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Friday, August 05, 2011

Escape the tourist traps


Look beyond the main attractions of Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos, writes Rob Woodburn.

Thailand
With its many attractions, Bangkok is regularly voted one of the world's top city destinations. Visitors keenly tick off seeing the gorgeous Royal Palace and temple of the Emerald Buddha, then Wat Po with its golden reclining Buddha before crossing the Chao Phraya river to Wat Arun, the temple of dawn, or to visit a floating market. After that they usually go shopping or hit a spa. Here are a few alternatives.

Cycling and cooking

Expend some renewable energy on two wheels while exploring an area of the city less frequented by tourists. Cycle across the river on Rama 8 bridge and pedal the historic Thonburi network of lanes and forked alleys. Thonburi was the Thai capital until 1782, when the seat of power was shifted across the Chao Phraya for strategic defence reasons.

During the 13-kilometre guided half-day ride you'll stop to see the Buddha statues in a tiny local temple, hear local lore, discover ancient stupa tucked among the backstreets and admire the ornate decorations of a royal temple. You'll negotiate sharp bends in narrow alleys, steer around sleeping dogs, whiz past locals chatting on their doorsteps and follow canal paths to visit the last family-run bronze factory in Bangkok. The ride reveals everyday city life along byways far off the tourist trail, providing an insightful adventure you'll neither regret nor forget. A half-day ride costs $US35 ($32). See grasshopperadventures.com/tour-ghtb07.php.

Learning secrets of the Thai kitchen is one of the great pleasures of Bangkok. A lesson at Amita Thai Cooking Class first involves getting to school via a magical boat trip on the Chao Phraya before passing through the flowing arteries of "khlongland", the Thonburi area where houses sit alongside an extensive network of canals (khlongs) filled with turbid brown water. It's a journey through what is both literally and figuratively the other side of Bangkok.

Amita's owner-chef, Tam, is a gentle taskmaster. She welcomes students with intriguing sample dishes that use blue butterfly peas, red ixora flowers, cowslip and palm sauce, designed to awaken the taste buds and sense of smell. A tour of her compact garden stocked with herbs, spices and edible plants comes before lessons in the open-air kitchen.

A typical class covers three to four dishes. We wrap pandanus leaves around chicken to make the snack gai hor bai toey, create the fiery prawn soup tom yum goong, try our hand at ka nom krok (coconut pancakes) and cook phat kra pow moo sab, a dish of wok-fired ground pork with basil. An evident lack of kitchen skills is part of the fun. Best of all, having made our own lunch we then eat it. Is there a better motivation to excel? A three-hour class costs 3000 baht ($90). See amitathaicooking.com.

Big day out
The world's largest living land animal is the star of the biggest-ever event of its kind, the 10th anniversary of the King's Cup elephant polo tournament.

Hosted by the Anantara hotel group, this annual charity bash is on September 5-11 in Hua Hin, a seaside town 190 kilometres south of Bangkok, and raises funds for Thai elephant care. The Tourist Association of Thailand rates it one of the country's leading events. Players from 15 countries in 16 teams, including an All Blacks contingent, will contest this year's cup riding a total of 32 elephants steered by their mahouts. Each elephant plays two 14-minute spells a day and they are rotated among teams for the sake of fairness. Some elephants are expert at polo. Others may choose not to perform at all.

Hua Hin was the location for the original King's Cup held in 2001. It's also where, in 1923, King Rama VI chose to build a summer retreat, the Maruekhathaiyawan Palace, an amazing building that is open to the public and worth visiting. The town's other palace, Klai Kangwon, is still used by the royal family and therefore private. Anantara has special accommodation and polo packages from 9000 baht. See huahin.anantara.com.

CambodiaAfter being abandoned in the 15th century the extraordinary temple complex at Angkor, former centre of the ancient Khmer empire, was slowly enveloped by encroaching jungle. Angkor was "rediscovered" by Western travellers in the 19th century and has since become Cambodia's most hallowed attraction.

Surrounded by a moat, Angkor Wat is the largest and best preserved of the temples, but there are many other equally enthralling structures spread around the vast archaeological park. Guide books list as many as 29 individual sites, including the fortified city of Angkor Thom with the Bayon temple at its centre and the incredible Ta Prohm, where giant fig and banyan tree roots are entwined within the stone walls. It's the sort of place you'd expect to bump into Indiana Jones.

Conservation and restoration work is constant yet, questionably, visitors are still allowed to crawl all over these vulnerable limestone structures. Annual visitor numbers hit two million in 2007 before the GFC put a brake on tourism. But they are on the rise again so go sooner rather than later. The private company that leases Angkor from the government charges visitors $US20 ($18) entry per day. Alternatively, consider visiting the more recently discovered Banteay Chhmar temple ruins close to the Thailand border. Intrepid has a 15-day Best of Cambodia tour, from $1350. See intrepidtravel.com/trips/tksm#overview.

Cambodia &VietnamThe mighty Mekong River is South-east Asia's great artery. It flows through six countries on a journey of more than 4000 kilometres from its source on the Tibetan Plateau to the coast of Vietnam, where it forms a massive delta spilling into the South China Sea. The ebb and flow of river life is best sampled aboard a slow boat. Various cruises ply the Mekong, the most popular being seven- to nine-day voyages, in either direction, between Siem Reap in Cambodia, which is the access town to Angkor, and Ho Chi Minh City in south Vietnam.

Cruise itineraries include passage across south-east Asia's largest lake, Tonle Sap, before mooring beside the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh, various land excursions to tribal villages and temples, small factories and farms, and visits to fishing villages and markets on the backwaters of the Mekong Delta.

The best time for a Mekong cruise is October to January. During the later period of the dry season, from late March to August, Tonle Sap in Cambodia can be unnavigable due to extremely low water. In this event a five-hour coach transfer is introduced between Siem Reap and Kampong Chhnang.

Peregrine Adventures has a nine-day cruise from Siem Reap to Ho Chi Minh City, from $2295. See peregrineadventures.com.

Vietnam
City sights
Compared with Ho Chi Minh City, the Vietnamese capital Hanoi has considerable charm. At its heart lies Hoan Kiem, a tiny lake that's the focus of social activity from first light until late. Nearby is the famous Old Quarter, a bewildering, colourful tangle of 36 narrow streets and crowded lanes, each named for a traditional craft.

You'll find a tin street, one for blacksmiths and one for silversmiths, a street for bamboo screens, baskets, bottles, coffins, herbal medicine, mats, hats, pots, incense, pipes, oils and leather. The Old Quarter provides a welcome antidote of authenticity among the proliferation of cheap Chinese-made market goods that flood every Asian city.

Two kilometres west of Hoan Kiem is the venerable Temple of Literature, offering moments of calm repose. Within its walls are placid pools, shady trees and well-tended gardens. This was Vietnam's first national university, dating from 1076, and stone tablets record the names of laureates from the 15th to 18th centuries.

For lunch, try Koto, on adjacent Van Mieu Street, a restaurant created by Australian Jimmy Pham to teach hospitality skills to street kids. For a quintessential Hanoi evening dine at Cha Cha La Vong then soak up the sounds at Minh's Jazz Club, both in the Old Quarter.

TrekkingSapa in Vietnam's far north and the Mai Chau Valley, only 130 kilometres from Hanoi, are both well known for hill tribe treks. Getting to Sapa involves an overnight train ride from Hanoi. The scenery is spectacular but the experience overall has become overtly commercial. A guided three-day Mai Chau trek is an alternative. The countryside is enchanting, the H'mong and White Thai villages remain traditional and you'll see fewer tourists. World Expeditions runs a three-day Mai Chau trek for $640. See worldexpeditions.com/au.

LaosUntil fairly recently, Laos was far less travelled than its neighbours. Now tourism is the country's fastest-growing industry. The capital, Vientiane, has plenty of wonderful temples and Buddhist monuments but the upriver Mekong port of Luang Prabang is more captivating for getting in touch with a spirit of place.

In between is the adrenalin-pumping town of Vang Vieng, a backpacker haunt for river tubing, caving, rock climbing and generally letting loose. In sharp contrast and not far away is the mystical Plain of Jars, an ancient burial site.

Luang Namtha in the far north is a hub for hill tribe treks.

Slow boats ply the Mekong between Nong Khiaw and Luang Prabang and between there and Huay Xai on the Thai border. Water levels are lowest between November and May. Highlights of southern Laos are Champasak's Angkor-like Khmer temples and Si Phan Don, the "4000 islands" region of the Mekong, close to the Cambodia border. TravelindoChina has a 17-day Inside Laos trip, including Vientiane, Vang Vieng, Luang Prabang and trips along the Mekong River, from $3010, including daily breakfast, and one domestic flight. See travelindochina.com.au
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Support sought for UPLB grad in Cambodia bus accident

UPDATED 10:00 p.m. - The Philippine government is now coordinating with the Cambodian government to seek support for the Filipina tourist who lost her leg in a bus-truck collision in Cambodia on Monday.

On "Unang Balita" on GMA News TV on Friday, Pia Arcangel reported that the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) is coordinating with the Cambodian government to seek support for Nina Kristine Abad, 30, a graduate of the University of the Philippines Los BaƱos.

Abad, a senior operations manager of a call center in Makati, was on vacation in Cambodia when the bus she was riding in collided with a truck on Monday.

Marisol Abduraman on "Unang Balita" reported that the victim has not yet received any support from the Cambodian government and the bus firm.

"Wala siyang natatanggap na tulong mula sa mga kumpanya ng bus na sangkot sa banggaan. Maging ang gobyerno ng Cambodia, wala raw nagging aksyon lalo na at isa siyang turista siya sa kanilang bansa," Abduraman reported.

Those who are interested to extend financial support for Abad are asked to contact +63 908 897 4364.

Mixed emotions

Gjette Chua, one of the victim’s colleagues, said she has mixed emotions over Abad’s terrifying experience in Cambodia.

“Hindi naman siya tutulungan ng bus company, o hindi man lang siya bibigyan ng assistance ng Cambodia, kaya galit, inis, lungkot na [ang nararamdaman ko]," Chua said, also on “Unang Balita" on Friday.

“Pumunta ang tao doon para mag-enjoy. Pumunta siya doon ng dalawa ang paa, tapos uuwi nalang ng isa," Chua added.

Bus-truck collision

In an interview with GMA News, Abad recalled how the accident happened in Phnom Penh’s Peamro district at about 4:10 a.m. on Monday.

“‘Yung crash kasi happened on the right side ng bus. Unfortunately I was on the second row of the bus’ right side. When I looked down I saw both of my legs pinned down below the knees. Nakaipit siya between the seats," Abad said.

“When I saw my right leg was partially severed, I already knew then and there that I would already lose [my] leg," she added.

Abad was with other foreign tourists on board the Kampuchea Angkor Express bus when it collided with a truck filled with corn.

Five passengers sustained serious injuries while 27 others had minor injuries.

District police chief Seng Ponlok said they suspected that the accident was caused by a drowsy bus driver as the incident happened in Prey Veng province at dawn.

He said both vehicles in the accident have been taken to Peamro district police station for investigation.

“We will investigate this accident by cooperating with the bus company and we will also cooperate with them to look for the driver, who escaped after the accident," he said in a report on Phnom Penh Post..
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City Denies Permission for Union March Sunday

Phnom Penh authorities say they will not allow a union demonstration against rising prices of food, fuel and other living expenses.

The newly established Cambodian National Confederation for Laborers Protection, had requested permission from the city to hold its march Sunday, but were told instead that only a maximum 200 people would be allowed to gather at the city’s Freedom Park.

Chey Sovan, a vice president of the union, said they would bring 1,500 people to the park, although they would not march as planned. Workers are upset at the rising cost of living, and are demanding the government intervene to lower the prices of food, fuel and other goods.

The union said it has already filed a request to Prime Minister Hun Sen to help alleviate the pressure of the rising costs but had so far had no response. It plans to gather workers, teachers, motorcycle taxi drivers and other workers in protest.

Keurth Che, deputy administration director for Phnom Penh, said in a statement the city would not allow a march. The organizers will be fully responsible for the security of an assembly and must ensure it does not affect the business of government or dignitaries and is not done at the behest of any political party, he said.

Chey Sovan called the city’s refusal was counter to the freedom of expression.

“I think they have a fair right [to hold a march],” said Chan Saveth, lead monitor for the rights group Adhoc. “They are implementing their role in rights and freedoms to show their opinion to the royal government. But if the royal government prevents them from holding a march that reflects the democratic process, it can make this situation a threat to them not to implement their rights and freedoms.”
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Rights Group Calls for Action on ‘Flawed’ NGO Law

Numerous NGOs have said the draft law ignored their key recommendations, leaving it as a tool to repress groups that dissent from the views of the government and administration of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party.



The Cambodian Center for Human Rights on Thursday called on donors, lawmakers and other power brokers to step up pressure on the government, which hopes to pass a law to regulate non-governmental agencies but is widely seen as a blow to their ability to operate.

The 58-article law was sent to the Council of Ministers for approval last week, after which it will pass to the National Assembly for debate and passage.

Numerous NGOs have said the draft law ignored their key recommendations, leaving it as a tool to repress groups that dissent from the views of the government and administration of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party.

“The point of no return is fast approaching with this law,” CCHR President Ou Virak said in a statement. “It’s very difficult to change or influence legislation once it has reached the Council of Ministers. This means that now is the time for key stakeholders to take action at as high a level as possible in order to ensure that it doesn’t pass as it is currently
drafted.”

On Tuesday, the rights group Licadho issued its own warning over the law, saying it could be used to violate the freedoms of expression and association.

Nuth Sa An, secretary of state for the Ministry of Interior, said Tuesday the law was now at the Council of Ministers and any suggestions must be made to them.

Phay Siphan, a spokesman for the Council of Ministers, said the council could only ensure the law was drafted appropriately. Suggestions on the law can be made when it goes to the National Assembly for Debate, and further to the Constitutional Council.
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