Angkor Wat: Our guide to Cambodia’s national icon

2 09 2015

The vast temple complex of Angkor Wat in Cambodia is one of Southeast Asia’s most recognisable and revered religious sites. It has been the subject of countless wanderlust-inducing photos and if you’re interested in the Southeast Asian region, the chances are that it’ll feature quite high up on your travel bucket list. But how much do you know about this ancient icon?

Angkor Wat reflected


Where?   5.5 km (3.4 mi) to the north of Siem Reap, Cambodia

What?   Originally a Hindu temple complex dedicated to the god Vishnu; now a Buddhist temple. It is also the tomb of its creator, Suryavarman II.

When was it built?   Over a period of more than 30 years in the early 12th century (beginning 1113)

Who built it?   Started by Khmer King Suryavarman II, finished by Jayavarman VII

How big is it?   Overall the site covers 2 sq km (200 hectares). The outer walls stretch for 1.5 km (0.93 mi) east to west, and 1.3 km (0.81 mi) north to south, with the entire complex enclosed by a 200-metre-wide moat.

What is it made of?   Mainly sandstone blocks, with some laterite

Angkor Wat is Cambodia’s most popular tourist destination and the country’s symbol, appearing on both its flag and its money – which is no surprise really, considering its staggering scale and intricacy. It is, in fact, the largest religious monument in the world – and has a greater volume than the Great Pyramid of Giza.



The temple complex combines two principles of Khmer architecture: the temple-mountain and the galleried temple, and features three ascending, concentric galleries with five towers at its centre. Admittance to each gallery would have been increasingly exclusive, with commoners allowed into the lowest level only and a sacred central sanctuary at the very top.

Plan of Angkor Wat's inner galleries (graphic by Baldiri)

Plan of Angkor Wat’s inner galleries (graphic by Baldiri)

The temple is thought to have been built using a combination of elephants, ropes, pulleys and bamboo scaffolding and contains millions of tons of sandstone – which was quarried 40 km (25 mi) away from the site and transported using a canal network. To put that in perspective, the massive limestone blocks used to build the Egyptian pyramids was quarried barely half a kilometre from the site!

What’s more, nearly every single surface of Angkor Wat has been carved with literally miles and miles of bas-reliefs depicting religious figures, scenes from Indian literature, warriors, animals and celestial creatures. The skill, organization, time and manpower that would have been required to finish the project is simply immense.

Bas reliefs at Angkor Wat

Bas reliefs at Angkor Wat


 Unlike most Cambodian temples, throughout its entire history Angkor Wat was never abandoned to rack and ruin. Early in its history it was sacked by the Chams in 1177, then in the 13th century it gradually moved from a Hindu place of worship to Theravada Buddhist use (which continues today).

Early European visitors to the site (such as Henri Mouhot) rhapsodised about the site’s amazing architecture, but found it difficult to believe that such a monument could have been built by the Khmers. Tragically, it was the very beauty of the Angkor site and other Khmer monuments that led directly to France invading Siam to take control of the ruins in 1863 – and they would not be restored to Cambodia until 1953.

Façade of Angkor Wat by Henri Mouhot, 19th century

Façade of Angkor Wat by Henri Mouhot, 19th century

The ruins underwent considerable renovations in the 20th century, which were stalled during the Khmer Rouge era before continuing in fits and starts from the late eighties until the present day.

Angkor today

As is always the case with a site of such historical importance and interest as Angkor, increased tourism brings with it both benefits and detractors. On the one hand, UNESCO recognition and higher footfall means more funding for renovations, but on the other it means more wear and tear, graffiti, potentially culturally insensitive tourists and harmful development in the surrounding area. Luckily, tourism has caused little damage to Angkor Wat so far, UNESCO has set up a wide-ranging programme to protect the ruins, and various conservation committees are involved in the discussion over how best to incorporate future tourism without sacrificing local values and culture.

Visiting Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat stands in Angkor Archaeological Park, which covers 400 square kilometres and contains the remains of several capitals of the Khmer Empire dating from between the 9th and 15th centuries. One of these capitals was the largest pre-industrial city in the world – covering an area larger than the size of modern Paris.

It is possible to reach Angkor in about 20 minutes by car or motorbike from Siem Reap – but we recommend renting a bike and cycling the 6km to the ruins. Bike rental outlets are generally open very early in the morning to cater to tourists who wish to do just this – and if you wish you can join a cycling tour that will take in a few of the most popular and lesser-known sites in the park. By helicopter or tethered hot air balloon are also amazing ways to see the ruins, if you have that kind of cash to spare.

Our Matt Spiller on a bike ride to Angkor Wat

Our Matt Spiller on a bike ride to Angkor Wat

You must buy a pass to visit the Angkor area. These can be purchased for one-day (USD 20), three-day (USD 40) or seven-day (USD 60) periods. The three-day pass can be used on any three days within a week, while the seven-day pass can be used on any seven days within a month.

Many visitors choose to arrive at Angkor Wat just before dawn (the park opens at 05:00) in order to watch the sun rise from behind the temple. We recommend getting there as early as possible to stay one step ahead of the crowds!

Angkor at sunrise

Sunrise at Angkor Wat.

Though the pictures may look peaceful, this is a very popular time to visit and you will certainly not be the only one lugging your camera down to get that perfect shot! There are two popular spots from which to photograph Angkor at dawn from across the pond, but the northwest corner of the northern pond is the better of the two. Near the end of March and September, at the equinoxes, the sun will rise directly above the central tower – creating an amazing photo.

Though you can never expect to get Angkor to yourself, one of the best times to look around is directly after dawn, when many tourists then head back to town for breakfast. In this excellent and comprehensive article by Travelfish, Caroline Major recommends taking in the galleries before climbing the tower – as most tourists will charge straight to the top of the temple right off the bat.

When you do come to climb to the summit, remember that there is an enforced dress code (you must cover your shoulders and knees – and not just with a sarong or scarf). Also be sure to check before you climb, as the summit is often closed for religious holidays.

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Preah Vihear: World Heritage Site declared safe for tourists at last

26 08 2015

Preah Vihear

Most travellers to Southeast Asia will never have heard the name Preah Vihear, so it may come as some surprise to hear that, along with Angkor Wat, the obscure northern temple is one of Cambodia’s two World Heritage Sites. Of course, for anyone who read our recent post, World Heritage Indochina, it will come as no surprise at all.

Preah Vihear map

Playing second fiddle to somewhere as grand and iconic as the temples of Angkor is never going to be easy, but there is another reason that Preah Vihear might have slipped under your radar until now – at least if you’re a Brit.

Up until the beginning of this month, Britain’s FCO (Foreign & Commonwealth Office) officially advised against travel to the Preah Vihear temple area and the Ta Krabey/Ta Moan temple area – both of which lie on the border between Cambodia and Thailand. Though a border dispute which began in 2008 and had concluded by around 2011 led to some localised volatility, it has been several years since the region has presented any real risk to travellers, and so the decision to remove the travel advisory has been universally welcomed.

Read more about the FCO’s Cambodia travel advice here.

Preah Vihear: arguably more atmospheric than the busier Angkor temples

Preah Vihear: arguably more atmospheric than the busier Angkor temples

So why bother visiting Preah Vihear at all when you could settle for the incredible temples of Angkor?

There are really two key reasons, both of which make Preah Vihear an attractive addition to your Cambodian itinerary. The first is that while the temples of Angkor (and especially the pièce de resistance, Angkor Wat itself) are undeniably, incomparably spectacular – but they are also incredibly popular, which means that you will inevitably be sharing them with hordes of other tourists. Preah Vihear, meanwhile, is much more remote and very rarely visited – meaning that it has an atmospheric quality that can be lost at the more popular temples.

Another reason to give consideration to Preah Vihear is its objective beauty and remarkable preservation. No other temple in Cambodia (or indeed throughout Indochina) can boast a view as spectacular, stretching out for miles across the surrounding plains, and the architecture itself is very impressive – if not quite as grand as that of Angkor Wat.

Huge crowds gather to watch the sunrise at Angkor Wat

Huge crowds gather to watch the sunrise at Angkor Wat

Visiting Preah Vihear

There are numerous ways to incorporate Preah Vihear into a longer Cambodian trip. Though it is just about possible to do the temple as a day-trip from Siem Reap (the road between the two destinations is good, and the journey takes around three hours), we generally recommend planning to spend at least one night in the vicinity of Preah Vihear as it is quite a long way to go for the day.

En route to Preah Vihear from Siem Reap, you might like to incorporate the beautiful and overgrown temple of Beng Mealea, the relatively unknown yet amazing temple of Koh Ker, or Anlong Veng – the final refuge of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge.

Stunning view from Preah Vihear

Stunning view from Preah Vihear

Fact file

Where? A surprisingly vexed question! Located on the border between Cambodia and Thailand, Preah Vihear has been at the centre of heated disputes between the two countries, both of which claim sovereignty over the region. The dispute was settled in 2011, and Preah Vihear remains the property of Cambodia as per the 1962 ruling by an International Court of Justice.

What? Preah Vihear (or Prasat Preah Vihear) is a Hindu temple built at the top of a 525-metre (1,722 ft) hill overlooking the surrounding plains in both Thailand and Cambodia. In 2008 the temple was inscribed by UNESCO, joining the Angkor complex to become Cambodia’s second World Heritage Site.

When was it built? The temple was built during the Khmer Empire, with construction beginning as early as the ninth century. Successive kings each added their own adjustments to the temple, and later generations repurposed the site to Buddhist use after the decline of Hinduism in the region.

Who built it? It’s thought that most of the surviving temple was built during the reigns of the Khmer kings Suryavarman I and II.

How big is it? Preah Vihear is unusual amongst Hindu temples in that it was built along a north-south axis rather than being orientated toward the east in the traditional fashion. The complex itself is 800 metres long (2,600 ft).

Preah Vihear

On the water: Our top 10 boating experiences across Indochina

19 08 2015
View over the Nam Ou River in northern Laos

View over the Nam Ou River in northern Laos

In our opinion, one of the best ways to explore Indochina is by boat – whether it’s a luxurious overnight cruise in the dramatic scenery of Halong Bay, or a traditional longtail boat along narrow waterways in the thick jungles of northern Laos.

In this blog post we’ve collected ten of Indochina’s best watery destinations and some of our favourite boating journeys, but this really is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to waterborne adventures in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos.

1) Halong Bay

The king of Asia’s waterscapes, the spectacular scenery of Halong Bay has inspired many a traveller to visit Vietnam. Encompassing an area of over 1,500 square kilometres (580 sq mi) in the Gulf of Tonkin, it is famed for its striking scenery of sheer-sided limestone islets (775 of them, to be precise) and is a hugely popular destination for cruising.

The boats on Halong Bay range from large to small and from basic to luxurious, but most are designed to resemble traditional Chinese junk boats complete with ornamental sails. Last year we wrote a definitive guide to choosing a Halong Bay cruise – so check it out to find the perfect option for you.

Halong Bay

2) Speedboating to the Cu Chi Tunnels

For a rather more exhilarating ride, jump aboard a speedboat in hectic Ho Chi Minh and leave the city behind as you zip northward on the Saigon River. Watch high rises and industrial parks melt away to be replaced by riverside stilt houses and fields until you reach your destination: the Cu Chi Tunnels.

These tunnels form part of an immense network of underground passageways built by the Viet Cong during the American-Vietnamese War of the 1960s and 70s. Providing storage, shelter and countrywide supply routes, these narrow shafts played a huge part in the eventual defeat of American forces, and make a fascinating and atmospheric day trip out of Saigon.

A friendly family on the Saigon River

Saigon River

3) Nam Ou River cruising in Northern Laos

For cruise number three, we leave Vietnam and travel to its lesser known but no less beautiful neighbour, Laos. Here, in the northern reaches of the country, the Nam Ou River carves a course through remote regions filled with lush jungle, mountain scenery and tiny villages home to a fantastic diversity of ethnic minorities.

Beginning in Luang Prabang, Laos’ beautiful World Heritage city, we recommend cruising north to stunning Nong Khiaw – taking in the spectacular scenery and stopping to visit the Pak Ou Caves along the way. These caves overlook the point where the Mekong and the Nam Ou River diverge, and are packed with hundreds of Buddha statues of varying sizes.

4) Basket boats in Hoi An

As we never tire of telling you, Hoi An is one of our tip-top favourite destinations in Vietnam. An important trading port for hundreds of years, Hoi An has been shaped by its proximity to the water. Here, the Thu Bon River fragments into many different distributaries, creating small river islands ripe for exploration.

Boat trips of all kinds are available here, from sunset dinner cruises to basic ferries, but one of the more unusual experiences is to try your hand at paddling a traditional Vietnamese basket boats. These hemispherical vessels were originally devised during the French colonial period so that fishermen could avoid a hefty boat tax, but they have proven so useful that they’ve stuck around ever since.

As well as trying your hand at navigating by basket (good luck getting it to do anything except spin round in circles!), we recommend catching a ferry to one of the local river islands to watch the boats being made from bamboo using techniques unchanged for generations.

5) Ninh Binh

With towering karst scenery rising vertiginously from a flat patchwork of fields, it’s not hard to see why Ninh Binh is often called “dry Halong Bay”. Despite the name, it’s not quite dry: fleets of small sampan boats float along the river that snakes through its valleys, carrying the visitors who flock here to admire the idyllic landscapes.

The countryside of Ninh Binh is also home to Vietnam’s biggest pagoda and the Trang An grottoes, so there is plenty to reward a longer stay in the area. All of these merits led to Ninh Binh (or, more specifically, the Trang An Landscape Complex) being inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site last year – the only place in Indochina to claim both natural and cultural World Heritage status.

6) Tonle Sap

Of course, one cannot discuss boating and water in Indochina without recourse to Cambodia’s magnificent Tonle Sap Lake, a vast body of water whose size varies massively depending on the time of year. At low water the lake occupies around 2,500 square kilometres (965 sq mi), while at high water it can submerge an area of up to 16,000 sq km (6,178 sq mi).

The Tonle Sap supports one of the world’s most diverse ecosystems, and is home to an amazing floating world of stilt houses, longboats, and floating farms. We recommend heading out on the lake at dusk, on a sunset champagne cruise complete with canapés – or during the day to explore the regions amazing floating markets.

Tonle Sap

7) 4,000 Islands

Laos may not have a coastline, but that does not mean that it doesn’t have islands – a whole load of them, in fact. The 4,000 Islands (called Si Phan Don in the local language) are located in southern Laos, where the Mekong reaches its widest point – up to 14.5 km (9 mi) across. Here you’ll find many of the charms of Southeast Asia – including a beach-like atmosphere, Khmer ruins, awesome nature and colonial history – without the hordes of tourists that sometimes mar more famous spots.

We recommend spending a few nights at one of the riverside lodges scattered across the river’s many islands, enjoying the laid-back pace of life and perhaps heading out in a sampan to try to spot the rare Irrawaddy dolphin!

8) Kong Lor Cave

Our next boating experience is to be found deep in the jungles of central Laos, inside the immense network of caverns known as Kong Lor. Though less well-known than the Phong Nha Caves just across the border in Vietnam, the Kong Lor Caves are nonetheless spectacular – set in a landscape of limestone karsts, forests and rice paddies.

This unusual boat trip takes you 7.5 kilometres (4.66 mi) along the Hin Boun River, through one of the world’s longest navigable caves – with chambers up to 90 metres wide and 100 metres high.

The entrance to Kong Lor Cave

Kong Lor

9) Mekong Delta

The Mekong Delta is where Asia’s mightiest river empties into the sea, fragmenting into a myriad small distributaries that snake through the large and fertile area known as “Vietnam’s rice bowl”. Here the locals live in stilt houses on the edge of the jungle and conduct business from boats at vast floating markets.

The Mekong Delta is easily accessible from Ho Chi Minh City on a converted rice barge or elegant colonial-style boat, and is a wonderful place to take an overnight cruise on the water. Options range from day trips and overnight journeys to longer adventures taking you as far afield as Siem Reap in Cambodia.

Along the Mekong

Floating market on the Mekong Delta

10) Night safari at Nam Nern

The final boat trip on our list is another unusual offering from the Nam Et-Phou Louey National Protected Area in northern Laos, where the Nam Nern ecolodge offers a fantastic, waterborne night safari through the surrounding jungle. Floating silently in a small sampan, you will look out for deer, civets, slow loris, porcupines, hogbadgers, wild dogs and more as your guide shines a spotlight into the undergrowth.

The Nam Nern night safari is not just a fascinating experience – it also raises funds to support the local community and to raise funds to protect the animals of the park, and was awarded the prestigious World Responsible Tourism Award for Best Responsible Wildlife Experience at London’s World Travel Mart in 2013.

InsideVietnam Tours can arrange any (or all) of the boating experiences listed here, and many more. Our website even has its own dedicated cruise section, so if you need any more inspiration – you know where to look!

10 Simple Pleasures of Travelling in Vietnam

12 08 2015

There’s no shortage of reasons to travel to Vietnam: it has a wonderful culinary tradition, beautiful resorts and hotels, its great value for money, has loads of natural beauty, warm weather and fascinating history. Yet sometimes it’s the little things that truly make a trip special. I chose 10 pictures from my recent trip to Vietnam that embody some of my favorite experiences in a country with an endless number to choose from.

IMG_3345Morning tai chi in Ha Long Bay

Surely no trip to Vietnam is complete without a visit to the towering karst rock formations of Ha Long Bay. Immortalized in movies and Southeast Asia travel brochures, there are few places on earth that are more visually stunning. But what really stuck with my this time around was a half hour session of early morning tai chi with a member of our boat’s all purpose staff. Whether it be waiting tables or leading us in ancient martial arts techniques as we were gliding through the bay’s morning mist, Vu (picture above) was an absolute joy and made my trip!

IMG_3393Lac Thien

I’ve been visiting this restaurant intermittently for over a decade and it is still one of my favorite places to eat in Vietnam. Yes, the food is decent but that’s not what has kept me coming back over the years. The family that owns and runs this restaurant is a very special one and when you come to eat here you are truly entering their home. There is little chance that you will leave here without seeing a grandchild walking between the tables or perhaps you’ll have the grandmother serve you spring rolls with a baby strapped to her back. And the real highlight will be the father and his homemade bottle openers (pictured above opening 5 bottles of beer at once). Although deaf and mute, his personality comes through in spades and you can be sure that you’ll leave with great memories of a great meal.

IMG_3375Hopping on a local ferry

Hoi An ferry is well and truly on the beaten path of tourists these days. And for good reason. This town has fantastic resorts and some of the best food in the world. Not to mention good shopping and a nearby beach. But for me, a trip to Hoi An is always combined with a trip to the lesser visited nearby villages via a local ferry. Sure, I always pay around 5 to 10 times what the locals do but that’s still only one US dollar! And never a trip goes by without a curious local starting a conversation with me mid-journey. When the locals riding the ferry get to Hoi An they have a job to do but when they are on the ferry they are just happy go lucky and thrilled at a chance to practice their English. Which is always better than my Vietnamese!

IMG_3670Visiting a local market (with an open mind… and open wallet)

In Vietnam it is easy to develop thick skin and become dubious when visiting local markets. The locals are, after all, trying to make a living by selling their wares and they will do so at as high a price as possible. And who can blame them? But I’ve always found that shedding my armor and walking into a market with an open mind and a smile on my face opens up a world of experiences. On one of my latest trips, my friends and I were visiting a rural market in the far north of the country. I stopped to look at a little woodcarver’s stall and by the time I turned around my good friend Alison was fully dressed in some of the local gear! The pictures will last a lifetime and so will the memory of all the locals who gathered to see this “giant” woman trying on the traditional garb. Smiles and good times all around.

IMG_3270Juice, juice and more juice

Vietnam’s food is more than just Vietnamese cuisine. Whether you love your local pho shop and indulge on spring rolls regularly or have never tasted a Vietnamese dish in your life, the food in Vietnam is amazing not just because of great recipes and a long culinary tradition, the real difference maker is the freshness of the ingredients. In much of Vietnam, restauranteurs and even housewives will go to the market twice a day to get the best ingredients. Sometimes this is for vegetables that have just been picked and other times it’s to get fish from the boat that just came in. Whatever the case, good food is always close at hand. But it’s not just the food, the fruits and especially the fruit juices are simply divine. On my last visit I went to a restaurant where multiple bottles of fruit juice were brought out and we mixed our own blends right at the table! (pictured above)

IMG_3421Riding in a sampan

If you visit the Mekong Delta, the massive central waterways are sure to impress. The amount of flowing water, boat traffic and sheer scale of it all are humbling. But getting away from the main thoroughfares and into the tiny web of canals can is an intimate and memorable experience in its own right. When traveling through these narrow water alleyways on a sampan (pictured above) the noisy modern engines drift away and you feel like you have gone back in time. At least until one of the rowers gets a call on her mobile phone! ;)

IMG_3600Visiting a home

On one of my favorite bike rides in Vietnam, there is a little home where the family makes noodles and rice paper daily. They have both semi-modern machines and traditional instruments as well and to my astonishment they continue to use both. The whole process is visible and done right in front of your very eyes. To make the rice paper, the rice is ground into a fine powder and mixed with water and then ladled out of an old bucket with a coconut spoon and spread out over moist cloth that is stretched over an open flame that is fueled by rice husks. The liquid is spread out into the shape of a thin pancake and then steamed under an old conical hat before it’s lifted off with a stick the size of a ruler and spread out on a rack of woven leaves and taken outside to dry in the sun. It’s a process that is very simple in some ways and yet so magical to watch. On my last visit I caught one of the four generation of women living here cutting noodles by hand and she was kind enough to stop for a photo (above).

IMG_3403Hopping a ride on the back of a motorbike

There’s no question that the national mode of transportation in Vietnam is the motorbike. Literally millions of motorbikes take to the streets each day and watching the chaotic traffic is a quintessential sightseeing activity in it’s own right. Although it’s certainly not the safest mode of transportation and you should only ride at your own risk, there are few things more exciting than cruising around Vietnam’s streets like a local. My favorite place to do this is Hue. The wide boulevards and surrounding countryside make motorbike tours in this city a very different experience than cruising around in the more urban environs of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. Just be sure to hold on tight!

IMG_3704Even the bad is good

I love wine. In fact I love almost all alcohol and I’m rarely snobbish when it comes to my end-of-the-day-drink. So when I saw the option for some homegrown wine on the menu I jumped at the chance to try it again and see if it had progressed in the 6 years since I had last drank a glass of the stuff. Admittedly, it wasn’t the best glass of wine I’ve ever tasted I’m but I’m still glad that I didn’t opt for something I could have back home. Trying something new is what travel is all about, even when it isn’t great. And, as the picture above attests to, with scenery like this it doesn’t really matter what the wine tastes like.

IMG_3640The unexpected surprises are always the best

As much as I love all of the above experiences, what really made most of them special for me was that I wasn’t expecting them. And nothing could sum up that feeling of surprise more than the above. When walking in Sapa in northern Vietnam, this little boy came past us going the opposite direction on the back of a water buffalo. Whether he was riding home from school or just off to visit a friend I will never know but it certainly put a smile on my face and made me happy that I was here and nowhere else.

There are so many great experiences awaiting travelers in Vietnam but nobody will be able to tell you what they are because the best ones still haven’t happened!

Vietnam: Is reckless development destroying the environment?

7 08 2015
Litter on China Beach

Litter on China Beach

Last Saturday, The Guardian published an excellent article discussing the impact of economic development on Vietnam’s priceless natural heritage. Highlighting the country’s declining visitor numbers as part of the problem (Vietnam has seen international tourist numbers fall month on month for over a year), the article suggests that in the scramble to attract foreign business back to Vietnam, unscrupulous developers risk damaging the environment beyond repair.

That many of Vietnam’s natural wonders are under threat – from Halong Bay to the caves of Phong Nha National Park – is a sad but undeniable truth. Nevertheless, there is reason to believe that it’s not all as bad as it seems – and tourism can in fact have a positive effect on environmental issues.

For instance, though the article’s author laments that “story after story in the Vietnamese press recounts how unspoiled natural spaces become strewn with rubbish”, there is substantial evidence to suggest that growing tourism can even have a positive effect on Vietnam’s well-publicised littering problem.

While many Vietnamese beaches are strewn with detritus tossed from fishing boats, areas frequented by international visitors tend to be cleaned regularly and kept in much better condition. Of course, this does mean that some of the cleanest stretches of Vietnam are accessible only to those who can afford to pay for the privilege – which is sad in its own right.

Vietnam's beach resorts are leading efforts to clean up the country's wonderful beaches. This is a beach in Nha Trang after clean-up efforts instigated by the area's new Fusion resort.

Vietnam’s beach resorts are leading efforts to clean up the country’s wonderful beaches. This photo shows a beach in Nha Trang after clean-up efforts by the area’s new Fusion resort…

... and this is the same beach before the clean-up.

… and this is the same beach beforehand.

In July this year, photos of foreigners picking up rubbish on Cat Ba Beach went viral. The photographer, Pham Ngoc Long, told the Vietnamese news website Thanh Nien News that he “felt really ashamed. Most tourists at the beach are locals, so I guess the trash was left behind by Vietnamese people, not foreigners.” He also explained that, following the huge response the pictures garnered, he hoped Vietnamese people would be shamed into changing their littering habits. The Vietnam Coracle offers various theories as to what lies behind Vietnam’s culture of littering – we recommend reading the full article here.

But litter is only the beginning of Vietnam’s environmental problems, says The Guardian. More troubling still are the large-scale projects – such as the plans to build casinos on Dong Van Plateau or a golf course next to Halong Bay. In such cases, short-term economic gain eclipses the long-term benefits of preserving the country’s natural heritage – the very thing that Vietnam should be safeguarding if it wants to tempt tourists back to its shores.

Phong Nha's caves are safe from harmful development projects - for now.

Phong Nha’s caves are safe from harmful development projects – for now.

Beautiful Phong Nha National Park

Beautiful Phong Nha National Park

In this matter, too, there is hope that the tide is turning. In 2014, the local government of Quang Binh Province announced controversial plans to build a cable car to ferry tourists into Son Doong Cave, the largest cave in the world. Thankfully, these plans were eventually thwarted thanks to a public outcry and rigorous campaigning by conservationists.

Though the fact that such projects are even proposed is worrying, we should take heart from the success of this campaign. Such victories, though only battles in a larger war, can help set a precedent for other, similar projects – and the media coverage accompanying them helps stimulate change in public attitudes regarding environmental issues.

The challenge Vietnam faces is how to balance economic development – crucial to poverty reduction – with environmental management. It is a difficult problem, and one that few countries have found a good solution to as yet. What is certain is that any change will be a very long and slow process.

In the meantime, however, there are still some beautiful stretches of Vietnam that have yet to be marred by construction projects and heavy pollution. These include Ba Be, Con Dao, the Phong Nha caves and the Nam Cat Tien National Park – and you can contribute to their preservation by choosing only tour operators and organisations who have a proven interest in the welfare of local people and the environment.

InsideVietnam Tours are committed to sustainable, responsible tourism, and can recommend some fantastic destinations where conservation efforts are having a positive impact on the environment. Our Indochina Conservation itinerary is just the start – pick up the phone to find out more!

Stunning Con Dao

Stunning Con Dao

World Heritage Indochina

30 07 2015

Indochina – that is, Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos – has a collection of 12 World Heritage Sites, ranging from Khmer Empire masterpieces to colossal caves, from imperial cities to vast national parks. InsideVietnam Tours customers can visit the best of them on our World Heritage Indochina Self-Guided Adventure, but if nothing but the full set will do – if you really have to catch ’em all – then read on…

1. Angkor, Cambodia

Inscribed: 1992

In terms of quantity, Vietnam may have the lion’s share of World Heritage Sites – but it’s Cambodia that really has the big guns, and there’s no bigger World Heritage gun than the Angkor Archaeological Park: home of Angkor Wat.

You might have heard of Angkor Wat. Built over a period of 30 years in the early 12th century, the Hindu-turned-Buddhist temple needs little introduction. It is the largest religious monument in the world, the national symbol of Cambodia, and is covered in miles of some of the world’s finest carvings. Most people think it’s pretty cool.

Though Angkor Wat is the undisputed centrepiece of this archaeological treasure trove, the Angkor World Heritage Site extends over 400 square kilometres (150 sq mi) and encompasses hundreds of temples dating from the 9th until the 15th century – including the giant faces of The Bayon, the overgrown ruins of Beng Mealea, and the “Tomb Raider Temple”, Ta Prohm.

Angkor Wat at sunrise

Angkor Wat at sunrise

The famous Bayon faces

The famous Bayon faces

The "Tomb Raider Temple", Ta Prohm

The “Tomb Raider Temple”, Ta Prohm

2. Hue, Vietnam

Inscribed: 1993

Located in central Vietnam, Hue was the seat of Vietnam’s last royal dynasty from 1802 until 1945. During this period it served as the political, cultural and religious capital of Vietnam, and the Nguyen Emperors built a complex of palaces along the banks of the Perfume River.

Though many of Hue’s monuments were damaged or destroyed during the Vietnam War, those that survived remain as a superb example of imperial Vietnamese architecture.

Hue is also home to Vietnam’s largest international festival, and the 2016 dates have just been announced!



3. Halong Bay, Vietnam

Inscribed: 1994

One of Vietnam’s most recognisable and evocative landscapes, Halong Bay in the north of the country was named a natural World Heritage Site in 1994 for its “outstanding scenic beauty” and “great biological interest”. The bay lies in the Gulf of Tonkin and is renowned for its plethora of over 1,600 limestone islands and islets, many towering hundreds of metres out of the water below.

The best way to experience the scenery of Halong Bay is on a cruise – and there are lots of options out there. Check out our blog post for tips on choosing the best cruise for you.

Halong Bay

Halong Bay

4. Luang Prabang, Laos

Inscribed: 1995

Luang Prabang was recognised by UNESCO in 1995 for its uniquely well preserved blend of traditional Lao architecture with European colonial style. Built on a peninsula jutting out into the Mekong and the Nam Khan Rivers, the city is surrounded by lush mountains and has a laid-back, tropical atmosphere beloved by all travellers lucky enough to stop here.

Not just our favourite place in Laos, Luang Prabang is one of our favourite places in all of Southeast Asia, and we cannot recommend it highly enough.

Luang Prabang

The view over Luang Prabang

The view over Luang Prabang

5. Hoi An, Vietnam

Inscribed: 1999

From one of our favourite Asian towns to another, the ancient trading port of Hoi An is next on our World Heritage list. This beautiful town in central Vietnam became a UNESCO-listed site in 1999 for its colourful mish-mash of buildings, most of which survive from the 15th-19th centuries and exhibit influences from all over Asia and beyond.

While visiting Hoi An, be sure to escape the tourist crowds during the daytime by exploring the quiet suburbs and beautiful surrounding countryside – then head back into town as it comes alive for the night markets. Check out our recent photoblog for some inspiration!

Hoi An's famous lanterns

Hoi An’s famous lanterns

Hoi An's beautiful riverside

Hoi An’s beautiful riverside

The Thu Bon River

The Thu Bon River

6. My Son, Vietnam

Inscribed: 1999

In the same year that Hoi An received recognition from UNESCO, the ruins of My Son – located just a short distance outside the town – were also inscribed on the World Heritage list. The ruins of My Son, whilst nowhere near the size and scope of Angkor in Cambodia, are one of the last vestiges of the Hindu Cham culture that dominated the region from the 2nd until the 15th century, and the remaining ruins represent over 10 centuries of continuous development.

My Son

My Son

My Son

My Son

7. Vat Phou, Laos

Inscribed: 2001

Another remnant of Indochina’s ancient Hindu heritage is Vat Phou, a temple complex in the Champasak Province of Laos. A geometric complex of temples, shrines and waterworks extending over 10 kilometres, itis not as well-preserved or extensive as the monuments of Angkor, but is very much worth a visit.

Vat Phou

Vat Phou

8. Phong Nha-Khe Bang National Park, Vietnam

Inscribed: 2003

The second of Vietnam’s two natural World Heritage Sites, Phong Nha National Park covers a huge area of 857 square kilometres (85,754 ha) and is noted for its incredible geological diversity – including the world’s largest cave, the world’s longest underground river, and the world’s largest cave pearls.

The limestone cave systems in the national park are so extensive that explorers are still discovering them today. The largest, Son Doong, was only discovered in 2009, while the famous “Paradise Cave” was discovered in 2005. Check out our blog post from January this year for more information.

Inside Paradise Cave

Inside Paradise Cave

Phong Nha National Park

Phong Nha National Park

9. Preah Vihear, Cambodia

Inscribed: 2008

The second of Cambodia’s two World Heritage Sites is Preah Vihear, another Hindu temple complex built in the early 11th century during the height of the Khmer Empire. Due to its remote location, the site has been remarkably well preserved and is much less frequented by tourists than its more famous cousin, Angkor Wat.

Preah Vihear

Preah Vihear

10. Hanoi’s Thang Long Imperial Citadel, Vietnam

Inscribed: 2010

Built in the 11th century, this Imperial Citadel was constructed by the Ly Viet Dynasty to celebrate their independence from China, and served as the regional capital for almost 13 uninterrupted centuries. UNESCO has earmarked this site for its unique fusion of architectural styles from China in the north and Champa in the south – two formative influences on what would become traditional Vietnamese culture.

Hanoi's imperial citadel

11. Citadel of the Ho Dynasty, Vietnam

Inscribed: 2011

Though rather less remarkable to the untrained eye than most other locations on this list, the Citadel of the Ho Dynasty was selected for inclusion on the World Heritage list as an example of a new and innovative style of Southeast Asian architecture. Incorporating new building techniques, geometric city planning and aspects of Confucian philosophical concepts, the citadel is evidence of a transitional period in Vietnamese history, as traditional values made way for new technologies and commerce.

Citadel of the Ho Dynasty

12. Trang An Landscape Complex, Vietnam

Inscribed: 2014

Last but certainly not least, the most recent location in Indochina to be recognised by UNESCO was inscribed only last year, and is the only site on the list to claim both cultural and natural World Heritage status. The Trang An Landscape Complex is known for its spectacular landscape of flat valleys and towering limestone peaks – earning it the nickname “dry Halong Bay”.

Not only is the scenery spectacular, but the area’s caves and mountains contain evidence of human culture over a continuous period of more than 30,000 years.

Ninh Binh, part of the beautiful landscapes of Trang An

Ninh Binh, part of the beautiful landscapes of Trang An

8 unforgettable wildlife experiences in Indochina

23 07 2015

Child riding a buffalo in the highlands of Sapa

Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos are home to some magnificent scenery, including lofty mountains, lush jungles, wide plains, vast lakes and verdant river deltas. This amazingly varied topography has allowed a diverse array of wildlife to flourish – from great elephants to delicate orchids.

There are a great variety of ways to get out into the countryside and interact with all this wildlife – but we’ve chosen a few of our favourite experiences to get you started:

1. Spot dolphins on the Mekong

Vietnam is one of only a few places in the world to spot the endangered Irrawaddy dolphin in its natural habitat. Heading out from Kratie in Cambodia, you’ll float out on a small boat skippered by a local fisherman to an area 15 kilometres north of the town – one of the best places on the Mekong to catch a glimpse of these elusive mammals.

The Irrawaddy dolphin population once numbered around 1,000 in this area, but after being hunted for their oils during the civil war there are now thought to be only 70 left.

On the way to spot Irrawaddy dolphins in Kratie.

On the way to spot Irrawaddy dolphins in Kratie.

2. See baby turtles hatch in Con Dao

The Con Dao Islands are a tiny pocket of paradise just an hour’s flight from Ho Chi Minh City. Most of the islands in the archipelago have national park status, and on the main island there is a protected breeding site where visitors can watch as hawksbill and green turtles inch their way up the beach to lay their eggs. Visit at the right time, and you may even be able to assist in the release of recent hatchlings!

N.B. The nesting season is from April to September.

A turtle on the beach on Con Dao Island.

A turtle on the beach on Con Dao Island.

3. Go bird-watching on the Tonle Sap Lake

Tonle Sap is Southeast Asia’s largest freshwater lake, located at the heart of Cambodia. During peak season, the lake swells to an incredible six times its average dry-season size, engulfing the surrounding fields and forests and concealing the teetering supports of the area’s stilt houses.

For those with an ornithological bent, Tonle Sap is a great place to spot all kinds of bird life, including black-headed ibis, painted storks, milky storks, greater and lesser adjutants, spot-billed pelicans, grey-headed fish eagles, cormorants and snakebirds. Visit the Prek Toal Bird Sanctuary for a chance of spotting these fascinating creatures.

Snakebird spotted at Tonle Sap Lake, Cambodia.

Snakebird spotted at Tonle Sap Lake, Cambodia.

4. Gibbon sanctuary in Nam Cat Tien National Park

On “Monkey Island”, deep in Vietnam’s Nam Cat Tien National Park, is the Dao Tien Endangered Primate Species Centre. An offshoot of a UK-based NGO, this sanctuary rescues gibbons, loris and langurs from poachers or the pet trade, rehabilitates them in large enclosures and compounds, then releases them back into the wild. Depending on the animal and its history, this process may take a number of years.

Since the focus of the sanctuary is on rehabilitation, visitors cannot have close contact with the primates – but you can view them from a distance and watch them interact in their natural environment.

One of the gibbons at Nam Cat Tien

One of the gibbons at Nam Cat Tien

5. Meet the elephants in Cambodia & Laos

One of the most exciting, hands-on wildlife experiences to enjoy in Indochina is a meeting with the largest land animal in the world: the elephant. We have three favourite elephant sanctuaries in Indochina, where you can rest assured that the elephants are happy, healthy and well looked-after.

In Mondulkiri, Cambodia, the Walking with Elephants Project exists to provide a home for retired working elephants – as well as to protect the natural habitat of the country’s few remaining wild elephants.

In Laos, meanwhile, animal-lovers can head to the Elephant Village, a conservation project 40 minutes from Luang Prabang, or the Sayaboury Elephant Conservation Centre, which is supported by the non-profit charity ElefantAsia. Feed, ride, wash, and learn about these amazing animals while helping to support conservation efforts!

An elephant at the elephant sanctuary in Sayaboury.

A resident of the sanctuary in Sayaboury.

6. Visit a bear sanctuary in Phnom Tmao

Run by the charity Free the Bears, this sanctuary 40 kilometres from Phnom Penh in Cambodia rescues bears from restaurants, poachers, hotels, bile farms and the pet trade. The sanctuary has 21 enclosures built over seven hectares of land, housing a mixture of over 100 sun bears and Asiatic black bears. All of the enclosures are spacious, with climbing frames, toys and vegetation to keep the bears occupied and happy.

A rescued bear at Phnom Tmao.

A rescued bear at Phnom Tmao.

7. Night safari in Nam Cat Tien

Visit Nam Cat Tien National Park in Vietnam for one of the best wildlife experiences around – a night safari through the jungle and the Nui Trong grasslands, where your guide will use a spotlight to search for wildlife from your jeep. Amongst other animals, you might spot samba deer, wild boar, civets, fishing cats, loris, pangolin, gaur and nocturnal birds.

The Forest Floor Lodge in the national park offers eco-accommodation and runs night safaris, as well as exciting day treks to nearby Crocodile Lake.

Nam Cat Tien National Park as the sun begins to set.

Nam Cat Tien National Park as the sun begins to set.

8. Diving at Nha Trang or Con Dao

Last but not least, Indochina has an incredible array of underwater life – and you can get up close and personal with it on a scuba diving trip to the magnificent reefs surrounding Vietnam. Our favourite spots for snorkelling and scuba are found at Nha Trang in central Vietnam, and the Con Dao Islands.

Divers silhouetted in the water.
If you’ve been inspired by these wild experiences, take a look at our Indochina Conservation Fully Tailored Journey, which covers Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos over 15 days and incorporates many of the experiences mentioned above. Alternatively, you can get in touch with one of our travel consultants and have a trip made to measure!


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