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Posts Tagged ‘jungle’

A Short Time in Sumatra

Sunday, January 6th, 2013

Upon my arrival in Medan, the capital city of the island of Sumatra, I was immediately reminded of India, and not the India I love.  Being the country’s 4th largest city, it is crowded, busy, loud, dirty, and feels foreign, unlike so In Medanmuch of SE Asia.  I arrived at my homestay, which was the only budget accommodation I could find listed online, and realized that I was also back in a country which was like India in that even the places which are trying to offer a very high level of hospitality are just slightly missing the mark.  I was grateful that I had to spend only one night in this city before heading to the jungle.

With the help of a man at the homestay, I was able to book transport from Medan to Ketambe, a village of 100 people in the middle of Gruner Leuser National Park, one of the largest swatches of jungle still in existence in Indonesia.  Like so many other parcels of jungle in Asia, there are areas which are being converted to oil palm plantations, all in the name of money.  Tarzan SwingHopefully, the government will realized what they are doing before the orangutans, gibbons, and monkeys have no trees they can climb, no food to forage, no habitat in which they can exist.   But back to the transport.  Thankfully, I was able to get the last seat in an SUV transporting myself and 4 others up into the jungle.  This guaranteed the arrival at my guesthouse after an 8 hour trip, rather than getting stuck in the town of Kutacane.  Being in an SUV was better than being on a minibus, but still very difficult.  First, I was the only English speaker with several Indonesians; second, Indonesian men smoke like it is in style and without regard for others; and third, the driver made a pass at me, which thankfully he understood my response when I said “No!  I don’t know what you’re thinking, but NO WAY!”  I was concerned because I was making the last 80 minutes of the trip by myself, yet when we reached the town of Kutacane, a new driver took over.  Thank God, because I was feeling really uncomfortable about it.  After my arrival in the big city of Medan, and then this, I was asking myself “Why did I come hTrekking to campere? Why?”  Fortunately, my concerns were alleviated upon reaching my final destination.

I ended up spending 5 full days in Ketambe, 3 of which were on a trek in the jungle.  I had found my guide through Friendship Guesthouse, and apparently, without my knowing it, my guide is famous.  His name is John, and he was named after JFK.  He has been a guide in the jungle for 18 years, and he knows the area like the back of his hand.  There are thousands of trails in the jungle, and he can take any of them and end up at his planned destination.  The two of us hiked 2 hours into the jungle, our packs containing one change of clothes to sleep in, one swimsuit to bathe in, one towel, a sleep mat, tent, and food and cooking supplies, that’s it.  For those of you already thinking it, yes, my clothes stank unlike anytime yet on my trip; 3 full days of hiking through the sultry jungle, I was ripe.

This jungle is thick, green, wet (technically rainforest), and alive.  So, on a short trek like I did, the main thing people hope to see is orangutans; on longer treks deeper into the forest, people hope to also see rhinos, elephants, snakes, and In a Fallen Treemaybe a big cat at a long distance.  It is a beautiful experience to see orangutan in the wild, and I was lucky to see eight of them; 3 young males, 2 females with babies, and one old female.  They are amazing creatures, whom love to have fun swaying from tree to tree, hanging upside down, and just enjoying life.  They are much more like humans than any other monkey or ape.  First, all four of their hands are just that, hands.  They can hang any which way they feel comfortable because of it.  They don’t like being watched, and let you know with a squeaky sucking sound; and in the case of the old female, they may even break a limb to cast down at you when you are not listening to them.  And apparently they mate like humans; several different positions, tenderly, for an hour or so.  The other primates here mate like all other mammals, quickly from behind.  We followed one of the young males for an hour in hopes that he was looking for a partner, but after so much time, John decided that he probably wasn’t, so we left him alone.  In addition to the orangutan, we saw one white-handed gibbon (a small ape), severaYoung Male Orangutanl long-tailed macaques and Thomas’ leaf monkeys (aka the funky monkey because of the Mohawk they sport), many giant squirrels, seven-group hornbill, king hornbill, and a pair of rajah scops (I think) owls.  The owls were the big score, very rare to see, especially when the sun is still shining.  They are amazing to see in real life with their huge wise eyes and sharp beaks.  We did one night trek in which we were hoping to see a flying squirrel or a slow loris, or the rare sun bear, but we didn’t see anything besides some lightening bugs, glowing insects, and moths.   Still, it was way cool.  Pitch black with the flashlights out.

Our meals were very similar throughout the day.  Either fried rice or fried noodles with a similar mix of veggies; base of onion, garlic, chilies, and green beans; add tomato, potato, carrot, or ginger for variety; and every meal was served with an egg.  Indonesians love their eggs and eat one pretty much every meal.  I know eggs contain the good cholesterol, but between them and the Snake Fruitsmoking, there have got to be some health problems in Sumatra.  For a treat we’d have biscuits with tea (those are cookies for the American English speakers) or snake fruit, a tasty firm fruit with a sweet and sour flavor, named so because their skin is like snake skin.  Bathing was done in the river, which was incredibly refreshing after a day of trekking, not cold but cool enough to bring the body temp down.  And sleeping was generally peaceful with a lullaby of the river and cicadas.  We had some rain every day, usually around lunch, so the timing was perfect for a rest.  The trek was one of my most memorable experiences.

From Ketambe, I traveled all day by car, plane, bus, and ferry to the northern island of Pulau Weh, in the state of Banda Aceh.  This state has an interesting recent history as they were in the midst of a civil war when the tsunami hit December 26, 2004, which resulted in much destruction and devastation, and the end of the war.  Now open to tourists, Banda Aceh is also becoming more Gapang Beachaccommodating.  I stayed at a top notch dive resort right on Gapang Beach.  The bungalow I stayed in may have been my nicest accommodation all trip (aside from Los Angeles), and cost me so, too, but I had no way to know that the first come first served budget accommodation would all be full for the Christmas holiday in a Muslim country.  It’s okay though, it was a treat to myself and I just dove less.  I justified this with the fact that my next destination is the Philippines, specifically for diving.  Here I tried Aceh curry which was so different from any other curry I’ve ever had, made with roasted coconut, a recipe I will have to try to find and duplicate.

The diving in Pulau Weh is well known among those who dive in this part of the world.  It was beautiful, obviously different than home, but also so different then Thailand.  The first dive I did was called PP, or Pantee Peunateung, with beautiful coral structure and huge sea fans.   This site is known for big stuff, like sharks, which I did not see.  I saw my first Napoleon wrasse, and there were lots of big fish, trevally and tuna, and schools of chevron barracuda.  The second dive was Batee Tokong and this site is famous for eels, lots and lots of eels of the moray and ribbon variety.  I saw dozens, including some of the biggest morays I’ve ever seen, and others with interesting colorful markings.  Some of the coral here was like flying over hilly terrain; it was unlike anything I’d seen before.  There are lots of fish species here, too, including the elusive frog fish, which I did see.  Other fish include beautiful tropicals, lots of angels and butterfly fish, lion fish and scorpion fish, shrimp and nudibranches, octopus and trigger fish, and unicorn fish.  This all got me very excited for the diving I have to come.

After my third day it was time to take the ferry back to Banda Aceh for my flight.  I had caught a tuk tuk from the ferry to my hotel for the night, and the same driver was taking me to the airport the following morning. Here in Indonesia, the tuk tuk is basically a motor bike with a sidecar.  I swear I wasn’t sure we were going to make it.  About five minutes from the hotel the On way to Banda Acehmotorbike just stopped.  There was something wrong with the connection to the gas can, so after he was trying to get the motor going for several minutes, another driver came along and gave us a push, which got us going.  Then, about 10 minutes from the airport, it’s a 30 minutes trip, one of the tires on the sidecar pops.  So, I get onto the motor bike with him for the rest of the trip, but I was really wondering what else could go wrong.  It was rather comedic.

At the airport I had my first really good cup of Sumatran coffee, before heading out to Kuala Lumpur for one night before heading to the Philippines.  It doesn’t beat out Vietnamese coffee for me, but the coffee from Banda Aceh sure is good, too.  For pictures of Sumatra, click here.

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For the Love of Anchovies, and Other Tasty Morsels

Thursday, December 27th, 2012

For all the foodies out there, you may have heard that Malaysia is exalted for its food culture, and specifically on the island of Penang.  Malaysian cuisine is a clear representation of the myriad of cultures that have decided to call it home over the years.  Here you will find dishes from as far west as Lebanon and from every country of the east.  The greatest influence is from China, being the biggest immigrant group in Malaysia.  The island of Penang is over 60% One of my favorite thingsChinese, and this is apparent on every street you walk down in the food and the number of Chinese temples.  Other major influences include India and Indonesia, and the Malays have their own style of cooking, but who would have known that they have a love affair with anchovies, and yet it is so.  I tried a couple of their national dishes featuring these salty little fish, and don’t envision the soft ones that come in a can back at home.  These fish are pulled fresh out of the sea, salted and dried on the docks, and then served fried, crispy and crunchy.  If you like anchovies, you will love these.

Most often served for breakfast or lunch is Nasi Lemak, coconut rice with fried anchovies, fried peanuts with herbs, and sambal, a spicy red sauce.  Sometimes it comes with cucumber, one time I got it with green beans, and almost always it is topped with a fried egg, another thing the Malaysians love.  Nasi Lemak can be really delicious, or it can be quite average.  The first time I had it was the best, but I kept trying.   For a snack there is Ikan Bilis, a yummy dish of Ikan Bilisanchovies fried with peanuts, chili peppers and onions.  When this one is good, it is really good, and goes great with an ice cold Tiger beer.   And then there are the dishes without anchovy, like Loksa, a soup of rice noodles, boiled egg, red onion, cucumber, fresh herbs and chilies in a red mackerel broth.  This one is different, and not my favorite, but I’m glad I gave it a try.  Their version of the pancake is called Roti Canai, and they love the roti in all of Malaysia; a thin, doughy rice pancake that is folded together and then chopped so it is easy to pick up and dip in dhal, the saucy lentil side dish it is usually served with (unless you get a sweet roti, and then it just comes as is).  They will put anything in the roti, from egg and cheese, to banana, to sardines or other meat, to brown sugar.  I like the roti, almost as much as the dosa (the thin Indian crepe like pancake), which you can also find here, but is called tosai.  And to drink with your roti or tosai is teh tarik, “tossed tea,” which is tea and condensed milk mixed by tossing from one glass to another.  Very tasty.  Then there is Rojak, fresh fruit tossed with Yum!peanuts in a sweet and spicy sauce.  Yum.  For those who don’t like the spicy so much, Malaysian food is not spicy like Thai, there is just a hint, palatable by most.  It is deliciously wonderful to be back in a place with authentically good Indian food (which I ate a lot of), with really fresh made Chinese food (which I ate a lot of), and with other variety when desired (Japanese, Korean, Bangladeshi).

So, where does one find these tasty morsels?  Like so much of SE Asia, at the night market, which basically means “on the street.”  There are several streets in Penang which host countless food carts, some open by day and others by night.  All you need to do is find a local who is excited to share the fabulous food culture of their country with you, and you will try many things, as I was lucky to do one night.

You may be wondering what else I did in Malaysia besides eat, and yes, I actually did some other things.  I started in Kuala Lumpur, the capital city.  It was okay, but didn’t capture my attention like Bangkok did.  The highlight there for me was the Museum of Visual Arts, a free contemporary art museum Scary Highfeaturing Malaysian artists.  They have a great collection, and it was a very cool, air conditioned break from the oppressive midday heat.  I also went to the top of the KL Tower, which is currently the 7th tallest building in the world.  It offers an expansive view of this growing city which hosts lots of new buildings with modern glass architecture, and old historic buildings.  It also gives one an opportunity to see all the green space around KL, where the jungle abuts the city limits.

From KL, I headed to The Cameron Highlands, and the main town of Tanah Rata, set high in the hills in the middle of the jungle.  This is a beautiful place, and the center of the Malaysian tea industry.  While it was similar to Munnar in India, it didn’t have the same fairytale feel to it that Kerala’s tea plantations offered.  Regardless, there are so many shades of green it would be impossible to count.

I did two day hikes while I was in the area.  The first hike I did with two Brits I’d met at my guesthouse.  We were told that the trail we’d chosen was one of the easier hikes; I think it was just one of the shortest because it was quite steep Hike in Tanah Rataand challenging, with the reward of an amazing view of the surrounding jungle, mountains and tea plantations.  The second hike I had started on my own, but fell into line with a man from Hungary, with whom I ended up completing this incredibly beautiful, secluded trek.  It was really stunning as it followed a river with a waterfall, and several small streams running through the forest.  Both treks ended in vegetable farms, several miles from town, and the number of buses are limited, so what to do but hitch a ride back.  The first day we were picked up by a Hungarian tourist, and the second by a Malaysian couple.  It’s so different culturally from the US in that regard, hitching is safe and common since so many people don’t have cars and often have to travel long distances.

My next stop was the island of Langkawi, in the far northwest of the country.  I’d heard that this was a beautiful island, but mostly I went there because I’d read online that it was a rock climbing destination.  Well, I ended up disappointed on both parts.  First, it used to be possible to rock climb there, Tanjung Rhubut the one man who did it had passed away and nobody else offered it; and second, the island is beautiful, and I will say it has one of the most beautiful beaches I’ve ever been to, Tanjung Rhu, but the island is very touristy.  It became a duty-free island a few years ago, and since then the tourism industry has boomed.  I did meet some great people there though, so that did make it more tolerable, in addition to the fact that the beaches there are covered in shells, and shell collecting is one of my all favorite pastimes.

I ended my time in Malaysia on the island of Penang, staying in the capital city of Georgetown.  As I’ve already mentioned, the food is amazing there, and one of the main reasons people go there, but it is also known for its street art, and one artist in particular, Ernest Zacharevic.  All around the city there are Kung Fu Girlapproximately 30 works of fun iron sculpture and big wall murals by him, as well as paintings by others.  Searching out street art is one of my favorite things to do in cities.  Also on Penang, in the northwest there is a wonderful national park called Taman Negara, where the jungle meets the ocean, and with a challenging hike to the lighthouse for an expansive view.  The island is also home to the largest active Buddhist temple in the world, Kek Lok Si, which is incredibly impressive and colorful.  It houses the largest statue I think I’ve seen in all my travels.  It is of Kuan Yin, the Goddess of Mercy, and stands almost 100 ft. high.  For pictures of Malaysia, click here .

All in all, I really liked Malaysia.  The scenery is memorable, the people remarkable, and the food, I’ve already told you.  If I hadn’t made plans to go to Sumatra (i.e. plane tickets) I probably would have gone to Borneo and stayed in the country longer, but plans had been made, so off to Indonesia I went.  That story is to come.

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I Get It…Southern Thailand

Monday, November 19th, 2012

There is something to be said for Southern Thailand.  Yes, it is touristy and expensive.  We’re basically talking about being in the islands here, but there is something magical about it.  It is tropical and exotic, laden with raw, uncut beauty; places where the jungle meets the coast, where limestone structures jut upwards out of the deep blue sea, where white beaches cascade as far as the eye can see, where colorful coral reef can be seen from the water’s surface.

I found the limestone structures to be stunning.  Colors of grey and tan, streaked with black and white and red.  My first sight of these structures was from the plane.  I’d flown from Saigon to Phuket, set in the Andaman Islands on Thailand’s west side.  I could see the small islands set into clear aqua blue waters.  The coral reef was visible, too.  It reminded me so much of flying into the Keys, except that the islands were mountainous and concealed in jungle, rather than flat and covered in mangroves.  These islands are much larger than any of the Keys, too.  I was excited to be in this island paradise for some time.   Ready to get my dive on, I hadn’t dove in sooo long.  Ready to experience new things.  Ready to stay in one amazing chill place for some time.  Mission accomplished.

I flew into Phuket to meet Dore at Naiyang beach, just south of the airport.  We spent one night there.  I wouldn’t recommend Phuket for those who want to get away from regular life.  It is crowded and busy, but Naiyang is a nice small town flanked by state parks with quick airport access.  Makes for a lovely stretch of beach with a bay you can snorkel in, really good seafood, fun bars.  From Naiyang, we took a communal taxi south.  I love those things.  Basically they are extended pickup trucks with benches built in.  You jump on and off at the back for a fraction of what a taxi would cost.  We ended up in Phuket Town, where we stayed for one night before catching the ferry to Koh Phi Phi.  Next time, I’ll skip Phuket town and just head to the islands.

We landed in Phi Phi Town, and decided to stay in a guest house on the far side of town.  We’d been warned that it wouldn’t be quiet, but we thought “how loud could it be?”  Well, Phi Phi Town is a party place.  Young kids getting obliviated to booming music and coming home with the sun all loud, and for myself & Dore, not one bar we wanted to hang out it.  The following morning, we took a longtail, to Rantee Beach, the small and tranquil beach on the east side of the island. A longtail is about 30 feet long.  They are the local style of boat propelled by what looks like a weed whacker run by a lawnmower motor.  They’re cool boats, with high sides, and tend to be the style that serves as water taxis.  There were two guesthouses on Rantee, each hosting one of the only 2 restaurants.  We stayed at Sunrise Bungalows, which was run by a very cool Thai man named Momo.  Depending on the tide, the bungalows were right on the beach or water’s edge.  There were some very cool people staying there, too, so it made for a great time.  If one wanted to go to Phi Phi Town, there was a challenging 45 minute hike through the woods, to the Viewpoint, and then down 350 stairs, only to come back up again.  There is a really nice coral reef just off the shore of the guest house, too.  Really beautiful soft coral, nice fish variety, including clown fish and eels.  It was great to get to snorkel in a beautiful place.  One day, a group of 8 of us took a longtail trip to 3 different spots to snorkel.  It was brilliant.

Next stop was Koh Lanta.  We went with this great couple from Hawaii whom we’d met in Phi Phi.  Unfortunately, the day we arrived Tate became really sick from something he ate, so for the three days they were there, he was bed ridden and Sasha had to hang out with us J.  Needless to say, we had a great time.  Rented motos and toured around, stopped at a waterfall, did some shopping, did some eating, watched the sunset, etc…  Lots of beautiful jungle on Koh Lanta, but must go south.

From there, our plan was to head to the Rai Leh Peninsula.  Interesting thing about this location is that the three beaches located here are cut off from the main land by a huge rock wall.  The only way to get there is by longtail, so one feels like it is an island.  What an amazing place it is.  While I’d mentioned that there is limestone everywhere, here in Krabi Provence, it is especially stunning.  Loaded with crags and crevices, holes and holds, it makes sense that this is a destination for rock climbers.  Ao Ton Sai is the northwest beach, located in a bay.  It is the backpacker beach, too.  Very cool, chill atmosphere.  Beautiful surroundings.  A nice place to spend some time.  Relatively cheap, for the islands. Plus, really good food.  Must eat at Mama’s Chicken, and try the tacos at Andaman Nature Restaurant.

The peninsula is rather small.  It was easy to circumnavigate it.  A jungle trail led from Ton Sai to Rai Leh East in about 20 minutes.   East would be considered the “town” of the peninsula; ATM’s, some resorts, some backpacker stuff, only free wifi on peninsula.  There is no beach there, only mangroves, but there is an amazing wall for climbing, and the first place I did my climbs.  Then, head west again, and find yourself in Rai Leh West.  This is where the beautiful beaches and pristine water for swimming are.  There are two bays that make up Rai Leh West, Patong Beach and West.  This side is for the big spenders, really nice resorts costing hundreds a night, so makes sense that the beach is really great, too.  For pictures of the Andaman Islands, click here.

It was here in Ton Sai that we met some amazing people and ended up hanging together for 10 days.  The cool Spaniards from Amsterdam who got me excited to climb, the Swedish ex-Army party guys, and Sasha from Hawaii.  We made for a great crew and I hope our paths cross again.  We all traveled to Koh Phangan together for the full moon party.  You know you’re getting old when drinking huge buckets of alcoholic beverages just doesn’t excite you, getting as fucked up as possible has completely lost its draw, and you’d rather be starting your day, then ending your night, when the sun comes up.  All good though.  It was fun to dance, fun to see people having a good time together, and I made it until about 2am.  I felt like I’d accomplished the full moon party.  Supposedly, there are some really nice beaches on the east side of the island, which we never made it to.  Leaving some things to explore the next time I’m on Koh Phangan, not during the full moon.

Dore and I said farewell to the crew and headed to Koh Tao to do some diving.  People had started seeing whale sharks again, and I was really hoping that we just might.  For me, that is one of the things on the “I really hope to see” list.  We didn’t, but we did do 5 dives, and it was very cool.  I felt really comfortable, we did a night dive, and it was great.  I hadn’t been on a dive vacation in years.  Chumphon Pinnacle, a reef sitting in 90-120 feet of water, was one of the best dives I’ve ever done.  The coral structure, both hard and soft, is just spectacular.  The soft coral, the anemones, and fans, and other plant life were probably the greatest number I’ve seen in one place.  On the night dive were these small plants with long leafy branches that waved in the current.  The fish life was way cool.  Saw cobia, moray eels, and a crocodile fish; blue-spotted sting rays, huge hermit crabs, and red-banded shrimp; big groupers, little groupers, and lots of kinds of parrotfish. Then, add in the clownfish, the angelfish, and all the other tropicals.  It was awesome to be diving again, and not in a mud hole looking for lobster.  Three days after I left Koh Tao, Dore dove with a whale shark.  Freaking awesome.  For pictures of the Gulf of Thailand, click here.

At this point, Dore and I said “goodbye.”  Of course, not for good.  I will see her in Sydney in a couple of months, but there is a good chance that this will be the last time we travel together like this.  What an amazing journey it has been.  Among other things, it has certainly been a testament to mine & Dore’s friendship.  When you travel with a close friend for four months straight, you get to know them really well.  For all the times that were challenging and difficult, that we argued or had to get away from each other, I’ll forever cherish our friendship, and regard our travel compatibility highly.  We did good, D.  I miss you, Sista.

I bid adieu to Dore and the islands of the Gulf of Thailand.  It was an all-day ferry and bus excursion from Koh Tao to Phuket, so that I could fly north to Chiang Mai.  Next blog, Chiang Mai, Visa Run, and Pai.

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