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Guest Review from Kristine Janda and Kevin O’Grattan-Siem Reap is the perfect place to celebrate romance.

At Journeys Within, we are dedicated to custom designing memorable experiences throughout Southeast Asia.  We especially love it when we hear back from our guests who have had first class travel experiences, and are excited to share their photos and adventures.  This letter and these photos are from Journeys Within guests, Kristine Janda & Ken O’Grattan.  

We just returned home from our Asia trip. I just wanted to tell you what an unbelievably amazing experience we had with Journeys Within! Thank you for making our trip and anniversary extra special. We love the gifts, and we will be hanging the picture in our house as a memory of this great adventure.

Photo Credit: Kristine Janda & Ken O’Grattan

We loved all our guides. Mr. Sina and our driver were both wonderful. Mr. Sina is so kind, patient, attentive, and has such a great knowledge of Siem Reap and it’s many temples. He was in tune to our interests and made sure we had a great experiences. Our driver was also great, drove safely, and attentive to us. Our cooking class was a blast! We enjoyed every minute of it. We did not end up doing the bird watching due to the conditions, and we appreciated the change to ensure a great experience. Our trek on Mt Kulen was such an adventure! We’ve never trekked through a lush jungle like that.  Our guides were great, patient, very knowledgeable of forests plants and animals, and very attentive to our needs.

Photo Credit: Kristine Janda & Ken O’Grattan

We also had the most wonderful stay with Jaya House! Wow. They were so sweet and treated us like royalty. They made us feel very special in celebrating our anniversary with flowers and cake! The hotel grounds are so beautiful we didn’t want to leave. The entire staff was very nice and attentive to us and all their guests.

We are so amazed by Siem Reap and its people. Everyone we met was very kind and hospitable. We enjoyed all the food and loved all your restaurant recommendations.  Thank you again for helping us with our unforgettable adventure in Siem Reap. It’s become one of my favorite places in the world!

Sincerely,

Kristine Janda and Kevin O’Grattan

A Day of Introspection and Healing: Siem Reap Spiritual Tour

By Andrea Ross 

After a whirlwind adventure in Thailand, the kids and I arrived in Siem Reap this week. As always there was a sense of “coming home” as we stepped off the plane, but rather than home we have been spoiled with staying at the amazing Jaya House River Park Hotel.  This property has earned a well-deserved blog of its own soon and has already been an amazing partner for Journeys Within. After getting settled and catching up on work emails on the first day, I had a special morning planned with our new Siem Reap Spiritual Tour. While of course the ancient temples such as Angkor Wat are the main draw in Siem Reap, there are also some amazing modern temples here, with unique experiences only available in Siem Reap.

Taking a tuk-tuk with Sina, one of our top guides

I was met in the morning by Sina and kid-free (they had a fun day with their dad), we set off the for the Fortune-teller’s. I have to start by saying that I’m not the Fortune-teller type…I believe we make our own destinies and I’m always scared that a Fortune-teller will tell me something that then becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. BUT, my team swears by this man and I’ve felt lately like I could use some guidance! We arrived for our 8:15am appointment and in true Khmer fashion, he wasn’t there! My faith in his powers was severely diminished when he informed Sina he didn’t realize we were there yet and would be back as soon as he could! He showed up a few minutes later on his moto and showed us up to his house…a typical Khmer home on stilts with walls covered in framed photos of his family, him with various military and political leaders and of course, some landscape shots.

The Fortune-teller with his ipad
The Fortune-teller and his son at their home

He immediately sat down and asked me for my birthday and then, using his iPad (Is there a Fortune-teller app?) started writing numbers on a piece of paper. And then he started talking and things got real! It was incredible and scary and emotional all at the same time. He is not a palm reader or a clairvoyant; he literally uses birth numbers to tell him the story of your life…past, present and future. So for an hour, a man wearing cargo shorts, a plain white button up shirt, and glasses like my grandpa’s looked at a piece of paper covered in numbers and told me things that he couldn’t have known! It was an eye opening and unique experience and I’m so glad I did it, but I have to admit, I’m still a little shook up. (Good news, I’m going to live a long life and will not only be happy, but will help others and make them happy. Bad news, I’m going to get sick in 3 years and have to go to the doctor a lot. This would all seem silly if he hadn’t been so right on with everything else he said!)

The Fortune-teller and I after the reading

From here Sina took me to a local pagoda in town. The truth is I’ve driven past this pagoda hundreds of times, but never been inside and it was stunning. Still reeling from the fortune teller this was exactly what I need to reset myself and feel calm. A beautiful sitting Buddha fills the main pagoda room, but behind it, hidden away, is a much older reclining Buddha. Beautifully maintained and tucked away as it is, this Buddha is one of my favorites out of the countless that I have seen!

The Reclining Buddha
The Reclining Buddha

From here we headed to Wat Pho, the largest Wat in Siem Reap. Tiny kittens ran throughout the temple and beautiful carvings adorned the entrance, windows and doors. We explored through the temples and then went to the back where an older monk offered a water blessing. Here a monk chants while sprinkling you with water. At the end he tied a red ribbon around my wrist for good luck.

Wat Preach Prom Rath
Local Stupas – the ashes of local Buddhist families are contained within them

Our last stop of the day was to Sophie’s Healing. I’ve known Sophie for years, from when she was Callie’s French teacher at the International School. Now Sophie runs her own business offering her healing services. Sophie can help with spiritual, emotional and physical ailments and again, as an original non-believer, I have been converted as over the last three years she has helped with various issues I’ve had…a hurt foot, migraines and Couper’s nightmares. This time I needed her help to find peace and with a really sore shoulder…she doesn’t mind doing a little of each as part of the healing. For an hour I lay on her table and I can say that I left feeling at peace.

Exploring the local temples with Sina
Wat Bo

It was an incredible day, experiencing the modern spiritual side of my Siem Reap. We offer all these experiences to guests and while I’m a little nervous about it, I’m also excited. This tour offers a deeply personal day, and is not your typical tour, but at the same time, it was a powerful day and one only possible here. Travel is supposed to open up us and show us new experiences, today it did just that for me.

Me receiving a water blessing

From the Ground: Prumsodun Ok & Natyarasa Debut in Siem Reap

By Jay Austin

Journeys Within will be co-hosting Prumsodun Ok & Natyarasa , a group of male Apsara dancers to visit Siem Reap and perform for 2 nights on 14th & 15th July.  All proceeds from the 2 shows will be donated to new LGBT NGO in Siem Reap, A Place to Be Yourself, which was set up to support the LGBT community in Cambodia by providing counselling, medical and support services.  Historically, Aspara Dances (the national Khmer style of dance) is only carried out by female dances.  Prumsodun Ok & Natyarasa seeks to pass on and perform this beautiful dance style while raising awareness of LGBTQ  people in Cambodia, and through awareness, elevate their opportunities and quality of life in a traditional society.

Tickets will go on sale shortly and will be $20.00. The cost of your ticket includes transport to and from the venue, as we all as a cocktail.  Jay and Naida will be

attending and representing Journeys Within and we’d love to meet you there!

You can find more information about Prumsodun Ok & Natyarasa in this article from Khaosodenglish.com, or watch a short documentary video showcasing the skills of the dances and an interview with Prumsodun Ok, the Director.

Returning Veteran Tours

Journeys Within guest and returning veteran, Dave, with Mr. Nam, a Vietnamese Veteran

We often work with returning veterans heading back to Vietnam to revisit the areas where they served and to see Vietnam as it is today, along with their families.  These tours are very meaningful to us and each is tailored to specific experiences, needs and desires of each veteran.  For those who are interested, we often incorporate meetings with Vietnamese veterans in the spirit of reconciliation and healing.  Our returning veterans always give us very positive feedback and we are proud to offer 10% discounts to all active duty and retired members of the armed forces.

Southern Vietnam Director Khoa with Journeys Within guest and returning veteran, Marc

Here is an example one of our favorite returning veteran tours that we put together this spring for a guest who had served in Central Vietnam:

01 May 17   Hoi An: Arrival

Arrive on your flight – Cathay Dragon CX 5224 departing Hong Kong at 17:30 and arriving in Danang at 18:20. (guest booked flight)  Your guide will meet you at Danang Airport for your private transfer of about 45 minutes to your hotel in Hoi An for check in.

Please note: May 1st is a National Holiday in Vietnam so their airports may be particularly crowded on this day.

Meals Included: None

Overnight at Little Hoi An Central Boutique Hotel – 1 Double Grand Deluxe Room

02 May 17   Hoi An: Wander the Ancient Town

Your guide, Hieu, will meet you at your hotel at 8am and together you will head out on a walking tour of Hoi An for a few hours. Visit the Ancient Town, which is home to the beautiful Chua Cau, (roofed bridge), as well as Hoi Quan, the ancient meeting places, some ancestral family homes and some of the lovely hidden pagodas. Time permitting, you have the option to head outside the Ancient Town and learn more about the Hoi An of today. In the spirit of tradition, you’ll also have the chance to enjoy the famous cuisine of Central Vietnam in a local restaurant in the old part of town. You have up to 4 hours to explore with your guide today.

Meals included: Breakfast, Lunch or Dinner (Discuss today’s schedule with your guide.)

Overnight at Little Hoi An Central Boutique Hotel – 1 Double Grand Deluxe Room

03 May 17   Hoi An to Tam Ky and Chu Lai: Military Historical Customized Tour – Day 1

Your guide, Hieu, will meet you at your hotel reception at 8am. We will have a “then and now” file prepared for you to refer to together as you make your trip down memory lane over the next few days. Your days are at your pace and your experience will depend on the locations you choose to visit and the people you will interact with along the way.  Some of the times in transport may be longer than we would normally prefer, and so please feel welcome to request your guide for additional stops whenever you need them, and we will also have cushions in your road transport for added comfort.

We recommend that you will visit the Tam Ky area first before making your way Chu Lai and then to Tam Hoa Dock for your speedboat to your resort for check-in. Your road journey today south from Hoi An to Tam Ky will take around 2 hours, with an additional hour’s drive from Tam Ky to Chu Lai, your furthest point southwards.

Hieu will discuss plans with you in advance for your first military historical day highlights in Tam Ky and Chu Lai.  Options include: Chu Lai Airport, the Martyr Cemetery (for Vietnamese guerilla soldiers), Ky Anh Tunnels (completed around 1967 for moving medical supplies and rescue assistance for the guerilla resistance), Tam Ky City, and Chu Lai Airfield (All that remains is a landscape of bomb craters and airstrips, although in the far distance you can still make out some old airplane hangars to the east of the airstrip). Chu Lai Airfield is located south of Highway 1 near the city of Tam Ky and was of critical importance during the Vietnam War for the American military for reconnaissance and security missions. Chu Lai was not a Vietnamese town, as many thought. It was named after the Marine general officer Krulak’s Chinese Mandarin pronunciation of his initials. Approval to build Chu Lai was worked out in March-April 1965 by Defense Secretary McNamara. Chu Lai was an important base for the American Army, Navy and Air Force during the war, and one which was heavily bombed by the North Vietnamese towards the end of the war.   Uncle Ba Lai would also like to welcome you both to his home to join him for a drink and discuss the past, present and future (he joined the guerilla resistance when he was 17).

Although not related to the war, you may also be interested in visiting: Nuoc Mam Fish Sauce Factory, Khong Mieu (Confuscism Temple), Caodaism Temple, Bich Hoa Village (a former fishing village turned art village), and Khuong My Champa Temple.

Meals Included: Breakfast, Lunch, snacks en-route

Overnight at Le Domaine De Tam Hai Resort – 1 Double Villa

04 May 17   Tam Ky: Military Historical Customized Tour – Day 2

Meet your guide, Hieu, in your resort reception area at your agreed time. Today will be a big day as you will visit Fire Support Bases and Landing Zones LZ Baldy and LZ Ross, which were based along route 611, and performed daily clearing and securing of route 535 from ambush and mines with the aim to enable the movement of supplies and personnel along the route.  LZ Ross was also a refueling point between LZ Baldy and the Hiep Duc area.  In 1965, the Killer Kane operation in Hiep Duc valley saw a high proportion of “radio men” lose their lives. Often anyone near an antenna was shot by NVA snipers. Following the operation, the valley earned the nickname “Antenna Valley” in honor of the casualties. Antenna Valley runs from the Thu Bon River to the Que Son Pass. Hiep Duc Valley connects with Que Son Valley. The area was a free fire zone and reconnaissance in the area brought in artillery or air-strikes as needed to secure the area from enemy forces. Antenna Valley is also sometimes known as Dragon Valley, and is quite hard to identify today, but take your time to explore with your guide as the main base changed location from time to time during the war between Hiep Duc and Que Son and you may discover more together with local support and your guide Hieu’s interpreting help today.  At LZ Baldy – There is still some existing evidence such as the Vietnam Army Base (former LZ Baldy US base), and you’ll have the chance to visit Provincial Road No.611, Huong An Town (the area around LZ Baldy), Vung Che Bridge, and LZ Ross which is now a strip of low mountains with a large monument to the Cam Doi area to one side.

Meals Included: Breakfast, Lunch, snacks en-route

Overnight at Le Domaine De Tam Hai Resort – 1 Double Villa

05 May 17   Tam Ky: Military Historical Customized Tour – Day 3

Today you have a guide and driver with you to continue to explore the surrounding region. This day has been built in to revisit places you wanted to spend more time, or to catch places you missed in the previous two days. Discuss with your guide what you would like to do today.

Meals Included: Breakfast, Lunch, snacks en-route

Overnight at Le Domaine De Tam Hai Resort – 1 Double Villa

06 May 17   Tam Ky to Hoi An: Military Historical Customized Tour – Day 4

Today you will be met by your guide and driver will be transferred back to Hoi An.

Meals included: Breakfast

Overnight at Little Hoi An Central Boutique Hotel – 1 Double Grand Deluxe Room

07 May 17   Hoi An: Departure

Your guide will meet you at your hotel for your private transfer of about 45 minutes to the airport in Danang and will ensure that you arrive in time for your onward flight – Cathay Dragon CX 5221 departing Danang at 09:50 and arriving in Hong Kong at 12:45. (guest booked flight)

Meals included: Breakfast

Tour Rate:           $ 2,480.00 total for two travelers

                                $ 1,240.00 per person based on two people traveling

Journeys Within guest and returning veteran Lewis, with his wife Susan and guide Ms. Nguyen at the West Gate of Dong Du Base

How would I decide between Laos and Northern Thailand?

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

By Courtney Ridgel

One of the hardest parts of planning any trip is choosing between dozens of wonderful options among destinations, activities, tours, temples, and even restaurants.  I tend to have a very difficult time narrowing down my own wish list to a feasible itinerary – there are only so many hours in a day after all!  This blog stems from having that conversation with myself – if I was to go back to either Laos or Northern Thailand – two similar destinations, which would I choose and why? 

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 when compared to some of the neighboring countries.  None of these are attributes are bad, and all 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.  However, 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.

One of the many beautiful glass mosaics in the temples around Luang Prabang – 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