Add this to your bucket list….Komodo Island, Indonesia

We were not disappointed by our flight from Lombok to Flores (via Bali). We passed several volcanoes, with perfectly round craters and numerous gorgeous islands. The whole trip we were leaning over each other to see out the window.

When we arrived in Labuan Bajo, Flores, we joined two other couples in walking to town, which was rumored to be only 20 minutes. Well, it was a bit further, so Riki and I hurried ahead to beat the incoming rain. A friendly dump truck driver stopped and offered us a ride, so we ushered our new friends into the back of the truck and were dropped off 10 minutes later in the center of town. My second dump truck ride this trip (and in my entire life).

Well Labuan Bajo is a bit of a dump, but it is the harbor for most of the boats visiting Komodo Island. Early in our planning for Indonesia, Riki asked me if I wanted to see the Komodo dragons. I said yes, not really knowing what that entailed, but assuming it was going to be an adventure.

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And an adventure it was. We booked a package deal with a travel agent for about $50 each for a 2 day/1 night boat trip, including two islands to visit the dragons and snorkeling on the second day. The fist day started out very drearily, with pouring rain when we arrived at Rinca Island, our first stop. Worried the dragons wouldn’t be out, we waited a bit for the rain to let up and then headed onto the island in search of the dragons. We were led by a guide with a two-pronged stick as his only defense against these dragons, through almost knee deep water, from the earlier downpour. After paying our almost $20 fee to visit Rinca and Komodo Islands, we were quickly rewarded with some dragon viewing.

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You can almost make out the path down there, covered in water. Komodo dragons can swim…

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At the top of a hill near the ticket booth were two large teenage males. We were told that they are usually around here because the kitchen is nearby and they can smell the food, even though the rangers never feed them. We got pretty close in my opinion. Near the kitchen, we also spotted two more Komodo dragons, who were oblivious to the rain. We had read that recently a dragon had attacked an unsuspecting ranger in an office for no apparent reason. This put us on our toes, ready to run if need be.

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“Smelling” us with his tongue

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Then we took a short trek inland with our two guides, one of whom was a tiny 17 year old girl, who looked like she would be no match for a dragon. But she had the obligatory two-pronged stick for protection. We were on the lookout for young dragons, who had just hatched and were hiding in the trees from bigger dragons (and their mothers), who eat them. We didn’t find any, but Riki spotted a large one laying in the grass in wait of some nearby monkeys.

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We continued our boat trip, and the rain decided to cooperate for the next few hours. Arriving at Komodo Island, we hired two more guides and went into the forest, where we saw many wild boars and orchids. Cool, but not that exciting.

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Beach deer

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But then, as we were taking in a nice view, our guide spotted a small-ish (was still huge in my book) dragon on the side of the hill. We got some good pics before we annoyed him and he took off down the hill.

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At the bottom of the hill, we ran into a rare sight. A massive Komodo dragon was finishing off a deer, who looked like he had been dead for quite awhile. There wasn’t much meat left, but we watched as he picked at it and then defended it against the same smaller dragon we had seen up the hill.

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It is quite funny to see deer on a beach, but it seems like a good idea, as you can see the dragons coming better than in the forest.

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We anchored in a bay with many other boats and watched as giant fruit bats emerged from the trees and swarmed in front of the most amazing sunset we’ve seen (in awhile).

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Komodo Village where we stopped to buy a part for our generator
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Village on Komodo
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Soaked, but happy

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Day two promised to be just as amazing. Despite our boat’s generator conking out and sleeping in the stifling heat in our cabin and a rat rifling through our belongings at 3 am, the sun was out and the temperature was warm, a stark contrast from the previous day.

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Our first stop, at Pink Beach, was at 7 am, and the water was cold. The beach is pink though, as its name implies. Red coral has been ground up and washed ashore. We saw a couple of fish while snorkeling, but nothing amazing. We didn’t stay long and continued on to Manta Point for our next stop.

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Parrot fish
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Flips
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See? Pink
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Camo fish

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And we were heavily rewarded. The current is strong at Manta Point and giant mantas like to clean themselves on the rocks in relatively shallow and very clear water. We were dropped by our boat and able to drift over at least 7 giant manta rays, who were just hanging out on the bottom of the sea. They were a few meters wide and so strange. Their mouths are like small, smooth caves and they almost seem more like plants then animals, until you see them swim.

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Giant manta
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Another manta. It was tough trying to swim against the current to stay above them
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Staying on the surface
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One of our crew – see the manta beyond?
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More Riki flips

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We had thought about diving here, but my ear has been bothering me so snorkeling was the only option. It was just as well. With the snorkeling, we were able to drift over top the mantas, get picked up by the boat, brought back up-current and able to drift a second time to spot more manta rays. We even saw more sharks, but only 2 meters long this time.

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Native (and possibly endangered) sea eagle – not sea gull
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Spotted this turtle from the boat and Riki was quick enough to get a picture
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Our little boat

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Our last stop was even better. Kanawa Island has a “resort” where we had looked to stay, but it costs something like $50 for a shabby bungalow. The snorkeling here is amazing though. We hopped in the warm water and immediately saw thousands of fish and beautiful, healthy coral. I spied a blue spotted ray and Riki showed me a “baby” reef shark who was hanging around the beach. He was over a meter, but we chased him around trying to get a good picture. There’s something I never thought I would do – chase a shark.

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Tons of these sea stars
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Anemone fish
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Giant clams
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Nerds
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“Baby” shark – 4 feet at least

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What a successful trip. Completely satisfied, we headed back to shore to arrange for our bus trip the next day further east to Ruteng.

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Cloudy back in Labuan Bajo

Turtles on Gili Trawangan….Lombok, Indonesia

We arrived in Lombok pretty late at night and had to take a taxi over an hour north to the coastal town of Senggigi, a touristy area closer to the jumping off point for our next diving expedition. The price, less than $20. The reason we are in Asia. Everything is much cheaper. We were trying to calculate what that kind of taxi would cost in Zurich. Probably more than the $100 we spent on two plane tickets.

The next day, Riki got it in his head that he would like to learn to surf. And surf he did. He was able to get up on the third try. The area was over some reefs, but it was a good place to learn, as the waves were small so you wouldn’t get pummeled or smashed against the reefs.

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We took the public ferry out to Gili Trawangan the next day, where we had scheduled our Advanced Open Water diving course. This is the most popular of the three islands in the area, so it has the most options for accommodation and food. Not our normal style, but the dive company was here and since it is the low season, it wasn’t too crowded.

An unfortunate thing about Gili Trawangan (for Riki) is that there are no motorized vehicles or dogs. While that sounds lovely in theory, he’s allergic to the horses that pull the numerous carts of people and goods around the island. Oh, and much to my delight, the island is overrun with cats, who lounge unpestered by their canine counterparts. So we waited a day for his congestion to clear before diving.

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We walked around the island, which is only a few hours distance, and up to a lookout point. The view was amazing, with crystal clear water and tons of boats. Of course, on the way down, we got lost and ended up following a herd of cows back to town. That evening, we went to a Swedish place and Riki ordered a meatball sandwich with gravy. When it arrived, the meatballs were mysteriously missing, but the gravy was bright pink. How can you forget the Swedish meatballs?

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This horse did not want to get out of the water.
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View towards Lombok
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Nice view
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The cows we followed back to town
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Found a solar array while lost.

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We spent the next two days doing 5 dives to complete our course. We achieved perfect buoyancy, navigation and a night dive on the first day. We spotted a reef octopus that was puffing and changing from brown to white and back to brown, possibly as a warning to us. I wish we had a video of it. The night dive, which was on a wreck had incredibly strong currents and was rather terrifying. Besides the small light from your torch, you are in the middle of a pitch black ocean, with who knows what lurking just out of sight. There was not a whole lot of life, but the redeeming part was spotting a massive turtle swimming very close and then away. We were also able to turn off our torches for a moment and experience the green phosphorescent plankton swirling around us. As we ascended we were greeted by hundreds of gooey, yet spiky worm-like creatures attracted to our lights. I was quite worried they were getting stuck in my hair. The boat crew and our instructor had never seen anything like them before.

Our second day, we completed a deep dive (30m) and a fish identification dive. We were able to bring a camera to take pictures and identify the fish later using a book. We spotted another octopus and tons of turtles. We were even able to see two turtles surface and return, which they don’t do very often. They are incredibly majestic creatures.

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Surfacing turtle
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Scuba selfie
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A bit close
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Trying to sleep
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Turtle AND an octopus
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Turtle and octopus
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They didn’t look very happy
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LOOK FISH!
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Loads of fish
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Lots of turtles
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Advanced Divers – we have cards to prove it and everything

I was having some ear problems, so we decided not to stick around and booked a flight to Labuan Bajo, Flores to see the Komodo dragons in their natural habitat. We opted to fly, though it was $78 each plus $5 in baggage fees, as the alternative was either a 24 hour bus/ferry combo or a 4 day boat ride with a history of capsizing. Plus, we were looking forward to some amazing views.

Central Java Temples….Yogyakarta, Indonesia

I already could tell that a one month visa in Indonesia was not going to be enough. We spent only one full day in Jakarta before taking the train to Yogyakarta to check out some temples. At this point we didn’t have much of a plan, but spent the first day wandering around the Sultan’s palace and neighboring water palace. And this is a current sultan. Yogyakarta still has a sultan, though he acts much like a governor. Yogyakarta was the capitol when the Dutch re-invaded Jakarta after the Japanese were expelled in 1945. So it has an interesting history, but is not nearly as crowded or busy as Jakarta.

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Lots of good art on walls, streets, buildings, cars and even elephants- though they were painting them white when we walked by.

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There were tons of cool little streets to get lost in, and we were very turned around by the time we were ready to leave the palace area. Two people had told us there was a parade, so we high-tailed it north to Malioboro to check it out. But when we arrived at the Visitor’s Center, they had no idea what we were talking about. Looks like we were being scammed. Luckily, we didn’t pay for a ride or any information, so we were no worse for the wear.

Those two people, however, also told us about a studio with Batik painting. Hesitantly, we walked to the studio to see if that too was a scam. It was not. There is a school/studio that is only open 2 days a week and has an incredible selection of Batik paintings. Batik is done with wax on cloth. The negative section is painted with wax and the rest is dyed. This can be done many times, with many colors, for a variety of effects. The paintings were a range of styles, colors and prices, from $1 to “you don’t want to know.” Of course, I had my eye on a giant one right by the door, by a Batik master (not student), but it was just too big (and expensive). The salespeople were more than happy to sell us a smaller version by the same artist for around $50. It took us about an hour to decide on the perfect one, and I think we made the right choice.

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Our latest purchase – anyone want to make us a frame?

We walked back to our hostel in time for an afternoon rain shower, which was to become a staple of our next few days.

Our second day, we got up at 6 am. To visit a temple. Yes, I know. We do this too much. But Riki is very keen on beating the crowds. It took about two hours by public transport to get to Prambanan, a massive Hindu temple just outside of town, because we had to switch buses a few times and the morning ones seem to be a bit slow. But it cost about $1 for both of us, roundtrip.

The temple was really impressive, and we were immediately offered a free guided tour by some trainees needing to practice. Prambanan is a UNESCO site and was built around the 9th century. It’s pretty impressive with its 150′ main tower. It was in rubble when re-discovered in the 1800’s and wasn’t properly reconstructed until the Dutch took over the project in 1930. It originally had over 200 temples within its complex, though most were relatively small. Only about 20 have been reconstructed. The rest lay in rubble around the perimeter.

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Our tour guides – needed a picture to prove they had practiced.

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We took a free “train” 5 minutes away, complete with billowing smoke from its stack. There is another temple nearby, Candi Sewu, not in nearly as good of shape though. It is a Buddhist temple, from about 70 years before Prambanan. It is the second largest Buddhist temple in Indonesia (the largest we visited next). While we waited for the next “train” to return, we explored a museum about the restoration efforts, though all the captions were in Indonesian, so it was a quick visit.

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The “train” – from travelsort.com

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We returned to town and walked to the bird market, amid the pouring rain. There, among numerous birds of many bright colors, I was surprised to see a cat in a cage and commented to Riki how sad it was that there was a cat in a cage. His response was priceless, “Of course its in a cage, you don’t want to let a cat free at a BIRD market.” Of course not.

Unfortunately, we found many more cats, and dogs, rabbits, lizards and other equally unamused animals for sale. It was a dreary place (partly because of the rain) and a bit of a depressing way to end the day.

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Baby owl, who probably should have been sleeping, not being pestered by people all day.

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The sun came out the next day though, and we once again hopped on the public bus to visit Borobudur, the largest Buddhist temple in Indonesia AND the world. It was built in the 9th century and has over 2,000 reliefs and 500 Buddhas.

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It was an impressive structure, but for some unexplained reason, everyone had to wear skirts, even the women already wearing skirts, and men. Made for some great photos.

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Capturing Riki in a skirt for Instagram

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We were told there were 5 kms of relief sculptures. Not sure if this is accurate, but there were lots. And we looked at most of them, which took about 2 hours. There were some incredible renditions of complex boats and very detailed animals.

A British guy decided to recreate one of the boats depicted in the reliefs. He was successful and within the last few years, sailed it to Madagascar, a route they believed was done by the people at the time of Borobudur’s construction. The boat is on display just outside the temple complex and looks pretty sea-worthy – with typical “crutches” sticking out from the side of the boat, as they still use here to help with stability.

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Kids didn’t have to wear skirts.
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Everybody wants a picture. We must be all over Indonesian Facebook.

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We spent a pretty long time wandering around the concentric rings of reliefs.

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“Alright Riki, its been two hours already. Let’s go.”

We made it back to the bus stop in time for the afternoon downpour and continued back to Yogyakarta to book our plane ticket for the following evening.

Before we had to check out the next day, we went on a walk through some of the little streets that are everywhere in Yogyakarta. They may be my favorite part of this city. None are straight and you never know what will be around the next corner. One time, we ended up on the edge of a small rice field, surrounded completely by houses. We also stumbled across the shoe-making district and peered inside small buildings to watch people cut leather.

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These girls didn’t even have a camera – they just wanted us to have their picture and then ran giggling down the road.

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We took the public bus yet again, to the airport this time, to catch our flight to the island of Lombok, just on the other side of Bali. Yes, we are skipping Bali. Too much else to see.

Riki’s first trip over the equator….Jakarta, Indonesia

We took a 1.5 hour minibus to the Phuket airport from Phang Nga, which was uneventful, except for the rude guy who took up two seats and then spilled his coke all over the floor. We were very early for our 7 pm flight, but the airport had free wifi and we were able get some research done and I even finished a few blogs. The Phuket airport was packed with tourists, which made for very interesting people-watching. We had plenty of time to explore, but this also meant we needed to eat. Having depleted our snacks, we went to a ‘New York deli’ and tried to order a chicken sandwich.

Sorry, no bread.

Ok, but you have panini bread, can I have it on panini bread?

No, set menu.

Ok, but you don’t have a chicken panini.

No.

So I can’t get chicken on panini bread?

No, set menu.”

My only other option was a sliced meat resembling ham, so we left and I decided to break my super-chain rule and went to DQ for some ice cream. But then the guy in front of me had a very similar problem. He wanted a chocolate sundae, but they didn’t have any more plastic cups for the sundaes. But they had ice cream, and chocolate, and paper cups of the same size. But they couldn’t put the sundae in the paper cup because that was only for blizzards. So he left. I ordered a mango and sticky rice blizzard and was thankful I even got to eat.

Arriving in Jakarta at 10 pm, we had arranged for our hostel to pick us up as the public transport options were not available that late. We paid our $35 visa fee (which is being suspended later this month, just a few weeks too late for us) and went out to find our driver. But he wasn’t there. Eventually, we got in contact with the hostel, they called the driver, woke him up, and he hurried over to collect us. Not a great intro to Jakarta.

Luckily, the next day was much better. Many people skip Jakarta, as it is big, bustling and hectic. Fortunately, that’s right up our alley. We arranged for our train to Yogyakarta the next day and then headed out to wander the neighborhoods around our hostel. Jakarta has some Dutch influence from when it was an influential trading center in the 18th century.  It was later occupied by the Japanese in 1942.  The Dutch tried to return after the Japanese fell in 1945.  They were met with resistance, but still managed to prolong Indonesia’s independence until 1949.  Indonesia is now made up of thousands of islands with many different cultures.

Within minutes of leaving our hostel to explore the neighborhood, we had heard “Hey mister” a dozen times and were a bit perplexed. Where did they learn this? Why not just “Hello.” So nobody was talking to me, just Mister (Riki). It was a bit strange. But we soon realized that this was all in a friendly way – nobody wanted to sell us anything or scam us. Just a greeting. Big smiles, lots of waving and many curious looks. Not many tourists walk the small alleys there.

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Poor frogs – alive, but shackled together

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Then we walked to the old center, around a very crowded square (as it was Saturday – it was packed with locals) and where we were less noticed. Locals were renting bikes which came with matching sun hats to pedal around the plaza and take pictures.

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Old Dutch bridge
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Not a job I’d want – the water is very polluted
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This waterway was particularly odorous
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Old town plaza
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Bikes with matching hats
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There must be loads of pictures of us on Indonesian Facebook. We get stopped every day to take pictures, so we get one for ourselves as well.

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We navigated back to a big bus stop and found our way south to the National Museum.

This museum may be worth it in itself to visit Jakarta. We arrived only 2 hours before closing, and we had to hurry through to see everything. It is very well laid out, with different sections for all the different cultures of Indonesia. I had no idea they were so different. It was a great introduction to the country for us, complete with good English translations. We have been to so many terrible museums on this trip, but this one is incredible. And it costs less than $1 for foreigners. A favorite section had miniature models of all the different kinds of houses around the countries.

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But there were sections on language, music, religion and clothing as well. The penis sheaths being particularly amusing.

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The next day we took a walk around a neighborhood that was heavily affected by the riots in 1998.  After the Asia financial crisis in 1997, Jakarta became an epicenter for violence and crime.  At one point, four students were shot by security officers at a university.  This sparked riots that lasted for four days, damaged about 6,000 buildings and killed about 1,200 people.  There is not much left to see now, but we did notice that many neighborhoods still have tall gates at each street, presumably to curtail the spread of violence.

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Big gate

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We then headed to the train station for our 8.5 hour trip to Yogyakarta, which was smooth, but incredibly uncomfortable on hard seats that were very upright.

Secret Agent Island….Phang Nga, Thailand

Our last stop in southern Thailand is Phang Nga, not to be confused with the locale of the Vietnamese caves we so greatly admired – Phong Nha.

It was a torturous 86 kms from Krabi to Phang Nga. In the States, that could probably be done in about an hour, with smooth roads the whole way. Not so here. We first had to take a minibus to a travel agent’s station, where we were dumped in with a hundred other tourists going to a dozen different locations. And waited for an indeterminate amount of time. Everyone else had stickers on their shirts, but not us. As we were the only ones headed to Phang Nga, we were eventually squashed into a very hot and cramped minibus with others going past Phang Nga to Phuket. Riki’s prickly heat was not amused. We stopped after 30 minutes so the crazy driver, who sped up around turns, could eat lunch. No one else ate. Then we were back on the road and deposited at the local bus station after almost 3 hours.

Phang Nga is not known for hosting many tourists. And it shows. Our air-conditioned hotel was not really up to the standards for its Bangkok price of over $15. We opted for a/c to cool the prickly heat and planned on a luxurious few days in the chill enjoying our hot water, mini fridge and TV. Well, the hot water didn’t work, the fridge was less than luke warm and the TV only had a two channels in English (Nat Geo – which only has fishing shows and a strange movie channel with an intense delay between picture and sound). But we weren’t here for the hotel room.

We were here to take a whole day boat trip to see some amazing and gorgeous islands, that have been inhabited for thousands of years.

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Very old cave paintings

Our boat trip was a bit dampered by three rambunctious boys in our boat, but the scenery more than made up for their antics. To sum it up: Rule #1 of parenthood should be: never buy your children noise makers (especially on a 10 passenger boat).

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Our boat

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We visited the James Bond Island, where The Man With the Golden Gun was shot.

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Classic pose
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Another classic pose

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At the end, we stopped at a village where the only thing on dry ground is the mosque and the cemetary. The rest is unfortunately, tourist shops and a cool floating “stadium.” They also had massive cats, no dogs.

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Floating stadium
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Just think about trying to learn a bike when this is your only road, 20 feet above water/mud with no railing.

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I also discovered sticky rice with mango, coconut milk and little seeds. Why I never tried this before is beyond me. I ate as many as I could. We also discovered a million dollar idea – popsicles dipped in unflavored gellatin to keep them from melting. Genius. And delicious.

We visited the Heaven and Hell cave, which has some gory scenes outside and an awesome dragon walkway/entrance. Unfortunately, the lights weren’t on and we couldn’t go into the cave very far.

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Screw threw her belly – definitely not a heaven image

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At the same location is a nice view of the area, or so we heard. Our ascent to the viewpoint was hindered by a horde (flock, gaggle, herd, etc) of mean monkeys, who bite, or so we were told. I had to leave my little bag of snacks at the entrance, or risk being bitten by these aggressive guys. Riki was too afraid to take out his camera and attract their attention, but we were 30 feet from the top with a Thai man and his sister, when we realized there would be no passing these red-faced creatures. Riki’s fear of heights kicked in, and rightfully so, as the concrete stair seemed unsupported with a rather short guardrail. We raced back down, single file, with me practically stepping on Riki’s feet trying to avoid the monkey who was at my elbow. We did get a photo at the bottom, before collecting my bag and walking back to town.

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Calm little guy after chasing us down the steps
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One of these is real. And mean.

Other news – our last day was the Princess’ birthday. Everyone was wearing purple (her birthday color) and we heard there were blood donor centers and free haircuts. Riki got a free haircut, but it was using my second grader scissors in our bathroom where the sink drains to the floor and the drain is across the room, so every time you walk in, you step in toothpaste. Genius.

Next stop: Phuket Airport for a quick flight to Jakarta, Indonesia.

 

Back on the mainland….Krabi & Railay Beach, Thailand

The island of Koh Tao was a bit too touristy for our liking, so we hopped on a catamaran ferry and headed back to the mainland for some peace. No crazy travel story, besides the normal day long trip – taxi, ferry, switch ferries, bus, minibus. We arrived in the town of Krabi, in southern Thailand in time for dinner. Krabi is not overrun with tourists, but it is a jumping off point for some islands and has an airport, so it is more bustling than we expected. However, it was very badly damaged by the tsunami in 2004. It is mostly rebuilt and has an interesting collection of artwork lining its waterfront.

We went to the night market and scoped out the food before deciding that the Mexican food at our hostel would be a nice change from rice and noodles. It wasn’t very Mexican – my burrito was more like a taco, but the flavors were close and sometimes you just can’t eat any more noodles.

We spent the next day researching for our next stop, Indonesia and catching up on the blog. Our hostel only had fan rooms, and ours had no outside window. This hot combination proved to reignite Riki’s prickly heat and we spent as much time as possible under any available fan.

The next morning, we joined some other tourists for a long tail boat trip to Railay Beach. It is not an island, but is only reachable by boat because of the rock formations surrounding it.  This is a popular climbing place, and no amount of convincing was going to get me to try that (my lack of upper body strength and Riki’s “fear of heights” prevailed). I’d rather go diving.

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We did however find a viewpoint and lagoon to climb to. And climb we did. There were ropes and dirt involved, and at one point a lost flipflop (yes, we were in sandals). It was enough climbing for us.

This beach was also very hard hit by the tsunami and Riki spent a good hour looking at videos from the area later. Take a look, they are incredible. It’s a beautiful spot, but full of tourists. Not really our scene. Back to Krabi that evening, which has a nicer mix of locals and foreigners.

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There is a crazy video of this beach during the tsunami on youtube.
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Climb down to the lagoon
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Very steep descent (and ascent later where Riki dropped his flip flop)
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Food stall

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And an artsy shot:

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Next stop: Inching closer to the Phuket airport at Phang Nga.

 

Swimming with shark(s)….Koh Tao, Thailand

We took the morning long tail boat back to Ranong, Thailand, where we switched to a songthiew and then to a minibus headed to Chumphon. We had planned to take a night ferry from there to Koh Tao, but arrived just in time to catch the afternoon high speed catamaran instead. The night ferry sounded pretty uncomfortable, but we thought it would take much longer to cross the Isthmus of Kra. We forgot we were in Thailand, where the buses are pretty reliable and you don’t have to wait very long to go anywhere. But then the boat left 45 minutes late anyway, so you never know.

The first stop of the boat was pretty jarring. We approached Nang Yuan, a small group of islands connected by isthmuses of beach. It was a beautiful setting, so Riki went up top to check it out. While he was gone, hundreds of tourists got on the boat, overflowing the aisles in their matching hats, shirts and even shoes, the first of whom yelled “where’s the champagne?” as soon as he got on the boat. We’re not in Myanmar anymore. Luckily, it wasn’t far to our stop, Koh Tao. We were a day early for our scheduled accommodation, so we stayed near the pier at a cheap place, while we cruised the little roads jam-packed with tourist shops, dive centers and restaurants. We saw more Westerners than Thais, but also a surprising number of people from Myanmar. A complete contrast to our quiet week on Koh Chang.

The next day we checked into a dive center’s hotel and then went on a hike, over the mountains to the deserted resort on the other side of the island. It was pretty eerie, as this resort has been closed only a few years, so is mostly intact, except for missing windows, furniture and a few thatched roofs.

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That afternoon we started our open water class. We were introduced to the course and then watched some videos with two other students. It was a bit intimidating, as Riki and I were both a bit apprehensive about diving. After, we were given homework to complete for the morning. It wasn’t hard, but it took a brain shift to read and answer questions again. Not something we’ve done in quite a while.

On our first full day, we met in the morning to go over our homework and watch more videos. These included a lot of safety info, as well as procedures for ascending, descending and how to use all the gear. That afternoon, we took a boat out to the island, Nang Yuan, the same island where the hoards of tourist had boarded our ferry. We did a swim test, involving swimming around the boat three times and then floating for 10 minutes. We passed.

We then proceeded with our “confined” dive, which for us was in open, but very calm water. Everyone had neglected to tell us that while this sounds very easy, it is actually terrifying. The water was shallow and at no point could we not have surfaced, but just being under the water and breathing from a small hose was a shock to our senses. Plus, my goggles were fogged almost the entire time, so I couldn’t see more than just blurry shapes in front of me. Oh, and I had some problems getting one of my ears to pop, despite being only a few meters down. Riki ran out of air first (probably all that heavy breathing to calm down), so we headed to the surface for some more exercises.

Day 2, we met in the morning to go over our homework and take the final exam. We passed. Then we headed back on the boat to the same area for our first real dive. This went better than anticipated. We were able to relax a bit and swim around without freaking out. It was still really intimidating to be so far under water and there’s always that little urge to look around for sharks in the back of my mind (or front). We saw a porcupine pufferfish, a white-eyed moray eel and a ton of small fish and sea cucumbers.

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Day 3 began at 6 am with a longer and very choppy ride to a deeper dive site. As we arrived, the boats already there were signalling shark. For me, that means, no way in hell am I getting in the water, but we had learned that this particular shark, the whale shark, was not a danger to us and doesn’t eat humans. I just told myself it was a whale, not a shark. So we were rushed into the water, which was not great since we were still very new to the process of getting everything ready and buddy checks and whatnot. Within a few minutes, we spotted a 4-5m whale shark, with tons of smaller (but still big) fish circling it. It was a pretty magestic sight. Apparently, this was a small one and they can get much, much bigger. It was still immense to me. The whale shark swam above us and rather than following it around like many other divers, we went off to explore the rest of the reef.

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We saw so many beautiful fish, coral and things I can not yet identify. Luckily, we had a videographer with us that day, so we can share some of the images. It was like something out of Planet Earth, or the underwater equivalent TV show.

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The whale shark didn’t make another appearance, so we ascended into big swells and boarded the boat for our second dive in calmer waters. Same same, beautiful marine life in clear water.

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I think we were supposed to flip more, Riki got close.
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I didn’t quite get far enough around.
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Riki is double OK. (not thumbs up – that means go up to the surface)
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There we are.
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I found some fish.
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High jump
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SHARK!

We met up that night to watch the video from that day and say goodbye to our group, as we had booked a ferry back to the mainland for the next day.

I really must thank Riki’s parents (mostly mom) for convincing us to try diving. We had both kind of shouldered it off as something we didn’t really want to do. But we were very pleasantly surprised, once we got over the kind of claustrophobia of being attached to an air hose while under 18m of water. And we were very lucky, it takes some people thousands of dives to see a whale shark. We reached the pinnacle of our diving career on dive 3. Its all downhill from here.

Next stop, Krabi, Thailand, to see some beaches and eat some good curry.

Life’s a beach….Myanmar to Ranong & Koh Chang, Thailand

We were told to report for our 14:15 flight at 11:00 in the morning. 3 hours early for a 45 minute flight. Ok, no problem. We arrived at the tiny airport right on time and attempted to follow the other passengers into the “terminal” (code for low brick building with little kiosks and one metal detector). No luck, we were turned back at the police checkpoint and told to wait outside for an undisclosed amount of time. Well, it was hot and sitting on the curb wasn’t much fun, so we kept asking if we could go in and showed them on our ticket where it said 11 am. Finally, they relented and we were able to enter the building, and at least sit in broken plastic chairs until we could check in. When we were finally able to check in, we put our bags on a massive, ancient scale (which said they weighed 7 something, couldn’t have been kilos or pounds as our bags are more in the 12-15 kg range) and were ushered to the immigration counter, where a very nice man who spoke pretty good English questioned us and painstakingly wrote down our names (they haven’t figured out what is surname and what is not in Myanmar, so we are often times referred to by our middle names). Then we waited some more before being lined up for the security check. I don’t know why they even bother with the metal detector. Every single person in front of us kept their wallets and/or phones in their pockets and set off the machine. And then they had an official use the beeping wand over everyone. I didn’t set off the machine, but they still used the wand. It was madness and took forever to get through the 50 people who were boarding the plane. The plane was on time, and we took our premium seats at the front of the full flight. And then it was lovely. We had a pretty good view of the Mergui archipelago and followed our map as we flew over island after island. I leaned over Riki the whole way to see out the window. Nobody spoke English, but we were given shortbread cookies and Cokes. Wonderful contrast. Nothing like the night buses (or the 12 hour ferry we opted to forgo).

Arriving in Kawthong on the border of Thailand, we hitched a ride in a strange motobike side car vehicle and were dropped off at the pier, where we were promptly scammed from the getgo. The only way across the border is by boat, which is supposed to cost a few dollars and take about 20 minutes (we know, we read up on it). Well, first we wanted to change all our kyat to baht, buy a bottle of Myanmar rum and then go to immigration. A guy followed us around the whole time, warning that the border was going to close (it wasn’t) and that we should get on the boat right away. He found a guy who would change our money and then he followed us to the immigration counter where we were stamped out and then told to go get our stamps photocopied in town. So of course our little shadow showed us where conveniently, we could photocopy our passports right across the street. When we returned to the immigration desk to hand in our copy, I gave the guys at the desk an earful. They had a copier on the desk (said it didn’t work) and they had a passport scanner. They also had a little camera and high-tech software. They didn’t need a physical copy. Such a waste of trees. While Riki was fretting that they would put us in jail for causing a scene, I reasoned that we already had our exit stamp so there wasn’t much they could do. I’m not sure they understand all the scolding and pointing anyway. We took our boat and were packed in with 8 other Myanmar people. We went through at least two checkpoints and were finally on the Thai side (an hour later and quite a few dollars more than expected), where the immigration was painless and straightforward and free.

After hailing a songtheaw, we arrived in the town of Ranong and checked into a basic hotel for a night before heading back to the pier for a boat to Koh Chang the next day. Koh Chang was just what we needed, some quiet  beach time. It is full of older German people, who come every year and leave their books behind. I managed to find some English ones and read on average one a day for 5 days. Like Koh Ta Kiev in Cambodia, this island only had power from 6-10pm. It does have at least one restaurant with wifi though.

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So we played cards, went swimming and walked around the island. The food was really good, reasonably priced for an island and we drank our bottle of Myanmar Rum. The island is full of cashew trees and rubber trees. Having never seen these up close, we were delighted to find that when it dries, rubber comes out of the tree just like rubber bands. That entertained us for longer than it should. Cashews grow on a tree (who knew) and have a very strong smelling fruit attached, part of which is poisonous (or sour, depending on who you ask).

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Cashew fruit

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The tides on Koh Chang were immense, possibly the combination of the new moon and the equinox at the same time? In the early morning, we had to walk for a few minutes to reach the water. By 11 am, it was a few seconds from our bungalow. The water was warm, calm and the beach was fascinating with fine black sand mixed with chunky white sand.

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Same boat

We also discovered a friendly bird species, the hornbill, who would come hop around in the trees near our bungalow. They were huge and looked like a toucan with a protrusion on the top of its bill.

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Our first evening, we were minding our own business playing cards at the restaurant, when a small lizard landed on Riki’s leg. Apparently, they fall asleep and then fall from their upside down perches. Not 5 minutes later, I was putting the water bottle back on the table, when a huge lizard jumped from the roof onto the bottle, knocking it over and shocking both me and himself (as I assume he then realized the water bottle was not a giant bug) before hopping back up to the roof. We saw a few more like this big one, great colors.

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We also spotted another Iguanadon (monitor lizard?) later in the week, but we didn’t have the camera. So we spent the days reading in hammocks, drawing maps (Riki), writing Myanmar blogs to be posted later (me), sewing patches on our bags (both), wandering the island, and just generally avoiding the sun (as most people do at the beach, right?). And developing prickly heat (Riki) – a local term for heat rash. Riki saw a cat eat a lizard.

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We witnessed the highest tide of the year, which flooded the paths and made crossing an already precarious bridge, even more so. It was just what the doctor ordered, except for the prickly heat. During this time, we were convinced by a few people (mostly Riki’s mom) to try scuba diving. So we arranged for an open water class and headed off to Koh Chang to the other side of the Isthmus of Kra.

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Making friends
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Friends made
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Saving little fish that were washed up on the dock
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Water came up over the dock
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Flooded paths
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Blogging in our bungalow
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Blue wasp
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Sea creature or fuzzy coconut?
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Funny land fish

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Finding the real Myanmar….Dawei

This night bus to Dawei left Mawlamyine at 6:30 pm and was pretty promising as the seats were pretty comfortable and were camouflaged. Felt really American. The only downside to this one was arriving at 4:30 am. This of course we did not know ahead of time and were reluctant to leave the bus when it was so dark out. Luckily, we had called ahead to a hotel and after a few poundings on the door from our driver, we awakened the desk clerk who checked us in and showed us to our room. We napped a few hours but still managed to wake up in time for breakfast. Our best so far – rice soup, eggs and bread. We met an American couple from Idaho and decided to follow their plan of heading south down the peninsula to some fishing villages and a pagoda, via motorbike.

First though, we went in search of a boat company to book our ferry down to the Thai border crossing. After walking in circles, we had found three companies all offering pretty much the same thing, a $70 12-hour trip, leaving town at midnight to catch the boat at 4:30 am. Pretty crazy, but we wanted to take the boat to see the mysterious Mergui archipeligo that is incredibly expensive to visit otherwise. So boat it was (and you can’t go by bus yet – not allowed for tourists). We returned to the first company (isn’t that how it always goes) because their English was better and seemed more professional. In the process of buying the ticket, we discovered that we could pay in US dollars and since we had stocked up on these before coming to Myanmar, and had yet to use any, and we were running low on Myanmar kyat, Riki took the motorbike back to the hotel to get them. While he was gone, I started chatting to the lady and discovered that for a mere $1 (yes, one) more, we could fly, on a 45 minute flight in premier class (whatever that meant) and arrive earlier. Seemed like a no-brainer. Spare you guys the joy of reading 1,000 words about how miserably long the boat ride was too (and the next day a ferry capsized near Mrauk-U and about 40 people were killed).

Plans all changed we continued south and poked around a fishing village before running into the Americans near a pagoda out on the water.

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Now I’m not sure if it was the combination of knowing we weren’t taking a tremendously long boat ride, actually getting enough sleep after a night bus, or the shear beauty of the landscape, but I found the Myanmar I had been looking for. Sounds corny, but as we walked the length of the bridge to the almost-island (peninsula, I know, but it didn’t feel like that) pagoda, the water was clear, the people were friendly, and it just hit me. Everyone along the way had been waving and had the biggest grins to see us coming. Maybe they weren’t annoyed with tourists yet or its just the southern nature, because they get more sun and get to live along this beautiful coast.

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The girls just love Riki (though in this case it may have been his shirt)

We met up with the Americans at a beach and were joined by 5 rambunctious boys who spoke a few words of English, but were mostly interested in running and jumping in the sand and water, which was incredibly warm.

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But you can’t have all that good, and not even it out with something bad. Just my travel karma talking. On our way back to join our new friends for a cold draft beer, we popped a tire. But within minutes of stopping along the road, 6 people on bikes had stopped and a small truck. Two groups were basically fighting over who would help us. Two students won and one took the bike with Riki on it down the road a minute to a small hut, while I rode with the other one. The hut was closed but student #1 managed to find the owner and get him to fix our tire. This involved taking the whole thing off as it was beyond patching, with a three inch tear straight across. Too hot, he said. Or two big Americans it couldn’t handle the weight. Student #2 (I feel bad, but I don’t think we got their names) spoke some English and was interested to know if we were Christians (I let Riki answer that one) as he was and his friend was Buddhist. It would have been great to hear more about that, but the language barrier was too big. Student #1 took Riki next door to the shop that conveniently had spare inner tubes for $2.10. He even paid 10 cents for the tube when Riki was too slow with his money and refused to be paid back. The guy fixing the tire requested 70 cents for the 30 minutes of work he put in, but I gave his wife the change after he refused the 30 cents extra I didn’t want back. The students didn’t leave us until we were back on our bike and headed in the right direction.

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And they wanted a picture with Riki too.

It was dark by the time we left and we missed the draft beer, but had an amazing display of generosity to replace it.

The next day we once again rented a motorbike and set off on another ambitious journey, to reach a beach further down the peninsula. We got about 45 kilometers down, right around where we were supposed to be and decided to head west toward the beach. An hour through some rather treacherous terrain, with me getting off the bike occasionally so Riki could get up or down a steep hill, we ditched the bikes when we ran into some locals who told us we could go no further with them. We headed up a trail, closely followed by some men and women carrying enormous loads on their heads. We were a bit worried about getting back as the other couples’ bike had overheated just as we had stopped, and ours seemed to guzzle fuel, so when we got a good viewpoint and realized how far the beach still was, we returned to our bikes, chalking it up to just a hike in the woods, without the rewarding swim at the end.

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A bit exhausted, we finally got our cold draft Myanmar beers.

On our last day, we walked around town. Dawei is a port city, which is conveniently located near an old British beach spot.  It has only recently been opened up to tourists, hence its appeal to us.  There are not a lot of attractions, its just a town, a real town.  Not destroyed by tourists yet.  I really enjoyed just being there, not trampling through any pagodas or being harassed by touts.  It was calm and we could meander through the streets without being bothered (and hopefully not bothering anyone else).

We met up with the Americans that evening and hunted down more draft beer, as our previous joint was closed for some reason. It took awhile but we found what appeared to be a Dawei beer garden, named “Seven Zero.” A good sign when the name is in English, but that didn’t translate into the menu, and while the hand gesture for draft beer is universal, the hand gesture for chicken fried rice is not. Luckily, they actually had wifi and our new friend was able to show a picture of a chicken and some rice and gestured to mix it together. Good enough.

I probably would have tried to stay longer in Dawei if our visas weren’t running out and we weren’t sure if we could cross after they expired, Kawthong being a relatively newly opened border-crossing. It was sad to leave, but we had booked the flight and we were ready for some beach time just over the border in Thailand.

Next stop: Ranong and Koh Chang, Thailand after a luxurious premier class flight and a pain in the ass border crossing.

Headed south….Mawlamyine, Myanmar

I usually try to start my entries with our horrific travel stories, before making you jealous with the amazing photos Riki takes. But this one takes the cake, at least up til now.

Ambitiously, we had decided to take a 20 hour bus back to Yangon and then transfer to a 6 hour bus further south to Mawlamyine. So part of this long and arduous journey was our fault, but only a small part.

Our 9 am bus arrived at 10:45 and we were once again granted the horrendous wheelwell seats. Usually we alternate who gets the window, but in the case of the wheelwell, well, Riki just can’t fit. So I get the window and Riki gets to use the aisle for a little more legroom. But not today. In standard Myanmar fashion, the aisle is also used for seating. Sometimes, it is a real seat folded out from the side. Today, just a small plastic chair with the worst possible inhabitant. He’s using Riki’s armrest as a spot for his snoozing head, wrapping his arm all the way around the rest, practically resting in Riki’s lap. He has his feet under the guy across the aisle and then in the back of the guy in front of him. He spits sunflower seeds on the floor. And then he decides to smoke a cigarette. His friend behind him says something, but he continues to smoke and snubs it out on the floor. All the while, the wheelwell is getting hotter and hotter and we have had to remove our shoes and put our feet on top of them to keep them cool. And then he smokes again. He fails to acknowledge my remarks (presumably because no one on the bus speaks any English) and my blatant display of disapproval of opening the window and letting hot air fill the air-conditioned bus. And he ignores his friend, who pokes him to stop. We decided he is a Myanmar gutter-punk. He didn’t smell like booze, but certainly appeared too dazed to be sober. NOTE: No one else smokes on moving buses here. They wait til it makes a long stop, open the windows and then smoke.

And that was just the first leg. We arrived the next day around 6 am, having slept very little. We were told there was no bus to Mawlamyine, but knew that couldn’t be true. A friendly taxi driver offered to drive us there (6 hours, can’t imagine what that would cost) but we politely declined and found another guy to take us through the maze that is Yangon’s bus station to another bus company. They also told us “no bus” and we wandered off in search of someone who could help us. Didn’t take long and a young guy who spoke some English told us three minutes walking, leaves in 10 minutes, no problem. So off we went and we were in luck. Two seats left. The guy got a little commission from the bus company and everyone was happy. Until we got on the bus. Not an air-con bus. Normally, it wouldn’t be so bad, but we had the very back seats, where there were no operable windows and no breeze and no curtain for shade. The highlight of the trip was the Shan noodles we had at the very posh bus stop in the middle of our journey. Hot and very tired, we arrived in Mawlamyine after 7 hours and shared a tuk tuk with a German guy to our hostel.

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Mawlamyine is the fourth largest city in Myanmar, a former British capital and a large port.  It was really just a stopover for us so we didn’t have night bus after night bus.

We attempted a modified walking tour of the town and even visited the Cultural Museum – this one was open. Luckily, there were English signs for most things, though often times we were left more confused by the translations than by the displays. But it got unbearably hot and we returned to the hostel to pack our stuff and check out.

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We had some time to kill before our 6:30 pm bus further south to Dawei, so we walked to the market, which was huge and bustling. We managed to find Riki a Myanmar beer shirt (yes that’s what it’s called), which I may have been more excited about then him. Then we continued up the hill to the pagoda, which in true form, was unbearably hot to walk around barefoot. Luckily, there were a couple of cats.

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Next stop: Dawei, a night bus ride to the south. Why all these night buses? Apparently, that is the only option.