Backpacking Indochina Travel Guide: Where to Go, What to Eat and What to Do

Sunrise at Angkor Wat

Sunrise at Angkor Wat

The world is not in your books and maps. It’s out there. – Gandalf the Grey

April 11-19, 2014

“Indochina? Indonesia and China?” I always get this response whenever I tell my friends that I am going to Indochina. Saying Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam in one is already hard but explaining what Indochina is, is even harder.

So what does Indochina mean? Or rather, where in the world is Indochina???

The term Indochina was derived for the term French Indochina, a combination of India and China, which refers to the territories/lands between these two countries. Other countries included are: Singapore, Malaysia, Laos and Myanmar.

Now, why did I decide to visit these Southeast Asian countries when I could have enjoyed the spring in Korea or cherry blossoms in Japan? Simple. Because of the rich culture and tradition of these countries. Because of the endless adventures that I knew awaits me there. Because I knew that upon returning from this trip, I will be a different person – made better by the long hours of travel without having a proper meal and carefree transportation; more appreciative of what life I have back home; and wiser with the many lessons I have learned from the people I met on my journey.

Let me share now a snapshot of my Indochina adventure with Travel Factor. The detailed posts per city/day will be posted soon. For now, eto muna.🙂

 

BANGKOK, THAILAND

Bangkok is the capital city of Thailand. It is the center of Thailand’s political, economic and cultural activities. Bangkok remains to be the backpacking capital of Southeast Asia.

Must-see

The Grand Palace. It is a complex of buildings and temples located at the heart of Bangkok. The complex used to house the Kings of Siam (Thailand), his courts and royal government. It now holds royal ceremonies and serves as a museum.

One of the temples inside the Grand Palace

One of the temples inside the Grand Palace

Wat Pho. This Buddhist temple is known for having the Giant Reclining Buddha. Aside from the giant Buddha, it holds one thousand other Buddha images. There are also 108 bronze bowls indicating 108 auspicious characters of Buddha which are lined up inside the temple. Guests must remove their footwear when entering this sacred place.

The Giant Reclining Buddha

The Giant Reclining Buddha

Ayutthaya. Another remarkable place that wanderers should never miss. This UNESCO World Heritage boasts ruins of the old Siamese Kingdom with temples and buddha statues depicting the influence of Theravada Buddhism. I am sad for missing this part of Thailand but I promise to see it next time.

Must-eat

Pad Thai. This is probably the Thai dish I had been raving for to eat in Bangkok. I loved pad Thai from the first time I tasted it at Banana Leaf. It is a stir-fried rice noodle dish usually cooked by stir-frying dried noodles with egg, tofu, tamarind pulp, garrum, dried shrimp, garlic, red chili pepper, palm sugar, roasted peanuts and bean sprouts. You have an option to add eggs, chicken or shrimp to add flavor and taste.

Pad Thai from one of the steet carts in Khao San road.

Pad Thai from one of the steet carts in Khao San road.

Thai Grilled Pork on Skewers. This super cheap and tender bbq is probably the best-tasting pork bbq ever! The tenderness of the meat, the sweetness of the flavor and that extra char-grilled hint made this bbq one of my favorite Thai street food.

Grilld pork skewers for 10 baht

Grilled pork on skewers for 10 baht.

Thai Milk Tea (cha-yen). There’s something about the thai milk tea that appeals so well with my taste buds. It is made from brewed Ceylon tea with orange blossom water, star anise and crushed tamarind seed. Best served with lots of ice and evaporated or condensed milk.

Must-try

Ride a Tuktuk. Tuktuk is one of Thailand’s main public transportation aside from trains and buses. This is a smaller version of jeepneys and a bigger version of tricycles in the Philippines. It is a comfortable ride that allows you a clear view of the streets and landmarks you pass by.

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Aside from Thailand, tuktuks are also popular in Cambodia.

Thai Massage. Traveling around Bangkok involves a lot of walking under the scorching sun while haggling with souvenir vendors and taking snapshots of temples. A nice way to cap off a long and tiring day is getting the popular Thai massage. Massage parlors are scattered around Bangkok with rates ranging from 100 baht and up.

Songkran Festival. If you want to experience non-stop partying for 3 consecutive days, try visiting during the Songkran Festival (April 13-15). Songkran is a traditional Thai New Year celebration where people throw water and put talc powder to another person to wash away the bad luck. I guess this is one of the rare occasions when soaking other people wet will not cause any trouble.

Crazy crowed during the Songkran festival

Crazy crowd during the Songkran festival

 

SIEM REAP, CAMBODIA

Siem Reap is more commonly known as the gateway to the Angkor region. It is getting a lot of buzz around the globe, thanks to the world-renowned Angkor Wat. It has become a popular tourist destination which resulted to a large number of hotels, resorts, restaurants and other business establishments catering mostly to tourists.

Must-see

Angkor Heritage Park. The Angkor region contains some of the most important archaeological remains of the Khmer Empire. The park, which is considered a UNESCO World Heritage site, has the renowned Temple of Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom, the Bayon temple and Ta Prohm.

Where the past and present meet.

Where the past and present meet.

Pub street. If you are looking for some relaxation while enjoying the popular Angkor beer, then you should try visiting the Pub Street. It is located adjacent to the Night Market and is surrounded by different types of bars and drinking places offering traditional Khmer food and drinks and international dishes and booze.

Pub street just before the nght action.

Pub street just before the nght action.

Night Market. If shopping is your cup of tea, then you should not miss taking a short visit at the Night Market. You can get all sort of things from Cambodian silks, traditional Khmer clothing and bags to different herbal medicines, coffee and other basic souvenirs.

Cambodian paintings on sale.

Cambodian paintings on sale.

Must-eat

Amok. This is a traditional Khmer cuisine made from steaming curry in banana leaves. Some ingredients used in Amok are fish, tofu, chicken and eggs.

Angkor Beer. I haven’t really tried this one but judging from the quantity of this draft beer along Pub street and inside convenience stores, this is definitely a hit among tourists and locals alike.

Angkor beer in can.

Angkor beer in can.

Happy Angkor Pizza. I really don’t know what ingredients they put in the pizza but the effect is really out-of-this-world (if you know what I mean ).

Happy Angkor Pizza

Happy Angkor Pizza

Must-try

Biking. There are many hotels and establishments that rent out bicycle for tourists. It is a good mode of transport if you want to avoid traffic and take in the rich Khmer culture around you at your own pace.

Biking around the Angkor complex

Biking around the Angkor complex

Watch the Apsara dance show. Apsara is a traditional Khmer dance. Many restaurants in Siem Reap offer Apsara show with buffet dinner. It’s a good way to get more immensed with Khmer culture –  with dance and food.

During the Apsara presentation.

During the Apsara presentation.

Ride an Elephant. If you are not able to experience riding an elephant in Thailand, there’s no need to fret. You can still try this near the Bayon temple at the Angkor complex.

Classic:  riding an elephant at the Angkor complex.

Classic: riding an elephant at the Angkor complex.

 

PHNOM PENH, CAMBODIA

Phnom Penh is the capital city of Cambodia. Despite being more urbanized than its neighboring cities, it maintained its strong Khmer influence from the temples and Cambodian flags seen everywhere. The French Indochina influence is also very evident in this city as seen in a lot of buildings and structures lined along the boulevards.

Phnom Penh is the center of Cambodia’s economic, political and cultural activities.

Must-see

Choeung Ek (Killing Fields). This was a very difficult place for me to visit because of the brutal events that happened here in the past. But if you are a fan of history and would like to know more about the Khmer Rouge regime, then this place is a must-see. It contains a museum and hundreds of remnants of one of the worst times in Cambodia.

Here some remains are being stored.

Where some remains are being stored.

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (S.21). This is another place I’d rather not visit again due to the dark history it bears. But then again if you are interested about Cambodia’s history then go to this place. It is a complex of buildings that used to be a torture center and prison during the Khmer Rouge regime.

Grounds of S21.

Grounds of S21.

Central Market. If you want to bring more souvenirs from Cambodia, then you must visit this market. It houses a huge variety of souvenir items like Cambodian silk, clothing, jewelries, sculptures, displays and trinkets.

Must-eat

Tomatoes. I found tomatoes around Cambodia very tasty whether they are served as is or in pasta, pizza or sandwich.

BLT sandwich for breakfast.

BLT sandwich for breakfast.

French Bread. I guess French bread is the most popular bread in Cambodia (and even Vietnam ) since it is served almost every breakfast and is sold at every street we passed by from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh.

Breakfast!

Breakfast!

Happy Herb Pizza. This is the Phnom Penh version of the Happy Angkor Pizza.

Must-try

Drinking near Preah Sisowath Quay. Try drinking while listening to some good music in one of the pubs along the boulevard. It’s a nice way to wrap up a day of travel or museum visits.

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HO CHI MINH, VIETNAM

Ho Chi Minh is the largest and most populated city in Vietnam. Formerly known as Saigon, this city used to be an independent region until the fall of Saigon. It is the center of commerce, economy, industrialization and politics in Vietnam. Up until now, the strong influence of the French Indochina can still be seen from the structure of old buildings and houses.

Must-see

Cu Chi Tunnel. This is a vast network of underground connecting tunnels scattered around Cu Chi and the rest of Vietnam. The tunnels were used by Viet Cong soldiers during the Vietnam war as hiding spots and served as communication and supply channels, hospitals and food and weapon storage. Aside from the tunnels, visitors also get to see a short video clip about the Vietnam war in the 1960s and the man-made traps and try fitting into the very tiny escape holes.

One of the hiding spots near the tunnels.

One of the hiding spots near the tunnels.

Cao Dai Temple. This temple is the center of Cao Dai Faith (Way of the Highest Power) in the city of Tay Ninh in Southern Vietnam. Ceremonies are usually held at 6am, mid-day, 6pm and midnight. If you get a chance to visit the temple during these hours, you can see Cao Dai followers doing their rituals and listen the orchestra on the second floor.

Cao Dai temple at noon.

Cao Dai temple at noon.

Ben Thanh Market. If Bangkok has Chatuchak and Siem Reap has Night Market, Ho Chi Minh has Cho Ben Than or the Ben Thanh Market. Ben Thanh is the largest market place in Ho Chi Minh offering local handicrafts, textiles, the popular ao dai or Vietnamese traditional costume, the Saigon icons “salakot” and miniature motorbikes and of course, coffee. Ben Thanh Market is open from 6:00am to 7:00pm with the night market outside catering to late night shoppers until midnight.

Magnets of Vietnamese women in Ao Dai.

Magnets of Vietnamese women in Ao Dai.

Reunification Palace, Notre Dame Cathedral, Saigon Central Post Office.  Well, we did not get a chance to visit these landmarks of Saigon but they are definitely worth the mention. The Reunification Palace or Independence Palace served as the site of the end of the Vietnam war in 1975. The Notre Dame Cathedral or Basilica of Our Lady of The Immaculate Conception, on the other hand, is considered as one of the oldest structures of French and Catholic influence in Vietnam. The Saigon Central Post Office, located near the cathedral, was built when Vietnam was still associated with the French Indochina. It was designed and constructed by the man who is best-known for designing the Eiffel Tower, Gustave Eiffel.

Must-eat

Pho. Pho (sounds like fa) is a Vietnamese noodle soup with broth, rice noodles, herbs and meat. This is a popular street food and is served in almost all local and international Vietnamese restaurants.

A huge bowl of hot pho.

A huge bowl of hot pho.

Fresh Spring Rolls. This is the Vietnamese version of lumpiang shanghai only that the wraps are not fried and the ingredients include vermicelli and a lot of greens. The spring rolls are best eaten with peanut sauce.

Coffee. If you are a coffee lover, there’s no need to go to France to taste good coffee. Just go to our neighboring countries like Malaysia and Vietnam. There are a lot of cafes around Ho Chi Minh offering different coffee experience like al fresco, sitting on the sidewalk or inside at the comfy couch while reading some good books.

Coffee from Trung Nguyen.

Coffee from Trung Nguyen.

Must-try

Riding a Motorcycle. Trivia: There are around 90 million people in Vietnam. The number of motorcycles: a whooping 75 million!  Well, what makes riding motorcycles in Vietnam fun despite the risk is that most people use them as their mode of transportation plus they have designated lanes for them.

Motorcycles packed the street of Saigon.

Motorcycles packed the street of Saigon.

Going through the tunnels at Cu Chi. Doing this will make some thankful that they are not much blessed horizontally and vertically. The tunnels at Cu Chi are so small that traversing inside will require you to duck and even crawl your way up the next exit. This is a genius of the Viet Cong soldiers trying to escape from the bigger soldiers during the war.

Small holes for hiding.

Small holes for hiding.

 

There you have it! A summary of my once-in-a-lifetime experience backpacking three Southeast Asian countries. This is just a guide and there are still hundreds and even thousands of places to visit, food to eat and activities to try. A week is really too short to enjoy these countries with so much more to offer. You can find below my not-so-detailed itinerary. You can adjust and edit depending on the length of your visit and the time you want to spend at each place.

Indochina Itinerary

Indochina Itinerary

Angkor What? One of the bars in Pub street

Angkor What? One of the bars in Pub street

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