As I work my way through SE Asia, I’m recognizing that I should probably be summing these countries up into two parts. Anyone can read a map can see that SE Asia is a HUGE place, and for me to put one post about all of these places seems a little wrong. So in this article, I’ll be discussing what I loved about Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia will come at a later date. I’ll give you a summation of my general impression, the details of my trip, my favorite experiences, some cultural quirks, and some helpful tips!
Vietnam was an amazing country, that reminded me a lot of a less chaotic India. While English is hard to find on street signs, and information is never clearly marked, I enjoyed the two weeks I spent in the north. I found the people to be extremely friendly (when they’re not trying to scam you) and the food always fresh and amazing! Between Sapa, Halong Bay, and Hanoi, my time in Northern Vietnam was educating and exciting!
Laos was a hidden gem. I really didn’t expect much from this little landlocked country, but it quickly jumped to the top of my lists of places I want to revisit. The countryside is unspoiled and BEAUTIFUL. Rolling hills and big muddy rivers made this country’s landscape truly Asian. While Vientiane was a little too business driven, I fell in love with Luang Prabang. The Land of elephants didn’t disappoint. It was a unique culture of friendly locals, amazing landscapes, and my favorite: elephants.
This was my second trip to Siem Reap in Cambodia. With the fall of the Khmer Rouge, this country is still trying to get back on it’s feet. Angkor Wat is an amazing World Heritage Site that is a must see, but the real beauty lies in the local’s smiles and friendly attitudes. Cambodia is an inspiring land of simplicity and raw beauty. Siem Reap, on the other hand is losing it’s character rapidly to Angkor tourism. I encourage everyone to go to Cambodia, just get your visa in advance to avoid an inevitable scam at the border.
My Trip: September 7th – October 3rd 2013
- Halong Bay
- Luang Prabang
- Siem Reap
#1. Luang Prabang, Kuang Si Waterfall
This little sleepy town is a clean little village-like city of colonial buildings, temples, and shops. The night market is amazing. The Mekong River and Khan River meet, forming a peninsula. This is where the oldest buildings are. You will catch a sight of the adolescent Buddhist monks in their orange robes, walking about town.
The Kuangsi Waterfall, 26km outside of Luang Prabang, is a magnificent sight. Rent a motorbike and drive the winding backroads, past roadside fruit stands, to get there. You can swim in the falls or hike to the top! Truly Stunning!
#2. Halong Bay
This Unesco World Heritage Bay is breathtaking. I took local transportation to CatBa Island, as opposed to booking a tour. Being in the off season, I had the place to myself. I loved how relaxing it was. Take a junk boat into the bay. Rock climb the karst peaks without ropes. Kayak your way through caves and into hidden lagoons. Swim on secluded beaches. Visit the floating villages. Get captured by pirates! Don’t go to Vietnam without missing Halong Bay.
#3. My Visit to the Elephant Village
Outside of Luang Prabang, I spent a day at an elephant sanctuary with my own personal elephant! Mai Son and I became best friends… because I bribed her with bananas. I got to ride solo, through the jungle, with her. Then I got to take her down to the river and give her a bath.
#4. Angkor Wat
This stunning Unesco World Heritage Site is a must see in SE Asia. This was my second trip to Angkor Wat, and twice as rewarding as the first. This time I got to explore the place in depth with one of my best friends… I didn’t even care that we got rained out.
#5. Attending a Vietnamese Wedding
Read about my experience attending a Vietnamese Wedding! Truly an experience.
#6. Siem Reap’s Old Quarter
French colonial buildings filled with tourist shops, restaurants, and bars makes for a nice destination. Just remember to look beyond the decay of culture and at the revival of these beautiful buildings.
This un-developed city is the definition of “Hustle & Bustle.” Stunning colonial architecture is decaying in the most fascinating way, as locals have made it their own! Wind through the seemingly medieval streets and try not to get run over. Sample the local coffee culture! Check out my picture post of Hanoi!
#8. Egg Coffee
I was told that egg coffee is a traditional Vietnamese staple. It’s basically a latte with whipped egg substituting the steamed milk. IT. IS. DELICIOUS!
#9. Meeting Other Travelers
SE Asia is great place to always run into other travelers. I met so many wonderful people from all over the world while there! Strike up a conversation with EVERYONE! Not just the tourists, but the locals!
#10. Vietnamese Food!
Pho Ga, Pho Bo, Spring Rolls, Bahn, It’s all AMAZING! Vietnamese food is always fresh and always cheap!
Things you probably didn’t know about Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia
- You can get a whole coconut with rum and coconut water inside.
- They eat dog, and they don’t hide the fact.
- Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum is a replica of Linen’s in Russia, but smaller scale.
- At the time of writing, $100 USD = 2,100,000 VMD. So live like a millionaire!
- Not sure if this has something to do with their diet, but from my experience, the Vietnamese do NOT do well with motion sickness. You’ll notice it too if you take a local bus!
- Laos means “The Land of a Million Elephants.”
- Laotian bananas are half the size and twice as sweet as American bananas! A bunch costs about $.40.
- You can only get BeerLaos in Laos, according to my knowledge.
- You cannot leave Laos with any of their currency. It is technically against the law.
- Many people speak French in Cambodia.
- There are still countless active land mines in Cambodia, so straying off of paths and roads is discouraged.
- Angkor Wat is where Tomb Raider was filmed, but there’s not a floating village in front of Angkor Wat. It was digitally added.
- If you take a train to Siem Reap from Bangkok during the rainy season, the water level can come up to a few inches below the train doors, and above the wheels.
- The Cambodian government was established by the United Nations as the first U.N. Peace Project. As a result, USD is accepted almost everywhere! You can get USD at an ATM in Cambodia.
Helpful Tips For Travelers:
- You need a visa to get to Vietnam… and you MUST get it in advance! It’s $35 USD for a visa on arrival.
- You need a visa for Cambodia & Laos, but you can buy them at the border. Cambodia ($20). Laos ($35).
- I should really have posted about Cambodian Visas. If you are coming from Bangkok, get your Cambodian visa in advance, or buy it at the border. This means you buy your visa AFTER you exit Thailand. Anything before that is a SCAM!
- You are going to be scammed in transportation no matter where you go in SE Asia. Lack of clearly marked signs/information means that it’s unavoidable. Just keep your cool and remember “It’s just a few extra bucks.” if you really do get scammed.
- You CAN go from Hanoi to Luang Prabang by bus… a slow ass 30 hour bus.
- ALWAYS ask to use the meter in taxis in Vietnam!
- Passes for Angkor Wat are $20 for one day/ $40 for a three day pass. There’s also a 7 day pass.
- Rent bicycles to see Angkor Wat!
- If you are a picky eater, pack a lunch for Angkor Wat. All the restaurants in the park are similar to roadside huts.
- If the weather looks bad, get a plastic pancho before you head to the park. They’ll be half price in town.
- If you see a disabled person selling something (particularly handmade), buy from them first. In many cultures, the disabled are not given equal opportunity. So this is how they provide for themselves/families. I bought a bracelet from an amputee in Cambodia. He made it himself and told me all about it! I love it.
- If you book a three dollar hostel, you’re going to get what you paid for… simply put.
- Lock up your valuable at ALL times! Even if you get up to go the bathroom in your dorm room… I’m not saying it’s dangerous. It’s just better to be safe than sorry.
- On that note, the people are very friendly and hospitable. Even if you’re a victim of a little scam, it doesn’t mean you’re going to be physically harmed.
Southeast Asia is a chaotic playground full of travelers. It is possible to get off of the grid, and resources are available for your protection and use. These countries depend on tourism greatly, so the people are very welcoming and friendly. Just remember that in most cases, your life is very different than theirs. An extra dollar spent might mean nothing to you, but it means a lot to them! When you look beyond the tourist areas, you can catch a glimpse into a simpler life. Awareness is a virtue, as every traveler should take the opportunity to educate themselves on the people they interact with. Your trip is more than misty hills, terraced rice farms, aqua blue waters, and mossy temple ruins! It’s an opportunity to see a buddhist funeral. It’s an chance to get muddy with the local children. It’s getting to ride an elephant, to swim under a waterfall, or ride a bike down a dirt path. Love these little places and leave them in better condition than you found them, as they will leave you a better person than you once were.