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Trip Report Trip Report: Pandaw’s cruise down the Mekong from China to Laos

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Almost a year ago, on a typical gray, rainy Seattle day, I was looking for information about traveling to warm, sunny SE Asia. Kathie’s review of Pandaw’s Chindwin river cruise motivated me to check their web site. I’d first thought about revisiting Myanmar but I became more intrigued by a four country Mekong river expedition from China to Burma, Thailand, and Laos. There was a sizable discount for booking well in advance and no single supplement, so I booked a 14-day trip (October 5-19) down the Mekong from China to Laos. The itinerary came with the warning that since this was first time such a trip had ever been attempted, travelers distressed by sudden route changes or delays shouldn’t book the trip. While there were delays and changes in plan, the overall experience was so positive that I’m already planning another Pandaw cruise. Quite of few of my fellow travelers suggested that we book another cruise together in three years time but I’m thinking about a Myanmar or Vietnam journey sooner than that.

Days one and two: Jinghong, China

There’s no quick way to get to Jinghong. I booked a flight with United frequent flyer miles from Seattle to Shanghai (via Tokyo) and spent the night at Shanghai’s Hongqiao airport hotel before taking China Eastern Air’s flights from Shanghai to Kunming and from Kunming to the Xishuangbanna airport, near Jinghong. Five of us who met at the airport suspected that something had gone wrong when Pandaw’s driver dropped us off at the InterContinental Xishuangbanna Resort. Where’s the boat? Half an hour later, Ben, the director Pandaw’s Mekong operations, gathered all 18 passengers in the resort’s Club Room for an explanation. The Champa Pandaw’s inaugural upstream cruise from Vientiane to Jinghong had run around due to low water. This wasn’t the low water season (Dec-April) but suspicions were that Chinese dams’ release of water had been manipulated. So, we would follow the original plan for sightseeing around Jinghong but stay for two nights at the sprawling Xishuangbanna Resort and take a speedboat to Guan Lei, the Chinese port where the boat was now docked. Over cocktails and dinner, I met my fellow passengers (5 Canadians, 4 other Americans, 4 Australians, and 4 Germans. They were all avid travelers, six couples and the rest women traveling in pairs or on their own. Four of us were first-timers but most people had taken 2 to 6 previous Pandaw cruises.

After breakfast in the resort’s club room, we boarded a bus for the day’s excursion to the Menglun botanical gardens, a tropical landscape so vast that most people travel through it on motorized golf carts. The water lily ponds, orchids, bamboo groves, and dancing grasses (they move if you sing or talk loudly to them) were spectacular. After lunch at a Chinese buffet restaurant, we visited a tea planation, and a Dai village. Tony, the local guide, explained that the Dai people’s language is similar to Thai and they hold similar Buddhist beliefs. The old temple had a variety of Buddha images that looked vaguely Thai and newly-painted murals vividly depicting the torments of hell. We wandered through the village, saw traditional houses with the first floor used for housing livestock or motorcycles, saw rubber trees being tapped and children using pails on long poles to draw water from a well enclosed in a structure that looked like a bee hived shaped stupa. Dinner was back at the resort and then off again on the bus to see a show at the Maxmumbani theater. Since China is promoting the Dai autonomous region as a tourist destination, I had cynically expected an evening showcasing smiling singers and dancers from various ethnic minorities. There was much more—break dancers in elephant costumes, men swallowing blazing swords, contortionists turning into human candelabras, and acrobats descending en masse from the ceiling performing like China’s own Cirque du Soleil. When it was over, Chinese tourists streamed out to board their buses and take photos of us, the only western tourists in town. A busy day ended and in the morning we’ll board speed boats to take us down the river to board the Champa Pandaw.

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    I am so glad to see this report! We have been talking about which Pandaw cruise to choose for 2017. It seems to be an addiction! I chuckled over your comment on planning another cruise next year rather than three years from now. Three people I met on the Chindwin cruise recently emailed me to tell me they were going on the Borneo cruise in February.

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    Here's more (I've been away at a conference) but plan to finish the report this week.

    Days three to five: Down the Mekong to Chiang Saen, Thailand

    Given the uncertainty about the Mekong river’s water levels, even after the rainy season, it’s likely that many travelers will start out this Pandaw cruise with a brief stay at the huge InterContinental Xishuangbanna Resort. The resort has large, comfortable, well-equipped rooms and we had access to the Club Lounge and its private pool (bathing caps required). Still, we were all eager to leave and board the Champa Pandaw, built in Thailand and completed in September 2016 just before the first upstream trip. We took a speedboat down to Guan Lei, a Chinese port and immigration checkpoint. We boarded the boat and unpacked. There was plenty of storage under the cabins’ two berths and at least for me plenty of space in the small closet--two women sharing a closet would need to negotiate the space. We unpacked quickly since Chinese immigration officials had to check out the boat thoroughly. A steep series of stairs lead up to the immigration checkpoint. We waited while Chinese officials decided whether an exception could be given to one elderly (80+) passenger, incapable of climbing the stairs. The exception was made reluctantly and we were on our way out of China.

    In October the lush green of jungle hills, rubber trees, and rice fields growing up the slopes cast a temporary green sheen on the Mekong’s muddy brown waters. The villages were small, marked by a few thatched or corrugated metal roofs, the golden spires of small temples, and the occasional boat moored on the banks. We stopped at midday to walk through a small Laotian fishing village. The men were out fishing and woman and small children, from the shade of porches and trees, stared at the odd sight of 18 mostly elderly westerners with umbrellas, broad-brimmed hats, and cameras walking through their village. Our local guide stopped and chatted with the oldest villager, a 91 year old man, smoking a small hookah. The heat and humidity drove us all back to the boat, where the crew welcomed us back with a cold towel, a cold drink, and took our dusty shoes for cleaning. A quick shower to wash off the dust and sweat and then the pleasures of lunch in the open air dinning area on the top deck. Lunch buffet of freshly baked breads, cheeses, sliced meats and salmon, salads, soup, and fruit, followed by a choice of 3 hot entrees (meat, fish and a vegetarian entrée) and dessert. Bottled water, soft drinks, local beer and alcohol were included while wine cost extra. On especially hot days, it was wonderful to enjoy a fresh green salad with vegetables and fruit. Vieng, our guide, often reminded us that chef (a young Cambodian who must have been in 30s but who looked even younger) had visually sized up the passengers when they first boarded the ship and would be disappointed if we hadn’t gained weight. I don’t think any of us disappointed him.

    The Captain was Laotian and knew the river well. He had for many years transported cargo down the Mekong until Chinese built roads made transportation by truck quicker. Each day the captain offered flowers and fruit on a small shrine to local river deities in hope of a safe voyage down the river. His skill would soon be put to the test. We docked for the night on a sand bank and walked through another small village as villagers returned home from fishing and selling produce at local markets along the river banks. At the end of the cocktail hour (5:30-6:30), we were briefed on the next day's itinerary. Because a crew member needed urgent medical attention for a ruptured bleeding ulcer, we would leave at daybreak to drop him off at the nearest point where an ambulance could bring him to the hospital. One of the passengers, a retired doctor, fortunately had the necessary medicine and equipment to rig up an IV line in one of the unsold cabins and stabilize him. After a four course dinner (salad, soup, entrée—usually a choice of local fish and a western dish, e.g. beef bourguigon, lamb chops, vegetarian ravioli—and desert, we sent off traditional floating lanterns high into the sky, as local children watched them disappear into darkness.

    I woke the next morning to the sound of the engines starting up. The days on the boat began as early six am, when croissants and fresh French press coffee were available in the salon bar upstairs. Occasionally, usually near a city, wi-fi was available. Breakfast, a buffet—breads, cheese, yogurt, cereals, made to order SE Asian soup, omelets, scrambled eggs, poached eggs, eggs benedict, and my favorite, salmon with cheese sauce on toast—followed at 7:30-9am. Until the morning excursion usually to some local village, most people hung out on the upper deck, chatting, reading, or joining the retired doctor in breathing and stretching exercises. I was on the front deck, hanging onto the rail as the captain swiftly steered the boat through narrow, rocky passages (one of my fellow travelers couldn’t stifle a scream at one close encounter). After two hours, the ailing crew member was off loaded on a stretcher to a waiting ambulance. We later learned that he was recovering but would not be returning to the boat. Pandaw would have another crew member accompany him home to Cambodia when he was released from the hospital. Not long after, we reached Chiang Saen port, where we docked for the night and passed through Thai immigration. After lunch, we went on an excursion to the Golden Triangle area, where Myanmar, Thailand and Laos meet. I had been there nearly two decades earlier and there was nothing but a small sign. Now tourism is being encouraged as an alternative to the drug trade. The late Thai king’s mother had built an impressive Hall of Opium museum, beginning with exhibits and videos that explain how opium is grown, how British imperialism led to the Opium wars, and ending with a gallery of mug shots of people who have died of drug overdoses (mostly western celebrities like Kurt Cobain). After we returned to the boat, we enjoyed the usual excellent dinner, and a troupe of eight young Thai dancers with extraordinarily flexible fingers came onboard and performed several dances accompanied by several musicians on drums, lutes, dulcimers, etc.

    The original itinerary had the Champa Pandaw stopping in Tachileik, Burma but local unrest forced a change. We docked for a second night in Chiang Saen and spent the day visiting temples in Chiang Rai. When I had visited Chiang Rai nearly 20 years ago, the artist Ajarn Chalermachai had built a small elegant white temple that attracted a few visitors. Now the temple is a major tourist attraction with several outbuildings—exhbition halls and studios, a gallery of Chalermachai’s paintings (including a fine image of George Bush riding a rocket into space), as well as monastery buildings. Busloads of Thai, Chinese, and western tourists visit. Also in the Chiang Mai area, one of Chalermachai’s students had built a blue temple, with similarly intricate architectural details and a beautiful white marble Buddha inside the main sanctuary. On the way back to the boat, we made a final stop at the Black temple. Our local Thai guide said that the white temple provides people with a vision of heaven and the black temple with a vision of hell. That’s a bit of an exaggeration but the eccentric artist Thawan Duchanee’s temple buildings are black, contain the skulls, bones, and skins of animals and one temple contains a bust of the late artist and his ashes. This added stop in Chiang is not on the current Pandaw “Laos to China” itinerary but it should be since all three temples are worth a visit.

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    Thanks for the encouragement.

    Days six and seven: Down the Mekong to Luang Prabhang

    The days and nights on the Champa Pandaw fell into a comfortable routine. Mornings and afternoons were spent chatting with other passengers (and playing scrabble occasionally), reading novels on my Kindle (especially enjoyed Colin Cotterill’s Dr. Siri’s mystery series set in Laos) on the upper deck or, when the heat and humidity were intense, in the air conditioned comfort of my cabin, and watching traffic on the river--fishing boats, ferries, people on their way to the market, boats dredging silt from river, etc. Evenings tended to end early as most were sated by the abundance of good food at dinner and plenty to drink. All the Pandaw-philes agreed that chef’s cooking was the best ever. I’m planning another Pandaw voyage to test this out for myself!

    We left Chiang Saen and continued down the Mekong. Two large Chinese casinos, one on the Laotian bank and other on the Thai bank, stood out among the smaller Buddhist temples. Though cruising is relaxing, the excursions were welcome opportunities to get some exercise and learn a little about village life in Laos. The visit to the first Laotian village after leaving Chiang Saen was a disappointment. It had rained all night and the steep path up the bank was muddy and, despite the helping hands of the crew, some people slipped and fell. The planned school visit was scrapped because of the condition of the path that lead up to it. I’m not sure how many children would have been in school since at least two dozen school age kids clutching fistfuls of woven bookmarks (2 for $1) relentlessly pursued us. When I asked them (via a translator) why they weren’t in school, they responded that they took the day off because of the boat’s arrival. Later in we moored overnight at another village, where the kids and adults were friendly and curious but not intent on making sales. Villages where we visited Buddhist temples, weavers, basket-makers, makers of fishing nets, and tasted local fruit and beer were the most interesting.

    The next day the boat set off for the Pak Ou caves, through rapids and past spectacular limestone cliffs. On the way, we stopped in Ban Xang Hai village, noted for its whiskey making. The still wasn’t in operation but a local shop offered a taste of the potent stuff. Then on to the Elephant Village Sanctuary, where we watched the elephants’ care-givers fed and bathe them in the river. A smaller boat brought us across the river to the Pak Ou caves, embedded in the limestone cliffs, near the point where the Mekong meets the Nam Ou river. Stairs led up from the river to the lower caves, which are well-lighted and attract the most visitors to its displays of thousands of old and damaged buddha images, of varying sizes and in various positions, left by visitors. There are images, metal and wood, of buddhas in meditation, attaining enlightenment, teaching, entering nirvana (reclining position), and two that were new to me: buddhas standing with hands down at their sides, calling for rain and buddhas with the palms of both hands facing outwards, calling for peace. A fifteen minute walk up steep stairs led to the dark upper cave (flashlight required), with a larger buddha image surrounded by hundreds of smaller ones.

    After a busy morning and lunch back on the boat, we traveled down the river to Luang Prabhang, where the Pandaw would dock for two nights. That night at dinner the lights suddenly went out. The beaming chef walked in with a lighted birthday cake in his hands. On the information sheet handed out on the first day, I hadn’t indicated that I would be celebrating a birthday (at my age I tend to celebrate the only beginning of each new decade) but the pursuer had seen my passport and must have alerted the chef. He cut the beautiful three-layered white cake into enough pieces so that all 18 of us had a slice of delicious cake.

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    Pandaw also celebrates wedding anniversaries. One couple celebrated their 43rd anniversary and our gifted chef made a lovely pink frosted cave with two swans carved from apples. I

    Days 8-10: Luang Prabhang

    The Champa Pandaw docked in Luang Prabhang late in the afternoon. The crew cut steps into the dirt path and put up bamboo railings for passengers who needed assistance. We wandered around the old part of the city, which caters to foreign tourists with many French colonial buildings turned into hotels, guest houses, shops, and restaurants. Vendors were setting out their merchandise for the night market that shuts down the main street to traffic (starting at 5pm). I bought some handmade cotton cushion covers and water bottle covers; others bought silk table runners and scarves.

    The next morning we visited the former Royal Palace, now a museum. Modest dress is politely enforced with sarongs available to cover bare shoulders/knees. In the palace is the Phra Bang, the most revered of all Laotian Buddha images. The royal reception rooms contain murals illustrating scenes of Lao life, paintings and photos of the royal family, and gifts given to the royal family from countries around the world. The bedrooms and living quarters at the back of palace remain as they were when the communist took control in 1975. Parked in a building outside the museum are the royal cars (old jeeps and Lincoln Continentals mostly). Nearby we visited Wat Xieng and Wat Mai, the most impressive of Luang Prabhang’s many Buddhist temples, which were elaborately decorated inside and out with gold leaf and glittering glass tiles. In contrast to the dusty buddhas pious pilgrims left behind in the Pak Ou caves, these royal temples’ gilt Buddha images were radiant. Wat Mai, which originally housed the Phra Bang buddha, now has an emerald buddha image (the original is now in Bangkok’s grand palace temple). The largest and oldest temple complex, Wat Xieng, includes several stupas, and small buildings, including one that houses the royal chariot decorated with seven impressive golden dragon (naga) heads. Colorful glass mosaic tiles cover the exterior of several buildings illustrating scenes of Laotian life-- people in boats, on elephants, etc. Stunningly beautiful is the tree of life depicted on the rear of the main temple building.

    After lunch back on the boat, people returned to the city to shop, get a massage (the foot massage was especially recommended), or visit some of the lesser known temple. of the Bouk Ok Pansa (the end of Rains monastic retreat). At all temples, monks and lay people were repainting and decorating dragon racing boats for the upcoming races. Nine of our guide, Vieng, and us climbed up to the small temple at the top of Mt. Phousi. We went up the back way, which was a slower ascent with a winding trail that passed several clusters of buddha images. The views of Luang Prabhang and the Mekong below were stunning but the main reason for climbing was to view the sunset from the top. The sunset’s brilliant pinks, gold, and orange colors illuminated the Mekong and the surrounding hills and made the steep climb up and back down (300+ stairs each way) worthwhile.

    A welcoming ceremony (baci) performed by elders of the community took place before dinner. The women had made a pyramid shaped flower centerpiece that stood in the center of the boat’s upper sun deck. An ex-monk recited the appropriate prayers to call back 32 protective spirits believed to reside inside the body (illness occurs when any of them leave).The women also recited brief blessing while they tied white cotton strings around our wrists. as trays of flowers were passed around. We all agreed to keep the strings on our wrists for at least three days. At the end of the ceremony, sweets and small cups of rice wine were passed around. Then a troupe of Laotian dancers performed scenes from the Ramayana —the young boys who danced the role of the monkey Hanuman were especially entertaining.

    We all arose before dawn the next morning to participate in offering alms to monks from Luang Prabhang’s monasteries. I had some reservations about this since I had heard that some tourists had made asses of themselves by flashing cameras in the monks’ faces and attempting to take selfies with them. Fortunately we didn't see any of this disrespectful behavior. The Pandaw crew had set up mats and bowls of sticky rice for us on a quiet side street, where locals were already gathering with their offerings. We all wore traditional scarves and did our best to form small balls of stick rice and toss them into the monks’ bowls without touching either the monks or their alms bowls. The rice ran out long before the stream of orange robed monks ended. We returned to the boat for breakfast and left Luang Prabhang reluctantly. Some of us had hoped to stay on until evening to watch the boat races and to see people setting adrift on the Mekong flower-decorated boats made of banana leaves.

    The boat docked further down the Mekong, where we boarded buses for the Kuang Si waterfalls. We stopped first at a butterfly park, built by an ex-pat Dutch couple. Paths meander through well-tended tropic gardens. Netted enclosures contain various varieties of butterflies--a booklet given out identities them. There’s also the opportunity to stick your bare feet in a pond and have small fish devour your dead skin--only two people tried this. More popular was the small café with its good coffee and very tasty apple cinnamon cakes. We continued on to the falls and the bear sanctuary (black bears are killed for their bile and other body parts). The trail leading up to the waterfalls was steep and muddy in parts but seeing the waterfalls cascading down from limestone cliffs is worth the effort. In a few places where deep pools of turquoise form swimming is allowed. Those who brought their bathing suits said the water was frigid but refreshing.

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    Sorry for the lousy editing--corrections to the third paragraph: ....or visit some of the lesser known temples. We were there during the beginning of the Bouk Ok Pansa (the end of Rains monastic retreat). At all the temples, monks and lay people were repainting and decorating dragon racing boats for the upcoming races. Nine of us and our guide, Vieng, climbed up to the small temple at the top of Mt. Phousi.

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    Days 11-14 On to Vientiane
    In the morning we left Muang Khay village to pass through the huge Xayaburi dam, the first of several controversial hydro electrical dams to be built on the lower Mekong river. We waited while Champa’s sister ship, the Laos Pandaw exited one of the narrow locks. The locks are so narrow that it’s possible to touch its cement walls; someone passing through had stuck Australian flag decal on them. Our boat docked later that afternoon at the old French colonial town, Pak Lai. We walked through the market and were once again were the targets of cell phone photos and selfies. This day people on river bank had watched the women’s teams race boats down the Mekong. The Pandaw crew passed out garbage bags and paid willing kids to fill them up with litter. The women’s teams and spectators were celebrating (or drowning their losses) with Lao beer. Many also danced to the loud music coming from the bandstand and were joined by some of the more uninhibited and agile Pandaw passengers and crew. We were once again wanted for cell phone photos and selfies. That night back on the boat we watched a young boy send off his small banana leaf offering to river spirits.

    The next day we walked through Pak Lai’s largely empty streets (according to our guide most adults were still sleeping off the effects of the previous night’s celebrations). School was canceled but we did met the teacher and a soccer ball was donated for the kids. The ship set off again after we returned. Around noon the Champa stopped so we could see the men’s teams racing their boats. One race between white and red teams was vigorously contested. The more reserved Germans watched while Americans, Canadians and Australians leaned over the rails and cheered the red team on to a narrow victory. After lunch, most people read or napped in deck chairs, waiting for the cocktail hour. We moored overnight at another small village. After dinner, we watched the captain and some of the crew on the banks with flashlights searching for fat beetles to catch and fry.

    Most of following day was spent on board as we moved down the Mekong toward our final destination, Vientiane. In the morning the captain and some of the crew took a small boat out to check the water levels, while we walked through another rural village. There was a small temple but villagers said no monk was in residence. That afternoon the crew offered tours of the boat’s wheel house, galley, laundry, and down into the engine room with its two powerful engines. The day ended with the boat docked at a village near Vientiane and a superb sunset that turned the sky and the river orange.

    The last full day of this journey began early. We arrived in Vientiane after breakfast and boarded a coach for a sight-seeing tour of the city of the city’s temples and monuments. Renovations are underway at Wat Sisaket, Vientiane’s oldest temple. Clay images are now in all niches that once held thousands of small silver buddhas; the walls and murals of the Buddha’s past lives are being restored. The royal palace temple, Wat Ho Phra Kaew, which once housed the jade emerald buddha, is now a museum holding multiple stone buddha images. Green netting and scaffolding made to difficult to appreciate the beauty of the golden Phrathat Luang stupa but the surrounding gardens were pleasant to wander through. The last tour stop was at the Patouxai monument, built to commemorate those who died in the war for independence from France. A long climb up leads to top floor, which has the best views of Vientiane. Most people spent the rest of the day at Vientiane’s markets looking for last minute bargains. After dinner most of us made plans to reconnect on another Pandaw voyage in three years.

    I had never taken a cruise before, let alone a luxury cruise. Before the trip, I had imagined a worse case scenario of being bored and stuck on a ship with fussy elderly passengers.None of the reservations I had about the trip came true. It was surprising easily to adjust to the luxury of a comfortable cabin, with linens changed daily, and the best food I've ever had in a two week period. My fellow passengers were well-traveled, well-read, and excellent conversationalists. Almost all were fit and active and I admired the grit of the two oldest passengers, who with some help from the crew and a lot of determination climbed steep pathways.

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    Very interesting. Thanks for a delightful report. I keep toying with the idea of a Pandaw cruise. I remain disappointed that we never got it together to go with dogster.

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    We are debating which Pandaw cruise to take in fall, 2017. This cruise (China to Laos) is one we have on our list of options. Your report will help us make our decision.

    Thursdays (and other solo travelers) be aware that Pandaw eliminates the single supplement on quite a number of cruises.

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    K arenclang, this is a great report!! Verrryyyy tempting.
    You mention a large discount for early booking (in addition to the lack of single supplement). If you don't mind saying, how much did the total Parndaw trip come to with the discount? Thank you.

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    Thank you, karenclang. That cost looks great. When a few months ago, I researched a Pandaw (and other lines) trip from VN to Cambodia, it came to abut $550 per person, sharing a cabin. So, as you said, you got an excellent "deal"--especially since you loved it (which makes every bit worth it!).

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    Thank you, Kathie!! Great to know. Problem is, with life as it is now, I can't book too far in advance. Still, I will check for refund info, and then get travel insurance. That should work, right?

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    @Kathie--If you do choose the Mekong from Laos to China, I'd recommend skipping the Opium museum and taking a taxi to visit the white, blue and black temples near Chiang Rai (less than a hour away).
    I haven't decided yet on which Pandaw cruise to take next but I've narrowed it down to the Chindwin or the Nagaland cruises in Burma or the Halong Bay and the Red river-most likely some time in 2018 since I'm currently planning an independent trip with friends to Ladakh and Zanskar in the fall.

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    Hi Karen, Having visited the Opium Museum, the White Temple, etc in 2003, we would skip those.

    I would highly recommend the Chindwin Cruise or the Nagaland Cruise. I must admit I have little interest in the Halong Bay/Red River cruise. We are currently looking at the Upper Irrawaddy cruise, but have not yet made a decision.

    I have looked at going to Ladkah and Leh, and they look like fascinating destinations. Have a wonderful trip! I hope you will post a trip report.

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