Blissful in Bali

Sunset on the beach at Doublesix
Sunset on the beach at Doublesix

Despite accommodating Australian tourists in bulk, Bali is well worth a visit. It really is an amazing place. The locals are super friendly, the beer relatively cheap, the beaches are great and the restaurants and bars provide quality food, booze and fun. You also have the added excitement of risking life and limb the moment you set foot on the road (same as everywhere else in Asia).

In Bali you can spend your time enjoying the sun, sand and surf. Hire a surfboard and learn to surf at Doublesix, buy a watch from Honest 2 Bob, a bracelet from the beach hawkers and get a massage on the beach out front of the Jayakarta Hotel. Or take a ride down to the sparsely developed Bukit Peninsula, famous for its surf (which had no swell whatsoever when we visited).

You can wine and dine in Seminyak, taking your pick from a full selection of international cuisines with rice paddy views and distinct Balinese flavours.  Or venture out to Echo Beach, pull up a table, order a couple of Bintangs and watch the local boys tear up a quality five-foot lefthander. The real action begins once the sun sets and they wheel out the seafood barbeque. You can do a demolition job on their discount Snapper, Tuna steaks and Calamari.

The moment you get away from Denpasar and the beachside tourist development that stretches from Kuta up to Seminyak you see a completely different side to Bali. Even in the city it is still quite beautiful, functioning rice paddies still punctuate the low-rise development.

Head for the black sands of Lovina on the northwest coast. The drive across the island features a breath-taking climb through the terraced farms of Gunung Agung and past the Danau Buyan and Danau Tamblingan volcanic lakes.

Or you can opt for the inland charm of Ubud. Despite the fact that it is bursting at the seams it maintains a village feel. Hire a bike and explore its steep streets, be accosted by food seeking monkeys at the Monkey Forest Sanctuary, or get a taste of Indonesian Buddhism at Goa Gajah (the Elephant Cave).

You really can have a great time in Bali. We certainly did.

Happy times in Bali
Happy times in Bali
Glenn haggles with the street sellers
Glenn haggles with the street sellers

Seven simple steps to a successful Bali Christmas and New Year

The Christmas spread
The Christmas spread

1. Smuggle or bribe bulk contraband through customs

A US$40  bribe will get 5.5kg of prime cut Australian cryovac Scotch Fillet steak through Indonesian customs (reputable sources will later tell you that US$20 would have done). Supplement this with copious amounts of booze. Remember the one litre of duty free liquor allowance per person is just a rule of thumb.  Wine of dubious quality can be sourced locally, at exorbitant cost, from an unscrupulous English expat who for the past thirty years has been living a conscious free and highly lucrative existence in South East Asia.

2. Assemble a small pose

Ideally a collection of family, friends and haphazard acquaintances (who will soon become fast friends) aged from three through to sixty. If at all possible, source a Dutch couple (they tend to bring Bintang tallboys in bulk).

3. Rent a mac-daddy private villa at a ridiculously discounted rate

Compliment with a pool, driver and cook. I couldn’t recommend Villa Theresa more highly.

4. Set a spread that would put the last supper to shame.

Include a behemoth roast turkey, a magnificent honey ham and a proper pudding all prepared by a petty crim turned caterer from Ballarat. Add an entire ecosystem of crustaceans (lobster and prawns) prepared on the BBQ with Pak Putu’s green pepper marinate.

5. Schedule an hour-long splash fest in the pool with a three year old.

Instruct him on the dark art of the backyard bomb. Start with the classics: the cannonball , the horsie and the belly-wacker. Graduate to the honey-pot, the can-opener and the genie.

6. Eat, drink and be merry.

7. Repeat.

Baby Ray and I in Splashfest 2009
Baby Ray and I in Splashfest 2009

A tailored trip to Hoi An

The Chinese Bridge in Hoi An
The Chinese Bridge in Hoi An

Hoi An is famous for its tailors and dressmakers. Every second shop in the old town is one or the other and people flock from around to world for the custom made suits and silks. That’s definitely what Amy had come for and after some not so gentle persuasion it’s what I also got.

We caught a surprisingly comfortable overnight train from Hanoi down to Da Nang. The taxi ride south to Hoi An provided a horrifying premonition of the Floridaeske development that is underway on that coastline strip. Our senses were assaulted for the majority of the thirty-minute taxi ride by an endless procession of outrageously ostentatious beachfront resorts, all half completed. Every passing kilometer further diminished my expectations for Hoi An but I needn’t have worried, we swung a right and headed about five kilometres in from the coast until we arrived at the little gem that is Hoi An.

At Amy’s behest we got to work rectifying the clothes situation post haste. Along the way we encountered many people who were in the same mission as us but it seems they had all done their homework on the net, researching reviews of the various tailors and dressmakers on blogs before committing to getting anything made. Amy and I went old school instead. We walked the streets and looked at the actual products themselves. That is how Amy found Yaly and I found Mr Xe.

Mr Xe is a frenzied but friendly little man who spends his life in a little tailor shop set on a corner in the heart of the Hoi An old town. Camp as they come, when it comes to suits, he is an absolute perfectionist. We were walking along the street went his displays caught our eye and we stopped for a closer look. Three minutes later Amy had talked me into getting a suit made.

I was expecting the process to be more tedious than sitting through a friend’s holiday slide show but I certainly got more than I bargained for with Mr Xe. I loved it. My fittings involved me standing their while Mr Xe meticulously pruned and straightened the said garment before taking a step back and declaring either “I am happy!” or “I’m not happy!” In the case of the latter the article was sent back to the sewer for alteration. At one point I was bundled out of the shop still in my suit, handed an umbrella before driven through pouring rain to the sewer’s house for some personalized alterations.

I am sure I could have gotten a suit cheaper if I had of gone elsewhere but I doubt I could get have gotten a better one. I had five fittings over three days, Amy had nearly twice as many for all of her faboulous creations.

In between we enjoyed the many other joys Hoi An has to offer. Despite the development going on around it the old town has maintained its charming traditional architecture. Even sleeping there was like going back in time, Minh A Ancient Lodging House had it all, ornate hard wood paneling and beams, partitioned rooms, a stone well and rising damp. Then there is also the amazing local specialty dishes, including: “white rose” steamed shrimp dumplings; “cau lau” noodles with a mix of spouts and greens, topped with sliced pork and served in a savory broth; and fried wonton. Apparently the nearby beach is really nice but as it rained constantly for the entire duration of our three-night stay there we confined ourselves to the town and aren’t in a position to comment.

Amy went to Hoi An on a shopping mission. Four days later I left with two two-piece suits, two extra slacks, six shirts and seven ties. If had a job I would look like a consummate professional.

Meet Joe Brown: the funest man in South East Asia

Aye, aye, captain Brown
Aye, aye, captain Brown

Hundreds of Hanoi travel agencies offer package trips to Vietnam’s most famous natural attraction; Halong Bay. While they have different schedules, durations and cost, essentially they all include the same thing: return bus trip from Hanoi (four-hours each way) and sleeping out on the bay in a traditional Chinese junk.

Every day there is a mass exodus of tourists from Hanoi that head down to see the bay, which stretches from mainland China in the north to the Gulf of Tonkin and is filled by thousands of limestone karsts and islands that leap out of the green waters in various sizes and shapes.

We jumped aboard one of these trips with low expectations. But as it turns out we got super lucky as our trip was also patronized by a Mr. Joe Brown: Englishman, amusement arcade owner, parish councilor, comedian, loud mouth, piss head and all round good guy.

Joe Brown is a big kid stuck in the body of a thirty-two year old. A little pudgy with a slight limp, he plays the role of the jolly fat man with assured confidence, always laughing, cracking gags and playing the fool. A smoker and drinker, he loves to talk. It doesn’t matter what about, just as long as there is conversation.

Proudly English, Joe was able to look me in the eye and tell me that England was the most beautiful place in the world. The fact that he is a modern day Peter Pan who refuses to grow up is proved by his choice of profession; amusement arcade owner.

Joe is also a parish councilor and on our walk through a super impressive and incredibly well lit limestone cave in one of the Halong karsts he told us about the recycling scheme he had implemented in his village. We also heard about his plans for developing his parish, one included planting hundreds of shrubs in the shape of a giant airplane so that it can be tagged on GoogleEarth.

Like they did every Christmas, Joe and his Thai wife had spent the previous couple of weeks visiting her family and were doing a bit travel in Asia by the time we ran into them. She looked incredibly unhappy for the bulk of the trip, probably something to do with the fact that her mother had died a couple of weeks before and she was shit scared of boats. Joe tried to ease her pain by getting pissed, wrapping a towel around his head and blasting out some karaoke with the boats crew right outside of her room until 3am. She did perk up markedly the next day but I think that was more to do with leaving the boat.

Joe has spent the past five years building up his tolerance to chili to the point were he has “given up illicit drugs because chili and prescription pills are enough”. He definitely loved his chili, coving everything we ate (surprisingly enough of the food on the boat was palatable) with spoonfuls of it. Joe also enjoys dabbling in a bit of sleep deprivation as it “does strange things to your mind.”

He convinced our guide to let him skipper the boat, he sang for us, drank with us, made us laugh and shared his story. You’re a good egg, Joe Brown. Halong Bay was a much better place when seen with you.

Happy times in Hanoi

The crowded streets of Hanoi
The crowded streets of Hanoi

Our minivan sluggishly made its way through the gridlocked streets of Hanoi’s Old Town. A sea of red and movement surrounded us; no matter where you looked people were waving flags. They waved them while standing on the street, waved them while hanging out the windows of buildings, waved them from the back of motorbikes and out of car windows. The people of Hanoi were celebrating. The Vietnamese football team had defeated Singapore 4-1 to qualify for the final of the South East Asia Games.

This spontaneous outburst of nationalism made blatantly obvious that Hanoi is Vietnamese through and through. The city was a definite a change of pace from sleepy old Laos. The streets are tight (as opposed to the wide boulevards of Saigon), busy and loud. Motos, cars, bicycles and street hawkers jostle for position on the road. Everywhere you look life spills from the tightly packed tumbledown buildings onto the street. People sit, eat, talk and laugh.

At first glance it appears chaotic but there is a kind of ancient intimacy about it. A feeling that it is the way it has always been and always will be. If Saigon is a teenage kid, growing fast and looking to get somewhere in hurry, then Hanoi is a mature adult, comfortable in its own skin, but still learning new tricks.

We enjoyed evading death whilst wandering the streets. Soaked in the hustle and bustle. Had fantastic Pho (noodle) while men smoked their opium pipes around us. We were subjected to the standard hotel scam. And just like every other foreigner visitor to the city we booked a trip to Halong Bay.

Never lonely in Luang Prabang

Dinner with our fellow sailors
Dinner with our fellow sailors

People arriving in Luang Prabang via the two-day slow boat journey arrive with something unique, something that changes the way they perceive the town. For me it was a wicked case of the runs; the result of dodgy buffalo curry eaten at Pak Beng the night before. It meant my first impressions of Luang Prabang were a little skewed by having to spend a day and a half huddled in the corner of our hotel room rocking back and forth.

Once the fury had run its course I was able to get out and about and quickly realised that the place is a cool little town. It has a different look and feel to other Lao towns. The French colonial architecture infused with that relaxed Laos appeal. The old town clusters around the junction of the Mekong and Nam Song rivers. Its streets are clean, quaint and quiet. It also has UNESCO World Heritage status due to its numerous Buddhist Wats; there are dozens of them around the town, both infant and ancient.

Luang Prabang caters to all levels of tourist. Although a fraction more pricey than in other parts of Laos, there are plenty of backpacker hovels (where we stayed). Then there are dozens of luxury hotels, guesthouses and restaurants catering to your higher end tourist. This makes for an interesting mix of people on the streets: starched collared polos and boat shoes can sip single malt at US$25 a pop while dirty zip-offs and thongs can grab a Beerlao tall boy at the night market for less than a buck.

There is also is a heap to do in and around Luang Prabang but one of the great things about the slow boat is that you meet a lot of people on the journey. If you are lucky you might also make some friends. We did; two English rockers from Manchester, Terry and Michelle, so we caught up with them for a couple of dinners and beers.

The fact that Luang Prabang is such a small town meant we were continually bumping into other acquaintances that we met on the boat. We shared a romantic view of the town from the hilltop Wat, alongside Tim Rogers and his Arse Kickin’ Lady From The Northwest (or at least their look-a-likes). At the Tat Kuang Si waterfall we ran into another couple who spent their summers managing a camping ground in northern England.

We paid 120,000 kip (down from 200,000) to rent a shared taxi to take us to the waterfalls and back. I thought we had been ripped off until I realised it was 37km out off town and I did the math on the drivers margin. It would have been worth going even if we had been rolled as it was absolutely amazing. The terraced falls over a white clay bottom give the water a tinge of turquoise making it look like a series of paddies overflowing with green. The rope swing and the Asian Bear rehabilitation centre also provides interesting viewing.

The pools near Luang Prabang
The pools near Luang Prabang

We also joined dozens of fellow slow boat punters in the tourist paparazzi who stalk the  monks  at dawn. With all its temples Luang Prabang is one of Laos’ main religious centres and each morning a procession of the resident monks take to the streets. Lines of young and old monks, clad in orange, make their way through the streets offering spiritual sustenance in return for physical subsistence: a blessing in exchange for rice.

Then it was time to leave. We arrived at Luang Prabang Airport to a rooster pecking the dirt completely oblivious to the hallmarks of modernity that had consumed his surrounds. The four-hour delay on the departure of our plane provided plenty of amusement for the check-in staff but was a fitting end to our time in laid back Laos.

A meander down the Mekong

There are two ways to get from to Huay Xai to Luang Prabang, the road or the river.

Having traveled the route in the reverse direction on the overnight bus – fourteen hours of bone-rattling sleep deprived discomfort – we weren’t exactly overcome by a burning desire to repeat the experience. This left the river to provide our means of travel.

There are a couple of different choices for those opting for the water. You can go for white-knuckle pandemonium on a speedboat. Eight punters don helmet and life jacket, wedge themselves into the cramped wooden benches of a tiny fishing skiff with a Ferrari engine on the back. They spend the next six hours enjoying the piercing scream of engine and the smell of two-stroke while they dodge rocks, submerged logs and whirlpools. Having both traveled at full throttle from one fish-free fishing hole to another in dodgy tinnies we decided the speedboat wasn’t for us. This left us the slow boats option: two days onboard with an overnight stay at Pak Beng.

There is the deluxe package. By day you travel on a well fitted, sparsely occupied barge with reclining lodge chairs, open bar and a pleasant smelling bathroom. By night you sit on the riverside balcony of your luxury lodge, drink cognac, smoke cigars and play backgammon while sharing polo and falconry anecdotes and lamenting the erosion of the empire and patriarchy. At US$600 a head (and the fact that both Amy and my polo and falconry anecdotes have been done to death) meant that we had to look for a more economical alternative.

US$30 each got us on barge with a similar build but lacking in comfort in the fit out. The trip itself had both bad and good points.

There are the narrow wooden benches that leave your arse numb in a heartbeat, the dark, dingy stinkroom, and the fact that Huay Xai is boring as bat shit while Pak Beng is an ugly single street shit hole, a frontier town full of hustlers, charlatans and dodgy buffalo stir-fries (which made the second day of the boat journey very uncomfortable for this little black duck).

But if you can get past all of that, the travel experience itself is quite stunning and thoroughly enjoyable. The barge winds its way slowly through the rocky outcrops, whirlpools and rapids. White sandy beaches, villages, farms and green peaks wrap their way along both banks. The hours drift by reading or you can simply enjoy sitting with the sun on your back and the breeze in your ears. You also have time for a good old chat, so convinced was I that we were sitting next to Tim Rogers I had to ask his girlfriend if she was the arse-kicking lady from the northwest (she wasn’t nor was he our Tim, just a dead ringer). All in all, I thought the slow boat to be a capital way to travel.

Skip the paths, swing through the trees.

There is something to be said for eco-tourism. I am all for any scheme that allows you to trek into the jungle, sleep in tree houses, travel by zip wire while looking for monkeys.

It is an amazing scheme, massively painful to get to (probably a good thing) but amazing all the same. Seven tree houses built in the middle of the northwestern Laos jungle joined together by a network of zip-wire cables, some up to a kilometre long.

At 160 Euros a head for the three-day waterfall tour it is uber expensive when compared to day-to-day travel in Laos but it was definitely worth every cent. The jungle is beautiful and the zip wires are mind-blowing fun. It also ticks a lot of boxes for the contentious traveler.  Established by a foreigner, the management of the project has since been handed back to the locals who are also employed as guides, cooks, drivers, builders and for maintenance. The scheme is located in an area nominally designated as a National park but as the government does not provide protectionist resources illegal logging and poaching are rife. The Gibbon Experience now funds the employment of local rangers to patrol 25% of the park.

I would love to meet the dude who had the imagination to visualize such a scheme let alone the ability to bring it to fruition.

Unfortunately no Gibbons for us. Apparently you have to be quite lucky to see them at this time of year. We heard them, saw where they slept and where they ate. It was just like going to an open for inspection of a rental property that still has tenants living in it. Nonetheless, the trekking and zipping was more than enough to entertain us. Flying across a gorge suspended hundreds of metres in the air on a kilometer long cable is an amazing experience.  Zip wire is well and truly the highest form of travel.

Confessions of a serial urinator

I have the bladder of an eighty-five year old incontinent invalid coupled with the bathroom awareness of a cantankerous toddler traveling under duress. It is an unfortunate trait that proves to be quite an impediment to travel, especially cheap long distance third world bus travel.

I try to remember to take precautions to limit the agony; well it’s more that Amy reminds me before every departure, but most of the time I just don’t need to go. Sometimes I am lucky and I try to purge every possible drop of urine to the point of straining a phoffa valve prior to departure.

Despite these preparations without fail five minutes into the journey with the gentle bounce of the road my bladder is as full as an un-milked heifer with calf.

There have been some very uncomfortable trips recently. The final stages of bus ride from Cambodia to Laos were by far the worst. Admittedly, it was made much worse by my vague ineptitude. It was about the seven-hour mark of the thirteen-hour journey and I had relieved myself only half an hour earlier at the bus stop. Despite this the first signs of impending bladder movement began to rear its ugly head. I did a reasonable job sucking up the pain for the next hour or so. But it wasn’t long after we had past Stung Treng when the cascading yellow waters of Urine Falls were consuming my every thought. By the nine-hour mark my eyes were desperately scanning for any kind of vessel capable of holding the torrent of piss barely contained within my straining bladder. It was about then that the strange box in the back corner of the bus caught my eye and I identified the onboard toilet. Needless to say, it was a discovery that provided much joy.

Our recent overnight bus from Luang Prabang to Hauy Xai would have been a terrible trip anyway: fourteen hours, overnight, the worst seats on the bus and three hundred and fifty kilometres of windy, pot-hole ridden semi-paved ‘highway’ but it was made much, much worst by the fact that there was no toilet onboard. We had been assured there would be by the smooth talking ticket agent but I guess that is the way of the world. The bus stopped every three hours to allow passengers to relieve themselves in the bushes or on the side of a building. Most would say this a very reasonable schedule for breaks, but my incontinence is far from reasonable.

I have taken to drinking as little as possible while I travel. I probably shouldn’t drink coffee prior to travel but in reality my bladder is so infinitely minute that it wouldn’t make any difference. Still, I spend two hours out every three dreaming of yellow falls. The only consolations I receive from this unfortunate situation are the moments of great relief when a piss held too long is finally released. That moment is one of life’s simply joys.

Travel bugs: what’s the problem?

At various times during our travels over the past couple of months I have found myself pondering how our presence, and the presence of fellow travelers, was impacting the places and cultures we were visiting. Our recent experiences in Tadlo and Vang Vieng have brought these vague notions into sharper focus.

There was something not quite right about the guided trek we took through the traditional villages around Tadlo. It felt as if the villagers and their way of life were being reduced to a curiosity. The traditional way of life is cheapened, reduced to a spectacle, a sideshow. People take the tour, stop, gawk like simpletons and exclaim, “Ooohhhh, look how they live!”

I have definitely picked up hints of underlying animosity at times. It is absolutely fair enough, you can’t help but feel that we get so much more out of the interaction than they do. We get to see and experience a different culture, a different way of life and to learn from that. We visit idyllic pastoral paradises untouched by the modern world, breathtaking jungle clad mountains, villagers working the terraced garden beds set into the banks of a gently winding stream.

Then you realise that your presence cheapens and undermines the unspoilt majesty of it all. What do the locals get in return? Often only the simple lesson: money can pretty much buy anything. I’m not really sure what benefits tourism actually brings to the developing world. A whole heap of fat, culturally insensitive jerks turn up with little or no language skills, wads of cash and high expectations (i.e. me). Sure, a few locals make a tidy living off those visitors but they are usually the better educated and well off, what about the rest?

Local children are often encouraged to talk to complete strangers, take their money, lollies, whatever they can get. Most of it is well intentioned but there are the obvious dangers: pedophilia, prostitution, kids not going to school because they make a better living hawking the streets.

I have never had a problem giving money to people begging, in Australia or anywhere else. But recently I have become more uneasy with the underlying motivations. There I am, the benign backpacker, doling out token charity. Is it in order to plicate some of the underlying guilt about the obvious poverty gap that confronts me every direction I look, ‘I better give 10c to this dude, I just spent ten bucks on Mojitos.’

Tourism brings internet cafes, travel agents, bars, prostitution, drugs and Hippy wannabes and their fucking fire twirling. The town of Vang Vieng is a perfect example of how an utter shithole can develop around a pristine paradise. Don’t get me wrong I don’t have any problem with people having a banger of a time, it’s just that the bulk of people I met there were innately boring, culturally insensitive, conceited, fuckwits. People so desperate for creditability they can’t help but turn every conversation into a contest were they brag about the plethora of exotic places they got fucked up at. Nevermind the fact they have haven’t learnt a thing along the way and as such have absolutely nothing of interest to add to a conversation.

I am not saying that tourism is the only source of ill, things like foreign investment and aid have equally problematic downsides but I am a direct and willing participant in tourism. I am one of the legions stomping their way through someone else’s backyard.

But what do I do about that? Stop traveling? I don’t think I can. What I have attempted to do is to curb the thoughtlessness that comes so naturally, be as culturally sensitive as possible. I also stop every now and then, take a look around, see if there is a whisper of wisdom or a glimmer of understanding I can appropriate. I won’t go on a traditional village trek again. Is that enough?