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.

Ladyboys and Temples on Koh Samui

Our next-door neighbours in Bang Po, David and Janet, had recommended a Ladyboy Cabaret in Chaweng and, when visiting friend Maggie expressed interest in checking it out, Friday night we were off down the road on a crowded Song Thouw shared pickup truck taxi to Chaweng, east coast party central on Koh Samui.

After a circuitous ride through the small crowded bustling streets of Chaweng, buzzed by the usual thousands of motorbikes ridden by bare-headed maniacs, we spotted the Burger King landmark (!) and hopped off and into the downtown beachside throng.

Although we were looking for Starz Cabaret, said to be next door to said Burger King, we didn’t see it and instead, after being encouraged by the gang of ladies outside, Maggie and I headed in to the Moulin Rouge Cabaret which was indeed next door.

We caught the last twenty minutes of the first show and the full second show, an extravaganza of high octane dancing, lip-synching, lights, and pulsing sound in a somewhat seedy down-market Vegas-like venue. Transformed by the glitter and lights, though, the stage looked good and the show was great.

Standouts for me were the Cher-alike, the gorgeous LB in blue glitter gown and peacock feathers,

the top-hatted person in silver (with a body that I would have sworn was female, unlike almost all the others who didn’t really pass),

and the full-bodied comic with a rose between her butt-cheeks, favouring a few select men in the audience with the pleasure of her buttock caresses.

The five male backup dancers were also great, especially one with an enormous smile who really seemed to be enjoying himself. The various takes on femininity were fascinating, ranging from LBs with very full breasts to those with none and from those with angular tall frames to those very petite. Because it was so kinetic and psychedelic, it was very difficult to get decent pictures of the show. See a few more here.

Saturday morning saw Maggie and I up and on the road with taxi driver Mai on a north island temple trip, taking in four of the Wats along the north coast from Mae Nam to Choeng Mon. Our first stop was Wat Na Phra Lan, a seaside temple complex at the east end of Mae Nam beach.

It had a beautiful elaborately decorated golden roof on one elevated platform, along with the usual assortment of temple buildings, and was deserted of visitors.

We saw only one orange-robed monk cutting the grass to the accompaniment of recorded chant music.

Next, still in Mae Nam, but on the far side of the Ring Road, on the hillside, was Wat Phukhao Thong, a temple and cemetery complex with, in addition to the usual, a highly decorated crematorium surrounded by burial chedis.

Being elevated, the site was shady and breezy and a pleasure to walk through. We also saw, on one of the elevated platforms, another decorated Buddha Footprint, this one about one tenth the size of the big one Ty and I had seen down south. This site was also bereft of visitors, with the exception of a local family picnicing under the gigantic shade trees and a crazy guy rolling in the dirt.

From Mae Nam we drove east to the most famous temple site on Koh Samui, the “Big Buddha” at Choeng Mon. Situated on small peninsula whose edges are eroding, the Big Buddha site contains what look like gigantic Hindu sculptures at the water’s edge,

as well as the Big Buddha and many, many smaller Buddhas, including one round smiling one (the “Fat Buddha”, a type I hadn’t seen in temples here before).

This place was surrounded with shops and small restaurants and had quite a few visitors, although not as many as I had expected to see, given its fame. The Big Buddha sits in state on a big lotus blossom at the top of a set of stairs and commands a beautiful panoramic view out over the Bo Phut Bay and the islands beyond.

Our final stop was the Wat Plai Laem, inland on a manufactured lake nearby. This place was almost hallucinogenic, with a giant fat Buddha

and a huge white Guanyin, the Goddess of Mercy and Compassion with nine sets of arms,

both occupying their own tiled platforms jutting out into the lake, along with other temple buildings on other platforms.

I felt like a cartoon character with eyes popping out of their stalks – the glitter, the gold, the mosaic, the tiles, the glass, all glinting in the hot Thai sun was finally too much and we called it a wrap, rolling back to Bang Po to rest our eyes.

Read more about the Big Buddha here.

Read more about Wat Plai Laem here.

See more pictures here.




Koh Samui: South Island Temple Tour

It’s temple time here on Koh Samui. Some may say that if you’ve seen one temple, you’ve seen them all, but I beg to differ – I just can’t get enough of them! Each temple seems to have its own personality and I’d like to get to know all of them; however, Koh Samui has about fifty so that’s not likely to happen … Anyway, after the cynicism of my last post, a response to the over-built and over-heated atmosphere of the Lamai Beach area, it was time to get off the strip and out into the real Koh Samui beyond the tourist traps of the south-east and east coasts. We flagged down a passing cab and hired Mai, the only female taxi driver I’ve ever seen here in South East Asia, to drive us around some of the temples on Koh Samui’s south and west coasts.

Our first stop was Wat Sila Ngu, a temple dedicated to snakes (Sila Ngu means golden snake), right on the water near the Muslim fishing town of Hua Thanon on the south coast. The gilded pagoda (chedi) which we saw upon entering has apparently been used many times in films and TV as a set. Luckily, there were no actual snakes there to greet us, just the sculptural kind …

This temple was founded in 1935 and is supposed to house a relic of the Buddha in its beachfront golden chedi, the stairs of which accommodate two gigantic cobra snake sculptures. A big new temple building the colour of Samui’s red clay soil is also being built on this site and it was interesting to see a Thai temple before its exterior paintings and finishing touches were added.

Once south past Lamai, the feverish over-development of the east coast thankfully abruptly ceases, and after the village of Hua Thanon we encountered beautiful green hills, water buffaloes grazing by the roadside, and small home cafes selling locals simple Thai food.

On an unmarked side street somewhere off route 4170 we turned into the small parking lot for the Buddha’s Footprint site. I wasn’t able to find out much about this place so I don’t know whether the Buddha was actually supposed to have stayed here or not. However, the place is in a state of disrepair, looking as if, at one time, monks actually lived and worshipped here but now their huts and altars have fallen into ruin.

In a rather decrepit small building accessed after walking 150 steps up a steep hill we found four enormous cement foot-prints, superimposed on one another. Each one is engraved with symbols and runic alphabets. From the shrine there is a great view across the plains to the mountains opposite, and, over the tree tops, to the ocean.

Next on the temple tour … At the most southerly part of the island lies Wat Laem Sor, a temple apparently constructed in the shape of a boat (a design which can only be seen from the hills beyond). It’s a kilometer or so off the main 4170 road but once again not well-marked so I’m not sure whether we’d have found it on our own.

As we pulled up to Bang Kao beach, on the temple grounds we saw an ornately designed chedi sitting at the rocky water’s edge. Covered in thousands and thousands of small yellow tiles, it appears golden when viewed from a short distance. To the west of the chedi is what appears to be a lake with mangrove trees and, with global warming, and the rising seas, it looks as though the shore here is being significantly eroded.

A few metres to the east of the chedi we saw a low glass-fronted building, the Boat Hall. Inside the hall is a wooden boat and on the boat a glass case containing the mummified body of Pho Luang Dang, the monk who built the chedi.

Famed for his meditation skills, he liked nothing better than to take a boat and visit one of the small islands offshore and spend some time there meditating. The Boat Hall was built after his death and in it are, in addition to the large boat, dozens of small models of boats.

Apparently people pray to the monk and if their wishes are granted they purchase a model boat and place it in the Boat Hall as a gesture of thanks. We tried the doors but unfortunately they were locked so we could only gaze on this panorama from outside the glass.

Also in the Wat Laem Sor grounds, but a bit of a distance away, lies the Khao (mountain) Chedi. Apparently until recently this site was a ruin but it is now being rehabilitated. A fairly steep concrete road, which our taxi driver decided was too steep for her vehicle, travels up a small mountain, at the top of which can be reached stone stairs; at the top of these lies the temple chedi (Jay Dee) site.

A graceful white pagoda, surrounded with many white and gold Buddhas, a large white boy-Buddha, and several shrines, including a large bell, beneath which a tableau of Buddhas being watched by Bambi was installed, greet the visitor.

From the top, the panorama of Laem Sor Bay and the nearby islands is beautiful.

Both chedis, the beachside golden one and the mountain top white one, are said to contain “bone-chips” of the Buddha in their foundations. The hill-top pagoda, built in 1903, was struck by lightning so many times that the monks decided in 1968 to build the new pagoda on the beach where presumably it was more resistant to the elements, taking the bone-chip with them, after which time the old chedi fell into disrepair. Later, when the hilltop ruins were refurbished, a new Buddha bone-chip was brought from Bangkok to replace the one removed to the beachside chedi.

Our final stop on the southern temple tour was Wat Kiri Wongkaram, home to yet another mummified monk, this one Loung Por Ruam, who was installed in yet another glass case upon his death in 1976.

This temple, while not in a particularly attractive setting, is an active community site containing several buildings and shrines (while we were there a funeral was going on). It’s located on Samui’s west side near Five Islands Beach. Before heading back the three of us stopped at a roadside eatery for some fried rice, cooked and served up hot as we waited, for not much money ($6.70 for three meals, a beer, and four waters) – local price.

My impression of Koh Samui from this tour was much more positive than it has been to date. Away from tourist central the island is laid back and beautiful.

See more pictures here.

Ubud, Bali: a feast for the eyes and ears

Q’ull picked us up from the Little Pond Homestay right on time for our one hour trip to the arts and culture centre of Bali, Ubud. Along the road between Sanur and Ubud are many small villages, all specialising in various crafts, mostly carving and sculpture for temples and private homes. As we zoomed along, we saw all manner of sculpted figures and heads, large and small, gracing the side of the road. After an uneventful, but busy, ride into the interior we pulled over at the side of a busy street in Penestanan, a village just outside the town centre, and dragged our bags along flat cement footpaths through rice fields to our rental house.

This house, along with a few others, is nestled right in the middle of beautiful bright green rice fields. It is a tall two story structure, mostly open to the elements, with two decks overlooking the fields, a very large fishpond, and a small plunge pool, the pool just finished the day we arrived.

It must have been hatching season for small red spiders because shortly after we moved in a vast stream of them emerged from under the stove top and underneath the large stone goddess holding up the staircase. There were too many simply to lift outside so unfortunately I had to blast them with bug spray, leaving hundreds of tiny corpses on the counter and floor. Although we do see little spiders, ants and other tiny insects crawling around the place, hopefully we’ll not be inundated with an entire army of them again.

The fishpond holds many large orange and gold carp and attracts beautiful dragonflies during the day and not-so-beautiful toads at night. Since I’ve only seen some small ones hopping along the cement paths, I’m not sure how large the toads that frequent our garden are, but they have very large voices with an interesting range of expressions. Some creatures in the rice fields (not sure what they are) sound like cell phones ringing, others make sounds like “whoop-whoop-whoop”, still others sound like crying babies. We also have a small bird visitor, one with a tiny white head, a black body and very long yellow legs and large feet, who strolls through the living room periodically.

After settling in Saturday, we headed out down one of the many cement paths through the rice fields to find the Bintang Market. We took a very circuitous route through a series of small paths but eventually emerged at Bintang where we purchased food and other supplies for the week. Later, on our way back, we stopped at a local restaurant (called a warung) nearby where we had some really excellent prawn curry for very little money.

The weather has been very good, warm (sometimes hot), not too humid, with only a tiny burst of rain once a day. Ubud is really a fascinating place; it’s always been on the art peoples’ radar, but ever since the 2009 publication of Eat, Pray, Love, and the crappy Julie Roberts movie version, it’s been flooded with even more western tourists looking for enlightenment. Right now it’s the low season so it’s not as busy as it otherwise might be (which is a good thing), but the main roads through “downtown” are bustling and during the day busloads of tourists from Kuta and points south, as well as cruise ship patrons, are dropped off to shop for a couple of hours.

From what we’ve seen so far, the town is full of art galleries, temples, bars, restaurants, yoga places, and various other necessaries for spiritual seekers, many of which ask western prices. Sunday we walked from our place into town, stopping first at the Antonio Blanco Renaissance Art Museum, a Campuhan hill-top compound, formerly the artist’s home, dedicated to all things Blanco. I’d never heard of Antonio Blanco before, but apparently his claim to fame in the 1950s was that he was the first artist to paint women’s clitorises … He’s known as the Dali of Bali and the site contains a neo-baroque museum, small gallery, and the studio where he used to paint, including all his paints, brushes and half-finished canvases seemingly undisturbed in the 12 years since he died.

The garden is fabulous, with many different kinds of tropical birds in residence, including toucans, parrots, cockatoos and a type of small buzzard. The museum building, which one enters through a gigantic sculpted rendition of the maestro’s signature (apparently renowned as the world’s largest signature),

is in colossal bad taste, with golden cheesecake statues of women gracing the terraces and rooftop, and two floors of Antonio’s paintings, collages and drawings, all in his own especially designed wooden frames (one featuring an effigy of ET).

Somehow, a piece of sculpture that might look right at home on a Hindu temple seems out of place on one man’s personal museum … We were not allowed to take photos inside the museum itself (I only snuck one of the second floor interior, shown below).

A museum attendant opened two special frames for us which displayed a couple of Antonio’s more pornographic works, one featuring a woman and a red candle dildo and the other two women having sex. His portraits are very skillful but OMG what kitsch! Breasts, buttocks, sultry looks everywhere in a softcore surrealist style.

The museum is a fascinating, and somewhat grotesque, testament to one man’s vanity. After a couple of hours at the Blanco compound, we strolled up the main drag, stopping for a drink at a riverside restaurant, and a snack at Coco’s International Restaurant, a good people-watching spot, before hitting the large tourist market. We had been told to head straight into the centre of the market if we wanted to buy anything, since all the shops sell more or less the same things, and those on the top floor interior get much less traffic. After looking around (and seeing a dead rat lying on the ground next to some garbage), we bargained hard for a black linen shirt and hit the road.

After a dinner of local specialties at a small path-side restaurant nearby, we were heading back to the ranch when an older guy invited us along to hear a “world-class trumpeter” at the Casa Luna Restaurant and Bar. We accompanied him back into town and had a drink at the Casa Luna downstairs bar while listening to a jazz foursome play. And the trumpeter was great –

I found it interesting that, while many of the many restaurants along the main street were practically empty, the Casa Luna, with its desultory service, was quite full. The restaurant is large and vaguely European in design, with antique wooden tables and chairs, marble columns and elegant décor, and could have been anywhere (possibly the reason for its popularity). While we didn’t eat, the restaurant is recommended for its good food – we will hope to check that out later.

Ubud has a profusion of temples replete with amazing sculptural decoration. Almost everywhere we look we see something beautiful or bizarre. The town has more galleries than the entire rest of Bali, I’m sure, some very high end and others more kitsch. It also has several museums dedicated to Indonesian and International contemporary art which I’ll visit while we’re here. And this is the first place in our travels that I’ve seen art supplies on sale. Almost every night there are Balinese dance performances, gamelan music, shadow puppet presentations and the like, many put on in the various temples downtown – a cultural feast.

See more pictures here.

Sanur, Bali – the spirituality of everyday life

Well, we are sitting on our small terrace at the Little Pond Homestay in Sanur, Bali soaking up the 30 degree heat and enjoying the calls of tiny birds in the trees. The transition from Sydney to Bali did not go as smoothly as one would have hoped, though. We made it to the airport in plenty of time – in fact, about 4 hours before the flight – and were quite near the front of the lineup to check in; unfortunately, when the airline agent asked us for our itinerary showing a flight back out of Bali, we didn’t have one. Neither of us had realised that we needed an onward ticket in order to get into the country and we did not have one – damn! Consternation! What to do!? We rolled our luggage trolley away from the check in counter and frantically around the airport trying to get an internet connection so that we could buy a ticket so that we could get on the Jetstar Bali flight. After trying a few different locations in the airport with no luck we finally got online and managed to buy two tickets through Air Asia to Bangkok 30 days hence – joy! We rushed ourselves and our trolley back into the lineup and, after 20 frantic minutes at the checkin counter trying to pull up the itinerary PDF, were able to demonstrate our onward travels and got our boarding passes in time to actually catch the flight … gong show and major stress.

On arrival at Denpasar airport we purchased our 30 day visas on arrival with no difficulty other than an enormous lineup, emerged into the baggage area only to be descended upon by 3 – 3(!) – porters who refused to relinquish our bags and held out their hands for money after transporting them about 20 feet. Luckily, our transfer driver was still there waiting with a sign for us and we hopped into a nice van for our one hour journey to Sanur and the Little Pond Homestay. The Homestay is a small place of about 15 rooms off the main drag through Sanur; it has a lovely small pool, the room is small but serviceable (and very inexpensive) and we have free internet. It is our home base until tomorrow.

Sanur itself is a seaside town on the south coast across the peninsula from Kuta Beach, the main tourist centre on Bali. While waiting for our breakfast place to open, Ty and I wandered along the main street and watched while several shop keepers installed small flower and incense offerings to the gods on their doorsteps. We also noticed two large and very elaborate tower-like structures which, when we saw the pictures affixed to them, we realised were funeral objects to transport corpses for cremation. These were parked curbside and with them were crowds of men dressed in their batik funeral headgear and sarongs. They liked Ty’s look and posed for pictures with him.

After breakfast at a local cafe, we packed our beach bags and headed out to find the ocean. Along the way I marvelled at the elaborate sculptural decoration of the buildings and the many small temples and carvings of gods almost everywhere, each of which was adorned with colourful offerings of flowers and fabrics.

Along the three km length of Sanur Beach runs a paved footpath past many restaurants, bars and shops – many shops! And in front of each was stationed many vendors, mostly women, who were relentless in their pursuit of buyers and attempts to get us to come into their shops.

After having found out our names, there was no escaping from them; each time we walked by during the day came the call to visit their shops – “Remember me, Monica – number 31”. We had walked quite far down the path when we decided to stop for a drink and the shop-keeper told us that we were lucky because the funeral procession for one of the dead was going to come right by where we were sitting. I had been wondering about the Balinese cremation ceremony and was very interested to be able to see it.

Across from where we were seated was an area of grass in which two banana wood furnaces had been built, one of them adorned with a head and tail of grasses. These were to be the pyres for the bodies.

Around the corner we could hear music and shortly a procession of people arrived, beautifully dressed in batik and lace, some of whom were banging drums and other percussion instruments and others who were balancing offerings on their heads.

Several men carried the temple structure holding the deceased. When they arrived at the pyre location they walked several times around the banana wood furnace before depositing the white wrapped body in it.

After removing the wrapping from the body, a group of men gathered around the furnace anointed the body with flowers, oils, food stuffs, water and beautifully coloured fabrics in a series of ritualised movements.

Once the body was fully covered with these offerings the two large propane tanks (tiger torches) were fired up and the corpse, with all its offerings, set alight. As the pyre burned a couple of men simply threw the temple-structure onto the garbage heap nearby.

We didn’t watch the entire ceremony but apparently after the corpse is completely consumed by flames, the ashes and bits of bone that are left are carried to the sea and disposed of. Rather than the sad and mournful mood of funerals with which I’m familiar, the mood here was light and almost joyous. As the body burned the crowd played music and chanted.

The Ngaben, or cremation ceremony, is the “last and most important ceremony of every Balinese life, in which the soul is released entirely from the body to ascend to heaven and to be reincarnated”. When the body of the deceased is carried to the place where the cremation is to take place, the temple-like structure carrying the body, called a Wadah, is shaken and turned by the people carrying it, to “make sure the soul doesn’t find its way back home”. Although this ceremony is Hindu, it reminded me of Buddhist practices such as sand mandalas designed to speak to the ephemerality of earthly life. In these practices much effort is spent on creating beautiful objects only to destroy them in the end – apt analogues for the human body and reminders that nothing stays the same, everything changes, so no point in clinging to anything in the earthly realm. In both belief systems, the immaterial soul is released from the material body, hopefully to a higher and better place.

Read more about the Balinese Ngaben here.

Later we sat on the beach and watched the women recruit people for massages and shopping while playing with their small children and swam in the warm ocean.

After a really tasty dinner of Nasi Goreng and Spicy Chicken at the Little Bird Warung just down the road, we walked back down to the beach from a different direction and came upon a wonderland of bonsai plants – an ocean of them in every size and twisty configuration. They must represent untold hours of work by the unnamed gardener – fabulous!

From the bonsai garden we walked to the Reggae Beach Bar and collapsed on their oceanfront bean bag chairs to listen to a Bob Marley cover band – Bob, long dead, lives on here in South East Asia.

Tomorrow at noon we leave for Ubud, the arts centre of Bali, about an hour’s drive north of here.

See more pictures here.