Some Backpacker Tips for Southeast Asia

I was writing up some notes for a couple of friends who are heading to Cambodia and Southern Vietnam from the backpacking trip Drew and I took to SE Asia a couple years ago (Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand, Hong Kong), so I thought I’d share them here.  Overall, all four places where amazing, I don’t think I would change anything from this trip.   These are just (censored) notes for Cambodia and Vietnam, but I would recommend going to all four places.

In Ho Chi Minh city, we stayed at the Yellow Hostel, which is pretty centrally located to everything and is also near the train and bus station. The hostel was pretty welcoming; we stayed in an 8 person room, but I believe they had smaller rooms on the upper floors. We ended up leaving a day early and cancelling our last night’s reservation, and, although they weren’t very happy, they were accommodating. There are plenty of good places to eat along the street right outside the hostel, although nightlife wasn’t too crazy. One night that we went out we went to the Marriott Hotel bar with a friend of ours who was working there, which had a great view of the city. The drinks were a little pricey, but worth it for the view if you are just going for one or two (but not 8 or 9). There are three other main hotels that also have sky bars, so I know a lot of people try to visit all four. Our last night we ended up going to one of the main clubs, Apocalypse. It was a cool bar, although I’m pretty sure it was all tourists and hookers. The place played some good music and had a small but comforting dance floor. I have no idea where it actually is, but if you tell any cab driver, they know how to get there. If at all possible, I would avoid taking cabs, take the little motorcycle guys instead. They only hold one person, but it is better/quicker than taking a cab, not to mention the ride is pretty exhilerating.

We took a day trip outside of Ho Chi Minh to the Khao Dai temple and the Cu Chi Tunnels. The Khao Dai temple was a quick stop. I’m not quite sure whether it was worth the money, but I liked it. We stopped at the temple during prayer and it reminded me of a Islamic temple, but way more organized. The Cu Chi Tunnels were the highlight of the trip. For us it was cool because it talked about the US/Vietnam war, so it had significance, but even if it didn’t, it was defintiely worth the time and money.  They showed us some of the jungles where the Vietcong would hide, including their tunnels and the traps. You even get to crawl through the tunnels which is insane — you’ll understand when you see how small they are!

Not sure how you are getting into Cambodia, we flew from Phuket, Thailand into Phnom Penh. The airport in Phnom Penh is one of the smallest I’ve seen, but I gotta say, it was kind of cool when we got money from the ATM and it gave it to us in US dollars. That shows you how poor the country is, they don’t even give their own currency. Phnom Penh was good, you can find guesthouses all over. The one we stayed at (can’t remember the name) was in a shady area, but the staff was extremely nice, and they even had a guard at the door, so we felt safe in the hostel. There is quite a bit to do in Phnom Phen, from the palace to temples to parks. There is the main temple which you have to check out, it’s pretty big and has some great archictecture. We were pretty excited to see the national museum, but were disappointed with the result. If you are really a history buff, then I’d say check it out, if not, it’s not that great. I think it was really cheap, so for the price it was fine, it just wasn’t that big or interesting. When in Phnom Penh, you definitely have to check out the Killing Fields and SR21. We took one of the Tuk Tuks (ricksaw with a motor), it’s about 15km outside of the town. It is one of those places that you have to see, but you most likely won’t say anything after you leave, it’s very powerful. Depending on the tuk tuk, you might get dropped off at SR21, which was the torture prison. Walking through this place is pretty sad and disgusting, so I’d make sure you have the stomach for it.

We didn’t really go out in Phnom Penh, mainly stayed around the hostel, but we did get some “happy pizza.” I think it’s some weird loophole, but there are a couple of pizza shops along the canal in the main part of town that have happy pizzas, aka pizzas made with weed baked into them. It’s just like a normal pizza, they have a bunch of different kinds, but an hour later, you ‘ll be feeling it quite nicely. When you order pizza, just make sure to mention “happy”.

I do have to warm you about street crossing. Rules don’t apply here. I know a lot of places are like that, but the cambodians take it to a whole new level. If you try waiting at a crosswalk, good luck! In the beginning, there were a couple times where we definitely stood there for like 5-10 minutes. In Cambodia, you just have to walk. Doesn’t matter if cars or motorcycles are coming, you just go. The trick is to not stop. When you start walking, keep a steady pace, that way the drivers know what you will do and can go around you. Don’t run or stop. You will die. Just kidding…well, maybe. The first couple of time will be really intense, but after a couple times, you’ll get the hang out it. We had so much fun doing it, we crossed the street more than we actualy needed to, hahahaha.

Our other stop was Siem Reap, which is where the Angkor Wat temples are. For those going to Cambodia, you have to go here; Angkor Wat is one of the coolest places I have ever been to! It’s is so serene and peaceful. On our way up there, we took the boat from Phnom Penh. It was about 6 hours and cost more than the bus; if you are strapped for cash, it’s not worth it, but if you can afford it, I’d say boat one way and bus back the other way. Both are worthwhile experiences. At one point, the boat would stop in the middle of the river and little motorboats would swarm at us with little 5 year old kids who spoke better english that I did, who were selling soft drinks and snacks. There are plenty of nice guesthouses to stay at, and the area is a lot safer than Phnom Penh because it is so touristy. Most people get Tuk Tuks to see the temples, but we got advised to just get two motorocycle drivers to take us around, which was definitely the best way to do it. They took us to some very cool temples, even some that were farther away than those on the normal route. Angkor Wat is huge, one thing you need to do is to decide how long you want to stay and how many temples you want to see. We did about a day and a half, and saw all of the main temples. We were going pretty quick and were exhausted, but it was a good tempo. As far as Siem Reap, there is a cool area called Bar street, which is true to it’s name; it’s packed full of bars. We spent all night at Angkor Wat, which was a cool international bar with a lot of young backpackers.  It was actually St Patricks Day when we went there, which we had no idea of until we saw backpackers with green painted faces drinking green beer. It was quite the party drinking buckets of rum and cokes. After we stumbled back to the guesthouse, we ended up drinking with some of the people who worked there. The next morning, we had to head back to Phnom Penh and were super hung over from St Pattys day with a 5 hour bus ride ahead of us. The bus was playing crazy cambodian music, filled with natives, and there were blue curtains over the windows, so it had a eerie blue tint. Were were the only foreigners on the whole bus — I wish I had a picture from the front of the bus with all natives and the Drew and me sitting there looking out of place listening to our ipods. I’m fairly certain the bus was driving down the middle of the street the entire way! I think the driver had the mentality of “I’m bigger than you so get the fuck out of my way.” It was a pretty crazy bus ride back weaving through gigantic potholes and cows crossing or standing in the street.

Overall, Cambodia was one of my top three countries I’ve ever been too. The people there are extremely nice and helpful, and the culture is just so relaxed, particularly considering all they have been through.

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  • When I go back to Southeast Asia this spring – I can’t wait to cross the streets again. Seriously, for those of you who haven’t experienced it, it’s more fun than you’d think.

  • Steve

    Hey, Great article, just finished my Southeast Asia Backpacking trip and im missing it already!

    Check out my blog
    http://www.myalternativelife.net

    For more tips and guides on backpacking in Southeast Asia.

    Thanks

  • Thank you, I have been seeking for facts about this subject for ages and yours is the best I have discovered so far.

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