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Laos

Janet Arrowood Hunter Publishing ePub

 

The Lao People's Democratic Republic (PDR) is one of those almost-undiscovered travel destinations that is too quickly becoming a stop on the main tourist trail. It's a land of incredible contrasts - beautiful scenery, raging rivers, poor infrastructure, great food, fabulous UNESCO world heritage sites, and incredibly poor people. The country is slowly awakening to the possibilities of adventure and eco-tourism, but there is still a long way to go. Travel times are long - plan on a top speed of 40-50 km per hour on most roads. Public transport is often primitive - rattletrap buses with people sitting on cement bags down the aisle. There are no trains. Lao Aviation flies to most places in the country, and fares are reasonable, but schedules are infrequent and inconvenient in many cases.

The ASEAN conference of 2004 resulted in some major road improvements around Vientiane, but the rest of the country is still not well off.

Still, Laos is a country not to be missed. You can see waterfalls that pass more water than Niagara Falls (in the rainy season), cycle around islands in the Mekong where life is almost unchanged from 50-100 years ago, visit hundreds of Buddhist temples and thousands of saffron-robed monks, trek into the hill tribe areas and ride elephants, kayak in the many rivers, visit former royal palaces that are now living history museums, and so much more. There are no true beaches - Laos is a landlocked country - but there are miles of rivers that are as big as lakes after the rains fall. There's not much wildlife anymore, but the diversity of plants almost makes up for that. The population is very diverse. Despite the wide variety of ethnic groups the undercurrent is one of cooperation and friendliness. People genuinely want you to see and enjoy their country. Unlike several of its neighbors, the Laotian people seem incredibly honest. Even single women walking around can feel pretty safe, although caution at night is never a bad idea. Still, it pays to watch your stuff - especially your shoes!

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Cambodia

Janet Arrowood Hunter Publishing ePub

The main attractions, hands down, are the temple complexes at Siem Reap - Angkor WatAngkor Thom, and the surrounding temples and monuments.

Next is Phnom Penh with its Silver PagodaNational Museum, and remnants of Colonial architecture.

Finally, there are the beaches and park at Sihanoukville, the Tonle Sap, and nearby Battambang.

The Democratic Republic of Kampuchea

Most Cambodians consider themselves to be Khmers. The Khmers were once a dominant force across much of Southeast Asia. The Angkor Empire extended over much of Southeast Asia between the 10th and 14th centuries. The preeminence of the Angkor Empire ended as a result of attacks by the Thai and Vietnamese.

In 1863, the king of Cambodia placed the country under French protection; it became part of French Indochina in 1887. Cambodia, like much of Southeast and East Asia, was occupied by the Japanese prior to and during World War II. At the end of the War, Cambodia was once again independent within the French Union and gained full independence in 1953.

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Vietnam

Janet Arrowood Hunter Publishing ePub

 

Vietnam is divided into several main areas:

The Northwest Mountains. This is the area where most people choose to go trekking. The hill tribes (Montagnards) are interesting and diverse, the scenery is beautiful, with a 3,000-m (10,000-foot) peak as its centerpiece, and the trekking can be as easy or strenuous as you wish. The town of Sapa (Sa Pa) has Colonial French remnants and lots of decent hotels in new and restored villas. The Chinese border is very close - if you come in on the night train from Hanoi you'll arrive at a town less than two km from the Chinese border. If you come overland from China the Sapa area is probably your first major stop in Vietnam. Don't plan to get your Chinese visa here, though.

Hanoi and the nearby areas. It seems most travelers define Vietnam in terms of the first major city they come to - either Hanoi or Saigon, now called Ho Chi Minh City. Hanoi is a city of crowded, narrow, winding streets and has a more frenetic pace than Saigon. There are far more sites of historical interest in Hanoi than in its southern sibling. Prosperity is obvious, but so is grinding poverty and the presence of huge numbers of refugees from the mountainous northwestern areas. Hanoi is a great place to make onward plans for the rest of the country, or plans for your next country. It's also a long way from any of the other places people normally want to visit - at least a full night on the Reunification Express to either Sapa or the sights in the middle, and much longer (by train) to the hill country, HCMC, or the Delta. If you can't get a first-class (soft) sleeper, I highly recommend flying to your next destination. The roads aren't good enough to make the bus trip very pleasant for more than a few hours.

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