Ciao from Sunny Sicilia

It’s been pretty damn hard not to get all wistful these last few days. Duncan and I had our last day off excursion together on Sunday and then last day off excursion with the gang for his birthday on Monday. I’ve had probably my last meal out with another tour wife. I’ve even had my last hotel room picnic dinner. And worst of all, tomorrow is, somehow, my last full day on tour. *backofhandtoforehead*

Being able to recognize that this is just a bit overwrought – and knowing I’ll probably see these people again at the end of the year – doesn’t completely stop this sentimental inner monologue. At best, I can quiet it down enough to just enjoy the sunny (ALWAYS SUNNY) days I’ve spent hanging round the hotel and town we’re near, going into Catania proper, visiting ruins and cool contemporary art in unexpected places, driving around the volcano, relaxing poolside, popping in the ocean ever so briefly and then watching the crabs and jellyfish until Duncan has to get ready for work. Oh my god, also, eating cannoli and granita (chocolate granita WHERE HAVE YOU BEEN? WHERE HAVE I BEEN??) and pizza and pasta. Burp.

You know. That kind of relaxed stuff.  The super-relax factor has been helped by the HEAT of midday. You can quickly understand why everything shuts down for much of the afternoon, before re-opening for dinner. I would not want to be here in August.

For our Last Day tomorrow, we’re going with the gang to Siracusa, which will undoubtedly be beautiful, include some ruins and a nice old town, and maybe a beach visit. We’ll have dinner. I probably won’t post about it since my last plane trip as tour wife is early Friday morning. Instead, ask me about it when you see me next. Ciao!

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Plan B Approaches

I’m writing this by the pool, surrounded by Italian, Quebecois, American and Dutch accents, to name a few. My big priority today has been to avoid getting sunburned and swim a few laps ahead of going to see the show. Shows are late here, so there are still a few acrobats and other artists lying about, along with technicians who might have the day off or who also don’t need to be in yet. There are also non-show people busying up the deck with their children and agendas. Yesterday was almost as lazy, though it featured a scooter ride and a cannoli, not to mention spending most of the sunshine hours with my husband.

The market in town here makes me want to weep. We’re going to toodle around Sunday, Monday, and probably next Thursday and see more of this beautiful island. Of all the cities and places we’ve been in recently, Sicily is truly an excellent place to finish out my time on tour.

I’ve been spoiled by European cities, first trips to Africa and the Middle East, a return trip to South East Asia. We’ve seen amazing ruins (damn those Romans got around) and stunning countryside. And despite living on top of each other in hotel rooms for months, we’re still friends.

The original Plan A included a triumphant return to Toronto in mid-June. If I’ve learned anything over the last two years, it’s to couch things in conditional terms. The more the tour changed and finalized its plans, the more we reconsidered ours.

I fly back to Toronto on June 15. Duncan will stay with the tour.

So in some ways, our lives will pick up where we left off in December: texts, skypes, and tour breaks together. Although this may not be the finale I was hoping for, I know we can do it. Again. And we’ll have one hell of a party in January – assuming the latest plan holds.

In the meantime, I’ve told Duncan to make sure he limits the amount of fun he has without me. And it seems I’ve swung from frugal traveller mode into self-indulgent vacation mode. If you need me before June 15, I’ll be eating and buying ALL THE THINGS. Or at least lying by the pool dreaming about all the cannolis and most of the pizzas.

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Croatia’s Adriatic Coast

This most recent tour break was much less of a surprise than the one that came before it. Although we may have preferred it if Duncan had more work, when official word came that there would be a ten day hole following Beirut we were far better prepared to suck it up (always with the suffering) and figure out a way to fill in the time.

In fact, we arrived at the same conclusion from different sides of Casablanca: Croatia’s coast would work perfectly. It’s not in the Schengen Area, we’d heard its beautiful and the distances seemed sane. I can’t remember if I texted Duncan first to suggest it, or if he emailed me, but we were both looking at the map and making the same rough plan. As an added bonus, M&R felt like doing much the same.

And so it was that M & Duncan found awesome flights, apartments, and a rental car, basically planning the whole break for me and R. It worked out beautifully. Oh sure, we ended up in what I affectionately dubbed Murder Hostel on the first night, as the guy who owned the apartment we had booked couldn’t be bothered to wait up for us. When we got into the place the next day, however, its size and views over the bays of Split more than compensated.

After a rainy first day of interneting in Split, we toodled around the town, visited nearby Trogir for dinner, and then had another 1.5 days to actually visit and enjoy Split before embarking a car ferry for Korcula Island.

Which was perfect.

Our apartment had bikes and kayaks available, and the nicest hosts of any we encountered. There was time to run (for them what do that kind of thing), bike around all day one day, drive all over the island another, go for a kayak, visit vineyards, cook lots of meals, admire the water’s ridiculous colours and clarity (though it was too cold for me to actually want to swim, Duncan sure did), and even spend an afternoon on a sailboat. Oh, but a word to the wise: if you go for a boat ride bring your passport. Because while you might be worried about it getting wet, the customs people will inevitably show up when your boat pulls into dock and you’ll have some ‘splaining to do when you come to shore with nary a piece of ID amongst you.

After island bliss, we spent our last two nights in Dubrovnik in yet another lovely, clean apartment overlooking the ridiculous water. Dubrovnik = super beautiful old town walled city that’s beautifully preserved (restored). It was correspondingly jammed with tourists, but still absolutely lovely. And full of stairs. 260 by M’s count between old town and our apartment on the top floor of a place on a hill.

I could say more, I suppose. About the opera we saw in Split, or the photography exhibit we saw in Dubrovnik, or how nice people were, or how relaxing and reassuring it was to drive along roads that were almost empty and recently paved and with traffic that made sense. The amazing value of the food and wine, and how I ate anchovies so fresh they almost didn’t tasted like fish. Or I could try to find words to describe the blues and greens and whites that dominate the coast’s palate.

I think instead you should just look at a few pictures, knowing that it was probably our most relaxed and relaxing tour break ever.

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Nice! Lebanon! Nice!

The problem with all these recent breaks is that I’ve had next to no time alone in a hotel and am now two countries behind. Lebanon has been almost wiped out by Croatia and Sicily! Oh, the humanity!

Do you need a moment to get some Kleenex and collect yourself? It’s okay, I understand and appreciate your sympathy. When you’ve composed yourself, enjoy this megalong post, which I fear does not at all capture the amazing wild weirdness of our main Lebanese adventure.


W&A’s visit didn’t just involve side trips. Duncan managed to get two days off in a row which allowed us to go on a whirlwind road trip featuring stops along the coast north of Beirut, winding up the mountains and along the Qadisha valley to a quick stop at the Cedars of God, an overnight in Bsharri, before heading over the mountain pass (or so we planned) to the spectacular ruins of Baalbek.

Things got going without a hitch, more or less, on a Sunday morning as we drove erratically in order to keep up with local drivers toodled up the road to the Jeita Grotto – massive cave with awesome stalagmites. You take a cable car up to the entrance to the upper grotto, and a wee boat ride through the lower. All of it is awesome, but no photos are allowed inside. It was initially uncrowded, though we did run into a boy scout troop and, as we left the upper grotto, a large group of yell-y, rowdy teens who shouted at us as we passed by: HELLO! NICE! LEBANON! NICE! Seriously, more than one said this. Maybe it’s a phrase they were recently taught?

The driving got rather more interesting after we left the Grotto. Seems the carpet fire was still smoldering and – we would eventually see – they were putting a crane in place to assist in demolition, or whatever. Backing everything up. I thought driving in China was freaky? Hah! Try navigating an unofficial Lebanese highway detour, along with hundreds of other frustrated drivers! Highlights included the security guys from the chicken restaurant who seemed to have spontaneously decided to direct traffic, and the small station wagon FULL of tires that came careening by us and weaving through the traffic that was inching back towards the highway. LET ME THROUGH I GOTTA GET THESE TIRES TO THEIR DESTINATION!!

I suspect that my ability to properly explain how INSANE it was is poor. Let me just add that it was probably good for my continued marital status that W&A were in the car, causing me to contain my panicked urges to provide Helpful Advice and Commentary from the back seat as Duncan drove. That’s right W&A, that was me containing it!

Things cleared up considerably as we continued north past Byblos and to Batroun, where the promise of famous fresh lemonade was appealing. Except the entire town, save one chain restaurant, appeared to be closed for Sunday.

We had already decided to skip Tripoli in favour of not cramming too much in, alongside vague reports of unrest that came from the security guy at Dunc’s work (this worked out well for us ill-informed travellers. Yeeeeesssssh). So from Batroun, we headed inland up the mountains and around the stunning Qadisha valley. Breathtaking views, crazy monastaries over in yonder cliff face, and yet more wild driving as W wound his way around narrow two-lane roads in various states of repair. We stopped along the way a couple of times, for photos, to get snacks, and somehow – thanks to a very enthusiastic shopkeeper – ended up with enormous bags of Za’atar.

We made it to the gorgeous, cool (snow!) Cedars of God an hour before closing time, just as mystical fog began to sweep in from the mountains. It was magical, even if we kind of had to blitz it. We then settled into our large, empty hotel/hostel perched on the side of the hills of Bcharri. A great place to bunker down for the night and, as it turned out, plan a new route to Baalbek.


None of us had even considered the remote possibility of the road across the mountains not being open. But it wasn’t, the hotel assured us. Tons of snow this year it seems. After some grumbling and map study over dinner, the menfolk determined another possible mountain pass… which we discovered was also closed thanks to some terribly nice dudes in the restaurant. They actually called someone to confirm for us, then helped us plan another route through what they assured us would be gorgeous scenery.

Resolved to leave early the next day so we’d have adequate time to enjoy Baalbek, we carried on with our evening. Which included board games, chips from home courtesy of W&A, and discovering that the ~12 year old boy helping at the hotel was a recent arrival from Syria. Putting things into perspective: check.

We struck out Monday morning for the long trip to Baalbek, through some amazing scenery, over some crazy semi-paved roads (our heads only hit the backseat roof once), past army checkpoints (they never seemed to care about us), before eventually going down the hills and around Beirut, getting vaguely lost but always miraculously ending up back on the highway, and, at last, being on the road to Baalbek. Which is, for a while, also the highway to Syria.

Remember waaay up in this post how I went on and on about how crazy the drive around the carpet fire was? Hah! Hah! The Beirut-Syria highway was another two lane road, technically, but the traffic was flowing in at least three if not four lanes. You don’t understand? NEITHER DID I. Duncan did, more or less, quickly learning that when passing the convoy of transport trucks on a narrow highway with plenty of oncoming traffic, it’s best to be directly behind another car doing the same thing if only for the reassurance that you won’t be the first car in the pile up.

It’s okay though, Mom, we obviously arrived alive and ready to visit some gobsmacking ruins. It was well worth the crazy trip. Baalbek is a massive, very intact site. As promised by the intertubes, there are also plenty of people who want to sell you a Hezbollah tshirt. We also met a VERY excited middle-aged Minnesotan woman (with her driver and guide) who just couldn’t believe that she ran into some North Americans and just had to have pictures with us and just really couldn’t believe it. She told us this was her FIRST TRIP ANYWHERE. Because, you know. If you haven’t travelled EVER Lebanon is the obvious choice. She was headed to Egypt for a few days, too. Naturally. I wonder, in retrospect, if she was shitting us and was actually a journalist in disguise? Power to ya, lady.

The road back to Beirut was just about as terrifying as the way to Baalbek. We saw a few cars overflowing with men, luggage strapped to the roof, and Syrian plates. We managed to squeeze in a winery visit and tasting which was welcome respite.

The contrasts, my God, the contrasts and contradictions.

Seemingly against the odds on those roads, we made it back to Beirut unscathed, and texted the guy doing security-related stuff to let him know we were safely back. His text reply was how we first actually learned about the violence in Tripoli. Wheeeeeee!

After taking in this close call, we got cleaned up and had a fabulous dinner down at the marina. As you do, I guess. At least when you’re privileged visitors whose flights out have been long-since booked.

Do I need to sum up this marathon post by saying that this trip was absolutely the highlight of my time in Lebanon or is it obvious yet? Sure, it was a bit bamboozling (the best word I have for describing my general take on Lebanon) and we were somewhat lucky with how it all turned out. Regardless, I’m so grateful we had visiting friends who sparked this adventure, ensuring that we saw some truly amazing parts of the country.

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Minibuses, ruins and carpet fires – oh my!

One of the many benefits of W&A’s visit was that they had done way more advance research than we tend to while on the road. And they had English-language guide books! This helped us make two awesome day trips, to Saida and Byblos. Bad luck if you’re not W’s effbook friend and can’t look at his awesome photos and commentary which sum the trips up quite nicely.


Saida (Sidon) is south of Beirut by about 40km. To get there, you go to Cola Junction “bus station” in Beirut, which is basically a small parking lot next to the highway where a bunch of minibuses converge and leave for various destinations. You show up, find the bus headed for your destination (it’s impossible to *not* find it, since plenty of people will shove you in the right direction), wait for it to fill up, and away you go. It seems like it shouldn’t work at all, or like there should be a major rip off involved, and yet it was relatively painless (getting the cab to the station was probably the most difficult part). Our bus was full pretty much immediately and our driver was pretty serious about getting there in a hurry.

The city feels like a world away from Beirut – older cars, older buildings (without the new build contrasts), smaller streets. At least in the main part where we were. There’s a cool sea castle and awesome old souq that’s vaguely reminiscent of Fez but without the emphasis on bamboozling tourists. We wandered, were shown a few things (and helpfully told when to not go down what looked like an alley but was actually someone’s yard), managed to find a museum and some strawberries to snack on, all before eating possibly the best falafel I’ve ever had in my life.


A few days later, while Duncan was at work, W&A and I ventured north of Beirut to Byblos. The principle of getting there was the same, though this time we got a “servis” taxi (cheaper, shared, though we weren’t exactly sure of the right fare so maybe we got ripped off?) to an “international bus station” which was basically the space under an underpass by a highway on-ramp. Quite convenient if you think about it.

Compared to the trip to Saida the bus was a luxury coach. Okay, maybe there was more staring at the start but it was also empty enough that we had way more room – my knee didn’t fall asleep, for example. Which worked out especially well, since partway there traffic slowed to the kind of painful start-and-stop you expect on a long weekend headed out of Toronto on a rainy day when maybe there’s been an accident. Was it a Friday thing? The way traffic normally is, and the trip to Saida was a fluke? An accident?

After what felt like an eternity, I saw some smoke. Then some more smoke. Then HOLYCRAPWHATISUPWITHALLTHATSMOKE????? Black, billowing smoke. I couldn’t see the source, at first. Eventually I could just make out a partially collapsed building that was puking flames right by the side of the road.

After reminding W&A that I didn’t have my passport on me and to please not leave me alone (joking! only joking!), I deployed my classic airplane technique of observing the reactions of those around me. Which were negligible, other than some photo-taking. I asked the young women sitting in front of me if they knew what was going on and after a phone call they reported that it was a carpet factory burning down. This was confirmed on the bus ride back, as the building continued to smolder and burn, and on the front page of the English-language daily the following morning.

Anyway, once we had passed that drama the traffic cleared and we made it to Byblos, which felt rather more pleasant and moneyed than Saida. There is a souq which is  all nicely done up and somewhat more tourist-oriented. There’s also a lovely seaside resto where you pick out your fish before dining al fresco.

Oh, and also a huge area with many, many layers of ruins lying around, partially-explained, in a somewhat-overgrown field. Here some Phoenician stuff, there some Roman, a castle, and an Ottoman house over yonder. Layers over layers, that have been shifted and reconstructed over to the side as excavations continued to the next layer down. You know, nbd, the usual, just with almost no other tourists and amazing views over the sea.

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I drafted this post in a Beirut cafe when our friends had left, Duncan was at work, the internet didn’t really work, and I just wanted to get down something about what it was like to be in Beirut. A few days later, the night before we flew out, the show’s shuttle buses took different routes home from the venue to avoid a neighbourhood where violence had flared. Borrowed time indeed. Edited for at least some of the typos only:

Beirut, May 17, 2012

I was jacked when we first got here, for the climate among other reasons – beautiful, coastal, sunny, but not nearly as stifling as the humidity in Thailand and Cambodia. Plus more opportunities to eat fresh vegetables. Maximum hummus. Not to mention friends visiting from home!

And it has been great, if completely bizarre and unlike anywhere I’ve been before – I make some attempts at comparisons below, but none are quite right. The longer I stay here, the more bamboozled I feel. I’ve tried to read up on the history – ancient, early 20th century, and more recent. It sort of helps. I still don’t feel as though I have the faintest clue as to how this place works.

We’re staying at a hotel right by Zaitunay Bay, which is kind of like a miniature version of Singapore’s Marina Bay Sands development – all new and shiny and fabulous… and sort of like public space. Under heavy guard, of course. But the Bay is not as weird as the heavily-under-construction centre of the city, which is being rebuilt by one of the companies involved in the Bay. Large areas are deserted except for army guys and lots of private security who let you wander through, provided you don’t take pictures. When one guy tried to on our (amazing, cannot recommend enough) walking tour, the guide apologized profusely to an incensed guard. Good thing we’d forgotten our cameras the day before.

Amidst all this fabulosity and new construction, ancient mercedes whiz by, usually honking and/or with drivers yelling “TAXI? SERVIS?” out the window. Who can blame them, though? You’re the idiot trying to navigate the hectic, steep, crooked streets, which have three names or no name at all – and the sidewalks that do exist are basically impassable.

The power cuts out at least once a day – but never for long, or at least not in the centre of town, where generators seems to kick in. Besides, there’s an app for that so you can plan! You can’t drink the water, but you can go to Starbucks where you might (if you’re a naïve chump like me) pay way too much for internet that doesn’t really work. You can smoke anywhere and everyone seems to, whether it’s cigarettes, narghile or cigars (you can’t enforce anti-smoking rules here, apparently). But from what little I’ve learned, I can totally understand that things like internet or anti-smoking regulations fall a little low on the government priorities right now.

Anyway, no matter. You can shop in glamourous malls, and get a new nose, lips, boobs… but good luck finding public green space. Unless you’re a foreigner and look old enough, in which case the army guarding it might open the gate to the Horsh Beirut for you. Although, it’s pretty dusty, run down, and decidedly unshady.

You can party all night in any number of clubs – it’s true what I heard about the nightlife here. You can swim and fish off the Corniche (if you’re a guy) or lounge by a pool at a private beach club. Ladies can wear what they want, at least where we’ve been – just expect some leers and a few extra “welcome to Lebanon”s if you show a lot of white lady leg. People are amazingly trilingual and a great many of them seem very kind. But I wouldn’t want to live on the margins here.

I’ve stopped noticing the bullet holes in buildings. Sort of. I’ve started to get accustomed to the glassy condo towers that have been built right next to “old renthold outs. Even the Beirut Holiday Inn, visible from our hotel room window, has almost blended in to my daily “routine”. So much has happened right here. So much is happening all around – two hours up the road in pretty much every direction.

It’s completely bizarre.  I’m so glad I had the chance to come here, and incredibly grateful to W&A for joining us, helping ensure I cruised around the city and took it in more than I might have if I were on my own. I will, however, be almost as glad to head out.

After a raucous party at a friggin’ “ranch” (read: fabulous cliffside club an hour out of town) last night and another day fighting with the internet today, I’ll spend my last few days at Duncan’s work helping out with some laundry and such wardrobe like tasks. I’m kind of glad. This isn’t a cheap place. I’ve partied it up, seen more of the country than I could have hoped and now I’m starting to get itchy feet. And there’s part of me that feels kind of like we’re here on borrowed time.

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Some Delicious Things, or, Three Weeks of Hedonism

To say we ate well in Thailand and Cambodia would be an understatement. And by some strange miracle we didn’t get sick. Wha???

I kind of balked at prices of things – as though food (and other things) would have magically remained the same price as 8-9 years ago. Thankfully, my penny-pinching ways didn’t ruin all the fun as we slurped, snacked, chewed, gobbled and burped our way from Bangkok to Siem Reap and then down to the beaches of Krabi province. Don’t we sound charming? Travel with us! You’ll never starve!

Here are some highlights, loosely categorized and ranked according to my whimsy and memory (which is quickly being overridden with houmous and falafel). Needless to say, souvenir tour belly is progressing nicely.

Best Overall Meal: Pum’s, Ko Phi Phi

It feels kind of wrong to choose a meal at a chain restaurant as best overall since we frequently ate embarrassingly well on the street. And 8-9 years ago, I found a Thai woman with beach huts who fed me and two others ridiculously well for shamefully low prices. You know, a chain is less authentic than those options, right?

Whatever. For the combination of freshness, value-for-money, range of choices, and general deliciousness Pum’s was a stand out. I kind of wanted to go back but we ran out of time. We had a delicious herb salad, coconut curry and cashew seafood, and even crammed in a mouth-wateringly rich mango and sticky rice for dessert. Oh, and since we were being extra hedonistic, we had some cocktails which were freshened up with lemongrass. WINNING.

Herb salad + whiskey & lemongrass cocktail

Delicious cashew seafood. My curry photo didn’t upload so too bad!


Best Salad: banana flower salad, Siem Reap

This was a revelation. I may have said “this salad is changing my life”, not that I’m prone to hyperbole or anything. Tangy, juicy, a homemade dressing, lots of herbs and overall deliciousness. I kind of wish we’d taken a cooking course if only to learn how to make this. It was never beaten, not by the banana flower salad we had at another place in Siem Reap, not by my near-daily intake of som tam in Thailand, and not even by the herb salad featured above (though that one is a close second).

Banana flower salad. It might be blurry because I was too busy drooling to get a good shot

Best Fried Potatoes: homemade chips, Siem Reap

A close second for best overall meal is probably a lunch we had in Siem Reap that began with homemade sweet potato and pumpkin chips. If we’d realized how big the order was, maybe we would’ve just had this for lunch:

A couple of honourable mentions go to potato wedges and beach fries on Ko Phi Phi. Because yeah, sometimes we ate western food and yup, our beach days included fries and beer. HEDONISM TASTES GREAT.

Wedges: taste better with mojitos

The soup and curry were both quite fine. The fries? Extra good.

Best Noodles: street stall near the airport, Bangkok

No photo, which is a shame. The other pad thai we had didn’t hold a candle to this one, perhaps due in part to the price (about a dollar each). It was quick, no nonsense and cooked up fresh with a plate of sprouts, green onion and lime on the side, along with the mandatory pots of sugar and various chilies we could add to taste. And some waters I grabbed down the street at the 7/11. Just what the doctor ordered after a day of hot and dusty travel back from Cambodia.

Best Noodle Soup: street stall, Siem Reap

Noodle soup was my go-to pretty much every other day, when I desperately wanted something not fried and didn’t want to push my luck with raw vegetables. The best one by a mile cost me $1USD at one of the dozen-odd street stalls that set up every night (and tear down by morning) in Siem Reap. There was something extra fresh tasting about it – herbs, or lemon, or something that made it quite excellent rather than basically hot and filling.

Best Fish: red snapper, Ko Phi Phi

We only had fish twice, really, and both were delicious. The snapper we picked for our last dinner in Thailand wins out over the barracuda Duncan had while we were in Railay. Narrowly. I don’t have a great vocabulary to compare different kinds of seafood, so it may come down to the different experiences: the snapper was at a funny large bbq place on Phi Phi where the cook crows like a rooster every time an order was up and the fish was piled with a veggie chutney. And the baked potato on the side was tasteh. The barracuda was fine, too, but it didn’t feel like An Event.

Snapper feast. It also came with some prawns, but I don’t eat that stuff

Duncan gives snapper feast an A++


Most Random Food-like Substance

I don’t know what this is called. It was full of marshmallow fluff and… something else. I didn’t like it.

Best Lunch Cat

So this category is an excuse for a gratuitous cat photo. This guy showed up as soon as we sat down for lunch one day at the beach. As in, jumped into Duncan’s lap and started purring, then insisted on settling in behind me just like this. As if to say, “this is how you chill out on the beach, guyyyyss”.

Duuuuuude, no photos man

Some other things

All of this was delicious. I swear to God, though, sometimes I just wanted a simple green salad and brown rice.

Can you spot the banana?

Amok chicken in Siem Reap.

We over-ordered at our first meal. We got a bit better about it as the trip progressed

You know what tastes great when it’s way too hot for life? Beer. And with new wayfarers, Duncan quickly solidified Belushi as his new nickname

Beware, however, the risks of too much food + beer + heat + humidity

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Fun fact: I’m writing this from Split, Croatia, where we’re on – guess what – another tour break. This time with M&R, exploring the Adriatic coast. It’s our first day, it’s raining, we’re all sitting around with our laptops and the first fast internet SINCE FOREVER. Hopefully I can catch up on stuff over the next two weeks.

After getting thoroughly temple-headed it was time to go south for what Duncan really wanted most of all out of the tour break: to lie on a beach, snorkel, rent a motorbike and cruise around, and generally beach out. As mentioned, we knew that we were arriving just as wet season would be starting in the southwest BUT the intertubes and friends who’d been there around the same time made us feel reasonably confident that the weather wouldn’t be complete shit.

And it wasn’t! At least not at first and not all the time. In fact, our first stop in Railay (rock climbers’ mecca) was pretty great. The landscape is beautiful and it wasn’t too crazy crowded. A few rain showers, one mostly-rainy afternoon, but also plenty of sun to hide from (if you’re me) or bask in (if you’re Duncan). Unfortunately, for a variety of tedious reasons, I was actually kind of out of it while we were there so I didn’t enjoy beach relax time to the max. Still, we got a Frisbee, we drank some beers and we saw a funnel cloud. Which didn’t freak me out at ALL I swear *nervouslaughter*.

After a couple days we headed further south still to Ko Lanta – a place I’d actually visited almost nine years ago. Duncan’s tour buddies had all made trips more recently that made it sound like the island had both developed a bunch while still remaining more laid back than other islands in the area. We could rent a motorbike, stay somewhere cheap, maybe visit some elephants, and do day trips to snorkel. Perfect!

Of course, since we were right on the edge of the wet season the passenger ferries from Railay to Ko Lanta stopped the very day we arrived in Railay. I had checked in advance, though, and confirmed that the car ferry goes all year long. I’d just forgotten how annoying travelling via minibus in Thailand can be. Multiple transfers, being treated like a child, shoved into overflowing buses and yelled at if you question whether there really is room for two more people and their luggage. Fun times! Not at all annoying! Tourism is so great!

So after an annoying day of travel we arrived in Ko Lanta reasonably grouchy and tired. A booking snafu meant that we had our first night in one place, before six nights in a cheaper bungalow situation next door. But we were finally right on the beach! The main beach time could begin!

Except for just one thing: Ko Lanta’s beaches are on the west side of the island. The wet season brings with it lots of wind. Westerly winds. Churning up all that nasty junk in the ocean that you’d rather not think about. Like tires. And bits of ships. And lots of plastic. All of which was bobbing around in the water and/or lying on the beach for as far as the eye could see. The place next door where we were supposed to go the next day? A fucking ship wreck was on the beach.

Duncan rarely gets dejected so when we wandered down the nasty beach and he got quieter and slower and started to sigh it was pretty much instantly clear that we needed to figure out plan B, and fast.

We frantically looked into going to islands in the Gulf of Thailand – i.e., the east coast which would have been, in theory, looking damn fine. But we had flights back to Bangkok from Krabi and couldn’t reach anyone to see about changing them. And the thought of another day on a minibus + ferry +++ was not super appealing.

And so, despite our attempts to be slightly off the *most* beaten path (because seriously, it’s all pretty beaten), we found ourselves on a ferry to Ko Phi Phi the next morning. Land of disaster backpacking buckets of whiskey, luxury resorts and some shit in the middle that you overpay for but which is fine and reasonably close to the beach. Can you guess what we chose?

We prioritized nice beach over pretty much every other criteria, figuring that at least Ko Phi Phi had some sheltered areas (in contrast with Lanta’s exposed coastline). And there’s a reason people go there – it’s super beautiful. Even if it’s also super crowded and has plenty of obnoxiousness. However, we walked over to one slightly more removed and very nice beach a few days where we could poach some chairs from a resort, play Frisbee, chill out, etc. It poured like crazy the first afternoon/evening, but most other days had only a few showers.

We went on one standard issue snorkelling trip – saw some stuff, some saw depressingly dead coral. We ate some nice food (more on that another time). After getting DEVOURED by bugs one day and wanting to crawl out of my skin or maybe just go to somewhere freezing cold where nothing could possibly live and I could wear a snowsuit to stop scratching, I discovered the joys of antihistimine and hydrocortisone cream. And finally, FINALLY, relaxed into beach time about two days before our epic journey to Beirut.

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Siem Reap & Angkor Wat

Getting There (and away)

We travelled overland from Bangkok to Siem Reap, gateway city to the Angkor Wat. Flights are stupid expensive and the other ways we looked at doing it were awkward, long, etc – especially since we wanted to get down to the Andaman coast afterwards which was easiest to reach by flying out of Bangkok.

Once that was decided, the intertubes had a lot to say about the various rip offs, hassles and problems we could expect. But while it took a full day in each direction, we saw some countryside and ultimately encountered what seemed, from the internets, to be an exactly normal level of rip off,. Particularly getting into Cambodia: an extra charge of 100 Thai Baht to get our Cambodian visa (unless you want to wait forever); the “free government shuttle” to the transportation centre miles away from anything where you can enjoy the slightly-frustrating process of securing a ride from to Siem Reap itself; being taken to a tourist shop and made to browse before being finally dropped at our hotel.

It was slightly easier getting back, though the bus from the Thai side of the border to Bangkok was stinking hot, not to mention slow. Then again, considering the distance travelled and price paid, we really couldn’t complain (or expect) too much.

Being There

More than usual, the pictures don’t really do our experience – let alone the temples themselves – any kind of justice. What can I say? It’s unreal to see these buildings, in various states of repair and ruin, rising up in the middle of the jungle (or nearly), even understanding that there were cities around them at the time. The contrast between that and even our tenuous grasp of Cambodia’s more recent history and the extreme poverty around us was hard on the head. And yet so many people we encountered were so genuinely warm. It was humbling.

I actually don’t have a whole lot more to say, really, especially since this post is pretty late coming (you don’t even get (m)any captions SORRY, internet here is painful). Except maybe that Siem Reap itself is a bizarre tourist town and I hope that we can be so lucky as to visit more of Cambodia in the future. Just maybe not in April when it’s 37C + humidity and walking around temples is both amazing and kind of punishing.

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As soon as we landed in the Bangkok airport and heard Thai all around us, I was flooded with memories of my previous travels in Thailand – and super stoked to be back. However, I didn’t really think about how little time I’d spent in Bangkok itself until I realized how vague and indistinct most of my memories from that city really are. More like impressions, coloured by the fact that in 2004 I had never spent any amount of time in a major Asian city before and had just spent four weeks being taken care of in the Thai countryside while volunteering at a school. So my memories of Bangkok revolved around a few temples and feelings of loneliness, being too hot, overwhelmed, and freaked out about my bank balance.

Fast forward to last month when I arrived with Duncan: still mildly freaked out about bank balances (when am I not?), but hardly on the same scale. I mean, come on. I had a chair bed on my flight there and it was AMAZING!! Sorry, I didn’t mention that by some weird fluke of booking luck we ended up with one leg of our journey in first class? No? We did. And it was excessively wonderful. I got pyjamas for crying out loud! Disgusting polyester ones, but still. Ridiculous.

I digress. With my dim impressions of Bangkok, I was all ramped up for hot humid city craziness. And yet, the size and scale of the city didn’t line up with my recollection. Dying in the heat, humidity, and pollution? Somewhat, but not as intensely as I seemed to recall (except when visiting temples and royal areas, where we had to be as covered as possible). The temples and Royal Palace? Still beautiful. Some of the Thai people we encountered were nice, some gently tried to rip us off, others more blatantly. My 10 words of Thai? Unimpressive – one cab driver told me to come back next year after more studies.

We crammed in a bunch of Major Tourist Sights over our jetlagged, 2.5 day stay in the city. We also did some requisite shopping for dirty backpacker clothes since we sweat through our entire summer wardrobe in the first few hours after landing. Okay not really… but almost.  Even the haggling was nowhere near as intense as I remembered, probably since it didn’t hold a candle to the in-your-face, extreme haggling we got used to in Beijing and Shanghai last year. People actually had final prices and were, for the most part, unmoved when you walked away.

All-in-all, Bangkok was fine and lovely; I managed to shake off my previous impressions, get to know my way around the city a teensy bit better, and enjoy taking in some new sights as well as ones I’d visited before. And it was a perfectly good place to get over the worst of the jetlag before travelling overland to Siem Reap.

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