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Singapore Reunion – February 2013

Singapore

The city of SIN. Well at least according to the airport code. Two of my friends from college, Michael and Cassandra, took a sabbatical to travel the world. I had been talking to them about meeting up and they said they would be in Singapore in early February so we planned to meet then. Additionally, one of our other friends from college, JJ, lives in Singapore so we all decided to get together.

Dale and I flew in to Singapore in the mid afternoon and checked into our hotel. We were staying pretty close to where Michael and Cassandra would be. They had spent the prior two months traveling around New Zealand and would be flying in that night. We had planned to meet them at their hostel as we would be the first to arrive, and they didn’t have a phone with them so it made sense to have a fixed meeting location. Dale and I walked over to their hostel and checked to see if they had arrived yet. They had not. We decided to wait outside so I could spot them coming in and Dale could look around at the little trinket shops for gifts to bring home. Naturally it started raining (it is Singapore after all). After a bit I saw these two people in long pants and rain jackets walking down the street and said to Dale “There they are”. He said “How do you know?” My response was “They are the only people who look like they just came from New Zealand.” Sure enough, it was them.

The rain stopped not long after that and we all went out to the marina area to meet JJ for dinner. He took us to this great seafood restaurant so Michael and Cassandra could try their first chili crab. It was delicious.

From left to right: Dale, myself, JJ, Michael, and Cassandra

From left to right: Dale, myself, JJ, Michael, and Cassandra

After dinner we all went for a stroll along the marina. We went across a bridge with lights twisting like a helix, went to the top of the Marina Bay Sands, and eventually walked all the way back to our hotels. A very nice evening.

Just amazing at night

Just amazing at night

We were there during the middle of the week so unfortunately JJ had to work. Dale, Cassandra, Michael and I all went out to see the famous sites of Singapore. One of the first places we went was the Din Tai Fung dumpling restaurant. I may have mentioned these restaurants before and with good cause. They are delicious and a great way to start the day. Michael and Cassandra both agreed (Dale had been to the one in Malaysia before). Now they just need to open one in the SF Bay Area.

We wandered around the Clarke Quey and Boat Quey area checking out a few places including the Royal Selangor Pewter store (more on that later). It was a nice walk and there are lots of bars which weren’t open at 11 AM. They also had some odd advertisements.

I'm still not sure what this is advertising

I’m still not sure what this is advertising

I would have been remiss in my duties if I didn’t take everyone to the world-famous Raffles Hotel Long Bar, birthplace of the Singapore Sling, so we made a “short” stop there that afternoon.

Happy day! Singapore Sling time!

Happy day! Singapore Sling time!

Now Singapore Slings are delicious especially at the Long Bar as they have the recipe just right (they better for the price they charge you) and you can eat peanuts and throw the shells at your friends.

Slinging time!

Slinging time!

We spent several hours enjoying good conversation, Singapore Slings, and throwing peanut shells at each other. I think it’s best showcased in picture form.

Nirvana

Nirvana

Chris must be up to no good

Chris must be up to no good

Yes, no good indeed.

Yes, no good indeed.

Don't try to steal my Singapore Sling

Don’t try to steal my Singapore Sling

After the Singapore Slings we went our separate ways for the night. Michael and Cassandra went to the Singapore Zoo to go on its famous Night Safari and Dale and I went to the airport to pick up my cousin Marissa who was also staying in Kuala Lumpur and decided to come to Singapore for a quick visit. We picked her up and took her around some of the Boat Quey areas to take in some of the Singapore night life but we were all reasonably tired and had a busy day ahead of us going back to school, The School of Hard Knocks.

Remember how I mentioned we went to the Royal Selangor Pewter store? Well we went back there the next day. They have a class you can take called the School of Hard Knocks where you make your own pewter bowl using the delicate tool known as a hammer. It was a blast (and rather loud). If you’re ever in Singapore I would highly suggest checking it out.

After a triumphant bout of beating metal with a hammer!

After a triumphant bout of beating metal with a hammer!

After we finished out bowls we went off back to the Marina district. Our first stop was the famous Merlion fountain. As we got there we came across a much smaller version of the fountain. We had a brief conversation along the lines of this:

Dale: “Well there’s the Merlion” (Please note that he had seen the Merlion before and knew that was not it)

Marissa: “Really? That seems so small.”

Me: “Ignore him. He’s a weaver of lies.”

After the Merlion we went back to the Marina Bay Sands area to check out the Gardens by the Bay. This is a recent fixture to Singapore and is a large garden with a greenhouse and huge artificial trees. These trees take in light during the day and use that energy to power their lights at night. It’s a striking place to both during the day and at night. I’ve been there a couple of times and it always reminds me of Jurassic Park. Probably doesn’t help that they have these huge metallic statues of insects scattered throughout the park.

The artificial trees. These ones won’t drop crap on your car.

The artificial trees. These ones won’t drop crap on your car.

It was a hot day and walking around in the sun in the park made us all thirsty. Luckily there was an easy solution for this. That’s right, back to the Long Bar for Singapore Slings!

Me in the future

Me in the future

We spent the rest of the afternoon enjoying the various types of Singapore Slings they have and writing post cards home. There also may have been some peanut shell throwing. Eventually we had to go our separate ways as we were going back to Kuala Lumpur the next morning and Michael and Cassandra were continuing on with the rest of their globetrotting. Our stay in Kuala Lumpur would be short-lived though as we would soon afterwards be boarding a plane for Australia.

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Borneo – February 2013

February Exploring and Reunions

I spent the month of February traveling and scuba diving (which happened while traveling). There were a few more things I wanted to accomplish before leaving the Eastern Hemisphere to return to the US. Luckily I didn’t have to travel solo, my friend Dale flew out to do some globetrotting as well. Our first destination was Borneo for some scuba diving around Semporna.

Borneo

Now Borneo is one of the largest islands in the world and actually has three countries on it. Part of it is Malaysia, part of it is Indonesia, and part of it is Brunei. We went to one of the Malaysia parts known as the state of Sabah. Before we left, my uncle described Sabah as being more like the older Malaysia than like the modern Kuala Lumpur. He was right. We flew into his port town that was nothing like Kuala Lumpur. It quickly became apparent that this was a town you went to in order to take the boats out scuba diving and nothing else. At one point I saw a huge lizard head in one of the sewers and thought it was a snake then figured it was probably a monitor lizard. Probably.

When we got there we went to the dive shop to check in and get our gear fitted for the next day’s dive. The workers there were actually mostly expats who just traveled around to different dive towns and work in the dive companies for a few months at a time then move on to the next dive town once they were done. Seems like a simpler life. Anyways, they got us outfitted with gear and told us to be back early the next morning. We asked them about good places to get food and they had a few recommendations. One was a guy in front of a bar who would grill up a huge seafood sampler for you, another was a Chinese place that had cheap beer, and the last was a store that served “chicken cold and blue” (chicken cordon bleu). I didn’t really trust a place that served chicken cold and blue so we opted for the Chinese place. Plus it had cheap beer.

Our first day of diving we went to a place colloquially known as “Sunburn Island”. With a name like that how could it not be a winner? Actually it was really picturesque. As in exactly what you would expect a tropical island to scuba dive on would look like.

Told you so

The diving was very nice. We were able to park the boat in about four feet of water, put all our gear on in the water, and then just swim out a little bit to the dive spots. The views were great. Lots of fish and great visibility. We had several dives throughout the day with breaks for lunch on the boat and snoozes on the beach. When you’re on an island like this there aren’t exactly any bathrooms so during breaks between dives you would periodically see someone jump in the water, swim or stand still for a minute, then jump back into the boat. I’ll let you connect the dots.

Eventually we had to leave, but that’s ok because we had another day of diving to look forward to. It was a great day of diving, however when I returned I had a slight sunburn…

For our second day of diving we went to some islands off the southern end of the port. It took about an hour to get there and these islands actually had resorts on them. Our first dive site was actually just off the side of a bunch of bungalows on the water. We were told on no uncertain terms that we weren’t allowed to step foot on the boardwalk of these bungalows. I guess we didn’t pay enough to be allowed on the boardwalk. I later looked up the prices for one night at these bungalows and wow, are they expensive. I guess us common folk would ruin them with our presence.

Anyways, after our first dive we went to one of the resorts owned by the dive company to get coffee and get our air tanks refilled. They have a dock about 300 feet out on the water with a walkway back to the beach and resort. As you go down the walkway you realize that it cuts the beach in two. On the right hand side were vacationers sunbathing and enjoying drinks on the beach. On the left hand side were impoverished shacks where local residents lived. It was a depressing dichotomy.

We spent the rest of the day diving off spots around the island. There were a bunch of turtles and even some cuttlefish which look a bit like squid. They also have other squid characteristics as one of the people in our group found out when he got too close to one and it sprayed ink everywhere. Yay! Free ink!

Unfortunately we didn’t have an underwater camera for this portion of the trip so no awesome dive photos. But don’t fret, there will be some in the not too distant future.

That night we decided to try out the seafood combo plate for dinner. It was made by this very nice old Malaysian guy and was right in front of a bar so naturally we went to get beverages in the bar as well. After a few beverages, the guy came in with our dinners. It was a smorgasbord of different seafood. I’m normally not much of a seafood person but after a day of diving and several waters with hops in them the whole dish looked delicious.

I don’t really know what most of it was…

When you go scuba diving your body builds up nitrogen in it and it takes time to get it all out. Depending on the number of dives you do this usually takes from 12 to 24 hours. During this time you are not allowed to fly as the pressure difference at high altitude has a bad combination with the nitrogen in your body and causes you to get massive pain and die. With this in mind I decided not to have us fly out the next day and potentially die. Instead I planned our decompression day for the most holy day of the year, Super Bowl Monday!

Wait, Monday? Well in Malaysia the Super Bowl kicked off Monday morning. Fortunately we were able to find a travel hostel with a TV and Astro Sports (Astro is a cable provider in Asia) that was airing the Super Bowl.

Glorious Victory in finding a TV. Tragic Defeat on the game’s outcome.

Unfortunately the 49’ers decided not to show up to the first half of the game and eventually lost. Still, they almost managed to win which was good. Also, the Chinese place with cheap beer was open early so we went their afterwards for consolation beers. There seems to be a trend here regarding beer.

That about wraps up our time in Borneo. The next stop was to Singapore to meet some of my old college friends.

Adventuring in Sydney (Part 1) and an unexpectedly long visit to the Hong Kong airport

In November I got the opportunity to go to Sydney for a week for a business training. It was a great trip. The business training was really valuable, and I got into Sydney the weekend before so I got to explore the city.

The first thing I went to was the Opera House where they have quite a lot of shows going on actually. I asked about going on a tour and the tour people said the best time would be early Sunday morning as there wouldn’t be any shows so the tour would actually go inside the auditoriums. As it was Saturday, I planned to go Sunday morning. Instead I ended up sleeping until 11 because of jet lag and time zone differences. But it’s ok, I got to go back in February.

Well I heard it was a good tour…

Well I heard it was a good tour…

I also went around the area known as The Rocks which on the weekends has a sort of farmers market going on. I think this is my favorite area of Sydney. Lots of small pubs and stores that are great for Christmas shopping combined with great street stalls on the weekend. Oh and it is right on the harbor basically so the views are fantastic. I also got to take part in street theater unexpectedly when I was pulled into a performance and had to pull someone through a tennis racket. Somehow he actually managed to do it.

Techno Didgeridoo

Techno Didgeridoo

The training went from Monday through Thursday and was very useful. On Friday I flew back to KL and had about 12 hours before leaving to go back to the US for my friends’ wedding. My grandma had also been visiting KL for a month and flew back to the US with me. We had an “interesting” voyage.

Our plane in KL was delayed a bit because of weather so we arrived in Hong Kong for our connection a bit later than planned. There was a sign for people going to San Francisco who were on our flight. Guess what that meant… Yup, they wouldn’t let us onto the flight to San Francisco. Our original layover was supposed to be an hour, but because of the delay we only had about 40 minutes. This would be more than enough time to change planes, but not for our luggage to get on the plane. Apparently Hong Kong law states that you have to travel with your baggage. So because our checked bags couldn’t be screened and loaded onto the other plane in time, we got bumped off our flight to San Francisco (as well as everyone else going to San Francisco). But no worries because they booked us onto their next flight. The only problem was their next flight was 12 hours later…

We made the best of a crummy situation. They gave us each a hotel room and we went out for a long dinner at a piano bar and grill where we had steaks and my grandma got to chat with the singer between songs. We ran into some other people who had been booted off the San Francisco flight as well and talked to them a bit. Eventually it came time to go. As compensation for getting bumped off the flight, we were trying to get me upgraded to business class so I could sit next to my grandma. We had talked to about seven different people to no avail. It seems that nobody was empowered to make a decision. They have these complaint forms so we filled them out for the airline and then decided to fill them out for the airlines lounge as they weren’t helpful. All of a sudden it was as if the light had gone on, once they staff at the lounge saw they might get in trouble they “found a way” to get me upgraded to business class and next to my grandma. It just made me think about how stupid a lot of the airline rules are. There is a lesson in there somewhere.

At the end of the day we made it back safely and only 12 hours delayed. Also learned a lot about the airlines policies. Could have been worse. After all I got to spend some extra time with my grandma and had a great steak dinner.

Shanghai’d!

In the middle of September we had a long weekend so I did what I normally do in that case, leave the country! For this trip I decided to go to Shanghai and as fortune would have it, my stepmom was visiting China at the time so we met up for the weekend. I’ll get to that in a minute, but first comes the fun process of getting a Chinese Visa.

They’ve got quite a skyline

They’ve got quite a skyline

Now as a US citizen you are able to get into most countries in the world just by showing up and getting a stamp at the airport. However there are some you still need to get a Visa for and China is one of those. To begin the Visa process I went to their website to fill out the forms. They were long, but not unexpected. I had a few questions though such as how much it would cost and what I would need to attach to the forms when I turned them in. As is natural, I went to the FAQs section to find these things out. The FAQs had nothing about the cost nor the required supporting attachments but it did have information such as “I want to shoot a commercial in China, what kind of Visa do I need?” and “I have a small acrobatic troupe that will be performing in China, what kind of Visa do I need?” I didn’t realize that most people visiting China were shooting commercials or in a small acrobatic troupe. I also wondered if you’d need a different Visa if you were in a medium or large sized acrobatic troupe. No worries though, I was able to eventually get my Visa (without joining an acrobatic troupe).

When I got to the Shanghai airport, my stepmom met me there as well as some of her relatives who were nice enough to drive us into the city. While we were in Shanghai, two other cousins of hers were nice enough to show us around everywhere. It was great having them there to bring us around (although I have yet to see the Chinatown part of Shanghai).

Our first stop was a famous rock garden with a famous zig-zagging bridge in front of it. Centuries ago, some of the better off people in China would construct large rock gardens around their homes as a place of business, entertaining guests, and even just quiet contemplation. Some of these have survived to today and are amazing to see. You feel like you’re stepping back in time being in a tranquil garden within this huge metropolitan city. To top it all off, we even got dumplings afterwards!

I'm smiling because that building has dumplings in it

I’m smiling because that building has dumplings in it

We also spent part of a day going out to a water town which is a village with canals running through it (think Venice without gondola singers). The town was very calm and peaceful even though it was a huge tourist destination. We took a ride on one of the boats to tour the canals. The drivers use one paddle and paddle through the water streets.

Didn't see any jet skis though

Didn’t see any jet skis though

We went through the whole town and eventually came to a boat with some large birds on it. Our guide asked if we wanted to see the fishing birds in action so we said “of course”. Out comes this guy from on land with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth. He jumped onto the boat with the birds on it and started kicking the floorboards (I think this released some small fish). The birds then jumped in the water and dove underneath. About 20-30 seconds later they’d pop up with a fish in their beaks then swallow it. It was kind of cool to see. My stepmom and I both then wondered “they can’t do this all day otherwise they’d be full” and then we noticed the string. Each bird had a string around its throat tying it to the boat as well as making it so the bird couldn’t fully swallow the fish. As we started paddling on, our friend with the cigarette started making the birds gag to cough up the fish. Sort of took the fun out of the show.

Later that day we visited another neat rock garden with ponds full of lotus blossoms. Afterwards it was about 4 o’clock and it was a several hour drive back to Shanghai. We decided to stop for an early dinner. We ended up picking a “traditional” Chinese restaurant. Thankfully I wasn’t that hungry. I ordered a beef and peppers dish which was just enough for me while everyone else ordered things such as eel soup, a fish egg dish, and a chicken soup that I thought had mushrooms in it but was really the congealed chicken blood. Appetizing!

Her name was Sally

Her name was Sally

Earlier my stepmom and I had been talking about what to do for breakfast. I told her that I really wanted to get some Shanghai style dumplings (which are different from other dumplings) as there is a place in Sunnyvale that makes killer good Shanghai style dumplings. You should have seen how happy my stepmom got. She knew exactly which place in Sunnyvale I was talking about, loves it also, and thought nobody else in the family liked it. So we went for Shanghai style dumplings one morning and they were killer good.

Half the reason to go to Shanghai

Half the reason to go to Shanghai

On our last night in Shanghai, we decided to go to the top of the Shanghai World Finance Center to check out the view and the bar. This building looks like a giant bottle opener and stands taller than anything else in the Shanghai skyline. We went to the bar and lounge on the 91st or so floor and took in a spectacular view of Shanghai. They also had delicious drinks and desserts. A fitting end to a great trip to Shanghai.

The next day I headed to the airport and got to take the high speed mag-lev train. This thing is fast. At one point it was going 300 km/h. It’s the fastest train in the world and took what was an hour plus car ride down to like ten minutes. Not too shabby. I really enjoyed my trip to Shanghai and just want to say thanks to my stepmom and her family for helping this white guy around the city.

September Exploring In KL

It has been a while since I posted an update on my travels. A combination of business, new expeditions, and general life shenanigans are to blame. In my last post I said I was going to Shanghai (which I did), but before Shanghai, there was a little exploring around Kuala Lumpur…

Royal Palace

In early September my aunt Anni and I decided we wanted to do some more exploring of places in and around KL. One of the first places we visited was the Royal Palace. Well technically it’s the “old” Royal Palace as they built a new one not that long ago. I’m not sure why they wanted to build a new palace, but I heard the old one was supposedly haunted. Maybe that had something to do with it.

Appearing next time on MTV Cribs…

Appearing next time on MTV Cribs…

The old palace has been changed into a museum about the different Kings of Malaysia mostly focusing on the current one. The way it works in Malaysia, the kingship transfers between the sultans of each of the 13 states every four years meaning there is a new King every four years. As a fun fact, the current King is the first to be King twice as after his first rule it rotated through all the states and back to his state. There were ceremonial outfits and tools in the palace which were neat, but the one thing that stood out to me was a piece about the current King and Queen’s love for animals. One area had an article talking about the work they’ve done to help save animals, and underneath it was an example of an animal.

What the hell?

What the hell?

That might be one of the ugliest animals I’ve ever seen. I wasn’t sure why that one was chosen as it seemed like a rather odd and repulsive choice. It turns out that there’s actually a famous Malaysian folk tale about the Mouse Deer. I still would have chosen a different story and animal personally. On a lighter note, we were with my second uncle and his family. His youngest son found some kittens to play with so here’s a picture of him playing with the kittens to make up for that picture of the Mouse Deer.

Kittens are more photogenic than Mouse Deer

Kittens are more photogenic than Mouse Deer

Butterfly Preserve

After the Royal Palace, we all ventured over to a Butterfly Preserve. Basically this is an outdoor park with nets all around to prevent the butterflies from escaping. There were thousands of butterflies in this park with nice walking paths and koi fish ponds. One butterfly flew onto my pants and wouldn’t get off until I had to shoo it with a stick. It was a very relaxing place (well until we tried to leave).

A beautiful day in the neighborhood

A beautiful day in the neighborhood

As we left, the exit takes you through a reptile and insect museum complete with live snakes, scorpions, spiders, beetles, etc. Basically everything that is the exact opposite of the nice relaxing butterfly preserve you just came from. I don’t know why someone decided to put all the live insects and reptiles in the same experience as the butterflies and koi fish. Perhaps they thought “Oh, we’ve got some extra space so let’s just put more living things in. It’ll make the experience more diverse!” Whatever the reason, it was an… unexpected and unwelcomed addition to our day. Just to make things more fun, the gift shop on the way out was geared for the insects and reptiles as well. I even found this for sale

No I didn't buy it

No I didn’t buy it

Islamic Art Museum

Of all the places that we visited around KL my favorite one was the Islamic Art Museum. This is one of the most architecturally magnificently designed buildings I have ever been in. The whole building is a piece of art with great tiling, layout, and incredibly ornate domes surprising you when you look up. Anni and I both agreed that this would be a great place to hold a reception and then realized they wouldn’t let you serve alcohol in the building so it’d be a dry reception. Oh well, can’t win them all.

If I build a house I want one of these in there

If I build a house I want one of these in there

The museum exhibits were a wide variety of clothing, furniture, and even weapons imbued with artistic designs from the Islamic cultures around the world. It’s interesting how you don’t realize how artistic something like an outfit or rifle can be until you look closer at them. Please don’t take this as an invitation to ask police officers to see their guns for “artistic design purposes”. As we walked through the museum, we came across one of the most interesting things I’ve ever seen in a museum. They had scale models of famous Mosques from around the world. The size of some of these have to be immense in person. It sort of makes me sad that I’ll never be allowed to visit these in person because of their rules and locations. But then I remember that a lot of them are in 120 degree heat and I’m ok with not visiting them.

Well that wraps up our traipses around KL. Next stop, Shanghai (for real this time)!

End of summer update (well it’s always summer here)

Selamat Pagi!

I know it’s been a while since we last spoke and as usual a lot has been going on. This is going to be a long update so I’ve decided to break it up into sections. That way you can read it piecemeal if you don’t have the four hours of uninterrupted time to go through it all.

For the sake of simplicity I’ll go in chronological order. When we last left off, I had recently returned from Krakatoa and managed to not get engulfed in a volcanic eruption. I am happy to report that I am still very much not engulfed in flames. About two weeks after Krakatoa I went with my aunt Anni and her friends the Di Silvestros to a resort town on the east coast of Malaysia called Tanjong Jara. It is here that our story begins…

Tanjong Jara

We’ll start with the planning phase. Anni’s friends Roseanne and Brain and their two kids Sara and Jason decided to come to Malaysia for a two week visit. Anni wanted to take them to one of the nice resort towns for a weekend and asked if I’d like to go too. The resort she had in mind is named Tanjong Jara and is owned by YTL, the huge Malaysian conglomerate that I consult for. We were looking at the website for the YTL resorts to get a feel for the various locations they have. Their website is very nice, very classy and plays this calm soothing music that every couple of minutes has somebody sing “Y   T   LLLLLL”. At first we didn’t notice it but after the second or third time through the song we both kind of stopped and looked at each other and went “Did they just sing the company name?” For those of you interested, here is the link to their website.

http://www.ytlhotels.com/

Anyways, the Di Silverstro’s came into town. This was the first time I had met them and they are very nice and fun people to be around. We had a great dinner at one of the best Indian restaurants in KL before leaving to go to Tanjong Jara in the morning. It was a four hour drive to get there but well worth it.When we arrived we were greeted by this creepy guy with a gong.

Image

After arriving and checking into our rooms we met up on one of the lawns for a “traditional Malaysian culture event”. I’m not really sure what it was supposed to be, it was more like a small potluck with some people doing the equivalent of jump rope but instead of a rope they were using large bamboo like branches. What really stood out though was that they had a trained monkey who would climb up the coconut trees and knock ripe coconuts off that would then be cut open and made into coconut milk drinks for anyone that wanted one. Yet another reason why everyone should have a monkey.

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On our next day in TJ (Tanjong Jara, not Tijuana) we went jungle trekking. For this part of the story there is a special guest columnist, Anni herself, to talk about the ensuing adventure.

Beaches and Leeches and Scares, Oh My! 

TJ (http://www.tanjongjararesort.com) is a beautiful haven situated on the eastern edge of Malaysia, along the mighty and green South China Sea. Imagine a South-East-Asian-architected compound with lots of light, few walls, cross ventilation, lush grounds, and the ubiquitous sound of the sea.  Dotted along the broad expanse of beach are little pavilions and umbrellas that help reinforce relaxation and provide shelter from the sun.  Pools.  Spas. Open air restaurants. Really lovely accommodation.  And drinks.  Lovely drinks. The kind with ginger, and lime, and something “medicinal”, and clinking ice. You know, grown-up drinks.

One day, from these flat environs, we headed inland and upward to Taman Negara (the National Forest, or literally, “Garden National”) and Chemerong, the tallest waterfall in Malaysia.  It’s an ambitious four-kilometer trek to the top; we only went half way.  After scampering over huge trees and trails, we settled at a beautiful outcropping with the main body of the Falls above, cooling pools ahead, and, off to our right, a chute to carry a mass of  H20 toward that South China Sea.

I now know that heaven is ditching soggy socks for a good foot soak in refreshing water after what feels like a purely vertical climb.  We are at the Equator remember, so sweat and humidity combine to make you soggier than you’d ever believe possible.

After providing lunch, our guide also escorted my friends’ kids, Sara and Jason, a bit upstream to try a soak in the natural Jacuzzi where the tumbling water hits a flat pan of rock. Both kids came back with big smiles.  And leeches.  These were tiny little crittters — and easily dealt with upon discovery.  (We just had to track where the blood was coming from!) 

We also had a slight scare when Sara somehow slipped toward the chute and the many-meters fall to a lower elevation.  This was rather…um…how shall I word this?…terrifying!  But she stayed calm and relaxed, and she worked with us to help her get fished out before she, too, cascaded downward toward that South China Sea.

Eventually the “rain” part of the “rainforest” came in, and for more than a hour we tramped downward through slick mud and jungle fauna, retracing the track of fallen trees and ambiguously disappearing trails.  And guess what?  The sweat and humidity from the first half of our day was nothing compared to the pelting, relentless, monsoon-ular shower we experienced on the way down. [Interestingly enough, we met with a number of Muslim Malaysian college students making their way upward.  For a Westerner such as I, the image of many hijab-ed (head covered) young women walking in the forest during a rainstorm with hiking boots and walking sticks was rather unexpected.  But wonderfully so.]

Upon our return to TJ, cooling—and “medicinal”—aperitifs were consumed. All in all, an active, beautiful, and memory-filled—albeit soggy–day of fun.

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Our last day we split up into two groups. Anni and Roseanne decided to stay in the resort and go get spa treatments while the rest of us went out snorkeling/scuba diving. To do this we needed to take a boat out to some of the islands off the coast of Malaysia. When we got to the dock I saw this nice looking yacht and said “Awesome we get to take the yacht!” The dive master laughed and said “Yeah right. We’re taking the dive boat next to the yacht.” Oh well, can’t fault a guy for trying. We all piled into the dive boat and headed out to the islands.

Now as we were leaving the bay the boat crew was constantly trying to start one of the two engines. They were having trouble with it the day before and thought that they had fixed it. Apparently not. After about ten minutes of going at half power, they got fed up and decided to head back to the pier to change to the other dive boat that had both engines working. We all hopped out of the boat and waited for them to get the other dive boat ready. After about ten minutes of them talking and making numerous phone calls, the dive master came up to us and said “Well the other dive boat is dry docked and we can’t reach the guy who owns it to get it into the water (I think he was still asleep or hungover from the night before). So guess what. We’re taking the yacht after all.” So we got to take the yacht instead of a dive boat. That’s a pleasant upgrade. Oh and the yacht was also owned by YTL.

While the Di Silvestro’s and a few other people on the boat went snorkeling, I went scuba diving along with two other people. The first dive was nice but nothing too eventful other than seeing a huge four or five foot long humphead parrotfish (which was really ugly). The second dive introduced me to a new kind of diving known as “drift diving”. This is also known as “current diving” where you follow a strong current and just let it take you. This was not a soft and gentle current. If you swam against it with fins the best you could hope for would be to stay still. It was powerful enough that you couldn’t go forward in the opposite direction. You just had to let it take you and enjoy the ride which is actually pretty neat once you realize you probably won’t be pushed headfirst into a wall.

We followed the current along a long coral reef as well as ducking in and out of other reef structures, sometimes being in a current-less environment and sometimes the current would seem to appear out of nowhere. Drifting is kind of like looking out the window of a plane at the ground below. There are a lot of neat things to see but you’re going forward and really don’t have any control over it (well unless you’re the pilot). It ended up being a really fun dive but definitely took a little while to get used to.

After returning to the hotel, we meet up with Anni and Roseanne and began the long journey back to Kuala Lumpur. The van we were in had a DVD player and it was decided that we would watch The Sound of Music. It’s been over a month and a half since then and I still have the songs stuck in my head.

Ramadan

As some of you may know, this past month has been the month of Ramadan in Muslim culture. During Ramadan, Muslims are not allowed to eat or drink anything between sunrise and sunset. And yes, this includes water. It’s been interesting being in a Muslim country during Ramadan as you have to be conscious of simple things such as asking people if they want anything to drink during a meeting or how you handle lunch. It’s generally considered rude to eat or drink in front of people who are fasting for Ramadan.

There are a couple of interesting side effects of the fasting period. Every evening at 7:30 it is considered “sundown” so everyone is allowed to eat again. If you go into restaurants before 7:30 they’d often ask you if you wanted your food delivered at 7:30. This way you can go in, order and have it ready to eat exactly at sunset. Generally everyone tries to have food in front of them at 7:30 exactly. This leads to another interesting side effect, insane traffic between the hours of 5 and 7 as everyone tries to get home, cook, and be ready to eat at 7:30 on the dot. It also means that around 7:15 or so until 8:30, there is almost no traffic on the road as most people are already in-doors for dinner.

You learn to plan around this traffic otherwise you get stuck in awful jams. At the beginning of Ramadan I made the mistake of taking a cab at 6 PM to go home. The traffic was so bad that at one point the cab driver reclined his chair to take a nap. After that I planned to walk or take the train whenever traveling between 6 and 7.

Ramadan ended this past weekend and to celebrate there is a holiday known as Hari Raya. This gave us a four day weekend. Naturally I used it to flee the country which brings me to my most recent adventure…

Phuket

I’ve spent four days last week on the island of Phuket in Thailand. Some of you may know this island as a hotbed for tourists. There are lots of great beaches, places to see, and lots and lots and lots of people trying to sell you suits, tuk tuk cab rides, and massages.

One of the first things I did when arriving in Phuket was look for something that I cannot get in Malaysia. Real pepperoni pizza. Since Malaysia is a Muslim country, almost all of the food is Halal meaning there is no pork. I’m not a big pork person but you start missing it when you realize that it is one of the vital ingredients on pizza. While out in Thailand I made sure to enjoy the foods I couldn’t easily get in Malaysia such as pepperoni pizza, pork ribs, and of course real bacon. I do find it interesting that I spent a Muslim holiday celebrating by eating food that is not allowed in Islam. Life’s funny that way.

Of course that’s not all I did in Phuket. I did a scuba diving trip on Sunday and an island hopping canoeing trip on Monday. We’ll start with the scuba trip.

We went diving off an island known as Racha Yai off the southern coast of Phuket. During the first dive, the dive master showed me around a few of these interesting concrete square frames, saw some interesting fish but overall it didn’t seem that interesting. Then he pulled out a couple of bananas he had brought with him. He took a handful of banana, squashed it up, then released it into the water. Fish came out of nowhere to swarm all over and eat the banana pieces. He passed me one as well and I did the same as you can see in the video if I figure out how to upload it…

For the second dive we went to a shipwreck. I had never been to a shipwreck so it was neat going around and inside of it. Often times they will sink old ships to let coral form on them creating habitats for sea life to grow in. The dive master didn’t say whether this was an intentionally sunk ship or not so I am just going to assume it was Johnny Depp led pirates that sank the ship. I think that’s probably a safe assumption.

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On Monday I went to tour the Phang Nga Bay off the Northeast side of Phuket. We would stop at an island, get off and take ocean canoes to tour with.

At the first island we went inside a cave known as “Bat Cave”. You can probably figure out why it is named that, and no it does not have anything to do with Batman. There were about five or six other boats at the cave then so a ton of people were on canoes going in and out of the cave. It was like being on the pirates of the Caribbean ride in Disneyland but without as much singing. My canoe guide kept playing bumper canoes with the other guides he knew which was pretty funny.

The next island we stopped at is known as James Bond Island because they filmed part of The Man with the Golden Gun there. This island is famous for one of the rock outcroppings in the water as you can see in the picture below. I was actually disappointed in this island. It had great views but was really crowded, covered in stalls of people trying to sell stuff (sadly none of which was James Bond related), and there were really loud boats constantly taxiing people in from the tour ships. Oh well, I can at least say I’ve been there.

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In the other islands we would travel around lagoons or sometimes into other caves. Some of the caves were so small at the entrance that you actually had to lay down in the canoe in order to get through. All of the caves are pitch black so you can only see by flashlight or camera flashes.

Our last stop was to the first island we visited but on the other side. The canoe guides were waiting in the water for us as usual so everyone got in line to get off the boat. A few of us decided to spice things up by taking the “express exit” off the boat. Also known as jumping off the boat from the second story and swimming to our canoes. I stand by that decision.

This side of the island had a cave where we actually beached the canoes and traveled in on foot. As we were walking through the cave, my guide stops me and points to the ground in front of me. There was a six or seven foot chasm in the ground leading to an underground stream and no way to get walk along the edges of it. I asked him if we’d have to jump over it Indian Jones style and he laughed then pointed to a side passage where we basically crawled to get through. At the end of this cave it opened up into a lagoon in the middle of the island. It was interesting trekking through the dark cave to come to this peaceful lagoon. I wouldn’t build a vacation home or anything in there, but it was a fitting end to the day of exploring the islands.

Thailand versus Tax Returns

Now some of you are going through the September and October 15th busy seasons for filing extended tax returns right now. I thought it might be useful to build a pro’s and con’s list of going to Thailand as compared to working on tax returns.

Going to Thailand

Pro’s

  • Can lay out on the beach or pool deck with a Mai Tai
  • Get to go scuba diving
  • Get to explore new islands
  • Can get cheap suits and massages and other items generally much cheaper

Con’s

  • Constantly hear about how you can get cheap suits and massages
  • Very hot and humid (this can be a pro or a con depending on the person)
  • Live bands of varying skill levels

Work on Tax Returns

Pro’s

  • Not likely to get sunburned
  • Get paid to help people with complicated material
  • End of busy season parties

Con’s

  • It is frowned upon to work on tax returns with a Mai Tai
  • Can’t go to one of those fish spa’s where the fish nibble on your feet
  • People think you are weird if you send them postcards talking about working on tax returns

Next Stop

Ok that is it for this installment. My next planned trip is Shanghai for a weekend in September where I’ll get to meet up with my stepmom. I’m looking forward to it and hope I don’t get Shanghai’d.

-Chris

Quotes

“Go straight then take a right then take another right” – Several sources

“It’s delicious. It’s made from formaldehyde.” – My stepdad talking about some drink they make in Vietnam

“I have a small acrobatic troupe that wants to perform in China. What type of visa do I need to apply for?” – This is from the Frequently Asked Questions section about applying for a Chinese visa from Malaysia

“I’m supposed to be an American Rapper slash Cowboy slash Cautionary Tale.” – Taco from The League talking about his role on a foreign soap opera

Krakatoa – West of Sumatra

Happy June/Almost July!

I spent this last weekend visiting the remnants of the famous Krakatoa volcano. I planned the whole thing as a weekend trip and boy was it a lot of travel. During the whole trip I traveled on planes, trains, automobiles, and a boat. In the end though, it was definitely worth it.

When we first arrived at the islands known as Krakatoa, we stopped to do some snorkeling. It was fun to get out of the boat and cool off. We snorkeled along the coast of the islands making up the caldera of Krakatoa. There are schools of fish you can swim through and a wide variety of plant life only a few meters below the water’s surface.  As I swam out a bit further though I came to a pretty steep drop off. As in all of a sudden there was a cliff and I couldn’t see the bottom. I decided not to venture any further from there. I think that’s where the kraken lives. At least that’s what the guide told me.

When Krakatoa erupted it destroyed a lot of the landscape and islands in the vicinity. Funny how huge volcanos have a tendency to do that. In 1930 a new island at the center of the eruption rose to the surface. This is known as Anak Krakatau and is the tourist hotspot and current active volcano. Naturally we camped out on it.

When we first arrived on shore there were a few other boats but they had stayed the night before and soon departed. In other words, we had the whole volcano to ourselves. By this time it was mid-afternoon, hot outside, and I had gotten about 4 hours of sleep so nap time. They have wooden structures set about 2 feet off the ground for people to eat, sleep, and sit on without getting covered in dirt and bugs. I was laying on one of these when I started hearing rustling in the jungle behind me. I looked to see what it was and couldn’t see anything. After I decided it probably wasn’t a velociraptor I sat there motionless to wait for it to come out. Slowly a giant four foot long Monitor Lizard came out.

Now I know what you’re thinking and no, we did not BBQ it for dinner. The Indonesian government frowns upon poaching lizards and then, well poaching the lizards.

Later in the day when the sun wasn’t directly overhead we started hiking up a hill on the volcano. They won’t let you hike on the volcano itself because it’s:

A: Incredibly Steep

B: Very Steep

C: Smells like sulfur and nobody wants to hike on sulfur

 

The hill was next to the volcano and between our campsite and the volcano. This hill was also made of black sand which meant you would sink backwards with each step making it much harder to go uphill. Eventually we stopped and got a great view of the islands.

One of the very nice things about camping is the stars. When you’re away from the cities you can actually see stars as there is no light to interfere with your view. I spent a portion of the night walking up and down the beach just looking at the stars and hoping I wasn’t going to step on anything painful. It’s always nice to get out of the city just to be reminded that there actually are stars and other things out there. It’s sort of weird at first because the stars on this side of the world are different than those in Northern California. But that’ll happen just being in different parts of the world.

In the morning we packed up and began the trip back (with another short stop for snorkeling).

I really enjoyed the trip and learned a lot like these Fun Facts

  1. Krakatoa was actually three volcanos
  2. The current volcano didn’t exist before but was formed in the caldera after the eruption
  3. AirAsia won’t let you change flights within 48 hours of departure time (meaning you can’t catch and earlier flight if you arrive at the airport early)
  4. The Jakarta airport is not a fun place to wait 7 hours for your flight to return home (and it was delayed an hour)
  5. There is no bar in the Jakarta airport (this may have greatly impacted the fun fact #4 above)

I’ve also put together a website chronicling all of my travel emails. If you’re ever interested in finding an old email or maybe more details on something or just want to go “look what my crazy friend/former coworker/family member” then here is the link.

thereandtomorrow.com

Hope you are all doing well,

-Chris

 

Quotes from this edition:

 

From NPR’s Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me

PETER SAGAL: But first, great news: according to a new study, listeners to NPR News are better informed than people who get their news anywhere else. This is true. They asked everyone a series of questions about things, and NPR listeners got more of the questions right than say cable TV news watchers. Of course, the questions were a little slanted.

CARL KASELL: To the best of your knowledge, which wine pairs best with a Prius?

 

An expat here talking about the older Proton cars: Those look like they are held together with duct tape and hope.

 

And a Simpsons scene http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ROFIc0-enLc