Author Archives: beelakes

One Final Note

Happy New Year faithful beelog followers!

Gabriella and I have arrived safely in New Zealand and have been hard at work tending to the beautiful land here. For this new adventure in a new year, we’ve decided to merge our wonderful blogs into one unbelievable Franken-blog! If you’ve enjoyed following our travel stories so far, then click on the link below and sign up for the new one. We’ll be posting a full update on our travels shortly.

Happy Holidays to everyone! Here’s to even greater adventures in 2013!!

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Selamat Jalan!

They say if you want to see what Bali was like 30 years ago, go to Lombok; undeveloped, but rich in natural beauty and Indonesian culture. Our first stop was to the Gili’s, three small ellipses of islands off of the northwest coast of Lombok. We decided to take the speed boat across the Bali Straight, despite cautionary tales of rough seas and the fact that one company’s boat sank two years ago. Travel agencies in Ubud start selling a ticket at Rp 660,000 (~$68), which is absurd for a 1-hour trip in Indonesia. We opted to go to the harbor in Padang Bai ourselves and book once we saw the seaworthiness of the boats. I made notes about which companies had good reviews and which ones to avoid (namely the one that sank: Eka Jayah!). Ben and I shopped around and negotiated with a man at the Gili Cat booth for Rp 200,000 each. That’s more like it! He quickly wrote up our tickets and told us to hurry over to the boat because it was leaving soon. We were excited to get such a good deal (because I’m sure there are some people who actually pay Rp 660,000) so we grabbed Gabriella and hurried over to the boat only to find that we had just booked with…Eka Jayah! Whoops! It was too late now so we just had to hope for the best. I put on a smile and didn’t tell Gabriella until we made it safely across. 😉 Luckily, the sea was calm that day and the driver was responsible, but it certainly was not a relaxing ride.

We decided to go to Gili Air, a happy medium between the party scene on Gili Trawangan and the doldrums of Gili Meno. The island is small enough to walk the circumference in 90 minutes. There are no motor vehicles, no pushy salesmen, and no worries. Most of our time was spent relaxing in a hammock in the shade, listening to the waves, and playing Sudoku. It’s true…we’re hooked. We also made time to stay fit with a classic Boe Trosset workout routine and attended a sunset yoga class at H2O yoga.

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Every night, the restaurants display their fresh catch and make deals with passing customers. The typical selection included red or black snapper, barracuda, tuna, jackfish, squid, and prawn. We would usually negotiate enough fish for the three of us, plus three plates of rice and veggies, for about $10-12. Not to mention a large beer (660ml/22oz) was only $2.50! This is the life…

One of the main attractions for the Gili’s is diving. I had never been, but Ben went once in the Red Sea. It has always been an option for us on this trip (Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia), but Gabriella and I were never interested in trying. Snorkeling was always enough. Since Ben had been before, I thought I’d give it a shot. We spent the morning learning how to use the equipment and practicing in the pool to get a feel for being underwater, and at 11:30am it was time for the real thing!

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The boat took us out to a dive site called Meno Wreck. A large storage container had sunk there years ago and there was tons of coral growing on it. At first, I was nervous about going that far under water with so much water pressure above me, but I quickly got used to it. We descended slowly and popped our ears every 3-4 feet (1m) as the pressure changed. Before I knew it, we were 40 feet (12m) under! It was difficult to maintain an even amount of space between myself and the ocean floor, at first. I didn’t want to touch anything because the coral is so fragile and takes years to grow, but I wanted to get a good look at the colors and designs. I also had to be careful with my fins and tank to not bump into anything. After a bit, I got the hang of it and it was amazing! Sometimes I would turn to look where Ben was at and ended up upside down doing a somersault. It was so crazy to look up and see the surface of the water so far overhead. Checking out the wreck was pretty cool, too. There were so many fish around of all different sizes and colors. I really wish I could have brought the underwater camera with me, but it’s only rated to go down 16 feet (5m). At my deepest, I was about 50 feet (15m) down. The dive lasted just over 30 minutes because my air was getting low. I guess it was all those flips… 😉 I also think I wasn’t controlling my breathing too much in the beginning and taking a lot of quick, shallow breaths. That sort of stuff comes with experience, and I definitely hope to try it again!

From Gili Air, we went to the main island of Lombok and south to Kuta. This small beach town is the biggest attraction outside of the Gili’s, but still relatively quiet and undeveloped. The beach is nestled in a cove protected by land formations on either side with bright blue water and clean white sand. Upon first look, we were stunned, but the sunset that night was even more amazing. Believe or not, this isn’t even the most beautiful beach in the area!

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We spent a couple of days exploring with motorbikes again and thought we found heaven on earth. Less than 10km east is Tanjung An, a true rival to the beauty of Hawaii. The only downfall is the rapid commercialization of the area and the locals that constantly try to sell tourists their goods. In one area, development has already begun for a five-star resort that will be completed within the next few years. It’s easy to see why they chose this location.

Heading west from Kuta we ventured out to Mawaun Beach. The road was terrible and consisted mostly of washed-out gravel. We went up and down with some amazing viewpoints in between, but the real reward was when we arrived. The bay was enclosed by rocks and virtually empty except for maybe five other people. The water was pure blue with shimmering sunlight on the surface and the sand soft and white. I only regretted that we got there late in the day because I could’ve spent hours swimming and body surfing.

Mawaun beach

Everything about Lombok seems to suggest that it’s paradise, but that isn’t exactly the full picture. Although the landscape is amazing, the social issues are disappointing. Children are constantly begging tourists to buy bracelets. Women walk the streets with stacks of sarongs on their head. Teenage boys offer tee-shirts and coconuts, each for only a few dollars. From the minute you step outside of the hotel the locals try to sell you something…anything. “Motorbike today?” “You buy bracelet?” “One sarong for you?” Even on the beach, relaxing in a lounge chair, no one will leave you alone. We finally gave in one day and Ben and I each bought a sarong from two women who weren’t aggressive and held a genuine conversation with us about life in Kuta, Lombok. They even tried to teach us how to balance the sarong stack on our head. It’s much harder than I thought!

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Every day, we saw the same adorable kids and eventually got to know their real names (some give fake “Western” names so that tourists will remember them easier) and a bit about their life. Mon-Sat they would go to school from 7am-12pm, and then by 1pm they would be walking around selling their goods until someone came to pick them up around 8-9pm. We felt uncomfortable buying anything because we weren’t sure where the money actually goes, but often times we would try to engage them in conversation and make them laugh for a little bit—keeping the kids, kids. Sometimes we would offer to buy them food instead of their bracelets, but they seemed reluctant and shy about accepting anything other than money. One night when we were at dinner, Ben decided to buy a meal for a girl who had given him an Indonesian lesson the day before. Some of her friends were around so I suggested getting even more for them, too. Before we knew it, there were six kids scarfing down a few bowls of noodles we ordered. Some of their parents came to take them home while they were eating and I didn’t know if the kids would get in trouble, but one of the parents actually thanked us for feeding her son. It was the least we could do… We sometimes forget what a fortunate life we have and how lucky we were to grow up in a stable home with three meals a day, only working when we were old enough and ready for a job.

Kuta kids

After five nights in Kuta, Lombok, it was time to head back to Bali. Ben’s flight left out of Denpasar and he wanted to spend his last two nights in Kuta, Bali. We also wanted a day to check out Tanah Lot, a temple in the water that is only accessible at low tide. The cliffside landscape was beautiful and we stayed for sunset.

Tanah Lot

The only similarity between the two Kuta’s is the name. Kuta, Bali is the most developed and commercialized area of Bali filled with hotels, restaurants, and night clubs aimed at Western tourists. Again, I got the feeling that there are way too many people trying to make a living off of the tourism industry. You can’t step foot outside of the hotel without someone asking where you’re going, if you need transportation, or if you want to buy a ______ (shirt/hat/shoes/book/bag/souvenir/first born). Even a quick glance into a roadside stall would elicit cat calls from all neighboring shops.

On Ben’s last night, we went to one of these Westerner-aimed clubs to celebrate a great two-and-a-half weeks together. Unfortunately, this bar seemed to import prices as well as beer and it felt more like a night out in NY. Regardless, we had a good time and I tried to be Ben’s wingman to make his last night even more memorable. Haaaave ya met Ben? Maybe my face scared them away…sorry Ben!

this is how we do it

The last few days of our SE Asia experience were spent hanging out at the beach and shopping for some last-minute items at Indonesian prices (including a guitar!). One day we rented a motorbike and drove around the southern peninsula to Uluwatu (a temple on the cliff). The views were unbelievable and the air was thick with spiritual energy.

Uluwatu cliffs

I also spent a few days with a long-board and learned how to surf! On Thanksgiving! I tried in Hawaii and Sri Lanka, but finally got the hang of it in Bali. Catching some waves as the sun sinks into the sea is something I’ll never forget. And my red nipples for a few days after made sure I wouldn’t forget!

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At this point, time has certainly escaped us. Just like that, it’s been eight months of travel in nine new countries with one amazing woman. I couldn’t have done it without my Zuzu! Learning the culture, cuisine, and climate of each new place has taught me lessons that must be experienced to be understood. I hope I never take for granted a flushing toilet, clean drinking water from the tap, and municipal waste management. Meeting the locals in the community, and even other travelers, has broadened my perspective on the world and what’s important in life. No amount of reading will ever provide the same feeling. I encourage everyone to step outside the box, do something uncomfortable, and visit a place that you would never think to call home. Live in an ashram in India, travel by boat down the Mekong River, walk the Killing Fields in Cambodia, spend the night in the Sumatran rain forest, teach English to Indonesian children! I did. And it was the most rewarding experience of my life.

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From Bali we flew west to Jakarta, spent the night, flew to Singapore in the morning, had a 6-hour layover, and then flew 10 hours overnight to Auckland. New Zealand…here we come!

 

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Balinese Dreams

The ferry from Java to Bali was only one hour, but I could’ve sworn we arrived in India. Sketchy men tried to scam us at the bus station, Hindu sculptures protected villages on the side of the road, and the bus driver stopped near a shrine on the side of the road for a woman to bless the vehicle (complete with a splashing of holy water).

Our incredibly long day that started with Ijen ended in Sanur, where we celebrated Gabriella’s birthday in style by staying in a hotel room with hot water AND a/c!! We spent her birthday walking down the beach, enjoying the sites of our new destination, and indulging in her birthday wishes (i.e. gelato and coconuts). Sanur is more of a posh tourist destination for those with families (and money), but in the style of Balinese culture. There are designer shops down the streets and every restaurant had prices similar to those back home; quite a shock after Sumatra and Java.

After the two-night birthday-splurge, we headed north to Lovina, another beach town. Its charm mostly comes from its unique black sand made from volcanic ash.

We rented a motorbike for two days and explored along the northern coast. We visited traditional Balinese temples (one overrun by monkeys), bathed with dragons at Air Banjar hot springs, hiked through fields of vanilla and clove to Git Git waterfall, and took a refreshing dip at the Air Senih fresh water spring. The traffic was annoying, but the sites were amazing. Balinese architecture is unlike anything else we had seen in Sumatra or Java and the offerings of flowers, rice, and incense in a banana leaf basket brought a whole new cultural experience.

On our last day in Lovina, we gave in to the touts and booked a sunrise trip to go see the dolphins. Everyone tries to sell the trip to all the tourists, and at $6.25 it’s kind of hard to pass up. We were picked up at 5:45am by our “captain” and hopped into a canoe with a motor. The sun began rising behind the mountains as our boat puttered away from the coast. Sure enough, there were about 20 other boats on the water with the same intentions of spotting dolphins in the early morning light. It didn’t take long though to see whole families (err…schools? packs? herds?) of dolphins jumping out of the water in unison. The boats veered left and right to try to anticipate the best view for their customers. At first, I wasn’t too psyched about waking up at 5am to go chase dolphins, but it was truly magical experience to see so many swimming together. After 30 minutes though, it just felt like chasing dolphins again and I felt bad for polluting their territory so we could snap a photo.

From Lovina, we went 2 hours south to Ubud, the cultural capital of Bali. It was here that we met up with our Kahumana friend Ben (aka Holo)! We worked together on the farm in Hawaii and he lives in Germany now. He decided to spend his two-week vacation from work with us in Indonesia!

Our first day, we walked through the hillside and terraced rice fields, allowing him to decompress from the stress of a full-time job (what’s that like?!). Then, we rented motorbikes again and drove north to south across the eastern part of Bali. It was great to just cruise, but we also stopped to admire the beauty of Mount Batur, with the adjacent Lake Batur, and the oldest temple in Bali, Besakih, where we learned how to make a Hindu prayer with the offerings. At night, we attended a traditional Balinese music and dance performance, complete with gamelan orchestra. The costumes were amazing and the music was so intricately composed.

Ubud was a decent place, but it is becoming overrun with tourism and losing the Balinese charm that attracted people here in the first place. There are way too many people trying to make a living off of tourism and the salespeople can quickly become irritating. It’s impossible to walk down the street without someone shouting at you to have a look in their shop, get a massage, rent a motorbike, or take a taxi. But it’s their livelihood and the desperation is apparent. Fortunately, we moved further east to the Gili Islands next, where there are no cars, no clocks, and no worries.

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From India to Indonesia…

The aphorism “saving the best for last” couldn’t be truer. Indonesia is the last SE Asian country of our journey and my favorite so far. Each place we’ve been to over the last 4 weeks has brought a special experience that makes me glad we have 8 weeks here. The people are genuinely friendly, the food is delicious, the scenery is stunning, and everything is so cheap!

We started west in Sumatra with a 2-day trek in the jungle near Bukit Luwang. We observed the endangered Sumatran orangutan in the wild, spotted gibbons, peacocks and owls, and our guide captured a giant red centipede because it has medicinal qualities for treating asthma. The orangutans were so friendly and full of curiosity that it was hard to leave, especially when we spotted a mother with her baby.

 

Then it was south to Samosir Island in the middle of Lake Toba. Afternoon showers encouraged interesting conversations amongst fellow travelers under the common area canopy; Spanish, Russian, Czech, German, Australian, Kiwi, Iranian, Canadian, American. If only our leaders could converse so civilized… When it wasn’t raining we visited hot springs, sat by the lake, and learned about Batik architecture and culture. At $6/night for a room and $1.25 for a meal, we easily stayed for 6 nights.

Then we flew southeast to West Java and did a homestay in the small town of Cianjur. We didn’t see another Westerner for 3 days! Our host set us up with two English teachers who took us to work with them one day. The couple travels to 3 schools every day, driving up to an hour between each one, just to make ends meet and keep their two children in school. (Public school ends at 9th grade here) We helped teach children ages 9-11, whose excitement was seldom contained, and felt like celebrities at each stop. Everyone wanted a picture and an autograph! The next day, we got dirty learning how to be a rice farmer in the knee-deep muck of a rice paddy. The owner of the farm is also a teacher at the local university and asked if we could come speak to his students to help them practice English. Again, the excitement of a Westerner ensued. Overall, the locals embraced our visit with warmth, enthusiasm, and generosity.

  

From there it was 10 hours east to Yogyakarta where we stayed for a week taking care of some business. We got our visa extended, bought some new clothes, and experienced one of the rarest (and best) coffees in the world: Kopi Luwak (yes, the civet-poop coffee). Even at $8 per cup, it was a steal compared to prices back home! We also took time to visit Borobudur, the world’s largest Buddhist monument, which was absolutely stunning in the early morning light. I thought about hiking Mount Merapi, the most active volcano on the most active volcanic island, but Gabriella convinced me otherwise. Besides, there were other volcanoes in our future.

Heading further east across Java, we stopped twice more to witness Mount Bromo at sunrise and the blue fire of Kawah Ijen before dawn. The viewpoint at Bromo was crowded and touristy at 4:30am, but for good reason. The sun rose perfectly at 5am, illuminating 3 volcanic peaks and a massive crater, while clouds blanketed the valley below. At 6am, our jeep took us closer to the crater where we hiked up to the edge and peered down inside the smoking bowl. By 8am we were having breakfast overlooking the Mars-like volcanic landscape and at 9am we hit the road.

Eight hours later we arrived at a guesthouse near a coffee plantation in preparation for visiting Ijen. The original plan was to leave at 4am, drive 60 minutes to the park entrance, and hike 90 minutes to the crater lake. We heard rave reviews from other travelers that the “blue fire” was a must-see, but could only be experienced at night. This meant leaving at 1am instead of 4am so we would arrive before the sun was up. After coaxing the driver with some extra cash for waking up early, we left at 1:15am and made it to the crater lake just before 4am. Luckily, we met another group on the trail with a guide and he showed us the way down to the blue fire.

Kawah Ijen is basically a sulfur mine at the bottom of a crater with a glowing lake adjacent to it. The blue fire is burning sulfur. We got as close as we safely could to get some pics, but then the wind shifted and we were engulfed in sulfuric smoke that burned our eyes and throats and made us even more disoriented in the dark hours before dawn. Still…it was totally worth it. When we made it back up to the top, the sun was brightening the sky and we could finally see the amazing landscape that surrounded us. The blue fire disappeared and all that remained was billowing sulfuric smoke from a pit of bright yellow sulfur where we had been standing moments earlier. Behind it was the stunning crater lake glowing turquoise.

As the morning progressed, we saw men coming to mine the sulfur and carry baskets back to town. Each would load 2 wicker baskets connected by a stick of bamboo and haul it on their shoulder for nearly 2 hours; up from the bottom of the crater and down to the village 3km away. The load weighs about 100kg and they do one trip per day, which pays about $10 USD. I could barely even lift one basket an inch off the ground and couldn’t imagine carrying it uphill! Truly one of the most remarkable places I’ve ever been.

From Ijen, it was back to the hotel by 7am, 2 hours in a van to the bus station, 2 hours on a bus, 1-hour ferry to Bali, 4-hour local bus to Denpasar, and 30-minute bemo (van) ride to Senur. We finally collapsed in the hotel with hot shower and comfy bed at 6pm. Just in time to celebrate Gabriella’s birthday in Bali the next day!

more pics…

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Feeling Singa-poor

Singapore is an anomaly in SE Asia. Is it a country? Is it city? Am I really not allowed to spit? One thing is for sure: it’s clean!

We stopped by for a quick 3 days/2 nights before heading to Indonesia. It was a nice break to have the conveniences of a developed nation, but it came with high prices. For the first time on this trip we stayed in a dorm-style room (Sleepy Kiwi Hostel), which means 10 bunk beds in one room, shared bathroom, and lockers for the valuables. It was $15/person/night. Half of that would usually buy us a nice hotel room! Regardless, it was clean, comfortable, and close to public transportation.

Most of our time was spent taking care of things that only a technology hub could provide. I broke the screen of my iPhone in Malaysia, but there were plenty of places to get it repaired in Singapore. (Let’s just hope my travelers insurance covers it *fingers crossed*) We also tried to get Gabriella’s camera fixed because there’s a spot on the lens, but they said it would require at least a week to do. In such an expensive city, we couldn’t afford to stay that long, so for now we’ll just live with it. The rest of the time we browsed through air-conditioned malls and gawked at the incredibly high prices.

Singapore is a model for sustainability in a part of the world that desperately needs the example. Public transportation is adequate and easy to use, there are green spaces for public use (even on a high rise building – see pic), and trash bins are accompanied by recycling bins. This was also the first place where it was safe to drink the tap water!

  

The architecture is unique and it gave us a feeling of being in a big city back home. We agreed it was most similar to Vancouver, but I felt hints of Orlando and Chicago, too. The streets are clean, there are skyscrapers (most of which are banks), and a harbor with a giant Ferris wheel.

  

All in all, Singapore is a great place to visit if you have the money to enjoy it. For backpackers like us, it was in and out before the funds got too low. We really appreciated having the basic things like clean water, a flushing toilet, and functioning waste management that often get taken for granted back home. But then again, traveling is more interesting without those luxuries. 😉

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Malaysian Invasion!

For the first time in nearly 3 months we took a flight to our next destination. What a luxurious option in comparison to another overnight bus ride! It was partly due to hostility near the Thailand/Malaysia border, but the bus ride avoidance cannot be denied. Upon arrival in Kuala Lumpur, we were given a free 90-day visa to explore Malaysia.

We began the seventh country of this trip with a few days in Kuala Lumpur, the capital city. Lots of money has flowed into developing KL in recent years due to Malaysia’s oil resources. There are large skyscrapers, a high-tech train system, and well-manicured public spaces. It’s apparent that the government has more money than other Southeast Asian nations and has invested in infrastructure and education. Consequently, prices for food, accommodation, and other commodities were a bit higher than what we had been used to spending.

The main attraction in KL is the world-renowned Petronas Towers. Standing at 1,483 ft, the twin towers were the highest building in the world from 1998-2004 until Taipei 101 took the prize. There’s a bit of a technicality about the architectural significance of the spires versus antennas when calculating total height, which make it listed as taller than the Willis Tower (formerly Sears Tower) in Chicago, even though the roof of the Petronas Tower is 208 ft lower than the roof of the Willis Tower. Regardless, they are still the tallest twin towers in the world and an architectural marvel that are a must-see for any visitor. The rest of our time was spent exploring the massive markets in Chinatown and Little India while avoiding the monsoon rains that flooded the canal one evening.

  

From KL we traveled north to the Cameron Highlands. Four hours on a bus winding through narrow streets climbing higher into the hills brought us to cooler temperatures and a more scenic landscape. The town itself isn’t anything special, but the rewards lie outside the city limits.

We took a day-tour to see the Highlands, which took us 6,663 ft to the top of Mount Batu Brinchang, but the weather was cloudy and there wasn’t much of a view. Next was the mossy forest and a tea plantation, but we both agreed that Sri Lanka was better. Then we visited a strawberry farm and bought the usual tourist-trap snacks (fresh strawberries, dried strawberries, strawberry ice cream). It was all a bit commercial and nothing like a wild strawberry patch. Finally, we were taken to a Buddhist temple from where we walked back to town on one of the many trails through the forest. The scenery was nice for the most part, but we came across a patch of deforested area towards the end that was disappointing. Cameron Highlands was mediocre, and certainly not a place to stay more than two nights.

From there, we went east to Taman Negara National Park. It took nearly 8 hours, including a 3-hour boat ride up the river to the town from where you can explore the park. The trails are easy enough to navigate without a guide so the next day we decided to hike one direction, and then have a boat pick us up and take us back. We met a couple from Scotland to hike with and share the cost of the boat back and even met two other couples on the trail to cut expenses even further. We started with a short 2-km circuit to see Bukit Teresek and the rainforest canopy walk (typical tourist trail). Then we walked parallel to the river for 10kms.

This was my first experience in a true rainforest and apparently Taman Negara is the oldest. The lush flora was an impressive display of infinite shades of green. Massive trees extended overhead as their roots protruded through the forest floor. The air was fresh and the sound of cicadas and birds followed us throughout. Unfortunately, the only wildlife we came in contact with was a gibbon that jumped down from a tree and ran away too fast to have a good look, and a wild boar that could be heard squealing somewhere nearby. The rest of the time was spent avoiding giant ants, termites, and leeches. The leeches proved to be a pretty big problem since it was now the rainy season. It was a good thing our friends brought along a bag of salt! They seemed particularly attracted to Gabriella, but towards the end of the hike we were stopping every few minutes because someone needed to stop to get one off. One day-hike was enough for us and we wasted no time getting to the beach.

  

A scenic 8-hour car ride took us to Kuala Besut from where we took a 30-minute speed boat to the Perhentian Islands off the northwest coast of Malaysia. We went to Pulau Kecil (the smaller of two islands) and found accommodations on Coral Beach, the quieter side. After hopping through three destinations in six nights we wanted to take it easy. The entire island can be circled on foot in less than 3 hours. There are no ATMs. There are no cars. Life moves slow.

Once we were ready to be active again, we took a snorkeling trip around the island to 4 different spots. The first was filled with colorful fish and coral in crystal-clear water. The second had a couple of turtles to swim with (but I felt kind of bad for them because they were surrounded by tourists vying for a glimpse). Then, we went to a spot with reef sharks! There were about 5-6 of them swimming around and underneath us at about 3-5 feet long. Turtles I’d seen in Hawaii, but I’ve never swam with sharks! They’re so graceful in the water and can change direction in an instant. Finally, we went to a spot with even more amazing coral and fish, and we spotted a stingray skimming the ocean floor.

      

Another day, I finally took Gabriella’s advice to “take a hike” and went for a walk around the island. 😉 There’s an easily carved path that extends down the west coast and around the southern coast to the Fishing Village. It took about an hour to go halfway around the island. Along the way were a couple of perfectly hidden beaches between shaded paths through the forest scattered with giant monitor lizards rustling in the brush. The biggest one was about 5-feet long!

  

Despite the relaxing 6 nights we stayed on the island, we were a bit disappointed with the Malaysia experience, overall. It was a place I was looking forward to going to, but didn’t quite live up the expectations. The scenery was nice, but nothing that wasn’t similar to a place we had already been. (Are we getting spoiled?) Accommodations and transportation were more than we had been spending in other countries and generally of lesser quality. We paid more for a double room in Malaysia with fan, cold shower, and no wifi than we did in Vietnam for A/C, hot shower, and wifi. Two weeks was enough for us to get a feel for peninsular Malaysia, and then move south to Singapore.

Categories: Malaysia | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

SoThai and Limestone

We spent three and a half weeks exploring Thailand in July, but we didn’t see the south. Geographically, it made sense for us to start from Bangkok and head north, and then continue west and south in an almost clockwise direction through Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia. Now we were heading back east to Bangkok from Siem Reap to go south and eventually continue on through Malaysia and Indonesia. Luckily, Dustin allowed us to crash at his place for a night in-transit. We used the day in Bangkok to shop for a new camera for Gabriella, since hers mysteriously disappeared in Laos. She got an awesome waterproof camera that certainly came in handy at the beach.

From Bangkok, we hopped on an overnight train to Chumphon, and then took a 3-hour ferry to the island of Koh Tao. At the pier, we were greeted with the usual folk fighting for our business with transportation and accommodations. We settled on the popular beach of Sairee and found a decent bungalow steps from the water for about $20/night. Koh Tao is a small island, only 21 sq. km, with a handful of beautiful beaches dispersed around the edges.

We rented a motorbike for two days and explored the different areas. Narrow roads weave left and right, up and down through the lush landscape. Every so often, we were rewarded with an amazing lookout point of the hills, rocks, and endless sea. Sometimes, I didn’t think the bike would make it up the incline and once or twice Gabriella actually had to jump off so I’d have enough power to get to the top. It was always worth it though. Each beach we stopped at seemed to get progressively better than the last. On the second day, we visited Hin Wong Bay for some of the most amazing snorkeling. For the first time since we’ve been traveling, we felt this destination could rival Hawaii for its natural beauty.

  

We spent five nights relaxing by the beach and swimming in the clear, warm water of the Gulf of Thailand before taking another ferry south to neighboring Koh Phangan. This island is significantly bigger, around 167 sq. km, and is famous for its ritual Full Moon Party. We heard that this rave of drunken strangers was isolated to one corner of the island and that the rest was too beautiful to miss. With more beaches to choose from here, we settled on Haad Salad in the northwest corner. It felt relatively isolated, but again, we rented a motorbike for two days and checked out the rest of the island.

Koh Phangan felt a bit older and more worn-out when compared to the pristine scenery of Koh Tao. The landscape was drier and the snorkeling wasn’t as great. There were a couple of beaches that were impressive creations of sand, stone, and sea, but they seemed to lack that “wow” factor after coming from Koh Tao. Ko Ma was probably the best with its natural sandbar that leads to a tiny jungle-island with large rocks around the edge. The weather was also overcast with intermittent periods of showers and sun, compared to clear and sunny skies on Koh Tao. It’s hard to complain about an island in southern Thailand (and I’m certainly not), but it was clear which one was our favorite.

  

After five nights in Koh Phangan we took another ferry and bus trip south to Krabi, on the west coast facing the Andaman Sea. Once in Krabi, we decided to take a quick longtail boat (a big canoe with a motor) around the bay to Railay Beach. We had kept hearing good things about Railay from other travelers and it sounded different from the places we’ve been so far. We also met a German couple that was heading there and became friendly with them over the next few days.

Railay is a small peninsula that sticks out into the Andaman Sea, but has the feeling of an island because it is only accessible by boat. Gigantic limestone formations surround the area to the north making it isolated from motor vehicles and hordes of tourists. It’s only a 5-minute walk from the east beach to the west beach and there are two other beaches adjacent to those, separated by rocks. These limestone faces also make for some of the best rock climbing in the world. The sheer beauty of it all is easily greater than the sum of its parts.

Our first night, we walked to the west beach to watch the sunset. A wide blanket of white sand stretches out beneath limestone faces on three sides with the sun sinking into the water on the fourth. Some locals were throwing a frisbee on the beach and I couldn’t resist joining in. I’ll admit I missed a few throws and catches because I was awestruck by the magnificence of my surroundings. The setting sun changed the colors in the sky from blue to pink to orange to red with an infinite number of shades in between. Sailing a frisbee across the sand encompassed in that environment was a moment I wanted to grasp with both hands and enjoy for as long as possible. The next two nights provided stunning sunsets as well, but neither compared to excellence of the first one.

On the second day, while the sun was still high in the sky, we tried our hand at the rock-climbing that makes Railay so popular. We went for a half-day and did five climbs. The first was only 12m, but the highest took us to 30m. I got the hang of it pretty quickly, but it’s much easier knowing you have a harness and are able to relax when you don’t know where you’re next hold is at. Although it was pretty difficult towards the end of each climb, the view from the top made it all worthwhile (even the sore muscles the next day).

  

Southern Thailand proved to be an impressive display of natural wonders and quite different from the north. It was a bit more expensive for transportation and accommodations, but still cheap by western standards. We both agree that Thailand is a place easy enough for anyone visit and has enough attractions to please any interest. Definitely put it at the top of your list and don’t try to rush through it. We were a bit disappointed at only having 2 weeks for the south, since we entered by land with a 15-day visa, but we met two girls from the US who only had 2 weeks for their whole trip! What a shame… It I’m certainly going to miss the pad thai and papaya salad, but on to Malaysia!

Categories: Thailand | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Angkor Whaaat!?

Moving 6 hours northwest brought us to the town of Siem Reap, the closest place to explore the Angkor ruins. When we got off the bus, it was raining and muddy. We didn’t know where we were or where we had to go, and there were several men coaxing us to get in their tuk-tuk for a ride into town (a few kms away). That’s what we get for being lazy and having a friend to stay with in Phnom Penh… In our confusion, a nice man from New Zealand approached us and offered to share his tuk-tuk with us to his hotel. On the way, we had the usual traveler chat. We mentioned the possibility of making to NZ at some point and he generously offered his help if we make it down that way. Traveler connections!

In town, we found a nice hotel to stay at with breakfast included for only $9. They even had a free fish pool for a foot soak. These little guys nibble off the dead skin on your feet!

The only reason to go to Siam Reap is to explore the Angkor Archaeological Park. Most people are familiar with the famous Angkor Wat, but there are many other temples and sites that comprise the ancient civilization. After some research, we opted for the 3-day pass because there’s so much to see. We came all this way, why try to rush it in one day? The pass was $40 and we hired a tuk-tuk driver to take us to all of the sites for the first 2 days, and then figured we could rent bikes to see anything we may have missed on the third day. I made my own route, which included some of the further temples, sunset on the first night, and sunrise the second day.

Day 1 started at 7:30am. We went all the way out to Bantay Srei first, which took about an hour driving through villages and rice paddies. Houses were propped up on stilts adjacent to bright green fields as children passed on bicycles. Bantay Srei is a smaller temple made of pink sandstone with intricate carvings that are believed to have been made by women because the designs are too fine for a man’s hand. Not a huge site, but a nice starting point. It was here that I bought a guidebook that would show us around and point out areas of interest for the next 3 days.

   

Next, we continued further north to Kbal Spien (River of 1,000 Lingas). This one isn’t really visited by too many people because it’s about 45km from the main sites and isn’t even a temple. From where we were dropped off, it was another 30-minute walk through the forest to get there. The attraction is the beginning of a river that runs all the way to the main Angkor sites. Because it was such an important water source, they carved religious symbols into the rocks and waterfalls to bless the water from its source. There is also a waterfall with carvings nearby.

From Kbal Spian we headed back to the main Angkorian sites. We only saw two more temples, which were impressive in their own right, then went to Phnom Bakheng to watch the sunset. It was a bit cloudy and there wasn’t much of a sunset, but the view of the surrounding area was incredible. We even caught our first glimpse of Angkor Wat from there!

The next day started at 4:30am so that we could see the sunrise behind Angkor Wat. Again, the weather disappointed us with clouds and there wasn’t much of a sunrise. Regardless, we spent the morning exploring The 8th Wonder of the World. I really liked that we visited a few of the smaller temples first because it added to the immensity of Angkor Wat. I can’t imagine how people built this so many centuries ago. It’s so much more grandiose than the other temples and you can tell it took a lot longer to build. The architecture was unbelievable and the carvings were incredibly ornate. Bas reliefs continued as far as the eye could see, covering the inner walls. Angkor Wat literally means “city temple” because the outer wall encompassed a city with the main temple in the middle. Only the stone structures remain as the wood and clay houses have all deteriorated. However, the remains are unbelievable. I felt like a little kid in a playground because everything is so huge!

Around 9am we weaved our way to the structures that comprise Angkor Thom, another ancient city. Giant stone blocks materialized as we drove down the winding paths. Ancient warriors line the bridge before passing through the towering gate. Of the various sites, our favorite was Bayon, which has dozens of stone structures with faces on all four sides. These bear a striking resemblance to the king at the time and gave the impression that big brother is always watching…even centuries ago. Again, the scale of these things made me wonder how they were built without modern technology.

After a few more temples we came upon Ta Prohm. This one was different than rest because of the huge silk-wood trees that have grown in and around all of the structures. If you thought the architecture so far was incredible, wait until you see what nature can do! This was a stone-playground-turned-jungle that we wandered through and admired for over an hour. Tomb Raider was filmed here, too.

By 3pm we were completely worn out and headed home after two solid 11-hour days. Because of some minor confusion and a brief argument with our tuk-tuk driver, there was still one more large temple to see. Since we were too exhausted for bicycles by Day 3, I got a different driver to take us back so we could wrap up the Angkor experience. Preah Khan was another thing of beauty. The guidebook really helped us here and we spent about 90 minutes exploring. I just wanted to take it all in since I knew this would be the last site.

    

Once we were finished, Gabriella and I went into town and got a full-body oil massage for $5. Incredibly necessary after so much site-seeing! Overall, I was amazed at the Angkor ruins. The sheer scale of the buildings is incredible and there are so many to see. We probably saw a little more than half! The only negative aspect is all of the people that try to sell you food and souvenirs around every site. Small children are even used to sell postcards and magnets. Every food stall would have someone near the road, hollering for customers to come buy something. There were even those that would hang out inside some of the sites, trying to sell their artwork as you’re taking a picture of the ruins. I understand that it’s their way of making a living, but some just won’t take “no thank you” for an answer and it gets obnoxious. Despite this, I would absolutely recommend for anyone to check it out if they have the opportunity. Do the 3-day pass because 1-day isn’t long enough and 7-days just seems like overkill. No matter what, you won’t regret it. Now we need to go to Egypt to see the pyramids!

Categories: Cambodia | Tags: , , , , , | 1 Comment

camBROdia

Getting to Cambodia was easier than most trips—just 6 hours from Saigon to Phnom Penh, including a quick border crossing and lunch. The visa was only $20, but there were opportunities (read: scams) to pay more if you weren’t paying attention.

Shortly before we arrived at the bus stop, I looked out the window at the swarm of motorbikes and realized this craze had carried over from Vietnam. As I scanned the faces, I saw one looking right back at me. It was none other than Tim Lee! This wasn’t completely out of the ordinary because he was planning to meet us at the bus station and be our host for a few nights, but it was funny to see him before actually getting off the bus. Tim is an old friend from Chicago. He’s living in Phnom Penh for one year doing an internship with an NGO to prevent human trafficking of minors. He’s a great guy and it was welcoming to see a familiar face this far into the trip.

  

Tim showed us around Phnom Penh the next few days. It’s become a nice city recently, but has quite a troubled past. As with the two previous countries we visited, Cambodia was subjected to intense bombing during the Vietnam War. After the war was over, the Khmer Rouge gained control and instilled their version of intense communism. From 1975-1979, Pol Pot was at the center of the regime and demanded that anyone with an advantage in society in any way must be eliminated. His goal was to “take Cambodia back to year zero” and become a purely agrarian society with everyone living as peasants. The borders were closed and anyone educated or suspected of being anti-communist was arrested, tortured into confession, and brutally killed. Families were ripped apart and the nation lived in fear. After America’s defeat in Vietnam, Western nations weren’t particularly interested to interfere in SE Asian politics again.

Part of visiting Phnom Penh is learning about the unsettling details of the past. The Tuol Sleung school, two blocks from where Tim lives, was transformed into a torture chamber. Former classrooms served as cells for intense brutality. Pictures were taken of the victims as part of the meticulous records kept by the regime. When the Vietnamese finally liberated the city from intense brutality, only 7 people of the 20,000 brought through Tuol Sleng were found alive inside. The site is now a Genocide Museum where visitors can learn about the atrocities, see the bloodstained concrete floors, and mourn the loss of over 2 million people during these dark days of Cambodian history.

    

After being tortured, prisoners were transported to an orchard about 15 km away known as “The Killing Fields”. They were forced to work in the fields for a time, learning how to be farmers, and then viciously murdered. I’ve never visited a concentration camp in Europe, but I imagine this is similar. An audio tour guided the way through depressions in the landscape that signify the location of mass graves, recounting the grim details of what happened only a few decades ago. Diesel generators and loudspeakers blaring the national anthem would drown out the victims’ screams. There are still articles of clothing imbedded in the earth and every so often bones and teeth rise to the surface during the rainy season. One heartbreaking stop was at The Killing Tree. It is believed to be the spot where hundreds of children were beaten and killed. When first discovered, there were bits of bone and teeth imbedded in the trunk. It’s truly horrifying what humans can do to other people in the name of power.

  

We decided to visit both of these horrific sites on the same day, which compounded the sadness and disgust, because the following day was my birthday. It certainly gave me some perspective and appreciation for my very fortunate life. We spent the day down by the riverfront in the city. I had a “Happy Birthday” pizza and beer for lunch, and then we marveled at the exhibits in The National Museum. It was refreshing to learn about Cambodian history that didn’t involve genocide. Many of the exhibits are artifacts taken from the Angkor Wat area and provided us with some background knowledge for our next stop.

  

After the museum, Gabriella treated me to a Seeing Hands massage (blind person rubdown). The massage started out very thorough and relaxing, but it seemed like they lost track of time and had to rush at the end. Their clock would speak the time when a button was pushed, but they didn’t check it until 40 mins in, then 7 mins later, 5 mins, 2 mins…ok, you’re done! It’s always good to get a massage though, and I was happy to support their way of making an honest living.

Later that night, Tim, Gabriella, and I went to a great restaurant for an authentic Khmer birthday dinner. The fish amok was delicious and Tim treated us to mango sticky rice for dessert! Afterwards, we met up with some of his friends at a rooftop bar for specialty cocktails. (Dad: You woulda loved some of their combos! ;)) It was unlike any other birthday I’ve had, but then again, I’ve never celebrated in Cambodia before.

Categories: Cambodia | Tags: , , , , , | 2 Comments

From Sand to Saigon

Five hours south of Nha Trang lies the quiet beach town of Mui Ne. The main attraction is the sand dunes located just outside of town. They’re quite an anomaly amongst the lush landscape of Vietnam, but certainly not as magnificent as the Sahara or Arabian deserts. We opted for a sunrise jeep tour as the best way to see them. We were picked up at 4:30am and driven about 45 minutes to the White Sand dunes first. The sky started to change colors as we approached and we were at the top of the dunes by 5:30am, when it finally broke the horizon. There were two wedding parties in the distance taking photos with the natural backdrop. Children tried to rent their slides to tourists, but it was far too early for us to be racing downhill. To the west was an oasis that glistened with the rising sun. Although these dunes aren’t very large, we were both captivated by the sights and colors. Any event involving a beautiful sunrise with an even more beautiful lady is certain to be impressive.

 

From there, we drove back towards town to see the Red Sand dunes. Although still nice, they weren’t quite as grand as the White Sand dunes. By this time, the sun was heating up the ground and the children were in full-force for sled rentals. Because it was closer to the main road and more accessible by foot, there was trash scattered in the sand, which was disappointing. I’m sure if they charged a small entrance fee they could maintain the site better.

After the Red Sand dunes we visited a fishing village. By then it was only 7:30am and the fishermen were still collecting the day’s catch. We strolled down the beach to see baskets of fish and crabs. Seafood doesn’t get any fresher than that!

Finally, we stopped at the Fairy Stream, our favorite. This gentle stream flows ankle-deep through beautiful red and white rock formations. We carried our shoes and waded through the water for about 20 minutes in, then 20 minutes back. The rocks were a smaller version of the hoodoos we saw in the Canadian Rockies. It also reminded me the landscape in Arizona and Utah.

 

Despite the action-packed morning, we were back at the hotel by 9:30am. We had a great place to stay right on the beach with a pool and lounge chairs. The beach in Mui Ne isn’t too appealing since it can get quite rough and there’s lots of garbage that has washed ashore. Many hotels have built right up to within 10 feet of high tide and offer pools with an ocean breeze for a swimming alternative. Our spacious room was on the 3rd floor with A/C, flat-screen TV, and a view of the ocean for a steep $15/night! (Is there a font for sarcasm?) Due to the relaxing atmosphere and lack of street vendors we stayed 4 nights before continuing southwest to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon).

HCMC is the former capital of South Vietnam and political puppet of the US during the Vietnam War. Its liberation in 1975 marked the end of a brutal period for the Vietnamese. Today it is fully developed to the point of 5-star hotels and designer clothing shops. However, the main attractions for tourists revolve the recent period of conflict.

We first visited the War Remnants Museum. The exhibitions portray the struggle of the Vietnamese people to stand as an independent nation without foreign control. The decade-long Vietnam War (or American War, as it’s known here) was filled with atrocities of violence and crimes against humanity. Unfortunately, the museum only shows one side of the conflict and emphasizes the brutality of American forces and the global support for the US to exit SE Asia. The excessive use of Agent Orange was also an entire exhibit with horrific images of the affected people and landscape.

I know that it has been recognized by many Americans and top-ranking officials (soldiers included) that it was a mistake for us to be there, but I couldn’t help thinking that, in the end, the Vietnamese won. Despite the brutality they endured, they still must have inflicted much greater suffering on the American troops to win. Many lives were lost on both sides of the battle, but this museum only chose to show one side. I guess we’re not the only ones exposed to a biased view of history. I left feeling like the villain for being American and expected someone to throw rotten tomatoes at me when we walked out. (somehow they’d know Gabriella is Canadian)

  

Aside from the depressing museum, we visited the Reunification Palace. The palace is an impressive architectural structure that’s a total throwback to the 1960’s. It was the headquarters of the South Vietnamese, ally to the US during the war. It was pretty cool to see the war rooms and map rooms in the heavily-reinforced basement where important decisions were made regarding their strategy. When a North Vietnam tank rolled through the gate and onto the lawn, Saigon was essentially liberated and the war was over. Today, it is a tourist attraction showing the opulence of the imperial government decades ago.

 

Overall, we had an enjoyable three and a half weeks exploring Vietnam. We spent a little more money than we were used to, but it was still cheap by Western standards. The food was delicious when we could find a vegetarian option, but found most dishes included beef or pork. The people were always willing to help, although it got a bit annoying when they offered unsolicited help. Everyone’s just trying to make a living. I thought it might be weird as an American in Vietnam, but there are no hard feelings and there’s nothing to worry about, especially after 40 years. In the end, they won the war and are a freer nation now more than ever. I can’t say it’s my favorite country we’ve been to so far, but it’s certainly not the worst!

Up next: Cambodia!

Categories: Vietnam | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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