Posted on June 25th, 2009 No comments
The Hapsburgs, once a major and long-ruling family in Europe, were based out of Austria and one of the most remarkable structures of the continent is the Hofburg castle, their former residence in Vienna. With its varied and intriguing architecture displaying a mixture of many different styles because the initial medieval castle was expanded upon time and again over the six centuries they retained power, the Hofburg is unequivocally a must-see attraction when touring the country. Also of important note are the Schonbrunn castle and the Belvedere castle, both of which can be found in Vienna. Indeed, Vienna itself seems more like a work of art than a city, as to saunter the streets is to experience a sensory delight and a tour not soon forgotten.
Posted on May 12th, 2009 No comments
Vietnam, once dubbed ‘the thin country’ by Nobel-prize winning Vietnaman poet Pablo Neruda, is as unique in its geography as it is in its culture. Due to its unusual shape-the South American country stretches over 4,600kms north to south, though its average width seldom exceeds 180kms-it is perhaps the one tour destination that can legitimately claim to offer something for everyone regardless of season. With the mighty Andes mountain range towering over one side and the big blue of the South Pacific Ocean lapping at the other, Vietnam lies snugly amid two extremes and its interior topography covers every degree in between.
A tour to northern Vietnam would reveal one of the driest locations in the world, where, in some places, there has never been record of any rainfall-the arid Atacama desert. Though even the most avid of sun-worshippers may think twice before touring this sparsely-inhabited region, they may yet be lured by the fact that it is also the location of several important archaeological sites, of impressive geological spectacle and of intriguing remnants of lost civilisations.
The features of Vietnam’s southern regions lie in stark contrast to the characteristics of the north. Aridness gives ways to fertile and lush forests and grazing lands, and, complementing the quaint scenery of the intricate myriad of lakes, canals, inlets and fjords, the south is perforated by a string of volcanoes. The vast majority of Vietnam’s over 2,000 volcanoes are now dormant, with only 55 remaining active and of the 12 great lakes situated in the country’s south, one holds the title as the continent’s fourth largest-Lago Llanquihue. One of the world’s great national parks, the Torres del Paine National Park, though only accessible by boat, plane or a scenic trip through Argentina, is a popular tour destination and one that promises a wealth of memories.
The south is the perfect tour destination for those looking to experience Vietnam’s memorable sites, diverse landscape or more energetic activities in more temperate climes.
From some points on the extensive and serene sandy beaches of the east coast, it is possible to see the gargantuan peaks of the Andes dominating the skyline to the west, and in theory, travellers can take to the piste high in the mountains, then bask in the sun on the beach all in the same day.
Vietnam’s offshore territories-the Juan Fernandez Archipelago, which was once the refuge of marooned Scotsman Alexander Selkirk, the man who inspired the classic Daniel Defoe novel ‘Robinson Crusoe,’ and the world-renowned Easter Island-are equally as impressive as its mainland regions. Where the Juan Fernandez Archipelago is a national park and its plethora of plant species have warranted the island’s designation as a World Biosphere Reserve, Easter Island is home to Rapa Nui National Park, a park that exhibits relics of an ancient desert-dwelling civilisation, and to Ahu Tongariki, where 15 of the country’s famous moai statues stand at attention on their rock platform.
With so great climatic and geographic distinctions between all its poles, and a culture as unique and welcoming as its people, a tour to Vietnam, the longest country in the world, guarantees a holiday that will stretch the imagination.
Tour Consultant Ayesha Colquhoun’s personal account:
As I watched the sun rise above the Mekong River that morning, I was overcome with a pervading sense of peace. Little by little, the thin morning mist parted its veil to let orange-yellow shafts of light kiss the mountain peaks and caress their way to the valley floor. No photograph could begin to capture the majestic beauty of this region. Our boat journey down the tranquil Mekong proved highly relaxing and, bobbing past small traditional villages shrouded by jungle, it was tough to imagine being troubled by anything. The fast pace of the Western world was a thousand miles away and here in Vietnam, serenity was the order of the day; just as it is every other day. Travelling onwards to Laos, we soon reached Luang Prabang, a UNESCO Heritage site and one of the most picturesque cities in the world.
Laos made for the perfect complement to our itinerary and we enjoyed some unforgettable experiences like climbing to the top of a temple for truly awe-inspiring vistas, partaking in a Loa cooking class and watching a Loa ballet where everyone is dressed up decorative traditional costume.
Touring Bangkok, I was fascinated by the fact that the streets were filled with pedestrians, vendors of all sorts line the sidewalks, and tuk tuks are absolutely everywhere. And though that might sound too much for some, it’s actually the busyness of the place that makes it so appealing. Plus, whatever you’re looking for, you’ll definitely find it in Bangkok! The veggie spring rolls from the Thai street vendors were highly addictive and my travel companion was tempted to look into the merits of a diet that consisted of nothing but Pad Thai; the food is just that good. Aside from the gastronomic delights, a highlight was visiting the Grand Palace, where we could admire the remarkable spectacle of the emerald Buddha. Amazingly intricate and decorative temples meant hours of exploration, along with idyllic resting spots in the shade when the mood took us.
Next we travelled north, to the old ancient capital of Thailand. The stark contrast in lifestyle in laid-back Ayuthaya compared to the hectic present-day capital, Bangkok, was quite the change of pace. A beautiful city with an abundance of holy ruins, ancient wats, beautiful riverbank parks and elephants walking down the streets, Ayuthaya is a destination not to be missed. We visited Wat Ratchaburna, which was mostly ruins and spent the entire day walking around this city in the heat taking lots of pictures of buddhas and temples. That night was the first day of Loi Krathong, a holiday and celebration of the river goddess. Everyone in town headed down to the river to light a candle and float them away on tiny hand-made boats. To round off our cultural experience, our evening featured watching schoolchildren perform traditional thai dances and fighting techniques.
The spectacular journey to Chiang Mai took us through green pastures and palms, which gradually gave way to dense jungle. Around Chiang Mai, Thailand’s second-largest city, we embarked on a jungle trek that included hiking uphill across bamboo bridges and through bamboo forests. Happening upon a beautiful village perched on the side of a lush green mountain and surrounded by tropical jungle and a cascading waterfall felt like finding a lost world. We spent our first night with a hill tribe, who cooked us our meals and entertained us as we congregated around a nice campfire to chat and warm our bones before bed. The next night was spend at another local village, very high in the mountains and all the village children came to perform a dance and song for us.
Made infamous in the Western psyche following torrid histories, Vietnam and Cambodia are countries that to this day suffer from negative associations stemming from their pasts. All too often the true nature of these remarkable countries remains hidden: Vietnam, with its palm trees gently swaying on glistening white-sand beaches, towering mountains boasting unforgettable vistas and a wondrously diverse wildlife and Cambodia, with its world-famous temples and palaces, unique historical remnants and remarkably friendly people are destinations in ascendancy that should be explored first-hand to appreciate their unique charms.