6 Southeast Asia Water Adventures – #3 is my favorite!

Exclusive for Vagobond by Melissa Ruttanai Photos by Neil Friedman.

In mainland Southeast Asia, adrenaline junkies and nature lovers will discover full-throttle water sport adventures. Without mandatory deposit fees equivalent to mortgage down payments, visitors trek, snorkel, raft and kayak in pristine waters. For those seeking beaches, grottos, and limestone landscapes, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam have become prime destinations. In Southeast Asia, adventure begins where the tides meet the shore. Here are 6 Southeast Asia Water Adventures.

Kayaking in Southern Thailand’s Angthong National Marine Park

Inland Sea, ThailandFor Hollywood filmmakers, billionaires, and broke college students, the Gulf of Thailand remains a draw for many waterborne adventure seekers. Northwest of famous Koh Samui Island, Angthong National Marine Park is an archipelago of 42 limestone islands carved by tide and wind. While camping is allowed with a permit, many visitors arrange tours out of Koh Samui that include swimming island lagoons, trekking trough the mountain, and eating at a local village. During the day, explore small coves and sandy beaches. Snorkel with tropical fish and survey Koh Wua Talap, the largest island in the chain, or Koh Mae Koh that boasts a green-blue inland sea called, Talay Nai. Glide kayaks across the Koh Mae’s bay and relax to the delicate sound of your paddle dipping into gentle waters while high promontories loom like grey-green sea monsters.


Boating through Vietnam’s Halong Bay

With a UNESCO World Heritage seal of approval, Halong Bay sits on the northern ridge of a limestone chain that sweeps up from the Gulf of Thailand and Angthong National Marine Park. Here, the karsts cluster into a mystical array of gray stone, verdant brush, and boats with iconic colonial sails and rudders. Meaning “dragon descending”, Halong Bay includes 2000 islands and over 600 square miles of the Tonkin Gulf, offering visitors dozens of beaches, grottos, and caves to explore. With its high salinity, bathers can jump right from the ship into waters so buoyant there’s hardly any exertion necessary. Stretching across the water surface, visitors can drift all day among spiraling crags. Visit floating houses lashed together into small villages. Or tether broadside to local fisherman, selling giant prawns and squirming squid straight from their nets. After a day caving, pull into Cat Ba Island, a favorite retreat for Hanoians escaping the city.

 


Sailing through Daily Life on Tonle Sap Lake, Cambodia

Tonle SapSix miles south of famous Siem Reap and Angkor Wat, Southeast Asia’s largest lake, Tonle Sap continues to play a vital role in the life of local Cambodians. Fed by the Mekong River during the wet season, Tonle Sap remains a major waterway for commerce and transportation. Every day, ferries carry commuters and cargo across the lake on their way to and from Battambong. For US$5, travelers can gaze through a window of life on the lake, witnessing how families live in boathouses, cooking, reading, and raising children in narrow canals. Children attend floating schools on large boats with open windows and basketball courts enclosed by high fences. Families visit floating hospitals, teetering gently in the wake. Women buy fresh fish and produce from vendors rowing along peacefully.


White Water Rafting in Luang Prabang, Laos

Luang Prabang RiverLaos’ religious and cultural capital, Luang Prabang is a town known for Buddhist temples, daily markets, and a laidback pace of life. At sunrise, monks and novices traverse the UNESCO World Heritage streets. At sunset, fishing boats shift back and forth in the wake of speedboats heading to China. On one side of the town, the Mekong River skims along, a wide boulevard of fertile silt and dependable currents. On the other, Nom Khan River sweeps in from the east, offering visitors white water rafting and kayaking for any skill level. From town, tours can be arranged with door to riverside transport included. On their second day in Luang Prabang, travelers could find themselves clad in helmet and life vest, digging hard into rushing currents. Guides lead rafters through crashing white waters and ominous rocks creating whirlpools. In the reeds, Lao children play in the shallows, making the peace sign as they splash each other. Along the river, mountains as diverse as the wildlife press up against the shoreline. Stilted houses perch on slopes growing tea. Birds cut across black rock cliffs. And women plod up and down terraced vegetable patches.

Tubing in Vang Vieng, Laos

Tubing in LaosIn the 1970’s, backpackers looked around for a convenient stopover during trips between Luang Prabang and Vientiane, the capital. From this necessity, Vang Vieng burst onto the scene, offering accommodations, meals, and more recently, tubing. On the riverside, two companies rent out massive inner tubes and drop travelers off upstream for a day of lazing on the river, listening to birds, and losing all thought to mountain peaks. From these humble beginnings, the tubing trend has become the main activity in town. On the river, bars jut out from the tree line, pulsing with Bob Marley tunes and hawking cheap mixed drinks. Bars feature ziplines, mudslides, and tug-of-war pits to keep patrons docked at their shores. On the river, meet other travelers and become inspired by how many consecutive days they’ve tubed the river. Back in town, relax on triangular pillows, enjoy the mountain air, and recharge for another day on the river.

Swimming with Elephants in Pai, Thailand

Elephants in ThailandSitting on the highway route between Chiang Mai and Mae Hong Son, the little town of Pai is a major stop along the traveler’s path in northern Thailand. Here, artists absorb nature’s inspiration and Thais retreat from the bustle of metropolitan life. While there’s plenty to do on foot and motorbike, a popular activity in Pai is elephant trekking. Hotel staff can make tour reservations. In the morning, a guide escorts you to the elephant camps. The world grows quiet on the outskirts of Pai. Elephants eat bananas and throw grass into the air. The elephant trainer called a mahout helps trekkers mount the pachyderms and settle onto a thick blanket. No saddles here, riders spend the day bareback in the sun as the elephants walk through the forest. At the river, elephants suck water up their trunks, spray a cold drink into their mouths, and save just enough to splash up at their riders. Once the mahout gives a command, the elephants shake. The riders hold on tight only to be flicked like flees off the elephant’s back. Up into the air and down into the river, the riders splash, getting their cold drink too.

The World Through A Photographer’s Lens – Southeast Asian Festivals

Photos and Words by Dave Stamboulis

Around the World Through a Photographer’s Lens is a weekly feature from Award Wiinning travel photographer and writer, Dave Stamboulis.  Every Monday afternoon you can find Dave’s work here at Vagobond. See the world through a photographer’s lens.

Festivals play a big part in SE Asian life. Every season or Buddhist holiday heralds a new festival. Here are a few of them…

1) A young boy becoming a novice monk at Poi Sang Long Festival in Mae Hong Son, Thailand.  Getting the head shaved is the first step to becoming a novice monk.

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2) Songkran New Year, also known as the Water Festival, celebrated with vigor in Luang Prabang, Laos

A young boy becoming a novice monk at Poi Sang Long Festival in Mae Hong Son, Thailand

3) Songkran in Thailand involves massive drenching

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4) The Rocket Festival is celebrated before planting season and features plenty of home made rockets to go with the festivities, held both in Thailand and in Laos

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5) Young novice monks to be at Poi Sang Long, which comes from the Burmese Shan State

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6) The entire town of Mae Hong Song celebrates Poi Sang Long, during which time the novice monks are not allowed to touch the ground for 3 days, and are carried throughout the town by their relatives and friends

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7) Hmong girls celebrating the new year in Luang Prabang, Laos

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8) Poi Sang Long Festival, Mae Hong Song, Thailand. The best fan of them all.

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Is budget travel worth it? World travel for almost nothing # 1

A few days ago, I asked readers if budget travel is worth it. The overwhelming answer is – yes, of course it is. And, actually, I totally agree. I admit that sometimes you need to bite the bullet and spend a little bit extra to avoid discomfort and inconvenience – but for the most part, if the choice is between no travel and budget travel – take budget travel.

Maybe you’ve noticed that I manage to see quite a few places and you’ve thought to yourself “It must be nice to have enough money to travel like that – I wish I had the money to do that!”

The fact of the matter is, so do I. The other fact of the matter is that I don’t. In the past several decades it has been the exception rather than the rule for me to have a job where my time belongs to someone else. I don’t usually have any savings. I’m in debt up to my ears (but am constantly deferring my student loans) and yet even in that condition,  I’ve managed to travel to 50 or so countries, have a fabulous wedding in the Sahara, and get quite a few little side trips and excursions in too. How do I do it?

Noodle Shop in Chinatown

Honestly, I’m not sure, but the following is some of what I’ve figured out about how to travel for next to nothing. Hopefully, it will inspire one or two of you out there to get off your butts and hit the road like you’ve always dreamed of. If it does and your life changes forever, feel free to buy me a beer someday.

A trip to a theme park costs most than I spend on most of my solo international adventures. World travel doesn’t have to be expensive. In fact, there are many times that it is free.

Of course the travel agencies, cruise lines, and airlines don’t want you to know that. Big hotels and resorts live off of people who don’t know where they would stay without Hilton or Marriott to house them. Those guys and the talking heads in the media earn their salaries selling trips to all-inclusive resorts and big time guided tours of places you can walk through for free.

They are banking on the fact that your imagination stops at your credit card and that most people are just too damn scared to take a chance when they leave the confining comfort of their own home. I’m about to spoil that misconception. Unless those guys start sponsoring me, I’m going to keep giving away tips and tricks that open up the entire world to you.

Nothing holds you back more than fear. Fear of the unknown. FDR said it right, we have nothing to fear but fear itself. Face it, you’re going to die and you’re going to lose everything. We all do. You have very little control about when that is going to happen. The thing that makes most people miss out on the joy of travel is that they think they can control it and so they stay at home watching Netflix until they die of a coronary. They know the geography of the world, but they’ve never seen it. If you don’t open the door, you won’t see anything but the television.

Tip #1 for Cheap World Travel:

Pyramid Paris LouvreLet go of all that routine that arises from you trying to control your own dead end. The best thing about living is new experience and you can have as many as you want for free. Once you step away from your societal imposed responsibilities, you find that the world opens up and gives you more joy than you’ll ever find trying to buy your future security at the expense of the present.

When you start breaking free of your routine, you will discover the wonder of new faces and places, taste incredible new foods, and discover secrets about yourself and the world that you never expected to find.

Each new wonder unfolds before you like a road that was hidden from view and like any road, a new experience will often lead you to another and another and another. When you walk the road of travel, you get to experience life differently from when you take a package vacation or go through the daily motions in your ‘home’. In fact, the world is your home, if only you choose to accept it.

Sunsets are free. Mountaintops don’t cost a thing. Walking through a public market takes not a dime. Striking up a conversation with someone working beside a road you are walking down can lead to adventures you can’t imagine. Just being in a new place will provide you with more insights about yourself and the world than all the new clothes, fancy meals, or well rehearsed tourist trips can ever give you.

Your mentality is the primary reason why world travel costs a ton. Change it and you will find that few things are as cheap.

Next: What you really need!

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