Saturday, August 27, 2005

best and worst just an hour apart

Yep, that's Bali for you. I arrived last night, and went to Kuta, the most common tourist destination in Bali, and it turned out to be hell in a 5mile radius. If anyone has visited Virginia Beach, you never need to go to Kuta. KFC, Starbucks, Hard Rock, Planet Hollywood, Pizza Hut, and every other Western brand you can think of lined up along a strip beside a fairly grubby beach, which admittedly, had good waves, which weren't even that crowded. I only stayed an hour and a half, but that was more than enough for me. I got a shuttle bus to Ubud, where my Intrepid tour starts, and dear lord, what a difference. Ubud is a small artist's town in the centre of Bali, and damn, its so beautiful and tasteful. Its a Luang Prabang, a St Ives, a Westport. Furthermore, my hotel, which is supposed to be for backpackers, is the most luxurious place I have ever stayed in my life, the Balmoral excepted. Balinese sculpture ever, a little private place for me to take my tea and contemplate life, and a pool with a wall of sculpted gods looking down on my as I bathe. Dear lord. Luckily its my birthday, so I feel that it is just about justifiable.

My birthday present to myself? A mocha frappucino and a raspberry muffin from Starbucks. Tomorrow, its back to the muesli, fruit and yoghurt.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

put the credit card back in the wallet

Wow. I'm in the consumer heaven commonly known as Singapore, and yes, it has been a challenge of a different degree of what I am used to. Western country, western systems, western prices. Ouch. But so much fun to wander into a shop, not be forced to look at ten things, and wander out again, completely painlessly. Is this what the world is really like? How easy.

Chinatown was gorgeous, both traditional, with beautiful gentrification. Orchard Road was a shopping mecca. I think Kate maxed out all her cards, but then again, she goes home tomorrow, so she can handle it. The airconditioning, the subway, the cleanness - this is a great city. Such a change from Asia, and a real reminder as to what I have been missing. Furthermore, there is no tourism scene. People really do go shopping at Levi, they do have coffee in Starbucks, and they really do take clients to posh dinners at French restaurants in Chinatown. Topshop was filled with Sinaporeans. Yes, Topshop. I was pleased as punch when I saw it, and still managed to come out with nothing. Backpacker shopping is no fun! Having said that, its to Bali tomorrow for one more week of Asia-dom, and then Oz, where I meet my mum. That, I cannot wait for. A little something to look forward to whilst I miss the Israeli boy.

full moon epidode III: the final conquest

Yup, back to Koh Pha Ngan. It seemed a shame for Kate and Ori to be down on the islands and not go to the Full Moon Party, and of course, who better than a true veteran to show them around. We stayed at Had Yao for the few days beforehand to chill out, and just enjoy our last few days in Thailand. Lots of beaching (the poor Israeli started to peel, which was unfortunately amusing!), lots of reading, lots of early nights. It was really great just to chill out. The place was filled with Israelis, like the rest of Koh Pga Ngan. I hadn't seen so many altogether before. Of course, once we moved to Haad Rin, Ori kept meeting people he knew. Typical.

The Full Moon Party was just as to be expected. Drinking, dancing til dawnm meeting old friends, everything. Kate and Ori had a good time, although Ori couldn't really handle the Irish pace, and had to take a wee break in the middle of it, but other than that, no complaints at all. We saw some of Ori's friends, we saw the English boys, we saw Casey. All good fun. Of course we got home at about 10am, and then we decided to move back to Haad Rin, and so on very little sleep we managed to find the best bungalows I have stayed in on the sunset side of the town. A very traditional backpacker way to end the trip for Ori.

Another backpacker tradition that was accomplished was to rent motorcycles, and come back in pain. Kate has some lovely scratches all over her arms from riding up some steps, and I have a sore back from falling off the back of Ori's as we tried to go up a hill and change gear at the same time. More people have bandages in Haad Rin than anywhere else maybe in Thailand, and all for the same reason. No real damage done, apart from to our wallets as we had to pay for the damage to the bikes, which is incidentally, how the rental places make all their cash. To rent out a bike at 150B ($4) a day is a loss-maker, so they recoup all their profits through the inevitable accidents. Bastards. Pain and poverty.

So, Ori has gone home, which of course is horrible. Right now I have Kate with me, so I am not alone, but tomorrow I arrive in Bali all alone and with no accomodation. Back to square one, and I'm not looking forward to it. Travelling with someone is a lot of fun, travelling with your boyfriend who looks after you and stops bad things happening (motorcycle injuries excepted) is fantastic, and I'm really going to miss it.

koh phi phi

Long ago as it was, I can still actually remember Koh Phi Phi. The trip down was the usual rip-off - stop at each and every little restaurant for a couple of hours to make sure that you'll buy your water and food from them, waiting around for a couple of hours, and arriving 4hrs after the scheduled arrival time. Even arriving on a grey, mizzly day did nothing to dampen the sheer beauty of the island. It was absolutely incredible, and that was only the open, touristy side, not the protected national park.

Phi Phi was flattened by the December 26th tsunami, and you could still see where the wave rushed through the central narrow stretch of land between the the beaches. Before that, the island played host to luxury resorts and high-end hotels. Backpackers had few places to go. Now, all those resorts have been washed away, and yes, they are being rebuilt, so now is the time for all those low-budget travellers to head to Phi Phi. Not that it is exactly a cheap place compared to the rest of Thailand, even to Koh Pha Ngan (300B a bucket!!), but still, a what price beauty? And besides, you get that warm feeling inside of helping a community get back on its feet every time you buy another banana-nutella roti. What more could one want?

Ah, the beauty. We took a day trip around the islands, and visited Maya Beach, where "The Beach" was filmed, which was truly gorgeous and spectacular. What the movie didn't show, probably because they moved them before filmed, was the huge rocks that are in the water, and hamper the dramatic dash that the aqua water demands as an entry. To go that like is to ensure a painful stubbed toe. Still, the white sands, the karst landscape, the turquoise water - as good as all the pictures.

Phi Phi is known for its marine life, and its one of the two diving centers in Thailand (the other being Koh Tao). Part of our boat trip around the island included some amazing snorkelling (although the standard of actual snorkels impeded my enjoyment of this. I swear mine had a leak in it, because I ended up with many mouthfuls of sea-water) over coral reef. It was so exciting just to be swimming through shoals of gorgeous blue and yellow striped fish (I am sure they were in Finding Nemo somewhere), and Ori managed to spot a moray eel. Unfortunately Kate cut her foot on some coral, which subsequently turned all pussy, but is now clean and better. However, right after she cut it, I grabbed her leg for a joke, which naturally scared the complete bejesus out of her, thinking that I was actually a shark, drawn by the scent of her blood. Funny.

More beautiful beaches followed, as well as a visit to Monkey Beach. This I found hysterical. I have no love for monkeys whatsoever, but the site of two of them going at it (monkey business!!!), and then a group of twenty turning on all the tourists and chasing them into the sea was hilarious. They were pretty grumpy monkeys, but I just found them stupid. What sort of animal which cannot swim chooses to live on a beach?

Other activities available on Phi Phi including cliff jumping (starting at 8m and finishing at 20m) and swimming with black tip reef sharks, which are apparently harmless. The reason I am inlcluding the fact that I didn't do those is to let my mother know that I really am behaving myself whilst travelling, and therefore she shouldn't kick me out of the inheritance! Not that she would do a mean thing like that, but I know that she does worry about me, like all mothers inevitably do.

The nightlife in Phi Phi centred around a bar complex called Hippies. If you are going there, and they are advertising a free bbq, don't bother eating dinner, because it is great, and there is so much food. They had the same guy do the same acoustic set every night, which started off okay, but got tedious. After that, some drinking games, and then a fire show, which was actually fantastic. There were maybe 8 or so koi dancers, and they were actually pretty skilled, rather than the random westerners you see in Koh Pha Ngan do it. After that, the night turned into a blur of buckets and dancing, like all good nights do. Still, the big party was yet to come....

Thursday, August 11, 2005

back to the islands (part III)

After a fairly relaxing couple of days in BKK, we're off to Koh Phi Phi tonight - we being myself, Ori, and my little sister, who is proving to be wild with her baht, which is rather amusing, to say the least. Bangkok has also been bringing out my inner consumer who had gone into hiding for a while. Ori and I headed to MBK the other day and I ended up coming home with 2 pairs of jeans, with a few additions here and there from Khao San Road. After 3months, everything in my backpack disgusts me, and I threw out a lot of my belongings this morning, which was very therapeutic. Of course, the free space has already been filled!

Bangkok also provided Ori and I with our first "Lost in Translation" moment. On Monday we had to go to the Israeli Embassy to pick up a new credit card for Ori, and then, since we were downtown, we decided to go to a movie. We went to the first mall which we came to, which was the World Trade Centre, and tried to find the movie theatre. All we knew was that it was on the 7th floor. The problem was that the signs for both escalators and elevators seemed to lead nowhere, and when we did find an escalator, it would go up one floor and then stop, so we would have to go a-hunting again for the next one. At one stage we actually had to go down an escalator to come up again to a different part of the same floor. A clever ploy to get us to spend more money. Along our journey to the 7th floor, we also came across the most high-tech library ever, with a host of western magazines. All in all, including distractions, the journey to the movies took about 3hrs. The movie was "The Island" and was pretty good. Not as exciting as trying to get there though.

Talking of getting there, the worst journey is S-E Asia has got to be the bus ride between Bangkok and Siem Reap, mainly because for 8hrs you are in a mini-bus with no suspension driving along an unpaved dirt track, praying that you don't break down, because if you do, it's every man for himself. We made it, but it was the definition of bone-shaking. That's the last of those until S America, thank goodness.

Thursday, August 04, 2005

ancient wonders of the world

Angkor Wat was just as incredible at its reputation had led us to believe. As one of the wonders of the world (don't ask me what the others are), it had a lot to live up, especially since I am not one for ancient ruins, but this was amazing.

It is a big site, with several temples being unmissable. Angkor Wat itself was just phenomenal - big khmer chedis rising up out of a castle like structure, with a fabulous causeway leading out to it. The Bayon was my personal favourite, with its hundreds of buddha faces and fabulous bas reliefs carved into the wall. It was particularly spectacular in the afternoon with the sunhighlighting the faces and creating weird shadows. And finally, Ta Phrom, which is being overtaken with mosses, greenery, and trees growing right through the architecture. The Lonely describes it as being right out of Indiana Jones, and well, for lack of a better description, it was. We saw maybe ten or more other temples, all of which would have been amazing anyway, without having been a part of this huge site. Awesome, in the true sense of the word.

On our second day of touring, with our fantastic tuk-tuk driver, we got up for sunrise, which was unfortunately cloudy and anti-climatic. This was countered by a spectacular pink sunset from the top of Phnom Bakheng - maybe one to two thousand people gathered there to watch it. It was one of those beautiful big, pink, grey and orange sunsets that you get on hot, clear days. Fabulous.

Today we're having a chill day in Siem Reap, the city that has sprung out of Angkor Wat. We're staying away from the centre, and have just walked in today. Cambodia is the only country I have come across to offer iPod recording in the bootleg CD stores - what a great concept. Unfortunately, however, the cheap copied books that were so rampant in Vietnam don't exist here, so I might have to splash out on books -up to $5! I know, I sound such a skinflint.

Kate comes to Bangkok in a week - I am incredibly excited about this. I get to show her around, maybe buy some new clothes (mine are all falling apart, although I did get a cute Siem Reap t-shirt yesterday which has been Israeli-fied - that means the neckline has been all cut), and then go back to the beach. Wunderbar. Although, it does mean in a couple of wks, I also have to say goodbye to Ori. Not good.