Monthly Archives: September 2013

HIT THE ROAD, JACK

P1050441“What’s your name?” I asked from the back seat, squeezed in among our backpacks.

“Angel,” said Angel from somewhere in the front, I’m presuming from the driver’s side of the car.

Baz and I had just hitched a ride on the E1 highway that leads out of Kuala Lumapar to Butterworth and onwards to Thailand. We had spent 40 minutes at the toll booth with our thumbs out before the tenth car had stopped and managed to explain  to us that we were on the wrong road (which might explain why every driver of the nine previous cars offered to take us to the bus station).

Angel, a blessing not just by name, drove us to the nearest truck stop and no sooner had I rolled out of the back seat with all our packs when a truck driver offered to take us to Ipoh (pronounced, surprisingly, ‘E-po’), a 4-hour drive, 2-hours south of Butterworth.P1050451

We packed our gear onto the bunk behind the seats and climbed into the cabin of a 59-ton oil tanker. Dean, our driver,  demonstrated how 23 years of being a truck driver gave you the skills to use legs to steer the rig.

We managed to communicate with hand gestures as Dean’s English was just slightly better than that of George Dubya Bush. A few hours down the road we passed another hitcher, a local Malaysian with very dark skin.

“Negro no good,” Dean said bluntly. “Make trouble.”

I stared at him in disbelief. Not because of the racial slur, although that was enough to raise both eyebrows, but because Dean had darker skin than the man trying to hitch a ride.

“You’re kidding, right?” I asked, forgetting momentarily that his English was below certain White House levels.

He seemed to understand as he continued to explain that the fella would mean trouble purely based on his skin colour. We had been informed by a few locals that Malaysia was a very racist country, forcing the indigenous communities to convert to Islam or be killed.

Even in the 21st century these medieval threats were still being used and practiced.

Just before Ipoh, Dean dropped us off at another truck stop. We barely had written up a new sign and stuck out a thumb by the exit ramp when a sleek 3-door black Mercedes Kompressor pulled over and popped its boot.

No way, I thought as Baz conversed with the driver. “Come on, bro. He’s going to Alor Setar!” which was 40 minutes south of the Thai border – a 4-hour drive from where were.

We packed what we could into the small booth and I hopped into the back seat while Baz sat up front.

“I am Nagin,” Nagin introduced himself as we vice versed and shook hands. “I have a doctor’s appointment in Ipoh so if you don’t mind waiting, we will go Alor Setar from there.”

“No problem,” Baz said as we kicked back in the leather seats.

This car had it all. It even had a shoulder-tapping arm that pushed out the seatbelt and nudged Baz to click it in, making him jump.

We told Nagin of our journey and after we had lunch at the hospital canteen and he finished up his appointment we hit the road for the 4-hour drive to Alor Setar at 140 K’s an hour.

By the time we stopped for tea in a small town, Nagin had not only shouted us the tea and savoury roti but had invited us to crash at his house for the night.

“In the morning I will take you to Hat Yai (pronounced ‘Hat-i’), 40 minutes into Thailand. I need a holiday,” he offered.

Baz and I were taken aback.

“Thank you so much!” we both exclaimed.

We hit Alor Setar by 19:30 already dark. Nagin pulled into a local eatery where he shouted us dinner and we shared 13 beers between us. He further explained the racial backlash the Malaysian government was enforcing.

“I am second generation Malaysian from India but I’m still regarded Indo-Malay and defined as a second class citizen,” he said. “Too get into university, Malaysian students need only two A’s in Year 11 and their education is free. For my daughters -” who would be third generation Malaysians (but still classed as Indo-Malay) – “they need 8 A’s and I have to pay for their education.”

“How many A’s did they get?” Baz asked.

“12,” Nagin said proudly with a grin as more beers kept arriving, Carlsburgs in long neck bottles, two in each round.

After dinner, Nagin carefully drove us to his home where his mother-in-law and sister-in-law reside (he lives in Kuala Lumpar) where we shared three more beers and I brought out the guitar at his request. I stared in awe at the Hindu alter in his house. Nagin explained the meaning of the various Gods and the ceremonies conducted.

By 01:00 he and Baz shared the bed while I slept on a mattress on the floor.

Nagin provided us with blankets for the night (the aircon was at an nipple erecting temperature) and towels for the morning bucket shower. After we insisted on paying for his breakfast, we hit the road in his beat up Proton.

“It’s too risky to take the Mercedes to the border,” he explained. He parked and ordered a taxi. “You will come with me in the taxi to Hat Yai. I will pay, don’t worry about anything.”

Baz and I were blown away by this man’s generosity who, only 15 hours prior was a complete stranger as we crossed the border into Thailand – country number 5.

At a truck stop on the outskirts of Hat Yai, we parted ways. Nagin had given me an Indian white shirt that turned me Bollywood and in return for his generosity, on behalf of Baz and myself, I scarved him with a scarf I had received at the Sail Komodo gala dinner in Indonesia.

P1050499With grey-black clouds making their way like the ‘Nothing’ in The Never-ending Story, swallowing up everything blue, a Toyota Hilux stopped for us.

The driver, Jep, spoke little English but we managed to figure out that he was heading express to Baz’s stop, Surat Thani, arriving just as the sun set leaving Baz with 30 minutes to catch the ferry to Koh Phangang.

I continued with Jep all the way to Prachaup Khiri Khan, a further 4 hours up the road, just shy three hours of my final destination, Bangkok, where I was hoping to catch my cousin before she left for Chiang Mai.

After saying ‘goodbye’ to Baz who I wouldn’t be seeing until the full moon party mid-October, Jep drove on without stopping. I was lacking Thai Bhat and had 35 Malaysian Ringgits to my name. Jep was generous enough to shout me my first Thai meal, a pork noodle soup with crushed peanuts.

On the way we stopped by a roadside market where every stall was selling bananas. He bought a bunch and while he smoked a cigarette, I hang out in the elephant temple, covered with statues of elephants, royalty white and standard grey.

A few hours later, after I politely declined Jep’s offer to take me a bus or train terminal and pay for my ticket, we pulled into the truck stop just before Prachaup Khiri Khan. I bid him ‘farewell’ and he split his banana bunch, giving me half and throwing in a water bottle.

We shook hands and he asked that I contact him when I get to my couch host on Sunday.

I walked to the 7-11 where a local sitting outside ushered me over.

“Where you from?” he asked in the miniscule amount of English he spoke (still, it was better than George Dubya Bush).

I managed to explain that I was an Aussie, hitch hiking for the experience. He promptly got up and went to hassle the truck drivers resting. He came back empty-handed and offered to buy me dinner.

I patted my stomach. “Very full but thank you.”

He pointed to the empty lot that was being built as the place I could stash my gear and roll out my sleeping mattress (courtesy of Baz) and sleeping bag. I tried not to breathe in the cement dust and kept swiping at the little mozzies that were using my exposed arms as fueling docks.

I stirred to wake an hour later by the same local who placed a packet of butter bread in my hand. “Good luck,” he said.

“Kharp-Khun-krap,” I murmured sleepily as I tried to return to cloud 9.

P1050483I kept lapsing in and out sleep until the sun started breaking up the darkness. I washed my face in the bathroom and hit the exit ramp with my sign. Five minutes had barely passed when a Triton Ute pulled over.

“Where you go, Mister?” asked the passenger.

“Bangkok,” I pointed to my sign, grinning. “Where you go?”

“Bangkok but otherside,” he replied. He hopped out and showed me on a road map that they were going around the city to some other town but could drop me on the outskirts where I could grab a bus in.

“No problem,” I grinned, not believing my luck. “How far?”

“Three hours,” he said. “But cabin full. You mind sitting in tray?” he pointed to the back of the ute.

“Mai-pen-lye,” I shook his hand. “No problem.”

P1050513I threw my gear in and sat back, unsheathing my guitar and playing some songs at about 120 K’s an hour until I could smell rain.

About 50 K’s south of Bangkok we pulled into a rest stop. The passenger surprised me when he came back with a bag of food.

“Corn-flour pancake,” he said handing over a box of 12 along with a small water.

“Wow,” I said, taken aback. “Kharp-un-khap.”

The driver then appeared with a bag of rice and pork skewers. Thanking them again, I devoured the pork and used the skewers as chopsticks to eat the rice before polishing off the mini-pancakes that were so sweet even though they were with corn and the last two with spring onions.

An hour later I was dropped off at the bus stop. Thanking them vigorously, we took photos and bid ‘farewell’.

I headed into the 7-11 to ask which bus I needed to take to get to Kho San Road.

“68,” a customer helped out.

Thanking him, I headed off to await the bus. No sooner had I placed my pack on the ground than the 68 pulled up.

“Kho San Road?” I asked the ticket collector.

She shook her head. “140,” she said.

Oh. I headed to the 140 that had just pulled up behind the 68.

“Kho San Road?” I asked the ticket collector.

She shook her head. “76.”

Seems I was suffering a bout of de ja vu.

I waited on the sidewalk and the 76 pulled up. I managed to squeeze my gear through the tiny doors and sat behind an African national. The ticket collector came by.

“Kho San Road?” I asked, the bus already on the highway.

She shook her head. “68.”

What? “What?” I stared at her, perplexed.

“This bus does not go to Kho San Road,” the African national offered some assistance and translation. “You need the 68.”

“But,” and I ran through the numbers I was told. “Now you’re saying I need the 68?” He nodded. “And that’s for certain?” He nodded again. I shook his hand, thanked him and got off at the next stop.P1050525

Sure enough the 68 pulled up but didn’t come to a complete stop. With the vehicle still rolling and people alighting and jumping off like it was a regular thing to perform a movie stunt to use the public bus in Thailand, I managed to get on, confirm that this was the bus I needed and sat down, dozing off until the last stop at Kho San Road.

Categories: Adventure Travel, Asia, Thailand | Tags: , , , | 2 Comments

TIGERS, PANTHERS and BEARS, OH MY!

malayan-tiger-stares-intently-resting-shallow-pool-colorful-soaking-peers-up-startled-expression-surprised-33581175“There’s a valuable black market for tigers. Tibetans wear tiger-skin robes; wealthy collectors display their heads; exotic restaurants sell their meat; their penis is said to be an aphrodisiac; and Chinese covet their bones for health cures, including tiger-bone wine, the “chicken soup” of Chinese medicine. Experts have put the black market value of a dead, adult male tiger at $10,000 or more. In some Asian countries, tourist attractions called tiger parks secretly operate as front operations for tiger farming—butchering captive tigers for their parts and offering a potential market for wild-tiger poachers too. (Keeping an adult tiger costs $5,000 a year in food alone, but a bullet costs only a dollar.)” (http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/print/2010/01/asian-wildlife/christy-text)

 

 

“What was that?” I whispered hoarsely in the dense jungle. The resounding echo of a rumble that a very large jungle dwelling mammal had just emitted bounced off the bamboo trunks, vines, ferns and palm fronds (with spikes that could take out an elephant) shadowed by huge trees that towered over us like the Petronas Twin Towers.

Ash shushed me as all senses went into hyper-mode. Ears perked and eyes followed everything that moved. We waited like shoppers at the gates of Myers on Boxing Day.

“That was probably the grunt of a wild boar,” he finally said. “Usually our presence would scare it off and we’d hear it breaking through the forest.” He looked at us, “so it makes me wonder how big this one is that it doesn’t run off. You don’t want to encounter a 200-kilo wild boar.”

It’s definitely not on my to-do list.

mycat_logo_final_low_resAsh wasn’t just our guide. He is also the program director for MYCAT, a non-profit organisation working in alliance with the Malaysian Nature Society, TRAFFIC Southeast Asia (animal trade), Wildlife Conservation Society-Malaysia Programme and WWF-Malaysia. It’s supported by the Department of Wildlife and National Parks Peninsular Malaysia for the National Tiger Conservation Action Plan for Malaysia and by the generosity of the individual citizen and corporations.

Baz and I were on a recon hike through the jungle on the border of the Taman Negara, which translates into ‘National Park’ (also known as ‘King George V National Park’). This 130-million-year-old tropical jungle rainforest is older than the famed Amazon Jungle. In it reside a few mammals but the one we were after was the critically endangered Malayan Tiger (Panthera tigris jacksoni for all those Latin speakers out there).

One had been sighted in the area 6 months prior. If I were a tiger and there was a 200 kilo wild boar in the hood, I’d hang around too. But since our collective weight wouldn’t surpass an elephant’s toenail, it was a bit of a head scratch to understand what we were doing here.

Oh, right, we were checking to see if there were any fresh paw prints, or worse – human prints – meaning poachers.

We had been in the jungle for 5 days. Our base camp was the camping grounds of the Taman Negara where we slept in concrete huts by the Ralu River.

Ash had provided us with hammocks that had built-in mosquito nets which we tested between the trees. To protect ourselves from potential rain, each hammock had a tarp that was to be tied above it. It also kept the heat in as the temperature dropped during the night.

I was keen to get used to mine so I spent my first night airborne between the trees while Ash and Baz slept in the hut.

The next day we hiked out to set up our camera traps. We headed out just as the sun started to peak through the trees. We had seen photos from previous camera traps that showed Asian elephants, Tapir, Barking Sambar and Mouse deer, Civets, wild dogs, Golden cat, Leopards – black and clouded – Malayan Porcupine, Malayan Gaur (the largest Ox on the planet reaching 6-7 foot at the shoulder), wild boars, Malayan Sun Bear, Marble cat and of course, the cream of the crop – the endangered Malayan Tiger.

I was hoping to see at least one, if not, a few of these mammals, especially an elephant. How hard could it be to miss an elephant?

“Ash,” I turned to our fearless leader, “what’s the protocol if an elephant charges at you?”

“Run,” he said.

“Run?” I scrunched my face. “I thought you’re supposed to stand your ground.”

“Oh, no. You want to run if an elephant charges at you. It won’t stop if you stand your ground. Run and, if it’s still chasing you after a few metres, break off the track into the jungle. The density of the forest will slow it down until it will eventually stop.” One can only hope. “In the event of an elephant charging and we scatter, we’ll rendezvous at the last resting place.”

P104967The rising sun splashed an orange hint on the green ferns, huge trees leaning like the Pisa Tower shading the road, entire Eco systems living on their trunks. Monkeys called out as did Hornbills and Gibbons.

We set up our cameras, tying them to trees, changed over a third one and hiked back to base camp – without seeing so much as a fly. Sure, we saw month-old panther spoors with bone fragments and fur of whatever hapless animal had the misfortune of being on its menu. And elephant dung, now producing fungus, from two weeks back. We also spotted a Gibbon leaping between trees, so you’d think we’d at least see an elephant or hear one.

 

 

Still, it was only Day 1 and we were to head deep into the jungle that afternoon and camp in the heart of it, sleeping in hammocks above the jungle floor to avoid leeches, Sun bears, panthers, boars and tigers so chances were as high as Elton John in the 70s.P1050006

Ash was hoping that we wouldn’t encounter any of the above (although seeing a high Elton John from the 70s in the Malayan jungle would have been an experience second only to sighting a Malayan Tiger).

“You wouldn’t stand a chance against a tiger,” he said.

Or Elton John.

Tigers are the largest of the predatory cats. They’re also the most lethal, known to take down a Brown Bear, Grizzly Bear, Polar Bear (which just happens to be the largest predator on the land) and elephants.

Elephants!!

This is one cat not to play yarn with.

Even though the Malayan Tiger is the smallest of the tiger species, it’ll still pack a punch, claw and bite. Unlike lions, tigers are solitary animals, the cubs make up an average litter of 3 with one or two at best surviving.

ImageAfter two years, the cubs are pushed out to claim their own territory and use the skills mama tiger taught them to survive. Of course, no one can teach an animal how to survive against a human being.

Deforestation and expansion of human habitat are a major cause for having tigers on the critically endangered list. But it’s the Asian market that’s killing them off.

It only took 70 years of mankind’s touch to kill off three species – the Balinese, Caspian and Javan – with the rest following close behind. Hard to imagine that just a century ago there were a 100,000 tigers roaming the planet. From the jungles of Southeast Asia to the snowy forests of Siberia. There were nine sub-species but now 93% of its natural habitat has been destroyed, along with the above-mentioned three species,

Illegal logging is another factor where poachers go in and cut down trees, slicing the trunk into planks onsite and somehow, smuggling out the planks without being seen.

The illegal trade of tigers has put their numbers so far down that less than 3,000 remain in the wild (across all species of tigers). In the Taman Negara of Malaysia, only 50-60 Malayan tigers – only recently discovered to having its own unique genetic pool line – have been recorded.

Their dwindling numbers has had a catastrophic effect on the jungle’s Eco system. There’s no other predator in the Malaysian jungle that can control the growing population of wild boars like a tiger can. What panther would be crazy enough to tackle a 200 kilo muscle bound pig? When it charges at anything breathing, be sure that whatever it charged will no longer breathe.My blood between my fingers

As we trekked through the muddy jungle floor, picking off leeches, flicking off ants the size of a Morris Cooper and doing the best we could to avoid the jaws of the Fire ants, we came across an abandoned poacher’s camp. Bamboo trunks were cut to fit and make a secured shelter. Batteries, plastic bottles and pieces of clothing were strewn all over the ground.

“The poachers, mainly from Thailand, will hunt what they need then head out of the park,” Ash explained, “where they will change their clothes and get picked up and taken to the Thai border –”

“Oh, hello,” I smiled and waved at the two indigenous men that had silently appeared out of nowhere – carrying poison-tipped darts and a blow pipe.

Ash turned, surprised to see them, and began to talk with them as I looked to their feet.

“Baz,” I indicted him to look down, “they’re barefoot.”

Here we were, long pants tucked into winter-thick socks tucked into sturdy military-grade hiking boots, copping leeches that could suck blood through titanium plates and these guys were barefoot without a scratch.

“No leeches?” Baz pantomimed to the men as Ash translated.

The men grinned and shrugged as though to say, ‘What are we? White?’

P1050073We onwards to the canyon where, under a limestone rock the size of an earth-destroying asteroid, a tree stood with claw marks on it. From the height Ash determined it to be a black leopard.

“Or it could be a small tiger,” I suggested.

“Could be,” he agreed.

I was hoping for the tiger. I really wanted to see one, despite its killer instinct and ability to take out anything as small as a snake to as big as an elephant.

An elephant!!P1050098

But the most noticeable mark we found on the jungle floor was the abundance of wild boar hoof prints, their population growing as rapidly as the tiger’s numbers declining. And as though to prove the point, with Baz behind me and Ash looking at his GPS, I looked down and noticed something that was very un-jungle like.

“Ash,” I called to him, “is this net supposed to be here?”

He turned towards me as I pointed at the ground and followed the net. It stretched 60-feet along the jungle floor. Whoever had placed it here was after something big.

“Good catch,” Ash congratulated.

We marked it on the GPS, took photos and decided to wrap it up in the morning, P1050114chancing an opportunity to catch the poachers red-handed.

The 16:00 cicadas warned us that we only had light for the next couple of hours. Ash found a camp site by the Taman River where we strung up the hammocks between sturdy trees. He started a fire and after a dinner of 2-minute noodles (best bush tucker around) we sat by the fire peeling oranges.

By the glowing light of the flames, I heard the leaves by my boots rustle and saw something black and hairy with eight legs practically fly across the jungle floor and shoot up Bazza’s pants. His orange became airborne, disappearing into the darkness as he jumped up screaming and cursing as he swiped and wiped at his trousers, flicking off the tarantula while I tried not to roll into the fire from laughter.

After his voice changed back to that of a man’s, we headed down to the river to bathe.

It was here that I discovered a fat leech hiding in the inside corner of my boot. I looked at my right foot and saw that one of my veins had been penetrated.

“Sonofabitch,” I cursed as the blood flowed freely from the tiny pinhole.

It helped my decision of sleeping with my boots on (and in case a 200 kilo boar crashed through with a tiger on its ass, it’d be easier to run in boots rather than barefoot). I climbed into my hammock after wishing everyone, “Goodnight,” and listened to the jungle soundtrack of Gibbon apes howling, cicadas sounding like power tools, birds of a feather flocking together and branches and fruit crashing from the jungle canopies to the ground.

“Just hope that if there’s a tiger around he won’t get too curious and take a swipe at your hammock – with you in it,” Ash said. “There have been recorded incidents of tigers taking cattle, the skulls of the cows shattered just from the swipe of its paw.”

A simple ‘goodnight’ would have sufficed.

The morning bird songs and Gibbon howls had us up early. We needed to pack fast, untangle the net into a collectable pile and head back to the car and meet the weekend group that had come for one of the cat walks.

The cat walks were part of the program provided by MYCAT for individuals and corporations where they could send staff down (or go individually) for a weekend into the jungle, learn about the importance of protecting Malaysia’s national symbol and educate the people about what they can do to suppress poaching and illegal trade in wildlife.

“If you see anything anytime you’re out in the jungle, you can report it confidentially to the wildlife crime hotline. It’s open 24/7,” Mona, a volunteer with MYCAT, was informing the group of product designers.

We took them up a mining road, across an active train track, through an old logging road, had them slipping and sliding on the muddy ground, clambering over fallen tree trunks, battling it out against leeches, identifying animal P1050228prints, showing them what a poacher’s camp looked like and trekking through the river.

Not wanting to get my only pair of boots wet, I took them off, flies clouding around my feet. I dipped them into the water and trekked with the group. We stopped on a sandy bank for lunch where I stripped to my pants and swam out into the cool, muddy waters.

A vine was hanging just overhead and I climbed up it like George of the jungle (watching out for that tree) before dropping back to the water. As I swam back to shore, I noticed the thin-legged water spiders that made an effort to move out of my water-churning way.

All but one.

P1050145It was an 8-legged Huntsman-looking beast. Its eight eyes had me in its sights as it dove off the bank and jumped across the water towards me. My immediate reaction was to flap about in reverse, almost tripping over my own feet.

Luckily, it quickly tired and jumped back to the beach, leaving me with the realisation that this was the real deal. This was a fucking jungle with tigers (potentially), leopards, bears, monkeys, elephants. I felt like Mowgli in Rudyard Kipling’s classic, ‘The Jungle Book’ – the king of the swingers with just the bare necessities.

We continued to trek through the river to the car park and after resting and showering at base camp, we headed out for dinner where the group put our meals on the company account.

Driving back to base camp, we picked out two Civets climbing up the palm trees.

My first jungle mammal – tick.

We sat around the grassy area between our huts drinking wine, playing with poi, Baz showing off his flaring skills while I strummed my guitar.

The next day we trekked up through a palm oil plantation.

“Just a few safety tips,” Mona began to explain as the group huddled around her. “A tiger has been spotted here so if we come across it, know this: it’s just as afraid of us as we are of it. If it does decide to come at you then you’ll know by it snarling, exposing its teeth, keeping low and ears flattened back. Don’t turn your back to it or it’ll think you’re prey. Back away slowly and if you have a stick in your hand, be ready to use it.

Remember; the most dangerous animal in the jungle is still a human.”

We were leading the group to camera traps within the forest. They were going to change over the batteries and SD cards on three cameras. We hiked up a hill noting deer droppings just meters from the palm plantation.

“If there are deer droppings here, there could well be a tiger in the area,” Ash remarked.

The Sambar Deer (Rusa unicolor), a native to the Malaysian jungle, is the Malayan tiger’s main source of food. A single Sambar could sustain a tiger for a week. Otherwise, it would need to hunt down at least three adult boars to do the same job. And a tiger has a success rate of 1 in 10-15 attempts. That’s a lot of energy used to catch a single meal.

Unfortunately for the tiger, Sambar Deer are becoming rare in the jungle. Another human touch added to its declining numbers.

Trekking on we found two metal trap cages, stacked on one another perched by a tree, poorly camouflaged by its owner.

“Probably poaching civets,” suggested Ash.

Civets (Paradoxurus hermaphroditu) are a cat-like creature of the Viverridae family (and unlike its scientific name, has two distinct sexes). They’re famous for producing the world’s most expensive coffee – Kopi Luwak.

How? You ask, as well you should if your ever offered an exotic cuppa Joe (watch The Bucket List).

This mammal will eat coffee beans, digest them, poo it out and then a human will come along, pick out the Civet-gutted coffee beans and sell it for $50 a cup. The increase in this particular coffee’s popularity has also created a rise in the capture of Civets that are force-fed coffee beans to reach the demand quota.

The main question that should be asked is, Who the hell looked at a pile of Civet poo and said, “Hmm, I bet that’ll make great coffee”? The fact that someone else agreed is also a serious issue.

After changing over the camera batteries and SD cards we trekked back to the cars and headed over to base camp to check the photos.

I undid my shoelaces and as I pulled my right boot off, a fat leech, the size of a golf ball, crawled out like a drunken Irishman. I had to place small squares of toilet paper to contain the bleeding as blood splashed everywhere I stepped for the next three hours.

Our hut soon looked like a murder scene from a CSI show.

The pictures from the camera traps showed us the asses of boars, a monkey, a Sun bear, the elusive (and rarely seen) wild dog and a profile shot of a majestic black leopard.

But no tigers.

After we said our ‘goodbyes’ to the group, we rested for our overnight trek back into the jungle.

Heading out just after 15:00, we hiked down a hill on a 4WD track and walked parallel to the Taman River. The 16:00 cicadas warned us that daylight would soon be fading. We collected firewood as we clambered over a log crossing into an abandoned Batu campsite.

The Batu people are Eco-friendly and build small shelters called, ‘Hya’. It’s made from palm prongs weaved together with vines. We set up our hammocks between some sturdy looking trees and built a campfire. After dinner we trekked down to the river for a splash.

“Oh look, a spider,” Ash pointed with his stick at the 8-legged Huntsman-looking arachnoid. As I stooped to get a better look it seemed to look up at me before it lunged at my boot. I hopped back and it continued to jump towards me like a small convict going for the biggest prisoner in the jail block. I salsa-ed behind Ash as I kicked leaves at it.

“Jesus!” I exclaimed, just managing to rumba away from it.

“What happened?” Baz asked coming up behind me in his thongs.

“Spider, man. It went for me!”

I followed Ash as he pointed them out every few metres. Doing my best Russian gymnast impersonation, I hopped and jumped from side-to-side to avoid them.

“There’s one. And there’s another. One more over here.” He was un-phased by them – a real-life Bear Grylls.

It was ridiculous that something so small could freak us humans out so quickly whilst one of the most lethal predators was (potentially) lurking about, watching and waiting.

Hunting.

The water felt cool as we lay down against a fallen log in the river by the bank, stripped to our boxers. The jungle night life woke up, starting with a few fireflies (that we momentarily mistook for cat-eyes), Gibbons and Macaques warming up their vocal chords, the choir of cicadas singing loud and proud and the occasional buzz of something that would put a C-130 military cargo plane to shame.

“The bigger the insect the less harmful it is,” Ash said philosophically. “Now, in this spot, just so you have an idea, if a tiger sees us and decides we are on its menu, we stand no chance. They can swim very fast. Back when the British colonised Malaysia, pilots flying over the archipelagos of the area would spot tigers in the sea swimming between the islands – up to 50 K’s distance.”

“Tigers swimming between the islands?” I repeated.

“Yes, tigers swimming between the islands,” Ash confirmed.

Even sharks don’t mess with tigers. Now that’s sayin’ somethin’. We were truly in the home of the most formidable predator on land. I mean this animal – beast, if you will – which can take down a polar bear and elephants –

Elephants!!!

– was the true King of the Jungle.

Although poaching had been largely suppressed due to the awesome efforts of the volunteers and employees of MYCAT and its alliances, the war on the tiger trade is far from over. It’s harder to tackle the issue at hand when certain officials in the wildlife department are being bribed and working alongside those trading in tiger parts and other endangered animals.

One official, having been named and shamed in a National Geographic article) is still working in the very same job that’s putting the lives of critically endangered animals on the extinct list. Like the leech in the jungles of Taman Negara, they’ll find a vein that’ll supplement their need and suck it dry, dropping off in a drunken manner, unable to seal the wound.

The sunset over the jungle as we headed back to Kuala Lumpar, hoping that future generations will have the chance of at least knowing that these majestic mammals may still roam the wild. And that during these 5 days in the jungle, us conservationists had won one battle by dismantling that 60-foot net.

If you’re ever in Malaysia, contact MYCATS through their website, http://malayantiger.net/v4/ and volunteer for a cat walk. It’s an experience that will open your eyes and change your life.

Categories: Adventure Travel, Asia, Conservation, Malaysia | Tags: , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

LION IN SINGAPORE

P1040618Seeing the city skyline of Singapore’s skyscrapers had the promising sign of a city that appreciated architectural designs.

And a challenge to my fear of looking up – Anablephobia.

Inverted what of the who now? I hear fingers scratching scalps.

Basically, it’s the reverse of Acrophobia – fear of heights.

 

I have no issues with standing atop a tall structure and looking down. In fact, I love that shit. But put me at the opposite end of the structure – the bottom – and I can’t look up.

Bare with me. It works like this:

If I stand directly under a tall structure, like a skyscraper, lamp post, Bazza (he towers at 6″4) I can’t look up. I’ll get weak at the knees and would most likely fall over as though I were sensing vertigo. But if I’m under said skyscraper, lamp post or Bazza in a car, I can look up no problem because the roof of the car gives me the confidence to look up.

I dunno where it comes from or why I have it, I just do. If you ever hangout with me in a city with tall buildings, you’ll notice that my head will be down and I’ll be walking close to the walls rather than in any open space between structures.

Yes, whatever you’re thinking of me right now I am that.

So with Singapore being mostly a skyscraper country with a height limit at 280 meters (aviation safety) with 3 buildings meeting that height, my day around Singapore started calmly at the Royal Botanical Gardens.

P1040535The gardens have been around since the late 19th century and house not only some of the oldest trees in Singapore – like the Silk Cotton tree of 150 years (the fruit of which is used to stuff pillows) – but also the world’s largest collection and centre for orchids.

It includes hybrid orchids of all kinds, some named in honour of historical figures such as Nelson Mandela and Margaret Thatcher. It was an additional $5 charge to get in to the large area and see the hundreds of varieties and species of orchids and the step-by-step explanation of how hybrids work and the years it takes to get one going.

The gardens itself were huge with two lily-padded lakes and a stage for shows in the middle of each lake. There were large green fields of grass between the various types of palm trees with huge, widespread prongs, shading the areas for the visiting visitors.

P1040501One section was cornered off as a rainforest experience; another was called ‘The Evolution Garden’. It tells the story – through plants – of the birth of our planet from about 4,600 million years ago when the landscape was arid and there wasn’t enough oxygen to sustain life to this day.

As we walked around I coughed up something that had lodged itself in my lungs. I was about to set it free when I remembered that Singapore had a funny law about spitting.

“Shit,” I swallowed, Baz looking at me funny. “I almost broke the law, dude. I almost spat.” Something I’d never thought I’d ever say.

 

Regardless, the next load that I coughed up was not going back down. I looked around and, seeing that there were no cameras or anyone that might dob me in to the government, I set it free into the bushes.

“Feel like a criminal,” I said.

It took us almost three hours to go through the gardens, sweating like wild boars being chased by tigers as the heat and humidity unleashed everything it had on us.P1040601

A $1.50 air-conditioned bus-ride later we hopped off at the Suntec exhibition centre. Nothing like coming off a bus only to see a moving image of the planet you inhabit roll across a screen the size of which U2 would be astounded by.

The moving image, that had the Earth rolling from the far left escalators to the far right ones, changed to underwater life of what appeared to be a life-sized video of a whale shark swimming at us.

Baz and I stood, shocked to our spots as we watched wide-eyed and beaming.

We trekked on, dangerously crossing the road as the pedestrian crossing was cut off due to the fences being placed around for the upcoming Singapore Formula 1 Grand Prix, the world’s only night race set to hit the small island nation over the weekend.

We went underground through what appeared to be a sub-station where a rollerblading class was being held and kids skated by on skateboards – right under the ‘No Skateboarding’ sign on the wall.

P1040619We walked out into the sun, passed what I like to call ‘The Hedgehog Building’. An elongated shaped building with triangular-shaped spikes all over it. We crossed the bridge and as the city skyline of 200 meter scrapers loomed above my head, I could feel my knees nudging at me like a small kid who’s had enough at a grownup’s party and wants to go home.

P1040611

 

I knew the sense straight away. I focused my sight on the Mariana Sands Bay Casino across the water. Three tall buildings with a strange, UFO-shaped bridge going across the roof of all three towers. On top of that bridge was a rainforest and pool that carried a $20 entry fee.

We walked on down to where the 8-meter Mer-lion statue stood, shooting water from its mouth into the bay.

P1040623I’ll save the question. A Mer-Lion is a mythical figure with a head of a lion on a fish’s body. It’s been adopted as Singapore’s national mascot. The fish represents what Singapore was before it became the booming economic island nation that it now is – a small fishing village called Temasek.

The lion represents the original name of Singapore – Singapura – meaning ‘Lion City’.

A large crowd of tourists were gathered taking photos and Baz and I mixed in, offering to take photos of couples and groups in exchange to photo-bomb their shots.

As we walked around the 3.5 K circuit around the bay towards the casino, Baz kept trying to make me look up.

“Dude! That building is so high! You gotta check it out.”

“Yeah?” I’d respond, looking at my shadow. “Take a photo and show me. I can’t look up.”

He enjoyed torturing me as I watched the small sea turtles frolicking in the bay. The casino hotel was huge. It was on a Vegas-scale, each tower seeming to rise to at least 180-200 meters. It had its own shopping mall with a small river flowing through it where you could hire a small gondola-type of craft to paddle your way down it.

The air-con was a breath of fresh, dehydrated air as we walked through the crowd of the suits and well-dressed people. Stinking of sweat and looking like a pair of deadbeat backpackers, we weren’t exactly a sight for sore eyes.

Or healthy eyes.

I was surprised they even let us into the casino floor where we watched gamblers lose and win money in a blink. I sussed out the free water and re-hydrated as Baz lay down a $10 bet on black at the roulette wheel.

“Green! Double-zero,” called out the dealer.

“Tough luck, bro,” I comforted him. Maybe if he laid off the torture Karma might have dealt him a better hand.

We took advantage of the free coffee station as I noticed the casino was the only indoor place that smoking was allowed in the whole of Singapore.

We headed off to the food court to eat and use the free wi-fi service provided. The food court is located right beside the skating rink. Instead of ice, it was a wax floor. Mostly kids were flailing about, trying not to break a hip as they slipped and slid across the white rink.P1040715

Lee, our gracious and generous host, caught up with us and took us over to the Gardens by the Bay, a huge park with tall structures called ‘supertrees’. These were trees made of concrete (I think) and were at least 30 feet in the air with glowing lights that changed colours.

We ate at a food court completely dedicated to one type of food – satay. Hence the name, Satay by the Bay. We could see the world’s largest observation wheel (the new technical name for a Ferris wheel), the Singapore Flyer, turning slowly on the other side of the bay, lighting up like a disco jellyfish.

P1040646After we ate we walked among the tall structures with Lee having to split for a job.

“We’ll meet at 22:30 under the restaurant, OK?” he suggested.

“OK,” we agreed.

Baz and I walked around under the huge structures, admiring the lightsת walkןמע down a footpath with statues made of cloth with lights lighting them up, looking like anime characters.

 

A huge, snail-looking building served as an atrium. Although it was closed, the information by the ticketing office informed that it housed a rainforest system complete with a 10-foot waterfall.

At 22:30 we met Lee under the restaurant that was perched atop the tallest ‘supertree’. I noticed the blue-lit Skywalk that seemed suspended mid-air in the night sky. It went around in a semi-circle between two of the tallest ‘supertrees’, looking like something straight out of a James Cameron movie (specifically, Avatar). The restaurant charged an $18 entrance fee that included a choice of draft beer or house wine/spirit.

$18 was too rich for our blood even though Lee wasn’t letting us pay for anything every time we hung out. We insisted not to go up as we didn’t feel right that he should pay $54 to cover us.P1040716

As we walked back to the car we passed by a sign that hung on a door with a window. Peering in I saw large machinery. The sign on the door explained how Singapore was cutting its greenhouse emissions by 13,280 tonnes annually by converting it’s horticulture waste of 500,000 tonnes into fresh oxygen through the chimneys that were the ‘supertrees’.

“So, essentially,” I stood back from the sign and looked behind me at the Gardens by the Bay, “this whole area is a power plant that’s putting fresh oxygen back into the air.”

“Amazing,” Baz agreed as we stood with new admiration to the place.

Lee drove us over to Resort World, an island resort that housed Singapore’s Universal Studios. And the tallest Mer-lion statue in the world (I’m assuming they’re only found in Singapore so really, there’s no competition).

P1040726It stands at 37-meters and instead of shooting water it has a viewing platform.

Arriving late to the quiet, empty resort we took some snapshots and headed back home to Malaysia. After staying two weeks with Lee, we were making our way north to the UNESCO World Heritage-listed city of Malaka for a week before  heading into the jungle Taman Negara National Park to volunteer in the protection of the endangered Malayan tigers.

Meow.

Categories: Adventure Travel, Asia, Singapore | Tags: , , | 1 Comment

BOATS, FERRIES & SCOOTERS

“How far?” I asked at one of the tourist info centres.

“Oh, very far,” said the local. “You need taxi.”

“How far?” I repeated, smelling his money-hustling attempt.

He mumbled something that sounded like, “Five kilometers?” I exclaimed.

The GPS on Bazza’s phone had said it was just under a 2-K walk.

“One and half kilometer,” he repeated.

“And you call that far?” I thanked him and headed off with my surfboard in the carry bag with Baz in tow. We were making our way to the Eco Surf Shop in Legian, a neighbouring suburb of Kuta.We reached the shop, deposited my board bag with its contents of fins, leash, board, wax, Frisbee, boomerang and a few surf combs to the delight of Rodney, the founder of the Soul Surf Project organisation.

Their aim and goal is to teach local kids how to preserve the environment via surf. As Bali and the rest of Indonesia, was plagued with a lack of solution regarding rubbish disposal, the locals were dispensing it everywhere.

And although this country had a long way to go before a change will arise, it was good to see someone taking the first step in teaching the next generation.

Back at the guesthouse we paid, packed and found a public bus to take us to the bus terminal in Denesapar, the capital of Bali. I found myself nodding off, crammed among the locals and their groceries in the back while Baz sat buried under our backpacks up front with the driver.

Not having slept much the night before, I was keen to get on the coach and hit the road so I could shut my eyes. We reached the terminal at about 13:00 for our 15:00 bus.

I texted Adi, our couchsurfing host in Batam who agreed to host us for a few days before we made our way to Singapore.

An air-conditioned coach pulled up and we loaded our packs and my guitar in the cargo area below. We took seats 3 and 4, behind the driver, even though our tickets read ‘1’ and ‘2′. The old man that wanted to sit in his allocated seat was not happy that he had to sit in number 2 rather than number 3.

Sitting directly behind the driver I noticed some of the passengers coming aboard with a packet of cigarettes and a lighter.

“Shit,” I groaned. “I hope they don’t plan on smoking in here,” I motioned to Baz.

Our driver, excited to have westerners on board, turned to us and asked, “Smoke?”

“No,” we both said.

“Oh,” his face fell. “Sorry, I smoke,” he said gesturing that he was going to light up even if the President of Indonesia would have asked him not to.

“Shit,” I groaned as Baz cracked up. “As long as it makes you happy in getting us safely to Jakarta, you can smoke as much as you want,” I said, regrettably.

Turns out cigarettes weren’t enough to make him happy – or getting us safely to Jakarta. It seemed our driver had seen the movie Speed one too many times, flooring it as though there really were a bomb on board.

Sharp turns (nothing short of the Monte Carlo GP track) were the favoured section of road to overtake rows of trucks, forcing all oncoming traffic of cars, bikes, trucks and buses off the road, their drivers screaming at us, honking their horns and gesturing with their hands (and no, it wasn’t the infamous rub ‘n’ tug motion). Our driver honked back. It appeared that our horn was located inside the cabin as it almost cracked the windshield.

And my eardrum.

Baz and I were finding religion as we prayed to make it safely to Jakarta.

To distract ourselves from the imminent expiration of our demise, we watched the adult-animated series, Archer about the world’s most dangerous spy, Sterling Archer, codename: Duchess (don’t ask). The show had it all, violence, comedy and ludicrous, loveable characters with impossible storylines. It was like Austin Powers-meets-Johnny English.

Only Archer was American.

We made it to the ferry in one piece on the west side of Bali and as soon as the bus parked, we sat ourselves on the top deck of the boat, charging our electronics and regaining our heartbeat and appreciation for life.

An hour later, hitting the island of Java, the largest of the 17,000 that make up the archipelago of Indonesia, we returned to the bus only to discover that the old man had switched seats with us and was now sitting behind the driver.

Cool, I thought. If he wants to breathe in cigarette smoke, so be it.

Of course, now we had a full view through the entire front windshield to see how our driver, who seemed to be auditioning for the part of James bond’s stunt driver, forced anything on two or more wheels off the road and almost into the pedestrians casually walking in the dirt shoulder lanes. It was obvious this guy had learned to drive via the GTA game franchise, all the while lighting cigarettes with one hand and answering his phone with the other.

Focus on Archer, I told myself, cringing as I could feel the heat of oncoming headlights swerving last minute.

I was falling asleep. Dunno how with my life in the hands of a wannabe Schumacher. I leaned the seat back and tried to avoid the temptation of cracking an eye open only to see oncoming headlights.

I clenched my teeth, bracing for what might be the inevitable.

When I awoke at about 03:00 I noticed we were riding a lot smoother.

Are we dead? I thought as I glanced over to the relief driver.

Relieved and finally able to sleep, I dozed off, glad to have onboard the only sane driver in Indonesia.

Stopping at various eateries, coupons were taken from our tickets as we ate rice, chicken, egg, tempura, chilli and drank ice and hot tea.

To avoid paying the 10-20 cents to use the bathrooms, I peed in the toilet on the bus. That’s right. We were riding in style (almost paying for it with our lives, but nonetheless, in style).

“24 hours it will take,” echoed the voice of the helpful woman at the tourist information centre in Kuta where we had booked the bus ticket to Jakarta, the capital of Indonesia, that included the ferry-crossing to Java Island and three meals.

We had left Bali at a little after 15:00 – as scheduled. We were supposed to arrive in Jakarta at 15:00 the next day, as the way it works with 24 hours.

At 21:30, 7 hours after our scheduled arrival time, we arrived to the skylines of Indonesia’s capital in the dark of night. With its population of 16 million people, 77 highways, toll roads and fast-paced traffic, Jakarta greeted us with the police fining our Stig for speeding.

“If they only knew,” I mumbled.

Not that a speeding ticket slowed him down as he space-rocketed us to the bus terminal where he arranged a local bus to take Baz and I to the ferry terminal, another hour-long ride across the city with a driver that Baz almost had to slap to keep awake.

IMG_9688We made it alive – I think – to the Pelni offices, the company that operates the major ferry lines across Indonesia. At 23:07 we knew the offices would be closed but the security personal were kind enough to allow us to sleep on the floor in the hottest area of the lobby which doubled as a breeding ground for mosquitoes.

I had already sprawled out, hoping not to wake up dead of dehydration and half eaten by the bony cat patrolling the hallways when Baz stirred me with, “Bro, the guys just offered us to sleep in their office. It’s got air-con.”

“Sold,” I said getting up, moving our gear where some of the office workers were playing FIFA on a Playstation console, yelling out excitedly and camouflaging the oxygen in the room with cigarette smoke.

“You have ticket?” asked one guy.

“No,” answered Baz as I set up my sleeping bag. “We buy in the morning.”

“You can buy now,” said the officer as he led us to the ticketing office and sorted us out.

$26 later we each had a ticket to Batam, supposedly on a 29-hour ferry ride including meals. It was the same kind of Titanic-like ferry we had taken from Flores to Lombok.

“How many people?” asked Baz.

“3,500,” answered the officer.

I woke up. “Three… 3,500 people?” I stared at Baz. “On this one boat?” I asked, astounded.

“Yes,” said the officer as though my questioning the impossible number was unquestionable.

“Shit,” said Baz.

In the morning we thanked the security guys as they directed us to the ferry terminal across the road. We walked among the brand-new imported cars waiting at the dock and arrived at a fence only to be directed to walk all the way around to go through to the terminal.

“Shit, man,” I said, turning to the police officer I asked, “Can’t you let us in? We’ve got all this heavy gear.”

He helped out by ordering two motorbike riders to take us free of charge to the terminal entry.

“Terima Kasih,” we thanked them as we passed through security checks that included a baggage X-ray machine and a metal detector that didn’t work. Armed guards, shouldering assault rifles were everywhere and the boarding of the ferry, although we were the few last ones, seemed to be orderly.

Getting de ja vu from the Flores-Lombok ferry ride, we found a spot under a life boat on the top deck in the open air. We clambered over bodies taking up every possible space, babies surrounded by entire families. Tip-toeing about the ship, I discovered a karaoke bar, an arcade gaming area, the restaurant, a mosque – which had the only western-style toilet on board – the pantry and hot water area for filling up our 2-minute noodles.

Sharing our cage-like space with some young local boys, only one speaking very little English. An armed paramilitary officer asked us to not sit in the cage – his locked and loaded assault rifle saving him from our argument. We left our gear and as soon as he disappeared we returned.

That night, after I brought out my guitar and jammed with some of the locals, we slept out in the open, cramming in with the other boys, all 7 of them, in a space not meant for more than 4 Indonesian-sized people.

The next day we met Sam, an Englishman cycling around the world, making his way to Kula Lumpar, Malaysia, to fly out to visit his sick father. He gave us some great travel tips on how to live without money.

I noticed a distant grey cloud and picked out, “Rain,” coming out of it just as an announcement was made and people started to flee into the ferry. “What’s happening?” I asked.P1040391

“Captain announced that there is rain and strong winds ahead,” translated a local, rushing to get into the stairwell. Baz had disappeared inside to charge his phone so I packed our gear and hoped he’d come back before we hit the –

“Oh, shit,” I said as the wind whipped up into a typhoon force, flinging rubbish everywhere.

 

I had to duck a few times as Styrofoam containers flew all about along with plastic bags, wrappers and small babies. The rain pierced my skin like tiny blades. Baz appeared and grabbed his pack as I brought my gear inside, swimming across the deck that had turned into a wading pool.

P1040409As the rain subsided and the sun came back out we hung outside again and could see the city skyline of Singapore, our next destination, on the horizon as we docked at 17:00, two hours after the scheduled time on the island of Batam. We parted ways with Sam and braced ourselves for the chaos that was to ensure.

Ever seen 3,500 people try to get out of one door while another thousand people plus crew are trying to come aboard with heavy luggage?

 

As Baz got sucked through the chaos I decided to hold back and wait, not wanting to risk my guitar (or skeleton) getting crushed.

An hour later, I saw an opening and made my way through the surging crowd. I was literally carried through to the warehouse-like structure that doubled as a holding area. Police were directing people out, stopping the suspicious looking ones for a search. I passed through untouched and found Baz who had found our couchsurfing host, Adi.

Fighting off the leech-like taxi drivers, we made our way to the bus stop only to find that we had missed our last bus to Adi’s home. A taxi driver offered to take us for $6 and even though Adi agreed, we haggled him down to $5.

Both Baz and I had run out of Indonesian money and Adi was generous enough to cover us. He lives in a small village just outside the Batam city centre. “This used to be the main city before the Singaporeans built the centre,” he explained. “The name of the village means ‘Diamond Village’.”

Image“Any diamonds in it?” I asked.

“No,” he laughed as the taxi went down a bumpy road and pulled up outside an apartment complex.

Adi’s pad was a ground-floor studio apartment with green walls and a huge fridge that was too expensive to run so it just stood in the room that doubled as his bedroom and kitchen.

After a long awaited bucket-shower we made our way to the Mega Mall where we bought some supplies, changed over the last of our Aussie dollars and, while Adi went to catch up with friends, we ate at a roadside eatery.

At 21:00 Adi picked us up on his scooter. Bazza was too tired to accept Adi’s offer of going to his office, the headquarters of the Batam Pos, the local newspaper, to use the free Internet. He took the key off Adi and walked home while I spent the next three hours sussing out a couch in Malaysia and Bangkok.

That night Adi had me share his bed with Baz while he slept on the floor.

In the morning, he disappeared and returned at lunch with three KFC meals. Instead of fries, it came with rice.

“Awesome,” Baz said as we munched away watching ‘So You Think You Can Dance’ on the Singaporean channel.

That night, we rode three on Adi’s scooter with Baz driving, leading us to a night market where vendors were selling everything from electronic goods including knock-off iPhones and Galaxies, to backpacks and used clothes, fish and toys. We ate at a restaurant up the road, packing away a jumbo-sized Bakso Baso meatball soup.

IMG_9765From the night market, Adi directed Baz to take us to a dance studio where, it turns out, he is a formidable traditional Indonesian dancer. We played around with the costumes, the girls there dressing Baz and I up, having quite the laugh.

Just past midnight we rode back to Adi’s house where I beat Baz in rock-paper-scissors to sleep in the bed while he blew up his air mattress and took the floor.

 

The next day Adi had a meeting at his office so Baz and I walked to the Mega Mall, looking for a gift for our generous host. I had noticed that his powerboard was slightly on the house-fire hazard side of life while Baz had seen that Adi lacked a mirror. We purchased both items and meet Adi by the road and headed off for lunch at a Warung in his village.

At 13:00 we walked with all our gear back to the Mega Mall with Adi escorting on his bike to show us the way to the ferry terminal to Singapore.

We were $8 short on the fare which, again, Adi was generous enough to cover. We hugged him farewell and passed through immigration, getting our passports stamped, me with my third country and Baz with his fifth.

At 15:00 we boarded the ferry which, for the first time since arriving in Indonesia, departed right on its scheduled 15:10 departure time. It took just an hour to reach Singapore and after passing through customs, we entered a large shopping mall. Without anywhere to place our bags we bee-lined it to the Apple store to use the Internet to contact Lee, our host who was getting married in a week.

P1040413We headed downstairs to sample some mooncakes from the stalls partaking in some Chinese festival.

“This is durian,” said the woman presenting Baz with a toothpick-sized portion.

Durian is a fruit that smells like a cat had taken a shit on top of elephant dung, then a dog had come by, ate it, shat it out and the sun baked it for three days.

Baz shoved it in my mouth.

“Oh, god,” I winced, forcing myself to swallow.

“How is it?” the lady asked.

It’s hard to respond when one dry-wretches. Baz cracked up.

P1040416The next stall had the vendors guessing how much our packs weighed. They each in turned crumbled under the weight of Bazza’s pack as they tried it on. We found a coffee place that had wifi. Bazz shouted a long black and ordered a cappuccino and after telling our story we were upgraded to the large mugs.

A large mug was enough to keep an elephant awake for a week.

We played online before Lee arrived to take us back to his home – in Malaysia.

And then the storm hit. Lightening flashed across the dark sky as thunder bellowed around us while Lee carefully navigated his small car towards the border with Malaysia. The skies opened up and the rain became a waterfall, the road a roaring river.

It was the first huge rains that we had seen since we both started our journey some months ago.

Lee lives in the small Pontian District. He bought us dinner and showed his home.

“You will stay here,” he explained. “I will go sleep at my parent’s house.”

So we had an entire house to ourselves. It was just on midnight but having induced enough coffee to make a sloth be a formidable opponent against Usian Bolt, we watched The Avengers – which, turns out, is a 3-hour movie.

Categories: Adventure Travel, Asia, Indonesia | Tags: , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

VIVA LAS KUTA

We hopped off the bus and onto the busy streets of Kuta in Bali as punters started to head out to the bars and clubs surrounding us. Everywhere we looked all we could see were westerners. The only locals seemed to be the street hustlers.

“Transport, Mister?” asked a local, motioning with two hands a rub ‘n’ tug gesture supposedly to mean a steering wheel.

Bazza grinned as he replied, “No, thanks. Don’t need a double hand job.”

I cracked up as the onslaught of suggestions rained on us like an overturned nasi goreng.

“Taxi, Mister?”

“No,” I replied with a friendly smile, trying to avoid wiping out entire shop stalls with my surf bag. “We’re just around the corner.”

“Rent motorbike, Mister?”

What? No, I just said, “We’re around the corner. We can walk.”

“Massage, Mister?”

“No, I’d just like to get to my –”

“Happy ending, Mister?”

Happy end? “I’m happy enough –”

“Magic mushroom, Mister?”

“Thank you but no,” I have enough hallucinations with acid flashbacks.

“Ganja, Mister? Hashish?”

I can’t believe I’m saying, “No, really. Much appreciated.” I don’t wanna end up like Chappelle Corby in a Bali prison.

“Sudies, Mister?”

What are… You know what, I don’t even want to know why they look like tampons.

“Viagra, Mister?”

Via-what?!? “I’m all natural but thanks for lookin’ out.” That was a first.

Every time foot-hit-pavement we were stopped and shot at, from point blank, with the same questions from one end of the street to the other.

Then the souvenir shop vendors took their line of fire:

“Yes, boss? You come in my shop, boss. Yes, mate? Yes, bro?”

“I travel light,” I said, pushing through the crowd with my board.

“Sunglasses, Mister?”

I stared at the vendor through the dark lenses of the ones I got in Kupang. “I’m wearing a pair.”

“Hat, Mister?”

“And deprive the world of my curls?” I think not, thank you very much.

“Painting, Mister?”

I sighed, breathed in deeply, smiled, thanked the guy and followed Baz down the alleyway to look for a place to stay for the night and perhaps the rest of the week.

“Bougainville Guesthouse,” I read the poster on the wall directing to the place of accommodation. “Free Wifi, pool, hot shower, air-con, fan, breakfast. From $15. Baz,” I called out and we headed towards the peach-coloured building.

Greeted by a friendly local, he walked us to one of the rooms, passing a small swimming pool. The room itself was pretty bare. Two single beds, a closet, a large bathroom with shower and a western flushing toilet. Between the two of us it would cost $7.5 each.

“I’m sold,” Baz said even though the wifi didn’t work and the term ‘hot shower’ referred to the luke-warm water from the tap – not that you needed a hot shower anywhere in South East Asia.

I agreed. After a quick luke-warm wash, we hit the packed streets, full of Aussies from the Bogan species along with Germans and French. We plowed through the onslaught of questions and made it to Sky Garden, recommended to us as the place to go in Kuta by Pablo back on Lombok. We passed the security search and climbed up the five stories to the top level for the 21:00-22:00 free drinks.

We had arrived in Bali that morning after being on the road from 6 AM. We caught the $4 ferry barge from Lembar, Lombok where Pablo and Brian O’Brian were kind enough to drive us the two-hour drive to the port.

Six hours later, after watching White House Down with Jamie Fox and Channing Tataum on the LG wall-mounted flat screen, located above the cupboards housing the lifejackets, we arrived in Padang, Bali at about 13:00.

The bus to Kuta was leaving at 16:30 so we sat at a café with wifi, had lunch, surfed the web and then threw our gear onto the bus (I had to pay an extra $1.5 for the surfboard). The backpackers on board were hanging on to our every word, wide-eyed as we told our story of going around the world without flying, helping out various organisations as we went along.

I noticed that the roads in Bali had actual lanes, some even turning into a 4-lane highway.

“We’re not in Kansas anymore, Baz,” I said, astounded to see luxury cars like BMW, VW and Mercedes.

The full moon rose as we hit Kuta’s busy streets, passing brand shops like Ripcurl, Reef, Billabong, Nike, Zara, Dolce & Gabana, countless bars and clubs with lights, smoke and loud music blasting out to the crowded streets. There were KFC, McDonald’s, Pizza Hut, Boost, Flapjaks, resorts galore. And about eight Starbuck’s Coffee (for comparison, Melbourne only has one).

I noticed that almost every souvenir store was selling (among the hats and sunnies) key rings, bottle openers and free-standing statuettes – all in the shape of penises.

“What’s with all the cocks?” I wondered aloud.

Sky Garden, just two venues down from the Bali bombings of 2002, played the cheesiest of cheesy pop auto-tune music although the DJ (who looked like DJ Eyeball Paul from Kerry and Perry Go Large) had some classic hip hop moments.

He also looked like the poster boy as to why you shouldn’t take illicit drugs.

Shisha pipes were being smoked all around as go-go dancers danced on the bars and tables along with masked fire twirlers performing for the crowd.

The free drinks were a fluorescent choice of blue, orange and yellow, all tasting like battery acid and just as strong.

I’ve had moonshine with more flavour.

By 23:00 we figured we’d try the other recommended venue, Alley Cats. On the street we asked a French girl where we could find it.

“It’s closed. We go to the reggae bar. Come,” and she latched onto my arm, her friend leading us a few bars down.

P1040364We hit a place just off the main street called Apache Bar. We entered what appeared to be a large wedding-like reception hall with wood floors, wood walls and wood stalls. The 7-piece reggae band stood on a huge wooden stage, taking up the entire right-side of the wooden venue. They were playing under huge paintings of Bob Marley, playing covers of the reggae king’s greatest songs. The whole place looked like a shrine to the rasta man.

Between sets the house DJ played more reggae songs and even threw in Peter Andre’s ‘Mysterious Girl’ (which destroyed what little brain cells I had left by lodging itself in my head for the remainder of my time in Bali).

By 01:00 we were making our way back to the guesthouse, smiling politely to the various prostitutes, declining their propositions. Neither Baz nor I support the sex trade – also known as slavery – and I’ll never pay for it.

I summed up that Kuta may just be the Vegas of Indonesia – minus the casinos.

And strip clubs.

***

We had found a nearby Warung, a small eatery, in a side alley that served local food at local prices. A bowl of rice, a piece of chicken, egg, tempura, steamed yam leaves and boiled green beans with ass-burning, gonna-feel-that-in-the-morning chilli costing no more than $2.

With Kuta Beach just a 10-minute walk down the alleyway, I unsheathed my surfboard and with Baz, we headed down to see if at least the beaches might be clean enough for a swim and a surf.

Image“You go surfing, Mister?” a vendor asked, gesturing to my surfboard.

Obviously, this guy doesn’t bowl, I thought as I politely said, “No,” to his offer of a motorbike with a surf rack.

Have these people no concept of walking?

The beach, with beige-coloured sand, was empty of rubbish but full of vendors trying to sell, “Bintang, Mister?”

“Too early, bro,” I grinned.

“Ice cream, Mister?”

“Really, I’m good.”

“Massage, Mister?”

Getting de ja vu.

“Rent surfboard, Mister?”

I stopped and stared. I mean, sure, I was only carrying a 6”0 board but was it that small that he just offered me to rent a fucking surfboard?

P1040304 While Baz baked in the sun, I hit the water and caught a few 2-foot waves gently breaking close to shore, closing out – over sand. I chatted with Thea as we waited for waves. She was a local surf instructor working for the Hard Rock Hotel.

“Free surf lessons on Sunday,” she informed, asking me to spread the word.

 

 

After a couple of hours of wave-catching through the crowded surf, Baz and I walked back to the guesthouse and passed the next few days in that same routine up until the day before Bazza’s birthday when the waves started to pick up to 3-foot and I spent 5-hours in the water, watching beginners catching their first waves, remembering that magical feeling of elevation when I caught my first ride almost 3-years ago.P1040297-1

I caught some 3-foot rides, shooing off local drop-ins and having to duck-dive deep when a newbie lost control of his board and headed straight for me. I felt my right leg, still recovering from the deep cuts of the Lombok reefs, getting sandwiched between my board and his.

I winced as I came up for air.

“Jesus! I didn’t see you. Are you alright? Oh my God, I didn’t see you. I’m really sorry –”

“Bro,” I almost had to slap him back to reason. “All good. It happens. I’m fine, really. I saw ya and ducked. All good, seriously. Go catch some waves.” Just not near me.

Baz took advantage of Thea’s offer for a free surf ride and hung out with the guys giving free lessons. We invited everyone we met to his birthday bash titled, Big Bad Bazza’s Bonkers Bali Birthday Bash.

“Tomorrow night at Alley Cats,” we informed them. “$1.5 for ‘double-double’,” a local energy drink with arak, the local name for local vodka.

As we left the beach we noticed that a large crowd had gathered further ahead. We approached with curiosity and were surprised to discover hundreds of baby sea turtles in large buckets.

Image“Excuse me,” I approached the local man wearing the Turtle Conservation shirt, “what’s going on here?” wondering why he wasn’t wearing a turtleneck.

“We have a program ,” he explained, “where we release baby sea turtles back into the water with a Hindu ceremony. People can buy a turtle for $10 and then release it into the water.”

Baz only had a dollar on him and offered it to the girls handing out the turtles who gave us one to release.

“Tim,” Baz named it as we joined the crowd by the water, releasing the young ones.

“What’s their rate of survival?” I asked the man in charge.

“Well, today we release 500 turtles but only 10% will survive.”

“That’s only 50 turtles,” exclaimed Baz.

“It’s not easy being a turtle,” I nodded grimly.

***

IMG_9587-1

© Barry-Dean Dewson, 2013

Bazza’s day of birth kicked off with a few hours surfing and then a full body massage for just $5. We went to Sky Garden to take advantage of the $5 All-you-can-eat BBQ buffet including free beers from 17:00-18:00.

We slammed down three Bintangs each in fifteen minutes and then piled on the food, covering our plates with potato salad, coleslaw, mashed potato, steamed potato, pizza, lasagne, pasta, bolognese, chicken, steak, hamburger, seafood skewers and followed up with a dessert of tarts and fresh watermelon and a yellow fruit which had me excited thinking it was pineapple from a distance but turned out to be a disappointing rockmelon.

We continued to chug down the beers and just after 19:00 we made our fashionably late entrance at Alley Cats.

The place was empty save for an American drowning his sorrows in his drink at the bar. We sat beside him and cheered him up, explaining our way of travels as he referred to women as “Psycho killers,” and I responded with, “Qes qe ce?” he bought Baz a birthday drink and for me an appreciation drink for knowing who Talking Heads were.

He told us a bit of his past, how he used to be a surfer on the US national surf team, competing with the likes of former world champion Tom Curren before switching to cycling and riding with Lance Armstrong back when Lance still had two balls.

Two German girls we had met the day before showed up and we played a few rounds of pool on the free pool table. Then the rest of the invitees arrived. Guests from the guesthouse where we were staying, Thea and the surf crew and other friends they had brought as the place began to fill up with punters, mostly Aussies and other westerners.

Timing it right, I approached the table behind us and asked them to sing ‘Happy Brithday’ for Bazz. Before I knew it, the whole venue was screaming at the top of their lungs, properly kicking off the night.

At around 23:00 we made our way to Apache Bar for a night of reggae. The band was about to perform their second set as ‘Mysterious Girl’ pumped the crowd. I slipped the lead singer (who had the fattest, longest single dreadlock I had ever seen, just skimming above the floor) a note, ‘Happy Birthday, Bazza’.

I was just expecting a shout-out rather than the slowest reggae version of ‘Happy Birthday’ which had the packed place cheering and surrounding Baz who was grinning cheek-to-cheek. We danced for a few hours until I couldn’t take the reggae beat any more.

I stepped outside to breath in the pungent air of sin that was Kuta, Bali. I hit various venues just to listen to music that wasn’t reggae, watching a cover band play rock songs, declining the offer of motorbikes, taxis, drugs and prostitutes.

As I yawned and made my way back to the guesthouse, I bumped into Baz and we headed out to another venue, dancing with some local girls. As the streets wrapped up their wares at around 03:00, we called it a night.

Categories: Adventure Travel, Asia, Conservation, Indonesia | Tags: , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.