After a four hour bus ride from the west coast of Malaysia to the east coast, we bought boat tickets for the next ferry to Tioman Island. We still had a few hours to spare and we spent them buying supplies and enjoying the air-conditioning and free wifi at the local KFC (perhaps my first KFC encounter ever). We eventually boarded the ferry, after a chaotic check-in and completely confusing process (no queueing here). We spent the next two hours in the frigid boat hold, so cold the windows were completely fogged on the outside.
Luckily, the end justifies the means, and we arrived on Salang Beach just before dark. Having called ahead, we found our beach front bungalow to be simple, but just our style. This being the “party beach” we were at the end and it was pretty quiet.
We spent the next few days before our friends arrived reading, swimming and relaxing in the hammocks along the sand. Cats are everywhere on the island, and our place had particularly friendly and well cared for kittens. Great fun watching them attempt to climb palm trees and run around in the sand (aka giant litter box). We also glimpsed a giant black squirrel, which I have been hunting since Penang and some monkeys clamoring along the shoreline.
We hung out with some people from our hotel and went to a “party” where Riki sang Taylor Swift with some German girls. The party scene was pretty low-key, though on the weekend, people from Singapore flocked to the island. And so did our friends.
We were delighted to meet up with our New Orleans friends, this being the first time we’ve had visitors, though really we were crashing their family vacation. Same, same. Tioman Island is duty-free, so the alcohol and chocolate are relatively cheap. Duty-free makes it sound fancy, but I don’t think there was even an ATM on our beach, there was no cell service and wifi was only available in a few spots. Rustic, right?
We went on a snorkeling trip with our friends, and 20 other tourists. On a boat made for 12 (there was a sign). We made a few stops and saw some beautiful coral. And lots of colorful fish. I managed not to get burnt, courtesy of snorkeling in my t-shirt, though if I were like most on our boat, I could have just worn a life jacket for sun protection.
For lunch, we stopped at a white sand beach, where we were discarded while the captain drove off to fix the engine. Shortly after our arrival, three giant monitor lizards must have smelled our food and came to harass us from the forest. They must get fed here regularly, as they were not afraid of us and our guide threw chicken bones and sausage at them. Same guide who was feeding the fish loaves of bread. It’s not something I like to see. I’d rather the wildlife stay wild.
The next day we all boarded the ferry back to Mersing, where we caught the bus to Singapore and the others went back west for a day before meeting up with us again.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
And an artsy shot:
Next stop: Inching closer to the Phuket airport at Phang Nga.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I almost forget we even went to Battambang, as I am about two weeks behind with my blogging. I have an excuse though. We had no wifi for an entire week.
Our trip from Siem Reap to Battambang, the second most populous city in Cambodia took about 4 hours. It was relatively uneventful, except for when we stopped halfway through for a break, got off the bus with everyone else and the bus drove off. It took quite awhile to return and we were a bit worried for our bags. Scams are notorious in Cambodia and you never really know what is normal or if you are being conned. Eventually the bus returned, our bags were intact and we continued on our way.
While having a late lunch in Battambang, we ran into a Dutch/English couple who invited us to join them the following day for a tuk-tuk tour of some the sites around town. Turns out we had spoken in Siem Reap about e-bikes a few days before, but neither of us could place why we looked familiar until later.
Battambang has some French colonial architecture, a bit reminiscent of New Orleans. Low buildings and small streets along the river are semi-filled with shops, restaurants and hotels. Many were shuttered and we couldn’t tell if they were just closed or empty. There is not a whole lot to do, but we met up for our tuk-tuk tour the next afternoon ready for anything.
And I was pleasantly surprised. Our first stop was a bamboo train, which I had read was overrated, touristy and a waste of time. You have to take what you read online with a grain of salt. Usually the people who review either love or hate something, not so much in between. I review almost everything we do, whether good, bad or just ok. I really liked the train. It is expensive ($5 each) and weird and at the end they drop you off for 20-30 minutes and you are bombarded by young girls selling bracelets. But along the way, you bounce around on bamboo slats through some decent scenery. And when you meet someone coming the other way, you have a bit of a chicken fight. There were four of us, so we won a few, as it seems the larger groups get to continue. The others have to remove the bamboo platform and the two axles with wheels and reassemble when the other train passes. The wheels are fueled by a small, noisy motor at the back of the platform. It was fun. And at the end, before we turned around to go back to the start, while Riki was off taking pictures, I befriended some small girls, despite not buying any of their bracelets.
Our next stop was Phnom Sampeu and the killing cave. We declined the offer of a moto ride to the top and walked up the steep road instead. The cave is where the Khmer Rouge threw people over the edge to a mass grave after bludgeoning them to death. There is a small shrine of skulls and bones, but not much info otherwise. There is also a monastery up there too, which has a nice breeze and a good view of the surrounding flat area.
At the base of Phnom Sampeu is a tall non-descript cave. Easily missed most of the day, but just before sunset, millions of bats swarm out of the cave into the air. We sat around with a bunch of other tourists and waited for this spectacle. And we were not disappointed (except for maybe being peed on a number of times from above). The bats (perhaps a million or more we were told) streamed out of the cave in a thick line of black spots overhead. They swerved left and right and became a unified beast. After about 10 minutes of watching them emerge, our tuk-tuk driver took us to an open area where we could see much further and how they fly in unison and create a long ribbon over the skyline. It was awesome.
The next day we got on yet another bus, headed for the coast. But with a transfer in Phnom Penh (6 hours) where we had been assured that we would be dropped at a place where we could buy another ticket on another bus with the same company. Not the case. But we were only a bit surprised. So after some confusing hand-gesturing conversations, we managed to get a tuk-tuk to take us to the bus office, but not before trying to drop us at a closer office of a different company (one we had heard terrible things about). Luckily, there were seats on the next bus and we only had to wait an hour before the next bus left.
Another six hours later, we arrived in Sihanoukville. We had arranged to stay on an island half an hour away by boat, but could not go until the next morning. So we holed up in a decent looking hotel for the night, bought some supplies and did some last minute emails before going off grid.
Ko Ta Kiev is not the most popular island to visit out of Sihanoukville. And that is why we went. Ko Rong is more of a party place, way over-priced and not the kind of beach time we desired. We booked four nights at Coral Beach on Ko Ta Kiev, but liked it so much, we stayed for seven. There is no power on the island, only a generator to power a few lights in the evening. And no wifi. Hence, I am way behind on the blogging.
We spent the next week reading whatever English books I could find, lounging in hammocks, swimming in the flat clear water, and playing cards. There is a bamboo platform, not unlike the train that you can pull out into the water and jump into deeper, equally clear water. That and playing frisbee were the extent of our exercise for the week. And a few walks to meet up with the same couple from Battambang who had followed us to the island and to the absinthe distillery where they had three cuddly kittens.
We ate amazing fresh food, sometimes never leaving our little beach all day. Our bungalow was $20 a night, had no power, was enclosed on three sides and faced the water. Oh, and we had a huge round bed. I have seen numerous mattresses carried around on motorbikes and trucks here. None have been round. Where they got these is a mystery. Custom sheets no doubt. We loved it, despite the cold bucket shower and the sand in everything. We even had a night visitor, but a good one. One of the young cats slept by my pillow outside the mosquito net a few nights. Riki didn’t even mind, a few sniffles to keep away any other unwanted guests is a small price to pay.
We had $21 cash left and we realized we had to leave. It was tough, but we went back to the mainland to hang out for a few more days of beach time before our visas ran out.
Unfortunately, the guesthouses in Otres were pretty booked up and we settled on a place on the beach for $12, which turned out to be infested with rats, roaches and termites. The worst place we have stayed on our whole trip. Luckily, we found a great pizza place and moved to another guesthouse down the road.
We ate pizza every night and even caught their quiz night. Proudly, I must say, we won two rounds (of the small groups), and thus two rounds of beer. We stayed longer in Otres than we thought, but were able to correct Riki’s Myanmar visa (as he had been classified as female) and research a lot for our next leg.
I managed to get my first sunburn on our last day, despite being in the shade all day. Must have been the glare off the water. We packed up and prepared for our border crossing to Thailand on the very last day of our Cambodian visa.
Fast, reliable internet is a novelty we don’t often enjoy, so I’m a bit behind and will try to catch up while we are staying in one place for a few days.
After our journey through the Mekong Delta to the southwestern coast of Vietnam, we boarded a ferry and arrived on the island of Phu Quoc. It is the largest island in Vietnam and is right on the border with Cambodia, conveniently for us as that is our next stop. Phu Quoc is known for its fish sauce and black pepper. Also, for its white sandy beaches, calm waters and diving. For us, it is also known for many Russian tourists and very expensive, well, everything.
Despite being on the Vietnamese coast for the last few weeks, we had barely seen the sun and were excited for some beach time, though not too much, as our skin isn’t well suited for it. Lucky for us, the trees grow really close to the water and we were able to find some shade right along the beach.
The first day we rented a scooter and rode to a few of the beaches in the north. They were a lot less crowded than the ones near our hostel, in Duong Dong. We stopped in Mango Bay, commandeered some beach chairs from the resort and enjoyed the calm, warm gulf waters before dipping in their pool.
I had read about a hostel along a nearby beach that had great food and excellent reviews on Tripadvisor. We backtracked a bit to find it, parked our scooter at the end of a road along the beach and followed a sign down the water, already starving. We had to jump over a rocky shore and cut across a fancy resort’s beach, but we made it and had a great view. That apparently, is the easy way to reach them. However, when we arrived, the cook was at the market, but would be back soon we were told. We waited about an hour with a couple of beers and the very pregnant cook/proprietor returned with fresh fish and shrimp. We had a vague notion before we came that maybe we would end up staying here, as our hostel in town was pretty expensive and this place was supposed to be cheap and great. After seeing the “rooms” though, that wasn’t much of an option. There were mosquito nets, but the walls were blue tarps and you could clearly see sunlight through the roof. Luckily, we decided against it, as it poured that night and I can’t imagine the guests stayed dry.
After a long, delicious lunch, we visited another northern beach, with even less people, but more trash. All over Asia, we’ve discovered that people just throw their trash wherever. Its really sad and only a few places do you actually see trash cans. And who knows if anyone even empties those. Mostly, people will just burn small piles along the street. But anyway, we rode back to town and spent the next two days exploring the nearby beaches.
We had originally planned to stay until our Vietnamese visa ran out, but the island is pretty expensive and we decided to leave a few days early. We can’t spend much time in the sun anyway.
Another crazy bus/boat journey ahead….to Phnom Penh, Cambodia