Southeast Asia: Notes from the field 2013
Southeast Asia is where it all began for Audley. Vietnam was our first destination; seventeen years on, it is a region that still beguiles and inspires us.
The Gokteik Viaduct in Shan Sate, northeast Myanmar
Our team of specialists not only have an infectious enthusiasm for Southeast Asia, they also have extensive knowledge – the result of personal travels, perhaps working or living there, and certainly from their research trips with Audley.
Burma, Borneo, Cambodia, Vietnam and Indonesia are just a few of the destinations that our specialists have been travelling to this year. Here they share some of their most exciting finds.
The elaborate funeral ceremonies in central Sulawesi offer a fascinating insight into the animist beliefs of the Toraja people. Torajan funerals are elaborate, expensive affairs, providing the deceased with the best possible send off into the afterlife. The celebrations often last for days, with family members returning from all over Indonesia and can be held weeks, months or even years after the person has passed away.
It was on my recent visit to Indonesia, while I was exploring the rugged peaks and steeped rice terraces of the Mamasa Valley and Tana Toraja, that I was privileged to attend a Torajan funeral and witness the celebrations first hand. Set to a rhythm of beating drums, the funeral procession snaked a path through the central square. It was day two of this funeral ceremony, and I found myself a welcome guest (guests are seen as auspicious); I spent my time drinking tea and watching events unfold accompanied by the niece of the deceased.
I had arrived into Rantepao, capital of North Toraja Regency and my base for exploring Tana Toraja, after a three-day trek from deep within the Mamasa Valley. The Mamasa Valley and Tana Toraja are areas of outstanding beauty in central Sulawesi. Here, small village communities settle in river valleys, amid a spine of mountains and ridges.
Mamasa in particular is largely untouched by travellers, which may be partly due to the rather arduous journey to get there. However, it soon became clear that the long and bone-rattling ride (close to 12 hours) was well worth it, as I set off on day one of a 55km trek that would see me descending into river valleys, climbing peaks and staying overnight in the homes of welcoming villagers. After a full day’s walking, I’d never been so keen to see a bowl of fish broth! As I trekked further east towards Toraja, rugged mountains gave way to steep rice terraces, and I began to see many more of the traditional tongkonan houses, for which the area is famed.
Arriving into Rantepao, I had two days left in Toraja to explore the tombs and burial sites, and hopefully attend a funeral – something I never thought I would say! I wasn’t disappointed: the rhythmic chanting and colourful costumes created a scene worthy of a documentary.
Burma is a rapidly evolving country. It’s blessed with incredible nature, history and culture, and confronted by political, social and environmental challenges. There’s no doubt that the coming years will bring new tests, but my first visit to the country taught me that, if you measure a nation’s wealth by the honesty, warmth, joy and hope of the people, Burma is the richest I have had the privilege to visit.
As the sun was setting over the Sagaing Hills, the breeze from the Irrawaddy River bringing cool refreshment from the day’s heat, I thought: it doesn’t get any better than this. Cruising slowly back to Mandalay aboard a private boat – after spending my first evening admiring the mighty unfinished stupa that is Mingun Paya and the surrounding pagodas – little did I know that this amazing country would spend the next two weeks proving this sentiment to be so naïve.
Thanks to new government regulations and a new flight route from Bangkok, my visit started in Burma’s second-largest city, Mandalay. This is a city that often divides opinion, but I found it to be a great introduction. The highlights of my short stay were the bustling railway bazaar and a climb up sacred Mandalay Hill for sunset; I was privileged to spend the descent in the company of a young monk,Taing, sharing stories about our lives and, of course, English football!
Heading northeast into Shan State I arrived in Hsipaw, a small town primarily frequented by visitors keen to trek and explore the surrounding villages and hills. I often find that the journey is as important and interesting as the destination, and this was certainly the case as our train crept over the iconic Gokteik Viaduct, affording impressive views through the large open windows. The creaks of the 100-year-old structure only added to the atmosphere.
While the scenery and trekking opportunities are excellent, my overriding memory of Hsipaw is the crumbling Shan Palace and the time I spent there with its current occupant, Sao Sarm Hpong – known by her preferred English name, Fern. I would encourage you to read the book Twilight Over Burma for a full account of this noble family’s fascinating story but sitting in the house’s library listening to Fern’s first-hand account was a special moment. The dignity, bravery and humour that radiated as she spoke was humbling and inspiring.
A trip to Borneo isn’t complete without a visit to see some of the resident orang-utan. We regularly revisit a number of rehabilitation centres and natural habitats as well as sponsoring an orang-utan at the Sepilok sanctuary. My most poignant encounter, however, was in the pristine Danum Valley in the heart of Borneo’s primary rainforest.
Watching a wild 75kg orang-utan amble past you is not an experience you have every day. Standing shaded beneath the towering rainforest canopy, I had been looking up into the trees to try to spot the brightly coloured hornbill that my guide Calixtus was pointing out. Our attention quickly turned, however, as we heard the rustle of leaves.
Less than 20m away a huge orang-utan came into view – I was to find out later that he was a regular visitor to the area surrounding the Borneo Rainforest Lodge, who had been aptly named ‘King’. This was to be my closest and most exciting encounter with orang-utan in Borneo, having also been lucky enough to see them nesting at the Kinabatangan River, and at the superb Semenggok Orang-utan Sanctuary in Sarawak.
To be perfectly honest, until this recent trip to Borneo I had never been a wildlife nut – my interest had always revolved around culture, food, temples and superb beaches. Borneo is so refreshingly back to nature – yes a terrible cliché but I really felt like I was being taken away from the daily grind of life, surrounded by spectacular scenery and seeing some of the most beautiful wildlife. On any given day we would trek through primary rainforest or glide along small tributaries, with proboscis monkeys, gibbons, rhinoceros hornbills or pygmy elephants coming into view at any point. In the evenings we would head out to see fireflies dancing along the river or just sit out listening to the sound of the jungle while enjoying a cold beer.
And so in the Danum Valley, I came almost face-to-face with King. I would like to say that I grabbed my camera and took some spectacular photos. Instead I just stood there transfixed as this magnificent creature walked into the clearing ahead, gazing directly towards us, unperturbed and completely at ease in his environment. It was a moment I will never forget – experiences like this are few and far between, and it was most definitely the turning point in me becoming a wildlife nut!
Given the considerable amount of press coverage that the temples of Cambodia now receive, we’re always keen to uncover new experiences. The Kulen Temple Safari is the perfect example of how, by straying away from Cambodia’s tried and tested circuit, you can have a more authentic experience.
Phnom Kulen National Park protects a 500m-high, 30km-long plateau, about 50km northeast of Siem Reap. Considered sacred by locals, it was the site from which Jayavarman II declared independence from Java in AD 802 and so created the first Khmer Empire. The park was off limits for years due to the landmines (which have now been cleared) that littered the area – a legacy of the “I found little-known temples “- Cambodia bitter Khmer Rouge era. Due to this, the numerous temples that lie throughout the jungle here have been left uncharted and unvisited for decades.
I was collected from the hotel after breakfast, we wound up the single track road, stopping at the huge reclining Buddha cave before continuing to the summit where a team had set up camp. After a delicious lunch of freshly prepared local food we began a 4km trek across the plateau to see the impressive rock-hewn animals known collectively as Sra Domrei. Further exploration took us to some early Angkor-period temples – including Prasat Pram and Prasat Domrei Krap – many of which have yet to be properly documented by researchers.
That night we camped back at the summit, known as Preah Kral. It is a beautiful setting, with views stretching over to the Cambodian plains in the distance. After a much-needed cool shower we all sat down to a delicious meal; we then chatted around the campfire to see the evening in before retiring to our fan-cooled tents.
In the morning, after a revitalising coffee and a cooked breakfast, it was time for more trekking in the area before heading off by road to visit the River of a Thousand Lingas. Here, countless lingas and yunis (Hindu symbols of fertility) have been carved into the bed of the river that rises from the jungle and flows down over a series of waterfalls to Siem Reap.
This was without a doubt one of the best travel experiences I have had from my time in Asia.
'I spent a great day down on the farm' - Charlie, Southeast Asia Regional Manager
March saw me return to Vietnam for the ninth time. My mandate was to enquire into, unearth, experience and enthuse about all that is new and innovative in the country.
Hoi An was to play host to two such new experiences. While the pretty UNESCO-listed fishing village remains charming and beautiful in a ‘quaint Cotswold village’ kind of a way, it is very popular – and popularity brings its own problems.
However, I discovered a fantastic new hotel named Hoi An Chic, hidden in a field of rice, off the main road and equidistant from Hoi An’s old quarter and the beach. This boutique, bijou (17 room) property is expertly run, wonderfully comfortable, has a rooftop infinity pool and an enviable location. I would steer clear of the ground floor rooms as privacy would be a problem but our preferred rooms – Grand Chic and the Chic family room – are all located on the first floor, which affords both privacy and enchanting views.
The following day I was to experience a day’s farming as part of a new agritourism project based in the countryside that skirts Hoi An. I was more than happy to get stuck in! On the promise of rice pancakes and a gentle bike ride, we set off into the countryside in search of our small farming community. One local funeral, two bamboo bridges and a war story later, we turned right down a track; ahead of us were two smiling, toothy farmers, a buffalo and ten acres of paddy fields – half an acre of which was flooded and devoid of rice. We were ushered into the farmer’s kitchen for a cup of tea and a brief face-pulling session with the small army of children that the farmer’s wife cares for while the other villagers are at work. My guide outlined the morning’s activities and, no sooner than my cuppa was finished, I was swiftly dressed in a conical hat, farming smock and waders. I was soon to become closely acquainted with that half acre of mud!
The next three hours were a blur of laughter, buffalo-ploughing and riding, laughter again, planting and harvesting rice, grain sifting and more laughter. There was also plenty of rice-grinding and fish trapping – the biggest chuckle coming from the farmers as I kept dropping the slippery little critters (catch and release: no fish were harmed in the making of this activity). Then – finally – there was the cooking and eating of rice pancakes.
I learnt about one of the longest-standing farming techniques in the world, gained an understanding of the pitiful wages of rice farmers (roughly $300 a year), laughed hard, made friends with two strangers and ate the most delicious, well-earned Vietnamese feast. I will certainly never look at a grain of rice in the same way again. It was one of the most inclusive and enjoyable experiences this traveller has had anywhere in the world.
There are a number of similar new experiences in Vietnam that we will be launching in the coming weeks and months. Get in touch if you would like to hear more.
Southeast Asia additional information
The experiences on the preceding pages are just a sample of the many we’ve had in the past months. Speak to our Southeast Asia specialists for more details on trips to Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Burma, Malaysia, Borneo, Brunei, Singapore, Indonesia, the Philippines and Papua New Guinea.
How much does it cost?
All our trips are tailor-made, so prices will depend on a number of factors such as length of trip, the standard of accommodation you choose and the time of year that you travel. As a rough guide:
- 12 days in Vietnam, including the main highlights of Hanoi, Halong Bay, central Vietnam and Saigon, costs from £2,425pp.
- 15 days exploring Borneo, including the Kinabatangan River, Sepilok and the Danum Valley, costs from £3,515pp.
- 13 days exploring the highlights of Burma (Rangoon, Pagan, Mandalay and Inle Lake) costs from £3,645pp.
How can I travel more responsibly?
Consideration for the local communities and the environment is at the forefront of our minds. We have supported various projects over the years and clients also let us know about projects close to their hearts. Here are just a few such examples.
Sharon Bierer and Henrik Overgaard-Nielsen travelled to Burma with us twice in 2012 and have subsequently set up a charity providing dental treatment to orphans living around Inle Lake. They are holding a ball in London on 12 October 2013; all funds raised will go to their registered charity.
Clients Liz and Robert Morris have recently returned from Cambodia and were so concerned by the poverty they saw that they decided to try and make a difference. Liz has not only set up her own fundraising page, which raises money for Help the Cambodian Children, she has also added some slideshows to YouTube to raise awareness.
For the past few years we have been adopting an orang-utan through the Orangutan Appeal UK. The great news is that one of the orang-utans we have been supporting, Ceria, has been released from Sepilok Rehabilitation Centre into the forest surrounding the reserve. Ceria is free to come and go to a feeding platform on the edge of the reserve to supplement his diet while he is settling in to the forest and perfecting his survival skills. We have now adopted Chikita who was one-month-old when she arrived at the centre in November 2010.
How do I start planning?
Our passionate and well-travelled Southeast Asia specialists would be delighted to help you put your plans together. To speak with the team contact us on 01993 838 100. We also have a comprehensive Southeast Asia section on the website which is packed with itinerary ideas and country guides.