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Southeast Asia Island kingdoms

Brunei bug hunting

It’s time to go back to Kuala Lumpur and even though I’ve only given Singapore a couple of days, it feels like enough. While I wouldn’t mind going for one of the other walking tours about the second world war, I won’t miss it terribly either.Petronas Towers Being a bit stupid in not understanding that there are a whole bunch of bus companies in the same building I end up booking at the first one I walk by and getting a luxury ticket as well. It turns out that my luxury ride is this tired old Scania bus, that while probably state of the art back when it was built (approximately some time in the 80ies), is now only worn down and dingy. It also comes with a hostess that serves the most vile microwaved meal and brings us watered down coffee.

The lady who sold me the ticket told me that I would be dropped off at the bus firm’s office in downtown Kuala Lumpur and that I would be able to store my luggage there. Though when the time comes I’m shoved off next to a parking lot, with not an office in sight. Fuckers… That means that I have to first lug all my stuff, first to a metro station, then go back to the main bus station (where I would’ve been dropped off if I’d gone with a different bus company), stash my luggage in a locker and go back to downtown, a process that takes me almost two hours. Oh well, no use moping about that. I go to the most natural tourist spot in Kuala Lumpur – Petronas Towers, only to find out that today’s tickets to the bridge between the towers are sold out. Apparently they have 900-something tickets a day, divided into a few slots. And since the last slots are probably the most popular as that’s when it gets dark and you get to see the city lights, they are probably the first to go. The moral of all this is to get there early and be prepared to take an early slot if you want any tickets at all.

Burrowing spiderI take to wandering the area in hopes of finding anything interesting and am annoyed to find that not only is it thoroughly boring, but also appallingly pedestrian-hostile. I try going a few stations down the metro to see if it’s any better, but alas, it seems like Kuala Lumpur is even worse than Singapore. There really isn’t much to like, at least not on first impressions. I guess I’ll have to do some reasearch if I’m going back some day. The day is turning into evening though and it’s time to go to the airport and meet the girls. The weird thing is that when I finally make it there I can’t find the flight listed on the monitors. I double-check the flight and it’s the correct one so I figure it’s some sort of mistake. But doubt gnaws away at me and finally find an information booth where the lady tells me that yes, that is the correct flight, but it doesn’t land at this terminal, it lands at this entirely separate terminal, where all the low-cost carriers land.Creepy crawly Fortunately I have just enough time to catch a cab to go over there – which turns out to be over twenty minutes away at break-neck speed.

I meet up with the girls, only to find out that Jourdan’s (Jen’s roommate) boyfriend has arrived on the other terminal and that none of their mobile phones work outside China (seriously, China Mobile has no roaming agreements?). Fortunately my phone still works and I’m able to send Alex an SMS so that he can take a cab in the same manner as I did. Finally the gang is assembled and we can sit down and await the morning flight to Brunei (actually pronounced Brunai, look it up!)

The tour company isn’t picking us up until 13:30, so we have some time to kill at the airport. Problem is that there is exactly nothing to do at Brunei airport. There is one store where we can buy a snack and suddenly it’s closed for no apparent reason. The actual pickup spot doesn’t exist either, so for a while we’re both annoyed and confused. To make matters worse, there is absolutely no one around to actually ask. We later learn that since we have arrived on a Friday, and Brunei is a Muslim country, everything closes from 12-14 to allow people to go to the mosque.

Canopy walkWe do eventually get picked up and driven 10 minutes into town and a little dock. There we hop on a speedboat, and like the boat sequences in Spy Hunter (the C64 game) we proceed at dizzying speed upriver. There we meet Tom, our guide for this part of the trip and board a minivan, taking us to the next river, the ride is uneventful but there is one funny detail when Tom complains about the ridiculously high gas prices they’ve had lately; 54 Brunei cents per liter (which is 2.77 sek, whereas in Sweden it’s more than five times that; currently 14.53 sek per liter…). Arriving at the river, we pack our stuff into a longboat and begin the last leg. With great skill our driver/captain navigates the shallow river in the unwieldy longboat until we finally arrive at our destination: the Ulu Ulu resort!

RainforestThe resort is a former research facility and is actually huge, it feels even moreso seeing as we are the only guests today. The rooms are great and we’re given an hour or so to settle in before dinner and the following night walk. The night walk is really fun, we walk along a little stream and Tom points out critters as he sees them. The coolest thing we see is a burrowing spider, not that large but with appropriately hairy legs. We also see frogs, a couple of stick insects and a lizard. We trace the stream all the way up to a waterfall where we turn off our lights to see a patch of flourescent mushrooms growing on a branch.

We get an early night as we’re due for a canopy walk at sunrise. So at 4:30 Tom wakes us up and we go a bit upstream, walk uphill for a bit before reaching a large scaffolding structure they’ve built. Up top we’re 40 m above ground and basically level with the tree tops. The morning mist forms big clouds which are neat to look down upon, but there isn’t many animals moving about as we’d hoped. We do end up seeing a very pretty hornbill perched on a branch though, so we’re happy. On the way down the hill we also see some really huge ants, like an inch long! I really need to get a proper camera and a macro lens…

Going backIn the afternoon we get to do some kayakaing, although it is those tragic tourist kayaks where you sit up top. Afterwards we get to do some tubing, that’s when you sit in a tractor tyre inner tube and just get washed downstream. It’s a bit fun, but the best part is afterwards when we go back up to the same waterfall from the previous night and swim around for a bit, letting the fish who live there nibble at us. We head back for some lunch before it’s time to go back to town again. Tom tells us that the level of the river has dropped about 30 cm since yesterday, which is kind of mind-boggling. Usually in the dry season (which is now) they have to get out and push the boat at times.

The Jame'Asr Hassanil Bolkiah MosqueTom tags along back to the city and we ask him how to get to the various sights in town since we have a couple of hours to spare. He promptly offers to give us a tour of the two main mosques, which is awfully nice and not at all part of what we paid for! They are closed for prayer time though so we only get to see the outside of them, which is still pretty grand. Back at the airport we try to stash our luggage so that we can go eat downtown before our flight (airport is right in the middle of town), but just like last time, it seems like no one is actually working at this airport… So we resign and try to check our luggage instead, but there is no one working at the check in counters either! Only when we walk out to the gates we finally find the check in area (no signs anywhere). Sheesh, get your shit together Brunei!

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Southeast Asia Island kingdoms

Singapore

Arriving at Kuala Lumpur airport is really pleasant, and after chuckling at the awesomely named Nööödles restaurant I find out that all the budget taxis are booked, so I decide to try my luck at the bus instead. It costs only 10 ringgit (around 20 sek) but first of all takes like 40 minutes before it even leaves, presumably because the want to fill it up.image Delirious with sleep deprivation I desperately try to stay awake on the way into town. They drop us off God knows where and I start for a taxi, but the guy tells me it’s just a ten minute walk down the road. Always a good sign when the first person you meet is not trying to scam you! =)

It turns out that we have wildly different opinions on how far you get in ten minutes of walking though; when I, five or six blocks down the road start looking for the road, I can’t really find it. There are lots of helpful people with decent English to ask though, and after about 40 minutes of running around in circles with my ˜30 kg pack I finally find the place. Turns out that the road I was looking for was like two blocks from the bus, or about three minutes of walking…

Well, at least the hostel is excellent! Very nice beds with a little privacy booth up by your pillow and excellent WiFi. They also have a nice common room where you can sit down, have a beer and swap stories with all the other backpackers. The place is called the Back Home Hostel, and I can heartily recommend it!image I pop out to the nearby Chinatown for a bite to eat before bed and find a very nice Indian restaurant where you can watch the guy making the Naan bread in the kiln right outside. Two mango lassis and some lamb stew later I look around Chinatown for a bit, but since it’s around ten in the evening now, most places are closing up. It’s mostly counterfeit sneakers, bags and shirts though. Not particularly interesting stuff. I like the mood of the place though, the salesmen aren’t very pushy and you can actually browse without getting jumped immediately. There are also a bunch of really fun street food places which always makes for good pictures.

I have three days alone before Jen, her roommate Jourdan and Jourdan’s boyfriend Alex joins me and since Jen hasn’t been to Kuala Lumpur I opt for heading down to Singapore, which is only a 5 h bus ride away and which Jen has already been to. The plan is to spend two days there and then head back up to Kuala Lumpur for the last day and then meet up with the others at the airport in the evening. The ride costs like 80 sek and the seats are luxurious, albeit old. Immigration and customs are not very onerous but a funny detail is the x-ray guy who asks if I’m a diver based only off of what he sees on the x-ray (probably my BCD, dive light and camera housing). He even recommends some dive spots in the area.

Having forgotten to cache the google map for Singapore I have to ask my way around, but no one seems to know where the hostel is. After a good while I find a cab though, and it turns out to be pretty far actually. The hostel I booked here isn’t nearly as nice as the one in Kuala Lumpur but not bad either. On Jen’s recommendation I get tickets for the Night Safari at Singapore Zoo. The shuttle ride over there is positively frigid since they’re blasting the AC at top capacity, as per usual in southeast Asia… My right arm is entirely numb and I’m shivering as we are finally let off at our destination.
image

The safari consists of you riding a train of electric carts and a guide narrating what animals you’re passing. She has to spend most of her time telling people to shut off their flashes though. It’s pretty cool though because the animals are all calmly grazing right next to the train and not at all bothered by our presence. We get to see flamingoes, various antelopes and even lions, all surprisingly active, much moreso than any animals I’ve seen in a daytime zoo actually.

About halfway you can hop off and walk a few trails. Here you can see the fishing sibet cats, flying squirrels, slow loris (always adorable) to name a few. My favourites though are the otters and the porcupines. Both running around, chasing each other, playing and in the case of the porcupines, showing off their awesome spikes. Another favorite is the fruit bats, now if you haven’t seen fruit bats before, imagine something like a house cat with bat wings and you’re pretty close. They’re even called “flying dogs” in Swedish. So you enter this cage and the bats are pretty much just hanging out, eating fruit. I stand there and watch one munching away at arms length when it suddenly decides fly over to the other end and I can even feel the flapping of its wings as it passes over me!

Hopping back onto the train we see giraffes, hyenas, tapirs and other African savannah-dwelling critters before coming full circle. Since I lingered on the walking paths a bit I’ve missed the show where they play around with some of the animals. And since those are the only other things you can do I decide to head back to the shuttle bus. image I only have a vague idea of which of the stops are close to my hostel so I just decide to get off at one that sounds nice; Little India. It actually is nice, and I manage to get some dinner, even though it’s almost eleven o’clock at night. The temperature is a nice 25 degrees and I decide to walk all the way back, having cached the map this time and using the GPS on the tablet it’s impossible to get lost. It’s not a very pedestrian friendly city though with super wide streets and barely enough time to get across the road in the allotted time at the crosswalks. It never feels unsafe as there are plenty of other people my age out walking as well. All in all it takes about an hour to get back and by now I’ve gotten some feel for the layout of central Singapore.

The following morning the plan is to join a walking tour, but since I have to get some additional money first I plan a screwup margin. It’s lucky I did since all the ATMs are telling me I can’t have any money. Finally I figure out the cause: My ICA Mastercard has this feature where you have to explicitly have to unlock certain parts of the world before being able to get money at an ATM. The trick is to remember doing this in advance since the ATM will only tell you that something went wrong. In the end I did have enough time to sort out the money and still get to the tour in time, so hooray for planning!

The tour takes place in Little India and we get to learn about the flower garlands, pan and other typical Indian customs. We stop at a temple, a spice shop, a sari shop, a sweet shop, the market and a small museum. It’s a pretty good tour, even though I didn’t learn much new on account of already having been to India. Final stop is a henna painter place and I get to be the model, getting a nice dragon painted on the back of my hand.image I continue my Indian streak by having lunch at a vegetarian place together with  a nice girl from the tour. The rest of the afternoon is spent walking around, just looking at things. I pass through Chinatown, littered with old men and women who wants to do your horoscope or tell you what kind of person you are based on your feet. Not really my cup of tea I move on to the more modern parts of the city. I’m not really sold on Singapore as a city, it’s too sterile and car centered. If you want to walk around without constantly having to watch out for cars you have to go into a mall, and then you instead run the risk of hypothermia since they’re always running the AC at full blast.

Towards the evening I try to find a good spot for getting a picture of the skyline and I eventually find one down by the marina square. I’m kind of disappointed at Singapore as a whole at this point and decide to head back to the hostel for an early night. Turns out I picked the best route possible! As I go down to the underpass at Esplanade drive I hear music playing, it’s a bunch of teenagers practising their breakdance moves. Many of them are pretty good and I stay and watch for a good while. There’s also an adorable kid at about four years old mimicking their moves while the amused and proud father is watching. Resurfacing at Connaught Drive I see more kids, these guys are practising Cricket, with two batters at the end of a cage and two teams of bowlers throwing balls at them. This too is a lot of fun to watch and I stay a while here as well. This entire area is covered with different sports fields and I also pass football players and two female teams facing off in what can be described as a mix between Ultimate Frisbee and Basketball, haven’t seen that before. The last stretch I walk down along the southern bank of the Singapore river which is teeming with life; joggers, strollers and even a couple of parkour guys. It’s a really nice way to wrap up my day.

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A tour of communist southeast Asia

It’s a Holiday in Cambodia

Our plan was to get up early enough to have time for a tour of the War Remnants Museum,Pantsuits! which is supposed to be really good. But we’re unlucky with the buses and instead take to wandering in a direction we haven’t been yet. Eventually we find a cozy little café to sit down for a mid-morning coffee and just look at people. Something we’ve been noticing all over Vietnam is the hilariously ubiquitous pantsuits, without fail worn by elderly ladies and found in all sorts of gaudy colors and patterns. To top it all off they usually have the cone shaped straw hat as well, they really are a walking cliché of everything Vietnamese.

Choeung EkHeading back to the bus station we happen upon the morning market next to the hostel which we haven’t yet explored since it’s been all tours, all the time here in Saigon. Since we both love markets, we take some time to wander around and look at all the wondrous things; live frogs, fish, snails, strange fruits, scampi and pantsuits, pantsuits, pantsuits! I just wish I was better at filming, so as to properly capture the spirit of it all!

About fifteen minutes before the bus is supposed to leave, a guy shows up to fetch us at the hostel. It’s not like it’s far or hard to find or anything, but it seems to be the standard around here. On the bus they collect money for the visa right away and off we go. They’re showing an entertainingly stupid Bollywood movie, it really has everything – thoroughly unlikable characters, inane, predictable plot and a deplorable misogynistic machismo message. It’s also characteristically long, with an 80 minute flashback to a previous incarnation of the main character, an hour or so into the main plot. It does its job of passing the time excellently though, and before long we’re at the Cambodian border crossing.

When planning the trip I found a site where you could get e-visas. I didn’t get any though, since they were twice the price of a normal visa. While waiting in line I see that a family on the same bus as us all have them, but it doesn’t seem to earn them any advantages. They don’t even get faster service. In the end the process is rather expedient and I really see no reason to get the visa online. As we set off toward Phnom Penh, Jello Biafra is manically singing in my head – “It’s a holiday in Cambodia, where people dress in black!” while outside the window casinos are swooshing by, each more unsightly than the previous one.

Choeung Ek PagodaThere’s a quick stop for lunch at what looks more or less like a garage and we’re left to point at what looks tasty. The vegetarians behind us opt for plain rice, which turns out to be a smart move as the stuff we though was just salad, actually has bits of pork rind in it! The road to Phnom Penh is surprisingly good, it’s also really straight and the bus is hurtling on at over 100 km/h.Toul Sleung Prison That, coupled with the fact that there is virtually no shoulder on the road leaves little wonder over the horrible accident statistics the guy at our table at lunch quoted.

Stepping off the bus in Phnom Penh there are loads upon loads of tuk-tuk men swarming us. I go to get some local money and find that the ATM dispenses both Cambodian riel and US dollars, the tuk-tuk man explains that most prefer dollars however so we only get some souvenir riels. Our way to the hotel gets held up when a parade decides to pass, our driver shakes his head and explains that it’s the reigning political party that arranges these stunts to make it appear that they’re popular, especially now with the election just weeks away. Our hotel is in the backpacker district and turns out to be very nice indeed. Jen had uncharacteristically enough splurged on a boutique hotel, which is basically a regular hotel, but tiny. We manage a walking tour of the backpacker area before a late dinner, which is wholly uninspiring and jam packed with the usual backpacker bars.

We had arranged for the guy from yesterday to meet us in the morning to take us around for the sights, starting out with the Choeung Ek Killing Fields. The drive there doesn’t paint a flattering picture of Phnom Penh, it looks a lot like the more run-down parts of India (which is saying something), and with predictable regularity the governmental campaign booths are declaring how good a job they’re doing. The Killing Fields area is actually just a small area, devoid of buildings and other signs that it used to be a death camp in the vein of the Nazi ones. The audio tour explains why – as soon as the regime was toppled, the locals tore down all buildings on the site to eradicate all visible traces of it. So what’s left is a series of signs and cordoned off areas that used to be mass graves.

The facts are chilling, apparently over two million people – over 20% of the population – were killed in camps just like this one all over Cambodia. Bullets were precious, so usually sharpened shovels or bamboo sticks were used to kill people. Pol Pot, the leader of the Khmer Rouge, was ostensibly out to create the perfect communist state where only honest blue collar workers are allowed. That meant that anyone with academic training was a target (incidentally the same people least likely to fall for this rhetoric…). It went to almost comical extremes, where in the end anyone who could read, or indeed had glasses, was a target.

Scooter partsAs you walk around, you are likely to see actual bones sticking out of the ground, the groundskeepers are regularly picking them up but there are just so many and during the rainy season new pieces are washed up every day. You move from stop to stop, listening to the audio tour, which is very well put together with eyewitness accounts mixed with hard facts. It’s chilling to think that it’s such recent history, the worst of it transpired around the late seventies, with Pol Pot being toppled in 1979. But the Khmer Rouge stayed around as a resistance movement operating out of Thailand and even kept their seat in the UN all the way up until 1993!

The tour ends at the memorial stupa built in the middle of the compound, inside which they’ve put some of the bones they’ve dug up. The lowest levels are filled with skulls while higher up there are femurs, pelvises and so on. You can’t go up though, so all you can see up close are the skulls which all of them bears various signs of blunt force trauma. It’s like watching an episode of CSI – except that it’s real…

Gas for sale!Our driver has been waiting around and tries to talk us into taking a detour to the nearby shooting range. “You can shoot anything you like! Machine gun, rocket launcher, Gatling gun, throw grenades – nobody cares, only in Cambodia!”, he boasts smiling. We turn him down though and he takes us to our next destination; Toul Sleung prison. Toul Sleung is a former school turned prison where they kept a lot of the perceived dissidents and tortured them in the most horrible ways. There is not much to see here though, you walk around and all you see are empty rooms and a few photos. One of the buildings has a few, unbelievably cramped, ad-hoc cells and you can also see old bed frames to which the prisoners were strapped while being tortured.

Out in the yard we run into a deaf old man, selling a book with the account of his experiences as a prisoner here. The torture they subjected him to is what made him deaf and we end up buying his book. That is as much depression we can take for one day however so we tell our driver to drop us off at the Russian Market which, even if it sounds sort of tacky, turns out to be a lot of fun. They sell pretty much anything you can imagine and is packed with locals which is really fun. We pass by meat stands, street food hawkers, flower salesmen, t-shirt hawkers, art dealers, scooter parts shops (seriously, I swear you could build an entire scooter out of parts here!), jewelry stores, rug salesmen and the usual tourist trinkets as well. It’s a labyrinthine place and you easily get lost, but it really doesn’t matter since if you at any point just pick a direction you soon enough find yourself outside again.

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A tour of communist southeast Asia

Snake- and bee wrangling

New day, new tour – this time we’re going to the Cai Be floating market, which is a wholesale market where barges come loaded with fruits and veggies and lock arms on the river to do their trading.Snake wrangler The market is a two hour drive though, so we take the opportunity to catch up on sleep. We’d imagined we’d see barges overflowing with pineapple, melons and exotic fruits.Beekeeper The reality is much more boring however, most of the barges are covered and you only get to see a hint of their cargo as you float past, so we don’t dwell on the market very long and instead move on to the next stop of the tour which in the description was called the “Coconut candy factory”. Now I took it as a given that this would be the usual tour stops where it’s either beautiful but entirely unnecessary stuff (that would cost a fortune to ship) or the plain crappy stuff of dubious quality that you don’t want for that reason.

But this place is refreshingly different from the others I’ve been to, it feels more authentic in a way I can’t put my finger on. There is the coconut candy that’s actually really tasty, we get to try and make the rice paper used when making spring rolls and we get to taste too many snake, pineapple and ginger infused kinds of booze (yeah, they’re pretty much universally awful). I’m off taking pictures of something when I suddenly, out of the corner of my eye, spot Jen in the process of wearing a python! The kids surrounding her are ecstatic that she dares to do it – if they only knew… =P Soon it’s my turn (my first time handling a snake actually) and it’s just awesome to feel the smooth, raw muscle sliding around on you!

Next we stop at a large wok pan, filled with very fine, heated, black sand. We get to watch as a guy pours rice into it and immediately it starts popping violently. Within 20 seconds all the rice has popped and the guy grabs a large bowl and starts scooping up the rice, pouring it through a large sieve, ridding it of sand. In less than two minutes he’s gone from raw to puffed rice, very cool! Afterwards we get to sit down and have some honey and pollen tea, it’s very nice and the subject of conversation naturally drift towards bees and he says the pollen and honey is all local. I ask him if we can see a hive and he doesn’t really like the idea. But we twist his arm until he agrees and he takes us to this woman who apparently is the bee wrangler. She happily shows us the hive, which is just next to the café while our guide is keeping a safe distance.River tour She unceremoniously picks up one of the honeycombs and hands it over to an eager Jennifer who inspects it closely all the while our guide watches with a horrified look on his face.

Elephant ear fishThe bees mark the end of our factory stop and we board the boat again to cross the river and end up at a restaurant of sorts where we get to watch a rather lame music show. Next to the restaurant is an orchard though and that part of the tour is something we’ve been looking forward to. It too is a bit of a letdown though, there isn’t much fruit in there, mostly mud and a few jack fruit trees. The best part is actually all the bugs Jen manages to find. Down to the river again and this time we’re put into a canoe and are off to explore a small side river that feeds into the mighty Mekong. It’s very serene and you actually get a bit of a jungle feeling as we slowly make our way through. Afterwards it’s time for lunch and we’re taken to a very nice restaurant that serves elephant ear fish, deep fried in its entirety. You then just hack off pieces from the flank and eat, it’s delicious and the only thing disturbing the perfect afternoon is the boatload of, presumably American, dudebros and -gals that are also getting their lunch there. This marks the end of the tour and as we get back into town we make sure that arrangements are set for the bus trip into Cambodia tomorrow morning.

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A tour of communist southeast Asia

Tunneling like it’s 1969

We’re met by our guide Dominic at the hostel and he takes us down to the Mekong to a surprisingly luxurious speedboat.Vietcong tunnels Today’s tour is going to the Cu Chi tunnels, this is where the Vietnamese resistance hid during the days while the Americans were bombing. It actually was an entire community under ground, complete with kitchen and all! We booked with a tour company that guaranteed a group size no larger than 10 people and to our satisfaction we discover that we’re actually the only people on the tour. Dominic is a very nice guy with excellent English and an interest in current events, so we end up talking about anything from military service to religion and politics with him. The boat ride is really nice and the breeze really helps making the intense heat bearable.

The Cu Chi area is more than just the tunnels, you get to see a video with footage from the war, there is a parade of all the nasty traps they were setting. There is examples of how they harvested dud grenades and made them into booby traps. Other handicraft as well, like making sandals out of old tires (with the interesting side effect that they could easily fake that vehicles had passed through an area) and sewing clothes. There’s one spot where you get to see how the entrance to the tunnels would look, it’s simply a metal frame some 45×20 cm (which is about 10 cm wider than they used to be to accommodate tourists).AK-47 Dominic invites us to try and fit down into the hole and Jen manages quite easily while I have a much harder time even with my arms straight up. Some jiggling and scuffing is required for me to get down properly and it’s a bit claustrophobic for sure.

You also get to go through some, appropriately widened, tunnels. You don’t even have to crawl actually, it’s sufficient to just hunch over and you have a guy in front of you showing the way so you feel quite safe. There’s also a shooting range here and even though I’m not all that into guns I can’t resist the chance of shooting some AK-47. We split a ten shot package between us, Jen goes first and really gets the complete AK experience with misfires and all! The guy assisting us just pulls the bolt back, sending the misfired cartridge soaring in a parabola into his waiting hand and motions Jen to go on. Three misfires later he pulls out the magazine and tops it back up with the misfired cartridges before I get to go. Overall Cu Chi is a great tourist location and I would highly recommend it if you’re in the area.

The tour isn’t over though, on the way back we have a stop at a cricket farm. The place isn’t all that big, but the owners are probably well off by Vietnamese standards. The crickets live in open top boxes but seem to be content staying there. We get to dig around the crickets while they explain the rearing process and how the crickets are then shipped off to restaurants that actually serve them.Eating crickets The also have another kind of bug that they grow, but that one’s only used as food at fish farms, probably much better than the fish pellets that the salmon farms are using! We also get to snack on the little buggers, a plate filled with deep fried crickets is accompanied by another plate of greens and some rice paper. You wet the rice paper and put greens and crickets on it like a tiny tortilla, or spring roll I guess and roll it up. It’s fun to see the limbs and heads sticking out and it really is quite tasty. A bit crunchy, but not too much. We actually finish the entire plate and the family who owns the farm seem very pleased.

Our last stop is back in town, where we’re served a very nice lunch at a very nice restaurant that we’d never found if it weren’t for this tour. It wasn’t the cheapest company out there, but easily worth the extra money. Dominic is an excellent guide and we got exactly what we wanted out of the tour, so I have nothing but praise for Buffalo Tours that set it up! The remainder of the day is spent wandering around, like we are wont to do. We make sure to make it back to have time to go for the blind people massage that is more or less next door to our hostel. I have all sorts of preconceived notions about how great it will be but maybe my high expectations end up being the problem. It’s not that special actually, as usual the masseur doesn’t have any training, he only does the usual poking and prodding that you get anywhere. His English is rather limited too, but at least it’s a relaxing hour for a measly 60 000 vnd (less than 20 sek!), so I’d call it a win.

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A tour of communist southeast Asia

Tailor Made

With delays and all, the ride to Da Nang takes about 16 hours. We exit the station in blistering heat and are accosted by various cab drivers.Biker chick One guy catches our attention with above average English and a suggestion about doing a tour by motorbike. Since we’re only staying the day here, our only plan was to do two sights; the Hoi An old town, which is something like 15 km outside Da Nang and the Marble Mountains which is still in Da Nang, but not very central. We weren’t even sure we’d be able to do both, but with these guys it wouldn’t be a problem. After a bit of negotiating we get a price of 400 000 dong apiece (about 125 sek) for being driven around all day on motorbikes, hitting both our planned sights and even squeezing in a dip in the ocean to boot!

Locals wants to pose with usFirst off we need a place to store our bags though, and since this rather major train station oddly enough doesn’t have any storage lockers we entrust the bags to this family owned kiosk for a modest fee. Off we go, down south to Hoi An! The landscape isn’t that interesting, the beach access is mostly closed off due to various construction projects, mostly it seems to be country clubs and resorts they’re building. Many of them seemed to have stopped half way and my driver explains that they were having trouble with their permits, I guess they didn’t pay off the right officials or something. Getting to Hoi An takes a little more than half an hour and my driver says that I will spend a lot of money there. I disagree and say we’re not there to do shopping, he only smiles.

They drop us off in the center of town, right next to a tailor shop. It’s almost lunch and since we’ve haven’t had any breakfast we decide to go for lunch before anything else. Walking up the street it seems like the café/restaurant right where we started out is our best option. During lunch I’m warming up to the idea to get a tailor-made shirt or two, so we walk over to the shop and sit down to look at models.Marble Mountain Temple About 15 minutes later I’m picking out fabric for the three piece suit I’m getting made. It’s unclear how it happened, but I actually need a suit, so why the hell not..? Jen decides to get three dresses and after our measurements have been taken they tell us to come back in an hour for fitting.

Hoi An is touted as an ancient town and a great tourist destination but we’re not really impressed. While it’s clean, has a fair amount of greenery and relatively nice houses it’s just plain boring. It’s very touristy, everyone is shouting after you and it actually turns out that about 50% of the shops in town are tailors! We find a very spartan café where we can escape the blistering heat and just wait for our outfits to be done. The suit actually fits perfectly on the first try and Jen’s dresses need only minor adjustment. All in all my three piece suit and two shirts cost me just over 2600 sek, not bad at all.

Pigeon!Going back to Da Nang we stop at the Marble Mountains, which are these two marble knolls that oddly stick up from the otherwise very flat landscape. You can go up on one of them and it’s basically covered with temples. It’s fairly small and half an hour is plenty of time to do it, even if you explore every nook and cranny. Our guide, which we didn’t ask for, is a friend of our drivers and naturally she owns one of the hundred or so marble shops at the foot of the mountain. So we dutifully go and look at her wares and as per usual with these kinds of places most of the stuff is really pretty, but also wholly impractical and not something you’d want in your home. We end up buying the smallest thing we can find just to placate her and move on back to town.

Final stop is at the beach where we pay like 1.25 sek for entry and go for a quick dip in the ocean. Mostly it’s the shower afterwards we’re after as it’s been an intensely hot day and we’re facing another night on a train before we get to Ho Chi Minh City. With plenty of time to spare before our train leaves we get dinner at this really hipstery place with nevertheless pretty good food. Of course the train is late as well, so we spend upwards two hours in the sweltering hot station house before being let out into the railway yard. I’m calling it a railway yard because that’s what it mostly is; there are no platforms at all, and no indicated places to cross either. It’s rather difficult to discern to which track you’re supposed to go, so basically we just go over to one of the trains and ask an official-looking person to point us the right way.

Squid manOur compartment this time is split with a Vietnamese family with two people sharing one of the cots and three people in the other. This leg is supposed to take around 14 h but end up taking 16, excluding the late departure. Luckily we can buy some noodles to tide us over until we pull into Ho Chi Minh City. The taxi guy is trying for a full five minutes to get us to pay a fixed price but we’re adamant and it actually ends up costing us almost half as much as he wanted us to pay. Not a great start to our Ho Chi Minh City experience.

The hostel is hidden away in a cramped alley, next to what feels like at least 20 other hostels. It has decent WiFi, clean rooms and a nice bed – all you need really. After cleaning up we quiz the staff about sights and head out on the town. We start by getting dinner at what in hindsight, seemed to be a frog restaurant. This wasn’t very clear at the time though and the menus or the staff weren’t very helpful in that respect. We ended up eating grilled whole pigeon and some kind of frog stew, both rather tasty, especially the pigeon. It’s dark by now but having rested most of the day we decide to do a walking tour of the city center. Pretty early on we decide that it’s not as likable as Hanoi, there is a lot of traffic for instance, even late into the night and there is also a much larger emphasis of car traffic. We walk all the way down to the Cathedral where a lot of younger people are hanging out, seemingly just talking. In Sweden they would all be drinking alcohol but here there is none in sight, just a lot of food sellers, including a guy pushing a cart full of dried squid (the perfect late night snack!). We also pass through the super posh quarters around city hall, packed with European luxury brand shops. When we finally make it back to the hostel we’ve probably walked upwards to 10 km.

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A tour of communist southeast Asia

Dong Country

We say goodbye to Jaime in the morning and sleep in a bit since our flight doesn’t leave until the afternoon. Hong Kong airport really is something, very modern and pleasantly able to keep a sane level of air condition, where others just opt for the ‘Celtic frost’ setting.Students We’re left sitting on the runway for a while due to heavy rain and thunder, but all in all we come into Hanoi not more than half an hour late. We did the visa application online, but there’s still another form to fill out once we get there of course. Double entry visas are $65 apiece and we don’t quite have that in USD but the guy is nice enough to take it in Chinese Yuan. When looking up the exchange rate though, he selects CHF (Swiss Francs) instead of CNY which actually gives us more money back than the visas cost! We help the poor guy realize his mistake though and he’s very embarrassed and helpful after that.

Adorable kids!Surprisingly many of the money changers won’t take Chinese Yuan, so Jen with her 15,000 Yuan pack of bills is having a hard time getting her hands on Vietnamese Dongs (heehee). The ATM I find has a fee of 30,000 dong (˜10 sek), which seems to be true for most ATMs (except at least VientinBank). We also get a Vietnamese SIM card since they’re only about $10 and it could be handy if we’re in a bind somewhere. A taxi into central Hanoi ends up costing us 500,000 dong (225 sek) for the 45 minute ride, a bit more than expected, but whatever.

The Golden Time Hostel 2 has the most adorable and service minded owner you can imagine. She’s super helpful, speaks decent English and really goes out of her way to set things up for us. The hostel itself if very nice as well, with large clean rooms, a big bed and decent WiFi. She tells us that we can leave our big bags at the hostel while we go for the cruise in Ha Long Bay and even have a shower as we get back before getting on the train to Da Nang! First we have an evening in Hanoi to look forward to though. The owner marks a bunch of sights on a map, but most of them are closed at this hour. There are a ton of cozy little shops lining the streets so we just head out to wander around looking at those. We happen on a bag store, and since Jen’s backpack has seen better days and she needs a slightly bigger one, she gets a huge new one (75 + 15 l!) and a smaller carry-on, all for 800,000 dong!

Jen in Ha Long BayThere is a little lake right in the middle of the area we’re in, so we go for a stroll around it. The mood is very cozy and non-threatening with kids running around all over even though it’s late-ish (around 21). We run into a bunch of students that have gotten an assignment to interview tourists to practice their English. They are very cute and we stay and chat for a bit. All things considered, Hanoi is really nice so far; cozy little stores, salesmen who will take a no gracefully, and very nice food.

We have an early pickup the next day for our cruise in Ha Long bay. Surprisingly enough, the traffic is really slow and feels rather safe here, no one is driving full tilt and overtaking anything that moves. The drive out takes about 3.5 hours and even though it’s off-season, the boat is full. The cabins are very nice even though the boat exterior has seen better days. As we pull out you can really appreciate how lovely the scenery is here in Ha Long bay, I was a bit nervous that the pictures you see of the place were more or less taken at the same little area from different angles. But that turns out to be unfounded, the bay is very large and the rock formation endless in their variety. It has been overcast the whole day so far, making the light difficult to take good photos in and as we pull up to our first stop at a private island; the heavens open up and a torrential rain starts pouring down.

Swimming in the rain!The island has a cave and we go there first. It was discovered by some fishermen, which made it their home for a while (and trashing most of the stalactites in the process), until the government took it over. Now the cruise company rents the island and are obligated to take care of the cave too. The problem is that ‘taking care of’ apparently includes putting masonry all over the ceiling so that stuff doesn’t fall down on tourists or something. It’s still a rather impressive cave though. Emerging from the cave again, the rain has turned into a full on thunderstorm! The storm is not that close though and there are plenty of high islands and boats for the lightning to hit, so we’re not that worried about going swimming. It’s maybe not the Ha Long bay experience you see in the brochures, but we’re having a great time!

For dinner we’re seated next to a the nice deaf couple from San Fransisco and we have conversation through note-passing. I tell them that they should try diving since communicating for them wouldn’t be any different from what they do on land. They like the idea and say they’ll probably give it a shot. The next stop is the following morning and it is a fishing village. Since the the islands around Ha Long bay are all limestone and rather steep, it’s not really possible to live on them. So the families are all living in floating houses here.In the fishing village So we each get a private ferryman/woman that rows us around the village. It’s rather cool to see how they’ve adapted to the life on water with little fish farms, generators for electricity and little store-boats going from house to house.

Each ferryman/woman also has a scoop net to pick up trash as it floats by, but I guess that is just common sense when tourism is a major source of income for the village. The tour ends at the oyster farm where we get to see how they cultivate pearls by prying the oyster open, putting a tissue graft from (basically a piece of shell polished into a ball) another mussel inside, followed by a gob of antibiotics to take care of possible infections. Naturally there is a shop to buy all manner of pearly creations, but we manage to escape unscathed. The village is the last stop on our cruise so after boarding we vacate our room and have one last delicious lunch. The crew are all in a row to say goodbye while we’re all gathered and the engineer even whips out the most out of tune guitar I’ve ever laid ears on and do a heartfelt ballad about Hanoi. Following lunch we grab our stuff and head up top to bask in the deck chairs and take in the view of Ha Long bay.

BaskingThe ride back to Hanoi includes a stop for a water puppet show. This is an old local tradition where you have these puppets mounted perpendicular at the end of long sticks. These sticks are then held under water so that only the puppet is showing. The puppet masters are standing behind a curtain, out of view and the result is kind of neat. The show is divided into short glimpses of everyday life; the farmer plowing his field, fending off the fox when it comes for the chicken and so on. It’s somewhat entertaining, but quickly gets boring. Fortunately it doesn’t drag on too long, considering that we have a night train to catch back in Hanoi. Luckily for us the traffic isn’t very bad and we have time for both the aforementioned shower and a light dinner before catching a taxi to the station.

At Vietnamese trains they don’t check the ticket on board the train, instead they check it as you leave the station house to enter the tracks and again as you enter the station house at your destination. If you lose your ticket there’s a sizable fine. We end up sharing a compartment with two American girls who are part of a group trip doing basically the same circuit as we are, but including Thailand as well. They are super nice and there are others from the group joining us for an evening of stories, laughter and exchanging of travel tips.

Categories
A tour of communist southeast Asia

Red Alert

Going to Hong Kong from Linköping wasn’t as hard as I thought it’d be. I scored tickets from Norrköping with Finnair and the entire flight was only 12 hours, including a too short for comfort connection in Helsinki (we landed 10 minutes after boarding time).Hong Kong airport My fears of losing my baggage were unfounded and I’m met by Jen and Jaime who usher me onto the bus into town. Hong Kong is very hot this time of year, it’s 33 degrees, very humid and as we roll into town I’m struck by the stupenduous number of harbor cranes. This really is one of the biggest harbors in the world…

Jen has some hotpot in mind for us, but as we try and locate the place, it seems to have moved, so we end up at a Yakiniku place. They are indeed trying hard to be authentic; they have the stools for waiting in line, the staff are shouting “Irrashaimassseeeeee!” (although not all of them at once as they would’ve in Japan) and they have the proper grill thingies with the chimney.

It’s very nice beef, properly marbled and very nice cuts.Kung Fu kids Jaime orders the chicken, but gets some beautifully marbled pork instead. But seeing as she expected chicken, that’s what it tasted like. The mistake is only found out after we order another plate of chicken, pointing at the first on, which leaves the poor waiter rather confused.

The island Lantau is our plan for the second day, which entails a lot of subway hopping and a cable car to get to. The cable car overlooks the airport, which appears to be a man-made island right next to Lantau. Lantau itself is rather hilly and very green, criss-crossed by trekking paths that look very nice – some other time perhaps. The main attraction of the island is the Tian Tan Buddha statue which today is shrouded in mist. It’s nice, but doesn’t take long to admire, so we move on to the second sight on the island; the pink dolphin tour in the Tai-O fishing village.

The dolphins aren’t home today though, and we’re left wandering the village, waiting for the bus. The village does have it’s sights, most of it is dried fish though of many, many varieties. I buy some suspicious-looking unlabeled beverage out of a cooler from this woman and it turns out to be a very refreshing, tangy sort of drink. I also buy these deep fried chili fish balls, that are incredibly spicy and not that good. Meh, you win some and you lose some.

Back in the main village, we happen upon a rather unimpressive Kung-Fu show. It’s still fun though, and they certainly make an effort of it, so we stay for a bit before grabbing lunch and an ice cream.Dried fish I go for black sesame seed ice cream, and it turns out to be another winner! Jen and I also grab a milk tea with bubbles (where ‘bubbles’ are small, slimy tapioca balls) each before heading back to the mainland.

I’ve talked Jen into trying a deeper shade of red for her hair, but she’s skeptical and at least wants to try out a couple of wigs to find out which shade that will suit her. So we go to a couple of wig stores that I’ve looked up online, but all of them are rather strange and don’t have that big a selection. The closest thing they have to a red one is a strange purple one, so we give up and just go for a color that seems nice. It luckily turns out really well and her hair is now a deep reddish brown. (I’m going to keep lobbying for a bolder choice though)

Jaime and JenThe next day we sleep in a bit since we aren’t due to meet Jen’s roommate Jourdan and her boyfriend Alex until noon in Macau. We make it down to the ferries a bit late at elevenish only to find out that the ferries that normally aren’t a problem to get a ticket right away for are now booked up all the way to 15:30!!! And that one’s only available if you get the first class ticket (330 hkd apiece). Problem is that the show we’ve gotten tickets for starts at 17, which leaves precious little time for the 1 h crossing, navigating customs and getting to the hotel where the show is. Oh well, not much to do but wait at this point.

We almost end up missing the ferry as well, since we hadn’t considered that we’d need to pass through customs as we leave Hong Kong as well. We actually end up making it with only seconds to spare. The customs on the Macau side turn out to be another half hour on top of that – at least we get a proper stamp instead of the little note they put for Hong Kong. A hurried cab ride later we meet up a rather miffed Jourdan (that hasn’t gotten any of our texts) and we manage to catch something like two thirds of the show, which by the way is excellent! It has all the glamour and flair of a Vegas show. and actually a decent storyline. (the daily turnover of Macau is actually bigger than Vegas, by the way)

Our miserable luck continues when it turns out that we don’t have time to have dinner with Jourdan and Alex since we have to get back in order to catch the ferry again. Oh well, at least I get to talk a bit with Jourdan, which is probably Jen’s main henchman/sidekick.

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Christmas with Jen in Sri Lanka

Bits and pieces of Sri Lanka

Driving – Not for the faint hearted, the traffic is murder and all rules are optional.At Dambulla rock temple Honking is liberally applied and it can mean a great many things; “Look out, I’m passing you!”, “I want to pass dammit!”, “You are driving on the wrong side of the road, dumbass!” (in Sri Lanka you drive on the left…), “Thanks, for scooching to the side and letting me pass!” and so on and so forth. To rent a car you need to present an international driver’s licence, but that’s not all, you also need to get a stamp of approval from the traffic department in Colombo. Luckily the rental company provided me with a driver to get there and back for $15. If you don’t want to attempt driving they also give you the option to have a private driver for as little as $15 a day! Gas is also really cheap (compared to Swedish standards), about 7.50 sek/l. Pro tip: Turn signals are not actually used to signal the intent to turn, rather it signals that the driver wants to pass the car in front. If you want to signal a turn, you stick your arm out the window…

Fantastic entrance to church in NegomboNavigating – We used Google Maps for navigation, and it turns out that they’re not entirely reliable. There were quite few times where Google claimed that there should be roads where there simply weren’t. You also cannot trust the width of the road on the map as an indication of quality, case in point being the A4 vs. the A17 which are shown to be equal on the map. In reality the A4 is a wide, well maintained, smooth ride, permitting for speeds up to 70 km/h (only problem being the plentiful turns). The A17 on the other hand is a small single lane road with potholes aplenty, snaking through the forest, hardly permitting you to go faster than 30 km/h at any point. Another issue seems to be that Google and the Sri Lankans don’t seem to agree on how to transcribe names of roads and areas. This means that you may find yourself putting in an address that you’ve received from a hotel and Google won’t find it. You might try typing just the first few letters and see if Google suggests something similar or if you know where the area in question is you can just zoom in and start looking for something that has a similar spelling. Another thing Google misses are the many one-way streets, particularly in Kandy. Makes for some unpleasant surprises.

At Pinnawala Elephant OrphanageNegombo – Not a very exciting place, good food though and very close to the airport makes it a good stepping stone for the rest of the island. Hot tips include the Devilled chicken/fish/whatever and fresh pineapple juice. I tried to go diving, but here you need to go as far out as 10 km and the weather wouldn’t permit it, also rather expensive at 66 euros for one dive.

Dambulla and Sigirya – Dambulla is the home of the cave temple and a huge golden Buddha statue. The Buddha statue is really rather tacky and very recently built to boot, the cave temple is rather impressive though. Carved into the rock face you have a bunch of caves littered with Buddha statues and paintings, the view is also rather nice but all in all, if you’re pressed for time, give this one a miss and go for Sigirya Lion Rock instead which has more of the same and is much more impressive.

When we arrived at Sigirya Rock Fortress the rain was pouring down and we bought an umbrella from a guy at an exorbitant price. The entrance is a ways off from the actual rock and takes you through a palace garden at first.At the temple of the Tooth in Kandy The water really came streaming down the path at this point and we quickly gave up on keeping our feet dry. As we came upon the actual stairs going up the rock the stream had turned into a veritable river and with water up over our ancles we clambered up the stairs. About halfway up the rock face are a series of caves carved out with exquisite paintings featuring shading techniques really uncommon for this time period according to history teacher Jen. After climbing back down the terrifyingly rusty spiral staircase you walk along the mirror wall that contains graffiti dating back to the construction of the fort, very cool! The final climb takes you past the tiger claws and up to the palace/fortress up top were a very impressive view is to be had, along with some really interesting architecture with water tanks for fresh water and other such inventions necessary at a place like this.

Curious monkey in the Kandy rainforest parkMoving on to Polonnaruwa we took a side road which turned out to be a stroke of luck. On the way we saw everything from a strikingly blue Kingfisher, Peacocks (both male and female), Monkeys, Monitors, smaller lizards and some sort of bird of prey.

Polonnaruwa – Definitely worth a visit, this is the old capital from 11th century and the ruins are really awesome. Be sure to get a guide, otherwise it will not be very enlightening. You get to see the old palace a really huge stupa (a solid brick dome, containing some 93 million bricks!) that is said to house some sacred relics of Buddha’s (some collar bone or shit like that). The best thing though are the absolutely fabulous stone Buddhas; there are three of them, all carved out of the same piece of rock, using 11th century technology. Two of them are posed very unusually and one of them actually pictures him dead, something they figured out by certain subtle clues the artisans left in the way he is posed. As per usual, you don’t actually buy tickets at the entrance, you have to go to the museum that is about 500 meters downtown from the entrance to the ruins. Because selling tickets at the actual entrance would just be too easy?

Cute kids in the highlands outside Nuwara EliyaKandy – Touted as one of the very best places to visit in all Sri Lanka – we didn’t like it one bit. Driving there is a nightmare with one-way streets all over and the usual liberal interpretation of traffic rules. The primary sight is the Temple of the Tooth, which supposedly contains one of Buddha’s teeth. While certainly pretty enough, it’s not anything special if you ask me. You don’t even get to see the goddamned tooth! Instead it’s just throngs upon throngs of pious Buddhists to rub shoulders with.

The one redeeming feature of Kandy is the Udawattekele Forest Reserve, it’s a patch of almost rainforest, preserved as a park in the middle of town! We walked around there several hours and saw a lot of really cool trees and vines, quite a few monkeys and a lot of soldiers who apparently are all over the park, making sure you don’t litter or something. A while into on our walk Jen discovers that her sandal is all sticky and that the foot is actually bleeding. But since it doesn’t hurt or anything she thinks we should just head on. A good while later she reexamine the foot and discover a, by now rather rotund, leech nestled between two of her toes! After removing the smug bastard she discovers yet another one, just in the process of latching on.The landscape can be really breathtaking at times! I’m feeling rather good about my non-sandal shoes at this point, and even better when she later discovers yet another one. Later, back at the car, Jen tends to her wounds while I take pictures of the family of monkeys who decided to hang out next to the car when some soldiers point to my legs. Apparently four of the resourceful gits have clambered up past my shoes and socks to feast on my shins!

We also went to the Royal Botanical Garden which was nice I guess, certainly worth a visit but not something to make a detour for. I’m a bit miffed thought that we managed to miss the spice garden that’s right next to it.

Nuwara Eliya – A cozy, not so little, town up in the highland. Be wary of the fact that even if the road is actually very good and its’ not very far, the drive there still takes a lot of time (whatever you do, don’t trust Google’s estimates!).Kids working in the tea plantation Getting from Kandy to Nuwara Eliya took us about 2.5 hours I think. If you read the reviews at Tripadvisor and that ilk, you will see a lot of complaining that it’s cold there. I don’t know, maybe it’s because I’m Swedish and Jennifer is Canadian, but none of us found it very chilly, even though it rained quite a bit during our stay. Be sure not to miss a visit to the Grand Hotel and have some of their excellent buffet dinner. The house band could use some shaping up, but the moment they switched from butchering ABBA, Celine Dion and Roberta Flack to put on their take on Gangnam Style, my heart melted =D

Due to a fortunate planning mishap we found ourselves with an extra day that we hadn’t accounted for and we had to find accommodations in an already packed Nuwara Eliya. Luckily for us, a guy in the reception at the hotel we thought we’d booked for the night (but that we’d actually booked for the following night) had a tip about a place that had a spare room available. The snag? The room was $280, and it was out in Horton Plains, some 20 km outside of town. Well, we didn’t have much alternatives at that point, just to get into the car and start driving, based on the sketchy instructions of the owner over the phone.Jen with an awesome millipede To make it even more interesting; our road was blocked by a rock slide and we had to take an alternative route taking us far into the patches of the map that usually says “Here be dragons”… Well, after a lot of driving on tiny meandering roads and cryptic phone conversations we finally find ourselves in a very English bungalow, absolutely in the middle of the sticks. The place very much hearkens back to a bygone era with awesomely magnanimous architecture and impossibly sturdy, handmade, furniture. Needless to say we felt rather out of place in our travelling fatigues and unshaven appearance. Nevertheless the staff treated us to a very late three course dinner (11 pm-ish) before we went to bed in the most boisterous bed I’ve ever seen. The shower was equally boisterous but the water heater left us wanting, the hot water ran out after about three minutes of showering, at which point we had to wait for it to heat up some more…

Before leaving we had a look outside and realized that the tiny road we’d been following to get there in the pitch dark and heavy fog was actually precariously hanging on to a cliffside and that a single wide turn around any of the numerous corners would have resulted in us tumbling into the void.At the waterfall I sure am glad I didn’t know that the previous night… Aside from this fact the surroundings are just beautiful with tea plantations, mountains and unusual plants. On the way back to town (the staff say that the rock slide should be cleared now) we visit Hakkagala gardens, yet another botanical garden divided into several biotopes. It was nice enough, but mostly because Jen kept spying little creepy crawlies, including little lizards and a beehive.

Before leaving we also wanted to visit a tea factory to get some souvenir tea and settled on the Heritage tea factory that was about 10 km outside town. That turned out to be somewhat of a mistake since it was actually placed at the top of a hill and took forever and a day to get to, something we really couldn’t afford when we had a very long drive ahead of us to get to our next stop, the Siharaja rain forest. Well, the factory was at least mildly interesting with a guy demoing the various turn-of-the-century factory machines for making tea.

Siharaja Rain Forest Reserve – Even though the road had been all but washed away by the recent rains and our poor planning had us arriving there at almost midnight this turned out to be one of the absolute highlights of the trip. The Rain Forest View lodge we stayed at was really nice and the price included a rain forest guide that took us out for a 4 hour walk that included a bath at a beautiful water fall and shit ton of creepy crawlies.Jen manhandling a snake The best ones included an almost 3 dm long centipede that crawled around on both our arms and a very cute little green snake. There were also a lot of spiders, kangaroo lizards, a praying mantis, a huge (like a cat) rain forest squirrel and a bunch of leeches (Jen had seven and I only three this time). If you like flora and fauna a visit to the Siharaja rain forest is highly recommended (I also recommend you bring a bug expert like Jen).

Unawatuna – This was our last stop and we went here mostly for the diving. Unfortunately it turned out to be rather bad, visibility was something like 6 m at best and very little fish and coral. Our first dive was at a wreck of an old wooden ship, the Rangoon. Resting at 30 m, this was rather cool, with large schools of small fish zipping about and some larger ones that I can’t remember the name of lazily swimming about. The highlight was a huge tiger moray hiding in the bow of the ship, easily as thick as my thigh! We also saw a somewhat shy, really big grouper. Second dive was closer to shore and rather shallow, the spot was mostly big rocks with very little life. Apparently a typhoon had wreaked havoc among the coral and nowadays the ocean floor around Unawatuna is mostly dead. Too bad, but what can you do? We decided to skip the two dives we’d planned for the afternoon and just hang out instead. Unfortunately Unawatuna in itself isn’t very interesting a place and neither is Galle, the town right next to it. I really see no reason to recommend this place actually. Our hotel, Milton’s Beach Resort, was exceedingly bad with dirty rooms and doors that hardly would lock. The staff was very friendly though and it’s not like we had a lot of options, the whole of Sri Lanka is booked solid over the Christmas holidays.

Baby hawksbill turtleOn our final day we made our way back to the airport, stopping for a spot at the Kosgoda Turtle Hatchery. This place is highly recommended, they buy eggs from the locals and make sure they grow into responsible turtles before releasing them into the wild. They are brought up on a solid diet of pizza and are trained in survival skills featuring nunchucks and katanas. Erm, maybe not, but there were a lot of super cute tiny turtles swimming around in little pools that you were allowed to pick up and photograph under the watchful eyes of the staff. The place isn’t very big and easily missed, keep a lookout for the sign!

Naively we thought that 5 hours would be more than enough time to get to the airport and catch my flight, but events conspired against us and an impossibly lazy lunch service set us back over an hour. That in itself wouldn’t be though, the real problem was the insane traffic situation in Colombo. A heartfelt ‘fuck you’ to the city planner is in order and we arrived an hour late to my flight. That meant that I had to take the next flight 24 hours later, which also meant I had to go to Colombo and talk to the people at the Qatar Airways office to set up my new flight and find out how much I should pay for the rebooking. Ah well, shit happens, not the end of the world. This was still one of the best vacations I’ve had in a long time, reaffirming my new year’s resolution that 2012 would be the best year to date!

Categories
Working in Japan

Goodbye Japan

I’ve booked one final dive trip with Mariko-san and this time we’re going to Odawara.My last dive It’s down in the western part of Sagami Bay, more or less on the opposite end from Zushi. Mariko tells me that it’s about this time that the squid eggs hatch, so we might see some wee ones. We actually do get to see some, but they’re so impossibly tiny (~3-4 mm) that it’s more or less impossible to photograph them with my camera.

The rest of the dive isn’t all that interesting, but I take some extra care to appreciate the environment since it’ll likely be a good while before I see it again. When done with diving Mariko-san suggests we go visit the nearby Odawara Castle Donjon.Samurai! First built back in 1447 it looks like the quintessential samurai castle and inside is a historical museum. But first Mariko-san pulls me over to a shack in the yard where you can pay to dress up in a very shoddily made samurai costume. Since I have a really hard time saying no to Mariko I end up in the suit together with a couple of giggly Japanese girls who also dress up.

The museum is actually superb with lots of old samurai weapons and armor on display. It’s very cool to see a sword forged back in the 12th century looking like new! It’s also a lot of fun to see real versions of all those weapons I read about as a ninja-obsessed teenager like kasurigamas, naginatas and kama. What is not so nice is the deplorable petting zoo in the castle yard with tiny cages and very unhappy animals.

Back in Yokohama after saying my goodbyes to Mariko and Umeda-san I meet up with Ken as he gets off work since he’s taking me to one last dinner.Yakiniku He had originally planned to take me to a place serving chicken sashimi (which I’m not very sorry that he didn’t (yes, that is raw chicken)), but we end up going to a very nice Yakiniku place serving category A5 Waygu beef which is among the finest beef you can eat. We get the grade 10-12 marbling (where 12 is the highest), Ken also orders in an intestines platter featuring two kinds of stomach, heart, liver, upper intestine and some facial meat! It’s all incredibly gross of course, but I manage to eat it all and it’s actually not bad, the taste is nice on account of all the fat but the texture is iffy. The beef itself is incredible, the thing about beef of this quality is that the fat content is something like 50-60%, but since it’s so evenly distributed it blends seamlessly with the meat. It does make the texture a bit spongy though, which isn’t all that pleasant. We finish off the evening by going for drinks in Roppongi before saying yet another goodbye.

My last day in Tokyo I spend once again wandering around Harajuku before heading over to Shibuya to the wonderful Fab Café. I decide to get a notebook cut in their laser fabber and it comes out great! I also buy a bunch of their little papercraft kits for a rainy day. Shibuya is also where I’ve booked my goodbye beers session, at the same place as the diver pub was. It ends up being over ten people there, including Bonnie from my diver pub adventure. Kenneth brings a couple of surprise guest in my colleague Eva and her boyfriend Carl who I didn’t even know where in Japan, but are staying with Kenneth! It ends up being a lot of fun and a fitting end to my sejour in Japan!