December 2018, I finally graduated college at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Though I always wanted to study abroad in college, I never had the opportunity because it was too difficult to schedule it with my major. So I promised myself that after graduation, I would spend some time abroad before having to work and become a real person.
My friend from college and I decided that we would travel to southeast Asia for 2 months, specifically Thailand, Vietnam, and Cambodia. Some of the reasons why we chose these countries were:
- Southeast Asia is really inexpensive! The hostels we stayed at averaged around $10 USD. Food, especially street food, is very inexpensive. You can get a full meal for less than $3. Lastly, traveling to and within SE Asia is very affordable. My round trip ticket from New York to Bangkok, Thailand only cost $580. In addition to this, flights, buses, and train tickets are cheap. AirAsia and other local airlines provide really cheap flights within the countries. For example, I bought a flight within Thailand for about $14.
- Transportation. It is really easy to get around between the countries and within them. Not only is it cheap, but there are many convenient options to get from place to place.
- Culture. I have been to many places within Europe, so I wanted to visit countries that are completely different. The cultures in these three countries are so rich from their architecture to their food and music.
- Variety of places to visit. Within these three countries, you will find many places to love depending on what kind of person you are. If you are someone who loves the outdoors, these countries have beautiful beaches, tall mountains, dense jungles, and even deserts. If you are more of a city person, the major cities are full with life and you will never get bored.
- FOOD! I chase after great food and Thai, Vietnamese, and Cambodian food are AMAZING. The local cuisines have flavors and spices you will fall in love with. I think I could live off of green Thai curry for the rest of my life.
Below is a brief 2 month itinerary for SE Asia. This itinerary is perfect if you want to enjoy and see everything SE Asia has to offer, but you can’t travel forever.
Day 1-3: Bangkok, Thailand
Day 3-10: Chiang Mai, Thailand
Day 11-15: Pai, Thailand
Day 16-19: Hanoi, Vietnam
Day 20-22: Sapa, Vietnam
Day 23-25: Ha Long Bay, Vietnam
Day 26-27: Ninh Binh, Vietnam
Day 28-31: Hoi An, Vietnam
Day 32-34: Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
Day 35-37: Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Day 38-42: Siem Reap, Cambodia
Day 43-44: Phuket, Thailand
Day 45-47: Khao Sok National Park, Thailand
Day 48-51: Krabi, Thailand/Koh Phi Phi
Day 52-53: Koh Lanta, Thailand
Day 55-56: Bangkok, Thailand
Overview: Bangkok can be a hot and dirty city, but it is really nice to walk around and explore! There are a lot of beautiful temples you can see and a large weekend market. This city is great for shopping. It is very convenient to travel to and through. You can catch a lot of buses to the south or north from here and also get cheap flights to anywhere. I loved just walking around Bangkok and explore the neighborhoods/non-touristy areas.
Things to do:
Khao San Road: The Backpackers Road. This street and area is great to walk around, people watch, shop and eat food. There is a lot of great street food, good stores for touristy souvenirs, massage spas, great restaurants and bars. This is a place to go to for a fun night!
Ayutthaya: An ancient city about an hour and a half away from Bangkok. Beautiful old ancient temples and ruins. It is a mini version of Angkor Wat. I recommend booking a tour for this. You can also take the train and hire a tuk tuk to drive you around but I think it is easier to just book a tour and they give you information about what you are seeing. If you are in Bangkok for more than 2 days, I think it is worth to go here.
Weekend Market: A giant weekend market. It is HUGE. You can easily get lost and buy everything. During the week day, the market is a flower market.
MBK Mall/Siam Center: This area is just a giant mall area. There are like 4 malls in one area. If you need anything, you will find it here.
Thipsamai: Really popular Pad Thai restaurant/stand. It can be about a 30-40 minute wait, but I think it is worth it!
Thai Massage: You have to get a thai massage wherever you go! They are the best! Make sure you say you want a relaxing massage if you don’t want to feel broken after😊
Floating Market: I didn’t do this, I heard it is pretty touristy but it could be cool to see.
Temples: There are so many temples. The Grand Palace and royal temple of Wat Phra Kaew are the most popular. Also Wat Arun has a pretty view and is on the other side of the river. Wat Pho is the reclining Buddha.
Here Hostel: Super cute! They have a really nice courtyard and a pretty good breakfast. About a 20 minute walk to the major temples, a 10 minute walk to Khao San Backpackers street, and a block away from Thipsamai which is an amazing pad thai restaurant.
Overview: I absolutely love Chiang Mai. This is my favorite city in SE Asia. It is a smaller city. The center of the city is the Old City which is a square and there is a brick wall and moat that surrounds it. Inside the old city are a lot of great restaurants, a few temples, and it is just really nice to walk around. Every day I would just walk by the moat that surrounds the old city. Chiang Mai is great because it is close to the mountains so you can do a lot of nature tours/activities. I recommend seeing the different waterfalls in the area and hike in the two national parks. You can rent a moped here however I would be careful because there are a lot of police check points that pull you over and make you pay around 2000 baht if you do not have an international license. Chiang Mai has really great night markets around the city. The street food is the best! Don’t be afraid to try everything. I stayed here for about a week. You could easily spend 5-7 days here.
Things to do:
Wat Ciang Man, Wat Chedi Luang, Wat Pha Tao, Wat Phra Signh: There are lots of temples you can see. Some of them are free and some have admission fees. Make sure to cover up if you want to go into the temples.
Doi Inthanon: This is a national park about an hour and a half away from the city. It is really beautiful and has the highest peak in Thailand. You can check out the King and Queens Pagoda’s which has a great overlook of some mountains, you can go hiking, and check out some beautiful waterfalls.
Night Market on Rachadamnoen street: This night market is the main street near the old town and it is HUGE. It seems to go on for miles and miles. It is nice to walk around there and get some good street food and just look around.
Elephant Nature Park: I did the two day and one night at the Elephant Nature Park. It was one of the best experiences. The sanctuary is located in between the mountains. The sanctuary is very ethical. You get to feed the elephants and bathe them and just watch them. They have dogs and cats the run around the place and water buffalo that just chill out. There are a lot of other elephant sanctuaries in Chiang Mai.
Zoe In Yellow: Popular bar a lot of foreigners go to. Just so you know, bars close at midnight however some bars let you stay inside they just close the doors.
Food Court Night Bazzar: Ploen Ruedee Night Market. This is a night market on the east side of the old city and it is huge. There is a really cool area called the Ploen Ruedee Night Market. It is super cute and has really good food carts, live music, and different types of food (you can get burgers, pizza, thai food, sushi etc.)
Thai Farm Cooking School: Really cool experience learning how to cook the local food. I did the full day event but I wish I did the half day. You make sooo much food (6 courses). By the end of the day I felt like I was going to explode. The cooking school brings you to a market in the morning and teaches you about the food you are going to cook with and then you go to the school, walk around in their garden and learn about the vegetables and herbs you will you.
Doi Suthep: A temple on top of the mountain with a great view of Chiang Mai. There are also a lot of trails to hike on and some cool waterfalls you can see. The trails are not marked well.
Mae Sae Waterfalls: Really beautiful waterfalls about 40 minutes from the city. You hike along the waterfalls and it has about 10 levels and you can swim in each level.
Sticky Waterfalls: I didn’t go here but I really wanted to. It is about an hour from the city and the waterfalls are really cool and easy to climb on.
Grand Canyon Waterpark: A cool waterpark with fun blow up bouncy toys and you can swim on.
Muay Thai Boxing Match: I did not see this but I have some friends that went and said it was cool.
Overall, I recommend staying on the east or south side of the old town or in the old town.
Brick House: I didn’t stay here but I had friends there so I was there all the time. It is really nice. They have a bar, gym and pool. The staff is really friendly and the hostel is located close to the giant Night Market. It is also close to bars and the red light district.
Big & O’s House 2: I stayed here for my first two nights in Chiang Mai. The owner is really friendly. The place is small and nothing special. There is a really good bakery right across the street. The hostel is about a block outside the south gate of the Old City which was very convenient. It also was a block from the more local night market.
How to get around:
To get to Chiang Mai, I got a cheap plane ticket from Bangkok to Chiang Mai flying Air Asia. You also can take a bus or night bus. I have friends who did that and they said the bus was very comfortable and felt like you were on a plane. If you are short on time, I would recommend flying so you save some time.
Songthaew: Red truck you see everywhere that are like taxis. Just flag them down and tell them where you are going. Most of the time it will cost you about 30 baht to get where you want to go within the city.
Tuk Tuk: I took a few tuk tuks here but they are a total rip off. Make sure you bargain with them.
Overview: My absolute favorite place in the world. It has an island vibe in the mountains. Everyone is super chill and friendly. You definitely need to rent a moped here and drive around. I would stay here forever but if you are tight on time I would stay at least 3 days. You can easily spend a week here. Just so you know, like Chiang Mai, all the bars close at midnight. Don’t Cry is the only bar that is open until like morning. It is right across the bridge and has lots of black light posters.
Things to do:
Mae Yen Waterfall: It is about a 4 hour hike to a beautiful waterfall. We didn’t do the full hike but it is really cool. You are right in the forest and have to walk through some water so be prepared to get wet.
Night Market: The night market in Pai is absolutely amazing. The food is sooo good. It isn’t super huge or crowded and its so enjoyable. We ate dinner always at the night market because there is a lot of variety and it is all so good.
Canyon: A really cool canyon in Pai. It is yellow and super dusty so make sure you wear clothes you don’t mind that get a little dirty. You climb around the canyon and it has a great view of the mountains. It is best to go at sunrise or sunset.
Tham Lod Caves: About an hour and half away by scooter. The drive was probably my favorite part. You drive through the mountains so you get to see a super beautiful scenery. The drive is really windy but so fun. The caves are really cool. You walk around inside and take a short bamboo boat ride inside.
Hot Springs and waterfalls: I did not have enough time to visit the hot springs and waterfalls however I heard they are definitely worth visiting.
Concerts/Raves: There are always some kind of concert/rave happening in the jungle or somewhere cool! Just look around there are flyers everywhere.
How to get around:
Moped: You can rent a scooter and bike to Pai from Chiang Mai. It takes about 3 ½ hours. You can rent a scooter one way through Aya Service. They are the only scooter service that allows you to rent a bike one way. They don’t have many bikes available so if you want to do this make sure you book it and get the bikes really early. If you want to bike to Pai the best thing to do in my opinion is to bike there and back and rent with another scooter service. I heard Aya service is pretty expensive compared to other companies and they like to rip you off if you damage their bike. Be careful. The bike to Pai is very windy through the mountains. If you do not bike to Pai, you can just rent bikes there and drive around there which is what I did and was really happy! Please be careful. The roads aren’t easy to drive on and you see a lot of tourists with road burns because they aren’t careful on their bikes.
Minibus: The minibus to Pai is about 3 hours and is pretty comfortable and you can just sleep on the bus. If you easily get car sick, definitely take some dremamine. The bus provides little throw up baggies for you…
Taxi: Honestly, I didn’t see any taxi’s in Pai..I think everyone just takes scooters. There might be taxis but idk..
Brick House Pai: I stayed at the Brick House (owned by the same person as the one in Chiang Mai). It is new and so cute. The beds are extremely comfortable, the staff are so friendly and helpful, and the location is perfect. The hostel is about a 10 minute walk from the center of town and it has a great overview of the mountains. Right next to the hostel is a giant public pool which we went to a lot to hang out at and swim in and drink.
Overview: Probably one of my least favorite places. We stayed near Patong Beach which is the more popular touristy area with the crazy party scene. Bangla Road is the giant road that is full of bars and restaurants and lots of lady boys. You will have a million people ask if you want to see a ping pong show. The beaches are decent, but this area is just super touristy. I personally would avoid it but it does have an airport and we found cheap tickets through here.
Things to do:
James Bond Island: Also known as Phang Nha Bay. I didn’t do this but there are a lot of tours to go visit this area. It is a really pretty beach with lots of beautiful limestone formations.
Similan Islands: These islands have the most crystal blue water I have ever seen in my life. The beaches are stunning with white sand. The area can get pretty touristy.
Overview: I really enjoyed Krabi. When you stay here there are two places you can stay: by the beach (Ao Nang area) or in Krabi Town. The beach area is a lot more touristy and while the old town is more local. There are a lot of things to do in Krabi and a lot of tours you can book too from here.
Things to do:
Rock Climb: A lot of the nearby beaches have the giant limestone formations next to them so you can do really cool rock climbing.
Railay Beach: Beautiful beach and you can also connect to Phra Nang Beach which we thought was even more beautiful. You can also walk to Tonsai Beach which is more isolated and hippy. You can only get to Railay beach by a longtail boat.
Tiger Temple: Hike up 1000+ stairs and you get a beautiful overlook of the whole area. Be careful of the monkeys!
Thampon Khlong Song Nam: a really cool mangrove forest. It is a small local park and there are no tourists here. You can swim between the trees. Rent a scooter and drive. The drive is absolutely gorgeous.
Dragon Crest Mountain: Beautiful hike and viewpoint
Overview: This island is a very chill island compared to the surrounding areas. I recommend renting a scooter and just drive. There are a ton of private beaches you can find if you drive around. There isn’t much crazy night life, but there is great food and it is nice getting away from all the people. This island is just very relaxing. You can take a bus or a boat to get to the island.
Things to do:
Koh Lanta National Park: The drive from the top of the island to the park is stunning. Definitely rent a scooter here and just drive around. The park has a 2 mile hike but nothing super beautiful. There is a pretty lighthouse here and nice beaches to swim. Beware of the monkeys on the beaches here, they like to mess and steal from tourists.
Beach hop: There are so many different beaches that you should just drive around and beach hop. You can even find your own private beach.
Overview: We didn’t stay overnight here. We did a one day tour from Krabi to Phi Phi. Everyone we talked to said it wasn’t worth staying there. Most of the hostels here are pretty gross and more expensive than on Krabi. If you want to have fun and have crazy night life, you should stay here. They have a giant party on the beach with fire dancers, but besides that there’s nothing special about Phi Phi. The tour we did brought us to the different islands, we say the famous Maya Bay (super crowded) and other beautiful beaches but not a highlight of the trip.
Khao Sok National Park
Overview: Beautiful national park. Giant lake with the limestone formations. We slept on floating bungalows. The park is worth visiting. I would not book a tour and just hike through the park on my own or maybe book a tour with a guide. The floating bungalows were really cool but if you are tight on money, it would be just as nice to stay in the surrounding area. You see lots of cool birds, flowers, and monkeys. We got to kayak around, hike up a waterfall, and swim in a cave.
Places I didn’t go to but wish I did:
Chiang Rai: Northern city of Thailand similar to Chiang Mai and Pai.
Koh Tao, Koh Samui, Koh Phangan and all the islands in that area: Really fun islands especially huge on partying. Koh Tao has the best scuba diving. Go to a full moon or half moon or new moon party.
Overview: The city is a big loud city. There is a cute lake but every second you feel like you are going to get hit by a car or scooter. The old quarter of the city is nice to walk around but can get really crowded at night. There is really fun nightlife. Pretty much every hostel offers a happy hour and you will get free drinks or super cheap drinks. You can get beer for like 50 cents. There are a lot of great places around Hanoi and you can get a lot of tours and transportation from here. Some places you can get to are: Sapa, Ha Long Bay, Ninh Binh. Be sure to drink a lot of coffee while you are in Vietnam!
Things to do:
Water Puppet Show: This was a really cool experience to see the water puppet show. You can buy tickets the day of the show. It is located right by the lake.
Hoan Kiem (Turtle Lake): A beautiful lake with a bright red bridge.
Downtown Night Market and Street Markets: Walk around the streets and explore the many things people are selling.
Mausoleum of Ho Chi Minh
Vietnam Military History Museum
Imperial Citadel of Thang Long
Old Quarter View Hanoi Hostel: We only stayed here for one night but really liked this place. The beds were really comfy and they had a great breakfast and it is also in the old quarter area.
Cocoon Inn: We absolutely loved this place. We stayed here on two different occasions. The beds are super comfy, the staff is very helpful, the location is right in the old quarter area, the food is great and it was just the best!
Vietnam Backpackers Hostel: We didn’t stay here but if you want a big party hostel with lots of foreigners you have to stay here. We went here for a night and it was super fun.
Overview: This place is absolutely stunning. There are a lot of mountains and villages and rice fields. The town of Sapa is nice to walk around for a day and then definitely do a hike or two through the villages in the mountains. We booked a three day two night tour which included the homestay. The homestay wasn’t so great but it was a really cool experience to see how the locals live.
**Caution: If you go hiking, be careful, there are a lot of locals that will try to sell you stuff and they can get pretty aggressive. If you buy something from one person, they will all run to you and try to sell you more stuff and make you feel bad. So just be aware that whenever you are hiking and see some locals just standing on the hiking paths, they might follow you and try to talk to you then sell you a bunch of stuff.
Things to do:
Cat Cat Village: Hike here. This is a more touristy hike compared to other hikes in the area but you see a really beautiful waterfall and the village is super cute with bamboo bridges and water wheels.
Night Market in Sapa Town
Lots of Hiking with Locals
How to get there:
Night Bus or Night Train: The train is a little bit more expensive than the night bus but it is a lot nice to sleep on the train than the bus. Surprisingly the night bus is faster than the train. I think the bus is about 4 hours long while the night train is 8 or 10 hours. You can take the bus or train from Hanoi.
Ha Long Bay
Overview: Super beautiful bay with giant limestone formations. We did a tour through cat ba which was a lot better and less touristy. If you are going during prime tourism season, definitely try to go to cat ba bay. We did a 3 Day 2 Night tour and we absolutely loved it! Our cruise only had 11 people so it was really fun and personal. We ended up being great friends with everyone. You spend the whole first day on the cruise, kayak around, then sleep on the cruise. The second day you hike to a beautiful viewpoint and then stay overnight on a private island. The third day you do another mini hike then head back home. We booked our tour with Ocean Tours and it was the Ha Long Bay Adventure-Hibiscus Cruise.
Overview: This was one of our favorite places we visited. We only did a full day and a half here. You can get a bus from Ha Long Bay to Ninh Binh or from Hanoi. Ninh Binh is pretty much Ha Long Bay but inland. There are lots of giant beautiful limestone formations and rice fields. You have to rent a scooter and drive around. This place is good for just a day and a half. The city doesn’t have much in it. If you are going to stay overnight here definitely stay somewhere that is isolated near the limestone. We absolutely loved the place we stayed.
Things to do:
Bamboo raft trip through caves: There are two places to do this. You go on a bamboo raft and go through caves and the scenery is just so beautiful.
Mua Caves: I don’t know why its called this but this is a really cool mini hike that overlooks the whole area.
Ninh Binh Valley Homstay: This place was magical. It is isolated in a little section right next to some limestone formations. They have a really cute german shepard dog. You have your own little bamboo bungalow and it is just so beautiful. The people are very friendly. It is best to have scooters if you stay here. This place is about 15-20 minute scooter drive from the caves and the mua caves hike.
Overview: Our absolute favorite city. Hoi An is a cute little town that has beautiful lanterns and a little river that runs through the old town. There is a cute little night market. This place is just so cute to walk around and see everything. You can rent a bicycle and bike all over the place through the rice fields. They have pretty nice beaches. The city right next to Hoi An is Da Nang. Da Nang has a lot more resorts. If you go here, you must go to the Banh Mi Phuong restaurant. Anthony Bourdain went here and the Banh Mi is just so yummy.
Things to do:
Snorkel: The snorkeling here was pretty decent! We went in February so it was still pretty cold! I definitely would have enjoyed it more if it wasn’t so cold!
Walk around the night market and check out the pretty lanterns: The city is decorated beautifully with lanterns. You can easily walk around the city for hours and be memorized by all the pretty lights!
Beach: The beaches here aren’t the nicest beaches however if you want to enjoy the sun and water this is a great place to relax.
Bike through the rice fields: There are a ton of bike paths through rice fields around the town that lead you to the beach.
Lantern Making class
Ho Chi Min City
Overview: We didn’t stay too long in Ho Chi Minh just because everyone we talked to hated it and said it is too big of a city, overwhelming and too many scooters. We stayed here for a day and a half and just did the Cu Chi tunnels. Honestly, it wasn’t that cool. It was very touristy and slightly disappointing but it was cool to go in the tunnels and hear about the Vietnam War from their perspective. Night life is really fun here!
Places I didn’t go but wish I did:
Da Lat: Really cool nature and adventure tours with cliff jumping and hiking.
Tu Lan Caves: Enormous caves
Phong Nha: Beautiful, lots of caves and jungles
Mue Ni: Beautiful sand dunes. Be careful. Do not ride a scooter here the police are pretty strict here.
Phu Quoc: Nice beaches
Overview: We were only in Phnom Penh for a short while, however it was very informative. We spent the day learning about Cambodia’s genocide from the 1970’s by visiting the S21 museum and the killing fields. These museums were heart breaking to visit, however, I learned so much about the country and its history. The city isn’t anything special. The staff at our hostel even warned us not to walk around too much especially at night. The city is known for having a lot of pick pocketing so be careful with your belongings.
Things to do:
The killing fields and S21 Museum: You can hire a tuk tuk and they will bring you and stay with you for the entire day for about $20. You do not need a guide, just buy a ticket and get the audio tour guide.
Night food markets
Eighty8 Phnom Penh: We really liked this hostel. It has a really chill vibe but if you also want to party here you can. They have a nice pool and great bar. They are really helpful too with transportation and getting you tuk tuks.
Overview: Pretty awesome city. The night life and food are really fun. Angkor wat was absolutely beautiful. It was extremely hot when we stayed here. The backpacker street is really fun at night. There are a ton of restaurants and bars. There is also a great market nearby.
Things to do:
Angkor Wat: We hired a tuk tuk driver and told him what temples we wanted to see. The coolest temple in my opinion is the tomb raider one! This one has giant trees wrapped around the temples. We did both the small and large routes in one day. You pay a tuk tuk driver about $25 dollars for the whole day. I recommend going for sunrise or sunset. It is a very long day so make sure you bring water! We didn’t have a guide. It probably would have been more interesting if we knew what we were looking at. You can buy a guide book or an app that will be helpful. Also, it is just super hot and humid here. We only stayed for about 5 hours because we were too hot. I think hiring a tuk tuk driver is the best way to see this. There is no way you can walk to each temple. Sometimes it took 15 minutes to drive to another temple. If you bike, you might want to get the 3 day pass. Lastly, make sure you cover your shoulders and knees!
Pub Street: Super cool street with lots of bars and restaurants. Really fun night life.
The Cambodian Circus, Phare: Really fun to do one night! It was really cool to see and was for a great cause. The circus takes local kids and teaches them dance, music, art, etc. so that they can make a living.
Tall homes and floating village: Honestly, this seemed like a scam tour. I wouldn’t do this. If you want to see tall homes though it might be worth the trip.
The Hideout: This place was great! The place was walking distances from the center of town but far away so you aren’t always in the busy part of town. They had a really nice pool and helpful staff.
Places I didn’t go but wish I did:
Koah Rong: Beautiful beaches
This 2 month itinerary is perfect for seeing all the major attractions, while also having plenty of time to relax and enjoy everything that southeast Asia has to offer. If you manage to complete this itinerary and go home with elephant pants or a new tattoo or with battle wounds from driving a scooter, congrats! You officially are a successful southeast Asia backpacker!
Please make comments, suggestions, and ask questions! I would love to hear about your experience in SE Asia. I had the best trip of my life and can talk about these places forever 🙂