A lot of my friends are traveling to SE Asia this summer and have been asking me for tips on where to go, stay, do, etc. Since I think I have now sent about 10 versions of the same e-mail out to people, I thought I would just post a brief guide to traveling to some parts of SE Asia where I have visited over the last few months. If any of you need more details, please feel free to contact me directly or check out previous blog posts..
I had an awesome guide in Cambodia named Dara. I was in Siem Reap for 5 days (3 of which by myself) and Dara was amazing. He set my itinerary for me and had a driver to take us everywhere.
Dara's e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org
He can set an itinerary for you. He took us around in a tuk-tuk (the driver was his buddy Lim Ngee who is also pretty cool). Dara speaks perfect English and is an official Siem Reap tour guide, so he knows his stuff. He costs $20 per day, and the driver's per day cost depends on how far the trip is. For example, going to Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom will cost $15 per day for a tuk-tuk driver, but going to the floating forest will be more ($20-30) depending on if you get a car or a tuk-tuk. I would definitely go to Floating forest, Beng Melea, Batay Sarai, Ankgor Wat, Angkor Thom. The first three places are a bit out of the way and might take a separate trip but are definitely worth it. You should also eat at the Blue Pumpkin cafe in Siem Reap (lunch- great sandwiches and desserts) and Khmer Kitchen for dinner. For places to stay, there are tons of nice hotels, depending on your budget. I found a good deals online for 4-5 star hotels, so I would look into that. Some suggestions are FCC, Angkor Village Resort and Day Inn Angkor Resort. We spent a couple of days in a guesthouse called the Shadow of Angkor, which was significantly cheaper, but the location was great. USD cash is used EVERYWHERE here so bring lots of 20's and 1's, but there are ATMs now in Siem Reap in case you don't have enough cash on you.
I stayed in Luang Prabang for about 5 days and loved everything about it. I stayed at Le Calao hotel which was right on the water and was nice, but if I had a choice, I would have preferred to stay at the 3 Nagas which is the nicest of all of the hotels in Luang Prabang and definitely worth it - try to reserve one of the two upstairs suites - they are adorable and really nice. I had friends who stayed at the 3 Nagas and they loved it - but reserve early as there are not so many hotels in Luang Prabang (more backpacker guesthouses) so the hotels get filled up. In Luang Prabang, definitely wake up at sunrise and go to the main road to watch the villagers come out to feed the hundreds of monks that live in the village. It is a beautiful and spiritual experience. Going to the waterfall is also a nice half day trip. I didn't particularly enjoy the long-boat trip to the caves, but other friends have liked the stop (if you do the Mekong River cruise to Luang Prabang then you will stop there anyways). I flew to Luang Prabang from Chiang Mai on Lao Airlines. Buying tickets on Lao Air is pretty sketchy. I would not recommend buying through a third party like Zuji.com, but would instead contact Lao Air directly. This will require you to wait a day or two for confirmation and be prepared to have to pay cash at a Lao Airline office in your point of departure. Flights are few and far between (usually 3 times a week) and the planes are propellor planes that cannot take off at night or in rain, so if you're traveling in the monsoon (as many of you will be), just be prepared. The other alternative is the Mekong River Cruise. I've heard good and bad things from friends who have done it, but it seems to be a fun trip if you are willing to pay a bit more for luxury. P.S. Currency of choice is USD Cash here, so make sure you have plenty on hand. And bring passport size pictures for the visa on-demand or you'll be forced to pay about 20 bucks at the airport!
In Vietnam, we went to Hanoi and Halong Bay. In Hanoi, we stayed at the Church Hotel in the old town which was AWESOME. It is not very expensive ($40 a night) and is very clean, new and in a great central location to the old town. You can look it up online and call ahead to make a reservation. I would recommend doing the Lonely Planet's suggested walking tour of Hanoi's old town, because we got to see some cool buildings and neighborhoods. We also did the Halong Bay overnight boat trip. WARNING: Beware of being cheated by the travel cafe's offering pretty and luxurious boat cruises on Halong Bay. Apparently, they all show tourists the same pictures to bait everyone into paying upfront, only to be herded onto crappy boats once you finally arrive at the dock after the 4-hr drive from Hanoi. That being said, I'll just stress how important it is for you guys to do whatever it takes to go on the Kangaroo Cafe boat tour rather than taking your chances with the random boat vendors and travel cafe's. I didnt use Kangaroo and our trip was a nightmare until we argued with the trip coordinator and got switched off our boat (which was packed with tourists) and onto another boat. I've also heard good things from some of the Aussie-owned adventure tour cruises which seem to be a bit more reliable as well.
I made several trip to different parts of Thailand and loved everywhere I went. In Bangkok, definitely walk around all the temples and the palace grounds which should take you about half a day. Try to make your trip on a weekend so you can go spend a few hours shopping at the Chatachuk Weekend Market - it's an amazing experience and be prepared to get a lot of stuff for little money. For nightlife, I'd recommend Bed Supperclub and Q bar, although a friend told me recently that Q bar has become a bit more of pick-up scene for Thai girls. For traveling in Thailand, I would look into Thai Air Asia which is a super cheap discount airline. However, before you fly, make sure you call or go online to confirm your flight because they are notorious for cancelling flights which could really screw you up if you have connecting flights elsewhere. Tiger Airways is also pretty reliable and cheap, but flights book up early and get more expensive the closer the date of travel. Also look online for hotel/airfare deals. Zuji.com is a good asian travel website, but DO NOT USE them if you are traveling to Laos (See above).
In Chiang Mai, I found great hotel deals online, so just do some searching around and you should be able to pre-pay and reserve a decent 4-5 * hotel somewhere close to the night market. The night market is cool here and if you have time, take a day or so to go on a hill-tribe trek.
Instead of going to Phuket, I had gone to Koh Samui where we had stayed on Chaweng Beach. It is definitely worth staying on the southern part of Chaweng, because the beach is nicer there and it's not as crowded. It is also not very difficult to walk the main strip to get to all the restaurants and bars at night. Although you'll be tempted to just lay on the beach all day, I would highly recommend taking a day to go on the trip the Ang Thong National Marine Park. Blue Star Tours are Aussie-owned and run and are AMAZING. Just walk up the main strip in Chaweng and their office is located next to the Green Mango bar. They'll pick you up at your hotel in the morning and bring you back after the trip consisting of kayaking, swimming, hiking, and snorkeling. Good times.
Too much to write. Read the blog or let me know and I'll put you in touch with my friends there! But in a nutshell: Night Safari, Orchard Road, Attica, Boon Ton Quay for Banana Paratas, Chili Crab at East Coast, etc.
Ok, that should do it. I would highly recommend getting the Lonely Planet guidebooks for any locations you will be traveling to.