The Bucket List: 11 Reasons Why Laos & Cambodia Are The Backpacker Dream
We're seriously considering moving to Vang Vieng permanently...
Whether you’re planning the ultimate gap year trip or simply looking for a new place to explore on your next holiday, deciding where to go can be an absolute nightmare.
There are so many incredible places to see in so little time, but luckily there's now super-cool technology out there to do the choosing for you!
We chatted to Contiki's bot (the fittingly named Tiki), and took a fun quiz that determined our travel style and dream location to visit.
Hilariously, we didn't even know where we were heading until 24 hours before jetting off.
But Tiki did not disappoint, and sent us on an incredible nine-day trip across Laos and Cambodia - starting in Laos’ ancient capital Luang Prabang, travelling down to the backpacking haven of Vang Vieng, across to the modern capital Vientiane, on to Cambodia’s capital city Phnom Penh, and then finishing up in Siem Reap.
WATCH WHAT WE GOT UP TO IN LAOS & CAMBODIA RIGHT HERE:
From exploring the ancient Angkor Watt temple to kayaking down the Nam Song River, it really was the trip of a lifetime. Don’t believe us? Check out more of what we got up to below...
Take a dip in a crystal blue waterfall
We may have spent hours scrolling through the Laos & Cambodia hashtags on Instagram before we left home, but nothing could’ve prepared us for just how beautiful the landscapes really are. We’d only been in Laos for a matter of hours when we discovered actual paradise at the Kuang Si Falls in Luang Prabang.
Get closer to nature
As if swimming in the crystal blue water at Kuang Si Falls wasn’t an experience enough in itself, there’s also a bear sanctuary within the grounds of the park. Tat Kuang Si Bear Rescue Centre is home to moon bears who have been rescued from bile farms, illegal poaching and the wildlife trade, and watching them bask in the sun was an unexpected treat.
The bears weren’t the only animals we fell in love with in South East Asia, though. We saw so many cute doggos that we even dedicated a whole album to them on Instagram!
Experience ancient Buddhist traditions
Despite both countries being popular with tourists and backpackers, Laos & Cambodia have remained quite traditional, especially when it comes to religion. During our trip we took part in an Alms Giving ceremony in Luang Prabang where you offer food to the passing monks to contribute to their one(!) daily meal.
We were also lucky enough to be invited to a Baci ceremony in Vang Vieng and had symbolic white threads tied around our wrists for good luck.
Go kayaking down the Nam Song River
This is definitely up there with our favourite activities from the trip. We might not be the best of rowers, but floating down the river surrounded by some seriously stunning scenery is our new happy place. We’ve genuinely been daydreaming about it at work ever since we got back… (sorry boss!)
Watch the sun set over Siem Reap on a quad bike tour
After we got over the initial nerves of trying to avoid crashing into the dozens of other bikes (and cows!!!) on the roads, we had the absolute time of our lives riding through the countryside as the sun set on our final night in Cambodia.
Feast on some creepy crawlies
If we’re being totally honest, we chickened out of trying any of the food on offer at Siem Reap’s Bug Café, but if the idea of feasting on ant-filled spring rolls and pan-fried scorpions tickles your fancy then this is the place for you! Alternatively, head to any of Cambodia’s many street-food markets and you should be able to find everything from cockroaches on a stick to deep fried tarantulas.
Explore all of the temples
You may think that when you’ve seen one temple you’ve seen them all, but trust us when we say that Laos and Cambodia have some of the most beautiful and downright impressive feats of architecture and design we’ve ever seen. From the beautifully colourful Pha That Luang in Vientiane to the breathtaking Angkor Watt and the actual Tomb Raider temple Ta Prohm in Siem Reap, you really are spoilt for choice.
Go to the circus!
This is an absolute must for anyone staying in Siem Reap! Performers – who often come from difficult backgrounds and are trained up by a non-profit professional arts center – tell stories about Cambodia’s past and present through dance, theatre and breathtaking gymnastics.
Sip on a cocktail named after one of Angelina Jolie’s most famous roles
Yep, not only did we visit the temple where Tomb Raider was filmed, but we also dined at a restaurant the actress frequented while shooting the movie. The Red Piano on Siem Reap’s buzzing pub street serves up a cocktail named Tomb Raider, a delicious concoction of Cointreau, lime juice and tonic water.
Not only that, but they keep a record of how many orders of the drink they receive and every 10th person gets it free while the 500th gets a free shirt AND $100 cash. Not bad, eh?
Visit the COPE Centre in Vientiane
While most of us are taught about the Vietnam war at school, we rarely hear about the tragic pasts of both Laos and Cambodia.
Laos is the most heavily bombed country per capita in history - with US forces dropping the equivalent of a planeload of bombs every 8 minutes, 24-hours a day for 9 years. Many of those bombs are left unexploded in the country today, resulting in multiple deaths and the debilitation of many every year. We visited the COPE centre in Vientiane to learn about the charity work they do to help clear these bombs and also offer support to those left disabled.
Learn about the brutal Khmer Rouge Regime at the Killing Fields and Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum
A visit to these two locations is an absolute must when it comes to understanding Cambodia’s tragic history. An estimated 25% of the population was killed through genocide under the communist party’s regime from 1975-79, and millions of those were killed and buried at the Killing Fields.
We also had the honour of speaking with survivor Chum Mey, who saw his family killed and was held prisoner at the S-21 security prison, a former high-school that now houses the museum.