Don’t Forget to Write!
We wrote this article for The Drive Magazine, Issue # 88
Things didn’t start out quite like we had planned. Our first stop on a four-month, round- the-world “Escape Windsor Winter Tour -2013”- Amman Jordan- and it was snowing! The entire nation shut down for two days as snowy conditions wreaked havoc upon the roads- first major snow in 25 years. Our trip to the ruins at Petra would have to wait for another time.
Daughter Rosalie was off to university in Vancouver, son Jon was living in Montreal, so we decided it was high time to revisit some of the places we’d toured during our one year, round-the-world honeymoon in 1986-87. This time, we would vagabond in five countries in SE Asia, our ultimate destination being Ubud, Bali- plus that short layover in Amman.
Bangkok, Thailand: City of Angels, Venice of the East. This was our fourth visit to the Thai capital, and the place seemed to be on a roll. The economy was booming, the air was cleaner, the traffic jams still frenetic, the street food perhaps the best on earth. Koah Sahn Road, the tourist ghetto we’d stayed in 1987 had expanded into an entire district, a refuge catering to westerners, still sleazy but somehow charming as well, especially at night when the streets came alive with all manner of bars, restos, outdoor massages and vendors.
North to Sukhothai, the 800 year old ancient Thai capital, where we lucked into the Festival of Lights, in honour of King Ramkhamhaeng, noteworthy as the founder of the modern-day Thai alphabet and Theravada Buddhism; it was meant to be an auspicious occasion. The old city, a UNESCO heritage site, was magnificent, over 100 stunning Buddha statues and stuppas. On the night of the festival, replete with parade, traditional music and dance, events culminated in a battle royale featuring live elephants and warriors re-enacting a famous battle.
After a mellow and spiritually uplifting couple of days in old Sukhothai, our next stop in the Northern Thai city in Chiang Mai was a bit of a shock. While we were certainly aware things had changed since our memorable first visit in 1989, merely traveling the short distance from the train station to our hotel revealed how incredibly busy the city had become. No longer a peaceful haven from loud, bustling Bangkok, it seemed that “progress” and tourism had turned this northern hill tribe centre into a smaller version of the Thai capital.
The Rainforest Hotel provided a respite from the noise and traffic, featuring infinity pool, ample buffet breakfast and a new wing appointed with designer bedrooms. We shopped at the famous Night Market, gorged on delicious street food, and marveled at the Buddhist Temples.
Soon it was time we hit the beach. After a few starts and stops, we found ourselves aboard a high-speed boat transported to the remote eastern Thai island of Koh Maak. Pretty much what we’d come to expect from a tropical island- sandy beaches, azure seas, palm tree swaying, loungers by the pool, dinner featuring local seafood at tables set on the sand at sunset- you get the picture. After eight nights on Koh Maak, which probably had no more than 200 tourists on the entire island, we headed to our next destination: Cambodia.
Before wandering north to the fabulous ruins of Angkor Wat, we hugged the southern coast, stopping at three rather dissimilar destinations. In Sihanoukville (aka “Sinville”), we landed at what could be charitably described as a “resort in progress.”
Named after the beloved Cambodian King Sihanouk, who passed away in October and was coincidentally cremated in an elaborate ceremony while we were in Cambodia, Sinville developed as the major port for the country in the 1990s. With its lax visa regulations, Cambodia has become a haven for expats escaping from Thailand and elsewhere. A fair number of restos, hotel and sleazy bar operators in Sinville are escapees from Pattaya, Thailand, a notorious sex and sin centre – or so we were told.
Sinville remains an interesting cross between backpacker haven and high-end tourist trap. The town itself has an unfinished look: piles of rubble and construction sites everywhere. But the main reason people come is for the beach (and/or the sex and sin trade). While Ochateal Beach, where we stayed, was not amazing by Gulf of Thailand standards (the golden sand does squeak under your toes though), by night the beach rocks as locals set out big cane chairs with comfy cushions right on the sand, and offer up plates of seafood bar-b-q , with all the fixings for ridiculously low price. Happy hour draught beers can be quaffed for fifty cents, cocktails for around $2. It is an enchanting setting and we took full advantage our first night, ordering platters of scallops, tuna and shrimps for under $15. Fishing boats bobbed in the bay, tourist boats shuffled farangs back and forth from nearby islands, made all the more enchanting as the sun set in a splash of gold and red.
The majority of the time we were content to lounge near the pool at the Beach Club Resort, wander down to the waterline to take in the sunset and an ice-cold beverage and then tuck into the yummy grub at one of the many restos lining the tourist district. We were totally chill-axed but after 4-days, we were ready for our next stop, the tranquil river town of Kampot, Cambodia.
Cambodia is a desperately poor country, still recovering from the ravages of the Pol Pot regime, notorious for unspeakable atrocities and the “Killing Fields” during the 1970s. After a cramped, bumpy ride we arrived in Kampot, a charming if somewhat tattered French colonial town set along the Kampot River under the Bokor and Elephant Mountains. Haunted by the ghosts of French Indo-Chine and the Vietnam War, Kampot seemed like a tarnished gem that may soon be polished to its former brilliance. While the streets were lined with mostly grey moldy old buildings, every now and then a display of color would be revealed– an historic building restored by an intrepid entrepreneur catering to travelers, such as the charming boutique Colonial Hotel where we settled in for two nights.
Continuing along Cambodia’s south coast, a mercifully short journey from Kampot, Cambodia found us in Kep, a resort town near the Vietnam border, once a playground for French Colonists escaping Phnom Penh’s sweatbox to take in the ocean breezes at their mansions and estates. Vestiges of these buildings remain, mostly as ruins. Many new resorts have sprouted up from the ashes of the old, and Kep seems on the verge of becoming a huge destination should the Chinese ever discover its charms, and abundant seafood.
There’s not a whole lot to Kep; the town is more like a long boardwalk that hugs the coast as it winds around a land head into a small town, making it ideal for bicycle rides. Today, Kep is beloved by Cambodians as an escape from their hot, busy, noisy capital, Phnom Penh. Our visit coincided with Chinese New Year, celebrated in Cambodia even though they are not Chinese. Any excuse for a holiday!
Kep’s main attractions are the wooden crab and seafood shacks which hang over the bay. The seafood we sampled was fresh and delicious, our favourite place became Kim Ly, due to its spot-on service. The most famous local dish is the green pepper crab, and of course we had to order it. The crab was sweetly delicious, the pepper sauce sublime (green pepper corns from nearby Kampot), the portions ample and inexpensive – $10 for a huge platter. Kep turned out to be one of those amazing places that we’d never heard of – and that’s why we travel!
North to Siem Reap, home of Angkor Wat and many other ancient ruins. This region probably has the best tourist infrastructure in Cambodia; the streets are mostly well paved, there are many beautiful hotels in all categories; downtown, bustling Pub Street offers a wide selection of eateries. The ruins at Angkor Wat are more than 400 square kilometers and comprise the magnificent remains of different Khmer Empire capitals from the 9th to the 15th century.
Angkor Wat is always mentioned as one of the top ancient sites on the planet, along with the pyramids in Egypt, the ruins of Rome and Athens, Manchu Pichu, Peru; the site was made famous by Angelique Jolie in the movie “Tomb Raider.”
The Angkor Wat ruins are a challenge to describe; “other-worldly” comes closest. Intrepid novelist, traveler, and TV celeb Anthony Bourdain once said he threw his camera away after visiting Angkor Wat, as he felt it was impossible to capture it though the lens.
We toured Angkor Wat for two full days in the blazing heat, opting for the Little Circuit during the first very long, hot day, then arriving before sunrise the next day for the Big Circuit; in the end, we were “ruined out.” In our travels, we have toured many places that are oversold to crass tourism and commercialization. Despite the crowds, Angkor Wat should be on your bucket list – it is a “must see” adventure!
After a brief layover in Kuala Lumpur Malaysia, where we were guests of former Windsorites Doug and Doris Bingeman, (Doug works for the Canadian Embassy), we landed at our next – and most favoured- destination: Bali Indonesia. In 1986, we fell in love with Bali, and swore we’d come back. While it did take 27 years, when we finally settled into to our deluxe villa in the village of Ubud, we knew that the journey had been worth it.
From our perch, Bali remains an incredible destination, despite a huge tourism infrastructure along the southern coast and its reputation as “paradise.” Ubud, Bali has become famous as the backdrop for Elizabeth Gilbert’s best selling book “Eat, Pray, Love,” and the film adaptation shot in the village, starring Julia Roberts and Javier Bardem. As Bali’s major arts and culture centre, a rather eclectic mind and body healing industry has evolved in Ubud, culminating in the Bali Spirit Festival every year. In contrast to the main tourist area in southern Bali, Ubud features tropical greenery, fast flowing rivers through deep ravines, cooler temperatures and less congestion, although traffic has increased dramatically in the 21st century. A number of smaller “boutique”-style hotels are located in and around Ubud, which commonly offer spa treatments or treks up nearby mountains. Many expats also make Ubud their home, opting out of western life.
There are at least 300 restaurants in a village of only 30,000 people, featuring everything from local warungs to five star international dining. We quickly developed our favourites, including an Italian pizza joint with a real wood forno run by a congenial former Torontonian, who served mouth-watering pizza and pasta for under $5.
We landed in Bali prior to Nyepi, or “Day of Silence, a Hindu celebration and a day of silence, fasting and meditation. Devout Hindu Balinese villages usually design ogoh-ogohs, demonic statues (once made of bamboo and paper but now the majority are skillfully carved styrofoam) symbolizing negative elements or malevolent spirits.
After the ogoh-ogohs have been paraded around the village, the Ngrupuk ritual takes place, which once involved burning the ogoh-ogoh but these days they may be destroyed in other ways to avoid burning the styrofoam; sometimes they are even sold to art collectors who ship them to other countries. Then, for 24 hours, from 6 a.m. until 6 a.m. the next morning, EVERYTHING STOPS! Even the airport shuts down.
We spent the day before Nyepi buzzing around the villages north of Ubud on our motorbike, checking out as many ogoh-ogohs as we could find. In one village, we happened upon an amazing ceremony taking place right out on the street next to a temple. No one seemed to mind a couple of “farangs” hanging around taking photos.
Ubud represents everything we seek through travel: a vibrant culture and arts scene, fantastic shopping for all manner of local made clothing and handicrafts, breath-taking scenery (temples, verdant jungle, rice paddies, valleys, volcanoes, wild rivers, eco-tourism), welcoming locals, a large expat contingent, a diverse selection of restaurants featuring fresh local produce, fantastic values on villa rentals replete with staff who cater to one’s every whim. Ubud was our favourite stop when we circumnavigated the world in 1986-87, and it wins hands-down as the place where we intend to escape Windsor winters going forward.
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