If you want to know when Bangkok's Grand Palace was built or the significance of sculptures at Angkor Wat or the origins of temples in Luang Prabang, you won't read that here, although I likely could recite enough facts to satisfy.

Instead, you'll find practical tips that served us well on a 12-day trip to Bangkok (Thailand), Siem Reap (Cambodia), Hanoi (Vietnam) and Luang Prabang (Laos).

My traveling partner, son Sam, 26, and I opted for independent travel, although tour groups work well for many.

I started by surfing the Internet for overseas flights and snagged an acceptable fare, considering that December-January is high season for travel to Southeast Asia. Bangkok's many international flights made it the logical starting and ending point.

Although I lived in Bangkok for two years 40 years ago, visited briefly in 1995 and made a weekend jaunt to Hanoi from Hong Kong in 2003, my geography of the region is muddled. With a world atlas as my guide, I traced a counterclockwise loop from Bangkok, southeast to Siem Reap, then north to Hanoi, southwest to Luang Prabang, continuing south to Bangkok. That circle determined our itinerary.

The Internet makes international travel as simple as a keystroke and a credit card. After determining which airlines serve  which countries, I opted for flights that left either early morning or well into the evening to maximize our time in each city. We ended up on Bangkok Airways and Vietnam and Lao airlines, and all performed efficiently.

Next, I turned to seasoned travelers who offer tips through Fodors.com Travel Talk. These forums let visitors ask questions, no matter how basic, and someone will have an answer. You have to register, but your name doesn't appear on your queries.

I asked about suggested immunizations (go to the CDC site for accurate information); whether to navigate cities on our own or with a guide; what restaurants not to miss; what kind of electrical outlets to expect; and what hotels people suggested.

I read others' trip reports, making lists of favorite guides, tours, eateries, hotels, sights -- and what to avoid. I learned, for instance, about the cost of a taxi from the Bangkok airport to our hotel and always to insist on meters. This was real-world advice in real time.

From these travelers, I discovered agoda.com to book hotels. It functions a lot like tripadvisor.com with lists of hotels and reviews by recent guests. With suggestions from Travel Talk contributors (Art Hotel Hanoi and Kool Hotel in Siem Reap) and from perusing Agoda (Villa Deux Rivieres in Luang Prabang and Amaranth Best Western by the Bangkok airport), I booked them all on Agoda and prepaid by credit card. I received vouchers for check-in and requested late check-in, airport pickup and twin beds.

All came through as anticipated, with clean, comfortable, even charming quarters, the least expensive of which was $35 a night in Hanoi's Old Quarter, breakfast included.

On my own I found a promotional rate for Aloft, a just-opening Starwood hotel in Bangkok, that dropped us into a hip hot spot for far less than the regular rate.

From Travel Talk forum posters I learned about Dawn Rooney's book "Angkor: Cambodia's Wondrous Khmer Temples" as a definitive guide to the ruins and of Nancy Chandler's guide to Bangkok, a fold-out illustrated map that has pictures of attractions and even water taxi stops. We never would have known when to get off a Bangkok water taxi (about 30 cents a ride) without counting stops on the map.

As for guides, we opted to hire one in Bangkok on our first day, again on advice from Travel Talkers. Many forum posters recommended Tour with Tong, and I emailed and paid in advance ($40) for an eight-hour guided city tour just for us, using public transportation.

Jet-lagged after a 32-hour, door-to-door trip, we were happy to have Giannii lead us our first day. (Tong herself was already booked.) It turned out to be a great decision, as she took us to the Grand Palace, Wat Po, Temple of the Dawn and the weekend market, sharing details of each place. We traveled by taxi, tuk-tuk, public bus, water taxi and skytrain, showing us all the ways to navigate the city. (We returned to Wat Po the next day for famous Thai massages at the temple.)

In Siem Reap, our second stop, our hotel hooked us up on the spot with a driver ($25) who took us to the Roulous temples, smaller ruins outside the city, on our first afternoon. It was a great taste of what was to come.

Later that day the hotel arranged for another driver to haul us to Phnom Bakheng, where we climbed a crowded and steep path to watch the sun set from atop the ruins. We jockeyed for space just to see the sun, but still it was special.

With Angkor Wat beckoning, we hired a guide and driver for our first full day by emailing in advance a friend's recommended guide. As prearranged, Mr. Rith arrived at our hotel at 5 a.m. to whisk us to Angkor Wat for sunrise, one of those iconic experiences. We were not alone, however, and clouds obscured the sun, but that did not obliterate the magic of the place.

We had no regrets about having a guide for eight hours of temple-gazing. Mr. Rith explained the stories behind the carved murals and  even pointed out the only sculpture of a female figure showing her teeth, which we would have missed. He also aligned us for pictures so that it looks as if we are nose to nose with a Buddha head a ways off.

On our last day in Siem Reap, we had a driver take us to see the river carvings at Kabal Spean, a bit out of town and a 1,500-meter steep climb up an uneven path. Here we found a natural limestone bridge, small waterfall and a thousand linga (male symbols) carved into the river bed, having withstood the flow of water for nearly a thousand years. Very impressive -- and a bit off the typical tourist path.

On to Hanoi, where we navigated the packed Old Quarter with a map and addresses on every storefront in English and Vietnamese.

The area is a frenzy of activity, with bicycles, cycles and cars moving in inexplicably organized chaos. To cross the street, pedestrians step out into the traffic, moving at a constant pace while vehicles weave around them, an unnerving experience, to say the least. But it works, and before long, one gets used to it.

Parked motorcycles usurp sidewalk space that is not used for cooking, dishwashing or for eating. Pedestrians walk in the streets, sticking as close to the curb as possible, but still risk getting their toes run over.

Through our hotel we booked a daylong trip to Halong Bay to see the iconic limestone outcroppings, something we hadn't thought about in advance. Nearly four hours by bus each way, with just a few hours on the water, the trip was worth it to experience the majesty of these geological formations.

We took an evening flight to Luang Prabang and felt the whoosh of pastoral life wash over us. It was then that we realized the beauty of our itinerary: Each big city visit was followed by a more rural setting with a slower pace. We could catch our breath and walk among the ancient temples, night markets and main streets without traffic and blaring horns.

Again, we opted for sightseeing on the fly. Tour companies dot storefronts on the main drag in Luang Prabang, and we found a recommended outfit on tripadvisor.com for the next day. Jewel Tour offered a trek to a native village, swimming at Tad Sae waterfall and riding and bathing (bareback!) on elephants in the Mekong, a guided full day for $35 each.

Our first day we wandered through the temples in the town center, then found our way to the river for a boat ride up the Mekong ($17 each, bargained down from $25) to the Pak Ou caves featuring a long climb and hundreds of Buddha statues. Along the way we stopped at a whiskey village, where our group of six tipped glasses in midafternoon with the guys who distilled the stuff in nearby barrels. What a hoot!

Not to be missed in Luang Prabang is the morning predawn march of the monks, hundreds of them in saffron robes, accepting donations of food from the locals. Young boys with empty baskets also squat along the path, accepting food from the monks who toss some of their donations into the waiting baskets. All in all, a lovely vision.

Southeast Asia offers so many surprises and delights. The food is fresh and flavorful, the ancient temples spectacular, the landscape lush and mysterious, and the people warm and welcoming.

What I won't miss: brushing my teeth with bottled water and carrying pocketfuls of tissue, just in case -- and most always needed.

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Reach Patty Beutler at 402-473-7307 or pbeutler@journalstar.com.


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