Buses were the mode of transport widely used including a 34 hour bus ride from Halong Bay to Luang Prabang after a four hour boat ride! Buses are cheap, reliable and have a sleeper bed available on long journeys. They are comfortable and you will be with travellers alike who will be experiencing the long distance journey the same as you. You can book these at the hostel you stay in or at a local travel office who will have all the options available to you. At border crossings the coach will drop you off at the border then you are left to deal with the fake borders and scams yourself. You can book a coach that will travel across the border through the border crossing and will wait for you the other side. Trains were used widely in Malaysia as they have a fantastic rail network which is cheap and fairly reliable. You can travel from KL down the mainland all the way to Singapore and also up across the border to Thailand. There will be will border crossings as per usual so expect the usual delays. SE Asia has a lot of islands so travelling on ferries and boats will be common place if you want to go to the islands. Visits to Koh Phi Phi and Koh Lanta will exit from Krabi and to Koh Phangan, Koh Tao and Koh Samui it will be from Surat Thani. Alternatively cheap flights from Air Asia offer you the opportunity to go to further afield such as Bali which will cost you around £80 return if you book early. Flights to Borneo from KL or Singapore will cost you £20 each way! Some travellers avoid the long bus journeys from Vietnam to Luang Prabang by flying, this depends on your budget of course. Local travel in the towns and cities will be by tuk tuk or boat. In Bangkok I would recommend the local boat with the orange flag as the main source of travel on the river as this is cheap at 15baht! The boat will also stop at central locations in Bangkok such as the Grand Palace, reclining Buddha, CBD and Silom Road. The sky train is a great way of seeing Bangkok as it weaves its way through the city. Singapore and Kuala Lumpur have a metro system which is easy to navigate if you are used to the London tube.
A Vietnamese visa will cost you £15 for one month or you can get a free tourist visa on arrival at airports. Certain land borders you are not allowed to cross if you are not a Vietnamese, Cambodian or Laotian national. You can cross from Cambodia to Vietnam in the south and Vietnam to Laos in north on designated land borders. For both ends we booked our transport to the border and on to the next city. This would be Phnom Penh to Ho Chi Minh City from Cambodia and Hanoi to Luang Prabang in Laos from Vietnam. For Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia all visas were on arrival either on land or airport.
Accommodation – I would highly recommend a few hostels and guesthouses I stayed in throughout my time in SE Asia.
Bangkok – I’ve written a blog on this hostel so my thoughts are on there for all to see, check it out! Lub d is a great hostel on Silom Road which will cost you around 400baht from the airport in a meter only taxi. You are walking distance from the river where you can catch a boat to Bangkok’s sights. Local markets and restaurants are in abundance on Silom Road which also has the sky bar towards the river, which is a must for the view over Bangkok. The hostel itself has spacious dorms, good bathrooms with showers and western toilets, a cracking bar downstairs, room to sit outside with fellow travellers, a helpful travel desk, a big common area with wifi and even a cinema room. What else do you need?
Hanoi – A fantastic hostel in the heart of Hanoi is Vietnam Backpackers Hostel which offer great tours such as the Castaway tour, bike rides through Hanoi and organised nights out and due to the curfew these are handy. Although we didn’t stay long due to our timeframe this hostel made an impression. They have a great English breakfast worth trying and great western food which is a welcome change of pace from Asian food three times a day. The rooms are spacious and go for around £5 a night for dorms and the bathrooms are great quality. Local markets and restaurants are only minutes away and the local lock ins are close too. A great hostel for meeting people and organising trips around Hanoi and Halong Bay.
Hoi An – A favourite of mine in Asia is the Sunflower Hotel in Hoi An which has all the facilities you need. There is a lovely swimming pool at the back with sunning chairs to hand. Next to the pool is the bar and pool table to hang out and meet other backpackers. The dorms we stayed in are six bed and are very comfortable with great bathroom facilities and these will cost £5.50 a night with a great buffet breakfast chucked in too! There is free wifi and parking if you are travelling by moped or want to hire one. Local bars and restaurants by the river are walking distance and the staff will help with any tours you want advice on.
Castaway Tour, Vietnam Backpackers Hostel.
This is a must for anyone who wants to be stuck on an island in Halong Bay with fellow backpackers. You can book through Hanoi Backpackers and they will pick your group up in a bus and transport you to the coast. There you will grab a boat to the island which will take four hours and this is where the games begin. This tour is not for the faint hearted, a lot of drinking involved with buffalo rules enforced (can only drink left handed being one rule), rock climbing, kayaking, wakeboarding, beerspy (frispy but with beers) and long nights partying on tables. The accommodation is little huts on the beach and there is a bar with areas for cooking and eating. It is a 2 night 3 day trip and will cost around £175.
Waterfalls, Luang Prabang, Laos.
There is no need to book through a hostel for this tour, this is simply getting yourself a tuk tuk ride to the waterfalls around Luang Prabang. Get your swimming trunks on and your climbing shoes so you can hike to the top to take awesome photos. The colours are amazing and the entrance fee is 20,000 kip (£2) and well worth the 45min tuk tuk ride to the location which is a fair way out of town. The best way to organise is for you to go in a big group as the tuk tuk driver will wait for you when you get there to take you back. The travel there will cost more each than the entrance fee. Afterwards tell your tuk tuk driver to take you to Utopia bar to relax, lay on some bean bags, sip a beer and watch the sunset over the river, magic.
Phu Quoc, Vietnam.
This is Vietnam’s biggest island and it lies south west of the mainland nearer to Cambodia in fact. We got told about this island whilst staying in Lub d in Bangkok by some backpackers who recommended it as a stop we wouldn’t regret, we didn’t. You can get cheap return flights for £75 from Ho Chi Minh and when we went in 2013 the airport had just been built the month before. The island has brand new roads so get a moped out and go check the beaches out all around the island. When we visited there was only hotel or cheap resorts for the backpacker option, there could well be hostels there now. The capital Duong Dong has a really good burger bar named Winstons Burgers and Beer which is worth a visit. There is a really chilled out vibe on the island and the name of the game is visiting the numerous accessible beaches, getting a moped out, eating Vietnamese food, getting a tan and relaxing!
Killing Fields + Prison S21, Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
This tour will make you appreciate life and how lucky you are to be doing what you are doing. The Killing Fields tour is available from any hostel in Phnom Penh and we organised ours from The Mad Monkey Hostel where we stayed for 3 nights. You will get a tuk tuk ride to the fields where you will pay an entrance fee of £2.50. You are given a set of headphones to wear with a guide in English to tell you the history and what you are looking at. Be warned there are some sights which will upset you. Afterwards you can have the option of going to Prison S21 which is in the centre of Phnom Penh and is the same cost as the Killing Fields. Not much to really say about this as you will need to some history homework to understand what went on but this has to be done if visiting Cambodia, it is so important to their history.
Jungle Trek + Hill Tribes stay over, Chang Mai, Thailand.
Chang Mai is one of my favourite places in South East Asia and the jungle treks and hill tribe stay overs are absolutely worth doing. We did a 2 day 2 night trek which started in Chang Mai and returned there at the end. The tour started by trekking through hills and jungle towards the hill tribe where you stayed over night. The sights on route would be waterfalls, wildlife, fantastic scenery and a lot of trees! The trek is a fairly medium level of toughness but you will need strong walking shoes. For all of my treks I have used my Nike running trainers, not recommended by leading trekkers but they are comfortable with a nice spring in the soul, I love them. When you arrive at the hill tribe they have a nice little wooden hut for you to stay in, a massive fire to sit around and eat as well as a basic toilet which is a hole in the ground. The tribe are very friendly and will want interact with songs and maybe some dancing, it really is nice to be somewhere with no media or gadgets to use (apart from your phone for photos) and go back to basic life.
I used a Travelex prepaid card for SE Asia and had no problems withdrawing from the cash points. My main tip would be just to have some US Dollars in your bag as a back up, please see my upcoming blog on the Laos/Thailand border for a reason why! Thailand use Thai Baht and this can be bought anywhere in the UK or withdrawn from cash points through Thailand. The exchange rate is 43baht to £1 and you will be charged when withdrawing. Cambodia will prefer you to carry US Dollars when paying for major stuff but for local amenities you will need to get some Riel which has an exchange rate of 5000rl to £1. Laos is similar to Cambodia where Dollars are preferred and I would definitely use them here, their currency of Kip is used more widely and the exchange rate is 10000kp to £1. For both of these countries both currencies will be used. Vietnam’s currency is Dong and this is widely used through out the country and you can start by withdrawing from the HSBC bank in Ho Chi Minh City as a safe withdrawal. The exchange rate is 28000vnd to £1 and Dollars may be needed for hostels/hotels and big tours. Malaysia use Ringgit which is RM5.5 to £1 and there is not much of a need for alternative currency like Singapore who use Singapore Dollars which are roughly $1.70 – £1. Bali, Indonesia use their currency of Rupiah and the exchange rate is Rp16,500 to £1 and you could probably get away with Australian Dollars there too.
South East Asia is pretty safe to travel around if you respect the culture and behave accordingly. There will be a lot of backpackers around so you wont be alone if you need help. Thailand’s full moon parties are notorious for their wild night partying but also you need to avoid leaving possessions around the beach or bar as these could be thieved by locals or fellow backpackers unfortunately. Always stick in groups when at these parties as inevitably you will be intoxicated and people might try to take advantage. Pick pockets will operate anywhere you go but when in Ho Chi Minh City I witnessed the quickest robbery of all time, when some guys on scooters approached a girl and swooped her bag of her before she could say ‘oh’. This was at night so always be vigilante when walking about town. Bali is the only place I have been too where I wrapped my backpack in cellophane wrap to protect against intrusions in my bag, this is due to their death penalty against drugs.
Food and Drink
Bangkok, Thailand – One of my favourite local restaurants is the café opposite Lub d who do local Thai food and even deliver across the road to the hostel, this is a god send if you are struggling from the night before. The lady in there is super and will cook anything authentic so stuff like Pad Thai, sweet and sour, noodles, thai green curries etc etc. The price is really cheap at £1-£2 a meal.
Vietnam – A must is the local food called Pho and this will set you back all of a £1 at most and this noodle soup will change your life. There are so many different types of Pho to choose from such as chicken, beef, vegetable and country specific Pho that you will never get bored of eating this. The best Pho I had was in Ho Chi Minh City but its awesome throughout the country.
Cambodia – Another favourite of mine is the Loc Lac dish which is served throughout Cambodia but I had it best in Battambang. This is a dish of sweet chilli beef with a beef sauce like no other on a bed of rice with a fried egg on top. Don’t knock it until you try it and it goes great with a beer.
Volcano Bar, Hoi An, Vietnam – This little nightclub in Hoi An is a gem for cheap drinks, a dancefloor, good music, pool table and in a central location. The drinks deal is $5 for your cup and if you keep that all night then its all you can drink until it closes. The alcohol behind the bar is all your favourites, I stuck to the vodka and red bull, dangerous!
Marina Bay Sands, Singapore – Not the cheapest tip you will read but the views over Singapore are amazing, the light show on the water is worth seeing and the bar is free to get in just Western prices on the drinks. The Marina Bay Sands bar at the top of this monumental structure is worth a try just for one drink. Whilst you sip your beer or cocktail to make it last longer you can gaze at the views on offer.
Sky Bar, Bangkok, Thailand – At 64 floors up the views are spectacular and this is the main reason you go there. The price of the drinks are yet again at around London prices but you grab one, make it last and look at the views around you. There will also be a little care to what you are wearing, for the only time in SE Asia I wore trousers instead of shorts. We didn’t stay long as once you have your photos, sipped your drinks, its time to head back and crack on to Koh San Road.