Merry Christmas and happy New Year from Southeast Asia! I celebrated with friends on Christmas day, then departed for my travels to Taiwan, Cambodia, and Laos shortly after. Although it’s a lot of traveling to fit into a short period of time, I wanted to make the most of my time off work and experience different countries/cultures while I have the chance to. So, it’s definitely been a whirlwind trip and not the most restful, but I will relax some when I’m back in Bangkok.
My first stop was Taipei, and I took day trips to Sun Moon Lake and Jiufen Village / Cat Village.
Cat Village Houtong was one of the highlights from Taiwan because I adore cats. The mountain city of Houtong used to be a mining village, and Cat Village was developed, along with a mining museum, to reinvigorate this village. Houtong is about an hour or so from Taipei. Volunteer groups were established to create a friendly environment for cats and turned Houtong into a cat village for cat lovers.
I wandered around the hillside walkways and laneways that make up Cat Village, and even though it was rainy, I discovered cats in all the nooks and crannies. Some cats were happy for treats or pets, but others wanted to be left alone. I was content just to look at them from afar, and they were all so adorable. There’s also several cat themed cafes and shops.
Since Jiufen Village is very close to Cat Village, this was our next stop at the end of the day. Jiufen is a historic gold mining village located northeast of Taipei, Ruifang district. The village’s gold rush peaked during Japanese colonization and closed in 1971. Turquoise seas and magnificent mountains surround Jiufen.
Although many think the movie, Spirited Away, was inspired by Jiufen Village, Miyazaki has denied this. However, there are definitely coincidental similarities, with Jiufen’s cliffside teahouses, steep streets with vendors selling hot food, and red lanterns.
Some street food that I tried includes taro balls and Taiwanese sausage on skewers. We ended the day by having a tea tasting at at teahouse overlooking the water, such a magical experience!
Once I was back in Taipei, I visited Huashan 1914 Creative Park, Zhongshan, which is a trendy area for shopping, Ximending, and Elephant Mountain, to name a few.
Although I was absolutely loving the weather in Taiwan (cool, misty, and no sunglasses needed), it was back to hot, humid weather once I arrived in Cambodia. Like many countries in Southeast Asia, Cambodia is also warm to hot year round.
In Cambodia, I ended the year by doing a sunset tour at Angkor Wat and began the first day of 2024 by doing a sunrise tour here. I’ve wanted to travel here ever since I saw pictures from my sister’s trip to Siem Reap when she was in college, and it’s pretty cool that we now have pictures at some of the same places and temples.
However, one downside of Cambodia is that after the sunset tour of Angkor Wat, I noticed that my lower legs and ankles were covered in hives. I was certain they were bug bites, but when I went to the pharmacy, they said it was an allergic reaction to the air, dust, etc., and they gave me medicine.
I absolutely fell in love with Laos; the nature is so beautiful. Views of the amazing scenery began from the plane, where we could see the mountains and water. Although Laos was sunny, it wasn’t as humid as Cambodia.
My days in Laos were filled with temple hopping, viewpoint hikes, gorgeous waterfalls and lagoons, reading at cafes alongside the Mekong, and buying handicrafts. The French colonial influence is heavily present in Luang Prabang, particularly through French pastries and European architecture.
I began my first full day in Laos by getting breakfast at a bakery. I sat at a window spot overlooking an elementary school, and it was a really pure way to start my morning, by seeing all the children playing. After that, I shopped in the many boutiques and went to the night market later that night. The night market in Luang Prabang was more relaxed than night markets that I’ve gone to in other countries, which was nice.
Also, the handicrafts for sale represent Lao’s various ethnic groups, as Laos is the most ethnically diverse country in mainland southeast Asia, with at least 49 ethnic groups and 240 subgroups. For example, many shops sold hemp fabric or conducted workshops about this process; hemp is cultivated by the Hmong people of Laos. This was particularly powerful to see, as many of our clients at AAT are Hmong. The Hmong have a distinctive history in China, and over the centuries, they migrated to the mountainous areas of Vietnam, Laos, and Thailand. Another informative shop, Her Works, showcases the handicrafts, textile materials, and symbols of minority ethnic women while empowering them through providing livelihood. Their products also encourage ethical living with the use of sustainable, environmental-friendly, and natural materials and processes. I could really feel the life and traditions that the skilled artisans were breathing into every bag, shoe, and textile.
I also hiked up Phousi Hill, a Buddhist temple and summit, which has sweeping views of the mountains and water below. It was a perfect place to watch the sunset.
And, I enjoyed several sunset dinners with views of the glistening Mekong River.
As a UNESCO world heritage site, Luang Prabang is a town with a thriving art community and culture, mesmerizing textiles and pottery. I wish I’d had time to see museums such as the Traditional Arts and Ethnology Center (TAEC), which highlights various ethnic groups in Laos, and the UXO Laos Visitor Center, which details the devastation Laos suffered from the American War in Indochina and the long-lasting effects of unexploded ordnance (UXO).
I am also curious to look more into Luang Prabang’s spiritual heritage and history, in addition to Cambodia and Taiwan. Lots of research to do.
My time in Laos was a great way to end my trip, as I felt that I could really enjoy a slower pace of life here, with no set itinerary. I am beyond blessed and grateful for these experiences that I am able to have. 2024 is off to a wonderful start, and I can’t wait to see what the rest of the year has in store for me.