An ideal tour to discover both of these countries. With as introduction a noteworthy passage through Luang Prabang which remains a highlight of any trip to Southeast Asia. The continuous change of scenery, whilst crossing the green mountains to the sugar mountain of Van Vieng, standing amidst rice fields and dotted with caves. After a short stop in Vientiane, it is once again back to the Mekong and to southern Laos, with its waterfalls, its villages and Khmer temples, which prepares one for the full impact of the largest archaeological complex in the world; the temples at Angkor. The trip ends in Phnom Penh, a vibrant and terribly exotic town that switches you back into the modern world, whilst at the same time leaving you with the sweet sensations of a region of the world that still has the ability to mesmerize.
Day 1: LOUANG PRABANG
Arrival by late morning, reception and hotel transfer. In the afternoon a tour of the peninsula formed by the Mekong and Khan rivers, where the more remarkable temples are concentrated. We visit the Wat Visounnarat, a replica of the original temple built in 1519, the oldest in the city; Wat Aham, residence of the first Buddhist patriarch in Laos; Wat May, former headquarters of the Chief of the Buddhist Church in Laos; Wat Sène, built in 1718, the first Temple of Luang Prabang in Thai style, with a yellow and red roof; Wat Sop, one of the rare temples done in the Xieng Khouang style. Finally, Wat Xieng Thong, one of the jewels in the crown, significant at the entrance to the city and among one of the sites classified as World Heritage by UNESCO, and considered private property to the royal family since 1975. Along the way we will be able to admire the many colonial buildings, remnants of the French era. Then a climb to the Summit of Phou Si hill, in order to admire the sunset over the Mekong valley and its main street, where the night market is also held.
National Museum visit in the former Royal Palace. The building itself is not fetching however the collection of artefacts given to the Crown is of interest. Then followed by a boat trip down the Mekong River to the sacred caves of Pak Ou, at the confluence of the Nam and Mekong rivers. Here a stop over in a village at the edge of the river to see the traditional activities of the locals, especially in the production process of rice alcohol. For over 3 centuries, pilgrims have come to Pak Ou to give Buddha statues as an offering or to give thanks: There are today more than 4,000,in all shapes, materials and sizes, stored well inside the cave. The caves are shallow, but are at the heart of a spectacular site right in the middle of a cliff. You get there by taking stairs that are carved in the stone. If the first is of mainly religious interest, the second, higher up, presents some beautiful limestone formations. Returning to Luang Prabang in the afternoon, to visit a village of weavers and the workshop of the grandson of the royal goldsmith, who still continues today the family tradition and makes silver coins of very high standard.
Day off, with a guide at your disposal to complete the visits according to a program that you can put together yourself on the spot, in function of what you have already seen and including your preferences. Among the proposed options are a visit to the morning market, those temples possibly not seen on day 1, the small museum of Traditional Arts and ethnology (WAD), where objects of daily use are shown, clothing and craft products from the tribes in northern Laos, a ride on the back of an elephant departing from a camp located about 20 km from Louang Prabang. Or even seeing a weaving centre just outside the city, an organization created to preserve the traditional know-how whilst at the same time offering an opportunity for work to young women from the villages in the region. Or simply, strolling in the streets to find secondary temples, old colonial houses, souvenir shops, or even trying out one of the many spas to discover the art of the Laos massage.
Morning departure going south to Vang Vieng (230 km 5-6 hrs drive), a small town that stretches along the Nam Song River in the heart of a spectacular karst landscape. One then takes a beautiful mountain road that rises to almost 1400m above sea level, surrounded mostly by Hmong villages. The villagers still wear their traditional dress in shimmering colors. Stops are planned so that you can meet them but also to admire the lush mountain scenery. Arriving at Vang Vieng during the afternoon, and booking into the hotel. Rest of the day is free to enjoy the environment and the sunset over the river.
A stroll on the Nam Song River through scenery of paddy fields and sugar loaf mountains. Visit the Tham Chang cave, perhaps the most impressive of the region, which served as a refuge for the locals during the Chinese bandits raids in the nineteenth century and the American bombing in the twentieth. Then departure for the capital, (160 km, 3-4 hours approximately, depending on the number of stops made). On the way a visit to the site of Van Xang, a former sanctuary that is more than 300 years old, dating back to the creation of the kingdom of Lane Xang (Million Elephants ). Large Buddhas are even carved into the rock. The site remains very enigmatic … and then a walk to a local market at km52, where minorities from surrounding villages come to sell their products. Arriving during the afternoon and booking into the hotel.
A large town of 600,000 inhabitants on the banks of the Mekong, Vientiane reflects, through its quiet air of insouciance, a serene and “bon viveur” character of its inhabitants. Here, gardens and dirt roads fit well with some modern buildings and with many Buddhist temples and monasteries. The town tour starts with the Thatluang: a gigantic stupa covered in gold leaf, it is the symbol of the country and houses within it, according to legend, Buddha’s real hair. Then the Victory Monument, Patouxai in the Lao language: this curious monument is strangely reminiscent of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. From its roof, we admire the panorama with breathtaking views over the whole of Vientiane. Passing through a market selling fresh produce, before visiting a village in the heart of fruit tree plantations, where in addition to the local products, you can taste the koalam, a classic meal for farmers consisting of rice and coconut milk cooked on the grill and kept within a bamboo case. Returning to town early in the afternoon and the rest of the day is free. You can stroll the streets in the centre of town, to see the Talat Sao ( “Morning Market”, a bit touristy but interesting for buying souvenirs and typical local craftwork: embroidered fabrics in silk or cotton, silver jewelry, wood carvings , tea, coffee, etc.), or even go and see the main temples.
Typical lunch Laotian boat.
Morning begins with a Lao Airlines scheduled flight to Pakse. At your discretion, instead of bringing your breakfast with you, you can try one in Pakse, in a local establishment that serves an excellent coffee/croissant formula made from regional products. Departure for the Bolaven Plateau, famous for its waterfalls, fertile land offering the best teas and coffees-or even study the Indochinese peninsula. You will not miss out on a few tastings as directed by your guide … the fertility of the Plateau was first recognized by French settlers, who planted the first farms, especially coffee. Later, during the war between Vietnam and the United States, people who lived along the Ho Chi Minh trail came to settle here to escape the US bombing. Today the plateau has many numerous ethnic minorities living there. Then a visit to the Tad Lo waterfalls, then onto see some ethnic villages and an organic mulberry farm. Your resort is plum in the heart of these plantations and they will seduce you with their natural settings.
Lunch during the excursion restaurant.
Visit the beautiful waterfalls of Tad Fane, at the bottom of a valley shaped like a horseshoe. When the water level is at its highest, they split into two twin waterfalls. Southbound departure for Champassak province (150 km, about 3 hours), with a boat trip to explore the area called the “4,000 Islands”. Landing at Done Det, at the site of the old North Terminal railway line built by the French to go around the falls that once made the Mekong impassable. In a field, the carcass of an old locomotive is all that remains of this colonial era that gave Laos, for a time, its first railway. Continuing onto see the Li Phi rapids and booking into the resort. Rest of the day is free to relax and enjoy the exceptional environment, to stroll at your own pace, to see local life and activities.
Visit Pha Pheng Falls, the most important in Southeast Asia and amongst the largest in the world. Continue by road to the khmer site at Wat Phou. Much older than Angkor Wat, this complex stands on a hillside overlooking the Mekong, with from its summit a beautiful river view. Of mysterious origin, this site was always revered by the kings of Angkor, who sent gifts and offerings till the last days of their empire. Return to Pakse, and depending on time available, to visit a village of weavers.
Transfer to the airport to take a scheduled flight for Siem Reap. Arrival, immigration formalities and booking into the hotel. Afternoon tour begins with a visit to the group of temples called Roluos. Located 13 km southeast of the city, this resort boasts the oldest buildings, which are the cradle of classical Angkorian art. Visit the three main temples: Lo Lei, Preah Ko and Bakong, before approaching the site of the Golden Age. Sunset view from Pre Rup, one of the last brick temples, built in 961. It marks the end of an era, and from its summit a beautiful view of the entire site and of Angkor Wat.
Morning devoted to Angkor Wat, the most famous and majestic temple-mountain site. The huge building is an allegorical representation from Hindu mythology, whose episodes are shown in the reliefs that surround the central body like a giant comic strip. Afternoon excursion to Banteay Srei, also called the “Temple of Women”, because a legend relates that it was kept at one a time only by an all-female garrison. Banteay Srei is famous for its beautiful pink stones and the quality of its reliefs, considered by many senior specialists to be finer than those of Angkor Wat. On the return journey, a stop at Banteay Samre, a small, attractive temple in the style of Angkor Wat.
Morning visit to Angkor Thom,”The Big City”, returning by the Southern Gate, via the driveway of Giants and Demons. Inside, the first building you see is the Bayon temple mountain in honor of Jayavarman VII, the great Buddhist king, builder of the new capital. Then Phimean Akas, from the tenth century and the Baphuon, majestic temple whose base measures 120 m by 100m, recently restored by the EFEO. From there we move on to the Elephant Terrace and the Leper King. This is most certainly the place where official court life took place, with ambassadorial receptions, sacred representations and State ceremonies. In the afternoon we move on to see the four temples of the Grand Circuit, as conceived by Henri Mouot during the re-discovery of Angkor in 1859. First Preah Khanh, one of the largest and majestic, with its tree-lined fairways which have probably been around for a millennia. Then Neak Pean, of Hindu inspiration, only sacred building surrounded by a moat, and the plan is taken from a mandala. Ta Som, Buddhist temple topped by towers covered in faces, now almost engulfed in vegetation as in the following case: Ta Prohm, certainly the most romantic, with the roots of gigantic kapok trees that entangle the galleries and sculptures.
A morning boat trip on the Tonle Sap, the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia. Boarding,15 km south of Siem Reap, to visit a floating village inhabited by Khmer and Vietnamese families. Crossing the Tonle Sap, (1h15), to follow a canal that dives into the aquatic forest preserved by the national authority for the protection of its fauna and flora. When the lake level is at its highest, only the treetops can be seen: we can then discover the forest by canoe, passing under its foliage. Continuing on to a village of local residents, now under the protection of UNESCO for ethnological interest, whose homes are still built on old bamboo stilts and high above water level. Landing and then back to town. Depending on the departure time, a visit to the local market for shopping. Transfer to the irport for flight to Phnom Penh.
Picnic lunch by boat or the village.
Half day city tour begins with the Royal Palace, inside of which stands the Silver Pagoda. Norodom Sihamoni, the current king of Cambodia lives in the building called “Khemarin Palace”, which is prohibited to the public. The “Silver Pagoda” is the name that Westerners have given to the Royal Temple for the splendid floor that is entirely paved with silver slabs given by Napoleon III. Then the National Museum of Fine Arts: an elegant red sandstone building in Khmer style which houses a superb collection of sculptures, as well as everyday objects, mostly from the Angkorian period. Last stage of the tour to visit Wat Phnom, Buddhist temple linked to the founding of Phnom Penh. A legend relates that “Madame Penh” found by chance several Buddha statues on the banks of the Tonle Sap river and brought them to the site, where she founded a temple to keep them housed. Depending on the time available, a visit to the Central Market or Russian Market for shopping. Transfer to the airport in time for the departure flight.
End of suggestions.