The Amazon, part 1

I might not have been impressed with Iquitos, but our journey out into the Amazon jungle – the whole reason we were in Iquitos in the first place – was definitely one of the most notable experiences of our trip.

The basics of the expedition were this:  from Iquitos, we would head up the Amazon River, turning off into one of its tributaries (the Marañón River) to head into the Pacaya Samiria National Park, where we would stay for four nights.  (More precisely, assuming I’ve transcribed our guide’s descriptions correctly, we followed the Marañón River up to the Pucate River, and then up to the Yanayacu River, which was our destination.  But basically, we’re talking the Amazon Basin here.)  The first night would be in a remote village – Buenos Aires (no, not that one, obviously), the farthest village into the national park.  Then we continue up the river, to spend the middle two nights at a campsite in the jungle, before returning to Buenos Aires for another night on the way back home.

To take care of us, we had:  Marden, our main guide;  Herman, from Buenos Aires village, who was our local jungle guide, wildlife specialist and professional machete-wielder;  Herman’s wife Wilma, in charge of the meals;  and Rusber, our boat driver (we had our own boat for the five days).  We felt a little spoilt:  “us” was just the two of us (Chris and me), and we had four great people looking after us for the whole trip.

Our boat for the five days, tied up at Buenos Aires village

Our boat for the five days, tied up at Buenos Aires village

(For those interested in the logistics, we were doing this trip with an Iquitos-based company called Amazon Explorer, and we were doing their Pacaya Samiria Adventure expedition.  We paid $US504 each – $560 with an unexplained 10% discount, presumably for being a bit out-of-season – inclusive of everything from when we were picked up from our hostel in Iquitos to when we got dropped back there at the end of the five days.  If you’re thinking about doing it yourself, I guess getting to Iquitos itself is a factor in considering prices:  we flew return from Lima on Peruvian Airlines for $US280 for the two of us.  The total expenditure for the trip was definitely well worth it, in case you didn’t figure that out from the very first sentence of this post.)

The beginning of our excursion, then, was getting to Buenos Aires (yeah, no, really, not that one).  Mostly, that involved a leisurely three-hour or so boat ride upriver.  Not very eventful, but a good opportunity for a mid-morning nap.  The only real happening on the journey was brunch:  Marden carefully cutting up fine pieces of deliciously fresh fruit, just like your mum used to, into a tasty fruit salad and yoghurt concoction.  Clearly Marden had dealt with finicky Western tourists before:  we were impressed and amused to see that he was very careful with hygiene – plenty of hand sanitiser first, ditching overboard any bits of fruit that rolled away off the chopping board even for a second.  But I had to laugh a bit on the inside when he promptly washed the chopping board and bowls in the river over the side.  (I’m sure it’s actually quite reasonable, and it didn’t bother me in the slightest.  But I had to giggle as I automatically pictured the horror this would surely put on the faces of many of the more “ewww, germs!” sanitation-conscious travellers we’d met.)  Anyway, breakfast was tasty, and we proceeded upriver, now enjoying a late-morning post-prandial nap.

As we arrived into the national park, we had our first glimpse of the level of voraciousness we could expect from the local mosquitoes.  It turned out that by a slim margin, this was actually the worst mozzie spot we found.  There’s something not quite right about having to interrupt your use of the bathroom facilities mid-stream in order to wave the mosquitoes away from some areas of temporarily exposed skin that insects really have no right to be interested in.  But it was enough of a warning for us to break out the DEET immediately, and to keep it regularly topped-up from then on in.

The enemy:  mosquitoes

The enemy: mosquitoes

Perhaps this guy can help?  A guest in our canoe later in the trip.

Perhaps this guy can help? A guest in our canoe later in the trip.

Between sunscreen and mozzie repellent, our days became a ritual of which a professional house-painter would be proud:  first the undercoat, then the topcoat, both rigorously applied for an even cover all over.  (For reference, you want the sunscreen on first, because it needs to absorb into the skin somewhat to be effective, and then the DEET on top, where the mosquitoes can smell it most offensively.)  By the time I sat down on that first evening to write a few notes in a journal, I was scrawling that we’d “been killing mosquitoes pretty constantly since arriving”.  Then I had to put the pen down for a bit for a DEET break.

Before that, though, what I’d been writing about was our afternoon canoe trip wildlife-spotting.  At 4pm we’d set off (well, roughly 4.15 or 4.30 or so – no doubt bang on Peruvian 4pm, in any case), paddling around (well, Marden and Herman paddling, Chris and me sitting watching them paddle) awhile before some menacing thunder encouraged our return.

In our waterborne couple of hours, though, we saw and heard plenty.  In the air there were eagles, camungo (which I gather are properly called ‘horned screamers’ and which Marden referred to as ‘jungle turkeys’ as well), kingfishers and herons.  In the water, there were dolphins – grey and the rarer pink – who were obviously enjoying perpetually evading our attempts to take photos of them.

A tarantula in its now-exposed nest on a tree trunk above the waterline

A tarantula in its now-exposed nest on a tree trunk above the waterline

On a tree trunk poking out of the river there was a tarantula nest which Herman picked open to find the unimpressed homeowner inside.  Above us in the branches we gawked at a sloth and observed many a shaking branch that provided further evidence of the monkeys we could hear causing a cacophony all around us, unseen.  And there were bats dozing on a tree trunk to boot – not a sight I’d really expected to see in the jungle, I’ll admit.  There were no caiman to be found, although not for want of trying – Herman is an impressive mimic, and I have no reason to think that his call for the caiman would be any less effective, assuming one’s around, than the abilities he proved in attracting a variety of birds and monkeys.

At any rate, the ominous thunder drove us back to our home for the night – and with the sun setting shortly after our return, I doubt we missed much other than getting wet in the downpour that started soon after darkness fell.  We were left gazing at the thatched roof of our pole house accommodation for the night, wondering – stupidly, given that, y’know, people live here and probably know how to build themselves houses that function as intended – how it would hold up to the rain that looked to be settling in for the evening.

Huge ants on a tree root

Huge ants on a tree root

Speaking of which, the pole house we were staying in was somehow elegant, in a simple, functional kind of way.  And it had convincing-looking mozzie nets, which was a boon.  But we spent most of our time marvelling at two things:  the trail of enormous ants leading up the nearest tree, and the incessant and refreshingly natural sounds of the jungle.  Well, natural right up until interrupted by the distinctive mating call of the Airbus A319, as a regular flight back to Lima made its way overhead.

After we were done amusing ourselves for a couple of minutes with the cleverness of that particular joke, we turned around to wonder where the light had all gone.  One of those little things:  it’s astounding just how fast the darkness sets in near the equator when you’re away from the ubiquity of artificial lighting.

We enjoyed a delicious dinner of catfish fillet with tomato, all wrapped up and baked in a leaf.  And I relished the chance to try ají, the local pepper.  (For the benefit of those with no real exposure to Spanish, it’s pronounced ‘a-hee’.)  Little yellow or green seeded balls of hotness, straight from the plant.  They were delicious and added fantastic flavour to the food – and our local friends seemed impressed with how much I took to them (remember that South America is not exactly known for its appreciation of spicy foods).  Although I will admit that having squished them by hand to get the flavour out and into the rest of my food, I may have coated my fingers such that subsequently rubbing my nose gave me an invisible moustache of fire for a good few hours.  Still, tasty.

Dawn on a beautifully still river by Buenos Aires village

Dawn on a beautifully still river by Buenos Aires village

Birdwatching in the early morning

Birdwatching in the early morning. Yes, there is a bird in there in the branches, thanks very much, if you look closely just right of centre.

Day two had an early start:  a Peruvian 6am (so roughly 6.15-6.30) get-go to spend some more time birdwatching in the canoe.  It was another couple of hours of keeping the eyes peeled, spotting a few more species than we’d seen the previous afternoon:  this time we added ‘old mama’ (‘mamavieja’ in Spanish) eagles, a handful of other birds whose names I already couldn’t remember by the time it came to write them down later, an ant nest on a tree trunk above the water line, and a bee hive in a knotted hole in another tree trunk, looking for all the world like the tree had evolved a convenient jungle defence mechanism of ejecting bees from a specially-developed trunk anus.

A puckered bee-hole in the trunk of a tree

A puckered bee-hole in the trunk of a tree. (It’s like an A-hole, but further along in the alphabet… Thank you very much, I’ll be here all week.) Watching bees stream out of here when disturbed was, well, odd.

We returned feeling that our hard work of sitting and watching Marden and Herman paddle (as well as some pretty energetic looking at the birds they pointed out, obviously) entitled us to a hearty feast.  We enjoyed a delicious meal of French toast for breakfast.  The mosquitoes enjoyed a delicious meal of me for breakfast, apparently:  evidently I missed a few spots with the DEET.  After that, it was time to sit around and relax for a bit:  this was a big theme of the trip – lots of free time, since after all, there’s actually not a tonne to be doing out in the jungle constantly, to be honest.  Especially when you’re being waited on hand and foot.

Then again, let it not be said that the relaxation time was not entertaining.  I’ve probably mentioned a couple of times prior to now on this blog that I speak a bit of Spanish, but I’m not fluent.  Definitely trying to improve (that was, after all, a lot of the point of much of the time we spent in Lima), but at this stage I was at the point where I could hold conversations, but only fairly stilted and necessarily straightforward ones.  This trip to the Amazon was definitely giving me some Spanish practice:  Marden spoke English, at a level somewhat above my Spanish, but Herman, Wilma and Rusber didn’t speak any, so any interaction with them was either through Marden, or via my broken Spanish.  Even speaking with Marden, there were quite a few conversations where we found I understood him better in Spanish than in English.  (Yes, this made me proud that I was making headway on my Spanish.  One of those little but concrete achievements that progress is all about!)

In fact, the situation was made somewhat more complicated by the style of Spanish spoken locally, too.  I’m not sure it’s a separate dialect they employ – the words and grammar all seem the same.  But they most certainly speak Spanish very differently than anywhere else I’ve heard, with a very different rhythm to sentences, and with emphasis on what the rest of the Spanish-speaking world would consider completely the wrong parts of the word:  demasiado instead of demasiado, cerveza instead of cerveza.  (And no, there’s no particular reason I’ve remembered those two words as the examples!)  Also, they lengthen emphasised syllables a lot – in a way that regular Spanish pronunciation (whether in Spain or in Latin America) just doesn’t do, which really breaks your expectations about how the syllables in a sentence should flow together, making things much much more difficult for the beginner to keep up with.  Truthfully, I’m not too ashamed to admit that it actually took me literally hours to work out that what they were speaking amongst themselves was in fact Spanish, and even then I was unsure enough that I had to bite the bullet and just ask Marden.  Not that I’m any expert, but their speech had a very Brazilian Portuguese lilt to it and I wondered whether on this side of Peru, closer to the Brazilian border, perhaps the locals didn’t speak the Peruvian national language after all.  And obviously it’s a big enough difference to be an issue for more than just me:  when Marden spoke Spanish to me, he’d always switch to standard Latin-American Spanish pronunciation, emphasis and rhythm, switching back to localese when he then turned back to Herman to resume their conversation, or to ask Herman a question on my behalf.

Anyway, the other inhabitants of Buenos Aires village also had no English.  Where I’m going with all this is a hilarious quasi-conversation we had with a local villager who happened to wander by as Chris and I stood around looking out aimlessly but admiringly across the river.  Many of the details of said quasi-conversation, I must admit, escaped me.  And even for the bits I understood, that understanding came only after multiple repetitions of the sentence in question.  But basically this congenial gentleman was offering us a local concoction made from the sap collected from cuts inflicted on a particular type of local tree.  I’m still not sure whether it was then fermented and thus an alcoholic drink, or perhaps some sort of hallucinogenic.  We declined it, so I’m just going on what I understood from the conversation.  But one thing we most certainly did understand:  one of the effects is very much like Viagra.  As he made exceptionally clear with a series of highly entertaining gestures and knowing winks.  Apparently ‘wink, wink, chuckle, chuckle’ is about the same in any language.

After that entertainment, it was time for another tough three hours of sitting around in a boat as we headed upstream to our campsite for the next two nights.

An anaconda

An anaconda

There were two options for the campsite, near one another.  We explored the first for about ten minutes, only for Marden to reject it on the basis of an over-active airborne insect population.  But before proceeding to the second site, we took a bit of time to head off in search of anacondas.  After only five or ten minutes of walking off amongst the trees, Herman’s jungle expertise had him bounding off into the bush towards some evidence that none of the rest of us had either seen or heard, and we followed to find him pointing out a smallish anaconda.  Smallish by anaconda standards, anyway:  it was still a good metre and a half at least.

It smelt bad – kind of rotten.  This wasn’t helped by the fact that it pissed and shat itself in pretty short order:  apparently that was some sort of self-defence mechanism.  But the smell was there even before that.  Marden told us that this was because it was about ready to shed its skin.  Evidently they stink around that time.

Anyway, we took turns holding the anaconda and posing for photos.  When it came my turn, I was amused to feel its ribcage moving in my hands as it presumably tried to piss and shit itself some more.  To no avail:  that particular defence mechanism was already exhausted.  Holding it directly behind its head with my other hand, I could clearly feel the detail of the bones in its spine – an odd sensation, to say the least.

Me feeling up the anaconda’s spine

Me feeling up the anaconda’s spine

After letting the anaconda slither away, we moved off to the next campsite and, well, stood around as Marden and Herman made camp:  one large tarpaulin on the ground, with mattresses to sleep on, another tarpaulin strung overhead for shelter from the rain, and a thorough-looking set of mosquito nets around the mattresses.  The campsite came pre-prepared with a bamboo picnic-style table (complete with rudimentary bamboo benches) and a couple of trees conveniently located hammock-stringing distance apart, so after some early standing about, much of our watching was subsequently done while comfortably suspended roughly a metre off the ground, swinging gently back and forth.

Our campsite, complete with hammocks and bamboo picnic table

Our campsite, complete with hammocks and bamboo picnic table. (Actual sleeping happens off to the left, under tarpaulins and mosquito nets.)

Lunch preparations were afoot as we were lulling ourselves off.  Our Peruvian-time flexible schedule had us eventually chowing down on that at around 4pm, and then we were off on another canoe adventure.  We didn’t see as much this time:  more dolphins, some toucans, and another Airbus.  We were hoping for caiman, but no luck.

Dusk on the river

Dusk on the river

Still, dusk on the river was incredibly beautiful.

A bullfrog, or ‘smoky jungle frog’, pulling its best “I believe I can fly” moves

A bullfrog, or ‘smoky jungle frog’, pulling its best “I believe I can fly” moves

Our evening adventure was a return to the earlier rejected campsite, to see what we could find in the deepening dark.  Herman located and temporarily purloined a particularly large bullfrog for us to gawk at – a ‘smoky jungle frog’, apparently.  We tripped and stumbled our way around a little further in the dark, finding – or more often hearing and not finding – more frogs as well as other mysterious jungle noises, and seeing a few miscellaneous other night creatures.  The scorpion we nearly brushed past on a nearby tree trunk was a particularly entertaining surprise.

A scorpion on a tree trunk

A scorpion on a tree trunk

And then it was back to camp for bed at around 9.30pm.  To sleep on a thin mat on the ground, in a mosquito net that I didn’t quite fit in.  I got a surprisingly good sleep, though – my earplugs meant that I didn’t hear the monkey party that apparently took place in the trees above us between 3 and 4am.  And they also blocked out the gentle and sometimes not-so-gentle respiration of a few of those lying around me.  So I was well-rested for the next day’s explorations…


The Amazon River, seen from Iquitos

The Amazon River, looking away from Iquitos (arguably the best direction to look, even if the Amazon weren’t there)

To the untrained eye, Iquitos is a shithole.  A gateway to the Amazon, yes, but as a place in its own right, a shithole.

To the slightly-more-trained eye…  There’s some pretty significant elements of shithole-ness, still.  It’s dirty and obviously poor.  Most of the buildings are shanty houses – and not just on the city fringe, either:  much of the city, apart from a couple of old colonial-style grandiosities, looks on the verge of falling down.  Traffic is chaotic and messy, with the roads full of ‘motorcars’ (motorbikes with the back wheel cut off and replaced with two wheels under a partially enclosed bench seat for passengers).  And though it seems to be a fairly standard thing in Perú, it’s never encouraging when your hostel apparently sees a need for two substantial security doors at its entrance.

Nor was I much encouraged as to the city’s awesomeness by overhearing a loud conversation between American expats in a café that sounded remarkably like them patting themselves heartily on the back for a few vaguely strong words directed towards the owner of their favourite brothel, when they saw him employing underage girls for some other customers.  (I may have entirely misheard the conversation – and for all I know, they weren’t even referring to Iquitos – but my view of the city still wasn’t improved.  Especially given the reinforcement that came from the number of old American men walking around with young Peruvian women in tow, and the ‘say no to child sex tourism’ graffiti on a nearby wall.)

But most of those complaints apply to Hanoi and Saigon, too – cities which I loved.  Their streets are just as anarchic, and people do even stupider things on them than Peru.  Hell, if nothing else, at least having three wheels on the favourite mode of transportation in Iquitos gives you a little more protection than the two you find in south-east Asian cities.  The cities in Vietnam are predominantly poor, and it shows just as evidently as in remote Perú.  And there are plenty of dipshit expats and tourists all over Vietnam too – and I’m sure just as much sex tourism.

So when it comes down to it, I don’t really know why I had such a negative reaction to Iquitos.  It would have helped if it had food like Vietnam’s, I suppose – instead, we ended up eating at the same café day in, day out, just because nowhere else seemed particularly enticing.  And a decent coffee wouldn’t have gone astray in putting my mood to rights.  But it wasn’t just that.  For some reason, I just didn’t enjoy being there.  Maybe I was just in bad humour because my camera was broken again.

Given all the above complaints, though, I found it especially interesting just how many conversations we overheard of foreigners gushing about how much they love Iquitos.  (No, we weren’t going around Iquitos eavesdropping.  But these were the type of foreign journey-makers who aren’t real good at keeping their excitable voices down.)

Apparently, we heard, the Western world is falling apart because it works too hard, and these Peruvians, with their more relaxed lifestyle and their slower pace of life “have always known where it’s at”.  Apparently the traditional shamans of the area have found the secrets of enlightenment – although I couldn’t help but notice that this sentiment always seemed to be followed (or sometimes preceded) by a detailed discussion of the wonders of ayahuasca – a psychotropic made from local plants – and always seemed to be expressed by people who so perfectly fit the stereotype of your typical recreational enjoyer of mind-altering substances in the West that, danger of relying solely on stereotypes suitably acknowledged, surely it couldn’t all be coincidence.

Apparently, we heard, the local population is so lucky to be able to live next to and even in the jungle, so close to nature, in their beautiful traditional villages.

This is the point where I would generally stare in wonder at my food, wondering whether it just hadn’t occurred to our noisy neighbours that ‘traditional’ in this context is basically a convenient way to say “what we used to do before we found out there was a better way”.  The point where I would struggle with the frankly insulting notion that an American or Brit or Aussie can turn up and marvel at how great the life is here, completely oblivious to the fact that they can enjoy such a great life here precisely because their own societies are so much wealthier than the local one, making everything cheap for the foreigner, making the lack of social security and healthcare a non-issue, making it a trivial exercise to travel widely and experience everything as an exciting adventure rather than as the unchosen difficult reality of impoverished daily life.  Ignoring the fact that the ‘great life’ that they’re enjoying is not available to the locals.

So maybe I just didn’t like Iquitos much because I didn’t like so many of the people like me here.

For all that useless reflecting, Iquitos was how we got to our fantastic trip through the Amazon, and so it was definitely worth going through.  And the combination butterfly house and animal sanctuary, Pilpintuwasi, was definitely a great visit – seeing not only some beautiful butterflies, but also an ocelot, a jaguar, several sloths, a variety of monkeys, many many birds, and more.

So in remembering Iquitos, maybe I’ll just stick with some of the photos from Pilpintuwasi that I did get from my shittily misbehaving camera, and leave it at that.

Have some pretty pictures:

A three-toed sloth in Pilpintuwasi animal sanctuary

A three-toed sloth in Pilpintuwasi animal sanctuary

Brightly-coloured macaws and a monkey in Pilpintuwasi animal sanctuary

Brightly-coloured macaws and a monkey in Pilpintuwasi animal sanctuary

A giant rodent in Pilpintuwasi animal sanctuary

A giant rodent in Pilpintuwasi animal sanctuary

A rescued jaguar goes for a swim in Pilpintuwasi animal sanctuary

A rescued jaguar goes for a swim in Pilpintuwasi animal sanctuary


You’d think that having spent three weeks in Lima (a two week block and then another week later on), I’d have plenty to tell you about it.  But I don’t.

Lima foreshore, as seen from LarcoMar shopping centre

Lima foreshore, as seen from LarcoMar shopping centre

Weeks two and three were spent at Spanish School – and with six hours of classes per day, my brain wasn’t really up to doing much else with any of those days, as great as the classes were.  (For anyone considering learning some Spanish while in Lima, I can highly recommend them – they were absolutely fantastic.)

Week one had been when we realised that hey, we were in South America now, and would be for a good three and half months to come, so perhaps we should figure out what the hell we intended to do here, yeah?  Ie we spent our time picking where to go:  where to visit the Amazon (we picked Iquitos, and went in the week between weeks two and three in Lima), whether to visit the Galápagos Islands (yes!), when and how to go to Machu Picchu (after the Galápagos, bizarrely, by train, not trek, to save time), how much time to spend in Bolivia (as much as we had left), etc.

So in all that time, and much to the chagrin of my lovely Spanish teacher, we pretty much didn’t leave the central tourist area of Miraflores.  Well, except for me to buy a new camera after my Powershot S100 stopped working in the Amazon.  If the Canon repair centre and Sony Store had been closer in, the only times out of the centre would have been to the airport and for a Spanish-school-organised excursion.  Embarrassing, really.  Apparently I’m not very good at this tourism thing.

I can tell you a few very random things:

  • Arabica Café serves the best espresso coffee I’ve had since I was in Italy.  Seriously.  I’m a picky coffee drinker.  It’s fantastic.
  • Lima has a light and sound show at the fountain park, much like Singapore does in its marina.  Lima’s is better.  Impressive stuff.
A scene from the light and sound show at Lima’s fountain park.  Very impressive.

A scene from the light and sound show at Lima’s fountain park. Very impressive.

  • Lima airport is a long way from Lima.  Sufficiently so that the airport is not actually in Lima, it’s in Callao.  Callao is a shithole.
  • Lima airport oneworld lounge (well, the third-party lounge that you get access to) needs more power outlets and better food.
  • The entry area for security screening at Lima airport is very annoying, and typically surrounded by millions of people who’ve apparently picked it as the most convenient place to do their farewell hugs and kisses.
  • I’m far too familiar with Lima airport.  This is because we flew in or out of it a grand total of ten times over eight separate visits to the airport.  Not that I was constantly trying to get out of Lima or anything.
  • Miraflores is actually quite nice, as far as touristy bits of big cities go.  I liked it.
  • Good ceviche (raw fish marinated in citrus juice in lieu of cooking) is delicious.
  • Our hostel, Link Hostels Lima, was a great hostel.  Until we came back in week three and found that it no longer existed because it had been closed as insufficiently safe in an earthquake.  Ditto Houlihans, the Irish pub we enjoyed.  (Although I’m told the chances of things staying that way for a popular tourist pub are slim.)

But that’s about it, I’m afraid.  Some travel blogger I am.  Guess you’d better hope that I do something more interesting in the rest of my time in South America, yeah?

Easter Island

Easter Island is a strange place.  It’s small – only about 22km across, and it only has one town, with a permanent population of not that much over three thousand.  It’s a little out of the way:  South America is some three and a half thousand kilometres to the east, the nearest inhabited island is Pitcairn Island, around two thousand kilometres to the west, and the nearest inhabited island that anyone actually cares about is Tahiti, a good distance beyond that.  And it’s fascinating.

The islets of (closest to farthest) Motu Kao Kao, Motu Iti and Motu Nui, south-west of Easter Island

Two tiny islets next to Easter Island, where the Bird Man ceremony (see below) was held. Beyond that, a few thousand kilometres of ocean, then some other small islands.

It’s understandable, I suppose, that it’s not typically the sort of place people come more than once in their lives.  It’s also obvious that for many, this is very much the trip of a lifetime:  you could tell from the number of photos taken on the twenty-odd metre walk between the plane door and the plane-side entrance to the airport terminal.  And beyond that, you could tell from the sheer quantity of baggage that came off the plane, combined with the utter chaos of the scrum at baggage collection, that this is a trip considered worth taking even for a lot of people who, err, don’t get out much.  (That, and this is still South America after all.  There’s a reason that international flights through this part of the world automatically get double the usual baggage allowance, and it’s not because Brazilian string bikinis take up a lot of space in your suitcase.)  And you can see why:  Easter Island is a fascinating place.

But the thing about Easter Island, of course, is that there’s only that one canonical attraction to see here:  the moai, aka giant stone heads.  Well, there are other things too, I guess:  petroglyphs (primitive rock art), the old stone crater-side dwellings of ’O Rongo, and other artefacts of the island’s history.  Those things, however, are boring.  Especially the petroglyphs:  clearly other people disagree, but I find it remarkably hard to get excited over the cultural magnificence of a rock carving just because it’s old-ish – the resemblance to a three-year old’s finger painting is just a little hard for me to surmount.

(I’m calling things “old”, by the way, rather than, say, “ancient”, because the island’s human presence – and the artefacts and traditions that followed it – only originated around probably 1000 AD.  Well older than the European history of Australia, sure – Captain Cook was reporting differences in the state of the islands compared to previous British encounters with it shortly after he turned and headed home from his second mission to explore the seas down under – but still, nothing compared to the age of many of the other archaeological artefacts we’ve seen on our travels.  Enough so that “prehistoric”, while potentially accurate, also sounds deceptively inappropriate.)

Nor do I find myself intellectually titillated by how much the squiggles tell us about the important features of tribal life on the island.  Yes, they drew a lot of pictures of fish and fishing and boats.  Yes, that’s because the sea was important to them.  This is not a cultural revelation;  this is fairly predictable consequence of the fact that they lived on an effing island, surrounded by a lot of effing water, and they ate a lot of effing fish.  Err, hmm, anyway…  (There was a particular site on the north of the island – Papa Vaka – with a path which toured a collection of petroglyphs, and which offered nothing else but included some especially gushing praise for some intriguingly uninteresting subject matter.  It got on my nerves.)

Moai on the gentle slopes of Rano Raraku

Moai on the gentle slopes of Rano Raraku

So, basically that leaves the moai.  Oh, and a description of the old Bird Man ceremony, in which islanders would swim out to the little islets pictured in the first photo above, camp out for a few days, and steal the first egg from returning migratory birds, in order to win local acclaim.  Then the victor would get to live in complete isolation for the next year as a prize – which presumably has to cast at least some entertaining doubt on the contention that the islanders were a friendly and admirable society from whose cultural and spiritual development we have a lot to learn.  “Good work, Jim.  As your reward, you get to not have to put up with the lot of us for the next year.  Enjoy your splendid respite.”

As I was saying, the moai…

Moai just north of Hanga Roa (left), including Ahu Tahai (the line of moai on a platform, just left of centre)

Moai just north of Hanga Roa (left), including Ahu Tahai (the line of moai on a platform, just left of centre)

The moai are a product of the islanders’ ancestor worship.  Also, no doubt, of their boredom and isolation.  With a very few exceptions, each stone bust (they’re not actually just stone heads – they all have at least torsos, and a handful have legs too) was carved out of volcanic rock on the sides of Rano Raraku, one of the island’s three volcanos, and somehow – no one actually knows for sure how – transported to its present location on the island, where it was generally erected on a ceremonial stone platform called an ‘ahu’.  Each bust represents a deceased chief or head of family, and the point of erecting them was to maintain a link with their ancestors, who could look over their descendants and protect them.  Turns out all that looking-over and protecting didn’t work very well:  in the 17th century it became the done thing for tribes to push over their opponent tribes’ moai, with the result that fairly shortly, there was not a single one left standing, other than some of the many that had never found a home outside their birthplace at Rano Raraku.

A moai lying broken on its ceremonial platform – this one Ahu Tetenga – near the shore

A moai lying broken on its ceremonial platform – this one Ahu Tetenga – near the shore

Fortunately for us tourists, quite a few of them have been put back up now.

Moai at Ahu Akivi at sunset

Moai at Ahu Akivi at sunset. These are the only moai which face the ocean, and, tradition has it, represent the seven explorers who first came to Easter Island.

We were on Easter Island for a full week, which was excellent, because you really only need two or three days to do it all:  one day for the ones near town (which you can walk to, so long as you don’t mind some time spent on foot), including ‘O Rongo (yes, you can walk to that too), and one day to hire a car to start up at Ahu Tongariki at sunrise before making your way around the rest of the island over the course of the day.  As I said, there’s really just the moai;  once you’ve gone round the island and seen them all (or at least the main ones), there’s actually very little else.  Barring some quite beautiful rocky coastline, the island itself is not really very attractive, especially since its denuding of pretty much any tree cover centuries ago – a result which lead to the wiping out of the majority of animal life on the island, and severely impacted the dwindling human population as well.  And other than the moai, the island’s main claim to fame is that its airport has an unnecessarily large runway:  it was extended in 1986 to serve as an emergency landing facility should the Space Shuttle need to abort its mission shortly after launch and subsequently be retrieved on the back of a 747.

(Lest anyone think this post has too negative a tone, I actually find it quite fascinating that a society that was in most other ways remarkably unremarkable could produce something so unique:  as I also said, this is obviously the trip of a lifetime for a  lot of people, and I really can’t say I can fault their reasoning on that one.  It’s a very cool place, and one that I highly recommend visiting.)

And frankly, in our week there, we had a fantastic time appreciating the moai, and to top it off, I appreciated some time just bumming around.  (You’d be surprised just how many of the blog posts that appeared here from mid-January onwards were written with the aid of a few cold beers out on a rest day or two on that little speck of dirt with no other land – or fast internet – in sight.)

Moai at Anakena

Moai at Anakena, in front of Easter Island’s only real beach

Anyway, just as there’s not actually that much time required to see all there is to see on Easter Island, there’s really not much more to say about it either.

Other than perhaps that if you go, you should try the enormous, delicious hamburgers at “Club Sandwich” in the middle of the main strip, and that you should probably not leave your acquisition of sufficient cash until right before you really need it, given how annoying it is to find yourself unable to pay cash and so facing a 10% credit card fee to pay for your accommodation on your last day because all three of the island’s ATMs are down.  (Speaking of accommodation, Camping Mihinoa is where you want to find yourself.  I suggest you don’t camp – the tents you can hire are apparently unbearably hot pretty much whenever the sun is up – but the rooms are cheap.  Which can’t really be said for anywhere else on the island.)

So without further ado, my favourite photo of the week…

The moai of Ahu Tongariki – the largest currently standing moai on the island – at sunrise

Amazing what effect a dirty lens can have on a nice into-the-sun sunrise shot! The moai of Ahu Tongariki at dawn.

… and with that, pretty much, we’re done!

Colourful Valparaíso

Months later as I write this, I still can’t figure out whether I really liked Valparaíso or whether it’s destined to fall away in my memory as just another stop on the way.

I definitely liked the bright, colourful houses:  corrugated iron constructions made of unloaded ballast from ships that, in Valparaíso’s bigger boom times, landed with other goods that otherwise unbalanced the cargo.  The iron was thus an unwanted (and therefore free) material, and the colours, our effervescent walking tour guide told us, are from the leftover paint that the shipping lines used to paint their vessels.

A visual summary of Valparaíso:  bright colours and steep hills

A visual summary of Valparaíso: bright colours and steep hills

I liked the hills, too, in a sort of gleefully masochistic way.  The entire city, pretty much, consists of a conglomeration of actually quite separate neighbourhoods who just happen to be in close proximity – each perched on the sides and top of one of the many, many quite steep hills that line the coast.  They’re impressively good exercise – except if you cheat and use the funiculars – and they give the city a lot of character, giving each area a distinct identity that more geographically homogeneous cities don’t always develop.

The colourful street art is charming and, I’m told, frequently references some quite involved stories for reasonably complex local meaning.  Such as the “chicken on the bedside table” mural we saw, which apparently describes a distinctly local way of referring to sexual liaisons between workmates:  a tryst which occurs during lunch breaks, necessitating the provision of food along with by-the-hour accommodation.

‘El pollo al belador’:  “chicken on the bedside table”.  A mural in Valparaíso.

El pollo al belador’: “chicken on the bedside table”. A mural in Valparaíso.

I also particularly liked one of the cafés we located:  Baker St Café, on Cerro Concepción.  The presence of a good café is always going to be a big plus in my books.

And I was fascinated to see a city that suffered such a dramatic decline after a long reign as a prosperous power in South America, falling from grace after the opening of the Panama Canal as it was no longer needed as a convenient stopping point for ships before or after rounding Cape Horn on their journey from one side of South America to the other.  It was especially interesting that no one seemed to have seen that coming:  we walked past the decrepit shell of a hotel which was abandoned before completion because the town died and has remained that way over the several decades since, unsold and unsellable.  How could they not have predicted that the growth wasn’t going to continue?  Did no one tell them about this fancy new canal over the many years it took to construct?

But, cool as much of it was, Valparaíso had its downsides, too.  It smells like piss in a way that few other cities can manage.  Not in the way that Bangkok just smells like an open sewer.  But definitely a stale urine sort of whiffiness that’s not entirely pleasant, and is slightly hard to ignore.

Viña del Mar:  a disappointed Chilean Gold Coast in the making?

Viña del Mar: a disappointed Chilean Gold Coast in the making?

And Viña del Mar, the beach strip a short metro-style train trip away, has a lot of the tacky aspects of being Chile’s very own Gold Coast in the making, without convincing me that it has the aspects that make the tacky bits worthwhile.

At the end of the day, who knows?  We were only in Valparaíso briefly, and maybe just not long enough to get a good enough feel to pass judgement.  Maybe it’s just somewhere I’ll have to return to.  Or maybe a quick reminisce with some colourful photos every so often is enough, sandwiched between memories of the thieving excitement of Santiago, and the singular uniqueness of our next stop:  Easter Island.

Installation art by the train tracks to Viña del Mar:  clothespegged Mini Minors

Installation art by the train tracks to Viña del Mar: clothespegged Mini Minors

On the road again in Santiago

Santiago wasn’t my preference for starting off in South America.  I’d hoped (for no particular reason, I have to admit) to start in Buenos Aires.  But in early 2012, Qantas stopped their SYD-EZE flights and replaced them with SYD-SCL, so there was nothing for it but to accept that our oneworld explorer was taking us to Chile first.  (A pity:  the Sydney-Santiago flight is basically east from Sydney;  the shortest way to Buenos Aires is over Antarctica, which would have been a much more interesting way to spend the thirteen or so hours.)  But having said all that, I certainly had no reason to expect anything but good things from Chile, and so we arrived excited to be in South America (finally!).  And tired.  We arrived very tired.

After a ‘break’ in our travels in Adelaide, we’d once more hit the metaphorical road courtesy of the 6am flight to Sydney, on New Year’s Eve.  Then we left Sydney, as scheduled, on a 11.25am flight, on New Year’s Eve.  And we arrived in Santiago, as scheduled, at 10am.  On New Year’s Eve.  Damned international date line.  Obviously, this meant we were looking forward to New Year’s in South America.  Right after a good long afternoon nap.

And New Year’s did deliver.  We missed the fireworks, as it happens.  We figured that ordering a simple dinner at 10.30pm at a pub was probably leaving plenty of time to get back into town ten minutes’ walk away for the bright lights at midnight.  It turns out that was a little ambitious – not really leaving quite enough time for South American service to kick into gear.  So we wished the bar staff a feliz año nuevo moments after finishing our food, and contented ourselves with just listening to the fireworks display.  But we’d walked through town earlier in the evening, before dinner, and amused ourselves with all the party hats and confetti rockets on sale on the street.  And as we walked back against the prevailing foot traffic as it returned from the celebrations, we got enough of a feel for the festivities to keep us heartily entertained for the evening.  Especially since by that stage we were pretty keen on getting back to some shuteye anyway.

And we enjoyed the rest of our time in Santiago, too.  Admittedly on January 1 we didn’t leave the hostel:  it turns out the jet lag from flying due east for pretty much sixteen hours takes a while to get through:  the encore to the previous day’s afternoon nap was a little more time-consuming.  But our walking tour around town on the 2nd showed us a friendly and pleasant, if unremarkable, town.

Statue of Salvador Allende Gossens

Encountered on our walking tour: a statue of Salvador Allende Gossens, presumably the inventor of hipster glasses, if the statue is anything to go by. Apparently, we were told, the glasses were quite symbolic: Allende’s secretary kept them after his death and handed them to the first democratically elected Chilean president in honour of his election.

Although when I say unremarkable, I’m overlooking one thing which was described to us which I should most definitely remark on:  the apparently quite Chilean feature that is ‘café con piernas’ or literally ‘coffee with legs’.  From what I gathered, it’s basically the strip club equivalent of coffee:  blackened windows on a café, so that from outside you can’t see the ridiculously scantily clad women serving espresso.  Apparently some things in South America are done a little differently than elsewhere.

Still, even despite our jet lag, we’d been easily capable of appreciating the relaxed café (not, not those cafés) and bar culture – especially in the Bellavista area, near our hostel.  Also of appreciating the carbohydrate-laden goodness of the chorrillana, a French fry + steak + sausage + onion + egg concoction which is perhaps best described as “the late-night kebab place’s leftovers, aux frites”.  Or perhaps it’s best described in mouth-watering picture form:

Chilean chorrillana at a restaurant in Santiago

The chorrillana. Surprisingly, despite this candidate for national dish, there weren’t all that many fat Chileans walking the streets. Odd.

But the most entertaining aspect of our visit – and certainly the one I’ll remember most vividly, for better or worse, came a few days later, passing through Santiago again after visiting Valparaíso and before flying out to Easter Island the next day.  Sitting at a table in a trendy-ish pub in a trendy-ish area of Santiago, out on the street mid-afternoon on a trendy-ish Saturday evening, I had my phone literally snatched out of my hand from behind as I was drinking a beer and reading a cached copy of the Wikitravel article about Easter Island.  And I’d only just started the beer, for heaven’s sake.

Anyway, the guy bolted, and I bolted after him, to the bemused looks (I’m told) of everyone else in the pub.  About a kilometre later, after an entertaining sprint across a whole heap of bitumen (I was barefoot, having kicked off the thongs/flip-flops I started in at around the same time I managed to gulp down the mouthful of beer I was halfway through imbibing on what was apparently the start line), we got ’im.  I say “we” because it wasn’t actually me that caught the guy.  I was about five metres behind at the time.  The guy got caught by a random onlooker who’d been driving by and seen me chasing and heard me shouting, and – as he told me later, after a bit of a dilemma concerning who was the good guy and who was the bad guy, a dilemma he resolved by observing that I was chasing in bare feet which were now bleeding relatively obviously – quickly turned his car around, followed the guy towards the park he was (stupidly) running towards, and jumped out to join the chase.  Before grabbing José (yes, it turns out the bad guy’s name was José – congratulations must go to my friend Simon for being the first to get in a “no way, José” joke on Facebook) in a headlock and holding him there until the Carabiñeros de Chile arrived.  (In addition to this very gentlemanly gentleman, there were a tonne of others who had helped as well:  driving cars up onto the footpath to get in José’s way, for example.  Muchas graçias to all of them.)

So actually my outstanding memory from Santiago is of running hell-for-leather through its streets yelling ‘ladrón, ladrón’ (‘thief, thief’) before eventually running down some guy with a dirty porno mo who subsequently complained – in some torrent of Spanish I mostly didn’t understand, when finally in police custody – about how horrible we Americans are.  But hey, it was a particularly satisfying experience.  As was driving in the cop car back past the pub where it all started, looking for Chris so I could get back the stuff I’d left behind at the pub, only to be given a generous and full-hearted round of applause by most of the street as I waved my retrieved phone in response to their questioning looks as to whether I’d caught the guy.

And hopefully, the next five hours that I spent waiting in a police station and the Ministry of Justice were worthwhile – with any luck, the guy will have been convicted of ‘robo por sorpresa’ (robbery by surprise) at his court date the next morning.  At least, I’d like to think that’s what will have happened.  Otherwise the only benefit to those five hours will have been my amusement at being thrown into the first environment where I really actually genuinely needed to be able to understand Spanish:  trying to communicate a sworn police statement, when the police officers spoke no English at all, and the Justice Department lawyer spoke little enough English that his preferred method of self-expression was to type stuff into Google Translate.  (This was the point when I realised that maybe I knew more Spanish than I realised:  when I noticed that it was easier to read what he typed in in Spanish than it was to try to figure out the slightly mangled English that Google Translate was producing in response.)

In any case, I doubt I’ll ever find out whether that evening of Español was in vain, though.  Around the time of José’s court date, I was already en route to the airport to fly out to Easter Island.

Back ‘home’ in Adelaide

One of the benefits of being a shiftless unemployed travelling hobo is that I don’t have to deal with many of the day-to-day boredoms that inhabit you regular people’s lives.  In particular, I don’t have to fill out many forms.  But there’s a few occasions when I do, and every time, I come across this weird existential moment when I get to the bit marked ‘residential address’.  Because I’m on a longer-than-one-year trip around the world.  I don’t really have a ‘residential address’.  I just don’t have a home.  This is slightly irritating in the sense that I have to invent something for the purpose of filling out the form.

(It’s also somewhat amusing in many circumstances.  I had to apply for a replacement birth certificate recently, for example.  For reasons best known to the State of Victoria, that requires a document that proves my residential address – in this case, a certified copy of my driver’s licence.  I can’t help but wonder…  Am I supposed to be not entitled to a birth certificate if I don’t have a residential address?  Are travellers not supposed to be able to provide proof of the circumstances of their birth?  In a vaguely similar vein, if you work for the Commonwealth Bank of Australia, you should know that your employer is a right royal pain in the arse, and that your ‘online specialists’ understanding of Australian tax law is wrong.  Despite what the idiots who specified your computer systems would have you think, it is indeed possible to be a non-resident of Australia for tax purposes, and yet not to have a permanent overseas residential address.  Oh, also your call centre staff lie to your customers.  Bastards.)

But anyway, my (somewhat belaboured) point is that I don’t really have a home.  But to the extent that I would call anywhere ‘home’, it would be South Australia.  More specifically, if I’m heading ‘home’, I’m heading to my parents’ place just out of Victor Harbor, a bit over an hour south of Adelaide.

And for most of December, I was back ‘home’.  After our months in South-East Asia, and a brief couple of days back in Singapore again, suddenly, it was time to get on a plane back to Australia.  To stop travelling for three weeks, and to spend my first Christmas back in Oz since I moved to London in the beginning of 2009.  And, to my surprise, to be greeted at the airport at stupid o’clock in the morning when my flight arrived by not just my parents, but also my sister and her fiancé – the two who were the reason for me coming back at all, to help celebrate their wedding in late December.  And, apparently, to help them move in to their new apartment that afternoon.

Now, I can’t imagine that reading about my time back in Adelaide will be of much interest to many readers here.  Either you know me, and if you’re interested in my day-to-day life, you’ll already know (via Facebook or in person or whatever), or you don’t, in which case you just won’t care.  And anyway, I spent most of my time catching up with friends and family and relaxing – none of which is (a) interesting to anyone other than me, nor (b) any of your business!

But there’s three things I do want to cover here.

First, I was back in Australia for my sister Hanika’s graduation and, more importantly, wedding.  Once again, congratulations Hanika and Seb, who had a beautiful ceremony up at Bird in Hand Winery on what couldn’t have been a more stunning evening in late December.

Hanika and Seb on a deservedly beautiful evening

Hanika and Seb on a deservedly beautiful evening


And, despite my presence in it, one of the cuter photos from the wedding night:  me and my cousin William

And, despite my presence in it, one of the cuter photos from the wedding night: me and my cousin William

Second, how nice are these sunset photos, taken on my parents’ farm down near Victor Harbor?

It wouldn’t be an Australia photo without a kangaroo (centre-left), would it?

It wouldn’t be an Australia photo without a kangaroo (centre-left), would it?

Sunset in Hindmarsh Valley

Sunset in Hindmarsh Valley

And third, for those of you who don’t care about me personally and are just reading here for the travel stuff, my one and only travel tip from this time I was down at Adelaide:  Adelaide Central Markets.  Go for a wander around, and especially go for breakfast.  I was dumb enough not to take any photos when I was there – I was too busy wolfing down my breakfast and enjoying Keith and Sarah’s company – but I won’t let that dampen the enthusiasm with which I urge you to expect that the markets will be the best random wandering-around experience you can find in Adelaide.  Better than most markets in most cities I’ve been to in the world.  He says with no hint of bias whatsoever…

(That’s probably the best way to end this post, but I can’t help add that there are actually other reasons to head to Adelaide if you’re travelling, too.  Most non-Australians don’t believe me when I tell them, but South Australia makes the best red wine in the world, and you’ll be richly rewarded if you take the time to head out to the Barossa Valley and McLaren Vale for some food and drink while you’re in the area.  And if you’re heading through and I’m around, chances are I’ll be more than happy to help you find the best spots in either of those regions for some good food and a glass of great red!)


While Ko Phi Phi Don might have been a little different from our normal choice of destination, Phuket was taking it that extra step into another world.  Partly we were there out of convenience:  Phuket is such a popular party destination that it has good, cheap flights that worked out well to take us back to Singapore.  But also we just wanted to see what colour the (undoubtedly vomit-stained) grass would be on the other side.

Looking up the coast towards Patong

Looking up the coast towards Patong

We typically avoid the thumping party spots:  if I want to go get drunk, I figure I can probably do that perfectly adequately without generally needing to travel much farther than down the street.  So I’ve never really understood quite why people fly so far for a series of nights about which they’ll remember so little.

And we typically avoid places full of other tourists:  it’s harder to enjoy the beauty or the majesty or the subtlety of a magnificent destination if you’re surrounded by throngs of people telling you how beautify or majestic or subtle and magnificent it is.  Especially, we try to avoid places that are typical package travel destinations for people who haven’t travelled much before:  it’s even harder to enjoy the good things about your surroundings if you’re breathlessly being told that you’re currently standing smack bang in the middle of the best place your new friends have ever seen.  A fact whose significance (out of politeness you should probably omit to observe) is necessarily somewhat diminished, since, though they are most certainly well-meaning and of course perfectly entitled to experience the joy of new places with as much enthusiasm as they can muster, they haven’t really seen many other places to compare it to.

Anyway, Phuket.  The Bali of Thailand.  Typical destination for young (and not-so-young) Australians and Brits and friends the world over to descend on to go party (ie get drunk) in a country far from their parents, their more staid friends, and any people who might be able to tell said parents or friends what embarrassing things they got up to while partying (ie drunk).  And it has some beaches, so it’s theoretically about that too.  (Although I get the impression that the beaches tend to end up a slightly more minor feature in many people’s travel than they expected.  Hangovers will do that, I suppose.)

Anyway, we were staying in Phuket Town, which is not the crowded party area.  I probably needn’t mention by this stage that we’d hired ourselves some scooters, and thus equipped, we headed over to Patong.  Which is the crowded party area.

Crowded beaches at Patong

Crowded beaches at Patong

Personally, I’ve never really much enjoyed beaches full of row after row of sun-lounge things and umbrellas and so on, but apparently once in Patong I was in the minority.

I’ve never been that keen on tourist strips that are full of bars and restaurants each of which is basically a tacky imitation of some better-known Western brand.  But again, the other tourists of Patong have outvoted me heavily with their steady influx of foreign moolah.

Basically, the town, for me, resembles nothing more than a bad amusement park, but with fewer rides and more alcoholic beverages.  And scantily clad “women” roaming the streets.

We were scooter-bound, as I mentioned, so we weren’t there for a drinking session, and given the quality of roads, headlights and other drivers, we weren’t hanging about much after sunset.  So we didn’t see the party really in action.  But we could see it slowly getting ready to warm up.  We could see where it was going.  And we could see that we were happy enough to be going somewhere it wasn’t.

The main night drag in Phuket, around sunset, before everything gets too ridiculous

The main night drag in Phuket, around sunset, before everything gets too ridiculous

The rest of our experience of Phuket Island, though, was surprisingly normal.  Get as little as a couple of kilometres up the road from Patong, and the beaches are near pristine, and almost empty.  Explore the back roads of the north-west of the island, and right up until you get close to the international airport, you could be in any other secluded corner of an out-of-the-way Thai holiday escape.

Which was nice, because it meant my last experience of Thailand before my brief return to Singapore on my way back ‘home’ to Australia was the Thailand that I like to remember:  beautiful, fun, and even mostly sober.

The other side of Phuket (island) – getting out and about away from Patong

The other side of Phuket (island) – getting out and about away from Patong

Koh Lanta

The western tip of Koh Lanta, viewed from our dive boat as we return just before sunset from a hard day’s diving at Koh Ha

The western tip of Koh Lanta, viewed from our dive boat as we return just before sunset from a hard day’s diving at Koh Ha

After Ko Phi Phi Don, we had two reasons to pick Koh Lanta as our next destination.  First, it’s a bit more laid back – dare I say less drunk and more mature – an island than its more popular sibling.  It’s an island of long beautiful beaches, but compared to the party version, those beaches have a substantially lower population density.  Second, we’d heard it’s a good base for scuba diving.

We hadn’t necessarily originally planned to do any diving in South-East Asia.  But we found ourselves with a couple of days up our sleeve and among islands which have a reputation as one of the world’s better dive spots.  And it wasn’t unreasonably expensive.  So why not?

So we jumped on a ferry and headed over to Koh Lanta.  For once, we didn’t have accommodation pre-booked (not that our pre-booked accommodation had worked out on Ko Phi Phi anyway), but luck had us passing a particularly promising-looking place near the ferry terminal when they had two cheap single rooms left.  (The place was called Lanta Lantern – it was awesome, and I definitely recommend it.)

We did our standard thing and checked out TripAdvisor for restaurant recommendations, discovering that the number one choice had especially effusive reviews, so we headed there for dinner on our first night.  Well, we tried to head there.  What we actually did was head a fair distance down the road going the wrong way in the rain because I hadn’t paid enough attention to the directions.  But a short search for some free wifi eventually to, err, double-check our course had us on the right track and we found our way back up the road and then to the right turn-off to the slightly out-of-the-way L Maladee.  Which promptly became my favourite restaurant in all of Thailand.

It started well:  the restaurant owner, a friendly Austrian lady, introduced herself and quickly asked “do you like fish?”.  Given that yes please, I most certainly do, she disappeared and returned with an assistant holding a silver platter of today’s catch.  That one there, please;  yes, the big tasty looking one.  In whatever sauce you recommend, I trust you.

My trust was well-rewarded:  it was so good that we went back the next night, and I did exactly the same thing.  That one there, yes, the biggest one.  Except this time maybe a spicier sauce:  we are, after all, in Thailand.  Now, I’m a big fan of spicy food.  I’m not a tastebud masochist, like a few people I know:  I don’t make my food as spicy as I can handle just for the hell of it.  But I do like some real heat to my food when it suits the flavour, and I’ll certainly eat spicier than most.  Especially if there’s a beer to wash it down with.

When you’re in Thailand, ordering Thai food, you do have to pay careful attention to the ordering process when you’re specifying how hot you want it, though.  If you say “fairly spicy” at most restaurants, they’ll hear “spicy as far as those silly Westerners are concerned, so maybe some freshly ground black pepper is in order, possibly garnished with an inoffensive chilli so they can pretend they’ve eaten something grown-up” and so you’ll often get something pretty bland.  The other extreme is the magic phrase “Thai spicy”, which will get you something done to local standards, and you’ll quickly be calling for a gallon of milk for the kitchen and making a mental note to put some bog roll in the freezer for the morning.

The upshot is that it can require a slightly extended conversation as you and the waiter negotiate the correct terminology for communicating to the kitchen exactly what proportion of little green mouth-murderers to actual edible food you require.  (It’s a conversation well worth having, of course:  spicy food in Thailand is delicious.  It’s just that making a mistake in your description can easily result in an inability to tell that it’s delicious, what with your being left with a lack of functional tastebuds on the tongue, palate and nose, to go with your lack of functional oesophagus.)

The nice Austrian lady at L Maladee, in any case, was practised and efficient at the elucidation of the required information.  We’d overheard other patrons ordering their food;  most of them after something particularly bland (there were a number of German and Austrian customers, so there was a bit of concern as to whether what amounted to the Thai equivalent of a butter chicken might be going overboard on the Scoville scale).  And we’d heard a couple who asked for somewhat livelier fare, seen the waiter consequently write “30%” next to the name of the dish on her little pad, and seen that they were happy with the result.

I asked for something spicy, and got it.  It was delicious, but any hotter would have been difficult to eat:  as it was, I was eating slowly and powering through the water.  Exactly what I was after, and by the end of the meal I had a healthy sheen going and a satisfied feeling of achievement for having completed the dish.  Look at me, I’m eating real Thai spice and loving it!

When we got the bill, I saw what had been written next to my order:  50%.  Writing percentages to figure out how hot people want their food is obviously an excellent and effective system.  But if that was 50%, then I’d be impressed to see people eat up in the higher half of the range.

We came away from a stunningly delicious meal with the conclusion that, basically, food in Thailand comes in three different levels of spicy – “tourist”, “a bit”, and “what real men eat, not like you, you piddly little pretender”.  I suspect that I would struggle with anything in the third category.

Anyway, the food on Koh Lanta was great – at least at the one and only restaurant we felt the need to sample.  (For what it’s worth, Chris, who is not a seafood fan, also loved his not-from-the-fruit-of-the-waves meals;  so don’t let a lack of desire for today’s catch put you off.)

Really our only other activity for the short time we were on the island – other than an obligatory but brief and largely unexceptional exploration by scooter – was the scuba diving.

The lagoon in the centre of the five islands of Koh Ha, viewed from our dive boat

The lagoon in the centre of the five islands of Koh Ha, viewed from our dive boat

And the diving was a lot of fun too.  I don’t have detailed notes of the dives, and diving is novel enough to me that my brain still registers every aspect of the experience as new and different, in consequence of which, I haven’t yet got to the stage being able to identify and store away for future reference all of the interesting features of each dive.  (I hadn’t dived for nearly a year, since diving in the Canary Islands shortly after I first qualified – these were only my ninth, tenth and eleventh dives.)

Which is basically a long-winded excuse for:  my description of the dives isn’t going to be very good, even though the dives themselves were a lot of fun.

The site that we went to is called Koh Ha, I can definitely accurately relate that part.  It’s a group of five small islands an hour or so’s boat trip from Koh Lanta.  There’s a sort of lagoon area created by the islands, in the centre of the group, and in the dives the company had done for the past few days, there’d been one of a particularly rare species of eagle ray – a white-spotted eagle ray, my dive log tells me – sighted in the lagoon.  So the grand hope for the day was to find it again – and there was much general excitement and waving and pointing and enthusiastic bubble-blowing when we did fairly shortly after getting in the water on our second dive.  We enjoyed following a turtle around for a while on our third dive, as well, and the semi-enclosed cave in which we surfaced on our first dive was an entertaining experience.  The marine life throughout was pretty;  nothing much large and spectacular, but a lot of littler fish and shrimps and other small-scale life on the coral.  And it was good to be back under the water.  Which meant that our mission (such as it was) for Koh Lanta was successfully completed, and we could move on to the slightly different environment of Phuket.

Ko Phi Phi Don

The islands in Thailand are about beautiful beaches.

The iconic images are full of long stretches of yellow-white sand, generous expanses of calm blue sea, plenty of longtails (the boats), and, depending on the decorum of the photographer, quite possibly a bevy of bikinis.

A longtail moored at the beach in Loh Da Lum Bay, Ko Phi Phi Don

A longtail moored at the beach in Loh Da Lum Bay, Ko Phi Phi Don

Ko Phi Phi Don (often just Ko Phi Phi) is one of the most famous of the islands.  It has such a strong, thriving tourism industry that just a few years after being completely and utterly devastated by the tsunami in 2004, it was and is back in full swing, with no evidence of any long-term inconvenience other than that now there are signs around town pointing out tsunami escape routes.  (The signs are largely useless:  either they’re right next to an obvious path uphill that you’d probably figure out to take anyway, and so are redundant, or they point to a track which may or may not end in impassable jungle at the bottom of an otherwise perfectly helpful-looking hill, in which case they’re most charitably viewed as a well-intentioned but poorly-executed attempt to make people overcome a predominantly irrational fear.)

It’s a beautiful island.

Looking south (-ish) over Ton Sai Bay from Viewpoint 1 on Ko Phi Phi Don

Looking south (-ish) over Ton Sai Bay from Viewpoint 1 on Ko Phi Phi Don

It’s also very popular, and a bit different from the sort of place we normally hang out on our travels.  It’s a party island.

It’s not the party island:  that would be Koh Phangan, home to the famous Full Moon Parties on the beach.  (And now, since waiting a whole month between outings was apparently getting a little too much like there might be withdrawal symptoms, the Half Moon Parties as well.)

But we were on Ko Phi Phi Don for full moon, and there was still plenty of beach partying to mark the occasion.

Buckets of bad idea for sale, on Ko Phi Phi Don

Buckets of bad idea for sale, on Ko Phi Phi Don

Much like when you were a little kid, the beach was full of people your age holding buckets.  This time, though, they’re not for sandcastles, they’re for mixing the bottle of spirits your bucket came with into the bottle of soft drink you also got thrown into the bargain.  Then they’re for drinking from, via a straw, as you roam the beach watching people play with fire.

A slowly-building crowd enjoys the antics of the fire-stick twirlers on the beach at Slinky Bar in Loh Da Lum Bay on Ko Phi Phi Don

A slowly-building crowd enjoys the antics of the fire-stick twirlers on the beach at Slinky Bar in Loh Da Lum Bay on Ko Phi Phi Don

Strolling the beach throughout the evening was entertaining, and only about as dangerous as you’d expect given the bucket situation (from which we abstained – a couple of beers did me just fine, thanks very much) combined with the fact that there are fireworks for sale to all and sundry, from stalls handily located next to the bucket sellers.

Yes, I did get hit with a firework let off by some drunken moron standing no more than five metres away from me – but in his defence, he only hit me in the leg, and he did apologise in his slightly trembling British accent before staring at me for a moment and then running away like a frightened schoolgirl.  (It was only a small firework, I should say, and I was standing in the edge of the surf, so a small wave conveniently carried it about a metre behind me after it dropped to my feet but before it exploded.  Handy, that.)

And in fairness, I should also point out that it’s hard to complain about random people on the street being able to buy fireworks and accidentally shoot them at people when the bar owners who were setting off their own fireworks in some sort of professional capacity were not necessarily doing a much better job:  we were up the very end of the beach at one point, taking long exposure photos back along the waterline, when one of the fireworks sputtered a little more slowly than intended out of its launcher and so didn’t actually travel quite as far as its own blast radius before it exploded.  It was a bit warm, although thankfully the shrapnel managed to miss us.

Loh Da Lum Bay (on Ko Phi Phi Don) at night, with the neon lights of its party bars lighting up the beach and bay.  The smoke is from a very large firework which had just been set off.

Loh Da Lum Bay (on Ko Phi Phi Don) at night, with the neon lights of its party bars lighting up the beach and bay. The smoke is from a very large firework which had just been set off.

But anyway, evening drunkenness on the foreshore is not the only thing Ko Phi Phi Don has to offer.  The non-full moon evenings are a little more subdued and make for some very attractive scenery as the longtails bob about on the waves in the still-quite-bright moonlight.

Longtails floating on the water at night in Loh Da Lum Bay

Longtails floating on the water at night in Loh Da Lum Bay

And the island has some nice viewpoints you can hike between – including a track which runs right up to the north-east of the island, towards a partly-constructed resort village which seems abandoned, but for a few of the houses nearer the water – perhaps because of the financial effects of recent world crises, or perhaps because someone realised that they were already making plenty of money elsewhere on the island without needing quite so much capital investment as seems to have been poured in here.

Some construction is still ongoing, though – we could tell there were people around when we heard concerned shouting and then muffled laughter from around the corner as someone accidentally tipped the truck they were driving onto its side.

But other than that adventure, it was really all about the beaches.

The best of which is Monkey Beach.  We were told it was accessible either by longtail or by a track leading over the hill.  We couldn’t find the track, so we just swam around the corner instead.

Monkey Beach, Ko Phi Phi Don

Monkey Beach, Ko Phi Phi Don

It’s a beautiful beach, and it comes with a free Family Guy sign warning of the monkeys after which the beach is obviously named.

On Monkey Beach, Ko Phi Phi Don

Family Guy-inspired sign, on Monkey Beach

But even if you can’t be bothered making it around to Monkey Beach, there are still plenty of other bits of sand to enjoy.  How much you explore the island is up to you.  Pretty much wherever you go you’ll have no trouble finding a spot to install yourself for your afternoon of doing very little, watching the world go by.

The firework thing had been a little annoying and more than a little alarming.  And our time on the island hadn’t started well when our pre-booked twin bungalow turned out to be less twin and more a single double bed mattress, leaving us walking around the island in the driving rain finding somewhere else to stay.  But no harm, no foul:  there were no injuries, and we found a cheaper room that not only had two comfortable beds but cost no more and was better located.  Our time on Ko Phi Phi Don worked out well.  With a bit of forbearance and patience, travel generally does.

A longtail beached in Loh Da Lum Bay, Ko Phi Phi Don, at low tide

A longtail beached in Loh Da Lum Bay, Ko Phi Phi Don, at low tide