Trip Recap: Best of, Worst of …

Well, we’ve been back about three weeks now and the Round the World trip is fading into memory … What a fabulous journey. I feel so fortunate to have been able to do this trip – it was amazing. Even the (few) parts that weren’t so great were great (if you know what I mean). Time to recap the highlights and lowlights:

Best (non-urban) Beach

Hong Island, Krabi, West Coast of Thailand

Hong Island, the largest of the group of islands in Than Bok Thoranee Marine National Park, is beautiful: powder white sand, glorious green vegetation, turquoise-green water, and towering orange-tinged limestone cliffs. Two small bays are separated by smaller limestone clifflets, through a gap in which we could see boats come and go. See my original post here.

Best Beach (urban)

This is a toss-up between three very different beaches: Jomtien, Pattaya, Thailand, Cancun, Mexico, and Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. Jomtien, because the beach is decent, with great restaurants, a lively vibe, great people-watching, and very cheap transportation around the area.

Cancun, because the beach is long and wide, twenty six kilometers of sand. Playa Gaviota Azul, in Cancun’s Hotel Zone, was a favourite spot for us. The large, wide beach was often full of local families, with kids large and small enjoying the day. Because this area of the beach has a sand bar not too far offshore, a shallow pool of ocean water untouched by the big surf is created so it’s perfect for small children. Read more here.

Los Muertos beach in Puerto Vallarta, because it’s sandy, has big waves and great beach restaurants, and the weather was amazing. Read more here and here.

Best Accomodation (apartment/condo)

Our fully-equipped, nicely decorated 4th floor apartment 1/2 block off Los Muertos Beach in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, an incredible deal at Easter for $45 a night.

See my post here for more on Puerto Vallarta’s South Side.

Best Accommodation (hotel, B&B, hostel)

This is a tricky one – in the running, are: Merthayasa Bungalows in Ubud, Bali; Blue Star Bungalows in Amed, Bali; Sabai Mansion in Ao Nang, Thailand; and Hotelito Swiss Oasis in Puerto Escondido, Mexico. Each of these was great in its own way. We loved the pool at the Merthayasa and the price was right at 180,000 IDR ($19) a night.

The Blue Star, right on the beach at Jemeluk Bay, had wonderful staff, great snorkelling and swimming, and a pleasant enough room for 200,000 IDR a night ($21.50 – a special price because we didn’t use the air con).

Sabai Mansion was well-located 500 meters from the beach, with a great pool, a restaurant, and nice staff for 855 bht a night ($27.50).

And we also loved the Hotelito Swiss Oasis, 1/2 block from Playa Zicatela in Puerto Escondido, with a pool and small communal kitchen, for 450 pesos night ($34.50).

The Pool and Palm villa in Siem Reap had the best pool, large, beautiful, and clean, very refreshing in the heat of central Cambodia.

Best Recreational Activity (Land-based)

Bali Eco Cycling, a cycle trip beginning at a volcano, then riding downhill through a coffee plantation, village homes and temples, and rice fields, finishing with a Balinese food feast. Read all about it here.

Runner up: Cycling the North Head, in Manly, Australia: wildlife, artillery, ecological projects, golden chariot, cemeteries. Read more here.

Best Recreational Activity (Water-based)

Our private longtail boat trip to the Hong Islands, Krabi, Thailand, a great day out on the water visiting several different beaches, lagoons, and islands in the Andaman Sea. Read my post here.

Best Temple(s) Ancient

This one is no contest – Angkor Wat/Thom in Siem Reap, Cambodia is an epic, once-in-a-lifetime Must See for all you temple and archeological site lovers. Incredibly beautiful architecture and sculpture in a huge and beautiful park setting. See my posts here, here, and here.

Runner up: Uxmal and the Puuc route south of Merida in the Yucatan.

Wanting to see some of the less well-known Mayan ruins in the Yucatan while in Merida, but not wanting to drive ourselves, Ty and I decided to do a day trip with a driver from Yucatan Connect to the Lol Tun Caves and the sites along the Puuc Route, south and south east of Merida. Highly recommended – read more here.

Best Temple (Modern)

Bang Rieng, Krabi, Thailand, a mountain-top temple about an hour and a half’s driving north of Ao Nang along the road to Phuket. It sits atop Khao Lan or One Million Mountain, overlooking the Thaput countryside. The temple and grounds are spectacular, as is the view from the top; green hills and tended fields spread out in a vast panorama below the temple precincts, looking very much like central Italy. Read more here.

Best visual art scene

This category is a tie between Ubud, Bali and Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. Ubud has lots of great contemporary art galleries, as well as a couple of excellent art museums focusing on modern Balinese and Indonesian art. Read more here and here.

Puerto Vallarta also has a great contemporary art scene, with lots of commercial galleries, artists studios and residencies, and two weekly art walks in the old town and centro areas. Read more here and here.

Most Intriguing Cultural Performance

The Balinese Classical Legong and Barong Dance at the Ubud Palace was fascinating and beautiful. See a video of part of the performance here. Read more about Ubud’s cultural scene here.

Best Local Experience

While staying at the Blue Star Bungalows in Amed, Bali, the owner Iluh, a lovely woman, invited me to join her at a village temple ceremony. She showed me how the offerings are made, gave me her temple clothes to wear, and drove me there and back on her motorcycle – an incredible experience.

Read about it here.

Runner up: Nox’ tours in Levuka, Ovalau, Fiji

We did two tours around Levuka with local guide Nox, one exploring all aspects of the town and the other up into the surrounding hills to visit local plantations. Really fascinating! Read more here and here.

Best Food

This category is also no contest – Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia has an amazing food scene and, remarkably, without even knowing it, we stayed in absolutely the best place for restaurants in KL, Bukit Bintang. Read my post here.

Best Nightlife

While Ty and I are not exactly nightlife junkies (and sometimes I can barely make it to 11 pm), we did enjoy the lively night scene in Ubud, Bali, particularly the great Spanish band at the Smiling Buddha and the jazz at Cafe Luna. Other nightlife options include Balinese dance, the Jazz Cafe, a gazillion great restaurants and bars …

Best transportation experience

The Pattaya/Jomtien baht bus, the song thaew pickups plying the roads in the area. Go anywhere for only 10 baht (30 cents).

And the tuk-tuks in Siem Reap, Cambodia: padded seats, beautiful fabrics, comfortable rides. Go anywhere around the town for $2.

Worst accommodation

None of the places we stayed were really terrible; some were just less good than the rest and a few were too expensive for what they offered. Sometimes the weather affected our view of a place – Fiji in the rain, for example. Janes Fales in Manase, Savaii, Samoa had a wonderful location right on a beautiful sandy beach, but the food was bad and we had a bad experience at their beach bar there that caused us to leave much sooner than we had planned. More info here.

Worst Food

Mostly, the food everywhere was good, if often not spicy enough for our liking. I guess the worst food I had was this terrible lunch at the Hornbill Restaurant in the Kuala Lumpur Bird Park – blecchhh. Read more about this day here.

Worst Beach

Surprisingly, particularly since the last time we were there it was lovely, the beach at Playa del Carmen was the worst we saw. Almost everywhere in the world erosion is a problem, as is high water and storm surges, all playing havoc with the beaches. One of the last days we were in Playa, after a rain storm, we could smell the sewage that had obviously overflowed the storm sewers and was just gushing out from pipes into the ocean, turning the turquoise water a dull dark brown in places.

Worst local experience

Nadi, Fiji. While in Nadi, we walked along the few rather decrepit blocks of the downtown area, asked for a restaurant recommendation, and were directed to a curry and seafood restaurant which, unfortunately, had bad food. The downtown area was pretty much deserted on a Friday night, which I found somewhat surprising, but the whole place seemed dreary, desperate, and depressing – we didn’t miss it when we left. Read more here and here.

Worst transportation experience

Wow – this is a tough category. Once again, it’s a tie, between the crazed maniacal minibus driver in Fiji, whose insane driving drove us out onto the road and into a school bus; the tweaking idiot in Bangkok whose meth-fuelled speed racer drive from Bangkok to Ayutthaya terrified me; and the overloaded and top heavy ferry boat back from Koh Laan to Pattaya, almost capsizing a couple of times along the way.

Most surprising place

Siem Reap, Cambodia, a lovely city with vibrant nightlife and proximity to the great Angkor temples and Samoa, a beautiful small country.

And Guanajuato, Mexico, a fabulous colourful hill-top town in the central highlands with loads of museums, haciendas, good restaurants, and a vibrant local scene.

For us one of the most surprising things was Semana Santa in Guanajuato – who knew that Easter would be so fabulous there?

Perhaps surprisingly, given how much we liked Bali, especially Amed, East Bali, our choice for retirement living in the sun when we’re old is, at the moment, Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. Why? Well, let me count the reasons:

1) It has a beautiful beach and a long malecon with sculpture and art.

2) It has a vibrant contemporary art scene, dancing, theatre, community centres with classes in language, art, yoga, tai chi, and the like. Lots of artists around the place.

3) It has great coffee shops and restaurants, especially in the Old Town.

4) Although there are lots of gringos, it’s still a Mexican town, especially a few blocks off the beach.

5) Great day trips to small towns and villages are easy by inexpensive local transport. For an example, see my report on Yelapa here.

6) Inexpensive accommodation can be had a few blocks off the beach

7) Rentals are pet-friendly. We can easily bring Brubin and the cat with us when we visit.

8) Easily and cheaply accessible by direct flight in only a few hours.

9) I speak Spanish, albeit not yet fluently.

Temple Tour Two: “Small circuit” of Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom

Cycling around the town:

The really rough road from the hotel to the downtown area is being repaired by road crews dressed in cotton balaclavas with added neck pieces to protect against the sun. It’s hot and dusty and the street is covered with gravel and  full of huge potholes, a menace at night but relatively easy to avoid during the day. Ty and I grabbed the hotel’s two rickety old upright bicycles to explore the town of Siem Reap. Because it’s flat here, the ride is easy as far as exertion goes, but the traffic takes a bit of getting used to. No-one obeys the rules of the road so we just had to go with the flow, never stopping at stop signs or red lights, just weaving through the traffic, accelerating when necessary to get out of a bigger vehicle’s way. We pedalled past the Old Market and along the riverside to Wat Preah Ang, a five hundred year old temple complex in the middle of town where an even bigger, newer temple is in the process of being constructed.

The temples of Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom have made Siem Reap a very wealthy town, wealth which is very much in evidence at this temple where the ancient and modern coexist harmoniously. Extensive topiary gardens with sculptures, gold-covered chedis, several temple buildings with glittering decoration, and the seemingly obligatory kitchy statues of little deer, birds, and women adorning the gardens testify to the general well-being of the community. We watched for a bit as several men tiled the steeply-pitched roof of the new building in the blazing 35 degree heat.

We then crossed over the river and visited Wat Bo, also an old complex but not as richly appointed. The orange-robed monks looked at us with expressionless faces and the temple dogs came out barking and bristling as we were getting our bikes so we beat a hasty retreat – easy to tell when we’re not welcome!

From Wat Bo, we cycled along the river past the Royal Residence, then back again, stopping to look at the beautiful infrared photographs of temples by John McDermott installed at a gallery in the FCC riverside complex.


We arranged for a two tuk-tuk convoy and a guide for the “small circuit”, beginning with the sunrise at Angkor Wat. Up at 4:30 am for a 5 am departure, we, along with lots of other people in tuk-tuks, cars, vans, buses, and bikes, made the pilgrimage out to Angkor Wat in the dark. We stood on one of the gate’s ledges for a bit as the sky began to lighten and headed down to the reflecting pool for the actual sunrise, a non-event with a fart of yellow and red sky between darkish clouds. Our guide told us that the sunrise had not been good the whole month … oh well, at least it got us up and out the door early for what proved to be a long day of temple-trekking. Our itinerary covered, as well as Angkor Wat itself, the main temples in Angkor Thom, the “king’s city”. (The source for much of the information below on the historical and cultural context of Angkorian temples is the Lonely Planet – our guide, while knowledgeable, spoke an English that was sometimes difficult to understand).

Angkor Wat (early-mid 12th c ce Hindu/Buddhist), the temple of the King, is a massive three-tiered pyramid crowned by five lotus-like towers rising 65 meters from ground level, representing Mount Mera in the Himalayas, the abode of the gods in Hinduism.

At the apex of Khmer political and military dominance in the region, Suryavarman II constructed Angkor Wat in the form of a massive ‘temple-mountain’ dedicated to the Hindu god, Vishnu. It served as his state temple, though the temple’s uncommon westward orientation has led some to suggest that it was constructed as Suryavarman II’s funerary temple.

Angkor Wat is surrounded by a moat and an exterior wall measuring 1300 meters x 1500 meters. The temple itself is 1 km square and consists of three levels surmounted by a central tower. The walls of the temple are covered inside and out with bas-reliefs and carvings, including most memorably nearly 2000 distinctively rendered apsara (dancing women) carvings.

On the lower level the exterior walls display enormous bas-reliefs depicting stories and characters from Hindu mythology and the historical wars of Suryavarman II. Highlights include the mythological Battle of Kuru on the west wall; the historical march of the army of Suryavarman II, builder of Angkor Wat, against the Cham, followed by scenes from Heaven and Hell on the south wall, and the ‘Churning of the Ocean Milk’ on the east wall. Some of the carvings were quite hard to make out, while others were dark and shiny as a result of being rubbed over the years by hordes of tourists (it’s quite easy to tell which images interest people from their relative darkness; for example, the breasts of the dancing women). Some are also stained red with rouge, used as a protective covering.

At the upper-most level of the temple, accessed by a staircase guarded by employees who check for offensive clothing (shoulders and knees must be covered and sarongs or scarves are not acceptable, to Christine’s dismay), the central tower houses four Buddha images, each facing a different cardinal point. Although Angkor Wat was constructed as a Hindu temple, it has served as a Buddhist temple since Buddhism became Cambodia’s dominant religion in the 14th century.

After wandering around the vastness of Angkor Wat, we had a somewhat mediocre breakfast in one of the many temple restaurants, and then rolled onward to Angkor Thom through a huge parkland area of grass and trees.

Angkor Thom (Big Angkor 12th – 13th c ce Buddhist) is a three kilometer square walled and moated royal city and was the last capital of the Angkorian empire. After Jayavarman VII recaptured the Angkorian capital from the Cham invaders in 1181, he began a massive building campaign across the empire, constructing Angkor Thom as his new capital city. He began with existing structures such as Baphuon and Phimeanakas and built a grand enclosed city around them, adding the outer wall/moat and some of Angkor’s greatest temples including his state-temple, Bayon, set at the center of the city.

There are five entrances (gates) to the city, one for each cardinal point, and the victory gate leading to the Royal Palace area. Each gate is crowned with four giant faces and the one through which we entered had a bridge decorated with demi-god and demon figures playing tug-of-war with a giant naga serpent, representing the struggle between the forces of good and evil in Hindu mythology.

Within Angkor Thom we saw the following:

Baphuon (mid 11th c Hindu) a huge temple-mountain in the heart of Angkor Thom, currently being restored, which has a rear brick wall in the form of a gigantic reclining Buddha.

Bayon (late 12th c ce Buddhist), a temple with thirty-seven standing towers, most but not all sporting four carved faces oriented toward the cardinal points. Who the faces represent is a matter of debate but they may be Loksvara, Mahayana Buddhism’s compassionate Bodhisattva, or perhaps a combination of Buddha and Jayavarman VII.

Bayon was the Jayavarman VII’s state-temple and in many ways represents the pinnacle of his massive building campaign. The bas-reliefs on the southern wall contain real-life scenes from the historical sea battle between the Khmer and the Cham, as well as scenes from everyday life.

Phimeanakas (late 10th-early 11th c Hindu), a sandstone pyramid located inside the ancient Royal Palace compound, serving as the king’s temple. According to legend the golden tower crowning the temple was inhabited by a serpent, which would transform into a woman.

The kings of Angkor were required to make love with the serpent every night, lest disaster befall him or the kingdom.

Terrace of the Elephants and Terrace of the Leper King (late 12th c). The former is a two and a half-meter tall, 300 meter long terrace wall adorned with carved elephants and garudas that spans the heart of Angkor Thom in front of Baphuon, Phimeanakas and the Royal Palace area.

Nearby is the Terrace of the Leper King, named for the statue of the ‘Leper King’ that sits on top. Why the statue is known as the ‘leper king’ is a matter of debate. Some argue that when the statue was found, its lichen-eaten condition gave it the appearance of leprosy.

Others have suggested that it is a statue of the leper king of Khmer legend, or that the condition of the statue inspired its connection to the legend.

Ta Prohm (12th – 13th c Buddhist), a temple in the jungle intentionally left partially unrestored; within the walls massive fig and silk-cotton trees grow from the towers and corridors.

Dedicated to the king’s mother, Ta Prohm was originally constructed as a Buddhist monastery and was enormously wealthy in its time, boasting of control over 3000 villages, thousands of support staff, and vast stores of jewels and gold. It is now most well-known as one of the sites in the Angelina Jolie film Tomb Raider.

After an epic nine hour day, we were driven back to the hotel and deposited in an almost senseless heap by the pool to recover.

See more pics here.