Europe 2024 – The Pilgrims Way and the Via Francigena

Thank you to everyone for following this blog. You inspire me to reach further in my exploration of our wonderful world!

After completing the Camino Francès in late 2022, which I blogged about here, I researched more ancient pilgrimage paths in Europe and discovered two that have origins even older than Christendom.

Today, 5 April 2024, I will travel to Winchester, England to set out tomorrow on my most ambitious trek yet: two weeks on The Pilgrims Way to Canterbury, England, then on to Rome, Italy through France, Switzerland, and Italy via the Via Francigena for the following three months.

Continue reading “Europe 2024 – The Pilgrims Way and the Via Francigena”

Southeast Asia 2023 – Vietnam: Mỹ Sơn Trek and Hội An

My final post about this trip to Indochina starts with another guided trek in the jungle mountains around the ancient Hindu ruins at Mỹ Sơn and ends with a phenomenal, large-scale theatrical performance combining elements of Cirque de Soleil, Olympic Game opening ceremonies, and Super Bowl halftime shows in the old town of Hội An. Together, they provide fascinating glimpses of Vietnam‘s long history and the country’s contemporary vibrancy.

Continue reading “Southeast Asia 2023 – Vietnam: Mỹ Sơn Trek and Hội An”

Southeast Asia 2023 – Vietnam: Ninh Binh

Coming down from the high mountains on the Hà Giang Loop, I spent a few days in the bustling capital city of Hanoi before continuing south to the quieter city of Ninh Bình. I visited the UNESCO World Heritage Sites at Tràng An and Tam Coc to see more karst limestone mountains and caves that can only be reached by guided rowboats. They are very popular with tourists, so it felt crowded initially, but once the boats spread out on the river and we entered the caves, we on our boat felt quite alone. The quietness of nature around us was much appreciated.

Continue reading “Southeast Asia 2023 – Vietnam: Ninh Binh”

Southeast Asia 2023 – Vietnam: Hà Giang Loop

My injured ankle continued to keep me from trekking to ethnic tribal villages in the mountains of Southeast Asia, but I found another way to get to those parts of northern Vietnam: on the back of a motorcycle! Tour operator Authentic Ha Giang helps visitors who don’t have strong riding skills to team up with their professional “Easy Riders.” Together with my riding partner and our group leader, 24-year-old “Johnny,” I joined a few friendly tourists from around the world for 3 days, making our way on the winding roads and paths of the “Hà Giang Loop.”

Hà Giang Province is Vietnam’s northernmost province, bordering China, and is considered the country’s “final frontier.” We passed many ethnic villages, but at a speed that made it impossible to have any personal interaction with local people, as I had on my hiking treks. To compensate, however, I was able to see so much more of the incredible landscape than I would have been able to see on foot, so I really didn’t mind at all.

Continue reading “Southeast Asia 2023 – Vietnam: Hà Giang Loop”

Southeast Asia 2023 – Vietnam: Hạ Long Bay and Cát Bà Island

Still trying to stay off my feet, I continued my trip by traveling from Laos to northern Vietnam, starting first in the iconic Hạ Long Bay, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and Cát Bà Island. My primary means of transportation were ferry, cruise boat, and motorbike to explore amongst the thousands of karst islands over a few days. This allowed me to see this incredible landscape in various weather conditions and at different times of the day. Please enjoy some of the photos I took.

Continue reading “Southeast Asia 2023 – Vietnam: Hạ Long Bay and Cát Bà Island”

Southeast Asia 2023 – Laos: Around Vang Vieng

My original plan was to travel further north in Laos to visit more hill tribe villages, but an injury on my trek in Luang Prabang forced me to go in another direction. To rest and recover, I became a “normal” tourist, which was disappointing at first, but the spectacular places and activities I experienced in the following weeks will never be forgotten!

My next destination was the sleepy town of Vang Vieng in Laos, famous amongst Western tourists for its lazy tubing and kayaking on the Nam Song River, no fewer than six (6!) nearby “Blue Lagoons,” and its inspiring karst topography. I rented a motorbike to explore many of the roads and paths in nearby valleys and took a hot air balloon ride for sunrise. This may well be a popular tourist destination, but you couldn’t tell for the quiet and calm as you will see and hear in the video clips below.

Continue reading “Southeast Asia 2023 – Laos: Around Vang Vieng”

Southeast Asia 2023 – Laos: Luang Prabang Trek

After several days of peaceful relaxation in the beautiful city of Luang Prabang, it was time to head out on another trek. I found an experienced local guide to take me as a solo traveler off the beaten track to nearby ethnic villages by visiting Luang Prabang‘s ethnology museum. Staff members at the Traditional Arts and Ethnology Centre referred me to Mr. Khankeo Indavong, nicknamed AK, a spirited young independent tour operator who pulled together an itinerary to meet my request and introduced me to Gone, a Lowland Lao, and the perfect guide.

We visited villages of Lao Loum (Lowland Lao), Khmu, and Hmong tribes by various modes of transport: hiking, riverboat, and 4×4 jeep. The Hmong village, Phouluang Tai, at the summit of the aptly named “Big Mountain,” is particularly fascinating. It is inaccessible by vehicles (even motorbikes!) since part of the road was washed away a few years ago. The authorities insist that its residents move to the “new” village down the mountain, with tempting offers of water, electricity, roads, a school, and a clinic. I learned that it’s not an easy choice for everyone, so even families are now split between the old and new village sites.

Continue reading “Southeast Asia 2023 – Laos: Luang Prabang Trek”

Southeast Asia 2023 – Laos: Around Luang Prabang

My next destination was beautiful Luang Prabang in Laos, where the entire city and surrounding villages have been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Nestled alongside the meandering Mekong River, it is filled with numerous Buddhist temples and is popular with both foreign and Lao tourists alike. Every morning, hundreds of monks from the various monasteries walk through the streets collecting alms. The surrounding mountains offer wonderful trails for day hikes to surreal waterfalls and multiday trekking opportunities to hill tribe villages, which I’ll describe in my next post. Despite all these attractions and the fact that I was there for the city’s busy annual Fire Boat Festival (Boun Lai Heua Fai), attended by visitors from near and far, Luang Prabang remains quiet and peaceful – much like Lao culture at large.

Continue reading “Southeast Asia 2023 – Laos: Around Luang Prabang”

Southeast Asia 2023 – Thailand: Chiang Rai Trek

My next multiday trek in Thailand started in Chiang Rai with a long-tail boat ride up the Kok River to the village of Ban Ruammit. While still fairly close to “civilization,” the ominously growing cloud cover reminded me of Charles Marlow‘s voyage up the Congo River in Joseph Conrad‘s Heart of Darkness. After buying and packing our food for the trip, we hiked mostly along farm roads and paths, which was a nice contrast to all the bushwhacking of my first trek in the Mae Wang Area. The terrain and variety of weather were familiar to me now but only a bit less challenging: many climbs and descents, both heavy rainfall and dry sunshine, and a wide range of temperatures. My guide and I stayed overnight in the villages of two ethnic tribes that I mentioned in my previous post: Lahu and Akha.

Continue reading “Southeast Asia 2023 – Thailand: Chiang Rai Trek”

Southeast Asia 2023 – Ethnic Tribes and the Secret War

Before I continue my travelogue, I want to share some information about the unique ethnic groups in this part of the world and some of their tragic history in the recent past. My interest spawned from my years in Namibia, where I met friends from the many different African tribes that make that country so fascinating and strong. It was intensified a few years ago when I met a young man – one of my teacher trainers – who told me he was Hmong and that his family was part of the “large diasporic community in the United States of more than 300,000” (Wikipedia) that escaped to the US and other countries after the “Secret War.” I had no idea what he was talking about, and what I have since learned has blown my mind. A part of my country’s history during my lifetime that I might not otherwise have learned about…

Continue reading “Southeast Asia 2023 – Ethnic Tribes and the Secret War”