May 16, 2013

Cycling through the Countryside in Vang Vieng, Laos


By Dean Wickham


Vang Vieng in Laos is one of those places that you hear mixed reviews about. Some people have the time of their lives while others can’t wait to get out of there. The general apprehension is that if you’re a twenty year old backpacker wanting to get drunk and go tubing down a river, you’ll love it. If you fit into any other category, you’ll hate the place. I wanted to find out for myself.


I decided to head across the river and make my way to Poukham cave, which I had heard was interesting to explore and had a nice swimming hole nearby. I hadn’t ridden a bike for quite some time but I soon got the hang of it again.

Biking in Vang Vieng, Laos

Riding down the dirt, potholed road I soon entered the surrounding countryside, dominated by beautiful green rice fields that stretch across the flat areas of land between the huge limestone karsts that rise up above them. Farmers tended to their fields while chickens scratched in the dirt and cows grazed on the side of the road. I stopped often to take photos and just enjoy the stunning scenery.

 As I continued along the road I passed through several small villages, with their basic bamboo houses sitting amongst bunches of banana trees and little vegetable gardens. It was a Sunday and all of the local kids were out playing, riding their bikes, swimming in streams and chasing dogs and chickens. Women bathed and did their laundry in the small fresh water streams that came down from the mountains, while other people went about their daily chores, chopping wood and preparing food.

Friendly Local women in Laos
I decided to stop in at a small swimming hole, as I had built up quite a sweat from the bike ride. Some local kids ran beside me as I made my way down to the stream, and soon joined me for a swim in the lovely cool water. They couldn’t speak a word of English but a simple “Sabai dee” was enough to get a smile out of them. As I rode away they ran beside me to show me how fast they could run, and then waved goodbye with a big smile on their faces.

I was fascinated by the peacefulness of the typical life in the Laotian countryside. It was so good to be having a true local experience, away from the hordes of tourists that can take away that something special from a certain place. This was a place where I could be on my own, and truly see what life is about in this amazing country. Here, life is simple, people have very little and yet they are so happy. Here kids don’t need video games and brand named clothes to be happy. All they seem to need is their imagination.

Children 

When I got to the entrance of Poukham cave I paid the 10,000 kip ($1.20) entrance fee and crossed the bridge where I parked my bike, before climbing up the steep path and exploring the large, dark cave on my own, an adventure in itself. By this time the heat and humidity of the tropical climate had me drenched in sweat, and I was ready to cool off in the Blue Lagoon, located near the cave where I had parked my bike. The cool fresh water was a lovely blue colour, coming from a small mountain stream, with schools of fresh water fish swimming against the current. Some locals were also enjoying a swim in their local swimming hole, floating around on tyre tubes and enjoying the rope swing, while I just floated in the cool clear water, relaxed and enjoying the natural scenery.

I was cooled off I began to make my way back to Vang Vieng, stopping for some lunch at a little local restaurant in one of the villages.

I had passed only a handful of other tourists throughout the day in the local area, and overall it was an extremely peaceful and rewarding experience. It goes to show, you need to explore a place on your own to really experience what the place has to offer. As I found out about Vang Vieng, there is always more to a place than what you may hear or read. For me, this type of experience is exactly what travel is all about. You can learn so much about life from the local people, even without any words being exchanged. From that moment on I would seek out these kinds of experiences everywhere that I travelled.

Finally I can really recommend making a bike tour in Vang Vieng. You can not only experience and explore the great outdoors of Laos but also get in contact with the local people and involve yourself in the Lao culture. Truly, a bike tour in Laos makes any visit a true adventure.

Biking tour in Laos

If you wish to set up your personal bike adventure in Laos, please contact us for further information:
ACTIVETRAVEL LAOS (ATL) is member of ACTIVETRAVEL ASIA offers a wide selection of Laos adventure tours, including hiking and trekking, kayaking, biking, motorcycling, overland touring and family travel packages in Laos and Indochina


May 14, 2013

Cuc Phuong National Park, Vietnam offers escape from humdrum city life


For the first time in months, I concentrate on breathing the clear fresh air, relax and feel my tense muscles unclench. Finally, I can hear myself think and am alone, surrounded by nature and centuries of evolutionary miracles.

Trekking Cuc Phuong National Park

Such a welcome break from the buzz of Hanoi. The sound of birdsong disturbs the silence. That's right, complete silence. Such a welcome break from the buzz of Hanoi. No motorbikes, no horns, no market vendors yelling, no drilling. Just complete and utter silence.

I have come to Cuc Phuong National Park, after a 90 minute motorbike ride from Ninh Binh City. After leaving the city, the road winds its way through small villages surrounded by rice paddies. Soon the houses give way to more rice paddies, interspersed with stunning limestone karsts. The landscape is very similar to the karst formations of Northern Vietnam's Ha Long Bay, yet, due to its in-land location, obviously lacks the marine features of its coastal counterpart.


Cuc Phuong national park

Cuc Phuong is Vietnam's oldest national park and was established over 50 years ago. The scenery that unfolds before my eyes is breathtaking, and the calls of insects, birds, and primates lure me into the dense forest. On walks I explore the park's extensive trekking trails, listen to the mystical sounds of the jungle and visit some of the villages in the area, where I could see some of the traditional stilt houses, agricultural tools and, luckily, musical performances by some of the region's ethical minority groups.

The park is also home to some of the region's most successful conservation centres, where injured and confiscated animals from the wildlife trade are rehabilitated and prepared for their re-release into the wild.

Visiting the Endangered Primate Rescue Centre was my highlight, and I spent close to two hours watching over 100 primates of over 15 different species of gibbons and langurs play, feed and nurture their young. At the Turtle Conservation Centre close to 20 different turtle species that have been rescued from the wildlife trade are housed and bred, and possibly will be re-introduced into the wild eventually.

Turtle

Endangered Primate Rescue Centre

As most of these species are endangered, the conservation centre also functions as a place of education and provides vital information about the key turtle species in Vietnam. For example, did you know that it can take up to 30 years for a turtle to hatch from an egg, mature, and procreate? The life cycle of these stunning creatures is unbelievably slow, and sadly the high demand for turtles (as pets or meat) is devastating turtle stocks across Vietnam.

Cuc Phuong National Park - mushrooms


The Small Carnivore and Pangolin Conservation Centre next door is home to some of the most endangered small mammals in Vietnam, such as the Owston civet or leopard cat.

After visiting all three centres and learning about the natural heritage and biodiversity of Vietnam, I walked back to my lodge contemplating the beauty of it all: the landscape, the conservation efforts of so many dedicated individuals and organisations, the fascinating species of animals and plants that are unique to this part of the world, and our role of humans within it all.
Faced with such spectacular surroundings, I felt very small. Standing there, alone, in the middle of thousands of years of evolutionary processes, I couldn't help but wonder what the future would bring – would we as humanity manage to come together to preserve our natural beauty, or would we continue in our path towards destruction and extinction? I guess only time will tell.

Thousand year old tree
However, I can say for certain that Cuc Phuong National Park is a wonderful place to escape to and provides the perfect backdrop for profound thoughts and musings about life.

You can book a trekking tour to explore Cuc Phuong National Park though travel agencies in Hanoi. I can recommend an adventure tour operator I knew, ACTIVETRAVEL ASIA. They offer adventure tours at Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, including hiking and trekking, biking, motorcycling and family travel packages.
You can refer Trekking Cuc Phuong National Park Tour via: http://www.activetravelvietnam.com/tour.php?op=detail&tourId=26

May 10, 2013

Exploring the largest floating market in Mekong Delta, Vietnam


Apart from Cai Be and Phung Hiep, Cai Rang in Can Tho City is one of the three most popular and biggest floating markets in the Mekong River Delta. It is a great place for tourists in Vietnam  to enjoy exciting atmosphere during the early morning market hours.

Cai Rang Floating Market

The Cai Rang Floating Market, the largest wholesale floating market in the Mekong Delta, starts around 05:00 and runs until around midday, meaning that you’ll have to get an early start to the day if you want to visit. Most tour boats along the riverfront leave between 05:00 and 07:00, so if don’t make it to the water by then you’ll have a hard time finding a tour.

May 09, 2013

Trekking in the hidden land of Phongsali, Laos


Traveling in Asian cities is an undeniable thrill. The food, the nightlife, the chaos and the people make wandering through Asia’s big cities like Hanoi and Bangkok an endless maze of discovery. But, for many of us, experiencing the true soul of a country means getting out of the cities and getting into the more rural places.

Especially for countries like Thailand and Laos, which house vast hills and deep jungles, experiencing these places means further understanding the country. A fun and exhilarating way to experience the hills, jungles and forests of Asia is to trek through them. Being able to communicate with other locals through an interpreter makes the experience all the richer.
Communicate with locals
One of the main starting points for a trek Northern Laos is the city of Phongsali. Phongsali is a tiny town nestled high in the hills near the Chinese border. The town has a distinctly sleepy vibe: there are few cars or motorbikes, dogs wander around the streets and the few restaurants in the town close around 9 pm (a warning to late-night snackers!) The town, due to its proximity to China, is home to many Chinese settlers who came to Northern Laos to start businesses. Chinese snacks and beer have an equal representation to Laos foods in the restaurants.

There aren’t many things to do in Phongsali. The town’s main tourist draw istrekking and the opportunity to visit hill tribes about 50 kilometres away near the town of Boun Neua.
A top spot to watch the sun set and a fantastic spot at any time of day to see Phongsali from above is the mountain just to the east of the town called Phou Fa. This road leads to a set of stairs through a dense forest, which pop out at a stupa overlooking some majestic scenery. From here the views stretch on forever with mist-shrouded hills and valleys on all sides. The view of Phongsali town is great too and you’ll get a good feel for its size. 

Getting to Phongsali:


Road to Phongsali
Getting to Phongsali is not easy and is not for the faint of heart or the weak of stomach. The journey entails a 9 hour+ bus ride from Oudomxai, a busting and slightly-mediocre Chinese trading town. The local bus station is close by most of the guesthouses, so catching transport North is easy and cheap. Be aware that if there aren’t enough passengers who buy a ticket, the bus company will simply cancel the route until the next day. This means you should be ready to spend a day or two in Oudomxai.
The bus ride from Oudomxai takes a full day, with several stops included for restroom breaks and food. The road is mostly un-paved, which makes for a very bumpy ride. The roads are very windy, but the scenery is spectacular. The road passes by dozens of tiny traditional Laos villages dotted with small thatched-roof huts. The rest stops are quick, but the small vendors are equipped to satisfy hungry travelers. Most sell packets of sticky rice (white and black), grilled meat (anything from chicken to rat) and soft drinks.
Once you arrive in Phongsali, you’ll need to take a motorbike taxi into town, or else walk with your bags for about 30 minutes.
Arranging the Trek: 


There aren’t many tour agencies (maybe one or two) in town, so you should arrange a trekking tour before you depart. Hiring a trekking guide is highly recommended for treks in this area.

Trekking solo in this region would be extremely difficult and is only recommended for highly experienced trekkers and mountaineers. The trails are often not clear because of the light foot-traffic and getting lost in Northern Laos would be easy, and would likely have disastrous results.





Boat from Hadsa to Muang Khua.
Most need to be accessed by a boat, which is difficult to figure out without a guide. The guides know the best starting and stopping points for the boat and can arrange for a boat to pick you up and take you back to town after the trek is over.






*Travel Tip:  Treks can be arranged through the ACTIVETRAVEL ASIA_ offering a wide selection of Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia adventure tours, including hiking and trekking, biking, motorcycling_ located in Vietnam. The treks are from about 5-7 days adventures through the hills of the province and due to Phongsali being out of the way and difficult to get to.  If you’re into trekking and want to interact with ethnic minorities without loads of other tourists, it is definitely worth going to Phongsali.

Highlights 
  • Awesome scenery
  • Combination of jungle trails and village roads
  • Home-stay in tribal villages
  • Cruise on the mighty Mekong Rive

May 07, 2013

5 Reasons Why You Should Travel In A Kayak and Travel in Halong Bay, Vietnam.


Kayaking is not just one of the most adrenaline-pumping sports, but it is also a way to greet the natural beauty and exult on the sea and rivers. Traveling to nearby places using a travel kayak can serve you multiple purposes. It can drop you to your desired destination, and it can also give you that much-needed thrill and revelry.

Here are some top reasons why you should travel in a kayak:

Kayak
i. Exciting: If your life is short on excitement, then you can try this method of traveling and see your hormones flowing heavily. With kayaking in your schedule, you would find new vigor in your boring life and would be able to work with some added energy.


ii. Affordable: Travel kayak is very affordable and can be bought without making any major investment. They come in different sizes and if you need a single or double person one, then you can get them at just a small budget. 

iii. Observing the sea life: While traveling with kayak, you can observe the sea or river life and learn a lot about ecology. You are bound to zip through some really rhapsodic and photogenic corners where your heart would skip a beat in exhilaration.


iv. Easy to handle: Most kayaks which are manufactured these days are very easy to handle and offer complete convenience. Being light and user-friendly, they make for perfect allies during such adventurous journeys. 


v. Rediscovering the zest of life: If your spirits are sagging and your morale is going down, then you can rediscover that lost zest by trying this adventure sport. With travel kayak, you are bound to get goose bumps all over your body. 


So where can you travel kayak in another country, such as Vietnam. We recommend you a great and suitable destination for kayak: Halong Bay_one of New Seven Wonders of the World. Halong Bay is famous for its natural beauty and thousands of limestone islands and islets. When you are on board, you admire the majestic beauty of the Bay but when you GET closer to the limestone islands, discover the beauty yourself, you admire its nature. But… how to get closer? The best way is joining kayaking activity .

Some images about kayaking activities in Halong Bay we guess you'll enjoy it:

Many kayaks for rent

Kayaking in Halong Bay

Kayaking in floating village
Kayak in Lan Ha Bay
ACTIVETRAVEL ASIA provides you with high quality traditional sea kayaks and equipment, delightful meals, kayak technique instruction, and an overall ecstatic time in paradise.

If you would like to know more,  you can visit: http://www.activetravel.asia/ata_adventure/kayaking/

Have a good journey!

May 02, 2013

Things Nobody Tells You About Angkor Wat, Cambodia

The temples of Angkor, flanked by Angkor Wat, are one of Southeast Asia’s top destinations.  And justifiably so.  These temples are beautiful, thrilling, and absolutely fascinating.

But despite all the information that is out there, Angkor was very different from what I expected.  If you’re planning to visit Angkor on your trip to Cambodia, here’s what you need to know.

1) You need to be in good shape.

Climb to Phnom Bakheng
I knew there would be a lot of walking involved, so I planned accordingly and wore good shoes.  But I had no idea that I’d be climbing with my hands as well as my feet!

Not all temples require that you climb them, but a few of the good ones do, including the sunset at Phnom Bakheng.  Plus, the views from the top are amazing.

If you have any injuries or issues with your body, the temples of Angkor might be too much for you. Know your limits – and do research to find out which temples are easier to handle.

2) It’s crowded

Sunrise at Angkor Wat
Go for sunset at Phnom Bakheng, or sunrise at Angkor Wat, and you’ll be sharing the view with hundreds of others.

Want a picture without anyone else in it?  Good luck. It’s not easy, especially at the jungle temples of Ta Prohm.

There are a few ways to get by.  If you go see the sunrise over Angkor Wat, leave as soon as the front of the temple is illuminated and go explore the inside.  Also, if you’re staying for a few days, have your driver take you to obscure temples as early in the day as possible.

3) The vendors are relentless.
Sure, the vendors are pretty crazy throughout Southeast Asia and Cambodia in particular.  But at Angkor, they bring persistence to a whole new level.

Don’t let them wear you down.  Be stronger than me. Every time one of them starts running to you saying, “Hello, laDYYYY,” don’t look her in the eye!

4) Temple fatigue sets in quickly.

Cambodia
I went for just one day, and I wanted to see as much as I could.  Well, by 2:00 PM, I had been there for nine hours and didn’t want to so much as look at another temple for the rest of my life!

You need to pace yourself at the Angkor temples. Take the time to get coffee, get food, relax while reading for a bit.  Even with lots of breaks, you can see the major temples in one day.

And though this may seem like a bit of a rant, hear this: It’s worth it.  It’s so worth it. These temples are incredible!
Cambodia
Tour companies:
There are lots of companies in Cambodia, but I recommend an adventure travel  company I knew, ACTIVETRAVEL CAMBODIA. The guides were helpful, pleasant and well-informed. 

ACTIVETRAVEL CAMBODIA (ATC) is member of ACTIVETRAVEL ASIA offers a wide selection of Cambodia adventure tours, including hiking and trekking, kayaking, biking, motorcycling, overland touring and family travel packages. Their packages and custom itineraries will take you through exotic destinations to really experience the culture, history and nature of Cambodia.

 Whichever tour you choose, have fun!

Some tips when trekking in Luang Prabang, Laos


Visiting Luang Prabang in Laos wouldn't be complete without a tour to the countryside.

There are waterfalls, biking trails and elephant shelters a few hours away from town but if you have no interest in such things, I'd recommend paying a visit to some nearby hill tribe villages.

The views are spectacular on a half-day mountain trek in Nong Khiaw, in the Luang Prabang province of northern Laos.
Three major tribes live in the hills surrounding Luang Prabang. The Hmong are descendants of the Mongolians and are able to withstand the cold, so they live in the higher hills. The Khmu on the other hand live in the mid-levels while the Lao live in the lowest levels. 
House in Hmong Village, Laos
Not only will a trek be a nice change from Luang Prabang, it'll also allow you to learn more about this fascinating country and its people. 

Dos and Don'ts:
1. Before you go on this hike, do seek out a nonprofit organisation based in Luang Prabang. Many Laos children have never seen a book and if they have seen one, it'll probably be a schoolbook. If you'd like to donate these books to the village children, buy a few and bring them on the hike. Remember though that the books are in English and Lao, so they might not be of much use to Hmong or Khmu children, who speak completely different languages.

Donate books for children
2. The villagers are extremely gracious and friendly, but don't take advantage of their kindness. As with all village folk, seek their permission if you'd like to take photographs of them. I didn't have to ask for permission from the children, though- kids all over the world love a camera.

Friendly Khmu women Laos 

3 Don't leave your litter behind; take it with you.
4. Do have fun and breathe in the fresh air! Enjoy the scenery- the Lao countryside is lush and beautiful.

What to bring:
Luang Prabang is in north Laos, which can get chilly if you visit during winter (December-March), more so if you venture into the highlands. If you visit Luang Prabang during that time, bring a light jacket which you can slip on when necessary and take off when you reach the low levels. 

The trek isn't very demanding but I would suggest proper footwear (either walking shoes or a good pair of sandals) and not flip-flops or slippers. The ground could be slippery. 

Tour companies:
There are lots of companies along the main street in Luang Prabang, but I recommend an adventure travel  company I knew, ACTIVETRAVEL LAOS. The guides were helpful, pleasant and well-informed. ACTIVETRAVEL LAOS (ATL) is member of ACTIVETRAVEL ASIA offers a wide selection of Laos adventure tours, including hiking and trekking, kayaking, biking, motorcycling, overland touring and family travel packages. Their packages and custom itineraries will take you through exotic destinations to really experience the culture, history and nature of Laos. 

 Whichever tour you choose, have fun!