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Seeking advice on an itinerary for first timer to SEA


Seeking advice on an itinerary for first timer to SEA

Old Jan 17th, 2020, 08:54 AM
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Seeking advice on an itinerary for first timer to SEA

I was initially thinking I’d need an organized tour for southeast Asia but people have convinced me I can do it independently (lots of experience with independent travel in Europe and US but this will be first time to SEA). After some research I’ve come up with the following and would love feedback. As the trip is a year away I will do much more research and fine tuning (and will undoubtedly have more questions) but now I just want to know if it seems reasonable, and how far in advance do I need to start booking flights/accommodations.

Bangkok – 3 (or 4) nights – stay near river (also near skytrain station?) – One full day trip to Ayutthaya by organized tour (includes river boat) – Other full day visit main sites including Grand Palace/Wat Phra Kaew, Wat Pho, Wat Arun, Chinatown (Do we need another day, thus 4 nights, so one with nothing planned for jetlag?)

Chiang Mai – 5 nights – one full day for temples/markets in the city/ ? cooking class – one day Doi Suthep –[could be half day] - one day trip Doi Inthanon National Park/hill tribe – one day trip to White Temple (13 hour day trip) -

Luang Prabang – 5 nights – one full day temples/sites in town – one day Kuang Si Waterfalls & bear sanctuary – one day Pac Ou boat river trip – one day Elephant Sanctuary

Siem Reap - 5 nights - will get 3 day pass to temples, is it better to have the extra day for Siem Reap, or what else is close by. Or is 4 nights enough?

Hoi An –3-4 nights – fly into DaNang – one or two full days in Hoi An? – one day My Son (and half day in Hoi An)

Hue –2-3 nights – hire car and driver from Hoi An to Hue – two days for sites and river boat trip

Hanoi – 2 nights – before HaLong Bay + 1 after (before departure back to US)

HaLong Bay – 1 night

Total is 27 to 30 nights plus 2 travel days. Don’t want it any longer. Would actually prefer to cut a couple days but don’t want to rush or skip things.

Main Questions – What is the Best time for trip? Ideally I would like to start mid to late January and be gone for about a month. Seems Jan-Feb is perfect for everywhere except HaLong Bay (and maybe Hanoi) due to drizzly/cool/fog. Yet the weather maps list Jan-Feb as having the least precipitation all year during Jan-Feb? So is it OK time to go? HaLong bay looks to me to be one of the trip highlights. Not planning on the Cham Islands off Hoi An but noted that one site says you can’t go there during monsoon season which is between Oct and Feb. Yet other sites say Monsoon season in VN is May to Nov. By having Hanoi/HaLong bay at the end of the trip that does move it to mid to late February so better I assume than January? Pushing it any later seems likes weather would be hotter in Bangkok and Siem Reap and also possibly affected by slash and burn agriculture which I read starts in late Feb to March. Does Tet make a big enough difference that I’d need to avoid it?

Direction of trip. By starting in Bangkok and ending in Hanoi would put us in Halong Bay at end of trip almost a month later than if we did the reverse. Also have read that Thailand is ‘easier’ than some places in SEA so better to start there?

I do not want any long bus trips (or public bus trips) so that’s 5 intra Asian flights. I see it looks easy to book online ahead of time just like in Europe. But have read they are often late. How often are they so late – or canceled – that it will really screw up a trip (vs. a few hours late inconvenience). Assume airports have signs in English but what about speaking English. Do airport staff speak English - especially in case of problems like canceled flights, etc?

Local trips – such as from Hanoi to Halong Bay; Hanoi to Tam Coc; Luang Prabang to the waterfall, caves; Bangkok to Ayutthayya, etc. I see many on line sites to book these ahead of time. Should these be booked online before the trip or wait till you get there (would prefer to have all arrangements like this ahead of time but some probably make sense to wait). Does it make sense to book accommodations and then correspond with them re recommendations. I see lots of reference to hotels arranging these types of day trips.

Thanks for any input you can offer.
isabel is offline  
Old Jan 17th, 2020, 12:09 PM
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Let me start by saying that monsoon season depends on where in VN you are talking about. It's a long, thin country and impacted by three different monsoon patterns. So you need to look at the specific places you want to go while looking at the data from weatherbase.com

Personally, I'd cut time from Chiang Mai and add time to Bangkok. Three full days (four nights) would be an absolute minimum for me.

You are pretty much skipping Hanoi, which I think is a mistake. It's a lively city with lots to see. Personally, I'd cut Halong Bay and spend the time in Hanoi, but I know lots of people love Halong Bay. (I think it wastes a lot of time.)

Basically, people who have contact with travelers will all speak English.

I notice that you have lots of day trips for your various stops... I'd want to spend more time in the places you have chosen and less time on day trips.

For Siem Reap, there is no one size fits all answer. I spent a week there which was the right amount of time for me. Others might find as few as three days is right for them. Get a copy of Dawn Rooney's book, Angkor: A guide to Cambodia's Wondrous Temples to help you decide how much time you want at the temples.

I do book my hotels in advance, but not day trips. I can book day trips for less $ on the spot, which means I can also decide whether I want to do the day trip or not.

You have quite an ambitious itinerary. You are trying to see 4 countries in 4 weeks. That's hard. SE Asia is an area that rewards slow travel.
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Old Jan 17th, 2020, 05:14 PM
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Hi, Isabel,

It sounds like you've got a great trip planned! While I don't have a lot of experience compared to many on this board, my husband and I did make a southeast asian journey in 2014, and used this board extensively to plan our trip. I'd love to share some of my thoughts and experiences.

We spent 3 weeks and visited Thailand (Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai), Luang Prabang/Laos, and Siem Reap/Cambodia. We left in the middle of January and returned in early February. The weather in Thailand was unusually cool when we were there, and we wore light sweaters during the day in Bangkok but really bundled up in Chiang Mai in the morning. That was unusually cold, though. By the end of the trip, Siem Reap was very warm - sleeveless shirt and shorts type of weather.

We did a 2 day cruise down the Mekong that ended in Luang Prabang. I remember MmePerdu strongly (!) encouraging me to take this cruise, and then working very hard to squeeze it into my already tight itinerary, but we both loved the experience and were very glad we added it. We were afraid we'd be bored and we were anything but. There are several cruise lines, some more upscale than the one we took, but we were pleased with the Luang Say Cruise, which was mid-range and still quite comfortable. This is to say that I highly recommend it and encourage you to consider adding this!

I do agree with Kathie - add another day to Bangkok. It's a very vital and busy city, and with so much to see, it's well worth an extra day. We stayed near the river at the Hotel Centre Point Silom, which is by a main BTS stop. We found it a great place to stay and well-located.

I liked Chiang Mai but 5 nights is more than you need. We had 4 nights and that was enough. We enjoyed taking a cooking class, although the one we took was more of a pretend class (all the food was pre-cut for each of us), but it was a fun experience nonetheless and the food was actually some of the best food we ate!

I would also encourage you to consider adding Chiang Rai and, if you can get him, hire the guide, Jermsak. Several of the other Fodorites have used him in the past as well and he deserves the rave reviews he gets here and on TA. We spent 3 days with him and these were fantastic. He is a real mensch (Thai-style!), knows the region well and was a great companion to us both. One of the activities that he offers is a raft ride down a river, rowed by 2 locals, with a luncheon prepared on the raft by his wife. It was a wonderful day. You mention wanting to see the White Temple, but the Black House is a less known but equally impressive place to visit (if not more impressive).

We loved Luang Prabang. I know it has been discovered and we haven't seen other parts of Laos to compare it to, but it had a great feeling and we much preferred the market in LP to the ones in Chiang Mai. We only had 3 nights and I would've loved an additional night. We didn't get to see the falls, but we did see the Pak Ou caves during our cruise and, truthfully, I didn’t find them as moving as it sounds. But that’s me.

Siem Reap was a bit of a shock after LP - much larger, more urban and, at least when we went, very dusty and smoke-filled. We found the crowds at Angkor Wat overwhelming, although some of the other temples were much more pleasant, and the further away ones were more pleasant still. As far as timing, we found 2 days of temples more than enough - it really depends upon your interests. We spent 2 full days exploring temples and we definitely were templed out by the time we were done.

I'm posting my trip report from 2014 in hopes that you might find it helpful.
Travels in Tumultuous Thailand, languid Luang Prabang & Smiling Siem Reap

PS I haven't gotten to Vietnam yet, but it's high up on my list. I look forward to your report - and I would definitely increase my time in Hanoi!
progol is offline  
Old Jan 18th, 2020, 12:51 PM
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Thanks for the replies.

Progol - I have read your wonderful trip report, I used it a lot in coming up with the itinerary I have so far. I am still considering adding Chiang Rai but didn't want to have too many 'bases'. I also am seriously considering the 2 day cruise to Luang Prabang. I may still rework things to include that, but I am trying to simplify things and thought fewer bases and just flying between them might be easier. I still have months to plan things so I may be back to you with more questions. And I'm glad to hear you like the Centre Point Silom hotel - I'm only just starting to look at hotels but all the others mentioned in trip reports seemed to be over $200 a night and one of the things I was looking forward to on this trip was nice hotels for not that much money.

Kathie - I've also seen your trip report which was very helpful. I want to say that I am not trying to "see" four countries but rather a few specific places in a general region (south east Asia) that happen to be in four countries. I have no illusions that I'll have 'seen' all of those countries. But given that ground transportation is not that great, flying seems like a good option, and all the flights I have are short (I know any flight takes half a day when you add in getting to/from the airport, etc.). So if I'm going to spend a half day each time I move anyway (be it a 5 hour bus ride or a flight) I might as well pick and choose the places I am most interested in. When traveling in Europe I try to use trains a lot and therefore see places that are closer together (and therefore more often within the same country).

I realize that the amount of time in I have planned in Bangkok and Hanoi is short but total time is limited and the other places seem more interesting to me. Plus, even though I love cities (I am going to London for the 11th time in March and staying for 2 weeks) I happen to have a husband who hates large cities so I have to take that into account.

So how far in advance do you usually book hotels and international flights when traveling in SEA?

isabel is offline  
Old Jan 18th, 2020, 06:02 PM
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I agree with much of what has been said by Kathie and Progol.

In terms of time spent in specific locations;

Bangkok - 4 nights is about right for a first visit. With three full days I think you can cover most of the major sights. Staying on the river is great as you can use the river buses to see most of the sites. Hotels are more expensive around that area though, so you could stay on a BTS line and then just get the train to Saphin Taksin pier does the boats.

Chiang Mai – 5 nights is a little too much. Doi Suthep is only a half day trip and the old city can be covered in one full day (maybe two at a more relaxed pace). I can recommend and excellent cooking class if interested - we did a 5 day course a few years ago.

Chiang Rai - I agree with Progol re incorporating a stay in Chiang Rai, especially if heading down river to Luang Prabang by boat. Maybe 3 nts CM and 2 CR. That would provide at least a full day in CR to see the Black House and the White Temple - some photos on our blog @ https://accidentalnomads.com/category/thailand/ if you can fix it so as to spend a Saturday night in CR, so much the better as the "walking market " is excellent, far superior to and less crowded than, the one in CM.

if you do want to visit a hill tribe village, it is far better done from CR than CM. Those close to CM are tacky and exploitative of the minority people.

River Cruise - A great way to get to LP. Either use one of the cruise companies plying the route or do as we did an just hire a boat and it’s owner to sail you down there staying overnight in Pakbeng. If you do do this then do be aware that the burning season in northern Thailand and Lao does occasionally start in March when it can be pretty unpleasant. Feb should be ok - earlier in the dry season is usually ok. I would definitely avoid Northern Thailand from March onwards - we have been caught out by the burning season more than once!

Luang Prabang - I think 5 days is a bit much. It is a small place. A day for the city temples is fine. A day trip to Kuang Si could likely be incorporated with a weaving village or a whisky producing village. Really not sure about bear and elephant sanctuary’s in Laos. They don’t have a terrific track record on animal welfare so check them out carefully. I think it is here where you could shave a day or even two from your trip.

​​​​​​​Siem Reap - 5 days with a 3 day pass is probably the optimum amount of time. You can see a huge number of temples in 3 days and still have a day for trawling the markets/visiting Tonle Sap or evening some of the more far flung ruins.

Hue and Hoi An - I think your time allocation here is spot on as is the car and driver between the two places where there is a lot to see along the way. FWIW on our last visit to My Son we hire a car and driver and left Hoi An around 07.00 and were back for lunchtime even allowing for some stops along the way at the artisan villages. That would allow for an afternoon in the old town in relative peace and quiet after the tour buses have left. Allow a day for explore in Hues citadel and river pagodas, markets etc. a nd another for the Imperial Tombs. The later can be done either by hiring a car and driver or by borrowing a bike.

​​​​​​​Hanoi - I agree with the others that you are seriously short changing Hanoi. It is a dynamic, manic city with loads to see and do. I love the city and never tire of spending time there, however, it is likely to be cooler, not a bad thing perhaps, but fog may detract from your experience of Ha Long. If it were me I would skip Ha Long with the time you have. Although, I confess I am not a fan anyway.

i find this website to be very useful fro providing an insight into weather in the region https://www.selectiveasia.com/vietna...eather/january you can play around with both country and month selection to compare places and times.

Alternative options - Not wishing to complicate matters, but one option to consider would be to drop Northern Vietnam completely and look at the south instead. Saigon may lack some of the major ancient sites but it is a fascinating, dynamic city with an amazing food scene and of course, is the gateway to the Mekong Delta. We have done a couple of trips from Saigon by boat and bus through the delta crossing into Cambodia near Chau doc and on to Phnom Penh. A lot of stuff on those trips on our blog @
https://accidentalnomads.com/category/vietnam/ there is also a little on Phnom Penh, itself worth a couple of days. Maybe by dropping a few ads here and there and skipping the north, you would have time. Just a thought.

​​​​Getting around - I think you are right to avoid bus journeys in Asia, esp for the longer trips, they don’t have an encouraging safety record Sometimes they are unavoidable though. Choose companies wisely where you do need to take buses.

Budget airlines in Asia are on a part with European operators in terms of price and reliability i.e. pretty good . Like Europe, check the T&Cs and make sure you by all te bells and whistles you need. We have tended to use Air Asia where possible but in Vietnam, Vietnam Airways and Vietjet have been good too. Always helps to sign up for there loyalty clubs for sale notifications ( of which there are many). Booking in advance and in sales you can get some amazing bargains.

Trains are an option in Vietnam. Not necessarily cheaper than flying but by travelling overnight it can sometimes work well and is a lot of fun and great way to meet some Vietnamese people not involved in the tourist trade. All you need to know on trains @ https://www.seat61.com/Vietnam.htm

crellston is offline  
Old Jan 19th, 2020, 02:51 AM
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Isabel, I’m so glad you found my trip report to be helpful. Now that crellston has also chimed in, I think you’ve got all the recommendations needed - now you will have the challenge of making choices over how best to allocate your time.

From my brief experience, I also agree with crellston that if you want to visit a local tribe, doing it from Chiang Rai is better. We made a visit with Jermsak (the guide)and it was definitely not oriented to tourists, unlike the place we visited from Chiang Mai. The relationship between tourism and visiting tribes is a complex one, I think, and often a bit uncomfortable, so visiting a place with Jermsak, who is known to the people, made us feel more welcome.
progol is offline  
Old Jan 19th, 2020, 05:51 AM
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Correction on the boat we took - it was not the LuangSay, but the Nagi of Mekong! Probably I was dreaming of the “nicer” boats when I was writing earlier....


We were very happy with the boat ride. I would just make sure that if you do this, be one of the first people to choose a room in the stopover hotel. We were one of the very last and our room was very dreary. But it was one night and was my only real complaint. Other folks we talked with were happy with their room.
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