Southeast Asia Adventure: Northern Laos and Cambodia

Sierra Club Outings Trip # 14690A, International

Highlights

  •  Visit magnificent Buddhist temples and shrines in northern Laos and Cambodia
  •  Hike to caves/waterfalls/wildlife preserve/zoo and visit a famous bird/wildlife sanctuary
  •  See the mysterious Plain of Jars and the incredible Angkor Wat complex

Includes

  • All meals, hotels, transportation and tips, including two in-country flights
  • Experienced naturalist guides
  • Admission to cultural attractions, including a Laotian opera and traditional Cambodia dance/music performances

Details

DatesOct 20–Nov 2, 2014
Price$3,595 (10–12)
$4,395 (or fewer)
Deposit$200
Capacity12
StaffTim Wernette

Trip Overview

The Trip

Laos and Cambodia are two of the least-visited, least-“touristy” countries in S.E. Asia. Our trip will tour northern Laos and Cambodia, visiting the most important natural and cultural sites in both countries. We’ll have a variety of activities: touring beautiful temples, including a huge Buddhist shrine on the banks of the Mekong River, and the ancient Angkor Wat complex in Cambodia; visiting a rural Laotian village and hiking to caves and waterfalls; boating on the Nam Ou river past forests and villages; exploring the mysterious Plain of Jars in eastern Laos; visiting a wildlife refuge/zoo outside of Phnom Penh and a bird/wildlife sanctuary on Tonle Sap Lake; and witnessing Khmer Rouge memorials in/near Phnom Penh. We’ll learn about environmental/conservation issues in both Laos and Cambodia and have an opportunity to experience authentic cultural performances, including a traditional Laotian opera and traditional Cambodian dance/music. 

Our trip begins in Luang Prabang, ancient capital of Laos, in case you want to arrive early to tour the city more extensively prior to our trip.  Our trip ends in Siem Reap, gateway to the many Angkor Wat regional temples and ruins, where you may want to stay after our trip to continue your exploration of the area. We’ll have local, English-speaking guides interpreting the many incredible natural and cultural sites we’ll be exploring, we’ll dine on delicious Laotian and Cambodian cuisine, and we’ll stay in comfortable hotels and lodges. Except for arrival visa fees, alcoholic drinks, and whatever souvenirs you might want to purchase, once you land in Laos, all trip expenses are included until you leave Cambodia. 

 

Itinerary

Day 1: Upon your arrival in Luang Prabang, Laos, you’ll go through immigration/customs (the current Laos visa fee is $35) and you will be met at the airport and transported to our hotel. We’ll begin our trip with a late-afternoon orientation session at our hotel, followed by a Lao Baci ceremony at a local house, which includes a traditional Lao dance concert. Afterwards, we will eat dinner in downtown Luang Prabang and overnight at our hotel, which is located near the night market and Mount Phousi.

Day 2: We’ll begin the first full day of our trip early at sunrise, when we’ll witness the unique (to Laos) ritual of saffron-clad Buddhist monks collecting offerings of alms (sticky rice) from faithful city residents as the monks parade down the streets. We’ll climb Mount Phousi to visit the sacred, gilded stupa there with its incredible 360-degree views of Luang Prabang and the Mekong River. After breakfast at our hotel, we’ll visit the Royal Palace Museum, the city’s oldest temple of Wat Sene, the magnificent Wat Xiengthong with its classical Laotian architecture, and the Ethnology Center to learn about many of Laos’ ethnic cultures. After lunch we’ll head to Khouangsi waterfalls, with their clear travertine pools where you can swim if you desire. After we visit an Asian bear rescue center there, we'll stop to tour a traditional Lao village and observe hand silk weaving and Saa papermaking. After a full day we'll likely be exhausted, so we can enjoy a well-deserved rest/sleep at our downtown hotel after dinner, although the night market will be nearby for shopping.

Day 3: After breakfast, we drive 2-3 hours to Nong Kaiu, on the banks of the beautiful Nam Ou river. We’ll tour around Nong Kaiu for an hour or so and lunch there, before we board our boat and cruise upriver to overnight in the rural village of Muang Ngoi. We’ll stay at a comfortable, rustic lodge/guesthouse and be able to explore the village and surrounding farming countryside.

Day 4: After breakfast, we hike to visit the Tham Kaang cave, which was used by local villagers for shelter during the IndoChina War in the 1960s/1970s. If time permits, we’ll also visit a beautiful waterfall and villages of the Khmu and Tai Deng ethnic groups, where we’ll eat lunch at a local home. After returning to Muang Ngoi, we’ll take our boat back to Nong Kiau on the Nam Ou River, where we’ll overnight at a riverside bungalow/lodge.

Day 5: Today we continue our boat adventure down the Nam Ou river, enjoying the lush green forests and breathtaking limestone karst cliffs/caves along the river, stopping at a few villages to see the different traditional architecture of the ethnic groups in each village and observing rural life. As we approach Luang Prabang, we’ll reach the Mekong River and visit the dramatic Pak Ou shrine overlooking the Mekong, filled with thousands of Buddha statues left by devoted pilgrims. There may be time in the late afternoon to shop at the nearby night market.  After dinner, we’ll attend an elaborate music/dance performance of the Laotian Royal Ballet Theater, which is their traditional opera.

Day 6: After breakfast, we hop in our van/bus for a long (4-5 hour) ride from Luang Prabang to Xieng Khuang, through rural, mountainous northern Laos. We’ll stop to rest and perhaps eat lunch before we check into our downtown hotel in Phonsavan, sister city to Xieng Khuang.  This area of eastern Laos was devastated by the “secret war” of American bombing during the Vietnam War, and we’ll visit the Mine Advisory Group (MAG) exhibit office/museum and learn about the continuing tragedy of unexploded ordinance in the area. If time permits, we may visit one of the Plain of Jars sites. 

Day 7: After a brief visit to the morning market with tons of fresh vegetables and fruits, we’ll tour some of the Plain of Jars sites. This archaeological wonder contains hundreds of large stone jars scattered over acres of grasslands. It’s still a mystery how/why these huge jars were carved and placed here, but archaeologists suspect possible use as ancient burial grounds. After lunch, we’ll catch the first of our two trip flights, flying to the Laotian capital of Vientiane on the banks of the Mekong River. Depending on time, we may begin touring some of Vientiane’s many cultural sites.

Day 8: Today we tour Vientiane. We’ll visit the Lao National/Kaison Museum, the ancient Wat Sisaket temple, the former royal temple of Wat Prakeo, the sacred That Luang Stupa, and the Patuxay Monument (Vientiane’s Arc de Triumph). If time/energy permits, we may drive out of town to visit Buddha Park, a collection of enchanting Buddhist and Hindu sculptures on the bank of the Mekong River.

Day 9: We will have our second trip flight, from Vientiane (Laos) to Phnom Penh (Cambodia) today. Currently the flight schedule is late morning/early afternoon, but this is subject to change. Once we get to Phnom Penh, we’ll go through customs/immigration (visa fee required, currently $20 USD). Before checking into our Phnom Penh hotel, we’ll travel south to the Ta Mao Wildlife Sanctuary, Phnom Penh’s “zoo” with many confiscated and trafficked animals and birds rarely seen in the wild. We’ll see gibbons, Malayan sun bears as well as other rare animals, such as Siamese crocodiles. Back in Phnom Penh, we’ll enjoy dinner and a traditional Cambodian Apsara dancing show.

Day 10: After breakfast we’ll have a heart-breaking tour of one of the Khmer  Rouge’s most notorious torture chambers, a former school where only 7 out of 1000s survived. While painful to visit, understanding this devastating Cambodian holocaust will help us make more sense of modern Cambodia and how the country continues to recover from this tragedy. Next we visit the magnificent Royal Palace built in 1866 by King Norodom, followed by the National Museum, which houses the world’s foremost collection of Khmer art. After lunch, we head for Battambang, driving by rural villages along the shore of Tonle Sap Lake. We overnight in a Battambang hotel.

Day 11: We’ll tour Battambang, including Wat Ek Phnom, built in the 11th century by Suryavarman I, next to a huge white Buddha statue guarded by peacock trees. We’ll visit local rice paper factories, which make rice sheets for tasty spring rolls, and visit the fish paste market -- interesting, but guaranteed to make you close your nose! After lunch we board a boat and cruise along the Sangker River to Prek Toal, one of the premier wildlife/birding refuges in S.E. Asia. We’ll tour a floating village and observe traditional village life and we’ll spend the night with a local family on a floating house and dine at a community restaurant on authentic, delicious local cuisine.

Day 12: We'll rise early (pre-dawn) again to walk around the core bird reserve at Prek Toal, where we’ll see the largest number of large breeding water birds in S.E. Asia. After breakfast we board a boat through Me Chrey to Siem Reap, where we’ll check in at our hotel. In the afternoon we’ll visit the sprawling labyrinth of Banteay Kdei Temple at Angkor Wat, with its hall of dancing girls. Afterwards, our Cambodia concessionaire will give a presentation on environmental issues in Cambodia, then we'll enjoy a dinner with traditional Apsara dancing performance.

Day 13: After breakfast we’ll tour Angkor area temples of the forest: Srah Srang and Ta Prohm. We’ll walk 1-2 km and then, from the northwest of Ta Prohm, we’ll hike another 15 minutes through the forest to the seldom visited temple of Ta Nei. Finally, we’ll end the morning at the Ta Keo temple, where steep stairs lead to an expansive view over the surrounding area. In the afternoon we explore Angkor Thom, the world’s largest city in the 12th century. Highlights include the Victory Gate of Angkor Thom, the atmospheric Preah Palilay, the beautiful lakes of Phimeanakas, the imposing Baphuon, and, finally, Jayavarman’s state temple of Bayon, with its many captivating giant stone faces. 

Day 14:  We’ll be transferred from our Siem Reap hotel to the airport, unless you decide to extend your tour of the Angkor Wat area after our Sierra Club trip ends.

Photos

Details

Getting There

Each participant is responsible for making his or her flight reservations to Luang Prabang, Laos for the beginning of our trip and from Siem Reap, Cambodia after our trip. Your trip leader will share travel plans of trip participants in case you might might want to fly over/back with other trip participant(s). Luang Prabang (beginning of trip) and Siem Reap (end of trip) have many interesting things to visit in case you want to extend your S.E. Asia trip before/after our Sierra Club trip. Please be aware that if you fly east-to-west to Asia you will lose a day flying over and gain a day flying back, and that it frequently takes a day or more to fly either way, so please plan your flights accordingly.

Accommodations and Food

We’ll be staying in comfortable hotels and (occasionally) rural lodges/guesthouses/local homes during our trip. Laotian and Cambodian cuisine is delicious and easily accommodates vegetarians.

Trip Difficulty

Our Sierra Club S.E. Asia Adventure trip is not strenuous, but you’ll enjoy our adventure more if you’re in good physical shape without significant physical disabilities. All physical activities (walking/hiking) are optional and you can stay at our hotel/van if you’d prefer not to join us for any of them. We’ll be walking up many steps while visiting temples/ruins, and the hiking to caves/waterfalls and the Plain of Jars may be over uneven ground.

Equipment and Clothing

We’ll be frequently moving our gear from our hotel to our van/bus and back to our hotel, so it will be handy if you have luggage that is easily transported. The weather in mid-autumn in S.E. Asia is usually warm/mild, in a transition period from summer rains to winter dryness, so it’s important to bring raingear just in case. Layered, lightweight, quick-drying clothing will be easiest to wear and (if necessary) wash during our trip. In addition to your larger luggage/pack/duffel, you’ll need a day pack large enough to carry your daily essentials (water, first-aid kit, extra clothing, etc). You’ll also want to have well-broken-in hiking boots and (if you use them) hiking poles.

References

Books:

  • Fadiman, Anne, The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors, and the Collision of Two Cultures.
  • King, Ben F., A Field Guide to the Birds of Southeast Asia. Covers Burma, Malaya, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, and Hong Kong.
  • Robbins, Christopher. The Ravens, Pilots of the Secret War of Laos. Asia Books, Bangkok, 3rd ed., 2000. (Originally published by Bantam Books, London, 1988).
  • Robson, Craig, A Guide to the Birds of Southeast Asia.
  • Scott, Joanna C., Indochina's Refugees: Oral Histories from Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam.
  • Stuart-Fox, Martin, A History of Laos.
  • The Rough Guide to Southeast Asia.
  • The Lonely Planet Guide to Laos.
  • The Lonely Planet Southeast Asia Phrasebook.

Periodicals:

  • White, Peter T., "Laos Today," National Geographic, June 1987
  • O'Neill, Thomas, "The Mekong: A Haunted River's Season of Peace," National Geographic, February 1993

Maps:

  • The Lonely Planet Thailand, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia Road Atlas
  • Rough Guide Map, Vietnam, Cambodia & Laos, 1:1,200,000.

Conservation

One of the unique aspects of Sierra Club outings is the inclusion of an environmental and conservation element. The leader will be sending you pre-trip information (both electronically and via snail mailings) about environmental issues in Laos and Cambodia. During our trip we’ll have local representatives discuss with us environmental challenges (both successes and problems) and the leader will facilitate a discussion of environmental issues in our hometowns/regions.

Staff

Leader:

Tim Wernette began leading Sierra Club outings in the late 1970s, and has been leading service, river rafting and international trips each year (for a total of over 50). He has led trips to Central America (Belize/Costa Rica), South America (Ecuador/Peru), and Asia (Nepal/ Bhutan/Vietnam). Tim and his wife, Carolyn Brown (see below), scouted this trip in the spring of 2012 and met with the trip concessionaires to plan our itinerary. When not leading Sierra Club trips (he usually does 2-3/year), Tim is semi-retired, working part-time for a gender equity educational program in Arizona, serves on the board of the Tucson YWCA, and volunteers at Saguaro NP.

Co-Leader:

Carolyn Brown has been an assistant leader on many of Tim’s international trips, including Belize and Nepal, and has accompanied him on most of his other international Sierra Club trips. Carolyn is a retired Ob/Gyn nurse practitioner and has a massage practice out of our home in Tucson. Carolyn volunteers with the Sabino Canyon trail patrol (local Forest Service) and Saguaro NP.

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