Ph: +61 2 6248 9399 | Email: ross@goddardandhowse.com.au
  • FROM THE FRONT DESK

    ‘A traveller arrives, then departs, always another place to go’ – Joseph Conrad

    Welcome to this edition of East our regular journey update and newsletter of travel highlights with Goddard & Howse.

    Drawing from the adventure of our small world journeys we have put together some favourite moments and recollections from the past year and tried to tell our stories exactly as we see them – insightful, reflective and original.

    I have just returned from Vietnam and Laos after two months escorting our small world journeys. Travelling on winding roads we explored through mountains and rainforests, across rivers, through tropical rain depressions, villages and cities. At times we felt those heavy drops of rain would never end and then the skies would clear, beaming a most beautiful light that made everything shine and vibrantly fresh.

    We ate delicious bowls of pho, bun cha and cha ca, fresh vegetables and succulent fruits every day. Even on the back roads of Vietnam you are never far from a tasty dish. The Vietnamese take their food very seriously, so much so that the moment they finish breakfast they are thinking of lunch and when they finish lunch they are thinking of dinner.

    On our Ho Chi Minh Trail journey, we ventured into the limestone mountains of northwest Vietnam to meet the local Hmong and Red Zhou people living in their impressive stilt houses, surrounded by well-kept gardens of papaya and vegetables, their livestock ambling contently around the compound. This journey is another Goddard & Howse original that will depart next year on August 5, 2019. If there is such a thing as the real Vietnam then this journey has it all covered.

    In this edition of East,we have brought you stories from all of our destinations in Southeast Asia and China. These stories are born from observation and experience on tour, or perhaps in a reflective moment sipping a fruit shake by the banks of the Mekong River in Luang Prabang.

    In 2019 we will offer eight different holidays across five countries. All of our journeys are unique in concept and application, timed to take advantage of the best conditions to be in each country. We only travel with small groups of 15 guests and I will be your host for every departure.

    I hope you can join me sometime, somewhere in China and Southeast Asia.

    Ross Goddard

  • Tears from the mountain (Manchuria & the Yellow River Hinterland)

    In August of 2017 there was an earthquake in a valley that is home to Jiuzhaigou National Park, Sichuan Province in southwest China. The quake rated 6.7 on the Richter scale and had been reported to have caused extensive damage, indeed the park had been closed from that time until March of 2018. I arrived with our group in the middle of May, and despite my best efforts I was unable to get much advance information on the damage and how it may affect our touring. After ten years of visiting this pristine wilderness set in a glacial valley of soaring snow-capped mountains, I had become very familiar with its 100 lakes of clear blue water, towering fir trees, birch and maple, and an undergrowth of peonies and anemones. The park is a highlight on our Manchuria & Yellow River Hinterland trip and has a special place in my store of favourite destinations. I had my fingers crossed.

    What information I did have confirmed that only half of the park had reopened to the public and only 2,000 visitors per day were allowed entry – normally they received 20,000 per day (remember this is China). We left that morning with our small group from the Ando Tibetan town of Langmusi. I had a cold with a heavy head, compounded by altitude (3,200 metres above sea level) and not feeling crash-hot for a seven hour journey ahead.

    The drive is spectacular and unforgettable so my head soon cleared as we edged onto the Tibetan grasslands. Normally there are Chinese tourists being courted by overdressed Tibetans with horse rides, yak pictures and colourful tents, but today they were idle. It is common to see a Tibetan nomad just sitting on the grass, or perhaps with family or friends; they are relaxing after a long winter. Sometimes they are alone on the sides of hills often carrying a small prayer wheel that spins endlessly accompanied by soft chants. The sunshine on their backs is welcome.

    It is a hard life when you live nomadically above 3,000 metres. The women in particular will spend their days milking yaks, collecting yak dung, cooking and being mother and wife. They are hardened and tough. Over my years of travelling here I have gained an understanding and great respect for the Tibetan nomad, and in particular their fanatical belief in Buddhism and ‘the spirit’ which Tibetans believe exists in most natural things.

    We made good progress to our lunch spot at a small town called Chuan Jui Si and a favourite restaurant over the years that serves great Sichuan food. It is always a good feeling to reach this town, we have come down to just over 2,500 metres and we will drop down further from here; just two more hours to Jiuzhaigou National Park.

    As we drove down and into the valley I could see almost immediately the landslides from the high mountain peaks caused by the earthquake. First just one slide then another, then so many that I did not want to count. The slides were massive, dislodging the rockface, stones and scree tumbling taking all in its path, crashing 500 metres to the valley floor, the fir trees, birch and maple going with it. It was like tears from the mountain, streaming from the rockface, a sad and sobering sight. The power of nature had showed its hand, and despite eight months since the quake there were many workers, heavy equipment and diversions on the road to the park.

    We reached our hotel, one of only a few that was open when previously there were hundreds of options. It was like a ghost town. I met my Tibetan friend and local guide Jay who told me his story of survival during the quake.

    It was early evening in August and the park was full tourists and workers running hotels and restaurants. Jay was filling in some leisure time in a café when the quake struck lasting for ten seconds. He recalled in some disbelief how he had run onto the street along with others. They spent the night there as emergency services arrived and the locals helped each other with food and blankets. Reports of casualties were unclear, however, some estimates say 1,000 lost their lives that evening.

    Jay says those ten seconds changed his life; he thinks he is lucky to be alive and has been overcome by a presence of mind that a disaster defines. He went on to say that such events highlight our vulnerability, our frailty and re-focuses our internal energies to be in the moment – it only takes a second to change a life. He said his legs shook uncontrollably for a day or so afterwards as relief came in the way of buses to evacuate everyone from the park down to Chengdu a ten hour drive. The driver asked him to watch the mountain for the duration – he never took his eyes off those cliffs.

    The following day we visited the park and I was happily surprised that whilst the quake had caused some major slides further up the valley, inside the park things seem relatively the same, albeit a reduced amount of sightseeing was available due to the repair of walking trails and other infrastructure.

    The lakes were still blue, the waterfalls tumbling and the green fir trees swayed beneath snow-capped mountains. I went to the top of a small hill where prayer flags fluttered in the wind. Here I paid my respects to the spirits of the valley. I asked that they remain quiet and rest for awhile so we could wipe away the tears of the mountain and let everyone enjoy the natural beauty of Jiuzhaigou National Park.

  • The Cultural Revolution – Maureen’s story (Manchuria & the Yellow River Hinterland)

    ‘There may not be much difference between Chairman Mao and Richard Nixon if we strip them naked’– Yoko Ono and John Lennon 1972

    We are on our way to the Great Wall – to the Mutianyu section about two hours drive north of Beijing. Our local Chinese guide Maureen is talking in the bus about the wall, its history, its length and the folktales that arose during its construction and reconstruction. The Great Wall is an endless conversation and endlessly stimulating.

    ‘Do you remember that story about the Great wall?’ She asks. ‘It was the only man-made structure you could see from space. At least that was the popular myth until humans went into space and could not see it!’ All of us chuckle. Maureen has a way of focusing your attention. She has a great sense of humour telling us that she takes her BMW to work every day, only to clarify that she means Bus, Metro and Walking.

    ‘Do you have a wall in Australia?’ Maureen asks our eager group. ‘No, no nothing like that in Australia’ we respond, ‘but we do have a wall around our parliament house’ offers one of our guests.

    Maureen is in her mid 60s, unusual for a guide as the nature of this business usually presents a much younger demographic. With her age comes a maturity and depth of experience that is hard to match. She has a degree in English literature from the University of Beijing, gained in the late 1970s where she went on to become a teacher.

    Maureen is also the only person I know in China who lived through the Cultural Revolution (1962 to 1976) and she is quite happy to tell her story about this time.

    The origins and outcomes of the Cultural Revolution are unclear and indecisive within China, and while there is plenty of commentary from outside, there is little from within. This in part is down to the lack of communication that existed during a time when provinces were isolated and there were few, if any, western correspondents in China reporting from the ground. It is said there were purges across all classes of people, including the rulers, public criticisms and agricultural projects designed to send academics and students to the countryside to ‘reformand become ‘good peasants. This period may be seen by some as an over-reaction by the Communist party, or perhaps it was the beginning of the end of ‘true communism’. After Mao’s death in 1976, the incoming leader Deng Zhou Ping was quick to abandon many of the old policies and usher in a new age.

    Maureen was one of those students who were sent to the countryside. She tells us that in 1967 as a 16 year old, all the schools in Beijing were closed, including universities. Along with 17 of her classmates (all girls) she was sent to the northern province of Shanxi where she and her schoolmates lived in a man-made cave for the next five years, sharing the same long bed of corn stalk mattresses and thin cotton blankets. The man-made caves of this province, hollowed from the clay and loess soil, have long been used by the local people. Although crude, they do offer an evenness of temperature during the freezing winters and hot summers. Each day Maureen and her classmates worked with the local commune in the fields bringing manure, carting vegetables and grain. They were expected to be self sufficient, cook their own food and raise some crops for their own consumption. She and her classmates were also expected to memorise quotes from the little red book, and be diligent in their respect of Mao’s teachings at regular village commune meetings.

    You may imagine that this was a difficult time for Maureen, but she does not harbour any malice. She does acknowledge it was tough, and only visiting her parents once a year was hard. She does, however, remember the kindness of the farmers and even the cadres who sprouted ideology and policy each and every day.

    In 1972 she returned to Beijing as the Cultural Revolution began to run out of steam, schools were open and so were universities.

    She shows us black and white pictures of her time in that man-made cave, dressed in her padded cotton pants and tunic, little red book held over her heart just like everyone else. She giggles to herself and tells us that nothing is perfect and there is good and bad in everything. Now every year and for the past 30 years, her and her schoolmates from that time in the man-made cave have a reunion. Maureen says it is a bond that can never be broken.

  • A thought on China (from the diary)

    Chinese statesman, Zhou Enlai, when asked about the significance of the French Revolution in 1789 replied ‘it is too soon to tell.’

    It is satisfying to be back on Nanjing Road here in Shanghai. There is a clear blue sky and the forecast is for 27 degrees on this first day of May. From the café where I sit, I can see the top of the recently completed Shanghai Tower, over 620 metres tall and the second tallest building on the planet – it will only be another moment before the Chinese build the tallest.

    China is now living the dream; some may say it is redemption for what they had to endure from the first Opium War (1842). This was when Europeans first sought to gain a foothold in China by selling opium to the Chinese in return for silver, which the Qing dynasty had in abundance. Attempts by the Qing to quell the trade were met with military retaliation from Britain, who with overwhelming firepower were able to defeat the Chinese and then go on to sue them for the equivalent (in today’s terms) of six million US dollars, and then demand access to five ports. Hong Kong became a British territory, and Shanghai and Guangzhou became enclaves for the so-called ‘foreign concessions’. The ‘unequal treaties’ as they were called, were the beginning of the end for the last dynasty of China, who would face increased European intervention and a bloody civil war (the Taiping Rebellion 1850 to 1864).

    Further war and invasion by British, French and Russian forces, tore the heart out of the old Middle Kingdom as the colonialists looked on greedily to take what they could. After the collapse of the Qing dynasty in 1911, China fell into a warlord state whilst the Europeans were engulfed in WW1.

    The ensuing chaos created two political entities: the Kuomintang, or Nationalist Chinese founded by Sun Yat Sen, then later led by Chiang Kai Shek; and the Chinese Communist Party which was established in 1921. Both communists and nationalists worked together until 1927 when a split saw the Kuomintang create a government in Nanjing, and the communists were banished to their small zones or ‘soviets’ as they were called. This outcome brought both parties to civil war.

    The Japanese had invaded in1932 and swept down from the north taking all the major coastal cities. Despite being confronted with massive Chinese forces under the leadership of the Kuomintang, Japanese victories were swift and bloody.

    In 1937 after the ‘Xian incident’, the communists (Red Army) and the nationalists agreed to fight together to defeat the Japanese. Victory was achieved in 1945 after the Japanese capitulated, but instead of peace in China another civil war raged until 1949. Finally, the Red flag was raised over Beijing and New China was born under the political auspices of the communists. The Kuomintang and the remnants of its regime fled to Taiwan.

    After 100 years of what is called in China ‘the years of humiliation and unequal treaties‘, this  country has emerged as a powerful state, and arguably one of the  most civilised. Their traditions and beliefs are strong, going back at least 3,000 years.

    Some say it took a good dose of ‘communism’ to fix their problems after 1949, when one can only imagine that every man, woman and child were completely exhausted from war, pestilence, famine and exploitation. The Reds offered something simple – food, shelter, basic education and security to restore the confidence of the people and to build trust in a new form of government. With some reflection it seems to me the success of communism (and I do think in this context it was a success) became an odd sort of compassion, a necessary social and political reset.

    In an interview with American journalist Edgar Snow in 1936, Chairman Mao told Snow that the ‘Democratic revolution of the Chinese bourgeoisie, under the leadership of the proletariat, may create energetic conditions enabling the transition of this revolution into socialism’.

    A visit to China may confirm this view.

  • Hitching a ride from Burma to Thailand (Yangon to Bangkok by road, river and rail)

    ‘If I had never had bad luck I would not have had any luck at all’Woody Allen.

    The border crossing from Dawei in southern Myanmar to Kanchanaburi in Thailand has only been open for the last few years following a ceasefire between the Kayin (Karen) people and the Burmese. I was the first foreigner to take this road as part of research for our Yangon to Bangkok by road, river and rail journey. Since my first visit I have crossed a number of times with our small groups. This story is from November 2017.

    If you travel due east from Dawei in southern Myanmar you will reach the Thai border six hours later all being well, a distance of about 200 kilometres. The road is mainly dirt and follows a river for at least half its journey. We left at 7am in our 20-seat bus and soon after dipped onto the dirt road that was rough following a big wet season. We found a road ungraded, furrowed and deeply potholed without relief. Still we pressed on well enough, mercifully the sky clear and blue as we made our way down to the river valley. Here the countryside is beautiful and remote; there are very few villages, sometimes the roof of an old hut can be seen peeking from the canopy of green jungle. We were alone with our bus and the dirt road where only the odd vehicle, usually a 4WD, rumbles past us from the Thai side laden with undisclosed goods destined for the dark markets of Dawei. We stopped at a Kayin checkpoint (KNLA army is still active here), their blue flag fluttering above a shanty outpost of bamboo huts with banana leaf thatching. It was here that a passing 4WD stopped and a conversation ensued:

    ‘Where are you going?’ they enquired. ‘To the border’. ‘Not possible’ was the response.

    They told us that two hours further on from this point there was a broken-down front-end loader across the road, its arm and shovel extended in a stranded arc. They said our bus was too high to get underneath, although smaller vehicles were okay. I looked at my local guide and driver with some concern, we were already three hours down the track. We decided to push on, maybe we could get under, or maybe the broken front-end loader would be fixed and gone by the time we arrived. We drove on through potholes and ruts and eventually reached a small roadside stop, no more than a shack and the only sign of life we had seen since the last Kayin checkpoint. Here they were also flying the Kayin flag.

    We paused for the toilet and some tea and were told by the odd collection of travellers at this unlikely oasis that the offending piece of machinery was indeed stuck across the road and blocking any vehicle with height. I decided to make a reconnaissance with my bus driver Mr Pujoe, and with the help of a local Kayin chap and his dilapidated Toyota half cab (there was no glass in the side windows) we set off.

    At a cracking pace we sped up the hill for 15 minutes bouncing off ruts and crevices as if they did not exist. Sure enough, the yellow beast was besieged across the road, its engine split from its cavity looking rather alone as it sat uselessly beside its host.  There were no mechanics around but clearly there was some work being undertaken. Our car could easily get under the outstretched arm, but Pujoe and I knew immediately that our bus could not.

    Decision made, we could not pass so it was back to our waiting guests to break the news. We were remote, very remote. No phone reception, the road blocked indefinitely (we learnt it had been two days already), nowhere to stay and little food. We were two and a half hours from the Thai border by car; it had already taken us six hours to get to this stalemate. In my mind we were close enough to take a chance, effectively to hitch a ride. But out here? The road was as rough as it could be. Of the rare cars that went by I had no idea of their bona fides – they could have been of any persuasion – just a few years ago this road was impassable due to fighting between the Burmese and the Kayin.

    Sometimes bad luck turns into good luck. We arrived back at the collection of bamboo huts from our reconnaissance just as a white mini van pulled in and unloaded its passengers to stretch their legs. I noticed the van was not full. I sensed the opportunity and petitioned the Shan driver to take us. At first he said he was full, but then realising our plight he agreed to squeeze in our guests – it was tight but good enough, and there was only one way to the Thai border. It seemed our chance had come, and after a short consultation with our guests we agreed to hitch a ride now, the opportunity may not present again and we knew that the Thai border would close at 6 pm that day. There is nowhere to stay on the Myanmar side and any further delay would dash our hopes.

    Part one of the problem was solved, but what about the bags? Six big ones, plus me and my Burmese guide Judy. There was no more room in the white mini van. A vigorous discussion ensued; we needed another car to take us and the bags to the border. I looked at the Kayin fellow who had earlier taken Pujoe and me up the hill, he didn’t seem interested. At this moment another chap entered the conversation and it turns out he was the Burmese military officer for the area. He was dressed in board shorts, a sky-blue Manchester City soccer shirt and thongs. Later he put on his Burmese military hat – I imagine to sort of legitimise things. The driver of the white mini van with our stowaways was getting impatient; he wanted to get on, so it was with some relief that the Burmese officer directed Mr Saw Thi Paw (the Kayin driver with the broken-down Toyota) to take us to the border. There was just enough room for Judy to squeeze into the half cabin behind the driver’s seat, her head almost squashed into the ceiling, and in the open tray behind us Pujoe would sit with our bags.

    I shall never forget that moment as we sped off, along with the white mini van, Pujoe riding shotgun in the back of the old ute on that incredibly rough and dusty track. The road got worse as we went, and the bus, even if the road had been clear, would not have made it. Another two and a half hours followed of shaking and bumping and we chatted as best we could. The driver who was Kayin could speak Burmese and Thai as it turned out. He was a great fellow, strong boned, dark and short with a cheeky grin. For him I think there was a certain amount of pride in ferrying this foreigner and his entourage to the border. He kept apologising for the tardiness of the car, everything seemed broken, but the engine was sound. We reached the border covered in dust, shaken and rattled but intact. Our guests had it relatively easy in the white mini van and were in good spirits. We met our Thai guides and farewelled Judy and Pujoe, crossing into Thailand 25 minutes before the border closed for the night. By 7.30 pm that evening I was in my hotel room. Exhausted but elated.

    Post script: If you’re wondering about future trips on this section of road, we use 4WD vehicles – convenient and comfortable.

  • Three days on board the RV River Kwai (Yangon to Bangkok by road, river and rail)

    ‘Take me to the river’Al Green 1974

    Goddard & Howse have pioneered a new journey in Myanmar and Thailand, travelling overland from Yangon due south to the coastal town of Dawei, then east to Kanchanaburi and the River Kwai. The journey is based loosely around the so- called ‘Death Railway’ built by POW’s and forced indigenous labour during the WWII tyranny of the Japanese. On this journey we visit the old railway on both the Burmese and Thai sides, as well as the beautifully maintained Commonwealth War Grave cemeteries

    In a journey that has many highlights, the three days we spend aboard the RV River Kwaiare memorable. For this journey we charter the whole boat which has ten well-appointed cabins, a spacious sundeck, bar and restaurant. All of the cabins are air-conditioned, with ensuites and comfortable beds. Three days aboard the RV River Kwaialso includes a number of day excursions which we can tailor to our group. Typically, we would visit the vestiges of Hellfire Pass near Kanchanaburi where Australia POW’s toiled in slave-like conditions to build the railway.

    We also board the local train and travel on the remnants of the line to the viaduct, another piece of construction expertly done by the Aussie POW’s. The back story goes that whilst the POW’s worked feverishly to build the viaduct, they also left deliberate flaws that would hopefully scuttle the Japanese at some time in the future. These are moving and memorable places that are easily visited from our private vessel. It is pleasant to return to our boat and start cruising before the sun sets and a gin and tonic finds its way into your hand.

    Depending on the water level, the boat will meander along the river visiting waterfalls and local villages. The RV River Kwai is relaxing and also stimulating at the same time, a perfect way to conclude our Yangon to Bangkok by road, river and rail journey.

  • Fast rail from Kunming to Vientiane (Land of a Million Elephants)

    ‘The Times They Are A-Changin’– Bob Dylan 1964

    Last November I was in Laos travelling down the Mekong River by slow boat on my way from Houay Xai to Pakbeng and eventually Luang Prabang. This is a journey I have made every year since 1999 and it is an absolute favourite. Two days of relaxation, beautiful countryside and a feeling of remoteness that is increasingly difficult to find in this crowded world. I have always thought that nothing much changes up here, but on this particular journey it was different. Everything is changing.

    The Chinese are building a high-speed railway from Kunming in southern Yunnan province (China) to Vientiane, the capital city of Laos. The distance is over 750 kilometres and will cut through mostly mountainous country that is sparsely populated. Once completed (in 2020), the railway will deliver millions of Chinese tourists, business people and opportunists to the previously sleepy and land-locked country of Laos. The scale will be massive.

    Just south of Pakbeng you can see the construction; the Chinese bring everything with them, including a 200,000 strong workforce along with all the resources this mobile construction team needs. Accommodation, food, cement factories and roads are all identified by Chinese characters emblazoned across the site precincts. I saw tunnels and bridges being built. If I had not seen it with my own eyes I would not have believed it.

    The railway is part of China’s ambitious ‘Belt and Road’ initiative, the biggest infrastructure program the world has seen. Laos is a happy partner; they have always been the meat in the sandwich between Vietnam and Thailand, so this initiative will bring some prospects for local industry if they can take advantage of the economic opportunities.

    As for China, the route to Vientiane may be followed by another train to Phnom Penh and then to Sihanoukville on the coast, thus opening another route for China’s energy transportation needs. Currently 70% of China’s energy comes through the South China Sea by ship, so I suspect their long-term goal is to find another route that avoids the South China Sea and diminishes the chance of conflict.

    I am not sure the slow boat journey on the Mekong will be as pristine as before, however, this will not stop me from taking this trip again and trying to find new ways to enjoy the river and its many secrets. One thing for sure is that nothing ever stays the same… for ‘The Times They Are A-Changin’.

  • The time of the Khmer Rouge – Navee’s story (Land of a Million Elephants)

    I have heard stories first-hand of the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge for many years. The emotion and intensity of these stories does not fade; the inhumanity that humans are capable of is frightening. In this article I have shared Navee’s story, our Cambodian guide in Siem Reap.

    For me, touring around the Angkor temples is still just as interesting as the first time I visited in 1996. I remember at that time I was the only guest at the newly reopened Raffles Grand Hotel, an eerie feeling it was. You could also buy a Cambodian policeman’s badge for one US dollar.

    Today our local guide is Mr Navee, he was born in 1962 making him 13 years old when the Khmer Rouge took power and plunged Cambodia into genocide. He lived here in Siem Reap where his father was a soldier under the Lon Nol government, who were strongly supported by the USA, and encouraged to fight the North Vietnamese, then later the Khmer Rouge (KR). In 1975 when Phnom Penh fell, the KR divided the citizens into two groups, the old’ people and the new’ people. The ‘old’ people were countryside folk and supporters of the KR, the ‘new’ people were academics, business people and anybody who had supported the Lon Nol regime. The KR emptied urban areas, forcing people to march into the countryside. This is where they had their power base and their genesis during the 1960s as a guerrilla insurgency. The name Khmer Rouge was given to this rag-tag band of armed countryside people by the then king, Norodom Sihanouk.

    Navee by definition was one of the ‘new’ people. As a young boy and one of nine children, Navee had moved to Siem Reap to study, living with his uncle. When the Khmer Rouge arrived in 1975, he was forced to walk into the jungle along with everyone else in Siem Reap. The KR were meticulously separating families. During their reign of terror, children were separated from their parents and placed under the instruction of dormitory managers who ruled ruthlessly, indoctrinating the children to follow the rule of Angka (this was the name given to the leadership and political arm of the KR). As a 13 year old, Navee witnessed horrific images of people being hog-tied and killed. He told his uncle who urged him to keep quiet; they were all on borrowed time

    Soon after his arrival in the jungle camp, the KR held a public meeting, and for some reason which Navee did not explain in detail, he was ‘adopted’ at that meeting by a KR woman, one of the ‘old’ people. By default he became part of Angka. He goes on to say that he had enough food and was able to work trading rice for fish, and this is how he survived that time until the KR were eventually defeated by the Vietnamese. He says ‘new’ people just disappeared regularly, but it was not until hostilities finally ceased (1990) that he came to understand the full extent of the genocide. Navee never saw any of his family again. He assumes they were all killed.

    Navee is a remarkable person; kind, considerate and articulate. His story of survival, then recovery and now prosperity, leaves an indelible mark.

  • Two nights in Dak Lak- Featuring Lak Tented Camp (Vietnam)

    ‘They say you come to Vietnam and understand a lot in a few minutes. The rest has got to be lived’ – Graham Greene 1954.

    I was invited by a good friend to visit the highland province of Dak Lak in central Vietnam. Tourism is relatively new in this area that borders Cambodia to the west, and is also the home of indigenous hill tribe groups Ede and M’nong. These hill tribe people have a rich culture and live simply in long houses with short foundations, small windows, a hearth inside and as usual no chimney. They wear attractive clothes, heavily embroidered black and red cotton jackets, and grow crops of rice and more recently ca cao (for making chocolate). It is probably not very well-known that Vietnam produces some of the best chocolate in the world.

    You can drive to Dak Lak (about seven hours from Saigon), or you can fly (just one hour) to reach the provincial capital of Buon Me Thuot. I took the shorter route and then drove another 45 minutes to Lak tented camp, situated on Lak Lake in a wonderful wilderness environment. Here you will find 15 lakeview tented lodges and four lakefront wooden bungalows spread over almost five hectares. You reach Lak tented camp by a short boat ride across the lake which adds to the excitement. Here the staff are keen to help you ashore; all local people taking their opportunities in the tourism industry. The permanent tents are canvas, with entry flaps and flyscreens built over solid timber floorboards, and balconies with great views across the lake. They are very well-appointed with crisp linen and all the amenities you would expect, including private bathroom and toilet. There is a long house modelled in the style of the Ede tribe that has been thoughtfully designed into a restaurant and bar. The restaurant serves local food inspired by the region; it is fresh and delicious. In the evenings there is a performance by the local people of traditional songs and dancing accompanied by gongs and bamboo wind instruments. The sounds are rhythmic and almost hypnotic.

    There are plenty of activities at Lak tented camp, including bike riding, hiking and kayaking on the lake. There are visits to the local village where clay pots are made, but not in a conventional manner. I watched a demonstration of a water vessel being made from scratch. Interestingly, the sculptor did not use a wheel as you might expect, instead she simply walked around the lump of clay, working with hands until it took shape.

    Lak tented camp is a great experience that opens new paths and ideas for travelling in Vietnam. From this central highland vantage point you may continue to other regions like Kontum and Pleiku, then head down to the more familiar coastal areas of Nha Trang or Danang, along the way sharing traditional life and viewing spectacular countryside.

    For more information about Lak tented camp contact Goddard & Howse (ross@goddardandhowse.com.au)

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