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This September we spent the month travelling through Myanmar. We crossed the border in Thailand at Mae Sot and walked with our bags across the Friendship Bridge to Myawaddy in Myanmar.

Crossing the Friendship bridge from Mae Sot to Mayawaddy.

We’d already made our travel arrangements and spent $50 USD on our Myanmar visas before we were really aware of what was going on in the Western state of Rakhine. The night before we were due to travel, we sat in Mae Sot and read the news headlines about the brutal treatment of the Muslim Rohingya minority in Myanmar. The UN were calling it a ‘textbook case of ethnic cleansing’ by the military.

I had visited Myanmar five years ago, spending only one week in Yangon. Back then, there were no land borders open, no ATMs in the country, sim cards could cost up to $7,000 USD and the WIFI was atrocious.

During our recent trip to Thailand, backpackers were repeatedly telling us that Myanmar was their favourite country to travel in Southeast Asia. I was eager to see how much the country had changed since its first democratic elections in 2015.to

After so much hope for the country after the election of National League for Democracy’s leader, Aung San Su Kyi, it pained me to see such atrocities taking place. And, even though the government continues to this day to deny it, as hundreds upon thousands of people fled across the border to Bangladesh, each with a horrific story to tell, the evidence for what is happening is plain to see.

Would we cancel our plans to travel to Myanmar?

We decided to go ahead with our plans, yet feelings of guilt would not let me sleep easily during our whole time in the country.

Should we be boycotting travel to Myanmar? Is our presence in the country a symbol that we condone the ethnic cleansing? By travelling in Myanmar, are we financially contributing to the military power that are carrying out killings, rapes and other deplorable acts of violence that we’ve read about?

We debated these questions (in hushed voices) with several other travellers that we met along the way who found themselves in a similar moral dilemma.

Two doctors from Germany had recently been working with an NGO in Bangladesh, had visited Cox’s Bazaar and had seen with their own eyes thousands of displaced Rohingya people living on the border of the two countries in squalor. Like us, they felt uneasy about travelling in Myanmar and had only decided to go ahead with their trip as it had been planned and paid for months in advance.

Another female doctor from the UK, who we met in Kalaw, was appalled at what she was reading in the news and felt totally helpless at being denied access to the area of the country where people most desperately needed help. She was about to return to Thailand where she would be working at Myanmar refugee camps in Mae Sot.

Should we have cancelled our plans to Myanmar?

The case for boycotting Myanmar: Your financial contribution

When you travel to a country with a bad human rights record, no matter how hard you try to spend in the local economy, inevitably your money will end up lining the pockets of government officials. The 25,000 Kyat (approx. $20 USD) entry fee that we paid to visit the temples of Bagan, the $10 USD entrance fee to visit the Inle Lake zone and of course the $50 USD visa fee that we spent before even arriving in the country. If you want to make sure that not one dollar of your money goes towards such evil, then better stay away altogether.

25,000 Kyat entry fee to visit the temples of Bagan.

Moral support

Then there’s the symbolic gesture you’re making. Does your presence somehow suggest that you condone what is happening in the country in which you are travelling? If you feel that it does, again, better cancel your trip.

Aung San Su Kyi, former heroine turned villain, famously told people to boycott Myanmar in 1999.

“I still think that people should not come to Burma because the bulk of the money from tourism goes straight into the pockets of the generals. And not only that, it’s a form of moral support for them because it makes the military authorities think that the international community is not opposed to the human rights violations which they are committing all the time. They seem to look on the influx of tourists as proof that their actions are accepted by the world.”

A poster of Aung San Su Kyi in a shop window in Mae Sot six years ago.

Back then, all hotels were government owned, so this statement held much more weight. Now, however, it is possible to travel in the country and benefit local people by avoiding government-run businesses as much as possible, choosing small guesthouses and eateries, and putting money directly into the hands of local people.

On the second point of Aung San Su Kyi’s statement, whether your presence is a form of moral support for the government, well that’s something that you’ll have to decide for yourself.

The case against boycotting Myanmar:

After thinking long and hard about whether the boycotting of a country really does make any kind of positive difference, I came back to the following points:

Damage to local businesses

First of all, during our time in Myanmar, we stayed at many local guesthouses, ate at small family-run restaurants and bought goods from local ‘mom and pop’ shops. We were surprised at how many local people, of different ethnic groups, wanted to speak to us about the situation in Rakhine.

People were worried, that after seeing a small surge in tourism in recent years, this new crisis would deter tourists once again, having a detrimental effect on their businesses and livelihoods. I felt sorry for these people who had already suffered so much in their lives, to now have their hopes dashed of living in a normal country where they could make a living by welcoming foreign visitors.

A fantastic local restaurant in Nyaung Shwe, Inle Lake.

The sharing of information and promotion of awareness

Going by the one-sided information given in the newspapers in Myanmar, it’s clear that people are being given a completely different picture of what is going on in Rakhine. They are told the story that their leaders are heroically fighting Islamic terrorism whilst protecting innocent Buddhist and Hindu families. Even if we only spoke to a handful of people about the ‘other side of the story’, I hope that we made them think differently about the propaganda that they are being fed.

In turn, they also educated us and opened our eyes to other parts of the country where similar repression by the military may be taking place, yet is not in the headlines. In northern Shan state, where visitors are not permitted, ethnic minority armies, including the Ta’ang National Liberation Army, have been engaged in clashes with the military for years. Who knows how the ethnic Palaung (or Ta’ang) civilians are being treated there? Military repression of various ethnic minority groups has been going on for decades in Myanmar.

More information that filters back and to from visitors can only be a good thing in the long run, in raising awareness of such human rights violations.

Locals relax in Maha Bandula Park in Yangon.

Which countries deserve boycotting anyway?

After we left the country, I read an article about how arms companies in Israel were refusing to stop selling arms to Myanmar, in light of the evidence that the weapons are being used against their own people. Israeli companies are also reported to have trained special forces in Rakhine.

It made me question our methods of deciding which countries to boycott. My home country of the UK makes millions of pounds selling arms to Saudi Arabia, a country with atrocious human rights abuses, women’s rights violations, as well as substantial evidence that they fund ISIS, the terrorist group responsible for attacks all over the world.

I wholeheartedly disagree with the UK’s stance on arms sales and yet I have family in the UK, I pay my taxes in the UK and I can never imagine boycotting the country. I also know that most citizens of the UK would agree with me on the above, just as I’m sure most citizens of Myanmar would be sickened by their government’s actions towards the Rohingya Muslims.

We recently published an article about the destruction of the Tibetan Buddhist University City of Larung Gar in Eastern China, with cultural treasures being destroyed and many people being displaced from their homes, yet China remains the fourth most visited country in the world.

I feel that if one decides to boycott a certain country, one must not turn a blind eye to the many other countries with questionable human rights records.

Does boycott actually harm those in power?

Whilst tourism boycott undoubtedly damages the livelihood of the guesthouse owner in Hpa An, the fisherman taking tourists on boat trips on Inle Lake and the family that runs a local restaurant in Bagan, does it actually hurt the ones in power, the ones responsible for the atrocities?

A boat trip on Inle Lake is a must for travellers to Myanmar.

When Myanmar finally opened up to tourists in 2011, there was a belief that tourist numbers would rise dramatically. In 2012 Myanmar passed the one million mark for the number of visitors to enter the country. In 2014, the direct contribution of travel and tourism was 2.2% of total GDP. The sad fact is, that your refusal to spend in the country is having little impact on the overall revenue of the government.

Most of the government’s money is made in the exporting of petroleum gas, dried legumes, raw sugar, non-knit men’s suits and rice. (Source) The country shipped $11.5 billion worth of goods around the world in 2016 (Source), with the top export destinations being Thailand, China, India and Singapore. So if you want to hurt their economy – you’d be better off boycotting all Myanmar made products while you travel. Myanmar is also the world’s second-largest producer of Opium and the largest producer of methamphetamines in the world. (Source: Wikipedia.) So better stay away from these, too.

So, whilst your tourist dollar (especially if you’re a backpacker who doesn’t stay in expensive hotels) makes up a tiny fraction of the total revenue that the government of Myanmar makes each year. Your tourist dollar does make up a much larger percentage in revenue for the local businesses that rely on tourism.

Rice fields of Hpa An. (Myanmar is one of the world’s largest exporters of rice.)

Oliver Slow, Chief in Staff at Frontier Myanmar told us:

“What is happening in Rakhine State and over the border in Bangladesh, is a truly deplorable situation with tens of thousands of people, mainly Rohingya, fleeing violence and living in desperate conditions in makeshift camps. Many of those arriving are doing so with harrowing tales and little more than the clothes on their back.

But I don’t see how a tourism boycott in this instance would be beneficial. Who would benefit from such a move? It certainly wouldn’t be the tens of thousands of people who rely on the country’s growing tourism industry in order to make a living.

When the country was under military rule and effectively closed off to the outside world, there were almost no opportunities for the majority of the population to make a livelihood. While the transition has been far from perfect, one thing it has done is enabled people to start operating their own businesses. The tourism sector is one industry where this has happened en masse. A boycott would only make it worse for these people and certainly wouldn’t make a dent on the coffers of the military.

At the same time, continued engagement is crucial. It’s early days in the country’s transition, and it will still require continued support from the international community. The only realistic outcome of disengagement from the country today would be the country turning in on itself, and we all know how that worked out in the past.”

Tourism could help 

In some cases, tourism has been a positive force for change. For example, Romania once used caged dancing bears as tourist attractions. With increased awareness and disgust at this form of entertainment, the bear ‘watching’ has now been made illegal and tourist money goes to support the conservation of the bears in their natural habitat.

I feel that in Thailand, tourist disapproval has helped to improve the lives of elephants. You no longer see mahouts with their elephants selling sweetcorn on the streets of Bangkok and elephant riding camps are slowly being shut down, in favour of elephant sanctuaries where riding is prohibited.

Elephant riding is becoming less popular in Thailand, in favour of visits to elephant sanctuaries.

While the ethnic cleansing in Myanmar is on an incomparable level, and will undoubtedly make tourists think twice about travelling there, perhaps isolating the country at this time is not the best option. Could tourism actually contribute to a positive change in the long run?

We spoke to Marcus Allender, founder of the travel website, Go-Myanmar.com who told us:

“The humanitarian crisis in northern Rakhine will give pause to many people considering a trip to Myanmar – and for those who find it too troubling, it is understandable if they choose not to visit. However, the country remains totally safe for foreign visitors and no recognised group on any side is calling for a travel boycott; if people do not travel in the belief that isolating Myanmar in this way will help improve the plight of the Rohingya, then I believe that is a grave mistake.

Myanmar is a poor country with a population of 53 million people, the vast majority of whom are not to blame for this situation. Tourism can help improve their lives both through increased incomes and exposure to different worldviews. While tourists in Myanmar are of course not going solve the current crisis, over time they are more likely than not, to help improve the situation. Conversely, isolating the country will only increase the sense of victimhood amongst the general population and bolster the nationalist extremists.”

What do you think? Would you travel to Myanmar under the circumstances?

By Nikki Scott: Founder of South East Asia Backpacker. Author of Backpacker Business.

The post Should Travellers Boycott Myanmar? appeared first on South East Asia Backpacker.

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With Mount Rinjani a two-hour drive to the east, Kuta (Lombok) an hour and a half south, and the Gili Islands a quick boat trip west, Senggigi is a hub for travellers who are on their way somewhere else…

The town itself is a relatively charmless strip of souvenir shops, bars, and restaurants all geared towards the tourist crowd. The narrow road through town is busy with buses, motorbikes and taxis which fly past at alarming rates on their way up or down the coast. (Not a pleasant spot for a walk.)

Senggigi’s coastline, on the other hand, is an uninterrupted stretch of white sand beaches falling into turquoise waters. Luxury and mid-range resorts crowd the beachfront but there are several spots for public access if you can’t afford waterfront property.

Venture slightly south of town to experience local life, where tiny wooden huts line the black volcanic beaches and fishermen catch their dinner right off the shore.

While Senggigi is OK for a day or two, unless you’re up for spending all your savings on a luxury resort, it doesn’t stack up to the more popular spots on and around Lombok.

Read our full guide to Lombok here.

A local woman walks alone along Senggigi Beach.

Places To Stay in Senggigi:

Selasar Hostel

A modern hostel offering 4-bed dorm rooms and budget double rooms, Selasar Hostel is in an ideal location. It’s just a one-minute walk from Senggigi Beach (Pantai Senggigi), a short walk to the main strip of restaurants and bars, and very close to the ferry dock where fast boats whisk visitors away to the Gili Islands and Bali.

Oggie’s Place

Almost next door to Selasar, on the road leading to Senggigi Beach, Oggie’s Place has dorm beds, single, and double rooms for budget travellers. The onsite bar is lively and friendly – it’s a great place to spend the evening getting to know the staff and fellow travellers.

Jazz Senggigi Hotel

About six minutes from the beach and a short walk from the centre of Senggigi, the highlight of Jazz Senggigi Hotel is the clean and spacious pool area. Dorm rooms consist of two single beds in a small room — perfect to share with your travel buddy but maybe not ideal if you’re travelling alone.

Homestays in Senggigi

There is a wide range of budget homestays in Senggigi, most within easy reach of the beach. Homestays on Lombok tend to offer no-frills accommodation and may not provide hot water or air conditioning, so be sure to check the fine print before booking.

Food & Drink in Senggigi:

Waiting for Gado.

Vegetarian Food

In Indonesia, tempeh and tofu are staple foods, making it easy for vegetarians and vegans to get their protein. One of the most famous Indonesia dishes, Gado Gado, is a vegetarian salad of compacted rice, tempeh, veggies and boiled eggs doused in a thick, spicy peanut sauce.

Gurame Bakar Kecap.

Seafood

As with most seaside towns, fresh seafood is available almost everywhere you look in Senggigi, from the budget-friendly local “warungs” to the high-end exclusive resorts. You’ll find a huge selection of fresh whole fish, squid, and juicy prawns cooked over a charcoal grill.

Local Beach Snacks

Head to Senggigi beach to try a helping of a local beach snack, sate bulayak. Traditional sate, which is a grilled skewer of chicken or beef served with spicy peanut sauce, is paired with bulayak, a rice cake wrapped in palm leaves. You can grab this Lombok speciality at vendors all along the beach.

Western Food

Though Senggigi isn’t a great foodie destination, those looking for pizza, pasta, Mexican, and steak will find a decent selection along Senggigi’s main road.

Things To Do in Senggigi:

Lounge On Pantai Senggigi (Senggigi Beach)

Senggigi’s big attraction is its long stretches of white sandy beach. Head to Senggigi Beach to hang out with tourist crowds and local hawkers. A trip to Kerangdangan Beach on a Sunday afternoon will give you a taste of local beach life, as families from the area enjoy their day off. The sunsets in Senggigi are magnificent, so don’t miss a chance to watch the sun sink behind Bali’s Mount Agung.

The Sun dips behind Mount Agung on Bali.

Scuba & Snorkel

While it’s possible to snorkel just off Senggigi beach, a day trip to the Gili Islands will be more rewarding. There are some up-and-coming scuba sites arrayed on the Senggigi coast but to dive the more popular (and busier) sites will also require a trip to the Gilis.

Learn to Surf

Senggigi beach is a great place for novice surfers to get their first taste of riding the waves. Experienced surfers can find much better waves elsewhere on Lombok.

Get a Traditional Massage

After an active day on the water, unwind with a local massage or spa treatment, which will cost just a  fraction of what you would pay at home.

Practice Yoga

There are regular public classes at Lombok Yoga House and Gypsea Yoga, and many Senggigi resorts offer classes too, some of which are open to the public.

Day Trip to the Waterfalls

One of the most popular day trips from Senggigi is to Sendang Gile and Tiu Kelep Waterfalls. The waterfalls are just outside of Senaru, which doubles as a base-camp for Rinjani hikers. The drive to Senaru is around two hours and from there, an easy 45-minute walk through the jungle takes you past both sets of falls. You will get wet at Tiu Kelep, so bring a water-resistant bag or case for your phone and camera.

Visit Pura Batu Bolong Temple

Located near Senggigi Beach, the Hindu temple Pura Batu Bolong sits above a holey rock (that’s holey, with an ‘e’). It is, in fact, named after this volcanic rock, ‘Batu Bolong‘ translates as ‘Rock with Hole‘. The temple makes for another great place to watch the sunset, with the sound of the waves crashing below you.

How to get to Senggigi?

From Bali, you can take a fast boat from Padang Bai directly to Senggigi which takes around 2 hours. The trip costs around 750,000 IDR, depending on the company you choose.

You can also fly from Denpasar Airport on Bali to Bandara International Lombok Airport. The half-hour flight may be cheaper than the fast boat, but it’s also less exciting and less environmentally friendly.

From Lombok Airport, an official Airport Taksi costs around 150,000 IDR to Senggigi, while the public bus costs 35,000 IDR and takes 1.5 to 2 hours. Officials at the DAMRI bus counter outside the terminal will show you where to get the bus. Pay for your ticket after you board.

Pantai Senggigi.

Where To Go Next?

For those who want a physical challenge, take a 2- or 3-day hike up Mount Rinjani. You can arrange the trip at any hotel or travel agent in Senggigi. For more laid-back beach time, the Gili Islands (Gili Meno, Gili Trawangan and Gili Air) are only a short boat ride away. Surfers and divers will want to head south to Kuta, where you’ll find some of Lombok’s best dive and surf spots.

About the writers:

Jane & Stephen are adventure-seekers and full-time yoga nomads. Five years ago, they quit their jobs and sold all their stuff. Now, they travel full-time, teaching Adventure Yoga around the world and sharing their mindful adventures on My Five Acres. If you’re aching to live an extraordinary life, follow them for inspiration, advice, and adventure! You can find us on Facebook and Instagram.

The post Senggigi, Indonesia (Lombok’s Main Traveller Hub) appeared first on South East Asia Backpacker.

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Located down a quiet road not far from the tourist hub of Nyaung Shwe, A Little Eco Lodge is the perfect place to stay for those wanting some relaxation in natural surroundings close to Inle Lake.   

Why does A Little Eco Lodge Make Our List?

Delicious home-grown food – We arrived at the lodge just in time for lunch – perfect! The owner’s sister cooked us up a delicious prawn curry with tea leaf salad, morning glory and rice. A lot of the food that you’ll eat here is home-grown in the organic garden surrounding the lodge and you’ll see people tending to the crops in the field during the day. (If you’d like to help them out one day – just ask!) When we were there it was avocado season, so that meant avocadoes, toast and eggs for breakfast – yum! More family recipes (based on local Inthar food) are served in their unique ‘Tree House Restaurant’ throughout the day.

In-house massage – One of the best things about A Little Eco Lodge is their in-house spa. If you’ve already been to Kalaw, you may have seen their place ‘A Little @ Kalaw Day Spa & Wellness’. After a day’s trekking or cycling around the Inle Lake area, it’s absolute bliss to be able to stumble a few steps down the corridor from your room to be treated to a massage! They also offer body scrubs, manicures, pedicures, Swedish or traditional massages and have a sauna and steam room which is great for those cooler winter months.

Surrounding countryside – The lodge offers free bicycles so that you can explore the surrounding area, cycling up the hills, or just as far as the vineyards at Red Mountain (like we did!) and be rewarded with a glass of wine or two!

The lodge is located on the Loi-Khaw trekking route that leads into the mountains on the Eastern shore of Inle Lake. The lodge can arrange a trekking guide for you who will guide you through local ethnic villages where you can stay overnight at a homestay if you wish.

Eco-Friendly –  The lodge and tree house restaurant have been built using locally sourced, sustainably managed natural materials. There’s no compromise made on comfort, however. The rooms are extremely cosy and designed in traditional ‘Inthar’ style. Water is heated with solar panels and the traditional sound of weaving in the shade of the house below can be heard from the rooms.

Responsible Tourism – A Little Eco Lodge is a family run business, started by Kyaw Swar and his wife, Mee Mee, both born and raised in the area around Inle Lake. They live just next door to the lodge and the whole family, including Kyaw Swar’s sister and his two lovely children, are around the lodge all day to make guests feel welcome. Kyaw Swar plays an active role in the local community in encouraging responsible tourism and part of the profits from the lodge go into community development including healthcare and education.

He is also one of the founders of the non-profit organisation, Inle Heritage Centre, located on the southern shores of Inle Lake at Innpawkhon Village (it can only be reached by boat). Its aim is to preserve the cultural and natural wealth of Inle Lake by training local youths, educating people about the environment and sharing information with tourists. Check it out during your boat tour of Inle Lake! (You can also take cooking classes here, eat at their restaurant or visit their one-of-a-kind Burmese cat village!)

How to book A Little Eco Lodge?

Read more about Inle Lake here.

The post A Little Eco Lodge, Inle Lake, Myanmar – From $70 USD / Room appeared first on South East Asia Backpacker.

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Xishuangbanna. Located in Southern Yunnan Province of China, on the borders of Laos and Myanmar, lies a region that feels remarkably foreign to a seasoned backpacker of China and welcomingly familiar to the experienced traveller of Southeast Asia…

Arriving here, which one can only do by flight or a long haul bus ride (I opted to fly), one immediately gets the sense that this is a place caught between two worlds. With streets signs in both Dai and Chinese, Southeast Asia style Buddhist temples, and a plethora of palm trees and rolling mountains all around, this is a region with a definite exotic feel.

The blue hills of Xishuangbanna, Yunnan, China.

Yes, Xishuangbanna or ‘Banna’ as it is more commonly referred to, is not the easiest region to make sense of at first glance, nor is it the most well-known of destinations on the Chinese or Southeast Asian backpacking circuits. However, its obscurity and tongue-twisting name aside, this is a region well worth checking out for a certain kind of traveller.

How does one end up in Xishuangbanna?

I came to China after receiving a research grant to write a report on the current state of the Dai people’s culture and Theravada Buddhism in southern Yunnan Province. While I am not a career Anthropologist nor plan on becoming one, I wanted to go abroad after graduating college in the US and what better way to do it than to get compensated to study and immerse myself in a culture and religion completely different than my own.

Rainbow over Jinghong, China, Xishuangbanna’s biggest city.

I started my trip in Kunming, the capital of Yunnan province, and made my rounds to the backpacker cities of Dali and Lijiang in the northwestern part of the province before turning south and arriving in ‘Banna.’

Banna is characterized by its Dai minority community and culture who make up about 34% of the population in the region. The rest of the population consists of 13 other ethnic minority groups, as well as Han Chinese. With such a mish-mash of different groups and cultures living in the area, Banna helps give Yunnan province its reputation as being “the most diverse province.”

A local Dai woman, Xishuangbanna.

The Dai Culture

Dai people are the only minority group in the region with a written language which is very much related to the Thai language and other languages in Laos and Myanmar. The Dais practice Theravada Buddhism, the dominant form of Buddhism in most Southeast Asian countries, while the rest of Buddhism in China belongs either to the Mahayana or Tibetan lineages.

Speaking to one of my guides and interpreters who is native to this region and of Dai heritage, he informed me that Dai people feel a much stronger cultural bond and connection to the peoples and countries of Laos, Myanmar and Thailand than they do to the rest of China. So, understanding these facts, it is much clearer as to why this region doesn’t feel like typical China.

First stop: Jinghong

Jinghong, the major city of ‘Xishuangbanna Dai Autonomous Prefecture’ is much easier to navigate than most other Chinese cities and noticeably operates at a slower pace. This is a welcome change, as you don’t have to worry quite as much about getting hit by a motorbike or car when walking around the town.

Xishuangbanna Caffy and Ken Backpacker Youth Hostel.

This is where you will want to book your accommodation and coordinate any activities you wish to do in the area. There are not a lot of hostels but having stayed at two different ones during my stay, I can’t help but recommend Caffy and Ken’s Backpacker Hostel.

As with the rest of Yunnan Province, English speakers are scarce so I found the owner of this hostel’s ability to speak English as invaluable in helping me make connections and get around the area.

I also recommend checking out MeiMei’s Cafe and Mountain Cafe. These two expat owned cafes serve an outstanding cup of coffee and I found the staff at Meimei’s to be incredibly helpful in helping me find a translator, a hiking guide and also putting me in touch with a Chinese language teacher.

Things to do in Jinghong Great Mengle Buddha Temple

The city is known for its  Mengle Great Buddha Temple which is enormous and stands tall overlooking the city. It’s great eye candy, though to be honest, I wouldn’t recommend paying the 120 Yuan (Approx $18 USD) to go see it up close due to the fact that it lacks historical authenticity.

Some say it was built on the remains of an old Dai temple but that is only a rumour and the present temple and Buddha statue was built in 2007 entirely for tourist purposes. No doubt it is remarkable to see it overlooking the city but I suppose personally, I prefer to see things with real historical value and context.

Tea plantations of Xishuangbanna, Yunnan Province

Hiking in the mountains

The hiking in the surrounding mountains is superb and in m, opinion one of the main draws to this area. You can arrange 1-5 day treks and tours through the mountains and valleys, which will give you the chance to stay at Dai and other ethnic minority villages. Many of these villages are nationally known for making tea and you will have a chance to try some of the best in China – which when you think about it, is a quite the big deal!

Wild Elephant Park

Other things to do include visiting the wild Elephant park in Mengyang Natural Reserve which is an absolutely beautiful 900-acre park about 45 kilometres from Jinghong. The reserve is home to 70-100 elephants and there are viewing platforms from which to see the elephants.

Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanical Garden

It’s also worth going to see the Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanical Garden. This is the only tropical garden in the whole of China and a nice place to get away from the city for a while.

Renting a bike and exploring the city of Jinghong and the nearby Dai villages without going into the mountains is also a must do in my opinion and doesn’t require much planning.

“ni-rou mien-tao” (beef noodles)

Food and drink in Jinghong

The food here is known to be a little spicy and there can also be a sour tendency to some dishes but overall I thought the numerous garage style Chinese and Dai restaurants had an array of fantastic food. If you’re not into spicy food, just remember to say “bou-la”, meaning ‘not spicy.’

The average cost of a meal will is around $2-$4 USD. My average meal consisted of ‘ni-rou mien-tao’ or ‘chae-fan’ (beef noodles or beef fried rice).

For those interested in the nightlife scene, there are numerous bars overlooking the river on Meng Peng Road in Jinghong. I’m not much of a drinker so I only went here one night but with the rooftop bars and terraces, it’s definitely a scene worth checking out if nightlife is your thing.

Generally, beers are not as cheap in China as they are in neighbouring Southeast Asian countries but it still isn’t going to bleed your wallet too much if you’re going to have a few. Also, if you decide to check some of these bars and clubs out, as a foreigner, be prepared to have many pictures taken with you and perhaps even bought a free drink!

A Buddhist character at the Great Mengle Buddha Temple, Jinghong.

Overall Xishuangbanna is a unique, beautiful and amazing place and a destination that every backpacker should consider if they want to get off the beaten path, out of their comfort zone and experience a different blend of southeast Asia in the wonderfully diverse province of Yunnan China.

Written by: Bryce Sellers.

The post Xishuangbanna: A Little Southeast Asia in China appeared first on South East Asia Backpacker.

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Sweet Life Community Guesthouse is located in Lanta Old Town, a working fisherman’s village on the quieter east coast of the island of Koh Lanta. This beautifully designed building, with both dorm beds and private rooms, is less of a guesthouse and more of a ‘shared house’ where you’ll feel right at home as you settle into laid back island life…

What makes Sweet Life Community Guesthouse a Best Hostel?

The owners – The guesthouse is run by Maayan and Mon, a lovely Dutch-Thai couple (and their daughter Millie) who have so much energy and enthusiasm for their wonderful guesthouse and the island itself. They can give you tips on which deserted beaches to kayak to, where to get the cheapest and most delicious local breakfast, where to get your laundry done for 20 baht, where to hire a scooter… and myriad other things. Make sure you read the yellow booklet when you check in, it’s full of awesome advice about Lanta Old Town and the island!

Make yourself at home – Unlike many guesthouses in SE Asia, this one has no reception and no staff hanging around asking you what your plans for the day are… You are handed a key when you arrive and told to treat the place like home. The result? You feel immediately relaxed and instantly become housemates with the fellow guests. There’s a kitchen where you can cook your own food, a comfy lounge area, outside terrace and plenty of bathrooms for everyone. Maayan is contactable all day on Whatsapp to answer any questions you may have – but other than that, you can come and go as you please!

The Location – The best beaches in Koh Lanta are located on the west side of the island (only 15 minutes by bike from Lanta Old Town), which explains why the west coast is packed with holiday resorts. This has been a blessing in disguise for the east coast, whose stony, mangrove-clad shores have retained much more of a local feel. Lanta Old Town is a really special place, originally established by Thai fishing families who built simple wooden houses on stilts above the water. A few years ago, you couldn’t even stay here, but now the town is opening up to tourists and there are a few trendy cafés, boutique shops and great restaurants with amazing sea views. The photos below are the views from our bedroom in the morning…

Cooking with MonWith only 5-star reviews on Trip Advisor (out of 87 reviews!), Mon’s cooking class is fast becoming one of the ‘must-do’ activities on the island. We reckon that Mon himself has a lot to do with that. His jokes and easy-going personality are the perfect combination to an afternoon’s cooking. The first person (or persons) to book on the class get to choose what dishes will be cooked that day, anything from spring rolls to massaman curry. There are a total of four dishes that will be cooked, and of course, devoured, so make sure you have a light breakfast! The class starts at 11 am every day and you can book to join even if you’re not staying at Sweet Life.

Beautiful design – I just have to mention the interior design of Sweet Life Guesthouse as you’re really hard pushed to come across a lovelier place to stay in the whole of SE Asia. With lots of plants, basket chairs, lovely lamps, sumptuous cushions, elegant throws and dream catchers above the beds, the attention to detail is superb. The showers are hot and powerful, the WIFI is fast and the bed is super comfy. I’d say a home from home, but my home wasn’t this neat!

Sweet Prices at Sweet Life!
  • 350 baht for bed in a 4-bed dormitory room.
  • 650 baht for a double room with fan. (440 baht in low season)
  • 1000 baht for a double room with AC and sea view. (650 baht in low season)
How to book?

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With Mount Rinjani a two-hour drive to the east, Kuta (Lombok) an hour and a half south, and the Gili Islands a quick boat trip west, Senggigi is a hub for travellers who are on their way somewhere else…

The town itself is a relatively charmless strip of souvenir shops, bars, and restaurants all geared towards the tourist crowd. The narrow road through town is busy with buses, motorbikes and taxis which fly past at alarming rates on their way up or down the coast. (Not a pleasant spot for a walk.)

Senggigi’s coastline, on the other hand, is an uninterrupted stretch of white sand beaches falling into turquoise waters. Luxury and mid-range resorts crowd the beachfront but there are several spots for public access if you can’t afford waterfront property.

Venture slightly south of town to experience local life, where tiny wooden huts line the black volcanic beaches and fishermen catch their dinner right off the shore.

While Senggigi is OK for a day or two, unless you’re up for spending all your savings on a luxury resort, it doesn’t stack up to the more popular spots on and around Lombok.

Read our full guide to Lombok here.

A local woman walks alone along Senggigi Beach.

Places To Stay in Senggigi:

Selasar Hostel

A modern hostel offering 4-bed dorm rooms and budget double rooms, Selasar Hostel is in an ideal location. It’s just a one-minute walk from Senggigi Beach (Pantai Senggigi), a short walk to the main strip of restaurants and bars, and very close to the ferry dock where fast boats whisk visitors away to the Gili Islands and Bali.

Oggie’s Place

Almost next door to Selasar, on the road leading to Senggigi Beach, Oggie’s Place has dorm beds, single, and double rooms for budget travellers. The onsite bar is lively and friendly – it’s a great place to spend the evening getting to know the staff and fellow travellers.

Jazz Senggigi Hotel

About six minutes from the beach and a short walk from the centre of Senggigi, the highlight of Jazz Senggigi Hotel is the clean and spacious pool area. Dorm rooms consist of two single beds in a small room — perfect to share with your travel buddy but maybe not ideal if you’re travelling alone.

Homestays in Senggigi

There is a wide range of budget homestays in Senggigi, most within easy reach of the beach. Homestays on Lombok tend to offer no-frills accommodation and may not provide hot water or air conditioning, so be sure to check the fine print before booking.

Food & Drink in Senggigi:

Waiting for Gado.

Vegetarian Food

In Indonesia, tempeh and tofu are staple foods, making it easy for vegetarians and vegans to get their protein. One of the most famous Indonesia dishes, Gado Gado, is a vegetarian salad of compacted rice, tempeh, veggies and boiled eggs doused in a thick, spicy peanut sauce.

Gurame Bakar Kecap.

Seafood

As with most seaside towns, fresh seafood is available almost everywhere you look in Senggigi, from the budget-friendly local “warungs” to the high-end exclusive resorts. You’ll find a huge selection of fresh whole fish, squid, and juicy prawns cooked over a charcoal grill.

Local Beach Snacks

Head to Senggigi beach to try a helping of a local beach snack, sate bulayak. Traditional sate, which is a grilled skewer of chicken or beef served with spicy peanut sauce, is paired with bulayak, a rice cake wrapped in palm leaves. You can grab this Lombok speciality at vendors all along the beach.

Western Food

Though Senggigi isn’t a great foodie destination, those looking for pizza, pasta, Mexican, and steak will find a decent selection along Senggigi’s main road.

Things To Do in Senggigi:

Lounge On Pantai Senggigi (Senggigi Beach)

Senggigi’s big attraction is its long stretches of white sandy beach. Head to Senggigi Beach to hang out with tourist crowds and local hawkers. A trip to Kerangdangan Beach on a Sunday afternoon will give you a taste of local beach life, as families from the area enjoy their day off. The sunsets in Senggigi are magnificent, so don’t miss a chance to watch the sun sink behind Bali’s Mount Agung.

The Sun dips behind Mount Agung on Bali.

Scuba & Snorkel

While it’s possible to snorkel just off Senggigi beach, a day trip to the Gili Islands will be more rewarding. There are some up-and-coming scuba sites arrayed on the Senggigi coast but to dive the more popular (and busier) sites will also require a trip to the Gilis.

Learn to Surf

Senggigi beach is a great place for novice surfers to get their first taste of riding the waves. Experienced surfers can find much better waves elsewhere on Lombok.

Get a Traditional Massage

After an active day on the water, unwind with a local massage or spa treatment, which will cost just a  fraction of what you would pay at home.

Practice Yoga

There are regular public classes at Lombok Yoga House and Gypsea Yoga, and many Senggigi resorts offer classes too, some of which are open to the public.

Day Trip to the Waterfalls

One of the most popular day trips from Senggigi is to Sendang Gile and Tiu Kelep Waterfalls. The waterfalls are just outside of Senaru, which doubles as a base-camp for Rinjani hikers. The drive to Senaru is around two hours and from there, an easy 45-minute walk through the jungle takes you past both sets of falls. You will get wet at Tiu Kelep, so bring a water-resistant bag or case for your phone and camera.

Visit Pura Batu Bolong Temple

Located near Senggigi Beach, the Hindu temple Pura Batu Bolong sits above a holey rock (that’s holey, with an ‘e’). It is, in fact, named after this volcanic rock, ‘Batu Bolong‘ translates as ‘Rock with Hole‘. The temple makes for another great place to watch the sunset, with the sound of the waves crashing below you.

How to get to Senggigi?

From Bali, you can take a fast boat from Padang Bai directly to Senggigi which takes around 2 hours. The trip costs around 750,000 IDR, depending on the company you choose.

You can also fly from Denpasar Airport on Bali to Bandara International Lombok Airport. The half-hour flight may be cheaper than the fast boat, but it’s also less exciting and less environmentally friendly.

From Lombok Airport, an official Airport Taksi costs around 150,000 IDR to Senggigi, while the public bus costs 35,000 IDR and takes 1.5 to 2 hours. Officials at the DAMRI bus counter outside the terminal will show you where to get the bus. Pay for your ticket after you board.

Pantai Senggigi.

Where To Go Next?

For those who want a physical challenge, take a 2- or 3-day hike up Mount Rinjani. You can arrange the trip at any hotel or travel agent in Senggigi. For more laid-back beach time, the Gili Islands (Gili Meno, Gili Trawangan and Gili Air) are only a short boat ride away. Surfers and divers will want to head south to Kuta, where you’ll find some of Lombok’s best dive and surf spots.

About the writers:

Jane & Stephen are adventure-seekers and full-time yoga nomads. Five years ago, they quit their jobs and sold all their stuff. Now, they travel full-time, teaching Adventure Yoga around the world and sharing their mindful adventures on My Five Acres. If you’re aching to live an extraordinary life, follow them for inspiration, advice, and adventure! You can find us on Facebook and Instagram.

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Located down a quiet road not far from the tourist hub of Nyaung Shwe, A Little Eco Lodge is the perfect place to stay for those wanting some relaxation in natural surroundings close to Inle Lake.   

Why does A Little Eco Lodge Make Our List?

Delicious home-grown food – We arrived at the lodge just in time for lunch – perfect! The owner’s sister cooked us up a delicious prawn curry with tea leaf salad, morning glory and rice. A lot of the food that you’ll eat here is home-grown in the organic garden surrounding the lodge and you’ll see people tending to the crops in the field during the day. (If you’d like to help them out one day – just ask!) When we were there it was avocado season, so that meant avocadoes, toast and eggs for breakfast – yum! More family recipes (based on local Inthar food) are served in their unique ‘Tree House Restaurant’ throughout the day.

In-house massage – One of the best things about A Little Eco Lodge is their in-house spa. If you’ve already been to Kalaw, you may have seen their place ‘A Little @ Kalaw Day Spa & Wellness’. After a day’s trekking or cycling around the Inle Lake area, it’s absolute bliss to be able to stumble a few steps down the corridor from your room to be treated to a massage! They also offer body scrubs, manicures, pedicures, Swedish or traditional massages and have a sauna and steam room which is great for those cooler winter months.

Surrounding countryside – The lodge offers free bicycles so that you can explore the surrounding area, cycling up the hills, or just as far as the vineyards at Red Mountain (like we did!) and be rewarded with a glass of wine or two!

The lodge is located on the Loi-Khaw trekking route that leads into the mountains on the Eastern shore of Inle Lake. The lodge can arrange a trekking guide for you who will guide you through local ethnic villages where you can stay overnight at a homestay if you wish.

Eco-Friendly –  The lodge and tree house restaurant have been built using locally sourced, sustainably managed natural materials. There’s no compromise made on comfort, however. The rooms are extremely cosy and designed in traditional ‘Inthar’ style. Water is heated with solar panels and the traditional sound of weaving in the shade of the house below can be heard from the rooms.

Responsible Tourism – A Little Eco Lodge is a family run business, started by Kyaw Swar and his wife, Mee Mee, both born and raised in the area around Inle Lake. They live just next door to the lodge and the whole family, including Kyaw Swar’s sister and his two lovely children, are around the lodge all day to make guests feel welcome. Kyaw Swar plays an active role in the local community in encouraging responsible tourism and part of the profits from the lodge go into community development including healthcare and education.

He is also one of the founders of the non-profit organisation, Inle Heritage Centre, located on the southern shores of Inle Lake at Innpawkhon Village (it can only be reached by boat). Its aim is to preserve the cultural and natural wealth of Inle Lake by training local youths, educating people about the environment and sharing information with tourists. Check it out during your boat tour of Inle Lake! (You can also take cooking classes here, eat at their restaurant or visit their one-of-a-kind Burmese cat village!)

How to book A Little Eco Lodge?

Read more about Inle Lake here.

The post A Little Eco Lodge, Inle Lake, Myanmar – From $70 USD / Room appeared first on South East Asia Backpacker.

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Xishuangbanna. Located in Southern Yunnan Province of China, on the borders of Laos and Myanmar, lies a region that feels remarkably foreign to a seasoned backpacker of China and welcomingly familiar to the experienced traveller of Southeast Asia…

Arriving here, which one can only do by flight or a long haul bus ride (I opted to fly), one immediately gets the sense that this is a place caught between two worlds. With streets signs in both Dai and Chinese, Southeast Asia style Buddhist temples, and a plethora of palm trees and rolling mountains all around, this is a region with a definite exotic feel.

The blue hills of Xishuangbanna, Yunnan, China.

Yes, Xishuangbanna or ‘Banna’ as it is more commonly referred to, is not the easiest region to make sense of at first glance, nor is it the most well-known of destinations on the Chinese or Southeast Asian backpacking circuits. However, its obscurity and tongue-twisting name aside, this is a region well worth checking out for a certain kind of traveller.

How does one end up in Xishuangbanna?

I came to China after receiving a research grant to write a report on the current state of the Dai people’s culture and Theravada Buddhism in southern Yunnan Province. While I am not a career Anthropologist nor plan on becoming one, I wanted to go abroad after graduating college in the US and what better way to do it than to get compensated to study and immerse myself in a culture and religion completely different than my own.

Rainbow over Jinghong, China, Xishuangbanna’s biggest city.

I started my trip in Kunming, the capital of Yunnan province, and made my rounds to the backpacker cities of Dali and Lijiang in the northwestern part of the province before turning south and arriving in ‘Banna.’

Banna is characterized by its Dai minority community and culture who make up about 34% of the population in the region. The rest of the population consists of 13 other ethnic minority groups, as well as Han Chinese. With such a mish-mash of different groups and cultures living in the area, Banna helps give Yunnan province its reputation as being “the most diverse province.”

A local Dai woman, Xishuangbanna.

The Dai Culture

Dai people are the only minority group in the region with a written language which is very much related to the Thai language and other languages in Laos and Myanmar. The Dais practice Theravada Buddhism, the dominant form of Buddhism in most Southeast Asian countries, while the rest of Buddhism in China belongs either to the Mahayana or Tibetan lineages.

Speaking to one of my guides and interpreters who is native to this region and of Dai heritage, he informed me that Dai people feel a much stronger cultural bond and connection to the peoples and countries of Laos, Myanmar and Thailand than they do to the rest of China. So, understanding these facts, it is much clearer as to why this region doesn’t feel like typical China.

First stop: Jinghong

Jinghong, the major city of ‘Xishuangbanna Dai Autonomous Prefecture’ is much easier to navigate than most other Chinese cities and noticeably operates at a slower pace. This is a welcome change, as you don’t have to worry quite as much about getting hit by a motorbike or car when walking around the town.

Xishuangbanna Caffy and Ken Backpacker Youth Hostel.

This is where you will want to book your accommodation and coordinate any activities you wish to do in the area. There are not a lot of hostels but having stayed at two different ones during my stay, I can’t help but recommend Caffy and Ken’s Backpacker Hostel.

As with the rest of Yunnan Province, English speakers are scarce so I found the owner of this hostel’s ability to speak English as invaluable in helping me make connections and get around the area.

I also recommend checking out MeiMei’s Cafe and Mountain Cafe. These two expat owned cafes serve an outstanding cup of coffee and I found the staff at Meimei’s to be incredibly helpful in helping me find a translator, a hiking guide and also putting me in touch with a Chinese language teacher.

Things to do in Jinghong Great Mengle Buddha Temple

The city is known for its  Mengle Great Buddha Temple which is enormous and stands tall overlooking the city. It’s great eye candy, though to be honest, I wouldn’t recommend paying the 120 Yuan (Approx $18 USD) to go see it up close due to the fact that it lacks historical authenticity.

Some say it was built on the remains of an old Dai temple but that is only a rumour and the present temple and Buddha statue was built in 2007 entirely for tourist purposes. No doubt it is remarkable to see it overlooking the city but I suppose personally, I prefer to see things with real historical value and context.

Tea plantations of Xishuangbanna, Yunnan Province

Hiking in the mountains

The hiking in the surrounding mountains is superb and in m, opinion one of the main draws to this area. You can arrange 1-5 day treks and tours through the mountains and valleys, which will give you the chance to stay at Dai and other ethnic minority villages. Many of these villages are nationally known for making tea and you will have a chance to try some of the best in China – which when you think about it, is a quite the big deal!

Wild Elephant Park

Other things to do include visiting the wild Elephant park in Mengyang Natural Reserve which is an absolutely beautiful 900-acre park about 45 kilometres from Jinghong. The reserve is home to 70-100 elephants and there are viewing platforms from which to see the elephants.

Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanical Garden

It’s also worth going to see the Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanical Garden. This is the only tropical garden in the whole of China and a nice place to get away from the city for a while.

Renting a bike and exploring the city of Jinghong and the nearby Dai villages without going into the mountains is also a must do in my opinion and doesn’t require much planning.

“ni-rou mien-tao” (beef noodles)

Food and drink in Jinghong

The food here is known to be a little spicy and there can also be a sour tendency to some dishes but overall I thought the numerous garage style Chinese and Dai restaurants had an array of fantastic food. If you’re not into spicy food, just remember to say “bou-la”, meaning ‘not spicy.’

The average cost of a meal will is around $2-$4 USD. My average meal consisted of ‘ni-rou mien-tao’ or ‘chae-fan’ (beef noodles or beef fried rice).

For those interested in the nightlife scene, there are numerous bars overlooking the river on Meng Peng Road in Jinghong. I’m not much of a drinker so I only went here one night but with the rooftop bars and terraces, it’s definitely a scene worth checking out if nightlife is your thing.

Generally, beers are not as cheap in China as they are in neighbouring Southeast Asian countries but it still isn’t going to bleed your wallet too much if you’re going to have a few. Also, if you decide to check some of these bars and clubs out, as a foreigner, be prepared to have many pictures taken with you and perhaps even bought a free drink!

A Buddhist character at the Great Mengle Buddha Temple, Jinghong.

Overall Xishuangbanna is a unique, beautiful and amazing place and a destination that every backpacker should consider if they want to get off the beaten path, out of their comfort zone and experience a different blend of southeast Asia in the wonderfully diverse province of Yunnan China.

Written by: Bryce Sellers.

The post Xishuangbanna: A Little Southeast Asia in China appeared first on South East Asia Backpacker.

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Sweet Life Community Guesthouse is located in Lanta Old Town, a working fisherman’s village on the quieter east coast of the island of Koh Lanta. This beautifully designed building, with both dorm beds and private rooms, is less of a guesthouse and more of a ‘shared house’ where you’ll feel right at home as you settle into laid back island life…

What makes Sweet Life Community Guesthouse a Best Hostel?

The owners – The guesthouse is run by Maayan and Mon, a lovely Dutch-Thai couple (and their daughter Millie) who have so much energy and enthusiasm for their wonderful guesthouse and the island itself. They can give you tips on which deserted beaches to kayak to, where to get the cheapest and most delicious local breakfast, where to get your laundry done for 20 baht, where to hire a scooter… and myriad other things. Make sure you read the yellow booklet when you check in, it’s full of awesome advice about Lanta Old Town and the island!

Make yourself at home – Unlike many guesthouses in SE Asia, this one has no reception and no staff hanging around asking you what your plans for the day are… You are handed a key when you arrive and told to treat the place like home. The result? You feel immediately relaxed and instantly become housemates with the fellow guests. There’s a kitchen where you can cook your own food, a comfy lounge area, outside terrace and plenty of bathrooms for everyone. Maayan is contactable all day on Whatsapp to answer any questions you may have – but other than that, you can come and go as you please!

The Location – The best beaches in Koh Lanta are located on the west side of the island (only 15 minutes by bike from Lanta Old Town), which explains why the west coast is packed with holiday resorts. This has been a blessing in disguise for the east coast, whose stony, mangrove-clad shores have retained much more of a local feel. Lanta Old Town is a really special place, originally established by Thai fishing families who built simple wooden houses on stilts above the water. A few years ago, you couldn’t even stay here, but now the town is opening up to tourists and there are a few trendy cafés, boutique shops and great restaurants with amazing sea views. The photos below are the views from our bedroom in the morning…

Cooking with MonWith only 5-star reviews on Trip Advisor (out of 87 reviews!), Mon’s cooking class is fast becoming one of the ‘must-do’ activities on the island. We reckon that Mon himself has a lot to do with that. His jokes and easy-going personality are the perfect combination to an afternoon’s cooking. The first person (or persons) to book on the class get to choose what dishes will be cooked that day, anything from spring rolls to massaman curry. There are a total of four dishes that will be cooked, and of course, devoured, so make sure you have a light breakfast! The class starts at 11 am every day and you can book to join even if you’re not staying at Sweet Life.

Beautiful design – I just have to mention the interior design of Sweet Life Guesthouse as you’re really hard pushed to come across a lovelier place to stay in the whole of SE Asia. With lots of plants, basket chairs, lovely lamps, sumptuous cushions, elegant throws and dream catchers above the beds, the attention to detail is superb. The showers are hot and powerful, the WIFI is fast and the bed is super comfy. I’d say a home from home, but my home wasn’t this neat!

Sweet Prices at Sweet Life!
  • 350 baht for bed in a 4-bed dormitory room.
  • 440 baht for a double room.
  • 650 baht for a double room with sea view.

(These are low season prices.)

How to book?

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The rough amateurish sign read:

“The Middle of Somewhere”*

It was fixed haphazardly, not intended to last long. “Word-of-mouth” would suffice instead. Backpackers would find it no problem. So they did. Job done!

The name was apt, ushering in tiny Sen Monorom, the capital of Mondulkiri’s, transition from ‘a nowhere to a somewhere’. The sign was as unprepossessing as the early visitors it beckoned. Cambodia’s remotest and largest province, Mondulkiri, had suddenly entered the world of tourism, for good or for ill.

Tourists arrive at Bou Sra Waterfall, Mondulkiri, Cambodia.

It wasn’t the first place where I’d seen this. Gisenyi in Rwanda was another. It is a border town in Eastern Rwanda, synonymous with genocide; an erupted volcano; and roads full of fleeing refugees. The asylum seekers had nowhere to go to, only somewhere to escape from, and eventually return to. Once back home, they didn’t have long to wait for curious visitors to arrive.

Even earlier than Rwanda, I was around in the 1990s when many lake-shore villages of Malawi opened-up for the first-time to the outside world. Intrepid adventurers were following in the footsteps of famous missionary David Livingstone.

Today, I see a familiar pattern in all three countries.

The first foreign visitors, especially after conflict or disaster, are people like me – aid and development workers. 

Next, sometimes even beating us there, are… backpackers.

Backpackers in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

Most are just passing through, as they do, their length of stay dictated more by shoestring budgets than attractions to be discovered or savoured.

Backpackers don’t go somewhere to make changes, nor do they expect changes to be made for them. Some put down roots, enamoured by a place. They even start businesses, with or for locals and other backpackers. They are, as I say, usually unprepossessing. Despite their bad reputation, more often than not, the most responsible of visitors, unlike those who follow in their wake.

If there are no fancy hotels or restaurants; no air-conditioned luxury coaches, and no shops piled high with wares, there isn’t much to spend your money on, even if you have a lot.

Even guides like Lonely Planet may not help visitors get truly off the beaten track. They’re on their own without any of the creature comforts of home. Is that not the experience most backpackers want? They go to embrace local people and their culture. So that’s where most of their money ends up. Local restaurants, the same places as the locals eat, family-run guesthouses and shops.

A backpacker pays at a local restaurant at the Bagan temples in Myanmar.

Of course, more salubrious tourists, arriving later on their packaged guided tours, hope for similar authenticity, except their trips tend to be artificial; contrived; sanitized, simply “safe” imitations. Often hardly a penny is spent in local, host economies, rather large tourist corporations, big hotel chains and restaurants, shopping malls selling Western brands.

Backpackers may not spend a lot, but almost every one of their dollars stays in the local economy.

It begs the question, “Why does backpacking not feature in tourism developments?”

Why do backpackers get a bad rap, out of proportion to the tiny fraction who misbehave?

In Southeast Asia, it’s the Full Moon Party and ‘Tubing in Vang Vieng’ which are always quoted in arguments about how detrimental backpackers are to local culture.

You see, you don’t need expensive infrastructure for backpackers. They’re happier to stay in modest local abodes. Few hanker for purpose-built uniform complexes of imported steel; concrete and expensive fittings brought halfway around the world.

That is the pattern of tourism. It is seen most visibly around Angkor Wat, Siem Reap, Cambodia’s most famous and popular international tourist spot. Today, it’s far cry from the 1990s. Millions of visitors jet in to the hundreds of four and five-star hotels. Despite that, Siem Reap province remains as poor as others in Cambodia.

One of the many five-star hotels in Siem Reap.

Tiny Saint Helena Island, so-called “Secret of the South Atlantic” is about to follow suit right now in 2017, for good or for ill. It is definitely a speck in the middle of nowhere.

Its new airport is at long last able to take regular flights, after a two-year delay due to wind shear. The cheapest flight, at over $1,000 USD, is off-putting to backpackers and humble Saint Helenians who left home to live and work abroad.

However, despite that, the island is just about the perfect destination to hang out and its people welcoming. Those close companions of the backpacker – the overseas volunteer – can vouch to that.  Several have made their way there; settled and left their mark.

Airlines like backpackers. They put ‘bums on seats’ making routes more viable. Powers-that-be behind Saint Helena’s tourist plan (or is it an experiment?), reckon there’s no need for them. They anticipate that flights will be full. So will all the higher-end accommodation on offer. We’ll see when the novelty and initial rush wears off. For now, though, there are no budget hostels.

Will Saint Helena miss the first taste of responsible tourism that backpackers often provide?

Jamestown Port at Saint Helena Island.

Author Notes on the article:

The “Middle of Somewhere Café” was named and opened by American Bill Herod, long-time development worker and resident in Cambodia. He moved to Mondulkiri for his active retirement. His aim was not just to cater for budget travellers but start an enterprise to benefit the poor “Bunong” indigenous people. He helped them to produce and market handicrafts and provided a refreshing breakfast to market traders who often walked hours during the night over rough terrain to sell their wares.

Bill Herod outside his café “The Middle of Somewhere” in Mondulkiri, Cambodia.

About the author:

John Lowrie is a human resources officer by profession. He has been an aid and development worker since 1985, in developing countries St Helena Island; Malawi, Rwanda and in Cambodia from 1998. There he has been country representative of three international NGOs and formal adviser to nine local development and human rights organisations. There are recurring threads through his published articles and blogs. Responsible or ethical development especially tourism has featured increasingly since 2000.  He was among the first to observe the harmful aspects of “voluntourism” and the proliferation of dubious “orphanages” taking advantage of tourists while exploiting children.

At the same time, as described in this article, he observed former indigenous people’s lands opened up to all kinds of development, displacing them from their lands and traditional livelihoods. “Eco-tourism” may help. However, facilities like those offered by Bill Herod are now being supplanted by higher-end hotels, filled up with package tourists, operated by outside interests with little or no regard for local people.

John’s thoughts about backpackers and their notable absence from Saint Helena’s tourist plans were hatched over a beer in Phnom Penh, as captured on his blog here.

The post “Backpacker Tourism can be a Force for Good.” Says Aid & Development Worker appeared first on South East Asia Backpacker.

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