Borneo! For me, it has always conjured up images of the wild man of Borneo, headhunters and orangutans. Having said that, I must say that prior to this trip I did not really know much about this place. Borneo is actually the third largest island in the world, lies north of Australia and is administratively made up of three countries, Brunei Darussalam, Malaysia and Indonesia. Sabah and Sarawak are the two Malaysian states and Kalimantan is the Indonesian one. Confused? So was I! Spending a bit of time there, however, helped me to wrap my head around it. Borneo proved to be an exciting as well as interesting place, and we didn’t spend nearly enough time there. This is definitely a place that I would like to come back to and explore.
C’mon, give me a break…it was ABSOLUTELY time for another trip! Hey, we didn’t go anywhere last Christmas, and we’d been to Ecuador way back in mid-1999, so we were about due. To be fair, we’d already booked this trip to Malaysia with our friend Linda back in September 2009. Keen, hey! What can I say…if you can’t physically travel immediately, the next best thing has got to be making the booking! OK, OK, I don’t even try and hide it anymore…I’m a travel junkie!
This triptook us to Borneo and Brunei Darussalam
Linda had told us about the Sarawak Rainforest World Music Festival in Borneo and it all sounded very exciting to Alex and I. The Rainforest World Music Festival is a unique festival that brings together renowned world musicians from all continents as well as indigenous musicians from the island of Borneo. It has been going for approximately eight years and its success has largely been due to all of the volunteers, both international as well as local, who freely give up their time to help out.
Linda asked Alex and I if we would be interested in volunteer…HELL YEH!!! That took hardly any convincing at all; Linda showed us the website (she also has lots of contacts there, and the Andean band she manages in Australia, Inka Marka, have played there before)…and we were immediately sold! Linda then proceeded to use her contacts, and in no time at all, it was official…Alex and I would be volunteers! It was an easy sell – whilst I had been to Malaysia, I had never been to Borneo (part of which is Malaysia), and Alex had never been to either. Of course, I am always up for a new country and a new experience.
Linda also mentioned Brunei and the Empire Hotel and Country Club…Where?…What? The Sultanate of Brunei is a tiny Muslim country nestled between Sabah and Sarawak on the island of Borneo, and the Empire Hotel and Country Club is its 5-star hotel centrepiece. Whilst I have never had a huge desire to travel to Brunei, we decided to go there, as we were already going to be so very close. Staying in a 5 star plus hotel? Linda had been there before with her band (Inka Marka), and said it was worth the splurge. With some really decent online deals, we decided to “OTT” (over the top) it, and act like royalty, well at least sultans, for a day…or two.
Good old’ Air Asia. Flying ain’t what it used to be! Once we booked our Melbourne – Kuala Lumpur return tickets, we were able to get our internal tickets quite cheaply, which allowed us to see a fair bit of Malaysia (Sarawak in Borneo and Penang on the mainland) and Brunei in just two weeks. As usual, we packed a lot in. Cheap sometimes comes at a cost, however, with Air Asia changing the internal flight times so often that we lost count. It’s all good if there is no urgency to be at a certain place at a certain time, but if you have a tight deadline, I would definitely recommend another carrier.
Linda drove to our place, where she left her car, and Dad drove us all to the airport. We had pre-flight drinks (coffee!) and then boarded the plane. We’d done our homework – food isn’t free on these flights, so we came armed with sandwiches wrapped in foil and a host of other delectables which would hopefully keep our taste buds happy. I reminisced about my primary school days where the “wogs” would try and hide the foil and want to spear their parents for giving them salami or prosciutto in continental bread rolls…if they were lucky they could swap with one of the Aussie kids and score a vegemite sandwich (sliced, doughy, white bread). I laughed out loud..these days, WHO would swap salami in a continental bread roll for vegemite in tip-top bread? Multicultural Australia…we sure have come away!
The Empire Hotel…no luxury spared flight was good, no problems at all. Once we arrived in KL, we had to wait a few hours before flying on to Bandar Seri Begawan (BSB), the capital of Brunei (whose official name is actually the State of Brunei Darussalam). Linda had her laptop with her, so we filled in our time by sitting in a cafe, and sipping on coffee (as you do), whilst using the free wireless provided. You can never have too much coffee or wireless internet access for that matter! Soon back on a plane, we were on our way to Brunei.
We arrived in BSB late in the afternoon, and promptly caught a taxi out to the Empire Hotel and Country Club. I had seen their website and read up on it, but nothing could prepare me for what I was about to see. OMG…OTT!!! Translation – Oh My God…Over The Top! The Lonely Planet Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei guide got the description down pat – “Imagine a zillion-tonne hunk of Italian marble dipped in gold and tossed into the rainforest – you’ve just picked the fanciful Empire Hotel and Country Club”. Couldn’t have described it better myself! We entered the grandiose gates, passed a lot of highly manicured lawns, the entrance to the golf course, the quote, health club, unquote (health club I said, NOT gym!)…and they were left outside the grandiose doors of the hotel. And there the three of us stood, looking very much the backpackers. What can I say? Oil and water? Never the twain shall meet, or mix at least. I felt like I had been dumped outside Buckingham Palace in my bikinis!
|Beachfront view from the Empire Hotel|
Once inside I couldn’t help but be overawed by the opulence (our three-day stay here would provide me with many more OMG moments!) of the place but decided that, hey I was here, so just enjoy it. As the saying goes…if you can’t beat ’em…join ’em! We were promptly taken to our oceanfront rooms, and I must say they were luxurious indeed. The hotel really did have it all…various swimming pools, ocean access, various restaurants, massage, spa…just to name a few things. It truly was a city within a city. The only downfall was that it was far enough from the city centre to make taking taxis in and out rather expensive, and buses were quite infrequent (A) because the number of cars per person in this small country is astounding and (B), which is actually a result of (A), public transport is scarce and infrequent.
On the Empire Hotel: It was built in the 90s on the same scale as a Las Vegas Casino, and was commissioned by Price Jefri, originally as lodging for the royal family (talk about putting a new spin on private accommodation!). Construction costs were estimated at US $1.1 billion, and the property was quickly transformed into an upscale resort to recover some of the construction costs…word has it that this will never actually happen! Amongst many other things, the hotel boasts two camel-shaped lamps made from pure Baccarat crystal, topped with solid gold…they cost a mere US half a million each! Now that is an extravagance!
|Linda and Ombi – wining & dining at the Empire Hotel|
Apart from soaking in the many outdoor pools, we actually had a lovely time in Brunei, spending a bit of time in the city centre, and checking out some sights. Whilst Muslim, it is not as conservative as many of its middle eastern cousins. Having said that, it is always both polite and courteous to observe the dress code of those around you. When in Rome, do as the Romans. We were very lucky to get a personalised tour on our second day, as Linda has a friend who works in Brunei Tourism. Chris Robles met us at the hotel and then spent a day driving us around the main sites, which meant that we got to see quite a bit, including the main sites. Without a car, for reasons previously.
|Royal Regalia Museum|
explained, this would have been really difficult. Some of the highlights were the Royal Regalia Museum (basically a celebration of the sultan and all the trappings of Bruneian royalty), the Brunei Museum (giving a great overview of the country and its people as well as the brilliant Islamic Art Gallery) and the Jame’Asr Hassanil Bolkiah Mosque, which was built in 1992 to celebrate the 25th year of the current sultan’s reign. The sheer volume of the place was amazing and the myriad of woven rugs scattered across the men’s prayer hall astounding. Amongst all of this we stopped for both a buffet lunch and some decent coffee. When Chris dropped us off back at the hotel, we were knackered. We thanked him for his kind hospitality, and made our way to the pools, for a relaxing finish to our day.
|Which side of the Yarra d’ya
reckonthe mosque is on?
|Homemade boat & paddles – Kampong River|
The next day we made our own way into the city centre and wandered around. We seemed to not only be the only tourists, but the only ones walking around, and I must say, it was pretty hot. That couldn’t possibly have been the reason! We visited the Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque, (built in 1958 at a cost of about US $5 million…then! They don’t go by halves in this country!), another very aesthetically pleasing monument. Alex and I also walked around Kampong Ayer. Right in the centre, this water village is an amazing juxtaposition to the many lavish buildings which surround it. Just minutes away from the Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque, is a jumble of wooden planks and shacks, considered to be the biggest water village in the world. Housing an estimated 20,000 people, Kampong Ayer is made up of 28 water villages. As we wandered and meandered around the walkways, and on many a broken plank high enough above the water to make the idea of tripping over positively frightening, I couldn’t help but be amazed how poverty could reside so close to luxury. I alternated between looking at the rotten planks below me, and then looking out to the city from which I had just walked. What a contrast!
|Brunei water-taxi service|
It was mid-afternoon and getting rather hot (hmm, well, hotter!) We walked back to the centre, where we met Linda, and then just browsed around, stopping at some shopping centres, as well as refuelling on coffee. I cannot say that the shopping was overly exciting, and we didn’t really buy much apart from some food.
Our three nights and four days in Brunei passed in a flash, and before we knew it, we were on a plane flying out to Kuching, where we would be volunteering at the Sarawak Rainforest Music Festival. Whilst I was glad that I had seen Brunei and had seen and done some interesting things, I cannot say that it tops my “5 places to re-visit” list. Interesting enough it’s kind of more in the been there, done that category!
What am I reading?
The Havana Mob – T.J. English
“Two roads diverged in a wood and I – I took the one less travelled by” – Robert Frost
|How people on “the other side” live – Kampong water village|
|Outside wooden house – Kampong water village|
|Boy going to school – Kampong water village|
|Opulence – Empire Hotel & Country Club|
|Jame’Asr Hassanil Bolkiah Mosque|
|Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque|
As soon as we arrived in Trat (via the back of a pick-up) we made it to the bus station, where we promptly caught the first bus to Bangkok. We just had enough time to grab some munchies, and get on the bus. The ride was rather comfortable, and as it was only five hours, not too long. I couldn’t believe it, we actually only had days to go before we’d be back in Melbourne. We’d kept it a big secret, and Dad didn’t even know yet. I was planning on telling him once in Bangkok. I felt like I’d died and was racing towards the white light, with my life flashing before me, except this version was a little different. My life went back to August 18th, 2006, when we’d embarked on this journey, after which 27 countries and 16 months flashed before me. Wow! We had seen, done and experienced so much. I figured the end of the tunnel was Melbourne! I felt overwhelmed. I’d lived to be able to tell, yet another of my many travel tales. As most of you would only know too well, there is little that surpasses my love and fascination for the world and its people. My addiction of choice has always been travel!
As we neared the capital, I realised how very big and very modern Bangkok had indeed become. I remember my first trip many, many years ago where it was squalid and very third world. With a population of between 15 and 20 million (basically Australia’s entire population) it has become a modern and thriving metropolis, where nothing is unobtainable, if you know where to go. And if you don’t, and you are like me, you find out quick smart. On these last days we were on a mission, and that mission included fitting in a few decent massages, visiting the dentist, getting Alex some glasses, and doing some shopping. Yes, you heard correctly, shopping! As most of you know I am so not a shopper, but there’s something about Bangkok which at first lures and then unleashes the “bargain shopper within”. It was a bit of a tall order to try and fit all that in, but after 16 months, a new outfit of clothes (or two or three or four….) was more of a necessity than a desire. A large number of our clothes were most certainly not going to leave Thailand. They had been worn to death, and we totally over them. OK enough excuses, we just wanted a few new things that we hadn’t looked at each and every day for the last 16 months.
We went straight to Lamphu House, where we had also stayed when we were here in mid 2005. It’s a treasure of a place which we found coincidentally on our last trip here. Whilst only a block away from Khao San Rd (aka, backpacker central), and the bargain shopping area known as Banglamphu, it was a clean, safe and serene little spot. A good place to come back and relax in between doing all of our bits and pieces. And read on…there were many “bits and pieces to do. When we arrived at Lamphu House, not only did the owners and workers remember us, but they proceeded to show us a picture of us in a Thai Travel journal……..of when we were in Cambodia a few years back. We were flabbergasted! The story goes like this: On our last trip here we visited both Thailand and Laos, including some really off-the-beaten track destinations in Laos. We very vaguely remember being photographed, and we end up in a magazine, the photo taking up half a page. What are the chances!
We had arrived in Bangkok on the Friday night. Perfect timing, as every weekend, but only on weekends, Bangkok holds its famous Chatuchuk (or Jatujak) Market. Even the most hardened of shoppers or bargain shoppers would find this a mind blower. I have been here many times on subsequent trips, but it never fails to amaze me. This market is not only the largest in Thailand, but the largest in the world! Consider this: It covers over 35 acres (1.13 km²) and contains more than 15,000 stalls. It is estimated that the market receives between 200,000 and 300,000 visitors each day. The market sells, but is not restricted to, household items, clothing, Thai handicrafts, religious artifacts, collectibles, foods, and even live animals. Check out http://www.jatujakguide.com/main/index.php A sight to behold. So, it was an early rise the next morning. May the shopping begin!
We were knackered after several hours at Chatachuk, but with only days to go before our imminent return to Australia, “cram, cram, cram” was steadfastly becoming our middle name. Making our way back to Lamphu House, we dumped all of our stuff, and continued with our quest to achieve the near impossible. Oh, glasses for Alex. You can get your eyes tested for free here, and the glasses are way cheaper than in Australia. We ended up checking out a few optometrists in the Sukhumvit Rd area (by this stage, it was already Saturday night and we were leaving on the Monday afternoon), and finally found a place with decent designs, and which could have prescription glasses made up by Monday morning. We were cutting a fine line, but it was the best we could do. I had my eyes checked, and it seems that they are still OK.
Megs, Bec and Birdie were all in the Khao San area. Megs was about to go off to Vietnam, and Bec and Birdie had just come back from Cambodia. They were going to spend a few days with Pong and Link, and then make their way to the islands that the rest of us had been to. So, it was time to say goodbye. Unfortunately, both Becs and Megs, got a bit sick, and unfortunately I did not get to see Bec off. Nothing major, just that “dodgy stomach syndrome” which seems to afflict so many western travellers in third or second world countries. We did have a catch up with Bird and Megs though. I couldn’t help but wonder where we see them next. Megs would be going back to New Zealand, and Becs…..well, in what “exotic” location would I see her next?
Sunday was spent doing more shopping, and I think a haircut was thrown in there somewhere. We made the most that we could munching on street food, including pad thai and spicy papaya salad. How I am going to miss the Thai street food, which I believe is unrivaled world wide. I can always dream about it! On the Sunday Alex also visited Pantip Plaza, a veritable techno-head’s dream come true, with some five storeys of computer stores and stalls, selling everything from the most genuine, as well as openly pirated goods. As my techno interest is somewhat relegated to punching in a few digits on a mobile phone and using e-mail, I decided to visit the MBK shopping centre close by. We both came out of our prospective shopping venture with a few more goods.
December 24th, Monday morning! Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah only hours to go before we would be returning home. So much was rushing through my mind, with one thought constantly trying to pole vault over another. I was trying to wrap my head around the last 16 months, as well, as do the last minute cram! Of course we still had things to do! Alex had his glasses to pick up, we both had a dentist appointment, and we also both “had” to have a massage. Oh, and I was going to do my best to have a pedicure, manicure and facial as well. Hammer and tongs! That’s my style. And let me tell you, it would only be when we finally sat on the plane that we would breathe a sigh of relief, before virtually collapsing. Needless to say, we were able to fit it all in.
Meanwhile back at the ranch, well hotel room, we were packing and culling. Out with the old and in with the new! Many of our tired (as opposed to tried) and true clothes and bits and pieces, would be left behind in Thailand. To be perfectly frank, we were over most of our clothes which we had not only worn to death, but were sick of looking at. And so, with our backpacks full, and a few other bags ready to give away to the reception of the hotel, we said our goodbyes and we were off.
As we sat in a mini-bus on our way to the airport, I could not help but feel how final this all was. It really was coming to an end. I stared intently at the road we were on, and the houses and people we passed, as I grappled with the thought that shortly, very shortly, we would be back in Australia. Hmm, Australia, a world so very different to the many places I had seen and visited. Waves of lots of things actually came over me. How would I fare? How would I feel? What would I think? I was soon about to find out.
We arrived at the airport with plenty of time to spare, so we checked in and walked around a bit, before sitting down. We had brought our own snacks and food, as we were flying Jetstar, who does not get an A1 rating as far as its food goes. Before we knew it, we were boarding. As luck would have it, I got a “bed” for the night. Backtrack…..as we were flying home on Christmas Eve (to arrive on Christmas Day) the plane did not have all that many passengers. What I eyeballed almost immediately was the row of four vacant seats behind me. Thank you very much! A backpacker ’till the end, I popped up all the armrests, extended my body across the entire space, placed my ever faithful sarong over myself and placed my eye cover on. I had a fantastic night’s sleep, thank you very much!
I woke up not long before touch down. Flying over Melbourne was just as I remembered it. Too much like I remembered actually. Everything went smoothly, we picked up our bags, went through customs, where we had to wait ages to declare a couple of sets of chopsticks. If our biggest problem was having to line up for a little too long, it was minuscule in respect to many of the world’s problems as we had seen them.
Alack and alas, we finally made it through the automatic doors, and waiting for us, ever faithful as always, was Dad. Hugs all around, many kisses, a decent caffe latte, and we were off. We were off to Fulvio and Karen’s (my brother and sister-in-law) for lunch, and they had no idea at all!
And with this, our phenomenal 16 month sojourn came to an end! Only time would tell, how we would fare with “normality” and routine. As I walked outside into the open, fresh air, I sighed deeply. I was indeed happy to be back home!
Dedication: This one is for my Mum, Adiga (Addie) Zanetti. Thanks for watching over me Mum. I felt your presence with me and know that you were always by my side. Your physical persona is gone, but your love, passion and strength of character have been my guide. Thank you for making me who I am today.
“If you stand for nothing, you will fall for anything”.
NOTE: It is the 20th of July 2008, and this blog is being published some 7 months after the end of our trip. It is the last one on these travels. So much has happened since then. Alex and I are both working, and we also both went back to Thailand for 10 days in May/ June. Whilst I feel that this blog somewhat concludes the stories of our long time away and gives an insight into “the world according to Ombi and Alex”, there is still so much that I would like to talk about and share. Both with full time jobs, whilst time is not our worst enemy, neither is it our best friend……..WATCH THIS SPACE!!!!!!!!!
(Photos: 1.- On a pick-up truck back to Trat, making our way back to Bangkok. 2.- Bangkok aint what it used to be! 3.- Khao San Road by night, Bangkok. 4.- Chatuchuk Market, Bangkok. 5.- The many exotic flavours of Thailand. 6.- The Bangkok sky train. 7.- MBK shopping mall; a veritable shopper’s paradise, Bangkok. 8.- Alex having a massage, Khao San Road area. 9.- Tuk-tuk parked near the Grand Palace. 10.- Coming home; flying over Australian soil, well, water! 11.- A map of all the places we visited.)
We had been travelling for close to 16 months and whilst culturally and spiritually invigorated, we were physically spent! I am usually into “doing” something rather than simply laying about, but I cannot begin to tell you how tantalising the whole idea of lying around on a secluded beach was steadfastly becoming. We had talked about what our last few weeks would look like, and now that time had come, we were ready. We wanted a couple of weeks on a spectacular beach doing absolutely nothing, before coming back to Bangkok, to fit in some shopping (and a few other things).But where in Thailand would we go? To what beach or area? Needless to say, the likes of Pattaya, Phuket and Ko Samui did not even make the top 100. Glitz, glam and sleaze were not on the agenda! (By this stage I was precariously close to wanting to do battle with anyone who even remotely looked like they were trying to crack onto the local delicacies).
The ride was only some six hours, but we would have to spend the night in Trat, as it was too late to catch a ferry. Once there, we figured that we may as well stay a couple of days. At the bus station, we were met by the owner of Pop Guest House, who told us that she had some accommodation available. We all figured that we may as well go check it out. It was at the bus station that we also met the lovely Maya, from France. So, off we went to take a look at Pop. As usual, we did the usual check a few places out, but ended up back at Pop, which was very clean and comfortable. Unfortunately, despite being listed in the Lonely Planet guide book, we most certainly did not find that “staying at this homely place is like visiting your -mum. The owner will pamper you silly”. The husband and owner duo were a mean-spirited couple who only cared to pamper you silly if you ate at their restaurant and used all of their services. In true Ombi form, I did none of that. They were NOT happy campers, and on realising that they could not milk us, they were quite rude. The straw that broke the camel’s back was when I was accused, inadvertently of course, that I had stolen a pair of thongs! As if! Not having wounded me too deeply or personally, I was still able to enjoy Trat, especially its central market. Thailand is a foodie’s dream come true, and this market did not disappoint. But………..how much can one try? Speaking for Alex, Maya and Megs too, I would say….quite a lot actually!
Whilst in Trat, we chatted to a few people who had been to Ko Chang, and it appeared that it was no longer the idyllic haven it had once been. We had heard that one guy who had been going for the past 20 years, recently spent a night there, and returned, disillusioned! Why? It was quickly moving towards glitz, glam and sleaze alley. No thanks! A bit more research (again via internet and people who had recently been there), and we decided on Ko Mak. This place seemed small (only 16 square kilometres), with supposedly few tourists, and lots of stretches of sparkling golden sand and azure seas. I think we’d found what we were looking for. We caught a ferry out there, and I was blown away as we started to approach the island. Be careful of what you ask for though, as you may just get it! We arrived at sunset, and despite the throngs of mozzies(they say dog is a man’s best friend, well, mozzies are mine!), the view was spectacular. The secluded island we had dreamed about was…….real! We ended up at a place called Sunset Resort. It was bungalow style accommodation, and whilst passable, not what we were really looking for. Whilst we did not want the Hilton, we wanted our last weeks to be relaxing and comfortable. We had earned this! Thanks to Jo and Will, a Belgian couple we met at Sunrise, we ended up moving to Pano Resort the next day (please, please, please click on the link). It was really, really beautiful….and deserted….that’s the place not just the beach. So, we really did have it to ourselves.
What can I say? We spent a week at Pano, and did……….nothing except for sun bake, laze around, sleep, eat, and Megs and I would go for walks. The young couple who managed Pano, Bow and Boy, were sweet and friendly, and many a night was held sitting in the outdoor/restaurant area, eating food, which they often gave us to “try”. Of course we also bought food there, as on an island you have few options: the resort/ hotel food, a few local restaurants and a couple of grocery shops. Jane was the front-of-house person, who was also our means of transportation. As the island is so small, there are no taxis, and transport is via the vehicle the hotel provides. Having said that, most places were no more than 10 minutes away. Jane was also a keen soccer player, who seemed to be able to fit in this activity several times a week. Definitely the tom boy I once was, and whom many would argue, still am. Then there was the cook, O, and her little baby, Aum, who would smile cheekily on the several occasions we came back and gave her a bar of chocolate.
Although there was a tiny stretch of sand in front of Pano Resort, and certainly enough to read and sun bake on, we went in search of deeper waters (and wider stretches of sand). We found and were taken to a several beautiful spots, which I had thought only “lived” on glossy travel mag covers, or in a movie. Beautiful, tranquil, and relaxing! Alex tells me that all of the seafood he had was scrumptious. We also found a local restaurant, Pa Toom, that we visited a lot. Although the owner, naming the restaurant after herself, spoke little English, and we non-existent Thai, we were somehow able to communicate. It was usually more hit than miss and the food cheap and tasty. “Pet, pet” (hot, hot) I would ask for…remember what I said about being careful for what you asked for. Talk about shaving a layer or two off my palate! We kept coming back though. Not many internet choices on the island, except for one expensive one close to the pier, which we only used briefly on a couple of occasions. That’s island life, where most things are more expensive due to the isolation. Oh, but so very worth it!
Ko Mak is a relatively small island, covering an area of 16 square kilometres. It truly has a tropical island feel to it, and you are never too far from a palm-fringed beach (stereotypes are so adequate in creating the image, aren’t they?). The scenery mainly comprises of rubber and coconut plantations (yes, we sat on the beach munching on some hand-picked coconuts). Transportation is by foot, motorbike, bicycle or hotel vehicles. Cars are virtually non-existent, as there are so few roads. There is electricity, but it has not been around for all that long. In late 2006, it was rated as one of the “World’s Top 10 Secret Beaches”. By Aussie standards, that’s quite a tall order, but it is truly justified. The secret is out! So, if you visit, leave only your footsteps! We do not want another Pattaya!
We also managed to scuba dive on the island. There are only three schools and we chose Ploy Scuba Diving. Realistically, how bad can diving off a non-mainstream, and secluded island be? We took a speed boat out, and did two wonderful dives, and the conditions were brilliant. As I have mentioned before, it’s another world down there. Each place we have visited (diving) has been different; like its on-land counterparts, the sea also has a variety of different species and plant life. There is however something unnerving about “breathing” underwater. It’s this amazing sensation, which at the same time is juxtaposed with this bizarre feeling of something somewhat unnatural. It’s not for everybody, but say I: You have to try everything in life at least once, and if you like it, keep going back for more!
After a week or so of lazing, eating, diving, sun baking, eating, sleeping, lazing, relaxing……oh, sorry, got carried away…..we decided to move onto another small and secluded island. Have I mentioned what a hard life this is? We were on a roll. Decisions, decisions. Ko Kood, here we come. Again, we took an inter-island speedboat. Getting there was half the fun, as we flew past a crystalline sea, scattered with a multitude of islands, some tiny and with only a solitary palm tree. Just when we thought it couldn’t get any better, it could, and it did! Stuff that movies are made of!
We were on Ko Kood (or Ko Kut) in what appeared to be no time at all. Covering 105 square kilometres, although obviously bigger than Ko Mak, being further south, it also seemed more isolated. There were very few people on our speedboat, and the few that were on it, seemed to have resort-style accommodation organised. We checked out a la-de–dah style place at first, but soon found Mark House Bungalows. What a place, tranquil, relaxing and only minutes away from the beach. Will I go on ad nauseum about the beach? Why not! More golden stretches of sand, confronting a sea whose beautiful clear waters were remarkably pristine, all amongst a backdrop of drooping coconut palms. Ah, la isla bonita! Talk about unleashing the romantic (or the very tired and weary traveller) within. The kind of place where stereotypes really do the whole set up justice.
I probably shouldn’t be letting the cat out of the bag here, but Ko Kood’s remote location has ensured that it hasn’t attracted the masses of people or developers looking to make a few quick bucks, oops,baht. This makes it yet another idyllic island get away. But, take heed! Same rule applies as Ko Mak, if you come visit, leave your footprints and nothing else! We noticed almost immediately that whilst bigger, there were certainly less people. Mark House Bungalows were actually Balinese style bungalows, which were both right on the Klong–Jao River and only 100 metres away from the Klong–Jao beach. A simple and clean wooden bungalow, with ceiling fan and outdoor shower, we could vividly see the spectacular blue sea, and the white sand beaches lined with coconut trees from our porch. I truly sigh deeply as I recall that view. I remember thinking, at this point, how very close we were to returning home. What would await us and how would we cope? What would be in the jungle that awaited us?
So, how did we spend our days? I began my day with a run along the beach (and if it wasn’t in the morning it was just before dusk) as I dragged myself out of sun bake mode. Mark House included free coffee, tea, and bread, so we would start our day with this as well as some fresh pineapple and yogurt. Pineapples from tropical locations and which have not been cold stored are phenomenal! Instead of being tart and tasteless, they are sweet and succulent. Yum! After a lazy lunch we would either go to the beach right in front of us, or take a walk in either direction, to find an even more secluded and tucked away beach. This was supposed to be their high season, and whilst the locals were not too excited about a lack of people, Alex and I felt like we had hit the jackpot. During the day, we would munch on a little something to tie us over, and once home, showered and rested, we would hit one of the local restaurants for dinner. One in particular, had such an amazing vegetarian green curry, that we were ordering it almost every night. “Pet, pet”, please! Hot, but amazing, we beaded liked we’d done an hour in the sauna!
(Photos: 1.- Bangkok skyline. It’s come a long way from the backwaters of only a few years ago. 2.- On the ferry from Trat to Ko Mak (Mak Island). 3.- Ombi and Megs on the ferry from Trat to Ko Mak – what can I say about how difficult life is! 4.- The morning view from Sunset Resort, Ko Mak. No silicone, no airbrushing and no colour enhancements. This is it! 5.- The crew at Pano Resort, Ko Mak. 6.- Megs and Alex on one of Ko Mak’s spectacular beaches…..doing an ad for Toyota! 7.- Another un-airbrushed un-siliconed Ko Mak beach…secluded, of course. 8.- Ombi with the dive instructor of Ploy Scuba Diving. Between “dive breaks”, there was some lunch and a rest on yet another secluded island! 9.- Who remembers Bo Derek? Well, that’s Bo Ombi…sunset in Ko Kood (Kood Island). 10.- More idyllic bliss, Ko Kood. 11.- Alex with a plethora of fine Thai food on Ko Kood…..happier than a pig in the proverbial! 12.- Kayaking whilst watching the sunset, Ko Kood. 13.- Alex with a group of happy Thais, walking back from the Klong Chao Waterfall, Ko Kood. 14.- A secluded Ko Kood Beach (I know I am bashing the word secluded to death…..but I am truly telling it as it is). 15.- Goodbye Ko Kood! On the ferry back to Trat. 16.- Sunset on Ko Kood. 17.- These hiking shoes were new when I bought them in Australia just before we left. They had been worn to death, and it was time to lay them down to rest!)
We crossed at Poipet/ Aranya Prathet. It’s amazing what an “imaginary line” can do. As soon as we crossed this line it was more than clear how much more affluent Thailand is compared to Cambodia. The roads were excellent, showing us the most immediate, obvious and visible difference! In no time at all, we had negotiated a tuk-tuk to take us the 7 kilometers or so to the main bus station, where we organised a bus to Bangkok. Before we knew it, we were on our way. The last time we had been to Thailand was about two and a half years ago, and I was astounded by the change. Over the last 19 years I have been to Thailand some 5 or 6 times, and each time I return, I am overwhelmed by its rate of growth and progress. It was great to see! This country had been very third world when I first visited, in the early 90’s, but now, wow, it’s moved into the 21st century with its pedal to the metal and in fifth gear!
Although we normally do not book places to sleep in advance, we had done so for our arrival in Bangkok, as we would be meeting some dear friends, and all attending a Thai wedding together. Just a bit of background information: Bec is from Canberra, and I met her in Bolivia in 1999 when I was on my South America trip. Birdie is Bec’s partner. Megs is originally from New Zealand, and was house sharing with Bec (she’s now back in New Zealand). Pong was also Bec’s flatmate – she’s Thai and was studying in Australia. Link is the man that Pong was about to marry. Alex and I met up with them all (apart from Link, obviously) on the many occasions we drove through Canberra when we had the jewellery business. So, how is this….Bec and Birdie fly from Australia, Megs from New Zealand, and Alex and I bus it over the border….so we can all hang out, and go to a wedding together. You have to love that!
Once we arrived in Bangkok, we caught a bus to our final destination. In Thailand, whilst tuk-tuks are still used, taxis are a better and inexpensive option if you do not desire to accommodate a decent portion of the city’s smog in your lungs. We ended up staying at the Sukhumvit Rd YHA (Youth Hostel). Whilst it was clean, and organised, I found it overpriced and, may I be forgiven for saying, anal. Years ago, I used to use these official youth hostels regularly, but I have found that in recent times they have changed a lot, and believe that they no longer represent the best value for money. In our case, however, it was in a location that was close to the wedding, and where we would all be together. You cannot and shouldn’t complain, I suppose, when it suits your purpose.
As soon as we entered we saw Bec and Birdie! Hugs all around! The last time we had seen Bec was in Darwin in June 2006 (just before we came away on this big trip), where a group of us did a several day hike in Kakadu National Park. Bec and I have a penchant of meeting up in exotic locations. We met in Bolivia (before I met Alex actually), we then met up again in Peru, where we crossed the Amazon River all the way through to Brazil, another time it was in Peru, then Kakadu, and now Thailand! Of course we have also caught up several times in both Melbourne and Canberra. Megs was due to arrive later that night. It felt so good to be amongst good friends! We all had so much to chat about, but where to start……with some good food say I!
Ah, Thai food! My favourite cuisine by a long shot! I had been dreaming about it for months, and in places like China, I longed for it desperately. Thailand never fails to impress me with its food, the best part being that decent food is even obtainable on the streets. In no time at all, I was chowing down a vegetarian and tofu pad thai, whilst the others opted for its carnivorous counterpart. After that it was chicken (or beef?) satay sticks….I may not eat meat but the satay had me licking my chops! Yay, at last decent food! It was lovely to be able to kick back and relax and just catch up. Megs arrived later that night, but we did not catch up until the next morning. I was somewhere between la-la land and seventh heaven!
The next few days were spent relaxing, chatting, doing some shopping, and getting ready for the wedding. Pong and Link came to visit us one night at the hostel. Not sure how they did it as they had so much to get organised, and there were only a few more days to go before the wedding. It was nice to be able to finally meet Link, as we had heard so much about him. On another day, Som (Pong’s sister) took us shopping as Megs and Bec had to get a traditional skirt and top, as they would both be participating in the wedding. The skirt was found with relative ease, but the top……long after Som had gone, Bec was beading blood, as finding an appropriate top seemed to elude her. I might add here that Bec HATES shopping! She eventually found her top (as did Megs) but she was so over it! And I thought I hated shopping! You win hands down Bec!
Pong and Link would be having a traditional Thai wedding, which would go all day, and include several ceremonies. The date was the 2nd of December. We all had to get up at the crack of dawn, as the gorgeous Pong had organised for we gals to have our hair styled. So get up early, and have ourselves showered and dressed we did. I had bought a lovely orange silk dress in Vietnam, and matched it up with some strappy shoes I had purchased here in Bangkok. Alex on the other hand had nothing to wear, but he seemed far less worried about it than I did. Actually at 4.00pm on the day before the wedding, in MBK, one of the city’s largest shopping centres, he had looked at everything but purchased nothing! The pressure was on! He persisted, and finally found the “whole ensemble”, including a shirt, slacks and shoes. I had reached the point where I was saying, “Just buy something and throw it away after the wedding if you don’t like it!”. Perseverance obviously paid off, and he finally got what he was looking for. That’s my tranquil Alex!
The boys watched as we had our hair styled. The girls also had their make up done, but I opted for doing my own. We then caught a taxi to our first destination; a beautiful hotel, where Pong and Link would partake in two small, separate and private ceremonies. The former was a Thai one, in honour of Pong’s family, and the latter a Chinese one, in honour of Link’s Chinese heritage. Being Pong’s friends, we attended, along with very small number of people, the first one. Pong wore different, but very beautiful and traditional gowns, for both of these ceremonies.
“ALater, we would all attend a huge lunchtime banquet. This was more for the family than the friends (that was to come later). In this instance there were lots of people, lots of food and lots of drinks. Our table even had a big sign sayingustralia”, which left the others with absolutely no doubt as to where we were all from. The food just kept on coming and coming, and the quality was top notch. Unlike Australian weddings there was no band or dancing, but it was still lots of fun and very enjoyable. We felt honored and privileged to be able to experience something so unique and different. It was at this reception that Pong wore a gorgeous, western style, wedding dress.
That evening, but in another location, there would be yet another party. This included nibblies and cocktails, and was for friends rather than family. It was more casual than the lunchtime function, and Pong surprised us again, with yet another exquisite dress. Having said that, Pong is categorically gorgeous, both inside and out, and she would look stunning in anything. If you are reading this Link, you scrubbed up OK as well! (In Australia…that means that you looked great too!)
Wow, it had been quite a day, a fun and munch-fest! And all in good company too! Needless to say, we all returned home exhausted, and in need of a good night’s sleep, as well as a sleep in.
The next day saw us all getting ourselves organised for the next part of our prospective journeys. Bec and Birdie had just over 4 weeks in total and wanted to visit Cambodia, and Megs had a total of 6 and was open to suggestions. As for Alex and I (time to let the cat out of the bag!), we had booked a flight home months ago in China, for the evening of the 24th of December, arriving in Melbourne on Christmas Day. We wanted to surprise Dad, but had also wanted to keep it a secret. So, our aim was to spend the last two weeks on a deserted Thai beach, doing nothing but relaxing! Of course, we would allow some shopping days just before our return!
But, where to go? Anything that even whiffed of a resort and a million foreigners, was immediately ruled out for us. Thus places like Pattaya, Phuket and Koh Samui did not even hit the radar. We finally decided on the area around Ko Chang, in the Gulf of Thailand. What we definitely did not want to do was jump from one place to another, as we’d been doing this on close to 16 months! Bec and Bird were off to Cambodia, and Megs would come along with us. Sorted!
We had all had a wonderful time together, but as always, it was time to move on! I want to make a special mention of a beautiful French family we met at the Sukhumvit YHA. Sylvie and Serge were travelling around-the-world with three children, the youngest being Milla. Despite the fact that she mostly only spoke French, this little girl clearly showed how desire can bring so many things to fruition. She used her French, a little Spanish (that she had learnt in Peru), a little English and body language to make herself understood. When I asked her, “Do you speak English?”, she gave me this cheeky little grin, and answered in French, “Un petite po” (spelling?), which means a little bit. We had absolutely no problem understanding each other. She had such an amazing spirit and energy, and each time she would see me, she would give me a big hug. I will never forget her!
Dedication: This one is for Milla. Milla you were like a shining light in a dark room. Although little, your smile was huge and radiant. Every time I saw you you made my heart sing. May you never lose that contagious smile and love of life. I looked at you, and saw myself. May adulthood never change your indomitable spirit!
” I have found that if you love life, life will love you back” – Arthur Rubinstein (1886 – 1982).
(Photos: 1.- Two very itchy pairs of feet in a tuk-tuk,Bangkok. 2.-Entering Thailand on the Cambodia/ Thai border. What part of “don’t do drugs” don’t people get? 3.-Ombi and Birdie…sipping on a Birdy. Cold coffee in a can, Bangkok. 4.- The future bride and groom to be with the “mob” at the hostel in Bangkok. L to R: (top) Megs, Ombi, Bec & Alex. (bottom) Birdie, Pong & Link. 5.-The bridesmaids and me. L to R: Bec, Ombi & Megs. 6.- Pong and Link after their Thai Wedding Ceremony. 7.-Lunchtime wedding reception. Bec, Birdie, and …..Babe’s youngest offspring on a plate! 8.-The Australian contingent at the lunchtime reception. L to R: Alex, Ombi, Megs, Bec & Birdie. 9.- The Aussie contingent yet again at the nighttime wedding reception. Welcome to the “Cafe d’Love”. 10.- The Jetsons? No, Bangkok in the 21st century! Makes Melbourne look so yesterday. 11.-Ombi with L to R: Milla, Jodie and Brad. 12.- Ombi & Milla.)
Angkor Wat umm What? Siem Reap is Cambodia’s cultural and spiritual heartbeat, and indeed no visit would be complete without visiting the infamous temples of Angkor, only a few kilometres away. Siem Reap has become quite the thriving little metropolis! Maybe too much so! It now abounds with throngs of people on tour groups, who probably visit little else in Cambodia. The problem is that many look like they should be on a Milan catwalk, and look rather out of place amongst the poverty that surrounds them. This flaunting of wealth looks not only ridiculous but totally out of place, in a country where so many people live precariously below the poverty line! Gucci handbags and stilettos have never really been my thing, but here they look both obscene and ostentatious! But that’s not all folks (not only do you get the free steak knives……) Siem Reap is full of pumping bars and pubs, pushing equally obscenely priced drinks………..whilst the locals walk around trying to make a living by selling whatever they can on the streets! Alex and I refused to go to these places and pay the prices, and indulged in some phenomenal street food instead, thus trying to put some money back into the economy and helping the locals, rather than lining the pockets of the big players and the multi-nationals. Our gesture may have been small, but it was our way of showing some of the solidarity that humankind seems to steadfastly be losing!
Siginagi, Georgia. Hi and welcome to veryitchyfeet.com. We are Ombi and Alex an Australian/ Ecuadorian couple who have, between us, visited some 90 countries and speak three languages; English, Italian and Spanish. We are intrepid travellers at heart. Follow us as we passionately share 30 years of travel know-how, adventures, exploration and detours with you. We want to motivate you to experience this amazingly diverse world we live in and show you how to do it!
Where are we Now? Ecuador
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