove on once again. It’s popular with Thais in Bangkok due to its proximity to the capital and gets lively at weekends and during national holidays. Budget travellers tend to prefer the islands further South but Hua Hin is still a popular stop and breaks up the journey from Bangkok down to Southern Thailand.


Getting to Southern Thailand from Bangkok and Hua Hin

You have many options, the most interesting of which is to take the train down to Chumphon and connect to a boat to Ko Tao (All-in-one tickets can be bought including train, bus to the ferry port and ferry to Ko Tao or one of the other islands). Hua Hin is on the main trainline from Bangkok to Chumphon so it’s very easy sort out.


SOUTHERN THAILAND

Time Needed – roughly 4 weeks*

* This depends on how much you enjoy the beach and party life. The time-frames suggested for each destination are just a guide. It’s very easy to extend your stay on any of the islands if you are enjoying it. Each destination has its own subtle differences and points of interest but there is an element of ‘same same’ about the backpacker scene at each place so some travellers choose to skip a few of these destinations in favour of spending longer in one place and perhaps doing a diving course, a bit of voluntary work or if you’re low on funds perhaps finding a bit of work for one of the bars or hostels. Either way it’s probably best not to plan a rigid schedule in this part and just relax, enjoy the lazy beach lifestyle and move on when you feel ready.

Backpacking route for Southern Thailand

Ko Tao

(3-7 days)

The smallest and quietest of the 3 main inhabited islands in the Gulf of Thailand. Ko Tao is a beautiful island and very popular with backpackers, some of whom end up staying much longer than intended. It is a fabulous place to do a PADI diving course and many of the centres also provide accommodation.

Ko Pha Ngan

(3-7 days)

Home of the famous full moon parties. Once a month the travellers flock to Ko Pha Ngan’s Haad Rin beach for a night of debauchery under the moonlight. The island gets very busy during this time although the other end of the island is much quieter. It’s a good idea to book accommodation in advance here around Full Moon night, something which isn’t really necessary anywhere else. There are big parties every week though so you don’t have to come for full moon with black moon and jungle parties also worth checking out and arguably better than the main night itself.

Ko Samui

(2-3 days)

The Southernmost island in the Gulf of Thailand is less popular with backpackers and is unquestionably very touristy but it’s a big island and there are so many different beaches that you are sure to find one to your taste and it’s a fun place to explore for a day or so.

Khao Sok National Park

(2 days)

Khao Sok National Park is the country’s largest natural reserve and home to the world famous Cheow Lan Reservoir, but it’s not like any man made lake you’ve ever seen. With it’s towering limestone cliffs and crystal-clear blue waters, it is surrounded by the world’s oldest living rain forest. One great way to see everything this place has to offer is to join a group for an overnight trip to the floating bungalows of Khao Sok Lake. You’ll ride a traditional long tail boat, sleep in a bamboo floating bungalow and eat three meals per day. You’ll also be able to explore the jungle on foot hiking to caves and waterfalls or spend your time relaxing in the water or kayaking.

Krabi (Ao Nang or Krabi Town)

(2 days)

Krabi is the name of the province and most visitors either stay in Krabi Town, its capital or Ao Nang, its principal beach resort, which is about 30 minutes by bus from the town. The town is full of dirt cheap accommodation and restaurants and has a few interesting things to see and do but nothing remarkable. Ao Nang is a lively beach town packed with bars, restaurants, hotels and massage parlours (mostly not of the ‘happy ending’ variety). There are a couple of great beaches to relax on.

Rai Leh (Railay Beach)

(2-3 days)

Rai Leh is only 15 minutes or so round the coast and although it is not an island, it can only be accessed by boat as it is engulfed by huge cliffs on all sides. Active travellers and anyone who wants to do more than just bum around on a beach and get drunk should definitely check it out and might want to spend a fair while here. It’s a great destination for climbing, perhaps the best in Thailand and is also popular for its hiking, kayaking and snorkelling possibilities.

Ko Phi Phi

(3-5 days)

Phi Phi is one of the iconic destinations of the Thailand backpacker trail. Phi Phi Don is the only island that is inhabited and possible to stay. 20 years ago it was a very quiet island and although it is still beautiful, the main beaches and village on Phi Phi Don are now full on party-orientated not dissimilar to Haad Rin on Ko Pha Ngan. There are numerous boat trips you can do around the bay, most of which include plenty of stops for swimming and snorkelling in beautifully clear water and a visit to Maya Bay, where the movie ‘The Beach’ was filmed.

Ko Lanta

(3-5 days)

If you found all the other islands a bit too crazy and just want some time to rest and most likely detox, then Ko Lanta is the perfect place. It is home to miles and miles of long white sandy beaches, clear waters and not many people!


Getting from Southern Thailand to Northern Thailand

Getting from Ko Lanta or any of the other Southern destinations to Northern Thailand is best done by flying unless you want to spend in excess of 24 hours on buses and trains and still end up spending roughly what you would have had you opted to fly. Thai Lion Air offer the cheapest flights and allow you to put your backpack in hold for free which is a big advantage on Air Asia that also offer good deals also but place heavy charges on anyone with more than just hand luggage.

From Ko Lanta, it is best to fly from Krabi Airport, which is about 2 hours away via boat/bus transfer. You may find it cheaper to book two separate flights to move onto the next leg of our route. The first would be from Krabi to Bangkok and the 2nd from Bangkok to Chiang Rai. If you are a bit flexible with your times and perhaps willing to spend a night in Bangkok, you should be able to do the whole trip for around 2000 Baht (roughly 50 Euros).  Note flights will be to Bangkok’s older Don Mueang Airport (which handles domestic flights). A taxi to Khao San Road or Central Bangkok should set you back between 250-400 Baht and take 20-30 minutes depending on traffic and whether you take the toll road (which you will have to pay an extra 150 Baht or so for so tell the taxi driver ‘No Toll!’ if you are in no rush) or not.


NORTHERN THAILAND

Time Needed – 2-3 weeks.

Backpacking route for Northern Thailand

Chiang Rai, Golden Triangle & Around

(3-4 days)

Given you will most likely need to return to Bangkok to leave the country it is probably best to start your Northern Thailand adventure in Chiang Rai which is the furthest away from the capital and then work back. The town of Chiang Rai has 1 or 2 interesting sights and some nice museums that can occupy you for a day or so but its main purpose from a travellers perspective is as a base that will allow you to explore the region or even do a day-trip to nearby Tachileik in Myanmar (no need for a visa).

Most travellers also head to the golden triangle, which is a small area in Chiang Rai province where the River Ruak meets the mighty Mekong River and where Thailand meets Laos and Myanmar. It was well-known as a famous opium growing region and there a few interesting sites where you can learn about the trade. Nowadays though the Golden Triangle is undoubtedly a tourist trap and is more or less completely dependent on tourism for income so those looking for a more authentic Thai experience, sometimes turn their nose up at the mention of it.

Check out 19 amazing things to do in Chiang Rai.

Mae Salong

(1-2 days)

This can also be done as a day-trip from Chiang Rai but there are a few guesthouses with rock-bottom prices in town so it’s nice to stay overnight in what is a really small village with beautiful surroundings. It has a fascinating history and was the home of a group of 12,000 Chinese Nationalists who fled China to Mae Salong in 1949 following the rise to power of the Chinese Communists. They continued their insurgency, part-funded by the opium trade for several decades from Mae Salong. There are several museums relating to this in the village, which nowadays is famous for producing excellent oolong tea.

Chiang Mai

(3-4 days)

Another key destination on any backpacking route in Thailand. Chiang Mai is a cosmopolitan city with a very international vibe like Bangkok, but much smaller and more relaxed and without a lot of the hassles that go with the capital. It’s a great place to get to grips with traditional thai practices such as massage, muay-thai boxing and thai cooking and has a reputation as the country’s cultural capital.

You could potentially split your time in Chiang Mai into two separate stints as you will probably need to return after Mae Sariang in order to take a train down to Sukhothai as there are no easy and certainly no direct connections between Mae Sariang and Sukhothai.


MFT RECOMMENDS – Mapping Hostel, Chiang Mai 

Dirt cheap bungalows and dorm beds in a beautiful location overlooking the river.


Pai

(2-4 days)

Pai is another stop which has turned into a real backpacker place and it’s not hard to see why. With only 3000 permanent residents it is very small and is located in a really beautiful valley North of Chiang Mai. There are a whole range of different ways to witnessing the nature from lazily chilling out in one of Pai’s plentiful backpacker bars and taking in the views to tubing, trekking, zip-lining, white-water rafting and plenty more.

Mae Hong Son

(1-2 days)

This is another very small town not far from Pai. You probably won’t need as long here but it’s certainly worth hiring a motorbike or at least a bicycle for a day or two and getting out to the surrounding areas which are home to a few points of potential interest including a mud spa, a bamboo bridge, a waterfall, a palace and a fish cave!

Mae Sariang

(2-3 days)

Close to the Myanmar border and without the crowds of Pai and Chiang Mai, this is a good place for trekking in the mountains and getting to see small local villages and tribes. Its remote location means the ‘hilltribe’ experiences are much more authentic here so be sure to get out to the Karen and Lawa Hilltribe villages.

Sukhothai

(1-2 days)

Thailand’s original capital is located 1 hour by bus from Phitsanulok, which is on the main trainline between Chiang Mai and Bangkok at almost exactly the halfway point (express trains take about 7 hours to reach either city from Phitsanulok) so it is a convenient stop if you opt to get the train back to Bangkok for your flight home or onwards. The train journey alone allows you a glimpse into the remoter areas of Thailand away from the travelling hordes so it is well worth doing although price-wise there is usually little difference between flying from Chiang Mai to Bangkok or taking the train.

Old Sukhothai is 12km west of the modern city and quite a lot of effort has been put in to restoring it to something like its 13th Century glory and it has been recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage site. Consider renting a bike (which you can do for as little as 50 Baht) and exploring the ruins.

And that’s the end of our Thailand backpacking itinerary although you may want to spend another day or two in Bangkok taking advantage of the great shopping centres to grab a few bargains while you wait for your flight home. Certainly don’t rely on the train to deliver you from Phitsanulok to Bangkok on-time for a flight the same day.


Extending Your Trip

There are plenty more destinations in Thailand that are worth a visit and where it might be easier to escape the crowds and get a more authentic Thai experience. Head over to Indie Traveller for an in-depth Thailand travel guide.

Most travellers in Thailand these days, visit at least one of its neighbouring countries too. Our Vietnam backpacking route takes you on a train-ride to remember from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City with numerous stops in between. Alternative options include neighbouring Myanmar.

Check out our Burmese backpacking route for some inspiration there. Leaving mainland SE Asia behind you might also want to check out our Indonesia route, which takes you around some of the country’s most popular islands.


Budget Accommodation in Thailand

Advanced booking isn’t important as there are backpacker districts or streets almost everywhere on this route and some of the beaches on the islands are almost entirely full of hostels and backpacker accommodation that rarely sell out. That said advanced booking during festivals and certainly for full moon parties is an absolute must.


Do I need a Visa for Thailand?

If you are from Korea, Brazil, Peru, Argentina or Chile you get 90 days visa-free and therefore won’t need a visa for this route.

Travellers from 52 countries do not need a visa for 30 days of travel in Thailand. Here is a list of the countries elligible for this 30 day visa exemption. If you are not from one of those 52 countries you will need to arrange a visa in advance in your own country via the Thai Embassy or through a Thai Embassy in another country.

If you are from one of those 52 countries you have a few more options. Seen as this route is scheduled for 2 months, the 30 days visa exemption will not be enough so here are your choices:

Option 1: Get a tourist visa valid for at least 60 days before you enter Thailand

This is something you should do before you leave home but it can also be arranged at a Thai Embassy in other countries if you are doing a long trip visiting various places. It’s best to sort it well in advance of your trip though and you most likely won’t be required to visit the embassy in person. Prices vary from country to country but this is certainly the most hassle-free option and once you are in Thailand you can relax and not have to worry about such issues.

Option 2: Visa Run

You can do a visa run, which basically means you will leave Thailand for a neighbouring country before your 30 day visa exemption expires and then return immediately or after a few days and you will get a fresh 30 days visa-free in Thailand. Note that only people from UK, USA, Canada, Japan, France, Germany, Italy, Russia, Macau, Hong Kong, Laos and Vietnam get 30 days when crossing at both airports and land borders. Other nationalities get 15 days at land borders but 30 at airports.

The most obvious points for visa runs on the route are to Malaysia from any of the destinations in Southern Thailand (particularly Krabi, Ko Lanta or Ko Phi Phi) with Penang or Pulau Langkawi on the Andaman Coast of Northern Malaysia a nearby popular destination for a couple of days or so. Alternatively in Northern Thailand you could head to Laos and the town of Huay Xai very close to Chiang Rai although the need for a Laotian visa makes this option a bit less attractive unless you particularly want to go to Laos.

It may also be tough to fit this into this route without rushing your time in Southern Thailand although you could always leave the first section (Bangkok & around) until the end of your trip (i.e. spend 4 weeks in Southern Thailand first, leave then come back and do Northern and Central Thailand within your new 30 days). You can also often get very cheap flights to Kuala Lumpur and Singapore from cities across Thailand, which may be handy especially if you are from one of those countries who only gets 15 days at land borders.

Option 3 – Extend your 30-day visa-exemption while in Thailand.

Since August 2014, you can now extend your 30 day visa exemption to 60 days by visiting an immigration office in the country and paying 1,900 Baht (roughly US$55). The immigration offices are plentiful enough and wherever you are, you won’t be far away from one but queues can be long in some centres and it isn’t the most enjoyable way to spend a morning or afternoon so getting a visa in advance seems more logical if you’re certain you will be spending more than 30 days in Thailand.

 

PLEASE NOTE – This is correct as of March 2016. The Thai government does from time to time change these visa rules so try to verify this info is still correct if you are reading this at some point in the distant future ;).

Feel free to post a comment below if you know of any changes to these rules and we will update this info. Also let us know what you would include in your backpacking route for Thailand and any of your favourite off-the-beaten track destinations, which can be a welcome relief from the tourist trail.

 


This article was published in March 2016. 


 

Top 10 Tips For Living in Southeast Asia on a Budget

A guest post by Jyotsna Ramani

Let’s get one thing straight; the best way (as per me) to experience life is living on your own in South East Asia. I have lived in Indonesia for almost a year (for work) and I ensure that I get to travel around beautiful and tropical Southeast Asia. I was a bit sceptical at first about living in an unknown country all by myself – but, hey I did it and loved every bit of the experience that followed!

It sounds really nice while you are just travelling but living in a new country can be a daunting task – even for an avid traveller like me. Since, I knew that I would be in the country for a long duration; I had to plan my expenses accordingly. I found that there were some pretty easy ways to living in Southeast Asia on a budget.

Top 10 Tips For Living in Southeast Asia on a Budget

Here’s my list of tips for anyone living in a SE Asian country for a year, based on my experience living in Bandung, Indonesia and travelling around SE Asia

Accommodation

Accommodation in Bandung
One of the six houses I stayed in while in Bandung.

I was given company accommodation initially for a month which was paid for (by the company) but after that the expense would’ve been mine. So instead of living there, I found shared accommodation (with an Australian teacher) at a cost of merely US$100 per month. All that asked of me was helping around with the household chores (nothing unusual). Guest houses are readily available which are dirt cheap, but make sure to get the review from locals first as not all areas are ideal for expats. Best way to find shared houses and great deals are joining local expat groups on Facebook and posting your query there – that’s how I found all the neat places plus got to meet some great expats.

Food

A little change in food habit is all that is required to save on major expenses. Instead of going out to eat every night, try cooking at home occasionally as that would be healthier, safer, more hygienic and of course cost effective. Best of all – you cook whatever you feel like eating (simple). This will also be helpful towards inviting friends/colleagues over for a nice dinner party at home without splurging.

Transportation

Since I was already in contract for a year, I decided to hire a bike taxi for exclusive use. The driver would come and pick me up from wherever I wanted to and drop me off wherever I wanted to go; all it took was a phone call. Total cost was around $100-200 per month (including driver and fuel). Compared to using a taxi every time or a self driven car, it was the most viable option – cheaper & safer than driving myself in a new country. The only drawback was getting drenched when the heavens open up without any warning. Carrying a foldable rain jacket always helps (found out the hard way).

Local gym - cheaper than Gold'sFitness

Being fit is one of my top priorities in life; hence wherever I travel to, I make sure to have my daily workout (whichever way it’s possible). A morning jog in the fresh air, a swim in any one of the many public pools, organised runs, etc. I also found that membership in hotel gyms were much cheaper compared to a regular gym.

Attractions

There are a lot of places to see in Indonesia and almost all of them charge anywhere between 3 – 10 times for expats visiting them. So instead of visiting these places alone, I would suggest tagging along with locals and keeping your voice low as the guards are constantly looking out for expats. This is the best way to see all the touristy places like a local.

Eating Out

Living in Indonesia
Typical Local Indonesian Cuisine.

I know that I said cooking at home would be cost effective but that does not mean not going out to eat ever. Although I must say that even eating out can be cost effective if you know the right places to look or if you don’t mind street food. The best ways to find out about these places are through locals and (thanking my good luck), I did find some of the best people to guide me around and also join me for meals.

 Wellness

I strongly believe in small and simple luxuries like a good massage after a day of hard work (as if I work hard!). But the massage centres in Indonesia will try to rip you off when they come to know you are an expat. So instead of visiting these centres, it’s best to get some home spa numbers from locals and invite them for a nice massage right at your home. People are nice and friendly there so you will never feel uncomfortable doing so.

Insurance

I cannot insist on how important medical insurance is until I got ill due to food poisoning. I had my travel insurance which covered most of the regular medical ailments related to travel. It is a wise idea to invest in wholesome travel/medical insurance especially in SE Asia where the stomach bug or flu can attack without notice.

Credit/Debit cards

When living in a SE Asian country, it is advisable to open a local bank account and use the credit/debit cards for expenses (if possible). This way you don’t have to run the risk of being pick pocketed, mugging, etc. These sort of problems exist all over the world (no exception). It is much better than carrying cash for 1 year or worrying about losing your international card (which happened to me and I had to wait 3 weeks to get it re-issued from India and sent to me in Bandung).

Drinking in IndonesiaDrinking out

Indonesia is a Muslim country and alcohol in Bandung is not readily available – and when it is, it’s not cheap. Find out the local drinking holes (which would be far less expensive than high end clubs/pubs). 

All in all I can say with a certain amount of authority is that living in SE Asia is a ‘rite of passage’ and once you are through it, you can live anywhere in the world (almost anywhere).

 


About the Author

Jyotsna Ramani is a passionate globetrotter who loves to let her hair down and maximize her trips. How does she do that? By traveling on a budget and exploring new places. She travels far and wide (Well, Europe counts, right ?) and then comes back to her blog- WanderWithJo.com to share her experiences. Pretty nifty, eh?

So, don’t you want to uncover some secret drinking holes and see awesome new places through her eyes ?

Follow her adventures on – http://WanderWithJo.com

You can also follow her on social media:

instagram | facebook | twitter | pinterest

 


This article was published in March 2016.

Get our Backpackers Guide to Southeast Asia 2017-2018 for a summary of budget travel in the region.


 

Tubing in Vang Vieng – Latest Update

MFT gets lots of questions from readers about the current situation in Vang Vieng with regards to the tubing. After receiving varying reports, some suggesting it had almost completely shut down, we decided to give it a visit in November 2015 and see for ourselves.

Latest Update on Tubing in Vang Vieng – November 2015

First things first, tubing is still very possible in Vang Vieng. There is one place in the village close to the river-side which rents out the tubes. They cost 55,0000 Kip (roughly £4.50, €6, US$7) for a day with a 60,000 Kip deposit, which is returned in full provided you return your tube prior to 6:00pm. The price also includes a free tuk-tuk to the start of the tubing route, which is several kilometres up-stream and it takes 5-10 minutes to drive to the top. Tuk-tuks only leave when there are 4 people ready to go though, which can be a problem later in the day but for 20,000 Kip you can scrap the waiting around and get the guy to take you to the top. You can hire tubes out at any time up to 4:00pm but it’s best to go a bit earlier as it takes about 1 hour 30 minutes to tube (time varies depending on speed of the river when you visit) all the way down to the village even without any stops.

Tubes on top of a tuk tuk in Laos
The free tuk-tuk ride up to the start of the tubing route.

The tubing experience itself is now rather more sedate than in yesteryear. In the ‘glory years’ of Vang Vieng, the river was lined with lively bars, enormous rope swings and dodgy looking makeshift slides that kept drunken visitors entertained on the way down. From the mid 2000s onwards it grew to become arguably the biggest backpacker party destination in all of Southeast Asia. However unsurprisingly given that in 2011 alone, it is said that 27 travellers died doing the activity, a rate of over one per fortnight, the Lao government decided to clean up its act and crack-down on the party aspect of tubing in Vang VIeng.

As of November 2015, almost everything has shut down besides the tubing itself. There are still 4 or 5 bars that are open along the route but when we visited only the 1st one was really anything resembling a party with blaring music and a crowd of perhaps 100-200. There was one other bar that had a guy trying to entice tubers in for party vibes but it was almost dead and the other few potentials stops were little more than quiet riverside restaurant/bar places where you could stop for a bite to eat or a drink.

Tubing is back to what it probably was intended to be originally. A relaxing, peaceful way to experience the stunning countryside and limestone hills around Vang Vieng. This will come as a disappointment to many but was almost inevitable giving the alarming statistics.

The river is far from completely deserted though now and the local authorities are making a clear attempt to attract less alcohol-fuelled maniacs and a slightly older, wealthier crowd mostly from other parts of Asia. As you tube along, many groups of kayakers pass by as do other motorised boats giving people tours of the river at a faster pace. Later in the day this is especially true and there has been a noticeable increase in Korean, Japanese and Chinese tourists in recent years as Laos and Vang Vieng tries to broaden its appeal.

The remnants of Vang Vieng’s tubing heyday still linger on though. Deserted, rotting bars that were closed down during the government’s crackdown, still eerily hug the riverside, while plenty of giant rope-swings are still evident but most are tied up to prevent people using them. As for the ominously named ‘death slides’, they have completely disappeared and you won’t find any remnants of them.

As we tubed down the river, we encountered numerous large sharp rocks, just a few cm below the surface but not visible from above given the waters are fairly murky. Just heading slowly and soberly in a rubber ring, you have to be a bit careful so it’s no real surprise that so many injuries occurred from people jumping off swings and flying off slides into the water.

The tubing route still ends back in the village and you get off on the left hand side of the river just before a small footbridge opposite two or three bars perched above the river. It’s only a 2 minute walk from there back to the place where you got your tube, which is also obviously where you return it and get your deposit back. After 6:00pm you will only get a partial refund and after 8:oopm they’ll presume you’ve just lost it. It’s a good idea to walk down to the river to get your bearings before you head up in the tuk-tuk as it isn’t immediately obvious where you need to get off.
The final bar has a large sign saying ‘end of tubing’ and offers promises of free drinks but like most of the others it’s fairly quiet and you don’t have to get off there as the actual ‘end of tubing’ is another few hundred metres down the river.

Vang Vieng Tubing Update
Taking it easy on the River!

Tubing Tips

It’s advisable to carry the bare minimum as there is no special compartment where you can keep things dry and if you carry a bag, you’ll need to carry it on your lap while you tube and it will most certainly get wet, especially in the bumpy parts. Guides leading kayaking tours also seem to find it hilarious to splash tubers so watch out for that.

Therefore don’t carry anything like a mobile phone or camera unless it is waterproof. If you plan on stopping off in the bars then obviously you’ll need to bring some money but if not then you really don’t need anything besides yourself and a swimming costume or some clothes you don’t mind getting wet. You can leave items in the tubing place but it’s better to just show up with the 115,000 Kip you’ll need to pay them and then head off. Walking around town in just a bikini or swimshorts is generally frowned upon though as it’s still a conservative country but many travellers ignore such suggestions.

If you want to stop at some of the bars and make a day of it then certainly leave earlier rather than later. It gets dark quickly around 6:00pm depending the time of the year and as well as making the actual tubing more difficult as the rocks will be impossible to see, you may also not know where to stop after nightfall. You will also fail to get all of your deposit back. 12:00-1:00pm is perhaps the peak time for people to set off.

Finally you shouldn’t assume that tubing is now 100% safe and doing something stupid like jumping in the water from a swing or just the side of the river isn’t a cool idea, especially after your third bucket. There are loads of rocks in the river and you are taking a risk any time you do that as it is impossible to know what lies just beneath the surface.

Practical Info about Vang Vieng

Budget accommodation is plentiful although if you arrive late in the day, then the better places can sell out. There are many backpacker hostels with cheap dorms as well as some riverside bungalows and plenty of cheap guesthouses with decent private rooms. A few bigger hotels have sprung up in recent times and when we visited a couple more were being constructed. There is no need to book accommodation in advance, just walk around town when you arrive and look for somewhere.

It is a small place built around two main roads that run adjacent to the river and the main village sections are no more than 1km in length so you can walk everywhere. It’s very typical of a small touristy town on the backpacker trail in Southeast Asia and comes with everything you might expect. Dozens of street vendors sell pancakes for 10,000 Kip and other cheap tasty snacks, while there is an excessive number of massage parlours, mostly without any customers and there are at least 10 bar/restaurants that just play the US sitcom Friends all day every day.

watching Friends in Vang Vieng
A typical restaurant in Vang Vieng.

There are plenty of ATM’s that were all working fine when we visited and plenty of Lao, Thai and international restaurants, with everything from Mexican food to Korean BBQ’s on offer. Nobody goes to Vang Vieng just to visit the town or for an authentic Lao village experience, which it most certainly isn’t. However it has everything you could possibly need and despite an increase in other types of tourists, it still has a real backpacker vibe to it.

There is even a hospital and a few pharmacies although Lao healthcare is not to be relied upon and if you are unfortunate enough to get seriously ill or injured, you’ll probably need to go to Thailand, which is at least 4 hours by road.

Buses and minivans regularly depart South for Vientiane (50,000-60,000 Kip, 4 hours) and North for Luang Prabang (90,000-100,000 Kip, 6-8 hours) which are the next destinations for almost everyone in Vang Vieng. There are also daily direct buses to Udon Thani and Nong Khai in Thailand although you will find it cheaper but more time-consuming to just buy a ticket to Vientiane and then take one of the reasonably regular buses (roughly hourly) that head South of the border from Vientiane Bus Station near the Morning Market in the City Centre.

There are dozens of small travel agencies dotted around town selling bus tickets and tours, while your choice of hostel/guesthouse will almost certainly do likewise. There are small differences in prices so it is worth comparing places before booking.

Is Vang Vieng still a Party Destination?

Yes! There have been numerous posts from the past few years by bloggers offering the latest update on tubing in Vang Vieng and most agree that to some extent the party has just moved from the dangerous river banks and into the town. Party lovers will still find it the liveliest destination in Laos (which isn’t saying much admittedly). Given how small VV is, there are still plenty of choices of where to drink. Lazy riverside bars are the perfect place to chill out in the afternoon, watch the sunset and get ready for the evening. There are few lively bars in town, the most popular of which seems to be Sakura Bar and its famous ‘Drink Triple, See Double, Act Single’ slogan and after a couple of drinks you’ll be the proud owner of one of its cheaply produced t-shirts baring its message.

Like much of sleepy Laos though, most things end early and there’s not a great deal that remains open past midnight including Sakura, which shuts down at 12. There are two clubs in town that are open after that though and they open on alternate nights so there is alway somewhere to go, while on Fridays the Jungle Project, outside of town opens late and includes a 1am fireshow. It offers free tuk-tuks from town but there is a 30,000 Kip cover charge. There also some bars more geared towards locals on the other side of the old airstrip, which you could check out, for a more authentic Lao party.

Despite the crackdown on tubing, the local police authorities still seem to have arrangements in place with some local bars and restaurants, which continue to pretty openly sell drugs. Many of the restaurants boast ‘happy menus’ which serve joints for around 30,000 Kip (roughly US$4), mushroom shakes and pizzas, opium pizzas, happy pizzas, happy omelettes, happy garlic bread and well you get the picture. If that’s your scene, you’ll have fun here but it’s best to consume everything on premises as there are numerous reports of plain-clothed police arresting travellers and threatening them with prison time if they fail to pay a very hefty fine, which basically amounts to a bribe.

Is Vang Vieng just a Tubing/Partying Destination?

No! There is so much more to do in and around Vang Vieng besides tubing and partying and you could easily spend days in the town without doing either. There are also plenty of other activities, trips and little adventures that you can do and most can be done either independently or as part of a tour.

You could easily spend a couple of days exploring some of the countryside around the town. There are plenty of typical Lao villages with really friendly locals that you could visit while there are numerous caves, waterfalls, lagoon and other secluded spots for swimming and relaxing. You can do this by tour of course but you can also just rent out a bicycle, motorbike or even a quadbike and do it all independently with a solid map.

The skies above Vang Vieng.
The undisputed best views of the area are to be had from one of these things!

Rock climbing is another popular activity in Vang Vieng and options are growing while for a more chilled out experience, hot air balloons set off on a daily basis and offer stunning views of the area.

Many nearby villages remain barely affected by the tourism boom in Laos and despite a period of political stability, there are still numerous problems in Laos and a fair bit of poverty. There are many volunteering options in the area, the best of which is perhaps the SAE LAO Project is the best with its aim of sustainable development for the local people.

Verdict – Is Vang Vieng still worth Visiting?

Absolutely. There is something for everyone in the Vang Vieng area and it’s still the sort of place you can hang around for a while.

Although the tubing isn’t what it was, in reality it couldn’t have remained that crazy and dangerous forever given the numbers of young people with bright futures who were continually dying as a result of one reckless and usually drunken or drug-fueled day in Laos. The authorities were right to crack down on it, even if their reasons for doing so were probably more to do with concerns over the damage such negative press could do to their international reputation rather than health and safety concerns, which are still rather absent from many aspects of Lao life.

Although if you get wrecked and get in the water, the risks still remain, it’s not as easy to get sucked into the scene and many of the more dangerous elements have been removed. Vang Vieng is a stunning place and even if the party element completely disappears in the future, which you sense is still a fair way off, it is still most certainly worth coming to.

 

Get our Southeast Asia Backpackers Guide 2017-18 for a full overview of travel in the region.


This article was published in November 2015.


A Mystic Fool: Travels in Vietnam

Mystic Fool: Travels in Vietnam

I had the fortuitous timing to arrive in Vietnam during the culmination of the celebration of Tet, the Vietnamese new year. For Vietnamese, Tet probably has the importance of all the Western holidays rolled into one. Families spend time remembering their ancestors and offering to them incredible amounts of food, liquor, cigarettes, and whatever else Grandpa used to really enjoy. The items are placed on the family altars that are ubiquitous in Vietnam, and after a mystical period when their essence passes on to the ancestors in the spirit realm, they can then consume them.

This timing was a boon to anyone fascinated by Vietnamese traditions, but I wished I’d come in low season when I found myself enmeshed in a sea of motorbikes crossing the city’s broad boulevards. Inching through a seemingly impassible maelstrom of motorists, like a school of fish with fire-hot exhaust pipes, was not the most welcoming introduction to Ho Chi Minh City. Needless to say, every person in southern Vietnam seemed to be in the city then.

I crashed at a place offering a $5/night room in Pham Ngu Lao. It was so cozy that I could touch the walls on either side of my bed at the same time.

vietnam beachIn several days I tired of the hustle of Ho Chi Minh City and cast my eyes on the long coast leading to Hanoi, where I had a general plan of staying for a while. I blazed through the quaint coastal town of Mui Ne (right), spending a night in a youth hostel after a trek through town and some red snapper on the beach that I picked out of the tank myself.

My wanderings delivered me next to the former holiday refuge of the French colonials, Da Lat. The nearly alpine environment of that small settlement was what originally drew the Europeans to build vacation homes there, and it still has a feeling of being far removed from the jungles, tropical coasts, and chaotic cities of the rest of the country.

Da Lat is famous foremost for the strawberries, flowers, and other delectables that fill its vast sweeps of nurseries and sloping ridges. It is called “Le petit Paris,”and there is even a miniature Eiffel Tower there. Despite these attempts by the French to imprint upon it their own character, it has much of its own originality that attracted me.

One example is the Crazy House, a seemingly Alice in Wonderland-inspired array of rooms rising like a surreal dream out of the ground. Technically a guesthouse, it’s like a fairy tale on mescaline, a twisting and surprising trip of childhood fancy and playful anomaly.

hoi an vietnamPassing through the relatively uninteresting beach party of Nha Trang, I arrived in Hoi An (left), the entire old section of which is a UNESCO world heritage site. The architecture of the tiny winding streets has been magnificently preserved to appear as it did long ago, and is one of the most historical destinations in Southeast Asia.

After several days in Hue, the old imperial capital, I finally made it to Hanoi, a place that for years I had held as mythical, where it was my will to stay for a long time.

I arrived on an overcast morning after being up all night on the bus from Hue. Knowing nothing about the city’s geography other than that Hoan Kiem was the area I wanted to be in, I ended up walking for miles all over the city that first day, falling in love with it.

I was attracted to Hanoi like it was a living being, more so than any other place I had ever been. It was very seductive, in the facades on houses, the old men with painter’s hats bicycling down the street, and the grey cobblestone underneath. It felt very respectable, refined, yet enigmatic, enshrouded. There was a curious dichotomy to it. On the one hand there was the serenity of the lakes and parks, and on the other, the blitzkrieg whirlwind of people and motorbikes in the street. There was a palpable sense of reverence to history there. Under the shadow of glass and concrete high rises, on streets lit by neon, an ancient stillness refused to be edged away by the impulses of modernity.

I was swooned by its vibrancy. Out of such a turbulent past there seemed to be an immediacy, a poetic urgency to make a future capable of stability. I found the images I saw walking around to be intensely captivating and beautiful. Trees wildly draped themselves over rainy streets and fog hung in the air into midday. At Hoan Kiem lake, old people did tai chi, young lovers embraced surreptitiously, and others sat alone in the stillness that emanates from that mythic water.

hanoiI knew only the simple, everyday necessities of the language, but these coupled with a modicum of politeness rendered more toothy grins and warm handshakes than anywhere I had ever been. People are nice in their own way everywhere, but in Hanoi I found some of the most straightforward and hospitable people I have encountered anywhere.

Walking down the street in Hanoi was like a military exercise. With every step one has to guard against getting creamed by a motorbike, stepping on a family of chickens or an old woman’s foot, knocking over a cigarette vendor’s stock, falling into a hole in the ground, obstructing the path of a woman carrying baskets bulging with fruit, falling over a steaming cauldron of pho broth, or, dazed by these perpetual precautions, just slipping and falling the way one does in the course of a normal walk.

There was an unexpected fluidity to the chaos in the streets, and after a while I realized it wasn’t chaos, but a seamless order. When crossing the street, the best thing to do, I found, was to just walk right across as if it were empty. The barrage of motorists would zip effortlessly around like the water in a river around a stone. It’s a kind of order, a symbiotic disharmony that was remarkable to witness.

This is an extract from Andy Hill’s excellent travel novel ‘Mystic Fool’. It follows the adventures of a young man as he travels around South East Asia. It makes for an entertaining read that mixes humorous drink-fuelled debauchery with a spiritual journey as he learns about fascinating local cultures and himself.

You can find the book here on Amazon and it is available in paperback or on kindle.


This post was published in April 2013.


Backpacking in Yogyakarta

Temples, Lava & Gangs: This is Jogja!

yogyakarta train stationAs well as having a really cool name, Yogyakarta has much to wow even the most unimpressionable traveller. Vast ancient temples and ridiculously active volcanoes surround this friendly city which lies in the heart of Java, Indonesia’s most populous island. It’s easy to reach with good plane, train and bus links to the rest of this vast country and nicely breaks up the popular but long journey from Jakarta onwards to Eastern Java and Bali.

JOGJA!

Jogja (as it is affectionately known) may be first and foremost a base for exploring the surrounding area but it is also one of Indonesia’s most culturally and intellectually significant cities. It is also one of the oldest in the country and has various monuments and palaces from bygone eras that remain in good condition. The main attraction in town is the giant Kraton Complex, which includes the plush palace of a bloke known as Sri Sultan Hamengkubuwono X. There are various other Islamic sights and a few remnants of the colonial period when the Dutch ruled in Java. There are also many impressive art exhibitions and galleries that are worth a visit but they do sometimes try to pressure you into purchasing their items.

TEMPLES!

borobodurThere are two popular temple trips that you can do from Jogja. The enormous Borobudur temple (left) is the largest Buddhist monument in the world and probably the most visited sight in Indonesia. Further east are the equally impressive Hindu temples of Prambanan. There is also an open-air theatre inside the park with regular Javanese dance performances.

You can either leave at dawn or in the afternoon on organised trips or find your own way to the temples. The dawn trips may involve getting up ridiculously early but you’ll beat the crowds and the heat and will also see the temples at their most spectacular as the early morning mist rises. If you’re pushed for time it is possible to take a trip that includes both temple sites on the same day.

Be warned there is a somewhat extortionate extra $20 US fee for foreigners at Borobudur and $18 US at Prambanan that isn’t included in any tickets you buy in Jogja. You are also likely to be asked for photos with dozens of friendly if a little bit persistent Indonesian teenagers and children!

borobodur backpacking

LAVA!

One of the highlights of backpacking in Indonesia is the chance to get up close and personal with some of the world’s most violent volcanoes. While not everyone will agree with this sentiment (in case you hadn’t heard, they can be a bit dangerous), this is simply the best place in the world to witness a bit of volcanic activity.

There are several active volcanoes in the region but the most spectacular has to be Mount Merapi which can be viewed from the town on Kaliurang on its southern slope or Ketep, a pass that dissects the mountain and it’s near neighbour Mount Merbabu. Merapi erupted as recently as 2010 killing over 300 people and lava is almost constantly flowing down its slopes. It is possible to climb the mountain yourself but it’s safer to take the organised night-time trip from Jogja when the lava is most visible.

GANGS!

Yogyakarta’s backpacker area is conveniently located by the main train station and is just off the city’s main boulevard, Malioboro Street. The going rate for a cheap room here is around Rp100,000 and most of the accommodation is located off Jalan Sastrowijayan on two gangs (sidestreets & very safe) that run off it. They are imaginatively named Gang I and Gang II.

jogja gangsThere are various travel agencies on Sastrowijayan that all pretty much offer the same trips at the same price. Many of the guesthouses will also be able to hook you up with the temple/volcano trips. There’s also no shortage of pesky trishaw and moto-taxi drivers who congregate at the entrances to the gangs and will happily transport you anywhere around town. Agree a price before setting off! Another option is to rent a scooter which can work out cheaper than taking any of the organised trips.

There are a few decent bars and restaurants along Sastrowijayan, some of which offer really good live music but it’s not really a place for wild partying with many travellers setting off before sunrise on trips to the surrounding areas. It is however a biggish city so you can head off to other areas of town if you want to extend your night beyond midnight.

 

You can find up-to-date info and loads more things to do in and around Yogyakarta on Yogya Backpacker.

 


This article was published in January 2013.

Get our Backpackers Guide to Southeast Asia 2017-2018 for a more up-to-date summary of budget travel in SEA.


KhaoSan Road, Bangkok: Traveller Heaven or Hell?

KhaoSan Road: Traveller Heaven or Hell?

Khao San Road at night

You could be in a café in Quito or a rickety bus in Kenya but it is a small street in Thailand that bizarrely continues to strike a chord with travellers as the centre of the backpacking universe. It seems every other traveller you meet has been here and has formed their own opinion of it. For some it’s a vibrant international community with everything you could possibly need and more in the space of just a few blocks in the Thai Capital. For others it’s a busy sleazy street full of exactly the types of people you left home to escape from plus a few dodgy locals trying to exploit visitors.

The truth is probably somewhere in the middle and after a few days it is pretty easy to make your mind up which end of the spectrum your opinion lies at. The road stretches for what can only be a few hundred metres but often it can seem like you are running a giant gauntlet. Everyone seems to want a piece of you and for the uninitiated it can be closer to being mildly traumatic than an exciting travel experience.

You want massage? You want t-shirt?

You get the impression that almost anything is on sale here. In and around the KhaoSan Road there are dozens of cheap Thai Massage joints, a popular daytime and early evening pastime for visitors to Bangkok. The street is lined with stores and street stalls selling various printed t-shirts and clothing items. They all seem to sell exactly the same crap but every other traveller seems to be wearing a T-shirt with ‘Chang Beer’ or another famous brand written on it. If you really look around you can actually find some imaginative original clothing for a few hundred baht.

bangkokIf you’re not being hassled into buying clothes or getting a massage then there you’re probably being pestered into renting a room for a few nights. There is LOTS of basic budget accommodation in the area although the better and indeed cheaper places are off the main drag. Cheaper places still can be found a short tuk-tuk ride away by the train station (left).

How about some fake ID or even a degree?

If you’ve found a room and don’t want to get a massage or buy t-shirts then why not get a masters degree? There are a couple of guys who for a few dollars will issue with authentic looking forms of ID and even TEFL or degree certificates from your chosen university. Not sure how useful they are back home but the fake student ID at least is pretty good at securing discounts in shops and bars in the world you left behind.

The Khao San Road attracts all sorts of inventive sales ideas, most of which work pretty well but there also a few major oddities. For example, on a street full of scruffily dressed backpackers there are numerous smartly dressed seemingly Indian men who are very keen to sell you a suit. This makes little sense. Nobody wants to go backpacking around Thailand with a fake Armani suit. As you approach the end of the KhaoSan road and think you are about to escape the madness of it all you run into a bunch of tuk-tuk and moto drivers very eager to take you to see some ping-pong.

Anyone for Ping-Pong?

If you’ve never been to Bangkok, then you may not be aware of Thailand’s long ping-pong traditions. This ‘sport’ is very popular with visitors to the country. If you couldn’t fit your trusty table-tennis bat into your backpack then fear not as the rules are a bit different here. ladyboys in thailandPut simply it involves ladies shooting ping-pong balls out of their vaginas and hitting targets with an impressively high success rate. This takes no little skill and presumably many years of practice. Eager to keep the show fresh it seems no two performances are the same and if stories are to be believed you may also see toads, frogs, rabbits and even darts popping out.

Moving swiftly onto the equally sex-orientated Bangkok nightlife. By night, the Khao San Road changes into the nightlife hub for travellers staying in the area. Despite this there is only really one club on the street (imaginatively named ‘The Club’). It is roughly midway down the street, has a couple of beefy Thai bouncers, blares out the latest club tracks and attracts a steady flow of people coming in and out. Inside it’s a mixture of Thai prostitutes, ladyboys (see above for token Thai ladyboy picture) and wasted foreigners but it’s a good crack. It’s open till 3am when everyone spills out onto the streets to be greeted by even more prostitutes and guys selling cheap beer.

Fill up my Bucket!!!

Backpackers partying in Thai Club

Just hanging out in the street here having a few drinks can be great fun and in many ways is the best way to soak up the KhaoSan Road experience. There are many street barbeques selling tasty and dirt cheap Thai snacks if you get hungry and you won’t have to move too far to get your hands on a cold Thai Beer or cocktail. Meeting people is incredibly easy but shaking off unwanted ‘new friends’ is harder as you keep constantly seeing the same people in what is a pretty small if crowded area.

The Khao San Road certainly couldn’t be classed as the real Thailand or even the real Bangkok but it is nonetheless an experience in its own right. While it’s not in the very heart of Bangkok, it is located centrally enough to explore one of the world’s most exciting cities. There’s always something happening on the Khao San Road and it isn’t hard to work out how it found its way into backpacking folklore.


This page was last updated in June 2013.

Get our Backpackers Guide to Southeast Asia 2017-2018 for our latest summary of budget travel in SEA.


Best Dishes to try in Thailand

5 Must Try Thai Dishes

a guest post by Sofia Angeli

thai food

When travelling to Thailand, one of the best things you can do is eat! In this country, you can enjoy all the lovely flavours in one bowl. I’m fortunate enough to be staying and travelling around Asia where I can always have access to Thai food. But of course, nothing beats getting them in the most authentic way possible – in the restaurants or food stalls in Bangkok’s busy streets.

And whenever I get the chance, these are the 5 dishes that I always indulge in.

Tom Yum Gung

This is the one that’s on top of my list. Maybe it’s because I’m a seafood lover. But maybe it’s also because it simply tastes amazing. It has an explosion of all the flavours that I like – sour, salty, spicy, sweet, and even creamy.

It’s a bowl of soup featuring shrimps and mushrooms and oozing with the Asian tastes of kaffir lime leaves, galangal and lemongrass. You can take it with coconut milk, which really makes it an incredible concoction. But if you want to stay away from the creamy ingredient, you can specify that when you order. You can tell that I prefer the original version.

Pad Thai

You’ll find various rice noodle recipes in most Asian countries, and this one’s a real favourite not just for me, but for many tourists. Imagine the tastes of bean sprouts, garlic, green onions, peanuts, scrambled egg, shrimps and tofu combined with the classic Thai seasoning combo of fish sauce, lime juice, sugar and chilli peppers.

You’ll find this treat everywhere in Thailand – from the outlets in luxury hotels to the street stalls. And it’s great as a meal or as an accompaniment to another Thai dish that you like.

Yam Plah Duk Foo

If you find it hard to memorize the local name of this dish, try “crispy catfish and green mango salad.” Because that is what this dish is all about. The fish and fruit are bonded by cilantro, lime, red onions, peanut sauce and sugar. The shredded catfish, by the way, is deep-fried so it’s light and crunchy – adding texture to the already incredible tastes of the dish.

This is a great appetizer to a main course of fried rice and some basil-flavoured chicken or seafood. Like all the other dishes here, you can find this in almost every food establishment in Bangkok and all over Thailand.

Gaeng Kiew Wan Gai

Here’s another challenge for the non-speakers of Thai. You can easily call it in English as green curry chicken. It’s often preferred by those who aren’t into the spicier type of Thai dishes.

Aside from chicken, it has lots of eggplant and some basil and kaffir lime leaves. The green curry paste is traditionally made from lemongrass, chillies, shallots, galangal, cilantro, basil, fish sauce and a host of spices.

You can also find green curry dishes with seafood or all vegetables, instead of chicken. But chicken is the more traditional one and is the most-loved by both locals and travellers.

Khao Niew Ma Muang

And I just have to have this dessert. It’s a perfect way to cap a meal, especially with dishes that are more on the spicy side. It looks like a small pillow of soft, sticky rice topped with ripe mangoes that Thailand is famous for. It’s drizzled with coconut cream for a final touch.

What’s great about these dishes is that you can find them in the menus of almost all commercial food shops in the country. It’s best to enjoy these treats in one of the restaurants or carts along the streets after a tiring shopping spree or a relaxing trip to an authentic Thai spa.

 

Read our Thailand backpacking route for more inspiration!


About the author

Sofia Angeli is a PR & communications consultant for companies in various industries. In particular, she brings her writing skills and passion for culture and travel to the online world, including cheapflights.com.au.

 


This article was published in February 2013.

Get our Backpackers Guide to Southeast Asia 2017-2018 for our latest summary of budget travel in SEA.


Backpacking in Ho Chi Minh City

Saigon: Moto-City

Motorbikes in Vietnam

NOTE – This article is now over 5 years old. Some info may no longer be accurate. Get our Backpackers Guide to Southeast Asia 2017-2018 for a more up-to-date summary of budget travel in SEA.

Vietnam endured a troubled 20th Centrury in which it was first ruled by the French, before their final expulsion left the country split in two. A horrific civil war ensued which saw millions die. The country was finally united as a Socialist state in 1975 and has been ever since. Vietnam today is a fast growing nation of some 90 million people enjoying increasing economical and political power in the South East Asian region. Nowhere are the vast changes more evident than Ho Chi Minh City (aka Saigon) which is a great place to experience a modern and vibrant Asian city while also delving into the countries traumatic past.

Saigon & The Vietnam War

Reunification Palace tank in SaigonThe war began in 1955 with US forces becoming heavily involved throughout the 1960’s as they attempted to prevent the Communists in the North taking control of the entire country. Based in Saigon, the US and South Vietnamese forces fought a long guerrilla war in the region with the Viet Cong (a Communist group in the south). After suffering and inflicting heavy casualties, US troops withdrew in 1973. After the eventual fall of Saigon in April 1975, the city changed its name to Ho Chi Minh City in honour of the man who formed the Communist party. Vietnam remains a Socialist state to this day and visits to any of Vietnam’s war Museums and memorials will make it clear the administration has changed little over the past 35 years.

Reunification Palace

Once known as the Independence Palace (above), this was where the US and South Vietnamese leaders were based during the War. On 30th April 1975, the Communist forces stormed the palace bringing an end to the 19 year conflict. Quite deliberately, nothing has been changed inside the Palace since 1975 so it remains in something of a time warp. Only the gates outside that were destroyed have been replaced and it is now open to visitors and makes for a fascinating couple of hours.

War Remnants Museum

war museum SaigonThis museum houses some shocking photos of severely maimed people and those who have been left with or often born with serious disfigurements as a result of weapons and gases used during the war. Outside you will find captured US tanks and airplanes from the era. Some people do find the museum very upsetting but it does demonstrate the tragedies that took place during the Vietnam War. Unquestionably the US forces committed some atrocities in the region, however the museum gives a very one-sided and biased account of the events that took place.

Cu Chi Tunnels

If you find yourself backpacking in Ho Chi Minh City or nearby then half or full day tours to the Cu Chi Tunnels are a must-do. They are 40km out of town but can be organised by any of the agencies in Pham Ngu Lao. The tunnels were dug during the period of French occupation before being expanded during the Vietnam War (known as the American War in Vietnam). They provided the Cu Chi people with a strategic advantage. You may even get the chance to fire weapons here in the town which moved underground in the face of a heavy bombing campaign.

Check out our Vietnam backpacking Route for more on this incredible country!


HCMC today: The City of Motorbikes

motorbikes in SaigonToday Ho Chi Minh City is a bustling metropolis, home to some 7 million people. Almost the only way to get around is by motorbike. The traffic is completely bonkers and just trying to cross the road can be a terrifying process as there is almost never a gap in the traffic. Hop on a moto-taxi or if you’re especially brave hire out a bike and try to navigate your way away around Vietnam’s biggest city.

When backpacking in Vietnam it is impossible to escape the war but it is now a distant memory for most and American visitors are very unlikely to receive any hassle about it. Most Vietnamese are naturally friendly people and with a very young population this country is moving on up and developing at quite a rate. The city is made up of many numbered districts, each of which has their own feel. District 1, in the centre of the city is known as the French Quarter for example and this is reflected in the architecture. It is well worth hopping on a bike and heading out into some of the suburbs which are generally very safe for a true flavour of what life is like for the residents of this busy city.

 

Pham Ngu Lao: Saigon’s Backpacker Ghetto

Pham Ngu LaoThis is very much backpacker central in Ho Chi Minh City. It consists of two main roads and many little side streets connecting them. Here you will find an enormous choice of world cuisine with meals costing as little as US$2-3 (For up-to-date prices see our Vietnam backpacking budget). There are loads of budget accommodation options, laundrettes, bars and basically everything else that a backpacker might need. You won’t be able to walk 10 metres without being shouted at by one of the moto drivers which congregate in the area looking for foreign business. This can be an advantage as you will never have to wait to get a lift to where you’re going but also can get quite annoying after a while.

The bars in Pham Ngu Lao are good fun and tend to be cheaper and better than the ones in the rest of Central Saigon which charge Western Prices and attract an unpleasant mix of dirty old Westerners and teenage Vietnamese prostitutes.

 


This article was published in July 2011. 


 

Best Places to Stay in Cambodia

Best Places to Stay in Cambodia

Cambodia is one of the most popular destinations with travellers and many backpackers in Southeast Asia leave the region with fond memories of their time in the country. While the price of accommodation is very much to the liking of budget travellers, the quality can certainly sometimes be a little bit lacking unless you know where to look!

This article should hopefully help you find somewhere cheap in Cambodia’s main travel destinations without sacrificing on the bare essentials.

cambodia map

Here are some of the best places to stay in Cambodia:

Phnom Penh

phnom penh

The Phnom Penh skyline around the bustling Central Market.

The Cambodian capital has the widest choice of accommodation in the country and has some dirt cheap options. Most of them were in the slightly crazy Lakeside area near the Beoung Kak lake which was popular with travellers on the tightest of budgets. While the lake no longer exists, Guesthouses 10 and 11 as well as a few others are still there and offer basic rooms starting from $3 although don’t expect amazing facilities and certainly don’t count on hot showers!

The biggest hostel in the city with a lively social scene is The Mad Monkey Hostel. They have modern dorms as well as private rooms and offer a huge choice of tours and also have 3 bars and a restaurant. For solo travellers it’s the safest bet for finding somewhere modern, sociable and fun but still budget friendly.

There are plenty more cheap options in the centre close to the Central Market with prices starting from $4 or so but again the standard is variable. Other solid options with travellers looking to socialise include Velkommen Backpackers and Top Banana Guesthouse while Capitol 3 Guesthouse have cheap clean private rooms which may suit those seeking a bit more privacy.

Sihanoukville

Cambodia’s most famous beach destination has plenty of budget accommodation although some of the better options do sell out quickly during peak times. Sakal Bungalows offer everything from basic huts on the beach to better equipped air-con rooms with a nice sea view. If you’re looking to meet people then try The Led Zephyr Backstage Bungalows which have several bungalows that act as dorms from $4 a night and generally receive excellent reviews.

If you want to get away from the increasingly commercialised centre then Cinderellas Dive Resort & Beach Bungalows on Otres Beach provide a quieter alternative with beachfront accommodation from $6.

Kampot

mad monkey hostel in kampot

Pictured above – The Mad Monkey Hostel in Kampot.

Just a short journey from Sihanoukville and conveniently located for the beautiful Bokor National Park is Kampot. It’s quite easy to find a budget room in town as it is very small and the imaginatively named ‘Guesthouse Street’ has many offerings that cater to foreigners. Popular options there include the Magic Sponge and Blissful Guesthouse with prices starting from $3 for dorms and $4/5 for private rooms.

There is also a Mad Monkey hostel in Kampot which is one of the best places to stay in Cambodia. It is located on the riverside and boasts one of the few swimming pools in the town which can be a welcome relief from the heat.

Battambang

The riverside town is a good place to get to experience what life is really like for Cambodians and there are some interesting homestay and community options. BOVA (Battambang Orphanage Village Assistance) Village Homestay is a bit more expensive than most of the options featured here with rooms costing $12 but it includes the chance to eat Khmer cuisine and live with a local family. You can also provide some much needed help at the local orphanage so it’s a nice way to get involved with locals and make a positive contribution to the lives of young Cambodian orphans.

Contact sophornbb@yahoo.com for info.

If you just want cheap and friendly then try Tomato Guest House were beds start at just $2! Somewhat obviously you shouldn’t expect the height of luxury though.

Siem Reap

siem reap

You can help the local communities by supporting the Mad Monkey Clean Water project.

Located close to Angkor Wat, Siem Reap receives hordes of new backpackers every day so there are plenty of budget places to eat, sleep and drink. Beds start again at just a few dollars a night and private rooms can be found for as little as $5.

The Mad Monkey in Siem Reap boasts a rooftop pool bar and has plenty of fun events and trips to get involved with. You can also help support their important community based projects in and around the town.

Garden Village Guesthouse & Hostel is another sociable option. There are also plenty of small guesthouses close to Pub Street and the Night Market that can’t be booked in advance but be sure to ask to see the rooms before handing over any money. Also be wary of tuk-tuk and moto drivers who try to take you to specific guesthouses as they are working on commission. Either tell them exactly which hostel you want to go to or get off at Pub Street and find somewhere yourself.


This article was first published in February 2015.

Get our Backpackers Guide to Southeast Asia 2017-2018 for a more up-to-date summary of budget travel in SEA.


Frugal Backpackers Guide to Eating in Siem Reap,

Budget Guide to Eating in Siem Reap

by Milda from Asian Rooms

siem reap food

Siem Reap is ideal for people travelling on a budget who want to experience a piece of the local culture. Many backpackers like to really get stuck in and try some of the more traditional places, rather than the obvious tourist spots. Siem Reap is the second largest city in Cambodia, so there are plenty of interesting places to eat scattered around the city. It is located in Northwest Cambodia and is best known for the nearby World Heritage site, the Angkor ruins (right). Many travelers come here just to see the magnificent ancient temples. However, the city has recently angkorexperienced an influx of tourists so the number of restaurants and bars is growing rapidly.

The city has a vibrant nightlife, a friendly atmosphere, fascinating sites and great food, making it perfect for frugal backpackers. The restaurants here serve a fantastic range of delicious food including Asian, Khmer, BBQ and Western food. If you are planning to visit Siem Reap on a tight budget then you will easily be able to get some tasty food at reasonable prices. Here are some of the best restaurants and cafes for frugal backpackers.

Khmer restaurants

Angkor Palm

A favourite with locals and tourists alike, Angkor Palm is located near Pub Street. Here you can experience traditional Khmer dishes and well known soups. If you want to sample a bit of everything then they serve platters with a variety of dishes such as salad, spring rolls and fish dishes. This restaurant is especially good for backpackers because they do cooking classes, giving you a chance to learn to cook Khmer style.

Butterflies

lake in siem reapThis restaurant has been around for a while so you are pretty much guaranteed a quality meal in a beautiful setting. You can dine in their garden which has 1500 Angkorean butterflies resting on 500 plants and trees. They also play relaxing music so you can enjoy your meal in peace. They have a gift shop where you can buy souvenirs and on Tuesdays at 7.30 you can watch a traditional dance in the garden. If you want to write a blog post about your experience then you can use the free wifi. It’s a good place to escape to if you need a break from the crowded city streets.

International Cuisine

Red Piano

Red Piano is a popular restaurant which serves local dishes and Asian favourites, as well as Western food. It’s located 50 metres Northwest of the Old Market. People love this restaurant because of the quality of the food and the great atmosphere. It has a distinctly local feel and the staff are very friendly. You can enjoy a few drinks after your meal when the restaurant converts into a bar around 10pm. Dishes cost between $5 and $10 and they serve breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Chusska

Chusska is a charming vegetarian restaurant serving Indian food. The food is very fresh and authentic and they are generous with their portions. Their dishes include favourites such as the samosas, naan bread, Daal and mixed vegetable curry. You can also get set meals here if you want to try lots of things for a set price.

Street Food

street food in siem reapSome people get a bit put off by street food, but they are missing out on the true taste of Cambodia. It is only here that you can really enjoy fresh food and taste the real dishes of Siem Reap. Digging into a street food dish is an experience in itself because you get authentic food in a vibrant atmosphere.

Don’t be discouraged by the locals asking you to eat at their stall, just wander through the streets and take your time choosing somewhere to grab a bite to eat. Head to the Old Market and the stalls just off Pub street. As the evening begins lots of different stalls pop up and the streets start to come alive. You can try a range of local and international dishes such as noodles, salads, pasta, BBQ, soups and fried dishes. Enjoy some fresh market food in a lively atmosphere for low prices.

Local Restaurants

The local restaurants don’t look as glamorous as some of the more up market places, but that doesn’t mean the food is any different. In fact, the food is probably better in some of the more local restaurants.

Mr Grill

Mr Grill serves mouth watering BBQ food as well as some well known Khmer favourites. Lots of locals come here to enjoy the extensive range of Khmer dishes and relax with their friends. You can cook your food yourself if you like on their barbeque, adding something special to your dining experience. It does get quite busy here because it is a local favourite but that just adds to the atmosphere. Don’t miss this experience on your next trip to Siem Reap.

Soup Dragon

The Soup Dragon is a Khmer and Vietnamese restaurant with very reasonable prices. You can also get a few Western dishes here if you don’t fancy a local delicacy. You can do some people watching at the roadside as you enjoy your food and watch the world go by. Here you can get breakfast, lunch and dinner for excellent prices.

Cafes

There are lots of pleasant cafes in Siem Reap where you can get a fairly cheap meal. If you fancy a light bite or a sweet treat then head to one of the local cafes. Some of them serve more substantial dishes if you want a proper meal. The best cafes include Blue Pumpkin, The Art Deli, La Boulangerie and Haven. You can snack on homemade bread and ice cream, pastries, sandwiches, salads and quiches. Some of the cafes have wifi so you can surf the internet whilst you enjoy an aromatic coffee.


About the author:

mildaMilda is the Community Manager @ AsiaRooms. Born in Lithuania (love it!), studied in the UK, travelled around Asia and USA, taught in Africa and now residing in Singapore where, equipped with a strong cup of coffee and surrounded by an amazing team I’m blogging about travels, cultures, events and hotels in Asia.



 This article was published in March 2013.

Get our Backpackers Guide to Southeast Asia 2017-2018 for a more up-to-date summary of budget travel in SEA.