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Cameron Highlands, Malaysia

Cameron Highlands, MalaysiaThis beautiful hill station is the perfect place to visit when you’re feeling the heat in Malaysia. Situated at an elevation of between 1300 and 1829 meters, the Cameron Highlands are significantly cooler than much of Malaysia, making it a good area to visit during the scorchingly hot summer season.

With its cool climate and lush natural beauty, the Cameron Highlands feel like they should be located somewhere in Europe rather than in Malaysia, and this is the perfect place to retreat from the heat and take part in natural activities such as hiking and trekking.

A large number of guided tours are offered by local companies and take visitors to surrounding places of interest such as the BOH tea factory, where visitors can learn all about the art of tea manufacture, right from the time the tender tealeaves are first picked to the drying and packing processes.

Other interesting attractions that can be found in the area include strawberry fields, bee gardens and insectariums. Most daytrips through the area also include trekking through the forest, and knowledgeable local guides will be able to tell visitors all about the flora and fauna that can be found along the way.

The Cameron Highlands has long been receiving visitors from all over the globe, and there are plenty of amenities for travellers to make use of here. In addition to stunning accommodation options visitors will also find an excellent selection of restaurants here, which serve up everything from authentic Indian curries to Chinese fare, while there are also a number of bars and shops to be found along the main drag.

An Introduction to Cambodia

Introduction to Cambodia
Introduction to Cambodia
Introduction to Cambodia

In spite of decades of suffering, persecution and poverty, the people of Cambodia love to laugh and you are sure to receive a warm welcome wherever you wander through this charming country. The Kingdom of Cambodia covers 181,035 square kilometres and bordered by Thailand to the west, Laos in the north, Vietnam in the east and the Gulf of Thailand in the south.

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.

Northern Laos

Northern Laos
Northern Laos

With lush forests, high plateaus, sparkling waterfalls, caves, mountains and rice fields, northern Laos is intensely beautiful. This area of Laos is very diverse and offers travellers a range of different experiences. Although travelling through this region is challenging, the rewards are significant and a warm welcome awaits those who venture off the tourist trail to explore the villages and small towns scattered throughout northern Laos.

This is where you will find the mysterious Plain of Jars, the enormous stone containers that cover the landscape. This is the perfect place to go trekking, especially around Luang Namtha and Phongsaly, while the Gibbon Experience offers visitors a rare opportunity to view these magnificent creatures in their natural environment.
This region of Laos is home to many of the hilltop tribes, each with their own unique styles of dress, culture and belief systems. Exploring northern Laos provides to opportunity to get to know a little about this interesting people and discover traditional village life.

Although this area has only been open to tourist for around 10 years, there are already a number of vibrant tourist hangouts in northern Laos. Top of the list is Vang Vieng, where travellers can indulge on Western food, explore the caves and float down the river in a large rubber tube. The nearby temple town of Luang Prabang is also particularly tourist friendly and there is plenty to see and do here.

Adventure sports are popular in northern Laos and this is a good place for white water rafting, hiking, cycling, rock climbing and a number of other activities. Simply walking through the countryside is a great way to spend a day or two as the scenery is always striking and many surprises await the adventurous.

The mighty Mekong River flows through northern Laos and into Thailand. A good way to continue exploring is to take a slow boat from Luang Prabang along the river into Thailand. The journey offers spectacular views of Laos and the chance to stay in the pretty village of Pakbeng along the way.

North Eastern Thailand

North Eastern Thailand
North Eastern Thailand
North Eastern Thailand
North Eastern Thailand

North Eastern Thailand is better known as Isan – also written as Isaan, Isarn, Issan, or Esarn. There are 19 provinces in Isan, but only a few receive interest from tourists, which is a shame as this is a great part of Thailand to relax, wander in nature and get to know the friendly and welcoming people.

Isan covers an area of 160,000 km and much of the land is given over the farms and paddy fields as agriculture is the main economic activity. The region of Isan has a strong, rich and individual culture. Examples of this can be found in the folk music, called mor lam, festivals, dress, temple architecture and general way of life.

The main regional dialect is Isan, which is actually much more similar to Lao than central Thai. Unfortunately, because the rainfall is often insufficient for crops to grow properly, Isan is the poorest region of Thailand, and many people leave the province to seek their fortunes in the bustling metropolis of Bangkok.

The average temperature range is from 30.2 C to 19.6 C. The highest temperature recorded was a sweltering 43.9 C, whilst the lowest was a freezing -1.4 C. Unlike most of Thailand, rainfall is unpredictable, but it mainly occurs during the rainy season, which takes place from May to October.

Although completely unique, Isan food has adopted elements of both Thai and Lao cuisines. Sticky rice is served with every meal and the food is much spicier than that of most of Thailand.

Popular dishes include:

som tam – extremely spicy and sour papaya salad
larb – fiery meat salad liberally laced with chilies
gai yang – grilled chicken
moo ping – pork satay sticks

Isan people are famous for their ability to eat whatever happens to be around, and lizards, snakes, frogs and fried insects such as grasshoppers, crickets, silkworms and dung beetles often form a part of their diet.

Both men and women traditionally wear sarongs; women’s sarong often have an embroidered border at the hem, whilst those of the men are chequered. Much of Thailand’s silk is produced in Isan, and the night markets at many of the small towns and villages are good places to find a bargain.

There is no major airport in Isan, but the State Railway of Thailand has two lines and both connect the region to Bangkok. This is also a good place to enter Laos via the Thanon Mitraphap (“Friendship Highway”), which was built by the United States to supply its military bases in the 1960s and 1970s. The Friendship Bridge – Saphan Mitraphap – forms the border crossing over the Mekong River on the outskirts of Nong Khai to the Laos capital of Vientiane.

Tha Khaek, Laos

Tha Khaek, Laos
Tha Khaek, Laos
Tha Khaek, Laos
Tha Khaek, Laos

With a name that means “Guest landing” in the Lao language, visitors to Tha Khaek can be sure of receiving a warm welcome. This pretty town has managed to retain its unique feel and identity, making it a great place to visit to discover more about the traditional Lao spirit and way of life.

The village can be reached easily by crossing the Mekong by boat from the town of Nakhon Phanom in Thailand and the village receives a large number of travelers making their way across the border. Many people gather on the banks of the river to eat and drink and for the good views of Thailand that can be seen.

Walking around Tha Kaek is a rewarding experience as surprises wait around every corner. Explore the network of narrow lanes and you will soon come across the large open market, where it is literally eat or be eaten. Almost every type of animal seems to be on the menu here including snakes, squirrels, bats and frogs.

A good way to explore this interesting area is to hire a bicycle or moped and simply cycle away. The roads are not too bad around Tha Khaek and you can follow route 13 to the east and then cycle back up and around, returning to Tha Kheak on route 12.

There are many things to see and do along the way. One good stopping point is the Tham Nong Pafa cave, also known as Buddha cave, or you can continue further along the trail and you will come to Aen Cave.Many people visit this are in order to explore Konglor Cave, where you can take a boat ride along the 5 mile river that flows through the cave. 

Lush scenery surrounds Tha Khaek and as you cycle you will pass by paddy fields, dense jungle and fields full of rich brown or dark red earth.

If you need to cool down, pay a visit to Tha Falang, which is a swimming area in the river. Splash around here for a while before following the river to the small cave known as a Tham Xiengliab. 

There are a good variety of restaurants located along the river when it’s time to eat. Another lively eating spot is at the market, and amongst the assortment of crispy fried wildlife you will also find more familiar treats such as pancakes and stuffed French baguettes.

Sayabouri, Laos

Sayabouri, Laos
Sayabouri, Laos
Sayabouri, Laos
Sayabouri, Laos

Also known as Sainyabuli, this pretty province is situated in the northwest of Laos, to the west of the Mekong River. Surrounded by limestone mountains, rice fields and forests, this is a great place to explore the countryside and experience the traditional Lao way of life.

Most travellers overlook Sayabouri on their way to nearby Luang Prabang and Vientiane, but peaceful Sayabouri is a great place to relax and discover the natural beauty of the areas such and waterfalls, caves and forests.

As you wander around Sayabouri you will discover a large number of pretty temples to explore, and Wat Ban Thin, Wat Ban Phapoun and Wat Ban Natonoy are probably the largest and most popular.

A great day trip destination is the Nam Phoun National Biodiversity Conservation Area. This enormous forest contains a large number of high peaks and climbing to the top provides excellent views of the region. The conservation area is also home to a large number of animals such as the Asiatic black bear, elephant, gibbon, Malayan sun bear and Sumatran rhino.

The people of Laos have been using elephants in the forestry industry for centuries and Sayabouri is one of the few places where you can still see this practice in action, which makes a refreshing change from viewing the mighty beast from behind bars.

A good time to visit Sayabouri is during the annual elephant festival, which is held over two or three days in the middle of February by the Lao PDR National Tourism Authority to encourage the use of elephants in tourism-related activities. There are around 200 elephants in Sayabouri and during  the festival more than fifty of them take part in a procession through the town. The festival is a vibrant affair with much drinking, dancing, fireworks and boat races.

More than 10,000 people travel from all over Laos to take part in the elephant festival and this is a great time to see Laos people at their best as they dress in traditional costumes, share food and drink.

Although Sayabouri is much quieter the rest of the year you will find a warm welcome whenever you arrive and there are some interesting places to sleep and eat.

Vang Vieng, Laos

Vang Vieng, Laos
Vang Vieng, Laos
Vang Vieng, Laos

The chilled out traveller’s hot spot of Vang Vieng is situated 120 miles from Vientiane. The journey takes just three of four hours by bus, while it is 150 miles to Luang Prabang. The best way to get around this picturesque village is to walk or hire a bicycle, but mopeds are also available for rent.

The tranquil atmosphere of Vang Vieng is very addictive. The landscape is incredibly serene and picturesque; beyond the sparkling river sheer limestone cliffs rise from a plateau of paddy fields. The river is spanned by a number of wooden bridges, which despite their flimsy appearance compliment the scenery perfectly.

Vang Vieng is a real haven for travellers and you will find a great assortment of cheap guesthouses dotted around the village. Many westerners arrive here and never leave, setting up their own bars and guesthouses alongside the many others owned by Lao people.

Chilling out is the main activity in Vang Vieng. Restaurants show Friends reruns throughout the day and night and there is plenty of good food and drink to go with it. International food is popular here and most restaurants offer a selection of backpack favourites such as pizza, pasta and spicy curry.

Walking through the scenic landscape is also popular and there are some other beautiful caves to explore on the far side of the river. Alternatively, if you fancy something a bit more energetic, why not hire an inner tube and float away down the river? Other popular activities in and around 
Vang Vieng include rafting, trekking and bicycle and motorbike trips.

Many of the families that live in Vang Vieng are self-sufficient and have chickens clucking in the garden in front of the house. As you explore the picturesque dusty lanes you will find puppies running around and fluffy yellow chicks cheep in the long grass, watched over by their clucking mother.

If you are feeling adventurous, take a walk through the village to the Vang Vieng Resort which is a large, picturesque garden with a large cable bridge spanning the river. At the far end of the park is the impressive cave of Tham Jang. Climb the 147 steps for enchanting views of the surrounding countryside and sparkling rocks inside. In the evening, sit beside the river and watch the sun slip behind the horizon with a beer or two.

Oudomsay, Laos

Oudomsay, Laos
Oudomsay, Laos
Oudomsay, Laos

Also known as Oudomxay or Oudômxa, this pretty province in the northwest of Laos was created in 1976 and is a good place to stop for a break if you are travelling between the temple town of Luang Prabang and Phonsaly or Sayabouri.

This is an area of intense natural beauty and the ideal place for trekking and to explore the neighbouring ethnic villages. Adventure sports such as rock climbing and rafting are popular here, while this is also a good place for cycling and bird watching.

Oudomsay is located close to the Chinese border and you will find an interesting mix of cultures as you wander through the province. There are 23 different ethnic minority groups living within the province, all with their own unique belief systems, customs, food and styles of dress.

A great way to spend a day is by trekking the 8 miles to the very pretty waterfall of Tad Lak Sip Et. Explore the Muong La District of Oudomsay and you will find an interesting range of temples, villages and hot spring located deep in the jungle.

One of Oudomsay’s main attractions is the Saymoungkhoune Rattana Stupa. This towering white stupa is a sacred spot and a great place to visit if you’re walking through the surrounding countryside. For spectacular views of the countryside, climb to the top of Phouxay Mountain. Gaze out at a rich vista of paddy fields, jungle, farmland and tiny villages before exploring the rest of the area.

A great place to try traditional Lao food is the Muang Xai market. People travel from all over the province to this large and vibrant market to sell their wares and this is a good place to stop eat and pick up and bargain or two.

An interesting way to travel through this region of Laos is to trek to Muang Say, then take a short bus or pickup truck ride to the picturesque village of Pakbeng. The mighty Mekong River flows from Pakbeng to Luang Prabang and the journey by large, wooden boat takes around five hours. As you sail slowly down the river you will pass limestone cliffs, mangroves and fishing villages.

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.

Houa Phah, Laos

houa_phah_1
Houa Phah, Laos
Houa Phah, Laos

The former base for the Lao People’s Revolutionary Army, Houa Phan province is located in the northeast of Laos. Now free from trouble, this pretty province is surrounded by natural beauty such as caves, waterfalls, mountains and rich rice fields.

Few tourists step off the tourist trail long enough to experience Houa Phah’s gentle charms, yet there are wonderful rewards in store for those who make the effort. Pristine emerald green forests and limestone mountains are just waiting to be explored and there is a good variety of wildlife to spot.

There are more than 100 caves located in Houa Phanh. Available in all shapes and sizes, visiting the caves is an interesting experience and also a good way to keep cool. Perhaps the most famous of all the caves is Tham Than Souphanouvong, which was once the home of Prince Souphanouvong when he was forced into hiding.

Other caves worth visiting in the area are Tham Than Kaysone and Tham Than Khamtay. Both of these caves were the residences of leading Lao political figures and are very grand in scale featuring meeting rooms and reception areas.

After a busy day of climbing through the caves, visitors to Houa Phah can soak away their aches and pains in the local hot spring in the Xam Tay district, where the waters reach temperatures of 40?C. Cool off afterwards in the pretty Xam Tay waterfall and explore the surrounding forest.

There are a large number of villages dotted around Houa Phah and the talented villages are well known for their craftwork skills. This is a good time to watch weaving, which is still done using traditional methods. The textiles made here are thought by many to be some of the finest in Asia and make great souvenirs.

Hintang Archeological Park is one of Laos’ more important prehistoric sites and a great place for a daytrip. Wander through the ruins and discover the foundations of this picturesque region and pay a visit to the large and inviting Keo Nong Vay temple.