Oh dear, Oman

Well, it seems that the ship’s measures forestalled attack by pirates, but now we’ve got terrorists to contend with and in order to deal with this threat we’re skipping Sharm El Sheikh, where there has been a recent raised alert. Instead, we’re staying an extra night at Safaga, a resort on the Red Sea coast. The main reason people come here, though, is because it’s a gateway to Egypt’s major antiquities, such as the Valley of the Kings, the Temple of Karnak and Luxor Temple. Well, since we’ve ‘done all those before’, as we say in tourist speak, Claudio and I have opted instead to take a trip to Hurghada, supposedly a fast-growing resort with some of the best beaches in Egypt. The snorkelling, too, is supposed to be good and, if so, it will diminish my disappointment about Sharm, because really that was the only reason I wanted to go there.

 

But I get ahead of myself because first came Oman and a town called Salalah on the Arabian Sea. As you might imagine, there’s not a great deal to see here and taxis, so we were told, were extortionate, so we opted to go on the ship’s “tomb, beach and souq” tour. The guide, Rashid, was a lovely, friendly guy who told us we could ask him about anything… religion, politics, the camels walking down the side of the road. The latter were of the most immediate interest and we were all too hot and weary to get embroiled in any political or religious debates – and I was still suffering from the hacking cough that made people turn and glare at me.  Since 4 x 4s have largely replaced camels as a method of transport, these are now largely used for their meat (supposedly very tasty) and milk (very low fat). There are superior camels that are used for racing, but these are kept in stables where they are carefully looked after. New technology has also invaded this ancient sport. Once young boys were the jockeys, but this has now been forbidden as the bouncing around has been shown to make them infertile, so the animals are now driven by remote control devices from the 4x4s driving alongside the track.

 

It’s a pity we weren’t on camels that day, though, because our coach was involved in an accident when it ran into the back of a car which had stopped suddenly at a red light. The penalty here for jumping the lights is about £1200 and a month in jail, so not a risk to be taken lightly. Still, it no one was hurt (coincidentally, the ship’s doctor was on this trip) and we were quickly transferred to another coach and soon after found ourselves at Job’ s Tomb (yes, he, the prophet of the Old Testament). This  was just as well, really, because, although the barren mountainous scenery (the Qara Mountains) has a certain dusty beauty, it does get rather monotonous after a while.

 

Job’s tomb, too, was a bit of a let-down. Housed in a small, bright white domed construction on top of a peak, all we could see was a strip of green cloth covering what might have been some kind of memorial stone (who knew? No one was there to ask) a plaque explaining who Job was and a family tree showing how Mohammed was descended from Adam and Eve and the prophets. Outside, there was a footprint in a rock that was supposed to belong to someone holy (I didn’t quite manage to catch who) which had the tourists lining up to take pictures of it, but to be honest, to my eye, untrained as it is in famous footprints in rocks, it just looked like  indentations in the rather random shape of a foot. Rashid told us later that green is the colour of Islam. The tomb didn’t seem particularly ancient or even particularly sacred.

 

Next up was the beach – Mughsail Beach, in fact, which is nearly two miles long with high cliffs at both ends, but no shade at all and the sun was bearing down like a blowtorch. Even though the sand is lovely and white, the sea  azure blue and there are shaded picnic areas set back from the beach, I don’t think I could ever be tempted to take a dip here – apart from anything else, it all just seemed so bleak. They also bring tourists here for the blowhole – a hole in the limestone rock over the sea through which the sea spumes at high tide. Fortunately for us it was high tide.  And that was it really. Not much more to do here except head back to the welcome  airconditioning of the coach. Apart from us and one young couple we saw cavorting in the waves (obviously tourists because she was wearing a bikini and no local girl would do that), the whole two miles was deserted.

 

We also drove past the grounds of Al Husn Palace, “the personal residence of His Majesty the Sultan Quaboos of Oman”, all very modern in a peachy stone the colour of the desert and set behind a large double wooden door and high walls, so we couldn’t really see much.  We also drove past the old fishing village of Taqah, where the picturesque boats lay on their sides in the sand while across the road the fishermen’s houses – definitely not pretty, just a handful of large white box shapes- sat grilling in the heat with not a single tree or bush in sight to relieve the starkness.  Finally we visited the Al Husn Souq, which seemed to sell mostly frankincense (which I couldn’t resist buying), bottles of fragrant oils,  jelabayas and  thousand upon thousand of the round hats that are so popular here (Zanzibar has had a big influence over the culture apparently, which is why Oman is different from the other Gulf states, according to Rashid). Who buys all this stuff, though, I can’t imagine, as I’m sure the locals don’t waste their money on cheap terracotta pots to burn frankincense, or buy fancy hats from Africa, and the precious few tourists about nearly all seemed to come from the ship. And we all getting a bit souveniered out by now.

 

At dinner that night, Claudio told everyone that the most exciting thing that had happened all day was the accident in the coach. I think he was (mostly) joking! Still, the jewel-encrusted camel fridge magnet was good.

 

 

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Marvellous Maldives

I’ve caught the ship’s cough in a big way and spent most of the night awake trying to clear my lungs. Still, can’t feel too bad when I hear that one woman I’m now acquainted with had to leave the ship in Colombo, owing to the fact that her husband had a stroke, another who broke her leg on the first day and has been going round the ship in a motorised scooter, is being repatriated from here, and yet another – one of the speaker’s wives in fact – also fell over and smashed her kneecap. As it happens, she is Sri Lankan so was getting it sorted out there.

 

Still, today we arrived at those gems of the Indian Ocean, the Maldives, and this cheered me up no end. We spent most of the first afternoon on the largely undeveloped island of Uligamu, mostly in the shade of the trees beside the white sand, or in the sea, because it was roasting, probably the hottest it’s been all cruise. That evening, the ship sailed to another island Uthumee and some of us went ashore to have a look round.

 

There wasn’t much to see. The place was unlit and if we hadn’t had a friendly local offering to take us to the island’s restaurant, after stumbling around for a while, I think our visit would have been much shorter. I use the term restaurant quite loosely, though, as it was really just a collection of cheap tables and chairs lit by a dim red light. They could offer sandwiches and Coca Cola  (these islands are strictly Muslim and follow Sharia Law to the letter, even to the point where we were told that women who have been raped can also be flogged as a punishment for not preventing it from happening, which is taken as a sign of immorality ) a round of which we ordered before making our excuses and leaving. Whatever wealth the Maldives makes, it would seem that not much of it trickles down to the local people, who are warm, helpful and friendly, even the boatmen touting for business. We never, of course, made contact with the local women, only saw them sweeping up leaves the following day in their full jalabayas. The local shop seemed to be stocked with little more than fruit juices, while the housing of the village was fairly basic.

 

The next day, after we returned on the ship’s tender, we came across three friendly young fellows on the pier willing to take us over to the Hideaway Beach Resort on a nearby island for just $50. (The ship’s day tour to the hotel cost £155 each, although that also included a, by the looks of it, very good lunch). Now this is more how you imagine the Maldives. Passing the array of water bungalows on stilts around the island, we disembarked into a luxury air-conditioned waiting room and were then led up the short path to the hotel where the day pass lets you use all the facilities, such as  infinity pool, hammocks, day beds and so forth.  The snorkelling was brilliant, too, the best so far, in fact, and that includes the Great Barrier reef.  Here the reef lies just off the beach, so no distance to get there either. I spotted a manta ray and a seahorse amid the large individual and countless shoals of colourful fish whose names I know not, but wish I did. Maybe fish spotting is something I can take up in my retirement.

 

It came to an end all too soon, though, as I had to return to the ship by 2pm, where I had an appointment for a session of nebulising at the ship’s surgery to ease my cough ( a pity that the book I happen to be reading, The Island by Victoria Hislop, is about a leprous island off Crete which talks in one part about a woman’s struggle for breath. Great! Even worse, the next day, a sea day, when I went to a lovely afternoon concert of flute and piano, a coughing fit, of course, started up and the woman sitting next to me made a point of shifting along the row, making me feel even more of a leper. I no longer smile when I see her!!)

 

That night, as we sailed off into a glorious sunset, we were warned not to be alarmed, but they would be putting razor wire and water cannon around the ship, and that the decks would be patrolled by guards, as we were entering the dangerous waters of the Arabian Sea, which are infested by Somalian pirates. Those of a timid nature were also put at ease by the news that the waters are also heavily patrolled by the navies of various countries. Quite exciting, really, just dimmed slightly when I overheard one of the cruise management staff telling a guest that the wire etc was only put there to fulfil insurance demands.

 

As we sail further north, the temperature seems to easing off a little, and there’s a blissful breeze on deck. Hopefully, this will also ease my cough as the doctor says that it is partly being caused by the heat and humidity outside and the airconditioning in. Thankfully, I’ve also finished my book about the lepers, and started a nice little tale about renovating a farmhouse in Tuscany. Incidentally, the book I was reading in the rough waters of the South Pacific, when I was feeling distinctly seasick was The Life of Pi, about a boy in a lifeboat with a tiger, who was suffering from the swell. Wish I’d known that before I started it!

 

Next stop Oman.

I’ve caught the ship’s cough in a big way and spent most of the night awake trying to clear my lungs. Still, can’t feel too bad when I hear that one woman I’m now acquainted with had to leave the ship in Colombo, owing to the fact that her husband had a stroke, another who broke her leg on the first day and has been going round the ship in a motorised scooter, is being repatriated from here, and yet another – one of the speaker’s wives in fact – also fell over and smashed her kneecap. As it happens, she is Sri Lankan so was getting it sorted out there.

 

Still, today we arrived at those gems of the Indian Ocean, the Maldives, and this cheered me up no end. We spent most of the first afternoon on the largely undeveloped island of Uligamu, mostly in the shade of the trees beside the white sand, or in the sea, because it was roasting, probably the hottest it’s been all cruise. That evening, the ship sailed to another island Uthumee and some of us went ashore to have a look round.

 

There wasn’t much to see. The place was unlit and if we hadn’t had a friendly local offering to take us to the island’s restaurant, after stumbling around for a while, I think our visit would have been much shorter. I use the term restaurant quite loosely, though, as it was really just a collection of cheap tables and chairs lit by a dim red light. They could offer sandwiches and Coca Cola  (these islands are strictly Muslim and follow Sharia Law to the letter, even to the point where we were told that women who have been raped can also be flogged as a punishment for not preventing it from happening, which is taken as a sign of immorality ) a round of which we ordered before making our excuses and leaving. Whatever wealth the Maldives makes, it would seem that not much of it trickles down to the local people, who are warm, helpful and friendly, even the boatmen touting for business. We never, of course, made contact with the local women, only saw them sweeping up leaves the following day in their full jalabayas. The local shop seemed to be stocked with little more than fruit juices, while the housing of the village was fairly basic.

 

The next day, after we returned on the ship’s tender, we came across three friendly young fellows on the pier willing to take us over to the Hideaway Beach Resort on a nearby island for just $50. (The ship’s day tour to the hotel cost £155 each, although that also included a, by the looks of it, very good lunch). Now this is more how you imagine the Maldives. Passing the array of water bungalows on stilts around the island, we disembarked into a luxury air-conditioned waiting room and were then led up the short path to the hotel where the day pass lets you use all the facilities, such as  infinity pool, hammocks, day beds and so forth.  The snorkelling was brilliant, too, the best so far, in fact, and that includes the Great Barrier reef.  Here the reef lies just off the beach, so no distance to get there either. I spotted a manta ray and a seahorse amid the large individual and countless shoals of colourful fish whose names I know not, but wish I did. Maybe fish spotting is something I can take up in my retirement.

 

It came to an end all too soon, though, as I had to return to the ship by 2pm, where I had an appointment for a session of nebulising at the ship’s surgery to ease my cough ( a pity that the book I happen to be reading, The Island by Victoria Hislop, is about a leprous island off Crete which talks in one part about a woman’s struggle for breath. Great! Even worse, the next day, a sea day, when I went to a lovely afternoon concert of flute and piano, a coughing fit, of course, started up and the woman sitting next to me made a point of shifting along the row, making me feel even more of a leper. I no longer smile when I see her!!)

 

That night, as we sailed off into a glorious sunset, we were warned not to be alarmed, but they would be putting razor wire and water cannon around the ship, and that the decks would be patrolled by guards, as we were entering the dangerous waters of the Arabian Sea, which are infested by Somalian pirates. Those of a timid nature were also put at ease by the news that the waters are also heavily patrolled by the navies of various countries. Quite exciting, really, just dimmed slightly when I overheard one of the cruise management staff telling a guest that the wire etc was only put there to fulfil insurance demands.

 

As we sail further north, the temperature seems to easing off a little, and there’s a blissful breeze on deck. Hopefully, this will also ease my cough as the doctor says that it is partly being caused by the heat and humidity outside and the airconditioning in. Thankfully, I’ve also finished my book about the lepers, and started a nice little tale about renovating a farmhouse in Tuscany. Incidentally, the book I was reading in the rough waters of the South Pacific, when I was feeling distinctly seasick was The Life of Pi, about a boy in a lifeboat with a tiger, who was suffering from the swell. Wish I’d known that before I started it!

 

Next stop Oman.

Sri Lanka, home of the the big Buddhas

This morning we arrived at Hambantota, a port at the southern end of Sri Lanka. There appeared to be nothing here other than cranes and cars.  So, rather than take a tuk tuk  into town with Claudio, I decided to go on  the ship’s tour to Mulkirigala Temple, one of Sri Lanka’s most important, apparently. Surrounded by forest, the temple, which dates back to 130BC was carved out of caves on a rock 676ft high. Now this might not sound particularly high to you, but for us it presented the daunting task of climbing 550 very uneven steps (sometimes they almost disappeared, and there wasn’t always anything to hang on to) in the blistering heat. Still, I made it by taking it in sections and, once I had caught my breath at the top, beheld an enormous Buddha reclining at the back of one of the caves, in which every inch of the ceiling and walls was covered in wall art, depicting various stages in the life of the Lord Buddha.

 

These were my first, but by no means last of the Big Buddhas in Sri Lanka. For not only did several more of the caves contain similarly huge statues of the ‘Enlightened One’ but, the next day in Colombo, we discovered that temples in the city also contained huge Buddhas, only upright ones this time (they are all slim, by the way. The fat Buddhas are from China, where rotundity denoted wealth – at least that’s what the guide told us). The first few of these statues drew gasps at their size, and cameras were feverishly whipped out. After a day in the city, where there’s seemingly one at every street corner, we no longer batted an eyelid when we came across them,  no matter how big or golden. There are small ones too, like the 50 or so solid gold ones we saw in Gangaramaya Temple museum, or another displayed there, that had been worked in solid jade encrusted with diamonds. All these, plus tons more in varying sizes and postures, had been donated to the temple as gifts. You couldn’t help but feel that such glittering wealth could have been put to more practical use in a country still seriously underdeveloped. But then, you could say that of the Vatican, which has priceless riches, while many Roman Catholics in Latin America live in dire poverty. Coming out of the museum, we came across a young elephant working in a car park to move the trees that had just been chopped down there – elephants are still very much put to working use in this country. Although, to be fair, they also seem to care of them, and one of the ship’s tours was to an elephant orphanage in a 15-acre coconut grove, and those who went said the work being done there was most impressive.

 

Not, I’m afraid to say, like that of the guide on our tour bus to the caves at Mulkirigala. Unlike the Lord Buddha, this chap seemed particularly unenlightened. He told us all to relax after our lunches – as he obviously planned to do – and as, all sorts of interesting, unfamiliar sights passed without comment, he seemed most irritated by our persistent questioning. We can go into all that on the journey back, he said. But, of course, we never did. Quite what he was there for, I can’t imagine, as he completely disappeared at the temple itself, no doubt too phased by all those steps. Still, we knew what the water buffalo and paddy fields were, and there were lots of interesting roadside stalls selling watermelons and coconuts, and pretty houses with verandahs and carefully tended gardens to look at, the latter which I hadn’t been expecting as I had thought to see much more poverty in the rural areas. There were no beggars in Colombo either, unlike in India where whole families sleep rough in the streets. In fact, even though there are parts of Colombo that are quite rundown, there is no real squalor – or, at least, none that we saw.

 

Nevertheless, it’s like stepping into another world entirely at the splendid Galle Face Hotel,  where we went for cocktails, after a hot and dusty afternoon spent bartering in the rambling central market.  This is Colombo’s white pillared and polished wood equivalent of Raffles, with the signed photographs to prove it. The bar overlooks the waves crashing on to the beach below. Now this is the life! We spotted the port speaker there, who was leaving after what had no doubt been a very good lunch. Wonder why he never told us about this little bit of luxury in his port talk?

Poo-ket (or Phuket), Thailand

I was here more than 30 years ago with a friend and have memories of hot sunny skies, white sand beaches washed by cyan seas, and chilled coconut water and rum drunk with palm trees flexing their fronds overhead, so I was excited to be visiting the island again. What a let-down. Although I couldn’t remember exactly where on Phuket we had stayed before (didn’t seem to pay much attention in those days), this time we headed for  Patong Beach on the west coast, which was more  Torremollinos meets Delhi than paradise island.

 

True, the beach was sandy and expansive, there were waving palm trees (particularly as it seemed a storm was brewing) and the food was still good. But the sea was muddy looking and litter strewn and the fact that most restaurants claimed now to be hilal shows how the complexion of tourists has changed over the years, although I do remember seeing Arabs coming for the booze and Germans coming for the girls last time. But the number of sunloungers and brollies on the beach and parlours with heavily made-up, deep cleavaged masseuses touting their services outside, testified to the fact that there were thousands more of  them, not to mention the hordes of backpackers. You could still barter your way to some amazing bargains in terms of silk clothes, shoes and so forth, but to get to the shops, first  you had to run the gauntlet of the cracked and missing paving stones and evil-smelling drains of the hastily-erected infrastructure of Patong Beach.

 

One of the ship’s trips was to Phang Nga Bay in the north where there is an offshore island that famously featured in the Man with the Golden Gun. Those on the speedboat who went to see it said the ride was thrilling but were dismayed to find that the centre of this beautiful island had also sprouted the inevitable stalls selling endless James Bond souvenirs. Ho hum.

 

Meanwhile, back on the ship, Claudio performs again in the Lido lounge tomorrow night. He’s thrilled to be asked again, but I’m very nervous. I suppose that just exemplifies the difference in our personalities! He’s still getting stopped by passengers wanting to talk to him. Oh, the price of fame!

Kuala Lumpur continuously constructing

It was a hard act that Kuala Lumpur had to follow, coming as it did straight after Singapore. You can see that it’s trying hard with its impressive Petronas Towers, which until recently were the highest in the world, and clutch of new buildings. It has a long way to go, though. The centre of Kuala Lumpur, known as KLCC,  has been dubbed  Kuala Lumpur Continuously Constructing for good reason. You can barely walk down a pavement without having to negotiate a mound of rubble or the scaffolding of yet another new edifice, while dodging the traffic, which is so congested that it makes travelling around the city, and indeed outside it,  prohibitive to those short of time.

 

The bus service is clean, efficient and free, but the same can’t be said for the rudimentary train service, which is definitely due for an overhaul, as is what’s known as the Golden Triangle – a hodge-podge of dilapidated shops and stalls, and the Central Market which once used to purvey wet goods like fish and meat but is now just another conglomeration of stalls selling cheap clothes, food and tourist trinkets. Perhaps I’m being unfair about the latter, but having waded  through so many of these at almost every port, what might have looked interesting to begin with is now getting tedious. I suppose It’s inevitable after three months of tourist shopping. Had we just arrived only here, we might have been happy to hunt for bargains. But in this heat, I just can’t bear to look at one more fridge magnet or T-shirt

Smart Singapore

I don’t know where to start when it comes to Singapore, so I’ll go from the beginning. You see the tops of the skyscrapers on the horizon first and, as the ship draws closer, the city starts to look something like an international architects’ showcase, with huge ,gleaming buildings in all shapes and sizes, from strange curved and leaning towers topped by vegetation to a massive tripod topped by a giant surfboard that we later came to learn was the spectacular Marina Bay Sands Hotel.

 

Singapore is a smorgasbord of cities, with a Little India bursting with stalls selling everything from saris to chapatis, a clanging Chinatown with its oodles of noodles and garish souvenir knick-knacks, to the shiny modern shopping malls that seem to atop many of the stops on the  RTS (underground) system. Indeed, so big and complex are these that it took one couple an hour to find their way back to the ship through the one at the terminal.

 

The main feeling, though, is that of having stepped into a future where people live in cities in the sky, transport systems are scrupulously clean, fast, efficient and unmanned, foodstuffs and citizens come from all corners of the earth, and family entertainment is taken at gardens created by huge man-made towers, planted from top to bottom with indigenous flora to look at by day, and a magnificent light and sound show to see at night. This is free, but you have to pay a small fee if  you want to walk over the meandering skyway that connects two of the towers, or have a drink in the bar at the top of another one (we did both and were glad we had). The show ,  which takes place at intervals over the course of an evening,  was happening as we crossed the skyway (it makes London’s Millennium bridge seem positively pedestrian, if you’ll excuse the pun). The sound and lights made the  dazzling Singapore skyline all around us seem even more dramatic, particularly as the elements decided to join in at that moment with a faraway thunderstorm storm lighting up the sky in electric pinks and greens. It was one of those moments that you just know you will never forget.

 

But Singapore was memorable in so many ways. Its tropical botanical gardens, for instance, have to be the best  I have been to anywhere (although, it has to be said,  we spent an inordinate amount of time in the cool house given the temperature outside). Then there is the zoo which Lonely Planet hails as the best in the world, with its day- and night-time safaris to see animals who look content in enclosures bounded only by streams, moats and trees. And then, of course, there is the Raffles Hotel, where you can drink your Singapore slings in a bar unchanged since colonial times. There was lots more that we just didn’t have enough time to see, so Singapore has been added to our list of cities worthy of a return visit.

 

That said, it’s not a utopia, of course. While many of the people there are very pleasant and hugely helpful (as soon as we stepped into a metro someone would stand up to let us sit down, which didn’t altogether please Claudio, though,  dismayed that his age was so obvious), some of them can be stupendously rude, particularly, I hate to say, the older ones. Others spoke of the repression that comes with this efficient, but nevertheless totalitarian state.

 

Personally we saw no, or very little poverty and, as we all compared notes back at dinner on the ship that night, we couldn’t help but conclude that cities in the West  could learn a lot from some of those in Australian and Asia,  with their cheap, modern and efficient transport systems,  free museums, art galleries and swimming pools, user-friendly cycle ways set well away from traffic, immaculately-kept gardens and smart, litter free shopping malls. Perhaps we in the western hemisphere have been basking in the complacency of our heritage for too long and are now being fast overtaken by visionaries in the east.

A bonus in Bali

Bali was one of the bigger surprises of the trip. I was expecting something like a Far Eastern version of Marbella and, indeed, parts of it are very like that. But it also has much more to offer. As the ship drew closer to the island, we could see a shoal of surfers riding the waves just off a wide sandy beach, while paragliders criss-crossed the bay.  Once ashore we were met by traditional dancers (very graceful) and orchestra (a cacophony of percussion to the untrained ear). After we had docked and as most of the cruisers prepared to leave on their tours, one of the guides offered to take us in his own car (for a small fee, but not small enough we later discovered from the taxi drivers) to the nearby town of Seminyak where there was said to be an interesting temple, good restaurants and shops.

 

Before entering the temple, we were obliged to wrap ourselves from the waist down in blue fabric, and fabric – mostly black and white check – covered everything, from the offering table, where little leaf baskets containing a range of gifts from an egg to brightly-coloured ribbons, had been placed, to around any tree with the temerity to grow naked in the temple’s curtilage. This was in order to “clothe it”,  according to our driver. Through the highly ornate doors leading to the inner temple we were not allowed to pass, but the buildings of the outer area were also highly decorated and colourful, if also very scruffy.

 

Driving there, through the outskirts of Seminyak, everything was also very rundown and I was surprised at the level of poverty, given the amount of tourism the island enjoys. We spent the rest of the first day exploring the shops, restaurants (Indonesian food is the best we have come across so far) hotels and bars, the first two of which were very reasonable, the latter relatively expensive. Claudio also had a massage for a fiver, which he said was one of the best he had ever had, while outside his cubicle I had a pedicure for twice the price (just to pass the time, you understand, not that I was chaperoning him or anything!) On our wanderings we met Agos, who ran a motorcycle hire shop but also offered to take us round the island the next day for a fee of just  $50 for both of us (the ship’s tours cost twice that for one person) and we had paid almost half that just to get into Seminyak.

 

We were both rather sceptical as to whether he would even turn up the next day, but it turned out to be  the best decision we made in Bali. Agos arrived dead on time and took us first to see a typical Indonesian dance – which actually we declined because the ship had engaged a troupe the evening before and, while the dancing is great, once you’ve seen one….. and the cacophonous music is dreadful, particularly first thing in the morning. Still, this left more time for trips to the batik makers, a silver jewellers, an art workshop where we bought two pretty acrylic paintings, the cultural hub of Ubud, with its masses of artisan arts and crafts for sale,  and the monkey forest,  one of the sightseeing highlights of the trip. The forest  was like something out of a filmset, with waterfalls tumbling  into fast-flowing streams at the bottom of high glades, towering with teak, mahogany and banyam trees. Through these the monkeys swang and shrieked, when they were not jumping on tourists and stealing food and water bottles from out of their hands. Deeper  in the forest, we came across crumbling temples and bridges beset with the scary stone sculptures that you see everywhere here.

 

Agos then conveyed us to a village high in the mountains further inland where there was a spectacular example of paddy fields arranged down the mountain side. On the way there, though, lining the sides of many of the small winding roads, were what looked like cemeteries with high monuments built behind low walls. Just as I was wondering how one small island could support so many burial grounds, Agos explained  that they were, in fact, housing estates, and the monuments were house temples. Since they were also status symbols, denoting the wealth of the owner, they often came adorned with the symbolic statues that are sold everywhere in Bali, which is largely Hindu. As it happens, we did see a funeral on the way back down the mountain where the mourners had gathered round the funeral pyre (fortunately it was a fleeting glimpse!)

 

At the top,  was a restaurant offering a delicious Indonesian buffet and spectacular views over the volcano and lake, which was a whole other Bali from the ritzy hotels and nightclubs down by the beach. Our final stop was a visit to coffee plantation where we plucked up the courage to try the speciality Lewkars coffee. It costs a fortune, in Bali and more so in Europe, and is made by collecting the excrement of coffee berry-fed civets, which are kept in cages at the plantation for the purpose. The beans pass through their systems undigested and they are then collected and washed (hopefully quite rigorously), resulting in beans from which all the bitterness has been removed by the digestive systems of the civets. The coffee was indeed  mild and tasty, but not so impressive that we were tempted to buy any, and certainly not at more than £100 per kilo.

 

Agos delivered us back to the ship at exactly the time he said he would (half an hour before it sailed) even though we had started to get edgy  as we encountered heavy traffic and a huge tropical storm. Having chatted to him about all sorts of things along the way,  we swapped email and Facebook addresses as we said our goodbyes and thank yous and felt that we were leaving a friend. Also, that we had probably just spent the best $50 so far on the cruise.