My journey through Laos and Cambodia packed in a lot of destinations, but there’s not much from the trip that will be lost to hurriedly forgotten memory – these are places of vivid colour, intoxicating smells, eye-watering history, genuinely breathtaking landscapes and soul-affirming culture. An adventure here is genuinely unforgettable.
Laos is often described as one of South-East Asia’s best-kept secrets, and it certainly is quite an under-the-radar destination. The small landlocked country has retained lots of the traditions and ways of life that have been usurped by technology and modernity in many neighbouring countries, and as a result enjoys a sleepy, spiritual and completely unique atmosphere.
My first stop here was Luang Prabang. Investment over the last few decades has improved accommodation and facilities here, without taking away any of the city’s allure. This was probably my favourite place on the whole trip. It was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995, so it retains its historic charm. The location by the river is amazing, and it’s a great place to take a stroll – wander around and you’ll stumble across lots of local eateries.
Watching the famous alms-giving was incredible; each morning hundreds of monks from Luang Prabang’s 35 temples silently walk through the town, collecting alms and donations from the local people. I would definitely recommend the walk up to the top of Mount Phousi; go early in the morning, when it’s much less crowded. The panoramic views up there are sensational and hearing the town wake up all around me with the mountains in the background was an indescribable experience.
I visited the brand-new Rosewood Luang Prabang, which has an amazing riverside location just outside the town. The views from the Hilltop Tents were pretty special, but for something really exceptional the Waterfall Pool Villas are fantastic.
Next, it was on to Vientiane. It’s all about atmosphere here – sleepy, laidback and full of fascinating museums and monuments. The historic old quarter is unmissable, filled with fragrant frangipani flowers and captivating temples and ancient monuments. There’s a distinctly French flavour to Vientiane, from the gastronomic eateries and enticing smells of baked goods wafting through the air to the chic and stylish hotels on offer. After exploring the different cultures, paces, cuisines and ways of life in Laos, it was time to hop over to Cambodia to continue my Far East adventure.
I arrived in the busy, bustling and buzzing capital Phnom Penh, and was immediately fascinated by this unique city. I’d highly recommend taking a tour to get a real feel for the culture – you might opt for a gentle cycle ride through the streets, though I chose to embark on a guided Vespa tour, which was a definite highlight of my whole trip. The guides were really friendly and knowledgeable and whizzing through the streets on the back of the Vespa was exhilarating – definitely the ultimate way to explore Phnom Penh. Along the way we stopped off at local markets to soak up the atmosphere and sample fantastic street food, and there were plenty of drinks flowing too, which made it all the more easy to enjoy!
There’s much to experience in this city, from seeing amazing historic landmarks like the Royal Palace and the National Museum, to visiting the insightful Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek for a truly moving encounter. For the very best views, you can’t go wrong with a drink or two at the amazing Sora Skybar, perfectly situated on the 37th floor of Rosewood Phnom Penh.
I then departed Phnom Penh and spent time in Kep and Kampot for a totally different experience of Cambodia. Kep’s laidback vibe and languid beachside hotels offer the perfect backdrop for a chilled out seaside escape, while sleepy Kampot’s picturesque Kompong Bay River offers both a scenic landscape and the perfect base for exploring the surrounding famous pepper plantations instead.
Following this I went to seek out some R&R at the stunning islands just off the coast. I stayed at the exceptional Song Saa Private Island for the perfect amount of relaxed, ‘toes in the sand’ luxury. However, there are plenty of fantastic options to choose from – including the brand-new Six Senses Krabey Island (due to open in April) or the Alila Koh Russey. For a more adventurous but equally luxurious experience, the newly-opened Shinta Mani Wild luxury camp from renowned designer Bill Bensley offers a phenomenal experience amongst Cambodia’s nature.
My last stop was Siem Reap, best known as the gateway to the world-renowned Angkor temples. Obviously this is an unmissable stop for history buffs, but even those with just a casual interest in ancient architecture should make the trip to catch the sunrise over the iconic towers at Angkor Wat – it was well worth the early morning alarm! Each and every day of my trip offered something different, and I didn’t even scratch the surface of what this endlessly fascinating, unique and utterly enchanting part of the world has to offer.
Our Laos and Cambodia Explorer tour is the perfect way to discover this spectacular part of the world.
This piece first appeared in Other Shores magazine. Click here to read the current issue and discover a world of travel inspiration.