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.

 

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The Plain Of Jars

The Plain of Jars is an archaeological wonderland. Throughout the region are hundreds of enormous stone jars thought to be used for burials. The jars are believed to have been created during the iron age, around 2000-2500 years ago. Their origins and purpose are still unknown as there are no markings or other remains to give us any clues. There are 90 jar sites in total, each containing between 1 and 400 jars. The best place to visit the jar sites from is Phonsavan, the regional hub. Many of the jar sites are damaged from US bombing runs during the Vietnam War. Sadly many of the sites are still regarded as dangerous, due to unexploded bombs scattered throughout the region, so take care when exploring them. You will most likely require a guide to transport you between sites and to tell you which areas are safe and which are not.   These jars are an incredible piece of history and are part of a major archaeological mystery and should definitely be seen by everyone.

 

Phonsavan

Phonsavan is the last major eastern town/city in Laos before reaching the Vietnamese border. The city is a rural hub, mostly consisting of farmers and those who sell to farmers. The city is also the closest location to the Plain of Jars which will be covered in my next article. I felt that Phonsavan deserved its own separate article. You can find stunning scenery, traditional culture and cuisine and amazing history in the part of Laos. Spread throughout the region are countless craters from US bombing rounds, as well as countless unexploded bombs and grenades. The locals have made an industry of converting this war era scrap metal into useful items and sellable wares through smelting. You should definitely try to visit one such workshop if you can and watch the locals meltdown bombs to create everything from keychains to silverware, to jewelry, all of which is available for purchase. The scenery alone should attract you, with rolling hills covered in and surrounded by rice fields and water buffalo. Make sure to spend at least a day here, especially if you are passing through on your way to North Western Vietnam. Prices here are also extremely low as it is not a tourism based town. The Plain of Jars is, in my opinion, an ancient wonder of the world and is not to be missed.

 

Four Thousand Islands/Don Det

 

The Four Thousand Islands is a large island group located in the Mekong River near the Laotian border. These islands primarily house farmland and small villages but are also home to some fantastic hostels and bars. I suggest spending at least a day or two on these islands, the largest and most tourist-friendly of which is Don Det. There are several places to eat and some great bars in the main town area on the island. My favourite of all of these was Adam’s Bar, a restaurant/ bar where you can spend the day relaxing, watching the latest pirated movies or playing Xbox, or watching turtles swim in their encolsure. The bar was also famous for selling other, non-standard edible and smokable items. The two main things worth doing on the island are cycling around and between islands, and tubing. Sadly for me tubing was not possible a the time of year that I visited, due to the water levels of the Mekong being dangerously high. As far as the cycling side of it goes, I suggest just renting a bicycle and going off down one of the island paths ad seeing where they take you, you will find some very cool locations. Just make sure to relax, enjoy and explore the natural beauty of the islands and the relatively cheap cost of everything compared to the larger cities.

https://www.tripadvisor.com/Restaurant_Review-g1082249-d4354676-Reviews-Adam_s-Don_Det_Champasak_Province.html

 

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

Bangkok

Bangkok is amongst the best known cities in the world. This is not only the hub of Thailand, but one of the largest and busiest cities in SE Asia. People from around the world visit Bangkok every year for numerous reasons. The city itself houses 8.8 million people, but including the city’s surrounding area, the total rises to over 14 million. You can feel the hustle and bustle the entire time you are in Bangkok, where the city never really sleeps. Unfortunately for me, my visit coincided with the Occupy Bangkok movement. I got stuck in protests, dropped off in a conflict area and had hand grenades go off two blocks from my hotel killing numerous people, as well as a public assassination of a protest leader. Due to this I had to cut my stay in Bangkok short before the bridges in and out of the city were completely  blocked off. I managed to cram as much as possible into the time I had in the city, but felt that it was unwise to stay any longer. Additionally, I made a bad choice in my accommodations’ location, staying in a rather dodgy area of the city where almost nobody spoke English, so if you visit, just remember that Khao San Road is the place to stay if you want to be in the heart of the city and amongst other tourists. I did actually enjoy staying in a non touristy neighborhood and met a member of the merchant navy who took me out to local food places and bars and translated for me.

 

Canals

Bangkok is built in the Chao Phraya River delta and as such the entire city is traversed by rivers and canals. The Thai people have historically always used these waterways in most aspects of life. The river is used for transportation, as well as a food source. If you manage to have time, make sure to take a river tour and explore the canals to see a whole other side of the city.

http://www.bangkokrivertours.com/

 

Temples

Bangkok is one of the Buddhist capitals of the world, housing a vast array of temples of all shapes and sizes. Sadly due to my time constraints I wasn’t able to explore nearly as many of these as I wanted to.

 

Markets

Bangkok is also well known for its numerous and varied markets. Whatever you are looking for, a market somewhere in Bangkok probably sells it. You will see animals, fruits, plants and other items that you have never seen before. I could  honestly have spent an entire day just visiting market places throughout the city.

Cameron Highlands

The Cameron Highlands are in my opinion one of the most beautiful places on earth. Located in the mountains amongst dense jungle landscapes, the Cameron Highlands is a tea growing plantation town unlike any other. You will find Dutch and German style architecture throughout this region, mixed with vast tea plantations amidst jungle terrain. This is a mix I have yet to find anywhere else to date. If you want the backpacking experience then I suggest finding a hostel in town itself. However if you want to spend a little more there is a fantastic resort located a short drive outside of town, closer to the tea plantations called Equatorial Cameron Highlands. There are plenty of jungle hikes in the area, just be careful not to get lost and probably don’t go out in a storm as jungle terrain can be far more dangerous than a normal forest. The fruit markets located near the Equatorial are definitely worth a visit, selling every type of fruit you could possibly want, in particular the freshest strawberries I have ever had.

https://www.booking.com/hotel/my/equatorial-cameron-highlands.html

 

BOH Tea Plantation

BOH is the largest and most developed of the tea plantations in the Cameron Highlands. This plantation has a large and beautiful property with lush tea fields surrounded by jungle. There is winding road leaving the main road in the Cameron Highlands that will take you to the plantation, which you can either drive or walk. Personally I walked it and took in the fresh mountain air and beautiful scenery. The plantation has a fantastic café with a stunning viewing platform overlooking the rolling hills covered in tea fields. A tour of the plantation is also available, which will take you through the tea making process.

http://www.cameronhighlandsinfo.com/attraction/BOH_Tea_Plantations/

 

Jungle Hiking

There are plenty of jungle hikes located around Cameron Highlands, manyt of which start in town itself. Personally I did and loved Jungle Walk No1, which took several hours on a barely marked mud trail through thick jungle. I found out later that the trial is not recommended without hiring a guide, but luckily I managed to complete it myself without getting lost. I did however get covered in a thick layer of mud and moss and get soaking wet from rain. The jungle on the hike itself is stunning, trees are covered in thick moss and are gnarled and misshapen. If you like hiking, I highly suggest attempting the trail. Views on the climb are spectacular certain points, but cloud cover hid much of the distant rolling hills.

http://www.cameronhighlandsinfo.com/jungle_trekking/

 

Floral Greenhouses

The Cameron Highlands is home to numerous floral greenhouses, which house vast numbers of beautiful flowering plants in all shapes sizes and colours. These are located just down the street from the Equatorial, near the markets and strawberry farms.

 

Cameron Butterfly House

This facility, while being a butterfly house is actually far more impressive for its reptile, amphibian and insect collection. Here you will see numerous snake, frog, toad, spider, lizard and other species. Definitely worth a quick visit.

http://www.cameronbutterflyfarm.com.my/butterfly-house/reptiles-and-amphibians/