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.

Kuala Lumpur 3: Masjid Jamek, KL Bird Park and Sayonara

Our last day of big-city urbanism for a while saw us cruising around on KL’s great public transit system, a system which puts Vancouver’s piddly little Skytrain to shame. KL, a city slightly smaller than Vancouver in terms of population, has six different public transit systems, including a monorail and an LTR, as well as buses. We’d intended to visit the Petronas Twin Towers and, as we transferred from the monorail to the LRT, we noticed a beautiful mosque right outside the gates, the Masjid Jamek. Of course, I wanted to check it out and Ty graciously obliged me.

Although Ty was wearing shorts, because they covered his knees he was good to go, while I, in long pants, had to wear the full-on black floor length robe about twice too big for me and headscarf – incognito in KL. Neither of us was allowed to enter the mosque or its pavilions but we could walk around the outside, from where we took pictures. Formerly the National Mosque, until the Masjid Negara was opened in 1965, this place is located at the confluence of the Klang and Gombal Rivers.

Two star shaped fountains, possibly formerly used for ablutions, adorn the gardens. The building itself is of “Moorish” design; in fact, although I haven’t seen the Alhambra in Spain, from the pictures of it I’ve seen, this building has a similar kind of design and coloration. After wandering around the mosque, we hopped on the LRT and exited at the Petronas Towers, which we decided not to enter – the charge to go up the elevator is RM 50 each, a bit steep, I thought …

From there, we hopped a cab to the KL Bird Park, billed as the world’s largest free-fly walk-in aviary. We had a crappy lunch at the Hornbill Restaurant inside while enjoying watching the many ibis creep along the ledge next to the dining tables, begging for food.

Both of us had very mixed feelings about the aviary; on the one hand, it’s large and some of the birds are able to “free-fly”, it has a fairly successful captive-breeding program, and endangered species have a place to live.

On the other hand, it’s a zoo, and has all the problems associated with those institutions, including psychically damaged individuals, birds mindlessly pacing back and forth incessantly, and small old-style metal cages for some species, such as owls and eagles, which in the wild would have enormous habitats. And neither of us were sure how well the birds were cared for. I did enjoy seeing the beautiful peacocks, of which there were lots, with their bizarre cyring-baby screeches, the emus, which we fed some greens, the startlingly bright red ibis, the guinea hens with their crazy head gear, and some of the smaller beautifully-coloured songbirds.

Over all, I’d say that KL was great for a few days and we’ve eaten better here than we have since we left Vancouver, dining at the best Malay restaurant (Bijan), the second best restaurant period (El Cerdo), the best Italian (Piza) [all of these accolades according to Time Out Magazine], and a wonderful Vietnamese place, all of which were literally just around the corner from the Nest. We also checked out the night scene at the Pavillion shopping area, with its installation of “Buddy Bears”, painted fibreglass bears reminiscent of those that once graced Vancouver’s streets, and heard a bit of a Christmas Carol Concert at Box Ten. However, this morning I was definitely ready to go and was glad to wave bye-bye to the Nest and KL, as we chugged off to the KL International Airport.

Unfortunately for us, after a taxi trip of one hour, when we went to check in for our flight to Koh Samui, the ticket agent told us that we were in the wrong airport … shite! And the right airport was another hour away by yet another cab – and here in KL it isn’t possible to just grab a cab out front, you have to buy a coupon from a desk that’s inside the airport security zone. Running to the bank machine to get more Malaysian Ringgit, running through security and up to the taxi counter, buying the coupon, finding the correct cab station, climbing into the cab – then holding my breath as our driver screamed back down along the same freeway we’d just travelled there on at 140 km in the morning traffic, to arrive at the Suban airport (who knew that KL had another airport?) in time to catch our flight – priceless! Airport Gong Show Redux …

After a short flight of two hours, and a taxi ride down the east coast of Koh Samui island, we arrived at the Promtsuk Buri, a small resort on Lamai Beach, our bungalow away from home for Christmas. Today, as a result of the aftermath of a typhoon blowing through the Philipines, the surf was up at Lamai and we had a great swim in the turquoise waves. We’re both really glad to be back on the ocean after missing it for the last 5 days.

See more pictures here.

KL: Batu Cave Temple and Shrines and the National Islamic Art Museum

After dropping off our laundry nearby, we were going to head out to the Islamic Art Museum and flagged down a taxi, whereupon the driver suggested that we first go to the Batu Caves and then to the museum. Actually, he also suggested a dinner cruise with fireflys, a pewter factory, a batik factory, a city tour … but those we declined.

The Batu Caves, though, sounded good to us and off we zoomed, heading 13 kilometers outside KL to the village of Batu and the limestone cliffs and cave complex. This place has several caves into which have been built several Hindu temples and many shrines dedicated to Lord Murugan and other deities.

From Wikipedia:

“Rising almost 100 m above the ground, the Batu Caves temple complex consists of three main caves and a few smaller ones. The biggest, referred to as Cathedral Cave or Temple Cave, has a 100 m-high ceiling and features ornate Hindu shrines. To reach it, visitors must climb a steep flight of 272 steps. At the base of the hill are two more cave temples, Art Gallery Cave and Museum Cave, both of which are full of Hindu statues and paintings. This complex was renovated and opened as the Cave Villa in 2008. Many of the shrines relate the story of Lord Murugan‘s victory over the demon Soorapadam.”

Here, too, the monkeys rule the roost, perching on and scampering along the steps, sculptures, and buildings of the site, sneaking up behind unwary tourists and stealing their belongings. A favourite trick is sliding down the banister and grabbing bags and bottles out of pockets as they zip by. Once past these critters, the main cave is accessed; it’s large and somewhat damp, with droplets of water dripping from the high ceiling onto the stone and tourist heads below. Into the walls of the cave are installed colourful shrines to various Hindu deities, many of which serve as perching posts for the resident monkeys.

The interior of the main cave is huge and looked as if it was set up to accommodate hundreds, if not thousands, of pilgrims – this day, luckily for us, it was very quiet.

After our cave visit, we headed back into town to the National Islamic Art Museum, a beautiful building opened in 1998 and housing a good collection of art and artifacts, including textiles, ceramics, manuscripts, calligraphy and models of important mosques worldwide.

Ty enjoyed looking at the elaborately decorated weaponry, while I examined the beautifully painted Qu’ran pages. The building has several impressive painted domes, much like those in the Turkish mosques I’ve visited. The least impressive part of the experience was lunch in the museum cafe – not so good for the likes of us spoiled by the great food we’ve eaten here so far.

See more pics here.

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia: Temples, Food, and Christmas Spirits

Kuala Lumpur – food, temples, and shopping … shopping … shopping. ‘Tis the season to shop here in Malaysia; however, neither of us is a shopper, unless we’re talking about electronica (Ty) and vintage clothes (Lisa), but luckily, given that there’s zero room in the ol’ luggage, I’ve not found any vintage shops here yet. It’s the Christmas season in KL, and surprisingly, for a muslim town, there’s plenty of Christmas cheer, including santas, elves, trees, and stockings, to go around, even if we’re not buying much.

We got here two days ago, multitudes of bags in tow, and are ensconced at the Nest Guesthouse in Bukit Bintang, the so-called “golden triangle” of KL, the shopping and food epicentre – who knew? Unbelievably, for two people who love food as we do, this is exactly the right place to stay in KL; there are fabulous restaurants, bars, and street vendors everywhere in this area, and a huge variety of food to be had at about one third the cost of what we’d pay in Vancouver. Fine dining, ethnic, fusion, steam boat street food, dim sum, pizza, Vietnamese, Thai – whatever we fancy, it’s here.

The Nest is a small three story place just recently opened and our room is quite tiny, with a window opening into the interior of the building, a window we’ve not yet opened. It boasts a pantry for breakfast, a psuedo living room w couches, TV, and computers, and a tiny balcony for die-hard smokers. Our first night we wandered through the neighbourhood, had dinner at a fantastic Vietnamese restaurant, walked through Jalan Alor, a street-food-vendor mecca, and around Jalan Bukit Bintang, the streets of which were full of people, noise, music from a live band, hookers and their customers, and mega foot massage parlours. KL is a foot fetishist’s dream. We had a drink in a couple of places and watched the action before staggering back to the Nest and to bed.

Our first full day was spent walking from our place, through Chinatown’s Petaling Street, to a Chinese Temple, in which the faithful were burning paper money for the gods, and the Sri Mariamman Hindu Temple, in which priests were placing offerings at various shrines to the accompaniment of flute and drum music.

Both temples were lively and luscious sense-surround experiences, after which we had lunch at the Reggae Bar nearby and wandered back through the crowds. Later that night we headed out to the nearby restaurant strip and stumbled into El Cerdo, a Spanish restaurant, for great tapas and paella, which, unbeknowst to us until after, is rated the second best restaurant in KL. We thoroughly enjoyed it; the food and service was fantastic. I took quite a few pictures of the Christmas decorations and great colours of the bars and restaurants here, complete with Santa-hatted wait-staff.

Today the weather was crap but we headed out in a cab to the Thean Hou Chinese Temple on Robson Hill, the largest Chinese temple in Malaysia (no public transit goes near here). This place is enormous and is built on several levels. Unfortunately, it was absolutely pissing and the temple is currently under renovation, so the visitation experience was less than optimum, given the scafolding etc everywhere. After investigating the parts of the temple still open to the public, we headed down the back stairs to the turtle and tortoise pond out back. This area, with two pools, a small waterfall and decorative shrubs, is home to many, many turtles, both large and tiny. Apparently, some people believe tortoises represent longevity, so when a child is born, the family buys a little tortoise and donates it to the temple to wish the child a long life. In addition, in the grounds outside the temple are animal sculptures representing the signs of the Zodiac, as well as a large Goddess of Compassion and a scholar statue. (Since the weather was so bad, my pictures are less good than I’d like … ah well).

Nightime saw us down the road once again at Bijan for dinner, a restaurant that specialises in Malay food and is also one of KL’s best – we’ve sure been eating well here in KL – getting spoiled!

See more pictures here.