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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.

Savannakhet, Laos

Savannakhet, Laos
Savannakhet, Laos
Savannakhet, Laos

Located in the southern section of Laos, Savannakhet province is bordered by both Thailand in the west and Vietnam in the east. Many travellers pass this way on their way in or out of Thailand as the Second Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge spans the mighty Mekong River, connecting Savannakhet with Mukdahan in Thailand.

Another way to reach the town is by boat from northern Lao areas such as Vientiane and Tha Khaek or from Pakse in the south. Travelling through Laos by boat can be very relaxing and a great way to see the countryside at a leisurely pace.

The name Savannakhet means ‘city of paradise’ in the Laos language and this is Laos’ second-largest city. This is a good place to pause for a while as the town has a lot to offer tourists and there are a good number of guesthouses, hotels and restaurants serving international food. You will also find plenty of Asian delights such as curries and spicy salads from Thailand and Vietnamese noodles.

Savannakhet’s close proximity to Thailand and Vietnam means that you will discover a number of different styles as you explore. Take a look around the city’s old Vietnamese temples, French colonial quarters and Buddhists temples. Among the most popular temples are Wat Inghang and Wat Xayaphoum, while the large Catholic church provides an interesting contrast.

If you are interested in the history of this unique area, take a day trip to Heuanehine or Stone House. This rocky house was designed by the Kham people and is thought by many to be one of the most important and interesting sites in the province. The house was built somewhere between 553 and 700 AD and contains a collection of Khmer artwork.er important site is the That Phon stupa, which was built around the same time as the Stone House. Unlike most of the religious shrines and temples in Laos, this stupa is Hindu in origin and dedicated to Phra Shiva and other Hindu deities.

Before you leave Savannakhet, drop by the Dinosaur Exhibition Hall in the town of Khanthabouly at the heart of the province. Here you will find a collection of dinosaur remains that were discovered by an intrepid French scientist in the 1930s. This is one of the few collections of dinosaur remains in Laos and they make an interesting break from exploring the country’s temples and jungles.

 

Khong Island, Laos

Khong Island, Laos
Khong Island, Laos
Khong Island, Laos
Khong Island

Also known as Don Khong, Khong Island is located right in the south of Laos near the Cambodian border. Part of the 4000 islands that comprise the Sii Pan Don area, this is an area of intense natural beauty.

The pace of life is slow on Khong Island and this is a great place to relax and unwind. Although not a lot of travellers make it this far south there are still a good range of hotels and guesthouses here and many visitors are tempted to extend their stay as they become seduced by the gentle pace of life.

The 12 mile long island is home to a stunning collection of flora and fauna and for the patient it is possible to spot the rare Irrawaddy dolphins playing in the Mekong River. A good way to spend a day is trekking to the the Khonephapheng waterfall, which is one of the largest falls in Southeast Asia.

Another pleasant activity is to hire a boat and simply sail away. Many villages are located on the banks of the river such as Muang Saen village and this is a good way to visit these villages and meet the friendly people that live there.

There are a number of pretty temples and monasteries to explore on Khong Island, among them Wat Phu Khao Kaew, where the monks who stay there are welcoming and happy to answer questions.

Palm sugar production is big business on Khong Island due to the large number of palm trees. As you wander around the island you will be able to watch to sugar being harvested for the palm trees and women boiling it in huge metal pans. When the palm sugar is cool it hardens and tastes a lot like fudge. The palm sugar is delicious either eaten on its own or added to tea or coffee and makes a great souvenir.

The evenings are quiet on Khong Island. Sit by the river and watch the sun set through the palm trees. Many people gather at the night market, and this is a good place to swap gossip, do some shopping and find a good meal.

Champassak, Laos

Champassak, Laos
Champassak, Laos
Champassak, Laos

Situated in south-western Laos, The province of Champassak is stunningly beautiful and has a lot to offer visitors. The people who live here have a distinctly different language, culture and life style to people in the rest of Laos and this is an interesting place to explore.

Pakse is the capital of Champassak province and it is here you will find the enchanting irriwaddy dolphins. Take a boat trip on the Mekong River for a chance to spot these shy mammals as they play in the water and leap through the waves.

Situated on picturesque Done Khone Island, the Mekong Dolphin Conservation Centre is a good place to find out more about these interesting animals and how to protect them. Nearby you will find Wat Phou, which is located high atop a mountain and considered to be one of the most important sights in Laos. The temple dates back to the same period as Cambodia’s treasure Angkor Wat and offers spectacular views from the top.
Champassak is also home to the largest waterfalls in Southeast Asia. Known as Khone Pha Pheng, these pretty falls are easy to get to by boat or road and are a great place for a swim and a picnic, surrounded by dense jungle and a colourful array of wildlife.

Another great day trip is the Dong Hua Sao Forest reserve, which is a great place to spot a wide variety of wildlife. There are a large number of waterfalls to explore here such as the Li Phi falls and it is possible to spend the night.
The town of Champassak itself was home to the royal family until about 30 years ago and you will still find a large number of grand buildings here, including a collection from the French colonial-era, which make an interesting contract beside the traditional wooden Laotian houses and shining temples. The town has a sleepy feel to it these days and there are few vehicles to clog the streets.

There are plenty of things to do in Champassak such as elephant riding, trekking and boat rides. Champassak’s rich and fertile land is perfect for growing crops and you will find large coffee, cardamom and bananas plantations here, which make the perfect backdrop for a scenic country walk.

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.

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 Prabang, Laos

Luang Prabang, Laos
Luang Prabang, Laos
Luang Prabang, Laos
Luang Prabang, Laos

Luang Prabang was formerly the capital of Laos and is situated at the meeting point of the Mekong and Mae Kok rivers in northern Laos. Most travellers in Laos make it to this large and inviting city at some point during their journey and this is a great place to spend a few days.

Luang Prabang Province is considered by many to be Laos’ cultural and heritage centre and here you will find a large collection of Buddhist monasteries, temples and monuments. The town itself is a UNESCO World Heritage site and offers some stunning examples of French architecture and traditional temple art.

Surrounded by dense jungle and sparkling rivers, Luang Prabang Province is extremely beautiful. The earth is a rich brown colour and to the north rocky mountains make an impressive backdrop. Trekking is popular here and there are a good range of activities available such as rock climbing and boat trips.

Among the largest and most impressive of Luang Prabang’s temples are Wat Xieng Thong, Wat Visoun and Wat Ou Tay, while the 24-metre high stupa of That Chomsi is an impressive sight. For spectacular views over the city climb to the top of Phu Si, which is also one of the best places to watch the sun set over the city.

There are plenty to see and do around the province. 30 miles north of Luang Prabang city is the cave of Tham Ting, which is filled with large Buddha images and is a prominent place of worship for the local people. The cave is situated right on the river and combined with the two hour boat trip to get there this is a great way to spend a day.

Another good day trip destination pretty the Tad Sae waterfall and Kuang Si waterfall, while the National Museum is a good place to learn more about the local culture and history. Topped by an impressive golden-spired stupa, Luang Prabang’s former royal palace has been transformed into the Palace Museum, and here you will find an impressive collection of regal artefacts and royal portraits

There are a large number of cheap guesthouses available in Luang Prabang and plenty of restaurants serving international food. A great time to visit is during one of the country’s festivals, when the streets are filled with colourful and noisy processions.   

Getting around Luang Prabang is easy and this is a great place to take it easy before venturing into the more remote areas of Laos.