|October 23 2021||17 nights
|Yes||$7900 pp||add $1600|
The tantalising notion of floating down a remote part of the Mekong River in upper Laos by slow boat was a lure which was hard to resist. To reach the river you must pass through northern Thailand and the Golden Triangle where opium once grew - now there are rice fields and prosperous towns.
Our first Land of a Million Elephants journey was in 1999 sailing down the Mekong to the pristine town of Luang Prabang, then driving further east to the mysterious Plain of Jars which are now World Cultural Heritage. We continue to Vientiane then further south in Pakse and Champasak where the mighty Khon Falls stretch across the Mekong. We travel by road across the border between Laos and Cambodia to see the rarely visit Preah Vihear and Koh Ker temples in the remote north west of Cambodia. Further south our destination is Siem Reap and the jewel in the crown of the Khmer civilization – Angkor Wat .
This trip offers a taste of Northern Thailand, Laos and Cambodia and has remained a favourite since our first expedition.
Three hours to the north is the old town of Chiang Rai. Once the capital of the Mangrai dynasty (1262), the town was regularly occupied by the Burmese until 1933 when Chiang Rai was named a province of Thailand. We hold up here for the night and prepare for our journey on the Mekong River from Thailand to Laos.
The Mekong River begins high on the Tibetan plateau and runs through six countries on its 4700 kilometre journey to the delta in Vietnam. Our journey begins in the sleepy Lao river port of Huoeisay where we board our private longboat; our destination is the ancient Lao capital of Luang Prabang, some 450 kilometres downstream. The river is brown and wide and soon any reminder of urbanisation is left behind as the river twists and bends past rocky outcrops and shifting sandbanks. Our boat meanders, low to the water, the green of jungle on either side punctuated by the odd village of Khmu or Hmong people. We stop and share a lifestyle that has changed little in the last 1000 years. We overnight ashore in the comfortable surrounds of the Pakbeng Lodge then continue to Luang Prabang. The morning mist soon burns from the river valley. The day is spent quietly aboard, late in the afternoon the stupas of Luang Prabang appear.
You can hear the drums and gongs of Luang Prabang starting their rhythm around 5am every morning. The city is the spiritual home of Laos. At dawn, monks take the first of their two daily meals by calling for alms; their bowls tucked under their arms they Indian-file past the town’s inhabitants accepting offerings of sticky rice, vegetables and meat. We will take a walking tour of the old city and visit the highlights. By lunchtime we have seen the best parts.
We take the winding road journey across limestone mountains through hill tribe villages where slash and burn is still practised. We stop to chat with the curious locals who will encourage you to share homemade whisky or sticky rice cakes. The Plain of Jars is a remote plateau in upper Lao that has secrets from 2000 years before. Here we see giant stone jars arranged across hilltops, their function unclear but most probably funerary. During the American War 3 million tonnes of ordnance was dropped in this area in what became known as the secret war, an undeclared campaign to sever the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The legacy remains.
The locals call Vientiane the ‘city of the moon’. Located on the Mekong River, Vientiane became the capital in 1563 and was regularly ransacked by either Burmese or Siam invaders. The French colonisation after 1890 was almost welcome, giving the Lao people some security. Along with the construction of colonial style buildings, the French also restored many stupas and temples to their former glory allowing us to step back into Lao history.
We take short flight to Pakse in southern Laos where we find the Mekong River surging towards the Khon Falls. Here we discover the Khmer outpost of Wat Phou built in the 10th century with its barays , balustrades and prayer halls. The countryside flourishes as we continue to the great cataract of the Mekong River at Khon Falls stretching 10 kilometres across the river. The falls are created by ‘Four Thousand Islands’ which scatter themselves across the river and provide a spectacular sight all year round. We rest comfortably by the river at La Folie Lodge the Pon Arena hotel.
We cross the remote border point between Laos and Cambodia and travel overland into the north west of Cambodia. This area was once the stronghold of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge who unleashed chaos on this country for 20 years. In some ways the local people are still recovering even though hostilities ceased almost 30 years ago.
The countryside is sparse and flat with logging and some simple farming the only visible industry. Our destination is the previously unreachable temple of Preah Vihear located on the border with Thailand. The temples origins are to the 9th century when the Khmer Empire flourished however more recently the area was a flashpoint for Thai and Cambodian military forces who competed for the ownership of the temple. It was a rare victory for Cambodia. We will stay two nights here to make sure we have plenty of time to explore.
We continue by road via the pyramid temple of Koh Ker before reaching the outskirts of Siem Reap and Angkor Wat.
The temples of Angkor are simply inspiring. It was a remarkable period of construction and enterprise that began in the 8th century before falling into decline in the late 13th century. I have carefully balanced our sightseeing program to highlight the very best of the temple ruins, hoping to draw an insight into the luxurious life of this highly developed society along with the toils and wars that eventfully led to its downfall.
On a Goddard & Howse small world journey our hotels are more than just a place to stay. We look for great locations as well as character, service and comfort.
Our partner hotels have been delivering expectation since we began our small world journeys in China and Southeast Asia 20 years ago. And most importantly, our hotels are an enticing place to come home to after a day of discovery.
During the American War in Vietnam it is estimated that more bombs were dropped on northern Vietnam than in the whole of the Second World War. What is less well known is that in northern Laos, in Zieng Khoung province (also known as the Plain of Jars), there was a bomb dropped every six minutes for two years from 1968 to 1970 in a vain attempt to cut the Ho Chi Minh Trail. It became known as the 'Secret War' and this is the story of one of its survivors, Mr Pet, our guide at the Plain of Jars.
Mr Pet has our attention and tells us his story of growing up in Zieng Khuong; he is 39 years old now. more
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