Travel adventurously just like the locals – an overnight sleeper train from Bangkok to Chiang Mai and then again from Hanoi to Hue, a two day boat journey down the Mekong River – pass incredible rural scenery and spend a night in the remote village of Pakbeng. Discover the highlights of refined Luang Prabang with a guide, and enjoy free time to make your own explorations and discover why UNESCO rate this city so highly. There are many chances to do good while you travel, like the Intrepid foundation supported COPE, dedicated to helping those injured by unexploded ordinance. The bustling markets, tree-lined boulevards and peaceful lakes of Hanoi are a great introduction to modern Vietnam
Travel from Bangkok to Ho Chi Minh City, experiencing the delights of northern Thailand, the laidback river lifestyle of Laos and the cultural richness of Vietnam. From the bright lights of Bangkok to the age-old charms of Luang Prabang and the buzz of Hanoi, join us on a voyage of discovery and relaxation. Travel down the mighty Mekong and become acquainted with the tranquillity of remote villages and friendly locals along the way. Sip coffee by the lake in Hanoi, stroll the pristine shoreline around Halong Bay, take in the charming old-world ambiance of Hue and marvel at the hectic pace of life in Ho Chi Minh City. This is an adventure full of beauty and contrast that will introduce you to the delicious cuisine, friendly people, beautiful landscape and cosmopolitan cities of these fascinating countries.
TRIP CHANGES FOR 2018:
This trip has had a name change for 2018 and was previously published as “Indochina Uncovered”
Sa-wat dee! Welcome to Thailand. Thailand's bustling capital, Bangkok is famous for its tuk tuks, khlong boats and street vendors serving up delicious Thai food. Your adventure begins with a welcome meeting at 6pm on Day 1. Please look for a note in the hotel lobby or ask the hotel reception where it will take place, and have your insurance details and next of kin information ready for collection. Bangkok has so much to offer those with time to explore, so perhaps arrive a day or so early and take a riverboat to Chinatown and explore the crowded streets, uncover the magnificent Grand Palace and the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, wander down the tourist mecca of Khao San Road, or indulge in some Thai massage. After the meeting tonight perhaps gather your fellow travellers together and tuck into some into world famous street food.
Begin the day with a river cruise down the Chao Phraya River to explore the famous ‘khlongs’ (canals) (approximately 1 hour). Life along these canals seems a world away from the chaotic streets of the capital. Pay a visit to Wat Pho, one of the ‘trinity’ of Bangkok temples, with a 46-metre long gold plated Buddha reclining inside. Even the feet of this statue are incredible, three metres long and intricately decorated with mother of pearl. The temple grounds are equally fascinating, filled with beautifully decorated stupas, halls, and shrines. This evening you’ll head north to Chiang Mai on an overnight train journey, accommodated in air-conditioned sleeping berths (approximately 13 hours). Multi share compartments are air-conditioned, with bunk beds; sheets and pillow provided. Your baggage travels in the carriage with you. There is a food and drink service available on board. Sometimes the air conditioning can make the carriage quite cold so you may want to bring a warm layer of clothing.
The most vibrant city in northern Thailand, Chiang Mai has many famous temples and an interesting old city area. Renowned for dazzling beauty and extremely welcoming locals, the ‘Rose of the North’ will leave you spellbound. Chances are, you won’t want to leave. Embark on a scenic, winding drive up a mountain (around 45 minutes) to one of the country's most stunning temple complexes, Doi Suthep. A 300-step naga-guarded stairway leads you to the temples, and the climb is well worth the effort. The hypnotic atmosphere of chanting Buddhist monks and sweeping views of the city make this a most memorable experience.
Today is free for you to explore, but there are also a few optional activities you can join if you want. Perhaps join a local cooking class today and discover the secrets of real Thai cuisine. You'll learn the key ingredients, how to use them, and what to use in their place if you can’t get them at home. As well as taking your own comprehensive recipe book with you after the class, you'll feast on the fruits of your labour for lunch. Get active with a bicycle tour to discover the city and surrounding countryside from a different perspective, or be spirited away on an early morning Chiang Mai tour that puts you at the epicentre of Buddhist rituals. Learn to meditate, offer alms to monks, and make an offering at a temple. In the evening you can choose to wander through the enormous, colourful Night Bazaar, and perhaps relax at a fine restaurant along the riverfront. Make sure to sample some delicious traditional northern Thai food – the signature dish is kao soy, yellow wheat noodles in a curry broth, traditionally served with chicken or beef.
Take a journey through rural countryside to the Thai border town of Chiang Khong (approximately 5.5 hours). Formerly known as 'Juon', peaceful riverside Chiang Khong remains an important market town for the surrounding hill tribes and for trade with Laos. Stretch your legs with a stroll around town, and if you find youself with time, then Wat Phra Kaew and Wat Luang are both well worth a visit while you’re here. Then maybe enjoy a final Thai drink and dinner, while Laos beckons from across the mighty Mekong.
Pakbeng - Mekong River
Board a slow boat for the two-day journey down the mighty Mekong River to Luang Prabang. The journey is relaxed, so you can experience the slow pace of village life and the breathtaking scenery along the river up close. The river boat is basic in nature, with a toilet, covered roof, and open sides to take in the fresh air. There are seats in the front of the boat and a small open area in the back where you can have a nap on the mat, play cards, read or have lunch. Dock at the small town of Pak Beng (after about 6 hours) to spend the night. Hmong and tribal Thai people are frequently seen on the main street, where vendors sell local textiles and handicrafts.
Notes: Our guesthouse here is very basic -– standard accommodation in this small, remote trading port. It can be quite cool from November to February so make sure you have some warm gear packed for this period. Due to dam construction upstream, water levels aren't as reliable as in previous years, and when the river is at its lowest from February to April, part of the journey may occasionally need to be made by land.
Reboard the boat and cruise to the Pak Ou Caves, before arriving in the former royal capital of Luang Prabang (approximately 7 hours). An important religious site overlooking the river at the junction of the Mekong and Ou Rivers, the revered Pak Ou Caves consist of two sacred limestone caverns filled with Buddha images of all styles and sizes, brought by devoted villagers over the centuries. The lower cave, known as Tham Ting, is entered from the river by a series of steps and can easily be seen in daylight. The higher cave, Tham Phum, is deeper and requires a torch for viewing. The atmospheric World Heritage-listed city of Luang Prabang is a favourite of many travellers. Nestled in the hills of northern Laos on the confluence of the Mekong and Khan rivers, the city is claimed to be ‘the best preserved city in South East Asia’ by UNESCO. The city and its people retain a refined, yet relaxed, air and it’s a wonderful place to wander the side streets and dusty lanes and seemingly step back into another era.
Once the heart and soul of the ancient Lao Kingdom (Lan Xang) and designated a World Heritage site in 1995, Luang Prabang is endowed with a legacy of historic red-roofed temples and French-Indochinese architecture, not to mention some of the country's most refined cuisine, a multi-ethnic population and rich culture. Enjoy a guided tour around the Traditional Art & Ethnology centre, a non-profit museum dedicated to the collection, preservation, and interpretation of its traditional arts and lifestyles. In the afternoon, head south of town to the beautiful Kuang Si Falls, a picturesque, multi-level cascade that offers fantastically blue pools that are perfect for a mid-afternoon dip. Back in Luang Prabang this evening you’ll have free time to make further discoveries, including walking around the popular Night Bazaar.
Today is free for your own explorations. It’s worth getting up in the misty early morning to view the procession of saffron-robed monks on their daily outing collecting alms, a practice that dates back centuries. The people of the town wait out the front of their houses with food for the monks to collect and take back to the temple. It is done early, as the monks cannot eat anything after midday. By giving food to a monk you ‘het bon’ or make merit, which should augur well for your next life. Make sure you don't miss Wat Xieng Thong, the most enchanting of Laos’ monasteries. Inside you'll find monks eager to practice their English with you. A large hill called Mt Phu Si dominates Luang Prabang's skyline, topped by a glittering golden stupa. You can climb the 328 zig-zag steps up to the sacred gilled stupa and big drum of the Phu Si Temple for a panoramic view of Luang Prabang and its surrounds. The Dara Market sells everything and is a great spot to browse. If you'd like to experience more local culture, consider taking a long boat across the river to a traditional Laotian village.
Take a private mini van through dusty villages and winding mountain roads to Vang Vieng (approximately 7 hours). The mountain scenery on the drive is as impressive as that of your destination. En route, take in scenes of small village life at various points along the hilly highway. Situated on the Nam Song River, Vang Vieng is surrounded by towering limestone karsts and is a great place to walk through local markets and along the riverside.
There’s plenty to do in and around Vang Vieng, known as an adventure town thanks to its unique and varied surrounding country. The area is renowned for its many caves, many of which are easily accessible from the town. Perhaps the most famous is the cave of Tham Chang, a beautiful cavern fed by a natural spring making it a perfect spot for a refreshing swim. Hire bicycles to explore further afield, or if you’re looking to relax or perhaps learn more about local niche industry, you can visit an organic mulberry farm just outside town and enjoy a meal there.
Continue by private mini bus to the country's capital, Vientiane (approximately 3.5 hours). Possibly Asia's most laidback capital, Vientiane is a city where daily affairs are conducted at a relaxed pace. Hardly touched by the modernisation that has completely changed the face of other cities in South-East Asia, it has a wealth of cultural delights to discover on foot, or for the less energetic, by jumbo (tuk tuk). Faded colonial mansions, tree-lined boulevards and old temples create an atmosphere of timelessness, particularly in the older part of town along the Mekong River. Pay a visit to Wat Si Saket, the oldest temple still standing in Vientiane and home to almost 7,000 Buddha images. Visit COPE, an Intrepid Foundation-sponsored organisation dedicated to assistance those who have been injured by the multitude of unexploded ordinance across the country. This is an excellent cause and a chance to educate yourself about Laos' devastating war history. This evening, maybe join your fellow travellers celebratory dinner as your time in Laos comes to an end.