If annual leave is tight, don't despair - you can see South East Asia in just a fortnight. Here's how to cram Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam into a two-week trip that won't break the bank
Lemongrass, then ginger. My first mouthful of tom yum soup burst with heavenly flavours – before fiery chilli left my eyes watering. Another memory: a masseuse jabbing his thumbs into my spine during a tortuous massage at Wat Pho monastery – yet afterwards I felt as light as a feather. South-East Asia awakens contrasting sensory experiences like no other region.
Indochina (Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam) is a dream to travel through. If you’ve never been to Asia before, the region is a safe, vibrant first footstep onto this continent. People are friendly, food is delicious and it’s excellent value for money.
For those who missed out on backpacking in their early 20s and now have only limited annual leave, it’s easy to plan an independent overland trip here, much of which can be pre-booked online before travelling. So putting my Thai Baht where my mouth is, I flew into Bangkok – the region’s most competitive hub for airfares – to travel independently overland to Saigon through four countries in 14 days, plus travel days.
My journey across southern Indochina included mighty Khmer ruins, sleepy Mekong countryside and Vietnam’s Reunification Express railway. I even factored in a beach day – well, it was a holiday after all...
Thai capital, two ways
WHAM! That’s the sensation of Bangkok hitting you on arrival. Knockout humidity amid earsplitting, anarchic traffic and sizzling stalls of streetfood, as Skytrains rumble overhead. The two days I’d allocated here seemed woefully inadequate.
I acclimatised on my first day by taking a public water-taxi down the Chao Phraya River to Bangkok’s dazzling royal and religious quarter. The 18th-century Palace complex embodies a Thai architectural fantasy of enormous golden stupas resembling upturned handbells and glittering multi-roofed temples inlaid with glass and adorned with writhing dragons and serpents. Wat Pho monastery similarly bewitches: here lies a colossal 46m-long golden reclining Buddha with humungous mother-of-pearl feet.
Yet this isn’t rank-and-file Bangkok. So the next day I delved more adventurously into its humbler underbelly before my evening train departure. A day tour by bicycle might seem suicidal given the daunting traffic but Dutchman Michael Hoes has been safely running his Amazing Bangkok Cyclist tours for 25 years.
The guide, Aon, soon had us pedaling through nebulous alleyways swerving by streetfood stands and ducking under caged songbirds. At Khlong Toey market we dismounted to browse exotic produce including smelly ‘one-thousand-years eggs’, which are buried underground for months.
Finally we crossed the Chao Phraya to beautiful Bangkachao to cycle on raised causeways alongside khlongs (canals) that irrigated papaya and banana fields. Iridescent butterflies and birdsong lent an unexpected tranquility given the pulsating megalopolis on the other side of the river.
♦ Thai Railways trains are reliable and fun; try second-class sleepers to meet locals.
♦ Cost: Bangkok-Chiang Mai (14hrs) – £17.
♦ Time poor? Get an Air Asia flight from Bangkok (DMK) to Chiang Mai (1hr) from £16.50 rtn.
In them yonder hills
The Thai train rattled north through the night. The next morning it revealed pristine hills of hardwood and bamboo forests where I saw an elephant being worked by its mahout. I’d chosen this brief side-visit to Chiang Mai not only because the city is chockablock with gloriously decorative temples within 13th-century citadel walls but also because it’s a well-trodden base from which to explore the surrounding hills, home to northern Thailand’s many ethnic tribes.
To really get among the tribes you need days, so I’d pre-booked a shorter excursion to visit the Hmong of Doi Pui village. The Hmong are culturally distinct mountain-dwelling animists who range as far as China and wear distinctive embroidered costumes.
On first impressions, Doi Pui wasn’t as I’d imagined. Most of the Hmong wore Western clothing and the village had become a sizeable souvenir emporium of local handicrafts (including the tribal garments they weren’t wearing).
However, my interest soared as local guide, Suvachat, took me inside a ramshackle wooden house belonging to a local Hmong woman. In the smoky interior, Mrs Nangcha was drying maize over a burning log. The doorways had high steps to halt evil spirits crawling in on their bellies. She told Suvachat they grow rice on a hillside nearby. And a little opium. “Isn’t that illegal,” I wondered? Nangcha and Suvachat briefly conferred. “Yes,” said Suvachat, “but she says they only grow it for children when they’re ill.”
Her response to my question about the marijuana in her vegetable patch was also culturally enlightening. “Mrs Nangcha is growing it for hemp to weave a funeral shroud for her mother – just like an Egyptian mummy,” said Suvachat. He pointed towards the grinning 93-year-old grandma. “She’ll need it soon,” he said. Both Mrs Nangchas howled with laughter.
♦ Crossing borders overland is easy to arrange (although ensure any visa requirements are in order first).
♦ Cost: Bangkok to Siem Reap (Cambodia) via Poipet, by train and taxi (9.5hrs) – £15.
The temples without the tourists
For 15 minutes I had one of the world’s most-visited ruins to myself. While the crowds outside snapped sunrise photos of Angkor Wat’s lotus-bud towers I snuck into the temple’s inner sanctum.
My footsteps alone echoed through stone corridors lavished by Hindu deities and magnificent bas-reliefs glorifying the 12th-century King Suryavarman II. As sun rays sliced through the jungle, I briefly connected with the spirituality Angkor Wat was built to convey.
As Angkor receives so many visitors, I’d hatched a plan to circumvent the hordes so I could enjoy moments of quieter reflection. I’d cycled pre-dawn from nearby Siem Reap, glad to stretch my legs after the previous day’s crossing into western Cambodia. With the freedom of my hired bike I could go as I pleased.
At 7.30am, the cicadas revving like chainsaws, I reached the popular mid-12th-century Ta Phrom temple in near solitude. It is much photographed because of the great dipterocarpus tree roots that throttle and tilt its stonework, reminiscent of how Frenchman Henri Mouhot found Angkor on rediscovering it in 1860. Thereafter I stopped at temples not on tour-bus schedules, such as magnificent red-laterite Pre Rup.
I enjoyed lunch alfresco at an open-air restaurant, preferring its fried rice to its ‘fried sparrows’. I reached late-12th-century Angkor Thom, city of King Suryavarman VII, just as the tour-buses hightailed it back to Siem Reap for lunch. This allowed me to enjoy its structures, decorated with elephants and totem pole-like facades of human faces, in peace. It was just me and some local children, who danced in the dust devils whipped-up by the withering heat of the stone city’s courtyard.
By late afternoon burgeoning crowds had accumulated for sunset viewing from the hilltop Phnom Bakheng temple. Instead, I cycled back to a near-deserted Angkor Wat to watch it smoulder crimson in the lowering sun, bringing an end to my alternative day of Angkorian exploration.
♦ The best way to reach Phnom Penh from Siem Reap is by boat – the road is dreadful, so don’t be tempted.
♦ Cost: Tonle Sap Lake Boat (6hrs) – £21.
Khmer Rouge remembered
The morning boat from Siem Reap arrived in Phnom Penh near the Mekong-facing Foreign Correspondents Club (FCC) . I checked into this atmospheric hotel with its famous rooftop bar where expats and visitors mingle for cocktails.
Appropriately, given my day ahead, FCC’s balcony was where war photographer Al Rockoff (played by John Malkovich in The Killing Fields) recorded the arrival of Pol Pot’s murderous Khmer Rouge, who reigned from 1975 to 1979. I agreed a fee of $20 with tuk-tuk driver Peou-Dam for him to take me around.
We went first to Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, where the Khmer Rouge interned political prisoners and tortured them into confessing to being saboteurs or CIA agents. Twenty thousand souls passed through this former school; the classrooms remain partitioned into bleak cells.
The tragic photographs of victims and their forced testaments make for moving viewing. Some 45 minutes away is Choeung-Ek, one of 300 Cambodian killing fields where Pol Pot’s victims were bludgeoned to death and cast into mass graves. If the self-guided audio-tour – narrated by a survivor – is harrowing, the 9,000 skulls of victims stacked inside a stupa left me numb.
Peou-Dam was a teenager during this period. He was sent to a labour camp and lost seven family members. “I left my little sister to go and find food. When I returned, she had disappeared forever.” He was crying now.
Back at FCC, I sat overlooking the Mekong promenade. It was thronging with happy families and couples. It was inspiring to see to how far Cambodia’s come from those dark days, just a generation ago.
♦ Cambodia and Laos have no rail networks. A bus from Phnom Penh through rural north-east Cambodia to Paske, southern Laos, takes 14hrs.
♦ Cost: £18.
At home on the Mekong
Arriving from Cambodia, I found a torpor cradling southern Laos. The arid rice-paddies awaited rain; buffaloes dozed under trees. Here, the Mekong braids its way through the countryside in sinewy channels, creating midstream islands. I’d decided to overnight on Don Daeng Island, near Champasak, at a sustainable tourism community lodge, which I shared with only two other travellers.
The wooden lodge is set within a flower-filled garden. Kham, the administrator, explained that my stay contributed to a village bank fund for the 3,000 islanders: “It’s used for emergency hospital treatment and buying seed and buffaloes.”
It was at Don Daeng that I inadvertently became a Premier League footballer... Between simple meals of sticky rice and garden produce, I strolled insouciantly around this angelic island of rice-paddies and forest, passing through small villages where locals cheerily yelled “Sabaidee!” (Hello!) from hammocks strung beneath their stilted wooden homes.
Sabaidee was the only Laotian word I knew. So, when I stopped at a farmstead shop to devour a 50p bottle of Beer Lao (it’s cheaper than water), I struggled to explain my nationality to the shopkeeper.
Neither “British” nor “English” sufficed; my last attempt was: “Manchester United?”. “Man U!?” he responded excitedly, eyebrows raised. Pointing at me, he demonstrated a kick. “Well, I don’t actually play for them, I…” Too late. He was shouting to his neighbours, who began to appear and join in the pointing, all jabbering “Man U! Man U!”. Before long the whole village would know of the fraudulent superstar in its midst.
♦ The ‘VIP’ bed bus from Pakse (Laos) to Hue (Vietnam) is ideal, if you’re no taller than an elf. The journey takes 11 hours.
♦ Cost: £17
Emperors and comrades
I arrived early in Hue, central Vietnam. Although the country is essentially an authoritarian communist state, Hue’s comrades are far too busy making money from the tourists that flock to the former imperial capital to worry about Ho Chi Minh’s manifesto.
After a French-inspired breakfast of coffee and baguette, I crossed the Perfume River to explore Hue’s moated royal citadel, glad of a cool overcast day. The last royal Nguyen dynasty made Hue its capital from 1802 to 1945; the citadel was completed around 1833. Within its substantial walls lies an incredible window into Vietnam’s extravagant past: temples with red-lacquered wooden pillars, koi carp pools, topiary hedges, palaces. It’s just a fraction of what remains after the American wartime bombing.
With an afternoon spare before my night-train south, I hired a motorcycle and drove through the lush pine forests and rice-paddies of Hue’s southern hinterland. The area is a vast royal necropolis, the most impressive tomb being that of Emperor Khai Dinh. He only reigned from 1916 to 1925 and was unpopular because of his collaboration with colonial France, yet his tomb’s largesse is spellbinding.
Spread over three terraces, his sarcophagus of inlaid ceramics bears his image – full-size, in bronze – protected by a gathering of terracotta soldiers and Mandarin courtesans. It’s almost unthinkable, given Vietnam’s turbulent recent history, that the tomb was completed only 90 short years ago.
♦ The so-called Reunification Express trains unite north and south Vietnam, running Hanoi-Saigon.
♦ Cost: Hue-Nha Trang (11hrs) in Soft Sleeper class – £17.60; Nha Trang-Saigon (7 hrs) in an air-con seat – £6.20.
My train arrived in early, via lovely mountainous coastline, at Nha Trang – Vietnam’s glitziest beach resort. Its 6km-long caramel-sand beach is backed by skyscraper hotels inhabited by so many Russian holidaymakers I wondered if annexation might be on the Kremlin’s agenda? No matter, this was my day to chill after much travelling.
I swam in the South China Sea, ate delicious banh xeo (seafood pancakes) and drank cocktails while watching the sun extinguish. Batteries recharged, the next morning I continued south for Saigon.
Mastering the motorbike
Lesson Number One: learn how to cross Saigon’s roads. Some six million motorcycles swarm this intoxicating city like turbocharged mosquitos. My advice: stand curbside, take a deep breath, stare down your two-wheeled assassins, and then foxtrot, tango or whatever it takes to slip between the gaps. Congratulations, Saigon is yours.
With two days in the city, historic District 1 is a logical place to be based. It has endless restaurants and nightclubs, plenty of cultural attractions (such as the modernist Independence Palace, where the war symbolically ended in 1975) and lashings of French colonial architecture – not least my hotel, the adorable Continental Saigon.
Dating from 1880, this opulent whitewashed colonial gem is Vietnam’s oldest hotel. This was my celebratory end-of-trip treat – I would enjoy breakfast in its atrium courtyard of century-old frangipani trees and pay homage to Room 214, where Graham Greene wrote The Quiet American.
To get a handle on Saigon’s nightlife I decided: if you can’t beat them, join them. American Stephen Mueller runs Vietnam Vespa Adventures and his city tours are undertaken riding pillion on vintage motorcycles. He’s restored 79 of them, some dating from the 1950s. “You haven’t seen Saigon,” he told me, “until you’ve experienced the traffic by motorcycle. That’s when you enter the people’s territory.”
His After Dark tour reaches places visitors would never find, such as a District 4 food market where divine chilli crawfish preceded plates of snails and frog. Water snails are a Mekong Delta delicacy (not French) and, although chewy, went well with the fried morning glory; the deep-fried frog was chicken-like, justifying its local nickname, KFF.
Thereafter we ate street pancakes, drank custard-apple juice and enjoyed a coffee-lounge performance by a singer who warbled like Edith Piaff . We finished by sipping cocktails (that’s why you ride pillion) at a Vietnamese rock club called Acoustic Emotion Talks.
It was a fun denouement to my odyssey, although I suspect some seasoned Indochina travellers might question my choices. Why didn’t I visit the beautiful cities of Luang Prabang or Hoi An? And not a Thai island in sight? Well, my route was a vessel to show what can be enjoyed in two weeks. South-East Asian journeys are as multitudinous as they are exotic. Time to plan your own.
Main image: Buddha ststue in Chiang Mai (Shutterstock)