Friday, 19 December 2008

More updates

From the Bangkok Post (December 18, 2008):
'Upgrade for Yala hot spring.
The provincial administration in Yala has embarked on a 20-million-baht (~half million $) upgrade of facilities at a popular hot spring by equipping it with private baths and a spa resort with tourist accommodation.
Located in Tanoh Maeroa sub-district of Betong, around 10 kilometres from downtown, the hot spring attracts locals who go there to picnic or for a dip, and usually bring with them raw eggs that they boil in the spring's warm water before eating.
A couple of years ago the government alloted 40 million baht to develop the hot spring, then spread over three rai, into a place for public recreation. The area has now been expanded to cover 50 rai to include a spa resort with 10 tourist accommodations, private baths and separate ponds for group visitors.
The spa service, when it opens next February, is expected to draw tourists from neighbouring Malaysia and Singapore as well'.

Well, considering Malaysia has some well run hot springs themselves, the local government seem optimistic on their ability to attract more soakers. Let's hope the business plan won't require the local government to come up with more cash in future.

More from the same newspaper but then from January 8, 2009. This time it refers to the town of Pai in northern Thailand
'After a long day wandering around you may want to unwind in the hot springs in the middle of a teak forest in Tambon Mae Hee, or enjoy the refreshing sight and sounds of a cascading stream at the Mo Paeng Waterfall.'
Some photo's of Pai hot springs.

Blogs

  • Rob Hammerslag sent me these two links to visits to Sira-an and Mambukal hot springs in the Philipines.
  • Elsewhere in the Phillippines, Asin hot springs.
  • Yet again more on Sungai Klah hot springs in Malaysia who point out some problems with the entering the new (cold) pool:
    Beside the Hot Spring pool, the newly added pool is cold one.. and the Hot and Cold pool doesnt link together... The visitor has to walk toward the parking space to enter each other pool.. even though the pools just beside each other.. there is "pagar" across the boarder... what a good management !~!!!''
    More photo's here.

Friday, 28 November 2008

Updates

Health
Experiencing hot springs for health reasons seems to be getting more and more outspoken. This time
Vietnam news reports.
'An increasing number of people are combining tourism with the advantages of natural medicine'.
In a country where growth the last few years is close to 10%, the presented statistics though are hardly stunning:
'The director of the Thap Ba Hot Spring Centre, Hoang Quang, told Viet Nam News that despite the fact that natural medicinal tourism is new to the country, his centre has received nearly 400,000 travellers this year, up 5 per cent against the same period last year, including 30,629 foreign tourists by October, up 10 per cent from the same period last year'.
The article continues with the focus on Thap Ba hot spring:
'Although the secluded spa, which can accommodate 400 customers an hour, offers only basic amenities, it is becoming increasingly popular and visitors may find it crowded with both locals and foreigners'.
More on health or lack of it from Lonely Planet's Thorn Tree discussion forum. Question concerned hot springs around Malaysia's capital KL.
'Not sure why you fancy hot spring so much, in Malaysia generally, there are little or no civic minded visitors. People don't generally protect or preserve the natural wonder usually, so you might wanna re-consider since there could be some disgusting findings around there, and little facility to clean up after that'.
Show's that there is only that much you can do, with excellent PR. The forum thread continues:
'As mentioned by #3, Malaysia like Indonesia seems to have a tendency of implementing white elephant "resort projects" all over the countryside which are not properly upkept and allowed to become eyesores with rubbish and plastic bags strewn all over the place. A real pity as some of the locations were originally pristine forest reserves with idyllic waterfall and streams'.
Well, there are still some
exceptions (see below).

Hot springs blogging

Then fellow blogger
putri (from Malaysia) is taking up visiting and posting hot springs on his/her site, until now there are two posts on Sembawang (Singapore) as well as others on Malaysia's Grisek and Sungai Klah.

More posts from other bloggers on hot spring visits:
  • Another visit to previously mentioned Sungai Klah. Looks like a great place to soak, especially look at the tasteful private soaks! Though I don't fully comprehend why you would rent a private pool, and then to use it as a public pool ...
    'Soaking in the hot water without any disturbance from outsiders is bliss'.
    Foreigners like me, are crazy I suppose.
    More Sungai Klah here.
    'I must say I was at first skeptical about Malaysian hot springs, you know we are not in the volcanic band per se, so I wonder how hot can this water be ? Moreover, as someone who draws great enjoyment from Japanese hot springs, I was ready to be contented with Malaysian sub-standards.
    ...
    Kudos to the resort management for such a splendid idea. The only question I forgot to ask ... whether they change the water in the pool of the Family Spa before the next group dips in'.
    Kudo's?
  • Bentong hot springs, Malaysia. This time with soakers! Then again the post includes:
    'But maybe due to it is a natural spring so do not have ppl to take care of it, there were many lichen growed. Arghh feel so dirty. I dare not to douse at all. Even look at it'.
  • Bali, but where?
  • Suban, Sumatra, Indonesia
  • Candi Umbul, Java, Indonesia. Though the blogger is not so satisfied:
    'The local government looked haven’t response for these potential recreation site. The algae growing prosperous on the stones of these pools and made the water looked green. The bathroom and dressing room looked dirty and some of them where broken, there’s no light in these rooms'.
Top tens
Do listing top tens (Top 12 most astonishing hot springs, not even a mention for Southeast Asia, 9 Amazing hot springs, Top 10 most extraordinary places to take a bath) add to more information to soakers?
Possibly, though it depends a lot on how the listings relate to the information required. And based on some sort of real experience.

Though I've visited quite a few hot springs during the years, I might able to table my top ten, but only based on my own experience. I could also research with google, though this would be unfair. Sights visited / listed do not really reflect any kind of popularity, but simply how well marketeers are at selling the sight or two. In area's such as Java with many hot springs, not much mention is made of 1 particular hot spring, however a visit to Sabah state in Malaysia is not complete without a visit to Poring hot springs visitors are made to believe; so naturally Poring hot springs gets mentioned much more.


I could try to put a top 3 of Thai hot springs, I am well acquainted with a number of them. But what do I base the top 3 on? Soaks are usually great, but an 'au naturel' soaking, so often depends on private facilities which tend to be depressing at best. So should I look at the naturalness? Or cleanliness or the local management?

Some (4) nominations for the best hot springs could be:

  • Pong Duet, Chiang Mai province
    + springs kept in natural circumstances, huge and nice soaking pools nicely adapted to the surroundings, soaking possible while having great view
    - private soaking facilities claustrophobic
  • Fang, Chiang Mai province
    + Much has been done to protect the springs site, nice soaking pools / facilities
    - private facilities claustrophobic
  • Bo Klueng, Rathchaburi province
    + springs not enhanced at all, nicely landscaped public pool, surroundings accessible (waterfalls)
    - could be a great site, if only they would use some signboards to highlight the attractions
  • Pha Soet, Chiang Rai province
    + accessibility, nice public pool
    - claustrophobic private facilities, cleanliness

The worst:
  • Malinga, Chiang Mai province: on it's eve of return to nature
  • Huai Hin Fon, Chiang Rai, haphazard development
The most desired to be visited:
Klong Thom, Krabi province; Jaeson, Lampang province

Hmm, that last list is not very long.


Here's a
top ten from China, which is near enough ..., but they also include spa's, what can you expect from a commercial site?

Wednesday, 19 November 2008

Updates

Bor Klueng revisited
A recent article on Suan Phung district in Thailand's Rathcahaburi province in the Bangkok Post (Nov. 9, 2008) cites a 'holidaymaker' and his / her experience while visiting the Bo Klueng (or Bor Klueng) hot springs. Here follows the part of the article concerning the visit by the author, just in case the original article fails to be retrieved:
' "One of my favourite things to do is taking a dip in a hot spring at night and lighting a candle".

Bor Klueng Hot Spring, probably [or not] the nearest hot spring to Bangkok, is privately owned. There are two pools open to the public. The outdoor pool is set in rock, while the roofed pool has a tile floor.

Despite the obvious appeal of the hot springs, we had Bor Klueng to ourselves. "If there are no tourists, the owner of the hot spring allows me to organise special programmes for my guests", Mr. Kammawit [owner of Buawattana Hillside resort] said.

A dip of my hand into the water revealed that the temperature is comfortably warm and surprisingly, there is no sulphur smell.

I feel sad I am in such a rush and haven't the time to enjoy it. But I promise myself I will not miss a night time hot bath next time I am here'. By Peerawat Jariyasombat
This article describes the same hot springs which I visited in March, earlier this year. Clearly the author was impressed and to a degree I agree: the site had been nicely enhanced without over-developing. Would it help that the springs are privately owned? Maybe.

Future of Thai hot springs
But, as in the case of my recent visit to Phra Ruang, more development of Thai hot spring sites, seems to be on the cards. Both the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) and the Bangkok Post (once again) mention developing hot springs. TAT (mid 2008):
'... further develop and promote new tourism products in 14 different clusters'.
Among which are hot springs. Bangkok Post (un-dated, but of around May / June 2008):
'The minister [of Tourism and Sports] also drafted a four-year plan starting this year to increase tourism revenue, and pledged to invest up to 6.5 billion baht [more than 150 million US$!] in new projects. The new projects cover the four key regions of the country and include hot springs, Lanna northern traditional culture, eco-tourism in the North, riverside tourism in the central region, and development of the Gulf of Thailand coast in the South'.
So, will there be more changes a la Phra Ruang? Let's hope not, anything with more taste will be warmly welcomed. For instance like Pong Duet, which after all was developed by the government. I dare say that ensuring more naturalness in the development would assist in drawing more visitors.

Access to correct information please!
Another great way to get more visitors is to make known where the hot springs are and how to get there (including signboards).

Take the case of two hot springs located in Klong Wang Chao National Park. The (poorly accessible due to deep linking failure) web-site of the National Parks of Thailand states:
Hot Spring
Activities:
  • Nature trail study
  • Mineral water bath
Hot Well
Hot Well warm water erupts from the earth face with average temperature of 50-70 degrees Celsius. The area covers 1 rai or 0.0016 km2. Located about 1.5 kilometers from Tao Dam. It is also a habitat of wild pig, barking deer and asmber deer.

Activities:
  • Nature trail study
  • Mineral water bath
The site also includes a photo of each, surprisingly the same photo! The info above is insufficient to pursue a visit, but as they are within the National Park, possibly the authorities could add more information. The 'Hot Spring' refers to a spring near the Klong Pong waterfall, a day's walk away. The other (Hot Well) refers to hot springs near Tao Dam waterfall, which can only be reached over a 30 km track accessible only to 4-wheel drive vehicle's.

From the Wang Chao National Park's visitor's center, photo's of Tao Dam waterfall (left) and the 'hot well' right.

Already in these few sentences there's more information than obtainable elsewhere on the internet.

Off the net, a TAT brochure (July 2008) on Kamphaeng Phet province notes:
'Geyser in this area are 2 spots; namely, on the way to Namtok [waterfall] Klong Pong and to Namtok Tao Dam for a distance of 1,500 meters'.
Surprisingly though, neither on the net nor off, is mention made of Baan Pong Nam Rong, a nearby village where soaking facilities exist. How do I know? This list. (Beware though this list contains some mistakes ...) Otherwise in the whole of the internet no mention is made of the possibility, that's until today! Well perhaps in Thai language sites, such as this list related to the list just mentioned. It's far more extensive than the links of this Soaking in Southeast Asia site, but seeking other verifiable sources is proving very difficult.

Health issues
Another article of interest to Southeast Asian soakers is the news that in Taiwan
'8 hot springs fail inspection'.
Unfortunately the article fails to state the reasons why. I briefly touched on this subject in my latest blog concerning a visit to Phra Ruang, which was chosen by the Thai authorities to be developed due to it's health claims. On internet there is an abbreviated list of hot springs in Thailand with some of the spring water qualities. However there is no comprehensive quality control in Thailand, neither do I believe that this takes place elsewhere in Southeast Asia.
Important? I would believe, especially if the springs are being enhanced, as to attract more visitors.

New places to soak
In Lao a new resort has opened, close to the remote Muang La hot springs in Oudomxai province. The name of the resort? Muang La Resort. Including the following:
'Add to these magical moments by relaxing in the natural warmth of the hot-water spring. For centuries, the secret of this natural resource was closely guarded and only a few Laotians know these nearby sources and come to pamper themselves. A small part of this beneficial natural asset has been tapped to supply the incredible hot water spa - at 4m in height it offers unparalleled views of the river and the forest. This unique and exceptional experience can be extended in the sauna. This traditional candlelit Laotian sauna runs thanks to the steam from the hot water spring mixed with scented grasses and herbs; offering the ultimate in relaxation'.
Photo from the Muang La site!

I'm packing my bags!

Another new(-ish) hot springs resort in Pai, Mae Hong Son province, Thailand.

More from the net
A soaker's visit to San Khamphaeng near Chiang Mai, Thailand on the Soakers forum:
'It's a large beautifully landscaped park near the mountains. The visible source is an elevated pool that is 105 Celsius. They've built a series of long canals where the water gets cooler the further away from the source that you get. People sit on the edge of the canals and hang their feet in the water. There's a medium warm pool for soaking and in another part of the park a larger pool that is warmer and basically acts as a big swimming pool. There are food vendors though they are relatively discreetly kept away from the pools. They have a Thai foot massage building and another where you can get a full body massage. It's very clean and very well run'.
This and more (incl. photo's) by following the link above.

Site changes

Finally, those who have been paying attention will have noticed some changes in the links, which I have been updating; until now I've covered northern Thailand and Lao, changing some of the dead links adding a few more, the site is slowly nearing 300 links to hot springs in Southeast Asia. Google nearly any but the most popular hot springs and Soaking in Southeast Asia is nearly always on the first page of results. This is also clearly indicated by the ticker slowly increasing from just under 100 monthly visitors last year November until nearly 300 this November.

Elsewhere, I am redistributing my flickr photo sites, the free hosting stops at 200 pictures, but by now I have much more than that. I will be transferring the Thai photo's to a separate site. A pity is that I will be losing the counter of the number of views per photo. The range is anything from 1 until over over 1,000 views, if there is any hint of something untoward!

In the coming weeks possibly more updates and gradual review of most of the links. More postings in the new year from Indonesia / Singapore, would you believe it?

Thursday, 13 November 2008

Upgraded and officially endorsed

Loy Krathongs for sale at the hot springs entrance. These 'rafts' made from banana leaves and flowers are released on rivers and or ponds during the full moon of November.
'Many Thai believe that floating a krathong will create good luck'.
The day of my visit co-incided with the last day of Loy Krathong celebrations
which are celebrated elaborately in these surroundings.

Many hot springs in Thailand (or elsewhere in Southeast Asia) tend to be elusive. Largely undeveloped, they have little value for the 'outsider' it's presumed. Contrary to this, the hot springs of Phra Ruang (or Bueng Sap) are easy to be found. From nearly every nook or cranny of Kamphaeng Phet province (Central Thailand) signboards have been erected directing all those wishing to do so to proceed without delay. So, this time no long story about how we eventually find this hot spring.

Entering
Instead, after following the signboards we draw up at an extensive parking area, which obviously is the place. There a few stalls, selling drinks and / or snacks situated around the parking area, as well as a massage place (not open) and a stall selling Loy Krathongs (see photo above blog entry) for the following evening.

Grand entrance

The hot springs have been well-walled and the grand-ish entrance gate is the only way in. Despite there being a guard post, no entrance fee is required. Opposite the guardpost, there's a newly built temple. Actually the whole hot springs site has been newly constructed. The temple has been adorned with a huge amount of ceramic roosters and receives many visitors by the looks of offerings.
Surprisingly just before the temple, one can have one's picture taken which is then attached to a commemorative plate: Soaking in Southeast Asia was here!
Tacky souvenir?

Entrance temple
The temple is, I believe, dedicated to
King Naresuan, once ruler of the empire of Thailand (during the Ayutthaya period) who, time and again, managed to defend his kingdom from a Burmese onslaught. His name is tied in with the symbol of the fighting cock, as when he was young and held captive in Burma:
'At one point, the Burmese Crown Prince challenged Prince Naresuan to a game of fighting cocks which resulted in the Crown Prince losing his bird and bet. In anger, frustration and jealousy the Crown Prince exclaimed "This vassal of a cock is really impudent". To which Prince Naresuan responded "Not only can this cock bet for money, it can also fight for kingdoms"!Source
The temple with it's roosters

Ploy?
The establishment of this temple seems to be part of a ploy to popularize visits to the hot springs.

Likewise the new name of the hot springs, Phra Ruang, refers to the Phra Ruang dynasty, the first ruler of which,
King Sri Indraditya,
'... declared independence of his territory from Khmer control [Angkor Wat] and its prohibitive taxes, ...'
In so doing, he established the Kingdom of Sukhothai, which managed to expand well beyond the current borders of Thailand. He was thus referred to as Phra Ruang, the Glorious Prince. History lessons @ Soaking in Southeast Asia, tout gratuit!

But what has this to do with the hot springs? Well, as said, there seems to be ploy to attract (domestic) tourists, with the temple and with the name change; previously the hot springs used to be called Bueng Sap, which translates as 'wealthy swamp'. Now, that doesn't sound very attractive, however accurate it may have been.


The grounds
After strolling the 50 meters or so, on the right is large half open building. There's a desk with a lady behind, a fridge for drinks and some snacks are for sale. Otherwise there are many exhibition cases, most showing the change from what it was (a swamp with lot's of reeds) into the 'showcase' of now: a walled-in case of concrete and water!


Exhibit no. 1: Photo of 4 local (?) belles (?) soaking in one of the brand new private soaking cubicles

Healthy?
The reason for the change in settings is due to the perception that the waters here, are some of the best in all Thailand. Citing the Tourism Authority of Thailand's (TAT) Kamphaeng Phet leaflet (of July 2008):
'In accordance with an examination by the [Thai] Ministry of Public Health, it contains neither contaminated substances nor diseases which are dangerous'.
Which a relief, but is it a real endorsement? Actually despite not citing any positive about the waters, these hot springs are being promoted as a 'health tourism destination', another one of former Thai PM Thaksins idea's. This site though adds:
'..., historical belief tells that water from hot spring [Phra Ruang] can be used to cure several illness; such as muscle aches'
Muscle aches, but does not hot water always do this?

However, Thailand Energy end Environment Network in it's 'Potential hazards of pollutants in Thai hot springs', cites cases of Legionell pneumophila found at Phra Ruang, but adds:
'... they might have affected a relatively large number of persons exposed but not be recognized as the cause of disease (Legionaires' disease and Pontiac fever)'.
Exhibit no. 2: 92 year lady attributes her health at her age to the waters of Phra Ruang. It's in the newspaper, so it's true!

Back to the preceding description (of the TAT) that includes the following information:
'This hot spring is a natural phenomenon, emerging from underground through 5 spots. The temperature of the water is around 40-65C.
...
Currently the surroundings of this Phra Ruang Hot Spring have been renovated and serve as a health tourism destination and a relaxation venue'.
It's good, this assurance, of a 'natural phenomenon' as there's not much natural to the surroundings anymore.

How to get healthy?
Ongoing from the main building are about 5 'cubicles' (see photo's above) where you can bathe behind a locked door! Safety first.

Then there's a huge pond with a spouting fountain. Between the pond and the main building are a number of 'tubs' in a broad concrete plain, some containing hot water.
Then finally around a corner, a small shallow pond flanks the larger pond. In it, you can soak your feet, what a great idea. A 15 minute soak is sufficient.


Phra Ruang, a great place to soak sore feet?

Surroundings
The direct surroundings of the hot springs are low rolling hills, planted mostly with cassava, corn, sugarcane or, in more wetter area's, rice. To the north lie the mountains of Ramkhamhaeng National Park. A great place to waste time, much better than the hot springs themselves, to tell you the truth. Especially the falls of Sai Roong, though like visiting the hot springs, you'll need your own wheels.


The best place to stay nearby is the provincial capital with the same name, Kamphaeng Phet, a former outpost of the Sukhothai kingdom. Though Sukhothai is also not too far away. One option is to stay at the Scenic Riverside Resort (beware, terrible accompanying music when accessing this website!) in Kamphaeng Phet; one of the best resorts I've stayed in ever, located in Kamphaeng Phet town itself. The bungalows are relatively cheap and are huge. The grounds are beautiful and the resort has real character. It includes a pool and the Ping river flows right in front of the resort.
Update. The Riverside is highlighted in the Bangkok Post (25 March 2010).

Kamphaeng Phet town, is also located near a few national parks (N.P.) towards the Burmese border, such as Klong Lan N.P. and Klong Wang Chao N.P. And like in Sukhothai, the Loy Krathong festivities are a great time to spend a couple of days here.


Getting There: As stated the springs are well sign boarded. A precise route is to follow Highway 101 north (towards Sukhothai) out of Kamphaeng Phet town for 13 km's and then a left and 12 km's up this road you'll come upon the springs, can't be missed.

Soaking Experience: Well, regular readers of this blog will know that I prefer more natural settings and tend to dislike being hemmed in by 4 walls. As such I didn't take a full soak; besides it was just past lunch time, the hottest part of day. Maybe in the evening I would have been tempted to soak, but that wasn't the case. The feet soak though was not too bad, considerable effort had been awarded to making the site as comfortable as possible.

Overall Impression: Compared to the 'before' situation, the upgrading of the site may have been a little over the top. However, the old situation did not look tempting either. The main point though was that while I was visiting there were quite a few Thai visitors which at least gave the expansive site some character., though it still felt deserted which is quite uncommon on a national holiday. Then again we've seen better, but in the surroundings of the northern parts of Thai plains (where Kamphaeng Phet lies), there are hardly others.

Charming park?

Off the list


Sometimes shit happens. That's what they say, but what they imply is that things negative happen to which nothing can be done. Apparently.

Sukhothai Hot Springs are where?
The hot springs of Pong Nam Dueat of Sukhothai province are to be found or as this Sri Satchanalai National Park site claims:
'This hot spring is located 500 meters away from Pa Kha Village. The water here is so clear and clean and looks like boiling water evaporated of rotten egg gas. Unfortunately, the beautiful scenery of this hot spring was damaged by mineral business, only warm water left in the winter'.
The clue however is 'were to be found'. Because the hot water source has disappeared altogether. November is winter, at least the start of winter if something as such exists in Thailand. Maybe referring to the cool season is more correct.

So the other week found me trying to track down these 'hot' springs. Despite it being mentioned on the Sri Satchanalai National Park website (see above) it is actually outside the National Park itself, but only just, possibly a km before. It's not so obvious, there's certainly no signboard but after inquiring around it was established that it is about 1 km before the National Park entrance on the north side of the road.

What remains
That however was not sufficient and eventually I found myself trailing a local villager who was more than obliged to lead me there. As the springs have no significance anymore the site was slightly overgrown. It's only 10 m off the main road. The origin was at the confluence of 2 small streams were water sprang up. My informer mentioned how you could have boiled an egg within 5 minutes, but now at best the water was luke warm or not cold which ever you prefer. Sulphur could still be smelt however.

Discussing what had happened, if only my Thai vocabulary included words on mining I might have learnt more.

It's a pity for the villagers to have lost such a site. I've tried to look up more info on the mining but there's nothing there, at least not on the internet. It was not obvious when I visited, that mining was ongoing, possibly it had been just some exploration activities. It does seem however strange to allow mining to take place so near a national park, which has existed since 1976.

Swampy environs of the springs

So if it was ever on the list, it's not anymore alas. Remember no hot springs in Sukhothai province!


In the absence of a hot soak why not opt for a cold soak at the Tad Duean waterfall, 500m inside the Sri Satchananalai National Park. Easily accessible, beautiful setting.

Saturday, 30 August 2008

Bashing Bentong


Bentong

One thing that can not be said about the hot springs of Bentong, are that they are difficult to find. They are nearly on the main road from Kuala Lumpur to the eastern city of Kuantan. They are also not too far from Malaysia's capital, so even though it's not the weekend, there should be a couple more visitors. That's more than just myself.

The expansive car park though, only holds three other cars, two of which are parked next to each other and whose occupants have little interest in the soaking facilities. Slightly more encouraging is the occupant of the third car who has chosen to have a quiet lunch while gazing over the springs. But not interested in soaking either.

A dam divide. Opposite somebody enjoying their time here, but he had his own lunch

A tour of the site
The site is fairly big. On the western fringe is a fenced pond which probably contains the main source. A small dam divides this pond, from another large pond. The second pond is intentionally meant for soaking. It is very murky, so maybe it's 30 cm deep, maybe 2 m. From this pool there is an overflow to a small concrete pond which might have been intended to be a kiddies pool. And from here, there's an overflow leading to a stream which flows towards Bentong town.

Kiddies pool with final overflow. Yeah, I know, it looks OK.

Despite the lack of visitors there are otherwise enough tell-tale signs of prior visitors alas, though the undergrowth is also slowly coming back.
But what strikes me most is how deserted and desolate it looks. Clearly some effort has been made to clear the surrounding jungle and create the pools. A huge sanitary block has been added on, as well as another few buildings and some smaller tubs. But not much seems to be functioning.
I'm quite stunned. Obviously quite some public money must, at some time in the past, been pumped in to spruce the site up. Why? To provide recreation facilities. But then, with the monies spent, the site has been left to slowly be destroyed by nature and by the users themselves.

Developed hot springs in Malaysia
Elsewhere in Malaysia, hot spring sites have been renovated for continued public use, albeit at a cost to the same visitors. Wet World Pedas and Sunway Lost Lagoon (formerly known as Tambun hot springs) have been turned into 'thrilling' water parks, with a corner reserved for traditional soaking. While Poring (arguably Southeast Asia's most publicized / well-known hot springs) in the Malaysian state of Sabah has certainly been successful in attracting many tourists without affecting the naturalness of the site. Then again it may just be Malaysia's PR efforts, which manage to sell everything as a 'must see' sight. Or things are falling apart here as well, due to the government management (or lack of it).

The murky waters of Kolam Air Panas Bentong, otherwise known as Bentong hot springs

Experiencing Bentong
But then there's Bentong. Cyberspace nudges at quite the same conclusion; there are hardly lyrical descriptions. Js2smart actually soaked here, though that's nearly 2 years back:
'This was the natural hotsprings, at the ground, it was filled with mud and sand... usualli people using the mud to heal some sensitive skins! As for me, i always go there to refresh myself after the hardwork in college and home! The place was cooling and warming at the bottom of the hotsprings!
After tha bath at the hotspring, we head to a Shell station to change our clothes'.
Fancy that, with all the changing rooms they've built, you have to go to a petrol station to change! Khairi on VirtualMalaysia agrees with this sites opinion it seems:
'The place is dirty with rubbish strewn all over the place. The local autorities didn't seem to care about sprucing and maintaing the place. With a little bit of an extra effort, the place can be wonderful. If you are bringing foreign friends, it can be a BIG embarassment. What a shame'.
Isann has some very recent conflicting experiences:
'We tried the less hot one first. It was disgusting!! ... It was so disgusting that we were outta of there in a minute and hopped into the ‘hotter’ pool. It wasn’t that hot after a while and it felt really really good!'
Norashima:
'... and stop at kolam air panas, Bentong which is not a very nice place to go because of its condition'.
Wi:
'3:30am. '6 guys, 1 van………total darkness inside the hotspring. We had our torchlights held tight as our guide around the area. The water was warm, but I doubt there was any maintenance down there as I could felt some slimmy slippery stuffs as I step into the hot pool. It felt like……..moss. Eww…'
Ryan Tan:
'Ouch! My dear has a slipped here and she kind of hurt her back a little. Sob sob, but thankfully, she is fine now.
Pretty disappointed with this place though, we expected more, but what we get is a pool full of murky water, unmanaged and we even caught one guy happily bathing with lots of soap in this hot spring. Guess his house has no water heater?'
The waters may be warm, the surroundings green and verdant, but this site is certainly not appealing for a soak. Just skip it. Around Bentong there a number of waterfalls which might offer a better opportunity for a pleasant, but cool soak. Then again there are some opinions who seem to beg to differ....

The large soaking pool

Getting There: The springs are located 7 km before Bentong town on the old road (highway no. 2) between KL and Bentong. Though the exit from Expressway 8 at Genting may be the shortest route, it's way faster to continue to the Bentong exit and drive the 5-6 km back. It's very obvious located on the north side of the road with a large car park.

Soaking Experience: Can't really say, but as the waters seem less than appetizing, can't believe that soaking here would be a positive experience.

Overall Impression: On a scale of 1-10, with 10 being the best soak ever, Bentong would be around 2 or 3. No need to travel up here, not at least if you looking for a warm soak.

Sunday, 17 August 2008

Soaking in the heat


On yer bike
On a gorgeous day, my son and I decided set off from the village of Tuktuk on the island of Samosir for a bike trip of more than 50 km's, along the islands' shore with Danau Toba, all the way to Pangururanwhich is administrative capital of the island. The ride is pleasant, flat and extremely picturesque.

On the island side, steep mountains rise which used to form the crater rim of the Toba volcano, while on the other side, one can see over the lake towards the equally steep mountains which form the other side of the volcano rim. Between the mountains and the shore were a slow procession of pleasant and quiet villages, with the landscape evolving from rice fields to orchards / plantations to forests. Traffic was light, the rental bikes well-greased. And the sun was shining.


By mid day, we were nearing Pangururan and took a right turn just before the town, cross a bridge which leads from Samosir onto Sumatra proper. Then after the bridge, another right turn leads to a track which follows the shore clockwise this time, but on the other side of the lake. A few km's up the road, we park our bikes for a richly deserved lunch.

Air Panas
We were now at Air Panas. The sun was relentless: besides being near the equator, we're also at a high elevation. The hot springs site seemed to be a plethora of hot water springs, gradually climbing up the slope which faced the sun. After parking the bikes, we wander off to explore the site.

From the main park area which gives access to 2-3 soaking sites, there's a track which goes up the steep slope giving access to another number of soaking sites, while a small walking track to the right leads to a 'hot springs walk'.

We choose the highest soaking site, as the restaurant provides a great view of Danau Toba and Samosir, while the restaurant is next to a very hot stream and there is a big rectangular pool above the restaurant.

View of a few of the hot springs. In the background, Danau Toba and Samosir island.

The third sex
There are actually two rectangular pools above the restaurant, the higher one is for men, the lower for women. Why the distinction I would not know, as the women's pool is easily observable from the males pool, But beware, not the other way around. Maybe, it's because the men's pool is better (larger, better view), equality is still some way off I'm afraid.

One of the resorts below even had a third sex, I'd yet to encounter: a pool for men, a pool for women and a pool for foreigners! Naturally the pool for foreigners could be observed from all corners, the other two were hidden away somewhere in the back. Odd.

The sign for "Foreigners": complete with (inflated?) price: 0,50 $US; still very cheap.

Dori, in her travel blog describes a visit to the women's hot springs:
'The hot springs was a bunch of separate pools-men and women bathed separately. The women were mostly older and bathed topless with a sarong on the bottom and dipped screaming babies into the water'.
Relaxing? Somehow she failed to qualify for the foreigner springs ...

A lunch time soak
After the ride we were pretty hungry. We ordered our lunch and while waiting, went to have a soak. Of course this being during the week, the pools were deserted and (with exception of the restaurant mistress) so was the restaurant. The pool was actually great, nice length, good depth, hot but not extreme hot. Glare from the lake and the surrounded denuded hills did make this a very hot event.

Everything was a bit makeshift though. For instance, the toilet had only a wall of 50 cm height, with full view of the surroundings (in both ways). It was the first toilet I've ever seen, that's flushed with hot springs water. At least the sulfur smell hides all other smells!

The uppermost pool. Alas ladies, it's reserved for us men. Note the big pipe with steaming hot water gushing into the pool.

The pool is surrounded by a 50-60 cm wall which is a pity because the view is stupendous. Well, we will just have to leave the view for lunch.

Lunch consists of some fried rice, good but nothing special. After lunch we mess around a bit in the pool and stream. Confident nobody is coming along, I enjoy an uninhibited soak this time round.

The highest restaurant, great views. In the foreground a hot water stream flows.

Exploration
We get dressed and before leaving take a stroll over the hot water walk. Well, most tourists will be stupefied, as the path ends 30 m from where it begins. But having seen the path from higher up, we move further over a track and enter a small canyon, 50 m in length maybe, 10-15 m high. As we move to the end of the canyon, more sulfurous steam is gasping from the porous earth. Is this dangerous?

The stream itself contains a number of small boiling hot springs. At the end of the canyon, you can take a really hot shower: hot water is falling down from about 10 m higher.

It's also where the track ends and where we return. Back to our bikes, back on our bikes and back for the 50 km trek to our hotel.

The hot water stream

More information
The correct name for this site is well, um, unknown? It's referred to as Pangururan / Tele / Samosir / Toba hot springs. But none with the exact location. Others refer to it as Permandian / Kolam Renang / Kolam Air Panas / Aek Rangat meaning bathing place / swimming pool / hot springs swim / sulfur springs; none as to the exact location. So I'll file these springs under Pangururan hot springs, if only to avoid confusion with the onsen in the Japanese town of Toba ....

The actual source of the springs themselves are described by an anonymous blog:
'After lunch we search for the hot springs. Every restaurant appears to have a bath of swimming pool fed with hot water from the springs, but we want to find the springs themselves. So we climb up, until we reach a restaurant that only lets us through if we order something. Here is a pool as well, but also a natural bath in the rocks. And as we climb up, we reach the actual source of the hot springs. In some kind of white moon landscape there is a stream of hot, yellow water. It is boiling up from the rocks, although we cannot see exactly where'.
Getting There: From Pangururan, it's very straight forward. Just cross the bridge and take the first right. After roughly 2 km you'll come to a large number of restaurants and hot spring pools. This is it.

Soaking Experience: Well, we made a good choice to walk up to the 'last' resort. Not only the solitude, both the accessible stream and large pool make this a great place to soak. However experience may differ per resort and even women might have a different 'view' on this.

Overall impression: It's a pity that, on the one side, development has been haphazard: it certainly is an area of outstanding beauty, if not outstanding for it's uniqueness. Most resorts though, seem to have made quite an effort to attract visitors and some of the pools are quite large. More could have been made of the view. And it could be much better ...

Lonely Planet though refers to this site as 'uninspiring', so whether or not it appeals to you, that's your choice.

Saturday, 16 August 2008

Sloppily

Right, the main source; straight in front, the main soaking pool with a number of overflow pools to the back, right. This is what constitutes Lau Debuk Debuk hot spring site.

Semangat Gunung, it's not
Lau Debuk Debuk (also written as Lau Debuk-Debuk or Lau Debukdebuk) seems an odd name for a hot springs. And after visiting this site I can only say that it did look a bit odd.

A quick look on the internet gives a confusing overview. Though Lau Debuk Debuk hardly counts any first-hand experiences, the links are mostly tourism related overviews.

Lau Debuk Debuk is quite often referred to as the already 'Blogged by SEA'
Semangat Gunung hot springs. This site corrects that assumption as follows:
'The hot springs that most tourist visit is however not Lau Debuk Debuk, but the Gunung Semangat hot springs, which sloppily is also called Lau Debuk Debuk'.
It furthermore reveals:
'Every month on a certain day, a unique traditional Karonese ceremony / event takes place here called Erpangir Kulau'.
Erpangir Kulau?
Erpangir Kulau? Explain please:
'The Erpangir Kulau ceremony takes place once every month on the day of Cukra Lau, the best according to the Karonese calendar. On this day, people come to pray and ask for help, to get well, to find a wife or husband, most people come before noon and normally come in small groups and dressed in white'.
Erpangir Kulau is translated here as 'the hair washing ceremony' but seems to be an elaborate ritual including dance and music leading to:
'participants becoming possessed by the begu ['spirit or soul of the dead'] of their ancestors and other spirits'.
Then on Roughguides Travel Talk, I found this extensive entry by sumatrahornbill:
Lau Debuk Debuk Hotspring
When you climbed Sibayak volcano, and you down to Semangat Gunung hotspring, this place is a bathing place with natural sulfuric water is also effective to cure many kind of skin diseases.
But when you left that place and by walking directly to the main road of Medan, and before the main road about 1 km, in the left side you will also see a small road to go down, and you can find small lake or we call Lau Debuk Debuk, as also hot spring area the water is not too hot but the sulfuric smell are really strong.
This area is very quite [quiet?] area because normally this place is a ritual activities called "
Erpangir Kulau". So everyside of that area full of worship places, such as Hinduism, Buddhism, Pemena (Ancestor spirit religion, Animism, etc). And for you if you really want to do ritual there by your self or invited a guru for calling spirit you have to offer some plowers, tobacoes, betelnut, incense, jeruk purut (a citroen family [family of the lemon is meant], normally people used it for all ritual). And also you can do Erpangir Kulau (clean your body with some kinds of plowers, jeruk purut and burn the incense), this ritual is kept away from all kinds of evils, bad luck and illness.
If you want to do by your own ritual, you have to buy all the offering stuff in special herbal medicine man shop, and they will prepare to you,and with sincerity you do a ritual in that places, hope you can get contact with your spirit, ancestor spirit, etc'.
Better days?
Um, well that explains something, then again, I obviously did not visit during the monthly
Erpangir Kulau ceremony, so maybe that's why I failed to see much of a soak here.

It seemed, as observed elsewhere in Southeast Asia, that the hot springs have seen better days. Somehow, development has taken place in the past and a picture on this site shows a different view of the site than the one which I obtained.

Lau Debuk Debuk hot springs in better days: stalls along the pools, not overgrown. Why has the site, representing such a religious symbolism, been allowed to deteriorate?

Unfortunately, I again failed to retrieve this information prior to leaving for Sumatra, otherwise I would have put more effort into timing my visit. Who knows, possibly the ceremony does not take place anymore, thus explaining why the site looks desolate.

Site is partially overgrown

Experience?
The Lau Debuk Debuk springs are also difficult to find. The Semangat Gunung road which originates from the main Medan - Brastagi highway, hugs the base of the mountains, but you only need to follow this road for about 500 m when, on your right hand side, you can see a track splitting off the tar-sealed road and continuing downhill, towards the valley floor. Oddly enough, you think, the track leads only to a large space with a very small but solid building. This is (was?) the car park with entrance gate / guard post. Well, there's nobody really on guard and while I passed this building it had acquired an alternative use, as motorcycle garage.

There is only one obvious route beyond this guard post and it passes a few rice fields before sqeezing between two buildings and coming to an end on the lip of a small drop. From here you can see a number of ponds. Continue down the slope and you will come to a partially cemented fast flowing hot springs. Let me correct myself, not hot, but warm. Ish. Tepid. I believe that is the correct word. Sites refer it to being 35 C. Air temperature thus.

The main source emitting tepid waters

The water of these springs flows down to a a bigger pool with clear water. In this pool bubbles still appear, so most probably, this is also a hot spring directly sourcing this pond. There are steps leading into this pool so, presumably it probably does not get warmer than this. Oddly though, as if there is a need to cool this water, there are a number of huge basins functioning as overflows. Even odder is that this water is white; would they have a different source?

Hygienic standards seem failing and, with none other soaking, I think that giving this site a soaking pass might be wise.

Overflow ponds or just more soaking space to the monthly rituals?

The hot springs site is of course very much deserted, so no one to answer my questions. I walk around the basins, see the eventual overflow and return to where I started where there are or more correctly were toilets / changing rooms.

More info on the surroundings can be found in the post of Semangat Gunung.

Getting There: Lau Debuk Debuk hot spring is located 500 m up a side road of the main Medan - Kabanhanje road. Take the first side track to your right at the point where you have a clear overview of the surroundings; a small guard post building in front of a parking area should also be able to be seen from the turn.
The small road eventually going partially up Sibayak volcano originates from a crossroad, roughly 10 km before the mountain resort town of Brastagi, where there are ample opportunities for overnight stays. Continue 3 km's up this road and you'll be in the hot springs resort village of Semangat Gunung.

On guard? Pass the guard post (on the left) and continue for 100m before getting to the warm spring itself.

Soaking Experience: One could soak if one would wish, but the pools up the road at Semangat Gunung would be a far more superior experience. They are also hot, as opposed to the tepid water at Lau Debuk-Debuk. Then again Semangat Gunung hot springs miss the religious significance.

Overall Impression: Satisfies your curiosity, but 10 minutes here suffice. If the ceremonies still take place, it would be a great time to visit.


Update [22-08-08]: The previously cited sumatrahornbill adds:
'Lau Debuk debuk is still exist as a ritual of Karoneses and Hinduism and buddhism. Not many Backpakers know that area, the area is just used by locals for family party when they make a ritual of calling family spirit.
The area is not far from the junction to hotspring so from main road only ten minutes and turn right down a bit to Lau Debuk Debuk. It is a good changes when you can see the local make ritual, you may take the pictures,it is ok. The good way to know the ritual, according to Karo calender or every saturday or sunday, normally we can see them'
Many thanx for that.

Monday, 11 August 2008

Elusive?

Elusive tranquility: the hot springs source reflects the palm oil trees nearby

Where am I?
How had I come to sitting at this table was a long story. Opposite me was the patriarch, his family crowded behind him. We were somewhere just above a stream in a palm oil plantation, somewhere north of KL, Malaysia's capital. He offered me some durian.
Obviously they don't see real tourists that much here, but that fact I had already established on this seemingly un-endless goose chase. On the other hand I knew I was near the hot springs; I had already asked a local laborer at this palm oil plantation twice, with differing answers but with the assurance that it was just one km away. But where?

Nearly there?
The first quest brought me to a five way crossroad of plantation tracks, all similar in size, none clearly indicating where they would end. My second effort, leading in a different direction, ended at an enclosure, surrounding a small stream. From the outside it was obvious that this area had been enhanced, so thinking that the hot springs must be here, I jumped the fence. Unfortunately once inside, the stream waters were cool. Some dams had been made and with the stream bed made of white sand, it certainly was a nice place for a picnic, but not what I was looking for.
At the far end of the enclosure I could see a motorcycle parked. I strolled over there, discovering a void in the fence and downstream, a young lady in a flowing and colorful dress was scooping up water out of the stream. I asked her for the directions and in excellent English she managed to communicate that
  • a. yes, she knew where the hot springs were,
  • b. they were not here,
  • c. she was useless in giving directions and
  • d. let's have a chat with her father, he knew the place.
So that was part of the story of getting here.

Where?
Hulu Tamu was the name of the hot spring I'd been on my way to. My info had narrowed down the search to the Hulu Selangor district, Selangor state. The day preceding, while looking for a good map in one of the un-endless shopping malls of Kuala Lumpur, I'd been able to find a map of Pahang state with an overview of Genting Highlands, showing a hot springs near Hulu Yam Baharu. Having pinpointed the hot springs on a map, it should not seem too difficult to find the place.
Hulu Yam Baharu is located just off state highway 1, north of Kuala Lumpur. About 30-35 km from the city center. After some weird procedures, the hotel enabled me to rent a car and this morning ten-ish I believe, I left the sprawl of high rises behind me.
And now, I was, what seemed to be the middle of a palm oil plantation, ever so near, but still not near enough, to see this my first hot spring of Malaysia.


Sungai Sendat
The trip up to Hulu Yam Baharu had gone brilliantly. On the map I also saw a named waterfall nearby so I decided to visit this as well; if only because it was sign posted.
The waterfalls of Sungai Sendat are relatively easy to find. Continue down the main street of Hulu Yam Baharu coming from the north and continue through a small neighbourhood ensuring you have the river on your right. After leaving the village the road becomes a little steeper and you'll be going through rubber and palm oil plantations. These give way to rainforest and the tar-sealed road turns into a dirt road. Eventually after about 3-4 km's beyond the village center, the road leads to a bridge, with a security gate across it. You can park here, I mean before the bridge.
Continue past a guard post and within 200m, you can see the main fall with a big pool in front.
At the moment of my visit, construction work was under way; they are looking into sprucing the site up, so it seems. It did look a bit desolate, but the enormous amounts of refuse were ample evidence of recent visitors, so clearly the customers must have been satisfied. It being a week day, evidently meant that I was the only visitor.
If you climb up above the main pool, there are a number of other deep pools and falls, a really beautiful area, now why on earth would visitors trash the place?

Sungai Sendat: a great place to trash?

AllMalaysia.info ignores this last issue and concentrates on describing the waterfalls as follows:
'Paddling, swimming, picnicking - if that sounds like fun to you, then head for the Sungai Sendat Waterfalls. The falls are surrounded by greenery and kissed by sunshine; truly a place for relaxing and rejuvenating yourself'.
Well, if the Sunday crowds turn up, you might be just unlucky.


Back on the road
Leaving the falls site, I asked the guardsman for the way to the hot springs, to which he replied, turn right in the village. That means the road to Genting Highlands. After taking this turn, 500m out of the Hulu Yam Baharu, I take another turn right leading to ... well somewhere (There's a sign to Amberstone Eco Resort).
I continue up the road for about 3 km's, but obviously it's not leading anywhere. After some hand and foot work, a local manages to communicate to me that I should return and turn right to the Bundoora Estate (or is it Bindoora?). It being a narrow lane with no side roads, the turn to Bundoora is obvious. There's even a sign post. Five hundred meters up this road and you are entering the palm oil estate. And that's where it gets tricky.


Made it
With some translation by his daughter, the man opposite me now knew where I wanted to go. Fortunately he did not ask why. He set off trying to explain where it was, but translating this proved tricky. "You with car?" "Um, ...yes?", I replied. "Well, let's go!"
With that, we crossed the stream back to where I had parked the car and he had parked his motorcycle. He jumped on the motorcycle and I followed in my Proton Wajah. We returned to the earlier five way cross road, roughly 1 km beyond the plantation entrance. I don't recall which of the five we took, probably the most left, it leads across a stream from where you should take the next track right. The road is rocky and the Wajah is (still) scratch free. Therefore, I park the car here and follow the motorcycle for another 50 m on foot.
It's all pretty obvious though, there's only 1 stream and the waters of which originate from the hot springs. My guide shuts his motor at a small, foot high dam in the stream. "Air Panas" and stretches his arm. I feel the water. It' hot alright. There's also some trash around, so this must be the place.

The source of Ulu Kalong: in the middle of a palm oil plantation

Ulu Kalong hot springs
I proceed to follow the stream to it's source. There's another small dam, 20 m upstream with an overgrown pool close by. A further 20-30 m upstream, I come upon the source itself. The water flowing from a caved in gap in a 50 cm high wall is hot. Very hot. The pool itself is very tranquil. No bubbling.
After taking a few pictures I return to where the motorcycle is parked. My guide has just finished soaking his feet, strips to his underwear and takes a full body soak in the 30 cm deep water. Having no underwear on and unwilling to cause offense, I limit myself to a foot soak, hoping my host might leave me alone sometime soon.
After 15 minutes, it's clear that that's not going to happen, so I thank my guide who takes this as a sign for ending his soak and our paths diverge. I to return to the hustle and bustle, he to return to his hut on the beautiful river.

A futile attempt at developing the springs? About 5 m out of the hot springs stream bed, a large bath tub has been constructed, but is now filled with earth and partially overgrown.

So what's it called?
I hoped that this was Hulu Tamu hot springs, but my informer mentions it as Ulu Kalong. My map refers to it being "hot spring". Well, that's not much help. What I should have done on forehand was to look more carefully on internet.

Wikipedia's entry on Ulu Yam, refers to no less than 3 (!) natural hot water pools (if only I had known). The pictures to Hulu Tamu hot springs certainly don't reflect what I visited. Kerling, another hot springs in the area, it's not either.

This description of an ANZAC day run describes the location correct and refers to it as Hulu Kalong and the springs to be called "Ladang Jasmin (Air Panas)"; the Air Panas translates as "hot water". The plantation company is referred to as Bindoora. And somehow that's all the info out there. And now this. Elusive no more?

Getting There: From Kuala Lumpur take the old road to Ipoh and turn off this road, roughly 30 km after leaving Kuala Lumpur, towards Hulu Yam Baharu. (or Ulu Yam Baru or any variations of this). Entering the village from the north, turn left in the center towards Genting Highlands and turn right, 500m up this road, well before the main road to Genting Highlands starts. Follow this lane for 2 km, turn left (signposted Bundoora Estate).
After entering the estate take the dirt road right, more or less straight on from where you are coming from. Stay on this main track for another 800m leaving an abandoned building ('No trespassers') on your left. You'll come upon a five way crossroad. Follow the track (left?) crossing the nearby stream and take the first track right, after the stream. From here it should be easy to see the stream originating from the hot springs.

Soaking Experience: Well, what it lacks in depth, it makes up in naturalness. And though, the surroundings point to quite a bit of rubbish, the waters themselves are clean.

It's clear: a soak is required. The main soaking area, about 50-60 m below the source.

Overall impression: Truly a find. Despite the small quantities of refuse, the area is very tranquil. It being a palm oil plantation one would not expect it to be so 'natural', but only little has been enhanced in the springs themselves. You could hear birds jibbering and jabbering and I managed to spot a Kingfisher proof enough of a worthy visit. Let's hope it stays like this!
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