Tag - towns

Northern Laos

Northern Laos
Northern Laos

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

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

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

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

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

North Eastern Thailand

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

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

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

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

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

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

Popular dishes include:

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

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

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

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

Eastern Malaysia

Eastern Malaysia
Eastern Malaysia

Eastern Malaysia is divided from Central and northern Malaysia by the South China Sea. East Malaysia consists of the Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak, which are located on the island of Borneo, as well as the Federal Territory of Labuan, which lies off coast of Sabah. Although less populated than Peninsular Malaysia or West Malaysia, East Malaysia is much larger and contains more of the country’s natural resources.

Most visitors to Malaysia tend to head straight to East Malaysia to enjoy adventure activities such as trekking, caving, white water rafting and camping. There are a number of spectacularly beautiful national parks in this region of Malaysia such as Kubah National Park and Bako National Park.

East Malaysia is home to the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre, and thousands of people come here each year to interact with the old men of the forest. There are a number of beautiful beaches and islands to discover in this region of Malaysia as well as pretty towns to explore.

The people of East Malaysia are warm and welcoming and visiting the region’s villages is a rewarding experience. This region is famous for its diverse cuisine, and top of the menu is fresh fish, which is especially delicious when eaten on the beach at sunset.

Survival Tips for Malaysia

Survival Tips for Malaysia
Survival Tips for Malaysia
Survival Tips for Malaysia

When travelling in Malaysia it is important to remember that this is a conservative country. Consequently, things that may not seem like a big deal in western countries or only receive a slight fine are seen as major offences in Malaysia and receive severe punishments.
Possession of drugs in Malaysia can be punished by the death sentence, even if you are carrying a small amount for personal use. It is best to avoid all contact with drugs in Malaysia and be suspicious of any stranger who offers to give or sell you drugs. Gambling is also highly illegal and can receive a heavy punishment.

Pick pocketing is a common crime in large towns and cities, especially Johor. There are also incidents of people driving up on motorbikes and snatching bags, often taking their victim along with them if they refuse to let go. Carry your bag on the shoulder facing away from the road and keep a close eye on your possessions in crowded areas.

Vehicles do not stop at pedestrian crossings and it is safer to cross busy roads at pedestrian bridges and pedestrian traffic lights.

Buy a good padlock for your bag and hotel door. You may find that windows don’t always fasten properly and you should fasten them securely with a cable lock. Don’t leave valuables in hotel rooms: carry your passport or ID document and other valuables with you at all times or deposit them in the hotel safe.

Make sure you negotiate the taxi fare with the driver before getting in and try to avoid fake or unregistered taxis late at night by using a dial-a-taxi service.  

Although female travellers who dress conservatively will rarely have trouble in Malaysia, it is best to avoid travelling alone at night. Also, make sure you lock you hotel room door when in the room to discourage unwanted visitors.

Types of Transport in Laos

types_of_transport_in_laos_1
Types of Transport in Laos
Types of Transport in Laos

Laos has only been open to international visitors for little over a decade, so you cannot expect to find the spectrum of travel options available in some of the neighbouring countries. There is no rail service and although most of the roads are now paved vehicles can be old and unreliable. The secret to successful travel in Laos is to allow plenty of time and don’t worry too much if things don’t go exactly to plan. Just sit back and enjoy the journey as you watch the stunning scenery slide past.

Plane
This is of course the most convenient way to travel, although not necessarily the most rewarding and certainly not the cheapest. The national airline is Lao Aviation and there are regular domestic flights from most major towns and cities such as Vientiane, Luang Prabang, Savannakhet, Xieng Khouang, Pakse and Oudomsay. There are even weekly flights from smaller towns such as Luang Namtha, Sayaboury, Houeixay, Sam Neua, Saravane, Lak Xao, Muangkhong and Attapeu.

Taxis
Mainly restricted to Vientiane, taxis can be both metered and unmetered. It is also possible to hire taxis for the day if you plan to do a lot of sightseeing.

Tuk-tuks and jumbos
The Lao answer to the taxi, these small and somewhat rickety motorized vehicles can be found all over Laos and are a good way to get around. Fares are generally negotiable, so make sure you agree the price with the driver before setting off.

Buses
Public buses run around large towns and cities between towns and villages throughout Laos. They tend to be rather small and cramped but quite reliable. There are also slightly larger tourist buses available for a slightly higher fee.

Mini Buses
These are a more comfortable way to travel if you are following the tourist trail between places such as Luang Prabang, Vang Vieng and Vientiane.

Boat
The mighty Mekong River flows through Laos and travelling by slow boat is a great way to see the country, while speed boats race down the river, much to the delight of thrill seekers. Daily services run from Vientiane to Luang Prabang and from Luang Prabang to Huay Xai.

Bicycles
A great way to explore the countryside is by hiring a bicycle at a tourist hub and simply cycling away.

Car hire
Although private car hire is possible, it is generally more trouble than it’s worth. A better option is to hire a car with a driver, which can be done through most hotels or tourist agencies.

Money Matters in Laos

Money Matters in Laos
Money Matters in Laos
Money Matters in Laos

The official currency of Laos is the Laos kip (LAK), which comes in 100, 500, 1000, 2000 and 5000 kip notes. Although this is the country’s only official currency, Thai Baht and US Dollars are also accepted in many places, especially tourist areas, which can make life easier if you are travelling to Laos from Thailand. You will need a ready supply of kip notes for use in smaller towns and villages as well as for small purchases.

Because it is such a poor country, the cost of visiting Laos is low, even compared to other Asian countries. Accommodation and transport are cheap and most people should be able to get by comfortably on $15 USD per day, although you can spend a lot more if you choose to eat and sleep in exclusive hotels. If you need to save money, it is possible to spend as little as $10 USD per day by eating at the local markets and staying in the cheapest hotels or guesthouses.

Make sure you bring a good supply of cash and traveller’s cheques with you as most places don’t accept credit cards and finding a cash machine can be difficult.

Changing your Money
There are banks located in all main towns and these can exchange all major currencies. The best rates can be found in Vientiane and Luang Prabang, where competition is higher than the rest of the country.

Traveller’s cheques can be cashed in exchange bureaus and banks, which can be found all over Laos and traveller’s cheques in US Dollars, are preferred.

You cannot exchange kip outside of Laos, so make sure you convert your cash before leaving the country.

ATMs
Cash machines have only recently made their way into Laos, and even now they can only really be found in Vientiane. Unfortunately, even in Vientiane the number to ATM machines are limited and they often break down. Also be aware that there is a limit to how much you can draw out at a time and there are quite hefty charges for doing so. To avoid potential problems it is best to make sure you draw enough money for your trip before entering Laos or take traveller’s cheques as these can be cashed in most of the tourist areas.

Tipping
Tipping is not common practice is Laos and will not be expected of you. However, generosity will always be appreciated, especially as the average salary is very low.

Pyin U Lwin, Burma

Pyin U Lwin, Burma
Pyin U Lwin, Burma
Pyin U Lwin, Burma

The town of Pyin U Lwin is distinctly different from much of Myanmar. A step away from the ancient temples and shining stupas in many of the surrounding towns and cities, here you will find colonial style buildings, stately homes and cool weather. The coolness of this area makes it a good place to visit if you happen to be in Myanmar during the hot months of March, April and May.

Pyin U Lwin is situated in the northern foot hills of Shan State and was formerly known as Maymyo during the time when many British governors lived here. There are many interesting ways to get around the town, and one of the most pleasant is by stately Victorian horse drawn carriage known as a gharry.

For the ultimate luxurious feel, take a gharry to the National Kandawgyi Gardens for a stroll in the shade and breathe in the fresh, pine scented air. Established in 1915 by Alex Rodger, the gardens are a great place to explore the area’s flora and fauna, while the pond with its central stupa makes an excellent photograph.

A tour of the town will take you to the Purcell Tower and on to the English Cemetery before stopping to allow you to inspect the pretty Shiva Temple and Chinese Temple. To the south of the town you will find the Candacraig, which is a colonial mansion built as a guesthouse and offers an interesting insight into colonial life.

Venture out of the town and you will discover a couple of pretty waterfalls. Anisakan Falls is a great place to visit for those who enjoy hiking, and you can trek for half a day through jungle to get witness the inviting cascade of water and nearby temple. Pwe Kauk Falls are a popular picnic spot and you can simply hire a taxi to get there before relaxing or hiking to the nearby caves of U Naung Gu.

There are a number of great restaurants in this area and Western food is quite easy to find, while traditional cooking is hot and spicy, moderated with flavours of Chinese and Indian cuisine.

Nong Khai, Thailand

Nong Khai, Thailand
Nong Khai, Thailand
Nong Khai, Thailand
Nong Khai, Thailand

Nong Khai Province, in the very northeast of Thailand, is often referred to as the gateway to Laos as many people stop off there on their way to visiting Thailand’s northern cousin. Even if you’re not planning to cross into Laos, make sure you check out the Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge, which spans the Mekong River.

The province features stunning scenery consisting of forests, national parks, and many small towns located on the banks of the Mekong River. There are two main points of interest for visitors to Nong Khai Province; the city of Nong Khai and the quiet yet charming dusty town of Beung Kan.

Nong Khai is the capital of the Nong Khai Province and offers a wide range of things to see and do. Indeed, many people visit the city only intending to stay a day or two and end up staying for several weeks.

The main attraction of Nong Khai city is the Sala Kaew Ku Sculpture Park, which is full of massive sculptures from Buddhist and Hindu ideologies. Here you will find incredible images such as seven-headed Naga snakes and a wide range of human-animal hybrids.

Visitors should make a point of seeing Wat Pho Chai, which contains the magnificent Laos-style Luang Phra Sai. Other temples of interest include Wat Noen Phra Nao, Wat Lam Duan and Wat Tung Sawang.

During the dry season, the spire of Phra That Nong Khai appears above the waters of the Mekong River. Also appearing in the dry season is the beach of Hat Jommani, which is a good place to soak up the sun.

Nature lovers should pay a visit to the extremely beautiful Phu Wua Wildlife Reserve, while the Nong Khai Museum is a great source of local history and culture.

Nong Khai is a province that loves to party, and there are many colourful festivals to see and enjoy. Late May brings the Rocket Festival, while the full moon in October brings the Rowing Festival. This festival is famous as this is the time when fireballs mysteriously shoot from the Mekong River. The fireballs are widely believed to be breathed by a sea monster living in the river – dispute it at your peril!

Another festival worth looking out for is Anou Savari, which occurs on March 5th and is the city’s biggest street fair.

Survival Tips for Thailand

Survival Tips in Thailand
Survival Tips in Thailand
Survival Tips in Thailand
Survival Tips in Thailand

Generally, Thailand is a very friendly place to visit, however a few precautions and a measure of common sense can go a long way to making your experience smooth and enjoyable.

It is a good idea to carry a selection of change such as 20 baht notes and coins as many people cannot change large notes, especially in small towns and villages. If you are stuck for change, buying an inexpensive item at 7/11 or a similar shop usually does the trick.

Touts at airports and other tourist areas are there for one reason only: to make money. Unfortunately, this usually involves parting unwary travelers from their cash. You should always question any offer that seems ‘too good’, and get a good idea of average hotel prices before agreeing to go with someone.

Always use the meter in taxis or, if taking a tuk-tuk or motorbike taxi, makes sure you agree the price before hopping on board.

Young, fresh coconuts are much more refreshing than water, great if you are spending the day on the beach or suffering from a hangover.

Although the tap water is drinkable in large cities, it is best to stick to bottled water. The larger bottles of UV treated water are the cheapest, although not the healthiest. It is worth paying a few baht more for brands such as Singha or IO.

In Bangkok, the entire city becomes gridlocked during peak commuting hours of 8-10 am and 5-7 pm. It is best to try to avoid travelling at these times.

Essentials such as suntan lotion and mosquito spray tend to be a little bit more expensive on the islands, so it is a good idea to stock up before you go. Internet access is often much more expensive as well.

Guesthouse owners a generally a good source of local information, it is worth getting to know them.

Make sure you check the expiry date of your visa carefully as there is an overstay fine of 500 baht per day.

Many bathrooms do not provide toilet tissue, so it is a good idea to carry some with you. Remember to throw it into the bucket provided rather than into the toilet.
 
Sarongs are an essential item as they dry much quicker than towels and can also be used as a blanket, a privacy screen and an item of clothing.

Learning a few words in Thai can go a long way to getting what you want and forming friendships. Compliments and jokes are always effective.

It is a good idea to carry a photocopy of your passport, especially when going out drinking as police perform random checks and may ask to see it.

It’s easy to become dehydrated, make sure you carry water and drink small sips frequently.

If you need to get away from the heat for a while, cinemas, expensive hotels and even 7/11 shops provide sanctuary.

A small dab of perfume or aftershave under your nose is a great way to avoid suffering from bad smells.