Take to the sand in Vietnam
Parched desert sands are not the usual landscape in South-East Asia, but Mui Ne, statistically the driest part of Vietnam, comes close to recreating a Saharan wilderness in the tropics. Forget about heading to the beach for kitesurfing or windsurfing – the Binh Thuan desert is the place to go for some adrenalin-fuelled action. Vast dunes melt from warm reds and golds to pure white as they meander through the landscape in the south of the country. It’s possible to make the 65km trip from local town Phan Thiet by motorbike, but hiring a jeep is a better option. This allows you to enjoy the scenic drive, with options to stop off at the local ‘fairy springs’, dunes and red-sand canyons, and to test your mettle with some four-wheel-drive off-road action. Remember to pack your bathing suit – the Bao Trang (‘White Lake’) area has three
lotus-bedecked lakes: Bau Ba (‘Lady Lake’), which is the largest, Bau Ong (‘Gentleman Lake’) and the smaller Bau Xoai (‘Mango Lake’).
The surrounding ponds offer the opportunity for a refreshing dip. At many spots you’ll find a small battalion of kids keen to rent you a tea tray-style sled and point you towards some of the steeper sandy slopes. They’ll also flog you cans of ice-cool soft drinks once you’ve exhausted your legs and sense of adventure, as you climb back up the dunes after each speedy trip down. Photographers should try to catch sunrise (5.30-6.30am) or sunset (6-7pm) for the most spectacular shots.
From UAE: Fly Qatar Airways (www.qatarairways.com) to Ho Chi Minh City. Prices start from Dhs2,701, including taxes. Mui Ne beach and Phan Thiet town are located between Nha Trang and Ho Chi Minh City. Hire a car for the four- to five-hour drive, or take one of the twice-daily north-south buses from either direction (around US$6, Dhs22).
Feel the heat in Indonesia
No trip to Jogjakarta is complete without paying homage to the world’s most-watched volcano, the 2,968m-high Mount Merapi. Just half an hour’s travel north of the city and constantly monitored by volcanologists, Merapi has erupted 68 times since 1548. Deadly eruptions in 1930 and 1994 saw a total of 1,360 people killed, and the volcano’s last violent flare-up in 2006 forced some 15,000 people to flee the surrounding villages.
So why on earth would you want to climb this volcano? Well, other than the chance to see some bubbling lava, Merapi is couched in some pretty cool folklore – so much so that, in 2006, many of the thousands of residents asked to evacuate initially refused to budge, believing they would be in no danger until lightning struck the peak. Today, locals maintain that the volcano (which, incidentally, is believed to have a magical kingdom upon its peak) continues to protect the city of Jogjakarta, ensuring peace and prosperity for its people. As you climb the volcano (a guide is necessary) you’ll see a few unnerving signs: ‘Danger Zone’, ‘Level 3’, and ‘World’s Most Watched Volcano’. You’ll also be told that under no circumstances should you climb to the peak: it’s been banned since 1994 and presumably for good reason. Unscrupulous guides will offer to take you, but it’s at your own risk, and the last point you’re likely to reach has signs that translate as: ‘Highest Risk, No People’. But more importantly, you’re probably not dressed for entry to the magic kingdom anyway.
From UAE: Fly Emirates (www.emirates.com) direct to Jogjakarta. Prices start from Dhs1,057 return, including taxes. Take a taxi, bus, pedicab or minivan to the town of Kaliurang and book yourself into Vogel’s Hostel on Jalan Astamulya No 76, Kaliurang, Jogjakarta (+62 2 7489 5208).
Get spooked in the Philippines
For an unforgettable combination of intriguing local history, urban mythology and an unexpected take on the present, pay a visit to the Manila Film Center. A large building located near Manila Bay, it was built by former Philippine president Ferdinand Marcos (husband of Imelda) in 1982, and it’s said to be haunted by some unfortunate spirits.
As the story goes, the structure was being rushed to completion when a scaffolding accident led to a number of workers drowning in a floor of quick-drying cement. To save time, the dead workers were supposedly left in place and their bodies simply entombed in more cement. Since then, there have been reports of ghost sightings in the building. The site was abandoned after the Marcos dictatorship ended and it has since been condemned, as the structure is no longer safe. Today the locals still won’t go near it, but ironically a partially renovated portion of it is now being used to stage cabaret shows for Korean tourists.
From UAE: Fly Emirates (www.emirates.com) direct to Manila. Prices start from Dhs1,445 return, including taxes Once there, take a taxi to the site (CCP Complex, Senator Gil Puyat Avenue, Reclamation Area, Manila). Visitors can explore the grounds without restriction, although the main entrance is often locked. Alternatively, check out Manila native Carlos Celdran’s walking tours of the CCP complex. Email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
Get lost in Cambodia
If you fancy the idea of escapism but are not prepared to rough it too much, then Bamboo Island is the ideal place. Located 10km off Sihanoukville’s busy shoreline, Ko Russei (the island’s Cambodian name) is ideal for travellers on a budget. This small but perfectly formed island has two white-sand beaches and only two or three resorts, all of which offer basic but charming beach bungalows for around US$10 (Dhs36) a night. It only takes 10 minutes to walk through the jungle across to the other side of the island, where there is a longer and even more deserted beach with just a few goats grazing nearby. And unlike the mainland beaches, there’s no one to hassle you as you relax on the sand. If you’re lucky enough to witness one of the early-morning tropical storms that occasionally pass over, you’ll be treated to an unforgettable experience as you seek shelter on your veranda and watch the nature gods battle it out in this unspoilt part of the world. Our recommendation: pay a visit while it remains that way.
From UAE: Fly to Phnom Penh on China Southern (www.cs-air.com). Prices start from Dhs1,624 return, including taxes. From there, head to Capitol Guesthouse (No 14AE0, Road 182, www.capitolkh.com)
to catch a four-hour bus ride out to Sihanoukville. From there it’s a 45-minute boat journey to the island.
Tour the turtle temple in Bangkok
When visiting the bustling Thai capital, the common tourist advice for viewing the City of Angels is: if you’ve seen one temple, you’ve seen ’em all. But not this one. The Temple of the Turtles (called ‘Wat Prayun Wongsawat’ in Thai) stands out. Built in the mid-1800s, the temple was commissioned by the reigning monarch of the time, Rama III, whose diary reveals that he was moved and inspired by the shapes formed by melting wax. Locals who know this obscure story sometimes joke (when they dare) that the architect must have been burning way too many candles when he designed this temple.
It actually looks like it’s melting. Even the gilded Buddha is housed in a small cave, the roof of which slopes so steeply that one has to stoop even to enter. Inside, look for urns shaped like farm animals, cacti and even ranch estates. But, most importantly, watch out for the turtles. There are hundreds meandering the grounds. Local belief is that feeding them will earn you extra merit, but beware – they bite. The Temple of the Turtles is undoubtedly an unusual place, but it’s not the first time this location has seen oddities. Before the temple was built, this same site was where British businessman Robert Hunter spotted Chang and Eng, the first internationally known pair of Siamese twins. After their ‘discovery’, the pair left Thailand (then called Siam) for the US, where they married two American sisters, with whom they had – wait for it – 21 children. Imagine the nappies.
From UAE: Fly Qatar Airways (www.qatarairways.com) to Bangkok. Prices start from Dhs1,029 return, including taxes. From there, take a taxi out to Thetsaban, Soi 1. The temple is open daily from 9am-6pm.