How An Ancient Capital In Northern Laos Became Southeast Asia’s Sundance …

Despite the absence of a movie theatre, Luang Prabang is about to host its sixth annual film festival, coinciding with an array of cultural celebrations for an altogether extraordinary five days in this UNESCO World Heritage town.

From December 5 – 9, the Luang Prabang Film Festival (LPFF) will be taking place as part of a celebration of local arts and culture. Daytime screenings will take place in the Sofitel Hotel in its Kaipen Room, a refurbished century-old traditional Lao wooden house on the hotel grounds. In addition to more than 20 feature film screenings, this five-day event will present three major public discussions, multiple short films, and a collection of 21 videos and three animated films featuring ethnic minority women in Laos telling traditional folktales, and the festival’s new ‘Spotlight’ programme, which will devote a full day to Cambodian films – including “The Last Reel,” Cambodia’s submission to next year’s Academy Awards.

The films were selected by filmmakers and critics from across Southeast Asia and represent a carefully chosen collection of what they believe to be the finest contemporary films from their respective countries. At the same time, the LPFF has evolved to become an invaluable forum for regional film professionals to network internationally and exchange their diverse ideas and experiences. This year’s festival coincides with the celebrations of the 20th anniversary of Luang Prabang’s designation as a UNESCO World Heritage site, and the week marks the arrival of the eagerly awaited Elephant Caravan, a convoy of 20 elephants marching to bring attention to the plight of elephants in Laos and throughout Asia. All screenings and activities at the festival are free and open to the public.

Cambodia Tourist Visa Fees increase to $30

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation of Cambodia announced late last week changes to visa fees beginning 1 October 2014, with the new price of a Tourist Visa increasing to $30 USD. As in the past, this visa may still be obtained upon your arrival at the airport in either Siem Reap or Phnom Penh.

State of Emergency lifted in Bangkok

As the situation in Bangkok has vastly improved and continues to remain calm and generally peaceful, the caretaker government have announced today to end the State of Emergency in Bangkok and the vicinities and will be downgraded to the Internal Security Act (ISA) from Wednesday 19 March. The ISA is still needed to maintain law and order during the senate election on 30 March and the reruns of the general election, expected in April.

The removal of the state of emergency reflects on the overall situation within the capitol and the surrounding provinces which is one of calm and normalcy as Bangkok now functions at a normal level and people go about their daily routines as normal and with no hindrance.

While the above information is good news and a step in the right direction, we must still be cautious due to the fact that two protest sites still remain active: Lumpini (Silom) and Pan Fah Bridge. We expect that these protest sites will remain peaceful, but again we strongly advise that visitors should still avoid any areas of demonstrations, especially in the evening, as sporadic incidents and out breaks of violence may occur without warning.

All areas outside Bangkok and other tourist destinations within Thailand such as Phuket, Samui, Hua Hin, Pattaya and Chiang Mai remain fully operational and are not overly affected by the demonstrations. We also wish to make clear that these out-of-Bangkok destinations fall outside the jurisdiction of this State of Emergency.

Global recognition for Indonesia

The Derawan Islands in the province of East Kalimantan have made the National Geographic Traveler’s “Annual Best of the World” list for 2014.

The list features 20 global destinations and “reflect what’s authentic, culturally rich, sustainable and superlative in the world of travel today”. This year, for the first time ever, National Geographic invited well-traveled online readers to participate in creating the “Best Trips” list. The participants were asked – via social media – to nominate one place using the same criteria; sustainability, culturally minded, authentic, superlative, and timely.

Considered one of the best dive destinations in the world, the Derawan Archipelago comprises 31 islands and a marine territory that is home to an abundance of sea life including rare and endangered giant green and hawksbill turtles. Marine experts have identified over 870 species of fish at the location ranging from tiny pygmy seahorses to giant manta rays and four unique species of stingless jellyfish which swim upside down.

Witness the surreal Vegetarian Festival in Phuket, Thailand

At the Vegetarian Festival in Phuket, you can see traditions of the past come alive as the Chinese gods (Giu Ong) descend from the heavens to reside on the island for nine days in October. (Oct 4 – 13).

The festival is a time for spiritual and physical cleansing, paying respect to ancestors and receiving blessings, and is the year’s most significant cultural event in Phuket and a fabulous display of religion, culture, food and people.

During the festival one can rise early in the morning to watch the ceremonies and rang song (literally ‘body of the spirit’) at work. The mediums will go in to a trance and later the rite of self-flagellation will begin. This is not something for the faint of heart as sharp objects and needles are inserted into devotees’ faces and even their tongues. While they are possessed by the spirits they claim not to feel any pain. Other forms of flagellation include being hit with cloths soaked in hot oil and walking on fire. Loud noises from firecrackers and magical elements of the mystical, human, and religious, all blend into one surreal street parade. This is one festival will even hold well-seasoned travellers in awe.

Now that’s a trip!!!

For intrepid travellers the world over, and those that like to keep a running total of the countries that have visited around the world, here is a treat…

Graham Hughes, a self-described “adventurer, filmmaker, travel blogger and TV presenter from Liverpool,” spent 36 months travelling to all 201 countries in the world and has distilled it all into four minutes, with a ‘shout out’ to each country every second. Check out the video below…

His journey set a record for Guinness World Records for visiting “every sovereign state on Planet Earth without flying.” Taking a look at his video you will see that while his red hair grows longer and gets shorn along the way, his battered travel hat never changes. For more details on his adventures, take a look at his website…

Bhutan Awaits…

Excitedly preparing for this evening’s departure to Bhutan, a country that has long sat near the top of my own personal ‘wish list’.

While in Bhutan, in addition to of course checking out a variety of accommodations, activities and excursions that might be suitable for future clients, I am also very much looking forward to what must be one of the world’s best day-hikes – the trip to the Tiger’s Nest temple complex. This temple, located on the cliffside of the upper Paro valley was originally built over 420 years ago and the hike up to the temple promises to be one of the highlights of my trip.

I also expect to hear a lot of laughter across Bhutan, a country that is deeply at ease with itself, and where the former king famously declared that he was more concerned with his people’s Gross National Happiness than GNP.

This is a country where class has been abolished, where the female line inherits and where 30 per cent of the population enters a monastery. The king was part of the dynasty that began in 1907, and the country’s stability over the following hundred years suggests that the dynasty did a very good job. But recently change has come as the country has peacefully moved on to a constitutional monarchy that incorporates free elections, so that the future of Bhutan is really now in the hands of the people themselves. Since then, this remote Himalayan kingdom has been becoming more open to the influences of the outside world, while at the same time trying to protect their own special culture and traditions from those very same forces.

It is an exciting time to be in Bhutan, and I am looking forward to a wonderful adventure! I will try to provide lots of news and impressions once I’ve returned, or with updates along the way if time permits.


UN has declared March 20th as the International Day of Happiness

Bhutan has led the way in having the United Nations declare that March 20 each year will be the International Day of Happiness – and it wants everyone to join in the fun.

The UN General Assembly passed a resolution proclaiming the new commemoration that adds to an already packed UN calendar of international days – from world poetry day to world migratory bird day. “The pursuit of happiness is a fundamental human goal,” said the resolution, which was passed by consensus in the 193-member assembly.

The resolution calls on all member states “to observer the International Day of Happiness in an appropriate manner, including through education and public awareness activities.”

Securing happiness day was part of a diplomatic campaign by the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan which already has its own gross national happiness index. Many governments now say that new elements, including happiness, must be included in ways of measuring prosperity which are now dominated by economic indicators.

Burmese Refugees – An uncertain Future…

With the ongoing political reforms that have been taking place in Myanmar over the past 18 months, tourism is now booming, and the lives of many Burmese citizens is slowly starting to improve.

However, not to be forgotten are the tens of thousands of refugees, most living in refugee camps, some for many, many years, along the Thai-Burmese border. Please check out the link below to see an interesting and controversial documentary recently made that examines the plight of these refugees, and the ongoing issue of their potential repatriation.

Nothing About Us Without Us: