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.

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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. 

In Search of Dragons

There is something particularly appealing about visiting a place that is relatively inaccessible, but offers the chance to see something that can be found nowhere else. It rewards the effort, it sets the traveller apart from most by virtue of having seen something that few others will have done, and thus satisfies one of the principal desires of extensive travel – the ability to tell others where you have been. 

Of course, that may be a cynical perspective on the motivations, but it is undoubtedly true that returning from somewhere able to provoke envy at the experiences gained both satisfies and also inspires others to follow the same path. 

The Komodo Dragon manages to sit within a niche of wild animals, in that it is the largest lizard in the world, has a fearsome reputation that isn’t entirely deserved and is the beneficiary of a stroke of marketing genius through being named dragon. 

It is found only on four Indonesian islands across the region collectively known as Komodo. Komodo Island itself is the largest and home to more of the dragons than anywhere else, but it is also the furthest away from the hotels of Flores, something that should be borne in mind given how may properties label their location as ‘Komodo’​.

Access to the islands is by boat, and Komodo itself is four hours away using the kinds of surface transport that most tourists book, meaning an exceptionally long day of up to fourteen hours to take in everything. Fortunately there are ways around this. The island of Rinca is only two hours from Flores, is home to a large number of Komodos and is geared up for tourism. Indeed it’s where most visitors end up going to see them. Alternatively, rather than the standard transport, a speedboat can be booked instead. Of course, that involves significant additional expense and unless shared with – for example – another couple, possibly prohibitively so. But when the four hour trip to Komodo drops to under an hour, it is something well worth considering – it isn’t the time saved as such, it’s freeing the whole day to concentrate on what is most important.  There’s another reason too, Komodo is hot, fearfully so. A boat moving at speed is a much more pleasant a place to be, as the breeze created offers much needed cooling. One other thing on this, the idea of a speedboat deters some due to concerns over seasickness. This is an archipelago and the seas are sheltered. It is almost always a flat calm, any fears of bouncing off the waves are unnecessary.

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When the islands are reached, there are various hiking trails that can be followed in the hope of seeing the dragons, and indeed some of their prey such as deer. They are graded both in terms of time and difficulty, and of course the likelihood of seeing the wildlife. Naturally animals in the wild don’t always cooperate, and in peak season the sheer number of noisy tourists cause the dragons to retreat into the mountains, drastically lessening the chances of a glimpse. 

The irony is that for all the trails that can be taken, the best chance of seeing them is hanging around the restaurant on each island, the smell of the food attracting them, and the shade underneath the buildings offering them much needed respite from the heat. 

There is obviously some degree of risk, as there always is with large wild canivores but it is not major and the rangers carry sticks for protection in any case. It’s not really a consideration. What it does offer is the chance to see something truly unique, something that can’t be seen anywhere else in the world except in the sterile environment of a zoo. Seeing extraordinary animals in their home environment is what travel is bult around, and it why you should do it too. Come to Komodo, there are few travel experiences quite so exciting and quite so magical. 


Oh yes, one last thing: islands and sunsets, there’s something extraordinary that happens…

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Gili Trawangan

When Indonesia is under consideration as a holiday destination, it tends to split into two separate desires, first the one to explore, to take in the cultural identity of the country and experience its history; secondly to relax and spend some time by the beach or pool.  

Beach holidays obviously form a huge proportion of holiday travel, especially from the more northern countries who can’t guarantee sunshine during the summer months and can guarantee wind, rain and snow during the winter ones. The desire to escape somewhere with certain sun and sand is evidenced by the sheer number of places from which to choose, all over the world. It merely depends how much a traveller wishes to spend, how far they want to go and the type of experience they are seeking. 

As far as Indonesia is concerned, Bali is clearly the most famous and most popular destination. For certain countries like Australia, it is the nearest overseas beach option, but the range of nationalities present indicates the popularity of it rather abundantly. Of course Bali possesses a number of different types of experience, from the nightlife of Kuta and Seminyak through the bars and restaurants of Sanur to the quieter north and west of the island. 

If Bali is by far the biggest draw, then Lombok is the next one on the list. With its own airport or boat transfer from the mainland, it offers a more exclusive experience, and particularly for couples. It’s still a developed destination, but isn’t in the same league as the heart of the Balinese resort areas. 

But what about another option? The Gilis have always been the alternative, albeit much less well known and a rather different experience. There will be some who choose a different island each visit, and some who come only the once. As ever, it depends what is being sought. 

Gili Trawangan is the largest of the three, with its sisters Gili Meno and Gili Air also offering a tourist experience. Small they may be, with Trawangan only 3km by 2km yet it’s not a complete retreat, the main – indeed only – street is active, with bars, restaurants and shops aplenty. But nor is it so busy you couldn’t tell the difference, there are no roads as such, only dirt tracks to form the street, and no traffic. Getting around is done on foot, by bike or by cimono – a horse drawn cart that most visitors will use at least once if only to carry their luggage. The cimonos aren’t especially cheap by local standards, journeys costing around 100,000 rupiahs each way – £6 in British money. Of course that’s relative, as it’s hardly going to break the bank, but by local standards it’s a touch pricey. 

Where you stay depends on budget, preferences in nightlife and where you wish to be on the island. Sunset over the sea does require being on the west of it for example.  

As with so many destinations there are the obvious places to go and the less obvious ones. Some are put off by feeling that a place might be too remote and too quiet. For the time being at least, Gili Trawangan straddles that divide nicely. 

Prambanan, Bugisan and Yogyakarta

Having written yesterday about Borobudur there was a reference to other such sites being less well known, but equally captivating. So it is with Prambanan, and it shows that sheer ignorance can sometimes be a major bonus when it comes to travelling, for apart from a name on an itinerary, I knew nothing about it. And yet it’s spectacular. There isn’t really an excuse for being so unaware, given it forms part of the usual itineraries around the region but as is often the case the focus falls on what is anticipated to be the expected highlight. 

So it was something of a shock to realise that this Hindu temple, from the same period as Borobudur, is one of the largest Hindu temples in south east Asia. It doesn’t get quite the same attention, yet it should because it’s startling in its own right. The towers are massive, with the largest, the Shiva temple, reaching 47 metres up and 34 metres across. There are three main temples but the Shiva one is flanked by two smaller ones plus three others across the main platform and in front of the whole complex are over 200 smaller ones, of which only two have been restored. The remainder consist either of foundations only or simply piles of rubble, yet the overall effect adds to the striking nature of the visit rather than detracting from it. 

There’s clearly been considerable reconstruction under the auspices of UNESCO but it is both sympathetic and clearly marked where non original materials hae been used, meaning the real reliefs and friezes are even more startling.

Like most other monuments in the area, damage was done by the 2006 eruption of Mt Merapi, and that is an ongoing risk in the future. Yet the degree of care in terms of what has been done, such as the creation of what amounts to a park around it, is abundantly clear and prevents concern being too high about its future. 

If Prambanan represents the past, then Bugisan is very much the present. This small village has created a collective to preserve the traditional ways of life and to turn it into a source of much needed income. Responsible tourism includes attempting to ensure that dollars, euros and pounds spent at least have a chance of going into the pockets of local people. It’s for this reason that interaction has become essential to many visitors, and here it is the entire purpose behind coming. 

Unusually, the mode of transport to get there is by ox cart, certainly a first for me, and very different to the norm. On arrival in the village itself you go to the house of the Jamu maker, whose array of herbal remedies, drinks and medicines are still to be seen on Indonesian streets. Or instead there’s her neighbour, who makes a local, and delicious, snack called emping. If that’s not enough then witnessing a gamelan performance by the ladies of the village may even tempt the visitor into having a go. Not this one though. 

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Written down this could be viewed as being tacky and touristy, yet it is anything but. It’s a real village, with the people who live, doing what they’ve always done, except that they’ve found a way to supplement their income at the same time as monetising that way of life sufficiently to preserve it. Such traditions are important in any society and if this helps to ensure their survival, then it’s well worth it. And for the visitor, that insight into real life is priceless, without ever being forced to intrude. 
Next to the village is another spectacular set of ruins, the Buddhist temples of Plaosan. These are diminished from their original scale as some of it has been lost, but still impressive, and by virtue of being less heavily restored than some of the others, provides a pertinent illustration of the passage of time. 

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Yogyakarta itself is often used as a base from which to explore these sites and little more. Yet it’s a mistake to do that, for the city has much to offer. There is the modern place with plenty of bars and restaurants but there is also the Kraton, or royal palace of the Sultan, both the palace elements themselves or the nearby Taman Sari Water Castle, of which only the central bathing complex is well preserved. It’s still well worth a visit. 

The cultural life of the city is also easy to come by, puppet shows and indeed the creation of the puppets themselves can be visited as can batik fabric manufacture. In essence, the city and its surrounds offer far more than initial examinations may make clear. 

Finally for this piece, the downside of travel and being away. This evening I learned from home that our beloved cat, Dave, had been run over and killed. He was only a year old. Just a cat perhaps, but we loved him very much, and this whole entry has been written in some distress. Sleep well beautiful boy.

Borobudur

One of the attractions about touring around Asia is the prevalence of temples, be they Hindu or Buddhist. It can become a bit much after a while and temple fatigue is a known reaction from many visitors, particularly those not spiritually minded, but there are unquestionably some that are not just highlights but items fit for any bucket list. 

In Cambodia there is the Angkor complex, in Myanmar there is Bagan, and in Indonesia there is Borobudur. It’s anything but an exclusive list, for there are numerous other astonishing historic sights in many places, and Vat Phou in Laos is a lesser known one that takes the breath away for example.

However, there’s no doubt that those three are the ones that are the biggest and most famous, and as such form the centrepieces of itineraries intended to take in the highlights of each country. 

The downside of that is that they are invariably extremely busy, so the dream of having these iconic locations to onesself is rather unlikely. It’s also somewhat unreasonable to hope for, although it’s an entirely understandable reaction, for we all wish we had these places to ourselves.

Borobudur dates back to the ninth century and was abandoned some 700 years ago, with the decline of the Hindu kingdoms in Java and the arrival of Islam. It’s re-discovery as far as the rest of the world was concerned came about through the efforts of Sir Stamford Raffles who was told of its existence by the Indonesians. 

It wasn’t until the early 20th century that serious attempts at its restoration were made, although it’s in more recent decades that a concerted attempt to ensure its structural stability and future viability have been made. 

The result is a temple that differs markedly in style from its equally famous brethren, while providing similarly colossal scale for the visitor. It is the largest Buddhist temple in the world, designed as a single stupa in pyramid form representing the various levels on the way to nirvana. But while it retains its importance as a religious site, with a once a year pilgrimage, it is the architecture and decoration that sets it apart. 

The Angkor temples have plenty of reliefs to study, but they pale beside the sheer volume and scale of the depictions at Borobudur. Most are intact, with some damage caused by misguided attempts at restoration or study in decades past as in the photograph below, but the tales of every day life and Buddhist fables are clear enough and easy to follow. Equally the different levels show a progress that even to the non-religious makes sense. It is hard to adequately get across the sheer number of them, it’s like nothing else. 

When the top is reached there are 72 bell shaped stupas surrounding the large central one. The views are exceptional, the condition of most of the stupas magnificent. Some were damaged in a terrorist attack 30 years ago, but not enough to detract from the overall sense of wonder. 


It’s been a UNESCO World Heritage site for many years, and the care and attention to detail in restoring it is extremely evident. Where modern work has been needed the stones are clearly identified with a metal stamp, there is no attempt to deceive as can be the case at other sites. 

As with many such monuments a modicum of fitness is required in order to climb to the top but nothing excessive. It’s well worth it, the experience of seeing these places is a privilege. 

Choosing a favourite of the iconic temples across Asia is an impossibility. They are so different, and so striking in different ways. Simply put, you need to see them all. There’s no other option. 

Samarang to Magelang

One of the highlights of any trip to the central part of Java is Borobodur. Yet it should never be thought of as simply the one place of interest to get to as fast as possible, for there is a great deal of history, both colonial and otherwise to take in and experience. Samarang was my gateway airport, a city that was a small village when the Dutch arrived and expanded it under the control of the VOC East India company. 

As a port city, it was an essential trading post and grew rapidly, to the point it is now the fifth largest city in Indonesia, while Greater Samarang now encompasses a population of over six million. 

Heading south from the city the built up area does soon give way to a more agricultural way of life. The traffic is still heavy given the road network, but rice fields are prevalent on the journey and as the altitude rises so coffee plantations begin to make an appearance. 

The stopping off point for tonight is MesaStila, one of those coffee plantations created in the early part of the 20th century under colonial rule. 

Since being turned into a resort the coffee growing has expanded, allied to the accommodation and the stunning views to the mountains in the distance. It’s only a small property in terms of rooms but covers a significant area, meaning the villas are spacious and comfortable. Each one has a different design, and is built with different materials. It is very much a retreat, and while many visitors will simply stay a single night, it does provide a relaxing environment, seemingly a million miles from the bustle that is so much of this country. They may wish they’d stayed longer. ​

Borobodur tomorrow as the real sightseeing gets underway.

Sitting in an airport…

Unquestionably the bane of a traveller’s life is the airport. It’s a necessary evil of course, and for many arrival at the airport signifies a special kind of excitement, as it portends travel, new experiences and of course, holidays.  

Much of the glamour has been lost, as airports become ever busier, security necessarily more onerous and a gourmet choice of a variety of fast food outlets constituting the sustenance options. Some airports – Dalaman in Turkey springs to mind as a particular offender – take the opportunity to delve into the traveller’s bank account, have a good rummage and disappear with lots of cash, leaving a particularly bitter taste in the mouth of visitors. 

So it’s always a pleasant surprise to find one that manages to actually make transiting the airport, well not a pleasure, that would be too much, but at least bearable, and even pain free. 

Soekarno-Hatta airport in Jakarta does suffer from a lot of these problems of course, but there’s a major redevelopment of it under way, with the new Terminal 3 being the lead example.  Designed by Australian architects Woodhead, it is light, airy, spacious, the PA system actually works rather than the usual muffled drone that leads passengers to dash around in panic as they think they’re missing their flight. 


It is perhaps illustrative of the state of so many airports that this provokes some idle thoughts on a blog, but the plan is that this be the first stage of trying to turn the airport into a fully fledged hub to compete with the likes of Singapore.

If this is the model for the rest of the airport’s development, then bring it on. It’s really rather wonderful.