When we decided last January that we’d be going to Bali in March, a side trip to see the dragons of Komodo was high on the agenda. Our enthusiasm drifted a bit as we started the planning process and found that it would be around $100 per day trip for the two of us to make our own arrangements to visit the park, not including meals and accommodation. Alternatively, we found a wide range of multiple-day, all inclusive snorkeling or dive tours that start around $150/day per couple and rise in cost as the extravagance increases. Either way, our daily Indonesia budget of $60/day was going to take a massive hit in addition to another few hundred bucks to fly from Denpasar to Labuan Bajo and back. Then there was the factor of the Indonesian rainy season that typically lingers through April. Our interest in Komodo was slipping away like a slimy eel held by greasy fingers in a hot tub full of olive oil.
The spark reignited in Java, in February when we met a pair of young travelers, Mimi and Eli who were heading toward Komodo soon thereafter on a tour they had just booked. The internet is absolutely astounding as a research tool for travelers and it has been a huge game changer for us compared to how we used to travel 20 years ago, but there still is and will never be a better source for travel info than current information exchanged among fellow travelers. Granted, you can’t always count on running into someone who will have the information you’re looking for in the same way that you can rely on the internet to always be there, but when such people with such info come into your view, that’s where the pure magic of long-term, open-ended traveling happens. We stayed in touch with those two, and after getting their report on how their adventure went, we promptly booked our own trip with Le Pirate, a company that we hadn’t yet come across on any of our previous internet searches.
The elixir of life flows abundantly throughout Indonesia, and with such a dramatic topography caused by billions of years of volcanic and tectonic activity, this nation of islands is literally teeming with examples of water hurling itself over cliffs. There are literally hundreds of waterfalls throughout the archipelago, and we visited as many as we could during our seven week meander through Java and Bali. Here’s a look at several of the most intense and distinct waterfalls we were fortunate enough to immerse ourselves in…
Air Tarjun Kedung Kandang
Located about 24 kilometers southeast of Yogyakarta, just getting to this place by motorbike was an adventure in itself. The last few kilometers are tucked within a maze of local roads crisscrossing through dense jungles with no signs to speak of. Luckily we’re not shy about asking directions, as that’s about the only way this place can be found, and the friendly locals in this region are always eager to assist.
After three weeks in the lap of luxury in Penang, Malaysia, we were ready to shake things up a bit and get back on the road. It didn’t take long to remind us that traveling isn’t always rainbows and unicorns. Sometimes the unicorn drops a turd, like it did when we found out at the Penang airport that our flight to Jakarta had been inexplicably cancelled. Luckily we were able to squeeze onto a flight to Kuala Lumpur and then just barely catch our connecting flight to Jakarta, which still left us in transit on our way to Yogyakarta. And just about the time we were expecting to start boarding, it was announced that the flight was delayed by 90 minutes. I decided to make a rainbow soft cream out of a turd and search the airport for an ATM to get some local currency in my pocket. That turned out to be about as easy as finding a metalhead at a Kenny G concert, but eventually I found 10 ATMs, all from different banks, clustered together in a tiny room outside the airport, a 15 minute walk from our gate without a single sign showing the way there. Fortunately, Indonesians are very friendly and helpful with directions, even in a massive city like Jakarta.
People talk about the proverbial ‘vacation from their vacation’ a lot, and I’d say we took one of those in earnest during the month of January in Penang, Malaysia. For three and a half weeks, we comfortably nested in a 17th floor apartment overlooking the Georgetown seaside and skyline. After 11 months of pretty solid travel we were ready for a bit of a hiatus to rest our bones and recharge our batteries. A number of factors brought us to Penang at that time, with the most influential one being that some good friends of ours, Tom and Keiko had offered their gorgeous apartment to us, and in return we agreed to pay the basic maintenance fees for the time we spent there. In short, it was the deal of the century, and went a long way toward preserving our budget for future travels. Our friends are currently living in Japan, so this huge apartment was basically empty except for another Japanese woman also staying there.
Siem Reap is a town that owes it’s existence as a thriving tourist center to Angkor Wat and the many other ancient temple complexes in the region. In fact, those temples are without a doubt the single biggest reason why Cambodia is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Asia these days. When Haruka visited in 1998, it was Angkor Wat that drew her in, and again this time around, it was these dynamically iconic temples that were luring her back. Having never been there, I was onboard all the way, but she was a bit reluctant knowing how massive a tourist trap it has become in recent years. There were over 5 million international visitors in 2016, compared with 286,000 in 1998, so needless to say, it was going to be a completely different experience. As most of you who read this blog know, we go out of our way to get out of the way of the tourist hordes wherever we go, so we agreed that we needed a calculated plan to dodge the masses around Siem Reap.
For starters, we chose a small hotel off the beaten path, but still walking distance to pub street, with all of it’s restaurants, pubs and throngs of tourists. Golden Takeo Guesthouse was a gem of an accommodation experience from start to finish. Our host, Prom arranged to have a tuk tuk driver pick us up at the bus station for free. He was such a smiley, happy guy with good knowledge of the area, decent English and excellent driving skills, that we hired him to be our driver for the week. We let him know straight away that we wanted to see as many temples as possible with the least amount of crowd interactions as possible. This was key, as having a driver who understands this and is willing to go the extra mile to make this happen is far from a slam dunk in Siem Reap. Many drivers don’t have a lot of local knowledge, and are just on auto-pilot, driving their customers to the sites in the same patterns as everyone else. The fact that there are these patterns that most of the tourists are caught up in, makes it entirely possible to plan routes that are contrary to the patterns and allow us to avoid the huge crowds while still seeing all of the major sites. Our driver, Nim understood these patterns much better than us, so he was instrumental in planning out where to go and when, and I’d say he nailed it.
Back in the summer of ’98, Haruka and I went to Thailand for a few weeks. At the end of that little adventure I needed to return to my job in Japan, but she was in between jobs and had some free time, so she decided to tack on a trip to Cambodia. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a tad envious of her being able to visit that country at a time when it had just recently opened its doors to foreign travelers. The government, desperate to revitalize the economy after decades of war and one of the most senseless genocides in human history, had deemed the country “safe” for tourism, but those were still tumultuous times in Cambodia. Click here for a synopsis on Cambodian history.
While the cavernous underground world of Phong Na was truly wondrous, the above-ground reality was positively bone chilling. With temperatures in the mid teens (celsius) each day, marked by constant drizzle occasionally interrupted by periods of downpouring rain, we aborted mission and left a day earlier than planned. Depending on who we talked to, most Vietnamese either told us that November was the end of the rainy season or the beginning of the dry season. I myself am a glass-half-full guy, but regardless of that, the glass was undeniably still tilted at such an angle that it was soaking the entire country with the liquid of life. I’m actually a big fan of moderate rain, but relentless cold, driving rain can take it’s toll on even the most optimistic souls, so we headed south for the lower elevations of Hue.
After taking a Wizz all the way from Agadir, Morocco to Budapest, Hungary, where we caught some half-baked zzzzs on the cold, hard floor of the airport, we hopped a plush flight on Qatar Airlines to Doha, Qatar. After a brief stopover on our third continent within a day, we were airborn again for Yangon, Myanmar. Here we had a 14 hour stopover which gave us a chance to sleep for several hours in a backpacker’s hostel, have lunch with an old friend who’s actually quite young, as well as visit the colorful temple complex of Shewdagon. Our brief encounter with this intriguing Buddhist nation left us yearning to return again soon, but for the time being, our journey east was continuing on to Vietnam. After four flights over a 43 hour stretch, we waited two more hours for our visas to be processed in the Hanoi airport and settled into our hotel just after midnight. A grueling travel schedule to be certain, but that’s the price we pay for paying just $470 each to get from Morocco to Vietnam. These days there is a plethora of airfare search engines that piece together flights to get you the best possible deal, and often those best deals require multiple stops for some reason unknown to me. Kiwi.com is my go-to search engine as it’s very easy to use, always finds the best fares and it has never blundered our tickets.
Note: The month-long hiatus of this blog did not signal an end to our travels, but rather a continuation of our journey to Vietnam, where the government takes the liberty of limiting our liberties on the internet. Specifically, wordpress is a website that is blocked by the government, at least in northern Vietnam. Curiously, I’m able to access my blog again now that we’re in the southern city of Saigon, but more on our Vietnam adventures later. For now, here’s my recap on our travels in Morocco…
Our last few days in Morocco were spent in the Vallee Du Paradis, north of Agadir. In many ways this stay was a reflection of our entire two months in Morocco. In my first entry upon arriving in Morocco I wrote about how welcoming the Moroccans were. That welcoming theme continued all the way through our time there up until our final days at the Hotel Tifrit. Our host Rachid represented the epitome of Moroccan hospitality, with his deep heartfelt words and his propensity for using that ever so common Moroccan gesture of holding one’s fist to their heart when speaking to you. Of course it would be unrealistic to claim that we never ran into rude, unwelcoming Moroccans. There were times in the big cities when taxi drivers would try to scam us or false guides would try to mislead us. There were teenagers that threw rocks at us once for sport and even a small child who yelled “F**k you!” when I said hello to him. But these were the exceptions in a country full of smiling faces.
Before we embarked on our journey to Morocco, I have to admit I didn’t know a whole lot about what we’d be getting into, as Haruka does most of the research for our travels and I sort of relish in the sensation of being genuinely surprised by what we encounter. It’s an arrangement that works out sweetly for both of us. And it’s not just in travel that I prefer to be surprised, but in most things in life. When we’re itching to watch a movie, but don’t know what to watch, Haruka will pour through reviews and movie trailers, whereas I want to know nothing about the flick except for maybe who’s in it and if people generally seem to like it. It’s not that I don’t see the value in informing myself before doing or buying something, as certainly I will do some research when it come to major purchases, like the new phone I’m about to buy. However, in the realm of our travels, there’s something very magical about entering a new location with few expectations and little knowledge of the details that tends to open me up for mind-blowing experiences. Of course I’m a huge beneficiary of the fact that Haruka genuinely delights in researching to make sure we don’t get ourselves into anything stupid or boring, without divulging too many details that she knows I’d rather not know. So thank you Haruka, for being my well-informed safety net!