Sunday, March 17, 2019

Finding "Exotic" in a Thai Border Town

Dan and I had been travelling for a few weeks in Malaysia during our first trip to Southeast Asia. In our limited experience, the country impressed us as modern and surprisingly westernized. We had flown across the world to immerse ourselves in something different, something exotic. So with that goal remaining, we looked forward to our next move, that being Thailand, for a month along its Andaman Sea coast.


We landed in Thailand through the back door, that is, by way of a forty-five minute ferry from Malaysia's Langkawi Island to the first coastal border town in the southwest. We arrived without any Thai money at the immigration office as there were no ATMs there back then. I blew this one since I did not anticipate the landing being 16 km out of town. I got frazzled.

 "Gotta think. Gotta think".

What happens when you have no money is that you cannot take a taxi to town to get money. You have to have money to get money. Economics 101.

Meanwhile, Dan was having fun negotiating with the tuk tuk drivers, testing how low they would go, then pulling out his pant pockets dramatically and announcing, " but no money, no money." I was not amused and insisted that he stop telling people we had no money and I accused him of "making us a target."

There was an inherent contradiction in my logic however since if you have no money, you really can't be much of a target.

The problem was soon solved when I remembered I had an American bill stashed in my hat. Although Thai "baht" is the accepted currency, there is always someone who will take American currency.

The border town Satun is a transition place, rarely a tourist destination in itself. Mostly Muslim, the evening call to prayers singing out from a local Mosque made us both stop and go to the window. It was mezmerizing and melancholic and…. Exotic!  The chant loses something though when Dan whistles it up-tempo, and I wonder who, besides the dogs in the neighbourhood, he might be offending by doing so.

Originally, we were to stay just one night in Satun to give us an opportunity to book our resort on the group of islands a few hours off this coast. But with the islands so small, and with the Germans having a cold winter, our first choice on Ko Lipe was all booked up by in-the-know foreigners. But a second choice on the island was available a few days later, on February 14. This meant we could either abandon the island idea and head north, or wait here. We decided on the latter since Dan noticed that there was a kite festival happening on February 13. That clinched it. We would stay in this beguiling town.

So here we are soaking in the "exotic". But it's hard work. Outside of resort areas, there is only fractured English. I've scratched key words in Thai on my palm and I’m starting to look like an Indian woman on her wedding day.

But a handful of words doesn't get us very far. Even Dan, so skilled in Latin-based languages is squirming. Priority words are "sorry/excuse me", being good Canadians, "thank you", and Dan's mantra, "how much”?

Neither do the Thais help you build linguistic confidence. Most of the time, their response to anything you say is to laugh.

"Sawat dee kap" (hello), says Dan.

Giggles and smiles and some one asks "Where you from?"


Howls. Then you buy something and take your change and say "Cap coon kaaaah" (thank you).

Guffaws and side-slapping.

If one is at all sensitive to criticism, you might stop trying. But I read that they simply find the sound of our words amusing. It's as if someone tried to say "good morning" in English and it came out "goat money."

On the physical level, Dan is finding it hard to walk down the street in town. There are many awnings stretching across store-fronts set at chin height for many western men. Dan needs to be alert to avoid them. But the sidewalks are often chewed up. So if he looks down to avoid tripping, he bangs his head. If he looks up to avoid the awnings, he trips into a hole. For once, I'm happy to be short.

Satun is a great place to experience an authentic Thai town rather than a resort town. In three days, we counted twelve non-Asians, us among them. Beer is cheap at $1 a bottle. A seafood dinner is around $4 in a restaurant (including tip and tax). There is much beauty to see excluding some pretty ugly dogs. One morning we fell on a woman separating squid into different sized containers. Thailand must be the squid capital of the world. You gotta love it, as I do, because their tentacles end up in just about every dish you order.

Finding the kite festival was challenging. We missed our ride there since the pre-arranged driver couldn't wait five minutes, or we misunderstood the time of departure. So we started to walk presumably in the direction of the airport where it would be held. But Dan thought he would double check on the directions so asked a clerk in a hotel along the way.

"How do you get to the kite festival?"


"Kites". "Big kites"


"Where is airport?"

"Ah.  Airport. No here. Go to Hat Yai. I get taxi for you"

This was a mistake of course because Hat Yai was a town on the east coast, some 45 km away. We left.

Dan approached a gas station attendant. These people know everything.

"Where is the airport.... in Satun?"

"No airport in Satun."

"Yes there is. The kite festival is there".


I interrupted, "Dan. Quick. Make like a kite" I joined my hands over my head and swayed.

Blank from Dan. “Imbecile!”

Then Dan pulled out a pen and paper and drew a diamond on a thread.


Taking away the pen, I freehand sketched a young man holding the string of a kite with both hands.

"Ah. I know!" The attendant ran out to the street, fetched a tuk tuk, and instructed the driver. 20 baht and 5 km out of town.

We arrived in time to catch the end of the opening ceremonies. About 200 young girls were assembled on the tarmac dressed in long gowns of pink, purple, green or red with gauzy shawls. Their hair was pulled up on their heads and crowned with a magnolia-like flower. When the music began, they stepped out of their shoes and started to dance. They bent and swayed to gongs and drums piped in on the speaker. The crowd clapped enthusiastically and when it ended proud mothers collected their daughters and piled them onto motorcycle handlebars to whisk them home.

Meanwhile, Dan was running all around the airstrip looking for good photo ops and slithered in with the press and TV camera guys. We were the only non-Asians around which made us photo worthy ourselves. We spent the next hour picking around the food vendors and I used my Polaroid camera to the delight of the bug lady. She was selling deep fried crickets and slugs. I saw a guy pop them down like chips. The bug lady fills up a little bag, squirts them with juice and smothers on salt. It makes you thirsty for river sludge just watching it.

At the center of the pavement, four men were trying to launch a kite the size of a small Toyota. Suddenly, it stood up like a cobra and lunges. The men fell backwards like dominoes. One of them was dragged along the pavement and I realized that these things can be dangerous. Sailing overhead was a large orange kite but all at once it crashed, impaling the heat-softened asphalt. Another crashed but on a tuk tuk. Through all of this, the commentator was describing what's happening on a loud-speaker (not that Asians need microphones) like a Thai Don Cherry. To my ears the vowel-laden play by play sounds like:
"Ka la la WOW! Sa la la WOW! La ka. WOW."

This was Satun for us. An introduction to Thailand without tourism. A spacious, air-con hotel room with a splendid view over the mountains for $20 a night in an authentic town where the evening call to prayers is enchanting. It requires some work, but the exotic is really worth standing still for.

Saturday, February 23, 2019

Singapore, an Acquired Taste

How can you have a garden with no bugs?

Go to Singapore.

Under the domes of Singapore’s lush and life-enhancing “Gardens by the Bay” there are no bugs. 

The “Cloud Conservatory”, a domed web-like steel and glass installation, enclosing 2.5 acres, showcases plants that have been installed to recreate the experience of a more temperate zone. The place is climate-controlled and smells fresh. Plants and trees climb a man-made mountain in terraces surrounding a five-story high waterfall. You shake off the sweat of Southeast Asia for the cooling atmosphere of a boreal forest. There are no pollinating insects, no birds. The plantings are hybridized in a separate nursery. It’s outstandingly beautiful. Ambitiously sustainable. Curiously sterile.

It’s Singapore.

Besides being a garden city, or “city within a garden” according to the latest government speak, it’s also a city of rules and signs. Yet my husband has noticed something interesting. We’ve not seen a single police car the entire week. Don’t they need to enforce the rules?

 It would appear not. People seem to conform. The best image of this is how people file onto the escalator. They stand left, let pass right. The consistency is astounding and makes me think that the Toronto I know and love is home to a rebellious and slovenly lot. (Apologies to my Toronto friends. Admittedly there’s lots of good things there…just not in the subway).

But this is a CCTV state. You don’t need police on the street. They monitor everything in an Orwellian way. There are cameras everywhere suggesting that privacy is so yesterday. Enforcement does indeed occur, as our waiter explained. Surprisingly forthcoming about his experience, he told us that shortly after he posted a critical (he’s claims “sarcastic”) message about the Prime Minister in Facebook, two policemen came to his workplace requesting he take down the post.

There’s a ‘Black Mirror’ element to Singapore. Gardens with no bugs; conformity with no police.

Yet I still love the city, though there’s a context for my feelings. I’ve lost count, but somewhere around eight times, we have spent time here, before, after and in-between visits to other countries in Southeast Asia, countries where you feel attacked by the noisy, choking, filthy, urban chaos. Singapore administers to wounds inflicted elsewhere.

Of course, just like a wound, you bind it with something sterile.

This time in Singapore, we’ve covered a lot of the city center by foot and underground (called MRT here) in search of a particular product called Japanese Magic. This is a fabric stain remover in bar form that’s purportedly excellent. My friend wants a couple. Finding it became my mission. It took four days of hunting since the building where it was last found ten years ago had been demolished. I Google mapped myself to three local Japanese stores. Nothing. I went to Chinatown. Nothing. I covered blocks of stalls in Little India. Nothing. Finally, getting out of the core, I left Dan at home nursing his cold and travelled north to a mall serving the Malay community. Magic! There it was!

During my search, ironically for soap, I was charmed by the cleanliness of the subways. You could eat off the floors, that is, if it were permitted to eat in the subway, which it isn’t, hence the cleanliness. Back to that CCTV camera….

While I love the architectural splendor of this city, and the green, green landscaping throughout, I know I couldn’t live here. I do not look for condo rentals here for those months when we need to escape winter. The fact is that my physical body doesn’t like Southeast Asia. Singapore is a wet whisper north of the equator. The humidity drags me down. I peel off the sodden shirt and unstick my capris upon returning to the hotel for one of my three daily showers. Beads of sweat dribble down my neck and I’m simply standing, inert, at a bus stop. The climate really crimps my active life-style.

Cost is another reason why we wouldn’t spend a lot of time here. Our Singapore-based friend spends about $1500 a month on his car. Half of it goes to the monthly tax on car ownership. The balance is the sum of road tolls, parking lot fees, park entrances, all collected automatically by his transponder.

But let’s be real. A simple Chardonnay is 75% - 100% more expensive than in Canada. I’m outta of here!

Which reminds me about food.

Another mission was to track down a specific hawker stall by way of tribute to Anthony Bourdain. I had my notes assembled based on an article from CNN that listed out where and what my hero ate in Singapore. It took a few days because who knew that some hawker stalls close at 2pm after a shirt-soaking one-kilometer walk at 5pm? Back to my research.

So today, my last full day in Singapore, I finally made it to Sabar Menanti II in the Arab quarter.

“I would like to have ‘mee Siam (Siam noodles and chili paste, prawn and bean sprouts) please.”

“No more. Finished for day.”


I look at my notes.  “Can I have “Lontong rice cakes”?

The owner suddenly went all giggly and shouted at me. “Anthony Bourdain! You want Anthony Bourdain!”

Well, I wouldn’t have said it that way (then again...), but yes, I wanted to eat what he ate.

“Lady. Where you sitting? I find some mee Siam for you. And Lontong. Wait, la.”

And that’s what happened. She conjured up both dishes in the time it took my husband to be solicited by an elderly missionary at the next table (Dan, an atheist, always attracts people who want to convert him to their religion).

So that’s my list on Singapore. The city is eye candy. The food is flavourful. The humidity is oppressive. There’s something scary under the surface.

Nevertheless, I’ve acquired a taste for it…in small servings. I suspect that despite how delicious it all is, something might disagree with me tomorrow.

Monday, January 14, 2019

Cambodia Part I

It was here in Cambodia while hiking up a hill I discovered you can't hear an elephant approaching from behind. It's as if they wear ballet slippers. Plodding along quietly and rhythmically, it bypassed us with its cargo. This odd reality blows my mind since it's counter to what I would have assumed.  So while we have an instinct for avoiding motorcycles, we're helpless in even sensing the presence of an elephant let alone stepping away from it. 


It’s been 15 years since we last visited Cambodia. The stay had been short, just one-week entirely spent touring the immense Angor Wat ruins in Siem Reap. I left the country with some understanding of the culturally rich ancient Khmer culture, the shock of a humidity head-butt, and a nasty ear infection.

This time, we’re spending fifteen days in the country spread between urban Phnom Penh, the Gulf island of Koh Rong, and hanging out in the southern backpacker town of Kampot. I like to think of these urban and rural experiences as my Cambodian salt and pepper, an image that comes to mind because salt pans and pepper plantations are key destinations here.  

Phnom Penh

First a sprinkling of the urban.

Phnom Penh has two sides, the sprawling, belching, dirty, frantic capital city where most people live and work.  Foreigners briefly see  this area from a tuk tuk or a taxi, en route to and from the airport or the Killing Fields.In that way, it’s as untouchable for us as a documentary watched on TV. 

The other side is the historical heart where the tourists stay and the locals serve.

The historical town is very different. The air is cleaner, filtered by big trees. Modern Toyota cars, tuk tuks, and motorbikes swarm the narrow streets quietly (many are electric) managing the flow of people between stores, offices, palace, wat, restaurants, hotels, and markets. Somehow they weave through intersecting traffic without colliding in a screeching fiery mess.  Few drivers pay attention to street lights or stop signs, even when they exist. An electric motor charge lasts longer if you keep a steady speed, and at night, you don’t turn on the headlight.

But I’m making light of the pedestrian challenge. Actually, it’s hell. And worse if you’re a Type A personality driven by the urge to reach a destination in a timely manner, like before it closes. The pressure mounts when its 40 degrees C (with the humidity) and you’re monitoring every penny and it’s simply unsustainable to pay $3 US to ride a distance that can be easily walked.

But “walk” cannot be modified by “easy” here. It took me a solid three days to adjust my expectations. Walking is hot and hard.  Every obstacle is placed on a sidewalk; food kiosks, parked motorbikes and cars, supply deliveries, construction hoarding, broken chunks of cement, dog poo. A pedestrian regularly needs to step onto the street careful to check 360 degrees for silent motorbikes. They may come from any direction, on the road, around a corner, out of a driveway, from behind you on the sidewalk. Dan grabs my hand each time we cross a street. There’s strength in numbers. It’s even better when you can attach yourselves to a group of school children.

Regarding the sites, the Royal Palace is a real, functioning palace for the King. So real, it was closed one day when the much loved King was offering food to monks and poor people. Of course we had negotiated six blocks of nerve-jangling cross streets to find this out. There seems to be no way of getting this information ahead of time, online, or by phone (no phone number). The schedule has something to do with the lunar cycle, a puzzle even to our hotel concierge.

Shrugging off the disappointment, Dan and I used that day to explore the market and get some cash at the ATM. Oddly, the machine issues both Cambodian riel and US dollars. This whole country accepts US dollars for everything, something of a surprise to us in that it’s true even for the smallest cash purchase at the market. With a loss of about 35%, Canadians feel the pinch, but it doesn’t swell too much because things are pretty cheap. We can eat a typical dish in a no-frill place, with a beer, for about $5 US each.

The fourth time we tried the palace, we actually got in. Our second attempt failed since we didn’t have sufficient cash with us assuming we could use a credit card. You cannot. The third time was a costume malfunction on my part. As an experienced traveler in Hindu and Buddhist countries, I know the drill. I wore long pants and brought a shawl to cover my tank top. Not acceptable here.  Later, our guide explained that in recent years, they disallowed shawls because too many tourists took them off once they entered the grounds. The guide actually said “Chinese tourists”, but that’s another story.

Yes the palace was lovely. You expect gold and jewels and carvings and opulence in these parts. I guess I’ve seen so many across Southeast Asia, I’m a little casual about it.
We were in the stables where elephants had been groomed and bridled, when I thought that the real elephant in the room - so to speak - was how our guide and his family survived the years of Pol Pot. I had to ask.

Our guide was a young boy at the time. He has enough memory of life in the countryside – since his urban family was sent away to the fields (every Phnom Penh resident was expelled) – to draw some basic conclusions in hindsight. The only way to live was to be part of a group. If you were somehow abandoned, or found yourself alone when your friends and family disappeared, you were as good as dead because you didn’t have the skills to survive alone.

An established group was not necessarily family members since that unit was often scattered. A group formed for mutual, cooperative benefit, foraging for insects or anything to feed upon. And a stranger wandering into their midst would be sent away. He could be a spy. The group could suffer. Our guide was in such a group. He’s about fifty now.

At our hotel, the head of the restaurant told me he lost his older sister in those years. His eyes moistened. He was also very young at the time.

I don’t see many old people.

How people lived through those years is always on my mind in this country.  I didn’t need to tour the Killing Fields or the prison to raise the question. I had read the book First They Killed my Father the first time I came to Cambodia. I have the gist of the events in mind. It’s just that this time, in 2019, I’m oddly more fascinated about how a peaceful society slips into, and endures, a murderous, factious, episode. What are the signals? Isn’t it curious how it started with a transition that was perfectly legal? Isn’t it curious how journalists were among the first to be persecuted? Didn't anyone notice an elephant in the room?

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Bach Ma at Peace

We entered Vietnam on the edge of a monsoon at the end of a calendar year. Some days are bleak but dry; others see rain that beats down hard the whole day and night. Our clothes stay damp. The pillow and bed sheets are damp. The sun that I need to clear up the congestion in my lungs doesn't appear and now my husband has a cold too. As the sky turns purple once more, I know it’s going to be a lousy day for bird watching.

Our over night field trip to an old hill station called Bach Ma is pre-arranged and we can’t cancel it. This will be a wet one.

Bach Ma is a national park located half way down the crooked finger of a country that is Vietnam. It's a forested mountain and protected area that butts up against Laos. Only two hours by car outside of the ancient imperial capital Hue, forty years ago, someone would tell you that Bach Ma was located south of the demilitarized zone.

Our ornithologist, Mr. Minh greets us warmly. In spite of the rain and the unlikely prospect of seeing many birds, he insists we trek up the mountain during which he entertains us with his life history.

Minh was university educated in Czechoslovakia. On scholarship there, he was homesick and isolated over several winters, slipping on snow he'd never seen before, and wearing Vietnamese-made leather soled shoes that quickly fell apart. Understanding that we were on the cusp of our new year in a foreign land, he told us about his own memorable new year’s experience in Czechoslovakia

It was the Tet New Year and to celebrate, he lit some homemade firecrackers inside his boarding house. Not surprisingly, the explosives set off a heated argument in the neighbourhood. On one side, his landlady, the neighbours, and the local fire department; on his side, nobody. He narrowly avoided being thrown out on the street but for his fine manners and good judgement 364 days of the year.

He told us too about his part recently in an Australian research project documenting the history of colonial Bach Ma. His role in Dr. Fife's study was to ferret out the local elderly to record their memories. Too often though, they were not cooperating, dying before he could interview them.

It rained sideways. We walked more than twelve kilometres over an afternoon and the following morning. Minh continued his stories, now about the history of Bach Ma, interrupting only to draw Dan’s attention to a bird. Over three days, the bird count will total 35 in spite of the rain. Dan is delighted.  For my part, I walk and listen, taking notes about the mountain as best I can under a borrowed hooded motorcycle poncho that drapes to my ankles. It had a built-in "window" of clear plastic through which I could view my moving pen.

I was reasonably comfortable in my portable tent and confident that the anti-leech socks that Minh lent us would protect me from losing a bucket of blood to those awful creatures. Minh is an advocate of leech protection. He recounted, matter-of-factly, how he had to pull a leech off his penis one time on an overnight campout on the mountain. His girlfriend was just as unlucky but he didn't continue the story.

Bach Ma was a hill station built by French colonists in the 1930s. That’s comparatively late for many hill stations across South Asia since the idea of a seasonal home in the mountains developed in former English colonies more than a century earlier. Most were built around a sanatorium where homesick foreigners could recuperate from fatigue and life-threatening tropical illnesses. Later they evolved into small towns, architecturally similar to home. Ex-pats surrounded themselves with clubs, libraries, churches, and recreational facilities built in the architectural styles of Europe. Many hill stations remain today, some a lot worse for wear since they have overseen political upheavals, and new landlords. Others, like Bach Ma, were destroyed beyond repair, unable to side step being on the front line of war.

The most famous hill station surviving in Vietnam is called Dalat, and that town was conveniently protected by agreement between Hanoi and Saigon not to bomb it during the war. It remains well preserved and adapting to a new generation, enriched by the new economy of their post-war world. Providing refuge for a growing middle class, Vietnamese of means are not fleeing tropical heat nor pestilence today; now they are fleeing choking, exhaust-filled cities.

On Bach Ma, we walk the same cobbled path as had Vietnamese bearers eighty years ago when they transported French officials and their families in litters to the mountain retreat. Earning what Minh calculated were three Indochina pennies for a day's labour, one of these labourers could then buy about five kilos of rice for his family. It was a good living; an even better one for the colonist.

We walk by the hard rock foundation stones of villa after villa, all that’s left after what's called the American War. We stopped at one fully intact structure, recently restored as a guesthouse for naturalists and students who now come to Bach Ma in peace time.   While the building had been pasted back together, the pool, a gazebo, and the tennis court lay abandoned in the sunken terraces off the road, overgrown and cracked. Other houses, beyond restoration, show bullet-pocked foundation stones jutting up from piles of dead leaves, like grave stones. Here is a place where man has retreated, and nature is reclaiming its own.

Minh identifies a screaming red-wiskered bulbill.

At its height, there were more than 130 structures on Bach Ma. Ironically, the village’s destruction is perhaps the mountain’s best protection in peace time. The mountain was left alone and then designated a national park in 1991. As a park and not a hill station, Bach Ma is protected from modern developers who are changing the environment of other hill stations, like Dalat, by bringing in timeshares, condos, arcades, shopping centres and karaoke.

Bach Ma was pulled into the war because the plateau at the top was used by an American helicopter launch and observation post. The view over the agricultural basin extends to the sea and Bach Ma was therefore of strategic value. But with the misty rain and fog, I had trouble seeing my own hand scribbling notes. The commanding view was lost on me.

Although the Viet Cong could not hide in the villas, they continued to be a threat to the plateau. Minh shows us the entrance to a complicated tunnel system with five exits in which Viet Cong fighters lived and observed. For three years, both sides were stalemated here. Neither mounted an attack against each other. The Americans could hear voices in the bowels of the mountain, and although they knew the location of at least a few of the entrances, they would not blow them up for fear of damaging their own helicopter base. The Viet Cong on their part would not compromise the system of tunnels by coming out to sabotage the base.

A silver pheasant crosses the road ahead.

At one turn of the slithering path, the outline of a staircase makes Dan curious. Like Alice peering into the rabbit hole, he can’t resist entering.  Together we push away the vines and climb the jagged, broken stones and stand before the facade of a stone church. Two of the balustrades, pitted with bullet holes, remain, and an entrance set of stairs leads to a doorway with nothing beyond.  Before our eyes, the jungle is arm-wrestling the standing pieces into the ground. Although the destruction is fresh -a mere half century in an archaeological calendar - it had the same quality of an ancient ruin. But unlike the ruins of, say, ancient Khmer, these ghosts seem to me still fleshy. You can smell them. This quiet place is not on the map for war-relic tourism, yet in the late afternoon twilight, the uninterrupted misty rain, the woodsy scent of jungle rot, I had a powerful sense of Imperialist Europe's Indochina and its decline. Especially it's decline.

A black-throated laughing thrush squeals somewhere deep in the woods.

It's time to turn back. It's nearly dark.

Three kilometres later, we arrive at the stone building which was once a police station and now the park's entrance hall and restaurant. It's deserted except for a few staff, assembled to support our stay in the empty old chateau across the path. Once we pick off the leeches that have stowawayed into the folds of our socks, it's time to retire. As we head off into the dark, Minh tells us that this is the place where he saw a tiger grab a chicken the previous year, right here on the driveway at about this time of night, just when we are crossing it to our room. Minh is so droll.

I am carrying seven blankets to our room under my portable tent. It's still raining. Our room has a fireplace but it doesn’t work. There are twelve-foot ceilings, a gigantic half moon window with shutters, and no furnishing except two metal-legged beds with naked mattresses. I will wrap one of the blankets around the mattress for a base and use the others on top.

Dan and I bury ourselves under the blankets. We are so tired. We forget to wish each other happy new year before falling into deep sleep. In the silence of these first hours, Bach Ma is at peace.


Wednesday, February 13, 2013

The Two Faces of Ambergris Caye, Belize

There's two sides to Belize's Ambergris Caye. The 'Isla Bonita' is growing up in a material world.
Within minutes of landing at the Philip S. W. Goldson International Airport in Belize City, my husband and I are in line waiting for a connecting flight to Ambergris Caye.  It’s an informal process with no boarding pass, just a list of names on a clipboard. Nor are there pre-assigned seats. When one plane fills its fourteen seats, it taxis off and another takes its place.

The tiny Cessna pulls up to the door of our waiting room. We enter first and the pilot invites Dan to sit in the empty co-pilot seat. I wedge myself in place behind him. The size of this plane reminds me of my Subaru Outback; in fact the purring engine and smooth ride also brings my car to mind. We’re quickly aloft, the skies are clear, the views are blue and in fifteen minutes, as promised, we’re touching down on the Caye.

Ambergris Caye is the largest island in Belize and the country’s main vacation destination. San Pedro is the island’s only town and if you believe Madonna in her 1987 hit song, San Pedro is la isla bonita. Like southern Mexico, the Caye is a subtropical mix of mangrove forests and lagoons supporting 200 species of birds, all under the protection of the largest living reef in the northern hemisphere running down its east coast. 

But things have changed since Madonna’s song rocked the airwaves a generation ago. There’s another side to Ambergris Caye that’s emerged. The Caye is growing up in a material world. 

For example, there are more cars in San Pedro than there were even ten years ago. While many of them are golf carts, most are gas-powered and are as charming as a fleet of lawn mowers. But despite the modern-day scars of growth, hardly unique to Belize, the town has appeal.  

As a beach town, San Pedro is ultra casual. It may not be the hippy commune it once was, but it’s not glitz either. There are few upmarket shops. Expansion of that sector will need more well-heeled foreign retirees. And they might come and invest in the expanding condominium developments. But in spite of the chic, low rise, low-density, developments, San Pedro does not look like a town poised to boom. The island’s capacity for growth along the coast is finite. Or is it? 

One of our guides told us that the government is selling off plots of the shallow limestone shelf extending from the Caye. Authorized or not, developers are starting to dyke the shelf, drain it, fill it with sand, and then build on it. Voila, land.  It’s a worrisome trend for people concerned about the Caye’s fragile ecosystem. Environmentalists as well as responsible resort owners who rely on marine ecotourism worry about the reef. Eighty percent of all tourists to Belize visit the marine parks.  
Tourists usually come to Ambergris Caye to visit Hol Chan Marine Reserve and the Blue Hole, the latter a natural phenomenon believed to be the world’s largest vertical underwater cave. Both sites are part of the Belize Barrier Reef Reserve System, a UNESCO World Heritage site.  The designation is not only supposed to protect the area from development, but also from commercial fishing. The variety of colourful fish is impressive as is the quantity. At first plunge, I found myself snorkelling a few meters above a barracuda the size of a sofa.

You can swim with nurse sharks. 
Nevertheless, despite the pleasure it still affords, a few years ago, the marine park made UNESCO’s endangered list, joining Florida’s Everglades also named that year. The committee cited mangrove cutting and excessive development as the main problems putting the reef at risk.

The reef lies half a mile offshore and runs the entire length of the Caye (if it circled the Caye, the island would be an atoll). And while folks are rightly concerned about hurricanes, they also know that the reef can cut the size of a tidal surge by half.  Still, no one is complacent and the church in central San Pedro remains well attended. A long time resident told me he has a hurricane plan in place. Coordinated amongst his extended family, it includes a central meeting place with thick concrete walls and emergency supplies of food and water. So far, their gatherings have ended in family cook-outs, good times, though spotty electricity.

The Caye’s development has been a big issue for a decade. Concerns are both about the  explosion of vacation properties as well as the government’s sale of whole islands on the bay side which faces the mainland. Dr. Colin Young, a natural scientist of Belize’s Galin University, says that one of several issues facing Belize is "ineffective institutional and legal frameworks that inhit enforcement of environment regulations on developers. The enforcement agencies lack financial resources and personnel to enforce regulations."   

To some, the environmental cost is especially painful. Birder, dive instructor and author Elbert Greer (“Bird Watching with Bubba, A Guidebook to Birds of Belize”), told me that whole islands on the bay side of the Caye have been sold by the government and this happens quietly. It’s done before a protest can be launched. The small islands, like tufts of green hair on a limestone shelf are nesting sites for some of the region’s loveliest water birds, the White Ibis, the Roseated Spoonbill, among others. “I’ve seen people tear down the trees. I don’t take people birding there anymore.”  

One such island was sold to Leonardo di Caprio. The good news is that di Caprio, an acknowledged environmental activist, intends to build a resort in partnership with Four Seasons based on sustainable design and environmental conservation. But not all developers have such goals.  

Sadly, with a taxpaying population so small (the population of Belize is about the same as the number of people who work for Toyota Motor Company worldwide), there are choices that need to be made. Even discounting government's lack of regulatory enforcement, not unusual in developing countries, there is only so much public funding to go around after servicing a large debt.   

A good part of that public money admittedly comes from tourism and especially from the 9% tax the government collects from the trade. Business in Ambergris Caye however would like to see more of that money turned back to improvements on the Caye. For example, the lagoon-side road is always in bad shape even without hurricane Richard in 2010. Only one street in town has a sidewalk, partly. On a recent radio talk show, a Caye resident complained that a sewer project begun three years ago by the government had yet to be completed. In the meantime, the septic lagoon serving his community has overflowed because of the rains. 

If you don’t know Ambergris Caye as a largely unpopulated island, its village community sustained by coconut plantations and fishing, then you may not take much notice of the development. The hotels and condominiums creeping along the coast are typically a string of single to four-storey structures, many artfully designed, and often dotted with coconut trees and couched in well landscaped grounds. So far, the visual effect is quite the opposite from a Cancun-like block of high-rise hotels. Outside of festival time, there are no crowds here and this lends a quality of exclusiveness to the experience.   

The beach is public and you can walk for miles unobstructed.  Resort attendants rake the sand within their boundaries and collect debris washed to shore, the litter of sea vessels and distant islands, often trapped in the sea grass. The beaches are sandy and inviting but the sea grass is so thick, and dredging officially disallowed outside of small portions, that snorkelers have more fun in the water than swimmers. To the government’s credit and thanks to the cooperation of the resorts, the sea grass largely remains in place, in spite of complaints by uniformed vacationers. Sea grass is a natural sieve, holding back sediment from washing into the sea and trapping pollutants. Sediment clouds the water and makes a barrier to photosynthesis, a chemical action that coral needs to live.  

Many of the Caye properties are owned and managed by foreigners who have banded together to form an association. As a group they have been effective in lobbying for training programs for local staff, people who seek work but are poorly equipped after graduating, or not, out of a struggling and underfunded education system. Most on the association’s mind these days is their recent lobbying efforts, in cooperation with mainland groups, to oppose plans around offshore oil exploration. With the 2010 gulf oil disaster still in mind, people are extremely worried about what even a small oil spill could do to the reef. 

So what have I learned about Ambergris Caye?  

Ambergris Caye has two faces, each on its path to its own destiny. There is a breathless quality to the pace of some newer developments here, reckless disregard for government regulations and the lagoon environment. At the same time, there are citizen action groups, feverously working to educate the public and lobby the government to enforce its own rules, however slim. And in the mix there are environmentally aware resort managers, like at the Xanadu Resort, maintaining their plot of sea grass, planting trees, educating their staff, and integrating sustainable and green practices into the management of their properties.  

So while the quiet island village is no more, condominium developments are not all bad, and certainly Trip Advisor reviewers don't think so in that Belize's resorts have won several 2013 Traveler's Choice Awards. Still, informed, mature travelers vacationing in Caye can choose to walk or rent electric vehicles over gas-powered ones. They can celebrate the sea grass rather than complain about it to their friends. After all, part of the Caye’s future is owned by visitors like ourselves.   

Literally, "ambergris" means the spit of sperm whales, a gray bubbly mass that washes to shore when whales migrate through these parts. Possibly named by fishermen, the concept doesn’t have much cache for travel agents. But it’s just another example of the two sides of Ambergris Caye. Depending on what you think about the Caye’s development, the future of Ambergris Caye will either be your Isla Bonita or whale spit.

The Phoenix Resort

A lovely condo in Ambergris Caye