More Tirana

Nightlife in Tirana also looks a lot like in western cities. It’s cooler in the evening and people fill the numerous cafés, especially in Tirana’s new hip party district, Blloku. That means “block” and it was reserved for the communist party elite. They didn’t seem to have seen the contradiction in this term.

Joined a walking tour to get some local background. Albania went from a totally isolated stone-age communist open-air prison to democracy in 1991, and it was not easy for the older generation. Suddenly they had unheard-of new things, like bananas, Coca Cola, banks, money instead of vouchers, supermarkets, and cars. (Driving licenses came later.) People started calling all these new things “banana” and proudly placed empty Coca Cola bottles on their mantelpieces. The younger generation caught on very quickly.

Today Albanian identity – according to the guide – is defined by four things: the country, the language, driving a Mercedes, and raki schnapps.

Tirana

Tirana, the capital of Albania, evokes images of old bearded men riding donkeys through a Soviet-era concrete wasteland. In reality Tirana is a modern European capital. Many parks, small streets lined with old trees, international shops, and bakeries, bars, and restaurants that would thrive in Paris or Berlin. Not only in the center but out in the suburbs too. The communist past rarely shines through, but there is no ancient town, most construction dates from the 20th century. A very friendly city!

At the eastern edge of the city, near a funicular to the top of Dajti hill, is Enver Hoxha’s command bunker. It’s absolutely huge, far larger than the one in Gjirokastra. Much of it is a museum describing the time of WWII and communism, but there are complete apartments and communication rooms filled with original equipment too, and art installations including one that simulates a mustard gas attack. I didn’t know they had gas masks for horses. They even had an enormous theater extending over two floors. None of this was ever used.

Downtown is a curious structure built by Enver Hoxha and his daughter as a cultural center. It’s a pyramid with narrow glass strips extending from the ground to the top. It’s completely smashed, even higher up because it’s shallow enough to walk up.

Adriatic coast

Albania has a long coastline, opposite Italy. I felt that I should have a brief look at this part of the country too. I chose Golem Beach near Durrës because it’s close to Tirana, the capital.

It’s pretty similar to any mass tourism place around the Mediterranean: a chain of hotels along the coast and another row behind that, uninspired architecture, and countless umbrellas and recliners on the beach (first picture). At least the beach is sandy here; elsewhere there are often pebbles. I was anticipating that and got an upscale resort away from the masses.

I don’t actually enjoy beaches much, but a few hours in the warm water and in the shadows at the edge of the water was fun. The food is… unrefined. The hotel has its own gun emplacement, a communist legacy.

Përmet

East from Gjirokastra, higher up in the mountains, without 300-year old Ottoman architecture but also not really discovered by tourist hordes, is the small town Përmet. It’s uncharacteristically flat, built along a river, but the true attraction are the mountain villages above.

Getting there means climbing, some steep 550 meters to the two I chose, Lipë and Leus. The latter has an orthodox church with fantastic paintings, for a village consisting of little more than wooden shacks for animals and people. Some people have odd priorities. The weather is extremely hot, but there are wells with cold fresh mountain water.

Gjirokastra

Gjirokastra is another world heritage town further south, less than 30km from the Greek border. It seems that every town in Albania has several hundred meters to climb on steep, cobblestoned alleys from one side to the other, and Gjirokastra is no exception. It so happened that the bus stop is at the bottom and my chosen hotel at the top. In between is a gleaming white Ottoman-era old town, centered on the bazaar neighborhood.

Also at the top is an amazingly well-preserved castle with imposing arched hallways, now housing WWII guns, and a tiny Fiat tank that looks like its mother had an affair with a steam locomotive. It seems that they were no good in battle and only three are still in existence.

Deep underneath the castle is a huge depressing bunker made from connected tunnels where all the important people were supposed to be when any of the communist leader Enver Hoxha’s numerous enemies decided to attack. It was finished in 1980 and never used.

Berat

Shkodra is in the north of Albania and Berat is in the south, but Albania is not a large country so I got to Berat just after noon. Berat is a UNESCO world heritage site for its fully preserved Ottoman-era old town and its castle on top of a hill, all with narrow twisting cobblestone alleys and properly picturesque ruins. They also make excellent ice cream.

Shkodra

Accursed mountains ought to be difficult to leave, wouldn’t be much of a curse otherwise. Theth certainly is; sixteen kilometers on the most brutally potholed gravel path at the edge of the mountains at little more than walking speed makes sure of that. I half expected bats chasing us. It didn’t help that I got the child seats in the back of someone’s 4WD, next to the world’s biggest reserve fuel container. The panoramas made up for the inconvenience, as always.

So I made it back to Shkodra, with enough time for some of the lical attractions. You’ll find the iconic Mesi bridge in every travel guide, but strangely enough, none of the pictures show the much bigger modern concrete bridge right next to it. On the other side of Shkodra, the Rozafa Castle ruins shouldn’t be missed. Great views of the town, the mountains, and the huge Lake Skadar from its walls.

Hiking in the Accursed Mountains

Nobody seems to know how the mountains in northern Albania got this name. They are certainly arid and empty, few people live here. The most popular trail runs from Valbonë to Theth, some 21km to the west.That doesn’t sound like much, but I ended up climbing some 1200 meters on often slippery paths, at a continuous unrelenting 20-25% grade. That’s like walking up the crumbling stairs to the top of a 400-floor skyscraper! With snow in the top 40 floors. Fortunately much of the descent was on easy and soft – but still steep – forest floor. I was seriously tired when I finally arrived in the tiny village of Theth. Fort the innkeeper in Valbonë had packed a picnic for me with bread and a soft, coarse sausage.The vistas made up for the exercise. Beautiful mountain panoramas at every turn!

Mountains!

Komani Lake near Skodra is gorgeous – very long and narrow, and framed by steep mountains on both sides. They run ferries that run up the lake for four fantastic hours, with another wonderful view after every bend.

There’s a van running from the ferry terminal to the town of Valbonë, which isn’t really a town but a series of guesthouses spread out in a long narrow valley. Valbonë manages to upstage even Komani Lake – there’s a panorama of steep mountains all around, some forested and others rocky and snow-capped. Beautiful!

Albania

This is my first post at the new site, and it’s not even in Asia. Consider it a test run. Why Albania? A friend is highly recommending it, and warned that it should be visited before it gets too modern. Albania has only recently woken up from Soviet-style hibernation, shut off from the rest of the world.

Albania’s only international airport is at Tirana, the capital. The transfer shuttle got cut off on the tarmac on the few hundred meters from the plane to the terminal. Twice. Immigration is easy and efficient.

But I didn’t go to Tirana, and got a taxi to Shkodra in the north of the country instead, close to the mountains. It’s all very peaceful and beautifully restored, with little traffic. Downtown has a wonderful Italian small-town charm, with lots of restaurants, bars, and small shops. Everybody I met was very friendly. A good start!

Bangkok

Final stop Bangkok. Good place to replace the polarizing filter I broke a few days ago. Bangkok is into refrigerated malls bigtime, perhaps no surprise in hot and humid tropical weather. Traffic somehow managed to become even more dysfunctional than last year, and pedestrians have no rights even at zebra crossings and the rare pedestrian lights. All taxis forbid transporting weapons like guns and durians, many have cameras that record passengers, a few have SOS buttons. Life in Bangkok is becoming rougher, although still much more pleasant than most other Asian megacities. 

Food is brilliant as always. Had a huge lunch at one of my favorites, the Baan Khanitha. 

Muang Mallika

To hours west of banglok is a historic village that shows life in Thailand at the time of King Rama IV. The entrance is a wooden covered bridge with rows of stalls on both sides. Everywhere are costumed people doing period things, like theshing rice, and selling period products. They even have their own old currency, copper coins with holes to string them up, which must be purchased at the entrance.

On the way to Bangkok is the bridge over the river Kwai, built during the Japanese occupation 1942-45 to connect Thailand to Burma (now Myanmar). Thousands of POWs died during construction. The bridge is still in use, and also a tourist attraction. You can walk across, but must step into one of the safety platforms when a train approaches.

Hua Hin

Hua Hin, the beach town favored by the Thai Kings… I fondly remember a sleepy white city with wide boulevards and sandy beaches, where a rickshaw once took me to the train station.

Well, no more. It’s a crowded mess of traffic and tangled power lines, and the beaches are mostly private and difficult reach. The King’s Home homestay is lovely though, an eclectic museum filled with everything from oil paintings to tacky figurines, in the best way, run by two old ladies. And it’s easy to find good food.

Ko Payam

Ko Payam is one of the northernmost Thai islands off the west coast. It’s a little difficult to reach, which may be the reason why it hasn’t really been discovered yet except by Westerners who spend the winter here. No hordes of tourists, no fancy hotels, just a few quiet beach resorts. There isn’t much tourist infrastructure at all, besides motorcycle rentals. The only way to get here is from Ranong, a small town north at the mouth of the Kraburi River, which is the border to Myanmar.  

I had been advised on the boat that the nicest place on the island is Ao Yai on long Beach, a 5km walk from the pier. Ao Yai is just a small cluster of restaurants and a dive shop where people are so terminally relaxed that they won’t dive until the end of the week. Oh well… 

So I just walk a lot on the island, and discover things like that the bridge over the only river has been under construction for over ten years and the locals kind of lost interest. Entire forests of rubber trees, each with a little spout and a little bucket to collect natural latex. 

Thailand

Change of scenery… I am following the sun and went to Ko Lanta. That’s an island south of the tourist epicenter of Phuket and Ko Phi Phi, and far quieter than these. The beach resorts are widely spaced along its west coast, and it’s all sand and not paved. To get there I had to pass a night in Phuket Town, and it was actually much more pleasant than I remember from earlier trips. The Thai cuisine might have something to do with that.

So what to do on Ko Lanta? Diving of course. Saw a shark and several turtles. Followed one with a bright read shield for several minutes, so close that I could have touched it. Amazing how these creatures are so slow and awkward on land, and so quick and elegant under water! 

Quiet Bali

It happened that the hall of the my chosen villa was full of French and Quebecois people, including a couple who live nearby. They know all the best restaurants so we got on a flock of motorbikes and had an excellent lunch. Much of the afternoon we stayed at their place, a big house filled with Balinese art, and a pool in a tropical garden.

The town of Ubud uses to be a sleepy artist colony, but now it’s strangled by thunderous traffic. A disappointment. 

Back to Bali

I seem to be having a lot of connectivity issues… Catching up.

Diving on Gili Air, and enjoying the mellow atmosphere of the island that is so sadly missing on Gili T. Then on to a couple more days on Bali – but not in those frenetic southern towns, but in a villa out in the fields. I don’t expect to be doing much at all, other than some fine Thai dining. 

Gili Air

The idea was to head east, but since the weather is turning rainy (and tropical rain means serious business) and the forecast east is just awful, I am turning west. When my connections didn’t work out and I got stuck in Lombok for many hours, my moto driver turned out to be a professional guide and too care of me. Saw many interesting places, including an ancient cross-faith palace templp. In the end I even met his family and a happy crowd of local children. 

If I hadn’t insisted, he wouldn’t even take a fee. So if you ever find yourself east of Bali, give Rahmat a call: +62(0)81917946551 (also WhatsApp), or rahmatragel75@gmail.com. A good friendly guide can make all the difference if you want to see more than just tourist photo opportunities. 

Anyway, Gili Air is like Gili Trawangan was ten years ago: just the right mix of barefoot Beach promenade, pretty restaurants, and pretty little resorts (mine is the Orong Village). Had a red snapper for dinner, grilled with lots of garlic by the fisherman who had caught it hours earlier. 

Sumbawa

It takes time to reach Sumbawa – a boat from the Gilis to Lombok, the crossing Lombok to a harbor on the other side, then a ferry to Sumbawa. I arrived at the Yoyo’s Resort at 2 o’clock at night, after many hours in a very crowded minivan. A guy with a flashlight was waiting for me.

Yoyo’s is very unlike Gili. It has most of a large bay to itself. Lots of green space ringed by steep forested hills. There’s almost no people in these parts. It’s a place to sit on a bean bag, read books, and hope for Wifi. The weather appears to get worse the farther I go east though, didn’t see much sun today. 

Rebuilding an island

The Gilis are three small islands off the coast of Lombok,a few hours east of Bali. All three were badly hit by a magnitude-7.2 earthquake seven months ago. All cement structures collapsed, no building on the beach survived, and all three islands had to be completely evacuated.

But now you can barely tell. There are still a few collapsed buildings, and not all the rubble has been removed, but the Gilis are definitely back in business. There’s still no motor traffic, but the largest of the three – Gili Trawangan, also known as the party island Gili Tralala or simply Gili T – has not improved. The beach promenade is now paved, and packed with shops back to back. The old mellow vibe is completely gone, although you’ll still find rasta guys offering ‘shrooms and marijuana. 

But a bit back from the beach the hustle is gone, and small guesthouses with a few traditional huts around a pool and bar dominate. The downside is poor connectivity and no hot showers… 

Unspoiled

Nusa Penida is another island near Bali, easily reachable from Lembongan. But the infrastructure is virtually nonexistent. A few villages, a few deeply rutted roads running up and down steep hills, and almost no people. Motorcycles are the best way to get around.

The views down from the limestone cliffs and and a deep lake connected to the sea under a huge stone bridge are absolutely spectacular – or as my moto driver said, pure Instagram. Well, fortunately Nusa Penida doesn’t seem to have been discovered by the Instagram crowd much, it’s just too hard to move around here, and there’s no Internet to blast boring selfies into the net. 

Maybe I’ll be back here in ten years and then I’ll tell everyone how unspoiled and beautiful it was before the developers moved in and built resorts everywhere and escalators down the cliffs. You read it here first. 

Mantas

Plenty of dive centers on Lembongan. The highlight is Manta Point, a place some 15 meters under water where mantas come for cleaning. It’s essentially a big manta car wash where mantas wait in line, slowly circling, for their turn to be cleaned by several types of small fish.

So you hove there and watch these huge mantas gliding through the water, slowly waving their long wings, and fanning water into their big gaping mouths to extract krill. Impressive! 

Not Bali

Off the south-eastern coast of Bali are three small islands, Nusa Lembongan, Nusa Ceningan, and Nusa Penida, that are said to be like Bali was 20 years ago / will be the next Bali. Quiet villages, white beaches, people who have time, no traffic, and no concrete resorts anywhere.

From Bali’s Sanur harbor, Lembongan is only 30 minutes by speedboat. This is what Indonesian boat travel is supposed to be like: the boat runs up to the beach, you wade through the water onto the beach, and pick a place to stay. I followed the advice of some surfer dudes and got myself a bungalow up on the hill with a fantastic view over the beach and village, with Bali’s Agung volcano at a distance. I’ll stay here for a while. 

Bali

The trouble with revisiting places, years later, is that they invariably have “improved” – more traffic, more noise, more concrete resorts at the beach, and more plastic garbage in the sand and the water. Some hotels have sewer pipes that color the water greenish brown.

But people are still as friendly as always, and away from the town centers with their shops and bars and American fast food chains there’s still village life to be found. Bali is also quite large, and only the southern tip is seriously developed. In any case, Bali has a major international airport, making it a good starting point for traveling. 

Finally, back in a tropical climate, let’s go island hopping! 

Unfortunately it’s apparently no longer possible to post pictures, Google thought it would be a good idea to change the API. 

Bangkok

There is the tourist Chinatown in Bangkok, and the Chinatown where people actually live and work. Machine parts seem to be an especially big thing, making parts of the place look like a huge junkyard. But there are 200-year old mansions too.

Downtown, the Saffron Sky Garden bar, built into a big cutout of the Tai Wah skyscraper is a nice place to conclude the day, and this trip. Bangkok is a curious mixture of ultra-modern and deeply traditional.




Capsule Thailand

Muang born is a large park on the Gulf of Thailand, two hours south of Bangkok. The Park is shaped like Thailand, and it contains some 120 temples and monuments brought here, or rebuilt here, from all over Thailand, all in a beautiful park with lots of waterways. They even have a proper floating village with boats. If you don’t have time to explore Thailand, here is the primer. It’s really well done.

And the best is, they have a complete reproduction of Preah Vihar, the temple I missed in the Khao Phra Wihan park near Ubon, although at a reduced size. That temple is huge, far bigger than the few roofs and gates visible in Khao Phra Wihan!




More Ubon

Khao Phra Wihan is not all Ubon has to offer. There is a large number of temples in or near the city, and since it’s so remote, I was the only visitor in those I went to. Temples that serve as monasteries are always a collection of shining golden shrines and utilitarian buildings where the monks live, learn, and do their laundry. At Wat Tung Si they have an 250-year old wooden pagoda that served as a library for scriptures, and was therefore set on stilts in an artificial pond. A monk opened some shrines for me. (They always see me coming because I am so much taller than everyone else.) Saw a few monk spray painting a statue.

10km from Ubon is a bend in the river Mun that forms a long beach. There are two dozen restaurants side by side, each with a long pier out over the river, with floating thatched huts on both sides. A little like on the Mekong rapids, except no hammocks. No English spoken, for lunch we agreed on “fye lye” (fried rice). A tasty fish sauce and a bucket of ice came with the meal.


Border temple

Khao Phra Wihan is a national park two hours south of Ubon Ratchathani. It sits on a 500m cliff, nearly vertical, with stunning views of Thailand and nearby Cambodia. But they made a mistake when documenting the border between Thailand and Cambodia, so the park is on the Thai side but the important Preah Vihar temple in it ended up in Cambodia. The two countries actually went to war over that a while ago.

It’s peaceful now but access to the temple is forbidden. That part of the park is filled with soldiers, sandbagged guard posts, and endless spools of razor wire. But even without access to Preah Vihar it’s a beautiful park.




Ubon

On the road almost all day: boat off the island, minibus to Paksé, the nearest city to the north, goodbye to the Mekong, and a real bus across the border to Ubon Ratchathani in northeastern Thailand. Fourth country on this trip.

More Mekong

Having an excellent time here on the islands so I decided to stay longer. Only the village on the northern end of Don Det I don’t like – no longer the backpacker haven I knew, and slowly on its way to tourist overload like Vang Vieng in the north. Who travels to a remote place in a remote country like Laos, and then eats burgers or happy pizza?