Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Journey down the Mighty Mekong

The Mekong is one of the world’s major rivers, weaving together the land and indigenous cultures of Tibet, southern China, Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam and Laos. It’s also one of the best ways to get around in Southeast Asia.
Mekong River Boat
In Laos, a journey down the Mekong is not a mere travel adventure pursuit. It’s an experience of daily life. Here in one of Asia’s poorest countries, many highways exist only in theory. The Mekong is often the sole means of transportation.

We began our river journey in Luang Prabang, one of Southeast Asia’s loveliest cities (more to come soon on this gem!). We boarded an old, wooden river boat that sits about eight passengers. The boat is a low-rider, with your head just peaking out above the river once you are aboard. Passengers sit two-by-two, giving everyone in the boat a good view for the scenic ride.

Our boat journey was a full day, 8-hour ride and along the way, we experienced some of the most dramatic scenery Laos is said to offer. Karst Mountains towered above us. Stilted, bamboo villages peaked out of jungled mountains. And the windy, beige ribbon they call the Mekong is the center of life.
Mekong River Scenery
The Mekong River seems to bring everyone together. We watched fisherman hide from the sun under bamboo hats while casting their nets in the muddy river. We saw herds of buffalo wading at the shoreline.

In the mist of the early morning, we watched in awe as a group of wild elephants gathered at the water’s edge to take a mud bath. And as the day unfolded, women gathered at the water’s edge to beat their laundry on the rocky shore aside a group of tangerine-clad novice monks taking an afternoon dip.

After experiencing some of the most spectacular river terrain my eyes have seen, we arrived at our final destination – the rustic, riverside village of Nong Kiau. From here we’d spend two days soaking up the spectacular scenery of the Mekong River.

Nong Kiau is a little settlement surrounded by vertical limestone mountains, dense forest and, of course, the Mekong River. There is a handful of bamboo bungalows tucked into the mountainside, where we made our home for a couple days.

With hardly any other sounds other than the songs of hundreds of birds and cicadas, we found this to be the single most peaceful place we’ve encountered in all of our journey.

Nong Kiau, Laos
Here in serene Nong Kiau and on our scenic boat ride down the Mekong, we became even more enamored with the unspoiled gem of Laos.

Source: roundwego

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Trekking in Laos, the Forgotten Land

Leaving behind overwhelming and often brusque China, we were delighted to find pure, green, untouched Laos awaiting us.

Laos is a forgotten land. Like most, I didn’t know much about it before setting foot in the country. I knew it was at one time French occupied and that it usually earns a fleeting spot on many Southeast Asia travelers’ itineraries.

I could tell, however, within the first moments of entering the country that is was a special place that would soon earn a top spot on my list.

Bamboo Hut, Luang Nam Tha, Laos
On the drive from the border I was awestruck by the natural beauty of the country. Lush forests blanket rolling hills dotted with stilted bamboo huts. Thick jungles tower over muddy rivers where hill tribe villagers call home. Pools of water reflect a vibrant blue sky in endless fields of palm-fringed rice paddies.

Dubbed the “Jewel of the Mekong,” we were soon discovering Laos was in fact one of the great jewels of Asia. Our first stop in Luang Nam Tha confirmed the notion.

Luang Nam Tha is a small town based at the foothills of the jungle-covered mountains. It’s considered the most ethnically diverse area in all of Laos based on the countless number of ethnic minorities inhabiting the surrounding mountains.

The combination of a privileged geographic location and strong ties to its tribal heritage has helped Luang Nam Tha become the ecotourism destination of the country.

The whole town is set along one paved road. It has a nice selection of cafes and restaurants to choose from as well as a lively night market serving up some of Laos’ spicy favorites.

It was here we were introduced to the laid-back SE Asia vibe, discovered the gentle, innocent charm of the Laos people and celebrated the fact that some French traditions – strong coffee and fresh baguettes – still live on.

Village Scene, Luang Nam Tha, Laos
The real adventure of Luang Nam Tha, however, lies along the paths in the hills beyond. We embarked on a one day, guided trek through the mountains. Our day began on the back of tuk-tuk (the name given to rickshaws all over Asia due to the sound of their churning motors), which dropped us off at a village along a river.

From here we met our guide and other members of our group – an Israeli and two Japanese guys. We crossed the river in a small boat and were then lead straight up the mountain.

The trek was certainly intense and gave me new-found admiration for the soldiers who fought in similar topography, not far from here, in the Vietnam War. Words can’t describe how thick and dense these jungles are.

Vines, branches, prickly leaves, monster-size ants and all kinds of creepy crawlers cover your body the moment you enter the jungle. The heat is stifling. It’s so dense you don’t know where to plant your feet and when you do the mountains are so steep you find yourself falling down more than standing up.

Buffalo Meat Lunch, Luang Nam Tha, Laos
At the top of the mountain it was time to reward ourselves. Here our guide prepared a feast. On the floor of the jungle, he built a fire to cook pieces of buffalo meat attached to bamboo sticks he’d picked up along the way.

On the dirt floor, he laid out a palm leaf to serve as our lunch table. He put out eggs and bean sprouts and spread dollops of green chili paste on the green palm leaf. When the meat was ready it was time to chow. He handed out what looked like tightly-wrapped presents, but what turned out to be sticky rice wrapped in banana leaves. We were told to open them up, use our hands and dig in. It was a true jungle experience.

With our tummies full of tough buffalo meat and spicy chilies, we made our way down the mountain to the river’s edge. Here we came upon a group of village children taking their daily bath in the river. As the sun began to set, we too dunked ourselves in for a swim. It was an idyllic way to end a memorable day in the pristine, feral jungle.

Source: roundwego
Recommended tour:
Trek Ban Nam Lai Village, Luang Namtha
Challenging Trek Nam Ha, Luang Namtha

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Walking through Vietnam

In December 2010, my 12-year old son Oliver and I went to Vietnam - the first outside Europe to a destination in a developing country.

The arrangements were excellent throughout and the planning nothing short of brilliant. There were no mishaps or last minute changes of plan, all eight hotels were comfortable and clean, the itinerary was varied and the places visited all fascinating.

More than that: it was very thoughtfully done, with our leader and his side-kick, Mike, giving an impression of effortless coolness that masked an awful lot of truly hard spadework. They were terrific! And they really knew their stuff…..

The Mekong Delta, Vietnam
Oliver was the youngest in the group; the oldest celebrated her 84th birthday when we were in Nha Trang. She received a cake and flowers to celebrate the event……

The group was mixed and interesting and fun to be part of; several had traveled widely, others less so. All loved Vietnam.

My generation will forever associate it with that war, but to visit this country is to understand that there is so very much more to Vietnam than its difficult history. The country looks forward not back, the people are welcoming and warm, and they seem not to harbor any grudge against their former aggressors.

My favorite parts? Well, the Mekong delta was tropical, lush and vibrant. The market in Da Lat was atmospheric and full of people buying the huge variety of fruit and vegetables. Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City / Saigon were a sea of motor-bikes and busy humanity. But for me the ancient city of Hoi An, with its beautiful Japanese covered bridge, Chinese trading house and medieval streets was simply divine. You could cut the history floating in the air with a knife…..

Ha Long Bay has the most spectacular natural landforms I have ever seen; my digital camera developed a stitch as I pushed it over the limit. Hanoi’s old town has a thousand years of commerce behind it, and the nearby 17th century bridge on the lake made me purr with delight. And when we retreated into the hills west of Hanoi we stayed in a hotel formerly used by the Communist Party as a thermal re-charging centre for their cadres; warm pools and spa baths everywhere……

The Huc Bridge, Vietnam
Each day was different; every restaurant unique. Each bus stop took us somewhere entirely new. And when we boarded the flight out of Hanoi on Day 20 of a packed program, I felt a twinge of sadness, mixed with a surge of warmth for a country that made us welcome, treated us royally, and forever changed my perspective of a formerly war-torn region of SE Asia.

Vietnam’s bustle and modernity and its young people with their state-of-the-art smart phones and smiling welcomes were a joy to behold; this was a truly wonderful holiday!

Source: ramblersholidays

Monday, April 18, 2011

Wang Theng Ang * 2 pax | Sapa & Halong Bay | Vietnam

Itinerary: Tailor made tour in Vietnam
Date: March 14 - March 22, 2011
Nationality: Singapore

Just want to let you know that I had a wonderful experience with ActiveTravel for my Sapa+Fansipan trekking adventure. You have done a great job and have been very responsive in answering all my queries on the trip. The trip transfers were excellently planned out and the guides, in particular, Mr Nghiep was instrumental in ensuring that we get the most out of the trip but of course with safety as the utmost priority.

Vietnam and the memories that I had gotten from the trip will be with me forever. Thank you very much. I will certainly recommend ActiveTravel to my friends! J

Take care and best regards!

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Vietnam: A journey from past to present

If Hanoi is the grand old dame of Vietnam and Ho Chi Minh City is the brash young floozy, then Halong Bay, Hue and Hoi An are the alluring mistresses you encounter along the way. Here landscape, architecture, culture and cuisine work their seduction via subtle charms rather than sensory overload.

The first stop on our north-south journey from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City was a side trip to the unchanging wonders of Halong Bay, where thousands of limestone outcrops rear from the placid aquamarine waters of the Gulf of Tonkin.

Halong Bay, Vietnam
The voyage, on a luxury sleep-aboard wooden junk, was an immediate immersion in oriental serenity as we glided calmly through the narrow channels past floating fishing villages where life is lived on the water as it has been for centuries.

After the vessel anchored under a moonlit sky, we dined against a spectacular backdrop of pinnacles and towers that, by sunrise, seemed to have morphed into strange sea monsters emerging from the mist.

These islands are pitted with caves and chambers and the morning hike to the Grotto of the Heavenly Palace was rewarded with a stunning display of stalactites and stalagmites.

We then flew south to the country’s geographic and spiritual heart, Hue, the imperial capital from 1802 to 1945. And from its perch overlooking the Perfume River, the Art Deco comfort of La Résidence – the elegant former French colonial governor’s home-turned-hotel – provided a majestic base for exploration.

Ngo Mon Gate, Hue, Vietnam
That evening we dined out in style on the local specialty: banh khoai (a crispy pancake of shrimp, pork and bean sprouts) with nuoc leo (a peanut sauce), bun bo (spicy beef noodle soup) and seafood with vegetables.

Food in Hue is served with formality and elegance, with a tradition of “royal cuisine” where as much emphasis is placed on the aesthetics of a dish’s colors and presentation as its contents and cooking. It certainly made for a formidable treat for the eyes as well as the taste buds.

The next day we struck out for the elaborate royal mausoleums that the emperors built for themselves among the low hills south of town. Our reward for toiling through the heat on bicycles was some glorious snapshots of rural life – as well as the final imperial resting places themselves.

The bustling modernity of Danang holds little interest unless you want to see close up how wholeheartedly the country’s rulers have marched from Marx to Mammon. But we were heading for the slow-paced charms and architectural heritage of Hoi An, a 30-minute drive south that took us past the shimmering white sand expanse of China Beach, where luxury all-inclusive resorts and golf courses are now springing up with alacrity.

While Hue still carries the aloofness of its imperial roots and its northern reserve, the historic trading entrepôt of Hoi An feels like the start of the more freewheeling south. No need for a bicycle here – the old town is a grid of just a few streets packed with wonderfully preserved 200-year-old Chinese merchants’ homes and shop houses converted into art galleries, antique stores and tailors.

Lantern shop at night, Hoi An, Vietnam
A few miles away, there is the chance to take a break from the sights and soak up the sun on the same glorious white-sand beach that runs down the coast from Danang. And at night, the town assumes a magical air, thanks to the lines of colorful illuminated lanterns that are strung across the streets, and the restaurants along the river come alive.

The next day, we ventured inland to My Son and its evocative clusters of ruined Hindu temples, built to worship the god Shiva by the Cham kings between the seventh and 13th centuries, but then lost to the jungle when their dynasty collapsed.

Yet even as we enjoyed the Indiana Jones atmosphere of the Unesco World Heritage Site, what was just as striking was that the relics of that ancient civilization had survived Vietnam’s recent violent upheavals at all.

From Hoi An, we headed south via the beaches of Nha Trang to the bustle, chaos and energy of Ho Chi Minh City, formerly known as Saigon.

Our arrival in Hanoi and departure from Ho Chi Minh City book-ended the trip with its own memorable sights colors and experiences. But it was in exploring the narrow, central heartland of this long snaking land that Vietnam had most magically woven its spell.

Source: Telegraph

Friday, April 8, 2011

Culture Rich Luang Prabang, Laos

Although Laos is an adventurer traveler’s dreams and is naturally stunning, one might be ready for a little luxury and culture.

That’s just what I needed, so after spending a day kayaking, trekking and riding elephants, I decided to let my travel companion train and play with elephants on her own while I spent a day exploring the culture and beauty of Luang Prabang as well as enjoy its tranquility.

Luang Prabang is a Unesco World Heritage Site; therefore there is a wonderful absence of the usual truck and bus congestion. This makes shopping and dining (loads of wonderful shops and restaurants) more enjoyable for all.

Luang Prabang, Laos
There are a number of Buddhist temples worthy of much more than a cursory glance. You will see a number of saffron-robed monks around the temples and city, most notably the Tak Bat. Each morning, the monks of Luang Prabang quietly pad down the cobblestone streets gathering rice and alms from locals and tourists alike – a must see if you can get up early enough.

Luang Prabang, once the seat of the Laotian Monarchy, boasts its own Royal Palace, which is now a museum. It is diverting to see how the royals lived, plus is inexpensive and is a quick tour – all good in my book. You can also check out interesting gifts from foreign dignitaries and some pretty sweet rides in the garage!

Just across from the palace is the trailhead to Phou Si Hill, a charming walk to the top (at just 325 feet) is dotted with shrines and temples, as well as some fowl and lovely foliage.

You won’t even notice how sweaty you have become once you see the breathtaking views of the Mekong and green hills that surround you. Wandering around, you will find temples, caves and numerous Buddha statues, even Buddha’s footprint. As there are many routes to get up and down, I recommend retreating down the back where you will come near a monastery.

I ended the day, tiring in its own rite, with a $5 Lao massage (similar to the Thai massage) and a cold drink on the main drag, giving me energy for the night market later.

Source: butofcoursetravel