Tour de France
This evening (Monday), I was glued to the TV, watching the Tour de France big boys do their stuff, as exactly one week ago I pedalled, puffed and panted over those same mountain roads. I was with a group of friends from Britain and about 7000 other cyclists from around the world. We were taking part in the Etape du Tour, a chance for non-professionals to get a taste of the real thing.
Watching sporting stars like Rasmussen, Contador, Vino, Evans and the rest is undoubtedly inspiring, and it certainly brings back great memories of riding the Etape. But will we do it again next year? It's still far too early to say...
Etape Memories #1 - The Author. The Day Before. Calm and (appearing) confident.
- Katharina Kane
As I attended this year's edition of the Fez Festival of World Sacred Music, I kept thinking how very 'Lonely Planet' it all was: exotic (medieval medina, whirling dervishes), great value (dirt cheap), unapologetically One-Worldist (bring Jewish, Christian and Muslim musicians together and world peace is bound to follow).
Founded in the wake of the 1991 Gulf War, the festival's goals are lofty, though also fortified with realpolitik. The omnipresent photos of King Mohammed VI - the West's staunchest Arab ally - definitely say "realpolitik," as do the quantities of European television cameras, which pound for pound outweigh audience members at many concerts.
But Sufi Nights - free, midnight concerts in a sprawling medina garden - feel lofty, sublime. A mixed crowd of Europeans and locals watch Sufi masters chant Koranic passages in a bid to dissolve the self and unite with the divine. A crescendo is reached the night Gnawa musicians take the stage. A cousin of Sufism, Gnawa combines Arab, Berber and West African rhythms to invoke mluk - spirits that cause the brightly arrayed musicians, as well as multiple audience members, joyfully to writhe.
Fez's medieval medina - the largest in North Africa - is the remarkable base on which the festival's superstructure is laid. A walk in that great labyrinth, with its narrow passages, sharp smells, aggressive merchants, ornate courtyards and sudden vistas onto its own vastness, is another sure way to short-circuit the ego in the face of something much larger.
- Robert Landon
Trastevere is one of Rome's most picturesque neighbourhoods, a tightly-packed quarter of ochre-coloured palazzi and animated piazze. Thick with restaurants, pubs and bars, it's hugely popular with Romans and fun-loving foreigners who pile in nightly to party into the small hours. It's also, apparently, a no-go area for American presidents.
Much to the amusement of the trasteverini, Trastevere's famously proud residents, George W. was politely, but sternly, dissuaded from entering the area when he visited the Eternal City on 9 June. Before his visit, Bush had requested a round-table meeting with members of the Sant' Egidio community, a Catholic charity-cum-diplomatic organisation with its headquarters in Trastevere. But when it was pointed out to him that the neighbourhood's alleyways were too small for his motorcade and that the surrounding palazzi provided ideal sniper cover, he diplomatically agreed to hold the meeting in the US Embassy.
Thus the world was spared the sight of Bush enjoying a gelato on Trastevere's suggestive streets and the city's frazzled authorities, already worried about the prospect of anti-Bush protests, were saved a further security headache. In the end, Bush's 36-hour Rome visit passed off without major incident. He came, he caught up with his old buddy Berlusconi, he met the Pope and PM Prodi, and he left, leaving the city to its traffic and Trastevere to its trattorie and tourists.
- Duncan Garwood -
At 7am on Monday, more than 7000 cyclists rolled out of Foix, and headed into the Pyrenees to cross five major mountain passes on the Etape du Tour route to Loudenvielle.
Then came the second. The Col de Portet d'Aspet. Steeper. Then the third, and the fourth. You guessed it, longer and steeper again. Only the last pass of the day, the Col de Peyresourde, was a minor respite.
Sometimes when riding a bike gets hard, it feels like the road is sucking the tyres. Today, that's really what was happening.
But despite these obstacles, we all completed the distance in the allotted time. It was a long day in the mountains, and the roads were as hard as hell, but the scenery was stunning and the camaraderie was magnificent. Well over 1000 people dropped out, so we're all proud of our achievement.
-The time a Honduran soldier plonked himself beside me on a chicken bus crossing the El Salvador/Honduras highlands border, his assault rifle slung over his lap pointing at my kneecap. The chilly alpine conditions didn't stop the sweat pouring each time the driver hit a fresh pothole.
-The time a chicken bus I was on mysteriously started to bunny-hop up a hill without a driver.
-The time I dangled out the doors of a hurtling, packed Guatemala City commuter bus, grimly clinging one-handed to a rail to stop myself getting too intimate with the steep verge below.
OK, so the bus link isn't too tricky to spot. But it took someone to point out how often I said: "When I was on a chicken bus in..." for the story-telling importance of Central America's most colourful transport to click. "Is it just me?" I wondered. "Is it my line of work or do other travellers have the same chicken bus story ratio? Maybe I just have an uncanny knack for picking dodgy buses..."
Mind you, it's no surprise that these fume-belching, former US school buses spawn a few tales. Brightly coloured, especially in Guatemala, they are an intoxicating way to travel. The cabin is often part shrine, part soft porn. Semi-deranged drivers blast marimba music as they negotiate improbably narrow mountain roads.
"They are like the devil has just driven up from the underworld," one friend said to me as a particularly kaleidoscopic example careered past, its horn shrieking as it guzzled up the Panamericana highway.
It was all such a stark contrast to the sedate English train I settled into on my return. As my Pendolino eased toward the Midlands, I noted no wanton use of the horn, no three adults and baby on a seat intended for two US school kids and no itinerant 'vitamin' vendors. The only glitch was when the sliding carriage doors closed in my face.
It reminded me of the time when I was on a chicken bus in...oh, never mind.
- Jolyon Attwooll just researched the Honduras chapter for Lonely Planet's Central America on a Shoestring. -
Continuing yesterday's celebratory atmosphere, an Etape 'festival village' has been set up on the outskirts of Foix. A chance to meet old cycling buddies, to buy some last-minute kit, or queue to have the bikes checked over by skilled mechanics.
Throughout the day we kept up to date with news from the Tour de France, now on stage 8. The professionals will be coming to Foix in about a week, and crossing the same five mountain passes we're attempting. We'll be well out of the way by then.
Although the Tour de France is exclusively for male cyclists, there's also a Tour Feminine - won in 2006 by a Brit, Nicole Cooke, also winner of numerous other cycling world championships and one of the highest-performing athletes in the world - although you wouldn't know it for all the press attention she gets (ie, very little).
The Etape is open to both genders, so it's not completely testosterone fuelled (although there's a lot of that about). Every year a few hundred women ride among the 7000+ total field. My sister Jacqui did it last year and was buoyed along by constant shouts of "allez les femmes" from the spectators. She's doing it again this year, and we hope to ride side-by-side some of the way.
She's younger than me, and fitter, so I'm worried. If she leaves me behind on one of the 20km ascents, I'll never live it down.
And, if you'll excuse more personal references, there's another family connection: My father used to coach cycling teams, and helped me with a training schedule to prepare for this Etape. Just one day to go until we know if it worked, Dad.
Lonely Planet author David Else is in France to take part in L'Etape du Tour - cycling through the Pyrenees on part of the route of the Tour de France. This is the sixth of a series of blog posts.
Today is 14 July, Bastille Day - a French holiday. After cycling through the quiet countryside for about 40km we reached a small town celebrating the event with a market and small festival. We stopped for coffee, and enjoyed the atmosphere. Vive la France.
It was another relaxed 30km or so back to Toulouse. These limbering-up days are great. Shame there won't be time for coffee stops when we're doing the Etape.
It's Saturday evening now. The hotel is now full of cyclists from Britain and other parts of the world, reassembling bikes after a journey by car or plane, checking the route, talking excitedly about gear ratios, and wondering if tonight's dinner will be pasta.
Then onwards to Toulouse. Lunch was at a charming motorway service station: a chance to buy a cafe au lait and a copy of L'Equipe newspaper to get the latest reports about the Tour de France, currently on stage 6, still with about two weeks to go.
For the Tour de France professionals, each day is a race within a race, as every top rider wants to win a stage, but they must also remember the big picture: the chance of overall victory of the Tour de France itself, and that means consistently high placings every day.
That puts our little Etape jaunt in perspective. It may be a daunting 190km over five major passes, but the Tour de France boys will ride the same distance as us, twice as fast, then do it again and again, for 21 days virtually back-to-back. The only small comfort we can claim is this: Foix and Loudenvielle is reckoned to be one of the hardest stages of this year's Tour, and quite possibly a decider. As the old hands say, "the toughest battles are always fought in the mountains".
We reached our hotel in Toulouse this evening, in time for dinner. Pasta, of course. It's a relief to get the coach travel over and done with. Tomorrow we can get the bikes out and start getting properly limbered up for Monday's jolly big ride. It'll be great to be cycling again. And in glorious weather too - according to the meteo. All we need to remember is the sun cream, and to ride on the right side of the road...
Lonely Planet author David Else is in France to take part in L'Etape du Tour - cycling through the Pyrenees on the trail of the Tour de France. This is the fourth of a series of blog posts.
That's the theory. Some experts say it's pointless carbo-loading too soon and just one huge pasta meal the night before is all that's required. Who knows? Anyway, we like pasta - so endless spaghetti, conchiglie and lasagne is no real hardship.
Today (Thursday), we joined a group of other cyclists from Britain, loaded the bikes onto a trailer and travelled by coach to Dover, then by boat across the English Channel. It rained most of the way. Because we didn't get out on the bikes today, and to remind us that the sun does shine in Britain sometimes, here's a picture from a 160km sportive called the Richmond Five Dales that we did as a training ride a couple of months ago.
The Tour de France has been going for a few days now. While the Spanish may go crazy for football, and the Americans for baseball - the French just love cycling. They say when the Tour de France is happening the government could fall and no-one would notice.
We'll try and catch the TV news later to check the Tour de France results, and see how the British and Aussie riders are getting on.
It's another drive south tomorrow, and just three days before we get a chance to sample the thrills and the hardship, the pain and the pleasure, and - yes indeed - the agony and the ecstasy enjoyed by the Tour de France professionals.
Lonely Planet author David Else is heading for France to take part in L'Etape du Tour - cycling through the Pyrenees on the trail of the Tour de France. This is the third of a series of blog posts.
Although actually, the pros will be riding in our tracks. We pedal the 190km between the French towns of Foix and Loudenvielle on the 16th July, and the big boys hammer along the same road on the 23rd. And while 200 of the world's elite cyclists ride the Tour de France, there'll be 7000 of us riding the Etape. Cyclists come from all over the world, then many stay on to watch the Tour itself. Lucky buggers. Unfortunately, I'll be heading straight back home. And straight back to the TV.
I'm riding the Etape with three old buddies. Old is the operative word, said one observer, kindly. We went out for a little ride today, the last before we leave, just to check the bikes (and the legs) are all in working order. Here's a team photo:
The Etape is called a sportive - and as part of our training for the French event we rode a few sportives here in Britain. This photo was taken last month after we'd finished a ride called the Polka Dot Challenge. It was a bit damp. Typical British weather some may say - although not for June. But we covered the hilly 100 mile (160km) course in just under 6 hours.
At least the times are getting shorter as we get nearer the big day...
Lonely Planet author David Else is heading for France to take part in L'Etape du Tour - cycling through the Pyrenees on the trail of the Tour de France. This is the second of a series of blog posts.
It all started when I couldn't fit into a pair of trousers. My wife said I had middle-age spread, so I started jogging and then took up (again) some half-serious cycling. One thing led to another and a friend proposed L'Etape du Tour - a 190km (120-mile) jaunt through the Pyrenees, on roads used by the Tour de France - one of the toughest sporting challenges in the world. 'Sign me up', I said. 'Middle-age spread? Middle-age crisis more like', said another friend.
That was back in January. Since then I've been training for the Etape, with those same two friends, going out for increasingly long bike-rides to get in shape.
We went up a stack of hilly roads in Northern England, like the one pictured here (Honister Pass in the Lake District), raising the distance week by week, month by month.
Some of those training rides were killers, but hopefully it will all be worthwhile. We leave for France on Thursday, ready for the big day on Monday 16th.
Today I must admit to feeling a bit nervous. The Etape du Tour is revered by most cyclists like the New York Marathon is revered by most runners. The Yorkshire Dales had some steep gradients when we were training, but will we be ready for the peaks of the Pyrenees?
As well as the distance there's about 4500m of total ascent. That's about half the height of Everest.
And we can't hang around. The fastest riders will do the 190km in about 6 hours. The slowest in about 11. Anything slower means disqualification. We're aiming for something between 8 and 9 hours.
We've got a final training ride tomorrow. Just a leg-loosener. The groundwork is all done now, and if we're not up to scratch it's too late to do anything about it. C'est l'Etape. Bon nuit. -
At the Amazwi School of Media Arts, South Africa, it's time for an editorial meeting. The first edition of the signature publication, The Amazwi Villager, is just three weeks away, and the students are restless to see their names on the page.
One-by-one topics are revealed; the threads are hope and life and struggle. But death, it seems, is everywhere. There's a profile of a prosperous coffin-maker, a tombstone carver, an investigation into Burial Societies, a day-in-the-line at a hospital, plus a staple diet of abortion, AIDS and TB.
"Aish, this journalism stuff is too hard!" moans Thandi, 22, for whom writing stories is in fact too easy. On her first assignment, Thandi spent an evening at a local shebeen (unlicensed bar), witnessed one stabbing and another near-death, and wrote it all up with poetry and poise.
Her teammate, Siphiwe, 27, is a bronze Sotho athlete with high cheekbones - the right side stamped with a ceremonial scar - and a broad, ready smile. She wants to be a sports broadcaster, but for now, it's an illegal immigrant from Mozambique who fills her days.
Meanwhile, Bongekile, the accomplished, unofficial matriarch of the group, is trying to sort through the mess of government housing.
The class-come-newsroom bristles with mess and noise. Copies of the Daily Sun change hands like winter gloves, and Gloria, this week's blogger, writes a celebration of feminine might.
- Tom Spurling is volunteering at the Amazwi School of Media Arts, South Africa, where he is helping students write for their new publication The Amazwi Villager
Share your volunteering experience or for more information on volunteering click here.-
The Hanging Gardens of Babylon are out and the Taj Mahal is in as the world is introduced to the "new seven wonders" in a contest run by the private NewOpenWorld Foundation. The campaign which aimed to update the original list of wonders, drawn up about 200BC, attracted more than 100 million votes for the world's top architectural marvels.
The Sydney Opera House and New York's Statue of Liberty didn't make the final cut, neither did traveller favourites such as Angkor Wat. The biggest surprise however, was the Pyramids of Giza - the only wonder remaining from the original list - failed to make the grade.
The New Seven Wonders of the World
Great Wall of China
Taj Mahal, India
Christ Redeemer, Rio de Janeiro
Machu Picchu, Peru
Chichen Itza, Mexico
What's your opinion of the new list? Is your favourite "wonder of the world" missing? Tell us what you think. -
The latest attraction at London's Trocadero Centre may be something new. Charging ten pounds a person, the museum is neatly split into eight sections from dating and flirting to the remarkable Amorgasm, the orgasm tunnel. The areas are designed to educate and explore what you think you know about love, sex and relationships via interactive displays. Highlights include the Spankometer, which gauges your fetish skills and in the Amora Sutra room you can explore new sexual positions with a touch screen computer and a 7 foot wide projection at your debauched disposal.
There is a serious side to Amora. At the end of the experience is a bright room clearly outlining the facts and potential risks of various peccadiloes. It's pretty well done - it makes you think without feeling preachy.
While Amora is fun and lacks the seedy nature of other sex museum experiences, it tries too hard to remain tongue in cheek and some of the information is repeated or too obvious. This is however a place that will bring you several smiles and a few naughty ideas.
- Aaron Lamb
So will Amora catch on, or will it join the graveyard of good ideas that hung around Piccadilly Circus before fizzling out, like the Guiness World of Records and the scary wax of Rock Circus? Well, what do you think? -
- K Raphael
For more Singapore hawker food head to:
Adam Road Food Centre (cnr Adam & Dunearn Rds; 6am-3am) Try the char kway teow (broad noodles, clams and eggs fried in chilli and black-bean sauce) or barbecued stingray.
Chinatown Complex Food Centre (Smith St; 9am-11pm) More than 150 cheap, grungy and magically authentic stalls. Tuck into roast duck and rice.
Lavender Food Centre (cnr Jln Besar & Foch Rd; 11am-3am) The won-ton noodles are worth queuing for.
Lau Pa Sat (18 Raffles Quay; 24hrs) Steamed dim sum, chilli crab and sizzling satay. -
The 36-seat plane is tiny, but so is the archipelago we're flying to on this morning flight from Montreal. Quebec's Iles de la Madeleine consist of a dozen islands with a population of just over 12,000. However, they have plentiful supplies of the important things in life: 350km of beach and a selection of boites a chansons offering live music most nights during the summer.
The plane's passengers, mostly French-speaking Quebecois tourists, emit a murmur of appreciation as we circle above a cresecent-shaped beach. It's like a rollercoaster ride. I'm wondering if there will be any Canada Day festivities here. The nationwide celebration of all things Canuck sees red-and-white-painted crowds fill the streets from Ottawa to Vancouver. However, not only are the islands part of a province with separatist leanings, but they're separated from the mainland by 215km of water.
Could this be a muted celebration?
As it turns out, there is a beach party planned for that night, and it receives mixed reactions from the islanders. The guy who runs my hostel says he's going to watch the firework show, then changes his tune when a guest informs him what the spectacle's in aid of. The manager of Pas Perdus bar hasn't heard about the party, but is keen to go when I tell him about it.
The event is a mellow affair, with kids playing in the sand and their parents drinking from a bar selling 'liqueur, eau, jus, chips, biere, Smirnoff'. It's much like a day at the beach, except it's the middle of the night and there's a country band playing. As the fireworks explode above the lights of boats bobbing on the dark water, I hear the day's second general sigh of appreciation. Quebec may have its separatist ambitions, but here on Iles de la Madeleine, any excuse to gather on the beach and drink Molson Dry will do.
James Bainbridge is currently researching the Quebec section of the upcoming Canada guide. -
If you're just arriving, a bed may be tough to find in the city, but the music and the parties are not. The festivities are centered around Montreal's always-beating heart, the Place des Arts; most events are with a four-block radius. Outdoor performances, of which there are over 350 on 12 stages, are free to all. The 150 indoor concerts rage from noon to midnight; you can purchase tickets (about $14-80) on-site or via the website.
Starting modestly in 1979 with only 12,000 spectators, the event has swelled over the years to become the world's largest such festival, drawing over two million visitors annually. The offerings are remarkable, from the greatest jazz musicians in history (Ella Fitzgerald, Chick Corea, Ray Charles, Miles Davis) to budding hip-hop artists, some of whom found their big breaks on Montreal's stages.
That's right - hip-hop. And blues and flamenco and reggae, electronica, salsa. This event, birthed in a city noted for its tolerance, honors those same ideals and celebrates the far-reaching effects that jazz has had on countless music genres. "There is the strict definition of jazz," says festival co-founder Andre Menard, "that it has to be music that has some content, spirituality, and capacity for improvising. You can find that in many other music forms now. Jazz is the great classical music of the 20th century, so for us it's the main trunk, it's where everything starts."
A relatively new addition to the program is the Montreal Musician and Musical Instrument Show (MMMIS; July 5-8, noon-9pm) which promotes music-making through over 150 exhibits, workshops, interactive activities, tutorials, jams - all free!
This year the party starts on Thursday, June 28, and continues for 11 days with performances by Wayne Shorter, Dave Holland, Wynton Marsalis, Bill Frisell, Ravi Coltrane, Cesoria Evora, Van Morrison, Bob Dylan, Femi Kuti, Chaka Khan, Manu Chao, Pink Martini, The Coup, Skye, and heaps of musical geniuses you may have never heard of...yet.
- Emily K Wolman -
Motorists who don't rubberneck and crash find themselves at Thunder Mountain, one of the weirder (and taller) roadside monuments on an otherwise uneventful interstate freeway. An architectural ode to injustices against Native Americans, it was pieced together by a troubled soul named Frank van Zant, who lived and built here until he ended his life in 1989. Mortared with a smash-up of bricks and bottles, car windshields, manual typewriters and scraps of whatever he had on hand, it's a folk art jumble of historical references, made piercing by the haunted faces of massacre victims.
Perpendicular to the highway, clumps of oddly-angled auto carcasses form a fence, the passenger compartments weighted down with old beer cans and the ubiquitous tumbleweeds. Perhaps they're a commentary on industrialised society. Or maybe they just wrecked and got pasted into the scenery.
This was Beth Kohn's last stop on her epic journey through the Southwest States, researching for the upcoming, kick-arse USA guidebook. -
"The street is closed ahead! The best way to get there is on a horse - which I have, for a good price..."
So goes the latest scheme for ripping Pyramid visitors of their money. It's unique only because tourists are accosted while they're still in their taxis, waiting for the traffic to ease on the way to these megaton monuments.
Dr Zahi Hawass, head of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities, has tried to improve the situation at the Pyramids. Whereas visitors used to have to run a gauntlet of postcard vendors, horse touts and men offering camels for photo ops, now only a handful of people are allowed onto the plateau. The rest are kept at bay by a giant concrete wall topped with barbed wire, as well as police standing sentry on camelback. The day I visited, I saw a brief but exciting chase between them and a rogue horse tout who'd been making a beeline for a crowd of tourists.
But Dr Hawass hasn't actually solved the problem. The residents of the village at the base of the pyramids have been making their living off visitors for hundreds of years, so physically blocking them from tourists has only forced them into more creative solutions. The line of scrimmage has simply been moved a few kilometers away. Moreover, the tourism police admit they don't have any control over the horse touts - yes, the official rate is LE35 per hour, "but you're still expected to bargain".
Moreover, the experience on the Pyramids plateau itself is not friendly to the independent traveler. Visiting on your own, you're still prey to the occasional guard who asks for baksheesh for showing you an alleged "ruin" - the abandoned neo-Egyptian concrete police station - and you may also be squashed flat by a tour bus careening down one of the new paved roads. Trudging through the sand, away from the buses that are the antiquities council's bread and butter, you just might start to think a horseback ride is just what you need. If only you'd listened to the guy who jumped in your taxi...
Zora O'Neill is updating the Cairo chapter of Lonely Planet's Egypt guide, and enjoying her visit to her old home. -
The proliferation of short haul flights in the UK - there's over 30 a day flying the 320km between London and Manchester - is the main cause of the massive growth of emissions in the country. With flying causing 10 times more damage to the climate than taking the train, the volunteers (decked out in fetching flight attendant attire) were encouraging passengers to stand up to BA who have, according to Greenpeace, proved to be one of the worst offenders when it comes to restricting greenhouse gas emissions.
Would you swap your air ticket for an equivalent train ticket? -
In the rolling hills of Jensen, a huge cache of dinosaur bones was discovered in 1909 at what's now Dinosaur National Monument. And no one lets you forget it. At a gift shop outside the park, kids and adults gawk appreciatively at the site-specific mascot. An undeniably family-friendly and photogenic specimen, this dino-buddy sits saddled up in a parking lot framed by pure blue sky, awaiting its Hollywood moment. Climb aboard the telescoping neck of this docile sea-green charmer, and if you've been good, maybe it will ride you off into the sunset.
A femme-y hot pink behemoth with feathery eyelashes welcomes folks to nearby Vernal, where the natural history museum hands out free dinosaur hunting licenses. That's as in spotting, so don't break out any prehistoric recipes for dinosaur steak. They are extinct, after all. The museum's outdoor garden looks like a chill-out zone for extras on the set of Jurassic Park. It's teeming with life-size replicas of giants like a woolly mammoth and a Tyrannosaurus rex, so there's a decent chance of bagging a few, if only on paper.
Beth Kohn has almost finished her Southwest States research for the USA guidebook. Last stop Nevada. -
About 60 years ago, dusty uranium miners outnumbered slickrock mountain bikers in these legendary red rock ridges, and Albert Christensen decided that the family homestead was a tad too small. With the help of his brothers, he bore into an imposing stone face and whittled out a swinging subterranean wonder-pad. Chiselling with hand tools and setting off dynamite, he hauled out massive cartloads of sandstone, creating more than a dozen pillared and spacious rooms called Hole N'' the Rock.
After fashioning a surprisingly comfortable and climate-controlled residence, Albert didn't hibernate and kick his feet up. Not merely a caveman, he was also a Renaissance man. His attempts at taxidermy culminated in two alarmingly unhappy-looking stuffed horses, and who knows what his wife thought when he proudly arranged them in the living room. Perhaps viewing the sheer exterior as a blank canvas, he carved a pop-out memorial to President Franklin D. Roosevelt in his spare time.
Now uninhabited, a whitewashed and billboard-sized marker lures visitors seeking home improvement ideas.
Beth Kohn is exploring the Southwest States researching the USA guidebook. Next stop Utah's dinosaur country. -
This year there will be more trekking options than ever. In the south, new community-based treks are attracting travellers to the remote Xe Pian National Protected Area and the gothic karsts and valleys of Phu Hin Boun NPA, while the elephant viewing tower at Phou Khao Khuaoy NPA near Vientiane has also become popular. Further north, treks out of Vieng Phouka, Phongsali and Muang Sing are all vying with the original Nam Ha NPA experience for a slice of your trekking dollars.
The whole point of these treks is to channel your money into the pockets of those who would otherwise have to abuse the forest, or sell it, in order to live. Significantly, these projects appear to have strong support from the Lao government, which has even written community-based ecotourism into its national poverty reduction strategy. Congratulations, Lao government, for your vision.
However, all this seems to be at risk since one of Laos's ecotourism pioneers, Sompawn Anthisouk, was abducted while on his way to an appointment with the police in January. Pawn, who is a co-owner of The Boat Landing, Laos's best-known and longest-running eco-lodge, hasn't been heard of since he was taken. Nobody has claimed responsibility, Lao newspapers haven't reported it, and the police investigation has still not produced any answers despite witnesses who claim to have seen the abduction.
Just who those men were remains a mystery. What is in less doubt, however, is that the incident has raised some big questions about the future of eco-tourism in Laos. If Pawn is released these doubts will probably disappear. But if he remains missing, attracting the investment needed to grow this sort of tourism - and help alleviate poverty - might be much more difficult. So for the sake of his family and his country, we're still hoping to see Pawn back working in Luang Nam Tha.
Andrew Burke is the author of Lonely Planet's Laos guide.
For more information on Laos ecotourism try:
For more discussion on Pawn, go to the Thorn Tree. -
America's infamous bastion of dirty feel-good hedonism dishes out some seriously sinful culinary creations. Away from the glitzy dining at the Strip mega-resorts, meal prices drop and your cholesterol may spike to previously unimaginable levels. At one Downtown area casino, the fast food could be referring to the immediacy of your next coronary. For a mere 99 cents, treat your refined palette to some deep-fried Oreo cookies, and taste what happens when a sandwich creme cookie drowns in oil. Or sidle up to a deep-fried Twinkie, America's favourite shelf life-indeterminate sponge cake.
After a dose of comfort food that feels so wrong and tastes so right, a little liquid nourishment is in order. This being Vegas, it's got to be B-I-G. How about your favourite cocktail supersized beyond your ability to carry it? The Carnaval Bar sells drinks so gargantuan that the hookah-sized glasses attach to your neck with a leash. Almost three feet long, they're salaciously called a 'full yard with a strap-on'.
Next stop Utah for Beth Kohn - if she can get off the toilet in Vegas. Beth is exploring the Southwest States researching the USA guidebook. -