Two weeks across Thailand and Cambodia
S and I are heading out to Southeast Asia for our honeymoon, and while it will be different places, people, and experiences, it made me nostalgic about the first time I traveled there (circa 2013). In retrospect, I would have taken at least two weeks in each country instead of cramming just days in each, but it is not terrible to have reasons to return.
Before jumping into the itinerary, here are some key do’s and donts’:
Do take advantage of the incredible pricing! Food, transportation, lodging, you name it are significantly cheaper. Where else can you splurge on a 5-star hotel at $40/night and get a well-rounded tasty meal for $2?
Don’t be afraid to counter on pricing whether you’re in a market or negotiating a tuk tuk fare. But be conscious that you’re potentially in a more fortunate financial standpoint and bartering over a few dollars is likely worth more to that person than for you to snag a deal.
Do check Skyscanner/Google Flights for airfares on Thai Smile, Air Asia, and Cambodia Air for inexpensive and quick flights intra-country.
Don’t be afraid to firmly say “no” when approached by people selling goods or offering tuk tuk rides if that’s not what you’re in pursuit of.
Do ask your guesthouse/hotel for excursion recommendations. Both guesthouse stays coordinated inexpensive but comprehensive tours upon arrival.
Don’t be afraid to pack light! It was quite warm the entire trip despite covering different climates. The night markets have great inexpensive finds if you forget to pack anything.
Do get massages! And then, get more! Not only is the quality top notch, we’re talking $10 for 90 minutes.
Don’t feel like you need everything planned out. There are beautiful temples and sacred sites abound, and you are just as likely to come across one walking around as you would on a guided tour.
Thailand (6 days)
Bangkok (2 days): in general, I don’t prefer spending too much time in major cities when I travel. There’s nothing against exploring them and there are always exceptions, but I tend to get a bit overwhelmed. Maybe it’s having lived in NYC for some time, that when I’m away, I am inclined towards a slower if not less congested pace of travel. With that in mind, Bangkok was the shortest stop on the trip but also the easiest to fly into internationally. Some major attractions include Wat Pho (reclining Buddha), the Grand Palace, and their famous night markets (although I’d say skip them in favor of the night markets in other towns if it’s not your only stop). We stayed in backpacker central Khaosan Road, which was pretty crowded but also offered a bountiful array of food stalls along the road. Otherwise, take a gander at the fancier hotels where you can snag the best pricing in comparison to most areas.
Chiang Mai (2 days): if I could this again, I would have extended the time we spent here. Located in Northern Thailand, Chiang Mai offers an array of activities but also has a great center of food and night markets in Old City. From here you can visit an elephant sanctuary (be wary of ones offering elephant rides), take a trek through rice fields and waterfalls, and of course explore more sacred temples. I would have also added an extension to Chiang Rai. Known for the Wat Rong Khun (White Temple), Thailand’s northernmost city contains sprawling mountains and many outdoor activities.
Phuket & Ko Phi Phi Islands (2 days): we flew into Phuket from Chiang Mai and took the ferry over to Phi Phi Islands. This was my least favorite leg of the trip. Tourism can be both a blessing and a curse for developing economies, and in particular to the preservation of nature, the state of the islands was disappointing. Re-developed after the devastating 2004 tsunami, Phi Phi was raging with teenage spring breakers and, a lot of waste. The beaches were beautiful but at every turn one could see the accumulation of garbage and empty cocktail cups. The boats which took us to Maya Beach were crammed full and honestly difficult to avoid being scammed. At many junctures, we were requested to pay additional fees to disembark or be allowed to jump into the water. The experience was just too transactional. I will caveat that I have had friends who have gone and stayed at resorts in Phi Phi with private beaches and had COMPLETELY different and wonderful experiences. So if you do plan on heading out there, I recommend looking into the private options or other islands entirely (see Krabi and Railey Beach).
Cambodia (7 days in Siem Reap)
The week I spent in Siem Reap is definitely one of the best travel experiences I have ever had. It could have been biased because rarely are trips centralized around one area, but the town itself encompassed what I treasure about traveling. While there were obvious signs of tourism, it felt comfortable, familial, and ultimately serene. The people of Siem Reap were among the highlights, kind and welcoming; while the center of town and main road, Pub Street was conveniently lined with bars, restaurants, and fish tanks ready for your feet.
The notoriety of Angkor Wat has spurred fervent tourism throughout Siem Reap. Built during the Khmer Empire in the 12th century, there are over 1,000 temples across 400 km spanning the region beyond the Angkor complex. You need to purchase an Angkor tourist pass, which can be obtained through a tour group or on your own and used across non-consecutive days. We opted to do the individual 3-day temple pass, bicycling the inner route the first day. It’s better to start early to beat the rush and to snag an iconic sunrise photo of the famed Angkor Wat (although you will still be surrounded by hundreds of people). Even though it was the cooler month of November, the heat got progressively more stifling as the day wore on, just as the temples increasingly got more crowded with tourists who took a later start. There are countless unique and impressive temples and grounds to cover, and some of my favorites beyond Angkor Wat include Bayon, Banteay Srei, Ta Prohm (made famous from Tomb Raider), Ta Som, and Kbal Spean.
Not as many tourists venture beyond the temples within Angkor Wat’s proximity. We opted to hire a tuk tuk guide and head out an hour further, passing rice fields along the way. The temples continued to prove their mystique and provide some surprises. One of our favorites was Kbal Spean. Instructed to walk about 40 minutes along a path into the forest, we were a bit confused when we arrived to the sound of waterfalls but no temple in sight. After trudging around, we decided to head back only to be caught up with a guard who was in the area. He waved us over and started pointing towards the water, and from there we got an impromptu tour of Kbal Spean, a riverbed of Hindu carvings. Underneath the water and into the rocks were intricate and preserved carvings of the gods and lingas.
Cambodia is not without a storied past. In 1975, the Khmer Rouge overthrew the government, carrying out the Cambodian Genocide, where ~2 million people (20% of the population) perished during their four year rule. It’s easy to unknowingly get lost in the serenity of the Angkor complex, but three decades of civil war dramatically impacted the people of Cambodia. In surrounding areas, one is recommended to be cautious off road, where landmines are unfortunately still prevalent and dangerous. These books provide insight into the brutality of those times but also highlight the perseverance of the Cambodian people seen in the redevelopment and recovery of today.
Thailand and Cambodia gift much more than gorgeous landmarks and landscapes. They allow you to step back in time and welcome you to better understand their heritage. It’s been some time since I last visited, but I can only hope that the aura of peace continues to be maintained for years to come.