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Sunday, March 31, 2013

Nong Khiaw: Excellent Riverside Retreat in Laos

Lovely mountains, a nice mountain river, good weather, great river facing guest houses, delicious local food, some internet connectivity, the basic amenities like (grocery stores, ATM, etc.) and a lot of the true relaxing Laos atmosphere…that is how I would describe the riverside retreat of Nong Khiaw.

The spectacular Nam Ou river and the mountains at Nong Khiaw, Laos
This place tucked away in north eastern Laos is not known to many and its remoteness also ensures that it is a bit rustic. Hence, even though it is a fantastic place, a lot of tourists cannot be seen here. Those who are here indulge in activities on the river (kayaking, swimming, boat rides), do the famous 100 waterfall trek and/or simply relax here with a book and a great river view.

Nong Khiaw guest houses facing the river and nestled among the mountains
Since this is one of the larger countryside towns in Laos, it has all modern amenities while allowing the tourist to experience true Laos culture. If you like Laos food, you will really like this place. And the Nam Ou river is just one of the better rivers in Laos. It is such a pleasure to watch how the people of Laos live off the river.

Nong Khiaw River side action
The best part is that this place is just 3 hours away from Luang Prabang, the most popular town in Laos. And in spite of it being so close to Luang Prabang, it is a so different that you feel that you are in a different world. This is definitely one of my more favorite places in Laos. You should give this place a try when you plan your Laos holiday.

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Vientiane Backpacker Hostel, Vientiane, Laos: Avoid it if you can

I have stayed in a lot of hostels and dorms in the past 5 months of my South East Asia backpacking trip and this hostel ranks somewhere in the bottom three. They charged more or less the same as the other hostels and hotels on the street, but I would say have the shoddiest service. I stayed here for one night and there was no way I could stay any longer at the Vientiane Backpacker Hostel. This review is based on my recent experience of staying here.

1) Here is the situation: There are 16 people in the dorm without any windows and the hostel folks come and switch off the AC (air-conditioner) at 5 AM. Not only does it get really hot in a matter of minutes, but it also gets very suffocating in the room. Some of the people couldn’t take it and left the dorm at 5:30 in the morning, while the really tired others struggled to sleep in tough conditions. This was one instance that ensured that I would never stay here again.

2) The hostel has close to 40 or 50 beds, I guess and for all of them, they have 2 toilets and 4 shower rooms. How in the world can that be enough for so many people…this is something I fail to understand. All through the morning, there was a big line of queue for the toilet and shower.

3) They have free wi-fi, but the speed is moderate, but good enough for checking email.

4) The hostel offers tour and ticket booking services, but are much more expensive than all the other hotels, hostels, tickets booking agencies and companies nearby.

5) They offer free breakfast, but that includes 2 slices of bread, a banana and some coffee/tea. You have to pay extra for your eggs. They also offer free vodka after 9 pm every night, but I am not sure who took up that freebie.

6) Like with all backpacker hostels, this place allows you to meet a great set of like minded travelers, who make for a fantastic conversation.

Anyone in their right frame of mind would never stay here for more than a night. I met so many people like me, who decided that they needed to move badly to another place after the first night. They charge 40,000 kip per night, but so does the other hotels and dorms nearby. Personally, I would not recommend this place and would never stay there again.

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Saturday, March 30, 2013

Muang Khua to Nong Khiaw by Boat: Riding over the Rapids

I have rafted over rapids and have also kayaked in white waters, but this was the first time I was in a boat while we went over white water rapids. Even though the rapids were only of Class 1, it was still quite a surreal experience for me and the 12 other people with me in the boat. Water would be copiously sprayed on to us whenever we went over the bigger rapids and since I was sitting on the left front side, I got the most spray. Since it was a warm day, the water spray actually felt refreshing.

Scenic Boat Ride to Nong Khiaw from Muang Khua, Laos
All this happened while I was traveling from Muang Khua to Nong Khiaw in North Eastern Laos. The journey was by boat and was on the Nam Ou river. It takes about 5 to 6 hours to complete this journey and it costs about 120,000 kip (~15 USD). Tickets can be booked on the morning of the journey at Muang Khua. Boats leave Muang Khua every morning at 9:30 AM. People, baggage and motorbikes can be accommodated on  these thin and long boats. This is one of the more interesting and more scenic ways of getting to Luang  Prabang from the mountains of Vietnam.

Boat Ferries on the Nam Ou river at Muang Khua, Laos
The other option is to take the bus to Udomaxay and then to Luang Prabang, which might be slightly cheaper, but not as scenic as this journey. This boat ride takes you through lush green tropical forests, beautiful mountains that cast stunning reflections in the still river waters especially during noon time and provides scenes of how the people of Laos live off its rivers. This is a journey you should not miss if you are entering Laos from Dien Bien Phu in Vietnam.

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The Snake Alley of Taipei

Snake Alley! This is how the Taipei locals refer to the Hwahsi (Huaxei) tourist night market. Just the name was enough to take me to this place that is situated close to the famous Longshan Temple. I had heard a lot of stories about this place. It’s snake soups, the ability to taste all kinds of exotic meats and more. Personally, I am a vegetarian, but I was keen on saying how the place got its name.

The Hwahsi (Huaxei) Tourist night market or snake alley in Taipei, Taiwan
And when I went there, I saw a typical tourist market that served all kinds of meats, had all kinds of reptiles on display, had many sex toy stores and sold Taiwan’s favorite stinky tofu that would make you cringe when you walked past those stalls. As a wildlife lover, it hurt me to see turtles, pythons, cobras, crocodiles and many other reptiles being served on dinner plates. But, since there is demand here, these poor reptiles get captured and eaten. This alley is also good for getting great deals on hardware accessories and shoes. Even though this place is technically a tourist night market, you will find more locals here than tourists.

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Friday, March 29, 2013

Traveling by Train in Vietnam

If you are tall, like some luxury in your travels, love the opportunity to stretch your legs, don’t mind to pay a bit more, like the services of a working toilet and like easy access to good food, then you would have definitely tried the trains while traveling in Vietnam. They are a bit expensive when compared to the buses, but the excess cost is totally worth it, or at least that is my very personal opinion.

Here’s how it all started though. I took a night sleeper bus from Mui Ne to Nha Trang, but the sleeper bus was so cramped for me that I decided that I would never take the sleeper bus again in Vietnam and that is why I started taking the trains in Vietnam. The sleeper buses in Vietnam (I call them the capsules) are ideal for travelers on a tight budget and/or for those who have short legs and thus can sleep comfortably.

But, aside from the comfort factor of the trains, I would recommend the trains in Vietnam for 2 broad reasons: one, the ability to meet and interact with the locals and second, the ability to see some of Vietnam’s stunning natural scenery, especially the ride from Danang to Hue, which allows you to see Vietnam’s coastline from on top of a cliff.

Before we go into the details, I would like to help you understand the types of seats/berths one can get in a train in Vietnam. All of these may or may not be available on all trains or routes. There is a hard seat and a soft seat. The soft seat is typically air-conditioned. The seats are the cheapest tickets on the train and is much preferred by the locals (due to less cost) and for short trips by the tourists. The sleeping berths come in hard sleeper and soft sleeper. The hard sleeper is a coupe of 6 bunker beds, 3 on each side, while the soft sleeper is a coupe of 4 bunker beds with 2 on each side. The hard sleeper costs lesser than the soft one, but the interesting thing here is that the lower berths cost the most, while the middle costs lesser and the upper one costs the least. This is because, the berth seats do not allow you to sit during the day and the one with the upper berth ticket has to always be in the upper berth all day or night. This can cause some inconvenience as there is hardly any space for moving around.

Ticket booking is pretty transparent and can be booked easily from the train stations. People speak English in the larger cities, but it can be a little difficult to explain your need in the smaller cities. Thankfully, there are no scams anywhere in the train stations, though as a foreign tourist, you pay a different price for the same ticket, when compared to a local Vietnamese.

I took quite a few train rides in Vietnam – Nha Trang to Danang, Danang to Hue, Hue to Ninh Binh, Ninh Binh to Hanoi and Hanoi to Lao Cai…five in all.Each journey had its good moments. In the hard sleepers, you will definitely come across a local person or family and in the soft sleeper, you will come across a like minded traveler. You will get to see the countryside pass by through the large windows, you will get to experience the narrow corridors, you will see the small markets at each station that the train stops and much more.

A journey to Vietnam is not complete without traveling on its trains. The trains might be a tad slower than the bus, but it saves you the hassle of traffic, is much more safer than the roads of Vietnam, is luxurious if you are old, tall, like to frequently use the toilet or like a good night’s sleep and overall provide a good value for money. I will always take the train whenever I am in Vietnam and I definitely would recommend you to try it or at least the Danang to Hue bit for the sheer natural beauty and spectacular views.

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Thursday, March 28, 2013

16 Random Things about Macau

Like most tourists, I stayed only a short duration of three days in the Portuguese old town and casino hub of Macau. However, I ensured that I utilized all of my 3 days and 3 nights here and explored a good deal of Macau. During this exploration, I came across some interesting things about this small country, which I have noted below for everyone’s reading.

Colorful Casino District of Macau 
1) Tourists visit Macau for its glitz, color and its rich casinos, but the bulk of the people in Macau are really poor.

2) T Shirts can be bought in Macau for as low as 70 cents.

3) Macau used to be a Portuguese colony and hence all of its streets are given Portuguese names. Most of the people living in Macau do not recognize any of these names. They have their own equivalent Chinese names.

4) Cookies and biscuits can be smelt a mile away. Most of Macau is big time into baking.

5) The casinos of Macau rake in a lot of money and are second only to Las Vegas in the United States of America.

6) Even though the old town of Macau is an UNESCO World Heritage site, it lacks basic sanitary conditions with blocked sewer and one has to walk through some streets with closed noses.

7) Like Hong Kong, Macau allows its banks to print their own currency notes.

8) Even though Macau is a SAR of China and has most of its population as Chinese, it still has a lot of Portuguese influence.

9) The Egg Tart can definitely be called the national snack of Macau. Not only do the tourists adore it, the locals snack on it very often too.

10) Even though it is very far away from Venice and Europe, it has its own Venetian style canals and gondolas in one of its five star hotels that is modeled after Venice.

11) Macau has one of the easiest immigration systems. It is also one of those countries where an Indian passport gets easy visa free entry.

12) You should be able to get around most of the touristy places in Macau free of cost through the shuttle buses that is run regularly by the five star hotels and casinos.

13) It is a big world inside the casinos. There are so many tables, so many games and so many machines that it will take you a couple of days just to put your head together and decide what you want to play and how you want to play.

14) You have to spend just an hour in one of Macau’s casinos to understand how rich the people of China are and why China is so getting close to becoming a economic super power.

15) Macau is such a popular weekend getaway from Hong Kong that every hotel, restaurant and travel company has a weekday and weekend rate card.

16) Macau is all about good service at no cost to the tourist. The entire old town can be visited without spending any money, the excellent shows run by the five star hotels are also free and so is it to enter a casino and watch the gambling world unfold in the middle of the night.

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Pondicherry: Vibrant Getaway on India’s East Coast

During the colonial days, unlike the British, the French did not have a lot of control over India. But, they did manage to stamp their authority in one small town on the East coast of India. This town, Pondicherry, a union territory located in the Tamil Nadu state of India is a vibrant concoction of rich Tamil culture, great beaches, a very visible French architecture, the site for meditation and calm and great French and Tamil food.

Matrimandir Peace Dome - under construction at Auroville
All these attributes ensure that Pondicherry is a hot favorite both with the domestic and foreign tourists. In fact, such is the diversity of this place that it is a very popular weekend getaway from the metropolitan cities of Chennai and Bangalore. For the young traveler, Pondicherry appeals due to the low cost of alcohol and good beaches. For the seasoned travelers, the French style colonial architecture, good French wines, great food and interesting culture keep them interested. For those who seek solitude or calm, head to the Auroville Ashram in Pondicherry.

Temple entrance in B&W
There is so much that one can do here that you need multiple weekends here or even better if you have an extended holiday. With good road and rail networks, Pondicherry is very well connected with the rest of the country. And the hotels in Pondicherry span from a simple budget hotel to a colonial bungalow to beach side retreats making for a great set of options to choose from.

Bay of the Bengal view from Bungalow on the Beach
For those holidaying here, they need not just be limited to this seaside town. Instead, they can explore the UNESCO World heritage seashore temples at Mahabalipuram (about 50 kms north of Pondicherry), the massive Chidambaram Natarajar temple and one of the prime seats of Shaivism in India (about 70 kms south of Pondicherry) and/or the remote Danish town of Tranquebar (about 110 kms south of Pondicherry).

Western entrance to the sea shore temple
If temples and history, appeal to you, then you have lots of options in neighboring Tiruvannamalai or at Kumbakonam, the capital of South India’s temples. The best part about all this is that you can base yourself at Pondicherry and explore all these places as part of multiple day trips, according to your convenience and choice. There are many budget hotels in Pondicherry if you are a budget traveler. If you are not one, then the rich collection of Pondicherry hotels will ensure that you are spoilt for choices.

Go ahead and enjoy this rich and diverse town on India’s East Coast!!

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Popular View Guest house: Good Hotel next to the river at Vang Vieng, Laos

Vang Vieng is a tourist destination that starting with tubing in the Nam Song river and hence it is no surprise that most of the guest houses and hotels are either facing the river or located close to it. While there is no dearth of accommodation in Vang Vieng, it is difficult to find a good place where all your conditions are met. I stayed for 3 nights at the Popular view guest house and it met some of my conditions. Below review is based on my recent experience of staying here.

1) The Popular view guest house is located very close to the river, the TV bars, the restaurants and the happening places of Vang Vieng without getting loud in the rooms.

2) For 80,000 kip (~10USD), they offer large air conditioned rooms with TV and hot shower facility in attached bathroom.

3) They also offer free filtered drinking water (which is very good to have), free tea/coffee and bananas in the morning.

4) The only significant problem with this place is that the internet connectivity is very limited in the rooms. The connection is strong only at the hotel’s reception.

5) TV works in the room, but all channels have poor transmission and clarity. I found out that the entire Vang Vieng faces this problem.

6) The tubing vendor and the motorcycle rental agencies are all located next door. All the attractions from Vang Vieng are more or less the same distance from everywhere in town.

7) The hotel does bookings for you, but they charge a commission.

The place is good for budget travelers who seek some basic luxuries in hot and humid Vang Vieng.

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Xayana Guest House: Decent Hostel in Luang Prabang, Laos

There are tons of hotel options for the tourists in the tourist-oriented Luang Prabang old town. Accommodation options vary from villas to river facing bungalows, heritage French bungalows to simple hotel rooms and hostels to budget rooms. During my stay at Luang Prabang, I stayed at the Xayana Guest House for 3 nights. Below review is based on my recent stay here.

1) The Xayana Guest House is an old French building that has been done up into a guest house with dormitories and private rooms. The place has a classic touch with wooden flooring, wooden walls and carpeting.

2) For 40,000 kip, they offer a bed in an air-conditioned dormitory. The bed is comfortable and the room is large enough too. The only thing missing is a private reading lamp for each bed.

3) Free wi-fi is provided and there is good reception all through the guest house. They even have computers to get onto the internet.

4) They have both mixed and ladies only dormitory with shared bathrooms. There were only 2 shower rooms and one toilet for my 6 bed dormitory, but we never found it to be a problem.

5) The problem with the guest house is their carpeting, which I guess hasn’t been vacuumed in a long while. People who have allergies to dust, like me, will have a hard time there.

6) Sometimes the reception of this place are good. At other times, they can be a bit rude.

7) They do not provide a towel, breakfast or free water like the other hotels in Luang Prabang. However, you can get all for a price.

8) The one thing I missed the most is a free safety locker. One has to pay a 30,000 kip fee to get a locker and that too all the lockers are in the ground floor. As far as I knew, the basic thing about hostels is that they offer a safety locker.

9) Since the guest house is located a little inside from the main road, there is hardly any disturbance.

10) They have a common sit out for those who like some sun.

11) They do not provide laundry services, but there are quite a few laundry services right opposite the guest house.

12) One of the best things about this guest house location. It is close to the Mekong river, the night market, the Royal Palace, the Mount Phousie, all the good restaurants and other attractions.

Even though this hostel is not top notch, it offers good value for money. It’s beds and dormitories are really good for the money paid. And when compared to the other hotels in the old town, it doesn’t seem too bad.

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Lin Tong Guest House: Cheap Bamboo Huts in Nong Khiaw, Laos

Most of the accommodation in Nong Khiaw is either river facing or located near the river. If it is river facing, the cost tends to be higher and lower if it is not facing the river. The guest houses are located on either side of the river, though the bulk of the guest houses are on the eastern side. When I was at Nong Khiaw, I opted for a stay away from the river to save on some cost and landed at Lin Tong Guest House where I stayed in their bamboo huts. Below review is based on my recent experience of staying with them.

1) For 40,000 kip or ~5USD, you get a bamboo hut with attached bathroom and private sitout. Keeping that in mind, I feel it offers great value for money. The room comes with 2 beds, a fan and hot shower.

2) The room doesn’t get either too hot during the day or too cold during the night as it is made of bamboo.

3) The hot shower is good, but only if the force of the water is less.

4) There is free wi-fi available, but the speed is a bit slow. But, that is the case with all of Nong Khiaw.

5) The beds come with mosquito nets and hence insects or mosquitos are not a problem even though if you close the hut door, there is hardly any trouble.

6) The main problem with the bamboo hut is that the other huts are situated about less than a foot away and hence you can hear them talk or give you less privacy in your room.

7) The people managing these huts are very good and helpful and ensure that they can make your stay comfortable.

The place is basic, but is ideal for backpackers or budget travelers planning a long stay. For the price, it is good value for money.

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Manmootan Guest House, Muang Khua: Fabulous views of the river

If you are halting even for a night in the sleepy border town of Muang Khua, you have got to stay close to the river. It is not just about the views, but it is the river that is the source of all existence in Laos. When I was there at Muang Khua, I stayed at the Manmootan Guest House that overlooks the river. I stayed here only for a night, but would have loved to stay here for more nights as the easy going town really appealed to me. Below review is based on my recent experience here.

Manmootan Guest House - stilt houses on the other side of the river at Muang Khua
1) For 50,000 kip (~6.5 USD), one gets a wooden room that overlooks the river. The facilities in the room are basic, but you do get twin beds or 1 queen size bed with mosquito nets and an attached bathroom.

2) The place does not have internet connectivity, but that adds to the charm and lack of connectivity in this place.

3) There is no fan or AC in the room, but it is hardly missed as the town gets pretty cold during the night and stays pretty pleasant all through the day.

4) The one thing that is sorely missed here is the hot shower. Cold showers can be managed only during the noon time and that too with some teeth chattering.

5) The people running the place are very friendly and will try and answer all your questions with the limited English that they know. They will invite you for dinner (all you can eat and drink) for 25,000 kip (~3 USD). During this dinner, you will be offered rice, vegetables, meat, eggs and unlimited water and Lao Lao (home brewed rice whiskey).

6) The guest house is located close to a thin wooden bridge that makes quite a bit of racket when motorcycles cross it. Thankfully, there is no traffic on the bridge during the night and very less during the day.

7) The place comes with a large sit-out facing the river that makes for an ideal place to sip some hot tea/coffee on a cold morning, read a book during the afternoon or watch sunset during the evening.

8) The town is very small and hence every place worth seeing or visiting is a short walk from the guest house.

Even though the place is basic, I really liked its location and relaxed atmosphere. I will definitely stay here whenever I return to Muang Khua.

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Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Sa Pa, Vietnam: Perfect for scenic mountain hikes

The mountain town of Sa Pa in northwest Vietnam is over glamorized and thus you can see that everything is very touristy here with food that caters to the soft palate of the tourists, the ever increasing prices for the fat tourist wallet (or at least that’s what the locals think) and tours aligned for the tourist mentality. But, if you stay a bit away from this hustle and bustle, you can find some of the best mountain hikes in Vietnam that takes you to tribal villages with the most humble people.

Scenic Hikes through the villages around Sapa, Vietnam
You should be able to find these humble tribal people in Sa Pa town itself. Rather, they will find you and you will know you found them when they reach out to you with ‘shopping’ requests. Sapa is more or less like that. The place has become so popular with tourists that the hill town itself has forcefully morphed into a tourist town where everything revolves around the tourists.

Locals enjoy a game of volley ball at Sapa's Square
Take for example the Cat Cat village that is a tribal village with tribal artifacts created for the tourists. Or the nearby evening dance shows and dinner for the people visiting Sapa. Or the long line of restaurants that sell a variety of fare from a multitude of global cuisines. Or the shops selling tribal handicrafts, tickets or tours. It feels like you are in a tourist street, but effectively this is the entire Sapa town.

The business district of Sapa, Vietnam
But, do not take me wrong, the landscapes around are fabulous with the Mount Fansipan providing some stunning sights in the early morning hours. The best way to enjoy this terrain is by donning a pair of good hiking shoes, putting on some sun block, carrying a thin fleece jacket, a bottle of water and lots of positive energy. If you are prepared with all of these, you can explore any of its many trails that either meander down to the various hill streams or up to temples or view points. And then somewhere in between are the remote tribal villages surrounded by terraced slopes of paddy.

The famous Square of Vietnam's Sa Pa
Many people opt for staying overnight or many nights in these tribal villages. These are the smart people who get to enjoy the true Sapa nature and the true tribal culture. Waking up to a rooster call in the early hours of the morning or sipping a cup of hot tea while gazing at the starlight sky in the nippy and thin mountain air are some of the added perks.

Sunrise over the clouds, mountains and Sapa town of Vietnam
If you cannot stay overnight at one of these tribal villages, then do ensure you do a hike that takes you here. The hike might be easy, medium or tough, but the experience will always be great. This is what I did too. Just pick up a direction and start walking. Everywhere around Sapa is tons of natural beauty. You would be so happy that you would not want to return to your room in the Sapa town.

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Muang Ngoi: Perfect for a Relaxed Holiday

No electricity, no internet, stay in bungalows facing the Nam Ou river, easy access to the river, a small village atmosphere and loads of relaxation. That is how one can describe Muang Ngoi, the riverside village in North Eastern Laos. People who go here to seek relaxation get their money’s worth. This is one place where not a lot of tourists go to, because it has very basic and limited tourist infrastructure and many who go there, go precisely for this reason.

Tourists at the quiet river side town of Muong Knoi, Laos
The river and the hills surrounding it dictate the geography. As a tourist, one can just simply relax, swim in the river, indulge in some kayaking, spend time with the locals and understand their culture, eat some Laon special fish, soak in the green and bright Laon atmosphere and simply lose all connections with civilization. This is one of those places that will help you unwind completely.

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Sunday, March 24, 2013

Travel Photo: Riverside Beauty of Nong Khiaw, Laos

A lovely river side location that is surrounded by mountains and has the laidback Laos atmosphere. That is Nong Khiaw for you, tucked in the north east area of Laos. And one can feel and see its beauty when either arriving here by boat or walking on its long bridge.

Nong Khiaw River side action
One side of the river has the guest houses and restaurants facing the river and the other side has the village. One can go swimming here or kayaking in the fast waters, Trekking in the mountains is also a good option. Relaxation is the best bet here. The food here is also fantastic local fare.

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Saturday, March 23, 2013

Sapa to Luang Prabang over land

The journey from the mountains of Sapa in Northwest Vietnam to the Buddhist and French mix of Luang Prabang in North Laos is a very scenic and interesting journey if covered over land. A lot of people think that the border crossing through the mountains is very difficult, but I wish to let you all know that it is one of the easiest and most scenic border crossings in South East Asia. I just completed this 4 day journey today, but it was very easily spaced and I had enough time to enjoy the villages and small towns in the middle.

Below is an account of how I traveled, the approximate cost of travel, the duration and current conditions. Some blogs and sites provide the details, but they are either provide half the information or the information is outdated.

Travel Day 1: Sapa, Vietnam to Dien Bien Phu, Vietnam
One can either take a mini-bus that travels during the day or take a night sleeper bus that leaves at 9 PM. Both take approximately 10-11 hours. Personally, I took the mini-bus that leaves every day at 7:30 AM from Sapa. This mini-bus takes you to Lao Cai from where you are put onto another bus that takes you to Dien Bien Phu. The second bus will wait till the entire bus is full of people and people will be sitting everywhere. The sitting is a tight snug fit, but the views are fantastic. The journey is not difficult, but can get a little difficult sometimes due to the roads being constructed in some stretches and hence the entire area turning into a dustbowl. The mini-van stops for lunch enroute and it reaches Dien Bien by sunset.

Journey time: 10.5 hours
Cost of Travel: 240,000 VND or ~11.5 USD (ticket bought at Little Lotus Hotel, Sapa)
Planning to do: Stock some food and water with you. If you have motion sickness, take the pills. Pray that your bladder is large enough as they stop only a couple of times during the entire journey. Carry a handkerchief or nose cover to protect you from the dust. And ensure you put a rain cover for your backpack.
Mode of Transport: Bus
Difficulty of Journey: Medium (due to long duration and the dustbowl)

Day 1 Stay: Dien Bien Phu, Vietnam
Dien Bien Phu is a small town and most of its guest houses and hotels are located close to the bus station. Most of the hotels are in the range of 100,000 to 150,000 VND. I stayed in a double room and bargained hard to 80,000 VND or ~4 USD. You can change your Vietnamese currency to Laos Kip at any of the jewelry stores on the opposite side of the bridge (a 5 minute walk from the bus station) for a good exchange rate. The hotels, the next day’s bus and the Vietnam and Laos border will give you a lower exchange rate. There is a supermarket, many small shops and restaurants to stock up on your food supply and to enjoy dinner. If you wish, you can explore the history of Dien Bien Phu by staying an extra day, but most people give it a miss and head straight into Laos.

Cost of Night Stay: 80,000 VND or ~4 USD

Travel Day 2: Dien Bien Phu, Vietnam to Muang Khua, Laos
This is a very easy journey and border crossing and also very scenic. The Dien Bien Tourism bus leaves the Dien Bien Phu bus station every morning at 5:30 AM. Tickets can be purchased the previous day at the bus station for 115,000 VND. Seat numbers are mentioned on the ticket, but that is just for name sakes. Most of the bus is tourists who are entering Laos. There are 2 stops for breakfast and very early lunch. These breaks also double up as rest stops and pee breaks. After breakfast, the bus conductor will ask you if you want to exchange your VND for Lao Kip. He will give you 10,000 kip for 30,000 Vietnam dong. You can get a better rate if you can bargain. After this, comes the Vietnam border where you need to get your Vietnam exit stamp. Things are a breeze here and the bus leaves in 30 minutes after everyone has gone through the formality. While you wait for the others, you can rest, soak in the beauty or do whatever you please. In another 15 minutes comes the Laos border where you will get your temperature checked, your visa done and stamped. Everyone needs to fill out a form and visa is provided on arrival. There is an additional cost of 10,000 kip for providing you the visa. Again, your visa is stamped quickly after you pay the swine flu test fee and visa stamping fee of 8,000 kip or ~1 USD. The entire process might take a while as a lot of tourists apply for visa on arrival. I got my visa done at Hanoi and hence my stamping was done in a matter of minutes. I was reading a book in the cool green surroundings while I was waiting for the others. The border crossing here is very unlike an international border crossing and feels very much like a walk in a hill station. Once the bus crosses the Laos checkpoint, you will immediately notice the good roads of Laos, the distinctively cleaner air and the much greener surroundings of Laos. As you keep soaking in the views, it is a matter of time before you land at Muang Khua, a small hillside town in North East Laos.

Journey time: 6 hours
Cost of Travel: 115,000 VND or ~5.5 USD
Border Crossing Cost: Visa cost (depending on country), Visa processing charge of 10,000 kip, Swine Flu test of 3,000 kip and visa stamping charge of 5,000 kip.
Planning to do: Stock some food and water with you. If you have motion sickness, take the pills. Ensure you put a rain cover for your backpack. Carry Laos Kip. Carry 2 photographs for your visa.
Mode of Transport: Bus
Difficulty of Journey: Easy

Day 2 Stay: Muang Khua, Laos
There are a lot of guest houses to stay in this small town. Some guest houses even have a great river view. Most of the places charge 50,000 kip for a room. There are 2 working ATMs in this town and the banks owning these ATMS also provide foreign exchange services. The food in this town is fairly cheap. Internet cannot be found in this town’s guest houses and may be in a remote internet parlor. One can explore the village, the river side and the Wat that has murals that depict the Hindu epic Ramayana.

For those who do not want to stay here, there are buses from here to Udomaxay. Those buses take 5 hours for the journey. I didn’t want to do the bus journey and also wanted to refrain from doing too much of travel in one day. Plus, Muang Khua is a good time to relax and soak in the Laos atmosphere.

Cost of Night Stay: 25,000 kip or ~3 USD

Travel Day 3: Muang Khua, Laos to Nong Khiaw Laos
One doesn’t need to get up early on this day as the boats leave for Nong Khiaw at 9:30 AM and it is good enough to reach the boat pier by 9 AM to get the tickets. Tickets cost 120,000 kip per head. The boat is fairly comfortable, but the journey is very beautiful with the scenic nature keeping you company all throughout. It is a very interesting experience to be sitting in a motorboat while you cross Level 1 rapids on the Nam Ou river. This journey is definitely a highlight of this entire trip. One can pay 100,000 kip and get down at Muang Ngoi, a small river side village with basic facilities and lots of relaxation.

Journey time: 5.5 hours
Cost of Travel: 120,000 Kip or ~15.5 USD
Planning to do: Stock some food and water with you. Ensure you put a rain cover for your backpack. Carry your jacket with you as it will be nippy in the first half of the journey and your sun screen as it will be sunny in the second half of your journey.
Mode of Transport: Boat
Difficulty of Journey: Easy

Day 3 Stay: Nong Khiaw, Laos
You can see the river side guest houses from the river before you set foot on Nong Khiaw’s land and the best part is that you will fall in love with it. The place is relaxed, has great natural beauty, has lovely food and cheap stay. I so wanted to stay here for a longer duration, but had to continue further south to Luang Prabang as I had to meet someone. I will definitely return to this destination soon. One can do swimming, kayaking, trekking, relaxing, eat good Laos food, drink good Laos coffee and simply soak in the sun here.

Cost of Night Stay: 20,000 kip or ~2.5 USD

Travel Day 4: Nong Khiaw, Laos to Luang Prabang, Laos
There are 2 buses that leave Nong Khiaw every morning at 9 AM and 11 AM for Luang Prabang. Apart from these two public buses, there are about 4 to 5 mini buses that ply this route depending on how full they get. I took the public bus. In the morning, it is a 15 minute walk from the other side of the bridge (where all the guest houses are) to the bus station where you pay for your ticket at the counter. Seats are tight and may get cramped if you are tall like me, but there is enough space for you to wiggle your legs. The journey is fast and through winding roads. You will reach Luang Prabang as it gets warm in the day. A final shared tuk tuk will take you to your hotel in old Luang Prabang.

Journey time: 3.5 hours
Cost of Travel: 40,000 kip or USD 5.5 (for the public bus. 10,000 kip more for the mini bus) and 10,000 kip for the shared tuk tuk from the bus station to the old Luang Prabang area near the Mekong river.
Planning to do: Stock some food and water with you. Ensure you put a rain cover for your backpack. If you have motion sickness, take the mini bus.
Mode of Transport: Songathew or Mini Bus and Tuk Tuk
Difficulty of Journey: Easy

Summary of Travel from Sapa, Vietnam to Luang Prabang, Laos
Duration of Travel (by doing it the east way): 3 and a half days
Total cost of travel: 38 USD
Total cost of border crossing: 1 USD (visa charges extra; varies with country)
Total cost of stay: 9.5 USD (3 nights)
Oomph quotient: Very high (due to scenic natural beauty)
Difficulty Level: Easy (very less stress on the body due to many breaks and shorter journeys)
Highlights: Mountain views from Dien Bien Phu to Muang Khua and the boat cruise on the rapids from Muang Khua to Nong Khiaw

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Friday, March 22, 2013

Pinocchio Hotel, Sapa: Lovely Mountain Views from here

In Northwest Vietnam’s Sapa, there are a lot of hotels and guest houses to choose from and all of them are more or less located pretty close to each other. And all of these are located in the tourist belt that is close to markets, shops, restaurants and travel agencies. But, the main attribute of a hotel would be its mountain view. I was recommended the Pinocchio hotel before I arrived at Sapa and hence on arrival I stayed at this hotel for 3 nights and 3 days. Below review is based on my recent stay here.

Sunrise over the clouds, mountains and Sapa town of Vietnam

1) The best thing about Pinocchio Hotel is its lovely mountain views. Since Sapa can get pretty cold at night and in the early morning and hence it might be difficult to get out of your bed. Hence, this is one of those special places where you can see the Mount Fansipan and other mountain views from right inside the blanket.

2) The views of this place also come at a price of climbing the 6 floors every time you go out for food, drinks, hikes, exploration and basically anything for which you need to leave your room. While it is good exercise for your heart, sometimes it might be a tough one after a good meal.

3) This hotel has both dorms and rooms. The rooms are located on every floor, while the dormitory is on the 6th floor. Rooms are basic with one shared bathroom and one toilet for 6 members. The advertised cost per bed for the dorm is USD 5, but I bargained mine to USD 4.

4) The hotel comes with a in-house restaurant who dish out good breakfast and other dishes for a fair price.

5) The people running the hotel are pretty helpful and ensure you have a good stay at their hotel. To give you an example, a girl wanted to buy some local green tea and cardamom and one of hotel staff went along with the girl and bought her authentic stuff for a reasonable price.

6) Wi-fi is available at the hotel, though it is more accessible at the restaurant and in the 1st and the 2nd floor. The wifi is a bit sketchy above the 5th floor.

7) The dorms don’t have any fan and can get warm sometimes during the day, but it more or less stays warm even during windy and cold nights.

8) The place also offers travel and tour bookings, though I didn’t get to try it.

9) Like I said at the beginning of this post, like all hotels, even this hotel is close to the restaurants, the grocery stores, the main market, the shops, the square and all the booking agencies.

I loved the view of this place while I stayed here. The feeling of staying above the clouds is always special. While the hotel suits all kinds of travelers, the hotel’s dorm is good for backpackers and solo travelers.

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Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Guest Post: Yogyakarta-The Ultimate Insiders Guide to the City

For tourists exploring Indonesia, the laid back city of Yogyakarta in Central Java is not to be missed. Ruled by the Sultan of Yogyakarta and steeped in Javanese culture, this assured and bustling city thrives in the shadow of the countries most active volcano. It is a perilous existence, yet the city continues to attract students and tourists from all over the world.

Places to Stay
Most of the popular tourists hotels in Yogyakarta are centered on Malioboro road. Even though I'd normally steer clear of tourist hotspots, this part of the city has a nice feel to it and the best nightlife, a perfect combination. Regardless of where you decide to stay there are a huge variety of hotels to choose from in Yogyakarta and new places keep on popping up all of the time. So whether you’re on a tight budget or you want to rent a penthouse suite, there’s something here for everyone. However, it’s worth keeping in mind that during the holiday season Yogyakarta gets packed, so it’s worth booking ahead of time.

Getting Around
Getting around Yogyakarta is pretty easy. The city also has a great public transportation system with nice air-conditioned buses, but this is not my preferred option. Personally I would advise renting a motorbike, which costs about $5 a day. Granted this is not the ideal solution for a family! For short distances you can also get a skinny old man to cycle you around while you sit in the front of his rickshaw (it's actually quite romantic if you're travelling as a couple).

The Best Things To Do
Shopping, famous historical monuments, beautiful beaches and yes, the chance to climb the active volcano are all great things to do in Yogyakarta. Of these activities, only two of them can be done within the city limits, but all of them are within easy travelling distance.

Shopping
The most famous shopping mall in Yogyakarta is Malioboro, a corruption of the name Marlborough (a reference to the English Duke and not the American cigarettes), which Indonesians had difficulty pronouncing, but not smoking. Stalls spill out of the mall onto the high-street making this a bit of a shopping district and a great place to find bargains. If you’re looking for things to do in Yogyakarta and you want to buy some handicraft and other goods then you can’t go wrong with Bantul market, which is on the way to Parangtritis beach. The market and indeed the village are famous locally for the numerous artists that live here.

Historical Monuments
There are so many temples in and around Yogyakarta that it would be like sitting through a history lecture if I listed them all. Suffice to say the most famous of them are Borobodur and Prambanan. Both temples predate the arrival of Islam to the area. Prambanan is the older of the two and dedicated to the Hindu religion, while Borobodur is one for the Buddhists. Of the two sites I personally prefer Prambanan, which has slightly fewer tourists and more shade. For those of you who want to make a schedule of things to do in Yogyakarta, I can tell you that these two sites can be done in a day.

Beautiful Beaches
Everyone, including the guidebooks will tell you to go to Parangtritis; it's the Javanese equivalent of Bondi beach, except everyone is covered up and nobody is swimming. My advice is to miss this place and head for the little known Ngrenehan beach. Situated in a cove, this is the only beach around Yogyakarta where it is actually safe to swim. Make sure to try the fresh barbecue fish at any of the small huts near the waters edge. The food here is simple and delicious.

Climb Mount Merapi
Depending on how fit you are the climb will take you anywhere from three to six hours plus. The way down on the other hand took me just forty minutes and made me glad I have long legs. If you do make the journey, try and overnight in the cave at the top. It's perfectly sheltered, comes complete with a furry friend and offers you an incredible view of the valley.

Places to Eat
After weeks or months on the road you might just want a taste of home. If pizza and pasta sounds tempting to you then the best place to go in Yogyakarta is Nanna Mia. This place is a hit with the tourist crowd and has been busily expanding over the years since I first lived in Yogyakarta. If this doesn't tickle your fancy then no need to worry. The street is packed with small restaurants offering everything from vegan dishes to tender chicken kebabs with peanut sauce.

Things to Drink
Coffee Luwak is the caffeinated equivalent of gold. In a strange twist of human nature, people pay a lot of money to drink coffee beans that have been defecated by a shrew like animal (a Civet to be precise). Personally I put it down to a case of the Emperors New Clothes and some clever advertising. Still, if you're interested in having a cup of this delicacy then head to Malioboro Mall. The cafe at the top offers a great view of the city and cups Coffee Luwak for the bargain price of US$10. If you fancy something more down to earth, head round the corner to the Bintang Cafe, which is one of the cities most popular drinking spots.

Best kept Secret
I was in two minds about sharing the location of my favorite restaurant in Yogyakarta. In four years of living in Indonesia I have never once met another foreigner in this restaurant, which shows you how much of a secret this place is. The most famous traditional food in Yogyakarta is Gudek, a dish that takes 12 hours to prepare. While you can find Gudek just about anywhere, the best place I’ve found is a little traditional home restaurant on Jalan Profesor Dr. Soeporno. The restaurant has no name and only opens at 10 in the evening and closes as soon as it sells out, which happens very quickly. This might make it sound like you’re going to have problems finding it, but if you stop anyone on the street and ask for Gudek then they’ll point you in the right direction.

Nico Prins: A Traveller's JourneyAbout the Author: Nico Prins is a traveller who realized that life waits for no one. He is a blogger who wants to explore the world and a journalist who works on TV to make ends meet. You can keep up with his adventures on A Travellers Journey.

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Traveling by Campervan

Are you a person who loves to travel? If so, then there are numerous exotic and wonderful places for you to visit. Before you pick a destination, however, you should take the time to figure out what you want out of the vacation. If you are a beach lover, then a tropical paradise like Hawaii or the Bahamas is the place for you. If you are fascinated by history, then a trip to Rome or Greece might suit you. And if you are a person who loves to experience city life, you should consider places like Hong Kong, New York City, or Mumbai. In these locations you can explore new cultures, new people, and new food.

Some people, however, prefer to relax on their vacation, so they would rather go a quiet place in the countryside. Many people have little cottages or second homes where they temporarily stay and get away from the hustle and bustle of life. Others like to stay in hotels or in little bed and breakfast inns. But if you’re a person who has a passion for nature and loves to experience the wild first-hand, then camping may be your ideal vacation.

Camping may look simple at first but a person needs to be prepared in order to spend time in the wilderness. Necessities such as food, maps, a compass, sun screen, bug spray, etc. are a must! Some people like to really rough it out and spend the night in a tent or just a plain sleeping bag. But if you’re a traveler who still desires some comfort and technological commodities, then perhaps a camper is a more ideal choice to stay in. DriveNow is one example of a company that offers campervans of multiple sizes for many different locations to satisfy a traveler’s needs. If you are interested find out more here. If you decide to take a holiday to Australia for your next vacation, then take a look at DriveNow for all of your camper needs.

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Monday, March 18, 2013

Travel Photo: Sunset over Halong Bay

Halong Bay is one location that ensures your jaw drops when you see it in photographs. But, it is only when you travel there that you realize how difficult it is to get the right weather as the weather here is so unpredictable. One day, it will be nice, clear, bright and sunny and the other day it will be all misty and grey.

Sunset over Halong Bay, Vietnam
Thankfully, for me, it was one of those days when the evening cleared up leading to a great sunset over the bay. I got to see this stunning view from on top of Cannon Fort on Cat Ba Island. I really like the moored boats in the bay as they add variety to the mighty mountains in the background. Cannon Fort is one of those places where you can get mind blowing views of the Halong bay from at least 3 different directions.

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13 Random Things about Taiwan

I was in Taiwan for 4 days and got to explore a bit of Taipei and some of the northern countryside. Below are some interesting things I noticed while I was backpacking here.

1) Sugar cane juice is served hot here.

2) The people here are really devotional and one can see that through the sheer passion that they show at the Longshan temple in Taipei every evening.

3) Taiwan‘s high speed rail covers the entire country (north to south) in 90 minutes.

4) Porn CDs and sex toys are sold openly on the streets of Taipei.

5) Vegetarian food is very hard to get by in Taiwan.

6) Ice cream is mixed with brownies and nuts in a manner similar to how rice is mixed with veggies, oil and salt on a flat pan and then served to you in a cup.

7) Taiwan’s tallest building and the world’s second tallest building, the Taipei 101, gets more than 20,000 visitors every day.

8) The night markets in Taipei are for the locals with the exception of the Huaxei tourist night market. This is very unlike South East Asia where the night markets are primarily for the tourists.

9) It is very difficult to find tourists from the western world in Taiwan. Either, they are students or they are on work.

10) In the Maokong mountain area, you can find fried rice with tea leaves in it. I mean rice cooked with tea leaves.

11) The Taipei MRT is may be a tad faster than the Hong Kong MTR.

12) Taipei’s international airport has all the facilities of a big airport, but it has hardly a small percentage of the crowd that the other international airports have.

13) Stinky tofu, the stench of which you cannot tolerate a good distance away is a delicacy for the local people.

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Coldstone Creamery: Delicious Ice Cream in Taiwan

Ice creams are a hot favorite with most of us humans and it will definitely be liked when you add really creamy ice cream, nuts, your favorite brownie, biscuit or tart to it. That is how it goes with the Coldstone Creamery ice cream brand in Taiwan. They have a pretty interesting way of making ice cream and they are fairly pricey too, but they are totally worth it in every way.

Coldstone Creamery for the ice cream lover in Taiwan
Here are some interesting points for you to think about and let your mouth water:

1) They don’t give ice cream by the scoop. Rather, they do it by weight. 100g, 200g, etc.

2) Their ice cream has some interesting flavors and is extremely creamy.

3) Their biscuits have an interesting shape and come in various flavors: plain, chocolate, rose water, mint and more.

4) After measuring your ice cream, they throw it on a plate, throw the cakes, brownies and nuts into it and mix it like how you would mix fried noodles or fried rice in a hot pan. And finally, they scoop it all up and put it into the biscuit and give you a spoon to sample the finished product.

The very yummy Coldstone Creamery store in Taipei, Taiwan
The shop has many ice cream flavors and different sizes to suit everyone’s need and budget. But, the best way to sample their wares would be to take up on one of their ready made concoctions and just watch how it is made. You will definitely relish the final work product. If you need a second opinion, just watch the huge crowds in front of Coldstone Creamery outlets all over Taipei and it will become easier for you.

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KS Ngoc Khanh Hotel: A Super Budget Option on Cat Ba Island, Vietnam

Like any other island, Cat Ba island too has most of its hotels facing the water front. If they are not facing the water, they are on the beach and such ones are the luxury resorts, which are located on private beaches. The backpacker and budget type hotels are located on a road that runs perpendicular to the waterfront road and is right opposite the main boat jetty of Cat Ba Island. I found a great budget hotel on this strip and ended up staying for 4 nights. The below review is based on my recent stay here.

1) For its price, this place is a steal. For USD 4, you get a very large room with 2 double beds and a big window, a fan and an attached bathroom with hot shower facility. There is an option for AC in the room, for that you will have to pay another 4 USD.

2) Proximity is never a problem for anywhere on Cat Ba as it is an extremely small place. All the restaurants, grocery stores and travel agencies are either on this road, the road parallel to it or on the waterfront road.

3) The hotel is run by a family who hardly speak any English, but they try and answer your questions by using Google Translate on their computer. They do not provide any booking services, but sell water and beer.

4) They provide a large pool table at the rate of 40,000 VND for one hour.

5) If you take the corner rooms, not only are the rooms much larger, but you get a hill view too.

6) The main problem with this place is that the wi-fi has pretty weak reception in the rooms and even the speed is less. The speed is less primarily due to the fact that the son of the hotel owner is busy streaming videos on the computer downstairs. If you tell him to go easy on the streaming, the speed will get better.

7) It is a belief in Vietnam that if you are a man, then you have to smoke. Hence, you will always find a cloud of smoke near the reception and at the pool table. Thankfully, this doesn’t affect the stay in the rooms.

For its price and room size, the rooms here are a steal. They are perfect for budget travelers. The only problem being slightly slow internet connectivity.<>/span

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Camilia Hotel, Hanoi: A Review

Most of the tourists who come to Hanoi try and stay around the Hoan Kiem lake. While the hotels close to the lake have higher decibel levels, the ones slightly away from it have lower decibel levels. On my first stint in Hanoi, I stayed at the Hanoi City Hostel and when I returned to Hanoi, I stayed with them again for a day, but since they were sold out for the next day, they put me up at the Camilia Hotel, a couple of streets away. I got to stay here only for a night and this review is based on that short experience of mine.

1) The hotel is in a quiet neighborhood and hence the decibel levels are really low.

2) The hotel rooms are just average. It is not great or bad at the same time. The rooms are a bit damp.

3) The reception is very cheerful and always eager to help you out. But, if you book anything from them, then be ready to pay a premium.

4) The Hoan Kiem lake is a 10 minute walk away and so are the markets. The restaurants are much closer and all around.

5) The place has free wi-fi and offers laundry service.

This is a hotel that is good as a 2nd and 3rd option for budget travelers in Hanoi. May be, just about worth your money if you get a good deal.

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Tokyo Curry: Some of the best curries in Taipei


Taipei has come delightful cuisines and foods, but it is very difficult to find any vegetarian options here as like Hong Kong, the concept of vegetarianism is very limited here. Hence, I was very excited when I found a couple of vegetarian dishes at Tokyo Curry, one of the restaurants in Taipei City Hall


‘s food court. And that was when my friend exclaimed, ‘I have head about this brand. They are supposed to be one of the best in Taiwan for their curries’. I didn’t need a recommendation, but it was good to get one.

Tokyo Curry - Delightful curries in Taipei, Taiwan
I ordered a vegetable curry while my friend ordered a Chicken curry. The dish smelt really good when it arrived. In fact, we could smell it all through the restaurant. The signature dish of the restaurant is their beef curry. Our dish was of a healthy proportion and was enough to satiate the appetite of any backpacker. The curry was simply unbelievable and definitely one of the better foods that I have tasted in South East Asia so far. I am unable to place the exact ingredients of the curry, but it had some of the Indian spices in it, apart from having something else. The food is great here and the place is chic too. The only problem is that they run full more or less all through the week and hence you might have to wait a little bit to get your seat in this restaurant.

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Sunday, March 17, 2013

Nang Tam: A Great Vegetarian Restaurant in Hanoi

It has a Cinderella like story, but it is based in Vietnam. In this story, the king marries Cinderella, but some witch sends her out to the woods. She escapes and works in a remote village where her vegetarian dishes are a hit with the locals. The king, hearing about this famous eating joint, comes in disguise, finds his wife and takes her back to his kingdom. The girl’s name is Nang Tam and thus this restaurant, which believes in this fairy tale, has named it Nang Tam after the girl in the fairy tale.

The restaurant also believes that vegetarian cooking should be in such a way that it resembles meat so that meat eaters feel like they are they are getting their daily meat intake. Thus, the menu would have a lot of chicken, beef, pork, fish, squid and other meat names, but in reality they are all vegetarian and are made either from tofu or mushrooms. They are prepared in such a way that they exactly look and texture wise feel like meat.

If you are won Hanoi and need a local Vietnamese vegetarian option, I would recommend Nang Tam. They are located on Trang Hung Dao road in Hoan Kiem District and near the Hanoi train station. Like traditional Vietnam style, they have both set menu and alacarte. The typical set menu would include rice, lots of veggies and definitely lots of tofu and mushroom and a veggie soup that has a lot of lemon grass in it. You don’t get Vietnamese Green Tea (Tra Vietnam) with it, but I would definitely recommend you order that with your food.

I hope your vegetarian craves are met here while you are in Hanoi.

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Thursday, March 14, 2013

Lost my Temper at Lan Ha Bay (Halong Bay), Vietnam

I am closing in on  four months on my south east asia backpacking trip and today was the first day I lost my temper. Generally, I am very patient, but my patience ran out of all control at Lan Ha bay, which is next to the world famous Halong Bay. And the reason was simple and pure cheating.

We took a boat cruise to the Lan Ha bay and after kayaking, we decided to have lunch at the floating restaurant who rented us the Kayaks. When we asked for the price of a meal, we were told that it is 30,000 VND. We agreed on the price and had our lunch. When we were paying 30,000 VND, the restaurant guy says that we need to pay 50,000 VND for our lunch and that is the price he had conveyed to us earlier. 30,000 or 50,000 VND doesn’t make a big difference for me, but what makes the huge difference is quoting a price for a meal and when the meal is over, then increasing it.  I know that they get food from the island and supplies are expensive, but whatever is the reason, he cannot change a price he quoted 15 minutes back. He can quote 10 times more for all I care, but not go back on his word. I paid only because I didn’t want a poor family to suffer even more, but since I absolutely didn’t like the fact that I got cheated, I just could not control it and had to vent it out.

A similar experience happened with our boat guy who wanted to make more money and said he had paid some entrance fees to some island we visited. All this was a scam as there was no entry for that island and he had no receipt to support it. We didn’t pay here, but again was unhappy at the scams happening in one of Vietnam’s biggest tourism money generators.

And to top this all, I found Halong bay to be one of the dirtiest places in Vietnam and also the most beautiful. It is beautiful when you see the karsts from a distance, but when you are on the water, all you see is rubbish, cigarette buds and oil floating on the water. Sometimes, I think how long will Mother nature tolerate all this abuse.

I think why are the people resorting to cheating when they are so poor and badly need the money. I fail to find an answer. But, I will have to say that the people of Vietnam (generalizing from the tourist district) are possibly the biggest cheats I have come across in Vietnam. They just do not want to do anything legally or ethically. I have so many instances to support this fact. Most of the times, I have stayed clear of them scams, but others have got caught in their net. I don’t know how other tourists tolerate this. May be, they are more patient than me or they simply don’t care. But, I am now contemplating on not visiting Vietnam and especially Halong bay again in spite of both Vietnam and Halong Bay being very beautiful and diverse for a travel photographer like me.

It is very rare for me to lose my temper when I am out traveling, since I absolutely adore traveling and visiting different places. But, when I did lose my temper, it meant, I couldn’t tolerate the nonsense any more.

To all you travelers to Vietnam, BEWARE and STAY AWARE of your tourist connections in Vietnam. The people of Vietnam need to realize that we, the tourists, support their economy in a big way. Even if they cannot respect us, they should not abuse us.

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Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Tarts, Cookies and more baked items from Macau

You are in Asia and attached to the People’s Republic of China. You are in one of the top gambling destinations of the world, but apart from gambling, tourists visit this country for two things. One, a dose of its Portuguese past and the other to taste its unbelievably good Portuguese baked items, which are a legacy left behind by the Portuguese.

The famous egg tarts of Macau
And in line with this legacy, one can see a baking frenzy all over Macau, a Special Administrative Region of China, like Hong Kong. A one hour ferry ride from Hong Kong brings you here and a 10 minute bus ride brings you to the Portuguese old town where you can smell the goods before you see it. As you follow your nose, you end up crossing an unbelievably large number of bakery shops, some small and some really large. They are all doing brisk business as the baked items of Macau are a hot favorite with tourists and locals alike.

Baked Items and Cookies make for great souvenirs from Macau
The tourists prefer to carry huge boxes of freshly baked cookies and crepe rolls as souvenirs from Macau after a round of tasting. But, if you just want to taste the goods and want to know the best one here, then it is undoubtedly the Portuguese Egg Tarts that are so yummy. The fresh and hot egg tarts are so good that you can just complete your entire meal with egg tarts. Apart from the egg tarts, you have to eat the egg baked rolls, the wafer thin crepe rolls and the excellent assortment of cookies that range from pecan nuts to walnuts to almonds and more.

Famous Koi Koi Bakery of Macau
Whatever you do in Macau, don’t miss out on sampling its excellent Portuguese baked items. If you do miss it, you have not visited Macau. If you want to know a reputed brand for sampling these goods, look up Koi Kei bakery, the largest and the most reliable chain in Macau.

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Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Weird and wonderful beaches

The perfect beach holiday typically involves stretches of white sand, crystal-clear waters and cocktails with little umbrellas. Of course, not all beaches are idyllic perfection; some are outstandingly weird and wonderful. You may not be able to sunbathe and swim, but these beaches are well worth a visit.

Glass Beach, California
Glass Beach, California This beach pays true testament to the incredible force and sheer skill of Mother Nature. Located in Fort Bragg, California, this beach was unceremoniously used as an official dumping ground until the late 1960’s. Over the following decades, the sea filtered the rubbish and softened the glass, creating millions of multicoloured pebbles.

Chandipur Beach, India Chandipur is a distinctly unique beach. At high tide, the sea can recede up to an astounding 5 kilometres. When the sea retreats the ocean bed appears, revealing all manner of natural habitats. This beach allows for some serious exploration and you can expect to find beautiful shells, driftwood and tiny red crabs.

Giant’s Causeway, Ireland The Giant’s Causeway is a fascinating place, shrouded in legend and intrigue. The landscaped is scarred by hexagonal basalt columns which were created by an ancient volcanic eruption. The remarkable columns are so uniform and precise it’s hard to believe they were not carved by human hands.

Punalu’u Beach, Hawaii The white sands of many Hawaiian beaches are forgotten at Punalu’u as ancient volcanic activity has created striking jet black sands. Visitors to this beach may be treated to a rare sight of the endangered Hawksbill and Green turtles, who often call this bay home. The water is cold and very rocky so swimming is strongly discouraged.

Cow Beach, India First Snakes on a Plane, now Cows on a Beach, but this is no Hollywood Blockbuster. It’s not uncommon for visitors to this beach to have an encounter with a cow or two. Despite the bovine presence, this beach is extremely popular with tourists on cheap holidays thanks to its beautiful sands, lush palm trees and enticing waters.

Note:The photo in this post belongs to: http://www.flickr.com/photos/johnkay/6952135282/

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Monday, March 11, 2013

Laos Visa from Hanoi, Vietnam

Getting a tourist visa to Laos from Hanoi in Vietnam is like the easiest thing in the world. I had read a lot of outdated and conflicting reviews and hence would like to add the current state of affairs for the assistance of the global traveler.

First, let me tell you my current state and plan. I am planning to enter Laos from the Sapa side and that means I enter Laos from Dien Bien Phu city at the Tay Trang international checkpoint. My hotel and the embassy recommended me to take my visa in advance if I enter from this checkpoint. If you are entering from the very popular Cau Treo international checkpoint, then you don’t need to apply for a visa in advance and can get it on arrival easily. It is supposed to be easy on some of the other checkpoints, though I have not collected any information on that front as it was not relevant to my travel plan.

Laos visa from Hanoi, Vietnam
I chose to get my visa done in advance to help me chose my port of entry at the last moment and prevent scams at the border. If you wish to apply for your Laos visa from Hanoi, you should go to the Laos embassy at 22, Tran Binh Trong and about 15 minutes walk from the old quarter of Hoan Kiem in Hanoi. Once you enter the small embassy, you will find the visa section, which is a very small room office. In this room, you will find out the visa costs for the various countries. The standard time for processing the visa is 3 days, 2 USD extra if you wish to get it done in 2 days and 5 USD extra if you wish to get it done on the same day.

In terms of documents, all you need is your passport (valid for 6 months with 2 empty pages) and 1 recent passport size colour photograph. The officer at the visa counter will give you the visa form, which you need to fill and sign. The visa form asks for port of entry, address in Laos and other information, but it is okay if you do not know it at the time of applying the visa.

I applied for the same day visa and was ready to pay USD 5 extra for that. Since I am from India, my visa fee is USD 40 for Laos. Once I gave my visa form, passport and photograph, I was told to wait for 15 minutes and that is how much time it took me to get my visa stamped on my passport. Payment needs to be made in US Dollars and not in Vietnamese Dong. The visa is valid for a duration of 2 months from date of stamping and is valid for a period of 30 days from day of entry. The embassy is open only on Mon-Fri 8:30 AM to 11:30 AM and 1:30 PM to 3:30 PM. Make sure you head there in the morning half if you wish to apply for your visa on the same day.

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Sunday, March 10, 2013

City Bear Hostel: Great Budget Home close to Taipei 101

There are two tourist popular tourist hubs in Taipei. One is near the Taipei 101 in the commercial Xinyi district and the other is located next to the Longshan temple and the Huaxei night market. It is here at either of these two places that one can find budget accommodation. But, sometimes, even these budget accommodation leave a lot to be desired and hence I went the Airbnb way at Taipei and booked myself at the City Bear Hostel located close to the Taipei city hall station in the Xinyi district. Below is review is based on my recent experience of staying 4 days and 3 nights here.

1) The city bear hostel is family run and feels every bit like a home. The family members try and accommodate all your needs and help you with all the local information. They even allowed me to stay a good 11 hours more in their common area while I waited for my early morning flight.

2) The rooms are good for the USD 26 per night price with air conditioning, attached bathroom, hot shower and all the important amenities. But, the rooms are definitely small for 2 people irrespective of the size of the people. Even the bathroom is small, but I am sure a budget traveler cares more about the room than the bathroom.

3) The place also comes with free wi-fi, free laundry, free microwave, free refrigerator and drinking water. This comes in very handy if you plan to stay here for a while.

4) Since the place is family run, you can negotiate with the owner for a better price depending on your duration of stay. The owner is known to give discounts for longer durations.

5) The best attribute about this place is that is situated in a quiet neighborhood, but still provides great access to the restaurants, the Taipei city hall MRT station (5 mins by walk), Taipei 101 (15 minutes by walk), Night markets (15 mins by walk) and the shopping district of Xinyi (10 mins by walk).

6) Since the place is located in a local neighborhood, it allows you to understand the local culture and even interact with the locals on a regular basis.

7) This place is a hostel, but doesn’t come with the aura of a hostel with its bar, night life and all. This is great if you do not like loud music bothering you in the night, but a problem if you like to let your hair down in the evening. For those who wish to party, some of the famous night clubs of Taipei are also located close by.

8) The hostel is easy to approach from the international airport and takes about 70-80 minutes worth commute by bus.

9) All the tourist attractions of Taipei – Taipei 101, Maokong Mountain and Gondola ride, Taipei Zoo, Longshan Temple, Huaxei Night Market, Ximending Shopping district and others are either short walks away or at most a 20-30 minute MRT ride away from the city hall MRT station.

I would definitely recommend this place to all kinds of budget travelers, students and backpackers going to Taipei, but do keep in mind that the rooms can be tight if you are a tall person.

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Saturday, March 09, 2013

My Son: Hinduism in Vietnam

Today, Hinduism is a religion that is more or less limited to India, but in yester years, it had spread its wings far into the east. Sri Lanka, Thailand, Cambodia, Myanmar, Indonesia and even Vietnam had prominent and successful Hindu kingdoms. The eastern most Hindu kingdom that ever existed was at My Son in Central Vietnam. It is perhaps the longest inhabited archaeological site in Indo china, but a large portion of its architecture was destroyed by US carpet bombing during a single week of the Vietnam war.

Beautiful green ruins of My Son Kingdom - a UNESCO World Heritage Site
This UNESCO World Heritage Site, is a cluster of Hindu temples in ruins that are dedicated to the worship of Lord Shiva, who was known under various local names, the most important of which is Bhadresvara. It was sometime between the 4th and the 13th centuries that this Indian Hinduism culture developed on the coast of contemporary Vietnam. This was the Champa kingdom and My Son was its religious and political capital. Today, the entire site is located in the Duy Xuyen district of Quang Nam province in Central Vietnam and is located about 50 kilometers south of the tourist hot spot of Hoi An, which is another UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Archaeology folks are still trying to put together the blocks of the My Son Hindu Temples
The My Son monuments are considered unique and without equal in Southeast Asia. It is an exceptional example of cultural exchange, with an indigenous society adapting to external cultural influences, notably the Hindu art and architecture of the Indian sub-continent. And the Champa kingdom was an important phenomenon in the political and cultural history of Southeast Asia, which is vividly illustrated by the ruins of My Son.

Beautiful Apsaras dancing at My Son, Vietnam
The My Son temple complex is regarded as one of the foremost Hindu temple complexes in Southeast Asia and is the foremost heritage site of this nature in Vietnam. It is often compared with other historical temple complexes in Southeast Asia such as Borobudur of Java in Indonesia, Angkor Wat of Cambodia, Bagan of Myanmar and Ayutthaya of Thailand.

Weather and War Beaten statue at My Son, Vietnam
This extinct civilization that exists today in ruins looks magnificent against the green mountains and on closer inspection makes you realize that not only the views, but the entire civilization behind it in its hey days was very grand. One can get a good idea about the place, the culture and its rich history by visiting the museum of cham culture at Danang and then the My Son temple complex to understand the depth of architecture, the influence of Hinduism and the seamless merging with the Cham culture.

Traditional Dance at My Son, Vietnam
This place, restored and resurrected by French scholars before and after the war can be viewed in different clusters. A and B form the largest of the temples in the complex and house a lot of shrines to worship Shiva, his consorts, Ganesha and more. The other smaller temples like C, D, E, F, G, H, K are still being restored or have been damaged beyond recognition. One can see a lot of bomb craters in their space.

Traditional Music at My Son, Vietnam
To enter the My Son sanctuary one needs to purchase a ticket that costs 100,000 VND or ~5 USD. This ticket allows you to explore the entire temple complex and see a complimentary dance of the Cham culture performed by the local artists living here. Days can be really warm and hence most tourists visit during the early morning or late afternoon hours. A complete visit, including the Cham dance program should take you 3 to 4 hours.

Traditional Apsara Dance at My Son, Vietnam
The sanctuary does not provide you with an audio guide, but you can hire an external guide to help you understand the history. If you are a fan of Hinduism or would like to see the remains of an ancient civilization, then you should visit My Son. After all, it is a remarkable architectural ensemble that developed over a period of ten centuries and presents a vivid picture of spiritual and political life in an important phase of the history of Southeast Asia.

Champa Kingdom Ruins at My Son, Vietnam
I would totally recommend it based on my recent visit here. The UNESCO World Heritage site that includes the temple sanctuary, the Apsara dance, the lovely countryside with paddy fields and the lush green experience makes this a must-see destination in Vietnam.

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Vila Universal: Manageable Budget Hotel in Macau’s Portuguese Quarter

If you want to live lavishly in Macau, you should stay at the Venetian or other five star hotels that give you easy access to the top designer brands, the casinos and a rich experience. If you wish to explore the Portuguese area of Macau and just wish to drop into the five stars for their shows and casinos, then you need to stay inside the old town to prevent you from walking too much. While there are many places in the old town, most of them are obscenely expensive for the quality of accommodation and the service they provide. The only plus is ease of access to the main tourist attractions. I stayed in the Portuguese old town too at the Vila Universal hotel on Rua de Ferdinande, a short walk away from Senado Square. Below review is based on my recent stay of 2 days and 2 nights here.

1) The rooms in the hotel are big with all typical hotel facilities like large beds, air conditioner, hot shower, attached bathroom, television, etc., but I did not like the fact that the rooms had no windows, the corridor was stuffy, the bathroom was extremely slippery and th shower handle was missing.

2) The other problem here is that the people running the hotel do not speak English and you have to use Google translate for every small bit of conversation.

3) I had to book into this hotel as the other hotels were quoting higher prices and the ones that were cheap were really bad.

4) The plus points about this hotel is its location, location and location. It is a short walk from most of the big casinos, the Portuguese old town attractions, restaurants, famous bakery cafes and shops are all just a short walk away and the free shuttle buses to the Venetian and other hotels on Taipa island stop very close to the street where the hotel is located.

5) The place has decent internet connectivity and don’t have a night time cap in spite of it being a family run hotel.

6) The hotel has no restaurant of their own, but many restaurants are located close to it. In fact, at least 3 of them are located right opposite it.

Personally, I would not stay at this place as my first option. I would always look to find a better place that is worth the money. If you do not have any other options, then this is a manageable option.

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