Visiting Bangkok at any time of year is a great choice. Visitors from around the world will enjoy the fascinating culture, incredible attractions and friendly residents regardless. However, planning a trip to Bangkok during the annual Songkran Festival is one of the best possible decisions you could make. Songkran Festival is the traditional New Year celebration in Thailand, and being in Bangkok during this time is a way to get an inside look at the incredible culture and traditions in this country. Whether you are interested in the spiritual and religious aspects of the holiday or you just can't wait for the exciting nightlife that accompanies the festival, you won't be disappointed.
Songkran Festival is an annual celebration that takes place during the beginning of April. It signifies the beginning of the Thai New Year, and it is usually at the hottest time of year. Since the festival is during the dry season and warm weather is typical, water is used as a way to cool off. For this reason, Songkran Festival is often called the festival of water. Water is traditionally blessed by being poured over statues of Buddha, and then the blessed water is used to pay respect to older family members. Songkran Festival is usually only officially a two or three day event, but locals typically have the entire week off from work and school. It has transformed in recent years into a time of celebration, family gatherings and fun.
If you are most interested in the spiritual and historical roots of this incredible festival, be sure to visit Sanam Luang. This large field is located just next to the Grand Palace, and it serves as a gathering place during the day for locals who want to celebrate the festival in a traditional way. It is here that the impressive Phra Phuttha Sihing image is put on display, and there are long lines for people to bathe the image in water and then collect the now holy water for themselves. Many of the temples in Bangkok, such as Wat Arun and Wat Pho, are also busy during the Songkran Festival.
Along with the more spiritual sides of the Songkran Festival are plenty of fun ways to celebrate this exciting time. Saranrom Park is typically busy with revelers of all ages, but don't expect to stay dry. Locals delight in getting tourists wet, and they carry around water balloons, buckets of fragrant water and even water pistols to shock friends and strangers alike. In Wisut Kasat, there is a big pageant each year in order to pick the woman who will be Miss Songkran for the year. Travelers and expatriates are often found along Khao San Road, where plenty of alcohol and a fun atmosphere leads to water fights right in the middle of the street.
Songkran Festival can be an exciting time in Bangkok, but there are a few things you should be aware of. Remember that for many people, this is a religious event. Enjoy the fun, but keep in mind that not all residents will appreciate being blasted by a hose. Of course, prepare to get wet yourself. Store your money or important items in a plastic zippered bag to stay dry. Don't take a taxi during this festival, as traffic will be terrible and rates are often much higher than normal.
About two weeks ago I went to Bukoba for a funeral, it was my second time in the town and I was as mesmerized as I was the first time; and a week after I was back home, I recommended Bukoba to a fellow traveller who had an extensive itinerary of planned tours around Tanzania which includes going to a water fall in Kigoma. The town is relatively small and less developed than my favourite Arusha town. But it's natural beauty; the preserved nature takes my breath away and brings a calmness to a tired wandering soul; there is something about connecting with nature that has a profound effect on our well being. Here is where you can almost imagine the beginning of creation- okay, may be am throwing in a little embellishments:-)
Bukoba is the capital of Kageara region and is several kilometers from Dar-es-salam, it's practically going across the country; by bus it would take over 18 hrs with a sleep over at Shinyanga. It is a hassle that I would think no one who has come to Tanzania through Dar-es-salam with the goal of visiting the national parks or go to the beaches of Zanzibar would want to take. But, when Petro told me that he would be going to Mwanza and then to a nearby island called Ukerewe; I found myself suggesting Bukoba as a place he should be thinking of visiting; it has the beauty of Mwanza but it is more reserved. It would take him a whole night journey by ferry and over 12 hours by bus but a little over 45 minutes by plane.All these travel options are available daily.I must mention that since most of it's population speaks the native language, it can be a little nerve wrecking when traveling with the 'dala-dala'; even though i'm familiar with the language, I found myself in at most discomfort when I rode a bus in which everyone was speaking Kihaya except for me, from town to the village I was staying in; an elderly woman kept muttering things to me and I could only stare back with what I would imagine to be a blank expression.Why do I want to convince you to take this cumbersome journey? Here are 10 reasons why:
1. Lake Victoria is a wonder It's the second widest fresh water body in the world. You can have all the water fun you would have at the shores of the Indian ocean in Zanzibar without the salt, the dangerous jelly fish, the crabs (I know they scare the hell out of my sister); the crowd and the pollution of larger cities. And enjoy watching the birds swooping into the lake for a meal or busy on the shore.
>2. Many inhabited isles/islands on the lake that you can reach by flight or motorized boat (if you feel a little more adventurous, why not try the man powered boats). Close to Bukoba is the highly recommended Rubondo island which is also a national reserve. The national park has a number of indigenous mammal species - hippo, vervet monkey, genet and mongoose - which share their protected habitat with introduced species such as chimpanzee, black-and-white colobus, elephant and giraffe, all of which benefit from Rubondo’s inaccessibility. Rubondo also protects precious fish breeding grounds. It's natural botanical gardens has wild jasmine, 40 different orchids and a smorgasbord of sweet, indefinable smells emanate from the forest.
3. Explore the forests There a number of natural forests in Kagera region, Burigi,Biharamulo, Ibanda which all have been declared reserves. They are home to elephants, hippos, reedbuck, steinbuck, zebra, sable, roan antelope, sitatunga, topi and colubus monkeys. A number of smaller forests are within Bukoba town and now many man-made forests of tall pines. I was delighted to smell the intoxicating eucalyptus when I hiked back home that I had to stop and savour the air.
4. Conquer the rocks Bukoba is a rocky highland, as you descend from the sky by flight you can appreciate some of the cliffs. I'm not a rock climber but if you are you could challenge youself to a climb or explore ancient rocks paintings in Nyangoma (which is the name for the first of female twins by the way) close to Nyakijoga. There are hundreds of these paintings in caves overlooking a very attractive valley.
5. Get into the caves, watch the waterfalls and follow the rivers. Some tour operators offer trips to Kyamunene River Waterfalls and near-by caves and share tales of the use of the cave by warriors in the ancient tribal wars & by more recently by soldiers in the Idd Amin war. I experience a part of Kyamunene river on my trip, the sound of it's water rushing over the rocks made me want to follow it down; it's like a relaxing zen.
6. Experience a new culture The bahaya are the natives of Bukoba, and even though they have embraced change though christian civilizationa and now the global civilization; they still hold their language and culture close at heart. On my trip to Bukoba for a funeral I learnt quite some; funeral rites and traditions and was lucky to witness the swearing of a new Mulangila (chief of the clan). If you are out to experience a new culture, the Bahaya are generous people, welcoming and full of laughter. Guests are welcomed with a traditional banana brew and sun dried coffee beans which also feature in a number of traditional gatherings. If you are in a dance mood, you can enjoy “Ngoma”; traditional dances in a variety of styles including Omutoro, Amayaga, Mulekule, Amakondele, Akasimbo.
7. Embrace a unique culinary experience In Bukoba, 'Senene' or locusts deep fried or smoked are a popular snack, for some it will be like a real life fear factor; can you dare your senses? The main staple is boiled green banana with beans or groundnuts; my favourite dish in the whole world. My mum would treat us to her traditional meal every now and then; I remember hearing her sing in her vernacular all day long and we knew she was in a good mood that day.
8. Go fishing How about catching your own meal? Dotted along the shores of Lake Victoria are numerous fishing villages. Most of the fishermen are local and thus they use traditional technology -- wooden boats and nets. The most famous villages near Bukoba Town are Igabiro fishing village in Bugabo, Musila Island, Kifungwi and Nyamukazi. On this occasion I went to Musila village, a small island just off shore a few meters from the airport. It consists mostly of temporary fishermen settlers. You can negotiate a deal with the local fishermen and they would gladly take you on board. Maybe you can even bring home a tilapia or Nile perch.
9. Experience all star hotels to fit your budget Bukoba isn't as developed as the big cities in Tanzania but it hosts luxurious hotels with international cuisines. You can cool off and relax as you watch the sun go by. I was fortunate to see quite a few such as the Walkgard, Walkgard annex, Bukoba Kolping... The best thing is that google maps and places works! You can easily find your way around the town to hotels of your liking, I found New Coffee Tree Hotel where I had my favorite Green bananas in a modern taste with Tilapia for lunch. They have a full buffet at less than 15,000 ;-)
Check out what travelers on TripAdvisor say about some of the accommodations.
10. When you plan for it, you can get there in comfort All you have to do is makeup your mind and go off for the experience. There are flights from Nairobi to Bukoba via Mwanza if you are traveling from Europe. Daily flights from Mwanza-Bukoba by Auric Air at a prize of 135,000 Tshs one way; round trip from Kilimanjaro-Bukoba or Dar-es-salam-Bukoba with Precision Air. Or if you are already in Tanzania, a tourist or a resident/citizen on a long holiday why not take a bus ride and enjoy the pleasures of travelling on the road; the dust, the bumps and all.
Even though the costs of accommodation and food are almost comparable to the budget places I have been to, due to the costs of traveling there, Bukoba falls off my favorite category of budget travels. So why would I suggest Bukoba and Kagera at large as a destination worth exploring? Because in Bukoba you can satisfy your thirst for wildlife, lazying on the beach, exploring a new culture and whatever else your imagination holds.
My trip to Pangani was 2 years overdue, coincidentally I got a number of a tour guide at a convenient moment. Pangani is about 45-50 kilometers south of Tanga town and is home to Digo, Shirazi, Bondei. Walking around town there are plenty of buildings that even though are reduced to ruins profess to the arab and German influence.
It is about 4 hours to Zanzibar by boat and therefore there is good movement between the two cities.The main economic activities in Pangani are fishing and coconut farming.The beach of Pangani has nice shade of torquise, has a number of marine attractions, beautiful shells by the shore and clean soft white sand. Besides the beach, Pangani is blessed with a river of the same name, it is a major river of northeastern Tanzania. It has two main sources: the Ruvu, which rises as Lumi at Kilimanjaro, passes through Lake Jipe, and empties into the Nyumba ya Mungu reservoir and Kikuletwa that also enters into the Nyumba ya Mungu Reservoir. Just after leaving the Reservoir the stream becomes the Pangani that empties into the Indian ocean at the town. For much of its length the river flows along the regional borders of Kilimanjaro region and Manyara region, before flowing into Tanga region, which contains the 68MW Pangani Power Station and the Pangani falls dam. There are several inhabited islands within the river. The river is full of crocodiles; hippopotami are scarcer in its lower parts.
I wanted to go for a fishing trip and after checking out the itinerary from Tanzania Cultural Tourism Programme, I headed to Pangani from Arusha with a $50 USD budget -- which would be equivalent to about 78,000 Tshs.
It cost me 13,500 Tsh from Arusha to Tanga and a further 2000 from Tanga to Pangani. There is no straight bus from Arusha or Dar es Salaam, you have to pass by Tanga and make a connection. It's a little over an hour from Tanga to Pangani on a dala-dala. I left Arusha at 7am and arrived in Pangani about 6pm, having spent the whole day on the road.
The road to Pangani was dusty but I enjoyed the view and the conversation among the travelers in the mini-bus with me. Most of all, I love the accent, I regard the Tangan accent as the best Swahili accent in the country (don't hate me).
Down Pangani road there are quite a number of sign posts advertising different lodges. The accommodation options in Pangani are countless, from budget tents for rent at about $2 USD/day on a camping ground that cost $5 USD/night to average simple accommodation between 10-20,000 Tshs and luxury lodges at over $100 USD a night. I chose to sleep at YMCA at 20,000 Tshs/night because it’s familiar (there is a YMCA hostel in Moshi) and being a faith based organization I felt it was a safe option for a single female traveler late in the evening. I was not disappointed.
The hostel is in a quiet place just a few meters from 'Idara ya maji' stop and has a view of the beach- you can actually go down the slope to meet the sand and waves. It currently offers only five rooms that can accommodate two people at a time and the rest of the compound is under renovation. The rooms are simple, clean, spacious and well lit. They offer clean linen including blankets. It was well worth my money.
If you prefer the great outdoors most of the hotels and hostels have camping grounds. I particularly liked the one owned by the nuns of Pangani. They have their game right, their facility is fenced has showers and toilets, outside showers where you can wash off after a swim, hammocks, thatched huts that keep off the heat but not the breeze and a restaurant.
With a good tour guide, the list of activities is overwhelming. From walks and bike rides on dry land to swimming, snorkeling, paddy diving, fishing and a boat ride on the Pangani river and Indian ocean.
You can even have camp by the beach, light a campfire and enjoy a fish grill from the catch of the day. I love tour guides because they have not failed me to date even with a short available time they always find an activity that leaves my heart content and their social skills have helped me talk to people I would have otherwise had no courage to, I have learnt quite a number of things such as it costs about 10 million Tshs to make the traditional dhow. Even though I intended to go for a fishing trip I opted for a bike tour around Pangani town with Rasta Ally because I was running short of time and the fishing tour is best done with a large group to lower the cost of hiring the boat which is at $75 USD flat rate. I learnt a little history, met interesting people, was disappointed that the council was letting the historical buildings fall to ruin and got tips on how to travel on budget from a fellow traveler who had quit his job to travel. My tour guide, Ally even saw me off at the bus station when I started my trip back home.
After all the travelling hassle and having just 3 hours to enjoy a guided tour my trip was well worth it. I saw some monkeys and a rainbow after a long time. Even though most tourists pass by Pangani town to Zanzibar and Saadani national park, this is a destination that is worth exploring and well worth your while.
I spent 81,000 Tshs which was about 3,500Ths above my planned budget and learnt the following travelling tips from a Portuguese traveler named Petro:
Next time you are planning a trip, think of Pangani.
Featured photo by Christiane Birr via Flickr.