Panama City Panama

Panama was always a country I wanted to visit.  Internet articles claimed that a retiree could live like a king with their Social Security check of about $1,000 per month.  With the lure of modern amenities, inexpensive prices and great surfing year-round too; I had to see for myself.  In November of 2012, my girlfriend and I made the trip.  We flew from Orlando International (MCO) to Panama City Panama (PTY) on Copa Airlines.  The flight was non-stop and took less than 4 hours.  We decided to take our surfboards on this trip and Copa only charged $100 for both since they were in one board bag.  Once there, we rented a car and asked the rental agent for hotel advice.  After a couple of calls we had reservations and a destination for the GPS.  Getting to Panama City from the airport was pretty easy but the GPS got us lost several times once in town.  It just couldn’t keep up with the streets and kept sending us around in circles.  We finally gave up and just started asking hotel rates and availability in the area.  I’m not sure what part of town the rental agent sent us to but it wasn’t exactly the high-rent district.  We were pretty specific about wanting value accommodations but we ended up in the pay by the hour prostitute section of town.  One hotel where we checked the rates actually had light switches in the manager’s office with room numbers and keys on hooks underneath.  I suppose this was a true by-the-hour hotel.  We ended up finding a place that seemed pretty clean.  I don’t remember the name or exact price but they had secure parking, a hooker posted on the corner in front of the place and free porn on the TV.

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Dinner was a bit expensive too.  I had an $8 burger at a diner near our hotel.  The prices on the menu were very similar to restaurants in Florida.  Maybe I missed something but this was not turning out to be the budget friendly trip I had hoped for.

Dreamland Beach Bali

Dreamland beach is a very nice beach between Kuta and Uluwatu.  Dreamland beach has the bad reputation of kicking out locals  in order to make a luxury community.  We found it to be a nice beach that was easy to get to and had all amenities a guest could need.  They had shopping, restaurants, hotels and even surfboard rentals.  The food and shopping was reasonably priced but I wouldn’t want to know how much the resorts charge for a room.  Dreamland also claims to have an easy surf break but there was a large swell during our visit.  The shore-pound was overhead :(

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Bingin Beach Bali

Bingin is located between Padang Padang and Dreamland on the ring road to Uluwatu.  It is a beautiful beach with a popular surf break and a quaint cliffside town.  To be honest, I didn’t give it much of a chance because I was put off by all of the steps.  It felt like there were a million…must have been hundreds though.  All of this after a day at Padang Padang and the many steps to the top there.  We walked forever from the parking area.  I almost turned around twice before arriving at the beach and we got lost in the dark on the way home.  This is definitely not the place to stay if you have luggage to drag to your hotel…unless they have a donkey to pick you up.

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Padang Padang Beach Bali

 

Padang Padang Beach was my favorite location in Bali.  It offered a little bit of everything that could be found on the island and then some.  It is located between Bingim and Uluwatu on the ring road of the Buki Peninsula.  You will know you are there when you see TONS of scooters parked on the bridge just after a few hotel signs.

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Pictured above: fueling the scooter for the day.

Pictured below:  The view from the scooter parking area on top of the bridge.

 

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There are calm water pools inside the reef breaks great for snorkeling and just cooling off.

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At low tide, the cliffs provide access to secret cove beaches in the eroded rocks.

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There are also monkeys that frequent the beach.  Like Uluwatu, be careful, they like to steal stuff.

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Pictured below is are the steps carved into the cliff that leads up to the parking area.  There are probably 500 steps so you don’t want to forget anything at the top :)

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The roads in the area are not in the best of shape.  There was quite a bit of construction during our visit and we ended up with a nail in the tire.  I thought we were going to be out a lot of money but the tire repair man only charged us $.50 (Fifty Cents!) for the repair.  I gave him nearly everything in my wallet out of appreciation for helping us in our time of need though.

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Just behind me was the lady who cooks, in my opinion, the best chicken fried rice in all of Bali.  It was a bit sweet and spicy and had great flavor.  Apparently, according to another visitor, you don’t want to watch them cook it though.  There are a LOT of flies and sanitation isn’t their thing.  Either way…I’m still here, never got sick and it tasted great.

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On my last day at Padang Padang a wave swept my flip-flop right off my foot.  I saw it wash away and followed it briefly but it was soon gone to wherever Wilson the volley ball from Castaway went.

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Bye Flip-flop…I miss you already :(

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Surfing Padang Padang wasn’t as bad as Uluwatu.  On a six-foot day I rented a board and had some fun.  Be careful of the reef though.  I was lured out behind the main left hand break.  I caught a wave before a big set came in.  Trying to duck the first wave I let the board go behind me and ducked under.  When doing this, I realized the water was only waist deep over a very sharp coral reef.  This was mid tide too.  I could only imagine how shallow it was during low tide.  After that, I chose to ride the shoulder with the newbies.

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Great beach and great memories here.  I highly recommend this beach to anyone who visits the area.  There are vendors selling inexpensive stuff, lifeguards, surfboard rentals, food vendors, monkeys, calm water, great surf…and just about anything else you could want!

Uluwatu Bali Indonesia

Uluwatu is a town on the South-West part of the Bukit Peninsula about 40km from Kuta.  This area consists of limestone cliffs and coral reef beaches.  These beaches are also known for the best surf breaks in Bali…many of which are expert level due to the shallow reefs and large hollow waves.

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There are many protected coves where the water is calm clean and clear.

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Above the Uluwatu surf break is a village built into the Cliffside with bars and restaurants.  We had a great view of the many surfers out during a swell with double-overhead waves.

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It’s hard to get a proper perspective of the wave from my camera but this section jacks up and many surfers were getting deep into the barrel on this wave.

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Uluwatu Temple is also adjacent to the surf break.  There you will find a large temple built on top of the cliff inhabited by hundreds of monkeys.  Be careful though.  They are attracted to shiny objects and are known for stealing stuff from tourists.

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At the temple entrance, they sell bananas and peanuts and will also lend male visitors a sarong to meet temple dress code.  Skip the Sarong sales people in the parking lot and tip the temple staff.

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The temple provides very picturesque views from the cliff top.

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Our day was blessed with nice weather and Leticia was fortunate enough to get a picture with one of the monks

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Uluwatu is a great place for pro-level surfers or people who do not mind spending lots of money.  It would be a gorgeous honeymoon location.  Since  I am budget conscious during my travels, it was better to visit than stay here.  The guests in this town are somewhat captive in that there are not a lot of choices for shopping, dining and entertainment.  Scooter rentals and lots of commuting to other locations is a must to find the best values.

Kuta Beach, Bali Indonesia

Bali is a beautiful island in Indonesia where tourists flock by the thousands.  Most tourists will arrive on the island through Ngurah Rai International Airport, also known as Denpasar International Airport (DPS).  Located in Southern Bali, it provides access to most of the islands surf breaks.   Bali: “surfer’s paradise” or at least it says so in the customs section on arrival at the airport.  At first, I did not see what the hype was about because Kuta beach was not much different than Florida sand breaks.  After taking the scooter to Uluwatu and surrounding areas during a swell, I can see how it gets the name.  Kuta is the ideal area for lodging, dining, shopping and entertainment though.  There are tons of hotels, restaurants and bars around the Legion Street area.  If you are comfortable enough to rent a scooter to explore other beaches during the day, Kuta is the perfect home base for the area.  Upon arrival, with no reservations and limited knowledge of the area, I took the taxi driver’s advice and stayed at an inexpensive hotel across the street from the Discovery Mall on JL Kartika Plaza Street.  The hotel was inexpensive enough, under $30 per night, but did not have beach access within walking distance.

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After renting a scooter and looking around the area, we found the Karma Lhinda II hotel for $24 per night.  I was unable to locate a link for this hotel but it shares a property with Easy Surf with access beside the Circle K just north of Beach Walk Mall on JL Pantai Kuta street.

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Just across the street from the hotel was a beech access and surfboard rentals.  The owners sold cold beer from their cooler and provided chairs to sit in and entertainment too.

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Surfing Kuta Beach was not much different than FL.  It was a sand break with mostly small waves.  When the surf got bigger, it was mostly close-outs.

 

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We did find a big tube near legion street :)

Kuta Beach has everything a tourist could want…except a great surf break.  It is ideal for beginners and there are many surf schools.  If you crave big hollow waves then you need to travel South to Dreamland, Bingim, Padang-Padang or Uluwatu.  Traffic is a bit crazy here so scooting to these areas is not for the faint of heart.

Kuala Lumpur Malaysia

Our Asia journey continued to Kuala Lumpur Malaysia.  We arrived at KUL and had plenty of time till our next flight so we decided to tour the city.  Getting around Kuala Lumpur is pretty easy with their transit system.  We caught the train from KUL to KLIA Central.  The tickets were not cheep though; about $11 per person.

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The train was very clean and very easy to navigate the city on.  The route was displayed on big screen TVs and announcements included English translation.

 

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The train stopped near Central market so we did some shopping along the way.

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Everything was quite expensive in Kuala Lumpur.  This coffee was about $5 per cup.  Not a good deal but it was nice to get out of the rain for a bit.

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Our next form of transport was the city bus system.  After talking to the locals in the University area, we found that certain city bus lines are free.  This one took us pretty close to the Petronas Towers.

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Although too late for tickets to the observation area we still got some pretty good photos.

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Bathrooms at the Petronas Mall were quite clean but, like other places in Asia, they were “bomb-drop” toilets.  It takes a bit of getting used to

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Pictured above is the fountain.

Kuala Lumpur is a very cool city. I guess it would be much better if you had a lot of money to spend. It is an international city with everything to offer.  Being on a budget, I would probably skip the city tour next time personally.  With the $100 spent that day, I could have spent a week in many other value destinations in the world.  I love to travel and value experience for the dollar.  I am not suggesting that Kuala Lumpur is not a great destination but it just doesn’t fit my thrifty travel lifestyle.

Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) Vietnam

Ho Chi Minh City or Saigon as it was once known is a modern city with more to offer than many other major cities in the world.  I was impressed by the clean streets and friendly people.  I felt very welcome by everyone I encountered.  My obvious Western appearance always led to the question of where I was from.  When I told them I was from the US, they were even more welcoming.  It seems as though the South Vietnamese people are still very grateful to see US visitors.  It may be because many Vietnamese evacuated to the US and return to visit their relatives.  Whatever the case, their hospitality is unmatched by any country in the world to me.  Being a former French colony, the culinary skills are top-notch. Every meal is crafted to have great flavors and presentation is equally important.  For the price, I do not think you will find better meals anywhere.  I stayed at Myhome Guesthouse for $15 per night.  Their location is central to everything and the family that runs it are super nice.  There are tons of guest houses in the area that I’m sure would be just as good but trip advisor ranks them as #25 of 568.  My trip wasn’t planned to include hotel reservations but I am very happy to have stumbled across Myhome.

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The bus ride from Saigon to Mui Ne and back was very nice.  Everything was very clean and professional.

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Ho Chi Minh City has a bustling night life.  Restaurants and bars line the sidewalk with chairs to give the feeling of a giant block party.  With as many people, I would have thought they were setting up for a parade or other special event but this was apparently just a normal weekend evening.

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Skilled craftsmen are everywhere.  Above is a tailor who transformed a skirt in one hour.  Pictured below is a man who noticed my flip flop was coming apart and offered to repair them on the spot.  Within a few minutes, they were glued and cleaned good as new.

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I have many fond memories of Ho Chi Minh City and hope to have the opportunity to return soon.

Mui Ne Vietnam

Mui Ne Vietnam is a friendly beach town close to Ho Chi Minh City on the China Sea.  Like all places I’ve been in Vietnam, everything was very clean, the people are super friendly and the prices are great.  I highly recommend a visit to Mui Ne to anyone who plans to visit the country.  The bus from Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) stopped in front of the Sand Dune hotelDSC02516 DSC02513We checked a couple hotels nearby but ended up staying at the Sand dune for $12 per night.  They had nicer hotels in the area directly on the beach but I feel this was the best value for the dollar.  The room, pictured above, was better than most value accommodations I have stayed at anywhere in the world.  Plus, the night shift desk clerk brought his puppies to work…very cute!DSC02463 Pictured below is a map of the area. I used this to chart our adventures. DSC02394 The Sand Dunes hotel has a restaurant, travel agency and scooter rental office in their lobby.  I rented one of their newer scooters for $5 per day.  Pictured below is a local fueling us up for lots of area exploring.DSC02413

According to a very popular travel book, there is supposed to be a surf break on Mui Ne beach.  Looking for this beach was top priority since I hadn’t been on a board since Kata Beach Thailand.

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Unfortunately, the South China Sea was pretty flat but it did provide for beautiful backdrops for pictures.  The water was clean, clear and warm.

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Mui Ne is a beautiful place with many 5-star resorts but it was strange to not see a single guest at any of the ones visited.  Each resort had plenty of staff working but no visitors.  When I asked, they explained that it is off season and they only get locals on the weekend during this time of year.

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With no surf in site, a tour of the area led to the “Fairy Stream”.  It was a 2k hike on a small stream to a waterfall.

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Pictured above are our “guides”…not that a person could get lost walking up the shallow stream.  They were school age children who needed money for school supplies.  We were happy to donate.  They brought us about 1/4 of the way and turned back to guide more guests. lol  There were not too many people that day so I suppose they needed to make the most of their time.

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Erosion of the soft sand over time has created very cool features on the banks of the stream.

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And finally…the small waterfall.

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More exploring along the Ho Chi Minh Trail led to the only resort to rent surfboards.  I failed to get the name of the resort when there and could not locate it on the map.  It was about an hour scooter ride North of Mui Ne.

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This resort was very nice but also deserted.  It was strange to see a staff of about 30 people all dressed up in silk robes waiting on our every need.  Even though we were not staying at the resort but just visiting for the day they made us feel quite welcome.  The resort and all amenities were at our disposal.

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Pictured above is the resort…with no guests.  Below is the only wave caught in Vietnam.  Body surfing was the way to go on this day.  Although the surf rental person promised waves in the days to come…I never saw them :(

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Overall, Mui Ne Vietnam was a highlight of the trip.  The people were great and the area is beautiful.  I found the food to be quite good and inexpensive.  I ate at many restaurants during my stay but often chose the Strawberry because it was the best value for my money.  Through my journeys I look for places where one can stretch a budget.  I try to find the best balance between cost and quality.  Vietnam offers high quality at a very affordable price.  It is high on my list of countries worth a repeat visit.

Bus from Phnom Penh Cambodia to Ho chi minh City (Saigon) Vietnam

It is important to note that you MUST have a Vietnam visa prior to arrival in Vietnam.  Whether by land, sea or air; there is no way to obtain a visa from immigrations in Vietnam.  Unless you want to be in limbo waiting for deportation, make sure you get your visa first.

Once you have your Vietnam visa, travel from Phnom Penh to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) is simple. Like many places throughout Asia, there are tons of travel agencies to help with all types of travel.  We used the Travel agency in our hotel to book onward travel to Saigon.  A tuk-tuk arrived to take us to the bus terminal at the scheduled time and the whole trip cost about $6 per person.

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As you can see above, the buses from Cambodia were not the newest nor cleanest but they got us to Ho Chi Minh City.  The bus company drove to the Cambodian border where we unloaded, obtained our exit stamp and re loaded on the bus.  Then we followed the same process on the Vietnam side before reaching our final destination of Ho Chi Minh City.  The process was very smooth and there was hardly a wait on either side of the boarder. For those who may be apprehensive about the land routes, don’t worry; they are quite safe and reliable.