Nine Asian upcountry hideaways
First published 20th December, 2007
Everyone knows about Pai, Muang Sing, Siem Reap and Sapa but what about if you're looking for somewhere a little bit more off-the-beaten-track when it comes to exploring Southeast Asia's great interior. Not surprisingly there's loads and loads of places that you'll read precious little about in your guidebook, that could be just the spot you're looking for. Here's a few of our favourites across the countryside.
Ban Toei, Nan province
Tucked away on the edge of Doi Phu Kha National Park in Thailand's Nan province, the village of Ban Toei is home to the perfectly named Bamboo Huts -- a rustic hideaway clinging onto the edge of a steep riverine valley. Owned and run by Lawa hilltribe guide, William and his family, Bamboo Huts has been running for years. The accommodation is basic -- we're being generous describing it as rustic as it's nothing more than a wobbling bamboo hut, a well-aged mattress chucked on the floor and the coldest shower this side of the Kathmandu valley -- but the place more than makes up for this with its welcoming family atmosphere and simply breathtakingly fantastic views.
Bamboo Huts also happen to run some of the best trekking we've done in Thailand -- primarily focused on caving. If you're looking for hilltribe trekking where you stay with different ethnic minorities each night, then you're in the wrong place, but we did a two day one night caving-trek with Bamboo Huts a few years back that still sticks in my mind. It's not for the claustrophobic nor the less than able -- on occasions we had to enter caves crawling through on our belly, only to emerge four hours later -- on the other side of the mountain -- into tremendous, jungle filled sinkhole straight out of Jurassic Park. There we camped rough by the riverbank, caught and ate jungle rat for dinner (curry with lots of chilli please) and slept under the jungle canopy. I'll never forget it. With four to five nights, you'd have ample time to get to Ban Toei from Nan town, do a trek and lay around for a day.
Note that after sending out the newsletter last week, a keen reader pointed out that Bamboo Huts is closed this season. Given you need to be just about standing next to William for his mobile phone to work, we had no way to verify this tip, so please check once in Nan to see if he has re-opened.
Phrao, Chiang Mai province
Everyone knows about Pai and Mae Hong Son, but how about Phrao? In some ways, this quaint village is reminiscent of Pai. It's a broad, rice cultivated valley with striking hills on each side and there's a variety of hill tribes living in the surrounding countryside. But that's about where the similarities end. There's no bohemian scene, nor dozens of guesthouses, cafes, bars and restaurants. There's a few noodle shops, a 7-eleven, one or two spots where you can pick up a cold Beer Chang -- but that's about it.
There's at least one guesthouse in town, but you're best to head six km out into the valley and rest your laurels at Doi Farang Bungalows. From there, you can sleep in converted rice barns (which are smarter than they sound) and catch up on your tan at their swimming pool. You can use the resort as a base to explore the valley -- it's full of people just getting on with their life and has a really unadulterated feel compared to somewhere like Pai. Doi Farang can arrange tours into the surrounds, including motorcycle tours. There's a few minor attractions -- village temples and hilltop viewpoints, but the real attraction is just spending a few days in a hidden away spot. And it's but a hop-skip and a jump from Chiang Mai! If you've got two nights up your sleeve, keep it in mind.
Phu Lang Ka, Phayao province
Aforementioned Ban Toei has great views, but you've got great views and you've got Great Views and Phu Lang Ka is absolutely in the latter category. Its ramshackle bungalows are perched on the edge of a sheer cliff that plunges down to the valley below. Within the valley there's a bunch of limestone outcrops -- think Ha Long Bay in the rice field -- and in the morning, the valley is bathed in mist with the limestone outcrops jutting out through the mist to the sky. The views will take your breath away.
The bungalows have been designed with the views in mind -- large open air terraces connected to what are admittedly very ordinary lodgings -- but who cares about old mattresses when you have a view like this? Pack a few good books, a hammock and your walking shoes and you're set. You can also organise trekking here -- both to the summit of Phu Lang Ka and to surrounding villages. Rustic but recommended. Allow at least three nights, as Phu Lang Ka is time-consuming to reach.
Muang La, Udomxai province
Some would consider Muang La to be nothing more than a day-trip from Udomxai, but if you're going to make the effort to get there, why not stay a night... or two. There's plenty of walking possibilities - hot springs, riverine scenery, nearby villages and even a Buddha footprint you can make your way to. Muang La also sits on the bank of the Nam Pak river, so be it early morning or late afternoon there's always lots of typical village life scenes going on.
There's little in the way of creature comforts, but there is accommodation available and we've heard that home stays are also possible, so with Udomxai being the rather bleak town that it is, why not strike a bit further north and explore Muang La? Allow two nights.
The Gibbon Experience, Bokeo province
Fancy a bit of monkey business during your time in Laos? The Gibbon Experience could be right up your tree. Located north of Huay Xai along the route from Huay Xai to Luang Nam Tha, the Gibbon Experience accommodates guests in tree-sits -- so you actually sleep, eat and hang out in the jungle canopy. The sits are connected by zip lines of up to hundreds of feet long -- allowing you to travel from one tree sit to another without having to climb back down the tree. It's all a part of an environmental programme aimed at protecting the gibbons and their habitat.
The Gibbon Experience has become so popular that they specifically asked a major guidebook publisher to not list them in the guide to try and keep numbers under control. It's a unique experience and reservations are essential. Allow three nights depending on the package you're interested in.
Anlong Veng, Oddar Meanchey province
It's not all that far, as the crow flies, from Siem Reap ... one of the last redoubts of the Khmer Rouge -- Anlong Veng. However, unless you're a crow, it takes a good bit of rough riding to get to this historic little lakeside town. When the road is good you can make the run in just three hours, but when it goes sour in wet season, it can take a lot longer. Set near the base of the Dangrek escarpment, and running around the edge of a man-made lake, Anlong Veng feels like the town Cambodia forgot, and for a long time, that is just what it was. Today, with an international border crossing and growing cross-border trade, the town is growing and it offers the intrepid visitor something a little different from anything else in Cambodia.
The best thing to do is take a moto to the top of the escarpment, where you can have a drink beside Ta Mok's old house, explore the very creepy ruins of Pol Pot's old house and enjoy spectacular views as far afield Phnom Kulen (on a very clear day). Allow two nights if coming from Siem Reap.
Ban Lung, Rattanakiri province
It's not mountainous, but it's about as remote as provincial capitals come. Capital of the northeastern Cambodian province of Rattanakiri, Ban Lung has a dusty, cowboy town feel to it, yet there's a glistening crater lake just a bicycle-ride from the centre of town. Surrounded by forest, the cool waters beckon, and, with a wooden platform built out over the lake, there's no excuse for not spending at least one afternoon there sunning and swimming. There's a selection of big guesthouses in town and they're all willing (and able) to set you up on a range of trips, from visiting some of the nearby waterfalls to two and three night trekking trips up into the wild Virachay National Park.
But what we found to be the most interesting was to grab a moto (we actually got the moto in Sen Monorom, but that's another story) and head north to the San river where we then hired a boat to head upriver to explore some minority village cemeteries. Standing all alone in a massive stand of trees these burial grounds were absolutely fascinating. An trip we heard about, but didn't have the time to do, was a two day one night trip from Vieng Say west along the San river to Stung Treng. If you have the time and money to do something like this you'd be up for a great trip -- and you wouldn't be sharing the boat with 100 other travellers -- that's for sure. Allow at least two nights in Ban Lung, a week if you plan to visit Virachay National Park and the minority cemeteries, and a couple more days if you want to try for the boat to Stung Treng.
Striking north from Kon Tum, Central Highlands
When most people think of Vietnam and mountains, their minds tend towards the soaring peaks of northern Vietnam where it abuts the Lao and Chinese frontiers, but they forget about the whole central part of the country, aptly known as the Central Highlands. Admittedly it's a plateau rather than a mountain range, but it's a pretty hilly plateau -- especially the stretch heading north from Kon Tum. Most travellers who make it to Kon Tum head east from there, rejoining Highway 1 in the vicinity of Quang Ngai, but you can actually continue north on Route 14 (parts of which form the original Ho Chi Minh Trail) through the towns of Dak To, Ngoc Hoi, Dak Glei and Phuoc Son from where you can take a right turn on 14E and cruise downhill through Hiep Duc till you reach Highway 1, leaving you not all that far south of Hoi An. From Phuoc Son you can also continue even further north, through Nam Giang, Prao and A Luoi before finally reaching Route 9 and the DMZ just to the east of Khe Sanh.
These two routes are back to basics travelling, but you'll be greeted with stunning vistas, winding roads and old-style hospitality. Ok the area isn't overflowing in "big ticket" sights, but half the fun is the journey. Allow four nights to a week.
Heading to Sapa the backway, Northwest Vietnam
Sapa is, for many, the highlight of a trip to northern Vietnam. And as much as it is a very well-touristed destination, it's well touristed for a reason -- don't miss it. Most opt for an overnight train from Hanoi, as that's the fastest way to get there, but fastest isn't always the best! If you've got a spare five to seven days up your sleeve, take the scenic route, looping through northwest Vietnam through Mai Chau, Son La, Dien Bien Phu and crossing the spectacular pass that straddles Mt Fansipan -- Vietnam's tallest peak.
As with heading north from Kon Tum, unless you have your own motorbike or other transport, this is very rough and ready -- old-style public buses packed to the gills and with less leg-room that an AirAsia flight -- so you've been warned. There's a steady trickle of travellers who are doing this route -- many of whom are using it to cross into Laos at the relatively new crossing into Laos near Dien Bien -- but that's not much use if you're going to Sapa!
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