I am tempted to launch right into my favourite day of our month-long trip that included Bangkok and a sampling of Cambodia and Laos. But, I feel a stronger need to put chronological order and reflection into this first of a series of posts. I’ve tried to find one photo and write one paragraph that summarize my (and usually Mike’s) overriding, totally subjective takeaway on each of the places we visited. If you want to find out about my favourite day, you can scroll down to the end. If you can hang in there, please follow our journey. There’ll be lots more to come about the exotic attractions of these friendly, great value travel destinations.
Bangkok, Thailand: Give it time
I remember visiting Bangkok for the first time in 1991, as a budget backpacker. I was completely overwhelmed by the heat, noise, pollution, and general chaos, but seduced by its temples, street food, and energy. Despite moving up the travel budget hierarchy, I felt much the same during our recent visit. Bangkok is an enigma—a city that is easy to love and hate at the same time. We learned that Bangkok can’t be rushed —our bodies and the traffic wouldn’t let us. By the time our four and a half days in Bangkok were coming to a close, we were just starting to get a handle on stimulus overload and an appreciation for this marvelous, crazy city. Stay tuned for activities/attractions in Bangkok including our favourite: a night bike ride through the city’s back alleys.
Angkor Temples, Cambodia: Beyond the Big-3
Our timing may have been off—Chinese New Year holidays and just days before a significant price hike at the Angkor temple complex. The big-3 temples—Angkor Wat, Bayon, Ta Prohm—were sheer madness with throngs of selfie-stick-wielding, matching-hat-wearing visitors (I include us in the mayhem). As magnificent as these temples are, the crowds took away from our experience. During the next two days we hired a tuk-tuk driver to take us to a few of the lesser-visited temples and those further afield. Even just slightly off the beaten path, the crowds thinned significantly. Despite some of these temples being regarded as less noteworthy or beautiful, our experience there was spectacular. I’ll be posting about our favourites like Banteay Samre, Banteay Srei, Ta Som, Preah Khan, and East Mebon
Battambang, Cambodia: City..meh, countryside…yay
I held romantic images of lovely colonial architecture and charming French shophouses after reading Lonely Planet’s description of Battambang. While the city is a nice change from crowded Siem Reap, we felt that much of the once beautiful architecture has fallen into major disrepair. What the city lacks in charm, the surrounding countryside makes up for. We loved our bike tour—run by local students—through villages and vibrant markets. An upcoming post will feature Mike and I clumsily making rice paper and learning about local livelihoods like production of banana chips, rice wine, rice noodles, and oh-so-stinky fish paste.
Phenom Penh, Cambodia: Rising from a dark past
I read the book The Killing Fields more than 25 years ago. It was my introduction to the horrific Cambodian genocide inflicted by the Khmer Rouge between 1975 and 1979. The book knocked the wind out of me. I was both eager and apprehensive about finally visiting the place that had been devastated by unthinkable atrocities. Phenom Penh has risen from its grisly past. We stayed in a gorgeous boutique hotel, ate at a trendy French bistro, and were struck by the city’s vibrance. But my enduring memory of Phenom Penh will undoubtedly be our visits to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek where the horrors of that era are conveyed with uncensored directness. It was a sad, sobering, and educational highlight of our trip. Phenom Penh ranks as Mike’s overall favourite stop on our itinerary.
Kampot, Cambodia: Sunsets and smiles
Kampot, a small riverside town in southern Cambodia, has incredible sunsets, and our guesthouse there (Rikitikitavi) wins the prize for best value/friendly accommodations of our travels. Every evening, we sat on Rikitiki’s restaurant/bar patio and watched a parade of fishing boats, cast in a sunset glow, head out to the ocean for their nightly work. It’s a mesmerizing sight. Although friendliness and great service abound in this part of the world, the local staff at Rikitikitavi took it to another level. Their smiles and enthusiasm made our stay in Kampot particularly memorable. While the town itself wasn’t Mike’s favourite, I enjoyed its quirky, dilapidated charm. You have to love a place that has a roundabout with a giant durian as its centerpiece. Photos to come.
Vientiane, Laos: Our biggest surprise
Before researching for this trip, we had never heard of Vientiane. We read lots of mixed reviews about the diminutive capital of Laos—”it’s boring”, “there are no major sights”…I’m so glad we ignored these comments. We had an amazing time exploring the easy-to-get-around-in city on bike and foot. We loved the nightly merchandise market, geared mostly to locals, and the mile-long evening food market that stretches along the banks of the Mekong. We enjoyed the abundant restaurants and bakeries, interesting French-period monuments and glittering temples. Most of all we relished the low-key vibe of this city and not worrying about how we were going to cross the street (Phenom Penh is a pedestrian nightmare). I plan to do a post on a great one-day bike itinerary in Vientiane.
Luang Prabang, Laos: Where monks, beer, and spas meet
Although it’s a tad touristy, it’s hard not to fall in love with this Unesco-protected town. Luang Prabang has a wonderful mix of spiritual, hedonistic, and natural allure. Saffron-clad monks walk amidst chic restaurants, fun bars, and blissful spas; serene temples rise above a bustling night market filled with silk scarves, Beerlao T-shirts and every possible souvenir; dramatic waterfalls and caves are only a short boat ride or tuk-tuk drive away. The setting at the conflux of the Mekong River and Nam Khan is glorious. I’ll be posting about four days of incredible temple-visting, shopping for local artwork, eating, biking, and “spaaing”. It went by way too quickly.
Nong Khiaw: We should have stayed longer
Nong Khiaw is a 4-hour bumpy, curvy minibus ride from Luang Prabang. We were ready for a dose of dramatic nature away from the crowds and Nong Khiaw delivered. The small village sits on the banks of the Nam Ou and is surrounded by steep-sided mountains drenched in jungle vegetation. It was tempting to just hang-out on our guesthouse patio soaking up the scenery, but there’s tons to do in and around Nong Khiaw—hiking, biking, kayaking, caving, village-visits. Sadly, we only got to sample a tiny bit in our day-and-a-half visit. My favourite was an early morning hike to a spectacular viewpoint. Sitting on a rocky bluff with 360 degree views of towering karsts and clouds slowly lifting from the valley floor was pure happiness for me. I can’t wait to share more about this place!
Muang Ngoi: Where we had our favourite day of the trip
An hour on a jam-packed boat from Nong Khiaw took us to Muang Ngoi. This village is still primarily river accessible only and consists of one 500m-long dirt road. Like Nong Khiaw, it is stunningly situated but even more low-key. Our favourite day of the entire trip (we agree on this one) was in Muang Ngoi. We started with a morning hike to an amazing local cave and viewpoint. In the afternoon, we hired a boat to taxi us, and a kayak, up river where we first visited a weaving village. We were the only visitors there and I was in heaven, surrounded by beautiful fabrics and friendly, non-pushy local ladies. After buying about a dozen scarves we got in our kayak for a leisurely two hour paddle through breath-taking scenery back to Muang Ngoi. It was the perfect day and you’ll be reading more about it soon.
For those of you interested, I’ve included our itinerary and map below. With limited time we elected to take some flights, but long-distance bus travel is readily available and cheap.
- 5 nights Bangkok
- 4 nights Siem Reap ( one hour flight from Bangkok)
- 3 nights Battambang (4 hour bus ride from Siem Reap)
- 3 nights Phenom Penh (6 hour bus ride from Battambang)
- 3 nights Kampot (4 hour bus ride from Phenom Penh)
- 3 nights Vientiane (1.5 hour flight via Phenom Penh)
- 4 nights Luang Prabang (45 minute flight from Vientiane)
- 2 nights Nong Khiaw (4 hour minibus ride from Luang Prabang)
- 2 nights Muang Ngoi (1 hour boat ride from Nong Khiaw)
- 1 night Luang Prabang (via boat/minibus from Muang Ngoi/Nong Khiaw) before catching 1.75 hour flight back to Bangkok and home.