Nick and I took a shared jeep, tuk-tuk, 3 flights and a taxi to meet Nick’s dad, Dan, in Colombo. Sri Lanka is an island the size of Virginia, south of India. It’s people have faced many hardships as civilians have died from Asia’s longest running war and tsunami. It is predominately Buddhist, hunting is illegal and its main export is black tea. We arrived at 3am and woke up at 6am to greet Dan and head to Kandy. Kandy was a quaint town surrounding a small lake. We immediately noticed that the culture and food differed from India. The people were warm, sensitive, and curious, however always seemed to try and sell you on something. Unknown if it was positive or negative, we always received a huge reaction when we said we were from the states as we didn’t meet many any other tourists from the US.
While in Kandy we visited the Ceylon Tea Museum which was in an old factory built by the British and we learned about the process of making, Sri Lanka’s famous, Ceylon black tea. After, we visited the Temple of the Tooth, which held Buddha’s tooth (Nick and I’s third time seeing a Buddha tooth relic). The complex was large and it was beautiful wandering around as the sun set.
Dalhousie was a small hillside town made up of stands selling to local pilgrims. Its hills were covered in bright green tea bushes and what looked like untouched forest. We woke up at 2am to hike Adam’s Peak or Sri Pada. This peak is a Buddhist, Christian, Muslim and Hindu religious site, climbed mostly by Buddhist pilgrims. It is believed that Buddha, Adam or Shiva’s footprint is at the top, depending on your religion. It was 7 km hike to the top consisting of 5,500 steps. Nick and I felt this had a similar feel of hiking to Golden Rock, a Buddhist pilgrimage in Myanmar, however was more developed and touristed with foreigners. The sunrise at the top was beautiful and the weather was perfect. Clouds settled on mountaintops and we could see Adam’s shadow from afar. We listed to the Morning Prayer at the top and passed tea pickers on our way back down.
We took the train from Hatton to Nanu Oya, where it felt obvious we were on the tourist loop. The individuals we saw on the train from Kandy were the same we saw hiking Adam’s Peak and now saw on the train. Sri Lanka is a small country and it seems like most backpackers are on the same loop. However, these places are popular for a reason. The train ride was spectacular and was one of Nick’s and my favorite! We drank milk tea while dangling our feet out of the door and Nick high fived local school kids as we passed by. We watched lush green tea fields pass and it felt like we were in “Jurassic Park”.
When we arrived in Nuwara Eliya, we were in awe of the vibrant landscape rather than the small city center. It was an old colonial hill town with tea fields and brightly colored vegetables sold on the side of the road (leek, cabbage, carrots, beets, rhubarb, etc.) We spent our first day exploring some of the many waterfalls and at one point Nick was told, “You are very white man!” when swimming with the locals. After, we toured around 2 active tea factories built over 100 years ago. I’ll write another blog post with some tea details=)
On our final day in Nuwara Eliya, we hiked a 9km loop in Horton Plains National Park. Our guide, knew all about the flora and fauna. We spotted wild black pepper, wild coriander and various herbs used to treat leukemia, depression, and even broken bones. We were also lucky to have not only heard but also seen purple-faced leaf monkeys in the forest. We arrived, to the World’s End, and although we could imagine the remarkable view to the ocean, we only saw fog. After driving back to town, our guide invited us to his home for dinner. We ate some delicious curry with string hoppers (rice noodles). We discussed politics, religion, and happiness. Our guide told us that Buddha’s teaching of the middle way was the most important, especially when it comes to money. People think that money can buy happiness and it can’t. While only living with enough money to survive is a hardship (something we can only imagine), a path in between can bring true satisfaction. We agreed. I truly felt like he was a compassionate individual with aspirations and sincere thoughts, however the scene was a little old. Countless times in Asia, I’ve spent with intoxicated men while the woman do all of the work. Nonetheless, we had a terrific time and were thankful we were invited into his home. We left Nuwara Eliya the next morning and took a 7 hour bus to Marata, where we would enjoy the coast!
Kandy- The Empire Cafe, try the curry dishes and chai tea
Local foods to try: Kotthu (stir-fried chopped Roti), Vasai (deep fried lentil doughnut, train snack), hoppers, Binjol page (eggplant curry), buffalo curd with kitul (similar to yogurt and honey), and wattalappam (jaggery and cardamon custard).
Nick and I took a 10 hour train overnight from Kolkata to New Jailpuri. This was the most comfortable overnight transit we’ve taken in Asia. The beds were full length and they rented bedding. Our bunkmates offered us to eat with them and we had some great discussions about politics over egg curry.
Our train only arrived 15 minutes late, which gave us just enough time to catch the toy train. The toy train built in 1808 is one of two mountain trains built under the British. While not the fastest form of transport (88km in 8+ hours) it truly felt out of a children’s bedroom as it looped its way up the steep terrain. There were screeching breaks and constant honking as it crisscrossed the mountain road that was built to follow the tracks. The train stopped numerous times to back up steep sections only to stop again and go forward up another steep section, a maneuver called a “z turn.” There were also three full loops, straight out of a “Christmas Story,” in order for the train to make it up or down large hills. The train stopped many times in mountain towns, all with there own historic station. It is an UNESCO World Heritage sight and was a memorable experience.
When we arrived in Darjeeling we spent an hour going hotel to hotel until we found an open room within our price range. We then had some delicious west Bengali food and went to bed early to prepare for our trek. The following day we took two shared jeeps (busses in the mountains) to Manybhanjang where we hired our guide, Uttam. From Manybhanjang we hiked up through the fog and cold to Tumling. This trek follows the Singalila Ridge on the Nepali border. We had to show our passports numerous times and didn’t really know what country we were in at any given time. In late spring and early Fall the skies are clear, but in late February there is often dense fog and chilly weather. We hoped that one day on the trek we would have good luck, in order to see the two ranges, containing 4 of the 5 tallest mountains in the world.
In Tumling, the fog was only thicker, but the lodge we stayed in had a pristine dorm, great food and some other engaging travelers. Nick tried chhaang, fermented barley mixed with water several times as a mountain alcoholic beverage. We played cards with a large group from Belgium and discussed politics (as always) with the Nepali guides. Unfortunately, there was no view in the morning, but we had a delicious breakfast of porridge and pancake and set off along the ridge. Throughout the next 21 km, we passed many small villages in dense fog and freezing wind. The cows changed to yaks and the languages alternated between Tibetan, Nepali and Hindi. After climbing the final 800 meters we arrived in Sandakphu at 3600 meters (12,000 feet), the highest point in West Bengal.
That night we stayed at the Sunrise Hotel. We spent the majority of the evening with our Belgium, French and Australian friends and per usual, talked politics. We all toughed the freezing temperatures and could see our breath from 3pm until the next morning. The power was promptly turned off at 8pm and we went to bed in hopes off seeing the mountains the next morning. At 5:15am we heard rustling and jumped out of bed. We put on all of our layers and headed outside. To our surprise we could see Mount Everest, Lhotse, Makalu, 3 Sisters Peaks, Kargchendzonga and other large peaks. The clouds moved swiftly but we managed to snap a few photos although it felt like our hands were going to fall off. The enormous peaks were breathtaking and incomparable to anything in Colorado. Nick was thrilled as this was his first time seeing the massive Himalayas.
As usual, clouds quickly moved in and we began our decent. We hiked 15km downhill past prayer flags, terraced fields, greenhouses and through quant mountain villages. Although we didn’t spot any red pandas, black panthers or snow leopards on our trek, we saw some beautiful rhododendron and magnolia trees. We appreciated the pristine forest and waterfalls, as this seems to be rare in Asia. That evening, we stayed with a Nepali family just past Timburay and had an authentic homestay experience. We helped the family cook, got laughed at when trying to speak Nepali, drank a lot of tea and tried homemade fruit wine.
Within a few hours 7 Indian tourists from Kolkata and their Nepali guide arrived. The dynamic quickly changed as the family and guides quickly knew they were in for an evening. The tourists asked for chicken, which the Buddhist family reluctantly cooked, and the killing process definitely created some tension. The men began to drink and the mood changed. As I helped the mother of the house and her 10 year old Indian helper cook, I was told by 2 guides and the mother not to enter the other room where the men (including Nick and the guides were drinking). Nick had a unique experience, dancing, singing and interacting with these young guys. I too had an interesting experience, as it was the first time I was asked not to enter an area as my gender made it inappropriate. Unsure whether or not their was validity to this racial profiling, I felt a little uncomfortable. The family set up a small table for Nick and I to eat in the kitchen, as they wanted us separated from the other tourists. A unique dynamic that ended up more exaggerated than necessary, our privacy felt valued by our host and guides.
The next morning we drank more tea and trekked to Rimbick where we caught a jeep back to Darjeeling. The 4-hour journey down single lane switchback roads was chaotic considering the fact that there were 17 people squeezed inside and on top of the jeep.
On our last day in Darjeeling, we hiked to a tea plantation. Although the factory was closed, we walked through tea bushes and observed the farmland being used by the community. Next, we walked to the zoo, as this was mandatory in order for us to visit the Himalayan Mountain Institute. Although not supporters of zoos, this was our favorite we’ve seen on our trip. We saw a massive Bengal tiger, snow leopards (that are part of a breeding program), red pandas, black leopards and Himalayan wolves. After, we walked around the HMI and visited the museum. Looking at the primitive gear used by Tenzing Norgay to submit Mt. Everest in 1953, it became obvious that extreme mountaineering takes tremendous mental determination, rather than access to high tech gear. Later that day we visited the Tibetan Refugee Self Help Center. Tibetans living in exile make up this community and where the 14th Dahlia Lama resided before moving to Dharmsala. We watched them dry wool, use vegetable dyes and weave carpets, which the profits benefitted the community.
Tibetan Refugee Self Help Center
As always, we maximized our 5 days in Darjeeling and Nick did a fantastic job planning! I am thankful to have a travel partner that not only makes sure we see every site (economically) but also buys me ice cream at 7am when we get off of overnight transit=)
-Check out the Oxford bookshop, silver jewelry shop and Golden Tip tea store all in the town square
Imagine the United States, only more hip, efficient, clean and with better food. You are imagining Singapore, a utopia. Prompt driverless trains dominate the public transit system, tap water is drinkable, and trash cans can be found every 20 feet. Not only is toilet paper provided in most restrooms, but it can also be flushed down the toilet. J walking is nonexistent. Chewing gum is illegal and littering will cost you at least S$1,000 ($800 USD). Nick and I did not see any homeless, we did not see any garbage and there was no pollution. Our ONLY complaint was the long queues entering and exiting immigration.
Singapore is a wealthy country and after 3 days, Nick and I never fully adjusted to the U.S.- like prices. The society seemed a little racist, as all of the manual labor was done by individuals from India or Bangladesh, however overall the people were kind and it was easy to navigate as English is the national language. Nick and I filled our time between meals with activities, although the main focus in Singapore is eating at hawker stalls (open air food courts), which seemed to be located in every neighborhood.
Unfortunately, our travel day from Kuala Lumpur to Singapore took longer than expected. Thus, Nick spent the majority of his birthday on trains. However, he did get a nice Western breakfast and blew out a match at midnight in downtown Singapore after eating some Indian food and drinking a cold brew. Happy 25th Nick Loeb!
Nick and I spent our first morning wandering around the free botanic gardens, visiting the medicine and fragrance gardens. The 183-acre garden was a perfect place to take in some manicured greenery and escape the high rises.
Next, we headed to Chinatown where we ate at 1 of Singapore’s 2 Michelin star awarded harked stalls. We waited for about 30 minutes to enjoy Hong Kong Soya Sauce Chicken Rice and Noodle. My tofu was delicious and Nick thoroughly enjoyed his first Michelin star meal that was the cheapest Michelin star meal ever awarded. After, we visited the 5 storey Buddhist temple that holds Buddha’s tooth relic (although it seems to be more symbolic than an actual tooth). We wandered through the museum, which reinstalled our knowledge of Buddha’s life and the life of the future Buddha, Maitreya. Although interesting, because Nick and I have spent so much time in Theravada Buddhist temples, I think we may have enjoyed lunch more.
Next, we headed to Level33, a super highbrow craft brewery on the 33rd floor of a business building. We sat outside and enjoyed the view of the marina and watched ships come and go. We definitely felt a little out of place as our conversation and look, differed greatly from the group sitting next to us of 35 year olds that were discussing their sorority and fraternity groups in college. We made our way to Maxwell Hawker court. This was my favorite meal in Singapore and I had delicious congee with fresh spring onion, fried onion and handmade tofu. For desert I had lychee, almond Jell-O on shaved ice, which my mom always made for my birthdays. She told me it was a Chinese thing, but I don’t think I ever believed her until this moment.
After dinner we watched a free concert and left just in time to watch the marina bay light show. The bay-front building lit up and shot lasers across the city. The manicured skyline reflected in the water. From the bay we walked to Gardens of the Bay where we laid on the cement ground with others and watched 100 foot tall man made trees covered in moss light up to music. Although cheesy, the same kind of cheesy as Disney firework shows, it was still a highlight as the music was great and lights were tasteful.
The next day, Nick and I hiked 8 miles at MacRichie Reservoir. We were looking forward to walking across the sky bridge, a bridge that is raised above the canopy, however it was unfortunately closed on Mondays. We still got a great view of the city from a viewing tower. After, we took the train to an island off the coast of Singapore called Sentosa, which was full of man made beaches, universal studios and an aquarium. While advertised as the largest aquarium in the world, Nick and I decided to splurge and go. Although further research proved it did not even make a list of top 10 largest aquariums it was still well done. Excluding 2 dolphins, we thought they did a good job with the animals that they had in captivity. They had jellyfish, many types of fish, stingrays, hammer head sharks, etc. We left Sentosa, and went to a young hip food truck scene with live music. I ordered durian creme brulee while Nick enjoyed a craft beer among 100 options.
The next morning before we left Singapore we visited the Colonial district and Arab street. The process to get to the airport was the easiest thus far. We walked 500 feet from our hostel to a subway stop, took the subway to the airport terminal and machines checked us in, scanned, weighed and took out luggage. We returned to Bangkok for a night before our next flight to Kolkata, India!
Anyone looking to travel and get a taste of Asia without the chaos, I’d highly recommend Singapore!
– Lau pa sat- Modern and hip hawker stall center with hundreds of options
– Lavender food square- try the wonton noodles
– Zam Zam- famous for it’s murtabak, they make a great vegi version
Nick and I left our hotel and were on our way to the airport. As we walked down a side street in Bangkok we observed the chaos, falling electrical wiring and crumbling infrastructure. Nick stated, “India can’t be THAT much different than SE Asia.” Boy, was he wrong.
We bordered our flight and landed in Kolkata (India’s second largest city of 14 million people) at 2 am. After almost getting overcharged, then withheld our change, we took a taxi to our guesthouse. We drove in a late 1960’s taxi, and it seemed that all of the taxis and some cars were from a similar era. We observed the crowded streets (of working men) and makeshift shelters that lined the road. Some people slept on the sidewalk and others on the steps of buildings, sleeping bodies were everywhere. The taxi driver couldn’t find our guesthouse and angrily drove through the streets. When we arrived at our guesthouse that supposedly had a 24-hr front desk and that we notified twice about our 2am arrival, the gate was locked. Now we were alone, at 2am, in the middle of Kolkata, with barking street dogs and a urinating drunk man. We started to pound on the gate, then we yelled, this went on for 15 minutes. Finally, a tourist woke up and had to wake up the staff. The owner let us in only to tell us he didn’t hold our reservation and his guesthouse was full. Nick would not have this. He respectfully but forcefully went back and forth with the owner for 15 minutes until magically a room opened. What a warm welcome to India.
Our experience in Kolkata was very unique as it is a poor city with little tourist infrastructure. Our friends who have experience traveling or living in India say they didn’t have the same experiences as we have had, so who knows how different the rest of India will feel. So please keep in mind this blog post is written extremely broadly and I do understand that my 5 days in Kolkata do not reflect upon the rest of the country.
Nick and I spent the morning wandering the streets of this new city taking in new sights and smells. Kolkata really is just like the movies we see, not the glamorous Bollywood movies, but movies like “Slumdog Millionaire”. 1/3 of Kolkata’s population live in registered slums. Nick and I passed a large slum when walking to Kalighat Temple (mentioned below) and saw toilets built over water, just like the opening scene in Slumdog.
Woman wear brightly colored sarais or kameez (cotton tunics) with flashy gold jewelry. Chai tea stands, jars filled with cookies and counters of sweets line the streets. There is culture everywhere, but there is also poverty unlike we have ever seen. It has become normal for street kids to approach us, asking for money or food and to hang onto our arms. They physically cling onto you and follow you. Mothers ask you to buy powdered milk for their babies (which is also a popular scam) and it’s heartbreaking. There are no rules to being homeless. People live anywhere and everywhere. Some people sleeping on the streets wear business clothing with combed hair, while others are sleeping naked and can barely move. We saw a fully nude man walking down the street and another man who looked like any other working class gentleman unable to pay for the 10 rupee (15 cent) bus fee. Tana rickshaws can be found on every street, which is a human powered (usually barefoot) mode of transportation. Public urinated is common, so are public squatters (pictured below). Young children often use drainage as toilets and it’s common to see human feces litter the sidewalk or street.
In SE Asia I thought that I mastered the chaotic traffic. Confidence. Walk in the street and the cars will part. In India, follow every rule and it feels like you could die at any second (and I’m not being dramatic). There is no main downtown area and no area that is that drastically nicer than another. Street dogs are in poor condition, we saw some sick and shaking, some dead and some with huge infected wounds on their necks with bug crawling in them (we assume from dog fights).
As a Western female, the first 3 days in Kolkata were extremely hard. On the first day, I noticed the stares. Degrading stares, up and down, left and right, which lasted what felt like eternity. When I’d pay for a bill, stand in line or ask the owner of my hotel a question I found myself waiting 15 minutes or being served after every male (that even came after me). But, whether it’s a cultural difference or affects from Western media, it something that I just have to deal with. On the second day, someone grabbed my breast while crossing the street. Later that day, a man sitting on a parked bus hawked a loony on my face, when I looked to see what happened he was staring straight at me. Uncertain if it was intentional the lack of gender equality became exhausting. On the third day, I began to notice men walking out of their way to elbow me or shoulder check me. I felt degraded and when it feels like for every 100 men in public there is only 1 female, it can get frustrating! By the last day, I turned it into a game. How many checks could I dodge? I lost count but did a pretty good job. Walking behind Nick and getting out of the way of every man comes extremely unnatural for me. However, I understand that if I am going to enjoy India, I am going to have to change the way I present myself.
This really dampened my view of the city as it was and will continue to be a hard adjustment. However, by the last day I started to notice the wonderful woman smiling at me and speaking to me in Hindi (although I could never understand them). Then the delightful men began to appear. They’d go out of their way to help Nick and I find our way or answer my questions and offer me dinner on the sleeper train. Good people are everyone and it’s our job to find them.
Kolkata was the former capital of British India and is rich in history. Nick and I visited the Victoria Memorial, a white marble structure dedicated to Queen Victoria in 1901. It was described as a blend of the Taj Mahal and US Capitol. After, we visited the new market and the BBD Bagh, colonial-era buildings. We took various modes or transportation including taxis, subways, buses, auto rickshaws and the tram. It feels like everyday people are asking Nick and I about the political situation in the states, from the immigration officer in Singapore to motorbike taxi drivers in Myanmar. However, a man on the tram said something that stuck with me. He said, “Clinton should have won. Only you can stand up for what’s right.”(loose translation)
“Clinton should have won. Only you can stand up for what’s right.”(loose translation)
We ended the evening by watching a Bollywood film at the cinema. Although we couldn’t understand the film as it was in Hindi, the scene was worth it. Everyone sat on plastic lawn chairs and when a racy scene appeared (a man rubbing a peacock feather on a woman in a belly shirt) men in the audience hooted and hollered “Allah!” After enjoying some delicious street food, Nick and I returned to a new guesthouse for the evening. However, our room looked a little different at night with the bright lights on. We noticed the chipping, most likely lead paint, and when we plugged a phone charger into the outlet we blew our fuse. When we flushed our toilet half the tank water made it into the bowl and the other half on the ground. We made sure not to turn the fan on too high or chunky clumps of dust sprayed the room. Our sheets were dirty with rat poop and mystery blood. Needless to say, this would be the only night we spent here, but what didn’t kill you makes you stronger!
On our second day we headed to the chaotic and colorful flower market. Beautiful flowers mostly used for religious purposes were sold in enormous baskets or strung together and lined the street. From the market, Nick and I walked to a small beach where we caught a view of the Howrah Bridge. This bridge is one of the worlds busiest bridges and built during WWII. Locals bathed in the beach and the shore was covered in human feces and trash. We made our way Kumartuli Street where we watched locals make idols (clay statues of deities). In the states I am most familiar with throwing on the wheel, however here they make the structure of the statue with straw then cover the straw with clay. They let the clay dry before they paint it, however never fire it. Later, Nick and I visited Dakshine Swar Kali Temple, which was our first Hindu temple. We watched locals pour milk on sacred rock structures and fully prostrate around various buildings. We took a ferry across the river to another Hindu temple, Belur Math, where we were the only foreigners.
On day 3, the foreign sights and sounds felt more familiar. We started the day with a visit to the Marble Palace, an 1835 rajah’s mansion filled with original paintings and sculptures. Descendants of the original family remain in the residence and a man from the 6th generation provided us with some useful information. This residence held the first zoo in Indian (deer, porcupines, goose, birds) and feeds 400 people in need everyday. The mansion sat on a street among small shacks and homeless. Next, Nick and I headed to College Street where the streets were lined with textbook stores and we dipped into an Indian Coffee House, which although served less than mediocre coffee, was once the meeting place of freedom fighters, bohemians and revolutionaries.
After lunch, Nick and I walked around Barabazar and checked out some old cathedrals, old synagogues, and the post office. We walked around the crowded streets of old Chinatown, which after ethnically Chinese were driven away in 1962 is now predominately Muslim.
On our last day in Kolkata, Nick and I visited Mother Theresa’s Motherhouse where we saw her modest bedroom (1953-1997) and tomb. Mother Theresa represents human sacrifice and worked to help Kolkata’s impoverished people for the second half of her life. Although I disagree with her views on abortion, divorce and contraception she was a giving woman that we can all learn from. She lived a simple life and influenced many. However, her work was controversy, as many Kolkatans don’t like their predominately Hindu city being known for its Catholic saint.
“…what dirt and misery,
what poverty and suffering.
I spoke very, very little.
I just did some washing of sores and dressings,
gave medicine to some.”
“An old woman…(said),
“You Mother, you big Mother, have become one of us for us.
How wonderful, what sacrifice.”
I told her that I was happy to be one of them –
And I really am.”
After, Nick and I made our way to Kalighat Temple, an ancient Kali Temple built in x. We unexpectedly arrived on a festival day and quickly joined the mayhem. We removed our shoes and walked around the temple complex. The floor was slimy from water, dirt and blood. We entered a temple and looked out the window to watch goats, 10 feet away, being sacrificed. 20 goats a day are sacrificed here to honor the ever-demanding goddess, Kali. They are beheaded with a sword, and then cooked to feed hundreds of people in need. We watched 2 goats killed within a minute. A local had us remove a single flower from a strand for each of our family members and he said a prayer as we touched each flower to our heads. Pushing through hundreds of people we made it to a pool, the water pumped from the Ganges, where we made our final offering to Shiva, Kali’s husband. Although Hinduism has some bizarre customs, Nick and I were both thankful to be included in this festival.
Food (Bengali cuisine):
Nick and I have eaten some remarkable food in the past 7 months! We both agree that a sushi dinner in Japan (thanks mom and dad) has made our top meal. However, our second favorites differ. Nick still dreams about market stalls in central Vietnam, however for me, Kolkata has taken second place!
Bhoj Company – set West Bengali breakfast
Drive In – try a light coriander curry, jhol, which is a typical Bengali curry
Blue Sky Cafe – best Indian breakfasts with masala tea or a lassi (and wifi)
Girish Ch. Dey & Naku Ch. Nandy- You can find street stalls selling a variety of Indian sweets, including: dhoi (curd sweetended with jaggery), rasgulla (sweet balls in syrup), and cham- cham
Bhojohori Manna – try the mochar ghonto (mashed banana flower), echorer dalna (jackfruit in curry), and postor borar jhal (poppy seed dumplings in Bengali gravy)
Street food- endulge in masala dosa, Kati rolls, samosa and paw bhaji.
McDonalds- Nick and I checked out the menu and no Big Macs can be found here, only VEGGIE burgers!
Most Hindus believe that cows are sacred as they represent mothers, bearing all of the benefits of the land. Although dairy is used in a large part of India’s diet, Hindu’s will not kill cows, thus no beef will be found at McDonalds!
“Prepare for landing,” the Captain said as we hovered over Kuching. As we began our decent, we started to see fireworks. We continued to look and saw at least a dozen firework shows in the city. Our Malay seatmate told us that Chinese New Year celebrations would continue until midnight. Colors lit up the night sky and it felt a little magical.
Nick and I enjoyed some live local music at the Culture Club, the bar located next to our hostel before bed. We discussed how quickly our trip was happening and promised this trip would not be our last. This day was a great day, I felt so happy. The kind people I met that day, the unexpected views and excitement of new places remind me why I love to travel.
Bako National Park
Nick and I took an hour long bus ride and choppy ocean boat ride to Bako National Park. Bako was established in 1957, and has 11 sq. miles of protected rainforest. Although arriving in the late afternoon,Nick and I wasted no time and hiked to 3 lookout points. We enjoyed coastal views and spotted a sleeping flying lemur, bearded pig and Proboscis Monkeys.
Bako felt a little like summer camp. We had a cabin with other camp mates, we ate overpriced mediocre cafeteria food and signed up for the guided night hike. It felt like the rainforest came alive a night. We saw so many unique animals, including: luminescent fungus, luminescent worms, fresh water cat fish, tarantulas, stick bugs, giant ants, green poison frogs, birds, green vipor snakes and an owl. We learned that giant ants can be used as stitches, when they bite a wound you can pinch off its body. We also learned that female stick bugs will eat the male after having sex.
Birds sleep on the edge to prevent snake attacks
The next morning we got an early start and hiked up to a secluded jungle waterfall/ natural pool. The water was dark red in color and the floor of the pool consisted of smooth rock. We were thankful we found this oasis as swimming on the beaches was prohibited due to crocodiles. We learned that a handful of people are killed every year by crocodiles in Sarawak. We hiked to a view point where we met some monkeys and watched the tide come in. The waves crashed against the rocks, the wind blew and the coconut trees swayed.
We returned to Kuching and spent the next day at Semenggoh Nature Reserve. We hiked on a trail to a feeding platform and watched semi-wild orangutans swing from tree to tree over our heads. We watched Edwin, the oldest male who had already begun to develop check pads, another male, mother, and her child enjoy bananas and coconuts. I could have spent hours watching them. Humans closest relative, these endangered orangutans had so much character and personality. In addition to the apes, we had the opportunity to check out 2 crockadiles. One female burried her eggs and an employee told us they would release the babies into the river. We couldn’t imagine stumbling upon one of these 10 foot monsters (can grow up to 25 ft. long). After, Nick and I hiked to a beautiful waterfall in Kubah National Park and enjoyed the old growth rainforest and water all to ourselves.
On our second day in Kuching, we discovered why rainforests are called RAINforests. Kuching gets on average 170 in. of rain a year and after today this didn’t surprise us. We woke up to pouring rain and thunder but decided to rent a motorbike as we were sure it would pass. We checked out Medan Niaga Satok market, where jungle produce was sold. Although the rain was on and off, by noon it was very much on. We jumped back on the motorbike, were frantically searching for gas and were drenched through our rain gear. However, so many locals were more than willing to point us in the right direction (Malaysia has entered the competition for friendliest locals with Myanmar.) Finally, we showed up to the Matang Wildlife Center. Here we walked a loop where we saw endangered animals. The center helps rehabilitate animals and puts hem back into the rainforest. We saw sambar deer, crockadiles, and bear cats (Nick’s favorite). A gibbon throw a handful of poop thrown at us so we continued on to the birds.
Then we saw him. A male Orangutan close to 300 pounds. The king. He was in a two story cage and his orange curly dreaded hair hung off his body. He was captivating. We moved up high to a location where we were able to watch 3 female apes and another massive orangutan in separate quarters. As it continued to pour one orangutan held a large leaf over it’s head while another held up part of a berlap sack. I was eye level with this female with nothing between us but open space. We stared at each other. She looked unhappy. They all did. She bit her lip then stuck her tounge out at me. So I did it back. Then she did it again and so did I. Then she turned her back to me and sat in the pouring rain.
My attention moved towards the male. His checkpads were massive. He was massive. He played with the water coming out of the drainage. He watched us. Then he made his way to the door and began to pound on it. He wanted attention, he wanted out. He wanted something. He hung his body from the door frame and swung back and forth. He returned to the water then returned to the door, this time with a rock. He smashed the rock against the door, pounding. There was no response. He wore his emotion on his face. I could sympaize. He looked like he was giving up, like he was depressed and helpless. I cried. Not because I am PETA person, this park is doing the best they can to rehabilitate these animals. Sure, it’s a shame that they don’t have more money to give these animals more space, but they have been able to send tons of animals back into the rainforest. However, I felt sad. That we’ve gotten to a place where there is an imbalance in nature. How are these animals endangered? Who could anyone ever kill one of these things? There habitat is changing, trees are being turned into tables. Rainforests are rapidly being removed from this world and there is nothing I can do.
The next day, Nick and I learned from our mistake and paid for a cab to take us to Annah Rais Bidayuh Longhouse. Nick and I were envisioning a Native longhouse, however this was more of a raised community on bamboo stilts. 1,000 – 2,000 individuals live her, however only about 150 full time. The children lived at a nearby bordering school and some adults were in the city working or in the oil and gas industry. We visited a home that had been preserved and saw a cage of human skulls. 500 years ago, headhunting was an important part of Borneo’s indigenous culture. The majority of the skulls on display are said to be Japanese soldiers as the British used the head hunters aid during WWII.
As we continued to wander the village, we met a man who had a small museum full of ancient relics that were passed down to him. Most impressive was a basket that the leader of the tribe used to carry his enemey’s heads in. Dried Tabasco leaves were placed at the bottom to prevent blood from dripping out and animal skin was used on the cover to prevent the smell of rotten flesh escaping. Tribes boiled a concoction of cobra, scorpion and frog poison then proceeded to soak their darts in the mixture for 2 weeks. The darts were made of palm needles so when the victim pulled out the dart it would break inside of them and within 2 hours they would die. Nick and I practiced our blow dart skills and were fascinated by the history in the village. Many of the traditions and rituals surrounding the practice of head hunting remain a mystery, however hunters of heads believed human skulls brought protection. They thought they could communicate with enemy spirits (after taking their head) asking them to stop attacking their tribe. The individual with the most number of heads outside of his home was often the leader of the tribe. Although rich in culture, I am glad that I live in a society where I don’t have to worry about being hunted for my head.
Favorite Local Eats:
Top Spot – a Chinese seafood hawker court on the 6th floor, try a fish fillet (Nick wasn’t disappointed)
Zhun San Yen Vegetarian – tied for the best vegetarian restaurant on our trip. The owner obviously takes pride in her fresh buffet and delicious homemade soy milk.
Culture Club – fun bar with live local music, check out the band atu ada
Chong Choon Cafe – small breakfast hawker court, the laksa is remarkable!
My Village Barok Lodge/ Riverside Hawker Stalls – enjoy various noodle dishes, milk juice, fried taro, tofu and sweet potato (take a boat for 1 ringet across the river)
Bangkok, the mother of Southeast Asian cities. Nick and I spent 4 days in Bangkok over the course of a month. We flew from Mandalay, Myanmar to Bangkok, worked our way south by land to Singapore, then spent 2 days in Bangkok as a connection when flying from Singapore to Calcutta, India.
Bangkok was definitely the most developed southeast Asian city we visited before Kuala Lumpur and Singapore. The traffic was hectic and we found the taxis, trains, and buses all unorganized. Similar to Western culture the consumer focused society was obvious. Locals and foreigners alike flooded in and out of enormous shopping malls and shopped not out of neccessity but luxury. Advertisements for Listerine (what would have been unfathomable in Myanmar) were plastered on the walls of the sky train and “massage parlors” could be found every 50 feet. Although we had a good time in Bangkok, it didn’t live up to it’s hype. I’ve listed some of our highlights below:
The Grand Palace & Emerald Buddha – Although quite expensive and touristed, Nick and I spent an afternoon touring the Royal Palace and Emerald Buddha. The temples inside of the complex were intricate, regal and lavish (but not gaudy). The number of tourists were overwhelming and we soon learned that the thousands of Thai tourists dressed in black were there, waiting in queues to pay respects to the king. 3 months after Bhumibol Adulyadej’s death, it still hung in the air. The Thai people were in a year of mourning. The king’s face was on t-shirts, billboards, banners, posters and statues all reminding the people of his good deeds.
Thais waiting to pay respects
Later, we took a boat across the river, saw the Hindu Temple of Dawn and a more quaint Bangkok. We roamed the old town and stumbled upon another amazing market. My favorite things in Bangkok included getting lost, the delicious food and the transgender community.
Khaosan Road – Young drunk western tourists. This 3 block strip consisted of bars, live music and street food. It looked the same as a college bar street. 5 friends sat around a table drinking overpriced beers taking in the scene, however the scene was a little different. The difference, locals walked down the street selling balloons full of laughing gas, scorpions on sticks, and tickets to “ping-pong” shows. Transgendered females wore short skirts and were grinding to dub step. Dreadlocks, cornrows, henna, ice cream and ” I love Khaosan Road” t-shirts were all sold. The scene reminded me a bit of the New Jersey shore.
Chinatown – Nick and I wandered through Chinatown and watched as the locals prepared for Chinese New Year. Special clothing, decorations, firecrackers and foods were being sold. We passed vendors selling dumplings, teas, spices, and indulged in homemade popcicles. Some of the flavors included: Black bean in sticky rice, taro, sticky rice and mango, durian, Thai tea, banana in coconut milk, coconut custard, mung bean, Thai muskmelon in coconut milk, longan in sticky rice, tamarind, pumpkin in coconut milk, pink milk, grass jelly, corn, and Thai custard.
On the way back to our guesthouse we decided to take a ferry down Bangkoks’s canal, known as the “Venice of Asia”. The cool water misted our faces until the locals abruptly pulled a lever that raised a plastic curtain. Ahhh, the canal was Bangkok’s sewer. We began to smell it and see the holes from the cement walls feeding into the river. There was garbage and street art and although not the most romantic, we were pleased to have had the experience.
Food- Bangkok came alive at night. As soon as the sun set, countless night markets opened selling pad thai, mango sticky rice, fresh fruit, fresh fruit juice, fresh fruit smoothies, fried chicken, processed meat on sticks, bao, corn on the cob, and waffles. Some of the markets, especially the weekend farmers market, had a hipster vibe. Thais sure know how to eat.
After spending 4 days in Kuala Lumpur, I have to say this has become one of my favorite cities. Nick and I arrived to KL by bus and were astonished by the modern bus station, which felt more like an airport. We saw familiar brands like Black Diamond, Garmin and Huka advertised outside of a small shopping plaza and for the first time in Asia saw tolls with “E-ZPass”. After getting off the bus, we took the train to Chinatown, which was where our guesthouse was located. The train ended up being our main mode of transportation as it was inexpensive, easy and reliable. Our guesthouse was decent, however we could have done without the 5 rats that visited us in the evenings.
We spent our first day in KL visiting Batu Caves, which ordinarily are caves with a Hindu temple inside, however on the day that we visited, we joined tens of thousands of Hindu devotees celebrating Thaipusam. Thaipusam is a festival where locals walk 9 miles (shoeless on hot asphalt) from a temple outside of Kuala Lumpur to Batu Caves. This festival involves various forms of sacrifices and burdens including piercing their cheeks with Vel skewers, hanging hooks with offerings (coconuts and limes) from their backs and bellies, and carrying large kavadis. The individuals, often in a trance, offer pots of milk to the war god, Murugan, once inside the cave. As we climbed the steps to the limestone cave, we watched those participating remove hooks and piercings and leave their offerings for Murugan on the ground. In the main temple, hundreds of metal vases holding milk were poured into a communal area. The pungent smell of warm milk filled the cave. After enjoying some fried Indian treats and sweets, we headed to the train station. Hundreds of people pushed and shoved their way to the station. The crowd was so packed, at points I felt it was hard to breath as there was so much pressure against my ribs. A woman and a child fell behind me and couldn’t get up without the help of others around her. For the first time, I understood how one could easily be trampled to death in a crowd. Overall, Nick and I were thrilled to participate in this celebration and it was a day full of chaos, colors, and smells. Hopefully, this helped prepare us for India!
After the Hindu Festival, we visited Masjid Jamek and Masjid Negara, the National Mosque. We took in the beautiful details and spoke with a gentleman about Islam. He answered all of our questions and made it clear that the commonly negative Western view on Islam was offensive. It is ridiculous that an entire religion is judged by it’s extremists. Imagine if one of the world leaders believed all Christians had polygamous relationships with forced children. In addition, he compared the hijab which many consider oppressive to a nuns attire which we call devoted. 2/3 of the woman I interacted with in KL wore hijabs or chadors and I grew fond of them. They are beautiful. I believe that a society that dresses more modestly could be positive and has made me rethink how I want to portray myself when I return to the states. I believe that there should be a balance between the Burka and nudity. It was hard seeing woman dressed in Niqabs (full cover with only the eyes showing) while their boyfriends wore cowboy hats with bright red Nike sneakers, as I wondered what the female wanted. I had a hard time accepting that woman had to dress modestly for man’s “love for woman, lack of control, thinking with their dicks, etc.” Why is the woman to blame? I was faced with a lot of interesting issues, however thankful our new friend was willing to share his religion with us. He invited Nick and I to watch the afternoon prayer which most foreigners are forbidden from and we got a deeper glimpse into their practice.
On our second day, Nick and I visited the Islamic Arts Museum and Merdeka Square. At the museum we saw collections of pottery, jewelry, clothing, and tile work. We saw models of various mosques around the world, many in Uzbekistan and a southern styled mosque in New Mexico, USA. We explored the old KL railway station with Islamic arches and spires. Later, we laid in the grass at Merdeka Square, where Malaysia’s independence was proclaimed in 1957. The final tourist activity on our list was to visit Petronas Towers, which formerly was the worlds tallest skyscrapers, however has since dropped to number 12.
On our last day in KL, Nick and I received a text from our Spanish climbing friends that we met in Yosemite and were reunited with in Laos. We found out that our trips would overlap by a few hours and we were beyond elated. After breakfast we took the train to meet them. While walking through the train station I noticed a woman give another woman begging a red Chinese envelope, hong bao. For Chinese New Year my parents would give me hong bao with money inside. I wondered if this was a simple act of kindness or if it had to do with Chinese New Years.
Nonetheless, we met our friends and enjoyed the afternoon together. While at a cafe, we experienced a Chinese Dragon Dance. Two dragons began to dance outside of the cafe and danced to the beat of drums. They entered the restaurant, ate some oranges that were waiting for them at the counter, went into the kitchen, and back outside the main entrance. They ate hanging vegetables over the doorway (which reminded me of hanging mistletoe). We were told that it was the last day of Chinese New Years (15 days total) and that on this day some homes and businesses pay for the dragons to come and dance. The dragon dance brings good luck and prosperity for the new year. Although I could see the children’s faces inside of the dragon costumes, the shop keepers face was joyous. It looked like he (the shop keeper) was seeing santa and he truly believed this would now be a better year. He mentioned that throughout Chinese New Years, people must demonstrate simple acts of kindness, such as charity. This may have explained the woman I saw giving a begging woman hong bao.
Favorite Local Eats:
Tg’s Nasi Kandar – delicious paneer curry and paper roti the size of my arm!