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.
There’s free time before our afternoon flight, so you could visit a local community project that supports families in crisis where you can interact with the kids and find out how social work operates here. This afternoon we land in vibrant Vietnam, where traditional culture and a modern way of life fuse. It’s also got a reputation for beautiful beaches, delicious food and stunning scenery. Formerly known as Saigon, Ho Chi Minh City is Vietnam’s capital and an up-and-coming metropolis of urban activity. It’s packed with pagodas, roadside shops, xe om (motorbike taxis), high-rises and reminders of the Vietnam war. Try some strong Vietnamese coffee at a local roadside café and watch it all go by. This evening your Tour Manager will lead you through the thriving markets called Ben Thanh - popular with locals, expats and travellers. Stalls spill out in all directions and anything from Vietnam’s iconic conical hats to jasmine incense are up for sale, so get haggling. The markets are also a great place to try some simple and tasty local foods from a push-cart kitchen. Order a whole lot of different snacks and dishes like pho (noodle soup), neem rolls (fresh spring rolls) and chao bo (grilled beef skewer with lemon grass) so you can taste a bit of everything.
For the next two days, we journey into the Mekong Delta. In your time here, cruise the Delta on a traditional boat and take in Vietnam’s major rice producing area. See local fruit farms, floating markets and everyday life on Vietnam’s waterways. Learn about local industry with visits to a rice paper factory. You’ll also get a taste of tradition at a tea house and get to enjoy a typical lunch at a local house. Later, local musicians will perform for us before we tuck into some home-cooked food at the simple, local guesthouse where we stay overnight.
It’s an early breakfast before heading back to Ho Chi Minh City via the Viet Cong’s legendary tunnels in Cu Chi. See booby traps, hidden doors and some of the 250kms of tunnels that Vietnamese resistance fighters dug by hand to escape danger and launch surprise attacks from. If you’re up for it, you can even go down into the skinny tunnels and experience them first-hand. Tonight it's a free evening, so why not grab some delicious Vietnamese food with your tour mates.
Today you’ll hear Vietnam’s history in a nutshell on a city tour that starts from colonial times. Check out the Notre Dame Cathedral, a relic left from French rule. We also see the Presidential or Reunification Palace, the former political heart of the country, from where various leaders have ruled. Learn how the loss of this building marked the fall of Saigon during the Vietnam War. Then look through the sobering War Remnants Museum and find out about victims of the Vietnam War. In the afternoon, the group flies to the seaside resort town of Nha Trang, famous for its sweeping, golden beach, turquoise waters and fun water sports. This evening, order yourself some fresh lobster, prawns or even fish’n’chips!
A free day gives you time to sink into the laid-back beach lifestyle. Snack on fresh pineapple or other tropical fruits from the area. Try a massage and soak up the sun or cool off in the South China Sea. Activity-wise, there’s a chance to get out among the gorgeous offshore islands on our optional cruise. With swim stops and snorkelling off the island of Hon Mun, this is a fun way to explore the area. Your Tour Manager can also organise you a treat - experience a mineral mud bath and hot thermal springs! Tonight, find yourself a spot on the beach or at a waterfront bar to watch the sun set over the sea. But don’t stop there! Get into Nha Trang’s nightlife with some of the group - it’s a pretty lively place!
After a short flight to Danang this morning, we drive on to Hoi An. Hoi An is a pretty little town, with history written all over it. Blending Japanese, Chinese, Vietnamese and European influences, this former port town is an unusual mix of architectural styles. You’ll get a real feel for this town when you walk through the UNESCO World Heritage Listed old quarter with our Local Guide, who’ll tell you the story behind the old merchant shops, the 400-year-old Japanese covered bridge and the pretty pagoda. This afternoon, it’s free time to either relax back at the hotel pool or get some clothes made. Hoi An is known for its beautiful cloths and colourful silks, and there are loads of tailors ready to whip up some made-to-order threads in record breaking time. One tip is to bring some clothes you like from home with you - the tailors can make almost exact copies of the patterns! They also have designs in their shops to choose from. As the sun sets, we head out on bikes with a Local Guide into the surrounding countryside for a look at the gorgeous scenery. Cruise past rice fields and traditional homes before riding riverside back into town. Choose an optional Vietnamese cooking class tonight and taste why this food has such a good reputation. Cook up 4 traditional dishes - you’ll even get to enjoy eating them afterward.
It’s a free day today, so explore more of Hoi An and its surrounds. For a day away from it all, head to untouched Cham Island on an optional trip through this UNESCO-listed Biosphere Reserve. With a speed boat cruise, fantastic snorkelling, secluded beaches, wildlife and delicious local food for lunch in a small village - this is a great way to spend the day. Alternatively, you could visit the ruined Hindu temples of the Champa Empire at My Son. Our optional excursion takes in the highlights of this UNESCO World Heritage-listed site that was built between the 4th and 14th century. You’ll see overgrown temples in a location that was once a leading spiritual centre in this part of Vietnam. Otherwise, look through the galleries, antique shops and workshops of the old town. Locals still use traditional methods for pottery, weaving silk and wood-carving. Walk along the historic waterfront to the local market and continue through the stalls selling hand-woven baskets, medicinal herbs and local specialties. If you’re working up an appetite, there are lots of cool cafés serving great food to snack on, as well as coffees and beer.
Back on the coach we travel through the “Pass of the Ocean Clouds”, on to the former imperial city of Hue. Keep your camera handy for the incredible coastal views and rolling green hills along the way. We start our time in mellow Hue with a visit to the imperial Tu Duc Mausoleum. Our Local Guide will give you the story on this 'poet Emperor' and ancient burial rites as you walk around the intricately decorated pavilions, gorgeous gardens, and lotus flower ponds. Take your time to view the statues and colourful artwork. The next spot we stop at is the 7-story Thien Mu Pagoda. Learn about the legend behind its construction plus the events surrounding the notorious Hue Buddhist massacre. It’s a unique experience tonight with our included dinner, as we enjoy the hospitality of the Lac Thien Restaurant operated by a local disadvantaged family. Feast on authentic Hue food in this low-key restaurant that is also popular with locals.
After a short flight, we land in the Northern capital of Hanoi. Hanoi is completely different to its southern counterpart, Ho Chi Minh City. It combines French flair, Chinese culture and Vietnamese vitality. This town is a romantic living timeline and open-air museum. Our hotel is right in the middle of the city's bustling Old Quarter - this really is the place to be! The Old Quarter has been Hanoi’s commercial hub since the 15th century and is packed into a tiny square kilometre. A maze of back streets, merchant houses and shops loaded with goods gives the area its special atmosphere. Your Tour Manager will take you to some of the 36 trade streets found here – each street specialises in certain products. See masses of colourful items on display, from red banners, black-lacquered goods, to silks, fans and paper products. In your free time, navigate to the French Quarter for a change of scene. Walk the wide Parisian-style boulevards and take in the shuttered mansions, balconies and other leftovers from a by-gone colonial era. For a real slice of Vietnamese culture, sit down at one of the simple bia hoi (draught beer) sidewalk bars, pull up a stool and hang out among the locals. People-watch and order some local dishes, like bo luc lac (spicy beef and green pepper stir fry), dau chien ron (fried tofu) or nom ngo sen (lotus-stem salad).
First up this morning is a visit to the mausoleum of Ho Chi Minh – former president of Vietnam. Be part of the solemn procession of onlookers paying their respects to the leader who fought for the country’s independence (seasonal). We then drive to picturesque Halong Bay where we’ll board a Chinese-style junk boat for an overnight cruise through the absolutely stunning waters of this UNESCO World Heritage-listed site. This natural wonder doesn’t come up short on views: traditional sampans and junks sail the crystal waters of the Gulf of Tonkin, where nearly 2,000 limestone islands dot the sea. Kick back on deck and soak up views of grottos, lagoons and thick forests. Our boat passes hidden coves, sheer cliffs and stunning beaches before arriving at the Sung Sot Caves where we'll visit the limestone interior and take in the fantastic views. Back on board there’s a little more cruising before we stop for a swim in an idyllic remote lagoon and dock at Dao Titop for sunset. Tonight enjoy some fresh seafood with the group for dinner before settling in to your air-conditioned cabin on board the junk.
After a relaxed breakfast we take a local boat to explore a small, hidden grotto and perhaps see some of the locals (monkeys!) that live there. We then cruise back to port and return to Hanoi, with free time this afternoon. Escape the busy streets with a visit to the Temple of Literature – a quiet haven of walled gardens, red-lacquered pillars and golden painted dragons. Nearly 1,000 years old, the Temple is Vietnam’s most important Confucian sanctuary and it's historic seat of learning. For more culture your Tour Manager can help you get tickets to Hanoi’s world-famous water puppet performance, a quirky tradition from the region of the Red River Delta. Tonight is the last night on tour, so perhaps enjoy a memorable dinner at KOTO Restaurant - this eatery helps support an organisation that works to improve former disadvantaged childrens' lives by training them in hospitality.
Our tour ends this morning after breakfast and some free time, so say goodbye to your crew and Tour Manager.