Thursday, November 25, 2010

Lake Toba, Medan, and beyond

I have been informed that my posts are too long, so I'll try my hand at an abridged version of the events...

Lake Toba, well, it's a big lake.  It's nice, the surroundings are similar Coeur d'Alene, Idaho with more jungle-like plants.  The island in the middle was also cool but it seemed the locals were fond of the money that tourism brings, but not so fond of the tourists themselves.  I felt like I was looked at as A) a walking bank, and B) possibly gay for not yet being married at 23!

I met a couple interesting people but the locals were pretty reserved and constantly searching for opportunities to line their pockets.  Other than that it was pretty expensive, at least substantially more than staying at somebody's house for free and only paying for 2 meals a day at about $1 each.  After 2 days and 3 nights I decided to bail and fly to Jakarta.

I showed up at the Medan airport at about noon, expecting to have no problem getting a cheap - less than $50 - flight to Jakarta sometime later in the day.  When I found that the cheapest ones were more on the order of $150 for that day I decided to go back to my Couchsurfing host for a couple nights and fly to Jakarta today (Thursday, Thanksgiving for all of you at home) for a reasonable $52.

I made it to Java, met with my host, and have my own room and bed, crazy! I think this may yet be the best CS experience I've had, although Penang was pretty good and I think the upcoming time in Bali will be tough to top.  Tomorrow I'm going to...a giant mosque? A second-hand market (whatever that means in a country where things are used until they are useless then tossed in the river to be disposed of, I'm not sure?)  And maybe a museum or two, who knows?!  So many things to do, so little time! 

I'm also going to count how many times I hear "Hello, Mr!" as it seems to be about the only line that kids are taught in their English classes here.  At first it was obnoxious, but now I just laugh and say hello back, then play a game where I engage them in conversations of absolute fiction on my part, to make it more interesting for all of us!

Pictures tomorrow?  Perhaps yes! At least I hope so...I have so many to upload!

Friday, November 19, 2010

Successful loose planning

Well Sumatra is a lot bigger than I realized, oops.  So rather than going overland (which I have been informed would take at least a couple days without stopping) I will be flying from Medan.  I haven't really left the city but it's been fun.  The couchsurfing group here is very organized and are pretty close knit.  I was picked up at the airport by my host and immediately whisked to a meeting in a park with some other members.  After the park we got lunch and went to a school to play basketball.  Apparently it was a national holiday so everyone had the day off to play and hang out with me.

Yesterday (my 2nd day here) was the Islamic holiday of Eid al-Adh which I spent with a wealthy Pakistani family living here in Medan.  It was tough not to laugh at first when their son who I met through couchsurfing was telling me quite proudly that they were going to sacrifice a cow rather than just a goat, and eat it.  I reminded myself that they probably laugh at some of our traditions too, but that this was something significant to them both culturally and religiously, and that to laugh would be highly offensive and likely revoke my invitation. It was an interesting ceremony to see - not much of a ceremony really. The eldest son got the honor of cutting the cow's throat with a large sword/machete and then the butcher did the rest.  The women and the help prepared the food, although me and the other 2 westerners who came also helped. They were all very friendly and didn't seem put off at all by the fact that I'm American.  There was no praying or overt religiosity present, which I suspect is typical of the modern, progressive Muslim family.  They told me that there are only a few areas where the Muslims in Indonesia are conservative at all, and they are typically isolated anyhow.  Being a male I shouldn't receive any unwanted attention or harassment according to them, so it was nice to have my lack of fear justified.

They did ask at one point why so many Americans dislike Islam and Muslims, but after talking with them for a while they admitted that they hadn't met many Americans and really only knew from what they had read, heard, or were told.  They were all fairly educated and progressive, the wife had even just been in London last month and none of the girls were even covering their hair. It was interesting to get their perspective on things, but sad to see that a family of a high social and economic status with a superior education to most of the population - at least by my estimation - was still fairly ignorant to the truth behind what they are told.  Although in writing that I realize that most Americans are not much different. I doubt most Americans have ever met or talked to a Muslim either and yet most seem adequately terrified and distrusting as well so I shouldn't be that surprised.  I guess it's easier to listen to somebody else telling you something you already moderately believe than to go investigate and understand for yourself.

In any case, they were all very welcoming, generous, and open to my being there.  I'm sure they enjoyed sharing their tradition with me as much as I enjoyed being allowed to participate.  The beef from the cow which we later put on skewers, marinated, and bbq'd was delicious, and extremely fresh of course.  It was a bit strange to think about the fact that what I was eating had been alive only a few hours before - it took about 4 1/2 hours between slaughter and eating.  There was also all you could eat rice, beef soup filled with vegetables and potatoes, and some cookies.

Although they were very generous to me, the help was not so lucky.  They pretty much worked continuously from the time we got there at about 9am until we left at about 5.  I guess this isn't so bad, but when you think about the fact that the rest of us were sitting around enjoying freshly bbq'd beef, soup, and rice, it seemed rude not to invite them. After all, they were the reason we were eating.  This was clearly just a case of the separation of classes here and much less (if anything) to do with the religion.  The religious aspect of the tradition dictates that the family only eat 30% of the cow or so, and donate the rest to the needy.  I guess it's a bit like Christmas and Thanksgiving rolled into one, although it is not celebrating the birth or death of any prophets and isn't commercialized. 

Today I didn't do much, got a tourist map, sent some couch requests, and made a plan to go to Jakarta.  Hopefully getting to Bali by next weekend.

So far it's been quite cheap aside from buying a sim card and using said sim card.  Less than $10 in 2 1/2 days, though I am staying for free with couchsurfing and being driven around for free too which helps a lot. Hopefully Jakarta will be more good experiences with the CSers there, as I have already arranged a last minute host! Great!

Still no pictures though, slow internet ahh!

Before I embark on this though, I will be going to Danau (Lake) Toba, one of, if not the, biggest volcanic lakes in the world.  It also contains an island, making it interesting for the fact that it is an island within an island.  I've read that rooms can be had at a bargain of around 30,000 rupiah (about 9,000 rupiah/1$) and there is some fun to be had.  Although there is no couchsurfing there, it should be great to see.  I can stay on budget by having days like today and yesterday where I spend only $4 or $5...It's a 4-6 hour ride by public bus and ferry across the lake, but in total costs around 30,000 rupiah also for the trip.  That leaves about 30,000 rupiah for food for the day, which seems doable if I don't want any real meat, rice and tofu it is!

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Sitting on bus in Georgetown

Yep, Georgetown.  Named so lovingly after King George of England (I'm not sure which one) when Sir Francis Light "bought" the rights to the island of Penang from the kingdom which controlled it in the late 1700s.

Today I saw an old fort which was constructed shortly after the transfer of ownership, a couple beautiful old mosques, an old church, and countless old buildings which date back to the 1800s.  The fact that they are a) still in use and b) still looking good is both a testament to the builders and the tenants through the ages who must have completed at least minimal maintenance during their tenure.  Many now house the areas of little India and China town, which I'm not sure if the original builders ever anticipated.

It is a bit odd to walk down a street which is reminiscent of a classic European city, yet covered in signs with Hindu words and/or Chinese characters.  Although these minorities were present during the time of colonial ownership, I suspect they never inhabited the colonial style buildings.

It is a very modern city though, with several buses running all over the island, all fully equipped with wifi which is connected to mobile broadband.  Although it is certainly not lightening fast, it is sufficient for simple browsing.

The first couple nights here I stayed in a guesthouse with a pair that I met in the Cameron Highlands, but spent the days at a couchsurfing gathering hosted by Michel, a Frenchman who is a CS ambassador.  He is a bit eccentric but very generous and very much in love with couchsurfing.  He rents a 16th floor condo about 100m from the beach and has equipped his 2 spare bedrooms with 6 small beds - all free and all for CSers!  The view is beautiful and he gets to enjoy lovely sunsets every night.

Tomorrow I am flying to Medan, Indonesia which is on the northern tip of the island of Sumatra.  I got anti-malaria pills for the first time and finally found some mosquito repellent loaded with DEET, hopefully between these and staying relatively covered up during high-risk times, I'll be fine.

On a side note: "In 2008, there were 247 million cases of malaria and nearly one million deaths – mostly among children living in Africa. In Africa a child dies every 45 seconds of Malaria, the disease accounts for 20% of all childhood deaths...Approximately half of the world's population is at risk of malaria. Most malaria cases and deaths occur in sub-Saharan Africa. However, Asia, Latin America, and to a lesser extent the Middle East and parts of Europe are also affected. In 2008, malaria was present in 108 countries and territories." - WHO

I remember seeing a big display in UN Headquarters in NYC last April when I was there for the national Model UN conference.  It was a mock-coming detailing the plague of malaria in the developing world.  It was something I had never really seen or thought of before, especially not something I had ever worried about.  Having never traveled to an area where there is any real risk of acquiring the disease, it is easy to forget.  

It is amazing that even in the most high risk of areas it is easy to greatly decrease the risk of contracting the disease by proper use of mosquito nets and protective clothing (long sleeves, pants, socks, etc.).  However, in many places even if there are thousands of nets available, most people are unaware of a) the importance of using them, b) the advantages of using them, and most importantly c) how to use them.  

This is an incredible problem and the fact that nearly a million people a year die from a disease so easily prevented is atrocious in a world where we (the developed world) are spending untold millions to ineffectively patrol the Gulf of Aden for Somali pirates 1.  The piracy patrols and piracy in general could lead me to rant for hours, but the point is that despite the economic downturn of recent years, it would be incredibly easy to greatly reduce the number of deaths from malaria, and while this may then lead to other problems (sadly: overpopulation, increased malnutrition/starvation, etc.) it has been included as part of the UN's Millennium Development Goal #6 and should be given attention accordingly.  For those who have never heard of the MDGs, maybe you should read them.  They represent the challenges and hopes for the start of this century, hopefully not the whole thing.

Climbing off the soapbox, I'll finish my post.

After a couple bad experiences with couchsurfing - or at least less than positive - I have renewed faith in the project after meeting Michel and the other surfers staying with me there.  I have successfully secured a host for my arrival in Medan, Indonesia tomorrow, and will hopefully be able to plan enough in advance to continue surfing, rather than staying in guest houses and hostels.  By doing this I should be able to easily get by on a budget of about $15/day or less, rather than then ~$30/day for the first 36 days.

My goal is to traverse Sumatra to the southern tip, take a ferry to Java, cross that to Bali, and then take a combination of flights back to Bangkok to meet with friend/s who are coming to visit in early-mid December.  I have at least 3 weeks to make the journey, maybe 4, and it should be a hell of a ride.  Although it is a predominantly Muslim country which has suffered from bouts of violence in recent history, everything I have encountered, read, and heard so far has give me nothing but positive thoughts on the upcoming experience and I believe I have nothing to fear.  My only mission is to experience the culture, beauty, and history of the place, while spreading love and understanding, and hopefully generating more positive feelings towards the US of A as they begin to understand that we're not all hell bent on destroying Islam and those who follow it.

Pictures again are delayed, though I have many.  I need to work on sharing some so you can see the beautiful things that I have over the past week or so in Malaysia.

My trip will definitely be taking a turn for the better in the coming days, and I will welcome it with open arms!

For those of you with extra time on your hands and want to learn a little more about this world we live in, take a look at James Mawdsley's book The Iron Road - A stand for Truth and Democracy in Burma. At about 450 pages it is an easy read which is saddening, motivating, and uplifting.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Cameron Highlands to Penang, Malaysia

After spending a couple nights and a full day in the Cameron Highlands of the central Malaysia peninsula, I took a bus to the town of Butterworth for 30 RM and a ferry across the small straight to Penang, an island containing Georgetown.  Georgetown was one of the first trading ports in Malaysia to be colonized by Europeans.

The Cameron Highlands are said to be a place full of stunning natural beauty which must be seen when visiting Malaysia.  True, the narrow winding roads and steep drops, the occasional indigenous looking people and huts, the jungle, the few waterfalls, and the semi-colonial looking construction nestled deep in the hills was nice.  It reminded me a lot of a tiny Leavenworth, WA.  Of course the architecture and heritage here is not German, but some of the hotels have tried to make themselves look it, and the pine trees which may actually grow naturally (I hope they weren't imported by one of the colonizers in their time here) were a welcome sight which I have missed for over a month now.  I spent my only day there going on a day trip to see the world's biggest flower (wtf?), an "aboriginal" tribe - bogus - a tea plantation which was cool looking, but there's really not much to learn about tea, and going to the highest mountain in SE Asia that you can drive on top of (6,666 ft).  They also took us to the "mossy forest" - which was just a forest with a lot of moss in it, like any old growth rainforest I've seen before.

Basically this trip served only to feed my dislike of the tourism industry, package tours, and the exploitaition of indigenous peoples by governments.

I decided I had seen enough, and although the hills were beautiful and I caught a great sunset, it was surprisingly not anymore special than so many mountain scenes I have seen before.  It was a little more green, a little warmer (although at nearly 7,000ft it was only about 55 F), and had some different plants, but I would argue that the views from Oyster Dome or many other high vantage points in Washington are more spectacular.

I had seen enough, and my guesthouse was vastly overpriced as I had decided to ensure a room by booking online the night before, apparently they add about 30% to the price online.  I went to Georgetown with a couple guys I had met in the Cameron Highlands, and though I won't say it was a mistake to travel with them and agree to seek out lodging together for the sake of saving money, it kind of was.  Andreas took a different bus from Matt and I and should have arrived at the same place about 20 minutes behind us, but took it one stop too far and we ended up waiting over 3 hours.  I took this time to call a few of you (unfortunately I couldn't get to some people's numbers so my options were limited, don't feel bad if you didn't get a call) and have a snack, but would have much preferred to be at the nearby CS BBQ which had been organized so graciously, or exploring the beautiful old colonial buildings and forts on the island.  I suppose expecting people to get off at the right stop (the one we discussed the night before) is too much to ask, and I shouldn't expect people to be capable of finding their way around - it took Andreas over 2 hours to find his way from a bus terminal about 15 miles south up to the area we were waiting in.  He's also addicted to his lonely planet, which in my (and I would suspect most locals, restaurant and guest house owners as well) mind pegs him as a bit of an idiot who is overly dependent on his guide and scared to find things for himself.  He insisted on going to a restaurant they recommended (which sucked bad, terrible service, expensive food) and delayed us further by having to stop to consult his book every few steps to make sure we were on the right path to cheap lodging.  I had been given a map and instructions from a French guy staying at my guest house in KL a few days previous and had taken the time while waiting for Andreas to familiarize myself with it and the town so I could avoid having to stare at it constantly.

In the end we made it to the CS event and met some pretty cool people, although as an event apparently it was quite lacking - the charcoal didn't arrive until 40 minutes before the BBQ was to be clear of people  and not many brought any food.  Some of the locals took us out and showed us around, but seeing as most of the travelers attending are on a tight budget, the clubs they took us too were all a bit pricey (12 RM for a glass of beer, not even a pint. That's 4$ - FOUR?!?!) and we opted for a poorly lit pub with a crooked pool table which you could play for free, complete with tipless cues and exceedingly drunk older locals.  Some of us didn't even drink, but those who did were only paying 6RM for a bottle of beer, still $2 but not nearly as bad.

Today I am getting picked up by one of the CS locals to go to the BBQ again and actually bring food, take advantage of the wonderful pool, etc.  The owner of the condo who is having the open house/BBQ is a CS Ambassador who has been to over 200 events globally and after 3 years of traveling RTW (round the world) he decided to settle here in Penang with his Malaysian boyfriend.  He signed a 2 year lease on a very nice condo on the 16th (top floor) overlooking the beach with views of the sunrise and sunset - he pays 1000 RM/month - that's just over 30 RM/night, about $10.  That's not much more than most guest houses charge, and for everything he has I would say he found quite a deal.  He is very gracious to invite all these strangers to his home and has totally set it up as a CS haven - 5 individual beds for CSers to come crash on for free!  Hopefully the BBQ and everything today will be much more enjoyable.

Monday I will be seeking malaria pills at the pharmacy so I can safely travel through the islands of Sumatra, Java, and Bali for a night or two.  If I can get them in Penang it will save me the trip back to KL and a pretty penny on a flight too, as I can fly from Penang to Medan (on the island of Sumatra, Indonesia) for about $40, the cheapest I found from KL to Jakarta or Bali was over $60 one way.  I may also be able to take a ferry from Malacca or Penang which could be great fun too.  Time will tell!

No pictures yet, but the internet connection here is surprisingly fast so maybe I'll get some uploaded.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Visiting Mosques

Today, although disappointing, turned out to be alright.  Much more relaxed than most every day to this point in Malaysia.

After dinner we decided to take a walk, and it was quite rewarding.  We happened across a mosque - the Jamek Mosque - as dusk was falling and the lights were all on as they shouted the call to evening prayers.  It was beautiful both to look at and to listen to, as the rhythmic chanting echoed off of nearby sky scrapers. It was a strange scene seeing such an old looking structure surrounded by modernity, and palm trees.  It was also quite awesome.  This small picture can't do it justice, but you can see/download the full one here.

We also had the chance to see the Petronas towers all lit up, and the KL Tower too.  Other than that it was pretty uneventful and I spent the rest of the night planning my next week or so on the peninsula of Malaysia.  I just had to share this photo though, which I thought was beautiful, and a great bit of luck.

Across the river was another old building, unfortunately I couldn't get a view without the trees in the way of the old building which has a bit of colonial architecture but looks to be mixed with Islamic or local Malay too...

Unfortunately, although these rivers that run through the city look nice at night, they are brown, disgusting, and smell like raw sewage all day.  I think the raw sewage just gets dumped into the rivers from all the pipes around the city...quite unsanitary for such a modernized city.

Going to sleep, getting up early to take a train to Shah Alam, south of Kuala Lumpur and home to a beautiful mosque and museum.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Visa Hassles

After arriving too late at the Indian embassy on Monday (yesterday) to apply for my visa, I returned this morning bright and early.  Upon getting out of the taxi in front of the embassy I was quickly alerted to my mistake - the High Commission of India (the embassy) doesn't accept applications for tourist, student, or business visas.  For that you have to go to their visa processing center in downtown Kuala Lumpur, not far from my guest house.

I took another taxi there - unfortunately they are not cheap here, I've wasted about $20 US so far taking taxis to the embassy and back - and located the appropriate forms.  After reading the 3 page FAQ and instructions on the wall, I filled them out and went to turn them in.

As I handed them to the woman behind the desk, she rather rudely informed me that my plans to go to India were thwarted by a rule which was just put in place yesterday, the 8th.  Happy birthday me!  Apparently this rule states that non-Malaysians who are not residents of Malaysia, cannot apply for a tourist visa.  She then told me that I could still submit my forms and pay the 150 ringgit fee (about $50), wait 6 days, check online, and hope that they would make an exception for me as they could do it on a case-by-case basis.  I thought it was pretty unlikely that they'd make an exception for me, and decided to save my time and money by keeping my forms and walking out the door.  She seemed pretty surprised about this, and I'm not really sure what she had expected after telling me that they don't give visas for people in my category, but I could still spend my money and give it a try.

So I guess my plans are changed once again.  Especially disappointing since I just spent $40 on a guide book for India so I could figure out how to get around - I've been told that although they speak english, the transportation can be extremely difficult to figure out if you don't have any clue beforehand.

I guess I'll be looking into south-western Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia for the next month or so then instead...maybe I can even see a volcanic eruption in Indonesia!

Going to meet Charlie to get lunch in Little India - 6 ringgit for an all you can eat buffet? Brilliant.  Then going with a couchsurfer that we met up with last night to go do a bit more sight seeing around KL...Malaysia is definitely more interesting than I expected though! And expensive...

That's all for now! Hopefully later I can get some pictures online...

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Kuala Lumpur

After a bumpy, cramped, but otherwise comfortable ride of over 22 hours from Phuket, Thailand which started on Friday the 5th at about 7.30 am, I made it to Kuala Lumpur and safely checked into a guesthouse in China Town on Saturday morning, the 6th at about 5am.

 On the first bus from Patong Beach to Phuket Town I met 3 girls dressed nearly identically from Northern Ireland. They were quick and clear to clarify that they were from NORTHERN Ireland, though other than ostensibly being Protestant, I doubt there's much difference. They were pleasant enough company for the ride, though one had a pretty bad attitude, but upon arriving in KL we pretty much parted ways.  Although I had hoped to find some friends to explore with they seemed to have their own agenda and I was just as happy to go my own way.

Saturday I pretty much set about going to see the only thing of significance that I know in KL - the Patronas Towers.  They are the shining twin towers which many see as the symbol of the city.  They were clearly marked on the map that the hostel receptionist gave me and I found the nearby stop on the sky train which would take me right to them.  For 1.60 MYR (the exchange is about 3 MYR / USD) I rode for about 10 minutes and was there.

Although they are surprisingly large - I'm not sure how many stories - more surprising was that they are so clean and shiny! Who washes all those windows?  I have pictures, but due to the terrible internet connection here I haven't really been able to upload much of anything.  One day when I have fast internet, I'll be posting a lot though!

Unfortunately the rides to the skybridge between the towers and the observation deck (not sure what floor it's on, but it must be awesome!) start selling at 8.30 am and go first-come-first-served, so I need to get up early to get there and get mine!  It's 40 MYR to go to both the skybridge and the observation deck - that's like $13 - and will be totally worth it in my opinion!

Last night (the 6th) I was wandering around and while having dinner noticed another western guy sitting alone, reading, eating, and drinking beer.  I hurried to finish my food and went over to join him, looking to find a partner in crime for the night.  His name was Charlie, 24 years old from London.  He had just been travelling for 2 months with his girlfriend of a year but she had to return to London to her job.  He quit his job in April and has been travelling since, he first spent 3 months bicycling around Europe - around 3 sides of France, down the west coast of Italy, and then to Greece for a bit - and has been in SE Asia since.  He seemed like a pretty cool guy and we were getting along rather well, and with both of us being solo we decided to go visit the reggae bar - seemingly the only popular bar in China Town.

While sitting there and drinking our beer we were eaves dropped on by a pair of Yemeni guys, only one of whom spoke English.  At first the conversation was light and friendly, of course saying where we were from, how long we'd been traveling, then talking about Qat (a "drug" plant that you chew on the leaves of, getting a high something like natural speed) which is legal in Yemen, telling drinking stories and discussing the Barclay's Premier League.  After 15 minutes of this they turned around and left us alone...for a while.  Some time later they turned back and simply asked "How do you feel about the war in Iraq?"

This was not really something we wanted to talk about, especially with these guys.  Charlie seems to be a pretty well read and well rounded guy, and we certainly didn't mind discussing the issue factually, but when it came down to it these guys were slightly misinformed and rather angry about Israel and the Afghan and Iraq wars.  They repeatedly told us (while drinking beer with us, and being clearly intoxicated) that alcohol was a terrible drug, and George W. Bush and Tony Blair only started the wars because they were drunk one night.  Great info guys!  Not sure where they heard that from, but they seemed pretty dead-set on the merits of the story.  From here it progressed to them trying in some way to use Hitler and his persecution of the Jews to explain why the Jews were bad?  We didn't really get it, and when we corrected them and told them Hitler killed a lot of people, not just the Jews, hell he even killed Muslims if he had the chance, and that he was allegedly non-religious, they got pretty upset.  Fortunately they left instead of causing trouble, and we decided to disappear into the back of the bar to play pool.  There we met some Iranian girls, drinking, smoking, flirting, and generally not being strict Muslims like I'm sure their relatives in Iran would like them to be.  To avoid conflict we told them we were from Canada and New Zealand.  From there the night was fun, but much more relaxed as we had hoped it would be.

At the end of the night we decided that since neither of us had any major plans for Sunday (today, now almost 7 pm) we would meet up about 11am and go exploring a bit.  We wanted to go up the Twin Towers, but by the time we got there the tickets were all sold out.  Instead we explored the ridiculous designer mall between the bottom 5 floors of the towers - full of shops like Gucci, Prada, Louis V, Marc Jacobs, Jimmy Choo, Burberry, Chanel, Armani, etc. etc.  It's nuts, 6 floors of overpriced shops that must sell something, though I don't know to who...

Afterwards we went back to China Town and hopped a cab to little India to get some curry.  It was pretty good and only 6MYR for all you could eat, surprisingly less spicy than I expected!  From little India we walked to the National Museum, which was quite interesting and taught me a lot that I didn't know about Malaysia - this is what I should have been doing all along!  It was only 2 MYR to enter and there was loads of stuff to see, a great deal!  We spent about 2 hours there and met an Argentinian girl who said she'd see us tonight at the bar, though who knows.

Afterwards we walked over towards the National Mosque - not nearly as beautiful as the 2 buildings before it which looked more like mosques.  Nearby was the old colonial railway station, which was an interesting bit of architecture - something like Islamic and British mixed together - and after seeing these, still being stuffed with curry, we went back to our guesthouses and agreed to meet at the bar at 7.30 to go get dinner.  Seeing as it's getting on to that time now, I'm off!

Tomorrow I go to the Indian embassy to apply for my visa...wish me luck!

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Ao Nang, Koh Phi Phi, Phuket

Ao Nang was just another tourist trap with a nice beach. This time there were more families and fewer hookers, but the same variety of narrow shops stretching deep into buildings, filled with cheap t-shirts with the same slogans as every other one, fake this and fake that, complete with a young Thai sitting outside begging you to come have a look as you pass by. The worst though are the taxi/tuk-tuk drivers and the tailors, who innocuously greet you with a heavily accented “Hello friend, how are you?” They are all Indian it seems, and yes they have the stereotypical Indian accent.

The boat to Phi Phi was nice and I got some good pictures, though I was rather anti-social and instead of talking to my fellow passengers, chose to jam out to my i-pod and enjoy the heat of the sun and the smell of the slightly salty wind on my face. It was great, and my anti-social behavior had no consequences once I got to Phi Phi.

Arriving at Phi Phi was a slap in the face to any notions I had had of arriving at some beautiful scene of natural beauty – don't get me wrong of course it had that too. The bay was full of speedboats, other ferries, small cruise boats, and a few longtail boats too. The shore was covered with expensive looking “huts” and hotels. Not quite what I had had in mind. The habitable portion of the island has all but been covered with guest houses and hotels, a few bars, massage parlors, and the occasional 24-hour tattoo shops thrown in as well. Not to be missed were the competing travel agents with the same variety of tours, and the dive shops, all with the exact same menu of diving experiences, equipment, white-faced instructors, and prices.

The beach opposite the pier – Koh Phi Phi has a narrow strip of land with 2 beautiful beaches sandwiching the village between them – was less full of chairs and umbrellas than I had expected, though there were plenty of beach bars, fire shows, parasailing operators, and kayak rentals. When I got there my first night I ran into some Canadians I had seen on the ferry from Ao Nang, and went to chat with them. They were Joel, Laura, and Ashton from Alberta. I spent all but my last night on Phi Phi with them, and some of the days as well.

There isn't much to do on Phi Phi other than dive, drink, eat, and take day trips to nearby islands. You can even drop 2,000 baht for a sunset booze-cruise with all you can eat and drink for 4 hours while sailing around Phi Phi. I nearly did this, but then realized it was twice as much as I had paid for my 4 nights in a hostel, and I could find a lot better ways to spend the money. I was going to go for a half-day tour around the neighboring islands on my 2nd full day there, but as it started raining early in the morning, I didn't want to risk being rained on the whole time. I signed up for a 4 hour session of rock climbing on the beautiful limestone cliffs above the bay the next day, paid my 1,000 baht, and went off to drink with the Canadians again. This was the night before Halloween – the 30th. Of course on Phi Phi there were to be big Halloween celebrations because it is full of tourists, but most Thais do not celebrate Halloween.

I woke up Halloween morning feeling quite ill and threw up a few times before going back to sleep. The weather was terrible, and my climbing session was non-refundable. I spent the day in bed other than going out to grab some gatorade, water, and a boat ticket to Phuket for the 1st.

I barely woke up in time to run to the pier and catch my ferry to Phuket, but made it and was on my way. The weather sucked the whole way, as well as my first day on Phuket.

Upon arrival I was crammed into a minibus (big minivan which has been equipped to seat 11) and taken to Phuket Town – the less touristic, cheaper part of Phuket. It is not near any beaches, but is only a short bus-ride away. I met a Spanish girl on the minibus who had also come from Phi Phi and was going to a cheap hostel in Phuket Town, seeing as I didn't have any in mind I chose to go with her, and for 200 baht had a room complete with a fan and free internet. The building was very modern, and next door was a small attached pub with western music, pool tables, and expensive beer.

I met a few Spanish guys, who despite their struggles with English, rarely reverted to their mother-tongue in consideration of their English speaking guests. There was also Rick, a Swedish guy who lives near Malmo and barely missed getting into university and decided to take a couple years of working holidays to travel before trying to go back, and 2 Norwegian girls who were just passing through on their way to Phi Phi. We passed the night together at the hostel because there was nothing around of interest other than a big outdoor market where I got dinner. We played a few games of pool and ended up watching a movie we had all seen too many times, with half the group falling asleep before it was over.

The next day I went with Rick to see a Gibbon Rehabilitation center which I had been told about by Emily Lewis from WWU, and Bang Pae waterfall which was a bit brown in color but still beautiful. Though it was raining pretty hard, we decided it was still good fun to be in a rainforest during the heavy rain. Although we were told by the hostel staff that public buses ran by the road to the waterfall every half an hour, we were told by staff there that the next one wasn't until 2.30. It was only 12.45 so we decided to start walking and try to hitch-hike. It didn't take long before we were picked up and taken to a major intersection where we caught a bus in a matter of minutes.

At 3.30 I caught a public bus from Phuket Town to Patong beach – the most popular and supposedly the most beautiful on the “island.” There I met up with Emilie who is beginning her 2 months in the islands – 7 on Phuket, 7 on Phi Phi, 2 weeks on Koh Samui, and a full month on Koh Phangan. What she will do for so long in each of those places I have no idea, as I was starting to tire of Phi Phi after only 2 days and can't imagine that Samui or Phangan are much more exciting or interesting most of the time.

Planning my next move I will be going to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia either Friday or Saturday morning at 7am on a 22 hour bus ride. This depends on whether or not the weather cooperates for the day trip we decided to take around some islands near Phuket, complete with lunch, kayaking, and the James Bond island! Although the bus ride will be long, it is less than half the price of flying, and it gives me time to read about India and plan my adventure – I'll be getting a guidebook for India before I go. I didn't spend any time before leaving researching India, and I've been told it is much more intense and less easy to get around for tourists than Thailand.

Originally I was going to stay in SE Asia, go to Cambodia, Laos, maybe Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia before going to Vietnam to teach, but with the flooding and resulting damage to Thailand, Cambodia, and Laos those ones are pretty much out of the picture, and the wet season is about to hit Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia. This left me to choose between the Philippines and India, I choose India. I don't think it will be difficult at all to spend 7 or 8 weeks there, and at less than half the price of Thailand, it will ensure that I still have plenty of money to float for a couple months in Vietnam if need-be.

That's all for now! I likely won't update again until I'm in Malaysia, but may have a chance tomorrow night after my day trip.