The plan was to backpack across 4 countries in Southeast Asia: Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. It is far from the unfamiliar route since there are many who have done it. But the question for us that time was, will backpacking Indochina and crossing borders be easy for a bunch of Filipino passport holders?
We started with 2 heads in the group that eventually became four and finally, five. Backtracking to over 8 months ago, I recall the early morning wake up calls to check airline promo fares. (I believe that booking flights before dawn is your best chance to get the lowest rates.) Luckily, we were able to book a Manila to Bangkok route at 2000 pesos per person for January 2017. Then after 2 months or so, we booked a Ho Chi Minh to Manila flight at around the same price.
After booking the return flights, we came up with a final route:
Manila – Bangkok – Vientiane – Bangkok – Siem Reap – Ho Chi Minh – Manila
4 cities, 4 countries in 9 days and 8 nights.
Some important points to mind before you read on further:
This post outlines the details of our route, from which buses or trains to take, to crossing borders and getting past the immigration. I will also share a few resources that we found helpful.
Itineraries/activities for each country were published as separate posts. Click on the links below to read further details.
If you are planning to backpack across these countries, I hope that you find this guide helpful. Ready? 🙂
BACKPACKING INDOCHINA: CROSSING BORDERS
1 | Bangkok, Thailand to Vientiane, Laos
Our arrival in Bangkok was on a Sunday midnight. Buses and trains were no longer available and we didn’t have a choice but to take a taxi from Suvarnabhumi airport to our hostel. We paid 700 baht for the taxi fare. A bit pricey, but it was a standard rate for taxis coming from the airport.
Tip: While in Bangkok, take the train or bus as much as you can. These are cheaper compared to taking taxis and tuk-tuks. You can hire a tuktuk for a city tour but in going around different places to eat or shop or diy tours, take the train or bus instead.
Getting to the Laos Border
You need to reach Nong Khai, a province in the Northeastern region of Thailand that is very near the Mekong river and the Thailand-Laos Friendship bridge. There are several options to get to the border:
- Take the train or a sleeper bus to Vientiane for super long hours or
- Fly for 1 hour from Bangkok to Udon Thani
We chose the latter option to save on travel time. Our return flights were booked with Thai Lion Air from Don Mueang Airport to Udon Thani. Don’t get confused, there are actually two airports in Bangkok. While Suvarnabhumi is more favorable because it is closer to the tourist spots, Don Mueang is where we found cheaper flights to Udon Thani. Apparently, flying within Thailand is relatively cheap.
We stayed at Loftel 22 near Chinatown and Hua Lamphong station which made transporting to Don Mueang very convenient. We only needed to take one train ride to get to Don Mueang airport and for only 20 baht! From Don Mueang railway station there is already a connecting ramp to the airport.
At Udon Thani Airport you can book a shuttle ride (private vans) to get to Nong Khai and have your passports stamped out of Thailand. The rent is quite pricey, though we were not sure then if there were other transport options. After an hour or so you will alight at the border to submit your filled-out departure cards and get your passports stamped.
After you get your passports stamped, you need to take a bus ride this time for 2-3 hours. This bus will cross the Thailand-Laos Friendship bridge to get you to the Laos border. Remember to keep your arrival/departure cards because these will be surrendered at the next immigration check.
Tip: The Laos border closes at 10pm but better make sure you arrive earlier.
2 | Vientiane, Laos to Bangkok, Thailand
To transfer to Cambodia, our third country on the list, we had to go back to Bangkok. Unlike the earlier route, there are already buses that ply directly from the main bus terminal in Vientiane to Nong Khai and Udon Thani. They stop at Nong Khai for Passport Control then resumes the journey to Udon Thani.
If you still have time, try to roam around Udon Thani or visit Chaloem Phra Kiat Park or Nong Bua Lake and the Chinese-Thai Cultural Center before heading to the airport.
Related: Backpacking Indochina: Vientiane, Laos
3 | Bangkok, Thailand to Siem Reap, Cambodia
We had an overnight stay in Bangkok before heading to Siem Reap, but we didn’t book an accommodation to save money. The plan was to wait at Hua Lamphong train station but we decided to explore Bangkok’s nightlife and so we found ourselves aaaaat, Soi Nana, ladies and gentlemen, which is apparently, they say, the world’s largest adult playground. I have to hold you off a bit here but you can read more about our escapades in Bangkok by clicking the link.
We were at Hua Lamphong train station at around 2 AM and found this scene:
Tip: There is a baggage counter called “Left Luggage” at the Hua Lamphong train station in Bangkok. They open at 4 AM until 11 PM daily.
Getting to the Cambodian border
The train tickets from Hua Lamphong to Aranyaprathet station- the station closest to the Cambodian border were sold for only 48 baht per person. We can’t believe 48 baht or 70 pesos can already take us to another country!
The ride takes about 6 hours to Aranyaprathet. Our train left Hua Lamphong station at 6 AM and arrived at Aranyaprathet at a little past eleven. From there you need a tuk-tuk ride to take you to the border crossing into Cambodia.
The tuk-tuk ride takes only around 10 minutes. You alight a few meters away from the Cambodian welcome arch. But first, you get your passports stamped at the Thailand border. Just follow the signs with “Passport Control.”
A few blocks beyond the welcome arch is the Cambodian immigration office. This is where you get your passports stamped upon entering the Kingdom of Cambodia.
The Poipet Tourist Passenger International Terminal
Outside the immigration office, there will be uniformed individuals that will approach you and direct you to a free ride going to Poipet Tourist Passenger International Terminal. We took the offer and knew it was a mistake however official-sounding the drop-off point was. Why? Because once at the terminal there will be no other transportation option to get to Siem Reap but expensive private vans. The location was also far from the highway and other bus terminals.
We booked the private van and the driver also came ready with a few ideas in mind.
1) We stopped at one convenience store on the way to Siem Reap and we were almost scammed by the store owner. The scam entailed getting a “free” sim card but when the lady installs it on your mobile phone you have to pay $15 for the top-up. I can only assume these drivers get a commission for every “successful” transaction.
2) We were not dropped at the bus station in Siem Reap but in some random street with lots of tuk-tuk drivers waiting. They offered us a free ride to our hostel. What’s up with the free rides and stuff? We politely declined and walked away.
Tip: Do not fall prey to “tourism officials” that will offer you a free shuttle ride to Poipet Tourist Passenger International Terminal. Once at the terminal you will be offered a private van ride to Siem Reap and I tell you their rates are no joke. Even the money exchange shop was suspicious because the rates were awfully low.
The entire experience upon entering Cambodia and meeting its aggressive tuk-tuk drivers was quite overwhelming but out of the four countries we visited, it’s Cambodia that I would gladly come back to.
4 | Siem Reap, Cambodia to Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam
We have originally planned to stop at Phnom Penh, but we were afraid our funds were becoming insufficient. We decided to scrap it off the list and instead went directly to Ho Chi Minh.
From Siem Reap it will take 11 – 14 hours to get to Ho Chi Minh by bus. We booked a sleeper bus for $14 but don’t make the same mistake, you can buy tickets for $8 if you buy at Siem Reap’s main bus terminal. You can also choose from various types of non/sleeper buses there.
TIP: When you buy your bus tickets, verify if you are going to change buses in Phnom Penh or at the border. Ask for details. Things are easy to get lost in translation because of the language barrier.
Getting to the Vietnam border
We left Siem Reap at almost 11 PM. It was a sleeper bus alright, but at around 5 AM we were awoken by the bus staff and we’re asked to alight. It turns out we were going to change buses in Phnom Penh. We were asked to wait for more than one hour at a makeshift office by the sidewalk.
Things got more confusing when the bus company staff asked the passengers to take a tuk-tuk or a van that will bring us to the next bus terminal. They took us by groups. Other passengers that we’re with on the bus that night were left. You have to remember that the bus staff is not good English speakers and it is difficult for them to explain things in detail. We waited a few more minutes then the new bus finally arrived.
TIP: Remember to keep your valuables close even when you sleep at the bus. A solo female traveler woke up to find out that her phone was missing. 🙁
There will be further stops along the way to Ho Chi Minh. We alighted at some points to get our passports stamped and our backpacks scanned. After around 6 hours we finally arrived in Vietnam.
Ho Chi Minh was a breath of fresh air. Despite what people say about the traffic and its motorcycles, I thought it felt closest to home. Check out our itinerary in Ho Chi Minh.
Related: Backpacking Indochina: Ho Chi Minh
Still there? Lengthy post, I know. But there are questions that still need answers. LOL.
Was it easy?
Backpacking Indochina in 9 days proved to be very exhausting and thrilling at the same time. If you want to experience how constant city or country backpacking feels like, then I think this kind of trip will give you a good glimpse of how it is.
Strangely enough, it seems the Indochina route is not so popular among fellow Asians. The other travelers we encountered on the road were mostly Americans, Europeans, and Australians. The Chinese community also makes up a significant number of tourists however they go on hosted tours in big groups. As for Filipinos, I think we only bumped into 2 or 3 during the whole trip.
In terms of getting past the borders, I’d say it was fairly easy for us. The immigration officer at NAIA was more strict than the others we went through in the four countries. Filipinos are visa-exempted in most countries in southeast Asia and that helped a lot. But remember that there are rules in every border that you have to adhere to or you risk being held there for a day or two.
Do you need a lot of money to pull this off?
The answer largely depends on which type of a traveler you are. To give you an idea, here is a summary (and estimates) of our expenses per head in this trip. Note that I did not include the expenses on food and other personal stuff.
- Airfare (Manila to Bangkok, Ho Chi Minh to Manila, & Bangkok to Udon Thani and v.v.) – Php6,900
- Transportation (buses, trains, taxis, tuk-tuks, packaged tours) – Php5,000
- Accommodation (1 night in Vientiane and Siem Reap, and 2 nights in Bangkok and Ho Chi Minh) – Php2,000
Add in the travel tax at NAIA and minimal entrance fees/tickets for the temples/tunnels you roughly get Php15,000 – Php16,000.
In our case, the big bulk of the budget was spent on transportation. I say the budget will depend on you because the accommodations, mode of transport, where and what to eat will all be based on your preference. Some travelers prefer to spend more on accommodations while some others spend much on food.
Exchanging money abroad VS. withdrawing at a local ATM
There are a lot of resources out there about backpacking Indochina; blog posts and Facebook posts helped us a lot. (Huge thanks to DIY!) But tips regarding finances and how to handle your money if you are constantly jumping from one country with a different currency to another are hard to come by. So here I’ll try to give our future travelers a tip or two.
There are three options:
- Exchange your Philippine Peso upon your arrival in the city
- Buy USD before your trip and exchange your USD upon your arrival in the city
- Withdraw money in local ATMs
Let’s talk about the Peso and USD first.
Most of the countries in southeast Asia can accept dollar payments. Though some tourist guides, like the one we met in Cambodia advised us to pay merchants in the local currency because he said you tend to spend more if you pay in dollars.
Obviously, exchanging USD to the local currency is the better option than to exchange from our Philippine Peso. Most of the time, the money exchange shops use the exact dollar exchange rate as opposed to our peso.
For example, when we exchanged our peso in Siem Reap, instead of receiving the full amount shown in our currency apps, we only received half the amount. It’s because the selling rate is way lower in some countries. Simply put, there is possibility that you lose half the value of your money when you exchange your peso. And it’s a totally different case when you exchange your dollars.
How about if you withdraw your money abroad?
When you withdraw at a local ATM, your money is already converted to the local currency and you are only charged of transaction fees by your bank and the bank that you are using abroad.
Transaction fees vary per bank. Mine was Metrobank and I was charged USD1 per balance inquiry and USD3.50 for every withdrawal. My companions were with BDO and BPI and they said these banks charged higher.
TIP: It is important that you inform your bank of your trip details and that you intend to use your card abroad. Ask them to activate your account so that you are allowed to do international transactions.
Others in our group got their accounts flagged for suspicious activity after withdrawing at 2 – 3 different countries in less than a week and that resulted in having their accounts put on hold. If this happens you will no longer be able to withdraw funds until you call your bank and verify.
It was in the later part of the trip that we realized it is better to hold just enough cash to pay for transportation and airport fees then use your ATM card to withdraw funds abroad. We went for this option too late in the trip but we thought it was more practical.
TIP: Consider pooling your group money in one bank account then split the transaction fees when you withdraw abroad. You can still save money that way. BUT, compare the best bank to put your money in. Take note of the charges.
Where to stay?
If you are traveling on a budget, then consider hostels. We usually stay in a city overnight except for Bangkok and Ho Chi Minh and some other nights were spent on the road traveling. For the accommodations, we chose simple and basic hostels with prices ranging from Php150 – Php300 a night.
- Bangkok: Loftel 22 Hostel – Php300/night
- Vientiane: Dream Home Hostel – Php250/night
- Siem Reap: Sok San Hostel – Php180/night
- Ho Chi Minh: Saigon 237 Hotel – Php300/night
We booked these ahead of our trip to avoid the hassle. I’ve always used Agoda for booking my accommodations here in the Philippines or abroad. You can find a wide list of varying accommodation types in their website.
OTHER TRAVEL TIPS
1 | Favor trains, buses and walking over taxis and tuk-tuks
Trains and buses are still the cheapest modes of transportation, of course besides walking. There are train maps readily available in airports in Thailand and your hostel receptionist can help you with which buses to take. Scooters are also common in these countries while bicycles can be rented for 4 USD a day in Siem Reap.
2 | Only bring what you can carry
Do yourself a favor and resist from buying an overly large backpack or carrying more than you need. Lugging around an 8-kilo backpack is no fun. Trust me, I’m barely 5 feet and I carried an 8-kilo backpack on the road and that became heavier as we went. I came back home to Manila with a 9-kilo backpack and I swear I will not do that again! LOL. You can buy shirts at 1USD in Cambodia if you ran out of clothes to wear.
Other important stuff to bring are electronic copies of your documents especially your passport, padlock & keys, sunblock, insect repellent, caps or anything to cover you from the heat and light clothes.
At the NAIA terminal, we were asked for our company IDs, certificate of employment, return tickets and a printed copy of our itinerary. Also be ready with your document to prove that you already have a hostel reservation in the country that you are visiting.
3 | Bargain, haggle, make tawad
It works pretty much the same in these countries. If you are a tourist, you will be charged higher for a tour. They will try to sell you souvenirs at double the prices but the good news is, you can always try to bargain. You know the “walking-away-with-the-look-of-regret” style works in these countries too!
4 | Resources and other helpful apps to download
Skyscanner – This app allows you to see all the available flights for a certain route and schedule. You simply input your destination and preferred dates then Skyscanner will show you all available flights on the day you have chosen with its corresponding airfares. We use this mainly to check different airline rates and to book the cheapest flight.
Seat61 – This site is inarguably, in my opinion, the best and most detailed site for train and ferry information worldwide. We used this extensively when we planned our routes in our Indochina trip.
Tripadvisor – The site is a great source of information for anything travel-related. You can find hotel reviews here as well as reviews on restaurants and tours. We also found tips on crossing borders here and we were warned of the dangers when riding the night bus to Vietnam (read: pickpockets and harassment). The site also gathers information on hotel rates from various booking sites, it has become a one-stop shop when choosing your accommodation.
DIY Travel Philippines – It’s a closed group on Facebook with thousands of members with one interest: traveling. It has become a treasure trove of information with majority of its members sharing their travel experiences all over the globe.
XE Currency – An app for checking exchange rates and money conversion. I have been using this ever since I started traveling in our nearby neighbors in Asia.
Maps.me – We relied heavily on this app in navigating the cities we have visited. It was very helpful in finding our hostels, in our DIY city tours and a lot others. It’s free to download and the other best thing about it is that it works even when you’re offline. Just make sure to download the maps that you need when you have internet then simply turn on your GPS when you need to find your way.
Klook – Another app that we have discovered later in the trip was Klook. It’s an app where you can buy tickets to popular attractions, activities, and other travel experiences at discounted prices. You can even rent a pocket wi-fi with them.
4 | Choose to travel in good company
I have been dreaming of this trip for over 5 years. The preparation was no easy feat. I also have to admit the doubts I had about pulling this off months before the trip but the good thing was, I went with good company. With a small group of people that I handpicked and invited to join, or simply, people that I trust. If traveling solo is not an option, remember to choose the people that you travel with because it can make or break your relationships.
There you go! Done! You’ve finished it to the end. Thank you for reading! I think you’re all set and ready to go. 🙂
I hope that the information I shared has helped you in planning your trip.
Thank you for reading.
To make this post shorter, I’ve decided to write separate entries of our itinerary in each country. Check out the posts here:
1st Stop – Bangkok in Less than 48 Hours
Things to do in Vientiane in 1 Day
Siem Reap: A City You’ll Love and Hate
Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam
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