Camels, Dunes and an Oasis in Morocco

Liked the oasis, loved the sand dunes, hated the camels! – a twitter length summary of travelling in Morocco in 1988.

An Oasis in the desert

We head south from Fez for nine hours through red hard barren deserts. At one point we find ourselves above the snow line – well, it is January after all. We also pass the reputed original headquarters of the Foreign Legion, as in “I’m running away to join the foreign legion” – does any one even say that any more?

My naive expectation of an oasis is a half a dozen palm trees around a green fringed waterhole, with desert encroaching from every direction. Meski oasis however is much bigger than that, surrounded by irrigated fields in every direction. I definitely did not expect a large concrete swimming pool with umbrellas and sunloungers, created by diverting a local stream through the pool. As I gingerly tiptoe into the very cold water, I realise that the pool is also full of fish, and they seem to like nibbling on my legs, a very freaky feeling which does tend to put me off swimming. Little did I know then, that this would become a trendy spa treatment throughout Asia twenty years later.

Meski Oasis swimming pool, Morocco
Meski Oasis swimming pool, Morocco


Instead of swimming we wander off to explore the village and surrounds, quickly attracting a crowd of kids, who are already a bit bored with tourists giving them pens as gifts, but they take them anyway. We can see the old Casbah on a nearby hill, just across the stream.

At this time of the year the stream is more of a river, and the locals are suggesting that we don’t try and cross it – there are no bridges within sight. We decide to wade in and give it a try as it doesn’t look that deep, but it turns out our problems will be swamp and mud, not water.

As we inch forward, trying to feel for firm bits of ground to stand on for each step, I place my right foot down and find it is now knee deep in the swamp. I try and pull it up and out, and I am now thigh deep in the swamp. I need the help of two of my friends to pull me back onto dry land, leaving my right flip flop in the middle of that swamp forever.

At this point, we decide we don’t need to visit the Casbah at all, and head off to the little collection of stalls we had seen earlier. Meski is where I finally buy my first small Moroccan carpet – after haggling long into the night, I get it for the very good price of $10 plus a six pack of beer.

Sunrise on Sand Dunes in the Sahara.

post dawn sahara sand dunes
post dawn sahara sand dunes

Flat dry deserts are all very well, but how about some real Sahara, with huge rolling sand dunes? We set off at 3.30 am to drive two hours to a point where the sand dunes start. Its a really strange sight, all flat dry desert and then there is a sand dune, and from the top of that dune, all I can see is sand dunes to the horizon. An immense rolling pink open space.

We climb to the top of the highest sand dune we can see and wait for sunrise. This might be the desert, but pre-sunrise it is very cold. This is not a red sky sunrise, the sky gradually turns from black to a light greyish blue, while the sand dunes turn a delicate shade of peach.

Then, after it already seems to be daylight, the bright ball of the sun appears over the sand dune horizon, and the sand dunes that face west start to glow a beautifully red. Now I’m warming up. We sit and watch from the top of dunes for a while longer, it is immensely relaxing.

Once we leave the dunes we stop in Rissini to visit the local livestock market and check out the prices of the best goats and donkeys, just in case that comes in handy somewhere down the road. I wonder if a donkey might come in handy for the next day’s fourteen km hike through the long canyon of Todra Gorge.

Camels on the beach in Tangier.

Just outside Tangier on the coast are the ancient Caves of Hercules. There is an large silhouetted opening in one of the caves that supposedly looks like the map of Africa, and it is also claimed that you can see two profiles of Hercules face in the same map. There are supposedly old roman bath walls in the caves, which unfortunately look remarkably like modern concrete.

On the beach outside the caves, we meet our camels and camel wranglers for a beach ride. These are one hump camels, and I am soon sitting precariously on a bunch of rugs tied to the camel’s back. And this is where the nightmare begins. Most of the camels are female, including the one I am on. One of the camels is male. And it seems this is the season for the female camels to be in heat, therefore the male camel is now very randy.

 

Camels in heat on the beach at Tangiers
Camels in heat on the beach at Tangiers


So we start our rolling walk down the beach, with the sun out and beautiful blue surf to our side. The male camel starts getting excited and comes comes racing up behind the one of the female camels and starts trying to mount it, much to the consternation of the people sitting on the back of both camels.

The local camel herders shoo him away so he makes for the next female, which happens to be the one I am riding. Not wanting to be squashed (or dribbled on) by the front half of the male camel as he tries to mount my ride, I kick and yell and desperately try to get my camel to run, which it eventually does. But not willingly, I suspect she would prefer the male camel to catch her.

Before long there are half a dozen female camels running down the beach, topped by out of control riders trying to hang on for dear life but too scared to slow their camels down. And the girl on top of the male camel isn’t exactly enjoying herself either. For a while the local camel herders are mainly rolling around laughing but eventually they catch up with us, and one by one slow down our camels and get us off them.

The last one they went to get was the male camel, who had been waiting for his opportunity, and before they could grab him he managed to successfully mount one of the now fortunately riderless female camels. Suffice to say the rider of the male camel made an extremely quick dismount. It is now a long walk back up the beach to our transport, but preferable to having to get near camels again. I think we’ll need a beer tonight.

The Cambodia swimming pools tour

When I dream about Cambodia I dream about the temples of Angkor, the fish amok, the handmade crafts & the foot massages. What I had never previously associated with Cambodia is swimming pools, but I sure do now. While visiting Cambodia in April, it is exhaustingly hot and humid, both day and night. I am here just before the monsoon season is due to start, so the heat has not broken yet. So my great daily pleasure became the swimming pool, and I am lucky enough to come across some really good ones.

The Siem Reap swimming pool.

pool at Golden Banana, Siem Reap, Cambodia
pool at Golden Banana, Siem Reap, Cambodia

Before arriving in Siem Reap, I had booked into the Golden Banana B&B on a friend’s recommendation. It is down a quiet laneway just 5 minutes walk from Bar St, and right next to its flasher siblings, the Golden Banana Hotel and the Golden Banana Resort. All three share the same facilities, which include a gorgeous pool in a courtyard surrounded by brightly flowering tropical plants and sun loungers, and with bar and cafe access. All this with a room I am paying $22 a night for. And the room itself is well above expectations. It is large, clean, nicely decorated in the angkor style, and has a mod, almost trendy bathroom. The shower water is hot (not that I need that in this heat) and there is a working air conditioner. In fact the only problem with the air conditioner is the local power supply, which seems very overburdened and unstable, not surprising given the level of tourism in a country that is running fast to try and catch up in terms of actual infrastructre. There are power cuts every night, which means a few hours without cooling, but its a citywide problem so there is no point getting  stressed about it. Anyway, back to that pool!

Because of the heat, we are generally up and out exploring temples from as early as 5am, and are finished and back at the GB by lunchtime, as the heat is just too intense to sensibly do anything else. So the afternoon is pool time. I order a iced lime tea (which comes by the litre) and float in the pool while they deliver it to me. I stand under the waterfall wall at one end and let the water drum the top of my head and run over my shoulders for the ultimate cool down. Its a very friendly pool as well, with many of the guests introducing themselves and swapping tips on what to do in Siem Reap and the various temples. And to top it off, the food available all day is really good, with excellent examples of local food including fish amok, local fresh fruit platters, and spring rolls.

The Phnom Penh swimming pool

pool at Blue Lime, Phnom Penh, Cambodia
pool at Blue Lime, Phnom Penh, Cambodia

I’d picked  hotel Blue Lime for my Phnom Penh stay, for its location right behind the Royal Palace, its good reviews, and its strict no “sex travellers” policy – a still sadly all-too-present part of Cambodia’s tourism market, particularly in Phnom Penh. Its a very modern makeover of an older building, with polished concrete floors, minimalist lines and bright blue, lime and orange colour schemes. Its only four stories high and has no lift, so getting a room on the top floor does mean a good leg workout while I stay here – I don’t want to waste all that practice from clambering up the steps of temples. My room is large and has a large balcony as well, and the aircon works all night here. The lobby opens out onto a large pool surrounded by traditional day beds down one side and sun loungers on the other, nestled cosily within a solid wall of lovely tropical trees and flowers. This is also the breakfast patio, and the bar, although I was underwhelmed by their sweet & creamy cocktail list (where’s a mojito when you need one?) and the food options are mainly pizza, of the “thick, soggy, too much cheap cheese” variety – oh well, you clearly can’t have everything. I don’t know if it is just while I am here or a if it is regular occurence, but all the other guests that I got chatting to around the pool were westerners working for NGOs and having conversations about who had the most success from their proselytising – not really my kind of conversation, at least if I don’t wont to offend the other guests! The room here is twice the price of Siem Reap at $50, but still a bargain in this heat, and I can always hide away in one of the day beds.

The Kep swimming pool

The Kep Lodge, on the southern coast of Cambodia, not far from the Vietnam border, lies a couple of hundred metres up the hillside, overlooking the ocean and the distant islands. Each room is its own mini-villa, a thatch-roofed large bedroom with a four poster bed swathed in a huge mozzie net, a basic bathroom, and a front deck with a hammock. I love hammocks, I think every balcony in all accommodation should have a hammock, so i am often disappointed, but not here. I am going to spend time every day in this hammock reading my book in the shade from the heat of the day, or sheltering during a tropical thunderstorm.  The rooms are spread along a meandering path through the gardens, and all paths lead back to the large comfy communal open-sided lounge/bar/restaurant, which looks out over the pool to the ocean. Ahh, the pool. A deep blue curvaceous salt water pool, with sun loungers and umbrellas, the requisite tropical flowering plants and palms, and the ongoing view over the ocean to the horizon – with bar service. This pool is particularly spectacular at sunset –  a great place to float in the pool, sip one of the very strong cocktails (Mojito’s are really good here) and watch the sky turn red. The pool and the communal bar space makes this a very friendly and social place to stay as well.And its a bargain down here on the coast, under $30 a night for my room at this time of the year.

pool at Kep Lodge, Kep, Cambodia
pool at Kep Lodge, Kep, Cambodia

Yep, its safe to say I am going to be paying more attention to the pools when I plan to visit anywhere hot from now on, a good pool is just the icing on the cake of a great trip. Have you got a great pool recommendation?

Links:

www.golden-banana.com www.bluelime.asia www.keplodge.com

Visiting the killing fields of Cambodia

Not all travel is fun or relaxing. Some places we visit have a history that is unpleasant or shocking, but if it is a big part of what has shaped that country and its people now, then I don’t think we can ignore it. This time in Cambodia, I visit Phnom Penh for the first time, a city shaped by its royalty and the strong french colonial influence.

It is also the part of Cambodia with the most visible (for tourists) reminders of the more recent atrocities of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. In a short period in power from 1975 to 1979, in a country already severely damaged by the spillover of the Vietnam war and the insurgency of the Khmer Rouge, Pol Pot turned on most of his countrymen, resulting in the deaths of an estimated one third of the population. Those that didn’t die from torture and murder, died of starvation and disease from his ruthlessly implemented policies. Let’s not beat around the bush, this was brutal genocide.

Walking the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek, Cambodia

I remember as a kid hearing some of this on the TV news, and now, as a visitor enjoying Cambodia, I feel that I want to know more. So I jump in a tuk-tuk and head out to the killing fields of Choeung Ek, just a few miles from downtown Phnom Penh, a hamlet on the fringe of the city. The first thing I see is a large Stupa, a buddhist burial memorial.

Building a Stupa is believed to be a powerful way to purify negative karma, sorely needed at this site of such recent evil. This one is the height of a multi storey building, and has seventeen levels built into it, the bottom four of which are glass sided so that we can view into it. It contains the remains of 8,000 victims, recovered from the surrounding fields. The bottom level is recovered clothing, and the remaining levels are bones, starting with the skulls. The signs are translated in a very matter of fact fashion, “clothes, under 5 years old”, “skulls, juvenile 15-20″.

From the Stupa, there is a path to follow with more plain speaking signs at points of interest. The fields were smaller than I imagined, in total about the size of a school sports field. I pause at the sign in front of a small depression in the ground, maybe 5 or 6 metres across, and the sign states that over 400 female victims had been recovered from this mass grave. Twenty metres on there is another one, and then another one, and another.

There is a beautiful old tree, with a sign noting this was the spot where soldiers would kill children and babies, swinging them by their legs and smashing their heads into the tree trunk. The gap between what I am seeing, a field that looks a bit like the back lawn of a large rural house, and what the information is describing, is hard to stomach. At the end of the path is a small museum detailing the main Khmer Rouge people responsible for the genocide, and some of the victims. There is also a documentary that can be viewed at certain times of the day, but it is not open the day that I am there.

Tuol Sleng, the genocide museum

It is almost a relief to be back on the tuk-tuk, breathing in the breeze, as I head to Tuol Sleng, or S-21, the secret prison. This was originally a school, and is now the Museum of Genocide Crimes. After Pol Pot took over Phnom Penh and evicted the entire population to the countryside, his regime turned this school into a prison, turning the classrooms into cells. Over the next four years around fourteen thousand people were tortured here and if they survived the torture they were then sent down the road to Choeung Ek to be killed. Everyone died – of the fourteen thousand prisoners that went through this place, there are only seven known survivors.


The most haunting part of this site is the photographs. The prison had young photographers on staff who were required to photograph and catalogue every prisoner, and this was carried out meticulously. These photographs survived and they are now displayed on boards running for hundreds of metres up and down the rooms forming the whole top floor of one of the blocks, creating a chilling memorial.

It impossible to look away from their eyes, and easy to feel their fear. Some have bruises or wounds, some are crying, some look malnourished, some are children, and some women are holding babies. If you have the stomach for it, the photographs are now online at www.tuolsleng.com as part of a strategy to make sure the atrocities are never forgotten.

The worst rooms to view are the ten rooms on the ground floor of the first block, where the most important prisoners were kept and tortured. When the prison was liberated at the end of the war, the bodies of fourteen prisoners were found, many chained to the metal bed frames. All had been recently tortured and killed only hours before the liberation.

The first room has a large photo on the wall, of one of these dead prisoners, exactly as they were found, and the room contains the old rusted bed frame, a set of the manacles and leg irons that tied a prisoner to the bed, the torture implements that can also be seen in the photo, and dried blood stains in the tiles on the floor. Each of the ten rooms has a similar set-up reflecting other of the bodies that were found. It is gruesome, and unflinching in its determination to not sanitise what happened.

It’s personal

I am here on the third and final day of the three day national New Year holiday, which is a time of year when many Cambodians travel around the country. While walking around I notice one older Cambodian woman walking around on her own, and I wonder whether she is an expat on a return visit, as she looks well dressed, or whether she simply lives elsewhere Cambodia. I wonder if this was her first time here.

And then towards the end of the rooms, she suddenly starts screaming, the shrill keening of someone in total despair. I have to assume she has found the photo she was looking for, and her sounds of pain absolutely gut me. Everyone in that room is now in tears, and we all leave quickly, feeling that we were intruding horribly into her privacy. Her keening continues for many minutes.
On returning to my hotel, I go for a walk, needing a change of scenery. I walk over to the riverside where the Mekong gently flows alongside Sisowath Rd, in front of the Royal Palace. The park in front is crowded with local families having an afternoon picnic. Most Cambodians stop work for the three day national holiday, and gather with their families (although those working in tourism infrastructre mainly keep working). After the intensity of the day, I enjoy sitting on the grass, surrounded by locals enjoying some down time, and watch the sun set.

 

Fez, Morocco – how I got the travel bug

Like many young Kiwi’s arriving in London in 1987 for my O.E. (overseas experience, common kiwi slang for heading to London to earn pounds and travel the world for a couple of years), I had vague ideas about working in London for a few months, saving my pounds, and in summer heading off to see Rome, Paris, Amsterdam and bits in between. It’s just what we did at that time, so even though I resigned my job, sold my car and jumped on a plane to fly 24 hours to the opposite end of the world, I had no real plan at all.

My expectations of England were mainly based on Coronation Street, a long running soap featuring rows of grimy terraced houses and interminable rain. An impression quickly reinforced as I arrived into a dull grey rainy day. I very quickly found myself a home in a two-bedroom basement flat in Lancaster Gate, sharing with four other aussies and kiwis (not counting the ones dossing in the lounge) and catching the tube to Brixton where I had picked up a job earning a good hourly rate.

Three months later I was hating it, and all due to the weather. It was now December, and while the parties and the lit up street decorations were fun, it had become progressively darker, colder and more damp every week. The continual chilling damp never left me, whether it was a rainy day or not, and I couldn’t stand it.

Morocco, it must be warmer?

“If I am going to freeze, I may as well do it properly!” I told myself, and promptly headed to the Austrian alps for some skiing over the New Year. Which was fantastic, but didn’t make me feel any better about chilly London on my return. “OK, head south for warmer weather” I told myself, and not brave enough to travel by myself yet, I signed up for a Top Deck tours “Spain, Portugal, Morocco” trip – after all, that is definitely heading south, and Morocco is in Africa, so that must be warm, right? Well, almost right, but January is still winter in these countries. At least we got some “t-shirt” days even if it was “winter woolies” nights. Top Deck was hilariously corny, but a surprisingly practical way to travel. Take an old double decker bus, put bunks in the top deck to turn it into one big dormitory, and put a kitchen, tables and chairs in the bottom level for living, and voila!, a combi on steroids, no tents required.

Morocco, here I come.

The stand-out memories heading south through France and down the eastern coast of Spain were: a foolish drunken midnight wander across the Pont du Gard, a roman aqueduct in the south of France, 50m high and 300 m long (more on that another day); the unfinished insane beauty of Sagrada Familia in Barcelona; and the “arabian nights” air of Granada and the Alhambra in the south of Spain. Unfortunately at that time of the year there is not a lot of “sol” in Costa del Sol, it was raincoats all the way. Which then lead us to our first stop in Morocco, the ancient walled city of Fez.
Fez, for me, is all about the medina in the old walled city. It is reputed (by wikipedia) to be the largest contiguous car-free urban area in the world – in other words it is a really big centuries old market, a byzantian maze of covered alleyways zigzagging in every direction, with people lugging goods on foot, on trolleys, or by donkey through dark and narrow streets. It is a place to lose one’s sense of direction, and then one’s self, so us girls on the tour banded together and hired “Good One” as our guide – clearly the name he had adopted for the tourists.

Fez, exploring the Medina.

I learned many things that I previously hadn’t known about myself that day. One was that I have a great innate sense of direction in markets – the more overcrowded, twisted, busy, loud and out of control the market, the more at home I feel. I can still get lost, but I always seem to find my way to a point I recognise without too much trouble. I must have been some kind of gypsy market brat in a former life. It certainly signalled the start of a lifetime love affair with markets throughout the world.

Good One walked us through the medina pointing out all the interesting areas – the olive market, the spice market, the jewellery market, the copper market, the carpet shops and the tannery. The tannery is a complete and unpleasant assault on the senses, but it is also a visual feast. I could smell it long before I saw it, indeed it is the permanent undernote to the smell of Fez itself. The tannery is the oldest in the world, dating from, and seemingly unchanged from the 11th century.
It is a honeycomb of stone vats through which the animal skins are transformed into leather. Fresh sheep and goat skins are softened in vats of diluted acidic pigeon excrement (so they say), and then coloured in various vats of natural vegetable dies, like henna and saffron, and hung out to dry. From the balcony where tourists can enter and look over the tannery, you simultaneously taste it and smell it as the acid sears your throat so that the dead animal smell can penetrate that little bit more. The tannery workers’ arms and legs are permanently stained as they physically haul hides in and out of the vats while standing in them. It is hard to imagine that this is a healthy occupation. Strangely none of this seems to dampen our ardour for shopping for the leather bags and wallets that Morocco is famous for.

Fez: finding our own way around.

Being cash strapped backpackers, we only hired Good One for a couple of hours, and after lunch we flung ourselves back into the medina unescorted. It was soon clear that even if I didn’t need Good One for a sense of direction, he had been extremely useful in keeping the touts at bay. On our own, they pounced, and were unshakeable, and at any time I would have two or three fighting for my attention, grabbing my arm to try and escort me, and if I showed interest in any particular stall they were quickly clamouring to the owner that they were the one that had brought me there and if I bought anything they were owed a commission.
A couple of the girls found the throng too intense and retired hurt, but the rest of us just went with it. Although it was intrusive and loud and relentless, we never felt unsafe or threatened. So we developed our own rules, giving a polite “no thanks” on the first approach of each tout and then politely ignoring them from then on, and always clearly indicating to a stall owner that no tout was our guide – not a straight forward task given the language barriers, but we quickly learned how effective body language could be. As soon as a tout trailing us started talking to a stall owner, we would loudly state “no, no, not with us” while vigorously shaking our heads and pointing at them – given the sulky looks we got from the touts, the message seemed to well understood by the stall holders. On a return visit to Morocco many years later, I discovered that touts had been effectively outlawed, and while an occasional one would approach you in a medina, they would disappear at the first “no thanks” – a huge change indeed.

Haggling in the Fez medina.

I also learned that I loved the process of bargaining. An early piece of advice from Good One helped – he told me “if they are still talking to you, they know they can still make a profit; if they turn their back on you, you have gone too low and they will make a loss”. The joy in haggling is not getting the lowest price per se, its the whole ritual. Its drawing it out for ten minutes, half an hour, or even a number of hours if its a pricey item like a carpet. It starts with exchanging pleasantries, names, where we are from, how much we enjoy this country/city, extends into discussion of alternative purchases that might better suit my budget, and will have moments of mock horror at how ridiculously high/low the price suggested is.

It may well involve clearing goods off a stool for me to sit on, and showing me the family photos, perhaps an offer of a cup of the local tea. If you embrace the process, then usually you part the best of friends, whether you have in the end purchased or not. The pinnacle of market haggling of course is carpets, and although I didn’t buy a carpet this time (not enough money to even try), this did sow the seed for twenty plus years of happily buying handwoven carpets and kilims in markets around the world.

In amongst the haggling, we lapped up almond milkshakes, and had handmade kohl makeup applied to our faces by the local, male “make-up artists” – not sure they are ready for a career in Hollywood yet. When finally exhausted we headed into the hamman, the local “turkish bathhouse”. Having never been in one before, this was the most confronting experience of all, getting naked and then being grabbed by one of the older woman working there, pushed to the ground in the few inches of slimy green water in the pool, and scrubbed abrasively, as if with pot scourers, until I just wanted to swear out loud. Definitely not a relaxing day spa here then! However it did remove several layers of built up backpackers dirt, and the soak in a deeper pool afterwards was relaxing, although still a bit greener and slimier than I would’ve preferred.

Catching the travel bug in Fez.

While eating a fragrant tagine that night for dinner, I realised that I had just well and truly acquired a travel bug. I wanted more of this feeling of excitement and immersion and being outside my comfort zone, whether from the sounds, the smells, the food, the art, the culture, the music, the natural beauty, or the people. Little did I know that I would now stay in London for a total of ten years, and my list of interesting places I wanted to visit kept growing and growing – the more places I travelled to, the more I wanted to keep going.

 

Kata Yai – the best beach in Phuket

Imagine opening the door to your balcony, stepping out into the humid night air, lowering yourself down the pool ladder and submersing yourself into the deliciously cool water of the black tiled infinity pool, with tiny colourful night lights in the bottom. When they call this a “pool access” room they really mean it, and after a nine hour flight arriving in the middle of the night, this is the perfect antidote.
I have arrived at SugarPalm Grand Hillside in Kata Beach, which is just south of Karon and Patong, on Phuket Island. Not only do the rooms cascade down the hillside at the southern end of the beach, so do a total of eleven black tiled pools, with the water flowing between each level via waterfalls. My room opens directly into the one with the swim up bar – for a random internet booking, this could not have worked out any better. The benefit of coming in the low season is that great hotels are really cheap.

the black pools at Sugar Palm Grand Hillside, Kata Yai, Phuket
the black pools at Sugar Palm Grand Hillside, Kata Yai, Phuket

Kata Beach, the perfect Thai beach?

Kata Beach is the archetypal curve of white sand and turquoise waters of Thailand. It’s on the west coast of Phuket, looking out to the Andaman sea, so the seas can reputedly get large and dangerous in the monsoon months from May to October. But I am in luck this year, its unseasonably good weather, nothing but sunshine for the first seven days of May and then only a couple of midnight rains since, not the daily thunderstorms expected this time of the year. It is however, intensely hot and humid.

The ocean is a lagoon most days, and deliciously warm at 31 C but still cooler than the sun. Kata is not as overdeveloped as many Thai beaches, but this is not the place for a desert island fantasy. There is a continuous line of sun-lounges under the palms from one end of the beach to the other, but the rest of the sand is open for all. “Lady, lady, wanna massage, buy watch, coconut, sarong…” is always going to be a constant refrain, but a polite no thanks and they happily move to the next sun-lounge.

beach at Kata Yai, Phuket
beach at Kata Yai, Phuket

My only complaint is that the beautiful clarity of water makes it impossible to ignore the rubbish left behind by at least some of the tourists – a regular tide of cans, bottle, plastic wrap, chocolate wrappers, even cigarette lighters wash past each time you swim.

It’s so hot that the day turns into a series of swims – pool, breakfast, beach, pool, beach, pool, until its time for sunset drinks and dinner and probably another late night swim. Most of the development is on the two headlands at either end of the beach, because a gigantic Club Med sprawls over the flat in the middle – including golf course and circus aerial trapeze lessons. I find it amusing that the “girly bar” area of Kata (very mild compared to Patong) runs right along the street behind Club Med, very family friendly indeed. On the headlands there is a fine selection of tailors, massages (about $10 for an hour of reflexology), shops, bars and restaurants.

My favourite food and cocktails in Kata Beach:

  • Best beer – a cold Singha in a stubby holder during happy hour in the swim up bar (happy hour somewhat strangely being between noon and 4pm)
  • Most refreshing cocktail: the Boathouse Lemonade – run, triple sec, lime juice, blended with ginger and mint, topped with soda water
  • Best Mojitos (note: too many Thai bars ruin cocktails by adding lots of extra sugar, the following ones didn’t): Kata BBQ – perfect beachside table to watch the sunset and extra marks for the fresh prawn crisps; Boathouse – luxe sunset watching and a very civilised Mojito; Bella Vista, on a treehouse platform above the rocks on the south end of the beach, this superstrength mojito I dedicate to Rach and Dennis, as after one of these delicious “Cuban pour your own” superstrength drinks, you may not be able to get back down the stairs again.
  • Best Iced Coffee- the Italian Job – great for icecream too.
  • Worst for Icecream, the Tangerine with iberry icecream, next to the Kata Hotel – the icecream smelled of fish and tasted of bitter chemicals – avoid at all costs.
  • Best all round ambience: Dino Park –this dinosaur themed “Fred Flintsone meets Tiki Bar” food/drink/mini golf emporium should be terrible but it is brilliant. At the north end of beach on the headland to Karon, it has “rock” tables and chairs scattered amongst rain forest, fish ponds, bridges, an erupting volcano and dinosaur skeletons, with staff in Fred Flintstone uniforms. The top of the trees emit a cooling mist to combat the heat. There’s a great selection of cocktails and good local food, reasonably priced. I still don’t know how, or why, but there was a young elephant wandering around the bar last night. Yes, a real one, and no, I was still on my first drink!
  • Best Pork with Hot Chilli Basil – Bella Vista wins hands down, they do an excellent spicy version
  • Best food any day, any time – banana pancakes, from any of the roadside stalls, always perfect

    Chatachuk market, Phuket
    Chatachuk market, Phuket

Kata Noi – the other half of Kata Beach.

A five minute walk over the headland south of Kata Yai is Kata Noi, a smaller very quiet bay with a handful of upmarket resorts, the beach, and not much else. It’s a great bay to escape to for uncrowded sunbathing and swimming. And on the rocky headland between sits Mom Tri’s Kitchen. This is a great stopping off point for a cooling drink or a lunch on some of the best food in the area – it’s the “little sister” to the Boathouse restaurant and is much better value.

Phuket: Best market

It is possible to shop while lying on the beach, and on every road near every beach on Phuket, all touts and stalls selling pretty much the same stuff. But the hands down winner is the huge Chatuchak night market held Saturday and Sunday from 4.30pm to 10pm. All the other night markets in Phuket pale into insignificance when compared to the 1000+ stalls at this weekend market on the outskirts of Phuket Town -it has everything you’ve seen before and a whole lot more. On the edge of the market are an amazing array of food stalls, perfect for dinner, while the circular open bar right in the middle of the market is a great place for a refreshing beer break half way through. Come early as it gets really, really busy as the night goes on.

Cuba, travel to a most surprising country

It’s a balmy New Years Eve, on the farm surrounded by friends and family. One family friend is drunkenly playing a guitar in the corner, on the other side the teenagers have taken control of the CD player, and I am enveloped in the crisp fatty scent of slowly spinning roast pig on a spit.

NYE spit roast, Cuba
NYE spit roast, Cuba

But this is not my family, I only met the friends a week ago, I’m in Cuba and it is indeed a surprising place. I am travelling with a small group of Aussies, Kiwi’s, Canadians and Americans through www.cubagrouptour.com. I am surprised at how many Americans are visiting Cuba since in theory they are not allowed to, they are sneaking through Mexico or Canada in large numbers every year, and are happy to flout their government’s nonsensical rules.

Cuba: an extended family.

My hosts are the family of our excellent local guide, and they are almost a cross-section of Cuba. There’s Granddad, the charming silver fox, Dad who is a staunch communist who isn’t comfortable with so many foreigners around, Grandma who is happy as long as we refill her little half glass of beer, shy but smiling Mum, a brother in law who is loudly pro-American and wants to discuss politics all night, and the whole extended family. We feel honored to be invited to their party while we are so far from home.

Cuba: music, party, art.

This is the only communist country I have visited that really seems to love a party – I don’t know if there is much financial support but there seems to be great artistic support for the arts and musicians (& movies), and you didn’t have to look very hard to find music and dancing. It has become part of our everyday experience in Cuba. The locals are born to dance with snake-hips that no amount of salsa lessons are going to give me, but after a couple of Cuba Libre’s I give it a try anyway.

I am here during the 50th anniversary of the Revolution , which just amplifies the partying – there are government sponsored street parties at night. And I am amazed at how easy it is to indulge my love of art – paintings everywhere, art galleries, street markets. Camaguey and Baracoa have the best, while there was also a huge range of cheap but good street market stuff in Havana.

I am lucky enough to visit the Camaguey home of Ileana Sanchez & Joel Jover, and fall in love with, buy and take home a Joel Jover painting. I also realize that the value of art is very subjective – the price I pay is equivalent to a talented art student’s first exhibition in Sydney, and at least one tenth of the price for a known artist with 20+ years on international exhibitions, but it was still enough to make the bus driver nearly faint from shock.

art, Joel Jover, Ileana Sanchez, Cuba
art, Joel Jover, Ileana Sanchez, Cuba

There is another memorable party we go to, well, gate-crash really. Travelling on a long trip through the mountains to our next city, we stop at the gate of a house where the driver knows we can usually buy some lunch, as there were no shops or roadside cafes on this route (or on most in Cuba). There’s a bigger crowd than just the family here today and they warmly invite us to join them. It is National Honor Teachers Day, and the teachers and their families have gathered at this particular house to celebrate.

On our arrival they quickly wring the neck of one of their turkeys, and then invite us to join them for lunch, a feast that needs to cook for the next 4 hours or so. We sample their local rum, play some dominoes, dance a bit of salsa, and have deep conversations about the importance of great teachers in our lives – although this was somewhat tempered by our very bad spanglish.

We also wander down the farm to visit the beautiful waterfall and swimming hole. Of all the things I associated with Cuba, waterfalls had not been on the list, but I discover there are many throughout the country.

Cuba: more music, dancing and old cars.

I have to admit that most of my pre-conceptions about Cuba are a bit out of date – while I was thinking salsa, the locals are at the nightclub, while I was thinking Buena Vista social club the locals are thinking Latino hip-hop. We quickly learn the various rituals of “clubbing” of any form in Cuba – generally we would start the evening late, and sit through a “show” – it might be cover band of Celine Dion numbers, or Latino boy bands or Buena Vista copy cats, of varying levels of skill. After enduring the show, the dance music comes on and the crowd throw themselves into what they’ve really come for – dancing and partying. We also learn that the best way to order drinks is “a bottle of rum and four cans of cola” and then mix our own for the evening.
I’d heard all about the wonderful old American 50’s cars and they are everywhere, they look amazing, and it is even more amazing how they manage to keep them intact and running for so long without access to spare parts. And it is no surprise to see the old Russian Ladas, although somewhat less attractive. But I am surprised to spot some brand new Audi’s, imported as car rentals for tourists apparently – a sign of change indeed.

old cars, Havana
old cars, Havana

Cuba: change is happening.

Everywhere we go, change is the most common topic of conversation, although probably influenced by our own level of desire to understand it too. Many Cubans are openly talking about how things are changing, whether they think that is a good or bad thing, what they would like to see change or not change. Everyone has different views, and everyone seems to be engaged in a public conversation on this, again more so than I would expect in a communist country.

And it also seems like every visitor has a version of “I wanted to come now before it changes” – me too, even though I know how selfish a view this is. I take heart at the level of public debate on this, hopefully a good sign for the future – I only wish there was this much involvement of the general public in political debate in my country. And I hope that before too long the ridiculous 47 year blockade is finally lifted. What do you think?

If you want the best snorkeling in Ko Phi Phi – first get yourself a diver!

Usually snorkeling and diving don’t mix in the same spot – divers want to go deep to find their beauty and snorkelers want shallow water with all the goodies close to the surface. The one exception I have found to this rule is Ko Phi Phi, a mecca for divers and snorkelers alike. In fact the keys spots are so popular for snorkelling that they are ruined by too many snorkelers– if you book a day trip then you will probably find yourself on a 50-100 person mega boat, with compulsory wearing of life jackets as many of the snorkelers cant swim. In other words, my version of snorkeling hell.

the Beach, Maya Bay, Ko Phi Phi Leh, Thailand
the Beach, Maya Bay, Ko Phi Phi Leh, Thailand

Ko Phi Phi – overcrowded snorkeling.

Dive trips are very popular too and there are many operators but most boats are taking around 8 to 12 divers, so the scale of overcrowding is nowhere near as bad. And the key dive spots are reserved for dive boats only, the snorkelers have to go to their own designated sites, mainly in shallow bays rather than around the karst chimneys.

snorkelling at Ko Bida Nok, Thailand
snorkelling at Ko Bida Nok, Thailand
So there seems to be two ways to achieve your snorkelling pleasure. The first is to rent your own long tail boat and do your own itinerary – even better if you can figure out the big boats’ timetables and arrive at the best spots when they are least likely to be there. But this can be an expensive option. Or, grab yourself a diver, and when they book their dive trip, book yourself on as the travelling buddy of the diver and then they will let you come along as a “non-diving” companion, who can then jump off the boat and go for a snorkel – for a bargain price. Good thing Travelling Sis is a diver, otherwise I would’ve had to scour the bars for a diver to accompany.

Ko Phi Phi – best snorkeling spots

One of the most common dive trips from Ko Phi Phi is a two-dive trip to Ko Bida Nok (a karst massif just south of Ko Phi Phi Leh, which itself is about 1.5 km south of Ko Phi Phi), and Malong, a section of the external karst walls of Ko Phi Phi Leh. At both these sites you are diving along these karst walls – near vertical sandstone cliffs, which means it is just as interesting on the surface for the snorkeler as it is 15m down for the diver – and I had a great view of the divers below me at times too. And of the languid turtle who swam over the heads of the divers and floated straight under me. There’s coral and huge amounts of colourful fish and anemone life close to the surface, the water temp is a languid 31 degrees, and there are usually no surface currents, especially in the morning. And I have all this to myself for nearly two hours.

snorkelling off Ko Phi Phi, Thailand
snorkelling off Ko Phi Phi, Thailand

Maya Bay – paradise wrecked

Between the two dive stops we stop off at Maya Bay on Ko Phi Phi Leh – the famous location of the filming of The Beach. It is possible that it is still a gorgeous bay, but very hard to tell through the line up of dozens of jet boats, dozens of long tails, and 3 or 4 big 100 person tourist boats, which combined with the people disgorged, makes it almost impossible to see any part of the green waters or white sand. I hear there is an overnight beach camping trip, if so, this may be the only way to experience the original beauty of this bay. Were you lucky enough to see Maya Bay before it was overrun, or have you found a great snorkeling experience from Ko Phi Phi? If so, please leave a comment.



What would James Bond think of all this?

James Bond Island in Phang Nga Bay, Thailand

36 years after The Man with the Golden Gun, tourism in Thailand is still making a mint out of the iconic view of Scaramanga’s hideaway. The karst pillar in Phang Nga Bay originally known as Ko Tapu, has been called “James Bond Island” ever since. It seems that every day there are hundreds of long tail and speed boats ferrying tourists out to have a look, and today, I am on one of those long tail boats.

We are dropped on the small karst island next door (Ko Phing Kan), and walk about 30 metres through a ravine completely filled with market stalls of the usual trinkets. We emerge on a tiny 20 metre wide beach, and there it is, straight in front of us, James Bond Island, about 50 metres out in the middle of the bay. This is the viewing spot, from this angle it looks completely stand alone with its huge backdrop of sea and other karst islands in the distance.

The de rigueur smug shot here is to be photographed as though you are holding the island in the palm of your hand. This seems a bit lacking in originality, perhaps a gun stance surrounded by bikini babes would be more appropriate, or perhaps a beach stall selling martini’s ,shaken not stirred, balancing the island on its roof? Or maybe I should just take a photo of the island, no tricks.

Sea canoeing in Thai caves and islands

Our longtail also takes us about 10 minutes away to Ko Talu Nok for some cave canoeing. I am disappointed that I am not allowed to paddle my own canoe. We sit in the front while a local guide paddles at the back. But it’s enjoyable enough as we spend the next half hour lying back and looking up at cave roofs 10 cm above our faces, up sheer cliffs of internal lagoons accessed through caves and covered in rainforest, and at sea worn karsts shaped like skulls, alligators and more.

Like all the karsts in this area, the sea erodes from the base in, so all the karats look narrowest at sea level. At Talu in particular the sea has worn away a lot of caves and tunnels to internal lagoons, with towering cliffs and glimpses of the sky from the middle of the island.

All of this is in Phang Nga bay area, where we originally boarded our long tail boat.  The tour operators insist on everyone wearing lifejackets but as the water is generally about one metre deep and the life jackets are a “one size fits no-one” and rather hot in this weather, most of us ditch the lifejackets as soon as we leave shore.

We also eat well at the floating village on the Ko Panyee, known as the Muslim Village. Lunch is a banquet including chilli fish, deep fried prawns, chicken and cashews, tom yum soup, omelette, spicy chicken legs, stir fried veges and fresh pineapple. And there is an interesting little craft market to explore, with a side of voyeurism into the village life.
As we leave James Bond Island we see a group of people arrive on a speedboat named James Bond, and I realise that I have only scratched the surface of the James Bond experience – next time!