Venturing Further Afield

With just three days to go we wake to overcast skies and decide that this is the day we can venture out to see some sights. Outside the hotel we negotiate a price with the taxi driver who spends his time there and set off down the busy road parallel to Lamai Beach, first to see the Grandma and Grandad rocks. After a slow ride through the traffic the driver makes an abrupt turn left down a narrow, bumpy lane, winds between some buildings and comes to a halt in a car park behind a welter of assorted stalls and shops-their number somewhat out of proportion with the numbers of sight-seers around.

Our driver indicates the way we should go-a passageway through a shop piled high with hats and gaudy toys. The character of the beach here is changed from wide sweep of sand to cliffs and prominent rocks-none more prominent than the ‘Grandad’. And it is immediately obvious how the rock acquired its name.

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We clamber up to see the rocks from different angles then return to the taxi. The driver has brought a companion along for the ride, although we are not sure who she is-his wife, perhaps?

Next we wind up into the interior of Koh Samui to stop at a temple complex and I’m glad I thought to fling a thin sarong into my bag to aid modest dressing for temple visits.

Inside a gilded, glass case adorned with offerings and flowers sits the ‘mummified monk’, a disquieting exhibit, his sightless eyes staring out of his leathery face.

Leaving the main road we drive up through lush plantations of banana trees and orchards of rubber trees, each trunk circled with a band and a small cup for the trees’ sap to drain into. Then it’s on and up again until we reach a rutted track and pull into a parking area bordered by a fence. Behind the fence are elephants, prepared and ready to take tourists for rides through the forest. A stall sells bananas for the punters to feed them and there is a charge to photograph these exploited animals. We know that many elephants that work in this way are ill-treated and we have not come to see them, but to look at the waterfall.

While it is not exactly a raging tumult, the waterfall is impressive enough and surrounded by immense, tall trees. It is not seething with tourists but those that are there are either bathing in the pool or draping themselves in the path of my camera shutter. And I can imagine how different it will be when the rainy season is underway. In comparison to the Grandma and Granddad rocks the number of stalls on the path is restrained, consisting mainly of piled up coconuts and a few souvenirs.

Our driver and his silent companion are [justifiably] not much inclined to act as tour guides, dropping us at each location and waiting for us to return, although our questions are answered and our expressions of appreciation acknowledged.

We return down the track and head towards another beach area. Here is an impressive shrine and another [enormous] glass case containing a vessel and what appears to be another mummified monk-this one even more spooky, peering out at us with sinister stare. The vessel in which he sits is itself surrounded by dozens of model boats.

The beach here is stacked with the hard, white shapes of dead coral, beautiful but a telltale sign of poor sea health. But the area is almost deserted, the shrine showing signs of neglect. Clearly this is not a well-known site.

We have one last site to visit, a temple complex that quickly becomes my favourite The entire venue is snake themed, the temple walls adorned with vibrant scenes rendered in terracotta and best of all, outside, a long staircase leading to the beach is flanked by beautiful cobras, their mouths gaping as they reach the base as if to snatch the unwary person descending.

It’s the end of our whistlestop tour, but we’ve discovered there is much more to Koh Samui than beach life.

Hungarian Calamity [Part 1]

Budapest. Full of Eastern promise; the streets lined with ornate statuary, outrageously opulent architecture from myriad eras and cultures. Onion-topped, gilded, tiled, carved, stuccoed and frescoed to within an inch of its life. Every corner housing a kebab shop yet room for a ‘Tesco Express’.

This is grandness on the top of the scale, except that the opulence falls short at the campsite gates, where a ‘refurbishment’ [something we’ve seen a lot of, this trip] meant porta-cabin showers and no functioning washing machine. The women’s showers, complete with flimsy curtains opened on to a car park, offering no privacy to those groping for a towel. Ho hum-

After some deliberating we navigated by Metro to the centre of the city, where ‘hop on hop off’ awaited, touristy but acceptable to anyone who has a great deal to see and not much time to see it.

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Budapest is made up from two cities-‘Buda’ on one side of the Danube and ‘Pest’ on the other. ‘Buda’ houses the opulent palace and the castle, ‘Pest’ accommodates the glitzy shopping streets, the cathedrals, the buzzing restaurants and cafes and the outrageous parliament building, like a fanciful wedding cake on speed.

After an afternoon of sightseeing, hopping on and off, we were left waiting for the last bus up at the area of Heroes’ Square, where there is a zoo and the old Thermal Baths-an amazing sight in themselves, both the outside and the interior.

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We’d only nibbled the edge of Budapest’s sights, nevertheless as we relaxed on the top deck of the bus [relieved to have caught it] we felt ready to move on. Palaces, castles, monuments and statues are delightful but there are only so many iconic structures anyone can cope with in one visit.

Since Budapest is choc-full of Turkish-style cafes and restaurants we opted for a self-service kebab house, where a plethora of delicious looking concoctions lay behind the counter and judging by the popularity of the place it was a good decision.

One leisurely beer later we made our way back.

Next day, with grocery shopping in mind we set off towards the ‘bend in the Danube’, stopping off at an ‘Auchan’ supermarket [of which Hungary has many] to stock up. Once we’d swung out of the car park and located the correct road an ominous ‘thump’ became audible, seeming to emanate from the passenger side wheel arch. Horrors!

‘It’s the road surface’ bluffed Husband [more confident than he felt, I assumed] and ‘No’ from me [not confident]. Having managed to secure a safe place to pull in we conducted a brief examination which revealed…nothing. The noise persisted, prompting us to find yet another safe place to stop-a car park at the next ‘Auchan’ supermarket [as I said, there are many].

I struck out to ascertain our whereabouts before phoning the roadside rescue arm of our insurance, then spoke at length with ‘Adam’ who dithered with a blithe lack of concern whilst scrutinising Google maps to search for us. I scrambled out of the van to provide him with a list of the stores surrounding us: H&M, Bauhaus, Auchan… ‘Is there a cinema complex?’ he interjected. I sighed. ‘There are no leisure facilities, Adam. It’s a shopping centre’. He deliberated some more while I cast around. ‘There’s a MacDonalds’ I told him. ‘Bingo!’ he said. ‘I’ve got it!’

To be continued…

 

 

The All-inclusive Trap

Searching for winter sun, an escape from the dreary, grey drizzle or the bitter winds of this UK winter means travelling long-haul. The options are: far east [Thailand etc], Africa [tried, tested and now not tempted] or Caribbean. We’ve sampled a few islands in the West Indies now, with pleasing results, Barbados and Antigua having proved particularly lovely destinations. Mexico, last year’s experiment boasted beautiful weather but was less fun in that there were few options outside of the hotel.
And here’s the difficulty. In choosing a Caribbean or most other long-haul destination you are stuck in the inevitable groove of ‘all-inclusive’ deal, as after intensive research we have found it to be cheaper than either flying and booking hotels separately or B&B. An all-inclusive deal is likely to mean a vast, corporate hotel sprawling on a coastal strip and boasting several restaurants, bars, pools, terraces, a spa, a gym, shops, ‘entertainment’, beach with loungers and umbrellas and the ubiquitous ‘buffet’.
Hotels like these are betting on the hunch that most guests prefer to stay within the confines of the hotel complex and couldn’t give a cow’s udder about setting foot outside the gate to meander in the environs and hobnob with the locals. And it is true for many, who like to get up, sling their beach towels on their preferred loungers, wander into breakfast, order a cocktail and slump then slump on their sun bed until a member of staff bearing a tray offers more refreshment. There’ll be a further stint of slumping followed by lunch…
For some with a more active schedule in mind there might be a short session of aquarobics or pool volleyball-but then it’s back to the more serious business of slumping, punctuated by propping up one of the many bars.
We can manage a day or so of this, given sunny weather and a beach walk. But after a while some ennui creeps in. This is when we need to get out.
On our recent trip to Cuba the few days in Havana was perfect. We had breakfast in the hotel, we were within walking distance of the delights of the city and had the remains of our days free, at liberty to explore. Once we’d moved to the beach hotel, however there was a short stretch of beach to walk and everything else required a taxi or a bus ride-both of which we did. In one direction lay a sterile and uninspiring marina; in the other the town yielded more sightseeing and entertainment and it was there that we avoided incarceration.
One of the reasons for avoiding cruises is the enforced imprisonment aboard a floating, all-inclusive hotel, with nothing to do but eat and drink.
Our next expedition, already in the planning stages will be very different, involving an extensive road trip by camper van. On our journey we’ll stay where we want for as long as we want, moving on when we’ve had enough of a place and opting to explore by foot or bicycle. What a pity we can’t take the van to winter sun destinations!