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.

From Bali to Krabi Town, Thailand

For our last night at the Blue Star Bungalows, Tony bought a huge red snapper from one of the local fishermen and Iluh and her staff grilled it on the beach for all of us. The little kids had fun with the fish, rolling around its eyeball and putting tiny shells in its mouth to anoint it for the feast. Several red cloth covered tables were set up on the beach, it was a beautiful evening, and we feasted the night away.

Ty and I were both sad to leave Amed and the Blue Star; we had a wonderful time there and would have stayed longer had our visas not run out and our flight been booked. Everyone at the Blue Star was wonderful, including the other guests Barb, Tony, Rich and Loy – it is very highly recommended!

We spent two nights back at the Little Pond in Sanur before hopping on our flight to Krabi, Thailand through Bangkok. I enjoyed taking pictures of the cheeky squirrels, birds, and cats nibbling on the offerings laid out in front of the beachfront restaurants and shops.

Our flight to Thailand was relatively uneventful and, after leaving at 7 am, we arrived at the Orange Tree House in Krabi Town at 9 in the evening. The Orange Tree has 13 rooms and faces the market area in the heart of this small city, on Krabi walking street. When we arrived the night market was still in full swing out front. In the morning, after having visited the hill top temple with its golden dragons, we wandered around downtown, me taking pictures of the antiquated clothing mannequins found everywhere, and then headed over to the river.

We decided to take the mangrove river tour on a long tail boat which had seen better days and were delivered to a fish farm on a large island in the river. After having seen the worker feed the various kinds of fish, including a large puffer fish which blew himself up in displeasure at being pulled so unceremoniously out of the water, we were importuned to purchase fish for lunch, an opportunity we passed on, having just had breakfast not too long ago. We wandered around the riverfront community, most of whose houses are on stilts, not unlike the Finn Slough village in Steveston, BC.

Our next and final stop was the cave right near the two large jagged limestone hills on opposite sides of the river.

This place obviously used to be much more widely visited, judging from the café and out buildings now shuttered, and contains 44,000 year old skeletal human remains, as well as paintings of humans and animals.

Inside small displays are set up amid the stalactites and stalagmites to illustrate how early hominids lived. The place reminded me of the Karain cave north of Antalya in Turkey which Tracey and I visited in 2009, except that this cave lacked the garish lighting of that one.

Later, after a halal lunch of chicken soup and a little nap, we headed out the front door to the night market, enjoying a couple of beers while watching the action before making the rounds of the stalls selling food, jewellery, trinkets of all descriptions, and clothes.

We sampled quite a few bits of food, including fish curry sticks, grilled pork sausage, thai salad, water chestnuts, sticky rice, and corn on the cob, all going for from 10 to 20 baht (about 30 – 60 cents). Many different varieties of colourful plastic items were for sale, as well as awful paintings (going for 19 baht or 59 cents) and cheap clothes. The main attraction for most people, and it was packed, mostly with locals, was the food.

I loved this little kitty exposing himself on the paintings – he reminded me of my cat Aran, a beast who loves having his belly rubbed.

After Bali, the traffic here seems positively light and tuk-tuks, motorcycles with passenger sidecars, are still available for rent, as are mini buses and small trucks with open backs. The local vendors are much less anxious to make a sale than the Balinese, who will follow potential customers for blocks trying to entice them into shops, restaurants, spas and the like. We were mostly ignored, except for by a few hopeful taxi drivers. The weather is good, 34 degrees and sunny, and today we are off to Ao Nang, a beach area accessible by car about an hour north west of here, to check out accommodation.

See more here and here.

Amed Beach Tree Piece: Colour Therapy

Blue Star Bangalows is unique in Amed in having the most beautiful  large leafy tree on  the beach right in front of the restaurant.  It was this tree, and Barb and Tony lying beneath it, that initially attracted us  to this place on our first visit. The day had been very hot and dry and the tree beckoned us from afar like an oasis. No one knows what the name of this tree is but its leaves and branches provide a cool green-ness and shade from the hot Bali sun.

I had purchased skeins of coloured wool from a shop in Levuka, Fiji, intending to wrap a palm tree at the Beachouse, a project which I never got around to while we were in Fiji. But here the low hanging branches of this tree called out for colourful wrapping. After winding ten differently coloured skeins of wool around two branches, inspired by the bamboo pole decorations along the streets in east Bali, I also hung ten bamboo pinwheels obtained from the beachside cemetery on the same branches. These twirled and spun in the wind, looking very much like hands against the blue ocean and sky.

In the evening Ty and I hung up the coloured LED lights to illuminate the pinwheels; the lights also shone on the ground beneath with many varied hues.  The tree and its decorations then provided a theatre set upon which Barb and Komang enacted a stately dance, the colours tinting their faces and hands with a changing kaleidoscope of colour as they moved, effecting a kind of colour therapy. Many thanks to Barb and Komang for their performance!

Read more about colour therapy here.

See the complete set of photos here. If you use the slideshow function, you’ll get an impression of movement.

Amed Beach Mandalas (Jemeluk Bay, Amed, East Bali) & The Rocky [Beach] Horror Picture Show

After having seen the beautiful flower designs created in circular water bowls in Ubud, and seeing the two marble-topped tables sitting on the beach out in front of the Blue Star, I was inspired to create mandalas from whatever material could be found on and around the Jemeluk Bay beach.

I wandered up and down the beach collecting different coloured rocks, seed pods, shells, small bamboo offering baskets, bits of broken crockery, and flowers. These I arranged on the table top in concentric circles fanning out from a central core. Later, in the evening, I added small coloured LED lights that I’d brought from home to the composition. I also added some of the frangipani flowers that I’d picked up at Iluh’s place. The pieces looked beautiful against the dark blue of the sky and sea. Within this setting, illuminated at night with small LED lights, myself, my partner, and several local community members joined in three public performance pieces invoking the spirits of the dead. Such performances are somewhat transgressive within a Balinese society that believes in witchcraft and the dark powers. These pieces were sites of intense interest to the Jemeluk community of fishers and subsistence farmers, none of whom had ever been witness to or participant in anything like it.

As I was working, several people, including the guys and gals at Blue Star Bungalows, came to see what I was up to, and posed in the background, the light colours illuminating their faces and hands in combinations of red, blue, purple and green. On the second evening, things got a bit hysterical, as Lole and Eka and others took turns posing as Count Dracula, with coral sticks as fangs, cackling and laughing in the night.

Today I put together a second set of mandalas, this time using some of the materials gathered from the beachside cemetery which Barb showed us.

There we found lots of dried offering baskets and quite a few more elaborate bamboo structures, all of which were used in burial services and left behind to disintegrate in the elements.

One of these mandalas includes part of a coconut tree, the part that holds the coconuts to the tree itself. It looks quite a bit like an asymmetrical tower, and is vaguely reminiscent of a Balinese cremation tower, the Wadah.

See all of the pictures here and here.




Beachside at the Blue Star Bungalows, Amed, Bali

Amed, east Bali, a series of small villages hugging the coast line – we’re here at the Blue Star Bungalows on Jemeluk Bay for a week – not enough time! This area is very quiet and traditional, as well as quite poor; the villagers subsist on fishing and salt-making, in addition to giving massages on the beach to the odd tourist and trying to sell jewellery trinkets, small wooden replicas of the traditional fishing vessels, and baskets.

The Blue Star is very small, comprising one building with two rooms, one above the other, and a free-standing two-level bungalow right next door. Next to these is the restaurant, including a small terrace; directly on the beach in front, beneath an enormous shade tree, are eight beach loungers and beyond that, the ocean. We have the upstairs room, with a veranda overlooking the sea, and a view of the scrub covered hills that run behind the town.

Our journey from Ubud was rainy. Travelling through Candi Dasa we found ourselves in the middle of an enormous temple procession and at each temple along the way, hundreds of brightly-clad villagers had stacked baskets full to the brim of offerings.

The landscape was much greener than during our first visit, a result of the recent rains and beginning of the east Bali rainy season. The hills here are still quite brown, though; it will take much more rain to bring them alive with green.

Village excitement in the mornings consists of watching the fishermen bring in their catch of mackerel, which, at the moment, is running well. Huge fish catches are being made and, as a result, the price per fish has dropped from $3 to 30 cents. The fishermen head out in their traditional skinny wooden boats about five in the morning and return around eight, their boats loaded down with small silvery mackerel, an oily fish quite like a large sardine.

As the boats pull in to the shore, a crowd of young guys swim out to them, possibly attempting to grab some fish for themselves, because, as this crowd descended on each boat, the captain quickly picked up his oars and paddled out to sea again, seemingly to avoid the grasping hands.

Plastic garbage bins full of fish were distributed on the shore; apparently, the rest is destined for fish brokers and the local markets. One very old, bent granny, a large cloth wrapped around her head, comes down every morning and is given a fish. Her family has become alienated from her and she lives alone in a grass hut in the hills, but the community sees to it that she eats. From our veranda the host of fishing vessels out at sea, each with dual outriggers, look like small water nymphs nipping across the water. Some have brightly coloured sails up as well.

Periodically, small village boys wander down the black sand beach with their goodies for sale. I purchased a small shell-decorated basket containing local salt from one enterprising small guy with whose directive “You buy!” I complied. So far, I’ve had two beach-side massages from Wayan Sari and her friend Wayan Mari, each one hour for the equivalent of about $5.50. While massaging me, Wayan Sari explained that she was 35 and had 5 girls and hoped still to have a boy: “Girls no good in Bali. They go to husband’s family; only boys stay and look after mom and dad” …

Iluh, the owner of the Blue Star, a very busy woman who runs this operation, teaches English in the local high school, and has a family, showed me how she makes the small coconut leaf baskets that hold temple flower offerings. Each design, mandala-like, is similar but slightly different; she creates her own style of basket from young coconut leaves brought to her by staff members that live in the hills where the weather is cooler and, unlike here, conducive to coconut trees. Tomorrow there will be a celebration to commemorate her village temple’s “birthday” and so she was making quite a few of these baskets for that occasion.

The snorkelling here is great right off the beach in front of the bungalows. The water is clear with virtually no current and the fish are large and very colorful – electric blues and greens, yellow and black stripes, purples, black and orange are only a few of the varieties. Ty, attracted by a large crunching sound, saw two very large parrot fish suspended upside-down nibbling at the coral. We also saw two long thin silver tubular fish. None of these beasts are the least bit afraid of us and would likely take food from our hands if we had any to give them. Today we were delightfully surprised to find a sunken temple, and two scuba divers examining it, just a bit deeper out than we’ve swum in the past, in the centre of which is an area to place fish food – great!

Yesterday was sunny and hot, but last night we had a tremendous rain, thunder and lightning storm in the middle of the night, the crashing of which awoke us from sleep.

While we did like the Merthayasa Bungalows in Ubud quite a bit, and loved their pool, this place’s accommodation is superior. Let me count the ways:

We get a thermos of hot water, tea and coffee brought up to our veranda at six in the morning before we head down to breakfast (all included in the price).

Our room is big and clean! And has a gigantic king size four poster bed with mosquito screen (so we don’t have to erect our own). No parade of large and small ants strolls across the sheets. I was bitten alive by insects in Ubud; here, so far, nada.

The bathroom has decent toilet paper (a small thing, I know …) and is clean! We have daily room cleaning service here.

We love the beach and being able to swim any time of day – yippee! And our veranda has a great view out over the ocean.

Staying here as well as us are Barb and Tony, a former Vancouverite and Aussie from Brisbane, and Gerry from Coquitlam (also in the Greater Vancouver area) – very pleasant company.

See more pics here.