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From the Ground: Exploring Kampot – From the Villages to the River and Beyond

By Jay Austin

What was once a sleepy riverside town has now become Cambodia’s hub for adventure tourism.  Attracting more and more people each year, locals say this destination is set to take off!  This is a small town offering unique and individual touring which is unmatched anywhere else in Cambodia!

Our cycling partner, Butterfly Tours, is a tour business created by a group of entrepreneurial Cambodian university students to support student guides who are attending university. The ‘Backroads by Bicycle’ tour takes guests on shopper bikes through Kampot’s red-dirt roads and visits local families to see their trades, including noodle making & rice wine production and concludes with a visit to a riverside pagoda that offers spectacular views of the adjacent river inlet before returning to town.

Our partner, Cambodia Kiteboarding, offers everything to kitesurfing enthusiasts from 2 hour introduction lessons to 2 day beginner courses with a range of options also available for the more advanced kitesurfer. Led by internationally certified kitesurfing guides with a paramount focus on safety for all involved, this is a sensational skill to learn in Cambodia which offers the opportunity at better rates than neighboring Thailand and Vietnam.

A visit to Kampot would not be complete without spending some time on the stunning Kampot River. Our partner, Supasia, offers a 3 hour Stand Up Paddle-boarding trip provides the opportunity to meander along the river and take everything in at your own pace. The trip is combined with a SUP lesson for those who have never attempted the sport led by confident guides who patiently assist you whilst you master the board.

If you are looking to head to Kampot, chat with us to help arrange the perfect tour for you, including any of the options above!

From the Ground: New Sunset Hoi An Kayaking Tour

By Jay Austin

Our new Sunset Kayaking Tour in Hoi An provides guests with the opportunity to see Hoi An from a different viewpoint and take in the serenity of life along the river and escape a little of the tourist bustle from old town Hoi An. This is the perfect addition to the beach portion of a tour, as it provides a little activity without intruding too much on your relaxation time at the beach.  This tour also pairs well with our ‘Wander the Ancient Town’ tour, which leads guest through the historical houses and community halls of beautiful Hoi An.

What you can expect from this tour:

Enjoy a leisurely paddle through the palm islands as you explore the Thu Bon River from the islands to the ancient town of Hoi An. The tour starts at 3pm allowing plenty of time to capture stunning images from your kayak of the passing scenery before you reach your sunset location. As the sun goes down enjoy the reflections of the ancient houses in the calm waters, while the area takes on a fantasy-like glow. For the more adventurous guests, there is an option to swap your kayak for a Stand-Up Paddleboard, providing a higher viewpoint of the surrounding scenery.  This tour is guided by an adventure guide, highly trained in safety procedures.

Please note: Dry bags are not provided, so those who are planning on bringing camera equipment should be sure to carry either a waterproof camera or a dry bag for the experience.

Dana’s Mondulkiri Adventure

mondulkiri-hills-2
Photo Credit: Dana Di Labio

By Dana Di Labio

Pchum Ben falls in September each year, and most Khmer people spend the holiday visiting the temples (wats or pagodas) to honor their ancestors, make offerings, and receive blessings from the monks. We took the opportunity to head to Mondulkiri, a province in North Eastern Cambodia that was a full 10 hour bus ride from our home in Siem Reap. So kindles, ipods and books at the ready, we set off in our 11-seater minibus, ready to face our holiday. Aside from one of us forgetting her shoes (a serious problem when embarking on embarking on a jungle trek!), the journey north to the small town of Sen Monorom was largely uneventful. Although it was dark and quiet, it felt safe and we could see the edges of mountains, jungles and forests.

mondulkiri-hills
Photo Credit: Dana Di Labio

A staff member from Tree Lodge met us and drove us to the hotel in the back of a pick-up truck to the wooden lodge. We were introduced to the couple who run the lodge – Mr. Tree and his wife, who spoke English well, but allowed us to practice our questionable Khmer. After stuffing ourselves with some fried rice and noodles, Mr. Tree led us to our small wooden bungalow – a ‘family room’, which had 3 double beds squashed in together. It felt rustic and cozy; we each had our own mosquito net and a shared hot shower – all for only $15 for the night! (The Lodge also had a supply of leftover shoes we could borrow, which luckily meant no jungle trekking in Birkenstocks!)

mondulkiri-elephants
Photo Credit: Dana Di Labio

The next morning, bright and early, we headed off with Mr. Tree, and a group of around 20 others. We got into the truck again and drove around 30 minutes to just outside the jungle, where Mr Tree dropped us all off and instructed us to follow the path until we reach the ‘Jungle Lodge’. He drove the car down the hill and into the jungle. A walk of 20 minutes or so brought us up and down a few muddy hills (it was the rainy season after all), to a small wooden hut with canvas sides overlooking the forests and misty rivers. Mr. Tree met us at the hut and introduced The Mondulkiri Project:

mondulkiri-elephants-3
Photo Credit: Dana Di Labio

In October 2013 the Mondulkiri Project signed an agreement with Bunong indigenous elders from the Putang Village and the Orang Village. They agreed to end logging in a large area of the beautiful Mondulkiri forest near Sen Monorom, in order protect this beautiful forest and the plentiful wildlife here. As the population of Cambodia grows, the demand for rice also grows, so more and more of the forest is being destroyed to make room for small rice farms. The Elephant Sanctuary experiences and jungle trekking is designed to help to bring income to the Bunang indigenous people while protecting the native habitat of Asian elephants and other endangered species. As part of this agreement, The Mondulkiri Project started an elephant sanctuary with 7 retired elephants who are free to wander through the forest. All of these elephants have been rescued from other provinces, where they were treated unfairly. In the future, Mr. Tree explains, he hopes to start a natural breeding program to help with the long term survival of elephants in Cambodia. Currently the elephants are all female, so the project is trying to raise money to buy a male in order to breed.

After the briefing, we started off into the jungle to meet the elephants. We fed them bananas and learned that there is a trick to doing so – you should hold out 1 banana towards the end of their trunk, while hiding the others behind your back – otherwise the elephants steal the whole bunch! The elephants seemed very at ease around us, and Mr. Tree emphasized that we should let the elephants lead the interaction. After our banana supply had been depleted, we walked back through the rain in our nifty multi colored rain ponchos, across a rickety old bridge. Just as we were crossing, one of the elephants named Princess came bounding through the river and decided to give herself a mud shower. She led the way for us and we followed her into a clearing, where we were joined by several other elephants. We played with them, fed them some more, and marveled at how peaceful they seemed. We headed back to the hut, clad with mud and rain, and sat down for a delicious lunch of rice, vegetables and fish soup. A celebratory beer or two was also a necessity! After a little relaxing, we headed back off into the jungle and down to a river, where we were told we would be able to bathe the elephants. Some of us scrubbed the elephants with long brushes, whilst the others fed them bananas.

mondulkiri-waterfall-1
Photo Credit: Dana Di Labio

When we returned to the hut for the evening, and were introduced to our guide for the next day – Leung. He and several local Khmer women cooked up a delicious feast for our dinner. We ate on the wooden floor, by candlelight, and spent the evening chatting with Leung. He is from one of the tribal villages, on the other side of the jungle, and he leads the guided treks for the Mondulkiri Project. He told us that we would finish our trek in his village and he explained about his religion – a form of Buddhism that entails ritual animal sacrifice. We played cards, drank bamboo rice wine, and retreated to our hammocks for the night.

mondulkiri-waterfall
Photo Credit: Dana Di Labio

After breakfast the next morning, we headed off on our 18 kilometer trek. Luckily, the weather managed to stay dry for the whole day, as we hiked over tough terrain, steep hills and had some very slippy moments. Eventually we decided to just succumb to the mud and stop trying to stay clean and dry! We stopped at 3 waterfalls along the way, and at the first we jumped off the top of the waterfall into the cold water and hung from the tree branches. The second waterfall was enormous and soaked us in spray, and at the third waterfall, we trekked behind it into a cave where we sat to eat our lunch of rice and vegetables.  As we continued on, Leung pointed out different kinds of plants, flowers, frogs, insects, and various mushroom breeds.

Finally, around 8 hours after we took off, we arrived in Leung’s village, exhausted and muddy, but beaming with pride. (Leung told us he does this trek 4 times per week!) He introduced us to his family (he has 8 brothers and sisters, which is quite common among the 43 families who live in this village), and his family have several pigs and lots of piglets, chickens, cows and buffalo. There were some young children playing football just down the path, everybody stopped to say hello to us and offered us rice wine. Leung told us that they all rear animals and share the meat among the families. He said that whilst he has his immediate family (who all live in a small wooden house, with an old retro caravan attached!), he feels as though the whole village is his family, as they have all grown up together.

mondulkiri-trekking
Photo Credit: Dana Di Labio

When it came time to say goodbye to Leung and the village, it seemed strange after such a meaningful and intense 24 hours getting to know him. While we all trickled back to our office jobs and city life, Leung would stay on the edge of the jungle in his hill tribe village, perfectly content to guide more jungle trekkers. Although we loved the elephants, and the trekking and the camping experience was so much fun, I would recommend this trip simply for the experience of meeting Leung, an uncomplicated 21 year old guy, with so much love for the jungle and keen to share his devotion to his beautiful home and people.

International Travel: How to Pack for Your Personality Type

As we welcome home our team across Southeast Asia, the UK, and the US from annual inspections and travel conferences, we reflect on the things we’ve learned, the experiences we’ve had, the new friends we’ve made, and ponder one of the most disputed travel musings to have ever been pondered…how should one prepare and pack for an intercontinental journey?

We’ve concluded that there is no one-size-fits all method because all people have different priorities while traveling. However, we asked some of our team how they packed this year, and provided below are a few examples of packing by personality type. Follow the links for full packing details.

The ‘Strategic Last-Minute’ Packer

Anna – JWGO Business Development Director and Tour Consultant, UK Office

Anna.Photo

The ‘Packs for Options’ Packer

April – VP of Sales, California Office

April.Photo

The ‘Turns Packing into an Experience’ Packer

Nicole – Regional Director of Operations – Laos, Thailand, and Myanmar, Bangkok Office

Nicole.Photo

The ‘Organized Minimalist’ Packer

Naida – JWGO Tours Manager and Tour Consultant, Siem Reap Office

Naida.Photo

The ‘Overthinks Everything and Packs Two Weeks in Advance’ Packer

Kena – Marketing and Booking Coordinator, California Office

Kena.Photo

How do you prepare for travel? What are the items you can’t live without while traveling? Share your tips in the comments or share this post with your travel tips to your social media platform of choice with the hashtag #JourneysWithin. Follow us for more information about travel in Southeast Asia on Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, or Instagram.  

On Tour with Journeys Within: Bangkok, Chiang Mai, and Chiang Rai, Thailand

Some of the Journeys Within Team (from left to right) Sone, Nicole, Ounkham, Onkeo, and Naida
Some of the Journeys Within Team (from left to right) Sone, Nicole, Ounkham, Onkeo, and Naida

Over the next several weeks, some of the Journeys Within team is on our annual inspection tours throughout some of our Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia tour locations. This is an exciting time of the year for us to visit the countries we love and return home from our journeys revived with inspiration for travel, and with new stories to tell our followers.

I am Marketing and Booking Coordinator, Kena Cataneso, for our Truckee, California location. I will be blogging on behalf of Journeys Within this spring as I make my way through Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, Luang Prabang, Phonesavanh, Vientiane, Pakse, and Siem Reap.

Kena Cataneso at the Grand Palace in Bangkok
Kena Cataneso at the Grand Palace in Bangkok

Follow my journey for updates and travel tips on some of our key locations and tours throughout the months of April and May, and get inspired for your own next adventure.

The first three days – An Introduction to Thailand: Bangkok, Chiang Mai, and Chiang Rai

For travelers who seek to acquaint themselves with highlights of Thailand, these Journeys Within tours are ideal:

Day 1: Bangkok: Public Transport City Tour with Klongs 

Day 2: Chiang Mai: Elephant Daycare at Patara Elephant Farm

Day 3: In and Around Chiang Rai

These tours are customizable to the guest’s preferences and schedules, though Journeys Within can make recommendations on the best timing to schedule certain tours and activities to beat crowds and the sun on hot days.

A view from one of Bangkok's many canals.
A view from one of Bangkok’s many canals.

Bangkok: Public Transport City Tour with Klongs

Guests who arrive in Bangkok via international flight late in the evening prior to this tour have the option to be picked up at the airport by van with a Journeys Within guide. This is a favorable option as guests will typically experience fatigue, jet lag, and if you’re at all like me, disorientation and irritability after a day of flying with potential connections and delays.

I arrived in Bangkok an hour late, around midnight, due to a delay with my connecting flight in Korea. The process to go through immigration and to pick up my baggage took about one more hour, putting me at nearly 1 am. At that point, I would not want to navigate my own way to my hotel. Bangkok is large and taxis are expensive, and public transportation does not run 24 hours a day.

Guests can choose to arrange their own transportation or use a taxi from the airport to their hotel, but it’s worth speaking with a Journeys Within Tour Consultant to discuss their priorities, options, and budget. Our Journeys Within Tour Consultants are transparent with our guests about practicality with logistics.

I was thrilled to be met outside the baggage claim by my guide. He took my bags, and walked me to my air conditioned van where I was provided ice cold water and a fresh, cold towel.

Kena, from the US Journeys Within office and Guide Ron, from the Bangkok office.
Kena, from the US Journeys Within office and Guide Ron, from the Bangkok office.

This time in Bangkok I inspected VIE Hotel, which is located a half hour from the airport. I was pleased to stay with VIE Hotel on my introduction night to Thailand. VIE is a large, modern hotel situated in the heart of Bangkok.

I haven’t traveled since last year, and frankly, it was a huge comfort to stay on my introduction night in an immaculate hotel with all the luxuries I would expect from a high-end hotel in the US. An insider tip to VIE – they automatically upgrade all guests to nicer rooms if they are available. I was upgraded to a suite.

The rooms are appointed with dark wood and the high ceilings provide a feeling of grandeur. Once I arrived at my room I promptly charged my electronics, which require no adapters for the power outlets, as they are compatible with standard US power cords. The restroom was equipped with a rain shower and fresh white bath robes.

I awoke the next morning reborn and ready to tour the city, especially after the complimentary international breakfast buffet, which is a veritable feast of international options.

Why public transport for the tour? The answer is simple; public transport in Bangkok is incredibly accessible, efficient, and inexpensive. The option of private transport by van may offer some guests a feeling of privacy and independence, however, traffic in Bangkok is heavy and guests using private transport will find themselves often sitting in traffic and with considerably less available time on their itinerary to tour.

I was met in the lobby by my guide and we were only a few minutes walk to the Skytrain, which is immaculately clean and air-conditioned, and then we took a short boat ride to The Grand Palace.

An exhibit of the Royal Family's history at The Grand Palace in Bangkok.
An exhibit of the Royal Family’s history at The Grand Palace in Bangkok.

The Palace is, by every meaning of the word, grand, with what seem like miles of murals that depict an epic Indian poem, multiple Temples highly ornamented with gold leaf and glass mosaic, a miniature construction of Angkor Wat, many Buddha statues, a weapon museum, and gift shop. Another insider tip – visitors may stand in line at the box office to buy tickets for entry, or there men and women sitting at the gates near the entrance who also sell tickets.

I asked my guide if they have ever been known to sell fake tickets, but he said no. I enjoy having  guides whenever I visit historical landmarks, as I prefer to have a historical and religious context of the places I visit. My guide gave me information about every building and temple we saw at The Grand palace, and information about the Royal Family and how the buildings were influenced over the years.

An exerpt from the extensive mural at Bangkok's Grand Palace.
An exerpt from the extensive mural at Bangkok’s Grand Palace.

My guide took me to a massage parlor once we finished our tour of the The Grand Palace, which was heavenly after my long flight the day prior. The rest of the day was spent strolling the nearby flower and produce markets, we had a delicious lunch at a local restaurant, and concluded the day with the klong tour. Klongs are the canals that run throughout Bangkok. My guide told me that Bangkok is sometimes referred to as the “Venice of Thailand”.

What to Wear for this Tour: 

Sunscreen

Insect repellant

Hat or umbrella (seriously, the sun is very hot)

Loose fitting, breathable clothing, i.e. cottons, linens, long skirts and pants, and shirts that cover the shoulders

Sandals or walking shoes

Chiang Mai: Elephant Daycare at Patara Elephant Farm 

My departure time from my hotel was at 6:30am. My guide met me in the lobby of VIE Hotel and rode with me in the van back to the airport so I could make my transfer from Bangkok to Chiang Mai. My bag was overweight and I opted to pay the charge rather than fuss with having to carry something more. Insider tip: If traveling to Thailand via Bangkok Airways, go to www.bangkokair.com, register for Premier or Priority Flyer Bonus, and get 10-20 additional kilograms added to your standard luggage weight limit. Other airlines will have similar options.

The flight from Bangkok to Chiang Mai is one hour and a half, then a couple hour’s car ride. Once again, I was met by my Chiang Mai guide and given ice cold water and cold towels.

Chiang Mai is quaint, the original city measuring only roughly one square mile. My hotel, the Rachamankha, is located within the boundaries of the original city. This place is so incredibly unique, I could do an entire blog on the hotel alone. The Rachamankha, designed by a renowned architect father and interior designer son, has received numerous accolades and press for its design. The accommodation is the essence of Zen with ornate roof lines, the rooms centered around courtyards with beautifully manicured landscaping, rock walkways, and the entire property is decorated in the family’s own personal art collection. To stay here feels as if to be a privileged guest at an acquaintance’s extraordinary property. In the evening, spiral sticks of incense burn and subtly fill the space with fragrance.

Rachamankha in Chiang Mai, Thailand
Rachamankha in Chiang Mai, Thailand

I met with the General Manager, Paul Walker, who has been managing the property for over a decade and is an utter wealth of information about the hotel and Chiang Mai. We spoke over tea, which was served out of gorgeous blue and white china. Every detail of Rachamankha is the well thought out construct of taste and imagination. Walker explained to me that the design at Rachamankha comes first over pragmatism. This is not a property that was designed under the constraints of compliance for accessibility or safety regulation. In fact, here’s another insider tip: this hotel welcomes guests age 12 and older. This is for a few purposes, one being the potential for slips and falls of smaller children; the art collection that decorates the guest rooms and common areas is priceless and must receive the necessary respect of all guests; most guest rooms (with an exception of the suites) face one another in a courtyard, so noise from small children could disturb the zenful state that this property has worked so hard to achieve.

Walker showed me the property in its entirety, which also includes a pool, a library with a collection of the owner’s books, a restaurant, and a studio upstairs from the restaurant which may be used for small meetings. Walker said small yoga groups have visited and held classes in the studio on occasion. Insider tip: there is complimentary cogniac for guests in the library. 

The library at Rachamankha.
The library at Rachamankha.

The hotel has been a Chiang Mai favorite of celebrities, such as Angelina Jolie, according to Walker. He says that they receive repeat guests every year from all over the world, and that Rachamankha is a true home away from home for people who have come to know and love Chiang Mai. Insider tip: there is free live music from local artists almost every night in the courtyard at Rachamankha.

The months in late spring and early summer are considered “low season”, primarily because many tourists would rather not travel in the hotter months. I’d recommend travel in Thailand in April to anyone. It is hot and humid but worth experiencing the benefits of low season, like less crowding and more privacy at accommodations. For example, I went for a lovely night swim at Rachamankha and had the pool entirely to myself.

I could have spoken with Walker all afternoon about the property’s design theory and Chiang Mai’s architectural history, but I had to stay on tour schedule and visit Patara Elephant Farm.

Patara Elephant Farm
Patara Elephant Farm

Patara is located 45 minutes outside of Chiang Mai. Journeys Within can coordinate transport for guests from their hotel in Chiang Mai to Patara. Once at Patara, guests are provided fruit, juice, and all the water they desire. I did a half-day at the farm due to my schedule, but whole day visits are also available. We first got to observe the elephants and play with a baby elephant. Then we fed the elephants, learned about the elephants, their names and commands, and bathed them. The elephants are gentile and the staff of Patara very attentive. The elephants are humanely cared for, an objective that Journeys Within prides itself. Our brand is cognizant of the humane treatment of animals on all of the tours we book. Insider tip: The staff takes photos and GoPro video which they provide on a complimentary DVD at the end of the day. 

Kena at Patara Elephant Farm.
Kena at Patara Elephant Farm.

What to Wear for this Tour:

Lots of sunscreen

Lots of insect repellant

Hat

A swimsuit as a first layer, do not intend to bathe the elephants in a swimsuit alone. Thai people are modest, so visitors should dress accordingly.

Swim trunks, board shorts, tanks tops, quick-dry shirts

Sandals

Waterproof camera or camera in a waterproof case

In and Around Chiang Rai

My departure from my hotel was at 7:00am. I was met at my hotel by my guide and the drive was a few hours throughout the countryside, stopping first at natural hot springs, where visitors may dip their feet if they like, and do a little shopping and barganing. Then we stopped at The White Temple, or Wat Ong Khun, which was built in 1997 by a man renowned as the greatest artist in Thailand, Chalermchai Kositpipat, who designed and funded the project. He volunteered himself to build it, at the cost of 400 million Bhat. Insider tip: admission to the temple is currently free of charge until October 2016. 

The White Temple in Chiang Rai.
The White Temple in Chiang Rai.

My guide told me the history of the temple and its artist, and explained details of Buddhist beliefs and how those beliefs are reflected in art. The exterior of the temple is ornate and stunning, regardless that it is only one color. There is also a museum located on the temple grounds that contains artwork by Kositpipat. The inside of the temple as well as the paintings in the museum include some unexpected depictions which are both commentary and satire on American politics. These provide an interesting Thai perspective on the Bush Administration, 9/11, terrorism, and American pop-culture. Also located on the temple grounds is “The Golden Toilet”, an ornate golden temple-like building that houses a restroom, which visitors readily wait in line to use. Insider tip: there is another restroom down the walkway behind The Golden Toilet and to the left, which is very clean and there is no line.  

Throughout the rest of the tour day, we visited the villages of the Akhe tribe and the Mien tribe, stopped for an authentic local lunch, and then visited a street market just outside the border of Thailand and Myanmar. To finish off the day, we visited “The Golden Triangle”, renowned for centuries as the epicenter of the opium trade. This location offers a hilltop view of the Mekong River, with a temple situated at the top that is 1000 years old. We also visited the nearby Opium Museum, which provides a history of the opium trade, as well as information about local tribes.

The Opium Museum, located at the Golden Triangle.
The Opium Museum, located at the Golden Triangle.

There are many stops throughout this tour day and a lot of walking. As usual, I returned to an air conditioned van, ice cold water and cold towels. I stayed at Laluna Hotel & Resort, which I was relieved to find to be like an oasis away from the city after a long day of touring. Laluna’s guest rooms are centered around a large pool, and while it feels like a retreat it is a short taxi or tuktuk away from city life. Insider tip: taxis are available right outside the hotel. 

What to Wear for this Tour:

Lots of sunscreen

Insect repellant

Hat or umbrella

Loose fitting, breathable clothing, i.e. cottons, linens, long skirts and pants, and shirts that cover the shoulders

Sandals or walking shoes

Next up in this series of blogs, I will journey from Thailand to Laos via riverboat on the Mekong. I will spend 12 days touring throughout Luang Prabang, Phonesavanh, Vientiane, and Paske. See more photos of this journey on our Instagram account: https://www.instagram.com/journeys_within/. I will post blogs weekly and photos depending on the strength of my hotel Wi-Fi connections, so stay tuned to get an insider account of some of our tours!