Small Groups: Never more than 10-16 travelers—guaranteed!
Visit Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam, the area once called Indochina by French colonists. With a diverse cultural inheritance from India, Thailand, and China; ancient imperial histories; a mixture of Hindu and Buddhist religions; and the romantic remnants of French Colonial architecture, Indochina is the perfect setting for a thrilling OAT adventure. On this in-depth journey through Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam, we delve into the distant past. You’ll explore the UNESCO World Heritage Sites of Bangkok, Luang Prabang, and Angkor Wat ... discover the lost kingdoms of the Khmer, the Lao, and the Vietnamese ... and tour some of Southeast Asia’s most impressive temples and palaces. Along the way, you’ll meet local residents in their villages and schools; uncover traditional crafts like silk-weaving and paper-making; and discover some of the region's most remote locales. It’s an adventure like no other.
Fly overnight from the U.S. to Bangkok, losing one day en route as you cross the International Date Line over the Pacific.
You will be met by your OAT Trip Leader and transferred to our hotel. Here, we'll be joined by travelers who took our optional Burma & the Irrawaddy River or Bali pre-trip extensions.
After breakfast at our hotel, enjoy a tour of Bangkok. Step into the Old Kingdom of Siam at the Grand Palace of Thailand, a sprawling compound of ceremonial halls, gilded spires, and ornate buildings. The ancient city’s defining landmark since 1782, the palace became the centerpiece of a new Thai capital called Krung Thep ("City of Angels"), known outside of Thailand as Bangkok. It was King Mongkut (or Rama IV) who ruled from this palace, expanded trade with the West, and was romanticized in the musical The King and I. Tonight, we’ll gather as a group for a Welcome Dinner.
Today is free to explore Bangkok or your own. Or, you can join an optional tour to the ancient city of Ayutthaya. This UNESCO World Heritage Site was home to 33 kings from many different dynasties. The capital of Siam from 1353 to 1767, the city was once a place of such fabulous wealth that early travelers described its “2,000 spires clad in gold.”
This optional tour begins with a coach ride to Wat Yai Chai Mongkol (wat is Thai for temple), flanked by a row of saffron-draped Buddha statues. Although its stones were laid centuries ago in 1357, the site still functions as a meditation center today. Next, we continue on to Wat Mongkol Bophit, which houses the largest seated bronze Buddha statue in Thailand, and Wat Phra Sri Sanphet. We’ll have a chance to walk around the local market, browsing snacks and handcrafts. For a different side local life, we’ll also stop at the Elephant Camp to visit with Thailand’s national animal. We pause for lunch, included with the tour, and our excursion concludes with a cruise on a motorized “long tail” boat—so named for its long, thin design. As we coast, we’ll see villagers going about their daily routines at temples, schools, markets, and even churches and mosques near the river banks. We return to Bangkok in time for dinner on your own tonight.
After breakfast at our hotel, we depart for the airport for our flight to Luang Prabang, Laos.
Luang Prabang is the ancient, royal capital of Laos, located on a peninsula between the Mekong and Khan rivers with green mountains all around. The city is recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and considered one of the wonders of Southeast Asia.
After checking into our hotel, we enjoy some free time for lunch on your own, and we gather again for an orientation walk around the neighborhood. Set in spectacular scenery, Luang Prabang is famous for the more than 30 active temples and hundreds of architectural treasures that reside here. This is a working city, not a museum, and we will mingle with monks and local people heading to market and going about their daily business. Notice the many 19th-century French Colonial villas mixed in with the more traditional Lao-style homes.
We’ll continue to the royal temple Wat Xieng Thong, the oldest in the city. Originally built of wood in 1513, it was reconstructed in brick and stucco following a fire in the late 19th century.
Then, depart for Phousi Hill, in the center of the old town. Here you’ll climb the 328 steps and at the top, overlook most of Luang Prabang. You’ll enjoy views of the Khan and Mekong rivers, and if the weather obliges, enjoy a colorful sunset.
We’ll visit the night markets, and then we’ll have dinner at a local restaurant.
Today we explore the Royal Palace in the cooler hours of morning. We see the Royal Palace Museum, which was built from 1904-1909 during the reign of King Sisavang Vong and served as his palace. Today it is a museum where you can see the royal throne and other artifacts. The building itself is a fine example of the French beaux-arts style and traditional Lao artwork. The ground floor of the museum is divided into several halls and rooms displaying gifts from other countries to the Lao kings and collections of swords and Buddha images.
From there, we ride a jumbo tuk-tuk to one of the longest rivers in the world. The Mekong River, or “mother of all rivers,” supports 90 million people who produce 54,000 square miles of rice every year. Also home to more species of giant fish than any other river, this majestic waterway is said to produce balls of light along its surface, which the locals attribute to the Phaya Naga, or Mekong Dragons. We cruise its waters to Pak Ou Cave, filled with thousands of Buddha icons, as well as rural villages known for producing a local rice "whiskey" and handmade paper.
A motorcoach brings us back to Luang Prabang for some leisure time, and dinner is at a local restaurant.
Today we rise very early to participate in an ancient Buddhist tradition: alms-giving to local monks. In the quiet of early morning (around 5am), we watch as hundreds of monks from the nearby Buddhist temples parade solemnly and single-file through the streets of Luang Prabang, collecting food offerings from the citizens who, in turn, receive prayers for their families and friends from the monks. Dressed in traditional Lao orange robes, the monks provide a sense of calm and solemnity to the inhabitants of the city each morning.
Next, we get an in-depth look at what life is like in present-day Laos, as we head to Tin Keo Village. Here, we’ll get to meet young students a local elementary school, supported in part by Grand Circle Foundation through our World Classroom initiative. We’ll then walk to a nearby village of the Hmong hill tribe, an indigenous people of Laos’ northern highlands. Here, we’ll be welcomed inside the home of a local shaman and witness a traditional musical performance. Then, after a lively discussion with village leaders, you’ll also enjoy a Home-Hosted Lunch, which you’ll help to prepare.
Our afternoon continues at the jungle oasis of Kuang Si Waterfall. Emerging from the vegetation, the falls spill off a limestone cliff into a series of tiered pools. We’ll have time to swim in the baby-blue waters or hike around the shaded grounds.
We return to Luang Prabang by late afternoon. Enjoy an evening at leisure and dinner on your own.
Enjoy a morning for free time and lunch on your own, before we take a short flight to Vientiane, Laos’ easygoing capital. Despite its growing population, the city still retains a small-town feel: Laundry dries in the sun on French-style balconies, and street vendors spread out their wares on blankets and banana leaves. When we arrive in the capital this afternoon, we’ll take a brief orientation walk, witnessing group aerobics at Chao Anouvong Park, and moving on to explore the golden-domed Phra That Luang (Great Sacred Stupa), a national symbol of Laos built in the 16th century.
The rest of the afternoon will be yours to spend as you like. Dinner this evening is at our hotel.
We have breakfast at our hotel and then set out to explore Vientiane. Pronounced “Vieng Chan,” the capital of Laos is a slow-paced, friendly city of some 600,000 people.
The city was built around the twelfth century as an early center for commerce in the region. We start our explorations with a visit to the Patuxay Victory Gate Monument. We also visit the Haw Phra Kaew (House of the Emerald Buddha), which contains some of the best Buddhist sculptures in Laos. Nearby stands Wat Sisaket, the oldest monastery in Vientiane, which dates back to 1818. The temple contains a total of 6,840 Buddha statues in varying sizes and positions. The inner walls of the temple itself hold thousands of Buddha statues in specially carved niches.
We'll have lunch together. Then you are free to spend the afternoon exploring Vientiane at your own pace and enjoy dinner on your own.
After breakfast at the hotel, we head to the airport for our flight to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, the country’s largest city.
While many locals still call the city Saigon, the city was officially renamed Ho Chi Minh City in 1976. We embark on an included city tour this afternoon, discovering the French Quarter and the Catholic Cathedral of Notre Dame. Dressed in beautiful stained glass, the church was completed in 1880 and is said to stand on the site of an old pagoda. We also see the architecture of the majestic Post Office, built during the same time period and featuring two enormous murals depicting maps of Vietnam as it was many decades ago.
Later, we visit the Minh Phuong lacquer workshop, where we learn how local craftsmen create their specialty products, and explore the landmark Ben Thanh market, where local merchants peddle everything from carved wooden animals and coffee beans to delicately painted cookware to take home as a souvenir.
Dinner is at the hotel tonight.
After breakfast this morning, we visit the Cu Chi Tunnels—a 125-mile-long underground maze where thousands of fighters and villagers hid and fought during the Vietnam War, referred to by locals as the “American War.” The South Vietnamese Communists, or Viet Cong, built this vast network of tunnels in and around the district of Cu Chi and worked continually over 25 years to expand the multi-level network. The tunnels—which include mess halls, meeting rooms, an operating theater, a tiny cinema, small factories, and vast ammunition stores—allowed the Viet Cong to control large areas near Saigon. Today, the Cu Chi tunnels provide invaluable insight into the war era. We return to Ho Chi Minh City in time for lunch together.
Afterwards, we’ll have a chance to explore the Vietnam History Museum, which holds excellent collections of ceramics, weaponry, and Cham sculpture.
You can spend the balance of your day at leisure, or later this evening, perhaps you’ll join our optional tour to take a cyclo-rickshaw ride, seeing the city's narrow streets the way the locals do. Your destination is a local theater, where you’ll watch a traditional Vietnamese water puppet show, Mua Roi Nuoc, which uses water for the stage and depicts humorous tales from Vietnamese folklore. After the show, we'll visit the Saigon Culinary Center for a hands-on cooking demonstration, sampling the fruits of our labor at the end of this optional tour.
After breakfast, we begin a day-long drive to Chau Doc. We stop en route for lunch in Sa Dec. After lunch, we continue via Long Xuyen, the capital of the An Giang province, to Chau Doc with a stop along the way to see the Cao Dai Temple, or Great Temple of the Holy See. Meaning "high palace," Cao Dai stands nine stories high and wildly mixes the styles, colors, and designs of every Asian religion and culture.
Chau Doc is a beautiful town bordering Cambodia, and as such, it is a rare melting pot of religions and cultures including ethnic Khmer, Cham, Vietnamese, and Chinese people. This evening, we'll visit the home of a local family, with whom we'll share a special dinner.
We rise early this morning to cruise around a local floating fish farm and meet boat people living on the river. Then we bid farewell to Vietnam as we board a speedboat in Chau Doc and travel along the Mekong River into Cambodia. On this breathtaking ride, we’ll pass by thatched-roof villages and modern towns, glittering pagodas, and lush palm-fringed shores dotted with wooden fishing boats.
After checking in to our Phnom Penh hotel in the afternoon, we'll visit the Royal Palace, where King Norodom Sihamoni and former King Norodom Sihanouk live today. The palace was opened in 1870 under King Norodom, and now contains the Royal Residence, the Throne Hall, the Silver Pagoda, and other buildings. Wat Preah Keo Morokat (the Silver Pagoda) serves less as a functioning shrine (no monks currently reside here) than a repository of cultural treasures, such as the famous Emerald Buddha. The pagoda draws its name from the more than 5,000 silver tiles that cover its floor. Dinner is on your own tonight.
After breakfast, we visit the Tuol Sleng Prison Museum and the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek—both grim reminders of Cambodia’s bloody past under Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. It is almost inconceivable to confront the nature of true evil here in this gentle land, but the Buddhist memorial at Choeung Ek commemorates the 1.7 million victims of the 1975-79 Pol Pot genocide. This execution site is one of many throughout Cambodia.
We’ll have lunch a local restaurant before we view the National Museum’s collection of Khmer art, which displays more than 5,000 objects including statues and other artifacts from Angkor Wat. Then you are free to spend the rest of the day exploring on your own. We gather again for dinner at a local restaurant tonight.
Our next stop, the Psar Toul Tom Poung, is nicknamed “the Russian Market” because most of its goods used to be imported from Russia—one of the only countries lend aid to Cambodia in the 1970s. In those days, the market's narrow aisles were the place to buy weapons and drugs, but today, the only contraband we’ll spot is likely knock-off American clothes and counterfeit DVDs. It’s an ideal place to sample tropical fruits, bargain for handmade silver jewelry, and browse local handcrafts.
Then you are free to spend the rest of the day exploring on your own. We gather again for a ride on a remok (Cambodia's three-wheeled motor rickshaw), which brings us to a local restaurant for dinner.
This morning, we depart for Siem Reap. En route, we'll stop in Kampong Thom province for lunch, and we'll also explore the local market and view the ancient Bridge of Kampong Kdei.
After checking into our hotel in Siem Reap late this afternoon, we take a brief tour of the surrounding area, pausing to admire the grounds of the Royal Residence before strolling the lush Royal Independence Gardens nearby. The cry of flying foxes and the sweet smell of lotus flowers will likely welcome us to this lovely park of lily ponds and lush green space. We’ll enjoy dinner tonight at a local restaurant.
This morning, you can enjoy free time to explore the charming shops and cafes of Siem Reap, or choose to join our optional tour to visit Banteay Srei, one of the oldest and most beautifully preserved temple sites in Cambodia. Built in AD 967, Banteay Srei means “Citadel of Women,” and is recognized as a tribute to the female beauty. The sandstone structures here have been carved with detail as intricate as a woven tapestry—a testament to the craft of the original artisans. The temple rises out of a tangle of forest some 20 miles from Angkor. This tour includes lunch, and also offers a glimpse into the daily life of rural Cambodia, as we stop to visit basket weavers, palm sugar farmers, and a Khmer noodle maker.
In the afternoon, we’ll all gather for a cruise on Tonle Sap Lake, which translates to "Great Fresh Water Lake," and arrive at an agricultural village. Here, we'll speak with a farmer in his home and take a ride in his water buffalo cart to learn more about his way of life. We return to our hotel for dinner together.
Today we'll venture into the heart of ancient Angkor, a holy city that took centuries to build and whose scale is still breathtaking today—it sprawls across an area of roughly 96 square miles. The Khmer aristocrats who built the temples and monuments here between AD 800-1200 were motivated by their Hindu and Buddhist beliefs.
We’ll begin at the South Gate of Angkor Thom, the capital city of Khmer rulers. We’ll see the Bayon, and make brief stops at Baphoun and the Elephants Terrace, where amazing bas-reliefs depict the huge beasts almost life-sized. At the nearby Terrace of the Leper King, equally intricate wall carvings depict rank after rank of court attendants and mystical rulers. We conclude our explorations of Angkor’s most notable features with a visit to Ta Prohm. Unlike Angkor Wat, Ta Prohm has been left the way it was found, covered by a dense jungle of trees and roots and allowing you to discover this archaeological treasure just as it was found by the French in the mid-1800s.
After lunch at our hotel, we’ll visit Angkor Wat, a masterpiece of Khmer architecture, and enjoy a rice-wine toast. Angkor Wat is a large pyramid temple, built between 1113 and 1150, surrounded by a great moat 570 feet wide. Note the bas-relief carvings throughout the temple, and take a moment to stand in the courtyard of this temple whose towers represent Mount Meru, the center of all physical and spiritual universes and the home to many gods in Hindu and Buddhist mythologies.
Dinner is on your own tonight.
After a morning at leisure, we'll transfer to the Siem Reap airport and fly to Bangkok, where we stay overnight. In the evening, we board a traditional wooden rice barge for our Farewell Dinner. We’ll cruise past the Temple of the Dawn and the Grand Palace, both of which are spectacular by moonlight.
We rise before daybreak for an early morning flight back to the U.S. Or, begin post-trip extension to Undiscovered Thailand.