Author Archives: Paul Buxton

Sea turtle. Apo Island, Philippines

Swimming with Turtles on Apo Island

If you have never seen a huge sea turtle, you should head to Apo Island in Southern Philippines. Unlike monuments or mountains, wildlife encounters do not come with guarantees. Weirdly, the Philippines turns this notion on its head. Apo Island, a speck in the Visayas just south of Dumaguete, was the first of several marine life areas in the Philippines that came up with the goods!

Laura throws down a challenge: see a turtle

Laura challenged me to push on with my swimming and snorkeling skills. I had to see turtles, swim over a drop-off, and see some big pelagic fish. We had a bet and this was one I really wanted to win.

The Philippines is a huge country of 7000 islands, but we only had three weeks to travel there. It took us ages to sort out an itinerary and we wanted it to be all killer and no filler. We knew that the Ifugao Rice Terraces would be a guaranteed hit, but where should we go for the best underwater action? It would be a bummer to travel for a couple of days and find out that the resident Horny Spotted Dork Rays had moved on for … Read more

Vakil Mosque. Shiraz, Iran.

What Is it Like to Travel in Iran?

What is like to travel in Iran? Are Americans really allowed to go?

We have been asked these questions on numerous occasions from fellow travelers. So, we thought we would write a straight up post from the perspective of two Americans who have traveled in Iran. There is some interesting stuff below for travelers who can visit Iran without the (minor) restrictions specific to American, British, and Canadian tourists, but that is not who we are writing for.

Contrary to popular belief, Americans can and do travel in Iran. For sure, you need a little patience with the paperwork and the constraints of traveling in an Islamic Republic. You also need to be cool traveling with a guide and having a fixed itinerary. But, overall it is a very straightforward, safe, and extremely rewarding place to visit.

We traveled to Iran from May 22 to June 11, 2015, during the negotiations between Iran and the Western powers to lift sanctions. It was an exciting time to be in Iran and an indicator of the greater openness to come. While Americans who want to travel in Iran are still subject to some restrictions, it wouldn’t surprise us if travel in Iran … Read more

Iranian Food: A Traveler's Guide

A Traveler’s Guide to Iranian Food

Iran has remarkable historical sites, fascinating culture and wonderful people, but it was Iranian food that left an indelible impression. It is fair to say that our guide, Ali, loved his food and everywhere we went he sought out the best local delicacies for us. But, often we simply shared food with people at picnics in town squares or roadsides, in buses and trains, and even in the cabin of trucks! Iranians are not shy in initiating contact and won’t take no for an answer, so go with the flow and indulge in the original sharing economy.

Ali told us that a lot of independent foreign tourists, who can’t read Farsi menus, only eat kebabs for their entire trip because that is all they know how to order. What joys they are missing out on. One of the real plusses of having a guide was being able to find and eat a variety of different foods. Even better, most of the time we ate where locals ate. Food is extremely cheap in Iran, so it is a place where you can really indulge in great food all the time.

Here is our traveler’s guide to Iranian food with the culinary … Read more

Angkor Wat at sunset

Angkor Wat: Still Worth Visiting?

I first went to Angkor in 2000. It was practically devoid of tourists. Nowadays, it is Southeast Asia’s premier tourist destination. We wondered if it was still worth visiting despite crowds and mass tourism. Our verdict: it’s worth a visit, but takes some planning to find the quieter temples. At the famous temples, there is no choice but to grit your teeth and put up with the crowds.

On my first visit, Siem Reap was a ramshackle town with a few hotels and restaurants. Angkor was unbelievably monumental and beautiful but, curiously, had few visitors. The road from Thailand was terrible. A dusty red dirt road traversed by open pick ups. There were potholes so big that they could swallow a whole pickup and then some. Cambodia was opening up to tourism but many areas were off-limits due to continuing activities of remnants of the murderous Khmer Rouge.

Cambodia is now firmly on the tourist circuit and Angkor may well be the most visited sight in Southeast Asia. I googled ‘Angkor Wat 2000’ and found an edition of an English language Cambodian newspaper from that year. The PM, Hun Sen, seemed excited about the prospects for Angkor tourism. At the … Read more

Spirit house in Luang Prabang

Luang Prabang: The Tourist Trail Isn’t So Bad After All

We couldn’t leave mainland Southeast Asia without first sampling the delights of Luang Prabang and Angkor Wat. Luang Prabang is the one place in Laos where shit works. Restaurants never confused our order, the city is walkable, and the tourist sites are well run and worth checking out. A lot of backpackers and tour groups come here so it is definitely not off the beaten track. There are some irksome features such as the frankly tedious and overly large night market that clogs up the main drag, and the tourist hordes around the beautiful tak bak ceremony are frankly unpalatable. However, the UNESCO designation means that it is one of the few large towns in Southeast Asia that retains a timeless air. After bitching about tourist crowds in our last post, we really enjoyed Luang Prabang and stayed longer than we planned.

Highlights

  • The temples. All 33 of them.
  • Great local food and drink
  • Traditional urban architecture
  • For a tourist city it is surprisingly friendly and hassle free
  • Local handicrafts
  • The very sobering UXO center

When we were there
February 12-16 2016

Lowlights

  • Night market

GETTING THERE & AWAY

We jumped on the pickup from Nong Khiaw. It cost … Read more

Nong Khiaw

Banana Pancake Blues in Northern Laos

When we were planning this trip, visiting Laos and Cambodia were two big priorities for us. I had happy memories of Laos from my 2000 trip. It was quirky, laid back, and low on backpackers. Getting around was tough. The roads were terrible and for many areas the only transport was trucks jam packed with locals. Now the roads are better and the buses have much improved, I hoped to get to some of the far flung places that I missed out on last time. Unfortunately, every backpacker that visits Thailand has the same idea. Many places in Laos are now fully paid up members of the Banana Pancake Trail, a collection of towns, beaches, and islands that are epicenters for backpackers. The only reggae in the ubiquitous reggae bars is Bob Marley, the spicy curries are toned down, banana pancakes appear on every menu, and the de rigeur clothing is a Lao PDR hoodie! It’s safe, you can find millions of like-minded uninspired backpackers, and most likely you can party. You jump on boats and buses full of foreign tourists going to places overrun by foreign tourists.

There is no denying that the Banana Pancake Trail (BPT) covers a … Read more

Akha women, young and old.

Akha Hill Tribe Trekking in Phongsali

You know your Akha hill tribe trek is authentic when your guide is struck down by black magic! Welcome to Phongsali in far northern Laos, where even experienced guides are terrified by ghosts and spirits.

Getting off the beaten track in Laos is much tougher than on my last visit in 2000. Back then, the whole country was off the banana pancake trail! Undeterred, Laura looked for the phrases ‘terrible road’ and ‘difficult to get to’ in the Laos Travelfish guide and all signs pointed to Phongsali (Phongsaly) in the north. The area is linked to the rest of Laos via a rickety local bus on a winding mountain road. There are no backpacker hotels or restaurants. But there are two organizations, the local tourist office and Amazing Laos, that offer moderately adventurous hikes to some of the most authentic hill tribe villages in Southeast Asia. Seemed like a place for us. … Read more

Lahu hill tribe children

Hill tribe trekking in Kyaing Tong

Kyaing Tong in 2000: The Wild East

I last visited Kyaing Tong (pronounced “Chang Tong” and sometimes spelled Keng Tung), a small market hill town in Myanmar’s Eastern Shan State, in 2000. It was one of the highlights of my travels that year, and as I related some of the tales to Laura, I figured that they were worth sharing with a wider audience. So, before I get into this year’s adventures here is Kyaing Tong 2000 style.

Kyaing Tong is the main town of the Myanmar portion of the infamous Golden Triangle, which also straddles the hill tribe areas of Laos and Thailand. The Golden Triangle supplied most of the world’s street heroin until the trade was usurped by Afghans in the late 90’s. The main man in the area was a ruthless warlord named Khun Sa, who ruled over two armies called the Shan State Army and the Muang Tai Army. At one point, Khun Sa is said to have had a personal militia that numbered more than 18000 men and women. The region was typically beyond the Burmese government’s control and/or beset by continual fighting between the opposing forces.

Unsurprisingly, tourists were not particularly welcome in this … Read more

Sunset from North Guni temple

The Dark Lord Comes to Bagan

‘Bagan wasn’t like this in 1995’, Buxton muttered as yet another huge tour group mowed him down, selfie sticks aloft. Back then, I had the ancient temples of the Kingdom of Bagan practically to myself. Now that Myanmar was firmly on the tourist circuit, we had to share this once forgotten archaeological wonder with thousands of others. I am convinced that there were more tourists climbing up the Shwesandaw Temple for sunset in 2016 than there were in all of Myanmar in January ’95!

Is it real?

The Burmese government has been renovating the temples for decades and as usual with Myanmar, this has attracted some controversy. In keeping with Buddhist traditions, it is considered disrespectful to leave temples and statues in a state of disrepair. However, most of the temples have been destroyed over the centuries by a series of devastating earthquakes and subsequent neglect. No one knows what the temples originally looked like so the Burmese have done their best to approximate their original state using the base and rubble as guides. This had led to conflict with world bodies such as UNESCO, who are loath to award World Heritage status to what amounts to modern recreations that … Read more

Shwedagon Paya on New Year's Eve 2015.

Cities of the Burmese Heartland: Yangon and Mandalay

Myanmar is one of my absolute favorite countries to travel in. I had first visited in January 1995 when the country was very much a pariah state. Although the country was open for travelers, there were severe restrictions on where you could travel. The country was lead by a military junta, who ran a quasi-Orwellian state. The Independence leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, was under house arrest and she had recommended that travelers stay away to help maintain worldwide sanctions on the country’s government. The country was isolated, desperately poor, and difficult to get around. The black market rate ran at twenty times the official rate, and the only place to change money was at local markets. Transport was awful, decent accommodation hard to find, and even getting a proper Burmese meal was tricky. However, this trip remains one of the highlights of my life and started an obsession with Asia that continues to this day. I returned again in 2000 and again that trip was extremely memorable. To say I had high hopes for this trip is the understatement of the year!

The visit was also bittersweet for me. I was looking forward to visiting on the 21st anniversary … Read more