Rented one of those impractical bicycles and rode south to Don Khon island, across the French bridge. They built the bridge for the only railway ever operating in Laos; the remains of one engine are still rusting away at the bridge. Rode a narrow footpath through a wat and bamboo, palm, and banyan forests to Tat Somphamit, aka the Li Phi falls. They are not very high, the highest cascades less than ten meters, but a tremendous volume of Mekong water is crashing down at high speed with a loud roar through a rocky canyon. Besides two large falls, there are numerous smaller ones that keep the water light green and covered with white foam for a long way.
Next I went all the way to the southern end of Don Khon, where I found a small beach jutting out between the main flow of the Mekong and a rapidly flowing side channel that has washed out a quiet pool. Went swimming for a while. It’s impossible to swim against the current – even long-tail boats slow to a crawl – but approaching sideways from the pool and grabbing a root while the water rushes past is fun. Although I have travelled on the Mekong before, I have never swum in it before. Southern Laos is hot and sunny but not humid, and the water is quite warm. Not bad for the last day of November.
My guesthouse runs a ferry down the Mekong river. It takes 90 minutes to reach Don Det, another inhabited island of Si Phan Don. many fishermen are squatting on the tails of their little boats, casting their nets. Despite its width, the river flows quite quickly.
The village of Don Det is supremely laid back, strung out along a lone dirt path along the river bank. At the ferry landing, where the boats just run up to the beach, there are a number of guesthouses and restaurants; further down the path are small wooden and bamboo houses on stilts where families live and work in the space under their houses. There are a few backpackers, but everything is extremely quiet.
I wanted a peaceful place in Laos’ countryside, and that’s exactly what I got. My guesthouse is at the northern tip of the island, and my balcony with a hammock is built on stilts over the river bank. As I write this I am watching the sunset over the Mekong. There is no electricity in Don Det, and hence no hot showers, on the island; some places run a generator for a few hours in the evening. The place does look ready to party, but there were none when I was there.
I walked to other end of the island through fields being harvested by old women (picture), until I reached an old bridge from French colonial times that leads to the next island south, Don Khon (not to be confused with Don Khong). There is a small village on the other side, even quieter than Don Det. I got the impression that it attracts a much older crowd of tourists. I did check out the Sala Phaet hotel, which consists of some droopy neglected-looking huts on rafts in the river, for ten times the price of other guesthouses.
A tuk tuk brought me back to the ferry landing in the morning, and I crossed to the other side of the Mekong in a long-tail boat. Long-tail boats are long narrow wooden boats with a sunroof, and an exposed car motor that drives a propeller at the end of a long drive shaft, which is lowered into the water and generates a lot of spray. Took a crowded bus to Hat Xai Khun, which is just a cluster of bamboo houses an hour down the Mekong. Another long-tail boat brought me to Muang Khong, an even tinier and even sleepier village on the island of Don Khong.
Don Khong is a member of Si Phan Don, the Four Thousand Islands in the middle of the river. In the rainy season, the Mekong expands to a width of 14 km here. There are not really 4000 islands here, but there are a few hundred. Don Khong is the largest and one of the few that are inhabited.
Muang Khong consists mostly of a single road along the river; the village extends for a few hundred meters. The riverbank is quite steep, and most of the few guesthouses have restaurant terraces on stilts overlooking the river. There is very little to do here other than read and walk. The island gets very rural very quickly outside the village; all houses there (and most in the village) are on stilts and made from wooden planks and bamboo. There are lots of animals. I tried to rent a bicycle but the only one with working brakes had a loose saddle, which promptly broke off when they tried to tighten it.
The regular bus to Pakse in southern Laos would have taken 18 hours, and the VIP bus runs at night only, so I figured I might as well fly. In Pakse I connected to a songthaew (a brightly colored flatbed truck with benches and a roof) to Chamnpasak, which promptly left after waiting for an hour to fill up. At Champasak, we had to cross the Mekong using a ferry (really just a wooden raft bolted onto a pair of canoes), after another hour of waiting. Every thing here moves slowly and it’s a welcome change after Vientiane. Met a guy with a chicken on his lap, and a cynical bitter Australian who has been travelling for 30 years.
Champasak is a sleepy one-road village along the Mekong. Most of the guesthouses and restaurants have terraces built on stilts on the bank of the river. People come here to see Wat Phu, a Khmer temple eight km towards the mountains. It’s built on three levels connected by steep broken stone steps. The architecture is very similar to Angkor, and it’s about as old, but far smaller and in worse shape. Most windows are bricked up, and the walls are crumbling, roofs have fallen, and scaffolds hold up leaning walls and columns. Yet there still is a buddha shrine. It feels like a Tombraider set after the final showdown. Impressive, in a country ravaged by wars where few buildings are older than a hundred years.
Wat Si Saket is Vientiane’s oldest temple. Arcades along the outer walls of the compound have hundreds of sitting buddha statues, and thousands of little ones in niches in the wall. The walls of the central wat with the buddha shrine are covered with murals, but they are crumbling and chipping, and in some places the bricks are exposed and in others repairs were done rather inexpertly. The temple is very peaceful and in a state of picturesque decay.
More than half of Talat Sao, Vientiane’s morning market, is already gone, they are building an eight-story mall in its place. What’s left is mostly clothes, electronics, and pirated CDs and DVDs. It appears that if you want to sell an mp3 player these days, you must ape Apple’s logos and design, but never mind the quality. Talat Khua Din is Talat Sao’s slummy little brother, complete with narrow dirt paths, shredded tarps, corrugated metal roofs, and a covered meat market with buzzing flies.
The National Museum has a few pots and tools, but otherwise mostly photos. If I get the gist of it right, it’s about the courageous heroic patriotic comrades of the glorious victorious revolutionary Lao Liberation Army, which won the war against the fascist reactionary aggressive US imperialists and their puppets, traitors, savage murderous henchmen, and mercenaries, and Laos has been a communist paradise ever since. It’s especially relentless on US imperialists and puppets. To be fair, the US brought enormous destruction and suffering to Laos – unexploded US bombs kill people even today – and the US did lose that war like every other war they ever started.
I went to numerous other temples, but the one that stood out was Pha That Luang (picture), a huge golden shrine with many spires. It’s a symbol of Laos and reproduced on the 2000 kip note. I talked to a smiling young monk holding a parasol and a Lao/English dictionary.
Vientiane, Laos’ capital, runs along the Mekong river. The height of the river varies, and large sections of Vientiane’s riverfront get flooded seasonally. A dam, freshly reinforced with sandbags, protects the city; children play soccer at the shore. The Mekong also divides Laos from Thailand. Late in the afternoon, I watched the sun set over the Thai side of the river.
Vientiane is not as pretty as Luang Prabang and not as peaceful as Vang Vieng, but it’s a real live city that hasn’t signed over its body and soul to tourism. The pizza parlors are there if you look for them, but the people who live and work here have other concerns and the tourists get lost in the crowds. Vientiane is quiet enough to be pleasant, yet alive and humming like an Asian city and capital should be.
Patuxay, the vitory gate, is said to resemble the Arc de Triomphe in Paris but doesn’t, at all. It looks imposing from a distance. But from a closer distance, it appears even less impressive, like a monster of concrete. The preceding sentence is a verbatim quote from a large sign mounted on the gate. Honesty is a virtue… Inside, the gate is packed with souvenir vendors.
Vientiane used to be a French colonial capital, and French language is visible everywhere. And they have good honest Laotian food. I’ll stay here a little.
The minibus took six hours to Vang Vieng, a small town at the foot of the northern mountains. The bus was packed but I snagged the front seat. We went over two passes at 1000 and 1400 meters with views above the clouds. The mountain scenery is beautiful – craggy karst peaks all around us, forests, lots of banana trees, and small bamboo villages full of children.
Vang Vieng is an unassuming town with few tourist sights that stretches along the Nam Song river. The big thing here is rafting and tubing on the river. Sadly, an alien invasion force has crash-landed in the center and is building big concrete hotels with no consideration or respect for the old town. All around them, nearly identical restaurants with pseudo-western food are springing up. I rented a nice quiet bungalow at the edge of town, but soon the cancer will spread to the whole town and it will be just like Luang Prabang, except ugly. LP, at least, is pretty.
Several swaying bamboo bridges cross the river to Dom Khang island, which is still green and quiet, with just a few bars and huts overlooking the river and the dramatic mountain background. I had real Lao food for the first time: pizza. It’s difficult to ruin a pizza recipe but the restaurant was totally up to the task. At the next table, a group of girls were ordering, quote, a jug of vodka, end quote. At least the menu didn’t list happy pizza or happy drinks, where the “happy” indicates marijuana, meth, or cocaine. I wonder whether the monks at the temple here are sometimes treated to happy alms.
Early in the morning, the monks from the temple went through the village chantin g and collecting alms. Returned to Luang Prabang by boat, minibus, and songthaew. The minibus managed to run out of gas 250m before the gas station. This time I didn’t bother to reserve a room in Luang Prabang, I just went to a cluster of guesthouses and picked a nice one.
Luang Prabang’s National Museum, and former royal residence, is forgettable. It’s modern and quite bare and sterile, except for the boxy reception room with red walls with gold trim and mirror mosaics. The royal apartment is almost depressing, by place at home is fancier than that. This king must have come down in the world.
In the morning I was woken by roosters. I was planning to stay only one night in Muang Ngoi, but I decided to enjoy the quiet village life one more day before returning to the cities. Late in thge morning I went with ba few others up the river to Sopjam, a native village that is just a cluster of bamboo houses on wooden stilts. Palm trees and a backdrop of green mountains create a very pleasant atmosphere. They make those narrow Laotian scarves here that are sold in Luang Prabang’s night market. Very colorful. The village is full of playing children; families here have four or five children.
We visited a cave, but since the guide brought only a weak flashlight and a little candle, there wasn’t much to see. The reral attraction was the narrow path from the river bank through the dense forest up to the mouth of the cave anyway.
We stopped three times to catch fish with a net. The result was one small fish, and a handful of smaller ones. We built a fire on the beach and grilled them. That must have been the freshest fish I ever had, and it tasted great, but it was far too little.
It takes three hours by minibus to the village of Nong Khiaw northeast of Luang Prabang, and another hour in one of the narrow, long Laotian boats up the Nam Ou river, to reach Muang Ngoi. The river is winding its way through densely forested mountains with steep rock faces.
Muang Ngoi is a small peaceful village that consists of a single dirt street lined with small houses built from bamboo and wood, with just a few brick buildings. A long stairway leads up there from the baot landing, where many of the narrow boats are moored. I was staying at the Phetdavanh guest house; it, too, has a wooden frame and bamboo mat walls. There is a nice upstairs terrace with hammocks. It’s very quiet in the village – there are almost no phones, no Internet, and my guest house is one of the few houses with electricity. Most others run a generator for a couple of hours in the evening, so the village is very dark.
Luang Prabang’s small old town has a large number of Buddhist temples, all of which are active with many orange-robed monks about. Most are small, but Wat Xieng Thong is an impressive large complex with not only the usual large hall that houses the Buddha shrine, but also a smaller hall with a huge golden hearse for kings, and numerous smaller shrines and living quarters for the monks. Their orange laundry hangs out to dry between the shrines. The walls, inside and out, are covered with gold, gold painting, and glittering glass mosaics.
Took a tour bus to Kuang Si, a park with a large waterfall that drops from a tall hill, and then through a series of wide cascades between turquoise pools. Very beautiful. There are lots of trails in the forest, and viewpoints to watch the falls. There was an annoying loud American on the bus that kept dropping names of all the unexciting places he’s been to in Asia and his boring adventures there. He has seen people on the roof of his overcrowded bus, yawn.
Luang Prabang is very pretty and avoids all the mistakes that have turned so many other Asian cities into swirling maelstroms of honking traffic and faceless office towers, but it sold its ssoul to tourism. One hears a lot more German than Lao in the streets, and it’s packed with guesthouses, tour operators, and fancy restaurants. It’s difficult to find Lao food, it’s just an afterthought tacked on to the end of the pizza, burger, and spaghetti sections of the menus (under “Lao cousins” in one place I was eating at). Tomorrow I’ll escape to a place without Internet, phones, cell towers, and (most of the day) electricity.
I have visited almost all countries in southeast Asia, but not Lao, until now. Luang Prabang is Lao’s cultural center. As much as I liked Australia, it’s good to be back in Asia, away from the perfectly organized affluence and “slippery when wet” signs. Luang Prabang is rather touristy, I saw almost as many Western tourists as locals on the streets and there are guesthouses everywhere. But it’s also peaceful and quiet, with old low houses, narrow streets, very little traffic, no modern buildings, and only a handful of souvenir shops. Small temples are scattered throughout the old town, and Buddhist monks in their orange robes are out on the streets.
Luang Prabang is built along the shores of the mighty Mekong river, which slowly flows down the length of Laos until it emerges in a huge delta in southern Vietnam, where I had gone out in a boat for a few days last year. Long narrow wooden boats are loaded by boatmen carrying huge bags on their shoulders, walking up narrow planks to their boats while tourists watch from restaurant terraces that overlook the Mekong.
Last day in Sydney, mopping up a few sights before my flight leaves in the evening. I picked a ferryboat at random and went out to the western suburbs, passing under the Harbour Bridge. The area becomes scenic very quickly, small houses perched on the hills around the western bay with numerous little coves and marinas. Sydney Tower is a great vantage point to see just how green and suburban sydney is – the ocean, bays, beaches, parks, and forests are everywhere. Only the CBD doesn’t look good from the Tower: you only see the air conditioners on the roofs of nondescript highrises, and the entire Harbour Area – the jewel of Sydney – is mostly hidden behind other towers.
They run tours of the Sydney Opera every 30 minutes, but few tours include both concert halls and the drama theaters because of ongoing shows. My 12:30 tour did, though. The opera building is rather more impressive from the outside than the inside because little of the dramatic roof is visible, but it’s very modern and airy, with views of the water everywhere, in a Sixties kind of way. Sydney Opera is a World Heritage and deservedly one of the most recognized building on earth.
Also checked out museums (not as many as I would have liked), and walked about town. Itwas another warm day, over 30 degrees C; summer is near. At the same time they have Christmas trees everywhere, and they are building a huge Christmas tree with a steel trunk and branches and plastic needles in Martin Square in the middle of the CBD. Fairly good imitation though. Christmas is less than five weeks from now.
I am writing this at Bangkok airport. Finally, back in Asia! I’ll catch a flight to Lao soon.
Took a ferry to Manly, a suburb that is part of Sydney’s Northern Beaches. Corso, the main street, is short and connects the bay ferry terminal on one side of town with the ocean on the other side.
They have a former army reserve with a quarantine station at the North Head, which is opposite the South Head I had visited two days earlier. Both form the gateway of Sydney Bay to the ocean. The army is gone, and the area is now a nature reserve with a bushwalk trail. Saw only two other visitors.
The Northern Beaches are much quieter and more difficult to reach than the Eastern Beaches. Saw only a few surfers. The final stop was Palm Beach, a crescent of sand overlooked by very expensive weekend mansions.
Tomorrow evening, after a final few hours in Australia, I’ll be on my way to Luang Prabang in Lao.
Checked out The Rock. It used to be a dangerous part of town a hundred years ago but its old brick warehouses got remodeled into expensive restaurants, cafes, and galleries. Some of its alleys are more modern redevelopments that pay less attention to the old style, but it’s still a very nice neighborhood in a very prominent location at the Harbor Bridge. Sydney loves its waterfront and puts promenades, piers, and parks there; unlike, say, Paris or Seattle where they like to close off the waterfront for freeways.
Newtown is another neighborhood, west of the CBD. Its main street is King St, lined with unassuming old buildings with lots of little cafes, restaurants, and second-hand bookstores. But like in many modern cities, the very nice left side of the street is separated from the very nice right side of the street by four lines of heavy traffic.
Yesterday was mountains, today is beaches. Sydney has countless beaches. Started at Bronte Beach, one of Sydney’s Eastern Beaches facing the ocean, and walked to Bondi Beach, Sydney’s most famous beach. There is path that connects them all, and in November there is an event called Sculpture By The Sea where perhaps a hundred sculptures are placed along the ocean shore walk. There is a giant straw out in the sea, plastic eyeballs embedded in a rock wall, a wicker and a brass horse, and many other figures and abstract shapes. The path is quite busy. Bondi Beach itself has become a victim of its beauty. There is lots of traffic and expensive hotels and restaurants. Whales were breaking through bthe waves out on the ocean, chased by small tourist boats.
Also saw several bay beaches. They don’t have the dramatic rock cliffs. At South Head, where Sydney Bay opens to the ocean, is a viewpoint called The Gap with a panorama of both an ocean beach and a bay beach. Went swimming at a less crowded beach near Botany Bay in the south.
Blue Mountain National Park begins 60km west of Sydney. It’s very accessible: a six-lane highway, double train tracks, and lots of buses connect Sydney to the park. It can get quite busy. All the viewpoints and trails in the park are tamed – perfect roads lead there, there is parking, fences, guardrails, and stone steps. I almost expected coin turnstyles.
The first stop was Wentworth Falls viewpoint. The Blue Mountains are a deeply cut plateau, with steep rock faces down to hilly and densely forested valleys. The falls drop into a circular canyon with a pool at the bottom, like an Aztec cenote except no princes are sacrificed here.
Passed through the main town of the Blue Mountains, Katoomba, a sleepy little town with restaurants and galleries, on the way to Echo Point. It has a similar fantastic panorama of canyons and valleys, and a view of the Three Sisters. They are three rock pinnacles off to one side. Another lookout, Evans Viewpoint nnear the town of Blackheath, has similar views and the Bridal Veil Falls, a thins but very tall waterfall; the water reaches the bottom only as a fine mist. The final stop was Sublime Point, with a view of the opposite side of the Three Sisters. It was late afternoon by this time, and mists started to roll in. They are very blue, giving the mountains their name.
Ok, promise, Sydney will be the last distraction in this blog before the action returns to Asia. I arrived in the early afternoon and had time for a walk around Sydney Harbor.
Sydney Opera’s roof is every bit as extravagant as it looks on the postcards. It’s different from every angle. The waterfront between the opera and the ferry poiers in the middle of Sydney Harbor houses numerous cafes with outdoor seating, and various speedboat operators. The opposite side has green spaces, street musicians on the waterfront promenade, and great views of the opera. Behind the promenade, there is an old district called The Rock with old brick warehouses that have been converted to trendy restaurants and hotels. It’s all very inviting.
Sydney Harbor Bridge is a massive structure looming from the western side of the harbor. There is a walkway on the eastern side with fantastuic views of the harbor. Unlike Melbourne and Hobart, Sydney is an outdoor place where people enjoy sitting out in the sun. It’s already my favorite Australian city of the few I have seen so far.
It’s very strange to be here while summer is coming up, people go out to the beaches and enjoy the warm weather, and prepare for Christmas.
Took a tour to Mt. Field because there is no other good way of getting there. The driver proudly pointed out attractions on the way there: a zinc smelter, a paper mill, and most importantly, a Cadbury chocolate factory. The first stop in the Mt. Field National Park was Russell Falls, a large waterfall at the end of a nature trail through dense rain forest. We saw several pademelons, which are small furry animals that look like stubby pocket-sized kangaroos with dark fur.
They have a private wildlife sanctuary there where injured and orphaned animals are raised and later released into the wild. This is my chance to see all the weird fauna Australia is famous for because they can’t hide from my camera here. The menu included:
- Kangaroos watch idly from a distance. Can’t have a wildlife sanctuary without kangaroos.
- Wallabies are like kangaroos but smaller.
- Tasmanian devils are cute black furry creatures that don’t move a whole lot.
- Quolls look like black cats with white spots.
- Platypuses look like beavers with flippers and a soft gray duck bill, but it took a long time to see it. They are mammals that lay eggs.
- Possums are beautiful golden creatures that look like a cross between a cat and a rabbit.
- Koalas are the same impractical slow-moving teddy bears with big noses that I have seen the day before.
- Wombats (picture) are a sleeker variant of teddy bear with long claws, but the baby wombat we saw was just cuddly.
- Corellas look like parakeets and could impeccably enunciate “hello”.
And no, I didn’t make any of these up. We concluded the day on Mt. Wellington, with a fantastic view of a few slices of Hobart through gaps in the clouds.
Did Hobart’s museum circuit during the short time window when things open here. The Maritime Museum has all sorts of models and items used during Australia’s colonization; the Penitentiary Chapel is a church on the upper floor and solitary confinement cells – some only a little larger than coffins – for British convicts, and the Tasmanian Museum shows aborigine art, animals, and various galleries. They are all very well done. Whenever the subject of history comes up in Australia, it’s all about the aborigine genocide and abuse of convicts. Australia is doing its best to educate and atone.
Also went to Richmond, a historic village north of Hobart. I managed to find a tourist bus that goes there because there is virtually no public transport in Tasmania; you really can’t properly visit this place without a car. Richmond is very small, and everything there is cute. Cute little wooden houses in cute gardens overflowing with colorful fragrant flowers, cute little souvenir shops and cafes, even a cute little colonial penitentiary. If they hadn’t poured four lanes of asphalt through town it would look like a toy city. Which they have there, too: a scale model of Hobart. The bus goes through green fields, hills, and a few vineyards.
The plane from Melbourne to Hobart on the island of Tasmania takes a little over an hour. I am staying at Battery Point Manor in a huge room with a view of the ocean. It’s in a quiet neighborhood where people frame their driveways with flower beds, right above Salamanca Square at Princes Wharf, a row of nice restaurants and galleries in a curving row of old houses. It’s all very pleasant and relaxed, and spring is in the air with birds singing and fragrant flowers blooming.
There are more restaurants at the piers and docks further west, and the main part of town begins right behind them. I had very fresh fish and chips there. Downtown is much busier, but Hobart has a population of only 200,000 so it still has a small-town feel. Most buildings are low and old, with only a few ugly blocky highrises marring the skyline. They have several beautifully landscaped little parks too.
Like in Melbourne, the world comes to an end every day at 18:00. Everything except a few restaurants on Salamanca closes, Hobart becomes a ghost town, and the Internet goes to sleep for another Australian night.
After a final look at the Twelve Apostels in the morning, we went to Otway, Australia's westernmost rain forest. They have a nature trail through the forest, dense with underbrush, huge ferns, tall trees covered in moss, and fire hoses. It’s so dense that it would be impossible to move away from the path. Birds were singing. I let two chattering Japanese girls pass who had no ears or eyes for the forest, and had the place mostly to myself. They have a 600m steel canopy walkway, with a long cantilever section and a viewtower with a spiral staircase winding around a tall concrete pole. The walkway is wide and one can look through the steel lattice of the floor. The forest is intensely vertical from up there.
After several more viewpoints we left the Great Ocean Road. (They pronounce it like Gradation Road.) At one point we turned off into a small eucalyptus forest to see Koalas. They live high up in the trees, and eat only eucalyptus leaves, and only those of 10 of 600 eucalyptus species. Eucalyptus trees are Mother Nature's way of placing barrels of gasoline in the forest: they shed their fuzzy bark in the winter, not their leaves, and their leaves are oily and quite flammable too. Their seeds require forest fires to germinate. But they aren’t very nutritious so the Koalas move very little and sleep 20 hours per day. Saw a Koala mother with her baby. It’s very sunny and warm, 32 degrees C.
The Great Ocean Road is Victoria’s main attraction. The coastline is very rugged and consists of steep limestone cliffs, washed out by the ocean so that a number of tiny islands and pillars have remained standing out in the ocean. The deep blue ocean and sky, the yellow limestone cliffs, the white surf, and the green low vegetation on top make it very beautiful. Lookouts with little parking lots are strategically placed along the shore. Since I was on a tourist bus we stopped at all of them.
The coast is called Shipwreck Coast, some 600 ships have sunk here over the past 200 years. It appears that most sailors died in part because they couldn’t be bothered to learn to swim. The bays with the lookouts have names like Bay of Islands, Bay of Martyrs (aborigines killed by colonists), and London Bridge, a double rock bridge that has, alas, collapsed a few years back. We also went to a beautiful secluded beach ringed by steep sandstone cliffs. The sand is hot but the water is very cold. In the evening we went to the Twelve Apostles, a set of eight tall rocks in the sea. Very beautiful. The sunset was just a gradual darkening though, the rocks lost their definition and mist rolled in.
The Grampian Mountains are west of Melbourne, just past the Pyrenees. Australia is almost completely flat so they have to economize – anything you can’t throw a tennis ball over is a mountain, and the Grampians peak at 1167 meters. The road there is green farmland, site of Australia’s Gold Rush in the 1850s. The road passes through the town of Ararat, made the home of the criminally insane by a big prison, now closed. Otherwise it’s famous for a pedestrian crossing that leads from one pub to the other; fame is relative. And they play a special kind of football, a mixture of rugby (kick a lemon-shaped ball), Irish football (kick a soccer ball), and an aborigine ball game (kick a possum, now endangered).
The bus passes by a number of lookouts with views over the valleys, lakes, and surrounding farmland. Also followed a trail to the McKenzie waterfall. There is a cultural center with excellent displays describing how the British colonists killed virtually all aborigines. Saw many kangaroos hopping through the fields and forests. At one point on the trail, a kangaroo was looking at me from behind a bush, waiting for me to pass, then hopped up to the trail. Kangaroos are big animals, you can see the muscles working hard when it’s thumping along on the trail. It’s not especially graceful. They also have a couple of little extinct volcanos, now overgrown with trees. No hot acid lakes and boiling sulphur here, like on Java.
Ventured beyond downtown: Brunswick St in Fitzroy has lots of little offbeat shops, restaurants, galleries, and bookstores, and is not at all glossy like the central business district. It’s fun to walk and browse here. If they could only lose a couple of lanes of the busy Brunswick St, and maybe add a few head shops, and it would look like Haight St in San Francisco.
St. Kilda is one of Melbourne’s beach suburbs. It’s fairly low-key – there are some restaurants, a couple of ugly hotels, a narrow beach, a long pier to a boat harbor with Melbourne’s skyline as a backdrop, and a quiet residential neighborhood. No souvenir shops or other annoyances. The place is quiet and pleasant. When looking out on the ocean, I had to think for a second to remember which ocean it is this week.
The Sofitel hotel downtown has the most scenic toilet I have ever seen. It’s on the 35th floor, and one wall is a huge picture window with a great view of Melbourne. Melbourne’s shops close down at 18:00, as if Melbourne was some small-time village. They need to work on that.
At the travel agency they told me that the spire at the Fed Square looks just like the Eiffel Tower. Boys and girls, if you think that this thing looks anything like the Eiffel Tower, you need to get out more! Fed Square is a somewhat sterile cluster of museums, boring boxy buildings with funky facades. A group of boys with clipboards interviewed me about my opinion of it. I tried to be polite, but the real heart of Melbourne is not here (that was one of their questions) but in the numerous little alleys where people go and cars do not, where little shops and cafes attract an easygoing crowd, even on a Thursday afternoon.
The southern side of the Yarra River is all developed with a riverwalk, many pretty much interchangeable restaurants, and the Crown Towers that house a casino with a few smallish roulette tables and acres of slot machines. These are just LCD screens with stop buttons and a coin slot, running DOS software. The Eureka Tower nearby has great city panoramas from its 88th floor.
The Queen Victoria Market is a large covered market selling clothes, fruit and vegetables, and some souvenirs. What a difference to an Asian market – it’s clean, modern, orderly, no hustlers, wide aisles, airy and bright. In other words, boring. I bought a power adapter; Australia has the second-weirdest power sockets on the planet. (Top honors go to the UK, of course.) I also spent a few pleasant hours in Melbourne’s botanical garden.
If you want to be really pedantic about geography, you might wonder what Melbourne is doing in a blog about Asia. Melbourne is not, in fact, in Asia but on a former penal colony off the coast of Papua New Guinea. At least, when you look my way from Europe, you’ll have to see through Asia’s exhaust fumes. I figured that if Indonesia wants me out, I might as well use the opportunity to visit a place whose distance to home has previously always outweighed my interest in it. I’ll blithely continue to post to the hereinasia blog. Even if I had known that I’d spend some time here, I probably wouldn’t have found a blog name like hereinasiaandmaybeaustraliatoo sufficiently catchy. Bear with me on this for a couple of weeks or so… No worries mate.
Never had so much opportunity to chat with customs officials as today, arriving in Melbourne. They wanted to know what I do, what’s in my backpack, and how I can afford to visit so many places. They browsed through my pictures to verify my statements. Apparently Bali is a major source of illegal drugs.
That, and figuring out Melbourne’s metro system which is very good at keeping salient information secret, such as what lines exist and how to find the right train and which train stops at which stations, took most of the morning. The afternoon I spent walking in Melbourne’s rather compact downtown.
At first sight, Melbourne feels like a large Canadian city – a clone of a large US city, but with a soul. There are highrises, a regular grid of wide busy streets, the usual faceless modern chain stores, and malls; but also grand old facades in the mix, little alleys with cool restaurants and little shops, and trees. There is a small Chinatown and an even smaller Greek town. Nobody here carries a basket with pineapples on their heads though. I miss Indonesia already…
The Ulu Watu temple is at the southern end of Bali. It’s small but very scenically perched at the edge of a huge cliff that falls down vertically to a foaming ocean. Admission includes a rental sarong. As before, the temple can’t be visited but the real attraction are the views of the ocean anyway. There are signs everywhere warning not to wear sunglasses or necklaces because the monkeys living here will steal them.
Further west, there is a little village nestled on the hillside overlooking the rocky Suluban Beach. This is a surfer mecca, and there are lots of surfers out in the waves, waiting for a big wave that never seems to arrive. It looks very peaceful and a little futile but I am told this place is too dangerous for any but the most experienced surfers.
Today is my 30th day in Indonesia, and the day my visa expires. Extensions are not possible so I’ll flee the country tonight.
Tanah Lot is a pair of Hindu temples built on large rocks in the sea. The larger one is reached by wading out through shallow water on the lee side of the rock, while the surf crashes on the rock at the other sides. They have a holy spring in a cave at the bottom, where everybody gets sprinkled with holy water and gets some rice stuck to the forehead. That’s your ticket to walk up the stairs to the temple, except that stair doesn’t go very far because the temple at the top is closed to visitors.
The other rock is similar but much smaller, and instead of wading there is a rock bridge. It’s closed too. They also have a cave with a big holy snake, but the cave but the roof is very low, maybe 80cm, and there is lots of garbage. Several local tourists wanted their picture taken with me. My driver says I look like a movie actor, maybe he is looking for a bigger tip? Julia Roberts is currently filming just east of here, at Ubud.
Had a great Indonesian lunch, with bakwan dumplings and “sicko juice”. That’s spirulina, banana, apple, and papaya; deep green. The other meaning of the word is not known here.