West Sumatra

After taking a 3-month break from Southeast Asia, it was nice to return. Nick, Larry, Kaitlin and I purchased the cheapest flights from Kathmandu to Indonesia and landed in Padang (West Sumatra). The rice paddy fields, fresh fruit, street food and paved roads were back! 90% of Indonesian’s population is Muslim and it felt like we drove by a beautiful mosque every 5 minutes. Almost every woman wore a hijab and during the call to prayer you could hear it from every direction. The handful of Westerns we saw at the airport and in Padang had a surfboard in hand and was headed to the islands.

As we explored the clean, quant city during the day, it felt dead. Most of the restaurants were closed or had fabric veiling the door. We saw signs in Indonesian which translated to special service non-Muslims. This confused us. We walked along the river then near the ocean. Locals honked and screamed “hello.” Students interview Kaitlin to practice their English and the Indonesians smiled at us curiously. We laughed at the local mode of transportation, opelets, which were souped up vans with tinted windows, rims, and a pounding base. By 2 pm, large tables were set up along the road selling bags of noodles, sweets, and other foods “to-go”. We all took a nap, tired from only getting 2 hours of sleep during our transit and returned back to town for dinner. It felt like we were transported to a young hip city! There was street food everywhere and teens hung out at coffee, grass jelly juice, noodle, and meat kabobs carts. Then it clicked. All of these unique things were happening because we had arrived halfway through Ramadan, the largest Muslim holiday of the year. Although this eventually caused small complications with access to food, appropriateness of eating in public, increased traffic, and increased ticket fares; we were excited to experience the holiday.

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The next day, we took a bus to Harau Valley, often called the Yosemite of Asia. Tall walls of metamorphic rock lined the sides of the valley. Nick and I were looking forward to climbing, however the only rental shop was unfortunately closed due to the holiday. We stayed at Adhi Homestay, a cute cluster of bungalows that sat among waterfalls, flooded rice fields and fruit trees. We heard fruit constantly dropping out of trees, and enjoyed all sorts of fruit, including: bananas, jackfruit, passion fruit, wild guava, cacao, durian, soursop, dragon fruit, milk fruit, breadfruit, tamarillo, jicama, salak and coconuts. We ate our weight in passion fruit and I helped a girl climb a large tree to pick them. At 6:30 pm we heard a loud siren. Coming from Hawaii, Larry thought this was a tsunami siren. It followed with many call to prayers that echoed off the valley walls. This was the siren that marked sunset and those fasting were now allowed to eat. We learned that Muslims refrain from eating, drinking water, smoking cigarettes, and other worldly possessions (including sex) from sunrise (4:30am) to sunset (6:30pm). However, children and menstruating women do not participate the entire month.

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We spent a day relaxing, exploring nearby villages and taking a cooking class. We learned how to make chicken (young jackfruit for the veg option) rendang, a local Indonesian dish that is similar to a korma curry. We also made an eggplant and tempeh dish, and learned that tempeh originated in Indonesia. Unlike tofu, which is pressed soy milk (using mature soybeans (gold in color)), tempeh is made up of the entire bean, compressed. We also made some fried vegetable patties and banana jackfruit patties. We ate dinner with locals and foreigners and Nick, Larry and I had our cards read by a spunky local who had some surprisingly accurate things to say.

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On our last day in the valley, we hiked a steep ascent to enjoy a panoramic view. Volcanoes in the distance peaked out behind clouds and we could hear the call to prayer from the mosques below. The majority of the green valley consisted of flooded rice fields and fisheries. We observed henna, chili, clove and cacao growing. We saw a scary scorpion the size of my hand, but thankfully no snakes. Indonesia is notorious for its pythons. A few months ago a farmer disappeared in Sulawesi only to be found in the belly of a python nearby. Our guide informed us that this was rare, however in West Sumatra snakes eating children have become a pressing issue. The government has made it legal to hunt snakes for the local’s protection. We continued hiking through the jungle, crawled through caves and swam in waterfalls. Another surprising fact we learned was that Harau Valley was based off of a maternal society. Men had to pay a female’s mother to marry and it usually costs 16,000,000 rupiah ($1,200). It’s difficult for a man to find a wife as she must be in another group, approved by the village chief, and the man must be able to afford the dowry proposed by the mother. If a man is wealthy, like in many Asian countries, he can have many wives.

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That evening we took 3 modes of transportation to Northern Sumatra and traveled 515 kilometers (300 miles) in 16 hours.

Food:

Sari Rosa – similar to lunches in Myanmar, this local shop serves a dozen of small veg and non beg options and rice, you pay for the dishes you eat.

Try buff (water buffalo) or chicken rendang, chili grilled fish and abundance of tofu and tempeh. During Ramadan, sweets can be found everywhere. Try the fruit soup, green rice flower balls covered in fresh coconut and filled with palm sugar, butternut squash sweets or a pink coconut milk soup with tapioca squares.

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The Hill Country

Kandy

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.

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Nick excited to see his dad and take trains!
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Kandy Lake

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Temple of the Tooth
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Candles inside the temple complex

Dalhousie

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.

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Sunrise from Sri Pada or Adam’s Peak

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Shadow of Adam’s Peak

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”.

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Cheers to trains and milk tea
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Tea pickers

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Nuwara Eliya

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=)

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“You are a very white man!”

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Nick & Dan

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Senior portrait green screen

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!

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Horton Plains National Park

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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).

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The Empire Cafe in Kandy
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Homemade meal

 

Luang Prabang

Every backpacker has been to Luang Prabang, therefore I assumed it would be as disappointing as Vang Vieng. However, the ancient charm of the old quarter was well preserved and was similar, however almost more genuine than Hoi An, Vietnam.  The architecture was simple yet refined and the open-air schoolhouses were especially unique.

The UNESCO protected peninsula was packed with 33 beautiful Buddhist Temples built between 1500- 1700. The lavish gold lotuses and bodhisattvas painted atop jet-black walls were exquisite. Although Theravada Buddhist Temples seemed more lavish and almost gaudy in comparison to Tibetan Buddhist Monasteries, I can appreciate the attention to detail and complex mosaics.

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The night market in Luang Prabang was a blast and a great place to buy souvenirs and gifts. It was targeted toward tourists, and a variety of textiles, teas, coffees and jewelry were sold. Although Nick and I don’t have any room to shop, between the night market and Tamarind (a café that sells handmade jams, teas and spices), Luang Prabang could easily dent a traveler’s budget. The food stalls at the night market was a great find as an entire block was lined with 15,000 kip ($1.85) fill your bowl vegetarian buffets.

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$1.85 Night Market Buffet

During our second day, Nick and I rented a motorobike and visited Pak Ou Caves (Buddha Cave) and Kuang Si Falls. First, we rented a motorbike to drive 25 km to the caves.

In Asia, everything has a cost. We rented a motorbike for 100,000 kip, filled it up with 20,000 kip worth of gasoline and were on our way. 25 km later we arrived at the local village and paid 3,000 kip to park. Then we walked through the village where we met our boatman and paid 26,000 kip to get taken across the river. When we arrived at the caves we paid 20,000 kip pp to enter. The caves are impressive and full of hundreds of Buddha sculptures and although beautiful, it is sometimes tiring always having to open your wallet.

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Buddha Cave

After visiting the caves, we drove 25 km back to Luang Prabang then 32 km in the opposite direction to Kuang Si falls. Before entering the falls, we passed fenced in areas of 20+ Sun Bears. These lethargic bears were rescued from poachers and more specifically from the bile industry. Bears are hooked up to IV’s and their bile is extracted and sold in Vietnam. Bear bile is considered a delicacy there, however the practice of extracting is illegal. Thus, it is extracted in neighboring countries where although illegal not heavily enforced. In China this practice is legal and regulated and there are currently 10,000+ bears being used for the bile industry.

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Rescued Sun Bears

As we continued to walk, we could begin to hear the rushing water. The clear turquoise water reminded me of Havasu Falls in the Grand Canyon. Watching the multi tiered cascade falls flow over limestone rock was mesmerizing. It would have been easy to spend the entire day here as you can swim in the falls and hike to caves and natural springs.

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*Travel Tip: To avoid the 20,000 kip entrance fee, take a motorbike or vehicle on the trail up to the natural springs. Drink a Beer Lao then hike down the falls.

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The next day, Nick and I drove back to the village across from the Buddha Cave and on the way passed an elephant park where tourists spend time riding elephants through the jungle. This is an extremely popular attraction is SE Asia, however is an terrible industry for the elephants. Please, research and think twice before riding an elephant.

We took a boat across the river to some large rock features where routes were bolted by some American climbers in the late 90s. We arranged to be picked back up by our boatman 4 hours later. Nick and I had a blast climbing on some great rock and even some multi pitches overlooking the Mekong River. We had an audience of local village kids across the river and when we repelled down they were eagerly waiting for us on the beach. When we realized our boatman was not coming back for us we hesitantly asked the kids to boat us across the river. About 3/4 across the river, water began to rush into the boat. Quickly the boat sank and we found ourselves swimming after our shoes and gear. Our rope and quickdraws stayed dry but unfortunately this was the last of my iPhone. This trip has taught me to always expect the unexpected and remind yourself it’s all part of the journey.

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1 way ride to the rocks
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Climbs with a view
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Mekong River
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Pre-sink

Although you could spend many days in Luang Prabang it is quite expensive so Nick and I decided to move north to Laung Nam Tha. ps. Check out the video tab on our blog to view our video of Laos!

Southern Cambodia

Before I start this blog post, huge thanks to Nick who has done the majority of the planning on this trip. Wherever we are, it seems as if he is preparing for tomorrow while I am writing about the day before. Traveling has had it’s ups and downs but I am elated to have this guy by my side.

Kampot

After crossing the corrupt border into Cambodia and overpaying for our visa, Nick and I headed to Kampot. This is a huge tourist town with an enormous expat community. Let me say, these expats are not giving older white males the best name. If it’s watching them flirt with teenage locals or cat calling and insulting tourists they could learn a thing or two about respect.

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If you are not looking for the party scene you won’t find much in Kampot, thus Nick and I decided to head out of town to rock climb, visit Secret Lake and hit the crab market.

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Crab Market, Kep

Nick and I were equipped with our climbing gear and excited to get back out on the rock. We headed to Climbodia, a sport climbing area set up by David, a friendly expat from Belgium. These routes range from 5.7 – 5.12 and scale some interesting cave features. Because we had our own gear we were able to climb independently, however we ended up spending some time around guided trips. These local guides were funny but had some questionable safety standards. Nick climbed a route named Snakeskin, which included 2 snake skins, 1 enormous hornet’s nest, 8 stings and a big fall!

 

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Climbodia
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Nick with snakeskins, hornets and big falls!

 

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Favorite restaurants:

Simple Things- a must visit for any vegetarian! The temph sandwich was the best sandwich I’ve had on my travels!

Epic Arts Cafe- this cozy cafe provides jobs to Cambodians who are deaf or have other disabilities. The food is fantastic and there are a variety of handmade crafts for sale.

Chi Phat

In order to protect the southern Cardamom Mountains from poaching and logging, the Wildlife Alliance has turned this river village into a community based eco- tourism project. Nick and I spent 2 nights in Chi Phat and enjoyed our time trekking in the jungle and exploring waterfalls. From Kampot, we took a local bus (squeezing 19 people into a mini van) then a beautiful 2 hour, long boat to the the village. We felt comfortable with spending our money here as we knew this non-profit was helping the local community and conserving the environment.

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Pomelo with Tida

It was our trekking guide, Mr. Kim’s, first day on the job and he was an interesting character to say the least. He ran around laughing hysterically repeating, “Lisa, same same” (he thought my name was Lisa and was certain I was part Cambodian). He led us into the jungle where we saw some sort of bearded dragons, hawks, ant hills and pitcher plants. We spent time picking leeches off one another and continued our hike.

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Jungle hiking in Chi Phat
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I spy a Bearded Dragon

In 1982, Mr. Kim fought against Khmer Rouge and had the bullet scars to prove it. He said on hot days when they were without water, they’d drink the water collected from small pitcher plants (then proceeded to pick a pitcher plant and drink the water and insects inside). As a young child he recalled seeing U.S. B-52’s dropping bombs on Cambodia and visiting an American doctor for vaccines and medication.

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Drinking pitcher plants

We ended the 17 mile trek with a dip in the Chay Khpos Waterfall where we saw the extensive burn scars on Mr. Kim’s back. He had many stories, but so do most middle aged Cambodians. Their country has been through it all and we learned more about their dark history in Phenom Penh.

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Chay Khpos Waterfall

Phenom Penh

Nick and I only had a short period of time in the capital, Phenom Penh, and spent the majority of our time at the Toul Sleng Genocide Museum and Russian Market. We also wandered around the Royal Palace Plaza and riverfront which gave us an excellent view of Phenom Penh’s local nightlife.

*Warning to all of our young readers, the following information may be graphic and unsettling.

Tuol Sleng (also called S-21) was a high school that turned into the secret center of a network of nearly 200 prisons where people were tortured and killed by the Khmer Rouge. Between 12,000 and 20,000 people were imprisoned here from 1975- 1979 with only 12 confirmed survivors. 343 killing sites and 19,440 mass graves were later discovered throughout Cambodia.

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Tool Sleng (S-21)
  • The Cambodians celebrated when the Khmer Rouge defeated the (U.S. backed) Cambodian Government as they thought this would be the end of U.S. bombs (more bombs were dropped on Cambodia during the Vietnam War than during all of WWII). Within 3 hours of the Khmer Rouge takeover, people we displaced from the city and forced to work in the country. Many people died from this trek alone. This was part of Khmer Rouge’s plan to start at year 0, and create a society of working farmers. They eliminated modern equipment and made people work like animals. People were kidnapped, imprisioned and tortured until they admitted to being a spy or working with the CIA.
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Torture at S-21
  • Many people were killed, however professionals and those more educated were some of the first. They killed all medical workers and trained their own staff (although the Khmer Rouge forbid education). They practiced medicine by dissecting and extracting blood from living humans leaving them to die.
  • Not only Cambodians were killed. A New Zealand traveler and his friend in their mid twenties dreamed of sailing around the world. When they arrived to the coast of Cambodia they were taken to S-21, imprisoned, tortured and killed. When interrogated, Kerry Hamill reported Kernel Sanders (KFC) as his boss and other famous Western celebrities as his accomplices.
  • Some of the forms of torture conducted at S-21 included: water boarding, blundering, electric sock, slashes and more specifically, hanging prisoners by their ankles and lowering their heads into vessels of human waste.
  • 1 out of 4 Cambodians died during these 3 years, 8 months and 20 days.

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I’ve learned about the holocaust which was heartbreaking and devastating, but what was different about the Khmer Rouge genocide is it took place more recently (only 37 years ago). There are black and white film photographs documenting almost every prisoner, mass grave site, soldier, and torture device. There is still genocide occurring in the Congo and there is rarely any mainstream news about it. When will we learn from our mistakes? With changing political environment, I hope, with a heavy heart, that we will learn from the past and treat humanity with respect and dignity, excluding war and terror.

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Wooden prison cells at S-21