Here at Journeys Within, we were shocked and saddened to hear the news of the bombing near the Erawan Shrine in downtown Bangkok on Monday, Aug. 17, 2015. Our prayers will be with all of the victims, as well as with the Thai people as they attempt to recover from this terrible event.
Of course, the safety of our travelers in the region is our first priority, and our ground operations teams from our Bangkok and other Southeast Asia offices have been ensuring that all of our guests are safe and informed about the current situation in the Thai capital.
In addition, Journeys Within’s founder and CEO, Andrea Ross, will be diverting her Vietnam inspection tour to come to Bangkok to help assess the security situation and work with our ground operations teams in assisting any of our guests with plans to travel in the region.
Our teams are monitoring the news and advisories, and will be personally contacting all of our guests that may be impacted by this event to adjust itineraries if needed.
And we will provide updated information here on this blog post as it becomes available.
Advice for Journeys Within travelers visiting Thailand in the future
At Journeys Within, guest safety is always our number one priority, and our Bangkok office will be monitoring the situation on the ground in Bangkok and throughout the country in the coming days, weeks and months to ensure that our guests are aware of any risks that might still exist after this incident.
While it appears that Thai authorities now have a suspect in the Monday bombing, information is still extremely limited at the moment; however, we will be in contact with all Journeys Within guests traveling to or near Bangkok to fill them in on our first-hand assessment from the ground vs. the current media hype.
But while these islands are certainly unheard of by most travelers, our Southeast Asia specialists April, Courtney and Naida had a few other ideas for truly off-the-radar beach destinations that we guarantee only those “in the know” have experienced. So read on if you’d like to find yourself alone on a white-sand tropical paradise anytime soon.
If you like the sound of Phu Quoc Island, Vietnam, try…
Koh Rong & Koh Rong Saloem, Cambodia
Both Phu Quoc and Koh Rong (map) are located off the coast of Sihanoukville Province, Cambodia in the Gulf of Thailand; but unlike the larger island of Phu Quoc – which features an airport with multiple daily flights from Saigon – Koh Rong is only accessibly by speedboat from the mainland, and offers a private paradise of lush green jungles and a few laid-back resort options designed for relaxation and appreciation of the natural environment.
Beaches are the highlight of any trip to Koh Rong, as 43 km of the 61-km coastline are covered in white, beige or rose-colored sand, meaning there is always a way to find a secluded spot with nary another person in sight. (If you need more proof, the American television show Survivor filmed seasons 31 and 32 on Koh Rong from March through July 2015, so you know it offers secluded spots.)
Several small islets and off-shore reefs provide a beautiful marine environment for those willing to explore with mask and snorkel or sea kayak. And the interior features interesting sandstone rock formations and a number of seasonal waterfalls that can serve as an alternate activity to the endless beach time on offer.
And if Travel + Leisure’s description of Koh Lanta, Thailand sounds nice, try…
Koh Kood, Thailand
Located in the Gulf of Thailand, Koh Kood (also spelled Koh Kut – map) is a secret gem featuring less than 15 hotels on the entire island (compared to hundreds of options on Koh Lanta). And while development has been slow to arrive in Koh Kood, that may be changing… With 24-hour electricity just having been brought to the island in June of 2015, direct flights from hubs such as Bangkok and Siem Reap, and a growing number of unique and luxurious resorts on pristine beaches, we think Koh Kood is poised to become the next great “secret” getaway spot in Thailand.
In addition to secluded beaches, the island offers great snorkeling and SCUBA diving options, fishing trips, hikes to seasonal waterfalls and authentic Thai fishing villages worthy of exploration.
For those seeking luxury, the Soneva Kiri resort is an amazing choice. The property offers 24 gorgeous villas as well as 11 private residences, all of them offering a great combination of luxury with environmentally sensitive design and furnishings. With a fantastic spa, fun activities such as outdoor movies and an observatory, and unique dining options (you can eat dinner in a hanging tree basket!), it’s a place you will never be bored.
For those travelers seeking value, the Shantaa Koh Kood is a beautiful sea-side resort featuring private villas that offers a perfectly relaxing retreat in a more rustic setting. Palm-lined pathways lead down to the great snorkeling beach in front of the property, and the resort is happy to arrange for tours of the island or other activities.
While monsoon rains flood portions of Myanmar every year, this year’s heavy monsoon season paired with the added rain caused by Cyclone Komen has been particularly devastating to vast tracts of the country. The areas around the state of Rakhine and Myanmar’s Irrawaddy River Delta are especially hard hit, and leaders of the country are calling for massive relocations and international aid to help victims of the flooding.
Here at Journeys Within, we’ve been monitoring the floods through our Country Director Dar Le Khin, who has been helping organize relief efforts in conjunction with Flood Aids Organization – a relief group comprised of travel industry professionals in the country.
We are also setting up a way for Journeys Within travelers and alumni to donate through Journeys Within Our Community, which will then funnel the dollars to organizations within Myanmar that are providing direct aid to flood victims.
Our volunteer group, “Extend Your Helping Hands For The Flood Victims,” (composed of volunteer public-spirited members of our tourism community) is currently helping the victims of the recent catastrophic floods and associated landslides in various areas of our motherland. This unprecedented catastrophe had destroyed the lives and livelihoods of millions of Burmese people, especially rural folks and disadvantaged people. Extend Your Helping Hands is requesting our friends, both overseas and in-country, provide donations to continue the assistance to these unfortunate victims as they rebuild their lives.
The group named “Extend Your Helping Hands for The Flood Victims” was founded on 29th July, 2015 by a group of tourism professionals in order to provide help to the flooding victims of Myanmar. A three-day campaign collected donations at some crowded areas in Yangon, and has since captured the public’s awareness on the need to provide a hand to the victims along with respect for the group’s activities. This enabled the group to have sufficient funds to perform the emergency relief in the flooded areas of three different states which were all declared as being in a “state of emergency.”
The 1st relief team set off on 3rd August to Sidoktaya village as a base in Magwe division where the villages were flooded by the Mon Creek which passes through Natmataung (Mt. Victoria) National park of Chin State. The overflowing water of Mon creek has receded, but not before swallowing the thousands of acres of crops and filling houses with mud. The relief team, lead by Min Than Htut (MD of Pro Niti Travel), has traveled as far as to the Pan-Chet Village (about 2 hours boat ride from Sidoktaya). Along the way, they witnessed the full scale of the disaster as all they could see was only the tip of palm trees poking out of the water. The team brought hope for the villagers and helped a total of 418 households with about 2,000 peoples at 5 villages along the side of Mon Dyke.
The 2nd relief team headed to Kale on the 5th August led by Bo Bo Kyaw (GM of Uniteam Travel) making their first night stop at Kale collecting data to be effective with their emergency relief efforts. With the help of volunteers, the team has reached the Aung-Myin-Thar village with emergency relief such as rice, kitchen wares, candles, lighters and detergents. It’s hard to express in words the sorrow in the eyes of villagers as their livelihoods have been destroyed and they’ve been physiologically stressed. Thanks to Bo Bo’s experiences with disaster management, he has brought letters to them and read to them of the care and love by the whole nations for the victims. In sum, the Kale team has helped a total of 653 households (about 2,500 people).
While the rescues teams were distributing emergency relief supplies to the victims, the volunteer team in Yangon has put more efforts in raising funds for the second phase of the recovery process focusing mainly on health and education.
Update from Dar Le (from August 6, 2015):
I am involved as a committee member in a group comprised of travel industry professionals which is collecting donations for flooding victims. So far we have been able to collect about 140,000,000 Kyats (about $166,666 USD). Two-thirds of the funds have been used in supplying aid to three locations (1) Minpyar at Arkan state (flooding caused by Cyclone Komen), (2) Pwin Pyu township in Magwe (flood caused by overflow of a few dams) and (3) Kalay in northern Sagaing (flood caused by Chindwin River).
Aid teams already left this morning in Yangon and we are waiting for updates on the situation. We are now discussing for aftermath focusing on: (a) Rebuilding toilet facilities in those flooded areas. (b) Clean water access, such as drilling tube well/ water ponds. (c) Cleaning/sanitizing public school/clinic facilities and reinforcing them with amenities (children should be able to go to school after all).
So, if there is something you can help us on those issues, we would be very appreciative. As we have seen that people in Myanmar are very active with providing supplies and aid now, but are not as aware of how important the aftermath and rebuilding efforts will be as well.
This year, the eighth full moon of 2015 (in addition to being a Blue Moon) marks the beginning of a special time of year for Buddhists in Southeast Asia. Often referred to as “Buddhist Lent” or the “Rains Retreat” by westerners, this tradition corresponds to a three lunar month cycle when the region typically experiences heavy rains and farmers are planting their crops.
Monks and novices will stay in the same monastery or temple for the entire three-month period, venturing out only during the day (if at all) and always returning to the same temple to meditate and sleep. During this retreat, monks typically devote more time to meditation and deepening their understanding of the Dhamma – the truth taught by the Buddha.
Locals often practice a more ascetic lifestyle during this time period as well, often giving up meat, smoking or alcohol for a portion or all of the three months, spending more time giving alms on the streets, or visiting local temples to meditate.
To get a deeper understanding of this important Buddhist tradition, we asked our five country directors a few questions about how Buddhist Lent is observed in their countries. Below you will find answers from:
Houmphaeng “Phaeng” Phommaly, Country Director for Laos
Kanchana “Joy” Junglin, Country Director for Thailand
Michelle Nguyen, Country Director for Vietnam
Dar Le Khin, Country Director for Myanmar
Makara Put, Country Director for Cambodia
Journeys Within: What is this period of time called in your country?
Phaeng: In Laos we call it “Khao Phansa” which means all monks and novices must stay in the same place and focus on meditation.
Joy: In Thailand, we call it “Wan Khao Phansa.”
Michelle Nguyen: “Phat Dan” is the Vietnamese name for Buddhist Lent/Vassa/Rains Retreat. The Vassa tradition predates the time of Gautama Buddha (the founder of Buddhism). It was a long-standing custom for mendicant ascetics* in India not to travel during the rainy season as one may unintentionally harm crops, insects or even oneself whilst travelling. (*As they walked from place to place, followers begged and relied on charitable donations as part of a vow for poverty in order to spend ones time and energy solely on preaching and serving the poor.)
Makara: This period of time we call “Chorl Vorsa” (Chorl means enter, Vorsa means raining). It is one of the biggest religious celebrations besides New Year and P’Chom Ben.
Dar Le: In Myanmar, we called it “War-Twin” meaning duration of the Buddhist lent.
Journeys Within: For how long is it observed? Are there any particularly special days that are celebrated?
Joy: Wan Khao Phansa is observed for a period of three lunar months during the rainy season when monks are required to remain in one particular place or temple. This year it runs from July 31 to October 27, 2015.
Phaeng: It is observed for three months from July 31 – October 27 in 2015. For regular people, all activities remain the same, but on traditional Buddhist days of celebration like the full moon, even more people than usual would give alms on the streets and temples. And elders often go to the temples to listen to the Dhamma and join the monks in their chanting.
Makara: It is celebrated for a 3 months period, and there is a special celebration on the first two days. On the first day, most regular locals will bring many useful things like cloth, dry fishes, tea, milk, coffee, sugar and other offerings to the monks, especially the big candles that they will light every day. The second day the Head Monks will call all the monks to come together and give advice and take the role for this period.
Journeys Within: What do monks do differently during this time period?
Phaeng: All the monks and novices have to stay in the same places or temples and can’t travel this time of year. The (historical) reason for this rule is that it is the time period of hard rains and planting of new crops, so if monks were to travel they might step on farmers’ plants or on baby animals, or get stuck in the heavy rains (and mud). The head monks, and those in high positions, have to meditate for the entire period. These monks typically retreat to a center temple that is not open to the public during this time.
Michelle: For the duration of Vassa, monks remain in one place, typically in monasteries or pagodas. In the monasteries and the monks chant the scriptures, lead a period of meditation and give teachings on the themes of the festival in return for people’s offerings. At this period of time, the monks stay inside and they won’t go outside until the Vassa ends or unless there is anything urgent.
Joy: This tradition originates from old times when Buddha stayed in temples during the rainy season to avoid killing insects or harming the growing seeds. It is a period for study, meditation and teaching of new monks. The monks are allowed to go out during the day but they must sleep in the same temple every night during these three months.
Journeys Within: What do regular locals do differently during this time period?
Dar Le: People offer robes to monks which monks might need during the three-month time period. Since it is the rainy season, their robes can get wet easily while collecting alms and eventually need to be replaced. That’s why it is called a “vaso robe” which means “rain resistant robe.”
Michelle: Buddhist Festivals are always joyful occasions. Buddhists decorate their houses and streets with Buddhist flags and flowers. Buddhists often give up something for lent, e.g. meat, alcohol, smoking… It is a time to make special efforts to make people happy and review our personal progress for kindness and respect for everyone and everything around us.
A typical day during the festival people will:
Go to the local temple or monastery and offer food, candles and flowers to the monks and receive guidance, support and teaching from the monks.
Give food and support to the poor during the day.
Gather around statues of the Buddha when it is dark and walk around the statue with candles until all is covered in light.
End the day joining in with chanting of the Buddha’s teachings and meditation.
Joy: Mostly the activities on Wan Khao Phansa (Rains Retreat Entry Day) are the same as those on any other Buddhist holy days. Two main important things are presented to monks during Khao Phansa – candles and the garments worn by monks, specifically the bathing robes. In the old times there was only candle light to be used around the temples, and at the beginning of the rainy season, Thai people made large candles as offerings to be used during this season. Some believe that as a result of this custom, the givers become brighter and smarter – similar to the characteristics of the candlelight.
Makara: Regular locals will bring food on days they are free to offer to the monks because the monks cannot go out and receive morning alms like they normally do.
Phaeng: Devout Buddhists and most elderly locals would try to follow the five precepts below:
Abstain from killing
Abstain from lying
Abstain from alcohol and liquor
Abstain from stealing
Abstain from sensual misconduct
Besides following those rules, some people like go to the temple more often than usual.
Journeys Within: Any tips for visitors who are in-country during this time period?
Phaeng: Most of temples are open as normal since they have a special place for monks to practice separate from the main temple sights, so there shouldn’t be any problem. However, visitors can talk to their guide or the staff at their hotel before going to any temples so as not to disturb any ceremonies that might be going on.
Joy: One important tradition for Wan Khao Phansa is the Khao Phansa Candle Making Ceremony where people bring white and yellow candles to make the Khao Phansa candles. There are also Candle Festivals celebrated in locations throughout Thailand on this day, the most famous of which is located in Ubon Ratchathanee province at Thung Sri Mueng Temple, which is the province’s most popular annual event. Local artists express their artistic talents and techniques through crafting and placing Thai patterns with the candle wax, and the magnificent candles also demonstrate the link of local custom and religious belief. After a procession, the candles are presented to local temples.
Michelle: Take the opportunity to visit pagodas with our guides (or even on your own if you wish) whenever the opportunity presents itself in holiday itineraries and meet with the monks. Everyone will be very happy to welcome you to join in the festival experience and explain more. Chat with your guide if you need him/her to be on hand to help with translations. It is best to keep clothes comfortable and tops covering shoulders with long trousers at a respectable length. Shoes are taken off and left outside homes and on the pagoda steps. Hats shouldn’t be worn inside pagodas or homes.
Dar Le: Perhaps, volunteer at night preparing food for next morning’s alms bowls for monks.
Journeys Within: What is your favorite aspect?
Dar Le: I think that the people of Myanmar are still strong Buddhist followers and it’s good to see the religious spirit of the people.
Michelle: The nurturing of the community spirit, the bringing hope to others and stopping to remind ourselves that we do not live in isolation and whatever we do on a daily basis has an impact on others and on our surroundings.
Joy: I am Buddhist and I am proud that this tradition has been passed on from generation to generation and it is still present today.
Phaeng: I think Buddhist lent is good for monks and novices who can stay in same place, and for regular people as well. I see that most people try not to drink and that they are trying to maintain the Lao traditions that have lasted over a thousand years. I hope they are still doing this in the future, even as the world changes.
Makara: My favourite aspect is to see Cambodian people maintaining this traditional religious celebration the same way they have been doing this for years.
The best way to know a country is through its people. Visiting the daily markets that each town has opens worlds. Myanmar was no exception.
Everything is sold from all types of foods (some of which Westerners would find extremely exotic, like fried ants!) to the basic vegetables, meats, fish and poultry. Colorful spices abound as well as a multitude of grains.
You could furnish a gourmet kitchen from all types and sizes of pots and pans, utensils, silverware, and drinkware.
The people (sellers as well as buyers) interact with each other as well as with the tourists which makes this a first class social event as well. It is a way of life that has been going on for decades even centuries.
The color and spirit and the din of everyone talking at the same time is infectious. The friendliness, warmth and humility of these people is contagious and so inviting.