First Beach

Look, obviously it wasn't ALL bad. What's a little party atmosphere among fellow lushes?

Look, obviously it wasn’t ALL bad…I mean, what’s a little party atmosphere among fellow lushes, right?

We hit up two beaches during our stay in Bocas Del Toro: One that we could drive to and one that we had to take a boat to.

The first one was called Playa Estrella (Starfish Beach), and Lonely Planet told us it was about the only nice beach on Bocas del Toro Province. We hailed a cab in town at the south end of the province and negotiated a price to deliver us along a pothole-laden road to the far north shore.

It took us the better part of an hour, as I recall, which gave the driver plenty of time to ask how we intended to get home. Evidently taxis FROM the beach back to Bocas are pretty hard to come by. Thankfully, he would be coming back to the north shore later that day, and so we arranged a pick up time towards the end of the day.

The upside of this situation is that we knew we would have a ride back. The downside is that I was never really truly able to relax. With a set end-time for your day, my mind was constantly preoccupied with the time – and I would regularly check my phone to make sure I wasn’t running late for the appointed taxi trip.

That’s not conducive to relaxing beach time.

You know what else isn’t conducive to relaxing beach time? Loud party music!

From the spot where the taxi dropped us off, we hired a water taxi to take us on a quick jaunt around a bend of the island and directly onto Starfish beach.

On dropping us off, it was clear that this spot was popular with the locals and the blaring music from each of the food stands that lined the beach made it obvious that each business was trying to outdo the one next to it.

The result was a cacophony of Latin rhythms.

We grabbed a couple of chaise lounges and tried our best to relax. A couple of beers each, and a short swim soon helped us get into the mood, but a quiet beach would have been much more enjoyable.

We headed back to our hotel around dinnertime, and were greeted by a beautiful sunset on the secluded waterfront dock just inside our hotel’s gate! What a great way to relax after a non-relaxing (but still fun) day at the beach.

The post-beach view from our hotel.

The post-beach view from our hotel.

our plan for the next day held hope that we would see a more secluded, less tumultuous beach. More on that later.

For now, here are a few of the photos from Playa Estrella.

The cabbie dropped us off at Bocas del Drago - which is a 2-minute water taxi ride or a 10-15 minute walk to Playa Estrella. We went by boat and returned on foot - just to see both options.

The cabbie dropped us off at Boca del Drago – which is a 2-minute water taxi ride or a 10-15 minute walk to Playa Estrella. We went by boat and returned on foot – just to see both options.This shot was taken at end of day, when the cloud was rolling in.

The beach at Bocas del Drago, where we caught the water taxi. Maybe we should have stayed there!

The beach at Boca del Drago earlier in the day, where we caught the water taxi. Sunny and fairly quiet…maybe we should have stayed there!

Hand-painted sign warning not to touch the stardish. There aren't a lot of starfish left around the beach, but we did spot one (and didn't touch it!)

Hand-painted sign warning not to touch the starfish. There aren’t a lot of starfish left around the beach, but we did spot one (and didn’t touch it!)

Boca del Drago

Two chaises lounges, just waiting for us as we arrived on the beach. We didn't even pay for them (although I suspect we were meant to)

Two chaises lounges, just waiting for us as we arrived on the beach. We didn’t even pay for them (although I suspect we were meant to)

A bit of the bustle happening along the beach. Worse were the noisy tourists.

A bit of the bustle happening along the beach. Worse were the noisy tourists.

Definitely would have had to pay for hammock-use.

Definitely would have had to pay for hammock-use.

Still managed to get a few shots without the throngs of people in the way.

Still managed to get a few shots without throngs of people in the way.

Heading back towards Bocas del Drago along the footpath.

Heading back towards Boca del Drago, along the footpath.

Pee break!

Pee break! The beer gets to you after a while.

Windswept look.

Windswept look.

Ready to cross a flooded area.

Ready to cross a flooded area.

Two cyclists decided to forge ahead through the flooded zone, not bothering with the makeshift bridge (or about water-borne parasites either, apparently!)

Two cyclists decided to forge ahead through the flooded zone, not bothering with the makeshift bridge (or bothered by potential water-borne parasites either, apparently!)

A couple more scenes from the trek back to Bocas del Drago.

A couple more random scenes from the trek back to Boca del Drago.

Boca del Drago

Chinese Food

Our native Chinese language expert.

With Junkii as a traveling companion, Chinese language skills have certainly come in handy during our adventures together. His knowledge of Mandarin and Cantonese have been particularly useful during our stops across Asia. Even in countries where it’s not the primary language, there is almost always a Chinese speaker around to help us communicate.

Still, while we knew the Chinese diaspora has extended well beyond Asia’s borders, neither of us expected to be able to take advantage of Junkii’s native tongue in the middle of Latin America.

Neither of us speaks Spanish particularly well. I speak French, and had taken a few Spanish lessons via audio-book. Together, that skill set provided me just enough knowledge to get myself in trouble shortly after starting a conversation.

It will make sense, then, that over the course of the previous week in Panama, we had grown weary trying to make ourselves understood in even the most basic business transactions: ordering food at a restaurant, booking a boat tour, renting a car.

We had the first inkling that there was a way around this communications impasse during our drive to Bocas. En route, we stopped to get gas, and the small cafe (I use the term very loosely) attached to the gas station was run by Chinese. Junkii prodded them in Cantonese and sure enough they responded back without issue. We used the opportunity to fill our bellies with a few Chinese buns and continued on our way.

We had yet to realize the untapped potential of his language skills, and assumed this was a one-off situation.

As we wandered the streets of Bocas one evening a couple of days later , looking for a place to eat, we passed a place that looked to be selling some form of Chinese cuisine. we ducked in to take a look at what was on offer and it looked quite tasty.

The restaurant owner saw Junkii and addressed him in Chinese – the second instance in as many days. That’s a trend!

Again, we took advantage of the situation, relieving ourselves of the stress of ordering in Spanish.

It’s certainly important to try to engage in the local language. How else is one to avail oneself of the best local delicacies?! But we both like Chinese cuisine as well, and Chinese entrepreneurs do seem to have set up restaurants in pretty much every corner of the earth…so it’s nice to have this option on the rare occasions when it’s just too much effort to tough it out in an unfamiliar language.

Found ‘Round Bocas del Toro

The Ferry from Colombia, docked offshore from Bocas.

The Ferry from Colombia, docked offshore from Bocas.

Bocas is an interesting place. A little island on the Caribbean Sea, just off Panama’s mainland, it’s southern half is occupied by a small town full of hotels, restaurants, surf shops, and places to buy holiday trinkets. The northern portion has a selection of beaches within driving distance.

The town is easy to get around on foot, and it’s a good place to arrange passage to some of the smaller islands nearby…where you can spend the day at some of the nicer beaches.

There’s a small airport in the centre of town – very cool if you’re into planes – and Bocas also offers a stop for a big ferry that runs between Colombia and Panama. No doubt about it, this is a place that relies on tourist dollars.

It’s still a bit of a mystery to me though, because the evening atmosphere seems to be changeable.

We spent two evenings in Bocas, each quite different from the other.

On the first night, the streets were filled with revelers. Young people looking for night clubs and wandering the streets in a party mood. It wasn’t the weekend and we were well past the time of Carnival, so I’m not clear why the mood was so festive.

On the second evening, the streets were much quieter. The weather was just as lovely as the first. The same establishments were open for business, and yet the revelers steered clear.

I’m not sure which of these atmospheres is the more standard. We asked a restaurateur why the change in mood, and she said the party atmosphere comes and goes. It just depends on who is traveling at a particular time. Sometimes it’s a young and rowdy crowd and other times it’s a more tranquil time.

There’s no accounting for it.

I’m old and crotchety enough to know that I prefer the quiet, but if you plan to go, just know that you might be in for a raucous time.

I don’t have any photos from the evening, but we did take a few photos around town during our stay. You can find all our photos at SmugMug but I’ll share the relevant ones below.

On our first day, scouring the town for a decent cafe on the waterfront.

On our first day, scouring the town for a decent cafe on the waterfront.


Good advice.

Good advice.


Some of the colorful buildings near the docks.

Some of the colorful buildings near the docks.


Our hotel had an outdoor pool, but also this lovely deck right on the waterfront. A great place to sit and take in the view.

Our hotel had an outdoor pool, but also this lovely deck right on the waterfront. A great place to sit and take in the view.

"Bocas del Toro"

We had fresh-made donuts for breakfast one morning. While the rest of the means was nothing to write home about, these little guys were scrumptious.

We had fresh-made donuts for breakfast one morning. While the rest of the means was nothing to write home about, these little guys were scrumptious.

"Bocas del Toro"

Unstoppable


This is the very definition of a first world problem, but apparently sink stoppers in Panama are a big no no.

Every hotel we stayed in was lacking.

I’m sure there is no law AGAINST sink stoppers (or at least I’m relatively certain the Panamanian government has better things to legislate than the pervasiveness of sink stoppers), but for someone who daily uses a blade to shave, it sure would have been nice to be able to keep a pool of standing water for a couple of minutes each day.

Hmmm… Maybe I should add “universal rubber stopper” to my travel packing list.😛

Water Taxi Wait

Our chariot.

Our chariot.

Navigating the ins and outs of public transit in a new place is always tricky; doubly so when you don’t speak the language. But when the mode of transportation itself is also new to you, well, that can throw you for a loop.

We’ve all taken a bus or a subway before, and while the system might be slightly different in a new country, there are commonalities you can draw on.

In this instance, though, we were trying to take a water-taxi – which I would describe more accurately like a water-bus than an actual taxi.

And really, it wasn’t that different from any other bus… we managed to get to the right spot and to buy our tickets without concern, but what we didn’t understand was where we were supposed to line up and, more critically, how forceful we needed to be to get one of the limited number of spot on board.

When the first water-taxi announced boarding to Bocas del Toro, everyone waiting nearby rushed the to a seat leaving Junkii and I with nowhere left to sit.

We felt defeated as we watched the locals take the last available seats. Thankfully the employees took pity on us and ushered us to the best spot for the next outbound boat.

We are smart enough to learn from experience, and having seen the throng of people that rushed the first boat, we were well prepared when the gates opened again.

Once we had our seats, it was a pretty uneventful trip – a nice, lazy boat ride out to the island-town where we would spend the next few days: Bocas del Toro.

Despite the stress of a delayed arrival, the destination was worth the wait.

We checked in at our hotel, dropped our bags and wandered off to find a place for drinks and dinner. After a relaxing coffee on the docks, we found a restaurant with an upstairs patio overlooking the ocean where we enjoyed happy-hour mojitos and a lovely meal.

A few more photos from the trip out to Bocas.

A few more photos from the trip out to Bocas.

"En route to Bocas Del Toro"

"En route to Bocas Del Toro"

"En route to Bocas Del Toro"

Happy Hour in Bocas

Happy Hour in Bocas

Panamanian Radio

Well, this is awkward.

I’ve come to the end of blogging about my most recent trip. That has never happened before. I’ve never before been able to get all the way through everything I wanted to write about one trip in advance of the start of the next adventure.

On the upside, that means I have plenty of writing left to do about previous trips. So I can go back and write about Panama (2015), Southern Africa (2014), Fiji/Hawaii (2013), or Hong Kong (2012).

Guess I’ll start with the more recent stuff. I have forgotten a lot about my Hong Kong/Macau trip, so those posts might be a bit more vague. But Panama is still pretty fresh in my mind.

Thankfully I take notes when I’m traveling, but it’s been a while. I had to go back and read a few blog posts just to remember where I left off. We had just dropped off our rental car, bringing our self-drive story to a close.

But that meant taxi cabs from here on out…and the taxi from Changuinola airport to the water-taxi stand to Bocas del Toro was a nasty piece of work.

The problem wasn’t the cab driver (who was pleasant enough), nor the cab itself (although it was a little run down) – rather, it was the radio.
It’s going to be hard to convey this without sound clips…let me see if I can paint you a tone poem:

What I heard from the DJ was the equivalent of a 4-year-old jabbering incessantly about nothing in particular at the top of his lungs and standing with one hand cranking left and right on the volume knob of a loud stereo system while the other mashes all the buttons on some dissonant battery-operated toy. Imagine that and you’ll have a sense of what happens on Panamanian radio.

The DJ plays a song, and every 2 or 3 seconds (I’m not exaggerating) he turns down the volume to interject his own “funny” lyric or comment, or to play some whacky sound effect in the background. It’s absolutely absurd. There’s no way to actually enjoy the music.

It really was an assault on the ears. The hair on the back of my neck stands up just thinking about it.

Thankfully, the taxi ride only took about 30 minutes, so we were able to escape before any permanent damage was done to my sanity.

Return Trip

The four bikes piled neatly in the back of the water taxi.

The four bikes piled neatly in the back of the water taxi.

We had big aspirations when we headed to the spa. Our hotelier had told us it was possible to do a big loop, rather than bike directly back to the hotel. She advised us to take a water taxi from a village near the spa, crossing the lake to come back to the hotel from the opposite side.

In fact, to sweeten the deal, she told us that we could also make stops on that side of the lake at a local temple and a local winery (who knew that there was a vineyard in Myanmar?!) all on the way back tot he hotel.

We were keen when we left the hotel and had every intention of making that loop.

But these were shitty bikes. If we’d had properly sized, multi-gear bikes instead of the too-small, hard-to-pedal, rickety beasts we were provided, we might have made the trip without griping. But by the time we got to the spa, we were all pooped from pedaling.

A rest at the restaurant did little to re-invigorate us. Rather it served only to make us realize just how tired we were. We basically wanted someone to come pick us up and take our bikes back to the hotel.

Thankfully we weren’t QUITE that pathetic. (Only a little bit pathetic).

We decided to continue on our way after lunch and find the water taxi – but instead of hiring him to take us across, we would ask him to take us back to the main pier in Nyaungshwe.

It was only another 5-10 minutes of biking before we found the pier. We paid a little more for the ride back to town than we would have to cross the lake, but it was money well spent. It was a lovely afternoon, and the opportunity to laze about in a boat as we were carried back home was a real treat. What a wonderful way to end an amazing journey.

Thankfully I DID pull out my camera for that trip!

Our pilot, amidst the spray

Our pilot, amidst the spray

Jenn, basking in the afternoon sun.

Jenn, basking in the afternoon sun.

Judging by our smiles, truncating our trip and enjoying a leisurely boat ride back to town was the right choice for us.

Judging by our smiles, truncating our trip and enjoying a leisurely boat ride back to town was the right choice for us.

Backroads Biking

Cindy crossing one of the rickety bridges of death. Thanks to Dan for the photo.

Cindy crossing one of the rickety bridges of death. Thanks to Dan for the photo.

On our last Full day in Nyaungshwe, we decided to venture out on the complimentary hotel bicycles to see if we could find the nearby hot springs spa. It was listed as an afterthought in the Lonely Planet guidebook, and the tripadvisor reviews were far from glowing, but it was something to do, so we grabbed a makeshift map and headed out.

The makeshift map steered us off course almost immediately.

It should have basically said “stick to the main road” but the map made it look like we were meant to turn BEFORE the main road – so when a well-travelled dirt road appeared just before the main road, we assumed that was the right route, and we headed that way, confident in our map-reading skills.

As we continued along the dirt road, the path forward became less and less distinct. We crossed a couple of rickety bridges – although I hesitate to call them bridges…a more accurate description would be “strategically placed planks” that we crossed very gingerly for fear of losing our balance and tumbling into the water – and we wound up biking further and further into what looked like residential area.

After a few more minutes of exploring the area and trespassing on private property, we decided we were definitely on the wrong track. We wound up at the river’s edge and we came across a group of young guys chatting. We asked them about the hot springs and they laughed and shook their heads that we were wayyyy off course.

Thankfully, the people of Myanmar are super friendly and one of the group took it on himself to lead us back to the main road. He said goodbye to his friends and hopped on his own bike, leading us at a brisk pace back across the rickety bridge – where we almost lost him because he sped across without a second thought while the rest of us treated it like a balance beam – and ultimately back to the main road. He pointed us in the right direction and sent us on our way.

The rest of the trip was fairly straightforward. From that point, we found regular signs indicating the spa was “just ahead” – although just ahead really meant a 30 minute bike ride along the shoulder of a busy two-lane highway.

Ultimately we arrived at the spa, eager to see if it was worth the trip.

It was not.

Thankfully, before we paid the entry fee, the girls insisted that we be shown the pools so that we knew what we were in for. They were kind of dirty, and more ‘lukewarm’ than ‘hot.’ We all agreed that this spa was not for us, and instead, we went to the nearby restaurant to grab some lunch before starting back to the hotel.

The moral of this story? The destination is not always the best part of a trip. Had we not gotten sidelined in the back roads of a village, there honestly would have been no story to tell here.

Thankfully, Dan snapped the above photo of our side-trip on his camera phone, because I forgot completely to pull out my Nikon.

School Crossing

There were WAAAAY more kids than this. This is just some random photo I found on the web. Can't believe no one has posted a picture of what must be a daily occurrence!

There were WAAAAY more kids than this. This is just some random photo I found on the web. Can’t believe no one has posted a picture of what must be a daily occurrence!

Oh, I so wish I had taken a photo of this. Or better yet, a video!

One day in Nyaungshwe, Dan and I left the girls to pamper themselves at a massage parlour and hopped on our bikes to head back to the hotel. The plan was to relax with a few beers.

As we pedaled back to the hotel from town, we were stopped dead in our tracks by a traffic cop. With his white-gloved hand and crisp uniform shirt, he had halted ALL vehicular traffic on the main road – cars, bikes, you name it.

He was in the process of directing the flood of public school kids out of the schoolyard, motioning them across the road and sending them on their way home toward their villages.

As we pulled up to the officer, the road was already a sea of school uniforms. Many of the kids were on foot or on bikes, and they were practically flowing out of the schoolyard.

It was amazing. There must have been a thousand kids.

As the flood dwindled, the cop let traffic start to go again and Dan and I pedaled our way into the throng of school kids who were moseying along the side of the road.

It was like being in a parade!

Sadly, I didn’t record the scene. Oh well, at least I thought to make a note for the blog. That will have to serve as my reminder in the years to come.

Found Round Nyaungshwe

Thu Kha on the sign, Thukha in the Lonely Planet guidebook and on trip advisor.

Thu Kha on the sign, Thukha in the Lonely Planet guidebook and on trip advisor.

We found a fantastic Muslim tea shop in Nyaungshwe: Thukha Caffee. Tea shops are ubiquitous in Myanmar. but this is apparently one of the only ones in Nyaungshwe. Either way, it would have been special even if it were one of thousands.

Maybe it was the quality of the milk tea they served. Maybe it was the relaxed atmosphere. Maybe it was the incredibly tasty pastries, or the even more delicious noodle dishes.

Or maybe it was just the two adorable and super-friendly boys, running around serving the clientele. They were SO entertained by our table because we were hungry and kept ordering more and more of the delicious food.

Every time they passed by our table, we would catch their eye and order something else off the menu. They would trot off to place the order, smiling at how much the westerners could eat.

We only discovered this place on our last day, but we definitely considered trying to stop there for breakfast the next morning before our taxi took us to the airport back to Yangon. Sadly, The restaurant wouldn’t be open quite early enough for that.

I didn’t take any photos of the place (the one here is one I stole from TripAdvisor) but I DID take photos of a few other sights around Nyaungshwe, including a big central market in the middle of town.

I’ll share a few photos below with captions to explain what you’re looking at.

The large central market is open air, but with loads of canvas tarps and such strung above the alleyways to protect from the elements.

The large central market is open air, but with loads of canvas tarps and such strung above the alleyways to protect from the elements.

Tea, for sale in bulk.

Tea, for sale in bulk.

Colourful woven baskets. They were striking when the sun shone on them.

Colourful woven baskets. They were striking when the sun shone on them.

Cindy got us a deal on four blankets, which would come in handy when we took our early-morning boat tour around Inle Lake..

Cindy got us a deal on four blankets, which would come in handy when we took our early-morning boat tour around Inle Lake..