Water, Water Everywhere

I feel like I really focused on dryness, desert, and fire last post, so I figured I would have a go at another basic element in this one: water. Similar to the US, Australia covers a continent with a long coastline that borders on two oceans. This means there is a lot of spectacular coastal scenery, and probably the first things you think of when you think of Australia are beaches, surfing, and the Great Barrier Reef.

While I haven’t tried my hand at surfing (honestly, I am still working on mastering walking), I did check out a few beaches – some famous even in the States and some that I had never heard of. Probably most famous are the beaches of Sydney, prime among them being Bondi, which I did not go to, and Manly, which I did and loved. What a blessing to live in such a fabulous world class city… yet be able to get to the beach on public transit within an hour. Had me feeling a little jealous of the Sydney dwellers, to be quite honest.

My folks and I got to explore much of the coastline of Victoria as well, tackling a portion of THE Great Ocean Road, out to the Twelve Apostles (rock formation), before heading up the coast between Melbourne and Sydney. (This is where the fires have gotten way out of hand now, if you are following the news). This is less of a beach bumming kind of beach and more just stunningly beautiful. More Pacific Northwest, less SoCal. I would never get tired of going on drives or walks (and trying unsuccessfully to make the sand squeak) and taking in the scenery here.

Although it was too cold for me to go swimming, plenty of animals disagree. This is prime whale watching coast for a good chunk of the year, although we just missed it, and you have to get to the southern coast in Australia if you want to see the penguins. I also saw the largest manta ray I have ever seen in my life, swimming just off the pier in some small town. The road trip took us to plenty of cute little one-horse towns near the coast, where there was one inn, a couple shops and restaurants, and maybe a gas station. My favorites were Tilba, Meeniyan, and Pambula, in case you want to know.

If you are looking for more of a “surf’s up dude” vibe, Noosa fits the bill. It’s one of the best in Australia. The Sunshine and Gold Coasts of always sunny Queensland seem lousy with surfers, although they are literally everywhere in this country. Noosa was the perfect spot to crash for a couple days of vacation and enjoy a beautiful beach, lovely state park, and the cleanest, clearest river I have ever seen. We also did some sitting by the river, watching the fires worsen, with mom and dad’s friends at their vacation place in Little Wobby.

And last but not least, as I mentioned I did hit the GBR. I accessed it from Bundaberg, at the southernmost tip. Lady Musgrave island in the reef proved to be a great day trip, although I definitely need to go back and do a multi-day beach hopping and diving reef tour. It was so nice being out on the water all day, snorkeling, watching the sea turtles and dolphins, riding around in the glass bottom boat, and strolling on the island. Bundaberg also ended up being quite the cute little stopover since it had the turtle center I mentioned last post and is home to the best rum in Australia. 

The Aussie coast offers so much to see and do – there is really something for everyone. And although we drove for miles and miles, we only covered just a small portion of it! I can’t wait to go back someday.

Do You Come From a Land Down Under?

Ever since watching the classic MK+A movie Our Lips Are Sealed (has anyone else ever seen this?), going to THE land down under has been on the top of my bucket list. I mean, who doesn’t want to go surfing with kangaroos and eat vegemite sandwiches with Men at Work? Even if literally everything in Australia is trying to kill you. So mom and dad and I popped on down. under.

Fortunately I haven’t had too many close calls with the nasty animals (we did see a snake while strolling down our first trail – but we high tailed it outta there and didn’t find out if he was nasty or not). But I DID get to see most of the legendary strange furry Aussie mates. We saw loads of wallabys and kangaroos, even some on a beach (not surfing though). Koalas galore, even one that MOVED, which they practically never do! Saw that kookaburra sittin’ in the old gum tree, an emu, and even a handful of…llamas?

 

While we faced no danger from the native fauna, the flora was going up in flames all over the driest inhabited continent. We saw some pretty serious dark smoke as we were driving by one of the biggest fires in the area, but the smoke is so thick that it is impacting visibility and breathing all over New South Wales. Although not helped by the severe drought across much of Australia, the fires are mostly natural and a necessary part of maintaining the ecosystem here… but those poor koalas didn’t stand a chance.

 

The drought has negatively impacted the sea turtles, as I learned on my visit to the Mon Repos turtle center near Bundaburg. The sand is so dry, they sometimes can’t build their nesting burrows and give up in frustration. Also because it has been so hot, most of the turtles are being born female since incubation temperature determines sex. This has biologists concerned about the long-term viability of turtle species, if there are a lack of breeding pairs. Yay global warming. Thank god good ole Bundy produces the most famous rum in Oz… so you can drink away your worries.

 

Speaking of hot (check that smooth transition there), I have also been out to the red hot center of Australia. I made the pilgrimage, like many tourists do, out to the middle of nowhere to see Uluru. The sun was sweltering, the flies were miserably annoying… but the desert was spectacular. It was surprisingly green out there, and the colors of sunset and sunrise were incredible. There are actually a few other large monoliths in the area, which I didn’t know – some even bigger and wilder looking than Uluru.

 

I reckon Uluru just played a bigger role in the creation myths of the local indigenous folks. It is considered a sacred site (which is why you are no longer allowed to climb it), and like a holy text it tells the story of some of the most important cultural myths and legends. It also served as an important gathering site for the Anangu people, where they would meet to pray, share stories, and instruct the next generation on how to survive in the desert. Cave paintings 5000 years old present the lessons for us to see today.

 

Most recently, I have been kicking it in small-town Oz. Friends of mine I met in Antarctica (seriously, who says that) bought a country tavern and are running a super charming little local bar. It’s all very chummy and Cheers like (there’s even a Norm!). For a couple days I hung out at the bar, had some good food and drink, and took a country bike ride (I can still ride a bike… sorta). We had live music one day and fire action on the mountain the next.

 

It’s been such an amazing couple of weeks, and it was so great hanging with some beloved locals. There have been too many highlights to even count. I’ll keep’em coming in the next one.

The Highs and Lows of the Tour

After Thailand, my parents and I had two more stops in SE Asia on our tour: Luang Prabang, Laos and Siem Reap, Cambodia. Little did we know they would prove to be my favorite and least favorite parts of the journey.

Luang Prabang sits up in the mountains of Laos, so not only does it have beautiful rugged terrain surrounding it, it is also quite a bit cooler than other places I’ve been in SE Asia. Backpackers have made it there, bringing good coffee shops and some more diverse food. But it hasn’t been overrun with tourists, and still feels inherently Laotian. At least for now. A fellow traveler said it reminder her of Chiang Mai… 25 years ago.

There are plenty of temples to explore, featuring wonderful mosaics. We strolled through a couple, even though we were starting to feel temple saturation by this point. We even woke up early one morning to participate in the ritual of giving sticky rice to the monks that go around collecting their daily rations. We also went to the cave temples on the outskirts of town, down the Mekong.

Cruising along the river for the afternoon was for me the highlight of the trip. It was hard not to enjoy the fresh air and fabulous scenery. In fact, I could easily see myself returning to explore some of the incredible nature around… or sitting in a cafe all day, doing nothing but soaking up the laid back atmosphere of the town.

Siem Reap is a whole different story. It’s hot. It’s humid. It’s flat, with little of geographic interest. The food doesn’t match up to its neighbor to the west (Thailand). It’s dirty. As you head out of town, it gets dirtier. Roads are bad. Tonle Sap is a disgusting body of water that smells like open sewage. Yes, Angkor Wat is an extremely cool place, and I enjoyed learning about the ancient city and seeing the beautiful temple complexes covered by carvings and jungle. It is impossible not to feel the sense of history here.

But Siem Reap moves into my #1 position as least favorite place I have ever been. A spot formerly occupied by Cartagena.

It did have me wondering, though, about development and the role that recent history, culture, and attitude play in what countries look like today. I can’t help but compare Cambodia with Colombia. Both struggled through really dark times were violence and murder was the norm, the government was completely corrupt, and the people were left behind as power hungry men pursued their own interests.

But to look at Colombia today, you almost wouldn’t know that there were ever any struggles (and the height of their dark days is more recent than in Cambodia). Sure nothing is perfect – the agreement with FARC goes too far for some and not far enough for others, there are parts of the country where instability continues to reign, and thousands still mourn the loss of their loved ones. But whereas Colombia seems determined to pull itself out of the shadows, Cambodia appears resigned to be there.

Maybe it’s just me. Some people I have talked to really love Cambodia. Travel bloggers rave about how “authentic” it is. But authentic doesn’t mean beautiful. Authentic doesn’t mean pleasant or enjoyable. Authentic doesn’t even mean interesting. I am sure it’s not fair to judge Cambodia by this one corner of it, just as it wouldn’t be fair to judge Colombia by Cartagena… But with so many beautiful places in the world to see, I can’t say I am in any rush to go back.

What’s Wat, Sweaty Crap, and More In Thailand

Wow, I feel like it has been ages since I have sat down and reflected on what I have been up to. And since I have last posted I’ve been playing absolute tourist, moving fast, in five countries. But I am getting ahead of myself…

After Indonesia, I made my way to Thailand where my first stop was Phuket. I didn’t love it. There were more Russians than Thais, the beaches were meh, you couldn’t get away from touristy restaurants and massage parlors begging you to come in, and the whole thing really had me missing Virginia Beach (and VA Beach is nothing to get excited about). Don’t get me wrong, I did get my fair share of massages and still relaxed on the beach, but where I stayed (Kamala then Kata) lacked charm and any sense of place.

One thing that was super fab was, after many years pending on the bucket list, I obtained my PADI Open Water certification for SCUBA diving. That was pretty awesome, and it sounds like I will have to return to Malaysia and Indonesia for some of the world’s best dive spots.

After a week of chilling at the beach, I made my way to Bangkok where I met up with my parents and we began a two-plus-week tour mainly through Thailand. I was super-thrilled to see them and we did get have some wonderful experiences in Thailand, including visiting the modern art spectacle that is the White Temple, getting family Thai massages, and watching lanterns floating into the river and the sky for Loy Kathong.

I also took a cooking class with mom in Chiang Mai. I have always enjoyed Thai food, and now my appreciation of the food has expanded, and I *may* even have enough confidence to try out a few dishes when we get home. But overall Thailand was… as meh as the beaches in Phuket. There wasn’t a single city or town that I have a need to go back to, not even hipster mecca Chiang Mai. I feel overloaded on temples, or “wat” in Thai. And the pictures of the King everywhere and (legally mandated) positive vibes towards him is downright creepy to me.

The most interesting part of Thailand to me was the language. In addition to all the “fun” jokes about ‘what wat?’ that one can make in Thailand, men also great people by saying sawadee krap. It sounds like “sweaty crap” in English (which, with the heat and humidity, is probably what you are feeling like). But the interesting thing is that men say this. Women would say sawadee ka. This is the first time I have come across a gender distinction in language based on the gender of the speaker rather than the thing/person being spoken about. And it extends to about every utterance. Not just “hello ka,” but “thank you ka,” “how much is it ka,” and so on.

While in Thailand we actually also took a day trip to Myanmar. The difference between Myanmar and Thailand is sharp. In Thailand, roads are perfect and paved, the countryside is litter-free, and everyone looks happy and healthy. In Myanmar tuk tuks rattle over rutted dirt roads, rolling by rivers clogged with trash, and some of the most grim looking street dogs I have ever seen. The temples were beautiful, though, and honestly if I had to live in Myanmar I would become a Buddhist nun and live in one.

At the end of the day, I can’t say I was unhappy to leave Myanmar and come back to Thailand. “Meh” was looking pretty good. Here are some fave pics from the trip.

And Now For Something Completely Different

While looking at a map of Malaysia and Singapore I realized just how narrow the Strait of Malacca looked, and figured that a trip to Sumatra, Indonesia would be easy. Why Sumatra? In addition to that delightful coffee at Starbucks, which is probably where I first encountered the name of this island (and maybe even its neighbor, Java), I know that Sumatra is one of only TWO places in the world where you can still see Orangutans in the wild in their natural habitat. The other being Borneo. (Thanks, Tina!)

The word orangutan come from Indonesian/Malay for “people of the forest,” and thus to the forest (jungle) I was heading! I flew into Medan and headed straight for Bukit Lawang, a delightful tourist village at the gates of the Gunung Leuser National Park. To get to my accommodation, I had to cross a swaying wooden suspension bridge. Other than that, we were on solid ground. It was humid, and the start of rainy season meant I was in for some impressive storms, but I really enjoyed my visit there.

In many ways, Indonesia is not entirely different from what I saw in Malaysia. A predominantly Muslim country with similar language, plant life, and food (SO much fried rice). But being able to see the orangutans in this way was something truly unique. It even made sweating and hiking through the jungle all day worth it.

It was also one of the most difficult places for me to travel. I’ve reflected in the past on the comforts of American life I can do without: AC, microwaves, clothes dryers, 24/7 electricity, etc. But I found my limit. I do not enjoy being without regular access to a real, WARM, shower – with running water and everything. Bucket showers are not for me. And access to a western toilet is clutch.  Litter everywhere, crazy traffic, and everyone always smoking were not my favorites either – but that’s par for the course in much of the world.

I also went to Lake Toba, a giant crater lake, and stayed a night in Medan. The lake was beautiful, but Medan was nothing to get excited about.  Driving around the countryside, seeing dramatic volcanoes and endless palm oil farms was a combo of amazing yet troubling. After a week there, I was ready to leave. But I am hoping I will be back for another visit. There is, of course, Eat-Pray-Love-famous Bali to see. Java is apparently chock full of fabulous temples. And maybe one day I’ll see the dragons of Komodo. 

A Singapore Sandwich

As you may remember, I was in Malaysia, soaking up all the culture, food, and things that make this part of the world so different from mine. I was also soaking in sweat and getting tired of being gawked at and just a tad uncomfortable all the time. So I decided to sandwich a visit to Singapore in between less-developed Malaysia and Indonesia,

I spent three full days walking (and walking, and walking) around the city. It is fantastic. It reminds me of London – very international, excellent public transport, and they drive on the left – mixed with a little bit of Las Vegas. But with SE Asian spice. The majority of residents in Singapore are Chinese Buddhist, but you can find the blend of Malay Muslim and Indian Hindu that seems to be the standard for this peninsula.

But Singapore could not be more different from its peninsular neighbor to the north. Where you cannot go a second without seeing litter in Malaysia, Singapore is impeccably clean. There are plenty of Aussies, Kiwis, Europeans, and Americans roaming about, so I was in no danger of causing pandemonium. Of course everything is more expensive in Singapore too, but I definitely enjoyed all the shiny modern buildings and the fun cultural events and Gardens by the Bay.

I took three walking tours, around the Malay, Chinese, and Indian sectors, learning about the development of this city-state and some of the social support systems they have in place. Most people live in government housing – I forget the exact figure, but it was like 80 percent. However, instead of just living there they buy it from the government (for 99 years) and then can do what they want to it (remodel it, rent it out). The government regulates who can live there, setting income limits and racial quotas for the buildings.

As I learned at the FABULOUS Chinatown Heritage Center, when the Chinese started arriving, apparently it was a small fishing village of a few hundred people. Quite a bit different from the city of 6.5 million it is today. The Chinese, fleeing famine and rough conditions in their own country, set up shophouses and lived in some pretty cramped, unclean “cubicles” (basically 6 feet by 6 feet) in these buildings. Singapore was, of course, part of the British colonies as well until fairly recently.

Very cool place to explore, and I definitely hope to go back. When you visit, be sure to get to the airport early. Singapore has the best airport in the world, and you can easily amuse yourself for hours with gardens, giant waterfalls, shopping and dining. Me personally, I crushed some Shake Shack. No regrets.

 

Remembering Why I Travel In Malaysia

I’ve been in Malaysia for over a week, and it is an exciting place full of learning opportunities. It is a majority muslim country that, in addition to the Muslim Malay population, is also home to large populations of Indian Hindus and Chinese Buddhists. There’s a lot of mixing of cultures, religions, races, and food (although, there’s definitely still segregation and racism). The country was also part of the British Empire until 1957 or 1963, depending on how you count it. Either way, when my parents were born, it was a British colony. Whoa.

You can still see some traces of colonialism, in more than just the architecture in the cities. The Malay language (Bahasa Melayu = BM) is the main language spoken here, but its alphabet was changed over to the latin one (i.e. the same alphabet as English). In fact, in addition to BM, Tamil, and Chinese, quite a few people speak English, especially in cities. People drive on the left here, and I have heard their hospitals are quite good.

Despite the presence of the British, I have been in places where I have not seen many (or any) white people around. From the stares, you can tell they don’t get a lot of people who look like me passing through (especially since I am also probably taller than the average man here). In Taiping, my friend who is teaching English here (she’s American but of Chinese descent), asked me to wait in the car while she dropped something off because my whiteness would likely cause pandemonium. Again, whoa.

Malaysia has also presented me with my first visit into a mosque. I have, of course, seen many mosques before, but never covered up my head and went inside the grounds. They tend to be lovely buildings, with domes and minarets, and the National Mosque in KL was no exception. It was a stunning building, and we were warmly welcomed by a volunteer who was very excited to talk to us and teach us a little about his religion.

I would probably say Malaysia is the least developed (and least Western-oriented) country I have been to so far – except maybe China. I’m definitely missing some of the comforts of home. Like showers. Showers here are basically a shower head on the wall of the bathrooms. Which is fine, at least there’s running water and a water heater! But there is no way to keep the whole room from getting soaked, which is not as nice when you are sharing a bathroom and constantly have to sit on a wet toilet.

I also miss general cleanliness. The rivers here are at least as disgusting and brown/orange as many of the South American rivers, if not worse. There’s visible litter everywhere. Even up in the Cameron Highlands, where people go to enjoy the fresh air and beautiful nature, plastic bottles and other rubbish litter the sides of the roads. Air pollution is high, air quality is low, and visible haze permeates the air around. It’s also so humid that I just sweat and generally feel gross all the time. Ah, the tropics.

But that’s just it. There’s a saying “life begins at the end of your comfort zone.” Being uncomfortable forces you to realize that you can deal with it. There’s a lot of “well, that’s not ideal but I can work with that” moments. You learn to plan ahead. You learn to carry your own tp and hand sanitizer. Being uncomfortable also reminds you to appreciate the times when you are comfortable. Learning about new cultures and places, but also learning more about yourself is the very reason I travel. Why do you travel?