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cayetana May 2nd, 2014 10:38 PM

Help from all seasoned travelers to SE asia
Hello to all experts in Southeast Asia. I have enjoyed reading all your insights. I am going in june to Tokio and a cruise of Japan. I have 15 days extra to visit SE asia for the first time. I am very confused! The travel agent has prepared a highlights itinerary as follows
2 nts bankok
2 nights chiang mai
2 nights chiang rai
2 nts siam reap
2 nts phong penh
2 nts saigon
2 nts hanoi
1 nt halong bay

I think this is a disaster. Too much moving around. I know it is meant as a sampler, but it seems that it is way too rushed. Any suggestions of what I should skip? Or how to combine things in a way that I wont spend my time just going to airports and check ins.

Also, I have read your reviews of laos, and dont know if I should switch saigon for it
I appreciate any suggestions you might have, since I need to start the visa process soon
Thanks you all

sartoric May 2nd, 2014 11:26 PM

I would choose either Thailand/Laos or Vietnam, not both. It depends on what you like, all are fantastic places to visit.

What are your interests ?

crellston May 2nd, 2014 11:43 PM

I agree, it is a disaster! You will end up in transit for a lot of the time and not see a great deal. I also agree with Sartoric all are great places to visit but you would be better off limiting the number of countries to one or maybe two. For me it would be either Laos or Vietnam but my interests may well be a lot different from yours. If you provide some more info on you interests, style of travel etc you will get more helpful responses.

cayetana May 2nd, 2014 11:57 PM

Thank you both. I am 50 and traveling with a friend. We are interested in the cultural aspects of the orient. We are from Mexico and have traveled often to Europe. This is my first visit to Asia. We would like to see the temples and palaces, some folklore, some shopping, and i want to ride on the elephants. Thailand has always called my attention, but i hear so many great things about Vietnam that i am not sure anymore if I should split the trip and leave Thailand for another time. Can you tell me why is Vietnam such a favorite?

LancasterLad May 3rd, 2014 12:59 AM

If you want to ride an elephant, then why not plan part of your 15 days around here...

Getting to Kanchanaburi is easy to do without the need of a guide. The area is full of World War II history, great scenery, and deserves at least 3 nights. Navigate round this link for some great ideas of how to get there (3rd Class train is best), and how to spend your time...

Spend your first 3 nights in Bangkok to see the Grand Palace, Golden Mount, and any other cultural things.

The heartbeat of Bangkok is the Chao Phraya River. So have a ride on public ferry from Central Pier to Nonthaburi to see many of the sights from a different angle. This link offers great advice and links to other links...

Do your shopping in the Siam area.

The above should eat-up a week.

Then fly by Air Asia to Phnom Penh. Learn a bit about Cambodia's recent bloody Pol Pot era...

Visit the Killing Fields and S21 Genocide Museum. Enjoy haggling at the Russian Market, and a sundowner in the Foreign Correspondents Club on Sisowath Quay.

A couple of days in Phnom Penh should be enough. Then onward to Siem Reap, enjoying the countryside and colourful life along the way at ground level. The best (safest) way is by tourist bus...

There's lots to see and do in and around Siem Reap. But the jewel in the crown is the Angkor Historical site. If that's your thing, then you can easily spend 3 days (or longer) visiting all there is to see in the grounds. Hiring a tuk tuk is a great way to do it. Many of the tuk tuk drivers are extremely knowledgeable about their country and history.

The best webiste covering all things Cambodia is Canby Publications. Here it is...


cayetana May 3rd, 2014 01:35 AM

Thanks so much for the valuable links and suggestions

sartoric May 3rd, 2014 01:54 AM

Based on your reply, I'd choose Thailand, with maybe Laos as well. LL has given some good links to explore, and you will find plenty of temples in both countries.

Cambodia is fab, but you might find Tuol Sleng and the Killing Fields quite confronting. It's very interesting to learn about what went on there relatively recently, but also horrifying.

On the other hand, Luang Prabang in Laos is a charming, easy to navigate, small city, with direct flights to Bangkok, and loads of temples.

Chiang Rai has elephant options, and a fantastic lady called Tik who runs cooking "tours" . Look for her on Tripadvisor if you're interested, her business is called Cook Thai Yourself.

I also love Vietnam for the food, culture and people. There's a famous T-shirt "same, same, but different" which kinda sums it up.

Coming from Mexico, I'm sure you want to maximise those 15 days, so the decision is hard.

Can you find more days ???

LancasterLad May 3rd, 2014 04:43 AM

First time we visited PP I made a decision not to visit either KF is S21. But I regretted that decision, and they were a firm 'must-see' for our next visit last year.

Killing Fields should be visited before S21. It is extremely well presented, and the audio guide, which is part of the US$5 admission, is totally absorbing. There are 19 different points to visit with a museum to follow. In my mind anyone visit PP should have the KF at the top of their itinerary.

S21 on three other hand is harrowing and raw. But it's living history, and the Cambodian people want visitors to see these places. After all you are going to see lots of people young and old with one or more limbs, lost as a result of the barbarity of the Pol Pot regime.

LancasterLad May 3rd, 2014 05:22 AM

When me and OH went to Laos we entered overland via the Friendship Bridge at Nong Khai. We took in Vientiane, Vieng, and Luang Prabang, all by road. So we saw a fair mix of Laos, the people, fabulous countryside along the way. And we took our time doing it to reap the maximum benefit.

Our intention was to exit the country by thre 2 day slow boat to Huay Xai, but I had a sore back, and 'bottled-it' by taking the easy way out by flying to Chiang Mai. I can remember as we flew over the gorgeous scenery below thinking "...what the heck are we doing up here when there's so much to see at ground level?" What I'm trying to say is where is the point in just flying in and out of a place when there's so much more to see of that country?

crellston May 3rd, 2014 06:00 AM

As one of you primary interests is in elephants then Thailand offers the best and most ethical opportunities to interact with elephants. Please choose carefully as many elephant operations do not treat the animals well - quite the opposite. The only operations I would consider are both near. Chiang Mai and

Kathie May 3rd, 2014 09:26 AM

You are right, what the agent suggest is, indeed, a disaster.

It sounds like elephants are a priority. There are only two places in Thailand that I would recommend: The Thai Elephant Conservations Center near Lampang and the Elephant Nature Park. These are the two places that crellston link to, above. I don't know the place that Lancaster Lad links to, but I would be very cautious about Elephant parks, camps as many treat their elephants badly. The two I recommend have been reviewed by outside agencies for their treatment of elephants, and I feel confident in recommending them.

If Angkor Wat is a priority, you can add that to a Thai trip, but not more. It takes three full days to see just the major wats at Angkor. Many of us spent much more time there. Get a copy of Dawn Rooney's book, Angkor: A Guide to Cambodia's Wondrous Temples . This will help you prepare for your visit and will help you decide how much time to spend there. It takes 4 nights to get three full days.

I'd skip VN - you don't have the time. And as much as I love Laos, I'd skip it too this trip. I'd skip PP, just visit Siem Reap for this first trip. You will want time in both Bangkok and in Northern Thailand, given your interests. This is plenty for your 15 days.

I'd organize it something like this:

Bangkok 4 nights to get oriented learn a bit about Thailand and Theravada Buddhism by visiting some of the major wats (plan on the Grand Palace/Emerald Buddha, Wat Po (reclining Buddha), and Wat Arun to start. Visit the Jim Thompson House. Do a bit of shopping (probably look this time, but at the end of your trip). The Siam area of Bangkok is full of Western Designer stored. I prefer to buy local merchandise. There are areas with more local things - even the the malls - look for these places.

The fly to Siem Reap for 4 nights. You will need a vehicle - either a tuk yuk (if you can stand the dust and exhaust) or a car. The driver can be very helpful, but is not a guide. You may or may not want a guide, who is hired separately. Personally, I preferred to go without a guide, but I had been reading about Angkor for decades. Take along Dawn Rooney's book and you can guide yourself.

Fly through Bangkok to Chiang Mai, spend 3 or 4 nights there. Interact with elephants, explore local crafts, etc, and finish up in Bangkok again to do your shopping and visit some of the lesser-known wats where you will often be the only non-Thai.

As you can see, those of us who travel often to SE Asia all have different ideas of how to do it. Think about what is most important to you, pick and choose from our suggestions and plan your own trip.

cayetana May 3rd, 2014 11:46 AM

Thank you all for your insights. You are helping me a lot. I would stlill like to get a small glimpse of vietnam. Tell me if this would work.
4 nts bankok
3 nts chiang mai
3 nts siem reap
3 nts hanoi
1 nt halong bay

I know this is rushed but i think it is a bit better than what the agent proposed. Am I still crazy wanting to get a glimpse of Vietnam?

Kathie May 3rd, 2014 11:50 AM

IMO, yes. It would give you the merest glance of VN at the cost of having enough time to explore and enjoy other places you are visiting.

LancasterLad May 3rd, 2014 01:26 PM

IMO, if you just want a small glimpse of anywhere in SE Asia while trying to hop from country to country in such a tight time-frame, then just look at YouTube videos!

Keep it simple, loiter at leisure, take in the atmosphere of where you are, the people, the culture, the tastes and the smells.

All that rushing around does is put ticks in boxes!

cayetana May 4th, 2014 06:03 PM

Thank you Katie and lancaster. I guess i will leave VN for a next trip. Is Chiang Rai worth it or should I just stay in Chiang Mai?

sartoric May 4th, 2014 07:03 PM

We really liked Chiang Rai, it's much smaller than CM and a little more rustic. There is a great guide in CR called Jermsak, he is often booked months in advance. You can find him on Tripadvisor.

There's some recent TRs by Progol and Yestravel which I found very helpful.

Kathie May 4th, 2014 07:07 PM

Up to you. I know you want time with elephants, and those places are closer to CM. You need to make an appointment ahead with the Elephant Nature Park, you may just be able to show up at the TECC. If you omit VN, you'll have 4 nights - three days in each location. Decide if you have enough time for both the elephants and CR.

Papytofu May 5th, 2014 01:21 AM

As everyone did before me, I will recommend the north of Thailand based on your interests. There, you can do everything you wanted to do and for cheap. Halong bay is probably one of the most beautiful places I ve seen in my life, don't miss it. You could cut one night in Siem Reap and take a two day cruise in Halong. While in Siem Reap, I would highly recommend visiting the Landmine Museum/Orphanage built by a self-trained deminer.

LancasterLad May 5th, 2014 04:30 AM

Just in case Elephant World in Kanchanaburi hasn't disappeared from the OP's radar yet, here are a lot of very positive reviews posted on Trip Advisor...

Personally, I wouldn't visit as part of an extremely long day trip from Bangkok. Do it part of a 3 or 4 nighttrip. Loiter at leisure in a wonderfully scenic part of the world, which is only a couple of hours or so by train from all the hustle, bustle, and chaos of Bangkok.

Kathie May 5th, 2014 06:24 AM

LL, do you have links to any reviews of facilities and the treatment of elephants from independent animal welfare groups? That would be useful info. TA reviews of "oh, gee, I had a good time" are worthless in terms of telling us whether the animals are appropriately cared for. And unfortunately, in this part of the world, too often these animals are treated very badly.

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