Tag - mountain

Stalking the Elusive Beauty of Phu Chi Fa

Phu Chi Fa is a mountain peak, near Chiang Rai, Thailand, in the far north of the country, on the border with Laos. Definitely not a very well traveled place by foreigners, although it is becoming a rather popular "selfie spot" for Thai's on holiday. We decided to check it out on New Years Day 2017. Most people travel to one of several local villages (where there are loads of hostels and campsites, etc) the day before, and then wake up early and head up the mountain for sunrise. As we had no reservations for a place to stay, we opted to wake up at 2am and drive from our hotel in Chiang Rai directly to the mountain. Had we actually looked closely at a map and realized we would be driving directly across a mountain range in pitch dark, we might have made another choice. But it was an adventure! 16% grade switchbacks in a little tiny 1.2l engine car where you can't see anything beyond the barely adequate headlight swaths...at least there was no risk of falling asleep which is usually my problem with long drives.
phu chi fa
Phu Chi Fa archway in the local town
At last, we arrive in one of several local towns where they have a big archway welcoming people to Phu Chi Fa (or Phu Chee Pha). These local towns are perched on the steep side of the mountain with terraced bungalows and campsites dotting the landscape everywhere. We arrived at 4:30am and the parking lot was already half full. A line of pick-up trucks were waiting to shuttle people up the 2km more to the "basecamp" staging area. Standing in the back of the pickup, it really felt like it might tip over as it cut back and forth on the steep steep switchback road winding up the mountain. Passing the empty trucks coming back down was harrowing. Basecamp had a horde of local kids running around selling flashlights, hot coffee, and ramen noodle cups. I tend to like "proper" coffee, but that little paper cup of Nescafe instant coffee really hit the spot that morning! Next we start the trek up to the top of the mountain. There are stairs cut into the dirt with bamboo runners edging them out. It is a steep but not too long 1/2km to the top. Lots of people start off at a fast pace and then have to stop and rest...huffing and puffing like racehorses. Slow and steady wins the race in this case.
Its cold, foggy, misty, and starting to rain...
We arrived on top to an absolutely huge crowd of people with already staked out spots to sit and wait for the sunrise. It was rather cold up top, with foggy mist rolling through, and even a bit of light rain. The only reason you could see the fog was because there were hundreds of people flashing flashlights around, peering into the mist. Eventually, after perhaps an hour or so of waiting in the dark, it began to lighten and we saw the grand view. Fog filled valleys and green GREEN mountaintops of Laos. The sunrise is what people come to see...unfortunately, it was a cloudy day and we never saw the sun at all.
Quick side selfie with the sign (too lazy to wait in line for a proper photo)
Have to capture the moment somehow...we were just too impatient to wait in line like everyone else for our turn at the sign.
Did I mention that it is rather popular?
Oh, and if you didn't believe me about all the people...(I have never seen so many selfie sticks!)
beautious
Playing around with the new "bokah" (blurred background) mode...
Killing time, playing with the iPhone 7's new Portrait/Bokah (background blur) mode...
Beautiful Phu Chi Fa, view of fog filled valleys in Laos from Thailand
At last, our best shot of the view. Fog, green, misty, and beautiful. However, no sunshine and definitely not quite as beautiful as some Phu Chi Fa pictures that I have seen. So just to show what it can look like, here are two pictures taken by other people on "good" days...
Someone else's wonderful picture on a clear day
Another someone else's wonderful picture on a clear day
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Sungai Petani, Malaysia

sungai_petani_1Welcome to Sungai Petani, a friendly town in the northern state of Kedah. Farming is very much the lifeline of this region and even the name Sungai Petani means ‘Farmer's River’ in the Malay language.

This interesting town has plenty to entertain tourists and is a great place to take a break before exploring the rest of the country. There are a number of lush green parks to explore as well as interesting buildings, dense jungle and sandy beaches where you can soak up the sun or swim in the cool waters.

To get an idea of the size and beauty of this area, climb to the top of Gunung Jerai, which is the tallest mountain. There is a 15 mile trekking route which winds its way to the top of the mountain and the somewhat challenging climb to the top is rewarded by spectacular views of the Straits of Malacca and the surrounding jungle.

Heading back to the town, pay a visit to the Jalan Ibrahim, which is a large clock tower located on Sungai Petani’s main street. Built in 1936, the clock tower measures a little over 12 meters and was given to George V and Queen Mary to commemorate their Silver Jubilee.

As you wander through the centre of town you will come to Jubli Perak or Silver Jubilee public park, which is a great place to take a break and sit in the shade for a while. Another great recreational area is Bird Park, where you will see a large collection of our feathered friends roaming in a large leafy area.

Travellers who want to relax and unwind for a while can go fishing in many of the rivers, lakes and streams that can be found in this part of the world, while those who want to get back into the swing of things can do so with a round or two of golf.

The Carnivall is Kedah’s first water park and attracts people from all over the state. Situated in the grounds of Cinta Sayang Golf and Country Resort, the Carnivall has been open for less than two years and is a great place to cool off.

Pantai Merdeka is a popular beach destination and features a large number of seafood restaurants and closest point to the nearby islands of Pulau Bidan and Pulau Telor.

Those who are searching for local flavour will want to head on over to the farmer’s Market, which is held in the very heart of the town on Mondays and Thursdays throughout the year.
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Kinabalu National Park, Malaysia

Kinabalu National Park, MalaysiaHome to the area’s highest mountain and some spectacular forest, Kinabulu National Park is a great place to explore. Climbing to the summit of the impressive Mount Kinabalu is the most popular activity here, while there are also a large number of enchanting forest trails for visitors to follow.

Covering 754 square kilometers, Kinabalu National Park features a large number of natural attractions such as waterfalls, gardens and the Poring Hot Springs, where the warm mineral waters are the perfect place to soak away aches and pains after a hard day of mountain climbing or trekking through the forest.

Mount Kinabalu towers 4,095 meters above northern Borneo. Climb to the top for spectacular views and for the unparalleled sense of achievement that conquering this mighty mountain brings. It is possible to climb to the summit and back in about four hours, although it is better to allow a couple of days and take an overnight break at Laban Rata as the best views come in the early morning.

Unlike many other mountains of its loftiness, there are no special mountain climbing skills needed to scale Mount Kinabalu, although potential climbers should be reasonably fit. However, the park staff recommend that those planning to climb the mountain hire a guide as the mountain can be rather dangerous.

Kinabalu National Park has its own museum, where visitors can learn about the area’s flora and fauna before climbing the mountain or taking one of the marked trails through the forest. There are also a number of places to spend the night within the park, with options ranging from dorm beds to pretty chalets.
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Location and History of Malaysia

Location and History of Malaysia
Location and History of Malaysia
Location and History of Malaysia
Covering 329,847 square kilometres, Malaysia is situated in Southeast Asia and is bordered by Thailand, to the north, Indonesia and Singapore to the south, and Brunei and the Philippines to the east. Malaysia is divided into two separate land masses – known as Peninsular Malaysia and Malaysian Borneo - by the South China Sea.

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.
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Khammouane, Laos

Khammouane, Laos
Khammouane, Laos
Khammouane, Laos
This very pretty Lao province is surrounded by amazing limestone formations, caves, rivers and dense jungle. The population of the province is around 260,000, with people coming from several different tribes such as Phuan, Tahoy, Kri and Katang. Most of the settlements in Khammouane province are small villages with collections of houses built from wood in the traditional Lao style. Everywhere you turn in Khammouane you are surrounded by intense natural beauty. Rich dark soil is covered with colourful plantations of rice, cabbage, sugar cane and bananas, while the Annamite mountain range is to the east and sparkling rivers, forests and caves are just waiting to be explored.

Khammouane province is easy to reach by bus from Vientiane in just five or six hours. There are plenty for visitors to do here such as kayaking, rafting, and caving. There are a large number of caves to explore and some of the highlights include the Buddha cave and Tham Nang Aen cave, while the Tham Xieng Lap caves are so pretty that they are worthy of a day trip by themselves.

Another great day trip destination is That Skihotabang, which is a large and interesting stupa commissioned by King Nanthasen in the 10th century.  The stupa was carefully restored in the 1950s and is an impressive sight.

The province’s capital is Tha Kek and this is a good place to stay for a night or two while you explore this lush and leafy area of Laos. While in Tha Khek take the time to explore the striking French colonial architecture in the city and sample the delicious range of Lao dishes, which is slightly different to those found in the rest of the country.

Nature lovers will want to explore the Nakai-Nam Theun Biodiversity Conservation Area, where you can spot a wonderful range of animals such as elephant, tigers, lemur and turtles. For excellent views over the jungle climb the Khammouane Limestone, which is a maze of limestone karst peaks.

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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.
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Attapeu, Laos

Attapeu, Laos
Attapeu, Laos
Attapeu, Laos
Situated on the southeast tip of Laos, this small and sleepy town doesn’t receive much attention from travellers and is a great place to get a real feel for Laos. Attapeu’s relaxed pace of life is enchanting and urges visitors to slow down a little and enjoy the fresh mountain air.

Attapeu is seated in a large valley and surrounded by picturesque mountains. The town is brushed by the Sekong and Sekhamane Rivers, which provide a source of fresh fish and a pretty place to relax in the evening with a beer or two.

Several sites of stunning natural beauty are located just a short distance from Attapeu and both the Dong Ampham Forest and Xepiane Forest are worth the journey. Visitors can also trek along part of the Ho Chi Minh trail and discover the villages of the tribes who follow a traditional way of life that has changes very little over the years.

Attapeu is populated by nine different tribes, namely the Alak, Katang, Kaleum, Katou, Suay, Nge, Lave, Tahoy, Nyajeung. Each of these tribes has their own traditional style of dress and customs and staying a while in Attapeu provides the perfect opportunity to get to learn about these interesting people and their alternative life styles.

There is little traffic in Attapeu and a good way to see all that the area has to offer is simply to walk through the town and surrounding countryside, stopping to talk to the friendly people you pass on the way. There are also tour companies located in the town where you can hire a hire to show you around if you prefer.

The nearby village of Ban Sekhaman is a good place to explore and there is a regular ferry that runs from the pier to the south of Attapeu to take you there. Explore the crumbling wat in this picturesque village and picnic beside the river before heading back to Attapeu.

A good place to indulge in a little retail therapy and pick up a bargain is the traditional local market, and this is also a great place to find a tasty evening meal.

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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.

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Western Cambodia

Western Cambodia
Western Cambodia
This picturesque region of Cambodia stretches from the capital city of Phnom Pehn to the Thai border. The area is marked by two dramatic mountain ranges, namely the Cardamom Mountains located in the southwestern corner and the Dangrek Range to the north.

There are a number of picturesque villages located in this region of Cambodia, especially in amongst the Cardamom Mountains. Although not many travellers visit western Cambodia, those that do will find waterfalls, caves and traditional villages, where the way of life has stayed more or less the same for centuries.

This is a great place to rest and unwind away from the tourist scene. Although you won’t find many bars or beaches in this area, there is still plenty to do. Hike through the forest, discover traditional craft skills at tribal villages and take a boat trip from Battambang to Siem Reap.
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Kirirom National Park, Cambodia

Kirirom National Park, Cambodia
Kirirom National Park, Cambodia
Kirirom National Park, Cambodia
Cambodia’s first official national park, Kirirom has been open to visitors since 1997 and covers an impressive 800 acres. Situated 112 kilometres from Phnom Penh, many local city dwellers travel here on the weekend, spending the night amid lush forest and pine groves. However, arrive during the week and you will have this picturesque area virtually to yourself.

Kirirom means ‘mountain of joy’ in the Khmer language. This is a great place to escape from the heat and King Sihanouk had a palace built here in the 1960s as a summer retreat. This is also a great place to retreat from the hustle and bustle of the city and experience Cambodia’s natural beauty.

As you explore the park you will discover a number of pretty lakes and waterfalls. There are food vendors located at various points throughout the park and this is the perfect place to stop for a picnic while you soak up the spectacular scenery.

There are a number of walking trails, with one of the most popular being the two hour hike up to Phnom Dat Chivit. Also known as End of the World Mountain, pause for glimpses of black bears and unparalleled views of the Elephant Mountains and Cardamom Mountains.

At the top of the mountain you will find a Buddhist monastery and a clear water lake, which is a good spot to cool and enjoy a snack from one of the vendors’ carts. Although a number of animals live in the national park such as elephants and tigers sightings are rare, although it is possible to see other animals such as porcupines and colourful hornbills.

If you don’t fancy travelling straight back to Phnom Pehn when darkness falls, head to the nearby Chambok village to spend the night in a traditional wooden house. There are a number of good restaurants here and an impressive 40 meter high waterfall.
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Ream National Park, Cambodia

Ream National Park, Cambodia
Ream National Park, Cambodia
Ream National Park, Cambodia
ream_national_park_4
Ream National Park is Cambodia’s most diverse national park. Located about 12 miles from Sihanoukville, the park has been open since 1993. Ream covers 21,000 hectares; 15,000 hectares of land and 6,000 hectares of river and sea. Here you will find secluded beaches, tropical jungles and wide rivers. Over 155 species of bird call Ream home, as well as Sun Bears, the endangered elongated tortoise, eagles and even dolphins.
A boat trip through the national park is the perfect way to see the natural beauty of this charming area. Sail away down the Prek Tuk Sap River in a small motorboat, sheltered from the hot sun by a canvass roof. The scenery is spectacular and the banks of the river are lined with mangrove forests. There is plenty of wildlife to see such as beautiful green kingfishers, monkeys hooting in the trees and purple jellyfish.

As you glide slowly along the river, you will pass people digging in the river bed for shellfish and fishing from small boats. After a couple of hours, you will arrive at Koh Som Poch Beach, where you can swim or sunbathe while lunch is prepared.

Walk for about an hour through tropical jungle rich with plant life and you will come to the Thmor Thom fishing village. The buzz of cicada beetles is loud and exoticly beautiful butterflies flutter through the forest.

Ream’s intense natural beauty leads many people to set up home here and the population has doubled in the last eight years. This means that resources such as wood, herbs, fish and fruit are seriously over-used. There is also the problem of illegal logging and poaching to deal with. Luckily, this situation is slowly but steadily changing thanks to the injection of cash that the tourism industry is providing. Illegal fishing and logging are being stamped out, and the forests of the area are gradually regenerating.

It is possible to book a tour of Ream National Park at a number of places in Sihanoukville. The prices of tours vary according to the company you opt for, but all tours include meals as well as transportation and entrance into the park.
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Prasat Preah Vihear, Cambodia

Prasat Preah Vihear, Cambodia

Prasat Preah Vihear, Cambodia
Also known as Khao Phra Wiharn or Sacred Monastery, Prasat Preah Vihear is one of Cambodia’s most striking monuments from the Angkorian period. This 800 meter temple is situated at an elevation of 730 meters and offers spectacular views across Cambodia to the scared mountain of Phnom Kulen.

Prasat Preah Vihear is an important pilgrimage site and was build to represent Mount Meru where many important deities are believed to reside. Climb the monumental stairway and pause to appreciate the detailed carvings that adorn the temple.

Look out for the Gopura on the third level, which displays an early rendition of the Churning of the Ocean of Milk. The temple sits atop Pey Tadi, which is a rocky cliff in the Dângrêk Mountains on the border between Thailand and Cambodia, providing interesting views into both countries.

Many people take a picnic with them so that they can enjoy the stunning views from the top while they eat. The large market place at the foot of Prasat Preah Vihear is a good place to buy freshly cooked food and snacks.

Prasat Preah Vihear is a great place to visit on the way into Cambodia from Thailand or just before you leave the country. For a really memorable adventure, travel to Prasat Preah Vihear by helicopter from Siem Reap.

The sunset is spectacular from the top of the temple and it is worth sticking around at the end of the day to see it. The nearest town to Prasat Preah Vihear is Kantharalak. Here you will find a number of basic guesthouses, restaurants and pretty places to explore, making this a good place to spend the night.
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Koh Pha-ngan, Thailand


Koh Pha-ngan, Thailand
Koh Pha-ngan, Thailand
Koh Pha-ngan, Thailand
Koh Pha-ngan, Thailand
Famous for its lively full moon parties at Haad Rin Beach, Koh Pha-ngan has a chilled-out hippy atmosphere that combines nightly hedonism with day time water sports and lazing on the beach. Situated in the south of Thailand 20 kilometres north of Koh Samui in Surat Thani Province, this is an ideal destination for travellers who enjoy less crowded, more private beaches. The best way to reach Koh Pha-ngan is from Koh Samui and the boat trip takes about an hour.

Haad Rin is Koh Pha-ngan's most popular beach. Lined with beach bars playing a wide assortment of music, the white sands can get pretty crowded. Luckily, Koh Pha-ngan offers many more secluded stretches of white sand for those who prefer a little privacy. Ao Thong Nai Pan is perhaps the second most beautiful beach on Koh Pha-ngan reachable by boat or songthaew from Thong Sala Pier.

Another extremely beautiful and tranquil beach is Ao Si Thanu, whilst the nearby tiny island of Koh Tae Nai can be reached just 5 minutes by chartered boat. This island offers jungle-covered hills, a long stretch of golden sandy beach and colourful coral reefs, perfect for diving or scuba diving.

Koh Pha-ngan has some extremely pretty jungle waterfalls waiting to be discovered including Than Sadet Falls, Phaeng Falls, Than Prapat Falls and Than Prawet Falls. A great way to see the falls and the rest of the island is to take a guided boat tour. Boat trips usually take around 10 people, last all day and include snorkelling and lunch. The boat trips are also a great way to meet fellow travellers and exchange tall tales and travelling tips.

Wat Khao Tham is a cave temple located on the hilltop of Khao Kao Haeng. There is a monastery here that is ideal for meditation amidst the well-preserved nature. The monastery offers 10 days meditation retreats and can be found near the pretty village of Ban Tai.

Another interesting temple is Wat Madio Wan, where a replica of Lord Buddha's Footprint is enshrined on the hilltop Mondop, whilst jungle trekking up to the island's largest mountain of Khao Ra is a great way to see the island.

Many people stop at Koh Pha-ngan for a day or two before heading on to Koh Tao, which lies 45 kilometres north of Koh Pha-ngan and is known as the best diving site in the Gulf of Thailand. Koh Tao, which means Turtle Island in the Thai language, is very small and covered with palm trees and pristine white sand, the perfect exotic island.

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Narathiwat, Thailand

Narathiwat, Thailand
Narathiwat, Thailand
Narathiwat, Thailand
Narathiwat, Thailand
Situated on the banks of the Bang Nara River, this friendly province can be found approximately 1,149 kilometres south of Bangkok near the Malaysian border. Malaysia can be reached from Narathiwat though a ninety-minute bus trip, and this is a good place to rest for a day or two before making the crossing.

75 percent of this beautiful province consists of jungles and mountains, and there is a lot for the nature lover to explore. There are also pretty beaches on which to top up your tan and magnificent temples to discover.

The name Narathiwat literally means "the residence of good people" in the Thai language, and visitors will soon find that the area lives up to its name as hospitality is as warm as the weather. The city of Narathiwat has preserved its traditional culture and authenticity and has a feel of village-like tranquillity. The residents of Narathiwat are mainly farmers and fishermen and the majority are Muslim.

If you love nature, a visit to Hala-Bala Wildlife Reserve should be top of the list. Established in 1996, the reserve covers the Sankala Khiri mountain range, Hala forest and Bala forest and is a good place to see a large selection of wildlife. Lucky visitors have the chance to see hornbills, gibbons, the large Thut frogs, and rhinoceroses.

Another area of great natural beauty is the Sirindhorn Peat Swamp Forest Nature Reserve, and you can combine a visit with a trip to the Khao Kong Buddhist Park, which is situated about 9 kilometres from town. Here you will find Wat Khao Kong and the golden Phra Phuttha Thaksin Ming Mongkhon Buddha image sitting in the lotus position atop a mountain. And the park offers spectacular views over the province.

Other interesting temples to explore include Wat Chon Thara Singhe, Wat Choeng Khao, the Old Central Mosque and Taloh-manoh Mosque, while Thaksin Ratchaniwet Palace is situated on Tanyongmat Mountain, and contains throne halls decorated with an assortment of trees.

Back to nature; don't miss the stunning Ao Manao Park, which features a 4 kilometre sandy bay lined with pine forest to explore when you tire of soaking up the sun. Other beaches include Hat Narathat, Kubu Beach-Ban Khlong Tan and the small, peaceful island of Ko Yao.

Visitors arriving during one of the area's lively festivals are treated to displays of traditional song and dance, combined with much laughter.

The Narathiwat Products Fair showcases the highlights of the province, such as special arts and crafts.

The Kolae-Long Boat Races are held on Bang Nara River opposite Sala Prachakhom (community pavilion). This is an annual event held when the Royal Family is in residence at Thaksin Ratchaniwet Palace.

Krachut Sedge Day is held around the same time as the boat races in order to promote hemp products. Activities include an exhibition on production from the preparation of raw materials that are the Krachut sedge trees that grow in peat swamp forests or waterlogged areas of the province, to weaving the sedge into beautiful mats or transforming it into other unusual products such as hats, handbags, letter holders, food covers, and lamp shades. There are also Krachut contests and stalls selling Krachut sedge products.

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Trang, Thailand

Trang, Thailand
Trang, Thailand
Trang, Thailand
Trang, Thailand
Located approximately 828 kilometres from Bangkok, Trang Province is one of Thailand's most southern provinces and covers an area of 4,941 square kilometres. The province features a group of pretty, chilled out islands and regularly wins awards for the 'Cleanest City in Thailand'.

Two major rivers flow through the province; the Trang River, which originates in the Khao Luang Mountain Range and Maenam Palian from the Banthat Mountain Range. This is an area of stunning natural beauty, featuring breathtaking islands and astounding beaches along the coast as well as awe-inspiring inland limestone mountains, caves and sparkling waterfalls, most of which feature pools for swimming in.

Many people travel from all over the world to visit Wat Tantayapirom, which features a footprint of Lord Buddha. Nearby, the Chinese Meunram Temple shows performances of Thai Shadow Theatre.

There are a large number of pretty islands in the area, and a great way to see them is by going on a sea kayaking tour. One of the most popular islands in the area is Ko Ngai, which is a small island with a long sandy beach in the east and unspoiled coral reefs. This is a great island for snorkelling and scuba diving.

Koh Muk and Tham Morakot (Emerald Cave) are also extremely popular, whilst Koh Kradan is said by many to be the most beautiful island in the area. Koh Chueak and Koh Waen are small islands good for snorkelling and scuba diving, while the Libong Archipelago Wildlife Reserve on Koh Libon preserves the rare dugong, also known as the sea cow. Although large, these animals are extremely graceful and it is delightful to see them in this reserve, which is one of the last areas of refuge open to them.

There are a large number of beautiful flowing waterfalls in Trat. Among the best are Namtok Ton Te and the incredible 17-tiered Namtok Phrai Sawan.

Hat Yao is a very chilled out fishing hamlet, perfect for escaping the crowds and the abundant bars of other beach areas. Hidden amongst the cliffs, you will need to hire a long-tail boat to reach the tiny bay of Hat Apo, but it is well worth the trouble. Whilst there, pay a visit to the extremely beautiful cave of Tham Chao Mai, which has hosts of glittering stalactites and stalagmites.

There are many different snorkelling trips available in the area. A good option is to book a trip to Koh Rok and go trekking in the mighty mountains of Khao Banthat.

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Phang-Nga, Thailand

Phang-Nga, Thailand
Phang-Nga, Thailand
Phang-Nga, Thailand
phang_nga_4
Welcome to an area of intense and unforgettable natural beauty; Phang-nga Province, which is located roughly 788 kilometres from Bangkok in the south of Thailand. Full of spectacular national parks, pretty beaches and islands, it is easy to see why this is a popular destination for both international travellers and Thai holiday makers.

The most famous attraction is perhaps Ao Phang-nga National Park, which is a geological wonderland filled with islets, sunken caverns and astonishing rock formations rising out of the sea. The bay is ideal for expeditions of sea canoes to explore the many fascinating caverns, all of which have their own interesting eco-systems.

Also extremely beautiful is the Surin Islands Marine National Park, which is a great place to go diving and snorkelling. Between March and April whale sharks can be spotted in the park, while people can stay overnight in a bungalow in Morken Village. There is also an interesting Walking Trail around the bay of Ao Mai and into the jungle.

There are a large number of pretty islands around Phang Nga Bay just waiting to be explored. The most famous is the island of Ko Phing Kan, popularly known as James Bond Island. In 1974, the James Bond movie The Man with the Golden Gun was filmed around this needle formed limestone rock, which juts out of the sea. A good way to see the island is by taking a boat tour.

Other areas of intense natural beauty include the Similan Islands Marine National Park, the Khao Lak-Lam Ru National Park, Ton Pariwat Wildlife Conservation Area and Somdet Phra Srinagarindra Park, which is a public park located opposite the interesting building of the former City Hall.

Phan-nga is a great place for trekking through the jungle and exploring. There are a large number of spectacular waterfalls to discover, all of which make great trekking destinations. Of particular interest are Namtok Saeng Thong, Namtok Hin Lat, Namtok Tao Thong, Namtok Raman and the stunning five-tiered Namtok Lamru.

The Ban Bo Dan Hot Springs are a great place to soak away your aches and pains after a busy day of exploring. Not to be missed is the enchanting Wat Tham Suwannakhuha, which means Heaven Grotto Temple in English and is a cave full of Buddha images including a 15 meter reclining Buddha.

Said to resemble an elephant, Khao Chang is a huge mountain which offers spectacular views of the area from the top. Whilst there, check out the interesting Phang-nga Wildlife Nursery Station, which is located nearby.

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Nakhon Nayok, Thailand

Nakhon Nayok, Thailand
Nakhon Nayok, Thailand
nakhon_nayok_3
Nakhon Nayok, Thailand
Welcome to Nakhon Nayok Province, an ancient site of the Dvaravati civilisation, which dates back more than 900 years. The province capital, Nakhon Nayok town was originally established as an eastern fort town of Ayutthaya during the reign of King U Thong and is located 106 kilometres from Bangkok.

There is a lot in Nakhon Nayak for lovers of nature to see and explore. The northern part of the province is situated amongst the colossal Dong Phaya Yen mountain range, and most of that area is covered by the lush green jungle of the spectacularly beautiful Khao Yai National Park.

In the central part of the province you will find the flowing waters of the Nakhon Nayok River. There are many opportunities to hire various kinds of boats around the area as this river is perfect for kayaking and canoeing. You can take out kayaks and canoes for the entire day and use your craft to explore the narrow tributaries at Khlong Wang Takhrai, which lead through a vast coffee plantation.

A short bus ride away from town is the Wang Takhrai Botanical Garden and the popular Wang Takhrai waterfall. There are also many other waterfalls to discover in the province such as Nam Tok Nang Rong, the nine-tiered Sarika waterfall and also the stunning Lan Rak waterfall. Another beautiful waterfall is Nam Tok Heo Narok, where the water cascades from a 200 metre cliff.

For those interested in the rich history of the area, a visit to the Dong Lakhon Ancient City should be high on the agenda. Located 9 kilometres south of the town, this is an ancient town of the Dvaravati period (about 6th-13th centuries). Don't forget to pay a visit to the local museum to discover more about the area's interesting past and to see well labelled displays of ancient Buddha images.

Worth looking out for are the long awaited Nakhon Nayok Canoe Races, which commence at the Wang Takhrai Canal Bridge in Tambon Sarika and end in the Nakhon Nayok River near the provincial capital, a distance of 5 kilometres. The races take place at various times throughout the year and tourists are welcome to join in the fun and try to beat the local contestants.

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Prachuap Khiri Khan, Thailand

Prachuap Khiri Khan, Thailand
Prachuap Khiri Khan, Thailand
Prachuap Khiri Khan, Thailand
Prachuap Khiri Khan, Thailand
Located roughly 280 kilometres south of Bangkok, Prachuap Khiri Khan was established during the reign of King Rama IV in 1845. The province is well known because of its beautiful natural scenery, which includes stunning sandy beaches, cool caves, limestone cliffs and mountains.

Most visitors are draw to the province by the pretty town of Hua Hin, which was previously a royal resort, and is an excellent seaside location with an incredible beach. There are many large designer shops in Hua Hin as well as seaside souvenir stalls, making this a good place to indulge in a little retail therapy.

The Hua Hin Jazz Festival takes place around the first week in June and usually lasts two or three days. With well known bands and solo artists from all over the world, this is an event not to be missed.

Another great seaside town is the capital, also called Prachuap Khiri Khan. Here you will find Wat Thammikaram, which is a temple set atop a steep hill. Although climbing to the top of this hill is a bit of an effort, the spectacular views of the bay and surrounding countryside more than make up for it. There are a large troop of monkeys living in the temple grounds, which has earnt the temple the nickname of 'Monkey Temple'. The temple is located at the top of Khao Chong Krajok (Mirror Tunnel Mountain).

Another area of great natural beauty is the Khao Sam Roi Yot National Park, which was established in 1966 to protect Thailand's largest freshwater marshes and contains pretty limestone cliffs and beaches.

Other beaches in the area include Ao Bang Nam Lom, Ao Noi and Ao Manao. Hat Ha Kaw is another lovely beach, whilst next to it is the King Mongkut Memorial Park of Science & Technology, which commemorates the 1868 solar eclipse that the great king witnessed from this spot with his son.

Nature lovers can pay a visit to the Wildlife Friends of Thailand Rescue Centre, which has committed itself to looking after animals of every species and another good way to spend an afternoon is to visit Wat Khao Tham Khan Kradai, which is a small cave temple situated at the end of a long, beautiful bay.

Like in most of Thailand's beach resorts, snorkeling and scuba diving trips are readily available, and another good way to get an idea of the true beauty of this area is to go on a boat trip around the coast.

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Chanthaburi, Thailand

Chanthaburi, Thailand
Chanthaburi, Thailand
Chanthaburi, Thailand
Chanthaburi, Thailand
Popularly known as the 'city of the moon', Chanthaburi is famous for its large quantity of tropical fruits and also as a centre for beautiful gem stones. This interesting province is blessed with lush forests featuring sparkling waterfalls, fishing villages and tranquil beaches on which to relax and soak up the sun.

A great place to get an idea of the natural beauty of this province is to visit the Khao Laem Sing Forest Park, whilst Khao Khitchakut National Park contains a breathtaking waterfall and is a good place to spot wild elephants. Another great reserve is the Namtok Phliu National Park which, as its name suggests, contains a large number of enchanting waterfalls to splash about in.

If you are interested in water sports, Khlong Pong Nam Ron is a great place to go white water rafting, the best time being between July and January. Another breathtaking experience is the view from the top of Khao Phloi Waen, which means Sapphire-Ring Mountain in the Thai language. The mountain is an impressive 150 metres high and has a Sri-Lankan style chedi on the top. Many visitors to Chanthaburi Province go there in order to pay their respects at Wat Khao Sukim, which has a famous meditation centre. Other interesting temples in the area include Wat Phlup, Wat Hai Lom and the very pretty Wat Mangkon Buppharam, which has been built in the Chinese style.

The Chanthaburi Cultural Centre is a great place to go to get an idea of the area's diverse history and culture. The ancient city of Khai Noen Wong also makes an interesting day trip and you can combine your visit with a trip to the Underwater Archaeological Office, which is a kind of maritime museum.

The province is home to some extremely pretty beaches and the quiet, shaded beach of Hat Ao Yang is great for relaxing on, while the larger stretch of sand at Hat Laem Sing is also a good place to hang out.

There are plenty other interesting attractions in and around Chanthaburi. The Chamsom Crocodile Farm and Zoo offers visitors the opportunity to see different crocodile species and a range of other animals. Another good way to see Thailand's wildlife is to pay a visit to Oasis Sea World, while the King Taksin Park is a great place for a picnic.

When it comes to food, there is plenty to be found, especially if you enjoy fresh seafood. A good place to find a cheap meal is at the local night market, and there are plenty of restaurants around catering to every taste and budget.

Chanthaburi Province is well known for some special festivals, and a good time to visit is during the Gem Festival, which takes place in early December and features jewellery shows and a gem design competition Another interesting festival is the annual fruit festival in the first week of June.

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Nakhon Phanom, Thailand

Nakhon Phanom, Thailand
Nakhon Phanom, Thailand
Nakhon Phanom, Thailand
Nakhon Phanom, Thailand
The name Nakhon Phanom means 'city of hills' in the Thai language, and this ancient city located on the right bank of the Mekong River in Nakhon Phanom Province in northeast Thailand gets its name from the striking jungle covered mountains which surround it. Nakhon Phanom is situated 580 kilometers northeast of Bangkok, across the Mekong River from the Laotian town of Thakhek. Nakhon Phanom is well known as a place of great beauty and a gentle pace of life which immediately enchants visitors and stays with them throughout the rest of their journey.

The culture, art, music and customs of the Lao people have a strong influence on this area, and it is blended well with the elements of Thai culture as well as the faint traces of other cultures which still linger in the background.

It is well worth taking the time to explore the town's temples, especially as many of them embrace both Thai and Lao temple design features. Wat Si Thep is a good place to start as it is covered with a collection of beautiful murals. Other interesting temples include Wat Okat Si Bua Ban, Wat Maha That and Wat Noi Pho Kham.

Located 50 kilometres from Nakhon Phanom town, Phra That Phanom is the most celebrated temple in the area and makes a good day trip. The temple features a magnificent 53 metre high five-tiered golden umbrella inlaid with a plethora of precious gems.

Just 4 kilometres west of Nakhon Phanom town, Ban Na Chok offers a rare opportunity to visit a Vietnamese community in Thailand and learn about their unique culture and traditional way of life.

There are many other appealing villages around Nakhon Phanom town that make good day trips. Hire a bicycle and head 45 kilometres north to Nam Song Si. Another great day trip is the cotton weaving village of Renu Nakhon, 52 kilometres south. Whilst there, pay a visit to the attractive Wat Phra That Renu Nakhon.

The Riverside Promenade follows the banks of the mighty Mekong River, and there are dozens of food stalls dotted along the banks from which to buy a cheap meal and watch the world go by.

Nestled in the Langka Mountain Range, the Phu Langka National Park is a great place of natural beauty and stunning vistas. There are two sparkling waterfalls to swim in and many places to enjoy a picnic in the sunshine.

Interestingly, the beach of Hat Sai Thong - Golden Sand Beach - only appears between February to April, when the river is at its lowest. If you happen to be in the area at the time, this is a good opportunity to slap on some suntan lotion and soak up some rays.

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Khon Khen, Thailand

Khon Khen, Thailand
Khon Khen, Thailand
Nestled in the heart of Isan, Khon Kaen is the centre of Northeast. The capital of Khon Kaen Province is the city of Khon Kaen, which is a rich source of culture.

The Khon Kaen National Museum, Khon Kaen City Museum and the Art and Culture Museum are all great places to spend a couple of hours and learn about the area and its people.

To the centre of the city, the beautiful 100-hectare lake known as Beung Kaen Nakhon (Kaen Nakhon Lake) is a great spot for a picnic, whilst the nearby temples of Wat That and Wat Nong Wang Muang and definitely worth exploring.

Khon Kaen is the centre of the north-eastern silk industry, and the Sala Mai Thai silk village 55 kilometres to the west makes a great day trip. Here you will see top quality silk dyed in a wide range of colours and made into a multitude of different products, and in the traditional weaving households you can actually see the silk being skilfully woven.

Khon Kaen is a province with stunning natural beauty and it features a couple of great national parks. Phu Wiang National Park was recently made famous when dinosaur remains were unearthed there, whilst the Nam Nao National Park contains the region's highest mountain

peak - Phu Pha Jit, which measures a colossal 1271 metres. It is possible to camp in the grounds of both national parks for just 30 baht, which makes a very cheap and picturesque option, although not so much so during the monsoon season!
Next door to the park the Phu Kiaw Wildlife Sanctuary, which is home to leopards, tigers, elephants and many other beasties.

Also not to be missed is the unusual Ban Khok Sa-Nga Cobra Village, where the local snakes are highly revered. Here you can witness the love and trust shown by the villagers to the mighty snakes as well as daily cobra shows.

Another great day trip is Prasat Peuay Noi (also know as Ku Peauy Noi), where you will see the region's largest Khmer temple.

Khon Kaen celebrates its local skills and traditions with the Silk Fair and Phuk Siaw Festival, which last for 12 days in late November. The Phuk Siaw Festival is specially intended to preserve the unique Phuuk Siaw (friend bonding) tradition and is marked with much merry making and folk dancing.

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Chiang Dao, Thailand

Chiang Dao, Thailand
Chiang Dao, Thailand
Chiang Dao, Thailand
Chiang Dao, Thailand
Chiang Dao means "City of Stars" in the Thai language, and this very pretty small city is located in Chiang Mai Province, Northern Thailand. Surrounded by intense natural beauty, this is a good area to go trekking and bird watching.

For many, top of the list is Chiang Dao National Park, which covers over 1000 square kilometres and features bamboo forests, sparkling mountain streams and waterfalls. Also in the park is the mighty mountain of Doi Chiang Dao, which is a colossal 2225 metres high and is said to be Thailand's highest mountain and offers incredible views over the area from the top. Scattered around the park are a large number of many Lisu and Karen hill tribe villages, and a good way to see them and to really appreciate the lush nature of the park is to go trekking and stay overnight.

Another popular attraction is Tham Chiang Dao - Chiang Dao Cave. The extremely beautiful cave complex is cool and inviting and stretches for an impressive 12 kilometres, filled with sparkling stalactites. It is a good idea to hire a guide with a lantern for the chance to explore the caves fully.

Experienced hikers can embark on a two day mountain trip up Doi Luang Chiang Dao, which is a great way to see the area. Another good way to explore is to visit the Elephant Training Centre Chiang Dao and go on an elephant trek through the forest. The treks can last from between 30 minutes to half a day an offer an interesting view point of the beautiful scenery, seen at a leisurely pace.

Chiang Dao is also popular for river rafting, and many people chose to visit the area in order to shoot the rapids, whilst others choose to hire a motorbike and discover all that the area has to offer by themselves.

If you are looking to get in touch with your spiritual side, visit Samnak Song Tham Pha Plong, which is also known as the Tham Pha Plong Monastic Centre. Many monks travel to this very special area to meditate, and visitors can climb a long flight of steps, which lead up the mountain past limestone cliffs and forest to a large chedi. The view from the top of the steps and the general vibe of the area more than makes up for any hardship encountered on the climb.

The extremely vibrant Tuesday morning market is a good place to buy local produce and see the hilltribe people, who come to the market in order to trade their wares. The

market is open each week between 7 a.m. and 12 a.m. and is a great place to get a good, cheap meal. Don't forget to use the bartering system to get the most for your money.

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Petchaboon, Thailand

Petchaboon, Thailand
Petchaboon, Thailand
Petchaboon, Thailand
Petchaboon, Thailand
Situated 346 kilometres from Bangkok, Petchaboon is a very pretty province in the northern region of Thailand. The name of the province actually means the land of crops and food in the Thai language and this is a very fertile area, largely due to its location on the Pa Sak river basin. With mountain ranges running along both the western and eastern parts, Petchaboon Province is the perfect place for nature lovers as it is full of well-known national parks, beautiful waterfalls and great lakes.

A great place to discover the abundant beauty of the area is at the Nam Nao National Park. This enormous conservation park is full of forests, grasslands and virgin jungles. Nam Nao Park offers visitors the opportunity to learn about plants, wild animals and outdoor activities through trekking and bird watching. More than 100 species of birds have made their home in Nam Nao Park, and it is also a good place to see the famous fog that gathers in the region during cool weather.

Other extremely beautiful areas are the Namtok Than Thip Forest Park and Thung Salaeng Luang National Park, whilst you can soak away your troubles after a hard day of trekking at the Ban Phu Toei Hot Spring Park.

The Khao Kho Wildlife Captive Breeding Centre is a great place to find out how to care for and protect animals. The centre can be found in Khao Kho National Park, which is located about 1 hour northwest of Petchaboon town and thought by many to be the most beautiful of all the area's parks because of its stunning mountain views. Also in the park are the Khao Kho International Library, which is shaped like an upside down diamond, and the Khao Kho Sacrificial Monument.

There are a large number of sparkling waterfalls in the area, which make a good focus point for trekking and hiking. Of particular note are Namtok Si Dit and the large Than Thip Waterfall, located in the Than Thip Forest Park, whilst Tham Ruesi Sombat is a large and interesting cave.

If you are interested in temples, Petchaboon has many treats in store. Look out for the ancient Wat Si Mongkhon, Phra Borommathat Chedi Kanchanaphisek, Phra Tamnak Khao Kho and Chedi Phra Borommasaririkkathat Khao Kho, which contains relics of Lord Buddha brought to Thailand from Sri Lanka.

Petchaboon Province is the home of many exciting and vibrant festivals. The Um Pra Dam Nam festival is an unusual event held on the fifteenth day of the waning

moon in the 10th lunar month. The festival features a special ceremony, during which an image of Phra Buddha Maha Thammaracha is carried around the town so that people can pay respect to it and stick gold leaf onto its body. The Buddha image is then taken by the governor of Petchaboon to be immersed in the Pah Sak River. After the ceremony, the water in the river is regarded as sacred.
Another interesting and unique tradition is Seng Klong, when the villagers of Petchaboon ask god and the angels to come to make merit with them. The ceremony is held during the end of Buddhist Lent around the Por Kun Pah Maung Monument to promote the honor of Por Kun Pah. This celebration features many other activities, such as the drum contest, the beauty queen contest and colorful floating lanterns, which fill the sky.

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Isaan Life – New Year

New Year in Issan
issaan_new_year_2
New Year in Issan
New Year in Issan
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There are places along Isaan's Korat Plateau, framed by the wandering Mae Khong, dotted with centuries-old rice paddies, lumbering, long-horned water buffalo and forgotten villages influenced by the Lao culture to the north that are so stunning, so awe-inspiring that words are inadequate to describe them. Phachnadai Cliff, 45 kilometers from Khon Chiem and a six-klick hike straight up from Ban San Som, a sleepy 200-member farm community of wooden huts built on long poles, is an unusual place to greet the New Year. But then Isaan is an unusual place, a special place and teetering and shivering through the night toward dawn in a brisk, cold wind on the edge of a 15 meter black cliff with a dozen friends and 200 strangers was the perfect way to greet the New Year, a year sure to be filled with beauty, adventure and opportunity.

Our journey began 175 kilometers away at my home in Ubon Rachathani in southeast Isaan on the north bank of the Mun River, a tributary of the Mae Khong. We traveled north by motorcycle toward Ban San Som, a village that does not appear on any western map buts sits less than an hour from Laos. Neither Ban San Som nor Phachanadai Cliff produce even one hit on a Google search. It is not a destination resort. It is however a very special place to welcome the New Year.
 
Ban San Som in January is surrounded by freshly harvested rice fields and wandering water buffalo, eyeing the newly harvested rice strewn through the fields. In theory, there are two ways up the mountain. It's a six kilometer hike straight up or a 13 kilometer overland trek by motorcycle. In reality, the hike is probably the way to go. A combination of laziness and rapidly disappearing sunlight produced a quick decision; the motorcycle seemed a quicker, less strenuous option. Unfortunately we were not ready for the unbeaten, unmarked track that lay in before us.
 
There is no visible road up the mountain. There are ruts and rocks and roots that slowed our progress to a crawl. Deep sands as shifty and slick as sheer ice blocked our path in places reminding me it's the heart of winter back home in Vermont, USA. And at times murky brown water covered the track making it impossible to know how deep and passable it was at any given point. Nittaya Saebut, a fourth year student at Ubon Ratchathani University, described the journey charitably as "unpredictable." Surasak Witton, a third year at Ubon Rachathani University, carried Sukie, a second year student from Rachabhat University who knew the area quite well. He said his rider made it hard to focus on the path. Surasak explained, "It was hard for me having Sukie on the bike because she would tell me about different areas of the mountain and if I took my eyes off the road for one second conditions would change and a different type of terrain would jump up in front of me."
 
We made it to the top in darkness; the view would have to wait until morning: the New Year. A sheer black rock covered the peak, a lava-like geological formation though there is no volcano near Phachanadai Cliff. The difficult path to the summit didn't keep some 200 others from making the journey to greet the New Year. Camp fires fueled with wood scavenged from nearby forest sprinkled across the black rock lit the landscape like lights on a Christmas tree. There was even New Year's entertainment on the top of that mountain. A stage set up in the midst of the waving fires offered an assortment of colorful dancers and songs through the evening. There was even a "Cow Gee" eating contest which I entered immediately as the journey produced a severe hunger deep in the pit of my stomach. Cow Gee is sticky rice grilled with egg. I stuffed my face full of the deliciousness
and finished second among 16 other contestants. My stomach full I realized I'd won 200 baht! Being paid to overeat; Isaan is a wonderful place!
 
Sleeping was impossible! The wind howled constantly sending a chill deep into my spine. At 5:30 a.m. everyone that wasn't knocked out from the New Year celebration, clustered on the 15 meter cliff to watch the sunrise. The cliff drops straight down to the ancient Mae Khong. The rising sun slowly revealed the misty mountains of Laos covered in early morning fog and produced an immense cheer from the crowd. It brought a tear to my eye, and I wished everyone "Sa Wa Dee Bee Mai." Happy New Year 2008/2551.
 
About the author:
Eli Sherman is a graduate of Montpelier High School in Montpelier, the capital of the state of Vermont, USA, and a "young blood writer" living in Ubon Ratchathani, Isaan - Northeastern Thailand. He's been to Isaan four times in his short life. Once on a cross cultural exchange with Montpelier to Thailand Project; once coming for five months as an exchange student at Benchama Maharat school in Ubon; and again coming as a guide for Montpelier to Thailand Project. He now works as a volunteer at the Institute of Nutrition Research Field Station, Mahidol University in Ubon Ratchathani and is writing to present Isaan Life to the world, and especially KhaoSanRoad.com visitors.

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Taking it Easy in Luang Prabang

Luang Prabang, Laos
Luang Prabang, Laos
Luang Prabang, Laos
Luang Prabang, Laos
Tourists arriving off a 2-day slowboat bustle around the town, eager to stretch their stiff legs. Trekking enthusiasts use the town as a base point for their ventures north into the dense jungles and tribal villages. Buddhists and curious scholars flock to Phou Si, a sacred hilltop site where Buddha's footprint is still pressed into the side of the mountain. Luang Prabang may be a mere stopover point on your trip through Laos, but this town merits a few days for exploring. Veteran travellers praise it as a place they'd visit again and again, UNESCO named it a heritage site, and KhaoSanRoad.com applauds it as one of Southeast Asia's most charming sites.

The remnants of French colonization are still visible on Luang Prabang's main streets, where colonial architecture coexists with the gilded or teak points of traditional Laotian buildings. Old churches stand beside older wats, and the result is a picturesque mix of architectural styles. While the city is in rapid development thanks to tourist exposure and foreign business, it still maintains a picturesque, European feeling. On a clear day, the city's winding streets and pretty rivers make it a photographer's dream.
 
For accommodation, Luang Prabang has a competitive guesthouse market, and touts will greet you no matter where your arrival point may be. The Merry Guesthouses (1 and 2), on the northern end of the downtown, are fantastically clean, spacious and quiet, with kind and helpful staff. Those looking for a view of the Mekong should try Vong Champa Guesthouse, which is clean, cosy, and impressively cheap.
 
By day, the Phou Si mountain offers beautiful views of the surrounding landscape, as well as ornate Buddha statues, a Buddha footprint, and a solemn cave shrine. Near the main street, the former royal palace of Haw Kham is the stuff of postcards; opulent shrines, murals and furnishings, showing many different traditional styles of Laotian art and decoration.
 
For a bit of downtime, L'Etranger is a two-storey gem with a used bookshop/book exchange on the bottom floor and a comfortable teahouse on the top, which plays smart artsy films on weeknights at 7pm. Located on the north side of Phou Si mountain, the great selection of books, teas and snacks make it well worth a visit.
 
Those looking to get out of the city should book a taxi or rent bikes to get to Kuang Si Falls, 30km outside the city. These perfectly blue, multi-layered falls are set amidst lush jungle, and tourists may find themselves lounging all day in these pools. At the entrance, by the odd yet heartwarming bear zoo, stalls of food and drinks ensure that visitors will not go hungry.
 
Come nightfall, restaurants illuminate their patios, inviting travellers to eat and drink while people watching on Xiang Thong, the main street which hosts a vibrant night market. Here, tourists stock up on anything from handmade quilts to ubiquitous Beerlao T-shirts. Foodwise, baguette is a local specialty, and many restaurants go the mile in western offerings by boasting full French menus, with wine and cheeses among its fare. While the food is indulgently delicious, cheaper and fresher fare is available at the many night markets in alleys branching off Xiang Thong. Here, a vegetarian buffet of fresh produce from the Laotian countryside will cost a mere 5000 kip. These markets host a more local nightlife, where Laotian families gather to eat at tiny plastic tables.
 
Though the city is relatively quiet at night, there are still a handful of good bars. Young and thirsty tourists flock to the funky Hive Bar, beside L'Etranger, or the breezier Laos Beer Garden. When the bars close at midnight, tuk-tuk drivers are ever-available to take tourists to Vietnam Bar, an after-hours speakeasy of sorts with good music, plenty of seating, and the liveliest crowd in town.
 
Though Luang Prabang serves as a stopover point for many, its languid pace and compact downtown make it an easy spot to relax. In the midst of the eco-tourism that makes Laos so famous, this city is a great place to spend a few days sipping good coffee, exploring old buildings, and feeling immediately at home in Laos' most welcoming town.

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.
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On the Road in Vietnam: Da Lat’s Easy Riders take KSR for a the Ride of a Lifetime

de_lat_vietnam_1For the Vietnamese, Da Lat's cool altitude makes it an agricultural hotspot, while the pretty vistas and mountain landscapes makes it a honeymoon capital as well. The temperatures, which can dip down to freezing in the coldest months, has attracted overheated expats since the French colonial days. This quirky town boasts layers of personality, and the best way to see it all is with Vietnam's quirkiest tour group, the Da Lat Easy Riders.
 
First of all, let it be known that you don't need to go to a tourist office to find the Easy Riders. Odds are excellent that one of the group's 75 members will find you, spotting your rucksack a mile off and wheeling up with directions to hotels, tips on local food to try, and of course, promotion of their services. Though their touting may seem assertive, especially if you're just stepping off a long bus ride, these guides are some of the friendliest people you'll meet in Vietnam.
 
Even tourists who normally drive their own bikes will benefit from the guides' witty understanding of the city and its surroundings. Whether your passion is rural temples, exotic farms, or waterfalls, the Easy Riders will tell you the most popular sights in the area and help you tailor your itinerary to fit your tastes. Don't shrug off the odder-sounding sights, like persimmon storehouses or coffee plantations. The spots are likely run by friends of your guide, and they will give you demonstrations and offerings that no museum could.
 
On the morning of my tour, when the rain drizzled down on Da Lat, my guide showed up at the guesthouse with raincoats to spare. Throughout the day, he answered every question under the sun, from "who was Le Loi and why are so many streets named after him?" to "how do Vietnamese people feel about tourism?" with an impressive command of the English language. At the end of the day, with a head full of facts and a camera full of photos, I was all too pleased to sign my guide's comment book, which was dense with pictures and kind notes of other customers.
 
The Easy Riders will give you a heap of options for how to fill your day. Below are some of Da Lat's most popular destinations:
 
Crazy House
The daughter of a Vietnam's second communist president studied architecture in Russia before building this elaborate guesthouse, which looks like the psychedelic set of a children's show. It's worth exploring for the Smurf-village-like designs, and the ensuing discussion of "...but is it art?"
 
Lake of Sorrow
For a dose of local folklore, ask your guide to share the legend behind this popular honeymoon spot, where two young lovers met a Shakespearean fate.
 
Prenn Falls
Though waterfall enthusiasts may want to head further out of town for the bigger falls, this spot, a scenic 10km-ride out of town, is surrounded by pretty hiking paths.
 
Silk Worm Breeder
For any traveller who's dropped a few dong on silk souvenirs, it's interesting to see the rustic beginnings of this elegant fabric. Here, you can watch silkworm cocoons being boiled to unravel the threads, and ask questions to the patient staff (here, the Easy Riders will serve as interpreters).
 
Persimmon/Coffee/Strawberry Farms
Not only are the farmlands beautiful on the outskirts of Da Lat, it's interesting to watch the leafy green origins of the coffee plant, or the persimmon's lyme-curing process. More interesting is the insight you'll get into Vietnamese agriculture, and how its economics changed after the Soviet Union's collapse.
 
Old Train Station
If Da Lat's faux-Eiffel tower has you contemplating French colonialism, don't miss this French-built train station, which looks more suited for Lyons than Southeast Asia. While the museum-like station is a bit lacking in displays, the old-model locomotives and grand architecture are telling of France's high hopes for Vietnam as a colony.
 
While Easy Riders tours can vary in price, depending on whether you book several days with your driver. The 20$ I paid for a full day (and raincoat) was well worth it.

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.

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