June 14, 2010

Laos is nothing if not an adventure

Many visitors to South East Asia miss out on Laos in favor of the more popular destinations of Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia.


Biking in LaosBiking in Laos


It may be true that traveling to Laos is nothing short of an endurance test, but the beautiful countryside, unspoiled wildlife and a sprinkling of exquisite temples will make your trip worth it. With its exciting terrains, well-preserved natural ecosystem and countless waterways, Laos is now emerging as a prime outdoor adventure destination in this part of Asia.

Low cost of accommodation

One of the best things about Laos, aside from its rugged beauty and natural attractions, is the low cost of accommodation, food and transportation. Your dollar will take you a long way and back. It may not have the world-class cuisine of its neighboring countries, but it’s not impossible to find gastronomic delights in many of its cities.

Notable is the French cuisine that is popular among various restaurants catering to tourists and plenty of scrumptious Thai and Vietnamese dishes as well. Laotian cuisine should not be missed; like the neighboring country of Thailand it is also generous in its helping of curry and fresh ingredients that’ll leave you wanting more . . . that is, if it’s your kind of cuisine.

Do be careful with how much cash you bring with you. ATMs are not readily available outside of Laos’ major cities. Credit cards will not help you either since it is only accepted by a small number of establishments. If you have some Thai Baht left from your Thailand visit, spend it in Laos because it is very welcomed.

You are most likely to land in Vientiane, the capital of Laos, a gem waiting to be discovered. It is a quaint and charming town that features exquisite temples and stupas. Take a relaxed stroll along the well laid-out streets of Vientiane and discover the remarkable influence of the French in its architecture and cuisine.

After Vientiane, proceed to Luang Prabang along the banks of the Mekong River. It is a picturesque and colorful town populated by orange-robed monks and the countless temples. Don’t miss on an exciting river cruise which will take you to an adventurous ride that will showcase the picturesque montage of local life along the riverbank.

Outdoor enthusiast’s paradise and don’t miss as well the Nam Ha Protected Area located in northern Laos. For a more exciting way of traveling to Nam Ha, make a short detour to the town of Luang Namtha and take a boat ride to Nam Ha. This will allow you to catch a glimpse of many bird species and reptiles along the banks of the river and surrounded by thick jungles of thriving flora and fauna.

Nam Ha Protected Site offers countless possibilities for the outdoor enthusiast eager for some adventure. Trek its thrilling terrains, and gaze upon its rich wildlife and stunning panoramas. Along the way, watch out for small waterfalls where you can rest your feet and cool off in its crystal clear waters. Take note of where you are going and follow your guide’s instruction on safe and unsafe areas to the letter. UXOs or small bombs, are still present in some areas, so make sure not to stray.

Other exciting destinations in Laos include Vieng Xai with its many large caves, Hongsa with its beautifully preserved architecture and Wat Phu Champasak with its 7th century Khmer temple complex.

By: Judy McEuen/ Troy Media

Recommendation in Laos:

- Travel guide in Laos
- Adventure tours in Laos

June 10, 2010

Hidden Asia: The Temples Of Angkor, Cambodia

Sebastian King wrote his Angkor Temples visit in Cambodia.

Angkor temples, CambodiaAngkor temples, Cambodia


Our intrepid editor Seb King dons his Indiana Jones hat and explores one of the Seven Wonders of the World.

“So this works a bit like a ski-pass?” I asked my Skinny Friend.
“It’s better than a ski-pass. It means you can roam around one of the wonders of the world ‘till your heart’s content, plus it’s a lot cheaper”, he replied. Up ahead the walls of Angkor Wat loomed above us and blotted out the sun as if they were sleeping giants.

Through a colossal archway and onto an uneven sandstone bridge we trotted. Although it was glaringly obvious that this crossing was ancient, it sure as hell wasn’t fragile or weak. As I stopped to admire one of the sculptures two fully grown elephants plodded in convoy across to the curved entrance of Angkor Wat without a care in the universe for the pull of gravity on weathered surfaces.

I was flanked on both sides by statues demonstrating the Hindu creation myth, the churning of the sea of milk. Apparently, the angels and demons of the world underwent a dredging operation to rediscover the elixir of life in the depths of the ocean. The whole commotion looked like some kind of supernatural tug of war. Divine beings queued on the side nearest me directly facing the swarms of demons in the distance that lined the opposite side of the bridge as the forces of good and evil pulled on the tail of Vasuki, a leviathan serpent for all their immortal worth. I’ll spare you the history lecture, but to cut a long story short Vasuki offered himself up as the ‘churning stick’ (a neutral position between the divine and the dammed) in the battle to recapture the elixir of life.

The Multi-Faceted Faces Of Jayavarman The Multi-Faceted Faces Of Jayavarman, Cambodia


The obelisks of Angkor Wat rose into the Cambodian skyline as though they were hulking stone pineapples. Words failed me so I hit the shutter button on my camera at the hope of capturing every given moment.

The temple complex was constructed over eight centuries ago without the help of scaffolding, instant concrete mix or building regulations and yet the striking grandiosity of the structure had me mesmerized. Astonishing. Who’d be crazy enough to hang off a 65 meter high citadel with nothing but a sky hook and a sandstone slab for company? Not me.

Inscriptions are everywhere and aren’t limited to specific, closed off sacred areas. However, it’s the exterior of Angkor Wat which fascinates me. From a distance it signifies how advanced the Angkor civilisation was in the 12th century, but up close it tells a different, darker story.

In 1979 the Khmer Rouge fled from mainland Cambodia to Angkor Wat. It was here that the tyrannical leader, Pol Pot, made his final stronghold. Bullet holes litter the sandstone and laterite carvings of aspsaras (celestial dancers).

These are the last panicked shots of Khmer Rouge soldiers as the Vietnamese army swept south to rid Cambodia of the man responsible for one of the greatest human atrocities of the 20th century. It’s no surprise that Angkor Wat remains a pillar of Cambodian national identity. It’s seen it all; from the dawn of Khmer civilisation to the last gasps of a revolution.

‘Angkor’ is a Khmer term that translates into English as ‘city’. Likewise, ‘Wat’ is a Khmer term meaning (Buddhist) ‘temple’. Hence, the title ‘Angkor Wat’ would roughly translate into English as ‘Temple City’. It’s a common misunderstanding that Angkor Wat is the only temple in the surrounding area of Angkor, granted it might be the most striking of the hundred or so monuments reclaimed from 300 square kilometres of surrounding jungle, but it isn’t the only one. Let’s get this clear. The Angkor temples were designed to house an estimated population of a million people (bigger than any European city at the time) and as a result there are numerous other edifices worth exploring.

Spanning an impressive 12 kilometres, Angkor Thom is often overlooked. Each single face-tower depicts the ruler of Angkor, the self proclaimed ‘God-King’, Jayavarman II looking out in four separate directions; north, south, east, west. This was built to demonstrate to the people that the eyes of the sovereign were everywhere, watching constantly.

Angkor Thom, CambodiaAngkor Thom, Cambodia


Indeed, it could be argued that Angkor Thom is proof that Orwell’s literary masterpiece of 1984 actually happened in the 12th Century; using the image of an omnipresent God-King as a surveillance mechanism similar to Big Brother in the depths of the Cambodian rainforest. Who’d have thought that even in the middle ages society was being shaped and controlled by a fear of authority?

Angkor Thom is being gradually reclaimed by the jungle. Tremendous trees stretch their bulbous roots across the dense walls of the temple. Smashing, squeezing and crushing the once infallible fortifications into clumps of grey rubble.

It’s here that Paramount Pictures decided to shoot scenes from the recent blockbuster Lara Croft: Tomb Raider. And why not? The Angkor temples ooze a sense of mystery and nourish the idea that man’s claim to understand everything about the world is devoid.

Top Tip: Get down and watch the sunrise at Angkor Wat. Not only is it considerably less congested, but it’s a rare spectacle whereby human intervention enhances natural beauty.


Source: whereandnow

Recommendation in Cambodia:
Angkor Wat Discovery
Biking Angkor Wat

June 04, 2010

Cycling Highway 1 In Vietnam

There’s no Southeast Asian road more iconic than Vietnam’s National Highway 1. Running the length of the narrow, coastal country, it connects the major cities of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh. After decades of conflict that threatened to tear them apart, the Vietnamese now see the highway as a symbol of national unity.

Cycling Highway 1 unlocks experiences most travelers miss. You’ll discover rural hamlets far removed from the modern world, and famous guidebook sights will seem all the sweeter when earned through your own pedal power.

Cycling in VietnamCycling in Vietnam


WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW

No cycling test required—this adventure is open to people of all abilities.

Supported

For those seeking a structured, less-demanding trip, many agencies conduct vehicle-supported group rides. These typically involve a mix of cycling and van transport.

Be sure to research your tour company thoroughly, paying particular attention to itineraries and testimonials. Prices, distances, and accommodation all vary, and no traveler wants to get locked into a situation that fails to live up to expectations.

On Your Own

Of course, many set their wheels to the tarmac without signing onto a supported tour. Cycling independently gives you complete control over where you go and how fast you travel.

Most visitors fly into Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City. Starting off in the big city can be intimidating (and a bit dangerous), so busing it a few dozen miles up the road doesn’t hurt. Alternatively, domestic flights will quickly shuttle you to the middle of the country.

Cycling the entire highway is alluring, but time constraints mean you’ll likely opt for a shorter route. The scenic southern half is more popular, passing many points of interest. Spanning roughly 700 miles, it can be done in two weeks, though stretching it to three is recommended.

It’s also possible to skip segments by hopping a bus or train. A small fee will be levied for the bike, but the cost is negligible when time is of the essence.

Basic Necessities

Services and supplies are plentiful along Highway 1. Services and supplies are plentiful along Highway 1. It’s always advisable to carry lots of water and some spare calories, but even the smallest of villages will have a vendor who can restock you.

Accommodation (tourist accommodation, that is) isn’t as frequent. In the south, there are some 70+ mile stretches between major centers, with longer ones in the north. Once you hit your stride, you shouldn’t have trouble knocking out these distances—just know your limits.

New bypasses and extensions are being added to Highway 1 all the time, which can either save you time or get you lost. Make sure to take along an updated map. Great Journeys sells some, or you can pick one up in Hanoi or Saigon.

Timing

Heat isn’t much of a problem on a bike because you create your own breeze as you move. Instead of temperature, consider the seasonal rains when choosing your dates. Summer can be quite damp, and you’ll need to keep abreast of typhoon warnings in the fall and early winter. Traveling on either end of the high season (November–March) translates to cheaper hotel rates.

Which Bike?

Despite what you may hear about cycling in the developing world, there’s no need for a mountain bike on this ride (unless that’s your preference). The pavement is smooth, and on skinny tires you’ll really fly.

Packing your own tools and spares is a good idea. Bicycles and repair shops are ubiquitous in Vietnam, but mechanics won’t necessarily be equipped to work on your setup, especially if you’re sporting an unusual frame or high-end components.

Traffic

Cycling a main highway in Vietnam, where traffic rules are taken more as suggestions, might seem a perilous prospect. But remember that many locals get around by bicycle themselves, so the infrastructure is set up to accommodate two-wheeled travelers. Highway 1 provides generous shoulders, making it arguably safer than less-traveled roads that have none.

That said, traffic can be heavy. Keep in mind that the right of way is always yielded to the largest vehicle. Horns also take some getting used to—Vietnamese drivers use them liberally.

Read up!

It never hurts to prepare for any trip, and there are tons of resources out there for this one. For general advice on cycle touring, consider these 8 steps.

The information you’ll be looking for as a cyclist might be hard to find in conventional travel guides, so why not go straight to the source—firsthand accounts? The website crazyguyonabike offers dozens of journals from the road, the best giving detailed route and mileage information.

Though outdated, Lonely Planet’s Cycling Vietnam, Laos & Cambodia includes information on the southern half of Highway 1, much of which is still relevant.

A good book to take for the road is Catfish and Mandala, written by a Vietnamese-American who returned to his homeland to cycle the highway.

WHAT NOT TO MISS

Biking in VietnamBiking in Vietnam


A few of the best destinations on or near Highway 1—don’t pass them by.

North

The 1,969 limestone crags punctuating Ha Long Bay are enchanting to say the least. Unfortunately, there may be 1,970 tour operators eagerly waiting to show them to you and take your dong. Get the lowdown from fellow travelers before booking a boat ride through this stunning locale.

Central

The imperial city of Hué retains much of its grandeur, and its sights are easily accessible by bike. Tours of the old DMZ to the north can be arranged here, and the Hai Van Pass to the south is one of the most rewarding sections of Highway 1.

Nearby Hoi An is perhaps Vietnam’s most unique destination. Its history of international commerce lives on in many Chinese shop houses, and the narrow streets, colorful lanterns, and well-preserved architecture make for unmatched ambiance. The Cham ruins of My Son are less than 30 miles away.

South

Sandy beaches run along much of Vietnam’s coast, and touristy Nha Trang is home to a particularly pleasant one. It’s a nice spot to unwind for a few days, though some will find the city’s hyper-development trying. Many water activities are available here and elsewhere

For a break from the balminess of the coastal plain, steer off Highway 1 and head to Dalat. The artistic vibe of this city is as refreshing as its highland climate. You have to earn it though, as both roads into town require substantial climbs.

Source: matadortrips.com

June 01, 2010

The 5 Must-See Beaches In Vietnam

By Justin Calderon from theexpeditioner

Vietnam, a country reminiscent of a war-torn epic that rang of rock-and-roll, decadence, and destruction­ was, up until recently, visited by only the adventurous traveler. Though late in its arrival as a member of part of the Southeast Asian travel belt, today this crescent-shaped land with innate tropical beauty has attracted international appeal, leading to an influx of budget tourists and luxury travelers alike from across the globe.

Cheap, tropical, mysteriously alluring — Vietnam’s climate provides the perfect beach vacation, while offering ample opportunity to peek down one of history’s infamous alleyways. Travelers will find a gamut of beaches dotting the coast including chill backpacker hangouts, luxurious resort getaways and sleepy fishing villages. From Central Da Nang to the southern capital of Saigon — north to south — lie five beaches every traveler should check out in their quest for the perfect beach in Vietnam.

1) Hoi An

Hoi An Beach and Resort Vietnam
Hoi An is an enclave of beautifully preserved yellow and blue buildings that makes you feel like you just stepped back in time into an 18th-century trading post. Sapphire waters lie on the other side of a 10-minute bike ride north through stagnant rice paddies, old French colonial villas, and the occasional propaganda billboard. The beachfront of the famed China Beach — the beach where soldiers were sent for R&R during the war — makes up the southern stretch. Recently named one of the most luxurious beaches in the world by Forbes, this white sand beach is home to comfy resorts and secluded swaths of sand.

Hoi An, however, has much more to offer than just a beach. Declared a UNESCO world heritage site in 1999, this coastal village was once known as the premier trading post in Southeast Asia for the Chinese and Japanese. A bike ride around town takes you back to life in a small far-flung trading settlement. However, since the influx of visitors, shoppers are more likely to come across trinkets and “made-to-measure” one-day tailors than authentic goods.

Market life is still prevalent next to the river where you will find fishermen paddling along in their boats, stirring up their catch of the day. For a sense of life before modern times, head into select buildings in the Old Quarter where you can view 200-year-old interiors that have been preserved for public viewing.

2) Quy Nhon

If you decide to include Quy Nhon in your itinerary, expect to encounter only a trickle of foreigners stopping by on their way to Nha Trang. In a country besieged by tourism, Quy Nhon can truly be described as an authentic experience. Crowds of Vietnamese gather on the beach to play volleyball at sunset and offer hearty “hellos.” A few large hotels graze the southern beachfront, but since the Vietnamese aren’t keen to sunbathing, you’ll likely find the beach to yourself.

A relatively small coastal city in Central Vietnam, Quy Nhon embodies a relaxed tempo not likely to be found in other Vietnamese cities. Grab a bike and slip along Nguyen Hue Road where a number of grins will greet you from people sitting in colorful plastic chairs. The longer you stay in Quy Nhon, the more you will appreciate the carefree lifestyle here.

3) Doc Let

This tranquil and secluded beach just north of popular Nha Trang offers a few small, hard-to-find, resorts. As Lonely Planet enticingly puts it, “the resorts on the beach are fairly isolated. If you’re staying here, be prepared to do nothing but lay around.”

When I was there I stayed at Paradise Resort, a small, 25-bungalow resort run by Mr “Chere,” a French expat who has lived in Vietnam for over 20 years. You can rent a bungalow for the night, and the price includes three meals a day. The gregarious owner is very inviting and keen on getting all his guests to have a great time, making this resort seem more like a stay at a friend’s than a hotel.

The resort is flanked by a small fishing village that proves an interesting excursion when not baking on the beach. During the midday you’ll find hawkers rocking in hammocks to escape the sun while children run a-muck between farm animals and the streets.

4) Nha Trang

Nha Trang Beach & resorts Vietnam
Nha Trang has always been popular with the Vietnamese, but lately more and more backpackers and affluent travelers have been making their way here. The busy southern strip of the city is crammed with restaurants, SCUBA schools, and tour companies ready to take you out to sea and to one of the numerous islands scattered just off the coast. For those not ready to take the full plunge into the world of SCUBA, snorkeling is a great way to get intimate with the ecological kaleidoscope beneath the surface (and even copious amounts of alcohol found on the boat ride out).

Mama Hahn’s Booze Cruise runs daily tours to four islands under the sails of their two lanky dinghies: the “lazy boat” and the “party boat.” Steadfast swimmers up for socializing with other international miscreants and an accompanying jovial Vietnamese guide should bee-line it to the party boat. As long as you stay buoyant and don’t swallow too much salt water, you’ll be sure to make it back to nurse that lingering hangover by nightfall. Don’t say you haven’t been warned.

5) Mui Ne

Mui Ne Beach and resort Vietnam
Mui Ne, in Southeastern Vietnam, is a notable backpacker and resort beach, especially for those interested in kite surfing. On those windy days so common in Southern Vietnam, throngs of kites can be seen making polka-dot patches in the sky. The resort side of the beach is heavily subtitled in Russian to cater to the growing amount of tourists escaping the Russian winters. A manager at one of the multitude of seafood BBQ restaurants that checker Mui Ne road astutely observed, “[The Russians] are coming here a lot. I think it’s because it’s hot and very cheap.”

Though not easy, you can still find budget accommodations on the resort side of the beach for about $10-15, which is great considering that the backpacker side of the beach has lost nearly all its beachfront to erosion. A grey, impending concrete wall is now slammed by waves during high-tide leaving any idea of beach strictly to the imagination. There are a few bars and generic sit-downs here, and the low volume of traffic makes a motorbike tour up the 6-mile street safe and the best way to scope out the rest of what the area offer.

The resort side of the beach, lying on the southern end of Mui Ne, still has its sand, and the restaurants and bars there enjoy a party atmosphere well into the night. Just remember, Vietnam is not nearly as rife as Southern Thailand when it comes to beach parties, bean bag chairs, and fire twirlers — not that you’ll miss any of those things when you’re here.

From dawn to dusk, Vietnam thrums with an intoxicating energy

According to some pundits, the balance of wealth and power is going to shift to the east in the next few decades. Spend a couple of weeks in the dynamic nexus of activity which is Vietnam and most people would start thinking the same way in double quick time.

Central post office in Ho Chi Minh city, Vietnam

We started a three week tour of the country in Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC), the largest city in Vietnam and one which many Vietnamese still refer to as Saigon, the title it held before the country's reunification in 1975. The Saigon river it was founded on is still a major transport artery and, over breakfast from the rooftop balcony of our hotel, we watched the waterway come alive each morning with hundreds of boats bearing consumer goods, building materials and people into the city's frantic heart.

All big conurbations are busy but the constant horns of the millions of scooters combined with the restless chatter of the street stallholders give HCMC a crackling, non-stop buzz. Perhaps because all this activity takes place in a hot, fecund atmosphere of incense, drains and street food, HCMC feels more visceral than sanitised cities such as New York or London.

Cu Chi tunnel, Vietnam

While the new high rises and recently opened international luxury brand outlets might point to Vietnam's possible future, old Saigon and the past are never far away. The Vietnamese refer to the conflict fought between 1964-75 as the American War and many of HCMC's most popular attractions are linked to those events. The War Remnants Museum is a sobering and gruesomely graphic testament to the inhuman carnage of the war while, an hour or so outside the city, the Cu Chi tunnels, an underground wartime stronghold, offer very definite clues as to why the Vietcong were the eventual victors.

Any people who are prepared to live and fight in a maze of tight, booby-trapped tunnels for 20 years have a level of determination and tenacity which counts for far more than sheer firepower.

After crawling through a sweaty, airless, 20-metre section of the tunnels, which had been especially widened for westerners, I had had enough. At its peak, the sprawling subterranean complex may have sported hospitals, dormitories and even dance floors but living there is almost unimaginable.

Hoan Kiem lake, Hanoi, Vietnam

About 700 miles north of Saigon, the capital Hanoi is more elegant than its thrusting southern counterpart but it is still a long way from sedate. Once colonial France's administrative centre in Vietnam, parts of Hanoi boast boulevards and yellow painted townhouses and look as though they have been dropped in from Paris. Although Ho Chi Minh's mausoleum, where the Vietnamese queue for hours to see the embalmed remains of their former leader, owes more to Moscow's Red Square than the Champs Élysée.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, there is more fun to be had in the 36 Streets area of the old quarter. Dating back to the 13th century, this warren of streets was the focus for the city's trades and merchants and each street had its own speciality. Even today, there are entire streets dedicated to selling padlocks or towels or mysterious dried roots.

We perched on little stools at a crossroads pavement bar in the old quarter and supped 15p glasses of draught beer while snacking on dried squid heated over a charcoal brazier. Every now and then the police would come along and order all the stools to be moved off the road. Naturally, as soon as they were gone, all the stools moved back into the road with predictably chaotic consequences for the streams of mopeds passing through.

Even at 6am, Hanoi has a bit of pace to it. In the centre of the city is the Hoan Kiem Lake, home to a mythical turtle. By night, the lake is ringed with young, courting couples. Not long after daybreak, it is surrounded by folk doing Tai Chi, playing badminton or keepie-up with a shuttlecock in the city's cool morning air.

H’Mong ethnic girl in Sapa, Vietnam

Outwith the cities, the pace slows even if the day still tends to start early. From Hanoi, we took the sleeper train to Sapa, an old hill station close to the Chinese border. Sapa is an increasingly popular base for trekking in the surrounding mountains. It is also close to the tiny town of Bac Ha, which is notable for its Sunday market.

A social affair as much as a chance to trade, it attracts tribes such as the Black H'mong and Red Tsao from all over the surrounding countryside. Many of the women still wear traditional dress. We pitched up about 7am, around the same time that the locally distilled rice spirit starts being decanted from its five-gallon containers. As well as offering the chance to catch up with neighbours from across the valley, the market is like Tesco's, B&Q and a grooming parlour all rolled into one for the locals.

Everything is for sale at Bac Ha, from ploughs to ponies via python fat which looks like clusters of fat broad beans and is, apparently, good for skin burns. Locally grown tobacco sits in mounds along with pipes for customers who want to try before buying. Piglets are pulled squealing out of sacks. Water buffalo are prodded and haggled over while dogs are on offer as both pets and for the pot. In one corner, four or five barbers had hung their mirrors on a wall and customers were having al fresco haircuts. My beard was a prime target which, happily, I managed to keep intact.

Halong Bay, Vietnam

If the mountains of the north-west are an anthropological gold mine then the beaches of Vietnam are, for the most part, virgin territory for tourism. With over 1,000 miles of coastline, Vietnam has some stunning beaches, most yet to see the glint of a developer's eye. Yet its most valuable maritime asset for tourism is not a beach but the stunning Halong Bay.

A Unesco world heritage site, it consists of 3,000 limestone islets in the Gulf of Tonkin. Covered in dense green vegetation, they soar up out of the sea in fairy-tale clusters. They are riddled with caves and also play host to a floating village of fishing families, complete with a floating bank and school. Of course, even several miles out to sea, Uncle Ho is still around in the form of a picture which beams down at the schoolchildren from above the classroom blackboard. We did an overnight trip around Halong Bay on a beautifully fitted out junk.

After a seafood dinner, we fished for squid using a lamp and watched the moon cast a glow over the islands. Gently bobbing on the waves, hundreds of miles from the honking motos of the mainland, it was our most peaceful night in Vietnam.

Such tranquillity couldn't last. I woke the next morning and looked out of the porthole onto a flotilla of row boats all manned by women eager to sell their first tourist souvenir of the day. No matter what time of day or where you are in Vietnam, it is always open for business.

Source: The Scotsman - by Jonathan Trew

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