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.

Pattaya: Sin City

Ty had arranged for a driver to pick us up at the Lub-D Hostel and take us to Pattaya for the last two weeks of our South East Asia sojourn. At around noon a taxi pulled up out front and tried to scam us into thinking he was the driver for which we’d arranged. As we were talking to him, the actual driver arrived in a luxurious white SUV and whisked us away while the taxi driver pretended not to see. Although we know about the city’s bad rep, we selected Pattaya solely for convenience, being the nearest beach town to Bangkok, from which it’d be easy to get to the airport when it was time to go. We were hoping that we’d be able to find a decent part of town to relax in before heading back to North America.

After a reasonable two hour drive, we arrived at the KTK Royal Residence serviced apartments to find it in the middle of an active construction site. The noise from grinding saws, banging, shouting, and clanging, and the dust raised by men and machines working, made for a not very pretty picture. At the front desk, we asked to be placed in a quiet room away from the noise; the 4th floor room we got was the worst possible room we could have been given in terms of noise, right next to the construction site, across from a neighboring building from the front of which the noise reverberated as if an echo chamber. While the baffled bellhop waited with our bags, I asked again at the front desk for a room on the quieter side of the building, only to be informed that the hotel was full. The only other room available was the one right next door to ours, the second worst room in the hotel. Well, in the day that we spent there, we saw only three other people – it looks to me as if there’s no one staying on this side of the hotel and very few on the other side, which actually is not much quieter.

Deciding after about two seconds of listening to the noise that we weren’t going to stay, Ty and I headed out down the road to look for another room. After checking five or six hotels in the same area, and being told they were full (without any of the clerks actually checking their records), we grabbed a song thaew bus and headed north to Jomtien, a beach area I’d read was not as over-developed or sex-tourist-oriented as Pattaya. There we just happened to walk down a side street at the end of which we found the Inn Place, a brand new residence only open for a month. At the front desk the personnel were friendly and helpful, showing us a couple of rooms that were available for our stay, and we booked it then and there.

We assume that the reception at KTK thought that, because we’d booked through Agoda and paid for our stay in advance, we were trapped and couldn’t do anything about the situation. However, after a phone call to Agoda, we were able to get a refund for all but one night and off we headed to Jomtien.

One of the reasons we selected the KTK Royal Residence was because we wanted to cook some of our meals; the KTK was billed as a “serviced residence”, with a kitchenette. Interestingly, while the room does have a kitchen area, it has no pots or pans, no utensils other than 2 spoons and 2 forks, no dishwash cloths to clean anything. It has a fan to take away the smells of cooking but no way of cooking anything (no hotplate, no stove, no oven, only a microwave). It has kitchen cupboards, but the cupboards are bare.

The Pattaya/Jomtien area is huge – the beaches are long and quite narrow, carpeted the entire length with mushroom clouds of umbrellas cheek by jowl, beneath which the sand is dark with shade. Water sports boats, jet skis, and parasails are all available here; right now the international wind surfing championships are on at Jomtien, with very light high tech sails and small, light boards (not like the old days in 80’s Vancouver with boards so heavy it was almost impossible to drag them out of the water unless one was a gorilla).

Song thaews drive day and night along the beach roads honking for passengers; the official rate between Jomtien and Pattaya is 10 baht each – our first trip the driver asked for 100 each, which we paid not knowing. The accommodations in this area range from enormous skyscraper hotels to smaller serviced residences to a few bungalow operations to hotels for those in a hurry (!) renting rooms by the hour.

Once unpacked, we walked out down the main beach road, looking for a decent restaurant for lunch. Most of the places at our end of the beach have menus in Thai and Russian with English in small print as an afterthought. It’s easy to tell who the dominant tourist group is these days – mostly, we hear Russian.

We have found that those restaurants which cater mostly to foreigners have, unsurprisingly, the worst crap for food – cold, tasteless (because farangs don’t like spice), bland, and really unappetising. After a walk of about six blocks down the beach, past several large unfinished hotel complexes rusting in the sun, we found a small place which served excellent Thai food. [Note: now, 5 days later, the place is closed – damn]

Walking back along the beach, we saw a few very tiny clear round tentacle-less jellyfish and many small squid washed ashore. Since it was Sunday, lots of local families were at the beach picnicking and we enjoying seeing all the kids playing in the water. The many small soi (side streets) off the main drag have four and five storey walk-up guesthouses, many with small restaurants out front, and noodle, fruit, and soup wagons and tuk-tuks ply the alleys all day long. Massage parlours are plentiful, as are girlie bars with the usual occupants. The average age of the tourists here is probably in the early sixties, with large retired out-of-shape white men being the biggest, in every sense of the word, segment of the population here. From what I can tell, about 90% of the older occupants of Jomtien area are white male pensioners, about 98% of these with a young Thai woman in tow.

However, according to a couple of blogs I read the character of Pattaya is changing, with more couples and families coming than before – especially Russians.

See more pics here.