Travel Guide: How to Plan Your Indochina Trip

Traveling across IndochinaThailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam, specifically—has always been my dream. For years, I fancied eating pad thai from the streets of Bangkok; actually running along the stone paths of Angkor Wat; and cruising through Ha Long Bay in Vietnam. Experiencing a new culture is something that always thrills me; with this trail, the excitement becomes threefold. If passport stamps excite you, an adventure like this guarantees 6 new inks. Getting immersed in diverse sceneries, cultures, languages, and even currencies in a matter of days—all these add to the exhilaration. So when a chance presented itself, I did not hesitate to book those plane tickets for what I thought would be a journey of a lifetime.

As the trip drew nearer, I got more excited. At work, all I could think of were temples, beaches, and street parties; I made a big list of everything I wanted to experience. But if planning for one country is hard enough, imagine deciding where to go, what to do, and where to stay in 3 countries. Research is your best friend and worst enemy when it comes to this; while it helps you plan wisely, it also taps deeper into your wanderlust, wanting you to extend your trip, making you even more confused than you were at the start. (Plus many more side effects of seeing stunning travel photos online!)

And while I would love to tell you (and myself) to abandon planning completely and just “go with the flow”, I knew that I, like you, don’t have the luxury of time and money the way those backpackers and nomads do. Yes, I envy the foreigners I meet: those who are traveling for a whole year, and those who have the freedom to work anywhere in the globe. I can probably be like that someday, but right now, I have to settle with maximizing a few precious days of travel—after which, I go back to my regular, boring life.

Creating an itinerary helps you maximize your trips, and as much as I hate sticking to a schedule, trips like Indochina require one. The planning process can really make you crazy, so below I have 6 tips for you guys who haven’t done the Indochina trail yet and who would like to make your own itineraries. I had lots of sleepless nights, 400 Google Chrome tabs, several Excel spreadsheets, and hundreds of downloaded images while doing this—you will do too, but believe me, it’s worth it.

1 | Produce an ambitious list.

Whether you’re traveling for only 9 days or you have the whole month to spend, it’s best to list down all the places you would like to visit on the onset—regardless if it will be doable or not. Do not be constrained with a simple itinerary—it’s not every day that you get to file that long vacation leave! There are countless of itineraries available online, and most of them would contain the same old routes, spots, and activities. Don’t be afraid to wander off a bit and decide that you would also like to take the paths less traveled.

To give you an idea, below was how our itinerary looked like the first time. It was totally a mess—a random roster of destinations which all seemed so appealing. Beaches, waterfalls, cities, bars, tigers, temples, elephants, cooking schools … everything! It doesn’t matter if they are thousands of meters apart—you can deal with that later. Right now, just let your heart and mind wander.

Our initial rough itinerary. We wanted to go everywhere, LOL.

2 | Read blogs or ask traveler friends for “unheard-of” destinations.

With the vast amount of information you will amass in step 1, make room for a bit more and ask tips and advice from travelers and like-minded people. Where’s the best bar strip? Where can I find a rooftop bar with an awesome city view? In which beach can I chill with a book with nobody bothering me? Which temples can be skipped? Do you know a place not yet flocked by tourists? Ask these kinds of questions and your trip will surely surprise you.

Sunset in Otres Beach, Sihanoukville

During my initial listing process, I had missed out Sihanoukville and Koh Rong Beach in Cambodia (stupidly thinking that the country is only about Angkor Wat). But a friend mentioned these places, and after stalking my favorite Instagrammers (@doyoutravel, @the_globbers), I became so obsessed with Cambodia that everything else seemed to pale in comparison. I also asked fellow bloggers Lakad Pilipinas and The Poor Traveler for tips as they have been to these places multiple times. This kind of research—the one from “word of mouth”—can heavily dictate the direction of your trip, just like what happened to mine.

Koh Rong by sundown

Click on the images to learn more about these places:
Other places COMING SOON.

3 | Trim, trim, trim!

Now here comes the difficult part.

From your list of 50 or 60 places, which ones are doable? Which ones can fit the length of your trip? Which ones can be done in half a day, and which demand more time?

For this step, I would like to go deeper and present you with 4 considerations:

a | Priority

Answer this question: what kind of traveler are you? A beach bum? A city discoverer? A thrill seeker? A cultural enthusiast? A foodie? A partygoer? If you’re into culture, then your itinerary would consist mostly of temples and museums. A beach bum? Then for sure you would skip the city’s attractions and head straight to where the sand and the sea are.

I am a mix of all of these, and I think that makes it much harder to plan my trip.

Into cliff jumping? Then you must include Grand Canyon, Chiang Mai in your itinerary.

However, with the help of my friends’ inputs (and many wakeful nights on my part), I managed to trim down my list and selected all the best temples, beaches, and city attractions. I had to cross out the “minor” ones—relying on the thought that I could go back and see them one day, but I have to see the best ones first.

b | Length of Trip

This one is a major consideration, one that could make or break your travel dreams, really. Believe it or not, we only had a total of 9 days for our Indochina trip, but we were able to go to 8 major destinations: Chiang Rai, Chiang Mai, Bangkok, Siem Reap, Sihanoukville, Koh Rong, Phnom Penh, and Ho Chi Minh (you will see 8-day itineraries online with only 4 destinations). It was a balanced mix of temples, nature, city exploration, food, nightlife, and beach. A sampler of this part of Asia.

Sihanoukville, Cambodia

It was the best we could do for a 9-day trip, and believe me, it was hard to cross out other places from the big list. Furthermore, you have to consider actual human capacity (energy gap?) and wallet capacity, which brings me to the next item.

c | Budget

If sky is the limit for your travel budget, then go ahead, book all the hotels you want and try all activities you can think of. However, for normal humans like the rest of us, we are limited by a budget to spend for our 9-day trip.

Obviously, we had to settle for more affordable hotels and hostels, instead of, say, Park Hyatt in Siem Reap. The good thing is, posh hotels and jampacked itineraries do not really mix. Since we are out most of the day, thread counts don’t really matter. I will share the details of all our accommodations in a separate blog post.

Cheap but good (and still Insta-worthy) accommodations. Left: Chiang Mai; right: Siem Reap.

In addition, because of my budget, I had to let go of some pricey activities—like the cooking lessons in Chiang Mai! Oh well, I’m coming back for you, Thailand.

d | Proximity of Desired Spots to Each Other

With a bit of help from Google Maps, or an app like Maps.Me, you can easily plan which places you can see in one go, and which ones require more transit time.

As an example, for our Thailand leg, we had initially wanted to go to Pai, Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, and Bangkok, but the first three are so far north of the capital. Chiang Rai is 4 hours from Chiang Mai, and Chiang Mai is—guess what—9 hours from Bangkok (all by land)! Pai is another 3 hours from Chiang Mai. So we had to choose between Rai and Pai—and in the end, it was Rai’s White Temple that won. We also decided to fly north instead of taking the bus, thereby saving us some travel time.

The winner: White Temple, Chiang Rai. Who wouldn't want to see this architectural marvel?

4 | Book those flights and bus tickets.

Once you have your lists of places figured out, it’s time to book those airline and bus tickets. Do it early, for two reasons: (1) it is cheaper, and (2) your itinerary will AGAIN be adjusted, depending on the availability of your desired transfers. It happened to us—it’s annoying!—and it could happen to you!

at the border of Thailand and Cambodia

Air or land? Make that decision early. Say you want to go from Bangkok to Siem Reap by bus and get there before the border closes (8:00PM). With this info, you obviously need to leave Bangkok early—but then you find out that no buses leave that early on that day! That’s one day lost, guys! Yeah, it sucks!

Giant Ibis. Our spacious and very comfortable bus from Bangkok to Siem Reap.

To avoid this, simply book your transfers early and stick to your itinerary. Below I have listed down some of your transportation options, feel free to book your desired dates:

1. Giant Ibis (highly recommended!) - we booked this luxury bus service for all our transfers across 3 countries. Spacious seats with leg room, Wi-Fi, power outlets, complimentary snacks, and hassle-free transactions in the borders (watch out for the full review soon)
2. Bus Online Ticket - for your trips within Thailand (ex. to Ayutthaya, Chiang Mai, etc.), with options for bus, train, or ferry
3. 12Go Asia - like the above, but with all the available schedules visible in one glance
4. Speed Ferry Cambodia - for transfers from Sihanoukville to Koh Rong and/or Koh Rong Samloem

* We booked our BKK to MNL and HCM to MNL flights via Cebu Pacific. For the Thailand flights (BKK to Chiang Rai, Chiang Mai to BKK), we booked Air Asia.

5 | Based on your itinerary, choose your hotels/hostels.

Naturally, you would want to stay in a hotel that is near—if possible, walkable from—your desired destinations, so once you have your itinerary at least 80% finalized, it’s time to hunt for the best places to stay. Another good idea is to look for hostels near transportation hubs.

Our cute and hipster hostel in Phnom Penh.

For us, we knew we were going to get drunk every day. So logically we had to stay somewhere near Khao San Road, Pub Street, and Pham Ngu Lao, where the nights are alive and seemingly never ending. Allow me to say that the type of traveler you are is also a factor.

6 | Shop for the essentials, and/or borrow stuff from friends.

Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam are generally warm countries, and whether you’re backpacking or dragging a whole luggage, you would want to bring the following:

- a foldable backpack/weekend bag
- comfortable footwear
- sunblock
- a hat/cap
- mosquito repellant (hi, Cambodia!)
- face towels
- a water bottle (Angkor Thom will leave you dehydrated)
- a scarf or light jacket for emergency purposes (it was quite chilly in Chiang Mai)
- powerbanks (plural)
- medicines (our bestfriend, Berocca)
- a waterproof case for your passport, tickets, hotel vouchers, etc.

And most importantly, accessories for your Instagram pegs, HAHAHAHA.

And there you have it! Six tips to keep your sanity while planning your Indochina trip. I hope I was able to share an insight or two, and if you liked what I wrote, please feel free to share among your friends, families, and travel buddies.

My actual itinerary is coming out soon—so keep coming back to my blog! If you have reached this far (despite this one being a lengthy post), thanks a lot for reading!

Have you traveled across these countries? What other tips can you add?

If you like my posts and would love regular updates on travel photos, food finds, restaurant reviews, dance articles, and drunken tales, follow Pepe Samson on Facebook!

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