Northern Thailand and Laos
On this thirteen-day trip to northern Thailand and Laos, visit beautiful temples, cruise down the Mekong River on a traditional boat and meet locals who can share their stories with you. You'll also be treated to an abundance of spectacular scenery and fantastic food.
Itinerary at a Glance:
- Temple tour in the lush northern Thailand region of Chiang Mai
- Feed rescued elephants and help staff create a happy home for them in Chiang Rai
- Cruise down the Mekong River in an authentic wooden boat
- Delve under the surface of Luang Prabang with several days to explore the old royal capital of Laos
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Day 1: Arrive and Eat
Welcome to Thailand! After arriving into Bangkok you'll be met by a driver and whisked to your hotel in the city centre. If your flight gets in in the morning, you should then have most of the day free to settle in and adjust to your new time zone.
Come early evening we have arranged a fantastic tour to introduce you to the vibrant spirit of Bangkok. Start the night by sipping cocktails at a chic rooftop bar while watching the sun set over the city, then take a tuk-tuk (motorised rickshaw) to a busy local neighbourhood to sample the capital's famous street food. Join the locals at the stalls, selecting a variety of dishes and taking in the vibrant social scene here.
Next up is a spot of shopping at the Asiatique Night Market, where you can browse the handicraft and clothing stalls, watch the local entertainment, and enjoy the views of the river at night. This is a great introduction to colourful Thai life and will hopefully leave you feeling fully in the vacation mood.
Day 2: Exploring Bangkok
With just one day to see all that bustling Bangkok has to offer we have today arranged a guided tour to help you fit in all the must-see sights, and show you a few secret spots along the way too.
Your guide will meet you at your hotel and take you on private boat cruise along the Thonburi Klongs, the network of canals on the western banks of the central Chao Phraya River. The lifestyle here is much more rural than in the city centre and is a fascinating but often ignored side to Bangkok. Back on dry land your next stop is at Wat Arun temple, and then the stunning and iconic Grand Palace, where you will visit the gold-clad throne halls and famous Emerald Buddha. Your guide will be able to fill you in on the history and spirituality of the palace and can also help navigate away from other tourists.
Though less architecturally stunning, your lunch spot at the Supatra River House is arguably more of a traditional Thai experience, and since the restaurant overlooks the Chao Phraya River, it's also a great place to do some people and boat watching. After you've eaten there will then be time to visit Vimanmek Palace, the world's largest teak building, and finish the day with a stop at the marble temple, Wat Benjamabophit, before heading back to your hotel.
Day 3: To Chiang Mai
This morning you'll say goodbye to busy Bangkok and head to the much calmer north. A driver will escort you to the airport where you'll catch a short domestic flight to Chiang Mai airport. Another driver will be waiting to meet you there and take you to your new hotel in the centre of town.
Once settled in, head into the town to explore the ancient centre which, despite having a 700-hundred-year history, was only accessible by boat or elephant until the 1930s. As a result this is a much more traditional and authentic Thai experience than Bangkok. We suggest heading to the famous Night Bazaar, where you can hone your haggling skills shopping for local handicrafts at the hundreds of stalls and shops stretching along the Chang Khlan Road.
Day 4: Chiang Mai Temples
This morning you will be met by a guide after breakfast for a half-day tour of the many beautiful temples around Chiang Mai.
Start with a visit to the town centre, admiring Tapae Gate and the crumbling city walls as your guide gives you the lowdown on the city's past. Then hop on a pedal-powered trishaw to explore the old town where you'll stop at the Three Kings Monument on the way to Wat Phra Singh, one of the city's most revered temples. See the various buildings in the compound, admire its ancient Buddha image and hear about its 700-year history. Then continue foot to Wat Chedi Luang, another impressive monument that once housed the country's famed Emerald Buddha. Finally, pass through Chiang Mai's silver district and see the skilled silversmiths at work before visiting Wat Sri Suphan, a unique temple made from ornate silver.
With your fill of temple touring, head back to your hotel for an afternoon spent relaxing by the pool.
Day 5: Hiking in Chiang Mai
After a cultural day yesterday, we thought we would suggest a more scenic and adventurous day today. You'll be picked up early this morning and driven to the northern hills, en route stopping at a local market to purchase a picnic lunch for the trek.
The trek then begins in the small town of Chiang Dao. The first stretch is uphill and will take you to the Lahu village, where you will get a bit more of an understanding of the local's traditional lifestyle. Your trek will then take you through forests, various villages and stunning mountain scenery, taking around five hours. You'll find your driver waiting for you at the end, ready to take you back to your hotel for the rest of the afternoon.
Day 6: To Chiang Rai
This morning you'll be heading north east to Chiang Rai. The drive is around three-hours long so settle in and get comfortable as you admire the views from the car window.
When you arrive, drop your bags off at the new hotel and then head out to explore the area. We suggest you walk up to the Lahu community, where at sunset, you will see families cooking their dinner, children playing and people chatting outside their homes.
At the edge of the Lahu village, there is a path which takes you further uphill, with views of the Mekong River and Laos to you right. The path will give you a full view of the valleys, and you'll walk through plantations and corn fields, watching any farmers still at work. You will then circle back and walk along the path on the other side of the hill to see the layered mountain range. Stop here to watch the sunset light up the sky and add a golden hue to the already picture perfect scene.
Day 7: Chiang Rai
Today you'll enjoy a really hands on elephant experience which will see you not only spend time with the gorgeous gentle giants, but also help the staff to improve their sanctuary.
You'll be transferred to Elephant Valley Sanctuary, which is Chiang Rai's first elephant sanctuary, housing former elephant 'loggers' which have been rescued and relocated. Start with a brief tour and then tuck into a traditional lunch while watching the elephants play.
After lunch, be prepared to get your hands dirty with a hands-on volunteer experience. As the main focus of Elephant Valley is to establish a natural habitat for the elephants, a major part of the day is helping to recreate this setting. From helping to plant and grow crops, to harvesting existing crops and cleaning up the site, this isn't just a tourist venture but a real chance to help with the conservation.
Later in the day, there will be a chance to feed the elephants, and take as many photographs as you like. Then head back to Chiang Rai and your hotel to reminisce over a fantastic day during dinner.
Day 8: To The Boat
It's back on the road this morning, or should we say water, as you'll be boarding a boat to cruise down the Mekong Delta, heading towards Luang Prabang. The journey to the boarding point is around two hours, so you'll be picked up early this morning, then board the boat and cross over the border into Laos.
During your first day aboard this beautiful traditional wooden boat you'll stop to visit some locals at a village on the river banks, enjoy a fantastic and typically colourful Asian lunch on board and finally reach the town of Pakbeng, which will be your home for tonight. Staying in a traditional lodge which overlooks the river you'll be able to take in the lush scenery and varied wildlife while eating dinner on the terrace, before then retiring for the night to your luxurious bungalow.
Day 9: To Luang Prabang
Wake up to the sound of birdsong and tuck into breakfast at the lodge while the river is still shrouded in early morning mist. Then, head back to the boat for your second day of river cruising.
Your first stop of the day is at the hill tribe village of Baw, where you'll meet the locals and can watch the traditional process of making Lao rice whisky. Back on board, lunch will be served as you continue downstream to the Tham Thing and Tham Phoum caves at the mouth of the Nam Ou River. These stone caves were converted into Buddhist temples in the 15th century and are now famous for housing over 2,500 Buddha statues of all sizes. They are also a pilgrimage destination for many Laotians, and wandering among the Buddha statues we're sure you'll see why.
The final stretch of the cruise will take you on to Luang Prabang, the former royal capital and your base for the remainder of the vacation. A driver will collect you from the jetty and take you to your hotel in time for dinner.
Day 10: Luang Prabang Centre
Declared a UNESCO world heritage site in 1995 Luang Prabang is a pretty riverside city full of French and Indo-Chinese architecture. Today you'll head out on bikes with a guide to explore the (mercifully flat) city centre and the many sights surrounding it.
Start by cycling to the Traditional Arts & Ethnology Centre, where you can spend time visiting the colourful displays of costumes, tools and artefacts. Next stop is the former Royal Palace, now housing the National Museum, and then Wat Mai, a temple with an impressive bas-relief covered in gold leaf. Carry on to Wat Visoun, a unique structure shaped like a watermelon that was entirely rebuilt after being destroyed in the 1880s.
Then, return to the bikes and cycle through the quieter side streets of Luang Prabang. See tidy wooden houses with lush tropical gardens, pass kids on their way to school and encounter orange-robe-clad monks cleaning the grounds around their temples. Ride along the shores of the Nam Khan River and enjoy spectacular views of the water and distant mountains.
The last stop of the day is at Wat Xieng Thong. This is the city's most revered temple and is covered in ornate carvings and mosaics, unmatched by any other temple in the country.
Day 11: Luang Prabang Waterfalls
This morning enjoy a leisurely lie-in and relax at the hotel after a busy few days. Then after lunch drive to the beautiful waterfalls of Tat Khouang Si.
Below the 300ft drop of the main cascade are a series of pools, connected by smaller falls and cascades. At low water levels the water is an unbelievable turquoise colour, and swimming in the lower pools is a great way to cool off in the afternoon. On the walk through the forest to the falls, you will also pass the Free the Bears project - home to a group of rescued Asiatic black (moon) bears and one Malayan sun bear. In the early afternoon they are often searching for food hidden in their enriched environment enclosures.
On your way back, stop at some of the local villages and meet the different ethnic groups who coexist here. Then, dinner is back at your hotel or in the city centre.
Day 12: Luang Prabang
Spend your last day of the vacation at leisure, catching up on some R&R or checking out any missed spots in the city. Then, this evening you will be transferred to the hillside temple of Wat Phou Kouey on the outskirts of Luang Prabang.
You will arrive as the sun is setting, to find the temple illuminated by candles and a private Baci ceremony arranged to bless your journey onwards. The Baci is performed in celebration of an important event or journey and is a means of expressing good will and good luck to others.
Lao people believe that each person has 32 spirits which constitute their spiritual essence and the Baci is the ritual used to call back any escaped spirits in to the body. During the Baci, special flower trays and food treats are prepared which are then touch by the participants while a Buddhist mantra is chanted. After the chanting is completed, cotton threads will be tied around your wrist whilst you receive an individual blessing.
Day 13: Home Time
After two weeks of cultural and eye-opening travel to two different but equally fascinating countries, now is the time to head home. This afternoon you'll be met at your hotel and driven to the airport where you will likely catch a two-hour flight to Bangkok before connecting onto your onward flight home.
Miranda, Frances and Holly are our experts for this itinerary and as seasoned travellers they have the inside track on the most memorable adventures.