30 December 2011

Not From This World [Bromo, Indonesia]

The Bromo-Tengger-Semeru National Park is a completely unique part of Indonesia. I'm struggling to think of words to describe it, so bear with me. Imagine a massive basin (10kms wide) surrounded on all sides by steep cliff faces. The bottom is a flat, desolate area of sand and volcanic rock. Rising from the basin are two huge, smoking volcano's sitting side by side. The volcanic rock and the way it has formed makes the whole area seem as though it is not from this world. In the distance is one more volcano, Semeru, which shows off by blowing out massive clouds of steam at regular intervals.

We arrived to Probolinggo about 4:30pm and found a van going to the 'bus station'. Problem - they dropped us at tourist agency and told us to go in to the office. Uhhh, no, we wanted to go to the bus station! So that pissed me off, but not as much as the guys at the agency trying everything they could to take our money. Apparently all the local buses had finished for the day, but they could organise us a ride up to Cemoro Lawang (a small town overlooking the National Park) with some Indonesian tourists. But it was going to cost us IDR 50,000 each, double what the local bus costs, and probably double what the Indonesian guys were paying. Smelling a rat, I asked for directions to the local bus station and said we would find a hotel, stay the night, and catch the bus up the following day. Soon afterward they magically found some more people that wanted to go up, so now the price was only 35,000... funny that, because no one else actually joined us on the bus.

27 December 2011

Cyclo-Mania [Yogyakarta, Indonesia]

Yogyakarta is a city full of squawking birds, intense heat and lazy cyclo drivers. An interesting mix; well worth a couple of days to check out.

Red eyed and sleep deprived, we departed our uncomfortable (to put it nicely) overnight train journey from Jakarta. The first thing we did in Yogyakarta was to find somewhere to stay. Everything was really expensive, but we did manage to find a very basic place for about $6. By basic I mean that the bed did not even have a blanket, and I was sure we were going to catch something after entering the bathroom. It was rank!

22 December 2011

Clean Enough [Jakarta, Indonesia]

Jakarta is one of the most warm and friendly capital cities I have ever visited. For me, getting over the concrete sprawl and seeing the real city is easy; it is right there in the smiling faces of every person you see. While there is not many 'tourist attractions', I enjoyed every second in the city.

We arrived to the capital late, off our flight down from Medan. Even still we wandered the streets in search of cheap accommodation for about an hour. None was forthcoming, and we ended up paying $9 to stay in a room directly over an extremely noisy karaoke bar. But we were so exhausted from a huge day travelling we didn't even hear the bad Tina Turner renditions going on downstairs.

11 December 2011

Zero Orangutan [Bukit Lawang, Indonesia]

Bukit Lawang is famous for one thing - orangutan. It is a small town that is home to an orangutan rehabilitation center. Any sick animals are nursed back to health at the center, while displaced animals are released into the forest surrounding. Twice a day the rangers go into the forest and feed the semi-wild orangutan. As a tourist, you can go and watch the feeding, but there is no guarantee that the orangutan will show up. The rangers feed them a bland diet which encourages the animals to forage for themselves.

And it seems they were foraging pretty well. We went to watch two feedings, and both times no orangutans showed up. The only animals that came were a couple of cheeky monkeys. It was quite disappointing, even more so as they charge you once to get in, then again for your camera (and it is pretty expensive!). But we did experience one cool river crossing on this leaky boat.

10 December 2011

Gay Mad Max [Berastagi, Indonesia]

There is only one reason to visit the town of Berastagi in Northern Indonesia; the proximity of Mount Sibiyak; a pretty sizable volcano. There are actually two volcanoes in the area, but Sibayak is the closest and easiest to climb. That is not to say it is easy, many people have lost their lives on Sibayak. In fact there is a big list of all the people that have died in the information center, the idea is to encourage you to hire a guide. But guides are expensive, and we are highly experienced mountaineers. OK, that last bit was a lie, but we'll be fine!

The evening we arrived into Berastagi was one of the worst storms I have experienced. It was bucketing down, there were claps of thunder coming from every direction, and lightning was lighting up the sky. This concerned me for two reasons; our guest house leaked like a sieve, and that it would be too wet to go hiking the following day.

8 December 2011

Not Broken? [Lake Toba, Indonesia]

I just spent 2 days hanging out on an island. Nothing special, right? WRONG! This island is in a lake which formed in the crater of an extinct VOLCANO! I picked up a brochure on the place, and it stated that Lake Toba is probably the highest lake in the world! Probably is good enough for me; I'll claim it. The lake is bright blue in colour and crystal clear. And the island is like a tropical paradise, complete with swaying palm trees. Did I mention it is in the crater a volcano? How cool is that?

Let's back up a couple of days. Julia and I arrived to Medan in Indonesia after our short flight from Penang. The first sign we got that Indonesia is a fairly laid-back country was when the plane was pulling up to the terminal; we saw a guy asleep right on the tarmac, underneath a plane. I don't think they allow that sort of thing at Heathrow? Anyway. the visa-on-arrival process was quick and painless. In fact it was faster than most borders that do not require a visa. I think they are just after the cash.

6 December 2011

Chaos of Cultures [Penang, Malaysia]

The first thing we did after arriving in Penang was try to find information about the ferry across to Indonesia; times, prices etc. But the first guy we asked said that the ferry was no longer running. A quick check on the internet confirmed. The reason? Cheap flights had eaten up all their business. The closest port that had services to Indonesia was south of Kuala Lumpur! Not ideal.

So the options were to either get a bus down to Port Klang, then a ferry which would be expensive and very time consuming, or fly. Flying was relatively cheap and took only an hour. But this would be the first flight I had taken on this whole trip. Nine months and 43,000+ kms overland, I really did not want to fly if it was at all possible. But realistically, it wasn't; Julia and I wanted to visit places in the north of Indonesia, so to go overland (or water) would take days and cost a LOT. Plus I have already booked a flight from Bali to New Zealand just before Christmas, so I fail the overland goal anyway. I may as well fail it a couple of weeks early.

5 December 2011

Long Walk Down [Cameron Highlands, Malaysia]

The Cameron Highlands are a unique part of Malaysia. Sitting at around... well, I cant find out how high, but it is pretty high... so the climate is much cooler than most of the country. This allows plants to grow here which otherwise would not, in particular tea and strawberries. In true Malaysian style, the area is thick with lush forest, but in between the hills are covered in rows of green and golden tea. Spectacular.

We arrived in to Tanah Rata, the main travelers hub of the highlands, in the early evening. The trip up was painfully slow - the huge bus trying to navigate the thin, windy mountain roads, but extremely beautiful. We caught our first glimpses of the tea plantations, as well as the untamed forest which stretched out over the valleys. By the time we got in it was too late to go out and explore, so we found ourselves a cheapish guest house for the night.

30 November 2011

KL is the Shiz! [Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia]

Kuala Lumpur is one of the coolest capital cities I have ever visited. Friendly and relaxed, large green spaces, amazing archetecture... If you want to shop 'till your feet fall off, KL has everything from small street markets to massive malls. Get back to nature? KL is covered in greenery, and has a huge park not far from the center of town. After a bit of culture? You will find a fusion of religions, from Buddhist temples to Mosques to Churches. Want to be entertained? KL has a massive down-town entertainment district that has everything you could ever want. Seriously, KL is the shiz.

A quick run down of the spots we hit -
Chinatown. This area is the most 'touristy' and has a bit market selling your standard knock-off clothing for as much as the vendor can screw you for. There is also a couple of cool temples, Guan Di and Sri Maha Mariamman. There was some kind of Indian ceremony or celebration going on at the second one, so there were saree's everywhere!

29 November 2011

Blood Suckers [Taman Negara, Malaysia]

In my first post I mentioned that I had not really seen the Malaysian countryside, so could not comment on whether it was beautiful or not. Well I can confirm; this country is spectacular. The landscape is one colour; a thousand shades of green. With thick green forests filled with wild animals, countless kinds of vegetation, rivers and streams, all under massive towering trees. The forest just does not stop, as far as you can see, it conquers deep valleys and tall mountains. In my opinion; Malaysia rivals Laos for the most beautiful in South East Asia.

At the end of the last post Julia and I were jumping in to the back of some random guys car, with the hope of a free trip to Teman Negara. We had our fingers tightly crossed that we would not end up in small pieces in a box in the corner of a basement somewhere in Malaysia. But we were lucky enough to meet an awesome group of people and had a really good couple of days (minus the leeches. We'll get to that...).

What's the Catch? [Kota Bharu, Malaysia]

Malaysia was like a breath of fresh air after coming from Thailand. Relaxed, the locals smile at you genuinely and are not all out to take your money, there are hardly any tourists around, and the food; amazing! I can't really comment on the nature yet, as we have not seen a lot, but I am sure that is awesome too.

Let's back up a bit. In my last blog we were just leaving Krabi heading South toward Malaysia. We organised a bus through the hotel we were staying at (for way too much money), and left just after 10am. After a change of bus in town and a 30 minute wait we set off for Sungai Kolok in the south of Thailand. We had been told that the bus would arrive at around 3 or 4pm, giving us plenty of time to cross the border and get out of harms way.

28 November 2011

Mounting Monkeys [Krabi, Thailand]

Krabi reminded me a lot of the mind-blowing Halong Bay in Vietnam, except I think even more beautiful. The spotless beaches, massive limestone mountains rising from the sea, caves, stalactites, crazy monkeys... It really was one of the most spectacular places I have visited on this trip.

We arrived in Krabi early evening, off our overly expensive ferry/bus combination ticket. It actually cost less to get from Bangkok all the way down to Ko Phangan than it did from Ko Phangan to Krabi. I guess once you are on the island your options are limited... Anyway, Krabi is a bit of a difficult place to travel as it is quite spread out. You can stay in Krabi town, but there is not a whole lot there. The surrounding beaches is where it's at. The closest, Ao Nang is the least beautiful but most touristed, as it is the only beach you can access by road. We organised accommodation at the bus station for a bungalow in Ao Nang right near the ferry dock so we had easy access to the other beaches... or so we thought. We actually ended up in Ao Nammao, a small place, almost no facilities, no beach... but it was close to the dock.

Quantity over Quality [Ko Phangan, Thailand]

What do you get when you mix white sand beaches, crystal clear waters, fluro paint, pumping house music, and way too much alcohol (served to you in your own colourful bucket). Ko Phangan!

The ferry across to the small island was a perfect introduction. Cruising through smooth turquoise water under beautiful blue skies, looking out over the hundreds of tiny islands that dotted the horizon. It complimented our over excited, 'lets get loose mother goose' mood completely. We left the island through choppy seas on a shitty, rainy day. Again, matching our mood perfectly; hungover, bruised and battered.

One Night in Bangkok [Bangkok, Thailand]

And you learn really quickly that the devil probably is walking next to you; you cannot trust anyone. Especially the tuk-tuk drivers, who will lie, cheat and steal just to make a buck. But if you can get past that, this is a freakin' amazing city. With temples around every corner, crazy night markets, neon signs which fill the streets and more pubs and bars than downtown Dublin.

We arrived to the Bangkok northern bus station at about 7am, passed by the hundreds of tuk-tuk and taxi drivers yelling for our business, and jumped on a local bus into the city. 30 minutes later we were getting off the bus in Banglamphu district, the historic area (and backpacker hangout). The plan was to wander around and find some cheapish accommodation down Khao San Road or one of the streets surrounding, but after only being in the area for five minutes we were swindled by a sly tuk-tuk driver.

24 November 2011

Pit Stop [Vientiane, Laos]

Just personal opinion, but Vientaine is more of a pit stop than a tourist destination. While it is a nice city, there is just not many reasons to stick around. So we didn't, only staying one night. Excuse me if this post is a little short.

Julia and I spent some time wandering around the city, and it is really... ummm, pleasant. Nice enough, but nothing exceptional. The best part is the riverfront overlooking Thailand. We caught an amazing sunset over the river which was kinda the highlight of our stay in the city.

TUBING! [Vang Vieng, Laos]

One of the most well known activities in South East Asia, and probably the most hyped; TUBING! For those not in the know, tubing entails grabbing an inner tube and peacefully floating down a nice river. Oh, and stopping off at many of the makeshift riverside bars, drinking copious amounts of alcohol, those more adventurous souls downing a magic-mushroom shake or two, then jumping from massive swings into the river. Yes, it is as dangerous (and AWESOME) as it sounds.

Vang Vieng in a word; stunning. It is surrounded by towering limestone mountains which rise sharply from the ground, some with a small covering off trees that have managed to take hold on the steep cliff faces. In between the mountains the landscape is green and gold, with lush forests, open fields and rice paddies. Truly beautiful.

20 November 2011

Standoff [Luang Prabang, Laos]

The trip from Chiang Rai to the Laos border was quick and easy. Crossing the border, including a two minute ride across the Mekong river, was one of the most painless border crossings I have ever made, fun even. But getting from the small border town of Huay Xai to Luang Prabang was anything but quick and painless.

We arrived in Huay Xai mid morning, and rather than pay a huge commission to one of the travel agents near the border, we made our own way to the bus station to purchase an onward ticket. The bus station was localed 8kms out of the city, almost in the middle of nowhere. It was a small, muddy patch. In the centre a rundown, old building attached to a big tin shelter. VERY basic. It was before noon so we had to option of two buses leaving that day. A local bus at 2pm, and a VIP bus leaving at 5pm. Both did not seem like inviting options, the local bus arriving at around 2am, and the VIP at around 4am. (You would think a morning bus arriving in the evening, and an late evening bus arriving the following morning would be better options? Welcome to Laos). We decided on the local bus as it meant not waiting around for 3 more hours, and saved ourselves a few bucks.

14 November 2011

No Ordinary Temple [Chiang Rai, Thailand]

One thing that kinda irritates me is when a place really does not have a lot going for it, but someone decides they are going to make it into a tourist attraction. They look for a weak reason to make it famous, cheese it up a bit, put up a few statues, bang up a couple of tourist shops and voila! You have The Golden Triangle.

We arrived back in Chiang Mai late afternoon, too late to get a seat on the last bus heading toward Chiang Rai that evening. So we found ourselves a cheap guest house near the bus station and had a relaxing evening doing a whole lot of nothing.

8 November 2011

Rasta Pie [Pai, Thailand]

Pai did not disappoint. A tiny town located among mountains, forests and rivers. It is a haven for hippies and rastas, and people who like to relax in the beautiful wilderness, while possibly using a variety of mind altering substances.

We set off from our guesthouse in Chiang Mai to catch the advertised 4pm local bus (for B60). We opted not to take the guest house recommended tuk-tuk for B80, even after the owner told us what a good deal it was, and found our own one on the street for B50. It seems that you really can't trust anyone here. When we got to the bus station we were told that there were only two buses a day, and the last one left at noon, despite what it said on the big board right beside the ticket office. We ended up getting a mini-bus (B150) for the VERY windy and bumpy trip, through some amazing, lush forest.

More Buddha Than Your Body Can Handle [Chiang Mai, Thailand]

I can't remember the last time I spent 24 hours straight in transit, so a big trip was overdue. The aim was to get from Siem Reap in Cambodia to Chiang Mai in Thailand; an international border crossing and 1,100kms separated the two. We had hoped to head north without transiting through Bangkok. Mainly because of the flooding; we had heard conflicting reports about what transport was working and how badly affected the city was. But things don't always go as planned...

We set off from Siem Reap at 8am on a short three hour bus ride to the border town of Poipet. Crossing the border into Thailand was no issue, it was when we arrived the problems started. As soon as we were through customs a guy from a travel agent approached us saying he could take us anywhere we wanted to go. I was more interested in finding the local bus station and getting on a normal bus, but he said he had a bus leaving in 10 minutes for Chiang Mai and I negotiated a price of THB300 each (US$10). It turns out that people in Thailand often sell things they don't actually have...

7 November 2011

Beyond Impressive [Siem Reap & Angkor, Cambodia]

The temples of Angkor are universally famous, and probably for good reason. These impressive, huge, amazingly detailed structures have been standing for thousands of years. They are beyond impressive; they are breath-taking. And my photos really do not do them justice.

The city of Siem Reap is about 7kms from Angkor, and the place where people go to sleep, eat, drink, party etc when visiting the ruins. But it is actually a really awesome city in itself. It is a bit of a tourist trap, and quite expensive, but it has a great atmosphere and is a friendly and inviting place. There are a lot of markets (tourist and local), a nice river running through the center, friendly people. And they have those crazy fish that eat the skin off your feet!

4 November 2011

One Interesting Monk [Battambang, Cambodia]

We arrived in Battambang early afternoon with no real idea where to go or what to do. Luckily we bumper into a really nice tuk-tuk driver who helped us out. He actually even took us to a hostel for free! Sure, he was after our business, but he seemed really genuine. I felt really bad when we didn't actually use him to go anywhere.

The 'sights' in Battambang are all located outside the city. There are a couple of temples (one that Angkor Wat was based on apparently), a nice mountain complete with Buddha statue, caves and thousands of bats, and a train made from bamboo. But we didn't see any of it! The main reason; we had organised to hire a scooter for half a day, but when we went to pick it up the guy was nowhere to be found. Apparently he was out with a customer and wouldn't be back for hours. Noone else could help us. And everyone in town wanted double the price.The tuk-tuks wanted too way too much money. And we kinda needed to save a bit after my expensive hospital visit. So we just didn't go.

3 November 2011

The Worst Bus Trip EVAR! [Koh Kong, Cambodia]

Koh Kong is a beautiful area of natural wilderness, right up against the Thai border. Yes, I am planning to go to Thailand, but not for a couple of weeks yet... The massive national parks, waterfalls, animal sanctuaries and mangrove forests were the reason for travelling five hours on a ridiculously uncomfortable bus...

The bus ride really was an experience. We left Sihanoukville on a nice, comfy, air-conditioned bus, but about an hour in we needed to change bus. The staff were completely unhelpful and we had to just kind of guess when we needed to change, let alone finding the right bus to get on. And I almost wish we hadn't; it was a run down, old, rickety bus, only just holding itself together. Our seat was not attached to the floor on one side, so every time we went around a turn it would lift up like a see-saw. Just to add to the fun, the road was full of MASSIVE potholes. It was like going off-roading in a 40ft bus. Julia almost gave herself a concussion bashing her head into the window a couple of times.

31 October 2011

Backpacker Paradise [Sihanoukville, Cambodia]

Sihanoukville is a perfect beach destination. With white sand, crystal clear water and small islands dotted around the bay, you can't help but feel relaxed. Especially when the whole place (or at least the beach we visited) seems to be designed with backpackers in mind. Basically a great atmosphere, good music, cheap food and cheap beer.

We decided to only stay the one day, even though I could see myself staying for a week or more. But we had our relaxing days on the beach in Vietnam, and I am sure there will be plenty more to come in Thailand. Unfortunately time is tight, so we had to keep moving.

29 October 2011

Bone Pagoda [Phnom Penh, Cambodia]

I'm wondering how best to describe Phnom Penh, but only one word comes to mind; chaos! But a cool, friendly kind of chaos. It has a rich history and culture that covers the city in almost every direction you look. It is full of smiling faces and friendly people. Street markets and old woman with small stalls fill the side-streets; the smells and sounds of locals going about their daily lives fills the streets.

Cambodia is an intense country. Within a couple of hours of crossing the border we had to take a ferry across the Mekong. A small van pulled up beside us at the ferry port and was immediately swamped by people selling all kinds of food. I'm talking twenty or more people shoving bulging plastic bags and bunches of fruit through every available window. I think the only reason we didn't receive the same treatment was that we were sitting high up in a bus with windows that didn't open. Soon afterward there were three or four kids swimming in the ferry port (Health and Safety FTW!) completely naked. One jumps out and starts peeing everywhere. Nice.
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