New Caledonia: Noumea and Mare

New Caledonia is a Pacific Island nation located just east of Brisbane Australia. The nation is a former French colony and has a rich mix of French and traditional tribal culture. Noumea is the largest and most developed city in the country, as well as being the nations capital city. In Noumea, you will find some fantastic markets and some great French and traditional cuisine. If you have some time, make sure to visit St Josephs Cathedral in the center of the city, aside from being a beautiful and historic building, it offers a great view of the city. Mare, by contrast, is mostly undeveloped and still has a traditional tribal feel to it. Most residents either still live in traditional thatched huts or small more modern shacks. The island is home to beautiful beaches and palm/pine forests. Here you will find traditional foods and beverages, along with fresh coconuts and French beer. Mare is a fantastic way to spend a day on the beach, eating traditional food and drinking cheap French beer, soaking in the Pacific Island sun and making the most of the clear blue waters surrounding the island.

 

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Ben Tre (Mekong Delta)

Ben Tre is located in what is known as the Mekong Delta, a lush sprawling agricultural area interwoven by rivers and tributaries. Located throughout this region you will find small villages surrounded by farms and workshops of all natures. For instance, on the day tour I took, we visited several coconut, honey, and fruit farms, along with a coconut candy workshop. Shrimp farming is also extremely popular in the region. As far as entertainment goes, cockfighting is extremely popular here, as it is in many rural areas in SE Asia and you will find that a large number of people keep roosters on their property in small cages. If you manage to visit this area try to take a small paddled boat ride through the regions palm-lined canals as it is a very enjoyable experience. Additionally, if you haven’t had a chance to see them up until now you will be able to see plenty of water buffalo on the farm properties here. Ben Tre definitely makes for a nice way to get out of Ho Chi Minh hustle and bustle for a day.

 

Cat Ba Island

Cat Ba Island is, in my opinion, the highlight of Ha Long Bay. The island has one smallish port town with numerous hotels, hostels, bars, markets, and restaurants. I suggest spending at least two days on the island in order to really see what it has hidden. Staying in town is a fantastic base, where you can rest and relax, but also rent a motorbike or scooter to explore the inland areas of the island. The main town area houses some fantastic markets where a traveler can pick up a large amount of pearl based jewelry for a very small cost. You can also find numerous floating restaurants throughout the harbor serving fantastic food.  Inland on the island, the first real item of note is a small hidden stairway just off of the main road, leading to a cave. Inside the cave, you will find a secret medical facility built beneath the earth during the Vietnam War. When I happened to visit, the cave was completely empty, so I was the only person there making it an extremely creepy experience. The atmosphere inside of the facility is haunting, especially knowing that numerous people died within its walls from their sustained wounds. The complete silence and dim lighting add even further to the already creepy atmosphere. I definitely suggest checking it out even if you find it a little unsettling. The next and probably main attraction on the island for me is Cat Ba National Park which you can find in the center of the island. Whether or not I took the correct route is unclear, but for me to get there I had to park my bike and walk through an abandoned village, whose only inhabitants were wild dogs and deer. This setting was also somewhat creepy, but after visiting the hospital cave, not so much. The hike to Ngu Lam Peak, an excellent observation point located in the park should not take more than an hour or so each way. The view from the peak was fantastic and looked over the landscape in every direction, showing nothing but jungle covered peaks for the most part. My only piece of advice would be to cover your body head to toe in insect repellant and to make sure that you are taking malaria tablets because mosquitos will eat you alive on this hike, more so than any other hike I have ever been on. Apart from the inland attractions, make sure to explore the town’s markets and bars for a very enjoyable experience. Also, make sure to try horse show crab and mantis shrimp if you have a chance, both are delicious. Cat Ba makes for a fantastic few days if you have the time.

 

Ha Long Bay

 

Ha Long Bay is a natural wonder of the world, a Unesco protected region and a world famous tourist destination and as such needs no introduction for most people. For those who are not familiar with this location, the bay is located in NE Vietnam near Hanoi and draws in tourists from all over the world. What makes this location so unique is the seemingly endless mountains, spires and rock formations of limestone that emerge straight from the ocean and are covered in thick lush plant matter. This unique formation coupled with bright blue, almost teal water and Vietnamese junks and floating villages and pearl farms are what makes this location so unique and enticing. I would suggest booking one to three-night cruises in the bay if you are budget conscious, if not stay as long as you possibly can and take in all that the bay has to offer. For my visit, I booked a three-night cruise but decided to stay an extra night on Cat Ba Island, so just left my cruise group and took the morning boat back to the mainland aboard another boat operating a day behind ours. Some of the attractions to look forward to apart from Cat Ba are ocean kayaking, cave exploring, visiting pearl farms and floating villages, as well as karaoke and cooking lessons onboard the boats. Even if it’s just for a night, I highly suggest experiencing what Ha Long Bay has to offer and checking one of the natural wonders of the world off of your list.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sihanoukville/Koh Tah Kiev

Sihanoukville is Cambodia’s answer to Phuket, on a far smaller and less touristy scale. The town is built right on the beachfront and is the gateway to Cambodia’s tropical islands. The town itself isn’t overly large, but outside of the town, you will find plenty of beachfront rentals and small bungalow housing resorts. My advice would be to rent a bike and drive between the town and the beachfront areas and just explore the area. You will have plenty of options as far as which island you would like to visit and stay on from Sihanoukville itself. I personally chose Koh Tah Kiev to get the unique experience of staying in a treetop jungle hut connected to a central canopy hotel by boardwalks. If you are more into the party scene, then I suggest Koh Rong, as that island is party central.

 

 

Koh Ta Kiev

Koh Ta Kiev is to date one of the coolest experiences I’ve had, wading out into the water to climb onto a boat to a jungle island to stay in the tree tops. The island’s resort has no electricity or running water and uses a wood-fire oven to cook all food. The rooms are all open to the elements and come with a mosquito net to keep all insects and reptiles out of your bed at night. To make up for its lack of electricity ( which is all part of the experience), the island houses an absinthe distillery, which is supposed to rival other contenders for the title of the world’s strongest genuine absinth. Whether or not it actually is the strongest, is irrelevant as it is definitely strong enough to get you where you want to be. You can tour the jungle distillery and meet the owner Johan who is one of the most interesting people I’ve had the pleasure of having a drink or 6 with.

http://www.sihanoukville-cambodia.com/sihanoukville-businesses/new2011/ten-103-treehouse-bay.html

Kratié

Kratie is a small town in the northeast of the Cambodian countryside, situated right on the banks of Mekong, the town is primarily farming and fishing based. The outskirts of town are home to numerous villages which give you a glimpse of daily village life in Cambodia. In the town center, is a large marketplace and several restaurants looking onto the river. There are also numerous temples throughout and surrounding the town worth visiting. The town is a great place to see local wildlife, some of which is extremely rare, such as the soft-shelled turtle and the irrawaddy dolphin, both of which are critically endangered. If you’re looking to get out of the city and see how a great number of average Cambodians live, Kratie is a great way to experience this. The locals are also extremely friendly, with my tour guide inviting me to his house for lunch to meet his beautiful family after the tour ended.

 

 

Temples

The town and surrounding area is home to some fantastic temples and temple complexes. These include depictions of the road to heaven and the path to hell and are adorned with incredible paintings and sculptures.

 

Mekong/Wildlife

The Mekong is teeming with life and if you decide to spend time on and around it, you will see plenty of it. Kratie is famous for its local dolphin population, the Irrawaddy dolphin is extremely endangered, but can easily be seen swimming in the Mekong right outside of Kratie. Make sure to take a boat ride out onto the river and go dolphin spotting, I managed to see at least four in the span of 30 minutes. Located near the town is an amphibian rescue center, housing numerous species of frogs and turtles, including the endangered soft shelled turtle.

Siem Reap

Siem Reap is the tourist hub of Cambodia for a number of reasons. Firstly, the city is the located just outside of the ancient city of Angkor Wat. Secondly, the city houses amazing markets, nightclubs, restaurants and cultural performance centers.  Thirdly and finally, the city is located right near Tonlé Sap, the largest lake in Southeast Asia. I would personally recommend spending a couple of days in the city, as there is plenty to see and do. There are several evening shows in town including the Cambodian Circus and Cambodian traditional dance show. You will need many hours to fully explore the night markets and day markets located throughout the city. Take a day and visit Tonlé Sap to see an entirely different culture living upon the lake. There are also beautiful parks and temples to explore.

 

 

Tonlé Sap

Tonlé Sap is the largest inland lake in Southeast Asia and supports countless lake-based communities, several of which are built on the lake itself. These are either on stilts on the water’s edge or floating on the lake itself. I highly suggest taking a boat tour of the lake and the village including a crocodile farm. When I was in on of the lake villages, I spent several hours teaching English to local village children, which was actually a lot more fun than I had expected. If this is something that you would like to do, then get in touch with a local tour guide when in one of the villages.

http://www.tourismcambodia.com/travelguides/provinces/siem-reap/what-to-see/76_the-great-lake-tonle-sap-floating-village.htm

 

Nightlife

Siem Reap has one of the best night-lives in SE Asia. The city has entire streets containing just pubs and clubs. If you get a chance, make sure to do a pub crawl through the city as you will visit some amazing hidden bars. There are also numerous amazing night markets, selling exotic foods such as tarantula, scorpion, snake, crickets, frogs, etc, all of which I suggest trying as they are delicious and a unique experience. For anyone who is a fan of Hard Rock Cafes, there is a fantastic one in the city with some great memorabilia. Finally, I suggest going to a cultural dance show, as it is a great experience and teaches you a bit about Cambodian culture and dining.

 

http://www.cambodianlivingarts.org/experience/see-a-show/

https://www.canbypublications.com/phnompenh/ppnight.htm