South East Asia 2004-05


Oslo - THAILAND: Bangkok (16/9) - Huahin (20/9) - Koh Pha-Ngan (22/9) - Phuket (30/9) - Koh Phi-Phi (2/10) - MALAYSIA: Kota Bharu (9/10) - Pulau Perhentian Kecil (10/10) - Penang (17/10) - THAILAND: Bangkok (20/10) - CAMBODIA: Siam Reap (22/10) - Battambang (25/10) - Phnom Penh (27/10) - Sihanoukville (29/10) - THAILAND: Bangkok (2/11) - Kanchanaburi (12/11) - Bangkok (13/11) - Huahin (15/11) - Koh Phi-Phi (17/11) - MALAYSIA: Penang (28/11) - THAILAND: Koh Phi-Phi (1/12) - Phuket (27/12) - Bangkok (27/12) - Koh Tao (4/1) - Had Yai (11/1) - MALAYSIA: Kuala Lumpur (12/1) - Kuching (20/1) - Kapit (26/1) - Miri (28/1) - BRUNEI: Bandar Seri Begawan (1/2) - MALAYSIA: Koto Kinabalu (3/2) - Semporna (5/2) - - Kota Kinabalu (9/2) - Sepilok (10/2) - Kinabatangan (12/2) - Semporna (14/2)- Tawau (18/4) - INDONESIA: Tarakan (19/4) - Rantepao (24/4) - Tentena (28/4) - Ampana (30/4) - Togean Islands (1/5) - Manado (10/5) - Tangkoko National Park (12/5) - Manado (13/5) - Lembeh (16/5) - Manado (17/5) - MALAYSIA: Kuala Lumpur (18/5) - THAILAND: Koh Phi-Phi (24/5) - Phuket (1/6) - Bangkok (2/6) - MYANMAR (BURMA): Yangon (5/6) - Mandalay (7/6) - Bagan (9/6) - Inle Lake (13/6) - Bago (17/6) - Yangon (18/6) - THAILAND: Bangkok (19/6) - LAOS: Tadlo (22/6) - Don Det (26/6) - Pakse (29/6) - Vang Vien (30/6) - Luang Pranbang (3/7) - THAILAND: Chiang Mai (7/7) - Bangkok (12/7) - Phimai (14/7) - Hua Hin (18/7) - Bangkok (20/7) - NORWAY: Oslo (23/7).

 

#1: Back in Asia!

Oslo- THAILAND: Bangkok - Huahin- Koh Pha-Ngan- Phuket- Koh Phi-Phi- MALAYSIA: Kota Bharu- Pulau Perhentian Kecil- Penang- THAILAND: Bangkok.

 

#2: Thailand/Cambodia

THAILAND: Bangkok- CAMBODIA: Siam Reap- Battambang- Phnom Penh- Sihanoukville- THAILAND: Bangkok- Kanchanaburi- Bangkok- Huahin- Koh Phi-Phi- MALAYSIA: Penang- THAILAND: Koh Phi-Phi.

 

#3: I'm ok! Phi-Phi is not!

THAILAND: Koh Phi-Phi- Phuket- Bangkok.

 

#4: Borneo: Jungle and Diving Paradise!

THAILAND: Bangkok- Koh Tao- MALAYSIA: Kuala Lumpur- MALAYSIA (Sarawak): Kuching- Kapit- Miri- BRUNEI: Bandar Seri Begawan- MALAYSIA (Sabah): Kota Kinabalu - Semporna- Kota Kinabalu- Sepilok- Kinabatangan- Semporna.

 

#5: Sulawesi: Time consuming travel, but worth it!

MALAYSIA (Sabah): Semporna- Tawau- INDONESIA (Kalimantan): Tarakan - INDONESIA (Sulawesi): Rantepao- Tarakan- Ampana- Togean Islands/Kadidiri - Manado- Tangkoko- Manado- Lembeh- Manado- MALAYSIA: Kuala Lumpur.

 

#6: Myanmar: Land of Buddhas, Junta and betel nut Smiles!

MALAYSIA: Kuala Lumpur- THAILAND: Koh Phi-Phi- Phuket- Bangkok- MYANMAR (BURMA): Yangon- Mandalay- Bagan- Inle Lake- Bago- Yangon- THAILAND: Bangkok.

 

#7:

THAILAND: Bangkok- LAOS: Tadlo- Don Det- Pakse- Vang Vien- Luang Pranbang- THAILAND: Chiang Mai- Bangkok- Phimai- Hua Hin- Bangkok- NORWAY: Oslo.

 


Back in Asia! Travel mail #1

15
/09-20/10 2004


Oslo- THAILAND: Bangkok - Huahin- Koh Pha-Ngan- Phuket- Koh Phi-Phi- MALAYSIA: Kota Bharu- Pulau Perhentian Kecil- Penang- THAILAND: Bangkok.

 

Click here to see interactive Google map of the area covered in this travel diary.


Back in South-East Asia! Several other options were under consideration, but I ended up going there since Lydia was going and there are still lots of places where I have not been, as well as places I would like visiting again.

 

After South-America I spent 3 months in Norway. Great to meet up with friends and family and I even did some small trips to Berlin to visit Lydia, to Ireland for Wenche & Sean's wedding and to Bergen for the Hole in the Sky Festival.

 

Bangkok was the usual: hot, crowded, dirty and noisy. The Bangkok I know. The Bangkok I like. But one thing had changed; I was met on the airport by a smiling Lydia. Even better...

 

We spent 4 days doing the usual Bangkok stuff; Sightseeing (Golden Mountain, Baiyoke 2 - Thailand's highest building; 309m / 88 floors), Shopping (various shopping malls and the very nice Chatujak Weekend Market), Party (Bucket time!), Cinema (check out the Thai horror movie: The Shutter) and a rendezvous with the Thai cuisine.

 

Lydia had a friend in Huahin, so we decided to pay him a visit. Cool to live in a house and meet Rainer, but Huahin did not impress me that much.

 

The full moon was just a week ahead, so we headed for Koh Pha-Ngan. The other times I have visited the island I arrived just in time for the Full Moon Party. This time we had lots of time to enjoy the nice beaches. We left Had Rin beach one day when we rented a scooter to go up north to Hat Yao beach. Our bungalow was located at the end of the beach with an excellent view, but at night it was shaking more and more, from the load music, as we got closer to the full moon. When the sun sets and the full moon rises, people migrate to Had Rin and the once so laidback beach turns into a melting pot of techno beats, sweaty bodies, lights, fire, fluorescent colors, booze, drugs, sand and people everywhere.

 

A night boat and a minibus later we where in Phuket. Our mission here was to buy some diving gear and check out the infamous ping-pong show. Mission accomplished.

 

When I came back to Koh Phi-Phi things were the same, but yet very different; they had knocked down all the buildings along the road from Reggae Bar and approximately 50m onwards. It will probably be nice when they get finished, but my guess is that it will take a while. Had two really nice dives were we saw two octopuses, a sea snake, a black-tip shark, 3 turtles and the usual fish. In Pha-Ngan the thing that kept us from laying in the sun all day was our pale skin and the occasional sun burn; in Phi-Phi the rain did a good job with this as well. After three consecutive days of heavy rain we left the island towards Malaysia.

 

Pulau Perhentian Kecil is the smaller of two islands on the northern east cost of Malaysia. Our bungalow was shabby and very basic, but had a magnificent view of the beautiful Long Beach. The snorkeling was good right off the beach, but even better if you went on a snorkeling trip to more distant sites. A school of bump-head parrotfish, 5 turtles, black-tip shark, a big grouper and countless clownfish were the highlights. Also on land the fauna was impressive; an eagle was walking along on the beach, monitor lizards around the bungalows, the trees were full of squirrels and in the night the frogs were giving concerts. The low season was approaching, so many places started to shut down.

 

Penang is a great place to buy cheap DVDs/software/hardware and eat good food, so we did just that. In addition we went to the Snake Temple. The temple is dedicated to the deity Cheng-Swee Chor-Soo and has several poisonous Wagler's Pit Vipers on the altar.

 

We are now in Bangkok after many hours in the bus and a half day stop over in Hat Yai. Lydia's brother and a friend will be here in a few hours. Will stay here a couple of days before we head to Cambodia.

 

I have posted 5 picture albums since the last e-mail:

#1: Thailand: Bangkok, Huahin, Koh Pha-Ngan, Koh Phi-Phi.

#2: Malaysia: Pulau Perhentian, Penang.

 

#1: Germany/Norway: Berlin, Bergen.

#2: Ireland: Kilkenny, Cashel, Roscommon, Dublin.

#3: Norway: Oslo, Sandefjord.

 

That's it for now! Keep in touch!

 

:)

 

Helge

 

 

Travel mail #2

 

21/10-25/12 2004

THAILAND: Bangkok- CAMBODIA: Siam Reap- Battambang- Phnom Penh- Sihanoukville- THAILAND: Bangkok- Kanchanaburi- Bangkok- Huahin- Koh Phi-Phi- MALAYSIA: Penang- THAILAND: Koh Phi-Phi.

 

Click here to see interactive Google map of the area covered in this travel diary.


As so many mails before we start of in Bangkok. We met up with Lydia's brother Marco and his friend Stefan, but before we headed to Cambodia, we had time for some sightseeing: Siriraj Medical Museum (a weird collection of  body parts with various diseases and pathological evidence, as well as a display with the body of the convicted serial killer and cannibal Zee-Oui), Wat Arun (beautiful Khmer style temple by the river covered with mosaic of porcelain) and Wat Pho (huge reclining Buddha; 46m long, 15m high).

 

The road to Siam Reap was as bumpy as ever, but after 15 hours we arrived in the hometown of Cambodia's symbol and main tourist attraction; Angkor. The first day in Siam Reap we went to the War Museum where we were given a very interesting tour by a war veteran with a glass eye, a wooden leg and plenty of bullet wound scars. We also went for a swim in Western Baray, a huge (8x2,2km) artificial lake from the 11th century.

 

The next morning we got up early to be in time for the sunrise at Angkor Wat. Unfortunately the sunrise was not very impressive, but it was great to get a head start on the exploration of the many amazing temples. The structures dates from between the 9th and the 13th century and the highlights are:

- Angkor Wat: The world's largest religious building! A magnificent temple surrounded by water.
- Bayon: The temple has 52 towers and 260 large faces staring at you. Impressive carvings on the outer walls.
- Ta Prohm: Large temple with large roots from the Banyan trees climbing down the walls.

 

The five hours boat trip to Battambang was great: floating villages, mangroves, flooded forests and waving kids on the river bank. We hired some locals to drive us around on motorbikes visiting Phnom Sampeau (two killing caves with skulls and bones, as well as a small Wat and Stupa on the top of a hill), Wat Banan (a small 11th-century Khmer temple), a large tree filled with big flying foxes and a plantation where we were served local fruits and rice wine. On the way back to Battambang we used the Bamboo Train, a simple motor powered bamboo platform that was racing down the railway track towards the sunset.

 

When we arrived in Phnom Phen we checked out the National Museum, a nice place with old Khmer artifacts. The next morning we rented a tuk-tuk for the whole day. First stop on our "horror trip" was the S-21 prison where about 17.000 men, women and children were detained and tortured before they where taken out to the killing field for execution. The exhibition included pictures of the prisoners (Khmer Rouge held strict records), paintings of atrocities committed, as well as torture devices. The Killing Fields of Choeung Ek is a sad place with 86 mass graves containing the bodies of 8.985 people that were executed by the Khmer Rouge. The site is still scattered with pieces of bones and clothes from the victims.  The 17 story high monument filled with 8000 skulls (organized by sex and age!) is a grim reminder of the atrocities commited. After all these sad history lessons we went to donate blood. Our last stop for the day was Wat Phnom, a Wat on top of a hill in the city centre, where we could see lots of Macaque monkeys playing around.

 

In Sihanoukville we spent some days relaxing on the beach together with crowds of Cambodian tourists.

 

Back in Bangkok, Lydia's brother went home and we spent some time to wait for the Slipknot concert and Ola and Jeanette coming to Thailand. There was still lots to do and see in Bangkok: Pasteur Institute (Snake Farm), Chatujak Weekend Market (x-mas shopping), Wat Traimit (a 3m-tall, 5,5-tonne, solid-gold Buddha image) and Dream World (Amusement park).

 

One evening after going to the cinema we came back to our hotel (Welcome Sawasdee Inn) to find out that it had burned down. Fortunately only one of the two wings had burned and our room was not affected. We got evacuated to a even nicer place.

 

The last day in Bangkok we went to see Slipknot playing live. Before the main event, lots of local bands were performing during the afternoon.

 

Before heading south to the beaches we went to Kanchanaburi, infamous for the Kwai River Bridge and the Death Railway to Burma. The railway was built during World War II, claiming the lives of more than 100.000 men, including thousands of captured Allied soldiers. In addition to riding parts of the Death Railway (2,5hrs), we visited the Jeath War Museum, the War Cemetery and the Tiger Temple. The Tiger Temple is a large enclosure where monks are keeping orphaned tigers and other animals. We heard different stories about how serious the rehabilitation plans are, but still it was pretty cool to pet huge tigers and get your picture taken.

 

In Huahin we met up with Ola, Jeanette and their kids and spent a couple of days with them.

 

Now it was time to settle for a while and do lots of diving. Therefore, back to Koh Phi-Phi. I got a job in P.P. Seafrog Scuba and Lydia started her Divemaster program in the same shop. Seafrog was a small dive shop with only 3 instructors; Keira (Ireland), Amy (England) and me. Working in the shop was very nice and relaxed, but I wish we had more work, so that I could have dived every day.

 

The diving was very cool. We saw something special every day. There is three alternatives for diving from Phi-Phi:

1. Local diving: The Bida Islands are the best diving spots with regular sightings of Leopard sharks, Black-tip sharks, Octopus, Barracuda etc. Another cool site was Palong where Hawksbill turtles were common.

2. King Cruiser Wreck/Anemone Reef/Shark Point: The 85m wreck sank in 1997 and is an impressive sight. The two other sites on this trip are both nice pinnacles with plenty of marine life.

3. Hin Daeng/Hin Muang: Some of the best diving from Phi-Phi with good chances to see Manta rays. Unfortunately, I only went there once and did not see any Mantas then.

 

At the end of November was the Loy Kratong festival which is the day of the year with the highest tide. In the evening everybody met on the beaches and at midnight small bamboo rafts decorated with flowers, incense and candles were released into the sea.

 

Some days before Christmas Paul and his girlfriend Nina came to Phi-Phi. A good reason to bring out the buckets! On Christmas eve, our boss Sommai prepared a party in the shop: lots of  good food and cold beers. When we crawled out of bed around noon on Christmas day we went on a dive trip with all the staff and Chris. We tried something new and Hin Dot is a really nice site I wish I had dived more often.

 

The next day we got hit by the tsunami....

 

I have posted or added to 5 picture albums and 2 videos from the period covered by this travel mail:

#1: Thailand: Bangkok.

#3: Cambodia: Siam Reap / Angkor.

#4: Cambodia: Battambang,  Phnom Penh, Sihanoukville.

#5: Thailand: Kanchanaburi, Huahin, Koh Phi-Phi, Bangkok.

#6: Diving Thailand: Koh Phi-Phi.

 

Videos: Angkor Slideshow / Diving Phi-Phi.

 

That's it for now! Keep in touch!

 

:)

 

Helge

 

 

I'm ok! Phi-Phi is not! Travel mail #3

 

26/12-28/12 2004

THAILAND: Koh Phi-Phi- Phuket- Bangkok.

 

Click here to see interactive Google map of the area covered in this travel diary.


You all know about the tsunami hitting Asia with devastating force. In this mail I focus solely on the disaster day and the immediate aftermath. It makes no sense to include in this mail my travels to Cambodia and to write about the good times in Phi-Phi, so I will save this for later, thus delaying Travel Mail #2 and naming this Travel Mail #3.

 

We had shop duty for the day of the disaster and went to the Sea Frog dive shop at ten. About 30 minutes later we saw lots of people running through the streets screaming in panic. We did not understand anything and people did not give us any answers. Then we saw the wave of water coming up the street after them. I grabbed our stuff and we ran up the hill to get away from the wave. At that time we did not understand the magnitude of what was happening.

 

I heard afterwards from people that had been on the beach that the water had suddenly been sucked out of the bay, before the wave started building towards the island. The waves came from both bays.

 

We saw buildings crumble and water everywhere. I ran down to the bungalow to get our luggage and brought it to safety. Our bungalow (Valentine Bungalow) was just at the end of the wave and it had just a thin layer of muddy water on the floor.

 

On the way back to Lydia I met another instructor from Sea Frog, Keira. She just woke up in her bungalow when the wave came. The bungalow collapsed and she was dragged down stream for almost 100m by the wave. Luckily she only got a shattered wrist and some minor scratches.

 

We soon discovered that others had not been so lucky. Badly injured and dead people were scattered all over the place. We went looking for people, but had to be careful because more waves were coming.

 

A rumor started circulating that another big wave would come 13:30. People had to be evacuated to higher ground. Lots of people went up to the View Point. The next wave never came, but eventually the rescue helicopters came to Cabana beach. People were carried to safety on doors, boards, trolleys, stretchers etc. It was a difficult task as debris and crumbled buildings were everywhere.

 

I was separated from Lydia and was looking for her while running around trying to help people. I knew she was safe, just not where she was. Lots of others were looking for their loved ones, but for many the outcome was more tragic. I heard lots of sad stories. But people were very brave and lots of people did an amazing job helping and rescuing people in need.

 

I found Lydia just before nightfall and we decided to spend the night in the empty bungalows just above Valentines (and far out of harms way). Tried to convince more people to do the same, but most ended up spending the night on the View Point.

 

Even in our nice bungalow it was difficult to sleep. The experiences from the day were overwhelming and the faces, stories and injuries of the many dead and injured appeared when you closed your eyes. Still, exhausted as we were, we managed to get some sleep.

 

At sunrise people started walking down from the View Point. Boats started coming in, leaving for Phuket and Krabi. Most of the most seriously injured people had been lifted off with helicopters, but there were still people in need of help. Again we saw many grim reminders that some were beyond help.

 

All of our friends were ok. The ones that had been diving were all fine. But they had experienced severe shifting currents underwater when the wave came in. When they went to Maya Bay after the first dive, the whole bay was stirred up like a wild river. Back on Phi-Phi Don they saw the devastation on the island. Some said that they saw dead children floating among the debris in the bay.

 

We went to the Sea Frog shop where I found most of my diving gear. We had been extremely lucky getting out of the whole situation only loosing our masks and fins. Lots of people had lost everything. Surreal to see the damage that was inflicted to the building that we had been in only seconds before the wave came crashing in; furniture was tossed around and pieces of the concrete wall was torn open.

 

We left Phi-Phi around 1:30 with PPK’s dive boat. When we got to Phuket we went to the City Hall where all kinds of necessary services were offered for free to the thousands of people evacuated from the disaster areas: phone calls, food, water, internet, passport assistance, medical attention, accommodation, flights to Bangkok etc. After the total chaos in Phi-Phi, things here were well organized.

 

Got a free flight to Bangkok, where we are now. Will stay here for some days to think about what to do next.

 

It is incredible to think about that it is only two days since we where in the middle of  the worst natural disasters in newer history. Lots of thoughts are racing through our minds. Our home away from home is totally destroyed. It might be rebuilt, but it is scarred for life. The same goes for the people. Many have lost all they own, or even worse, friends, family and partners. I was trying to help people, but still I feel that I should have done more.

 

I think I will leave it at that. You all know that many other places are hit just as bad or even worse. We were extremely lucky and are thankful for that. I also want to send a big thank to all the people that sent me e-mails, SMS, as well as everybody that helped out both in the crisis areas and in the rescue centers.

 

Let's hope for a happier new year for Thailand, the rest of the region and all people affected.

 

I have posted some pictures from the disaster on my homepage.

#7: Tsunami Thailand: Koh Phi-Phi.

 

Best regards,

 

Helge

 

 

Borneo: Jungle and Diving Paradise! Travel mail #4

 

28/12-01/03 2005

THAILAND: Bangkok- Koh Tao- MALAYSIA: Kuala Lumpur- MALAYSIA (Sarawak): Kuching- Kapit- Miri- BRUNEI: Bandar Seri Begawan- MALAYSIA (Sabah): Kota Kinabalu - Semporna- Kota Kinabalu- Sepilok- Kinabatangan- Semporna.

 

Click here to see interactive Google map of the area covered in this travel diary.


We are now in Semporna working in Uncle Chang Diving. But before I ramble on about how amazing the diving is here on Sipadan and Mabul, I will describe the other paradises we have been in the last two months...

 

After the tsunami, we needed some time to calm down, relax, and reflect, so we stayed in Bangkok for about one week. We celebrated New Year with some friends from Phi-Phi (Barry and Scott) and Birgit.

 

Lydia still had a few skills and exams left in her Divemaster program, so we went to Koh Tao to get her finished. One week of hard studies and relaxing on the beach later, Lydia was finally a Divemaster.

 

Our next destination was Malaysia and the first stop was Kuala Lumpur, where we ended up staying another week. This was longer than expected because of the long time to get an Indonesian visa (4days+weekend!). That gave us lots of time to walk around in the city and do shopping and sightseeing: Zoo Negara, Sunway Lagoon Water Park, the Lake Gardens, Petronas Twin Towers. The Petronas Towers are the tallest twin towers in the world with 88 storeys and 452m above street level, but the highest we could go was the Skybridge at 170m (still nice views!).

 

Borneo always sounded exotic and far out of reach, but with discount airlines it is now both cheap and easy to get there. Northern Borneo is divided into Sarawak and Sabah (both Malaysia), with the tiny Sultanate Brunei Darussalam tucked in between.

 

We flew to Kuching, the largest city in Sarawak. The city has a nice waterfront, several interesting museums and numerous nearby National Parks. Our first meeting with the Borneo jungle was Semenggoh Nature Reserve, a centre of rehabilitation for formerly captured animals. The park has 21 semi-wild orangutans (Malay for "man of the forest") that can be viewed during the feeding two times a day. We saw 3 orangutans, including the huge dominant male named Ritchie.

 

The next three days we stayed in Bako National Park, a jungle island close to Kuching. Already in the camp we saw plenty of animals; Macaque monkeys stealing our lunch, a Bearded wild pig sniffing around in the mud, a poisonous Pit viper by one of the bungalows and a group of Proboscis monkeys (Malay: Orang Belanda = Dutch man) in the mangroves by the jetty. The Proboscis monkeys live exclusively in Borneo and are one of the largest monkeys in the world. The male is easily distinguished by its enormous cucumber like nose and large pot belly whereas the female is smaller and has a little pointed nose. The park has many marked trekking trails where you can see mighty jungle vegetation, various species of carnivorous pitcher plants, mangroves, nice views, beaches, impressive sandstone formations and more proboscis monkeys.

 

We also checked out the Sarawak Cultural Village. Nice to get an impression of culture, architecture and fashion of North Borneo's various people, but the dance show with its sing-along closing song "Malaysia...Truly Asia" was a bit too Las Vegas for our taste.

 

Now it was time to see a real longhouse, so we went up the Rejang River towards Belaga. Unfortunately the river was to low to continue beyond Kapit, but no need for despair; already after some hours walking around in the small city, we were invited to go to an Iban longhouse the following day. The longhouse village consisted of 3 longhouses, the largest with about 30 doors/families. The whole thing felt a bit awkward in the beginning, but all shyness was washed away with rice wine. Eventually we went into the jungle where the villagers had prepared a BBQ party by a small waterfall from the goods we brought. It was nice soaking in the small ponds, eating good food (does not include snails, jackfruit or betel nut) and communicating with the friendly Iban people. When we came home around sunset we were drunk and happy.

 

We used Miri as a base to visit Niah Cave National Park. The park has a raised plankwalk through the jungle leading up to several nice caves. The Great Cave is one of the largest caves in the world. Archaeologists have found evidence that humans have been living in and around the caves here for 40.000 years, but nowadays it is the home of bats and swiftlets (their nests are used as a delicacy for the all-eating Asians!). The Painted Cave was used as a grave site in ancient days and has red painted figures dating back at least 1000 years. We ended up staying another 2 days in Miri as Lydia was sick and needed some rest.

 

The Sultan of Brunei Darussalam was formerly the richest man in the world, but it is hard to keep the title when you have a little brother that managed to waste USD 16 billion. The 350.898 citizens in this small oil country also have a pretty good life with no taxes, free healthcare and low house rents. The flipside of the coin are the strict Muslim laws and that most things cost about 3 times more than in Malaysia.

 

Bandar Seri Begawan is the capital of Brunei and our home for two days. The city had some impressive mosques; Jame'Asr Hassanal Bolkiah Mosque and Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque, but the main attraction for us was the Jerudong Park Playground, a huge amusement park that was given as a gift to the Brunei people in 1994. Nowadays it is almost no visitors (~15 the day we went!), they have introduced entrance fees and closed some rides, but it is still a really cool park

 

Back to Malaysia again, this time Sabah and its capital Kota Kinabalu.Went on a day trip to Ranau to see the Rafflesia flower (the worlds largest flower, the one we saw was 68cm across) before we got on the night bus to Semporna.

 

Semporna is a small and dirty city on the South-East coast of Sabah, but the glory of the place is that it is only about an hour boat ride away from Sipadan Island and some of the world's best diving. We had 9 amazing dives in Sipadan and Mabul.

 

We went back to Kota Kinabalu to pick up our bags and celebrate Chinese New Year. There was not much celebration going on in KK, but we did get to see some Lion Dance before we went to Sepilok. The Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre had many young orangutans showing up for the two daily feedings, but also lots of noisy people, so you sometimes felt like being in a zoo. Still it is amazing to see the world's largest tree dwellers swing, play and eat.

 

From one jungle to another: the next day we went down the Kinabatangan river to Uncle Tan's Wildlife Camp. We had two days packed with river safaris and jungle walks from morning to night. There was lots of wildlife to see: Monkeys (proboscis, gibbon, macaque, white-leaf), other mammals (civet cat, bearded wild-pig, otter, bat), reptiles (crocodile, monitor lizard, snake), frogs, birds (hornbill, kingfisher etc) and insects (spider, scorpion, catepillar etc).

 

Back in Semporna we did some more dives before we heard roumors about a job opening in Uncle Chang. We asked and got the job right away. At the right place in the right time! Since then we have great diving every day in Sipadan and Mabul.

 

Sipadan is a small island surrounded by large coral reefs and steep walls sloping down to 600m. All the resorts on the island were recently closed down for conservational reasons. The marine life on the reefs is abundant and includes turtles (often see more than 20 on one dive), sharks (white-tip, grey reef, leopard, hammerhead), manta rays, octopus and huge schools of fish (including barracuda, trevally, humphead parrotfish). Mabul is an inhabited island with more shallow reefs and plenty of smaller marine life like nudibranches, pipefish, cuttlefish, frogfish, crocodilefish etc.

 

The plan is now to stay here until mid April and then go to Indonesia (Sulawesi, Bali, Java).

 

I have posted or added to 6 picture albums from the period covered by this travel mail:

#5: Thailand: Bangkok.

#8: Malaysia: Kuala Lumpur, Kuching, Bako National Park.

#9: Malaysia/Brunei: Kapit, Niah, Bandar Seri Begawan.

#10: Malaysia: Ranau, Kota Kinabalu, Sepilok, Kinabatangan, Semporna.

#11: Diving Malaysia: Mabul, Kapalai, Semporna.

#12: Diving Malaysia: Sipadan.

 

Videos: Borneo, Diving Sipadan and Carnaval in Rio 2004 (better late than never!).

 

That's it for now! Keep in touch!

 

:)

 

Helge

 

 

Sulawesi: Time consuming travel, but worth it! Travel mail #5

 

02/03-19/05 2005

MALAYSIA (Sabah): Semporna- Tawau- INDONESIA (Kalimantan): Tarakan- INDONESIA (Sulawesi): Rantepao- Tarakan- Ampana- Togean Islands/Kadidiri- Manado- Tangkoko- Manado- Lembeh- Manado- MALAYSIA: Kula Lumpur.

Click here to see interactive Google map of the area covered in this travel diary.

Backpacking in Sulawesi (...and other parts of Indonesia) is time consuming and usually uncomfortable. Busses are filled up to the brim, seats are tiny, all men are smoking, children are puking and roads are bumpy. Distances are not overwhelming, but roads are bad and busses are unreliable and infrequent. The boats are even more unreliable and infrequent. The inflexible and tourist-unfriendly visa rules adds up to frustration. But with a little bit of patience you will discover a beautiful part of Asia with stunning scenery, white beaches, unique wildlife, fascinating culture, friendly people and great diving.

 

The two months working in Semporna at Uncle Chang's were great. The diving in Sipadan/Mabul was awesome, but for more details read the last travel mail or check out the picture galleries (Sipadan / Mabul) and the video. We were diving almost every day, but when Lydia's brother and his friend came over for a week we had a day off to visit some of the other beautiful islands in the area. Sibuan is a small paradise island surrounded by white beaches and turquoise water inhabited only by a small group of sea gypsies. The annual Lepa Lepa Water Festival was on our last weekend in Semporna. The sea gypsies compete in traditional dancing, water races and boat decorations. The Lepa Lepa boats parade with dancers and music, decorated with colorful sails, banners and carvings.

 

We had to stay one night in Tawau to get our new Indonesian visa before we went on the ferry to Tarakan in Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo). As with most transport in Indonesia the Pelni ships to Sulawesi are not very frequent. We had to wait for 3 days to cross the Sulawesi Sea. Nothing really happens in Tarakan, but we killed time by watching DVDs and playing Playstation.

 

Traveling economy class on the Pelni ship means two days crammed on the floor with hundreds of locals smoking (all Indonesian men with a double figure age smoke and they do it everywhere and all the time), eating durian (a local fruit delicacy that smells like sewer), staring (we were 3 white people on the boat), singing karaoke and puking. We would be served food that we were warned not to eat and we would have to watch our belongings for 24hrs. So we were splurging in 1st class; a nice room with window, hot shower and good food.

 

When we arrived on the coast of Sulawesi, in Pare Pare, it was surprisingly easy to get a bus straight to Rantepao. Rantepao is the main city in Tana Toraja, the South Sulawesi highlands, Sulawesi's biggest tourist attraction thanks to beautiful landscape, the unique funeral ceremonies, burial grounds and architecture. Most of the funeral ceremonies take place in the dry season of July-September, but we still managed to get invited to a funeral. To bring fortune to the family and to impress the gods, pigs and buffalos are sacrificed, the amount depending on wealth and status of the family. In the funeral we attended, nine buffalos and several pigs were killed, a medium sized ceremony. Some of the meat was cooked in bamboo tubes (traditional Pa'piong) for the funeral feast, but most of it was distributed among the guests to take home. The deceased stays in the house until enough money is raised for the expensive ceremony (one buffalo cost ~800EUR). The Toranjans are put to rest in stone graves in big rocks or hanging graves: wooden coffins on cliffs or in caves. Babies that die before teething are placed in holes in living trees, symbolizing that they will grow with the tree.

 

Tana Toraja is also famous for the traditional Tongkonan houses; large houses with buffalo horn shaped roofs and colorful carvings. We saw plenty of these beautiful houses when we were cruising around the countryside on our rented motorbike. Out of the many nice places we visited, our favorites were:

 

- Ke'te Kesu: Village with many nice Tongkonan houses, hanging graves with lots of bones spilling out, tau tau dolls (life-size, wooden figures representing the dead) and a funeral cave with bones and bats.

- Londa: Burial cave with plenty of coffins and bones, some hanging graves and a large balcony with tau tau dolls.

- Lemo: Impressive rock wall with stonegraves and several tau tau doll balconies.

- Batutumonga: Amazing panorama view.

 

After a tiring day on the bus we arrived late in Tentena, a little town by the shores of Lake Poso. The next morning we rented a motorbike and checked out the local attractions: Salopa Waterfall, Pamona cave, Latea cave (old burial cave with lots of bones and skulls) and a viewpoint.

 

The less than 200km road to Ampana took about 12 hrs, including endless waiting and muddy, bumpy and curvy roads. The goal in Ampana was to get the boat to Togean Islands, but the daily ferry service was more a daily-except-when-you-want-to-go-service, so we had to take a different boat to the Siatu village, where we were negotiating for several hours before they told us the already fixed price to go to Pulau Kadidiri. There was no scuba instructor on the island, so I was hired to do a Open Water course. The coral reefs had beautiful corals, but unfortunately the fishing in the area had taken its toll, so there was not that many fish around. In addition to the course dives we dived the B-24 Liberator, a large American bomber plane that crashed in May 1945. The 60 year old wreck was remarkably intact and was now inhabited by plenty of corals and fish. The rest of the time was spent snorkeling, being lazy and reading (finished 4 books).

 

Knowing that transport is unreliable in Indonesia we asked again and again if the weekly boat to Gorontalo was going, the answer was always positive, until the morning we were supposed to leave. Luckily the other dive shop on the island was going to the mainland, so we went with them. More than 20hrs later we arrived at our destination: Manado. Happy to be back in "civilization" we stuffed ourselves with pizza, checked e-mails and went to the cinema. Our visa would expire in a week, so we went to the immigration office to extend it. We had been told by several people in several embassies that it would be no problem to extend the visa in Indonesia, but that turned out to be wrong. Even with the help of a higher rank immigration officer there was no way to get the extension. Seems that they do not really want tourists here! So we had to change our plane ticket and leave Indonesia without going to Bali and Java. What a shitty birthday! So the day would not be totally miserable we went to a cemetery. The ancient Waruga stone graves in Sawangan were built to house the dead in a sitting position (representing position in mother's womb). The engravings on the headstones illustrate the cause of death, deceased's character or occupation etc.

 

The Tangkoko Nature Reserve is famous for it's Tarsiers and Celebes black apes. Tarsiers are small (~10cm), nocturnal primates with short bodies, large eyes and a head that can be turned 180°. We saw plenty Tarsiers and some Celebes black apes when we went on a dust trek in the jungle.

 

Lembeh Strait is a paradise for "muck diving"! In our 3 dives we saw plenty of weird and exotic creatures in the black volcanic sand, many of  them we have never seen before: lots of frogfish, seahorses, dragonfish, very special scorpionfish, cuttlefish, squids, dragonets, eels, various crustaceans, nudibranches in all colors and shapes etc.

 

We were prepared for a long, boring day on the airport in Jakarta before we got our evening flight to Kula Lumpur, but on the plane we met Stephen, a very friendly Chinese businessman living in Jakarta. He and his wife, Jane, offered us to provide their car and driver to do some sightseeing in the city. We went to the National Monument where we enjoyed the view over Jakarta and an interesting exhibition about Indonesian history.

 

We are now in Kuala Lumpur where we will stay a couple of days. Then the plan is to go to Phi-Phi, Burma, Laos and North Thailand before we attend Kim and Noi's wedding in Thailand in mid July. Will be back in Norway in late July.

 

I have posted or added to 5 picture albums from the period covered by this travel mail:

#10: Malaysia: Semporna.

#11: Diving Malaysia: Mabul, Kapalai, Semporna.

#12: Diving Malaysia: Sipadan.

#13: Indonesia: Tana Toraja, Tentena, Togean Islands, Waruga, Tangkoko, Manado, Jakarta.

#14: Diving Indonesia: Togean Islands, Lembeh Strait.

 

The Diving Sipadan video has been edited several times. Videos from the Lepa Lepa Festival and diving in Togean Islands + Lembeh Strait will be posted soon.

 

That's it for now! Keep in touch!

 

:)

 

Helge

 

 

Myanmar: Land of Buddhas, Junta and betel nut Smiles! Travel mail #6

 

20/05-20/06 2005

MALAYSIA: Kuala Lumpur- THAILAND: Koh Phi-Phi- Phuket- Bangkok- MYANMAR (BURMA): Yangon- Mandalay- Bagan- Inle Lake- Bago- Yangon- THAILAND: Bangkok.

 

Click here to see interactive Google map of the area covered in this travel diary.


After some days of shopping and going to the cinema (Star Wars!!) in Kuala Lumpur, we decided to go back to Phi-Phi Island. We thought it would take a long time to get the island back in shape, but we heard that lots of places have been open for several months and that new shops and restaurants are popping up every week. So we wanted to have a look ourselves, meet up with friends, dive, help with the cleaning and pay the debt to our old boss.

 

Strange to be on Phi-Phi again! Some of the areas look like nothing happened, whereas other areas are totally gone: from the pier you can look over to the other side of the island where only some palm trees and piles of rubble are left. The area around the water reservoir is thinned out dramatically and the Thai market is just wasteland. More than 100 volunteers are digging, building, painting, planting, cleaning or diving for debris. We did some days of clean-up diving in Tonsai bay, dragging  palm trees, parts of bungalows, furniture, clothes, cds and other merchandise into large nets. In addition we did some fun diving and I taught parts of an Advance course. The reefs still look good and it was cool to see our old friend the leopard shark again. On land, we also met lots of old friends and had a nice dinner and dive with our Sea Frog boss, Sommai.

 

Back in Bangkok! This time we had to buy flight tickets (Myanmar/Norway), arrange visa (Myanmar), buy clothes for the wedding, but we also had time for the Chatujak Weekend Market and some movies at the cinema (Sin City is a great comic adaptation!).

 

Myanmar is governed by a military dictatorship that holds the democratically elected opposition in prison. National League for Democracy (NLD) won the 1990 elections by 85% of the votes, but the military junta did not accept the results and responded by throwing the winning party in jail. The leader of NLD, Aung San Suu Kyi, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991. Forced labor is practiced, minorities are repressed, there is no freedom of press/speech and the people are constantly controlled under the slogan "All Respect, All Suspect". The once rich Burma has been reduced to a country of acute poverty. Because of the human right issues, a minimum use of governmental services is advised and it became a sport for us to avoid the governmental tourist fees.

 

The people of Myanmar are very open, friendly and interested in you as a foreigner. Most Burmese men wear the traditional longyi (skirt-like waistcloths) and are constantly chewing and spitting betel nut, a mild drug that colors the teeth and lips bright red. Most Burmese women smear their faces with Thanakha, a beige, muddy paste that is making the skin fair and smooth. Every Burmese male is expected to take up temporary monastic residence twice in his life, so Buddhist monks of all ages are everywhere. You even see plenty of Buddhist nuns in their pink robes.

 

Since you can not enter Myanmar on land the easiest way to get here is to fly to Yangon, the capital with 5 million inhabitants. The city is like the typical Asian capital; large and dirty with a diverse mixture of people from all neighbor countries. The most interesting sight in the city is the Shwedagon Paya, a 98m stupa surrounded by 82 small temples. Every good Buddhist in Myanmar hopes to make a pilgrimage here at least once in their lifetime. The stupa is covered by 53 tones of gold leafs and the spire is encrusted with more than 5000 diamonds and 2000 other stones.

 

Mandalay is the second biggest town in Myanmar and our next destination. The city in itself is not very attractive, but it has some interesting nearby attractions. Mahamuni Paya is the home of a large Buddha whose features have been obscured over the last 100 years by gold leafs brought by worshippers. Mingun Ancient City is located 1hr by boat up the Ayeyarwady River. The Mingun Paya is the massive cubic 50m high base of what was supposed to be a 150m high stupa. An earthquake in 1838 destroyed the ambitious project before it could be finished as well as the giant guardian lions in front of the Paya. The cracked colossus offers nice views of the ancient city, but the barefooted climb on the hot stones was a challenge for our delicate feet. The area has also several other nice payas and the Mingun Bell, the second largest bell in the world (90 tones).

 

The impressive thing about Bagan is the sheer number of stupas and temples in the area (more than 3000!). Wherever you look you see ancient places of worship (most from AD 1057-1287). Most of the buildings are solid stupas which you can not enter, but there are plenty of large temples to explore. Inside you see Buddhas in all positions and sizes and some contain remains of old murals. We rented bikes for some days and enjoyed just driving around.

 

After waking up at 4am and spending 12 hrs in a less than perfect bus on a less than perfect road we arrived in Nyaungshwe, a small village situated north of the idyllic Inle Lake. We got together with some friends from the bus and rented a boat to spend the day (5:30-17:30) on the lake and its many canals. The local market at the very south of the lake was interesting, not necessary for the items being sold there, but more for the atmosphere and the Shan people in their traditional clothes. We passed several floating villages, observed daily life in the canals and watched the locals paddling their boats by standing at the stern on one leg and wrapping the other around the oar. At the Nga Phe Kyang Monastery the monks have trained their resident cats to jump through loops. The trip also included stops at various manufactories/shops like weaving, blacksmith, cigar, silver and rice paper. After getting up early two days in a row it was time to be lazy and we had a Burmese massage that included the masseur "walking" on your body.

 

On the way back to Yangon we stayed one night in Bago where we visited the big local market, the big Kha Khat Wain Monastery (1200 monks), the big Shwethalyaung recling Buddha (55m long) and the big Shwemawdaw Paya (112m high).

 

Back in Yangon we eventually found the Nar-Gar Glass Factory before we flew to Bangkok the next morning.

 

We are now in Bangkok to get Laos visa and the usual stuff. Tomorrow we take the night train towards Pakse in Laos. After Laos we go back to Thailand for Kim and Noi's wedding. I have booked a flight to Oslo the 23rd of July and Lydia leaves to Berlin the day after.

 

I have posted 2 picture albums from the period covered by this travel mail:

#15: Thailand/Myanmar: Koh Phi-Phi, Yangon, Mandalay.

#16: Myanmar: Bagan, Inle Lake, Bago.

 

Video of Diving Togean Islands has been posted. Videos of Lepa Lepa Festival, Diving Lembeh Strait and Myanmar will be edited soon.

 

That's it for now! Keep in touch!

 

:)

 

Helge

 

 

Travel mail #7

 

21/06-23/07 2005

THAILAND: Bangkok- LAOS: Tadlo- Don Det- Pakse- Vang Vien- Luang Pranbang- THAILAND: Chiang Mai- Bangkok- Phimai- Hua Hin- Bangkok- NORWAY: Oslo.

 

Click here to see interactive Google map of the area covered in this travel diary.

 

THAILAND

19 Yangon-Bangkok: 1hr flight. Welcome Sawasdee Inn.

20 Bangkok: Cinema: Batman Begins.

21 Bangkok: Cinema: Assault on Precinct 13.

LAOS

22 Tadlo: (11+1+1)+(1+2)hrs travel. Tim Guesthouse.

23 Tadlo: Tadlo Waterfall.

24 Tadlo: Elephant ride. Waterfall.

25 Tadlo: Lazy day. New book: Bill Bryson - A Short History of Nearly Everything.

26 Don Det: 2+4hrs travel. Nou Phit Guesthouse.

27 Don Det: Rent bicycle: Don Khon, Somphamit waterfall.

28 Don Det: Irrawaddy dolphins, Khone Phapheng waterfall.

29 Pakse: 3hrs travel. Nothing special...

30 Vang Vien: 10+3hrs travel. Malany Guesthouse.

01 Vang Vien: Tubing.

02 Vang Vien: Another rainy day! Massage.

03 Luang Prabang: 7hrs travel. Thavisouk Guesthouse. New book: Haruki Murakami - Dance Dance Dance.

04 Luang Prabang: Wat Pha Mahathat.

05 Luang Prabang: Kuang Si Waterfall.

06 Luang Prabang: Royal Palace Museum. Herbal steam bath and Massage.

THAILAND

07 Luang Prabang-Chiang Mai: 5hrs speed boat+5hrs bus. Namkhong Guesthouse.

08 Chiang Mai: Wat Phra Singh. Cinema: The Fantastic Four. Night marked.

09 Chiang Mai: Lydia´s birthday! Motorbike. Chiang Mai Zoo. Cinema: War of the Worlds.

10 Chiang Mai: Day trip: Orchid/Butterfly farm, Elephant dung factory, Chiang Dao Cave, Thaton White Buddha, Three Tribes Village (Long neck Karen, Lahu, Akha), Hmong village. Sunday market.

 

 

I have posted 2 picture albums from the period covered by this travel mail:

#17: Laos: Tadlo, Don Det, Vang Vien, Luang Pranbang.

#18: Thailand: Chiang Mai, Phimai.

 

Videos of Lepa Lepa Festival, Diving Lembeh Strait and Myanmar has been posted since last travel mail.

 

That's it for now! Keep in touch!

 

:)

 

Helge