A Travellerspoint blog

In the Ring of Fire – Indonesia

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Indonesia is huge - it is made up of about 17,000 islands – and we are only going to see two! There is undoubtedly a lot to see, but given our time constraints, we decided to focus on Java, the most populated island in the world, and Bali. We flew from Manila to the capital of Indonesia, Jakarta, located in western Java. Jakarta as a city is fairly uninspiring - basically a concrete jungle choked with pollution. But, there are some sights to see, and we checked them out like dutiful tourists. We stopped by a still functioning school were President Obama studied for four years as a child (his stepfather was Indonesian). Then, we stopped by the National Monument and Museum to learn the underlying story of Indonesia and caught a glimpse of the Presidential Palace (also known as the “white house”). Finally, we made our way to the old Dutch section of town and stopped at Batavia for an early dinner, an atmospheric restaurant which looks down on the old town square. Nowadays the town square hosts a hodge-podge market and is a hangout place for locals.
IMG_1644.jpgThe National Monument in Jakarta
IMG_1652.jpgThe Presidential Palace "the white house" mainly because it's white
IMG_1672.jpgThe Dutch section of Jakarta

After one full day in Jakarta, we took an overnight train to Yogyakarta (pronounced “Jojakarta”) in central Java. The town is a common base for exploring two nearby temples, but it also has a few sights as well. The Taman Sari, also known as the Water Palace, is an old complex of palaces and pools where the sultan had his “secret pleasure rooms”. Interestingly, it now sits in ruin and locals have built homes and shops in and around the site. We also hit up the main market area and bought my 6th, yes 6th, pair of sunglasses on the trip. I seem to have a hard time not sitting on them or bending them somehow (thankfully, they are generally cheap to buy).
IMG_1674.jpgGetting a ride on a tricycle to our hotel
IMG_1694.jpgInside of the Water Palace
3IMG_1699.jpgOutside one of the buildings at the water palace
IMG_1703.jpgInside their shopping complex in Yogya

The main reason we were in Yogya was to see the temples of Prambanan and Borobudur. We headed out early the next morning on a day tour with Borobudur as our first stop. It’s an amazing Buddhist temple constructed around the 9th century AD. The six levels you climb up are supposed to represent the process of getting to enlightenment with Nirvana being the highest level. Its top levels were only recently re-opened to tourists as the nearby volcano erupted last year covering the site in 2 inches of ash. Indonesia is made up of a lot of volcanoes hence where it earns the nickname "the ring of fire". There are over 3 million visitors a year to the temple, but only 100,000 are foreign, which made us a bit of a novelty. As such, we were constantly approached by families and giggling teenagers to pose for photos. Our tour guide managed to keep it at a reasonable rate, but once he left us it was like a free-for-all. After having our pictures taken by about 20 different groups, we were feeling a little overwhelmed, so we headed back down to hide inside a museum until it was time to move on to Prambanan. I did manage to get a video of a huge group of girls getting their photo with Jeff – it’s pretty funny.
Jeff and the School Kids

IMG_1722.jpgOne of the families we posed with for photos- they don't smile much for photos ;)
IMG_1737.jpgReally intricate carvings when you get up close- amazing!
IMG_1739.jpgBuddha carvings
IMG_1757.jpgIn Nirvana, the highest level
IMG_1792.jpgThese particular images are everywhere here

Prambanan is a large and beautiful complex of 50 Hindu temples (not Buddhist). It was built around the same time as Borobudur, so both temples stand as a sign of the religious co-existence which existed in central Java in and around the 9th century AD. Unfortunately, a lot of the complex was extensively damaged in a 2006 earthquake (Indonesia has a lot of natural disasters) and many temples are yet to be reconstructed. The main site is made up of six of the largest temples and our tour guide had a lot of fun telling us the Hindu stories of Brahma which are depicted in carvings around the temples. Both Prambanan and Borobudur are well worth a visit and are among the most impressive religious structures we’ve seen since leaving the Middle East.
IMG_1793.jpgOne temple with what are a lot of the remanants of old temples that have fallen down
IMG_1810.jpgThe main temple at Prambanan
IMG_1826.jpgOutside the temple grounds

For our next big stop we headed east through Java to Mt. Bromo. Known for its beautiful vistas and interesting scenery, we were excited to peek down inside an active volcano. We went to bed early as we had a 3:30am wake-up call (everyone seems to think all mountains are best seen at sunrise) and were bummed the next morning to wake up to rain. Nevertheless, we made our way via jeep and hiking to a viewpoint on the crater rim for a surprisingly decent view despite the weather (but no sunrise). We then headed out by jeep across the crater valley and hiked up 270 steps to peer inside the volcano. By this time, we were absolutely soaked through and our umbrella broke in the wind. It was slightly nerve racking standing on the edge of a volcano that frequently erupts, but thankfully did not while we were there :) Afterwards, all I can say is thank God for hot showers!
IMG_1849.jpgA view of the caldera (collapsed volcano) just after sunrise
IMG_1854.jpgAt the viewpoint-already pretty wet
IMG_1873.jpgLooking down into the volcano- and thorougly soaked through!
IMG_1885.jpgView of the surrounding town on our drive back down

Once we got down off of Mt. Bromo, we hopped on a bus headed to Bali. We’ll write more soon!

Posted by geldere 05:22 Archived in Indonesia Comments (0)

Whale Sharks and Ancient Rice Terraces

9 Days Exploring the Philippines

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We left the country of malls (Singapore) and took a flight to Manila, the capital of the Philippines. The US had a strong presence in the Philippines for about 50-years in the early 20th century. As a result, to this day, English is a common second language. When we arrived in Manila we noticed an instant departure from the Asia we’ve been travelling through over the past few weeks (Singapore, Malaysia, and Thailand in particular). Manila is pretty dirty, with a large, urban poor population - it felt more like some of the cities in Africa we visited. Manila has malls and first world restaurant chains (Kenny Roger’s Roasters, KFC, and A&W do shockingly well here), but it’s all just a shiny façade in a lot of ways. The people are generally nice and, interestingly, 90% of the population claims to be Christian in contrast to the rest of Asia which is overwhelmingly Muslim or Buddhist.

While in Manila, we hit up the major tourist sites including the Intramuros, all that remains of Spanish colonial Manila. It is a walled town within the city and contains some old churches and Spanish architecture. The main draw in the Intramuros is Fort Santiago, a Spanish fort which was later used by the Japanese during WWII to house POW’s. Jose Rizal, a writer and national hero, was also kept in the fort immediately before his execution by the Spanish. He is revered to this day as a martyr for national freedom because the Spanish claimed he was an instigator and had him executed.
IMG_1302.jpgThe oldest Spanish church in Manila
IMG_1316.jpgIn the Intramuros
IMG_1328.jpgAt Fort Santiago
IMG_1331.jpgThe jeepney- no two are alike and they a national symbol of the Philippines

After seeing the sights in Manila we headed to Donsol. The long distance bus system in Manila is difficult to navigate – you can’t buy tickets online or over the phone and there is no central bus station – as a result, you have to go to each individual bus company to find tickets. Thankfully, flights were $80 roundtrip and would cut our travel time in half, so we just decided to skip the headache and fly. We flew from Manila to Lugazpi at the foot of Mt. Mayon, a still active volcano which last erupted in 1993. Then from Lugazpia we traveled by minivan for one hour to Donsol.
IMG_1337.jpgCatching a tricycle in Lugazpi- I swear we've taken almost every mode of transportation there is

Our whole point in getting to Donsol was to cross off a bucket list item – swimming with whale sharks. After getting situated at our hostel, we headed out the next morning on a converted fishing boat with two other couples and spent the better part of the morning just trying to spot one. We had just about given up hope when at the very end of the morning a “butanding” (Pilipino for whale shark) was spotted. In a mad dash, we raced over and all jumped in the water. Our guide grabbed my hand and said “swim now, it’s coming”. I hate to sound cheesy, but it was like magic. Almost out of nowhere the shark came into view, a bus sized object gracefully swimming only six feet underneath me. My first view was its enormous mouth which could swallow a person whole (but thankfully, it only eats plankton). This particular whale shark was about 21 feet long; half the size of a full grown adult! We swam along with it for about 30 minutes in total before it disappeared into deeper water. It was a truly amazing life experience!
IMG_1356.jpgOur butanding spotter
IMG_1364.jpgMt. Mayon
ws1.jpg While not our pics (no underwater camera), these next two are basically what we saw

We left the magic of Donsol, flew back to Manila and then caught an overnight bus to Banaue. Like most night buses, it was a fairly painful experience, but we made it and checked ourselves in to a cute B&B. Banaue is a small, mountain town with a very pleasant temperature compared to sweltering Manila and Donsol. The town is famous because it is built in and around 2000 year old rice terraces which are now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. On our first day, after catching up on the sleep we missed on the bus, we walked around the market and found ourselves constantly stopping to say “hello” to probably the friendliest lot of children we have met in our travels. We also found an American country music bar in this small town of all places. Jeff looked about as excited as I do when I’m at the mall. We sat in the bar for a while and listened to a little Filipino man with a shockingly soulful country voice belting out songs like “Friends in Low Places” and “I Love This Bar”.
IMG_1417.jpgThis was the best- the Philippine solution to "we oversold the bus by 12 seats"- they just put plastic chairs in the aisle- and it was an overnight bus!
IMG_1438.jpgDowntown Banaue with the "Friends Country Music Bar" in the background

On our second day we headed out for a day trip to the nearby and very scenic village of Batad. We had no idea what we were in for. We took an hour long tricycle ride on some really bad roads up into the mountains (I can’t believe the tricycle made it up) and then we hiked for an hour and a half to the village. The closest road to Batad is a 45-minute hike. Because it is so difficult to get to, the village is cut off from the tourism of Banaue and retains a quaint feel. To this day, most of the villagers continue to grow and harvest rice by hand on the adjacent 2,000 years old terraces. The scenery was really amazing and after about 6 hours of up and down hiking we were exhausted (even our guide looked beat).
IMG_1493.jpgA view of Batad from above
IMG_1494.jpgAnother view of the terraces
IMG_1528.jpgTaking a breather near a waterfall
IMG_1540.jpgWalking back along the terraces

On our last day in Banaue, we relaxed for a while and then went to a lookout point by tricycle for some final views of the terraces. Our tricycle driver explained to us that each rice terrace is owned by a certain family and that the oldest child (boy or girl) inherits the family’s rice terrace(s) and the youngest child (boy or girl) inherits the house. Middle children (usually between 4 to 6 of them) either end up working for the oldest child or have to find alternative jobs (such as our tricycle driver, a middle child).
IMG_1578.jpgFrom the viewpoint

After three days in Banaue, we caught another overnight bus back to Manila. For our last day in the Philippines, we visited the surprisingly interesting Chinese cemetery. In the cemetery, wealthy, local Chinese families have built extremely elaborate mausoleums for themselves equipped with chandeliers, bathrooms and kitchens, among other amenities. The over the top mausoleums are both a status symbol and a home away from home for visiting family members. Like our guide book points out: “[the cemetery] boldly challenges the idea that you can’t take it with you”. The things people come up with. We rounded out our time in Manila by having dinner with one of my old high school buddies. Alison is working in Manila temporarily and it was an awesome coincidence that we were both there at the same time! Of all the places to catch up with old friends :)
5IMG_1617.jpgOne of the elaborate mausoleums
IMG_1618.jpgThe mausoleum affectionately referred to as "Starbucks"- can you see why?
IMG_1628.jpgMy old French partner from HHS :)

Next, we’re heading to Indonesia to explore the islands of Java and Bali – we’ll write soon!

Posted by geldere 04:46 Archived in Philippines Comments (0)

Back in the States – Oh wait, it’s just Singapore!

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So, we took yet again another fantastic VIP bus from KL to Singapore through one of the easiest and most efficient border crossings ever. We got dropped off at a metro station and were totally blown away by how clean, modern, and efficient the whole system is here (I’d actually use those same words to describe the entire country). We were only in Singapore for four days, but we managed to see quite a bit of the county both on foot and with the help of the metro – size-wise it is really just a dot of a country on a world map.
IMG_1169.jpgOn the metro

Most people associate Singapore with a strict police state, but I didn’t feel that presence very much. There are signs in places that threaten hefty fines for things like littering, spitting, or bringing bombs onto the metro, but really, who needs those things, anyway? And again, even if English is not the official language, it is the defacto first language here. For example, if someone bumps you on the metro, there first reaction is to say “I’m sorry” in English.
5IMG_1245.jpgSends a pretty clear message

Singaporeans love their electronics, shopping, movies, and eating – these are my kind of people. Jeff described Singapore as “one big mall”, which I would definitely say has some truth behind it. You could spend days here walking from high-end mall to high-end mall and shop until you drop in air-conditioned bliss. So, when in Rome… we took in a few movies (all in English) and spent time on Orchard Road, which has been rated the #1 shopping street in the world – did I mention I love it here? It was rough :)
IMG_1226.jpgOf all places we found a Hershey's store in the mall

We stopped by the obligatory tourist sites as well including the Kong Meng San Phor Kark See Monastery (say that three times fast), 12 beautiful temples with both Chinese and Hindu influence. We checked out the old Colonial Town which still has some well preserved British colonial buildings and great walking streets. We also stopped by Little India to peruse the markets and people watch. On our last day, we went out to the MacRitchie Reservoir for some trail walking – Singapore’s version of New York’s Central Park. It is really hot here, the temperature hovers around 90 degrees and the humidity pushes 100% most days, so we stuck to shaded paths and trails. Given the weather, locals seek refuge in the air-conditioned malls and you can walk between most buildings in the downtown either underground or through sky bridges – you could literally spend days here and never walk outside.
IMG_1193.jpgAt the market in Little India
IMG_1196.jpgLittle India
2IMG_1214.jpgA building at the monestary
9IMG_1221.jpgA Buddha garden at the monestary
IMG_1234.jpgA walking trail at the Resevoir
IMG_1239.jpgAt the Resevoir
IMG_1254.jpgOn an old cricket field- with the Singapore skyline in the back
IMG_1264.jpgThis is how they do ice cream on the street here- a block of ice cream in between a slice of bread- wasn't that bad actually
IMG_1267.jpgSnazzy architecture here- it's supposed to be a boat on top

All in all, I would have to say that most people I know would love Singapore. It’s so modern and above all else, clean, which is hard to come by in Southeast Asia. It is also a great jumping off point in Asia and easy to get to – check it out! We fly to the Philippines next and we’ll post soon!

Posted by geldere 23:06 Archived in Singapore Comments (0)

On the Banana Pancake Trail in Malaysia

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Travel has its good moments and its not so good moments – Leaving Koh Tao and traveling to Malaysia was one of the more frustrating moments. For starters, we rode in the uncovered back of a pickup truck to the pier in a light rain. Then, we took a two-hour ferry ride to the mainland which was delayed due to rough seas and pouring rain. The ferry also happened to have a ceiling leak in the passenger compartment which spurted water like a nicked artery every time the boat swayed far enough. Once we reached the mainland, we took a bus to the train station where we waited a few hours for an overnight train. Somehow, beyond our comprehension, we missed the train we had tickets for even though we were at the station when it passed through. As a result, we had to cough up more money for the next train heading south which we made sure not to miss after obsessively asking the police and train workers when it would arrive. The night train dropped us off early in the morning at a Thailand border town from which we had to catch yet another train traveling across the border and to the town of Butterworth, Malaysia. After clearing customs and immigration and arriving in Butterworth, we took our second ferry to the island of Penang. And, finally, we took a bus from the Penang port to Love Lane, the street where our next hostel was located. Lord have mercy, sometimes it’s a process! Jeff rolls his eyes at me as I write this – he didn’t think it was that bad ;)
IMG_0827.jpgThe ferry ride to Penang

Penang is an island on the Western coast of Malaysia and Jeff refers to it as the biggest place he’s never heard of - its skyline looks like a little Hong Kong. Georgetown, the main city on the island of Penang, is a real melting pot of culture and history. It was along a major trading route for the British and thus has scores of English architecture. We spent our first two days on Penang walking the streets of Georgetown, checking out the museums, and visiting the must see Chinese clan house (very ornate). We also scored our best Indian food since being in Dar es Salam, Tanzania and caught a movie at one of Penang’s extremely modern theatres (Sherlock Holmes). On our third day we took a funicular ride to the top of Penang Hill for some spectacular views of the city. We then walked back down Penang Hill and through the Botanical Gardens before catching a bus back to Georgetown. Penang boasts several great night markets with “the best hawker food in Malaysia” so we tested our taste buds and stomachs with some of the street food (see pictures below). The food choices in Malaysia are a reflection of the diverse culture - Malay, Indian, and Chinese.
IMG_0854.jpgThe Chinese Clan House
IMG_0897.jpgAt the top of Penang Hill
IMG_0918.jpgCendol: Shaved ice treat with jellies, coconut milk and cane syrup- Jeff's reaction was "wow, it's good- that is not as disgusting as it looks!"
IMG_0919.jpgChar Kway Teow: Medium width rice noodles are stir-fried with egg, vegetables, pork in a dark soy sauce. Also sugar cane juice which incidentenally was not that good
IMG_0925.jpgChicken Satay: grilled chicken on kebabs with the most amazing peanut sauce you've ever had
IMG_0920.jpgscenes from the night market
IMG_0922.jpgI passed on that one

The Malaysians we have met have been extremely nice and you get a smile and a hello wherever you go. Shockingly, almost everyone here speaks near perfect English – But for English, the three dominate ethnic groups (Malay, Indian, and Chinese) would have trouble communicating with each other. It’s also awfully hot here, very similar to Florida in the summer, hot and humid- walking into an air-conditioned building feels like taking a dip in a pool.

We then caught a bus to the Cameron Highlands which is about the altitude of Denver and in the center of the country. The ride was really pleasant and we’ve been blown away by how developed Malaysia is. The highway and bus systems are top notch and the rest stops were Western standard, if not better (clean bathrooms- don’t take them for granted). The elevation in the Highlands provides a unique “high-altitude tropical environment” which is perfect for growing strawberries and tea (the area’s specialties), plus it also provides an amazing break from the heat. We took a tour of the area which included stops at a tea plantation, butterfly farm, rose garden, honey bee farm, Buddhist temple, and strawberry farm. The area is really beautiful and reminded us a bit of Pigeon Forge, Tennessee (if by happenstance you’ve ever made the pilgrimage to Dollywood). Coincidentally, the area is also full of old Land Rovers that looked like they’ve been driven hard since at least the 1950’s. They’re used by farmers here to transport goods and such, but there’s so many of them, people refer to the Cameron Highlands as “the place where Land Rovers come to die”. On our second day in town we headed out to complete one of the many hikes the area is known for. All in all, the hike took about four hours, including several wrong turns along the way, but the views were pretty and it gave us some much needed exercise in order to burn off all of the Chicken Tikka we’ve been eating :) The Cameron Highlands is certainly a unique stop-off on the Banana Pancake Trail (as the Southeast Asia backpacker circuit is referred to) if you are ever in the area.
IMG_0963.jpgA view of the tea plantation
IMG_0982.jpgAt the strawberry farm
IMG_0997.jpgOn our hike up the mountain
IMG_1000.jpgTaking a breather

We then headed out to our last stop in Malaysia, Kuala Lumpur, the capital of the country. We took a bus that sold itself as a “VIP” bus and were shocked when it actually turned out to be a nice bus. When buses are advertised as “VIP” or “First Class”, they usually just end up being standard, overcrowded buses. We cracked up as other Westerners boarded the bus after us and exclaimed our same sentiments – “holy crap, this is the nicest bus I’ve been on in a while”, “check out the leg room” – it apparently doesn’t take much to please us. We happened to meet two ex-pat Americans, Simona and Jason, on our tour in the Cameron Highlands who were living in KL and they generously offered to let us stay with them. All in all, we spent about three days in KL wandering the city, seeing the sights, and checking out the malls. We enjoyed the view from the top of the Petronas Towers (the tallest buildings in the world between 1998 and 2004) and headed out for some hiking on a “canopy walk” in a nearby forestry reserve. We saw the Batu Caves (a Hindu holy site) and amused ourselves by watching monkeys snatch food from visitors and drinking out of plastic bottles - naughty little creatures. While in KL, Simona and Jason took us out to some fabulous restaurants and we even worked out at their gym and swam in the huge and very refreshing pool at their apartment complex. It was definitely fun to experience the ex-pat life for a few days!

IMG_1168.jpgOur "VIP bus" :)
IMG_1048.jpgAt the mall in KL
IMG_1072.jpgPeople watching- Malaysia is 80% Muslim
IMG_1076.jpgThe famous KL landmark- the Petronas Towers
IMG_1139.jpgOn the skybridge at the Petronas Towers, 41 floors up
IMG_1100.jpgOn the canopy walk on the KL outskirts
IMG_1110.jpgOutside the Batu caves
IMG_1114.jpgEveryone gets thirsty
IMG_1162.jpgOur last feast with Simona and Jason- it had to be cake!!

Our time in Malaysia has come to an end and we are now making our way to neighboring Singapore. We really enjoyed our time in Malaysia and were very impressed by its “first world-ness” and the melting pot of culture and food. We’ll write more from Singapore soon!

Posted by geldere 19:42 Archived in Malaysia Comments (0)

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