Why I Would Choose Laos as an Alternative to Northern Thailand

The view from Mt. Pou Si in Luang Prabang – Photo Credit: Courtney Ridgel

By Courtney Ridgel

I love Thailand – the culture, the food, the friendly people, the elephants, the scenery, the temples, and of course, the unbelievable beaches.  As it turns out, so does everyone else – Thailand was ranked the most visited country in the world in 2016, and even when it doesn’t top the charts at number one, it is consistently listed among the world’s most popular destinations.   Bangkok, Thailand’s capital, was also ranked as the most visited city in the world for 2016.

Luang Prabang is a charming town – Photo Credit: Courtney Ridgel

What does this mean?  I found that parts of Thailand, for all of its charms, can be crowded (especially over high season).  While I’ve met many people (including my stepdad) who visited Thailand 10 – 20 years ago, and spoke of having a grand adventure, in person, I must confess that although I had a lovely time, I found that Thailand felt developed, modern and packaged compared to some of the neighboring countries.  All of these are reasons why many of our guests prefer to travel to Thailand on their first trip to Asia – it can be a more user-friendly experience for new travelers.  And while our guests who travel to Thailand very much enjoy their trips, the feedback we consistently receive from our guests is that Laos was the highlight of their tour, and was the one place they wished they could have spent more time.  Here are my list of reasons why I would choose to head to Laos rather than Northern Thailand on my next trip:

Looking across Nam Tien Lake in Sayaboury – Photo Credit: Courtney Ridgel

Availability: Thailand welcomed over 30 million visitors in 2016, and Laos, by contrast, welcomed 4.3 million in 2015, which with a modest increase in 2016 – roughly a sixth of Thailand’s tourism traffic.   If peak season, (I.e. – the weeks immediately surrounding the winter holidays) is the only time you can get away, finding rooms available in Thailand that fit your taste and budget can be a challenge, especially if you find yourself planning a last-minute trip.  Laos doesn’t receive the same press that Thailand does or the hordes of other travelers to match, so you may have better luck finding accommodations.  If you find yourself traveling during the shoulder season, you’re also likely to find low season promotional deals in Laos.  Hotels in Thailand are less likely to offer deals because they have no trouble filling their rooms.

Looking across Luang Prabang from the Luang Prabang View Resort – Photo Credit: Courtney Ridgel

Elephant Experiences – Many people flock to Northern Thailand in order to fulfill the bucket list goal of spending time with elephants, and the best centers can become booked months in advance.  Travelers can also have incredible elephant experiences in Laos – check out our blog about the Elephant Conservation Center in Sayaboury, where you can witness and interact with elephants in their natural environment.

A resident mother and calf at the Sayaboury Elephant Conservation Center – Photo Credit: Courtney Ridgel

The scenery: Thailand is famous for being picturesque but Laos is stunning – there is no getting around it.  Steep mountains covered in mist plunge into the mighty rivers carving their way through the jungle, and a wide variety of flower species and native butterflies call Laos home.   You’ll also find beautiful sunsets, small wooden villages, golden temples, verdant rice paddies and orange-robed monks.

Some of the many limestone pools at the Kuang Si Waterfalls – Photo Credit: Courtney Ridgel

The Food: If your taste buds are craving an adventure, Laos may hold surprises in store for you including delicious local delicacies such as stuffed bamboo shoots or the famous Luang Prabang sausage.  As a legacy from their time as French colony, Laotians have retained a love of coffee shops and amazing French pasties, and I can never resist a good ‘pain au chocolat’.  Our favorite cooking class in Luang Prabang is the Tamarind Cooking School.  We always offer our guests a list of our favorite restaurants to provide a delicious and stress-free sampling of Laos’s culinary delights.

Sone enjoying a delicious desert at the Silk Road Cafe alongside the Mekong River – Photo Credit: Courtney Ridgel

Markets & Shopping: If you love to shop, you’ll love Luang Prabang.  The Night Market here is legendary and you can find excellent deals on incredible hand-made jewelry, fabrics, clothes, bowls, lamps, etc.  Laos is also renowned for the skill of the local master weavers. Be sure not to miss a trip to Ock Pop Tok, where you can learn how silk is made and watch the local artisans at work, creating their incredible pieces.  On my last trip, most of the gifts and souvenirs that I brought home for family, co-workers and friends came from Laos – this was where I found the most unique and meaningful gifts for the best prices.

Some of the beautiful handcrafted silk weavings made by the master artisans of Ock Pop Tok – Photo Credit: Courtney Ridgel

The Festivals – If Loi Krathong has long graced your bucket list, you may be interested to learn that Laos has its own version – Awk Phansa, or the Festival of Lights. Monks decorate the temple grounds with handmade paper lanterns, lights and candles, and local families do the same outside their homes.  The second day of the Festival of Light is more celebratory with costumes, and fire boat processions.  The locals make ’Khatongs’, or little boats, out of banana leaves, flowers, candles and incense and release them in the evening to float down the Mekong River.  There are other Festivals throughout the year as well – check out our Festivals page for more information.

Haw Pha Bang near the Royal Palace – Photo Credit: Courtney Ridgel

Spirituality – While you can find orange-robed monks and beautiful temples throughout Southeast Asia, Luang Prabang is particularly famous for having numerous historic temples, decorated with beautiful glass mosaics.  At dawn you can witness the ritual of alms-giving or you can partake in our Evening Chanting and Meditation tour.

Monks collecting alms just after dawn – Photo Credit: Courtney Ridgel

The local people – I’ve found the locals in Laos to be very warm and friendly, and I really felt that personal connection that the guide books boast of.  Everyone I met greeted me with a smile and a ‘Sabadee’ (hello).  I don’t speak more than two words of Laotian and I found that ‘hello’ and ‘thank you’ was enough to make many new friends, and I never felt stressed or worried.  One example of the warmth I experienced here, was the impromptu Mekong Sunset Cruise and BBQ dinner I enjoyed with Onkeo, Anan, James and Pet.

Some locals live on their boats on the Mekong River – Photo Credit: Courtney Ridgel

From the Ground: New Luang Prabang Evening Chanting and Meditation Tour

By Nicole Long and Jay Austin,

 Luang Prabang is known for its many beautiful and historic temples, and for the hundreds of monks collecting alms around dawn each morning.  For guests who want to enrich their experience by stepping into Laos’ spiritual world, rising before dawn is no longer the only option.  We now offer a new evening mediation tour!  This tour makes an excellent add-on and can easily combined with any itinerary.   We find that our guests love the chance to learn more about the life of the local monks and participating in this activity will add to feeling of serenity and peace that accompanies spending time in Laos. Participating in this Chanting and Mediation tour also gives travelers the opportunity to help give back to the local community through the temple donation included.

Here’s what the new Evening Chanting and Meditation Tour looks like:

This evening, at approximately 5:30pm you will join your guide at Wat Nong Temple for the monks’ evening chanting and meditation. You will have the opportunity to absorb the sounds of the monks chanting as you take in the splendor of the gold stenciling and woodwork of Wat Nong, located in the heart of Luang Prabang’s old town. After chanting, the abbot of the temple will lead the monks in meditation. Your guide will help translate if needed for your introduction to their meditation practice. At the end of the session, you and your guide will give a donation offering to the temple before departing for dinner at a local Lao restaurant.

New Food Tours Along the Cambodian Coast

Photo Courtesy of Knai Bang Chatt

The Cambodian coast has been getting a lot of publicity lately, and we love all the options that are coming available.  This region is still rather undeveloped, so traveling here will likely not be your typical beach vacation (unless you go ultra-luxury for a stay at Song Saa Private Island).  One of our favorite hotels in this area, Knai Bang Chatt is offering some new tour options to spice up your time at the beach. 

Photo Courtesy of Knai Bang Chatt

CAMBODIAN COOKING EXPERIENCE

Often overlooked in favor of its neighbors more popular Thai and Vietnamese cuisine, Cambodian food has recently garnered praise from chefs around the world for its use of fresh spices and unique blend of contrasting flavors and textures.  Some of the favorite dishes include Fish Amok, Banana Blossom Salad, and Mango Salad. Your half-day cooking course starts with a visit to the famous Crab Market where the chefs will introduce and explain the various spices and local produce on offer. Here you will learn to identify local ingredients and understand the importance of seasonality in Khmer cooking. Once back at the resort, your private chef will assist you in preparing 3-4 traditional Cambodian dishes which you will enjoy together at the end of the class.

Photo Courtesy of Knai Bang Chatt

PRIVATE ROOFTOP DINNER

At 6:30pm this evening, you will be escorted to a private rooftop terrace overlooking the gardens to the sea where you will enjoy sunset with a glass of sparkling wine in your very own private location. Once the sun has set, your dining experience will begin as you are served a 4 course, wine paired meal by candle light.

Photo Courtesy of Knai Bang Chatt

SAILING CLUB FLOATING DINNER

You will be transferred to the Sailing Club Pier and escorted to your dining location at the end of the private jetty for your meal this evening. You will be greeted with a welcome cocktail and enjoy the sunset over the water as your 3 course meals is served in this stunning private location.

There are a plethora of other options in this area that we offer for our guests as well, including visits to the nearby national park, exploring the abandoned villas of the colonial period or a local cave, trying your hand at fishing in the local style, visiting the nearby villages and pepper farms or spending the day relaxing on an island with your own private BBQ.   

For other unique beach options along the Cambodia coast, check out our blogs about Koh Rong Sanloem and Lazy Beach – Both locations were recently featured in National Geographic as being among the best beaches in the world!

Photo Courtesy of Knai Bang Chatt

From the Ground: The New Siem Reap Boutique Shopping Tour

By Jay Austin

We always provide our guests with ‘Cheat Sheets’ that list our favorite shopping and restaurant suggestions.  However, we’re taking it to the next level!  Our new Siem Reap Shopping Tour is a great way for guests to experience the boutique side of Siem Reap.  This tour provides the perfect ‘girls’ day out’ which begins with cocktails before stepping out for some serious shopping, and is led by either Jay or Naida – Siem Reap’s shopping experts!

Here’s what the new Shopping Tour looks like:

Your driver will collect you from your hotel at 2pm to begin your boutique shopping experience.  This afternoon you will have the opportunity to visit some of Siem Reap’s finest boutique stores and experience creativity inspired from across the globe. You will begin your afternoon with a visit to the trendy Kandal Village, a street lined with boutique stores of all types and tastes from clothing to homewares. From here you will move on to visit the Eric Raisina Couture House where you will find some of Asia’s finest textiles.  Eric Raisina is a world renowned textile designer born in Madagascar whose career has included highlights such as producing textiles for Yves Saint- Laurent and Christian Lacroix. From here you will return to the center of Siem Reap city to visit the well populated Alley West, a small laneway in the center of town offering a diverse range of boutique stores from fashion, to ceramics, to swimwear. Your final stop on this boutique exploration is the Kings Road complex, a newly developed shopping area housing photography galleries, vintage stores and in the center of it all lies the Made in Cambodia Market offering a range of individually styled souvenirs to suit all tastes. The Kings Road complex is home to some of the restaurants on our cheat sheet if you would like to stay for dinner or you can have your driver take you back to the hotel with all of your purchases.

Thank you from Wendell Alderson & Ken Nather

Photo Credit: Wendell Alderson & Ken Nather

Our mission is to make each and every trip a unique and memorable experience, so we especially love it when we hear back from guests and get to see their photos.  This note and these photos are from Journeys Within guests, Wendell Alderson and Ken Nather:

We loved our holiday in Vietnam and Cambodia.  You did a great job picking out hotels and things for us to do that matched the way we travel. There seemed to be enough down time for Ken and I to explore on our own which we love to do. Thanks for that.

We really enjoyed the moped tours of the HCMC and Hoi An. That was one of our highlights.

The staff at every place was stayed was above and beyond our expectation. Everyone so very nice and accommodating to us.  Ending our holiday at a beach resort was perfect. Loved the place we stayed.

I liked having some flexibility as well. When we got to Siem Reap it was very hot in the afternoons. After speaking with the guide we changed our bike ride to a morning ride instead of an afternoon ride. We drove to the village for the tour and that was great and the next am at 7 we did a bike ride around Angkor Tom and the jungle area. That was perfect. Each day there we were done touring/biking by 2pm and back at the pool with a drink in our hand.

The bike rides were leisurely and very beautiful. I know we would never have seen these areas without the bike rides. We loved our lunch the day we did our bike ride outside of Ha Noi. We learned how to make spring rolls and even shopped in the market for the ingredients.

Thanks again for wonderful holiday.

Best, Wendell & Ken