Blue Orb Travel ‘Best Pick’ Destinations

Add These Often Overlooked Travel Gems to Your Itinerary This Year

          Check out some of John’s favorite places by visiting these Blue Orb ‘Best Picks’ when you travel this summer.  By clicking on the link it will take you to our full article on each travel destination.

Shrewsbury, England

          A charming little town straddling the River Severn near the border with Wales.  Located in County Shropshire, England Shrewsbury is only 170 miles from London.

The River Severn, Shrewsbury, England

The River Severn, Shrewsbury, England

Konigssee, Germany

          This hidden gem of Bavaria is one point on a small tourist triangle that also includes Berchtesgaden with it’s Eagle’s Nest and Salzburg, Austria.  Just 100 miles from Munich, Konigssee is easily accessible by train and you can walk to the lake from the train station.

The Konigssee Lake in Bavaria, Germany

The Konigssee Lake in Bavaria, Germany

Nizhny Novgorod, Russia

          This shining gem just outside the Golden Ring is 260 miles from Moscow and one of the first stops on the Trans Siberian Railway.  Located at the confluence of the Volga and Oka Rivers, Nizhny Novgorod is the third largest city in Russia and is home to a fabulous Kremlin and many splendid cathedrals.

Kremlin at Nizhny Novgorod

Kremlin at Nizhny Novgorod

Luang Prabang, Laos

          Located off the beaten path in the hill country of Laos and accessible only by bus or plane, Luang Prabang is well worth the trip!  This French colonial town on the Mekong River is full of old world charm, wonderful restaurants, great shopping and inexpensive hotels.

Luang Prabang, Laos

Luang Prabang, Crown Jewel of Laos

          Located at the confluence of the Nam Khan and Mekong Rivers in the hill country of northern Laos, Luang Prabang is arguably one of the most important tourist destinations in Southeast Asia.  With its small, but modern airport this resort city can easily be reached from Vientiane, Hanoi, Bangkok and Siem Reap, but the adventurous traveler will want to arrive by bus from Vientiane.  If you choose this route you will be rewarded with a ride through some incredibly beautiful country and will pass through the limestone studded sportsman’s paradise known as Vang Vieng.

The Bus From Vientiane to Luang Prabang

The Bus From Vientiane to Luang Prabang

          After an 11 hour bus ride costing $22, I arrived in Luang Prabang at 8 PM to find the town still bustling with activity.  Just a short walk from the bus station into the center of town, I easily found a nice hotel (for $15!–see below) and was surprised to find shops and travel agencies still open.  After purchasing a $150 plane ticket to Hanoi, Vietnam on Lao Airlines for the following afternoon I walked around until I finally made the difficult choice of where to eat from among the many outstanding French style restaurants in town.

The Northern Hill Country of Laos

The Northern Hill Country of Laos

Resort Atmosphere

          My first impression of Luang Prabang was that it was a quaint little resort town and that it had more visitors than I expected for being so far out in the hinterlands.  That first evening I encountered as many young backpackers as I did well-heeled tourists out enjoying the pleasant weather and the French provincial setting.  With few motor vehicles in the confines of town, the air was clean and fresh and there was a peaceful quiet that was soothing to a weary traveler.  Designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Luang Prabang has retained its timeless charm with a mixture of Buddhist temples and French colonial buildings which line the four main streets located within the confines created by the confluence of the Nam Khan tributary flowing into the mighty Mekong River.

Colonial Architecture

Colonial Architecture

          In the Laotian language Luang Prabang literally means ‘royal Buddha image’.  Its colorful history dates back many centuries and took it through numerous stages including periods where it was part of an independent kingdom, the subject of surrounding empires, a French protectorate and finally the communist country it has become today following the Pathet Lao takeover in 1975.  With the subsequent introduction of capitalism in Laos, Luang Prabang, indeed all of Laos, has made an impressive comeback after many years of depredation and neglect.

The Haw Kham Royal Palace

The Haw Kham Royal Palace

A Walking Tour

          The signature landmark of Luang Prabang is Mount Phousi, a steep hill which rises about 320 feet above the center of town.  While there are temples located throughout the hill, the main attraction is Wat Chom Si with its golden stupa on the summit.  For the admission price of $2.50 and a somewhat arduous climb of 350 steps to the top you get a spectacular 360 degree view of the town, rivers and surrounding countryside.  Cat lovers, in particular, will not want to miss the hike up Mount Phousi, with lazy felines napping at every landing along the way!

Steps to Mount Phousi

Steps to Mount Phousi

          A walk through the main streets of Luang Prabang will take you past many of the beautifully preserved buildings from the French colonial period.  Along the way you will see the Haw Kham Royal Palace built in 1904 which is now a museum and the nearby Wat Mai built in the 18th century, which is the largest temple in town.  Other sights include Wat Wisunalat with its huge golden Buddha built in 1512 and Wat Xieng Thong near the confluence of the rivers.  And if you are lucky you will have an opportunity to see the daily morning alms procession, where food is donated to the Buddhist monks clad in their brilliant orange robes.  Your visit would not be complete without a walk down to the rivers to watch the fishermen and a walk across the Nam Khan River on the old wooden bridge.

Wooden Bridge Over the Nam Khan River

Wooden Bridge Over the Nam Khan River

Eating and Sleeping

          It was a welcome problem to have so many small hotels and guest houses to choose from in Luang Prabang.  The first one I walked into on the evening I arrived ended up being a winner and for $15 I got a nice big room with private bath in a quite section of the ThanaBoun Guest House.  Located right on one of the main streets close to all the sights and restaurants, this small hotel is a great place to stay.  It was clean and safe and the front desk staff members were friendly and helpful.  An internet café is conveniently located in the lobby.  And the price could not be beat.  Southeast Asia is truly the budget traveler’s paradise!

The ThanaBoun Guesthouse

The ThanaBoun Guesthouse

          For dinner I found a wonderful, open-air restaurant called The Pizza Luang Prabang right across the street from the guest house.  It was located on the main floor of one of the quaint, old colonial buildings and the atmosphere on that balmy evening could not have been more pleasant.  For $6.80 I had a delicious pizza and a Beerlao, which is a tasty beer based on locally grown jasmine rice.  Many an evening since I visited Luang Prabang I have wished that I could magically transport myself back so that I can try every one of the fabulous restaurants to be found there.  This wonderful little town is worth the extra effort it takes to get there and you will not want to miss it on your trip through Southeast Asia.

The Pizza Luang Prabang Restaurant

The Pizza Luang Prabang Restaurant

Vientiane, Laos

A Quiet Capital City

          Compared with the capital cities of other countries, Vientiane may seem a little quiet and sleepy to first time visitors, but beneath its placid façade is a vibrant metropolis teeming with friendly inhabitants and interesting sights.  Many tourists will arrive at Nong Khai after the 15 hour overnight train ride from Bangkok, Thailand (Train 69), as I did. The cost for a lower berth was about $24.

Arriving at the Nong Khai, Thailand Railway Station on the Laotian Border

Arriving at the Nong Khai, Thailand Railway Station on the Laotian Border

          Then, for about 64 cents you can purchase a connecting train ticket for the 15 minute ride to Thanaleng by way of the Friendship Bridge over the Mekong River into Laos.  You will exit Thai immigration and then purchase a visa on arrival for Laos in Thanaleng for $35.  From there I took a minivan into Vientiane with seven other travelers who I met on the train, which cost us each about $3.  So, what I thought would be a complicated border crossing turned out to be quite easy and it was fun for those of us traveling on the same train to find our way together.  Once in the city, you can easily walk to many of the major sights and the others can be reached by tuk-tuk or on a rented bicycle.

Getting a 'Visa on Arrival' at Thanaleng, Laos

Getting a ‘Visa on Arrival’ at Thanaleng, Laos

Tuk-Tuk Tour

          Vientiane lies on the eastern side of the Mekong River across from Thailand which flanks the western bank.  As soon as I reached the center of town I found a great little hotel (see below) and then went to the bus station to purchase my ticket to Luang Prabang for the following day.  Chores out of the way, I finally had time to get excited about being in a new country for the first time.  Most of the important sights can be reached on foot from the central area of Vientiane.  The two exceptions are the Victory Gate or Patuxai and the temple complex at Phra That Luang, which are best reached by tuk-tuk.  Set in the middle of the wide Lane Zang Avenue, the Victory Gate is an impressive structure reminiscent of the Arch de Triumph in Paris.  Although it is made of cement, the form and architectural details make for an interesting, if somewhat imposing structure.  Completed in 1968 using U.S. government funds originally meant to build an airport, it features four arches and five towers.  For about 40 cents you can purchase a ticket to climb the 158 steps to the top for a spectacular view of the surrounding area, including the nearby Ministry of Justice and the Prime Minister’s office.

The Victory Gate, Vientiane, Laos

The Victory Gate, Vientiane, Laos

          Continuing farther out from the city center in a northeasterly direction you will come to the Buddhist temple complex of Phra That Luang.  The main building is a spectacular gold leaf structure built in 1556, which is the national symbol of Laos.  Surrounding sights include the Golden Reclining Buddha and a number of other beautiful temples.  In my opinion, the Victory Gate and the temple complex of Phra That Luang are the two ‘must see’ sights in Vientiane.

Phra That Luang Buddhist Temple, Vientiane, Laos

Phra That Luang Buddhist Temple, Vientiane, Laos

The River Promenade

          Many of the attractions of interest to tourists, including hotels, restaurants and shopping can be found back towards the center of town, along the Mekong River.  Several important sights are in this region as well.  The Presidential Palace is worth a look, as is the old temple of Wat Si Saket.  But for my money, the River Promenade is the place to be for mingling with the locals and just getting the feel of life in Laos.

The Mekong River Promenade with King Chao Anouvong Statue

The Mekong River Promenade with King Chao Anouvong Statue

           Especially after dark, the area comes alive with people…couples on a stroll, kids playing soccer, or families picnicking.  It’s fun to check out the street vendors peddling their wares and to go window shopping for a restaurant, trying to decide upon one of the many excellent choices.  But by about 11 PM they ‘roll up the sidewalks’ in the sleepy city of Vientiane and all becomes quiet once again.

Playful Boys Hamming It Up for the Camera, Vientiane, Laos

Playful Boys Hamming It Up for the Camera, Vientiane, Laos

Eating and Sleeping

          The very first hotel I checked on arriving in the center of town turned out to be a winner.  The Mixok Inn (not to be confused with the Mixok Guesthouse) had a nice room with air conditioning, private bath, TV and free Wifi for $19.  And that included breakfast!  It is just a short walk to all the attractions and activities along the River Promenade, including the night market.  The hotel has a tour desk where I was able to arrange a ride to the bus station for the following morning.  Free public parking is available nearby and the airport is but a ten minute drive away.  The staff members were friendly and helpful and the facility was clean and secure.  The Mixok Inn was a bargain and ticked all the boxes on my list of required features for an awesome accommodation.

The Mixok Inn, Vientiane, Laos

The Mixok Inn, Vientiane, Laos

           In the evening I had a wonderful dinner of pizza and Tiger Beer at an outstanding French restaurant, the Cote d’Azur, for a very reasonable $10.  The ambiance and open air feel of the restaurant right on the River Promenade made for a very pleasant dining experience.  I can highly recommend both the Mixok Inn and the Cote d’Azur if you are looking for a great place to stay and a wonderful place to eat in Vientiane, Laos.  Both provide an excellent value for your money.

Pizza and Tiger Beer at the Cote d' Azure Restaurant, Vientiane, Laos

Pizza and Tiger Beer at the Cote d’ Azure Restaurant, Vientiane, Laos

View from the Victory Gate, Vientiane, Laos

View from the Victory Gate, Vientiane, Laos

Phra That Luang Buddhist Temple, Vientiane, Laos

Phra That Luang Buddhist Temple, Vientiane, Laos

Buddhist Temple on the Grounds of Phra That Luang, Vientiane

Buddhist Temple on the Grounds of Phra That Luang, Vientiane

Intro to Indochina

Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia

          Having made my way up the Malay Peninsula from Singapore to Bangkok, it was now time to continue my journey into uncharted territory.  Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia had long been on my bucket list of must-see destinations, but it was with some trepidation that I contemplated the logistics of traveling through the rugged countryside, crossing multiple borders into communist countries, and arranging suitable transportation and lodging, all the while grappling with several different languages.  As I was soon to discover, my concerns were all for naught.  I was able to easily navigate my way through some of the most beautiful country on earth, inhabited by some of the friendliest folks I have ever encountered in my travels throughout the world.  In upcoming articles we’ll visit the cities of Vientiane and Luang Prabang in Laos; Hanoi, Hoi An and Saigon in Vietnam; and Phnom Penh and Siem Reap in Cambodia.  We’ll also explore two fabulous UNESCO World Heritage Sites, Ha Long Bay and Angkor Wat.

The Charming Colonial City of Luang Prabang, Laos

The Charming Colonial City of Luang Prabang, Laos

History and Culture

          Historically, Indochina refers to the three countries of Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia on the Southeast Asian peninsula.  This region was known as French Indochina during the period when these countries were colonies of France from about 1884 to 1954.  The Kingdoms of Laos and Cambodia were granted independence from France in 1949, but Vietnam would have a much longer journey to becoming the country it is today.  The Indochina War was largely a conflict between France and the Viet Minh in the north of Vietnam and began in 1946 shortly after the end of World War II.  It ended in 1954 with the partition of Vietnam into North and South.  Enter the Americans one year later and the rest, as they say, is history!  While the peoples of Indochina are quite separate from those of both India and China, the name Indochina can be attributed to the location of this region between these two larger countries.  While each of the three countries comprising today’s Indochina is ethnically diverse, the Khmers can be identified as the majority in Cambodia and the Kinh (Viet) in Vietnam.  Laos, on the other hand, is a much more diverse conglomeration of many tribes and languages.

Hoa Lo Prison Known as the Hanoi Hilton, Vietnam

Hoa Lo Prison Known as the Hanoi Hilton, Vietnam

Indochina Itinerary

          The major sights of Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia can easily be covered by taking a circular route beginning and ending in the gateway city of Bangkok, Thailand.  I traveled in a clockwise direction, starting with the overnight train ride from Bangkok to Vientiane, Laos.  What I thought would be a complicated border crossing over the Friendship Bridge at Nong Khai into Laos turned out to be quite simple and went exactly according to how it was described in The Man in Seat 61.  You can purchase a visa on arrival for Laos there for $35.  After an overnight in Vientiane, I took the 11 hour bus ride through the beautiful northern hill country of Laos to the incredibly charming UNESCO World Heritage City of Luang Prabang on the Mekong River.   To save time and avoid the long, arduous bus ride over the mountains to Hanoi, I took the one hour flight from Luang Prabang to Hanoi the following day on Lao Airlines for $150.  Arriving in Vietnam by plane also enables travelers to purchase a visa on arrival rather than applying for a visa in advance which is required at land border crossings.  After two nights in Hanoi and a day trip to Ha Long Bay I took the overnight train to the ancient city of Hoi An via Da Nang for $45.  Again to save time, I took the one hour flight the following day from Da Nang to Saigon on Vietnam Airlines.  After a one day visit to Saigon I took a bus to Phnom Penh, Cambodia for $20 and was able to purchase a visa on arrival at the border for $25.  The following day I took the five hour bus ride to Siem Reap for $12.00.  After two days in Siem Reap with ample time to explore Ankor Wat, I completed the final leg of my circuitous journey by taking the nine and a half hour bus ride back to Bangkok for another $12.  Hopefully, these details will be helpful for those planning an independent sojourn through Indochina.

Tree Growing from Ta Prohm Temple Ruins at Angkor Wat, Cambodia

Tree Growing from Ta Prohm Temple Ruins at Angkor Wat, Cambodia

  Bargain Hunter’s Paradise

          Hurry!  These prices won’t last!  At the risk of sounding like the proverbial used car salesman, I can’t stress enough that the price for everything from hotels to restaurants to transportation and shopping are incredibly low throughout Indochina, making it a true bargain hunter’s paradise.  It’s no wonder that frugal students and backpackers flock to this region every year to take advantage of the great deals.  Imagine a wonderful hotel with a pool and a fabulous breakfast for $50 or a delightful meal in a French restaurant for $7.  Or how ‘bout a comfortable minibus ride from Cambodia to Thailand for $12 or a souvenir tee shirt for $1.  As word gets out, prices are sure to go up, so if you are thinking of a trip to Indochina, now might be the time.  In future articles we will explore this region in greater detail, so be sure to check back with us here at Blue Orb Travel for some great information on what to see and where to stay during your visit.

Market in Hoi An, Vietnam

Market in Hoi An, Vietnam