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?




Mekong islands

Well, things change. The small group of simple huts on Don Det has been replaced with a dense cluster of hostels, hotels, and restaurants, some with pools, all with electricity and hot showers. I had a pineapple shake in the exact spot where my old hut once stood. Now it’s a bar and they are adding another row of bungalows next to it. The shoreline is completely packed.

But I am staying on Don Khon, the next island to the south. It’s exactly as quiet as Don Det was in 2009, except considerably more upmarket. Don Khon is also where all the sights of the island are, especially the Mekong Falls. Enormous amounts of water rushes down in numerous cascades on both sides of the island. The bigger one of the two is the one on the west. The old trails are gone, and they have built observation platforms – and are charging admission! Well, the thatched huts further down with pads and hammocks are worth the price, a nice place to relax and watch the foaming water.



Laos

Following the Mekong upstream first passes Stung Treng, a small town on the Cambodian side, with the usual covered and open market. Last chance to spend Cambodian riel on fresh mangoes. From there it’s not far to the Laotian border, and the 4000 Islands, my destination.

Way down this blog you’ll find my report on Don Det, one of the larger of the supposedly 4000 islands in the middle of the Mekong river. Don Det had a small backpacker village, without an electricity grid but a great mellow Lao vibe. This time I wanted to visit Don Khon, the next island to the south of Don Det.

Regrettably the incredibly crowded bus was late and there were no more boats to Don Khon; I barely managed to catch the last one to Don Det. So there I was, after dark, on the wrong island, as always without a reservation. But over the years I have come to appreciate that any problem can be solved easily by throwing money at it. So I found someone with a motorcycle who took me to the old French bridge between the two islands that I remembered, and got myself a kind of stationary houseboat on the river. It not only has electricity, but Wifi, air conditioning, a minibar, big glass doors with a sunset view, my own terrace, and a shared pool. Not bad. I’ll see tomorrow what happened to the backpacker vibe.


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Kratie

Kratie isn’t far from Kampong Cham but traveling there is slow because of road construction. Lost two hours because one truck died and another slid into a ditch right next to each other. This being southeast Asia, everyone patiently waited with a smile.

Kratie is on the Mekong, near some rapids. They turned them into a fun park, with many extremely long platforms built over the river, each with hundreds of hammocks and a few mobile kitchens. You lie in a hammock and watch the river rush past you.

It’s also one of the best places to see Irrawaddy freshwater dolphins, which are critically endangered. It’s been estimated that there are only 75 left in northern Cambodia. I was lucky to see a group of four, although they didn’t jump out of the water the way they do on the travel ads.


Kampong Cham

Longest bamboo bridge I have ever seen, it spans an arm of the Mekong to reach a kind of party island in the river. People love blinking color LEDs. But there are also serene Buddhist and Khmer temples, a short tuk-tuk ride away.




Inland

Time to find my flip flops and leave the beaches. Feels odd having to wear shoes again. I am heading north now, to rejoin the Mekong river. First to Phnom Penh, the capital, then to Kampot Chan, which offers temples and a quiet countryside. Phnom Penh is anything but quiet, many more cars on the streets since I was here last time.

Not sure about Internet from now on. In fact once I reach the Mekong islands in Laos I am not sure about electricity!


Life on the beach

Diving on Koh Rong Samloem is better than in Phu Quoc – much better visibility, more colorful corals, and a lot more and bigger fish.

Went swimming in the bay late at night. They have a kind of plankton here that fluoresces when stirred. The night was completely dark, there is no light pollution here and no moon in the sky, so every swimming stroke creates a bright trail of glowing bubbles. Very cool. I suppose the plankton thinks it’s cool too or they wouldn’t do it; the light attracts squid that feed on plankton.



Koh Rong Samloem

Cambodia’s beach capital is Sihanoukville, a thoroughly boring city with a filthy beach. I could probably have found a place without garbage floating on the water further south but decided to leave asap to the islands.

There are two of those clise to Sihanoukville: Koh Rong, the party island, and Koh Rong Samloem, the peaceful one. Got myself a beach hut on the latter, and continued to do not very much at all. Good to be in bathing trunks and barefoot all day.


Cambodia

Phu Quoc is actually off the Cambodian coast but the ferry only takes the long way to Ha Tien in Vietnam. The Cambodian border is a short minivan ride from there. I stopped for the day in Kampot, a pleasant little town with slightly crumbling but very charming French colonial architecture.

I chose the upscale Rikitikitavi hotel, named after a mythical animal, and enjoyed the professional staff, hot shower, and an absolutely delicious Khmer Saraman curry.


Diving

As a diver I know the two most common methods to get off the boat into the water: the Big Step Forward, and the James Bond Roll. Learned a new one: the Dead Mexican, falling backwards, stiff as a board. It takes a 90-minute boat ride out to a small island. The corals are shallow, less than 10 meters, and are healthy but not very colorful. Also, the waters are rather overfished. Dinner is barbecued fish right on the beach.


Phu Quoc Island

I don’t know who chose the name Superdong for a fleet of fast ferries that go from the Mekong Delta to Phu Quoc, but it doesn’t look like they’ll reconsider. Anyway, Phu Quoc is a mostly forested Vietnamese island off the coast of Cambodia. They have a small town, Duong Dong, remarkable only for being about 50% night market. From there Long Beach runs down the western coast.

The beach itself is a little narrow, and almost completely covered with resort, restaurants, and bars from end to end. Like on Thai islands, the only way to reach a public beach is through a bar. It’s all quite low-key and pleasant, but the first concrete hotel towers are springing up at the edges. Usually, in southeast Asia this is a sign that runaway development is about to start and the only guests likely to put up with that are the Russians. But now I hear French more than any other language here.

The fresh jumbo shrimps in lemongrass garlic sauce are truly delicious!


Deep delta

Venturing deeper into the delta. Villages are small and dedicated to a business. One buys coconut bark and spins it into ropes, another buys rice and boils it to make rice paper. Often these are very narrow niches that are intricately linked by fleets of scooters and fragile-looking boats. Today some guys set a folding table on the roadside, put a dead pig on it, cut it into pieces and sold them. There is no doubt in my mind that the face was sold too.

Roads are often no wider than a meter, and waterways are everywhere. Coconuts are a big trade here and no part of them is wasted. I am told these people do quite well, and always have big smiles and friendly words, but of course there is no safety net in this country at all. I am feeling alien.



Rat jerky

There is a guy here by the roadside with a huge mesh cage with giant rats that he caught in the rice fields. You can buy them live, or sliced open and dried. Rat jerky. I am hoping for barbecued rat because rat jerky is essentially roadkill, except that the moment of truth for the rat comes on the edge of a table, not on the road. I am also not certain how familiar a guy who catches rats in the field is with meat inspections. Looks no worse than beef jerky though.

Mekong Delta

The Mekong is the world’s 12th largest River. Its source is in Tibet; it flows through China, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand and Cambodia just before spreading into a huge delta south of Saigon. That’s where I am headed. The delta is extremely fertile, and everybody here is always busy working in intricate chains growing, transporting, processing and selling rice, fruit, and vegetables. Taking time off from work is an idea for us Western wimps that has the locals completely puzzled. If your job is splitting coconuts, that’s what you’ll do for every single day for the next 30 years.

This being a delta, travel involves lots of bridges and ferries. There are villages and markets everywhere, and cottage industries that process fruit. They are all connected by ridiculously overloaded scooters zooming between them. There is no reason why a scooter can’t be wider than a road lane, and sometimes it’s hard to identify the driver in the middle of all that cargo.


Saigon

The last time I had time to see much in Saigon was 2008, just after the US subprime crisis, and it had hit the city hard. Many half-finished high-rise then. All that is now forgotten, they build like crazy and big sections of downtown are closed for construction. We’ll see if this improves the city, but it certainly shows that the city is expanding again.

Fortunately scooters far outnumber cars, or the traffic would be impossible. That’s because of the 100% import tariff – if you want a car that’s like buying two and giving one to the government. The exchange rate is also not in favor of the Vietnamese going shopping abroad.

But it’s great to be back in Asia! Tomorrow I’ll leave Saigon for the Mekong delta.


Saigon

The last time I had time to see much in Saigon was 2008, just after the US subprime crisis, and it had hit the city hard. Many half-finished high-rise then. All that is now forgotten, they build like crazy and big sections of downtown are closed for construction. We’ll see if this improves the city, but it certainly shows that the city is expanding again.

Fortunately scooters far outnumber cars, or the traffic would be impossible. That’s because of the 100% import tariff – if you want a car that’s like buying two and giving one to the government. The exchange rate is also not in favor of the Vietnamese going shopping abroad.

But it’s great to be back in Asia! Tomorrow I’ll leave Saigon for the Mekong delta.


Calcutta

The name Calcutta evokes images of squalor and emaciated servants, living in a giant slum. That might have been the case when the British made Calcutta their capital, but today’s Kolkata is just a huge modern city. A lot of the colonial architecture has survived, and so did the huge park in the center. Much of it is a cricket field, and there is the Victoria Monument in a manicured garden at the south end. This being India, the park is cut into sections by large streets packed with thundering honking traffic, protected from pedestrians by fences. Sikkim was so peaceful…

Near the park is the New Market, an enormous covered market crowded with tiny stalls selling mostly clothes but also food, jewelry, toys, and various household goods. There is also a dark smelly cavernous meat section that probably hasn’t changed much since the time of the British. The market spills over to much of the surrounding city blocks. Unfortunately it’s infested with touts more than usual.

Jeepsy

Yuksam is the site of the first Kingdom of Sikkim. There isn’t much left though, there is a Buddhist shrine at the site of the throne. It’s very scenic there though – Tibetan temples, lakes, waterfalls, beautiful views of the valleys and mountains and the beehive villages built up steep slopes, narrow winding mountain roads in catastrophic condition that are navigable only by jeepsies (Indian copies of old US jeeps), and a singing stone.

Which is a large rock that, when struck with a stone, makes a sound as if it were metal. Quite astonishing. Consequently, the region is called Ting-Ting.

Himalaya views

When I woke up at dawn in Pelling and opened my eyes, there was the mountain panorama of the Himalayas, dominated by the Kangchenjunga massif. Kangchenjunga is at 8586m India’s highest mountain and the third-highest in the world, only some 250 meters lower than Everest.

The mountain views are even moire spectacular at Rabdentse, Sikkim’s second royal city, now in ruins. It’s location with the backdrop of snow-capped Himalaya peaks is fabulously scenic. I was the only visitor so early in the morning. Nearby is the Pemayangtse Gompa, one of the most important Buddhist monasteries.

The mountains around Rabdentse are criss-crossed by unmarked paths. There are many ways to discover these paths: logs worn smooth by passing feet, broken branches, exposed roots, lack of rocks… But I used none of those and simply followed the discarded candy wrappers. Sikkim is very clean, in fact smoking is forbidden in the state, but the tourists can’t seem to break the habit.

Little Tibet

Across the valley from Gangtok is Rumtek, a small village that is essentially a Tibetan monastery, founded by Tibetan monks exiled by the Chinese cultural revolution. Atypcally, it’s guarded by the army, and entering requires a passport and inner line permit.

They have a large beautifully appointed prayer hall, and the monks were sitting in four rows, chanting. The chants were punctuated by Tibetan horns, bells, and drums. The ceremony was no different from others I have seen in Tibet. I watched and listened for a long time.