Along with a smiling face around every corner, Cambodia has everything you might want from a destination - from temples and cities, to rainforests and beaches - while Laos provides even more lush jungles, heritage sites and cultural experiences. We visited in the so-called "green season" when most of the annual rain falls, though this didn't hinder our experience here at all. Instead, we were met with gorgeous shades of green, lush vegetation and a feeling of tranquillity that offered a different side to these dreamy destinations...
Arriving in style with Qatar Airways
Before I dive into sharing my stories from Cambodia and Laos, I must mention just how incredible it was to travel with Qatar Airways. We were lucky enough to fly Business Class from London to Bangkok (via Doha) and it was genuinely one of the best flying experiences I've ever had. The smiling staff offered excellent service throughout, introducing themselves as we made our way to our seats and ensuring we had everything we might want. Speaking of the seats, they were ridiculously comfortable and lay completely flat, topped off by warm duvets and plump cushions. As it was a night flight, we were provided with a lovely pair of pure cotton pyjamas and a luxurious kit of Bric's amenities - the hydrating facial mist was incredibly refreshing!
There was also a great selection of movies and games to keep you busy - I must have watched at least three films back-to-back! The choice of food was also exceptional. Along with the meals served, there was a counter at the back of the cabin where you could help yourself to fruit and snacks - a really nice touch if you're feeling peckish. While our return flight was in the Economy cabin, it was yet another fantastic flying experience with the same amazing service, in-flight entertainment systems and comfortable seating. All flights were on time and the transfer at Doha was easy and efficient.
Cambodian culture in Siem Reap
The first stop of our adventure was Siem Reap in the northwest of Cambodia, perhaps best known for being the gateway to the UNESCO World Heritage ruins of Angkor Wat. One of the largest religious monuments in the world - measuring over 160 hectares - I couldn't wait to visit these world-famous temples for myself. Alongside our lovely guide, we visited the complex at dawn, and despite the very early alarm, I would certainly recommend doing this. The site - which can, unsurprisingly, get very busy during the day - was wonderfully quiet, and exploring as the sun began to rise over the intricately carved temples and towers was something I will never forget. I'm not a particularly spiritual person, but I found being here totally moving and calming, finding myself lost in the moment from the second we arrived.
While the temples are a must-visit while in Siem Reap, this chic city offers so much more as well. Another activity we were lucky enough to enjoy was a foodie tour by Vespa, driven by friendly, experienced drivers. Speedy yet safe, this was a great way to see some of the city sights before we even tried any food! Our first stop was at a local market, where the offerings were - unusual, shall we say? Fried frogs, beetles and crickets were just some of the weird and wonderful things on offer. I bravely tried a silkworm which, although I wouldn't eat one again in a hurry, it was great to experience the bustle of authentic Siem Reap. From here, we sped off to sample some Cambodian street food, my favourite of which was the delicious barbecued chicken.
From temples and food tours to rats - you read that correctly! Siem Reap is home to the APOPO Visitor Centre, a charity that works with scent detection rats (nicknamed hero rats) that can sniff out landmines in the ground, as well as tuberculosis in people! At the centre, we were able to meet these incredible animals, which are absolutely huge and weigh a tonne when sat on you! We also learned about the great humanitarian work that they carry out, with landmine protection programmes having operated across eight countries. These exceptional creatures and their trainers help improve the lives of some of the world's most vulnerable communities and people.
The adventures in Siem Reap didn't stop there. The city just so happens to border the largest freshwater lake in South East Asia, Tonle Sap, measuring over 10,000-square-kilometres during the rainy season! Boarding a traditional fishing boat, we sped along the lake's shimmering waterways, passing the fascinating floating villages, stilted houses and local fishermen out in their boats - a great way to really experience everyday life in Cambodia. In fact, our guide explained that more than half the fish consumed in the country is sourced from Tonle Sap lake, making it a vital commercial resource. That same evening, we watched a phenomenal Phare show, a contemporary circus act that left our minds boggled and us, thoroughly entertained.
All the fun we enjoyed in Siem Reap was perfectly matched by luxury hotels, each one offering something slightly different to the last. Amansara is a serene property with just 24 suites, along with an impressive spa. I unfortunately had a cold on the day we visited, but my therapist took this on board and suggested a purifying steam treatment and facial to cleanse my sinuses, while Sandra where was treated to the most amazing holistic massage using local Khmer herbs. Spectacularly showcasing Cambodian culture, Phum Baitang is located on the outskirts of the city on a working farm, comprising wooden villas surrounded by greenery and rice terraces. In fact, the name itself translates to 'Green Village' - very apt!
Heading south to the beach
As I said before, Cambodia has pretty much every landscape you might fancy. Off the east coast, there are several small islands that offer access to some of the most private, pristine and simply stunning beaches I've ever seen. We visited two of these gems, the first of which was Song Saa Private Island. Arriving by boat and settling into our gorgeous pool villas, we were then treated to cocktails on the sand as sun set - the perfect way to relax after the adventures in Siem Reap. Alongside the beautiful beach and luxurious accommodation, the Song Saa Foundation gives back to local communities and protects the environment, doing everything from saving sea turtles, to launching education programmes, to providing medical care. We were delighted to visit a local village that has been helped by the scheme, meeting the lovely children and reading them a story.
Our next patch of paradise to visit was Six Senses Krabey Island, where the spa was absolutely out of this world. Here, we were treated to a wellness screening by the expert consultants, before being recommended the best therapies, treatments and activities based on our results. We also took part in the amazing Alchemy Bar Workshop, learning how to create scrubs and potions using locally sourced ingredients - including Khmer salt and local herbs. Again, the resort is committed to protecting the region in terms of both the environment and people. An organic farm produces much of the produce used and there is an on-island bottling plant that provides sustainable drinking water, while marine conservation and education initiatives are also in place.
Into the rainforest
Away from the coast, we head for our next destination, Bensley Collection - Shinta Mani Wild, a camp of just fifteen luxurious tents (with the most amazing local artwork and freestanding bathtubs) nestled within lush rainforest. Arriving here was an incredible experience in itself, as we climbed 102 steps up to a suspending platform, before ziplining over a waterfall into the lodge. A transfer experience I will never forget, I was greeted with a warm smile and chilled rum cocktail, my adrenaline still pumping! At this jungle hideaway, there is a lovely spa (where treatments are all complimentary) as well as a bar positioned right over a dramatic waterfall and a charmingly rustic restaurant. The food was fabulous here and the menus changed each day, much of the ingredients foraged from the bountiful surroundings. As a guest, you can join a chef on a foraging expedition, collecting herbs, fruits, mushrooms and more, before cooking up a delicious Khmer dish. While we didn't have time to try this out, we did get to join an anti-poaching patrol (the camp works closely with the Wildlife Alliance) which was utterly eye-opening.
Rangers here work to seize snares, rescue animals and run illegal loggers and poachers out of makeshift camps. Guided by these wonderful rangers, we head into the forest on motorbikes, uncovering several snares and learning more about the technology in place to protect this precious environment. Yet more discovery awaited as we head out on a super relaxing boat cruise, meandering down the river surrounded by the lush green jungle, while unwinding on a comfortable sun lounger with a local beer - bliss. Our guide pointed out hornbills and Chinese water dragons, giving a taste of the wealth of wildlife in this area of Cambodia. Showcasing the variety of activities on offer here, in the evening we enjoyed a fabulous mixology class, making vodka martinis infused with local herbs - yum!
Exploring Cambodia's capital
While in Cambodia, we simply had to pay a visit to the capital Phnom Penh, located on the Mekong River. The now hip city has a terrible wartime history which has been respectfully memorialised across several sites and museums. The Killing Fields of Choeung Ek and the S21 prison were once where tens of thousands of men, women and children were detained and tortured amid the genocide of the late 1970s. Overwhelmingly touching, we learnt more about the horrific happenings here and read the stories of the victims, with bones, clothes and over 8,000 skulls visible across the pits and memorials. We were absolutely honoured to meet two survivors of the genocide, one of which had written a book about his experience that we purchased, and can't wait to read! Though harrowing and, at times, unbearable to think about, it felt important to learn more about Cambodia's history and remember the victims.
From Cambodia to Laos
Our unforgettable time in Cambodia had come to an end, but our adventure wasn't over yet as we head to Luang Prabang in the north of Laos. It's all about the temples in this sleepy (and incredibly clean!) city that unsurprisingly boasts UNESCO World Heritage status, while the old French town is filled with cool cafes, bustling markets and great restaurants, plus the people watching was amazing! A trip to Luang Prabang promises a cultural experience throughout - including at your luxury hotel. Amantaka is wonderfully central, located within a converted hospital, and each morning, local monks donning their robes passed the hotel accepting alms - a great way to experience authentic Laos. Rosewood Luang Prabang is located slightly out of the city, comprising tents high up on the hillside with views to die for. After a day filled with amazing activities, just chilling on the hammock listening to river and sipping a cocktail was heaven. We also enjoyed a tasty Laotian dinner here, served in a traditional family style and made using organic cuisine and original recipes. It was all exceptional, but the chicken coconut curry was my ultimate favourite dish.
While in Laos, we cruised along the Mekong river towards the Pak Ou Caves, a group of impressive caverns filled with Buddhas of all shapes and sizes. Great to get out of the city and experience more of the country, our exploration of the caves was topped off nicely by a local lunch. Another great excursion we were lucky enough to enjoy was a visit to the Kuang Si Falls, an impressive three-levelled waterfall hidden in the jungle. En route, we paid a visit to the excellent Tat Kuang Si Bear Rescue Centre, run by the Free the Bears charity and home to super cute Asiatic moon bears that have been rescued from various situations, while also hosting programmes that aim to conserve this endangered species. After learning more about the bears and watching them so happy in their safe home, we head on to the waterfall. Arriving, I was blown away by just how clear the waters were here (great for swimming), while climbing to the top offered spectacular views over the falls themselves. On the way back to Luang Prabang, we stopped for buffalo milk ice cream at a local farm, another first for me. With flavours including lemongrass, peanut and black sesame, the coconut had to be my favourite!