Adventurous Southeast Asia tour operators such as Audley Travel and All Points East (formerly Gecko Travel) are blazing the way in Thailand by combining itineraries to Isaan, one of the country's least-visited areas, with overland trips into neighbouring Laos.
With just the Mekong dividing Thailand from Laos, and with several international border crossings opening up in the past few years, combining Isaan in northeastern Thailand with Laos has become easy.
Audley Travel Southeast Asia regional manager Kate Dicks said: "In the past year interest in the northeastern region of Thailand has more than doubled.
"Thailand has always been a popular destination to combine with Laos, given the ease and convenience of three international border crossings, which make a tour of the Isaan region an ideal combination."
Isaan is home to some of the most ravishing Khmer temples in Asia. Most of them are clustered around the Burinam, Surin and Khorat provinces, including the 11th century temple complex at Phimai, less than a three-hour drive from Bangkok, which will feature prominently in the Tourism Authority of Thailand marketing strategy this year.
TAT London director Khun Tanes Petsuwan said: "Isaan is among the new areas we are promoting. This is a region of importance, aimed at those visitors in search of something new. It is an area rich in culture. In major provinces such as Ubonratchatanee, Khonkann and Udon Thani there is now a selection of boutique and five-star hotels."
But there is more to Isaan than Khmer temples. The large region stretches east to the Mekong river that separates Thailand and Laos, south to the Cambodian border and north as far as Nong Khai.
Some of the small towns dotted along the Mekong make ideal bases from which to explore the area and cross over into Laos. Kong Jiam, on a peninsula at the confluence of the Mun and Mekong rivers, has not one but two of the region's few boutique hotels.
I stayed at the Tongsang Khong Jiam, which sits on the Mekong river bank, with views of the river and mountains of Laos on the other side and a great base for exploring the area, including a couple of national parks.
South of Khong Jiam at Chong Mek, visitors can cross the Mekong to reach Pakse, the gateway to southern Laos. Further north are another couple of international crossings, the major one being the Friendship Bridge, which links Nong Khai with the Laos capital, Vientiane.
Further north in the Golden Triangle area both Audley Travel and All Points East offer tours from Thailand that enter Laos from Chiang Kong. This crossing is ideal for boat trips down the Mekong to Luang Prabang.
All Points East managing director Lesley Scofield said: "Even during the current economic situation we are noticing a rise in dual destinations and the desire for a holiday that provides a fresh and adventurous experience."
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- Audley Travel offers a 12-day tour on a bed-and-breakfast basis through Isaan and Laos from £2,650 per person, including transfers and excursions, domestic and return flights on Thai Airways.
Highlights in Isaan include Khmer sites, Mekong fishing villages and the Pha Taem National Park.
In Laos, the itinerary includes a two-night cruise between Pakse and the 4,000 Islands, before flying to Luang Prabang for three nights. Tel: 01869 276 2008
- All Points East offers a 12-night escorted tour of Thailand and Laos from £2,125 per person, taking in Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, a Golden Triangle tour, jungle trek, hill-tribe villages, Luang Prabang and Vientiane.
International flights and accommodation are included. Tel: 023 9225 88598
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