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Southeast Asia: Go it alone

Escape the drudgery of life in the herd and explore Southeast Asia

Southeast Asia: Go it alone
Damnern Saduak Floating market, Bangkok. © photolibrary.com

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I‘ve often flown into Bangkok with only the vaguest of plans, and made the most of its status as transport hub extraordinaire to fly on to China, Laos or one or two of Thailand’s beautiful islands. Travelling solo, I’ve never regretted spending up to a week in Bangkok at each end of every trip. South-east Asia’s cities offer rich pickings for lone travellers, even first timers to the Orient and are great hubs for planning excursions into the region’s lush mountains, myriad beaches and wildlife-rich jungle.

The human scale and laid-back pace of Chiang Mai, Thailand’s second city, is a welcome follow-up to addictive, megacity thrills of the capital, but the change of scene between Thailand and Laos is even more striking. Luang Prabang, still rustic in spite of throngs of independent travellers, is an accessible and easy-going city, and should spur on solo visitors to plan further exploration of Laos.

The key to having a great time in all three destinations is to improvise, be up for a chat, explore on foot or by bicycle as much as possible, and revel in the knowledge that, in this part of the world, street stalls lord it over restaurants. So no more ‘table for one’. Bangkok Bangkok’s non-stop hurly-burly, unbridled consumer to-ing and fro-ing and cultural multiplicity make it a truly rewarding city to visit alone. Hassles are few, distractions are endless. Moving around with the freedom of the solo flâneur, you can enjoy the sensory overload; making decisions about what to do and where to go at your whim. As you savour your first fresh coconut juice of the day, you might form a plan to head to the Siam Center or Lumphini Park, then find yourself getting distracted by a street of toy shops or a flower market. Since it’s a sure thing that the city will perplex and over-excite you, with all its temptations, kaleidoscopic street life and sheer scale, abandon any thoughts of getting the better of it. Instead, stick to a few areas, work out a way of getting around them, and take it easy.

Allow yourself to be distracted. Make a tick list of markets, temples, bars and boutiques, but schedule plenty of wandering time in between. You might find that train stations, shopping malls, parks and artisan districts are just as fascinating as tourist sights and high-design must-sees.

The Old Town, roughly contained by a curve of the Chao Phraya river between Dusit to the north and Sathorn to the south, is the cheapest place to stay, and puts you close to Chinatown, the Grand Palace and Wat Phra Kaew (Wat meaning temple; in this case, the home of the amazing Emerald Buddha), and Wat Po, Bangkok’s oldest temple, where you can see the vast and golden Reclining Buddha.

Banglamphu, South-east Asia’s original backpacker enclave, now brushed up and no longer spurned by Thais, is still a good spot to hook up with fellow travellers and find bucket shops for onward travel. Commuter and tourist boats ply the river — one of the fastest ways to travel in this teeming metropolis.

Like the city as a whole, Bangkok’s sprawling Chinatown has no centre, as such, though the decorative gate at the intersection of Thanon Yaowarat and Thanon Charoen Krung is a good starting point. Historically a hub of commercial activity, this area is emblematic of economic and political Sino-Thai links that go back centuries. It’s a heck of a place for a stroll and some dim sum. Follow your nose — heading from temple to temple or concentrating on markets or street food — and you’ll fill up on impressions and adventure, while getting royally lost. The ‘one product, one street’ areas — majoring in flowers, stationery, packaging, and so on — are spellbinding. Pahurat is the Indian quarter, marked by vendors selling Indian sweets, saris and Bollywood DVDs.

For more luxurious accommodation and the trendier bars and restaurants, Sukhumvit is the place to be, though the fun bits need homing in on; until you locate recommended neighbourhoods off the endless, congested main drag (numbered streets called ‘sois’), it doesn’t look promising. Likewise considered ‘downtown’, Silom and Sathorn offer an ever-changing nightlife scene; their financial-industry skyscrapers cohabiting with restaurants, karaoke venues, gay bars, strip joints and the famously lubricious, touristy night market at Patpong. If the idea of bar-hopping alone bores you, invent your own nightlife itinerary of street-food sampling, watching the action at night markets, and urban rambles — if you keep to populous, commercial areas, Bangkok is pretty safe for nocturnal roaming.

Daytime sights to see include the Baan Kamthieng museum at the Siam Society in Sukhumvit, a walk-through introduction to northern Lanna culture; and Jim Thompson’s House Museum, a handful of antique teak buildings housing the US silk merchant’s collection of art and craft treasures. This is a handy orientation point, accessible from both Khlong Mahanak — the canal that links the Old Town with Pathumwan and Sukhumvit — and the Skytrain. Two of the city’s best-known shopping malls are nearby: whopping MBK, and fashionable Siam Centre, with its hip boutiques. But the most fun shopping experience is perhaps Chatuchak Weekend Market, a vast and delightful park of consumer gratification in the north, reached on the Skytrain.

If you’re in town for long enough, you could hire a bicycle to take a look around Dusit, the peaceful, architecturally interesting royal and governmental quarter; or hire a longtail boat to see Thonburi, west of the river. Guided tours, cookery courses or massage tuition can be a good way to pal up with other solo travellers. Get chatting to Thais and travellers to find out about the newest bars and restaurants; sample street food; indulge in Thai massage; and climb the Golden Mount for a 360-degree view of the city — just don’t expect to come down any less bamboozled by it all.

Chiang Mai
When Bangkok gets a bit too much, it couldn’t be easier or more refreshing to head off up north — Chiang Mai is Thailand’s second city, and a hub for trekking and hill-tribe study. By far the most enjoyable way to get to there from Bangkok is by sleeper train from Hualumphong station; you can buy tickets for imminent departure from the travel agents around Khao San Road.

Chiang Mai is a doddle to get the hang of in comparison with bewildering Bangkok; walkable yet big enough to keep the solo traveller busy for a week, with temples, markets and street food galore. The old city is more or less built on a grid system, contained within a moat, with five gates (1960s-built reproductions) and corner bastions. To feel safe and central, base yourself at one of the many inexpensive and friendly guest houses inside or around the east moat; there are more upmarket mid-range places around the Night Market, on the east side of the city centre.

Wat ‘collectors’ can see up to 36 temples in the old city: Wat Phra Singh, Wat Chedi Luang and Wat Chiang Man are the most visited, with Wat Papao an appealing 19th-century newcomer just across the north moat. Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep, a six-mile bus ride to the north-west, is a lovely day trip, a mountain temple with beautiful architectural details and a festive yet reverent feel to it. While you’re there, you can take a wooded walk to Monthatharn Falls in the Doi Suthep-Pui National Park. All sorts of excursions and adventures are bookable in Chiang Mai: birdwatching, homestays with hill tribes, mountain biking, rafting, trekking, and all things ‘organic’ and ‘eco’. To slow things down for a few days, especially if you’re a sensitive yogi type, the hippie-chic enclave of Pai takes about a day to reach by coach.

In Chiang Mai, the cookery course at Sompet Market is good for learning about produce and northern Thai cookery. Wandering around sampling street food is enthralling enough for the casual gastronome, although without a guide it can be frustrating not being able to ask vendors what kind of noodles or dumplings they’re cooking up. That said, the quality of street food in Thailand is so amazing it’s unlikely you’ll ever regret eating an indeterminate snack. Watching deft stall-holders shaping and frying churros-like pastries outside Chiangmai Gate is entertainment in itself. On Sunday evenings, the town turns out to stroll on Ratchadamnoen Road and Thaphae Road, which leads out towards the River Ping and market districts.

Luang Prabang
Whether you fly from Chiang Mai or spend two or three days travelling overland, a week in Luang Prabang will give you a flavour of the gentle charm and incredible natural beauty of Laos, only officially accessible to tourists since 1989. The city’s protected status means that trucks and buses are banned, and quiet descends by midnight, so the aesthetic appeal of its French colonial architecture and graceful temples is literally unspoilt.

Luang Prabang’s position at the confluence of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers, surrounded by mountains, is extraordinary. From the ‘main road’ (various stretches are called Th Sakkarin, Th Sisavangvong and Th Phothisalat), where cafes, trek firms and ATMs cater for tourists, it takes only 10 minutes to walk down to the banks of the mighty Mekong. And if you book a trek — I joined a three-day itinerary that took us to stay overnight among Hmong villagers, via leech-infested forest and magnificent mountain views — you’ll probably set off by river boat. It’s hard to resist texting someone back home to tell them you’re just off down the Mekong.

Back in Luang Prabang, the most rewarding way to spend time is simply to wander around, either on foot or bicycle — a better option, since it allows you to see more than just the cosy, tourist-cosseting centre. Phu Si, the city’s great landmark hill, is visible from just about everywhere on the peninsula, so you shouldn’t get too lost. Wat Xieng Thong is the most splendid temple, located near the northern point where the two rivers meet; construction began during the 1500s, and one of its chapels contains a beautiful reclining Buddha, in the classical Lao style, dating from the same period.

The arrival of luxury hotel groups such as Aman and Alila in Luang Prabang means you can count on plump pillows and a glass of Burgundy at the end of a leech-infested trek. If you do go top-end, make sure you venture out to eat street food, and check out the excellent bakeries, such as JoMa Bakery Cafe on Th Fao Na Ngum. The centre has dozens of cafes, bars and bistros where you can sit, read, chat or watch a film (try L’Etranger Books & Tea for various nightly screenings). Compared with Bangkok, this is a minuscule city, but don’t underestimate how long you’ll want to spend here — it’s one of those destinations you’ll wish you didn’t
have to leave.

ESSENTIALS: Thailand & Laos

Getting there
British Airways, Thai Airways, EVA Air and Qantas fly daily between Heathrow and Bangkok. A sleeper train from Bangkok’s Hualumphong station to Chiang Mai leaves several times a day and takes about 12-14 hours. Thai Airways flies several times a day between Bangkok and Chiang Mai. Lao Airlines flies between Chiang Mai and Luang Prabang five times a week. Economical and air-conditioned tourist buses run between Bangkok and Chang Mai; Chang Mai and Luang Prabang.
www.ba.com  www.thaiairways.co.uk  www.evaair.com  www.qantas.co.uk  www.laoairlines.com
Average flight time: 11h to Bangkok.

Getting around
In Bangkok, the river, the Skytrain, and Khlong Mahanak canal create a triangle of public transport connecting the Old Town with Downtown and Sukhumvit. Commuter boats on the river and canals are cheap, frequent and swift; taxis are counter-productive, especially at rush hour. Chiang Mai is largely walkable, with tuk-tuks for hire if you need one. Luang Prabang’s centre is tiny but a good way to explore is by bicycle.

When to go
Bangkok, Chiang Mai and Luang Prabang swelter most of the year, but during the peak tourist season of November to February, it is cooler and dryer. The hottest month is April, and the rainy season is April to October.

Need to know
Visas: A 30-day visa is granted on arrival, although this can vary if you are arriving in Laos from Cambodia, for example. Check with the embassy.
Currency: Thai baht. £1 = B50.
Lao kip. £1 = KN13.
Health: Consult your GP about jabs six weeks before travel. Anti-malarials are not required for Bangkok.
International dial codes: 00 66.
for Thailand, plus 02 for Bangkok or 053 for Chiang Mai. 00 plus 071 for Luang Prabang.
Time difference: GMT +6.

Where to stay
Mid-range: Rooms from £25 at Regency Park Hotel in Bangkok; from £5 at White House in Chiang Mai; from £12-30 at Sayo Guest House in Luang Prabang. www.accorhotels-asia.com  www.whitehousechiangmai.com www.sayoguesthouse.com
Luxury: Rooms at the Sukhothai in Bangkok cost from £140; at Tamarind Village in Chiang Mai from £85. Suites at Amantaka, Luang Prabang, cost from £425. www.sukhothai.com  www.tamarindvillage.com  www.aman.com

More info
www.tat.or.th
www.tourismlaos.gov.la
The Rough Guide to Laos. RRP: £12.99.
DK Eyewitness Travel Guide: Thailand. RRP: £15.99.
The Rough Guide to Bangkok. RRP: £12.99.
A History of Thailand, by Chris Baker and Pasuk Phongpaichit. RRP: £17.99.
A History of Laos, by Martin Stuart-Fox. RRP: £22.99.

How to do it
A 12-day Roam Laos and Thailand package costs from £599 per person B&B, but excludes international flights. www.gapadventures.com

Published in the Mar/Apr 2011 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)