Blogger Jessica Marati

Introducing another new blogger at Gadling, Jessica Marati…

Where was your photo taken: This photo was taken on my family’s beach in the southern part of Guam, the tiny Pacific island territory where I grew up. It’s probably one of my favorite places on the face of the earth.

Where do you live now: I’m based in New York, but I’ve spent the last several months living in Phnom Penh, where I’ve been researching and writing about ethical fashion, sustainability, and travel.

Scariest airline flown: Laos Airlines, on a particularly memorable flight from Hanoi to Luang Prabang. I had been warned that their track record was less than perfect, so I was hyper-sensitive to every unfamiliar whirr and pressure dip. The landing was bumpy, but thankfully I’m still here.

Favorite city/country/place: Are four-way ties allowed? New York, Paris, Bali, and the aforementioned beach.

Most remote corner of the globe visited: Probably Carp Island, a private island in the Palau archipelago in Micronesia. One night, we were sitting on the dock when the sea started lighting up in brilliant blues and greens — my first encounter with bioluminescent plankton. All seven people staying on the island came out to watch. Combined with a star-filled sky, it was pure magic. Tierra del Fuego was pretty quiet too.

Favorite guidebook series: These days, I’m really digging my iPod Touch and the variety of travel tools available in the iTunes App store. Triposo offers free interactive city guides, World Nomads has great phrasebooks, and nothing beats TripAdvisor for the latest hotel and restaurant reviews. I also like to save travel articles, like the New York Times 36 Hours series, to my Instapaper for later reading. It’s allowed me to ditch the massive Lonely Planet budget guides I used to haul around.

Solo or group traveler? A little bit of both. I love taking trips to visit friends living abroad, because I get to experience the place with more context and better restaurant recommendations.

Favorite means of transportation: Hopping on the backs of motorbikes here in Cambodia used to terrify me, but now I’ve become quite used to it. Nothing beats weaving through oncoming traffic with the wind blowing through your hair.

Favorite foreign dish? Restaurant? My Roman grandmother makes the absolute best parmigiana di melanzane (eggplant parmesan). Beats any restaurant in Italy, or anywhere else for that matter.

Dream travel destination: Havana, Cuba. I think this might be the year!

Luang Prabang – 3 days in Laos

Luang Prabang

Luang Prabang is lush, quaint, and improbable. This magical town of butterflies and baguettes seems to exist on dreamlike terms – an island of civility in the savage jungle of Laos. Sometimes a pinch is justifiable to confirm the reality of it all. The green hills, gorgeous colonial buildings, and kind villagers all combine to form a thriving UNESCO heritage city that is Southeast Asia with the charming vestiges of a distant French occupation.

High in the clouds, Luang Prabang holds many treasures for the travelers willing to make the trip. Aromas from fresh bakeries mingle with the crisp mountain air along quiet streets lined with quaint guesthouses and colorful noodle stands. The easiest route to Luang Prabang is on a flight from Bangkok on Bangkok Airways, though domestic flights from Vientiane near the Thai border are also possible on Lao Airlines. Another popular route is by bus from Vientiane. A Laos visa can be obtained upon arrival and costs $35 for U.S. citizens.

Three days is barely enough time to take in the full experience of Luang Prabang, but if planned correctly, you will have time to ride elephants, swim in waterfalls, and take a lazy trip down the Mekong river.

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luang prabangDay 1 – Rent a bike and explore
Arriving in Luang Prabang by plane from Bangkok or Vientiane feels like landing on another planet. Green and misty like Endor, I half expected to be whisked away to my guesthouse on a speeder bike. But no, you have two basic choices for transportation in Luang Prabang: tuk tuk or car. After arriving at your guesthouse in your chosen mode of transport, rent a bike and explore Luang Prabang. Daily bike rentals should cost no more than a few dollars. It is impossible to get irreparably lost in the small UNESCO Heritage city, and locals are happy to guide your exploratory whims. Discover gold roofed temples like Wat Xieng Thong, lazy stretches of the Mekong river, and guesthouses with brightly painted shutters that retain their 19th century colonial charm. Drop by an open air restaurant along the Mekong for some fresh noodle soup.

In the center of Luang Prabang is Phou Si hill. It affords majestic views of Luang Prabang and the surrounding valley. The trek up the hill passes a number of interesting features like a dark cave filled with statues, Buddha’s footprint, and at the summit, the temple of That Chomsi.

After a day spent exploring, duck into Tamarind for a tasty and educational modern Lao meal. This small eatery is committed to providing authenticity, and their menu explains the finer points of Lao cuisine in an insightful manner. If you show up around 5:00pm and sit on the patio, then you will be treated to the echoing chants of monks from a nearby wat. Wash down the spicy dishes with an ice cold Beer Lao.

As far as lodging is concerned, Lotus Villa is a great somewhat inexpensive option with huge rooms, a lush courtyard, and a delicious breakfast. Guesthouses can assist with the logistics of all your adventures.


luang prabang

Day 2 – Elephants and a trip down the Mekong
The old name of the Laos, Lan Xang, means land of a million elephants. While the numbers have dwindled significantly since the age of the old kingdom over 500 years ago, many elephants still roam the dense forests of the countryside. On the Nam khan river outside of Luang Prabang is an elephant sanctuary called the Elephant Village. The scenic location in the misty hills provides a perfect place to interact with the pachyderms. You can ride an elephant down the river or even learn how to be a mahout – an elephant trainer. It is a fantastic experience and strolling down the river on a lumbering beast is memorable indeed.

Most of the elephants have been rescued from logging operations that threatened their lives. One of the resident elephants, Mae San, was given massive doses of ecstasy and amphetamines so that she would stay up all night and day logging. It seems the elephants are well cared for by the sanctuary, and tourism revenue keeps them well fed.


Upon return from your morning elephant adventure, head to the Mekong and enlist the service of a boatman to take you downstream to check out river life. Lao boatmen ply the rivers in long narrow boats, and the sights along the river include a whiskey village, river life, water buffaloes, and the Pak Ou caves if you have the time.

The Luang Prabang night market is a great final stop to any day. Stalls sell an assortment of offerings from opium pipes to crepes to snake whiskey. It is not a dull scene.


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Day 3 – Morning alms, waterfalls, and bears in hammocks
In order to catch the morning alms, you will need to rise with the sun. At around 6am, orange cloaked monks take to the streets by the hundreds to collect morning offerings, or alms. They clutch small bowls that villagers fill with sticky rice, candy, gifts, and other offerings. If you stay at Lotus Villa or another guesthouse along the monks’ path, then they can arrange mats and sticky rice for you to donate. They will also instruct you on the details of the procession so that you commit no major faux pas.

luang prabang After the monks return to their wats, arrange a driver to take you to Kuang Si Falls. The waterfall complex includes a number of falls and ponds ideal for swimming, so bring your bathing suit. Be sure to try your hand at the rope swing at the blue natural pool near the entrance. If you are feeling brave, follow the “do not enter signs” to unearth a hidden natural infinity pool. Located at the top of the main falls, reaching the unbelievably cool hangout requires climbing a hill, snaking back around through the jungle, and finally pulling yourself up over a small waterfall. As you sit in the pool, overlooking the jungle beyond, you will be thankful that you found your way to this small paradisal enclave. It is one of the coolest spots on the planet. Ask around to get hints on the path.

Near the entrance to Kuang Si Falls is an Asiatic black bear sanctuary and rescue center. Stop by to observe the marvelous creatures that are sadly a popular target of poachers. Most of the bears have been rescued, and they lounge around in hammocks, which is splendid indeed.

For dinner on your last evening, drop in to Blue Lagoon or L’Elephant. L’Elephant has one of the best French/Lao fusion kitchens in Luang Prabang. Both restaurants are smart bistros, and Blue Lagoon has an open courtyard teeming with tropical plants and romantic lighting.

Extras
If you have some extra time in the region, then a plethora of options exist. Mountain biking, kayaking, trekking, and visiting hill tribes are all popular possibilities. Also, if you are taking ground transport back to Vientiane, stop off in Vang Vieng for a few days. Here in the middle of Laos, thousands of backpackers visit each year to inter-tube down an especially lazy stretch of the Nam Song river. The river jaunt is serviced by many shoreline bars serving ice-cold beers, and the experience has become a rite of passage on the modern banana pancake trail.

luang prabang

All photography by Justin Delaney

Gadling’s favorite destinations for 2011

gadling favorite destinations 2011

We travel a lot, to destinations both well-known and unfamiliar. In our defense, it is our job to travel like mad, to explore the world and then write about our discoveries.

Though most travel writers find something or other of interest in most places we visit, there are always those personal favorites that rise above the rest. This year, we decided to scribble our favorites down for you. Some of these spots we’re tipping for greater coverage in 2011, while others are simply tried-and-true favorites that we can’t stop raving about to our friends and the various publications that allow us to write for them. Over the course of this week, we’ll weigh in on our favorite hotels, airlines, gadgets, apps, and websites.

So, without further ado: Gadling’s favorite destinations for 2011.

Mike Barish. St. Kitts. I genuinely enjoy how locals and visitors frequent the same beach bars and restaurants. During evenings on the strip, I’d recognize staff members from my hotel doing the same thing I was doing: enjoying the ocean breeze with a cocktail and some jerk chicken.

Kraig Becker. Everest Base Camp, Nepal. For adventure travelers, a visit to Everest Base Camp is one of the best treks in the world. The 12-day hike isn’t just about the destination, however, as you walk in the shadow of the Himalaya each day, passing through sleepy mountain villages steeped in Sherpa culture along the way. The scenery, and altitude, is a breathtaking once-in-a-lifetime adventure.
Catherine Bodry: Ko Chang, Thailand and Sayulita, Mexico.

Joel Bullock: My favorite new roller coaster of 2010 is Carowinds’ Intimidator. Carowinds is located on the border of North and South Carolina in Charlotte in the heart of NASCAR country. It was only fitting that the park design a racing-themed roller coaster that bears the nickname of racing legend Dale Earnhadt. Intimidator is an exciting ride. It’s the tallest, fastest, and longest roller coaster in the South East.

David Downie: As a general trend, I revisit places that have fallen off the tourist maps, or that have been taken for granted, and delve deeper into favorite destinations such as Paris and Rome, which are infinitely rich and fascinating and satisfying. Cities: Paris (art, culture, walks, museums, food, wine), Rome (art, culture, walks, museums, food, wine), Genoa (food, wine, scenic beauty, history, magically restored architecture), Bologna (food, food, food and atmosphere and architecture), Helsinki (scenic beauty, atmosphere, seafood). Countryside destinations: Burgundy (wine, food, vineyard and mountain scenery), Massif Central (hikes, scenery), Drome-Provencal (ditto, plus truffles and wine), Tuscany (art, culture, museums, wine, food, vineyard and mountain scenery), Italian Riviera (ditto).

Don George. (1) Peru‘s Sacred Valley. I finally made it there this year and was enchanted by scenery, history, culture, people, cuisine. Machu Picchu is of course life-transformingly amazing but the other untouted ruins all around the valley are equally amazing. (2) Kyoto, Japan. The cobbled back quarters of this ancient city are as enchanting now as they were when I first visited 30 years ago. Tiny temples, impromptu shakuhachi concerts, apprentice geisha in full splendor. (3) Aitutaki, Cook Islands. Incredible island scenery, hospitable people, stunning lagoon, peaceful and laid-back lifestyle, thriving dance, carving, and textile arts scene.

Tom Johansmeyer. If you’re a cigar smoker, nothing beats Esteli, Nicaragua. On just about any budget, you can spend a few days down there. Make a few calls in advance, and you’ll have the opportunity to tour tobacco fields and cigar factories. Even if you aren’t a smoker, it’s amazing to see such craftsmanship in action.

Jeremy Kressmann. Hanoi, Vietnam for its great history and architecture, awesome cuisine, and intriguing Cold War sights. Secondly, Laos. The rugged north of the country has great hikes and the buzzing cultural capital of Luang Prabang is totally worthwhile.

Grant Martin. Bogotá. Forget what you’ve heard about kidnappings, drugs and danger, Bogotá is the new cosmopolitan capital of South America. With quaint, brick streets, a buzzing commercial district and a hip, young population, there’s not much to dislike about this place. Get there before the rest of North America figures it out.

Melanie Nayer. Shanghai. The city of old and new hit a turning point when it hosted the World Expo, and set the stage for Shanghai to become one of the most talked about–and visited–cities in the world.

Sean McLachlan. Ethiopia. Friendly people, rugged scenery, historic sites, and great coffee. What more could you want? Beautiful women, good food, adventure travel? Ethiopia has all that too.

Laurel Miller. Ecuador, especially Cotopaxi National Park (see above), because it’s stunningly beautiful, uncrowded, and there are loads of outdoor recreational opportunities. Ecuador is an amazingly diverse country, kind of like a mini-Peru but with very low-key tourism. There’s also great whitewater rafting/kayaking and mountaineering, fascinating indigenous culture, beautiful colonial cities, delicious regional foods, and the people are wonderful. There’s so much more to Ecuador than just the (admittedly spectacular) Galapagos.

Meg Nesterov. Bulgaria is cheap, creative, and easy to explore. Several of my most well-traveled friends already rave about it. Go now before tourism overexposes the country.

Heather Poole. Positano, Italy. It’s just so beautiful and the food is amazing. I’m a flight attendant and I have a four year-old son, as well as a husband who travels over 100,000 miles a year for business. Our life is like a game of tag. So when it comes to vacations all we want to do is relax. I love to be able to sit on a balcony and let the vacation come to me.

McLean Robbins. Telluride. It’s not new, but as ski towns go it feels non-commercial and relatively untouched. You’ll find truly friendly people (and your fair share of under-the-radar celebrities), but also the country’s best extreme skiing. And it looks like heaven when it snows!

Annie Scott. I’m big on Vienna. It’s a magical city that embodies everything I think of when I think of Europe: culture, history, cathedrals and class. I think the Swiss Riviera may be the most beautiful place I’ve ever been. Lake Geneva looks so pristine you could drink it, and the French influence gives everything from the dining to the shopping that elusive je ne sais quoi. Lastly, I had a marvelous trip this year in Zambia where the wildlife was rampant and the scenery was enchanting and unexpectedly dynamic: sweeping plains, dreamlike riverscapes and incredible trees. The thrill of being immersed in the bush is hard to match.

Alex Robertson Textor. Lima, Peru continues to pop. While the Inca Trail is old hat, Lima is emerging as a major destination on its own. Perhaps most notable is the Peruvian capital’s excellent restaurant scene, which is as disarmingly inexpensive as it is top-notch. I also have to mention green, rustic, jaw-droppingly beautiful Dominica as the Caribbean’s top adventure destination. Dominica has a number of fantastic eco-lodges that showcase the island’s natural beauty wonderfully and are priced reasonably.

Karen Walrond. As a diver, I love Cayman. Love it. Very touristy, but the diving is beyond anything I’ve seen, and i’ve been diving all over the world. And I’m partial to Grand Riviere in my homeland of Trinidad, which isn’t touristy at all. Between April and June, you can see Giant Leatherback turtles nesting in Grand Riviere.

[Image: Flickr | alepheli]

Photo of the day (2.25.10)

Today’s photo of the day comes from Many Moon Honeymoon who stumbled upon a natural “infinity pool.”

He explains:

Tat Kuang Si waterfall is about 32km outside Luang Prabang in Laos. After taking this photograph, I went for a swim. The edge of the pool, where water spills over the side is heavily overhung, and there is about a 10 metre drop below to the next pool. It has to be the best infinity pool in the world. The water was very refreshing after a hard slog up the hill in the humid weather too!

Read more about his around the world honeymoon here.

Do you have a picture taken while travelling that you think we’d like? Submit it to the Flickr group Gadling and we’ll consider it for our Photo of the Day.

South by Southeast: Exploring Luang Prabang

Welcome back to Gadling’s series on backpacking in Southeast Asia, South by Southeast. As travelers, we have a tendency to overload our trips with adventure and movement. This is especially true in Southeast Asia – as I’ve discovered in Thailand and Laos, there’s no shortage of motorbikes to ride or zip lines to catch. But if you truly want to understand this part of the world, it’s not a vigorous itinerary you need. Instead, you need to spend a few days on foot, letting the pungent smells, vivid colors and urgent sounds of the Southeast soak into your subconscious. And there’s no better place for this to happen than Luang Prabang.

Located in the sleepy nation of Laos, Luang Prabang is truly a crown jewel of Southeast Asia. This former royal capital, atmospheric river port and UNESCO World Heritage Site has emerged in recent years as one of the region’s newest must-see destinations. It’s not the blockbuster sights that make Luang Prabang such a fantastic place to visit. It’s the simple act of walking and observing that becomes the focus of your stay: exploring fading French villas and evening handicraft markets, sampling the town’s fresh-baked baguettes or watching a procession of orange-robed monks silently march down the road.

This sensory overload is what makes Luang Prabang a must-see for any Southeast Asian traveler’s itinerary. Curious about visiting this underrated Laotian capital of French/Asian style, vivid color and Buddhist serenity? Let’s take a look at some of the essentials and highlights of any Luang Prabang visit. Keep reading below for more.

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Getting There
Luang Prabang is located smack-dab in the middle of Northern Laos, making it easy to reach from points North or South. Overland travelers from Thailand will often stop in the Laos border town of Huay Xai, where a two-day “slow boat” plies the Mekong River all the way to Luang Prabang. From within Laos, frequent buses connect Luang Prabang with the nation’s capital in Vientiane and backpacker hub of Vang Vieng. Luang Prabang’s airstrip is also served by a number of Southeast Asian regional airlines including Bangkok Airways and Lao Airlines.

What to Do
Due to its unique location at the confluence of two rivers, Luang Prabang has long been an important religious, political and economic hub. You’ll find the town reflects this historic grandeur, dotted with ornate Buddhist temples and lavish royal palaces. The main highlights include:

  • Wat Xieng Thong – in a city studded with important Buddhist “Wats,” Wat Xieng Thong is perhaps Luang Prabang’s most ornate and well-known temple complex.
  • Royal Palace – until they were deposed by the Lao Communist Revolution in 1975, the Lao royal family made its home in Luang Prabang. Visitors can tour the ornate royal complex, peering into the King and Queen’s teak-lined living quarters. Out back is a collection of vintage cars gifted by the French and American governments.
  • Night Market – as the sun begins to set each evening, Luang Prabang’s main street is crowded with an huge array of vendors, selling everything from grilled fish to locally made textiles to handicrafts.
  • Kuang Si Falls – about an hour’s ride outside Luang Prabang you’ll find an impressive series of waterfalls at Kuang Si, as well as a swimming area and a “Bear Rescue Center” for mistreated animals.

Keep in mind that “seeing the sights” of Luang Prabang is only half the story: the longer I spent wandering this picturesque river peninsula, the more I enjoyed simply soaking in the town’s unique atmosphere. Make sure to leave some time to simply explore without purpose.

Where to Stay
There are accommodation options in Luang Prabang to suit just about any budget and lifestyle, from luxurious boutique resorts housed in ancient French villas to clean no-frills backpacker haunts. For those on the thrifty side, you’ll find plenty of simple and clean guesthouses (under $10/night) clustered around Sisavong Street near the Joma Bakery. Those looking to splurge should check out 3 Nagas, a beautiful mansion nestled in the heart of Luang Prabang’s historic district (rates start at $125/night).

Gadling writer Jeremy Kressmann is spending the next few months in Southeast Asia. You can read other posts on his adventures “South by Southeast” HERE.