One of my favorite stops on our Irrawaddy riverboat cruise was Yandabo, a village known for pottery production. Yandabo is cleaner and more prosperous looking than many of the villages along the Irrawaddy. The government is assisting with funds to build a river wall (erosion being a big problem along the Irrawaddy) and the locals organized to clean up trash (another big problem along the river and in the villages). We were impressed to learn that the entire family of potters we visited had university degrees. Sadly, though, they could earn more making terracotta pots.
We’ve really been looking forward to our time on a wooden Irrawaddy Flotilla Steamer. Prior to WWI, the largest river flotilla in the world was on the Irrawaddy River in Burma. Most of these classic teak wood boats were destroyed, either by bombs or by scuttling. Pandaw, the river cruise line I’d chosen, salvaged and restored one of these boats, then built others, copying the original 1930’s style, but with modern updates. I’d carefully chosen our intimately-sized boat and even the side of the boat I wanted our cabin on. So, I was worried and disappointed to read an email from my booking agent the day before we boarded in Mandalay saying we’d been changed to a larger riverboat. A little research revealed this new boat, the Pandaw Orient, was 8 years older than the original, Pandaw Kindat; worse, the Orient had 30 cabins vs. 18 on the Kindat.
Yangon was, by necessity, our first stop in Myanmar although I wasn’t overly enthusiastic about the city as a destination. Flights to the country are limited and the vast majority of international flights arrive at Yangon International Airport. Due to an airline schedule change, our already brief 3-night stay was whittled to 2-nights. Yangon turned out to be a really pleasant surprise.
After a 36+ hour flight and layover odyssey, the Yangon Airport was a nice, hassle-free experience. Seated in business class, we were one of the first off the plane and one of the first through customs. We handed over the Myanmar visas we’d obtained online and printed at home, posed for a photo and were stamped into the country, all quick and easy. We were lucky as a line quickly grew after we passed through customs.
We’d booked a small group (10 person) tour of the city of Mumbai with fellow Cruise Critic-ers. We were with the same group with whom we’d done the houseboat excursion in the Alappuzha Backwaters and Cochin so it felt like a group of old friends. The cruise terminal in Mumbai is not particularly large or impressive. They’ve broken ground on a new terminal or terminal extension just beside the existing one. Inside the terminal there is some duty free shops with scarves, jewelry and the like. There’s also another security check and immigration check before you can exit the far side.
This is not a port that you can walk out of. Only authorized vehicles are allowed just outside the main terminal door, although our private tour bus (the same company, Muziris Heritage Day Tours, we used in Cochin–see practical info at the end of this post) was able to pick us up just beyond a barrier to the right as we exited (just in front of the construction site for the new terminal building).
Unlike Cochin where we had a 10-passenger mini-bus, this time we were in a full-sized motor coach, a mixed bag. Our guide for the day was a diminutive older Indian woman with a sizable hunchback. Despite her infirmity and her petite size, she was spry and a quick walker. She also spoke excellent English and told us her name means monsoon rain.
Our tour followed an itinerary that seemed pretty prevalent: We drove through colonial English buildings to a main train station to watch the dabbawalas on their amazingly-organized daily delivery of lunch from home to Mumbai’s office workers.
Then, we caught a local train for about a 15-minute ride to Mahalaxmi to view the huge outdoor laundry of Mumbai.
David and I both succumbed there to the impressive sales pitches of a young girl of 9 selling magnets and a lovely young teenage girl selling purses. They’d learned English, they said, selling on the streets. An impressive feat, and we could only wish the future held more real schooling for these bright, but poor, girls.
Our bus picked us back up at the laundry and drove us to the Krishna Radhagopinath Temple to view a ceremony in progress.
We rode along the seafront promenade to the Gateway of India, a 1924 triumphal arch built to commemorate the visit of English King George V and Queen Mary. Locals gathered at the large square in front of the arch, taking photos of themselves…and us. Throughout India, we were asked to pose for photos with locals. Our guide confirmed that the motivation was our “white skin.”
After the Gateway, we had an hour to kill at the swank Taj Mahal Palacce Hotel. This was our least favorite part of the tour as the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel is Mumbai’s equivalent of the Ritz, with equivalent prices for restaurant options and high-end Western designer shops. There was nothing of interest to us there (other than the heavenly air conditioning and luxe restrooms).
Our group split up here and David and I ended up ducking into Le 15 Café in Colaba, a French café just around the corner from the Taj Mahal Palace. It wasn’t the Indian food we’d envisioned for our last meal in India, but they did take credit cards (We had no rupees and didn’t want to change money this late in the game.), had great air conditioning, decent prices and good sandwiches. We also struck up a conversation with a young woman from New Jersey who’d moved back to her parents’ home city to try her luck starting an IT business.
After lunch, we battled our way through Mumbai traffic, past the University of Mumbai to a photo stop in front of the classic Victoria Station (see lead photo above), and on to Crawford Market, also known as Mahatma Jotibe Phule Market. The market was a large, bustling affair selling produce to locals as well as dry goods and spices to locals and tourists. Traffic is especially horrific in Mumbai now as the roads are torn up everywhere while the city installs a much-needed subway system.
All in all, we enjoyed seeing Mumbai, although it was our least favorite India stop on this cruise. Unlike our other ports of call in India (Cochin and Goa), Mumbai has banned cows on the streets and tuk tuks. We saw lots of garbage and poverty as elsewhere in India, but there was definitely a more cosmopolitan, urbane vibe to Mumbai. Of course, this was a only brief glimpse of the city, so opinion here is limited to our experience and the tour we took in Mumbai versus what we did in the ports of Cochin and Goa.
I had mixed feelings overall about this tour of Mumbai. The main con for us was the lunch break at the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel. I wasn’t wild about the larger motor coach, but watching taxis stuck in traffic, I couldn’t help but think we were cooler and more comfortable. Sitting higher also allowed us to see over the mass of cars (and we weren’t breathing exhaust fumes like many of the people we saw in cars, taxis and on motorcycles). The biggest pros were our knowledgeable guide, the professionalism of the tour company, and the quality of the bus. Our guide’s timing was excellent so that we managed to be on site just as the dabbawalas, those amazing lunch delivery men, began their routine near the train station. We also arrived just in time to watch a ceremony at the Krishna Radhagopinath Temple, remaining right up until the end. We passed another group of tourists on our way out whose guide had delivered them to the spot just in time to miss the ceremony entirely.
Practical Stuff: We paid Muziris Heritage Day Tours $80 per person for this tour. The bus was clean, in good condition, and well-air-conditioned. It arrived and dropped us off promptly. We were able to pay in US dollars at the end of the tour. They also accepted credit cards with a 3% surcharge.
I decided that Goa was the Indian port where we’d go it on our own. Researching ahead of the trip, I’d read warnings about Goa port taxis (the “taxi mafia”) and local newspapers decried the state of affairs at the port and the port authority’s slow pace at installing a promised taxi stand with fixed prices that cruise ship passengers could trust. Happily, we arrived to find that a taxi stand was now in place and the system works smoothly and cheaply. Goa turned out to be fun, cheap, and just what we wanted.
Immigration booths are set up on the dock just outside the ship’s ramps. Just beyond immigration is a money exchange that takes both cash and debit cards. Right next to the money exchange is the official taxi stand. Cash is required for the taxis. Eight tours are offered in guests’ choice of a compact car or SUV. Alternatively, you can create your own itinerary and rent either a car or SUV for 8 hours with either 100, 125 or 150 kilometers. Any overage is charged at a very reasonably 14 rupees/km to be paid directly to the driver. All vehicles are air-conditioned.
We opted for 8 hours with a compact taxi and 100 kilometers since I wanted to see Old Goa (“Velha Goa”) and then spend time on one of Goa’s famous beaches. (I calculated distance and drive time in advance using Google Maps: We’d basically be traveling a triangle with about 1 hour of driving on each leg.) Our total cost was 1700 rupees (just under $30), an awesome deal, especially when compared to the sky-high tour prices offered by Celebrity. (For example, Celebrity wanted $109.75 each–$219.50!–for transfer to and from a beach where we’d get 4 hours free time and lunch at a beach-side restaurant. And no Old Goa included in that excursion.)
We paid for our taxi, got a voucher in exchange with the license plate number of our taxi and the driver’s name and were directed to walk to the nearby port gate where someone would help us find our taxi.
There’s a bit of a chaotic air outside the gate with lots of taxis and drivers milling about, but with the help of some of the drivers standing around, we quickly found our taxi.
I was a little worried at first when our driver brusquely shrugged off my first choice of a South Goa beach, saying he would take us to another just a bit farther on that was also on my list of 3 beaches I was interested in (provided by a native-Goan assistant waiter on the ship). Not absolutely wedded to my first choice, I went along with his suggestion. Our next point of contention came when we pulled out of the port and he seemed to disagree with David’s request to roll up the window and turn on the air conditioning. A crazy idea in the brutal heat! We told him we’d get out of the car if he didn’t turn on the air conditioning and he acceded. After those initial conflicts, I was worried we’d be stuck for the day with a surly driver, but he was fine after that and took good care of us for the rest of the day. His English was limited, so some of the subtleties were no doubted missed on all sides.
The main roads we traveled to Old Goa were in great shape and obviously newly paved and expanded. Still, it’s an hour drive from the port at Mormugao to Old Goa due to winding roads and small towns that we had to pass through. We drove through the city of Vasco da Gama, pausing for a quick visit at a Hindu temple before continuing to to Old Goa.
Our first stop in Old Goa was at the ruins of the Church of St. Augustine, built in 1602 by the Portuguese. The sole remaining tower belfry created a dramatic highlight to the extensive ruins of the church and adjoining convent.
Our driver waited while we wandered the ruins, then informed us that we would stop at 3 shops before continuing on to the churches that form the center of Old Goa. We weren’t thrilled about the all-too-common store detour, but quickly realized this was something our driver needed to do. We gamely looked around the first store, a glitzy place reminiscent of People’s Stores in China, offering high-priced trinkets, jewelry, furniture and more. There were some lovely things, but we had absolutely no interest. Heck, most of our belongings are in storage during this vagabond period of our life! I tried to talk our driver out of the second store, but had no luck so we made an even shorter stop. (We ran into a group cruise excursion at that 2nd store and we were more than happy to be free to leave as they were stuck until the last person had made a purchase or made their way through the long line for the toilets.) Back in the taxi, I told our driver we would go in the last shop, but only “for him.” No, he insisted, “for you.” We back-and-forthed that a couple of times, but all in good humor. David and I made one last, speedy stop in a nearly empty store–taking advantage of the clean, western-style toilets and no line–and finally we were on our way the few blocks to the center of Old Goa.
Our driver let us off near some souvenir stalls, pointed the way to the Bom Jesus Basilica and then indicated how we should proceed to the other sites and where to meet him when we were through. He left the length of our visit entirely up to us.
With the Indian school summer vacation (April-May) in full swing, most of the tourists to the basilica appeared to be Indian families, although we spotted some fellow cruise ship passengers inside. We joined a line to file to the right of the main altar and to a back section of the church that held a holy relic, a large excessively-bloody crucifix and other religious items. We circled an inner courtyard before exiting the basilica to head across the road to the main grounds of the Archeological Survey of India, which consists of a manicured lawn area surrounding seven churches, cathedrals, the basilica and an archeological museum. We opted to skip the museum, but took in the grand Se’ Cathedral and the smaller, but beautifully-painted Church of St. Francis of Assisi (both free-of-charge).
Walking the short distance back to the road, we met our driver and started off on the approximately 1-hour drive to Colva Beach. I’d originally wanted to visit the smaller, less-visited Betelbatim Beach which is adjacent to Colva, but at our driver’s suggestion/insistence, Colva it was. At first, I was worried that he’d steered us to an over-crowded, cheesy touristy beach, thinking that was what we Westerners must want. The area just around the main access to the beach is dotted with tourist shops and little dive-y cafes. Lots of people milled about, too. Hmm. Not looking great. At least they were locals and we weren’t stuck in a Western-style resort. We walked over a small footbridge to the beach and saw that a string of casual waterfront restaurants spread out to our left along a naturally wide white-sand beach.
Happily, we could see that the throng thinned out pretty quickly further away from the main access road. We took off our shoes and strolled through the delightfully warm water to the last restaurant, Luke’s Place, attracted by both the look of the place and the location in spite of the uninspiring and less-than-exotic name.
Noticing another Western couple on two of a string of otherwise-unoccupied lounge chairs under an umbrella in front of the restaurant, I asked if they spoke English and discovered they were English and had been staying near this beach and frequenting this restaurant for two weeks. The woman was wearing a bikini and assured me I’d get no odd looks or hassles for wearing my bathing suit at Colva, despite the fact that all the local women were wading into the ocean in full saris. (I couldn’t believe how casually they treated those gorgeous dresses!) We did have the usual people wanting to take photos with us pale-skinned foreigners. I told David that in our “skimpy” Western bathing suits, it must be for them like Victorian travelers posing with topless natives! The Brits also informed us that the restaurant made excellent food, the large (strong) Kingfisher beer was a good buy, and that the owner would watch our things if we used the lounge chairs and they’d had absolutely no problems. Proving their point, they wandered off for a long stroll, leaving their belongings. This sounded perfect and turned out to be just that.
We enjoyed a good, made-to-order Indian food meal (only Indian rupees accepted) with a great view, then planted ourselves on the cushioned loungers to sunbathe a little before swimming in the ocean. I lost my sunglasses to some great body-surfing and stupidity, but oh well. It was high time I retired those anyway…and I felt pretty sure I could find a cheap pair in India to tide me over until I got back home where I had a good pair waiting.
The ride back to the ship was about another hour and we rolled into the port parking lot, using all but about a half a kilometer of the 100 km we’d paid for. Not bad!
Our first stop in India was Cochin (a/k/a Kochi) in the state of Kerala on the southwest coast. My first time in India, Cochin was a port I was really looking forward to and it didn’t disappoint. We loved this stop! I used Cruise Critic connections to book us with a group of ten fellow cruise passengers on a full day tour, including lunch and a cruise on a traditional houseboat on the Alappuzha (a/k/a “Alleppey”) Backwaters near Cochin. (Find details at the end of this post.)
It’s about a 2-hour drive from the port of Cochin to the Alappuzha Backwaters where we boarded our houseboat. Kerala is one of the most prosperous and well-educated states in India with a nearly 94% literacy rate. Women have higher standing than elsewhere in India as it is a traditionally matrilineal society with inheritance following the female line and mothers the heads of households. While more than 50% Hindu, there are large populations of Muslims and Christians in Kerala. The drive to the Backwaters took us through lush green rural areas, small towns, markets, ubiquitous garbage and ramshackle buildings, as well as some upscale-looking homes and apartment buildings; the chaotic hodgepodge we came to expect of India.
Our Backwaters houseboat turned out to be a 2-bedroom, 1-story boat of the traditional type, in very good condition. We sat in the bow, just behind the captain at his wheel, on benches that ran along the sides of the boat under the shade of a canopy. Four chairs around a cocktail table and a large dining table occupied the center of the space.
We spent a couple of hours leisurely cruising the Backwaters, making a lazy loop that took us out into a big wide-open lake. We spent most of the time in narrower canals bordered by homes that sit below sea-level and flood regularly each year despite low dams built along stretches of the canals. We passed people bathing, doing laundry, fishing and, in general, going about their daily lives.
The call to prayer began as we passed a small mosque, music played from somewhere out of sight. Many other houseboats and smaller boats plied the waters. It’s a unique place and I really enjoyed the whole experience.
A cook prepared our Indian food lunch in the galley at the stern of the ship, then served us buffet-style on the dining table under the canopy. Due to recent regulations in Kerala, beer is not allowed and we were served juice and water. The food was good and plentiful, if not spicy enough for my tastes.
After our Backwaters cruise, we drove back into Old Cochin. We visited the dhobi khana or town laundry operated by Tamil-speaking members of the Vannar Sangham community of untouchables whose ancestors were brought here by the Dutch in the 1700’s to wash army uniforms. (Even though our guide told us the caste system was no longer followed in Cochin, he seemed to think the Tamil origin of these people explained the difference.). The only woman ironing at the time was using an old ember-filled iron since the electricity was out due to a recent electrical storm. Old-fashioned, labor-intensive cleaning and ironing methods are used. Clothes are starched prior to ironing by dipping in rice water.
Washed clothes are hung to dry on wooden frames in a large field. In monsoon season, they use dryers, but it takes a long time as the workers hang the clothes out whenever they can so have to continually hang them and take them down. Washermen and women can lose half of their income during monsoon season.
We walked along the riverfront to view fishermen using “Chinese nets,” fishing nets of ancient design, operated with weighted structures of the size and shape of a fair-sized sailboat sail. Some of the seafood on offer was entirely new to us like weird, flathead “river lobsters.”
In another historic neighborhood, we took a short walk to the only remaining synagogue in Cochin which occupies a dead end on a shopping street. The Paradesi Synagogue was built in 1568 by descendants of Spanish, Dutch and other European Jews and is now maintained by the five remaining Jews in the city. A clock tower attached to the synagogue, built in 1760 and under restoration, adds the only architectural detail of interest visible from outside the plain blue synagogue (which is not open to the public). We had a little free time to explore the many shops on the street leading to the synagogue before heading back to the ship.
Practical info: Our tour operator was Muziris Heritage Day Tours. Our pre-trip contact (not our guide) was Lijo Jose who was recommended by a fellow cruiser who’d used him before. The company apparently does a lot of cruise excursions and their site has a whole section on those. They were waiting to meet us, holding signs, as we debarked. They did several similar-sized tours on the day we were in port, so have the capability to handle a fair number of customers. We were very happy with the tour, pre-trip communication, houseboat, and the value (especially when compared to the cruise price and product as discussed below). The only snafu in the tour came at the very end when we spent about 15 minutes parked on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere while we waited for someone from the tour company to arrive with a credit card machine for those wishing to pay by card. (We paid cash in U.S. dollars. There was a small charge for credit cards, I believe 3%.)
To give you an idea of just how outrageous cruise excursion prices usually are: We paid $80 each versus the $220.75 apiece the cruise ship wanted for the same itinerary. We had ten people in a very nice, mini-van-style small bus vs. a cruise excursion which would have been 40 or so people on a motor coach. From complaints we heard later, our houseboat was nicer than what the cruise excursion people got. The only downside to our mini-bus was that, while we had three “captain’s chairs” on either side of our main aisle, the remaining four us had to take the four seats across the back that were not as spacious. We had a great group with us, though, and volunteers swapped the front seats for the back seats on the return ride. Given the huge price difference, the small size of our group, and the quality of the tour, we were more than happy.
In doing my pre-trip research about Colombo, Sri Lanka, I found little specifics on the port itself and not too much about the city of Colombo that inclined me to want to spend much time there. The one universal bit of info I came across was that traffic in and around Colombo (and much of Sri Lanka) was usually awful. Once again, cruise excursions did nothing to tempt me, but as always, I scanned them to see what the cruise line thought was worth a visit. I decided on the town of Galle as our destination and concluded that a local driver/guide was the way to go. Reviews lead me to choose Sanki Leisure and I found them easy and prompt to deal with by email. I paid 50% down via PayPal (a compromise I proposed when they first suggested an online payment company I wasn’t familiar with and read mixed reviews of).
We were to meet our guide at Gate 02 of the Port of Colombo. I knew it was a big industrial port with no walk-out allowed or doable, but I had no idea what would be offered in the way of transport upon our arrival. It turns out that the Port provided free motor coach shuttles to Gate 01, but the driver was happy to let us off a gate earlier at Gate 02 after instructing us to be sure to go to Gate 01 for our return shuttle back to the ship.
Sure enough, our Sanki guide was waiting as promised with an air-conditioned car. He did not, however, speak more than a few words of English. So much for a driver/guide; we had a driver. Oh well, it would have to do.
We did a quick stop off at Independence Memorial Hall on our way out of Colombo, then quickly found ourselves caught in a traffic and pedestrian snarl among shops thronged with people celebrating the Hindu New Year.
While the scene was fascinating to watch, that famous Colombo traffic was now all that much worse. The plan was to make Galle our primary destination–I really hoped to see those iconic fishermen perched on stilts above the water and the Galle Fort and colonial Old Galle looked intriguing. If we got back to Colombo with enough time, we’d take in the sights there, but if not, Galle was our priority.
Once we finally got out of Colombo, we opted for the wide inland highway rather than the probably more-scenic coastal road since that would shave an hour off our travel time. The highway was in great shape and offered a smooth journey through lush hills dotted with rubber trees and tea plantations. We made pretty good time once David convinced our driver to at least drive the speed limit of 100km/h rather than the 80km/h he seemed inclined to do.
When we arrived in Galle, our driver informed me that the stilt fishermen would not be out at this time of day and it was for tourists anyway. To alleviate my disappointment, I guess, we made a couple of stops along the roadside beach to watch groups of fishermen hauling in big nets from far out in the harbor and then to explore the adjacent fish markets.
From the largest of the fish markets, it was a short drive to the entrance to the ruins of Galle Fort where our driver dropped us off. Surprised to find no entry fee, we wandered into the fort then along the seaside fortifications mingling with tourists and locals strolling and picnicking in the sweltering heat. Hearing English, we joined a group that had spotted a sea turtle in the surf below then checked out a large iguana-like lizard that appeared over the wall nearby.
Inside Galle Fort
Rather than a separate structure, it turns out that Galle Fort actually encompasses Old Town Galle that lies within the protective walls. The original Portuguese fort was apparently more of a separate structure. The Dutch captured Galle in 1640, though, and later they expanded its walls to encompass the town and the entire peninsula creating a major stronghold. The fort and Old Town Galle are now a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Rejoining our driver, he drove us a block or two within Old Town to Elita Restaurant, a café clearly geared to tourists, but offering really delicious seafood (at tourist prices). The chef is a local guy who trained in Belgium. We’d hoped for Sri Lankan food, but couldn’t find it in ourselves to be the least disappointed in fresh tuna steak and shrimp … and cold Lion beer!
We sat on a pretty front porch, painted bright yellow, where a wall-mounted oscillating fan offered fleeting, heavenly respite from the heat. While sipping our beers and waiting on lunch, we chatted with a pair of young Belgian women who’d been traveling in Sri Lanka for three weeks. Their glowing reports combined with similar we’d heard from a German man we met in Munduk (who’d spent a month in Sri Lanka and raved about the wildlife) were definite enticements to return for a real stay.
Post lunch, we were driven another few blocks to the Galle lighthouse. The sunny day had given way to drizzle while we ate and a major storm was gathering in the distance, so we grabbed our umbrellas before walking along a jetty-like wall to the lighthouse then set out to explore the shops and old buildings of Old Galle.
Spices, tea and jewelry are major commodities in Sri Lanka and on offer in nearly every Galle shop. Needing nothing but a little nutmeg for rum punches aboard the ship, we bought only a pack of 5 fresh nutmeg pods.
Back on the street, we kept exploring the narrow roadways of Old Galle until increasing rain led us to take shelter in a little free museum called the Historical Mansion. The cluttered museum is a lure for jewelry shops, but it’s interesting nonetheless set in an old Portuguese building and displaying artifacts from colonial days, an old kitchen, and a central courtyard complete with well. A jewelry maker demonstrated metal work beside the courtyard where a deluge of rain now created waterfalls from the roof. We briefly browsed the jewelry–some of it of impressive quality–then set out into the downpour and booming thunder to find our driver since it was time to head back to Colombo.
Heading back to the carHeavy rain continued all the way back into Colombo and we declined the chance to visit a Hindu temple in the deluge, opting to head back to the ship nearly an hour early. Oh well, we got to see Galle in sunny weather and do most of what we wanted, so overall, we counted the day a success. We saw just enough of Sri Lanka to leave us pondering a return visit when we’re back in this part of the world next spring. The Port shuttle was waiting as promised when we arrived at Gate 01 .
Practical info: We paid Sanki Leisure a total of $195 US for our private driver/”guide” for the day. I paid $98 deposit via PayPal and the balance in cash (US dollars) to the driver upon arrival. For comparison’s sake, Celebrity wanted $179.75 per person for a daytrip to Galle which included lunch at the Jetwing Lighthouse Hotel and a folk museum.
After a day at sea from Singapore, the first stop of our one-month cruise to Europe was Phuket, Thailand. During prime season, ships anchor just off the town of Patong and tenders drop passengers off at floating docks right on a beautiful beach. This is one of those rare cruise ports where tenders are not bad; ten minutes on the tender lands you at a spot you can actually spend the day. (The short distance and smooth water meant that there wasn’t much of a wait for the tenders either as they were able to shuttle back-and-forth pretty quickly.) That said, Patong is a touristy, party town full of restaurants, bars and shops, and isn’t exactly pristine Thailand.
This post is not going to offer anything for cruisers interested in excursions or tours around Phuket. (However, there is some practical info for cruisers at the bottom of this article.) Since we’d spent a few weeks in Thailand less than a year and half earlier and had dove the Phi Phi Islands on the other side of the Phuket peninsula then, we had no desire to make a long, expensive day trip only to compete with hordes of cruise passengers snorkeling and taking boat trips around the Phi Phis or touring the plantations and elephant “sanctuary.” (The Queen Mary 2 was in port the same day we were, so her passengers were adding to the influx.)
Our ambitions for the day were modest: one of those dirt-cheap, vigorous Thai massage sessions, some good Thai food and a little beach time, maybe just strolling in the surf. I did some research pre-trip and settled on Sweet Lemongrass Phuket 2 for the massage. I read good reviews about them in a local publication and was able to make a booking by messaging them on their Facebook page where they post photos of their price list. I booked us two 1.5-hour Traditional Thai Massages for 350 baht each ($10.90 per person). I don’t know that a reservation was essential, but with limited time in port, it seemed like the best idea.
I really wanted David to experience a Thai massage, too. We’d done a side-by-side massage in Chiang Mai, but he’d opted for a more traditional, Swedish-type massage then. I’d gotten the full Thai bordering-on-assault treatment and words just really don’t do it justice. (Even though side-by-side, it’s pretty impossible to see the other person since you’re either face-down or with eyes closed or covered.) David needed to experience it for himself, and I wanted something to compare my first experience to.
An easy 10-minute walk from the floating tender pier found us opening the door to the air-conditioned refuge of Sweet Lemongrass Massage 2. We were greeted with icy water and cold washcloths in the nice front room before being led upstairs to our curtained massage room.
The last curtain on the right led to our massage “room.”
Our masseuses left us alone to change into the loose-fitting short set favored for these massages. The shorts are huge, but a tie wraps around the waist as much as needed to cinch it in.
When the ladies returned, the “fun” began. Thai massage is like none other I’ve tried. I’ve been pretty aggressively massaged — and exfoliated to the edge of blood-letting — by hammam ladies in Paris, but Thai massage is a whole different game. There’s the usual kneading and pressing of knots, but it focuses much attention on stretching, and that can push right up against alarming. There’s also a certain amount of light hitting. (Sounds great so far, right?) My diminutive Thai masseuse soon climbed up on the table with me, bending me in half from the waist, as she knelt behind me, one knee tucked under my arm against my side while she put my neck and shoulders in a lock to twist with all her might. Lying on my stomach, she placed a foot behind one knee, then pushed on the raised foot in a move my brother and I deemed “unfair” when wrestling as children. It still hurts!
For an hour and a half, I passed from blissful massage to occasionally painful body locks, stretches, aggressive pressure point moves and jabs. Once or twice I yelped an “ouch!” that caused the masseuse to apologize and ease off. Beside me, I could hear the occasional grunt or “oof!” from David and wondered what he was thinking about this whole business. To top off my massage, my masseuse pulled the clip out of my hair and began a scalp massage that devolved to little snatching motions with her fingers followed by jerking on handfuls of hair. Hard! Ow! I struggled not to laugh at the thought I was paying her (albeit a pittance) to beat me up. Oh well, I was going to see it through to the end and gauge the therapeutic effects of the full package. David hadn’t called “uncle” yet either, so I assumed he was in the same mode. (He later informed me his experience had been similar to mine, but he’d been spared the hair-yanking I was treated to. He was glad he’d tried it, but isn’t going to be seeking out Thai massage back home.)
To wrap things up, my masseuse climbed back up on the table with me and began braiding portions of my hair. At first, I thought she was just pulling it out of my face since the scalp massage and hair-pulling had made a rat’s nest, but she kept going until I had a full French braid as, I don’t know … a peace offering , maybe?
For all that Thai massage can be excessively “vigorous,” the whole process left us feeling relaxed and “worked out.” I was a little sore later that evening, but by the next day aching neck and shoulder muscles that had been nagging at me for some time were improving.
We went straight from the massage to little Thai restaurant I’d read about as being popular with locals as well as the ubiquitous tourists of Patong. (A short walk of maybe 5 minutes) It was nothing fancy, but it was pleasant, and we had a solid Thai lunch for reasonable prices at S&G Family restaurant, a place that’s been in business since 1985. Like most little restaurants and shops in the area, it’s open to the outside with only ceiling fans for cooling. Service was friendly and prompt.
Our main goals were to get our curry fix. My only minor complaint was that my green curry chicken was lacking those tiny, round and bitter eggplants that are so unique to Thailand and that I’ve been unable to find in the States.
After lunch, it was time for the beach. Feeling lazy and full, we opted to just walk along the lapping surf, people watching and enjoying the scenery. There were plenty of places offering lounge chairs, umbrellas and refreshments if we’d been so inclined. There were also small boats and jet skis pulling multi-person floats on offer. Patong Beach is bustling and lively, but even with two ships in port, it wasn’t unpleasantly crowded.
The floating pier for our tenders dropped us off just in front of the Avantika Boutique Hotel which you can find on Google Maps. (There was another floating pier a block or so NE up the beach where tenders to and from the Queen Mary 2 used.) Tenders ran back and forth to the ships regularly throughout the day, so going back to the ship and returning again would have been an option.
Sweet Lemongrass Massage 2 is at 7.884975, 98.293699 on GPS; ถนน ราษฏร์อุทิศ, 200 Pee Rd, Pa Tong, Kathu District, Phuket 83150, Thailand. Phone: +66 76 349 847
S&G Family Restaurant is at 104/2 Soi Post Office Thaweewong Rd, Tambon Patong, Amphoe Kathu, Chang Wat Phuket 83150, Thailand. Phone: +66 76 340 151
After visiting Borobudur Temple and Mendut, we wanted to see a little more of Central Java. I was particularly interested in seeing tofu production and the making of batik. Our hotel, Amata Borobudur Resort, suggested a horse-drawn carriage (an-dong) tour, but that sounded way too touristy to me…and I wanted to be able to return to the refuge of air conditioning periodically! My desire for creature comforts turned out to be the ticket to a really interesting day since a car allowed us to roam far afield and our driver wasn’t limited to the tourist “craft village” favored by the an-dongs.
Our first clue that the day was going to be something unique came as our driver roamed a neighborhood filled with small tofu makers, apparently looking at random for one that would let us observe. It was easy to spot the homes where tofu was being made by the piles of wood outside. The wood was fuel for the underground furnaces used to heat the vats of soy product. At his first stop, our guide was sent to another place further down a residential road. We waited as he went inside, then came back out to tell us we could go in. As we entered, a cat with kittens watched from a ramshackle space piled high with sacks of soybeans.
We walked past men working with huge, furnace-heated vats (see lead photo and video below) to watch women frying, straining and packaging tofu to be sold at a local market.
With 8 or 9 people working, this turned out to be the largest business we’d see for the day. We weren’t expected, our driver didn’t seem to know anyone, and no one asked for any sort of payment. Nevertheless, we were made to feel welcome and tolerated with friendliness as we wandered and watched the activity and tried to stay out of their way. A man poured steaming liquid into a mesh then weighted it with a large stone, then a second man pressed this into a mold. Another man carried the rectangles of hot, molded tofu to a woman in another room who placed the rectangles on shelves to cool before yet other women cut, fried and sorted the tofu for packaging. It was hot, busy work.
Driving through more rural residential neighborhoods, we passed houses with large mats on which rice dried in the sun. Our driver questioned people on the side of the road before finding our next destination. We were surprised and pleased at the apparent randomness of our stops. Our driver obviously knew which neighborhoods specialized in certain activities, but had no “special friend” he was taking us to for a kick-back, the all-too-common experience with tour guides. The way he was going about finding places to show us gave things an authentic feel we appreciated.
Our next stop, a husband and wife-owned batik-making enterprise (apparently the result of one of those random inquiries by our driver to passers-by), Lumbini Batik House, was more geared toward visitors. The wife showed us their work in progress, then offered us a selection of patterns on small cloth squares to try our hand at batik making. She showed us how to use a special tool to go over the lines of the patterns with melted wax.
We made some mistakes and David dripped a spot on our project, so we improvised by elaborating the design and adding our initials. A young woman then dipped our cloth in a deep blue dye. The finished product wasn’t bad! Our hostess showed us around her lush garden, pointing out the fruit, bark and leaves that were used for dyes and offering us fruit to eat.
After viewing an adjacent shop, but not really wanting or needing to buy anything, we paid our hostess a small amount for her time and our project.
Since we’d read and heard about Pawon Temple as finishing out a triumvirate with Borobudur and Mendut, we asked our driver to take us there. Pawon turned out to be a tiny “temple” with little to see. It was open to the public without fee.
Much more interesting than the little temple was a stop at the nearby home/workshop of a tiny lady who makes palm sugar.
With our driver translating, she showed us how she cooked the sugar in the half-light that filtered through the woven walls of her kitchen. Afterwards, she offered us tea and thick, crispy homemade soybean chips along with disks of her rich, still-warm palm sugar. The sugar reminded me of those semi-soft maple sugar candies found in Vermont and Canada. Delicious!
Our final stop was at a small shop a short walk from the sugar lady’s home. We’d tried luwak coffee before in Bali and really enjoyed it, so wanted to give a Javanese version a try. While luwak coffee — made from coffee beans “processed” through the digestive system of a luwak or palm civet — is billed as “the most expensive coffee in the world” and can reportedly cost $30/cup(!) in California, it’s not expensive in Bali and Java.
We enjoyed our cup of joe, but found it to be not nearly as unusual or tasty as what we had in Bali. This was a pleasant stop, but by far the least interesting of the day. Oh well, we’d had much fun and were ready to head home to our hotel for a little late afternoon pool time and dinner.
Our driver cost us about $30 for the day, a value we were more than happy with.
Eschewing the Manohara Hotel next to Borobudur Temple for something more exotic, smaller and with better dining reviews, I chose Amata Borobudur Resort for our 4-night stay in Central Java. At about $80/night, it was more expensive than a lot of options in the area, but about $60 cheaper/night than the Monohara and with what looked like a lot more local charm and an interesting setting. Amata also provides free transportation to Borobudur Temple (including for sunrise) which is only 10-15 minutes away.
Our 1.5 hour flight from Denpasar, Bali, was delayed just long enough that we arrived in Yogyakarta, Java, at rush hour. Fortunately, the driver Amata sent for us knew the back roads and was able to dodge some of the traffic once we were out of the city, but what we hoped would be an 1h 20 min drive still stretched to two hours and we arrived after dark. So, the layout of the little resort remained shrouded in mystery and we could only explore our bungalow…which we loved!
Done in classic Javanese style with wooden walls and high ceiling, someone with an artistic touch had really raised it to the next level. The little attention to details charmed us.
The shower room, while un-air-conditioned as usual, was surprisingly fully-enclosed. Save for Nusa Dua, all the bathrooms we’d had had openings to the outdoors. This makes large wood ants wandering the bathrooms a common occurrence. We learned to just ignore them. At Amata, no bugs! We did however have a large salamander that lived high in the rafters and “barked” occasionally. Oh well, when in Asia…
The next morning dawned bright and sunny and we could survey our new domain. We discovered we had the bungalow furthest from the main building, which we thought was a plus. The distance wasn’t far, but we had lots of privacy and looked out over adjoining rice paddies in the opposite direction.
Breakfast in the nearby open-air pavilion turned out to be a multi-course affair served at table.
Later, we found dinner to be tasty and even simple dishes we’d grown accustomed to were presented with an extra flair. A limited selection of beer and wine is available, something not always on the menu in Muslim Java.
From Amata Borobudur Resort, it’s a short walk to Mendut Temple which is definitely worth a visit, and very cheap (less than a $1, if I remember correctly).
All in all, we really enjoyed Amata Borobudur Resort. I’d stay there again, and feel like we got decent value for the money. I paid 4,500,000 idr ($320 US) for 4 nights, or about $80/night for a “deluxe bungalow.” (Our bungalow was named “Sunibya” and I recommend it for style and location within the resort.) This price included breakfast, 10% tax and 10% service charge. The price is relatively high for the area, but provides a measure of luxury with local flair and is substantially less than the $140 or so rate at the Manohara Hotel next to Borobudur Temple, even factoring in the reduction offered there for entry to the temple. (There’s a spa on-site at Amata as well, but we did not use it.) Plenty of budget options exist in the area, for those looking for more basic accommodations. I booked via Booking.com as they had the best rate at the time and I used Topcashback to get even more off. (Currently, Topcashback is offering a 7% rebate on Booking.com bookings. If you’re not a Topcashback member, you can use my link here.)
Amata arranged a driver for us to and from Yogyakarta Airport for 300,000 idr each way ($21.34). There was no additional charge for our pre-dawn departure. They also arranged a driver for us to explore the region for a day which turned out to be a great experience and far less touristy than we feared, a bonus of choosing a car which could wander much further than the horse-drawn tourist cart tour they initially suggested. (A car also offers air conditioning, a huge and irreplaceable bonus is steamy Central Java.) The cost was around $30. We paid via credit card for the 3 drivers when we settled our room bill.
The only minor “complaint” I have about the location of Amata Borobudur Resort is that the several mosques in the area begin an almost comical competition of calls to prayer many times a day, some starting in the wee hours and all over loudspeakers. I’m not sure it would be much better elsewhere in the area, though.