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A recently married reader and her husband are starting to plan a one-month honeymoon in Southeast Asia. They’re wondering how best to divide up the trip between Thailand, Vietnam, and Cambodia. They also want tips on places to stay and things to do and see while they’re there.
Here’s my advice.
How to divide the time
A month sounds long, but these are diverse countries with a lot you’ll want to see. With that said, don’t get overly ambitious and try to see everything — you can’t. Instead, focus on a few things you enjoy and do them well.
In order to do that, you have to ask yourself what type of trip you want to take. Do you want to spend an equal amount of time in each country, or choose one or two to do more extensively and sample the others? Are you an active traveler — do you like to hike, climb, and trek — or do you prefer to relax, take in nice views, eat good food, and party?
Of the three countries mentioned — Thailand, Vietnam, and Cambodia — I spent the majority of the time in Thailand (one month) and Vietnam (three weeks) and spent less than a week in Cambodia just to see Angkor Wat. Though I know there are people who might disagree, I think that this ratio makes the most sense. Here are my reasons:
Transportation is not as smooth within Cambodia as it is in Vietnam and Thailand. So if you are trying to fit a lot into a month, you may not want to spend an inordinate amount of time just getting from Point A to Point B.
I have heard that Cambodia’s beaches, like Sihanoukville, are really wonderful and less crowded than those in Thailand. If it looks doable and doesn’t take away from other places that are higher on your list, then I’d say go for it. But if you’re short on time and are just looking for a nice beach town, you can’t do much better than the ones in Thailand. Even if they are a bit more touristy, I promise Thailand doesn’t leave much to be desired in terms of breathtaking beaches.
Here is an overview of each place, along with my recommendations for food, places to stay, and other ways to help you narrow down which places appeal to you most.
Siem Reap, Cambodia
The sole reason for visiting is Angkor Wat. If you’re in Southeast Asia and can make it to Cambodia, make this a priority.
The ancient city of temples was built and inhabited by the Khmers in the 1100s. After the Khmers abandoned Angkor, the city was enveloped by the jungle, where it remained hidden for centuries. Several of the buildings are still held intact by the roots of these trees today. At twice the size of Manhattan and four times that of Vatican City, Angkor remains the largest religious complex on Earth.
To explore the Angkor Wat complex, you’ll need to buy a pass. These come in one-, three-, or seven-day increments. I recommend getting the three-day.
You’ll hire a tuk tuk driver to take you from your hotel to the temples. Ours took us to the three most popular on the first day — including Angkor Wat (the largest temple, named after the city) and Ta Prohm (where Lara Croft: Tomb Raider was filmed) — and to seven smaller ones the second day. This honestly was enough for us. Cambodia is super humid; after exploring ten massive temples over the course of two days under the hot sun, we didn’t feel we needed to go back for the third day.
I’d also recommend hiring a tour guide for the first temple, Angkor Wat. The history of the city and of the Khmers, who built and inhabited it, is super complicated and something I realized that I knew very little about. For $35, our tour guide spent nearly two hours with us, explaining the fascinating history of the city and the country’s empires. It seemed like he just wanted a chance to tell Cambodia’s story, and the context gave me greater appreciation for what I was seeing.
Accommodations: We stayed at Rithy Rine Angkor Hotel, which was definitely the nicest place we stayed. It was a beautiful, old building with exquisite interiors, a nice pool, and free breakfast — and it cost $12 per person per night.
There are a number of ways you can choose to experience Thailand. From jungle to beaches to buzzing cities, there is a lot to see and do, so I broke it up into sections. Unless you are looking to spend the majority of your time in Thailand (which is easy to do), I’d suggest doing two or three of these places.
Bangkok is an electric city. There’s great nightlife, amazing food, and a solid transit system for getting around as a tourist. In my opinion, two nights in Bangkok is enough. While there, definitely do the major tourist things like Wat Pho and the Grand Palace Complex, walk through Chinatown and sample street food and see Wat Triamit (the Golden Buddha), check out Khao Son Road and stay in the surrounding area for nightlife. If you want to splurge on a nice meal, check out Bo.Lan. It’s a several-course tasting menu with dishes like tapioca stuffed with caramelized garlic and pineapple, friend noodle salad with fried garlic, cilantro, and chives that was sticky and comforting, and an Indian-like aromatic curry. You won’t regret it!
Accommodations: We stayed at Saphaipae Hostel on Surasak. It was a great find! Super-clean with well-appointed rooms and bathrooms with modern fixtures, it was much more like a trendy hotel than a hostel. There are shared rooms as well as privates. The hostel is far from the backpacker grunge of Khao Son Road but still conveniently located for access to trains and ferries.
Kanchanaburi is about two hours from Bangkok and sits in the slightly elevated valley of Mae Nam Mae Klong. Encircles by thick green farmland, this historic city is famous for its tumultuous history during World War II. Top attractions include the Thai Burma Death Railway Bridge and the museum dedicated to it. We unfortunately did not get there because of the way our schedule worked out, but it might be a good place to consider if you don’t go to the north. A friend of mine who lived in Thailand for two years said it was her favorite place.
This happened today. #asiaadventure2014 #werelost #thepants #tacosbell @c_gar8 @tkads A photo posted by eirdizzy (@eirdizzy) on
Chiang Dao is a sleepy little town buried into the jagged, tree-covered mountains about an hour and a half drive north of Chiang Mai near the border of Myanmar. We really enjoyed this as a place to unwind, relax, and eat really good food. There are a couple of hot springs and waterfalls nearby as well as a market in town.
Accommodations: We stayed at Chiang Dao Nest, which was honestly our favorite place on the whole trip. It’s owned by a Thai woman and British man who married. There are two parts of the resort, each with its own restaurant — one is European, the other is Thai — and the food is incredible. Their nine-year-old daughter Alice also works on premise, mostly watering the plants and entertaining guests. It was like a home away from home, and I couldn’t recommend it more.
Just an hour flight north of Bangkok, Chiang Mai is a cool, smaller city with massive outdoor markets open day and night, where you can get fresh spring rolls, papaya salad, and anything on skewers. You can mostly manage to get around on foot. It has fun nightlife — we had a crazy time at Reggae Bar and the bars in the square around it — and it’s also a great launching point for excursions. We booked a day trek from our hotel that included a hike, bamboo rafting down a river, riding elephants (which we learned later you shouldn’t do 🙁 ), and swimming in a waterfall.
Accommodations: We stayed at Top North Hotel, which was in a central location, right near one of the main street markets, and had a big pool. Do note that the room and bathroom weren’t the best.
We also went to Pai, which is a three-hour windy drive north of Chiang Mai (Note: Do not go drinking the night before this ride). People rave about Pai because it’s sort of a hippie haven, but I wasn’t too impressed. Aside from tubing down a lazy river with beers, which was fun because I was with friends, the rest of our experience there was totally forgettable. Nothing about it feels authentically Thai (I personally felt it seemed more like a small town in New England given the amount of American influence). Between that and it being so far out of the way, I’d skip it if I were you.
Accommodations: Common Grounds Guesthouse. This place was hard to find (it’s not near any of the other guest houses) and was trying too hard to cater to the hippie backpacker stereotype that they were just unfriendly, unwelcoming, and unclean. If you’re going to go to Pai at all, I’m sure you can find a much better place to stay.
Picture massive limestone cliffs emerging from bath-like blue-green water, rife with vibrant blue and yellow fish — these are the beaches in Thailand, beyond picturesque and each one more beautiful than the next. I would probably pick one of these, maybe two. If you do pick two, make sure they are located on the same side of the country, otherwise you’ll lose a whole day to airline and boat transfers.
Walking on water. @ajw342 @eirdizzy #TravelPics #GirlsTravel #DameTraveler A photo posted by Christina Garofalo (@c_gar8) on
This is the only beach we went to that’s not an island. Krabi is the place to do any sort of rock climbing and water soloing, which — for those who are less familiar — is like bouldering (which is climbing without a harness) over the water. We did the latter, and it was awesome; I highly recommend it. Many of the trips depart from Tonsai, which is where I stayed. Tonsai beach extends off of the popular resort strip Railay, separated by ankle- or five-foot-deep water depending on how late it is in the day. It’s a bit harder to get to, but also much cheaper to stay on. The only catch is if you go to Railay in the evening for dinner, you will likely be overcharged to take a longtail boat back after; there’s really no way around this. Still, I thought Tonsai was worth it for the quieter vibe and nearly uninhabited beach — and the $25-per-night stay.
Accommodations: We stayed at Mountain View Resort, which is a cluster of wooden bungalows with individual porches and private bathrooms. It is a five minute walk from the beach and right near a great cafe, where the water-soloing trips depart from.
Koh Phi Phi
Koh Phi Phi is a party island. The beaches are idyllic — shallow water as calm as a bathtub that you can sit in for hours, cocktail in hand — and they are covered with young people. It’s small, so you can walk everywhere you need to go. Every night at sundown, the partying starts and rages on until sunrise. You can watch fire throwers and drink Thai Redbull buckets that’ll keep you dancing all night long (Please don’t do the fire jump rope!). From Koh Phi Phi, you can also book a boat tour of Maya Bay, which is where the movie The Beach was filmed. We opted to do an overnight boat tour, which is capped at 30 people and includes a private barbecue dinner on Maya Bay and night snorkeling to see the glowing plankton. This was definitely a highlight of my trip, however sleeping on the boat SUCKED. Imagine sleeping on a mat on the deck of the boat, while being slightly wet, and next to a stranger who snores. Weigh your priorities with that one.
Accommodations: On the island, we stayed at Golden Hill Bungalows, which we really liked. Clean rooms, clean bathrooms, and conveniently located.
One year ago today, @eirdizzy and I left for the adventure of a lifetime. For anyone who wants desperately to do something but feels they can’t — whether it’s too late, too hard, you’re too stuck — the best way to overcome your fears is to jump in. #tbt #asiaadventure2014 #DameTraveler A photo posted by Christina Garofalo (@c_gar8) on
This is the island where the famous Full Moon party happens. If you happen to be there during that time, it is worth going. The party is in Haad Rin, which is where we stayed and where I’d recommend you stay too because it can be difficult and expensive to get back to other parts of the island after the party. However, the beach is pretty gross the days after the party is over, so if you plan to stay on Koh Phangan afterward — I suggest you do see more than just Haad Rin — you may want to move to a different part of the island. I’d recommend seeing Bottle Beach, which was like a deserted island beach straight out of a movie.
Accommodations: We spent our entire stay in Haad Rin at Thai Dee Garden Resort. It is a group of private bungalows with their own bathrooms and front porches. The interiors are pretty meager, but for less than $35 a night (during the Full Moon, prices are higher; you can typically find rooms for $25), it suited our needs. It’s right across the street from an awesome restaurant owned by a Thai woman and her husband, who is from Greece. The two of them sleep in the back room and spend all day and night cooking alongside each other. The result is some of the best Tom Yum I’ve had and solid late night kebabs.
A lot of people rave about Koh Tao because it’s a bit less populated than the other islands and the marine life is as good as it gets. This is the island for diving. I am not certified and didn’t really want to get certified there (though many people do and it is much less expensive than getting certified in the States), but I had a couple of friends who went there and said it was their favorite of the islands. It’s worth considering.
Snorkel buddies @c_gar8 #asiaadventure2014 #wishyouwerehere A photo posted by eirdizzy (@eirdizzy) on
I absolutely loved Vietnam and would definitely recommend spending a significant amount of your time there, which is why — even though I haven’t seen the other parts of Cambodia, so I cannot fairly compare — I would suggest splitting your time between Thailand and Vietnam almost evenly and sticking Cambodia in between or at either end of your trip. The hardest thing about traveling in Vietnam is that there is so much to see and, to get the most out of the places I liked best, you do need several days in each.
If I had two weeks in Vietnam, I’d do Hanoi and Halong Bay, Sapa, and Phong Nga Kebang National Park, but I was focused on hiking and trekking. Hoi An and Dalat were also super nice and we made some really fun memories there too. It just really depends on your style.
A couple of things to note: Get massages (they are cheap and I think better than the ones I got in Thailand!) and get the fresh beer, which is basically just watered down beer, delivered in bags, that costs 2 cents per glass.
Here’s what I did and where I stayed in Vietnam.
Hello Hanoi #asiaadventure2014 #chapter3 @c_gar8 A photo posted by eirdizzy (@eirdizzy) on
As a city, Hanoi is definitely one of my favorites. I’d suggest two to three days here. (My friend and I spent almost five, but that’s definitely not necessary). Some of the highlights were the Temple of Literature, happy hour beers at Bia Hoi, a Catru music show, the Ho Chi Minh Complex, and just walking around and taking in the architecture. For more details, I’m going to direct you to a piece I wrote for Paste, Weekend Layover: Hanoi, which goes into much more in detail about what to do and where to eat in town.
From Hanoi, you should also book the overnight trip to Halong Bay. It’s super-touristy and the schedule was a little too regimented for my taste, but it is one of those things you should see. The overnight on the boat — unlike the one in Thailand — was very nice and comfortable, with private rooms and comfortable beds. You need to budget another two full days for this.
Accommodations: Little Hanoi Diamond — another one of our favorite places. It is a hotel run like a hostel in terms of flexibilty and price — which was as little as $8 per person per night — and is in the heart of the Old Quarter, which is definitely the coolest place to stay. The rooms are nice and clean, and there’s an AWESOME free breakfast (Think: made-to-order omelets, large baguettes, fried rice, and fresh fruit). Plus the concierge, Zoom, was extraordinarily helpful and kind. He helped us coordinate most of the rest of our travel in Vietnam.
Sapa is about eight hours north of Hanoi (we took an overnight train) or you can fly to Lao Cai. We did a three day, two night trek through the company Sapa Sisters, which we found through Zoom at Little Hanoi Diamond. The company is run by women from the local tribes and all proceeds go directly toward bettering their community, which is extremely impoverished. While there, we trekked through the rice terraces and stayed with local families in different villages along the way. This was one of my favorite experiences of our entire three-month trip. I highly recommend it to anyone who is remotely into trekking or hiking.
Accommodations: This is taken care of by Sapa Sisters. If you opt to stay with the local families — we did — you won’t have much privacy, as you are sharing the space with a bunch of other travelers. But sharing meals with the family and our tourguide and playing games over rice wine at night was an unparalleled experience. If this isn’t your thing, you can also arrange to sleep back at the hotel in Sapa town — a quaint, hilltop town that’s reminiscent of a ski village — and resume trekking in the morning.
Phong Nha-Kebang National Park
Pining for winding roads. #WednesdayWanderlust #AsiaAdventure2014 #DameTraveler A photo posted by Christina Garofalo (@c_gar8) on
My experience at Phong Nha-Kebang might be tied with Sapa in terms of how memorable it was. The natural beauty — sprawling green fields occassionally interrupted by towering limestone mountains and miles long cave systems — is some of the most incredible I’ve seen. The national park is in the middle of the country, bordering Laos. The closest city is Dong Hoi (about an hour away by car). Some of the caves can be toured on your own, like Paradise Cave — the third largest in the world. For others, like Tu Lan, we booked excursions through companies like Oxalis, who did an amazing job at showing us a good adventure and keeping us safe. If you go there, I’d definitely recommend seeing the two caves I mentioned, as well as the mud cave. We also spent some time lounging in a lake on the ecotrail in the park, which was a great spot for socializing and making friends.
Because the tours leave first thing in the morning, the first day we arrived we had the afternoon free. We were told about a place called The Pub With Cold Beer, which we could bike to. It’s basically a woman’s home who lets people show up, grab beers from her fridge, and pick out food that she will then cook for you. This can include killing your own chicken and having it made for you, if you’re into that sort of thing. We weren’t. One note: the ride gets a little dicey when you have to cross a river with no bridge, which isn’t too bad by bike but I’m not sure what to do if you’re traveling by motorbike.
The easiest way to get around the park and surrounding area is definitely by motorbike. We didn’t want to drive ourselves so we had to hire someone to drive us on one of the days. We spent four days at Phong Nha, but you really only need three max.
Accommodations: We stayed near the park at a hostel called Easy Tiger, which was super fun but it is a proper backpacker hostel: bunk beds, shared rooms and bathrooms, and pretty much all the young people. For those who don’t plan to do the hostel thing, there is a nicer guesthouse called Pepperhouse Homestay, but it gets booked up early. There are also a number of other hotels near Easy Tiger that I’m sure are decent enough.
Hoi An and Dalat
I had a lot of fun in both of these places. Hoi An is a cute little French town with great food and a nice beach (though nothing spectacular). Hoi An is really known for being the place to get clothes made. I got three dresses, a fall pea coat, and two pairs of boots made while I was there. If you want higher quality fabrics, go to BeBe; if you’re less particular and just looking for a good price, Blue Eyes did a fine job at recreating the images I brought them.
Accommodations: We stayed at Lemongrass Homestay, which was a really, really good deal. It’s a beautiful, brand new hotel and homestay overlooking a rice field with wonderful staff, free bikes, and the most abundant free breakfast I’ve every seen — everything from made-to-order omelets to cereal and baguettes and fresh yogurt. The best way to get around town is by bike.
Dalat is pretty far south of the other places, so it might be tough to get there with limited time and tough to justify flying there. However, a lot of people do the Easy Rider tour, which is a multi-day motorcycle ride down to Dalat from Hoi An; it’s a great way to learn the history of the DMZ line and the Vietnam War, plus it’s a great adventure. We booked a day trip with the Easy Riders to get to the attractions surrounding Dalat and had a really good experience. Dalat is a much larger city than I anticipated. We only spent a couple of days there, which I felt was enough. While there, we visited the Thien Vien Truc Lam meditation center which was really cool, and we did do one of the best hikes of the trip at Liang Bang Mountain.
The Crazy House was also super cool and is definitely worth seeing if you make your way to Dalat. We had two really good meals in the city, one at Wild Sunflower and one at Art Cafe.
If you do end up doing Southern Vietnam, it may make sense for you to start in the south at Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) and fly there from Siem Reap, Cambodia. After tacking on an extra day here and there in other parts of Vietnam, we were left with really no time to spend there. But it’s a very modern, bustling city — nothing like Hanoi. If you have the time, there’s definitely interesting history there, but I can’t offer too much specifc advice on it.
Have you traveled in Thailand, Vietnam, or Cambodia? Do you have any good recommendations I missed for someone spending a month there?