This was a trip I had dreamed of taking for years. It made me uncomfortable. It made me question a lot of things about myself. It made me step out of my comfort zone. I met so many amazing people and took part in so many adventures I never would have done on my own. Southeast Asia is a backpacker’s paradise.
Bangkok & Chiang Mai, Thailand
Bangkok was the most insane city I ever visited. It was loud and busy and smelly, but I reveled in the chaos for the days I was there before escaping to the much calmer Chiang Mai. While still a large city, Chiang Mai was laid back and almost masked the hustle and bustle going on around us.
I stayed at Jam Hostel ($10US/night), located only 2 or 3 blocks from the legendary backpacker hotspot of Khao San Road and on the banks of one of Bangkok’s many canals. I LOVE a hostel that has full privacy curtains and large lockers that fit my entire backpack, so this place was perfect. The back patio/common room area was perfect for enjoying your morning tea/coffee (and free brekkie!) and hanging out, drinking, and playing cards until the wee hours of the morning. The staff was fantastic and there were almost always multiple activities and day trips that you could take with a group from the hostel.
I literally booked my hostel as our night train arrived at the station at 7am, so I ended up joining my friend at Hug Hostel Rooftop ($6US/night). There was a ton of space in the rooms and lots of bathrooms, which was VERY convenient since it is a relatively large hostel. On the roof they have a bar with an amazing view over Chiang Mai and the mountain, making it the perfect sunset spot (plus, they have a KILLER happy hour, so don’t start pregaming before heading up there).
- Visit the beautiful temples
- Wat Pho (we also got free noodle soup here! #backpackerbudget)
- Wat Arun
- Wat Bon Bon
- Take a river cruise AND a canal cruise
- For the river cruise, you can take the expensive tourist boat/ferry (like we did), which costs ฿100 for a 1-day ticket and stops at all the major tourist spots, or the local boats which are MUCH cheaper at ฿10-20 per trip.
- Try to also take a canal cruise that brings you through some of the more local areas of Bangkok. We took one from Wat Takien and ended at Wat Bon Bon, which was ฿30/person for a one-hour ride.
- Spend some time on Khao San Road. It’s…an experience. Eat some street food, haggle and shop at some of the endless number of shops that exist every foot or so, snack on some bugs #forthegram, and just take it all in.
- Day trip to Ayutthaya (3hrs via train)
- Former Siamese capital destroyed in 1750s by the Burmese
- Pro tip: opt for the local train if you’re on a tight budget. It costs only ฿15 ($0.30)!
- Magnificent ruins that you can explore
- Rent a bicycle or motorbike to go at your own pace.
- Spend a day at an elephant sanctuary, just make sure it is ETHICAL.
- Do your research on the place you want to visit and make sure that they are truly being taken care of, not ridden, or made to perform tricks.
- I chose Elephant Nature Park, more specifically the Karen Elephant Retreat (one of ENP’s “Saddle-Off programs”). It was ฿2500 ($80US), and it included transportation to and from the park and a wonderful buffet lunch with unlimited filtered water.
- More temples!
- Wat Chedi Luang
- Wat Phan Tao
- Wat Phra Singh
- Wat Chiang Mun
- Chiang Mai Historical Center
- Learn all about the local and ethnic history of Northern Thailand. This museum costs ฿90.
- Watch a ladyboy cabaret show.
- The performance blew my mind. We went to Chiang Mai Cabaret and paid ฿300 per ticket, which includes a beer, but you also MUST tip your waitress and preferably the performers as well. They work incredibly hard and put on an outstanding show.
- Wander through the Chiang Mai Night Market.
How to Get Around
It depends on where in the city you are. If you’re staying in the older part of the city, your best bet is to take Grabs since they’re SO cheap and you get to hang out in aircon. If you’re in an area where BTS (train) runs, then that is also an option. Be weary of taking taxis and if you must use them, make sure the meter is on!
Chiang Mai is a very walkable and pedestrian friendly city. Walk where you can to take in the random sights you’ll stumble across, but Grab is also another cheap option as well.
Chiang Mai & Pai, Thailand & Ha Long Bay, Vietnam
I could have stayed in Pai for WEEKS–there’s a reason they say some people fall into the Pai hole. Sleepy, chill, laid back, whatever you want to call it. It was a tucked away mountainous paradise. Similarly, Ha Long Bay was also seemingly tucked away and rather empty during the time I visited, so it made the beautiful views even easier to appreciate.
I absolutely ADORED my stay at Common Grounds Pai ($9US/night). The rooms are super spacious with massive beds, the bathrooms are kept clean (spare the geckos that hang out with you while you shower), and the staff is wonderful. The best part? They have dogs!
The common area/bar/reception is super chilled out with hammocks and pillows scattered around to lounge in while nursing your hangover from the previous night’s pub crawl. They usually have some sort of activity planned for the day that you can take part in, such as visiting Pai Canyon, the Bamboo Bridge, or going up the mountain for sunset.
Ha Long Bay
I visited Ha Long Bay on the Ha Long Hideaway Tour that is run through Hanoi Central Backpacker’s Hostel. You get to stay on a private island with ALL meals included for 1 or 2 nights. You get to hike, bike, kayak, swim, skinny dip, and try to keep away from the monkey that lives there. You get to cruise through Ha Long Bay on a booze cruise, the staff is wonderful, and the views just steps out your door are unbelievable.
- Walk the heck around
- Watch the sunset from up in the mountains
- Visit Two Huts for a beer, a jump in the pool, and a rooftop sunset view over the rolling hills of Northern Thailand
- Explore the waterfalls around the area
- Pai Canyon
- It’s said to be Thailand’s Grand Canyon! It’s super popular at sunset as well.
- Bamboo Bridge
- It was built over rice paddies to allow monks to walk to the Bamboo Temple found nestled in the rice paddies, and is now a lovely place to stroll through and enjoy a pineapple shake on the nets at the bar!
- Watch. Every. Sunset.
Ha Long Bay
- Kayak through the limestone cliffs
- Jump off the boat and swim in one of the most beautiful places in the world
- Hike along Cat Ba, reaching viewpoints overlooking the bay
How to Get Around
You should really rent a motorbike or make friends with someone who has/can drive a motorbike. If I had one regret of this trip, it was not learning to ride, since it really restricts what you can do, especially in Pai since it’s so remote.
Ha Long Bay
Well, you won’t get very far without a boat!
Hanoi & Tam Coc, Vietnam
Notice I mentioned how Bangkok WAS the most chaotic city I had ever visited–up until I landed in Hanoi. I was not impressed at first, though the city definitely grew on me after staying there a few days. It was more busy and insane than anything I had ever experienced–I’ve never been afraid of crossing the road before arriving! It took me very far outside of my comfort zone, but I really ended up enjoying it before moving on to Tam Coc, located in the Ninh Binh region. Tam Coc was similarly sleepy to Pai, but with more neon lights and empty hotels. It looked like it was actually built up for tourism purposes. Thankfully, the sights to see in the region were almost second to none.
I’m very glad I forked over a little extra money to stay at the posh Little Charm Hanoi Hostel ($6US/night). Not only did it include an awesome breakfast, but the beds were spacious, linens were changed every day, and there was a stunning indoor pool!
When I visited, Banana Tree Hostel ($6US/night) had only been open a few months, which was SHOCKING because of how well together the place was put together. Designed almost like a resort, the rooms are slightly cramped but honestly, most time was spent outside in their killer patio/pool/restaurant area. They have bicycles and motorbikes to rent on-site, which was SO convenient!
- Take a boat tour!
- The Ninh Binh region is known for the tourist boat rides in Tam Coc and Trang An, and honestly–the Trang An tour was so cool! It lasted 2-3 hours and took us through numerous caves and up to remote temples tucked into the hills and forest surrounding the park.
- Bai Dinh Pagoda and Temple Complex
- Though not historically significant, the temples and pagodas throughout the complex are magnificent and we had almost the entire place to ourselves!
- Go on a walking tour
- Hanoi is insanity and it’s honestly REALLY difficult to handle at first. Taking the walking tour made me feel so much more comfortable with the city.
- Visit the Vietnamese Women’s Museum
- Really cool exhibits, especially on women’s involvement in the Vietnam War. Interesting stuff to learn about that we never would hear about in the US.
- Walk through the Hoa Lo Prison Memorial.
- Read through the exhibits and really understand how awful conditions were here, and how the communist party was formed.
- Have a coffee at a cafe on the famous Hanoi Train Street.
- The street was recently closed to tourists, but if you’re a customer of one of the cafes you’re able to sit around and wait for the train to pass/
- Be sure to check the train schedule ahead to make sure you see it!
How to Get Around
Just use Grab. It’s the easiest and safest route to go! Crossing the street can be very intimidating, so walking can be difficult outside (and even inside) the main tourist zone.
Renting a motorbike is the best way to explore this mountainous region! Luckily I made a friend who knew how to ride so we were able to explore SO much more that way.
Koh Phi Phi, & Koh Lanta, Thailand
Koh Phi Phi is the backpacker party central of southern Thailand. Since everything is so compact on the island, it seemed much busier than it actually was until you were able to escape the crowds and explore on your own. Koh Lanta on the other hand…blew me away! Virtually empty, the island was perfect for vegging out on the beach with a drink in hand.
Koh Phi Phi
Phi Phi is a party island, so it can be difficult for backpackers to find a place where they can get a proper night’s rest. I stayed at Voyager’s Hostel ($17US/night), which is steps from the beach parties but offers a quiet place to sleep when you get back. It’s a bit of a walk from the main area off of the pier, so the foot traffic isn’t quite as heavy but there are still tons of great food options.
I fell in LOVE with Koh Lanta, thanks in part to staying at Blanco Hostel @ Lanta ($11US/night). The staff is phenomenal and the place is just SO chilled out. Plus, it’s just down the road from the beach so you can bum out for the morning before heading back to grab a bite to eat! They also offer shuttle services from the pier, which is super convenient because the taxis and tuktuks are incredibly aggressive, and the ferry company will also hound you to use one of their rides.
Koh Phi Phi
- Boat tour of the island
- A must! I recommend doing the Blanco Boat Party, as it just takes you around the 2 Phi Phi islands and allows you to stop for up to an hour to snorkel and explore. The tour starts in the afternoon, so most places you end up having almost to yourself! The best part was the killer sunset we experienced as we were heading back to the pier.
- Walk along the beach and find some hidden gems
- Go on a snorkeling tour
- The marine life in the surrounding area is stunning!
- Stroll along the beach once the sun goes down for some of the most epic parties I’ve ever seen.
- We’re talking fire dancing, limbo, and tons of other sick activities to take part in.
- Explore the beaches around the island.
- Lanta is known for being very chill and laid back, so hanging out on the beach was the best thing I did honestly.
- Tons of beaches to be found–rent a motorbike or catch a tuktuk!
- Koh Lanta Night Market
- Just off of the pier, there is a daily night market to do some shopping or try some of the food options available like kebab, Mexican, roti, etc.
- Visit or volunteer at Lanta Animal Welfare and see some adorable cats and dogs up for adoption!
- Go on a tour to Koh Rok and Koh Ha.
- Some of the bluest and most pristine beaches and water I’ve ever swum in–it is literal Gatorade water
- I HIGHLY recommend the Sunset Adventure put on by Blanco @ Lanta. We had a fantastic day!
How to Get Around
Koh Phi Phi
The only mode of transportation on Phi Phi is by foot, so get ready to walk! You can also take water taxis to other parts of the island, but walking is cheaper and more fun!
It would be a great idea to rent a motorbike on Lanta, since the island is so large. Tuktuks are everywhere though, so if you’re looking to go far or don’t want to walk, just flag one down and haggle a price.
Koh Lanta & Ao Nang, Thailand
I wish I had been able to enjoy the Krabi area more, but I was down for the count with some nasty food poisoning. If I were to visit again, I think I would prefer to stay in Railay, as Ao Nang was just too resort-y for my liking.
Bodega Ao Nang ($11US/night) was a great mix of party and chill at the same time. The beds were probably the comfiest I slept on during my entire trip which was everything I needed after 5 weeks of backpacking. The AC even worked fantastic! I couldn’t have been happier. They have activities available through the hostel during the day and have games and parties in the evening after sunset which most people seemed to take part in. Just don’t dive into the pool!
- Railay Beach
- SO picturesque and absolutely stunning
- Visit more islands!
- There is no shortage of islands to visit in the area surrounding Ao Nang and Krabi, so hop on a tour or hire a longboat to bring you around and see some stunning views.
- Rock climbing and hiking are also popular (albeit sometimes dangerous) activities in Ao Nang, so have a chat with some folks at your hostel and find out the best spots to hit up.
- Catch the sunset.
- You’re in one of the most beautiful coastal areas in the world–get down to the beach and watch the fiery ball sink into the horizon.
How to Get Around
In Ao Nang itself, it’s very easy to walk to most places. Beware that Grab is VERY expensive, so you may be better off trying to get a tuktuk or a taxi!