Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The Trip In Review

Carlsbad, California - Well we've been home now for a few months and in some ways the trip seems long ago and in others it feels like it was just yesterday that we were hopping on buses and moving from town to town.

It was a wonderful trip with many more high points than low points so without further ado here are the highlights and lowlights:

Favorite Cities:

Singapore - Multicultural, great food, easy to get around, great food, excellent shopping and oh did I mention the great food?

Saigon, Vietnam - Very cool city, cosmopolitan, good sites, good food, nice mix of the modern and old school.

Phnom Penh, Cambodia - Might be a bit of a surprise to be on the list but again great food (do you sense a pattern), a gritty feel to it, sobering historical sights like the Killing Fields, Tuol Sleng, friendly people as with everywhere in Cambodia

Favorite Towns:

Hoi An, Vietnam - Full of tourists but just like Venice, one can see why. Very cute town, nice restaurants, good market, great cooking school, very chill place to hang out. Excellent happy hour drink specials.

Koh Tao, Thailand - Not really a town but again a very chill place, excellent diving, beautiful scenery. Not much to do but dive but we still ended up spending 3 weeks there.

Favorite Restaurants:

Friends Cafe, Phnom Penh, Cambodia - Run as a Co-op to train orphaned kids in the restaurant business, a good concept but even better food. Staff was very friendly and the food was some of the best we had.

FCC (Foreign Correspondents Cafe), Phnom Penh, Cambodia - A journo hangout during the various wars this place reeks of colonial charm. Great views from the second floor of the chaos below and locals walking along the river. The pizza is the best we had on our trip. The Martini's (Stacy) were a nice change from beer and the White Sangria (Betsy) definitely quenched one's thirst in the Cambodian heat.

Kafe Batan Waru, Bali, Indonesia - Next to a big shopping mall in Tuban this place served some wonderful Indonesian/Balinese food. Our favorites included: Karedok - Bandung style vegetable salad with peanut tamarind dressing and Ayam Rica-Rica - One half chicken de-boned and grilled and simmered in a manadonese chili sauce with shitake mushrooms

Texas BBQ – Nha Trang, Vietnam - Great BBQ as good as anything from home and a nice break from all the rice/noodles etc we’d been eating on our trip up to that point. Easily the best burger I had on the whole trip.

Favorite Experiences:

Halong Bay Boat Trip, Northern Vietnam – Did the 3 day 2 night trip which was much better than the traditional one night trip as you don’t just follow all the other boats but instead head to the quieter areas of Halong Bay. Excellent food, good company and great scenery this trip was well worth busting the budget for.

Mahout Experience, Luang Prabang, Laos - Mahouts are elephant trainers and we got to spend a day training to be a Mahout. We got our own elephant that we learned to command, and that we took down to the river to bathe. It was an amazing experience and highly recommended.

Scuba Diving, Koh Tao, Thailand and Gili Islands, Indonesia - Scuba diving was a revelation to both of us and we enjoyed it immensely. It is something we will definitely be doing again.

Esala Perehara Festival, Kandy, Sri Lanka - Amazing festival with hundreds of decorated elephants lighting up the street for 4 nights.

Favorite Bars:

FCC, Phnom Penh, Cambodia - See favorite restaurants above

Any of the cheap beer/2 for 1 cocktails places in Hoi An, Vietnam

Windansea Resort Bar/Restaurant, Koh Tao, Thailand - Good food and a great place to watch the sun go down in Koh Tao

Best Trip:

Two day boat ride up the Mekong River, Laos - From Luang Prabang upstream to the Thai border. Amazing scenery, interesting villages, feeling very remote and cut off from the rest of the world.

12 Hour bus ride from Vientiane to Luang Prabang, Laos - Long, stomach churning trip but unbelievable scenery for most of the trip.

10 Hour boat ride from Chau Doc, Vietnam to Phnom Penh, Cambodia - One of those trips that was not much fun at the time but very cool in hindsight. Long day, hot, uncomfortable transport but seeing an area that not many tourist venture by was fun as was waving at all the children on the banks of the river. A very remote feeling!

Best Hotel:

Silq Bangkok - Bangkok, Thailand – One of our most expensive hotels at $50/night but worth 3x that!

Manta Dive Bungalows, Gili Islands, Indonesia – No TV, no internet, no problem. Beautiful setting, and cold beer was all we needed and the beautiful outdoor bathroom was cool as well. No motorized vehicles anywhere on the islands was a bonus.

Now for some of the worsts:

Worst City: Hanoi, Vietnam – Maybe because it was our first stop and we were still getting over the culture shock, Hanoi just didn’t do much for us especially compared to other SE Asian cities like Saigon and Phnom Penh.

Most overpriced country: Sri Lanka - Hands down this was the most expensive place, could have been an interesting place but so much more expensive than any of the other places we had visited it just wasn't worth the extra cost.

Worst Hotel: Polonnarurawa, Sri Lanka - Overpriced, mosquito infested, dirty sheets (thank god we had sleep sheets!) for our now long forgotten hotel in Polonnarurawa. The swimming pool was so dirty I wouldn’t let my dog swim in it and the room was worse. We checked out after 1 night.

Worst Night: 1 night we spent at Don Khone (4000 Islands, Laos). Nice bungalow, idyllic setting, very peaceful and beautiful but 100+F and no power except from 6pm-10pm each night so the locals could watch their Thai soap operas. That meant no fan let alone no AC so we spent the whole night sweating under our mosquito net listening to all the bugs buzzing around our heads. I would highly recommend the 4000 islands during cool season would give it a miss during hot season, though they were in the process of putting power lines out to the islands so that may change.

Worst Experience(s):

Stacy: 11 hour Overnight Bus from Pakse to Vientiane. Beds comfortable for one 4 foot person had to accommodate two of us

Betsy: Overnight Train from Hanoi to Hue in Vietnam. Within minutes of getting to our carriage Betsy started noticing all the cockroaches scurrying around the room. She spent the whole night wrapped in her sleep sheet with only her eyes showing, wide open with the light on watching the bugs run across the walls.

Honorable Mention: Boat from Gili Islands back to Bali – Only a 3 hour trip but lets just say within 10 minutes of leaving I was scouting out where the lifejackets were located.

Worst Restaurant – Tum Tum Bamboo – Luang Prabang, Laos – Food was indescribably terrible. It had obviously been micro waved as some parts were cold, others hot. Terrible, Terrible, took about 2 bites and walked out.

The highlights of our trip greatly outnumbered the lowlights, after hearing so many stories about people being ripped off around SE Asia we were happy to say that we had very few problems. Southeast Asia is a wonderful place and we really enjoyed our time there. The food, people and culture were all wonderful and we look forward to going back and exploring the region even more down the road.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Sri Lanka or Bust?

So it turns out Sri Lanka has been a bit of a bust at least compared to our other destinations in Asia. As I mentioned it is very expensive for what you get. We are spending 2x as much on average per day in Sri Lanka as we had been in SE Asia and not getting the same quality of accomodation!

We were also unable to find any decent, reasonably priced accomodation in the Hill Country area which is the the part of Sri Lanka that everyone says is the best part of the country.

As such we were left with a bit of a dilemma, our plan had been to head down south to the beaches for a week or so after visiting the Hill country but now we are faced with spending 2 weeks in the beach areas after having spent the last 2 months in beach areas.

So we decided to cut short our Sri Lanka adventure and head back to Singapore and catch an early flight home. It didn't make sense to be spending so much money in Sri Lanka just to run out the clock the last couple of weeks.

It's been a great adventure and we've had a great time but it's time to head home and prepare for the next adventure.

We'll have a summary of our bests & worsts up in a few days.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Ancient Cities

Polonnaruwa, Sri Lanka - We spent a couple of days visiting the Ancient cities in Central Sri Lanka. These cities including Polonnaruwa and Sigirya have a mix of buddhist and hindu ruins, temples and stupas that date back over 1000 years.

The tickets are expensive ($50 for foreigners, 0 for Sri Lankans, what else is new?) and while the sites aren't as spectacular as Angkor they are still interesting.

We are finding Sri Lanka to be very expensive compared to the other countries we have visited and not a particularly good value. Hotels especially are expensive compared to what you get. A $70 hotel here seems to be equivalent to a $20 hotel elsewhere in SE Asia.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Kandy's Esala Perahera

Kandy, Sri Lanka - We ended up going to the Perahera festival on two nights including the final night. It was quite interesting and spectacular to see though it turned out the 2 nights were 99% the same. There was about a hundred elephants in the parade plus dancers and musicians and other assorted performers.

People started to line up on the sidewalk about noon for a parade that wouldn't start until almost 8pm. We were lucky enough to buy tickets (not cheap!) that allowed us to watch from a second floor balcony above the chaos. We also got dinner out of the deal which was good.

The Perahera was definitely interesting to see but it was long. We had to get to our restaurant around 4pm in order to make it through the checkpoints and people to even see the parade and then the parade lasted around 4 hours.

There was a lot of talk that this year's Perahera was bigger than usual with a larger audience than normal due to the end of the 30 year civil war in Sri Lanka in May. We can attest to the fact that it was packed with people!

Monday, August 3, 2009

Don't Leave Home Without....

Kandy, Sri Lanka - Don't leave home without a bottle of Gin! The main thing going on in Kandy right now is the Esala Perahera festival which is an approximately 10 day Buddhist festival and the largest festival in Sri Lanka. One of the downsides of the festival apart from the crazy crowds, police checkpoints and hawkers is there is a ban on selling booze in all the bars/restaurants for the whole festival.

We didn't realize this until we headed out our first afternoon for a walk around town. We stopped to take a look at the bar at our hotel which has a great vantage point overlooking the city and saw a sign on the door saying no alcohol would be served during the Perahera Festival!

Luckily we had decided in Singapore to get a bottle of gin at duty free. We had gotten kind of tired of beer on our trip and wine was always expensive and/or not very good. Cocktails are readily available everywhere but also very expensive. So we decided to bring our own bottle and just buy tonic water and make our own G&T's.

Lucky thing we did! Our first night in Kandy Betsy went down and asked the bar for two glasses with ice and lime. The bartender laughed and asked her if she had a bottle of rum in her room, she got nervous and said no that we just had some sparkling water but he didn't care either way.

So each evening we have our Gin & Tonic and sit and watch the sun go down from our hotel. It's quite the colonial experience!

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Welcome to Sri Lanka!

Kandy, Sri Lanka - Well we've been in Sri Lanka for 2 days now after flying from in from Singapore. We spent 2 nights and one day at the Ayubowan Guesthouse in Negombo. The owners Ron & Brenda Cornelius were lovely and made us feel very welcome. I unfortunately picked up a bit of a stomach bug in Singapore so we did not get a chance to see much of Negombo and instead spent a lazy day by the pool reading and swimming.

Today we had a 3 hour drive to Kandy where we will be based for the next 5 nights. It definitely feels like a bit of culture shock being here which is something we haven't felt since we arrived in Vietnam 4.5 months ago.

Driving here is crazy (just like Vietnam) and there are lots of people (just like Vietnam). The people are friendly though and we felt much more comfortable after walking around town a bit to get our bearings.

Kandy is packed with people at the moment for the Esala Perahera Festival which is the biggest festival of the year in Sri Lanka.

After we got settled into our hotel we went down to reception to ask some questions about where to see the processions and the manager asked why our guide didn't know. When we explained we didn't have a guide he seemed rather confused.

Sure enough everyone walking around the hotel is with a guide, we just always have to be unique I guess. Betsy asked where our guide was and I told her that she should be glad we took a car & driver today instead of the local bus to Kandy.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Gili Fast Boat or is it Wet Boat?

Bali, Indonesia - We left the Gili Islands Tuesday to head back to Bali by fast boat. There are several options for getting to and from the Gili Islands with the fast boat being the quickest and most expensive option. The fast boats are really speedboats 25-35 feet with several large outboard motors that seat 20 to 30 people.

On our last night the wind really picked up such that we had 4-5 foot choppy seas. That might not sound like much but that was in addition to the normal swells. The swells here are pretty unbelievable. As I mentioned in a previous post Indonesia has some of the greatest currents around as it is where the Pacific and Indian Oceans meet up. The Pacific Ocean is several feet higher than the Indian Ocean so that coupled with the thousands of islands that make up the Indonesian Archipelago create rivers through the islands.

The swells seemed to be about 100 feet long and 20 feet deep and on our way out to Gili we would gently ride up and gently ride down but on the journey back the swells were accompanied by 4 to 5 foot chop which made it quite a bumpy ride

The currents between the island we were on, Gili Trawangan and the island next to it, Gili Air about a half mile away were as bad as anything we saw on the Mekong River.

So our fast boat left about 1130am for the 2.5 hour journey back to Bali and it was an adventure. We were going across the chop so by the end of the journey I felt like I had a compressed spine.

At one point I was taking note of where the life jackets were and wondering if I could use my belt to secure Betsy and I together in the water but we made it back with no issues and I have a feeling that the waves were nothing out of the ordinary as none of the boat staff seemed particularly worried!

On Thursday we head to Singapore for one night and then on Friday we head to Sri Lanka for our last month of travel. Sri Lanka will be a nice change from Southeast Asia and we are really looking forward to it.

Diving the Gili Islands

Bali, Indonesia - Diving was excellent in the Gili Islands and we greatly enjoyed our last 5 nights and 4 days. We did 8 dives over 4 days with visibility up to 30 m. The only downsides of diving in the Gili's are most of the coral above about 15m has been bombed by fishermen so you really have to dive to 20-30m to see the best coral formations and sea life. It makes diving in the Gili's not that great for those with only their Open Water certification. It was definitely worthwhile getting our Advanced Certification in Koh Tao!

The other downside of diving in the Gili's are the currents. We had a couple of dives where it felt like we were diving in a river. You feel like you are holding on more than just floating along. But those two things aside the variety of sea life is amazing. We saw turtles, ocotopi, scorpionfish, mackerel, barramundi, crabs, prawns, frogfish, pipefish, trumpetfish, lionfish, sharks, cuttlefish and so on and so on.

It was a great trip and already has us thinking of our next dive trip, maybe to the Red Sea in Egypt or Belize.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Shark Diving

Gili Trawangan, Indonesia - Today we got back in the water and went diving for the first time in 3 weeks. Our first site of the day was Shark Point which is supposedly one of the best sites on the Gili Islands. We were quite excited to see a shark for the first time or I should say I was excited to see a shark, Betsy was a little nervous, so nervous that I nicknamed her "Shark Bait".

Down we went to 22m for 52 minutes, we saw several octopi, cuttlefish, hawksbill turtles, moray eel, banded sea snakes (3 right next to each other) as well as the usual assortment of angelfish, fusiliers, bannerfish and other creatures of the deep. What we didn't see was a shark! Quite a few people on the boat saw a shark but we unfortunately did not.

Our second dive was at a site called Manta Point, here we dropped down to 22m and immediately came upon a 2m Whitetip Reef Shark that was resting on the sand. He swam around in circles and we probably got within 15-20ft of him. We also saw a large school of batfish, more cuttlefish, a baby shark, turtles and the usual assortment.

What we noticed diving here compared to Thailand are the currents. The currents are very strong whereas in Thailand we had almost no current. On our second dive there was a large surge as well so you would swim along and the surge would sway you back and forth about 10 feet. That took some getting used to. The downside with that is we had to wear extra weight. Whereas in Thailand I had only 3kg of weight here I am using almost double the amount. The currents are really strong!

It is hard to say who has the better diving. There are definitely larger pelagics (fish) here but I don't feel there is the same number of fish as Koh Tao (Betsy disagrees on that). What we do agree on is the coral is much more spectacular in Koh Tao. Years of dynamite fishing has destroyed a lot of the coral here luckily that is no longer practiced.

What is better in Gili is the visibility. We can see 20m+ whereas Koh Tao was about half that. Both areas are great and we are looking forward to our next few dives here.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Diving the Gili's

Gili Islands, Indonesia – It is interesting to see how Bali has changed since the bombings in Jakarta. There are now guards at the hotel checking the ID of everyone entering from the front of the hotel or from the beach. Some of the guards are even carrying automatic machine guns which is a bit eerie. All the malls and restaurants we've been to have security guards who check people's bags as they enter, it definitely feels like security has been ramped up in a big way the last few days.

All in all we feel very safe though, business is going on as normal and there are tons of tourists so hopefully the Jakarta bombings won't affect Bali's tourism industry too much.

Today we arrived in Gili Trawangan which is a small island about an hour and a half boat ride from Bali. We are here for 5 days to do some diving. Trawangan is one of 3 islands known as the Gili Islands. All 3 are very small and you can walk around the whole island in a couple of hours. There also are no motor vehicles allowed on the islands. No cars, trucks, scooters just a few bicycles and pony carts.

Tomorrow for our first dive we are going to Shark Pt. This is supposedly one of the best dive sites around the Gili's and we are almost guaranteed to see some sharks which will be cool. I guess they usually hang out around 24m and we will be going down as far as 30m.

In the afternoon we will be going to Manta Pt another great site where we may even spot a manta ray.

It has been 3 weeks since our last dive in Koh Tao so we are really looking forward to getting back in the water and seeing some new things.