How to enjoy a holiday in Southeast Asia with very little money
Single mom, 2 teenagers, no money, wants to travel
Summer holidays, and six weeks to travel anywhere in the world. Where would you want to go? With two expensive teenagers (kids should come with a hazard warning when they are born - Hazardous to your wallet) and very little money, there are not many options open for you to experience a holiday of a lifetime. Keeping one eye on my finances, I started to explore all options. Luckily, as China is my home base at the moment, there are a few cheap options available from there. South East Asia looked like the best option as a single airfare from Shanghai to Chiang Mai, Thailand via Bangkok was definitely affordable. "Backpacking through South East Asia it is," I said to my kids who were eyeing expensive resorts on the net. For the next couple of weeks I poured over Lonely Planets, Guidebooks and websites on the net. After conducting my research, I was able to come up with a rough itinerary of what we could do and where we could go. I didn't look into where we could stay as I figured we'd find that out when we arrived. However, I did preliminary book a guesthouse in Chiang Mai, the Top North, as the prices are very reasonable and they had a swimming pool. I like to have my first stop booked so that when I arrive all exhausted and bedraggled, I can just go straight to my accommodation and relax.
Chiang Mai is wonderful. Many great restaurants and bars, the famous night market is on every night and you must try to be there for the Sunday to go to the Sunday Walking street market. Great bargains to be had and delicious street food to be bought. You can go on a hill tribe trek, elephant trek, combination treks to do all that plus see spectacular waterfalls. There is a daytrip to suit every limited budget. My son did a Muay Thai kick boxing course and my daughter and I did a Thai cooking course. Very cheap and an essential part of your Thai experience.
After a week in Chiang Mai relaxing, exploring, eating, drinking and developing a tan next to the pool, we decided to go to Laos. The cheapest way to get there from Chiang Mai, is to take a shared minibus to Chiang Kong on the Thai/Laos border, and then take a ferry up the Mekong River to Luang Prabang in Laos. You buy your Laos visa at the border.
Laos for backpackers on a budget
The Mekong ferry can only be described as a very interesting experience. A two day trip with a stopover at some obscure cowboy town with a few ramshackled guesthouses and nothing else. After a couple hours on the first day, the Irish rugby team on the boat had already decimated all the cold and warm beers and were out of control. You struck up random conversations with other travelers to while away the time, played cards and discussed must-see places, what to avoid and how to save more money on the trip. When you remembered to look, the scenery on both sides of the boat was spectacular.
Arriving in the pretty riverside town of Luang Prabang, you are immediately hit by the abundance of ancient temples. Obviously, a very religious place at one point in time. We managed to get our tuk-tuk driver to find us a cheap and clean guesthouse to stay in for a few days. Luang Prabang seems to eminate peace. It's a bit of a hippy hangout and you could stay there for months. They make their own illegal whiskey called Lao-Lao which is freely available. Many bars give you a free Lao-Lao when you arrive, so if you want to save money, just go from bar to bar, get your free moonshine and leave. That way you can get royally sozzled without spending a cent! Great little restaurants, bars and spectacular scenery make Luang Prabang a must on any bucket list. If you are into drugs, then you won't have any problems as you get at least twenty offers a day from people trying to sell you dope of some kind.
From Luang Prabang, you can take a local bus, very cheap, to Vang Vieng, a real wild west type of town. There is nothing much there, except the themed bar/restaurants where you lie down on beds all day and watch reruns of Friends at the Friends bar, or reruns of the Simpsons at the Simpsons bar. Accommodation is available but often booked up as people arrive and then tend to stay longer than planned. The life in Vang Vieng is easy. You can tube down the river in the morning and then spend the rest of the day getting drunk or high, your choice, while lying on the bed in the bar trying to focus on Jennifer Aniston in Friends. Just note, that in Luang Prabang and Vang Vieng there is only one ATM in each town which often doesn't work. Have cash on your person.
When you have had enough of tubing down the river and lying on beds talking to random strangers, and drinking beer or other highly alcoholic substances, then you can take another very cheap local bus to Vientienne, the capital of Laos. I must admit, I wasn't very impressed with Vientienne, the guesthouses were much more expensive, at least $20 a night, and the rooms were really crappy. We looked at quite a few, some so dirty, others reeking of urine, before we found one that suited us. From Vientienne, take a tu-tuk to the Thai border, walk across and take another tuk-tuk to the station and catch a night train to Bangkok. Definitely, the cheapest option to get back to Bangkok, and also very comfortable. Sleep with your valuables next to you and stash them away from the aisle. You don't want to end up being robbed during the night.
Banglampu best for those on a tight budget
When you arrive at Hua Lamphong Train Station in Bangkok, avoid talking to locals who'll try and persuade you to go to a nearby TAT office to book your travel tickets for the rest of your journey. Avoid the TAT offices scattered all over Bangkok like the plague. They will rip you off, big time and are infamous for fleecing many travelers by offering them 'bargains' at highly inflated prices. Also avoid taking a tuk-yuk in Bangkok. They will tell you one price, then make detours to all their sponsors selling carpets, gold, diamonds, expensive suits. It always costs you a lot more than you'd planned. Go outside the main doors of the train station and take a meter cab to Khao San Rd in the Banglampu District. Banglampu is the hippy/backpacker hangout in Bangkok and abounds with street markets, cheap street food, bars, restaurants and clean cheap guesthouses. There are some dicey guesthouses there as well, where you might have to compete for a bed with rats and cockroaches, but generally, this is the place to stay, especially if it's your first visit to Bangkok. The vibe is unbelievable, absolutely humming, and if you are a people watcher, then this is one place on the planet where you'll never be bored. I usually stay at one of the Four Sons Guesthouses, they have about four in the area, as they are very clean, closer to a hotel than the normal guesthouse with shared bathroom, as they are en suite. They are about 100 baht a night more than the other guesthouses, but you get what you pay for. If you love icecream, try Swensens, it's to die for. In Khao San Rd and its environs, there are heaps of little travel agents offering trips to Ko Tao (excellent diving island) and other places in Thailand. They can also arrange your visa for Vietnam as you have to get that in advance. You can't get that at the border. If you want to fly anywhere in South East Asia very cheaply, these little travel agents can also book an Air Asia flight for you. On Saturdays and Sundays, you can find out the local bus number to take you to Chatuchak market. Definitely a must as you can buy anything you can possible think of in this huge market, where bargaining is a necessity. The little travel agents can also arrange day trips for you to see the other sights in Bangkok, when you get tired of watching drugged up Englishmen, drunk Australians and aging hippies from all over the world, in Khao San Rd.
When you are ready to go to Cambodia, catch a taxi or local bus to Mo Chit Bus Terminal, just behind Chatuchak Market. There you can buy a local bus ticket to Aranya Prathet, the Thai town on the Cambodian border.
Bustling Banglampu, best budget place to stay in Bangkok
Cambodia, be prepared for extreme poverty
Spend the night at a guesthouse in Aranya Prathet and be prepared for an early start the next morning. Take a tuk-tuk to the border post. You can buy your Cambodian visa there. Walk across to Cambodia, fighting against the throngs of young traders pushing their large wooden carts into Thailand. Be prepared to have to pay a bribe to get your visa application pushed to the front of the pile.
From Poipet on the Cambodian side, negotiate a fare from on of the taxi drivers waiting on the Cambodian side,, to take you to Battambang. There is not much to see in Battambang, but there is an orphanage you can visit and donate some rice to. They appreciate all the help they can get. You can catch a motorbike taxi to the Killing Cave and see where the Khmer Rouge murdered many people, with still alive and free, Brother Number Three's big house in the valley below. Guesthouses in Battambang are cheap, but very crappy. Console yourself with the fact that it's only for the night. The one we stayed in was so tiny, you couldn't swing a cat, it had no windows and we all got very claustrophobic. But then, it only cost $5 for the three of us for the night.
The next morning, we caught a ferry across the enormous lake, to Siem Reap. It was a whole day ferry trip, you sometimes go through narrow waterways where they have to use long poles to push the boat off the reeds in the shallow water. Other parts of the trip, you could be in the ocean as you see only water. The floating police station, shops and church was interesting, as was the tiny houses on stilts. Hard to imagine anybody living like that!
Siem Riep is the complete opposite of Battambang as it is geared to cater for Tourists. We stayed at an amazing guesthouse with a rooftop bar called, Popular Guesthouse and I can definitely recommend it. Bars and restaurants abound from exorbitantly expensive to dirt cheap.
Take a tuk-tuk to Angkor Wat in the evening, you get in for free after five, and watch the sun set over the ruins. Truly spectacular! The next morning, take the tuk-tuk to Angkor. Make sure you have a map as the ruins are over a large area. You can walk from ruin to ruin if you have a lot of time and are energetic. We found it easiest to Have our tuk-tuk take us from ruin to ruin and wait for us. You will be pestered by little kids who should be at school, trying to peddle postcards and other souvenirs. You can pick up really good Lonely Planets, all copied, really cheaply from the little waifs trying to flog them. The ruins, Angkor Wat...there are no words to describe them. I think, it is one of those places that everbody should see and experience before they die. A word of warning, the steps are narrow and very steep at many of the ruins.
We could easily have stayed longer at Siem Reap as we really loved it there. But, we had to move on to the next adventure - Phnom Penh. Buy a bus ticket and take a bus to Phnom Penh. Alternatively, you can take a boat all the way down, but we decided we were already boated out. The road is full of pot-holes, and seems long, so make sure you have a good book to read on the trip. Phnom Penh is filled with very poor people, lots of beggars, little markets and the large Russian Market. When in Phnom Penh, you have to go to the famous S21 prison and the Killing Fields. Both extremely sobering experiences. In the evening, head to Happy Herbs Pizza for the famous pizza sprinkled very liberally with a strange smelling herb, which makes you well, happy. Guesthouses are a little more upmarket and expensive than in Banglampu, Thailand.
Next stop, Vietnam! Buy a bus ticket and take a local bus to Ho Chi Min City, previously known as saigon. Make sure you have your visa before you head to the border! Cambodia has many atms so withdrawing money is nor problem and most atms give you US$.
Cambodia, land of peddling postcards
The bus ride from Phnom penh to Ho Chi Min City is quite a short one. There are many good guesthouses at a reasonable price, all in the bar/restaurant area. The War Crimes Museum is a must see and gives you a completely different perspective on the Vietnam War. It was nothing like the Hollywood movies and far more horrible for the Vietnamese people. Ho Chi Min has a good feel about it and is quite laid back. We could have stayed longer, but by this stage of our journey, we were keen to hit the beach. We bought a hop on hop off bus ticket from Ho Chi Min to Hanoi. Very cheap, but definitely not a trip for the faint-hearted. In retrospect, I think I'd pay extra and rather go by train.
Our first stop was Mui Ne Beach. A relatively short bus trip, but they drop you off at a slightly expensive resort. As my son was feeling poorly, we decided to just stay there and be a little more upmarket for a change, rather than walk up and down the dirt road looking for something cheaper. The beach was okay, but a bit deserted.
The bus trip to Nha Trang was long and a nightmare. Uncomfortable, jammed in, no place to sleep during the night and none of the stops along the way had decent toilets. Squatters i can deal with as we have them in China, but strong urine-smelling holes in the cement that you were supposed to try and aim for and pee into was just plain disgusting. However, Nha Trang was a pleasant surprise after the nightmarish bus journey. Beautiful beaches, great restaurants and bars, and really good value snorkeling trips to some nearby islands. Another place we could have stayed at for a while.
Next stop was Hoi An, very pretty old French colonial style buildings. Most people get clothes made by the tailors there, that's the big business for the town. Lots of great places to stay at, maybe a little more expensive than Nha Trang. Not too far from Hoi An was Hue which I was really pleased we had decided to stop at. The guesthouse was simple but comfortable and much cheaper than those at Hoi An, a much more popular stop for most travelers. we actually preferred Hue. We walked across the river up to the ancient Citadel and then took a motorbike tour from Thu. She has a little bar/restaurant cleverly called 'Cafe on Thu Wheels' which serves delicious food, cold cheap beer and she arranges her brothers to take you on tours of the area on their motorbikes. Definitely to be recommended.
Another nightmare bus trip from Hue to Hanoi. Definitely a train next time, but as I had bought the bus ticket, I had to use it. I think if the bus was traveling during the day it wouldn't be too bad, but at night it is just plain awful and you arrive at your destination feeling like a zombie.
Hanoi is very different to Ho Chi min and is very busy, bustling, moving at a frenetic pace with thousands of motorbikes everywhere blocking up the roads. Guesthouses are reasonable and you can sit on the street corners at the little illegal beer stalls. They bring out plastic chairs for you to sit on on the sidewalk, sell you ice cold beer, but if the police come, they quickly whip the chairs out from under you and hide them away. From Hanoi it is easy to buy a ticket to Halong Bay where you can spend a night on a boat, or two days sailing on a boat through the magnificent karst landscape and explore the caves and stay at a hotel on an island. Definitely something not to be missed.
From Halong Bay, back to Hanoi, a couple of days exploring, and then for a change, flying Air Asia back to Bangkok at only $22 a ticket! You can't beat that! Air Asia often has really good bargains like that. From Bangkok, you can head down to Hua Hin for a few days on the beach there. Hua Hin is only a few hours away from Bangkok by bus.
4 Countries in 6 weeks, a holiday of a lifetime and all for $4000!