The first day of our trip to the Southeast Asian countries of Laos and Cambodia began with a guided marathon trek through the mountainous Nam Ha jungle and ended with a fireside dinner of freshly caught river frogs. My thrill-seeking partner, Michael, had booked a guided “Laos Adventure Tour” online; in addition to the jungle hike, we would also visit several minority villages, spend an overnight homestay with a local rice-farming family and kayak along miles of rapids. The three-day trek, including meals, cost just $180 each.
Although this part of the world seems an impossible or exotic destination for many Americans, others consider it a frugal traveler’s dream. Round-trip tickets from New York to Phnom Penh, for instance, have recently dropped to the $600 range. Even the cities in these less-traveled Asian countries are inexpensive: many of our delicious (and eye-wateringly spicy) meals came from street vendors or town markets, and ranged from $2 to $5; guesthouse lodgings usually ran $8 to $15 per night.
SAFE AND WALKABLE
But affordable tourism certainly isn’t the only reason to go. Every city and town we visited in Laos was safe and easily walkable, and each had its individual charm. Some travelers begin their journey in the central cities of Phonsavan or Muang Kham.
Others start in Vientiane, the country’s capital, which displays an odd yet harmonious mix of Buddhist temples and French Colonial buildings. We enjoyed Vientiane most when it turned vibrant at night, its locals joining backpackers along the Mekong waterfront market stalls for bottles of the ubiquitous national draft, Beerlao.
The place that no one should miss is Luang Prabang. Nestled in a lush valley where the Mekong River meets the Nam Khan, this onetime royal capital is now home to an array of ornate Buddhist temples and monasteries. At dawn, orange-robed novice monks line the streets for each day’s almsgiving ceremony; in the evenings, we could often hear the monks chanting, their low melodies joining the chatter from the city center’s popular night market.
All this serene beauty causes travelers to use Luang Prabang as a kind of “resting post” between visits to nearby attractions. Two of our favorites were the Luang Prabang Elephant Camp (home to eight female Asian elephants and their dedicated handlers) and the Kuang Si Waterfalls (a majestic, triple-tiered natural wonder that provides welcome relief from the heat).
Next up was Cambodia. Capital city Phnom Penh, its streets crisscrossed with beeping mopeds and tuk tuk cabbies yelling for riders, was a sensory riot after peaceful Laos. When we escaped the crowds near the river, however, the city grew calmer, and began to reveal its history. For anyone eager to see golden temples, jeweled Buddhas and floors made entirely of silver, sites like the Royal Palace and the Silver Pagoda really deliver.
In stark contrast are two sites commemorating the millions of Cambodians killed during the Khmer Rouge genocide: the bleak and harrowing Tuol Seng museum, housed in the actual schoolhouse-turned-prison where Khmer soldiers tortured civilians; and the Killing Fields, an otherwise peaceful stretch of gardens where even more were buried. While sometimes difficult to handle (and best experienced over two days, not together), these reminders of genocide are an essential part of the trip.
A word of advice: When traveling between Phnom Penh and Angkor Wat, don’t skip the smaller Battambang. Nearly everyone finds something to love in this quaint city: Food lovers will enjoy the wealth of eclectic restaurants; architecture buffs will get a thrill from the French Colonial hotels, modern Chinese storefronts and even, in the town center’s Phsar Mar market and clock tower, a well-preserved example of Art Deco. In Battambang, everyone seems happy and relaxed — from the guide on our morning bicycle tour, to the students and musicians we watched at their nightly Phare Ponleu Selpak circus performance.
And finally there was Siem Reap, the gateway city for the temples of Angkor. Our first night there, after exploring the city’s busy nighttime streets (where I ate a fried tarantula on a stick), we approached a random tuk tuk driver to ask about our upcoming three-day tour of the vast temple complex. This young guy named Sam not only agreed on a price ($60 bucks for three whole days of driving us around) but, as we soon learned, also proved fluent in English and well-versed on Cambodian history and world politics.
For the next three days, Sam was our guide as we toured as many temples of this ancient Khmer Empire city as our schedule would allow. The weirdly twisting trees that encroach upon Ta Prohm’s walls, the stone monkeys guarding Banteay Srei, the congregation of massive stone faces carved on Bayon’s towers — these and many other sights were spectacular, but nothing could prepare us for the colossal majesty of Angkor Wat itself. Any story or photo you may have seen or heard simply cannot do justice to the size of this place, the level of skill in art and design, the painstaking detail on each vast wall of each immense room.
The only way to experience Angkor Wat is to travel there. And when you go, make sure to look for Sam. He’ll not only be an expert tuk tuk driver; he’ll become a good friend.