Most people travel to Cambodia to visit the magnificent Angkor Wat, located near the bustling town of Siem Reap. One of the seven wonders of the world, Angkor Wat is just one in a number of enchanting ancient temples in this area, while the capital city of Phnom Penh also has plenty to offer visitors.
Although this richly diverse nation is bordered on virtually all sides, there are still some pretty islands and beaches to explore in Cambodia, such as the beach resort of Sihanoukville and the nearby islands in Ream National Park. The mighty Mekong River flows through Cambodia from Laos to Vietnam and is a great way to travel through the country.
Cambodia’s natural beauty makes it a great place for trekking and there are plenty of dense jungles, unspoilt forests and paddy fields to explore, while the Cardamom and Elephant Mountain Ranges provide a spectacular backdrop.
Subsistence farming is the main occupation of this impoverished nation, and most people live in stilted huts in small village communities. Although the majority of people (about 95%) are Khmer, there are also about twenty different hill tribes, each with their own unique culture, believes and style of dress.
The official language of Cambodia is Khmer and it is spoken by most people, while some people also speak French, Laos and Vietnamese, especially near the country borders. Although many people speak English in tourist areas and you will often be approached by people who want to practice their English, it is a good idea to learn a few basic phrases in Khmer.
Buddhism is the main religion in Cambodia, with about 90% of the population following either Therevada or Hinayana Buddhism. Worship is an important part of Khmer life and you will find a large number of temples scattered around Cambodia, although a large percentage were destroyed during the tyranny of the Khmer Rouge.
Cambodia really comes alive during the numerous festivals and public holidays, and it is idea to time your trip to coincide with one of these festivals as the streets are filled with singing and dancing and people put on their best clothes and biggest smiles.
Myanmar is part of Southeast Asia and is bordered by Bangladesh and India to the west, China to the north, and Laos and Thailand to the east. This is a country rich with natural beauty, culture, wildlife, forests, coastal resorts and temples and in many ways is the perfect tourist destination.
However, Myanmar is ruled by a brutal military regime, and many people avoid visiting Myanmar in order to avoid supporting this regime. However, the sad truth is that most tourist services such as guesthouses, restaurants and tours are run by the people themselves and not the government. The recent reduction in tourism has simply meant that the people of Myanmar are forced to suffer from lost earnings in addition to the numerous hardships and constraints imposed by the government. As long as you are careful to avoid government run hotels, buses and other services, it is possible to experience the most of this captivating country and possibly make a bit of a difference at the same time.
Although various parts of Myanmar are currently closed to tourists, the tourist numbers have been rising over the last couple of years, allowing many resorts to reopen. The Irrawaddy River runs through the centre of the country and this is a great way to travel and see the countryside.
Travelling through Myanmar feels like stepping into the past. Even though the capital city is fairly modern compared with the rest of the country it is still perhaps half a century behind many modern Southeast Asian capitals such as Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur and Singapore, while the country’s remote villages have changed little of the last few centuries.
This is a large part of Myanmar’s charm and as you explore you will discover ancient marvels such as the 4000 sacred stupas which are scattered across the plains of Bagan and the mysterious golden rock that somehow manages to balance on the edge of a chasm. As you ride in a Wild West stagecoach you will pass grand British mansions and men wearing traditional long skirt-like cloths around their waists.
Despite their years of suffering, the people of Myanmar are friendly, gentle and have a unique sense of humour. As you wander through villages and small towns you will probably be invited to get to know these people and share a part of their lives, an incomparable experience.
One of the best things about Myanmar is that it hasn’t been inflicted by the blight of Starbucks, McDonalds and other chain outlets that cover most Asian countries. Myanmar’s charms are subtle but they are authentically Asian and this is one of the few places in the world where you can experience true Asian culture without the integration of Western consumerism.
A good way to reach Malaysia is by train from Thailand, which borders Malaysia to the north. First stop should be the pretty island of Penang, where you will find clean beaches, hilltop temples, large gardens and colonial buildings. To the south is the capital city of Kuala Lumpur with its famous Petronas Towers and great shopping and dining options.
Head to the Cameron Highlands to wander through lush tea plantations in the cool air and snorkel in amongst colourful coral on the Seribuat Archipelago before stretching out on one of the picture perfect beaches. There are a good number of national parks to explore, all offering stunning natural beauty such as sparkling waterfalls and caves as well as interesting wildlife. Soak away aches and pains in the Poring Hot Springs and head to the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre for an unforgettable experience.
One of Malaysia’s big attractions is its cultural diversity. Malays, Chinese and Indians all live side by side here, adding their own individual style to the mix. This is a good place to experience festivals and particularly vibrant are the Deepavali, Chinese New Year and Christmas celebrations.
Food lovers will never be bored in Malaysia as the blend of cultures means that there are a wide range of dishes to try. As well as traditional Malay, Chinese and Indian cuisine, fusion food is also popular and western fast food restaurants are easy to find.
Malaysia is a country that truly offers something for everyone. Explore magnificent mosques and glittering temples in the country’s bustling cities before heading to the beach to soak up the sun or take part in a range of adventure activities such as diving, rock climbing, windsurfing and snorkelling.
You will be sure to find a warm welcome and broad smiles as you explore Laos and discover all that the country has to offer. Despite years of war and hardship, this former French colony has managed to retain its unique culture and stunning natural scenery. The pace of life here is gentle and as you explore you will be seduced by the chilled-out attitude of the people you meet.
Laos has only been part of the tourist trade for just over a decade, yet it has a lot to offer those with a strong sense of adventure. There are plenty of opportunities to get away from the tourist scene and discover the dense forests and wander along dusty back roads where you will be greeted by waving children and friendly families as you pass.
North-eastern Laos is still very underdeveloped and this is a great place to head if you want to escape the tourist scene and really get to know the country, while to the south you will find plenty of pretty islands and beaches and even the chance to view the elusive Kratie river dolphin.
However, there are several small towns and villages geared towards tourism, such as the enchanting village of Vang Vieng, where visitors are encouraged to relax with a good meal and a beer or two, surrounded by spectacular views of the limestone cliffs and sparkling river.
This is a great place to go trekking and explore the countryside, spending the night in a traditional village with a family. White water rafting, kayaking, rock-climbing and cycling are all popular, while to the south the Four Thousand Islands offer the perfect piece of paradise.
Travellers in Laos will never go hungry and there is a good range of dishes available for those with a sense of adventure. Lao food has been influenced by the French, Thai, Chinese and Vietnamese and throughout Laos you will discover culinary delights such as French baguettes, spicy Thai salads and Vietnamese noodles.
Laos is a good place to explore at any time, but it really comes alive during its festivals, especially the New Year and Rocket Festival. It’s a good idea to time your trip to coincide with one of these festivals as the streets are filled with singing and dancing and people put on their best clothes and biggest smiles.
However, most people return to their home town or village a day or two before public holidays, and public transport is usually very crowded during this time. Try to avoid travelling during public holidays and especially major festivals such as Deepavali, Chinese New Year and Christmas.
Travelling across Malaysia by aeroplane is generally quite cheap and certainly the easiest way to get around. The main airline is Malaysia Airlines and booking in advance online can save quite a bit of cash. Cheap flights are also provided by AirAsia.
There are regular ferries running between the mainland and the numerous islands located just off the east and west coasts of Malaysia. Tickets are usually bought in advance from booths on the mainland. In a few states, such as Sarawak, express boats are the most common form of public transport, carrying passengers down the rivers and streams that run through the areas.
Malaysia’s railway network is fast and efficient, consisting of three types of service: express, limited express and local trains. Express trains are reserved for 1st and 2nd class passengers, limited express trains usually just 2nd and 3rd coaches, while local trains are usually limited to 3rd class. There are overnight sleeper births available on Express and limited express trains. Tourist rail passes are a good way to save money if you planning on travelling by train a lot and last for five days, ten days and fifteen days.
The Jungle Railway runs across Malaysia, stopping at every station between Tumpat and Gemas. This service is 3rd class only and there is no air-conditioning or reservations, meaning that the trains tend to be rather hot and crowded. However, the stunning jungle views more than make up for the discomfort.
Buses are the cheapest way to get around Malaysia and the best place to catch the bus and guarantee a seat is at the town’s bus terminal. There are luxury buses available for long-distance travel and these can be booked a couple of days in advance. The air-conditioned buses can be rather chilly, so take a blanket with you. Although they tend to be rather slow, local buses are regular and reliable.
Car and motorcycle
Driving in Malaysia is safe and convenient as the roads are good and there are plenty of new cars available to hire. Road rules are basically the same as in Britain and Australia, with right-hand drive cars that stick to the left side of the road. Petrol is generally cheap and motorbikes can also be hired from guesthouses in tourist towns and cities. Although Malaysian drivers are generally good, drivers still need to be careful, especially in large towns and cities as animals often roam freely across the roads.
Taxis can be found in all cities and larger towns and usually drive around looking for customers. You will usually need to negotiate the fare in advance and it is a good idea to ask the staff at you guesthouse for an estimate of the going rate.
These bicycle rickshaws seat two people and can be a romantic way to see the sights.
Although it tends to rain throughout the year, rainfall is particularly heavy during the monsoon season, which lasts from November until February.
Many people find travelling in the hot and humid weather taxing, so allow plenty of time to recover after long journeys and carry plenty of water with you.
Generally, the best time to visit Malaysia is from May to September. However, the heaviest rail tends to occur from May to October on the west coast of Malaysia and those intent on soaking up the sun on the beach should avoid arriving during this period. However, the monsoon season is the best time to spot some of Malaysia’s coastal wildlife such as turtles, who pick this time to lay their eggs on the beach.
The best time to see some of Malaysia’s most colourful festivals is during the winter months of November, December and January. Christmas, New Year's Eve, Chinese New Year and Hari Raya Puasa are all vibrant affairs and celebrated throughout Malaysia.
Possession of drugs in Malaysia can be punished by the death sentence, even if you are carrying a small amount for personal use. It is best to avoid all contact with drugs in Malaysia and be suspicious of any stranger who offers to give or sell you drugs. Gambling is also highly illegal and can receive a heavy punishment.
Pick pocketing is a common crime in large towns and cities, especially Johor. There are also incidents of people driving up on motorbikes and snatching bags, often taking their victim along with them if they refuse to let go. Carry your bag on the shoulder facing away from the road and keep a close eye on your possessions in crowded areas.
Vehicles do not stop at pedestrian crossings and it is safer to cross busy roads at pedestrian bridges and pedestrian traffic lights.
Buy a good padlock for your bag and hotel door. You may find that windows don’t always fasten properly and you should fasten them securely with a cable lock. Don’t leave valuables in hotel rooms: carry your passport or ID document and other valuables with you at all times or deposit them in the hotel safe.
Make sure you negotiate the taxi fare with the driver before getting in and try to avoid fake or unregistered taxis late at night by using a dial-a-taxi service.
Although female travellers who dress conservatively will rarely have trouble in Malaysia, it is best to avoid travelling alone at night. Also, make sure you lock you hotel room door when in the room to discourage unwanted visitors.
Generally speaking, the cost of living in Malaysia in higher than in many Asian countries, especially Thailand and Laos, although it is cheaper than is Indonesian and significantly less than in western countries. Those on a tight budget should be able to spend just $20 a day, although this will only buy the absolute basics and $35 a day will allow you a few small luxuries. Those who can afford to spend $150 each day will be able to stay in some of the country’s top hotels and dine in style, while for those with a real taste for luxury $275 a day should be more than enough to experience the best of Malaysia.
ATMs are abundant in all Malaysian cities, especially in shopping areas. The most reliable machines are attached to banks and it is probably best to stick to these as ATM machines to occasionally swallow cards.
Travellers’ Cheques and Credit Cards
Most major credit cards are generally accepted in top of the range hotels, shops and restaurants throughout Malaysia. Check for surcharges added to your bill before you pay as these are illegal. Travellers’ cheques in pounds sterling or US Dollars can be cashed in most banks and even some shops.
Changing Your Money
It is illegal to carry more than RM1000 into or out of Malaysia, so most of your money will need to be changed within the country. Although there are a large number of banks located around Malaysia with money changing facilities, the best deals are found at licensed moneychangers’ kiosks. These kiosks pop up all over Malaysia and tend to stay open until about 6pm.
Malaysia has a tropical climate, with a hot summer and intense rainy season. With forest and mountain ranges running through the country from north to south, there are mangrove swamps and mudflats on the west coast, which separate into bays and inlets. There are a number of beautiful beaches on the west coast as well as dense forests to explore.
Malaysia’s modern history dates back to the 2nd century AD, when there were a collection of up to 30 separate Malay kingdoms. The Malay kingdoms gained power and riches as costal city ports, which were established in the 10th century. Originally Hindu or Buddhist states, Islamic found a place in Malaysia in the 14th century.
The Sultanate of Malacca was established at the start of the 15th century by prince Parameswara, from Palembang, who fled to the area from what is now known as Singapore. Prince Parameswara turned Malacca into an important trading port, putting Malaysia firmly on the map. However, Malacca was conquered by Portugal in 1511 and a Portuguese colony was established there.
In 1786 Britain established a colony in the Malay Peninsula, with the British East India Company leasing the island of Penang from the Sultan of Kedah. The Anglo-Dutch Treaty was signed in 1824, which divided the Malaya archipelago between Britain and the Netherlands.
Although there were Malaysian figureheads, the British mostly ruled Malaysia until the Japanese occupation during WWII. The Federation of Malaya was established in 1948, which reinstated the independence of the rulers of the Malay states under British protection.
From 1948 to 1960 the Communist Party of Malaya embarked on a guerrilla campaign known as the Malayan Emergency from 1948 to 1960 to force the British out of Malaya. Independence for the Federation within the Commonwealth was finally granted on 31 August 1957, and the Federation was renamed Malaysia in 1963.
At first there was much fighting with Indonesia over boundary lines, culmination in the racial riots of 1969. The New Economic Policy was established to restore peace to the country and since then Malaysia’s various ethnic groups have lived more or less in harmony.
These days Malaysia’s economic and social structures are good and the country’s affluence can be seen in modern structures such as Kuala Lumpur’s Petronas Twin Towers and the Sepang F1 Circuit.
Hawker stalls and coffee shops are good places to find a cheap and tasty meal. Hawker stalls tend to be very clean and open until late in the evening. Curry dishes and other meals in western style restaurants, while seafood restaurants serve fresh fish prepared in the Chinese style. For western food, head to the shopping malls, where you will usually find a large food court with a number of well known fast food restaurants.
Here is a selection of the numerous dishes you will find on your travels in Malaysia:
Nasi lemak – the most common Malaysian breakfast dish consists rice cooked in light coconut milk with anchovies, peanuts, a slice of cucumber and a little chilli.
Rendang – usually made with beef, this dry curry dish consists of stewed meat in a spicy curry paste.
Chilli crab – a whole crab is covered with a generous amount of sticky, strong chilli sauce.
Laksa – this dish varies from place to place but is basically a coconut both with seafood or chicken.
Bak chor mee – this noodle dish is cooked in a chilli-based sauce with minced pork, fried anchovies, vegetables and mushrooms.
Popiah - these delicious spring rolls can be either fried or raw. Filled with boiled turnips, fried tofu, fried shallots and garlic, chopped omelette, chopped stir fried long beans, there is usually a sweet chilli sauce to dip them in.
Hainanese chicken rice - usually found on street stalls, this steamed chicken dish is served with special gently spiced rice and tasty ginger.
Bubur cha-cha – a traditional Malay desert with cubed yam, sweet potato and sago added to coconut milk soup.
Kuih – this sweet desert is made with coconut milk, coconut flesh and either glutinous rice or tapioca. It is often made into cute and colourful designs.
Avoid drinking tap water and drinks with ice in Malaysia. Bottled water is cheap and easy to find.
Coffee – known as kopi – and tea – teh – are both popular and tasty drinks in Malaysia as well as a local variation known as teh tarik. Tea and coffee usually comes hot, with condensed milk to sweeten it. If you don’t want milk ask for teh o, while teh ais will get you iced milky tea.
Also popular is a drink known as kopi tongkat ali ginseng, which is a mixture of coffee, a local aphrodisiacal root and ginseng served with condensed milk.
Despite being a predominately Muslim country, alcohol is widely available throughout Malaysia. Beer and other alcohol can be bought in bars, restaurants and 7-11 shops. The local brew is tuak, which fermented rice wine that comes in many forms. Usually served lukewarm, tuak is often flavoured with sugar or honey.
Malaysian festivals tend to be loud and colourful, marked with plenty of singing, dancing and parades through the streets. Malaysian people tend to be tolerant of people from other faiths and welcome them into their homes to celebrate with them. These festivals are a good opportunity for foreigners to learn more about Malaysian culture and hospitality.
Here are some major Malaysian festivals to look out for. Many festivals revolve around the lunar calendar, so dates vary slightly from year to year.
New Year's Day
January 1st is a public holiday and New Year's Eve is marked in most cities with sporting events, competitions, exhibitions and cultural performances by Malaysian multi-ethnic groups.
Chinese New Year
Chinese New Year lasts for 15 days and is very colourful, filled with feasting and firework displays. Gather to watch the traditional dragon and lion dances, which take place to the beat of gongs and drums. Penang is the best place to experience Chinese New Year in Malaysia.
This festival is celebrated by Hindus on the tenth month of the Hindu calendar. Thaipusam is a day for penance and atonement and during this time devotees to fulfill a vow they have made to Lord Muruga, who is also known as Lord Subramaniam. Devotion is demonstrated by fasting and piercing their bodies with elaborately decorated metal structures decorated with colored paper, fresh fruit and flowers and parading through the streets. To get the most out of this festival, head to Kuala Lumpur to watch Lord Muruga's jeweled chariot carried through the streets to the Batu Caves in Selangor.
Buddhists celebrate this festival in May to remember the birth, enlightenment and ascension of Lord Buddha. The daytime is filled with visits to the temple and merit making, while there are processions of floats and candles in the streets after dark.
On the 1st of June the people of Sarawak celebrate the good annual with parties, games, processions and feasting. People gather to sing traditional songs, dance and drink the locally produced rice wine. Children bring their parents plates of food and cattle is sacrificed to ensure that there is a good harvest the following season.
Hari Raya Aidil Fitri
Also known as Hari Raya Puasa, this Muslim festival marks the end of fasting throughout the month of Ramadhan, which is the tenth month of the Muslim calendar. The celebrations last for one month and feature bright decorations, feasting and parties
Lantern and Moon Cake Festival
This festival is celebrated by all Malaysians, who hang colourful lanterns on their houses and eat moon cakes in this celebration of peace and unity.
Hungry Ghost Festival
According to Chinese tradition the gates of hell are opened during the 15th day of the seventh lunar month to allow the hungry ghosts to wander the Earth in search of food and possibly seek revenge. The Chinese hold a festival at this time to remember their dead ancestors and pay tribute to them, setting aside food for them and burning money so that their relatives can use it in the afterlife.
The Festival of Lights, also known as Deepavali, is celebrated as the triumph of good over evil, marking the legendary time that Lord Krishna is said to have defeated Narkansura. Mainly celebrated by Hindus, people visit the temple during the day and lit candles and oil lamps in the evening. There are colourful parades through the street and much merrymaking.
Unlike most Asian countries, Malaysia celebrates Christmas much like people do in western countries. Houses are decorated with lights and a large Christmas tree, carols are sung and the traditional roast turkey dinner is often eaten to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ.
The people of Malaysia generally dress conservatively by Western standards, and showing too much skin in public is sure to cause offense. Although the high temperatures and humidity levels throughout the country may make visitors want to strip off, it is best to wear long, loose clothing at all times. Wearing shoes indoors is also considered to be rude, and visitors will usually notice a place to put shoes just outside temples and private houses.
Malaysian people usually greet each other with a salam, which is a type of handshake that it made with both hands. When greeting someone for the first time, the protocol is for you to stretch out your hands in greeting. The other person will touch your outstretched hands, and then bring them to their chest in a gesture that means "I greet you from my heart". Now it is the visitor’s turn to return the gesture. In some cases, someone may offer to shake hands instead, although this isn’t common and shouldn’t be initiated.
Eating etiquette is important in Malaysia and varies depending on the type of food you are eating. While Malay and Indian food is usually eaten with the right hand (never the left, as it is considered to be unclean), chopsticks tend to be used to eat Chinese food. Those who prefer to use cutlery than their right hand will be supplied with a spoon and a fork. Knives are not commonly used here, as most dishes feature pieces of meal that are small enough to scoop into your mouth without cutting them first.
People rarely show affection in public, aside from the traditional salam greeting, and kissing and holding hands when in a public area is sure to cause embarrassment to onlookers and attract unwanted attention.
The coolest and driest months are between November and February and this is the best time to visit the country, especially as this is when many of Lao’s vibrant festivals are held.
However, temperatures are significantly lower in the mountainous regions to the north of Laos and can be pleasant all year round, although it can get rather chilly in the evening during January and February. The hottest part of Laos is by far the southern region and it is best to avoid this area during the very hottest part of the year, especially March and April.
You can expect heavy rain practically every day during the rainy season. However, these rain showers tend to be over quite quickly and are easily avoided. Travelling during the rainy season can still be enjoyable, although be aware that many of the roads won’t be in as good a condition as during the rest of the year.
The peak tourist seasons occur from December to February and again in August. January can be very busy and it is a good idea to book in advance if you are travelling at the start of the year.
This is of course the most convenient way to travel, although not necessarily the most rewarding and certainly not the cheapest. The national airline is Lao Aviation and there are regular domestic flights from most major towns and cities such as Vientiane, Luang Prabang, Savannakhet, Xieng Khouang, Pakse and Oudomsay. There are even weekly flights from smaller towns such as Luang Namtha, Sayaboury, Houeixay, Sam Neua, Saravane, Lak Xao, Muangkhong and Attapeu.
Mainly restricted to Vientiane, taxis can be both metered and unmetered. It is also possible to hire taxis for the day if you plan to do a lot of sightseeing.
Tuk-tuks and jumbos
The Lao answer to the taxi, these small and somewhat rickety motorized vehicles can be found all over Laos and are a good way to get around. Fares are generally negotiable, so make sure you agree the price with the driver before setting off.
Public buses run around large towns and cities between towns and villages throughout Laos. They tend to be rather small and cramped but quite reliable. There are also slightly larger tourist buses available for a slightly higher fee.
These are a more comfortable way to travel if you are following the tourist trail between places such as Luang Prabang, Vang Vieng and Vientiane.
The mighty Mekong River flows through Laos and travelling by slow boat is a great way to see the country, while speed boats race down the river, much to the delight of thrill seekers. Daily services run from Vientiane to Luang Prabang and from Luang Prabang to Huay Xai.
A great way to explore the countryside is by hiring a bicycle at a tourist hub and simply cycling away.
Although private car hire is possible, it is generally more trouble than it’s worth. A better option is to hire a car with a driver, which can be done through most hotels or tourist agencies.
As a rule Laos is a very safe country to travel in. People are friendly and honest and the crime rate is low. However, as with any place there are certain things you should look out for so that you can make sure you stay safe while you travel.
Most people will have trouble changing large kip notes, so it is essential to carry a selection of smaller notes as well. Change larger notes at banks, luxurious hotels and upmarket shops.
Tap water is undrinkable, so make sure you buy bottled water, even for brushing your teeth. Bottled water is cheap and can be purchased at most shops.
Lao people don’t follow western queuing methods and trying to form a polite line to buy your bus ticket or at the post office will simply mean that you get pushed to the side. Be assertive and don’t be afraid to elbow your way into position, nobody will think any less of you for it.
Although crime is low in Laos, money and belongings do occasionally go missing from hotel rooms. There is also sometimes pick-pocketing and bag snatching on crowded buses. Stay alert and keep your valuables with you.
Buy a good padlock for your bag and hotel door. You may find that windows don’t always fasten properly and you should fasten them securely with a cable lock.
There is a risk of banditry is some of the less travelled regions of Laos. If you plan to explore off the tourist trail it is a good idea to take a guide with you or consult a local tour company to find out which areas are at risk.
There are also a number of unexploded bombs left over from the Second Indochina War. Although tourist areas have been swept carefully, many areas of jungle and farmland remain uncleared. Be sure to stick to well worn paths when exploring and consult a tour company before wandering off on your own.
Remember to carry your passport or ID document with you all the times in order to avoid a fine.
With a tropical climate, Laos is a country of stunning natural beauty. The southern most part tends to be the hottest and here you will find a variety of pretty islands. The centre of Laos is covered with dense forests, while there are dramatic mountains to the north.
Laos’ past is somewhat turbulent and the country has suffered greatly from the effects of war and poverty. The people of Laos originated from Thailand and it can be observed that the culture of Laos has a lot in common with that of Thailand. It was also formerly a French-Indochinese state and you will still find French influences as well as traces of the Vietnamese and Khmer cultures.
After centuries of invasion from neighbouring countries, Laos took a severe beating during the French Indo-China war and again during World War II. Laos finally gained full independence from France under the reign of King Sisavang Vong in 1953, although peace still did not follow as the monarchy was opposed by the Laotian Patriotic Front. Years of warring followed, with the LPF forming an alliance with the group that would become the Viet Cong.
Finally, after years of instability cultural and bilateral trade agreements were signed with China in December 1987 and the political situation began to improve. Relations were improved with neighbouring countries and the west and the king retired in 1991, allowing a new constitution to form. Laos has been governed by the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party since 1975 and the political situation finally seems stable, allowing the country to rebuild and resettle.
Despite former hardship, the people of Laos are warm and welcoming and smiles are frequent and genuine. Today Laos is one of the world’s poorest countries, with agriculture the main form of economy. Laos’ main products are rice, pulses, fruit, sugar cane, tobacco and coffee, with coffee being the country’s largest export.
The official language of Laos is Lao, although a range of tribal languages as well as French, Vietnamese and English are also sometimes spoken. The majority of people are Buddhist, with a range of other religions such as animism, Confucianism and Christianity practiced by the tribes people.
Food in Laos is similar to northern Thai food, yet with its own unique twist. Rice is as popular here as in the rest of Asia, although in Laos sticky rice known as khao niaow is served instead of long grained rice. Sticky rice comes in bamboo containers and is eaten with your hands, usually dipped in a selection of spicy sauces.
The French influence in Laos can be found in the cuisine and baguettes filled with pâte known as khao jii pat-te are delicious at any time of the day, especially for breakfast served with kaafeh thung – rich and tasty Lao coffee. Lao coffee usually comes with a thick layer of condensed milk at the bottom, or black - kaafeh dam.
International food is widely available in tourist towns and in Vientiane, the country’s capital, where you will also find a great selection of gourmet French restaurants.
Here is a selection of popular Lao dishes to get your taste buds tingling.
Laap – the national dish, an extremely spicy salad made from minced meat, herbs, spices, lime juice and a LOT of chilli. This dish sometimes uses raw meat.
Tam maak hung – know as som tam in Thailand, this is fresh, spicy grated papaya salad, where the flavours are pounded with a mortar and pestle to combine them.
Foe – Vietnamese noodles, often served as a snack or at breakfast time.
Khai phaan – this Mekhong River weed is served in Luang Prabang as a delicious side dish.
Padeck – fish preserved with salt and stored for anything up to three years. Padeck is usually eaten with sticky rice.
Because it is such a poor country, the cost of visiting Laos is low, even compared to other Asian countries. Accommodation and transport are cheap and most people should be able to get by comfortably on $15 USD per day, although you can spend a lot more if you choose to eat and sleep in exclusive hotels. If you need to save money, it is possible to spend as little as $10 USD per day by eating at the local markets and staying in the cheapest hotels or guesthouses.
Make sure you bring a good supply of cash and traveller’s cheques with you as most places don’t accept credit cards and finding a cash machine can be difficult.
Changing your Money
There are banks located in all main towns and these can exchange all major currencies. The best rates can be found in Vientiane and Luang Prabang, where competition is higher than the rest of the country.
Traveller’s cheques can be cashed in exchange bureaus and banks, which can be found all over Laos and traveller’s cheques in US Dollars, are preferred.
You cannot exchange kip outside of Laos, so make sure you convert your cash before leaving the country.
Cash machines have only recently made their way into Laos, and even now they can only really be found in Vientiane. Unfortunately, even in Vientiane the number to ATM machines are limited and they often break down. Also be aware that there is a limit to how much you can draw out at a time and there are quite hefty charges for doing so. To avoid potential problems it is best to make sure you draw enough money for your trip before entering Laos or take traveller’s cheques as these can be cashed in most of the tourist areas.
Tipping is not common practice is Laos and will not be expected of you. However, generosity will always be appreciated, especially as the average salary is very low.
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Bun Pha Wet
Celebrated at the end of December or early January, this festival marks the birth of Prince Vestsantara, the last Buddha to walk the earth. A large number of men enter monkhood during this period and it is a good time for families to get together.
Vietnamese Tet and Chinese New Year
This three day festival takes place in March and is marked with fireworks, loud street parties and visits to the local Vietnamese and Chinese temples.
Visitors arriving in the middle of April will witness one of Laos’ most lively festivals, held over three days to celebrate Lao New Year. This is the hottest part of the year and during Boun Pimai people soak each other in the streets with water guns, hosepipes and buckets of water to cool down a little. Luang Prabang is a great place to experience this festival as there are parades through the streets and the residents party long into the night.
Boun Bang Fai (rocket festival)
Not to be missed, the rocket festival is a Buddhist rain-making festival where huge bamboo rockets are built and decorated by monks. The rockets are carried in procession and then launched into the sky. There is much singing and dancing during this festival and the atmosphere is highly charged.
Celebrated on the 15th day of the 6th lunar month, this festival marks the days of Buddha’s birth, enlightenment and death. Activities focus around the country’s temples and there are pretty candlelit processions in the evening.
This festival marks the start of Buddhist Lent, when the monks must retreat to their monasteries and commence a period of fasting. Many men become monks for a short time during Khao Phansaa, which lasts from June or July until October.
Boun Ok Phansaa
The end of the rainy season is celebrated with huge boat races along the Mekong River. Smaller boats are decorated and paraded through the town before being floated on the river.
As the monks emerge from their monasteries once more people gather to greet them and present the spiritual guides with gifts such as robes, alms bowls and candles. Small banana-leaf boats containing candles, and incense are floated on the rivers and other waterways.
That Luang Festival
Taking place at That Luang in Vientiane, people travel from all over the country to witness the hundreds of monks, who gather to receive alms early in the morning. This festival lasts for a week and features a vibrant procession between Wat Si Muang and Pha That Luang. As well as music, dancing, chanting and delicious food.
Lao National Day
December 2nd is the day to commemorate the 1975 victory of the proletariat over the monarchy. There are parades through the streets, speeches and mass flying of the communist hammer-and-sickle flag.
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You should dress conservatively, especially around temples or other religious monuments. Men should always wear a shirt in public and women should avoid shorts and sleeveless shirts around holy sites. Make sure you remove your shoes before entering temples or private houses and place them neatly outside the doorway.
Buddha images are extremely sacred and must be treated with respect. If you have to touch them, handle with extreme care and never touch someone’s personal Buddha statue or amulet unless you are invited to do so. When sitting on the floor in a temple you must be careful not to point your feet at a Buddha image. Sit with your legs crossed or with your feet tucked to the sid with the soles pointing backwards.
Women must be careful not to touch monks as they are forbidden female contact. If a woman wants to give something to a monk it must first be given to another man or put on a piece of cloth. Monks have to be careful to observe this, even when interacting when their mothers and sisters.
Head and Feet
The head is believed to be very scared, whilst the feet are seen as unclean. Be careful not to touch anyone on the head and avoid touching them with your feet or pointing to things with your feet.
Sexual relations between people who aren’t married is actual illegal, and this extends to relationships between Lao people and foreigners. Public displays of affection such as kissing and holding hands can be offensive to Lao people, as is greeting them with a hug or kiss on the cheek.
You must carry your passport or ID document with you all the times as the fine for not producing it when asked can be very high. Lao people highly value personal hygiene and it is important to make sure your clothes are always clean as well.
Although the official language is Myanmar, there are over 100 dialects spoken in this diverse country and English is generally used when conducting business. The majority of people (around 87%) are Buddhist, with other people being Hindu, Muslim, Christian and animist.
The history of Myanmar is turbulent to stay the least. Originally named Burma, the country’s proximity to so many dominant nations has mean that wars and land right disputes have been going on for centuries and the territory wasn’t reunified until the middle of the 16th century. Years of war followed as this now unified nation invaded first the Mon people and then Thailand in an attempt to gain more land.
Burma became part of British India towards the end of the 19th century, during which time the British helped develop the country and establish trade relations. The British were driven out of the country during WW II and Burma became independent in 1948. However, the hill tribes, communists, Muslims and Mons within Burma all revolted, causing chaos.
General Ne Win led a revolt in 1962 and basically seized control of the country, eliminating the democratic government. The economy crumbled over the years that followed and people started to demonstrate in 1987 and 1988 in order to get Ne Win to resign. The general resisted and conflicts between the between pro-democracy demonstrators and the military ended in around 3,000 deaths in just six weeks.
General Saw Maung and his State Law & Order Council (SLORC) took control of the government after a military coup and there was an election. However, despite the fact that the National League for Democracy (NLD) led by Aung San Suu Kyi scored a massive victory, the party leaders were prevented from taking office and were actually arrested under very dubious circumstances while a know drug baron took over the running of the country.
During her years of imprisonment, Aung San Suu Kyi has attempted to spread the world of Myanmar’s dictatorship government and her illegal house arrest, winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 and finally her freedom in 2002.
The state of affairs in Myanmar was finally put into the spotlight in 2007 when thousands of monks marched in protest at the unfair beating of three of their fellow monks were beaten at a protest march. Although the government tried to suppress the march by firing on the crowds and closing communications, the word was already out and people around the globe are becoming aware of the conditions opposed on the people of Myanmar.
Although things are still tightly controlled in Myanmar there seems to be hope on the horizon and many are optimistic that the situation will soon improve.
There are more than sixty airstrips located within Myanmar and this is by far the easiest way to travel. There are four domestic airlines, although many people prefer to avoid Myanma Airlines as it is run by the government. The three private airlines are Air Bagan, Air Mandalay and Yangon Airways. One-way tickets need to be bought at least a day in advance and are cheaper at travel agencies than airline offices. Unfortunately, flights tend to be irregular and the safety record is not the best, so it might be better to consider other options.
There is an extensive river network running through Myanmar and travelling by boat is by far the best way to see the country. The service between Mandalay and Bagan is particularly popular with travellers and you can choose between the ferry or speedboat service. Boats can sail along the Irrawaddy River even in the dry season and places such as Bhamo and Myitkyina are easy to get to, while Yangon can be reached via the Twante Canal. However, boat trips can only be arranged as part of an organized tour group, which limits your options and the journey takes a lot longer than by road or air.
Bus travel is cheap and the buses run regularly, making this a convenient form of transport. While it is better to avoid the old, crowded buses, the newer long distance buses are quite comfortable. The older buses break down frequently and are often delayed by several hours. Try to buy you ticket in advance to snag a good seat. Bus fares are priced in Kyat and can sometimes be bought from guesthouses as well as the chaotic bus station. The front of the bus is always the best as the back is usually crowded and uncomfortable.
Myanmar Railways is owned by the government and it is best to avoid travelling by train. In addition, foreigners are forced to pay at least six times the standard fare, and train travel is slow and quite dangerous as the trains regularly derail.
Car and Motorcycle
Although it is possible to hire a car or motorbike in places such as Mandalay, International Driving Licences and British licences are not accepted and you must apply for a Myanmar licence at the Department for Road Transport and Administration in Yangon first.
Local transport options include bicycle rickshaws or trishaws known as sai-kaa, horse carts -myint hlei - ancient taxis and modern Japanese pick-up trucks. Fares are negotiable and it is essential to agree on the fee before getting in.
Most people prefer to visit Myanmar in the cool season, probably arriving around November and heading out by the time the weather starts to turn at the end of January. Temperatures start to climb dramatically in the middle of February and April is scorching hot, peaking at around 45?C. The rains arrive in the middle of May and cool things down considerably, although this time of year can also be rather humid.
You can expect rain showers pretty much every day during the monsoon season, although in many places such as Yangon the rain tends to fall in two short showers, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. In other parts of Myanmar such as Bagan and Mandalay the rainfall is rather low.
If you are visiting Myanmar in the summer head to the hills as temperatures tend to be much lower here than in the rest of the country, meaning that you will need warm clothes if you are visiting during the cool or wet seasons.
Local people can get in serious trouble for discussing politics so avoid bringing up the topic. If you are keen to find out local opinion be discrete and wait for the subject to be raised by others.
Power cuts are frequent and although most places have their own generator it is best to check before paying for a room in a guesthouse as it can get pretty hot at night without an electric fan to cool things down.
Although the local people are honest, Myanmar is one of the world's most corrupt countries and it is common for officials and other civil servants to discreetly ask travellers for bribes. These requests are rarely reinforced however and refusing to understand generally does the trick.
Although there have been bombings in Myanmar in the past these have now stopped and the main danger zones are off limits to tourists anyway. The situation in Myanmar is constantly changing and tourists and banned from several areas. Make sure you get the latest information before you go to avoid problems. It is possible to apply in Yangon for a permit to enter restricted areas, although such requests are seldom granted.
Changing your Money
Plenty of people will offer to change your money for you as you travel around Myanmar, although the best places to change money are guesthouses, shops and travel agencies. Of course, exchange rates fluctuate between places, so make sure you take a good look around before handing over your cash.
You can only exchange US Dollars and Euros, and rates tend to be slightly better in Yangon than in the rest of Myanmar. Check the serial number on your bank notes carefully as US Dollars that start with AB or BC are often refused.
There are no ATMs at all in Myanmar, so it is a good idea to stock up with cash or traveller’s cheques before entering the country. Traveller’s cheques can be changed at a few chic hotels in Yangon for a commission of between 3% and 10%.
Although not widely accepted, some major hotels, airlines, international shops and restaurants will accept credit cards, but Master Card is not currently accepted in Myanmar.
It is common practice to add 5 to 10 per cent to hotel and restaurant bills as a tip.
It is important to remember that the import and export of local currency is strictly prohibited.
Food in Myanmar tends to be cheap and tasty, making this a great place to experiment. There is plenty of fresh fruit available in the markets and food stalls can be found on practically every corner in the towns.
Although coffee can be hard to find, tea is popular, served with brightly hued spices. Most bars and select restaurants sell locally produced beer, whiskey and gin. Toddy juice is made from fermented palm sugar and tastes a lot like rum.
There are a large number of Chinese and Indian restaurants throughout Myanmar and Western food can be found in most hotels and an increasingly growing number of independent restaurants, although there are no fast food chains in Myanmar, which is probably a very good thing.
It is not safe to drink the tap water in Myanmar, but bottled water is cheap. It is also best to avoid ice as this may be made with tap water.
Here is a selection of the dishes you are likely to discover in Myanmar:
Lethok son – a very spicy salad using rice and vegetables.
Mohinga – filling fish curry soup with thin noodles.
Onnokauswe – a slightly sweet and creamy dish of rice noodles, chicken and coconut milk. This curry is strong and pungent.
Mee swan – noodles in a thick broth served with herbs and meat.
Palata – known as paratha in India, this thin bread is fried and served with sugar for breakfast and curried meat at lunch and dinnertime.
Here is a list of some of the most prominent festivals with details of what you can expect to experience.
This national holiday is celebrated on January 4th. Most businesses close for the day and foreigners are not permitted to join the ceremonies.
Ananda Pagoda Festival
Held between January 10th and February 1st in the city of Bagan, this lively festival features singing, dancing, plays, and film screenings. A large number of stalls set up and this is a good time to purchase local produce.
Celebrated in Mandalay in the second week of February, monks gather here to chant and the festival is also full of singing, dancing and traditional theatre.
On February 12th people gather and the hill tribes dance in their traditional dress.
Shwe Saryan Pagoda Festival
Take a boat along the river from Mandalay to witness this colourful festival and buy traditional products such as toys, boxes, baskets and mats.
Pindaya Cave Festival
Held on March 16th in Pindaya, this two day festival features much singing and dancing.
Similar to Songkran is Laos and Thailand, people throw water during this festival in mid April and most things are closed as everyone joins in the fun.
Sand Stupa Festival
In Mandalay in the middle of April intriguing sand stupas are built in different parts of the city using traditional techniques.
Waso Full Moon Day
Buddhist Lent begins in the middle of July and people gather at the temples and stupas to donate good to the monks.
On July 19th ceremonies are held to mark the assassination of General Aung San.
Taung Byone Festival
Travel to the village of Matara near Mandalay on August 8th to witness the traditional Nat dance.
Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda Festival
During this 2 week festival Buddhist images are placed in decorated barges and floated on Lake Inle.
Elephant Dance Festival
This vibrant festival is held on October 9th and 1oth near Mandalay.
On October 11th the whole country celebrates the end of Buddhist Lent
Fire Balloon Festival
This special three-day festival starts on November 16th in Taunggyi. Taunggyi the festival is celebrated with competitions of decorated hot-air balloons in different shapes and forms of animals such as elephants, cattle, the mythical Hintha bird and hens as well as with fireworks and firecrackers in the evening.
Robe Weaving Contest
Held in all major cities on November 7th, teams of women compete against each other to gain recognition as the best robe weavers.
People usually shake hands when they meet and use full names with U (pronounced oo) at the front for older and respected people, Aung in the case of younger men, Ko for adult males and Daw when you are greeting women. People often give small presents to each other when they meet.
People always cover their arms and legs in public so you should avoid wearing shorts and miniskirts, especially around sacred places. Shoes and socks must be removed before entering any religious building and often private houses as well. If you want to keep cool, don the traditional long skirt known as a longyi, which is worn by both men and women.
Dress respectfully around the temple and make sure you take off your socks before entering. Showing the soles of the feet is considered disrespectful, so make sure you sit with your feet tucked underneath you and never point to things with your feet. Women are not allowed to enter certain areas of the temple and everyone should avoid touching relics within the temple.
There are severe penalties for drug taking and trafficking, which range from five years’ imprisonment to a death sentence and homosexuality is also illegal in Myanmar.
Make sure you know which parts of Myanmar are out of bounds to foreigners and regularly check for updates.
In addition to the riel, US$ are also widely accepted throughout Cambodia, and the pricing for hotel rooms and often food and other items in tourist areas tends to be quoted in riel. Travellers who have just come from Thailand will also be able to spend any leftover Baht in areas close to the Thai/Cambodian borders. It is a good idea to carry a selection of US$ and riel notes and take good care of them as notes that are torn and crumpled will usually be rejected.
While the cost of visiting Cambodia is cheap by Western standards, it is quite a bit more expensive than in the neighbouring nations of Laos and Thailand. The biggest costs here are accommodation and transport, although both can be done cheaply by those who are on a shoestring budget. By cutting back to the absolute necessities it is possible to send just US$10 a day, while those who want a few little luxuries such as beer should allow themselves US$25. A budget of US$100 a day offers access to some of the country’s best hotels and restaurants, while the sky is the limit for those who can afford to spend US$200 per day.
Changing your money
Banks can be found in all major tourist areas of Cambodia and while these establishments offer to change currency, local moneychangers generally offer much better rates. Changing riel into other currencies can be rather tricky and costly, so it is best to avoid changing large amounts of cash unless you really need to.
The number of ATMs in Cambodia is on the rise and although there are incidents of cards being swallowed, this is becoming less common. ATMs usually accept just MasterCard and Visa and dispense cash in US$.
Travellers’ cheques and credit cards
Traveller’s cheques and credit cards can usually be used in up market hotels and banks in most tourist areas of the country. However, changing travellers’ cheques elsewhere can be difficult, and it is best stockpile some cash before heading out into the countryside.
Although tipping is not expected it can make a big difference as wages are extremely low and even a tip of $2 might almost double the waiter or waitress’ wages.