The sharper edge to traveling in Asia

Death of an investigative journalist: Was Canadian Dave Walker slain over a non-governmental organization scam?

Written By: herbrunbridge - Nov• 29•14

It been nine months since noted Canadian journalist and author Dave Walker’s body was found on the grounds of Cambodia’s Angkor Watt ample complex. His murderer s — one assumes that more than one did the killing and carted away the body — have yet to be identified, nor has a motive been determined. Walker had been working on a Khmer Rouge story, but conventional wisdom holds that he wasn’t killed as a result of looking into a tale as long in the tooth as that. The perpetrators, after all, are getting older or dead, and most of the potentially harmful data has already been aired anyway. So why was Walker killed?

Dave Walker

Dave Walker

There is a rumor, floating around the circle of expats that knew him, that he may have been investigating a scam involving Cambodian police and/or military officials and one or more non-governmental organization (NGO). The matter, described in a WoWasis story first introduced several years ago, involves a scam in which innocent western men are falsely accused of having sex with underage Cambodian youths of both sexes. These individuals are then shaken down by officials for an amount generally estimated to be in the $30,000 USD price range. If he refuses to pay, he is jailed and reported to his country’s embassy. Accusations are obtained through the false confessions of youths, their parents, or motorcycle taxi drivers, who are being paid directly by the perpetrators of the fraud, which would include be police, military, underworld figures and NGOs.

Walker was aware of this scam. If, in fact, he was working on this story, he wouldn’t be the first westerner to have disappeared while investigating it. A prominent hotelier in Sihanoukville, who had investigated the story several years earlier, was abruptly arrested by Cambodian authorities on a charge related to drug distribution, which may well have been concocted to facilitate his arrest. He fled the country through certain legal maneuvers and wound up in the Philippines, where he was reported to have died in 2013. His death has yet to be corroborated.

Dave Walker’s family, or those purporting to represent them, are saying little. They claim to know who the killer could be, but have been uncooperative with the media, perhaps because of general paranoia, imagined threats, or real ones.

It all remains an enigma wrapped inside a mystery, but more and more of Walker’s acquaintances are beginning to think along the lines of his being killed as a result of investigating the NGO- police-youth sex scam that remains one of Cambodia’s most dangerous, profitable, and best-kept secrets.

Travel warning Thailand: Bangkok police accelerate random visitor urine tests, searches, interrogations on western tourists and expats

Written By: herbrunbridge - Nov• 28•14

RiotPolicesBKK1a-300x286 - CopyIn what appears to be a rapidly increasing policy of harassing western visitors and residents in Bangkok, such individuals are now regularly being stopped by Bangkok police, where they are interrogated, searched, and made to contribute urine samples. This policy has become infamous in the tourist areas controlled by the Thong Lor and Lupini district police. Westerners are routinely stopped at random on the street, in taxicabs, and when traveling on motorcycle taxis. The stops are held day and night. When stopped, the individual is asked for identification, to empty the contents of pockets and purses for inspection, and a urine sample may be demanded as well, to be given and analyzed on the spot. Those not having proper identification or papers may be taken to a nearby police station, where they are held temporarily until the issue is either resolved or remanded to the Thai court system.

How common is this situation? Over the past few months, it has happened to numerous westerners living in Thailand, and has become a popular, if unwelcome topic of conversation. At least one individual with whom we here at WoWasis spoke shared the experience of being shaken down for a 20,000 baht “fine” to avoid arrest. In the November 29, 2014 issue of the Bangkok Post, visitor Reese Walker described how she and her fiancé were stopped twice by police in two days, interrogated, searched, and urine-sampled. Their crime? Being in a taxi cab in the first case, and walking at the popular Asok intersection in the second. “This is our first and last visit to Thailand,” she says in her letter to the editor. “The harassment of tourists is unacceptable… [we] won’t be recommending other people to visit Thailand based on two frightening incidents of what we believe to be racial profiling.”

Recommendations if you are arrested:

As a westerner, whether a tourist or an individual living in Bangkok, you may very well be stopped at random and subject to immediate arrest by Bangkok police. If you are stopped and harassed by Bangkok Police, especially common in the Thong Lor and Lumpini police district areas popular with tourists, here are some recommendations:

1) If you are taken to a police facility, do not sign anything. You will be verbally insulted and browbeaten (there is no anecdotal data that suggests you will be physically harmed). But refuse to sign. If you do sign, even an acknowledgement that you have been detained can be interpreted by Thai courts as an admission that you resisted arrest.

2) Demand that the police contact your embassy on your behalf. Again, sign nothing.

3) At least one person was able to get the police to release him by saying he needed to go to the hospital “to get my medicine.” Your dying while in police custody is a public relations snafu that the police would prefer to avoid.

4) Particularly on a weekend, you may be forced to spend a night in a Bangkok jail. Hang in there, sign nothing, and sit tight until your embassy representative can assist you.

  Tourism in Thailand is estimated to be down in 2014 by a factor of 20% from the year before. Harassment of western visitors is apparently a pastime determined to increase the number of international visitors that see Thailand, once considered a country friendly to visitors, as a country pushed further and further down the destination bucket list.

WoWasis product review: Thai language flashcards make learning the alphabet a snap

Written By: herbrunbridge - Nov• 25•14

ThaiFlashcards1bBy western standards, the Thai alphabet isn’t easy. Actually, by anyone’s standards, it’s tough. We here at WoWasis found learning the Arabic alphabet comparatively easy. But not Thai, with its 44 consonants, and 32 vowels and vowel combinations. That’s why we love the “Learn Thai” flashcards made by Lanna Innovation Company, Ltd. You can buy them at virtually every Thai bookstore.

They come in two card decks, purchased separately. ‘44 Thai Consonant Cards’ come in a green pack, and ’43 Thai Vowel Cards’ is purchased in an orange pack. They’re terrific.

Each plasticized card is the size of a standard playing card has two sides. The “gau-gai” consonant card is a great example of how the system works. One side is in Thai, showing the written form of the letter, with arrows showing how to write it properly. “Gau” and “gai” are written in Thai script, along with a “break box” showing the movement of the tone, along with the graphic of the chicken, with the letter represents in the alphabet. On the reverse side of the card, “gau,” “gai,” and “chicken” are all written in English, as is the term ”mid-consonant,” indicating its tonal value. There are also two boxes showing proper tongue placement and tone production and aspiration.

Immediately into the consonant deck, we were rewarded with cards describing the five Thai consonants that correspond to the English “K” sound. Three were listed in the dictionary we use, Mike Simpson’s terrific “3-in-1” English-Thai dictionary. Two variations weren’t in the dictionary, though, and the tiny script in the dictionary makes it difficult to recognize the slight variation in the written form. So these cards are comprehensive.

ThailandPromoBannerThe cards are not sold on-line (don’t use the shopping cart on the website: it doesn’t work), so you have to buy this great card set in Thailand. Each pack is 250 baht, so 500 baht for the set, about $15 USD. So buy these in Thailand, take them home, and put them on your coffee table. They’re wonderful to shuffle through at random, and a great way to stay in touch with the Thai alphabet when you’re away from the country.

Pa Farang on hotel scams overseas

Written By: herbrunbridge - Nov• 18•14

pafaranghalo[1]The Good Manner: Advice on Thailand from WoWasis’ Pa Farang

This week’s scam unveiled: Why am I paying unadvertised hotel “fees”?

Dear Pa Farang,

Recently, I stayed at one of Bangkok’s better hotels. I headed out to dinner and a night on the town, came back around 1 pm with an acquaintance, and we were stopped by a secrity guard, who put her name on a list and tried to charge me an extra 200 baht for an overnight guest. I really had it out with the manager the next day. He said I should have booked a room for two. When I asked how much extra it was, he said is was the same price as a single… all that nonsense for nothing! Is this rubbish common in all large hotels?

- Bad Business

Dear BB,

You’re a victim of the “joiner fee” scam. Hotels that pull this stunt intend to harass both you and your acquaintance, and it’s essentially a “morality fee.” Invariably, doubles in these hotels cost the same as singles. Most hotels do not have this policy, as infuriating good guests isn’t the best way to run a business in the hospitality industry. You were right to voice your opinion of this practice, which constitutes a scam that is yet another way to fleece customers. As we say, vote with your feet, and find a better hotel that cares about the value of a repeat customer; there are plenty in this city, to be sure.

ThailandPromoBannerHere is another favorite hotel scam, generally run only in smaller hotels. You get charged a key deposit fee of say 200 baht. They conveniently forget to return the fee to you when you check out. This is endemic in Pattaya, and other outlying areas. Always refuse to pay key deposits, as it amounts to tipping the reception staff against your will.

Avoid all scams, show the Good Manner, and have a great time in Thailand,

Marayat dee,
- Pa Farang

Read Pa Farang’s other columns in WoWasis for more advice on relationships and cultural matters in Asia

WoWasis travel product review: never lose your bag again with suitcase handle grips that are durable, colorful, and essential

Written By: herbrunbridge - Sep• 13•14

NeopreneGrips_We here at WoWasis are constantly vexed by three suitcase handle problems that drive us nutty, but not any longer. We’ve found an inexpensive and great solution. Before we tell you what it is, do any of these three problems sound familiar?

1) You’ve got a great shoulder bag with a web strap that keeps —annoyingly — slipping off your shoulder.

2) You’ve got a great bag with a leather, rubber, or plastic handle that’s shredding. The bag is too good to get rid of, but the handle has seen better days.

3) Your bag looks like every other one coming off the baggage carousel at the airport and you wish you could identify it faster.

We’ve found the solution for all of these problems in one terrific product. It’s the Red Color Comfort Neoprene Handle Wraps/Grip/Identifier for Travel Bag Luggage Suitcase. This durable velcro-grip handle attaches to everything. We tested it, and it’s a gem. To wit:

1) Our shoulder bag no longer slips off our shoulder.
2) We’ve already been able to save one great bag with a crappy handle because the neoprene handle wrap slips over it.
3) We now identify our bag immediately off the carousel. We don’t have to carefully inspect every bag that looks like ours, and other travelers don’t mistake ours either.

This great gizmo comes in packs of three and sells for under $10 USD, easily the best value of any travel gadget that we’ve seen in the past several years. Buy it now from the WoWasis eStore.

WoWasis spa review: magnificent hot springs in Copan, Honduras

Written By: herbrunbridge - Aug• 22•14

LunaJaguarPoolsEntrance1bHere are WoWasis, we just love natural hot springs. We’ve blogged on great ones in California, Japan, and Taiwan. So now we’ll add Honduras to the list, because there’s a terrific one here, about as pretty, from a design and natural beauty perspective, as you’ll find anywhere. And you can visit it for about $22, directly from the town of Copan Ruinas. We’ve never found a better hot springs value anywhere, and after a hot morning of roaming through the Mayan pre-Columbian site of Copan, the Luna Jaguar Hot Springs is just the right place.

It takes about an hour to get there, up a rutty mountain dirt road ($22 include transportation from your hotel and a spa ticket). Along the way, you’ll pass coffee plantations and wonderful examples of rural life, including people, animals, and landscapes.

LunaJaguar18RabbitPools1cWhen you arrive, you change to your bathing suit (nobody’s nude here), grab a towel, and head over the pretty cable and wood bridge that spans a stream. Once you cross, you’re in another world. Mayan statuary is everywhere, the greenery is breathtaking, the pools are beautiful, designed from indigenous rock. If you wish, you can start with a mud bath or a sauna, the latter of which is an intelligently rigged floor-vented pavilion, built right over a scalding natural hot stream. Walk a little bit higher and you’ll come to our favorite place, the adjacent hot and cold pools. Dip in the hot pool and you’ll be under the gaze of Copan Mayan ruler ’18 Rabbit,’ whose stela from the archaeological zone has been wonderfully rendered. After a few minutes, would want to slip over the barrier to the cold pool. If the hot pool is too much for you, several cooler but still warm pools cascade below, waiting for you.

If you want, you can get a massage and you can eat here, too. All in all, this is one of the best hot springs we’ve ever experienced, and certainly was the least expensive. Thousands of people visit Copan every year for the Mayan ruins and sculptures and many of them make it up the hill to the Luna Jaguar spa. You should too, and it will be an experience you’ll always remember.

Luna Jaguar has a website, but we recommend just booking it through the ViaVia restaurant and bar, two blocks off the public square in the town of Copan Ruinas (everyone knows where it is, just ask).

LunaJaguar18Rabbit1cIf you decide to drive the road (we don’t recommend it, 4-wheel drive only) here are the prices:
Prices at the Luna Jaguar Hot Springs are 200 Lempiras ($10) from 9 am to 1 pm; 240 Lempiras ($!2) from 1 pm to 5 pm; 300 Lempiras ($15) from 5 pm – 9 pm. Meals are 150 Lempiras ($7.50)

WoWasis scuba review: The Top 4 dive spots in Roatan, Honduras

Written By: herbrunbridge - Aug• 18•14
Courtesy Roatan Marine Park

Courtesy Roatan Marine Park

Today’s WoWasis guest blog was written by Michele “Mish” Akel, co-owner of Native Sons Dive Shop in Roatan, Bay Islands, Honduras. She’s been diving there since 1996, but that’s not quite as long as her husband and co-owner Alvin Jackson has. His first dive there was 1973! Alvin is the President of the Roatan Marine Park and very dedicated to preserving Roatan’s fragile environment. These are his four favorite dive sites. For more information, contact Native Sons Dive Shop (see below).

The diving around Roatan is world class and thanks to the Roatan Marine Park the reef is still very healthy with plenty of reef life to please our visitors. We have turtles everywhere, eels, rays, lobster, groupers, parrot fish etc., and then all the wonderful macro critters. You will not be disappointed!

1) Texas – This is the best dive site on Roatan. It is at the end of the island where the currents keep the reef wonderfully healthy and you will see plenty of fish life; groupers, wrasse, angels, hogfish , huge barracuda. If you get out far enough you will also see the elusive Sargassum triggerfish that is not found anywhere else around Roatan. If you are keen on photography bring your wide angled lens for this dive.

2) Half Moon Bay Wall – Right out the front of Native Sons is one of the best walls off the island. There are 3 moorings here, Dixie’s, Half Moon Bay and Divemaster’s Choice. They are all great dives and go from 10ft to way deeper than we would ever take you. Down deep are lots of gorgonions, huge orange elephant ear sponges, and lots of interesting overhangs, under which the corals are remarkably beautiful. In the shallows, look out for flamingo tongues on the fans and lobsters and crabs in the crevasses.

Courtesy  Roatan Marine Park

Courtesy Roatan Marine Park

3) Hole in the Wall – If you want to go deep, this is the site. Swim down through a large tunnel that goes through the wall and you come out at 110ft. Another 20 ft is our maximum depth and you hang out over the deepest blue you will ever see. There is no sign of the bottom here and it’s a great moment to contemplate life, the universe and everything while enjoying a touch of nitrogen narcosis. Back up in the shallows, while decompressing, swim through the Swiss cheese, a network of caves, tunnels and canyons, all filled with natural light, glassy sweepers, and with any luck, a scorpion fish or two. There is also a great cave, filled with silver-sides in the summer, with a large entrance and quite often king crab hiding on the ledges.

4) The Aguilar Wreck – This 210 foot cargo ship sits on the sand at 110 feet. It was sunk intentionally by Anthony’s Key Resort in 1997, broken into 3 by Hurricane Mitch in 1998 and further rearranged by Hurricane Wilma in 2005. It’s a great dive. As you go down you are met by huge friendly groupers and blue parrot fish. There is a resident eel and some wonderful coral has grown on the ship. Don’t forget to check out the garden eels covering the deep sand as far as you can see. This dive is usually done as a drift, starting at the wreck and then decompressing in the shallows and gradually making your way to Pillar Coral, to the west. For some reason, there is an area between these two sites where there are so many fish, Bermuda Chubb, black durgons, groupers, and schoolmasters, all hanging out at the top of the wall. What a great place to do a safety stop!

For more information, please contact Mish at:

NativeSonsOwners1aNative Sons Dive Shop
Half Moon Bay, West End
Roatan, Honduras
(504) 2445 4003
(504) 9670 6530
Email chilliesrtb@yahoo.com
Facebook Page: Native Sons Dive

 

WoWasis product review: leak-proof in-flight travel bottles that (honestly) don’t leak

Written By: herbrunbridge - Aug• 15•14

NalgeneBottles1bIf you’re like us here at WoWasis, you’ve become damned sick and tired of your checked or carry-on liquids leaking out of your small travel bottles, then having to wash a whole bunch of stuff to get it all clean again. The biggest villain in this crime story is the airplane. As pressure changes, liquids start oozing out of bottles, no matter how well you tighten them. The biggest problems we have are with shampoos and pre-electric shave lotion. Yes, we keep them in plastic bags, but especially as is the case with the pre-shave lotion, we end up losing most or all of it in one international flight. They don’t sell pre-shave liquid in most Asian countries (but they do sell electric razors — go figure). So after hundreds of flights, we were determined to try to identify bottles that were small enough to be eligible for baggage, yet didn’t leak.

And hallelujah, we just tested one brand (in two different bottle configurations) and found nary a leak after five flights. So we’re recommending Nalgene leak proof bottles. These bottles were originally made to store lab samples in conditions where spillage could have major consequences. One bright soul at Nalgene determined that these bottles would be great for travel, too. And they are. We like the Nalgene 4 ounce Flip Top bottle for our shampoo and the Nalgene 2 ounce Drop-Dispenser bottle for our alcohol-based pre-shave liquid. The latter has a tiny cap that seals the top of a dispenser spout and it’s a gem.

With every good situation, though, there’s bound to be a drawback. And it’s Nalgene’s website. While they sell as plethora of leakproof bottles, they don’t feature these tiny TSA-ready bottles that are essential for traveling with liquids in your carry-on luggage, so you’ll have to find them at a retailer. We found ours at a chain outfit called The Container Store. We’d imagine that there are many others. We’ve attached a photo of our bottles so you can get a sense of what they look like. This is a superior flight travel product, too bad the folks at Nalgene don’t understand the market well enough to put these on their website. Next time, after you’ve just unpacked your luggage and found the usual monster leaks, you’ll wish that you had invested in a leak-proof TSA-enabled bottle for liquids. The Nalgene bottles are the real deal.

Top 4 Scuba Diving Spots in Vietnam

Written By: herbrunbridge - Aug• 07•14
Glossodoris nudibranch (courtesy Rainbow Divers)

Glossodoris nudibranch (courtesy Rainbow Divers)

Today’s guest blog was written by WoWasis correspondent Jeremy Stein, who’s been running Rainbow Divers in Vietnam for 17 years. Vietnam is a great place to dive and to get certified, with clear, warm waters and lots to see. Here are his choices for the best 4 dive spots in Vietnam. For more details, contact Jeremy directly at the email and contact address below.

Nha Trang Diving

Nha Trang is the traditional home of diving in Vietnam. Since it was discovered by international travellers in the late 80’s the 17km of pristine beach and views has enchanted tourists. Easily accessible by flight from HCMC or Ha Noi and Da Nang. There are also many Train and Bus options.  The Marine park has a world class variety of Soft and Hard corals and some truly stunning macro life.
• Peak Season: March – October. Low Season: November – February.
• BEST FEATURE: “Far Islands”

Whale Island Diving

This East coast treasure is nestled 2 hours North of Nha Trang. Peaceful, rustic bungalows and Ocean view restaurant and bar. No roads, no motorbikes. Exclusive diving with a myriad of unidentified Nudibranch and amazing Macro Life. Great opportunities for quality beach dives and night dives.

• Peak Season: March – October. Low Season: November – February.
•  BEST FEATURE: Rare nudibranch…VERY rare Nudibranch.

Lion Fish (courtesy Rainbow Divers)

Lion Fish (courtesy Rainbow Divers)

Phu Quoc Diving

Off the far South West coast of Vietnam. A Vietnamese Island in the Gulf of Thailand, off the Cambodian border. This small, underdeveloped Island hosts a buffet of beachside resorts. Easily accessible from HCM by flight. The South Island is considered one of Vietnams best dive sites. One of the few places around the coastline where you can see bamboo sharks and as always a wide array of macro life.

• Best season: November – March. Low Season: May – September.
• BEST FEATURE: The South Island.

Con Dao Diving

The mysterious archipelago of Con Dao. When you fly in by plane (40 minutes direct from HCMC) its much like the opening sequence of Jurassic Park 3. By ferry, akin to the revelation of skull Island in King Kong. That’s Con Dao, magical and exclusive. With a truly amazing diversity in dive sites, for the beginner and hardened pro. Dugongs, turtles and the best chance you have of seeing Pelagics in Vietnamese waters.  There are a host of beach front resorts from simple to Six Senses. Come here with a clear mind and a love of nature. There is little in terms of entertainment, but this is compensated by the amazing scenery and nature.

• Best Season: May – July. Low Season: January – March.
• Best feature: Simply Stunning.

JeremySteinFor more information on diving these areas, contact Jeremy directly:

Rainbow Divers Vietnam
24 hour contact: (+84) 0913-408-146
jeremy@divevietnam.com
www.divevietnam.com

 

 

WoWasis Galapagos book review: The essential ‘Wildlife of the Galápagos’

Written By: herbrunbridge - Aug• 03•14

WildlifeGalapagosBookHere at WoWasis, we recommend two nature guidebooks for travelers to the Galapagos. We’ve already reviewed Pierre Constant’s Marine Life of the Galapagos: The Diver’s Guide to Fishes, Whales, Dolphins, and Marine Invertebrates, which is the essential marine life guide. For land animals, plants and flowers, you won’t find a better one than Wildlife of the Galapagos (2000, ISBN 978-0-691-10295-5), written by Julian Fitter, Daniel Fitter, and David Hosking.

At 4 ½ x 7 ½ inches, it’s easy to carry when hiking and its plasticized cover is rugged enough to survive well through constant use. The book contains more than 400 color photographs and covers more than 200 commonly seen species, including birds, mammals, reptiles, and plants. At 256 pages, it includes essays on history, climate, and geology, and make for a very good preliminary read before reaching the islands. Like many books on the Galapagos, it’s not readily available when you reach the islands, so you’ll want to buy it before you go.

DreamAd-Wowasia_4The book is also a key to planning your trip well before you go. Our favorite part of the book is the 23 pages of island maps denoting hiking trails with keys to where you’ll encounter specific animals and plants. We’ve written a previous post on how to simplify a Galapagos visit, must reading, because at first the plethora of options seems so daunting (and expensive).  We now wish that we’d read this book before our visit. If we had we would have been better aware of the spectacular geological views to be had on Isla Bartolomé, which is otherwise a bit too easy to miss. The authors are keen on photography and the book is to a very large extent geared to people desiring to come away with memorable photographs.

If you’re contemplating or planning a trip to these remarkable islands, you’ll want to buy this book first in order to determine your own visiting priorities. Buy it now at the WoWasis eStore.