Destination: Indochina

From ancient cities and temples to lush landscapes and mighty rivers, the charms of Thailand, Laos and Cambodia truly fill the senses.

Words and photography by Allan Hartley.

Our Indochina experience began somewhat portentously. We touched down in Bangkok, the ‘City of Angels’, to find a city in mourning. Our arrival had coincided with the sad demise of his Majesty King Bhumipol, Rama XI, the world’s longest serving monarch, which thwarted plans to visit the Royal Palace and the temple of Wat Phra Keo. Our helpful local guide, who introduced himself as Mr Tee, suggested we visit the summer Royal Palace at Bang Pa-In instead. Walking in the palace’s beautiful gardens, manicured lawns and eclectic mix of pavilions and pagodas was the perfect antidote to the sombre atmosphere in the city itself. We moved on to the old capital of Siam at Ayutthaya, which features many ruined but fascinating temples, a result of a bloody conflict in 1767 when the city was attacked and sacked by Burmese invaders, who removed all the gold from the temples, taking it back to Yangon [Rangoon].

Our next stop was Chiang Rai in the far north of Thailand, which felt almost like another country altogether. Gone were the high rise buildings and traffic-clogged streets, replaced by distant mountains, lush greenery and streets thronged with friendly shops and stalls. At the border town of Mae Sai, we made our way through the market up the hill to the Scorpion Temple, where Mr Tee told a dramatic story of another clash with the neighbouring Burmese, when soldiers of Siam purportedly used scorpions to kill the Burmese as they slept. The view from the temple terrace was similarly dramatic, as with a sweep of his hand, Mr Tee gestured towards Burma.

Destination Indochina

Moving northeast, we visited Chiang Khong on the banks of the mighty Mekong River, to make the obligatory climb up the steps of the Wat Mahathat temple. The Buddhist temple overlooks the famous ‘Golden Triangle’ where the countries of Thailand, Laos and Burma meet, once the epicentre of the opium trade. We marvelled at the splendid views of the Mekong, which proudly displays its broadest reach here, having flowed from its source in high Tibet through China and Myanmar. Our hotel, right on the banks of the Mekong, was the perfect place to watch small boats drift by, with the lights on the far side breaking the darkness in Laos.

Morning broke and late monsoon rain threatened, which fell as we reached the Thai-Laos Friendship Bridge, which since 2013 has been the official inland crossing across the Mekong between the two countries. Our guide to Laos, the Land of a Million Elephants, was Khun Lo. We boarded our open-top bus to set off on a new adventure down the mighty Mekong to the old Laotian capital of Luang Prabang, ‘the city of the Royal Buddha’.

Mighty Mekong

We boarded a narrow boat, with rows of salvaged covered seating and bench-type seats and tables. Casting off, we passed the hotel we had stayed in the night before, then sailed under the Friendship Bridge we had crossed just hours previously. Khun Lo described what awaited us in Laos as we watched river life slip by.

Our first stop was a Hmong hill tribe village, where we were instantly surrounded by a gaggle of inquisitive young children. Their curiosity turned to excitement as I distributed balloons I had brought for them to play with. Our cruise ended at the village of Pakbeng, where we checked in to the Phetsokxai Hotel, overlooking an elephant sanctuary on the far bank of the Mekong. Tomorrow we would reach the Royal City of Luang Prabang.

The monsoon rain was still lurking when we left in the morning and the river started to take on a different persona. The Mekong narrowed and we passed numerous rapids and exposed rocks, as well as a boat wreck – a reminder that this can be a dangerous place. I thought of the French naval officer and explorer Francis Garnier, who wrote in 1860, marvelling at the wonder of the Mekong, that ‘one cannot help but be unnerved by the inhospitable face of the river’. The scenery though was stunning, with steep cliffs, spectacular rock formations, bubbling rapids, and a glorious glow of yellow radiating from the tops of flowering bamboo trees.

Khun Lo had explained that we would stop at the Pak Ou caves, an important religious site, to visit Tham Ting – a cave said to contain over a thousand statues of Buddha. This small but venerated place was enthralling but very crowded, and it was a relief to return to the open water of the majestic Mekong.

Destination Indochina

Luang Prabang is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which meant docking and disembarking a few miles upstream, beyond the city limits, so as to limit our environmental impact. Khun Lo insisted that we go into town to see the sunset from Phousi Hill, which is topped with a highly revered golden stupa – a round structure containing Buddhist relics. We climbed the 328 steps, but the late monsoon rain obscured much of the view, and we saw only glimpses of wispy smoke and twinkling lights from the houses below. We retired to our hotel via the night market, a veritable shoppers’ paradise.

Fortunately, the next day dawned fine, and we set off into the mountains, following twisting bumpy roads into the province of Vang Vieng, Laos’ own ‘adventure centre’. Karst limestone pinnacles and mountain caves provide a stunning backdrop to the Nam Song river, the haunt of thrill-seekers who swim, kayak and float downriver on large tyre inner tubes. The highlight was our visit to Jang Cave, reached by crossing a bright orange suspension bridge over the river. We climbed a steep flight of steps with serpent-styled balustrade handrails to reach the cave entrance, entering to see huge caverns decorated with all manner of fantastic cave formations, created over many millennia.

The next stage of our itinerary proved more sobering, as we learned of Laos’ ‘secret war’. The country was embroiled in the Vietnam War when the Viet Cong assumed control of parts of Laos to secure the Ho Chi Minh trail. In response the Americans set up an airstrip known as Lima Site 6, from where they tried to disrupt the flow of war materials through Laos, dropping more than two million tons of ordnance on Laos during 580,000 bombing missions – making Laos the most heavily bombed country per capita in history. The bombings destroyed many villages and displaced thousands of civilians during the nine-year period. By the end of the conflict more than 50,000 Laotians had died.

Laos’ lively capital city, Vientiane, soon displaced our melancholy. Given some time to explore on our own, I headed to Pha That Luang, the Royal Square in the city centre, to see its famous gold stupa and statue of King Xaysettha. The king is credited with fighting the Vietnamese to the north, the Khmer to the east and Siamese [Thai] forces to the west. I arrived on the penultimate day of the Water Festival to find the site packed with Laotians making their way to lay gifts and alms at the temple, the holiest shrine in Laos. It was a special and colourful occasion, with worshippers dressed to perfection – particularly the ladies with traditional parasols, silk sashes and sarongs.

Country of contrasts

The third and final country of our tour was the Kingdom of Cambodia. We met our new lively young tour guide Cheang Sean Lok, ‘CS’ for short, at Phnom Penh. It was a gloomy but essential element of the itinerary that our first visit should be to one of the 300 Killing Fields established by the Khmer Rouge between 1975 and 1979. We reflected sadly on the memorial at Boeung Choeung Ek [Crow’s Feet Pond] and read the interpretation boards that described and illustrated the horrific things took place there. Afterwards, we visited the S-21 Interrogation Centre at Tuol Sleng, a former French Colonial school that was turned into a brutal prison under Pol Pot, leader of the Khmer Rouge. Some 20,000 innocent people were murdered here. We met a courageous and dignified former inmate, Chum Mey, who survived many beatings at the prison at the hands of the Khmer Rouge guards, though his wife and children did not.

In stark contrast, an hour or so later we found ourselves standing in the grounds of the Royal Palace, taking in the beautiful coloured tile roofs of the temples, with their red and gold columns, impeccably kept lawns and carefully pruned trees. We admired the painstaking restoration of a stunning wall mural depicting Cambodian history, all of 400m in length. The nearby red building that is the National Museum brought more Cambodian history to life, with many artefacts from the era of Angkor, although CS told us that many more treasures were looted by the French during the Colonial era, and others by the Vietnamese at the end of the Khmer Rouge in 1979.

With just days left of our Indochina exploration, we visited the jewel in Cambodia’s crown – Siem Reap and the once hidden treasures of Angkor. Whilst the whole of Angkor is an UNESCO World Heritage site, our first visit was to the iconic Angkor Wat temple complex. En route, our new guide Sophea, explained how, why, where, and when Angkor Wat was constructed. We dissipated like ants to explore this wondrous building, and were universally overwhelmed by the temple’s scale and grandeur.

Destination Indochina

The far north of the Angkor temple at Bansaey Rai proved similarly epic in every sense, as Sophea related the fascinating and complex double-dealing of the French explorers during the golden age of Angkor’s re-discovery in the early twentieth century. From there we headed for Ta Thong, where the massive roots of gum trees ensnare the ancient ruins like the tentacles of a huge octopus. The scenes seemed somehow familiar, made famous by Hollywood in the film Tomb Raider, starring Angelina Jolie as Lara Croft.

It is hard to imagine any building bigger or more beautiful than Angkor Wat, but monumental Angkor Thom vies for this accolade. The city is centred on Bayon, the surreal state temple of Jayavarman VII, with its grand moat, complex architecture and multi-faceted columns that seem to face you wherever you turn. It was both awe inspiring and beautiful, but too much to take in and we could only marvel as we left to make our evening flight back to Bangkok. Nevertheless, the temples made for a spectacular climax to this memorable trip.

The potted highlights of this 16-day tour cannot convey all the complex sights, sounds and smells of Indochina. The experience veers between the frantic and the tranquil, the simple and the spectacular, and between the joyous and the grave. All represent different sides of Thailand, Laos and Cambodia – three distinct and unique countries that offer ample reward for those who enjoy discovering new experiences and exploring incredible sights on foot.

Walk it!

TIME/DISTANCE - Most days involve 3-5 miles of walking, typically a mix of countryside strolls and sightseeing on foot. You’ll need to climb steep steps to access temples and caves.

TRAVEL - Flights: Heathrow–Bangkok (about 12 hours, British Airways). Travel between Thailand, Laos and Cambodia is by short-haul flight, ferry and bus transfer. Visas required but can be obtained on arrival.

FURTHER INFO - Allan travelled with Chapters Experience Holidays on their Exploring Indochina package (chaptersholidays.co.uk; 01707 246 666). The holiday includes return flights, local travel, transfers, entrance fees, accommodation, half board and two picnic lunches, plus local English-speaking guides. Highlights include Angkor Wat, the Golden Triangle and a two-day Mekong river cruise. 

WIN! An Indochina trip worth over £3,000

Here’s your chance to win an unforgettable 17-day journey through Thailand, Laos and Cambodia with Chapters Experience Holidays, departing November 2017. One lucky winner will get to explore Indochina on a group adventure led by expert local guides. Enter here.