Historical places in Asia
In the tranquil riverside town of Savannakhet lies this tiny Dinosaur museum. The palaeontological finds are all from the area and the one room exhibition is a very low key affair. A dinosaur is drawn in full size along three of the walls and outlined by Christmas lights. The curators are very friendly, though not speaking much English, and will pull out drawers to show you hidden stuff up close. You might even get a tour in the store room behind, where all the new finds are. Don't expect a lot of explanation, all signs are only in Lao and French. We like... bravo!
The Ho Chi Minh trail was not a single trail, but rather a network of trails and dirt roads that lead from North Vietnam to South Vietnam through Laos and Cambodia in the bloody years of the Vietnam War. The Viet Minh, who were based in North Vietnam and led by Ho Chi Minh, used it to supply their allies in the South, the Viet Cong, with arms and men, so they could fight the Americans and the South Vietnamese army. Since both Cambodia and Laos were officially neutral, the Americans decided to secretly bomb the area where the Ho Chi Minh trail went through. Just in Laos, the Americans dropped more than 2 million tons of bombs, making Laos one of the most heavily bombed countries in the world. Today there isn't much evidence of the Ho Chi Minh trail, but at the dirt square in Pa-am village you can still see a Russian surface-to-air missile launcher (with missile) that the North Vietnamese troops managed to drag down here.
In the middle of the Gobi desert, where dust and stones rule, the flat plateau breaks off to a lower level. During sunrise and sunset the exposed cliffs give off an orange hue which gives the place its name. It was here in the 1920's that the American archaeologist Roy Chapman Andrews made the amazing discovery that dinosaurs were egg laying - and made some wrong assumptions that the newly found dinosaur specimen, the velociraptor, was an egg thief. You can still to this day walk around and find dinosaur bones and egg shells at the bottom of the cliffs. Close by (in Gobi terms) grow the rare Saxual trees. These wooden creatures are so dense that they cannot float in water... well, if there was any.
Combining the experience of rural Mongolia with a strong historical presence the town of Dadal has both. A small place, just south of the Siberian border, there is nothing more than a guest house, a home stay, a pub and a few temples. It is, however, a friendly place, where time goes by slowly giving you a chance to take a closer look at rural Mongolian life. That is when you are not busy celebrating the fact that Genghis Khan's birthplace, Delüün Boldog, was most likely right where Dadal is located today. Probably born here in 1162 AD Genghis, or the Khan of Khans rose to become the founder of the Mongol Empire, the largest empire in history. Genghis was famed for his meritocratic administration and hist encouraged religious tolerance. Today, Mongolians regard him as the founding father of their country.
On a slab of rock 150 m above Langar village is one of Central Asia's biggest collections of ancient petroglyphs (5878 pieces in total, though we didn't count). It's mostly animals and hunters that are carved into the rockface, the oldest ones date back to the Bronze Age (about 1500 BC). Over time, the collection has become bigger, where the newest pieces are just stupid graffiti and additions to already existing pieces (mostly penises added to the figures). The petroglyphs lie totally unprotected and you actually need to walk to the slab of rock to see them, so watch your step for the rock breaks easily.
Ayuthaya was the crown jewel and powerhouse of ancient Southeast Asia. It was the majestic capital of Siam (name of ancient Thailand) and a major trading centre for the whole Asian region. Its size and splendour were unmatched at the time. Unfortunately, this made the neighbouring Burmese envious, so in 1767 they raided the city, smashed it to pieces and burned the rest. This means of course that today the only surviving structures from the glory days are the ones that were made of bricks, like monasteries and towers. But there are still heaps to see and it is still darn splendid. And all this is just a tranquil day trip from buzzing Bangkok.
Elliq-Qala is the common name for a series of ancient ruins of mud forts. Elliq-Qala literally means "Fifty Fortresses", even though only 20 or so were discovered. The most impressive fort is the Ayaz Qala which stands high on a hill overlooking the desert plain. There is a minor fort at the base along with crumpled ruins of a third. The views of the forts from the desert and from the top of the mud walls are just magnificent. There are two lakes in the area, none of them being pretty, but since this is northern Uzbekistan any body of water is worth having a look at. The one near the Ayaz Qala Yurt Camp (right at the base of Ayaz Qala) is about an hour hike away (one way) through the blistering hot desert. The Elliq-Qala are normally reached on either a half day (three forts and two lakes) or full day (same as half day plus additional four forts) taxi excursion from Khiva.
The third jewel in the crown of Uzbekistan's ancient Silk Road cities is the town of Khiva. And while some might think "you've seen one, you've seen them all", this is not the case with Khiva. The walled up old Khiva, Ichon Qala, has been heavily restored - almost to the point of Disneyfication. This level of restoration might not appeal to all, but it's a glimpse into the former glory of the city. The old town within the city walls is a wonderful maze of mosques, medressas, art shops, hotels and cafes along with residential houses, adding daily life to the otherwise open-air museum. It's a place to explore at random and just visit as many "historical sights" as you please. Great views over Khiva, both the new and the old part, can be enjoyed by climbing either one of the minarets and/or the northern part of the mud wall, accessed at the northern gate.
Hanoi is more than a thousand years old and was original called Thang Long (well, actually it goes further back). It was founded in 1010 and was the Imperial City for several dynasties during which it had the honor to be sacked by the Mongols, not just one time but three times. In 1397 the capital was moved, but Thang Long was kept as a region capital, a position it hold for another 490 years before it become capital for French Indochina. In the meantime the name had been changed to Hanoi (in 1831). Then came the Indochina Wars and not until 1975 was Hanoi again capital for a unified Vietnam.
During all that time the Citadel of Thang Long served as some sort of fortress or military headquarter. Up until recently the citadel was off limit, but then UNESCO added it to its list in 2010 and today the citadel has open its gates to the public. The complex contains a range of different buildings, including the imposing South Gate and a newer structure, a reinforced concrete meeting room used by General Giap during the Vietnam War. There is also a North Gate on Phan Dinh Phung St, but you have to walk around the military compound that is still in use today. Come during the weekend and you have a chance to witness Vietnamese wedding photo sessions.
These are the tunnels that the Viet Cong used to fight the South Vietnam alliance - including the Americans - under the Vietnam War (which the Vietnamese, by the way, call the American War). Two areas can be visited, Ben Duoc and Ben Dinh. All the tunnels that are open have been expanded to fit western-sized people, but you still need to crawl on your hands and knees to get through them. Over ground, the sights have turned into a tourist circus with souvenir shops and shooting range (yes, you can shoot with AK47s), but the old-school propaganda video and the tunnels give a pretty good insight to the horror of the war.