Check-in to your hotel and head straight out to explore the massive, buzzing city of Bangkok. It’s a busy urban mix in this city: tuk-tuks flash past shrines and street side BBQs, traditional long-tail boats cruise past high rises, and locals, businessmen, travellers and monks share the streets. Later, meet up with your Tour Manager and fellow travellers and find out about what’s ahead of you. Afterwards, it’s a free night - some of the group might head out and eat together. Bangkok is a foodies’ paradise and has over 50,000 places to eat at, from noodle stalls to gourmet restaurants. Some of the typical dishes you could try tonight at a local restaurant include phad thai (noodle dish), basil and chilli chicken or spicy papaya salad. After dinner, ask your Tour Manager about Bangkok’s ins and outs. Get some pointers before uncovering laid-back sidewalk beer gardens, hip clubs or cocktail bars in a fun night out. You could scan the streets around the mythical travellers’ hub of Khao San Road. Rummage through the markets and flex your bargaining skills negotiating for some fake designer goods, or handicrafts, music and jewellery. Otherwise, jump in a tuk-tuk and hit the eye-opening Patpong Night Market, with its neon lights and buzzing street life.
First stop this morning is Bangkok’s incrediable Royal Palace. It’s 61 acres of stunning buildings, gleaming spires and multi-coloured murals. You’ll learn about Thai beliefs and the Royal Family’s lifestyle at Bangkok’s most famous site and spiritual hot spot. Visit the holiest Buddhist site in the country, the Emerald Buddha Temple. Your Local Guide will show you the epic murals, incredible architecture and tell you about the visiting pilgrims. Next up: the klongs (canals) of Bangkok - you’ll soon understand why this city is often dubbed ‘Venice of the East’. Get around like a local on a typical Thai boat – it’s perfect for taking in this sprawling megapolis from the water. You’ll see the landmark Dawn Temple, the Royal Barge and some of the major hotels as we cruise along Bangkok’s main artery, Chao Praya River. The maze of backwater canals will give you a good look into everyday Thai life as we cruise past a jumble of buildings and houses, and see locals going about their day. This afternoon, there’s free time. A good starting point is the downtown area, with its high-rises, cool shopping plazas and international foods to try. For the hottest fashions, find your way to the shops in Siam Square. Pick up some Thai-designed clothes in one of the upscale stores or in one of the cute little boutiques that line the side streets. Get lost in the thriving street life of Bangkok’s Chinatown and explore its web of bustling alleyways. Food vendors sell all sorts of crazy Asian delicacies and the shops are packed from floor to ceiling with everything from kitsch knick-knacks to household items. It’s time to go local and board an overnight train to Chiang Mai. This trip is perfect for winding down after your hectic Bangkok experience, so plug in your MP3 and settle in for the night.
Wake up in chilled-out Chiang Mai, Thailand’s pretty, second largest city. After breakfast, our Local Guide takes everyone to the stunning Wat Phra That temple and gives you insight into this sacred site that sits on the tallest mountain overlooking the city. Listen to pilgrims ringing bells, take part in Buddhist rituals - maybe even receive a blessing by a Buddhist monk. Check out the gorgeous architecture, highlighted in vivid reds, golds and greens. Keep your camera handy for amazing vistas over the city and surrounding countryside. If you have time during the afternoon, head in to discover Chiang Mai’s old quarter. Surrounded by a moat and ancient walls, packed with over 300 temples, the city’s heart is great to explore on foot. Otherwise, relax and try a world-famous Thai massage. Later choose our optional hands-on cooking experience. Learn about Thai food and culture by accompanying an expert local chef to buy key ingredients at one of Chiang Mai’s markets. Then cook up a storm and feast on the results at the end! Afterwards, walk off dinner and take a look around the sprawling night bazaar, where you’ll find bargains, Buddhas, lanterns and fake designer goods.
Travel through a landscape of rice paddies to Chiang Rai, a quiet town that is the gateway to trekking in the surrounding hills. In our optional trip here, you’ll find out about traditional hill tribe people, like the Akha, Yao,Lanu and Karen (long-neck peoples) and their culture. Back in Chiang Rai, take a walk around the former imperial city and see the old city walls. Have dinner amongst the locals at the town’s night bazaar and maybe head to a Thai disco with some friends afterwards.
Today, cross the border into laid-back Laos, South East Asia’s only land-locked country. Having recently opened its doors to foreigners, Laos has pretty much kept its traditional lifestyle alive with lots of untouched nature and really friendly locals. Travel down the famous Mekong River on our own private boat. Catch some sun, read a book or listen to some tunes as you take in the wild beauty of the countryside. You’ll soon understand why the river is the region’s lifeline, doubling as both a transport route and food source. Glide past remote villages, hillside crop farms, bamboo fish traps and watch locals enjoying a swim. Our night stop is the riverside village of Pakbeng, where you’ll truly be off the beaten track and can experience a bit of rural Laos living. We’ll be staying in a simple, local guesthouse. Stretch your legs and walk around tiny Pakbeng’s markets for a closer look at life in this remote trading-post village.
Back on board the boat this morning, we continue cruising down the Mekong, past thick forests and mountains. Next stop: the Pak Ou caves. Our Local Guide will fill you in on gorgeous Tam Ting Cave and the local’s beliefs about this sacred spot. The caves are set into a limestone cliff, just above the water where the Nam Ou and Mekong Rivers join. The Tam Ting cave has been used for centuries as the final resting place for over 4,000 images of Buddha. Get ready for the travellers’ favourite: Luang Prabang. A former mountain kingdom, Luang Prabang is now a colourful cultural hub soaked in history. This stunning town has lots of character. Gold decorated temples, beautiful Royal buildings, saffron-robed monks and the rundown elegance of its French colonial past all combine to give Luang Prabang its unique charm. Our Local Guide will give you a fun intro to the UNESCO World Heritage listed old-town on 2-wheels. You’ll get a feel for another era, as we roll past time-worn French mansions, ancient temples and cobblestone lanes. Visit Wat Xiang Thong, Luang Prabang’s most historic monastery, to learn about Buddhism and see the temple’s rich decorations. Later, if you’re feeling energetic, we’ll walk up Mt Phu Si to a hill-top stupa to catch stunning views and a sunset over the town and temples. With a free evening, uncover the colourful stalls at Luang Prabang’s pretty night market. It’s an easy-going place to shop for fabrics, bamboo lamps, paper umbrellas, silks, silver and crafts. Snack on spring rolls, baguettes, noodles or BBQ at one of the open-air street eateries.
There’s a chance to get up close to the world’s largest land-based mammals as part of our Only Contiki rainforest elephant ride. Ride an elephant through thick, green jungle, beside the Nam Khan River. You can feel good about doing it, as all funds from this activity go back into the local community. Get some friends together and take an optional trip to the nearby Kuang Si Falls for a swim and a bit of nature. The impressive 60 metre falls cascade into cool pools – perfect for taking a dip. You can also do easy hikes around this area or meet the bears of the Kuang Si Bear Rescue Centre. Culture-wise, pay a visit to the Royal Palace museum for a taste of local history. Check out the French-built palace that mixes up French and Laotian styles. You can also see Pha Bang, one of Laos’ most sacred images of Buddha, as well as brilliantly coloured murals, religious art and royal relics. For something different, check out what’s going on down by the river. Sit back on the bank with a Beer Lao and watch daily life, as livestock and produce are loaded onto tiny boats, and locals cool off in the Mekong.
Start the day by getting into the spirit of the town and wake up early for the monks’ procession and ritual giving of alms. The combination of first morning light and the monks’ orange robes is great for photos & is a truly unique experience before you farewell Luang Prabang. This morning’s spectacular drive winds its way down to riverside Vang Vieng, known for its dramatic limestone karsts (rock formations) and outdoor adventure activities. With cliffs, tunnels, caves, caverns and a river, there’s plenty of ways to get active and turn up the energy levels. Vang Vieng is a backpackers’ hub, so it has loads of different restaurant choices. Eat local, feast on some Indian food or grab an Italian-style pizza with your travel buddies.
Today, get hold of a map and take off at your own pace to explore the surrounding countryside. Cover more on a bike (your Tour Manager can organise one for you). There are a whole lot of limestone caves, swimming holes, tunnels and bunkers once used against invaders to discover. Or maybe you prefer to relax riverside and soak up the chilled-out Lao vibes of this stopover. Wind down the day with your friends and catch a sunset at a riverside bar or an island watering-hole.
This morning it’s on to Vientiane. Compact, cosmopolitan and the nation’s capital, Vientiane shows influences of old Chinese and Vietnamese merchant family traditions, French colonialism, expat lifestyle and socialism. Get your bearings when you take a city tour with our Local Guide and your Tour Manager. We start with a visit to COPE, a charity project where victims of UXO (unexploded ordinance), among others, learn to use their new prosthetic limbs and train in new work skills. Hear about Laos’ troubled past as one of the world’s most bombed nations, about the victims, and what’s being done at this centre to help those in need. Next we view That Luang, Vientiane’s main site and Laos’ most important religious symbol. Your Local Guide knows about the legends behind the golden stupa, its rough past and its restoration. Check out the 45 metre spire rising above the massive lotus petals. Visit Patuxai, Laos’ answer to Paris’ Arc de Triomphe – a monument that combines French design and Laotian artwork. Climb to the top and see the surrounds of Vientiane or check out the surrounding park, which is a favourite local hang out.
Travel by plane into Cambodia this morning, a country with fantastic food, mind-blowing ancient temples and a complex history. Phnom Penh is the capital and a bustling, busy city, with pretty tree-lined boulevards and gleaming palaces. It also holds stark reminders of the country’s dark history. Learn about the Khmer Rouge and Cambodia’s troubled, recent past when we visit the ‘Killing Fields’ mass graves. Our Local Guide will then take you for a visit to the Toul Sleng Genocide Museum where you can walk through the prisoners’ former living quarters and see the chilling documentation of atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge. Often our Guides have a personal story they want to share about their experience during the regime.
Catch a flight this morning and land in small-town Siem Reap, where cafes, bars and restaurants spill out of French style shophouses. We’ll jump on a private wooden boat and head out on Tonle Sap, South East Asia’s biggest fresh water lake to experience a unique way of life. Our Local Guide will tell you about the floating villages found here. We also make a stop at a crocodile farm in the middle of the lake. Back on land, you can explore more of Siem Reap at your own pace. You’ve got free time to visit the Psar Chas (old market) for handicrafts and exotic fresh produce. Known for its tasty food, Siem Reap serves up traditional meals and Khmer food with a twist, as well as international dishes for those missing Western tastes. Ideas for dinner include ordering a meal from one of the food stalls at Psar Chas. Try out bai cha (Khmer fried rice) or chicken curry. Otherwise try a meal in an atmospheric colonial building that has been transformed into a cool restaurant or bar. For a dose of culture, go and see a traditional Aspara dance performance – an ancient Cambodian art form. The performance still reflects the Royal style of the original court with stunning costumes of silk and sequins.
Get ready for an incredible day with a visit to the jaw-droppingly beautiful Ankor Wat Temples. Start early with a visit to watch the sun rise over Ankor Wat, the largest religious monument in the world. The heart-stopping combo of soft light, lily-filled waterways and an intricately carved temple will give you goose bumps. Our Local Guide will share epic stories of the Khmer Empire, telling you about the sacred sites found here and the Hindu gods that feature on the amazing wall sculptures. After a guided tour around this stunning UNESCO World Heritage site, we head back to the hotel for a break. Use the time to cool off in the pool or to have a siesta during the heat of the day. In the afternoon, we return to the temples to take a look at Angkor Thom, with its four massive faces carved out of rock – each one looking towards different compass points. Explore the jumble of 54 towers, 216 repeated faces, little rooms and spaces that make up up Bayon. Imagine what the 19th Century explorers originally uncovered when you see Ta Prohm temple slowly being swallowed by the jungle - this was the temple made famous in the movie ‘Tomb Raider’. Tonight, play some pool, hang out with your friends and venture down Pub Street for a fun night out.
Our tour ends this morning after breakfast. Say goodbye to your travel buddies and Tour Manager.