While our wedding was amazing and I loved everything about it, I was secretly more excited about our 3 week honeymoon around Southeast Asia. Andy and I did a lot of planning to optimize our trip as we knew that this was a unique opportunity that not many people are able to experience.
I have to say that when we were on our honeymoon and after we returned home, it was worth every second of planning. We had pretty accurately guessed the amount of time that we would want to spend in each city and all of our logistics – from hotels to transportation to excursions worked out perfectly.
If you’re planning to take an extended vacation, please read on so you can learn our tips and avoid our mistakes.
Planning Our Trip
Determining the length
After we got engaged we discussed our honeymoon and decided that we wanted to travel around Southeast Asia. Since the flights are extremely long we had discussed extending our trip as long as possible, putting 2 weeks as the minimum that we wanted to consider.
We decided that the only way that we would be able to get away for as long as we wanted was to piggyback our vacation over a holiday. This would allow us the maximum time off with the minimum vacation days. Since we both got Thanksgiving and the Friday after off, we worked against the November time period. This worked out well too as Chicago starts getting pretty cold around Halloween, so being on the beach during the winter sounded absolutely amazing.
It was hard for us to save pretty much all of our vacation days during the year, but in the end it was totally worth it. We were completely unreachable and gone long enough that our counterparts at work had to take care of our roles in our absence. The 21 days we were in Southeast Asia was absolute paradise. To make it even sweeter we only had to use 13 vacation days to get a full 3 weeks off of work. By leveraging the weekends and the Thanksgiving holiday we were really able to work the system to our advantage.
Determining the route
There were so many places in Southeast Asia that we wanted to see but we knew that we had to narrow it down. We got online to investigate where we should go and spoke with friends who had traveled around the region to get their insight. There were a few cities that kept coming up in our research so we started exploring those cities.
Ironically, we weren’t very unique in our destinations even though they seemed exotic to us. We followed the tourist trail, also known as the Banana Pancake Trail, all around Southeast Asia. As we met people when we traveled, we learned that just about everyone was going to all of the same cities that we had on our trip.
Figuring out the number of nights in each destination
Probably the hardest part of the planning was determining how long we wanted to stay in each city. We didn’t want to stay so long that we had seen everything and were bored but also didn’t want to leave before we saw everything that we wanted to see.
In order to determine the amount of time that we should spend in each city, we created a multi-step process.
- Pulled together all the attractions that we wanted to see
- Put all of the attractions on a google map so we could see where everything was relative to each other
- Rated each attraction from 1-10
- Eliminated attractions that fell below a 6
This gave us some context into how much we wanted to truly see in each city. It also helped narrow down how much time we would need to travel to different attractions. We learned as we started mapping out more and more cities that a lot of the historical attractions are typically close together, making it easy to compress your sightseeing.
Booking our transportation
We now knew where we wanted to go and for how long, the last puzzle piece was booking our flights to each city.
The first part of this final puzzle piece was booking our award flights to/from Southeast Asia. We had saved up a lot of United Airlines miles and wanted to maximize the value that we were getting on our “free flights”. Knowing that flying in and out of smaller airports is more expensive, so we decided to fly into Siem Reap and out Krabi. In the end, both of us were able to fly roundtrip for $65 and 130,000 United miles. If we were to purchase the same flights, it would have cost us over $4,000!
Once our main flights were booked, we started exploring the lowest cost to get to the other cities that we were visiting. The airline that continued to show up as the lowest cost airline for us was AirAsia. It is a basic airline that charges you a la carte for everything – from seat reservation, checked bags and food/drinks. Even factoring in these incremental costs, it was still significantly cheaper than other airlines. Even better AirAisa had non-stop service for many of the routes that we were flying to.
The only traditional airline that we took within Southeast Asia was Vietnam Airlines on our flight from Siem Reap to Hanoi. While it was more expensive than flying AirAsia, we decided that having a direct flight was worth paying the extra money. Angkor Air and Sky Angkor Airlines are discount airlines based in Siem Reap that fly to Hanoi, but neither had flights that worked with our schedule.
Finding our hotels
Most people hate to look for hotels because it can be so daunting, but personally I love it. In fact, I often times volunteer to find hotels for my friends when they are traveling.
While it would be easy to just book hotels that are part of a large chain like Hilton or Marriott where you know what to expect, I prefer local hotels which are also typically less expensive. There is something about supporting an entrepreneur, especially in these relatively poor countries that just makes me feel good. Unfortunately, finding local hotels takes more work since they don’t have the money or the tools to get their listings indexed highly on google searches.
I first went to Kayak to get a general ballpark of the prices for hotels in each city . From there, I would start to narrow by my price range and eliminate hotels that didn’t appear to fit within my quality standards. Next, I would pull up the reviews on TripAdvisor. Since not all hotels are on Kayak, I also referenced TripAdvisor to make sure that I wasn’t missing any highly rated hotels that didn’t show up on my Kayak search but may be a good fit for us. My final step was to pull up the hotel’s website which often has more information and pictures than other sites.
Once I had narrowed it to my top 2 or 3 hotels, I would sit down with Andy and we would decide together which one to stay at. In general, we decided to keep our accommodations relatively inexpensive – we figured that we would be out exploring most of the day so we were just showering and sleeping there. The only splurges that we made were at Inn a Day in Bangkok and the Centara Grand Beach Resort & Villas Krabi.
Siem Reap, Cambodia
There is a special place in both of our hearts for Siem Reap. It was the first city on our honeymoon and was hands down our favorite place that we visited. It felt the most foreign and we both loved the raw quality that the country had. The Cambodian people were amazing and so incredibly welcoming.
While I never like to return to a place that I’ve already seen, I would absolutely love to return to Siem Reap someday.
We had really high expectations for Hanoi. Many of our friends had told us that it was one of their favorite cities in all of Southeast Asia but we left unimpressed. I can’t quite pinpoint what exactly we didn’t love about Hanoi, it is more a feeling that I had about the city.
Luckily we only planned 1 day in Hanoi before taking the night train to Sapa. While we were in Hanoi we spent time in the Old Quarter, visited Hao Lo prison, walked around Hoan Kiem Lake and enjoyed watching the crazy scooter traffic.
Our homestay in Sapa was completely out of our comfort zone and I think part of the reason that we loved it so much. To see how the Red Dao people live was fascinating and made both of us realize just how easy we have it living in America.
While we didn’t have the best weather on our hikes, we still had a great time. Our host family was great and made us feel very welcome in their home.
While we didn’t have much time, we were able to see and do quite a bit. We visited a few temples including Wat Arun, Wat Pho, Wat Benchamabophit and Wat Indra Viharn. We also made a quick stop to the flower market and took a boat ride down the Chao Phraya river. In the evening we ventured over to Khao San Road to see what the backpacker scene was like.
The most memorable part of our visit to Bangkok was when we fell for the “temple is closed” scam. While we got to see a few things that we were interested in along the way, spending a few hours with a driver who kept dropping us off at custom clothing stores to get commissions was not our idea of fun.
Chiang Mai, Thailand
Chiang Mai was one of the cities that kept coming up over and over again in blogs and conversations that we had with friends who had traveled around Southeast Asia. In fact, my friend’s brother actually moved there because he loved it so much. That being said we had very high expectations going in.
While Chiang Mai was alright, it was one of our least favorite cities that we visited. I don’t know if it was the fact that it was so western there or just that our expectations were too high, but we didn’t love it as so many people do.
We had 4 days in Chiang Mai and probably could have easily gotten away with 3 days. As with all of the cities that we visited, we explored temples, hiked to Mae Sa waterfall, visited a cat cafe and went to Tiger Kingdom.
The most memorable excursion during our time in Chiang Mai was a visit to the Patara Elephant Farm. To be able to interact with elephants and play with their babies was an amazing experience. It wasn’t all fun though, we were responsible for the duties that an elephant owner would have including feeding, washing and exercising our elephants.
Chiang Mai is a very laid back city where we didn’t have quite as much on our agenda as other cities that we visited.
Andy and I absolutely loved Krabi. It is hard not to love a city that is surrounded by so much natural beauty. The town itself is very cute with 2 main roads in town making it easy to find a place to eat or go shopping.
We went scuba diving, kayaking, visisted beaches and generally were beach bums. The sun here is INTENSE, so make sure that you apply and reapply your sunscreen often. We got a little lazy with our sunscreen during our visit and got absolutely fried.
4 days in Krabi was a good amount of time but could have easily had spent more time. It’s hard to get sick of waking up and looking out your window at paradise.
When we booked our tickets we intentionally looked for a long layover. We have had a lot of fun “speed sightseeing” other cities and wanted to do that again. Luckily there was a flight with a 12 hour layover in Beijing which was perfect for us.
While we were a little pressed for time, we were able to see the Great Wall of China, Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. Even though the time went quickly, we were able to see what we wanted to see. To feel less rushed we would have needed 24 hours.
What We Would Do Differently
After we got home and reflected on what we had the most fun doing, we came up with a few things that we would have done differently if we were to do it over again:
- We would add Laos to our itinerary
We learned that we liked the less developed parts of Southeast Asia and Laos is definitely less traveled by westerners.
- We would visit Sapa in March – May
While we had an amazing time visiting Sapa and experiencing a homestay, the weather was less than desirable and we didn’t see the greenery from the rice terraces.
- We would spend more time in Bangkok
While we had a great 2 days, Bangkok was just way too big to see everything that we wanted to see in such a short amount of time.
- We would spend less time in Chiang Mai and Hanoi
Hindsight is 20/20 but these were 2 cities that we didn’t really like very much. I know many people do love these cities. I wish that we were able to allocate some of the time we spent there to Bangkok and Laos.