We’re not jungle people, but we hadn’t done much naturing lately so we decided to immerse ourselves in it by going to the jungles of Sumatra in search of orangutans and other wild animals. As mentally prepared for malarial mosquitoes and lunging leeches as we could be, N and I decided to visit Gunung Leuser National Park in northern Sumatra.
We arrived in Medan and spent a few days hanging out in a mall there, recovering from stomach issues we got on our way out of Penang. Medan proved to be a pretty crappy city (to put it nicely), with nothing interesting to see or do. The traffic and pollution are horrible there, making it nearly impossible to go anywhere anyway. So we spent too much time at Centre Point, a new mall near our hotel, and ate at the mediocre restaurants and wandered around it. To say the least, it wasn’t a good first impression of Indonesia.
Because we heard horror stories about minibuses in Indonesia (and driving in general), we took a private car to Bukit Lawang for $45 instead of the minibus fare of about $6 per person. A bit of a splurge, but we’re fancy like that, and we had promised ourselves to spend a little bit more on safer modes of transportations while in Indonesia.
We passed Malaysian palm oil plantations and arrived three and a half hours later in a small town split in half by a river. This would be our home for the next five days, complete with a cold shower and no AC.
I love it when we get to a place and find so much more than we expected. In this case, we came to Penang for only food based on a recommendation by my college friend Jia-yi, and arrived in an unexpectedly cute little city chock full of fantastic food, beautiful old buildings, interactive street art and friendly people. An added plus was that the Georgetown Festival — the annual arts and culture event — was going on when we arrived.
In 2012, a Lithuanian artist Ernest Zacharevic was commissioned to paint interactive wall murals in the Old Heritage district of Penang. Tourists flock to these murals — along with others painted by other artists — and wait patiently to pose creatively in front of the street art. We made our way around from one mural to another while consulting a wall mural map we found online, and eventually found ourselves at the Clan Jetty.
One of the biggest challenges I set for myself for this trip was to really step outside of my comfort zone and to venture out a little bit. I think I’ve been doing a lot of that — especially in SEA — but I never thought it would involve sharks.
A day after we moved into our beachside bungalow, we met Kamille and Angela, a Danish couple next door to us. I was feeling antisocial as usual but in friendly neighbor fashion, N chatted them up and invited them to have dinner with us. My reservations faded away as we clicked immediately, and we spent the next few days commiserating about the shitty management of the bungalows we were staying in, and who was still able to talk the family running the place to please give us a roll of toilet paper or to please swap out our pillows because their mildewy smell was overwhelming. We told them about magical Tanote Bay, which our friends Ina and Daniel had introduced us to. When the girls finally got fed up with the insufferable owners and moved to friendlier lodging in Tanote Bay, we were surprised to miss these near strangers and decided to head over to hang out with them for the day.
That afternoon of reacquainting ourselves with the beauty of Tanote sealed the deal. We moved the next day and spent the next week hanging out with them in the quieter side of Koh Tao which was more our style anyway. The staff at Tanote Family Resort were still apathetic Burmese (I don’t think there was one Thai person on the island) who didn’t know how to smile, which is weird to me because you’d think that getting out of a poor, highly corrupt country like Burma to end up on a beautiful Thai island would bring them joy but maybe they show their happiness differently.
Snorkeling was amazing even on the drizzly days, and we stuffed ourselves with mangosteens and longsats (affectionately called “potatoes” by the girls) on the beach. Tanote was perfect for us because the snorkeling was great in both the shallow and deeper parts of the bay. We climbed onto the rock jutting out from the middle of the bay and watched people courageously jumping from it into the water below.
It’s been an eye-opening couple of weeks and I have the sunburned backside and cuts to prove it. We arrived in Thailand at the same time monsoon season came swooping in to start drenching the beautiful beaches for the next… Six months. We had a little more than half of our 30-day visa left and time was of the essence. We were itching for good swimming and beaching. Thanks to knowledgeable friends, we achieved just that on Koh Tao, a tiny island in the Gulf of Thailand.
Ina and Daniel — a German couple we had met in Vietnam — had been spending two weeks on Koh Tao learning how to dive, so we decided to join them for the last few days they had left on the island. In typical German fashion, they managed to breeze through their studies and snag their Open Water dive certifications while also watching the late-night/early-morning World Cup soccer matches. ‘Schland!
The first day on the island, Ina and Daniel told us about the best snorkeling bay they discovered and we were game. We rented goggles and snorkels for 50 baht (almost $2) and got ourselves a pickup truck taxi to bring us across the island to Tanote Bay. After barely surviving the insanely steep, windy and bumpy roads, we arrived on a quieter beach, which was a stark contrast to the thumping dance music that plays on the Sairee side all day and all night long.
This unassuming little bay holds a hidden treasure of marine life beneath the turquoise water, and it would be an understatement to say I was blown away by it all. I realized just how much I’ve been missing all of my life. One of the only times I’ve been snorkeling was in Cancun when I was about nine years-old and my sister and I swam out to deeper waters and discovered a severed giant fish head rolling about in the otherwise fish-less water. That ended my desire to explore, and I sat on the beach for the rest of the day, disturbed and wondering how such a huge head ended up in the water without a body. Looking back, it was a minor incident, but it’s one of the only vivid memories I have of Cancun.
A few years later, my mother, sister and I were in the Cayman Islands stashing our millions. We went on a snorkeling trip, where a nice guy named Paddy took us out on his boat and dropped us off in a quiet area. Soon, stingrays were swarming around us, and I don’t mean like three of them. In my memory, there were at least a dozen all around us, and Paddy told us to be careful not to touch their backs. My mother was having the time of her life cuddling with stingrays. My sister was clinging to the side of the boat in terror. I was wavering between the two emotions my family members were experiencing, and I remember desperately treading water while rays brushed against my legs and arms with their soft fins.
Snorkeling in Koh Tao was nothing like my childhood experiences. Fish were everywhere, doing stuff I’ve only seen on the Discovery Channel. When a school of yellow rabbitfish swam in front of me nibbling loudly at the dead coral, I lost my cool. Within the yellow blur of fish, larger parrotfish and smaller fish got in on the feast as they glided from one coral to another. I glanced up and was shocked to see a crocodile needlefish floating close to the surface, almost invisible except for its silvery side glimmering in the sun. I looked down and saw tiny little fish popping in and out of the holes in the coral, the reef a quiet but intense battlefield of each fish fiercely protecting its territory. It was amazing, and this was the beginning of two weeks of returning again and again to the world under the water.
When Angelina Jolie was in Siem Reap filming her first Tomb Raider movie, she supposedly hung out at the local bar, which was the only one in town. Nowadays, the city is a little less country. There is a street appropriately called Pub Street with a vast array of restaurants and bars for tourists to choose from. The Old Market is chock full of cuisines from all over the world. Korean businesses are investing en masse in Siem Reap, and some streets are so full of signs in Hangul that it looks like rural South Korea. All of this was unexpected for me, but I really wasn’t mentally prepared for the temples.
On a hot sunny morning, we met our tuk-tuk driver Kauwee and told him we wanted to avoid as many tour groups as possible. He nodded knowingly. “You want to do the reverse order for the temples, okay.” He had an intense itinerary for us with something like six temples in five hours so we got him down to three so we could take our time. We sat back and felt like royalty on the back of the tuk-tuk before I got sand in my eye and mouth and had to stop doing the royal wave. Don’t ask me why but Siem Reap is really dusty and everything is covered in a fine red layer of it.
In total, we saw about ten temples, big and small. A good friend of ours had reminded us to spend some time at the lesser known temples besides the obvious Angkor Wat, and I’m glad she did because the temples we preferred ended up being these less popular guys. Each of them are unique, but our favorites were Angkor Thom, Ta Prohm and Banteay Srei.
Angkor Thom is an expansive complex for temples and buildings which was the last seat of the Khmer Empire. We were dropped off at a bridge lined with stone statues, and then made our way through the main gate, a four-faced Buddha. It was my first taste of the Khmer temples and I was hooked. At this point I thought about how we considered skipping Siem Reap. We were so close to making one of the biggest mistakes of our Southeast Asia trip.
We ogled some monkeys before heading to the gaudy Bayon temple and making our way through the complex in the blistering heat. The restoration of each building was sponsored by a foreign country, because Cambodia is so corrupt that its “prime minister” uses its money on more important things, like himself. David W. Roberts put it quite eloquently when he stated that Cambodia is a “vaguely communist free-market state with a relatively authoritarian coalition ruling over a superficial democracy.” The Corruption Perceptions Index ranked Cambodia the second most corrupt nation in Asia after North Korea. That is pretty damn corrupt if you ask me.
A good college friend once described to me a tour she took to the Yangtze River. Her advice if I ever decided to go was to never look down, because the smelly water was filled with garbage. She concluded matter-of-factly in the way she does that, “As long as you don’t look down, you’re fine.” Lowered expectations.
This was exactly how I felt in Halong Bay, one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World. And it would be a wonder, if it weren’t for the vast amounts of trash in the water. By this time, I was used to just how much the Vietnamese like to litter. They think nothing of finishing a bottle of soda and then tossing it out of the window of buses, taxis and trains. I tried to hand someone in a store a plastic safety seal from a bottle of water to throw away for me, and she pointed down, as in, “Throw it on the floor, where it will be swept up someday and will end up choking a baby seal to death in the ocean when it mistakes it for food.”
We knew some of what to expect of Halong Bay. We knew how overpriced the cruises were in relation to the delivered product and services, and how you have to really lower your expectations. Because as a blogger wisely pointed out, “The Vietnamese will promise you the world, but will only deliver broken dreams.”
N and I had opted for the two-night three-day tour — which tacks on an extra night in top of the tour that most tourists go on — after talking to a solo American traveler who told us that the extra day really made up for the shitty herding around she experienced the first day.
To learn about the various ethnic groups in Vietnam (and there are 56 of them), the Museum of Ethnology is a great place to spend an afternoon in Hanoi.
The circular main building is dedicated to exhibitions of the ethnic groups in Vietnam, and a separate contemporary building houses stuff from the rest of Southeast Asia. Behind both buildings are actual houses from ethnic groups which were relocated to this museum, and visitors can explore the inside of these homes to see how people live. It’s an awesome museum and well worth a visit.
During a motorcycle ride to a nearby Red Dao village, N’s driver tried to sell her on using him and his buddy for another adventure into the hills. When she tried to explain to him that we wanted to do a trekking tour, he laughed and asked her, “Why walk when you can just drive there?” Good question.
Well mostly because it’s easier to take in the views at a snail’s pace (which is us going up mountains) than on the back of a motorcycle that is careening around the mountains while simultaneously trying to bypass fast-moving cars and semis. The way these Vietnamese drive, it’s a wonder they manage to stay on the road at all sometimes.
So we signed up for a private trek with Sapa O’Chau, a tour organization founded by a Hmong woman, Shu Tan. Part of the cost of the tour goes towards the schooling of Hmong children to give them better opportunities through future employment. Attendance at the Sapa O’Chau school also includes food and lodging for the children. Our guide was a 20-year young Hmong girl who didn’t attend the school but did take English classes at the school. She was going to lead us to her home in Lao Chai, a big Black Hmong village about 10km from Sapa. Not long into the start of our hike through the town to Sapa, two Hmong women sidled up next to us to chat us up. “What your name?”
By this time, we were used to the Hmong women following tourists around town pretty assertively. “You buy something from me?” A no thank you will be quickly countered with a gentle, “Yes thank you.” And telling them that you already bought a lot of things will be answered with, “But not from me.” Surprisingly, the women are civil and friendly to each other even though they all crowd around selling the exact same things: little bags, zippered purses, pillowcases, bracelets, charms. “You buy something small from each of us and make us happy.” It’s a proposal we would consider if not for the dozens of other women who will ask you to do the same thing a minute later. And they’re all so damn nice, which makes it hard to say no. The Hmong learn their English from talking to tourists, and it’s pretty damn impressive. They speak way better English than the Vietnamese vendors we’ve interacted with over the past two months.
We didn’t mind buying from these two women, and they didn’t seem to mind walking all the way to Lao Chai with us. My lady (I say this because she chatted me up first) was cheerful and talkative, while N’s lady was quiet and wove hemp strands into string as she walked. I don’t understand this multitasking business, because our eyes were permanently glued to the uneven pathways as we walked and half-stumbled along. Oh, and I forgot to mention that they wear plastic sandals on these walks.
“You have a boyfriend?” I told Gom that I didn’t have a boyfriend, and she reassured me — a pathetic spinster in her eyes — that being single was good because I had the chance to do anything I wanted. She told us about how she recently married a guy who was a friend of her ex-boyfriend’s. She told us about a Hmong custom where a boy will ask a girl he is interested in to come live in his house for four days. She is expected to go, and she spends time with him and his family to see if she would be happy there as his wife. At the end of the four days, the girl decides if she wants to marry the boy. This is what happened with Gom, and while she wasn’t crazy about her husband, he was nice enough so it was OK. She turned her attention to us. “Everyone thinks you two look like boys,” she giggled. I told her that it happens a lot, and left her to wonder why.
We got up way too early in the morning to take a bumpy, nauseating ride to Bac Ha, where the Flower Hmong gather every Sunday to sell their stuff. There was freshly-harvested honey, bright red chilis, fruits, vegetables, moonshine-like rice wine, farm animals, metal tools and expensive pet birds. A major plus was meeting a great couple from California, and being able to explore the market with them. The tour stopped into a small village where we got a quick glimpse of life there. Another major highlight was stopping at the Chinese border and being given the chance to stare longingly at Mainland China, the land of opportunity. On the way home, a dog (that was probably purchased for food) shat in the box in the back of the van but the driver refused to stop, so we sat marinating in the smell for almost three hours. Good times in Vietnam.
My wife likes to let people know that I “hate children”. When I argue that I don’t “hate” them (it’s such a strong word), this Baby Whisperer who I’ve married tries to reassure me that it’s fine and that I should just own it. It’s especially pleasant when she volunteers this information to strangers with children, who are left to secretly wonder if I’m the kind of monster who also hates puppies, cupcakes, rainbows and everything else that is good in this world.
Fortunately for me, N kept her mouth shut when we met an Australian couple with two young kids at the Phong Nha Farmstay. After a couple of exciting forays into the Vietnamese bush (hehe) with this family, we decided to join them on a full-day tour to see two caves in the Phong Nha National Park and although the cost of the tour was pretty steep for us ($100/person; we’re in Vietnam, people!), we decided that spending the day with this family would be more fun than being transported around with a bunch of strangers.
We got up at 6:45am and we were off on our journey an hour later, hopping onto an old American Army jeep and an old Russian motorcycle with Craig (an Australian) and Hung (a Vietnamese local) as our guides. They pointed out wartime scars on the landscape as we headed into the Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park. During the war, there were no American soldiers on the ground in this part of Vietnam (most of the fighting took place in the south), but they bombed the shit out of it for years, killing civilians and resistance fighters alike. During the day, people hid from bombers in the caves and worked on transporting supplies and building roads and landing strips during the cover of night.
The whole area is still covered with land mines that the Americans dropped during the war. Our guide Hung had deep scars on his arms and face from playing with a land mine when he was a child growing up in this area. He survived, but his four friends weren’t so lucky. Just the day before, two young boys living a few minutes from our Farmstay were killed while trying to pry open a land mine they had found in the mountains. I immediately thought of Bosnia — still deeply scarred from its war over two decades ago — and the chilling skull and crossbones signs we saw there, the international symbol for land mines. You can’t just bounce back from war, and this was a reality I had the luxury of never having to experience firsthand like these people did, and still do.