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Great Indochina Loop
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The most vibrant city in northern Thailand, Chiang Mai has many famous temples and an interesting old city area. This 'Rose of the North' is also known for its beauty and the friendliness of the local people. Explore the famous temple complex of Doi Suthep. Drive along a scenic, winding mountain road that ends at an impressive 300-step naga-guarded stairway. The rewards justify the climb with one of the most beautiful temples in Thailand on display, not to mention fantastic panoramic views of the city and the opportunity to listen to hypnotic evening chanting by resident Buddhist monks. In the evening, wander through the enormous, colourful Night Bazaar, and perhaps relax at a fine restaurant along the riverfront. Make sure to sample some delicious traditional northern Thai food - the signature dish is kao soy, yellow wheat noodles in a curry broth, traditionally served with chicken or beef. Participate in an optional Thai cooking class.
Take a journey through rural countryside to the Thai border town of Chiang Khong. Formerly known as 'Juon', peaceful riverside Chiang Khong remains an important market town for the surrounding hill tribes and trade with Laos. Stretch your legs with a stroll around town, then enjoy a drink and dine on Thai cuisine, while Laos beckons from across the mighty Mekong.
Board our boat for the two-day journey down the mighty Mekong River to Luang Prabang. The journey is relaxed, so we can experience the slow pace of village life and the breathtaking scenery along the river. Our river boat is basic in nature, with a toilet, covered roof, and open sides to take in the fresh air. There are seats in the front of the boat and a small open area in the back where you can have a nap on the mat, play cards, read or have lunch. We dock at the small town of Pak Beng (after about 6 hours) to spend the night. Our guesthouse here is very basic - a standard accommodation in this small trading port. It can be quite cool from November to February so make sure you have some warm gear packed for this period. Due to dam construction upstream, water levels aren't as reliable as in previous years, and when the river is at its lowest from February to April, part of the journey may occasionally need to be made by land.
Reboard our boat and cruise to the Pak Ou Caves, before arriving in the former royal capital of Luang Prabang. An important religious site overlooking the river at the junction of the Mekong and Ou Rivers, the revered Pak Ou Caves contain thousands of Buddha images placed there by pilgrims over hundreds of years. The atmospheric World Heritage-listed city of Luang Prabang is a favourite of many. Nestled in the hills of northern Laos on the confluence of the Mekong and Khan rivers, it's studded with ornate temples and French colonial architecture. Enjoy a guided tour around the Traditional Art & Ethnology centre - a non-profit museum dedicated to the collection, preservation, and interpretation of its traditional arts and lifestyles. Head out to the beautiful Kuang Si Falls, where pale turquoise waters cascade over limestone formations. In your free time consider a climb to the top of Mt Phousi or a trip to the Dara Market.
Journey by private bus to Vang Vieng. Situated on the Nam Song River, Vang Vieng offers limestone karst scenery, local markets and riverside walks. There is plenty to do in and around Vang Vieng. The area is renowned for its many caves, many of which are easily accessible from the town, perhaps the most famous is the cave of Tham Chang, a beautiful cavern fed by a natural spring making it a perfect spot for a refreshing swim. Hire bicycles to explore further afield, or a tour of an Organic Mulberry Farm is also an option.
Continue by bus to the country's capital, Vientiane. Possibly Asia's most laidback capital, Vientiane is a city where daily affairs are conducted at a relaxed pace. Hardly touched by the modernisation that has completely changed the face of other cities in South-East Asia, Laos still has a wealth of cultural delights to discover - on foot, or for the less energetic, by jumbo (tuk tuk). Follow dusty tracks along the river to find villages full of friendly children, dogs and chickens. Vientiane's vibrant, colourful morning market (which incidentally is open all day!) is full of local treasures. A great way to round off the day is to enjoy a spectacular sunset over the Mekong. Pay a visit to Wat Si Saket, a Buddhist temple believed to be the oldest still standing in Vientiane. Visit COPE, an Intrepid Foundation-sponsored organisation dedicated to assistance those who have been injured by the multitude of unexploded ordinance across the country.
We take a short flight from Vientiane to Hanoi. The capital of Vietnam is a charming city with a population of over six million. Hanoi is famous for its beautiful lakes, shaded boulevards, verdant public parks and its thriving Old Quarter, which is an architectural museum piece with blocks of ochre buildings retaining the air of a 1930s provincial French town. As Vietnam develops to compete with other South-East Asian countries, the beautiful Hoan Kiem Lake reflects the contrasts of modern office buildings, old Buddhist temples and the tangle of ancient streets in its still surface.
Halong Bay/Overnight Train
Travel by private minibus to the spectacular World Heritage site of Halong Bay. Halong Bay is a breathtaking secluded harbour with 2,000 limestone islands rising from the emerald waters of Bac Bo Gulf. One of Vietnam's most scenic regions, this area of about 1,500 sq km is dotted with innumerable beaches and grottos, created over thousands of years by waves and wind. Board our private boat and cruise among the dramatic limestone peaks. There's an opportunity to swim in the famed South China Sea (known locally as the East Sea), as well as to explore caves filled with stunning stalactites and stalagmites. Spend a peaceful night on board, beneath a night sky alive with stars. Board an overnight train to Hue. Although conditions are basic, overnight trains are a true Intrepid experience and the best way to travel long distances with the locals.
As the former imperial capital of Vietnam, Hue holds the treasures of Vietnam's royal past and is a curious mix of bustling streets and tranquil settings. As passengers on the back of motorbikes we start our tour with a visit to the Imperial Citadel, which includes the Forbidden Purple City. Almost totally destroyed during the Vietnam War's Tet Offensive, the City's foliage-covered ruins are beautifully atmospheric. Next is a visit to Thien Mu Pagoda, considered to be the unofficial symbol of Hue. It's an active Buddhist monastery with its origins dating back to 1601. One of the most poignant displays is a car belonging to a former monk who, in 1963, drove to Saigon and set himself alight to protest against the treatment of Buddhists by the South Vietnamese regime. Next, take a dragon boat cruise on the Perfume River. After lunch we visit the royal tomb of Emperor Tu Duc, with its central lake set amid a grove of frangipani and pine trees.
Travelling by bus, head south through coastal rice paddies before traversing the spectacularly mountainous Hai Van Pass. After a brief visit to the beautiful China Beach (known officially as My Khe Beach), arrive at Hoi An. Recently declared a World Heritage site, Hoi An is being beautifully restored and preserved. Known as Faifo to early western traders, it was one of South-East Asia's major international ports during the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. Today, parts of Hoi An look exactly as they did more than a century ago. It's also a shopping mecca – with much to browse and buy. Choose from original paintings, handcrafted woodwork, ceramics, embroidery, lanterns and more. Hoi An has also become famous for its tailoring, with a great variety of fabrics and tailors to choose from. Your tour leader will take you on an orientation walk around the Ancient Town. Explore beautifully restored Chinese shop houses, visit Cua Dai Beach, or cycle to the rice fields.
Ho Chi Minh City
Take a short flight to the economic hub of Ho Chi Minh City. Formerly known as Saigon, the huge number of people rushing about their daily lives in Vietnam's largest city gives it a dynamic atmosphere, and the French influence is evident in the excellent baguettes and coffee on offer. Much of city life takes place on the busy streets lined with shops, stalls and vendors selling everything from soup to sophisticated electronics. Experience old Saigon on a city tour and explore some of the city's interesting sights, including the War Remnants Museum and Reunification Palace. Head out on a day trip to explore the Mekong Delta. Board the boat to Ben Tre to sample the local candies for which this region is famous. Take a tuk-tuk around this remote village, with a stop to sample tropical fruits and learn more about local rural life. Visit a nearby restaurant in the heart of the delta to sample some of the regional specialities such as the famous elephant-ear fish.
Phnom Penh, Cambodia's capital, is set on a major junction of the Mekong and Tonle Sap rivers and boasts some fine examples of French-inspired architecture. Confront Cambodia's tragic past on a guided tour of the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. It's estimated that more than 20,000 people were held and tortured here. Head out to the Choeung Ek Memorial where a stupa made of human skulls marks the site of the infamous Killing Fields. Learn about a brighter period in Cambodian history with a visit to the Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda. Explore Wat Phnom, a peaceful temple situated on a hill for which the city is named, and check out the National Museum, which contains many outstanding examples of Khmer craftsmanship. Take in the sites by cyclo! Tours generally take in the following: central market, US Embassy, Wat Phnom, Mekong river front, independence monument, finishing at the Royal Palace.
A great opportunity to look at the real Cambodia, we'll make several stops at points of interest along the route to Siem Reap, including a chance to sample the local delicacy, deep fried spiders. We may also see the cottage industry at Santuk Silk Farm, a fair trade organization, which provides a valuable source of employment in a poor rural community. The small but expanding town of Siem Reap is the gateway to Angkor. It's markets are a great place to shop or to try some cheap, delicious street food. Temple-hop with our local guide to make the most of our visit to the world-famous Angkor complex. The temples were believed to represent the cosmic world and were set in perfect balance, symmetry and composition. Watching a sunrise or sunset here is a must. We'll explore the great archaeological sites of Angkor Wat, the Bayon and the jungle-covered Ta Prohm. Take a boat trip on Tonle Sap lake and visit one of its floating villages.
Travel by private minibus to Battambang. Cambodia's second-largest city, Battambang, (pronounced Battambong) is an attractive riverside town with traces of French elegance, friendly Khmer people and well-preserved colonial architecture. Consider a guided tour of the countryside to discover the local rural way of life stopping off at small cottage industries producing sticky rice, noodles & fish paste making. Join the locals for a ride on their famous bamboo train transferring goods such as rice - a great local interaction opportunity! Consider a mouth-watering cooking class and learn the secrets of local dishes such as: amok, Khmer curry & fried spicy chicken
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