Tuesday, January 23
HANOI, VIETNAM | Xin chào (Hello) from chilly Hanoi, Vietnam! We kicked off our first 2024 Once-in-a-Lifetime Journey with a bit of history — a private bunker tour, located right under the hotel, is an underground shelter used during the Vietnam War for foreign diplomats. Donned in protective helmets, the group explored below the city — a fascinating introduction to the country. Afterwards, we had a wonderful group dinner where everyone got to know each other and get excited for the trip ahead.
Wednesday, January 24
HA LONG BAY, VIETNAM | What's on the docket today? A visit to Ha Long Bay — a UNESCO World Heritage Site known for its emerald waters and thousands of towering limestone islands. Vietnamese legend says dragons descending from the heavens laid eggs (islands) around the bay to help Vietnamese people fight foreign invaders and protect their homeland — what a mystical place this is. In the afternoon, we traveled in style via private seaplanes and helicopters. After circling over the bay to get wonderful aerial photos, the group was reunited on our private double-deck boat for the day. The wine was flowing, snacks were laid out, and Members spent much of the day mingling amongst themselves while admiring the bay's giant rock formations and beautiful water landscapes.
Back on the mainland, it was time for an evening out on the town. Exclusive Resorts had prepared for every guest to get custom Vietnamese garments and boy did the group look dynamite. We traveled by rickshaw through the old streets of Hanoi to our dinner spot in a traditional and historic house. The living space was converted into a dining room and musicians from the national orchestra were on-site to set the soundtrack. Our hostess was a famous chef, Madam Anh Tuyet. She demonstrated how to make a myriad of local dishes and we enjoyed the fruits of her labor over cocktails and conversation.
Thursday, January 25
HANOI, VIETNAM | Today was dedicated to exploring the bustling city of Hanoi. We started by visiting Ba Dinh Square which is in the center of the city and features several important buildings including the President's Palace, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. Next, we visited the Temple of Literature to learn about the Chinese philosopher Confucius. We received wonderful insight on all these important locales from our local Journey guide who gave the group a new perspective on the country's history. Later, we visited the "Hanoi Hilton" which many have heard of as it is the most notorious POW camp from the Vietnam War. Seeing the cells and war devices used in the camp was a heavy experience but a not-to-be-missed site in the city, sparking great conversation throughout the group. Today's lunch was family-style with an abundance of noodles, fresh spring rolls, roasted pawns, and more. It was a fabulous feast. The rest of the day was a choose-your-own-adventure with the option to visit more historical sites, the Museum of Ethnology, war monuments, or head back to the hotel to rest. Tomorrow — off to Laos!
Friday, January 26
LUANG PRABANG, LAOS | Goodbye Vietnam, Hello Laos! The entire country of Laos contains about 7.4 million people — smaller than the city of Hanoi, making it a more tranquil vibe than the bustling metro we began in. Luang Prabang is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and reflects the exceptional fusion of Lao traditional architecture and 19th-century colonial style. The unique townscape is remarkably well preserved, illustrating the blending of distinct cultural traditions. The evening called for a Baci ceremony in a nearby village. This tradition is part of everyday life in Laos and is held for momentous occasions (and more mundane ones as well). Ours was a completely authentic experience, gathering in the living room of our Sharman, surrounded by his family. We sat in a circle on the floor while the family chanted and went around to each Member offering tidings of good luck and fortune by gently trying cotton cords symbolizing luck, friendship, and good health around everyone's wrist. A wonderful way to start the New Year!
Saturday, January 27
LUANG PRABANG, LAOS | Already at the halfway point! Today started early at 5 AM with a sunrise offering to the monks. A longstanding tradition in Laos Buddhist culture, we were able to observe monks dressed in bright orange robes walk through the streets at dawn while locals placed small balls of sticky rice into their metal dishes. Truly a moving ritual as long lines of barefoot monks walk silently along the streets every single day for this. The next adventure was the Pak Ou Caves. Ever since Buddhism was introduced to the area, local people have been bringing statues and placing them inside a cave carved into the rock near the Mekong River. There are thousands of various sizes and styles of Buddha statues in this cave. The group hiked to the cave and spent a bit of time exploring. From here, we boarded our private river boat and for the next 2 hours, traveled down the mighty Mekong River, and enjoyed the scenic sites of small villages. After lunch, we continued our exploration of historic Luang Prabang. First was Xieng Thong, a Buddhist temple built in 1560 by King Setthathirath, and known today as one of the most important Lao monasteries. Then we hiked up Phousi Hill which can be seen throughout the city, from the top everyone enjoyed a 360-degree view of the town, the mountains, and the river below.
Sunday, January 28
LUANG PRABANG, LAOS | Today each group had a private car, driver, and guide to take Members sightseeing wherever they chose. The majority of the group opted to visit the Mandalao Elephant Camp, a quick boat ride across the Nam Khan River. Visitors can feed the elephants a special treat of fresh bananas and walk alongside them as they crisscross through the river. Some Members opted for a more nature-focused excursion and chose to visit the Waterfalls of Kuang Si. This multi-tiered waterfall contains turquoise-tined water which is one of the most popular attractions around Luang Prabang. Additionally, there were several shopping trips throughout the day, both in local villages and the nearby silk-weaving center. In the evening, we gathered for cocktails and a recap of our day. Dinner was at a restaurant called 3 Nagas, meaning serpent guardian spirit of the water. We dined al fresco on the terrace surrounded by historic colonial architecture and beautifully lit-up trees.
Monday, January 29
LUANG PRABANG, LAOS | We enjoyed a leisurely morning in Laos at the hotel before boarding our flights to Siem Reap. In Cambodia, the group enjoyed a beautiful group dinner at the hotel — Zannier Hotels Phum Baitang. Located in an eight-acre sprawl of lush jungle, lemongrass, and paddy fields hidden in the sleepy Cambodian countryside, Phum Baitang is a mere 20 minutes from the 300-plus Buddhist and Hindu ruins of Angkor Archaeological Park.
Tuesday, January 30
SIEM REAP, CAMBODIA | The Angkor Complex in Cambodia is a UNESCO site containing 70+ major temples and another 500+ temples on its several hundred acres. The largest, most breathtaking, and most notable of these temples is Angkor Wat. Known as one of humankind's most magnificent creations, at 402 acres in size, Angkor Wat holds the Guinness World Record as the largest religious structure in the world. Before sunrise, the group entered through the dark gates of the complex lit only by flashlights and stars above. We gathered near the mote entrance to capture beautiful reflections of the main three temple towers, just as the sun’s rays were painting the sky pink. The magic of this holy place was breathtaking.
After sunrise, we spent the next few hours climbing and weaving throughout the interior of the structure to marvel at the various intricate columns, courtyards, and statues. As the heat of the day climbed into the 90s most Members found themselves strolling through the Siem Reap Old Market in the center of town or returning for an ice-cold beer by the pool of the hotel. Each couple was equipped with a private car and driver so they were able to explore the area at their leisure in the comfort — and coolness — of a vehicle. We gathered again for sunset and surprised Members with a romantic dragon boat ride — it was truly a full circle having been up to witness the sky transform at twilight and sink to black at dusk.
Wednesday, January 31
SIEM REAP, CAMBODIA | This morning we ventured an hour outside of Siem Reap into the countryside. Our first stop was at the Land Mine Museum of Cambodia. Countless land mines were dropped on Cambodia between 1985 and 1989 when the Vietnamese allied government installed a "bamboo curtain" against invaders. It is believed there are still anywhere between 6-8 million unexploded landmines sprinkled around. The museum’s founder works with communities to help clear these rouge mines throughout the country and provides aid to those who are still affected by landmine explosions. It is an incredibly dangerous job but important for the future of the country. Having him take the group around and share in his experiences was a heart-wrenching but memorable experience.
Exclusive Resorts made a $6,000 donation to the museum fund on behalf of all group Members who will be traveling there this season. Our group was touched by the gesture. Some even pledged they’ll be providing more funds. The group left with a deeper understanding of this still ongoing crisis in the country.
From here we made a short drive to a less “heavy” experience at Banteay Srei (the pink temple). Built in the 10th century a Hindu temple dedicated to Shiva it was a women’s place of worship for centuries. The intricate carvings are still well preserved around the ruins and Members marveled at it. We gathered at dusk and departed for one of the most epic farewell events I have had the pleasure of being a part of. As far as the group knew, we were having dinner at a temple courtyard — which we technically did — but my vague description made the surprise all the better. We arrived at a dark road lined by candles on either side. The group slowly made their way up the path, drums sounding. Performers dressed in traditional Cambodian dress could be seen along the path. As we passed each they joined us forming a huge procession towards a temple in the distance. The closer we got to the temple, the louder the drumming sounded. Once closely within view of the temple, the sounds stopped and lights lit the back of giant stone columns. Spotlight spotted small figurines standing along the rocks – but every so often the figures moved only to show they were humans depicting statues.
The group enjoyed cocktail hour at high-top tables and took numerous photos in total awe. After a short while, another event began and the group was brought around to the front of the temple where three large tables sat overlooking a stage in the front of Kravan Temple, a 10th-century temple. Over the next 2 hours, the group enjoyed an intimate multi-course dinner with various theatrical performances between each dish. On one occasion servers lined along the temple holding flat plates lit with candles and danced on stage. It was an over-the-top experience! Many members said if they could do their weddings over again, they would do that dinner reception instead!
Thursday, February 1
Farewell Southeast Asia! Good-bye, for now, as I know we will be back soon.