Southeast Asia is has long been a standard on the backpacking circuit and you’ll be hard pressed to find a country that doesn’t have it’s share of well worn boot tracks between hostels and suggested highlights. Laos is no exception. It is, perhaps, less traversed than Thailand and Vietnam, which sandwich it’s long narrow countryside between them, but it’s far from untouched. If you flip through your Frommer’s Southeast Asia you’ll find lots of recommendations for the ballooning north of the country, but the further south you go, the thinner the segments in the books.
To me, this is a good sign; anytime the guidebooks haven’t made a region a priority, it’s an indicator that there are still adventures to be had and some off the beaten path discoveries to be made.
If you’re headed to Laos, by all means, hit the northern highlights, but if you’re interested in seeing a less-trodden Laos, getting completely away from English speaking tour guides, and seeing some things most of your buddies on the backpacking circuit haven’t, may I suggest a self-guided tour down the Mekong River?
Pakse is a river town, about five hours south of Savannakhet, which is where you’ll have either arrived by bus from Vietnam, Thailand or the north of Laos. It’s a fair sized place that is fun to wander. The river walks are especially nice. There are a couple of good wats. Pakse is a great place to just wander, people watch and get a window into urban Laotian life. You’ll find the people open and friendly and you won’t have any trouble finding authentic local food!
Treat yourself in Pakse and stay at the hotel that is the refurbished palace of the last prince of Laos. The hotel is very nice by Laotian standards, but not spectacular. It’s fun to wander the grounds and explore the long hallways of the open air building. Be sure to wind your way all the way to the top of the building and go into the little ballroom perched at the apex. It has a spectacular painted round ceiling with characters from Laotian mythology running around the edge of the room.
Public river boats used to be the only way to travel to the south of Laos when the roads were disreputable and buses unreliable at best. Depending on the time of year you’re there, you may find the public boats running. During monsoon they run sporadically at best and often not at all as people have traded the inexpensive buses for boats on a swollen river. If there are no public boats running, you can still hire a private boat (look for some other travelers who are wanting to do the same, and make arrangements to head down the Mekong. You’ll see signs around town for boatmen, or, head to one of the docks and ask around.
It’s a beautiful couple of hours down the brown-green Mekong river, surrounded by walls of jungle, punctuated by little groupings fishing families on the shore. Naked children swimming, women washing clothes, men in boats fishing, or collecting the floating drift wood in their long reed shaped barks provide plenty of visual interest as you chug south. It’s easy to imagine how life has unfolded for generations on this great river, largely untouched by the wars that raged in the surrounding countries, an economy built around and dependent on the river.
Champasak isn’t even a one horse town. There are a handful of guest houses. If you need internet, the only choice is Inthira, it’s the nicest place in town, but there are other choices. You’re here to see the Wat Phou complex about 10 km from town. You’ll need to hire a tuk-tuk to get there, or rent bicycles if you’re energetic. It’s a good hike and a steep climb when you get to the ruins, but the view from the top is spectacular. If you’re headed to Angkor Wat, later in your trip when you get to Cambodia, these ruins are a great set to see first, as they were built by a similar people group.
From Champasak head downstream. You won’t have trouble arranging a boat for the next leg of your journey from in town.
There are several islands in southern Laos, where the Mekong widens before it tips over the falls into Cambodia, approximately 4000, in all. Many of them are tiny and uninhabited, but there are a few that are home to small communities and make excellent places to kick back for a few days, slow down, and catch a glimpse of rural life in Laos at it’s own pace.
Don Khong is one of our favourites. You’ll find several guesthouses in the main part of town, a lovely old wat, and bicycles for hire along the waterfront street. Rent a bike and ride the flat island. You can do it all in a day, or you can break it up into two loops, the northern half of the island being the longer loop and the southern half the shorter. Expect to see water buffalo wallowing up to their armpits in wet fields, families tending rice paddies and children selling things roadside. Everyone waves and says, “Hello!” If you’re lucky, you might even get invited into the field to help transplant the new rice plants, or walk behind the big, rattling rice cultivator with a farmer.
Spend a few days. Slow your pace. Open your eyes. Meet the mighty Mekong where she wanders.
I admit it, I have been lacking a few posts and overall been bogged down with work (yes, work, because even to sustain a life abroad we need some, in a form or the other), and I beg your pardon. To start off the New Year right, I believe you might love reading some quirky, wicked travel narratives from around the world.
You might take this as a shameless example of self-promotion, but the third issue of Wicked World, an alternative digital magazine I edit with British travel writer Tom Coote, is finally available as a great eye candy: just love the gloriously wicked Ethiopian Mursi warrior on the cover!!
As well as a range of alternative travel articles and photo features, for the first time we have also included some travel related fiction. At one end of the story telling scale, is a traditional Moroccan folk tale, The Red Lantern, selected by Richard Hamilton. In a more contemporary vein, where the lines between fact and fiction blur, we are also showcasing The Death Kiss of a King Cobra Show by Jim Algie.
At the reportage end of the travel writing spectrum, in Barbed Wire Scars, Marcello Di Cintio encounters desperate African migrants determined to make their way across the razor wired walls at Ceuta, in the hope of making it to the promised land of Europe. Equally contemporary, E T Laing investigates recent political upheavals in Bangladesh in A Savage Fundamentalism. (more…)
“C’mon, try it.”
They floated in a thick, dark sauce. The nails had been cut off, but the rest of each finger stared back at me without eyes from the plastic plate, livid in vinegar. Truncated joints just below the feathers’ line. As I kept staring at my prospective dinner, I wondered how low a man can go to impress a pretty girl.
“So, will you try one?”
Her eyes were inquisitive windows open on her own world. A slot machine of emotions tilted inside of her head, trying to spit out the appropriate row of words to describe me as delusional. When she invited me out to try some of the best street food in Penang, she probably trusted me to be a different, more interesting date.
In Italy, chicken feet are not popular. They are not food. They don’t even appear at the poultry meat section, unless you buy a freshly slaughtered chicken. They get cut and thrown away as trash.
As I approached the soft, darkly simmered meat with chopsticks, my mother’s voice came abruptly in from a lost corner of my memory lane.
“During the War,” she whispered, “your grandmother’s family used to eat them.”
I had to trust her. They couldn’t be so terrible, after all.
I looked at my companion profile against a backdrop of sizzling pans and rugged Chinese limbs which rotated in and out of steamy pots. Her attention was completely fixed on my next move, keeping the final verdict tightly squeezed behind stretched lips. My idea of a romantic after-dinner stroll at the seaside was suspended between the plastic extension of my right thumb and index fingers, a soy-sogged poultry mutilation, and her candid foreign perfection.
I finally plucked it.
The virgin taste of tender slime melting in my mouth slightly surprised me as I found a bunch of tiny bones between my teeth.
“Spit them out on the table, it is OK,” she instructed me gently, savoring her relief at not having chosen a cultural idiot as a prospective boyfriend. I unleashed an awkward garter belt of unexploded chicken bones against the orange plastic of the table without injuring anyone.
“Good. Not many foreigners agree to try. Was it so bad, after all?”
The delusion had vanished from her face.
Shaking my head, I realized I just had my jackpot: a row of three Sevens, straight from the deep of her heart, started to fill the coin hopper that was standing empty between us until a minute before.
A journey is made of milestones. It has to. Without milestones, we would not be able to ponder our experiences, to stop and wonder about what we have accomplished during all this while.
One of the most shiny accomplishments of my 6 years stint on the road – on many roads, in many countries, with a particular deviancy for the shores of Southeast Asia – is to have become a published writer. And I would like to make it clear: I’m writing this post after I asked Rolf Potts whether or not he found such a display of self-promotion appropriate for Vagabonding. The answer was positive. Moreover, as my book’s not traditionally about the art of travel, he thought best to let me talk about it, instead of wait for a traditional review.
My debut novel titled Nazi Goreng has been published by Monsoon books from Singapore in mid October, and is slowly appearing online and distributed in bookstores across Southeast Asia, the USA, Australia and the UK. It’s a great accomplishment that makes the many hours spent honing the writing craft well worth. More than anything, it constitutes the greatest milestone of my past six years. And please consider: I’m not new to conquering experiences that few can boost to have under their belts. For example, hitchhiking from Singapore to Italy was one. Well, writing a book can be a similar process. It takes daily dedication to get you somewhere closer to reach your goal, your milestone that is. Chiseling a manuscript is a bit like hitching a ride: you never know what’s coming up next, nor when you will reach your destination.
Nazi Goreng talks about Malaysia in a way you never read before: it’s a fictional transposition of the racial tensions that one can only find in a country made up by different ethnic groups, where prayers are spelt to the sky in three languages, followed by wafts of sandalwood-scented smoke. It’s a dark assemblage of truths and fictional accounts based on my perplexing discovery of kuasa melayu (Malay power), a neo-Nazi group made up of brown skinned people. And most importantly, it’s a novel that doesn’t talk about the British or Japanese occupation of the country, a theme too often coupled with Malayan-based historical fiction. On the contrary, this book is the result of years of real-life observations, friendships, time spent scouring the dark halls of local underground music venues, trying to decipher the different habits and ways of thinking of three of the most diverse races of greater Asia who, somehow, had come to share the same turf. And I care to precise, mine are modern day observations. They are a patchwork of the fantastic and terrible experience that living in a country like Malaysia can be. It’s the apex of a personal trip to the inside of a particular Asian society, sung to the best of my mongrel minstrel’s abilities. It’s a way to keep myself sane after being on the road, on and off motion, for six long years.
I don’t want to give away any spoilers, and if you are keen, some more information can be found here. What I would like to communicate is really quite simple: I believe that we must use travel to open up our minds in creative ways. We must elaborate on what we have seen, smelt, touched, experienced, otherwise the sense is lost. We must find that unique angle which is ours, and ours only, and just functions as an extension of our own selves. I believe that it is only in such a case that a voyage be well worth setting a milestone. It serves to remember a particular turning point, and grow to a different level.
Truth be told, I don’t even know if I am a ‘traveler’ anymore. I feel more like I had dug up a hole in a tropical island, and had slowly covered myself under a mound of sand. But it is from the security of this new shelter, buried deep into the secrecy of another culture who seems less foreign every passing day, that I have chiseled my milestone. If you are interested in admiring its fine carvings, and see how much passion I reversed into the craft, please click here. And if you like what you see, consider giving some peanuts to the monkey, for it might keep the typewriter well oiled and always functional.
I’m an avid reader. I’ve long made it a practice to choose books that followed my journeys. It’s a wonderful way to add depth and richness to my own experiences and observations, and to see the world through more eyes, more lives, than just my own.
Last summer I found myself on parade of bumpy bus rides across Vietnam and down the less traveled end of the Mekong River in Laos. With my legs folded on top of crates of fruit as the bus lumbered through the monsoon rutted mud roadways I paged my way, one country at a time, through Nelson Rand’s Conflict: Journeys through war and terror in Southeast Asia. This part of the continent has been, and in some places continues to be, a war ravaged corner of the world. It’s hard for me to imagine, shopping in the riverside markets and climbing through the gorgeous ruins of antiquity, planes flying over head, carpet bombing, families hiding out in the jungle, genocide, death, destruction. And yet, within my lifetime these have been realities in this part of the world. Instead of focusing on the big pictures and the official histories, Rand tells stories, first hand, of the people he’s met and the lives they’ve lived through war and terror, as the title suggests.
There is no shortage of interesting books to pick up on your travels through Southeast Asia, but if you’re looking for a well worn recommendation for a window into the heart of individual experiences across Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Burma, I heartily recommend this one.
GHOST MONEY by Andrew Nette
I believe that to be better travellers, we must know about the history of the places we visit. Ghost Money, a crime novel by Australian writer Andrew Nette, helps do the trick for Cambodia, the popular culture way. Pulp, to be precise. It paints a vivid, fluid description of the country in the mid 1990s, when Cambodia started to recover from the deadly domination of the Khmer Rouge. Ghost Money takes the reader by hand and help him wade through the darkness of Southeast Asia most unfortunate country’s recent past.
The prose slowly unearths important historical details, and it feels like a candle that’s been raised up high to keep the obscurity at bay. As we are pulled into the darkness by the firm grip of a narration that never seems to let go of our neck, we get to discover so much more about a Cambodia that’s gone past.
If protagonist Max Quinlan were a Chinese, he’d be called a “banana”: yellow outside, but white inside. A product of a Vietnamese-Australian lost relationship, Max is an ex-cop turned sour the way green apples do. His soul is definitely less white trash than a bogan’s, but is inevitably trapped inside an Australasian cocoon disguised for yellow skin. Such an interesting take on an otherwise quite clichéd sour ex-cop stereotype elevates Quinlan from the moshpit of decadent white detectives who lost their minds trying to negotiate the underbelly of Asia’s most terrifying literary cities. Regardless, also Max’s private life has started to smell like sulphur after things got out of control during an international post in Bangkok. Now, the man’s got to scrap off a living by locating missing people. And that’s exactly how he ends up on the mystery trail of Charles Avery, an Australian expat who’s disappeared without a trace, last stop Phnom Penh, Cambodia. At least, that’s where the evidence Quinlan finds in a Bangkok third-rate hotel room suggests – completed by the stench of a dead body with a cracked skull, nonetheless -. Hence, potentially to try to curb a haunting mistake of the past, our mixed-blood private eye trusts his gut feelings, and doesn’t think twice before getting on the next plane to Phnom Penh.
Ghost Money is like that: it starts with a frontal bang, then puts the car in reverse, slowly returns in the initial position, and pushes the pedal to the metal until it crashes against the wall once again. And again. Until Max Quinlan will piece together the parts of a lunatic puzzle using a golden thread of secrets and lies… and I am not going to spoil anymore of the plot.
If you like a good crime story that’s able to evoke the palm fringed, foul smelling Cambodian avenues and line them up with shady characters as if you’d just finished playing with an Ouija board, well, you’ve found a winner here. And a bunch of spirits willing to tell you some inconvenient Cambodian truths under their breath.
It all works so recklessly well that I am forced to recommend Ghost Money to all of those travellers, armchair and otherwise, who are thinking about visiting Cambodia for the first time. This book can help take a first bite of the country’s sweet-sour taste, masking it under an intricately woven shroud of fiction. A bite from an apple injected with black blood, a proper aftertaste of genocide. Completed by the acrid smell of cigarettes burnt on the tip of a dry tongue. A sizzingly exciting Asia noir read not to miss.
I take this week’s chance to announce the release of the second issue of Wicked World, a digital magazine project that dares to be different. Unrestricted by commercial considerations, it remains free to challenge, question, and tell the truth about the business of international travel. We’re not here to sell expensive guided tours, round-the-world gap year tickets, or travel insurance, but exist primarily to provide a platform for the kind of honest, alternative and irreverent travel writing that wouldn’t normally find a home in more mainstream publications.
In Issue Two you will find articles on: the walled Muslim city of Harar in Eastern Ethiopia; the Sultan of Sulu and the disastrous recent invasion of Sabah in Borneo; frenzied voodoo ceremonies in Benin; the sculpture of Iran’s Ahad Hosseini; the strange religious cult of Caodai in Vietnam; Thailand’s spirit tattoos; the sacred city of Anuradhapura in Sri Lanka; rapidly changing Cuba; and the punk rock scene in Penang, Malaysia.
You can read the present issue in digital format clicking here.
If you feel like you have something worthwhile and relevant to contribute to the Wicked World project, or would simply like to know more, then feel free to contact either firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.
When it comes to travel on a shoestring – my favorite style – the amount of money you spend or save on accommodation becomes a serious matter. There was a time when travelling to China was very, very cheap, and accommodation options where everywhere. Unfortunately, with China experiencing the economic boom, things have changed quite a lot. On the other hand, the development of Chinese tourism has also created a wide range of opportunities for all kinds of travellers, making it quite easy and affordable to find budget accommodation in comfortable, clean beds. Where?
Simple: at YHA, the first wonder of Chinese Budget accommodation!
Everywhere and anywhere in China, my first option is to look for the YGA symbol, which means Youth Hostelling International. This international franchise is widely spread all around the major tourist destinations of China, and at times also a bit out of the beaten track. Generally, this kind of hostels are the Chinese equivalent of the Southeast Asian guesthouses, are full of travelers, good vibes and dispense good travel information. Besides, they are generally very cheap to stay in, they provide free wi-fi connectivity, restaurant facilities, self-service kitchen areas, luggage storage options and, very important if you cannot speak any Mandarin Chinese, can help you book your onward train or flight tickets. You will pay a little surcharge, but believe me, it is worth to save time and effort.
Most likely if you are looking for the cheapest option, you will end up staying in a dormitory: have no fear, as YHA dormitories are usually big, equipped with your own locker, sparkling clean, spacious and comfortable. They are also great places to meet other travelers. Dorms usually come in different sizes, and are generally equipped with several rows of bunk beds able to accommodate 4, 6, 8, and even up to 10 or 12 people. Dorms are also very cheap, as they start from 20 to 40/50 yuan per bed. So far, I only found the higher end of the spectrum (50 yuan) in Shenzen, Beijing and Shanghai.
One of the best services provided is definitely the onward-travel hostel booking service: each hostel will have many cards advertising other hostels in the next “tourist towns”. Just glance trough and pick the one you like most, tell the receptionist and he/she will make a call to reserve your bed at your next destination. Generally, you will have to pay half of the fee to the hostel you are reserving from and once you get to your destination, you will pay the difference. It works like Hostelworld, but over the phone, and most times free train or bus station pick-ups are guaranteed.
Picture credits: Flickr/Travel Aficionado
It’s been in the air for a while, buzzing among the Southeast Asian traveler’s enclave, and making the day of many resolute overlanders. We all knew that the Golden land of Myanmar was changing. After the liberation of Aung San Suu Kyi, punk rockers storming the streets of Yangon, and everyone turning their backpacks to the country, something HAD to change, hadn’t it? And it has: now, the Thai-Myanmar borders are open to overland international traffic and travel, as reported by Mizzima.
People! Rejoice because the country that back in the 1980s wouldn’t let you in for more than 6 days, now has lifted travel restrictions on its eastern land borders. Regardless, the western side bordering with India and Bangladesh still remains locked, and pretty dangerous. Well, please be happy with this first accomplishment, and postpone your overland dreams of shaving off the bulk of Central Asia and China for the next decade, cool?
But my question is: how good will the opening of these land borders be for the country?
I am certainly not wishing that Myanmar stepped back into the darkness of its autocratic military regime, but at the same time, I am afraid that its face might change forever and ever. Something that was still quite magical will be lost, buried under a mound of foreign dollars.
In 2012, the country has already received 1 million tourists. 1 million! An awful lot for a place like Myanmar, which doesn’t have the infrastructures needed to support such an amount of arrivals. I’ve heard many horror stories of travelers who have been forced to sleep on guesthouses’ floors, and paying full price (a lapidary 20 $ minimum per person per night, quite a big sum for SE Asia today) as the demand for accommodation amply surpassed the supply. The Burmese are also starting to become a bit greedier, it seems. My experience goes back to year 2009, and I must say, I had a splendid time, and had basically the country all to myself. When I flew in – as it was impossible to enter by land back then-, my group of 4 whiteys was the only drops of clear skin inside of the airplane’s dark, bottled humanity. Now, the numbers have definitely changed: everyone I meet in Malaysia is bound -or he’s returning – from Myanmar. So much that it makes me feel like as of now, it’s Malaysia the place that nobody dares to visit!
The point of this post is to suggest to the new visitors to go to Myanmar with a respectful attitude, and an open mind. I would not like it if in five years I’ll meet people telling me how Myanmar be a new version of touristy Thailand. I’m crossing my fingers, but the responsibility is not on me. It’s on all those who decide to visit. Please, I am begging you, take care of Myanmar, until we can.
We loved Samalona Island…
It’s a tiny speck of an island off of the coast of the bigger island of Sulawesi, in central Indonesia. If you find yourself in Makassar, it’s well worth a few days of your time, or even a few hours if that’s all you’ve got, to retreat to this little isle and put the brakes on the wheels of life for a bit. If you’re searching the web for links to lodging or transportation to the island you won’t find much. The families on the island support themselves, in part, by hosting travelers, but no one has thought to create a website yet!
You will love Samalona if…
Samalona might NOT be for you if
Even if you don’t want to stay overnight, you can visit Samalona Island for the day, enjoy the beach, take a snorkel and be back to “civilization” by evening.
Presumably you’ll be staying in a hotel in Makassar. Hop a little blue bus to “Fort Rotterdam” and then cross the street. I’ll be shocked if the boatmen don’t find you before your feet touch the sidewalk, but if they don’t, walk back onto the little “beach” behind the line of street food vendors and you’ll find several little wooden boats that make the trip back and forth.
Lodging on Samalona Island is in the home of one of the families that lives there. There did appear to be two purpose built “rooms” for guests, but those were not open when we were there (and we were the only ones there.) The families all talked about the folks who had stayed in their homes over the years, and this seems to be the standard arrangement.
Because there are six of us, we were given an entire three bedroom house. We did not have access to the kitchen, but we didn’t need it as three ample meals plus coffee and fruit were provided. We were not hungry!
Some things to know about life on Samalona Island:
We heartily recommend Samalona Island
It was three of the best days we spent in Indonesia. The island is a respite from the insanity of the cities and we found it a “recharge” for our souls.