The classic Indochina loop of Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos is one of the most travelled spots in the world. When working as an STA Agent, 90% of my customers were going to Indochina or Australia – a lot of the time both! I’ve also travelled the route before when I was 18, so I already know where I would like to go. Plus, due to being so well travelled, the Indochina loop is now one of the easiest places to travel, which can make it a great starting point, especially for first time travellers.
There are two ways to tackle the Indochina loop; clockwise (Northern Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thai Islands) or anti-clockwise (the reverse!). When I travelled South East Asia before, I travelled in an anti-clockwise direction, starting and ending in Bangkok (sadly no Thai islands for me). When we go back in November 2016, I think we will more than likely do the opposite. It doesn’t really make a difference where you go first, but weather can often help dictate the best routing and it may also depend on where you are arriving from beforehand (and where you are flying in to).
In terms of the best starting point, Bangkok is always a winner. Although you can easily fly in to any of the four countries, due to its popularity and huge number of airlines that fly in and out – Bangkok will almost certainly be your cheapest option. Flights can be as little as £350 return if you manage to nab a good deal and you can easily overland once you arrive. The image below shows the anti-clockwise loop from Bangkok to Bangkok and also shows the route if you were to continue to overland all the way down to Singapore!
Each country has different visa requirements and it’s important to read up about the visas in advance as some have to be sorted before you leave. Most places require 6 months validity on your passport and you will definitely need some pages free for stamps/ visas.
Thailand – This is a pretty easy one! For British passports, you get 30 days for free and you don’t need a visa, you will just receive a stamp in your passport at the airport. If arriving in to Bangkok overland (e.g. on a bus from Cambodia) you are only granted 15 days. This may then influence whether you opt for the clockwise or anti-clockwise loop as it’s advisable to go where you want to spend the most time first. Eg. If you want more time on the islands, head there first where you will have up to 30 days before heading to Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos. When you cross back in to Northern Thailand from Laos, you’ll have 15 days to get back to Bangkok and out of Thailand. If you opted for a cheap flight to take you back in to Thailand, you would get another 30 days.
Cambodia – British citizens do require a visa for Cambodia, but you don’t need to get it before you leave. Cambodian visas are obtained on the borders and cost approximately $30. You will usually need to pay in US Dollars (sometimes Thai Baht depending on the border crossing) and the notes have to be crisp and not scrunched up in a jean pocket, so keep them in a travel wallet or something similar. You will also need to take some passport photos with you – I’d take a full batch of 6 for the whole trip just to be sure.
Vietnam – With the Vietnam visa, I’ve always been told that you have to get the visa before you leave. I’ve since learnt it is possible to visit the Embassy in Bangkok to get your Vietnam visa and you can even get a visa on arrival if flying straight in to Vietnam. However, with visa on arrival, you have the problem of paying a local ‘agency’ to help you out and there are lots of scams which take advantage of this. Plus, you still have to liaise with the companies before you leave.
The Vietnam visa is approximately £44 (it changes regularly..) and postage is around £8 if you get it before you leave from the Vietnam Embassy. Sending off for your visa by post means no queuing at the Embassy in London and no additional travel costs. I’ve always got my visa prior to travel, but since looking in to getting the visa in Bangkok, it actually seems a little easier (although you may queue for a while) and it works out cheaper at around £20.
Laos – As with Cambodia, you can get the visa for Laos on the border. It will cost around US$30 / 1500 Thai Baht and you will need to have some passport photos handy.
PROOF OF EXIT
This is the one thing that I used to talk about most when working at STA, as it was always something that people hadn’t realised or taken in to account. Most countries like to see proof of exit/ onward travel before they let you in, to ensure you are not planning on overstaying your visa validity. Proof of exit needs to be some kind of evidence that you plan on leaving that country within their visa requirements. For example, if you are granted 30 days on arrival in Thailand and you were going to do the Indochina loop starting and finishing in Thailand, it’s going to take about 6-8 weeks from arriving to leaving (after Cambodia/Vietnam/Laos). Therefore, to the border officials and airport staff (who have no idea of your plans to travel Cambodia etc), it looks like you are planning a stay that goes way beyond what the visa allows. Of course, you know that you are only going to be in Thailand for 2-3 weeks before moving on, and you can explain that until you are blue in the face but unfortunately your good word is not enough! Many people pass through the airport with no trouble at all and are not even asked about their itinerary. However, if they do ask and you have nothing to show them, you could be looking at the next flight home!
You can get around this by purchasing a very cheap flight (e.g. with Air Asia) from Thailand to whichever nearby country is cheapest, hopefully for around £30. If required to show proof, you’ll have your ticket as evidence. You don’t actually need to take the flight however, as once in Thailand land crossings are much easier and you are much less likely to be asked for proof of exit. If you are, buses and trains are acceptable here. Some people have described how they have forged flight itineraries by editing the dates, but that’s not something I’d advise as the punishment if caught is definitely not worth it for saving £30!
WHERE ARE WE GOING?
When we eventually leave on our travels, we hope to cover:
- Thai Islands (East and West)
- Northern Thailand – Chiang Rai, Chiang Mai, Tak Province, Mae Hong Son, Sukhothai, Sangkhlaburi
- Phnom Penh
- Siem Reap
- Kratie Province, Kampot Province, Koh Kong Province, Rattanak Kiri
- Luang Prabang
- Vang Vieng
- Bokeo Nature Reserve
- Nong Kiau
- Phu Hin Bun National Park
- Ho Chi Minh
- Nha Trang
- Tuy Hoa
- Da Nang
- Hoi An
GETTING FROM A TO B!
We plan to mostly travel using buses, trains, taxis and Tuk Tuks, ideally doing the whole loop without a flight! It’s very easy to get around South East Asia and buses/ trains should be easily accessible to get you to your next destination. As the route is so well travelled, you will find a lot more people speak English – especially in Thailand. However, don’t expect that to be the case with everywhere – especially the more rural areas. Buses and trains can be booked locally and it’s recommended that you get your tickets a few days in advance, just in case! Seat 61 has a great section about train travel in Thailand. There is also a train map showing the train routes (and some bus routes) across the whole Indochina loop.