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 Hill and Big Buddha Temple, Pattaya, Thailand

At the top of Pattaya Hill a left turn brought us to the home of Pattaya Radio, a small temple, and the monument to HRH Admiral Krom Luang Jumborn Khet Udomsakdi, while a right turn took us to Wat Phra Yai with Pattaya’s 15 meter tall Big Buddha.

The Navy’s temple is home to many beasts, especially young dogs and cats (one of whom looked very much like our cat Aran, except “he” was a pregnant she),

and a sign-posted “wild monkey” chained by the neck to his perch in a tree, a sight which was very distressing. Why would the monks or temple workers chain up this poor creature who looks like he’s about to expire? He may be wild but could he not be returned to the forest to live out his days with other animal companionship?

The Admiral’s monument occupies the highest point of Pattaya Hill and is also the site of a shrine with many, many elephant, horse, zebra, dancing warrior, and rooster models, so many that the shrine has had to be extended with a long metal table to accommodate the overflow.

After wandering around this hill for a bit, and admiring the expansive view out over Pattaya City and Bay, we walked back down the hill along a newly-made cement path through the woods, then up again to the Big Buddha.

The big guy sits at the top of a long set of steps guarded by two freshly-painted golden Naga serpents. Along with BB are several other Buddha statues, including nine that represent the different days of the week.

The Buddhists believe that saying a few words to the Buddha born on the same day as oneself will bring one good luck. As well, the belief is that:

•Monday’s Buddha will bring peace.

•Tuesday’s Buddha will give peaceful sleep.

•Wednesday’s Buddha means one is a giving person.

•Thursday’s Buddha allows one peace of mind to meditate.

•Friday’s Buddha will give happiness.

•Saturday’s Buddha will ensure protection from the elements.

•Sunday’s Buddha will search for the needy and care for them.

At the entrance to the temple, young girls sell tiny birds in cages which, judging from the empty cages left behind next to the various Buddhas, quite a few people were inspired to set free. This practice is supposed to bring one luck, but the more birds that are sold, the more that will be caught and caged … what happens to the unsold birds?

See more pics here.

Sanctuary of Truth, Pattaya

Pattaya’s Sanctuary of Truth is a somewhat bizarre and remarkable creation built on the shore of Rachvate Cape, Naklua, Pattaya, Thailand. The brainchild of an eccentric Thai billionaire named Lek Viriyaphant, it is built entirely of teak wood and designed to “showcase Thai culture and ingenuity”. To visit it Ty and I hopped aboard a songthaew in Jomtien and, about half an hour and 40 baht later, hopped off in Naklua, north of Pattaya, for a shortish walk down Soi 12 to the Sanctuary. On the way we stopped briefly for a drink and a chat with a misanthropic German expat at a roadside shop: when we chatted with him he had two empty beer bottles in front of him and a terrible scowl on his face; when we passed by again two hours later, he had eight and a terrible scowl on his face – must be all that living in paradise.

Arriving at the sanctuary we were greeted with a huge wall adorned with carvings and a large parklike compound within, featuring horse-drawn buggies, crowds of Thai boy scouts, elephants, goats, chickens, and weathered wood carvings.

Once down a set of stairs we were given white hardhats to wear, since the sanctuary, begun in 1981, is an ongoing work-in-progress.

One of the founder’s intentions is that visitors should be able to appreciate the amount and kind of work that goes into a creation of this magnitude. From walking around the outside, it seemed as if one entire wing of the building has just been erected fairly recently; artisans are still busy with the interior and exterior carvings in this area.

The ocean front sanctuary has the design of a traditional Thai temple and is 100 meters high by 100 meters wide. No nails were used in its construction; instead, the artisans have followed traditional wood building techniques, such as tongue in groove, to erect the structure.

It’s pretty easy to see from the colour of the wood which are the newer areas; in the older sections the teak wood is grey, weathered, and cracked, while in the newer it’s still quite a bright orange-red. Each of the four wings of the building has a particular theme related to ancient knowledge and eastern philosophy; however, from my reading of the explanatory panels, I can’t say that I actually understand exactly what these themes are, or how the carvings illustrate them – something has been lost in translation. To illustrate what I mean, here’s a blurb from the Santuary’s website:

The purposes of decoration with wooden carve sculptures
are to use art and culture as the reflection of Ancient Vision of Earth,
Ancient  Knowledge,  and  Eastern Philosophy. With in this complex,
visitors  will  understand  Ancient  Life,  Human  Responsibility, Basic
Thought, Cycle of living, Life Relationship with Universe and
Common Goal of Life toward Utopia.

In any case the carvings themselves are fabulous, as is the architecture and design of the sanctuary. Almost every square inch inside is covered in carved images of gods and goddesses, as well as effigies of the planets, floral motifs, and the like. The iconography of the religious imagery, drawing from and illustrating the four major influences on Thai culture – Buddhist, Chinese, Khmer, and Hindu – is very similar to that of Roman Catholicism, from Edenic paradises,

to mothers holding babes, to what look like swirling angels surrounding Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. Similarly, the ceiling roundels reminded me very much of the kinds of art on cathedral domes.

Indeed, the whole place has the visual impact of a cathedral, in size, scale, and complexity of design. I thought the Sanctuary was fabulous, even though I could not fully understand its educational program, given language issues (perhaps I should have opted for the guided tour …).

The compound also houses a carving centre where we were able to watch many people working on the various elements.

See more pics here.

See the Sanctuary’s website here.

Day-tripping to Koh Larn

Pattaya is starting to grow on me, especially now that we’ve found a better beach area to the north of where we’d been sitting before. This area, accessed by walking past the main drag that turns right to Pattaya proper, has many more trees, more shade, and, best of all, real sun loungers rather than beach chairs (we are so spoiled!). It’s not quite as crowded as the main Jomtien Beach area, although this is relative, since everywhere here seems full of people this high season.

While vendors do ply the sand here, they come in fewer and slower waves than further south where they are incessant. Still, the calls to buy are almost nonstop here; on offer are:

Food: fruit, seafood (fresh crab and shrimp which is cooked right at your chair), donuts and poon (?), ice cream (one vendor’s voice is so nasal it’d cut glass as he calls “Ice ceam, ca!” every 10 seconds)

Clothes: sun dresses, shorts, men’s t-shirts; sunglasses; baseball caps

DVDs and second hand books in English and German

Massage, manicure and pedicure

Souvenirs and wooden carvings; toy birds; jewellery; plush animals; cotton candy

One of the more unusual purchases here are tiny wooden cages of tiny finch-like birds which, for 100 baht (about $3.75), buyers set free. Although I intense dislike this practice, I did purchase one small cage of birds to release.

Yesterday Ty discovered that there’s a small “coral” island just 7 km off the coast of Pattaya that can be easily visited on a day trip, so, with 25 minutes to catch the 10 am ferry, we were out the door, into a taxi, and down to Bali Hai pier, just in time to pile onboard  the already seemingly full wooden ferry heading out to Koh Larn.

We settled ourselves at the stern as the boat headed out to sea, passing another similar vessel stranded just outside the harbour (not sure what happened to it but this ferry, too, was packed to the gunnels).

After stopping twice to allow passengers to disembark into longtail boats at two different beaches, we pulled up to Samae Beach, from which several long tails roared, pulled up alongside our vessel, picked up the mass of people pouring off the decks and out of the windows, and ferried all of us to the dock. The dock itself is made from blue plastic blocks which undulate as the waves strike it.

Once on the beach, we found ourselves ushered into deck chairs from which we could watch the passing parade.

The water here is gorgeous, that incredible light cerulean blue that I loved in the Andaman Sea, and clean, with a very large swimming area roped off from boat traffic. On both sides of the beach are green and rocky hills with viewpoints; one has a viewing pavilion, a large sting-ray shaped building in which are the controls for the island’s wind and solar power, and a couple of shrines.

The other has many small windmills, only two of which were working on this day. Along one side of the coast a raised wooden walkway has been built.

It is possible to stay overnight on the island, although at 2,500 baht for a pretty basic bungalow, it’s very expensive, at least on this beach.

Apparently, about 1,000 people live on Koh Larn full-time and many hundreds of people visit daily during high season. Various styles of ferry travel here, as do speed boats.

The ferry we piled on to return later in the afternoon was a top-heavy style, to my eyes too tall for its breadth. And, as usual, the vessel was absolutely jam-packed. I’m not sure how many people were actually on it – perhaps 200. And there were certainly not enough life jackets for all; none of the seats downstairs had lifejackets anywhere near them. When I saw the structure of the boat, I yanked two life vests from their stowage spot on the roof for Ty and I. These had been stuffed behind one of the metal rods holding up the roof canopy and took me quite a few minutes to dislodge (and certainly if the vessel had begun to capsize, because of the way they’re wedged in, I doubt they would have been available for use). Interestingly, only one other person had a life-jacket actually on her person.

As we pulled away, most of the people on the main deck were leaning on one of the side rails, causing the boat to list quite dramatically; at this point the captain stopped, came back, and admonished people to sit down before the thing capsized … sigh.  The water was very choppy with fair size waves and several times the captain had to slow the vessel down as it started rocking from side to side; after the first time this happened, I put on my life jacket and one of the men seated near us in the back also grabbed one for his son. Thankfully, we made it across the strait in one piece. Just another day here in SE Asia … it’s all good until the boat goes down.

Read more about Koh Larn here.

See more pics here.

Nong Nooch Tropical Botanic Garden, Pattaya

Since today was the first day of the two day Pattaya Water Sports Festival on Jomtien Beach, with screaming fast and loud jet skis ridden by cowboys flashing through the water, Ty and I decided to get out of town and visit the Nong Nooch Tropical Botanic Garden, about 20 kms away. We hired a song thaew to take the two of us there and back and zipped along the highway to the gardens, as usual, faster than I’d like. I mused that the longer we stayed in Thailand, the more likely we were not to get out of here unscathed …

The Nong Nooch Garden and Resort (you can spend the weekend here if you so choose) are definitely on the day-tripper agenda in a big way, as testified by the enormous number of enormous tour buses disgorging crowds of visitors in the three parking lots. The first display we passed was the elephant compound, where Ty spent a moment chatting with a young elephant whose foot was injured. In this compound, which consists of nothing but a cement slab, are quite a few of the beasts, all with chains around their legs, all of whom are required to carry around tourists all day, sometimes being hit on the head with a wooden stick carried by their custodian. Neither of us can stand to see elephants being used and abused in this way so we passed quickly by into the gardens proper.

Many different kinds of gardens have been created here, from a European Garden with many large topiary bushes and cheesy classicalesque statues,

to an Ant Garden, with colourful sculptures of ants very large and small,

to a Love Garden, and a Pottery Garden in which red clay pots have been used to create archways and sculptures, as well as hold plants.

Once through the Pottery Garden, we found the orchid display, a beautifully-scented and shaded area containing many examples of one of my favorite flowers.

Interspersed with the flowers and plants are kitchy sculptures of birds, frogs, giraffe, deer, elephants and turtles, the latter holding up huge boxes of bonsai trees. In the southern section of the park is also a large lake with gigantic fish to which visitors can feed tiny tuna.

After a snack at the Nong Nooch Seafood Restaurant, where we had a lost in translation moment about Ty’s pork buns, we headed back along a series of raised metal walkways from which we could see the design of the gardens very well.

Along these are large raised plant stands containing many varieties of bonsai.

From the walkway we had a great view of the layout of the French Garden, containing hedges of topiary, boxwood and purple bougainvillea. Here are also many white chedis, what looks like a large white funerary monument, and two Thai-temple-styled viewing platforms. Beyond these are three towering pagodas marking the edge of the Palm Garden.

The Gardens also contain a mini-zoo, situated in the middle of what looks like a kid’s playland, complete with noisy games that no doubt irritate the animals. Seeing a tiger lying there with a chain around its neck, waiting for visitors to have their pictures taken with it, was too much; both of us shunned any more of the zoo and aviary and quickly headed back out to the truck for our ride home. Overall, I thought the gardens were great, especially the French garden, with its variety of colours and shapes; however, the zoo, aviary, and elephant rides are, in my view, unnecessary and abusive, with small, dark, metal cages, and dank cement enclosures, that provide nothing in the way of a decent environment for the animals.

Here is the Nong Nooch Garden website.

Here is another review of the garden.

See more pics here.

 

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.

 

 

 

Bangkok: Chinatown, Wat Pho, and Ayutthaya

In Bangkok at the Lub-D Hostel in Silom area:

After a delicious morning cup of coffee and pastry (craving that!), Ty and I negotiated a price for a tuk-tuk out front of the hostel to take us to one of the ferry stops on Chao Praya River; he took us instead to a boat tour place riverside. Not wanting to pay for a private boat tour, just to get down-river to Wat Pho, we declined that option and, instead, decided to walk through Chinatown, have lunch, and then try again for a tuk-tuk to Wat Pho.

Most of the tuk-tuk drivers here do not want to take you where you want to go; what they want to do is get you to agree to a certain number of stops for shopping at “sponsors”, for which of course they get a kick-back. One guy told us that, because of Chinese New Year, Chinatown was “closed”. We got this same absurd story from another guy who wanted to take us somewhere in his taxi – ha. This scam is notorious here; wherever one might want to go, the driver assures her that “it’s closed today” and he will instead take one somewhere else “just as good” – which ends up being his brother-in-law’s noodle shop, his mother’s shoe store, etc, all “just as good” as the Grand Palace or Chinatown or Wat Pho … not. (I am reminded of the tour driver who took Tracey and I up to see the Getty Villa in LA; when we got there he said, “Just look at the gardens, the stuff inside’s not very good” … (!).

So, we wound up once again, just like the last time we were here, wandering around the 8th circle of Dante’s Hell in the vehicle engine and anonymous large machine part section of Chinatown, with nary a clothes or hair doo-dad or noodle shop in evidence.

As we passed through the cable link and rope section into the gem and mineral stalls, we realised that, yes, we were following our old path and, taking a right on a small alley, we at last emerged into Chinatown proper, complete with motorbikes, trucks, men with dolleys, bicycles, and pedestrians all competing for the same two inches of pavement space between the shops and stalls and street vendors.

The tables at every street food vendor station we saw were full; finally, we happened to be in the right place at the right time as two people vacated a tiny metal table and we grabbed two plastic ringside seats right next to the tiny alley passageway – huzzah! Two bowls of pork ball noodle soup later, we were off on a mission to find Wat Pho and finally got a tuk-tuk dude to agree to a reasonable price to take us there non-stop.

Just as we arrived, the heavens opened and it started pissing rain. This kept down the crowds a bit, but it was still packed in the main temple housing the gigantic 26 meter reclining gold Buddha, the main attraction at Wat Pho.

We wandered through the other satellite temples and pavilions, all containing multitudes of golden standing and reclining Buddhas, as well as stone statues of Chinese figures.

Wat Pho, right next to the Grand Palace (in which we spent a lot of time in 2009) is huge and beautiful, with a wealth of enormous tiled chedis as well as temple buildings. Our trip back by tuk-tuk was right in the middle of rush hour, a seething mass of humanity on wheels all trying to squeeze into the same tiny space of pavement between huge tour buses, our driver alternately cursing the crush and speeding down alleyways, zipping into impossibly small spaces, and generally wheeling his wagon around as if it were a Ferrari hot wheels car.

See a few more Bangkok pics here. See some pictures of the Grand Palace from our 2009 trip to Bangkok here.

Ayutthaya Historical City

Our second and final day in Bangkok was spent at Ayutthaya, the ruin site of the former capital of Siam, south of the city. I’d arranged for a car and driver to pick us up at 7:30 and, sure enough, he was there as, once again, it started to pour torrentially. Ty and I looked at one another and thought about cancelling but, hoping the rain would stop by the time we got out there, decided to go anyway. Halfway there, along the highway, seated white-knuckled in the back seat while our driver careened through the rush hour traffic at what I thought was break-neck speed, the rain stopped and by the time we reached Ayutthaya an hour later, it was hot and dry. From what is admittedly my ethnocentric perspective, many people here – like this guy – really do drive like maniacs, seemingly not caring about road conditions or visibility, just pedal to the metal, roar down the road and hope for the best. Interestingly, though, an editorial in the Bangkok Post today was based on the differing safety standards between western countries and Thailand; while noting that in the west we are obsessed with safety, the writer admonishes the Thai for being too indifferent to safety concerns and urges significant changes.

He dropped us off at a bike rental place, from which we obtained two old, crappy one speed bikes, and off we wheeled to the ruin site (which was not at all as I had imagined it). I thought Ayutthaya would be something like some of the ancient cities I’d seen in Turkey, or even like Angkor Thom on a smaller scale, ruins interspersed with trees and somewhat remote. Instead, the site is basically a park in the middle of a modern Thai city and a seemingly not very well cared for one (although this state may be the result of last year’s horrendous floods).

Ayutthaya was a kingdom in the Siamese empire from 1350 to 1767, when it was destroyed by the Burmese army, and the strongest power in the region for much of those years. Its kings were considered as the incarnation of various Hindu gods: Indra, Shiva or Vishnu (Rama).

From Wikipedia:

The king ultimately came to be recognized as the earthly incarnation of Shiva or Vishnu, and became the sacred object of politico-religious cult practices officiated over by royal court Brahmans, part of the Buddhist court retinue. In the Buddhist context, the devaraja (divine king) was a bodhisattva (an enlightened being who, out of compassion, forgoes nirvana in order to aid others). The belief in divine kingship prevailed into the eighteenth century, although by that time its religious implications had limited impact.

Our first stop was Wat Ratchaburanaj, with a very interesting large prang (Khmer-style stepped pagoda) surrounded by many large stupas, and fronted with the remains of a monastery. On the low walls surrounding these buildings, the remains of stone Buddhas sit; usually only the crossed legs and a single hand remain. Along with these, inukshuks have sprouted; Ty contributed his own small creation to those already there.

We were able to climb the steep stairs and enter the main pagoda in this complex, unlike the others, much to the annoyance of the pigeons who own the place now.We could also descend into the crypt via a steep set of stairs with helpful rope.

We also visited the ruin site of Wat Maha That, where a Buddha remains locked within the embrace of bodhi tree limbs and roots,

and the Ancient Palace, the grounds of the latter almost completely overgrown with uncut dry brush, looking as if no-one bothers to take care of it any more.  Throughout the park area, brick pathways wind around and through moats and pools, while the Chao Praya River runs around the entire ancient city site. We saw a few others on bikes and a few bus tour groups, but overall the place was pretty quiet, except for the bird song.

About the architecture:

“The prang was an important monument in Khmer and Ayutthaya architecture. Prangs can also be found in various forms in Sukhothai, Lopburi, Bangkok (Wat Arun). Sizes may vary, but usually the prangs measure between 15 and 40 meters in height, and resemble a towering corn-cob like structure. Prangs essentially represent Mount Meru. In Thailand Buddha relics were often housed in a vault in these structures, reflecting the belief that the Lord Buddha is a most significant being in having attained enlightenment and having shows the path to enlightenment to others.

In Khmer structures, of course, Hindu deities were housed in the center of the prang monument. The ‘cella’ or central (small) hall inside the prang, can be accessed through a porch, located in the east. With Thai (Sukhothai, Ayutthaya) architecture, the cella could often only be accessed by climbing stairs. Later on, the cella even disappeared in some prang structures, and was only suggested on the outside by niches (usually in the four important cardinal directions), where a Buddha image would be located. In Thai architecture, Garuda images were often present halfway [around] the prang in four positions. Later on, they were omitted from the structure.

Now, what are differences between Khmer and Thai prangs. Well, to start with, the materials used to construct them would often be different. Khmer structures often used sandstone and laterite, if available in the area. Ayutthaya prangs were mostly built with bricks, then covered with stucco. But the main visible difference is that Khmer built prangs taper off stepwise (in tiers of decreasing size). Ayutthaya prangs taper off gradually in a smooth way (without clearly visible steps)”. (http://www.thaiwebsites.com/prang.asp)

Along the way, Ty had two flat tires; the first time the back tire blew we walked the bikes back and got another one for him; the second time, I rode the flat-tired bike while he rode mine and we managed to limp along back to the store with them – not pleased. However, I guess we got what we paid for – they were $1.40 each for the day (none of the bikes here look like they’re maintained at all).

On the ride back into Bangkok our driver was a freak; obviously, he’d been off somewhere smoking, snorting, or shooting something, because he was tweaking – talking to himself the entire way back, constantly and agitatedly rubbing his knees, scratching himself, and rubbing his eyes. After just over an hour of watching him out of the corner of my eye to make sure he wasn’t going to go totally off the rails as we drove, I was delighted to say goodbye when we pulled up to the hostel – goodbye and good riddance.

See more pics here.

From Koh Samui to Siem Reap, Cambodia

Friends Barb and Christine arrived this week, fresh from an 8 day tour of Northern Thailand, to spend a couple of days with us at our house in Bang Po, located on Moo 6 in a lovely local community just one hundred meters across the road from our previous chalet. We spent three days exploring the beaches of Chaweng, Lamai and Bang Po, as well as the town of Nathon and the Hin Lad waterfall and temple.

The day we spent on Chaweng, the longest and most upscale beach on Koh Samui, was a bit overcast at first and the waves were fabulous crashing rollers. We spent the afternoon on brightly coloured loungers for which we paid a pretty penny in food and drink from an indifferent restaurant staff. Later, after a Thai massage, we had a tasty Thai supper at the Infinity Restaurant on one of Chaweng’s side streets. The next morning, after negotiating a price for our own song thaew taxi, we hit the sights on the west coast.

After spending some time at the forested Hin Lad temple, and examining the elephants at the riverside trekking station, one of whom looked blind, Lamai Beach called to us and we enjoyed watching the beautiful red retriever dog fetch water bottles thrown in the waves from the sand in front of the Bikini Bar.

Thursday morning Ty and I were up early for our transfer to the airport, courtesy of Dave, and, rather than spend the night in Bangkok as we had originally planned, we decided just to keep on trucking, flying in to Siem Reap, Cambodia, after changing our airline ticket at the Bangkok Air counter in the Suvarnabhumi Airport. After a short forty minute flight, a line-up at the visa on arrival counter where a fleet of uniformed personnel passed our passports from hand to hand down the line, and a taxi ride of twenty minutes, we were ensconced at the Pool and Palm Villa just outside the downtown area of Siem Reap.

The hotel grounds have suffered from the recent floods, having lost much of their grass, trees and flowers to the waters that inundated Cambodia in the fall, but the place is very nice. Two wooden Kmer-style buildings, with very high ceilings and beautiful wooden furniture and fittings, accommodate guests, with a large pool and poolside restaurant on the back part of the property. Also a victim of the floods, the roadway into Siem Reap is badly chewn up, with enormous potholes that crews are in the middle of trying to repair. Some low-lying areas in the countryside here are still a bit flooded and only now starting to dry out.

The area around Siem Reap is very flat, with lots of cabbage palms and other deciduous trees interspersed with flat patches of yellow grazing land and brilliant green rice fields. Very bony cattle, lots of dogs and puppies, pigs, and chickens abound here.

The commercial buildings in this area are vibrantly coloured, with the newer hotels and villas reminding me of the ones I saw in Turkey. Downtown Siem Reap (the name meaning “Siam [Thailand] Defeated”) is lovely, with blocks of French Colonial architecture in multi-coloured hues, an Old Market, complete with chicken carcasses, fish, fruit, and multitudes of shoes, and a Pub Street, packed out at night with revelers and beautifully lit up, full of restaurants and bars. After a mediocre dinner at the Khmer Family Restaurant, we headed down the street to a bar with a nice outdoor seating area and met Dennis, a guy from Montana who’s here working on a project with a local school.

Our second day saw us up and out the door on a tuk-tuk bound for Beng Mealea, a jungle Hindu temple 60 kilometers east of Siem Reap. The tuk-tuks here have a different style than those in Thailand; here they look like 19th century horse carriages, with padded seats and sometimes luxurious fabrics, except instead of the horse, a guy on a moped pulls the carriage. Along the way we passed more road crews trying to fix things up post-flood, guys on mopeds with two live hogs tied to the back of their seats, houses on stilts (both shacks and fancy new digs), schoolgirls with long black hair and floppy wide-brimmed hats on old-fashioned one speed bikes, and tiny tractors with huge loads of logs. Two hours later we bounced in to the temple compound, paid our $5 US each for the entry tickets, tried to avoid the crowds of children scampering around our feet, and were swept into the orbit of a blue-suited, white-hatted one-legged land mine victim who became our guide through the ruin site (see next post for Beng Mealea). See more pics of Koh Samui and Siem Reap here and here.

 

Koh Samui West Coast Day Trip: temples, waterfall, rocks, sand, and shopping

Temples, waterfalls, rocks, sand, mummy monks – the west coast of Koh Samui!

Ty, Maggie, and I were once more whisked off in Mai’s taxi down the west coast of the island to explore, cameras in hand. Our first stop, just past the “downtown” area of Nathon, the main administrative centre of Koh Samui and where the ferry boats from the mainland arrive, was Wat Chaeng, the elephant temple.

No elephants were in sight (perhaps the name is a throwback to the long lost days when there actually were wild elephants roaming in this area), but a large pack of temple dogs was.

As Maggie and I were wandering around the front of one of the temple buildings, we heard a huge hue and cry of barking and realised that the dogs were greeting Ty as he wandered out back.

These beasts, about twenty of them small and large, followed Ty as he explored the cemetery area behind the main building. While we were marvelling at the architecture, Mai took the opportunity to make an offering in the new white and gold temple. Wat Chaeng’s main function now appears to be as a school for elementary-aged children.

Further south along the main ring road, then a turn inland towards the mountain, through a residential area, found us at the Hin Lad waterfall and temple site, nestled in a forested area up against the hill.

Walking along a small bridge crossing the Hin Lad stream, we found a stark white temple building – very modern – and, behind it, the monk’s compound, a series of huts scattered throughout the forest.

Along with these dwellings are quite a few painted tile signs with various pithy sayings and proverbs hanging from the tree branches.

The only other place I’ve seen these before is the small temple on Koh Lipe, where hand-written wooden signs with similar injunctions were dispayed.

After a quick stop at Wat Khunaram for Maggie to check out the sun-glassed mummy monk and me to collect tamarind seed pods, we drove to the south coast to the extreme west end of Lamai Beach to see Hin Ta and Hin Yai, Grandfather and Grandmother rocks, so-called because they are the shape, respectively, of male and female genitalia. They’re part of a cluster of large rounded granite and feldspar boulders (so Maggie told me) that hug the edge of the south shoreline.

Read more about these rocks here.

Mai dropped us off at Lamai Beach and we made our way across the sand to the Bikini Bar for a feast of Jamaica jerk ribs (!) and then a little rest on the loungers next door.

The weather was changeable, though, and a couple of showers chased us under the grass palapas before we decided to head back north on a passing song thaew. The town of Nathon was the end of the line for that particular driver and we were deposited at the pier, from where we explored what turned out to be quite a nice little town.

Strangely, on a side street perpendicular to the pier, we found a shop selling all sorts of North American Indian paraphernalia, including carved wooden Indian heads, dolls with teepees, and a huge feather headdress.

It also sold alligator and snakeskin purses which were quite repulsive. Along the main drag here many of the shops have red Chinese lanterns hung out front, and golden Buddha replicas for sale, giving a really attractive look to the storefronts. We bought a couple of items, including some apples (which are very hard to find here), and rolled back to the ranch very satisfied with the day.

See more pics here.

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.