Jamaican Joint Venture
March 23, 2019

Shortly before flying on from Norman Manley International at Kingston, Jamaica‘s capital.

Shortly before leaving Jamaica behind from Norman Manley International at Kingston, the island’s capital.

The funky island of Jamaica was the last place we visited together – after some 4 months and 8 countries: wild mojito-soaked nights in México, splendid days of roadtrippin’ on the islands of Hawai’i, snorkeling in Sulawesi, train rides in Myanmar, relaxing in hammocks on Thai islands and enjoying conversations with warm-hearted people in Communist Cuba.

We were quite unsure, initially, what Caribbean islands to pick for that leg of the trip and high on the list were e.g. Puerto Rico (for its mysterious Isla de Mona) or European overseas territory like Martinique, Guadeloupe or Saint Martin? Or maybe even the Bahamas? It all turned out to be a rather pricey last step-over and we were on a budget after all. So we finally opted for the two biggies Cuba (for its history) and its Southern neighbour Jamaica (for its relaxed vibes), leaving the island of Hispaniola for another time: I remain being highly curious about the République d’Haïti as well as the República Dominicana.

Frenchman‘s Bay at Treasure Beach on Jamaica‘s South Coast.

Frenchman‘s Bay at Treasure Beach on Jamaica‘s South Coast.

While our days in Cuba passed away, I began pondering about if Jamaica really would be as relaxing as its reputation. Wait, what actually is its reputation? A Google search of “reputation of Jamaica” actually throws up things like:

“I wonder why Jamaica has such a bad reputation” / “Is it safe for tourists?” / “Is Jamaica dangerous?” / “Flawed paradise: Catching the buzz of the real Jamaica”

Unsurprisingly, it dawned on me that those last days that cK and I had together might not be quite as relaxing as we would have wished for. Well – perfect! Who needs to relax here? We want adventures! Also, my beloved sister is a well-traveled expert on Jamaica and she happily supplied us with information on transport costs, food and street wisdom. We felt ready for the low-budget challenge once we were through airport security and immigration, enjoying free internet after those abstemious Cuban days.

Ocho Rios, on the northern shore.

Ocho Rios, on the northern shore.

Before getting into personal travel details, here are some general facts and numbers on the island that locals apparently refer to as “the rock”:

Jamaica’s national tongue is a variation of English called Jamaican Patois, Elizabeth II. is officially still the head of state (but the island gained independence from the UK in 1962) and its 3 million inhabitants are spread along 10,000 sq km (Belgium, in comparison, is about three times as large: 30,700 sq km). The currency is the Jamaican dollar and € 1 buys you about 140 Jamaican $.

Itinerary

A short flight from Holguín in Cuba took us to Montego Bay on Jamaica’s northern shore. Research told us that hostels would be rather expensive (the most expensive on the whole trip, in fact, since we slept in the car on O’ahu and Kaua’i) – we decided to look around once in town, starting with the Reggae Hostel. Now, getting into downtown was an issue – the airport is about 4km away and after the ATMs refused both our credit cards and the taxi drivers tried to charge us the dumb tourist prize (20 U.S.$ instead of 1$) we decided to walk. However, we didn’t come far – another (much friendlier) driver let us jump into his car for a buck each. The Reggae Hostel actually did turn out to be the cheapest: we paid 16 euro for a dorm in a bunk bed.

Montego Bay‘s Reggae Hostel was the cheapest pick in town.

Montego Bay‘s Reggae Hostel was the cheapest pick in town.

What to do in Montego Bay? Well, we walked around quite a bit, got familiar with people, prizes, street concepts and explored: from the post office at Barnett Street to Pye River Cemetary and back after shopping groceries in Mega Mart along the Howard Cooke Boulevard.

Also, we experienced the classic Let-me-sell-you-dope incident: (Just another) Dude approaches us on the street: “I know you guys from the hostel, how do you like it, I can tell you are looking for something special, let me show you around, come come, I bring you to the best local bar!” We didn’t really feel like heading home yet, so followed suit, being fully aware that it’d be hard to get out of that situation again (easily). Just the way he tried to sell us his weed was remarkably funny: “This is good mountain weed, black soil (or was it brown?) and you better buy right now, because it’s Thursday and it’ll be more expensive again tomorrow!” We actually did feel a little paranoid that evening in the hostel: Is he possibly working here?

Negril Beach, a fabulous place to watch the sun set above the sea.

Negril Beach, a fabulous place to watch the sun set above the sea.

After two nights in MoBay we took a Route Taxi towards Negril Beach, mainly because we wanted to see the sunset above the ocean one last time. Route Taxis are an easy and straightforward way to get around the island, especially outside Kingston (which is mainly served by buses) and the prizes are set, so there is nothing to worry. For Negril we booked a place online (and paid a mere 13 euro), did indeed enjoy the sun setting over the sea (at least some of us did) and took it real easy. Very enjoyable.

Next on the list was a place I was looking forward to most: Treasure Beach on the south side. Lonely Planet described it as a “unique part of Jamaica that gets all the facets of the quintessential Caribbean experience exactly right.” Whatever that was supposed to mean: I was keen. cK organised accommodation via Air B’n’B (for 14 euro each), but it was no different from a regular guesthouse. A sweet one, though! There were quite some travelers in the rooms around us and most of them spoke German, so we ignored them altogether and simply had a fabulous time ourselves. Contrary to what we’ve heard, the beaches were sweet and the currents big fun!

In front of the Gee Wiz Vegetarian Restaurant in Treasure Beach: likely the best food on the entire island.

In front of the Gee Wiz Vegetarian Restaurant in Treasure Beach: likely the best food on the entire island.

By the way: If you like good (and especially vegan) food, there is one place in town you definitely shouldn’t miss: the Gee Wiz Vegetarian Restaurant. That night my gut was the happiest on the island, I’m sure of it!

Later that night we were watching what is likely the world’s most famous Jamaican comedy: Cool Runnings, a 1993 movie (by Jon Turteltaub) telling the real story of Jamaica’s bobsleigh team’s running at the 1988 Winter Olympics in Alberta, Canada (they didn’t win). Bad decision, good story!

As sweet as Treasure Beach was to us: We needed to head on because time was running out. Three days before splitting ways we went to Kingston, Jamaica’s capital (680,000 inhabitants, founded in 1692). There would have been rather cheap accommodation options, but we decided to use Couchsurfing and that actually turned out rather nicely. Our host was a 39 y.o. mother of two named Melissa who worked nightshifts in a dancehall bar. We weren’t exactly good at communicating with each other, but that might have had various reasons, e.g. the incredibly loud volume of the speakers. However, we did end up at her place at one point and spend our final 3 nights there as well. It’s been all rather uncomplicated luckily – a rather unusual, but nevertheless most interesting CS experience.

The Little Dunn’s Waterfall near Ocho Rios.

The Little Dunn’s Waterfall near Ocho Rios.

Three nights meant two full days for us – on Day I (March 12) we got up when Melissa’s daughter played the flute in the morning and there was no return to peaceful slumber. We then headed Downtown and from there took a bus to the city of Ocho Rios on the north coast in order to do some hiking and see some waterfalls. It’s been lovely to see the island’s lush interior, but in retrospect we should probably have gone to Port Antonio in the district of Portland instead. Well, next time… I guess?

Also, we (rather literally) had a hell of a trip since just next to us on the bus was a crazy dude who free-style preached to his busload of sheep about how Jesus helped him to get through bad times and how important Christ is for each and everyone. One of those things that make you realize how Jamaica is often not only not relaxed, but actually very strenuous and certainly not cool. It’s a relatively poor country after all and it really has its more than fair share of issues and economic downsides.

Watching the splendid-coloured waters while walking along the highway...

Watching the splendid-coloured waters while walking along the highway…

The city of Ocho Rios wasn’t exactly overwhelming (and most of the locals not really a charming bunch), but walking in the outskirts was a welcoming distraction. We walked west (along the highway) towards the Little Dunn’s River Falls, but even there some kids tried to charge us quite a ridiculous tourist prize to get down to the coast, so we relaxed at an alternative entrance. Again, if you face the choice, you’re probably better off with Port Antonio and Portland instead!

Day II was exclusively Kingston! We started off with seeing the National Heroes Park (if you leave Jamaica without having heard of Sam Sharpe and Norman Manley you failed!), then walked all along the city to Emancipation Park and finally arrived at 56 Hope Road, Kingston 6: Bob Marley’s former place of residence and also home to the Tuff Gong reggae record label, a museum since 1987 (Marley died 1981 in Miami, aged only 36).

The Bob Marley Museum in Northern Kingston.

The Bob Marley Museum in Northern Kingston.

We walked all the way back into Downtown again, passing Trench Town and some curious places like Rock City (that rather reminder me of Detroit). At that point we were definitely ready to leave “the rock” behind. Fun fact: We kept on being asked about where we’re from and the answer “Sweden!” was already firmly established (we’d sometimes say “He’s from Finland, I’m Swedish”). People just loved it! Sweden really seems to be the thing – popular all around the planet. That makes me wanna see the country of northern bliss again… (as if 2009, ’14, ’17 and ’18 had not been enough!). At Treasure Beach, however, one Jamaican saleswoman actually responded in Swedish: “Åh, jag pratar lite svenska!” – we smiled surprisingly and quickly hushed away.

White Stripe happens to be Jamaica’s national beer. You’re certainly better off smoking a spliff.

Red Stripe happens to be Jamaica’s national beer. You’re certainly better off smoking a spliff.

Costs

Jamaica was rather expensive country in comparison – not so much when it comes to food and transportation, but definitely concerning accommodation – it’s rather comparable to the U.S. or Australia here. Luckily, however, we were able to couchsurf in the capital – that drastically reduced costs to a tolerable medium.

This is what we spent in total (in U.S.$) over 8,5 days.

This is what we spent in total (in U.S.$) over 8,5 days.

Jamaica in comparison to the other countries visited so far on this trip.

Jamaica in comparison to the other countries visited so far on this trip.

“Hello there!” – turtles inside a city park in Ocho Rios.

“Hello there!” – turtles inside a city park in Ocho Rios.

Crossing Castro‘s Cuba
March 14, 2019

After almost three wonderful (and way too quickly passing) weeks in México we found ourselves on a plane from Cancún to La Habana (a/k/a Havana), Cuba’s notorious capital city. So what to expect? We heard about the beauty of the Old Town, saw pictures of impressively beautiful old cars and we knew that there would be two parallel currencies floating on the island: the local Cuban peso (CUP) plus a so-called ‘tourist’ peso, the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC).

What sounded confusing at first turned out to be rather uncomplicated, though: the CUC is nothing but the U.S.$ in disguise, it’s basically the exact same (because its value is bound to it, like the Danish krona is bound to the euro), but they decided to call it Cuban Convertible Peso. Same thing. I just called it “dólar”. One dólar/CUC is worth about 24 to 25 pesos/CUP and you only really need it to pay for accomodation (prices here are always given in CUC) and transport with either the tourist bus company Viazul or a private taxi (the latter being only slightly more expensive, but much faster).

It’s just impossible not to be impressed by the amount of those crazy beautiful old-school cars all over the island.

It’s just impossible not to be impressed by the amount of those crazy beautiful old-school cars all over the island.

Everything else you can pay in pesos really and that is pretty much what we did. If anything, it was actually more confusing for the locals; we sometimes got more many back than we should have. All due to their double currency game. It was fun.

Immigration into the country proved straightforward: We paid some 361 Mexican pesos, i.e. about 16 euro, for our Cuban Tourist Visa just before getting onto the flight in México, then sorted out the money situation in Havana and refused to take an expensive taxi to Downtown (basically everyone else did, but we had time). Instead, we wandered around in the area, talked to some security dudes who wouldn’t tell us about the local bus, but it eventually popped up and off we were, paying a mere fraction: 3 pesos (12 cents) each.

Just about to leave our last “casa particular” in the city of Holguín.

Just about to leave our last “casa particular” in the city of Holguín.

The most common thing to do for a budget backpacker in Cuba is to stay in so-called Casas particulares, basically a homestay. They’re as cheap as a hostel in México, but you get a private room with bathroom and usually enough space to spread out even. Sometimes there would even be space for 4 people, so you’d save more in a bigger group. For Havana we secured one for the first 2 nights online and paid 11 $ (in CUC) together per night.

So there is plenty of cheap accommodation in Cuba and also the street food is very affordable – eating-wise it probably doesn’t get much cheaper than on this island really. Water can be an issue, though – you simply don’t easily find big (1.5l) bottles or even 5l containers. And if you do, they tend to be quite overprized.

Now, the biggest deal on Cuba is transportation. As mentioned above, there are mainly 2 possibilities for foreign travelers: Either you take a Viazul bus for relatively little or you hire a private taxi. The buses are cheaper, but definitely take their time. Also, you have to book them well in advance. Since we only had 10 days, we simply decided to pay for all transport beforehand when figuring stuff out at the Havana Viazul Bus Station. And it actually proved to be a good idea, even if it took away the usual freedom of coming and leaving as one pleases.

Itinerary

So our travel schedule looked like this: We’d spend 3 nights in La Habana, then take a taxi to the city of Trinidad (for 30 $ each), stay for 2 nights, bus on to Camagüey (15 $), stay 2 nights, bus to Santiago de Cuba (18 $) and, after another 2 nights, finally head on to Holguín (11 $) – from there we’d take the weekly flight to Montego Bay in Jamaica.

And that is what we sticked to – we didn’t regret it. Now, we considered to see other cities, of course – Cienfuegos and Santa Clara e.g. were hot candidates – but we just didn’t. If we hadn’t had a flight from Holguín, we might as well have substituted that with Baracoa, but well, one simply can’t see it all. Next life! But, well, Cuba is one of those places that one would is excited to see evolve and revisit in, say, 20 or 30 years. Vamos a ver!

Curious street art in Santiago de Cuba.

Curious street art in Santiago de Cuba.

Ambivalent thoughts

I really didn’t know what to expect of visiting a country that is in many regards stuck in the past due to its Communist approach, especially of economics – so that left plenty of room for surprises and we welcomed them! Both of us were born into a Communist state (the German Democratic Republic or GDR/DDR in short), but it collapsed when we were too young to notice anything (I was apparently sick in bed the day the wall came down and hence my parents couldn’t head out to see it just then).

In many ways, strolling through the streets of Cuba and watching buildings of former glory and grandeur having fallen to pieces made me think of the GDR – it basically was how I always imagined Berlin and other cities like Erfurt and Leipzig to look like in the 1980ies (and 90s). Not enough money left to maintain once beautiful houses and living quarters. Also, close to no commercials and no advertisement. Not a great deal cars on the road (but the ones we saw looked both spectacularly beautiful, but also run-down).

Taken from our shared taxi towards Trinidad.

Taken from our shared taxi towards Trinidad.

The so-called “supermercados” or convenience stores were sparsely equipped, mostly with only one brand per product (no need for competition in a planned economy). As mentioned before, there often wouldn’t even be water bottles left and early in the day people are cueing up in front of bakeries and other shops in order to get their share of bread and (delicious and cheap-as-sugar-hell) cake.

We later learned that under beloved revolucionero Fidel Castro (who died in late 2016) Cubans weren’t even allowed to own computers, cell phones or DVD players (until Fidel’s brother Raúl took over the island’s reigns in 2008).

Turning into Che on the markets of Trinidad.

Turning into Che on the markets of Trinidad.

Now, what does and did all that do with the Cuban people and what do they think of their country and the general situation? I happened to have some interesting conversations with some people (mostly our hosts) and their opinions were are pretty much unanimous: “We’re anti-imperialist, what the U.S. do is wrong, what Putin does is right (the E.U. is basically Trump’s wagging tail and can’t be counted on); there is lots of violence in countries like México and Colombia and our kids are safe here in Cuba”. There is something to all that, of course, but I don’t want to dig too deep at this place (it’s a travel post after all). It makes one think, however.

There seems to be a general tendency of painting things black and white – it’s either/or. We also noticed an unequivocal tendency to reduce the country’s history to basically two events: the fight for independence from Spain (under heavy influence from beloved national hero José Martí, political theorist, writer and poet – similarly idolised like Abraham Lincoln or México’s Benito Juárez) that was finally achieved in the late 19th century. And then, of course, the notorious revolutionary struggle in the 1950s that led to the abdication of the corrupt military (and U.S. backed) government under authoritarian leader Fulfencio Batista and its 1959 replacement with a socialist-turned-Communist regime headed by the Castro brothers Fidel and Raúl plus a 31-year old doctor and revolutionary from Argentina named Ernesto “Ché” Guevara (who finally died on just another attempted revolution in the Bolivian jungle in 1967).

cK hanging out in just another wonderfully old car on some Havana side street.

cK hanging out in just another wonderfully old car on some Havana side street.

From 1965 on, Cuba has been governed by only one political force, that being the Communist Party of Cuba, under factual rule of only two individuals (until this day), one of them becoming a world-wide icon for the anti-imperialist cause, beloved by many, despised my many others.

Having said all that, Cuba is a very interesting place to travel to and the more Spanish you speak the better (as is probably true for anywhere in Latin America) – we met people of all kinds and characters, some of them being seriously annoying and frustrating; others absolutely enchanting (like our last host in Holguín). We met the sweetest and most charming people, e.g. in a food stall in a small village near Playa Ancon (south of Trinidad) or in the Museo Histórico 26 de julio in Santiago de Cuba.

For various reasons we at one point decided to answer the ubiquitous question to what country we’d be coming from with: “Suecia!” (Sweden) — here you see us indicating to a photo of famous Swedish prime minister Olof Palme (inside the “Museo Histórico 26 de julio”).

For various reasons we at one point decided to answer the ubiquitous question to what country we’d be coming from with: “Suecia!” (Sweden) — here you see us indicating to a photo of famous Swedish prime minister Olof Palme (inside the “Museo Histórico 26 de julio”).

There were people with a great amount of wit and humour and then there were some lads who lacked all of the above completely, but nevertheless giving us an interesting insight into a generally still deeply conservative society. And that was probably to be expected from an island that deliberately ignores calls for gender equality and, generally, a more relaxed and laid-back view on things – among other things being isolated by the U.S. travel embargo that seriously needs to be removed (something sadly not bound to happen under the current mean joke of a president in the White House).

One last word about the bookshop situation: it was depressing! Communism definitely does not make for well-sorted bookshops – you might still want to check out how a Cuban bookstore looks from the inside. In case you’re already oversaturated with stories about Fidel Castro, Che and the glorious 1950s, you’re unlikely to linger for long.

A better title might have been: “Fit in old age! – with Fidel Castro”.

A better title might have been: “Fit in old age! – with Fidel Castro”.

City reflections

While the capital, La Habana, was by far the most interesting place to explore, it was also the most touristic and that had consequences for the locals’ attitude: it wasn’t exactly laissez-faire. Also, everything from fruits to snacks was much more expensive in the Historic Quarter than at the more local area we stayed at (west of the Paseo del Prado/de Martí).

Trinidad turned out to be equally filled with tourist groups (considering its compact size), hence we were happy to rent out bikes and spend a considerable amount of time at Playa Ancon, some 12 km south of town. In case you happen to end up here and read this: Make sure you don’t miss on the Loma de la Vigía viewpoint (we sadly did).

Street art in La Habana Vieja.

Street art in La Habana Vieja.

The friendliest and most sympathetic places to us were Camagüey and Holguín, both situated on the island’s Western side. Our host in Holguín confirmed: “Oriente es lo mejor. También, todos los presidentes son de aquí.” – well, it’s true: the Castro brothers have been born some 70 km west of Holguín, in a village named Birán,

Finally, Santiago de Cuba was an interesting mixture of everything. Even if it sometimes says, it would be in competition with the capital – it’s not; Havana is much bigger and plays on a completely different level. However, Santiago was an essential stepping stone for Castro’s Communist revolution (it is also here that he first attempted to overthrow the Batista regime on July 26 in 1953).

A real Cuban vaquero!

A real Cuban vaquero!

Costs

Cuba can be an expensive place to visit, but it absolutely doesn’t need to. Accommodation and especially street food are incredibly cheap and even transport doesn’t have to be an issue if you plan accordingly (and are okay with paying a little more for a taxi in case you missed the bus). Stay away from tourist places and eat where the locals eat. There is e.g. pizza for 5 to 10 pesos (less than 50 U.S. cents).

Transportation costs in Cuba were highest due to the relatively long distances. Other than that: Nothing to worry about accommodation and food costs (as long as you don‘t crave government-run restaurant food!).

Transportation costs in Cuba were highest due to the relatively long distances. Other than that: Nothing to worry about accommodation and food costs (as long as you don‘t crave government-run restaurant food!).

From O‘ahu to Kaua‘i: Roadtrippin‘ Hawai‘i!
February 9, 2019

The Asian chapter of this trip ends in Līhuʻe, the airport town on the so-called Garden Isle, Kaua’i. One could consider the Hawai’ian archipelago the midway point between Asia and the Americas for reasons like the people’s ethnicities or maybe the introduced species from both sides, but definitely the location. Technically it is located in Oceania, along with other Pacific islands such as New Zealand and French Polynesia. Culturally it’s a fun and actually very interesting mix-up between Native Hawaiian mythology and stereotypical U.S. American consumerism – among Safeway and Burger King you’ll find the remains of Polynesian sanctuaries, between luxury golf courses hide ancient walls and of course the names of localities, streets and the islands themselves have a very Oceanian ring.

Before coming here we have never heard of the Kingdom of Hawai’i (that existed between 1795 and 1893) or even King Kamehamea I (called the Great), its founder. Some two weeks (and a bit) after we set foot on O’ahu, the archipelago’s most populated island, while waiting for our American Airlines flight towards the American mainland, I finally know why the name ‘Hawaii’ is being shared by both a major island here and the state as a whole: The king that united the archipelago simply chose the name of his home island and that happened to be Hawai’i, or, as it is known today: the Big Island.

But let’s start right at the beginning: After two weeks backpacking through Indonesia’s Sulawesi region we left South-East Asia with a flight from Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia’s capital) to Osaka in Japan and then headed on to Honolulu. Among Hawaii’s four major islands we picked O’ahu for the culture (e.g. Pearl Harbour and the Japanese attack that led the U.S. enter World War II in December 1941) and Kaua’i for as much nature as possible (saving more romantic Maui and much bigger Hawai’i for another time in the future).

Looking down on the Na Pali Coast from the Kalalau Lookout in Kokee State Park – just in time for a rainbow before the clouds swallow everything up.

Looking down on the Na Pali Coast from the Kalalau Lookout in Kokee State Park – just in time for a rainbow before the clouds swallow everything up.

Costs and spendings

We have been quite aware of the price-shock we were about to experience after all those months traveling through Myanmar, Vietnam and Indonesia – but now, reviewing the budget situation while hanging out in the airport, it really wasn’t all as bad as we anticipated. We decided to get our own transport (hence rented cars on both islands) and cut accomodation costs with camping in state parks (having permits for about $10 per person per night) and doing couchsurfing. In the end everything turned out slightly different from what we expected, but clearly not for the worse.

We would end up staying in tents for the first two nights on O’ahu (in Malaekahana State Park) and from then on basically slept in the car – the 3 last O’ahu nights, however, having found a couchhost (named Mark) that let us hang out and stay on his farm some 40 minutes drive away from the big city. That place was a delight really – even though it had no running water or electricity Mark provided a comfy mattress within a shack on a hill that came with magnificent sunrise views over Honolulu, Pearl Harbour and the sea. Mark wasn’t blind to our keen sense for adventure and enthusiasm and provided us with a brush cutter to clean the overgrown driveways on the farm. Fun all the way really! Also, he was quite keen himself in letting us know about his permaculture and housing long-term plans – good man.

We didn’t manage to find a host on Kaua’i, but instead decided to leave notes on hostel blackboards looking for fellow travelers to share the ride with us – we still had a tent to spare that we never used again in fact (one couple responded, but we didn’t actually manage to mingle). Either way, with accomodation costs cut we now only needed to worry about food and transport.

Public transport is supposed to be quite sufficient on O’ahu – however, relying on buses on an island where you really want to be as independent as anyhow possible was not really an option for us. And we most certainly didn’t want to stick to Honolulu and Waikiki just because there are buses running throughout the day. Hence we rented cars!

Truffles, our fancy rental car (a Toyota Camry) n O‘ahu.

Truffles, our fancy rental car (a Toyota Camry) n O‘ahu.

Leaves us with the food situation. Most food on Hawai’i needs to be imported from the mainland which probably explains why it really is quite expensive, even for European standards – it rather even reminded me of Norwegian standards. We sticked mostly to big supermarket chains like Safeway and Walmart (preferring the former) plus Longs Drugs (a pharmacy/supermarket hybrid) – quickly realizing that it’s quite worth getting a (free) membership card. Outstanding offers guaranteed! It’s actually hilarious how they push their customers to buy stuff in larger-than-life amounts in the U.S. – you can’t just get a small package of chips or a single can of coke. Nah, you should rather get a dozen cans for a crazy discount! Or two huge packages of chips for the price of one. Really not surprised about the ubiquity of obesity.

Soon after arriving on day I we went down to Waikiki Beach just to see what all the hype is about. It‘s sweet, but the high-rises in the back don‘t invite to stay.

Soon after arriving on day I we went down to Waikiki Beach just to see what all the hype is about. It‘s sweet, but the high-rises in the back don‘t invite to stay.

O’ahu

The island of O’ahu counts around a million inhabitants, more than all the other islands combined – featuring Honolulu as the state’s capital. First thing we did after arrival was getting the car, a dark blue/olive coloured Toyota Camry, and heading to Waikiki Beach for refreshment. Still in Indonesia we organized two camping permits for the first two nights at Malaekahana State Park (on the island’s northern side) and managed to arrive just in time before darkness. We figured it’d be a good idea to have the first nights safe in order to get an idea about how easy it’d be to camp in the wild or sleep in the car.

Noticeable: Coming from Asia and being used to pits filled with (mostly plastic) trash it’s been a more than pleasant surprise to again realize it’s possible to have both: picture-perfect beaches plus a clean and stainless environment. Utterly enchanting!

The Kualoa Regional Park and Jurassic Valley – the extraordinary landscape provided the background for various Hollywood movies. One can see why.

The Kualoa Regional Park and Jurassic Valley – the extraordinary landscape provided the background for various Hollywood movies. One can see why.

We explored the north coast first and that included:

  • Walking to Kahuku Point, O’ahu’s northernmost point
  • Swimming at Backyards Beach in Waiale’e
  • Visiting the Old Sugar Mill in Waialula and grocery shopping in Haleiwa
  • Having cold beers while watching the setting sun at Waimea Bay

There was so much more to discover and among our favourite places were the following:

  • La’ie Point (Wayside)
  • the Kualoa Regional Park (close to the Jurassic Valley where the shot Jurassic Park and King Kong
  • the Japanese Byodo-In Temple (where cK saw his first-ever black swan)
  • the PillBox hike – both the sunset views as well as the people’s cheerful moods were extraordinary
  • Sandy Beach, just north of the Halona Blowhole
  • Hiking to the top of Diamond Head and overviewing the Honolulu coastal and sky line
Almost arriving at the top of the Pillbox Hike in South-Eastern O‘ahu...

Almost arriving at the top of the Pillbox Hike in South-Eastern O‘ahu…

...featuring a fabulous sunset right over the valley behind.

…featuring a fabulous sunset right over the valley behind.

After two rather fresh nights in the tent (directly at the ocean) we switched to sleeping in our rental car that we lovingly named “Truffles”. Before meeting Mark (our couchhost), we spent another two nights outside in the car which proved to be rather a hassle on the second night. We ended up in the rather populated Kailua Bay area and decided to try our luck on a Church-owned parking lot which would be closed by a barrier at a certain time, thinking we’d be all safe and sound there until morning. But then a car showed up around 01:30, seemingly from nowhere, and some dude made us leave. We rather apathetically rolled down towards the Safeway car park and continued sleeping for another 2 hours, before security chased us off – again. This time we weren’t as deep asleep luckily and rather unimpressed went on to our last resort: a residential area where we finally got enough rest until the sun was rising again. Certainly a rather difficult night, but nothing really happened after all and we felt awake enough in the morning.

Watching humpback whales breeding from Makapu‘u Lookout in South-Eastern O‘ahu.

Watching humpback whales breeding from Makapu‘u Lookout in South-Eastern O‘ahu.

We would have no further issue with sleeping outside in the car over the entire remaining time on Hawai’i. Mark later told us that one option would be to park the rental car close to the airport and then catch some sleep in the baggage claim department – so in case you’re running low on cash or simply want to avoid those ridiculously high accomodation costs on the islands that might be your thing. We most certainly preferred the car – additionally, being on the road again in a warm climate with a beach and inland adventures never too far away reminded me strongly of traveling in Tasmania (or anywhere else in Down Under really). Helping Mark with doing some farm work helped to retrieve memories from back in the days, as well. Utterly delightful.

Honolulu proved not exactly to be a city to funk out about – sure, there are a bunch of good-looking 19th century Gothic-style buildings, but we really weren’t here for that. Especially from a distance one would notice how much of a concrete monster that place actually is. However, the busy markets of Chinatown were a delight – especially when having the opportunity to compare it to South-East Asian equivalences.

Working with the brush-cutter on Mark‘s farm.

Working with the brush-cutter on Mark‘s farm.

All of the above is true about Waikiki as well – there really is not much of a need to spend more time than necessary at a beach surrounded by grey and boring high-rises. We never returned after day I.

What did interest us instead was seeing the notorious Pearl Harbor, headquarter of the U.S. Pacific fleet in the late 1930ies and ’40ies before being attacked by the Japanese on an air raid in December 1941. The infamous loss of the majority of battleships (in particular the U.S.S. Arizona) and hundreds of marines being trapped within the exploding ships made the U.S. join World War II immediately afterwards.

Inside Pear Harbor, inhaling U.S. and world history.

A collection of newspaper reprints in the gift shop.

A collection of newspaper reprints in the gift shop.

Especially interesting and well presented was a mandatory introduction film that was filled with background information about the reasons and incentives of the Japanese. Right after that we joined a boat tour to the memorial of the U.S.S. Arizona which remains at precisely the place it has been sunk, allegedly still trapping those crew members that could not be rescued back then. All that free of charge.

Our last day on O’ahu we spent hiking: a 9 km return trail to Kaena Point, the island’s westernmost bit. The views were stunning and at the windswept end of it we saw nesting sea birds as well as relaxing seals, enjoying the good times of life while rolling around in the sands.

Watching Honolulu from afar at Diamond Heads (O‘ahu).

Watching Honolulu from afar at Diamond Heads (O‘ahu).

Kaua’i

Flying over to the Garden Isle was a straight-forward affair – Hawaiian Air was playing soothing music, security was rigid as usual, but actually fun and the only thing we thoroughly craved for was having a long shower as soon as we had our new car. And what a car we were given! Instead of a regular hatchback model (or similar) they actually provided us with a pretentious and larger-than-life 4-wheel-drive SUV (a Ford Explorer). We didn’t complain, but simply downfolded the 2 extra backseats and drove off north from Lihue, the airport town towards Kapaa.

The island of Kaua’i is not only slightly smaller than O’ahu (1,421 compared to 1,545 sqkm), but also much less populated: 67,000 people instead of 953,000! Hence we reckoned it to be much easier to find a place to sleep in some backstreet overlooking the ocean. And indeed: we didn’t face problems a single time! It’s been as easy as one could wish for – riding an all-terrain vehicle made things noticeably easier, however.

First night on Kaua’i: Magical sunset above the charming, if touristic town of Kapaa.

First night on Kaua’i: Magical sunset above the charming, if touristic town of Kapaa.

We stayed on parking lots, directly at the ocean, in front of old, but stylish cemeteries, next to horse ranges and caves and also close to the island’s highest (and wettest) point.

It’s not actually possibly to surround Kaua’i by car since there is no actual ring road. This basically meant that (somewhat like on O’ahu) we would drive first to one side (the northern end) before heading down while passing through Kapaa and Lihue (the two biggest towns) to see the southern side. Apart from the slightly exhausting traffic (jam) situation between those two places (unlike on O’ahu there is no real multilane highway on Kaua’i) we got ourselves into another more serious situation.

Roosters are ubiquitous on Kaua‘i – and this is our second car in the back; we called it “Mr. Kouch”.

Roosters are ubiquitous on Kaua‘i – and this is our second car in the back; we called it “Mr. Kouch”.

In short: There were road work signs beyond a town called Hanalei that we happily ignored (which we shouldn’t), so we ended up in some slow-riding car convoy on our second night that brought us closer to the famous Na Pali Coast (which we planned to hike on the following morning). Once the traffic around us cleared up we would drive into some side road, ready to finally open up two (still) cold bottles of beer. But there was a catch to it and the lady driver from the car that has followed us into that side road explained it to us rather excitedly: Due to a heavy flood in April 2018 most of the northern coast line is off-limits to non-residents and especially to tourists.

Not only did we not know this, we were actually facing quite a severe penalty if someone would catch us in this part of the island. The Na Pali Coastal Trek is closed ever since last spring and wild boars would happily jump around and multiply instead. Also, quite a bunch of meth addicts would not be amused about intruders (especially since quite some locals actually lost their houses due to landslides) and we heard stories of travelers being robbed and seriously injured. In conclusion: We were heading out of the area as soon as the 9pm convoy was being ready for departure – when we were actually being waved out at the end of it (since our car lacked the necessary sticker) we could luckily explain the situation and were send away with the following words: “Please don’t come back.” Word!

The lighthouse of Kilauea.

The lighthouse of Kilauea.

Now, that was a rather unexpected start to it all, but the remaining 7 days were enchanting and filled with beauty and stunning views. This is the list of things you might want to see and do when here:

    get down to Secret Beach on the north coast and get lost in thoughts while watching the waves go wild
    have a relaxed swim and lots of snorkeling at Anini Beach Park
  • Get a rooster shirt at some Kapaa shop and enjoy the town’s architecture
  • See the Wailua Falls and try to find a save way down to the river
  • Hike along the stunning cliffs between Makauwahi Cave and Shipwrecks Beach (in the south)
  • spend some time along the colonial-style buildings of Hanapepe
  • See for yourself where James Cook was landing on the Hawaiian archipelago in 1778: at Waimea Bay
  • Take the dirt road to the Barking Sands at Polihale Beach and spend the night there (that sunset was marvellous!)
  • Last, but not least at all: Enjoy the stunning views of grandeur within the Waimea Canyon State Park, also: do some hikes! (at least the one to the Waipo’o Falls
The Wailua Falls.

The Wailua Falls.

We made not have made it to the Na Pali Coast, but we did manage to see it from above – there are some fabulous lookouts and hikes just north of the Waimea Canyon at the Kokee State Park – from there you actually see the coast from above and if you’re lucky combined with a rainbow. That area is declared to be one of the wettest on the planet!

I’m writing these last bits of the blog being squeezed inside a metro in México City, being enchanted while thinking of those blissful Hawaiian roadtrip days and moments – it feels almost surreal now while surrounded by Mexicans and quite a different culture all along.

Stunning views at Waimea Canyon National Park...

Stunning views at Waimea Canyon National Park…

...and our last sunset on Kaua’i at the Salt Pond County Park near Port Allen.

…and our last sunset on Kaua’i at the Salt Pond County Park near Port Allen.

On Thai Island hopping
December 16, 2018

Sunset light at Haad Mae, facing little Ko Amo at north-western Ko Pha-Ngan.

Sunset light at Haad Mae, facing little Ko Ma at north-western Ko Pha-Ngan.

I’m starting to write this post while playing chess on the world-famous full-moon party island Ko Pha-Ngan. We’re in the Gulf of Thailand, technically a shallow inlet in the western part of the South China Sea, a marginal body of water in the western Pacific Ocean. It’s a rather shallow gulf with an average depth of 58m and a maximum of 85m, resulting in relatively little salty water due to a strong river inflow.

Now, Ko Pha-Ngan (‘ngan’ meaning ‘sand bar’) is the middle-sized option between three relatively large islands in Thailand’s West. To the north we have small and rather compact Ko Tao (Turtle Island) and south of Ko Pha-Ngan is much larger Ko Samui (possibly meaning ‘safe haven’). All three are part of Surat Thani province, named after the city in Thailand’s south-west, worth at least a short stay for its rather lovely food market.

Ko Tao: snorkeling paradise at the twin rocks near Ko Hang Tao.

Ko Tao: snorkeling paradise at the twin rocks near Ko Hang Tao.

While we never really felt attracted to Ko Samui, the other two were hard to ignore: Ko Tao seemed cute plus an easy option and we indeed were far from disappointed when visiting it for some days in spring 2013 – one of the loveliest spots being the twin rocks near Ko Hang Tao (the piece of land to the north-west). Snorkeling (and scuba-diving) is superb and straight-forward, the people are relaxed, accomodation and food costs compatably low: perfect for backpackers on a budget.

Let’s explore some other Thai islands before continuing with Ko Pha-Ngan. The first ever island we went on to was Ko Samet, a superb choice when staying in Bangkok for a couple days before heading on to somewhere further.

October 2006 on Ko Samet: Proudly defending our first-ever Thai beach bungalow!

October 2006 on Ko Samet: Proudly defending our first-ever Thai beach bungalow!

In October 2006 (man, that is some time ago!) we had a stop-over in Thailand for a week (coming from Europe) before flying on to Sydney, Australia. After doing the usual sightseeing, devouring mango sticky rice and Pad thai at Khao San Road, hanging out in bars and doing some clubbing, too, we were ready to relax on a beach and jump into some waves.

Ko Samet is only some 200 km away from Bangkok, hence in easy reach (2,5 hrs by bus plus 20 min by ferry), located on the eastern part of the Thai Gulf. The T-shaped island features budget accommodation, white sands and especially cheap food! We couldn’t have been happier, but there was even more to it: We didn’t plan on it, but made it in time for the island’s Full Moon Party (a dance and fire celebration that originated on Ko Pha-Ngan, but spread over to various other places in the region).

Partying on Ko Chang, Northeastern Thailand (February 2013).

Partying on Ko Chang, Northeastern Thailand (February 2013).

Years later, when traveling further east towards Cambodia we went to Ko Chang (which translates into ‘Elephant Island’), the second-largest Thai island (after Ko Samui). It’s not very populated (compared to its size), but development has been steady ever since it was discovered as a tourist destination around the year 2000.

Lonely Beach on Ko Chang.

Lonely Beach on Ko Chang.

One of the more popular spots for backpackers on a budget is Haad Tha Nam and the bays surrounding Lonely Beach. It’s easy to rent motorbikes and discover the island’s interior where you can indeed encounter elephants (and lots of other wildlife) on jungle hikes. For snorkeling one should probably check on the islands further south, though: In 2013 we made it to Ko Wai where the corals were healthy still and you’d see an enchanting variety of marine life. We then headed on to Cambodia.

That same trip (coming all the way down from Northern Laos and passing one more time through Bangkok) we were keen for more Thai islands. In a magical little town called Pai (near Chiang Mai) we ran into a girl from Berlin who told us about an island on the Andaman Coast called Ko Phayam.

Inside in one of Yuppie‘s “Palm Beach” Bungalows (April 2013).

Inside in one of Yuppie‘s “Palm Beach” Bungalows (April 2013).

At the very south-western end of Ko Phayam she stayed with a Thai dude called Yuppie who speaks German fluently (having studied at the TU in Berlin in the late 1980ies) with a funky twisted Berlin dialect. I’m not the biggest fan of talking German outside German-speaking regions, but that sounded interesting to us somehow.

We chased the guy down and it was fun indeed – he turned out to be quite the character. His place is called Palm Beach Bungalows and we were given a little bamboo shack with a big double bed, a hammock, a toilet and shower and some sort of terrace. All we could have asked for – we were utterly content. Besides the fact that we were basically bound to speak German with him and his squad of Central European visitors and guests ready to smoke weed until they’re running low on cash. This was March 2013 and we stayed for three days.

The “Palm Beach Bungalows” on Southwestern Ko Phayam in April 2013.

The “Palm Beach Bungalows” on Southwestern Ko Phayam in April 2013.

In December 2018 we returned (this very trip I’m on right now) – mostly being curious about what has changed in those 5 years. The answer: Not overly much. They put up an additional pier at the main harbour and Yuppie extended his bungalow common area. He recognized us on the spot, no big deal. He gave us the very same bungalow and we again stayed for three days. There was no hammock this time, but luckily I brought my own.

Same place, 5 years later! (“Palm Beach Bungalows”, Ko Phayam)

Same place, 5 years later! (“Palm Beach Bungalows”, Ko Phayam)

Instead of hanging out at his place we discovered the rest of the island and wouldn’t regret the long hikes (having decided against renting motorbikes). If you end up on Ko Phayam (keep in mind that there are no ATMs) we suggest you stay at the northern bay called Ao Khao Kwai. One major reason: the fantastically looking Hippie Bar, made almost entirely out of driftwood. Quite the eyecatcher! And they fabricate fabulous mango lassies.

Ko Phayam’s Hippie Bar at Ao Khao Kwai, made entirely out of drift wood!

Ko Phayam’s Hippie Bar at Ao Khao Kwai, made entirely out of drift wood!

From Ko Phayam we went all the way to Ko Pha-Ngan, on the Gulf side (see above). Even though this island gets international traveler’s fame mostly for its full/half/blood/whatever moon parties, the fiesta bit of Pha-Ngan is actually focused around its south-eastern bit, at Hat Rin. We opted for something quieter and hence went up the north-western coast instead: Being based at Hat (or Haad) Yao we walked and hitchhiked our way up to Hat Salad and lovely Hat Mae that connects to stunningly beautiful Ko Ma.

Haad Mae, facing Koh Ma (Ko Pha-Ngan, December 2018).

Haad Mae, facing Koh Ma (Ko Pha-Ngan, December 2018).

Expect to pay around 400 Baht for a room with a double bed and private bathroom (close to the beach) and some 70 or 80 Baht for a veggie Padthai or Fried Rice. Thai islands clearly aren’t as cheap as they used to be! I remember ordering food twice (and triple) since it was so crazy cheap back in October 2006 when being on Ko Samet.

Due to rather bad weather (rain all day!) we eventually decided to leave Ko Pha-Ngan for good (including our all but dry and just-so clean laundry) and head down to the Andaman coast again, towards Krabi.

Limestone/Karst rocks in Krabi (Southern Thailand), here at Tonsai Beach (near Railay).

Limestone/Karst rocks in Krabi (Southern Thailand), here at Tonsai Beach (near Railay).

Krabi is most famous for its “mind-boggingly beautiful” (Lonely Planet) limestone/karst rock formations set in front of pristine clear beaches, making it the most popular region on the Southern coast. A taxi-ferry-bus connection (for about 750 Baht) got us all the way down just outside Krabi Town where we decided to jump on a minivan to Ao Nang (the closest beach) from where we took the ferry to Railay Beach which is not actually an island (separated from the main land by impressively sized limestone rocks), but it certainly feels like one. Also, the mini market and general food prizes ensure you continue believe you’re actually stuck on an island.

Being stuck on an island or what? Well almost (facing Tonsai Beach after having passed the smaller of two jungle treks, this one along the beach).

Being stuck on an island or what? Well almost (facing Tonsai Beach after having passed the smaller of two jungle treks, this one along the beach).

Now. Railay is beautiful, but it’s also quite crowded plus infused with quite a flashpacker scene (stylish Western wannabe-backpackers who are traveling for a week or two, having booked accomodation and tours in advance). If that’s not your thing you probably fancy escaping towards Tonsai Beach which is connected to Railay by boat, a relatively short jungle trek on the beach side and a larger and considerably more exhaustive jungle trek on the back (and inland) side. We didn’t know about the beach side connection when we crossed the backside – no fun with a fully loaded backpack.

Kayaking along the limestone rocks in Krabi.

Kayaking along the limestone rocks in Krabi.

Facing Railay Beach at low tide.

Facing Railay Beach at low tide.

Tonsai is lovely! We got ourselves a cheap-as-can-get Yuppie-style bamboo bungalow (for 200 Baht), then mingled with the very approachable and chillout crowd across the reggae bars and restaurants and soon hit the waters. The tides are important to take into account here. A close friend of mine was kayaking here some years ago and got stuck with the boat because they couldn’t get back on land in low tide. Also, Tonsai Beach is not exactly fun to swim in at low tide either (head for Railay West instead!).

Fire show at some bar along Tonsai Beach (December 2018).

Fire show at some bar along Tonsai Beach (December 2018).

Among the things you can do here:

  • Rock climbing! You can either take courses or connect with the super-enthusiastic climbing pros all around
  • Snorkel your away around the bays and enjoy the spectacular views
  • Do yoga and ecstatic dance courses in the morning and evenings in places around the main street in Tonsai
  • Take a kayak and paddle all the way to Phra Nang Beach, discover the caves and lagoons and limestone islands
  • Do day trips to small surrounding islands for more advanced snorkeling with marvellous beaches
Tonsai Beach in mid-day sun.

Tonsai Beach in mid-day sun.

We were running out of time eventually and had to choose between heading on to Ko Phi-Phi for heavy partying and The Beach movie views or taking a more relaxed approach on Ko Lanta further south. The general opinion was rather unequivocal here: We opted for Ko Lanta – a direct ferry was about 500 Baht and we took a shared taxi south to a place called Slacklines Hostel. (This is right where I’m writing these lines now, chilling in the hammock that I brought all the way from home.)

Inside our lovely bamboo bungalow at Slaglines Hostel on Ko Lanta.

Inside our lovely bamboo bungalow at Slacklines Hostel on Ko Lanta.

A storm is coming! Well, not quite as bad. Ko Lanta was good to us after all. I would not at all be surprised to return one day.

A storm is coming! Well, not quite as bad. Ko Lanta was good to us after all. I would not at all be surprised to return one day.

It’s December 16 (in 2018) and nothing could be further away than X-mas, snow and worrying about getting presents and the like. Instead I’ll be putting down the smartphone after having finished this blog entry, taking up my copy of Richard Dawkins’ Unweaving the Rainbow while listening to friendly cows mooing in the back mixed with some dubstep tunes coming out of the dormitory.

After having cycled all along the coast to Bamboo Beach (Ko Lanta, December 2018).

After having cycled all along the coast to Bamboo Beach (Ko Lanta, December 2018).

We rented heavy duty BMX bikes over the last two days (150 B each) and headed all the way down to two absolutely superb beaches called Khlong Chak Beach and Bamboo Beach, passing by at Tiger Cave (where a rather frenzy local kid attempted to dismantle our bicycles in a somewhat amusing way). Unfortunately we missed out on the Elephant trek, waterfalls, more caves and the national park in the far south.

However, enough reason to return at one point in life! And so are many more zestful islands that I can’t help but list at the end of this blog, perhaps as an incentive for anyone having arrived at the end or simply to myself (for future visits to Thailand’s south). Tomorrow morning we’ll head to the city of Trang from where we’ll get on a bus to Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia.

  • the Similan & Surin Islands for snorkeling safaris
  • James Bond Island and the Ao Phang-Nga National Park for kayaking
  • Ko Phi-Phi Don/Leh for snorkeling trips, the views, the party atmosphere
  • Trang islands like Ko Jum, Ko Muk and Ko Lipe for a bit more tranquility and more snorkeling/diving
Bamboo Beach in Southern Ko Lanta.

Bamboo Beach in Southern Ko Lanta.