Angkor Wat, Luang Prabang, Halong Bay — all names that spring to mind at the mention of Indochina, and rightly so. But Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam have so much more to offer the visitor, as four of our Southeast Asia specialists were lucky enough to discover on their recent research trips to these countries.
The Elephant Valley Project, Cambodia
The E.L.I.E (Elephant Livelihood Initiative Environment) Project rescues Cambodian domestic elephants from a life of labour or abuse. Set up in 2005 by an eccentric Brit called Jack (aka Mr Banana to the locals!) the project employs and works with the indigenous Bunong people with the aim of better elephant welfare. The project is located in the little visited Mondulkiri Province, six hours’ drive from the capital city Phnom Penh.
My day at the project began with a briefing from Kim (a bubbly Dutch tour guide and volunteer vet), letting us know about the project and the plan for the day. We then trekked through the lush jungle down a steep path deep into the valley. We came to a clearing with a large water pool, a hive of activity with water being sprayed and elephants scrubbed by their mahouts.
Simple pleasures, Northern Laos
Hannah and I were lucky enough to explore northern Laos with its spectacular scenery and beautiful villages. Having left behind Luang Prabang, we started our adventure in Nong Khiaw, on a spectacular boat journey surrounded by limestone karst and thick primary rainforest.
Nong Khiaw is a great spot to explore the area, with lovely cycle routes, impressive caves and superb trekking. After just two nights here we headed on to our main destination, Muang La.
On a map Muang La, is just a tiny dot, a small village like many in the country. It turned out to be a truly magical stay though, surrounded by stunning scenery and the perfect spot to enjoy the peaceful serenity of the area. The local H’mong and Akha people were a joy to meet, children beaming from ear to ear, laughing and joking with us as we strolled between villages.
Nearby was Chiao Pha Kham Sing temple, a shrine to Buddha and a major pilgrimage site. In the evening we enjoyed a drink on the veranda of our lovely hotel, watching local women wash clothes in the river as the sun set, and children splash around. Sometimes the simple things in life are the most memorable.
Hidden markets Northern Vietnam
Nestled high in the hills, with breathtaking views across a valley of lush green paddy fields, are some of the most fascinating markets in Vietnam. Far away from the crowded cities that populate much of the country, I never expected to find such vibrant, hustling and bustling markets at the end of long, muddy, bumpy roads.
Sin Cheng market is a highlight of this area, situated close to the Chinese border and a popular haunt with the Flower H’mong hill tribe. What makes this market special are the colourful traditional dresses that the different hill tribes wear. Despite the locals travelling for hours to get here, they are sure to welcome you with huge smiles. Children are shy but curious, owing to few visitors in this remote corner of the country. Everything is sold, from fresh fruit and vegetables, to bowls of Thang Co (a frothy pot of animal innards that I was not brave enough to try!), herbal medicines and buffaloes.
Moving deeper into the province we took in the weekend market of Dong Van. A mix of H’mong, Dzao and Tay tribes meet here, where the women are left to trade as the wizened H’mong men line the way drinking rice wine. What made the whole experience so memorable was the mountainous backdrop — truly spectacular. At all the markets I visited there was always the chance to barter for some lovely embroidery, laugh with locals and enjoy some delicious local delicacies when feeling brave!
Central High lands trekking, Vietnam
My latest Vietnam trip took me to the Central Highlands. Trekking through Kon Tum’s Montagnard Villages felt like another world compared to Ho Chi Minh City, and a privileged insight into the lives and practices of the Bahnar minority villagers.
Trekking through the villages I was greeted by children and adults with smiles, waves and many questions — one favourite was “why are you so tall?”. The traditional Rong house is a wonderful sight, set on towering stilts with the elongated thatched roof, it plays a central part of village life, often used for community activities and practices. I finished the trek with a boat journey in a traditional dug-out canoe.
Moving south through the Central Highlands I passed through Buon Ma Thuot, the western highlands’ largest town and gateway to Yok Don National Park. The park’s a haven for wildlife, and while you might not see its most elusive inhabitants (tiger, leopards and elephants) you’re sure to have the constant chattering of monkeys and birdlife as you trek through the reserve.
I finally reached Dalat, Vietnam’s premier hill station. The nearby Mount Pinhatt and Mount Lang Biang offer pretty trails with varied landscapes as you walk through alpine forests into tropical jungles. Dalat was also a great place to relax, with a stay at the wonderful French-influenced Dalat Palace perfect for a little luxury and some well-deserved relaxation.
Homestay, Ha Giang, Vietnam
Up in the far northern provinces of Vietnam lies the lovely Tay Minority Homestay (below). Located on the outskirts of Ha Giang, it offers the chance to enjoy traditional hospitality among stunning scenery.
The Tay people make up the second largest ethnic group in Vietnam, living along the valleys and lower slopes of the mountain. Feeling fairly energetic I set out one morning to visit minority people at Phuong Do Village, the oldest community in Ha Giang. A relaxing trek of around two hours passed through lush green paddyfields and forests, waving at what felt like hundreds of children in and around their traditional houses on stilts. The region does not experience many outside visitors so the local people were very intrigued by me, and very welcoming.
Our lovely hosts took real pride in providing the best local cuisine, showing off their long-established culinary skills and laughing as I tried to help in a haphazard manner! Keen to share their stories, my guide Tran Duc Kien translated and made the whole experience relaxing and personal, though this may well have been aided by their home-brewed rice wine! As night enveloped us I realised how peaceful it was — falling asleep the only sound was the occasional hushed laughter of our hosts and the rustling of animals beneath our stilted home for the night.
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