Monday, November 14, 2016

INDOCHINA: Travel Beyond Tourism

At one of the bus stopovers in Vietnam en route to Phonsavan
When the bus pulled over at a restaurant I looked for food in the shelves. But all I saw were tables with set meals. I thought they were for the drivers and their crew. Then they invited me over. I remembered Vietnam is a communist country! It was a feast for free.
Things like this are the highlights of my Indochina backpacking. While many people would imagine Angkor Wat, Wat Pho, The Royal Palace and the Floating Market when they hear Indochina backpacking, I devoted most of my time to things that are intangible like the stories behind Tuol Sleng in Cambodia and the bombs in Laos. As a matter of fact, I only spent 3 hours on my bike in the 25 complex of Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom and Ta Phrom; but I spent 2 hours at the small COPE Visitor Center in Laos trying to know the horrors and impact of the atrocities of the US in Indochina. And while many would think that my Indochina itinerary is a wild rush, I actually almost always had a beer in one hand. It was a slow yet fun trip. If I wanted to linger at a spot, I'd do that in the mountains in the Philippines. Why would I waste 3 days (like the tourists recommended) staring at the temples in Siem Reap? When I saw the temples, yes I was amazed by the work of the human hands. But that's the case for all the other temples! The same loss of excitement that I felt two years ago upon seeing the Royal Palace. Actually the jungle in Siem Reap was the one that caught my attention. I enjoyed riding my bicycle under its canopy more than immersing myself among the tourists in the temples.
Of all the beers I tried in Indochina, Saigon Special is the best

And I loved the bus rides too. They were comfortable and they double as your hotel room too. It felt good to be the only non-Vietnamese or non-Lao on one inter-country bus ride. Most tourists would take the Dien Bien Phu - Muang Khua border or the Mekong River crossing. My objective was not to take a selfie at the temples nor to have an immersion. My objective was to find stories. And I'll share one with you.
Laos is the most heavily bombed country in the world. And whose bombs? The US--in their desperate attempt to win over Vietnam. The unexploded ordnance that they have left in Laos have killed more than THIRTY THOUSAND (and counting) innocent civilians in Laos since the end of the Vietnam war. And of course, we always disregard the injured! But the injured have more haunting stories to tell. And only 3 percent of these unexploded bomblets have been neutralized. COPE says that with the amount of support and manpower they have, trying to rid Lao lands of these bombs, it will take more than a hundred years to completely declare these farming lands safe! Now you know why Laos is poor.
These neutralized bomblets are the centerpiece of the CORE Visitor's Center in Vientiane
And the US has the audacity to bitch about Duterte's 3000 dead drug addicts! WTF?!!! And did you also know that the US supplied Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge with arms that killed an estimated 1.7 million Cambodians in 4 years? Why? You might ask. Because Pol Pot helped the US subdue the Vietnamese forces. You see this vendetta of the US against Vietnam has made the US volunteer to be instrumental in a genocide in Cambodia and a continuing massacre in Laos without even being there. Experiences like these are the ones I look for in a trip. Something that can improve my worldview. I don't think I'd get these stories in the temples. When you're traveling beyond tourism in Indochina, ten days is actually more than enough. If you're collecting temples and heritage sites, 10 days is too short and yes, in that sense, Indochina is actually already very common.

Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia for less than PhP20,000 in Ten Days

You might think that this is another budget travel where you closely monitor your expenses. Nope, this isn't. You should know that I spent one night at a 4-star hotel, I bought 50-USD worth of pasalubong and I even checked in at an inn just to use the bathroom. I didn't splurge but it surely wasn't the typical tight 'budget' travel.

Here's the itinerary (with details of my expenses) of my 9-day Indochina trip. Details of each day will be posted soon.

Day 0 (Oct 27; Thursday) Leaving on a Jet Plane  (PHP2,409)

The exchange rate at Ha Noi International airport is much better than at NAIA
0800hrs: ETD from Baguio for NAIA P455; snack at bus stopover P35
1400hrs: ETA Cubao; late lunch P120; MRT to Taft P24; Taft to NAIA 3 (Airport Loop bus) P20
1700hrs: ETA NAIA; Travel tax P1620 ; food (KFC) P135
2215hrs: ETD for Hanoi (Cebu Pacific Flight 5J744; NAIA Terminal 3)

Day 1 (Oct 28; Friday) BIG DAY; Ninh Binh (Vietnam)  VND612,000 (PHP1,332)

The not-so-touristy side of Tam Coc

0030hrs: ETA Hanoi (Noi Bai Int’l Airport Terminal 2); buy USD and VND using PHP; loiter/sleep at the airport
0500hrs: ETD for Hanoi city center (bus # 7) VND8,000; city center to Giap Bat bus terminal (bus #27 VND7,000 + bus #16 VND7,000)
0700hrs: ETA Giap Bat terminal; book a ticket for Ninh Binh; breakfast VND22,000
0730hrs: ETD for Ninh Binh by pink bus VND70,000
0930hrs: ETA Ninh Binh; take a cab to Tam Coc (Nam Hoa Hotel) VND80,000 (dodgy taxi meter);
1100hrs: Lunch VND130,000
1300hrs: Ride a bicycle (free at Nam Hoa Hotel) to see spots in Tam Coc; Climb up Hang Mua cave/peak (VND100,000) for a good panorama of Tam Coc at dusk
1700hrs: Go back to the hotel; dinner +beer VND188,000

Day 2 (Oct 29; Saturday) Vinh (Vietnam)      VND1,018,000     (P2216)

The accommodation in Vietnam costs much less than in the Philippines
0600hrs: breakfast (included in the booking)
0700hrs: more shots of Tam Coc
0900hrs: Check out of the hotel (VND550,000); ETD for Vinh. Hotel staff calls an honest cab driver VND40,000; take the sleeper bus at the highway VND200,000
1230hrs: ETA Vinh; Check in at Saigon Kim Lien Hotel Lunch (hotel room service: ham and chicken sandwich + fried potatoes) VND35,000
1500hrs: walk to the bus station (1km away) to check the schedule for the trip to Phonsavan tomorrow.
1600hrs: soak in the bath because the pool isn’t very inviting
1800hrs: watch TV; drink get some beer from the mini bar; VND63,000
1900hrs: Dinner; pork steak + baked potatoes VND130,000
2200hrs: Have a good night’s rest

Day 3 (Oct 30; Sunday) Phonsavan (Laos) VND1,042,000 + LAK70,000  PHP2687

The Plain of Jars in Phonsavan

0500hrs: early breakfast (included): check out VND630,000; ETD for bust terminal by taxi VND12,000
0600hrs: ETD for Phonsavan by sleeper bus VND400,000
1100hrs: free lunch en route to Phonsavan
1200hrs: border crossing
1700hrs: ETA Phonsavan. Stay at some guest house (not recommended guest house): LAK40,000
1900hrs: Dinner + snacks LAK30,000

Day 4 (Oct 31; Monday) Phonsavan  (Laos)          LAK422,000  P2517

Plain of Jars (Site 1)
0600hrs: Breakfast LAK10,000;
0730hrs: hire a motorcycle to see Plain of Jars LAK100,000; Site A entrance fee LAK15,000
0930hrs: Go to Phonsavan for lunch and to visit UXO Information Center (tuktuk) LAK20,000; buy some souvenirs LAK25,000
1200hrs: Lunch LAK32,000
1300hrs: Go back to the guest house to check out (tuktuk) LAK25,000; beer + pho LAK25,000
1700hrs: Head for the bus station (tuktuk) LAK25,000; dinner LAK15,000; bus ticket for Vientiane LAK130,000
2030hrs: ETD for Vientiane

Day 5 (Nov 1; Tuesday) Vientiane       LAK221,000 + THB825  (PHP2480)

Just take a photo of Patuxai monument then head straight to COPE Center
0500hrs: ETA Vientiane northern bus terminal; wait for the green bus to get to the city (every 30 minutes) LAK3,000
0600hrs: ETA Vientiane morning market; breakfast (pho) LAK15,000
0700hrs: get a room to steal some sleep and take a shower LAK70000;
0900hrs: city tour; go to COPE; buy souvenirs LAK103000
1200hrs: lunch (pho) LAK15000
1430hrs: Take the bus at the morning market for Nong Khai (Thailand) LAK15000
1600hrs: ETA Nong Khai; get off near the train station. Dinner THB70
1910hrs: ETD for Bangkok (Train #70 second class lower berth) THB755

Day 6 (Nov 2; Wednesday) Bangkok (Thailand)             THB760      (PHP1055)

The reclining Buddha at Wat Pho
0600hrs: ETA Bangkok (Hua Lamphung Station);
0630hrs: Take a cab to hotel THB65. Check in (or leave stuff) at Rambuttri Village Hotel
0700hrs: Laundry THB60;
0900hrs: Wat Pho THB100; 7-11 snacks THB45
1200hrs: lunch THB40
1500hrs: buy souvenirs THB450
2100hrs: Night life at Kao San road (meet Japanese friends)
2400hrs: rest at the hotel

Day 7 (Nov 3; Thursday) Siem Reap (Cambodia)       THB1997 + USD7     (PHP3110)
Departure and arrival cards for Cambodia and Thailand
0600hrs: early breakfast (included in the booking); check out THB1100
0630hrs: take a cab to Mo Chit Terminal. THB110
0730hrs: ETA Mo Chit. Catch the 8am bus to Siem Reap (Transport Co / Nattakan) THB750
0800hrs: ETD for Siem Reap
1100hrs: lunch @ 7-eleven (complimentary); buy snacks THB37
1700hrs: ETA Siem Reap; tuktuk service to the hotel (compliments of Nattakan); check in at I Lodge
1800hrs: rent a bike for the early morning ride tomorrow USD5
1900hrs: Dinner USD2

Day 8 (Nov 4; Friday) Phnom Penh (Cambodia)                    USD56.5    (PHP2770)
The savage Ta Prohm
0400hrs: early breakfast (not included in the booking) USD2
0600hrs: Explore Angkor Wat USD20
0900hrs: done with Angkor Wat; bike back to the hotel; refreshments USD1
1100hrs: lunch USD3.5; check out USD16
1230hrs: ETD for Phnom Penh (not recommended van service) USD10 snacks at stopovers USD2
1700hrs: ETA Phnom Penh (night market); walk to G Eleven Hotel ; check in
1900hrs: Dinner USD2
2100hrs: Drink with Japanese friends
2400hrs: take a rest at the hotel

Day 9 (Nov 5; Saturday) Ho Chi Minh (Vietnam)  USD59 + VND80,000 (PHP3067)
Detention cells at Tuol Sleng (S-21)

0700hrs: Breakfast (included in the booking); check out USD19
0800hrs: Visit S-21 (Tuol Sleng) USD1 (tuktuk) USD3 (admission fee)
1030hrs: go to the Kumho Samco Bus office
1100hrs: ETD for HCM (Kumho Samco) USD10; lunch and snacks at stopovers USD2
1800hrs: ETA Ho Chi Minh; at the bus terminal take the yellow airport bus #109 to the airport USD1
1900hrs: Dinner VND80,000 ; souvenirs USD23

Day 10 (Nov 6; Sunday) Transit/Ho Chi Minh – Manila            PHP660

My last pho (at Thanh Son Nhat Int'l Airport)

0100hrs: ETD for Manila @Tan Son Nhat International Airport Terminal 2, Ho Chi Minh Cebu Pacific flight 5J752
0445hrs: ETA NAIA 3
0500hrs: Take the airport loop bus to the MRT station PHP20; breakfast PHP85
0700hrs: ETD for Baguio (Saulog Bus) PHP455; lunch and snacks at stopovers PHP100
1400hrs: ETA Baguio City (Home Sweet Home)

TOTAL EXPENSES: PHP24,303 (Exclusive of airfare)

Minus accommodation cost (PhP6324) = Pocket money of PhP17,978


YOU deserve a holiday!
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