If I had a dollar for every time someone said to me “take me on your next trip!”, I’d have enough money to fund my next journey!
In February 2020, on my 6th visit to Cambodia since 2002, I had an epiphany. The trip was wonderful as always, but I felt like something was missing. I found myself wanting to re-experience some of the sightseeing I hadn’t done in over a decade as well as share my love of Cambodia with friends. Transiting through Singapore on that trip did not leave time enough on my layovers to do more than see the famous Jewel with its giant waterfall feature. It was then I decided that on my next trip to Southeast Asia, I would make time to see at least part of Singapore as well as bring friends to Cambodia with me.
Of course, in February 2020 something else was brewing that none of us realized would quickly overtake our lives for the next couple of years. Hello, global pandemic, goodbye travel.
Fast forward to the summer of 2022 when I sent an email to some friends suggesting that they join me for “Kristina’s Southeast Asian Adventure“. I proposed dates and a loose itinerary and offered to plan a two-week trip filled with sightseeing and incredible food in a part of the world I love and know well. Much to my joy, two friends said yes to my crazy plan. Neither friend knew the other and none of us lived in the same city, but both took a giant leap of faith in trusting me and thankfully it all worked out.
To maximize our time, we’d have 3 stops; Singapore, Siem Reap Cambodia, and Bangkok Thailand. Later, the plan was adjusted to include a night in Phnom Penh so that we could take the new(ish) train to Battambang. During the time we’d be traveling we’d also meet up with friends and family in both Siem Reap and Bangkok who happened to be there at the same time.
In the end, we had an amazing trip filled with food tours, temples, markets, and incredible architecture both ancient and new. We walked with elephants in the jungle, learned about landmine-sniffing hero rats, saw monkeys in the wild, fed lunch to 200 elementary school kids in a rural village, andsomeone got a tattoo.
Below is a short reel I created after the trip. It’s a little sneak peek at what’s to come. Keep scrolling to read about how I planned this trip to Southeast Asia.
Planning and Preparation
Money and Meetings
Planning a trip with friends can be challenging. People have different travel styles and different ideas of what they consider “affordable”. For this trip, the goal was to keep the cost down while still enjoying ourselves and maximizing how far the dollar can go in places like Cambodia.
Because we were in three different cities, we had several zoom meetings in the months leading up to the trip as well as dozens of emails and texts to work out all the details. As I was the planner, I would research the hotels, sightseeing, and tours and then send out 3 or 4 options to see what everyone preferred and we’d come to a consensus.
When it came to paying for things, we started with everyone booking and paying for their own flights. I booked the reservations for most of the hotels and tours, and we were able to pay for the hotels individually on-site on arrival. For things that I needed to pay for in advance, everyone simply reimbursed me with a cash payment app like Zelle or PayPal. During the trip, we took turns paying for things and then reimbursed each other every couple of days. If I were to do this again I might use an app like Travel Spend to track joint expenses or have everyone contribute to a “kitty” for group expenses.
Planes, Trains, and Automobiles
Our route took us LAX-Singapore-Phnom Penh-overland-Siem Reap-Bangkok. From Bangkok, one person flew home via Taipei to San Francisco and two of us flew back to Los Angeles with a short layover in Singapore.
On our departure day, we all met at the airport after 7 long months of planning!
We flew Economy Class on all legs, including the long-haul ones to and from Singapore which are almost 18 hours non-stop and are in the top 10 longest flights in the world. On my 2020 trip, I also flew this route, but in Premium Economy. Because PE was so expensive this time around, I used 88,000 United miles plus $84 to book my entire Economy Class ticket on Singapore Airlines (otherwise it would have been about $1350).
We had one other flight, on Air Asia, from Siem Reap to Bangkok, and while this is a budget airline where everything is sold a la carte, it was absolutely fine. That flight was about $100 one way, including checked bags, picking our seats, and a meal.
Our plan to take the train in Phnom Penh was foiled when the train left the station, traveled half a mile, and then returned to the station. No explanation was given as to why. At that point, a friend who was traveling with us and lives in Cambodia used her local resources to find us a taxi minivan and we went straight to Siem Reap a day early.
Making Long Haul Economy More Comfortable
When we booked our flights, the seats were wide open enough for each of us to have our own row. A girl can dream. I watched the seats like a hawk, checking every few weeks, and moving my seat to an empty row as they began to fill up. In the last 24 hours before departure, every row was full so we moved seats so that two of us were in a row of 3 with an empty middle seat.
There were a few items we all agreed were helpful to make the long flight more comfortable. The first was the inflatable footrest pictured above which was a game changer. For short people it’s so helpful to be able to elevate your feet. A Cabeau neck pillow helped prevent “head drop” when trying to sleep upright. An airfly adaptor allowed me to use Bluetooth earbuds instead of a wired headset. I also brought an inflatable seat cushion (better on my back than my bottom), slippers with rubber soles (never wear socks into the bathroom, ewww), and the “comfort flight bag” I made for everyone (below).
The “comfort flight bag” I put together as a gift for my travel companions fits flat in the seat back pocket and holds all the things you might need during the flight. It contained snacks, kleenex, a pen, shout wipes, antiseptic wipes, earplugs, Emergen-c, gum, and chapstick.
At first, my goal was to stick to a budget with an average of $50 per night per person with everyone having their own room. Singapore is very expensive, but Siem Reap is not and the dollar goes much farther there. I figured I could dollar-cost-average it out but in the end, the average was closer to $75 per night. Still, we were all happy with the choices and felt the value was there. The hotels will be detailed in later posts.
Singapore- we had two days in Singapore that included our arrival day and the following day, so our time was limited, but we made the most of it. We managed to see Gardens by the Bay, walk around Little India, and take a food and culture tour through several neighborhoods. This was a good soft landing into traveling in Asia before going to Cambodia.
Phnom Penh- we had no time to do much except have dinner and get up very early the next morning to take the train to nowhere. After seeing Tuol Sleng/S21 twice previously, I opted out of a third visit.
Siem Reap- we had a full week here and it was jam-packed with sightseeing (the temples of Angkor Wat, wild monkeys, hero bomb-sniffing rats, elephants), a visit to Koh Ker school to provide lunch for 200 kids, time by the lovely pool at our hotel, many wonderful meals, and a traditional Sak Yank tattoo.
Bangkok– Here we took a crazy food tour around Bangkok’s Chinatown that included back alleys, restaurants, food carts, and eating insects. We visited the Jim Thompson house, saw incredible modern architecture, traveled by canal and river, subway and sky train, and stayed in a hotel with an amazing view of Wat Arun.
More to come on what we did in later posts…
Packing Tips for Women in Southeast Asia
We all traveled light enough to be carry-on-only but checked our rolling bags due to airline weight restrictions for carry-on (7 kilos max on Singapore Airlines and Air Asia). I spent a lot of time before the trip curating my packing list and even the day before departure I was removing things to make my bags lighter. In the end, my rolling bag weighed about 22 lbs and the backpack I carried on the plane weighed about 13 lbs (it had my work laptop, a change of clothes, toiletries and all the things to make the ling flight more comfortable inside). My clothes were packed in compression packing cubes. Traveling light, even when checking a bag, makes every part of the travel process easier.
Below is my packing list. I wore everything multiple times and never felt like I didn’t have “enough”. I purchased two inexpensive t-shirts in Cambodia ($3 ea and wore them during the trip). We had laundry done for about $5 each at the end of our first week (in Cambodia) and I also washed out a few things by hand.
February is considered the “cool season” in Southeast Asia and it was still very hot and humid (85-95 degrees F and 65-95% humidity). It was more common than not that we showered and changed clothes mid-day after a sweaty morning of sightseeing. For this reason, makeup is best kept to a minimum as well and it’s important to stay well hydrated. I also try to be respectful of the culture and aware of the requirements (covered shoulders and knees) when entering some temples.
6 Blouses-lightweight, some sleeveless, multi-colored
2 Button up long sleeve over shirts
2 Tank tops
3 T-shirts cotton- (plus purchased 2 in Cambodia)
Purple Cashmere long hooded wrap (only worn on the long-haul flights)
1 Pair Travel/hiking pants
2 Pair Capri pants
2 Pair Linen pants- 1 wide leg, 1 jogger
1 Pair Linen Shorts
1 Pair Yoga Pants with pockets (only worn on the flight over)
1 Pair PJ Bottoms-black cotton lightweight joggers (worn with t-shirts)
1 Black Linen dress
1 Blue with white polka dots long dress
1 Pair white low-top tennis shoes
1 Pair Black sandals for walking
1 Pair flat flip flop sandals
Various socks, underwear, bras, socks (including compression socks for flights)
General Resources For Travel in Southeast Asia
I can’t plan a trip without first reading through multiple guidebooks. I’ve found my local library to be a great resource for this and I usually check out multiple books to get a sense of which one I like the best, then buy the most current addition to bring on the trip. These are a few guidebooks I’d recommend:
Whenever I’m planning travel, I find travel forums, message boards, and country-specific Facebook pages to be very helpful. These are all places you can go to read through other people’s questions and comments to glean nuggets of information as well as ask your own questions. For this trip I mainly used the Trip Advisor Forums:
A good travel app on your phone can be worth its weight in gold. Below are the ones I find most useful on every trip.
Tripit.com– I love Tripit for organizing our itinerary. You can forward them your reservations from airlines, car rentals, hotel chains, restaurant reservations, etc and it will upload. Then go in and amend with other details like for tours. I also enter into “notes” sightseeing info and possible restaurants to try.
Airlines– I always download the apps for whatever airline I’m flying to get a mobile boarding pass, flight alerts, change seats, and check-in.
Evernote–I use this to create packing list and save notes and pages from websites into Evernote to take with you.
Have you been to Southeast Asia? Do you want to visit? Leave me a comment below and let me know what you think!
For more posts on Asia, make sure to check out themain Asia trips page. There, you will find the link to the rest of the posts for this trip and many others.
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NOTE: Everything on this trip was paid for by me. Nothing was complimentary or given in exchange for reviews or promotions.
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