Côn Đảo’s Calling

24 03 2015

Reasons to go to Côn Đảo – by guest blogger, Kirsty Denison

con dao

Côn Đảo is an island of day-job, desk-bound fantasies; a place where cloud-topped, jagged mountains encase bays of turquoise and paper-white sands. Just an hour’s flight from frenetic Saigon, this 50km square patch of paradise is skirted by 15 other smaller islands and islets, making up the Côn Đảo Archipelago of South Vietnam’s Vũng Tàu Province. This is a place at once warmly familiar and other-worldly exotic. The town-centre, with its dilapidated pale-yellow buildings and lamp-lit seafront promenade would not be out of place in Provence, and tell of a complicated past under French Colonial rule. Outside of this comfort-zone however sit the winding jungle-lined mountain paths and unbeatable beaches that make this the most absurdly spectacular place I’ve ever visited. As I walk you through the reasons I believe you should immediately hop aboard a plane here, I’ll share some of the places and sites that made my five recent days here so incredibly memorable.

The Beaches

Imagine a Caribbean paradise beach; all multi-blued seas stretching out to a far-off horizon, cloudless skies, and sand softer than putty. Now take away all other tourists, any sounds and sights familiar to busy holiday destinations, and add a rich green backdrop of jungle wilderness: these are Côn Đảo’s beaches, or at least the ones I found and fell in love with.

The Hidden Beach by Bai Dam Trau

secret beach

We climbed the stacked grey boulders on the left-hand side of Dam Trau beach, hoping for a better vantage point for pictures and general horizon-gazing.  Feeling like adventurers, we reached the (very low) summit and congratulated each other before taking in the views. As Christopher Columbus must have felt when he set eyes upon America, there was a spring of excitement as we looked to the left, and upon what can only be described as every tourist’s dream-find: a  hidden cove completely devoid of other souls (a far-cry from the busy ‘official’ Dam Trau to our right). Two huge yellow buoys emblazoned with “Côn Đảo” sat on the shore, making this beach feel all the more strangely deserted. We’d somehow managed to arrive just in time at low-tide – 2pm the day we were there, but this of course varies – and the sea was far out enough for us to camp-out for a good few hours in a little tree-made cave to the right of the beach. With only the fish and a few strewn rocks for company, this little cove is as close to the deserted island fantasy as it comes.

Getting here involves a multi-staged approach. First, make a spectacular drive along Co Ong Road, past the incredible panoramic sea views, until you reach a little white sign saying ‘Bai Dam Trau’. Turn left, along a bumpy path until you reach some ramshackle huts servicing the ‘official’ Dam Trau beach. The women here will attempt to lure you with promise of fresh coconut juice and snacks, but resist – make your way left, scale the boulder’s shallow heights, and there you’ll find exactly what you’ve been looking for.

Six Senses Beach (Bai Dat Doc)

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These are the sands Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt walked upon during their 2011 stay on Côn Đảo, and you’d be forgiven for thinking that this stretch of beach would be off-limits to those paying less than a grand a night for accommodation. The Six Senses Resort seems exclusive in every sense of the word, but bizarrely its beach – or at least the end away from the villas – is open to us, the great unwashed.

To reach this piece of paradise, give the well-paved resort entrance a miss and continue along Co Ong Road until you see a large sign with some beach rules written in amusingly translated English. To the right there’s a gap in the hedgerow, where a rocky slope leads down to the sands. You’ll be greeted with everything you’d expect of a 5* beach; an almost people-less expanse of white sand, curving round to meet mountains that feel as though they’re guarding the secrecy of this idyllic setting. There’s some OK snorkelling to be done in the strangely warm, crystal-clear waters, but the pure relaxation and sense of achievement at freely roaming a first class beach is surely enough for most.

The Drives and the Dives

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If viewed from above, Côn Đảo takes the shape of a dog side-on. The main road starts at the airport, the nape of the neck, and flows along the outer edges of the pup’s underside. This is the kind of road that brings out the philosopher – and the adventurer – in everyone who has the sheer luck to pass along it. The front leg is rimmed with a mountain path looking out over the blue expanse of the South China sea, pleasingly interrupted by sight of the other islands. Wild jungle, and occasional pink blossom line the roads, and where there’s not ocean scenes, there’s great mounds of cloud-topped mountain in the distance to compensate. Sunsets – of the fast-moving, sky-burning kind – are best viewed from the south of the island, or the back of the dog’s hind leg. Of course, the only way to really feel these rides with every sense is by motorbike, but there are (expensive) taxis on the island for those who daren’t.

Along the east side of the island – the stomach, which seems appropriate – lies Côn Đảo’s town, where you’ll find a promenade, and neatly ordered, food-stall lined streets. Children, on a seemingly endless school-break, eat candy floss in among the battered French colonial buildings and towering palm trees. Motorbikes are almost  outnumbered by pushbikes – something you can only dream of in nearby Saigon – and drives through the town are relaxing, especially in the evening.

 The Dives

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Nothing much beats a boat trip across exotic waters, and if you’re going to do it on Côn Đảo then it’s best to do it right. Dive! Dive! Dive!, run by Côn Đảo guru Larry Bernier, is the most reputable on the island and operates a hand-built boat to sail you around the surrounding seas. Our trip took us to the south of Bay Canh Island, where turtles famously nest their eggs from May to November, and to the east side of Hon Tai (although trips vary depending on the day, and weather). Although my dodgy ears hampered my chances to dive, snorkelling was some of the best I’ve ever experienced; rich, vibrant coral circled by some incredible sea-life. My friend returned from a try-dive with a grin on his face, and an eagerness for more.

The History

“Teacher, beware of the ghosts” said my students as I told them of my planned trip to Côn Đảo, such is this idyllic island’s history (and infamous legend) as a brutal penal colony for, most recently, the French in the 1800s, and the Americans until as late as 1975. It is now considered one of the largest and most important historic sites in the country, as well as a memorial area for thousands of Vietnamese who come on pilgrimage to the island to pay their respects to the twenty thousand revolutionists and patriots who died at Colonialist and Imperialist hands. For foreign visitors, it can be hard for the mind to negotiate this horrific past with the tranquil nature of the island, though there are a few sites which can help the curious build a deeper understanding.

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The prisons, all located along Ton Duc Thang and Nguyen Van Cuu Street, are a good place to start. Inside Phu Hai Prison, we found little in the way of information, just a courtyard flanked by ominous cells with scratched walls, hooks lining the edges presumably for the shackling of inmates. Our basic Vietnamese allowed my friends and I to locate a women’s cell on the right side of the courtyard, used by the Americans for their hundreds of female prisoners. The French kept only one; the revolutionary Vo Thi Sau, who was imprisoned at 14, executed at 19, becoming a national martyr and hero in the process (her grave, along with thousands of others, are located at the Hang Duong Cemetery on Nguyen An Ninh Street where people go to light incense at midnight, and to generally pay their respects).

With the help of workers who had congregated in the courtyard for lunch, we found our way to Phu Truong and the infamous “tiger cages”. Tiny cells with metal grilled ceilings are looked down upon from a walkway where guards would once have patrolled, throwing lime and faeces over the piles of inmates, often stabbing them with spears. Throughout the prison, stone replicas of guards and prisoners enact scenes of torture in place of detailed written explanations, and help to explain some of the brutality that went on here. For those who can face seeing the torture instruments and more gruesome descriptions of the abuse, there’s a large museum on Nguyen Hue Street.

Workers show us out, revealing the stark contrast of the prison's exterior

Workers show us out, revealing the stark contrast of the prison’s exterior

Getting There

To experience Côn Đảo for yourself, the only real option is to fly with VASCO (a subsidiary of the more well-known Vietnam Airlines). For reasons unbeknownst to most, the cheapest tickets are to be found on a Thursday evening, so strategise your booking accordingly and go direct through the website. The flight’s a beautifully short hour in a propeller plane (complete with complimentary water and wet-towels), flying low over Dam Trau beach for landing. Such is the remote nature of the island, accommodation is not as polished as on the mainland, but there’s a good range of options (Con Dao Camping gets a personal recommendation on account of it being cheap, decent, and on the beach).

Côn Đảo is an island in the midst of change; get here now before masses of others discover this beautifully wild location.





High-speed rail is coming to Vietnam

17 03 2015
High-speed train in Japan

High-speed train in Japan

Hot on the heels of the inauguration of Vietnam’s first five-star train – last Tuesday it was announced that Vietnam will be getting its very own high-speed rail system too!

Don’t get too excited, though – this ambitious three-phase project is planned to take a whopping 35 years, so you won’t be zipping up and down the country anytime soon.

The Victoria Express, one of Vietnam's existing deluxe trains

The Victoria Express, one of Vietnam’s existing deluxe trains

The VN Express reports that phase one, which is scheduled to be completed in 2020, will involve upgrading the existing section of railway between north and south, allowing passengers to travel between Hanoi and Saigon at speeds of up to 90 kph (56 mph). It will also include the re-commissioning of currently unused sections of track, as well as the construction of new routes.

Phase two, meanwhile, is planned to take place between 2020 and 2030 and will mean new high-speed tracks and trains – enabling speeds of up to 200 kph (124 mph).

Finally, phase three will bring upgraded railway infrastructure to allow speeds of up to 350 kph (217 mph) by 2050, bringing the project to completion.

Country train in Dalat, Vietnam

Country train in Dalat, Vietnam

This long-term plan was approved by the Vietnamese prime minister last week, but the estimated cost of such a wide-reaching programme has not been revealed. Than Nien News reports that the aim of the plan is to increase the role of rail travel in the country’s transportation network – a share that has been steadily diminishing in recent years in favour of other modes.

For now, however, locals and tourists alike are stuck with the current, slower-than-a-snail Reunification Express, which takes its sweet time as it trundles from Hanoi to Saigon in around 34 hours. But that’s no bad thing, in our book! Whilst high-speed rail has its benefits, travelling the length of Vietnam by train is an unforgettable experience, and you’ll see a whole lot more of the surrounding countryside (and your fellow passengers!) if you go the slow way.

Train in the station at Hue, Vietnam

Train in the station at Hue, Vietnam





Is it safe to travel to Burma? Ethics and unrest in 2015

11 03 2015

Children in Burma

In recent months we have seen a fantastic rise in public interest in travelling to Burma, which is great news for the country and its people. However, we also occasionally hear from potential travellers who are put off by worries about personal safety in the country – or who doubt the ethical propriety of encouraging tourism to an area where corruption and human rights abuses are still rife.

If you’ve had half an eye on the regional news recently, you can hardly have missed the fact that all is not well in Burma.

Burma has long been in the grips of one of the world’s longest-running civil wars, which began in 1948 and continues in some areas to this day. While the country has made substantial steps in the right direction since 2010, (the military junta has taken a step back from government, political prisoners have been released, some repressive laws have been amended), Burma’s struggles are far from over.

Rather than shy away from these questions, we think it’s important to address them. As we discussed in a recent post, we believe that educated, responsible tourism to Burma now, and in the coming years, is going to be critical to the country’s development.

Burmese home

 

What is happening in Burma now?

Rakhine State

Much of the furore currently surrounding Burma in the news recently concerns the Rohingya people in northern Rakhine State – to the west of the country. The Rohingya are a Muslim people of ethnic Bengali origin, and though they themselves claim to have originated in Rakhine (also known as Arakan), the international consensus is that they migrated there from Bangladesh. This migration began very slowly as early as the 15th century, and increased after 1826 when the British annexed Arakan and encouraged farm workers to migrate to the area. Today the Rohingya number about 1.3 million and form about 40% of Rakhine State’s population. In northern Rakhine, however, Rohingya constitute about 80-98% of the population.

Rakhine State map

Rakhine State

Violence between Rohingya and ethnic Rakhine people first broke out during World War II, following which the Rohingya were suppressed over the course of two decades by the Burmese leader Ne Win – who eventually removed their voting rights in 1982. Instead of being considered citizens, for the past three decades most of the Burmese Rohingya population have been categorised simply as “stateless Bengali Muslims from Bangladesh”, without rights in a country where they were born and raised.

The troubles of the Rohingya first came into the international spotlight in 2012, when the Rohingya majority in northern Rakhine clashed with the ethnic Rakhine majority in the south, leaving around 200 dead and tens of thousands displaced from their homes. CNN estimates that there are still more than 100,000 Rohingya trapped in internment camps, where conditions are squalid and the residents are forbidden to leave – “for their own safety”.

Earlier this month, a bill was passed by the Burmese government that would allow “white card” holders (which includes most Rohingya) the right to vote in a referendum on the country’s constitution – a temporary measure that would not grant citizenship to Rohingya but which would give them a voice in the country’s affairs. The day after the announcement, however, thousands of Buddhist protesters took to the streets of Yangon demanding that these newly conferred rights be revoked. That same evening, President Thein Sein gave into pressure, announcing that the white cards would now expire at the end of March, and the Rohingya’s newfound voting rights with them.

Following the expiry of the white cards, any Rohingya who can prove that their ancestors settled in Burma before 1823 will be granted citizenship, while all others will be turned away (according to Human Rights Watch).

Kachin State

Kachin state map

Kachin State

Besides the recent troubles in Rakhine State, Burma has also seen a recent surge in conflict in Kachin State in the north of the country. The conflict began when Burma gained independence from Britain in 1948, and the Kachin Independence Organisation was formed in 1961. Since the mid-1960s the state has functioned virtually independently (except for its major towns and railway corridor), with its own extralegal police, fire brigade, education system, immigration department and other institutions.

Fighting resumed between the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and the Burmese Army in 2011, after a 17-year ceasefire, when government forces attacked KIA positions along the Taping River. Fighting spread throughout the state, continuing sporadically through 2012 and early 2013. In November 2014 there was one reported attack – by the government on a KIA headquarters. During the conflict, both the Burmese Army and rebel forces are said to have acted without regard for civilian lives – even targeting them on occasion.

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Shan State

Next-door to troubled Kachin State, Shan State has also recently given cause for concern. Shan State is home to numerous ethnic groups – some of them with their own armies. Though most of these groups signed a ceasefire with Burma’s military government, in mid-February this year fighting broke out between ethnic Chinese rebels in the Kokang district of northern Shan and the Burmese Army, leading to the imposition of martial law in the Kokang Self-Administered Zone by the Burmese government. Many civilians have fled the area, seeking refuge in neighbouring China.

Fighting has now died down in the area, and some people are returning to their homes – although many continue to stay away. Unusually, the Burmese government is actually reported to have won much support over their handling of the incident – even from former political prisoners of the regime – by allowing media updates on the situation and inviting reporters to sit in on briefings.

The vast majority of Shan State has been unaffected by the recent skirmish, and remains safe to travel.

Shan State

Shan State

Will I be safe?

If you avoid problem areas, keep an eye on local news, and follow sensible travel advice – yes, your visit will most likely be trouble-free. The risk to your safety in most parts of Burma is very low – lower, in fact, than in many other popular tourist destinations in the developing world – and we are very happy to continue sending customers to Burma, and indeed to continue visiting Burma ourselves, in 2015.

As of 20th February 2015, the UK government advises against all but essential travel to Rakhine State and Kachin State (marked in orange on the map below), except to the beach resort of Ngapali (in Rakhine) and the towns of Myitkyina, Bhamo and Putao (in Kachin). These areas are considered safe and continue to accept large numbers of tourists.

Particular care is also advised when visiting border areas with Thailand, Laos and China, where there have occasionally been armed clashes in the past few months. Further protest rallies (such as the recent, violently dispersed student protests in Yangon) are expected regarding recent legislation, so if you come across protests or demonstrations while in any part of Burma, you are also advised to stay well clear of the crowd and refrain from taking photographs or videos – especially of police.

FCO 303 - Bangladesh Travel Advice [WEB]

 

Is it ethically responsible to travel to Burma now?

While personal safety is not a major issue for foreign tourists to Burma, a more troubling subject for many prospective travellers is whether their visit is ethical. Historically, forced labour is known to have been used in the preparation of tourist sites and infrastructure in Burma, and it is impossible to know whether the money you spend will end up supporting the local community or lining the pocket of some corrupt official.

Are you you – and we – approving the Burmese government’s continuing human rights abuses by feeding them our tourist cash?

Burma’s opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, has asked tourists to stay away from Burma in the past. In 1999, she said:

I still think that people should not come to Burma because the bulk of the money from tourism goes straight into the pockets of the generals. And not only that, it’s a form of moral support for them because it makes the military authorities think that the international community is not opposed to the human rights violations which they are committing all the time. They seem to look on the influx of tourists as proof that their actions are accepted by the world.

Aung San Suu Kyi (Photo: asiasociety.org)

Aung San Suu Kyi (Photo: asiasociety.org)

This call for a boycott was honoured by many (including the UK and other EU countries) until 2011, when the National League for Democracy (NLD), Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, announced that it would now welcome responsible tourism to Burma. The party made the following statement:

“The NLD would welcome visitors who are keen to promote the welfare of the common people and the conservation of the environment and to acquire an insight into the cultural, political and social life of the country while enjoying a happy and fulfilling holiday in Burma.”

So what changed? The decision by the NLD to make an about-turn on tourism may have been influenced by a number of factors.

For a start, the actual effectiveness of a boycott on travel that was only really respected by a handful of nations is small. Though the Western world may have stayed away for the most past, Asian investors (mainly from China and India) did not – meaning that the boycott held relatively little sway over domestic developments.

Meanwhile, although Aung San Suu Kyi has suggested that international tourism could be seen as a stamp of approval for the Burmese regime, it could also be argued that the more international onlookers there are in the country, the less keen the Burmese government will be to carry on with their abuses of human rights. Similarly, the more tourists visit Burma to learn about its political situation and get to know its people first-hand, the more exposure these problems will get – and the more pressure the Burmese government will be under to effect real change.

Though different opinions do exist on the matter and it remains a subject under debate, we believe that responsible, thoughtful tourism to Burma is integral to the country at this critical stage in its history. The question at hand is not whether human rights abuses are continuing to happen in Burma (we know that they are), but whether by withholding tourism we are really having a positive effect on the situation.

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Shwedagon Pagoda Festival 2015

4 03 2015

Shwedagon Pagoda

In honour of the 2015 Shwedagon Pagoda Festival, which this year is being celebrated from the 1st until the 5thof March, we thought we would share a few of our favourite pictures of the shiny, shiny stupa – as well as a bit of its history and the festivities taking place today.

Shwedagon

Located in Yangon (AKA Rangoon), the former capital of Burma, Shwedagon is the most important Buddhist pagoda in Burma and is believed to contain relics of the four Buddhas of the present age: a staff, a water filter, a piece of robe, and eight strands of hair.

Shwedagon at night

According to the pagoda’s official website it was originally just 8.2 metres tall, but improvements by successive monarchs raised it to almost 110 metres. Apparently, tradition dictates that each new Burmese monarch must add his bodyweight in gold to the structure.

Shwedagon

According to historians, the pagoda was probably built between the sixth and tenth centuries AD – however legend (and the Swedagon pagoda website) tells that it is much older, dating back more than 2,600 years. If the latter are correct, this would make it the oldest Buddhist pagoda in the world.

Shwedagon

The stupa’s base is made from brick covered in gold plates. Next are the terraces (only accessible to men), then the bell-shaped level, then the turban, the inverted almsbowl, the inverted and upright lotus petals, the banana bud and finally the umbrella crown. As a sign of sovereignty, the umbrella crown is the final ornament of nearly all Burmese pagodas, and Shwedagon’s is reportedly encrusted with 5,448 diamonds and 2,317 rubies.

Shwedagon

Pagoda festivals are found throughout Burma, but Swedagon’s is the largest. These festivals typically commemorate major events in the pagoda’s history, such as its founding and its crowning with an umbrella (more on this later), and are celebrated over several days – attracting pilgrims from across the country.

Shwedagon

Visitors to the pagoda make offerings in the form of water, candles and flowers, also giving food and monetary donations to the monks for the upkeep of the stupa. On arrival, pilgrims remove their shoes and walk a circuit of the pagoda in a clockwise direction, passing by the site’s most important features and stopping to pray at whichever planetary post represents the day of the week on which they were born.

Candles at Shwedagon

In addition to the religious ritual, there is also a fun, carnival-like atmosphere surrounding the area – with traditional drama, music, dancing and plenty of delicious street food sold by vendors.

Under the military government, the Shwedagon Pagoda Festival was banned from 1988, not to be reinstated until 2012. Thus the 2015 celebration is only the fourth such festival in nearly 20 years!

Shwedagon

Remembering his visit to Shwedagon Pagoda in 1889, Rudyard Kipling wrote:

“…Then, a golden mystery upheaved itself on the horizon, a beautiful winking wonder that blazed in the sun, of a shape that was neither Muslim dome nor Hindu temple-spire. It stood upon a green knoll, and below it were lines of warehouses, sheds, and mills. Under what new god, thought I, are we irrepressible English sitting now?”

Offerings at Shwedagon

Shwedagon Pagoda is currently undergoing restoration works, but this has little impact on a visit to the site. It is unclear how long the works will be ongoing.





Bagan: Our guide to Burma’s archaeological wonders

26 02 2015

Bagan

In the first of a series of posts on Southeast Asia’s iconic historical sites, we explain the history and significance of Bagan – one of Southeast Asia’s most incredible archaeological sites.

Located in Burma, most consider Bagan to be comparable with Angkor Wat in terms of scale and significance. Like Angkor, it has been the subject of numerous beautiful and atmospheric photos, and as more and more people flock to Burma each year it has become the centre of the country’s nascent tourist industry.

Bagan temple

FACT FILE:

Where?   In the Mandalay region of Burma (Myanmar), 290 km (190 mi) southwest of Mandalay and 700 km (430 mi) north of Yangon.

What?   Bagan was the capital city of the Pagan Kingdom, the first Burmese kingdom, from 1044 until 1297. Today the area is home to more than 2,500 Buddhist stupas, temples and monasteries – the largest and densest concentration of Buddhist monuments in the world – but at the kingdom’s height there were over 10,000.

When was it built?   Most of Bagan’s monuments were built over a 250-year period between the 11th and 13th centuries, when the Kingdom of Pagan was at its height. Some, however, were built somewhat before or after this stretch.

Who built it?   The rulers of the Pagan Empire & their subjects

How big is it?   The Bagan Archaeological Zone covers an area 13 km by 8 km (8 mi x 5 mi), with Old Bagan at its heart. It incorporates the Bagan plains, New Bagan and the district of Nyaung-U.

Bagan temple

Construction

Most of the Bagan temples fall into one of two categories: stupa-style solid temples, and gu-style hollow temples. The Bagan stupas (or pagodas), took their influence from early Pyu constructions as well as India and Ceylon, and represent Mount Meru in the Buddhist cosmos. They are usually bell-shaped, with one or more rectangular terraces at their base, and contain a relic chamber. The main features of the hollow, gu-style temples, meanwhile, are a vaulted indoor chamber and pointed arches. This technique of vaulting is thought to have been developed in Bagan in the 11th century, only to be forgotten by craftsmen in later eras.

Bagan temple

History

Bagan started life as a small settlement, thought to have been founded in the late-ninth century by the early Burmans, who had migrated to the Irrawaddy Valley from what is now southern China. The name Bagan comes from the old Burmese word Pugan, which is in turn derived from the older Burmese word Pyugam, meaning “Pyu Village” – and in its infancy Bagan was just one of many competing city-states inhabited by the Pyu people in that region.

Over the course of about 200 years, Bagan gradually grew to absorb these neighbouring principalities, and in the mid-11th century King Anwrahta founded the Pagan Kingdom – unifying for the first time the regions that would form the basis of modern Burma. From 1044 until 1287, Bagan was the capital of this kingdom, growing steadily in size and wealth to become a major centre for religion (including both Theravada, Mahayana and Tantric schools of Buddhism as well as Hindu and animist traditions), scholarship, astrology, medicine and law. At this time, the Pagan Kingdom was equal in sophistication and power with the neighbouring Khmer Empire, and attracted monks and scholars from all over South and Southeast Asia.

Bagan at dusk

In the mid-13th century, a series of Mongol invasions sent the already rather unstable Pagan Empire into decline. The political fragmentation that ensued continued for 250 years – about as long as the empire’s golden age – lasting well into the 16th century. During this time, some religious monuments continued to be built in Bagan, until slowly but surely it halted altogether. Only around 200 monuments were built between the 15th and 19th centuries.

Though it has diminished from a city of up to 200,000 inhabitants to a small town, Bagan has continued to survive as a significant pilgrimage site throughout history until the present day. Many of its monuments fell into disrepair in the centuries following the fall of Pagan, while others were repainted or fitted with new religious statues. Between 1752 and 1885, the Burmese state funded the systematic renovation of many of Bagan’s monuments, in a move that is largely considered to have done more harm than good.

Bagan has also had to deal with numerous earthquakes over the years, some of which have caused extensive and even irreparable damage to temples in the area – notably the Bupaya pagoda, which was completely destroyed by an earthquake in 1975. In the 1990s, the Burmese government once again carried out restoration works on many of these monuments, and once again the renovations were considered by the international community to have been irresponsible and damaging to the integrity of the area.

Bagan Baloons

Bagan today

It is due to the botched restorations of the 1990s that Bagan has not (yet) been included on the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites – despite its undeniable impressiveness and wide-reaching appeal. This is unfortunate, as it means no UNESCO funding for (proper) renovations, or protection to guard against further deterioration.

Bagan is at risk not only from the well-meaning meddling of would-be renovators, but also from further earthquakes and from erosion caused by the Irrawaddy River – which has, in fact, already worn away a significant portion of the surrounding area with the strength of its current.

Despite this, Bagan is still an enchanting and as yet relatively little-visited archaeological marvel, and constitutes the highlight of most trips to Burma. While there are a handful of popular temples and pagodas that receive a steady stream of visitors, there are countless more that remain obscure and undiscovered.

Stupa

Bagan’s most popular temples and pagodas are as follows:

Ananda Temple – Bagan’s holiest temple, built 1091
Shwesandaw Temple – “sunset temple” – probably Bagan’s most popular tourist spot. A great place to watch the sunset (hence the name).
Shwe Zigon Temple – Gourd-shaped golden pagoda, built 1087. This was the model for the famous Swedagon Pagoda.
Thatbyinnyu Temple – Bagan’s tallest pagoda, 66 metres high. Built in the 12th century.
Shwegugyi Temple – One of Bagan’s best-preserved temples, built 1131. Another great (and less crowded) place from which to observe the sunset.
Dhamma Yangyi Temple – Commissioned by King Narathu to atone for assassinating his father, brother and wife. Work on the temple was abandoned after the king himself was assassinated.
Gawdaw Palin Temple – Exhibits a fusion of Burmese and Indian styles, with a beautiful courtyard and interesting bell hangers.
Bupaya Stupa – Golden, gourd-shaped stupa sitting on a temple by the river.

bagan-map

Golden pagoda

Visiting Bagan

A small cluster of habitations close to the river: Old Bagan, Myinkaba and New Bagan host the majority of the accommodation options in the area and have a selection of restaurants of varying quality.

Many of the highlight temples and pagodas are located close to Old Bagan, and the countryside is ideal for some independent exploration on foot or bike. During the peak heat of March/April temperatures regularly head into the high 30s C (approx 100 F), so we recommend avoiding the midday heat and preparing appropriate clothing, sunhats and water.

With so many temples and pagodas to explore it’s easy to get away from the tourist crowds, and for those feeling energetic there’s nothing better than hiring a bike and heading out. Bikes can be hired from most hotels, or from a number of places in Old and New Bagan. Ask your guide for their recommendations, but likewise make sure you prepare for the heat and take plenty of water.

Cycling in Bagan

Our Jim cycling in Bagan

 

Horse & cart
You can rent a horse cart with a driver for around 10000 – 15000 Kyats for a full day. The horse carts are slow, shaky, bumpy, and not exactly the most comfortable mode of transportation, but you’re sheltered from both sun and rain, so that’s a bonus. One good option is to rent a horse cart for 1 day to see the major temples, and then visit the remaining sights on bicycle the next day.

Hot air balloon
Hot air balloon has become a popular way to see Bagan, and is an enchanting (if expensive) way to get a handle on the size and scope of this astounding area. A dawn balloon ride costs about US$320-350 per person, and can be taken from October till April.

Bagan buddhaNow is the time to visit this beautiful country.





Hoi An Full Moon Festival dates: famous celebration to take place twice a month

23 02 2015

Child selling lanterns at the festival

As you’ll certainly know if you’re a regular reader of our blog, we love Hoi An. The ancient, UNESCO-registered port town in central Vietnam boasts a beautiful colonial town centre, glorious beaches, some of the country’s finest cuisine, oodles of relaxing riverside cafes, lovely countryside, the ancient ruins of My Son – and since 1998, the famous and much-loved Full Moon Festival (AKA Hoi An Lantern Festival, or Ancient Town Night).

For the Vietnamese, the night of the full moon is a time to pay your respects to your ancestors by making offerings at family altars and burning lucky (fake) $100 bills to bring in luck and prosperity. Monks hold candlelit ceremonies at temples, and fishermen pay tribute to the goddess of the sea.

Lantern stand

On full moon (the 14th day of every lunar month) for the past 17 years, the streets of Hoi An have switched off their harsh, fluorescent lighting, been closed to traffic and replaced street sellers and mopeds with colourful lanterns, candles and traditional music, taking the old town back to yesteryear. The streets on this night are packed with both Vietnamese and foreign visitors who flock to the town to join in the festivities, playing traditional games, eating delicious vegetarian festival food and buying little cardboard lanterns with candles inside to float on the river – said to bring luck, happiness and love. Another popular activity during the full moon celebrations is to take a ride in a little sampan boat – a great way to get away from the crowds and see the festival from a different perspective.

IMGP0413

In January this year, The People’s Committee in the central province of Quang Nam, where Hoi An is located, announced that the formerly once-monthly festival will now take place every fortnight (on both full moon and new moon) – and have discussed the possibility of upping this to once a week, depending on attendance.

child lantern seller

Hoi An’s Office of Trade and Tourism reported in October last year that the city saw a 263% increase in visitors and hotel bookings around the time of the Full Moon Festival, so the new move to double the celebrations will capitalise on this spectacular success, bringing in more tourist dollars for the community and local businesses.

Good news, you might assume. But is more really more when it comes to these traditional events? Increasing the number of festivals to cater to tourist demand may reduce crowds a little and help distribute tourist business more evenly across the month, but isn’t it a step too far? Doesn’t it rob a little of the magic of the night, commodifying ancient customs for the entertainment of visitors?

For us, the jury’s out on this one. Tell us what you think in the comments below!

Lanterns

The following table contains the Lantern Festival dates for 2015 and 2016. It has not yet been announced when the festival will begin its new, twice-monthly schedule, so the dates in green are as yet unconfirmed. We’ll update you as soon as the extra dates have been officially announced, but until then – watch this space!

Dates for 2015-16 festivals

 

 

 

 





Tết: A survival guide

18 02 2015

Tết, short for Tết Nguyên Đán (Feast of the First Morning of the First Day) is the Vietnamese Lunar New Year – the biggest and most important celebration in the Vietnamese calendar. If you’ve had your eye on the Vietnamese news in recent weeks, you’ll have seen countless articles on this year’s preparations – from the impressive “flower street” to the countless families in villages across the country who make their living from manufacturing food, incense, goats (ofc), flowers and all the other things that are necessary for a successful new year celebration.

Tet balloon seller

Tet flower shopping

Tet flower shopping

When is it?

Tết usually falls on a date in January or February, but this year it lands on Feb the 19th: this Thursday! It is celebrated on the same date as Chinese New Year, and celebrations go on for at least three days – more like a week…and this year it’sup to nine days. Tết is also considered to be the first day of spring, so is also known as Hội Xuân: “Spring Festival”.

Tet flower sellers

Flower sellers

How is it celebrated?

In epic fashion. Vietnamese people start preparing for Tết weeks in advance (much as we start preparing for Christmas as soon as Halloween is out of the door – or in January if you’re my Mum). The actual celebrations are divided into three periods: Tất Niên (penultimate New Year’s Eve – or “New Year’s Eve Eve” as it’s called in my house); Giao Thừa (New Year’s Eve); and Tân Niên (New Year itself).

Tết is a family occasion, so most Vietnamese will gather at their family home, visit relatives, worship at family altars or visit the graves of their ancestors to pay their dues and clean the grave as a mark of respect. There are many other customs practiced during Tết – from the cooking of special foods to cleaning the house, giving lucky money to children and the elderly, playing traditional games, opening a shop or making a pilgrimage – and these traditions tend to vary depending on where you are in Vietnam. Most families will also decorate their houses with flowers, including a cây nêu (artificial New Year Tree) made of a long bamboo pole decorated with various ornaments and good luck charms.

Tết celebrations on the streets of Vietnam’s cities, towns and villages are a noisy affair, with a parade of people trying to make as much noise as possible using firecrackers, drums, bells, gongs, pots, pans – whatever they can find that’s loud – to scare off evil spirits. Participants also wear masks and perform traditional Lion Dancing – another tradition that’s thought to ward off evil. After the parade, families and friends gather to eat the traditional Vietnamese food they have prepared in a celebratory feast.

Tet parcels

Tet parcels

Food

Food is extremely important during Tết, which is perhaps why the Vietnamese phrase “to celebrate Tết” is to “ăn Tết“, or “eat Tết”. Traditional Tết foods include:

  • Bánh chưng and bánh tét: Vietnamese rice cake made from glutinous rice and meat or bean fillings wrapped in a parcel of Dong leaves. The former are long and cylindrical, while the latter are square.
  • Hạt Dưa: roasted watermelon seeds
  • Dưa Hành: pickled onion and cabbage
  • Củ Kiệu: small, pickled leeks
  • Mứt: candied fruits
  • Cầu Dừa Đủ Xoài: In the southern dialect of Vietnamese, the fruits custard-apple (mãng cầu), coconut (dừa), papaya (đu đủ) and mango (xoài) when said in sequence sound like the phrase cầu vừa đủ xài - “We pray for just enough to spend”. For this reason, these are popular offerings at family altars in southern Vietnam.
  • Thịt Kho Nước Dừa: a traditional dish of pork belly and boiled eggs stewed in coconut juice, eaten with pickled bean sprouts, chives and white rice.

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Tết dos and don’ts

Now we get to the “survival” part of Tết – because there are a few social and cultural traps that the unwitting foreigner could easily fall into without the relevant knowledge. Not to mention a whole world of bad luck to be visited upon your head if you fail to heed the right superstitions! For Vietnamese, the first few days of the New Year set the tone for the whole year to come – so it’s important not to put your foot in it.

DO:

  • Give good luck wishes to your friends, family – and in fact anyone you meet on Tết in Vietnam. Some good ones are sức khỏe dồi dào (extremely good health) and tiền vô như nước (money coming like water). “Happy New Year” is chúc mừng năm mới.
  • If you are invited to visit a Vietnamese family, bring lucky money in red envelopes to give to the children. The etiquette surrounding this tradition is tricky even for Vietnamese people, and there is a lot of discussion about how much is the right amount to give in the run-up to Tết. To little could upset the receiver, and too much would be spoil them – both of which mean bad luck. Than Nienh News has written an article on how much to give – I’m staying out of it!
  • Buy a bag of salt. This will ensure that you have a “tasty” year – but if you buy too much, you’re likely to have a year that’s “too salty” (whatever that means). And never bargain with the salt sellers at this time of year!
  • Display lucky fruits (custard-apple, coconut, papaya and mango – as described above)

DON’T:

  • Break glassware. Save your glass-smashing plans for after Tết! Otherwise you’ll have a “broken” year.
  • Swear, or use unlucky words like “die” or “sad”
  • Invite yourself anywhere. An important tradition during Tết is for your first guest of the year to be a successful, charming specimen – to bring good luck. So you obviously don’t count.
  • Wear black and/or white. This is suggestive of funerals.
  • Sweep your house. Although spring cleaning is an important part of Tết preparations, on the day itself and a few days after the New Year, sweeping your house might also sweep out all the luck and success you had accumulated by following all the rules above. They didn’t say anything about hoovers though.

Bear this survivor’s guide in mind during Tết this year and you’re sure to have a fantastic 2015!

Tet shopper

Photos: Kirsty Denison

 








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