A Travellerspoint blog

Asia - Weeks 42 to 45

Malaysia-Brunei-Singapore: The End of the journey



On our way back from Flores and before heading to Malaysia for the last part of our journey, we decided to spend some quality time by the beach in Bali. When we got off the plane we still had no idea where we would go and after an hour of discussions we decided to get a taxi to Sanur, described as a nice and relaxed seaside location not too far from the airport. We managed to find a decent place to stay with a swimming pool but the town was just a tourist magnet without any charm. All restaurants were well overpriced for Indonesian standards and the beach didn't appeal to us much. We only spent two nights and three days there but it felt like an eternity to us. On our last day we had a late evening flight to Kuala Lumpur so we decided to visit the Ulu Watu temple and have dinner on the beach in Jimbaran, not far from the airport. The temple was set in a stunning location on top of a cliff at the very end of the Bukit peninsula.
The place is famous for its big population of cheeky macaques who often steal from inattentive tourists.
We were also lucky to see a Hindu celebration while visiting the place.
Finally we went to Jimbaran to have a very nice seafood dinner on the beach with a magnificent sunset on the sea. It was a very touristy experience (which we nevertheless enjoyed) so we left Indonesia in style - having spent in one meal more than what we usually spent in one day.

Semporna area:

We landed in Kuala Lumpur around midnight and we decided to stay at the airport until the morning when we had our next flight to Tawau in the state of Sabbah in the Malaysian part of the island of Borneo. The low cost terminal closes between 1am and about 4am so we decided to sleep on the floor just outside the terminal together with many other tourists in the same situation as us. We finally made it to Tawau and then onto Semporna where we had booked several days of diving with Scuba Junkie. The fishing town of Semporna is not appealing however it is a good base to go diving as it is close to many diving sites and has decent accomodation as well as good and cheap options for food.

Scuba Junkie told us that all the permits had been sold to dive the world famous site of Pulau Sipadan so we booked 3 days of diving around the other islands. In the afternoon, we enquired with another dive shop and they told us that they had availabilities to dive Sipadan on our last day in Semporna however we had to take a 3 days package with them. Having already booked with Scuba Junkie we decided to give it a go with them anyway having been told that the other dive sites were also spectacular anyway but we were a bit upset to find out that the number of spaces for Sipadan were allocated per dive shop and not globally as Scuba Junkie implied in their communication with us.

We did our first day of diving around the island of Mabul.
The day started quite early for us from Semporna and upon arrival in Mabul we wasted a lot of time waiting for divers who were staying on Mabul so in the end we didn't start diving until well into the morning. The visibility and marine life was very poor and we were getting quite frustrated with Scuba Junkie. When we got back to Semporna, we paid them for the 3 dives and went back to the other dive shop, Scuba Sipadan, to negotiate a 2 days package with them, including 3 dives around Matakin island and 3 dives at Sipadan. Our experience with them as well as the sites we dove at were much better. The reef near Matakin was teeming with giant turles, the island postcard perfect and the people very nice.
Diving at Sipadan was also very nice. There was quite a bit of current and we were swimming quickly seeing on the way a lot of giant turles, barracudas and sharks including white tip and grey sharks. Our 34th, 35th and 36th dives were among the best since we started diving in Honduras a few months ago but unfortunately the last ones for a while.

Sepilok/Kinabatangan area:

We left Semporna by bus to get to Sepilok where is located one of Borneo's three Oran-Utang rehabilitation's centers. We checked in at Uncle's Tan lodge and headed to the rehabilitation centre for the 3pm feeding. When we got there a bit ahead of the feeding time we were the only tourists here and could already see a mother with a baby, waiting for the feeding. After a little while, the observation platform was packed with tourists and all in all our experience was not so great as although the center is in the middle of the forest, the feeding area was quite built up and there was a zoo-like atmosphere to the whole thing. The primates do however live totally in the wild in a protected area and may or may not turn up for the feeding.
The following day we got transfered by van and boat to the Uncle's Tan jungle lodge near one of river Kinabatangan's tributaries. We were really disappointed to find out that we were about 20-25 in our group. Our jungle experience in Ecuador where we were 5 tourists in a very nice jungle lodge seemed very far away. Lodging at the camp was very basic and we could only shower in an open area with buckets of murky water from the river. We are not very picky about that anyway but the wildlife viewing wasn't exceptional either, which made our experience a bit disappointing. There were however a couple of positive points to that jungle trip: the food was excellent and we managed to spot a slow loris - a very elusive endangered species (pictured below) - during our night walk as well as a civet cat (also pictured below) during our last morning walk.
Sights of birds asleep at night were also fun as well as sights of the hornbill bird, which looked to me as a cousin of the toucan from South and Central America.
We saw the famous "big nose" or proboscis monkey from a distance and had a glimpse of an oran-utang from very far away on our way back to the Sepilok area on our last day.

Kota Kinabalu area

After our 3 days trip in the jungle we arrived in Kota Kinabalu (KK) in the early evening and went to the Filipino night market where we could pick our sea food from the stalls before it being grilled for us. KK is a big Malaysian town, fairly modern with all the amenities you may be looking for. We spent one day shopping in the numerous air-conditioned malls and went to the cinema for the first time in months.

Early morning on the next day we got transfered to the entrance of Mount Kinabalu's national park, where our guide was waiting for us for the 2 days ascent of Asia's highest peak at 4095m above sea level. After a bit of an argument with Charlotte I decided to set off quickly at my own pace knowing that the trail to the mountain lodge at Laban Rata was straightforward to follow.
I got to Laban Rata in just above 2 hours after rushing throuh the ascent and overtaking on the way everyone who started the hike before us. As I was recovering from my effort in the lodge's restaurant I saw Charlotte coming in only about 20 minutes after me in second place.
Judging by her purple face she must have put a lot of effort to try to catch me up but in the end we had a good laugh and we felt a bit foolish to be there that early knowing that we had to spend the whole day and night there before attempting the summit ascent early morning the next day. Based on our performance during the first part of our acent, our guide recommended us not to start the ascent beore 3.30am otherwise we would have to wait at the top in freezing conditions way before sun rise. We then left the base camp last and we reached the top 1h45 later. The cold was unbearable and I could hardly move my fingers to take photos. The views were nice but not amazing.
On the way down, we briefly stopped at Laban rata to have a very filling breakfast and then I decided to run down most of the last 6.5k.
I arrived first at the bottom with Charlotte not far behind. With hindsight we thought we could have done the whole ascent over a very long day without wasting so much time at Laban Rata. If you are fit and that all the beds are booked up in the mountain huts you should consider doing it in one day if you really want to get to the summit which is a questionnable objective on its own...

After the climb, we got straight back to KK and enjoyed an afternoon at the cinema where we watched two movies one after the other and finished the day in a nice Indian restaurant by the (smelly) sea front. We didn't realise until the following morning that our leg muscles were really sore and it took us 4 days to be able to walk effortlessly again! After all, a one day hike to Kinabalu might no have been a good idea.


We left KK by boat to go to the sultanate of Brunei via the small independent Malaysian island of Labuan. Upon arrival at the ferry terminal in Brunei we waited for a bus to Bandar Seri Begawan (BSB), the capital city, but none came and nobody could tell us when it would come. There was no taxi either so we waited a bit more until some guy came and said he was a taxi driver. He drove us into town and we checked in our Russan-like hotel with swimming pool and clean and tasteless marbled rooms. Our first impression was that of a quite modern, clean and empty small country in the middle of the tropics. Very weird. We walked around an empty town for a little while and took photos of the Mosque before heading to the waterfront to try to negotiate a boat ride through the mangrove to see the proboscis (big nose) monkeys at sunset.
We did see the monkeys from pretty close range and went back in town after sunset where we expected to find a lot of activity in the period of ramadan. There was not a soul in town. Almost desert. We even struggled a bit to find a place to eat.
We didn't really know what to do on the next day! We went to the Brunei museum a bit out of town and took another boat ride through the water village with our boatman pointing at every school he knew and saying "school", obviously the only English word he knew. The water village is possibly the largest of its kind with a large community of people living in stilt houses and having their own schools, police and fire brigade all on stilt...

Miri/Mulu area:

We left BSB to go bak to Malaysia in the state of Sarawak. We arrived in the uninspiring town of Miri where we did nothing at all and waited for our short flight to Mulu national park on the next day.
The accomodation inside the park was fully booked so we checked in a big dormitory just outside of the park entrance and took an afternoon tour to visit the Deer and Lang caves and see the flying foxes (bats) come out of it at dusk. The caves were quite impressive in size but unfortunately we didn't see the bats come out since it was pouring down outside.
On the next day we took a small boat down the river in the jungle and visited a few more caves on the way to the starting point of our trek to the Pinnacles, an impressive limestone formation high up in the hills of the tropical rain forest. We walked the 9k to the camp fairly quickly in really hot and humid weather and spent most of the afternoon waiting around the river for our next day ascent to the Pinnacles.
We started the ascent at 6am and it took us 3.5 hours to climb 2.4km! We made it as a group with several stops on the way but although not particularly difficult, we needed to use ropes and ladders towards the top and the humidity was hardly bearable. Once at the top we could admire the view of the rock formation just on time before the mist covered it all.
We turned back and made it back to the camp in about the same amount of time. In the end, we walked for about 7h to see a few rocks for less than 15 minutes and we feel like these Pinnacles were just a dream and that we actually never went there. At the camp, we once again cooled down in the cold river water and spent another night there before going back to the airport for our flight to Kuching.
The flight was cancelled. We were initially quite annoyed but in the end we spent the night for free at the Royal Mulu Resort where we had a room bigger than our flat, a big swimming pool and a huge all you can eat buffet for dinner and breakfast with a lot of western food, which we had been craving for for a while. Thank you Malaysian Airlines!

Kuching area:

The atmosphere in Kuching was again hot and humid. It is not an unpleasant town with a mix of mostly Chinese and Indian people but there isn't much to do. On the first day we spent quite some time at the Sarawak park office to register for the visit of Bako National Park over the next two days. We then walked around town and enjoyed the cheap food in open markets.

Upon arrival by boat in Bako NP on a peninsula North of Kuching we saw a lot of Proboscis monkeys from very close range.
At last we managed o get good photos from them and we were able to observe them for a while. We then spent the rest of the day walking in the jungle for a 5h trek in hot and humid weather. We didn't see much wildlife but the vegetation was nice and we met two french guys, Manu and Ben with whom we got on well. After dinner I decided to go on an organised night walk while Chalotte, Manu and Ben decided to stay at the camp. It was very interesting. We saw a few pit vipers, phasms, frogs, geckos, flying lemur and a massive scorpion that was easily spoted using an UV light.
On the next day we saw a lot of silver leaf monkeys,macaques and proboscis monkeys around the park head quarter before heading towards a beautiful beach.
On the way we spotted a big pit viper to which I got dangerously close to get a nice shot.
We then took a boat to connect to another beach and walked back to the head quarter to be transfered back to Kuching.

In the evening we went to an excellent food court (Top Spot) with fresh seafood to order from the stalls. It was then cooked to your taste. We had a well deserved fantastic dinner.

For our last day in Malaysia we went to the Semengogh Orangutan rehabilitation centre. It rained all night and drizzled in the morning so we weren't that hopefull to see the Orangutans. When we got there the park rangers were desperately calling them around feeding time and after a long while we could see branches moving high up in the trees from a distance. They were coming. It was trully awesome experience to see them coming and moving from branches to branches. It didn't look like a staged performance as we felt in Sepilok and we enjoyed the moment far more.
In the afternoon we went on a boat trip in the mangrove where we saw a few proboscis monkeys again as well as crocodiles eyes and firelflies. Nothing spectacular except for the amazing sunset on the river. Our last on in Malaysia for a while.


After checking in our hotel we headed for lunch in the little India area for a nice set menu.
We then left our aching laptop in an electronic shop to try to recover the hard drive and all the photos from our trip.
After that we just walked around town for a few hours and marvelled at the mix of cultures and architecture in this modern Asian capital.
We later found out that our hard drive could not be saved.

We spent most of the next day at the Zoo with its impressive collection of animals who are semi-wild. We could walk around the zoo with monkeys in the trees above without any kind of fence or protection.

In the evening we enjoyed once more one of the numerous food courts with some excellent Chinese food. Singapore is a great place for cheap and tasty food or very expensive and fine one too.

We spent our last day visiting the area around Marina Bay with it's luxury hotel on top of which lies a park and a swimming pool in a structure which looks like a giant boat. We were also amazed to see a roller skating track as well as venetian gondolas inside.

After one last cheap Thai food dinner we packed our bags again and went to the airport to catch our flight to Nice in France via Dubai as if we were just coming back to our normal life from a short holidays...

More comments to come in a later post to analyse this amazing year and how we coped (not so well I tell you!) with coming back to Europe....................................

Thanks for following us. I hope it will inspire some of you to take the plunge and discover the world as we did for the past 11 months.

Posted by lebrunfo 07:05 Archived in Malaysia Comments (1)

Asia - Week 40 & 41

As every single tourist in Ubud we attended a traditional Balinese dance show at the water palace which was well worth going to.
On our last day in Ubud, Bali, we rented a scooter early morning and visited several temples and small villages in the area. In the evening I went again for a walk in the rice fields to take some sun rise photos.
Gili Islands:
On the next day we travelled to the island of Gili Air, just off the North-West coast of Lombok island, the next big island East of Bali. The Gilis are a set of 3 small islands: trendy and party-oriented Gili Trawangan, laidback and underdevelopped Gili Meno and Gili Air, favorite among couples for good facilities and a bit quieter than Trawangan.
After finding a cheap cabin we headed to the beach where we had a nice lunch lying in the sun on some comfy cushions.
In the afternoon we had to make a decision about the way to go for the rest of our indonesian journey. We wanted to visit the island of Flores and visit Komodo islands on the way for some diving and Komodo dragon spotting. since all the flights were fully booked, the two options we had where either to get on a horrible 33 hours trip by bus and ferries or to get on a low budget 4days/3nights cruise with 20 other backpackers. We had heard bad reviews from both options but decided for the latter since it actually saved time and money doing this while seeing more of the country on the way.

Finally in the evening we did our first night dive with Gili Air divers, a newly open dive shop owned by a nice french couple. "Bibi" who is really passionate about macro diving showed us a lot of interesting species (frog fish, squids, nudies, etc..) for our longest dive so far in about 95 minutes.

On the next day we just relaxed, did some good snorkelling with strong currents though but it also rained a bit in the afternoon so we weren't particularly sad to leave the next day on our cruise.
The cruise to Labuan Bajo:
The first day of the cruise is mostly spent on dry land! We were transferred to Lombok where nothing happened for a little while and then we took a bus to cross the island of Lombok. We boarded the boat mid afternoon and the captain stopped the extremly noisy engine for the night after a couple of hours sailing. The conditions on board were very basic. We had mattresses next to each others on the very long and narrow upper deck, a tiny common area at the front for food and not much else. No showers of course and almost nowhere to rest. We didn't feel like talking to anyone on board which was fine because nobody felt like talking to us either. In the end we only talked to a nice spanish couple on honeymoon (remind me not to go on a boat full of backpackers for 4 days on my honeymoon!) and Lizzie from England.

On the second day we stopped for some snorkelling near Moyo Island, just off the main Island of Sumbawa. We also did a short walk inland to see a cool waterfall. The boat then sailed for more than 24 hours non-stop with a deafening sound and at times the see was quite rough, especially in the mioddle of the night... We could hardy get any sleep and with the wind we were really cold.
On the third day we stopped early morning for a short hike with really nice views of the surrounding islands. It reminded me a bit of some of the scenery that we saw in the Galapagos islands.
We then went to the island of Komodo to see the fierce dragons, which are the world's biggest lizards. We went on a 2 hours hike with a guide on the island but we didn't see any dragon there, which is not unexpected anyway. However, as expected, we did see the dragons near the camp site's kitchen where they usually hang out drawn by the smell of food. They are big, hughe beasts you don't want to mess around with!
Although it was very impressive to see them here it would have been much better to see them in the wild rather than next to the camp's kitchen. I guess they have become quite lazy and probably enjoy being shot at by tourists' cameras. In the evening we went to flying fox bay to admire thousands of big bats, also called flying foxes, fly off from the trees at sunset. There were so many of them that the reddish sunset sky turned black as it filled with a cloud of hungry bats going to look for food at night.
The bats were not the only hungry ones... at each meal on the boat we almost had to fight to get there first and manage to get hold of some food. There was plenty of food but our fellow friends on the boat didn't think twice before emptying the dishes before everyone had been served. That night, the engine was off so we thought we could get a good night sleep. Unfortunately most of the guys on board decided to have a wild night, drinking all night and raiding other boats moored nearby. We wished they'd been eaten by sharks while spupidly jumping of the boat, drunk, in the middle of the night.

The following morning, Charlotte, Lizzie, me and the spanish couple set off early with a private guide to visit the island of Rinca, also home to Komodo dragons. The rest of the bunch was badly hungover. The walk was pleasant and we saw a couple of small dragons in the wild as well as wild buffalos and a snake. Again, there were more dragons near the camp's kitchen but all in all the experience was better on Rinca than on Komodo. In the afternoon we finally made it to Labuan Bajo, on the Western part of the island of Flores and we rushed out of the damn boat to find a place to stay for the night. We didn't regret our choice of making that cruise as we saw amazing scenery and were able to visit Komodo and Rinca without paying too much but we wouldn't do it again!
Diving around Komodo:
Without wasting any time, we boarded another boat the next day for a 2 days live-aboard diving trip around the islands of Komodo. We dove with Dany'ssss dive shop who had been reccomended to us by the french divers on Gili Air. apparently there were some problems with petrol supply and hence on the first day we didn't go as far as expected from Labuan Bajo and although the diving was nice there was nothing exceptional and we started to moan a bit as the 2 days trip cost us quite a bit. The boat was nothing like the one from the previous few days though. We had a nice little area to sleep in on the upper deck as well as a lot of places to relax, enjoy the sun and the food that was prepared for us.
On the second day we managed to get more petrol and headed further away from the coast. We had a great time there as we saw big manta rays which we could watch for more than 30 minutes. One of them was going in circles around us and got within centimeters of me. On another dive we saw a lot of white tip sharks and generally speaking the visibility was great, the corals very nice and shoals of fish in abundance.

Road trip to Maumere:
We had arranged to hire a driver for 5 days to take us across the island of Flores. Although not impossible to do by public transport I think that with limitted time it would have been a lot less enjoyable as Flores is all about the scenery and natural beauty, which you can't really see or appreciate from a public bus window. Our driver, Donatus, didn't speak a word of English so we had to try to communicate in Indonesian using the few words that we could find in our guide book. Although frustrating a times, it turned out to be a very good experience. Donatus was very nice and kind to us but also the slowest driver ever!!
The main sights of the first day were the views from the rice fields, especially the spider web rice terraces that were trully stunning to look at from a distance on a hill nearby. The geometric shapes created by the cultivated areas are trully amazing and a photographer's paradise.
We stopped for the night in a convent at Ruteng, where the room was the cleanest we had in indonesia. Charlotte spent most of the day lying on the back seat with terrible stomach aches.
She was sick again at night and for most of the next day as well. Our driver felt powerless and brought back some paracetamol, which couldn't really help but the intention was nice.

On the second day we headed to Bajawa with again very nice views of the rice paddies and Gunung Inerie, the volcano next to Bajawa.
All day I could here from the car window: "Hello mister" shouted by local kids really curious and excited by the sight of a tourist. The island of Flores is quite poor but the people - mostly catholic here - very kind. As soon as I got out of the car to take photos, children often came out of nowhere to talk or stare at me.
On the third day the weather around the volcano was misty and rainy so we couldn't visit the indigenous village of Bena as planned in the morning. Instead we headed to the hot spring, which was a bit of a let down. We didn't even bathe and asked to leave almost straight away.
I manage to make myself understood by the driver who took me to another nearby volcano. A local guy took me up to the crater for a 1h30 minute speedy round trip up and down. I was exhausted. He was walking up the volcano really fast with flip-flops and I struggled to follow him. At the top there were two small crater lakes with a very bright orange color.
Charlotte was waiting in the car trying to recover. As I got back to the car I could see a lot of kids watching her from outside the car. In the afternoon we went to the village of Bena which is situated on the slope of volcano Inerie and contains traditional wooden huts with totem-like figures.
On the fourth day we headead towards Moni, a moutain village, with some great sea side and mountain scenery on the way. I got obsessed by rice fields and probably have 500 photos of them.
Moni is the base camp for trips up to the Kelimutu crater lakes.

On the 5th day we left Monni at 5am to drive to the start of the hike to Kelimutu. It was very "Kabut" (cloudy) and rainy so we didn't have much expectations. We headed there anyway for sun rise. The weather cleared up a bit when we got to the top so the views of the 3 lakes and the surronding mountains wasn't too bad in the end.
It wasn't as exciting as the description from the Lonely Planet but still a nice place to visit. Later that day on our way to Maumere, we stopped in some small fishing villages with white sand beach and Portuguese churches.
We reached Maumere for lunch which we shared with Donatus before saying goodbye as we were due to fly back to Bali the next morning.
For those interested in remote places without many tourists we highly recommend to visit Flores for its scenery and people. You'll have to cope with basic infrastructures and frustrating transports but for us it was a very rewarding experience.

Posted by lebrunfo 08:13 Archived in Indonesia Comments (2)

North America - Asia - Week 36, 37, 38 & 39

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.

Posted by lebrunfo 06:35 Comments (0)

Central America - Week 35 & 36


25 °C

We really enjoyed staying in Oaxaca and it is almost with a small tear in the eye that we left for the bigger town of Puebla closer to Mexico City. We could have easily stayed here a bit longer, just enjoying some great food in the numerous restaurants and cafes that line up the streets of the historical centre.

Upon arrival in Puebla late afternoon, we quickly felt a bit oppressed by the traffic, the noise and the far less relaxed atmosphere compared to Oaxaca. Hostels prices were not to our taste either and we had to pay a bit more than usual. As a rule of thumb, we found that Hostelling International hostels (HI) in Mexico were quite overpriced and that lesser known small hotels provided better services for less money.
As we went out in search of some place to eat, it started to rain heavily so we entered the closest restaurant recommended by Lonely Planet and although the food was nice, it was not special and a bit pricy again. We went back to our hotel walking down some poorly lit streets and didn’t feel that comfortable for the first time since we arrived in Mexico.

On the next day, we explored a bit more the town, especially its numerous churches and cathedrals.
We liked the atmosphere a lot more than the previous day. I guess, we had to get used to being in big cities again but at the end of the day we were reconciled with Puebla, which has some great colonial buildings, a good student vibe and after all quite a lot of bars and restaurants.
We ended the day in a bar having a few beers and tequilas while listening to some dance and techno music played by a local DJ! It was a nice change from the Latino music we have been hearing for nearly 8 months now.
The next day we finally made it to Mexico City. It was a special moment for us as this was the final destination of the first part of our trip. We could hardly believe that we managed to travel from Ushuaia at the Southern end of the American continent to Mexico, without flying (except for one hour in Panama to cross the Darien Gap). We have spent about 590h in buses, including 10 nights, for a total of approximately 25 full days of 24h! We could also count the number of hours spent in boats as we have spent a fair amount of time on it as well!

We found a fairly cheap hotel close to the historical centre and started our exploration of the town. On a Saturday afternoon, most pedestrian streets near the main Cathedral were packed and we thought we were on Oxford Circus in London on the first fay of the sales! It was a bit crazy. After months spent in small colonial towns or in the nature we felt a bit overwhelmed by this frenzy but as well a bit excited to get back to “civilisation”! We first visited the central Cathedral as well as the presidential palace and then headed towards the independence monument before finishing the day in the “zona rosa” or red district, which appeared quite liberal for such a Christian countrry like Mexico.
On our next day we visited the suburb of Xochimilco, famous for its canals and colourful boats.
We managed to find a Mexican couple to share a boat with us for a one hour ride on the canals to minimize the price. It was kind of nice but I have rarely seen such a touristic thing. Once you get on the canals, you see tons of boats with people trying to sell you food, handicrafts, or willing to sing Mexican songs in their traditional outfit. It was actually a big circus and I wouldn’t recommend it!

For lunch we ended up under the tent where people were celebrating the festival of the rabbit!!
I let you imagine the look on the waiter’s face when Charlotte asked him if he had anything vegetarian!

In the afternoon we got back on time to visit the Templo Mayor – free on Sunday – and we ended the day in a nice bar next tour hotel.
On our next day, we took it easy enjoying the food in our local restaurant, Café Mestizo on Calle Uruguay, and – after climbing to the top of the Cathedral - we went to visit the Guadalupe area, which comprises a few churches and a monstrous and ugly Basilica.
Even though the public transports are very good and cheap, the town spans over such a big area that it takes a bit of time to travel between sights so we didn’t do anything else on that day.

Very early morning the next day we left to visit the archaeological site of Teotihuacan, some 60km away from town. The route has been known for armed robberies but we could see a lot of police presence and random search on passengers at various checkpoints! All very reassuring… In about 3 hours we finished visiting the ruins, which have come to fame for its two massive pyramids.
We got there early enough to avoid the big crowds and we rather liked our experience.
For our last day in Mexico City, we saw a different side of the city by going to fairly wealthy suburbs (Coyoacan and Polanco) where cafes and tree-lined streets reminded us a bit of Paris. On our way to the ethnographic museum we stopped by at the nearby zoo (with free entrance) and ended up spending most of our afternoon watching pandas, jaguars and rhinos among other things. We never made it to the museum!

We finished our amazing latin America journey in Mexico city thinking about all we have done in the past 8 months and we will share with you some of our conclusions below. Note that the adventure is not over as we are now in Canada for a week, preparing for our 2 month Asian adventures!!

Some statistics and comments on our Latin American journey:

On average, we have spent 2.15 nights per place we stayed at. Although we felt we slowed down a bit lately with longer stays in the same place in Honduras, Belize and Mexico, on average we have actually spent less time than previously in each place since we left Colombia.

Longest stays in one place: Utila, Honduras, 6 nights. Tulum and Mexico City, Mexico; Buenos Aires, Argentina, 5 nights. Caye Caulker, Belize; Corn Island, Nicaragua; Banos, Ecuador; Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, 4 nights.

We have spent 5 months in South America and 3 months in Central America.

Countries in which we have spent the most time:
• Colombia, 33 nights.
• Ecuador (includes 8 nights on the Galapagos Islands), 29 nights.
• Mexico, 27 nights.
• Chile, 26 nights.
• Brazil, 25 nights.
• Nicaragua, 19 nights.

Favourite countries:
• Mexico
• Colombia
• Nicaragua
• Peru

Least favourite countries:
• Uruguay
• Guatemala
• Ecuador (except Galapagos)

Favourite places (by chronological order):
• Pantanal, Brazil.
• Patagonia, Chile-Argentina.
• Pucon, Chile.
• Galapagos Islands, Ecuador.
• San Augustin-Tierradentro, Colombia.
• Capurgana, Colombia.
• Corcovado National Park and Osa Peninsula (Frog watching at night, snorkelling), Costa Rica.

Best journeys & experiences in no particular order:
• Cruising down the Rio San Juan to San Juan del Norte and then onto Bluefields and Little Corn Island, Nicaragua.
• Cajamarca to Chachapoyas by bus, Peru; 12h00 across stunning mountain sceneries
• 5 stars night bus from Lima to Trujillo, Peru
• Chachapoyas to Villcabamba, Ecuador: funky border crossing in the middle of the jungle
• Walking in the jungle from Capurgana to Sapzuro, Colombia (great views & abundant wildlife)
• 5 day cruise in the Galapagos, Ecuador
• Travelling through the guerrilla territory of San Augustin and Tierradentro at the back of trucks on dirt roads, Colombia

Worst journeys & experiences in no particular order:
• Dealing with immigration while crossing the border to Panama from Capurgana, Colombia
• Boat ride to Bluefields; 3h00 of soaking in a small fishing boat
• Going off the beaten path by bus in Uruguay from west to east
• Travelling in Paraguay
• La Serena to Iquique, Chile, in 18h00 by bus
• Turbo to Capurgana, Colombia by boat going through big waves
• Hiking up volcano Concepcion on Ometepe Island, Nicaragua
• The rain and the wind storm in Torres del Paine, Chile
• Being mugged in Quito, Ecuador

Favourite sites or monuments in no particular order
• Tikal, Guatemala
• The pyramid of Chitchen Itza, Mexico
• Ciudad Perdida, Colombia
• The sarcophagus of Chachapoyas, Peru
• Archeological sites of San Augustin, Colombia

Favourite sceneries in no particular order
• Iguazu falls, Argentina & Brazil
• Volcan Villarica in Pucon, Chile
• Glacier grey at sunset in Torres del Paine, Chile
• Mt FitzRoy, Argentina
• Lava field and beaches in the Galapagos Islands
• Cocora valley near Salento, Colombia (hughe palm trees in the cloud forest)
• Coral walls of the Caribbean
• Cycling around the volcano Concepcion on Ometepe island, Nicaragua
• Diving in the cenotes (caves) in Tulum, Mexico
• View of Ilha Grande from Parrot’s peak, Brazil
• Desert and sand dunes surrounding the coastal town of Iquique, Chile

Best encounters with wildlife:
• Tapirs bathing in the sea in Corcovado NP, Costa Rica
• Poison dart frogs in Costa Rica and Nicaragua
• Scarlet macaws in Puerto Jimenez, Costa Rica
• Swimming with hammerhead sharks, Corn Island, Nicaragua
• Swimming with penguins, turtles and sea lions, Galapagos islands, Ecuador
• Observing toucans in the wild, particularly in Corcovado NP, Costa Rica
• Magpies on Ometepe island, Nicaragua
• First capucin monkeys and coatis observed while walking between Capurgana and Sapzuro, Colombia
• Baby tarantula walking under our table during dinner in El Remate, Guatemala
• Caypibaras and Jaibiru in the Pantanal, Brazil
• Massive crocodiles in the Sumerido canyon, Mexico
• Diving with giant sting rays and spotted eagle rays, Belize
• Spotting an armadillo (and possibly a small wild cat but I’m not certain about that one) at night on Boca Brava, Panama
• Venomous snake in the mountain near Oaxaca, Mexico
• Creepy crawlies at night in the Amazon rain forest, Ecuador
• Condors flying just above us in Patagonia, Argentina and Chile
• Fox in the mist at the top of Torres del Paine, Chile
• King fishers by dozens along the rio San Juan when crossing from Costa Rica to Nicaragua by boat
• Anteater in Corcovado NP, Costa Rica

Favourite beaches in no particular order:
• Tulum, Mexico.
• Little Corn Island, Nicaragua.
• Water Cayes, Honduras.
• Las Lajas, Panama.
• Ilha Grande, Brazil
• Tortuga bay, Galapagos islands, Ecuador

Favourite Cities in no particular order:
• Oaxaca, Mexico.
• Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
• Cuenca, Ecuador.
• Leon, Nicaragua.
• Mexico City, Mexico.
• Santiago, Chile.

Least favourite cities in no particular order:
• Quito, Ecuador.
• Montevideo, Uruguay.
• Cartagena, Colombia.
• Granada, Nicaragua.
• Valparaiso, Chile.
• Buenos Aires, Argentina.

Favourite food: Mexican, Argentinian.

Least favourite food: Chilean.

Posted by lebrunfo 22:15 Archived in Mexico Comments (2)

Central America - Week 33, 34 & 35


sunny 34 °C

After our two catastrophic dives at sea we finally headed to our first Cenote (big sink hole or underwater cave) on the next day. Although it was a very shallow dive we really enjoyed it. This Cenote is linked to the sea by a network of underwater tunnels and hence is populated by a few species of fishes. The sun lights entering the cave and illuminating big schools of tarpons (big fishes that look a bit like tunas) while swimming out of a small tunnel filled with stalactites was totally worth it.
In the afternoon, we bumped by chance into Lucinda, who we travelled with in Honduras and arranged to meet for dinner. Food in Mexico is very good although not so varied. Mexican people reading this might get offended as there are actually a lot of variations of tacos, quesadillas, enchiladas, tortillas, etc… and some very tasty sauces but after a few weeks of this regime we are kind of looking forward to just a plate of plain pasta!
On our last day of diving in Tulum we started with a deep dive in the Angelita Cenote. I rented a camera from the dive shop and put my memory card in it so that I could finally share with you some of our underwater experiences. This was a very atmospheric dive. We went down to about 35m and the visibility was quite limited because of two factors: the quasi absence of sun light at this depth and also because of a phenomenon called halocline which is when fresh water mixes with salt water and creates a blur in the water. There was also a tree upside down mid-way down the cave that gave an eerie feeling.
In the afternoon we managed to get a good deal from the dive shop to do 2 dives in the Dos Ojos (two eyes) Cenote. This Cenote can also be done snorkelling but the experience you get diving is a lot more impressive as you swim through closed tunnels where you see a lot of stalactites and stalagmites.
We left Tulum for the mid-size town of Valladolid. Upon arrival we were more struck by the phenomenal heat of the place than by its beauty. It’s a nice colonial town with a few colourful houses and a big church but there is not much more to it to hold the traveller except its proximity to the famous Maya site of Chichen Itza.
At about 2.30pm we decided to get a public bus to Chichen Itza but we only got there at about 3.40pm. The signs at the entrance of the site where not really clear as it looked like it was open until 10pm, and people selling tickets were not really helpful. So we bought our first ticket before heading suspiciously toward the second ticket booth where we had been told to buy the second part of our ticket... The guy there told us that it was free after 4pm but that the site closed at 5pm! So we went back to the first guy to get a refund and waited until 4.01 to rush our visit. Meanwhile, a local guide offered his service to us and another couple for much less than what we would have paid for the entrance so we took him and he managed to show us the whole site within the hour we had.
We really enjoyed doing the visit that way as we paid less, escaped the crowds and the millions of street vendors, had a guide and the temperature was a bit more bearable at this time of the day. I think this site had everything to be hated for, except for the amazing central temple, but we will have a nice memory of it because of the circumstances in which we visited it.

We took a bus to Merida in the morning and enjoyed the AC. I would not have minded spending the entire day. We arrived in Merida by mid-day and headed to the only hostel we found with a swimming pool. The heat was unbearable. We hence spent the afternoon by the pool. We eventually went out as the air cool down a bit. We wandered around and sat on the main plaza, Plaza Grande. We admired the Cathedral de San Ildefonso, which was built on a former Maya temple.
We were surprised by the kindness of the people. We were first on our guards, but we quickly realised it was genuine offers. They were curious and very happy to give us some tips about the places to visits. We found our local restaurant, Trapiche, which was however advertised as dirty by one of the local who suggested one of the touristic places. At night, a folkloric festival took place on one of the plaza. We spoke with one of the local who was impressed by my height. We had a good laugh as Franck took a picture of us.
The next morning, we went to Izamal, a small village 1h00 from Merida. Although it was a nice village with all the houses painted yellow, with a big convent and a few ruins, it only took us 90 minutes to walk around town before heading back to Merida for an afternoon of relaxing by the swimming pool.
Late afternoon we ventured out of the hotel to walk along the Champs Elysees of Merida and admired some nice early 20th century houses.
We decided to break the journey to the Maya ruins of Palenque with an overnight stop in Campeche. Despite its proximity to the sea the heat was still unbearable. The centre inside the old city walls has been restored and walking around town felt a bit like walking into a museum.
We spent a bit of the afternoon watching the champion’s league final and we then headed to a nice bar where we tried our first Mexican tequilas.

We spent most of the next day in the bus and upon arrival in Palenque, we found a nice English couple from London to share a few beers in the middle of the jungle in the evening. Between two beers we decided not to spend another night in the jungle but instead to take a tour that would take us to San Cristobal de Las Casas after the visit of the Palenque ruins and two other sites on the way.
The site of Palenque is a bit like the one of Tikal in Guatemala to the exceptions that it is a bit smaller and the ruins are hence closer to each other’s. Also the ruins in Palenque seem to be more restored, which may appeal more to the mass of tourists who come here. We arrived early enough to avoid the big tourist buses and we managed to have most of the sites out of the central square just for the two of us.
In the afternoon we were first stopped at the site of Misol-Ha, a 30m high waterfall throwing itself into a green lagoon. It could have been nice if all the tourist buses had not come here at the same time!
Then we went to the site of Agua Azul where we stopped for 3 hours. We started to have lunch with Tim and Inge from Holland and weren’t that bothered at first about exploring the sit following our slight disappointment during our first stop. We then put on our swimming suits and headed to the first swimming spot. The water looked murky and it was full of tourists again. I walked off this place and headed further up on the main path and was stunned by the beauty of the several waterfalls flowing into a pool of blue water. It was spectacular.
We finally found a nice spot to go swimming and rushed back to the bus that was going to take us to San Cristobal de Las Casas at an altitude of about 2000m in the mountain area of the Chiapas region. We were all longing for cooler weather and as we got off the bus near 11pm we got a chill as the temperature had probably dropped 20 degrees since the afternoon! We found a hotel with our new Dutch friends and had a good night sleep before exploring the town of San Cristobal the following day.

We really took it easy walking in town and bumping into Tim and Inge at each café throughout the day! San Cristobal is a pretty town surrounded by mountains, with a big expat community. There seems to be many foreign owned hostels, bars, restaurants and cafés around town. In the evening we were glad to put back our jeans for the first time in 2 months and we headed to a Lebanese restaurant as an alternative to our usual quesadillas.
On the next day we took a tour for the visit of the Sumerido canyon a little bit away from town. It rained heavily as we left San Cristobal but luckily it stopped raining as we boarded the boat that took us inside the canyon for 2h30. This was a very pleasant trip. The canyon reminded me a bit of the fjords from Norway except that there are no monkeys or crocodiles in Norway!
We indeed saw a few monkeys but what really impressed me were the massive crocodiles that we could observe on the bank of the river. We had never seen beasts like that previously in our trip.
For our last day in San Cristobal we went with Inge and Tim to two small Maya villages high up in the mountains a few km outside of town. There is not much to see in these villages except for the people with their traditional clothes and the churches where signs reminded people not to kill chicken inside the church!
We “killed” the rest of the day in San Cristobal’s numerous cafes before getting on the 8pm night bus to Oaxaca.

Upon arrival at 7am, we took a taxi to a cheap hotel as indicated by the Lonely Planet but once we got there we had been told of a totally different price so we started walking randomly in town of search of a good bargain. After several attempts we couldn’t find anything within our budget and started to despair a bit. After a night in the bus you don’t really want to struggle to find a place to stay. You just need a shower and a bed to recover. We eventually found the cheapest hotel in town and it turned out to be ok, except for the loud music at night from the bar next door!
We went for breakfast and while Charlotte was having 2 slices of bread I had melted cheese on big toasts spread with a paste made of beans and a lot of chili sauce and onions! I was full for the day. We then dragged ourselves through town to get the bus to Monte Alban, to visit some more ruins. We had been told that of all ruins these ones could be missed but we actually rather liked the place. There weren’t many people there, the site was quite spacious and well restored and we had a pleasant visit with good photos opportunities.
In the evening we explored a Little bit more the historical centre of Oaxaca.
We also tried the famous mole sauces that are the signature dishes of this area famous for its cuisine. Note that the food from the restaurants in London called “Wahaca” (Oaxaca) actually comes from this region of Mexico. We still do not know the difference in orthography. We spent another day walking around town and enjoying the various cafés, especially café Los Cuiles, where we really felt at home. The food is good, cheap and the staff is friendly.

With the help of a local ecotourism agency we arranged a three days walking tour through the mountain in what is called the “Pueblos Mancomunados”, a self-governed community of 9 indigenous villages near Oaxaca. The accommodation, guide service and food were all booked for us and we only had to make our way independently to various places. We had an early start of the day from Oaxaca to get to the small mountain village of Llano Grande. We got there by 9.30am and the air was thin and crisp at an altitude of about 3200m. Charlotte soon regretted to leave her jacket in Oaxaca! Our guide showed us our cabins in the middle of the forest and we soon started our first hike for a bit more than 4 hours amidst great mountain and forest scenery.
In the afternoon we relaxed a bit and walked around our cabin in search of some good photo opportunities!
After the coldest night we had since Patagonia, we took a local bus to get to the next village where we met a new guide for our next hike. In total we probably walked for about 6 hours that day.
Since we started our itinerary at the highest point we had to walk downhill for most of the way and this was a lot more challenging to us than to go up. We arrived exhausted, in the rain, in the small village of Latuvi where we checked in our new cabin and slept through the night from 9am to 7am.
For our final day, we had the worst guide ever who didn’t talk to us and we walked non-stop the 16km that separated us from our final destination, the small village of Amatlan.
We arrived there really tired and waited for 3 hours before a small van came to take us back to the nearest town when we could find onward transportation back to Oaxaca.
We spent another 2 nights and one full day in Oaxaca, spending most of our time at Café Los Cuiles, waiting for our bus to Puebla near Mexico City.

Posted by lebrunfo 12:08 Archived in Mexico Comments (6)

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