9 highlights: crossing Laos & Thailand by road & river 


When you’re getting excited about booking your trip of a lifetime, you want to know you’re talking to someone who knows exactly how to create the best adventure possible.

From knowing where to hunt down the tastiest Pad Thai while rubbing shoulders with the locals, to seeking out the most scenic spots for your sunset snaps, it’s those inside tips from people who’ve been on the ground that make things just that bit more special.

That’s why, before we recommend anything, we’ll make sure it’s been personally test-driven by one of our team.

Most recently, we sent Grant, one of our Southeast Asia experts, to try out some new experiences in Laos and Thailand – getting the insider scoop before we offer them to our culture-hungry travellers.

  1. Zooming across Laos by high-speed rail

Who would have thought that languid, laid-back Laos would one day have the fastest train in Southeast Asia? Not us – but how wrong we were. Grant described the experience as a real change-up to how you can travel the country:

“What used to be a bumpy, queasy, five-hour overland trip from Vientiane to Luang Prabang is now a two-and-a-half-hour, high-speed, direct train. Just one stop and before you know it, you’re there. It’s revolutionised travelling in the region, and it means you can link some of Laos’s best destinations without losing days to road travel or faffing around with domestic flights.”

  1. Sunset on the Mekong in Luang Prabang

Our partners in Luang Prabang recently bought a boat to run their own, relaxed sunset cruises on the Mekong, and Grant was one of the first to try it out:

“It felt authentic, like something you’d just do if you lived here: get some friends together, get some beers, get on a boat and cruise around. And it’s a nice break, too, from concentrating on understanding Buddhism for half an hour, because, let’s be honest, no one’s totally immune to temple fatigue.”

  1. Lao BBQ & Pétanque

We’ve been to Luang Prabang plenty of times before in the name of research, but part of the city’s charm is that you’re guaranteed to find something new each time – particularly under the expert eye of a local guide.

This time, that meant going to the local pétanque (a popular sport in Laos) ground, learning the rules and having a go – before heading to a tucked-away spot for Lao barbeque:

“Hidden down an alleyway I’d never have thought to turn down, this place was practically invisible. And Lao barbecue is delicious: it’s like Korean barbecue meets hotpot. You grill your meat over hot coals, dip your vegetables in fragrant broth, and assemble it all with noodles on your plate. This was such a great way to see a different side of a well-loved, well-trodden destination.”

  1. Maiden voyage of the Anouvong Cruise

If you’ve been cruising on the Mekong Delta — where it’s all about the little villages, markets, and river traffic — recalibrate your expectations for the Anouvong Cruise. There’s none of that here.

This was the Anouvong’s very first cruise up this spectacular, misty stretch of river, and, as one of the inaugural passengers, Grant felt like Stanley heading up the Nile to find Dr Livingstone:

“The places we stopped off at were some of the remote I’ve ever visited in my life, with no running water or electricity. We had no cell reception for three days; this, in a world where I can Facetime my wife from a green tea field in rural Korea! You don’t get to experience that very often, in Laos or anywhere.”

  1. Visiting hilltribe villages outside Chiang Rai

For many visitors to Southeast Asia, visiting the different populations and cultures that make up hilltribe villages and getting to see and understand their way of life is a fascinating and educational experience.

The settlements outside Chiang Rai are no different, and for Grant, the spectacular scenery made the trip even more special:

“The beautiful landscape outside Chiang Rai just bowls you over. A particularly memorable moment was visiting a tea farm where we walked through the processing plant and this huge vista just opened up ahead of us, out of nowhere. I couldn’t resist taking a massive, multi-exposure panorama (which I’ve still yet to process!)”

  1. A Northern Thai foodie adventure

Lots of our travellers rave about taking part in cooking classes, and for good reason. This one starts by catching the train to Chiang Mai’s suburbs, before visiting a local market and a garden to pick your own ingredients. So far, so classic. But Grant wasn’t expecting what happened next:

“We made coffee over an open fire, ironed banana leaves with a medieval-looking metal iron, rolled them up, filled them with home-grown tobacco and smoked them with a Thai lady we were simply introduced to as “grandma.” I don’t smoke - but who was I to turn down the traditional welcome?

“Then we made Khao Soi, a northern Thai red curry with noodles, cooked over a wood-fired stove. This isn’t one of those classes where you get a printout you can bring home to impress your friends. You’re cooking with grandma, and grandma doesn’t speak English. So, it’s a bit of this, a bit of that, a bit more of that. I wasn’t hungry for days; it was amazing.”

  1. History in Sukhothai

If you’re into your history and ancient ruins, Sukhothai might just be the next place to add to your travel hit list. Grant said:

“If I had to compare it to somewhere else, it’s like a tiny Thai Angkor without the jungle. Instead, it’s all very open, and very wide, with rice paddies and big vistas everywhere.

The town itself is small, and the World Heritage Park takes up most of the space. In fact, there are so many temples and ruins that they’re just everywhere. There was a stupa just next to my hotel that you could walk right up to: no fences; no admission. Just hanging out in the rice paddies. It’s a cool, intimate way to see the history. There was nobody there at all.”

  1. Bat exodus in Khao Yai National Park

Take it from us: you can say the words “one million bats”, “a cave”, and “it takes them thirty minutes to exit” and think you understand what you’re in for — but actually seeing it take place in the beautiful Khao Yai National Park is something else.

“Half an hour of bats flooding out of the cave thousands at a time, in a stream that never ends — the roar of waves of bats going overhead — it was absolutely a once-in-a-lifetime kind of thing. Just completely and utterly unique in my experience so far, and so beautiful because the sun’s going down, you’ve got the rolling hills, you’ve got wave after wave going behind the mountains and coming back out again. Unforgettable.”

  1. Touring Bangkok’s cuisine & canals

Bangkok is one of those places you can visit a hundred times without really getting to its heart – and many people do just that. A boat tour of the khlongs (canals), though, offers a unique perspective of the city.

“Being on the water is different, it feels more relaxing, and you’re not fighting the city traffic. You can pop into little temples to see a bit more of daily life — but in a very different way.”

Our final highlight, of course, involves a Bangkok-special food tour:

“Michelin-starred Pad Thai? I’ll take it. Beers looking out over the Grand Palace? Fantastic. This is the kind of thing that Bangkok is great at, but it can be hard to work out on your own because you don’t always know where to go.

“Having a guide to show us all the best spots meant we stopped at places I’d never known about and ate cuisine I’d never even heard of. It was just another authentic slice of life; a really wonderful way to see the city.”

Any of these highlight experiences can be included on a tailor-made trip to Laos, Thailand, or both when you plan your trip with us. We’ve got a sample itinerary for inspiration, but it’s always worth speaking to one of our team to build a trip just for you.


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