Category Archives: Southeast Asia

Bali and the Gilis

Arriving in Bali, instantly you can feel a laid back island vibe,  much more so than Java.   Ubud is known as the cultural center of Bali, and it’s a great place to spend a few days.   It has a lot of yoga, total well-being type places, vegetarian and all-natural food galore, a lot of western influence in its shops and restaurants, but still brimming with Balinese culture.   We were lucky enough to be there for the end of one of their bi-annual festival, tied to the predominantly Hindi religion (vs. Java, which is mostly Muslim).

From Ubud we headed to Legian, which is on the same stretch of 15km sand between Kuta (BIG party scene, overrun with young Australians) and Seminyak (quiet, expensive resort filled).   We cashed-in Marriott points to stay at a really nice hotel and could celebrate Jen’s birthday in style.   Thanks to her special day, we were upgraded to a private “plunge pool” suite.

Our lost stop in Indonesia was a five-night stay in the Gili islands, a set of three islands off the coast of Lombok.   As you can see by the pictures, we were obsessed with the crystal clear, warm, turquoise water.   It was gorgeous.   We snorkeled every day.   Reefs were really cool, lots of fish, starfish, corral, two SEA SNAKES and a dozen or so turtles, a few of which we swam with for up to 10 minutes!   Beautiful undersea wildlife and sunsets made this one of our favorite spots of the trip.

 

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Java and Borneo

We flew to Jakarta and used some hotel points at the Marriott.  We were confused to arrive to metal detectors and bomb dogs at the hotel.  Apparently the Marriott in Jakarta was a victim of terrorist bombing in 2009.  Jon visited a few sites in town while Jen relaxed.

We flew to Borneo (Indonesian Island of Kalimintan) via Tragana Airlines – known for being late and at times taking off early!  We were a few hours late, but we made it into the jungle in Tanjung Puting National Park in our klotok, a boat that glides through the jungle in Indonesia.  We had the boat to ourselves, as well as a captain, assistant, cook, and guide!  We visited orangutans at a rehabilitation center in the jungle.  At one point, a mama orangutan grabbed our guide’s arm, hoping for food!  We also saw proboscis monkeys and a gibbon!  It was truly awe inspiring to see the giant mammals move about the trees and feed.

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We headed to Yogjakarta to visit two ancient temples:  Prambanan, Southeast Asia’s largest Hindu temple, and Bodobudur, a huge Buddhist temple, both built in the 9th century.

We had planned to visit a Volcano, but fate struck, with a nasty case of conjunctivitis.  (We believe picked up from a fellow traveler in Myanmar.)  We named it EYE-bola, and we had to visit an Indonesian eye doctor and cancel the trip.  We opted to fly to BALI instead!

Myanmar (Burma)

Our next adventure was Myanmar (formerly Burma).   Because of the military dictatorship in the past, there weren’t many Western tourists here until the past few years, when Democratic elections began.  We wanted to see the rapidly developing new darling of Southeast Asia before it succumbs to Western tourism.

But we almost didn’t make it in the country, due to visa issues.  After booking flights a month or so ago, our plan was to get visas in Chiang Mai, by having the passports sent to Bangkok via courier.  When we arrived in Chiang Mai, the travel agents advised that we try the online eVisa instead.  From our research, the brand new online system had gotten good reviews and other travelers had gotten their visas within less than the promised five days.  We coughed up the $50 USD each for the online visas, but the day before our flight, the visas had not arrived.  At 5 pm the day before the flight (the fifth business day), our online status changed from “pending” to “approved” visas…but still no email with the official visa letter.  Because it was the weekend, we knew that we wouldn’t be able to get ahold of anyone from Myanmar immigration.

Then there was the issue of whether we boarded a flight to Myanmar without the visa.  We decided to take the flight from Chiang Rai to Bangkok, and try to convince the Air Asia attendants to let us on the flight to Yangon, Myanmar.   In Bangkok, they informed us that they wouldn’t let us on the flight without the approval letter, as someone in our situation had been sent back to Thailand at the Yangon airport a few days before.  Luckily, the email with the visa letter came through while we were standing at the Air Asia counter in Bangkok!  Saved by the email a few hours before our fight.  At least it was a happy end to a stressful part of our trip.

Arriving in Yangon, we were surprised that it felt more like a chaotic and dirty Indian city than a developing city in Southeast Asia.  Myanmar also has a hotel shortage, due to the recent backpacker influx, so the accommodation was not great for the price point.   However, the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon was amazing – 2000 years old, covered in gold leaf and topped with diamonds in a huge compound.   We met a girl from Colorado who is teaching English in Yangon on our flight, and met up with her for the pagoda and drinks!  However, we were sad to miss our friend Kyaw, who works in Myanmar.

Bagan was up next.   Reminiscent of Angkor Wat in Cambodia, Bagan is covered with thousands of temples built by a civilization whose prime lasted ~200 years spanning the 11th and 12th century.   But unlike Angkor, the preservation, excavations, and renovations performed in the late 19th and 20th century were performed under a military government and often not historically accurate nor well done.   The cost of this was never obtaining UNESCO World Heritage status.   Nonetheless, there are over 3,000 temples, many large, many more small, and a dozen or so impressive and definitely worth a visit.

From Bagan we made our way to Kalaw, a backpacker friendly town at the top of a mountain pass, known for its hiking.   We found a great guide and enjoyed two day hikes in the surrounding mountains with him.

Inle lake, at the bottom of the mountains from Kalaw, is a small town and big lake that have been inhabited for thousands of years.   We took an all-day boat tour with an international crew we met the night before, and saw villages, temples, markets, tourist shops, and even a local festival parade, all along the lake and rivers.   Apparently over 100,000 people live on the lake – amazing!

We left just one full day in Mandalay, which we used to see the big sites.   The highlight is a palace at the center of a 2-km by 2-km moat in the middle of the city, leftover from the last emperor in the mid-1900’s, and Mandalay hill and surrounding temples on one of the moat’s corners.

Overall, we enjoyed the incredibly friendly faces in Myanmar, and it was interesting to see a country that is not Westernized or changed by tourism.   The people by far were the highlight.   They were so friendly, so warm and welcoming.   When you smile or give a little wave, in no other country do you receive back so many wide smiles and enthusiastic waves.

Northern Thailand

After the culture shock of China, it was great to get back to comfortable Thailand.  We headed for a place that feels like home, because Jen taught English in Northern Thailand (Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai) in 2006.  And it might still be our favorite place.   We took a break from sightseeing and hung out, did some travel-planning, and enjoyed ourselves.  Chiang Mai has a wat (temple) on every corner in the old city,  vibrant night markets, and restaurants and spas the stuff of backpackers dreams.  Jon went mountain biking.  Oh, and did we mention there is a cat cafe?

We rested up for our next big adventure in Southeast Asia’s new darling, Myanmar.

Northern Vietnam

From Nga Trang, we headed up the coast on overnight buses, first to Hoi An, then to Hanoi.   The bus was a sleeper bus, meaning no seats, just “beds” (big enough, but not very big – pretty much fully reclined, thin recliner bunk beds lining the sides of the bus, then one row down the middle) .

Hanoi is very similar to the hustle and bustle, crowds and whizzing motorbikes of Saigon, but boasts a “touristy” area that is much more beautiful and pleasant to spend time in.   The center of this area is a beautiful lake, with interwoven streets lined with shops, restaurants, and street vendos.   Just next door is The French Quarter, where most French lived during the colonial period before (the much revered) Ho Chi Minh lead the Vietnamese to run them out in the 50’s.   We enjoyed the fanciest meal of our trip there, in a nice French-Vietnamese restaurant, in celebration of our 2 year anniversary.

We were lucky to celebrate again on our Halong Bay overnight boat cruise, where apparently our hotel concierge had informed the boat company of our special day, and surprised us with a cake!  It was fun to celebrate again, especially with our eight boat mates.

We also had a fun night on the town the following night in Hanoi with a Kiwi couple living in Australia.  We are looking forward to seeing them again in Melbourne!

Hoi An was a much more quiet, quaint town in comparison to Hanoi and Saigon.   The main part of town was clearly built and centered around tourism, and seemed to have some good money pumping in, as all the buildings and streets were very pretty, well built and maintained. In addition to getting tailored suits made there, we took a day trip to a nearby island, enjoyed some incredible snorkeling and time relaxing on a beautiful white, sandy, remote island beach.

Good Morning, Vietnam!

Ah Vietnam. We wish we had more time with you. A mere 12 days was not enough. Due to flights for China visas and some playing around with our schedule, we ended up with far too little time in this fascinating and delicious country.
We started in Saigon, where we had to stay a few days to obtain our visas to China. (Saigon is officially Ho Chi Minh City, but everyone in Saigon calls it Saigon. So we will too.) After appeasing the powers that be in the local consulate to the People’s Republic of China with incredible minutiae, including our bank statements, we enjoyed soaking up the food, and the food, and a few sights.

In Saigon, we also had to face some ugly truths of the Vietnam War, or the American War, as they call it. We visited the Chu Chi tunnels, an incredible system of tunnels dug by the Viet Cong during the war. Although we had been advised not to admit our American nationality at the tunnels, we took a chance and admitted our heritage. Luckily for us, our tour guide had fought with the Americans during the war, and we became his favorite tourists. Between expletives, he explained his story: he had fought alongside the American GIs, where he learned the curse words first and forgot them last. After the Americans abandoned the Southern Vietnamese, he had been thrown in a prison camp for three years. Once he was released, he was not a favorite of the Communist Regime, and life was not easy. Eventually, after Vietnam opened more to tourists in the 90’s, he became a tour guide. “I love American people. But I hate your government. Makes f#@&ing war everywhere.”

The War Remnants Museum was an even tougher pill to swallow. While the museum was partially filled with propaganda, it also had a powerful exhibit on victims of Agent Orange. The entire bottom floor of the museum was a multi-room argument OF “no one in the world supported your invasion in the first place” with photos of Vietnam War protests from almost every country in the world (including the U.S.A.). A notable plaque included donated metals of honor including a Purple Heart from a U.S. veteran with an inscription, “I WAS WRONG. I AM SORRY.”

The most heart-wrenching part of the museum was the exhibit on victims of Agent Orange. Entire rooms of photos of children through adults with horrible disfigured bodies. It was clear that the effects of Agent Orange reverberate in the lives of many Vietnamese, as they do for American Veterans and their families. We were caught in the rain with some American veterans of the war, and they explained to a curious Spanish teen that they had no idea at the time that Agent Orange was so toxic; they were lifting water into their canteens after it was sprayed. One veteran’s daughter had a disfigured limb as well. Like any regrettable decision, most Americans would rather forget and ignore our history in Vietnam; for many in Vietnam, that is not an option.

We still had good food and cheap local beer as a solace to our sad reminders, and so we continued to stuff ourselves with delicious food. We learned how to cook some simple Vietnamese dishes in a cooking class. (Yes, you are invited over for dinner!) Our chef, The, even invited us out for food and drinks the next day!

We took an overnight bus to Nga Trang, a gorgeous beach town up the coast. We were surprised that the town was filled with Russian tourists; even the signs were all in Russian rather than Vietnamese or English. An enjoyable beach pastime was to watch Russians do elaborate photo shoots with their beach babes. We spent two days in Nga Trang for beach time, pool time, seafood, and a few craft beers (heaven!), including one that really did have the aroma of passion fruit, as promised.

Cambodia

After a relatively hassle-free border crossing from Thailand into Cambodia, we stepped off our bus in Siem Reap and were pleased to see a smiling Tuk-Tuk driver holding a sign, “Le Malika d’Angkor Welcomes Jon Vohlers!”  Siem Reap is the gateway to Angkor, the epicenter of the Khmer Empire, which lasted from 802 – 1432.   At its peak in the 12th century, the city surrounding Angkor Wat had a population of over 1 million (vs. 50,000 in London  at that same time).

Jen had visited Cambodia and Angkor seven years before, and instantly she remarked how more developed Siem Reap was – roads were nicer, buildings bigger, shops more extravagant – it was cool to see the progress made.   But since Jen had visited Angkor before, she decided to only join Jon for one of the three days planned to visit the temples – the other two were used to stay back at the hotel in Siem Reap and do much needed travel planning for future legs of our trip.

It would be fair to say Jon got WAY into Angkor and the Khmer Empire.   Jon spent over 27 hours in three days visiting 25 temples, all via Tuk-Tuk, driven by Sokea (our now Facebook friend, hi Sokea!)  Over the three days, at and in-between Temples, Jon would read the guide book he purchased cover-to-cover, which explained the Khmer Empire history, the drivers of their Buddhist and Hindu religions, and each of the Angkor temples in detail.   It was really fun, and definitely a highlight of the trip – it’s easy to see why Angkor, and its main attraction Angkor Wat, is considered to be “the 8th Wonder of the World”

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We spent our last night in Siem Reap going to the Cambodian Circus, based on the recommendation of our friends we met in Thailand.   It was a great show, a great cause – the acrobatics were amazing.

The next day we took the bus to Phnom Penh, the capital and largest city in Cambodia.   We enjoyed our two days there, seeing the National Palace and exploring some of the bars and restaurants scattered throughout the busy streets and alleys.  We were especially pleased to explore the cocktail culture in Cambodia – somehow, creative cocktails have caught on, and we even enjoyed a gin and tonic spiced with young (green) black pepper!  Delicious.

Since Jen had visited it already, Jon also went to S-21, a high school built in the 1960s, then turned into one of hundreds of prisons used across the country when the Khmer Rouge communist party took power in the mid-70s and 80s.  It was one of the most secret detention facilities, and one of the cruelest, torturing their detainees into admitting “crimes” against the Khmer Rouge state many often did not commit.  As soon as they admitted guilt, they were bused to the killing fields a few kilometers outside of the city – thus how over 20,000 people from S-21 were killed.  Over 2 million people were killed in total, a quarter of the population, most from the cities where the educated or those “corrupted” by the West lived.  The museum was moving, and it makes you think and reflect on what anyone over the age of 40 must have lived through in Cambodia…  it’s awesome to see the country bounce-back, and meet and visit with the friendly, warm, present-day Cambodians.