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Thursday, January 31, 2013

A Cruise on the Tonle Sap: A Ecological Hotspot in Cambodia

If you are planning a trip to Cambodia, you will definitely know about Angkor Wat and the other temples. While Angkor Wat is a fabulous and must-visit place, one should also look at Tonle Sap while they are staying at Siem Reap. Tonle Sap is a ecological hotspot and UNESCO designated biosphere due to its special characteristics.

A moment from Kompong Phluk flooded forests
Tonle Sap, which in Khmer translates to ‘Great Lake’ is a tributary of the mighty Mekong river. The interesting thing about this river is that during the dry season, the Tonle Sap river works like a normal river and drains into the Mekong at Phnom Penh, but during the wet season, the Mekong, which carries a lot of water causes a reverse migration of water into the Tonle river and thus floods the entire Tonle Sap area forming a great lake. This lake is rich in fishes and due to this wet and dry characteristics of the lake, a lot of people dependent on this lake live in floating houses.

Lotus farms enroute to Tonle Sap, Cambodia
While I was at Siem Reap, I booked myself a day trip to Tonle Sap through Tara Boat, one of the oldest and the biggest tour operators on the Tonle Sap Lake. I was picked up at around 7 AM by the Tara guide and in an air-conditioned van. Me and my friend were the first set of people to board the van and then another 5 people joined in. Thus, we were 7 in all and with our guide the group size became eight making it a nice small group.

Chong Khneas - The floating village on Tonle Sap, Cambodia
On our way to Tonle Sap, our guide appraised us of our itinerary and explained to us the origin behind Tonle Sap and how it affects the people living by the river or on the river. We took a brief stop next to a lotus farm for some photography before going to the Tonle Sap ticket counter. The tickets were arranged for by the guide. This is also the place where you can use the restroom else you end up using the really cramped one on the small boat.

Canoeing through the flooded forests of Kompong Phluk, Cambodia
Shortly, we took a small boat owned by ‘Tara Boat’ and began our cruise. First, we went through the floating villages of Chong Khneas, which was beautiful and then we were on the move for an hour before reaching the Kompong Phluk village. Here, we first explored the floating village, gave some books and sketch pens to the kids here and then proceeded to get into a small canoe to explore the true flooded forests of Kompong Phluk. This small canoe ride was really nice and one of the highlights of the trip.

Floating village of Kompong Phluk, Cambodia
The next stop was lunch and it was on top of a large ‘Tara Boat’ boat. Menu was alacarte and drinks were on the house. Food was great and so were the drinks. The top of the boat makes for a great way to enjoy your lunch while admiring the beauty of the Tonle Sap. On our return, we visited the Vietnamese village that allowed you to feed cat fishes, see the Siamese crocodiles and hold baby Pythons. Personally, this was the worst part of my trip as I don’t like to disturb animal life and misusing them for money is strictly not for me. A lot of people seemed to like it, but I stayed away.

Entering the flooded forest of Kompong Phluk, Cambodia
The Vietnamese village was our last stop on the trip and the return journey was fairly uneventful and the van dropped us back to our hotel to mark an end to a great day with Tara Boat. The cruise was fantastic and their guide made the day very special for us by making us cognizant of the Tonle Sap ecosystem. I would recommend Tara Boat with two thumbs up.

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Mohochai Guest House, Sihanoukville: A Review

In South Cambodia’s Sihanoukville, the action takes place close to the beach and hence it makes sense to stay closer to the beach unless you have a vehicle of your own. The most popular beach in terms of tourist infrastructure is Serendipity and Occhetual beach. It is a long beach stretch and most of the hotels and guesthouses are located close to it. I stayed at this place called the Mohochai Guest House that is situated on the road leading to the Serendipity reach and the review below is based on my experience of staying 2 nights here.

1) The place has one of the cheapest rooms on this stretch of the beach. Rooms start at USD 7 and for this price you get a room with a double bed, a fan, a private bathroom and a sit out.

2) The guest house has more variety of rooms with increasing comfort and cost. Personally, I took the USD 9 room that was slightly bigger than the USD 7 room, but with the same amenities.

3) Mohochai guest house is only a short walk away from the beach, the dive shops, the restaurants and the supermarkets. This gives it a lot of brownie points.

4) Like most of Sihanoukville, even Mohochai gets infested with mosquitoes during the evening and the early morning hours. It is better to keep your mosquito repellant ready.

5) Mohochai has their own bar, restaurant and in-house dive shop to cater to your needs. The place also comes with free wi-fi and a laundry service.

6) Most of the people staying here are budget travelers, long term travelers or backpackers and it is a good place to meet like-minded people.

7) Electricity supply is intermittent in Sihanoukville, but the Mohochai folks run a generator to supply backup power.

If you are a budget traveler or backpacker looking for a room near the beach, this is one of those places you should check out. In case you are looking for cheaper dorm beds, look at the lane opposite to Mohochai.

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Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Photography Tour of Angkor Temples, Cambodia

Are you planning a visit to the famous Angkor temples of Cambodia? Are you looking to take back home some great photographs? If you are, I should let you know that the best way to begin your Angkor temple tour is by going on a photography tour of these temples. This helps set a good precedent to your trip and allows you to understand the best lighting times and the best positions for each of the temples.

Sunrise at Angkor Wat, Siem Reap, Cambodia
Well, I was in Siem Reap recently and took a photography tour from GetYourGuide to help me understand the topography, sun direction, the lighting times for each temple, a bit of the important history and the best positions to photograph the various temples. Well, when I did end up taking the tour, I was very impressed by the way GetYourGuide had arranged everything so nicely. Peace of Angkor was their local service provider and a very good guide came to pick me up in the early hours of the morning in an air-conditioned car.

Light coming through the pillars inside Angkor WatThe guide helped me understand the itinerary and asked me if I wished to change it. I told him that I would trust his judgment as he has had more experience with Angkor than me. Thus, we bought our 3 day temple pass at the entrance and found ourselves at the pond beside Angkor Wat. The guide took us to the position for the best shot and also gave me an idea of the approximate sunrise time. After the sunrise, we took a detailed walk through the 3 levels of Angkor Wat. During this walk, he explained the overall history and some of the finer elements in the architecture.

Entering the Bayon Temple, Cambodia
The next stop was breakfast where we stopped at a good hotel and enjoyed a hearty breakfast for about 30 minutes. The car then took us to the Angkor Thom campus where we began with the Bayon Temple. First, my guide walked me all across the temple and appraised me of the interesting things of Bayon’s history and something about the 54 towers and the 216 faces. When we entered inside the temple, he continued educating us about the various areas of the temple while guiding us to the best photography positions. Since the guide himself was an amateur photographer, he had a good understanding of lighting.

Smiling faces of Bayon, Cambodia
After Bayon, we walked to the Terrace of the Leper King before breaking for lunch as the sun was really getting to us. Since the sun was really sharp, we decided to take a long lunch at a good restaurant. All our meals were included in the tour package. Post lunch, we headed to the Ta Prohm temple or popularly known as the Tomb Raider temple after the movie Lara Croft and the Tomb Raider. The lighting here was good as the temple is covered by trees, but the crowd here was a little too much to handle. We could have visited this place in the morning, but photos would have come out bad as the place would have been dark due to the heavy forest cover.

Ta Prohm temple taken over by the roots
After Ta Prohm, we decided to visit a nearby temple called Banteay Kdei as we still had enough time for the Angkor Wat sunset. The Banteay Kdei temple was mostly in ruins, but looked elegant in its own way. Shortly, we made our way to Angkor Wat. Here our guide took us to see the reflection of Angkor Wat by the moat surrounding it, but due to the sharp light it didn’t come out well.

Evening time near the moat that surrounds Angkor Wat
When we entered the Angkor  campus,the light was still bright, hence we decided to wait it out and then also got time to explore the shops nearby. Finally, we got to see the reflections of Angkor Wat just before sunset. It was beautiful and marked an end to a hectic, but very eventful day.

Angkor Wat and reflections in monochrome
This comfortable tour in the company of a knowledgeable local guide helped me appreciate Angkor’s history while helping me understand the various photography lighting and position nuances that I could leverage over the successive visits. The AC car and good food were good luxuries to have on that hot day. In overall, I would definitely recommend taking such tours on the first day of your Angkor temple

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Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Travel Photo: Buddhist Monk poses at Angkor Wat, Cambodia

As a travel photographer, I am always looking to take interesting pictures. But, sometimes images from magazines and websites stick in your head and you wish to recapture those moments in your camera. I got caught in such a moment too and came running to take a photo of a Buddhist monk only to realize that the Buddhist monk was getting his picture taken in front of Angkor Wat just like other tourists.

Buddhist Monk poses in front of Angkor Wat
This moment came as a surprise to me as sometimes you think why would a Buddhist monk need his photo taken when the person has given his life to serving the god. Why would be interested in trivial mortal pleasure? But here, he had hired a photographer and was posing in front of the important monuments and photographic locations of Angkor Wat. I took this photo by getting beside the monk’s photographer. I was wrong in not asking for permission, but I could not afford to waste the moment.

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Monday, January 28, 2013

The Frozen River Trek of Ladakh

It is that time of the year when the world rushes to the Himalayan kingdom of Ladakh in India in spite of it being extremely cold and hostile. Temperatures can drop to as low as minus 35 degree Celsius and oxygen levels can be abysmally low due to lack of any green living matter. Now, you might think, ‘Why do people want to travel here in such hostile weather’. The reason is one of nature’s best spectacles and experiences, wherein, you get to walk on a frozen river and experience a cold and icy atmosphere.

Crossing the hanging bridge that spans the Zanskar river
The Zanskar river that flows through one of the remotest regions on the planet freezes every year from around the 3rd week of January to the 2nd week of February. Historically, this was the time of the year when the people living in the remote villages of the Zanskar region used to walk on the frozen Zanskar river to collect supplies from Leh. What was historically a path for survival is quickly turning into a adventure sport where a lot of tourists are interested in trekking two to three weeks on the frozen river.

This stretch of the Zanskar river has completely frozen
The trek begins at Padum, one of the larger villages in the Zanskar valley and ends at Chilling, where the road connectivity to Leh begins. The frozen river trek can take any where from between 15 to 22 days depending on prevailing weather conditions. Since, the treks take place in testing circumstances, one has to be decently fit to embark on this journey. A lot of trekking outfits provide packages for the frozen river trek. Such packages include most of the gear, insurance, guide, food, tents, et al.

The amazingly picturesque Zanskar Valley - one of the remotest places on earth
If you are young, decently fit and have a streak of adventure in you, then this is one trip you have to undertake. It is rarely that you get to live in a world of white, walk amidst towers of ice, walk on ice and live (eat and sleep) on ice. And once you finish this trek, you can also go on a Leh Ladakh tour to see a different side of Ladakh and so unlike from the summer months.

Spectacular Zanskar valley
If this trek is not your thing, but you want to explore the other side of Ladakh, look up the other options you have at Ladakh Tourism.

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Phnom Penh Guest House: A decent place to stay in Phnom Penh’s riverfront

Most of the tourists visiting Phnom Penh like to stay close to the river coz that is where most of the action is . The river front is close to the Royal Palace, offers great views of the river, has most of Phnom Penh’s night life, has a great assortment of restaurants and allows you to sample the Phnom Penh culture. During my stay at Phnom Penh, I also stayed close to the river just for the above reasons. It is difficult to find a good place here, but I was happy that I found the Phnom Penh Guest House on my second attempt of finding a decent place here. The first one was a disastrous attempt as I ended up in a bad place. Below is my review of staying at this place for 3 nights and 4 days.

1) Like most of the riverfront properties, the good thing about Phnom Penh guest house is location. It is not right on the riverfront, but just in a parallel street behind the riverfront. So, you don’t have to tolerate the riverfront traffic and pollution, while staying just a couple of minutes away by walk.

2) The guest house is located right next door to a super market. Hence, day to day groceries can be easily bought. The main market area is also just a short walk away, so in case you want to buy fruits in bulk, you can do that.

3) The rooms in this place are big, air-conditioned, have a balcony that offers view of the street below and a private bathroom. The bathroom, though is a bit too small. But for $16 (I bargained and reduced $2 from the initial quoted price of $18), it is the best deal you can get in the neighborhood.

4) The place comes with free wi-fi, offers laundry service, has a travel desk to help with bookings and has a helpful reception.

5) The best thing about this place is that it abhors taking call girls into the room. Hence, it is good for all kinds of travelers.

6) All the good restaurants, bars, ticket booking offices, the passenger port for the Mekong river are all within walking distance. For those who wish to take a tuk tuk, you can find them almost everywhere.

I would recommend this place as a decent option for all kinds of budget travelers who wish to stay close to the river front area of Phnom Penh.

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Saturday, January 26, 2013

The Vegetarian Restaurant: Veggie Delight in Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Wherever I go, I seem to find a vegetarian restaurant. May be, it is because I am a vegetarian and yearn to eat my preferred food in insect or meat loving cities. I have been in Phnom Penh the last 3 days and have been trying out different places, but most of those places have basic vegetarian fare as their main customers are meat lovers. But, when I saw a small banner of the vegetarian restaurant in the Phnom Penh map, I knew I had to go there.

Luckily for me, the restaurant was located 8 streets away from the riverfront area where my guest house is located. After a 15 minute walk in the warm sun, I reached the restaurant that is located behind Wat Botum and close to the Royal Palace. It’s address is 158, St. 19, Sihounak Boulevard. There is also another branch of the same restaurant at Norodom Boulevard that is not too far away.

Coming to the food, it was a refreshing experience to see the menu which had an interesting assortment of vegetarian dishes from India, Cambodia, Indonesia, Vietnam, Malaysia, Japan and most of South East Asia, which is predominantly meat and seafood eating part of the world. Even their juices were interesting combinations.

Personally, I ordered the orange and celery juice, braised bamboo shoots and black mushroom and brown rice while my friend ordered a dragon fruit juice and mix vegetable Buddha delight. Both of us liked what we ordered. The other options were Vegetarian Amok (a Cambodian specialty), Japanese Tempura, Indian Samosa and more.

The people running the place were also nice and each one of them wore a nice T shirt that said ‘No Fish, No Meat, No Egg’. I liked my experience here and would return whenever I get the opportunity. After a good meal here, one can also walk by to the Royal Palace and the river front for a relaxed exploration of Sisowath Quay, the riverside drive.

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Chi Cha Guest House, Phnom Penh: Avoid it if you can

Chi Cha Guest House near the river front area (Sisowath Quay) of Phnom Penh is a guest house any sane traveler should avoid. I was forced to stay for one night as all the other hotels in the area were sold night and I had arrived into Phnom Penh pretty late in the evening. Below is a detailed review to help you understand why I don’t recommend this hotel.

1) The place is surrounded by bars and night clubs. You can only see call girls when you step out of the hotel in the night.

2) The hotel is frequented by call girls and their customers for short durations.

3) The rooms are small, stuffy, have no windows or natural light. The showers in the bathroom trickle at a very slow pace. But, the cost is also a low 8-12 USD, which is one of the lowest in this area of Phnom Penh.

4) The good thing about the place is proximity to the river front. It is like a two minute walk to the Sisowath Quay area.

5) The guest house has an in-house restaurant, which dishes out decent Indian food. If you like Indian food, you can try the restaurant.

6) The place is run by a Bangladeshi and he is pretty helpful in giving advise and/or accommodating your requests. But, sometimes he can cheat you too. Like how he charged me USD 10 for a room that is advertised as USD 8 on Agoda hotel booking website.

If you like staying close to the river and being right in the middle of the attractive nightlife of Phnom Penh and are on a tight budget, then you can look at this place. Couple, families and other travelers who like saner surroundings, please stay out of this belt and definitely look at some other hotel.

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Friday, January 25, 2013

My Interview on 10 Year Itch, A India Travel Blog

It always feels good when you are interviewed. For a short moment, you feel like a celebrity answering a lot of questions Smile. I had a similar session of déjà vu when 10 year itch, a travel blog focusing on India interviewed me about traveling in India. The questions where mainly about me, my blog, my thoughts of traveling in India and my advise for those who want to go out and explore India.

The full interview can be seen here. Hope it lends some insight about my travel life and my thoughts of traveling in India.

Thank you Madhu for hosting this interview on 10 Year Itch.

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Blue Pumpkin: The Best Dessert Bar in Cambodia

When I was in Siem Reap, my friends who had just returned home after a vacation in Cambodia told me not to miss eating at the Blue Pumpkin ice cream bar and restaurant. Unfortunately for me, I missed going to their restaurant in Siem Reap. But, luckily for me, I got an opportunity when I chanced upon their restaurant opposite the riverside at Phnom Penh, the capital city of Cambodia.

Blue Pumpkin - A special dessert place in Cambodia
Blue Pumpkin is an up market restaurant, but is very popular for its ice creams. Both tourists and the local population seem to have taken a liking to it. Hence, you will mostly find this place crowded. The one at Phnom Penh has 2 floors. The ground floor is the take away, while the first floor is the dine-in restaurant. The restaurant comes with free wi-fi, air-conditioning and full length sofas where one can enjoy their dessert or shake while relaxing completely and browsing the internet.

People throng to the Blue Pumpkin dessert bar at Phnom Penh, Cambodia
They also have a balcony section where one can sit in the open air and watch the riverside action flow past you. Like I said before, Blue Pumpkin is known for its ice creams. They have some unique flavours, like four spices, Khmer fruits, Durian, Raspberry and Yoghurt, Baileys and more. While I was there today, I tasted the 4 spices and the Khmer fruits in a ice cream cone. I liked the subtle flavor of the four spices ice cream. In terms of cost, 1 scoop of ice cream costs USD 1.5, 2 scoops for $2.75 and 3 for $3.75.

Very well prepared Amok Fish at Blue Pumpkin, Phnom Penh
The food menu also looked interesting. I ordered the Linguini with Ratatouille jus, while my friend ordered their signature dish, the Amok fish with rice. Both the dishes were very good. The place is slightly more pricey than the rest of Cambodia, but the taste was much better than what we had tasted anywhere else in Cambodia. Plus, the ambience, the hygiene and the service make up for the slight increase in price.

I really liked the place and plan to return there again tomorrow. Do remember to bookmark this place when you are planning your trip to Cambodia. You will definitely like them. Definitely their ice cream!!

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Thursday, January 24, 2013

Juicy Insects and Reptiles at Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Before traveling to South East Asia, I had seen and read a lot about how insects are considered a delicacy in Cambodia and Vietnam. During my days in Thailand, I saw it at some places. In Cambodia’s Siem Reap, I saw some more stalls. But, the markets of Phnom Penh take the cake. Roaches, crickets, grasshoppers, beetles, maggots, silk worms are commonly seen. The special sights are the tarantulas, scorpions and the baby snakes.

Insects galore at the markets of Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Insects and reptiles are not just sold here, but devoured at an amazing place. Kids eat fried maggots and fried grasshoppers like how I would do to sakkarai pongal (sweet jaggery rice) and vazhakka bajji (deep fried raw banana and gram flour). Everyone seems to like it. People just walk to these stalls, pay 600 Riel (0.15 USD), carry a small bag full of these maggots or other insects and continue with their work. This is how I would react to buying some bananas or apples.

Roasted Baby Snakes at the riverfront in Phnom Penh, Cambodia
The experience of seeing this is very interesting. Personally, I would never eat any of these even in my dreams, but I definitely like to see the way the locals go about eating this delicious snack (according to them). Even the meat eating tourists, watch, think about eating and just end up taking a photograph. Do you want to taste some of these?

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Why Luxury Vacationers Love Belize

When it comes to vacationing, you can go just about anywhere along the coast to find a nice sandy beach. So why are so many luxury vacationers heading to Belize for their getaways? The main reason is the depth of vacations to Belize. There's so much to do beyond the beaches.

Mayan Culture
For those interested in Mayan culture, Belize is the epicenter of this ancient civilization with the most temples, pyramids, and ritual chambers in the Americas. Sites such as Caracol along with Altun Ha, Xunantunich and Cahal Pech are great locations to explore what remains of the Mayan civilization.

Belize Zoo
Unlike the common concrete zoos found in many locations, the Belize Zoo is very open, creating a more natural environment for the animals where enclosures blend in with trees and plants around them. Once a refuge for wild animals and used as a site for documentaries, it now exhibits 150 animals that have been orphaned, rescued or born in the zoo.

Dangriga and Hopkins Village
For travelers who want more than just to enjoy the touristy areas, heading to Dangriga and Hopkins Village allows you to immerse yourself in the culture of Belize. Dangriga is where Punta Rock music was born and these two towns are Garifuna settlements, a distinct culture consisting of those with a West African and Amerindian (indigenous to South America) descent. This culture has their own language and rituals.

Museum of Belize
This museum is distinct. Once an overflowing prison, parts of the building have been restored to its original condition. The historical accuracy of the building shows how rough the prison was when it housed national heroes who fought for Belize's independence from the British Colonial government. Also housed in the museum are priceless artifacts, some dating back more than 2,500 years.

Luxury Accommodations
For luxury travelers planning a long stay, there are luxury accommodations to accompany the amazing adventures found in Belize. For a desert island getaway, check out the island of Cayo Espanto. This island is almost private with only six villas, each with a private swimming pool, private dock, and personal butler. At the Turtle Inn, luxury cottages are available right on the beach. Other options include Mahaca Hill Lodge, La Lancha Resort, and Chaa Creek.

Luxury Travel
For those looking for a plush vacation full of amenities and comfort, traveling lavishly should be part of the deal. You can take a luxury Caribbean cruise vacation that stops off in Belize, allowing you to explore the Maya ruins and more along with other island escapes.

Exclusivity
Overall, one reason many choose to head to Belize is it's a gem in Central America. Despite being a small country, it has miles of beaches along the coast and tons to explore within the country's interior locations. With luxury provided through cruise ships and five-star accommodations, there is a special feeling that comes with those who can say they've traveled to Belize.

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Vietnam Visa from Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Are you planning to get a visa for Vietnam? Well, the first and the most important thing you need to know is that the Vietnamese ministry of foreign affairs has increased the cost of all visas multi-fold with effect from Jan 1, 2013. I got to know this when I walked into the Embassy of Vietnam at Phnom Penh to get my visa.

Vietnam Visa from Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Visa Type and Prices

1) Tourist Visa: Single entry and up to 1 month: Costs 60 USD
2) Tourist Visa: Single entry and valid for 3 months: Costs 105 USD
3) Tourist Visa: Multiple entry and valid for 3 months: Costs 125 USD

I don’t know about the other types of visas, but I am sure about the above as this is what the other tourists got charged while we applied for our visa together.

Personally, I applied for the multiple entry visa for 3 months and got it within 20 minutes. All we had to do was show our passport and travel authorization letter. Once we showed that, they asked us to fill the form up and give one photograph. Once we had completed all the formalities, we got our visa stamped and sealed on our passport in 20 minutes.

But, I think this quick service is only possible if you have a pre-approved authorization letter. You can get this letter from an approved travel agency based in Vietnam or through any other recognized travel agent the world over. If your passport does not require a pre-authorization letter, then you can directly apply at the embassy and get your one month tourist visa within 24 hours.

For an Indian Passport
If you are an Indian citizen, you would need a pre-authorization letter before entering Vietnam and this applies even if you arrive by air. This is because about 76 criminals recently arrested in Vietnam are of Indian origin/citizenship. I got this pre-authorization letter by going through a travel agent in Vietnam. I paid him USD 60 per passport and he got the authorization letter done for me in 24 hours. If you are arriving in Vietnam by air, you can show this letter, pay your visa fee and get your visa stamped at the airport. However, if you are arriving into Vietnam over land, like how I am doing, then you have to go to the nearest embassy, show this authorization letter, fill your form, give a photograph, pay your fee and get your visa stamped.

The Embassy of Vietnam at Phnom Penh, Cambodia
The Vietnam embassy at Phnom Penh is a fairly small place with about 4 to 5 officials sitting inside a security room. Some of them speak English and hence it is easy to ask your questions and get the right answers. There was hardly any crowd when I went there today at around 1:45 pm. The embassy is open from 8 AM to 12 noon and from 1:30 pm to 5:00 pm. A tuk tuk from the riverfront (say close to the Royal Palace) to here should cost you USD 2. The tuk tuk driver will definitely ask you for more, but USD 2 is a fair price for this distance.

P.S. The visa cost information is available only on wikipedia and not on any other travel site. All sites quote the older fees and statistics. Keep this in mind before you go about your visa stamping process.

While this article is primarily targeted for people looking for a tourist visa, those looking for work permits, business visas and jobs in Vietnam can look up the Search Jobs Abroad website.

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Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Green Town Guest House, Siem Reap: Decent Budget Accommodation near the Old Market and River

If there is one area in Siem Reap that one needs to stay close to is the Old Market and Pub Street as this is where the night life, markets and restaurants exist in Siem Reap in plenty. If you stay close by to the old market, you don’t need to walk lots of distance for very meal or keep taking the tuk tuk. Instead, you could walk into a different restaurant for every meal. I stayed 8 nights in Siem Reap. Out of these, I stayed 3 nights away from the market and 5 nights closer to the market at the Green Town Guest House on Wat Bo street. This review is based on my experience of staying 5 nights and 6 days here.

1) The guest house is fantastic for the money you give. I paid USD 8 for a large twin bedroom with a fan. The room was quiet, had a private bathroom with hot shower, had free wi-fi, a TV and a wardrobe. In addition it had lots of walking space.

2) Be ready to bargain here as like all places in Cambodia, the prices are mentioned higher during your first conversation. I was quoted USD 10 for the room, but after some bargaining got it for USD 8.

3) The guest house has an in-house restaurant, though I would prefer to eat at the old market, where my plates will contain more food and cost lesser.

4) The guest house has their own laundry service and the cost is the same USD 1 per kg that is prevalent in the rest of the city.

5) The internet connectivity here can vary from very slow to decently fast. Thankfully, they have multiple connections, so if one of them fails you can switch to the other. They also have desktops for customers to log into the internet.

6) The guest house also provide bus booking and other tour booking services. I took the Mekong Express bus ticket from them and the price is the same as what I would have paid at the bus station.

7) The people running this place can do with some finesse and a lesson on racism. Mostly, they seem disinterested and do not offer to help unless you ask a question and second, they only like if you are of white skin as they know they can pay more money.

8) The guest house is a minute’s walk from the river and an easy ten minute walk to the old market where one can find souvenir shops, markets, restaurants, night life, super markets, ATMs and more.

9) Like a lot of guest houses and hotels in Siem Reap, this place also has its own tuk tuk service. Though, it is easy to catch a tuk tuk in Siem Reap as they are available in plenty.

I recommend this place for their room, proximity to the old market and the value for money. Even though I don’t necessarily like the people running this place. Ideal for solo travelers, backpackers and budget travelers.

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Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Pai: A relaxed getaway in the mountains of Northern Thailand

Paddy fields surrounded by hills and oodles of peace is how I would describe the town of Pai situated in the mountains of Northern Thailand. This town, situated between Chiang Mai and Mae Hong Son on the scenic highway used to be completely unknown a decade back, but it is now a fairly popular tourist destination. In spite of its popularity, it has a relaxed feel to it.

Pai River View, Thailand
The Pai river flowing from the mountains gives the town its character. It is this river that made Pai popular through opportunities of river rafting and kayaking on its rapids. This river also forms a scenic drop for those staying near it. Today, this river separates the main town from the village where most of the guest houses and bamboo huts are located.

Pai Village, Thailand
Apart from river based activities, people come to Pai to indulge in some jungle trekking in its lush forests and see the largest cave system in South East Asia in Sappong that is situated an hour away (56kms away). In the night, the main street of Pai turns into its only night bazaar with a variety of shops and food stalls.

A Flowery Cycle Rickshaw at Ban Pai Riverside Hotel Property
Life here is very simple. You either relax, explore or indulge in some adventure activities here during the day and come evening, you can soak in the festive atmosphere of its night bazaar. When compared to places like Mae Hong Son, Pai definitely has more tourists, but they are all here for a reason. The reason is…Pai is totally worth the visit.

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Monday, January 21, 2013

Travel Photo: Tuk Tuk from Cambodia

The word tuk tuk is synonymous with the three wheeler passenger vehicle that plies the roads of South and South East Asia. But, that is where the similarity ends. Each country seems to have their own form, design and variety of tuk tuks. In India and Sri Lanka, it is a small cramped vehicle with gears being operated by hand. In Thailand, it is a plush and long vehicle that operates on a car like stick shift gear system and it is known for its ‘boom boom’ sound and its ability to weave through crazy Bangkok traffic.

Tuk Tuk from Cambodia
In Cambodia, it is a totally different version. Here there is a 2 wheeler motorcycle in the front and attached to it on its rear seat is a 2-wheeled passenger compartment that look like a horse carriage of the yester years. These carriages either seat two people very comfortably or four people in a tight fit. These are one of the more popular forms of tourist transport especially in the Siem Reap and Angkor temple area.

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Sunday, January 20, 2013

Travel Video: Cambodian Dessert Store in Action, Siem Reap

I am one of those travelers who loves to sample local food, especially desserts. While I tasted the coconut ice-cream bread sandwich with nuts and raspberry sauce, coconut doughnuts and sweet coconut, sugar and sesame seeds on crispy rice pancake in Thailand, I got to see a whole new set of desserts in Cambodia as I entered the old market in Siem Reap, the town closest to Angkor Wat.

Desserts in a old market store at Siem Reap, Cambodia
This was the shop with a lot of local crowd. I stood around the shop for half an hour, watching the action taking place in front of me. Locals kept pouring in, ordered their sweetmeats and the lady behind the shop kept dishing out these yummy looking desserts at a lightning pace. And all these dishes were between 1000 and 1500 Cambodian riel, which equates to roughly 0.25 to 0.40 USD. The most popular dessert seemed to be the one with palm fruit in it. The second most popular one had palm fruit, jack fruit and jelly in it. The other desserts were sprout based, banana based or made from red bean.



But, all of them were made from sweet condensed sugar. My personal favorite was the cold palm fruits with sugar syrup, sweet condensed milk and powdered ice with some caramel on top of it. The other desserts are also great to taste. If you visit Siem Reap, you should try this place and see which dessert is your favorite.

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13 places to visit in 2013

There are endless number of places to visit in this world for travel freaks and with the new year dawning upon us and tourism developing across the globe, more destinations unexplored and untouched are becoming popular for visitors who get bitten by the travel bug every now and then! Here are a few suggestions on where you could tiptoe this year and make it one of the best ones on your travel calendar.

Europe is undoubtedly one of the best places to start thinking! The tourist attractions like Paris, Geneva, Berlin are all but exhilarating. The true Europe however, needs to be explored in its quiet corners. Nestled in south-eastern Austria, close to the German border is the city of Salzburg. It has been quite a hotspot for backpack travellers. The Youth Hostel of Salzburg is often abuzz with local cultural activities for its foreign travellers who take great pleasure in exploring the city on foot. A cozy winter when the whole city gets blanketed with snow to the extent that even the river stream freezes is one of the best sites in the world! If you are worried about staying in touch with your folks back home when travelling, with local phone cards today, calling has become a very cost-cutting activity. You do have other options like VOIP or Skype for video chatting while on the move. If you do not wish to spend on calling, international texting is one more option that is cheap and easy.

Whilst on the move in Europe, a few other places to visit would be Venice in Italy and Stockholm in Sweden. Both are island nations with a large tourist following every year. Stockholm is a much lesser commercially exploited city but a walk around gives you a similar feel of being in Paris. The stone pathways and the old town showcases the majestic lifestyle of the rich and overwater bridges give you some magnificent shots for your photo album. Venice too is an island city though it has its own little charm to it. Visit at a time when tour packages do not operate there. The weather might not be conducive but the slightly emptier streets will allow you to explore. Visit the smaller islands nearby and the tiny lanes lined up with pizzerias give you a true glimpse of the Italian cuisine. Travel further west and cross the border into France. The Southern region of France has plenty of beautiful towns where country-side lifestyles give you the taste of fine wine and dine. The famous cheeses and the Alpian towns are a paradise for skiers. Travel further south into Spain to the Basque country of Spain where the popular beach destination for foodies is San Sebastian.

Moving slightly away from Europe is the vast continent of Africa where destinations like Kenya await you with a very differing natural beauty and landscapes all around. One of the best places for safari, Kenya is home to a lot of national parks where you get to see animals roaming around freely. Choose your season carefully though as summers get very hot on this part of the planet. June would be an ideal time to venture out here. A jump onto a new continent would land you in Latin America, one of the most exotic locations on Earth. The Amazon basin and its deep rain forests give you an awesome adventure trip feel. You need to gear up for that kind of a travel though and prepare yourself for some hardships as nature is not at its best when explored to its depths.

From South to the North of America will give you one of the biggest continents to explore. Florida is a good place to start here. The entire coastline is tourist friendly with a lot of travel and touring options open. Miami is a great city to be in if you wish to witness good night life. A switch from seas to the desert and land yourself in the land of money and gambling! All of this right in the middle of a desert! The sin city of Las Vegas! It’s lit all through the night and a paradise land for players and amateurs alike! From small tables to bigger poker rooms, name it and you have it here. Travel further west to explore the beach destinations of Los Angeles and San Diego where the local cultures will enthrall you. The beach parades will leave wanting for more!

Other exotic locations around the world include the southern state of Kerala in India. A popular tourist attraction, the local food and backwater rides will take you a land that is serene, peaceful and an experience that is only but spiritual. The North Eastern states of this country too pose terrific landscapes, different than seen anywhere in the world. Further South-East Asian countries of Malaysia, Singapore too have varied tourist spots. Now that the list is ready, you can think of choosing your hot favorite destination first and embark upon a journey that will give you an experience of a lifetime!

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A Cambodian Fat Menu

I have eaten out many times. During such times, I have been to countless number of restaurants, street shops and markets and seen a lot of menu cards. But, nothing was as thick as the ones I saw at some restaurants around the old market area of Siem Reap in Cambodia. It was a genuine feeling of surprise when I was handed my menu card. Even other tourists had the same reaction. Some would even ask what it was.

A Cambodian Fat Menu

These menu cards look like thick files/folder from an office cabinet. Not only does it have a big assorted menu of dishes, but also includes alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages. Each item on their menu comes with a photograph. This is the reason why the menu becomes bulky, but I think it is a great way to help the tourist visualize the food and thus helps in selling more. If you are ever in Cambodia, this is one culinary experience you have to experience.

P.S. In case you are wondering, the food in some of these restaurants is really good.

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1961 Hotel: The Address of Art in Siem Reap, Cambodia

Ever stayed in an art gallery when traveling? Ever stayed in rooms that were themed on the past of a country? Well, ‘The 1961 Hotel’ in Cambodia’s Siem Reap is an art center comprising of a series of galleries, boutiques, food and dining outlets and an 8-room hotel. This hotel is a tribute to the golden age of Cambodia and the birth of modernism around the world.

The art Gallery at the 1961 hotel, Siem Reap, CambodiaThe place, run by a creative set of people is very interestingly done up where in every room depicts a different colour, look, feel and theme. And each room depicts a different era from Cambodia and they depict these very rich pasts through galleries that are situated right in your very room.

One of the walls at the 1961 hotel, Siem Reap, Cambodia
Last week, I stayed at this hotel for 3 days and 3 nights. During my stay, I got to experience 2 of their rooms/galleries, ‘The Vann Molyvann Gallery’ and ‘The Norodom’s Gallery’. While the Norodom’s Gallery is inspired by the kingdom’s royal family and the king father’s penchant for film making, the Vann Molyvann Gallery is a story of modernism, urban decay and renewal and pays homage to the man who single-handedly redesigned Cambodia into the 21st century.

Lounge Area, Hotel 1961, Siem Reap, Cambodia
Both the rooms, like the rest of the rooms in the hotel were fully air-conditioned, had private bathrooms with hot shower, very large, had interesting furniture and accessories that went with the theme of that room. The 1961 hotel has a great in-house bar and restaurant too that dishes out delicious fare. Apart from the artistic touch, the best part about this place is its people, who are always ready to help you out with your various requests and questions.

Reading room at Hotel 1961, Siem Reap, Cambodia
If you like art, are creatively inclined, want to meet an interesting bunch of people and would like to live at a cult address, this is a place you should stay if you are in Siem Reap. You can also stay here if you are looking at good accommodation options in Siem Reap. The hotel also arranges tours, taxis, tuk tuks and the ensure range of services to ensure that you have a great experience at Siem Reap and this includes Angkor and Tonle Sap.

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Friday, January 18, 2013

Travel Video: Traditional Cambodian Music from Banteay Kdei Temple, Angkor Archaeological Park

Traditional dances and music have always appealed to tourists and I am no different. I too like a good dose of local music and it is even better when it is based in true traditional style with traditional instruments and by the local people. I got the opportunity to hear such music when I was entering the Banteay Kdei temple inside the Angkor Archaeological Park near Siem Reap in Cambodia.
 


These guys were playing their local tunes in a bid to sell their DVDs and music CDs. There were some percussion instruments, a string based musical instrument and a metal based sound to form a beautiful sound. Hope you like it when you watch the video.

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Thursday, January 17, 2013

India's Tastiest Food Festivals

Two of the finest reasons to visit India at any time of year are for the delicious range of cuisine and the colorful, vibrant festivals. When these two aspects of Indian culture combine in a food festival, this is truly reason enough start searching for cheap flights to India. Although most Indian festivals have some element of food associated with them, the following are particularly notable for their traditional delicacies and convivial atmosphere.

Pongal An annual festival celebrating the harvest and Indra the sun god, Pongal is celebrated over the course of two days in January. Pongal means "boiling over," and during this festival home kitchens boil over with abundance as each day carries its own culinary tradition. On the first day of Pongal, families share a meal of rice with savory chickpea patties called vadai, and sweet pancakes known as boli. On the second day, friends and neighbors are invited to share in the celebrations with large communal meals being prepared. These include a more rice, dal, and a traditional sweet dessert made from cane sugar and ghee.

Durga Puja
Durga Puja doesn't strictly revolve around food, yet feasting plays an important role in the celebrations. This festival honors the mother goddess Shakti and her triumph over evil, and lasts over a week in many parts of the country. Each day of Durga Puja revolves around a large proper meal to share with friends and family, including vegetable curry, dal, rice, various chutneys, and plenty of rice pudding.

Lohri Celebrated each winter in the northern states of India, Lohri celebrates the wheat harvest with roaring bonfires and traditional cuisine. On Lohri Day, children go door to door, singing songs and collecting sweets, sesame seeds, and sugar cane. That evening, popcorn, rice, and other edibles are thrown into massive bonfires as a prayer to the fire god, Agni. A variety of snacks are enjoyed around the bonfire, including peanuts, jaggery, and popcorn. The traditional Lohri meal includes makki-di-roti, a type of hand-rolled bread, and special cooked mustard herbs called sarson-da-saag. This is followed by dancing and merriment.

Diwali
One of the most famous festivals that many visitors fly over to India to enjoy is Diwali, or the festival of lights. Although like Durga Puja this festival is not strictly about food, there are many traditional treats that are enjoyed during Diwali. This includes a variety of candies and sweets, as well as a special sweet sauce called mandhi.

Vishu Taking place in the state of Kerala in the second week of April, Vishu is an important festival marking the New Year for the Malayalam people. Ritual arrangements of rice, lemons, golden cucumbers, betel leaves, and yellow flowers are set up to be the first thing that families see in the New Year, bringing good luck and prosperity. Feasting is a major part of this festival as well. A traditional Vishu feast must combine equal elements of salty, sweet, bitter, and sour foods. This typically includes a sour mango soup and a bitter herbal concoction made from a tree in the mahogany family called neem.

No matter what time of year it is, you're bound to find a delicious festival taking place somewhere in India!

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Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Bangkok to Siem Reap by road: A new scam unearthed

Some years back, an overland journey from Bangkok to Siem Reap was considered a tough journey as the Poipet border post on the Cambodia side used to be ridden with scams. In the last few years, these scams have disappeared owing to better policy enforcement by Cambodia and the provision of an e-visa for entry. But, in spite of all these good measures, the journey is interesting and definitely provides huge savings for backpackers and budget travellers.

To set the context right, a one-way flight from Bangkok to Siem Reap costs about $220 and upwards. Hence, a lot of people prefer to take the road journey, which allows to complete the same trip at a fraction of the air fare. I am also one such budget traveler who took the road journey yesterday.

First, I booked myself a AC bus (1st class) from Mowchit bus station to Aranyaprathet (Thai border point). The cost of this bus ride was 228 THB (or ~7.6 USD) and the journey took 5 and a half hours. From here, I took a tuk tuk to the border checkpoint. The distance is about 1 to 1.5 kilometres and cost me 50 baht. I could have also walked, but the sun was high and I wanted to preserve my energy.

The first step was to get the exit stamp done at Thailand. While I was standing in the queue, a lady asked me to fill up my exit form and all the stamping got done in 20 minutes after that. I thought that was quick and I expected the same to happen at Cambodia, but unfortunately for me I was in for an unpleasant surprise. A member from the Cambodia passport control office asked me if I already had a visa and on hearing that I had the e-visa, he guided me to the passport control office. Here, I stood in the line (4 parallel lines were there) along with the other tourists.

But, for some reason, the line never moved. Only later did I know that all the four immigration officers took a lunch break together. That was definitely a first for me. While I stood in the queue for 2 hours, I saw some interesting behavior. Some people paid agents who were standing outside the passport office to get their visa on arrival done. Some people paid to get themselves chairs to sit. And some paid to jump the queue and get special treatment. I wasn’t keen on paying any bribes and hence doggedly stood in my line.

While I had the e-visa, I heard from other tourists that it was easy to get the visa on arrival. In fact, the queue for visa on arrival was very less as more or less all tourists either had a visa/e-visa or had the Asean permits. By the time I had my passport stamped, I was hungry, thirsty and tired, but I still had some reserve energy in me. A Cambodia passport officer again met us and told us to wait for the free shuttle bus to the Poipet bus station. The bus was ready in 5 minutes and in the next 10 minutes, we were all dropped at the Poipet international bus terminal.

Upon entering, we were told that we could book ourselves a bus ($9 per person), mini-bus ($10 per person) or taxi ($48 for the full taxi) to go to Siem Reap. This clearly smelled of a scam as the same cost in more organized and expensive Thailand would be half the quoted prices. But, we were left with no options. When I asked for the mini-bus ticket, I was told that the mini-bus was full and was asked to book either a bus or taxi. Since the taxi was too pricey for 2 of us and other didn’t want to share with us, I was forced to take a bus ticket, even though it meant that I had to wait for an hour for the bus to start.

But, thankfully, during the wait at the bus station, I recharged my batteries with some nuts, cake and water that I had bought in Thailand. All the stuff at the bus station was over priced. Now, here is where the interesting part of the story begins. Just before 3 pm when the bus was supposed to start, we were asked to board the bus. In a short while, all the passengers had gotten into the bus and even the ticket collector had checked all our tickets. It was 15 minutes past actual departure time and we were told that the driver was hungry and hence wanted to eat some food. After another delay, we were told that the driver had a stomach upset and had to use the rest room and there was another delay. Suddenly, the fat police officer from the bus station boarded our bus and told us that there has been some problem at the immigration counter and that some of the passenger’s passports have been wrongly stamped as 14 Jan when it was 15 Jan on that day. Upon checking our passports, we got to know that about 40% of the bus had that problem.

The police officer asked the people to come out of the bus and then after a brief discussion told them that they would have to go back to the border to get their passports re stamped. All the passengers cringed unanimously at the thought of going back to the long lines at the border. Then, another police officer came in 10 minutes. He asked everyone to give them their passports and told them that he would get it stamped at the office himself. This is where the bells started ringing loud in my head. Why is he asking for the passports. I told the guys around me not to separate themselves from their passport coz without it they would at the complete mercy of the Cambodia border officials. In the meanwhile, 4 passengers from the bus walked away, decided to lose the bus fare, took a taxi and went to Siem Reap.

The discussion for the passports continued. The officer told them that they would need to get the stamp rectified else they would have trouble at the border while exiting the country. After some discussion, the police officer told them that for 100 baht per person, he would get the stamping rectified in 15 minutes. At this point, everyone started losing their temper and took back their passports. They said that they are ready to bear the consequences and walked back to the bus. Slowly the driver also walked to the bus and we finally reached Siem Reap by 7 in the evening.

My personal take on this scam is that everyone at the border is involved in it and I guess out of the 4 lines at the border, one immigration official used the wrong dates for stamping. And then they use the bus and mini-bus passengers, try to send panic among them and try to make some money for themselves.

As with all scams, do not budge. Be stubborn and never part with your passport. If they say you will face trouble, be ready to face it and walk away.

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Monday, January 14, 2013

Chiang Saen Guest House: Stay by the Mighty Mekong River

If you ever go up to Chiang Saen, the northern most province of Thailand, you have got to stay by the Mekong river. The river is such a huge influence here that everything happens around the river. But, also keep in mind that the town is broadly made up of 2 streets one running parallel to the river and one that runs perpendicular to it. During my 2 night and 3 day stay here, I stayed at the Chiang Saen Guest House and this review of mine is based on that experience.

1) Chiang Saen Guest House is a house that has been turned into a guest house. It’s best quality is that it is opposite the mighty Mekong river and overlooks the Laos border.

2) The night markets and food stalls come up every night by the river and hence a couple of steps from your room and you are in the food markets.

3) The place has decent large size rooms suiting all kinds of budgets. The rooms come in fan/AC mode, have free wi-fi and have attached bathrooms with hot shower.

4) The reception is fairly limited in terms of arranging tours, but they can dish out some good advice. The place doesn’t have restaurants too.

5) The bus station, the temples and ruins of the city, the main town market and the supermarket stores are all in close vicinity and a short walk away.

If you are one who likes to sit by the Mekong river in the shade and watch the slow world pass by, then you will like this place. This place is ideal for all kinds of travelers. I like the guest house, but most of its mojo comes from the Mekong river running parallel to it.

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Boonbundan Guest House, Chiang Rai: A Review

If you are a backpacker and looking for budget accommodation in Chiang Rai, look around Wat Jet Yod. This is what I did when I landed in Chiang Rai a week back and after a lot of walking and searching found the Boonbundan Guest House where I ended up staying for 2 nights and 3 days. This review is based on my experience of staying here.

1) The Boonbundan Guest House is located at a short walk from Chiang Rai’s Bus terminal 1 and it is located close to the night bazaars and the walking streets of Chiang Rai and this is one of the benefits of this place.

2) The place is located slightly away from the pubs and bars and hence the music in the night doesn’t borrow much.

3) At 200 THB, one can get a fan-cooled room with a private bathroom. The rooms are fairly large, but cam do with some new paint and a makeover.

4) The place has hot shower, free wi-fi and an in-house restaurant for their guests.

5) The place does not provide a laundry service and the reception can be a bit better when it comes to handling customers. May be they are home-run, but they can certainly do with some more attention.

The place is not great, but is good for travelers on a budget and who need the basic comfort and amenities.

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20 Random Things about Thailand and the 1000th post on the blog

Today is my 52nd day in Thailand and I thought that I should may be summarize some of my random experiences from this amazing country into one post. Incidentally, this is also the 1000th post on my blog.

Below are some random highlights from my Thailand experience.

1) Thailand is often referred to as the ‘Land of Smiles’. There are two reasons to this. The people here are genuinely nice and second, most of the country is bad with English and hence when a tourist asks a question in English, they simply SMILE.

2) Everyone loves their king in Thailand. You can see this by the huge number of king posters, the insane audience when the king recently graced his country with a public appearance and the look of respect when they see their king on television.

3) Food with meat in it is cheaper than vegetables in Thailand.

4) Massage parlors are omnipresent in Thailand. But, so are their dubious status.

5) There are more SUVs and pickups than cars plying on the roads of Thailand.

6) Escort service is like a virus in Thailand. There won’t be a day without you seeing a tourist and a Thai woman holding hand in hand and roaming the streets like normal couples. And the irony is that they call themselves tourist guides when in reality they are escorts/call girls.

7) There are abysmally low bald people in Thailand. I so wish I had some of those genes in me.

8) Both men and women have a fetish for being blonde and hence you will see a lot of blonde Thai people everywhere.

9) iPhones, iPads and other latest gadgets can be seen being used everywhere in Thailand. Don’t know whether they are original or fake, but from young to old, poor to rich, small town to big city, everyone uses them.

10) More or less the entire country is connected with wi-fi and mobile connectivity even in most remote villages.

11) Whether you are in the warm and sultry South Thailand or cold and dry North Thailand, people still like to drink their water with a lot of ice in it.

12) In the north, ice-cream is served between two slices of bread with peanuts.

13) One can easily live off the street food in Thailand. There is variety, it is cheap and it tastes good.

14) There are 2 kinds of prices prescribed in Thailand. One for the locals and other for the foreign tourists. This is not just for entrance to museum or national park, but for accommodation, food, bus, et al.

15) Thailand has beautiful roads all through and hence commute by road is really quick. Driving is also very safe as people are more patient with their driving.

16) A Thailand flag can be seen in almost every building in the country especially in smaller towns.

17) Young girls and even middle aged women like to wear bunny hats on their head.

18) Long distance luxury buses in Thailand have air hostesses and captains.

19) There are a lot of lady boys in Thailand and the best part is that they live with dignity among the other citizens of this country.

20) When the men/boys speak, they end their sentence with ‘khap’. And the woman/girls end theirs with ‘ka’.

The special one is today’s date in Thailand is 14/01/56.

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Sunday, January 13, 2013

The Famous Golden Triangle: Opium, Gory Past, the 3 Countries and the mighty Mekong

There are many special things about the Golden Triangle and that is why it is famous. First, it is the place where the borders of Myanmar (Burma), Laos and Thailand coincide. Second, it is the place where the Ruak river from Myanmar joins the mighty Mekong river. And third and most importantly, this is the place which used to be capital for opium trade in South East Asia.

The famous Golden Triangle - once the heart of opium production
The place that exists today as the Golden triangle was a small unknown river side village, but today runs as a busy tourist location, thanks to the immense popularity of the golden triangle. The village is Ban Sop Ruak and is located at about 10 kilometers from Chiang Saen, the nearest large town.

Confluence of Ruak and Mekong Rivers at the Golden Triangle
People visit this place to see the place where the 3 country borders meet, visit the hall of opium and understand its troubled past and/or visit an island in Laos that technically doesn’t need a visa to enter and most tourists go here for shopping. Most of the tourists visit the Golden triangle as part of a day tour from either Chiang Rai or Chiang Mai, but it is better if you explore this place from Chiang Saen as it will allow you to explore this place in leisure.

Large Buddha Statue at Golden Triangle, Thailand
Personally, the joining of the 3 countries didn’t appeal to me much, but I liked the views of the mighty Mekong from Wat Phra That Phu Khao and the time I spent understanding about Opium and its impact on history and medicine at the Hall of Opium. Back in the early days, people used to grow opium for medicine, before the East India Company started buying it from here and exporting to China.

Entrance to Wat Phra That Phu Khao, Ban Sop Ruak
And since growing opium was lucrative, all the hill tribes started growing it. It took a lot of effort from King Bhumibol’s mother and the king himself to educate the people and give them an option of an alternate livelihood in terms of cash crops, fruits and vegetables. However, this is on the Thailand side. Opium production still takes place in Myanmar (Burma) as the government still has not taken strict steps against it.

Golden Triangle - Thailand, Myanmar and Laos
Since this place is visited by a lot of tourists, lots of shops sell a variety of stuff and this includes gift items, curios, food and more. A huge Buddha statue resides right by the Mekong river. The Golden triangle is sure touristy, but it has a lot of history and gory days behind it. The experience is so much better if you understand this history.

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Chiang Saen: Land of the Golden Triangle

Broadly speaking, there are 2 main streets in the town of Chiang Saen, one of the more northern provinces of Thailand. One street runs parallel to the Mekong and the other that runs perpendicular and hosts the bus station, key temples and the market. But, don’t let its size fool you as this is the Land of the Golden triangle.

Ruins of Wat Pa Sak, Chiang Saen, Thailand
There are many things about this place that you will like. The place is very quiet even during the busiest part of the day (I am sitting by the road of this town and writing this post). The mighty Mekong river has a huge influence to the landscape and the living here. Just sitting near it feels heavenly. The place used to exist as a large city in its heydays and then was an important military post for Thailand. It saw the Burmese army ransacking it many times and after a lot of wars, the entire city was burnt down and people moved elsewhere. Then, a century back, people from Chiang Mai, Lamphun and Lampong were asked to re-settle in this town and make it the town that it is today.

Chinese Temple at Chiang Saen, Thailand
From Chiang Saen, if you look beyond the Mekong, you see the country of Laos, there are immigration checkpoints everywhere. If you wish, you can enter Laos by simply taking a 2 minute boat ride. For the Thailand government, it is an important base for import and export of goods from China and over the Mekong. For the tourists, it is the Golden triangle. For the locals, it is a sum total of all of the above. For me, it is one of my more favorite places in Thailand.

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Chiang Saen Lake: A Scenic place where you can see winter birds

A lot of tourists visit Chiang Saen as part of their day tour from Chiang Rai or Chiang Mai to visit the Golden triangle. But, if you are planning in Chiang Saen, do not miss the opportunity to explore the very calm and serene Chiang Saen Lake that is located about 5 kilometers from the town.

Sunset over Chiang Saen Lake
The lake is pretty large and its underground vegetable matter and fish variety attracts a lot of migratory birds from the north. When I was there yesterday, I saw storks, ducks, teals, plovers, water-hens and more. There are not too many birds like some of the birding sanctuaries, but enough to pique your attention.

Chiang Saen Lake - A Birding Playground in winter
It is also a great place for capturing sunset from the lake’s level. On certain days, you might be the only person watching the sunset at this lake. When I was there yesterday, I just had 2 local photographers giving me company. If you feel like solitude, this is a place you have to visit if you are in the golden triangle belt of Thailand.

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Friday, January 11, 2013

Twin Hut: Nice Bamboo Huts to stay in at Pai Village, Thailand

Pai is a great scenic village in North Thailand. Even though the place deserves more time, I used it to split my long journey from Mae Hong Son to Chiang Rai. Hence, I only got to stay an afternoon, 1 night and 1 morning. During my stay here, I stayed at Twin Hut, a budget accommodation of bamboo huts located on the other bank of the Pai river in the Ban Pai village and amidst green paddy fields. Below is my review of this place.

Bambook Huts in Pai Village
1) Pai is a small village so most of the accommodation around Pai is close to the happening areas. So food, bus station, groceries, night markets, tour operators are all in close proximity to the bamboo huts.

2) The bamboo huts are on the other side of the river and are in more secluded area surrounded by rich countryside.

3) All the bamboo huts have electricity, mosquito nets, free wi-fi and free breakfast (simple breakfast).

4) Pai can get really cold in winter and especially during the late night and early morning hours. The bamboo huts have a lot of openings in them and hence you will get to feel the low temperatures very nicely. You can counter this by either asking the hut owners for an additional blanket or wear your thermal wear.

5) The cost of these bamboo huts is 250 THB per night. It can accommodate 2 people, has a private sit-out with a hammock, but has a shared bathroom that has a hot shower in it.

6) A small issue with the bamboo hut is that it has only one charging point so it might be a problem to charge if you carry multiple gadgets.

I stayed at Twin Hut for only one night, so cannot recommend it, but I feel it is decent enough for a budget traveller looking to stay for a long duration in Pai and who wants to sleep peacefully in the night.

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White Temple of Chiang Rai: Unique and Interesting Contemporary Art

A temple or Buddhist monastery is usually associated with some creativity, a feeling of spirituality and lots of prayer. But, the White temple is so much different. It is a figment of one’s imagination along with some common sense all converted into beautiful designs. It is a work of contemporary art that has been built in pure white color.

Reflections of the White Temple, Chiang Rai
The interesting thing about the White temple is that its construction began in 1996 and it is believed that the work will get complete in 60-90 years. But, even in its current partial completed state, it is quite a sight with its min-blowing appeal and the sense of imagination that has been converted into sculptures.

Statue at White Temple, Chiang Rai
To start with, the entire temple is pure white in colour. Everything is in white. The outside walls, the sculptures, the Buddha inside, the pillars, the surrounding buildings and even the fish in the ponds around the temple.

The Beautiful White Temple of Chiang Rai
Then, there are these unique bits of imagination that you see in the temple. A maze of hands trying to come up. It looks like they are either stuck in quick sand or in hell. There are common sense items that depict hell for smokers and drinkers.

Contemporary Design of White Temple
Then, there are weird looking heads hanging on trees. The surprising thing is that none of these heads look like a local person. In fact, they look more American and European to me.

Golden tower next to White Temple, Chiang Rai
There is also a golden building nearby the White Temple and this golden colour beautifully contrasts the pure white temple to its side. The golden temple looks beautiful during the early and the latter hours of the day, while the White temple looks best when the sun is straight overhead.

White Heads at Chiang Rai's White Temple
So depending on your preference, you can visit the temple accordingly. Personally, I visited just before the closing hours and was lucky to get good reflection shots, though I did realize that I would have got better temple photographs had I visited the temple in the noon hours with a circular polarizer filter to cut away the excessive reflections and to get a richer blue in the sky. A killer combo to have!!

After closing hours at White Temple, Chiang Rai, Thailand
The White Temple, known locally as Wat Rong Khun after the village Ban Rong Khun where it is located, is situated about 15 kilometers from Chiang Rai. If you are staying near the bus station terminal 1, a tuk tuk should cost you 200 baht (2 people) for a return journey with a waiting period of 1 hour.

Exquisite White Temple at Chiang Rai, Thailand
If you wish for a cheaper fare, take the mini bus from bus station terminal 1 to terminal 2 for 10 baht per person and then take the tuk tuk for 80-100 baht. The temple does not have an entrance fee, though do ensure that you reach the temple before 5 pm as the temple authorities strictly close the temple by 5 pm.

White Temple in monochrome
If you are visiting Chiang Rai or even passing by, I would recommend taking 30 minutes out to visit this temple and simply admire its intricate work and beautiful imagination.

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