If you are taking an inexpensive tour to Burma during April then do check out the Water Festival celebrations. Held all over the country in April, this is an excellent opportunity to have fun and see Burmese culture up close. Chances are you’ll be invited to join in the festivities in some places. Here is an outline of the Thingyan festivities and what to expect.
Whilst water is being thrown around in the steaming hot streets this is a spiritual event for the Burmese. It is believed that Thagyamin, the king of the Nat or spirit world visits earth during the three day celebration. He comes to count up and evaluate the good deeds done by the Burmese as well as some of the wrongdoings. The Burmese place sacred leaves and flowers outside their homes to welcome the Nat so if you are on a Burma tour at this time you’ll see these decorative displays. On the morning of the third day the Nat departs and this marks the start of the New Year. To mark the occasion young Burmese wash the hair of their elders and images of Buddha are washed in a ceremony. Monks are given special food as their alms collection. If you are on an inexpensive Burma vacation at this time do take time to observe the celebrations wherever you are.
The Fun Starts
Thingyan is mainly associated with fun these days even though there is some spiritual significance to the event. As a visitor on a tour to Burma, dress respectfully, but in clothes that are not going to be a problem if they get damaged. Be particularly careful with cameras and jewellery in case they get wet. If you walk into town you’ll see stages or pandal already erected with huge water barrels. Anyone wandering about is likely to receive a bucket of cold water thrown over them- and all in the spirit of fun of course. On a hot day it is quite refreshing and meant with the very best of intentions. If you are on a guided tour of Burma you may find yourself watching dancing, singling and theatre in the street whilst dodging the water. Satire is very common during the raucous street theatre celebrations.
During Thingyan a lot of cultural taboos are loosened in Burma. Women can “capture” men and blacken their faces with soot or oil. They can even tie them up and dunk their heads in water, as part of the celebrations, and make them dance. If you want to break down barriers and get to interact with the locals then smile a lot and join in. Of course you’ll get wet but this is an annual celebration that you just can’t miss. When a cheap Burma tour occurs at this time of year then get ready to expect the unexpected and to participate. If you don’t want to get wet you can always stay in your hotel. For once, let your hair down and laugh with the locals by celebrating Thingyan.
If you are planning a Burma trip then knowing a little of the history of this nation will give an insight into the country. Burma’s history transcends several millennia and involves a number of kingdoms. The country we know as Burma is located in South Asia and lies between Thailand, Laos and China, and across the Bay of Bengal from India. It has many different ethnic groups and a population of 52.8 million.
As you’re planning your Burma vacation, knowing some of the history will only enrich your Burma tour.
For centuries the area known as Burma was ruled by a number of ethnic tribes. Archaeologists believe humans have been here since 75,000 BC. There are paintings in the Padah-Lin caves dating back 13,000 years. At least 2500 years ago Burma lay on a major trade route between China, India and the Middle East.
Four major precolonial ethnic groups dominate Burma. The Pyo arrived from the Tibeto Burman Plains in the 1st century BC and established the first kingdom in Central Burma. In the 6th century BC the Rakhaing formed their empire around the Bay of Bengal. The Bamar, also known as Burmans, came from the Eastern Himalayas in the 8th or 9th century, dominating the Pyu and establishing what is now most of the heart of Burma. The Mon came from South East Asia and settled by the Ayerawaddy River Delta lowland areas. Although there was initial conflict with the Bamar, they established what is known as the Golden Land around Thaton.
The First Three Burmese Empires
Most people on a Burma tour visit the city of Bagan. This was formed in 849 AD but it would be 200 years before it entered its golden period under King Anawratha. With the adoption of Buddhism and conquering the Mon, a creative period commenced. His descendants did not have his vision and subsequent conflict here led to the collapse of Bagan in 1315 and the development of the Second Empire in the 14th and 15th century.
Trips to Burma often go to Inwa, in Shan State. This was the capital of the Second Empire in 1636 and its isolation from the sea led to the British being able to defeat Burma. It was led by a series of Taungoo kings until King Bayinnaung came to the throne. He united the tribes into a unified Burma.
The third and final Burmese dynasty occurred when Inwa was overcome in 1752. King Alaungpaya fought wars with Thailand, destroying Ayutthaya and forcing the Siamese to retreat to Bangkok. He believed he was invincible. And the conflicts led to tension with the British in the region.
Anyone going on a Burma vacation will see the natural resources the country has. These attracted the attention of colonial powers such as the British. During the First, Second and Third Anglo Burmese Wars the country was overrun and conquered. First the British took Tenasserim and Rakhaing in 1824. Then Southern Burma and Yangon fell in 1853. Mandalay and Northern Burma were the last to fall in 1885. The last conflict was also known as the Teak War as it is reputed to have been fought over the rich wood resources. King Thibaw was exiled to India. The British allowed the Kachin, Chin and Shan tribes to remain autonomous in Northern Burma.
From 1885 Burma became part of British India and saw imports and trading accelerate. Many colonial style buildings can still be seen today during inexpensive trips to Burma.
In the early part of the 20th century nationalism began to surface led by Buddhist monks and students. Students called themselves Thakin or Master as they believed themselves to be the masters of Burma. One Thakin was Aung San, who was expelled from university in 1936. Growing demands for independence forced the British to make concessions.
World War II
During your Burma tour, you will be able to see historical places and learn about events during this genre. General Aung San led the fight to independence for Burma. He was at Rangoon University where he led the Thirty Comrades Movement, seeking independence. When World War II broke out in Asia, Aung San received military training in Japan. In 1941 he returned to Burma with the Japanese and drove out the British in 1942. Ill treatment by the Japanese Army led Aung San to join the Allies. Their help, with the Chindit forces, helped drive out the Japanese from Burma.
In 1947 Aung San met with the British government. The Panglong Agreement was signed by the ethnic groups giving them a 10 year deal to secede but Aung San and six colleagues were assassinated. In February 1948 Burma declared independence but the country rapidly fell into conflict and decline. General Ne Win took charge in 1958. In 1962 a student protest was suppressed by the military and two years later all opposition parties were banned. Ne Win began to isolate Burma from the rest of the world.
In 1988 civil unrest grew in Burma with over 3000 protesters killed by the military. In 1990 Aung San Suu Kyi, the daughter of General Aung San won a nationwide election but the ruling military refused to give up their power. Aung San Suu Kyi was placed under house arrest. Sanctions were placed against Burma by several nations including the USA and Canada in 1997. Further protests and instability occurred and in 2006 the ruler General Than Shwe moved the capital from Yangon to Nay Pyi Taw.
Aung San Suu Kyi had been under house arrest for several years and in 2010 she was released. This marked the beginning of a new era for Burma. Tours to Burma are on the increase as people discover the rich history this nation has to offer.
We find that many people want to know what there is for children to do before they book their China tours. A China vacation is always child-friendly, children will always get a warm welcome from the locals no matter where you travel in China. If your trip is going to take in Xi'an a few miles to the North of China's capital city – here are the most child friendly destinations in the city:
The City Walls
OK, the city walls are probably not suitable for the youngest of children but if they're old enough to jump on a bicycle this is one of China's best day trips. You can travel the entire length of the 14 kilometer city wall and you'll be able to take in views of the entire city. If that's not quite exciting enough – you can hire a tandem bike and share the experience. If you're not up to cycling you can always hire an electric cart instead...
The Terracotta Warriors
There's no denying that kids get as much of a buzz out of Xian's most famous tourist attraction as adults do. There's something enthralling about this enormous pottery army and the horses, chariots, etc. that supported them. Many people book a China tour just to see this place and we can't argue with that – it's one of our favorite places in China too.
Xian's Muslim Quarter
Xian's main mosque is an incredible sight and very much worth including in your China vacation itinerary. Once you've taken a tour of the mosque and grabbed as many photos as you can then it's very much worth taking a walk through the old Muslim quarter of the city.
China's Muslims are a friendly bunch and there's a huge number of street stalls at which you can pick up a bite to eat (Xinjiang Food is delicious and very well represented here) or a bargain for a souvenir.
You should encourage your children to get involved in haggling for goods here – it will be particularly well received by vendors and possibly result in your getting a better bargain than if you'd haggled alone.
The Tang Dynasty Paradise
This is billed as a “cultural theme park” but in reality it's a pleasant garden where you can see plenty of performances of local arts. There's often a team from the Shaolin Temple to be found demonstrating their martial arts' prowess which should please many children; for those who prefer the gentler side of the performing arts we recommend checking out the stilt walkers. Stop in the middle of the park and watch the interesting “performing fountain” too.
This a pleasant aquarium/science park and you should only visit if you have time after all the other items we've mentioned above. You may find it difficult to fit into your China tour and as there are probably better aquariums and science museums in the United States it shouldn't be a priority. However, it is very child friendly and there are activity packs especially for children to make their visit a pleasant one.
A Vietnam vacation wouldn't be the same without at least exploring a little of the Vietnam war era history. There are plenty of options to do this on a tour of Vietnam but one of the most pleasant places to see on your trip is the Reunification Palace in Ho Chi Minh City. It's easy to travel to from just about anywhere in the city and it's a very unusual slice of Vietnam's past.
About The Reunification Palace
On the 30th of April 1975; the government of South Vietnam toppled on this very spot. Tanks which had made the long hard trip down from the North smashed through the wrought iron gates that fenced off the Reunification Palace from the rest of the city. The war was over. There would be no more American tours of duty in Vietnam.
General Minh, the leader of the South Vietnam government watched as a North Vietnamese soldier opened a VC flag and hung it from the balcony. He and his cabinet waited to surrender and announced to the VC officers that they'd been waiting to transfer power to them. The VC replied that there was no need; "You cannot give up what you do not have."
The original building on the site was constructed in 1868 and was a residence for the French colonial governor. Over time it was extended to become Norodom Palace. When the colonial power was ousted the palace became the official residence of Ngo Dinh Diem. The president of Southern Vietnam. He was not a popular person in Vietnam. In fact he was so unpopular that his own air force made a special trip to the palace to blow it up with him inside.
The president took the hint and went on vacation while the palace was rebuilt; though the new plans included a bunker to protect him from further assassination attempts. Travel turned out to be a bad solution for Dinh and he was shot by his own men in 1963. The reconstruction of the palace was completed in 1966 and was quickly renamed "Independence Palace".
It's one of the finest examples of 1960s architecture anywhere in Vietnam and as you'll see during a tour of the building – it's one of the most interesting buildings you'll see anywhere in the world. There's a certain 007 feel to the place; with a helipad on the roof (next to the disco) and even a card-playing room for Baccarat.
You see, the palace itself has remained unused since the fall of Saigon and most of the interior is exactly the same as that day. There are occasional meetings held on the grounds but otherwise it's been perfectly preserved as a reminder of the folly of the South. The highlight of a vacation visit to the Reunification Palace is in the basement where you can see the archaic telecoms equipment, some truly classic cars and best of all a map of Vietnam's war time tunnel network.
You can’t escape Cambodia’s past during a tour of the country. Once you take a trip off the beaten path you’ll soon realize that Cambodia has plenty of headaches left over from the days of the Khmer Rouge. One major problem in the nation is landmines. Your Cambodia vacation should avoid any landmines in real life but there are millions of mines still left in rural locations around the country. If you should travel in backwoods Cambodia – if you see a mine warning sign it’s a good idea to heed it and stick to the marked and clearly travelled paths only.
About the Landmine Museum
You’ll need to travel out of Cambodia’s second city for about 30-40 minutes in a tuk-tuk to find the place and it’s best to combine a visit to the museum with a trip to Banteay Srey (the most remote of the Angkor temples). It’s on the main highway but you’ll want to keep your eyes peeled for it as Cambodia’s not very good at providing signposts signaling forthcoming attractions.
The museum itself is run by Aki-Ra who has an incredible life story which resulted in him being nominated as CNN’s man of the year in 2010. His story begins when he was forced to join the military as a child soldier under the Khmer Rouge. He would tour Cambodia laying mines for the Pol Pot led forces. Then when the regime toppled he was conscripted into the Vietnamese army and he was forced to do more of the same.
When he finally left the army; he would travel back to his home a broken man. He was ashamed of what he had done and he wanted to put it right. So he began his one man crusade to demine Cambodia one land mine at a time. This was no vacation outing; Aki-Ra taught himself to disarm landmines and had no training or protective equipment at all. He journeyed all round Cambodia and began to collect the disarmed ordinance for a museum. He wanted to show people why this should never happen again.
Aki-Ra is still heavily involved in the demining effort in Cambodia; though fortunately he has now received UN training and protective equipment to ensure his safety.
The landmine museum itself is a series of exhibits about the evils of the Khmer Rouge and the process for demining. In the center of the museum on a small pond there is a silo of some of the many mines that Aki-Ra has dug from the soil during his trips round the country.
If that wasn’t incredible enough; Aki-Ra has also started an orphanage on the site. Visitors are not allowed to visit the orphanage (it can be traumatic for the children) but you may bump into one of the children in the museum itself. The orphans he takes in are the children that have the least hope of care elsewhere in Cambodia; AIDS victims and other sick children.
The proceeds from your visit go to the orphanage and to demining charities in the country making a visit to the Landmine Museum one of the best ways to give something back to the community you’re visiting.
One of the great shames of a China vacation is that it can never last long enough. It's impossible for any China tour to take in the entire width and breadth of the nation; it would take a lifetime of dedicated travel in China to do that. That means it's all too common for people to have to miss something out on their China trip. However; when it comes to the food you don't have to miss out – it's possible to try every form of Chinese cookery in Beijing if you know where to look.
About Anhui Food
Anhui food originates in Anhui province and if you're taking a Yangtze River Cruise it's the most popular food on the Yangtze River itself. The official birthplace of Anhui cookery is Mount Huangshan which is perhaps the most famous tourist destination within the province.
There's an awful lot of territorial differences within Anhui as it's one of the most varied terrains in China. That means product comes from the fields, the mountains, the forests and of course the rivers. Anhui cuisine is emphatic about the need for fresh, local ingredients and it's often considered by the Chinese as the freshest of all of China's 8 main schools of cookery. Anhui's chefs travel a long way to get the perfect blend of ingredients.
Herbs play an important role in the flavor and complexity of Anhui dishes. It's perhaps unsurprising with such a range of herbal ingredients to choose from that many of the herbs used in the food are also used for Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM).
For the Western palate it's worth noting that the use of the local brown sauce in many dishes can make them appear rather oilier than they actually are. You'll find that ham is a very popular ingredient too and if you're not supposed to eat pork; you may want to tread carefully around the choices on the menu in an Anhui restaurant – we don't want anything to spoil your China vacation, so if you're in doubt please ask for clarification on ingredients.
Where to Try Anhui Food in Beijing
Anhui cuisine is a little thin on the ground in Beijing and unlike other forms of food you can try on your China tour; there aren't that many options for Anhui cuisine.
We think the best restaurant for Anhui food in town is provided by the Anhui Provincial Government restaurant. It's a bit of a trip out of town to find it – it's on ring road number 4 (so please make sure you call beforehand to book and to get taxi instructions). But it's a unique China experience that's worth the travel.
You may not appreciate the Huangshan Fragrant Fish which is somewhat overpowering on the nostrils but we do recommend the stir-fried frog with log flowers and the Bagong mountain bean curd. They're both very delicate dishes with very subtle flavors. If you'd like to ensure that you get a taste of all the foods available to you in China; you really must try some Anhui cuisine in Beijing.
The Jim Thompson House is a must see during your Thailand tour. It’s one of the more unusual Thailand vacation destinations. The house is a short trip from anywhere in central Bangkok; Thailand’s capital city. Though we don’t advise you travel there during rush hour where Thailand’s commuter traffic brings the entire city to gridlock.
About Jim Thompson
Jim Thompson, was an American from Greenville, Delaware. Until 1940 he was a promising architect practicing in New York City. When the Second World War heated up he volunteered for the US Army and he served his tour of duty first in France, then in Italy and finally in Asia. At the end of the war his final assignment saw him travel to Thailand to become head of the OSS (the Office of Strategic Services).
A few weeks later in 1946 he was sent home and discharged from service. However, in his brief period in Thailand he’d fallen in love with the country. He immediately returned to the country and saw the potential for an expanding international vacation market. He was positive that air travel would open up Thailand and all of Asia to the rest of the world and he went to back to Thailand to get involved in the hotel trade.
He was a key figure in renovating and improving the Mandarin Oriental hotel to an international standard and it’s famous for the people who enjoyed vacations within its walls. Those figures include Somerset Maugham, Charlie Chaplin and Noel Coward.
He then became heavily involved in developing Thailand’s silk industry before he vanished in the mid-1960s in mysterious circumstances while he was on a trip to Malaysia.
About the House
Jim’s house is now a museum and social networking space and it’s one of the nicest buildings in Thailand. It’s an unusual living space as it’s an amalgamation 6 traditional Thai homes built from teak, a hardwood, which is incredibly durable. It was completed in 1959.
It’s surrounded by jungle, which is incredibly unusual for Bangkok, and the grounds offer plenty of flora and fauna for visitors to enjoy. The jungle has been landscaped to maximize the aesthetic appeal of the area and to enhance the visual appeal of the houses it contains.
It’s home to the James Thompson Foundation too which has an incredible wealth of Thai traditional art and cultural memorabilia. It’s endowed for with a trust which continues to purchase art and preserve it for future generations.
The collection includes some fantastic sculptures, paintings, porcelain and other collectibles from Thailand’s past.
It’s also worth noting that the famous author Somerset Maugham would stop by the house on a regular basis back when Jim lived there and would regale guests at dinner parties with his stories.
There is an admission fee to the house which is 100 baht (about $3) but that includes a guided walking tour in English. The house lies on Rama Road near the National Stadium and is easy to find.
If you’re taking a vacation in Laos then you probably already know that the whole city of Luang Prabang is a UNESCO world heritage site. Most trips to Laos are all about visiting the temples of this incredible city. However, if you’re a little templed out during your Laos tour then you might want to consider spending some time at the Hmong Night Market when the sun goes down. It’s easy to travel to from any part of the city and it’s a quite wonderful place and you can experience a different side of Laos there.
About the Hmong
The Hmong are one of the ethnic minority peoples of Laos. Their tribe made the trip to Laos from China back in the 19th Century; when their lands were annexed for opium farming. While the majority of the Hmong can be found in Laos there also small communities that exist in Thailand, Myanmar, Cambodia and Vietnam. However it is on a Laos vacation that you’re most likely to meet members of the Hmong.
They do not speak the language of Laos and their language is an Austro-Thai variant instead. If you travel round the Hmong you’ll find that there are two main groups in Laos; the White Hmong and the Blue Hmong. There are only 15 Black Hmong villages in the country and you’d need to take quite a trip out of Luang Prabang to see one.
You’ll see that the Hmong are particularly fond of silver jewelry and you might be able to pick up some nice pieces at the Hmong Night Market for a great souvenir from your Laos tour. All the villagers you meet will be wearing silver; in chains, pendants, earrings and of course finger rings.
Ironically it may have been opium that forced the Hmong to migrate to Laos but the Hmong are now the biggest growers of opium in Asia. It’s not a good idea to enquire into this side of their culture and you won’t find any on your tour of the Night Market.
Unlike the majority of people in Laos the Hmong are not a Buddhist people. Instead their belief is in an ancient form of animism. They think that everything and everyone one has a spirit or a soul; the “da”. It must be kept in a state of happiness and bliss or you will become sick. They have a shaman whose job it is to satisfy the spirits. You’ll also find spirit houses for making offerings in every Hmong home.
About the Night Market
You’ll find plenty of traditional of Hmong crafts at the market and the hand made slippers are very comfortable and extremely charming. There are also many brightly colored ornaments that make for wonderful souvenirs.
There’s also a chance to try Hmong food from the various stalls around the market; though keep an eye out for hygiene as it can be a bit hit and miss.
Don’t forget that it’s not done to haggle in Laos if you do visit the Night Market.
If your China tour is passing through Shanghai and you want a bit of a break from the thriving urban center you could do worse than take a trip to Yuyuan Garden in the old city. China has an exquisite horticultural heritage and some of its gardens are truly splendid to behold. It’s nice to get in touch with nature on a China vacation and in this case you won’t have to travel too far to do so.
About Yuyuan Garden
Yuyuan Garden was originally built during China’s Ming Dynasty period. It was constructed for the Pan Family back in 1559. At the time it would have been the largest and most prestigious garden in Shanghai and possible the whole of China. Even today it is easily comparable to the Humble Administrator’s Garden in Suzhou (another great destination for a China tour).
Pan Yunduan, was an officer in the Ming Army and he conceived the garden so that his elderly parents could live out their old age in peace. It’s said that the idea came to him during a period of quiet reflection after failing an examination for promotion. Though construction began in 1559 there was a bit of a hiatus when he was posted to Sichuan for 20 years for another military tour. So it wasn’t completed until he could travel home in 1577. Sadly; the delay proved a bit much for his parents who died soon after the garden was completed.
When China’s Qing Dynasty; came to power the garden was left neglected and forgotten for many years. However, when Kangxi came to power he revived the garden and expanded it to offer more public space. It was one of 18th century China’s most popular attractions.
The garden was given a severe thrashing from the British guns during the Opium Wars and it took decades to recover its former glory. Following China’s cultural revolution the garden was fully restored to its current glory. A trip round the garden today is as glorious as it would have been in 1577.
As you travel round the garden you’ll find a lot of halls and small buildings to explore. Inside you’ll find some ancient furniture from China’s past as well as some incredible paintings. One of the halls is dedicated to the art of calligraphy and there may be no better place to witness the incredible beauty of Chinese writing anywhere on your China vacation.
Keep an eye out for the “Exquisite Jade Rock” which would be hard to miss as it weighs in at a fraction under 5 tons. It is said to have been found more than a 1,000 years ago and once resided in a Song Dynasty emperor’s private collection before passing through numerous hands and ending up in the garden.
In addition there are flower exhibitions, exhibitions of stone masonry, tea ceremonies and exhibitions of brightly colored Chinese lanterns in the garden on a regular basis.
It is also one of the national cultural market places and you’ll find plenty of vendors lining the exterior of the garden.
If you’re on a China vacation and you’d like to travel to Shangri-La (the mythical city created by the British author James Hilton based on his experiences in China). Then you may have the chance to do so if your China tour passes through Guilin. Now, to be fair there are several places in China that stake a claim to being Shangri-La so we can’t guarantee that your trip will take you to the real Shangri-La. What we can guarantee is the peace and tranquility that the promise of Shangri-La offers.
If you travel just outside of Guilin you will find the Peach Pavillion; it’s a beautiful and ornate building with 5 stories and a viewing platform on the roof. From there you can take the track that leads past it to the Swallow Lake a place of outstanding natural beauty. It’s one of the joys of exploring off the beaten path in China – there always new sights to see.
Swallow Lake is actually 3 lakes in one; there’s an outer, inner and back lake and the water is perhaps the cleanest you’ll see anywhere in China. You can rent a boat and take a tour of the lake or just take a trip along the banks.
Over one part of the lake is a steep roofed bridge; “The Wind and Rain Bridge” and it’s one of the best examples of Dong minority architecture that you can see during your China vacation. There wasn’t a single nail used in building the bridge. Make sure that you keep an eye out for the Dong totems that are scattered at discrete intervals around the bridge; there’s nothing like them anywhere else in China.
There’s also a chance to grab a bit of a break nearby and enjoy a trip through the history of the Dong culture in China through tribal art and performances. You should particularly keep an eye out for the traditional dating game played by people here.
An ornate and beautifully embroidered ball is made by young women of marriageable age and when they feel ready to get married they toss it from a building in the hopes that the one they love will catch it. What adds to the mystique of this is that the girls dress up in brightly colored ethnic costumes and there’s a certain amount of ceremony to be performed prior to the ball being thrown.
There are many good reasons to visit Guilin on your China vacation; the Karst landscape and the dragon bone terraces are without a doubt the biggest attractions and shouldn’t be missed. However, if you do get a little spare time it’s nice to be able to explore some of the places nearby that many Westerners will never see. Whether Guilin’s Shangri-La is the authentic Shangri-La is not a debate that’s going to come to a close any time soon; but you will have the opportunity to decide whether it’s your Shangri-La and we think that’s more than good enough.
With inexpensive tours to Burma making the country a popular destination, here are some of the highlights of any visit to the Golden Land.
1. Shwedagon Pagoda. A highlight to any Burma tour, the magnificent Shwedagon Pagoda is a must see. The golden stupa is one of the most sacred Buddhist sites in the world and revered amongst the Burmese. Visit at sunset when the glow of the sun illuminates the stupa.
2. Bagan. There are over 3000 temples at Bagan and a visit here is to go back centuries. Most have been renovated but this is a fascinating place to explore, or take a hot air balloon ride. If time is short pick a few temples such as Ananda Paya or Dhammayangyi Paya to enjoy on Burma tours to the city. Visit one at sunset to watch the sun go down over the temples.
3. U Bein Bridge. Walk across the world's longest teak footbridge that traverses Taungthaman Lake during your Burma vacation. Visit just after sunrise and watch the locals commuting to work.
4. Inle Lake. See floating gardens, craft workshops, and fishermen rowing with one leg on your unique Burma tour. There are temples too, and 27 villages to float by where you can see daily life. For an insight into a unique community Inle Lake is a highlight of any Burma vacation.
5. Ngapali Beach. Burma's beaches are less crowded than others in Asia and perfect to chill out by the sea. Try snorkelling, tasting fresh seafood and relaxing on the coast here. It is a good way to spend an inexpensive Burma vacation.
6. Arts and crafts. Take more dollars than you think to Burma. The lacquer ware is exquisite and sand paintings quite endearing. There is jewellery too, lotus silk, and gold leaf decoration. The standards are high and souvenir shopping is a fun part of a Burma tour.
7. Mount Kyaiktiko. Known as the Golden Rock, this is one of the most sacred Buddhist sites in Burma. The balanced golden boulder is said to be down to the precise location of one of Buddha's hairs. Walk up the steps to the rock and enjoy the atmosphere and views.
8. Inwa. The ancient capital of Burma, Inwa, is an atmospheric complex of ruins amongst rice fields. Take a horse drawn carriage out to the temples and old palace to enjoy one of Burma's iconic images. Many Burma tours visit Inwa.
9. Cruising down the Irrawaddy. Take a seat on a boat and watch the world go by sailing down one of Burma's most famous rivers. From water oxen in fields to houseboats and junks, life here is never dull. One of the best routes is from Mandalay to Bagan.
10. The people of Burma. Visitors on tours to Burma will find that one of the highlights on a visit is meeting and talking to the local people. Just smiling will gain instant friends, and saying "Mingalaba" (meaning hello) as a greeting will get appreciation from the locals.
There are many highlights that can be seen on inexpensive tours to Burma. One visit is probably not enough to see everything. Like Kipling you may be "bewitched by Burma," and want to return to see even more.
If you're thinking of taking a vacation in Cambodia; you might want to find out a little more about the country before you travel to Cambodia. A trip to Cambodia allows you to spend time in one of the world's most pleasant nations and your Cambodia tour can be enhanced by a little knowledge about the country before you get there.
The Cambodian Flag
You'll see the flag of Cambodia everywhere on your trip to the country. Did you know that it is the only national flag in the world that has an image of a building on it? Of course that building is the primary reason for most vacations in Cambodia; it's Angkor Wat.
You won't be learning much of the written language before your Cambodia tour and that's because Cambodia has the largest alphabet in the world.
If your travel is taking you to Cambodia's capital, Phnom Penh, you'll be able to come face-to-face with the tragedy of Cambodia's recent past at Tuol Sleng (S-21) and the Killing Fields. During the short rule of the Khmer Rouge somewhere between 1 in 4 and 1 in 5 of all Cambodians died at the hands of the communist government.
If you think that everyone you meet on your Cambodia vacation looks young that's because more than half of the population is less than 15 years old. Cambodia is one of the youngest countries in the world.
Cambodia has come a long way in the last 30 years but it's an inescapable truth that the country is still one of the world's poorest. The GDP per capita is less than $1,000 and many people live on less than $1.25 a day (the UN defined absolute poverty line). If you should encounter beggars during your trip; try to keep this in mind.
In most countries you get a taxi when you want to go and visit the sites or to get to the airport. In Cambodia it's more common to get a tuk-tuk. A tuk-tuk is a small cart attached to a motorbike. The good news is that, by and large, Cambodia's tuk-tuk drivers are decent folks and won't rip you off (something that sadly can't be said for tuk-tuks in Thailand).
Hands Off Heads
In Cambodia the head is considered to be sacred and touching someone else's head is the gravest of insults. You should also avoid pointing the soles of your feet at anyone as they are considered to be dirty and profane.
The Angkorian Empire (which included Angkor Wat) was the most advanced civilization in the world during its period of rule. There are many Angkorian ruins and temples still to be seen throughout Cambodia and while Angkor Wat may be the best known and most popular; it's worth taking a detour or two to see some of the more remote temples.
Cambodia was the most mined country in the world. In all of the major tourist destinations mines are no longer present however, off the beaten track this is not always true. If you see mine warnings make sure you stick to the path.
If you'd like to see what's happening today in China's newly revived art scene on your vacation there's no better venue to do so than the Ullens Center. If your China tour is going to pass through Beijing you should be able to make a little side trip to the center and catch up on China's contemporary scene. You don't need to travel far (it's near the airport expressway) which is a blessing in China's most crowded city for traffic.
About the Ullens Center
The Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA) is a charitable concern which promotes exhibitions and other art programs to allow people to better relate to art culture in China. UCCA was begun by the de Schooten family who took a tour of Beijing in 2000 and decided to set up operations there. They are considered to be among the elite of art collectors globally so their patronage is very valuable.
As you'll see on a trip to UCCA it's housed in a Bauhaus-style series of factory chambers. It's one of the best presented exhibitions you'll find anywhere in China and it's definitely worth a visit on your China vacation.
What Exhibitions Can I See?
As a center dedicated to contemporary art there's no way for us to tell you what will exhibitions will be on at the same time as your China tour. That's because they are regularly refreshed and you're probably best off keeping an eye of their website to find out what's available when you travel to China.
In the recent past they've featured work from Taryn Simon, Xu Zhen, Wang-Xingwei and many more of China's young and up and coming artists. In the next few months Lee Mingwei and Pawel Althamer will both be contributing their works to the space.
What else is at UCCA?
There are regular education and public programs held at UCCA and you'll need to call beforehand to find out what's going on during the day. You may be lucky enough to catch an English language talk from one of China's leading art authorities or a workshop on making your own art (which might make for an incredible China vacation souvenir). Most of these events are fully open to the pubic but popular events do pack out fast and you may want to secure a ticket in advance if there's anything you really must see.
There is also, like many modern museums, a store on the premises. It's not a “gift shop” and more of a gallery. It's here that you can access limited edition works from China's top contemporary artists. It's not unknown for them to have 50 or more collections in the store at any time. In addition to that many of China's best known designers have also created works for sale in the UCCA store; it's very much a one-of-a-kind shopping experience. You can also pick up art supplies, materials, instruction books (including some in English), etc.
Laos is fast becoming a must-see vacation destination. Laos tours are popular because of the uniquely preserved colonial heritage and extraordinary local culture. Before you travel to Laos it's a good idea to learn a little more about the place; it can enhance the enjoyment of a Laos trip immensely. With this in mind we've brought together some interesting facts to help you get the most from your Laos vacation.
Laos is Not Laos
Strange but true; when you take a trip to Laos you are actually visiting the "Lao People's Democratic Republic" but no-one calls it that. The name was changed in 1975 by the new communist government. By the way you pronounce Laos in English as "louse" and not "lao" as many visitors believe.
The World's Most Bombed Country
If your Laos tour is going to the Plain of Jars you'll be able to see this first hand as they are still trying to clear up the mess left by the bombing campaign. During the Vietnam War more bombs were dropped on Laos than were dropped during the whole of the 2nd World War in Europe! The amount of unexploded ordinance left behind is staggering and worse it prevents you from climbing to the highest peak in Laos (the Phou Bia).
Unlike Cambodia where the official currency is the US Dollar; in Laos the Lao Kip is the official currency of transactions. However, as you'll soon discover on your travels in the country – Thai Baht and US Dollars spend equally as well as the Lao Kip.
Laos is Not a Naval Power
Laos is the only South East Asian country with no navy to protect its interests. Why? Because it's also completely landlocked.
Laos may be a poor nation but the country has made significant investments in solar power. There's only one country in the world that produces more solar energy than Laos and that's Luxembourg.
A Wealth of Mammals
If you'd like to see some wildlife during your vacation then Laos is the place to go as there are over 100 species of large mammal that make their homes in the country. If you're lucky you might see elephants, tigers, gibbons and even Mekong dolphins (though this becomes increasingly less likely as the dolphins are threatened with extinction).
The Best Beer in Indochina
If you're thirsty after a day's travel round the temples and sights of Laos; it should come as good news that the country is home to the best beer in Indochina. Beer Lao is the national lager and it is considered to be good enough to export throughout the world. If beer's not your thing you can also take heart with a cup of coffee; more than 80% of Lao exports are local coffee.
No Haggling Allowed
This may come as a shock to someone whose vacation takes in other countries in Indochina but in Laos haggling is not the done thing. This is a shame as prices are a little bit higher in Laos than in neighboring countries but don't do it. Talking about money is considered rude full stop in Laos so you should pay the asking price or walk away.
A Yangtze River Cruise can be a spectacular addition to a China vacation. A trip down China's longest river is always memorable. While you travel through the beautiful countryside and pass the Three Gorges (China's and the world's biggest hydroelectric power generation facility) your China tour guide can regale you with stories of the region itself. To help you understand the part that the Yangtze plays in China we've put together some background for you.
The Scale of the Yangtze
The Yangtze is the world's third largest river. On a Yangtze River Cruise you'll have the opportunity to take in a tiny stretch of the river. It would take a long time to cover the whole of the river during a China tour. The Yangtze River and its drainage areas cover nearly 20% of the land mass of China! It's worth noting that there are also 700+ tributaries of the main river that add even more volume to this impressive body of water. 49 of the biggest tributaries cover an area in excess of 3,800 square miles in their own right!
It is the busiest waterway in the world and there are always cruise ships, barges laden with goods from all over China and ferries moving around in the water. Travel at night on the river is particularly pleasing because all these vessels are lit up like Christmas trees.
The History of the Yangtze
People have been using the Yangtze for more than 27,000 years as a mode of shipping transport and for fishing. It might surprise you to know that if you'd have taken a Yangzte River Cruise before 1955 you would not have seen a single bridge over the water anywhere on the entire river! All the 50 or so bridges over the water were built after 1955. That meant for the majority of the river's history the only way to cross was by boat.
The Dujiangyan Irrigation Project in Sichuan (near Chengdu) is the oldest irrigation system remaining in the world. What makes it particularly interesting is that it doesn't rely on dams to achieve the water displacement. The first dam on the river was Gezhouba Dam which helps increase the flow of the river to drive the Three Gorges Dam at a faster rate of electrical production.
The Yangtze and the Chinese People
There are more cities along the banks of the Yangtze than there are on any other river on earth. It is the most populous riverbank in the world too. That's not always good news for residents as floods along the Yangtze can be deadly and in the 20th century alone more than 420,000 people died in just 4 flood events (1911, 1931, 1935 and 1954).
The Yangtze is still an important source of food in China. Though as you'll see during your trip the water is not always particularly clean (pollution is a serious worry for the whole of the Yangtze). The Yangtze River Dolphin is almost certainly extinct now.
Vietnam is a superb vacation destination. Sometimes Americans worry about taking a Vietnam tour because of the two country's history but rest assured the Vietnamese will greet you warmly; the past isn't important in Vietnam it's the future that counts. If you want to make the most from a trip to Vietnam it's a good idea to find out more about the place before you travel. So with that in mind we've rounded up some fascinating facts about Vietnam for you. Seasons Change
Travel to Vietnam means a lot of variation in the weather. The country is extremely long and extremely narrow. That means in the North of the country there are 4 seasons and in the Middle only 3 and by the time you reach the South of Vietnam on your tour there are only 2 seasons (wet and dry).
UNESCO Heritage in Abundance
There are more UNESCO world heritage sites within Vietnam than there are in the rest of Indochina combined. This may change as UNESCO get through their waiting list but if you've been dithering over booking a Vietnam vacation this is a great reason to confirm that booking.
If you witness the hustle and bustle of Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) first on your Vietnam trip you could be forgiven for thinking that the country is being lost in a sea of building work. Nothing could be further from the truth. Vietnam has a lot of green space and is one of the most biodiverse countries in the world; nearly 16% of the world's species of flora and fauna make their homes in Vietnam.
It won't take you a minute's travel in Vietnam to work out that there a lot of motorbikes in Vietnam. In fact it's said there are more bikes than people in Saigon and Hanoi. Conservative estimates put the total number of motorbikes at around 15 million! It makes crossing the road a bit challenging at first but do as the Vietnamese do and walk slowly into moving traffic (don't stop just keep going) and the bikes will part around you!
Vietnamese may look like English in written form but it's a long way apart. The countries most common surname “Nguyen” is actually pronounced “when”. To make matters more complicated there's also the matter of tones. In the South of Vietnam the full 6 tones of the language are used. In the Middle only 5 are in common use and up in the North by Hanoi there are only 4 in regular use. That makes learning Vietnamese one of the most challenging assignments anyone can undertake.
In the South of Vietnam you might want to take a side trip and go lizard fishing! This is done by dangling a fishing pole over a boulder with some bait on it. Then the lizard grabs the bait and hey presto! You have a lizard ready to be cooked. They can be grilled, fried or roasted before they're served. And yes, they taste a bit like chicken.
Thailand is the most popular vacation destination in Indochina. Nearly 20 million people make the trip to Thailand's capital city Bangkok every year and the country offers a wide range of travel experiences from remote islands to wild jungle covered mountains. There's something for everyone in Thailand. TO make your Thailand tour even more fascinating we've put together some interesting facts about the country for you.
The Longest Capital City Name in the World
You'll call it Bangkok on your Thailand trip but its actual name is "Krungthepmahanakhon Amonrattanakosin Mahintharayutthaya Mahadilokphop Noppharatratchathaniburirom Udomratchaniwetmahasathan Amonphimanawatansathit Sakkathattiyawitsanukamprasit" which makes it the longest capital city name in the world!
The World's Biggest Fish
You'll need to pull on a wetsuit to see it during your Thailand tour but Thailand is home to the Whale Shark which reaches up to 12 meters in length! Don't worry though it's harmless and only eats plankton.
Lots of Animals
If you'd prefer to stick to dry land during your Thailand vacation that's OK; in fact Thailand is home to 1/10th of the world's animal species so if you head out into nature there's plenty for you to see too.
For those who prefer flora to fauna on their travels you'll find that Thailand is home to over 1,500 species of orchid. That makes Thailand the world's number one producer and exporter of orchids.
A Serious Snake
There's some debate over the reticulated python or its close cousin the Anaconda being the world's largest snake but whichever way it goes; you won't ever forget seeing one. The Thai python can grow to over 10 meters long!
If you're hungry then you might want to consider snacking on a Swiftlet nest. They are made out of the saliva produced by the male of the species. Of course this is no cheap Thailand vacation dining option at $900 a pound the Swiftlet Nest is one of the world's most expensive delicacies.
Don't Watch "The King and I"
It may be the most famous film about Thailand but it's also illegal to watch it or even own it in the Land of Smiles. Why? The movie portrays the King as an uncultured and uncivilized man. Instead the real King at that time was a highly educated man who spoke and read English fluently and was the first scientist in the country too.
Take Your Golf Clubs
If you'd like to get a round or two in during your trip to Indochina; Thailand's the place to do it. There are more golf courses in Thailand than in the rest of South East Asia combined. Fees to play are also attractively low in comparison to most other nations.
Grab Your Swimming Trunks
Thailand has a lot of islands to offer visitors. In fact there are more than 1,400 islands off the coast of Thailand. That's a lot of beaches and a lot of unspoiled natural beauty to explore. So don't forget your trunks.
A trip to China is never dull. There's always somewhere new to travel to and always another unforgettable China vacation experience just around the corner. There are places that don't feature on any China tour itinerary which can grab the imagination and one such place is one of China's best kept secret – the Underground City beneath Beijing.
An Underground City?
It sounds incredible when you think about it. There are miles and miles of tunnels beneath Beijing. There are plenty of crazy rumors as to how they came into being and some commentators allege that they are a “pure mystery”. Of course they aren't a mystery there's no government in the world that will invest millions of dollars in building mysterious tunnel networks. The truth is a touch more prosaic.
The tunnels were built back in the 1970s when Cold War tensions were at their worst. They were designed to ensure the safety of a large percentage of the population of Beijing in case the Russians invaded China. It may seem unlikely that Russian soldiers would be on tour and tasked with capturing China today but back then the two “allies” weren't really all that close. The idea was that the civilian population could quickly travel below the city and perhaps even survive in the event of a nuclear event between China and Russia.
As China's economy opened up (which is the main reason you can take your vacation in China today) it became clear that the tunnels no longer really served a purpose and they were closed off to the world until the early 2000's. Today it's possible to take a trip around China's biggest secret tunnel network but you do need to phone ahead and it's better to go as part of a local tour group (who can get you in free) rather than to travel solo.
What's Down There?
Firstly, you'll want to take a little time to appreciate the effort that went into making the tunnels. These weren't built by giant tunneling machines; they were built through the manual labor of nearly 300,000 local people. They were all dug by hand and even children and the elderly were expected to pitch in to dig them out.
Once you're in the tunnels proper you'll want to keep an eye out for sign posts to some of Beijing's biggest attractions like Tiananmen Square or the Forbidden City (both of which should be on your China tour itinerary in their own right). You aren't allowed very far into the tunnel network (in case you get lost) but they give you an idea of the scale of the tunnels (over 85 kilometers all told).
You can also find rooms full of materials that were being hoarded in case war broke out and they haven't been touched since. There's a treasure trove of Mao-era posters, which are extremely rare in China, on the walls. There's also a working silk factory run by Qianmen Arts and Crafts. If you're interested in Cold War history the secret tunnel network of Beijing is a great place to spend an hour or two seeing a uniquely Chinese perspective on that time in history.
Saigon is one of the best reasons to take a vacation in Vietnam; the city has everything and it's one of the most wonderful blends of ancient and modern that you'll find anywhere in Indochina. Once you've taken a trip around Vietnam's eccentric second city you'll want to relax and enjoy some of the best food available on a Vietnam tour. We've put together some highlights from Saigon's wide selection of places to eat so that your Vietnam travel experience is wonderfully memorable.
Vietnam's food culture is incredible; it's worth taking a trip to the country just to try the food. Your Vietnam vacation will be all the richer for visiting; Restaurant Bobby Chin (Kumho Plaza, District 1). It's not a cheap place to eat but Bobby Chin is a prodigal son (a Vietnamese born in New Zealand) with a real passion for food. The décor is wonderful, the atmosphere just so and the food is very, very good. Try the prawns on sugar cane for something completely unique.
If you'd prefer more choice on your Vietnam tour then head to Monsoon Restaurant and Bar (Coa Ba Nha, District 1). It's a Burmese owned and managed pan-Asian fusion place with culinary influences from all the nations of Indochina. The building is worth a trip on its own as it's an old school Colonial place with a gorgeous little courtyard for al fresco dining (if it's not too hot). Grab the Laos style lab gai which is the best Laos food in Vietnam.
Local with a Twist
The Deck in Saigon is perhaps the nicest located restaurant anywhere in Vietnam. You'll need to call them before you go and they'll arrange pick up as the restaurant is some way out of town and on the water. It's a trip that most folks can't make easily without more familiarity with the city. It's a New Zealand owned place with the emphasis on a variety of cuisines all prepared from local, fresh ingredients. Dining on the deck is wonderful but make sure to take a little mosquito repellant with you so that it's only you doing the eating during your visit.
If you'd just like a break from local cuisine during your Vietnam travel then you might want to go to the Hard Rock Café which is right next door to Bobby Chin's place. The standard fare of burgers and ribs is probably the best American food you'll find in Saigon. The band play from around 8 p.m. each night and that's when the place begins to get really busy. In high season it can be a good idea to call and book a table in advance or find yourself crammed into a really small space. Don't be surprised if someone on a table near you lights up a cigarette. Smoking in public places in Vietnam is still the norm. Beer prices in the Hard Rock are substantially higher than anywhere else in town.
A Yangtze River Cruise wends its way slowly through China's rural heartlands and eventually your trip brings you to Chengdu. Chengdu is on many China tour itineraries because it's the only place in China where you can see the Giant Panda in the wild. The pandas make Chengdu a vacation favorite but there's more to the city than just pandas and if you'd like to travel a little further out into China's countryside you can find dinosaurs too!
Da Shanpu – The Zigong Dinosaur Museum
If you make the trip to Zigong don't expect it to be a short walk when you get there. This is South East China's biggest museum and it covers over 25,000 square meters of ground. It is considered by many paleontologists around the world to be equal to the American National Dinosaur Park. It is the 3rd largest dinosaur fossil site currently being excavated anywhere on earth. If you like dinosaurs you really won't find more of them anywhere else on a China vacation.
Take your time to explore and you'll find a fossil burial hall which provides the grisly details of how fossils are made. A central hall with a small number of mighty dinosaur remains in it; this is probably the best place to get the most striking photographs at. There's a dinosaur ecology hall with exhibits relating to the flora and fauna of the day. There's also a cave like museum offering under the main building which is worth the walk down to as it has the best displays of the rarest dinosaurs.
The museum has a strong education program and unlike some other places on your China tour this should be a great opportunity for children and little ones to get “hands on” and English is spoken at most events.
The idea is to show firstly how dinosaurs evolved and how the species around them contributed to their existence. After all a herbivore without the right plants around them won't be around long enough to leave any trace in the fossil record.
Then they are encouraged to visit the incredible array of dinosaur fossils. You might want to see the Tianfuensis yourselves too; it stood a massive 20 meters high back when it roamed the earth and it made us (and the other dinosaurs) appear tiny in comparison. It's an incredible China vacation memory once you've seen it.
Then you finish up at the dinosaur burial site itself. You can see paleontologists at work continuing to extract fossils with the most incredible care and attention to detail. You can also see many fossils and remains still exactly as they were discovered. It is one of the largest such dinosaur graveyards anywhere in the world and perhaps the most accessible of them all.
So once your Yangtze River Cruise reaches Chengdu and you've been out to see the incredibly Giant Pandas in their natural habitat it might be a great end to the day to jump in a taxi and see the dinosaurs of China too!
If you're taking a vacation in Cambodia then at some point during your trip you'll be stopping in Siem Reap. It's the heart of Cambodia's tour schedule because Angkor Wat; Cambodia's greatest temple is on the doorstep. After you travel round the temples you'll want to stock up on calories and there are plenty of options to eat in this small country town in Cambodia.
Most people want an authentic taste of Cambodia on their trip and there's no better place in town to eat than Haven Restaurant on Sok San Road (a short walk from the busy Pub Street district). It's also your chance to do something good for the people of Cambodia during your vacation because Haven is a training restaurant. Its mission is to provide enough business and culinary training so that its young students can find work in other restaurants and bars or to start their own restaurants. The menu is very varied and changes regularly; the cookery is on the cutting edge of modern Khmer food.
If you're not sure whether you want Khmer food on your Cambodia tour then why not try a fusion restaurant where you have a mixture of Western and Khmer choices? The best place to travel to for this kind of experience is Genevieve's (also on Sok San Road); it's hard to spot as it's at the back of a little alleyway off the main road but it's worth the effort to find. This place also has a charitable objective and 20% of their profits go to good causes and to their local staff. The best thing on the menu, in our opinion, is the Thai Duck in Tamarind sauce and the steaks (USDA beef) are excellent too. There are plenty of authentic options from Cambodia available as well.
If you'd like to see what the French did for Cambodia then you'll want to take a trip out on National Road 6 and keep your eyes peeled for signs to Abacus. Abacus is an upscale colonial-style restaurant and it's somewhat more expensive than the other options mentioned here. Don't expect it to bankrupt your vacation though – a meal for two including 3 courses and a glass of wine won't set you back much more than $80 in total. The veal medallions in morel sauce are to die for. The service is a bit hit and miss but then again you're in Cambodia.
If you're more cautious in your vacation dining then you might want to settle for the best Italian meal in Cambodia. It's on the river road four bridges out of town on the opposite side of the river from the town proper; it's called L'Oasi. They make all their own cheese, prepare all the meat and make their own pasta on premises. It's a bit of a hike to get there but you won't be sorry you made the trip. There's never a bad moment in L'Oasi.
A Yangtze River Cruise can put people, on a China tour, in a spiritual state of mind. As your trip through the beauty of China reaches Chengdu you may want to travel out of the city and get more in touch with the spiritual nature of China. Daoism is one of the traditional religions of China and there's nowhere better on a China vacation to find out more about it than at Mt. Qingcheng just outside of Chengdu.
About Mt. Qingcheng
Mt. Chingcheng is one of the holiest mountains in Daoism. It's a splendid area of natural beauty with a wonderful forest canopy covering the slopes. There are many surrounding peaks which form an eye catching backdrop to a trip up the mountain. It is often said that it is the most peaceful and secluded mountain in all of China and under the heavens themselves.
The best part of the mountain to see is “the anterior” which covers an incredible wealth of flora and fauna as well as the Jianfu Palace, the Shangqing Palace and the Tianshi Cave. When your tour reaches the base of the mountain, look up and you'll see the Laojun Pavillion at the summit looming over you – it's more than a kilometer above sea level.
Begin your climb and you'll see find the Jianfu Palace which was built during the period of China's Tan Dynasty (618 A.D. – 907 A.D.) though it has been the subject of extended restoration activities through the centuries; so not everything you will see there is original. Stand in front of the palace by the river and look for the wooden pavilion which sits on the steep rocks above. It's a vacation photograph that shouldn't be missed. People travel from all over China to take that shot.
A little further up the mountain and you'll come across the Tianshi Cave. It's also the most famous temple on the mountain. The statue which greets visitors is of the Celestial Master Zhang and it's been carved in the same style as the Sui Dynasty-era sculptures. He is the founder of Daoism in this part of China. Make sure you check out the main hall of the cave where you'll come face-to-face with the 3 main deities of Daosim; Fuxi, Huangdi and Shennong.
Once you've had a good look round the temple; you'll want to leave the cave and cross the Fanging Bridge (stop for a photo down the mountain). Then you'll come to the Zushi Palace the most modern construction on the mountain from the Qing Dynasty. The finally you can come across the remains of the Shangqing Palace which was constructed in the Jin Dynasty. The remains are only from the Qing Dynasty though and nothing of the original palace remains. It's still an extremely pleasant place and worth seeing as you don't see many ruins in China; they're normally cleared away for other buildings to take their place.
So if your Yangtze River Cruise has lit a spiritual fire in your bosom; you can do much worse than visit Mt. Qingcheng for some quiet contemplation.
A vacation in Laos is a wonderful, relaxing affair. Travel in Laos is often like travelling back in time to a simpler, more satisfying way of life. A trip to Laos will almost always take in Luang Prabang the most beautiful city in the Laos and a UNESCO world heritage site. When you're on your Laos tour don't neglect your stomach and enjoy some great food at the restaurants we've found for you.
If you want to get stuck into Laos' food during your trip there is no better place than Le Patio Café (it's part of the Traditional Arts and Ethnology Center). Skip the French offerings on the menu and go straight for the Ethnic Feast menu; this is the only place on a Laos vacation where you can try all 5 of the main ethnic tribes of Laos' cuisine. Our favorite here is the Hmong recipe for Pork Belly with Mustard Greens but there's never a bad dish on the menu. It's extremely reasonably priced at $16 for an 8 course tasting menu.
The colonial influence on Laos from France is evident everywhere you travel in the country. The French are not always to be admired for that influence but the one thing you should take home with your from your Laos tour is the memory of a fantastic French meal for a very reasonable price. L'Elephant is perhaps the best restaurant of them all in Luang Prabang and you won't need to spend much more than $20 here. The food is exquisite with inputs from both co-owners (one French and one Lao). The Jaew Bong is a unique dish of buffalo skin and chilli and well worth your time.
If you like to cook your own food then a Lao BBQ might be the right thing to do during your Laos trip. The best BBQ restaurant in town is the Malee Lao Food Restaurant. The concept is simple enough; you get one large BBQ surface set over hot coals and then you stock up on meat to cook on the grill and throw as many vegetables and mushrooms and noodles as you want in the stock held in the rim of the grill. It's an extremely tasty dining option and a firm favorite of children who are a bit fussy about what they eat as they can choose exactly what makes it to their plate.
The Blue Lagoon down near the night market offers a blend of Western and Asian cuisines. If you'd like a taste of something familiar during your Laos vacation this is a good place to be. The menu offers a wide variety of choice and we heartily recommend the ice cream which is made on the premises. There's also a considerable wine list and wine is extremely cheap in Laos compared to most of the world; so feel free to splurge on something extra special. The Blue Lagoon also offers the best coffee in Luang Prabang so treat yourself to an espresso once you've finished.
A trip to Thailand's capital is a rollercoaster ride with so much to see and do during your Thailand vacation. However, you mustn't forget to eat as you'll discover some of the best food in the world on your Thailand tour. You don't have to travel far in Bangkok to find one of Thailand's best restaurants.
Thailand's food culture is considered to be one of the best in South East Asia if not the world. Your vacation will offer a myriad of opportunities to try Thai food. However, if you want the best of the best you'll need to take a trip to Bo Lan on Sukhumvit Road. The restaurant has two head chefs, one English and one Thai and they both apprenticed under a Michelin starred chef – so you're in for something special. It's a small restaurant and booking in advance is highly recommended particularly in high season where demand for tables regularly outstrips supply.
To be authentically Thai you need to order something of everything and share it with everyone on the table. It might be a good idea to ask a few friends from your Thailand tour to join you for the evening if you'd like to taste the whole menu. Our favorites here include the spicy lamb salad (not too spicy) and the caramelized dumplings. If it's not the best restaurant in Thailand it's very close to being the best.
Eat Me in Silom is a major local favorite and once again booking in advance is recommended. Ignore the name and head into the cute two storey white building it's housed in. There's a nice lounge where you can grab a pre (or post) dinner cocktail and unusually for Thailand there's a house band too. Then travel up to the 2nd floor when you're ready to eat. There's no rush to finish once you're seated you can take all the time in the world. Look out for the duck confit which is elegantly balanced with a slice of prosciutto. Vegetarians should keep an eye out for the blue cheese and fig ravioli.
It's hard to find Le Du which lies between Silom and Sathorn but it's worth making the trip and the effort to do so. Thailand's own cuisine is normally so dominant that it can be hard to find anything else during a Thailand vacation so this Asian Fusion restaurant comes as a breath of fresh air.
There's are several set menus available in Le Du with 4 to 7 courses. Most food here is served cold with an emphasis on crisp and sharp flavors. It also has a wine list that is the envy of almost every other restaurant in town and better still you can opt for a set menu with wine pairings for a very reasonable price (wine is often incredibly expensive in Bangkok). This is where the Thai high-society and expats in the know hang out and you'll be very pleased you joined them.
If you're taking a Yangtze River Cruise as part of your China tour then sooner or later your travel will take you to Chengdu. Chengdu is in the heart of China's Sichuan region and is in fact, the 6th biggest city in China, though it's hard to get a feel for the scale of the city as it always feels like a small town. If you'd like to discover something fairly unique when your China vacation reaches Chengdu; then why not check out the Jinsha Archaeological Site Museum?
The Ancient Shu People
Sichuan was once known as the Shu State. It was home to the Shu people. Today the Shu culture is long lost and has probably been absorbed into the main Han culture and ethnic grouping. Most people travel to Sichuan without ever knowing anything about its' ancient founders. Yet, just a short trip outside of Chengdu and you can find out more about their culture than you would have believed possible.
Jinsha is a treasure-trove of China's history. It's also a record breaking site for China in 3 respects.
More ivory has been unearthed at Jinsha than anywhere else on earth. This includes carvings, beads, lumps of ivory and even the full skeletal remains of ancient elephants. Given that the site is nearly 3,000 years old this is quite an incredible find.
Yet, there's more – it's also the source of the most gold artefacts from this period in history and if you do make the trip you'll see that China was no stranger to making beautiful and ornate gold objects way before anywhere in the West was.
Finally; there's more ancient Jade on the site than anywhere else on earth too. You'll find on your China vacation that jade is highly prized in the East and it's extremely expensive. There's nowhere else on your China tour that you'll see as much genuine jade work in one place.
Jinsha is a huge place. It covers nearly 5 square kilometers and you'll be able to see 63 sacrificial spots, over 7,000 ancient relics and the remains of dozens of buildings and even those of 3 cemetaries.
The stone carvings that have been unearthed at Jinsha are nearly worth booking a Yangtze River Cruise for alone. They are the most incredibly life-like images and snakes and tigers abound. The techniques used to craft them all that time ago must have required weeks of work to produce a single carving.
There are four separate museums on the site each of which is included in the admission fee. The relic hall and exhibition hall show findings from the excavation. The cultural heritage protection center is concerned with the history of the Shu state and you'll need a knowledgeable guide to make sense of it all. Once you're done admiring the history of the place take a trip over to the Ecological Garden and enjoy some of China's finest plants and animal life. It's an unforgettable day out.
If you travel to Laos you'll soon come to realize that the country has an incredible wealth of festivals. No matter which month you choose to take a vacation in Laos you'll be able to take part in one of the events in Laos during your trip. It would be impossible to list them all in detail in a single article so this is our pick of the best festivals in Laos to help you plan when to take your tour.
What Phou Festival – 14th of February
It's also Valentine's day in the West making it one of the easiest festivals to remember when you travel through Laos. It's held in Champasak at the old (pre-Angkor) temple there. If you're lucky enough to spend your Laos vacation near here you can see elephants galore, Lao traditional dancing and music too. There's also a somewhat staid trade fair held in the nearby village at the same time.
Boun Khao Chi – 14th of February
If your Laos tour isn't going near Champasak don't worry about it. It's also a major Buddhist holiday on the same day and if you visit any pagoda in Laos on this day you can see the monks taking part in a candle ceremony. It's quite a beautiful and spiritual sight to behold.
Boun Pavet – March
If you'd like to know your future then you'll need to travel to Laos in March. Visit the nearest temple during this 3 day festival and you will be given a piece of paper with your future written on it. It's a very nice thing for the locals to include foreigners in, so please don't express any skepticism to your hosts. That's plain rude.
New Year in Laos – April
In a very similar vein to Cambodia's New Year and Thailand's New Year; a trip to Laos at this time is always a little more exciting. If you are in Vientiane at the right time there's also a New Year beauty pageant which attracts women and girls from across the country. It's a very good hearted event with none of the catty remarks, etc. that events in the West are renowned for.
Boung Bang Fai – May
You'll need to plan to be in Vientiane for this festival but it's worth it. This is the day when the locals celebrate fertility and what do they do that with? Why rockets and fireworks of course! There's a competition to see who can make the best rocket – we advise standing at a safe distance from the festivities.
Boat Racing Festival – October
Take a little time out from your Laos tour at this time of year and head to the banks of the Mekong to watch the boat races. Later in the day you can chill out with a drink and watch the colored floats bedecked with candles and incense float downstream. It's a genuinely lovely event and one that's often overlooked by visitors to Laos. You will be warmly welcomed by local people if you do drop by.
If you're going to travel to Thailand in the festival seasons you can really get a bit more out of your Thailand vacation by taking part. You could even plan your Thailand tour to take advantage of one of the festivals in the country. So before you book your Thailand trip why not check out our guide to the best festivals in Thailand.
Songkran is the New Year festival in Thailand. The Buddhist calendar does not mirror the Western calendar and you should plan your trip for April if you want to get involved in Songkran. It is an extraordinary celebration period and if your vacation in Thailand includes the New Year period you'll want to take a few precautions too.
Given that Songkran is the major holiday in the Thai calendar be prepared for life to slow down a lot in the Kingdom of Smiles. Travel throughout Thailand is subject to delays and many businesses close or give the majority of their staff time off.
Thais love to have foreigners (or farang as they call us) take part in Songkran. It's essentially an extremely good natured water fight. Traditionally, the New Year celebrations involved spilling a little water on each person you met. Today; buckets of iced water and high-powered water pistols are all part of the game. So if you're on a Thailand tour at this time of year make sure to wrap up your wallets, passports etc. in a waterproof bag or they'll be soaked. It's a very joyful time and feel free to soak someone back in return; you are in essence wishing them luck for the rest of the year.
If you'd prefer a drier Thailand vacation then Phi Ta Khon is a lovely festival. It only takes place in the Dan Sai area of Isaan in Northern Thailand. You'll need to book your trip for June or July as the date varies each year. It's officially a “ghost festival” held in memory of the local's ancestors but to a visitor it's a chance to marvel at brightly colored masks and ornate costumes. There's also folk dancing and general merriment.
If communing with nature is more your thing then you might want to visit Lopburi on the final Sunday in November. There's a money festival in town. The monkeys are real live monkeys and as with monkeys everywhere they are inquisitive souls and apt to snatch cameras, etc. that aren't closely guarded. However, the monkeys in Lopburi are the main attraction of the town so once a year they get given a picnic out in the park and a lot of monkeys turn up to take part. You'll get some cracking photographs if you do decide to go.
The dates for Loi Krathong change each year, the festival falls on the day of the full moon in the 12th lunar month of the year. It's a very spiritual event where people make little boats from banana leaves and float lit candles downstream in them at night. It's said that participants can make a wish as their boat sails away and it will be granted. In truth, even if your wish doesn't come true, it's a wonderful sight as the river slowly fills up with light.
Some people are a bit nervous before they take a vacation in China, they want to see the incredible beauty of the country on a China tour but they don't know how to interact with Chinese people. There's no need to worry as you'll discover on a trip to China; the Chinese are incredibly friendly and while English isn't always the language of communication - travel in China is usually very easy. We've put together a quick tip sheet to help you stay in the local good books too:
China has a face culture; that means it's not really done to give excessive compliments and if they are given it's normal for a Chinese person to reply in the opposite. So if you go for a meal with some at a Chinese friend's house during your vacation and say; "Wow! That meal was incredible thank you!" don't be surprised if they say; "Oh no! It was horrible the food was really bad!" And don't be offended if they do, modesty is incredibly important in Chinese society.
2.Use People's Surnames
It can come as a surprise to us informal Westerners to realize that Chinese people are very peculiar about their names. If you are introduced to someone on your China tour you should call them by the surname. To confuse matters someone's given name is always given last name first and first name last. So if you meet a Zhang Min, you should call her Ms. Zhang and not Ms. Min. It's only very, very close family and friends who use a Chinese person's first name.
3.Make a Toast before You Drink
Travel round China for long enough and sooner or later on your trip you will find yourself drinking with Chinese people. China's alcohol culture is also quite formal (though the pace of consumption can be incredible – so this tip is very useful for slowing things down); and you will be expected to make a toast to the host of the night before you take a sip. If people start shouting "ganbei" you're expected to finish the whole glass – if everyone starts doing this it might be best to slip away politely before you drink too much…
4.Always Fight over the Bill
In general the host pays and if that's not applicable the oldest person at the table pays for a meal in China. However, it's customary for everybody to fight over the bill before surrendering the check to the right party. Your vacation will go more smoothly if you appreciate the etiquette and play your part accordingly.
5.Don't Accept "No Thank You" Immediately
If you decide to offer someone something on your China tour; it's expected that they will say no thank you. You should then offer again. A good person should say no once and a good person should make an offer twice. It's important because otherwise your companion may go hungry or thirsty for the sake of manners.
If you want your trip to Vietnam to have a little "something extra" you might want to plan your Vietnam vacation for one of the country's major festivals. So to prepare you for the perfect Vietnam tour we've put together a pre-travel guide to Vietnam's best festivals.
Tet Nguyen Dan – Spring Festival (January-February)
Unlike the rest of Indochina, Vietnam's biggest festival is not the Buddhist New Year it's the Tet holiday. It's worth noting that "Tet" just means "festival" and the right name to use is "Tet Nguyen Dan". We don't really recommend travel to Vietnam just for the Tet festival. Much like the Chinese New Year there are a few public celebrations but it's very much a family affair. If your tour of Vietnam does coincide with this festival the big advantage to you is that most of the major tourist spots are far less busy than they would be at other times of the year.
Tay Son Festival – Tay Son District (January-February)
It is worth taking time out of your vacation in Vietnam to make a trip to the Tay Son District on the 5th day of the first lunar month of the year. This festival not only offers you insight into the finest martial arts in all of Vietnam; with major displays taking place but it also gives you the chance to watch elephants on parade.
Water Puppet Festival – Hanoi (January-February)
Please don't let the word "puppet" put you off. Head to the Thay Pagoda in Hanoi any time between the 5th and 7th of the first lunar month and enjoy the most traditional of Vietnam's art displays. Water puppetry is a highly-skilled and highly-intricate art and we cannot recommend this festival highly enough. Adults will love it every bit as much as children do.
Perfume Pagoda Festival – Hanoi (March-April)
Chua Huong temple is a little to the West of Hanoi proper but it's worth taking a trip out to see Vietnam's biggest Buddhist congregation of pilgrims. It's a bright and happy affair and the best time to go is on the full moon during the second lunar month of the year.
Tet Doan Ngo – Vietnam-wide (May-June)
Coinciding with the summer solstice and designed to protect participants from the heat of the Vietnamese summer this is a jolly affair. If you've never seen dragon boat racing before this is the best time to book your Vietnam vacation as they're held all over the country.
Trang Nugyen – Vietnam Wide (August)
A slightly spooky festival reminiscent of the Western Halloween. The King of Hell metes out punishment to bad souls and rewards the good ones. Food and clothing are offered up at temples across the country to try and protect the souls of people's ancestors. This is the biggest festival in Vietnam after the New Year and you should be aware that the country does slow down a lot during this time.
Trung Thu – Vietnam Wide (September)
This is children's day in Vietnam and the best opportunity to catch dragon dances throughout the nation. Children carry beautiful lanterns and are given special candies on this day. It's a really pleasant family-oriented festival.
It's a common dilemma during a China vacation; what do I take home for my loved ones that says “I've been on a great China tour!” As you travel round China you'll find plenty of great options such as the beautiful Chinese qi pao (the traditional dress) or perhaps some folk art. What you probably won't want to take back from your China trip is one of these 5 strange souvenirs. They're probably best left behind in China before you travel home.
1. Virgin Tea
If you were to travel to China's Henan province and were to explore a little you would eventually find the Jiuhua Tea plantation. What makes their tea different from any other tea you'll encounter on a China tour is that every leaf is plucked from the bush by the mouth of a Chinese virgin. Really, we're not making this up. In fact not only must the women be virgins but there are stringent set of physical criteria they must pass too. The reason for this strange habit? Locals swear that it gives the tea the same level of purity as the lady who picked it.
2. White People
Actually, you can't technically buy a white person during your China trip but it is perfectly possible to rent them. Chinese people have had very little exposure to the outside world in much of the country. Thus white people are interesting. They are also believed to be good business people and rich. So if a Chinese person wants to launch a business; he or she will often rent a white person for a few days to make their business look special. The lucky white person's work usually involves giving a small speech and handing out business cards. It's very lucrative work.
3. Obama Fried Chicken
Your China vacation will offer plenty of great places to eat but this bizarre copy of KFC has the American president's face on every bucket of chicken. It's meant to be a compliment – Chinese people love President Obama and his brother actually lives in Shenzhen, China – but we wouldn't travel out of our way to eat there.
4. Tinned Air
It's more of a gimmick than a reality but in parts of China where pollution is heavy; there are people who miss the smell of clean country air. Those people can now buy tinned air which is supposedly bottled in the countryside and imported into the city. We're not certain that it would survive the trip home even if you could find it on a shelf. Empty cans may not react well to the pressure changes on a flight.
5. Panda Tea
This isn't so much tea as boiled panda droppings. It's incredibly expensive too and a single kilo cost nearly $80,000. It's made in Sichuan where a local company buys all the panda poop it can get its hands on from the panda sanctuary in Chengdu. They say it's rich in antioxidants but we really don't want to find out if that's true.
You can get more out of a Cambodia vacation by planning your Cambodia tour to coincide with one of more of the local festivals. If you're thinking about a trip to Cambodia why not read our guide to Cambodian Festivals before you book your Cambodia travel experience?
Khmer New Year – April
The Khmer New Year is the number one vacation in Cambodia. It's very similar to Songkran in Thailand in that both festivals celebrate the Buddhist New Year. However, it's also markedly different too. In Thailand the festival is a raucous and sometimes over-the-top water fight and while many people enjoy Songkran in Thailand many others would prefer to stay dry.
The Cambodian version is a much less dramatic affair. If your trip to Cambodia takes place at this time of year, you'll find that people delicately splash a couple of drops of water on you rather than trying to soak you through. There are games and merriment at the local temples and it's a very happy occasion.
As with all major holidays the world over be prepared for travel in Cambodia to be somewhat slower and for small businesses to be closed during this time. Hotels, however, apart from the most basic hostels are all open for business as usual.
The Royal Ploughing Festival – May
If you'd like to connect with Cambodia's roots during your tour of the country then the Royal Ploughing Festival is a good way to do it. The country is still very much an agrarian economy and most of the nation is involved in farming. The festival is only celebrated outside the National Museum in Phnom Penh and ceremonial representation of the King ploughs the field in front. Then the local soothsayers drive more oxen round the fields bearing trays of produce before pronouncing the year a good one or a bad one for agriculture. Look out for the traditional Khmer garb for this festival which is captivatingly beautiful.
Pchum Ben – September and October
This is the traditional harvest festival in Cambodia; it lasts for nearly 15 days and unlike most other festivals it's not likely to interrupt your Cambodia vacation in any way. You will see regular attendance at temples during this time and people will leave food as offerings to please the “hungry ghosts” of their ancestors. There's also quite a bit of singing and dancing to keep the ghosts at bay. It's a really pleasant festival and to get the best from it you should head to a local (and modern in-use) temple to take part.
The Water Festival – November
Please do not book your Cambodia tour with expectations of seeing the water festival which has been cancelled by parliamentary order for the last two years. If it takes place it will be during the waxing and waning of the moon in November. Cambodians come from all over the country to Phnom Penh and Siem Reap to take to the water and race boats and make merry. It's a celebration of the wealth of the Tonle Sap (Cambodia's largest body of water) which feeds nearly 80% of people in the country.
China is a great vacation destination. One of the things that China tour groups always comment on is the difference between their culture and Chinese culture. If you travel for any length of time in China you're bound to come across some weird and wonderful sights and experiences. You may not encounter any of the following during your China trip but that's not to say you won't find something equally as fascinating.
1. Walnut Investors and Nut Forgers
China is getting richer as you'll see during your trip; unfortunately Chinese people don't really trust their banks. So instead they invest in pretty much anything that can be stored. Walnuts have become a popular form of investment and that's led to a rise in folks who specialize in counterfeiting walnuts to take advantage of this.
2. Prisoner Body Doubles
We hope that you have no cause to come into contact with China's legal system during your tour. However, if you did you might come across the latest in prison trends. The wealthy are now believed to hire body doubles to stand trial on their behalf and to serve their time in jail.
3. Pork Banks
There's no shortage of pork on the table anywhere you travel to in China; what you might not know is that the government actually banks pork to protect the nation from inflationary price increases. When the pork supply gets low; the government lets some of its stock onto the market to keep prices low.
4. Divorces to Get More Houses
Everyone in China has the right to buy and sell a single house tax free. If on the other hand they also have a vacation property; they have to pay 20% tax on the sale of the second home. So to avoid tax several Chinese couples have got divorced (and remained together) giving them a house each and no tax to pay.
5. People Hire Assassins to Kill Imaginary Creations
This has to be unique to China. An angry father was so upset by the amount of time his son spent playing World of Warcraft and taking an extended vacation from the world of work; that he paid virtual assassins to kill his son's in game character.
6. Roads to Nowhere
In Qingdao they built an 8-lane bridge that is the longest in the world. The only problem is that nobody in China wants to take a trip on it and it remains virtually unused despite having cost over $2 billion US dollars to build.
7. Exercise Lanes?
During the chaos on China's roads during the Spring Festival it's not uncommon to see people get out of their cars and then do push-ups or sit-ups in the road.
8. Eyes are Shaved
Really, not eyebrow hair but the eyeball itself – a razor is inserted under the lid and used to clean out the eye. It's a very common practice but one that we don't recommend. Some things are better left to the professionals.