Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, Philippines, Myanmar, Singapore

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Vietnamese Water Puppets

If you are in Ho Chi Minh City or Hanoi a great way to spend a few hours in the evening is to visit a traditional Vietnamese water puppet theatre.  These are the only water puppets in the world, and they are magical!

History of Vietnamese Water Puppets

A Vietnamese Water Puppet
The water puppets, known in Vietnamese as múa rối nước, represent an ancient art.  They have their origin in North Vietnam around Hanoi in the Red River Basin, the flat plain formed by the Red River and its tributaries joining in the Thai Binh River.  Historians believe that some form of the theatre originated as early as the 11th century in this area, and it is only more recently that it spread further south with one of the main performance venues now being in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon).  Traditionally, however, it was found only in northern and central Vietnam, The Thăng Long Puppet Company (Nhà hát Múa rối Thăng Long) of Hanoi explains that puppet troupes were formed as local guilds that zealously guarded their secrets.  Puppeteers were limited to males who passed their skills down to their sons.  This meant, however, many secrets of the art were lost due to travel away from home villages, early deaths, and other causes that disrupted transmission.  The relationship of today's theatre to that of the 11th century is debatable, but no doubt it has undergone significant changes as has Vietnam itself.

Performance of Water Puppets

In former times, the ponds and flooded rice paddies after harvest were the stage for these puppet shows.  It is said that the puppeteers had noticeably shorter lives, the assumption being that they acquired parasites from standing in the waters for so long (the Vietnamese then, as many do now, used human waste as fertilizer, facilitating the life cycles of many parasites that depended on human hosts).  Now most performances take place on specially designed stages, or for touring groups, portal tanks--not rice paddies fertilized with human feces!

Up to 8 puppeteers stand behind a split-bamboo screen, decorated to resemble a temple facade, and control the puppets using long bamboo rods and string mechanism hidden beneath the water surface.  Many of the puppets can be quite heavy, up to 15 kilos (30 pounds) or so, so holding them up away from the puppeteers body is physically strenuous and might account for why puppeteers were traditionally all male. 

A puppet from the famous
Buddhist "ox-driver" parable
The puppets are made of enameled wood, and many of them are capable of quite complex manipulations from turning of the head, moving their arms to casting fishing lines or checking fish traps.  Because the puppets were constantly immersed and exposed to water, very few earlier puppets survive and they have short lifetimes compared to some other traditional Asian puppets, such as Japanese bunraku puppets, many of which have been in use well over two hundred years, or wayang kulit puppets of Indonesia and Malaysia, many of which are approaching a century in age.  Twenty to thirty years is a very good lifespan for a Vietnamese water puppet.

A traditional Vietnamese orchestra provides the music accompaniment for the performance. Its instrumentation includes vocals, drums, wooden bells, cymbals, horns, Đàn bầu (monochord), gongs, and bamboo flutes. The bamboo often accompanies puppets of royalty or high status while the drums and cymbals are used for exciting and dynamic scenes such as a dragon's entrance.  The puppets story is told by a traditional North Vietnamese opera choir called chèo who often voice over the puppets' actions.  However, the musicians sometimes add vocals as well, such as shouting to a puppet to watch out.  One imagines that in traditional performances audiences may have participated in the same way, shouting our their encouragement or expressing their consternation with the puppet's antics.

Event though performances are in Vietnamese, foreign audiences will still appreciate the puppeteers skills and be able to laugh at their antics.  Among these performances, the most interesting are probably the dragons spurting fire and water or the synchonized "fairy dance" in which the puppets inexplicably seem to cross paths.  How is water spurted out from dragons with multi-sectioned bodies? How to set off fireworks when dragons are in the water? How do puppets on bamboo poles and strings cross paths?  They are wonderful secrets from the hundred-year experience of Vietnamese water puppetry.

Where to See Vietnamese Water Puppets

Vietnamese puppets at the
Golden Dragon Water Puppet Theatre
in Ho Chi Minh City
There are two main venues for water puppet performances today and both are very popular with domestic as well as international tourists.

  • Ho Chi Minh City

    The Golden Dragon Water Puppet Theatre puts on two nightly shows at 5:00 and at 6:30.  The shows are 50 minutes long with no intermission and are completely performed in Vietnamese although multilingual programs are available.  The theatre is located about a 10 minute walk from the Ben Thanh Market and is just a couple minutes from the Independence Palace.  It is located at 55 Bis Nguyen Thi Minh Khai Dist. 1 in Ho Chi Minh City.  You must book at least one day in advance to get a seat during most times, and it is not unusual during high season for performances to be fully booked three and four days in advance.  Your hotel or guesthouse can usually make a booking for you.
  • Hanoi

    The Thanglong Water Puppet Theatre
    The Thanglong Water Puppet Theatre has five performances each day at 4:00, 5:15, 6:30, 8:00 and 9:15.  Show are about 50 minutes long with no intermission.  The performances completely performed in Vietnamese although multilingual programs are available here as well.  The theatre is located at 57b Dinh Tien Hoang Str., Hanoi and is well known.  You should definitely book in advance as the Thanglong shows are even more popular than its southern cousin, and you should try to book two days in advance whenever possible.  Again, during high season performances sometimes fill up three or four days in advance despite the multiple showings.  Also be aware there is a separate camera fee and a video fee; the latter is the same price as you pay for admission. 

To learn more about Vietnamese Water Puppets, you can visit the following links:
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Friday, July 27, 2012

Beaches, Diving and Adventure: Philippines Destinations Part 2

 In this second installment, travel writer Caryl Joan Estrosas takes us from the historical destinations of the Philippines to the adventurous ones, including the best beach and diving destinations to other outdoors destinations.

Beach and Diving Destinations

An hour flight away from Manila is a famous beach destination, Boracay. At par with the best beaches in the world, this small island is blessed with a long stretch of white sand and mesmerizing azure beach. Ranked as the world’s fourth best island by Travel + Leisure in 2011, Boracay offers tourists with endless of fun from daybreak to sundown. It has a long chain of hotels, resorts, restaurants, bars, and other commercial establishments. Nightlife is vibrant in this island; hence, tourists get to enjoy the waters and sport activities during the day and party by night.

White Beach, Boracay, on Wikitravel
Regarded as the last frontier of the Philippines, Palawan is a great travel spot with remarkable seascapes. In 2007, National Geographic Traveler magazine recognized Palawan as the best island destination in Southeast Asia. It is the home of many breathtaking beaches, diving spots, rivers, and caves. Recommended sites to visit are Puerto-Princesa Subterranean River National Park, Tubbataha Reef Marine Park, Coron Reefs, El Nido Marine Reserve Park, and the Malampaya Sound Land and Seascape Protected Area.

Entrance to the Puerto Princesa Underground River.

Malapascua Island in Cebu, located in the Southern part of the Philippines, is known for the excellent diving spots to explore the diverse marine life and to dive with the tresher sharks.

Brown soft corals on Quiliano Reef, Malapascua
Brown soft corals on Quiliano Reef, Malapascua

Panglao Island located in Bohol, which is just a ferry boat-ride from Cebu, is another fantastic island destination for beach bummers and divers. The fine white sand, pristine blue waters, and the line of commercial establishments—these make the island feel like Boracay, but with fewer crowds.

Many tourists visit Donsol in Sorsogon to dive with the whale sharks sometimes December to May when planktons are abundant.

Known as the surfing capital of the Philippines, Siargao was placed in the international map through John S. Callahan who featured the island and the Cloud 9 wave in many of his photos.
Ride the Barrel

Outdoor Activities

Famous for the hanging coffins, Sagada is a great destination for travelers who enjoy exploring caves, trekking or hiking, rock climbing, white water rafting, and joining tribal celebration.

Sagada big cave

The mesmerizing province of Batanes is a perfect place for weary travelers who wanted to escape the hustle and bustle of the city life. Since it is located in the northernmost tip of the country and is far from the rest of the Philippine islands, Batanes has developed its unique culture. Activities organized in Batanes include sightseeing, hiking, bird- watching, diving, and island hopping.

The Philippine’s Tilapia capital Cagayan Valley is regarded as a paradise for spelunkers, trekkers, and gamefishers. The Callao cave, Palaui Island, Portabaga Falls, and Cagayan River are some of the interesting spots to visit.

So, if you are in the mood for adventure above or under water or just looking for a beautiful destination for some R&R, The Philippines has something to offer.

* * * *
This article is the first part of a three part feature brought to you by Caryl Joan Estrosas, a freelance travel and food writer.

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Saturday, April 7, 2012

The Best Southeast Asia Twitters

When you are on the go or just want to stay in the know, Twitter can be a great way to get the news.  It can be a great way to find out what is going on in countries you are visiting, learn more about them before you go, or stay informed once you get back.  Many of the Tweeters who made our list Tweet to a local as well as an international audience, and many of these follow and retweet locals and other news organizations.  So, without further ado, here's our list.

Best Southeast Asia Twitters

1. Southeast Asia News


    Southeast Asia News from Burma, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Malaysia, Vietnam, Indonesia, Brunei, Philippines & beyond.
    So we are biased--this is the Twitter we maintain.  We are one of the few who Tweet the news, happening, and travel information across Southeast Asia from Burma all the way to Papua. And if you ever want to send us a message, get or give a tip, share your travel blog of just say say, send us a Tweet!

2. Only In Burma


    Only in Burma is a great source on this emerging Southeast Asia destination.  While the Irrawaddy is our favorite online news source, unfortunately it only Tweets links so you don't know what they are Tweeting.  No need to fear because their headlines will show up in Southeast Asia News or in Only In Burma.

3. The Jakarta Globe


    Jakarta news, Indonesia news in English
    The Jakarta Globe is a great regional newspaper.  They focus on Indonesian news, but also cover regional stories.  They are a great source for information before heading out to do some island hopping or staying in the know as you go.

4. Richard Barrow


Full time travel blogger based in Thailand. Promoting anything to do with Thailand Travel, Food & Festivals, Expat Life and tweeting Breaking News.
Paknam, Samut Prakan, Thailand ·
Richard Borrow is the one of the rare “non-institutional” Twitters on our list. Why? Because he is great. While it is his personal Twitter, he provides great coverage of what is happening in Thailand around the clock. You might even get a chance to meet up with him while you are there.

5. The Nation Thailand


Thailand News ,Thai politics , Thailand travel
Bangkok, Thailand ·
The Nation is an English language newspaper that covers national and international news. It tends to be a good source of information, but you may also want to check out the Bangkok Post's @BKK_Post.

6. Canby Publications


Travel(ing,) tour(ing,) explor(ing,) living Cambodia. Publisher of Cambodia's most up-to-date guide books and maps.
Canby Publications make the best guides about Cambodia, hands down, and they also have one of the best Twitters about Cambodia as well. While you might show up with your Lonely Planet in your hand, chances are you will soon have a Canby Guide once you realize how helpful they can be!

7. RadioFreeAsia


Radio Free Asia's mission is to provide accurate and timely news and information to Asian countries whose governments prohibit access to a free press.
Washington, DC ·
While Radio Free Asia covers all of Asia, not just Southeast Asia, it is still a great source of information about the region. It tends to focus on human rights and democracy issues.

8. The Star


News updates from Malaysia's top English-language daily and website
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia ·
While some might claim that The Star is not independent when it comes to domestic politics, it is still a good source about what is happening in the nation. Just don't entirely trust it as it covers domestic opposition parties or political leaders!

9. O Vietnam Culture


Fascinating news from Vietnam. Try
This is one of the best English-language Twitter feeds on Vietnam we've found. From culture to what is in the news, this Twitter feed tends to be pretty solid day after day.

10. Phnom Pehn Post


The finest in news and analysis from Cambodia's premier daily English-language newspaper
Our friends from the Foreign Service who were in Cambodia right after the Khmer Rouge tell us stories about the guys and girls over at the Phnom Penh Post—and they are legendary. The online newspaper is a great source of information about what is going on in Cambodia on a daily basis.

11. Santel Phin


If you think Tuk Tuk drivers in Cambodia are the richest men in the world, you're wrong!
By far Cambodia's most famous blogger, Santel Phin offers a wealth of information about his country be it on his blog, the Paper.Li newspaper he currates, and his Twitter feed. A great guy always willing to give some advice or tips, if you are visiting the Kingdom of Cambodia you should be following him before you get there!  While this is a personal Twitter account, the news and information he shares is invaluable.

12. Philstar News


Philippine news and entertainment portal for the Filipino global community
Manila, Philippines ·
The Philippine Star is a great daily news source with a terrific Twitter feed on what is happening in the nation today. We especially like them because although they do tweet international news their focus really is on what is happening in this diverse country every minute of the day.

We also have a few honorable mentions that you might find interesting as well. These include @voakhmer, The Voice of America Cambodia Twitter, which is a great additional news source for what is happening in Cambodia. For more about what is happening in Thailand and around Bangkok @GeorgeBKK always has something to say and does a great job Tweeting the news. The Jakarta Post is another great Twitter feed on what is happening in Indonesia @JakPost.  Another great Cambodia Twitter is @LoveCambodia.  Yahoo Philippines also have a good feed @YahooPH that is nearly all in English. And @WSJSEAsia, the Wall Street Journal's Southeast Asia twitter, does a pretty good job of sharing the news that appears within the Wall Street Journal and its Southeast Asia Realtime Blog.  Following the different county's Embassy Twitters is also a good idea if you want to stay informed about news that might relate to your nationality, including travel alerts and warnings and Embassy-sponsored events.

There are lots more great Tweeters, though, than we can mention here--so don't feel bad if we didn't mention you.  Take some time to explore who the above follow, and get in on the conversation, learn something new, connect and engage. So, we hope you save safe travels, and remember—knowledge is power!

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Saturday, February 25, 2012

Five Things You Must Know Before Traveling to Southeast Asia

Traveling to Southeast Asia

About three years ago, a friend who had never been out of the United States accompanied us on a trip from Singapore to Ho Chi Minh.  Having spent more than half of our adult lives in South and Southeast Asia, we'd forgotten many of the little things that we took for granted that turned into major hurdles for our friend.  There were some things he was prepared for--like mosquitoes and malaria.  However, there were some things that had just never crossed his mind.  They are little things, but if you are not prepared for them, they can really throw you for a loop.  Therefore, we put together this quick list of five "little things" that knowing can make a big difference.

1. Toilets & Toilet Paper in Southeast Asia (or lack thereof)

On our first morning in Singapore we went to have breakfast at a little spot I like on near the Lavender Street bus station.  My friend excused himself to go to the toilet--behind the restaurant--and in a few moments he reappeared with a puzzled look on his face.

"There is no toilet paper," he told me with a distressed look on his face.  I actually had to think for a long minute before I answered him.  I am pretty sure I was thinking, "Now, surely there is a bucket . . . "  Then it dawned on me--he's never gone to the bathroom in Southeast Asia before.  Now, I thought, how do I put this.

My nephew, who is now 13, once asked me if it was true that people "over there" used "their hand" to wipe their bottoms.  I explained that they used water.  He thought this was just disgusting, but I think I may have changed his mind.  I asked him if there were peanut butter smeared on the table did he think you could clean it up with just with a paper towel, or if you'd need water.  He saw the point.  I had to be a little more delicate with my friend, though, telling him to use the smaller bucket inside the water bucket and then use that and his left hand to clean his bum.

"Just wash your hands when you are done."  Of course, I had to come back in once he was done to show him how to flush--by pouring water into the toilet bowl with enough force to wash everything down.  He was still a little queasy about it all, but it didn't take long for him to get used to it and also realize why I was always packing a tiny bottle of hand sanitizer--along with toilet paper, soap isn't always in a Southeast Asian bathroom, either.  And by the way--for those of you who decide to pack your own toilet paper (insert seasoned traveler look of derision here), just be aware that those toilets are not made to flush toilet paper--so put it in tje waste basket if there is one. 

2. It's Called Chafing

Southeast Asia is hot.  It stays with the low 30s Celsius (that would be about the high 80s to low 90s if you are an American) and the humidity is generally high almost everywhere.  For example, today in Singapore and it will be 33 C/ 92 F with a relative humidity between 85-90%.  And while there are plenty of ways to beat the heat, no doubt you will be out and walking around quite a bit.  And this brings me back to the story of my friend . . .

At this point in time, we are in Melacca.  During the day, we are exploring the Museum of Enduring Beauty and the remnants of Dutch church or the Portuguese fort, A Famosa, and at night are running around with an aged Triad boss.  I notice my friend, who is wearing jeans, keeps tugging at his pant's bottom.

"Are you okay?" I finally asked.

He gave me a slightly embarrassed look and said, "My butt hurts."

The combination of clothes, heat and humidity often results in chafing, particularly on your butt and inner thighs.  For travelers who are a little heavier, it can particularly be a problem.  As the cloth rubs your skin, it literally rubs you raw, and as you keep going it just keeps getting worst and worst.  There are several ways to prevent it--smarter clothing choices for the environment, and liberal use of baby powder.   For more on how to pack smart, see our Southeast Asia Packing List.

3. Some Massage Parlors are Just Massage Parlors

Southeast Asia is the sex tourist capital of the world.  And it isn't just the unfortunately named Bangkok, but sex is for sale all over, especially Cambodia, Vietnam and the Philippines.  Most traditional Southeast Asian massage is great--imagine a combination of massage and chiropractic, where you not only get rubbed but also get bent, stretched and popped.   And just because there is a prevalence of seedy massage parlors doesn't mean you shouldn't treat yourself to a massage, and it is easy to find a place where you won't be offered a "happy ending."   Here are some very quick tips for finding a massage parlor that is just that--a massage parlor.  And, of course, if you are looking for your happy ending--just do the opposite of what is advised here.
  1. It doesn't have a name like "Love Teen Massage"
  2. It isn't open 24 hours.
  3. There are not "private rooms" for massages and it isn't based in a place that resembles a motel.
  4. It doesn't have a fish bowl of scantily clad women to pick your masseuse from
  5. It doesn't offer "soapy massage"
  6. It doesn't advertise erotic massages.

4. If You Are Paying Them, They Might Not Really be Your Friends

We all depend on people, but when we are in a foreign setting and don't know how much things might cost or don't know our way around, we depend on people even more. And our tour guides and drivers--taxis or tuk tuks--are often the folks we depend on most.  It is pretty common that the same driver will try to get you to use their services multiple days.  In highly touristed areas, like Siem Reap, Cambodia or Chang Mai, Thailand, competition is fierce and earnings are small.  That is in part why a plethora of not scams per se but "arrangements" are made by the drivers.  These mean commissions on shops, hotels, massage parlors, brothels, and more.  And while we often form bonds with our friendly tour guides, these are not enough for them not to take us for double-priced massages or to ridiculously overpriced souvenir stands.  In the end, we are customers, and their life is hard.  Every bit they can get out of us helps, and while we are often more than generous (especially when we've formed a "bond"), it is best not to forget that if we weren't paying them, they probably wouldn't be our friends.  There are exceptions--there are always exceptions--but it is something that is always best to keep in mind.

5. Tap Water (otherwise known as "Traveler Poison")

Most people know that you can't drink the water in Southeast Asia.  I see travelers requesting their drinks without ice (almost all ice is now commercially produced from filtered water--you don't have to worry about it except in really out-of-the-way places).  However, most people don't think about the fact that you do a lot more with water than just drink it--like brushing your teeth or rinsing out your mouth.  The stuff that comes out of the tap should be treated as poison.  Think about it as some deadly soap.  You can use to to wash your body off (usually), but you never want to ingest it.  That means you don't use it to rinse out your mouth, clean your toothbrush, and you certainly do not drink it.  Keep a bottle of filtered water in your bathroom to have for brushing your teeth and rinsing your brush. This also means avoiding foods that may have been washed in tap water.  Generally, travelers who have not spent a lot of time in this part of the world should avoid salads and raw vegetables that might have been washed in tap water.  On "safe water tips" see our article on "Is the Water Safe in Southeast Asia?" (short answer: no).

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