October 27, 2010

48 hours in Luang Prabang, Laos

Luang Prabang, the historic former royal capital of Laos, is an enchanting mix of tranquil Buddhist temples, French architecture left over from colonial days, lush foliage and sweeping river views.

Luang Prabang, LaosLuang Prabang, Laos

Named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1995, the city is no longer the sleepy backwater it once was and boasts boutique hotels and chic restaurants. But there are still plenty of glimpses of the peaceful, other-worldly city of the past.

FRIDAY

6 p.m. The main historic area fills a peninsula formed by the meeting of the town's two rivers, the Nam Khan and the Mekong, and can easily be explored on foot. Walk around the peninsula, on streets lined with French houses and towering palms.

You may pass locals playing "petang," Laos's answer to the popular French game of petanque or boules, a remnant of the colonial past.

Stop for a Beer Lao, the country's ubiquitous and delicious national beer, at a riverside bar and watch the sun set.

Later, sample Lao barbecue at one of the riverside restaurants. You cook slivers of meat on a metal tray heated over a bucket of hot coals in the center of your table, while vegetables, herbs, egg and noodles bubble away below.

SATURDAY

6 a.m. Rise early and head toward Sisavangvong road to watch the silent, ancient ritual of the Buddhist monks processing through the streets in their orange robes, collecting alms of sticky rice and food.

7 a.m. Just across the main road from the former Royal Palace, you can climb Mount Phousi for a fantastic view of the town and the two rivers that embrace it. It's a steep climb up steps cut into the hillside, but well worth it.

8.30 a.m. Time for breakfast. Sisavangvong road is lined with cafes and restaurants. Make sure you try some traditional Lao coffee -- strong but smooth with a slightly chocolaty taste.

10 a.m. The National Museum, showing a selection of religious treasures and antiques, is housed in the former Royal Palace, built in 1904 for King Sisavang Vong and his family.

October 18, 2010

A Path To Somewhere

If it’s all about the journey and not the destination, there is a “journey to a journey” involving quite a few ups and downs, not to mention twists and turns, that awaits the nature lover in Vietnam’s northern region.

The destination is a path, 40 kilometers long, that winds its way through a dense bamboo grove in Thanh Hoa Province. In order to reach the Suoi Muong bamboo path, there’s a long way to go, past high mountains and deep valleys. A motorbike is an indispensable accessory.

Mai Chau, Hoa BinhMai Chau, Hoa Binh

Let’s get going from Hanoi and head to Hoa Binh, where Muong Lat Street along the Laos border leads to the mountainous western part of Thanh Hoa. The first village on the road is named Thanh Son, where backpackers can tuck in for the night in local homes after a simple supper. As we go further, more villages appear, as do the first bamboos. Here, the road is named Suoi Muong after a local stream.

Along the red-soil road, which gets narrower toward the end, are tall, dense bamboo grasses that cast their green shadows on the Ma River flowing alongside. Then the bamboos disappear, and the Mau Village market comes into view, several minutes from the pier across the Ma River.

October 13, 2010

10 Things Travel Guidebooks Won't Say

1. We’re already out of date.

After more than a week in $5-a-night hostels in Peru, Caitlin Childs was looking forward to a hot shower and a comfortable bed. But when she got to the Hotel Paracas, there was no hot shower, no bed – and no hotel. “It had been leveled in an earthquake the year before,” says Childs, a graphic designer and frequent traveler. It turned out her Footprint Peru Handbook – the latest edition – had been published a year and a half before her July 2008 trip.

Even without earthquakes, much of the information covered by guidebooks changes too fast for book publishers to keep up. Restaurants close, quaint markets lose their cachet, and trains change their schedules. If it’s essential to your trip, make a phone call before you go, says Peggy Goldman, the president of Friendly Planet Travel, a tour operator. Never rely on a guidebook for key information like whether you’ll need a visa to enter a country and how much it will cost, or what vaccinations you might need, Goldman says, because those facts can change rapidly. Although the guidebook’s web site may have more up-to-date information, travelers should still check with the consulate and look for CDC alerts for the latest information.

2. No news is bad news.

There’s simply not space in most guidebooks to include negative reviews – so a hotel or restaurant that isn’t in the book might not have made the cut for a reason, says Thomas Kohnstamm, a former Lonely Planet guidebook writer and the author of the memoir, “Do Travel Writers Go to Hell?” Guidebooks are also trying not just to inform but to sell potential travelers on the idea of a particular destination, he says. The end result: Every beach is beautiful, and the people of every country are “some of the nicest people in the world.” “It’s supposed to be an unvarnished take on places but you have to be pretty PC about everything,” Kohnstamm says.

It’s true that space is limited, so if something isn’t in the book, “there may be a reason,” says Ensley Eikenburg, the associate publisher of Frommer’s travel guides. The exception: “There are certain iconic places that can be overrated, and that’s something we encourage our writers to say,” she says.

3. We haven’t actually been there.

It’s called a “desk update": Writers use the phone, the Internet, stories from other travelers and even old-fashioned books to research a destination, but they never actually go there. The practice is common throughout the travel industry, Kohnstamm says. And with tight budgets, some publishers simply never ask how writers are getting their information.

Eikenburg, of Frommer’s, admits that the company does desk updates, but only on a few titles that cover multiple countries, while Lonely Planet’s Americas publisher, Brice Gosnell, says that the company’s contracts with writers always require travel to the location they’re covering.

4. We’re relying on you to catch our mistakes.

There’s essentially no fact-checking process for most guidebooks, Kohnstamm says. “They might do a random check, but mainly they’re trying to rely on the writer” to get things right, he says. (Lonely Planet and Frommer’s say fact-checking is the writer’s responsibility.) In practice, and with the prevalence of the “desk update” (see No. 2), that may mean waiting for readers to point out errors or out-of-date information. Jeffrey Ward, the founder of Savvy Navigator Tours, says he once wrote to Fodor’s to let them know that the index to their South Africa guide was from a previous edition, making it very difficult to quickly look up restaurants or sites while out walking around. Ward says the company sent him a free copy of a corrected book within a couple of months.

5. That “easy” hike is only easy for experts.

In 2007, a 32-year old hiker died taking what a guidebook had described as the “easy way” up Tryfan, a 3,000-foot mountain in Wales. “The definition of ‘easy’ is relative depending upon your experience, your physical ability, your footwear, clothing and kit, and your party,” explains Chris Lloyd, a spokesman for the local Ogwen Valley Mountain Rescue Organization. Death by hiking is fortunately uncommon, but Brian King, the publisher of guidebooks for the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, says his organization frequently hears complaints from less-experienced hikers who feel the books make scrambling over boulders sound like an easy day’s stroll. “We could probably do a better job of accommodating the day hiker,” King says.


6. We ruined that secluded spot we mentioned.

Brian Ghidinelli thought he and his wife were the only tourists in Old Hanoi’s winding streets – until they walked into a Lonely-Planet-recommended restaurant, which was packed with other travelers, some with their own Lonely Planet Vietnam guides on their tables. “While we ate, several more pairs walked in with guidebook in hand,” Ghidinelli, an entrepreneur and experienced traveler, says. Accidentally walking into a tourist trap can have financial consequences, too. In Ghidinelli’s experience, hotels and restaurants recommended by the guidebook tended to cost 25% or 30% more than those that didn’t cater to tourists.

7. We’re terrified of your smartphone.

Ten years ago, guidebooks to popular destinations like Walt Disney World or Paris were common on the New York Times best-sellers list, says Michael Norris, a senior analyst for Simba Information, a market research firm that covers publishing and media. These days, the physical books just don’t sell as well as they used to, in part because so much information is now available for free online – TripAdvisor, anyone? – and can be accessed on the spot with a GPS-equipped phone.

8. Going to Estonia? We don’t really care.

Guidebook writers sent to less well-traveled destinations are often hindered by tiny budgets, Kohnstamm says, explaining that books about popular destinations command the majority of the companies' resources. “The rest get sort of short shrift,” he says. Other publishers see it differently. Frommer’s doesn’t spend more on the more popular guides either, Eikenburg says. “If one of our customers buys our guide to Panama and it’s not accurate, then we’ve lost that customer to the competition when they go out and buy an Italy guide or an Alaska guide,” she says.

9. We’re tourists too.

Guidebooks can’t always be trusted for “insider” tips on what the locals eat, how they behave or what the cultural norms are in a country, says Bryan Schmidt, who has traveled to six countries on four continents over the last ten years. Guidebooks for Brazil, for example, will recommend places to get “authentic” feijoada, a traditional meat and bean stew – but Schmidt, whose wife is Brazilian, says even those meals are designed for tourists. Of course, some may see that as a blessing: The truly authentic dish involves “a lot of pig ears and pig snouts,” Schmidt says.
“It’s possible to overcome the challenge of not being from a place, but it just takes a lot of time,” says James Kaiser, the author of several independent guidebooks to national parks. Kaiser says he likes to spend about two years doing research so he can get to know locals and see how a place changes over time. Of course, even locals can make mistakes. Kaiser grew up near Acadia National Park in Maine, but his first guide to the area included a recommendation of a picnic spot for families that he came to regret. “Nude bathing was not uncommon,” Kaiser says. “I learned the hard way to triple-check my information.”

10. Don’t take all of our advice.

Some travelers feel guidebooks encourage a frenzied, see-it-all approach to tourism. “I have a really good friend who’s a lawyer, and she prepares for a trip the same way she prepares for a murder trial,” says Friendly Planet Travel’s Goldman. Relying on a guidebook for minute-by-minute planning robs a trip of spontaneity, she says. “The true reason for travel is the absolute thrill of discovering something all by yourself.”

Correction: The name of Peggy Goldman's company is Friendly Planet Travel. An earlier version of this article called it Family Planet Travel.


Source: SmartMoney.com

October 11, 2010

Why travel Vietnam & tips

Refer to Telegraph, if travelers wanting to head to peaceful,nice beaches, the region’s newer, less well explored destinations – travelers can find these in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos – have an immense amount to offer – including breathtaking landscapes, timeless rivers (not least the Mekong), world-class ruins – and diverse minority tribes.

Why go Vietnam

Vietnam stretches between the chaotic but engaging cities of Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon, and Hanoi. The streets are a noisy public stage set for various acts of family life, played out against roaring motorcycle traffic and the persistent patter of street merchants.

Ho Chi Minh City is a buzzing sprawl, home to the moving War Remnants Museum. Hanoi’s old quarter is more manageable. Here you can pay your respects (no talking or shorts) to embalmed leader Ho Chi Minh.

Kayaking Halong Bay

Sailing trips around the soaring limestone peaks of Halong Bay are another northern highlight. Created, legend has it, from the spikes of a falling dragon’s tail, they are a humbling sight come rain or shine.

In the misty hills of Sapa, near the Chinese border, hikes through minority-tribe territory can offer better settings and authenticity than those in northern Thailand. Walkers pass through valleys of bamboo forest and rice paddies to meet Hmong and Dao villagers clothed in traditional dress. Bac Ha market is the best place to see Flower Hmong people in their exuberant, fluorescent threads.

Why travel Cambodia & tips

Refer to Telegraph, travelers wanting to head to this part of the world should not be deterred: the region’s newer, less well explored destinations – Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos – have an immense amount to offer – including breathtaking landscapes, timeless rivers (not least the Mekong), world-class ruins – and diverse minority tribes.

Why go
Cambodia

This is a country proud of its ancient beginnings but recovering from a dark, more recent past.

Around two million people a year come to visit the great Khmer temple complex at Angkor and the tourism industry has mushroomed to accommodate them. Hidden in the jungle are the majestic corncob towers and lily-pond moat of Angkor Wat, hundreds of smiling stone faces at Bayon, and romantic Ta Prohm, left as it was discovered, with moss-covered reliefs buckling under the stranglehold of overgrown trees.

Angkor WatAngkor Wat, Cambodia

A three-day pass costing $40 (£28) is advisable. Start with a guided tour, and then rent a bicycle or play at being royalty by riding an elephant from the south gate.

Why travel Laos and tips

Refer to Telegraph, in the recent time, the violence and killings on the streets of Bangkok - coupled with a hardening of Foreign Office advice not to travel there – will have horrified many holidaymakers considering a trip to Thailand, traditionally the most popular destination in South-East Asia and a country that sells itself as the “Land of Smiles”.

However, travellers wanting to head to this part of the world should not be deterred: the region’s newer, less well explored destinations – Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos – have an immense amount to offer – including breathtaking landscapes, timeless rivers (not least the Mekong), world-class ruins – and diverse minority tribes.

Why go Laos

Landlocked Laos has a relaxed pace of life and indifference to tourism that make it an idyllic escape. Luang Prabang is one of the most beguiling cities in Asia, with Unesco World Heritage status and faded French charm. Start the day watching alms-collecting monks file down the streets at dawn, and then visit a glittering Buddhist temple. At sunset, drink a Beer Lao on the banks of the Mekong before shopping for local crafts at the lantern-lit night market.

Travellers seeking the comforts of boutique hotels will find them here and in the country’s capital, Vientiane, alongside colonial villas, pleasant boulevards and Laos’s most important golden stupa, the 150ft-tall Pha That Luang.

Vientiane, LaosVientiane, Laos

To get off the beaten track, take a boat along the bucolic Nam Ou river from Luang Prabang, and drift past caves filled with images of the Buddha and dramatic karst scenery, ending up in sleepy village backwaters. Accommodation is rustic, but nothing beats swinging in a hammock and letting time pass Lao-style.

Halong Bay: A World of Mystery Viet Nam

Halong Bay is probably where you would find yourself. Majestic and mysterious, Vietnam’s Halong Bay is a breathtaking location with over 2000 incredible jagged islands and islets rising from the emerald waters of the Gulf of Tonkin.

Halong Bay, VietnamHalong Bay, Vietnam

This superb panorama of limestone peaks enshrouded in mist, tumbling into the gently lapping sea and enclosing within its folds striking hidden caves is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The near-perpendicular pinnacles conceal the remains of many grottos and caverns, created over millions of years ago through a complex process of erosion whereby water trickled through limestone cracks enlarging them to create spectacular caves and resulting in the distinctive towers seen today.
About a 3 hour ride south of Hanoi, Halong Bay draws a steady stream of travelers year-round, who mostly opt for several days of cruising on a typical Vietnamese junk. Beyond the breathtaking seascapes on a boat trip through the bay, an amazing range of adventure travel opportunities are on offer: Travelers to Halong come to explore the spectacular caves, among them the amazing “Surprise Cave” with its 3 enormous caverns, where illuminated stalactites grow down to touch the rising stalagmites; to kayak and scuba dive around the islands and in and around some of the more remote, less accessible caves, such as the Dark Cave; to get to know “real-life” Vietnam, cycling through farm fields and remote tiny villages, where self-reliant locals raise and prepare their own food; to experience one of Vietnam’s most fascinating cultural features – the floating villages, nestling in the sheltered bays, where houses are set atop barges and year round, inhabitants catch and cultivate fish.

Surprise Cave

Cruising on a typical junk is in itself an adventure, and experiencing the star-studded night sky and lapping sea waves with the outlines of dozens of limestone towers silhouetted in the backdrop makes for a surreal picture. Halong Bay’s breathtaking splendor, enormous scale and unique geomorphology make it one of Vietnam’s most spectacular experiences.

For an off-the-beaten-path adventure, Ninh Binh, or “Inland Halong Bay”, north of Halong is a paradise of lotus-covered ponds, meandering waterways and lush green rice paddies where contorted limestone pinnacles, caverns, spires and hills, shaped like mythical creatures provide the setting. Here, ornate temples, pagodas and Buddhist shrines rise from the center of small lakes and rustic homes perch under natural overhangs or nestle into the living rock. The steady rhythm of traditional Vietnamese village life continues here as women tend to the rice fields while men in wooden boats cast nets into the tranquil waters. A motorbike ride into the nearby mountains is a great adventure and a half-day boat trip to Tam Coc or Trang An into caves and old temples is well worth the journey.

On the Way to Tam Coc

What make this entire region unique are not the towering cliffs themselves, but rather their sheer number and unique shapes. Halong Bay, translated as “where the dragon descends into the sea” is the stuff of myths. Legend has it that the islands were created by a great dragon that lived in the mountains. As it charged towards the sea, its tail gouged out valleys and crevasses, and as it spat out jewels and jade, these turned into ,the dramatic towering pinnacles for which the bay and its surroundings are renowned.

Source: familyadventuretravelwork

Recommended Tours in Vietnam:
Halong bay Kayking
Biking Hidden Paths of Mai Chau & Ninh Binh

October 09, 2010

Get Ready Adventures in Vietnam’s Best Eco Lodges

Renowned for hiking, highly qualified local guides, stunning backdrops and a rich cultural heritage, Vietnam’s northwestern highlands are a prime destination for travelers looking for an off-the-beaten-path adventure like no other. Making the region even more attractive are the spectacular eco-friendly accommodations built on a vision of community sustainability.

Mai Chau, VietnamMai Chau Valley, Vietnam

Mai Chau Lodge
Nestled in the stunningly beautiful mountainous region of Hoa Binh Province, 135 km south of Hanoi, Mai Chau Lodge strives to preserve local traditions, culture and the natural surroundings of its lush valley setting. The lodge is built from a socially and environmentally responsible vision. Using sustainable local materials, Mai Chau Lodge boasts a natural beauty, blending perfectly into its surroundings.

Set among rice fields, misty mountains and fascinating hill tribe people, this community-minded gem boasts 24 immaculately maintained rooms. The thoughtfully appointed quarters offer unique charm with cozy wood furnishings and local décor, some offering private verandas which open onto views of the lily pond and the setting sun. Waking to the scene of lotus flowers and farmers grazing their water buffalos in the nearby rice fields is an unbeatable experience which reflects the authentic character of the region.

Activities at Mai Chau
In addition to sustainable building practices, Mai Chau Lodge offers excellent adventure trips. Local qualified guides lead travelers to Thai hill-tribe communities in the region for a highly authentic experience, immersing them in the traditions and lifestyles of natives. A community effort, the well-designed tours to Pu Luong Reserve, one of 5 natural reserves in the area, for wildlife and bird watching, a visit to nearby White Thai village, or to the lodge’s Mo Luong Bat Cave and to the local Black Hmong market, fishing at Mo Luong Lake, kayaking, cycling the green countryside and returning in the evening after a fun-filled day to relax in the sauna, jacuzzi or steam room – all round out the activity offerings at this unique lodge.

Set amongst some of Vietnam’s most stunning scenery, a trip to the northwestern highlands of Mai Chau Lodge offers a mix of off-the-beaten-path eco adventure and culture in an up-close encounter with some of Vietnam’s most colorful inhabitants and traditions.

Victoria Sapa Resort
High in Vietnam’s remote northwestern highlands near the Chinese border, the former hill station of Sapa, famous for its pristine verdant environment, unparalleled scenery and cool climate is home to more than 30 colorful ethnic tribes and to Vietnam’s highest peak, Mt. Fansipan. Perched on a hill overlooking the valley, the Victoria Sapa Resort provides an excellent base for those seeking adventure on a road less traveled in close harmony with nature and an authentic cultural experience.

The Resort
Built as a traditional mountain chalet with warm wooden décor and a cozy stone fireplace, the Victoria Sapa Resort perfectly blends into its natural setting, surrounded by lush green gardens, rural terraces and breathtaking mountainscapes. Guests feel at ease in the mountain chalet atmosphere where welcoming accommodations bring together the elegance of traditional local ethnic handicraft with the comfort of French colonial style in earthy tones, hardwood floors and vibrant embroidered native tapestry. Each unit features a private terrace with spectacular views in all directions. This child-friendly resort offers spacious studios ideal for families of 4-5 as well.

The most exciting adventures at the resort center on mountain trekking, cycling and excursions to the foothills of Mt. Fansipan, and to the area’s authentic hill tribe villages and markets. Russian jeep safaris to the more remote markets and ethnically diverse areas, boating on the Chay River, trekking around Ta Van area and overnight homestays in local villages are also on offer.

Mt Fansipan, VietnamConquer Mount Fansipan, Vietnam

Trekking in Mt. Fansipan Foothils
Reserved for in-house guests, the romantic overnight train rides from Hanoi to Lao Cai (Sapa) aboard the resort’s own Victoria Express train is an experience in itself. Kids will especially enjoy the sleeping carriages with berths, the plus-red dining carriage, comfortable seats and exotic landscapes en route.

Victoria Express Train Berths
Committed to environmental protection and local tourism sustainability, the Victoria Sapa Resort served as an ideal base for exploring the wonders of Sapa’s enchanting surroundings and very authentic hillside tribes.

Source: familyadventuretravelworks

Recommendations:
Biking Maichau
Conquer Mount Fansipan - Sin Chai Route

October 06, 2010

Vietnam's Phu Quoc island slowly opening up to the world

Its growing popularity and developing hospitality might make it a runaway success, which at least one visitor hopes won't spoil its tropical perfection and laid-back atmosphere.

Phu Quoc Island, Vietnam
Reporting from Phu Quoc, Vietnam —During the four years I lived in Hanoi, where I was The Times' bureau chief in the late 1990s, I did a pretty good job of getting around Vietnam and exploring new places, from Can Tho in the southern Mekong Delta to Sapa on the northern border with China. But I missed Phu Quoc, Vietnam's largest island. So did most people. Unless you were a backpacker looking for a cheap beach hotel, there wasn't much reason to go.

Fast forward to 2010. Phu Quoc, once known mainly for its pungent fish sauce and wartime history, is the hottest new tourist destination in Vietnam, a slice of tropical perfection with mile after mile of wide, uncrowded beaches, dense jungle, virgin rain forests and a lazy, laid-back atmosphere that reminds a visitor of what Phuket, Thailand, was like a generation ago.

Chuck Searcy, a former U.S. serviceman who lives in Vietnam and runs humanitarian programs, remembers his only visit to Phu Quoc about a dozen years ago. His plane circled the airport three times to scare cows off the runway, and the island had only three hotels, "all decidedly 'no star,' to put it kindly." Said Searcy: "I'm sure I wouldn't recognize the place today."

A few weeks ago, my wife, Sandy, and I hopped onto one of the nine daily turboprop flights Vietnam Airlines runs from Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) to Phu Quoc. No cows impeded our arrival. Our taxi took us through the dusty town of Duong Dong and down a dirt road lined with little patio restaurants; a cemetery, crammed between two bars; and a bamboo hut that served as a laundry. Although I had a moment of doubt, our driver insisted that just ahead lay La Veranda, Phu Quoc's first five-star resort.

The jungle parted, and we caught a glimpse of the Gulf of Thailand and Long Beach, which stretches for 12 miles. And in a waterside clearing lush with flowers and foliage stood La Veranda, a 48-room boutique hotel and spa with two restaurants. It seemed as though we had stumbled onto a French colonial plantation, its large louvered windows open to the sea, its deep balconies, high ceilings and overhead fans reminiscent of a bygone era.

That, in fact, is exactly what the owner, Catherine Gerbet, had in mind when she designed the hotel, now 4 years old. A French Vietnamese, she was born in Cambodia, raised in Hong Kong and lived in Saigon. Her goal was to build something that captured her childhood memories of Asia, and she didn't miss a touch. I wouldn't have blinked had I seen Graham Greene sipping a martini while sitting in one of the bar's wicker chairs.

I asked La Veranda's Swiss general manager, Nicolas Josi, what attracted foreigners to Phu Quoc and what they did when they got here.

"First, the island is just being discovered. It still feels authentic," Josi said. "You won't, for instance, find a building over two stories. A lot of our guests are tourists who have been hurrying about in Ho Chi Minh City and Hue and Hanoi. They take a break here to recharge their batteries. What they like to do here is often nothing, just relax."

Phu Quoc, a triangle-shaped island just 30 miles long, is closer to Cambodia than to the Vietnamese mainland. Settled in the 17th century by Vietnamese and Chinese farmers and fishermen, it was occupied in 1869 by French colonialists who built rubber and coconut plantations. The island was so remote for so long that when Saigon fell to Communist troops in April 1975, Phu Quoc's 10,000 people hardly seemed to notice and went quietly about their daily business, catching squid and tending their pepper vines.

But the island's isolation did not shelter it from war. Vietnam's largest prisoner-of-war camp was here, near the U.S. naval base at An Thoi on the southern tip of the island. Pol Pot's murderous Khmer Rouge guerrillas invaded and briefly occupied the island after Saigon's fall, and some of the non-Communist South Vietnamese forced out of the cities by Vietnam's harsh, new rulers were resettled here and told to become farmers.

"My parents were teachers. They didn't know how to grow turnips. We nearly starved," said Hoi Trinh, a Vietnamese Australian lawyer, who arrived here with his family in 1977 as a 7-year-old. To help support his family he sold watermelon seeds on Long Beach, not far from where La Veranda now stands. When he and his father were caught trying to flee by boat to Malaysia, young Trinh was sentenced to a month in Prison No. 7.

It was a full day before my wife and I emerged from La Veranda. We were massaged, fed, pampered at the swimming pool and on the beach by a locally recruited and trained staff whose eagerness to please and unfailing politeness more than compensated for its struggle with foreign languages. We checked out a trip to Ganh Dau on the northwest coast: Scuba diving, including transportation, lunch and equipment, was $80 for the day; snorkeling, $25. The water, we were told, was 88 degrees with a visibility of 30 feet. Instead we hired a taxi with a driver who spoke some English and set out to explore the island. The cost for three hours would be $30.

Scores of beachside bungalow-style hotels with open-air bars and restaurants were tucked unobtrusively among clusters of palms on the coastal road south. Some charged as little as $25 a night. French road markers along the way showed the distance to the next village. Hammocks, often occupied, hung in tree-shaded front yards. Peppercorns lay drying on faded blue tarpaulins, a reminder that Vietnam is among the world's largest exporters of pepper. Sometimes we caught a whiff of nuoc mam fish sauce, which the Vietnamese use to flavor almost every dish. We stopped at one of the many pearl farms, where a clerk showed us a $9,000 necklace. Happily, Sandy settled on a pair of $70 earrings.

The fishing boats had long since pulled out of An Thoi and other little ports, having left at dawn not to return until sunset, by the time we reached Coconut Prison. It was built by the colonialists in 1953, a year before Vietnam defeated France at Dien Bien Phu. The Americans and their South Vietnamese allies took over the 1,000-acre site in 1967, and for a time it held 40,000 North Vietnamese prisoners of war. More than 4,000 were said to have died there.

Guard towers still loom over rows of windowless tin POW barracks that are surrounded by coils of concertina wire. Except for an occasional tourist, the place was silent and empty. The small nearby museum (admission is 3,000 dong, about 16 cents) is not for the faint-hearted, with its scenes of torture depicted by chillingly real life-size mannequins.

The grimness of the place seemed incompatible with the tranquility of Phu Quoc, and leaves one thankful that Vietnam has known 35 years of peace. And what changes that peace has wrought. Less than three decades ago Vietnam had no tourist industry, and Vietnamese were forbidden to speak or socialize with foreigners.

Today, Vietnam attracts nearly 4 million tourists a year and luxury resorts — which numbered one when the five-star Furama opened on Da Nang's China Beach in the mid-1990s — reach up the coastline from Vung Tau, south of Ho Chi Minh City, to Thanh Hoa, near the former demilitarized zone.

With tourism creating jobs and spreading wealth, Phu Quoc's population has surged to 70,000, even though the northern part of the island, home to a large national park, is mostly uninhabited. Phu Quoc absorbs well the 50,000-plus visitors it draws annually, but changes are afoot.

The government has a master plan to develop Phu Quoc into a high-quality eco-tourism destination by 2020, when it aims to attract 2.3 million visitors a year. An international airport is scheduled to open in two years to accommodate nonstop flights from Japan, Thailand, Singapore and Hong Kong. Roads and bridges are being rebuilt and a deep-water port is being dug at An Thoi. Life may never be the same for an island that now uses generators to produce much of its electricity and gets its water from wells.

Driving north from An Thoi at sunset, watching the fishing boats return to port, we passed Duong Dong's night market, where $2 gets you a fresh seafood dinner, and got out of the taxi to walk on a deserted beach the last mile to La Veranda. Phu Quoc, I hoped that warm, star-lit night, would not lose its character in the tidal wave of coming development, because even by the toughest of standards, it's just about perfect as it is.

Source: Chicago Tribune

October 05, 2010

'Tour' por la guerra de Camboya - Viajes Cambodia

La belleza y la muerte. La grandeza del talento del ser humano y su degradación más absoluta. Los templos de Angkor y el legado de los Jemeres Rojos. Viajar a Camboya significa encontrarse frente a los dos extremos a los que puede llegar un ser humano.



De izquierda a derecha, prisión S-21 y Casa de Pol Pot en Along Veng. Carmen Gómez MenorActualizado miércoles 22/09/2010 17:41 horas

Los fantasmas de la guerra son todavía demasiado recientes en Camboya, y en algunos de sus destinos más turísticos, el lujo del presente se mezcla con un pasado sangriento que todavía puede adivinarse en la cara de muchos camboyanos. Entre 1975 y 1979, cerca de dos millones de personas fueron asesinadas por el brutal régimen de Pol Pot, en nombre de una mezcla de maoísmo radical y nacionalismo jemer conocido como los Jemeres Rojos.

Ahora, 14 lugares que formaron parte de la historia sangrienta de los Jemeres Rojos van a ser abiertos al turismo, incluido su último escondite en la jungla en el que permanecieron 20 años y el crematorio de su líder Pol Pot en Chong Chom, cerca de la frontera con Tailandia.

La mayoría de las nuevas atracciones de este turismo de genocidio se concentran en una zona a 125 kilómetros al norte de los templos de Angkor conocida como Along Veng, el último bastión de resistencia jemer en Camboya. Fue aquí donde, en 1997, el propio Pol Pot fue juzgado por sus antiguos camaradas jemeres y condenado a arresto domiciliario por el asesinato de su otrora mano derecha, Son Sen. La casa del líder jemer Ta Mok –también conocido como el carnicero o el Hermano Número 5- donde se llevó a cabo el juicio, también puede visitarse. Y fue en el mercado de Along Veng onde finalmente fue arrestado Ta Mok en 1999.

Colegio, prisión y ahora museo
El carnicero murió en la cárcel de Phnom Penh en 2006, de un ataque al corazón provocado por el estrés que le causaba el proceso judicial por el que debía hacer frente a sus crímenes. El mismo proceso que todavía esperan seis líderes jemeres y que ha costado a las Naciones Unidas más de una década poner en marcha.

Hasta ahora, era en Phnom Penh donde el viajero recibía una clase magistral de historia reciente. Lugares como el Museo del Genocidio Tuol Sleng, un antiguo colegio reconvertido por los jemeres en centro de interrogaciones y prisión conocido como la S-21, muestran con toda crudeza el sangriento legado del sueño de un loco.

Fotos de los prisioneros, estremecedores testimonios gráficos y camas con cadenas y manchas de sangre dejan constancia de que la distancia entre nuestra sociedad civilizada y el horror no es tan grande. Quizá lo que más impresiona sea su desgarradora sencillez, que no ha sido alterada para agradar al turista en este parque temático del sufrimiento, sino que se ha dejado exactamente como era cuando estaba en funcionamiento.

Morir por llevar gafas
A poco más de 14 kilómetros de Phnom Penh, los campos de la muerte de Choeung Ek con su fotografiada urna que contiene 8.000 calaveras humanas, ofrece una visión aterradora y fascinante al mismo tiempo.

El gabinete del primer ministro, Hun Sen, que aprobó el plan a principios de este año, declaró que la intención es que «los visitantes nacionales e internacionales conozcan y entiendan a los últimos líderes del régimen genocida».

Las críticas al gobierno no se han hecho esperar entre los que creen que este es un movimiento oportunista con el que beneficiarse de la peor tragedia del siglo XX. Queda por ver si las imágenes que llenarán las cámaras digitales de los turistas junto a las de los templos de Angkor lograrán que alguien entienda lo absurdo de morir por llevar gafas.

Como Llegar
A falta de vuelos directos desde España, la mejor manera de llegar a Camboya es pasando por Bangkok. Thai Airways (www.thaiairways.es) vuela desde Madrid a Bangkok tres veces por semana.

Una vez en Bangkok, se puede continuar hasta Siem Reap con Bangkok Airways (www.bangkokair.com) en alguno de sus cuatro vuelos diarios. Desde Siem Reap, lo mejor es alquilar un coche con conductor para llegar hasta Along Veng.

Datos Utiles

Documentación. Se necesita visado de entrada que puede conseguirse a la llegada previo pago de 20 dólares americanos, copia del pasaporte y una fotografía tamaño carnet.

Clima. Camboya tiene dos estaciones, la lluviosa y la seca. De mayo a octubre es la estación de lluvias, cortesía del monzón del suroeste. Normalmente llueve de manera intensa una o dos veces al día todos los días durante la estación de lluvias. La estación seca se prolonga de octubre a abril, con la temperatura más agradable de noviembre a enero con unos 20º C de media.

Idioma. El jemer es el idioma oficial, pero en las localidades más turísticas el uso del inglés está muy extendido.

Moneda. La divisa oficial del país es el Riel, aunque en todas las tiendas y centros turísticos se acepta el pago con tarjeta y en dólares americanos.

Más información
. Camboya no tiene embajada ni consulado en España, la más cercana se encuentra en París.

El operador turístico local
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Agencia de ViajeIndochina
W: http://www.viajeindochina.com
E: info@viajeindochina.com
Fuente: ocholeguas.com