This time of year, we help so many people as they plan their vacations. Deciding what to wear for so many different destinations can be tricky business, so I always use my own personal experiences to help guide them.
I am always so eager and happy to hear about peoples' adventures. It reminds me how much Wayne and I love a great adventure and the thrill of the unknown.
For this reason I was happy to start selling a new travel journal called YOLO. I was reminded how exciting it was to find and then navigate those destinations that were truly off the beaten track; places not always featured in your typical travel magazine because there are no big hotel or resort chains to promote or advertise them.
Our hope is that this month's Sunday Guide reminds you as well that you only live once. So get off the beaten track and discover the unexpected jewel that perhaps is NOT the place all the tourists are flocking to. We promise – wanderlust will find you.
Off The Beaten Path by Wayne Donnelly
"I often hear people say that their idea of the perfect vacation is to go where there are no people. I imagine that they have the picture in mind that shows up on screen savers; an isolated, manicured white sand beach, with no surf, a couple of swaying palm trees and just the right amount of shade. They will have mystically been dropped here with little effort, in a quick and orderly manner, with no hassling touts, fresh water to drink, and all the amenities (possibly even a menu in English).
Jill and I did the most difficult of travels before the aid of a smartphone, and also mostly before the aid of the world wide web. Consider too, that the quality of the internet would never be as reliable as it was at home, and the first few times we were planning on the aid of electronic tools used at home, we would learn that things didn’t translate, sync, or function as promised. Often the only reference material would have been the specialized Lonely Planet Guide for this particular area. If ever they provided maps or directions failed us, there would be no plan B.
Before Baby and Company, before the union of Jill and myself, Jill was working for a period of time in Sydney, Australia. From here, she would discover the untouched reaches of Southeast Asia. Imagine a famous spot like Ko Phi Phi or Phuket before the masses arrived. About the same time, I was making my way through rural Mexico, and Central America.
I was learning Spanish and convinced that I would soon be purchasing a parcel of land there, once I found a stable enough place. When Jill and I came to be (22 years ago +/-) we knew right away that we would become a mighty team of two with an agenda to explore the furthest corners of the planet that we could reach. Now we simply needed the means, and the logistics to get to these places. Our maiden voyage together would be a five week journey through three countries in Southeast Asia. We left for Bangkok with our backpacks, a DiscMan, and solid brick of tightly bound US one dollar bills. At the time the Cambodian Riel was so unstable that we were warned that once you get too far from the capitol, that there is a good chance the rural banks will simply not have local currency to disperse. The American One was the preferred, and guaranteed note of trade. Conveniently, everything in the country of Cambodia costed no less than $1, and everything was appropriately rounded up from there. Now there’s a little inconvenience of getting away from from the pack; keeping track of a bulky pile of cash that needed to be treated as such, while constantly on the move in an impoverished place. Reaching in to peel off a bill or two seemed to draw the attention of everyone in the village, and there were so many people with something to offer up.
This Trip would be the first time we we would co-habitate with one another, and there would be no easy escape.
Twenty years ago there were not a lot of people visiting Angkor Wat. There was one government run guesthouse to stay, and just a couple of restaurants. We took full advantage of the vastness of the ruins, and would go on to explore some of the newly unearthed structures some 15k from the center of Angkor Thom. At the time, the Khmer Rouge were still operating outposts and makeshift frontier crossings on rural roads. In our quest to locate the temples that would be completely isolated, we were strongly advised to bring along an armed guard who could also help us navigate any language barriers we may encounter in the countryside. Our armed guard would come at a steep price : around $15, plus gas for his scooter. Although it made for a good photo, we would have been woefully outgunned in the event of an actual shootout.
At the time, it seemed that the flight from Phnom Penh to the ruins of Angkor Wat was completely impersonal and disinteresting. After all, we were deep in Cambodia, and really didn’t feel that we had experienced enough of the very day to day of modern day Cambodia. It was my romantic idea to take the route less traveled back to the capitol city, and its international airport. We located a boat to take us back, down the mighty Tonle Sap River, all the way back to Phnom Penh. This all looked like a good idea on a map. What we didn’t take
into consideration was the very size of the river, and how at times we were so far from the shore that we couldn’t see the charm, or even the industry of the Cambodian riverside. The journey was capped off by the boat being robbed, our pirate captors dealing solely with locals on the top deck before dispersing, once they had collected whatever tariff the Captain was expected to pay for getting caught in this particular snare. We didn’t lose anything in the incident except for some time, which would prove to be an issue.
Our quest to get just a little further off the beaten path was teaching us a little humility along the way.
Same trip, some time later, we were waking up waking up in a train bound for Nha Trang, Vietnam. As the train slowed to the speed that lets you know that you’re close to stopping soon, we were scanning the landscape for the perfect spot for the perfect day trip. We had been moving around a lot at this point, and at this time there weren’t a lot of other travelers around. When we arrived in places like Hoi An, we were mobbed, often for days by someone trying to sell you something. At the famed China Beach, the touts outnumbered the tourists. It was impossible at times to be left alone. One day when we simply wanted to sit in the beach and read, we came up with the solution to go ahead and hire the person A. Selling Food, B. Selling beer, and C. offering foot massage. We had them all employed there at once, and once the beer salesperson needed a new task, we paid him to simply keep everyone else away from us. Another beautiful place, but far from alone.
The few backpackers we encountered, we would see again frequently. Everyone had their country’s version of Lonely Planet. These were all really wonderful people to share stories with, but we were after all on a quest to find true isolation. We hatched a plan to rent a motor scooter and travel back north, up the way we came into the city by train. That gorgeous stretch of beach we spotted couldn’t have been more than five kilometers back there. So we set out close to mid-day, with a daypack picnic and some water, but not too much for the sake of space and weight. We would replenish once we got closer.
Up the coast we buzzed, and once we got free of the snarls of the centre of town, the highway started to unfold some of the real Vietnamese countryside we were picturing. Rice paddies, ox teams, the pith helmets and conical farmers hats. I sorted out my place in the order of things on the highway, and was content to stay close to the right, sort of where the bicycles rode. Jill would hold on tight, and squeeze off precious exposures from the allotted rolls of film we were carrying. Everything seemed to be going fine.
From the highway we imagined the spot that we had seen from the train, and triangulated. A farm road pointed toward to surf and we headed down. The road turned into a trail and would through some farm shacks and a small village. The coastline was in sight , and the trail had dissolved to sand and grass. The ‘stop along the way to buy more water’ never developed. I was certain something would be available between the hotel and here. But there were no services whatsoever in this village. We parked the scooter under the heavy stare of the entire neighborhood. I asked as many times as I could if it was OK to park this thing here, and they looked at me as if I were a speaking cat or something. So we left the scooter in the shade and headed to the surf. Immediately we sorted out that we were in the hottest part of the day, and the closer we got to the surf, the further we were from any hint of shade. The beach was as beautiful as we thought, only much, much larger. It took forever to reach the surf, and once we did we came to realize that we were completely out of water. Jill thought to pack a bed sheet. This is a great beach spread since it covers more than two towels, and packs smaller. We had a place to sit, but no protection from the sun at all. But there we were, not a person in sight. The beach was so vast is was almost intimidating. There was no concern about the villagers following us here; they thought we were nuts and probably didn’t think were coming back. I had sent the previous weeks doing all that I could to keep the film I was carrying cool. It was now deep in the pack with the sun blasting down on it. After a reasonably short period of time, we took our snapshots and packed it back up. Sand was blowing everywhere, and wet were pretty sunburned. These are the times you remember applying sandy sunscreen to already painful skin. We were beyond ready to be done with this little journey, but still a ways from home. By the time we reached our scooter (now in full sun) we were deep into a Domestic Disagreement. Very sweaty, and very thirsty, we hopped on the molten leather seat and headed back south. The traffic we experienced going in this direction was much different. Highway One is the mainline of the Mekong Delta, and it is to be shared by all. “Yield to Tonnage”, my father always told me. As the traffic got thicker, the larger vehicles did not slow down, rather barreled past us in a way that seemed like they were trying to knock our possessions loose from us. They would blast their airhorns at the very moment they were closest to you. The dust and bugs were heavy, and it was getting too dark for my (only) sunglasses. The remainder of the drive was terrifying.
I’ve never felt so relieved to return any piece of rented equipment before. I couldn’t wait to be away from that scooter.
In our quest for solitude, we learned a great deal about the value of having someone else around.
Fast forward a decade or so. We had managed a trip to Australia, and a safari and driving tour in Southern Africa by now. By choice, neither of these locations were quests for total isolation, although Western Australia had the most vast amount of space one could imagine.
Southeast Asia was calling us back, and our final destination would be Bali. But the archipelago of Indonesia is a massive, and there were so many things we wanted to see that all seemed so close. We settled on the most remote of places: the fabled Spice Islands. Getting there seemed simple enough; once we arrived in Jakarta we would simply catch the flight that ran once a week to Kota Ambon. From here, we could catch another flight to the Banda (Spice) Islands. It all looked great on paper, and Lonely Planet had the route all laid out for us. The Bandas are a great distance from Kota Ambon, and in addition to the one weekly flight, there were a couple of ferry options, we read.
Things began to fall apart from the moment we arrived. Once we located what we thought was the domestic part if the chaotic airport, we would learn quickly that none of our information was valid. The timetables of flights to The Port at Ambon had been changed, the once weekly flight had just departed about an hour earlier. Once the foundation of our first leg had failed, we were left in a scramble. How would we make our way to Ambon, and eventually to the flight to the Bandas? How would we know whether the next flight wouldn’t be cancelled as well?
We were exhausted, and stuck for a backup plan. At this point there was no question that we were losing valuable days within such a tightly planned trip. However, we did have flexibility. Since we had planned on a long enough period between flying in and out of the country, we had some days to shuffle around. Less time in Bali at the end, for example.
We should have known better. By now we had experienced the chaotic infrastructures of enough places in the developing world to know that thing probably will not go as promised, or as planned.
Jill, Kevin and myself spent the evening in a restaurant bar, re-reading the chapters on where we were supposed to going, and wondering how long it would take to get there. Just when hope was nearly lost, we met a stranger at a neighboring table. Ervana looked to be tour guiding an American man. They were speaking English and we were listening in. When the time was right, we introduced ourselves and explained our predicament.
As luck would have it, Ervana was about to see this person home, and would be available the next day for us to ask as much as possible to the first person in the country that seemed to have affirmative answers to things. We determined first that we were in fact stuck for a few more days. Ervana asked if we were feeling like an adventure, and we set off for the village of Sawai. On the evening before we left, I was unable to locate the place at all in our guidebook. We went on to put our full trust in here and agreed to a price for an escorted car ride to Sawai and back. We had a ferry crossing that lead to someplace that didn’t exist according to Lonely
Planet, and continued to drive through the forest to the coastal village of Sawai. Once we arrived, the three of agreed that this was the “deepest” we had been. There was not one other traveler in this village. The entire place was perched on stilts above a saltwater lagoon. There was a central mosque, and no restaurants. We would dine at the guesthouse we were staying at, eating whatever was offered up. At the time we were there, the town had run out of beer, leaving it fully dry until the next delivery came. We spent the next few days exploring the area with Ervana. She had grown up there, and we could not have found a better guide. In our ongoing quest for isolation, she took us by boat to a completely uninhabited island. You could walk around the island in about 10 minutes, and this would in fact prove that there was no one else around. We celebrated Jill’s birthday there, with fresh lobster and a full picnic. Isolated, with friends.
It would be a full three more days until we finally connected with the “Last Flight” of our original itinerary. We arrived in the Bandas nearly a week later than planned, and commenced to fully enjoy ourselves, and remark on just how difficult this had been.
After having experienced the difficulties of trying to be efficient in a place with a chaotic infrastructure, one would assume that we had learned enough along the way to know better. Turns out that even if you have everything in the best possible order, there are still things beyond your control. Over the years the quest for isolation would introduce me to bedbugs, scabies, and a dozen food borne illnesses. We remembered to pack all the necessities as time went on, including shade, and water purification. But in the end it was the luxury of time itself that allowed us to see what we were able to see.
Perhaps that pristine white sand beach is there, and in the end its not only simple to get there, but a great place to be alone. When you’ve located this place, please let me know."
All photos courtesy of Wayne Donnelly
For Thai Street Food, Bangrak Market surely tops our list for favorites in our neighborhood. With noodles, salads, soups, and skewers this vibrant setting will certainly bring you back again and again, because "the best place to get food outside of the home [is] the market."