Big Question Marks

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Bali and the Planet of the Apes

We've made it to Bali and it's certainly quite full of adventure. It's been a busy week since we left Yogyakarta and started the island hop east: first, a sunrise climb of Gunung Bromo to celebrate Adrian's big 30th birthday (he was writing a blog about it but since he's really old now, he's just a bit lazy!). It was a spectacular sight once the sulphur gas clouds parted and we stopped choking from behind our scarves. And we're proud to say we did it without succumbing to pony-ride offers up the slope!

But the area around Bromo was freezing though (4 degrees at night), and our tropically-acclimatized bodies didn't like it so much, so we hightailed it east to the island of Bali, known for sun, surf, and heaps of vacationing Aussies. We got a day of surfing in (and a few bruises!) at Kuta, plenty of people-watching, and headed inland to Ubud to soak up a little Balinese culture. We did the tourist thing and watched a traditional dance performance with scary masked dancers and a wild story to match. And to top off that Balinese cultural experience, we couldn't resist a visit to the the sacred monkey forest, or Mandala Wisata Wanara Wana, where we took innumerable photos and videos of cuddly Balinese macaques.... until they realized they outnumber us 4-1! Monkey attack!

Saturday, July 11, 2009

High season fun in Java

We're a week into our Indonesia trip now and so far it's been a pretty interesting place to visit. Time to catch you up on our adventure!

After our flight fiasco from KL, the fun didn't stop yet-- our new flight left hours late too, and we landed in Jakarta around midnight. We caught a cab into town to the small budget-accommodation area and trudged down steamy Jalan Jaksa with our off-balance baggage only to find guesthouse after guesthouse with "full" signs. We yelled to each other over the loud live bands playing at the bars, got befriended by an odd (and possibly sketchy) Frenchman, Patrick, who kept urging us to drop off our bags at a nearby bar and he'd help us hunt for a place to stay. A few people-- including a wily prostitute and another tough looking dude yelled to us to stay away from "that man" and so we lost Patrick as soon as we could. Actually, the locals hanging out alongside the street were very helpful, pointing us to places that might have rooms and then when we found they were full, offering to call people for us and suggesting new spots. Finally we ditched Jaksa street and ended up on Jalan Johar, which was a LOT nicer looking that sleazy Jaksa but probably had price tags to match. We tried four or five fancier hotels and even they were full. Were we going to have to pull an all-nighter, drinking next to our packs til people checked out? Indonesian school holidays had just begun that day (our luck!) and people explained that it wasn't just European summer that was filling the rooms, it was the locals too!

We hardly believed it when a smiling man behind the desk of the very swank-looking Hotel Bumi Johar said he had a room available. But the TV wasn't working, he said, and bargained down his original price for us. Oh, and neither is the air-con, is that a problem? (Haha, we don't even like a/c!) We look at each other and he bargains his own price down further still, to 250,000 rupiah (about $25 USD). Well, it was quite a bit over the budget (we were hoping more like 70,000-100,000 Rp) but what can you do at 1am? Turned out the room was so nice-- fluffy bed, marble floors, hot water, free buffet breakfast, and housekeepers to pick up after us!-- we stayed for five nights!

Jakarta itself was pretty crazy, with no real city centre, heaps of traffic and pollution, really noticeable gaps between the super-rich and very poor. On our first day we braved a city train to head to the original Dutch port of Kuta (formerly Batavia). We clutched our bags from leering eyes and jumped on the old monorail-style train to head north. It was something out of a movie: dim, grungy, and packed, people hanging out the sides of the train as it veered above the city (there were certainly no closing doors to keep one from falling out!), and performers and vendors constantly pushed their way through the crowds to peddle their talents/goods. Kota was full of old Dutch colonial buildings and had a really quaint atmosphere. Crossing the streets was a bit of a nightmare-- constant speeding traffic!-- but we clung to locals as they crossed and dashed across as fast as we could. We checked out a history museum (right), got asked to be in many peoples' photos, and cooled ourselves off in the lovely Cafe Batavia, a grand old dame still stuck in the 1930s-- a great spot to sip an ice coffee, or if you can afford it, one of their cocktails. To complete the atmosphere, there was a live singer performing Sinatra hits and such to the handful of people inside-- Adrian couldn't resist the urge to karaoke a few songs with him, and others became braver after that. We left giggling at our first afternoon in Jakarta and decided to brave another form of public transit to head south within the city to meet Adrian's old college classmate, Diena. The "Busway" is a fairly new public transit system, with a few routes on nice a/c buses, with dedicated lanes to beat the insane traffic of the city core. What the Busway planners did not work on was creating some sort of order at the stops-- it was elbows-out as we became part of the swarming mass fighting to get on the next bus. Brought us back to our mosh-pit days. [I'm pretty sure I had my butt groped as well- D] Finally we pushed onto a bus... repeating our favourite analogy about "the journey being the most exciting part of the adventure". There was a great happy reunion with Diena (who was slightly weirded out at how much we enjoy public transit), and we met her husband and little son, and got to hang out at the family's (absolutely gorgeous) Balinese-style house for a fantastic evening.

The next day we checked out what was designed to be the city centre by the country's first (ambitious) president Soekarno in the 1950s. Being a Sunday as well as school holidays, it was packed with people visiting the Washington-Monument-style Monas. (The previous night we whizzed past what's been named "The Pizza Man", another of Soekarno's creations). Again, we were asked to pose in a bunch of strangers' photos, and even led an impromptu English lesson to a group of 15-year-old girls in hijabs. We didn't get much sightseeing done (as usual) but the charming Indonesians we meet along the way have been making up for it anyway. We met Diena and a friend of hers for some beers back at Batavia Cafe (we learned it used to be home to many raves back in the day) and to a beer garden down south in affluent Kemang. We learned that a love of Guns N Roses is apparently universal, that big (and mullet) hair is huge among Jakarta kids.

We spent the next few days running errands and enjoying the faint wifi signal we could steal from the comforts of our awesome hotel room. We said hello to everyone who greeted us on the street (a lot of hellos!). Michael Jackson continues to blare on speakers everywhere (thank god we don't have a TV). We tried some local food, and indulged in a little Pizza Hut too. We even came across the informal Jakarta press club: the hang-out spot of all the news photographers/ photojournalists in the city-- they were a fun bunch who were pretty excited about politics (the national election was coming that next day, July 8-- and as a country that's just emerging from dictatorships and hoping to shake its corruption, the election's big! Apparently the official results won't be officially counted for a week-- HUGE COUNTRY!-- but it appears "SBY", the current prez, has got the office again).

Finally we decided we should get seeing some more of the country, and took a train east to Yogyakarta (pronounced "Jogjakarta"), Java's cultural hub. The train travelled past some awesome scenery, including a few pointy volcanoes, and we ended up in Jogja a few days ago. It's got a better vibe than Jakarta, as it's a bit smaller and not so overwhelming, though as it's a real touristy place, we spent today dodging "invitations" to visit batik galleries and dance performances (tourist traps/scams rampant in the city). In between all of the hassles, we visited plenty of cool places: a bird market (lots of tweeting and cock-a-doodling), climbed old walls of the ancient city, and snapped photos of the nearby volcanoes looming above Jogja; visited the kraton (walled city), and the sultan's palace-- we gather Jogja still has a sultan, though we weren't lucky enough to meet him. And even though we're not morning people, we dragged our sorry butts out of bed to do THE thing to do in Central Java-- visit the ancient temples of Borobudur at sunrise, an absolutely magical sight as the mist fades from the surrounding hills and palms and the surrounding volcanoes materialize, while the temple itself glows a pretty yellow. Was definitely worth the extra coffee!

Monday, July 6, 2009

Running on Malaysian Time

We're on the go again! A few days ago-- night of July 3rd-- we made it to Indonesia, but not without a bit of trouble first. Although we consider ourselves pretty good planners, careful travellers, and things usually work out along the way. Our quick jaunt through Malaysia proved us otherwise...

We left the bliss of the Thai islands on July 1st and took a very comfy night train across the border. By noon the next day, we'd had a seamless crossing over to Malaysia (receiving a three-month visa, free of charge-- why aren't more travellers taking advantage??) and soon ended up in a town called Butterworth. Now, although we quite enjoyed the name Butterworth, our research said there wasn't much of interest there; however, it was right on the west coast and the train station was walking distance to the ferry to Penang, an island with a lot of history that DID indeed sound interesting. For 1.20 Ringgit (about 30 cents), we scored round-trip ferry tickets and we were heading back out to sea for the night. We figured we'd do some sightseeing, absorb a bit of a new country in a scenic environment, and then the next morning we'd hop the bus to Kuala Lumpur, five hours away, as several bus companies told us. Our flight to Jakarta wasn't til 7pm so we figured we had oodles of time!

The city of Georgetown in Penang was pretty scenic-- old English colonial buildings, a fort, lots of old shophouses in Chinatown, grand mosques, and a CRAZY Little India district (chock full of flamboyant salesmen, loud music, sari shops, and even bottled cow urine in one grocery store, filed under "religious items"). Penang-- and possibly Malaysia as a whole-- had a very multicultural flavour. Our guesthouse was a bit of a slumhole: dark hallways, our walls didn't quite reach the floor, ripped-out pages of Playboy in a drawer, and the staff graciously allowed us one towel to share. But it was cheap, and we were really tired from the long haul across the border!

The next morning we hopped the ferry back to the mainland and got on an "ekspres" bus due to leave at 9:45am. Plenty of time, we thought, to get to KL. We settled back into our massive (we're talking movie-theatre-size!) reclining seats and got ready to head further south... except the bus kept sitting there until, oh, about 11am. Apparently it seems 9:45 means something else in Malaysian time! And then we hit construction on the mega-highway south. And then a traffic jam, and another. And then our driver decided to stop and wait for more passengers for what felt like an eternity at Ipoh and a few other stops along the way. We arrived in downtown Kuala Lumpur around 5pm, getting a bit panicked, as Air Asia requires customers to check in at least 60 minutes before.

We sprinted a few blocks through terrible traffic to the subway that would whisk us to KL Sentral station, where we could catch a super-fast airport "ekspres" train, that arrives in 28 minutes from the station to the airport (74km away!). Now that's efficiency! The panic dissipated a tiny bit...

We arrived at the airport at exactly 6:55pm, dashed up five floors of escalators to find a giant lobby of airline check-in counters. We just made it! we thought. Turns out we celebrated too soon. The only Air Asia desk around had two uniformed ladies sitting under a "customer service" sign. Sorry, they said, but check-in is at another terminal. OK, where is this other terminal? we asked. They ask us what time our flight is and then shake their heads. "It's 28 minutes away by taxi," they tell us. (Why is everything 28 minutes away in KL??) Check-in's nearly closed and there aren't any refunds for you either, boo hoo. Pleading did nothing.

But lucky us, we were still able to buy a plane ticket to Jakarta on the next flight out-- the last flight of the day at 8:50pm. Of course, it cost twice as much as our original one, and we couldn't transfer or buy the extra 5kg of luggage allowance that we had for our original flight (had to buy it 6 hours before, aha, more wasted money!), so somehow we had to shrink our usual 20kg each into 15kg, unless we wanted excess baggage charges. Lovely!

Pissed off with the contradictory attitudes towards transport schedules and then the bureaucratic rules where WE needed to be early, but no one else needed to run on time, we hopped in a taxi to the other terminal and asked our driver to drive extra fast. He was all too happy, and we rewarded him with a few presents-- a raincoat, drinks, books, whatever might have put us over the weight limit-- as we put on layer upon layer of clothing and our heaviest shoes, layered purses inside purses, and stuffed anything weighty into the carry-ons. We arrived in about 15 minutes, and dashed to the check-in desk like we were contenders on the Amazing Race. A smiling girl greeted us, weighed our bags-- 14.1 kg for Adrian and 15.7kg for Dayle-- and we cheered like we'd just won first place! A small victory... we treated ourselves to a leisurely McDonalds' snack and slowly made our way through security, and arrived in our departure lounge to find quite a lot of people hanging out. Later on, as we were fighting with our computer, trying to connect to the free wifi, we hear the announcement: "Flight AK392, we are now ready for boarding..." Yup, that's right, our 7pm flight, with its first boarding call just after 9pm. (pictured left) ARRRRRGGGGGGHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

The morals of this story:
1. Murphy's Law can strike anytime.
2. You too, can shave 5kg off your baggage by wearing a lot of clothing and sneaking more stuff into your carry-on bag (which they never weigh) and oversized "purse". Just try not to sweat too much and make sure to pick up the 20kg carry-on like it weighs nothing at all.
3. Don't trust Malaysian bus companies to get you anywhere on time, even though Malaysia appears to be much more organized and modern than Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Burma put together.
4. Despite the similarities in spelling, "Ekspres" doesn't really translate to "Express" in Malaysia. It probably actually means "Silly tourist! We'll get there whenever we feel like getting there."

Thursday, July 2, 2009

I blame the beach!

We’ve been quite tardy on the blog, and there’s only one way to put it: it's because of the beach.
Standing on these pristine white-sand beaches, mango shake in hand, looking over the clearest water ever... yup, it’s the hard life.

Earlier back in Bangkok we’d met up with an old friend from our fruit picking days in Australia. What luck, Birte had finished a month living in a monastery on the north-east of Thailand. Monastery living was similar to what we’d encountered in Burma only there’s no Junta, the roads are 1000 times better, plus there’s electricity and running water.
Well, as you can imagine we all decided quite quickly that the islands of Southern Thailand were definitely the place to be for some R&R. With our joint tickets bought (via sleeper train & boat) we set off.
Train travel was very fun, it’s addictive especially when you can travel and sleep at the same time – it’s just so appealing to me. Round about 9ish a porter comes by and transforms your seat into a bed, I recommend the lower bunk – you get the window. Then at first light the porter returns to wake you from your peaceful dreams yelling at the top of his lungs about the next stop coming up.
The boat was fun too; it’s a 2 hour ride from Suratthani to Koh Samui – this allows you to get your “base tan” going, so that when you arrive on the island you don’t blind everyone with your white skin.

Koh Samui was a great place to get to working on our tans, we found some beach bungalows for 400 Thai baht on the sunny beach of Lamai – that’s on the east side of the island. Then something funny happened:


It seemed the entire time we were there we did nothing of any substance. Pure gluttony.
The travel gods took out their vengeance by giving Dayle “Shingles”, but we didn’t let that stop us! Before you ask – YES, Dayle stopped growing a horn on her face and is in full recovery, if not fully recovered thanks to the plentiful (and cheap) pharmacies of Thailand.
On Koh Pha-Ngan we went back to our old haunt on a northeastern beach, Thong Nai Pan Noi. Lucky for us we were very far from the “Black Moon Party” where neo-hippies get bashed on ecstasy and listen to trance and swap patchouli oil and talk about how they mastered the ‘dog pose’ so well they can sniff their own butts. Seems there’s a big ‘party’ for every single moon phase – even ones you never knew about, like; the “3-7ths of the first quarter Full Moon Party”. Yes, naturally all this builds toward the actual “Full Moon Party” where the dreadlocks really fly and the patchouli is rank on the beach for days.
Our beach at Thong Nai Pan Noi had a great sheltered bay, with 400 baht bungalows, and we even got to see a schooner moor in it – Adrian was very excited that it had 5 masts.
Wanting to get some diving in, it was a quick jump to Koh Tao. We did two great dives among batfish, angelfish, barracudas, and even a scorpionfish (very poisonous!), and were sad to leave. Each dive went for a bargain 1000 baht and we rented an underwater digital camera for another 1000 baht. The pictures, just like the dive, came out amazing – and as our luck would have it the battery died just as we surfaced from our second dive!
Somehow that’s the summation for our past 15 days; sun, sand, hippies, and diving. It’s really not our fault; we blame the beach!