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.

Limestone island hopping in an emerald sea

We have only a few more days left in Ao Nang and wanted to visit the Hong Islands off the west coast before we jet off to Kuala Lumpur on Saturday. Luckily, the day we’d booked for the trip – yesterday – was a beautiful sunny day, with only a few fluffy white cumulus clouds scudding across the sky – perfect. The tour company driver collected us at 8:30 in a creaky little pickup truck and we were off to the Nopparat Thara River and on our private longtail boat, after Ty helped the boat man and his assistant to rock it off a sandy knoll (very low tide), heading out to sea by 9.

Rather than turning south, as the four islands tour did, we turned north and navigated along the coast, past the Royal Residence with its gleaming gold turrets shimmering on the hill, past what looked like two mines on the shoreline, each with piers jutting out into the water for container ships, and out to the limestone islands we could see rising out of the ocean offshore.

As we pulled into the sheltered bay, we could see a few other long-tails moored, but that was about it. 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.

Near the ranger station is a memorial to the victims of the 2004 tsunami, erected by 13 survivors of a tour group which was unlucky enough to be visiting the island then from Phuket. We swam and snorkelled in the bay for a couple of hours, watching as successive waves of tour groups came and went along the beach, including older women in small bikinis striking cheese-cake poses for photos in the water and musclemen flexing their roid-fuelled biceps. A few white and yellow striped fish could be spotted but there is no live coral here; perhaps the tsunami destroyed the reefs and they’ve not had a chance to recover.

From there, we motored around to the back of the island, then, through a tiny channel, entered a gorgeous emerald-green-blue lagoon bounded by a small mangrove forest. As we cruised slowly around its perimeter, several bright orange and green kayaks entered, gleaming brightly against the turquoise water.

Our next stop was Pakbia Island, really two small islands joined by a thin sand bar at low tide.

Here it was screaming hot and we immediately donned our snorkel gear and hit the water, swimming slowly around one rocky outcropping without seeing much. After crossing over the sandbar to snorkel along the rocks on the west side, we saw lots of fish, both large and small, feeding. As we swam further out towards open ocean, the current became very strong and we were glad to have had fins on, making the swim back much easier. Actually, we saw the most fish when seated in a foot of water just off the beach; Ty dropped a few cracker crumbs in the water, generating a torrent of fish swimming frantically back and forth around him, including tiny yellow and grey micro-sharks – Mr Fish Master. Even drinking gallons of water wasn’t really enough to cool us down; we spent the rest of our time there sitting in the ocean, enjoying the company of the fish.

Our final stop was Paradise Beach on Lading Island (I think – the boatman spoke no English). This was a small strip of sand beneath yet another towering limestone cliff, at the foot of which were moored several longtail and speed boats disgorging the same folks we’d seen on the previous islands. Even so, the beach was not so crowded as to be uncomfortable. And, best of all for the Fish Master, beers could be had from the cantine. A fantastic day on the water – thoroughly enjoyed by all!

See more pictures here.

Four Islands Tour, Krabi, Thailand

Yesterday dawned sunny and hot, great weather for our Four Islands longtail boat tour. The guy at Sabai Mansion’s front desk had told us to wait out front for an 8:30 pickup, so naturally we were there early; as 8:30, 8:45, and then 9:00 ticked past, I started to get sweaty and agitated. Just as I was about to give up, the small song thew showed up with a bunch of people already piled in the back. We joined the pile and off we raced to the boat harbour on the river at the end of Nopparat Thara Beach, the next beach along north of Ao Nang.

We’d requested a tour company with a small number of small boats (apparently some tour operators have boats that take up to a hundred people at a time, a situation which did not seem all that appealing). At the harbour, we, along with all the other people from all the other tours, clambered into our respective boats and headed for open waters. This is also the harbour from which the Tiger Line Ferry plies the coast to and from Lanta and Phi Phi Islands.

Our first island was Tup, one of the limestone spears rising out of the green sea, visible from Ao Nang Beach.

As we pulled up to the strip of soft white sand we could see people – lots of people – and boats, lots of boats, both speedboats and longtails. Tup, and Chicken Island, its neighbour, are joined by an isthmus which can be walked across through the water at low tide, a walk which we proceeded to do.

The water was a beautiful turquoise-emerald and very warm, home to small green and yellow striped fish who clustered near the rocks at the edge of the beach. Many of the tourists simply sunbathed on the beach, some unbelievably fried, others took advantage of the cantines set up in the shade of the trees to down beers, while others strode through the hip-deep water to reach Chicken Island.

As we watched, one massive two-decker longtail pulled in heavily laden with people both inside and on the roof – the Barracuda Tours party boat, presumably (looked unstable to my paranoid eyes).

After an hour of trucking around the beach, we were back in the boat and motored to a spot just off Chicken Island for snorkelling, along with ten or so other boats. Ty and I had brought our own gear which we put on in the water, me not as successfully as Ty (I had to throw my fins back on deck because I couldn’t adjust them properly while treading water). We swam around for a bit but it became evident that all the coral here is grey and dead; although there are some fish, they likely only come here because the tour operators feed them. Once we were all back in the boat, we circled around the back of the island to see why it got its name – the island’s rocky profile is sort of like a chicken (although it is much more like a camel as many on our boat noticed, but Thailand has no camels … hence, “chicken”).

Our lunch stop was Poda Island, a place which reminded Ty and I of Calaquai, just off Levuka in Fiji, although way, way more crowded. We each received a Styrofoam package of lukewarm fried rice and wandered off to eat it on the beach. Once again, many, many boats were parked on the beach, and lots of people were seeking shade under the trees, while others swam or snorkelled. Even out here there is no escape from the ubiquitous vendors selling the same stuff available on the beach and in the shops of Ao Nang.

While waiting for the time to leave, several folks amused themselves feeding the very aggressive monkeys living at the edge of the beach, one of whom went racing up to a fellow from our boat and grabbed the corn cob which he’d only just begun to eat right out of his hand.

This monkey, obviously the alpha, plopped himself on a tree branch and proceeded to eat his two corn cobs with obvious relish while the younger, smaller monkeys tried to steal a bit from him to no avail.

For our final island visit we rolled up on the beach at Phranang, not really an island but rather a beach protected by limestone cliffs just around the corner from Rai Lay, only accessible by boat.

Since it was a very high high tide, there was very little beach at all and a constant stream of people marching back and forth on the sand available. Most of the property seems to be taken up by three resorts, one of which has been partially built into a limestone cavern at the foot of towering cliffs.

The siren song of one beach front bar called to Ty and we enjoyed a very expensive drink overlooking the beach and the far islands.

At the far end of the beach are huge cliffs, cut into which is a cave with several altars and an enormous number of phalloi, giant dicks carved out of wood and fashioned in metal, lovingly crafted by anonymous worshippers of the lingnan, representative of the masculine generative principle of the universe in Hindu and other religions.

Just as we left Phranang, the rain came – not torrential, but steady for a bit, freshening the air, and gone by dinner time.

We enjoyed our day at sea, but were a little surprised at the sheer number of boats and people at every place we stopped – these are not exactly deserted tropical islands. But, for 450 Baht, or about $10 each for the day, the tour was good value.

Thailand’s coasts have a problem with erosion – a big problem that is only going to get worse in the coming warm years. At the moment the east coast (Gulf of Thailand) is eroding more quickly than the west, but both coasts are adversely affected. The problems include monsoons and heavy wave action, neither of which can be ameliorated by humans, but androgenic actions such as destroying and removing mangrove fields for shrimp farms and resorts are equally or more at fault. In one small village south of Bangkok, Khun Samutchine, in which the people formerly made their living from the sea, they are now seeing it destroy their lives. Erosion is eliminating 65 meters of the coastline each year, with the result that their houses, and the village Buddhist temple, are falling into the sea.

For more information on coastal erosion in Thailand, click here and here.

See more pictures here.

Trucking around Ao Nang

We’re ensconced here at the Sabai Mansion for the foreseeable future, or, at least likely until it’s time to head off to Kuala Lumpur. The weather’s ok, very variable, a result of the transition into the dry season. Most days we’ve had some rain, usually in the late afternoon or evening, and it’s been hot during the day. But the beautiful thing about this place is its good sized pool which I’ve taken advantage of every day.

Usually we have breakfast at the little poolside restaurant, surf the internet, read email, and then head down the hill to the beach. Our favorite spot is the Last Café, the last establishment on the beach right next to the huge limestone cliff that dominates this area.

This section of the beach is frequented by regulars, middle-aged and older European men in tiny speedos and their wives letting it all hang out in tiny bikinis – no body image problems here.

The contrast between these sand denizens and the vendors who ply the beach could not be more pronounced; the Thais are fully dressed, often with woolen hats, and laden with trinkets and gadgets for sale.

We see the same people each time we’re there – the flute dude, the wooden fruit bowl man, the smiling table cloth lady, the many old female shell animal sellers, the corn man, and the chicken grill woman, among a host of others. Usually we don’t buy anything but once and a while Ty succumbs to the charms of another toothless old woman and purchases one more tiny knic knac we don’t need.

Yesterday we happened to be hungry as the corn and chicken sellers appeared and flagged them down for a snack. Along with the food vendors came the blond beach dog, a cagey veteran who knows enough not to gobble down the bones he’s tossed all at once but hides them in the sand at the Last Café for later consumption. Our corns on the cob were delivered with a toothpick conveniently placed in them; to this innovation, Ty enthused: “Wow, this guy is really in front of the curve” (of corn-selling protocol, presumably).

We haven’t found a good Thai food restaurant here yet; we have, though, found really good Indian and passable pizza. For some unknown reason all the restaurants that offer Indian food are selling it at 20 or 30 percent off; possibly not many of the people who come here are familiar with Indian … we’ve also found a small sidewalk bar, the Chill Out, that serves cheap happy hour cocktails from whose premises we can watch unwary passing foot-draggers trip over the small concrete rise in the sidewalk, sometimes to great effect.

Today we flagged down a passing tuk-tuk and hired the driver for a two hour cruise around Ao Nang, stopping at the sea water fish farm research centre, the “Nemo Farm”, Shell Beach (sometimes called Gastropod Cemetery), and Ao-Nam Mao beach and pier, where long tail boats depart for Krabi and Railay. Tuk-tuks, motorcycles with covered sidecars, are great – I love riding in them because they can’t go very fast and there’s lots to see. The countryside around Ao Nang is quite lush but the villages seem strangely deserted – very few tourists about.

I enjoyed seeing all the fish at the Nemo Farm, including a manta ray, and all the beautiful tropical batfish, parrotfish and angelfish. The Lion Fish looked out at me balefully as I tried to get a good picture of him, none too pleased to find himself trapped in a small aquarium. This research centre is also raising quite a few turtles; the tiny ones seemed to really enjoy dunking their heads in the streams of water running into their pond.

We had been told by the proprietor of the Sabai Mansion that Shell Beach wasn’t really much but I did want to see it anyway, visualising in my mind vast quantities of gigantic fossilised snail shells.  Well, of course it was nothing like that, being instead a small area of what look like dozens of concrete slabs stacked on one another, but, in reality, are compressed layers of rock with billions of tiny shellfish about 40 million years old embedded in it. Apparently, this is the only such site in the world (at least as far as I could tell from the rather tortured English on the faded description sign).

The entrance fee for tourists is 200 Bht each (about $6.60), a shameful rip-off, but even though we only had 100 between the two of us, the guard impatiently waved us in anyway. I enjoyed watching the iridescent green crabs crawling on the surface of the shell slabs and battling one another over territory.

On our way back to Ao Nang we stopped at the Ao-Nam Mao pier and watched the longtail boats come and go for a while. Having grown tired of that, we headed back into town past the signs advertising villas for sale, and houses and shops for rent, all probably in place since before the economic crash of 2008, after which nothing much in the way of economic development seems to be happening in this area. We asked our driver to drop us off on the beach at the Last Fisherman restaurant and bar for a milkshake (great!) and nibblies, before trudging back up the hill to the Mansion and into the pool. Just another day here in Ao Nang …

See more photos here.

Ao Nang and Railay Beach

Krabi Town’s not a place that many people actually stay; it’s a place they travel through on the way to another place, usually Railay Beach or Ao Nang further up the coast. It’s a gritty riverside burg with a few good restaurants, a lively night market, and, as far as we could see, not a lot else. Since our intention is to stay in and around the Krabi area for the next little while, Ty and I wandered out to the main drag and caught a song thew, a truck-taxi with an open back that takes about 12 passengers, for the half hour journey up to Ao Nang, whose attractions include a big beach and wonderful limestone cliffs.

We wanted to look for accommodation in the area and hopped out half way up the hill where the less expensive hotels are located. After inquiring at a few different hotels along the strip, we decided to take a room at the Sabai Mansion Hotel, a smallish four story joint with – its best feature – a pool and free wifi.

After leaving a deposit for the room, we rolled down the hill to the beach, along which is a boardwalk, and turned left at the water, making our way through 57 different massage parlour places, each of which importuned us as we passed, to the aptly-named Last Cafe, where we plopped ourselves down at a seaside table under the trees for a beverage.

While there, we watched the many vendors ply the beach, trying to sell everything from woolen hats (not a big seller in this 34 degree heat) to table cloths to wooden flutes, none of which we felt the necessity to acquire.

A small lizard favoured us with an appearance on the next tree and, not too much later, the clouds massed for a torrential tropical downpour, the waters of which we tried to hide from in one of the massage parlours. After the deluge had ended we boarded a longtail boat with six others for the ride to Railay Beach, a peninsula accessible only by water.

Railay was a great backpackers hangout twenty years ago when Ty first came through this area and he had fond memories of his time there. Unfortunately, when we arrived beachside, it became apparent that those grand days are long past; the area is still beautiful, with its towering limestone cliffs, a haven for climbers who come from all over the world to crawl up the rocks, white sand beach and turquoise waters but Railay West, the best beach, has been taken over by upscale atmosphereless resorts and the vibe is monotone. Railay East, accessible by a path across the peninsula, while still a backpackers’ mecca, is, frankly, a hole, with crappy rundown bars, restaurants, and cheap bungalow joints, and a terrible muddy rocky beach area. In the rain, it really looked uninviting and Ty and I paid premium price for a longtail boat back to Krabi tout suite.

Given the options on the Krabi coast, we feel that our choice of Ao Nang is a good one and it’s here that we’ve moved for the next while.

See a few more pics here.