Friday, November 27, 2015

Not Temples Only - What to Do in Siem Reap

1. Street eat: real feasts

Food in Cambodia is also as varied and great as that in Vietnam and Thailand. Whether for lack of familiarity, fear of “prahok” condiment (Cambodia’s pungent fish sauce) or hygiene worries, few travelers to the kingdom indulge. Consuming a morning to wander around the city’s food markets and street food stalls with the Scottish chef Steven Halcrow or the American writer Lina Goldberg on a Siem Riep Food Tour, any doubts will be defeated. Surely gourmets will be pleased after a feast of original dishes like grilled fish paste pancakes wrapped around spicy cucumber pickles, dumplings oozing with coconut cream, jujube fruit stewed in smoky palm sugar and pumpkin, soy milk shakes.

To feel traditionally local savors, be ready to stuff additionally “num banh chok”, cool, slippery rice vermicelli doused with coconut-fish or chile-chicken gravy tossed with vegetables and herbs. You may desire enjoy more after visiting the village where many families still make noodles by hand.
Nom banh chok

2. Shopping: contemplate unusual items

Growing number of weird boutiques is evident for Siem Riep’s creation and liveliness. Take a street browse, possibly commence your shopping spree in Pop-up shop, where the Australian owner loves Scandinavia style and combine it with Angkorian designs, create not-your-usual souvenirs (watermelon-half pillows and block-print note-cards for instance). Next, pass over three blocks to Kandal Village, a community of shop, cafĂ©, restaurant and spa. The owner have altered two lines of once-bland storefronts into one of Siem Reap’s coolest mini hoods. Here, adorable items, like silk scarves with modern ikat patterns, boldly colored diamond-quilted cotton blankets, delicate silver spoons and miniatures, plus one-off pieces like geometric 19th-century weaving designs from France, can be seen at Louise Loubatieres.

Continue pacing to uncanny Trunkh, where cotton shirts and pants with daring patterns, dragonfly silk-screened sarongs, primitive animal figurines made of unfired river mud, carousel animal, even old signals drawn by hand, are on display. Sirivan Chak Dumas boutique, owned by the same name Cambodian designer, specially features well-priced but fashionable costumes in bright and neutral-toned linen, silk and featherweight cotton. If tailor-made is your style, drop in Neary Khmer, where you can opt richly hued raw silks and order some sewn stuffs in the spot.
 Trunkh boutique

3. To market: Cambodian products only

Recharge with an iced Cuban (espresso shot, sugar syrup, milk) at Litter Red Fox Espresso, then head northward over two blocks to Oum Khun street for Made in Cambodia market, a showcase for Cambodian design and craftsmanship with Cambodia products only truly made in Cambodia. Inspect more than 40 stalls with diverse products for sales, from silk scarves, wallets and document cases made from recycle materials, Cambodian-styled jewelry, Sombai infused rice liqueur, to beautiful vegetal lacquerware made from natural pigments. Several things is for everyone, such as a delightful march from an orchestra.

4. Frozen treats: house-made cream

Get to Glasshouse Deli Patisserie for Siem Reap’s best house-made ice-cream, a shining cafe on the ground floor of the Park Hyatt. Taste divinely rich, black chocolate ice-cream or confuse yourself by natively inspired flavors such as cinnamon swirl, lemongrass and pandan.

5. Circus: Cambodian style 

No hope to see animal dancing in Phare, but this Cambodian circus will offer a wide range of interesting performances from theater, music, dance, storytelling to circus arts coming together in an elaborate, long show staged by students and graduates of Phare Performing Social Enterprise’s Battambang school. You may spend about $35 for a best seat, nearest to the stage and accompanied a bottle of iced water. Keep your ticket and arrive early to saunter Phare’s small craft shops or grab a juice at the cafe. Shows vary monthly.

6. Cuisine: by special youths

Grab a tuk tuk for a short ride to Marum, a hospitable training restaurant that its members are disabled Cambodian youths, operated by Friends-International, with alike restaurants also in Phnom Penh and Laos.

Dwelling in a lovely teak mansion, Marum has best seats for diners at a stunning garden shaded by trees and strung with fairy-lights. Its menu tends to Spanish tapas style, both original (crisp and creamy silkworms with spicy green mango salad) and creatively Cambodian (rice paper rolls with grilled peppers, goat cheese and tamarind chile dip). The stir-fried beef in a silky sauce soured with red tree ants, over crunchy water spinach leaves, will amaze you, in a great way. Reserve a space in your belly to enjoy thick, spicy chocolate and Kampot pepper cake with passionate fruit syrup.

Source: The New York Times

ACTIVETRAVEL ASIA would like to recommend Biking Angkor Cambodia and more tour. This 3-day cycling tour brings you to explore Siem Reap, not only its highlighted Angkor Complex, but also small local villages, markets, pagodas, to have an opportunity to interact with local passers-by and immerse in Cambodian cultures. Particularly, you will cycle deeply through the jungle, where remains a lot of mysterious temple ruins, to have authentic look about Khmer history. 

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Overslept Ancient Town in Dong Van Rock Plateau

Used to be a busting border town in Dong Van plateau (Ha Giang province), but now Pho Bang is sunk into oblivion. It has seemingly overslept for a few decades.


In a journey to Ha Giang that travelers desire to find authentic tastes, they won’t miss Pho Bang. Dong Van district has two ancient towns of Dong Van and Pho Bang, in which Pho Bang’s population is about 500 Chinese people alternate with Hmong ethnics.   

Way to the overslept town

17 km from Yen Minh town, way to the town features tortuous slopes with radiant grounds of buckwheat flowers and wild marigold along 4C highway and on foot of sharp, soaring mountains.

There is a T-junction with ahead way to Sung La and the left turn to Pho Bang. Commonly, travelers will move straightly from Quan Ba – Yen Minh to Sung La – Lung Cu – Dong Van town and skip Pho Bang 5km away from the T-intersection. Owning to being sequestered and inconvenient to reach, so hard to see strange guests in this town except several curious Vietnamese backpackers. That’s why it’s dubbed as an overslept town.

The T-junction to Pho Bang is a cloudy road dipping into dense fog in winter. On the foot of towering, pointed hills, adjoining soil houses like in fairyland stand silently and peacefully in Sung La valley.

If departing from Dong Van old quarters to go up to Pho Bang, travelers will take a nearly 20km craggy route of passes, protruding with one side is deep chasms and the other side is high mountains covered with leaden, rugged rocks. Corn farms are green in a startled way due to occupation of rock and rarity of soil.


 A hot-spot of trading formerly

This border town, geographically not distant, especially road to here is not difficult, but image of a hectic place, a stinging, hot-spot several decades ago, when opium and drug occupied Pho Bang as a hub, was gone far away; just a peaceful town left.

Formerly, Pho Bang was an administrative – economic – social center of Dong Van district. However, after the district was moved deeply interior barely 20km, Pho Bang has become an overslept woman among mountains and forests.

Also a frontier ward but Pho Bang is located deeply inside inland than Lung Cu flag pole and Dong Van town. However, it’s at a higher altitudes, so the climate is colder with a freezing winter as snowy as in Sapa and Mau Son.

Cross Sung La – the sole “rain navel” of the water-lacked, grey-rocked Dong Van district - then overcome another out-of-the-way jungle stage, Pho Bang suddenly appears halfway. It is the scarce valley in this area, because if you stop on roadside, look before and behind, turn left then right, you just only find vast, superb mountains at all four sides. If someone misses a roll of hand grip, they can get right to hedges bordered between Vietnam and the neighbor country China.


Portrait of the overslept town

Lost in Pho Bang, it brings feeling like in a big film studio with setting of olden days. The town includes traditional houses with moss ying-yang roofs and damp, dark yellow soil walls.

Pho Bang only remains sparely two quite deserted streets with about one hundred ancient roof-tops, aged above 100. It’s inhabited mainly by Chinese people alternative to Hmong tribe, but this is not enough to change sad and still appearance of this mountain town.  Colors of time cover all corners. In front of each houses, there is a couple of Chinese parallel sentences having changed colors. A few grocery stores are opened to sell essential things behind square windows while some aged, wooden shut-doors are always dormant.

Life in the town passes slowly and monotonously, a calm, simple life among a solitary highland. Some women sit in front to pick up vegetables, chop wood, sew or embroider. Some elders on chair fondle back of lazy cats. Some garrulous children plays marble shooting game. Street sides becomes yards to dry corns and soybeans, which are hang fully on every rooftop. Cloud drifts through streets. When twilight falls, the weather is colder, the streets quickly sinks into ethereal fog. All the town just wakes up suddenly on backward rotating markets, which is hold every 6-day from morning to noon.



More information: 
  • Pho Bang is dubbed as the "valley of roses" thanks to brilliant, picturesque rose fields spreading along slopes around the ward.
  • It features many stunning sights of peach, plum, pear blossoms and also buckwheat flowers like many other areas in Ha Giang.
  • Way to Pho Bang border gate is really scenic by untouched rock mountains.

Only in Myanmar: Top Special Experiences

Whatever your itinerary takes you, travel in Myanmar (Burma) is sure to bring an abundance of unusual experiences. As a strange country, things you encounter, see, search out and feel in Myanmar are also unlike any place you have ever known before.

1. Breakfast in a local teahouse


From Yangon’s traffic-jammed streets to soiled village lanes, it’s not hard to find a Burma-styled teahouse. Enthusiastic waiter boys needle through tables, slopping tea into saucers and serving up deep-fried snacks. Patrons air kiss loudly to draw the staff’s attention while their eyes on the soccer match on TV and their minds on teashop gossip. Warm stomach by a bowl of mohinga – the nation’s beloved noodle soup, or change taste with e kyar kway (youtiao or Chinese doughnut) dipped in a yummy cup of sweet, milky tea.

2. Transfer like a real local

circular-train-in Yangon

In Myanmar, people also transfer by plane, train and boat, but these modes are not usual.
Domestic flights are jokingly called as “buses on air” (with many layovers to pick more passengers along way), and accompanied an old style of “paper ticket”, “sticker”, “no booking online”, “no seat allocation”, and some other uncanny things (view more here). One step on a Myanmar’s domestic flight, one step come back the past.

Train’s not more normal as well. The railway system is oldest and most longstanding in the world. Though it brings discomfort of late time and specially shake, local trains are great chances to understand and feel the ingredient daily life - meet and talk with normal residents, monks, hawker ladies and manual workers. Let take a Yangon circle train or train through imposing Gokteik viaduct from Mandalay to Pyin Oo Lwin.
>> Myanmar train travel guide

Despite transfer boat in Inle lake or on Kespanadi river from Sittwe to Mrauk U, it has an awesome noise. Traditional sailboats are also impressed. To be more local, let take a horse-cart, ox-cart or pedicab. 

3. Downstream the Irrawaddy

Irrawaddy (or Ayeyarwady) river curls south from foothills of the Himalayas, passing Mandalay and Bagan’s temple-covered plain before spilling its silt-rich currents into the Andaman Sea. Covering on it is rustic, ordinary beauty of riverside life. As the Myanmar’s most important waterway, it focuses everything from luxury steamer ships to ponderous government ferries and leaking speedboats. It is said that having not experienced a day floating on Irrawaddy river yet, having not understand Myanmar. Embark on a Ayeyarwady river cruise to see a slice of riverside life – and remember to mind rare Irrawaddy dolphins. 

4. Return Raj era
Pyin Oo Lwin

From peeling Yangon’s colonial-era buildings, rusty railways and creepy Gokteik viaduct, to classical Western villas in Kalaw, is reminiscent of British Burma over 100 years ago. Even traces of a melting-pot Burma retain by distinct cultural nuances from India, Nepal, Iraq, China, Jew, etc, easily realized on Yangon streets, in Kalaw or Mandalay. The era’s vestiges can be seen anywhere around Myanmar. But perhaps nowhere recalls better than Pyin Oo Lwin, a former hill station, where horse-drawn carriages leisurely amble over classical teakwood mansions, and a bell cast for George V’s Silver Jubilee still chimes from the town’s Purcell Tower. 

5. Join a Nat ceremony 


Nat is a deity in Burmese folk belief. In this ceremony, people give offerings and dance around a transvestite “natkadaws ply” - a middle-aged lady with whisky as she gyrates to music from a traditional orchestra – who is believed that Nat god’s spirit possesses her body. Members of the audience tuck 1,000-kyat notes into her costumes. Though unruly nats exist and hurt community due to excessively cost requirement of alcohol, music and money – contrasts sharply to Buddhism’s emphasis on restraint and tranquility, many Burmese people happily trust in both. Take the country’s biggest Nat ceremony (Nat kadaw) in Taungbyone each August, or ascend Mount Popa, the Myanmar’s hottest hub of Nat worship. 

6. Nourish a Burmese chocolate addiction

Jokingly dubbed as “Burmese chocolate”, lumps of jaggery candy are made from boiled toddy palm sap, soft, fine yellow and shiny-honeyed. It’s exceedingly addictive whether plain or dusted atop aromatic sesame seeds and white grated coconut, an awaited sweet to the locals after each meal. Unhappy it might cause you to have to see your dentist, but a serious jaggery habit is certainly healthier than another Myanmar’s tooth decay tradition – chewing kun-ya (a mixture of betel leaves with areca nuts, tobacco and slaked lime paste). 

7. Sip toddy, and get tipsy

Throughout Myanmar countryside, when spindly bamboo ladders appear intermittently into rows of jaggery trees, it’s time the locals absorbedly cut buds of jaggery to get toddy juice then bring home to make palm sugar and wine. The palm’s sweet, white sap ferments naturally into “toddy”, a cloudy, lightly alcoholic beverage also called “palm wine” or “tan-ye”. As the Myanmar’s only home-produced alcoholic drink, toddy is only available in village bars near where it’s made, making it an unmistakable flavor among Burmese styles. 

8. Wandering alone in countryside 


In an early, misty morning that somewhere cocks crow to wake up dawn, let roam on peaceful countryside paths, encounter mild water buffaloes leisurely grazing, and enjoy fresh breezes gone with wild odor of natural fields. To actually experience bucolic life first-hand far away from urban scramble, get to the hills in Shan State with an incredible trek from Kalaw to Inle lake; or head north to the less-visited area around Hsipaw and Kyaukme, further, approach isolated, iced Himalaya area of Putao; or turn east to Golden Triangle of Kyaing Tong, Tachilect; or turn west to stupa-covered villages in Mrauk U. A choice for discovering eerie races’ life is set on an adventure trip to Loikaw to visit long-necked Padaung tribe’s villages, or a trek in Chin state to meet face-tattooed women.

Whichever hike, it’s possible to have a unique overnight in monasteries or homestay.

Elaborate Face Washing Rite in Mahamuni Pagoda

Early morning in the Mahamuni pagoda (Mandalay) is peaceful, solemn and sacred irrespective of outside life.
Mandalay is the city located in the central country beside the gentle Irrawaddy river. The city has retained so many precious things which remain mysterious in eyes of foreigners.
Mandalay has Shwenandaw monastery - where keeps extremely sophisticated wooden sculptures, Kuthodaw Paya pagoda – where reserves the world’s largest set of Buddhist scriptures including “729 pages” engraved on big marble, the Royal Palace – the symbol of a kingship period, U Bein bridge – the world’s oldest and longest wood teak bridge, Mahagandayon monastery in Amarapura, Mingun Bell in the opposite riverside, and specially the Mahamuni pagoda with a great Buddha image.

The image has a unique posture: the Buddha sits for meditation. He has a round face and pierced long ears. He wears a hat and dresses a golden robe. The image was cast of brass 6.5 tons in weight and 1.8 meters in height. The stupa where contain the statue has 3 passage-ways at two sides and in front of it. The ceiling, walls to the body of the image all emit radiantly golden lights.
Millions of Buddhism devotees came to the pagoda and applied laminated gold leaves commonly the size of 2 thumbs on the Mahamuni image, causing the thickness of the body to increase by 6 inch (15 cm).
In Mahamuni pagoda, women are not allowed to approach and enter the section in front of and near the image while men have this right. Women are just only permitted to knee, sit or stand behind the enclosure 30 m from the Buddha image. However, the number of women buying gold plates is much more than that of men. Several special men are always available in the pagoda to do the duty of applying gold leaves on the image replacing for women.
The traditional face washing rite for the Mahamuni image is carried out daily in early morning at 4 AM or 4.30 A.M, comprising two main parts: washing the face and brushing the teeth.
When everyone gathers fully ahead of the image, the ceremony starts to be carried out with elaborate rituals lasting over an hour by a senior monk dressed in monastic attire. He is assisted by several men dressed in white and wearing formal headdress. A scaffolding is placed in front high to the chest of the Buddha in order that the senior monk can stand on it at an appropriate altitude to reaches the face easily.

As soon as the drums are stricken, the senior monk enters the sanctum and begin the ceremony with a series of fresh towels, offered by devotees. Firstly, he covers the body with yellow cloth. A shiny metal vase containing water is used to spray on the face to be wet. After that, the monk uses a clean towel to wide carefully and moderately the whole face from forehead to eyes then two bridges of nose. Particularly with the mouth, the monk holds a soft paintbrush, lightly brush the teeth many times before cleaning with fresh towels sequentially again. Next, sandalwood paste is applied to the statue and it is cleaned one more time with towels then eventually splashed with scented water.
Photo: Wikipedia

During the ceremony, the chanting sounds sotto voce. Everyone all highly concentrates. Devotees offer food and other items. It is said that the rite has existed since the Buddha statue was brought to the pagoda; and only the monk having the high position in Mandalay Buddhism Community can assume this important job.
At the eventual rite, the monk employs a fan to gently dry the Buddha face, while many local men reach very closely the Buddha image, knee down and implement a praying rite. After the ceremony is accomplished, the used towels are returned to the devotees who keep these towels with homage in their home shrines. The ceremony finishes, monks commence walking on streets with bare foot and begging for alms.

About Mahamuni pagoda: - The pagoda is located between 82 street and 84 street in Mandalay city. - It opens for visiting from 6 AM to 8 PM. - February is the time of the festival in Mahamuni pagoda, attracting thousands of Buddhism devotees to participate.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Must-See Locations in Vientiane

1. Buddha park (Xieng Khuan)

Location: Thadeua village, 25km away to the east from central Vientiane. 
There is a small fee for entering here as well as for photography.

It was constructed in 1958 by the monk Bounleua with an area of 4 ha. The park is considered as a monumental carved construction with more than 200 Buddha statues of various shapes and sizes made of cement, ancient moss imbued with color of time.


The most prominent statues comprise Indra - the king of Hindu gods riding the three-headed elephant (aka Erawan and Airavata), a four-armed deity sitting on a horse and an artistic god with 12 faces and many hands, each holding weird objects. They are all obviously impressive not only because of their enormous size but because they are full of interesting details and uncanny motifs.

There is also another outstanding sculpture resembling an enormous pumpkin. It has 3 stories representing 3 levels: Hell, Earth and Heaven. Travelers are able to get into it via an opening looking like a mouth of a demon head. Each story contains sculptures depicting its level. Climbing over staircases from hell to heaven will lead to the top, where has a vantage point to see panorama of the whole park.


2. Pha That Luang

Location: at the end of Lan Xang street
Opening time: Monday to Sunday, morning: 8h – 12h, afternoon: 13h – 16h.

This world’s cultural heritage is the symbol of this Buddhism country of thousand elephants. It is the biggest and most beautiful stupa in Laos, built from 1566 on ruins of an Indian pagoda dating back 13th century and inlaid with gold. The That Luang's main tower is embraced by 3 grand layers of wall, decorated with red-lacquered-and-gilded lotus petals and glorious small towers. Surrounding it are green-grass ground along with roofed corridors. In this stupa site, there are 2 small pagodas: Wat That Luang Neua in the north and Wat That Luang Tai in the south.

Before entering this location, travelers if wear short or short skirt will be required to borrow sarong to wrap their leg. 

3. Haw Phra Kaew 

Location: Setthathirath road

This temple is famous for precious sculpture works, as the most second well-known pagoda in Vientiane only behind Pha That Luang. It was constructed from the 17th to the 18th century by the King Setthathirath when he moved capital from Luang Prabang to Vientiane. Now this site has still saved lots of valued document involving Buddhism. Therefore, it is considered as the national precious thing.


 Although Haw Phra Kaew is called as “pagoda”, no monk has ever stayed in it yet. It is surrounded by sophisticated bronze Buddha images.

4. Patuxai triumphal arches 

Location: At the end of Lang Xang Avenue in the heart of Vientiane

Patuxai (means: Victory Gate) is the victory symbol of Laotian people. Formerly, it was called as Anousavary (means: memory) and built since 1958. Architecture of the triumphal arches’ bottom and outside was modelled on Arc De Triomphe (Paris, France), but its top and inside showed Laos’ typical architectural features and embossment. From the Patuxai’s highest story, it is easy to observe peaceful rhythm of life of residents in Vientiane capital.


5. COPE Visitor centre

Location: Khouvient street

Laos country has a grievous past because of war; and to learn about that terrible history, travelers should come to COPE Visitor center. Between 1964 and 1973, the American army dropped more than 260 million bombs down to Laos, made it become the top country in the world that incurred the most severe consequences of war. About 30% of these bombs remain unexploded that killed and injured 20,000 people so far. Reaching COPE center, you will feature the history that the Lao underwent. The money donated here has been used to make artificial limbs for victims affected by bombs and mines.

Adventures to Vientiane: