Special Summer Discounts for Educators!

We believe travel can teach us so much about the world and we want to celebrate those who help teach others, which is why Journeys Within will offer all school teachers and college professors a 10% discount off a customized independent tour in Southeast Asia this summer (travel must take place between June 1 – Aug. 31, 2017). Please feel free to pass along this offer to any teachers who’ve made an impact in your life!  Call 877-454-3672 to start planning your summer adventure.

Sample Tour Itineraries

First Time Asia Tour

This tour is designed for first time Asia goers. Through experience we’ve determined how people imagine Asia and the kind of trip they enjoy on their first visit. Fly into Bangkok and spend some time getting to know this amazing city before heading for the hills. Chiang Mai is the epitome of Thailand, a bustling city surrounded by beautiful countryside and interesting hill tribes. (We also have First Time Asia for Families option.)


Give As You Go: Laos & Cambodia Tour

At Journeys Within, we’ve specialized in custom Southeast Asia tours for philanthropically minded travelers from the very beginning – what we call “active philanthropy.” So for us, the 15-day “Give As You Go: Laos & Cambodia” tour is our holy grail – each hotel, restaurant and experience included in this itinerary was chosen with the idea of giving back and supporting local community development efforts.  At Journeys Within, we believe that this type of travel not only helps those countries we visit, but also creates incredible experiences for our travelers.


Cambodia Highlights – Green Season Special

Cambodia has a lot more to show for itself than just temples, and witnessing everything the country has to offer during the “green season” (May – October) is an adventurous and affordable way to get a glimpse of life in this fascinating country with few other travelers around. From the bustling capital with its tree-lined boulevards, to visiting the amazing 4 Rivers Ecolodge and eating pepper crab on a deserted beach… With this itinerary, we can guarantee you’ll love the temples, but we can’t guarantee they’ll be the highlight of your trip.

Enjoy the new Phnom Penh nightlife, be amazed by the temples of Angkor Wat, soak up the beauty of the amazing national parks and relax with the locals on white sand beaches. This tour will take you beyond the tourist traps so you can get a true sense of this incredible country.


Backstage Pass to Vietnam Tour

Our 16-day “Backstage Pass to Vietnam” tour begins in Saigon, exploring the cultural and culinary heritage of the city. You will will continue their exploration of southern Vietnam with a trip to the Cu Chi Tunnels, where guerilla fighters constructed an amazing underground base and village during the French Resistance and Vietnam War, followed by dinner in the home of a veteran of the Vietnamese-American war.  In the historic port city of Hoi An, you’ll ride bicycles around Cam Kim Island where families still produce traditional crafts such as ornate furniture, coracle basket boats and sleeping mats by hand. In Hue, witness the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Hue’s Imperial City and Citadel, and enjoy dinner in the home of former Nguyen Dynasty princess Ngoc Son – now occupied and preserved by a multi-generational family of Vietnamese historians and feng shui experts. Pass through the infamous DMZ on the way to Phong Nha where a three-day underground caving adventure in the mountainous region awaits. In Hanoi, You will have the opportunity for an intimate look at the city via bicycle tour along the banks of the Red River, stopping along the way to learn about local village life, traditional handicrafts, and agriculture in the area.  Finish your tour with an overnight trip to Halong Bay – another UNESCO World Heritage site aboard a private junk boat sailing amidst the limestone islands jutting out of the bay is the perfect way to end this insider’s look at the highlights of Vietnam.


International Travel: How to Pack for Your Personality Type

As we welcome home our team across Southeast Asia, the UK, and the US from annual inspections and travel conferences, we reflect on the things we’ve learned, the experiences we’ve had, the new friends we’ve made, and ponder one of the most disputed travel musings to have ever been pondered…how should one prepare and pack for an intercontinental journey?

We’ve concluded that there is no one-size-fits all method because all people have different priorities while traveling. However, we asked some of our team how they packed this year, and provided below are a few examples of packing by personality type. Follow the links for full packing details.

The ‘Strategic Last-Minute’ Packer

Anna – JWGO Business Development Director and Tour Consultant, UK Office

Anna.Photo

The ‘Packs for Options’ Packer

April – VP of Sales, California Office

April.Photo

The ‘Turns Packing into an Experience’ Packer

Nicole – Regional Director of Operations – Laos, Thailand, and Myanmar, Bangkok Office

Nicole.Photo

The ‘Organized Minimalist’ Packer

Naida – JWGO Tours Manager and Tour Consultant, Siem Reap Office

Naida.Photo

The ‘Overthinks Everything and Packs Two Weeks in Advance’ Packer

Kena – Marketing and Booking Coordinator, California Office

Kena.Photo

How do you prepare for travel? What are the items you can’t live without while traveling? Share your tips in the comments or share this post with your travel tips to your social media platform of choice with the hashtag #JourneysWithin. Follow us for more information about travel in Southeast Asia on Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, or Instagram.  

On Tour with Journeys Within: Siem Reap, Cambodia

Angkor Wat at sunrise.
Angkor Wat at sunrise.

Journeys Within is on our annual inspection tours this spring and some of the team traveled on from Laos to Cambodia. Read about our recent experiences in our last update On Tour with Journeys Within: Phonesavanh, Vientiane, and Pakse to learn about some of our guests’ favorite tours throughout Laos.

Follow our journey for updates and travel tips on some of our key locations and tours throughout this spring, and get inspired for your own next adventure.

For travelers who seek to acquaint themselves with highlights of Siem Reap, these Journeys Within tours are ideal:

Day 1: Angkor National Museum, Quad Bike Tour, and Phare Circus

Day 2: Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom Temple Tours

Day 3: Banteay Srei and Beng Mealea Temple Tours

Day 4: Village Tour and Artisan Angkor Silk Farm

These tours are customizable to the guest’s preferences and schedules, though Journeys Within can make recommendations on the best timing to schedule certain tours and activities to beat crowds and the sun on hot days.

Day 1: Angkor National Museum, Quad Bike Tour, and Phare Circus

The ideal introduction to people visiting Siem Reap is a visit to Angkor National Museum. Visitors have the option of a guided tour using head phone with recordings available in a number of different languages. Guests may also tour the museum without head phones, however, the headphones are recommended as the narration provides greater detail in addition to signage provided by the museum. Photos are not allowed inside of the museum, but click here for more information.

Angkor National Museum consists of five galleries, starting with details about Buddhist worship, Buddhist and Hindu iconography collections, details about the history of Khmer civilization, a multimedia presentation about Angkor Wat, and finally, extensive galleries dedicated to Siem Reap’s temples with informative details about the temples’ art and architecture.

For example, the type of material a Buddha statue is made from (stone, gold, bronze, marble, copper, or wood) indicates the time period and other historical factors that impacted how statues were produced. The postures of Buddha explain the unique individual purposes for each statue, which correspond to significant moments throughout the life of Buddha.

Further, the sculptures are more than artifacts, but passageways to Buddha himself and to receive his teachings. This can help visitors to understand why the image of Buddha is treated with utmost respect throughout Buddhism practicing countries. The museum also provides insight to how the practice of Buddhism has developed over hundreds of years as a method of worship that focuses on letting go of strife in order to gain peace of mind. Stylistic changes not only in the Buddha statue but also in temple architecture and ornamentation indicate the integration of different styles and religious ideologies as empires merged throughout the civilization’s history.

This experience provides visitors a foundation and context to Khmer history and culture. A visit to the Angkor National Museum will ideally be done prior to visiting temples in and around Siem Reap so visitors may have an established understanding of the culture before visiting the area’s main points of interest. Insider tip: Beautiful batik artwork by local artists and celebrated professionals is for sale inside the museum.

After a morning at Angkor National Museum, guests enjoy the opportunity to go on a quad bike tour around the rural villages and outskirts of Siem Reap. This experience gives visitors a look at rural Siem Reap and the lives of farmers. People and children wave and greet visitors as they pass by, which conveys the warm nature of these kind people. The quad bike tour stops along the way at a modern temple, where visitors may see monks and nuns going about their daily lives. The tour concludes with a view of the sunset over Siem Reap. Insider tip: This tour is a great opportunity to bring a Go-Pro for unique video footage of Siem Reap. The guide also makes several stops along the way to film guests with their smart phones.  

Kena (left), and Naida (right) on the quad bike tour in Siem Reap.
Kena (left), and Naida (right) on the quad bike tour in Siem Reap.

Another favorite of our guests as an introduction to Siem Reap is the Phare Circus. The circus is located near the heart of Siem Reap under the ‘big top’. It is a world-class act of acrobatics and by local signature artists as well as international traveling ensembles. The shows include light-hearted and comedic entertainment and poignant performance art interpretations of the profound impact of war on Khmer people. Performances are scheduled every night of the week.

Phare Circus.Image
Local acrobats of Sokrias (Eclipse) at Siem Reap’s Phare Circus.

Insider tip 1: Look up the performances you will see in advance and seek out a little background on the topics of each story for context. Visitors will get more from the shows if they have an understanding of the show’s influence.

Insider tip 2: There is a small gift shop located just outside of the tent that features unique handcrafts from local artisans that make for great souvenirs.

What to wear for this tour:

Comfortable, breathable clothes

Sneakers for the quad bike tour

Hat for the quad bike tour

Sunscreen and insect repellant for the quad bike tour

Bring a beverage inside the tent so you have something to drink throughout the show, as guests are not allowed back into the tent if they leave mid-show.

Day 2: Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom Temple Tours

Tours of Angkor Wat and  Angkor Thom are great adventures following a visit to Angkor National Museum, as the museum tour concludes with information and exhibits that relate to Siem Reap’s nearby temples.

Angkor Wat is an iconic symbol of Cambodia and tours are offered throughout the day, including options for sunrise and sunset. Journeys Within tour guides stay on top of the best times to arrive, changes in location of where to obtain tickets and entrance, and how to beat the crowds using little known access points. Insider tip: There are two pools located in front of Angkor Wat, and the majority of visitors inexplicably choose to view the temples from the pool on the right side. The pool on the left side is always far less crowded.  

Angkor Wat has become more strict this year about dress code and behavior while visiting the temple sites. It is important the visitors of temple sites respect temples by abiding by a recently established code of conduct, particularly dress code. View the Angkor Visitor Code of Conduct for more details. Visitors who do not abide by the code of conduct risk the potential of having their temple passes revoked.

Visitors have the opportunity to explore inside most temple areas, and exploring includes climbing some steep stair cases. Visitors should assess their ability to climb these stair cases. The temples located atop steep staircases are closed to pregnant women and small children for safety purposes.

Angkor Thom is a temple complex that houses Bayon, Ta Prohm, and Bantey Kdei. Bayon is known for its many massive three-dimensional faces carved into the temple walls. Ta Prohm is known for the trees that have overgrown around the temple over the centuries and make for unique photo opportunities. Ta Prohm is also sometimes referred to as the “Tomb Raider” temple, where the feature film was shot in 2001. Bantey Kdei is a fun temple to explore with many fallen temple stones.

Faces of Bayon, housed on the temple complex of Angkor Thom.
Faces of Bayon, housed on the temple complex of Angkor Thom.

Siem Reap’s temple tours can be coordinated as the guest desires, with additional temple tour options making the trek a half-day or all day experience.

What to wear for this tour:

Appropriate attire for visiting temple sites, with the legs and shoulders covered

Hat or umbrella, but ideally a hat as umbrellas take up more space and may obstruct the views of other visitors

Sunscreen and insect repellant

Walking shoes – no sandals. Some of the temple areas are uneven or require climbing and it’s best to have the feet covered

Day 3: Banteay Srei and Beng Mealea Temple Tours

Banteay Srei and Beng Mealea are located about an hour and a half outside of Siem Reap. Visitors stop along the way at an ancient sandstone quarry in Kulan to see where the stone was once sourced for all of Siem Reap and how stones were cut.

In fact, Beng Mealea is a Hindu temple built over 1000 years ago for quarry workers. The sandstone quarry was too far from Angkor Wat for workers to visit to worship, so Beng Mealea was built to provide quarry workers a place of worship within a close enough distance to the quarry site. Beng Mealea is a fun temple for trekking, with many different areas to climb and explore. Visitors at this temple should be careful to watch their footing on uneven areas, with many fallen stones to climb. There are also many low archways, so watch your head!

Fallen temple stones at Beng Mealea.
Fallen temple stones at Beng Mealea.

Banteay Srei was built in 967 CE, and is unique to the other temples in the area because it is carved from red sandstone, so the temple appears to have a pink hue. Local people also say that the temple must have been carved by women, due to the intricacy of the carvings. For these reasons, the temple it also sometimes referred to as the “Lady Temple” or “Pink Temple”. These characteristics make the temple special, and it is also one of the oldest temples in the area. Banteay Srei’s ornate design, color, and attention to detail make it a site well worth the trek outside of Siem reap.

Banteay Srei.Image
Banteay Srei, a temple carved from red sandstone, located outside of Siem Reap.

Insider tip: Visitors may also opt to see the Banteay Srei Butterfly Centre and the Cambodia Landmine Museum, both located on the way to Banteay Srei.

What to wear for this tour:

Appropriate attire for visiting temple sites, with the legs and shoulders covered

Hat or umbrella, but ideally a hat as umbrellas take up more space and may obstruct the views of other visitors

Sunscreen and insect repellant

Walking shoes – no sandals. Some of the temple areas are uneven or require climbing and it’s best to have the feet covered

Day 4: Village Tour and Artisan Angkor Silk Farm

On this tour day we visited Kok Tnout Village, which translates to ‘palm tree’. This is the home village of the guide for this tour, Mr. Sotay.

This tour gives visitors a glimpse into the rural village lives of people on the outskirts of Siem Reap. Kok Tnout  is comprised of 800 families, or roughly 1000 people. Mr. Sotay, like most Cambodian families of his generation, comes from a family of 11. Mr. Sotay says that while many Cambodians have large families in order to help farm, new families have begun to have less children, perhaps about 5 children per family.

My guide, Mr. Sotay, stands at the end of a bridge leading us into the village of Kok Tnout.
My guide, Mr. Sotay, stands at the end of a bridge leading us into the village of Kok Tnout.

Fifty percent of the villagers work jobs in Siem Reap, while the other half make a living as construction workers, farmers, and artisans of sorts. We passed Mr. Sotay’s mother in the village as she was on her way to sell rice noodles, which she makes herself every day and sells to people in town and passersby. We passed by a man who makes rice wine at his home and once the rice has been used in the process he feeds it to his pigs, which he raises and also sells in town.

In regard to infrastructure, the village of Kok Tnout still does not entirely have electricity, so some families use car batteries, kerosene lamps, and candles to have light in the night time. The village chief collects $15 dollars from every family to maintain the main village road.

This is a walking tour, and Mr. Sotay offers many details about Kok Tnout and its villagers’ way of life.

Once back in Siem reap, we visited Artisan d’Angkor, a silk farm and textile workshop that employs young women of Siem Reap, providing an opportunity for gainful employment and to preserve silk production and weaving as an artform.

Visitors get to see silk production from the very beginning of the process with a private tour from an Artisan d’Angkor guide. Exhibits show silkworms feeding on mulberry leaves, silkworms spinning their cocoons, the harvesting and cleaning process of the silk, the silk dyeing process, and various weaves of silk in textiles. Insider tip: Don’t forget to tip your guide!

Dyed and raw silk at Artisan D'Angkor.
Dyed and raw silk at Artisan D’Angkor.

The gift shop located on the farm is an ideal place to purchase beautiful souvenirs offering annual collections of home decor, clothing, accessories, stone, lacquerware, polychrome, wood, silver plating, painting, ceramics, and jewelry by local artisans.

What to wear for this tour:

Comfortable, breathable clothes

Sneakers or sandals

Hat for visiting the village

Sunscreen and insect repellant for visiting the village

See more photos of this spring’s journey throughout Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia on our Instagram account. Stay tuned to get an insider account of more of our tours throughout Southeast Asia!

Additionally, some of the Journeys Within team will be attending this year’s Thailand Travel Mart (TTM) this week! TTM works in cooperation with the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) and the Thai tourism industry, making TTM the largest business-to-business event in Thailand. Journeys Within proudly participates in this event to stay in-the-know and aid in the promotion of tourism in Thailand and its Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS) counterparts.  

Follow us on Instagram during our experiences at TTM and stay tuned for new travel information and industry updates!  

Journeys Within Signature Hotels: Rachamankha, Chiang Mai

Racha 1.Photo

A Journeys Within Signature Hotel, Rachamankha is located within the boundaries of the original city of Chiang Mai. This incredibly unique hotel is the result of a collaboration between a renowned architect father and interior designer son. Rachamankha has received numerous accolades and press for its design, and is atypical to the architecture seen throughout Chiang Mai. The accommodation is the essence of Zen with ornate roof lines, the rooms centered around courtyards with beautifully manicured landscaping, rock walkways, and the entire property is decorated in the family’s own personal art collection. To stay here feels as if to be a privileged guest at an acquaintance’s extraordinary property. In the evening, spiral sticks of incense burn and subtly fill the space with fragrance.

Racha 3.Photo

General Manager, Paul Walker, has been managing the property for over a decade and is a wealth of information about the hotel and Chiang Mai. Every detail of Rachamankha is the well thought out construct of taste and imagination. Walker explained that the design at Rachamankha comes first over pragmatism. This is not a property that was designed under the constraints of compliance for accessibility or safety regulation. In fact, this hotel welcomes guests age 12 and older. This is for a few purposes, one being the potential for slips and falls of smaller children; the art collection that decorates the guest rooms and common areas is priceless and must receive the necessary respect of all guests; most guest rooms (with an exception of the suites) face one another in a courtyard, so noise from small children could disturb the Zen state that the owners of this property have worked so hard to achieve.

Racha Pool.Image

Rachamankha includes a pool, a library that includes a collection of the owner’s books and complimentary cognac, a restaurant, and a studio upstairs from the restaurant which may be used for small meetings and gatherings.

Racha 4.Photo

Stay tuned for our hotel review of Rachamankha coming soon. Rachamankha is included among Secret Retreats, a collection of inspirational boutique hotels, villas, cruises, and restaurants. Follow the hotel on FacebookTwitter, and Instagram for more images and information. Contact one of our Tour Consultants for information about booking a stay at Rachamankha and tours in Chiang Mai and throughout Thailand at 877-454-3672.

On Tour with Journeys Within: Phonesavanh, Vientiane, and Pakse, Laos

The view from Vat Phou near Pakse in Laos.
The view from Vat Phou near Pakse in Laos.

Journeys Within is on our annual inspection tours this spring and traveled on from Northern to Southern Laos, with several stops along the way including Phonesavanh, Vientiane, and Pakse. Read about our recent experiences in our last update On Tour With Journeys Within: Luang Prabang, Laos to learn about some of our guests’ favorite tours in this unique destination.

Follow our journey for updates and travel tips on some of our key locations and tours throughout this spring, and get inspired for your own next adventure.

For travelers who seek to acquaint themselves with highlights of Northern and Southern Laos, these Journeys Within tours are ideal:

Day 1: Phonesavanh: Plain of Jars

Day 2: Vientiane: Full Day City Tour

Day 3: Pakse: Vat Phou and Khong Island

Day 4: Don Det and the 4,000 Islands

Day 5: Bolaven Plateau

These tours are customizable to the guest’s preferences and schedules, though Journeys Within can make recommendations on the best timing to schedule certain tours and activities to beat crowds and the sun on hot days.

Day 1: Phonesavanh: Plain of Jars

We journeyed on from Luang Prabang to Phonesavanh, a small provincial countryside city surrounded by green rolling hills, farmland, and pine forests. Our trek to this humble area was to see Phonesavanh’s main point of interest, the Plain of Jars.

Some of the ancient jars located at the Plain of Jars near Phonesavanh, Laos.
Some of the ancient jars located at the Plain of Jars near Phonesavanh, Laos.

The Plain of Jars archaeological landscape encompasses three different UNESCO World Heritage Sites clustered with hundreds of mysterious megalithic jars. Visitors at the Plain of Jars may walk through a museum located at the entrance at the beginning of the tour that provides information about the Vietnam War. Evidence of the war still exists in this area with craters from bombs seen throughout the landscape, and old Minus Advisory Group (MAG) markers that indicated where to walk to avoid active bombs before the site had been cleared. The area was one of the most heavily bombed locations during the Vietnam War, with bombs dropped every day between 1967 and 1968, but none of the bombs directly hit any of the Plain of Jars sites.

Bombs on display located at the main entrance of the Plain of Jars sites.
Bombs on display located at the main entrance of the Plain of Jars sites.

The jars date back to 2500 years ago during the Iron Age. Similar jars have been found in India and Indonesia with sites inexplicably skipping countries in between, or have otherwise just not yet been discovered.

Recent news about Plain of Jars indicates new evidence found and suggests potential purposes for the site, primarily for burial. However, the mysteries of the Plain of Jars have not been entirely solved. Our guide, Ounkham, says that while many local people of Phonesavanh have believed the site to relate to burial purposes, the mysteries remain: Why so many sites? What is the connection between these jars and those located in other countries? Why are they arranged in groups on each site? How were such heavy objects transported to the sites?

Evidence indicates the jars were placed on site as complete. Each of the three sites in Phonesavanh are located on hilltop areas, far from the original quarry site, with many megalithic jars scattered on the plain.

This tour provides a breezy walk and easy hikes along varying terrain. Visitors also stop at a large man-made cave along the way, whose purpose poses a mystery as well. The opening at the top of the cave indicates it could have been used as an ancient kiln for the jars, or potentially for cremation.

An ancient man-made cave located at the Plain of Jars.
An ancient man-made cave located at the Plain of Jars.

This tour is an ideal opportunity for lovers of history and anthropology, and for people who like to trek. The Plain of Jars offers a true sense of wonder about our early ancestors, their mysterious ways of life, and their profound capability.

We stopped for lunch in Muang Khoun and had a meal of authentic rice noodle soup. The soup is served with a garnish of extra greens, peppers, and spice sauce. Insider tip: Use the peppers and sauce sparingly! I added a small amount and found it to be very spicy, but delicious.  

Delicious noodle soup in Muang Khoun, Laos.
Delicious noodle soup in Muang Khoun, Laos.

Muang Khoun is home of the famous Wat Phia, a temple bombed during the Vietnam War and left in ruins, except for the temple’s large Buddha statue which remained miraculously intact. I discovered from our guide that Muang Khoun translates, rather fittingly, to ‘prosperous district’. Our last stop for the day was to explore the overgrown That Foun Stupa, or ‘Stupa of Ashes’, that was believed to house a relic of Buddha. The resilience of the Plain of Jars and the area’s surrounding ancient sites, contrasted by the everlasting effects from war, are profoundly apparent and evocative.

What to wear for this tour:

Walking shoes

Hat

Sunscreen and insect repellant

T-shirt or shoulder covering, and knees covered to enter Wat Phia. The temple is not active, but the same guidelines for respect remain.

Vientiane: Full Day City Tour

Prior to beginning our city tour, we were invited to visit Carol Cassidy’s Lao Textiles workshop, studio, and gallery. This is typically not a stop on the city tour, however, it can be added upon request of the guest. As the Lao New Year, Pi Mai, was still underway, the space was closed for business but Carol invited us for a private introduction and tour.

Textiles are an ancient handicraft of Laos and Southeast Asia in general. A weaver by profession, Carol and her husband, Dawit Seyoum, pioneered tourism in Laos as the first foreigners to establish a privately owned business in Vientiane in 1990. Tourism in Laos didn’t begin until the late 1990s.

Both former employees of the United Nations, Carol and Dawit fused their areas of expertise in rural development, economics, and craft development to build what is now a silk textile empire with retailers throughout North America, workshops and studio spaces in Vientiane, Laos and Preah Vihear, Cambodia, and exhibits all over the world. Pieces of Carol’s work can be found today at the Guggenheim, and her pieces are kept on permanent exhibition in museums internationally.

Carol Cassidy at her workshop in Vientiane, Laos.
Carol Cassidy at her workshop in Vientiane, Laos.

Carol received many prestigious accolades over the years and continues to teach courses throughout the US at universities such as Columbia and NYU. The ultimate result of Carol and Dawit’s efforts is a creative silk weaving workshop concept and a generation of employment for Lao women weavers. Their objective is to provide education about generations of artisans and to keep people employed to maintain traditional weaving as a craft and artform.

“We’re not interested in capitalizing from using machines. We want to follow the creativeness of the pieces, and to stay small and special.” Carol said. “Everything we do, we do with world-class excellence. We’re a small business, and our staff is like family. We’ve employed a generation of people, helped our staff build homes, and have former staff who are now retired and on pensions. We’ve sought ways in which we could combine tradition, employment, and preservation to form a model that we call ‘beyond fair trade’”.

Visitors may call in advance for workshops, and Carol and Dawit often entertain guests with cocktails and an academic discussion of the social aspects of their work. They want their guests’ experience to be more than visiting a shop. They offer a fully-functioning active studio where spectators gain an educational experience about the process from weaving to dyeing in a variety of methods. Insider tip: Visitors should ask to speak Carol and Dawit seek to learn more about their work.

We began our city tour first with a visit to Vientiane’s expansive Thong Kham Kam Market. The market is complete with what seems like miles of merchants selling fresh produce, freshly butchered meat, live fish and insects, and street food and souvenir merchants. Visitors in the morning get to see the market at its busiest time, buzzing with pick-up trucks and local people of Vientiane doing their shopping in order to get the freshest products.

Our tour continued on to Buddha Park. The park has hundreds of statues that depict Buddha in many different forms, as well as various Buddhist and Hindu iconography. Visitors may pass hours at Buddha Park to admire the expert craftsmanship and intricate detail of each sculpture. Our guide, Mr. Soun, is a Lao man who lived in California for a period of his life after his family fled Laos to escape war. His English is excellent and he took careful time explaining to us in great detail the meaning behind the park’s sculptures.

Some of hundreds of Buddha statues to be seen at Buddha Park in Vientiane, Laos.
Some of hundreds of Buddha statues to be seen at Buddha Park in Vientiane, Laos.

The statues appear to be centuries old, but the park was started in 1958 by priest-shaman, Luang Pu Bunleua Sulilat, who aspired to merge Buddhist and Hindu beliefs. He fled to Thailand in 1975 after the revolution. He built another sculpture park on the other side of the Mekong River at the Laos/Thailand border.

We moved on to the main temples and sites of Vientiane. Pha That Luang, also referred to as the ‘Golden Stupa’, is regarded as the most important monument in Laos and a national symbol. Originally a Hindu temple in the third century, the temple was destroyed and rebuilt many times, eventually transitioning to the Buddhist temple it is today. The temple’s three levels represent the Buddhist doctrine wherein Buddhists follow the path to Nirvana. Phat That Luang has been believed to house a holy relic, the breastbone of Buddha.

The Golden Stupa (Pha That Luang) in Vientiane, Laos.
The Golden Stupa (Pha That Luang) in Vientiane, Laos.

Haw Pha Kaeo was built in 1565 to house the Emerald Buddha, which was originally from Chiang Mai but exchanged hands many times over the centuries due to conflict. The Emerald Buddha is currently kept in a temple on the grounds of the Royal Palace in Bangkok, and can be seen on the Journeys Within Bangkok City Tour. Haw Pha Kaeo is now used as a museum where visitors may see Lao religious art and Buddha statues from as early as the sixth century.

Wat Si Saket was built in 1818 in the Siamese style, as opposed to the Laos style, which makes this particular temple unique to the area. It is thought to be the oldest temple still standing in Vientiane. While the temple had been sacked by Siam armies 1827 they did not destroy it, likely because it was built in Siamese style. Wat Si Saket is currently used as a museum and houses a collection of over 2000 Buddha images.

Wat Si Saket in Vientiane, Laos, houses over 2000 Buddha images.
Wat Si Saket in Vientiane, Laos, houses over 2000 Buddha images.

Wat Si Muang is another unusual temple, as it is divided into two rooms. The rear room houses a large altar and many statues and images of Buddha. The front room is a place where visitors may make offerings to Buddha and receive blessings from monks.

Next we were taken to Patuxai, also known as the ‘Victory Gate’. Patuaxi is a war monument dedicated to the Lao people who fought in the struggle for independence from France. Ironically, the monument is also sometimes referred to as ‘Arc de Triomphe of Vientiane’ as it resembles the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, though it is Laotian in design. The first floor of the monument consists of management offices of the monument and tourist shops. The second floor houses a museum that contains statues and images of the iconic Lao people. The top floor is the best vantage point for city views and photos, with a telescope and viewing platform.

An interior view of Vientiane's Victory Gate.
An interior view of Vientiane’s Victory Gate.

Insider tip: If Mr.Soun is your guide, be sure to ask him about the documentary about bombings during the Vietnam War. He has the document saved to a USB you can borrow. The documentary provides an informative context to the Vietnam War from Laotian perspective and experiences.   

What to wear for this tour:

Sandals or walking shoes

Breathable clothing with the shoulders and knees covered for entering temples

Insect repellant and plenty of sunscreen

Hat

Pakse: Vat Phou and Khong Island

Our first tour in Pakse began with no delay and we ventured to the countryside for the sacred mountain of Lingaparvata and Vat Phou. This point of interest is a 6th century pre-Angkorian Khmer Hindu temple and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The site represents the easternmost border of the Khmer empire. Visiting this special site includes a moderate hike, panoramic views of the surrounding plains, and a chance to visit a hidden sacred spring. Vat Phou offers many picturesque opportunities, with spanning views of the countryside, and countless ornate arches and temple carvings. A museum at the foot of Lingaparvata offers information about the site and and many ancient relics to see.

One of several ancient temple structures located on the site of Vat Phou.
One of several ancient temple structures located on the site of Vat Phou.

Afterward we were transferred to Khong Island, part of the river archipelago known as ‘Si Phan Don’, or the ‘4,000 Islands’. Our accommodation was La Folie Lodge, a truly secluded escape, with few hotels and a small village visitors may explore by bicycle. Visitors may also stroll the riverbank of the Mekong, seeing more animals and boats passing by than people. The island is an ideal retreat after several days in a row of travel and exploring bustling cities. Guests ‘disconnect’ at La Folie Lodge, with Wi-Fi access only in the hotel lobby and restaurant, and no television sets in the guest rooms. The guest rooms are rustic with wood-paneled interiors and accented with French colonial artwork. La Folie Lodge has the feel of a relaxing private beachfront getaway. Insider tip: Request a room with a view of the Mekong River. Visitors can relax and enjoy the view on their own private patio or from the comfort of their bed. A private villa is also available for lodging and is an ideal accommodation for groups and families.

The view of the Mekong River from a La Folie Lodge guest room on Khong Island, Laos.
The view of the Mekong River from a La Folie Lodge guest room on Khong Island, Laos.

What to wear for this tour:

No sandals – walking shoes only. The steps of Vat Phou are steep and there are rocky areas at the top for exploring.

Breathable clothing – no skirts or dresses. Visitors may slip on long dresses while climbing the steps, and skirts may catch the breeze.

Lots of sunscreen and insect repellant – the ground level of Vat Phou and the staircase have few shaded areas, but there is plenty of shade to be found at the top.

Hat or umbrella for sun protection, but ideally a hat as there is not handrail.

Day 4: Don Det and the 4,000 Islands

This day of the tour we set out for Ban Nakasang and took a long tail boat through a section of the 4,000 Islands. This is an exciting and immersive way to explore the archipelago while passing by water buffalo and local fishermen, with many different islands to be seen on either side of the boat.

The view from our long tail boat while cruising through Don Det (the 4,000 Islands).
The view from our long tail boat while cruising through Don Det (the 4,000 Islands).

We spent the day trekking to different waterfall sites, including Khone Phapheng Waterfall, known as the ‘Niagara of the East’. We took another long tail boat in the afternoon to explore around Som Pha Mit (Li Phi) Waterfall, and spotted endangered Irrawaddy Dolphins from a distance! These dolphins are rare river dolphins of Southeast Asia, and they look like a combination of the common Cetacea or sea dolphin and a manity, lacking the elongated noses typical of sea dolphins. Regardless, they are still cute!   

One of the many waterfalls to be seen throughout Don Det, Laos.
One of the many waterfalls to be seen throughout Don Det, Laos.

Guests can end the day with a quick stop on the long tail boat at a Cambodian riverbank! This part of the archipelago borders Cambodia, where visitors can stop for a drink and a little souvenir shopping before heading to their hotel for the evening.

What to wear for this tour:

Sandals or walking shoes

Breathable clothing

Hat

Plenty of sunscreen and insect repellant

Day 5: Bolaven Plateau

The fertile land of the Bolaven Plateau makes it a paradise for tea and coffee farming. The tour is a treat for coffee and tea lovers, with opportunities to taste and purchase fresh products. The higher altitude of the plateau is about ten degrees cooler than in the city of Pakse, which also makes for pleasant touring.

The first stop for the day was at Tad Fane Waterfall, the tallest waterfall in Laos, then Tad Yuang. The waterfalls are gorgeous and surrounded by exotic greenery. Guests may climb down a series of steps to get a closer look at the Tad Yuang or to sit and relax. Many people also visit the waterfall to picnic, camp, or swim.

Tad Yuang, a waterfall located in the rich land of the Bolaven Plateau.
Tad Yuang, a waterfall located in the rich land of the Bolaven Plateau.

There is also a small market at the entrance where souvenirs and traditional Lao skirts are sold. In hindsight, I regret not having bought a Lao skirt. They are made of silk, vibrant in color and pattern, and one of the most distinct Laotian handicrafts. Young girls can be seen wearing them paired with a t-shirt, and ladies typically wear them with crisp white blouses.

While visiting the plantations, our guide explained to us various growing processes and harvesting methods for not only the coffee, but also spices and fruit commonly grown in the area. We got the opportunity to crush fresh black pepper, cinnamon, and other fragrant spices in our hands and smell their fresh scent. We took the opportunity to taste coffee and green tea, which is fresh beyond comprehension and so unlike the store bought products we are accustomed to drinking. I hadn’t intended on buying anything, but bought cinnamon and green tea because the scent of the tea is incredible even through the packaging. This is a great opportunity to purchase unique, quality souvenirs. I look forward to sharing my tea with my friends back home.

Our tour guide explains details about farming in the Bolaven Plateau.
Our tour guide explains details about farming in the Bolaven Plateau.

We continued on to Sinouk Coffee and Tea, a larger plantation where visitors may see the crops in different stages of growth and tour the plantation grounds while talking in the lush landscape and rich red earth. The plantation provides many beautiful photo opportunities and a sense of whimsy with beautiful mature trees, lotus ponds, and exotic plants. There is also a restaurant located on the plantation offering fresh Lao meals, a variety of coffee drinks, and fresh fruit smoothies as an option for lunch. Coffee and tea are also available for purchase at this location.

Beautiful Sinouk Coffee plantation in the Bolaven Plateau.
Beautiful Sinouk Coffee plantation in the Bolaven Plateau.

Village tours throughout the day include several stops where visitors may observe village life in Laos, with villagers preparing food or crafting goods for sale at local markets. Some of the villages accept guests for homestays, so there may be an opportunity to meet some of these people and discuss their experiences. As mentioned in previous blogs, photography of the villagers and their children is a concept that should be treated with care. It is best to ask people first before taking their photographs, and photographs of children is particularly sensitive. You may also ask your guide to request permission from the villagers as well.

Our day ended with a visit to Pa Suam Waterfall and its nearby village, or, ‘living museum’ or ‘ethnic museum’. This is a preserved village that contains families of the Katu, Alak, and other tribes.Traditional home construction, dress, crafts, customs, and daily life may be witnessed to give visitors a look into traditional Laotian tribal life.

What to wear for this tour:

Walking shoes or sandals – there are some stops with short hikes and steep stair cases if you choose to explore them

Breathable clothing

Hat

Plenty of sunscreen and insect repellant

Next up in this series of blogs, we journey from Laos to Cambodia and see highlights of Siem Reap. See more photos of this journey on our Instagram account: https://www.instagram.com/journeys_within/. Stay tuned to get an insider account of more of our tours!