Category Archives: Hotel review

12-City Southeast Asia Travel Itinerary

Planning Southeast Asia travel can be really daunting.

There are a million places to see and things to do, and if your time and budget are limited it can be tough to pick and choose where to go and when.

That’s why I’ve laid out this year’s Southeast Asia circle tour in detail.  If you’re feeling overwhelmed while planning your trip, you can simply follow in my footsteps!

Below I’ve listed

  • Which city/country I visited
  • What hotel/hostel/guest house I stayed at
  • The best thing I did/saw in that city
  • How much time I spent there
  • What to watch out for
  • How I traveled between each city (bus/train/plane)

Let’s go!

1. Vientiane, Laos

southeast-asia-travel-vientiane

Where I stayed: The Funky Monkey Hostel – private room for $12/night. This place definitely had a hostel vibe, but the private rooms are on a different floor from the dorms so they’re pretty quiet.

The best thing I did: Visited Buddha Park

How long I stayed: 6 days – if you’re not working as you travel, you can easily see all there is to see in Vientiane in 1 or 2 days.

Watch out for: The Lonely Planet Guide to Laos, which says you can take a bus to Buddha Park. In fact, you can only take a bus to the Friendship Bridge. From there you have to take a 50,000 kip tuk tuk to Buddha Park.

Also, don’t buy electronics (ear buds, cell phone chargers) at the “Apple Store” in the Talat Sao mall. They’re shit quality and will break as soon as you buy them.

How I got out: 12+ hour bus ride to Luang Prabang.

2. Luang Prabang, Laos

southeast-asia-travel-luang-prabang

Where I stayed: Central Backpackers Hostel – very hostely, private rooms from $12+/night, thin walls, noisy, friendly staff, slow WiFi, free breakfast but it’s pretty gross (and I’ve had a LOT of free hotel breakfasts on my journey).

The best thing I did: It’s a toss up between a trek with Tiger Trail and teaching English to the monks at Big Brother Mouse.

How long I stayed: 2 weeks.

Watch out for: Flies at food stalls in the day market, scammy tuk tuk drivers, women on the street who ask you to “come talk to my daughter, she just happens to be leaving for college in the town you happen to be from, won’t you come have dinner at our house?” (SCAM! RUN!)

How I got out: Mini-bus to Nong Khiaw (3-4+ hours)

3. Nong Khiaw, Laos (and Muang Ngoi Neua)

southeast-asia-travel-nong-khiaw

Where I stayed: The Sunrise Bungalows ($10/night for a private riverside bungalow. Beautiful, bare bones but your own bathroom and balcony. Pray your neighbors are quiet because you’re basically sleeping outside and can hear everything).

The best thing I did: Hiked to “the Lookout Point” – it’s a tough hike up the main mountain in town and may take you a good 90 minutes to reach the summit, but the stunning views are more than worth it.

How long I stayed: 6 days. There’s not much to do here but relax. I could’ve stayed longer.

Watch out for: Noise. The set up couldn’t be more peaceful (picture yourself lounging in a hammock on a balcony that overlooks a sweeping river gorge below), but there is constant thumping music coming from the boat dock and noisy boats passing by all day.

How I got out: Mini-bus back to Luang Prabang followed by a flight to Hanoi, Vietnam.

southeast-asia-travel-muang-ngoi-neua

A note about Muang Ngoi Neua:  This is a tiny river village about an hour’s boat ride north of Nong Khiaw. I stayed here for one night at a bungalow owned by a Swiss guy named Gabriel. (He’ll be the only white guy waiting at the boat landing and he’ll walk you to the bungalow himself). It’s definitely worth a visit but keep in mind that it’s off the grid completely – Lonely Planet says there is WiFi but THERE IS NOT. There is barely cell reception. 

4. Hanoi, Vietnam

southeast-asia-travel-hanoi

Where I stayed: Lakeside Hostel and Hanoi Hostel on several different occasions. Both were around $12/night for a private room. Lakeside has smelly rooms without windows and unfriendly staff. Hanoi Hostel has friendlier staff, good free breakfast, and large (if a bit dusty) private rooms.

The best thing I did: Walked around the Old Quarter and Hoan Kiem Lake area. There is so much to see in Hanoi simply walking around – the colors, the people, the sites and smells are simply brilliant. Seeing Tet fireworks over the lake on Vietnamese New Year’s Eve was stunning too.

How long I stayed: 5 days, then two weeks, then on and off again for a day or two here and there. Hanoi is a travel hub so if you’re journeying to Cat Ba, Sa Pa or southern cities you’ll probably have to stay here and depart from here.

Watch out for: Scammy taxi drivers, scammy street vendors. Do your research on what things should cost before you go, and don’t be afraid to bargain and/or walk away if the price is too high.

How I got out: Bus/boat/bus combo to Cat Ba Island.

5. Cat Ba, Vietnam

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Where I stayed: Ali Baba’s Hotel and Restaurant

The best thing I did: Boat tour of Ha Long Bay and the floating villages surrounding Cat Ba

How long I stayed: 6 days initially, then I went back later for 6 weeks

Watch out for: Slow WiFi, no computer shops, nowhere to get a bikini wax.

How I got out: Bus/boat/bus back to Hanoi, followed by a 16-hour bus ride to Da Nang.

6. Da Nang, Vietnam

southeast-asia-travel-danang

Where I stayed: Sea Wonder Hotel near the beach – $14/night, semi-private balcony, walking distance to the beach. Friendly staff, the food in the downstairs restaurant is decent but overpriced.

The best thing I did: Hiked to the big Buddha statue at the base of Monkey Mountain – the views of Da Nang from here are simply stunning. The Cham Museum in town is also worth a visit. There are also beautiful bridges lining the river that leads to the ocean – at night they are lit up in stunning electric.

How long I stayed: 8 days. You may not stay as long if you want something more touristy. Da Nang has beautiful beaches, great coffee culture, and amazing seafood, but it is very much a ‘local’s town’ – not many tourists, simply a shining, modern city where regular Vietnamese people live and work. I loved it here.

Watch out for: No menus in English depending on where you go, less English spoken here than in Hanoi or HCMC. Also, if you stay by the beach you should rent a motorbike b/c it gets pricey taking a taxi to and from the ‘downtown’ part of the city (where you’ll want to go for dinner, museums, etc).

How I got out: Motorbiked down to Hoi An, returned by motorbike then flew to HCMC.

7. Hoi An, Vietnam

southeast-asia-travel-hoian

Where I stayed: Jolie Homestay – $16/night for a huge private room in a house with a very kind Vietnamese family.

The best thing I did: Hard to choose – I loved taking the Hoi An Photography Tour almost as much as I loved swimming with the locals at An Bang Beach.

How long I stayed: 4 days initially. I’m actually back in Hoi An for the summer because I loved it so much (at the time of writing I’ve now been here for 5 weeks).

Watch out for: Scammy food vendors (a baguette should NOT cost 15,000 dong, it should be 10,000 or less!) My friend got pick pocketed here by way of a very common ‘coin scam’. If someone wants to show you their coins or see your coins, run.

How I got out: Motorbike back up to Da Nang then flew to HCMC.

8. Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

southeast-asia-travel-hcmc

Where I stayed: The Spring House Hotel in District 1. $17+/night. Very much a hotel. Nice enough room, no free breakfast, good location across from the park and a block away from some seriously astounding nightlife.

The best thing I did: Visited the War Remnants Museum. I can’t begin to express how moved and shaken I was by this experience.

How long I stayed: 5 days. You could easily go higher or lower, the city is positively massive and I didn’t begin to explore all it has to offer.

Watch out for: Motorbike pick pockets. Hang on to your stuff and make sure to utilize zippers.

How I got out: Bus to Sa Dec booked through the hotel.

9. Sa Dec, Vietnam

southeast-asia-travel-sadec

Where I stayed: Thao Ngan Hotel. $11/night. Pure hotel, windows that looked out onto a brick wall. Close to the market and the bus station.

The best thing I did: Enjoyed the best pho I had in Vietnam. The restaurant is called Pho Hien. From the hotel, walk across the bridge back toward the bus station and it will be on your left, set back away from the street.

How long I stayed: 4 days. The only thing “to do” here is to see the The Lover house – a local one-story abode made famous because it used to be owned by the nameless lover featured in Marguerite Duras’ novel.

Watch out for: Scammy cab drivers and scammy transpo in general. The taxi driver that took me from the bus station to the hotel tried to charge me about 10x what it should have cost. The hotel also massively overcharged for a bus ticket out of town.

How I got out: Local bus to Chau Doc.

10. Chau Doc, Vietnam

southeast-asia-travel-chaudoc

Where I stayed: Trung Nguyen Hotel across from the main market in town. $15/night. Balcony. Free breakfast and transpo to the boat to Cambodia (which is why you stay in Chau Doc – to catch the fast boat to Phnom Penh).  

The best thing I did: Walked along the riverfront. It’s amazing to watch people living their lives on the water – eating dinner on their tiny wooden boats, paddling across the wide waters standing upright, living their lives on floating structures.

How long I stayed: 1 night

Watch out for: Not much English spoken here – if you need help ask at your hotel before leaving the building. Tuk tuk drivers will ask for tips for taking you 100 yards.

How I got out: The fast boat to Cambodia arranged through my hotel.

11. Phnom Penh, Cambodia

southeast-asia-travel-pp

Where I stayed: The Mad Monkey Hostel. Friendly staff. Privates from $13/night. Overpriced Western food in the downstairs restaurant. The first floor is a bar and the music pumps all day and night and can be heard in the upstairs rooms.

I was so irritated with this I changed to the Salita Hotel in the central part of the city. Three times the price but much, much nicer (and quieter!).

The best thing I did: Feasted in the night market near the river. There are a lot of different markets to see in Phnom Penh and lots to do. By the time I got here I was beat and could only manage to gorge myself on street food.

How long I stayed: 6 days.

Watch out for: Oppressive heat, pollution/car exhaust, pick pockets, traffic, diarrhea, and – say it with me now – scammy tuk tuk drivers.

How I got out: Mini-bus to Siem Reap.

12. Siem Reap, Cambodia

southeast-asia-travel-siemreap

Where I stayed: Sam So Guest House. Best free breakfast of them all, incredibly friendly staff, $12/night for a private ($17/night if you want air-con).

The best thing I did: Angkor Wat was incredible, but I really loved taking a private motorbike tour with my friend Ratha who showed me the surrounding villages and countryside outside the city. (If you’re in Siem Reap and want to see “the real Cambodia,” email me and I’ll put you in touch with Ratha).

How long I stayed: 3 weeks. You can do Angkor Wat in a day, or in 3 days, or in a week. The area is enormous and the ruins seem to never end. But Siem Reap is a lovely river town, a great place to live and work. I found it to be a fantastic resting place to relax at the end of 3 months of hectic Southeast Asia travel.

Watch out for: Theft. I never had anything stolen but have heard countless stories of people getting their phones jacked. Also, watch out for “the milk scam” – if a kid comes up to you begging for you to buy her milk (for “her baby” or “her sister”), don’t do it.

She has a deal with whatever store she takes you to where she can sell the milk back to the store for cash. Cash that she then gives to her “keeper” (like a pimp for begging kids) so the child you think you’re helping does not benefit in any way.

How I got out: Flew to Hanoi because one month was not enough time in Vietnam!

Where will you go on your Southeast Asia travel itinerary? 

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Guest Post: An American in Siberia

At the corner of Lenin Street and Karl Marx Street. Seriously.

I am back on the train again after a two day break in Irkutsk, Siberia. This time I’m headed for Moscow, a three day, four night ride.

I’m currently sharing a compartment with three people, including a four-year-old child. He is surprisingly well-behaved, aside from the occasional “pay attention to me” yell, so the trepidation I felt when I saw him toddle into the room has subsided.

I haven’t seen nearly as many kids in Russia as I did in Korea, where they were bursting from every door, window, and wall (and not just because I worked at a school… they were EVERYWHERE). Perhaps this is because parents in Russia are used to things being much more dangerous than they are in other parts of the world.

It’s easy to forget that just twenty-five years ago, this was the USSR. Oh, and if some obnoxious know-it-all tries to tell you it was the CCCP, kindly inform them that this is just SSSR in Cyrillic, and that they should shut it.

One of many forgotten cities in Siberia.

One of many forgotten cities in Siberia.

But I have seen a few remnants of that time. There are rundown buildings and factories in many cities, every once in awhile I see old men who are missing limbs or eyes, and the utter lack of English spoken by older adults is due in part to the impracticality of teaching your children the language of a culture whose principles you thoroughly disdain.

For the most part, though, the Soviet Union lies in the distant past.

Irkutsk is an interesting town; it is one of the oldest and most populous cities in Siberia, with about as many people as Milwaukee, WI.

In the early 1800’s the Decembrists, in opposition to a newly appointed tsar (which may have been a convenient excuse), staged a rebellion in Moscow.

It was quickly defeated, and the leaders of the Decembrist Revolution (at least, the ones that weren’t killed) were exiled to Siberia, most to Irkutsk. This exile had a number of stipulations, although they are pretty tame compared to those imposed on later Siberian banishments.

This statue captures my mood perfectly.

This statue captures my mood perfectly.

For example, one prominent Decembrist was allowed to completely relocate his recently completed Moscow house to Irkutsk, and although many of the wives weren’t allowed to attend “societal events,” there was nothing stopping them from holding such events on their own estates.

This relocation led Irkutsk to become the intellectual center of Eastern Russia, with many explorers’ foundations and universities located there.

Many tourist sites in Irkutsk are centered around this era, and the tourist bureau makes it very easy to find them all with an easy-to-follow route through the city, supplemented by information posted at each site. AND it’s in English!

The train station at Novosibirsk

The train station at Novosibirsk

I spent a few hours wandering around these sites, most of which are statues or old buildings to which entry is forbidden, but there were a few churches on the list that I could check out.

Most of the older buildings in Irkutsk are wooden. Unfortunately the more recent trend is to use concrete and glass in construction, which leads to the creation of structures that are more stable but much less charming.

The hostel I stayed in is one of the older wooden buildings, a fact that – according to Igor,  the owner – is a huge disappointment for visitors from Moscow or St. Petersburg. Luckily I’m not from either city and I found the place much more inviting than expected.

It took a harrowing ride in a mini-bus, half an hour of searching, and a lot of gesturing with some very helpful cell phone store workers to find it, but the difficulty was immediately worth it when I opened the door to find the most unusual hostel I’ve ever stayed in.

After a steaming dinner of belmeny (dumplings) and, of course, vodka, Igor gave me a quick tour through the three-room hostel. He’s an older man who used to teach English, Russian, and French throughout Europe, and now directs plays in Irkutsk, which is why the house feels like the set of one of his productions.

The house was filled with old playbooks and music, along with all kinds of jury-rigged stage contraptions and old props – even the spiral staircase up to the attic is vintage Igor.

That’s a puppet show next to a handmade staircase at the hostel. SO AWESOME!

That’s a puppet show next to a handmade staircase at the hostel. SO AWESOME!

There were puppets (even an entire recreation of a house, filled with puppets) all over the place and the attic workshop contained a bunch of projects-in-progress. If anyone is in need of a place to stay in Irkutsk and isn’t bothered by waking up to miniature people staring at them in the middle of the night, the Auberge Theatrale gets my hearty recommendation.

My second day in the Irkutsk area was spent exploring Listvyanka, a small town on the shore of Lake Baikal, with two German guys that were staying at the same hostel.

Getting there was easy, although I almost got heat stroke. There are a number of vans that will take passengers from Irkutsk to Listvyanka, and all of them must be driven by men training for the sauna Olympics.

siberia-2

This guy turned the heat up as high as it went and kept it there the entire drive… even the other Russians in the car were complaining that it was too hot (although they still couldn’t be fussed to take off their giant fur coats and hats).

I was about five minutes from stripping naked in a heat-induced frenzy when we made it to the city and escaped into the freezing street.

We hiked up a few hills around the lake, and had some lunch in a local restaurant. Lake Baikal is home to a lot of unique fish, but the most famous is the Omul. I had some for lunch, and it was fatty and delicious. The only thing better than the Omul was the view—the lake hadn’t frozen over for the winter yet, but it was cold enough for icicles to form on just about everything surrounding it.

Igor told me that I should come back in January, when the whole thing is frozen over with almost completely transparent ice. It sounds amazing, but I don’t know if I can brave the average low of minus a zillion. We’ll see.

Even the trees are cold.

Even the trees are cold.

My butt hurts from sitting and typing, so I think it’s about time for a walk around the train. I’ll leave you with a word of the day:

PECTOPAH = restaurant. If you transliterate the Cyrillic, it is actually pronounced “restoran.” I picked this one because it’s one of the only words I can type in Cyrillic without having to figure out where my computer stores the special fonts…

Dan Gerber is a solo traveler from La Crosse, Wisconsin who has traveled to India, Vietnam, and just about everywhere in between. He is currently teaching English in China. Follow his journey at www.restofthebook.blogspot.com

Have a question for Dan? Post it below and he’ll get back to you!

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Quick+Dirty Takeaway

1. If you find yourself in Irkutsk, Siberia, stay at the "puppet hostel," AKA Auberge Theatrale. It's a magical place that's decorated like a theatre, complete with vintage manuscripts, a handmade staircase, and a working puppet show.

2. Siberia is COLD.

Want to dig deeper? Go for it!

HOTEL REVIEW: The Holy Lodge Kathmandu Guest House in Thamel

(this post is my overall review of my stay at the Holy Lodge Kathmandu Guest House. To find out what happened when I first arrived, check out Part 1 here.)

WHAT I PAID

Why is it that so many hotel reviews NEVER INCLUDE PRICES?

I think it’s because many of the people reviewing are getting kickbacks from the hotel or something. If those people list prices, it’s bad for the hotel because they can’t charge more.

My review is totally unbiased – I have no affiliation with the Holy Lodge and I didn’t receive any kind of discount to stay there.

I paid 800 rupees (about $8 USD) per night and stayed there for a total of 3 nights.

I booked the room through HostelWorld.com. I paid $2.40 deposit to hold the room, and paid $21.60 when I checked out.

I’m really glad I had my booking printed out and with me when I checked in. The staff seemed to have my reservation, but they also seemed surprised when I told them the rate I was guaranteed online.

At first, I thought this was because they had hoped to charge me more. Looking back, I now think it was because I could’ve gotten the room for less – there was sort of this energy of “Um….well, ok, if you want to pay more than we would’ve asked for, fine by us.”

kathmandu-guest-house-

WHAT I GOT

800 rupees per night got me:

  • My own private room that had two twin beds. This was perfectly fine with me, I used one bed for my stuff and the other for sleeping.

  • A shared bathroom on my floor with a hot shower and a Western-style toilet. The toilet was separated from the shower, which was nice because you could still use one if someone was in the other. (p.s. scalding hot water is a friggin’ LUXURY in Nepal, and this shower never disappointed, even in the middle of the night)

  • Free WiFi that reached my room – not lightning-fast by any means, but totally usable.

  • A great location in the heart of Thamel within walking distance of everything I wanted to do and see

  • Assistance booking a tourist bus to Pokhara – I got a pretty good deal (700 rupees) and a guaranteed seat on the bus.

WHAT I LOVED

  • I really ended up liking the staff, even though we got off to a rocky start. The guys working at the Holy Lodge are all young Nepalese dudes, and they never really get a break. They are at the hostel 24/7, and switch off taking breaks and sleeping. There was always someone there to answer my questions, help me out, make recommendations and give me whatever I needed.

  • Most of the staff spoke excellent English – we couldn’t exactly have a conversation about Chaucer, mind you, but they understood what I was saying and were able to communicate enough to get the job done.

  • The way the building is set up, there are only 4-5 rooms per floor, and they wrap around in a way that gives you a good amount of privacy. This place did not feel like a hostel to me – the other people staying here were couples in their late 20s/30s, couples in their 50s/60s, solo females, etc. I didn’t get a party crowd vibe at all, even though the location is in the middle of Thamel.

  • They have a great rooftop terrace with nice views of the city during the day and the stars (if you can see ‘em) at night.

NOT MY FAVE

  • My room was opposite a rooftop bar that had live music every night. I don’t know if you can stay in Thamel and get away from the noise, but man – it was as if the band had set up their amplifiers underneath my pillow. Thank God for noise-canceling headphones and prescription Valium from the plane ride.

  • The restaurant downstairs. Overpriced, and the food is just so-so. I asked where I could get a decent bite to eat at the front desk, and – duh – of course they recommended their restaurant. It’s fine for when you’ve just arrived and are still getting your bearings, but once you’re ready to venture out, you’ll find much cheaper, tastier fare outside.

  • I didn’t love how I was offered airport pick up for “only 650 rupees!!” – like that was some sort of deal. The airport to Thamel costs locals 350-400, and tourists shouldn’t pay more than 500. When I found this out, it sort of left a bad taste in my mouth.

View from the roof of the Holy Lodge Kathmandu Guest House
View from the roof of the Holy Lodge Kathmandu Guest House

MY RATING

Would I stay at the Holy Lodge Guest House Kathmandu again?

Definitely. But only with industrial strength earplugs.

Have you stayed at the Holy Lodge? How was it?

additional photos: nepalhotelrooms.com, hostels.com

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Quick+Dirty Takeaway

The Holy Lodge Guesthouse is located in Thamel, Kathmandu, Nepal. It's a great choice for solo female travelers, especially those looking for budget accommodation without the "hostel feel."

Holy Lodge Pvt. Ltd.
7 Corner, Thamel, Kathmandu, Nepal
Phone no: + 977-1-4701763
Mobile: 9851036785/ 9851082990/ 9851040518
www.holylodge.com
info@holylodge.com

1. The Holy Lodge is a clean, comfortable guest house in a great location. It has the three essentials I look for wherever I stay: my own private room, hot water, and WiFi.

2. Only book your first night online to secure the room. After that, negotiate in person. The longer you stay, the better rate you’ll be able to get.

3. Skip the restaurant downstairs and venture out into Thamel for tastier, cheaper fare

4. You don’t need them to pick you up from the airport - there are plenty of cab drivers waiting at the airport who’ll bring you to Thamel for less than 650

Want to dig deeper? Go for it!