In four months, I have been to twenty-two beaches in four countries.

In the guidebooks and on internet forums, it’s easy to find information on beaches in one particular country. I would estimate that half of the posts in Lonely Planet’s Thorn Tree forum go to discussing which Thai island or beach provides the perfect strip of sand. Still, it was a challenge finding international comparisons. Yes, Thailand’s west coast beaches are glorious, but how do they compare to Vietnam’s? When the Cambodia guidebook says so-and-so beach has fine water, do they mean in comparison to the Cambodian coast or to every beach that particular author has ever been to?

From the first moment my toes hit the sand, I began comparing. I wanted to decide absolutely and without prejudice (okay, maybe a little prejudice) where the best beach in Southeast Asia was.

I’ve ranked beaches according to three factors: Water, Sand, and Atmosphere, with 1 being the worst and 5 being the best. I’ve also written the time of visit, as things can change depending on the monsoons. For the best overall beach, you’ll have to read towards the end.

Vietnam: Phu Quoc Island (February 2007)

pq-long.jpgLong Beach
Water:3 Sand: 4 Atmosphere: 4
Phu Quoc’s “main strip” where all of the hotels and restaurants are located. For being the most built-up beach on the island, it was extremely quiet and relaxing. Calm waters with the occasional jellyfish. Coarse, shell-less sand squeaked under my feet whenever I walked on it.

Sao Beach
Water: 5 Sand: 5 Atmosphere: 5
An hour motorbike ride away from Long Beach down red, dusty road, this beach was worth the trip. Gloriously isolated, except for two restaurants serving fresh, cheap, and the most delicious seafood on the island, Sao is surrounded by green hills. There was no boat traffic in the bay at all.

Cambodia: Sihanoukville (March 2007)

sihanoukville.jpgSerendipity Beach
Water: 2 Sand: 2 Atmosphere: 1
Had the water and sand not been filled with garbage, this beach might have gotten a better score. Combined with the nearly constant flow of beach vendors trying to sell you everything including the kitchen sink if they could carry it on their heads, this beach gets my vote as worst in Southeast Asia.

 Thailand (April 2007)

Railey: Phra Ngan
Water: 4 Sand: 3.5 Atmosphere: 3phra-ngan-railey.jpg
Glorious green water, clean sand, dramatic cliffs on the one hand, and on the other, kids trying to sell you cold beers every two minutes and hundreds of sunburnt Europeans.  The beach is best before 10:00 a.m., where you can savor all of the former without all of the latter.

Railey West
Water: 2.5 Sand: 2.5 Atmosphere: 2.5
Went here for about ten minutes. Didn’t like it. Went back to Phra Ngan. Everything is twice as expensive as Railey East.

Phi Phi: Long Beach
Water: 3.5 Sand: 2.5 Atmosphere: 3
Rough waves combined with dead coral on the beach made for an uncomfortable beach-going experience. The morning, with less crowds, less longtails, and calmer seas, was much more pleasant.

Phi Phi: Tonsai
Water: 4 Sand: 2 Atmosphere: 1
Muddy sand littered with broken beer bottles.  Crowded and constantly filled with the sound of longtails.

pp-monkey.jpgPhi Phi: Monkey
Water: 4 Sand: 5 Atmosphere: 3.5
Visited on a snorkeling trip, this beach had truly stunning turquoise waters made a bit milky because of the rough surf. Great snorkeling offshore. Too bad the beach was lined with boats from other snorkeling trips.

Lanta: Klong Dao
Water: N/A Sand: 3.5 Atmosphere: 3
Approaching the monsoon season, this beach was very quiet and the waves were rough. Tacky restaurants line the beach, most of whose menus didn’t look very appealing at all.

lanta.jpgLanta: Kantiang Bay
Water: 2 Sand: 3 Atmosphere: 3.5
Billed as one of the best beaches in Lanta, this beach disappointed. Muddy sand, murky waters, and a rough tide. However, development was pretty inconspicuous, with trees surrounding most of the bay.


Lanta: Koh Rok

Water: 5 Sand: 5 Atmosphere: 2/5
We visited Koh Rok on a snorkeling trip. Hands down, these two little islands provided the best snorkeling I had in Southeast Asia. Thekoh-rok.jpg beaches were superb as well. One drawback was that all of the snorkeling trips docked at the same time and same location, hogging up precious beach space and making for a loud, obnoxious time. However, walking a little ways away over a cluster of rocks, I found a lovely, deserted beach. The trip cost a whopping 1300 baht, but I would do it again in a heartbeat.

koh-kradan.jpg

Lanta: Koh Kradan
Water: 3.5 Sand: 5 Atmosphere: 2/4.5
Again, I visited Koh Kradan for only about an hour on a snorkeling trip, with very much the same situation as Koh Rok. Glorious beach marred by too many boats. Going further down the shore where there were less people paid off again. The sea here was a bit rocky, with leaves floating on the water.

Lipe: Sunlight
Water: 4.5 Sand: 5 Atmosphere 4.5
Gorgeous water, soft sand, longtails parked all along the shore, lined with ratty-looking restaurants and bungalows. Decent snorkeling just a few hundred yards offshore.

lipe-pattaya.jpgLipe: Pattaya
Water: 5 Sand: 4 Atmosphere: 4
The crystal-clear water and powdery sand was unluckily spoiled by trash and debris from a big storm a few nights before. The high tide made sitting on the shore difficult. While development in the central beach area looked run-down, the farthest ends of the beach looked a bit better.

Malaysia (May 2007)

Perhentian Besar: Perhentian Island Resort
Water: 5 Sand: 5 Atmosphere: 4.5
In particular, the west end of the bay, closest to the jetty, provided the most paradise-like beaches, with huge boulders and jungle framing sky-blue waters and powdery sand. The only drawback to this beach was the obstructive jetty and the occasional boat traffic. Good snorkeling, too.

per-mamas.jpgPerhentian Besar: Western shore by Mama’s
Water: 3 Sand: 2 Atmosphere: 3
This beach is unsuitable for swimming because of all the dead coral. The bungalows lining the shore were pretty lowkey. I rarely saw people swimming or sunbathing on this beach.

Perhentian Besar: Western shore by Abdul’s
Water: 4 Sand: 3.5 Atmosphere: 3
Nicer beach than Mama’s, with less coral. However, there were still rocks in the water. With the construction of a new jetty, the atmosphere was less-than-idyllic.

Perhentian Besar: Telek KK
Water: 5 Sand: 4 Atsmophere: 5
Deserted beach on the southwestern shore. Clear, calm waters interrupted occasionally by boat traffic.

per-turtle.jpgPerhentian Besar: Turtle Beach
Water: 4.5 Sand: 5 Atmosphere: 4.5
The mingling of the fresh water stream on the beach with the salt water caused strange things to happen to the water here. While turquoise and clear, the water on the eastern half of the beach looked blurry, for lack of a better term. Still gorgeous though. Coming to this beach is luck of the draw, however; when I arrived, it was deserted. When I left, I left with five other boats, each carrying three to four people per.

Perhentian Kecil: Long Beach
Water: 5 Sand: 4 Atmosphere: 3
Beautiful water and coarse sand. This beach would be perfect if the development weren’t so haphazard and ugly.

Perhentian Kecil: Aur (Coral) Bay
Water: 3 Sand: 2 Atmosphere: 4
Although the water was clear and blue, dead coral and broken shells littered the shoreline, making for a painful swim. The bungalows were more low-key than Long Beach and the offshore snorkeling was good, too

Tioman: Air Batang and Pernuba Bay
Water: 3 Sand: 3.5 Atmosphere: 3
The coarse, golden sands on these beaches make the otherwise clear waters a softer, grayer blue than the island’s cousins to the north, the Perhentians. Rocky and shelly in some places, the southern end of the beach is the only place suitable for swimming. Bungalows and restaurants are cheap and low-key, although the power lines and empty pipes on the side of the road detract from the atmosphere.

Okay so after reading thus far, the top three beaches in Southeast Asia are:

3. Perhentian Island Resort, Perhentian Besar, Malaysia

2. Koh Rok, Thailand

1. Sao Beach, Phu Quoc Island, Vietnam

pq-sao.jpg


Lately, one song that’s been playing often on my iPod is Joni Mitchell’s Carey from her Blue album. The opening lyrics go:

The wind is in from Africa
And last night I couldn’t sleep
Oh, you know it sure is hard to leave you, Carey
But it’s really not my home

My fingernails are filthy
I’ve got beach tar on my feet
And I miss my clean, white linens
And my fancy French cologne.

I imagine she’s talking about travelers’ fatigue and I know just how she feels.

Two days ago, we hit the four-month anniversary of the day our plane set down in Bangkok and this whole journey began. While it’s been one of the most eye-opening, gutsiest, most exciting things that I’ve ever done, this trip is also wearing me out.

I’m tired of five-hour bus rides.
I’m tired of wobbling my way onto rickety boats.
I’m tired of the four shirts that I have and of all my pants being stained by red dust and the remnants of oily vegetables that I’ve dropped on them.
I’m tired of unpacking and packing my bags every third night.
I’m tired of white toast and Nescafe for breakfast.
I’m tired of perspiring my sunscreen off before 10 a.m.
I’m tired of mosquito bites.
I’m tired of eating in restaurants. I just want some salad.
I’m tired of automatically comparing the prices of one-liter bottles of water everywhere I go.
I’m tired of always feeling like my days need to be filled by an activity and tired of feeling indolent when I take a day off to wander aimlessly around air-conditioned shopping malls in the middle of a Tuesday when everyone else is at work and I can’t buy anything anyway because it won’t fit into my backpack.
Etcetera, etcetera.

Like Joni, I long for my own bed, for clean linens that hold no danger of bed bugs. I don’t wear fancy cologne because it gives me headaches, but I ache to sit in front of a mirror and play with my toybox of overpriced, department store makeup.

With only three weeks left, we’re coming down to the finish line. It’s not that I’m itching to get home. I’ve traveled, I’ve given it my all, and, when I board the place back to Japan on May 31st, I won’t shed a tear that this wonderful, exhausting trip is over.

The Luxuries of Home

February 11, 2007

Last night, on Night 2 of our trip to Halong Bay, we stayed at a 3-star hotel. Lap of luxury. There are many things I miss while on the road. Some may seem obvious: family, Internet and TV, makeup. Others, surprise even me. For example:

1) Bathtubs, shower curtains, and bathmats. As in, things that prevent water from spilling onto the floor when one takes a shower. There’s nothing ickier than walking into a bathroom with a wet floor.

2) Stores where prices are marked. Sure, bargaining can be fun. It can bring prices down more than 50% on some things. But, it’s such a hassle. You have to bargain for everything here. Clothes are a given, but also shampoo, bandaids, fruit, water. I’ve even bargained the visa fee for Laos. Plus, bargaining over a $2 dollars in countries where that’s close to the average daily wage makes you feel worse that Ebenezer Scrooge. I dread shopping because I just don’t want to bargain.

3) Hot water to make tea and coffee.

4) Free public restrooms with toilet paper.

5) Knowing the language. Languages are not only forms of communication, they are windows into a cultures. There’s only so much a smile can say. I miss the carefree mindset of someone who knows what’s going on. Not looking around from the sidelines like an idiot. Not being a tourist. I hate this feeling of perpetual awkwardness.

The Road Most Traveled

February 2, 2007

Vang Vieng, Laos. Another backpacker hub. Places like this make me clausterphobic.

The town is comprised of two streets that meet at a T-intersection. The Lao-to-Western population is 1 to 10. Everyone wears the same Beerlao T-shirts and hoodies purchased in either the Luang Prabang Night Market or in Vientiane’s Sao Market. Bars and cafes lining the street sell the same banana shakes and fried rice that they sell everywhere.  One new addition to the menus in Vang Vieng, however, are the mushroom milkshakes (and I’m not talking portabella.)  Tour operators offer the same trekking/kayaking/cycling/caving tours as each other. The same drunken antics of some rasta-wannabe gap-years wake me up at 2 a.m., just as they did in Pai, in Kanchanaburi, in Khao San Road.

I discovered early into this trip that I’d come to take the road not traveled and found it littered with hundreds of others, just like me. “Oh, you’re going to Laos after Chiang Mai, too? Same here.” I’m seeing faces in Vang Vieng that I saw on the buses in Thailand.

I suppose the most disappointing thing so far is how little interaction I’ve had with the locals, both Thai and Lao. We travelers stick with each other – same buses, same bars, same guesthouses. Yesterday, while tubing in the Nam Som river, I passed a family washing their clothes in the cold water. They stared at me. I stared at them. And I kept floating past. How metaphoric.

Why do most people come to Southeast Asia? Most, it seem, come for the cheap beer and accommodation. They go on 3-day treks to hilltribe villages for $20 and call themselves cultured. They go tubing in Vang Vieng, not because they love tubing, but because, hey, that’s what you do in Vang Vieng. That and sit in rows at backpacker restaurants, chuckling at Friends reruns being played on all five TV screens.

Did I really fly 8,000 miles across the globe for this?

A First Time for Everything

January 31, 2007

Six hour mini-bus ride from Luang Prabang to Vang Vieng on winding mountain road.  No rest stops.

My first time peeing in the bushes.

Wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be, but I’m hoping it will also be my last time, too.

Anatomy of a Guesthouse

January 16, 2007

So far, we’ve been staying in guesthouses, not quite hostels, not quite hotels.  Guesthouse rooms are usually under $20, and more often than not, cheaper than $10.  Price depends on the room class.

In the lowest class, you have a bed and a fan.  These rooms have shared bathrooms a la your college freshman dorm.  Now, a girl needs her privacy to some extent, so we’ve been avoiding these.  These can run as cheap as $3-7. 

The second class of room is actually divided into two sub-classes.  Bed, fan, and bathroom are standard.  Prices vary depending on whether there’s hot water or not.  In Bangkok and the surrounds, we’ve found that the temperatures are warm enough and the water tepid enough that hot water isn’t really a necessity.  Our Kanchanaburi guesthouse was our first foray into a non-hot water room.  We payed $7 for this room – should’ve gotten the hot water.  I froze my buns off.  With a hot water room at our last guesthouse, we paid $10.

The third class of guesthouse includes bed and bathroom, now topped off with air-con and, of course, hot water.  Our first night in Bangkok, we stayed in one of these places and paid $19.  The room was dark and depressing, though, and pigeons woke us up at 5 in the morning.  However, in Chiang Mai, we’re living like royalty in a guesthouse with TV, fridge, and hot water, for only about $7.  There’s no toilet paper though (the locals use their hands here…once again, something that I simply cannot do.)

Which just goes to show you that price isn’t always everything.  This brings me to my next point.  Because a book cannot be judged by its cover, guesthouses allow you to inspect the room before you stay.

Our checklist of what to look for:

Is the room and bathroom clean?

Does the electricity work?

Does the hot water work?

Do the locks work?

Are the sheets clean?

Overall atmosphere (i.e. windows, street noise, decoration etc.)

 
Bonuses for a good guesthouse include such “amenities” as an inviting restaurant or sitting area.  At our last guesthouse, the atmosphere was great – bamboo thatched huts, surrounding a beautiful, quiet garden.  Another bonus is a good restaurant.  The food at the past two guesthouses we’ve stayed at has been excellent.  Movies and books can be another perk, as can a common area where fellow travelers can dish out tales and advice.  Some guesthouses can book tours and taxis, rent bicycles, and even provide Internet.  Friendly service is always appreciated.

For anyone who’s interested, we’ve stayed at and can recommend:

Bella Bella House in West Banglamphu, Bangkok

Tony’s Place, Ayutthaya

Apple Guest House, Kanchanaburi

Blue Star Guest House, Kanchanaburi

 Rendevous Guest House, Chiang Mai

Why blog?

November 16, 2006

A good question, especially when there are about a bajillion other blogs out there, a million of which are about someone’s trip to somewhere. I worry that this addition will be like the 2006 version of being forced to watch next-door neighbor’s slide show of their trip to Disneyland. I’ll try to make it more stimulating than that.

So why blog?

For me there are 2 reasons:

1) Chances are I’ll be writing about my travels anyway. In a journal, in e-mails. I won’t have much time to write while on the road and this will be my way of telling friends and family that I haven’t been kidnapped by a secret band of Khmer rebels.

2) Hone my travel writing ability. Be discovered by publishers. Get famous. The usual reason people write blogs, I guess.

Now that we’ve established that, I’m stuck. How does this blogging thing work? Will people want to constantly read my observations on ice in Vietnam vs. Japan, or will they think I’m just navel-gazing? And, am I supposed to sign off with something catchy everytime like Walter Cronkite? (i.e. And that’s the way I see it, folks, JL.)

Gah! Too much pressure. I’m already freaking out about this.

*Insert catchy sign-off here*