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From the Ground-Exploring Picturesque Countryside around Hoi An, Vietnam

Once a major spice port, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Hoi An, Vietnam, has managed to preserve its legacy and heritage for more than 2,000 years. This cities charm and impressively preserved architecture, lend to memorable travel experiences. But, for an adventure off the tourist loop, make time to explore the more laid back surrounding countryside.  Exploring by bike and boat you will attain a deeper sense of local life, in picturesque, rural Vietnam.

Hoi An’s is a culturally diverse port town that once controlled the ancient spice trade in the 7th and 8th century. This trade route spanned all the way to Indonesia. The prevailing religion at the time was Hindu until the 10th century when Muslim traders introduced and influenced the spread of Islam. These influences can be seen throughout the cities architecture today. The next major cultural influence was from the Chinese. They first arrived as traders and later as refugees, escaping the oppressive Ming Dynasty armies. Today, Chinese styled shop-houses flank winding lanes, as the sun goes down you feel as if you have been transported to another time.

Rice is at the heart of Vietnamese life. Not only is it a staple but a major economic resource. The farms and paddies around Hoi An are the lifeblood of the community. The best time to head into the countryside is morning, when the temperature is cool and the mist rises from the rice paddies. Begin your day with a visit to a local noodle shop where MiQuang, a famous local dish is prepared fresh. Traditionally, this noodle bowl is created with thick rice noodles in a broth with shrimp, chicken or pork. It is then topped with roasted peanuts and toasted sesame rice paper and a dash of locally prepared fish sauce. Enjoy a refreshing glass of sweet Vietnamese coffee and the vibrant sights and sounds of the day beginning on the paddies.

The peaceful countryside embraces a slower pace of life compared to the bustling larger cities. Verdant paddy fields and swaying water coconut farms dot the countryside and various river ways carve through the brilliant landscape. Traditional farming methods have been maintained over the centuries. It is not uncommon to find the majestic water buffalo tilling rice paddies, evoking nostalgia of a bygone era.

Fishing is also an important way of life here. This area is famous for creating flavorful fish sauces used in spicing local cuisine. This unique condiment is used throughout Vietnam and with Hoi An’s proximity to many rivers and the sea, it is a key fish sauce producer for the country.

An unforgettable highlight in the region is taking a ride on a Basket Boat, known traditionally as a Thung Chai. This is still the preferred method of transportation of local the fisherman in the central regions of Vietnam. Large nets are thrown from the boat to easily catch an array of fish sold in markets and for the making of fish sauce. These round, bowl shaped boats are wove out of bamboo reeds and given a yearly seal of tar to keep them afloat. It takes great practice to perfect navigating these spinning water vessels, but with patience and a great sense of humor, you can give it a try yourself.

If you prefer to stay on Terra Firma, maybe a gentle bike ride is more your style of transportation. Take your time exploring quiet country roads along local farms and hamlets. This will give you a chance to meet friendly locals who are happy to share stories and history with visitors from around the world. If you are interested in learning more about this vibrant culture, we can arrange a lunch at a local home, where you can share a delicious traditional lunch with a local family before your return to Hoi An town. No matter how you prefer to explore this enchanting area, Hoi An and its countryside will create memories and experiences of a lifetime.

From the Ground-Meet Cambodia’s lifesaving-Hero Rats

It’s not every day that you get to meet a real live hero. Now at the Apopo Visitor Center in Siem Reap, Cambodia, you will have an opportunity to learn about and meet the countries infamous Hero Rats. These cute little rodents have been working hard at detecting live war mines and saving countless lives throughout Southeast Asia since 2010.

In October of 1995, Bart Weetjens, a Belgian native and pet rat owner, came across a published article, where gerbils were being used as scent detectors for scientific research. Knowing that rats are intelligent, cheap and widespread over the world, an idea emerged. Could these bright animals be used to detect landmines that long ago were buried and forgotten? By 1998, with support from the Belgian Directorate for International Cooperation, the initial financial support was developed and the non-profit, Apopo Foundation was born.

By 2000, Apope developed training methods for the rats and the team began ground workd in Morogoro, Tanzania.  Here, they proved invaluable at cost-effectively detecting mines and addressing some of the country’s most pressing humanitarian challenges.

Ten years later, the Apopo Foundation began work in the mine suspected areas, in the provinces of Trat and Chantaburi, along the Thai-Cambodian border. The Cambodian chapter of Apopo works in conjunction with the Cambodian Mine Action Center and the German Federal Foreign Office.

According to Apopo, at least 26 million explosive sub-munitions were dropped on Cambodia during the Vietnam War, mostly in eastern and north-eastern areas bordering the Lao People’s Democratic Republic and Vietnam. The bombing is estimated to have left between 1.9 million and 5.8 million cluster munitions remnants. To date over 64,000 landmines and other explosive remnants of war have been recorded in Cambodia, since 1979.

With over 25,000 amputees, Cambodia has the highest ratio of mine amputees per capita in the world. A great hero was in need! It takes just one Hero Rat to search up to 200 square meters in 20 minutes; this would take a mine technician with a metal detector 1-4 days to cover the same ground.

The Apopo Foundation and these little rodents are dedicated to saving thousands of lives throughout Southeast Asia and the World. Now at the Apopo center in Siem Reap, you can join an hour long presentation and learn more about these little champions and the non-profits quest in making the World a safer place. Give us a call to book a tour or visit www.apopo.org for more information.

From the Ground-Kompong Phluk, Cambodia – The waters have risen, it’s time to kayak!

By Jay Austin

Every year at about this time, the waters of the Tonle Sap Lake begin to rise with the coming of the rainy season. Right now, the countryside surrounding Siem Reap is lush and green and we are only seeing rain once every couple of days, which is perfect! In the stilted-house village of Kompong Phluk, the rising waters mean that the usually dry streets become canals that the locals must navigate by boat, changing the whole dynamic of the village.

For many years, Journeys Within has collaborated with a local family in Kompong Phluk to greet our guests and allow them to see the village life through the eyes of the local people. This long-standing relationship not only allows us to provide unique access for our guests, but also offers a starting point for our sensational kayaking trips.

Just beyond the main village is a serene forest of mangroves which spends a few months a year completely flooded, creating the perfect route for kayaking. Our skilled guides lead our guests through the cool green canopy on a journey which finds you out on the open waters of the Tonle Sap – Asia’s largest freshwater lake. At a relaxed pace, this is an experience which is almost surreal. Having the opportunity to get away from the noise of the tourist boats on the main thoroughfare allows you to truly soak in the pleasantness of your surroundings and to thoroughly enjoy a day on the water.

Kayaking is available on Journeys Within Cambodia itineraries from around September to mid-January. The local team from the Cambodia office highly recommends this to guests as one of the most wonderful ways to see the real Cambodia.

From the Ground: Visiting a sea turtle hatchery in Con Dao National park, Vietnam.

Photo Credit: April Cole

With over 2,000 miles of pristine coastline, and thousands of off-shore islands, Vietnam is home to a wide arrange of endangered marine turtles. It’s a natural paradise that has been a nesting ground for many species over multiple generations. The protected, Con Dao National park is an archipelago situated less than 200 miles from the bustling metropolis of Ho Chi Minh City. This island refuge is an important habitat for sea turtles that lay their eggs from April through September. The park presently protects 14 beaches which cover thousands of square miles of important turtle nesting locations. Some of the endangered turtles that nest here include the Green, Hawksbill, Leatherback and Olive Ridley.

Because sea turtles return to the beaches where they were hatched to lay their eggs, this park was critical in protecting marine turtles across the globe. This unique and diverse ecosystem also protects many species of specialized coral, dolphin and the endangered dugong, a cousin of North America’s manatee. In 2006 a delegation of Vietnamese UNESCO representatives surveyed the area and recognized the importance of saving this natural animal habitat, with future hopes of it becoming a World Heritage site.

During the breeding season, from July to October, the conservation rangers work day and night, protecting the sea turtle’s buried eggs and nests. Once the eggs are laid, rangers record their measurement and statistical information, attach tags to the mother’s fins and move the new eggs to a safe location for incubation. After 46 to 60 days of incubating, the rangers return the hatched baby turtles to the ocean.

Carefully controlled numbers of park visitors are able to witness the mother’s arrival throughout the laying season. Fortunate visitors may also be able to assist in the release of recent hatchlings. For every 1000 baby turtles, only one will grow old enough to continue the reproductive cycle. Hatchlings are released about 10 to 15 feet from the ocean. This rite of passage helps them find their way using sound and light from the beckoning water. This important step will help them to return to the same beach where they were born 30 years later to lay their eggs, just as their mothers did.

Here is a firsthand turtle account from Journey’s Within’s very own, April Cole.

Photo Credit: April Cole

——  I spent the morning relaxing at the beautiful Poulo Condor Boutique resort and Spa and met my guide at 3:30 in the afternoon to transfer to the Con Son Port. After a 45 minute wooden boat ride, I arrived at a sparkling patch of water just off the coast of Bo Dap beach for some snorkeling. The water was warm and the fish were plenty, and it was a great afternoon at sea.

Photo Credit: April Cole

After snorkeling, I was excited to continue my journey on to Con Son Island. This island is renowned for having some of the greatest concentrations of marine turtle nesting sites in the Con Dao National park archipelago. A short walk led us to the Bay Canh ranger station where visitors have the chance to learn about the mangrove forest, and its important role in the delicate environment on Con Dao.

Dinner was served at 6pm – and by dinner, I mean I paid $1 for a Cup of Noodles, and by 7:00; I joined an evening ranger talk on turtle nesting facts and etiquette for unobtrusively watching the mother turtles laying their eggs. The turtles give birth in the wee hours of the night, so sleeping was not much of an option. My rustic, off the grid accommodations, were set up at the park ranger station. Hammocks were hung in a shared sleeping space, but luckily I had the place to myself. I relaxed in my hammock, reading a book, letting the sound of the wave’s sooth me to sleep. It would have been much nicer if there was a mosquito net so the bugs weren’t so much a bother, but that’s something we’ll prepare for our guests in the future. The ranger station is the only human habitation on the island.  This authentic experience is not the typical night at the Four Seasons; realities of life in a wilderness national park reflect a simple life of few modern comforts and conveniences. This is a “Roughing It” real world experience. My excitement to see the turtles and the peace and quiet of no cell phones, radios or television, eclipsed my need for any luxury accommodations.

Photo Credit: April Cole

At about midnight, I was joined by a small group of tourists who came over for the evening and we were guided by a ranger out to the beach to await our first guest from the sea. Around 1am, the first mother pulled up onto the sandy beach. The ranger said she was the impressively sized Green Turtle, which can weigh in at roughly 650 pounds. These impressive creatures have the same lifespan as a human and will travel thousands of miles in open sea for over 80 years.

Photo Credit: April Cole

The ranger told us to wait until she had dug her hole to lay her eggs. We saw two mothers give birth that night and stayed up with the mama’s from about 1-4am. The ranger gently collected the soft eggs to bury them safely in the sand hatchery.

Thrilled and exhausted, I napped until about 5:30am when the ranger woke me to see a batch of turtle eggs hatch that had been incubating in the hatchery. The ranger gathered the little brood into a basket, and we each helped to release the little baby’s from the shore to the sea, to make their way in the world. Baby turtles are pretty much the cutest creatures ever. Watching the little turtles head out to the ocean for the first time was absolutely beautiful.

Photo Credit: April Cole

Guest Review from Kristine Janda and Kevin O’Grattan-Siem Reap is the perfect place to celebrate romance.

At Journeys Within, we are dedicated to custom designing memorable experiences throughout Southeast Asia.  We especially love it when we hear back from our guests who have had first class travel experiences, and are excited to share their photos and adventures.  This letter and these photos are from Journeys Within guests, Kristine Janda & Ken O’Grattan.  

We just returned home from our Asia trip. I just wanted to tell you what an unbelievably amazing experience we had with Journeys Within! Thank you for making our trip and anniversary extra special. We love the gifts, and we will be hanging the picture in our house as a memory of this great adventure.

Photo Credit: Kristine Janda & Ken O’Grattan

We loved all our guides. Mr. Sina and our driver were both wonderful. Mr. Sina is so kind, patient, attentive, and has such a great knowledge of Siem Reap and it’s many temples. He was in tune to our interests and made sure we had a great experiences. Our driver was also great, drove safely, and attentive to us. Our cooking class was a blast! We enjoyed every minute of it. We did not end up doing the bird watching due to the conditions, and we appreciated the change to ensure a great experience. Our trek on Mt Kulen was such an adventure! We’ve never trekked through a lush jungle like that.  Our guides were great, patient, very knowledgeable of forests plants and animals, and very attentive to our needs.

Photo Credit: Kristine Janda & Ken O’Grattan

We also had the most wonderful stay with Jaya House! Wow. They were so sweet and treated us like royalty. They made us feel very special in celebrating our anniversary with flowers and cake! The hotel grounds are so beautiful we didn’t want to leave. The entire staff was very nice and attentive to us and all their guests.

We are so amazed by Siem Reap and its people. Everyone we met was very kind and hospitable. We enjoyed all the food and loved all your restaurant recommendations.  Thank you again for helping us with our unforgettable adventure in Siem Reap. It’s become one of my favorite places in the world!

Sincerely,

Kristine Janda and Kevin O’Grattan