natural beauty kanchanaburi

A bridge, elephants, temples, and green: beautiful Kanchanaburi Province

Only a few hours from Bangkok is Kanchanaburi Province. Green and lush this time of year. Mountains and lots of water. The famous bridge over the river Kwai (actually pronounced kwae by locals) is a popular sight. Lots of other things to do and see.

Raising The Standards


thestandards1
thestandards2
The Standards, Bangkok, Thailand

Thankfully, in a world of musical platitudes, Matt and the boys (and girl) are raising the standards. After going it alone, and succeeding, they are taking their sound to the UK on a tour designed to see if a Thailand-based band can “compete with the big boys”. Listen to the sounds on their Facebook page to hear what The Standards are all about. 

The history of popular music in Thailand has been a pretty woeful affair. Twenty-five years ago, it was Asanee Wasan that were credited with bringing Thai music into the modern era. For someone stepping off a plane in what was then the post-punk era, Asanee Wasan’s soaring power chords and painfully slow rock ballads equated more with ancient history than anything contemporary. Fortunately though, things did change – at least for a while. 

Thailand’s ‘New Wave’ happened about 15 years after the fact, but it was worth the wait… Bands like Modern Dog, Clash, Silly Fools and Paradox emerged to offer something a bit different alongside the nation’s usual fare. It got to the point where an ex-member of Suede was in a band in Thailand (Futon). And they were all pretty decent bands… Modern Dog for example opened for Radiohead’s visit to Bangkok, toured extensively world-wide, and in 2006 blew bands like Franz Ferdinand off the stage at Bangkok 100 (even though they were on earlier in the day). Grunge, Indie, Punk, New Wave, Death Metal, Hip Hop, House – whatever the musical style someone, somewhere, was experimenting… But unfortunately the momentum didn’t carry. 

As with elsewhere in the world, Thailand’s music industry adapted and survived. Slowly, but surely, “alternative” was tamed, packaged and brought into the mainstream. Today, the kingdom’s music scene is, to say the least, predictable – a steady and sure product of similar sounds generating an equally steady source of revenue. The time is right for a new ‘Modern Dog’ to shake things up a bit. Perhaps ‘The Standards’ are the band we are looking for.

The Standards are a musical oddity. They have been around for about 4 years and their lineup includes 2 foreigners and 3 Thais. Front man Matt Smith provides the vocals while Nay Voravittayathorn hits the drums, Manasnit Setthawong (nickname Nit) provides keyboards, Paul Smith plays lead guitar and Sithikorn Likitvoarchaui (nickname Mc) plays bass.

A chirpy Cockney from Woolwich in South London, front man Matt certainly has the front man look (ala Damon Albarn). He played in a couple of bands in the UK, most noticeable being Foxtail, a London-based band with ‘Mod’ overtones. Despite lots of concerts and coverage in the NME, nothing ever got to vinyl. After moving to Thailand he missed being in a band and he very quickly helped pull The Standards together. 

Unlike other Thai bands, they don’t have the promotional weight of a mega-corporation behind them, and despite this – perhaps because of this – they are doing the business. Considering the context they are working in, The Standards have a very unique look and sound. They’ve played most major venues in Thailand (including club Culture near Khao San Road, and Immortal, which used to be on Khao San Road until a couple of years ago), their music videos are played on MTV, they’ve played live on MTV, and they supported megastars “The Charlatans” who played Bangkok in 2010.

“It’s easier to get your music out to an audience these days,” suggested Matt when we spoke to him. “Back in the day it cost 600 or 700 quid an hour to record in a decent studio, but these days you can do everything on a Mac.” That flexibility led to the band putting together “Well, Well, Well”, a three-track EP on CD and “Nations”, a full-blown album which sits nicely amongst the racks of CDs by foreign artists found in record stores around Siam Square. “We tried working with some of the local producers, but it didn’t work out. We wanted more of a live sound. At the time we have a regular event called Popscene at Bangkok Rocks on Sukhumvit 19, and we recorded everything there. The owner just let us use the place afterhours and we did things like record the vocals in the toilet so we could get the right sound.”

The band’s big sound and attention to detail has translated into a powerful live act which soon amassed a solid following of locals (20%) and expats (80%). In the short time they have been together, they have toured extensively – they did an Asian tour with 9 concerts in Singapore, Borneo, Malaysia, and a three day festival in the Philippines. More recently they played CAMA in Hanoi. Quite an achievement in its own right, but all the more impressive when you consider they manage themselves.

 “The fact that we manage ourselves means we can do what we want”, added Matt. “The Thai alternative sound is more like British music in the 80’s, but our sound is more influenced by bands like Kasabian and Arcade Fire. It’s very different from what people are used to here. If we really wanted to make something of ourselves in Thailand we’d have to change our sound and it wouldn’t be worth it really. It’s hard work doing everything ourselves, but we just enjoy it.”

Historically, “it’s all about the music” is a sentiment that has been relegated to cliché, but as far as The Standards are concerned, it really does seem to be the case. With a sound that doesn’t fit the local scene and no managerial support, The Standards have created a niche in Thailand’s music scene that allows them to keep doing what they like doing – playing their music. Now, with that under their belt they are taking on what might be considered the ultimate challenge – a tour of the United Kingdom.

Matt has been the focal point in the organization of The Standard’s UK tour. They have organized everything themselves. They’ve contacted the venues, begged to borrow equipment, and apart from promotion by the venues themselves, promoted it themselves. To pay for everything they have organized their own sponsorship. “But we aren’t going to make any money out of it,” points out Matt, “quite the opposite in fact”. 

He’s breaking his neck 24/7 organizing a tour that is going to put the band out of pocket… I guess the question “What’s the effing the point?” would come to anyone’s mind. The answer it seems reinforces the “it’s all about the music” concept.

 “We’ve just got to go there just to see what happens. We aren’t aiming for world domination or anything, but we just have to know. We have to know how we compare against the big boys. If we don’t do it, it will always be on our minds, so, yeah, it’s a pointless exercise. We hope to get people talking but there’s no real objective beyond that”. 

The Standards take their Thai homegrown to the UK in July 2011. Here’s a breakdown of the tour:

The July dates are:

01/07/11 – Camden Rock, London
http://www.camdenrock.co.uk/

03/07/11 – Bull And Gate, London
http://www.bullandgate.co.uk/

04/07/11 – Workshop, London
http://www.theworkshophoxton.com/

05/07/11 – Haymakers, Cambridge
http://www.acousticstage.co.uk/the-haymakers/index.php

06/07/11 – The Shed, Leeds       
http://www.theshedbar.co.uk/

07/07/11 – The Blue Cat, Stockport
http://www.bluecatcafe.co.uk/Main.html

09/07/11 – Alan McGee’s Greasy Lips, Jamm, London
http://www.nme.com/tickets/artist/alan-mcgees-greasy-lips-club

10/07/11 – Rhythms Of The World Festival, Hitchin
http://www.rotw.org.uk/

The tour is sponsored by Wood Street Bar, Smu Guitars, and Popscene.

More info on the Facebook event page.

Pictures Miki Giles

Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre, Malaysia

Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre, Malaysia
Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre, Malaysia
Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre, Malaysia

For many, the Sepilok Orangutang Rehabilitation Centre is the highlight of their visit to Malaysia. Situated on the edge of the Kabili-Sepilok Forest Reserve, the centre was established in 1964 in order to rescue orphaned and abandoned young orangutans and to teach them how to look after themselves, with the aim of one day releasing them back into the wild.

Visitors are given the rare opportunity to explore the world of the orangutan and see them in a semi-natural environment. Follow trails through the jungle and creep along boarded canopy bridges to spot some of the other animals that live in the forest reserve such as long-tailed macaques.

There are only four orangutan sanctuaries in the entire world and Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre is probably the best known, with up to 700 visitors each day. So far the centre has rescued more than a hundred orangutans, 20 of which have successfully returned to the wild.

The best time to visit the rehabilitation centre is during feeding times, which take place at 10am and 3pm. The orangutans are vegetarian and are especially fond of bananas and sugar cane, sharing their meal with the long-tailed macaques.

It often rains in the forest reserve, so it is a good idea to wear a poncho. Pack plenty of insect repellant to ward off the unwelcome attention of mosquitoes and other insects and take a bottle or two of water as it can be rather hot and humid.

The Rainforest Discovery Centre is a good place to find out more about the lovable orangutans. Souvenirs such as postcards, soft toys and hats are available in the Sepilok Rehabilitation Centre. It is possible to spend the night at the centre and accommodation ranges from cheap and cheerful dorm rooms to large suites with spectacular views.

The easiest way to see Sepilok Orangutang Rehabilitation Centre is to book a tour. Tours often include a visit to the Proboscis Monkey Reserve and nearby Taman Hiburan Jalil ALip, which is a recreation park where visitors can see crocodiles and deer.  

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.

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.

Phuket, Thailand

Phuket, Thailand
Phuket, Thailand
Phuket, Thailand
Phuket, Thailand

Phuket is Thailand’s largest island, located approximately 862 kilometres south of Bangkok. Often referred to as the pearl of the Andaman, or the pearl of the south, Phuket is an island of limestone cliffs, white beaches, tranquil broad bays and tropical in-land forests, which make it one of Thailand’s most popular islands and provinces.

Phuket is easy to get to as there are frequent flights to and from Bangkok airport as well as direct flights to many other Asia and European airports. There are also regular buses and trains from around the country and Phuket can be reached by boat from many of the surrounding islands.

As well an the enormous main island, Phuket Province contains 39 other small islands, all perfect for exploring, whether via a snorkelling or scuba diving trip or a boat tour. Located just 25 kilometres from Phuket City, Ko Nakha Noi is a popular destination for a boat trip, as are Ko Si-re, Ko Lon, Ko Bon, Ko He and Ko Mai Thon, which is famous for its unique and very beautiful colourful coral.

Also known as Coral Island, Kho Hae is located to the Southeast of Phuket Island. Reachable in just 15 minutes by speedboat from Chalong Bay, this beautiful island is a great destination for a day trip, or visitors can choose to stay overnight at the resort.

Another popular day trip is the Gibbon Rehabilitation Project, which is located near the beautiful Bang Pae waterfall. This is an amazing opportunity to meet the Gibbons in their natural environment and there is a visitor centre manned by Western volunteers and English speaking Thai staff who will tell you all about the project.

If you are interested in the island’s wildlife, elephant trekking is a good way to support the remaining domesticated elephants of Thailand and offers a new way to explore the jungle. The Phuket Zoo has an interesting collection of animals, whilst Phuket Submarine takes visitors on daily tours of the underwater world.

Both Khao Rang (Phuket Hill) and Laem Promthep are great places to see the sunset and get an idea of the island’s size and beauty. Whilst in Phuket, pay a visit to the Khao Phra Thaew Forest Reserve, which protects a stunning area of lush rainforest.

Many visitors to Phuket like to plan their trip to coincide with one of the area’s vibrant festivals. The Phuket Vegetarian Festival is held for 10 days during the ninth lunar month of the Chinese calendar, which usually occurs in October. This is the time when local residents, especially those of Chinese ancestry, follow a vegetarian or vegan diet in order to cleanse their spirit and make merit. The festival features self-mortification rituals such as walking barefooted over hot coals and ascending ladders with bladed rungs, as well as much singing and dancing and of course delicious vegetarian food.Another long awaited festival is the Phuket Gay Pride Festival, which takes place in February and the Siam World Cup Windsurfing Championships on Ao Bang Thao are held in January.

If you are in the area between November and February, head to the pretty beach of Hat Mai Khao on the northwest coast. Here you will discover sea turtles laying their eggs, but be careful not to disturb them as the turtles are now quite rare.

Cycling in Laos

cycling_in_laos_1
Cycling in Laos
Cycling in Laos
cycling_in_laos_4

Cycling is fun in Southeast Asia; it has become a way of life for me. I can’t even imagine a trip without my bike. I have had many adventures and lots of great experiences. There are so many new things to see and learn from. This story is just a glimpse of what I have done, how I have felt and where I have gone.

A couple of years ago, I was lying in a bed. It was cold, the kind of cold you get on crisp English mornings in winter time. I was wrapped in my guest house blanket, a blanket of dubious history. These are the kind of things you must deal with when you are cycle touring, or backpacking, around Southeast Asia. Blankets and sheets in guest houses often give you a strong indication of the economics of the guest house you are staying in. If the bed linins are old, dirty or smelly then it doesn’t bode well for your stay. If the blankets or sheets are crisp, clean and new (ish) then your stay may be full of care and attention. I have found that the blanket rule often supersedes the pricing rule, prices do not necessarily reflect the quality of your stay.
 
My journey to this blanket had begun on khao San Road in Bangkok. I had battled through the Bangkok heat, pollution and traffic on my bicycle. This is never a safe or healthy thing to do, but it is a necessary journey. I boarded my train to Nong Khai at Hualompong Station as I was heading for the Plain of Jars in central Laos, close to the town of Phonasavan. My cycling would start in earnest in the northeastern Thai town of Nong Khai. The journey had been planned for months; my goal was to see the mysterious jars of central Laos.
 
Getting off the sleeper train in the cool morning haze of northern Thailand, I collected my bicycle from the front luggage compartment and assembled the various parts (panniers, bungee cords etc.). The ride to the border point was a gentle 4 Km. The Laos border crossing was as user friendly as any good border crossing in the region. Everything is detailed for you with clear instructions and the wait for the slow bureaucratic clogs of the immigration police is minimal.
 
The ride into Vientiane was excellent. The welcome from the people is always good. You pass the Beer Laos factory on your right after about 10Km. This, after my first visit to Laos 10 years ago, was to become a place of worship and awe. I stopped and took some photos, I already have plenty of photos from previous trips, I just can’t help myself. This time I went on the tour of the brewery. The free samples went down well and provided an excellent break for my ride into Vientiane. Beer Laos truly is one of the worlds great largers.
 
The ride into Vientiane is a relaxed affair; you pass the old communist work slogans on advertising boards on the way into the sleepy capital city. These act as a reminder that you have entered a ‘workers’ paradise’, although I doubt Marx would agree with the 21st century version of his dream.
 
The local folk are very unobtrusive in the interest in a
western cyclist riding through their neighborhood. Vientiane is one of my favorite capitals in the world, primarily because you feel the lack of bustle and hustle of the place; you get the sense that the tumbleweed will float passed at any second. The place is small, there are no high rise developments (bar that huge new Chinese hotel) and the place has a sleepy, relaxed feel to it.
 
Leaving Vientiane the next day, the ride to Phonasavan took me north to Vang Vieng in a 2 day ride through the central plains of Laos. The ride to Vang Vieng is flat and one of those great little stretches where you can take a gentle pace, stop and chat with the locals over a meal of rice and fruit and feel good on a bike. There are no difficult mountain stretches and the scenery is beautiful.
 
Vang Vieng itself nestles in between a few mountains and is an idealic spot to stop and recharge for the coming ride to Phonasavan. I stayed for 2 days as there is plenty to do, not least the fun day out tubing down the river or taking in the nearby caves and wonderful swimming in clear, fresh lagoons.
 
I set off early on the next leg of the trip, the most difficult part of this tour. This is a monster stage, much like the Alp D’huez in the Tour de France. There is a 130Km ride to Phu Khun in the mountains. The wind was blowing fiercely; I was battling the head wind until the town of Kasi. At Kasi the challenge began in earnest. Here each assent to a higher plateau left me exhausted. At each peak there was a Hmong village waiting to welcome me, invariably selling the same lukewarm cola refreshments. The refreshments were lacking, but the locals’ reception definitely made up for the lack of cool coca-cola.
 
The day climaxed in a stunning uphill section that really took my breath away. About 10Km from my destination of Phu Khun I began the final assent. I did run out of energy and water at some point and had to stop by a mountain stream to fill my water bottle. In the process I managed to scare some Laotian ladies who were taking a wash in the stream, naked. I don’t know who was more embarrassed, the naked Laos ladies or the sweaty, sun burnt, limping semi-naked white boy. After both parties covered their dignities we managed to have a chuckle and communicate together, they even offered me some of their food.
 
I have christened this style of riding ‘whirlwind riding’ as you just have to go at it as quickly as you can come-what-may. I was definitely on my last reserves of strength, but still I needed to get to the village and a bed. I had to get on with the ride, there was no other option. Everything was hurting me, but between the fresh water and the stunning views across central Laos I was revitalized enough to push on.
 
Eventually I found the down slope in the road and headed into Phu Khun and I ventured into the first guest house that I found. I took a look at the room, and the all important blanket, and did the (not so) complex equation of cost vs comfort vs tiredness. My legs made the decision for me, virtually screaming at me that they couldn’t go on to the other guest house 100 meters down the road.
 
And so it came to pass that I awoke wrapped in the dubious blanket on the cold, crisp Laotian mountain morning at the end of December. I was being welcomed to the hills of Laos at Christmas time by a smelly blanket and guest house which didn’t have a shower. The bed bugs had been kept at bay by my sarong; my legs felt better but were still aching a little. I stumbled out of my room, threw some water over me from the bucket in the ‘bath’room and repacked my bike.
 
The reason for putting myself through the previous days’ pain and the ache in my legs really hit me when I cycled away from the guest house; the air was fresh, the mountains surrounding me looked like they had been taken from a movie set and the roads were empty. I will never forget me exit from Phu Khun, it was made even more special by the locals who all waved and shouted ‘sabaii dee’ as I past. It really does make you feel special and alive.
 
I set off for my destination, the town of Phonasavan nearly 140Km away. The first assent of the day left me delirious with joy, so much so I was laughing and sweating at the top of the first peak. The views across the valley which unfolded before me were spectacular. Any soreness in my legs was replaced by adrenalin. The climbs continued, punctuated, thankfully, by a few great descents. At one point I descended 19Km in one long downward free wheel. This is truly and exhilarating experience. These kinds of days are what you start (and seemingly I can never stop) cycling for; upward challenges, downward enjoyment, stunning scenery and friendly local villages.
 
The 140Km stretch is punctuated by villages, both Hmong and central Laos villages. I stopped at one point at a village which seemed to be full of AK47 toting Laos army cadre. I decided to have my morning tea (you can take the man out of England but you can’t take England out of the man) in the middle of the village. I was immediately surrounded by Laotian soldiers carrying guns. However, the threat level did descend a few notches when I looked down and most of them had dispensed with the customary army uniform boots and instead were wearing flip flops. These guys certainly didn’t look menacing but there was a threat in the air as they were all carrying guns, albeit in a relaxed fashion, slung over their shoulders.
 
Now, the situation may seem to be a worrying to some as I was miles from any main town, alone and surrounded by soldiers. However, my survival skills were not required as, to a man, the soldiers were laughing and goofing around. They were obviously curious about my presence, but they soon settled down, sat on their haunches and watched me brew my tea from a polite distance.
 
At one point I opened my map and asked the guys where we were. The most senior officer was pushed forward to answer my question. Apparently the village wasn’t on any map, presumably for military reasons, but I am only speculating about that as my Laos conversation skills are not what they should be.
 
After my tea I packed up and handed my rubbish to a young lad who took it and held it with a confused look on his face and I rode off with the bemused military men staring at me.
 
My cycling was becoming better; I was becoming used to the merciless hills. I eventually stormed up the last hill. Getting onto the plains of central Laos was a joy I have felt only a few times in my life. I cycled into Phonasavan at dusk, a tired, sweaty, aching cyclist nut with a warm glint of joy in my eyes. I had battled with some big mountain stages and I had won.
 
My hotel was luxurious in comparison to my previous night’s encounter with the blanket. I collapsed in my large bed and slept the sleep of the dead.
 
Early the next morning I awoke and got out of bed with a bounce in my step. This was the final leg of my tour, the finish of my tour was within grasp. I asked at the reception for directions, never underestimating my knack for geographical embarrassment, and headed out. I soon found the road and cycled the short distance in under an hour. I found myself at the reception hut for the Jars and paid the small entrance fee. Walking up the small slop and arriving at the crest of the hill I caught my first glimpse of a stone jar. The round, skewed, moss covered jar was a sight that gave me a euphoric high. I enjoyed the sight, but not as much as I had enjoyed the journey to it. This trip was, as most are, about the journey, not the destination.
 
The jars are impressive for their mystery, they are strange and intriguing. The recent history of them is as interesting as the speculation about the origins. There are hundreds of these large man size stone jars strewn across the Laos plains. No-one knows why they are there, and therein lays the intrigue.
 
Cycle touring has become a way of life for me. I enjoy the sedate pace of the bike; you get to see so much more of the places you are traveling in. You also interact with the locals more, often seeing a friendlier, and more helpful side to a country or culture. Cycle touring can be tiring, it can make your body ache, but cycling is fun, healthy and a great way to see a country.
 
About the author: Simon Stewart is a cycling evangelist who has made it his mission to spread the gospel through the excellent tours he organizes.

Halong Bay: Vietnam’s Jewel on the Water

halong_bay_vietnam_1
halong_bay_vietnam_2
Halong Bay: Vietnam's Jewel on the Water
halong_bay_vietnam_4

The legend of Halong Bay is a fine one. In the time of Chinese invaders, the gods sent a family of dragons to Vietnam’s coast in order to protect its people. The dragons spat jewels and jade into the water, forming beautiful islands which densely filled the Gulf of Tonkin, forming a barrier against invaders. Today, the only foreigners occupying Halong Bay are curious travellers from around the world, who come in peaceful hordes to see Vietnam’s finest natural wonder.

Spanning 1500 square kilometres, the “Bay of the Descending Dragon” lies east of Hanoi and attracts tourists of all forms. Visitors can choose from a simple daytrip boat tour, a 5-day blitz of island exploration, or something in between. If you have time, we strongly encourage a 2 or 3 day tour of the bay to best witness its beauty. While the sky’s the limit in terms of cruise luxuries (and costs), this traveller took a comfortable all-inclusive (minus alcohol, naturally) 2-day trip for 30$USD.

Because tour options are varied, travellers should have no trouble choosing a package to suit their tastes. Couples can soak up the romance of a smaller cruise; nature-lovers can opt for expensive cave tours, and sporty travellers can hike, bike, kayak and swim, all in one trip. When booking a tour, we recommend that you ask the agent to write out everything included in the package; sights to be toured, kayaking and biking options, et cetera. Some tourists are stuck with boat crews cutting back on activities to save travel time.

Once off the mainland and upon a tourboat, options are plentiful. Between big, delicious meals prepared by the boat crew, tourists can relax on the sundeck, swim, kayak, and snap pictures aplenty of the scenic islands. The boats make stops for guided tours of Ha Long’s famous caves, full of stalactites and stalagmites and steeped in local folklore, explained by friendly guides. At night, tired tourists can put their feet up, taste some of Hanoi’s local wine or beer, and looc up at the stars while chatting with other passengers. Your boat crew may speak of a a post-dinner karaoke affair, though be warned that the music is mostly tinny Vietnamese pop. Feel free to decline a turn on the mic, or else dive in and chalk it up to a cultural experience.

After a peaceful sleep in your ship’s cabin, don’t be alarmed if you wake up to the chipper “good mornings” of vendors rowing up to your boat on rafts laden with cigarettes, Coke, biscuits and other western staples. Despite its idyllic appearance, Halong Bay remains an iconic point on the tourist trail, and local people from nearby towns and floating villages know the value of this economy.

The next morning, those on 2-day tours can enjoy more swimming and scenery before the journey home. Travellers on longer trips disembark on popular Cat Bat island for hiking and cycling through its jungle terrain. Depending on the tour, they might also take a kayaking tour through Ha Long’s caves. Whatever the itinerary, and whatever your tourist tastes may be, Halong Bay is a stunning, relaxing, must-see excursion for any traveller.

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.