Cambodia and Laos: Battambang (Cambodia) - Sangkae River, Ek Phnom Temple, Champasak (Laos) - Wat Phou UNESCO World Heritage Site, Royal Palace Museum, Thakhek (Laos) - Mahaxai Caves & Mekong River
Radiating charming elements of simplicity, Southeast Asia brims with iconic hallmarks each with a story to tell. SHARMILA MELISSA YOGALINGAM explores the lesser known gems of Cambodia and Laos - full of beauty, authentic experiences and historical sights.
WHY GO Situated by the winding Sangkae River, which accentuates the quaint, picturesque setting, Battambang is made up of rice paddy fields, well-preserved French Colonial architecture, cosy huts and ancient temples. Although it's Cambodia's second largest city, Battambang remained relatively undiscovered until only recently. The city has started developing rapidly with new hotels and restaurants sprouting up all over, catering to the rising number of international tourists. So it's best to pay a visit to this stunning rural land while it's still at its most pristine and before it's displaced by the encroachment of commercialism.
TO DO The locals have a novel way of travelling around Battambang. By mounting a motorcycle engine onto large bamboo platforms, they make a norry (from the French word for lorry) and drive along discarded train tracks. Since there's only one track, the drivers have to dismantle their norry to allow one approaching from the opposite direction to pass! While its rudimentary design may not provide the safest form of transportation - do take the time to experience it - you are unlikely to find it outside of this region. Another popular method of transportation used by the locals, and an authentic way to experience Battambang is to take a boat trip up the Sangkae River. Observe village life along the banks, where children dart between river huts while women tend to their daily laundry by the shore.
As with any Cambodian city, the temples of Battambang are a must-see. Phnom Sampeou and Phnom Banan are hilltop temples best visited early in the morning or late in the afternoon when the light and spectacular views are at their best. Ek Phnom temple is a partially collapsed 11th-century temple situated on the outskirts of the city. Renowned for its grand stone carvings and ancient statues, the temple is a popular spot for picnics and pilgrimage during festival times. And don't leave without making a quick trip to Battambang's Pepsi bottling plant. Although the factory closed in 1975, you can still see the remains of the production line and hundreds of old Pepsi bottles collecting dust.
$ Star Hotel (Lak A Street, City Centre Area, Battambang, Cambodia) offers basic accommodation and is located near several points of interest, including Ek Phnom temple, while VY CHHE Hotel (www.vychhehotel.com) is a great choice for an affordable full-service hotel featuring 53 spacious rooms and suites with an executive floor lounge plus an in-house restaurant serving Asian and European delights.
$$ Holiday Hotel (www.holidayhotel-bb.com) is centrally located, or opt for King Fy Hotel (www.kingfyhotel.com) distinctively decorated to blend traditional Khmer finishes with modern conveniences.
$$$ Battambang Resort (www.battambangresort.com) sits just outside the centre of Battambang town and is surrounded by lush rice fields. The Bambu Battambang Hotel (www.bambuhotel.com) is a boutique establishment boasting 16 luxurious bedrooms and a saltwater swimming pool.
GETTING THERE Take a two-hour flight from Singapore into Siem Reap on SilkAir (www.silkair.com) or Singapore Airlines (www.singaporeair.com) and then take a taxi to Battambang It's approximately a three-hour drive and will cost about US$50.
WHY GO Champasak is a peaceful hideaway, the perfect place for stressed travellers or short-stay vacationers to recuperate. This hamlet on the Mekong River boasts scenic wonders coupled with elegant French-inspired architecture all wrapped up in a blanket
of traditional Laos hospitality.
TO DO A popular destination in Champasak is Wat Phou - a UNESCO World Heritage hillside made up of a collection of dramatic and complex temples, palaces, lakes, terraces and mountains. Admittedly it has an inconspicuous sense of grandeur, but what it lacks in size and opulence, it makes up for in charm and ambience. Taking a quiet stroll along the Khmer ruins, corridors and courtyards can easily transport you back in time.
The volcanic Bolaven Plateau is an elevated region with an interesting mix of stunning scenery, modest villages, orchards and temples, as well as tea and coffee plantations. There are several waterfalls to admire in this area, including the Tad Fane Twin Falls. Si Phan Don is a gilded temple with an ornate façade and interesting carvings, and the Royal Palace Museum next door showcases historical Laotian artefacts and paintings. And the best way to appreciate Champasak's French architecture is to dedicate an entire day to a leisurely stroll around town.
$ Thavisab Hotel (www.thavisabhotel.com) offers a selection of quality well-furnished rooms ensuring a comfortable stay, while Souchittra Guest House (www.souchittra-guesthouse.com) has a charming riverfront sala restaurant and bar where you can enjoy spectacular views of the Mekong and beyond.
$$ The closest hotel to Wat Phou, Inthira Champasak (www.inthira.com) regards itself as the most contemporary and stylishly designed hotel in the locality. Champa Residence Hotel (13 Road, Ban Phonesaad, Pakse 12541, Laos) is a low-rise modern building offering comfortable accommodation with dark wooden beds and standard amenities.
$$$ Feeling indulgent? Check into The River Resort (www.theriverresortlaos.com). Each of its spacious Riverside rooms boasts extraordinary panoramic views of the Mekong River, and its sala includes a comfortable lounge and open-air dining room serving Western and Laotian cuisine prepared by an Australian Chef.
GETTING THERE Fly Lao Airlines (www.laoairlines.com) direct from Singapore to the Laos capital, Vientiane. Then jump on another Lao Airlines flight to Pakse, after which you'll have to take a cab or bus from Pakse's southern bus terminal to Champasak.
WHY GO Also on the Mekong River, Thakhek is populated more with Vietnamese than Laotian locals, creating an interesting cultural fusion. The capital of the Khammouane province, Thakhek is ideal for both the thrill-seeking adventurer looking to explore caves and travellers longing for total rest and relaxation.
TO DO Hidden among a sea of jagged limestone karst mountains are the Mahaxai Caves, the most visited of which are the Tham Pha (Buddha Cave), with its mesmerising emerald pool that glows under light, and the Tham En cave, a popular spot in an idyllic natural setting and frequented by native birds. Further out from Thakhek visit the Khammouane limestone mountains, best accessed through an organised tour group, which you can arrange in town. Or, if you prefer independence, book a motorbike or tuk-tuk for the day. The highlight of this mountain range is the Tham Lot Kong Lo cave, also referred to as the longest cave in the world. It opens up to an underground valley and is popular with kayakers from all corners of the globe. Another magnificent cavern worth a visit is the Tham Pha Pa, which hosts more than 200 sculptures and figurines of Buddha in various poses. Uncovered by a hunter in 2004, Tham Pha Pa is today considered a very holy Buddhist site, attracting a steady flow of pilgrims.
$ Thakhek Travel Lodge (Ban Vienvilay, Route 13, Tel: 030 530 0145) is an ideal backpackers
$$ Inthira Thakhek (www.inthira.com) is a hotel housed in a refurbished historic colonial building located in the centre of Thakhek, only a stone's throw away from the Mekong River.
$$$ Riveria Hotel (www.hotelriveriathakhek.com) has 56 luxuriously decorated rooms and suites overlooking a serene mountain range and close to key tourist attractions.
GETTING THERE Fly Lao Airlines (www.laoairlines.com) direct from Singapore to Vientiane. There are plenty of buses and taxis available from Vientiane to Thakhek.
Posted Aug 2012