Those who followed this blog over the past couple weeks will know that my recent trip through northern Thailand and Laos was with a small group tour via Intrepid Travel, specifically the 13 day Thailand and Laos Adventure. Now that I’m settled back at home, I’ll leave you with a review of my experience on this organized tour.
Best cities visited
We made it to four cities/towns in Thailand: Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, and Chiang Khong. Of this limited exploration in Thailand, Bangkok was my personal favourite. There’s just so much going on in this massive city, a combination of grand historic temples and modern living. We only grazed the surface of Bangkok over the three days that we were there, two days with Intrepid and one on our own, but what we did see was really cool. A highlight was being able to see and participate in the Songkran festivities!
Luang Prabang, Laos
We visited four destinations in Laos: Pakbeng, Luang Prabang, Vang Vieng, and Vientiane. Of these, I think the only place I have an interest in returning to is Luang Prabang. This small riverside city has such a relaxed atmosphere and is very clean and well maintained. We had some of our best Lao eats here too.
Worst town visited
Vang Vieng, Laos
Mostly because it was unbearably hot and dusty while we were there, our two days in Vang Vieng were the most uncomfortable I felt through the entire trip. I’m sure there is more to the town and surrounding area that we missed out on, simply because we were feeling too crappy to get outside.
Legend Hotel, Luang Prabang
This was our highest end accommodation during the Intrepid tour, and fortunately our longest stay at 3 nights. It featured clean and cozy rooms with friendly staff. We used the laundry service here which was reasonably priced at 15,000 kip per kilogram.
Siam Champs Elyseesi Hotel, Bangkok
This was rated as a 4 star hotel but probably more in keeping with 2 to 3 stars based on European and North American standards. Nonetheless, we had a large room and the place was well maintained. My only qualm is that we did not have a proper shower so had to crouch down in the tub with the handheld showerhead, making things pretty awkward.
Family Boutique Hotel, Vientiane
It was a relief to stay here for our final night in Laos after a couple days of mediocre accommodation in Vang Vieng. Our room was tiny but this at least allowed for the air conditioning to kick in really quickly.
Phonemany Guest House, Pakbeng
We were advised by Intrepid that this would be a particularly basic accommodation, but I’m putting it on my ‘best’ list because it was considerably better than expected. No amenities like a television or mini fridge in the room, but it was quite clean, with high speed WiFi and good air conditioning, so it met my relatively low expectations. Our dinner there was also one of the better meals we had in Laos.
Sleeper train, Bangkok to Chiang Mai
This is on my ‘best’ list primarily because of the novelty of traveling on a sleeper train, my first such experience. I wouldn’t make this my top choice of accommodation, but was pleasantly surprised that the bunks were fairly comfortable and the restrooms stayed clean for most of the night.
Kiengthong Guest House, Vang Vieng
I feel bad about saying this because the staff here were really nice, but the quality of this hotel put a further damper on our already uncomfortable experience in Vang Vieng. The room was very large so it took forever for the air conditioning to circulate, and the WiFi connection was poor. We also didn’t realize that they don’t clean the room unless you put a sign up on your door, so we had to go downstairs to pick up fresh towels and toilet paper. There’s a pool but it’s awkwardly located in front of the hotel opening into the parking lot and the water is warm, so not particularly refreshing.
People Place Hotel, Chiang Mai
There are two buildings to this hotel, but Intrepid booked us into the older one that was obviously more run down. Water pressure was weak and the heater seemed to be malfunctioning, so we had cold showers during our two days here. No safety deposit box and just overall very basic accommodation.
Baan Rim Naam Guest House, Chiang Khong
This place actually wasn’t too bad and in fact had a much better bathroom compared to the place in Chiang Mai. However, we checked into the room to find a wet shower stall and dirty bath mat which grossed me out and put me off the place for the remainder of our stay.
Best mode of transportation
Mekong River slow boat
Our two day cruise along the Mekong River was a top highlight of the trip for me. It was a very comfortable ride on a large boat, with opportunity to admire some beautiful scenery. I also liked the traditional Lao meals served on board.
Instead of Uber, Grab is the commonly used ride share app in Thailand and other parts of Southeast Asia. We used it a couple times with the Intrepid group and on our own. It was straightforward and allowed us to avoid dealing with the taxi and tuk tuk scams that are unfortunately quite common. You can order a regular car or an actual taxi, and pay either by credit card via the app or in cash at the end of the ride.
I just want to put in a plug for the airport transfer company we used, Transfer BKK. It was 990 baht (about $40 CAD) for an SUV with driver who picked us up directly from the airport and brought us to the hotel, much cheaper than the transfer suggested by Intrepid which would have cost more than two times as much. The owner responded to my booking request within a couple hours and was super organized.
Worst mode of transportation
There were a couple long rides in a minivan which were a necessary part of the tour, so I can’t really fault Intrepid for this. We were also fortunate to have only four of us in the 9 seater minivan, so it could’ve been worse in terms of being cramped. I imagine conditions would be much less tolerable with even a slightly larger group, although I think the company does hire a more spacious minibus in that case.
Best guided activities
My favourite activities overall were actually the ones we organized on our own: Elephant Nature Park and Tamarind cooking school. Out of the Intrepid guided excursions, the following were my top ranked.
Chao Phraya River cruise, Bangkok
This was our first organized activity in Thailand and a pleasant start to the trip. It was really interesting to catch a glimpse of local life and see all the traditional homes located along the khlongs. I also just really like being on boats.
Kuang Si Waterfalls, Luang Prabang
This place is even more striking in person than my photos could capture. The pools were perfect depth for swimming and the water was so refreshing. An afternoon well spent, for sure.
Worst guided activities
Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep, Chiang Mai
This was mostly disappointing due to the weather. The heavy layer of smoke in the air from burning season completely obscured the view of Chiang Mai, so we didn’t get to enjoy the views that most people climb those 300+ stairs to see.
Afternoon walking tour, Vientiane
We were just way too hot on this afternoon to tolerate the walk. There also wasn’t all that much to see in this sleepy capital city of Laos.
Best things I packed
I invested in a real camera, the Sony Cybershot HX80, for this trip and it was a worthwhile expense. The zoom and low light capabilities were far superior to my phone camera and I think I managed to get some really nice photos off of it, such as the sunrise shot above. It’s compact so easier to carry compared to a full fledged DSLR.
This was the longest period I’ve been subjected to extremely hot weather, so my body must have been in some kind of shock. My feet were swollen through most of the trip and my Sanuk Yoga Slings were a relief to have on. Otherwise I probably wouldn’t have been able to walk!
I intended to use this during my trips to the Kuang Si Waterfalls and Blue Lagoon, but it turned out to be even more handy to have around when attending the Pi Mai and Songkran festivities. It was the only way to take photos without drowning my phone.
Worst (least used) thing I packed
I brought along a handheld misting fan from Amazon in the hopes that it would give me some relief from the heat, but it really didn’t help and was a hassle to carry around. What I really wanted was some kind of wearable ice suit!
Meals were mostly not included as part of the tour, other than a few hotel breakfasts which were merely passable. The best dining experiences we had were at Gaggan in Bangkok and Tamarind in Luang Prabang, but we found both these places ourselves. Of the restaurants that our Intrepid guide brought us to, these were my favourites.
Rim Khong Restaurant, Chiang Khong
Even though I was grossed out by the hotel room in Chiang Khong, the restaurant beside it served one of my more delicious meals in Thailand. I had the tom yum kung, which is spicy sour soup with prawns. Yum.
Phonemany Guest House, Pakbeng
It was here where I had my first Lao laap, a traditional dish of minced pork seasoned with fish sauce and fresh herbs, served with sticky rice. Made fresh to order, too. They also had some of the best fried spring rolls we had in Laos. Delicious.
This is a bakery cafe chain with locations in Luang Prabang and Vientiane. It was one of the few places open during Pi Mai and had air conditioning, so we were taken there twice during the trip. Their bland sandwiches were our most disappointing meals through the trip, and they charged western level prices so didn’t even make up for it by being a cheap eat.
I should note that meals in Laos were generally more expensive than in Thailand, almost twice as much in most cases. An average meal in Thailand was about $3-5 USD versus $5-10 USD in Laos.
Best overall aspects
Small group size
The maximum group size for all the Intrepid tours is 16 people. We had an especially small group with only 4 of us, which was quite ideal. We saw lots of huge coach bus tours throughout our travels, and they always looked like terrible experiences being herded around like cattle. With our tiny group, we avoided feeling too cramped in the minibus and it was much easier to corral all of us together. Luckily, our travel mates were cool and easy to get along with. We also really liked our guide, who was a guy from Chiang Mai about our age. It felt like a much more authentic experience to have a local showing us around.
It was nice to be able to sit back and enjoy the experience, not worrying about transportation or accommodations, as these were all arranged by Intrepid. We ran ahead of schedule on several occasions and never felt too rushed around.
Lots of free time
This could be viewed as a negative for some people looking for more guidance given that this is supposed to be an organized tour, but I appreciated the opportunity to go off and do our own thing throughout the trip. I did do a fair amount of research on my own ahead of time, which I think made all the difference in improving my trip experience.
Worst overall aspects
Missing the sale price
I booked the trip about 3 months in advance, and was dismayed to see the price go down by nearly $500 CAD about a month before departure. At that point it was too late to cancel and rebook for the sale price, as I would have had to forfeit my deposit. A frustrating experience, to say the least. Next time, I will probably hold off on booking the tour in order to take advantage of their last minute deals.
Quality of accommodations
Given the amount we paid, we didn’t really get good bang for our buck when it came to accommodations. Even higher end hotels in the places we visited can be found for less than $50 USD per night, so there were definitely some better options out there. However, I will acknowledge that Intrepid did advise us of this and I tempered my expectations before embarking on the trip.
Those traveling to this region between February and April, be forewarned about burning season. The air quality does vary from year to year, but apparently conditions were especially bad this year. As mentioned above, the haze prevented us from fully enjoying a lot of the scenery and it would be tough on anyone with respiratory issues. We did see some nice blue skies toward the end of the trip around Pi Mai and Songkran, so it seems things improve considerably toward mid to late April. Fortunately I didn’t feel physically ill at any point, but it would be nice to come back perhaps in December or January when conditions are the most pleasant.
I probably shouldn’t end this entry on a negative note, so I’ll just finish off with saying that yes, I would recommend the Intrepid Travel Thailand and Laos Adventure. It isn’t a perfect tour but it was a fantastic way for Mr. Chuckles and me to be introduced to Southeast Asia and meet some other well traveled people. Hopefully we’ll be back here in the future and we are going to consider some of Intrepid’s other tours, perhaps in Vietnam next time. Oh, the places we’ll go!