I used to travel to the Middle East to do electronics and computer work. On my way there and back, I'd get to stop off for a few days in some really fun places. Here are my recommendations on some wonderful places to visit:
Bali, an island in Indonesia, is (dreadful recent events notwithstanding) a magic, enchanted place. It's sort of like the Tiki Room at Disneyland, only it's real! The island has a very rich culture. There are various small villages, some of which are centers for artisans specializing in a particular craft. In one village, you can watch artisans make incredibly detailed wood carvings. Another village is a center for painting, and yet another is where jewelry is made. If you go to Bali, the wood carving area is, in my opinion, the one place that you absolutely must see. The pieces created by Balinese master wood carvers can make your jaw drop. They are simply exquisite.
Bargaining in Bali
If you choose to buy a wood carving, remember that you appear to the natives to be a "rich" tourist, and the prices you'll be quoted will be- ahem- a bit high. You'll need to bargain. You can often walk away with a wonderful piece for far less than the asking price. Bargaining is expected. Two bargaining techniques that I saw some people use effectively were "feigning budgetary poverty" and "good cop bad cop."
In feigning budgetary poverty, you say, "I really like this one, but I have only [such and such an amount] that I can spend. That's all that my wife/husband will let me buy." Note: At this point, it tends to discredit your strategy to pull out a gold or platinum credit card, after claiming to be on a budget. Traveler's checks, cash, or a less-pretentious-looking credit card are more effective, in this regard.
Good cop bad cop is where one of you (assuming that you're part of a couple) says, "Oh honey- isn't this nice?" The other says, "$300!?! No way! C'mon, let's go." You'd be amazed at how often that gets a price cut to a third of the asking price.
Though Indonesia is primarily Islamic, the religion of Bali is Hindu. The Balinese people are deeply religious. Throughout the island, there are beautiful (and incredibly old) temples, many of which you can visit. Wherever you go in Bali, you'll see offerings- tiny straw baskets containing spiritual gifts to God. The baskets typically contain rice, flowers, a candle, and other neatly arranged items. The offerings are so numerous, that you sometimes have to watch your step to keep from accidentally tripping over them.
The first time that I visited Bali, my friends and I asked a shopkeeper what would happen if a visitor accidentally tripped over an offering. We expected that such a blunder might be taken with terrible offense. Instead, the shopkeeper shrugged his shoulders and said, "No problem." The feeling in Bali is very mellow and relaxed. The Balinese people are happy and friendly. They have very little money, but their lives are rich, nevertheless.
The only unpleasant experience I had in all of Bali was in the town of Kuta. Kuta is a modern town, with supermarkets, stores and night clubs. The unpleasant part of visiting Kuta is that you are pursued relentlessly by hordes of boys trying to sell you cheesy watches and other items that you probably wouldn't want. They will follow you for many blocks, pestering you incessantly. You don't want to be rude, especially to a child, but when ignoring them and avoiding eye contact fails, you often have to raise your voice at them. Sometimes, they still will not cease. It's exasperating.
Five-Star Resort? Sure! Go for it!
If you can afford to stay at a resort, don't feel guilty about it. Enjoy the pampering. Even though a resort isolates you from much of the island's culture, that needn't be a problem. The resort can arrange tours that will take you to various villages and sights.
Between villages, the rice paddies you'll see are very beautiful. Your tour might take you through the Monkey Forest, where you'll get out of your tour van and see wild monkeys in the trees. Be cautious around the monkeys. They're not tame- they're wild animals. They have sharp claws (and equally sharp teeth), and they have no idea that they're cute, or that human heads aren't landing platforms for monkeys diving from high trees.
Of the various resorts, my favorite (by far) is the Bali Inter-Continental Resort. When making your reservation, ask your travel agent to book you for the Club Inter-Continental service. The cost per night isn't that much more, and the extras that you'll get will make your stay even more pleasant.
Should I rent a car? NOPE!
I strongly recommend against renting a car and trying to drive yourself. Once you see what Balinese driving is like, you'll understand why. The roads are very narrow for the driving speeds that the locals use. Let a Balinese tour guide take you around. You'll learn from them, and you won't have the stress of trying to drive in Bali.
To get to Bali, my strong recommendation for transportation is Singapore Airlines. Their service is excellent. If you're flying from the west coast of the U.S., you may have to stop for an hour or two in Taipei before traveling on to Singapore. Taipei is- um- not my favorite airport. If you have a stopover there, despair not, for you'll soon be on your way to the...
World's Nicest Airport
Before flying to Denpasar, Bali, you'll have a stopover in Singapore, where you'll experience the nicest airport in the world. The Singapore Changi Airport is what all airports should be. You'll be very tired from your flight, believe me! If you have a several-hour stopover, your travel agent can book you a reservation in the Transit Hotel, which is inside the airport. There, you can get a room for a few hours, get a shower, and get totally horizontal for some real sleep (a luxury that you never knew could be so luxurious)!
Things to do in Singapore Changi Airport
If you somehow end up with energy during your stopover in Singapore Changi Airport, and your stopover is for five hours or more, you can sign up for a free tour of Singapore. Look for signs inside the airport. Also in the airport, there's a Science Discovery Center for kids, lots of nice shops, and plenty of other facilities (including a pool and a putting green). Though I wasn't that thrilled with Singapore itself when I stayed in the city for a few days (I prefer exotic islands to busy cities with skyscrapers), I absolutely love Singapore Changi Airport.
Indonesia Customs Warning
While it goes without saying that you musn't bring anything illegal into Indonesia (death penalty for drug trafficking), there are a couple of items that you might not think would be illegal, but are. Don't take anything with Chinese writing into Indonesia (it's illegal- don't ask me why), and don't take a cellular phone- they're also illegal.
Take and use some strong sunblock! I mention this because I went snorkeling, and got the second-worst sunburn of my life (don't ask about the first worst- I don't wanna think about it)! In Bali, before snorkeling, I made the mistake of applying sunblock to my own back. I missed a very large spot, which was a very large mistake.
The sun in Bali has far more ultraviolet than anything to which we in America are accustomed. Don't go out in the morning without sunblock, thinking that you'll be safe because the sun isn't yet high in the sky. The amount of ultraviolet you'll get in a Balinese morning is about what we get here in Santa Monica at high noon on the beach! In fact, during one of my later visits to Bali, I got a sunburn- in the shade!!
Take some insect repellant. Wherever I go in the tropics, mosquitos love to eat me alive, and Balinese mosquitos were no exception. My friends had no problem, but I think that was because all of the mosquitos on the island were munching on me! In the resorts, you'll find a little device in your room, which doles out a small, measured dose of insecticide, periodically. The one in my room ran out of juice. The second and third time I visited Bali, I brought a small, non-aerosol pump sprayer of insect repellant. I sprayed a couple of dots on my wrists, neck and pillow before bedtime, and that solved my mosquito problem.
I was once in the waiting room of a doctor's office, and picked up a magazine that was dedicated to islands of the world. They had a feature article on the Maldives, and I was so fascinated by the article that I just had to go there! Some of the islands that make up the Maldives are so small that they remind me of those cartoons in the newspaper where there's a scruffy guy stranded on a desert island the size of a kid's swimming pool. While not all of the islands are that small, the island where I stayed, Kurumba, takes only about 15 minutes to walk around its entire perimeter! I took this photo on one of those 15-minute walks around the island.
The Republic of Maldives ("The Maldives") is a chain of tiny islands within atolls in the middle of the Indian Ocean (in the middle of nowhere). It is pronounced Mull-Deevz, and it is not plural, i.e., there's no such thing as a "Maldive." The Maldives is one of the most bizarre (and equally relaxing) places on the planet.
For me, being from the Los Angeles area, the time difference between home and the Maldives was exactly 12 hours. I kept singing a line from the Sting song, Jeremiah Blues: "It was midnight- midnight at noon..." The 12-hour time difference added to the feeling of being in a really exotic place. It also resulted in the most dramatic case of jet lag that anyone could experience! Luckily for me, though, I'm a night owl struggling to exist in a world of morning larks. When I got back home with a case of 12-hour jet lag, I felt great! For a few days, I felt like waking up in the morning and going to sleep at night. That was even more unusual than the Maldives!
There isn't much wild nightlife (or wild daylife) in the Maldives. It's a place to relax on the bright-white sand, walk in the knee-deep crystal-clear ocean water, listen to the silence that's broken only by the sound of gentle waves, and enjoy being in such a remote, unusual place. You'll never see so much sky as you'll see in the Maldives. At night, the nearly 180-degree sky is absolutely brimming with stars. It's an astronomer's paradise.
The Maldives is a great place for couples. You can even arrange to be dropped off on a tiny, isolated island, to spend a day with the entire island to yourselves. Though I very much enjoyed my stay in the Maldives, it isn't ideally suited to a single guy returning from a business trip. For couples, however, the Maldives is a great getaway.
Airline recommendation for a Maldivian vacation:
Once again, Singapore Airlines
I visited Sydney, but had only a weekend to stay there. Still, I squeezed in as much visiting as I could manage, and I loved every minute of it. My father had friends in Sydney who showed me all around. I got to play with baby kangaroos. I got to cuddle a real Koala. I saw all kinds of crazy sights, and had the time of my life!
Aussies are so much like Americans that the only way we can tell each other apart is that we can't understand anything that the other says! For me, even after I got used to the accent, I still couldn't understand the Aussies, because they use so many expressions that mean nothing to a "Yank." I had to write each expression down as soon as I'd learn it. One of my colleagues visited Australia, soon after my visit. While he stood in line in a store (whoops- I mean, "stood in a queue"), he was surprised when a lovely young lady asked him, "Could I get a squeezy?" Much to his disappointment, it turned out to mean, "may I squeeze by you in line, so that I might exit the store?"
Aussies are great fun, and that's what you'll have if you visit Australia. Most people, including Americans, do need a visa to visit Australia. A travel agent can help you to obtain one. You'll probably be flying Qantas, which has excellent service.
New Zealanders (Kiwis) tend to be more subdued and proper than their nearby Aussie neighbors, but they're every bit as friendly! In New Zealand, I spent most of my time indulging in crazy sports, for which Kiwis are famous. I did visit some other sights that didn't cause adrenaline production, but were fun, just the same. One of the spots that I particularly enjoyed was Kelly Tarlton's Antarctic Encounter in Auckland. They have an Antarctic exhibit, through which you ride in a thermally protected tram. You ride by real penguins! It was way cool (figuratively and literally).
At the time that I visited New Zealand, Americans did not need a visa, but it's always a good idea to check with your travel agent.
Oh, one other thing that's great fun to do if you get to Queenstown in the South Island: Jetboating and Helicopter Riding at the Shotover River! Most of the wild sports that I tried in New Zealand are in my Sports page, but taking a ride in a helicopter or a jetboat didn't seem to qualify as sports, even though they sure qualified as fun!