Saturday, September 10, 2005

Gentle Bali

We arrived in Bali several days ago -- after a bout of indecision about 'where's next?' back in Bangkok, we decided to head for the sun in Indonesia.

We arrived close to midnight on Thursday (the 8th) and spent Friday having a look around Kuta, the party-beach town everyone told me to avoid. Kuta is what anyone would expect of any party-beach town --> Bob Marley music, drinking, surfing, more drinking, and lots of shirtless beer-gutted men escorting girlfriends with a headful of Bo Derek braids (not a good look) down the street. Benjamin made several astounding observations during our 1-day stay in Kuta: 1) most of the girls with braided hair are fat chicks and 2) Bob Marley should have lived longer so there would be more material to play over and over...

(drums, please: badam bam) But seriously folks...

My first impressions: everything about Bali is gentle and delicate. The people speak softly; the music tinkles like wind chimes; the birds sing as if taking care to not wake you up; the blue skies are pastel; the breeze stirs; the pace is mellow; people are relaxed; smiles flow freely. Everything -- buildings and the environment -- is ornate and decorative: gardens, stone statues, carved wood, flower motifs, and colorful tassled umbrellas. I am surprised to find that the air isn't naturally perfumed or sweet to the taste: it would be fitting if it was.

We are now in Ubud, the artistic center of Bali and have set ourselves up in a bungalow-style room that overlooks a garden. Aaahhh... Peace and tranquility. It's just what the doctor ordered. Benjamin and I decided that we needed a 'vacation from our vacation' the other night as we discussed our floundering spirits.

It is tiring to be on the road for such a long time: always on the move, planning, learning new currencies and languages, taking lengthy and cramped bus or boat trips, and constantly fending off the hawkers and touts (to name a few reasons). I don't want to admit it, but we are burned out.

There's this other thing lurking in the back of our minds, too: have we spent too much time in Asia? Is it possible? There are only so many temples, and Buddhas, and rice paddies, and jungle one can see before the 'wow' factor becomes 'so what?' We came to Indonesia to find the sun, but to also find something different, something new...

So, if the blog entries become scant -- don't worry; we are resting... or climbing volcanos... or lazing about on a beach.

Sunday, September 04, 2005

Rain, Rain Go Away...

It seems like when we entered Thailand, things became blocked. We've lost our forward momentum. The problem is, we're not sure about what's next. Our plans have changed a number times: we would have been in Laos at this moment but for the monsoon season... we thought we'd jaunt down to Indonesia because it's dry there, but we are still talking about other options: Myanmar? No, it's raining there too... Nepal to Tibet? What - are we crazy!?! We were so close to that region at the beginning of the trip. Plus it's raining there, too, I think... Ack! The rain!

The weather and the lack of direction have got us down. Neither Benjamin or I appear to have any energy, zest, zeal... Perhaps it's the '6-month doldrums'. Could it be that (dare I say it) we are a bit road wary? Or maybe it's because we are back in Bangkok (this is the place we always end up when we are in-between places) and there are no new novelties left to excite us.

For the first time since we started our travels, we look to the future and see emptiness. At the moment, there is no schedule to plan, tickets to book, things to do... and the irony of it is that we have all the freedom in the world to do anything we want! And yet, it feels like we're trapped... by the rain, by indecision, by fatigue. Strange.

Perhaps when I'm back at work, when my travels are over, and I'm feeling glum about the day-in-day-out, I'll remember this moment and it will brighten my day just an ounce: knowing that the feeling can happen even when you have all 24 hours of a day at your disposal and the world at your fingertips. Maybe it sounds depressing to realize you can feel dull in such a situation, but I think it's more of a reassurance than anything: that feeling dull is normal and unavoidable and it doesn't mean that life sucks, but just that life sucks for the moment. (Incidentally -- I don't feel like life sucks right now: remember, I'm talking about the day-in-day-out work-a-day world back home...)

I do realize we lucky we are to be where we are, doing what we're doing and I don't want to waste another minute feeling bored or stagnant, the rain be damned!

Six Month Anniversary

We crossed the Thai border on September 1, our 6 month anniversary on the road. It was like entering a different world, like Dorothy's transportation from her dumpy Kansas home to the palace in Oz. Our yellow brick road, though, was part sea and part road. Smooth as the waters were that day and the road being paved, it was, indeed, a golden passage considering the bumpy, dirt roads we'd been traveling for so long in Cambodia up until this point. It's hard to believe that an invisible line on a map can have so much impact. One side of the border is one way, on the other side: the opposite. It's amazing that such an impoverished country such as Cambodia is next door to a country like Thailand, which is not yet considered a 'first world' country, though it probably should be.

We are now in Bangkok, a city more modern than any at home, and the change of pace is incredible. Gone are the Cambodian villages, where from the road, people can be seen lying about in hammocks whiling away the hours: swinging, snoozing, watching the world go by. The pace of life is slow -- there seems to be no concern for the future, even one day out. In Cambodia, I learned to enjoy the moment and worry about tomorrow when tomorrow came. Take, for instance, the weather. There's no sense in planning events around the forecast: there is no forecast. If you ask someone what the weather will be like in the next few days, your answer will be a shrug of the shoulders and a remark such as, "I don't know. I am not a magician."

Bangkok, with its 7-11s, fast food chains, ATMs, stylish coiffes, fashionable styles, neon, giant shopping malls, skyscrapers, sky rail, electronic toilets, and chilly air-conned interiors is a huge change. The irony is that there's so much traffic that the streets, while busy, move more slowly: ah, the trappings of urban life. Bangkok is, in a way, like being at home -- with all of the modern day conveniences we're used to (or not so used to any more). Except for a hot shower. We could pay for a more expensive room to get hot water in our bathroom, but we're still trying to live cheap. We haven't had a hot water shower in about 1 month, so I'm used to it now anyway.

We celebrated our anniversary by treating ourselves to a steak dinner and a movie. I would like to say that we went to some really cool, really hip restaurant... but we ended up at Outback Steakhouse -- the only way to get a 'real western-style' steak, at least, the only way we know of. We've tried steak, along the way, when it's offered on menus, but it's always something else. Perhaps water buffalo. I don't know.

We went to the theater in Siam Square to see 'Willie Wonka', which would have been a rather disappointing experience if it weren't for the 'Gold Class' seating option that we sprung for. It's a bit like buying first class tickets on an airplane or getting box seats at a stadium. Behind mysterious frosted glass doors, a whole new movie-going experience awaits. We arrived an hour early for the movie, so we sat in the 'Gold Class' lounge, which is carpeted with a navy blue pile with a gold star pattern (of course); the walls are painted a deep purple, the color of royalty; there is plush red furniture with sparkling gold trim and little cocktail tables, a dark wood wet bar, and 4-foot black and white drawings of famous Hollywood movie stars (like Cary Grant). We were served complimentary drinks and cookies while we relaxed with a few magazines from the racks along the wall, waiting for our movie. Life was grand.

We were ushered to our seats just before show time. The seats -- get this -- were giant, comfy, red leather recliners with a hand-held remote for changing positions. I thought they would have built-in massagers, as well, but not in this theater. We were each given a package that included a blanket, pillow, and a pair of white socks. Thank goodness for that, too, because the air con was on full blast. I don't think I've been so comfortable since the time we accidentally ended up in a luxury hotel in India that boasted 'a world of luxury and comfort'. Certainly, the chairs were more comfortable than many of the recent beds we've slept on, which are usually thin foam pads on a wooden frame. And the pillow was a joy: the one I have here in Bangkok is like a 10-inch tall block of clay. I can't remember the last time I wore a pair of socks...

Saturday, September 03, 2005

Ending Days: The Southwest Coast


Kampot is not picturesque in the classical sense, but charming in its own way. This old colonial town lingers on the banks of a river that reflects the brooding Bokor Mountain in the day and the most vivid pink sunsets in the eve. Kampot is one of those old 'faded' towns, full of buildings streaked black by moisture, with chipping paint from years of disrepair. It is the worn and weathered buildings that make Kampot beguiling, in addition to the French-styled balconies, shuddered windows, ornate archways, and the lazy, sleepy pace of the place. It's not that Kampot has been deserted. No, Kampot has only been neglected -- but in the most loving way -- since Sihanoukville, the beach resort town several hours away, was built in the late '50s.

Kep, on the other hand, has been mostly deserted -- what remains of the town today largely consists of skeletal structures -- remains of homes and sea side resorts riddled with bullet holes and consumed by jungle vegetation. Some of the ruins are inhabited by squatters, and aside from those people and a few seafood stalls next to the beach, there is nothing left of Kep but bruised and crippled buildings -- it's a great place to explore.

Located about 25 km from Kampot, Kep used to be THE colonial retreat, founded by the French in 1908. Once the French were gone, Kep lived on as a vacation destination for Khmers into the '60s. The town was destroyed during the Khmer Rouge years, when the area was occupied by KR soldiers. What was left was looted by locals to survive the famine of '79/'80 when Cambodia was occupied by the Vietnamese.


We spent several days in Kampot; the city makes a great base for exploring the ruins of the Bokor Hill Station and Kep. It's also a great place to relax: the quiet, lazy atmosphere is a treat. There is a decent sized ex-pat community in Kampot, made up of English, Australian, American, and Dutch nationals. Therefore, there are good nights of conversation over beer, access to lots of local information, and awesome BBQ ribs (the Rusty Keyhole serves great food).

We took a taxi to Sihanoukville, a two hour drive. There is no other way to get there from Kampot and the price, $18.00, is not cheap. Sihanoukville was a bit of a let down: the beach was dirty (pipes dump liquid from who knows where onto some areas of the beach) and lined with cheap and unattractive restaurants/bars, all with the word 'shack' in the title: The Dolphin Shack, The Beach Shack, The Shack of all Shacks, etc... We found a clean and cozy corner of the beach (known as Serendipity Beach) and stayed in a wooden bungalow for a few days which was even more slow-paced than Kampot.

One interesting thing we learned in Sihanoukville: the Cambodians swim while fully clothed. Theirs is a conservative society and not one soul owns a bathing suit. Most of the time, the women wear long pants or skirt -- shorts are even a bit racy. Earlier in our trip, in Battambang, we met a young man who liked to come to Sihanoukville to see Western women on the beach. "Otherwise," he said, "I'll never get to see anything."


We left Sihanoukville on a sea-going boat that took us to the town of Koh Kong, where we crossed the border into Thailand and a whole new world...