May 12, 2009
Adventurous Singaporeans who dig around for vacation sweet spots in nearby countries will unearth rustic gems
By cheryl tan
Familiarity with Singapore's closest neighbours should not breed boredom in travellers who think they have seen all there is to see in South-east Asia. Sometimes, gems lie right under the noses of those who bother to dig around and turn over a few stones.
So forget tourist-trap holidays to the usual cities and hot spots, step away however slightly from the proverbial beaten path.
There is no need to go far or bust your travel budget, either.
For about $4,000 - which will cover three nights' accommodation, return air tickets and taxes - a family of four can have a beautiful beach holiday in Vietnam or enjoy an authentic homestay adventure amid tribal folk in Cambodia.
Sure, accommodation might be less posh and transport a little bumpier but at least your children, if you take them along, will have unique stories to share in class after their June break.
In the first of a three-part Rediscovering South-east Asia series, Life! sniffs out hidden treasures in the former French Indochina countries of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. The cost indicated includes air fare and three nights' stay.
Perfect for beach bums
Nha Trang, Vietnam
Forget budget-busting trips to the Maldives.
For a taste of beach paradise, there is always Nha Trang. Bordered by mountains and soft golden beaches with turquoise waters, the city along the south-central coast of Vietnam offers absolute bliss for beach lovers such as sales and marketing executive Karen Tan, 37, who spent six days there in March.
She says: 'It was really a rest-and-relax beach holiday.'
Laze about and get a tan at Tran Phu Beach, where sun beds are available for rent at 10,000 dong (85 cents) a day.
But not every visitor in Nha Trang is content to worship the sun in leisure. Water sports such as snorkelling and scuba diving are a huge draw, too.
There are about 71 offshore islands which offer some 25 dive sites. A diving expedition starts from US$25 (S$36) per person, including equipment and lunch.
Not a qualified diver? No matter. Certified open- water diving courses are also available for US$400, including equipment rental.
Avoid going between October and December when the waters get pretty choppy during the monsoon season.
To soothe weary muscles, pop into the Thap Ba hot springs centre, where you can dip in a tub of therapeutic thermal mud or slosh around in a mineral bath. Prices start from US$170 for a twin-share room and the use of spa facilities.
Nature lovers, take a two-hour drive north to Van Phong Bay and hop on a boat to Nha Trang Whale Island to watch whales and whale sharks.
The sea creatures come to the archipelago to feed between April and July.
Food in Nha Trang was a highlight for Ms Tan, who says: 'The seafood was cheap and fresh.' Beachfront restaurants serve freshly caught seafood with prices starting from US$10 for lobsters and crabs.
Take a Singapore Airlines flight (about 1 hour and 45 minutes) to Ho Chi Minh City ($454), followed by a 45-minute connecting Vietnam Airlines flight to Nha Trang ($484).
Where to stay
Hon Tam Resort Nha Trang (from US$50 for a double room) in Nha Trang City offers rooms with air- conditioning. Seaview Hotel Nha Trang (from US$25) offers views of the nearby beach, air-conditioned rooms and private bathrooms.
Cost: About $1,049 per person
Mekong Delta, Vietnam
Why escape from Singapore's urban craziness only to plunge into the hustle-bustle of Ho Chi Minh City, which is filled with whizzing motorcycles? Go to the more tranquil Mekong Delta instead.
Get a taste of local life and Vietnamese homecooked food with a homestay holiday along the famous river in the province of Can Tho.
'The air is fresh and it is peaceful and quiet compared to Ho Chi Minh City,' says Vietnamese writer Nhu Binh, 25, who makes occasional trips to Can Tho to visit her friends.
While in this rural paradise, drop by a bee farm to sample and buy honey and honey wine. Learn how the famous Vietnamese rice noodles, pho, is made. And embark on a boat tour along the river to visit the Cai Rang and Phong Dien floating markets, where locals hawk fruits, food and flowers from their boats.
Take a Singapore Airlines flight to Ho Chi Minh City, followed by a five- hour drive by car or bus south-west to Can Tho province.
Where to stay
Vietnamese homestay along the Mekong River
Cost: About $641 per person. Log on to Vietnam tripadvisor.com for the Mekong Delta two-day homestay package. It includes a land tour worth US$129 per person, transport from your Ho Chi Minh City hotel to Can Tho, a guide and entrance fees to attractions.
Feel the tribal heartbeat
Go further out and stay among the traditional hill tribes who live in the remote villages of Sapa (right), located 380km north-west of Hanoi. Getting there takes more than a day by train or bus.
Take along proper trekking shoes to embark on a whole host of hiking trails in the area, which will lead you to villagers such as the Black H'mong tribe. They live at high altitudes, grow their own rice and rear animals.
This tribe is one of the biggest minority groups in the area and can be identified by their traditional indigo-coloured clothing.
Overnight stays with dinner at the villages can also be arranged.
'It is kampung style. We bathed with cold river water and slept on mattresses covered by mosquito nets,' says Ms Nicole Ho, 34, who ventured to Sapa with five friends in March.
Take a 21/2-hour Singapore Airlines flight to Hanoi ($466), transfer to a nine-hour overnight train to Sapa ($95).
Where to stay
Holiday View hotel (from $65) or Sapa Goldsea Hotel (from US$26).
Cost: About $1,116 per person (includes land tour and three-night stay at hill tribe village worth $650 per person). For bookings, call Universal Travel on 6535-6004.
Water world wonders
Koh Kong, Cambodia
In Cambodia, the majestic Angkor Wat gets the lion's share of attention from tourists, so much so that the country's beautiful rainforests remain largely unexplored.
The coastal province of Koh Kong, along the south-west border of Cambodia and Thailand, is home to the Cardamom Mountains.
Says Ms Janet Newman, who owns the eco-themed Rainbow Lodge in Koh Kong province: 'It is the perfect place for jungle trekking and overnight camping.'
The 41-year-old Briton set up her lodge last year after falling in love with the area. The lodge has seven bungalows with balconies overlooking the Kep River.
There is more nature to enjoy when you take a speedboat from Krong Koh Kong town to visit the Koh Por waterfall and Tatai river and waterfall.
The Peam Krasaop Wildlife Sanctuary comprises 260 sq km of mangroves, which is more than one-third the size of Singapore. Here you will find a 1km-long mangrove walk with a 15m-high observation tower where you can catch lovely panoramic views.
Also, do not miss the dolphin tours to catch a glimpse of these endangered Irrawaddy marine mammals, which are known to swim near the coast. As a bonus, watch fireflies twinkle after sunset.
Take a two-hour SilkAir flight from Singapore to Phnom Penh ($450), followed by a 51/2-hour drive by car or minivan to Koh Kong (US$12 or S$17.50).
Where to stay
The Rainbow Lodge (from US$50) which offers bungalows with fans, mosquito nets and en suite bathrooms with shower and flushing toilet.
Oasis Bungalow Resort (from US$20) has panoramic views of the surrounding coconut plantations and Cardamom mountain range. Bungalows are fitted with a basic double bed, shower and flushing toilet.
Cost: About $554 per person
This quaint riverside city, known for its French colonial architecture and friendly people, is fast becoming the next tourist hot spot. For a ride to remember, take the bamboo train, an open-air transport made of bamboo planks and fitted with a simple motor.
Called a norry, the bamboo train runs on actual train tracks and is the most popular and convenient mode of transport in the region.
There is one drawback to riding on the norry: You have to be ready to hop off quickly when you hear a train approaching from the opposite direction - on the same track.
Similar to the Angkor Wat in Siem Reap but far less popular is the Prasat Banan temple, which has five towers. Its hillside location makes it a great place to take in the bucolic splendour of the surrounding countryside.
Local guide and taxi driver Suong Sambath, 39, says: 'There are not many tourists here, so it is great for those who want to get away from the capital.'
He also suggests a visit to Phnom Sampheu hill as it gives travellers a quick history lesson on the Khmer Rouge atrocities.
If gruesome history is not your thing, maybe gastronomy will suit you better. Sign up for Khmer cooking classes at the Ch'neainh Ch'neainh cooking school (US$10 or S$14.50 per person), which includes a trip to the local market to buy your own ingredients.
Of course, you will need to know what authentic Khmer food tastes like. Do your research at local restaurants, whose menus start from US$4 for a plate of fried rice or noodles.
Take a two-hour SilkAir flight from Singapore to Phnom Penh ($450), followed by a five-hour bus trip to Battambang (US$4).
Where to stay
Golden Palace Hotel Palace in Battambang (from US$28.50) is a city budget hotel that offers simple but comfortable facilities. Le Relais De Chhlong Hotel on Mekong Chhlong is slightly upmarket, with rooms from US$74.10. It has air- conditioned rooms and satellite television.
Cost: About $579 per person
Head for limestone hills, caves
Vang Vieng, Laos
Most travellers to Laos will do the usual rounds of temples, shrines and Buddha statues.
Why not sojourn to the countryside near the quiet Vang Vieng town in the north-west Vientiane province? It is filled with limestone hills and caves and waterfalls that you can explore with a trekking day tour.
'The nature here is beautiful and untouched. Vang Vieng is known for its great outdoor activities,' says 29- year-old Thavonsouk Resorts general manager Aluna Thavonsouk.
For an adrenaline rush, go water rafting, kayaking and tubing (where you sit on an inner tube of a rubber tyre) at Kaeng Yui waterfall.
Take a 41/2-hour Thai Airways flight from Singapore to Vientiane via Bangkok ($775), followed by a three-hour bus journey from Vientiane to Vang Vieng (US$14 or S$20.50).
Where to stay
Thavonsouk Resort (from US$30) offers views of surrounding cliffs and forests from balconies. Rooms are air-conditioned with private baths.
The quaint Ban Sabai Bungalows (from US$30), which face Nam Song River, are built on stilts.
Cost: About $924 per person