SE Asia - Thailand, Laos, and/or Myanmar?
Get settled...this is a long post.
So I live in Japan, I have two months off in Feb/Mar, will be going to Bhutan on a private tour for ten days in mid-March which will end with the Paro Festival. To get to Bhutan I have to fly in and out of Bangkok and my airline tickets are booked with dates from February 16th to March 21st. I basically have to be back in Bangkok by the 10th of March so I can go to Bhutan, which leaves me three weeks to do whatever I want. I would like to hear from people who've been or lived in the places for some thoughts and advice. This trip is primarily a photographic one, and I'll be travelling by myself, so basically can do what I like. That being said, I'd like to keep costs down, as well as minimize the amount of travelling between different areas.
I basically have three choices: spend the three weeks either in Myanmar or Thailand, or split the three weeks between Laos and Thailand. I've been to Cambodia (twice) and Vietnam, so don't really feel the need to go back there at this time. I've also been to Thailand three times, but mostly on the beaches of Krabi and Hua Hin, a couple of days in Bangkok, and a day at Ayuthaya...so there's plenty I haven't seen or done in that country. Also, the times when I went there were pre-serious-amateur-photography, so I don't mind revisiting some areas as I will have a new perspective this time round. I'm not interested in going to the beach, so that eliminates one possibility.
Choice One: Myanmar
Spend some time in Yangon, Mandalay (including U Bein's Bridge), Bagan (3-4 days), Mt. Kyaiktiyho (Golden Rock), and possibly Mrauk U (although that adds additional flights). Inle Lake doesn't really hold a lot of interest for me. I will be adding a few days in Bangkok on either side of a trip to Myanmar as a buffer in case anything goes wrong/delays.
Choice Two: Thailand/Laos
Go to Luang Prabang, maybe the elephant festival in Hongsa, Phonsavan (Plain of Jars), and possibly Vientienne. I've always wanted to go to the Plain of Jars (for various reasons) but I'd like to know if it's worth the 8 hour trip (one way) to get there (well, to Phonsavan from LP) -- is it just a one-day deal, would two be overkill, is it possible to get a private tour (to avoid mid-day light)? After that I would probably go to Chiang Mai, spend at least a week there (maybe 10 days) doing cooking courses and day trips in that area.
Choice Three: Thailand
As above, spending a week in Chiang Mai area, possibly Chiang Rai as well, Sukhothai, maybe revisit Ayuthaya, Phanom Rung historical park (Khmer ruins), Bangkok.
In the end, I know that I'll enjoy wherever I decide to go, but at the same time I always appreciate any advice/insight from others who have been to the these places (or others not mentioned here) -- not only for knowing where to go, but also where not to go - especially for areas that over-rated or over-touristed.
My favorite thing is to go where I've never been. D. Arbus
I have friends currently hiking and travelling in the border area between Thailand and Burma/Myanmar. These are seasoned, experienced travellers in Thailand, Bali, India, Nepal and so on.
They raved about Mae Hong Son. Check out the night market there...beyond that, I'll quote their email to me:
Mae Hong Son is an absolute gem of a town. A small lake in the centre is ringed by noodle shops and Temples. Every night the local hilltribe people make the trek from the mountains to sell their wares on the street. The Wats (Buddhist temples) spread throughout the town and surrounding hills complete the fairyland setting. This town sits in the middle of what is known as the Mae Hong Son Loop. Burly Australian bikers rent motorcycles in Chiang Mai and do the 800km stretch along the Myanmar border returning to Chiang Mai from the south.
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I would definitely choose Myanmar/Burma. Avoid the well beaten 'banana pancake paths' in Laos and Thailand especially in mid March which is part of the peak season. Of all SEA countries Burma is the most interesting for a photographer by far. Been there twice and would definitely go back again. Get a visa in Bangkok, Khao San area (2 days normally) and fly to Yangoon. Then again I would advice not to take any flights within Burma. It can be unsafe. Take the (really badly) rattling train or a bus instead and concentrate on Mandalay+surrounding areas and Pagan. Someone will keep an eye on you (probably your friendly taxi driver/guide) so don't try to shoot anything politically compromising and everything will go smoothly.
I've never been to Burma and you probably have more experience in Thailand than I do. I was in Laos a couple of years ago and again this spring. Although I was working and never got to see the sights (which I gather are mostly temples), I would go back just to mingle with the people and visit the villages. Laos is a very laid back and relaxed country, maybe too much so for some. The food is great, and so are the people. I don't know what the public transportation is like.
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Thanks everyone for your suggestions. In the end I've decided on Myanmar/Thailand/Bhutan -- I don't get to do everything that I want, but everything I am doing is something I've wanted to do for a while. I'm getting my visa for Myanmar here in Japan so hopefully that goes smoothly and I won't have to waste time in Bangkok doing so. I'll have two weeks in Myanmar (mostly Yangon, Mandalay area, and Bagan), a week in Chiang Mai (Colin - I was also interested in the Mae Hong Son area but it's been tabled to (hopefully) another trip), and then my ten days in Bhutan. I'm trying to focus on getting the most out of a few areas, rather than a little of many areas. I've got most of the film I need in the fridge, and other than upgrading my cameras (which I probably won't do for this trip, much as I need to), I'm pretty much set. Hopefully the weather will co-operate and I'll get some interesting and frame-worthy photos from my trip! I'll definitely post some scans once I get back.
My favorite thing is to go where I've never been. D. Arbus
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I have been on the Thai side of the river at Vientienne, at the time I was there, crossing the river was not possible, for me at least. But, I had a grand afternoon visiting with a villager next to the river. The area isn't so rich photographically as I recall. It was a nice bicycle trip from Udorn though.
Chiang Mai on the other hand, and on up into Myanmar would be a lovely trip. I've traveled between Udorn and Chiang Mai by truck, didn't get too much time around Chiang Mai, but it would be easy pickings, so to speak, photographically around there.
If you have the time, taking a train up from Bangkok to Chiang Mai (assuming there is one) would be quite a ride.
Excellent choice going to Myanmar. I'm glad you'd decided on it so I didn't have to come in here and tell you the many reasons why you should change your mind!
I was there in May last year and what you're planning sounds like what I'd do if (more like when) I go back. I didn't get to Mandalay because the heat was simply unbearable in May (all of the 6 days I spent in Bagan hit 47C) so I spent extra time exploring Bagan at a very leisurely pace. Bagan was definitely a highlight, such a quiet pace of life and the most wonderful people I've met anywhere. Discussing the finer points of football while watching the FA cup final late one night with the hotel staff in their little bungalow is something I'll never forget. Good choice on missing out Inle Lake too. I ended up leaving there sooner than I thought and spending extra time in Yangon instead. It's really a bit of a tourist trap (by comparison to the rest of the country) and the people just didn't seem anywhere near as happy and friendly.
If you want to know anything else just let me know, but guesthouse staff there are just wonderful and will sort out flight/bus/train tickets for you without batting an eyelid and are more than willing to give you advice on anything once you get there.
My experiences from Burma are similar to ChrisC's.