Faine Greenwood, Ellie Dyer and Mark Bibby Jackson get off the beaten track in Asia and find adventures worth their weight in gold. Illustrated by Kate Burbidge.

 

Off the beaten track in Asia AsiaLIFE Cambodia reportsWriter Faine Greenwood heads to the island of Flores, Indonesia, to explore a land of volcanic lakes, cloud forests, ancient ‘hobbits’ and even the odd dragon.

If you’ve heard of Flores before, it’s likely due to the 2003 discovery of the remains of homo floresiensis. The tiny humans, whimsically dubbed ‘hobbits’, are now thought by some scientists to belong to a separate species of man that may have existed as recently as 12,000 years ago.

Add to that a remnant population of Komodo dragons, well-preserved forests lush with tree ferns, tribal settlements and rainbow-coloured crater lakes, and you’ve got a vacation destination that brings the theme from Jurassic Park to mind.

My first stop in Flores was Labuan Bajo, the most popular tourist town on this 5,228-square-mile island. That’s not to say it’s crowded. In April, the main street and a smattering of surprisingly good restaurants and dive shops were almost deserted, although I was still able to pick up a carving of a Komodo dragon.

The souvenir was appropriate as I was off to Rinca Island, part of the Komodo National Park, renowned as one of the finest diving spots on the planet and the home of the infamous monitor lizards. I booked myself on a boat, and off we went.

After a morning snorkel, we stopped at the rather Jurassic Park-esque gate to the island, where we hired a guide to take us on an hour-long jaunt. We saw dragons almost immediately, sleeping in a deceptively peaceful fashion underneath the park headquarters, where attacks happen on a disarmingly regular basis.

Our guide, armed with only a forked stick, soon led us past the HQ and into the forest, where we spotted birds building mounds and, all of a sudden, a Komodo — emerging from the bushes onto the trail, and then coming towards us. The prehistoric-looking, carnivorous reptiles can reach three metres in length and weigh as much as 300 pounds. Although attacks on tourists are rare, bites do happen.

“Back up, back up!” the guide said, sounding worried. We did, and the beast evaporated back into the bushes. Want a bit of primordial terror on your vacation? You’ve got it.

From Labuan Bajo, I moved into the lush and mountainous centre of Flores, where I planned to visit Wae Rebo village. The Manggarai tribe traditionally built conical grass and bamboo houses, which are labour-intensive but well suited for their damp and high-up home.

Off the beaten track in Asia AsiaLIFE Cambodia reportsAlmost all the Manggarai have given up such mbaru niang, or drum houses, but Wae Rebo residents have held on and recently renovated four homes with the assistance of the Indonesian government and architects.

The trek to Wae Rebo — beginning at Denge, a seven-hour drive from Labuan Bajo — is an uphill six kilometres, and should take about three to three and a half hours, depending on your level of fitness. I budgeted in plenty of stops to take pictures of cloud forest views, check out extravagant butterflies, and look for the occasional monkey.

Once I arrived at the village, my guide and I were escorted to the drum house built for visitors, and treated to a simple lunch and strong coffee. I spent the afternoon wandering the complex. Locals invited me into their houses, showing off the bizarre but practical architecture.

In the evening, some women and children came to sit with us and chat. We fell asleep together on woven grass mats and under a fluffy blanket, and I woke up refreshed. On the walk back, we stopped at a cliff-side resting point and watched the morning mist break over the ocean and the perfectly triangular Mount Inerie, a volcano that rises 2,245 metres above the sea.

Perhaps the most famous attractions on Flores are the Kelimutu crater lakes — three indentations in the earth created by volcanic activity. They regularly change colour, as dictated by their mineral make-up. Most travellers stay in the small community of Moni, about 15 kilometres from the lakes. I decided to opt for the nearby port city of Ende and took a day trip, renting a car for $60. It’s about a two-hour ride and incredibly scenic, passing by tumbling waterfalls, manicured rice paddies and white-water rapids, all looked over by enormous, ancient Banyan trees.

At Kelimutu, I made the 10-minute walk from the empty parking lot to a point overlooking the crater lakes. Though most trips to Kelimutu leave in the very early morning, ensuring that travellers will get a chance to watch the sun rise over the mountains, I got to the lakes at around 9am.I was rewarded with clear weather and bright sun, just avoiding an oncoming cloud bank. The island’s Sikka people say that the turquoise lake is home to the souls of people who died when they were young, while the brown lake houses those of the old and experienced. The black lake is for the souls of evil people.

Inviting as these waters may appear, there’s no good way to get down to the lakes. You’re not advised to make the attempt as hikers have perished in the process in recent years. An occasional whiff of acidic sulphur proves a solid reminder that these lakes were wrought by volcanic activity — one of the few constants in diverse Indonesia.

Labuan Bajo can be reached by plane from Denpasar, Bali. A day trip on a boat taking in Rinca Island will cost around $7. Ende can be reached by flights departing from Denpasar and Labuan Bajo, and also via shuttle bus from major cities.

Off the beaten track in Asia AsiaLIFE Cambodia reportsEllie Dyer ventures to southern Myanmar to discover a beach paradise for local holidaymakers and a coastline almost untouched by development.

As dusk falls over the Bay of Bengal, Chaung Tha comes alive. Thousands of local tourists splash in the shallows, taking time out to loll in rubber rings, ride tandem bicycles or hop on a beachside pony. If they are lucky, they’ll ride one painted like a zebra. This is a beach holiday — Myanmar style.

With democratisation well under way, floods of foreign holidaymakers are entering the previously isolated country. Many fly north to the historic temples of Bagan or experience the serenity of Lake Inle. Yet six hours from Yangon lies another, lesser known, attraction — the pristine sands of the south coast.

Though instability has wracked neighbouring Rakhine state, the Ayeyarwaddy delta still thrives as a draw for well-heeled Yangonites craving a break from the city. From the metropolis, buses journey through rice paddies and head into jungle-clad hills, where vegetation is being razed to plant rubber plantations, before descending onto the main drag of Chaung Tha.

The ochre beach stretches along a curving bay dotted with hotels, restaurants and glinting golden temples balanced on imposing crags of black rock. Families crowd the shoreline under swaying palms, sipping on coconuts and devouring the fresh seafood that the area is known for, before venturing into the sea fully-clothed.

Entertainment is the name of the game at this Myanmar holiday paradise, and a cornucopia of activities — from kite flying to horse rides and banana boating — is on offer. With westerners in short supply and modest clothing de rigueur, bikini-clad visitors may even become part of the show. Gangs of grinning teenagers top off their day by asking for a photograph with foreign tourists, while hawkers pace the beach selling everything from framed lobsters to sea urchins.

Off the beaten track in Asia AsiaLIFE Cambodia reportsDuring Thingyan, Myanmar’s water festival held in April, Chaung Tha is frenetic. At the height of the Buddhist celebration, vacationers splash each other with ice cold buckets of water while downing beers. Fireworks let off by laughing youths light up the sky and Psy’s ‘Gangnam Style’ echoes through the streets, where children set up large stages along the roadside in order to hose down passing traffic.

Despite its frantic pace and Butlins-esque atmosphere, serenity is never far away on this relatively undeveloped coastline. Even at the height of holiday season, a short walk can provide much-needed privacy.

A 15-minute stroll away from Chaung Tha’s main hub lies a wild beach where visitors can find themselves alone, except for the odd horse galloping through gentle waves. A small number of guest houses — including the well priced Hill Garden Hotel (around $35 a night) — populate this quiet area, which recalls the idylls of Thailand before its development boom.

An exhilarating motorbike ride along the coastal track to neighbouring beach Ngwe Saung further emphasises the delta’s pure beauty, which is yet to be overrun by modernity. Small wooden houses cluster in woodlands next to shimmering beaches, deserted save for a single line of fishermen pulling in their nets at low tide and a motorbike speeding down the shore.Wrinkled ferrymen wait beside the large estuaries that punctuate the coast, preparing to punt passengers across the waters for a small fee. Boats are heavily laden with motorbikes and longyi-clad villagers, many wearing swirls of beige thanaka paste on their faces to protect and cool their skin. The drivers expertly navigate the shallows, dodging trees and sand banks that rise from the crystal clear waters.

A bumpy hour and a half later — through three rivers and past a shrimp farm, a dusty track and a small hill top temple — lies Chaung Tha’s up-market sister, Ngwe Saung, where coconut palm parasols dot a 15-kilometre-long white sand beach.

Along with pricey hotels and high-class resorts, its sheer length and breadth ensures that crowds remain thin beside the clear, turquoise waters that echo those of Myanmar’s other famous beachside location, Ngapali, in troubled Rakhine state.

Day trips can be taken to nearby Lover’s Island and while the beach may lack the exuberant nightlife of its neighbour, it’s a good destination to get away from it all, particularly from October to April. In the rainy season, the south coast is battered by storms and business slows down.

Echoing the wild weather, Myanmar’s coast in its current form beautiful. But development is on the way, as shown by the growing number of plantations in the delta. Thanks to ongoing religious and political instability, no one can predict Myanmar’s future, but with beaches to rival those of Thailand and Bali, its solitude can’t last long.

Off the beaten track in Asia AsiaLIFE Cambodia reportsApart from the backpacker nirvana of the 4,000 islands, most bypass southern Laos. They may be missing out on the beauty of less. Words and photos by Mark Bibby Jackson.

The more I travel, the more I come to appreciate the beauty of ‘less’. It is many years now since the Lonely Planet books helped to achieve precisely the opposite, with majestic temples becoming virtual no go zones as tour groups drown out the silence that used to deafen visitors and previously deserted beaches are overrun with tourists seeking a solitude that has long since elapsed. This is why we should value the tranquility we do encounter all the more.

A boat trip along the Mekong river in southern Laos is one such experience. Nothing much has changed here for centuries and it’s unlikely to do so in the near future. Lie on a deck lounger, pick up a paperback and watch the banks drift past, interrupted by occasional settlements and water buffaloes dousing themselves to escape the midday heat.

Our trip started with a two-hour drive from Pakse through some pretty uninspiring countryside. Farmers grow only one rice crop a year and by the end of dry season, everything is scorched. That is not a word to apply to our first port of call.

The Pha Pheng waterfalls are the biggest in Southeast Asia. A kilometre wide in the wet season and 15 metres high, they have been dubbed the ‘Niagara of the East’ in travel literature. Even at the tail-end of the dry season they make an impressive sight.

From here it is a short boat ride to the 4,000 or so islands that nestle in the Mekong’s waters, just north of the Cambodian border.

In colonial times, boats would dock at the small island of Don Det and transfer their loads to the railway that linked it with the main island of Don Khone. Abandoned once the French left the country, the only sign of the line is a locomotive left stranded on the island and now enshrined as one of the archipelago’s main tourist attractions.

It takes some two and a half hours to motor up-river to the Vat Phou Cruises boat that will be our home for the next two nights. Once on board, we slowly chug our way against the current and have ample time to take in the small villages spilling down into waters, groups of buffaloes crowded around sandbanks, and children swimming in the river. It also allows us to settle into the timeless pace of life on the river.

Visiting the village of Deua Tia, we enter a time warp where a primary school, occasional vegetable patches and a solitary pig vie for our attention. Back on the boat, we pull into harbour at the village of Tomo — home of the ancient ruins of Oum Moung that date back to the 9th century.

Off the beaten track in Asia AsiaLIFE Cambodia reportsThose familiar with Hindu sites from India to Vietnam will recognise the hallmarks: piles of laverite that used to be a temple, ornate carvings of divinities etched in sandstone and occasional linga. Wandering back through the protected forests that surround the ruins, you realise that not much, if anything, has changed in the 1,000 or so years since people started to worship gods here. As the sun sets we don our bathers and join the local villagers taking a swim in the Mekong’s cooling waters — the perfect end to a day of doing nothing.

A few kilometres upstream from Oum Moung lies Vat Phou. The historic site dates back to the 5th century, although the structures now standing belong to the Angkor era of the 11th to 13th centuries. It is our final destination and the highlight of the trip.

Passing between the complex’s two reservoirs, or baray, it is easy to see why Vat Phou literally means ‘mountain temple’. The 77 steps up to the main sanctuary prove quite a hike. Like at Angkor, restoration work is being carried out to preserve the temples. Blocks of stone are numbered and reinstated in their former positions. Carvings of Shiva, Vishnu and Apsara dancers abound, but in nothing like the detail or scale of its more famous Khmer cousin.

What Vat Phou does have, and most likely the reason why a sanctuary to Shiva was founded here in the first place, is an eternal spring. Even in this barren terrain, water trickles down from the mountain into a waiting trough for modern day pilgrims to purify themselves.

Human sacrifices are said — though not proven — to have been carried out on a rock shaped like an inverted crocodile. Far above disputed legend, Vat Phou’s main draw is the magnificent view from the temple’s top, something that makes the ascent worthwhile.

Back on the river, we decamp to a smaller boat that is waiting to take us back along the shallow waters to the town of Pakse. We play tag with the next group of travellers who have already climbed aboard. Nothing happens on our final voyage, but that after all is the beauty of southern Laos.

For more information about Vat Phou Cruises, visit www.vatphou.com