You don’t have to be an intrepid backpacker or a wealthy beach bum to experience a different, more magical side of Southeast Asia these days. Beyond the temples and beaches, you can find other unforgettable adventures if you’re modestly fit, daring of palate, and willing to leave the tour bus behind. Contributing writer Lynn Langway explores some offbeat pleasures in Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam.
Relentlessly, the pasta-maker churned out cascades of rice noodles, overwhelming my outstretched palms. I was supposed to be folding the strands into neat bundles at Ms. Vy’s Market Restaurant & Cooking School in Hoi An, Vietnam, not fumbling like Lucy and Ethel on the chocolate assembly line. Once rescued by the teacher, though, I managed to produce some reasonable facsimiles of spring rolls. My husband and I even survived the tasting of street eats, gingerly sampling our way through such exotica as steamed pig brains in pepper sauce (smooth!), and jellyfish salad (crunchy!) before settling down—with relief—to the less-challenging lunch we’d made.
Our wok on the wild side was just one highlight of an independent, four-week trip we took in midwinter to Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam to celebrate our 45th wedding anniversary. While group tours can cover lots of ground with minimum hassle, we wanted to set our own schedules on this landmark occasion. We turned to the custom travel wizards at Journeys Within Tour Company, whose regional specialists can help you make the most of your time, money, and inclinations.
Once primarily for the rich, custom travel agencies are beginning to cater to more modest budgets. For a minimum of $150 per day per couple, Journeys Within will craft personalized itineraries, including airport pickups, internal flights or boat rides, private car with driver and English speaking guides where desired, small hotels, and one or two meals a day. “We really want to make this more customized experience more accessible,” says Andrea Ross, who started Journeys Within in 2003 with her husband Brandon as a B&B and tour agency in Siem Reap, Cambodia, near the famous temples of Angkor Wat.
In our case, we knew we wanted the chance to see not only temples, but also wild birds we’d never seen before. We hoped to kayak in unfamiliar waters and hike when we could to counteract the fabulous foods we intended to consume. We also wanted to support local nonprofits that work to better lives in these countries that have suffered so much.
We got all that, and more.
On Cambodia’s largest lake, the Tonle Sap, scores of endangered pelicans and storks wheeled above and around us as we poled along the channels of the Prek Toal Bird Sanctuary. Our expert guide came from OSMOSE, an environmental group that has helped save seven species of birds from extinction. In Vietnam, we walked the mountain trails of Bach Ma National Park with a ranger who could whistle songbirds right out of the rain forest, and we paddled amid the scenic boulders of Halong Bay. In Laos, we wandered through preserves for butterflies and for black bears while exploring the spectacular Kuang Si waterfall, where we spotted an azure kingfisher in the foliage as we waded in an aqua swimming hole. At a Cambodian reservoir, built by slave labor during the murderous Khmer Rouge regime and later transformed into a wildlife refuge, we kayaked the tranquil waters and admired the elegant Sarus Cranes on parade.
Some of our most memorable adventures were culinary. In Bangkok—armed with the Thai words for “please,” “thank you,” and “help,” along with directions to help tuktuk drivers find our hotel—we were the only Westerners among the throng of Thai families feasting on spicy blue crabs at Kom Lom Chuon Saphan, a riverfront seafood mecca that’s better known as Buddy’s. The crowd was more international at the Night Market in Ho Chi Minh City, where we clawed our way happily through garlicky giant crawfish, using only chopsticks and a fork.
Perhaps one of our biggest surprises—we never had a bad meal nor an upset stomach anywhere, from the humblest cafes to acclaimed restaurants. Everything was fresh, beautifully cooked, and accented with a rainbow of tropical fruits, vegetables, and herbs (with more or less chili on request.) Among our favorites: the sublime papaya daiquiri and ratatouille salad at L’Elephant in Luang Prabang; the delicate white snapper braised with coriander at Gallery in Chiang Mai, Thailand; the pistachio mousse and ginger crème brulee at Pots and Pans in a lovely old Hanoi villa.
While we didn’t stay in five-star resorts, we didn’t need western-style pampering and amenities. In fact, all our boutique hotels were air-conditioned, charming and comfortable. Some, like the chic Riva Surya on the Chao Phraya River in Bangkok, boasted big terraces, sparkling pools, and gyms. Others had central locations that encouraged walking and affordable spa services. In Hanoi, we tumbled right out of the Elegance Essence Hotel into the misty streets of the old quarter, strolling a few blocks to Hoan Kiem Lake for predawn T’ai Chi’ with the locals (the up-tempo music made it seem more like, well, T’ai Zumba.)
But our most special lodging was probably the small hotel run by Journeys Within, which now has a nonprofit division that digs new wells, microfinances small businesses, and teaches English—with a willing assist from eager guests. On my first afternoon there, I volunteered to read to about 20 Cambodian children at storytime. I was not a total success; the kids giggled at my impersonation of a “scary” dragon (I blame the translator). Yet that memory remains as vivid as the bright orange shawls that draped so many Buddha statues, lingering like the scent of lemongrass and woodsmoke that still perfumes our luggage.
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Text and Images by Lynn Langway for PeterGreenberg.com