My Top Ten Best Places to Swim in the World

Ocean creatures nibble on your feet as the wide expanse of seawater pulses with waves for bodysurfing. Nude night swimming as a teenager felt like breaking rules that weren’t meant to be followed anyway. Sunday night swims at the Y.M.C.A, when we were still a family of four, with vending machine ice cream followed by the classic show by the formerly virtuous, presently vilified Bill Cosby.

Swimming was always a part of my life. There are soundless, grainy videos of me as a chubby baby splashing and floating in Styrofoam tubes, later, flat chested, sun browned and endlessly chasing waves and catching rides, picking up horseshoe crabs to scare girls. We would spend every summer weekend and our big two-week vacation at the beach. I remember the crispy crust of seawater kissed skin, the smell of barbecuing meat and steaming corn as we ran around the yard. I remember barely being able to sleep out of excitement the night before we would go to the Wildwood, NJ water parks.

They were the days of pre-9/11 America. They were the days before any premature deaths had forced me to reckon with life’s brief candle. They were the days before girls were significant, when we all looked the same. They were the days of wonder and sleepover nights, before jobs and bills. They were the days of best friends, talking on the phone, riding bikes. This is a list of memories, a catalog of subjective experiences, a way to look back while wondering what is still to come.

I read a story in the New York Times by Loudon Wainwright III, an American troubadour, who has similar feelings for the water. He put down his top ten swimming places in the world. I thought it would be fun to do the same.

Here are my top ten most memorable water filled places:

10. Stuttgart Mineral Baths, Germany—I love a good sauna. When I first arrived in Korea, I’d spend hours slipping in and out of the hot and cold baths, hopping between the steam or the cool showers. But my love for saunas started here, in Germany’s Black Forest. I got naked in front of strange Germans, suntanned unabashedly and relished the nude joy of the healing waters. (I should include that Budapest and Sevilla also had amazing bathhouses, but as a bathing suit was required, it just felt more like a fancy pool with beautiful mosaic tiles.)

9. Lagos, Portugal—Although this was the most hungover I’ve ever been as the local bars offer 2 for 1 everything, the crisp seawater was a lifesaver in the morning. I found some crepes and a bucket of ice water and stared at the shimmering Atlantic Ocean. The massive cliffs beside the beaches make for a spectacular backdrop. I remember swimming out with some friends to a natural bridge in the rocks before remembering a scene from a nature documentary where hundreds of manta rays gathered in a place just like that.

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Courtesy: Western Australia Pinterest

8. Karijini National Park, Western Australia—Hidden among the baked red earth of Australia’s outback was a bright blue pool dotted with waterfalls and trees. There was a good hour hike down the rocks to the pool, heating you up for the cool down. There was a 20-meter cliff jump, shady spots to have a drink and some rock climbing inside the waterfalls. We camped in this remote park, and it remains the most stars I’ve ever seen.

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7. Gwangalli Beach, Busan, South Korea—It’s one of the most famous beaches of Korea and insanely crowded for 6 weeks in July and August. But in any season, you can get some Ramen noodles, beers, chips and shoot fireworks into the placid waters. There are no waves here, but the scenic Gwangan Bridge makes a glimmering seascape come alive at night. (Most of the Korea’s east coast has lovely blue water, white sands and nearby 7-11’s. Plus, the island of Jeju is full of amazing waterfalls, beaches and sex museums.)

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6. Mekong River, Laos—Although the Mekong runs from China to Vietnam, my favorite spot was in the Thousand Islands of Don Det. It’s not easy to get to, as you must ride a shaky diesel-powered longboat with a draft of a few inches to the water. Animals run wild, people are friendly and there is a small swimming spot at the end of the island. It was amazing to walk out a few feet and feel the current begin to take you downstream. A few more feet and you’d need to paddle hard to get back in. (In Kratie, Cambodia, I found a cool spot with thatched huts on pylons where the locals drank and cooled off.)

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5. Otres Beach, Cambodia—This is my ideal paradise beach. It’s quiet, chill, beautifully set on the Gulf of Thailand with a few beachside bars and pubs pumping quiet house music. There are French expats who’ve opened some decent restaurants complete with a boule lawn. Every day, the local women sold me fresh mango, watermelon and a back and foot rub for 10$. I also did a great scuba dive here. I was the only one who signed up, so I got to solo dive with the instructor. Sitting under a thatch umbrella, mangoes, cold beer, burgers and a Kindle. (There are Happy Pizza restaurants and tons of bars in nearby Sihanoukville, the backpacker party town.)

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4. Trieste, Italy—This little enclave of an Italian city with an Austrian heritage has a small sidewalk with access to the Adriatic Sea, called the Barcola. If you remember to bring a cushioned mat and towel, relaxing on the cement will be a breeze. The sea is beautiful here, flat and blue out to the horizon with tree covered mountains behind. (Nearby Croatian beaches are similarly wonderful.)

3. Barton Springs, Austin, Texas—A spring fed pool in South Austin, with lax clothing requirements, few personal restrictions, naturally cold water and a diving board. The only negative might be that it is set upon a grassy hill, which just isn’t as nice as sand. (If you catch the right day, McKinney Falls can be spectacular. But a real gem is down in Wimberley at the Blue Hole or chilling near the Blanco River.)

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2. Phuket, Thailand—It was near the end of a four-month journey in SE Asia, and our last day in Thailand. Jordyn and I wanted to swim. We could see heavy, dark clouds shooting lightning in the distance. The rain was falling, the waves were high and we jumped right in. Walking back, people were covered in rain gear, umbrellas and galoshes, we wore only bathing suits and sandals. (Phuket is nice, but the islands like Ko Lanta, or Ko Tao are much more stunning.)

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1. Avalon, NJ—It’s not the clearest, cleanest or nicest water. It’s not always the most peaceful environment. It’s not the most reliably wonderful weather. And although things are changing there, as it’s become a playground for elites with multi-million dollar houses, and there are sound ordinances where police will shut you down for singing after midnight, and extreme weather pushes the storm surges ever closer to the doorstep, and the restaurants are overpriced, and the bars full of college meatheads, khaki shorts and high heels…well, damn, maybe it’s just our little house there. The little cinderblock paradise on the bay, where so many memories were made, remains my favorite place to swim in the world.

 

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Sitting on the Slow Boat from Luang Prabang to Huay Xai

Green trees, brown water, red and blue boats, jagged, moist rocks poking up from the riverine depths. More Mekong sights, but this time–on the river, churning and chugging through the calm muddy currents. Engine grumbling behind, people spread out on used minivan seats, fires ashore. Trees like stars, uncountable and mesmerizing. Light rain, coldest air I’ve felt in 2 months, cruising speed.
Houses disguised as 3 sided shacks balanced on tenuous mud and sand slopes. Construction is not a paramount for river dwellers. Water buffalo striving for honor of laziest draft animal stand at the banks and pretending to chew gum and blankly stare at their reflections.
Beaches made of wonderfully light white sand, surrounded by hills, no footprints.
The river rapids slow us to a crawl. Whitewater rising and bubbling from the murky, mercurial depths, swirling in a pulse of surface energy. Some haggard man, teeth brutally stained from betel-nut rests on his haunches atop a black rock and barely even acknowledges our presence.
What dank fish live in this water? What muddy-eyed salamanders crawl beneath these smooth stones? What type of predator is here? No crocs, no barracuda, no sharks, no teeth, it’s like a river meant for toe dipping. Fish throw themselves into nets, bite unloaded lures, lunge past the tides and crawl ashore onto the grill. They are giving fish. The peaceful and fully edible Mekong.
The clouds are thick, obscuring any rays save the glimmer of sunshine. Fresh Rain smells mixed with parched boulders begin to permeate the aerated boat. Hours later, I have the answer to that great American bard of rock n roll, John Fogarty, I have seen rain coming down on a sunny day. Sun out, fisherman fishing, rain drizzling, rocks shining in the wet glare, we push on. Rivulets have carved tiny meandering hollows in the sandy shore.
Slowly, we approach shore. The old woman seemingly made entirely of sinewy muscle and old skin goes ashore on some dangerous rocks with a young boy dressed nicely. We leave them squatted on the rocks figuratively but almost literally, in the middle of nowhere. Rocks still drying, resemble wet, unmolded clay with a bumpy texture.
The scariest part of the Mekong is its opacity. No knowing the depths. Only wonder of the life below. It’s like the Mississippi, just a polite, helpful old river. Nothing to worry about here.
We finally pass some kids about dusk. They sit like friendly gargoyles upon the rocks, legs dangling, waving, most likely completely unaware of another world beyond the river and her murky wealth. Further on, we see a deeply tanned statue posing as a boy holding a net within a small cave like hole, ensconced by rocks.

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Started rainy, now sunny with puffy cottony clouds. Hills closer and higher, we pass a copse of singing trees. The peculiar little black birds tweeting a morning chorus to the river. Dense engine sound obfuscating the rich jungle din. Vines growing upon vines, branches hugging each other. The birdsong and frogs making an orchestra out of the shoreline, with me in a front row. Birds on flutes, frogs on horns, cicadas the drum and rhythm section. A leaf barren tree teems with black birds sitting, posing and chirping. Wifi towers planted on hillsides otherwise devoid of life hint of things deeper in those forests. Quarry, bulldozers, trucks, cranes, terraced hills, new bridge construction.
Nasty yellow foam bubbles swirling beside plastic rubbish and scattered debris. Styrofoam floating in sad circles in gentle whirlpools.
A woman in classic long Laos skirt and silky pink shirt spits phlegm wretched from the bowels of her gullet over the side of the boat for the sixth time in two hours. She spits as well (and as loud) as an outfielder. Cows and a fat pig sit on the beach dreaming calmly.
Journey complete and back on terra firma, legs twitchy for exercise, body sticky for shower, ears ringing from the incessant engine roar, I feel a sense of completion. Mekong will be behind me tomorrow, replaced by new Thai surprises.

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