Our search began, as with most, jumping around on various internet sites looking to establish travel on a unique tour of Southeast Asia. Our goal, for a two week trip (14 days) for our family of three, was to experience Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, and Myanmar.
Currently living in Singapore, we have friends and coworkers who suggested some "areas" of the region and specific locations and sites that were defined as a "must see". Along with those suggestions very often they included the comments on how beautiful, peaceful, and friendly this area of the world truly is. In a word, "GO", and experience all that Southeast Asia has to offer and you will not be disappointed.
Our online research brought us to Zicasso, where we outlined at a very high level our goals of selected countries, types of experiences, hotel grade, type of room, and special accommodations related to allergies. It was at this point and time that we were connected with our travel agency to begin constructing our tailor made tour.
Almost immediately, our agent was at our tailored need in guiding us and helping us craft our itinerary. We found this travel agency to be extremely responsive and flexible, as well as, offering counsel and input. At first glance, our travel goals for the two weeks appeared a bit aggressive, and as our travel agency began constructing a sample itinerary they asked us to review it closely to be sure we were going to be comfortable with the pace and travel that was to be required.
The process actually began with a phone call, basically an interview to understand our families' goals, needs, and desires for our hopeful experiences. Ongoing communication took place via email, with extremely quick responses to our questions or requests for additional understanding as we continued to do our online research of the region and awaited our proposed itinerary and cost.
We remember receiving the itinerary, and the excitement for the potential of what we were about to embark on immediately jumped out of the pages. The itinerary was very detailed indicating what would be taking place Day 1 thru Day 14. Our private tour included a personal guide for each location and a personal driver and van at each location as well. It listed their recommendation for the 4 - 5 star hotel at each destination and how and where we would be greeted upon arrival.
This last little component is one, as we actually traveled, we really came to appreciate. Our trip essentially included 8 flights over the 14 days. We arranged our travel to/from Singapore, our travel agency arranged all the other remaining transportation and flights. The travel agency had a representative meeting us as we got off the plane. In Vietnam for example, we just sat back as they managed and processed the express visa service, guided us through immigration and customs, assisted us in our bag collection, and then introduced us to our guide and driver as we headed to the hotel.
This experience was repeated as we arrived in Laos from Vietnam, in Cambodia from Laos, in Thailand from Cambodia, in Myanmar from Cambodia, and within Myanmar as we flew from Mandalay to Bagan, then flew from Bagan to Yangon. In part, this part of the travel arrangements constructed by this travel agency removed what could have been a very stressful component of the trip and had us relaxed, as we watched other travelers standing in long lines or trying to understand what was required to pass into country.
Speaking of potential stress, in the past, we would manage all the travel arrangements ourselves. We would construct the itinerary, including locations and sites, schedule in meals, manage local transportation, and try to take it all in at the same time. Managing all of that takes away from the experience, adds stress, and if you need flexibility you are not prepared to adjust or understand how. Our travel agency made all of that disappear and we simply got to sit back (ok, lots of walking and climbing, not exactly sitting back at a beach) and enjoy our trip. Here is where we became impressed. Our guides and drivers at each location were simply amazing. How friendly and gracious they were, they became part of the experience. We just didn't walk up a temple, we didn't simply see the sunrise at Angkor Watt, we heard and understood the history of what we were witnessing at each location. The guides were incredibly knowledgeable.................and observant. Without them, the trip's experience would have simply been reduced by 50% in appreciation and understanding.
We happened to travel from the end of June through the beginning of July. This isn't exactly prime tour season for these destinations (usually Oct - Mar). However, our family believes this made the experience that much more enjoyable. The guides and drivers were thanking us for our patronage and for visiting and everyone we engaged was so polite. This leads us right into the staff at each of the hotels. As we came and went on our daily tours and returned in the late afternoon or early evening, we felt as though we were being welcomed home. Often a cool drink, cool towel to refresh ourselves, and assistance greeted us each and every time. Always this came with a smile and a thank you. The people made our experience memorable and our travel agency put all of this together for our family.
Just when you think that the travel agency's personal touch couldn't get any better, our agent took the opportunity during our trip to actually meet us at the hotel while we were in Vietnam. Ensured we had all the personal contact information necessary for each contact at each location, as well as, his own personal contact information. He then presented out family with a small gift of appreciation. Nice job and well done. This was our first experience using both Zicasso and this travel agency and we were incredibly impressed.
The memories were endless and they will be life-long lasting for our family. The entire trip was made enjoyable by the people we encountered along the way: our guides, drivers, hotel staff, local guides, and restaurant staff.
Vietnam (Hanoi and Halong Bay)
Being met right off the plane and being assisted for an express visa, immigration and customs clearance, bag collection and transportation to the hotel began our Day 1 of the trip and whatever potential for stress existed was removed.
Our hotel was in a nice location that allowed us to walk around the lake, stroll to dinner, and relax after travel.
Ba Dinh Square, Ho Chi Minh Complex, B52 Lake, Hoa Lo (Hanoi Hilton), Hon Kiem Lake and Ngoc Son Temple, and a lovely cycle ride.
Halong Bay and two-day boat cruise was amazingly stunning aboard the Paradise Peak. Incredible stateroom front port side. Cruise included our own butler and incredible meals. Stops to kayak, cave exploration, beach, and climb 400 steps for an amazing view of the bay. The staff of the ship were phenomenal.
Laos (Luang Prabang)
We stayed in a beautiful hotel with gorgeous grounds. We were upgraded to their main suite and the staff was beyond kind and warming. Pool and pool area is incredibly stunning. Our favorite hotel during our trip. Very memorable.
What a warm and beautiful city. Open the visit by being humbled watching and witnessing the "giving of alms" to the endless lines of orange-robed monks as the leave their pagodas to receive the offerings from local residents.
Our trip to Kuang Si Falls allowed for incredible pictures, but jumping in and swimming in the pools was awesome! We absolutely loved it!
During our time in Laos we toured the former royal palace, Laos National Museum, Wat Mai and Wat Xieng, climbed Mount Phousi, and visited the weaving and textile villages.
The meals during out stay in Laos were delicious! Enjoyed our stop at the Viewpoint Café for a beverage at the point where the Mekong Khan rivers merge. The lunch at Tanmaklao was both traditional and oooohhh so good.
Cambodia (Siem Reap)
The hotel staff greets you warmly each and every time you return from an excursion. The offering of the cool-moist-scented face towel just immediately relaxes you as you enter. My son loved their omelets for breakfast in the morning. Extremely convenient location and a short walk to Pub Street. Enjoyed a first night dinner at a restaurant within 5 minutes walk with the same name. Beautiful outdoor setting for the restaurant.
Opened with attending a stunning performance by the Cambodian Circus, Phare that first evening after dinner.
THEN came the trip to Angkor Wat. "CLICK", one of the 7 Wonders of the World. Simply inspiring. So much so, we went back for sunrise................great pictures. On to the Bayon Temple, incredible history, with a stellar lunch at Malis Restaurant..............YUM! Still we were not done, must get your Laura Croft (Angelina Jolie version) trip included, as we walked through Ta Phohm.
Our guide during our trip to Cambodia was simply the best. His knowledge, skill, and incredibly observations just had us staying as close to him as possible to hear every word. He knew right where to stand when for that great photo op. His understanding of nature and how he embraced it just added to it.
Cambodia was truly a mind blowing experience and quickly became one of our favorite stops during the trip.
We stayed in a quaint hotel along the river. Nice, closer to 3.5 stars than 4-5; however, perfect for our stay.
The Food Tour by Tuk Tuk was a fun trip, with great food and drink. Stopping off at a secret little rooftop bar for a nice cold one was a great way to wrap up the Tuk Tuk tour. Hang on to your caps, or it is soon gone!
Watching the handcraft making of the Monk's alms bowls, along with the Grand Palace and Wat Arun were highlights during our stay in Bangkok.
Myanmar (Mandalay, Bagan, and Yangon)
The hotel in Mandalay - Nice cozy little hotel - Personalized welcome sign upon arrival (nice touch)
The Hotel @ Tarabar Gate - Beautiful grounds - peaceful setting - nice size room - superb service - nice massage
Mandalay - Witnessed water bowl making, hand craft silver making, incredible views, and crossed 160 year-old wooden bridge. Beautiful and relaxing boat ride. Highlight was meeting a 20 year-old Monk who wanted to practice English with us. As said many times, the people are so warm and inviting. We had a fabulous guide who even gave us a marionette show during the boat ride. Highly recommend her as a guide as she took us through and taught us about: Ancient Pagodas, Mahamuni Pagoda, Golden Palace Monetary, Mingun Bell, Royal Palace Ruins, and more!!!!
Humbling visit to rural villages and local markets. Ananda Temple, Dhammayangyi Temple, ancient pagodas, Sunset from the Bagan Plain, Riverboat cruise for sunset on the river (wow). The horse drawn cart ride through temple areas, you can't place into words, one must simply witness it.
Shwedagon Pagoda - 14 acres of amazement
If we could go again, we would ADD more days.
Spend more time in Vietnam and visit the southern part of the country. Add an extra day in both Laos and Cambodia.
Take the trip to Myanmar during Oct - Mar so that we can take the balloon ride over the Bagan Plain.
Explore more of Thailand beyond Bangkok.
We had only 1 day in Yangon, so unless we spent more time there, we'd remove it from the itinerary and put that day in elsewhere. As Mandalay and Bagan were incredible.
We would NOT change our guides, drivers, or our travel agency..........they were spectacular.
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