Tag Archives: beach

Koh Mak, Sabai Sabai

bending palm
Wake up to the stifling heat under my mosquito net.  Flip flops on, eat some fruit and yogurt and watch the small sand crabs sketch temporary patterns in the surf.  Towel down, read on the beach.  Quick swim, unsuccessfully try to get a shot of the silvery needle-nosed fish with the underwater camera.  Walk to the only road for a Thai lunch.  Back to the beach.  Shower, walk in the surf at sunset.  Settle in with a pina colada as the sky above the tilting palms morphs from yellow, to orange, to pink, to purple, and finally a starry sapphire.

This tourist-brochure cliche description is a fairly accurate summary of four days spent on the island Koh Mak in December.  After spending 2 years in Southeast Asia, but no time at one of the region’s most popular tourist destinations, the southern Thai islands, I figured it was time to see what all this fuss about sand and sunsets was about.
diving in!
I spent a very commercial Christmas in Bangkok, where holiday spirit is injected into a country that mostly doesn’t celebrate the holiday, in the form of giant over the top glittering decorations in malls, for cosmopolitan Thai shoppers to take Instagram photos (Bangkok is the most Instagrammed place, really).  After we had our fill of the city life, my friend Ilse and I hopped on a bus south, to the seaside city of Trat.  We had opted to check out one of the eastern islands on the Cambodian side of Thailand, rather than the most popular and hard-partying islands of the southern peninsula.

Trat was just a stopover on the way to our island of choice, but turned out to be a surprisingly charming little city itself.  Many middle-sized Thai cities seem to be the same, and I expected another Udon Thani or Phitsanulok, but Trat had a quaintness to it.  In the small area of friendly guesthouses, there were a network of petite thoroughfares, almost remniscent of Europe, with low buildings and roads friendly only for pedestrians and motorbike traffic.  As we whiled away the night wandering these routes and reading guidebooks over pineapple fruit shakes in an agreeable restaurant, I almost wished we had more time to hang out in Trat.
koh mak
But the island was calling, and one choppy and hair-tangling boat ride later, we were lugging our bags onto the dock on Koh Mak. This tiny little plus-sign-shaped island is over-shadowed by its bigger and more famous brother, Koh Chang, which was precisely one reason why we chose it…a small population (only about 400), a small number of tourists, a small island, a massive amount of time for relaxing.

We stayed in a minimalist cabin consisting only of a bed with a mosquito net just a few meters walking from the beach, so most of our time was aptly spent outdoors.  The beaches were not crowded at all, and it was easy to stake out a place in the shade of a palm tree for the day.  We ate all our meals in and by the beach, got massages on the beach, the sound of the calm surf was the soundtrack to the visit (minus the hours between 9-2 every night when the resort reggae bar’s music went into full swing).

Finger pointing the way to a truly weird sculpture garden.

Finger pointing the way to a truly weird sculpture garden.

We left the water’s edge for only one afternoon, when we rented a motorbike to drive around the interior of the island for a few hours.  Passing through small rubber plantations, and the island’s few villages was interesting, but with a total area of only 16 square kilometers (only about 6 square miles), all roads eventually led back the beach.  This biking excursion brought us to the one truly bizarre experience on the island, stumbling upon a strange, surrealist, pornographic statue garden in a local artist’s public backyard.  While gingerly walking along the concrete path, gawking at the statues I got a sudden, unpleasant surprise when one began “urinating” on me.  Out of nowhere, hot, foul-smelling water (from stagnating in the heat…I assume) began spraying out of the crotch of the nearest statue directly on me.  I was lucky enough to have just turned my camera away, but we made a quick exit nonetheless, a bit spooked by the whole concrete garden experience.

nemo and friends
Although the naughty sculptures and days spent on the sand were certainly enjoyable, the true highlight of Koh Mak was my first scuba diving trip.  One of the original reasons we chose the island was because of its good reputation for snorkeling, but after hearing the dive instructors scoff as we reserved a snorkeling trip, we quickly were convinced to go for the “Discover SCUBA” trip instead.  And there was absolutely no comparison.  Once I got the hang of breathing underwater (which I feel is less a technical skill than the ability to calm your brain’s natural instinct to panic when underwater too long, unnaturally breathing thin air), we were off to another surreal environment, where we got up close and personal with clownfish, and anemones, and spindly coral.  Shifting schools of silvery fish drifted like clouds, and 15 meters down it was hard to tell how far we had actually come from the surface.
spotted ray

the depths

(All dive photos are courtesy of dive photographer, Wes Pryor).

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An Island (Not) in the Sun

My friend Clara was present for the inception of my blog, in the summer of 2009 in Paris, and a main “character” during its early days.  Now, two years since we last saw each other, she is making a reappearance.  Clara was traveling around Southeast Asia with a friend for six weeks (as part of a year spent traveling and living on different continents) and they stopped by Laos for a visit.  After several weekends spent introducing her to my life in Vientiane, she went off to Indonesia and I finished up the term.

We met again in Bali, that most famous of Indonesian islands, which is known either for its romance (if you’re a 20-60 year old female who has read Eat Pray Love) or its hedonism (if you’re an Australian male from the ages of 15-30…sorry for the stereotype Aussies, but it’s true!).  I had visited here previously shortly after my arrival in Asia, in November 2010, and was looking forward to a return to the sunny island.

After a half day spent in Sanur, a relatively quiet but touristy town with a main beachside promenade scattered with souvenir stalls, flabby tourists, and Balinese kids tearing by on bicycles, we took the ferry to Nusa Lembongan, a smaller island about an hour and a half away.  Lembongan’s main industries and tourism and seaweed farming, and part of its main charm is the (near) lack of cars on the island. After wading onto the island, we checked in, rented motorbikes, and proceeded to explore for the next half day.  The roads on Lembongan are rough and winding, but took us to mangroves surrounding a seaweed farming village, sunbleached temples, and deserted beaches, where ominous black clouds foreshadowed the day to come.

As soon as we returned from biking, the downpour began…and continued for the next 24 hours.  Luckily, an island holiday isn’t a time to be anxiously rushing around and sightseeing anyway, but plans for a second motorbike adventure turned into plans for drinking shakes and reading.

On our last morning in Lembongan, we were stopped in our tracks for a parade.  Men and women with large bundles on their heads, wearing white, processed by us, sounding drums as they went.  As we waited for the boat back to the mainland, the driver explained that these were offerings to the sea, in preparation for the upcoming holiday Nyepi, or the “Day of Silence.”  On this day, people strictly stay inside all day in self-reflection.  Although we left just before the holiday in Bali, we, in a way, had our own rainy day of stillness in Lembongan.

Departing Lembongan, the sky finally seemed clear.  But just as the island faded from view, the rain began.  When the rain became torrential, tarps were rolled down the sides, obscuring any sight of the horizon and any breaths of fresh air, just as our small wooden vessel began pitching and rocking in the storm.  The wiry Balinese guys sharing our benches lit cigarettes, which mixed with the strong stench of stale sweat, as the closed berth became hotter, and the passengers queasier.  People stuck their heads out of both sides to start throwing up, and I tried to breathe through my shirt, while simultaneously mentally timing my ability to extract the life vest from the ceiling in case of a capsize, which seemed only increasingly likely.

Fortunately we made it through the shore, without sickness or peril, but only white knuckles and churning stomachs.  I breathed in as many good familiar Bali smells as I could–sweet rice, incense, seawater, and flowers.  And then I said goodbye to Clara until our next adventure and headed to another part of the same country, yet a world away–East Java.

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Fraser Island: Creatures Big and Small

In the trees: the kookaburra’s crazy laugh can be heard throughout the forest.  We spotted this one sitting very still next to the freshwater creek awaiting an unsuspecting fish.

In the undergrowth: a wary goanna lazes, keeping an eye on us passersby and hoping we don’t get so close that she has to move from her sunlit resting place.

What’s that in the leaves?  Just a 7.5 foot long copper python.  Non-poisonous, and drunk on sunlight, this guy was calm and relaxed enough to touch as we walked by (he was also missing an eye from a previous, less-friendly, altercation).

On the beach: watch where you step.  Jellyfish, horseshoe crabs, and sea snakes are some of the many ocean-dwellers that meet their end on the sand.

In the tide pools: anemones, trilobites, crabs, and sea squirts hide in this rocky playground.

Open water: on my brief airplane joy ride over the island, I spotted this mother humpback and  her calf heading south.

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Varkala: New Year’s Eve in India

December 30-31: Varkala

shops overlooking Varkala Beach

Unfortunately, our visit to Munnar ended with some misinformation, which kept us waiting at a bus station for several hours at 6am, hungry, cold, and very unhappy.  The subsequent bus ride was several more hours of continued hunger, and unhappiness at the fact that the bus was 120% full the entire time, squeezing us three to a seat with various large Indian men.  Another long wait at a dingy train station, and then a train ride finally got us to Varkala Beach in the evening.  And there was no better place to melt away the frustration of travel.

Our guesthouse was bright, with tie-dyed linens and a large garden, and was a short walk from the cliffs overlooking the beach.  Hugging the cliffs were cafes, restaurants,bars,  souvenir shops, and art galleries.  Bob Marley and Jack Johnson music wafted through the air, and a relaxed, hippie, vibe infused every inch of the place.  Slightly more revealing clothing and beer with dinner were much more acceptable and laid-back tourists were abound.  So many of the travelers we met said that they had come to Varkala intending to stay for a day and had been there for weeks or even months now.  If we hadn’t already had return tickets back, I would have been sorely tempted to do the same.  It was the perfect final stop in India and demonstrated the range of contrast that existed in the country–from dodging cows, to cold weather, to tea covered mountains, to a hippie beach town.

For our only full day in Varkala, New Year’s Eve, we whiled away the hours reading on the beach, shopping for art, and indulging in Western foods.  That evening, we decided to send off 2010 at the party that our guesthouse.  The eclectic mix of guests gathered in the garden for food, drinks, and entertainment.  Kingfisher beer was aplenty, along with a homemade punch that was hidden prohibition-style in the bushes, because of the strict liquor licensing laws in the state.  We all ate thalis around a long table, and watched an interesting collection of performances, which included a glass-eater, fire breathers, kids dressed in sparkly costumes doing Michael Jackson numbers, and Bollywood dancing that involved cross-dressing.  The other people provided equal entertainment, including dreadlocked backpackers who had started living at the guesthouse, a bearded man from Brooklyn who built musical instruments for fun and moved to India to make a sitar, and an Israeli yogi who led everyone in a spiritual ceremony around the bonfire.

A firebreather at the New Year's party.

So 2010, a year that began in Italy, and included graduation, moving to a totally unexpected country at the last minute, beginning to teach, surviving dengue fever, and going to Bali and Thailand (side note: I managed to visit all 3 Eat, Pray, Love countries in 2010) ended at a bohemian garden party in southern India.

Before the first sunrise of the New Year, before many of the parties had ended, and before my American friends had even celebrated, we groggily got in a cab to the Trivandrum airport, where the final trial of India was a labyrinth of disorder, no airconditioning, and impatient line-cutters with oversized baggage.  By 8:30am, we were in the air, leaving the subcontinent.  Though the India portion of my trip was over, visions of bushy moustaches, litter-strewn alleys, head bobbles, autorickshaws, and rotis would continue to linger in my mind long after.

Several hours later, I was in an orderly queue at the Singapore airport, waiting for the next fresh-smelling, metered cab to take us to the PiA apartments.  I can think of few greater contrasts to India than Singapore, land of cleanliness, efficiency, and modernity, where I would spend the next few days.

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Trip to Bali Part 3: Nusa Lembongan

The car from Ubud dropped us off in Sanur, where we boarded a boat for an even smaller island that’s part of Bali, Nusa Lembongan (population about 7000).  We settled onto wooden planks in the bottom of the boat next to the other tourists for the one hour ride to the island.  Once on the other side, we waded the last few meters to the beach, where we were immediately approached for business, “Where are you staying?  Here, very expensive, how much you want to pay?”  Our would-be guide handed us a map (which would later prove to be not remotely to scale and nearly useless) and pointed to the side of the island.  “Cheaper here.”  We nodded thanks and tried to walk away, wanting to find a place to stay on our own.  “You need a motorbike?” our new friend called after.  “24 hours, 75,000 rupiah (about $8).”

A few minutes later, we were accepting the keys to the “Sunset I,” our (automatic!) motorbike for the next two days, and driving on the left side of the road for the first time.  In general, there are no cars on Nusa Lembongan (except a handful of trucks that must have come over on a boat), so no buses or taxis (or requests for “Transport?”), just motorbikes riding on the narrow roads along the beaches and through the mangrove forests.  Despite the fact that there are gorgeous white sand beaches with incredible surfing and diving all around the island, it’s not very touristy in general, because there are so many other incredible beaches to choose from on the main island of Bali.  There are restaurant-guesthouses lining the beach that faces the main island, but as soon as you venture off of this strip, it feels like the “real Bali.”  Temples, corrugated tin houses, and tarps with drying seaweed are everywhere.  If burning trash is the smell of Laos, the smell of Nusa Lembongan is seaweed.  Near the shore it seems like every single local house has seaweed outside, and we saw small boats coming in each morning filled with seaweed as well.  Apparently land farming isn’t very good on the island, so seaweed farming is a major part of the local economy.

We easily found a nice-looking place on the beach: Linda Bungalows, which boasted the “Best Food on the Beach” in their open-air cafe, and which I’m inclined to believe: fresh seafood and Western favorites like chicken parmesan and chili con carne (Mexican food is the one type that can’t really be found in Vientiane, so this was exciting).  After checking in, we decided to explore the island by motorbike, with the help of the useless little map.  The middle of the island is covered in forest, which opens up in places to small beaches, each with a charming name like “Dream Beach,” “Mushroom Beach,” and “Sunset Beach.”  Each is a little bit different–some are surrounded by cliffs, some have warung with food and drink, some are fine white sand and others are rocky, with lots of washed-up coral pieces.

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During our driving adventures, we decided to cross to an even smaller island, connected with a bridge.  As we started across, the wooden planks that formed the one way crossing rattled dubiously, and the gaps between them seemed to get larger and larger, until somewhere in the middle, almost four planks were missing, nearly the size of one of the bike wheels, and the only solution was to accelerate and not look down.  Once on the other side the motorbike trials just continued, as the roads became rougher, with huge potholes and unpaved sections, and dramatic vertical inclines and drops.  More than once it seemed like the bike wasn’t going to make it, but the trusty “Sunset I” pulled through every time.

The pace of life on the island seemed very relaxed.  “Chilled out” is one of Lonely Planet’s favorite phrases to describe places in Asia, and with no cars, and relatively few tourists, Lembongan  fits this description perfectly.  It seems like life just goes on exactly the same year-round–the temperatures don’t fluctuate much, tourists come in and out on daily shuttle boats, fish are caught and cleaned, seaweed is harvested and dried, the roosters crow as soon as the sun rises.  The two days that we spent on the island were so relaxed (well, except for a few hair-raising driving experiences).  On the last night, as we sat with a Bintang Beer on the porch of the bungalows watching the vivid sunset, and waiting for dinner time, the power suddenly went out.  But the tables were lit with candles, and the kitchen used gas, so the evening continued uninterrupted–a typically quiet Lembongan night of seafood, Bintang, and the sound of the tide.


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Aux Champs Elysées

At the end of every summer, Paris imports tons of sand and palm trees from the south of France and turns the banks of the Seine near Notre Dame into a boardwalk/faux beach area, called Paris Plages.  The several-week long event just began, so yesterday we spent the afternoon basking in the sun by the river, reading and listening to a bagpiper playing for money on the bridge above.  It felt just like the beach…well, except for the fact that getting in the water was the absolute last thing we would want to do there. 

Paris Plages along the Seine

Paris Plages along the Seine

Today, for Carrie’s last day, we spent the early afternoon at the Palais de Tokyo, a modern art museum whose permanent exhibition is gratuit (free, aka. my favorite word to see here).  After that we walked along the famous Champs Elysées, from the Arc de Triomphe to the Place de la Concorde (concorde means peace, despite the fact that it’s where the public executions at the guillotine once were).  Though the Champs Elysées is not as glamorous as it used to be apparently, it’s still pretty posh, with the Louis Vuitton flagship store, Cartier, and so on (although McDonald’s made it in there too, somehow).


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My final stop: Cagliari, la porta della Sardegna. It’s the biggest city I’ve been in since leaving Nice, though still in many ways distinctively Italian and Sardinian there is much more of an urban, modern atmosphere (although not a big city by American standards with less than 200,000 inhabitants). And as much more a of a tourist hub (I finally noticed some other Americans) it has many more of the gimmicks and traps that tourists attract: foreigners selling fake Pradas and Fendis, fast food, rip off souvenir shops, street performers (although I saw one of the most original yet today…a man who had some live mice and cats that were playing together on a stool and was charging for a photo), cat-callers. After feeling entirely safe in the other island towns it feels weird to have to remember to watch my purse again and navigate crowded, pigeon-filled piazze, and run across busy streets while vendors try to lure me into their kebab shop/jewelry store/pizzeria.

duomo and the old city

duomo and the old city

The hostel I’m staying at is great though. This is the first town that has actually had hostels in the traditional sense and I’m very impressed at how impeccably clean and well-run this one seems. The dorm style-room I’m in has 2 private bathrooms and stairs leading to a second level of beds (no bunks!).

I’ve spent a lot of time walking around in this final Sardinian city, from churches, to several museums, to the old castello district, perched high above with views of the water. And on my last evening I met two Canadians, from Calgary, who were in Sardinia as the final leg of a backpacking trip. We took the bus to the nearest beach, Il Poetto, to see the sun set and get dinner together and it was so nice to finally have some company…and people to speak English with! I felt so talkative, realizing I could say anything I wanted without having to think of the right words or wonder whether they would understand me. It was a great way to end the trip.

Il Poetto, the nearest beach to Cagliari

Il Poetto, the nearest beach to Cagliari

But I’m ready to go back to Paris, feeling worn out from the constant movement from one place to another, and the loneliness of traveling by myself. I’m looking forward to being settled in the Parisian apartment, where more adventures will certainly ensue (though of a different sort). Stay posted for news on life in the “City of Lights” and hopefully soon, all of the photos from this whole island voyage.

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