Tea With Malaysia's Dark Heart

Monday, March 31, 2008

Kuala Lumpur was a long bus ride behind us as we wove up the scenic old road into the highlands of Malaysia en route for a land renowned for tea, volcanoes, and temperate-cool weather, at least relative to the coastal areas. The Cameron Highlands were upon us and we met their emissary, Tanah Rata, a small town boasting a strip of restaurants and shops, a bus station, and some great walks through surrounding hills and rainforests. We also met some non-metaphorical people in the guise of hostel touts. Kristoffer and I decided to first check out Daniel’s and pretty much decided to stay there straight away. Dorm beds per night are 10 Ringgit (RM) or $3.20, they have a bar, a movie area, other travelers, and as I would soon discover, wireless internet. We were too hungry for any of that nonsense at present however, so we chanced upon a restaurant on ‘the strip’ and despite our hunger found the flavour a bit wanting. Perhaps we’d been spoiled traveling with Marcus. A further exploration of the town unearthed much less touristy places, an Islamic school where a game of baseball was raging, and a barber where Kristoffer would get his hair cut. It was too late in the day to do much more, but that was soon to come.

I went back to the hostel and ran across a professional photographer who takes stock photos and manages to sustain himself quite handily on the proceeds of these photos. I wound up chatting with him for a good couple of hours and picking up some Photoshop tips while I was at it. Kristoffer went for a second dinner that I was not up for and I stayed and chatted with the photographer instead and also got some work done before packing up. From there to the Jungle Bar where we sat around the fire and chatted until about 3 AM. The bonfire is a definite nice touch and the travelers here are pretty nice; I suspect I shall be running across them again in the future. The next morning, by the time Kristoffer and I got sorted, showered, and decided what we were doing (during brunch, of course), it was pretty much noon. We grabbed a cab to the Boh Palais Tea Plantation, set in the hills north of town and had a cup of tea whilst admiring the view. It was a view to remember, all the tea spread out in front of us across the uneven terrain. We also took a tour of the factory, during which I discovered that tea production is more complicated than I’d first guessed, involving fermentation and everything.

After our tour of the factory and tea and cake, it was time to set off. We’d intended to hike up to the top of a nearby mountain for some sweeping views of the countryside, and we started by trekking through some tea fields. But soon, it was drizzling, a common condition that, for some reason, neither of us was prepared for. Luckily, some passersby picked us up and we got a lift to the fork in the road where we could continue up the mountain. We thought to wait the rain out at the policeman’s hut and then continue, but the rain got worse and worse and would not relent. To pass the time, Kristoffer and I started taking photos of plants and things around the shed. Flowers, mostly, tended as we’d later discover, by the Nepalese guard who worked there. And of course, we chatted with the guard for some time too. Eventually, the rain passed and we got yet more photos of people harvesting tea and pressed on. Not, mind, to the mountain, but back to town. It was too late for that hike.

We passed countless beautiful tea plantations and all too soon found ourselves back on the road at a vegetable market. After a few fried bananas and sweet potatoes, we managed to hail a bus and just in time. It started raining just as we’d arrived in Tanah Rata. That’s twice we were caught in the rain and didn’t get wet. We felt pretty fortunate. To pass this second storm, the two of us had a steamboat, the Asian fondue of sorts, with a spicy broth and a more plain one. It was pretty tasty and very filling but it definitely passed the time while it rained. From there, back to the hostel for more campfire, more beer, and more sleep. We were, perhaps too soon, due to leave for Tamar Negara (the rainforest) at 7:30 AM the next morning.

So it happened that 8 of us and our backpacks were packed into a crowded minivan for three hours to Gua Musang. There, we grabbed a bit of breakfast (BBQ and rice is breakfast over here, by the way), a few snacks, and boarded the jungle train for Jerantut, whereupon we would minibus it to Kuala Tahan, the park headquarters. Joining Kristoffer and I are a Dutch couple named Ernst and Mar. Anyway, the jungle train was quite beautiful, passing wide brown rivers meandering alongside the tracks, thick forest, occasional pillars of granite towering overhead, and the occasional woman carrying a wicker basket walking towards her hut. The whole trip, which departed at 7:30 AM, was supposed to have us at Kuala Tahan at 4:00, but first of all the train was delayed 40 minutes. Then, when we arrived at Gua Musang to grab a minibus, it was there… but the company (HAN – Holland America Norway, incidentally) decided to delay us two more hours so that they could put us on their next bus. Nice. There’s no recourse for that sort of thing here. You can complain until you’re blue in the face, they don’t care. They won’t see you again, and what are you going to do? Aside from recommend people avoid this company, that’s HAN again, if you missed it, absolutely nothing.

We did eventually arrive and scoured the town for accommodation before settling on the yellow house hostel. It is not only the cheapest but (usually) has air conditioning, decent, clean rooms, and well, it was the only place with vacancy anyway. We checked in and grabbed dinner with our English roommate and almost joined him on his jungle safari but didn’t. Kristoffer and I left the Dutch couple behind and went off to sort out our own next few days and wound up bargaining the price for a two-day one-night jungle trek (including 2 hours on a boat going upriver to start the excursion, food, supplies, etc) for 170 Rm. Still not cheap, but pretty good value all said. That made me feel a lot better, especially as Ernst (the Dutch guy) was really starting to get on my nerves, complaining about everything. That said, his girlfriend seemed nice enough (she’d have to be) and we also met two other nice Dutch girls on our walk. Yes, the Dutch are back in Malaysia.

Kristoffer and I sat and listened to some live music at a little bar of sorts (a shack that served fruit juices and teas – since it’s a Muslim area, alcohol is not served). It was a mix of local songs and international ‘hits’ of yore, but a great way to cap the night. Kris was excited to be going on the jungle trek and I was excited not only to go on the trip but to have salvaged something from this rather dull day, to get a good deal, and to leave the Dutch in the colony. We were off to the jungle the next morning, purportedly it was us two and a couple girls, but alas, we both were duped. Instead, we ended up with an aging French couple that were, as Kristoffer described them, wool heads. During the course of our two day jungle trek the woman in particular almost destroyed my camera twice, dropped my shirt in the ashes as it was drying over the fire, and knocked my backpack from its perch on a tree, spilling some of its contents all over the mud.

Those incidences aside, the trek was quite good. It started, as I’ve mentioned, with a two hour boat ride up the rainforest river, brown from all the mud washed in by the rains. This ride alone was just about worth it. We reclined back, soaked in the sun, crossed the occasional rapid (not to mention village), had lunch, and of course were kept cool by the breeze and occasional splash. Finally the time came to debark and we set off into the jungle, crossing a suspension bridge that would be our last sign of civilization for two days. Then off into a world of plants that coagulate blood (perfect for post-leech-patches), mushrooms that must have inspired the Super Mario creators, ants that grow as long as an index finger, and, did I mention, all sorts of wild animals from monkey to bears to tigers. We had not traveled far when our guide squatted in the mud and pointed out a fresh tiger track to us. It was one thing to see them in the zoo, another to pet one with two qualified trainers nearby, but another altogether to be roaming through their home, their turf. I felt decidedly bold as I adjusted my weathered hat and strode forward like Indiana Jones in this ancient abode. I felt much less Jones-like when, a few minutes later, I fell flat on my butt walking on a fallen tree.

We came to a small cave where a vine hung over the ground below and I was, again, for a moment, decidedly Jones-like as I swung across the green abyss to a tree and pushed off it, until, again, moments later I realized I’d launched myself straight at another tree with not near enough time to get my legs into position and again slammed butt-first into the aptly named buttress tree. Still, the swinging was fun and I did several more takes (Kristoffer behind the camera) before swapping roles. It was then that, as I took video, he landed poorly and rolled his ankle. We still had hiking today and for a good part of tomorrow ahead of us, and this was not good news, but he managed to make it to the cave where we would spend the night in fairly good order. After some firewood collection, we set up camp and had dinner. Between dinner, a hard day, and more sweat collectively than your Mediterranean country of choice, we were soon asleep.

That didn’t stop me or the Frenchies from waking at a sound at the peripherary of our camp within the cave. We knew elephants were regular customers, but the shadow cast by the dying fire clearly showed a cat; A large cat. Not quite full-sized-tiger, but about half to three-quarter sized. I somewhat nervously grabbed the flashlight and covered it with my hand before turning it on, leaking a slowly increasing amount of light until we could see that it was about 2m head-to-tail, stood about 3 ft tall, and was finishing off our beef curry. It had stripes/dots, a sort of mottled skin, and I regret immensely not taking a photo. My only concern at the time was that I might spook it into running or worse – attacking – when the flash went off. I also should’ve woken up Kristoffer, but with his ankle I knew he’d have trouble getting to sleep and didn’t want to wake him if not needed. It turned out to be a leopard in our camp, a wild leopard, no more than 5m from me, and hungry. Now THIS was a jungle experience.

I don’t know if I mentioned we saw a viper that day as well, or if, the next morning, we saw a millipede and a deadly caterpillar, or that we crossed any number of rivers on small and precarious logs, but it doesn’t seem to matter now. There were wild tigers and leopards sniffing around; that we could hear gibbons waking up in the morning was icing on the cake. As was our 30 minute return boat ride down river to the village. Kristoffer’s ankle was tender but fine that day, which was a relief, and it was also a relief that our guide hooked us up with some underground beer, which was much deserved after those two days. We had dinner, visited, showered (a must), re-packed, and before we knew it, 11:30 was approaching and we were dead to the world.

Cameron Highlands Photos
Taman Negara Photos

A Tale of Two Towers

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Last week on the blog, Dean fled Singapore for the northern haven of Malaysia. On the way, he found some help from an unlikely ally. The Danes. Kristoffer, as the story goes, was following a very similar itinerary to Dean for several days and also fleeing the Singapore Slings and Arrows, a conspirational agency devoted to emptying wallets and unseating budgets. The pair snuck on to a bus bound for the far away city of Malacca, a city that had once sheltered kings and sultans and now, with any luck, would do the same for our heroes. The Dutch had founded their East India Trade empire here, the south seas had been tamed from here, and it was conveniently situated halfway between Singapore and Kuala Lumpur. The bus ride was a three hour ordeal, encountering more than one border check, numerous attempts by evil forces aligned to repel all passers by, and still our adventurers found themselves at the throne of the once mighty Dutch empire, looking around, as they were, a bustling bus station. And that’s where, dear reader, the story of crossing Malaysia truly begins.

Selamat Datung Malacca. Welcome, that is, to Malacca (now anglicized as Melaka). Yes, it sounds like something to call an annoying Greek friend, and yes, it still made me turn my head as though I’d misheard something every time it was said. But aside from that, the town seemed quite nice and organized. In fact, the whole trip up I’d been expecting a much more Indonesian feel to the country but instead was greeted with clean, wide highways and interchanges. There was no doubt that Malaysia was doing significantly better, economically, than Indonesia. It showed everywhere. Kristoffer and I grabbed a bus from the station into the city and town square whereupon exiting we met up with an American named Marcus also looking for a place to hang his headband. The three of us wandered and made a few stops at the Discovery Café, Suma Suma Guesthouse, and one or two other places before we came to Ringo’s Foyer. The three of us split a room and we probably didn’t make as good a decision collectively since.

Ringo’s Foyer is not on the way to anything, and it sits on the edge of Chinatown, so we were lucky to find it. It was fortuitous that I remembered my Bahaa from Indonesia well enough to ask some locals fr directions and was pointed in that direction. It’s not in the Lonely Planet or any of the sources we have, but the owner is very, very, friendly and looked after us as though we were his personal guests. After settling in a bit, we borrowed some umbrellas from him and set out in the rain which has started hut as we walked into his hotel. Then we walked the streets, stopping in Chinatown for a much needed late lunch at Famosa, which I cannot recommend you avoid enough. We were lured in by what appeared to be a lot of locals eating there but was really just Asian tourists from Singapore and elsewhere making the same bad decision we did. We walked on, past town hall and a relic ship from the past before coming towards a more commercial strip. Nearby was a Holiday Inn towering over the city and we went up to the top floor of it to get a view of the city as night fell.

Leaving the Holiday Inn, we passed a food market and grabbed some dinner there, which was a much more inspired choice. I had laksa, which was excellent, we all had a bit of satay, Marcus had a pork bone soup, and Kristoffer had a sort of coconut rice porridge which wasn’t too bad either. We were hoping to hang out with some other travelers, but our efforts were unrewarded at the Discovery Café. We explored some more hoping to have better luck later and stumbled across a fair or something with a ferris wheel and lots of nice river lighting. In fact, most of the city is lit quite nicely in different colours and pretty to walk through at night. We also stumbled across a little party of locals – all beyond partying-prime – and had a drink with them. It was the most that was happening in town, so why not? Heck, Marcus even got a short massage out of the deal. We stayed for one drink and moved back to the Discovery Café. There was a table of girls and we felt that was all the incentive needed for one more drink, though moving closer it became clear that none of them had been called girls in some time. Another drink and back home for the night.

Ringo was really good to us with respect to checkout times in that he told us we could leave whenever we were ready. We went for breakfast – chicken rice – at a place Marcus had heard of and it was quite nice though small. We went for our second-breakfast (or elevensies if you’d prefer) shortly after, at the Chinese restaurant right beside Ringo’s and it was likewise delicious. Then, Ringo walked us to the bus stop and waited with us and we were off to Kuala Lumpur at 1:00. Travelling as I am with company for the first time in a long time, the bus rides are nice opportunities to relax, get a bit of reading done, and just have a bit of quiet time. Thus it was not long until we were driving through the city centre and the twin spires of the Petronas towers, once the world’s tallest building, were forming the KL skyline. We found a hostel in Chinatown, Backpackers’ Inn on Jalan Sultan, and wandered the area, through some really crowded and bustling rolling markets and beyond to Merdeka Square. The square is the centre of the old colonial district and also the place where Malaysian independence was claimed.

From there, we were off to the KL Tower, which was quite tall indeed, especially situated as it is on a hill. We didn’t pay the 20 RM to go to the top, and probably we should have in retrospect, but we did have a look around and a detour through the jungle of the surrounding hillside trying to find a way down. Finally, we reached our destination just as the sky was darkening into a beautiful cobalt and the towers were beginning to sparkle, feeding on the darkness like stars in the night sky. They really were breathtaking, more so than I ever expected. I was hypnotized, I really was. We spent over a half hour just looking up and gawking at the towers as the sky grew darker and the buildings shone ever more. Well, gawking and taking photos. We did manage to tear ourselves away from them and have dinner nearby which was, again, terrific, but even as we walked home my eyes kept looking back for them. They are marvels in every sense that something manmade can be. The lighting, the surroundings, the architecture, the symbolism, the engineering, the immensity, and the delicacy are perfectly balanced. But I’m raving now.

We got back to our hostel after the customary post-busy-day-beer and the boys went to bed while I went up and hung out at the rooftop bar with some travelers from Scandinavia and Poland. I wound up staying up far too late, 3:30 to be precise, chatting with a really nice guy and girl from Toronto and London respectively. This should have made it impossible to rouse me at 7 AM that morning to get to the skybridge of the Petronas Towers, but au contraire. Yes, I could hardly keep my eyes open (it helped not a bit that I’d slept with my contacts in), but I was raring to go. Especially after the especially cold shower that is compulsory in most of the budget places we’ve been staying. We got to the towers just in time for the line to start being processed, 8:30 AM, and within an hour had our tickets to go up to the 41st storey sky bridge (it’s actually two storeys but the second is reserved for workers) and have a look. The view was nice, KL is actually a beautiful city surrounded by some pretty hills.

After our trip up the towers we were back down and grabbed lunch which was the first food I’d not enjoyed in three days, and my stomach being a bit off didn’t help. The boys went to the Batu caves but I had to decline as a result, though I might have just grinned and borne it if I’d really been interested in the caves. Still, I had a bit of down time, a light read/nap, and felt 100 times better two hours later. We met up, got some internet done, and went for dinner in Chinatown. Several times. Sometimes I feel like I’m at the Ex here, at a food fair. We just went from stall to stall and sampled anything that looked good or unique or interesting. I had some sort of veggie roll, we all had some excellent satay, and we all tried each others’ dishes, too. I also had a shaved ice and coconut milk and brown sugar and sweet noodle concoction that was delicious and only fifty cents. I’ve been pretty good about avoiding sweets and junk food in the last little while. That, I suspect, is going to change after seeing some of the options.

We had a beer and people-watched for awhile and then all retired to the rooftop bar and had a long conversation or two until late that night. I’m not sure conversation was the right word as my Swedish friend did all the talking, but it did get interesting briefly when he attempted to draw parallels between Jesus and Hitler. Or rather, highlight differences. I’m not sure what he was attempting to conclude, but the gist of it was that Jesus taught peace and ended up nailed to the cross where Hitler preached war and almost ruled the world. Yeah. Tiger beer is a dangerous commodity in Scandinavian hands. We said goodnight and left Kuala Lumpur and, sadly, Marcus the next morning. It was tough to break up the fellowship, he was a good guy to travel with, very laid back and very interesting, but I suspect we’ll meet again on the Asian trails. Kristoffer and I have made it up to the Cameron Highlands now, an area of tea growing, jungle, and cooler temperature (10-21 Celsius year-round). It seems nice up here and I’m sure will be a good start to the beginnings of northern Malaysia.

Malaysia Photos


Sunday, March 23, 2008

I arrived in Singapore too late to do much but sleep, though I was neither tired nor so inclined. Truth be told, I was back in a hostel environment with fellow travelers again in a city that felt quite western, and I wanted to go out. I was excited. The drive from the airport was in stark contrast to my drive to the Jakarta airport earlier that evening. A 10km trip there had been swamped in traffic and took 1.5 hours. I was almost late to check in for my flight. A trip of an even longer distance here took maybe 15 minutes on wide roads with marked lanes and everything. But all that didn't mean I was going to get any celebrating done that night. I gave in and went to sleep. The next day would allow me to hang around the hostel with free high-speed (actually high speed, not 128 kbps) internet and catch up on the home front whilst meeting fellow travelers. Remember also that between Java being off the regular tourist path and me staying in hotels, I'd not had much interaction in Indonesia, so it was with great pleasure that I joined a couple for dinner at the Boat Quay that night, not to mention hung around afterwards with a very pretty Welsh girl. Yes, I was happy to be back on the tourist trail after all.

After my first day on the internet punctuated by this brief dinner and Welsh company, it was time to properly set out and explore Singapore. That is, after taking care of some non-internet business. Like, finally, a call home. And then a trip to the Australian embassy to prove to the tax and superannuation people I'd left the country. By which I mean, a photocopy of my passport and visas with a stamp on it that cost me $40. And did I mention a long chat with ANZ on why they hadn't sent my bank card to Singapore as requested. But, after that, it was time to explore. I was near Orchard Road, the famed shopping street of Singapore (which, I'd later realize, is saying something since EVERYwhere is a shopping street). I was delighted to see a massive Borders, though I soon found a bookstore called Kinokuniya which was even better, and spent some time in there - I've finished all my books and am hungry for more. I was delighted still more to see a movie theatre (I've not been to one this year) and yet more delighted to discover western-style buttered popcorn. 10,000 BC was starting right away and I was there. Not as epic as I'd hoped but it was nice to be in a theatre again and the movie wasn't bad, just not great. I went back home to Little India and went for dinner with some of Sally's (the Welsh girl) friends. Sally was MIA, but we enjoyed some nice Indian food (our hostel is in Little India, after all), eating with our hands and everything. After dinner, my American friend (Dan) had found recruited yet another young lass from his dorm and I sat with the two of them and a Canadian from Victoria drinking Canadian Club and Coke. I discovered this doesn't mix so great with curry. Good night.

Day three in Singapore I set off for Chinatown. Unfortunately, aside from a temple, it's not all that interesting. Some food stalls, lots of souvenir stands, and while I did try some of the food, my luck didn't fare too great. Still, it passed a few hours of wandering and eventually did fill the old belly, plus the temple WAS pretty cool. In addition to the architecture, it was filled with little Buddhas and a giant one and, well, yeah, neat. Speaking of architecture, probably the most unsung building in the city and my favourite is the Parkview Square building. It sports some art deco styling (think: Chrysler Building, New York City circa 1930), is incredibly detailed, has giant statues atop it, and all of these details are extravagant, expensive, and excellent. The interior is likewise perfect and I did manage to get a couple photos before the guard let me know that because there are two embassies in the building, this isn't allowed - very nicely, by the way. And then, when I raved excitedly about it, he showed me where the cameras didn't cover so I could snap a photo of a bronze 'painting' atop the elevator.

While en route to Chinatown, I also spent a good portion of the afternoon in a book market. Five levels of bookstores and art stores beside the National Library making a pleasant diversion for me. I couldn't sell my two books, however, since the best they'd offer me was 50 cents each. Get real! So they can turn around and sell them for $18. I'll carry and trade them, thanks very much. I did pick up three books (Bryce Courtenay - April Fools Day; Stephen King - Carrie; Neil Gaiman - Stardust) for $8.50 CDN though, but not from the people who tried to rip me off. That accomplished I also picked up Raymond E. Feist's Magician and Michael Chabon's Yiddish Policemen's Club, two newer books, and now I have a traveling library to last me for some time. And on the topic of markets, I spent a couple hours wandering the many, many, many, many, MANY electronics shops in Sim Lim square. The place is huge! Six stories of cameras, TVs, music players, computer parts, authentic products and knock offs, bargains and steals. I felt like a kid in a candy store, albeit a well-behaved one who, though I looked at a few computer accessories and mobile phones, did not purchase anything.

By now, I'd seen most of what Singapore had to offer. It's amazing how easy it is to walk everywhere, but there's also the ultra-futuristic MRT (subway) and a great bus system should you need speed or rest. I spent a bit of time looking around downtown at the tall buildings, getting rained on in the process and ending up in an interesting museum on the history of Singapore, and a bit more time looking at the Arab/colonial quarter. It's certainly an interesting city, but an expensive one relative to Indonesia in particular, and so I leave tomorrow after 5 days here for Malaysia. I'm accompanied by a guy from Denmark, Kristoffer, whose rough plans match mine, so why not split some costs for a while. But not after a Singapore Sling tonight and a visit to the world's largest fountain, The Fountain of Wealth in SunTec Plaza. They're both roughly in the same area, the former is to be had at Raffles Hotel, the place where the now famous and eponymous local drink was first concocted. Well, OK, so I did see the fountain already by day, but I want a good night photo. Or I should say wanted. I just got back from this excursion and the fountain was shut off for the night (apparently the laser show is at 8 then they shut it off) and the Singapore Sling was $25 Singapore, and while it was the best one I've had, I have 1: Not had more than one in my life; 2: Not been satisfactorily convinced that ANY drink of that size is worth even half that much. Still, I finished my drink, said farewell to Singapore, and went home to get some sleep, something that could be quite a rarity in Singapore if one weren't careful.

Singapore Photos

Yogakarta to Jakarta

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

After a very long two days climbing Mount Bromo and crossing half the island of Java (pronounced Jawa by the locals, incidentally), I found myself waking up after a much-needed sleep in the city of Yogyakarta (or Joeg-jah for short). Thanks to a tour operator, I’d found a place just off Gang (Alley) 2 in Sosro called Lotus Guesthouse that I would never have found on my own for a good and reasonable 35000 ($3.50) per night. There were a lot of tourists in for Nyepi not to mention escaping the madness of Jakarta, and I’d been unable to find anything below six digits. But that’s how it works here, everyone on the street wants to help you do whatever you’re doing, and then when you’re looking for a tour or to rent a car or buy tickets or… they hope you’ll go to them. Certainly, I’d have a look, after all he’d earned it. I was comparing tour options and prices for the two local landmarks, Borobudur and Prambanan, when I came across another operator with a large poster from Kaliurang. The poster was a small village with the peak of the Merepi volcano looming over it and I was entranced. I booked a tour for the three for 60,000, checked out a batik gallery (and bought my first souvenir of Asia) and was asleep again.

I awoke to a knocking at my door – apparently, I was expecting to be on the tour an hour later than the actual time of the trip. So I threw my stuff together and, since the guide was early, we were still at the hotel for the two Malaysian girls also on the trip before 7:30. Our first stop was Borobudur, one of the largest Buddhist monuments in the world and constructed around 800 AD. It is a sort of concentric square at bottom with six levels, topped with three levels of concentric circle and one giant stupa atop. One the bottom levels are panel telling stories and teachings of Buddha decorated with over 400 statues (432 to be precise). On the top circular levels are many, many stupas (bell/dome shaped shrines) with Buddha inside them, I believe 72 in total. Crowning the monument is one giant stupa which, apparently was supposed to have a giant Buddha inside or atop it, but after sculpting it they couldn’t work out how to get it up there. It was impressive both in its scale and detail.

On display, in addition to this incredible monument, was a Canadian guy from Saskatoon, walking around and trying to mind his own business. I first noticed a group of girls (about 15 of them) walking a not-as-discreet-as-they’d-imagined distance behind me and giggling. Disconcerting. I turned the corner, stopped, and turned to greet them, then took a giant step towards them just as they rounded the corner. The poor girl in the lead almost shrieked and took a few panicked steps back then I laughed and they laughed and I turned and continued to admire the shrine thinking I’d sorted whatever it was out. Finally one of the girls came up to me and asked me for a photo with them. This happened again and again with young kids and even teenagers on field trips from rural villages coming and asking for photos and, on occasion, wanting to practice their English, apparently their school had given them some questions to ask us about Borobudur. I probably had my photo taken about 35 times, was interviewed in English twice, was asked to take photos of about 60 people (in groups, thankfully, not all individually), and had two toddlers come up and kiss my hand. It should’ve been annoying but I was too busy feeling magnanimous to mind.

Our next stop was Kaliurang, the village on the volcano, but it had started to rain a bit as we arrived and the volcano was nothing more than a black shape on the horizon. Whatsmore, we didn’t go to the village but instead to a lookout, which I was pretty choked about. We marched on eastward, after a much needed lunch stop to clear my headache – I’d been having minor headaches pretty much everyday since starting my anti-malaria doxycyclin pills and today was the worst – we were at Prambanan. This is a Hindu temple, or rather, collection of temples, and at least in terms of scale was more impressive than Borobudur. Located in the centre is the temple to Shiva, looming almost 50 metres over the valley and surrounded by smaller but still imposing temples to other Hindu gods. A thunderstorm was brewing in the clouds and made the whole scene all the more intense. Aside from these temples, which were restricted due to a recent earthquake having made them structurally unsound, there are smaller ones about 1km down a path which our guide recommended we check out. And wouldn’t you know it, we (me and the Malaysians) were at the farthest point from the van when the storm broke. We waited and were turned down a chance to hop on the little tourist train and it eventually abated slightly. We made it about 500m before it really broke out again and we were quite on the wet side. It was past the time we were supposed to meet our guide and we braved the downpour and returned to the van soaked to the core.

The next day I went to the sultan’s palace, the kraton, which was less impressive than I’d expected. It’s more of a community within the city where they live a bit more traditionally, and I went and learned about some of the Hindu gods and saw some leather puppets being made – they’re called wayang, which actually means mirror, and the puppets are intended to reflect on your soul. I also checked out the water palace, the sultan’s private pool(s) of olde. He had two pools, one for all his ladies and one for himself. There was also a tower above from which he could perv on them or at least watch and decide which one to take back to his private pool. And I suppose which to make into a wife. I spent that day wandering the streets of Yogya and the whole of the next day as well, feeling worse and worse from those pills and getting quite irritable. I snapped at one of the hordes of people trying to hustle me on the street where normally I find it a bit amusing or at least ignorable. I told him I HATE batik (which I don’t), that most of the people like him are selling fakes (which they are), and that I just want to walk down the street in peace. That was when I decided I couldn’t keep taking these pills. Grumpy, headaches, occasional dizziness and on that day, fever; If the symptoms got a bit worse I’d basically have the same symptoms as someone with malaria. No more doxy.

As I was still ahead of schedule, even with my extra day in Yogya, I needed to find somewhere else between here and Jakarta. I’d circled Batu Karas as sounding interesting back when I’d been reading excitedly at home and also Pangandaran. The former is a small village on the beach with three guest houses, the latter a city on a good surf beach. I thought I’d head to P first and maybe take a day trip out to BK if time warranted, and boarded a train on the 12th of March (Wednesday) for Banjar. Well, I waited for a train anyway. It was supposed to come to platform 3 at 9:30. While waiting, I met a Canadian couple from Toronto. 9:30 came and there was a train on platform 2 and I went to grab a snack thinking our train would be here any minute. Conversationally, they asked which train I was on and I discovered that the train on platform two was, in fact, my train and that of the Canadians as well, who were going to the same place as me. I double and triple checked quickly – the train was about to leave any second – called for the Canadians to join me and hopped on the train. They just made it.

I was more alert when it came time to disembark and watched for signs saying Banjar. Again, I saved the Torontonians. This paid itself off almost immediately as we were able to split a car to Batu Karas, checking out Pangandaran en route. I was torn about which place to go but thought I might as well take the car ride all the way to BK and then if I didn’t like it just come back the next day. But while Pangandaran seemed okay, a decent beach, good waves, but in a city, Batu Karas was a great little village on a perfect beach, quiet, clean, and exactly what the doctor ordered after the hustle of Yogya. The beach was volcanic, in a little cove, and had what have to be the best learn-to-surf waves I’ve seen. It was to become my favourite spot in Indonesia. Not only was it great, but it felt like a decisive step from the tourist trail. There are three places to stay in the town, most of which were occupied by Indonesians, a few Malaysians and Japanese, two Swiss, one German, an Australian couple, and now, three Canadians. That’s it to the whole town. When I went for lunch or dinner, I had a tab at the restaurant. Likewise to the little beach bar at the Australian-owned hotel.

I rented a surf board and surfed. It took a while to get my timing right and then a while more to remember how to get up, but with Tol (the Canadian’s) help, it did come back to me. In fact, by the fourth day – I loved it so much I stayed longer than intended – I was having a great time, getting up on 1.5m waves and able to maneuver my board enough to keep ahead of the wave the whole 700m to shore. THAT was a great feeling, and I did it three times (in addition to getting up on some 30 times) in the last two hours of my last day, as the sunset behind our bungalows on the beach. On that same day, I woke up and had a chat for about 1.5 hours with the Australian lady (her husband was surfing) next door. I went and had a great lunch and then two English from Pangandaran showed up for the day and we sat drinking beer while they had their lunch for a couple hours. Then my surf. After which, the Australian couple brought me dinner from a slightly bigger town nearby and I sat with them and had a great conversation for three hours. I walked to pay my tab at the restaurant afterwards then Paul, the Australian hotelier, invited me to watch the traditional dance that was going on at his bar that night. Truly one of the best days I’ve had since leaving Australia.

The only drawback to the whole Batu Karas experience was that my room, at only 40,000 a night and quite sparkling clean to the eye, appears to have been infested with bed bugs. Yes. I had avoided them in Europe. I dodged them several times in Australia, most notably Perth. And here, on this uncharted beach in the middle of the Pacific, the bedbug mob had found me and riddled me with holes. The first day I was convinced they were from little jellys and what the Australian guy, Russ, called “sea lice” that give a little sting in the water. The second day I didn’t swim, and on the third day they were still there and worse. Of course, by then I already had them, so what’s one more night? Plus it was the weekend, and the scant accommodation in the town was all booked anyway. All I can say about bedbugs is they itch like crazy, apparently can NOT be seen when you look at the stitching of the sheets, and I hate them. Anyway, it was time to leave my little paradise and make my way to Jakarta. I hopped on the back of a motorbike, backpack and all, as this is the only way out of the town. We took the scenic route across a very precarious bamboo bridge, and got to Cijulang, where I got a bus to Banjar. It stopped anywhere and everywhere that someone might want to get on or off, but we eventually got there. I’m pretty sure I got overcharged. I saw an old man in front of me pay 11,000 for his ticket to Banjar and, despite my many protests (at one point, the old man was ‘asked’ how much he paid to go to Banjar and he showed twenty-five) I had to pay more than double that. Oh well. From Banjar, a rickshaw to the train station whereupon I learned there wasn’t a train to Jakarta until 9 that night. So I took one to Bandung thinking there’d be connections to grab from there.

There were but en route I’d had another idea. Stay in Bandung that night, and hire a car to take me to Jakarta the next day via Pucack Pass and the Taman safari. This would essentially save me the cost of the train fare plus I’d see it during the day and I’d get to look around Bandung, too. I haggled and haggled and it seemed it was going to be very pricey but I finally managed to get the price down to 300,000, so I found a hotel and wandered the streets. I walked up to the famed Jeans Street, where every store deals in denim and has various heroes as its mascots, doubtless unlicensed. I actually bought a pair of jeans after sending mine home because without the anti-malaria pills I was going to need more long sleeve and pants to combat the mosquitoes. They were a bit pricey at almost $20 but seemed of good quality compared to the $5 pairs I was seeing. Then I walked down to Jalan Braga, grabbing a few skewers of sate on the way, for dinner, and then home to By Moritz (my hotel) where I chatted with a German backpacker about Malaysia.

The next day at 9AM, I was to meet my driver outside the train station but he was nowhere to be found. That said, there were other drivers some of which seemed to know my itinerary already. It became clear to me that he, knowing my situation and that I was either going to get on the train or pay no more than 300,000 convinced me to stay, knowing I’d be forced to pay more the next day since it would be the only way for me to squeeze in the safari before my flight. Now they wanted 500,000, some claimed it was impossible for less than 700,000 and one guy did say 400,000 before getting a look from his friends. I walked away from the lot of them, not interested in giving them a cent even if it were the price I’d already agreed on yesterday. I found another driver elsewhere who I managed to get down to 350,000 and we took off. The traffic and pollution were just unthinkably disgusting but thankfully that cleared soon enough when we left the area of Bandung. Up we went, up the mountains and into some beautiful scenery and cooler air known as Pucack Pass. We passed through some small towns, over a very high bridge, through endless hills of tea, and onward and upward until we were at last at Taman Safari.

The cost was 85,000 and worth every rupee. You drive through the wilderness of the park in your vehicle, and it is (obviously) divided into sections with different animals walking in the grass and coming up to investigate the cars, knowing as they do that you’ve brought a load of carrots to feed them with. The first stop was the zebras, which I petted and fed a few carrots. On we drove, past the elephants, llamas, and deer, and up to a black leopard, asleep on a perch in a tree above. We drive past some Asian type of bear and other African looking animals, bison, hippos, and giraffes, all milling about freely and quite unperturbed by us or our car, until we came to a gate. This gate was the first indication that we were about to enter the lion’s den – literally. It reminded me of Jurassic Park, this place, and we crossed the gate as it opened and then closed behind us, faced with another gate. Above, a guard tower watched and over the speaker asked us to shut our windows. We both shut our windows about halfway.

When the first gate locked closed, we were trapped between the two gates, then slowly, ponderously, the second gate opened. Sitting on a rock, watching us intently, was a lion. Now, it’s one thing to see a lion in a cage or separated by some barrier in a zoo. It’s another to have one sitting there, watching your every move, unchained and fully able to assault your car and rip you to shreds if you thought for some reason to open a door. I unconsciously rolled my window up some more, as though that barrier of glass could protect me, as though it wouldn’t crumble to dust at one of the lion’s mighty roars. We stared at it, and it at us. Finally, I got brave enough to open the window a bit more to snap a few photos, and we were driving again past the lionesses and into the tiger area. They left us alone, too, one pretending to sleep but moving its head imperceptibly as we drove past, no more than 4 metres from it.

The only thing that attacked us were some hungry zebras further in as we came back to African territory. Four of them thrust their noses through the crack in the window hoping for some carrots and one nearly chomped my hand while he was at it. Finally, we passed the orangutans and some very, very, very large hippos – I never knew how massive they were! – and we’d finished our safari. What a great way to pass the trip from Bandung to Jakarta, what a great way to see these animals. The only thing better would be an actual safari into the actual wild of Africa, and although that’s been at the top of my ‘todo list’ for years, the desire has been ratcheted up several notches.

There is also a zoo component to the park and while I skipped most of it (and the kiddie amusement park) I had to stop at the Baby Zoo. Here, for $1, you can hold and have your photo taken with the following: a lion cub, a baby cheetah, an orangutan, and last but not least, an adult albino tiger. My first stop was the lion cub. Very cute and all, but I tell you that getting close to it was all sorts of scary. And once it sat on my lap, the reason was clear. The power even in that little cub was palpable, and whatsmore, he was not in a good mood. He even bared his teeth at one point, about three of four photos in. It was only because I’d bought three tickets that I managed to get in with the cheetah, though it was much more relaxed than the cub, I certainly wasn’t. In my photos, it appears I have a death grip on the poor thing (though they do instruct you to loop an arm around its neck, you know, just in case). My third photo with the orangutan settled my heart down a bit, it was quite friendly and knew the drill. Arms around the human’s neck, look at the camera, done. It was in this false sense of security that I discovered the white tiger and bought a ticket to have my photo with it.

Not only was it another wild cat, but this thing was fully grown and well, if you’ve ever seen one hunt, getting anywhere within 200 metres of one is a bit scary. It was too big and heavy to get on my lap, so I sat beside it and leaned across its massive body instead. Just the paws on it, wow; Almost as big as my head. And here I was, like some idiot-tourist who gets killed in some random country, leaning across and petting it and almost sitting on its tail. But I survived to write about the encounter and have the photos to prove it, and this accomplished we were off to Jakarta. Here I saw the first high-rise I’ve seen since leaving Australia, and there was something comforting about it strangely. Here I also saw the worst traffic I’ve seen anywhere, and the driver let me off somewhere near the hotel and I went the rest of the way on the back of a motorbike. We drove on sidewalks to avoid the worst of the traffic and for a short while, the wrong way in traffic.

Jakarta wasn't as bad as I'd been warned. On the contrary, I didn't allocate myself enough time for it. The food was good, there were lots of cafes, and sure lots of pollution and so on as well, but show me a major non-Singaporean Asian city without it. My one full day there consisted of me running up to the National Monument, talking with a school group at the top and signing my name and writing all the kids personalized messages which they were able to read and understand in English. I was very impressed by this. Then back down to the largest Mosque in Asia for a little tour, a quick stop in a Catholic church for old times sake, trekking back to my hostel on Jalan Jaksa to pick up my things, grabbing a starfruit and strawberry juice fresh, and a bite to eat. Then sitting in traffic for 1.5 hours in a bus to the airport (about 12 km away) at which point I said goodbye to Indonesia and boarded my Emirates flight to Singapore. I've got to admit that while I have no complaints about the flight whatsoever, it was nothing special. Quite average food, service, and all the rest, but there, I've done it. I've flown Emirates. I waited in customs for almost an hour with the slowest line, another 30 mins for a taxi at the rank, and at last, I was at my hostel - yes, dorm rooms are back - in Singapore. It was 2 AM and time to sleep.

Yogya-Bandung Photos
Taman Safari and Jakarta Photos

Two Days in One

Friday, March 07, 2008

I got into the chartered van from Lovina and was off to Gilimanuk at 3:00 to catch a ferry from the island of Bali to Java (pronounced Jawa, it is the largest and most populous island in the Indonesian archipelago). It was March 6th and March 7th was an island wide holiday, Nyepi. In Bali, the island of the gods, effigies would be burnt of the evil spirits on the 6th and then on the 7th everything – and I mean everything – would stop. People were to stay at home day and night, lights were to remain off, airports, roads, everything is closed all in the hope that the island would appear deserted to any descending spirits investigating, and Bali would be left alone for another year. As a result, getting out of Bali on the day prior was a bit of a mission. We arrived two hours later at a gas station which was, apparently, our jumping on point for the larger coach that would take me the other six hours to Probolingo, Java. We waited. And waited. I’d been told that we were leaving at three from Lovina instead of the scheduled six to make sure that the busses can get to port before cities and towns start closing streets for the festivals, and that we’d be on the coach by 5:30. Me and the family going to Java waited and waited at that station. It got dark. 8:00 – we’d been waiting now for three hours on the porch of the gas station in the middle of nowhere and Nyepi was fast approaching – and still no bus. I began to worry that I was going to spend the night and the next day hiding from spirits in a gas station. 9:00. No bus.

Finally, at 9:30, the bus arrived. It wasn’t our bus though, it was bus one and ours (number two) was supposedly coming behind. A second bus arrived. Number four. Finally, our bus did arrive and five hours we boarded in the darkness and drove to the port five minutes down the road. The scene was mayhem. There was a very War-of-the-Worlds quality to the pandemonium, as if we were all trying to escape before these monsters from beyond found us on the island. Would we get on the ferry, would we escape with our lives? The clock was moving ever close to midnight and finally we were flagged forward and herded onto a ferry. We were saved! Or were we? The ferry went nowhere for what felt like ages. I eventually got off the bus to have a look around and see what was going on. As I climbed the stairs to a better vantage point, we started to move, slowly, but inexorably toward the surprisingly close lights of Java. A flash of lightning on the horizon illuminated a massive volcano behind the lights and another smaller volcano behind that. I wondered if I was making a mistake. A few seconds later, another flash and this time the cloud near the further volcano glowed a distinctive red but the boat moved ever closer from the frying pan into the fire.

Of course, there was no real problem or danger, but it had been a long day and I had plenty of journey left – though how much I had no idea at this point – to keep myself awake for. We arrived in Java and stopped somewhere where everyone got off. The friendly family I’d traveled with from Lovina told me we were getting off for dinner at about 1:30 AM. Finally, just before three in the morning, I was standing in a fairly major but quiet highway intersection in Probolingo with my backpack on my back and a lonely planet in my hand wondering how to find this hotel. A guy about my age came up and offered me a lift on his bike, which might sound unusual but is quite a common (and for many travelers I’ve met, annoying experience). I was reluctant at best but he mentioned the hotel I was looking for and so I took his offer at half the price and we took off.

It was not the direction the bus driver had gestured (though he didn’t seem certain) and the guy whose bike I was now on said something to his friends as we drove past and again I found reason to keep awake and alert as we drove from the well-lighted intersection down the much darker road. His friends didn’t appear to be following, however, and the street was still pretty major, and a few minutes of tension later, we were at Hotel Bromo Permai 2. I hadn’t slept a wink and though it had been a long journey wasn’t doing too badly so far as I walked into the lobby. My plan was sleep, investigate Probolingo the next day and book a trekking tour up Bromo for the following day. Instead, I was approached by someone telling me he had a tour going up to Bromo at three in the morning (it was then I discovered that the time in Java was actually 2 AM). Being that I wasn’t dead tired and the price was right according to what I’d read, I took him up on it and sat an hour in the lobby. He also sold me a shuttle ticket to my next stop, the city of Yogyakarta (pronounced Joeg-ja-karta) for after the excursion. It would be a long day but I could already tell there was nothing to do in Probolingo, so why not?

3:15 AM I was en route to Bromo with two Swedes in the early morning darkness. Up and around the mountain, bouncing along in what has to be the most dodgy vehicle I’ve been in, ever. No panels anywhere, I could see the road pass below my feet through holes in the floorboards, my door had no handle on the inside, no seatbelts anywhere, and we were bouncing up winding ill-maintained mountain roads. And then the van started to clunk rhythmically, like we had a flat tire or something. We pulled over and investigated but could see nothing. We could certainly hear and feel it but the tires were fine and there was nothing else our flashlight was able to illuminate for us. It seemed to change and disappear (or get worse) as we turned in certain directions. With no immediate cause apparent we pressed on and it seemed to fade away. We stopped at a village perched on the crater rim that seemed a much better place to stay, Cemoro Lawang, and picked up a Scottish guy from the hostel before continuing the rest of the short distance up the road to get a view of the sunrise over the crater.

Already the sky was lighting and our group (minus guide… err… driver) walked up the dewy slopes with some difficulty finding the path. I took the lead on a particularly treacherous part as I was pretty sure we weren’t on the path anymore and it got increasingly precarious as it was muddy, slippery, and narrow. I was about to turn and say that we were on an animal path and should probably turn around when my foot slipped from beneath me and I began sliding down the slope. I wasn’t able to stop my slide as I desperately tried to dig my hands into the mud. Above me on my left a small tuft of grass, I reached for it and slowed but it was clear that the grass and I were sharing the difficulty clinging to the muddy slope and I could feel it beginning to give. All this happened, of course, in the blink of an eye, yet I felt calm and clear-headed, able to evaluate things in an almost suspended frame of time. I certainly knew that looking behind me to see what I was up against if I failed to stop was not going to help. And then, in that same two seconds stretched into 15, I grabbed the Scotsman’s outstretched hand with my other and, together with the grass, managed to stop my descent and pull myself back up to the path. I had wordlessly and, suffice it to say, inadvertently persuaded everyone to turn back.

We managed to find the correct path in the ever increasing light. We made it up to the viewpoint and watched as the sun broke and illuminated the desolate volcanic landscape below us. There was a large and inactive mound beside a smaller smoking crater known as Mt. Bromo, and in the distance, mostly obscured by cloud, another volcano towering over the scene. It was one of the most striking things I’ve ever seen and worth the trip to Java alone. We enjoyed the full sunrise and made our way back to the van where we drove to the small aforementioned town again. This time, we set off down into the caldera and trekked across the lava fields as cloud and mist wisped all around us. A horse ran unattended through the desolation beside us and a small temple sat vigil at the base of an extinct dome volcano (Batok) on our other shoulder. We hiked to Bromo and up the 253 steps to the rim of the crater. Below, the smoke poured out of large cracks in the crust, the black hillside ran up to where we stood and back down into the crater valley below. Volker (the Swedish guy) and I hiked along the rim of the crater to its highest point. After the morning’s scare and a little trip at the beginning of our rim walk, I was a little shaky especially as we were again walking on volcanic mud in places not wide enough for two people to pass each other with the slopes dropping off rather dramatically on either side. It was a fun walk but we didn’t circumnavigate the entire crater.

Back we trekked and down the hill where, for 20,000 ($2) each, we rode horses back across the volcanic plains. At first I was perched precariously but got comfortable relatively quickly and soon was playing around and having a good time making my way ahead of and around the others, weaving in and out and faster and slower. Then we rode up the slope back into town, hitched our horses to a pole, and strode into the olde tavern… err… café for breakfast. It had been a long day – journeying from Bali, hiking up the volcano and down the crater, horseback riding – and at last I started to feel it. I ate my breakfast with the Swedes and we all got back in the car at 10 AM for our trip down. The landscape was beautiful coming down. It is amazing where they farm, here. Halfway up the exposed roots of the mountain where you’d be hard pressed to maintain your footing and a misstep would surely tumble you to your death are fully planted and maintained farms. We met up with our shuttle bus to Yogya an hour down the slope and the change to a much more reliable and comfortable van was quite welcome. The Swedes were not coming with us, so it was me, the Scottish guy, and his girlfriend whose back had been too sore to make the journey with us that morning.

The ride was neverending. I had read it was about an eight hour journey, the Scots had been told it was six (which makes a certain amount of sense given it was chartered and not public) and well, it just kept going. The countryside was varied when it was there, most of the time it was just road and buildings and powerlines. From time to time I’d see flooded rice plains reflecting a tall volcano in the distance and the even more distant smoke of Bromo rising like a pin in the map of my journey since arriving in Java late last night. We stopped twice, once for fuel and bathrooms, once for lunch. I should say a word on the washrooms here. First of all, they’re ceramic holes in the ground, foregoing the whole seat and bowl concept. Second of all, toilet paper is generally not available nor, should you be prepared enough to bring your own tissue, allowed as it plugs what little plumbing they have. Instead, there is a water basin with a water scoop for flushing, and I assume, cleaning. How dirty the handle is I try not to think about. I’ve been fortunate enough to be near my hotel or a tourist restaurant with western amenities every time I’ve needed to make use of the extended options, shall we say, but I suppose it’s only a matter of time.

Finally, much later in the night than I’d expected, 37 hours after I awoke in my Lovina hotel yesterday morning, we arrived in Yogyakarta. Unfortunately, most of the hotels were full as other Balinese and Hindu are vacationing for Nyepi, but I did manage to find a clean-enough place for 35,000 a night. Everything else was VIP suites or ‘superior’ rooms with air conditioning, hot water, and high prices relatively speaking. It wouldn’t be so bad with a second person but I can stay here for four nights for the price of one night in a room like that. I was obviously dead tired at this point, but I needed some food in my stomach to take my malaria pill with – Java does have malarial mosquitoes – so I went out to a little café on the corner and had some Indonesian curry (kare), a beer to celebrate a very looong day of traveling, and at 11:30 that night, almost 40 hours after setting off from Bali, I fell asleep in Yogyakarta. The bus ride, the gas station, the ferry, more bus rides, 1 AM dinners, 2 AM deal making, a 5 AM hike nearly ending in a perilous slide down the mountain, another hike around a crater rim later that morning, horseback riding, and another 9 hour journey to find a room. It had been a journey alright. All the while, it was Nyepi back on Bali and the entire island rested and stayed at home. Maybe they had it right after all.

Mount Bromo Photos