Cambodia & Laos

For Dennis

November 2009.

Through cultures old and new

Dear Dennis,

Laos and Cambodia are home to ancient cultures and majestic sites that have endured ever-changing landscape and social upheavals. Traveling through these timeless lands will offer you a liberating experience of strangeness, a rare sense of balance and contrast. I know this trip will be an experience you will remember and value. You will hear rather than simply listen; you will remember rather than simply see. You will, in sum, become a link between two worlds, between two realities, between the familiar and the unfamiliar.

Day 1: Arrival in Hong Kong

After arriving in Hong Kong, you will be taken to the Peninsula Hotel, which was built in 1928 and preserves the glamour of a lost era. You will have time to settle in to the hotel and explore your new surroundings in the late afternoon. Your daughters will probably be hungry, so I have made an early dinner reservation at Gaddi’s, in the hotel, the home of fine French dining in Hong Kong since 1953. Chef David Goodridge will design a personal menu for you.

Day 2: Hong Kong galleries

Your guide, Catherine, will pick you up at the hotel for a tour of Hong Kong’s galleries. Catherine is a noted writer, commentator and consultant, and she is one of Hong Kong’s foremost experts on Chinese painting. She will accompany you through the Galerie du Monde, Sin Sin Fine Art, Osage Kwun Tong, The Cat Street Gallery, and the Chinese painting and modern art galleries at the Hong Kong Museum of Art. I know you’re interested in learning about Chinese art, and Catherine can put all the artwork into context for you, walking you through the development from classical to contemporary.

Several lunch options are available, depending on where you are at lunchtime. Near Repulse Bay, I suggest the floating restaurant Jumbo Dragon Court—it’s an unusual restaurant that will surprise and delight your daughters. If you find yourself in Stanley at lunchtime, the Boathouse is undoubtedly the best choice.

Spend the afternoon visiting the city with Catherine, learning about its history and culture.

Dinner will be at Felix, a restaurant created by world-famous avant-garde designer, Philippe Starck. Felix serves Pacific Rim cuisine and offers breathtaking views of Victoria Harbor, Hong Kong Island and Kowloon from the 28th floor of the Peninsula Tower.

Day 3: The city illuminated

Your gallery tour continues this morning, with visits to 10 Chancery Lane, Plum Blossoms, Grotto Fine Art, Hanart TZ Gallery, Asian Fine Arts, and the Art Beatus Gallery.

In the evening, enjoy a private cruise on a junk through Hong Kong’s harbor. Watch the sublime colors of sunset dance along the skyscrapers and reflect on the range of paintings you’ve seen in the past two days.

As the city’s nightly glow burgeons, head back for dinner at the China Club, situated at the top of the old Bank of the China building. The China Club is a showcase for Chinese culture old and new, its three floors magnificently appointed in rich wood furnishings and décor, while the world’s largest private collection of contemporary Chinese art hangs on its walls.

Day 4: The 3 Nagas

You will fly to Luang Prabang, where a room has been booked at the 3 Nagas Hotel, as you requested. Unpack, relax, and explore the hotel, which occupies Khamboua House, a jewel of traditional Lao architecture. You asked to stay here because you wanted an evening away from the luxury of the resorts—to make the most of this excellent choice, take some time to walk in the hotel garden, among the sheltered mango and jackfruit trees beside the river.

Later in the day you will meet Sandra, an expatriate who has lived in Laos for a number of years and is the doyenne of design in Luang Prabang and in Vientiane. After drinks at the hotel, she will take you for an evening stroll in Luan Prabang’s shopping district and a visit to her shop, Caruso Lao, which sells embroidered Lao silk fabrics and home furnishings.

A dinner reservation has been made at the 3 Nagas Restaurant, which serves exquisite Lao cuisine seasoned with a touch of French flair.

Day 5: Luang Prabang

If you are awake at dawn this morning, step outside the hotel to see long lines of orange-robed monks leaving their pagodas to walk in procession along the main street and receive offerings of food from Luang Prabang residents. It’s a surprising blend of the spiritual and the mundane. Take a moment to look into the eyes of one of the monks, to really see him, and you will touch the psychic web that links disparate cultures—the truth that connects us rather than separating us, that we can communicate deeply without words, that we are all one family. If you or your daughters want to take part, let the hotel staff know and they will provide you with sticky rice for alms.

After breakfast, Brendan, who will be your guide for the next leg of your journey, will meet you at the 3 Nagas for a unique tour of Luang Prabang. Brendan is a writer and consultant who has lived in Luang Prabang since 1991. He has written extensively about Laos and Luang Prabang and was involved in nominating the city as a UNESCO World Heritage site. I have known Brendan for many years, and few can offer you as much insight into the city’s culture, people, and heritage.

After dinner in the city, you will move from 3 Nagas to the Amantaka resort, where a suite has been booked for the remainder of your stay.

Day 6: Mekong River cruise

Brendan will meet you in the Amantaka lobby and take you for a cruise up the Mekong River. The cruise will pause at the pottery village Ban Cham, where you can see artisans at work, and then continue to dock at Ben Muang Khay, a traditional Lao village with a beautiful old temple. From there, you will continue by car and on foot to the Kuang Si Waterfall. Enjoy a picnic lunch in these verdant surroundings, and escape the afternoon heat with a dip in the azure pools below the falls.

On the way back to Luang Prabang, you will stop at the Hmong village Ban Amone. Kaung Si is quite popular and can be overwhelmingly crowded; pausing in this village will offer a refreshing authenticity. Dai Lue, a member of a local tribe, will give you a tour through life in the village, and will introduce you to a lifestyle most of us rarely encounter, a strangely humbling glimpse into another world.

Dinner will be at L’Elephant, an elegant restaurant nestled in the heart of Luang Prabang’s old town, just between the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers.

Day 7: Temples in Luang Prabang

Bright and early, Brendan will meet you in the lobby of Residence Phou Vao for a visit to the fresh morning market. I’m sure your daughters will fall in love with its vibrant bustle and colors—so much to see, so much to savor!

After a walk through the market, you will arrive at the National Museum, which used to be the Royal Palace. The museum has examples of the clothing and instruments used in the royal court. Notice how simple the court looked during the last king’s rule – sometimes, simplicity of style is far more powerful than over-decoration. From our conversation, I think you will also be interested in Hans Berger’s photography exhibition, Floating Buddha.

After lunch in town, you will tour Luang Prabang’s most important temples, starting with Wat Mai, renowned for its golden bas-relief, continuing to Wat Sensoukaram, built in 1718 with red ruby walls and a dazzling golden façade. You will conclude with Wat Xieng Thong, erected in 1560 by King Setthathirath at the tip of the peninsula formed by the Mekong and the Nam Khan.

Following the temple tour, you will see a Baci ceremony (a Lao blessing) at Puang Champa House, followed by a short traditional music concert. You will have a chance to discuss art and embroidery work with your host over a Lao cocktail buffet. Dinner this evening will be at Auberge Le Calao.

Day 8: A taste of Cambodia’s temples

When you arrive in Siem Reap, you will be taken to the Amansara resort, a peaceful, warm sanctuary just a short ride from Angkor Wat. Based on your preferences and your daughter’s love of swimming, a pool suite has been booked for you.

After a leisurely lunch in the hotel, you will be met by your Cambodian guide, Li Sarith, who will take you on an “East of Angkor” excursion this afternoon. You will visit the Rolous temples on the road to Phnom Penh. The Rolous is a group of three temples in a small town which was the site of Hariharalaya, the capital of the Khmer empire in the 9th century. Two of the temples, Lolei and Bakong, are inhabited by monks, while Preah Ko remains unused.

After returning to Amansara, you will enjoy fine French cuisine at Chez Sophea and Matthiu in the shadow of Angkor Wat.

Day 9: Angkor Thom

This morning you will ride a classic “remork” (moped-powered trishaws common in Cambodia) for a visit to the Angkor Thom, the last capital of the Khmer empire. Early morning is the perfect time to visit ancient city, since there won’t be many other travelers.

Angkor Thom is home to a royal palace and several temples. Khmer kings built a profusion of temples to honor various Hindu gods, hoping to ensure their prosperity in this world and a safe passage on to the next. You will be impressed by the Bayon Temple, the centerpiece of Angkor Thom, with its rising mound of enigmatic stone heads surveying the points of the compass. The immense Baphuon temple to the northwest was completed sometime around 1060 and must have been truly majestic in its heyday. The magnificent Phimeanakas temple lies within the Royal Palace.

Angkor Thom also houses several spectacular squares, such as the Terrace of the Elephants, named for the elephants that decorate its walls, and the Terrace of the Leper King, with its hidden passageway lined with underworld nagas and demons symbolizing the subterranean slopes of the sacred Mount Meru. One of my favorite monuments there is the Prasat Suor Prat—twelve small towers that stand in a line facing the Royal Palace, which were used to settle disputes among Angkorians. Be sure to ask Li Sirath to tell you more about this strange custom.

The Amansara resort is conveniently close to Angkor Thom, so you can return there for lunch and dinner whenever you like, leaving you free to explore the ancient capital at your leisure.

Day 10: Forest excursion

Li Sirath will accompany on an excursion through the bamboo forest to the hidden Beng Mealea temple. After a short car ride, you will trek through lush jungle to find this temple to Vishnu. Though the temple rivals Angkor Wat in size, little is known about its history, and the site isn’t frequently visited—this is a place for travelers, not tourists. Our endless dialogue with nature, the elusive equilibrium, is powerfully clear here, where massive roots flow like liquid over the ancient temple, the forest reclaiming the stones.

The Amansara will provide a boxed lunch for your excursion. You can head back to resort whenever you’d like, but I suggest leaving some time to relax and refresh yourself before your sunset dinner at the Amansara Khmer Village House.

Day 11: Angkor Wat

You will have an early wake-up call for a remork ride to Angkor Wat in time to see the sunrise. No photograph can capture the majesty of this moment, the swelling of your soul as daylight creeps over the peaks of the temples. Linger as the sky lightens, watching shades turn to color and life renew itself at the start of the day, and then return to the resort for breakfast.

You will spend today exploring the fabled temple city of Angkor Wat. Built in the 12th century, this elaborate temple complex, with its intricately carved quincunx of towers, was never fully abandoned, though it gradually transformed from the center of Khmer Hindu tradition into a Buddhist temple. The soaring towers were designed to give the impression of a mountain, bringing to mind the mythological Mount Meru at the center of the universe.

Angkor Wat should be seen with your emotions rather than your head. That allows you to experience as it is, escaping the allure of countless tricked-up photographs that sap the magic of seeing it for the first time. Li Sirath will guide you through the temple at your own pace. I think you will appreciate the bas-reliefs on the outer walls, particularly the panel depicting the ‘Churning of the Ocean of Milk’.

Lunch will be served at Amansara. Head back whenever you’d like, and then continue exploring Angkor Wat and the Temple in the Jungle. I suggest staying to see the sun set over Angkor Wat, providing a bookend for your day as you watch darkness reclaim the temples of this long-dead civilization.

Day 12: A final temple

You will leave the resort early to visit Banteay Samré, a temple built by the Khmer king Suryavarman II in the middle of the 12th century. The temple has well-preserved bas-reliefs of the Vishnu legends, including a wonderful relief of Vishnu as the lotus-naveled creator of the world. Banteay Samré is heart-stoppingly beautiful, and it’s also a quiet site that doesn’t draw the normal temple crowds.

You will return for lunch at Amansara and have the afternoon to relax at the resort and reflect on everything you’ve seen in the past few days, from paintings and embroidered silk to landscapes painted with nature’s verdant brush, from bustling cities to riverside villages, from glittering Hong Kong to the faded glory of Angkor.

Dennis, it’s been my pleasure to plan this journey for you and your family through the temples, galleries, and countryside of Laos and Cambodia. Please feel free to contact me at any time, should the need arise.