Indochina is one of our most popular regions, but the more we visit, the more we uncover. Our specialists report back from Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam to reveal their latest discoveries.
As more and more travellers discover Indochina, its proverbial ‘parts unknown’ destinations become ever more attractive to visitors. As Southeast Asia’s only landlocked country, Laos remains one of our favourite intrepid spots. While our travellers have explored the Northern Loop near Luang Prabang for a few years now, there is a certain air around the country that makes it still feel well and truly untamed.
Meanwhile, old favourites Cambodia and Vietnam continue to deliver surprises and adventure in equal measure. Our experts have just returned from all three countries to tell us of their most recent discoveries.
Explore Laos' far north by Alex
River travel from Muang La to Nong Khiaw
When I left the UNESCO World Heritage Site and cultural epicentre of Luang Prabang behind, the criss-crossed rivers and epic jungle scenery astounded me. I had planned on taking a nap on the four-hour drive to Muang La, but the rolling hillsides were well worth staying wide-eyed and awake for.
For me, the allure of Muang La was, and still is, the unique cultures that live in the villages dotted along its hills. It’s almost as if the sides of the mountains were sticky paper, and the villages thrown onto the surface.
The Akha, Hmong, and Ikho tribes that live in these hillside communities vary enormously — some emigrated from Burma (Myanmar) while others made their way to Laos from China and Mongolia hundreds of years ago. I saw children ‘sledding’ down the slopes from one house to another, pigs and dogs taking refuge from the sun together and village elders wearing beautiful woven headdresses.
The only place to stay is the Muang La Lodge, situated on the Nam Phak River. One of our favourite places to stay in all of Southeast Asia, the lodge yields the best food I’ve ever had in Laos — their steamed fish flan was particularly good. Your choice of guided trekking, cycling or a 4x4 drive through the hills is included. The real treat: a visit to the natural hot springs — a popular spot with local people — where you can rest your bones with a soothing dip after a day of exploring.
Muang La Lodge
The lodge on the Nam Phak River
Journey east to Nam Et-Phou Louey National Park by Mark
This national park, in the northeast of Laos, is one of the last untouched jungle regions of Indochina. This protected area is home to a number of endangered creatures, including three species of otter, and although it’s rare that you’d catch sight of them, it certainly feels as though they could be hidden around any corner.
We began our exploration perched on the back of a local tractor, as it climbed the rough, muddy terrain to where we would start the trek. Once inside the jungle canopy, I felt as though I was in another world. The rough path led us through rivers and over fallen trees as we wound our way through the dense vegetation and towards our camp for the night — a set of wicker ‘nests’ suspended just above the ground.
The best opportunity to spot shy wildlife, such as a sambar deer, is at a nearby salt lick, which I visited in the evening and, again, first thing in the morning before trekking back to the village. The local welcomed us back with generous amounts of rice wine.
The experience is run by a local conservation group, who are using camera traps to accurately document the wildlife here.
A boat trip in Nam Et-Phou Louey National Park
Enjoy Laos’ little-visited central region by Melissa
Beginning in the capital, Vientiane, I travelled overland to Hin Boun National Park. Along the five-hour drive I passed crops of flowering tobacco plants, with the forested karst scenery of the Annamite Mountains in the background.
That evening, I was staying at the SpringRiver Resort, nestled on a tributary of the Hin Boun River. My basic bungalow overlooked the river and nearby karst cliffs, which were within swimming distance. I spent the evening sipping on a fruit smoothie, watching as the sun set.
The following day, I set off to explore Kong Lor Cave. After a short walk, accompanied by a cloud of butterflies dancing around me, I boarded our longtail boat and journeyed through a dramatic water cave with only my head torch as a guide. I stopped in the centre of the cave to explore the stalagmite and stalactite structures hidden inside.
Leaving the relative ‘civilisation’ of Hin Boun behind, I travelled through central Laos before arriving at the Nam Theun National Protected Area (NPA). En route I learnt more about the contemporary issues and problems that face Laos today, particularly how the hydroelectric dams have impacted on the area.
Hin Boun, Laos
The largest hydroelectric dam in Laos, Nam Theun 2, is located in this area and is responsible for creating the Nam Ngum reservoir. As we travelled closer to the reservoir, we were met with eerily beautiful landscapes of many theatrical tree stumps bending and twisting out of the water, which were left behind after the dam flooded the forest floor.
Arriving at the town of Na Kai, we met our guide for the next few days, a young Laotian entrepreneur called Amphai. During our first lunch together, she explained about the Anoulak Project, which is located deep inside the NPA. The project aims to conserve the white-cheeked gibbons who reside in the park.
We packed our belongings onto our longtail sampan and began our journey cruising through the reservoir, weaving in and out of the tree stumps to reach the Nam Xod River.
After stopping at the local village for supplies, we travelled further upriver and stopped at a deserted beach to set up camp. Our boat driver disappeared into the jungle and returned with bamboo, which he then used to build a structure in the sand; we later discovered that this was to be our toilet for the night.
We sat around the campfire in the evening and enjoyed barbecued fish accompanied by fresh salad and hot tea. The sun set over the river as the sounds of the forest rang out and the night sky twinkled with stars. We told stories while fireflies danced around the edge of the banks, before retiring to our tents for the night.
The following morning I woke up in time to see the sun rise, only to find Amphai already cooking fresh eggs on the campfire. I could hear deep booms and clicks coming
from inside the forest: the early morning calls of the gibbons.
After breakfast we headed away from camp and followed Amphai through the thick forest, following the course of a small stream. She cleared the thick undergrowth in front of us and we scrambled over rocks, heading towards the sound of water. Our destination was Tad Yim waterfall (meaning ‘smile’ in Laotian).
Later I discovered that I was one of just ten people from outside Laos to have visited the NPA — it felt like a real honour.
Adventures in Cambodia
Consider extending your trip by crossing the border into some of the lesser-known areas of Cambodia. Indochina specialist Heidi recently explored the remote temples of Preah Vihear and Koh Ker. The Angkor-era temple Preah Vihear sits 1,640 feet above the rest of Cambodia on a plateau in the Dangrek Mountains.
The site was the last settlement for the Khmer Rouge and was in constant dispute between Thailand and Cambodia for some time. My guide and I hopped in a 4x4 and were driven part of the way to the temple complex which sits proudly atop a large hill. From here, we walked the length of Preah Vihear, exploring its crumbling sanctuaries and staircases by foot, which are almost completely undisturbed by visitors.
As we walked, my guide painted a picture of this temple’s beauty and religious importance. Dating back to the 9th century, the temple is dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva, and, due to its remoteness, remains well preserved. As I reached the edge of the plateau, my mind was brought back to the present day as we were greeted with a fine panoramic view over Cambodia's endless plains.
The central sanctuary at Preah Vihear
The next day, I continued my adventure further out from Siem Reap, at the Koh Ker a complex, which was once capital of the Angkorian Empire. It’s since been reclaimed by endless thick jungle. At the top of Prasat Thom, Koh Ker’s most arresting pyramid-like temple, the extent of the rainforest can be fully appreciated.
By cycling the red-earth roads below, I could access various temples hidden beneath the jungle canopy — many slowly smothered by probing tree roots. While they may not be as grand as sites like Angkor Wat, the sheer isolation of Koh Ker’s temples helped me to envision how it would have felt to be alive during the time of the Khmer Empire.
Slow the pace down by relaxing on one of Vietnam’s golden swathes of sand. Just 15 minutes’ drive from Hoi An, Four Seasons Resort The Nam Hai is perfectly placed to combine a beach stay with exploring Hoi An’s UNESCO-listed old town or My Son’s Cham ruins.
Alternatively, head to La Veranda Phu Quoc, set on a lesser-seen island off south Vietnam. Here, you can combine a week’s beach time with a few days exploring the historic sights of Hanoi.