Cambodia or Laos? Visit Two of Southeast Asia's Lesser Known Destinations

Southeast Asia may be one of the most popular international destinations amongst tourists, but it is not without its share of secret spots. Thailand and Vietnam is a favourite amongst backpackers, understandably so, but there is more to this continent than Bangkok and Hạ Long Bay. From emerald paddy fields and sweeping mountains to some of the world’s most mesmerising temples, Cambodia and Laos has a special kind of beauty that you cannot forget.

Why visit Cambodia?

Attracting around 6 million tourists a year, Cambodia is perhaps most famous for the incredible Angkor Wat, the largest religious monument in the world. Outside of this cultural hotspot, Cambodia entices travellers with the sheer scope that this country offers. Every corner of this country has that spice of life; whether you are longing for an island getaway, a historical city break, or even stepping into the wilderness. Here are just a few itinerary suggestions to keep you busy.

Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat, Krong Sieam Reap.

Once dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu, by the end of the 12th century the Angkor Wat had developed into a significant Buddhist temple. Now an UNESCO World Heritage Site and a national symbol, this temple’s extensive architecture (and steps) will take your breath away. Day passes here cost $37 USD, granting you access to over 400 acres of awe-inspiring history.

Phnom Penh

Wat Sowann Thamareach, Phnom Penh.

The capital of Cambodia, Phnom Penh is a sensational city that will keep you on your toes: not least because of all the motorbikes you will come across here. Between the recently reopened Royal Palace and an abundance of royal temples scattered throughout the city, it is safe to say that Phnom Penh is bursting with colour.

But things were not always so bright here, as any TripAdvisor list will tell you. Once the site of devastation under the Khmer Rouge, people wishing to pay their respects can visit the sobering Tuol Sleng Museum (viewer discretion is advised).

Elephant Valley Project, Mondulkiri

Mondulkiri, Cambodia.

In Cambodia’s largest province, you will find many things: stretching hills filled with seemingly endless trees, stunning waterfalls, and a diverse wildlife. There are many animals to be found here, such as leopards and silvered leaf monkeys, but especially elephants.

The home of 11 elephants, the Elephant Valley Project (ELIE) in Mondulkiri is Asia’s largest captive elephant sanctuary. Founded in 2006, ELIE are dedicated to protecting the local nature and indigenous community through ecotourism. Outside of multiple day trips where you can spend the day walking with these animals, ELIE also offers you the opportunity to do volunteer work — that is if you do not mind getting your hands dirty.

Why visit Laos?

A smaller, landlocked country, Laos is often overlooked by tourists before they have the chance to see how incredible this country is. Its capital city Vientiane has a timeless quality to it, and hardly anything compares to the soothing water that brushes down the three-tiered Kuang Si Falls. Once Asia’s party city, Vang Vieng has since become exhilarating in a different sense. Whilst Laos may lack the geographical variety sported by Southeast Asia’s bigshots, what it offers is so enriching that you will not want to be anywhere else.

Vientiane

Patuxai monument, Vientiane.

As far as capital cities go, Vientiane is more laidback than what you may expect of Bangkok or Hanoi. So if you prefer to take things slow, then this change of pace will be perfect for you. A mix of French colonial architecture, Buddhist temples and greenery, Vientiane has several temples and monuments worth exploring. From the Patuxai monument, built in honour of those who fought for independence from France, to the Pha That Luang made out of real gold, this city is certainly a photogenic one.

Luang Prabang

Kuang Si Falls, Luang Prabang.

Laos’ royal capital until 1975, this entire city is an UNESCO World Heritage Site. Once you get a taste of everything Luang Prabang has to offer, you can easily see why. But whilst Luang Prabang’s architecture is a brilliant fusion of traditional and twentieth century buildings, the real star of the show here is the natural scenery.

Surrounded by a lush mountainous landscape, Luang Prabang is encircled with sights such as Mount Phousi — a relatively easy climb. Even more wonderful is Kuang Si Falls. Open every day from 8am (9am on Tuesdays) to 5pm, visitors only have to pay $2.30 USD to see this attraction for themselves. The waters here are unbelievably blue, and if you arrive early, you might even get it to yourself!

Vang Vieng

Vang Vieng at dawn.

Between its cheap prices, party animal reputation, and an abundance of action-packed activities, Vang Vieng is every backpacker’s dream. Whilst its wildest days are behind this place, the people here still know how to have a good time.

Outside of the bar scene, there are plenty of ways to have fun in Vang Vieng that do not involve drinking. Why not take a hot air balloon ride, or hike up Pha Poak mountain (which can be completed in 30 minutes)? From dirt biking to rock climbing, Vang Vieng will get your heart racing.

When should I visit Cambodia or Laos?

October to February is the ideal time to be visiting Cambodia or Laos; as the countries’ wet monsoon season comes to an end, and the weather is comfortably warm. If you are interested in coming to Cambodia or Laos in November and December, you may need to plan ahead as this is both countries’ peak tourism season.

In order to escape the crowds, we suggest visiting in either January or February. Although you should prepare for some hot weather (here is how), these months are much cooler than March and April — when temperatures reach their peak.

Kuang Si Falls, Laos.
Starting from Skratch? Here are some links to help you get started:
For tailor-made luxury travel, check out Audley Travel’s off-the-beaten-track tour of Cambodia and Laos.
A more affordable alternative is Gap 360’s Indochina Discovery Tour, geared towards travellers aged 18 to 39. Although Gap 360 does not currently offer a two-country tour of Cambodia and Laos, you can visit each of these destinations respectively on their 10-day Cambodia Intro, or their 9-day Laos Adventure.
https://www.nomadicmatt.com/travel-blogs/southeast-asia-safety/
https://www.skratch.world/blog
If you want to read about more extraordinary destinations, then check out our action-packed Lifetime of Adventure series!

Cambodia & Laos — Facts before you go

Country highlights

🇰🇭 Cambodia’s main points of interest are Angkor and Phnom Penh for culture and history. Koh Rong Samloem is a true island paradise! The ethical Elephant Valley Project in Mondulkiri is a must-visit for any animal-lovers.

🇱🇦 Laos’ main points of interest are Vientiane, Luang Prabang and Plain of Jars for fascinating monuments and temples. Party city Vang Vieng is also excellent for hiking and cave-exploring. Motorbike enthusiasts should add the Thakhek Loop to their list!

Getting around

✈️🚗 In-country flights and private cars are some of the easiest ways to navigate these countries. To find out more, check out Asia Highlights’ guide to transportation in Cambodia and Laos.

Currency

🇰🇭 Both $ USD and Cambodian riel ៛ are widely used.

🇱🇦 Laotian Kip ₭ / ₭N is the main form of currency, although $ USD are also accepted in most scenarios.

Language

🇰🇭 Khmer (Official); other languages spoken include Vietnamese, Lao, Chinese, Thai, and French. Basic-level English is spoken in Cambodia.

🇱🇦 Lao (Official); English and French are widely spoken.

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Hannah Douch
January 6, 2023

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