Vancouver - Hong-Kong - Kuala Lumpur - Indonesia
We flew out of Mexico with Air Alaska with a short stop over in LA. It felt very weird to be in a non-Spanish speaking environment and also in a place where you could hardly get a starter for less than 10 USD. The other main thing that felt awkward was to be able to flush the paper down the toilet... We were desperately looking for the bin on the side of the toilet seat as we have been used to for the past 8 months!
Upon arrival in Vancouver we were greeted by our friend Christian who generously lent us his apartment for the duration of our stay. A Godsend given the prices in what we believe is the most expensive city we have ever been to. We stayed in the nice suburb of Kitsilano, just across the bridge that links downtown Vancouver with the rest of town.
The first thing we noticed was the quality of the air! It was pure and refreshing. People seem to all have healthy life styles and seem all very outdoorsy. It is no surprise with the proximity to the sea and the mountain. The other thing we noticed was the huge Chinese community that later made us think of Vancouver of a cleaner and cooler version of Hong-Kong where we headed next.
We spent a bit of time in Victoria, Vancouver Island, where we went whale watching. We saw a few killer whales but at a distance that was not satisfactory to us! It was nevertheless quite impressive.
Charlotte's parents came over from France to visit us and we did a bit of sightseeing with them in the various parks and forest of this very green town of Vancouver.
Vancouver is the type of town that is absolutely gorgeous when sunny however when it's grey and rainy , this is one of the last towns you would want to live in. Unfortunately we have been told that it is grey and rainy 80% of the time otherwise that would have been my top choice for a place to live and work.
We left Vancouver on a 12 hours flight to Hong-Kong with Air Canada. We were extremely lucky to be upgraded to executive/business class
on that flight and this is without any guilt that we drank champagne and french wine while watching movies lying down on our beds. This was our best flight ever.
We arrived in Hong-Kong early evening and had a bit of a shock. Our hotel was in the most populated area on the planet around Mong Kok station and as we got of the bus we felt like we were on a different planet, with big neon signs in Chinese, towering skyscrapers, fast walking people and horrible smells of dried fish. We struggled to find our tiny room on the 8th floor of a big tower and Charlotte went to sleep as I ventured out for an hour to immerse myself in the madness.
We went to Hong-Kong for one reason only: to get our Chinese visa. On our first day, we went to the embassy and after filling in the paper work the girl at the office told us "You are French?" and handed us another document with 'special instructions' for French people. Visas can usually be obtained in 1 to 2 working days except for French people (minimum 4 working days) who also need to buy a special travel insurance, have a printed itinerary from a tourist agency and proof of flights in and out of the country. I'm glad we didn't buy the flight out of Beijing as planned as even with it we couldn't have got the VISA as we were staying 5 days in Hong-Kong with only 3 working days. I was in a terrible mood (and even now I am still in a terrible mood when I think of it) and it ruined a bit my first 2 days in Hong-Kong.
After getting over the disappointment of not going to China we managed to thoroughly enjoy our time here. Well, at least I did but Charlotte was not too impressed by the pollution, the stuffy atmosphere and by the terrible smell of fish and sewers. Hong-Kong is comprised of several islands, some of which are not very populated, green and hilly with traditional fishing villages and Chinese temples. These make good day trip out of the madness of the center. We also went to Macau for the day, which was an interesting place with a lot of Portuguese influence in the architecture as well as Chinese obviously. Macau is most famous for its casinos in which we briefly went to before heading back to Hong-Kong in the evening.
I was very pleasantly surprised by the numerous things to do in Hong-Kong but I wouldn't pick July next time (to get the Chinese Visa?) as it can get horribly hot and humid. It is a good introduction to Asia as the Chinese influence is strong but at the same time people speak mostly English and transports, shopping malls, etc are very modern.
We flew out of Hong-Kong to Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia where we spent 2 nights and one day, waiting for our connection to Yogyakarta in Indonesia. On the first night we went out with Visnu, one of our friend's cousin who lives in KL. We had the best Thai food ever and tried numerous trendy bars of KL before heading to our hotel in the early hours of the day with a really bad headache. You can imagine that we didn't do much the following day. KL is modern and mostly clean.
There seem to be a big expat community leaving there. Salaries are high and cost of living fairly low so it's not really a surprised to see many foreigners from Europe, South-East Asia, India and the Middle East settling there. On the night before our flight to Indonesia I got sick because of some dodgy Moroccan food and it is wih relief that we arrived in Yogyakarta after another very short night.
Indonesia is a bit like 'India light'. We weren't that impressed at first in Yogyakarta. I was still under the disappointment of not getting the Chinese Visa and everything seemed pointless to me. Yogyakarta is a big hectic city full of motorbikes, rickshaws, street vendors and big markets: a typical Asian-Indian town with no particular charm. The area where we stayed was interesting with small narrow streets interlinked with small paths forming some kind of maze. There were however a few sights worth visiting around Yogyakarta: an incredible Hindu temple which we saw at sun set and a fantastic Buddhist temple which we saw for sun rise.
Indonesian people are mostly Muslims but some parts of the country are mostly Hindus (Bali). We had very good contacts with them and they often ask us (or not) to take photos with them. At first we thought we were special but we later found out that they often do that to tourists! Some times it was a bit awkward but usually it was very friendly. Students easily talk to us as well as they want to practice their English.
It is very refreshing to have such a contact with people and to be able to walk around freely without being scared of getting robbed or mugged (as we often felt in South America).
Transport in Indonesia is the big problem. Local buses where drivers and passengers smoke and with no fixed schedules are a bit tough to handle! So we took spacious and inexpensive tourist mini-vans to get us across the island of Java with two stops on the way before getting independently to Bali Island.
We visited the area around Bromo volcano. I have no word to describe it.
We were telling some friends the day before that when you travel for so long you really need something exceptional to get you motivated and that you don't tend to enjoy some sites as much as you should e.g. we have seen hundreds of monkeys and turtles, etc.. so when someone tries to sell us a snorkeling trip to see turtles we have no real interest in it anymore. With the visit of Mount Bromo national park we really got our motivation back. It was truly sensational to hike up a mountain at night before sunrise and discover after the sun rises, 4 active volcanoes in a lunar landscape. The setting was spectacular, with the village on a cliff right next to a field of ashes and volcanic rocks. On top of that, Bromo is very active at the moment and regularly puffs out clouds of black smoke in the air. It happened as we where climbing down the volcano. The cloud of smoke covered the sun in what seemed like a solar eclipse for a moment. It was a very eerie moment.
We then stopped near Mount Ijen, another active volcano. We thought it wouldn't be as good as our experience in Bromo the day before but we were wrong. We started our hike at 5.00am after one hour by car already and got to the summit before 6.00am. The views of the sulfur clouds steaming out of the crater lake with miners working next to it to extract blocks of sulfur was again incredible. We walked for about 2 hours around the crater and could observe other nearby volcanoes and on one side we could also see the sea at a distance.
We finally made it to Bali where our first stop was the small beach resort of Pemuteran. We paid a little bit more than what we usually pay for the accommodation but in Indonesia you do really get a lot out of your money. We had an almost luxury room for 30 usd with Balinese architecture in a small garden just across the street from the breach. It's nice sometimes to have a shower with hot water, AC and a very spacious room!
We dived here twice and were amazed by the quality and the color of the corals but the marine life wasn't great.
We left Pemuteran for the small mountain village of Munduk. Again, we couldn't resist the first room we saw with an incredible view on the rice terraces and surrounding mountains. We rented a scooter for 2 days and explored the local area and beyond as it turned out that we drove 50k on one day and 110k on the other. It was a bit scary to drive it as the traffic was mad at times. Fortunately we also went through remote area among rice terraces that were incredible to see. The area has been put forward for Unesco world heritage and rightly deserves it. The views were terrific. We also visited a lot of Hindu temples which were very crowded with local people celebrating their gods for a holy festival that takes place at the moment.
We then left for the tourist magnet of Ubud where we walked for two days around local villages surrounded by rice paddies. We also went to the Monkey forest to observe Balinese Macaques up close. This was very interesting to walk around wild animals.