The tourism industry is one of the hardest hit by the Covid19 pandemic. Among the large economies, Mexico has tourism contributing the largest share towards its GDP at 15.5% according to Statista. Some small island nations in the pacific are so dependent on tourism that they worry that their economy might just be wiped off with all the travel restrictions put in place. Several countries have millions of people contributing directly or indirectly to the tourism industry, and this pandemic threatens their source of livelihood and sets the industry on the brink of collapse. The intent behind writing this article – ‘4 safe countries to visit in Asia post the pandemic‘ was to give travellers something to look forward to and plan their post-Covid19 travel.
Not all is gloom when it comes to the prospects of travel in the near future. There are many ways in which people are trying to work out a safe and effective way of travelling, even amid all the restrictions that are there in place. As countries open up, and with it, the tourism industry slowly trickles back to life, a new era of post-COVID travel would dawn upon us – one which would be markedly different and hopefully, more sustainable in the long run.
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Ways countries are working to ensure safe travel
Before I get started with my list of the safe countries to visit in Asia, here are some of the ways in which many nations are trying to ensure that they help revive the tourism industry while ensuring safety not only for incoming travellers but also for local who come in direct contact with these visitors.
Creation of travel bubbles
Given the unequal way in which the pandemic has spread across the globe and the fact that different countries are recovering at different rates, it quickly became important for countries to ensure tourism in a safer way by allowing visitors from countries who are in a similar situation with regards to the outbreak. This is to ensure that they do not aggravate the situation while allowing the tourism industry to sustain. Case in point are the South East Asian countries. Most of them have managed fairly well in dealing with the pandemic. Few of them have also started allowing visitors from neighbouring countries who aren’t worse off. Same is the case with the European Union where many of the countries with economies heavily dependent on tourism, like Italy and Spain, are starting to open up to their neighbours.
There is a huge surge worldwide in demand for private travel during the pandemic. While flying private remains out of the reach of most ordinary travellers, there are ways in which people can still manage to make there trips private to a great extent. Private tours are a great way to avoid the crowds and can work out to be cheaper when you travel with your family or friends. Most private tours are priced per tour and hence the cost per person reduces when you have a larger group. This way, you do not way have to worry about sharing your tours with strangers.
Another way of keeping it to yourself is by indulging in private transfers to the extent possible. The good news here is that in many Asian countries, private taxis are relatively inexpensive and can be safer compared to using public transport. Finally, backpackers can avoid staying in dorms and spend a bit more for a private room. In most South East Asian cities, one can find private rooms for as low as 10 USD (~ 750 INR).
Many countries are cutting down on the number of guests that hostels can accommodate in dorm rooms, the number of tourists that can be ferried in tour buses, and so on. Also, given the downturn that the industry is witnessing, prices are expected to be relatively same even when the group sizes are trimmed.
A lot of businesses across the world are encouraging people to get away from it all and experience the peace of staying in private resorts/ islands away from the major population centres. Countries like the Philippines and Indonesia are inherently densely populated. However, once you get away from the big cities, there are hundreds of small, barely populated islands which can be great for travellers to have a safe experience away from all of humanity. More on this in the later sections.
Countries in Asia which are comparatively safe to visit post Covid19
Below is a list of 4 countries in Asia which I believe are comparatively safe enough to visit even during the Pandemic and definitely worth a shot when hopefully everything calms down. The choices include majorly countries in South East Asia and have been decided basis how well have these countries managed to keep the pandemic in reign. I have also factored in what do these countries offer tourists in terms of safe, experiential tourism.
Bangkok, the capital of Thailand, is the most visited city in the world. With its plethora of temples, shopping destinations, a vibrant nightlight, and a world-famous food scene, this bustling metropolis has something to offer for everyone. However, the focus here would be to get away from all the crowds of the major cities and tourist destinations.
Thailand has managed to keep the numbers of Covid19 cases well within control. Many of the tourist attractions have already started opening up for domestic tourism. As far as international visitors are concerned, Thailand plans a phased opening up. International tourists, as per the current plan, might be allowed in as soon as August 2020. Initially, travellers from countries part of the Thailand travel bubble might be the ones allowed. The tourism authorities plan to open up the country soon to all visitors. However, expect to have heightened safety measure and mandatory travel insurance along with health declarations as part of requirements for entering the country.
Visa-on-arrival and eVisa have been temporarily suspended. I will update this post as soon as there is new information on the availability of Visa-on-arrival and eVisa. Below is an infograph by the Public Relations of Thailand on how the entry measures are going to be lifted for foreigners in the near term. You can follow them on Twitter for the latest updates.
My suggestion would be to get away from the hustle and bustle of major cities like Bangkok and Chiang Mai. Also, avoid the popular resort destinations like Phuket and Pattaya. Head to one of the islands, off the coast in the Andaman Sea on the west or in the Gulf of Thailand on the east. Below is a list of a few of the places, both on and off the mainland, I suggest make great getaways.
Ko Tao is the third largest island in the Chumphon Archipelago after Koh Samui and Koh Phangan in the Gulf of Thailand. The island is a popular destination for divers and Dive-master courses in Ko Tao are some of the cheapest in the world. Surrounded by emerald green waters filled with plenty of coral and marine life, Ko Tao is an idyllic destination for backpackers as well as people looking for a secluded vacation. It is not as popular as its bigger cousins – Koh Samui and Koh Phangan and at the same time offers plenty to do and see for everyone.
Ko Tao can be accessed by ferry either from Chumphon on the mainland or via connecting ferries from Koh Samui and Koh Phangan. The nearest airport is in Koh Samui. Koh Samui is itself connected via multiple flights daily from Bangkok. However, it can work out to be much cheaper to fly into Chumphon airport from Bangkok and then taking the ferry from their than flying in directly to Koh Samui.
Don Sak is another popular ferry port with direct ferries to Ko Tao (via Koh Samui/ Koh Phangan) and connected via road to Surat Thani and Krabi. Ferry operators like Lomprayah provide end-to-end connections from Ao Nang in Krabi to Ko Tao consisting of a Bus ride overland up to Don Sak Ferry Port and then further connecting via high-speed Catamaran to Ko Tao.
Apart from Diving, Ko Tao provides visitors with excellent opportunities for Snorkelling, Rock Climbing, Sailing, and a host of other activities. There are a number of beach hopping and snorkelling day tours circumnavigating the island and also visiting the neighbouring island of Ko Nang Yuan.
Ko Chang is the 2nd largest island of Thailand and is part of the Ko Chang Archipelago in the Gulf of Thailand. It has plenty to offer with white sand beaches, snorkelling and diving spots, jungle treks, waterfalls, and a wide variety of wildlife. While it has caught up on the tourist reader in recent years, it still far less crowded than the more popular destinations of Phuket and Koh Samui. Options for stay are plentiful and you shouldn’t have any difficulty finding a place that suits your budget.
Ko Chang has no airports and is connected via ferries to the mainland city of Trat which itself is connected via direct flights to Bangkok. There is also a direct bus connecting Bangkok to Trat city. Some of the ferries also included a drop-off service to your accommodation on the island. Bonsiri is a service which offers a combined bus+ferry ticket from Bangkok to Ko Chang. The half-day journey costs around 600 THB (~ 19.2 USD, 1438 INR). There are also bus services connecting Trat to Pattaya.
Ao Thammachat is the ferry port on mainland closest to Bangkok and most combined services use this port. Fast boat transfers take rough half-an-hour to reach Ao Sapparot. You can also choose to book a private transfer to the island from Bangkok. Be prepared to shell out more as most drivers have to return empty and hence the additional cost.
There are several places in Ko Chang offering Elephant rides. However, know that none of them are ethical and Elephants are not naturally equipped to carry humans or any load on their backs. There are plenty of waterfalls in the island – Klong Plu being the most popular. Diving and fishing are also popular given the abundance of marine life in the nearby sea. Also popular are jungle treks where one can witness an abundance of wildlife.
Ko Lanta is close to all the popular seaside destinations in the Andaman Sea side of Thailand like Krabi, Ko Phi Phi, and Phuket, yet is a world away. It is actually a group of islands, the biggest of which is Ko Lanta Yai, also simply called Ko Lanta. This island has most of the tourist infrastructure and attractions. Ko Lanta has several white sand beaches, a variety of marine life including corals, and mangroves. It also provides easy access to the hundreds of islands in the Phang Nga Bay. This is not a party island and is a perfect getaway from the overcrowded destinations. Accommodations are plenty – ranging from secluded resorts to B&Bs.
The nearest major airport to Ko Lanta is Krabi which is connected via direct flights to Bangkok. The island can be reached via ferry from Ao Nang in Krabi or via road. Note that the last section of the road travel involves a transfer via a car ferry since there is no bridge connecting the island to the nearby mainland. Any transfer via van from Krabi to the island would involve two short ferry transfers – first from the mainland to Ko Lanta Noi and then from Ko Lanta Noi to Ko Lanta Yai. The end-to-end land transfer takes around 2 hours. You may also opt for a private transfer which would cost around 2,500 THB (~ 80 USD, 6000 INR).
The direct ferry from Krabi town or Ao Nang also takes around 2 hours and can turn out to be a more convenient option if any of these is your starting point. Ferry connections are also available to Ko Phi Phi and Phuket.
Ban Saladan is the tourist centre of the island where you can book all your tours, dives, and transfers. Sights include the Khao Mai Kaew Caves, Lanta Old Town and Sea-Gypsy Village, apart from the neighbouring twin island of Ko Lanta Noi. Of course, there are numerous white sand beaches which are far less crowded than the popular destinations like Phuket and Krabi, even at the peak of high season.
Ko Lipe is a small L-shaped island in the south of Thailand near the Malaysian border. Originally home to sea gipsies, it has grown quite popular over the years because of its white-sand beaches, turquoise waters, and extensive marine life. Given its small size, most of the island can be covered on foot. There are several guesthouse catering to all kinds of budgets with average rooms priced at around 1000 THB (~ 32 USD, 2400 INR).
There are a couple of scheduled flights by Nok Air And Air Asia from Bangkok to Hat Yai with connecting ferries to Ko Lipe. However, schedule and availability might vary with season. Most flight tickets also include the ferry transfer to the island. During high season, there are a number of ferries connecting Ko Lipe with Krabi, Ko Lanta, and even Langkawi in Malaysia.
There isn’t a huge lot to do in Ko Lipe and that is where its charm lies. Spending idyllic days on the island doing absolutely nothing can often be a wonderful break from the busy lives that many of us have. The island has four white sand beaches and some great diving sites with largely intact reefs. If Diving is not your thing, you can also snorkel around the reefs or take a day trip to the neighbouring islands.
The two main ports of entry for visitors who fly in are Bangkok and Phuket. Almost every major airline flies to Bangkok from across the world. Phuket is also well connected to a number of destinations in and outside Asia. Most full-fare international airlines fly into the newer Suvarnabhumi International Airport in Bangkok. Low-cost airlines like Air Asia make use of the older Don Mueang Internation Airport. There are international airports at Krabi, Koh Samui, and Chiang Mai as well. However international flights to these cities are mostly from neighbouring South-East Asian countries.
There are several international border crossings overland with the neighbouring countries of Cambodia, Myanmar, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Laos. However, do check beforehand if the port of entry supports visa-on-arrival or eVisa, should you wish to opt for any of these.
There is an international train service connecting Bangkok with Kuala Lumpur.
Passport holders of 64 countries are currently allowed visa-free into Thailand for a stay ranging from 14 days up to 90 days depending on the country of nationality of the visitor. Visitors from 18 other countries, including India, can obtain a visa-on-arrival. These are valid for stays up to 15 days. Note that visa-on-arrival is available only at select ports of entry. Visa-free entry scheme for Indians expired on the 30th of April, 2020 and there is no further news if this shall be renewed post the pandemic. Visitors eligible for visa-on-arrival can now also apply for eVisa beforehand and skip visa queues at the airport on arrival. Citizens of some country might need to apply for a visa at their local consulates/ embassies in advance. There is no news so far on how soon will Thailand return to this visa regime. Read the below article for further details. It’s fairly updated.
Wikipedia – Visa Policy of Thailand
South Korea has been one of the biggest success stories of Covid19 management in recent times. While it initially had a large scale outbreak, it has managed to keep the numbers well within control. This makes South Korea an ideal break for summer which is safe and has a lot to offer for all kinds of tourists.
The number of international tourists in South Korea is fairly low at this point in time. There is also the mandatory requirement of 2 weeks of quarantine for all visitors. Domestic tourism in South Korea is back on its feet with all the tourist sites open. All domestic flights have also restarted. International flights are operating at reduced capacity. Check the official South Korean tourism website for the latest updates as the country starts opening up to international tourism.
My advice for South Korea too would be to avoid the large metropolitan areas of Seoul and Busan and head to the island of Jeju or to one of smaller historical towns dotting the country. South Korea has a lot to offer in terms of natural beauty, historical UNESCO world heritage sites, and a splendid food scenic. Of course, there are cultural icons like K-Pop and South Korean beauty products which a lot of international tourists come to South Korea for. Visit South Korea preferably between Spring to Autumn as the winters can get extremely cold unless you are into skiing in which case it makes sense to visit one of South Korea’s ski resorts during winters. Below is a list of places I suggest worth visiting in South Korea, away from most of the urban centres.
Jeju is South Korea’s largest island and is located south of the mainland. Jeju has a subtropical climate with the mildest of winters in South Korea. The island offers a range of activities including nature trails, sandy beaches, caves, and theme parks. Jeju is a fairly large island and is around 70 km across in width. Travel times from one end to the other can take around 2 hours. The island has two major cities – Jeju City and Seogwipo – located on the north and south coast of Jeju respectively. However, accommodations are scattered throughout the island include 5-star resorts, guest houses and backpacker hostels. Prices are a bit on the higher side compared to other cities in South Korea. However, it’s still cheaper than comparable destinations in Japan. Jeju has its own dialect of Korean. People working in the tourism industry mostly speak standard Korean, English, and Mandarin.
Jeju is connected via daily flights from Seoul, Busan, and other major cities in South Korea. It is also connected via international flights to cities in Japan, China, and Hong Kong. Travellers coming from anywhere else would probably require transit through Seoul or Busan. Most flights to Jeju from Seoul are via Gimpo (Seoul’s domestic Airport). Hence travellers arriving at Incheon International Airport in Seoul should be aware of this required transfer to Gimpo in case they plan to head directly to Jeju.
Ferries connect Jeju to several cities in the mainland, including Busan and Incheon near Seoul. However, these are time-consuming and given the competitive rates for domestic flights in South Korea, are not always recommended for tourists.
Jeju has a well-developed network of public buses covering the breadth of the island. It has both inner-city buses catering to the major cities of Jeju and Seogwpo as well as intracity buses. Transfers from the airport to Seogwpo can take around an hour by Bus and transfers to Jeju City is less than half-an-hour from the Airport.
Taxis are ubiquitous in Jeju and hiring a taxi for an entire day would cost upwards of 100,000 KWR (~84 USD, 6275 INR). Finally, rental cars are available for those having an International Driving Permit and is a good enough option given that the road network in Jeju is fairly well developed. Below is a link to Jeju Island’s Public Bus information website with route maps:
Some of the major attractions of Jeju Island are listed below:
- Udo Island: Udo is a small island off the eastern coast of Jeju which makes a great day trip from Jeju. It has white sand beaches, clifftop viewpoints, and hiking trails, and can be navigated via its own bus network or by renting a scooter or bicycle on the island itself. It is well connected by ferries from the mainland village of Seongsan. Note that you cannot bring in your own vehicles into the island unless you are a local islander.
- Seongsan Ilchulbong: This volcanic crater near the coast overlooking the island of Udo is a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Jeju. Hike to the top from the entrance takes around 50 minutes and offers wonderful vistas over the surrounding landscape and the sea. Entrance tickets are 2,000 KWR (~ 1.68 USD, 125 INR).
- Manjanggul Cave: Manjanggul Cave is another world heritage site in Jeju which is a cave made up of the largest Lava tubes in the world. Only a small section of the cave is accessible to tourists. Entrance tickets are 4,000 KWR (~ 3.36 USD, 250 INR).
- Hallasan National Park: Hallasan National Park with Mount Halla, the tallest mountain in South Korea, is the third of Jeju’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites. This is an active volcano and as such, many of the trails might be occasionally closed. Check the Jeju tourism website linked below for the latest updates. Mount Halla offers multiple trails to the top – Gwaneumsa and Seongpanak being the most popular of them. It makes for a long day of hiking for the reasonably fit and offers spectacular views from the top as well as en-route. Most of the trail entrances can be reached either via taxi or by public bus.
This former capital of the Silla Kingdom, Gyeongju offers a lot for history buffs. It is also known as the ‘Museum without walls‘ as it is filled with historical palaces, temples, and folk villages. Being located at a short distance from Busan, Gyeongju also makes for an excellent day trip from South Korea’s second largest city. However, to truly appreciate all that Gyeongju has to offer, a minimum of 2 days is recommended.
The nearest airport to Gyeongju is Busan and Ulsan. Both have direct bus connections to Gyeongju which is an hour ride from the airports. Gyeongju is also connected via direct buses from Seoul (4 Hours ride) and Busan (1 Hour ride). Gyeongju station is connected to Seoul by the slower Saemaeul trains. There are direct KTX train connections from both Seoul and Busan to Singyeongju station which is located 15 minutes bus ride away from Gyeongju. KTX trains are the fastest trains in South Korea and as such, tickets for KTX are the most expensive. However, they are still far cheaper when compared to similar Shinkansen (Bullet) trains in Japan. Seoul is around 2 and a half hours by KTX while Busan is only half an hour away from Gyeongju.
Sights worth visiting in Gyeongju include the UNESCO World Heritage site of Bulguksa Temple located around 1.5 km from Gyeongju centre, Anapji Pond which is located within the Donggung Palace, the Cheonmachong Tomb, Cheomseongdae Observatory which is the oldest observatory in Asia, and the temple of Seokguram which is a UNESCO World Heritage site as well.
Jeonju is a historical city in the south-west of South Korea. The cultural capital of the former Joseon dynasty was declared the UNESCO City Of Gastronomy in 2012. It is only two hours by direct KTX train from Seoul making it a wonderful day trip from the capital as well as worthy of longer stays.
From Seoul, there are both direct KTX trains to Jeonju as well as connections via Iksan. Express buses for Seoul take around 2 and a half hours. There are bus connections directly from Incheon Airport as well. Express buses from Busan take around 3 and a half hours to reach Jeonju.
Jeonju Hanok village is a traditional village in Jeonju featuring Hanok house, many of which are also available as a homestay for tourist to experience the local culture. This is a must-see when in Jeonju. Some of the house date back to the 14th century. Here you can try Korean liquor and experience traditional crafts like Hanji paper making. The Hansol Paper Museum is a museum dedicated to the history of papermaking – both in Korea and across the world. Make sure to try the famous Bibimbap which a traditional rice bowl consisting of rice and fried vegetables and often topped with meat and eggs. The hot pot version at Hanguk-jip, one of the oldest eating establishments in Jeonju, is the most popular place to try Bibimbap. Finally, you can try a traditional Hanbok, the Korean national dress and get yourself photographed for the Insta-worthy shot.
South Korea has 7 international airports of which Seoul’s Incheon International Airport and Busan’s Gimhae Airport serve as the gateway for most international travellers. Incheon connects South Korea to destinations all over the world with direct flights to most major cities in North America, Europe, and Asia. Busan has direct flights to destinations all over Asia and Russia. Jeju connects to a few destinations in Japan, China, and Hong Kong.
There is no means to get into South Korea by road or via train as its only land border with North Korea is closed.
Busan Ferry Port has regular ferries to multiple destinations in Japan. Incheon Port, on the other hand, connects to several ports in China. There is a weekly ferry from Donghae to Vladivostok in Russia.
Passport holders of 85 countries plus the citizens of the European Union can enter South Korea visa-free and stay from 30 days to 180 days depending on the country of citizenship. Jeju has a special visa waiver program for citizens of certain countries. However, all such visa-free entries have been currently suspended due to Covid19 and you might need to apply at a local embassy in case you plan to travel before the restrictions are lifted.
Citizens of India can apply for a South Korea Temporary Visit (C-3) via any of VFS Centres in India. The visa is valid for tourist for stays up to 90 days. It is priced at 3,775 INR. Read the below article for further details. It’s fairly updated.
Wikipedia – Visa policy of South Korea
Laos is one of the least visited countries in South East Asia by tourists, often overlooked by tourists when compared with its far more popular neighbours like Thailand, Vietnam, and Cambodia. However, Laos is getting increasingly popular in the tourist radar with its laid back lifestyle and hidden treasure. From tubing in Vang Vieng to offering alms to monks in Luang Prabang, Laos has a lot to offer for all kinds of tourists.
Laos has been a success story when it comes to Covid19 management. It currently has just 1 active case. The remaining 19 cases have all been discharged. While restrictions have currently been put on international arrivals, the country plans to open up soon as it needs the stimulus that a flourishing tourism industry provides.
I have recommended two of my favourite destinations in Laos below – Luang Prabang and Vang Vieng. I expect both to be far less crowded once Laos opens up given that they receive less attention from tourists anyways compared to destinations in neighbouring countries like Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam.
Luang Prabang is a UNESCO World Heritage town nestled on the banks of the Mekong River in northern Laos. This postcard-perfect town is filled with French colonial architecture, ancient temples, wooden Lao houses, and lush jungle treks and waterfalls in its vicinity. It has managed to retain its laid back charm and has mostly avoided mass tourism. While prices are higher than many comparable cities in other parts of South East Asia, Luang Prabang offers all kinds of accommodations from backpacker hostels to 5-star resorts.
Luang Prabang’s international airport is connected by direct flights to destinations in Thailand, Vietnam, and Malaysia apart from domestic flights to Vientiane and Pakse. Visa-on-arrival is available at the airport and visa extensions can be done at the city’s immigration office.
There is a 30-hour long bus service connecting Hanoi to Luang Prabang. However, it is only recommended for people who are adventurous enough and can afford the luxury of such long arduous journeys. Minivans and buses connect Luang Prabang to Vang Vieng (which is a 4-hour ride away) and to Vientiane (which is an 8-hour ride away). Bookings can be done via 12GoAsia. There are slow as well as fast boats connecting Huay Xai near the Thai border to Luang Prabang via the Mekong River.
Luang Prabang has a host of sights within its small old town, which is also a UNESCO World Heritage site, making it easy to walk to all the sights. Some of the highlights in the old town include Wat Xieng Thong, Royal Palace Museum, Wat Mai Suwannaphumaham, Wat Xieng Mouane, and Wat Sensoukharam along with several day and night time local markets.
Also worth seeing is the sunset over the Mekong river. Another extremely popular activity in Luang Prabang town is the Alms Giving Ceremony where monks collect alms of rice and other offerings from locals or tourists sitting on stools or kneeling along the roadside. Unfortunately, this ceremony has earned itself a bad reputation because of how some of the tourists act during the event and how it has been commercialised.
Beyond the town of Luang Prabang, at a distance of around 29 km, is the famous multi-tiered waterfall Kuang Si. Entrance is 20,000 LAK (~ 2.21 USD, 165 INR). It has an adjacent butterfly park with separate entrance fee. Mount Phousi is a hilltop viewpoint overlooking the town of Luang Prabang. This too has an entrance fee of 20,000 LAK. There are several Elephant and Bear rescue centres and sanctuaries as well in the vicinity. Finally, there is the option of ending the day with a cruise on the Mekong, offered by several tour boats in town.
Vang Vieng is a small backpacker town situated halfway between Vientiane and Luang Prabang. What was once a sleepy town had transformed itself into an infamous party destination in the 1990s. Vang Vieng was known for its river tubing, cheap drugs and drinks, and the crazy hedonistic late-night parties. However, following the deaths of several backpackers, the government has cracked down on a number of illegal and potentially dangerous activities. Also, the number of riverside bars have been trimmed down to only a few authorised ones. Vang Vieng, situated among stunning limestone cliffs, rice paddies, and the Nam Song river now caters to all kinds of tourists.
Vang Vieng can be reached via buses and minivans both from Vientiane and Luang Prabang. The distance from Vientiane to Vang Vieng is usually covered in around 4 to 5 hours. The journey from Luang Prabang to Vang Vieng takes around 3 to 4 hours. Tickets can be booked online on 12GoAsia. Prices for van transfer from Luang Prabang to Vang Vieng are around 17 USD (~ 1273 INR) and from Vientiane to Vang Vieng are around 9 USD (~ 674 INR).
The most popular attraction is tubing on Nam Song river. While it has mellowed down a lot with far fewer tourists and none of the crazy parties that existed earlier, its still worth the experience of renting a tube and lazing downstream on the river while stopping at riverside bars midway for drinks. Other attractions in Vang Vieng include the Pha Ngern View Point, Tham Phu Kham Cave and Blue Lagoon, and the Tham Nam cave (also called the water cave). There is also a walking street in town which turns into a night market in the evening, along with plenty of dining and drinking establishments.
Laos has international airports in Luang Prabang and Vientiane, the capital. Loa Airlines, and a few others, connect these two cities with direct flights from the neighbouring countries from South East Asia. Visitors from all other locations will probably need to transit at Bangkok or Kuala Lumpur with some flights to Ho Chi Minh City and Siem Reap.
There is only one train line connecting the Thai town of Nong Khai to Tha Naleng in Laos which further connects to nearby Vientiane via shuttles. This railway line across the Friendship Bridge was opened in 2009. There are no other train services in the rest of Laos.
There are several land crossings with the neighbouring countries of Thailand, China, Cambodia, and Vietnam. There are no open land crossings from Myanmar for foreigners. Note that not all land crossings provide the facility of visa-on-arrival. Check beforehand on the National Tourism Administration website or talk with a local travel agency.
Except for nationals of a few countries, mostly from Africa and the Middle East, visitors from most other countries can either apply for visa-on-arrival at most ports of entry or can enter Laos visa-free. Visa-on-arrivals are valid for a period of 30 days extendable twice for a maximum period of 90 days in total. The fees vary for different nationals. Visa-on-arrival for US/ UK nationals is priced at 35 USD, for Australians at 30 USD, and for Indians at 40 USD (~ 3000 INR). Laos has recently started an eVisa program for entry via limited ports of entries. Read the below article for further details on visa for Laos.
Wikipedia – Visa policy of Loas
Vietnam has been one of the first countries across the world to open up the country to domestic tourism. Having largely contained the pandemic with a few hundred cases and no reported deaths, Vietnam’s success has been touted as a model for Covid19 management across the world and makes it a top candidate for the list of ‘Safe countries to visit in Asia‘. This also clearly puts Vietnam in a position to open up the country for foreign visitors.
While Vietnam has temporarily stopped issuing eVisas and visa-on-arrival and hasn’t opened up to foreign tourists yet, it is well poised to lead the way across South East Asia in welcoming foreign tourists in the very near future. International flights are planned to start soon and Vietnam will probably open up first to its neighbouring countries and those which have managed the Covid19 situation fairly well. The linked article in OnlineVisa.com provides insight into future plans of Vietnam to restart the eVisa program. Also, refer to the official eVisa site for further updates.
Vietnam is a long narrow country divided into three distinct regions – North Vietnam, Central Vietnam, and South Vietnam. Once overlooked for its more famous neighbour Thailand, Vietnam has become increasingly popular in recent years with international travellers. Cities like Hanoi and Hoi An consistently rank in the top cities to visit by TripAdvisor. However, my suggestion here would be to skip the major cities and tourist centres and head to the mountains and the islands, away from the crowds. Sapa, a mountainous town near the border with China makes for a beautiful getaway. Phu Quoc, an island off the coast of Cambodia, but part of Vietnam, makes a great break away from the crowds. Also making the list is the UNESCO Biosphere Reserve of Cham Islands, a short boat ride away from Hoi An.
Check the official tourism website of Vietnam for more updates: Vietnam Travel
Sapa is a small mountain town in Northern Vietnam, located 350 km from Hanoi and close to the Chinese border. Known for its iconic terraced rice fields and hill tribe villages dotting the landscape, Sapa makes a great escape from the cities and heat of the lowlands. The temperature often drops below freezing during winters and on rare occasions, it snows as well. It is part of the Hoang Lien Son range of mountains, which includes Fan Si Pan, the highest peak in the country.
From Hanoi, there is a train service up to Lao Cai Railway Station, which acts as the gateway to Sapa. Tickets can be booked online via travel agents like 12GoAsia, Baolau, or via the official Vietnam Railways website. From Lao Cai, Sapa is an hour’s ride away through curvy mountainous roads. You can either opt for the minibuses lined outside the station or a private taxi that shall drop you at your choice of accommodation.
There are overnight sleeper buses as well as day time express buses taking anywhere between 5 to 8 hours for the journey between Hanoi and Sapa. Tickets can be booked online on Vietnam Bus Travel. There is a direct bus service by Cat Ba Express connecting Cat Ba with Sapa.
Visitors who are reasonably fit can choose to hike the Fan Si Pan – the tallest mountain in Vietnam. There’s now a cable car for tourists to reach all the way up to the peak from the valley. The peak itself is located in the Hoang Lien National Park which makes for a great day trekking through lush green valleys and rice fields. Other attractions worth visiting in Sapa include visiting the various tribal villages – including the villages of Cat Cat and Ta Phin. The hill tribes also make handicrafts which make excellent souvenirs available both in the villages and in the town markets.
Phu Quoc is an island off the coast of Cambodia in the southern extreme of Vietnam. It is one of Vietnam’s best-kept secret, half of which is a UNESCO protected biosphere reserve and is surrounded by uninhabited islands. The waters surrounding the islands are teeming with marine life, making for great snorkelling and diving trips. The large island of Phu Quoc itself has a lot to offer – from hiking trails in its mountainous interiors to pretty white sand beaches.
Visitors travelling directly to Phu Quoc or transiting to Phu Quoc from Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh airports do not need a Vietnamese visa. There are direct flights to Dương Đông airport in Phu Quoc from Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. There are also a few direct international flights from Bangkok. Sea crossings by Hydrofoil to Phu Quoc are available from the mainland cities of Rach Gia and Ha Tien. The journey time is usually around two and a half hours. There are overnight buses from Ho Chi Minh to Rach Gia and Ha Tien. Phu Quoc is a fairly large island and motorbikes can be hired on rent to get around the island. Taxis are plentiful in the more populated areas.
The northern part of the island, being a biosphere reserve, is mostly untouched and most of the tourist accommodations and facilities are located along the southern and south-western coast of Phu Quoc. Phu Quoc National Park, occupying the northern half of the island makes for a wonderful excursion into the lush tropical forests which hosts a large variety of flora and fauna. Suoi Tranh Waterfall is a major attraction in Phu Quoc, located close to the main town of Duong Dong. Sao Beach is a pretty white sand beach located in the southeastern corner of the island. Other attractions include temples, pagodas, and the fishing villages of Ham Ninh and An Thoi. Many local tour operators offer both shared and private day trips to the nearby island, and snorkelling and diving trips.
Cham Islands are a cluster of granite islands off the coast of Hoi An. The rich marine life surrounding the islands make for great snorkelling and diving day trips from nearby Hoi An and Danang. The Cham islands and Hoi An together form a protected UNESCO Biosphere Reserve – Cu Lao Cham – Hoi An. Hon Lao is the largest of the islands and is the only inhabited one. The best time to visit the Cham Islands is during the summer months and are inaccessible during the monsoons from October to February.
There are several tour operators organising day trips to the islands including visits to the beaches, snorkelling gear, lunch, and an English speaking guide. Speedboats depart from Chua Dai Beach and take about half an hour to reach and cost around 10 USD (~ 750 INR) per person. Local boats depart at 8:30 from the Chua Dai Pier and take around 1 and a half to reach the cham islands. Tickets cost around 100,000 VND (~ 4.29 USD, 321 INR). Visitors are not allowed to hire motorbikes on the island of Hon Lao. Hence hiring a taxi with a driver is the only way of getting around the island. However, if you are part of an organised tour, all transport arrangements are taken care of.
The biggest attraction of the Cham Islands is the coral reefs surrounding it. Snorkelling permits are required to snorkel in the waters surrounding the islands and is issued by the Cham Islands Marine Park Administration. Also worth doing are hikes to the interiors of the main island of Hon Lao. Hon Lao has plenty of beaches with several restaurants, shops, and other tourist establishments. There are a couple of homestays available in Hon Lao. However, do not expect western-style amenities or 5-star luxury on the island.
Vietnam has international airports at Ho Chi Minh City, Danang, and Hanoi. Vietnam Airlines, the flag carrier, connects these major cities with destinations across the world including Europe, USA, and the rest of Asia via direct flights. Travelling with most other airlines might require a transit at one of the South East Asian hubs like Bangkok, Singapore, or Hong Kong. India now has direct flights connecting Mumbai to Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh, Delhi to Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh, and Danang, and Kolkata to Hanoi.
There is an international train service connecting Nanning in China to Hanoi in Vietnam. Some of them require a change of train at the border. However, the Nanning Express is a direct train connecting the two cities with a nearly 4-hour halt at the border for immigration.
Phnom Penh in Cambodia is connected to Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam by a 6-hour long road journey served by several bus operators. Visa-on-arrival and eVisa are supported at the border checkpoint. There are several land crossings with China and Laos as well. Check beforehand on the kind of visas supported at each of these entry points.
Passport holders of 24 countries can enter Vietnam visa-free for a period ranging from 14 days up to 90 days depending on the nationality of the visitor. Visiting Phu Quoc Island does not require a visa as long as a visitor is arriving directly from a third country or transiting at Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh Airport.
Since 2017, Vietnam has started issuing eVisa to passport holders of 81 countries including India. The eVisa needs to applied online here. It is priced at 25 USD (~ 1873 INR) and is valid for 30 days. Visa-on-arrival is available for residents of certain countries wherein you have to obtain a pre-approval letter from an authorised agency in Vietnam – either paid or free – and then pay 25 USD (~ 1873 INR) at the VoA counter at the airport on arrival. This does not make much sense for visitors who are eligible for the eVisa program which is much more convenient and does not require queuing up at the airport to get a visa. Visitors from all other countries need to apply for a visa in advance at their local embassies or consulates. Read the below article for detailed information about Vietnam’s visa policy.
Wikipedia – Visa Policy of Vietnam
Apart from the 4 countries listed above under ‘Safe countries to visit in Asia‘, there are several others in Asia which have managed to rein in the outbreak of Covid19 and are planning to open up their tourist attractions to international travellers. Some of the countries I believe that are safe enough to visit in Asia and ones which I can personally recommend are Cambodia, Indonesia, and Taiwan. I have listed below two posts I have recently written about the top attractions in Siem Reap, Cambodia and a 3-day itinerary for Siem Reap.
Top 10 things to do and see in Siem Reap, Cambodia
3 Incredible days in Siem Reap: A complete itinerary