By Neil Barnes, Backpacksandbunkbeds.co.uk
South East Asia is a dream destination for many, but some can find it difficult to make travelling there a reality. So long is the journey from places like the UK, US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand that wannabe visitors may opt against going, favouring somewhere closer to home.
Not because they can’t stand the thought being stuck on a plane for 10+ hours, but because of the journey time. Time is precious, especially if – like me – you work a 9-5 and hold your annual leave sacred. To lose one whole day of that annual leave sat on a plane can sometimes seem like a waste, and if you count the return journey that’s two days you’ve lost. If you ask me teleportation can’t come soon enough, but in the meantime we’re going to have to work with what we’ve got, and whilst not ideal it’s my belief that ‘sacrificing’ those couple of days to visit somewhere further afield will in the end be totally worth it.
So, despite being a travel blogger for the past two years I still need to pay the bills somehow. This means going to work in a London office just like thousands of others do Monday to Friday. But just recently I was given the opportunity to escape my painfully slow laptop and the endless spreadsheets. My good friends here at Hostelbookers (love you) extended an awesome opportunity my way, which along with the approval from my boss allowed me to get away from my working routine.
April 4th, as soon as it hit 5pm I was logging out and off to the airport. Girlfriend in tow I was off to Asia, I was making the journey other office bods like myself sometimes don’t. But was it worth it?
1. Bangkok and north to the Thai-Laos border (overnight)
Like most visitors to South East Asia our first port of call was Bangkok. Having already been lucky enough to visit the Thai capital on a couple of occasions we decided against an extended stay. I booked a train out of Bangkok the same day our flight would arrive meaning we would spend barely four hours in the city, most of which would be taken up getting from Sukhumvit airport to Hua Lumpong train station. By 8pm our train was leaving and we were on our way to the Thai-Laos border.
At Nong Khai station we needed to board a second train, which would take us across the Friendship Bridge and into Laos. The second train journey was over in minutes and cost us only 300 Baht each. It included a mini bus journey into Vientiane once our passports had been stamped. Sod’s law, the day we arrived the power was out at Thanaleng station so we had to be driven back to the road border.
2. Vientiane (1 night)
So just 36 hours or so after leaving London we had reached our first destination within Laos. That’s not too bad when you realise that the two are some 8000+ miles apart and there is no direct flights. We could have just got another flight from Surhumvit to Vientiane, but the overnight train was cheaper and much more of an adventure.
Arriving in Vientiane we made our way to our hostel and then soon set out exploring town… well I did at least. My better half decided that she deserved a massage so I left her to it and went for a wander. Despite being a capital city (not sure that’s the right word, town?), Vientiane is not full of high-rise or ghastly office blocks.
In fact I found it to have a certain quaint charm. There were smaller temples scattered through, and of an evening there were plenty of cute little restaurants to choose from. Despite only spending a single night in Vientiane I’m still glad we visited and in hindsight I probably would have liked at least one more night there.
Photos: Top Left – our cabin on the over night train, Top Right – our hostel in Vientiane, Bottom Left – Wat Ong Teu, Bottom Right – Beer Lao
Where to stay
Vientiane Backpackers Hostel | Av. customer rating 90% | From €4.62pppn | Book here
3. Vang Vieng (3 nights)
Once upon a time, well up until the fall/winter of 2012, Vang Vieng was party central in Laos. Tubing down the river used to be a huge draw for backpacker, with whisky by the bucket in abundance at the numerous riverside bars that blared ear-bashing music and buzzed with a good time atmosphere. Not everyone thought it was a good time though and the government had a major crackdown on the scene. Despite bringing lots of tourist and money to the area the bars were a huge cause of concern.
People were taking it too far, or in some cases maybe just getting a little carried away, but the reality was that people were suffering horrific injuries at the hands of the tubing scene and some weren’t even that ‘lucky’. It was estimated that there were around 80 deaths at the due to tubing in Vang Vieng in 2012 alone.
Upon our arrival in this small town were didn’t really know what to expect. Would it be a ghost town now that the main attraction was no longer in operation? Would we be bored with nothing to do? Truth be told be really enjoyed our time in Vang Vieng. The countryside was beautiful, the sunset each evening was breathtaking and what remained of the tubing scene was still pretty damn cool. We floated down the river in our tubes totally sober booze-wise, but drunk on the views and high on life.
Photos: Top Left – Relaxing at Utopia, Top Right -Songkran antics, Bottom Left- Kuang Si Falls, Bottom Right – Old Iron Bridge
Where to stay
Chaluen Garden Guesthouse | Av. customer rating 64% | From €3.05pppn | Book here
4. Luang Prabang (4 nights)
Laos’ little gem? A lot of people seem to think so and it’s kind of hard to argue against them. A six-hour bus ride north from Vang Vieng took us to my favourite place in Laos, and probably of our whole trip. Arriving in time for Songkran, we had four very wet, but amazing days in Luang Prabang. Armed with supersoakers, buckets, saucepans, basically anything that could hold water, children and adults alike patrolled the streets looking for anyone with any sign of a dry patch just so they could soak it again. The buckets of water over my head were actually pretty welcome such was the heat in northern Laos.
Aside from soaking of others and being soaked Luang Prabang probably proved our most active stop in Laos. We visited the Kuang Si Falls just outside of town, we (the girlfriend mainly) trawled the night markets looking for bargains. We also got up at the crack of dawn one morning to respectfully watch the alms giving, and on our last evening we scaled Mt Phousi and watched the sun go down over the hills. That was all in between eating cakes and drinking smoothies at an incredible bakery we found in town.
Photos: Top Left – The Blue Lagoon, Top Right – Street pancakes, Bottom Left- Tubing down the river, Bottom Right – Hot air ballooning
Where to stay
Villa Merry Lao III Hotel | Av. customer rating 88% | €9.35pppn | Book here
5. Phnom Penh (3 nights)
In order to squeeze everything we could into our trip we flew down from Laos to Phnom Penh. It was scorching in the capital. Exploring the city in the midday heat was a no, so for much of our time in Phnom Penh we spent hiding in shade or air-conditioned rooms until it was safe to come out and play.
Probably the most notable thing we did there was a tour of S21, the genocide museum – a former school turned into a prison between 1975 and 1979. Whilst you could never say a visit to S21 is an enjoyable experience, it did teach us an awful lot about the history of Cambodia and its people. I felt similar emotions to those I felt upon my visit to Auschwitz in 2010. A visit to the museum, whilst recommended, is emotionally draining.
Photos: Top Left – Royal Palace, Top Right – S21 museum, Bottom Left – Royal Palace, Bottom Right – Tuk tuk ride
Where to stay
The Mad Monkey Hostel Phnom Penh | Av. user rating 87% | €5.45pppn | Book here
6. Sihanoukville (3 nights)
My girlfriend and I had spent a fair time talking about how strange it felt to be in such hot climates but nowhere near the sea. That all changed once we hit snooky. Based down at Otres 2 beach we spent a few lazy days with the sand between our toes and a shedload of factor 50 covering every other inch of us. It was hot, maybe even too hot (all us Brits say that don’t we!?). It was so hot that even the sea felt like a bath. We’d covered a lot of ground since the start of our trip, this was the place where would be getting our much deserved R&R.
Photos: Top Left – View of the beach from our hostel, Top Right – Sunset, Bottom Left – Otres weekend market, Bottom Right – Overnight bus to Siem Reap
Where to stay
Footprints | Av. customer rating 87% | €3.90pppn | Book here
7. Siem Reap (4 nights)
If any place was going to run Luang Prabang close for our affections it was Siem Reap, although to be honest it was the people of Siem Reap that swung it, they were some of the nicest, kindest most incredibly generous people we have ever met, let alone on our three-week mini tour.
Despite frequenting the backpacker hotspot of Pub Street in the town centre, it was on an evening out with a few of the staff from our hotel that we ended up feeling the affects of Cambodian beer the most. Taken to a tiny little garden restaurant on the outskirts of town one evening, we enjoyed an eventful evening of beer, incredible food (lots of) and epic travel stories. My favourite evening from our whole trip without doubt. My hangover the next day was not pleasant, but I was booked on a bike tour of the Siem Reap countryside so had to haul myself out of bed at 6am.
Whilst the tour was brilliant, it was once again the kindness of strangers that was the standout feature. Being the only person on the tour I obviously had quite a lot of time to talk to my guide and we soon found out we had quite a lot in common. Off his own back he then decided that I should come play football with him and his friends that evening and that he would drive across town to pick me up at 6pm. That evening, true to his word Pherin picked me up and an hour later I was pulling the strings in centre midfield (maybe a slight exaggeration).
Even if you don’t like football I think you can still appreciate how cool it was to be invited to join in with a local match.
On the day we weren’t cycling, drinking lots or playing football we visited the ancient city of Angkor. Yes it was incredible!
Photos: Top Left – Pub Street , Top Right – Ta Phrom, Bottom Left – Bantasey Rai, Bottom Right – Cycling through the countryside
Where to stay
Golden Mango Inn | Av. customer rating 94% | From €7.79 | Book here
So that was it. Laos and Cambodia in three weeks, our little escape from the office. After Siem Reap it was a mini bus journey over the boarder and back to Bangkok to catch our flight home.
We could easily have spent a lot more time and explored each country further. I am in no way saying three weeks would be enough for everyone to cover all of Laos and Cambodia. But if like me you are limited on the amount of days you can spend travelling each year, but really want to visit certain parts of the world, despite how far away they may seem there is always a way to make it work. You will probably have to make a couple of sacrifices, for example we never made it to the 4000 islands in Laos which unfortunate but necessary.
So, back to the question posed in paragraph two (well done for sticking with me to this point). The question – was it worth it? Well, what do you think? OF COURSE IT WAS!! It was amazing, and we loved every minute of it and even though we used 15 of 25 days leave in the process we still have 10 days left to play with and an abundance of incredible memories from our trip, not to mention thousands of photos. It sure beat the usual all inclusive med package holidays we’ve taken before.