Here’s the second lot of my travel highlights of 2012, in no particular order.
Whereabouts: Himeshima, Ōita
There’s not much to Himeshima (“Princess Island”), a tiny drop in Japan’s inland sea. In fact, this is the boondocks of the country; still, I loved its ramshackle beach houses (particularly this blue one, four metres from the water) and its friendly gumboot-wearing fishermen. The cheery mistress of the ryokan where I stayed was lots of fun, too, even as she decapitated live prawns and handed me their wriggling bodies to eat.
Whereabouts: Chompet district, Luang Prabang
Thanks to my job, I was able to stay at the Amantaka resort while in Luang Prabang, rather than a backpacker joint. With rack rates around the US$1,200-a-night mark, it wasn’t what I’d call roughing it. But things got decidedly more rustic when I took a longboat across the Mekong to the muddy Chompet district. Before I knew it, a pair of village urchins had beckoned me to follow them along a jungle path. When we came upon a door set into a hidden stone wall – a bit like the entrance to the mines of Moria – they unlocked it with a rusty key. Soon they were leading me through a series of caves, shining a faltering torch on the occasional Buddhist statue in a niche for me to admire. As giggly as the urchins were, you never quite know what your fate might be in these sorts of travel situations; “Will I plant a foot in the wrong place and fall into an abyss?” you ask yourself; or, “Are these children in the paid employ of a serial killer who lives at the end of one of the tunnels?”
Whereabouts: Pudong International Airport, Shanghai
I wouldn’t normally count a three-hour transit as a travel highlight, but this was my first time on the Chinese mainland since I lived there four years ago. Talk about a blast from the past; there is something inimitably awesome about China and its skewiff-ness. Anyway, here are some observations from my short but entertaining stay at Shanghai’s Terminal 1.
- In one corner of the departure lounge I found a “Cold Water Dispenser”. It had three buttons: “Warm”, “Warm” and “Hot”. I asked a local: “Does this thing have cold water?” “No!” he barked, like I was stupid for asking.
- The tune over the loudspeaker was a muzak version of Brahms’ Lullaby. And that was the only tune – it played on repeat for the duration of my transit time. Made me kind of sleepy.
- Eating options were as limited as I remember from four years ago: the same grotty noodle restaurants staffed by young women with doll-eye mascara and flesh-coloured stockings as thick as compression tights.
- One thing had changed: the bookstore no longer stocked a section of “adult” titles – the ones that used to be hidden among the hardcover art books behind the back shelf.
- I bought a bunch of Tsingtao cans for a negligible amount of RMB and drank them while waiting for my flight. They were the old-school ring-pull cans, which were phased out in other countries from as early as the 1970s. Each time I opened a can, I dropped the ring-pull into the liquid itself, like I used to do as a kid. (With soft drinks, not beer.) (Well, sometimes with beer.)
9. Sri Lanka
Whereabouts: On an early afternoon train from Colombo to Mount Lavinia
I loved this – a spontaneous 10-cent train ride to Mount Lavinia, a beach resort 20 minutes south of Colombo, on Sri Lanka’s west coast. I spent the whole trip hanging out an open door with the local kids, enjoying the breeze and the Indian Ocean views. Once there, I paid six bucks to use the fancy shmancy pool at the Mount Lavinia Hotel, including access to the private beach below. Pakistani fast bowler Shoaib Akhtar was at the table next to mine, smoking ciggies and drinking cocktails.
Whereabouts: Front verandah of Mum and Dad’s house, Kingsley Street, Byron Bay
Is there any better type of travel than going home after a long absence? Autumn sunset, the distant crash of surf at Tallow Beach, Mum’s lamb roast sizzling away in the oven.