The best decision my boyfriend and I made when planning for our 3 month trip through Southeast Asia was buying a one way ticket to Bangkok. I thought we’d do a ‘banana pancakes’ type route: a clockwise circle through northern Thailand, northern Laos, down Vietnam, through Cambodia, and back to Bangkok. However, this meant skipping a significant section of Laos! And taking up time getting back to Bangkok for our flight out.
We ended up purchasing a flight out of Hanoi in Northern Vietnam two months into the trip, when we had more information about where we wanted to end up. This gave us the freedom to explore where we wanted, for however long we wanted. Bonus: if you’re terrified of commitment like me, this plan should make you feel all safe and warm inside! 😉
My favorite part is that we didn’t take any planes in between the ones getting us to and from Southeast Asia! We took trains, boats, buses, vans, tuk tuks, and even a tractor once! Although planes can be great, this route really felt like a journey and an adventure.
These overland methods of transportation can be much slower, but sharing a local bus with a lady transporting a net of locusts to sell at the market, for example, is part of the experience. We got to see much more of the daily lives of the people whose country we were visiting by traveling overland and not taking planes in the middle of our adventure.
Another advantage of not flying is that you can extend or cut a stay at much shorter notice. For instance, when I got food poisoning in Luang Prabang (ughh) it was an easy decision to stay a couple of extra days when we were originally planning to leave the next day. If we had bought a plane ticket, my cheap ass would have probably insisted we catch it.
The ‘Wave’ Route Through Southeast Asia
Our route ended up looking like a (wobbly) wave, so I’m calling it The Wave Route through Southeast Asia. Check out the map below.
Starting in Bangkok, we travel north to explore northern Thailand, then east to cross the border into Laos. We travel south down the length of Laos and into Cambodia, and then to proceed to southern Vietnam. For the final leg of our journey, we wander north along the coast of Vietnam.
I recommend this route: we thought of it on the fly, but it ended up being an excellent itinerary for the following reasons:
- No need to double back
- Hits all the must-sees and must-dos
- Flexible departure location
- Flexible sights and activities in between
- No planes means seeing more of the country, plus more authentic experiences
- No planes also means you can extend or shorten a location at short notice
- It has a cool catchy title 😛
Let’s Break it Down
This route can take anywhere from about two to four months. For a three month journey: you get three weeks in each country, with the flexibility to spend an extra week in a place that really speaks to you and not completely shaft another location in the process. Here’s the rough itinerary, although the beauty of this route is that you can switch things up on the fly.
- Fly in to Bangkok, Thailand. I found Bangkok was the city where the cheapest flights were headed. Spend a day here to recuperate and another day or two to explore and eat some bomb-ass food.
- Take the night train to Chiang Mai. I freaking love trains, and the night train is comfortable and a great experience! Spend however long you want in Chiang Mai, we ended up staying for three weeks as I had some work to finish. There’s a ton to do and see up there. (Like the Elephant Nature Park! Go to the Elephant Nature Park!)
- Take a bus to Chiang Rai, spend a day to see the White Temple. To see a more remote part of Thailand, stay at Bamboo Nest for a couple of relaxing days. Another bus will take you most of the way to the border with Laos. A tuktuk should take you all the way to the Huay Xai border crossing. There you can do The Gibbon Experience, which I highly recommend!
- From Huay Xai, take the slow boat down the Mekong River to Luang Prabang, a marvelous river town full of temples and croissants.
- A bus will take you from Luang Prabang to Vang Vieng, the outdoor adventure capital of Laos. I definitely recommend a visit.
- Another bus and you’re in Vientiane, the capitol of Laos.
- Make your way on to central Laos, a verdant place full of jungly limestone carsts and mysterious caves. This part of our trip felt the most adventurous. We went to Konglor, a 9 km long river cave. Although it ended up flooded and unsafe for visitors, just getting there was a thrill, and involved motorboat kayaks on a flooded road, and even a tractor! Some choose to do ‘The Loop’, a circular motorcycle trek that sounded perilous to me, which also features Konglor Cave.
- A long bus ride took us to Pakse in Southern Laos, which was just a stopover to Si Phan Don: Four Thousand Islands sprinkled in the Mekong River’s splintering branches. A beautiful and unique experience.
- It’s time to make your way to Cambodia: a bus will take you all the way to Siem Reap. I recommend setting aside three days to explore Angkor Wat: it’ll blow your socks off!
- Take a boat through giant Tonle Sap Lake and the Sangker River to Battambang. Tip: sit on the roof with the luggage for great views of the floating villages along your route. Explore the Cambodian countryside around Battambang, and don’t miss the Bat Caves at sunset!
- A bus should take you to Phnom Pehn to get some history and culture to round out your stay in Cambodia.
- We took a night bus to Ho Chi Minh City: I don’t recommend doing this if you’re by yourself, or you might end up in basically a twin bed with a stranger! Explore the city for a couple of days or however long your heart desires.
- Take a train north along the coast to Da Nang. Tip: get a sleeping seat that is on the lowest bunk, you’ll thank me later: the top bunks are quite claustrophobic. A short bus ride from Da Nang is Hoi An: a gem of a town that has everything you could ever want in a destination. I’d stay for at least 5 days: get some clothes made, go to the beach, gorge yourself on Banh Mi, etc
- Take a train north to Hanoi, and again sleep on the lower bunk. Try to arrive in the morning, so you can go straight to Cat Ba Island. Spend a couple of days exploring this beautiful wonderland, and finish off with an overnight boat trip to Ha Long Bay or Lan Ha Bay. This may have been the most beautiful part of the whole trip, and is not to be missed!
- Spend a day or two exploring and eating in Hanoi. Here’s a great city guide to Hanoi.
- Fly back to your adoring fans! OK that last part didn’t happen but a girl can dream.
Your Route Through Southeast Asia
What do you think of our route? Would you consider doing ‘The Wave’ through Southeast Asia? What about the ‘Child’s Pose Route?’ Do you see it? (That was legit a contender 😉 ) If you’re headed that way, make sure to check out my Southeast Asia Packing List! Happy adventurings!
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this is a great travel story. I appreciate you sharing your route details. I am looking forward to backpacking south east asia someday. Interesting to know you didnt use plane at all
What an epic route! I can’t wait to hear more about each of your destinations. You must have had SUCH a blast!!
This looks like an amazing route! I’ve been considering heading to SEA soon and this looks totally doable!
It 100% is! We did a lot of our planning last minute too! 🙂
That’s a great summary of your trip! How long did it take by boat to get to Luang Prabang? and similarly how long did it take to get to Hoi An? I’d love to know the time it took with public transportation 🙂
The slow boat from Huay Xai to Luang Prabang took 2 days, we stayed overnight along the way. The train to Hoi An from Ho Chi Minh City took about 12 hours I think, and the bus from Da Nang to Hoi An about 20 minutes. Both were really enjoyable experiences!
This is definitely one of the better routes through South East Asia. I definitely prefer getting buses and boats over planes where possible too. Which is your favourite place?
Lan Ha bay was my favorite I think, it’s one of those places that you feel yourself watching yourself experience it. Once in a lifetime experience!
This is such an informative post, and I like the sound of your route, will keep it in mind when I eventually make it back to south east Asia! I hope plenty of banana pancakes were consumed though, banana pancakes and banana sandwiches were my favourite breakfasts in Myanmar haha!
There were definitely banana pancakes, not to worry! 😉 I could eat Southeast Asian food every day for the rest of my life, but breakfast is different somehow, I just want fruit and carbs!
Thank you for this! How did it work for Visas if you traveled only by land? Did you have to show them a train/bus ticket out of the country? Were you able to book them online?
It’s different depending on your passport. The only visa that’s not granted on arrival for Americans was Vietnam: we worked with a travel agency in Cambodia while we were there, and they were able to get us one easily.