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[i] Some things you might want to know in the way of backpacking, budget travel country specific advice, tips and info for: Indochina: Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam.

As a geographic term, Indochina can also include Thailand and Burma (Myanmar), but these are can be found on the South East Asia Page along with the Philippines, Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia.

» It is worth looking, if you have not already, at the example layout to see the guidelines each section of information is based on - or for other travel advice and site home, head for www.travelindependent.info

Indowhere?

Map of Indochina

? Indochina, or French Indochina, was a federation of French colonies and protectorates. It consisted of Cochin China, Tonkin, Annam (all of which now form Vietnam), Laos and the Khmer Republic (now Cambodia).

France started assuming sovereignty after the Franco-Chinese War (1884–1885). The federation lasted until 1954. The capital was Hanoi. There was a series of puppet Emperors.



[book]What follows are only basic snap shot summaries. If you have decided these are some of the countries you want to visit and need more planning information then you are strongly recommended to complement what you find here with a planning guide. Trust us it will make life much easier. If you are set on going and need a guidebook or reading material please see a list of recommended guides/books here (go on have a look!). All guides/books can be viewed in more detail and click-through purchased with Amazon in the UK, US or Canada. Plus shopping through the site is a big thank you (if you have been helped out), to see why click here.



*  Indochina

 * Get your bearings.. show/hide map of the region

» Cambodia

  • Intro: In a nut shell, there are perhaps three reasons why Cambodia is the new top destination in Southeast Asia. One it sounds pretty adventurous and still is to a degree, second it's close to Thailand and [three] finally it contains one of the greatest wonders in the world - Angkor. The beaches such those around Kompong Som (aka. Sihanoukville) are below par against the high regional standard, better in Thailand and less crowded in South Vietnam (although some of the surrounding areas are very beautiful). Getting around can be a major a pain (in the arse - literary in most cases) and there is not too much to do of real interest that the rest of Asia (outside SE Asia) can't offer. However, few places in the world rival Angkor and it alone is motivation enough to head to Cambodia.

    • Highlights: The temples of Angkor* and learning something about the country's murderous past.

    • Lowlights: Road travel, package type tourists and massive development at Angkor and new 'I am the hardest traveller' type backpacker crowds. The jury is out on Sihanoukville (Cambodia's beach destination). A bizarre little place. Just a line of beach bars all offering pretty much the same thing. The cleanliness of the water is very questionable, but is to tempting to resist. Location certainly isn't idyllic, but is fun to relax for a couple of days. As with all of Cambodia's tourist hot spots, quite a bit of hassle.

  • Dangers: Nowadays, you're not really likely to get blown up sticking to the tourist trail, but do take care the country still has thousands of undiscovered landmines. The north and east can be lawless if you spend the days getting there. Watch out for sun-burn riding on the roof of the boat from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap. Bag snatching continues to be a problem in Phnom Penh.

Visa strategy:

FlagAvailable on arrival or easily arranged in Bangkok, were the cheapest agencies who will do the leg work for you are quoting around THB1000 plus one ID photo. A one month visa starts from date of issue. A 45 days visa can also be obtained for the same price but in 2 working days. It seems however possible to have the 45 day visa starting later than the date of issue. The cost at the Embassy (254 6630, just north of Lumphini Park on Ratchadamri Rd) is about $20-25 (you are required to return the next day or same day ($9 extra)). This embassy is usually busy and open for applications from 9 to 11am only.

In an effort to boost tourism, you can now also apply for a single entry tourist e-visa on line, by filling out a form and paying by credit card. You'll need a JPEG or GIF photo and won't be able to use an e-visa on every crossing point. More details here.

There are now six full international border crossings between Cambodia and Thailand; all are open 07:00-20:00 and Visa on Arrival is available at every single one, official tourist visa price is US$20 (you have to pay in USD notes to get this price) but in practice you're likely to have to pay more in Baht notably at Poipet and Koh Kong where officials like to inflate the price. At the airports of Phnom Penh or Siem Reap, the cost is US$20 plus 2 photos. See Laos for Cambodia to Laos border crossing details.

  • Getting there: If you have the spare cash it's recommended to fly in and out of the country (unless you're a sucker for punishment, but note the international departure tax is quite pricey). From Bangkok, KL and Singapore, there are now daily or almost daily flights direct to Siem Reap and Phnom Penh. For those who can't/won't afford the luxury of a plane many tourist geared mini-buses operate from the Ko San Road. Although much, much better than in previous years the road from Thailand is still in a bad state. For full details of road transport from Bangkok to Cambodia, you are directed to the excellent detail and images on the Tales of Asia site. Either way, getting to see Angkor is now very easy. The downside is of course tourist numbers compared to the 90's have gone through the roof.

  • Accommodation: Great mid-range hotels at good prices, easy in Siem Reap and Phnom Penh.

    • Hot water: Never a problem in major towns

    • Average cost: $15-30, great mid range rooms in Siem Reap and Phnom Penh. Like elsewhere in the region, off the beaten track and outside big cities, basic accommodation can be found very cheap.

  • Communications: Internet easy in major towns

  • Media:

    • Books: Some expensive book shops in Phnom Penh. Many books to read regarding Cambodia's infamous past and the spilling over of the Vietnam war into Cambodia

    • TV: Cable TV in main city hotels and bars

  • Food: Limited choice and for what you get, by Asian standards, can be expensive.

    • Vegetarians: No problem (you eat Spiders!?)

  • Hassle and annoyance factor: 4/10, touts in Siem Reap and a few beggars. Frustrating 'one dollar' attitude in Siem Reap around temples. Recent reports of motorcycle bag snatching in Phnom Penh.

    • Women alone: Not a problem in our experience however as the country has become more toursity, e-mailed comments suggest otherwise. With reports of frequent harassment and feelings of being very uncomfortable, along with notes of Cambodia being considered one of the most dangerous places for a single women to travel. This of course will depend on destinations within the country and individual experiences, but recent reports come from experienced travellers and are worth noting.

  • Drugs, cigarettes and alcohol: Great (but not overly cheap) draught beer and pool in Phnom Penh. Grass no longer that widely available, but still about. In Phnom Penh and Siem Reap you can find Happy Herb pizzerias where you might get an extra topping, but the police crack down occasionally.

  • Rating: With Angkor 9/10, without 5/10.

Angkor and Angkor Wat:

For those that don't know Angkor is a collection of temples in North West Cambodia close to Siem Reap. The most iconic, biggest and frequently pictured (shown above and on the national flag) is Angkor Wat. Contained in the Angkor Archaeological Park stretching over some 400 sq. km, most dense forested area, Angkor contains the spectacular remains of several capitals of the Khmer Empire dating from the 9th to the 15th century. See Google Map image.

The most popular and largest temples are Angkor Wat at Angkor Thom and the Bayon Temple with its many face looking like something straight out of Tomb Raider. Equally popular are temples where huge trees have grown on and in temples enveloping them in roots. The main temples are quite well restored, but many temples are in a bad shape of repair and much damage/vandalism has done over the years. In all temples the level of detail in the stone work is exceptional. To a certain extend the appeal is the sheer scale of the area and the 'discovering a lost temple in the jungle' feel you'll get at many smaller sites which have almost become one with the jungle and are away from the tourist trail which focuses on the larger grander temples. The larger/popular temples will see huge visitor numbers, more so at peak times of the day/year.

The temples can broadly be categorized into four groups: Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom, the grandest temple of all and the ancient capital next to it. The Little Circuit, taking in major sites to the east of Angkor Thom. The Big Circuit, taking in major sites north and further out east. The Roluos group, 15 km east from Siem Reap along National Highway 6. The Outlying temples, located over 20 km for Angkor Wat. You'll need at least 2-3 days to get a good feeling of it all - there's plenty of information on these temples and routes in any guidebook and local archeological guides can be hired easily for around US$20.

To get the best out of Angkor you'll really need to find some space away from the big crowds and tour groups. This can be done by getting up early (it opens at five) and avoiding the famous temples and peak times as well as heading to outlying areas. Transport is an issue due to the complex size and Angkor is pretty hot year round - you could get around Angkor Wat and other nearby temples on a bicycles, but really you'll need more than pedal power and the heat makes it hard work. Tuk-Tuks, motorbikes or cars with drivers are the most popular options from US$10-30 a day (cheaper for motorbikes). The very best option is your own transport and the freedom this gives you can't be beat. In Siem Reap renting motorbikes to foreigners (without a driver) is banned and is difficult (not impossible) to get around. Best bet is hire elsewhere and bring it along. Tour buses should be avoided as they visit few sites, are crowded and give no freedom.

* Miss at your peril: Angkor - 'Highlight of Independent Travel'

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» Laos

  • Beer LaoIntro: Currently Asia's hippest destination, from Beijing to Islamabad, the name Laos is being whispered among backpackers as some fantastic, esoteric, void of tourists destination. Sorry, it's not. As nice as it is, many parts are becoming an extended run from Thailand. If you want to see Laos you need to spend the time and effort getting to the hill tribe areas in the north (this is best done to or from China). The idea is that since tourists have only been allowed into Laos since 1989, you will be something of a novelty and have the opportunity to see the, if not the last bit of, 'real' Southeast Asia. Well the really interesting days have pasted five to ten years back, which is where many of the stories come from. Laos is a nice destination and the north is unique, but on the whole, especially the Luang Prabang - Vientiane run, you may see more tourists than in Thailand, after all it is just next door. If you do spend the time and effort travelling further a field you will be a novelty, but you would have earned it, as overland, (non-river) transport is hard work.

  • Visa strategy: Get your visa for 15 or 30 days in Bangkok or on arrival at the Friendship bridge. A Laos visa in Vietnam is much more expensive than in Bangkok where it is easy to obtain. In Bangkok it's possible to get a one month visa in one working day. The cost, if you go yourself to the embassy at 8am and collect it in the afternoon should be around THB1500 (for most western nationalities, cheaper for Asians & Israelis, more expensive for Canadians, Americans, Japanese or Germans). The embassy is quite remote and tricky to get to (Bus No60, then taxi), so you will be better off to leave the leg-work to an agency for a commission for as little as THB100-150 (check around). A one month visa should cost THB1400.

  • FlagHighlights: Luang Prabang, Northern hill tribe areas, Muang Sing, a river boat trip and Si Phan Don (Four Thousand Islands) in the south. The newly opened crossing Northern crossing from Laos to Vietnam (Than Hoa, via Sam Neua) is spectacular, but transport is quite difficult and you'll need some spare time. Friendly border staff, who still find westerners a novelty.

  • Lowlights: Vientiane and Muang Vangviang (aka. Vangviang - nice, but now nothing but an over-developed backpacker town - karst mountains and caves in China more impressive)

Crossing into Cambodia:

The overland border between Laos and Cambodia - long closed is now open. For years this border attracted a lot of attention from elite type backpackers. Original info was to go to Don Det island, (south from Don Khong) then to the Friendship cafe (or something else like that). At the boat landing you can organize a boat to the road then a truck down to the Laos border. At the border you must pay to get stamped out of Laos. Some guest houses in Kratie may try to sell you the ticket for US$50. The border crossing is in the middle of forest and there is pretty much nothing else there than a few customs officials and a bad road in Laos side. You may not find any transportation at the border and what you do find is likely overpriced. At the Cambodian border, pay again. This crossing is now much easier and frequently used - but there is still no visa on arrival.

* Miss at your peril: Northern Laos/Vietnam - 'Highlight of Independent Travel'

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» Vietnam Vietnam, by David et Magalie - http://www.everystockphoto.com/photo.php?photo_id=3283

  • What to take: Some patience to deal with the Vietnamese.

  • Getting around:

    • Road: The best sense is in buying hop-on-hop-off bus tickets at bargain prices (like US$50-70) for Saigon to Hanoi. As much as you may hate the idea or a quasi-tour bus, it's the way to go as you will stick with a set route anyway and public transport is such a pain - of course go with a good, established company. Roads from Hon Ai up are bad and in the north are terrible. Distances are large, you will probably need to travel overnight (buses get cold). Do not under estimate the time you will need to spend travelling if sticking to land. When tackling the far north the hiring of private transport is the best option, whether a 4WD and driver arranged in Hanoi shared in a group or for the more adventurous a motorbike.

    • Trains: Certainly more expensive than buses, but now foreigner pricing free, trains are undoubtedly the most comfortable way to travel overland in Vietnam. There is one major train line in Vietnam, the 1723-kilometer trunk between Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, on which the Reunification Express runs. HCMC to Hanoi in one go is more than 30 hours. Purchase tickets early (as few days if possible and watch holiday seasons) as there is high demand notably for the better AC Soft or hard sleeper. Tour companies and travel agents tend to buy all tickets up early. However, unsold tickets can often be bought last minute from people hanging around at the station or travel agent (but some scams) - a train is rarely sold out for real. There are also shorter routes from Hanoi leading northwest and northeast, with international crossings into China. One of the most popular of the shorter routes is the overnight train from Hanoi to Lao Cai for Sapa which you can put a motorbike on.

    • Air: The fastest way to travel the distance of this long country. From Hanoi to HCMC will take about 2 hours by plane. The major domestic airline in Vietnam is Vietnam Airlines. However are many flights connecting the two largest cities, Hanoi and HCMC, to major towns such as Da Nang, Hai Phong, Can Tho, Hue, Nha Trang, Da Lat, Phu Quoc. Prices are not too bad if you need to save time and some can be booked on-line. A recent list of domestic carriers are Vietnam Airlines, VietJet and Air Mekong (with short inter-cities flights].

    • Water: There are hydrofoil services in some places - from Ha Long to Mong Cai on the border with China, from Hai Phong to Cat Ba and from Ho Chi Minh City to various destinations in the Mekong, for example. A recent innovation is a well-appointed 26-cabin cruise boat that plies up and down the Bassac River between Phnom Penh and Ho Chi Minh City.


      [i] A good resource is the original (and now slightly out-dated) Peter M. Geiser Vietnam travel FAQ

Tours:

FlagThe Vietnamese are pretty darn organized when it comes to making money from tourists and there are a bewildering host of tours available for everything you could ever want to do. These on the whole are good through to brilliant value. You just have to get use to tour group mentality as it is normally cheaper - and a hell of a lot easier - than doing the same thing yourself. Shop around, after a day trying to choose a trip (to Halong Bay for example) you'll probably failed to see the difference between tours and go with the cheapest. That would get you three excellent days, two nights, nice hotel and the knowledge you'd be on the same boat as many travellers paying more. Delta tours are fairly boring with a lot of driving and the same can be said of DMZ tours. Party boat trips in Na Trang are fun if you have the stamina and the right crowd. For the far north it is better to spend the extra to hire a car and driver or motorbike rather than take a tour. A good tip (this goes for buses too) is to go to the agency you booked at rather than letting the bus pick you up at your hotel. That way you won't get picked up last and have to cram yourself in right at the back [or the bus] - excellent advice when roads are bumpy.



E-mailed comment:

c Disappointing in places. Easy Rider trips from Dalat, although expensive are really good fun and a great insight into the country. This is the only way I managed to get of the tourist trail. Best way to eat and drink is on the street, just look for child size chairs. In general, Vietnam is a very safe place, with low levels of violent crime and a low threat of terrorism or other dangerous activities. Theft, however, is becoming increasingly common, and visitors should take precautions, especially with small electronics which are easily "misplaced.”

c I came across your site while searching for a packing list a​s we prepared for a trip to SE Asia (Vietnam and Cambodia). ​It was very useful and then I enjoyed browsing the rest of t​he site. I wanted to report back on Vietnam as I got kind o​f a negative vibe from the website- yes, there is a well-bea​ten tourist trail and yes, the hassle in places along it can​be a pain, but with a little effort you CAN get off the beat​en path, and it is very rewarding! We traveled up to Ha Gia​ng and Cao Bang provinces in NE Vietnam- absolutely amazing ​scenery and western tourists are still few. Other less-trav​elled spots include Phong Nha Ke-Bang in central Vietnam (an​d from what we heard, the beaches in nearby Dong Hoi are bli​ssfully quiet and cleaner than most). The Mekong Delta outs​ide of places like Can Tho/My Tho also don't see many touris​ts. Our visit there was so enjoyable that we really want t​o go back- next time perhaps NW mountains and on into Laos. ​Your Easy Rider trip sounds like fun too though.

* Miss at your peril: Northern Laos/Vietnam - 'Highlight of Independent Travel'





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[book]The best source of planning information is Trailblazer's 'Asia Overland'. Although the Cambodia (and some others) chapter is very out-of-date, the rest is superb. There is a new version of this book out that focuses just on South East Asia. It is a fantastic guide made up of hand drawn maps packed with great information. It's called South-East Asia: A Graphical Guide and is by the same author as Asia Overland - Mark Elliott.

[i] For a full list of planning guides, recommended guide books and reading material, please click here.

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Remember, this is only a take (an overview if you will); very few get the chance to see every inch of every country or have the time to get everyone's opinion (you are welcome and encouraged to mail in yours). Please, please if you have been anywhere recently send your comments to contribute and help keep all information fresh for future travellers. Or if you are about to head off remember this site when you return and put a few lines in an e-mail to let us know if things have changed.

 

"From a certain point onwards there is no longer any turning back. That is the point that must be reached"

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