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Southeast Asia Guide

This is a guide we put together for friends who were visiting Southeast Asia.  While this is by no means intended to be a comprehensive guide, it’s an outline of some of the places we loved from our (too short) time in the area.  All of the information below is current as of March 2012.

Included below:

THAILAND

Exchange rate: approx. 30 Baht = $1 US

Sleeper trains are really great; 2nd class sleeper gets you a fully flat bed with curtains for privacy. 1st class sleeper is a private cabin. We took 2 sleeper trains, one from Bangkok to Chiang Mai and one from Bangkok to Surat Thani in Southern Thailand. They are a great value and a fun way to travel.

Massages are a great value throughout SE Asia… almost everywhere you can get a great massage for about $8-10/US per hour.  Try Thai massage if you haven’t before; it’s very different than a typical western oil massage.  It’s more like assisted yoga, with the therapist stretching your body in various ways.

Bangkok

In general: ALWAYS ask for a metered taxi! Don’t accept a flat rate! The meter is always a better deal. Flat rate taxis will rip you off. You may have to ask 4-5 taxis before getting one who will take you on the meter. Flat rate taxis always asked us for 200-400 baht for destinations that ended up costing about 80-120 baht with the meter. This also holds true for taxis from the airport.

BEWARE of people who are scamming tourists. We LOVED Thailand and most of the people are amazingly kind, helpful and generous, but as with everywhere, there are people looking to make money from tourists in dishonest ways. They will tell you an attraction is closed and that you should take their friend’s tuk-tuk to another temple. They will tell you to get in their tuk-tuk for a cheap rate but that they “just have to make one stop at a friend’s shop.” They will tell you “there is a traffic jam that way,” and take you to another destination. We asked to go to the public pier on the river and a taxi driver took us to his friend’s tour boat pier. Just be aware of people who approach you asking “Where are you going?” and people who seem to speak really good English and want to help you… these guys want your money. Nothing felt dangerous, just try to be aware of scams and be wary of anyone who starts offering you help for tourist related attractions.

Don’t be afraid to bargain! The tactic that seemed to work the best was asking with a smile, “Can you go a little lower?” or “A little less?”

Eating:

Street food, street food, street food! Don’t be afraid to try any and all of it! It is all freshly made, clean and delicious. Fresh, cut, cold fruit on the street is about 10 baht for a generous bag; pad thai is 30-40 baht; dim sum balls are 11 baht; thai tea is 15-20 baht. Some of our favorite meals were from street food vendors. It’s also a great way to try foods you wouldn’t normally order.

Soul Food Mahanakorn a slightly more upscale Thai fusion restaurant run by a western chef

Activities:

The malls of Bangkok are a sight unto themselves. Elegant Siam Square, Discovery and Center; playful travel-themed Terminal 21; and the ultimate crazy Asian mall, MBK (if you need any electronics… they have a whole floor devoted to them). All worth a stop, and all except Terminal 21 are connected via walkways so you can stay in air conditioning on a steamy Bangkok afternoon. These malls also have great food courts, similar to the outdoor food stalls but with AC! I think they all have at least 2 food courts, one of which is a cheaper “local” court with main dishes for 30-60 baht.

The malls have beautiful movie theaters where you can get a plush reserved seat for about $4-6… most English movies are shown in English with Thai subtitles. They also have great bowling alleys and karaoke rooms!

Wat Pho: Make sure to see the reclining Buddha here … very impressive!

River boats are fun to take. There are tourist boats which will charge about $20 US for a 2-hour tour… and there is a public boat taxi which costs more like $3, I don’t remember exactly but it’s pretty cheap. Ask at your hotel about how to get to the public boat taxi pier and they can direct you.

Chiang Mai

Thai Farm Cooking School ask for MB for your teacher! We had a very fun day with her. This school is fantastic because you each get to choose what to make from a very long list of options. We were stuffed by the end of the day!

Elephant Nature Park – if you like elephants at all, go here. It is an amazing sanctuary. One of the more expensive things we did on our trip, but worth it if you love animals. You get quite a bit of interaction with them and the money helps support the care and feeding of rescued elephants.

Sunday Night Walking Market – one of the best markets we went to in SE Asia. It’s not just touristy stuff, it’s local artisans selling homemade items. Great for clothes, gifts and cute kitschy home things. Go earlier if you can; it gets really crowded later on (8-10 was really busy).

Nimmanhaemin Road – This road has some great Thai designer shops and boutiques. Cool to see; reminded us a little of LA – more modern than other parts of the city. Also great for shopping for unique Thai-made clothes and items. Make sure to wander down a couple of the Soi (side streets) off this one – I think Soi 1 or 2 going east has some cute shops.

Monk Chat: Several of the temples around town have “monk chat” where you can stop by and meet monks, learn about their lives, and they can practice their English. It’s a great way to talk to locals and learn about the culture. Women aren’t allowed to touch monks so just be sensitive of that.

Temples: Chiang Mai is filled to the brim with temples, temples, temples. Just wander in and explore at your leisure. We didn’t make it to any of the temples outside of town but a couple sounded really nice (I think there is one on a hill with a view of the city and one in the woods).

Eating:

The Salad Concept, Nimmanhaemin Road at Soi 13: They serve fresh, customizable salads. Fresh, cheap, healthy, fast! You fill out a form and within minutes they give you the salad.

Chiang Rai – White Temple: If you book a bus from Chiang Mai to the border with Laos on the way to Luang Prabang, most stop at the White Temple in Chiang Rai. Definitely worth the stop to see this funky, crazy temple, which has murals inside (still being painted) featuring pop culture characters like Michael Jackson and the Terminator mixed with Buddhist characters.

Luang Prabang, Laos

Beautiful, relaxing place to hang out for a few days. Not a place to make plans… a place to chill out, relax in cafes, and enjoy the calm atmosphere. We spent about 5 days in Luang Prabang… I would have spent more time if we’d had an open schedule.  It’s a great place to hang out and write.  But, it could be a little sleepy if you aren’t in the mood to hang out at lovely cafes.

Slow Boat

To get to Luang Prabang, we booked a package in Chiang Mai that included the bus to the border and the slow boat down the Mekong for 2 days to Luang Prabang (about 7-8 hrs each day, stops in a village with lodging overnight).  You can do it all separately (not as a package) but it’s not that much cheaper.  The slow boat was fun, and a great way to meet people to hang out with in Luang Prabang.  It’s like showing up in town with 50 people you just met at camp.

Eating:

Pancakes” aka crepes are made at carts all around the city (and throughout Laos). I missed these when we left! Freshly made with your choice of sweet or savory fillings for about $1-2 US.

Coffee: Some people think Laos coffee is the best in the world… I think it’s the best because they serve it with sweetened condensed milk.

Sticky rice! This is a fun food that you are supposed to play with, by eating with your hands. Def try it! Both black and white rices are great and fun to eat.

Utopia – fantastic all day and all night hang-out spot. By day it’s a beautiful cafe with pillows and mats on bamboo decks overlooking the river, great wifi and good breakfast/lunch options. By night it’s a cool bar/lounge with videos playing and great music. Definitely check out for the ambiance! They also have yoga here in the mornings. You might have to ask someone to point you in the right direction as they are down some little side streets, but it’s worth finding!

Le Banneton Cafe – best chocolate croissants, maybe anywhere! On the main road in the center of the peninsula, away from most of the restaurants (keep walking towards the tip of the peninsula). Ask them to warm your croissant up for you.

Arthouse Cafe – This place has a nice, varied menu with some western options, for when you’ve had enough Asian food… nice riverside setting.

Le Cafe ban vat sene – another place with good western options, nice setting. The pasta bolognese was really great.

l’Elephant – Known as the best restaurant in town.

Lao Lao Garden – best 2-for-1 drink specials in town, and lots of fun fire pits.  One night we stayed here til they closed, and then they ushered us across the street to their pool bar, which could stay open 1/2 hr later, and from there we went to the bowling alley with some people we’d met (see below).

Night food market – you’ll find this, it’s all on a side street off the main night market. Tons of vendors selling buffets by the plate; for about $1.50-$2, you can fill a plate with whatever you like from their buffets. Fun to try at least once!

Sleeping

We stayed at two places: one was more expensive and was a bit of a drive out of town.  Lovely, but not conducive to exploring Luang Prabang on foot.

My husband wandered around one day and got quotes at nearly all the budget hotels in town… this was his favorite.  Really loved it, great quality for an amazing price:

Vilayvanh Guest House
Tel: 071 252 757
020 7773 558
020 5547 696

I can’t even describe where it is… the best thing to do would be to ask in town for directions to Utopia.  It’s very close to Utopia; if you are heading towards Utopia, it’s about 2 houses before it on the right.  The men who run this place are really sweet and lovely.  I think our double room cost about $12 US.  I would call rather than email if you’re interested in a room.  Nice clean rooms on a lovely little side street.

There are tons of budget places, though, and we were there during a busy time so lots of places were full; I’m sure you could find a great deal by just walking around a little bit.

Activities:

Ock Pop Tok weaving classes – if you are curious about silk weaving, this is the place to go. Stop by their shops in town to learn about the project and see examples of what you can make in their courses.

Temples – like Chiang Mai, just wander around, they’re all beautiful, and often monks here are up for chatting like in Chiang Mai.

Night Market – the night market is pretty good; lots of handmade silk scarves, purses, clothes, carved wooden objects, etc.

Massages – we had nice massages at Hibiscus. I believe it is on the main road near l’Benneton. A bit more expensive than other options, but much nicer place.

River tour to the Buddha cave – This was just okay – we hired a boat to take us to the cave, about 1 hr from the town. It was okay but nothing amazing. It’s a nice way to do a mini Mekong cruise if you like; you can time it so you’re coming back at sunset.  If you take the slow boat into Luang Prabang, you pass this on the way, so we had already had a glimpse of it from coming in to town.

Bowling alley – the alley is the only thing open after 11pm, when all the bars and restaurants have to close (there is a curfew). It’s fun to see how packed it is late at night.  It’s kind of a scene.

Vang Vieng

Do you want to experience spring break, Laos style?  That’s what this place felt like.  The river is actually really great for tubing, but sadly, most people never even make it past the first bar.  If you do go tubing, go maybe from 12-4… it takes a long time to do the whole river and it gets cold there once the sun goes down.   There are many accidents every year, including deaths, with tourists on this river: from drinking and jumping off the “slides,” drinking and tubing, drinking and doing stupid stuff… so BE CAREFUL.  Don’t drink & tube!

This bar was handing out maps at the bus stop – looks like they made a website with the same info.


Sleeping
Everything here is cheap.  Our double room here (at the Pany Guesthouse) cost $7.50.  We wanted to stay at Pan’s Place but they don’t take reservations and were full when we showed up.  Pany was around the corner, perfectly clean and fine for a couple nights, but not a social place.

Eating
More pancakes, more baguettes.

Mamma Sababa
– Falafel on a dusty road in Laos??  Yes!

Activities

  • Rent tube, drink, tube
  • Rent bikes, bike to the Emerald Pool (we didn’t do this but wanted to… there are 2 Emerald Pools so make sure you go to the “right” one)
  • Climbing
  • Get stoned and watch “Friends” in a bar
  • Volunteer teaching English at the school in town!  You can get info from the organic farm cafe next to the tubing start point – that’s where the charity is based. We wanted to do this but didn’t end up being free during their class hours.

That’s about it for Vang Vieng… we both couldn’t wait to leave.

Vientiane seemed okay; everyone told us it’s really boring so we didn’t book any time there.

Siem Reap, Cambodia

Eating

Nothing stood out too much for us here; a big variety of restaurants catering to tourists, some selling typical Khmer food.

Massages

Make sure to get massages in Cambodia… they were as good as the ones we had in Thailand, and very affordable.

Sleeping

There are lots of great hotels in town, but a budget hotel we loved was Motherhome Guesthouse. Feels like a 4-star hotel but is about $22/night. Great service, great breakfast, great drivers to take you around Angkor Wat, and great in-room massages.

Southern Thailand

We spent 10 days on Koh Lanta, a great island on the western side of the peninsula near Krabi. Highly recommend it.  Lanta is about 3 hours from Phuket by boat, or 1 hour from Krabi.

Cha Cha restaurant: a small roadside restaurant near Klong Khong Beach.  Some of the best food we had in all of Thailand.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Judy Caplan permalink
    Sunday, March 25, 2012 7:39 am

    Always a pleasure to read your writings.

  2. Milly Goldstein permalink
    Tuesday, April 3, 2012 2:56 pm

    Hope this list stays on line for quite a while. It will will a valuable tool for us when planning our next trip. Thanks so much.

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