Thursday, June 20, 2013

Luang Prabang Trekking - The great outdoor side of the ancient city

 By BARRY

Northern Laos is famous for its natural beauty: rolling green hills and mountains interspersed with rice fields and countless water buffalo. From the moment we arrived in South East Asia, a trekking adventure through the countryside and staying with a local tribe family was top of our list of things to do. Once we arrived in Luang Prabang, we knew this was the place to do it.

Luang prabang, Laos
 Luang Prabang sits at the intersection of two mighty rivers: the Mekong (which we sailed down for two days) and the Khan, providing the lifeblood to this quaint, french colonial town. Luang Prabang also nestles itself within a range of lush green hills and mountains, surrounding the town and its twin rivers.

 We had heard that there were villages and tribes in the mountains surrounding Luang Prabang, and we decided on a two day trek with an overnight stay with a local Khumu family. What followed were two of the hottest and sweatiest days we have experienced yet, with hours of ascending (and then descending) a mountain, fighting off wild horses and pot bellied pigs, and seeing some of the most incredible views of Northern Laos. The highlight of our trip so far was about to begin.


 After a hearty breakfast of banana pancake and fresh fruit, we packed a day bag loaded with high factor sunscreen & mosquito repellent and set off on our adventure. As it later transpired, we had our own personal guide ‘Cha’. We jumped into a boat, and sped up the river towards the beginning of our trek.


 The first part of the trek took us through pristine rice fields, where we spoke with local farmers as they harvested their crop. It was one of those jaw dropping moments, hundreds of rice paddies melting away into the distance as rolling hills and mountains filled the skyline. We stood and marvelled for only a few minutes, but we’ll never forget it. It was one of the best moments of our trip so far.

Rice field in Luang Prabang
After an hour or so we stopped at the first of three villages on our trek. It was a small village of 10 families, but with the school holidays in full swing, we were excitedly greeted by shouts of ‘falang falang’ by many curious children. They were far more curious of us than we were of them, and followed us round for the short time we were there. We were sad to leave them, even after a brief stay! 

Children in Luang Prabang
 The village was of basic construction as you may expect, but it had a calm and serene feeling as villagers went about their daily lives of planting and harvesting the rice crops. 

 After leaving our new friends behind, we walked for an hour through more rice paddies and jungle, arriving at another small village of 4 families and a beautiful lake for lunch. Afterwards, we would begin the assault on our everest. 

 And so came our attack on the summit. The backpack was tightened. All talking ceased, the fun was over for now. Upwards we went, sometimes quite literally as we clambered over boulders, under fallen trees and along precipices and ravines. Three hours later after the darkness of the jungle, we started to see the sun again, the vegetation began to clear, we reached the top and had our reward. 


We stood in awe at the miles of rolling green mountains and ravines. We would have sat and marvelled but the track we were walking along wasn’t wide enough even to perch on. After a few fleeting moments, our time to descend came. We were already tired from the ascent, but what followed was a further two hours of gruelling trekking, descending and ascending in blistering heat. On came the factor 50 cream, hats and long sleeves top to protect us from the intense sun. That day the thermostat peaked at 40 degrees, it was hot.

Trekking Luang Prabang
Two hours later we completed our descent, we’d made it! Our guide told us the village was on the other side of a field. In the UK that means perhaps 10 minutes or so across a well cultivated field. In Laos, it roughly translates as ‘an hour through 10 foot high jungle with only the faintest hints of a track to follow’. 

At this point the sweat was running down our faces and backs, reeds and plants were constantly hitting us in the face, arms and legs and we were almost out of water. We assume this was the point where Laura accumulated over 20 mosquito and bug bites on her legs (lesson learned to wear trousers next time!).

And then finally, a clearing, and civilisation. We could hear children playing in the distance, and as we got closer hear cries of falang falang drifted on the breeze. We had made it, and boy were we glad. 

 We were staying with a Khumu tribe for the evening. The village itself was home to about 400 people, and we were again blown away by it. Bamboo huts on stilts, dried dirt throughout the village, and an assortment of hens, chickens and pigs wandered around as the villagers went about their daily business.

The local families welcomed us with a nod and smile, with the children in particular intrigued by our pasty white skin and long noses (their words not ours!). Our mother for the evening made our dinner, and as usual with our experiences of homestays, she cooked up some of the best food we’ve had in Asia: Pumpkin soup, followed by cabbage and spinach stew and sticky rice. Delicious; we wolfed it down after our arduous journey. 

 Over the two days we visited three villages, all of which seemed authentic despite our concerns of over tourism. We saw no tourists on our trek and homestays, no one tried to sell us anything whilst there, and aside from children running around us shouting ‘Falang’! Falang’! (their term for tourist), we were left to our own devices. 

Almost all of the villagers were universal in their greeting to us…a smile and a ‘sabaidee’. Our impression was they didn’t mind us coming to stay for a night, and seemed more curious, intrigued and slightly amused by us. The village also receive a donation for our stay, ensuring they are compensated for our experience. 

We booked through ACTIVETRAVEL ASIA(ATA), who offers a wide selection of Laos adventure tours, including hiking and trekking, kayaking, biking, motorcycling, overland touring and family travel packages. ATA’s packages and custom itineraries will take you through exotic destinations to really experience the culture, history and nature of Laos. Outdoor enthusiasts will enjoy an unforgettable active vacation. And we’d happily recommend them!

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Laos selected as World Best Tourist Destination for 2013

Laos has been selected by the European Council on Tourism and Trade (ECTT) as the World Best Tourist Destination for 2013.
Travel Laos
Minister of Information, Culture and Tourism Bosengkham Vongdara hosted a press conference on May 8 to announce the award, according to the Lao News Agency KPL.

The World Best Tourist Destination is the world’s highly privileged award, which is granted on an annual basis by the ECTT to only one country, the minister told the conference, adding that an official presentation ceremony will be held on May 9 in Vientiane Capital.

“This award is offered to a country that complies with the United Nations Tourism Division, UNESCO and the European Union Council on Tourism and Trade principles on fair tourism, ethical tourism and safety standards and the preservation of cultural, historic and natural tourist sites,” Bosengkham said.

Countries previously awarded with the title included Syria in 2007, Turkey in 2008, the United Arab Emirates in 2009 and 2011, the Republic of Korea in 2010 and the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago in 2012.

(Source: VNA)

Learn more about Laos package tours at: http://www.activetravellaos.com

ACTIVETRAVEL LAOS(ATL) is member of ACTIVETRAVEL ASIA offers a wide selection of Laos adventure tours, including hiking and trekking, kayaking, biking, motorcycling, overland touring and family travel packages. ATL's packages and custom itineraries will take you through exotic destinations to really experience the culture, history and nature of Laos. Outdoor enthusiasts will enjoy an unforgettable active vacation. ATL runs the most adventure tours available in Laos and Indochina

Sunday, June 9, 2013

5 Tips for Planning Southeast Asian Motorbike Tour

Many adventure travelers says there’s no better way to see a country than getting on a motorcycle and going on a tour.
Gettng on a motorcycle and going on a tour
There is a silence on a motorcycle, even amid the low rumble of the engine. The wind on your face and the new smells. A leisurely pace through the countryside and the ability to stop when the impulse strikes and see things on your own terms.

Driving conditions can be dangerous in many South East Asian countries, so there is certainly some risk involved, but traffic is much slower once you get out of the cities (although you do need to still watch for people passing carelessly on blind corners in your direction). At any rate, I personally find the rewards worth the risks; though, you’ll have to make your own decision in this department.

Whether in Vietnam or LaosCambodia…or anywhere else in the world, for that matter, getting on a bike opens up a whole new world of possibilities. Here are some tips for planning your own biking tour. 

1. Make sure you’re legit
Before you plan your trip, find out about the laws in that country. You might need to get a license for the specific country you’re in, or you may be able to get a permit for your stay. In other cases, the occasional fine paid to a policeman who stops you is enough.

2. Know how to ride
If you’ve never ridden a motorcycle before, take a safety course in your home country before you go, as standards are usually higher. Even seasoned riders learn a lot that is counter-intuitive when they take a rider safety training class. You’ll still need some actual riding experience, but if you start off your journey slow and give yourself some time to adjust, you’ll learn as you go and come out the other end a seasoned rider.

Motorbiking in Vietnam
3. Plan your trip
Planning a trip is usually not too difficult as you will be hard pressed to find a place where people have not gone before you. Get on the Internet and start your Googling. Think about the destinations you definitely want to see, and feel free to mix and match them a little bit to come up with a route that appeals to you.

You might want to do a loop so you can bring the motorcycle back to the place you rented from and fly out of the same city, but if not, you might be able to ship it across the country for a fair price. Do your research on shipping costs ahead of time or speak to the people at the shop to see if they have options for you (keeping in mind that some may not want to rent to you when they find out how far you’re going).

4. Rent a bike
The Internet is your friend once again because renting from just any shop you see is a good way to overpay, get a shitty bike, and possibly get ripped off in the process. So, find out which bike shops in your departure city are reputable, and then check out the bike thoroughly before signing anything. Make sure gears shift smoothly, test all the breaks, and experiment with all lights as well. Take note of all the big dents or scratches and include them on the contract so you have both confirmed which ones were already there.

Also, never leave your passport with the bike shop! If they won’t take a cash deposit and a copy of the passport, go somewhere else.

5. Take your time
Once you’re on your road tour, take your time. The more open your schedule, the more you get out of the experience. You can take detours on small one-land roads and cruise off through endless rice paddies or stay in a charming mountain town for a week or two—this is what motorcycle touring is really all about.

Just make sure you stay current on your visas, and if you have to hop on a visa run or stop by the embassy in a bigger city you pass through on the way, so be it.

Whoever said traveling was more about the journey than the destination was surely referring to motorbike tours; there is nothing like the pace of a bike down country roads on the other side of the world. The vivid jungle colors, the sunsets as you drive along lost tropical coasts, and the simple things you see along the way that you surely would have missed on a tourist bus.

And indeed, the destination is so much sweeter when you get there for all you’ve put into earning its rewards.
Dreaming of a South East Asian escape? Are you looking for that great motorcycle tour holiday in an exotic south-east Asian country? Take a look through all our trips to find the one that blows your hair back. Look no further, you've found the right spot. This is where it's at for a brilliant motorcycle touring holiday in Asia with ActiveTravel Asia at: http://www.activetravel.asia/different-side-of-siem-reap-and-homestay-t326.html

About Activetravel Asia(ATA): ATA is one of the Indochina's leading adventure travel companies. ATA offers a wide selection of Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar adventure tours, including hiking and trekking, biking, motorcycling, overland touring and family travel packages. ATA’s packages and tailor-made private itineraries will take you through exotic destinations to really experience the culture, history and nature of Asia.

Got any tips of your own? Leave them in the comments section below, or post them on Google Plus and Facebook.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Laos: A beauty spot to rival our own

Pure water, bears and elephants make the waterfalls of Laos well worth the trek, writes Yvonne van Dongen.

Bathers at Kuang Xi waterfalls near Luang Prabang, Laos.
Over the years I have learned to be sceptical about claims of outstanding natural beauty in foreign parts. I have been to the Lake District in England and heard the guide whisper, "Oh, but New Zealand lakes are so much more beautiful". I have travelled eight hot, bumpy hours in a van to get to a spectacular watering hole and tropical jungle spot in Guatemala only to find it was - well, okay. And I've gone barefoot on so-called pristine beaches in Asia with piles of rubbish behind me and scraps of floating plastic in the tepid water.

So when my friend suggested we visit the waterfalls not far from the World Heritage city of Luang Prabang in Laos, I greeted the idea with lukewarm enthusiasm. But eventually, after visiting every temple and every wat in the city, after walking the cobbled streets over and over and after becoming so familiar to the shopkeepers they were calling me by name, I gave in.

There are two major waterfall sites within an hour or so of Luang Prabang and each requires a day trip. They can both be reached by minivan or bicycle if you're particularly fit and don't mind becoming a waterfall of sweat yourself.
Kuang Si waterfall near Luang Prabang, Laos.
We opted for the Kuang Si waterfall first, because it's the largest and most well-known waterfall in Laos, and because it's also the closest, only 30km from the city.

The first thing we saw at Kuang Si was not a cascade of crashing water but the mournful shapes of caged black bears. They're probably pretty happy bears since they've been saved from the poacher's knife and live in a refuge at the foot of the waterfall.

It's their paws the poachers are after, essential ingredients for bear paw soup. So these are very lucky bears indeed, no doubt giving thanks daily to Perth woman Mary Hutton, who in 1993 was so moved by a television story about bears being milked for their bile that she began to campaign to free bears all around the world.

She's since established the world's largest sanctuary for Sun bears in Cambodia and been involved in numerous bear saving projects throughout Southeast Asia, including the refuge at Kuang Si.

There's a charge for walking to the waterfall but that's probably why the walk is so wide and well-groomed. It's not unlike entering a beautifully landscaped tropical resort with fluttering butterflies and preternaturally green and shiny foliage all seemingly polished to perfection.

Soon, we are passing the milky turquoise pools leading to the waterfall and before we see it, we can hear a crowd of young, fit thrill-seekers flinging themselves across the foaming water from a rope tethered to a tree. HQ for these folk is the tourist-oriented village of Vang Vieng where for not much money you can get stoned and go tubing down a frothy river and, when you're done, watch endless reruns of Friends on giant screens. For sheer mind-numbing boredom I couldn't think of anything worse. But it was fun to watch their bodies arc and fall as I lay on my back in the warm water.

Tad Sae water fall
Tad Sae's waterfalls, where we went next, do not attract the same crowd and getting there is slightly more complicated. There's a longer minivan journey followed by a boat trip across a fast-flowing river with such a strong current that the boat seems to glide across like a leaf and bump into the opposite bank purely by accident.

We were hauled out of the rocking vessel, scrambled up the muddy bank and the first thing we saw through the trees were - by golly - elephants. It seems waterfalls come with added extras in Laos.

Tad Sae offers elephant rides and a swim in the water, which looked like fun until the elephant tried to drown its rider, which then became a lot more fun for everyone else. It's awful how much you can laugh at someone else's misery.

There are also displays of old implements such as rice crushers and a water wheel. But really Tad Sae doesn't have to try so hard. It is truly spectacular. Gentle tiers of blue-green water rolled toward us and in the middle of the water, clumps of saplings and trees rise up through the dappled light. There are dragonflies everywhere. Up one gnarly big tree is a tree house. Here, there is a wooden board, walk over the water and you find a seating area.

The water is soft and dreamy and an ideal spot to imagine future trips with friends and family who will thank us profusely for luring them to this magical spot.

Even New Zealanders - who generally do have the corner on natural beauty - will be awed. I was.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Fly to Vientiane and then either fly to Luang Prabang (expensive) or take a bus (12 long but tolerable hours). Any tuktuk or minivan will take you to the waterfalls for about US$6.
Where to stay: Guesthouses are plentiful but, increasingly, so are guests. Luang Prabang has been cited as one of the hot destinations of 2012. Prices are climbing accordingly. 
When to go: October and November are relatively dry and cool.
How to take a trip: You can choose the local agencies, who understand deeply destination you came. I recommend you an agency I know: ACTIVETRAVEL LAOS.

Contact Details:

ACTIVETRAVEL LAOS (ATL) is member of ACTIVETRAVEL ASIA offers a wide selection of Laos adventure tours, including hiking and trekking, kayaking, biking, motorcycling and family travel packages. Our packages and custom itineraries will take you through exotic destinations to really experience the culture, history and nature of Laos.

Address: Level 2, No 17/167, Tay Son Street, Dong Da district, Hanoi, Vietnam
Website: http://www.activetravel.asia/
Tel: +84-43-633-9576
Email address: info@activetravel.asia