Tag - china

An Introduction to Laos

laos_gibbon_experience_bokeo_3Poetically dubbed the “land of a million elephants”, the charming country of Laos is situated in the centre of the Indochina Peninsula. Bordered by China to the north, Myanmar to the northwest, Vietnam to the east and Cambodia to the south, Laos embodies everything that makes its neighbouring countries great.

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.

Luang Namtha, Laos

Luang Namtha, Laos
Luang Namtha, Laos
Luang Namtha, Laos

Bordered by both China and Myanmar, Luang Namtha province is situated to the north of Laos and is home to 39 of the country’s ethnic groups. This is a good place to pause before making your way into China as the Chinese-Lao border crossing is located nearby at Boten and connects Laos with Mohan in China. Visitors to Luang Namtha will notice some similarities between the local culture and that of China, and those familiar with Laos will enjoy making comparisons between this province and the rest of the country.

This region is famous for its stunningly beautiful rainforest and unspoilt monsoon forest and no visit to Luang Namtha would be completed without a trip to the Nam Ha National Biodiversity Conservation Area. There are plenty of animals to spot here including tigers, bears, clouded leopard, and gibbons as well as a large collection of colourful birds and reptiles.

Luang Namtha is a good place to rest and relax and immerse yourself in the beauty of the area. Walking is a good way to explore and there are several villages where you can stay for a day or two and simply explore or relax by the river and listen to the wind in the trees.

The town of Luang Nam Tha is a good place to stay and you will find plenty of basic places to stay and evening entertainment at the night market. Surrounded by a pretty patchwork of rich rice paddy fields, this is a great place to stop for a day or two and get learn about the diversely different tribes that live in the villages nearby. The town sits on a hilly area and provides great views of the surrounding countryside.

A popular activity around Luang Namtha is trekking. There are a number of experienced guides available and embarking on a trek with a qualified guide can be a rewarding experience as they can provide an insight into the unique culture of the region and make can provide access to the many villages and villagers themselves.

Tranquil and picturesque, the town of Muang Xing has a great collection of friendly guesthouses where you are sure to receive a warm welcome and a good meal. This is a good place to arrange trekking and hiking trips and to meet fellow travellers to share a beer or two in the evening and swap stories with.

Bagan, Burma

Bagan, Laos
Bagan, Laos
Bagan, Laos
Bagan, Laos

Also sometimes spelt Pagan, the Bagan plain contains a collection of more than 4,000 ancient temples and is an impressive sight, even if you’re not particularly interested in old buildings or have already feeling ‘templed out’. One of Myanmar’s most significant historical sites, the best time to visit Bagan is around sunrise or sunset.

Although the collection of pagodas and temples at Bagan is still very impressive, their number once totaled around 13,000, and they were built in the years between 1044-1287 before finally being abandoned when Kublai Khan invaded the area from China and people literally ran to the hills.

Although the detailed carvings on each pagoda and temple make them all special in their own way, the most highly revered temple is considered to be Ananda, which was built by King Kyan-zit-tha in 1091. The main feature of the temple is the four large Buddhas, which represent the first four holy men to have achieved enlightenment.

Another great temple to visit is the Thatbyinnyu Temple, which is Bagan’s highest point and provides spectacular views of the entire area, while the Shwegugyi Temple was built in 1311 and is decorated with especially attractive carvings. Also worth looking out for is the Gawdawpalin Temple, which despite some damage during the 1975 earthquake is still very impressive.

There are quite a few decent places to stay in Bagan as well as restaurants, markets and surrounding beauty, making this a great place to spend a day or two while you explore slowly. While you’re here, check out Bagan’s interesting museum and lacquerware workshops.

For a fresh perspective and excellent views, take a hot air balloon ride over the Bagan Plain at sunset. This is a truly memorable experience and provides the opportunity to take some fantastic photographs.

Bagan is situated on the banks of the Ayerwaddy River, and sunset cruise on the river is a relaxing experience, while you can also be driven around the area in a horse cart or hire a bicycle and peddle around.

Northern Thailand

Northern Thailand
Northern Thailand

There are 17 provinces in Northern Thailand, all featuring stunning scenery, grand temples and a range of activities and opportunities to engage in extreme sports. Chiang Mai is the capital of Northern Thailand and is certainly the largest and loudest, although all the provinces have something to offer the tourist with a sense strong of adventure and an interest in the diverse history of the region.

Northern Thailand displays heavy influences from the neighboring cultures of Myanmar (Burma) and Yunnan (China). The kingdoms of Lanna and Sukhothai were the first historical Thai nations.

A series of Communist insurgencies and the effects from Myanmar’s drug battles and civil wars has meant that recently a large portion of northern Thailand was off limits. However, these problems have now been mostly resolved, and safe, easy travel is possible throughout the north.

Although standard Thai language is widely understood, the people of Northern Thailand have their own Thai dialect called Kham Meaung. The hilltribes also have their own languages, and if you wish to make extensive contact with them it may be a good idea to employ a translator/guide.

The main airport in Northern Thailand is Chiang Mai, which serves both domestic and international flights. There are also small domestic airports at Chiang Rai, Mae Hong Son, Pai, Phitsanulok and Sukhothai.

Spicy and bitter, Northern Thai food is quite different to that eaten in the rest of the country. There are dozens of local specialties and this is a great place to sample the traditional food of the hill tribes as well. A regional specialty is thick, slightly spicy sausages stuffed with raw garlic, the pride of Chiang Mai Province.

Other dishes to look out for include:

kaeng hang le – Burmese-style pork curry

khanom jiin naam ngiew – rice noodles with pork ribs and thick sauce

khao soi – a Burmese curry noodle soup served with shallots, lime and pickles to add as required.

An Introduction to Thai food

An introductin to Thai foodEvery self-respecting city in the world has a Thai restaurant. Happily, this is the extent of how international and pervasive Thai food has become. Therefore, no trip to Thailand is complete without an appreciation of this great eating experience and this short article hopes to introduce the newcomer to it.

Long before the term ‘fusion cuisine’ appeared in the vocabulary of food lovers, such a culture had already been well established in Thailand. Thai food incorporates other Indochinese food styles. Its larger neighbours especially China and the Indian subcontinent contributed significantly to the evolution of Thai food. Chinese cuisine introduced stir fried dishes and deep fried dishes. Rice noodles, a prominent component of Thai cuisine, is distinctly Chinese. Curries are certainly evidence of Indian influence. The Portuguese are thought to have introduced the use of chilli. There are also regional differences in Thai food, though this may not be immediately apparent.

A simple dish such as a soupy noodle with meat and vegetable slices is commonly eaten as a no frills and quick meal by individuals. Families or groups are more likely to enjoy a more elaborate meal whereby several dishes are ordered and portions shared out. This is ideal when trying out different categories of food e.g. meat, soup and vegetable dishes. Diners have a serving of rice or noodles which act as an anchor dish to which portions from the several dishes are added and eaten.

Unlike Western cuisine where food is served in courses, Thai food is served simultaneously. Shortly after placing your orders, the selected dishes would make their appearance, a colourful and aromatic display. The presence of multiple dishes allows a myriad of tastes and textures, mild or overpowering, to assault the senses all at the same time. Interestingly, as in many eastern cultures, soup is consumed concurrently with the rest of the food.

The culinary experience should be a treat for all the senses. From the colourful and perhaps curious mix of a papaya salad to the pungence of kapi, to the ultimate assault on the tastebuds from a tom yam and concluding with the pretty, dainty dessert snacks, eating Thai food ought to be a sensory experience. An ideal meal should achieve a blend of subtle, spicy, bland and sweet and sour.
  
The concept of ying and yang (simplistically, hot versus cold, warm versus cool, strong versus mild) is clearly featured in Thai cooking. Some dishes are ‘cool’ e.g. salads. They represent refreshment to the palate and the rest of the body. The use of strong chilli or spices, which make the dish fiery and ‘hot’ (in abstract terms, create a burning sensation to the gastrointestinal system) would represent the ‘yang’ component. Soups, traditionally ‘ying’ or ‘cooling’ (since water, even when warm, is considered a ‘cooling’ agent), can be subverted by the strong spices added to it as illustrated in tom yam or curried soups. A ‘ying’ salad may be garnished with strong, fiery spices, hence having a ‘yang’ component and consumed with a mild soup or a curried dish. Hence, Thai food creations exercise a concept of compatibility and harmonization individually and between dishes.
  
Nick Lie – Singapore

Traveling China

Travelling in China
Travelling in China
Travelling in China

For all its beauty, mystery, and excitement, China is one heck of an intimidating mass of land. The country itself is huge and diverse; the languages aren’t even remotely familiar for most Westerners, and China’s self-described “smaller cities” boast several million people. So where does a traveler begin? Dozens of tour companies have made a nice bundle on this intimidation, selling organized tours to curious-but-overwhelmed travelers. At first glance, a potential traveler might be tempted to do the same. After all, China doesn’t have the compact size of Japan, or the backpacker circuit of Southeast Asia. Here, KSR gives you the low-down on traveling China, with a group or with oneself.
Time

If you have a two-week time frame and a mile-long list of Chinese must-sees, a tour will allow you the luxury of enjoying the moment without worrying about sold-out trains, odd museum hours, and researching each new hotel. A traveler who knows exactly what they want to do on the trip may feel relieved when the details of accomodation and transportation are arranged.

If your schedule is more flexible, a solo trip allows you the luxury of staying as long or as briefly as you like in each new spot. Lone travelers are free to change their timetable if something unexpected comes their way; a kite festival, a rafting trip, or a volunteer spot in a panda sanctuary. A traveler who is prone to falling in love with new places (especially cities off the beaten path) will benefit from this kind of malleable timetable.

Sightseeing

When it comes to building an efficient schedule, you can’t beat the convenience of a private tour bus and guide. With a tour group, you can hit all the sights on your must-see list without the fuss of ticket queues and city buses. Many companies offer various tours that cater more specifically to a traveler’s interests. Athletes can hike, bike, rock-climb and kayak, while history buffs can sign on to a tour of temples and monuments.

Solo travelers have to work a bit harder to find their way around, and information in guidebooks can be subject to change.
    
Without the guided tour, however, the traveler can spend as much time as they like seeing the landmarks of China that really speak to them.

Travelers who stick with a group might not like every part of their tour, or want more time at some stops (like the buffet) and less time at others (like the demonstration of 17th century pottery). If your idea of travel involves people-watching and unstructured exploring on bicycle or foot, then a tour itinerary might cramp your style.

Socializing

A lot of lone travelers enjoy tour groups, as if offers them the company of fellow adventurers with varying backgrounds and similar interests. Because you will travel with the same group throughout the journey, there aren’t as many sad goodbyes and tedious introductions (what’s your name? where are you from? have you tried wontons yet?). You can get to know your fellow travelers, and you can also take advantage of your guide, who will serve as a teacher, translator, and insider on Chinese life.

Solo travelers can find good company in hostels, which often draw livelier and more diverse crowds (though some dubious characters will inevitably crop up). However, between these meetings come some lonely patches when you’re between hostels, or in a quiet hotel. Chinese people are kind, helpful, curious and friendly, but most speak no English at all, especially in smaller cities. Travelers might meet earnest Chinese students who are looking to practice their English. These folks are usually charming and harmless, but solo travelers are more susceptible to tourist scams or overcharging.

Travel

Again, those on a tight time frame might not want the added stress of tracking train station addresses, checking the schedules, making a reservation with a language barrier, etc. Chinese trains and buses are reliable and comfy enough that an organized traveler can move from city to city with ease. Many big-city bus and train stations have one ticket booth with an English-speaking attendant. If you have the time and patience to make these arrangements yourself, the flexibility can be freeing. If you know ahead of time that you’ll be sticking to a plan, then the ease of a tour means that travel details are out of sight, out of mind.

The same applies to getting around a Chinese city. Most urban areas have great, reliable buses and subways. City types who don’t mind wandering and getting a little lost might enjoy going at their own pace. Travelers who want simply to go from point A to point B might benefit from a tour group, to avoid the stress of navigating new places.

Eating

With a tour group, you are guaranteed the opportunities to try a wide range of Chinese dishes. Some groups will shepherd their tourists to western-friendly hotel restuarants, where the food is more bland and gentler to the western palette. Others will get to try fresh and authentic dim sum, duck, soups, and famous regional dishes. A group has the asset of the omnipotent guide, who can help travelers with dietary issues and allergies.

The solo traveler has to use the luck of the draw with their eating. Adventurous foodies will love the challenge and reward of navigating food stalls, communicating from the phrasebook, and eating exotic new dishes without knowing all the contents. Some may be alarmed by the cultural barriers and recess to the safety of grocery store dinners or familiar sights like Subway or McDonalds. If you’re one who doesn’t mind taking a gamble on your supper, solo travel can open the door to hole-in-the-wall gems, amazing new flavours, and the local culture of dining.

Anne Merritt is Canadian and has an English Literature degree. She has worked as a journalist for a university newspaper. She is currently living in Ayutthaya as an ESL teacher and is sharing her experience of Thailand with KhaoSanRoad.com