This is how a 14-day backpacking trip with kids to 8 Southeast Asian cities looks like
Let’s go fly away
Planning a 14-day backpacking trip with the family can be tricky. It’s not just about deciding where to go and how much time to spend in each place. The toughest part? Timing your transportation plans and booking them ahead of time. Here’s a quick look at our two-week itinerary that covered four countries (Malaysia, Laos, Thailand and Singapore) and eight cities (Kuala Lumpur, Vientiane, Vang Vieng, Luang Prabang, Bangkok, Malacca, Johor Bahru and Singapore):
Day 1 Journey Begins
Cebu to Kuala Lumpur 3:05 p.m. to 6:55 p.m. (AirAsia)
KLIA2 to KL Sentral 7:10 p.m. to 9 p.m. (Private car)
KL city tour Check out Petronas Towers at night
Overnight Kuala Lumpur Easy Hotel KL Sentral (Agoda) 110, Jalan Tun Sambanthan
And how we ended up in the Land of a Million Elephants
Laos and Found
Five backpacks, three kids, two adults, four countries, two weeks.
After a year of planning, deciding where to go, waiting for seat sales, hunting for room discounts, and scrimping on just about anything until the day of departure, our first trip to Indochina as a family of five was finally happening.
We also did it by traveling light, each one carrying a backpack weighing less than seven kilos, the airline limit for hand-carried bags.
So where exactly where we heading? Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore and land-locked Laos.
Wait, what — Laos? Well, Laos does sound like a pretty unlikely destination for a family that will be out of the country for only the second time around. Our first family trip abroad was in Hong Kong to see Disneyland, of course, in 2014. And yet we spent six days in this most laid-back of countries in the Indochinese region.
So why the off-kilter trip to a country like Laos? Five words: Luang Prabang, Vang Vieng, and elephants. Of course, we would soon find out Laos has plenty to offer, from delicious street food and great traditional coffee to natural attractions that locals and visitors can enjoy to their heart’s content.
But I do have a healthy obsession with heritage sites, and I decided a few years back that I will show my children as many heritage sites as possible in our home country the Philippines and in Southeast Asia (mainly because it’s visa-free for us Filipinos when traveling to Asean countries and fares are far more affordable).
The ancient town of Luang Prabang, a Unesco World Heritage Site, fascinates me in particular, and while it was growing in popularity (e.g. morning alms giving by monks), I reckoned that the place would still retain its laid-back vibe, and it was perfect for a visit in 2016. Apart from that, there was an elephant sanctuary we could visit to see these magnificent beasts for the first time.
Having seen Vang Vieng’s dramatic karst mountain landscapes in pictures, I also thought that this town in central Laos would make for a good stop from the capital of Vientiane.
Another reason to visit Laos was that it’s one of the few Asean countries my wife and I haven’t been to yet. The year before, we went to Bagan in July to celebrate our 15th wedding anniversary, while the kids stayed behind.
Now planning this family trip was one thing. Deciding exactly which places to see was another. Consider our entourage: me, my wife and three kids ages 16, 12 and 7. My main concern was that everyone must enjoy the trip, or that each one has something to look forward to in the entire trip.
Making a seven-year-old share your passion for Southeast Asian art and architecture would be pushing it too far. But talk about seeing elephants up close and watch his eyes light up with excitement.
In truth, Laos wasn’t our first destination of choice. The wife actually left it up to me to plan the itinerary, and what I sorely needed from Bretha was a mother’s imprimatur.
And guess what? I came up not just one, or two, or three possible itineraries, but 12. Yes 12 iterations of a two-week trip.
I chose between two hubs for our entry and exit: Kuala Lumpur and Singapore, as these two offered the cheapest fare. I also decided that we would see Legoland in Johor Bahru, Malaysia, which meant we might as well see nearby Malacca, itself a Unesco World Heritage Site, both of which are accessible from KL and SG by bus.
For the first few itineraries, I plotted a trip to Krabi in Thailand with a side trip to Penang. All these involved checking bus, train and air fare from various schedules. Laos came to the picture later.
As one itinerary took shape, I’d proceed to another, until I had 12 different itineraries, all of which I showed to the wife for approval. She promptly sent everything back, saying, “You decide.”
So I did and chose the itinerary with Laos in it. And the trip that began on the fourth week of May 2016 looked like this: Cebu-Kuala Lumpur-Vientiane-Bangkok-Singapore-Cebu. Four countries, two weeks.
We spent two nights in Little India in Kuala Lumpur, our favorite gateway city to neighboring Southeast Asian countries since it’s become a familiar city to us with great food.
After arriving at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport 2 the previous afternoon, we toured the green city of KL the following day, as we had the whole morning and afternoon free.
That night, when everyone was fast asleep ahead of our flight to Laos next morning, a thought popped inside my head: are the roads to Luang Prabang safe?
Now as someone who’s from the Philippines, I usually take travel advisories from Western countries with a grain of salt, but I still did check them many months ago just in case. Laos was generally safe, they said.
That nagging thought, though, prompted me to check the latest travel advisories, and to my horror, they warned against travel along the route we’d be taking from Vang Vieng to Luang Prabang, following a series of attacks on vehicles carrying foreign passengers from a construction site late last year.
On the verge of panic, I considered changing the itinerary and checked direct flights from Kuala Lumpur or Vientiane to Luang Prabang.
The rates were prohibitive, which meant I had two choices: cancel the trip or push through with it. I read the advisories again and, with a clearer head, arrived at the conclusion that the incidents in question were isolated and had more to do with issues concerning the construction project, not random attacks on travelers.
I lost a bit of sleep over those exaggerated travel advisories, but that was the worst thing that happened during the entire trip.
We woke up really early the next day to catch the first bus bound for the airport. It left promptly at 5 a.m. An hour later, we were at the KLIA2 for our 8 a.m. flight. From KL, we landed safely at the Vientiane airport at past 10 a.m.
We took a cab that brought us to a corner where the van bound for Vang Vieng stops to pick up passengers, and bought tickets from a group of men huddled in the shade. The entire gang was famished.
Since we had two hours to spare before the van would pick us up, we asked the ticket seller where we can have an early lunch.
“You want Lao food?” said the ticket seller.
“Yes. And cheap?”
“See that building? Turn left, then right. It’s where Lao people eat.”
So off we went in a huff.
We found the quaint noodle joint and placed our orders based on what they suggested. Every serving of Lao noodles or khao piak sen came with a plateful of vegetables (lettuce, string beans and mint leaves) plus mongo sprouts, pickled carrots, eggplant and cucumber.
Bretha and the kids relished their hefty bowl of noodles with hot, flavorful broth. I had Sticky Noodles, which turned out to be fried pork noodles with blood cubes.
I used to gorge on barbecued blood cubes in Cebu but not as noodle toppings. So how did this Lao dish taste like? Odd but in a good way.
Either way, you’d mistake khao piak sen for pho if you had no idea, and I’d say it’s up there with the Vietnamese staple. I shouldn’t be surprised since both countries have a shared culture and history, including colonial times.
We returned to the corner to find the men now taking their lunch of sticky rice that they ate after rolling it into small rice balls by hand and paired with various dishes.
The taste of delicious Lao noodles and the sight of locals enjoying their staples bode well for the entire trip, which would begin in a few minutes with a 160-kilometer van ride to mystical Vang Vieng.
The van ticket sellers and tuktuk drivers have lunch of sticky rice balls
Our Laos Itinerary
After coming up with 12 different itineraries, we finally settled on one that took us from Cebu to Kuala Lumpur, Vientiane, Vang Vieng, Luang Prabang, Bangkok, back to Kuala Lumpur, then Malacca, Johor Bahru, Singapore, and finally back to Cebu. Here’s the Traveling Vs’ six-day itinerary for the Vientiane-Vang Vieng-Luang Prabang Leg of the 14-day trip:
Kuala Lumpur to Vientiane 7:25am to 9:10 a.m. (AirAsia)
Vientiane to Vang Vieng 12:40 p.m. to 4:20 (Private van)