Archive for July, 2012

Boutique Bounty

Tuesday, July 31st, 2012
The pool at Hilary's Boutique Hotel

The pool at Hilary’s Boutique Hotel

More boutique  accommodation in Phnom Penh.

There’s a mini flood of small boutique hotels opening up in Phnom Penh. Two that we saw yesterday include Arun Villas, the brainchild of the folks behind Terres Rouge (in Banlung, Ratanakiri) and Rajabori Villas (Sala Koh Trong in Kratie). Located in the ever-increasingly popular Boeung Keng Kang 1 area of the city, four-storey Arun Villas hosts twelve spacious rooms (six deluxe and six suites) in typical Terres Rouge style (they call it tropical minimal), lots of locally-sourced period furniture, granite-styled bathrooms with an 8×4 swimming pool and restaurant. However, it is still a building site and won’t be open for a few weeks. From what we saw, it looks likely to feature high on the boutique hotspots of the capital.

The second brand new boutique offering we saw was Hilary’s Boutique Hotel on St 302, very close to our own Hanuman office. Fifteen average-sized rooms, with small restaurant, wi-fi and 10×5 swimming pool, it is a nice budget option and has Hanuman links as one of our former full-time guides is part-owner. It opened a few days ago. Soon to be opening its doors will be the King Grand Boutique 2, smaller sister of King Grand 1, with 21 rooms and small pool, restaurant and five more spacious rooms with private Jacuzzi. It’s opposite Khmer Surin in Boeung Keng Kang 1 and will open in the next few weeks. We’ve just heard of Villas Sangkhum, 15-rooms near the French Embassy, which will start life in a few weeks and we’ll soon see the opening of Frangipani’s 72-roomed, seven-storey Frangipani Royal Palace Hotel, which is due to come on board before the end of the year. Phnom Penh is definitely the ‘happening place’ for new boutique hotels this season.

Tour of the Week – Remote Beaches of Vietnam

Thursday, July 26th, 2012
Remote beaches in Vietnam

Remote beaches in Vietnam

A beach holiday with a difference in Vietnam.

Vietnam is fast emerging as one of Southeast Asia’s new beach destinations. Some beaches are already quite heavily developed, but our 8 day/7 night itinerary ventures off the usual trail to connect you with some more remote beach destinations. The journey begins in Saigon where we visit the War Remnants Museum and the haunting Requiem exhibition of war photography. Later we venture further afield to see the Cao Dai Temple at Tay Ninh, a unique religion that blends the world’s spiritual beliefs together. We also venture underground to explore the Cu Chi Tunnels. We then fly to the remote Con Dao Islands. Once used as a political prison by the French authorities, they are emerging as Vietnam’s best kept secret. Try pristine snorkelling or just relax on the beach. Our tip for a luxurious stay is at Six Senses Con Dao with their stunning seafront villas each with its own pool. We then continue south to Phu Quoc, destined to become the Phuket of Vietnam one day soon. Relax on the beaches or explore the nearby An Thoi Islands or inland forests. Our Phu Quoc accommodation tip, the stylish colonial resort of La Veranda. This is a beach holiday with a difference.

More at http://www.hanuman.travel/Tours/Vietnam/Remote_Beaches_Vietnam.html.

Angkor Wat Revealed

Tuesday, July 24th, 2012

Angkor What? Everything you ever wanted to know about Cambodia’s most iconic temple

The traveller’s first glimpse of Angkor Wat, the ultimate expression of Khmer genius, is simply staggering and is matched by only a few select spots on earth such as Machu Picchu or Petra.

What is it?

Angkor Wat is, quite literally, heaven on earth. Angkor is the earthly representation of Mt Meru, the Mt Olympus of the Hindu faith and the abode of ancient gods. The ‘temple that is a city’, Angkor Wat is the perfect fusion of creative ambition and spiritual devotion. The Cambodian god-kings of old each strove to better their ancestors’ structures in size, scale and symmetry, culminating in what is believed to be the world’s largest religious building, the mother of all temples, Angkor Wat.

The temple is the heart and soul of Cambodia. It is the national symbol, the epicentre of Khmer civilisation and a source of fierce national pride. Soaring skyward and surrounded by a moat that would make its European castle counterparts blush, Angkor Wat is one of the most inspired and spectacular monuments ever conceived by the human mind. Unlike the other Angkor monuments, it was never abandoned to the elements and has been in virtually continuous use since it was built.

What is so extraordinary about Angkor Wat?

What is so extraordinary about Angkor Wat?

Its western orientation: symbolically, west is the direction of death, which once led a large number of scholars to conclude that Angkor Wat must have existed primarily as a tomb. This idea was supported by the fact that the magnificent bas-reliefs of the temple were designed to be viewed in an anticlockwise direction, a practice that has precedents in ancient Hindu funerary rites. Vishnu, however, is also frequently associated with the west, and it is now commonly accepted that Angkor Wat most likely served both as a temple and as a mausoleum for Suryavarman II.

Its seductive nymphs: Angkor Wat is famous for having more than 3000 beguiling apsaras (heavenly nymphs) carved into its walls. Each of them is unique, and there are 37 different hairstyles for budding stylists to check out. Many of these exquisite apsaras were damaged during Indian efforts to clean the temples with chemicals during the 1980s, the ultimate bad acid trip, but they are now being restored by the teams with the German Apsara Conservation Project.

The level of detail: visitors to Angkor Wat are struck by its imposing grandeur and, at close quarters, its fascinating decorative flourishes and extensive bas-reliefs. Holy men at the time of Angkor must have revelled in its multilayered levels of meaning in much the same way a contemporary literary scholar might delight in James Joyce’s Ulysses.

What is the meaning behind the temple?

Eleanor Mannikka explains in her book Angkor Wat: Time, Space and Kingship that the spatial dimensions of Angkor Wat parallel the lengths of the four ages (Yuga) of classical Hindu thought. Thus the visitor to Angkor Wat who walks the causeway to the main entrance and through the courtyards to the final main tower, which once contained a statue of Vishnu, is metaphorically travelling back to the first age of the creation of the universe.

Like the other temple-mountains of Angkor, Angkor Wat also replicates the spatial universe in miniature. The central tower is Mt Meru, with its surrounding smaller peaks, bounded in turn by continents (the lower courtyards) and the oceans (the moat). The seven-headed naga becomes a symbolic rainbow bridge for man to reach the abode of the gods.

While Suryavarman II may have planned Angkor Wat as his funerary temple or mausoleum, he was never buried there as he died in battle during a failed expedition to subdue the Dai Viet (Vietnamese).

How was Angkor Wat built?

The sandstone blocks from which Angkor Wat was built were quarried more than 50km away (from the holy mountain of Phnom Kulen) and floated down the Siem Reap River on rafts. The logistics of such an operation are mind-blowing, consuming the labour of thousands – an unbelievable feat given the lack of cranes and trucks that we take for granted in contemporary construction projects. According to inscriptions, the construction of Angkor Wat involved 300,000 workers and 6000 elephants, yet it was still not fully completed.

Orientation

Moat: Angkor Wat is surrounded by a 190m-wide moat, which forms a giant rectangle measuring 1.5km by 1.3km. From the west, a sandstone causeway crosses the moat.

Outer wall: the rectangular outer wall, which measures 1025m by 800m, has a gate on each side, but the main entrance, a 235m-wide porch richly decorated with carvings and sculptures, is on the western side. There is a statue of Vishnu, 3.25m in height and hewn from a single block of sandstone, located in the right-hand tower. Vishnu’s eight arms hold a mace, a spear, a disc, a conch and other items. You may also see locks of hair lying about. These are offerings both from young people preparing to get married and from pilgrims giving thanks for their good fortune.

Avenue: the avenue is 475m long and 9.5m wide and lined with naga balustrades, leading from the main entrance to the central temple, passing between two graceful libraries (the northern one restored by a Japanese team) and then two pools, the northern one a popular spot from which to watch the sun rise.

Central complex: the central temple complex consists of three storeys, each made of laterite, which enclose a square surrounded by intricately interlinked galleries. The Gallery of a Thousand Buddhas (Preah Poan) used to house hundreds of Buddha images before the war, but many of these were removed or stolen, leaving just the handful we see today.

Towers: the corners of the second and third storeys are marked by towers, each topped with symbolic lotus-bud towers. Rising 31m above the third level and 55m above the ground is the central tower, which gives the whole grand ensemble its sublime unity.

Upper level: the stairs to the upper level are immensely steep, because reaching the kingdom of the gods was no easy task. Also known as Bakan, the upper level of Angkor Wat was closed to visitors for several years, but it is once again open to a limited number per day with a queuing system. This means it is once again possible to complete the pilgrimage with an ascent to the summit: savour the cooling breeze, take in the extensive views and then find a quiet corner in which to contemplate the symmetry and symbolism of this Everest of temples.

(Article reproduced courtesy of Lonely Planet Cambodia).

Borei Angkor expand

Monday, July 23rd, 2012

News from Siem Reap: Five-star Borei Angkor Hotel are currently renovating and extending their lobby – with completion set for September. More importantly, they will be opening the latest addition to their portfolio with the 100-roomed Lotus Blanc Resort in August. They are pitching it at 4-star and it’s the former Lotus Angkor Hotel, but they are making changes to the rooms and public areas and sprucing it up ready for the re-launch. It’s on the airport road. Towards the end of next year, they will also open the Twizt Hotel, a 3-star, 36-roomed hotel, with indoor pool and aimed at the younger generation, next to their existing National Highway 6 location.

Tour of the Week – Adrenaline Cambodia & Vietnam

Thursday, July 19th, 2012
The adrenaline rush in Vietnam

The adrenaline rush in Vietnam

Try the excitement of our 16-day Adrenaline Tour of Cambodia and Vietnam featuring the best of the adventures to be found in both countries.

Enjoying a different type of journey through Cambodia begins our adrenaline tour which includes a wide range of activities from cycling to horse-riding to quad-biking and much more besides. We begin in Siem Reap with sunrise visits to Angkor Wat and Ta Prohm, cycling out to ancient temples and floating villages, quad-bike fun at sunset and a helicopter flight over the Angkor temples. We head south to lively Phnom Penh and take to the water for two boat trips, cycling on an island in the Mekong River and the rest of the highlights of this cool capital city. Our next stop is Vietnam and this section of your trip will get the blood coursing through your veins with some adventurous cycling and beautiful hiking in the mountains, as well as kayaking and climbing in Halong Bay. Starting out in elegant Hanoi with a cyclo experience through the buzzing Old Quarter, we then head north by night train to Sapa, the unofficial capital of Vietnam’s highlands. We enjoy some trekking and biking around the valleys and villages of the Sapa region before travelling to majestic Halong Bay. Heading off the visitor trail, we kayak some caves and grottoes and then wind up on Cat Ba Island where we can try some rock climbing amid the karsts or explore some of the remote and hidden coves and beaches. If it’s adventure you want, Cambodia and Vietnam will certainly deliver. You can take a relaxing side trip to the coastal beaches to wind down or if you need even more adventure, try our adrenaline tour of Laos.

The Cambodia Landmine Museum

Monday, July 16th, 2012
Cambodia Landmine Museum

Cambodia Landmine Museum

When in Angkor, don’t forget to visit the Landmine Museum on the road to Banteay Srei.

Established by a DIY de-miner Aki Ra, the Cambodia Landmine Museum (admission $2, open 7.30am-5.30pm) is very popular with travellers thanks to its informative displays on the curse of landmines in Cambodia. The museum includes an extensive collection of mines, mortars, guns and weaponry used during the civil war. The site includes a mock minefield so that visitors can attempt to spot the deactivated mines. Not only a weapon of war, landmines are a weapon against peace, and proceeds from the museum are ploughed into mine-awareness campaigns and support an on-site orphanage, rehabilitation centre and training facility. The museum is about 25km from Siem Reap in Banteay Srei and is easily combined with a visit to Banteay Srei temple, about 6km beyond.

For those wanting to learn more about the after-effects on an amputation, it is possible to visit the Physical Rehabilitation Centre (open 8am-noon, 2pm-5pm Mon-Fri), run by Handicap International at the Provincial Hospital in Siem Reap town. There are informative displays including a variety of homemade prosthetics that it has replaced with international-standard artificial limbs, plus it’s also possible to meet some of the locals receiving assistance here.

Frangipani Expand

Friday, July 13th, 2012
Frangipani Fine Arts Hotel in Phnom Penh

Frangipani Fine Arts Hotel in Phnom Penh

Frangipani Brand Expansion in Cambodia.

The Frangipani Hotel chain are expanding in Phnom Penh. They already have three smaller properties in the Cambodian capital city, as well as their 87-room Frangipani Villa Hotel in Siem Reap, near the temples of Angkor. In Phnom Penh, they boast the Frangipani Villa-60s and the Villa-90s, which have seven rooms and fifteen rooms respectively, as well as their contemporary boutique Villa Fine Arts, near the National Museum, which is a little bigger at 22 rooms. Now they are upping their accommodation options to capture more of the mid-range tourist market by opening the spanking brand new 72-room, seven-storey Frangipani Royal Palace Hotel, which will be located close to their existing Villa Fine Arts. With a roof-top swimming pool, smart contemporary rooms and a ground floor restaurant, the newcomer on the scene will be a very welcome addition.The hotel is due to open its doors on 1 November. But they won’t stop there. Another even larger hotel, Frangipani Living Arts Hotel, with two pools and 124 rooms, aimed specifically towards the Asian market, is expected to open at the end of the year, located in the area near the Russian Market.

Tour of the Week – Good Cause Laos

Friday, July 13th, 2012

If you are making your first visit to the beautiful country of Laos and want to share your experience by helping others, then try our 7-day Good Cause Laos program.

Making a positive impact on the lives of local people is a key theme running through this seven day journey in Laos. We begin in the Asia of old at the World Heritage city of Luang Prabang with its temples and museums whilst also enjoying a cooking class of authentic Lao food at the classy restaurant, Tamarind. Having some fun with a Big Brother Mouse book party will support child literacy, whilst a Royal Ballet performance is a great introduction to Lao artistic culture. After getting close to nature with a mahout course at Elephant Village, who focus on the protection and rehabilitation of their animals, we head to the capital city of Vientiane, its unique Buddha Park and café culture and take the opportunity to find out more about a restaurant, Makphet, that provides hospitality training for disadvantaged youths. This is a brief look at the highlights of Laos and an opportunity to encounter the genuine warmth amongst its people. Find out more at http://www.hanuman.travel/Tours/Laos/Good_Cause_Laos.html.

Kids play in Myanmar

Thursday, July 12th, 2012
Burmese children, by DasaBookCafe

Burmese children, by DasaBookCafe

Myanmar is a new destination for most people, so if you are taking your children with you, here’s a few suggestions and tips.

As in most Asian countries, the locals will shower your children with attention and they will have many ready-made playmates wherever they go. There are plenty of horse carts and trishaws to ride around on for the kids, which they will love. As they will the dug-out canoes on Inle Lake, as well as the boat trips in the ancient cities outside Mandalay. There’s lots to learn at the Buddhist sights of Yangon’s Shwedagon Pagoda, the reclining buddhas in Bago, or the 10-storey buddha in Pyay. Older children will enjoy and appreciate the ruins of old palaces, temples and moats which you can see at Bagan and Mrauk U. You can find zoos in Yangon, Nay Pyi Taw and Mandalay, traditional puppet shows in the main centers, and of course sandy beaches at Ngapali.

Let them indulge in a bit of face painting by trying their hand with thanakha, the yellow sandalwood-like paste, that is sold everywhere. And don’t forget Myanmar’s festivals, such as Thingyan in mid-April with its throwing of water in celebration of their new year, and Taunggyi’s 3-day fire-balloon festival in October or November, which can be a lot of fun. Finally, if you can afford the ride, a balloon trip at sunrise or sunset over Bagan would amaze the whole family.

A Real Ratanakiri Experience

Tuesday, July 10th, 2012
Hanuman's Andy Brouwer visits a Ratankiri gravesite

Hanuman’s Andy Brouwer visits a Ratankiri graveyard

In this excerpt from To Cambodia With Love: A Travel Guide for the Connoisseur, Christine Dimmock experiences a grave moment in Ratanakiri.

Voices are approaching, and I half expect to be accosted for trespass. I sneak around quietly until the sounds fade into the distance. I am in Ratanakiri, the most northeasterly province of Cambodia on the banks of the Sesan River, north of the town of Ban Lung. More importantly, I am fighting my way through the undergrowth of an overgrown burial ground at Kachon village, home to one of the ethnically distinct groups that makes up the population in Ratanakiri.

Because my mother engendered in me an affinity for old cemeteries, I can’t help but be drawn into this one. I soon realize that it is the most unusual graveyard I am probably going to see in my life. In fact, from the moment my motodop “had relations” with the minority villagers—that is, he sought their permission—I have been falling over myself in a flurry of discovery.

Adventure travel writer Ray Zepp and others reported seeing Polynesian-style funerary statues here, and as I enter I stop at the closest grave, which has a rectangular fence, an elaborately shaped metal roof painted in bright geometrical patterns, and life-size carved wooden figures of a man and a woman at two corners. At the remaining corners are large pairs of carved tusks. Household items have been provided for the dead to use in the afterlife.

I do my best to tread lightly out of respect for this deeply spiritual place. More graves appear as I click away with my camera, and I must struggle through prickly vines and red ants. Photography is challenging due to the combination of bright sunlight and deep dappled shade, and first I concentrate on the newer, colored wooden figures. Some wear metal wristwatches, and a female sports a pair of metal sunglasses. There are clothes in red, green, and yellow paint. Several male figures wear military-style caps, and one has a carved walkie-talkie on his chest. Another carries a bow and arrows. His wife wears round metal earrings and a green painted bra top, which matches the large pipe protruding from her mouth amongst the leaves.

While these modern effigies are intriguing, the older figures are my favorites. They are unpainted, less elaborate, softly weathered, and spotted with lichen. Their only adornments are metal eyes and earrings, and in one case a headband. Occasionally there is a touch of red on female lips or black on male eyebrows. Their heads are large and their bodies lack detail. Items for their use in the afterlife are simple—baskets, china plates, bottles, cooking pots, and brown glazed pottery vessels. Several sets of cow and buffalo horns are lying around, suggesting the ritualistic slaughter of animals.

Reluctantly I tear myself away. On the return journey to Ban Lung, I’m surprised by an unexpected visit to another smaller graveyard. The attraction here is a grave adorned with a naive replica of a helicopter painted in army camouflage. The villager buried here may have helped the Americans in the Vietnam War, as did the ethnic minority groups across the border in the central highlands of Vietnam. Looking at this grave, I realize that these sites are much more than just a tribute to the person buried there. They are a record of Cambodia, both its past and its progress, over the course of the last century.

Graveyards around Ban Lung
In Ban Lung, the capital of Ratanakiri Province, you can hire a motorcycle taxi or ask at your guesthouse about gathering a group together for travel by jeep. Voen Sai is thirty-five kilometers northwest of Ban Lung, and Kachon is one hour by boat east of Voen Sai. Expect to pay around $15 for the boat ride, which will also include a visit to the Chinese and Lao villages on the way back to Voen Sai. Unfortunately, access to this particular graveyard is now closed, though others on the opposite bank of the river may be accessible.