Phnom Penh – Impressions

There are some cities in the world you just want to visit. No real rhyme or reason, no pressing sight or experience to be ticked off the list, you just want to go. 

Cambodian tourism is thoroughly dominated by Siem Reap and the sprawling Angkor complex of temples nearby. It’s on almost everyone’s bucket list, and as a result is heaving with visitors to the point many ensure they get up before dawn to try and experience it in some kind of solitude. That’s not to say it is in any way underwhelming – just the opposite, it’s magnificence is the very reason so many want to go. But like with many destinations where one location so overwhelms all others, it makes a visit to the rest of the country country a little bit special. 

Capitals rarely define life in an entire country, they operate as miniature states in their own right, but equally they have a particular style and life of their very own, making them somewhere that tends to evoke strong opinions both in favour and against. 

With so many Asian cities becoming urban sprawl where the historic heart is little more than a memory, it’s delightful to find somewhere that still beats to its own particular rhythm. Certainly the horrors of 40 years ago are anything but forgotten (more on that in a later post) but nor has it become simply another megacity with little to differentiate it from anywhere else. It’s predominately a low rise place, though this is beginning to change, and is a mix of affluence and grinding poverty. But for the visitor, the abundance of colonial era architecture, its position next to the confluence of the Tonle Sap, Mekong and Bassac rivers lends an exotic air to the Riverside area in particular. 

Great bars and restaurants (I’m writing this from the rooftop of the Foreign Correspondents Club) are plentiful and getting around is easy and cheap subject to traffic, and the rain in particular. Ah yes traffic. You’ll hear a lot about how bad it is, but in truth Bangkok and Yangon are worse, and Jakarta is infinitely worse. It isn’t great, but it does at least move, most of the time. 

It’s also a green city, not in the environmental and ecological sense, it’s anything but that, but in the fact there are open spaces and the streets are tree lined to an almost excessive degree, a legacy of the French desire for their colonial capitals to be vaguely reminiscent of Paris. Indeed the waterfront is not dissimilar to the Promenade Des Anglais in Nice, although given it’s a recent addition that’s probably a coincidence. 

There are plenty of downsides to the city’s rise as an attraction; sex tourism in all its exploitative grimness is as noticeable here as it is in many others, but it’s also a city undergoing change. Not all of it is good, the corruption and displacement of people to make way for the latest tower development is something few beyond those who stand to make money would be pleased to see, but it’s also somewhere that has a beauty all of its own. 

In 20 years time, or perhaps even less it will have changed radically. That is rarely a reason in itself to come somewhere, but perhaps here it matters. There are strong echoes of its historical self, and it makes for a beguiling, extraordinary attractiveness. It’s worth seeing.

Waterfalls and Luang Prabang

Becoming familiar with a particular place leads to a certain warmth of feeling when returning to it. Perhaps even more so when visiting with others who are there for the first time – the awareness of showing them the sights and what there is to do and remembering the sense of wonder on the first visit. So it was with this remarkable town, probably the main exposure most have when visiting Laos – for many Luang Prabang is Laos to all intents and purposes.

Having written extensively on it before, the extraordinary array of temples dating back centuries and the genuinely astounding National Museum remain highlights of any visit, but the central attraction for me is that it is unlike most major Asian destinations through being distinctively relaxed and peaceful as long as the absolute peak season is avoided. There are only really three streets anyway, but traffic is generally light and the sense of quietness during the day is a notable change in atmosphere from many other destinations.

The sightseeing is obviously the principal attraction, but the Night Market here is consistently one of the favourite memories for any visitor. It’s not just the scale of it, running the length of the main street each evening, nor is it a disadvantage that it is plainly and openly for the tourists rather than the locals (as an aside, the local market is in the morning and well worth visiting too); it is more that browsing the stalls is both fascinating and hassle free. Traders do not by and large call out, nor demand that you visit them. The tourist initiates the conversation and either concludes a deal or walks away, without feeling pressured. 

Although few do it, having a guide present is not a bad idea either. With all such markets there is a mix of the authentic and the imported, and few outsiders will have the slightest idea of the difference. The invaluable advice of a local can make all the difference, saving money and ensuring the purchases are ones to be satisfactory.

The markets might be an expected part of any visit, but the Bamboo Experience is not. It’s fairly new for one thing, and in all honesty doesn’t sound like the kind of thing to make the blood quicken. The concept is of a centre to teach about the importance of bamboo both historically and in the present day. Watching craftsmen at work is something that many excursions offer, all too often as an excuse to get people into the shop, but here was that rarest of beasts, an activity that delivered vastly more than it promised, and was genuinely fascinating. It’s just bamboo, but it shouldn’t put anyone off at all, this is an excellent way to spend half a day, and close to town too. 


If the Night Market was like seeing an old friend, then the Kuang Si waterfalls were more an oversight that needed correcting. Given the nature of work trips and the time investment (only half a day) of getting out to them, I simply hadn’t managed to see them on previous visits. Preconceptions are dangerous things, and having seen the extraordinary series of waterfalls in the south of the country, the expectation that these ones wouldn’t compare was ingrained. 

Utterly wrong. Kuang Si is not just the most beautiful, gorgeous spot you can imagine, but has been developed with a level of taste not always present in other natural beauty spots in Laos. The falls themselves are stunning, the series of pools at the foot of them simply gorgeous.   Swimming is possible too, in certain areas where it’s safe to do so, and it’s easy to imagine spending a whole day here in the delightful surroundings. 

During peak season they will undoubtedly be extremely busy, but there is plenty of room there and even with the usual proviso that the ideal tourist spot is one that no one else knows about applying, it’s still well worth putting it in the itinerary. 

I’m not sure when next I’ll be in Luang Prabang. But it remains a special place and a favourite. Discovering something new, even one hidden in such plain sight as Kuang Si, made it all the more special. 

And with that, it was time to say goodbye to an old friend and head to Phnom Penh. 

Wilderness Days

If we’re honest about things, most tourists who go to Laos really only go to Luang  Prabang. So they should, it’s a remarkable place, is well connected by air and makes an easy extension to whatever trip is being planned in the region. As an add on to Vietnam for example it makes a lot of sense. Much the same applies to Cambodia where tourism essentially means Siem Reap and the temples of Angkor. Of course that’s true of many countries, but somewhere like Laos, which remains generally undeveloped, the effect is exacerbated. Getting out into the wider country remains a challenge even for those who wish to do it, as travel is routinely slow, baulking at the idea of long journeys on poor roads is unsurprising.

It begs the question as to why even bother. South-east Asia is hardly short of things to see and do; visiting a country that doesn’t make it easy can be put in the ‘too hard’ category and left for another time – maybe when the infrastructure has improved. For most potential visitors it’s exactly the pattern, the far off tipping point where Laos moves from being niche to mainstream will undoubtedly be a Good Thing as revenue is earned and jobs created. But there remains something special about seeing somewhere on the cusp of change, while it remains something of a special secret, shared by few but appreciated by them all. 

Most of the country is mountainous and heavily forested, and it’s this that creates the principal activities for the visitor. Trekking, ziplining, canoeing, swimming in pools under waterfalls (the number of spectacular falls in this country is astonishing), quadbiking – everything revolves around the environment. Plenty of countries offer these options of course, including those surrounding landlocked Laos, but none of them can do so on the same scale, and none of them imbue the visitor with quite the same sense of awe. 

Photos never do it justice, in that what looks remarkable is in fact mundane. This realisation doesn’t spoil anything, it just leaves a greater sense of privilege at seeing such an extraordinary place close at hand where being alone somewhere remarkable is entirely normal, as is finding something even better around the next corner.

It requires some commitment. Travelling time is part of it, an understanding that not everything is going to be up to the standards found elsewhere, that the country is not wealthy and nor are the people. It isn’t a destination for the first time visitor to Asia, it probably isn’t even one for the second or third timer. But when on the fifth or sixth, or eighth or ninth, finding out what it has to offer becomes appealing in itself, and that relatively small cadre of people who know all about it come back, and often. Laos is a special place, and one that visitors can very easily fall in love with. 

There are undoubted problems, elephant welfare is certainly one, as there is a large domestic market for riding them and seeing them in a controlled environment. It would be great to report this is changing, but the truth is the discussion around the whole subject is only just starting, while foreign visitor numbers are too small to have much impact outside Luang Prabang. It will change when the commercial imperative switches from exploitation to preservation and sympathy.  International tourism can be a force for good, its absence tends to demonstrate that rather acutely.

Dollars have power if they’re used wisely.

Laos. Again. 

It’s funny how you fall in love with particular countries, and so often not the obvious ones. Some you visit once and feel you’ve ‘done’ them even though it can be no more than the merest snapshot of a slice of a wider picture, but others demand you explore, see parts you’ve not seen before, arrive in a different way, or take an alternate road. Anything in fact to drink in a mouthful or two extra. 

Thus it was that crossing the border from the Chiang Rai region of Thailand wasn’t just a means to an end, but exciting in itself for being a new part of the country and a new means of getting in. Some places get under the skin, and Laos fits the bill, yet it isn’t immediately obvious as to why. The roads remain something of a disaster, not because they are badly surfaced – although that’s true in part – but because they are so slow; alternate travel is either even slower (boats), not necessarily the one to feel comfortable with (flying) or non existent (rail). It is a large country with few people in it, and getting about takes ages. 

But the landscape is ever arresting, the people consistently friendly, welcoming and downright delightful, and the ambience something that you simply don’t find anywhere else in the region. But the question is as always why come? It’s the least known of any of the countries in this part of the world, probably the only one likely to pick up a score of zero in Pointless, and not to put to fine a point on it, it’s a ballache to get around. 

Maybe that’s why. It takes effort, it takes some degree of genuinely wanting to be here that sets it apart from elsewhere. The attractions aren’t always immediately obvious without a modicum of research (do it by the way), and getting between them tends to involve a day in a bus. But even that is part of the charm, for what better way to get to know a country is there but to watch it lazily float past by for hour after hour, and to stop in nondescript villages with little to gain the attention of the tourist and everything to pull to one side the resident. 

I love it because it’s unspoilt by tourism, but has more than enough to bring those in the know back again and again, offering up soft adventure in a way that none of the surrounding nations routinely do, and is quite simply a hidden gem. 

Scenery photos are always misleading, they tend to be a single stop on a route of endless drudgery, but the point about Laos is that it could be anywhere, except perhaps the south east which is fairly flat. Frequent visitors would struggle to identify where it was taken, let alone when. The rugged terrain is normal, the forested nature of it all simply the backdrop.

Again, why come? Because unspoilt destinations are ever rarer, and because you can hike, enjoy waterfalls and astounding flora and fauna in a way that nowhere else in south east Asia does. It’s tomorrow’s aim.

Northern Thailand

When Thailand is considered for a holiday, it’s most regularly identified with beaches and the glorious mayhem of Bangkok.  Indeed, the classic itinerary tends to revolve around a city break I’m the capital and somewhere with a beach by the sea, be it one of the many island destinations or on the mainland.  Yet what is true of most countries – that there is far more on offer than the obvious – is certainly the case with Thailand.  The north of the country is far from being off the beaten track, with Chiang Mai in particularly a significant tourist destination, but nor is it a place every visitor goes.  A city it may be, but the contrast with Bangkok is striking, both architecturally where the city walls remain extant, and rivers run through the heart of it.  There is a particular feel to the place itself for the new visitor, one which tends to stay in the mind.  It’s less all eco passing, and certainly more charming.  The city walls and moat are a constant reminder of the location near the Burmese border and the numerous wars between the two peoples. Yet the modern city retains that history while adapting both to normal 21st century life for those living there and as a magnet for ever increasing numbers of tourists from around the world.

There is plenty to see and do, from temples and historic ruins to the more modern nighlife such as the night markets, bars and restaurants.  For those who have experienced Bangkok, the compact nature provides what many consider an enhanced experience and a particularly Thai city break.

Although Chiang Mai was the capital of the northern Thai Lanna kingdom, it wasn’t the original choice.  The city name means New City, having quickly supplanted the original settlement of Chiang Rai.  The latter place remained important though, not least for its religious significance as the long standing location for the emerald Buddha now located in Bangkok.  Indeed, temple visits are still a major attraction, and not necessarily the older ones.  The White Temple nearby may be modern, but both the architecture and the truly astonishingly unorthodox modern artwork within make it a must see for anyone coming to the region.

 Outside the temple a sea of stone hands reaching out from the ground is unsettling in its imagery, while a legion of modern persons from George W Bush to Zinedine Zidane via Harry Potter bedeck the walls.  No photography inside is permitted, so a visit is required to truly grasp what is being witnessed.​

The mountains and hills beyond form the beginning of the area known as the Golden Triangle, notorious for illicit opium production.  Yet from a tourism perspective, the scenery is astounding and the views extraordinary.  Staying in Chiang Rai itself allows access to the nightlife, but moving beyond provides for relaxation and peace and quiet.  Sometimes that’s exactly what’s needed.

From this area the borders of Laos and Burma are not far away.  The choice is where to go.  This time, it’ll be Laos, and that’s never a problem, because Laos is an extraordinary country.  

Awandering – 2017

It’s that time of year again, where I undertake one of the frankly ridiculously compacted journeys through various parts of Asia.  This time it’s some familiar spots, and some new ones.  Thailand is the familiar, although the Golden Triangle will be a new experience.  Laos is partly new, heading across the border from Thailand, going through the countryside and forests before finishing up in Luang Prabang.  On this occasion I am hosting a group of tour operators from the UK, who haven’t been there before, so I’m quite excited about showcasing what the country has to offer.

From there, it’ll be a solo trip to the south of Cambodia, and finally on to India – Chennai and through Kerala.  As with the previous trips, there’ll be blog posts at every stage of the journey, so why not join me for it?  Departure is Saturday.

Return to Bali

With the various trips out to different locations, this time Bali was relegated to an overnight base from which to explore other places. Somewhat harsh on a destination that is highly attractive for huge numbers of visitors from around the world, but interestingly it works on that level too. Exploring such places as the Gilis or Komodo is best done with Bali the central point and given the development in tourism, there are ample options from which to choose the kind of Bali needed, even if being within close range of the airport or boat transfer points is a consideration. 

And so it is that the nightlife of Kuta and Legian, the beachfront and active social calendar of Seminyak, the restaurants and relaxed vibe of up and coming Sanur, or the quiet of Benoa are all available depending on what is being sought. 

Few will have thought about it in quite those terms, but Bali actually makes for an excellent stopover location when the primary focus is elsewhere. Transfers from the airport can be short, the beaches are so often wonderful and there is lots to do. Not perhaps the most obvious role the island plays, but it does it well nevertheless.