Last February I went to Thailand. It was a journey of reflection and discovery. One that woke my spirit of adventure. It was also responsible for one of my standout memories of 2012 – doing the moves to YMCA in a disco-blasting neon-lit dining carriage on the overnight train from Chiang Mai. The Thai passengers were too baffled to appreciate what we were doing or that I was getting the Cs the wrong way round.
Thailand blew me away with its sights, smells, sounds and tastes and I came back singing its praises to anyone who would pause too long by my desk. Those that had travelled in the region said that if I’d loved Thailand then I must do Vietnam, or Cambodia, or Laos, depending upon where they had been. So I will, all of them.
I’m even getting back on that overnight train, this time from Bangkok up to Chiang Mai. And I’ll be practising my Cs before I board.
Days 1 to 2 – Bangkok
Thailand’s bustling capital, Bangkok is famous for its tuk tuks, khlong boats and street vendors serving up delicious Thai food. Travel by longtail boat down the Chao Phraya River to explore the famous ‘khlongs’ (canals) of Bangkok (approx 1 hr). Life along these canals seems a world away from the chaotic streets of the capital. Pay a visit to Wat Pho, home to the country’s largest reclining Buddha and keeper of the magic behind Thai massage.
Take a comfortable sleeper train to Chiang Mai (approx 14 hrs). Trains are clean, with padded berths, sheets, pillow, blanket and boiling water available. Most trains have a dining carriage and there are snacks available along the way.
Day 3 – Chiang Mai
The most vibrant city in northern Thailand, Chiang Mai has many famous temples and an interesting old city area. This ‘Rose of the North’ is also known for its beauty and the friendliness of the local people. Explore the famous temple complex of Doi Suthep. Drive along a scenic, winding mountain road that ends at an impressive 300-step naga-guarded stairway (approx 45 mins).
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.
Day 4 – Huay Xai
It’s a long journey by bus through rural countryside to the Thai-Laos border (approx 7 hrs).
A centuries-old stop for caravans travelling between China and Siam for trade, Huay Xai is a lovely rural border town on the banks of the Mekong River, the lifeline of Indochina. It’s still very much a traveller’s hub, with passenger ferry landings and speedboats zipping by at all hours.
Day 5 – Mekong River
We board our private boat for a journey along the mighty Mekong. Whilst our boat is basic in nature, the journey is relaxed, a great way to experience the slow pace of village life and the breathtaking scenery along the river.
The river boat is of a basic standard 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. Your leader will help arrange the purchase of food and drinks for the boat journey. It can be quite cold from Nov to Feb so make sure you have some warm gear packed!
We cruise the river until we come to the small town of Pak Beng (approx 6 hrs) where we dock for the night. Our guesthouse here is very basic – a standard accommodation in this small trading port.
Days 6 to 8 – Luang Prabang
We re-board our boat and cruise to the revered Pak Ou Caves, before arriving in the former royal capital of Luang Prabang in the late afternoon (approx. 8hrs). An important religious site overlooking the river at the junction of the Mekong and Ou Rivers, the revered Pak Ou Caves contain thousands of Buddha images placed there by pilgrims over hundreds of years.
The atmospheric World Heritage-listed city of Luang Prabang is a favourite of many. Nestled in the hills of northern Laos on the confluence of the Mekong and Khan rivers, it’s studded with ornate temples and French colonial architecture.
Head out to the beautiful Kuang Si Falls, where pale turquoise waters cascade over limestone formations. The lovely pool at the base of the falls is perfect for a refreshing afternoon dip.
Days 9 to 10 – Vang Vieng
Drive from Luang Prabang to Vang Vieng (approx 6-7 hrs). Situated on the Nam Song River, Vang Vieng offers limestone karst scenery, local markets and riverside walks. There is plenty to do in and around Vang Vieng. 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.
Day 11 – Vientiane
Take a short public bus journey to Vientiane (approx 4 hrs). 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, Laos still has a wealth of cultural delights to discover – on foot, or for the less energetic, by jumbo (tuk tuk).
Follow dusty tracks along the river to find villages full of friendly children, dogs and chickens. Vientiane’s vibrant, colourful morning market (which incidentally is open all day!) is full of local treasures. A great way to round off the day is to enjoy a spectacular sunset over the Mekong.
Visit COPE, an Intrepid Foundation-sponsored organisation dedicated to assistance those who have been injured by the multitude of unexploded ordinance across the country.
Enjoy a meal of modern Lao food at the Makphet restaurant (meaning chili in Lao) – an organisation that Intrepid is proud to support in conjunction with the Peuan Mit Street Children Project, assisting disadvantaged children to return to school, society and train to gain employment in the hospitality industry.
Day 12 – Hanoi
Fly to Hanoi (approx 1 hour). The capital of Vietnam is a charming city with a population of around four million. Hanoi is famous for its beautiful lakes, shaded boulevards, verdant public parks and its thriving old town centre, which is an architectural museum piece with blocks of ochre buildings retaining the air of a 1930s provincial French town. As Vietnam develops to compete with other South-East Asian countries, the beautiful Hoan Kiem Lake reflects the contrasts of modern office buildings, old Buddhist temples and the tangle of ancient streets in its still surface.
Day 13 Halong Bay
Travel by private minibus to the spectacular World Heritage site of Halong Bay (approx 4 hrs). Halong Bay is a breathtaking secluded harbour with 2,000 limestone islands rising from the emerald waters of Bac Bo Gulf. One of Vietnam’s most scenic regions, this area of about 1,500 sq km is dotted with innumerable beaches and grottos, created over thousands of years by waves and wind.
Board our private boat and cruise among the dramatic limestone peaks. There’s an opportunity to swim in the famed South China Sea, as well as to explore caves filled with stunning stalactites and stalagmites. Spend a peaceful night on board, beneath a velvet night sky alive with stars. Our overnight accommodation on Halong Bay is on a sailing junk with twin bed cabins that have air-conditioning and private facilities.
Days 14 to 15 – Hanoi
We return by private minibus to Hanoi (approx. 4 hrs). Take in a performance of the famous Hanoi water puppets. Visit the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum complex, which includes the One Pillar Pagoda and the Ho Chi Minh Museum.
In the evening we board the famed Reunification Express for the overnight train journey to Hue.
Day 16 – Hue
As the former imperial capital of Vietnam, Hue holds the treasures of Vietnam’s royal past and is a curious mix of bustling streets and tranquil settings. Visit the Imperial Citadel, including the Forbidden Purple City. The latter was almost totally destroyed during the American War’s Tet Offensive, but the foliage-covered ruins are still atmospheric and the gaping holes left by bombs give an idea of the destruction wreaked upon the country during the war.
Enjoy a dragon boat cruise on the Perfume River. The trip includes a visit to Thien Mu Pagoda, considered by many to be the unofficial symbol of Hue. It’s an active Buddhist monastery with its origins dating back to 1601. One of the most poignant displays is a car belonging to a former monk who, in 1963, drove to Saigon and set himself alight to protest against the treatment of Buddhists by the South Vietnamese regime. We also visit one of the royal tombs, that of Emperor Tu Duc, with its central lake set amid a grove of frangipani and pine trees, and we may visit what many believe to be the most majestic of all the royal tombs, Minh Mang.
Days 17 to 19 – Hoi An
Journey by private minibus south through rural landscapes and the fishing village of Lang Co before ascending the dramatic Hai Van Pass and on to Hoi An (approx 4 hrs).
Recently declared a World Heritage site, Hoi An is being beautifully restored and preserved. Known as Faifo to early Western traders, it was one of South-East Asia’s major international ports during the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. Today, parts of Hoi An look exactly as they did more than a century ago and it retains the feel of centuries past, making it the sort of place that grows on you the more you explore it.
Days 20 to 21 – Ho Chi Minh City
A short flight from Danang brings us to Ho Chi Minh City (approx 75 mins). Formerly known as Saigon, Ho Chi Minh City is characterised by a vast array of sights and sounds; a fascinating blend of old and new, East and West. The huge number of people rushing about their daily lives in Vietnam’s largest city gives it a dynamic atmosphere and the French influence is evident in the excellent baguettes and coffee on offer.
Experience the hustle and bustle of old Saigon in cyclos (bicycle rickshaws) and explore some of the city’s more interesting sights, including the War Remnants Museum.
Days 22 to 23 – Phnom Penh
Travel by public bus through rural Vietnam and Cambodia to Phnom Penh (approx 6-7 hrs). Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital, is set on a major junction of the Mekong and Tonle Sap rivers and boasts some fine examples of French-inspired architecture.
Confront Cambodia’s tragic past on a guided tour of the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, a former school which served as a Khmer Rouge torture centre. It’s estimated that more than 20,000 people were held and tortured here. Head out to the Choeung Ek Memorial, where a stupa made up of some 8,000 human skulls marks the site of the infamous Killing Fields. This was the execution ground for the torture victims of Tuol Sleng and standing in this peaceful setting it’s almost unthinkable to imagine that to date nearly 9000 corpses have been exhumed from the area.
Day 24 – Homestay
Travel by public bus to the rural town of Kampong Thom (approx 3 hrs), and then on to our homestay located outside the township. Facilities are very basic, but this is an opportunity to experience the everyday life of rural Cambodians. In the evening, we enjoy a traditional dinner with our host family.
Days 25 to 27 – Siem Reap/Angkor Wat
Travel by bus to Siem Reap (approx 3 hrs). The small but expanding town of Siem Reap is the gateway to Angkor. It’s markets are a great place to shop or to try some cheap, delicious street food. Temple-hop with our local guide to make the most of our visit to the world-famous Angkor complex. These temples were built between the 9th and 13th centuries when the Khmer empire was the pre-eminent influence in South-East Asia. The temples were believed to represent the cosmic world and were set in perfect balance, symmetry and composition.
The intricately carved bas-reliefs and architectural designs are mind-blowing and there are spectacular photographic opportunities at any time of day – watching a sunrise or sunset is a must. The ruins are scattered over an area of some 160 sq km, but the main cluster of temples is close to Siem Reap so we’ll have plenty of time to fully appreciate the great archaeological sites of Angkor Wat, the Bayon and the jungle-covered Ta Prohm.
Days 28 to 29 – Bangkok
It’s a long drive from Siem Reap to Bangkok (approx 8-9 hrs including border crossing and lunch). There are no activities planned for the final day.