The French influence in south-east Asia adds a touch of cosmopolitan elegance to the countries of Cambodia and Laos but their real charm is their underlying deeply rooted home cultures and indigenous peoples.
While Vietnam has become a hot destination for corporate events, Cambodia and Laos have remained in the shadow. Greater political stability has meant that Cambodia is now well on the way to becoming a select destination for meetings and incentives, crowned by the marvellous wonder of the Angkor complex at Siem Reap, a global attraction by any standard.
In the past few years, a number of deluxe properties have opened in Siem Reap and in the capital Phnom Penh, providing a smattering of high-end options for the event planner.
Laos remains an unknown quantity for most event organisers. The country lacks the infrastructure, range of venues and activities that have brought so much business to neighbouring Thailand, for example. On the other hand, it is precisely the country’s feel of undiscovered charm and its raw, unspoilt character that gives it the edge.
Laos is one of the last unexplored frontiers in southeast Asia and this gives the country a certain cachet for high-end incentives and for the growing sector concerned with eco-tourism.
The country’s capital, Vientiane, still has a small-town feel but it is the former capital of Luang Prabang that has the greater buzz with its rich cultural and historical connections.
Size and geography dictate that neither country will challenge Thailand, the current regional heavyweight, nor Vietnam, the up-and-coming pretender to the throne, for large-scale events. However, those looking for fresh destinations for incentives and meetings for small select groups can certainly start to add both countries to their list of possible locations.
The Asean Rubber Conference 2007, was held in the Cambodian capital in June last year. It attracted 400 academics, producers, buyers and sellers to the InterContinental Hotel for the three-day event.
The country produces US$83 million of natural rubber each year. The potential importance of the industry and, therefore the conference itself, was the fact that it was opened by the prime minister Hun Sen.
Aside from the conference programme delegates also took part in a study tour of Chup Rubber Plantation at Kampong Cham, which is the heartland of the Cambodian rubber industry.
The ARC 2007 Welcome Cocktail Reception was held in Ballrooms II & III of the InterContinental Hotel. Foreign delegates had the chance to taste unique Cambodian cuisine specially prepared for this occasion, while being entertained by a performance of the Apsara Dance, the traditional dance of Cambodia.
This sprawling ancient complex of temples took hundreds of years to complete and is such an important symbol of Cambodia that it is featured on the country’s flag.
While half- and full-day tours are possible, the size of the complex can easily allow for several days of exploration.
The backdrop of the temples provides event organisers with a tremendous template to organise events.
Destination management company Hanuman Tourism (www.hanumantourism.com) was given the task of organising an event for drinks giant Moet Hennessy Asia Pacific’s 20 most senior executives.
The company created a four-day ‘Tomb Raider’ luxury jungle experience for the group. This involved setting up a luxury meeting and accommodation tents with electricity, air-conditioning and other modern amenities.
Hanuman’s programme included VIP express customs and visa clearance on arrival at and departure from Siem Reap International Airport; transfers to/from the airport in a vintage Mercedes Benz stretch limo.
Accommodation was split between two nights at the deluxe Amansara resort, formerly a guest villa of King Sihanouk, and one night in luxury safari-style tents in the midst of the torch-lit jungle, including a stunning shadow puppet show in the evening. A custom-made conference tent with all modern facilities was built next to an ancient temple surrounded by lush jungle.
A five-star lunch was prepared and enjoyed in this jungle setting. There was also a post-sunrise Krug Champagne breakfast along the moat of the Angkor Wat temple.
The group explored the temples in remorques (tuk-tuks), as well as experiencing a bird’s eye view from a helicopter ride.
A farewell gala dinner at Preah Khan temple featured local dancers and even had the Minister of Tourism in attendance. As a final touch, and all delegates were gifted a tailor-made Cambodian silk suit to wear for the event.
A World Heritage Site since 1995, this jewel of Indochina is a perfect off-the-beaten-track destination for an incentive, seminar, or corporate travel retreat. Exotissimo Travel (www.exotissimo.com), a well established events expert in the region, especially recommends this much overlooked city as there are plenty of opportunities for exquisite experiences in the form of day-long itineraries, or brief break-out activities to get your blood flowing and enjoy the beauty and history of the city in between meetings.
One of the most unique experiences available is a boat trip down the Mekong River to visit the Pak Ou caves, home to thousands of gold-lacquered Buddha statues. A number of astounding temples, as well as the 328-step climb to the top of Mount Phousi – from which groups can enjoy a panoramic view of the ancient city – and a visit to nearby Xang Khong (a weaving village), are all inspiring ways to incorporate the whole of this UNESCO site into your conference or seminar.
For groups of up to 100 for meetings and 70 for a banquet, the Grand, Luang Prabang, is situated on the grounds of the Xiengkeo Palace which once belonged to nationalist hero, Prince Phetsarath. For a different perspective, try La Residence on Phou Vao Hill, from which the nature and beauty that Laos is known for can be enjoyed during meetings in the hotel.
Additional reporting by Christina Kautzky
There are regular flights to both Phnom Penh and Siem Reap airports from Singapore, Hong Kong and Bangkok among others.
Light clothing is in order with temperature generally warm and humid, ranging between 24C and 33C all year round.
The most common method is tobuy your visa on arrival at Phnom Penh and Siem Reap airports. Visas are necessary except for citizens of Laos, Malaysia, Philippines and Singapore and cost US$20. It is also now possible to arrange the visa online see evisa.mfaic.gov.uk
Main points of entry are Vientiane and Luang Prabang. There are limited international flights – most regular connections being via Thailand.
If you are travelling in the north or the centre from November to February warm clothes are recommended and appropriate all year long in the north. In the south, light clothing is a must all year long.
A visa is compulsory to enter Laos and can be obtained through Laotian embassies and consulates. Visa on arrival can be obtained at the international airport checkpoints in Vientiane or Luang Prabang. Costs vary depending on nationality but are in the range of US$20 to US$40.
Peter Semone, senior advisor, Mekong Tourism Office
Cambodia has a good variety of accommodation options in Phnom Penh as well as Siem Reap, so there is very strong potential. Cambodia also has great access – particularly into Phnom Penh, where a variety of international carriers provide regular services. The Cambodian people are charming and there are many interesting activities to do.
Phnom Penh is a hidden charm of the Mekong. It’s a city with a variety of high-quality accommodation. It’s a fun and lively place.
Laos is a fascinating rural country. It offers extraordinary eco-tourism and adventure products. For an organiser looking to develop an ‘active’ programme of trekking, eco-tourism, cultural discovery and ‘getting away from it all’, Laos is a destination extraordinaire.
Laos is less prepared to handle larger meetings and incentives at this stage. There is a lack of accommodation and professional services. Having said that, incentive organisers seeking a wonderful add-on to, say, a Thailand programme, would be wise to consider Laos (particularly Luang Prabang).
Laos, in particular, is a great place to undertake teambuilding and soft-adventure types of activities. There are several operators that specialise in this sort of activity. Cycling, trekking, rafting are all readily available in Laos; and groups are guaranteed privacy and a unique Laotian personal touch.
Mekong Tourism Office
The Mekong Tourism Office represents the six countries (namely: Cambodia, China – Yunnan and Guangxi provinces, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam) in efforts to market the Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS) as a single destination. The MTO is focussed on ensuring that when visitors come to one of the GMS countries, they visit two or more destinations. The MTO is a resource that event organisers can use to acquire unbiased opinions and suggestions and to provide contacts and recommendations on who to contact in the different member countries. The MTO website www.mekongtourism.org is a continually evolving resource with a wide variety of information.
Laos Eco Programme
Kamu Lodge Package
After breakfast in Luang Prabang, your group embarks on a boat trip up the Mekong River to visit the mysterious Pak Ou Caves. In Pak Ou, thousands of gold lacquered Buddha statues are crammed into two caves carved out of a towering limestone cliff. They range in size from a few centimetres to the size of a human.
The group continues upstream to reach Kamu Lodge
Lunch at the Lodge’s Sala
Typical menu would include: Buffalo meatball soup, Lab (minced buffalo meat with peppermint, spring onion, chilly, parsley) deep-fried bamboo shoot stuffed with mince pork, fried buffalo meat, stir-fried mixed vegetables with pork, stir-fried rice, sticky rice, fresh fruit, tea and coffee
In the afternoon a choice of activities.
• Rice planting and harvesting in surrounding rice fields
• Gold panning (January to June) in the Mekong. Anything you find is yours.
• Jungle walks to search for medicinal plants
• Trekking through the forest to waterfalls
• Traditional fishing techniques. You can have your catch for dinner!
• Local village visit
• Archery contest
Dinner and overnight at the Lodge
Menu: Tofu soup with buffalo meat, fried fish, sweet and sour pork, Kaeng phet (pork, coconut milk, eggplant, long bean), stir-fried pork with ginger, steamed rice, tea and coffee
Breakfast at the Lodge
Full day trekking in the beautiful surrounding area
Dinner at the lodge
Breakfast at the Lodge
After some time to relax, cruise down back to Luang Prabang by boat
MEKONG HOTEL HIGHLIGHTS
Raffles Hotel Le Royal
Although thoroughly restored and renovated when it opened in 1997, the property is in fact one of the oldest hotels in the country, having first opened its doors during the French colonial period in 1929. The 170-room property offers your team a touch of old-style Phnom Penh class.
This 346-room hotel has some of the largest meeting and function space in the country. The hotel ballroom can hold 750 seated delegates or cater to 530 sit-down banquet guests.
Wireless among the wonders
Le Meridien Angkor
Specialising in groups up to 500, Le Meridien Angkor is among the closest of the deluxe hotels to the Angkor Wat complex. The modern meetings facilities are designed in a Khmer style to blend with the outside surroundings. The entire hotel is wirelessly connected.
Art through the ages
Raffles Grand Hotel d’Angkor
The second elegant Raffles property in the country, each of the 131 rooms in the property is tastefully furnished and has Cambodian objets d’art to reflect the overall theme of the hotel. The hotel’s Apsara Terrace can hold 150 people for a cocktail reception.
Tees and temples
Sofitel Phokeethra Royal Angkor Golf and Spa Resort
Surrounded by landscaped gardens this 238-room hotel boasts its own course. The hotel can help you put together a one- or two-day golf event for your group at the nearby Angkor course. Green and caddy fees can all be included in the package. The second day can be devoted to a guided tour around the temples.
Authentic and green
Built out of natural local products such as bamboo, wood and stone, Kamu Lodge’s bungalows are only accessible by boat on a gentle three-hour journey upstream along the Mekong from Luang Prabang. This eco-lodge prides itself on offering visitors a chance to see authentic rural Laos with the minimum of disruption to the local environment and communities.
Small is beautiful
Maison Souvannaphoum Hotel
This is one of the smallest properties within the Banyan Tree’s Colours of Angsana portfolio. The hotel has a Garden Wing Room and three rooms in La Residence, the other wing, has Maison Room, Laos Room, Champa Room and La Residence Twin. A key attraction is the onsite Angsana Spa.
Villa Santi Hotel and Resort
This boutique hotel has 23 deluxe rooms and two deluxe suites, while its sister resort six kilometres away has 48 deluxe rooms, one suite and three regent villas. The resort also has the Pikaneth Convention Hall, the largest meeting space in the area, holding up to 300 delegates theatre style.
La Résidence Phou Vao Hotel
Luang Prabang has a number of luxury spa options and La Résidence Phou Vao is one of the very best. The custom-designed spa treatments are based on traditional Lao herbal remedies aimed at healing and nurturing, and use only pure botanical ingredients from organic Lao gardens and local farms.