Purple Dragon Bulletin from Bangkok
Club Sanook
  The newsletter of PurpleDragon Ltd's private travel club.

June 2016

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The Weird Cambodian Connection

panoramaCambodia and South Korea have a very special relationship. Many Koreans visit Cambodia, and their government contributes quite a but of financial support to financially-strapped Cambodia. Yet, there is a very different Korean connection that you hear discussed only in whispers in Siem Reap (Angor Wat). In Siem Reap most Korean visitors stay in hotels that are interested only in Korean guests. Aside from seing Korean tour buses in Angkor Wat, you seldom see Koreans out and about in shopping, dining or nightlife areas. They stick to themselves in their enclave on the "Airport Road."  In the same area is a very busy restaurant that serves up what must be something very special, along with entertainment, at about $100 a head. Pyong Yang Friendship Restaurant has variously described as "creepy," and "the experience of a lifetime" on Tripadvisor.

What's so interesting is that the restaurant is part of a chain owned by the government of the Democratic People Republic of Korea (DPRK), more commonly known as North Korea, with locations in Bangkok, Phnom Penh,  Ho Chi Minh City, Hanoi, Da Nang, Vientiane, Dhaka, Jakarta and Kuala Lumpur, in addition to Siem Reap. These generate income for the government and, presumably, intellegence-gathering oppportunities. In recent months, twelve employees of one of the Cambodian restaurants defected.

The DPRK has also recently opened the Angkor Panorama Museum, which is so new that you might notice the lights being turned on inside when you enter. The museum features spectacular painted tableaus of life during the heyday of the Khmer Empire, including scenes of battles, village life, and the construction of Angkor's major monuments. These paintings are all the work of a army of artists brought from the DPRK. Purple Dragon has decide not to include the museum in our tours. However, you can ask your guide to include it in your itinerary (ideally at the very beginning). Admission is $25 per person, which goes straight to Pyongyang.

 Shortly after I discussed this story with Douglas, he got a phone call from a tourism official in Pyongyang, who encouraged Purple Dragon to add tours to the DPRK! Could North Korea be receptive to LGBT visitors? We aren't exactly sure. However, they offered him a trip to their country, "at our expense, of course." While he is tempted, Douglas is still considering whether or not this is a trip he wants to make. We invite you to tell him what you think.

You Are All Celebrities To Us

We receive frequent promotional emails from a tour company in the UK that brags about the celebrities who travel with them. One recently even included a photo of a lesbian TV star and her partner having a great time on a European holiday hosted by the company. We have never indulged in this kind of braggadocio. It's not that we don't have famous customers. Our guests include two major TV producers, a couple of film stars, a couple of Catholic bishops and one cardinal, a well-known author, a great young opera star, authors, a Broadway producer, playwrights, politicians, inventors, community activists and...well, you get the picture. Rather than show them round like a piece of bling, we keep our mouths shut. Discretion and respect for the privacy of every one of our guests is an essential part of what we do. Like all the rest of our guests, the rich and famous want to enjoy a holiday in privacy. You are all celebrities to us, and your travel experiences with us are nobody else's business unless you post them yourself on social media.

Bhutan Dreaming

Bhutan's Royal FamilyIt is pretty clear that we have fallen in love with Bhutan. Since we launched our new BetterBhutan.com website, our Bhutan bookings have increased by about 500%. While curious, many of our members do not understand Bhutan and still believe some popular myths. So let us demystify Bhutan:

Bhutan is a land-locked Himalayan Kingdom sandwiched between India and Tibet, and separated from Nepal by a thin stip of the Indian Province of Sikkim. It is around the same size as Switzerland but has only around 70,000 inhabitants (about the same as Ceremona, Italy, Shrewsbury, England, and Framingham, Massachusetts). It has one international airport in Paro, 90 minutes away from the capital city Thimpu, with flights on Bhutan Airways and Drukair from  Bangkok, Singapore, Delhi, Kathmandu, Dhaka, Kolkata and several smaller cities in India.

Bhutan is a constitutional monarchy. The newest Fifth King ("K5" for short, and also the the name of a yummy locally-made whiskey named in his honor) took over from his father, who reached what he decided was his retirement age. He and his beautiful wife recently had their first child--a boy, the future K6. The royal family are universally loved and admired.

First of all, Bhutan is not the most expensive destination on earth. Their government has set daily minimum prices for high and low season that include hotels, car, driver, guide, all meals and admission costs. The daily cost is less than what you would expect to pay for just a hotel room in New York, London, Tokyo and other major cities. There are more and more new boutique hotels that cost slightly more than the "minimum price" hotels most tourists are used to. Purple Dragon and Better Bhutan are capitalizing on using those to create a far more comfortable experience. Prices are best when three or more people are traveling together.

It is the world's first non-smoking country and the last to get TV. Most hotels have Internet and cable/satellite TV. A surprising number of people speak English. Most shop signs and all road signs are in English. There is also a local English-languish newspaper.

Are there any LGBT people in Bhutan? Of course there are, although until recently they have been pretty invisible. A Bhutanese transsexual was recently named one of the most beautiful women in the world. There is a Gay in Bhutan facebook page, with an astonishingly-large following. Culturally, Butan is somewhat blurry about its acceptance of homosexuality. Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche, the spiritual head of Bhutan's Buddhists delivered an intriguing sermon about how Bhutanese people should form attitudes about their LGBT counrymen. Watch it on this Youtube clip:

Douglas will be returning in July for a week. One of his goals is to conduct interviews for a magazine story which he is calling "The Blushing of Bhutan" (It's not quite pink, but getting there). There is now a growing group of "out" community leaders. I can't wait to read his story.

Fan Mail From Our Guests

Dave & Es Loved Bhutan

Dave & Es Loved BhutanNearly ten years ago 60 Minutes featured a story about Bhutan, a small Himalayan country that promoted Gross National Happiness as more important than GNP. I had nearly forgotten about the story until I read Douglas' Blog last fall announcing Purple Dragon's BetterBhutan.com web site and offering tours to Bhutan. We contacted Douglas and began planning our trip. Our eventual tour grew from a week to eleven days to include a local festival.

In April we flew from Bangkok to Paro, thankful that we had onboard one of the dozen certified pilots trained to make the Paro landing. We were met by our excellent guide, Chimmi, a former Bhutan national basketball player and our great driver who kept us safe on the exciting single lane roads. The country is incredibly beautiful and more than lived up to our expectations. On a clear day we saw the Himalayas and on crossing two passes, saw two equally spectacular mountain ranges. Out hotels ranged from resorts with spas to quaint mountain retreats. The last was at the winter home of the Bhutan black cranes at an elevation of over 2,900 meters. We attended a village festival and were treated as guests rather than tourists.

Purple Dragon's selection of hotels and our guide and driver far exceeded what we had anticipated. Bhutan currently limits the number of annual visitors and takes great care to maintain the pristine state of the country. They are the only country which has no carbon footprint and they are proud of plans to be energy independent within a few more years. Can they continue to keep McDonalds, Starbucks and other western influences out as well as preventing the country from being overrun by noisy mainland Chinese, only time can tell? In any case we appreciate and thank Purple Dragon for making this an experience we will always remember. -- David & Es, Chiang Mai

And So Did Carlos. . .

I just want to mention how happy I was with the trip to to Bhutan. Even though it was short I think it was more than enough to experience Bhutan. The guide and driver were excellent--full of knowledge and skills. I was very happy with the whole experience. Thank you! -- Carlos, Segovia, Spain

(And yes, Bhutanese people are very easy on the eyes.) 

Tell Your Own Story

Have you traveled with Purple Dragon over the last year. We would love to hear from you and invite you to share your own story with your fellow Club Sanook Members. It can be a short paragraph with a photo, or something more detailed up to 400 words. Tell us what you enjoyed most and the things that most surprised, delighted or impacted you, or parts of yourexperience that you did not expect. helpful hints for others who are planning a similar trip are especially welcome.

About Their Bhutan Experiences

David and Es spent twelve days with us in Bhutan and visited Paro, the capital city of Thimpu, Punakha and the Wangduephodrang Valley, Phobjikha, the mountain-top form capital of Truongsa, three nights in Bumthang, a flight back to Paro and two nights in the Haa Valley before a final night in Paro. Carlos hit the ground running and packed quite a bit into his five-day stay. He visited Paro, Thimpu and Haa.

dot  Paro is a long valley that is quite rural despite being the home of Bhutan's only international airport. It is home to iconic Tiger's Nest monastery that seems to cling precariously to the side of a cliff.

Carlos Liked Bhutandot  Thimpu, the capital, has quite a lot to see and do, and offers great hotels, shopping and restaurants. The world's largest seated Buddha overlooks the city.

dot Punakha is the home to the splendid Thimpu Dzong. (A dzong is both a monastery and a local administrative office). Nearby you get to walk to a very provocative fertility shrine. The nearby village has many splendid examples of phallic decoration on exterior walls.

dot  The Phobjikha Valley is best known as the winter habitat of Tibet's black-necked cranes and the home of the Ganteay Monastery. Locals use solar electricity exclusively, to avoid wires that might pose a risk to the birds. It also makes the valley look quite tidy. Carpet weaving is a local industry.

dot  Trongsa, once the capital of Bhutan, is a tiny mountain-top town with two interesting museums and what many consider to be the most spectacular of Bhutan's Dzongs. The narrow, winding streets have some quite little shops, which seem to be open only during high season for tourists.

dot  In Central Bhutan, Bumthang is actually three adjacent rural valleys and the highest point most visitors reach in Bhutan, at an altitude of 2,800 meters / 9,185 feet. It is one of the most interesting destinations in Bhutan and worth 3-4 days. Buddhism was first introduced in Bhutan in Bumthang in the 7th century, so there is a lot of history here, in addition to sylvan hamlets, fields of buckwheat and even a "Flamiing Lake." You are probably more likely to see a Yeti around Bumthang than almost anywhere else in Bhutan.

dot  Haa, in far western Bhutan, is a completely unspoiled, tranquil and idyllic valley that offers great opportunities to explore on foot. Sadly, very few visitors find their way here. If you like fishing you can get a permit to angle one of the valley's rivers for brown trout, introduced here in the 1930s from Scotland by way of Kashmir. The fingerlings were carried in crockery by porters on foot into the Himalayan kingdom. Yetis might hang around bucolic and isolated Haa, although we can't promise seeing one.

You can see photos of many of these places in Douglas' Blog. It is a delightful read, or even a re-read if you have time.

The Ultimate Discount

Congratulations to Daniel B in the US for being the first to join Club Sanook as a Ruby Member!

We are now accepting applications for two new Club Sanook Membership Categories with extreme benefits.

Diamonds may be a girl's best friend, but they are not especially rare and some gems are far more valuable (and more attractive to us single girls). We are happy to announce our new Sapphire and Ruby membership levels. Both allow you to travel with Purple Dragon at our net wholesale rate. Wholesale means the cost we pay hotels, car companies, guides, and other suppliers for the components that go into our tour programs, including taxes that are passed on to us,  and credit card commission fees we have to pay. In other words, zero profit. We think this is a great deal for someone who has long term plans for multiple tours in our part of the world at a $6,000 to  $7,000 or more per year.

This is a great deal for:

  • Anyone who plans to explore our part of the world extensively
  • Anyone who has a bucket list that includes travel (even if, and especially if, you are only 35-45 years old)
  • Those who  have considered major trips with us but think we are too expensive
  • Anyone who wants to save a bundle of money in the long run

sapphireThe Sapphire Membership is good for three consecutive years.

As a Sapphire or Ruby Member you can travel as often as you like during the period of your Membership, whether it be our standard packages, custom tours, or hotel-only bookings. If you are a Diamond Member you can take a $250 discount on the Sapphire or Ruby Membership cost. If you are basic Member you can apply expired Purple Bonus Points toward your Membership at US$ .05 per point of you have a minimum of 1,500 expired points. (Ask me to check the value of your points.)  It's below my name at the bottom of the email.) Cost for Sapphire Membership is US$2,900. If you are already a Diamond Member you get credit for your original membership fee. If you travel just once a year you will probably recover the cost of the Sapphire Membership about half way through the three-year period if you spend an average of $7,000 each year.

rubyThe Ruby Membership is good for the Member's lifetime. Cost for Ruby Membership is $4,900.  Ruby Members traveling just once a year and spending $7,000+ per trip should recover the cost of their Membership in the third year.

A few important rules: Memberships are not transferrable. Prices for travel purchases at the Sapphire and Ruby level are good for the Member and one companion. If others join you and are following the same itinerary, we will offer a discount of 10% off published rates, based on four people traveling together (which is less than the published rate for two people). Since our pricing and our supplier agreements are pretty confidential, Members at this level will be requited to sign an agreement not to disclose any of the details of the prices you pay. You cannot sell your Membership, although you can give it as a gift within 30 days of the date you sign up.

Why are we doing this? We have plans to expand (two new countries and three new websites) and diversify (expanding our app development, and beginning distribution of several agricultural and industrial products). It will cost us less to give our best customers a great deal than borrow from a bank. We like you better than banks anyway.

Mekont River TripInterested? Let's talk.

Interested in winning a free Sapphire Membership? If you use Facebook it could be yours. Read about it here.

New on the Mekong

One of Purple Dragon's most popular trips is by boat from Chiang Khong (near Chiang Rai, Thailand) to Luang Prabang, or vice versa, with an overnight stop in Pak Beng. We will soon be offering a different option beginning and ending in Luang Prabang. Travel aboard our traditional Lao-style teak river boat one way, and return by road the following day. The overland itinerary from Luang Prabang to Pak Beng lets you experience the rich and culturally-diverse Lao countryside. The following day you can relax and enjoy the majestic beauty of the Mekong on the downstream cruise back to Luang Prabang. Along the way you visit ancient villages, temples, and the intimate Kacham Waterfalls with an English-speaking guide traveling with you. You will discover the tastes of the Lao cuisine either on the boat, or at an authentic local restaurant in Sayaboury. Overnight is spent at the beautiful Luang Say Lodge in Pak Beng, on the river bank of the Mekong River, where you will will enjoy the peace and tranquility of a wooden bungalow surrounded by nature. A Lao dinner and a continental breakfast are served on the open air terrace overlooking the river. All of our river boats to and from Luang Prabang and andon the Southern Mekong are in dry dock during the month of June. This year they will also be renovated to make for a more comfortable travel experience. If you want to be notified when this program goes onto our website please send me an email.

No ElephantsComings & Goings

Say goodbye to elephant rides. Elephant-related activities been included in a few of our programs for quite a long time, including elephant-riding in Ayutthaya and Jaipur, and optional elephant riding in Angkor Wat. We have also included an "elephant camp" visit in one of our Chiang Mai packages, where you can watch the pachyderms paint pictures, play football, and stand on two legs before you go for a ride. All of these activities are now considered cruel. Indeed I have seen ancient elephants hauling tourists up to Ambur Fort in Jaipur, making one trip every hour or so in the sweltering heat. Recently, a 45-year-old elephant dropped dead from heat and exhaustion after a 15-year "career" of being made to haul tourists around Angkor Wat. So we are throwing all of the elephant rides out. In Chiang Mai you can be an elephant "mahout for a day." You get to work with them, and bathe them in a river, walk with them, and feed them. However, there is no riding. Apparently it is not very good for the elephant because the animals must go through a ritual of abuse before they can be ridden. If you want to forego the elephant experience completely you can choose one of out optional Chiang Mai day trips instead.quad bikes in Angklr

Adding Some Adventure to Angkor Wat

There is more to Angkor Wat than temple ruins. There is plenty of great scenery, lost treasures, rural villages, country roads, and adventure if know where to look for it. Our new and improved Angkor Adventure trip includes the must-see temples and monuments, plus two astonishing temples that most tour guides don't know about, nobody visits, and the archaeologists have not even messed with yet. So grab your Indie fedora and join us on a great adventure that also includes a half day "quad bike" (self-drive off-road vehicle) and a thrilling half-day zipline excursion through the tree-tops of an old growth forest. Look for Angkor Adventure to debut on 1 July.  (If you want to sneak a peek let us know and we will tell you where to look while we are finishing the page, let me know.)

Cambodia Projects Update

Several of you have asked for recent photos related to our community projects in Cambodia. Our Siem Reap Manager Rath and our guide staff there started these projects several years ago when they noticed families in great distress. The first was a family on Tonle Sap whose male parent had been caught fishing illegally to feed his family. The authorities threw him in jail, which really did nothing to improve the family's situation.  Then, there was a homeless mother with two kids on the streets of Siem Reap. This effort has grown into almost an extra full time job for Rath. We have helped him out as best we can. Many of Purple Dragon's customers have contributed to the digging of wells, feeding of families, and to the care of the kids in the school we have adopted. If you plan to visit Siem Reap with Purple Dragon you can help by taking school supplies--note pads, doodle books, writing instruments, and crafts materials like paint and brushes. One of the photos in the photo album we built to add to this newsletter at the last minute says "THANK YOU" in giant letters that you can't really see because all the kids have are pencils. You can follow the photo album we have begun HERE. Rath has sent us enough pictures to fill my Dropbox and I am adding them as quickly as I can. (If you are not using Dropbox you can get it free for cloud file sharing between people across all devices, and for file storage and backups. Get it here.)

The Leftovers

Regional airline Bangkok Airways has launched its first destination in Vietnam with round-trip service four days a week between Bangkok and Danang. The alternative is to tonnect in either Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City, which burns up half a day. For guests who want to explore central Vietnam with our popular Hue & Hoi An program, and who have already visited Saigon and Hanoi, this will be a real convenience. Danang is just 45 minutes from the historic seaside town of Hoi An. From Hue you will still need to transit Hanoi or Saigon until service is established from Bangkok. Hopefully, this is just the beginning for Bangkok Airways. (Thanks to Jeff Wood for the photo.)

Predictably, Douglas has blogged about the Pulse Club Massacre. If you have have never read his blog, this would be a good time to start. Douglas does a lot of writing. However, his most passionate work is his blog. As a writer myself, I admire his style and his ability to punctuate (most of the time). Click on the graphic on the right to open his June 14th blog. You are invited to Like Thanks NRAand to Share it. While he has several thousand regular readers, for which he is entitled to claim it as a "cult blog," many of your friends may enjoy the read.

Construction recently began on  a new airport in Sapa, in Northern Vietnam, so close you can peer over the border into China. This idyllic mountainous region is home to numerous ethnic minority villages, and is a great place to beat Vietnamese summer heat. Currently, the only way to reach Sapa is by train (overnight in both directions) from Hanoi, or by a recently-widened highway. There is no news yet whether or not Sapa's new airport will have international service.

Hotel construction in Bagan (nee Pagan, Myanmar) has come to a halt as the Myanmar government seeks UNESCO Word Heritage status for the city and vast expanse of ruins surrounding it. When and if World Heritage status is granted nothing new can be built. A perfect example is Luang Prabang, where there are strict limits on additions or alterations to existing architecture. In place of new hotel construction there, many large homes, a school, a hospital and even the city's jail have been converted into hotels. Hotel booknigs in Bagan are often difficult to confirm because of limited capacity, and we do not expect this to change soon.

Ho Chi Minh City is considering a proposal to "wire" the entire city with free WiFi. "Free Wi-Fi accessibility would not only create a positive impression on local tourism, but also form the foundation for establishing an effective digital government, one of the main goals of the municipal administration," a city official is quoted as saying. Meanwhile, Danang is installing more than 850 cameras in public areas to improve safety for visitors.

Bangkok's Grand Palace has joined Travel + Leisure Magazine's list of the world's 50 most visited place, the magazine has announced, despite all the shills who hang around the entrance and try to convince stupid tourists that "it's closed today, but I can take you to a great jewelry store." The Palace is open every day, barring extraordinary events that involve royalty. Anyway, the visitor numbers at the Grand Palace have already exceeded the Eiffel Tower and the Colosseum. In case you are wondering, the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul came in first with over 90 million visitors last year.

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