Bespoke Laos & Cambodia: Jewels of Indochina

Travel Partner: ATJ

Duration | 13 Days

Destination | Laos and Cambodia

Starting Price | $9, 922

Overview

Laos and Cambodia—old French Indochina—are culturally linked, yet remarkably distinct. This amalgam offers the traveler unsurpassed richness and diversity as each country hosts its own particular abundance of cultural treasures and natural beauty. On this trip you’ll gain insight into these different cultures through the superb interpretation offered by our tour guides as well as through connecting with friendly locals directly as they go about their day-to-day lives. Visit the region’s most important cities such as Luang Prabang, Siem Reap and Phnom Penh, as well as the extraordinary excursion to Song Saa, one of Southeast Asia’s most exclusive island resort. The journey highlights an exploration of Angkor in Cambodia—on par with the pyramids of Egypt as a testament to the greatness of a continent’s lost empire.

We live in a special moment in history. Twenty years ago this sojourn to Laos and Cambodia would have been all but impossible—fraught with transportation difficulty, closed borders, war-torn regions and plain inaccessibility, not to mention the lack of comfortable places to stay. Twenty years from now, many of the supremely remote areas on this journey will be engulfed in the exponentially rapid waves of global modernity, as new roads, satellite connections and the worldwide web find their way into Asia’s most obscure corners. Now is the best time to visit these once secluded corners of Asia that still practice traditional ways of life, ways that have endured for thousands of years in the farthest reaches of Southeast Asia.


Day 1 – Luang Prabang

Overnight – Belmond La Residence Phou Vao (Mountain Pool View Junior Suite)

Welcome to Laos! On arrival this afternoon, proceed to the Immigration Hall where an airport official will escort you through Fast Track Arrival formalities including Immigration and Customs, as well as obtain your Laos visa.

Upon entering the Arrival Hall meet your English-speaking guide from ATJ and transfer to your luxury hotel located a short distance outside of the city. Spend the remainder of the evening at leisure.

With its gentle pace and a harmonious mixture of Lao Buddhist and French provincial architecture, Luang Prabang is an ideal place to wander. The heart of town is wedged between the Mekong and Nam Khang Rivers. Every neighborhood has scores of smiling faces and its own shipshape monastery.


Day 2 – Luang Prabang

Overnight – Belmond La Residence Phou Vao (Mountain Pool View Junior Suite)

Enjoy breakfast and a relaxing morning at the resort. Late this morning depart on a walking exploration of one of the most charming and well preserved towns in Southeast Asia. The expert guide for today is a long time expat resident of Luang Prabang and former UNESCO World Heritage expert and writer. This half day experience is all about literature, history, architecture and Buddhism which precisely sums up Luang Prabang in a nutshell and why it is different from most other towns and cities in the region.

Begin with a private visit to one of Luang Prabang’s oldest aristocratic mansions. This century old residence exemplifies the style and design that typifies the uniqueness of Luang Prabang, the combination of French colonial design melded with the traditional and endemic flair of Royal Lao architecture which is apparent through Luang Prabang’s old city. Your guide will explain the different influences which affected the architecture from colonial times up to present along with an introduction into the plants, trees and flowers that are often found in the gardens of the historic homes of the Lao royal family and elite residents. rom here continue to the Buddhist Archive Center at Wat Khili for an exclusive introduction into the center’s historical photos and documents, followed by a discussion on Theravada Buddhism’s practices, beliefs and meditation with the monastery’s Buddhist monks and novices. This experience is a must for anyone interested in history, culture and religion and led by one of Luang Prabang’s foremost experts.

Then enjoy lunch before continuing an exploration of the city. Start with a visit to Wat Xieng Thong, one of the over 30 Buddhist temples and monasteries in town. This exquisite, 400-year-old royal monastic complex is set on the banks of the Mekong surrounded by massive banyan trees that are nearly as old as the monastery. From here, explore small side streets, along back alleys and through temples—a city that could have been designed with slow travel in mind, and soak up the ambiance and appreciate the hidden charms of Luang Prabang.

Continue to the National Museum, with its collection ranging from the sublime to the unnerving. There is a replica of the Prabang, a golden Buddha from Cambodia which gives the town its name. Also on display are lovely murals of Lao life in shimmering mosaics and in oil.

Finish the day with a climb up the hundreds of steps to the summit of Phousi Hill, with its derelict anti-aircraft gun and revered shrine, to view the Mekong and mountains beyond.

Early this evening enjoy the refined grace of a private Baci ceremony at a small village called Ban Mano. These gentle villagers led by their Nai Ban (village chief) offer visitors tidings of good luck and fortune for their life and travels by gently tying cotton cords symbolizing


Day 3 – Luang Prabang

Overnight – Belmond La Residence Phou Vao (Mountain Pool View Junior Suite)

The bells of the town’s monasteries toll at dawn as long, golden lines of monks emerge to receive their morning rice from the townspeople. If you rise early, you will have the opportunity to witness this moving scene typical of old Laos—long lines of barefooted monks weaving through the streets on their alms rounds.

Following your own breakfast at the hotel, depart on a full day exploration starting with a lovely, hour long drive through Laos’ scenic countryside to the Pak Ou Caves, a mystical pilgrimage site perched high above the Mekong River, located 27 miles outside of Luang Prabang.

En route to Pac Ou stop to visit several local villages. The first is a wonderful silk weaving village called Ban Sang Khong, where the weaving techniques date back many centuries and are used to create some of Asia’s most highly prized textiles. Some villagers are also engaged in paper production. In the second village, Ban Sang Hai, locals produce Lao Lao, a rice whisky.

Continuing to Ban Pak Ou, board a privately chartered, local-style river boat to reach the Pak Ou Caves, across the river. Peering into dark corners, eyes gradually adjust to reveal the serene faces and figures of more than 3,000 Buddha images, some inlaid with semiprecious stones. That these stones remain undisturbed in this remote site in one of the world’s poorest countries is a testament to the devotion of the people.

Return to Luang Prabang by boat, cruising along the Mekong arriving late this afternoon. On the way back, enjoy the lush river life while enjoying soft-drinks and beer while sampling traditional Lao snacks. Return to the hotel shortly before dusk with the remainder of the evening at leisure.


Day 4 – Luang Prabang

Overnight – Belmond La Residence Phou Vao (Mountain Pool View Junior Suite)

Following breakfast at the hotel, reconvene with your English-speaking guide and head to the local, morning market, where you will meet your chef and host for today, Khun Noy.

At the market learn about local produce and other unique offerings and purchase ingredients for today’s lesson and lunch. From the market board a local boat across the Mekong where the local villages and the family of Noy will be awaiting your arrival. This is a very hands on and traditional experience, the daily cooking of Laotians. As opposed to a modern, western kitchen, you will experience a simple, private home with a traditional sala-style kitchen (outdoors), renowned for producing local specialties.

The most authentic way to learn about any culture is through their food. After the cooking lesson and lunch of your own creation bid farewell to the family and continue by boat down the Mekong and visit several villages known for producing local foods and snacks including river weed and rice crackers as well as other local delicacies. Return to Luang Prabang by boat in the soft, late afternoon sun while enjoying traditional lao-lao (rice whiskey) from one of the villages.

Upon return to the hotel, relax and freshen up before enjoying a performance of the Luang Prabang Royal Ballet in the Theatre Hall beside the National Palace. In 1975, after 15 centuries of annual performances, the Theatre was banned, and the master artists and teachers had to look for other work. In 1993, after an absence of more than 15 years, the Institution of Cultural Research and the Provincial Government Office in Luang Prabang established a committee to revive limited performances of Phra-Lak Phra-Lam for festivals. In 2002, the theater was reestablished, and has been performing at home and abroad since. The show consists of 5 different plays and involves 41 artists. Afterwards return to the hotel with the evening at leisure.


Day 5 – Siem Reap

Overnight – Park Hyatt Siem Reap (Park View Room)

This morning and early afternoon are free to relax and explore Luang Prabang at leisure. Mid-afternoon, you will be transferred to the airport for your flight to Siem Reap. On arrival into Cambodia, proceed to the Immigration Hall where an airport official will escort you through Fast Track Arrival formalities including Immigration and Customs, as well as obtain your Cambodia visa. Upon entering the Arrival Hall meet your English-speaking guide from ATJ and transfer to your centrally located, luxury hotel for check-in and a chance to get settled. Early this evening pick up from the hotel and transfer the short distance to the “Cambodian Circus” presented by Phare Ponleu Selpak (PPS), which translates to Brightness of Art. PPS offers multidisciplinary schooling to young people, which gives them a perspective on how to make a living using art. Classes are given in subjects like theater, acrobatics, music and a variety of art disciplines. PPS was founded by refugees who learned that art could be a means to cope with trauma. The show includes preferred seats. Afterwards, return to the hotel for a much deserved night’s rest.


Day 6 – Siem Reap

Overnight – Park Hyatt Siem Reap (Park View Room)

Early this morning, before sunrise, reconvene with your English-speaking guide and depart for Angkor Wat, the largest and most breathtaking monument at Angkor. Built as the funerary temple for Suryavarman II, who ruled from 1112 to 1152, Angkor never fails to reward the first time or repeat visitor with its grand scale, surreal bas reliefs and unbelievable attention to detail. The temples were built from the 9th to 12th centuries by a Khmer empire that controlled not only Cambodia but also large parts of what are now Laos, Thailand and Vietnam. With their grandeur of scale and an extraordinary delicacy in detail, the temples rank among mankind’s supreme artistic expressions.

Then continue exploring and focus on the Angkor Thom complex which includes Phimaenakas, Baphuon, and the Terraces of the Elephants and Leper King. A highlight this morning will be an in-depth visit to the Bayon, with its mysterious towers topped with mystical faces starring off in all directions, as well as some of the most beautiful bas reliefs to be found at any temple site.

Return to the hotel sit out in the midday sun or enjoy a swim before embarking on an afternoon visit to Ta Phrom in the soft afternoon light. Built in 1186 and dedicated to the mother of Jayavarman VII, Ta Phrom is a temple of towers, closed courtyards and narrow corridors. Unlike the other temples of Angkor, Ta Phrom has been left to the elements and looks very much like the other temples must have looked when “rediscovered” by Henri Mouhot in the 1860s.

Return to the hotel late this afternoon with the evening at leisure.


Day 7 – Siem Reap

Overnight – Park Hyatt Siem Reap (Park View Room)

Following breakfast at your hotel meet your guide and depart for Banteay Srey, which for many years was off limits due to its remote location and Khmer Rouge activity. Built in the late 10th century and dedicated to Shiva, Banteay Srey’s pink limestone walls contain the best bas reliefs of any temple at Angkor. It is a must visit along with Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom and is considered to have the most intricate and beautiful carvings of any temple in Southeast Asia.

Return to Siem Reap late this morning and visit Golden Silk Pheach Preservation Center which is only available by appointment only. Founded in July 2002, Golden Silk is a Cambodian NGO and one of the last remaining fully integrated silk producers in the world. Striving to restore and safeguard ancient Khmer methods and techniques, the center is spread over more than 12 hectares of mulberry tree and workshops, and only produces fully handmade fabrics, dyed with natural pigments and made out of the rare, indigenous yellow silkworm.

Enjoy lunch at Malis before continuing to Kampong Kleang village. Imagine wooden houses on 10 meter tall stilts, surrounded by water in the wet season and on the flood plains of the lake in the dry season. In the afternoon, board a privately chartered, local boat from Kampong Khleang to Tonle Sap Lake. Both sides of the river are lined by floating houses nestled along the riverside and on the great lake. From here you have a picturesque view of the floating house and local people’s way of life. Enjoy refreshments on the boat journey stopping along the way based on interests and the suggestion of your guide. Late this afternoon return to Siem Reap with the evening at leisure.


Day 8 – Song Saa Island

Overnight – Song Saa Private Island Resort (One Bedroom Jungle Villa)

Following a leisurely breakfast pick up from the hotel and transfer the airport for your flight to Sihanoukville, home to Cambodia’s best beaches and beautiful, tropical islands.

On arrival meet the driver from Song Saa Private Island Resort and transfer to the boat pier for the scheduled, shared speedboat transfer to Song Saa, a 45 minute journey, where an unforgettable experience awaits the curious traveler. Sihanoukville was once a favorite R&R spot on the Gulf of Thailand for French Colonists and today is rediscovering itself as an international beach resort destination.

Upon arrival on the island, check into a beautiful villa with the remainder of the afternoon and evening at leisure.


Day 9 – Song Saa Island

Overnight – Song Saa Private Island Resort (One Bedroom Jungle Villa)

Today is free to relax, explore and enjoy one of Southeast Asia’s most exclusive and luxurious island destinations. Enjoy a complimentary long tail boat excursion to Sala Song Saa Village or make use of the many water sports options including snorkeling, kayaking and sailing.


Day 10 – Song Saa Island

Overnight – Song Saa Private Island Resort (One Bedroom Jungle Villa)

Today is free to relax, explore and enjoy one of Southeast Asia’s most exclusive and luxurious island destinations. Consider partaking in Song Saa Private Island’s evolved spa concept that integrates the wellness journey with the natural environment. Our ‘spa with no walls’ is not your everyday spa centre – it’s actually made up of little ‘sanctuaries’ dotted across the island, where treatments take place nestled in nature.


Day 11 – Phnom Penh

Overnight – Raffles Hotel Le Royal (Landmark Room)

Following breakfast, transfer by speedboat back to the mainland and meet your English-speaking guide and private vehicle for the overland drive to Phnom Penh, a journey of approximately 4 hours.

Alternatively, enjoy one last free morning on Song Saa before taking the mid-afternoon speedboat back to Sihanoukville and continuing to Phnom Penh arriving this evening.

Phnom Penh is a city that is rediscovering itself. Once considered the loveliest of the French-built cities of Indochina, its charm, while diminished, has managed to survive the violence of its recent history and the present invasion of property speculators.

On arrival check into the lovely Raffles Hotel Le Royal with the remainder of the afternoon and evening at leisure.


Day 12 – Phnom Penh

Overnight – Raffles Hotel Le Royal (Landmark Room)

Phnom Penh is not just another Asian metropolis - but one of Southeast Asia’s most charming and colorful cities filled with history, beautiful colonial buildings, endless markets, aromatic street food around every corner, and monks collecting alms from residential neighborhoods. While many travelers opt to bypass Phnom Penh, it offers fascinating insight into a quickly modernizing country with a dark history of war and turmoil that is now being replaced with vibrancy, warmth and rapid development.

Following breakfast at the hotel reconvene with your English-speaking guide and depart on a full day exploration of the city beginning with Wat Phnom, a 14th century stupa. Even today it is still one of the tallest structures in the city and the oldest building in Phnom Penh. Then continue a short distance to the Royal Palace, built in 1866 under King Norodom, and one of the country’s most beautiful, architectural monuments. A visit to the Royal Palace must also include a visit to the Silver Pagoda - named after its floor, which is covered with over 5000 silver tiles. Although some 60% of the pagoda’s contents were destroyed under Pol Pot’s regime, what remains is spectacular. This is one of the best places in all of Cambodia where objects embodying the brilliance of the Khmer civilization can still be viewed.

Next visit the National Museum with its huge collection of Khmer sculpture and artifacts recovered from the ancient Angkor Empire. Many items were originally looted from Angkor but have recently been returned and are awaiting refurbishment and study.

Enjoy lunch at one of the best restaurants in the city before delving into Cambodia’s recent dark past with a visit to Tuol Sleng Prison, formerly a high school, where one can glimpse into the devastating horrors that prevailed during Cambodia’s ultra-radical Marxist movement. This excursion may prove distressing for some. Also, if interested Phnom Penh is the location of the notorious ‘killing fields’ of Choeng Ek, which is located on the outskirts of the city. While not for everyone, it is also an important piece of Cambodia’s dark and unfortunate past.

Late this afternoon transfer back to the hotel with the remainder of the evening at leisure.


Day 13 – Phnom Penh

Today you will transfer to the airport for your international flight.


Prices are per person, based on two people sharing. Room categories, dates of travel and changes to services will affect the price. Dollar conversions shown (if applicable) will fluctuate throughout the year. Contact the Andrew Harper Travel Office to customize this itinerary to fit your needs.

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