So maybe you’ve been wondering what we’ve been up to. Maybe not.
There were some setbacks for Riki as its not possible to buy many things in Switzerland that he uses for his art. However, after much trial and error, and some importing thanks to family and friends in the States, he has found a combination that he likes enough and is now able to finish some of his pieces. All are on wood that we found or were given, which was also a tough task, as there is no abundance of dumpsters here as there is in New Orleans.
Here are some of the latest pieces, mostly by Riki. Most are incomplete, either lacking the final coat, or completely in progress. Enjoy!
People are always asking what our favorite part of the trip was. That is an impossible question and I usually follow it up with asking for a category, like best nature, or best cave, or best food. We’ve seen too many amazing things to narrow it down to one.
We started this list somewhere along the way and have updated it as we go. There is a story behind every one, many of which are somewhere in our blog. For the most part, Riki and I agree on these – but I’ve noted where we don’t. There are a lot of ties. This is by no means exhaustive as we could find a best and worst of all 275 days, but I’ll spare you. Here are the highlights, and lowlights:
Best Meal: Hanoi, Vietnam – sautéed pork with thick strips of coconut
Best sunrise: Poon Hill – over the Himalayas & Bagan – with its hot air balloons
Best sunset: Koh Ta Kiev, Cambodia – from the beach over calm water
Best snack: Fried fish powder & Broad beans
Weirdest food: Wood meat balls in Myanmar, Hue clams in Vietnam & tarantulas
Best coffee: Vietnam
Friendliest locals: Myanmar, but if you want just kids, then Laos
Most annoying tourists: Chinese in tour groups
Best outfits: Men – Monks with umbrellas in Laos & Myanmar (longyi – skirts), Women in Vietnam with their day pajamas
Best hairstyles: Men in Vietnam & Myanmar (slick & fashionable), Women in Nepal with dyed red hair
Cheapest meal: Pho in Vietnam
Best new vegetable: Morning glory
Best beer: Bia Hoi in Hanoi
Worst tuktuks: Phnom Penh, Cambodia – all just scams
Most painful moment: Sun/wind burn on my hands while motobiking the Thakek Loop in Laos
Worst sleep: Train from Sapa, Vietnam with snoring man
Worst road: Motorcycling on the Thakek Loop, Laos
Worst bus ride: Getting to and from Mrauk-U, Myanmar
Coolest museum: Jakarta’s National Museum
Coolest building: White Temple in Chiang Rai, Thailand
Coolest non-religious building: Marina Bay Sands (Boat Skyscraper), Singapore
Coolest Houses: Bajawa, Indonesia & Ubud, Bali
Ugliest building: Government view tower in Bagan, Myanmar (so ugly it’s not pictured)
Best attraction: The Himalayas & Orangutans
Best Rice Terraces: Annapurna, Nepal (most impressive) & Ubud, Bali (most beautiful)
Friendliest kids: Laos, where they all wave and yell Saibaidee
Worst internet: Myanmar – non-existent in many places
Best caves: Phong Nha, Vietnam
Best Collection of Buddhas: Sukhothai, Thailand & Mrauk-U, Myanmar
Worst dogs: Kathmandu’s gangs who bark all night
Most touristy thing we did: Canyoning in Dalat, Vietnam & the bamboo train in Battambong, Cambodia
Most kitschy: James Bond Island, Thailand
Best ancient city: Angkor, Cambodia
Best Ancient Structures: Prambanan & Borobudur, Indonesia
Best bike ride: Vang Vieng, Laos (though our butts hurt for a week later) & Lonely Planet city tour of Mandalay, Myanmar
Worst bike ride: Julie’s flat tires at Inle Lake, Myanmar (though I got to ride in a dump truck)
Dirtiest place: The river in Kathmandu, Nepal
Cleanest place: Downtown Singapore
Only place with a shopping mall on their currency: Brunei (also the strangest city we’ve been to)
Best skyline: Singapore because its variegated
Best land-based wildlife: Chitwan National Park in Nepal & Sukau in Borneo, Malaysia
Best ocean wildlife: Sipadan Island, Borneo, Malaysia
Most interesting city: Kathmandu
Coolest school uniforms: Girls’ skirts in Laos (I even got one made for myself)
Best propaganda: Vietnam
Coolest flag: Nepal
Safest street food: Thailand
Best night markets: Thailand
Best music: Nepal
Best dancing: Pokhara, Nepal during Tihar festival
Worst laundry: Pokhara, Nepal (sock disaster)
Worst utensils: Laos’ chopsticks would splinter just looking at them
Tallest trees: Angkor, Cambodia
Best public buses: Bangkok (and cheapest)
Biggest mistake: To be determined (though we are out of the incubation period for malaria so not taking those pills long enough is off the list)
Best decision: Halong Bay, Vietnam timing (going in October instead of December)
Biggest regret: Phu Quoc, Vietnam (over-priced)
Best Street Art: Yogyakarta, Indonesia
Best art purchase: Nepalese & Balinese paintings
Most useful purchase: sink stopper for laundry
Most useful item acquired: free wet wipes on buses
Best local quirk: Kissing noise in Myanmar(when ordering at bar/restaurant) & kids waving (all over)
Worst local quirk: Betel nut chewing and spitting noises
Hardest thing to find: sunscreen without whitening
Most used items: Travel pillow & electronics
Best item b(r)ought: Riki pants, tablet, umbrella
Most useless item: umbrella
Wish we had: Swiss army knife & variety of shirts
Best new game/time passer: Jenga & podcasts
Crazy things we are used to now:
trash in streets, long bus rides, motorbikes without helmets, bottled water, using a fork & spoon to eat, being stared at, being generally unclean, carrying tissues, crossing the street amidst hectic scenarios, walking on the left side of the sidewalk/escalator, never understanding the language
Things we missed:
Food – bread with flavor, Clothing – variety, Culture – western toilets & real showers
I still catch myself hesitating before using tap water to brush my teeth. I am tempted to head left when approaching people, walking up stairs, and standing on an escalator. Luckily, we aren’t driving anywhere, so the awkwardness is just that, not dangerous. I can’t shake the feeling that I should be out walking around all day. I want to eat chicken and noodles, not sausage and pretzels. I can’t buy food from a stall and I can’t get anyone to smile back at me on the street. But Zurich’s not all that bad. It has all you can drink water in fountains on every block and there’s no chance of finding a critter in the toilet bowl.
According to our Travel Map, we’ve traveled over 38,000 miles (61,000+ km) since we left New Orleans. And while we didn’t actually make it around the world, the circumference of the earth is only 25,000 miles (40,000 km), we went pretty far. We can’t abbreviate it as an ATW (Around the World) trip, which would be disappointing, except that I’ve just finished our budget and discovered we spent almost exactly the maximum we had intended to spend. Considering we stayed many months longer than we initially intended, this is exciting news. We were not as organized in our budget as some people, so my numbers are rough and are strictly based on ATM withdrawals in each country and credit card purchases. I can’t provide daily eating or transportation expenses, but accommodation I tracked throughout the trip. There are a few variables that could swing figures from one country to another, but overall, this is a pretty good guess of our expenditures. For example, we took some US dollars with us as emergency money in case ATMs weren’t working or our debit card was lost or stolen. This was a few hundred dollars, and we used most of it in Cambodia and Myanmar, where dollars are accepted. We also exchanged money from one country to the next, but usually tried to use it up rather than waste it on exchange commissions. These figures were undocumented, but since we did this almost every time we crossed a border, I am going to say its probably a wash. The extra Thai Baht we had converted to Singapore dollars we used in Brunei, and it wasn’t very much in the grand scheme of our trip. We had some very generous gifts of hotel and flight points, which I have excluded from my averages. For instance, the 5 days we spent at the Hyatt in Danang, Vietnam for Christmas and ate only the free food provided have not been factored into days spent in Vietnam (except for the tailoring we had done in Hoi An at that time, which has to, as its something everyone should do when there).
First, the average accommodation prices. Keep in mind these are double occupancy. Dorms tended to be about half what a double room cost. Check out our Hotels List for specific prices and reviews.
We often went for the cheapest accommodation we could find that still offered wifi and hot water (we achieved this about 80% of the time), so you could probably spend less than this if your willing to go a bit more rustic.
Street food is often the most economical way to eat in most of these countries. However, in Nepal and most of Cambodia & Myanmar, we did not partake in the street food as we were very wary of the cleanliness of the vendors we saw. In Singapore and Brunei, we had trouble finding street food, so we spent considerably more there on food. Cheap meals could usually be found for $1-2, on the street and in the plastic chaired restaurants. Our criteria for restaurants was: lots of locals, plastic chairs, and a picture menu. These three factors pretty much guaranteed a good, cheap meal. Some of our favorite meals were eating $1 pho for breakfast in Hanoi sitting on tiny plastic chairs at tiny plastic tables, amidst dozens of other people, slurping away at hot soup in the hot air (mostly Riki’s favorite – I prefer soup when its cold and not in the morning). My new favorite street food became $1 mango and sticky rice, when we crossed into Thailand for the last time. Why I didn’t discover this earlier is something I still regret.
Indonesia, Nepal and Malaysia topped out our most expensive countries. This is mostly due to the necessity of flights to get there and in between the islands (Indonesia), as well as some more expensive activities, such as diving and trekking. Laos was by far the least expensive country, with food being dirt cheap and accommodation far cheaper than any of the other countries.
Some tips for planning:
We started with the cheapest countries (Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia). These countries are heavily backpacked already and thus are set up for budget-minded travelers. It is easy to get around, cheaply and mostly efficiently. Flights are not required unless you have a time constraint, and even these flights can be inexpensive. We generally paid about $1 per hour for buses and found them long, but manageable (my earlier ramblings may contradict this, but by now the agony of these trips has subsided). Meals along the banana pancake trail are cheap and can be had for $1-2+. We had a water purifier that cost about $90 with us. It paid for itself and we didn’t have to buy an endless supply of plastic water bottles. For a long trip like this, it was worth it. For a few weeks or even a few months, it may not be cost effective, but will certainly reduce your waste.
Nepal is a tough one to write. We were there in October, after a blizzard in the Annapurna region and about 40 people died. It is a small tragedy compared to what they have more recently gone through, and all of my advice for Nepal is probably obsolete. However, we are still in touch with our great guide in Pokhara, who is itching for more clients. His name is Raju and he speaks English better than he responds in emails (firstname.lastname@example.org). It would be great if I could get him more business, especially following the earthquake.
In Myanmar, we found the street food, covered in grease, unappetizing and ate more expensively than we would have liked. The buses were also a lot more than we had anticipated, often twice what we would have paid in Vietnam for half the comfort. Attractions as well seemed closer to American prices.
Due to thousands of islands, Indonesia was harder to traverse and thus, more expensive. While we could have taken more boats, we had heard these were not always safe and can take many hours. We opted for cheap planes to island hop through Indonesia. Bali is surprisingly affordable, with so much competition, that most of the places we saw were clean and even provided big breakfasts.
As our trip was winding down, we lost the budget-minded sensibility regarding food and went all out in Malaysia. For this was the place to do it. By this I mean, we spent $3-4 per meal. And it was so worth it. Spectacular arrays of Indian food and piles of noodles, we gorged ourselves during our last month. You could certainly spend a little less, but its not the cheap eats you find in Vietnam. Meals were generally at least $2, but you would get a lot of food.
In Singapore and Brunei, the food budget went out the window and we paid western prices for almost everything. Don’t avoid Singapore because you hear its expensive. There are still plenty of budget attractions and cheap food can be found in Little India and as always, look for plastic chairs.
MONEY. Contrary to guides we read, ATMs are available everywhere (even Myanmar). We opened a checking account before we left with no withdrawal fees and estimate that it saved us hundreds in transaction costs. Local ATMs generally charge a small fee, but you learn which banks are less and which ones give smaller bills. Otherwise, we used a credit card with travel rewards. We never used it in Cambodia or Myanmar, but it was helpful for paying the small service fees for online hostel booking, as well as booking flights and larger purchases (trekking and diving). Keep in mind, many small businesses still charge a 2-3% fee to use credit cards. With our credit card, we received 2% back anyway, so for large purchases, it was often cheaper to use the credit card rather than accumulate ATM fees as they usually have low withdrawal maximums.
To sum it all up and to generalize a lot, I will put it simply. Estimate accommodation according to above numbers. Spend $3-8 on food per day. Buses for $4-10 depending on length and excluding outliers like Myanmar. Planes can cost as little as $8 (Kota Kinabalu to Tawau) and up to about $70 per way – mostly we paid around $40. We found great last minute deals on AirAsia and were happy with the service. Walking is the cheapest transportation, but city buses are a great alternative and we found locals to be very helpful in guiding us to the right stop. For instance, Bangkok has a very confusing bus system, but once we figured it out and got a map, we saved a lot of money rather than hiring a crooked tuktuk or an expensive cab. Attractions vary a lot, but search online for top free activities in each city and you may come across some great alternatives, like we did.
Talking to other travelers proved to be the best way to research a destination. They have the inside scoop and can often recommend places that you won’t find on Tripadvisor or in Lonely Planet. If you must resort to guide books, we found that the places right next door to the ones in the books are often cheaper and better than the listed ones, as they must compete and don’t rest on their laurels as many places in Lonely Planet do. Although I overflow with more advice, I will quit here. Some of our best (and worst) memories are just relying on information we received along the way. Our recommendations will be in the next post.
A gorgeous specimen of a mini-bus arrived at our hotel in Labuan Bajo, Flores to take us east to Ruteng. And that’s not sarcasm. We will forever be ruined by this bus – leather captain’s chairs, a/c, not crowded at all, for only about $8. During our 4 hour trip, we researched our destination only to find out that there wasn’t much happening there. We confirmed this when we arrived and took a walk during the 3 hour layover until the next bus left. There is one main road across Flores and we had planned to stop at a few towns across the way to break up a long, arduous minibus trip to the volcano we wished to climb. Luckily, there was room on the next bus, though it was not as nice as our first trip, we made it to Bajawa the same day.
Here we discovered a bit more action and even some options for hotels, though they were slim pickings. Our room ended up having mold so thick on the walls that it caused shadows. Unfortunately, we didn’t discover it until the next morning, when the sun came out and Riki’s nose was already forecasting its existence.
We arranged for two motorbike drivers to take us around the area for about $12 for the whole day. Don’t worry, this included helmets and we even stopped when the rain got so bad we couldn’t see.
First, we climbed Wawo Mudo, a volcano that is less than 15 years old. At the top are a few lakes and a nice view, if the clouds clear out, which they didn’t. The hike up was nice though and our guides gathered a bunch of passion fruits for us to try, which was new for me.
Our next stops were at three villages nearby, Luba, Bena and Gurusina. They are a couple hundred years old and very close to each other. They are mostly intact for tourists, but we were the only ones there at the time and judging from the guestbook, not that many people make it up the winding roads to see them and pay the small donation that’s required. Flores is largely Catholic, but this has mixed with animist religions in these areas.
The villages all have icons that represent the clans – the grandmother and grandfather versions. The grandmothers have little shrine houses and the grandfathers have umbrella-like huts. There were also small houses and totems on the crest of the main roofs. Very picturesque. Only a few hundred people live in them now, but during certain festivals, people come from all over to celebrate.
Our last stop was a hot spring, that mixes with a cold stream. You can sit in the middle of these two and find your perfect temperature, which I did for about an hour, before we headed back to Bajawa.
We had intended to head further east to Ende, but came to the same conclusion as in Ruteng. Just keep going. Despite possibly the worst mini-bus trip yet, we decided to stay on the bus a few more hours to make it to Moni, the location of Mt. Kelimutu and our reason for trekking across Flores to begin with.
The bus was awful – the exhaust pipe was just behind the driver, so everything blew back into the bus. The seats were too small (or we were too big, but I don’t think so) and we were crammed in with 30 other people on an 18 seat bus, not including a yapping puppy and the two live chickens hanging in the back window, flapping and pecking along. Oh, and all the ladies were puking. The one next to me had a hard time getting it in the bag.
So we were happy to arrive in Moni and find a hotel with hot water and a nice lady, who brought us tea and explained about the town and how to get up the mountain. But she turned out to be a con lady – trying to charge us for hot water when she knew it didn’t work (per another couple staying in the same homestay) and then trying to sell us everything from an over-priced meal to weavings to a private driver – all for way more than they should be. Really, the only thing that bothered us was the hot water. We hadn’t had a hot shower in weeks, and after the terrible bus ride, that’s all I wanted.
But we were set to make the most of it, as Mt. Kelimutu was something we were very much looking forward to climbing, the next morning, before dawn. So we spent that afternoon looking for a local hot spring with some of the few other tourists in town, finally succeeded after some local assistance. It turned out to be more of a warm stream and we interrupted a man taking a bath. But it wasn’t cold, so that was nice.
Our trip up Mt. Kelimutu began at 4:30 the next morning with a motorbike ride 40 minutes up the mountain. There is a crazy $10+ fee (almost $20 on Sundays) to get into the park (this apparently has not been good for business according to a guide we met). But we paid and continued hiking up in the dark (except for the light of Riki’s phone, as both of our flashlights were out of batteries). At the top are three lakes that change colors at random intervals. Currently, they are turquoise, reddish-brown and green. The sunrise was beautiful and the sky was almost completely clear. There were only 20 or so other people, not including the locals selling coffee, tea and anything else they could carry up the mountain. We were some of the last to leave, waiting until the sun actually hit the lakes before descending the mountain.
As is the case most places we have been, maps are not so great. We had intended to take a trail down the mountain for an easy 2.5 hour trek. Well it turned into over 3 hours and it was not so nice. We could see little, as the trail was mostly enclosed in bushes and the few villages we went through were little more than metal huts and oinking pigs. Oh, and we got lost – per usual.
Eventually, we made it back to our homestay, had a decent enough breakfast and proceeded to wait by the side of the road for the next bus to pass through headed to Maumere, which it did, after about an hour. Maumere has an airport and our plan was to catch a flight back to Bali. We had initially thought to skip Bali, but after the week we had on Flores, we were convinced that it would be nice to do something easy for once. We could have tried to go back west, the way we came, but there was a landslide and the road was only open for an hour and a half, so we would have had to wait until the next day – at our dreary homestay with our con lady host.
We arrived in Maumere after a much better bus trip and proceeded to one of three hotels we had read about. Riki somehow managed to offend the hostess at the first hotel by asking if the a/c worked, while I was out checking on the other hotel next door owned by the same people. This resulted in the lady being very upset and contributing to our feeling of needing to get out of Flores asap. That and there was no hot water, towels or toilet paper provided. We did get a TV with an English channel and sheets splattered with mosquito blood. And a Disney-themed cabinet. This was the VIP room. We’re not travel divas. Our standards are pretty low, but this takes the cake. We immediately got on the phone and booked a flight to Bali for the next morning.
In hindsight, which is always 20/20, we should have started with Mt. Kelimutu and finished up with the Komodo dragons, to end on the highest note.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
What a successful trip. Completely satisfied, we headed back to shore to arrange for our bus trip the next day further east to Ruteng.
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.
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.
Lots of good art on walls, streets, buildings, cars and even elephants- though they were painting them white when we walked by.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
We spent a pretty long time wandering around the concentric rings of reliefs.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
But there were sections on language, music, religion and clothing as well. The penis sheaths being particularly amusing.
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.
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.