Welcome to Cambodia and Laos
The Mekong – it’s an exotic name guaranteed to fire up the imagination, with such iconic sights as Angkor Wat, Halong Bay and Luang Prabang. A tour to Laos and Cambodia is a must see for this.
A River Runs Through It
One of the world’s great rivers, the Mekong winds its way down from the foothills of Tibet to the South China Sea, encompassing some of the most diverse backdrops in Asia. Its dramatic journey southward takes in remote national parks and immense waterfalls in Laos, traditional towns and 21st-century cities in Thailand, freshwater dolphins and forgotten temples in Cambodia and a patchwork of emerald greens in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta. Take it all in by boat, or delve in with a community homestay on one of thousands of islands formed by the mighty river.
Old Asia, New Asia
Experience old Asia and new Asia jostling for space. One minute it’s Bangkok, where you’re riding the Skytrain to a state-of-the-art shopping mall, the next it’s walking with an elephant in the jungle of Cambodia. In the cities, the pace of life runs at a dizzying speed, matched only by the endless rush of motorbikes and call of commerce. In the countryside, life seems timeless – the rural rhythms the same as they have been for centuries – with traditionally clothed farmers tending the fields and monks wandering the streets in search of alms.
You’re never far from adventure in these parts. Tours to Cambodia always include Angkor, yet a tour to Laos is about travelling in the Mekong region – as much about the journey as the destination. Whether you’re venturing into a distant minority village or plunging into the backstreets of a seething megalopolis, your senses will be bombarded as never before. Delve deeper to discern the mosaic of ethnicities and learn about their cultures and lifestyles. The people are irrepressible, the experiences unforgettable and the stories impossible to re-create, but sometime during your journey, the Mekong and its people will enter your soul. Go with the flow and let the Mekong’s spirit course through your veins.
Tours of Cambodia and Laos are a dream destination for many, but some can find it difficult to make travelling there a reality. So long is the journey from places like the UK, US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand that wannabe visitors may opt against going, favouring somewhere closer to home.
Not because they can’t stand the thought being stuck on a plane for 10+ hours, but because of the journey time. Time is precious, especially if – like me – you work a 9-5 and hold your annual leave sacred. To lose one whole day of that annual leave sat on a plane can sometimes seem like a waste, and if you count the return journey that’s two days you’ve lost. Nevertheless, with all the travel times, tours to Laos and Cambodia are worth it.
The romance, artistry and sheer magnificence of India’s cultural heritage is encapsulated by the Taj Mahal and the great forts and palaces of Rajasthan. Jaipur and Udaipur are stage sets that conjure up storybook India, a land where fabulously wealthy Hindu kings fought and loved and indulged their fondness for pomp and ceremony. Like Italian dukes, they vied with each other to build bigger and better, employing the finest artisans and eye-wateringly expensive materials. This all makes a tour to India and Rajasthan magical.
A journey to these remarkable sights and cities is on every traveller’s wish list. But it needs to be planned with care and imagination. Not only is it vital that your visit to the Taj Mahal isn’t marred by the crowds, but for a rewarding holiday you also need to do more than dash from one highlight to another.
Umaid Bhavan Palace, Jodhpur
Rajasthan is one of the most popular tour destinations in India, for both domestic and international tourists. Rajasthan attracts tourists for its historical forts, palaces, art and culture with its slogan ‘Padharo mahare desh’. Every third foreign tourist visiting India travels to Rajasthan as it is part of the Golden Triangle for tourists visiting India.
The palaces of Jaipur, lakes of Udaipur, and desert forts of Jodhpur, Bikaner, and Jaisalmer are among the most preferred destinations of many tourists, Indian and foreign. Tourism accounts for eight percent of the state’s domestic product. Many old and neglected palaces and forts have been converted into heritage hotels.
The famous and popular Golden Triangle is a traveller’s survey of Indian icons. The triangle usually kicks off at the daunting mega-metropolis of Delhi, with its majestic Mughal heritage. It then angles to Agra, where one of the world’s most famous tombs, the Taj Mahal, defines the city with its exquisite proportions. The triangle tour of India is completed at Jaipur – a city painted pink with some of the most colourful bazaars in India. Jaipur is the capital and gateway to Rajasthan, and once you’ve slept in a palace, explored a medieval fort or swayed on a camel, you’ll want to experience more.
Rajasthan’s big-ticket attractions are its magnificent forts and palaces. Powerful forts loom from mountain tops, their battle-scarred ramparts still defying long-dead enemies. Spiked doors that once held war elephants at bay open onto the twisting approaches to the palaces within. Austere and practical give way to fantasy and opulence once safely inside. Carved marble and stone, fountains and coloured glass decorate the halls of business and rooms of pleasure. All across Rajasthan there are numerous forgotten forts and lovingly restored palaces, including Jaisalmer’s fairy-tale desert outpost, Amber’s honey-hued fort-palace and Jodhpur’s imposing Mehrangarh, to name just a few.
Land of Kings
A tour to Rajasthan is literally a tour to the Land of the Kings. It is home to the chivalrous Rajputs, and its battle-scarred heritage is ingrained with pride and tradition. The upper echelons of this medieval society built magnificent palaces and forts, many of which are now sumptuous hotels and impressive museums. In addition, stunning handicrafts and fine arts were developed and nurtured through patronage by the maharajas. Village life remains steeped in tradition but, just like the rest of India, the pace of change is accelerating. Turbaned men still barter for decorated camels – they just relay the successful deal home via a smartphone.
Celebration of Colour
The intensity and spectrum of colour in Rajasthan is impossible to ignore. The rainbow of fire-engine red turbans and emerald green and canary yellow saris is simply dazzling. Little wonder so many fashion designers find their inspiration and raw materials in this state. The lucky visitor might even see a flash of orange while tiger-spotting in Ranthambhore National Park. Easier to catch on a camera are the bright hues of Rajasthan’s many festivals: from garishly decorated camels in Pushkar, or painted elephants in Jaipur, to the rainbow explosions of Diwali and Holi, celebrated across the region. For many a tour to India is essentially a tour to Rajasthan.
Tour to Vietnam
A land of staggering natural beauty and cultural complexities, of dynamic megacities and hill-tribe villages, Vietnam is both exotic and compelling.
Unforgettable experiences are everywhere on a tour of Vietnam. There’s the sublime: gazing over a surreal seascape of limestone islands from the deck of a traditional junk in Halong Bay. The ridiculous: taking 10 minutes just to cross the street through a tsunami of motorbikes in Hanoi. The comical: watching a moped loaded with honking pigs weave a wobbly route along a country lane. And the contemplative: witnessing a solitary grave in a cemetery of thousands of war victims. A tour of Vietnam has it all.
History & Culture
Vietnamese culture is complex, diverse and represents something of a history lesson. The nation’s labyrinthine, teeming trading quarters are rich in indigenous crafts and reflect centuries-old mercantile influences. Ancient temples display distinctly Chinese influences in the north and Hindu origins in the south. Meanwhile the broad, tree-lined boulevards and grand state buildings that grace the capital date from the French colonial period. And it’s impossible to forget Vietnam’s pivotal position close to the epicentre of East Asian power and prosperity, for its cities’ skylines are defined by clusters of glass-and-steel corporate HQs and sleek luxury hotels.
A Culinary Superpower
Thailand may contest the top spot, but in Southeast Asia nothing really comes close: Vietnamese food is that good. Incredibly subtle in its flavours and outstanding in its diversity, Vietnamese cooking is a fascinating draw for travellers – myriad street-food tours and cooking schools are testament to this. Geography plays a crucial role, with Chinese flavours influencing the soups of the north, spices sparking up southern cuisine, and herbs and complex techniques typifying the central coastline, rightly renowned as Vietnam’s epicurean hot spot. And up and down the country you can mingle with villagers, sample local dishes and sip rice wine in Vietnam’s many regional markets.
Thrills & Chills
If you have the bills, Vietnam has the thrills and chills. Some require a little physical effort, such as motorbiking switchback after switchback up the jaw-dropping Hai Van Pass in central Vietnam. Others require even more sweat: kitesurfing the tropical oceanic waters off the beaches or hiking the evergreen hills around Bac Ha or Sapa. And when you’re done with all that adrenaline stuff, there’s plenty of horizontal ‘me’ time to relish. Vietnam has outstanding spas – from marble temples of treatments to simple family-run massage salons. A tour to Vietnam is a must!
There is a constant eb and flow of guests into the Palace hotel. Something I watch quietly each morning, from my veranda with tea. In this stillness, I recall an essay I’d written years earlier: ‘Happiness and How to Avoid It’ in which I argued that the real purpose of life ‘should be just to hang around.’ I’d also concluded that ‘life is meaningless for a reason.’ I sip tea, perplexed.
There are in total six traditionally dressed waiters in the palace, due to castism, all answering to the name of Mr Singh. For some reason many Indian men, including several of the Mr Singh’s, have developed a penchant for dying their hair ginger, something that would be seen as counter-productive by the British. Calling out “Mr Singh” in the palace, can occasionally lead to an upsetting ginger stampede. But for now, my pleasant, red-haired smiling accomplice, Mr Singh, pours out more tea.
Patricia, a large Australian yoga instructor, born well before decimalisation, is also a regular visitor to the hotel. She practices yoga on the roof with her groups. ‘Yogic Pat – the Housewife’s Choice’ as she’s marketed, speaks with a pronounced Australian accent where the intonation is always that of a question; rising in pitch at the end; even when she is providing an answer. She consistently gives the impression she’s never quite sure. She’s brash too, between staring at her mobile screen and ordering waiters, and on the face of it, she seems to yoga what Gordon Ramsey is to delicate speech.
Each morning ‘she’ and her followers, march by the breakfast room, all with yoga mats rolled proudly under their arms, as if they are going silently to war. Physiques of all sizes, it makes me wonder why yoga pants are so tight. A thought that does not go well with my warmed milked cornflakes (a legacy of the British). A friend of mine and former Miss Nepal, is also yoga instructor but always wears loose fitting cotton. If one is allowed to feel pity for any fabric, it has to be lycra.
Around an hour or so later, ‘breakfastees’ look upwards to hear an Australian version of the ‘om’ emanating through the ceiling. This first, primeval sound of life, the essence of beginning, of existence itself, comes out in uncertain terms, rising at least two octaves at the end. Minutes later they emerge, some dishevelled, but all with a look on their faces as if they deserve some kind of sanctified yogic respect for their efforts. But I digress.
The only other, longer terms guest is the elderly Mr Hampshire; in terms of human beings – quite a rare find. A plain-clothes undercover eccentric, he came originally from one of those grey London suburbs where they still point at aeroplanes.
He strolls around with blazer and cravate, like something of the Major from Faulty Towers. What he’s really doing out here I don’t quite know, he doesn’t make much noise aside from whistling with his hands behind his back. Each day he lunches or enjoys afternoon tea at the nearby five-star Rambagh Palace with a mysterious Madame Boux, a French woman, also in her twilight years, who’s composing a book on Mogul architecture. Occasionally, they ‘sherry’ at the adjacent polo club. Apart from these snippets, I know nothing at all.
Today, I’m to visit our own spiritual leader – a tall Romanian monk renamed Sky, at an ashram a couple of miles away. He leads our retired groups if anyone is interested in life from the spiritual side and does a good all-round job, calming even the most scattered of minds. He even sends his own rickshaw driver, a spiritual follower called Ramesh to pick me up. The rickshaw comes decorated with images of Hindu gods and Yogics, and a set of sparkling crimson beads dangling from a rear-view mirror he never uses.
‘Mindfulness is just another word for meditation’ Ramesh tells me, as he sucks on his Embassy Regal. ‘But you can do it everywhere, focus on the moment, it’s important, especially in this traffic.’
Back at the palace, it’s pleasing to wander passed the pool into the old drawing room. There’s a photograph of Prince Charles and Diana there, as well as a young smiling Richard Branson, almost beardless, pre-airline and pre-false teeth, flying kites from the roof.
In the evenings, there’s nothing like a Gin and Tonic in an old armchair, surrounded by rich family history, even if it’s not your own. The hand painted walls and chandeliers, ceremonial swords, groupings of collectables from London to Shanghai; paintings of Grandfathers in their regalia, as well as photographs, probably taken by Brownies (the Brownies too, on display), all entice and give comfort.
‘It’s not the same as it was years ago’ Twinkle, the Maharaja’s charming wife tells me, as she sits alongside. ‘The streets are dirtier and the government do nothing to help.’ She emphasises this with a wriggle of her head; the charming way Indians do.
‘And the Muslims are allowed to have umpteen wives.’ Janu calls out as he joins us. ‘But the Hindu’s just one. What kind of country is this? Bring back the Britishers, I’d say.’
After some thoughtful hesitation, in which Janu looks up at an oil painting of a distant Maharaja, he continues.
‘I blame the schools. Modern day India.’ he mutters dismally. ‘Every day they come out of the school gates pointing and shouting, none of them can string a decent sentence together. All they can do is point and grunt.’
‘Oh you can’t blame the teachers.’ I counter.
‘They are the teachers!’ he sighs, before thoughtfully continuing. ‘In the great words of Edward Smith, Captain of the Titanic, as the ship tilted 45 degrees. It’s simply not on.’
Like most Maharaja families, who own beautiful hidden homes in all parts of the country, including cousins and relatives – both distant and close, there’s a fondness for the British and the British way of doing things, particularly after Gandhi took away many privileges.
And so, this is how life ticks along, nicely, here in the palace. Next February, our group of retired hopefuls will come out here to join me, and live this unusual Exotic Marigold experience, at least for a short while.
This morning, I gaze into the sunshine, across the manicured lawns, the building’s porticos and marbled floors, as people wearing bright colours walk into, and out of, my eyes. A gardener snips quietly, contently at a hedgerow – inside his own meditation. There’s a feeling of burrowing joy in the solar plexus – an appeal, I hope next years’ visitors will feel too.
Outside the walls, in a bedazzling kaleidoscope of colour, the general hoi poloi go about their daily chores; people, animals, traffic, all convene in sublime Indian chaos. This simple, complicated, scene reminds me of the movie ‘The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.’ When the actor Tom Wilkinson is asked by a distressed Penelope Wilton, “What do you possibly see in this country?’ He thoughtfully replies, “the light, the colours, the smiles, it teaches me something.”
You may want to join me out here, in my Exotic Marigold Hotel, and be taught something too.
Steve Carver will be hosting the Exotic Marigold experience next February. For information please visit: www.angelholidays.co.uk
Rumblings in my Exotic Marigold Hotel
Jaipur is the capital city of the desert state of Rajasthan, the most populated desert on earth. Former Radio 4 presenter Steve Carver has set up a Real Exotic Marigold experience where, like the BBC series and movies, retirees can come to India to see what retirement would bring.
I live at least part of my life, in what’s known as the music room, a detached, over-elaborate octagonal building, complete with verandas, chandeliers and my small temple outside – set beyond the lawns and facing my own Indian palace, the Bissau, in the old part of the Pink city.
In the beginning 300 years ago, my room was a place to keep chickens; far different from the rich artwork on the walls and ceilings, the multitude of garish colours and sparkling inset mirrors, that I gaze at today. At night-time with light bulbs and candles reflected, it resembles something of a glorious Hindu firework display.
Outside my Enfield Bullet motorcycle is parked, a bike that has played a big part in my life. Originally built by the British in Redditch and now by the Indians in Madras, its reliability is often questioned – if there’s no oil leak, there is no oil in it.
But this temperamental, unreliable 1950’s designed bike is loveable too. For my first Radio 4 programme, I was packed off to India, with no more radio experience than half an hours’ teaching on a recording machine, to tell the story of it. Since then I’ve taken the bike throughout the India, circling the country’s entire coast line and driving up into the high Himalaya. As a legacy to the British, they drive on the left here; quite often.
But back to the task at hand, and things are now taking shape for our group of English retirees who will come here to live – to experience life in an old Indian Palace, at least for a little bit. The owner Janu, a cousin of the Maharaja of Jaipur, has assured me we’ll give them ‘Chamber Rooms;’ some come even with their own internal stone sculpted water fountains.
I’ve known Janu the ‘Maharaja,’ his wife ‘Twinkle’ and their son ‘Chuckles’ for years (the Indian upper classes like to give their families nicknames), and feel very much part of the family.
They live on the roof of the Palace in separate apartments, partly to allow Janu to increase his display of English collectables, from china figurines, busks of British monarchs (most long vandalised and removed from the streets of India since independence), and partly, like most royals, to give space in their relationship, indeed one wonders if the English queen probably lives in the same way.
The current family preoccupation is the son Chuckles, who is about to embark on his second arranged marriage; his divorce, always a bone of contention between Janu and Twinkle – who was more instrumental in arranging the marriage.
‘His wife was a gold digger!’ Junu tells me.
And since the unsavoury divorce settlement, she’d posted unkind comments about Chuckle’s supposed bedroom antics on Facebook.
‘I’ll go to the very top if I have to. To get the comments removed’ Janu tells me. ‘Even Zuckerberg himself. Anal is not a verb.’
There are other apartments at high elevation too. One belonging to Janu’s younger, lesser inherited brother who, like many of his kind, has an abundance of free time and spends most of it carrying a constantly replenished glass of wine (in the Keith Floyd tradition) or breeding Alsatians in the family’s outlying farm. Due to his expanding frame he’s now given to wearing a cape and top hat. The former, he castes wildly over his shoulder as if he’s about to enter heavy winds. Meanwhile, his quiet, thoughtful wife constantly reads Shakespeare on the roof, during sips of chamomile tea.
I have a real fondness for the entire family, who have taken me into their inner circle. There’s a kindness here; a giving, that doesn’t have to prove anything. It reminds me of the current Lord and Lady Carnavon who I once travelled to Egypt with, to retrace the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamen. They too, were honest, eloquent and kind.
Chuckles often plays cricket on the lawn with his pals, whilst Twinkle looks after proceedings with other well-to-do housewives. There’s a constant flow of polished visitors, some come in Rolls Royce’s, and I’m regularly invited to events. Lavish weddings, particularly in wedding season (February to April) are harmonious, spectacular 5-day occasions, resplendent with decorated elephants and fortresses, fine-dining, colour and dancing. Janu’s even offered to find me an Indian wife.
‘They’ll be a woman waiting for you out on the lawn’ he said one day to me, as if it was some kind of pleasant surprise. I imagined her flat out, perhaps face down but did not want to say anything.
The meeting was pleasant and cordial, but didn’t blossom romantically. It reminded me of a similar situation in Nepal, where I lived for 8 years. A Nepalese porter arranged a mountain girl to be brought down to me in Kathmandu “as soon as possible.”
‘She’ll come from a good family’ he assured me. ‘She won’t speak English, which will avoid debate or confrontation, and she’ll come with a reasonable dowry of farm life.’
Chaperoned by two Sherpas who also didn’t say very much, my meeting with the mountain girl was indeed silent, after-which she returned the three days by mule.
The 17th Century Bissau Palace in Jaipur, India; with its porticos, lawns and gardens, antiques and collectables, plays host to the Angel Holidays ‘Exotic Marigold Hotel Experience’ in February, 2020. Our host is a member of Jaipur’s royal family; no doubt whilst enjoying residence here, our guests will get to meet him – and his wife known affectionately as ‘Twinkle’. Prince Charles as well as Sir Richard Branson have also visited.
Beyond the gates, life could not be more different; with the general hoi poli meeting goats and chickens, donkeys and market traders; the rudimentary nearby fruit market was a favourite of Rosemary Shrager, on the ‘BBC’s ‘Real Exotic Marigold Hotel’ series.
Our Exotic Marigold Hotel Experience – hosted by Radio 4’s Steve Carver, includes time in the capital Delhi, as well as the lakeside setting of Udaipur, and a visit to the set of the Exotic Marigold Hotel movie with Bill Nighy, Dame Judi Dench and others. Incidentally, Dame Judi’s brother – a retired Doctor – has also travelled with Angel Holidays.
So, if you would like to join this unique experience, contact us via this site. Seeing what it’s like to live in India, in such unique surroundings, is bound to be a one of your life’s great experiences. Take the chance now, before it’s too late.
Here in Saigon, television is going out of fashion; a trend that looks like it could be spreading to the West. 87 % of the younger population in Vietnam (18 to 25), no longer watch TV at all. Instead, they view the Internet: YouTube has become at least an Asian, if not, global TV channel. You can watch more or less what you want, when you want – with advertisers who market youth brands here in Vietnam, now spending 70% of their budget on online entertainment, and moving away from TV.
Movies over 2 years old – both from the US or Asia (‘Phims’ here in Vietnam) can be watched freely online here, and it now seems incredibly old fashioned for a teenager to watch TV – with a predetermined set of nightly programmes over-which they have no choice. Gone are the days where ‘there’s nothing on’ instead, everything is on – with a plethora of bewildering choices.
Yet internet channels, such as YouTube, do not (currently) make television programmes, they merely broadcast them. Programme making is an expensive art, so how the relationship between TV programme making and internet broadcasting develops will be a delicate one.
Western programmes see a delay in their ‘legal’ internet broadcasting to recoup their investment – not dissimilar with the pharmaceutical industry in the development of branded medicines before generic versions can be rolled out. Let’s wait and see. But for now, in Asia at least, young person’s TV is over. What do you think? Do you watch more ‘online’ programmes these days? Beyond the ‘Daily Motion’ or ‘YouTube’ do you watch any interesting Internet Channels? Let us know. (By the way, if you like BBC Historian Michael Wood there are some great series on YouTube readily available)
Nepal is a fascinating country, here is our list of the ten best places to visit.
- Kathmandu Durbar square – the classic end of the Hippy trail and a good start for your holiday
- Bhaktapur – as if stepping back in time, this classic city is a must visit
- Chitwan – the reserve is beautiful and gives you a different perspective on Nepal
- Pokhara – set along the beautiful lake and in full view of the Himalaya
- Flight over Everest by light aircraft for stunning views
These are some of the highlights on any holiday to Nepal.
For those joining us on our tour of Nepal this year, you may wish to watch the ‘Unmistaken Child’ featured here on ‘You-tube.’ The story follows the death of a venerated monk – a lama or High Priest in Nepal – who would be reborn again at some remote corner of Tibet. The ‘reincarnated’ child was found.
At age 4, he was a guest of Angel Holidays, where one of our groups met him for dinner, albeit the boy sitting on a make-shift gold embroidered throne, that our staff had made hastily up.
Reincarnation plays a big part in both Hindu and Buddhist religions, and at this young age, the boy could speak fluently four languages – something that his ‘soul predecessor’ could also do. He engaged in an instant humourous rapour with our leader – Steve Carver, they are friends to this day – where the boy, now 11, lives (and is worshipped’) in Brisbane.
Here is a snippet, of the search for him as a baby. The Da Lai Lama, was also involved in his discovery. The film starts in Nepal at Boudhanath – the Buddha Place- where we take our visitors to visit. We hope this gives you a fitting foretaste of the culture of Nepal, and what lies ahead.
Each October, Nepal celebrates Deshain, a festival which brings families together in a 10 day celebration. In a predominately Hindu and Buddhist nation – and like Christmas – central to the festival is feasting; a family dinner.
To my knowledge there is not one turkey in Nepal, instead millions of goats are sacrificed. Each goat’s soul when passed is believed to go on a celestial journey across the universe to be reborn as a human, anywhere in the world. It is therefore seen as a gift. This journey, like that of humans, can take anything from 2 weeks to several years.
Only male animals can be sacrificed in Nepal, females are seen as mothers of the earth. Nepal is also a sizable Buddhist nation with many different Buddhist traditions, not all following Tibetan Buddhism, and not all are vegetarians.
One Buddhist sect of monks worships alcohol – particularly in the festival. Becoming intoxicated is seen as an act of religious healing. A temple in central Kathmandu is also devoted to alcohol, with pilgrims pouring beer, whisky and wine over the heads of deities.
Nepal; landlocked from the rest of the world until the late 1950s, retains many of these Hindu traditions, long gone in previously colonised Hindu nations such as India. Those coming on our last tour of Nepal this year, will visit at the time of the festival.