Saturday, 31 December 2016

Fantastic voyage: top 10 adventures in Asia-Pacific

Otgontsetseg with her family outside their home in Arbulag soum, Mongolia
© Andy Brown/2013/Mongolia
After six years of living and working in the Asia-Pacific region, it’s time to wind up this blog and start a new one about Southern Africa, tentatively called 'Beneath the Baobab'. But before I go, here are my top ten adventures from across the region, starting with Mongolia:

1. Road trip through Khuvsgul, Mongolia 

Herds of livestock wander through the barren pre-rain landscape of Khuvsgul
© Andy Brown/2013/Mongolia
I actually did this one as a UNICEF field trip, but it’s one of the best journeys of my life. It was a ten day trip through the most remote areas of Northern Mongolia, writing stories about children, including a mobile ger kindergarten for nomadic families. I was lucky enough to be travelling with Byamba, a Mongolian friend and colleague who shares my love of the outdoors. It was June and light until 10pm, so every evening after dinner we would go for a hike up the nearest mountain. No paths required - in Mongolia, you just choose a direction and start walking. Read full blog post »

2. Balloons over Bagan, Myanmar
Earth from the air - flying over villages and temples in Myanmar
© Andy Brown/2014/Myanmar
This was probably my best holiday in the region. Myanmar is still opening up to tourism, so the temples at Bagan have a much more authentic feel than those at Angkor in Cambodia. They’re less imposing but there are many more of them, scattered among villages and farmland. You can cycle down earth tracks past farmers grazing their herds in front of ancient temples. And the balloon ride at dawn is unforgettable, as you watch the temple plain light up as the sun rises above the mountains behind you. The balloons take you high for a panorama and then skimming low over temple parapets and villages just coming to life.  Read full blog post » 

3. Diving in Malapascua, Philippines 
Thresher sharks are so-called because of their distinctive thresher-like tail
Photo from Smithsonian Magazine
Along with Loloata Island in Papua New Guinea, this is one of the best dive spots in the region. The signature dive here is at dawn, with thresher sharks. You go out by boat in the dark and dive at first light. The water is unbelievably clear and you can watch the sharks circling round a rock, while being cleaned by tiny fish. The island of Malapascua is beautiful and, apart from one beach where the dive resorts are, is made up of sleepy fishing villages populated by friendly locals. It was so good that I got a thresher shark tattoo. Read full blog post » 

4. Trekking the Annapurna range, Nepal
Sunrise over the Annapurna range, seen from the summit of Poon Hill
© Andy Brown/2011/Nepal
There are two major Himalayan mountain ranges in Nepal – Everest in the East and Annapurna in the West. Annapurna is less famous but reputedly the better. The whole circuit takes three weeks, but we did a five day stretch to Poon Hill, a 3,200 metre summit that would be called a mountain anywhere else in the world. Unlike Europe and North America, the mountains of Nepal are still lived in, so we hiked through villages, schools, temples and terraced fields. On day three, we got up at 5am and climbed to the summit in the dark, to watch sunrise over the snow-capped mountains. At the end of the trek, we paraglided off the mountains and over the lake to land in Pokhara. Read full blog post »

5. Riding the railways of Sri Lanka
Children greet us at a village in the hills outside Kandy, Sri Lanka
© Andy Brown/2013/Sri Lanka
Travelling by train in Sri Lanka is like stepping back in time to the last days of the British Empire. We took a three day round trip on old fashioned trains through mountains and tea estates to Ella, in the central highlands. The railway line is carved into mountainsides with rock on one side and vertiginous drops to the valley floor below on the other. At the top of the pass, the train is literally in the clouds. The railway line is also a footpath for locals and from Ella town, you can follow the train tracks up to Ella Rock. Just watch out for trains when crossing the bridges. Read full blog post » 

6. Temples of Angkor, Cambodia
Two of the 200 or so enigmatic smiling faces of Bayon Temple
© Andy Brown/Cambodia/2012
More touristy than Bagan, but what it lacks in authenticity Angkor makes up for in sheer grandeur and spectacle. The most famous temples are Angkor Wat and Bayon - the latter is particularly magical with its multitude of enigmatic smiling faces. The trick is dodging the busloads of Chinese and Korean package tourists, which you can do by renting a bike or tuk-tuk and following your own itinerary. It was actually better the second time round, when we skipped most of the famous temples and explored some of the lesser known sites. The older Roluos complex had magnificent temples that were almost deserted. Read full blog post »

7. Photo walks in Bangkok
Old men playing checkers in the Chinese district of Surasak, Bangkok
© Andy Brown/2013/Thailand
I spent many happy mornings and evenings wandering around the small sois (back streets) and canals of Bangkok, photographing local people and daily life. Most people know Bangkok for the temples and palaces or the high rise shopping malls along the skytrain line, but even just a few blocks back you enter a totally different world of teak wood houses, old men playing checkers in parks and teenagers playing sepak takraw (kick volleyball) in derelict lots decorated with graffiti art. The most exciting photo walk was a two-hour climb up an abandoned skyscraper known as Ghost Tower. We carried up some beers and watched sunset from the roof with a small crowd of photographers, backpackers and urban explorers. Read full blog post »

8. Sunrise at Jakarta docks, Indonesia


Sailors loading boats with cement just after sunrise at Sunda Kelapa docks
© Andy Brown/Indonesia/2011
Jakarta gets a bad rap and deservedly so in many ways. But visit the old Dutch colonial docks at sunrise and you can step back in time to a world of wooden sailing ships. I went with an Indonesian friend, Charlie, and even got invited to climb the gangplank onto the deck of one massive ship while the cargo was being loaded by hand and winch. Standing on the deck and gazing out to sea, I could easily imagine myself setting out on a Joseph Conrad-style adventure. Afterwards, we explored the morning fish markets and had noodles for breakfast in nearby Chinatown. Read full blog post »

9. Slow boat down the Mekong, Laos
A river boat on the Mekong, just outside Luang Prabang
© Andy Brown/2012/Laos
You can spend two days travelling by boat from Chiang Khong in Thailand to Luang Prabang in Laos, witnessing river life along the way and passing villages that seem completely untouched by modernity. One afternoon, I sat on the prow of the boat as we dodged eddies in the river, watching fishermen throw nets in the river and birds swoop overhead. There is a luxury boat but it was fully booked, so we took the backpacker boat, which added to the adventure but was overcrowded and uncomfortable. Perhaps that heightened the magic of arriving in the old royal capital Luang Prabang, which emerges like a mirage out of the jungle, with fairy lights, wharfs and colonial villas. Read full blog post »

10. Eating balut in the Philippines
Staff at the balut specialising Dos Hermanas restaurant in Payatas
© Andy Brown/2012/Philippines
This is the last of my top ten because it was equal parts fascinating and horrifying. I started my South East Asian adventure in the Philippines in 2009, and formed a deep bond to the islands and outgoing, friendly people. But to become an honorary Filipino, you have to undergo a gruesome rite of passage – eating a fertilized, almost hatched duck egg. It took me three years to work up the courage. I made the best of the experience by visiting Pateros (Tagalog for 'the place where the ducks are'), attending a fiesta, and interviewing various local people involved in the balut trade. Read full blog post »

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