My requirements for a visit to Laos and Cambodia last month were very specific. I wanted an in-depth tour of temples and to learn about the arts, crafts and culture of these two Peoples Republics.
Cox and Kings had the best choice - a 13-day tour based on flights in and out of Bangkok with internal flights for four nights in Luang Prabang, two in Laos' capital Vientiane and four in Siem Reap for six excursions to Angkor Temples.The group was 15 in total.
It certainly was temple-intensive with extended visits to all the key places in each location. In between the temple visits with Denise Heywood, an authority on Khymer history, we saw silk weaving centres, museums and a rice farm. Denise was the most knowledgeable and tireless group leader you could wish for and the Royal Academy of Arts Tour delivered what the brochure promised. It was tiring with 05:00 wake-up calls to reach The Angkor Complex at sunrise to beat the crowds. But with Denise's skill and the local guides we did avoid the vast throngs and often had the sites to ourselves. While most guests had done a lot of research, the detailed itinerary and notes given out by our guide at her six illustrated lectures put local history, geography and culture into perspective.
I had anticipated 'working hard' to get the most from the tour and needing time to relax at the end of it. So with only the return flight from Bangkok booked I had deliberately left an extra eight days unplanned after the group had departed. The operator offered to tailor-make my personal itinerary in advance but I wanted to arrange everything locally based on the previous 13 days' experience and hints picked up from other people.
Hanuman Tourism in Siem Reap arranged an eight-hour boat trip across Tonle Sap Lake, past floating villages to Cambodia's second city Battambang. A former French Colonial town, it has great charm and visitors can get to know a lot about the local people with the help of an English speaking Tuk-Tuk driver. The fish market, rice wine production, paper making, a wood carving school for under privileged young people and the curious and somewhat terrifying Bamboo Railway were all tried out during three days at the French run Au Cabaret Vert Hotel.
Local markets are wonderful but it's sometimes hard to differentiate between a food stall and a pet shop. Anything that swims, walks or flies is fair game. Not feeling particularly hungry in one market, I declined the roasted water rats, scorpions and crunchy crickets.
A hint on shopping: neither country has coins, just bank notes, and with the 100 Riel note in Cambodia worth about 2p it's not surprising. The Riel and Laos' Kip are soft currencies so the $ and Thai Baht are very welcome. Take lots of $1 bills. Bargain hard and don't pay more than $3 for a T-shirt.
For more relaxation I returned to Luang Prabang, a World Heritage Site, on a two-hour flight from Siem Reap with Vietnam Airlines. Travel across borders is easy as visas are issued on arrival. This keeps unemployment low as no less than ten officials at one arrival point passed my documents along a counter shuffling, sticking and stamping forms.
On my earlier visit to the Villa Maly in Luang Prabang I had asked the five-star hotel to arrange three days at their jungle lodge three hours up The Mekong. It was idyllic and so peaceful. Local tribes people worked at the camp and you visit their village, trek into the jungle, learn about rice planting, fish and pan for gold.
Communication with the 'hunter-gatherers' who live off the land was difficult as the ethnic groups have distinct languages. However, with the guide's help I was able to answer a village headman's question concerning the number of water buffalo I owned!
Everything was so easy in Cambodia and Laos during a perfect climate varying from 31oC to 36oC.
Highlights of the trip
- Seeing the Angkor Temples in all their splendour, especially the iconic 12th Century Angkor Wat at sunrise and sunset
- Cruising The Mighty Mekong
- Meeting victims of The Khymer Rouge atrocities at The Landmine Museum
- And just being with beautiful, gentle people
Cox & Kings' 13-day Royal Academy of Arts Temples and Treasures of Laos and Cambodia Tour costs from £3,495 with the next departure in November. For details see www.coxandkings.co.uk or call 020-7873 5000.
Hanuman Travel in Siem Reap, Vientiane and Vietnam can make independent arrangements. See www.hanuman.travel.com or email email@example.com
Villa Maly in Luang Prabang (www.villa-maly.com) was arranged as part of the Cox and Kings Tour. Their Kamu Lodge Jungle Camp (www.kamulodge.com) cost $175 per person for three days full board, including the three hour boat trip and all activities.