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:

map

 

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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.

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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.

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A panorama of the western coastline.
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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.

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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.

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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.

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That’s a Moray

Or not. This is the story of a moray eel which was not a moray eel.

I’ve been afraid of moray eels as long as I can remember. It probably goes back to a childhood of being fascinated by the sea, and of hearing a story of a man having his faced ripped off by a pissed off giant eel dozens of meters under the sea.

For whatever reason, although I’ve enjoyed being in the sea all my life, the thought of moray eels in the cracks and crevices of a rock face or reef has put me on edge. Even in the past decade when I’ve actively sought out, and often found, sharks in various parts of the world, I’ve never once found myself fearing these atavistic apex predators, and yet I’m always terrified that there may be an eel nearby…

My friends in the diving world have told me that I was being ridiculous, and I believed them, but our fears are not always rational. I’m scared of spiders, too, even though I know most of them to be entirely harmless. (Having said that, I’ve been bitten by spiders many times, including one month ago when a spider in Thailand bit my arse while I sat typing an essay.)

Last week, in Malaysia, I encountered many moray eels, and although I was filled by fear and repulsion on the first instance, I began testing myself. I start swimming closer and closer, telling myself that I needed a good photo of these animals… They were all different colours and patterns, and in different habitats, yet they all moved in the same lethargic, rippling fashion. They all swung back and forth on the current ever so slightly, mouth agape, eyes alarmingly alert. But as I moved forward I began to appreciate what my diving friends had told me – that they are quite docile animals, unwilling to strike unless proved – ie you stick your hand right in its face. Sure, they seemed wary of me and I didn’t doubt any of them would’ve bitten me if I’d gotten too close, but they were not threatening; they showed no interest in moving towards me.

Today I saw a black and grey moray eel partially in the open, searching for a place to hide. It was being bothered by dozens of small, electric blue fish, and seemed uncomfortable to be in the open. I followed it for a while before its posture indicated that I should get no closer, and I left.

A little later, I was in nearly the same place and I saw what appeared to be the same eel, and once again it was in the open. It moved differently, and appeared to be much smaller than the first one… so I reasoned that perhaps it was the same kind of snake – perhaps the offspring of the first one.

I followed this new eel for a while, pushing myself to get closer and closer. I was able to take several clear photos as it moved slowly across the seabed, and I swam down nearly to the bottom, satisfied that this eel was entirely passive. Perhaps, without the protection of their dark hiding places, moray eels aren’t willing to attack…

Finally, as I got right alongside, the eel buried its head in the sand. I took one final close-range photo and left the poor animal alone, not wanting to cause it any undue stress.

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That’s not a moray.

Later that day I was sitting in La Moomba restaurant, using their WiFi to post a photo of a turtle that I had taken earlier. As I looked through my shots from the day, I saw the photos of the moray eel and realized that the final eel was absolutely not an eel at all, and that the similarities in appearance were restricted only to colour. The patterns on the animals’ backs were completely different when viewed closely.

I Googled “Lombok sea snake” and realized that the animal I’d seen was a banded sea krait. I searched a little further and discovered that banded sea kraits are incredibly venomous (50x a cobra’s venom) and kill people when they do stupid things like provoke them by swimming too close to take a photo…

Oh.

So that was a lucky escape. I would say that I have entirely conquered my fear of moray eels, although it nearly came at a very steep cost.