Like a crown on a king’s head, the majestic Himalayas adornmy country- India. The Himalayan range swarms over the north and north east of the country and boast a great variety of flora and fauna andbeing the snowy area of our country, it is a highly sought after travel spot. The Himalayas have a huge list of activities to offer:
Not a trekking fan? No problem at all! You can still go biking or cycling. The Himalayas have some really enchanting routes that are perfect for adventure biking and cycling. There is no denying that there are a few tricky ones, but with a little care, you can ride them safely.
How about a mind blowing ride at 9000 or 10000 feet? You can experience the cable car here at Gulmarg (a.k.a. the meadow of flowers) to offer a chilly ride over some of the world’s best picturesque locations. You might want to take the same ride twice – one to take in all the beauty and another for capturing all of it on your camera.
If you are off to Rishikesh on a spiritual journey, you might as well add a tinge of adventure to it. Along with some spiritual awakening, the holy city might just open up the adrenaline junkie in you.
While Himalayas raise that adrenaline level, it can also help you in washing off those stress levels that come with a city life. The mountains have some really good spa centers, hotels and a blend of Ayurveda to calm you down. It would be a perfect getaway to indulge in some alone time and self-pampering.
We are well aware of the pious Ganga – the river that washes away all your sins and purifies you. Well,she too seems to have a wild and fun side. Before Ganga comes over as the calm one, she is a turbulent challenge to be won over. Wrestle with nature and conquer the white waters of Ganga. River rafting in Rishikesh would be one memorable attempt with your team of friends.
Ride a camel in the desert, ride a horse but don’t miss out the yak. Out in the coldest parts of Ladakh, yaks were the sole means of transport and an accompanying animal for many. Travellers now enjoy this ancient practice to explore the hidden secrets of the Himalayas. This gigantic animal will offer you one of the truest Himalayan experiences. Dress up in the bright coloured dresses and ornaments of the local people and go on a yak ride.
The Himalayan region is a dream destination for all angling lovers. Being home of the amazing and rare Mahasheer fish, the Himalayas is one spot on the angler’s bucket list. Catching this ‘tiger of the river’ is one of the best experiences for any angler. Fly fishing is also another popular sport in the Himalayas.
Canyon Crossing onaJhula
Remember those swings you played on or those crazy rides in an amusement park. If you miss those, you should definitely try using a swing (jhula) to cross a canyon. Nothing to worry about, people living in these villages do it every day. It will be a ride you will never forget, riding in a box over a canyon with a river gushing right below you.
Treasure Hunting For A Glacial Lake
Forget those conventional treks to popular spots. If you are one of those ‘off-beat trekkers’ go find your own glacier. There are so many hiding in the depths and width of the Himalayas, waiting to be explored. Spend the night on the lake side with a starry skied roof and wake up to a splendid sunrise.
Want a break from all the trekking and you just want to go sight-seeing. Take a helicopter taxi, no kidding. That taxi ride could be something you will treasure forever. Few of us can own a helicopter, so you might as well take a ride when you get a chance. Book one from the airport itself and travel in style.
Our grand Himalayas cannot be brought down to just 10 points, there are so many places to visit – temples, monasteries, valleys, breathtaking lakes, mountains and a crazy load of things to do – parasailing, trekking, wildlife safaris, catching a glimpse of the snow leopards deep in the mountains or just relaxing. This is one place to fulfill all your cravings and to make loads of memories.
Rohit is an avid traveler and blogger at Transindiatravels.com. His passion for exploring has taken him to places all around the world. The accounts of his travel experiences act as a guide to other travel enthusiasts.
MFT gets lots of questions from readers about the current situation in Vang Vieng with regards to the tubing. After receiving varying reports, some suggesting it had almost completely shut down, we decided to give it a visit in November 2015 and see for ourselves.
Latest Update on Tubing in Vang Vieng – November 2015
First things first, tubing is still very possible in Vang Vieng. There is one place in the village close to the river-side which rents out the tubes. They cost 55,0000 Kip (roughly £4.50, €6, US$7) for a day with a 60,000 Kip deposit, which is returned in full provided you return your tube prior to 6:00pm. The price also includes a free tuk-tuk to the start of the tubing route, which is several kilometres up-stream and it takes 5-10 minutes to drive to the top. Tuk-tuks only leave when there are 4 people ready to go though, which can be a problem later in the day but for 20,000 Kip you can scrap the waiting around and get the guy to take you to the top. You can hire tubes out at any time up to 4:00pm but it’s best to go a bit earlier as it takes about 1 hour 30 minutes to tube (time varies depending on speed of the river when you visit) all the way down to the village even without any stops.
The tubing experience itself is now rather more sedate than in yesteryear. In the ‘glory years’ of Vang Vieng, the river was lined with lively bars, enormous rope swings and dodgy looking makeshift slides that kept drunken visitors entertained on the way down. From the mid 2000s onwards it grew to become arguably the biggest backpacker party destination in all of Southeast Asia. However unsurprisingly given that in 2011 alone, it is said that 27 travellers died doing the activity, a rate of over one per fortnight, the Lao government decided to clean up its act and crack-down on the party aspect of tubing in Vang VIeng.
As of November 2015, almost everything has shut down besides the tubing itself. There are still 4 or 5 bars that are open along the route but when we visited only the 1st one was really anything resembling a party with blaring music and a crowd of perhaps 100-200. There was one other bar that had a guy trying to entice tubers in for party vibes but it was almost dead and the other few potentials stops were little more than quiet riverside restaurant/bar places where you could stop for a bite to eat or a drink.
Tubing is back to what it probably was intended to be originally. A relaxing, peaceful way to experience the stunning countryside and limestone hills around Vang Vieng. This will come as a disappointment to many but was almost inevitable giving the alarming statistics.
The river is far from completely deserted though now and the local authorities are making a clear attempt to attract less alcohol-fuelled maniacs and a slightly older, wealthier crowd mostly from other parts of Asia. As you tube along, many groups of kayakers pass by as do other motorised boats giving people tours of the river at a faster pace. Later in the day this is especially true and there has been a noticeable increase in Korean, Japanese and Chinese tourists in recent years as Laos and Vang Vieng tries to broaden its appeal.
The remnants of Vang Vieng’s tubing heyday still linger on though. Deserted, rotting bars that were closed down during the government’s crackdown, still eerily hug the riverside, while plenty of giant rope-swings are still evident but most are tied up to prevent people using them. As for the ominously named ‘death slides’, they have completely disappeared and you won’t find any remnants of them.
As we tubed down the river, we encountered numerous large sharp rocks, just a few cm below the surface but not visible from above given the waters are fairly murky. Just heading slowly and soberly in a rubber ring, you have to be a bit careful so it’s no real surprise that so many injuries occurred from people jumping off swings and flying off slides into the water.
The tubing route still ends back in the village and you get off on the left hand side of the river just before a small footbridge opposite two or three bars perched above the river. It’s only a 2 minute walk from there back to the place where you got your tube, which is also obviously where you return it and get your deposit back. After 6:00pm you will only get a partial refund and after 8:oopm they’ll presume you’ve just lost it. It’s a good idea to walk down to the river to get your bearings before you head up in the tuk-tuk as it isn’t immediately obvious where you need to get off.
The final bar has a large sign saying ‘end of tubing’ and offers promises of free drinks but like most of the others it’s fairly quiet and you don’t have to get off there as the actual ‘end of tubing’ is another few hundred metres down the river.
It’s advisable to carry the bare minimum as there is no special compartment where you can keep things dry and if you carry a bag, you’ll need to carry it on your lap while you tube and it will most certainly get wet, especially in the bumpy parts. Guides leading kayaking tours also seem to find it hilarious to splash tubers so watch out for that.
Therefore don’t carry anything like a mobile phone or camera unless it is waterproof. If you plan on stopping off in the bars then obviously you’ll need to bring some money but if not then you really don’t need anything besides yourself and a swimming costume or some clothes you don’t mind getting wet. You can leave items in the tubing place but it’s better to just show up with the 115,000 Kip you’ll need to pay them and then head off. Walking around town in just a bikini or swimshorts is generally frowned upon though as it’s still a conservative country but many travellers ignore such suggestions.
If you want to stop at some of the bars and make a day of it then certainly leave earlier rather than later. It gets dark quickly around 6:00pm depending the time of the year and as well as making the actual tubing more difficult as the rocks will be impossible to see, you may also not know where to stop after nightfall. You will also fail to get all of your deposit back. 12:00-1:00pm is perhaps the peak time for people to set off.
Finally you shouldn’t assume that tubing is now 100% safe and doing something stupid like jumping in the water from a swing or just the side of the river isn’t a cool idea, especially after your third bucket. There are loads of rocks in the river and you are taking a risk any time you do that as it is impossible to know what lies just beneath the surface.
Practical Info about Vang Vieng
Budget accommodation is plentiful although if you arrive late in the day, then the better places can sell out. There are many backpacker hostels with cheap dorms as well as some riverside bungalows and plenty of cheap guesthouses with decent private rooms. A few bigger hotels have sprung up in recent times and when we visited a couple more were being constructed. There is no need to book accommodation in advance, just walk around town when you arrive and look for somewhere.
It is a small place built around two main roads that run adjacent to the river and the main village sections are no more than 1km in length so you can walk everywhere. It’s very typical of a small touristy town on the backpacker trail in Southeast Asia and comes with everything you might expect. Dozens of street vendors sell pancakes for 10,000 Kip and other cheap tasty snacks, while there is an excessive number of massage parlours, mostly without any customers and there are at least 10 bar/restaurants that just play the US sitcom Friends all day every day.
There are plenty of ATM’s that were all working fine when we visited and plenty of Lao, Thai and international restaurants, with everything from Mexican food to Korean BBQ’s on offer. Nobody goes to Vang Vieng just to visit the town or for an authentic Lao village experience, which it most certainly isn’t. However it has everything you could possibly need and despite an increase in other types of tourists, it still has a real backpacker vibe to it.
There is even a hospital and a few pharmacies although Lao healthcare is not to be relied upon and if you are unfortunate enough to get seriously ill or injured, you’ll probably need to go to Thailand, which is at least 4 hours by road.
Buses and minivans regularly depart South for Vientiane (50,000-60,000 Kip, 4 hours) and North for Luang Prabang (90,000-100,000 Kip, 6-8 hours) which are the next destinations for almost everyone in Vang Vieng. There are also daily direct buses to Udon Thani and Nong Khai in Thailand although you will find it cheaper but more time-consuming to just buy a ticket to Vientiane and then take one of the reasonably regular buses (roughly hourly) that head South of the border from Vientiane Bus Station near the Morning Market in the City Centre.
There are dozens of small travel agencies dotted around town selling bus tickets and tours, while your choice of hostel/guesthouse will almost certainly do likewise. There are small differences in prices so it is worth comparing places before booking.
Is Vang Vieng still a Party Destination?
Yes! There have been numerous posts from the past few years by bloggers offering the latest update on tubing in Vang Vieng and most agree that to some extent the party has just moved from the dangerous river banks and into the town. Party lovers will still find it the liveliest destination in Laos (which isn’t saying much admittedly). Given how small VV is, there are still plenty of choices of where to drink. Lazy riverside bars are the perfect place to chill out in the afternoon, watch the sunset and get ready for the evening. There are few lively bars in town, the most popular of which seems to be Sakura Bar and its famous ‘Drink Triple, See Double, Act Single’ slogan and after a couple of drinks you’ll be the proud owner of one of its cheaply produced t-shirts baring its message.
Like much of sleepy Laos though, most things end early and there’s not a great deal that remains open past midnight including Sakura, which shuts down at 12. There are two clubs in town that are open after that though and they open on alternate nights so there is alway somewhere to go, while on Fridays the Jungle Project, outside of town opens late and includes a 1am fireshow. It offers free tuk-tuks from town but there is a 30,000 Kip cover charge. There also some bars more geared towards locals on the other side of the old airstrip, which you could check out, for a more authentic Lao party.
Despite the crackdown on tubing, the local police authorities still seem to have arrangements in place with some local bars and restaurants, which continue to pretty openly sell drugs. Many of the restaurants boast ‘happy menus’ which serve joints for around 30,000 Kip (roughly US$4), mushroom shakes and pizzas, opium pizzas, happy pizzas, happy omelettes, happy garlic bread and well you get the picture. If that’s your scene, you’ll have fun here but it’s best to consume everything on premises as there are numerous reports of plain-clothed police arresting travellers and threatening them with prison time if they fail to pay a very hefty fine, which basically amounts to a bribe.
Is Vang Vieng just a Tubing/Partying Destination?
No! There is so much more to do in and around Vang Vieng besides tubing and partying and you could easily spend days in the town without doing either. There are also plenty of other activities, trips and little adventures that you can do and most can be done either independently or as part of a tour.
You could easily spend a couple of days exploring some of the countryside around the town. There are plenty of typical Lao villages with really friendly locals that you could visit while there are numerous caves, waterfalls, lagoon and other secluded spots for swimming and relaxing. You can do this by tour of course but you can also just rent out a bicycle, motorbike or even a quadbike and do it all independently with a solid map.
Rock climbing is another popular activity in Vang Vieng and options are growing while for a more chilled out experience, hot air balloons set off on a daily basis and offer stunning views of the area.
Many nearby villages remain barely affected by the tourism boom in Laos and despite a period of political stability, there are still numerous problems in Laos and a fair bit of poverty. There are many volunteering options in the area, the best of which is perhaps the SAE LAO Project is the best with its aim of sustainable development for the local people.
Verdict – Is Vang Vieng still worth Visiting?
Absolutely. There is something for everyone in the Vang Vieng area and it’s still the sort of place you can hang around for a while.
Although the tubing isn’t what it was, in reality it couldn’t have remained that crazy and dangerous forever given the numbers of young people with bright futures who were continually dying as a result of one reckless and usually drunken or drug-fueled day in Laos. The authorities were right to crack down on it, even if their reasons for doing so were probably more to do with concerns over the damage such negative press could do to their international reputation rather than health and safety concerns, which are still rather absent from many aspects of Lao life.
Although if you get wrecked and get in the water, the risks still remain, it’s not as easy to get sucked into the scene and many of the more dangerous elements have been removed. Vang Vieng is a stunning place and even if the party element completely disappears in the future, which you sense is still a fair way off, it is still most certainly worth coming to.
I had the fortuitous timing to arrive in Vietnam during the culmination of the celebration of Tet, the Vietnamese new year. For Vietnamese, Tet probably has the importance of all the Western holidays rolled into one. Families spend time remembering their ancestors and offering to them incredible amounts of food, liquor, cigarettes, and whatever else Grandpa used to really enjoy. The items are placed on the family altars that are ubiquitous in Vietnam, and after a mystical period when their essence passes on to the ancestors in the spirit realm, they can then consume them.
This timing was a boon to anyone fascinated by Vietnamese traditions, but I wished I’d come in low season when I found myself enmeshed in a sea of motorbikes crossing the city’s broad boulevards. Inching through a seemingly impassible maelstrom of motorists, like a school of fish with fire-hot exhaust pipes, was not the most welcoming introduction to Ho Chi Minh City. Needless to say, every person in southern Vietnam seemed to be in the city then.
I crashed at a place offering a $5/night room in Pham Ngu Lao. It was so cozy that I could touch the walls on either side of my bed at the same time.
In several days I tired of the hustle of Ho Chi Minh City and cast my eyes on the long coast leading to Hanoi, where I had a general plan of staying for a while. I blazed through the quaint coastal town of Mui Ne (right), spending a night in a youth hostel after a trek through town and some red snapper on the beach that I picked out of the tank myself.
My wanderings delivered me next to the former holiday refuge of the French colonials, Da Lat. The nearly alpine environment of that small settlement was what originally drew the Europeans to build vacation homes there, and it still has a feeling of being far removed from the jungles, tropical coasts, and chaotic cities of the rest of the country.
Da Lat is famous foremost for the strawberries, flowers, and other delectables that fill its vast sweeps of nurseries and sloping ridges. It is called “Le petit Paris,”and there is even a miniature Eiffel Tower there. Despite these attempts by the French to imprint upon it their own character, it has much of its own originality that attracted me.
One example is the Crazy House, a seemingly Alice in Wonderland-inspired array of rooms rising like a surreal dream out of the ground. Technically a guesthouse, it’s like a fairy tale on mescaline, a twisting and surprising trip of childhood fancy and playful anomaly.
Passing through the relatively uninteresting beach party of Nha Trang, I arrived in Hoi An (left), the entire old section of which is a UNESCO world heritage site. The architecture of the tiny winding streets has been magnificently preserved to appear as it did long ago, and is one of the most historical destinations in Southeast Asia.
After several days in Hue, the old imperial capital, I finally made it to Hanoi, a place that for years I had held as mythical, where it was my will to stay for a long time.
I arrived on an overcast morning after being up all night on the bus from Hue. Knowing nothing about the city’s geography other than that Hoan Kiem was the area I wanted to be in, I ended up walking for miles all over the city that first day, falling in love with it.
I was attracted to Hanoi like it was a living being, more so than any other place I had ever been. It was very seductive, in the facades on houses, the old men with painter’s hats bicycling down the street, and the grey cobblestone underneath. It felt very respectable, refined, yet enigmatic, enshrouded. There was a curious dichotomy to it. On the one hand there was the serenity of the lakes and parks, and on the other, the blitzkrieg whirlwind of people and motorbikes in the street. There was a palpable sense of reverence to history there. Under the shadow of glass and concrete high rises, on streets lit by neon, an ancient stillness refused to be edged away by the impulses of modernity.
I was swooned by its vibrancy. Out of such a turbulent past there seemed to be an immediacy, a poetic urgency to make a future capable of stability. I found the images I saw walking around to be intensely captivating and beautiful. Trees wildly draped themselves over rainy streets and fog hung in the air into midday. At Hoan Kiem lake, old people did tai chi, young lovers embraced surreptitiously, and others sat alone in the stillness that emanates from that mythic water.
I knew only the simple, everyday necessities of the language, but these coupled with a modicum of politeness rendered more toothy grins and warm handshakes than anywhere I had ever been. People are nice in their own way everywhere, but in Hanoi I found some of the most straightforward and hospitable people I have encountered anywhere.
Walking down the street in Hanoi was like a military exercise. With every step one has to guard against getting creamed by a motorbike, stepping on a family of chickens or an old woman’s foot, knocking over a cigarette vendor’s stock, falling into a hole in the ground, obstructing the path of a woman carrying baskets bulging with fruit, falling over a steaming cauldron of pho broth, or, dazed by these perpetual precautions, just slipping and falling the way one does in the course of a normal walk.
There was an unexpected fluidity to the chaos in the streets, and after a while I realized it wasn’t chaos, but a seamless order. When crossing the street, the best thing to do, I found, was to just walk right across as if it were empty. The barrage of motorists would zip effortlessly around like the water in a river around a stone. It’s a kind of order, a symbiotic disharmony that was remarkable to witness.
This is an extract from Andy Hill’s excellent travel novel ‘Mystic Fool’. It follows the adventures of a young man as he travels around South East Asia. It makes for an entertaining read that mixes humorous drink-fuelled debauchery with a spiritual journey as he learns about fascinating local cultures and himself.
You can find the book here on Amazon and it is available in paperback or on kindle.
As well as having a really cool name, Yogyakarta has much to wow even the most unimpressionable traveller. Vast ancient temples and ridiculously active volcanoes surround this friendly city which lies in the heart of Java, Indonesia’s most populous island. It’s easy to reach with good plane, train and bus links to the rest of this vast country and nicely breaks up the popular but long journey from Jakarta onwards to Eastern Java and Bali.
Jogja (as it is affectionately known) may be first and foremost a base for exploring the surrounding area but it is also one of Indonesia’s most culturally and intellectually significant cities. It is also one of the oldest in the country and has various monuments and palaces from bygone eras that remain in good condition. The main attraction in town is the giant Kraton Complex, which includes the plush palace of a bloke known as Sri Sultan Hamengkubuwono X. There are various other Islamic sights and a few remnants of the colonial period when the Dutch ruled in Java. There are also many impressive art exhibitions and galleries that are worth a visit but they do sometimes try to pressure you into purchasing their items.
There are two popular temple trips that you can do from Jogja. The enormous Borobudur temple (left) is the largest Buddhist monument in the world and probably the most visited sight in Indonesia. Further east are the equally impressive Hindu temples of Prambanan. There is also an open-air theatre inside the park with regular Javanese dance performances.
You can either leave at dawn or in the afternoon on organised trips or find your own way to the temples. The dawn trips may involve getting up ridiculously early but you’ll beat the crowds and the heat and will also see the temples at their most spectacular as the early morning mist rises. If you’re pushed for time it is possible to take a trip that includes both temple sites on the same day.
Be warned there is a somewhat extortionate extra $20 US fee for foreigners at Borobudur and $18 US at Prambanan that isn’t included in any tickets you buy in Jogja. You are also likely to be asked for photos with dozens of friendly if a little bit persistent Indonesian teenagers and children!
One of the highlights of backpacking in Indonesia is the chance to get up close and personal with some of the world’s most violent volcanoes. While not everyone will agree with this sentiment (in case you hadn’t heard, they can be a bit dangerous), this is simply the best place in the world to witness a bit of volcanic activity.
There are several active volcanoes in the region but the most spectacular has to be Mount Merapi which can be viewed from the town on Kaliurang on its southern slope or Ketep, a pass that dissects the mountain and it’s near neighbour Mount Merbabu. Merapi erupted as recently as 2010 killing over 300 people and lava is almost constantly flowing down its slopes. It is possible to climb the mountain yourself but it’s safer to take the organised night-time trip from Jogja when the lava is most visible.
Yogyakarta’s backpacker area is conveniently located by the main train station and is just off the city’s main boulevard, Malioboro Street. The going rate for a cheap room here is around Rp100,000 and most of the accommodation is located off Jalan Sastrowijayan on two gangs (sidestreets & very safe) that run off it. They are imaginatively named Gang I and Gang II.
There are various travel agencies on Sastrowijayan that all pretty much offer the same trips at the same price. Many of the guesthouses will also be able to hook you up with the temple/volcano trips. There’s also no shortage of pesky trishaw and moto-taxi drivers who congregate at the entrances to the gangs and will happily transport you anywhere around town. Agree a price before setting off! Another option is to rent a scooter which can work out cheaper than taking any of the organised trips.
There are a few decent bars and restaurants along Sastrowijayan, some of which offer really good live music but it’s not really a place for wild partying with many travellers setting off before sunrise on trips to the surrounding areas. It is however a biggish city so you can head off to other areas of town if you want to extend your night beyond midnight.
You can find up-to-date info and loads more things to do in and around Yogyakarta on Yogya Backpacker.
You could be in a café in Quito or a rickety bus in Kenya but it is a small street in Thailand that bizarrely continues to strike a chord with travellers as the centre of the backpacking universe. It seems every other traveller you meet has been here and has formed their own opinion of it. For some it’s a vibrant international community with everything you could possibly need and more in the space of just a few blocks in the Thai Capital. For others it’s a busy sleazy street full of exactly the types of people you left home to escape from plus a few dodgy locals trying to exploit visitors.
The truth is probably somewhere in the middle and after a few days it is pretty easy to make your mind up which end of the spectrum your opinion lies at. The road stretches for what can only be a few hundred metres but often it can seem like you are running a giant gauntlet. Everyone seems to want a piece of you and for the uninitiated it can be closer to being mildly traumatic than an exciting travel experience.
You want massage? You want t-shirt?
You get the impression that almost anything is on sale here. In and around the KhaoSan Road there are dozens of cheap Thai Massage joints, a popular daytime and early evening pastime for visitors to Bangkok. The street is lined with stores and street stalls selling various printed t-shirts and clothing items. They all seem to sell exactly the same crap but every other traveller seems to be wearing a T-shirt with ‘Chang Beer’ or another famous brand written on it. If you really look around you can actually find some imaginative original clothing for a few hundred baht.
If you’re not being hassled into buying clothes or getting a massage then there you’re probably being pestered into renting a room for a few nights. There is LOTS of basic budget accommodation in the area although the better and indeed cheaper places are off the main drag. Cheaper places still can be found a short tuk-tuk ride away by the train station (left).
How about some fake ID or even a degree?
If you’ve found a room and don’t want to get a massage or buy t-shirts then why not get a masters degree? There are a couple of guys who for a few dollars will issue with authentic looking forms of ID and even TEFL or degree certificates from your chosen university. Not sure how useful they are back home but the fake student ID at least is pretty good at securing discounts in shops and bars in the world you left behind.
The Khao San Road attracts all sorts of inventive sales ideas, most of which work pretty well but there also a few major oddities. For example, on a street full of scruffily dressed backpackers there are numerous smartly dressed seemingly Indian men who are very keen to sell you a suit. This makes little sense. Nobody wants to go backpacking around Thailand with a fake Armani suit. As you approach the end of the KhaoSan road and think you are about to escape the madness of it all you run into a bunch of tuk-tuk and moto drivers very eager to take you to see some ping-pong.
Anyone for Ping-Pong?
If you’ve never been to Bangkok, then you may not be aware of Thailand’s long ping-pong traditions. This ‘sport’ is very popular with visitors to the country. If you couldn’t fit your trusty table-tennis bat into your backpack then fear not as the rules are a bit different here. Put simply it involves ladies shooting ping-pong balls out of their vaginas and hitting targets with an impressively high success rate. This takes no little skill and presumably many years of practice. Eager to keep the show fresh it seems no two performances are the same and if stories are to be believed you may also see toads, frogs, rabbits and even darts popping out.
Moving swiftly onto the equally sex-orientated Bangkok nightlife. By night, the Khao San Road changes into the nightlife hub for travellers staying in the area. Despite this there is only really one club on the street (imaginatively named ‘The Club’). It is roughly midway down the street, has a couple of beefy Thai bouncers, blares out the latest club tracks and attracts a steady flow of people coming in and out. Inside it’s a mixture of Thai prostitutes, ladyboys (see above for token Thai ladyboy picture) and wasted foreigners but it’s a good crack. It’s open till 3am when everyone spills out onto the streets to be greeted by even more prostitutes and guys selling cheap beer.
Fill up my Bucket!!!
Just hanging out in the street here having a few drinks can be great fun and in many ways is the best way to soak up the KhaoSan Road experience. There are many street barbeques selling tasty and dirt cheap Thai snacks if you get hungry and you won’t have to move too far to get your hands on a cold Thai Beer or cocktail. Meeting people is incredibly easy but shaking off unwanted ‘new friends’ is harder as you keep constantly seeing the same people in what is a pretty small if crowded area.
The Khao San Road certainly couldn’t be classed as the real Thailand or even the real Bangkok but it is nonetheless an experience in its own right. While it’s not in the very heart of Bangkok, it is located centrally enough to explore one of the world’s most exciting cities. There’s always something happening on the Khao San Road and it isn’t hard to work out how it found its way into backpacking folklore.
Vietnam endured a troubled 20th Centrury in which it was first ruled by the French, before their final expulsion left the country split in two. A horrific civil war ensued which saw millions die. The country was finally united as a Socialist state in 1975 and has been ever since. Vietnam today is a fast growing nation of some 90 million people enjoying increasing economical and political power in the South East Asian region. Nowhere are the vast changes more evident than Ho Chi Minh City (aka Saigon) which is a great place to experience a modern and vibrant Asian city while also delving into the countries traumatic past.
Saigon & The Vietnam War
The war began in 1955 with US forces becoming heavily involved throughout the 1960’s as they attempted to prevent the Communists in the North taking control of the entire country. Based in Saigon, the US and South Vietnamese forces fought a long guerrilla war in the region with the Viet Cong (a Communist group in the south). After suffering and inflicting heavy casualties, US troops withdrew in 1973. After the eventual fall of Saigon in April 1975, the city changed its name to Ho Chi Minh City in honour of the man who formed the Communist party. Vietnam remains a Socialist state to this day and visits to any of Vietnam’s war Museums and memorials will make it clear the administration has changed little over the past 35 years. Reunification Palace
Once known as the Independence Palace (above), this was where the US and South Vietnamese leaders were based during the War. On 30th April 1975, the Communist forces stormed the palace bringing an end to the 19 year conflict. Quite deliberately, nothing has been changed inside the Palace since 1975 so it remains in something of a time warp. Only the gates outside that were destroyed have been replaced and it is now open to visitors and makes for a fascinating couple of hours.
War Remnants Museum
This museum houses some shocking photos of severely maimed people and those who have been left with or often born with serious disfigurements as a result of weapons and gases used during the war. Outside you will find captured US tanks and airplanes from the era. Some people do find the museum very upsetting but it does demonstrate the tragedies that took place during the Vietnam War. Unquestionably the US forces committed some atrocities in the region, however the museum gives a very one-sided and biased account of the events that took place.
Cu Chi Tunnels
If you find yourself backpacking in Ho Chi Minh City or nearby then half or full day tours to the Cu Chi Tunnels are a must-do. They are 40km out of town but can be organised by any of the agencies in Pham Ngu Lao. The tunnels were dug during the period of French occupation before being expanded during the Vietnam War (known as the American War in Vietnam). They provided the Cu Chi people with a strategic advantage. You may even get the chance to fire weapons here in the town which moved underground in the face of a heavy bombing campaign.
HCMC today: The City of Motorbikes
Today Ho Chi Minh City is a bustling metropolis, home to some 7 million people. Almost the only way to get around is by motorbike. The traffic is completely bonkers and just trying to cross the road can be a terrifying process as there is almost never a gap in the traffic. Hop on a moto-taxi or if you’re especially brave hire out a bike and try to navigate your way away around Vietnam’s biggest city.
When backpacking in Vietnam it is impossible to escape the war but it is now a distant memory for most and American visitors are very unlikely to receive any hassle about it. Most Vietnamese are naturally friendly people and with a very young population this country is moving on up and developing at quite a rate. The city is made up of many numbered districts, each of which has their own feel. District 1, in the centre of the city is known as the French Quarter for example and this is reflected in the architecture. It is well worth hopping on a bike and heading out into some of the suburbs which are generally very safe for a true flavour of what life is like for the residents of this busy city.
Pham Ngu Lao: Saigon’s Backpacker Ghetto
This is very much backpacker central in Ho Chi Minh City. It consists of two main roads and many little side streets connecting them. Here you will find an enormous choice of world cuisine with meals costing as little as US$2-3. There are loads of budget accommodation options, laundrettes, bars and basically everything else that a backpacker might need. You won’t be able to walk 10 metres without being shouted at by one of the moto drivers which congregate in the area looking for foreign business. This can be an advantage as you will never have to wait to get a lift to where you’re going but also can get quite annoying after a while.
The bars in Pham Ngu Lao are good fun and tend to be cheaper and better than the ones in the rest of Central Saigon which charge Western Prices and attract an unpleasant mix of dirty old Westerners and teenage Vietnamese prostitutes.
Crime DOWN, Cyclists & Musicians UP – The ‘not so mean’ streets of Bogota!
Much of Bogota’s story is dark and disturbing but it is one that is ever evolving and there is now a significant ray of light at the end of a long dreary tunnel. For so long this was a city dominated by conflict, crime, cocaine and cartels. Those factors haven’t completely gone away but nowadays words like culture, commerce and change seem more fitting.
Bogota is home to over 10 million people, a figure that is growing fast making it one of the biggest on the planet. The rate of change is exciting and come back in ten years time and this could be an almost unrecognisable city. However If you’d been here ten years ago, you would have had genuine reason to fear for your safety.
The Colombian capital is still at something of a crossroads with impoverished slums on the slopes of the surrounding mountains overlooking thriving businesses and the modern high-rise skyscrapers in which they reside. Inequality is a fact of life here as it is in much of this continent yet for the first time in decades there is genuine optimism for the future.
Friday Night Fiesta
That optimism is most visible on Friday nights when Bogota’s populous head down into the centre to celebrate the end of the week. Despite its developing international financial districts this is still very much a Latin American city and they like nothing more than a good fiesta.
The major avenue that dissects the city (Avenida Septima) is closed to traffic every Friday night and quickly fills up with people as far as the eye can see as street performers, musicians and street stalls take over the city’s most famous street. As midnight approaches it is overflowing with increasingly drunk Colombians, many of whom then move onto the bars and discos around town. If you’re visiting Bogota, try and be in town for a Friday as these parties are great fun and extra special during holiday periods.
One of the best ways to see the city is via the Ciclovia which takes place every Sunday. All morning and up until about 2pm many of the main avenues are closed to traffic allowing cyclists and rollerbladers to whizz around this vast metropolis without the risk of being wiped out by an impatient motorist. It can be tiring work especially in the uphill sections thanks to the altitude but there are refreshment stands all along the routes which are clearly marked. There are a few places in the traveller districts where you can rent out a bike fairly cheaply and it’s a good way of getting around and seeing Bogota.
Cartels, Cocaine, Kidnappings & Civil War
It’s fair to say Colombia has something of a chequered past and a visit to Bogota will help you understand the turmoil this country was in. Drug Cartels for decades fought what basically amounted to all-out war with the country’s police force and if they avoided capture or death, the heads of these shady organisations became hugely rich and powerful. Add to this the independence struggle of the FARC rebels who just over a decade ago were in a seriously strong position and threatening to move into Bogota itself.
In the first decade of the 21st Century the government attempted a major crack-down on these issues and after some serious bloodshed they seem to have seized control of the country back from the rebels and the cartels. Cocaine production has been hugely cut and FARC have generally opted to put down their weapons and become more engaged in mainstream politics. Visiting now you will be welcomed with open arms by people in a country that is trying almost too hard to change it’s international reputation.
Bogota’s National Police Museum (pictured above) is fantastic for those looking to delve into the countries recent troubles. One room houses a giant array of weapons seized during police raids on the Cartels over the past few decades. Another is dedicated in graphic detail to the hunt and eventual capture of the infamous druglord Pablo Escobar. You will be guided around by a serving police officer who will doubtlessly have a story or two to tell, especially if they were in the force during the violent 1990’s.
Modern Bogota: City of Culture
The city is arguably the best in South America when it comes to museums and they come in all shapes and sizes. Better still from the budget traveller perspective, most are totally free (or at least on certain days) and often include excellent guided tours. The most famous is the Museo del Oro (Gold Museum) which includes an enormous collection of gold and various different artifacts from bygone eras on this continent.
Art might not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Colombia but there’s also multiple surprisingly impressive galleries in town with work from top local and international painters.
Amidst all the chaos some surprisingly happening districts have developed and are now flourishing with lively arts and music scene. Much of this is based in around the old-town district of La Candelaria which is also where the majority of the hostels are located. The streets here are full young Colombian punks. Wander around after dark and venture into one of the many underground bars for a taste of the alternative side to this city.
Salta is something of an outpost. 7 hours by bus from the Bolivian and Chilean borders, even further from Paraguay and over 1000km from the Argentine capital, Buenos Aires which is politically and culturally dominant in the country. Despite its isolated location there is quite a lot going on and if like many travellers in Salta you have just arrived from one of the neighbouring countries you will instantly feel as though you have arrived somewhere completely different. Salta is a cool place and well worth hanging around for a few days.
If you’re travelling south from Peru, Bolivia and even the very Northern towns in Argentina, you will quickly notice the people are different here. The Native American populations in the mountainous regions of Argentina’s Northern and Western neighbours seem like a distant memory. Here the people are mostly descendents of a mix of Spanish or Italian immigrants and look and dress very differently. The difference is most evident in the girls and women who no longer sport traditional Quechan dresses but the latest accessories and fashionable clothes with plenty of flesh on show.
There is certainly a certain confidence and westernised feel about the people here which will come as a sudden reminder of life back home if you’ve been travelling in South America for a while. If you started out in Buenos Aires and are now heading into the Andes, Salta may well be the last glimpse you will have of civilisation as you know it ahead of months in the more indigenous South American countries.
That’s not to say Salta is like a city in Europe or the US, far from it. It still moves to a Latin American beat and unique Argentine customs are very evident.
The Long Siesta
Once you’ve been backpacking in Argentina for any length of time you’ll probably have got used to the afternoon siesta, which sees shops and restaurants shut down. In Salta the siesta seems to last practically the entire afternoon. There are a couple of really long shopping streets which aren’t that dissimilar from ones you find in the UK or Australia with the exception that between 1pm and 5:30pm they are all shut. Between 6 and 9, especially in the summer the streets are suddenly overflowing with people who come out to do their shopping. Restaurants don’t open till about 8 and most people don’t sit down to dine till 10pm.
The Big Fiesta
The benefits of taking a long nap during the day, is that you have plenty of energy left by the time night falls. Even at dusk, it is still many hours before the nightlife in Salta truly gets going. Take a wander down the most popular bar street at 1am and you will experience a quiet scene with a few people drinking and chatting in the tables outside. By 2 or 3am (kicking out time in most Western countries) things will have really livened up as large groups of young Argentines hit the dancefloor and party till dawn. People in Argentina drink, but not too excess so getting sloshed on booze is not commonplace and won’t impress the locals.
The Salta Sights
Salta isn’t overly touristy by any stretch of the imagination which is in many ways a good thing, as it allows you to get a feel for what life is like in a real Argentine city. With just under 500,000 residents it is reasonably big and home to some beautiful buildings, churches and plazas. It’s the sort of place that’s great to have a wander and relax in one of the many parks. You can also walk or take the cable-car up to the top of Cerro San Bernardo which offers top notch views of the city and surrounding areas.
Out of town there’s some great trekking, mountain climbing and rafting opportunities amongst other popular adventure-type activities. The terrain is well suited to this sort of thing although Summer’s can be stiflingly hot so bear this in mind before setting out for the day.
Salta is also a nice place to sample Argentine cuisine. You may find some of the famous Argentinean steak houses don’t really cater to travellers on a budget, however you will notice plenty of good value pizza places (pizza is also very popular in the country). Empanadas in Argentina are another traditional snack. These tasty and cheap pastry items come with a variety of different fillings and Salta has plenty of restaurants and snack bars where you can try them. Most of the cheaper restaurants are at the end of town closest to the bus station.
Pics courtesy of b00nj and angel david ramoyo on flickr
Believe it or not, Potosi was once one of the richest cities in the world. The mountain, popularly known as the Cerro Rico once contained vast silver reserves which were mined between the 16th and 18th century and to a large extent funded the Spanish Empire.
Today however there are few reminders of the cities glorious colonial past. At 4000m above sea level, it is a pretty tough environment with the sun shining brightly during the day before the sun sets and the bitterly cold night roles in. The mines are still the main source of income in the town, but all the silver was depleted long ago.
Nowadays around 28,000 miners work daily in some shockingly bad conditions to scrape out whatever ore deposits they can. In doing so each day they are inhaling dust and most of them will eventually contract silicosis. Because of this thelife expectancy for the miners is shockingly only around 40 years of age, but it remains the most profitable job in town so many teenage boys and men have to work down here just to feed their families.
Visiting the Potosi Mines
Tours of the mines run every day and are very easy to arrange. There are several travel agencies in the small town centre on the roads around the main plaza. Your hostel will also most likely be able to sort you out with the tour (Koala Den definitely does). All of the tours are to some extent dangerous so you will be asked to sign a waiver should anything bad happen. There tends to be a morning and afternoon departure with tours lasting around 4-5 hours and costing in the region of B$100 (roughly US$14 or £9).
The tours are all roughly the same. First of all you will be picked up from the agency you bought the ticket and will meet your guide, most of whom are former miners themselves so are very knowledgeable. You will then get kitted out in a fetching orange miner’s uniform, complete with helmet, torch and boots. Next stop is the miners market where you can buy gifts for the miners such as coca leaves and drinks and for under US$2 you can also buy some dynamite! (Some tours include a demonstration where you are allowed to set off the dynamite yourself although it is supposed to be bad for the mountain). Next stop is the ore refinery plant where the miners sell everything they get to companies who extract the raw materials.
Finally you will enter the mine itself, which is a co-operative so the miners work for themselves, often in teams and are free to choose their own working hours. The tunnels are small so you will find yourself creeping along and having to dodge out the way of oncoming carts. You will spend a couple of hours down the mines and depending on your tour, may go to the deepest level. There will also be an opportunity to meet and talk to some of the workers, at which point you can hand over any gifts you bought in the markets.
Coca is the main crop in many regions of Bolivia and is used most famously to make cocaine but also many other legal products such as coca-cola. The leaves are chewed by many people in Bolivia’s mountainous West to give them energy and help them deal with the altitude. The practice is especially popular with miners who almost without exception chew the leaves before heading down the mines. Coca leaves are dirt cheap and can be bought from the miners market. Your guide will probably show you how to chew correctly and you will need to get through at least 100 or so before you begin to feel any effects. (Chewing coca leaves won’t get you high!)
Are the Mines Dangerous?
Yes, if you decide to visit be aware, you’re not visiting a museum but an active working mineshaft. Around 35 miners a year die down here mostly from gas explosions or falling rocks. Of course as with all mines there is always the risk of a deadly cave in where the whole shaft collapses trapping miners underground. It is believed that one day, probably within the next 50 years, the entire mountain will just completely cave in, such is the extent of mining that has taken place over the past 5 centuries. It gets more dangerous every year.
Now finally some good news. Tours have ran every day for many years and so far no tourists have been killed with the exception of a Japanese man who fell down a shaft around 20 years ago. There is no scientific evidence to suggest that visiting the mine for just a few hours has any long-lasting health effects.
UPDATE AUGUST 2014 – Some travellers have reported really bad experiences with Greengo Tours.
Altitude sickness is another real danger as Potosi is over 4000m above sea level and just walk uphill can leave you breathless, not to mention trawling around the mines in heavy clothing. It’s best to acclimatize to the altitude for several days before attempting the tours. Also if you suffer badly from claustrophobia then it’s not advisable to go down the mines. It is reasonably physically challenging but there are plenty of travellers over 60 who go on the tours and have no problems. If in doubt ask around the different agencies as some tours are slightly more challenging than others.
Thanks to Jennifrog on flickr for most of the pics.
The World’s Weirdest Tourist Attraction: San Pedro Prison
San Pedro Prison is one of the biggest in Bolivia and the common destination for people convicted of breaking the countries drug laws. It is found in the heart of the countries administrative capital, La Paz, which is on our South America backpacking route. Its fame amongst backpackers grew in the 1990’s when English inmate Thomas Mcfadden started offering tours of the prison. It quickly became an essential part of the backpacking scene in South America.
NOTE – This article is now over 5 years old and some of the info may no longer be accurate.
How does San Pedro differ from normal prisons?
San Pedro is not a normal prison by any stretch of the imagination. For starters prisoners must buy their cells when they enter the prison, that’s after they’ve paid the entrance fee! There are many different sections ranging from terrible conditions in the poorer parts where inmates are crammed in 3 or 4 to a tiny cell to parts which are more like posh apartment blocks and house convicted businessmen and politicians. The wives and children of many of the inmates actually live with their husbands inside the prison. Every inmate must earn their living as nothing comes for free so many run shops, restaurants and most famously cocaine laboratories. Unlike most prisons, guards rarely enter the main part of San Pedro, so prisoners are for the most part left to look after themselves.
Backpackers in San Pedro Prison
Thousands of backpackers have entered the prison since the tours first started, intrigued by what is unquestionably one of the oddest tourist attractions in the world. Even Lonely Planet at one point included San Pedro in its South America guides. Many visitors are shocked and fascinated in equal measure by the tour which normally includes visits to the different sections, the cell of the guide and the infamous swimming pool where many inmates have been murdered. Another draw for some travellers is the opportunity to take cocaine which is ridiculously cheap and perhaps what the prison is most famous for. Many inmates are coke addicts and given that is produced onsite, the cocaine in San Pedro is amongst the purest in the world. In the 1990’s many visitors would stay overnight in the prison which hosts some pretty wild parties!
Isn’t it a Bit Dangerous?
Not really because bodyguards are employed by the guides to protect you and if anything bad ever happened to a backpacker then word would quickly get out to the hostels and people would stop coming which would be bad for the prison economy. It’s a good idea to buy something from the shops or dine in one of the prison restaurants which are often better than what you get on the outside anyway. It is rare for visitors to be allowed to stay overnight when the prison is more dangerous but some backpackers have in the past chosen to do this. As far as we are aware there have been no serious incidents involving people on the tours.
Do the San Pedro Prison Tours Still Exist?
There are conflicting reports about the current situation with the tours. Backpackers in San Pedro Prison are certainly a less common sight than 10 years ago but like many things in Bolivia, if you’ve got money you can make things happen. There are recent reports of a total ban thanks to a Hollywood movie due to be released about San Pedro. The authorities don’t like to admit that the tours ever take place (they definitely do) so any sort of publicity like this tends to make it harder to visit.
Your best bet is to talk to fellow travellers in South America and especially La Paz and try to go as a large group if you are in any way concerned about the safety of it. Head to the San Pedro Plaza and hang around for a bit. You may well be approached about tours but be wary of conmen. If that fails head to the main gate of the prison where there is a steady flow of comings and goings and see what you can do. Tours are likely to cost in the region of $25 (which includes a bribe to the guards to get you in).