Why now is the time to visit Burma

27 01 2015

“Now’s the time to visit Burma – because soon it will have changed.” Such has been the sentiment so often expressed since Burma opened its doors to the outside world in 2010. But how true is it?

How has Burma changed in the past five years, and what are we to expect in the years to come? Should we really all drop everything and rush to the airport? What impact will this sudden influx of visitors have on this unstable and undeveloped country?

Burmese children playing

As most people know, right now Burma is at a crossroads. After 20 years of almost total isolation from the outside world, visitors have now been allowed into the country for coming up to five years. Last year the government introduced e-visas for travellers arriving in Yangon, while at the beginning of this year these were extended to include arrivals in Mandalay – encompassing the vast majority of arrivals by plane into Burma. This, coupled with improved border crossings from Thailand for overland travellers, means that getting into Burma is easier now than it has ever been.

Lots of new investment means that hotels and businesses are springing up thick and fast to cater to new demand, which in turn means that prices for travellers (which were initially rather steep) are beginning to fall, whilst standards continue to rise.

Meanwhile, though an influx of tourism in recent years has, of course, caused some things to change; Burma is still early enough in its development that it has been relatively unspoilt by globalisation – still (thankfully) lacking in Starbucks and McDonalds, and still markedly more traditional than either its Southeast Asian or its South Asian neighbours. This combination of ease of travel and a relative lack of development makes Burma a very attractive destination for travel today.

Rural Burma

Burma is not, however, a nation pickled in aspic. It is very easy (and many have done so) to overstate the country’s lack of development and paint a picture of a land untouched by time. In reality, Burma is currently at a point of great change – its cities are growing and shifting, full of energy and dynamism – and this in itself is something to behold. The downside of such development is clear – but not all change is bad.

Burma is still one of the poorest nations in Asia and there is still a very long way to go before it can really be considered free of oppression and corrupt military control, but already the abolition of media censorship, access to the internet and the opening up of international relations has meant leaps and bounds in personal and political freedom. Visitors must continue to exercise caution with regards to politically sensitive topics when speaking to locals, but many subjects that were once taboo are now back on the menu.

U Bein Bridge at sunset

As is always the case, the prosperity brought by expanding tourism comes at a certain cost, and it seems inevitable that certain areas of Burma will eventually be “spoilt” – becoming well-trodden haunts for Western backpackers as has already happened in Thailand and even in certain parts of Vietnam.

In the face of impending globalisation it is tempting to take the romantic view and to wish that Burma had never opened its doors to visitors – but in reality, Burma sorely needs this change. Nobody can pretend that Burma was better off beneath the grip of its military dictatorship, and sustainable, responsible travel will help to invigorate local communities and support small businesses in very real need of a boost.

Don’t visit Burma expecting to find a time capsule – visit to see a country in the midst of dramatic and exciting change. Educate yourself about the country’s culture political situation and use your tourist dollars to bring life local businesses. Regardless of what happens in the next few years – Burma is, and always will be, a unique and fascinating country distinct in style and character from its neighbours, so yes – now is very much the time to visit.

Burmese smile





Vietnam at the forefront of LGBT rights in Southeast Asia

23 01 2015

Liberated in Vietnam

On New Year’s Day 2015, Vietnam repealed its ban on gay marriage – putting it leaps and bounds ahead of its Southeast Asian neighbours in terms of LGBT rights.

To give you a vague idea of what we’re talking about – same-sex sexual activity is still enough to earn you a life sentence in Burma, whippings in Malaysia, jail in Singapore, and even death by stoning in Brunei. At best, in countries such as Laos and Cambodia, the issue of same-sex relationships is simply ignored.

So why the change of heart in Vietnam – a country that (let’s face it) isn’t exactly known for its liberalism and social freedoms? To look at Vietnam’s timeline of LGBT rights, allowing marriage hardly seemed like the next logical step. Cohabitation of same-sex couples was illegal until 2000; homosexuality was taken off the official list of mental illnesses in 2001; and a survey published in 2011 found that 87% of respondents still thought that homosexuality was a transmittable disease.

In the face of such statistics, Vietnam’s decision to lift its ban is surprising – and a pretty big deal. So what did it?

Firstly, let’s be clear about what the law means: though same-sex marriages will be allowed to take place and will not incur fines, gay marriage will not be legal – gay unions will not be recognised by law, and couples’ rights will not be protected by law.

One event that helped start the ball rolling was the decision by the gay couple Truong Van Hen and Nguyen Hoang Bao Quoc to hold a traditional, public wedding and invite their friends and family in May 2012. Though the authorities put a stop to proceedings, the event was widely reported in Vietnamese media and helped spark national debate – throwing the issue into the limelight.

Another figure who is being cited by some commentators as a positive influence on public support for gay rights is the new US Ambassador the Vietnam, Ted Osius, whom some suggest has made an impact on public opinion simply by being a prominent, successful and (crucially) homosexual public figure.

Many sources also suggest that this change in the law is a strategic move by the Vietnamese government to promote the country’s image as tolerant and accepting – hopefully fuelling a general boost in tourism and especially tapping into the reported $100 billion per annum that the LGBT community spends on travel. Others suggest that the new law may be part of the CPV’s effort to “rainbow-wash” its dubious human rights record.

Whatever the motive, there’s no denying that this change in the law is a step in the right direction, and signals that the Vietnam’s Communist regime is prepared to consider marriage equality – something that would have been unimaginable just a few years ago.

So all in all – bravo, Vietnam!

Cheers





New traffic restrictions make for a safer, cleaner Saigon

19 01 2015

Uptown traffic

There may be nine million bicycles in Beijing (if Katie Melua is to be believed), but according to Thanh Nien News reporting last week, there are six million motorbikes and over 500,000 cars in Saigon: an altogether more troubling prospect.

Whether or not these estimates are to be trusted is up for debate, but whatever you believe – anybody who has visited Ho Chi Minh City before will agree is that there are a heck of a lot of scooters in Saigon.

It is perhaps the first thing to strike you (hopefully not literally) when you arrive in the city: swarms of noisy, single-cylinder mopeds buzzing through every gap in the traffic and filling up every available space, often carrying several people and five times their weight in crates, bags and a miscellany of other barely believable cargo. There is almost room for nothing else – and woe betide the bewildered tourist trying to cross the road!

Thankfully, it seems that the powers that be in Ho Chi Minh City have finally decided to do something about the problem. Last week, Thanh Nien News reported that the HCMC Department of Transport is planning to limit personal vehicles in the city by raising consumption tariffs, implementing new “environmental fees”, and introducing an annual quota on newly licensed vehicles. This new quota will mean that aspiring vehicle owners must bid to buy a new motorbike (or car, for that matter), pay an additional sum in order to drive it, and have their own parking space in which to keep it. The plan would also mean that certain vehicles would only be allowed to drive on the streets at certain times of day.

Though the move is certainly good news in terms of curbing the growth of the problem, it will not cut down on the current number of bikes and cars on the streets of Saigon. What with current public transport systems being exceedingly slow and stigmatised by many as an option only for Saigon’s very poorest; it seems likely that it will not be until the eventual arrival of the HCMC metro (whose construction began in 2010, with initial services expected to begin running in 2017) that we might begin to see a visible improvement in congestion.

Although the traffic is ‘part of the experience’ for some visitng the country for the first time, these new restrictions will be a step in the right direction and an exciting change for Vietnam’s biggest city….hope it doesn’t change our Vespa night tours of the city too much though…

 

 





Five lesser-known destinations to visit in Vietnam

14 01 2015

You’ve heard all about Hanoi, Saigon, Halong Bay and imperial Hue – but what of the Vietnam’s lesser-known destinations?

The following are our pick of the best of Vietnam’s lesser-known – yet thoroughly worthwhile – locations; from a tropical island off the southern tip of the country to one of the world’s largest cave systems in central Vietnam and towering karst scenery in the north. It’s enough to get anyone’s feet itching!

1. Mai Chau

Mai Chau is a district located in rural Hòa Bình Province in the northwest of Vietnam, about 65km from the regional capital and about 160km from Hanoi.

Whilst not exactly “off the beaten track”, Mai Chau is a long way from Vietnam’s big cities and makes a fantastic place to discover a little of rural life. Home to the Black Thai and White Thai tribes (whose ancestors settled here from Thailand), Mai Chau is known for its beautiful scenery – with lush mountains, lakes, and rice paddies which carve patterns in the hillsides – and makes a great location for hiking or cycling.

We recommend spending the night in one of the area’s traditional stilt houses, where you’ll pay almost nothing, sleep on mats laid out on bamboo floors, try home-cooked Vietnamese meals and perhaps enjoy a traditional dance performance courtesy of your hosts.

 2. Ninh Binh

Ninh Binh Province, where rivers snake through green valleys in the shadow of towering karst pillars, is an area of northern Vietnam that truly deserves to be called breathtaking. Known as “dry Halong Bay” to the locals for its similar scenery, Ninh Binh’s Tam Coc area is slightly less well-trodden yet no less spectacular. We recommend taking in your surroundings from the comfort of a longboat as you float down the river, or hiring a bicycle and riding out to the Trang An Grottoes.

3. Phu Quoc

If you’re looking for a real slice of Vietnamese paradise, Phu Quoc, located off the southern tip of Cambodia, is one of our absolute favourites. Consisting of a Phu Quoc main island (Vietnam’s largest island, covering an area of 574 sq km) and a series of 21 smaller islets, here you’ll find the stereotypical island idyll: clear waters, white sand, dense rainforest and precious little development – even despite the area’s increased popularity in recent years.

Whether you’re into diving, kayaking, motorbiking or just lying around on the beach and eating delicious local food – you’ll find it in Phu Quoc.

4. Nam Cat Tien

Vietnam is a densely populated country, but in the depths of Nam Cat Tien’s buttress-rooted jungle you feel you could walk for days without seeing another person.

One hundred miles to the northeast of Saigon lies one of Vietnam’s most important national parks: Nam Cat Tien. The 72,000 hectares of dense lowland rainforest and grassland is home to an enormous variety of flora and fauna, and is one of the final remaining refuges for wild native populations of elephant, leopard, bear, monkey and reputedly even tiger!

If you’re lucky enough to visit Nam Cat Tien, we recommend staying in a lovely lodge overlooking the river, visiting a gibbon rehabilitation centre, and trekking through the jungle in search of the rare Siamese crocodile…

5. Phong Nha

A national park and World Heritage Site, Phong Nha-Ke Bang is located 500km south of Hanoi and is well-known for its incredible limestone cave systems – one of only two regions of its size in the world. Composed of over 300 caves and grottoes which stretch over a distance of 126 km, Phong Nha’s trophy cabinet is practically groaning: it is home to the largest cave in the world, the longest underground river in the world, and the largest combined system of caverns and passageways in the world.

Perhaps most famously, Phong Nha is home to “Paradise Cave” (Thien Duong), which was discovered in 2005 and contains limestone formations that dwarf those of any other cave in Phong Nha in terms of scale and intricacy. Located in a spectacular setting well into the mountains of the national park and only accessible through quite some effort, we highly recommend taking the trouble to visit as the cave is by far the most atmospheric and impressive in the park!

More recently even than this, in 2009 Son Doong Cave was re-discovered by a team of scientists from the British Cave Research Association (it was actually discovered in 1991 by a local man, to give credit where credit is due!) and has since been confirmed as the largest cave in the world at 5km long, 200m high and 150m wide. The cave contains some of the largest stalagmites and stalactites in the world, and some unusually large cave pearls have also been found there.

Unfortunately it’s unlikely that you’ll be visiting Son Doong Cave any time soon, as admittance is pricey and only a handful of tourists have been allowed entry so far (the first tour was run in 2013 to the tune of $3,000 per person!), but it did enter the news recently after an outcry against proposed plans to built a cablecar system inside the cave – a move that could cause collapses and tarnish the pristine nature of Son Doong.

Hopefully in the near future Son Doong will become more accessible to the public without the need for such risky measures, and without endangering the beauty of the cave.

Just five fantastic places that you probably didn’t know about. Just add them to that wish list of yours…

 





Top 10 Things to do in Luang Prabang

5 01 2015

Matt Spiller recently returned from a jaunt around little known Laos. Here are his top ten things to do in Luang Prabang and a good reason or two, to head there in 2015….

1. Wake up early to see the monks receiving morning alms

At dawn the saffron robed monks of Luang Prabang walk quietly through the streets collecting donations of sticky rice from the town’s residents. Although it attracts a lot of tourists, some of which do not recognise the need for distance, silence and respect during this dignified and meditative ritual, it should still be at the top of any visitor’s list of things to do. As the monks walk around the whole town, we would recommend observing from a respectful distance along one of the quieter side streets away from the crowds. Anyone is able to take part and offer rice to the monks, however, out of respect we feel you should only do this if you practice Buddhism.

Morning Alms

Blessed

 

2. Haggle at the daily markets

Haggling is a bit of a pastime in Laos and with the Night Market offering souvenirs and the Morning Market offering fresh produce there are plenty of opportunities for you to get your haggle on!

fruit and veg

Night markets

 

3. Walk to the top of Mt Phousi

Although only 100m high, Mt Phousi in the centre of Luang Prabang offers fantastic views across the town, meandering Nam Kham and Mekong rivers and the surrounding hills. The gentle walk to the top also takes you to a couple of interesting temples and what is believed to be a giant Buddha footprint. Definitely aim to coincide the climb with either sunrise or sunset.

Top of the mountain

Mountain walks

Happy

 

4. Take at tuk-tuk out to Kuang Si falls

Around 50 minutes from Luang Prabang by tuk-tuk, the turquoise blue waters of the Kuang Si falls is something not to miss. Whether you just bathe in the shallow waters at the bottom or hike up to the top of the 60 metre falls, a visit to Kuang Si offers a few hours of tranquillity amongst some breathtaking surroundings.

Kuang Si

waterfalls

 

5. Take a break with a refreshing fruit juice

Sightseeing can be thirsty work and the best way to refresh and re-energise it to stop at one of the many fresh fruit juice stalls dotted around the town. Just choose the mixture of fruits you want and they will make a delicious concoction for you there on the spot.

Refreshments

 

6. Pile your plate as high as you can

For those with a healthy appetite you will not be disappointed in Luang Prabang. In a small alley just off the Night Market you will find food stalls where you can pay 10,000 Kip (less than £1) for a bowl and then pile it as high as you can from an array of dishes. There are also a number of outdoor restaurants along the Mekong River offering all you can eat traditional Lao barbecue (sin daat). 60,000 Kip per person (less than £6) will get you your own tabletop barbecue and free rein on an endless selection of meats, fish, seafood, vegetables and desserts.

Luang Prabang Restaurants

Luang Prabang Restaurants

 

7. Visit the Elephant sanctuary

Using elephants for tourism is somewhat a controversial matter but the Elephant Village is committed to giving rescued elephants a better life, Located 30 minutes outside of Luang Prabang, the sanctuary takes in rescued elephants and ensures they are given proper care and kept healthy. With a full time vet and an “Elephant Hospital” the sanctuary also rents pregnant working elephants from the surrounding area to ensure they are not forced to take on strenuous and abusive work before and after the pregnancy and so that their owners do not lose any income as a result of them not working.

Land of a million...

 

8. Watch the world go by with a BeerLao

The laid back pace of Luang Prabang makes it the perfect place just to sit back and watch the world go by in one of the many cafes and bars lining Sisasanvong Road, the main road through the centre of the town, or on the riverbanks of the Mekong and Nam Khan. The endless stream of tuk-tuks, motorbikes, monks, locals and tourists will keep you captivated for hours whilst enjoying Laos’ favourite tipple, BeerLao, which apparently has 99% market share of beer sales in the country.

World go by

World go by with a beer

Watching people, watching people

 

9. Go bowling

This may seem like a strange recommendation but if you still fancy a beer after all the bars close for the 11pm curfew then bowling is the only solution. Located a short tuk-tuk ride out of town, the bowling alley stays open into the early hours but if you don’t want to be rubbing shoulders with teenage backpackers then it’s probably best to stay away.

LuangPrabang?!

 

10. Explore the various wat temples dotted through the town

As the former royal capital, Luang Prabang is home to 32 different temples, all with their individual charm and style. As the town is fairly small, most of the temples can be visited by foot or on bike.

Temples

Luang Prabang peace

Spiritual centre

There are plenty more reasons to spend some time in Laos.





Christmas in Vietnam

23 12 2014

Christmas is gaining popularity in communist Vietnam as a ‘fun festival from the west’. There are more places popping up enabling you to get into the Christmas spirit with Tuoitre News highlighting 5 places to get a Christmas picture in Ho Chi Minh, including this picture from Christian Town in Tan Phu, Saigon.

 

Courtesy of Tuoitre News

Courtesy of Tuoitre News

However, travellers on our Indochina tours often comment that Vietnam feels like the least spiritual one of the Indochina countries.

Though you won’t come across any alms processions, pagoda dotted hills or tuktuks packed with monks, symbols and expressions of religion and spirituality are plentiful throughout Vietnam…

You will find it…

In Vietnamese festivals and  Childrens’ Festival

v 1

*In olden times, the Vietnamese believed that children, being innocent and pure, had the closest connection to the sacred and natural world. Being close to children was seen as a way to connect with animist spirits and deities.

In Vietnamese homes and gardens…

Vietnamese festivals

In small offerings..

Vietnamese spirituality

When you feel small…

In stunning sunsets…

Sunset in Vietnam

In trees and pagodas pointing to the skies…

Vietnamese trees and pagodas

In reviving the ancient art of paper flower making...

Paper flower making, Vietnam

In living the life one has always known…

v 9

In colours and light…

In details that fall into place…

Vietnamese flowers

In reflections…

In temple guards, as old as the woodwork...

Vietnamese temple

In solitude…

In nature…

Vietnamese Nature

In the shadows of incense…

Vietnamese Incense

In staircases leading up to Royal tombs…

Staircases leading up to Royal tombs, Vietnam

In broken pieces creating art…

In new generations…

Children cycling in Vietnam

In the mountains…

In new religions that combine buddhism, confucianism, islam and christianity…

Vietnamese religion

In looking up…

Religion in Vietnam

It’s there, you just have to notice.

Merry Christmas.






The highway to the highlands

16 12 2014

InsideVietnam’s Charlotte Bower recently headed north from Hanoi to the Sapa highlands on the new express way (opened September 21 2014). The express way from Hanoi to Lau Cai is the longest in the country and cuts journey time to the far north dramatically. Here’s Charlotte…

Ta Van Village Red Dzao and H'Mong (11)
Sapa is a stunning mountain destination with trekking and ethnic tribe villages to visit, but is commonly left off of a short travel itinerary because of the hassle that comes with using the overnight trains to get there and back; previously the only transport option. Now, the recently completed highway has opened up the north west of Vietnam and it provides a pleasant alternative to the train.

Hanoi Traffic
The highway starts about 20 minutes outside of Hanoi and this is a perfect part of the journey to spot motorbikes a little out of the ordinary. In Vietnam, the motorbike is king and is quite often used as a family vehicle. It is not uncommon to see a family of five riding one or someone carrying a ladder.

Hanoi outskirts
The beginning of the highway bridges over the outskirts of Vietnam where you can see the tall narrow houses with red roofs, typical of Vietnamese cities, along the banks of the Red River. This soon gives way to small hold farms where you can observe the farmers ploughing with buffalo or harvesting rice, depending on the season.

It is a great opportunity to sit back and observe rural life for a few hours and see a refreshing change of pace after the hustle and bustle of Hanoi. With the exception of a few road cuts and tunnels, the rural views are uninterrupted for the few hours in takes to get to Lao Cai, the town closest to Sapa and the location of the train station.

Sapa new road
After passing through Lao Cai and observing the French influences architecture in the government buildings and shops, you leave the new highway and start the hour and a half drive up 2500 metres to Sapa; a road full of hairpin bends and stunning mountain views of rice terraces which more than makes up for the bumpiness – a noticeable difference once you have left the new highway.

Sapa service station

The new highway itself has been well constructed with external and internal investment. It is on a par with British roads and, although not perfectly smooth, provides for a perfectly pleasant journey. The facilities on the road are minimal at the moment. There is $2 million of local investment for the construction of service stations but these are still in the early stages of building. Currently, the locations where they will be built have local food stalls with bright signs advertising Pho Bo and plenty of coffee. There are facilities here but they are rudimentary squat toilets – As long as you know what to expect, they are  acceptable for emergencies if a five hour drive without stops doesn’t sound ideal to you. Just don’t forget your tissues!

Not only does this road provide the opportunity to see some stunning scenery you wouldn’t otherwise see (the train is all in the dark), but it opens up the northwest of Vietnam and to time constrained travellers. Sapa (and the surrounding mountians) is an opportunity not to be missed in terms of scenery and culture and the investment that has been put into this highway ensures that even the shortest of itineraries can now include it as an option.

 








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