Southeast Asia Without the Crowds?

Old Jul 28th, 2022, 06:40 PM
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Southeast Asia Without the Crowds?

Our late 2020 trip to Egypt was particularly enjoyable, not just because of the incredible history and culture, but because we had much of the historic blockbuster sights - from the Pyramids of Giza to the tombs at the Valley of the Kings to Karnak Temple - pretty much to ourselves. Never would we have imagined that we would be alone in such sought-after sights. We've been thinking since our trip to Egypt about the various places we've wanted to visit or revisit, especially places that have become overcrowded in the years leading up to the pandemic. Angkor is one of these places.

While we realize that 2022 is not the same as 2020 and visitors are coming back, even in Asia, it's probably our best opportunity to visit a place such as Angkor with fewer visitors than at any point in recent memory - probably in our lifetimes. We've never been to Cambodia but are thinking about using it to anchor a trip to the country with a couple of days in Phnom Penh.

If we're going all the way to Asia, we'll probably want to add another country to the mix. Thailand immediately come to mind as we all loved our previous visit to Bangkok too long ago. Other places that come to mind are Sukhothai and Chiang Mai, given our interest in Buddhist temples, historical sights, and ruins in general. Another option is to combine Cambodia with Laos. Based on research, places of interest include Luang Prabang and the Pakse / Bolaven Plateau area. The challenge with Laos is that flights seem slower to come back online.

For folks who have logged more visits to this part of the world than me, I'm interested in your thoughts and suggestions. Cambodia and Thailand OR Cambodia and Laos? Other places that may be less tourist-trafficked worth checking out given our interests?

Thank you.
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Old Jul 28th, 2022, 07:47 PM
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I was lucky enough to visit Angkor and Luang Prabang before the crowds (2001 and 2004), and LP after the crowds (2010). It's definitely worth trying to get there before the crowds return. I prefer Laos and Vietnam to Thailand, and you certainly don't have to go to Thailand for temples. I prefer to travel overland, and would not rule out Laos because of a shortage of flights. For instance, if you start in Bangkok you can take the train to the border with Laos, and a tuk-tuk to Vientiane. There should be a bus to LP. Trains also run from Bangkok to the Cambodian border.

Looks like Travelfish is still a good place for planning: https://www.travelfish.org/
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Old Jul 29th, 2022, 12:46 AM
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Thursdaysd and I are very likeminded in our approach ti travel so it wont come as any surprise that I concur with her views.

We first visited Angkor in the early 2000s. When we went to photograph the dawn rising over the complex there were maybe 5-10 people there. When we went again in 2008 maybe 2000 people beat us to it! The last time we went was to take my inlays for their 50th wedding anniversary and we just didn't bother with the dawn. Indeed we were quite shocked by the volume of tourists which did not make for a pleasant experience. Most were Chinese in large tour groups and lets just say they are not the best behaved or well mannered tourists around. They are currently quarantined in their own country so as long as that remains, Siem Reap will be a much more pleasant experience. When they open up the borders I can imagine a huge tsunami of tourist taking over the place.

The same applied to Luang Prabang 1999 - empty. 2008 absolute heaving!

My subjective view of course, but I would not bother with Thailand other than as place to possibly fly into and move on. Sukothai and Chiang Mai pale into insignificance compared with Angkor and LP (and many other Asian cities for that matter.

Laos is a wonderful country. We have travelled all over from the far north from the Vietnam border south into Cambodia. We have done it by public transport, mostly bus and boat. It is pretty straightforward but expect things to go wrong, delays etc it is great fun though! When we working and cash rich but time poor, we did hire a car and guide/driver to get us around. Great way to pack more in if short on time. There are lots of temples in Laos - LP, Vientienne but I would say it is more about the minority tribe village and the scenery which is stunning. The Bolavens Plateu is beautiful and it is an easy jaunt from there to the Cambodian border via Si Phan Don (4000 islands) in the Mekong.

Another trip we did more recently which included Cambodia was overland from Vietnam. We had spent a few months travelling down from Hanoi to Saigon where we met up with some friends from England and carried on through the Mekong Delta to Chau Doc and then got a boat along the river to Phnom Penh and then up to Siem Reap.

Here is a link to our blog https://accidentalnomads.com use the destination tab to find the country. There is a lot on Vietnam, some on Cambodia but sadly I never got around to posting re Laos. Though if you click on my screen name I probably did a trip report here at some point.

There is a huge range of permutations of routes you could take but which one is clearly going to be governed by your own interests. Happy to help where I can. How long have you got?



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Old Jul 29th, 2022, 04:21 AM
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Now I think about it, this was my first trip to SEA in 2002 (should have been 2002 not 2001 in my first post). It included a couple of tours but they could easily be done on your own: Wilhelm's Words -- Travels Round Asia 2002
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Old Jul 29th, 2022, 08:31 AM
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Thursdaysd and Crellston, thank you both. I will look at the links you've shared. We're looking at 21-22 nights on the ground. My only concern about overland travel - not opposed to it - is that some of the distances could be great and we have limited time.
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Old Jul 29th, 2022, 11:19 AM
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>> The challenge with Laos is that flights seem slower to come back online.

That would be a good thing as it would mean tourist numbers are slower to come back up.
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Old Jul 29th, 2022, 02:04 PM
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some of the distances could be great and we have limited time
Night trains in Thailand are, or at least were, very good. I've never done first class, but in second the berths are parallel to the side of the carriage and come with curtains, so plenty of privacy. Then I look at bus and boat travel as part of the trip - sit back and enjoy the scenery.
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Old Jul 29th, 2022, 10:02 PM
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With three weeks to play with you need to be really focused upon where you want to go. Overland travel does take time though if you can schedule certain journeys overnight, it can actually save "usable" time in certain circumstances. There is also the view, often attributed to Emerson that "Life is a journey not a destination" I happen to like travelling by train. Buses in Asia , not so much. Trains in Thailand can be a viable alternative to flying. An overnight train from Bangkok to Chiang Mai is certainly worth considering. A train to the Lao border is also worth a look. In Cambodia there are one or two routes that may be of interest. Phnom Penh to Kampot being one. Laos now has high speed trains running from the Chinese border to Vientiane. Luang Prabang to Vientiane now takes only a couple of hours. In Vietnam we have done the Reunification express from Hanoi to Saigon maybe 3 or 4 times, stopping off at various places along the way. A great way to avoid tourists and meet the Vietnames people!

www.seat61.com is a terrific resource for train travel.

With three weeks to play with, I would probably look at:
  1. Bangkok - Chiang Mai/ Chiang Rai. Cross the border into Laos at Huay Xai and get a boat downriver to Luang Prabang and from there do a driver/guide car tour around the north. Luang Namtha-Muang Sing- Phongsali etc. and fly back to Bangkok
  2. Saigon - Mekong Delta - boat to Phnom Penh - side trip to Kampot fly to Siem Reap and then head back home
  3. Saigon to Hanoi or vice versa. Both cities deserve 3 -4 day min. the rest of the time I would use stopping off at places between the two. Hue, Hoi An, Phong Nha Khe Be, Quy Nhon are all contenders and can easily be reached by train or plane. -4 4 days in the delta from Saigon would enable you to se some of my fav places in Asia. Chau Doc, Ben Are, Can Tho or, if you want to "push the boat out" (literally ) take a cruise of the delta with someone like Mekong Eyes.
Just a few ideas I dragged up from our past visits to Asia.

N.B. When you decide to go will have a major bearing on where you go. Weather patterns in SEA are complex to put it mildly. Do check the weather sites. for many of those areas Nov - March/April is a good time weather wise though in Northern Thailand and Laos they start burning the forests to clear land for crops from March /April onwards so I would avoid that time there. We made that mistake once and had to fly out of LP to the "clean" air of Bangkok.

Anyway just a few ideas
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Old Jul 30th, 2022, 04:36 AM
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Thanks again crellston and Thursdays. I'll take a look at some of the places you've referenced. In terms of transport, we will look at train options but will want to keep train travel to under 5 hours. Night trains won't work as I need to be able to go back to a hotel room at the end of the day for work space and reliable Internet, not to mention I cannot sleep on trains. I realize this may limit my options. Our only must-do is Angkor.
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Old Aug 7th, 2022, 05:46 AM
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Assuming flight availability stays the way it is right now, then we're looking at a fairly standard itinerary that involves Cambodia and Thailand.
  • Fly into Phnom Penh, 2-3 nights. We're thinking probably 2 nights are enough given the closure of the Royal Palace and the Silver Pagoda.
  • Car and driver to Siem Reap, 4-5 nights. From what we gather this is a 5-6 hour journey. Are there interesting places to stop along the way? We wouldn't mind overnighting somewhere either. What about travelling by boat via Tonle Sap instead? Has anyone down this and would you recommend it over an overland trip?
  • Fly to Chiang Mai via Bangkok, 4 nights. We expect the flight to take much of the day, leaving 3 days for Chiang Mai and the surrounding area.
  • Car and driver to Sukhothai, 2 nights. Any interesting places to stop between Chiang Mai and Sukhothai?
  • Fly to Bangkok, 5-6 nights
If there are better places to visit in Thailand than Chiang Mai and / or Sukhothai, we am wide open to considering those. Where have you gone in Thailand that you would recommend? We've only been to Bangkok, which we all loved, and Phuket, which we don't need to revisit. Phuket was fine and we enjoyed what we saw, but we are not swimmers and not into much beach time. Prefer to spend the time sightseeing, immersed in culture, hiking, or seeing wildlife.

If flights to and within Laos resume, then we would be looking at a Cambodia and Laos itinerary. We don't expect the Cambodia portion to be different but are thinking about the following for Laos:
  • Fly from Siem Reap to Pakse, 5-6 nights. Would you recommend basing in Pakse, Champasak, or somewhere else? Or splitting the time? We would be looking at higher-end accommodation options. In addition to temples, the waterfalls of the area are appealing as well as the Four Thousand Islands.
  • Fly from Pakse to Luang Prabang, 4 nights.
  • Train to Vientiane, 2-3 nights. Hiring a car and driver is an option if there are interesting sights along the way as well as stopping overnight somewhere.
Vietnam is of interest but it feels like we need at least the full 3 weeks there instead of splitting with with Cambodia. Burma is of interest, but not right now.

We welcome any feedback that you have. Thank you.
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Old Aug 7th, 2022, 07:52 AM
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Back in 2002 I went overland from PP to Siem Reap with an Intrepid tour group. An abridged account:

"We started fast, powering up the Mekong on the Kratie ferry. ... We left the ferry at Kompong Cham. ... We spent a hot afternoon wandering around the Wat Nokor complex, where a brightly painted modern temple had been built incongruously inside the sandstone and laterite walls of an 11th century shrine. ... As the day cooled towards evening, we rode motos an hour each way to Wat Hanchey, a more sensitive amalgam of old and new temples spread around a hill with wide views over the Mekong ...

Next morning we settled into a comfortable minibus for the drive to Kompong Thom ... [An] endurance test awaited us at Phnom Suntok, where 980 stairs separated us from the hilltop shrines. ... The shrines, images and immense Buddha footprints, not to mention the views over the flat countryside, were worth the climb, but getting down was almost worse than going up ...

The highlight of the day was Sambor Prei Kuk, where thin forest has grown around and over some of the oldest temples in the country, dedicated to Shiva and dating to the seventh century. A few buildings were more tree root than brick, the tree's clasp seeming almost protective. The late afternoon sun lit carved lintels and guardian lions: hefty hindquarters and bared teeth offset by the ringlets that formed their manes. We had the site to ourselves, and again I was conscious of emptiness: the priests and people who once worshipped here were very long gone."

From Siem Reap we took a boat to Battambang, but I get bored on boats and don't know that I would recommend it. Traveling in Cambodia on my own I took a car and driver from Siem Reap to the Thai border and a train to Bangkok. I am not a fan of Thailand and might stay in BKK and do day trips - bus and boat to Ayutthaya, train to Kanchanaburi.

Will be interested to hear how the high speed train to LP works out if you do that. I really enjoyed the drive on my first visit, but it did take all day and after that I'm afraid I flew.
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Old Aug 7th, 2022, 12:02 PM
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I would add another night in Phnom Penh. It is one of may favourite Asian cities and warrants at least two full days even without the Palace and Pagoda. Tuol Sleng, Choueng Ek, the central market and Russian market could be fitted into a very full day but would be more enjoyable with a little more time. Plenty of great street food, decent restaurants and Sisowath Quay is great for sundowners.

I have done the trip to SR by boat, car and bus. I would not recommend the boat unless you are very hardy traveller! The boats have a very dodgy safety record, are not comfortable and take a very long time. The time of year can make a huge difference to river levels and consequently the ability of boats to sail all the way. Take a boat ride or trip on the Tonle Sap from Siem Reap to some of the more remote floating villages - much nicer.

One time we stopped off in Battambang for a few days en route. It deserves more than just an overnight stop as there are some interesting caves and temple complexes out in the countryside - seehttps://accidentalnomads.com/2015/06/12/battambang/ for some photos and detail.

Last time in Chiang Mai we had to leave because the smoke pollution was so bad but that is very dependent upon the time of year - don't even think of going from mid march to May. It has a huge array of temples within the square kilometre of the old town, Doi Suthep is worth a look but after that I would want to move on, possibly to the countryside , possibly Chiang Rai, smaller and less crowded and the n=best walking market in Thailand! If you did go to Laos I would suggest Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai/ Chiang Khong and then get a boat down to Luang Prabang with and overnight stop in Pakse. Easier than flying!

I think you would be disappointed with Sukothai after Angkor unless you are REALLY into temples. If you are happy driving in Thailand then one option from Chiang Mai would be to rent a car and drive the Mai Hong Sorn Loop. Some temples but mostly about the scenery and cultural experience of the minority peoples villages.

Southern Laos is very different from the North. The north is mountainous and very beautiful. you would need a car and drive or a tour. but I would consider a circuit from Luang Prabang. Perhaps Lunag Namtha, Muang Sing , Phongsali. It is really out of the way so don't expect great hotels, but so worth it! Alternatively, from LP you could stop off at Vang Vieng en route to Vientiane. Then use Pakse as a jumping of point for the Bolavens Plateau, Si phan don and Wat Po.

Sorry if this adds further confusion. I am suffering with that myself at present, trying to nail down our itinerary for Australia and Vietnam next month. Time is fast running out!

Finally, you are correct that Vietnam warrants the whole three weeks BUT, I do feel that Southern Vietnam i.e, Saigon and the Mekong Delta would work exceptionally well with the Cambodian section, should Laos flight not resume. 3-4 night in the delta from Phnom Penh followed by the same in Saigon would be a great way to end your trip IMHO.

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Old Aug 7th, 2022, 01:22 PM
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Thanks again, Thursdaysd and Crellston. The information on Cambodia is particularly helpful. Assigning 3 nights to Phnom Penh it is. Will check out Phnom Suntok and Sambor Prei Kuk as potential places to break up our Phnom Penh to Siem Reap journey overland. Will also look into 2-3 nights in Battambang.

On Thailand, I will look at some of the areas further afield around Chiang Mai. We could skip Sukhothai. Another option is to start in Thailand so we would visit Sukhothai before we get to Angkor but we are trying to avoid all the issues that Bangkok's hosting of APEC may cause. We plan on landing on Nov. 19, when world leaders are expected to be gathering. By going to Cambodia first, we assume we will avoid most of it a week later.

If more flights open up in Laos, seems like the areas around Pakse and Luang Prabang and further afield will have plenty to keep us busy that we may not want to add more.

And crellston, let me know if I can be helpful with Australia. It's someplace I've been again and again over the years and may be able to offer some advice. In fact, I'm looking at Australia simultaneously as I am considering Southeast Asia, as well as a couple other places in Europe and the Middle East. With COVID, just don't know what will come together.

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Old Aug 7th, 2022, 09:15 PM
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You are welcome tripplanner.

November is a great time for Northern Thailand and Laos. Beginning of the cool dry season and still pretty green. The burning of the fields and forest wont start for several months so no problems with the smoke.

The "Mai Hong Sorn Loop" is a great drive around Northern Thailand from Chiang Mai stopping at Pai, Soppong, Mai Hong Sorn, Mai Sariang and back to Chiang Mai via Doi Inthanon NP. It is a wonderful drive along curving mountain roads with some great scenery - https://www.travelfish.org/trip_plan...-hong-son-loop Despite the mountain roads it is a pretty easy drive.

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Old Aug 7th, 2022, 09:27 PM
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Hi TP -- you've gotten some great advice. We used a fabulous guide in Chiang Rai and he also does Chiang Mai. His name is Jermsak and I may have contact infor for him in on our TR 10 years or so ago now. OUR SEASIA Odyssey Have a great trip!
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Old Aug 8th, 2022, 03:15 PM
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Thanks again crellston and thank you yestravel. Appreciate the reports and photos. Given that this will be our first time in northern Thailand, we'll need to be selective and sample and then leave places for future visits. Knowing that it is easy to combine with Laos helps us think about it some if we don't wind up going there this time around.
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Old Aug 9th, 2022, 06:30 AM
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Thanks so much for this information! We are traveling in September--that is set due to an opening in our work schedules. Would you still travel to Thailand since it is the monsoon season? Or reroute to another country?
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Old Aug 9th, 2022, 08:02 AM
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Noi wouldn't. In September I would be looking to parts of Indonesia, Borneo or maybe South Korea towards the end of September. Cambodia can also be nice in Sept if you don't mind the odd downpour. The benefit of travelling in the monsoon season is though you may miss the blue skies, you will also miss the crowds and the scenery is a lot greener.
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Old Aug 10th, 2022, 12:37 PM
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Let me chime in and agree with Yestravels suggestion of Chiang Rai and the guide Jermsak. Floating on a raft downriver while being fed chicken cooked over charcoal was seriously good.
We followed in her TR footsteps with boat ride from Chiang Khong to Luang Prabang and enjoyed it very much.
Also agree with Crellstons suggestion for Phnom Penh. It is a vibrant city with great food options, we did a fascinating architectural walk there. The central market is not to be missed architecture wise, the vendors not so much. There are some TRs here under my name.
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Old Aug 10th, 2022, 05:31 PM
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Sartoric, hi! It's been a minute since I'm seen you here. Hope all is well with you.

As far as the Cambodia and Thailand version of our itinerary, the one that still seems most likely at the moment, we've now identified areas of interest and will try to narrow down in the coming days and weeks - always the hardest part.

We've now grouped our potential itinerary into three clusters: Cambodia, northern Thailand, and the Bangkok area. The current thinking allocates 8 nights to Cambodia, split between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, 3 and 5. This means we will need to forgo Battambang, Katie, and the Kampot / Kep area. We could fill all our time in Cambodia, I suppose. Just have to come back for the rest and perhaps in a future combination with Laos.

We're currently looking at 5 nights in Bangkok at the end if the trip. This will give us time in the city and 1 to 2 day trips. Ayutthaya is of interest as is Kaschanaburi.

This leaves the hardest portion of the trip: northern Thailand. Lampang grabs our attention with the Sky Temple and Sukhothai for the many Buddha statues. Based on the feedback here, seems like it may not be worth too much time in Chiang Mai although I assume we will pass through there at some point. Pai, Mae Hong Son, and Chiang Rai all pique our curiosity and interest for the opportunity to experience some village life among tribes, be outdoors, and perhaps do some hiking. With the limited time, we know we will need to eliminate at least half of this. Always the hard part. At least it's taking some shape.


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