About Cambodia and Laos
Battambang: Founded in the 11th century by the Khmer Empire, Battambang is known as the leading rice-producing province of the country. For more than five centuries, it was the main commercial center of Siam’s Eastern Provinces, although it was always populated by Khmer with a mix of ethnic Vietnamese, Lao, Thai and Chinese. Today, this bustling provincial capital is in western Cambodia on the banks of the Sangker River. It connects the region with Phnom Penh and Thailand. The city has some of the best-preserved French Colonial architecture in the country. It also has the Battambang Museum and Wat Piphit Temple. Outside the city north of the Cobra Bridge are the ruins of Ek Phnom, built during the Bayon period. Sadly, much of the temple has fallen and been heavily looted. Wat Ek Phnom shows remnants of a once impressive temple. It sits next to a large pond behind a contemporary Buddha statue that is 28 m/93 ft. tall.
Cambodia’s Southern Coast: Still largely unspoiled, Cambodia’s Southern Coast is quickly gaining a reputation for its beauty and charm. Sihanoukville is a relatively new town, created during the Indochinese wars so that Cambodia would have a deep-water port. Named after King Sihanouk, the area was originally known as Kompong Som. Today, it is one of Cambodia’s ports for overseas trade and features luxury hotels and splendid tropical beaches. East of Sihanoukville lies Kampot and Kep, two true Cambodian gems. Kampot is the launching point for the spectacular Bokor National Park, originally a hill station built by the French in the 1920s as a retreat from the heat of the plains. The Old French Palace was constructed by French settlers between 1917 and 1925 for the French social elites. In the 1950-60s, it was a casino during the time of Prince Sihanouk, and often used as a movie location. The ruins of the once-palace are a haunting reminder of a different era. Nearby are salt farms, caves and river boat trips. A sleepy destination, Kampot is a short distance to the sea and the seaside town of Kep. Once stylish with the French elite, it was known as La Perle de la Cote d’ Agathe, with a lovely bay and offshore islands. Kompong Som, Cambodia’s only maritime port is 232 km/144 mi. from Phnom Penh and accessible via one of the best inter-provincial roads in the country. Kompong Som is famous for its postcard-perfect tropical beaches. Local fishermen take visitors to any one of the nearby islands where the coral teeming with tropical fish is ideal for snorkeling and diving.
Cardamom Mountains, Koh Kong Province: The mountains are home to sites that date between the 15th and 17th centuries. Scattered through the mountains are exotic ceramic jars, about 60 cm/24 in. high, and rough-hewn log coffins set out on remote, natural rock ledges. These jar burials were a previously unrecorded burial practice of the Khmer culture. Local legends suggest the bones are the remains of Cambodian royalty. The largely inaccessible mountain range formed one of the last strongholds of the Khmer Rouge during the Cambodian–Vietnamese War. The Thai border to the west allowed for Chinese support to enter the area. Eventually, it became a sanctuary for fleeing Khmer fighters and refugees. The region’s inaccessibility helps protect the area. In 2008, Wildlife Alliance launched a community-based ecotourism program in the village of Chi-Phat, the “gateway to the Cardamoms”. Today, the village is considered a model for community based ecotourism.
Mondulkiri: Mondulkiri is a Cambodian province that borders Vietnam to the east and south. It is the most sparsely populated region in the country despite being the largest inland area. It is known for forested hills, wild rivers, waterfalls, swimming holes and wildlife. Powerful waterfalls include Bou Sra, the largest three-tiered waterfall. A zipline runs above the waterfall. Romnea Waterfall is actually one of three large waterfalls that has now been deforested and privatised. Similarly, Mondulkiri faces hreats from illegal logging of its virgin tropical forests. This is the location of the renowned Mondulkiri Project, which aims to protect Asian elephants that were previously used to carry tourists or for heavy farm work. The elephants at the sanctuary spend all their time in protected forest. This area is also home to the elusive fresh water river dolphin on the Mekong. The Irrawaddy dolphins, known for their bulging foreheads and short snouts, once swam through much of the Mekong river but in recent decades have been limited to a 190 km/118 mi. stretch from central Cambodia to its northern border with Laos.
NOTE: The project does not permit anyone to sit on or ride the elephants. Big Five supports their position, and we do not offer elephant-back safaris in our journeys.
Phnom Penh: This is said to be one of the prettiest of the French-built cities of Indochina. Cambodia’s capital city sits at the union of three rivers: Mekong, Bassac and Tonlé Sap. Its broad boulevards, old colonial buildings and parks are a tranquil contrast to the energy of the historic city center with its labyrinth of narrow lanes, markets, food stalls and shops. The royal palace compound includes Chan Chhaya Pavilion for dance performances; the king’s official residence; and the spectacular Silver Pagoda with its exquisite floor covered with 5,000 individually crafted silver tiles. Independence Monument was built in 1958 to commemorate Cambodia’s autonomy from France. Tuol Sleng Museum (Museum of Genocide) was a school until the 1970s when the Khmer Rouge turned it into a notorious prison. Over 17,000 people were taken from here to the extermination camp at one of many Killing Fields. A period of reconstruction was spurred by the continuing stability of government that led to new foreign investment. The preAngkor site of Sambor Prei Kuk is away from the crowds as it is 206 km/128 mi. north of Phnom Penh. The now ruined site is part of the Chenla Kingdom, between the late sixth to the ninth centuries. Prasat Sambor is considered the main temple, while Prasat Yeah Puon incorporates 22 sanctuaries, both originated in the seventh century.
Siem Reap: Siem Reap province sits in northwest Cambodia, and has become a major tourist hub due to its proximity to the remarkable, world-renown temple complex of Angkor. Siem Reap has colonial and Chinese architecture in the Old French Quarter and around the Old Market. Museums, traditional Apsara dance performances, a Cambodian cultural village, souvenir and handicraft shops, in addition to a vibrant dining scene are all found in the city. Silk farms, rice-paddies and fishing villages are further outside the city. A bird sanctuary is near the Tonle Sap Lake. Long thought to be mere myth, Angkor was rediscovered by Henri Mahout in 1860. The fortified city of Angkor Thom covers an area of ten sq. km/3.8 sq. mi. Enclosed by a wall and wide moats, the city includes many of Angkor’s popular sights: the famous south gate, Terrace of the Elephants and the Terrace of the Leper Kings. Bayon Temple features long galleries of incredibly beautiful and delicate bas reliefs.
Hill Tribe Provinces of Northern Laos: The towns and provinces of northern Laos, including Oudomxai, Phongsali, Muang Khua, Nong Khiaw, offer travelers the increasingly uncommon opportunity to engage with a rapidly disappearing way of life. Distinctive traditional cultures of the hill tribe minority villages include Ban Song Cha, Ban Luang Cheng, Na Sao, Na La, and Muang Ngo. For now, these people cling to their generations-old traditions. The Ou River comes from the Chinese frontier, flowing south and southwest through the gorges and mountain valleys of the northernmost part of Laos. The river joins the Mekong River at Ban Pak Ou near Luang Prabang. At the confluence of the two rivers, the well-known Pak Ou Caves are home to thousands of Buddha statues placed over centuries.
Luang Prabang: On a small peninsula surrounded by mountains, Luang Prabang seems cocooned in time. In 1353, the first Lao Kingdom was formed, and this site at the junction of the Mekong and the Khan rivers became the capital and royal residence. In the 16th century, the Laos capital was moved to Vientiane. Luang Prabang architecture blends traditional Buddhist and European styles in its many temples, stupas, monasteries and palaces. Every morning, hundreds of monks from the various monasteries walk through the streets collecting alms. A major landmark in the city is a steep hill on which sits Wat Chom Si with its gilded stupa. Some 328 steps lead up to the stupa. This is regarded as one of the most revered spots in Luang Prabang. At a forest camp outside the city, an elephant encounter explores the conservation efforts for Asian elephants.
Nam Et-Phou Louey: Nam Et-Phou Louey National Biodiversity Conservation Area is a protected region in northern Laos, covering some 5,959 sq. km/2,301 sq. mi. in three provinces: Houaphan, Luang Prabang, and Xieng Khouang. The park includes a large 3,000 sq. km/1158 sq. mi. core area where human access and wildlife harvesting is prohibited. A conservation group supports some of the region’s most endangered wildlife.
The topography is mostly mountainous with primary forest remaining in many areas and a high level of biodiversity that includes tiger, gaur, Sambar deer, white-cheeked gibbon, sun bear, black bear, Asian elephant, dhole, hornbill and three species of otter. It is the source of many rivers. Villagers living in the Nam Et-Phou Louey National Park include Tai Dam, Tai Daeng, Tai Kao, Tai Puan, Tai Lue, Tai Yuan, Khmu, Hmong Kao, Hmong Lai, and Yao. Further north, the historic network of Vieng Xai caves were used as living quarters, markets, hospitals and government bureaucracies during the war, 1964-1975. Here is the remarkable of the Plain of Jars with mysterious groups of stone jars scattered on the landscape. Their purpose is still uncertain, but some believe they may have been used during funerals.
Pakbeng and Huay Xai: Pakbeng is a small village on the Mekong River that serves as major stopover for boats traveling from Luang Prabang to Huay Xai. Several hill tribes are nearby. Huay Xai is the capital of the Lao province of Bokeo on the border with Thailand. The town lies on the Mekong River opposite Chiang Khong in Thailand. It is the northernmost border crossing between the two countries. The Mekong is the seventh longest in Asia, and the lifeblood of the region. About 80% of the protein for Cambodians comes from fish. River cruising along the Mekong can include sailing to My Tho, 70 km/43 mi to the south. Cai Be has a colorful floating market. Local sampans come from all provinces of the delta to sell fruits and vegetables. Along the river, scenes of daily life are carried out on the islands of the Mekong River as they have been for generations.
Pakse: Pakse is the capital and most populous city of the southern Laotian province of Champasak, and the second most populous city in Laos. At the confluence of the Xe Don and Mekong Rivers, it was the capital of the Kingdom of Champasak until 1946 when Laos became unified. The French founded this as an administrative outpost in 1905. The city served as the primary seat and residence to Prince Boun Oum Na Champassak, an important figure in the Laotian Civil War. He built Champasak Palace, but fled in 1974 before it was completed. Since 1975, Pakse has become an economic power and important region. The city has the Champasak Provincial Museum, which holds historical documents and artifacts of the province. Wat Luang is the most beautiful temple of Pakse, and is home of Buddhist Monk School. Here, a monk alms giving ceremony can be witnessed without a throng of onlookers. Wat Phabad is the oldest and largest temple of Pakse, and is believed to have a Buddha footprint for which it is named. Ban Keosamphanh is a former French army camp and site of the oldest market.
Vientiane: Vientiane, the capital of Laos, is peaceful compared to other Asian capitals, and like all of Laos’ major cities, it spreads out along the banks of Mekong River. Its population, roughly 450,000, accounts for about 10% of country’s total. The remnants of French Colonialism are strong: colonial buildings nudge up to gilded temples and French bakeries sit amid shops selling noodle soup. The city’s most famous landmark is That Luang (Royal Stupa), constructed in 1566 and restored in 1935. Wat Xieng Khouang (Buddha Park), about a half-hour drive outside the city, is known for its huge structures that combine Buddhist and Hindu philosophies. Wat Sisaket features over 6,800 Buddha images. The temple only dates to 1818, but it is the oldest surviving temple in Vientiane. The Revolutionary Museum displays art and artifacts from the Lao People’s Revolution.
Best Time to Go
Cambodia’s dry season lasts from October to April, with the wet season running from May to September. The heaviest rainfall generally comes in August and September. Average temperatures range from 24° C/75° F in the cooler months of October, November and December to 35° C/95° F at the hottest time of the year from March until June. Laos shares similar seasons with the dry season from October to April, and the wet season runs from May until September, with the heaviest rains generally in August and September, especially in the south. The hottest time of the year in Laos is typically between March and June, when temperatures can climb to 35° C/95° F and above.
SPECIAL NOTE ABOUT ELEPHANTS: *Elephant-back safaris:
Please note that Big Five does not participate in any elephant-back safaris. The decision was made due to the abusive way some of animals are trained and treated. Based on our founding principles, our approach to animal welfare issues, and our sustainable principles, we agree with many others who are against any abusive methods of training or mistreatment. Please note that this decision does not reflect on those properties and parks who do things the right way.
Day 1: Luang Prabang, Laos
Luang Prabang’s city center is a UNESCO World Heritage Cultural Site with old-world markets and dramatic scenery.
Day 2: Luang Prabang
This charming town, its superb surroundings and welcoming people are best encountered on foot or by bicycle.
Day 3: Luang Prabang
A session in Lao cooking in the home of a local family home makes for a unique encounter and a memorable experience. Here, too, is an elephant conservation center that puts the happiness and well being of these gentle giants as the first priority.
Day 4: Luang Prabang / Pakse
Rural Southern Laos offers a glimpse into a world that has largely remained unchanged for decades.
Day 5: Pakse
Wat Phabad is the oldest, largest temple in Pakse, and is believed to have a Buddha footprint for which the temple is named. Cruises on the mighty Mekong River explore some of Laos’ 4,000 islands.
Day 6: Pakse / Siem Reap, Cambodia
Siem Reap province is a major tourism hub due to its proximity to the remarkable, stellar temple city of Angkor, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Day 7: Siem Reap
The temple complexes of Angkor are intriguing and incredibly beautiful, created by artisans and laborers from the ninth to 15th centuries. Together, these monuments and, in places, piles of stone rubble, represent the world’s largest single religious monument.
Day 8: Siem Reap
Early each morning, monks and nuns chant as they move down the street with their offering bowls collecting alms. Nearby villages are worth visiting to gain a deeper understanding of Khmer life.
Day 9: Siem Reap / Phnom Penh
Phnom Penh, Cambodia ‘s capital, is one of the prettiest French-built cities of Indochina and sits at the union of three rivers: Mekong, Bassac and Tonlé Sap.
Day 10: Phnom Penh
Phnom Penh’s Central Market was built in the shape of a dome with four arms branching out into vast hallways with countless stalls of goods. Just far enough from the city to be uncrowded, the pre-Angkorian Sambor Prei Kuk dates from the seventh to ninth centuries.
Day 11: Phnom Penh / Depart
Battambang (2 days)
The city has some of the best-preserved French Colonial architecture in the country.
Southern Coast (4 days)
Unspoiled and untouched, Cambodia’s Southern Coast is quickly gaining notoriety for its beauty and charm.
Cardamom Mountains, Koh Kong Province (3 days)
Track wildlife with rangers and learn about endangered species and the perils they face in one of Southeast Asia’s largest remaining tracts of forest.
Mondulkiri (3 days)
The area is known for forested hills, wild rivers, waterfalls, swimming holes and an elephant conservation camp.
Hill Tribe Provinces of Northern Laos (6 days)
Northern Laos is rich with traditional cultures found in minority villages scattered throughout the mountains. These communities strive to hold on to a way of life that most people have left behind.
Nam Et-Phou Louey (6 days)
National Biodiversity Conservation Area, a protected area in northern Laos, supports a high level of biodiversity that includes tiger, gaur and Sambar deer. Further north, the Vieng Xai caves were used as living quarters, hospitals and more during the war, 1964-1975.
Pakbeng and Huay Xai (3 days)
Small pak boats travel the Mekong River, along which traditional cultures and local hill tribes still thrive.
$500-$700 per person per day. Land only, double occupancy.