Finally, after six months of planning and saving up money, after exchanging 228 private FB thread messages, after catching a fever just three days before our departure… We have done the toughest challenge in our lives yet: going backpacking for two weeks in Mainland South East Asia on a shoestring budget.
Being in those four countries, four capital cities, four provinces; spending time in numerous temples, wats, beaches, museums, hawker stalls, markets, guesthouses; riding tuk-tuks, buses, trains, elephants; meeting locals, monks, kids street vendors, fellow backpackers… All I could say is that it was the BEST and (and some, the worst) 14 days of my life.
So here’s the Ultimate List on the Banana Pancake Trail, according to me:
Best Place to Catch the Sunset In: Phromthep Cape in Phuket, Andaman Coast, Thailand. After a long day at the Patong, Karon, and Kata beaches, what a better way to end the day in the southernmost viewpoint of Phuket. It’s my favorite free show and it’s showing every evening.
One of the most photographed capes in Thailand.
Most scammed country: Thailand. Oh! If you think the deal is too good to be true, then it probably is. Don’t be fooled by a decent-looking taxi driver who will approach you offering to ride his service. We told him we want to go to the Grand Palace. And his spiel? The attraction is closed since it is Buddha’s birthday and he’s giving us a bargain tour elsewhere. Then he’ll get mad at you and drop you off somewhere else if you don’t give in. And then there’s another scam in Patpong. I’ll just tell you about it in person.
Best selling drink: Thai Milk Tea! Best to drink it after being under the sweltering sun. They can be found everywhere in the streets of Thailand. It can’t be compared to Serinitea, Happy Lemon, Zen Tea, etc.
Best form of breakfast or merienda: Banana Pancakes! The reason why South East Asia Mainland (Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Myanmar) is called the Banana Pancake Trail is because this food is readily available everywhere. I wonder why it’s not even famous in the Philippines (I can only get them in Pancake House, which is not so cheap!)
Banana Pancakes come in different forms.
Most likely place to get sunburned: Phuket. It’s not just in the beaches where you’ll get toasted. It’s when you’re staying on top of the cruise ship to and from Ko Phi Phi Islands for island hopping. One runner-up is in Ayutthaya, Thailand where the sun is extremely high up and you’re biking around the city. I thought I would faint.
At Ko Phi Phi Don Island.
Sun-kissed on top of the cruise ship.
Another day to get dark. At Ayutthaya, Thailand.
Craziest boat ride: To and from Ko Phi Phi Don Island. The waves were just wild! Travelers are getting sea sick, puking here and there. Even if we were seated on top of the boat, huge water splashes still drenched us!
Longest day: Day 1 to Day 2. We touched down past midnight. Got out of the airport around 1:30am. We went straight to Khao San Road to look for a guesthouse. Still went out for drinks after finding New Joe Guesthouse. Few hours of sleep. Woke up. Check-out. Went around Bangkok by 9:30am. (Got scammed by cab driver – time waster!). The Grand Palace. Wat Pho. Rode the ferry along the Chao Phraya River. Chinatown. Check-in at Soi Wan St., Silom area. Coyote on Convent, Silom night out. Patpong scam. Went to a neutral place to huddle. Exhausted. And that was just the first day. Welcome to the backpacking life!
Most comfortable bus ride: Overnight bus from Phuket going back to Bangkok. We were seated at the back and we could recline our seats further and stretch our feet. It was one of the few longest sleeps I had in the whole trip.
Best Run-for-your-life moment: Catching the train to Nong Khai, Thailand going to Laos. It was just like in the movies! We got to the train station just in the nick of time and the train has already started moving slowly. Man, we were chasing it with our backpacks like crazy! Thank God we were able to hop on!
First “I miss home” moment: Arriving at Vang Vieng, Laos. This place is a paradox. It has wifi but no celfone signal (well, no available roaming partner for Globe). It has lots of booze, but no supply of water. It is very scenic—the limestone mountains backdrop, the flowing Nam Song river, a quaint local town, but the place can get loud and wild. Life here is very slow-paced but when you leave, it seems like your stay was just too quick.
Our guesthouse overlooking the flooded Nam Song river with limestone mountains on the background.
Backpackers bathing in the rain?
Longest time without a bath: 3 days. From Phuket to sleeper bus to Bangkok (Thursday). Then one day around Bangkok again, to sleeper train to Laos (Friday). Then first day in Laos (Saturday). We only got our baths Saturday late night when the limited water supply in Vang Vieng was up.
Best chill place: At the Valentine restaurant at Vang Vieng, Laos playing Friends marathon. Gosh, I missed TV!
Friends playing on TV.
Worst far-flung place to get stranded: Still in Vang Vieng. We almost did! The rain NEVER stopped even for a single second we were there (Thanks, tropical depression Haima). Since we could no longer do caving, tubing, or biking around town, we decided to go back to the capital city, Vientiane a day earlier. But since there were no buses were passing by because of floods, we had to stay one more night—with no water. God knows how intense my prayers were when I was there.
Best place to party: Jaidee’s bar and restaurant in Vang Vieng, Laos. It’s where we met a lot of fellow backpackers from ALL OVER. It’s where different worlds meet. It’s where I met solo travelers and students Katrin and Sebastian from Austria and Canada; Eric, a radiologist from New Orleans; Liam, a travel blogger who has quit his job to travel from Canada; Paul, a lifeguard from Australia; Adam, a bartender from Sweden, and more! Then, there’s also Angkor What? in Pub Street, Siem Reap. Yeah, that one was a happy place too. No pun intended.
At Jaidee’s Bar in Laos.
At Angkor What? in Siem Reap.
Most grueling bus ride: From Vientiane to Vang Vieng. 4 ½ hours (2pm to past 6pm).
Most grueling sawngtheaw ride: From Vang Vieng back to Vientiane (8am to 12:30pm). This journey is supposed to be via bus but this is the only option available at that time. Imagine a small pick-up truck with two benches at the back.
Most grueling train ride: Overnight train from Thai-Lao border to Bangkok. 12 hours sitting, only fan room available. We tried to find every sleeping position that is comfortable, but we could not (except Nessa—she could always steal some sleep anywhere.)
No reclining seats, no aircon.
Oddest place to take a shower: In the Nong Khai train station going back to Bangkok. It costs 10 THB. We just had to grab this opportunity more than buying dinner because we badly needed it.
Best place to catch the break of dawn: Angkor Wat, Siem Reap, Cambodia. We started the day young at 5am. The crowds were light, the queues were short, the place was cool to walk in. And that was just the beginning of a beautiful day.
The sunrise was like a concert. This spot by a small lake was the best seat in the house.
Most jaw-dropping place I’ve been to: The Temples of Angkor. It’s the heart and soul of Cambodia. It’s the skeleton of what used to be a huge and mighty Khmer empire that extended from Myanmar to Vietnam. I couldn’t imagine its grandeur in their glory days during the 1st to 8th century.
Feel the faces staring at you at the Bayon inside Angkor Thom.
Feel like you’re on set of Tomb Raider in Ta Phrom.
Easiest place to converse in English: Cambodia. Khmers are actually easy to understand and they’re articulate. I noticed there were numerous international schools in Phnom Penh.
Creepiest place I’ve been to: The Killing Fields of Choeng Ek, Phnom Pehn, Cambodia. This place gave me the chills, I tell you. The mass graves, the tall white stupa which encases the skulls and clothes found in the fields, the eerie silence. This was where approximately 17,000 men, women, and children were executed during Pol Pot’s regime.
The museum I wouldn’t forget: Tuol Sleng (or S-21) Museum in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. In the mid-70’s, Pol Pot’s forces turned this school to a security prison (S-21). Checkered floors, single rusty bed, and disturbing black and white prisoner photos fill the rooms. Cambodia has been to heaven and hell—you can marvel at the divine temples of Angkor in Siem Reap then you can be disturbed by the crimes of the past in Phnom Penh.
Inside Tuol Sleng museum.
Coolest place to walk in: Ho Chi Minh City. I love the trees around the city. Walking around downtown HCMC in a day is just a breeze!
Most dangerous streets to walk in: Still in Ho Chi Minh City. Motorbikes drive right past at you out of nowhere. We received warning to sling our bags on our shoulders because of snatchers on motorbikes.
It’s a parade of motorbikes everyday.
Nicest locals we’ve met along the way: There’s Beau, a Thai in 37 Thalang in Phuket Town, who’s very accommodating and friendly (and who did my laundry); there’s the Kuya Tuk-tuk driver who patiently took us to Silom, he never gave up even if we got lost several times; there’s “Mader” of Freddy’s guesthouse in Silom who’s very endearing to us and reminded to take care of our belongings (I thought she’ll give us a curfew but she just gave us the key to the gate); there’s Nik of 11 Happy guesthouse in Phnom Penh who had a lot of stories and speaks good English.
This backpacking trip was not a vacation. Far away from leisure. It was WORK. It was a constant decision-making, budgeting, making transactions, being out of my comfort zone. I did things I never thought I would. It was the socializing, new learnings, not knowing what to expect, suspense, drama, laughter, one adventure after the next that made it all worthwhile—that made it the best 14 days of my life. :)