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MEKONG CONNECTION

A First-time backpacker’s experience & guide to exploring in the Indochinese Peninsula.
by Janine Ramos

“I’ve booked my flight to Ho Chi Minh!”, that was the enthusiastic text I sent to my best friend, a few months prior to our planned Indochina backpacking trip. Traveling to a different country isn’t new to me, but this was the first time I was doing it without my family, equipped with only a backpack, a limited budget (30k for 11 days), and an organized detailed itinerary that I have made. I was going to be outside of my comfort zone, but I was extremely excited.
The plan was to immerse ourselves in the different cultures as much as possible. For us, this meant that we should check out the streets and stalls, eat only local delicacies, drink only the local beers for socializing, walk most of the time from place to place even if we get a little lost, mingle frequently with the locals, and explore as much of each country’s soul through their museums, temples, and other historical sights.

Ho Chi Minh, VIETNAM
We arrived before midnight at Tan Son International Airport. Here we had some of our US dollar bills changed to Vietnamese Dongs. Local sim cards were also being sold here, but being the girl scouts that we were, we’ve already bought unlimited data travel sim cards online prior to our travel date.
Getting to our accommodation was our next goal. We had two options, one was to take a shuttle bus to district 1 and two was to book a Grab car. We opted to choose the latter due to the time.
Outside the airport and during the ride, I thought, “Oh, it doesn’t feel much different from the Philippines”. Little did I know that I was in for a surprise.

Where we stayed at…
Vitamin Smiles Hostel. (We planned to stay at backpacker dorms, because we thought it would be great to meet other backpackers from other countries.)
FYI: Free delicious home-made pho breakfast every morning!

Notable spots we’ve visited…
Day 1: Independence Palace, War Remnants Museum, Saigon City Hall, Saigon Opera House, Notre Dame Cathedral, Saigon Post Office, Ho Chi Minh Museum of Fine Arts, Benh Thanh Market, Bitexco Financial Tower, Ben Thanh Street (for street food!)

Day 2: Jade Emperor Pagoda, Le Van Tam Park, Tan Dinh (pink) church, Trung Nguyen Legend cafe (for Vietnamese drip coffee)

Day 3: Mekong Delta, Bui Vien Walking Street A First-time backpacker’s experience & guide to exploring in the Indochinese Peninsula

Food to try…
All sorts of Pho, Bành Canh, fresh spring rolls, Vietnamese drip coffee

Outside my comfort zone…
Vietnamese egg coffee (sounded a bit weird) Did we like it? YES. Had three cups each in one seating.

Beer to try…
Saigon Red, Saigon Green, 333

Tip!
*It’s easier to book a Mekong
Delta Tour online, e.g. Klook.
*You can also find private scooter tours to further explore Ho Chi Minh City through the guidance of a local, e.g. AirBnb experience

MY TAKEAWAY FROM VIETNAM

Ho Chi Minh, formerly Saigon, is a city of vitality and discovery. The chaotic whirl of the city amps you up and energizes you. Left and right, you’ll find something to tickle your senses.
Ho Chi Minh is a wonderful paradox; one where you’ll find what’s traditional amidst modernization and the promise of the future.

Phnom Penh, CAMBODIA
On our 4th day, we departed Ho Chi Minh via Mekong Express bus and headed to Phnom Penh. We decided to book buses online for our trips to Cambodia and Thailand. Despite the longer travel time, traveling by bus allowed us to meet more people and to see the outskirts of towns in each country.
We headed straight to Panorama Mekong Hostel the moment we arrived at Phnom Penh. There were plenty of tuk-tuks around, but we opted to walk to take in the new sights and smells.
Our hostel was facing the Mekong River. Going to the balcony/bar area gave us a spectacular view of the river, the park, the street, and the people. We fell in love with this city.

Notable spots we’ve visited…
Day 4: Wat Phnom, Wat Ounalom, Royal Palace, Riverside Park, Silver Pagoda, National Museum

Siem Reap, CAMBODIA
The following day, we took a Giant Ibis bus, this time going to Siem Reap. As usual, upon arriving, we walked to our accommodation, The Siem Reap Chilled Backpacker hostel.
Now, you may be wondering how we always seem to be able to walk from our drop-off point to our booked accommodations. The answer is simple; we strategically booked lodgings that were short distances away from bus stops. (Backpacking tip!)
We slept early that night in preparation for our Angkor tour the following morning. This is the part of our trip that I was most excited about, because I’ve always dreamt of seeing the Angkor Wat in person.
P.S. Make sure to go to Angkor super early in the morning to catch the sunrise. No doubt, it would be one of the most beautiful sights you’ll ever see. There are no words to describe how it made me feel.

Notable spots we’ve visited…
Day 5: none
Day 6: Angkor Wat, Bayon, Ta Phrom, Banteay Srei, Angkor Thom, Preah Khan, Banteay Kdei, Siem Reap Pub Street

Food to try…
Ang Dtray-meauk (grilled squid), Bai Sach Chrouk (Grilled pork and broken rice), Beef lok lak

Outside my comfort zone…
Fried Grasshopper. Did I like it? YES! It goes well with the local beer.

Beer to try…
Angkor, Cambodia Lager, Phnom Penh Stout

Tip!
*For both Phnom Penh and Siem Reap: wear clothing that covers your shoulders, has sleeves, and covers up to your knees (better to wear maxis or pants), because otherwise you won’t be allowed to go inside the temples. If you have to wear a sleeveless top, at least bring a scarf for covering up.
*It’s easier to book tuk-tuk tour guides to go from spot to spot in Phnom Penh, and to visit every temple in Angkor.

MY TAKEAWAY FROM CAMBODIA
Cambodia is a country rich in culture. The Khmers are some of the friendliest people that I have ever encountered, often greeting you with genuine smiles. Much like the deep roots of trees embedded in the temples in Angkor, tradition and culture in Cambodia is deeply rooted in the hearts and minds of its people. For me, Cambodia is the absolute highlight of our trip.

Bangkok, THAILAND
In the morning we rode a Giant Ibis bus from Siem Reap to Bangkok. It was a 9-hour long ride, but the bus was quite clean and we found it comfortable. They provided snacks, we were able to charge our devices, and we were able to take in more sights along the way.
Getting from country to country by bus is the same way with flying, you have to get through immigration. No worries though! The bus attendant helps and guides the passengers through the process. Just remember to keep your passport ready.
The Giant Ibis stop is a 3-5 minute walk to Khao San Road. According to “The Beach”, a book by Alex Garland, Khao San Road is the “centre of the backpacking universe”. This is a place that really comes to life at night. Around here is where we decided to book our Thailand accommodations, 3house and Fat Cat Hostel.

Notable spots we’ve visited…
Day 7: Khao San Road
Day 8: Grand Palace and Temple of Emerald Buddha, Bangkok National Museum, Wat Pho, Wat Phra Kaew, Wat Arun, Wat Lokaya Sutha

Day 9: Saduak Floating Market (tour)
Day 10: Ayutthaya (tour) Temples: Wat Yai Chai Mongkol, Wat Chai Wattanaram, Wat Phra Si, Sanphet, Wat Na Phra Men, Wat Manhathat

Day 11: Chatuchak Weekend Market, Pratunam Market

Food to try…
Coconut Ice Cream, Pad Thai, Mango Sticky Rice, Mango with Nam Pla Wan
Outside my comfort zone…
Fried Scorpion on a stick. Did I like it? YES! I even liked it better than the grasshopper.
Beer to try…
Chang, Singha, Leo
Tip!
If you want to go to Ayutthaya, you may opt to ride a train from Hua Lamphong Train Station (Bangkok station). However, we found that it was easier to just book an Ayutthaya tour van.
MY TAKEAWAY FROM THAILAND
Bangkok is a booming and vibrant city where boredom is seldom encountered. There’s so much that it offers, from food, to shopping, to its exciting (and arguably unique) nightlife. Thailand is a culturally diverse country, and much like several others in Asia, it is a collage of the ancient and the modern.