Howdy all. You may recall a couple of weeks back I did a post where I talked about a crazy idea to travel Singapore to Lhasa and Lanzhou by the world’s highest rail line as an overland itinerary as I desperately tried to fill a gaping void in my life without the ability to travel. Well, today I am taking that idea and I’m just going to take the South-East Asian segment but then expand it to include more countries and keep it completely land based.
So we are now talking about Singapore to Mandalay in Myanmar, both cities with decent international connections – Mandalay less so but at the very least you can get an Air Asia flight in and out of the city, so it seems a fitting place to end it. As I dream about where I might go when I finally can – more than twelve months in the future – I might yet do a good portion of what I’m presenting here.
South-East Asia is a brilliant, BRILLIANT and quite accessible and easy place to get around for the seasoned and indeed even the beginner traveller, with plenty of others taking on the routes between and inside countries, it’s a great place not to just start backpacking, but to keep going back to and discover more. And on top of that, its great for backpacking because even today, it’s not expensive except for probably Singapore which can get a bit pricey, especially in regards to accommodation. Anyways, this is 60 days Singapore to Mandalay via Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos!
Arrive in Singapore. Singapore is a spotless city, with so much food and sites to offer. Visit Gardens by the Bay, or Sentosa Island where you’ll find Universal Studios Singapore. Take a cable car to go above the city, have a Singapore Sling at Raffles Hotel, or check out the POW prison at Changi. And you’d do well to spend a little time at Changi Airport checking it out too as it’s been redesigned in the last few years and has some amazing features in the ‘Jewell’ section. Give yourself a few days in Singapore, there’s plenty to keep you occupied. Do your best to look after your budget but all in all you’ll need to budget more in Singapore per day than anywhere else I’d dare say.
Singapore to Melaka, 239 km
From Singapore head north into Malaysia, and before you hit the capital of Kuala Lumpur, take a stop in Melaka, an old colonial town with a fair dose of charm. You’ll find a number of buses that will take you directly, allow time though for the border crossing which can take a little while. Trains do not run direct from Singapore these days, you need to cross the border to Johor Bahru on the Malaysian side.
Melaka to Kuala Lumpur, 150 km
Train or bus should do for this leg, which is around 150 km but there are slightly longer options. The Malaysian capital is an interesting combination of old and new, with some great markets and of course, its signature building the Petronas Towers. It’s only a couple of hours between the cities, and two nights may just be enough in KL.
Kuala Lumpur to Penang, 355km
Penang is a highlight of Malaysia, a mix of Chinese and colonial history, with a large Buddha at the top of the hill looking over the island. Train or bus will get you to Georgetown, and from there it’s a short ferry ride to the island of Penang. Buses may go on the ferry. It’s at least four hours by bus, by train and ferry combination it would be longer.
Crossing into Thailand and Ko Samui, 572km
So in this itinerary, as per what I was thinking for myself, I feel like you want – I would want to – take a few days on an island. I have been to Phuket and wouldn’t rush back there. Ko Samui or Ko Pha Ngan is what I was thinking, although they might be a bit too ‘party’ orientated for my 2021 tastes.
Georgetown to Surat Thani is going to take you all day. You may well change transport at the border with Thailand, which isn’t more than a couple of hours from Georgetown, and you should be able to find a train on the other side if your timing is good. From Surat Thani you can take a ferry to Ko Samui or Ko Pha Ngan. Where I think at least three nights of R & R would be well received.
Ko Samui to Bangkok, 759km
Google is taking me back through Surat Thani from Ko Samui to get to Bangkok, telling me that’s 759km in total. However there are ferries to Chumpon from Ko Samui. That will cut the distance down but not the time. In my ‘dream planning’ I was planning a night in Chumpon and then 465km by train or bus to Bangkok (train always being my first preference) but either way it’s a long way to Bangkok from Ko Samui and you may want to split the trip or take a night bus option, which is not something I enjoy but it gets you places quicker and you save on accommodation. And these days there are options where basically you’re almost lying flat. I don’t sleep well on transport, especially buses and also I like to see where I am. But this would cut time in Bangkok I guess for me.
I don’t love Bangkok any way but I think it’s an interesting place to visit and hang out for a few days. The Golden Palace is spectacular and there is plenty of nightlife as well to cater for all tastes I guess. I prefer the PG stuff but hey, it’s Bangkok. Day trips are possible to see the Maeklong Railway Market (where the train line runs through the market and everyone closes up shop to let it pass) and Ayutthaya is an easy day trip to see ancient temples.
Bangkok to Siem Repp, 401km
Hop along Cassidy because it’s time to head to Cambodia to see some of the most amazing temples and ruins you can find on the planet in the ancient city of Angkor. Now, from Bangkok these days you can catch direct buses I believe, or bus/train to the border at Poipet and then a bus to Siem Repp. When I went to make it to Siem Repp in a single day was an incredible slog that had you leaving Bangkok at 6am and arriving around midnight. The road has been sealed now from Poipet to Siem Repp and it’s much faster and much more comfortable now. However, border crossing can take a little time I’m hearing.
One day is categorically NOT enough time to see the temples, they are incredible and I would even encourage getting up mega early to see the sun rise. If time allows, consider visiting Battambang, which you might do before Siem Repp. Take a tour of the local area around Battambang because it’s beautiful and interesting.
Siem Repp to Phnom Penh, 318km (by road)
Getting to Phnom Penh, the Cambodian capital, is a highlight if you take a boat along the lake Tonle Sap. I lazed about on the top of the boat and got sun burnt on the heels of my feet (true story) and it’s faster than the new road. As I have mentioned in a previous post, I didn’t much care for PP but the Lonely Planet calls it a ‘highlight’ of Cambodia. DO check out the Killing Fields on tour from Phnom Penh and learn a bit about the horrific and not so distant past of Cambodia.
Explore southern Cambodia
If time is on your side, you may want to check out Kampot, a charming little town in Cambodia’s south, or Sihanoukville, a beachside town, the only one foreigners tend to go to in Cambodia. I really liked it but that was 2000 and I hear it receives a lot more tourists today. You will, I think, need to get back Phnom Penh for the next leg of the journey.
Phnom Penh to Ho Chi Minh City, 231km
And into Vietnam you go. Ho Chi Minh City is vibrant, fun and surprisingly friendly. Cu Chi Tunnels are worth visiting on a tour, where the Viet Cong hid during the war, and in the city is the War Remnants Museum, a confronting and different museum than any you would have seen that deal with the ‘Vietnam’ War. The city is full of bikes and temples and there’s plenty to see and do, and if you haven’t used days in southern Cambodia, you might do a trip to the Mekong Delta from HCMC.
Ho Chi Minh City to Dalat, 309km
I could have taken you straight to Hoi Ann, but this is a long journey and Dalat is a great place to break it. It is in the mountains and is refreshingly cooler than Ho Chi Minh City. There are a few sights to catch, I took a day tour to a beautiful park and around the region, there’s also a little toy train you can ride. Worth a couple of nights to break the journey, it’s very pleasant.
Dalat to Hoi An, 637km
This is still a long journey, you might choose overnight train if you can. Or bus. Hoi An is a delightful town with amazing buildings and a famous ‘Japanese’ Bridge (it’s a closed bridge). It’s really charming with lots of lovely eateries and houses to explore, music performances and it is the perfect place to do the typical ‘Vietnam’ thing and explore by bicycle. There’s an island to ride to as well and explore, with little villages and a great place for a sunset. Can’t recommend this little coastal town enough.
IF you are ahead of this schedule, before heading to Hanoi, you might consider a stop in Hue for a couple of days. It’s not too far up the coast and slightly closer to Hanoi, which is a long way away. It has a citadel but the best thing to do is a boat tour down the river to another ancient citadel. You get to eat on the boat and see a bunch of things, it’s a great day trip.
Hoi An to Hanoi, 828 km
The longest leg of the itinerary thus far, this is going to require an overnight bus or train. And I took an overnight train in Vietnam and I was pretty impressed, comfy and easy enough to sleep. It might take longer by rail, but the comfort of a sleeper carriage more than makes up for it.
Explore the capital Hanoi at your leisure. It’s an interesting place with a surprisingly large backpacker area, plenty of temples and interesting museums to visit including a POW museum which at one point housed John McCain.
But what you do here is a three day tour to Halong Bay and the islands. Leaving from and dropping you back off in Hanoi. It’s stunningly beautiful and it’s probably the best thing you will do in Vietnam.
Hanoi to Phonsovan, 613km
Okay, so, I haven’t done this journey in any way. I cheated and flew to Luang Prabang. The journey is just over 613km and I hear the border crossing can be tedious, but this is why it’s ALL ABOUT THE ADVENTURE! Google is saying 12 – 13 hours, but that’s by car. It’s going to take some time.
Phonsovan is a dusty town and not much to look at, but it is where you access the Palin of Jars from, a number of ancient stone jars spread over, well more than a single ‘plain’ shall we say. Also, there is the museum to landmines in town, learn a lot of valuable information about the region which was filled with landmines back in the 1970s by the USA.
Phonsovan to Luang Prabang, 263km
I took this road in reverse and we had a break down on the way. It takes at least five hours in a mini bus, but getting to heavenly Luang Prabang will make it all worth it. Explore the temples, go up river and see the caves, check out the Kuang Si Waterfall (the definition of ‘heavenly’) it’s just about the best place in all South-East Asia.
Luang Prabang to Chiang Rai, 567km
This route now takes you back to Thailand. You can take the road, which is what I’ve quoted at 567km, but the river is a more appealing option in the right season. You may need an extra day for this, and you’re still transferring to land transport at the border at Huay Xai. I have never been to Chiang Rai but it’s one place I really want to go in Thailand. There is this amazing white temple there I am dying to photograph.
Chaing Rai to Chiang Mai, 186km
As easy trip down the road, Chiang Mai is worth a few days, but time is running short on this itinerary so leave Chiang Rai as early as possible and spend a good day and a half seeing the sights, the temples, the markets and even the Muay Thai. There’s a place called ‘Tiger Kingdom’ just out of town I visited a few years back, but I realise now I really shouldn’t have because the poor things must be drugged.
Chiang Mai to Mawlamyine, 489km
It’s going to be another long day of travel, crossing Thailand to Myanmar at the Mae Sot border. This will be bus mostly, from the border taxis may be needed to the nearest town, or if you have a little extra cash they may take you to Mawlamyine, which is a colonial town and one I am yet to visit, but I hear it’s really nice.
Mawlamyine to Yangon, 301km
Bus is going to be a lot faster than train in Myanmar, but both options exist for this route. Yangon, formerly Rangoon and also formerly the capital of the country formerly known as Burma. It’s an interesting city with the Shwedagon Pagoda, this amazing temple complex at the top of a hill (which you take a lift to enter!). One of the highlights of this whole itinerary! The city circle train is also a very cool way to spend a few hours.
Yangon to Bagan, 722km
This turned out to be further than I thought it was. There’s a night train or an overnight bus, it’s a long journey and there’s no escaping it. But Bagan’s temples are breathtaking, and if you have the stomach and money for it, take a balloon ride above them at sunrise.
Bagan to Inle Lake, 327km
Not such a longer journey, but I broke it in Thazi, a small town on route so that I could transfer to the train which was an awesome, if very slow train trip through the hills. It even gets chilly! Then down to Taungi the train station and to Nyaungshwe where you’ll stay. Take a full day on Inle Lake by boat, the markets, the houses, the temples, all floating. It’s brilliant!
Inle Lake to Mandalay, 313km
The final journey is another of over 300km, and it’s the final one, probably by bus, of this itinerary. Have a few days in Mandalay because you’ve earned a big rest. It’s a very pleasant place with temples and a palace in the centre of a moat, not to mention Mandalay Hill and all its temples. And perhaps the day before you go home, take a day tour and see the local area, finishing at the Ubein Bridge, a long wooden footbridge that at sunset is a beautiful orange. Well, the sunset is, not the bridge.
Time to fly home!
And… that’s it! Now why don’t you hope the first plane there? Oh yeah, Corona Virus. But hey, it can’t hurt to dream. This is a FAST itinerary, four days is the absolute maximum I’ve scheduled a stop and they may not be the way you want to travel – and I don’t blame you. Cut bits out, add a few days, there are ways to make it work depending on your preferences.
Thanks for reading – May the Journey Never End!