Using the Internet in China

Today I woke up and saw that the internet had gone done across much of the Western world… or at least that’s how it was presented. Twitter and Reddit were down, and a ton of other sites. It had all happened while I was asleep because I live on the other side of the world, in China.

Where did I see this news? The same place people get most of their news these days – Facebook, Twitter, Reddit. In this hyper-connected world of ours, it’s impossible to overstate the importance of the internet, and in particular social media. I wonder what would happen if the attack had been bigger… much bigger. How would people survive? How would they even know what’s going on? Of course, those of us who lived pre-Facebook would adapt pretty quickly, but the others? For them, it would probably feel like the apocalypse.

I don’t need to use much imagination to get inside the minds of those who tried and failed to get online last night. Living in China, not being able to get on the above mentioned websites is pretty common. For me to visit Facebook this morning, or, for that matter, almost any website I regularly use, required me to use a VPN. I pay about $100 per year for this service, which I think is very reasonable. Overall, it’s pretty good. I’m able to check my e-mail and do most basic things I need to. Sometimes, I’m able to watch videos on YouTube – although it can be slow and frustrating.

Without a VPN, the websites that you can visit from China are pretty limited in number, and those which are technically open are usually excruciatingly slow. Sometimes, it can actually be impossible to get any functionality from them whatsoever. To be honest, I don’t even try any more. If my VPN is down, I take a deep breath and then spend my time doing something offline – like going for a run or reading a book. It’s particularly aggravating, however, when I need to do something – like answer an important e-mail, prepare for class, or do some research. It is terribly frustrating to know that I need to do something, yet the rules made by a group of corrupt sociopaths in the government to keep their populace in the dark about their shady practices ensures that my work sometimes needs to be hindered.

But it’s best not to think about it when possible.

The internet in China is not all bad. I live in a small town in the middle of nowhere and yet I get a relatively fast connection at home or via 4G. This place is almost third world, yet even here amidst the poverty and ancient superstitions, we can stream music or movies. Assuming I want to use a Chinese website, it works great. Of course, that severely limits my internet use. If I want to use WeChat to talk to friends, great! If I want to download music from QQ or KuGou, fantastic! Taobao and Alipay are brilliant apps, too. Beyond that, the Chinese internet is sort of like the more vapid parts of the real internet – aka what you can access beyond the Great Firewall. Imagine the idiots you went to school with, for whom the most important thing in the world is who won last night’s celebrity-reality-variety-chat show, or whatever gossip has inexplicably gotten its way onto the front page of the tabloid “news” papers. Imagine the sort of vapid crap that they post on social media, and then tone its intellectual level down even further, translate into Chinese, and add more noise and bright colours. Thanks to censorship, there simply is modern culture in China.

Of course, it goes without saying that being offline is no bad thing. I loved traipsing through Southern Africa or sailing along the Indonesian archipelago, completely disconnected from the internet, with absolutely no way of getting online – no notifications, no pings, no bleeps. It felt great. But that’s not really possible or desirable in day-to-day life, even out in the boondocks of China. Surrounded by the majesty of nature, technology can seem an unpleasant distraction, but in the polluted, grey, backwards wastelands of Anhui Province, it is more like a lifeline. Moreover, I’m a teacher and if I need ideas or resources for class, I need the internet. I’m a writer and editor, so I need the internet to research or publish. I live on the opposite side of the globe from my friends and family, so I need the internet to communicate.

There are innumerable reasons why living in China can be difficult, and the internet may seem like a trivial one, but it really isn’t. I can’t abide censorship, and when that censorship – perpetrated, like all censorships, for spurious reasons – negatively effects my life, my business, my ability to teach using the best available resources… well, that is what I consider intolerable living conditions. If the government announced tomorrow that they were cracking down on VPNs, I’d be on a flight out of here the next day – or at least I’d try, but without access to SkyScanner or eBookers it might be difficult.

So, looking across the world at the turmoil of a temporary disconnection from the internet, I do feel a certain empathy. It’s easy to mock, but being forced offline when you genuinely need to be online can be more than an inconvenience.

Posted in travel

Summer 2016 – Backpacking SE Asia

I’m incredibly lucky that, in my present job as a university lecturer, I have a great deal of free time during the summer and winter months. That has allowed me to visit amazing places like North Korea and Southern Africa over extensive periods. This past summer I decided to do my CELTA in Chiang Mai, Thailand, before spending a month wandering freely around Southeast Asia.

Upon completing the CELTA (with a pass!) I flew to Ubon Ratchathani, then took a bus over into Laos to visit the little town of Pakse. The following day, I bused down to Don Det in Si Phan Don, where I spent almost a week relaxing on the Mekong River. I then followed the Mekong south into Cambodia, where I watched the Irrawaddy dolphins and explored the area around Kratie, in the north of the country.

I spent a bit of time in Sihanoukville, catching up with old friends, before flying down to Malaysia for a week in the Perhentian Islands. It was not an easy journey. After that, I journeyed through peninsular Malaysia to Kuala Lumpur, and then flew to Bali, where I spent a day on a motorbike, exploring an island I visited many years ago.

Next, it was on to Gili Trawangan, on the coast of Lombok, for a week of snorkelling and hanging out with some friends on the beaches, before a long, pleasant adventure on the high seas as I sailed for Komodo National Park. Finally, I wound up on the edge of the world, looking for a way home.

It was a brilliant trip, and I look forward to the next one, wherever that may be… Here is a crude map of my journey:



Posted in travel

The Last Port: Labuan Bajo


Labuan Bajo is a tiny port on the far west of the Indonesian island of Flores. Though the bay is mostly shallow, there is a single deep channel sufficient to allow passage for a large container ship every now and then, but normally it is just small fishing vessels and tall sailing ships that come here. The little town has become, in recent years, a stopover for tourists visiting the incredible Komodo National Park, roughly 50 kilometres west of Flores. Some fly into LBJ, as the town is locally known, and then sail off to Komodo on organized tour groups, and others sail over from Lombok. The wealthy fly into Labuan Bajo’s Komodo airport and then charter superyachts and luxurious sail boats out to the collection of stunning volcanic islands which the dragons call home.

As such, Labuan Bajo has become slightly more than just a tiny harbour town for a handful of containers and small loads of fish to be dropped off… it has now morphed into a clutter of hotels and restaurants and tour agencies. It sits on a miniscule stretch of land between steep, forested hills and the sea, and there is a single road running through, which is lined by these tourist-focused businesses. Nearly everyone seems friendly to the visitors, who arrive in groups whenever a tour ends, and rather overwhelm the town before heading off again just as suddenly. It is not really a place anyone chooses to stay very long, although it is certainly not without its charm.

When I first arrived, after spending a day photographing Komodo Dragons, I looked around the town with a few friends I’d made on the boat, searching for accommodation. Yet, such is the size of Labuan Bajo, there was none to be had. It seems that having a few dozen tourists arrive in one day is too much for the sleepy little village to handle, and I was forced to return to the boat and sleep on deck yet another night. I longed for a shower but I knew that one more night of being filthy wouldn’t harm me, and so I bought beers for the boat’s crew, and stayed another night on the sea.

In the morning I awoke to the incomparable beauty of a small harbour town at dawn. Fishing boats puttered around on glassy water, families paddled in little canoes, seabirds dove and cawed, as the drone of Arabic boomed from the town mosque. I bid farewell to the crew and soon found a small room overlooking the harbour. It was here I began the long, difficult process of trying to get out of Labuan Bajo. Flights are irregular and expensive, and boats and buses combine over several days to reach the next best airport, in Bali. I soon found a flight and resigned myself to a few lazy days wandering back and forth along the length of the town.

On the streets, like elsewhere in Indonesia, women walk around in headscarves and men in white skullcaps, and the drone of Arabic prayers is heard everywhere many times a day (and night) from the local mosque. It is colourful, yet it is also very impoverished. Though the restaurants and hotels catering to the influx of tourists can often be quite high-end establishments, most of Labuan Bajo is what they call a “kampong,” which means slum, shanty town, favela… These simple wood and tin buildings are everywhere, but largely cluster around the port. In Labuan Bajo, you either make your living from tourists or from the sea, and the kampong residents make their living out on the waters, fishing from small canoes.

Out on the edge of town, at the top of a long, dark road is Paradise Bar. Although some restaurants in the town serve beer and spirits, this is the only true bar in Labuan Bajo. Every night it has live music on its ample-sized stage. As with most parts of Southeast Asia, it is reggae music which is king, although many locals have told me they also very much enjoy Spanish music. There is a large veranda looking out over the sea, where tall ships bob in the darkness, their lights twinkling just where the sea meets the stars. A cool breeze blows in, which is a pleasant change from the heat of the town at the bottom of the hill. At Paradise Bar, locals and tourists mingle and drink together, whereas in town, in the Western-style restaurants, there are only foreign patrons. But out on the edge of town, where the reggae beats sound out late into the night there is a very different and very pleasant atmosphere. Yet it is very definitely other. You have to walk along a pitch black road to get here, and it is beyond the town limits in more ways than one. This is a place which is not welcome in the devoutly Muslim fishing villages below, and you remember that as soon as you wake up, several hours later, to the sound of the mosque, as loud in your ear as the reggae music was.

If the world was flat, Labuan Bajo is where you’d come to stand and look out into the abyss. If it weren’t for its proximity to Komodo National Park, it would be hard to imagine anyone ever staying here. Yet, it is a warm and friendly place, and the area surrounding it is just beautiful. For me, it was a nice place to relax after a long journey. It took me three days to escape this sleepy fishing village on the edge of the world, and it required a 27 hour journey via Denpasar and Shenzhen at great expense just to get home in time for work… back into the insufferable crush of people in China, a far cry from Flores.

Posted in Photography, travel

Komodo National Park

After a long, pleasant boat ride across a large chunk of the Indonesian archipelago, our little gulet boat arrived at the island of Komodo, tucked between Sumbawa and Flores. Komodo National Park is comprised of Komodo, Rinca, Padar, and perhaps 26 smaller islands, and is home to a tremendous diversity of wildlife both on land and below the water. It was established in 1980 to protect the Komodo dragon – the world’s largest lizard – but has since expanded to offer protection over the magnificent surrounding seas and their bountiful life.

It was early in the morning, after a night bobbing on the tranquil seas nearby, when our vessel made its move for the port at Komodo Island. While the other passengers were asleep, I stood on the bow, as usual, and watched dolphins jump from the still waters as we moved closer to what seemed a deserted island except for a tiny, mist-enveloped cluster of buildings. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but at this point in the journey it almost didn’t matter. The dragons had been the main lure of the trip. They were something I’d always wanted to see, and really for me the whole point of getting on the boat in the first place. Yet, after four days at sea, I was so happy with the experiences I’d had, the people I’d met, and the photos I’d taken, that I almost didn’t mind if we saw a Komodo dragon… The manta rays alone had made the journey worthwhile.

When we got to the dock, I jumped off and waited anxiously for the others to get ready. I paced back and forward, talking to the fishermen and watching the sea snakes dart among their boats, not allowed yet to enter the park. At the end of the long pier there was a large gate, and I felt like I was standing outside Jurassic Park… In a way, I was. It’s certainly as close to Jurassic Park as you’ll find anywhere on earth. But perhaps that’s my personal bias. I always loved that movie. A better comparison is King Kong, which was actually inspired by the first Western voyage to Komodo.

After what seemed like an eternity standing on the pier, looking at the vast island, we were on our way and soon being introduced to three guides who would take us to look for these incredible animals and, of course, protect us from them. We were warned not to expect to see many of the great lizards because, although they are a very well-protected species, they are naturally quite sparsely populated due to their cannibalistic tendencies. These bizarre, atavistic monsters – essentially just living dinosaurs – are not only vicious killers of any other animal stupid enough to get in their way, but they’ll actually feast on each other quite regularly, ensuring a very steady population. (It’s been at around 3,000 for a while now.) They also have a taste for human flesh, but thankfully they mostly save their appetite for Swiss tourists.

Despite the warnings of their rarity, we saw six dragons on Komodo during a short walk, and later, on Rinca, another eight. Of course, the first sighting was the most exciting. I stuck by the guide and managed to get within ten feet of the animal, snapping numerous photos of his phenomenal, ancient-seeming head and claws. Despite the guide’s warning that they could explode into action with a terrible speed and ferocity, it mostly just sat in view of the tourist group, seeming perhaps a little irritated but mostly uninterested by our presence. When he eventually got up and moved on his way, the lumbering giant did move faster than one would imagine, and the guides were quick to insert themselves between the animal and their tour group.

As we continued on, we saw more dragons. Mostly they were male, but there were a few females. You can tell only by the width and length of the neck – females have longer, more slender necks. Or, as the guide said, “They have very sexy bodies.” Sexy or not, they certainly were a sight to behold. Near the shore on Komodo and near the staff huts on Rinca, the Komodos clustered in small groups of giant males. They lay about, completely disinterested in the people because of the heat. Surprisingly, the also seemed not to acknowledge each other. The guides explained that Komodos are completely solitary. That’s probably not a bad idea when you’re a cannibal species. The young spend the first five years in the trees, venturing down only to grab a quick drink, or else they’d be dinner for the elders.

Although I’m not a fan of group travel, and the National Park portion of the trip was a little too organized for my tastes, it was incredible to see these wonderful creatures as they lumbered about with the dinosaur gait they’ve had since before humans even learned to stand up straight. I find it an incredible privilege to get up close to any large animal in this overcrowded modern world. Although the Komodo treks did not take me back in time to a world of distant memory as I’d hoped, they nonetheless capped off an incredible trip through a stunningly beautiful part of the world. By the time our boat was pulling into port at Labuan Bajo, I felt a great affinity for Indonesia. Moreover, I was very impressed with how the government of this great nation had kept the Exxons and BPs of the world at bay and managed to preserve a large chunk of the country, maintaining its fabulous eco-diversity in a world that has little tolerance for natural beauty.

Posted in Photography, travel

A Boat Ride to Komodo

Sunrise, sunset. Sunrise, sunset. On the sea, time means very little. There is just day and night. There are those pleasurable hours when the sky is red and the world warms, and then the brutal midday hours when your skin burns when you sit out on the deck. Later, as the sun disappears and the world goes purple, and then innumerable stars beset the sky – where are these stars on land?! – the world seems peaceful, quiet.


I had always wanted to see Komodo and its famous “dragons,” and so it had been part of my tentative plan for this summer’s travels, although I knew it wasn’t easy to get there. However, when I found myself on Gili Trawangan, off Lombok, with a week to spare, I decided to ask around and found that there were boats that set off every Wednesday and Saturday for the mysterious island several hundred miles to the east.

So it was that on a sunny Wednesday morning, I walked to the pier and took a public ferry over to Bangsal, on Lombok island, and then jumped on a little wooden gulet headed for Labuanbajo, via Komodo island. It was not a ferry, as I had expected, but rather a tour boat, taking twenty-seven young Europeans to some of the more beautiful spots along that part of the Indonesian archipelago.

Our boat, the gulet, was an entirely wooden vessel, captained by an affable little pot-bellied man called Erren, who joked around a lot with his passengers. His bizarre Indonesian pronunciation made my name sound like the Welsh version, Dafydd, and a man named Blake was simply called “Black.”

“But you’re not black,” Erren would say. “You’re a white man!”

On board there wasn’t much room for the twenty-seven passengers. Most of us slept upstairs on the deck, in a large, low-ceilinged room with rubber mats on the floor. A few people had paid for cabins, which were the same thing except private, and smaller. There was a small area at the bow which got sun, but everywhere else was covered, and for the next four days the sun-lounging area would be crammed full and spots were hotly contested.

We set sail late in the late morning and spent the day moving slowly east along the northern shore of Lombok, whose imposing figure captivated the passengers for hours. Towering Mount Rinjani was visible throughout the whole day and the thick jungle was commented upon by several people as reminiscent of Jurassic Park. I sat on the bow of the ship, soaking in the sun and enjoying the gentle bob of the boat in the waves for some six hours. Flying fish occasionally took flight from the water and zipped along the surface like bizarre alien beings. Normally they made it 5-15 meters, but sometimes they flew as far as 50 meters before plunging back into the deep. Fat blue jellyfish bobbed on the surface, menacingly, and dolphins swam alongside the boat, jumping playfully out of the water every few seconds.

In the evening we dropped anchor and watched the sunset. The sky turned bright red and then it faded to purple and then black, and soon an inconceivable blanket of stars covered the sky from horizon to horizon. I thought how sad it is that, all around the world, we are losing this essential part of who we are as human… We have vanquished nature and cast our light into the sky so bright that, for most humans, the stars are barely visible. Yet out at sea, where man is still not master, the skies remain and it possible to feel fully human.

I went to bed at nine-thirty but, at sea, time means very little. It gets dark, you sit around, and then when you’re tired you sleep. The engines fired up about eleven-thirty and we started moving eastwards again. From the top deck, the bob of the ship was more pronounced, and I was paranoid about being seasick out here… yet throughout the day I had enjoyed the rocking of the boat, and no seasickness befell me.


I awoke to watch one of the few sunrises of my lifetime, and certainly one of a very small number for which I’ve specifically woken. It came up into a clear sky from behind the mountains of Sumbawa, burning bright orange at first, and then, very quickly becoming the regular old yellow sun in the sky, burning down upon the world.

Soon the rest of the group was awake and eating pancakes for breakfast, and then we were dropping anchor at Moyo Island, where we snorkelled in the most pristine reef I’d ever seen. The sea life there was beyond my comprehension. In the Perhentians and off Gili Trawangan and Gili Meno I had seen outrageously beautiful fish, and yet here it was better still. The reef was completely untouched and undamaged by man or his evil pollution. The array of colour was staggering in both the coral and the fish, and I was utterly captivated as I swam around in my element. Whether on it or in it, I have fallen even further in love with the sea.

At Moyo we climbed a tall waterfall with no ropes nor any form of safety equipment, which seemed obscenely dangerous, but miraculously nobody died. The wet rocks were oddly course and provided sufficient grip to get up and down, and at the top there was a huge deep pool into which we all dived in the midst of the jungle morning. Erren amused everyone by producing soap and showering under the waterfall. I couldn’t even remember the last time I showered, and it had certainly been more than three weeks since I last washed my hair…

We got back on the boat and set sail once again, this time just a short hop to Sebotok Island, where we did more snorkelling. Again, the life underwater was stunning. I saw two turtles (taking my total for this trip to almost forty) and perhaps a fleeting glimpse of a shark. In general, though, the fish were small here, but brightly coloured and incredibly intricate. Unlike in more popular dive locations, they were unaccustomed to people and had no fear as I swooped down to shoot them with my GoPro.

Then we were back on the boat and off on a longer trip – this time an eighteen hour journey to the Komodo National Park – our main destination. The trip went well until nightfall, when people moved upstairs to bed, tired from the day’s swimming. Shortly after darkness fell, the waves rose in size, and soon the few of us left on the main deck were being hit with continual sprays of salty water which, in the wind, felt cold and unpleasant, whereas in the daytime it had been refreshing. The waves continued to grow and hit us from the starboard side as we forged on into the night. The stars came out and the dark landmass of sparsely populated Sumbawa was all that could be seen. As I watched the lean, muscled old man behind the wheel, I wondered how he could guide the ship. The waves were invisible until the very last second. We were rocked violently and it became hard to stand up, so I sat and held on tightly to my seat. One of the passengers, a ship-builder by trade, was worried because the ship was clearly in bad shape and slung far too low on the water to handle anything bigger than what was coming at us. The crew seemed on edge, too, and they eyed the distant shoreline as though they wondered whether it was possible to make it if we capsized.

I managed to sleep through most of the night, but like everyone else it was a fitful sleep, being awoken regularly as the ship rose and fell on the water, tossing us all around on the communal sleeping deck. Bags crashed about and in the morning we found everything on board a terrible mess, with life jackets having broken loose and nothing where it had been left the previous evening.


Again, I awoke to a rising sun, this time rising over the sea as the Komodo Islands appeared on the horizon. We’d lost time during the rough seas and were behind schedule. But what does time really mean out here? It is only the rise and fall of the sun that matters, and after a rough night, it felt good to watch it burn up and over the horizon, illuminating the shape of our destination.

I sat and watched Komodo move painfully towards us as people woke and came out for breakfast, wondering what today would bring. Soon we stopped in an unbelievably beautiful bay, surrounded by Komodo’s bare islands – very different in appearance from those of Lombok and Sumbawa with their thick jungles. Here, there was only grass and the occasional shrub, on top of land that looked like it had been poured loosely from the skies with wet dirt. It was impossible to imagine how the same chain of volcanoes – the Ring of Fire – had created such different landscapes, but I suppose it is just a matter of age.


This was Gili Lawadarat, and after jumping from the bow of the boat to the shore, we hiked an unforgiving dirt trail up a steep hill to a viewpoint, from which the seas and the mysterious lands of Komodo unfolded. The climb was brutal, but the reward was more than ample. The azure skies and crystal waters weren’t picturesque; they were beyond the description of mere words. Vast yachts and tall sail boats cruised in and out of the islands, treating wealthy tourists to privileged views of this amazing part of the world.


There was more snorkelling here but I didn’t partake, as I had sunbathed most of the morning and, coupled with the climb, I felt I had now gotten too much sun. I knew there would be plenty more snorkelling later in the day…

Indeed, after an hour and a half of sailing we came to a non-descript area of coastline called Manta Point which, as the name suggests, is famous for the huge, alien creatures called manta rays. The captain steered the boat carefully and a man in a snorkel mask tied himself to the front to search the clear waters from below the surface as we slowly circled around the area. Turtles and fish came by but we were only interested in one animal…

After a failed attempt to follow a small group of mantas, we found unimaginable success. A large group was spotted and we were all eager to dive into the deep waters and follow them, but the captain held us back and told us to wait for a better position. On his word, we all dived in and swam frantically towards where we thought we’d see the giant rays. Soon we had a sighting – three impossibly big black shapes moving ethereally through the ocean. And then they were gone.

A few others and I followed the rays but, going against the current without fins, it was impossible to catch up. We bobbed there as everyone else headed back to the ship, and laughed about how amazing the sighting had been – these creatures are just out of this world. They look as though they are flying through space; not swimming in water. They don’t look like anything else on the planet. We didn’t realize, though, that our experience was just beginning. Soon another group of three swam past us very, very close. As we swam after them, shooting videos and pictures without our underwater cameras, another group came up behind us. A great black ray brushed my leg and scared the hell out of me, before I turned and realized his giant gaping mouth was not intended for eating anything like me. He just wanted me to get out of his way.

Manta rays came again and again, swimming along the edge of a steep reef and out into the deep. I swam and bobbed and watched them come and go for what seemed like hours, loving every second of it. It was an experience so wonderful it would have justified the trip alone – and yet from the beginning, with the exception of the choppy night on the sea, it had been one delight after another.

Soon we were back on board, laughing and talking about how incredible the day had been – from stunning views of paradise to close encounters with otherworldly creatures. The ship continued its way south to Pink Beach where we were to go snorkelling once again, this time for two and a half hours. As I dove into the sea, I noticed how much colder it was here than anywhere else, and the current was strong, too. I held out hope for a shark sighting, as they prefer these waters to the water coral reefs we’d previously encountered.

The waters were once again teeming with life and the corals were vivid and thriving, but the first animal I noticed chilled me more than the water – it was a giant moray eel, trying to hide among coral but remaining almost entirely visible. It was easily ten feet long, with a body wider than my own in places, and a giant, mean-looking head. I’ve been trying to overcome a lifelong fear of morays recently, with great success, but this one was hard to even look at. It had vicious eyes and a massive set of jaws at the end of its powerful body. Whenever I moved in close for a photo it would posture aggressively. I am a firm believer in the adage that no animal is truly dangerous when shown adequate respect, and moray eels are no different. I heeded his warning and watched from a distance, although his menacing grimace turned my blood to ice. In the end it was difficult to turn and swim away because I could so vividly imagine the beast chasing me down, even though I knew it was ridiculous.

Elsewhere, I saw very large versions of animals I’d see elsewhere, and they seemed far more aggressive. I saw a huge, bizarre squid/cuttlefish creature which, when I move near, postured as though it would attack me. I also found several blue-ringed stingrays which proved more aggressive than the incredibly shy ones I’d seen elsewhere. From the sun burning my back to the icy cold waters aching my bones and the hordes of jellyfish stinging my skin, I decided after an hour to escape to the comfort of the beach and its odd pink sand.

Back on the boat, I spotted two eagles attacking a smaller bird, and yet more dolphins leaping from the water, as the sun fell once again – this time over the dark, bare mountains of Komodo. Our boat chugged slowly to its resting place for the night as everyone breathed a sigh of relief that there would be no more waves disrupting their sleep. We would be anchored in a large lagoon with lots of other tour boats, with little canoes of touts selling beer and bracelets coming up to the boat. One by one, the other tour boats turn on disco lights and reggae music, and our captain, Erren, started showing off his dancing skills.


This is part one of a two part story. The second, which tells of the Komodo Dragons, will be posted next week.

Posted in Photography

The Starry Skies of Southeast Asia

Earlier this year I posted a photo I took in Southern Africa of the night sky. To some of you, seeing the stars at night – and I mean thousands of stars – is probably something you take for granted. And yet, for most people on this planet, they are disappearing. If you live in or near a city, chances are that your night sky looks pretty dull. Perhaps, on a clear night, you may see a handful of stars.

Yet this is not what we are, as a species, accustomed to. Since long before we knew what a star was, we have wandered the world, looking up and navigating by the stars, speculating upon their role in our world, making up stories about them… They are a part of us, and we are losing them to light pollution and smog.

In Eastern China, where I live, the stars are a rarity. Granted, this year, with government efforts to reduce pollution, we can see more than in the previous five years, but nonetheless it makes for pitiful viewing. As I wandered the plains of Africa last winter, I marvelled over the incredible number of visible stars, and lamented the fact that I know so little about them. In the Philippines, many years ago, I remember floating out at sea in the middle of the night, drinking rum and being circled by curious thresher sharks, staring up into the innumerable stars as a bright blue lightning storm exploded on the horizon. The whole Milky Way seemed visible. Years later, I stared up at the stars from a mountaintop in California with the coyotes and cougars and bears… The stars seem paradoxically part of this natural world, and yet they are so alien that they captivate me whenever I’m lucky enough to see them.

On my trek through Southeast Asia this year I paid attention to the skies and even used an app on my iPhone to learn some of the constellations and star names, and was surprised to find that from most rural locations, at least several planets were visible. Bobbing on the sea at night in a small boat, I experienced the incredible sensation of being surrounded by stars from horizon to horizon. Then, on Gili Trawangan, I finally managed to shoot a decent photo of the Milky Way – something I’ve wanted to do for years. Hopefully you will be able to zoom in on this photo like I can on my computer (unfortunately, the mobile version of this site doesn’t allow for that) and see more stars than you could ever count.

The Milky Way as seen from Indonesia.
Posted in travel

Gili Trawangan

The sun has set over the distant figure of the island of Bali, appearing like an eruption of molten rock from the top of Mount Kintamani, and soon the sky is lit instead by the luminous full moon in the east, which comes up over the horizon bright yellow and then moves across the sky an almost blinding white, illuminating the little fishing boats bobbing on the sea, the faint spectre of Gili Meno, and another volcano – Mount Rinjani on the island of Lombok, which is always partially enveloped by thick white clouds.

From La Moomba, a little restaurant on the northeastern curve of the Gili Trawangan (pronounced “tra-WANG-an”) seashore – which stretches, unbroken around the whole of the little island – I take in the stars and the smattering of twinkling lights on the water and the nearby islands. It is quiet except for the lapping of the sea on the beach, and the ever-present Jack Johnson and Bob Marley records that ring out from beach bars the world over.

A day earlier, I arrived on Gili Trawangan – the largest of three tiny islands off the northwestern shore of Lombok, which itself lies to the east of Bali, on the Indonesian archipelago. I stayed the first night in a quite comfortable but crowded little hostel, called La Boheme, in the middle of the town, but it was fully booked on my second night, and so I wandered around, looking at the “no vacancy” signs for an hour. Although the island was undoubtedly beautiful, surrounded on all sides by white sand beaches, crystal clear waters, and coral reef, with volcanoes and flawless blue skies in the distance, I didn’t feel happy here. I’d been looking forward to visiting for nearly ten years, but I’d naively expected a relatively untouched paradise island, or at least a basic backpacker destination.

Instead, it was fully developed and packed beyond capacity with tourists from around the globe. It seemed almost the entire island was covered in hotels and restaurants. Everything was expensive and gaudy, and the tourists were mostly middle- and upper-class families and honeymooning couples. I wondered why all these resorts needed swimming pools when there were calm sea waters on all sides. Eventually I found Alex’s Homestay in the north of the island, rather tucked away from everything else. Luckily, Alex had a bungalow for me, and it only cost $18/night, compared to the $50+ that seemed to be the going rate elsewhere else. My bungalow was basic but had everything I needed, and was set in a small village, surrounded on all sides by trees and roaming buffalo. Alex, the talkative and affable proprietor, leant me his bicycle so I could pick my bags up from the La Boheme.

Suddenly, I felt quite positive about the island, having been rather depressed for the first 24 hours. I sat and talked to Alex for an hour on his little property, surrounded by trees and cats and chickens, and then went to find lunch. I stopped in at a small beach bar on Turtle Beach and befriended the quiet owner, who told me it was safe to leave my phone, camera, and bag on the beach as I swam. I could barely believe it, but when put to the test it turned out to be true – nothing was stolen. I spent six hours sipping cold Bintang beers and chatting with the owner and his friends, who all reckoned they could do a Scottish accent. It seemed they had Scotland confused with London, however, and instead put on some impressive Cockney accents. Mostly, though, I spent the day in the water.

Your humble reporter enjoying a Bintang on the beach.

On the northeastern shore of Gili Trawangan, the aforementioned “Turtle Beach” area, the snorkelling is fantastic. Although it can be difficult to get over the sharp coral at low tide, in the morning, when the water is high, it is extremely accessible and there are always several turtles swimming around, munching on the corals. There is a peaceful atmosphere here that is lacking in the crowded south, or on the snooty, rich western beaches. I spent the whole day drinking beer, reading Hunter S. Thompson’s The Great Shark Hunt (a fitting title), and swimming with turtles, until the tide was so low that it became impossible to swim. Around this time I began to realize that I was rather sunburned, too, and decided to retire to my bungalow for the evening.

Every place is, to some extent, what you make of it. My disappointment at the gap between what I’d expected of Gili Trawangan and what I’d actually found had darkened my view of this place, but during a happy day spent meeting nice, friendly locals and tourists, and swimming leisurely in the turtle-filled seas, I found a new perspective, and I looked forward to spending more time here.


The streets of Gili Trawangan, or rather the dusty paths that criss-cross the tiny island, are mercifully free of motorized traffic, in stark contrast to Bali, just across the water. Instead, dozens of horses pull little carts around, filled with tourists and building materials for the numerous little bungalows being built to cater for the huge influx of tourists that now come to Gili Trawangan every year.

Along the waterfronts, small beach bars and larger resorts are filled with bikini-clad young tourists. They serve the local beer, Bintang, almost exclusively, along with tropical cocktails, and the menus primarily offer Western-style food. All except the most expensive resorts will allow guests to sit on the beach for free, sometimes even using their beach chairs and sun beds, and at night the waiters will whisper to passers-by, “You want weed? You can smoke on the beach… it’s no problem. No police on Gili Trawangan!” Which all sits in seemingly direct contrast to the façade the island now presents as an up-market, bourgeois tourist destination.

Gili Trawangan’s main draw as a tourist destination is its waters, and all through the town and in almost every hotel, guesthouse, homestay, and hostel – as well as the bars and restaurants – diving companies and boat-owners offer an array of scuba and snorkelling trips. Despite years of exploitation leaving most of the reefs that surround the Gilis (including the other two islands in the chain – Meno and Air) dead, there is still an abundance of easily visible marine life. On my first day snorkelling, I saw six turtles, and on the second day I saw fourteen. I also encountered moray eels, banded sea kraits, giant puffer fish, and innumerable colourful fish whose names I don’t know.

The beaches are mostly white sand, but sometimes black, giving way almost immediately to coral reef – or dead corals where a reef used to be. (There have been successes in regenerating the reef, particularly around Gili Meno, in recent years.) It is very accessible during the morning and early afternoon when the tide is high, but less so later in the day as the tide lowers and the reef and rocks are exposed. On the northeastern shoreline there is a bed of seaweed that draws huge numbers of green and hawksbill turtles, and just further out is a steep drop-off into the ocean. On the western side there is a dive site called Shark Point several hundred meters off shore, where I found one white-tipped reef shark. The currents all around Gili Trawangan are deceptively strong, and caution is advised while snorkelling or swimming.


I stayed another few days on Gili Trawangan, mostly spending time with two friends from China who’d were visiting Indonesia for a few weeks. We explored the island and its waters pretty thoroughly, and I became very fond of the place – having come full circle from my disappointing first day. However, with my summer holidays drawing to a close, it was time to move on and see more of Indonesia. I booked a 4-day boat trip to Komodo National Park through Wanua Adventures for a cool a1.8 million rupiah (U$140) which would stop off in various places of interest along the route from Lombok -> Sumbawa -> Komodo -> Rinca -> Flores. I had no idea what to expect, but an adventure on the high seas, coupled with some time hunting the Komodo’s famous dragons, seemed like the perfect ending to a long, enjoyable stint in Southeast Asia.

A panorama of the western coastline.
Posted in travel

Back to Bali

My stay in the Perhentians was thoroughly enjoyable, yet it was somehow not difficult to say goodbye. When the time came, after only four days, I felt privileged to have seen such a magnificent part of the world. But staying there four days was enough – sticking around longer would’ve given me no greater experience of the islands. It is a small place, and easy to get a feel for in a short time.

I took the fast boat back to the mainland at 8am and then a coach from Kuala Besut to Kuala Lumpur – two towns on opposite ends of the peninsula, and opposites in a great many other ways, too. I was lucky to have caught the bus at all… I’d been walking in the wrong direction and a taxi driver offered to take me to the station for free. The bus was the most luxurious I’ve ever seen, with huge reclining seats and reasonably fast Wi-Fi. It was almost empty, but a man sitting diagonally from me managed to spoil my journey somewhat. He had a giant hole in his right foot, which he spent most of the journey picking and sniffing and eventually chewing. The bus rolled along the spine of peninsular Malaysia, huge rocky formations shooting vertically up from the jungle into the skies on either side, yet it was hard to enjoy the view while an old man ate his own foot just in front of me.

I’d been told the trip to Kuala Lumpur would take only six hours, but it took almost nine. On the way, I managed to book a flight to Bali, in Indonesia, and a night in a hostel with a cheap airport pickup. I rushed to the airport to catch my flight, but it was delayed. Worse, my flight was with Air Asia – I’d booked on a Chinese app and hadn’t realized. Air Asia is my least favourite airline and the reason for that is somewhat related to the fact that when I checked in I had to pay extra for my luggage, making this budget flight not so cheap.

After an extremely bumpy flight, the plane landed at Denpasar airport at around midnight and I was pleasantly surprised that I was given a visa exemption. Last time I’d visited it had cost me $25 for a visa on arrival, and everything I read online said that was still the case. I strutted through immigration feeling very pleased by this turn of events.

Unfortunately, at customs, I was pulled aside and thoroughly searched and interrogated for a long, difficult time. A strange man with a fake friendly persona went through everything I owned, asked me weird pseudo-casual questions, and went as far as to swab my fingernails in an effort, evidently, to prove I was some sort of international drug smuggler. This was particularly frightening, as in Indonesia being found guilty would land you a minimum twenty years in prison, and more likely a short stint in front of the firing squad. My paranoia grew as the interrogation dragged on, and I became convinced that someone had planted something in my backpack during the bus ride, and the authorities had somehow been tipped off…

Of course, given that I am no drug smuggler, I was reluctantly turned loose around two o’clock, feeling shaken and irritated. Thankfully, my driver was still waiting, and soon we were at Gandhi Hostel, in the middle of Denpasar. I had planned on setting off for Lombok the following morning, but it was three o’clock when I got to the hostel, and I didn’t fancy setting my alarm for two hours later… The hostel owners were outrageously friendly and, although very small and basic, I was thoroughly impressed by Gandhi Hostel during my short stay.

In the morning, I rented a motorcycle from Putri, the woman in charge, and set off for the north of the island. In 2009 I explored Bali for a week or so, and saw most of the well-known tourist spots. Bali had never been someplace I wanted to return – not that I disliked it, but it’s a bit touristy for my tastes, and it had only gotten worse in the past seven years. However, with a day to kill, I thought I’d take a look around from the vantage point of a little scooter, hopefully exploring some lesser-visited places, and getting away from the crowds.

I set off north, through Ubud, and then veered northwest along a circuitous route through the countryside toward Mount Kintamani. The traffic in the south of Bali is nothing short of horrendous. Cars and bikes seem to move frantically, yet get nowhere fast. It is slow and frustrating, yet at the same time incredibly dangerous. All the way to Ubud it was like this, and the short trip took around an hour. Beyond Ubud, I deliberately kept to the smallest roads, and gained some freedom and distance from the oppressive traffic.

Bali is incredibly mountainous, and the roads, while in mostly good condition, feel like off-road tracks, going up and down steep slopes through the jungles and rice paddies. Eventually, I joined a larger road when it had come far enough north to be relatively free of traffic, and was able to open the bike up, heading uphill at great speeds, past the unique Balinese red brick walls towards the volcano.

When I reached the rim of the crater containing Lake Batur I stopped here and there to soak in the view. Sadly, like most of Bali, tourism is rampant, and it is hard to enjoy the spectacular sights because every vantage point is staked out by vendors. Still, there were perfect blue skies and the scenery at this part of the island is incredible. Mount Kintamani was mostly steeped in clouds, but at times the cover broke to reveal the great volcano, which last erupted some sixteen years ago. The crater and the lake are surrounded by sharp green hillsides which on this day were bathed in sunlight.


I started down the road to the lake and fortunately found a derelict building site from which I could enjoy the view unaccosted. Then I zipped down to the lakeside and drove in a long arc around water to the northern edge, just as the sun was coming down over the volcano. My map told me I could take a road up to the crater rim from here, but some locals told me it was “extreme” and “dangerous.” I liked the sound of it, but upon closer inspection it was actually far more dangerous than I imagined. I made it up only about a kilometre before very carefully driving back down, defeated by the broken, steep, dusty trail, and returning along my route around the lake.

Almost as soon as I got back to the top, a huge cloud swept in and the temperature very suddenly dropped. The sun was gone, and the moisture in the cloud, along with the elevation, made it rather chilly. All the tourists had disappeared and the businesses that catered to them were all now closed, leaving behind an eerie ghost town. I drove back to Denpasar, going past the famous rice terraces, although it was getting dark at this point, so the view was far from optimal. In Ubud I was stuck for a long time in traffic, which persisted the entire way back to the hostel, which I only managed to find with the help of GPS, taking a convoluted route through altogether far too many backroads. Driving in northern Bali can be a lot of fun… but driving in the south is an absolute nightmare.


Back at the hostel, I booked a ferry to Gili Trawangan, near Lombok, for the next morning. I was satisfied that I didn’t need to spend any more time on Bali. It may have once been “The Island of the Gods,” but tourism has caused it to lose much of its splendour, and while it is still certainly a pleasant place, I prefer my tropical paradises to be a bit more like the Perhentians – quiet, relaxed, and with the impact of humans far less obvious on the natural surroundings. I hoped Lombok would prove to be that way, as suggested in numerous tour guides.