By Kathryn Liston | June 2019 | 5 minute read
Culturally rich, scenically beautiful and numbering idyllic beaches and a raft of new luxury hotels, among other attractions, the countries of Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam, often referred to as Indochina, deserve an extended look.
Starry eyed in Samloem
It’s virtually pitch-black as we leap off the wooden fishing boat and plunge into the warm sea - but that’s how we want it, the darker the better.
I move my arms and legs rapidly through the water. No, I’m not drowning, just witnessing the amazing light show that erupts before my snorkel-masked eyes. Darting shards of gold and electric blue light dance all over my limbs - it’s like a starry sky all around me. Only visible in the dark, the bioluminescent plankton glow when the water is disturbed. The more rapidly I thrash, the brighter the light display.
The experience is so mesmerising that we have to be called from the boat to return to shore. The engine thrums as we are whisked back to the soft powder-white sands of Saracen Bay, the main resort of Samloem, a Robinson-Crusoe-like island in the Koh Rong archipelago, an hour’s flight from Siem Reap.
Samloem is the perfect place to kick back bare-foot on pretty-much deserted beaches. Sister island, Koh Rong, the filming location for TV show Survivor, is far busier with backpackers and party bars.
There are no roads on Samloem, just white-powder sands, turquoise bath-warm waters and beachside barbecues where we dine on sea bass and barracuda with the sand between our toes. Bliss.
Moving on up
New luxury island resorts are very much contributing to Cambodia’s growing success as a standalone destination.
Lucy Howard, Marketing Executive at Exsus Travel, says that exciting new hotels such as Alila Villas Koh Russey, Six Senses Krabey Island and Shinto Mani Wild, have moved Cambodia from being a “book-end tour location” to a “sole destination in its own right,” while existing hotels have also had to up their game.
Chris Greener, Senior Southeast Asia Product Executive at InsideAsia Tours, agrees: “Cambodia is now seen much more as a full destination, rather than just the historical Siem Reap add-on to Vietnam or Thailand. With the wealth of idyllic Cambodian island beach options, the increase in exposure and high-end properties in Phnom Penh and the improved road network, Cambodia is an incredible country to spend two weeks in.”
Mekong river cruises are also selling strongly, particularly between Saigon (Vietnam) and Siem Reap (Cambodia). Cruises in the Mekong Delta and northern Mekong in Laos also feature.
John Warr, Global Head of Sales at Wendy Wu Tours, says cruises on its new ship Mekong Victoria are “in high demand” for 2020. “Shorter itineraries give clients a more immersive experience and with our current free upper deck cabin upgrade offer, we’re certain sales will continue to grow,” he says.
Filippos Venetopoulous, General Manager for Intrepid’s Adventure Cruise, says the operator expanded its adventure cruises to Southeast Asia at the end of last year. “We are the only small ship operator in this region and as clients start looking for more authentic and sustainable ways to travel, our ships offer a greener alternative to a traditional cruise,” he says.
The magnificent Angkor temples, relics of the once-great Khmer Empire, in bustling Siem Reap are a big draw along with Phnom Penh, where the Killing Fields are a sober reminder of the brutal Khmer Rouge era.
The Koh Rong archipelago’s beautiful islands off the coast of rapidly developing Sihanoukville offer a relaxing laid-back vibe.
New Private island resort Alila Villas Koh Russey offers experiences like a pepper and wildlife tour and Khmer cooking class ($95 each), and new Six Senses Krabey Island features 40 villas with private plunge pools, an organic market farm and herb garden, and an observatory with an astronomical telescope and stargazing sessions led by an expert.
New to the Cardamom Mountains is the Bensley Collection’s luxury tented Shinto Mani Wild, which offers patrols with Wildlife Alliance rangers, a 380-metre zip-line to access the camp, trekking, foraging with the chef, and waterfall-side spa treatments.
Bamboo Travel has introduced electric bikes so clients can explore the Temples of Angkor with ease. E-bike tours can be added to existing itineraries such as the 11-day Highlights of Cambodia which visits Phnom Penh, Battambang, Udong and Sambor Pre-Kuk.
Avani Hotels has opened the 60-room French colonial-style FCC Angkor by Avani - its first property in Siem Reap.
Culturally rich and incredibly beautiful, Laos offers a more relaxed experience than its neighbours. The former royal capital of Luang Prabang and its present capital, Vientiane, boast gilded temples and charming French colonial architecture - plus great French bread and coffee too.
Scenic gems include Vang Vieng on the Nam Song River and southern Laos with its impressive waterfalls and temple Wat Phu, which pre-dates Angkor Wat. The remote north features colourful hill-tribes, dense jungle and mountainous scenery.
Avani Hotels & Resorts has opened its first property in Laos, the 53-room Avani+ Luang Prabang close to the Royal Palace and night market. It offers visits to waterfalls, cooking classes and daily and overnight Mekong River cruises onboard the two-cabin Gypsy.
Attractions run fom Sapa’s lush valleys and Halong Bay’s mesmerising limestone islands in the north to the fertile Mekong Delta in the south, plus: charming Hue with its Nguyen dynasty tombs, elegant Hoi An with its UNESCO-rated Old Town, and the historic Cu Chi tunnels, a relic of the Vietnam war.
Intrepid has added a 15-day Vietnam cruise to its Adventure Cruising collection which includes a visit to the caves in Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park.
Avani Hotels will open three new properties in the country by 2022 in Vung Tau, Saigon and Cam Ranh, the latter featuring 315 private pool villas.
The new Anantara Quy Nhon Villas on the south central coast offers 26 luxury villas with private pools and in-room butler services.
Fusion Resorts has opened the Hideaway at Fusion Resort Cam Ranh, now manages the Alba Wellness Valley in Hue and will open The Darwin - A Fusion Original hotel in Saigon and Fusion Resort Quang Binh, in 2020.
The luxury Melia Ho Tram Beach Resort opened in April. Two hours from Ho Chi Minh City, the Mediterranean-style beachfront resort.
Grasshopper Adventures has a nine-day Mekong Bike and Boat adventure onboard RV Toum Tiou, starting in Ho Chi MInh City and finishing in Siem Reap.
Where to book it
Wendy Wu offers a 23-day tour of Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia priced from £4,490pp and including a cruise on Victoria Mekong, flights, tours, four-star accommodation and all meals. Departures start in February 2020.