Inexperienced and Alone: How I Survived My DIY Indochina Backpacking Trip

They say that you should travel alone at least once in your life. So when I had the chance, I gave it a try. It may be daunting to go on a DIY Indochina backpacking trip when you are inexperienced and alone but I survived it anyway. It is definitely a very rewarding experience. So if you want to do the same, then read on for valuable insights!

The Plan

I don’t have itchy feet nor I go out frequently. But I was still bitten by the bug. Wanderlust was consuming me and I knew I had to do something about it. I wanted to travel alone, even I had no prior experience.

3 countries.
2 bags.
1 daring adventure to accomplish.

I chose Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam or collectively known as Indochina to have my solo backpacking debut since these countries are famous for being budget-friendly.

Amazing Thailand

The moment I stepped on the plane, I knew there’s no turning back. Anxiety and excitement filled my heart as I sat down inside. Luckily, my seat was right next to the window. I was able to watch outside and feel the flight. It was my first airplane ride and my first international flight.

Carrying all my stuff, I went straight to the temples. I immediately fell in love with Wat Pho. With its colorful pagodas, viharas, gigantic statues and active temples, I bet you’d fall in love with it too. There’s a lot to see inside, including the largest Golden Reclining Buddha. The intricate details will catch your eyes. I guess, you might have heard that scammers are prevalent in Bangkok. Good thing I haven’t experienced it. Maybe because I never bothered to visit the famous Grand Palace anymore since it is expensive and crowded. Scammers are mostly scattered in that area so be careful! Moving forward, I also visited Wat Arun or the Temple of Dawn. Painted in white and decorated with multi-colored porcelain, this temple glitters at night and depicts the heaven at day.

The next day, I had my breakfast at Lumphini Park. While everyone was on their active wears to jog, I wore a dress to stroll around the park. The park is a green oasis in the middle of the city where everyone goes for relaxation and exercise. It is also home for monitor lizards which I didn’t bother to take a close up photo of. On my way back, I passed by the Holy Redeemer Church, which I find interesting since the structure and design of a Catholic Church and a Buddhist temple were combined together. As a Catholic, I stopped for a while to pay respect and pray. Being an Alice in Wonderland fanatic, I included in my itinerary a themed cafe at Ekkamai 10 and grabbed some mousse and espresso. For shopping, I went to Terminal 21. Want to travel the world in one place? Then Terminal 21 is the place! Every floor, including the restrooms, is designed as a city like Paris, London, San Francisco, Tokyo, Rome, and Istanbul. Moreover, the stuff here is incredibly cheap and affordable.

It’s now time to leave Bangkok and go to Siem Reap. Before leaving my hostel, I asked the receptionist who speaks English well about the Mo Chit 2 or Bangkok Northern Bus Terminal to make sure I won’t get lost. I made sure to reach the terminal before the departure time of 8 am. Travel time between the two countries is 8 hours. I boarded a direct bus under Natthakan Bus Co. I haven’t realized that the bus company is Cambodian which explains why the locals I asked were not familiar with it. But don’t worry, you can buy the tickets at The Transport Co. Ltd. located at the terminal or you may book online in advance as well. My overall experience with the bus exceeded my expectations. Lunch and snacks were provided. They will even guide you on how to pass the immigration at the border without being scammed.

Challenging Cambodia

I reached Siem Reap around 4:30 pm which was one and a half hour ahead of my scheduled hostel pick-up. So I decided to take the free tuk-tuk ride offered by the bus company. Little did I know, it would change the course of my trip. I planned to cycle around Angkor Wat instead of a tuk-tuk ride. However, the tuk-tuk driver insisted to drive me around the temples, even if I didn’t want to for I had other plans. I couldn’t contact anyone nor my hostel since I failed to buy a SIM card nor I was connected to a pocket wi-fi at that time. It went on for minutes. But in the end, I agreed because I was afraid that he might not take me to my hostel. These people feed on tourists, so I understood that he badly needed it for his income. Good thing he offered me his service and not robbed me, right? What’s more important is that I reached my hostel safely. And since I wanted to cycle around Angkor complex but won’t be able to, I availed a free 4-hour bicycle rental from my hostel to explore the central market and pub street. But after an hour, I already gave up because the bike was so big for me and it was difficult to cross the bustling streets. Not to mention that there is no pedestrian crossing in sight!
 

I left my hostel at 4:30 am and proceeded to check-out and start my temple tour. Your hostel may arrange a temple tour for you but I preferred to do it on my own. And like I said earlier, I wanted to try cycling around the temples but I ended up with a tuk-tuk ride. Instead of paying 2 USD for a bicycle rental, I paid 15 USD for the said ride. But it wasn’t bad after all. I watched the sunrise at Angkor Wat and explored the largest temples in the complex. It was the first time I saw Cambodia’s famous wonder. I even saw monkeys! Afterwards, I went to Bayon Temple to marvel at the stone faces carved into its towers. I also had a side trip to a small temple called Takeo. My temple hopping experience ended with Ta Phrom or the Tomb Raider’s temple which I find unique because of the massive trees enveloping the ruins of the temple.

I finished the tour earlier than expected. I asked the tuk-tuk driver to drop me off at Virak Buntham sales office to buy a bus ticket to Ho Chi Minh. But due to a misunderstanding, I was taken to an agency instead. Although Khmers can speak English, it is not a guarantee that you will understand each other well. So I ended up buying a ticket of an unfamiliar bus. That wouldn’t happen if I just booked online. But I’m not really fond of booking and paying online. The only time I did for this trip was when I reserved for my accommodations. I went to pub street to have lunch and research on the bus. It helped that restaurants and cafes in Siem Reap have free wifi. However, the only thing I found out was news about its road accident. I got anxious. I didn’t want to board the bus. Worse, I found out that I lost 20 USD. How did I know? It’s because I keep track of my expenses. My records and cash on hand were not balanced. Whew, I’m an accountant after all.

After all those incidents, my excitement to visit my last destination lessened. In fact, I found myself desperately wanting to go home. But I realized that my whole trip shouldn’t be affected by those misfortunes. I already gained incredible experiences. Not to mention that I also gained a friend. 😉

Laid-back Vietnam

In the end, I still boarded that unfamiliar bus. It took me two buses to reach Ho Chi Minh – an overnight bus and a day bus. I must say that I was able to sleep on the overnight bus. However, the period of my sleep wasn’t long enough since I had to transfer to a day bus. The bus stopped at Phnom Penh and it was already 4:30 am. The next bus arrived at 6:00 am and I was the only Asian passenger.

“Now we’re dropped off in the middle of nowhere.”

I will never forget these words uttered by a fellow passenger when we reached the bus stop at Ho Chi Minh. Yes, we reached the city but not the heart of it. There were no instructions on how we can get there. After what I experienced in Siem Reap, I became a braver person now. I got off the bus and found my way out. I found the main road. There were no residential houses around and only a few establishments at sight. I could ride a taxi or a motorcycle but I didn’t. I never really ride on motorcycles even in my home country. I politely turned down the offers of motorists who passed by. Instead, I trusted my own feet, my offline map… and my 25% phone battery. So after 2 or 3 hours of walking, I finally reached District 1 which is the heart of the city!

I planned to visit various landmarks in Ho Chi Minh and take a Mekong Delta tour. However, I just decided to explore the city like a local and avoid touristy places. As a South East Asian descent, I thought I would be mistaken as a local as well. But to my surprise, they thought I was Chinese! I lost count of all the motorists who thought I was Chinese even if I initially told them that I came from the Philippines. By the way, there are a lot of motorbikes popping around the streets so be cautious. Most of them would offer you a ride so if you don’t want to, just politely say no.

My hotel gave me a map and suggested which landmarks I should visit by only walking. You may discover the city by just walking around and trying the local cuisines. Vietnam is popular for its coffee and banh mi or baguette as introduced by the French during its colonial period. A fellow Filipina I met in the hotel suggested me to try the famous coconut coffee at Cong Caphe. It is indeed a unique and delicious coffee to try!

Sometimes,  travel can get you exhausted, especially when you have plenty of activities in a day. As my last leg in this Indochina trip, Vietnam helped me relax and experience a day like a local.

Indochina Backpacking Expenses

I opted to bring US Dollars with me because exchanging PHP to other currencies is not popular. It is better to bring the most traded currencies like USD, Euro or British Pound.

Based from above, I only spent PHP 9,042.04 during my DIY Indochina backpacking trip and was even able to spare a dollar from my initial pocket money. But as stated earlier, I lost 20 USD. To compensate that, I had to withdraw such amount in the ATM with 4 USD service charge. 😢

Key Takeaways

checkBring US Dollars with you. In Bangkok, you won’t have trouble exchanging money since there are a lot of money changers scattered in the city. However, you cannot break down dollars in smaller bills nor exchange only a portion of the whole bill. Let’s say you have a whole 100 USD bill, you cannot exchange 50 USD to THB and receive the other 50 USD.  It’s either you exchange the whole 100 USD in THB or not. Moreover, you cannot ask them to break down the 100 USD in five 20 USD bills. In Cambodia, you won’t need to exchange money since they also use USD as currency. Even ATMs eject dollars! In Vietnam, you may opt to exchange money at the bank.

checkVisa is not required in these countries for Filipinos. As part of the ASEAN agreement, ASEAN nationals can enter another ASEAN country without a visa. In addition, I met at least one Filipino in each country I’ve been to on this trip. I met most of them at the hostel. I believe that in case you’ll have trouble, you could find a fellow Filipino to help you out.

checkEnglish is not widely spoken in these countries. Locals are very friendly and helpful despite the language barrier. They will help you in the best way they can which includes charades and drawing! So please be patient and respectful of them.

checkBuying a SIM Card or renting a pocket wifi is not a requirement. I bought a SIM card when I was in Thailand but I had trouble registering it for data surfing so I ended up consuming the load as it is. In Siem Reap and Ho Chi Minh, I was able to connect to free wifi from cafes and restaurants. But if you want to be always connected, then you could buy a local SIM or rent a pocket wifi.

checkTreat Google map as your best friend. Navigating around your itinerary, especially the DIY ones, can get tricky. In my case, I researched routes on Google maps and screenshot them for later use. I didn’t really depend on internet connection since I already had a copy of my routes. You may also opt to download offline maps. It saved my life when I found myself in the middle of nowhere in Ho Chi Minh.

checkResearch. Research. Research. Nothing beats the power of being prepared. And don’t worry about ruining your spontaneity. By knowing as much as you can beforehand, you could avoid the bad and enjoy the good. You may also find it easy to follow your itinerary because you know what to do, what to see and what to expect.

So there you have it – an account of my DIY Indochina backpacking trip. It might not be jam-packed compared to the other experienced travel bloggers. This even took me a while to write. I believe that we can go to the same destination but our journey will be different. 😉 It might be all good or all bad. Mine happened to be the combination of both. Although it didn’t turn out the way I wanted it to be, it turned out the way it should be. I was amazed and challenged. Most importantly, I learned.

How about you? Have you been on a DIY Indochina backpacking trip as well? Do you have the same experience? And if you haven’t, do you still want to go after reading this? I’d love to know your thoughts by commenting down below!