Travel - Posh Backpacking around South East Asia

March 17, 2015


After I finished my A-levels in 2011 and before I started my law degree, Ben and I wanted to do some travelling. Something a bit more adventurous than just a laze around beach kind of holiday. Well, let me rephrase that - Ben wanted to go travelling in the typical sense of the word with backpacks, hostels et al I wanted to see some more of the world but with just a little more luxury than your typical backpacking trip. We decided on South East Asia, starting in Bangkok, going through Laos, down Vietnam and back through Cambodia to fly home from Bangkok again. Ben would have gone for months as he had done in the past but while I wanted to see as much as South East Asia as we could, three weeks was more doable for me. So we compromised and set about planning an amazing trip to see and do as much as possible but staying in fairly nice hotels along the way. All, in all it was an incredible experience and real adventure that we really loved.



We flew into Bangkok and had a day there until our sleeper train left for Laos that evening. We dropped our luggage into storage at the train station and with tired, jet lagged foggy heads set about exploring the city. I remember it being chaotic, hot, humid with motorbikes, tuk tuks, noises and smells everywhere. An assault on the senses! But exciting at the same time, this was Asia. We spent the afternoon at The Grand Palace looking at the dazzling, elaborate temples and Buddhas all coated in gold.


 

 


Time passed quickly and our sleeper train was fast approaching, something I remember feeling anxious about. It was fine though, I think we were so tired that we just slept. Ben's so cute for always making sure I'm settled and got me sorted in my bunk for the night. It was a bit jolty, hot and sticky but we slept for most of the night as it travelled through Thailand and awoke to rice paddies passing by outside our window. 

{Bangkok Train Station}
{Not quite The Ritz but an experience nonetheless. Bangkok to Vientiane sleeper train}
We crossed the Friendship Bridge built between Thailand and Laos and got our visa at the border when we got off the train at Thalaleng. From there we took a tuk-tuk into Vientiane, the capital of Laos on the banks of the Mekong River.



It was a lovely old French city and a good introduction to our trip. It wasn't too busy or big, we had a boutique {but dirt cheap} hotel - The Green Park, we could walk around everywhere easily, it had interesting architecture and Buddhist monks walking around in their orange robes. We spent two days here wandering around the town and along the river, our favourite find was the Joma cafe - a western coffee shop serving amazing sandwiches {you just don't feel like noodles or rice or unidentified fish on sticks 24/7...}.
{Frangipani in our hair}
{A pool has never looked so good in the Asian humidity}
{The Green Park Hotel, Vientiane}




Wat Sisaket was one of the highlights from Vientiane, the oldest surviving temple and monastery in Laos full of buddhas shrouded in robes.



We then flew to Luang Prabang in a tiny plane with propellers instead of engines on it's wings - gulp! It was amazing to fly over Laos across the thousand islands of the Mekong Delta down below and mountains.

Luang Prabang:


Luang Prabang was probably my favourite place of the whole trip, we'd been told and read that it was fairly special so planned five days of our trip there. We booked everything in advance being on a short time frame, if we'd gone for longer I think we would have been more spontaneous. I'm such a planner anyway I like having it all mapped out. The town was so spiritual, full of old streets, beautiful temples, crumbling colonial villas covered in bougainvillaea, night craft markets and the most incredible monks. It's a Unesco World Heritage listed city and seemed so unspoilt, I really hope that it never gets too touristy as it really was a gem and one of the most charming destinations in SE Asia.





The people of Laos could not have been kinder either. We first stayed at a sweet guest house by the river which was a great location for exploring the town. We visited temples, walked along the river, walked up a hill to see the famous Buddha's foot and sunset, ate at restaurants under pretty lanterns, we had some of the best street food in all of Asia, saw tiny kittens in the temple grounds and loved watching the Monk's going about their business. It just had such an amazing feel to it, I really could have spent weeks here.






 


We got up early one morning to watch Lao's most sacred ritual, the daily Buddhist alms giving ceremony before the sun comes up. The whole town prepares offerings and bowls of rice to give to the monks. Over two hundred monks take part from different temples, it was incredible to watch and so peaceful.

 

Then for reasons that I cannot even fathom, we booked into an 'eco-lodge' up in the hills of Luang Prabang where we could go elephant trekking from. The first two nights by the river was just what we wanted and had expected. It all went south however when we got to our 'eco lodge' and on arrival after a bump long trip there was no running water. We were told to wash in the eco, no chlorine natural swimming pool - aka a pond. And then we got to our room where in the visitors book next to the bed we were told to watch out for tarantulas!!! Cue panic attack from me, I could barely walk back down the path to reception in fear of the spiders. There we no other guests here, why?! And it felt too remote. We ate dinner in the restaurant and saw tree rats. I was a nervous wreck. We couldn't stay here and quickly got on our laptop to book something back in lovely Luang Prabang that we missed more than ever at this point. We thankfully got a last minute booking at a five star plantation style hotel and had to stay for one night at the lodge, I literally wrapped myself in the mosquito net and slept in fear all night long. The next day, before going back down to LP, we did our elephant trek, another disaster that we quit half way through. Dear god. Anyway, back safely in LP and in luxury at The Luang Say Hotel, we enjoyed our last few days in Laos before it was time to start our Vietnamese part of the adventure.




Hanoi - 
We flew into Hanoi, originally we'd planned to get a bus from Laos but a few days into our trip booked a last minute flight when we realised it would give us an extra half a day - valuable in our short space of time with so much ground to cover. 


We used Hanoi as a base to visit Sapa in the North and Halong Bay. Hanoi itself, the capital of Vietnam was everything you'd expect it to be. Thousands of motorbikes tearing through the colonial streets, old pagodas and bustling markets. We loved it actually and so much more than Bangkok. It has a real charm about it.





We quickly learned that the best way to cross the road is fairly slowly rather than running across as the bikes will then go around you! Scary at first though with all the beeping horns.


Vietnamese food was nice but we went mad for Western food when we got a chance and spent a quarter of a million dong at Fanny's ice cream parlour one evening! 

Halong Bay -
A real highlight in Vietnam and near Hanoi, was our couple of days in Halong Bay, an area of outstanding natural beauty with over 1000 limestone stacks and islands rising from the sea. We booked onto a traditional 'junk' boat for two days and a night sailing through the bays. We paid a bit extra and went with Indochina Junk company, on the Dragon's Pearl and it paid off as we had such an amazing time. It was truly magical and away from all the mass tourism, we moored up on our own at night, had amazing food, met some lovely people and had a responsible, sustainable company for protecting the area. 


We went kayaking from a little beach on our first afternoon around the bay which is something we'll never forget.

 
 



Then watched the sunset over magical, mystical Halong Bay.




We slept in our cabin and awoke to atmospheric skies the next morning.


We were rowed around a school and village that live on floating platforms on the bay before going back to dry land and returning to Hanoi.



Everyone should experience Halong in their lifetimes.

Sapa
From Hanoi we visited Sapa for a couple of days, a mountainous tribal town in Northern Vietnam on the border with China. It has spectacular views over the rice terraces and kind of felt like we were in an Asian version of the Alps with a chalet style town up in the clouds.






We had some funny conversations with the local hill tribe ethnic minorities who wear colourful clothes and can probably sell better than most salesmen over in England! Aka they're incredibly pushy and will almost stalk you around the town saying 'I'll sell you an iPad' etc to try and make you interested in their crafts, sometimes they were irritating but most of the time funny and liked to engage in conversation. Their English was very good and you've got to admire their entrepreneurial skills.



From Sapa, after a couple of days of walking around the mountains and exploring the hill town, we got the sleeper train back to Hanoi and then carried on our journey down through Vietnam, stopping at Hoi An. 

Hoi An



Hoi An was probably my favourite place in Vietnam, it's a charming little old town and port that's traffic less in the centre, something rare for South East Asia! 








Hoi An has centuries old architecture that's been preserved since it was an important port for trade with China and Japan back in the 17th and 18th centuries. There's a unique mix of Vietnamese, French Colonial design and then the Chinese and Japanese influence that fuse together to create a picture perfect Hoi An. It's been made a World Heritage Site with many temples, pagodas and ancient homes. The streets, set behind the river and boats were gorgeous.



We called it the lantern town as there were lanterns everywhere, I loved it. There were upmarket, boutiquey style restaurants by the river where we ate for a couple of nights and then wandered looking at the lit up streets and lantern festival.




Hoi An is also the tailoring capital of S.E Asia because of it's connections with the silk trading routes. If you look in some of your clothes you'll be surprised at how much is made in Vietnam and how skilled the tailors are, often having it passed from generation to generation. We decided to get some clothes made, you can choose from hundreds of different fabrics and designs. I even looked up a dress from Topshop while on their computer and they made it for me within two days! Ben had two suits made which he still wears for weddings/christenings etc five years on, the quality is amazing. You need a couple of days to pop back for fittings but we were really impressed.


We hired bikes one morning to cycle to the nearby beach through the fields. If you're planning a trip to Vietnam definitely make time for Hoi An. 




Phu Quoc
From Hoi An we had an afternoon and night in Hue before we flew to Phu Quoc Island. It's owned by Vietnam but is off to the coast of Cambodia and has palm fringed white sand beaches.










After some of the hustle, bustle and humidity of our trip so far it was heaven to have a few days relaxing by the beach. We got a massage in a hut on the sand for just $2! And after sunbathing most of the day we walked along the beach in the evening to the main town for bbq-ed fish and restocked our fruit provisions. We loved the fresh fruit out there and probably ate a dragon fruit everyday. The island was fairly basic when we visited {I think they were just about to upgrade the airport though so it may have all changed now with the arrival of more hotels and tourists etc} but it felt like a desert island in a way, we loved the simplicity for a few days. 





Siem Reap 
From the beaches of Phu Quoc island it was onto temples of Angkor Wat in Siem Reap, Cambodia. This was another real highlight of the trip, the Cambodian people were incredible and we were back to spotting Buddhist monks daily {something we'd missed in Vietnam!}. Out of the four countries we visited, the Laos and Cambodian people were all so sweet, incredibly hospitable and really were special, these are both Buddhist countries and they've had a tough time in the not so distant past with genocide and war etc. There was definitely a different and special feel to the cultures in Laos and Cambodia compared to Thailand and Vietnam.


We were here for the temples of Angkor Wat but Siem Reap itself was a city that we loved. It had amazing night markets, street food, cute little cafes and shops.


We had booked a boutique villa for four nights at The Soujourn just outside the main town in a little village amongst the rice paddies. Cambodia is a country that's in real poverty, The Sojourn hotel works in a responsible way with a fund for the village and works sustainably with the local people and helps to invest in projects etc. I think we'd feel uneasy staying in a place of relative luxury with literally shacks outside that the villagers live in if we were not being responsible with our travel - in the same as where we stayed in Tanzania.








We hired a tuk tuk driver, organised through the hotel to take us around the Angkor Wat temples, starting before dawn at around 5am to get our tickets before the sunrise. We were so excited to see the ancient temples built by the Khmer empire. 



Even at sunrise it was incredibly hot already, our tuk tuk driver dropped us off at the entrance of Angkor Wat and we watched the sunrise over the lake and in front of the most famous temple before beating the crowds and going for a wander and to take photos before it got too busy. We took breakfast with us and sat eating our biscuits and fruit on the steps in awe of everything around us and feeling like we had it all to ourselves, so incredible. 


 

  




When we'd seen enough of Angkor Wat we went to find our driver again and drove round the park to the next temple, it felt like a Cambodian version of a theme park or something with such a thrill when you saw a monkey at the side of the road or amazing old stone ruins. 

 


We next saw Ta Prohm, made famous with Tomb Raider, which has been ruined by the jungle encroaching upon it. The trees have literally started growing on top of the stone walls.


And the Bayon Temple with carved stone faces. 



Our day at the temples is something we'll remember forever. 

That evening we had booked a special dinner through the hotel where we had a private chef and ate in a stilted hut above a lotus pond.



We went for a walk around the local village one morning and enjoyed chatting to the adorable children who showed us their cows. It was so peaceful. 





We had heard about a temple as old as Angkor Wat just a few minutes walk away which we could look around but without the tourists of the day before at Angkor Wat.

 

 

Luckily for us, we met a young monk who was studying and living there that wanted to show us around. After being curious for the whole of our trip seeing the monks we were fascinated and in awe of the whole experience. A real life monk, we both pinched ourselves that the whole experience was happening! So surreal. They normally don't talk to people as they have very strict routines to get on with, and they aren't allowed to engage with women or get too close to them so I was respectful and tried to let Ben do most of the talking with him. We learned a lot about the culture, where they live, their studies and beliefs.





He spent about an hour with us and we left a donation to the monastarey as we left. 


We were sad to leave Siem Reap and would have loved to have spent more time in Cambodia. But it was almost the end of our trip, we just had one night in Bangkok left before flying home. To finish our adventure in style we booked a night at The Banyan Tree in a room on the 49th floor overlooking the city. We had drinks up on the Sky Bar and after a ridiculously huge buffet breakfast the next day {sushi or ice cream for breakfast anyone?} it was time to fly back to London town. 



What a trip! A whistle stop tour of South East Asia but jam packed with everything we wanted to see and do. 

Have you been to any of these places? Are you planning to go? It's ridiculously cheap out there so you can plan an amazing trip on a real budget. If you have any questions or want me to expand on anything further then just ask.

R <3 xx 

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3 comments

  1. This trip looks truly incredible! What adventurers you are! :)

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