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SE Asia July/August itinerary - suggestions needed

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These forums have always been a great help to me when planning a trip, and I have returned looking for more advice. I have read many great trip reports and already learned a great deal over the past few months.

A little about us:
Husband and wife in our early-thirties from the NYC area. English speaking with some functional Spanish, German and French. Love to travel, but have never visited Asia at all. North America and much of Europe we have explored. We hope to travel from about July 7th to August 13th. We're both teachers so this is the only time of year we can make this kind of trip. We would like to start a family soon so it may be a while before we can return to this part of the world. We like to walk and explore, but are not backpackers. We don't require much luxury, but we will spend a few extra bucks for a little more privacy and comfort. We like to make our own arrangements whenever possible, but are not against a tour if it will provide a better experience (In Myanmar, maybe?) and certainly plan to utilize local guides and tourism services.

Here is our rough itinerary:

Monday, July 7th NYC to LAX
Wednesday, July 7th - 9th LA
July 9th - 10th LAX to BKK
Friday, July 10th - 13th Bangkok
Sunday, July 13th BKK to Cambodia
Sunday, July 13th - 19th Cambodia (focusing on Angkor Wat and the capital)
Saturday, July 19th Cambodia to Vietnam
July 19th - 27th Vietnam (starting in the South and traveling North to Halong
Bay I think)
Sunday, July 27th N Vietnam to N Thailand
July 27th - August 1st N Thailand
Friday, August 1st N Thailand to Myanmar
August 1st - 9th Myanmar (do we need to do this with a tour group?)
Saturday, August 9th Myanmar to ???
August 9th - 13th ??? S Thailand beaches or Bangkok maybe
August 13th Flight from BKK to NYC

These are the broad strokes of what we are planning. My wife would like us to include some part of Indonesia in this trip, but I don't really see how we can fit it. Maybe if we replace one of the current stops. I already anticipate some suggestions about this itinerary that we focus on fewer places.

Here are some of my questions/doubts:
1. Should we anticipate being totally rained out in any of these places and potentially avoiding them altogether? We know to expect a period of rain every day and know we may have to put up with losing a day here and there to all day rain, but I will be mad at myself if I bring us to a spot that I should have known is a bad choice during the rainy season. And I've also read people's trip reports discussing having a great time despite the rainy season so I would prefer to steer us in the best possible direction.
2. Would we be better off doing a guided tour of Myanmar rather than trying to do it on our own?
3. When should I book the country to country transportation? As soon as possible or when I arrive? Any suggestions on getting from country to country? We will probably fly in most instances to save time.
4. When should I book our rooms? I know its not high tourist season so would I be better off waiting until closer to our arrival? I usually like to book early.
5. As I said, we don't know when we will be able to return so we are trying to do as much as possible without having to move and travel so often that we don't get to relax and enjoy each stop. We recognize that our plan is ambitious, but feel it is what we wan to do. Having said that, where do you feel our worst travel injustice lies? Where will leave saying we did not get a good taste of what a place has to offer?
6. Any suggestions, other than extending our time in the other places, for the last leg of our trip after Myanmar? We have not booked our return flight yet so we are flexible where we fly home from. BKK to NYC is the cheapest and most direct that I have found, but we are open to all kinds of ideas. If we skip BKK at the end, I would probably like to extend our time there in the beginning. I thought maybe Hong Kong, or my wife's suggestion of Bali or another part of Indonesia. We have also considered going the other way around the world and stopping in Europe somewhere like Berlin or Budapest for those last few nights. This option would add to the total cost of the trip though. Money is certainly a concern, but we will spend a little extra money to have the best experience possible. Cutting down the length of the long flight home would be nice too. \
I am planning to book the NYC - LAX, LAX - BKK, BKK - NYC flights this week if we decide that BKK to NYC is the best option for us so we plan to make our decision soon.

Thank you for any and all help that you can provide. This is a dream experience for us and are very appreciative of the support we receive.
Sean

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    There is no reason to do a tour anywhere in SE Asia. Myanmar is a place where it pays to utilize a local travel agent, but pick and choose what you want from the agent - flights, hotels, maybe a car and driver somewhere... mostly, you don't need a guide. To get a good taste of the country, you need 10 nights, 2 in Yangon, 4 in Bagan and 4 at Inle. It is worthwhile, I believe to give more time to this country before it changes too much. It is very much a country in transition.

    Do pause and consider your top priorities so you can devote the most time to those. There are endless things to do and see in this part of the world. You'll have a better experience is you know what is most important to you.

    Also, as someone who flies to Asia with some frequency, you are better off doing both flights all in one go rather than stopping for a few days somewhere like LA. The stop doesn't help with jet lag, and makes your adaptation slower. Devote all the time you can to SE Asia.

    I'll try to get back to comment more on your itinerary when I have some more time. It should be a marvelous trip!

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    Your dilemma is going to be what to eliminate, not what to choose. But don't worry, you'll be back -- with the kids!

    Six weeks is a good chunk of time, but don't underestimate the time -- and energy -- that it takes to get from one place to another. Checking out and in, getting to and from airports, dealing with security and immigration, allowing for delays and cancellations will take up most of a day, even for short flights. Options for surface travel from place to place are limited.

    As mentioned on your other thread about the flights, I wouldn't stopover enroute unless you really want to combine your Southeast Asia trip with stops in other places. Just keep going until you get to your first destination. If you limit your stops and look for good connections, the long haul flights are not as arduous as you might imagine.

    In six weeks I would choose 6 to 7 destinations -- cities or places, not countries. You currently have about 10 or 11, depending on how many places you want to cover within each country. So if your initial list is Thailand, Viet Nam, Cambodia and Burma with a possible Indonesia, you should choose three (or maybe four countries) and/or 6 to 7 destinations.

    These are all wonderful places, so it's difficult to prioritize, but my top choices for a first trip would be Bangkok, Siem Reap and Bali, with Singapore as your travel hub.

    Bangkok is a vibrant and exotic Asian city; Angkor is a must see and Bali offers a mix of culture, nature and beach in an easily navigatable area. You could then add a few more destinations, in the same countries or others, depending on what you like to do most. A day or two in Singapore at either end would round out the trip.

    I'm less enthusiastic about Ho Chi Minh City and Phnom Penh. In Vietnam I would concentrate on the central and northern parts. In Cambodia, Angkor. I haven't been to Chiang Mai and North Thailand for sometime, so I'll leave that comment for someone else. Thai beaches you want to stay on the east coast at that time of year.

    If you want to see Burma, plan extra time. It's a slow country.

    I'm not recommending Java for July/August because of Ramadan and the Islamic holidays following. Bali is not affected by the Muslim holidays, and you'll get beautiful weather.

    I don't think you need to arrange any tours in advance. These are all well traveled places and easy to get around on your own. Burma, as Kathie mentioned, may be the exception.

    July/August IS high tourist season throughout Southeast Asia, so book your flights and rooms as soon as you're comfortable with your itinerary.

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    I agree with marmot that this will be a better trip for you if you limit your number of stops. You did a pretty good job first time around, no one and two-night stays, but the itinerary would benefit from more focus. The idea that you'll see VN from HCMC to Halong Bay in 8 days... choose carefully what you want to see/do/experience in VN or it will just be a blur from the train or minibus.

    You might think of this as several linked trips by choosing the three or four things you are most interested in and devoting most of you time to those places. As you can probably tell, I'd recommend that you choose Myanmar as one of the foci. I'd recommend at least 10 days there. And if you want a different beach experience, consider a beach in Myanmar.

    While July/August is high season in Indonesia, especially Bali, that is not as true in mainland SE Asia. Still, there are plenty of families with children who travel at this tie of the year. You will want to make many plans in advance. Marmot's suggestion of Air Asia is good, a solid budget airline. Buying your tickets in advance will get you much better prices. Also, given your itinerary, you may find the Bangkok Air Discovery Pass to be a real bargain - it will get you to Siem Reap and Luang Prabang.

    I will admit that VN is my least favorite country on your itinerary. It's not that it is awful or anything, just less interesting to me. If it were me - and it isn't - I'd replace all of your VN time with a side trip to Luang Prabang or use the days to add to Burma plus some other places you are already planning. VN is a long, thin country and travel (even the fairly efficient flights) take time. Culturally, it is more like three countries along the coast - norther, middle and south - and a hundred countries inland. If VN really interests you, you might save it for a longer 3-week trip on its own.

    So many people say they don't expect to be back for a long time, but then become as addicted to this part of the world as the regulars here, who make annual trips to our favorite part of the world.

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    What is and isn't high season in mainland SEA is confusing because weather patterns are so different from place to place.

    Weather aside, many travelers can only travel during school holidays -- and consequently all of Asia is busy (if not busiest) during July/August when Europeans, expats living in Asia, some Asians, and Australians take time off to travel with their families. (North Americans too, but they're not a significant demographic.)

    This is especially true if you're targeting locations with better weather.

    So you may be able to take advantage of low season (but suffer rain or heat) in some places and have to pay high seasons rates in others.

    Since you indicate that you're a planner and usually like to book early, you should follow your inclination and make your bookings well in advance. You may not hit it 100% perfect -- we always find that we like some places more and some less than anticipated -- but for a long and complex trip that comprises multiple destinations, you're better off with a fixed structure.

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    Kathie and Marmot,
    Thank you very much for your advice. We appreciate it very much. After some discussion, we think we're going to scrap LA and go straight to Singapore or Bangkok. We also put together a list of our most anticipated stops:
    Myanmar
    Bangkok
    Siem Reap
    N Vietnam
    Bali

    And here is the order and duration I'm thinking we would visit them in:

    Bangkok - 6 nights
    Myanmar - 10 nights
    Hanoi area - 6 nights
    Siem Reap - 6 nights
    Bali - 7 nights

    This hits our highlights and gives us what I think is a good amount of time in each location. Bali will hopefully be a beautiful, relaxing end to our adventure.
    If we can make it to Chang Mai, I would like to try.
    After consideration, I don't think we should be too ambitious in Vietnam or Cambodia. We get to visit the places we're the most excited about without stressing out about getting around all the time.
    And from what I always read, Myanmar deserves at least this much time.

    1. With this itinerary, should our travel plan for the long flight NYC to SE Asia be NYC to BKK, Bali to NYC? I was also thinking of booking Singapore to NYC and then spending a few nights in Singapore after Bali.
    2. I should probably book my country to country flights as soon as possible for the best deal?
    3. I should probably book rooms as soon as possible to get the best deal?
    4. Other thoughts or cautions for us?

    Thank you again for any suggestions you can provide.
    Sean

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    This looks like a good plan to me. While I always enjoy a stop in Singapore, be aware that it is NYC expensive.

    As you know, extra days will get added in for transport from place to place. With both luck and good planning, it may not require any overnights to get from place to another, but it might well. Still, moving from one location to another will take pretty much a full day. Yes, start booking rooms soon. Usually, deals on the internet via places like agora.com are the best, but I always check their plaices (and extras) against booking on the hotel's own site. Also in some places, a local agent will be able to get you better prices, e.g.VN and Myanmar. For intra-asia air tickets, wait until you have the itinerary firmed up. Take a look at Bangkok Air's website and click on info about their Discover Pass. Check on what airlines you'll use for each segment. Air Asia is cheap and easy when they fly point to point, but you can also waste a lot of time and money trying to get the cheapest flights, which for Air Asia might require a flight to KL and maybe an overnight to catch your flight to your next destination.

    Do you have a copy of Dawn Rooney's book, Angkor: A Guide to Cambodia's Wondrous Temples ? It's the book I always recommend to prepare for an Angkor trip. You'll also want to do some serious reading about Burma. I have an old thread here, http://www.fodors.com/community/asia/kathies-burma-bookshelf.cfm

    Come back and ask questions as you plan. We are always glad to help.

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    Looks good! In answer to your questions.

    1. I responded to your long haul question on your other thread. Basically, it's easiest to pick a "hub" then radiate out from there. Your choice of hub will influence which airlines you choose. You can't just compare prices: you have to look at number of stops and layover time.

    Singapore is a good place to start for one or two nights. You can get over jet lag and get acclimated -- literally -- to the heat. The food is good and it's an easy city to get around in.

    I would go right home after Bali. After all these weird and wonderful places Singapore can seem repressive.

    2. Yes, book now. Sometimes prices do go down, but availability also declines. But make sure your itinerary is firm and understand the penalties for cancellation and changes.

    Although we've been happy with Air Asia's service, we've found that for flights between Bali and Singapore and other points beyond, that SQ turned out to be a better bet because their policies are more flexible and all charges are inclusive.

    3. It's going to take some time before you've finalized your itinerary and selected your hotels/resorts. It's really not that far in advance for July. If things are slow in Asia this season as they may well be, you might come across better deals closer to your arrival dates, but that sounds like a lot of unnecessary aggravation.

    4. Make sure you have reliable medical evacuation insurance. Read the fine print. In case of a medical emergency, where would you be treated?
    Check that your immunizations are up to date.
    Start working on your visas, where required. Make sure your passports are valid for at least 6 months after you arrival in each country.

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    Kathie and Marmot,
    Thank you again for your great advice. I deeply appreciate the suggestions and want to make the right moves now.
    We've booked our long haul flights July 8th NYC to BKK and then Aug 13th Singapore to NYC before seeing your advice. We've lived near a big city all our lives and enjoy experiencing a small taste of a big city, but appreciate the thought. We are still deciding about spending any time in Singapore.

    Here's what we're thinking for an itinerary:

    NYC to BKK arrive July 9th around 10:00 AM

    Bangkok July 9th - July 14th

    BKK to Myanmar July 14th

    Myanmar July 14th - July 25th

    Rangoon to Hanoi July 25th
    (Rangoon seems like the best airport to fly out of)

    Hanoi July 25th- July 30th

    Hanoi to Siem Reap July 30th

    Siem Reap July 30th - August 4th

    Siem Reap to Bali August 4th

    Bali, August 4th - 11th

    Bali to Singapore, August 11th

    Singapore August 11th - 13th

    Singapore to NYC August 13th

    I booked the flight home already from Singapore but we may not stay there at all in order to save some money. Maybe put those last two nights somewhere else.

    What do you think about the whole thing? Any suggestions? Is not flying from place to place a "good" option at any point?
    (Good being dramatically cheaper, interesting journey, mostly convenient, safe, maybe with a nice stop for a night)

    Thank you for bringing up the visa, passport and health issues. That is our next step to address. I'm leaning towards getting travel and medical insurance. Going to see what my current health and car insurance companies have available as well.

    I can't thank you enough. You've already helped us a great deal.
    Sean

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    This looks fine.

    You are right, it is best to leave Myanmar via Yangon, as it has the most flights. I don't know if there are any non-stop flights to Hanoi (check VN Air), so you may have to connect through Bangkok. You have a number of choices of airlines from Bangkok to Yangon. There are no non-stops from Siem Reap to Bali, but there is a non-stop from Bangkok, or you can route through KL on Air Asia to get to Bali.

    Most of your stops are far enough apart that overland doesn't make sense. And you can't overland into Myanmar at this point.

    BTW, do you collect any kind of hotel points? Singapore can be a good place to use those points.

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    Singapore's worth a visit, though my guess is you'll want more days in Bali. After some of these less developed places, the sterility of Singapore is either a letdown or a relief. :)

    From Siem Reap to Denpasar I'd suggest Air Asia through Kuala Lumpur or Silk Air though Singapore. Silk Air is a very good airline.

    I don't see any opportunities for overland or sea travel either.

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    You've gotten some very good advice from other writers. Rainy season will vary some from country to country. We did a 6-week trip in July & August 2013 that included Bangkok and surrounding areas, Lao cities of Vientiane and Luang Prabang and 2+ weeks in Myanmar. Of course the weather in August 2014 could be quite different than it was in August 2013 but August is supposed to be the beginning of rainy season in Myanmar and the only place we ran into persistent rain was Rangoon. Even that didn’t stop us from seeing the city.

    For travel from Myanmar to Hanoi, Rangoon is definitely the best option but you might consider flying into Myanmar via Mandalay. Bangkok Airways now has a reasonably priced non-stop from BKK to MDL. Mandalay might not be high on your list of Myanmar cities but we spent 2 nights there and would have been happy to have allowed more time. From there, you’ll be reasonably close to Bagan and will have the option of getting there (from Mandalay) by plane, train, bus or by an Irrawaddy River ferry.

    Without changing your enter and exit dates, you could spend 2 nights in Mandalay, 3 in Bagan, 3 in Inle Lake and 3 in Rangoon. Flying into one city and out another will also save you the time (likely a full day and night) back tracking to make your exit flight.

    One tweak I would suggest would be to try and free up a day or two from other cities to give you time to make the side trip out of Hanoi to Sapa. You’ll have to take an overnight train from and to Hanoi but Sapa is a really special place and worth the trouble to get there. This is purely a personal bias that some others will likely disagree with but if I had a choice of Hanoi side trips between Halong Bay and Sapa, I would pick Sapa every time. We’ve got quite a bit of info on a couple trips to Sapa including amazing visits to several nearby weekend markets beginning at http://www.se-asiatravel.com/vietnam/sapa-2012/

    Angkor Wat is a great place (we’ve been there twice) but that’s one part of your itinerary you might be able to steal a night or 2 from. Your schedule shows 5 nights there and in all honesty, 3 are probably enough. Spend a couple days at the larger more famous central sites and another day getting away from the crowds at some of the smaller outer sites. At night, Siem Reap turns into a big party town so if that’s your scene, you may want to stay the full 5 nights. If cutting a night or two, don’t bother with the day trip to Tonle Sap Lake. We found it a bit depressing.

    I think the hotel link Kathie meant to give you was www.agoda.com (rather than agora.com). Note agoda doesn’t include taxes in their prices. Also be aware if the price quoted includes breakfast or not as that can add up at some hotels if not included. There are other good 3rd party hotel booking sites as well.

    Bali is a great place to visit but when you are checking prices on air and if you find that the fare to and from Bali is more than you want to spend, consider substituting Luang Prabang, Lao and save Bali for another trip. Luang Prabang is a great place to visit with tons of things to do. It is also a very short flight from there to Hanoi on either Vietnam Air or Lao Air. This change could also free up another day or two for other cities as 5 nights is a nice length stay for Luang Prabang.

    Assuming you do go to Bali on this trip, I would recommend that you get out of Denpasar and spend most of your time in places like Ubud and Munduk.

    You don’t need to join a tour group in any of your countries (including Myanmar) but I would definitely suggest the use of local guides. We typically try to book parts of our trips through local travel agents and that was particularly helpful in Myanmar and Vietnam.

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