#Southeast Asia 2013

#The Gear

My hefty 80l Tatonka was brought back from retirement, because it had to fit my travel gear, camping gear for 2 people and the largest packraft available plus paddle. It was around 20kg, "light" enough to still walk around a day or two. A Golite Eden 2 was the tent of choice, with a cocoon tropic traveller and a meru light summer sleeping bag, and two thermarest mattresses. We had a collapsible fibreglass paddle, a Alpaca packraft, a Sony Cybershot and an Asus net book, as well as a Kindle, which I can only highly recommend. Clothing was very basic, a pair of flip flops (or thongs) and some shirts, shorts. Its the tropics, after all. No stove and cooking gear, and neither special hiking nor biking gear. A pair of fins was added on the way, which made the pack significantly heavier.

#The Countries

Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Myanmar, Indonesia, Brunei Darussalam, Timor-Leste.

#The Story

After a well deserved break in Germany that followed my 18 month long bike tour, I headed to Southeast Asia. 5 months backpacking around in tropical countries without a bicycle. I try to alternate the way I travel, so this time I did bring a boat. A packraft, to be precise. A nice idea, but it did not quite work out as intended. Once again I am a noob, a beginner who has to learn the skills from the very start. Well, I almost drowned and lost my paddle, which made paddling a bit hard, and I ended up not being able to use the boat for 3 of the 5 months, so there is that. Next try will be better, I swear. ;-)

The tour starts in Singapore, the central transport hub of Southeast-Asia. Dreading the high prices, I headed north after only a few days, to Melaka, Malaysia, followed by Kuala Lumpur. With a cheap flight I left the mainland from there, since I have been here on my round the world trip, and rather explored Borneo. It was honestly a lot higher developed and had more tourists than I would have expected, but the national parks were amazing. Orang utans, giant spiders, the weirdest insects, the largest flower in the world, giant caves to explore, bats and swallows, snakes and lizards. Going north from Kuching, to Miri, Kota Kinabalu and later to Sipadan for snorkelling and diving. Some parts in a bus, other by hitchhiking, mostly to meet more people and to end up in different places.

 

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When it was time to cross over to the Indonesian side of Borneo, I made the conscious decision to skip it. I had already seen large parts of Borneo and the Indonesian visa was so short, that the time could be spend wiser in a different place, like Sulawesi or Timor. What followed were easily the worst... 1? Maybe 1,5? months on my entire career as a traveller. I know it was just bad luck, mixed with bad timings, but I will always remember Indonesia for this, "Oh the horror, don't go there. Go somewhere else!". Of course that's nonsense, and the later parts in Indonesia were perfectly fine, but wow, I was in for some trouble.

It started on the boat, a huge steel ship run by the Pelni Company, who runs all large ferries in the country. People rarely speak English, only Bahasa Indonesia, and it can be very hard to get info. I arrived with a small boat from Malaysia, and at the port they had a little ticket counter for Pelni ferries, but only information about one boat, the next one that goes. But you also need money to buy something like a ticket. ATMs? Try the centre, 4km away. Cue walking in tropical heat with 20 kg on your back, trying to find a working ATM or a open bank. Then finding a cab driver who A: speaks English a bit, and B: knows where the Pelni office is. Of course the office is closed, and in the end the only way to get a ticket was at the harbour, the very place I started. My girlfriend wasn't too pleased either, mostly because everyone was calling her with "Hey Mister", because they don't speak enough English to know the word Misses.

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The ship took 8h to load, was hot and packed full of people, we being the only foreigners and constantly asked for pictures. Everyone not wanting pictures just stared at us. For 3 full days. 3 days of bland rice and fish heads to eat. I kid you not. Arriving in Sulawesi we got infos from the Pelni Office (yeah), but it turned out that they leave so infrequently that we have no time for most of the islands. Even Sulawesi itself we would have to cut in half and backtrack, because there is nothing on the northern half that leaves in our direction. Again, due to the language barrier, it was quite hard to find transport and we ended up in a jeep going to Rantepao, on a very, very bad road. Even compared to African standards it was bad. Rantepao was very interesting, one of the highlights of the tour with odd ceremonial services, mass butchering of sacrificial animals, a tree filled with baby corpses (seriously, I am not making this up), hundreds of skulls lying around in caves and cliff-faces, and rafting. Yeah, the rafting that both a local guide and the local tourist office completely misinformed me about. I should have boated down the river 18 km to arrive in the next large town, but I ended up on a fork in the river... after 30 km of seeing not much. I randomly chose one. The left one went into a canyon with class III-IV rapids. The right one went to a 20m waterfall. Luckily, I ended up in the canyon. Well... at least I did not fall down the waterfall. But I did capsize quite early, had to let go of my paddle to get to some rocks, catch my breath and try to intercept the boat. It was close, but I managed to get it, otherwise my luggage on it would be lost to, and the packraft itself would have been gone. I lost paddle, shoes, glasses, and one dry bag full of things. Yeah. I ended up wet and almost freezing in a night bus that evening.

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But wait, there is more. This mishap was followed by another 3 day ferry ride, with no personal space, rice and fish heads, a one week delay because of stupid visa rules, a 16h bus ride over a spectacularly bad road to Timor-Leste, getting a 700€ smart phone and headphones stolen, getting infected with dengue fever (yeah for being in a small town, no one speaks English, and it takes several days before you manage to get someone to take you to a hospital, where you are told: "Oh, Dengue? There is no medication against dengue. You should be fine, but if you start bleeding from your gums, eyes and ears, please come back to the hospital."), followed by more chaos concerning ferries, more language barrier mistakes, another ferry ride, several days worth of bus rides on horrible roads, and losing 400€ in cash and a bunch of rather important documents, like vaccination certifications and driving license. All the while carrying a useless boat without a paddle.

So. Yeah. It could have gone better, I guess. We lost a month due to ferries, visa wait times and sickness. If we would have taken more flights, all this could have been avoided. No backtracking on Sulawesi means less bus rides. Flying into Dili would mean visa on arrival, no wait time. Means probably no Dengue, either, because we got it while waiting for a ferry, which goes once a week. Maybe. On a different port then the one we were told to go. Anyway, mistakes were made, and I really hope I learned my lesson and will not make those again.

 

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Surprisingly, the rest of Indonesia was quite lovely. Labuanbajo welcomed us with western cuisine, was overrun with tourists and dive outfits, we thought we were in a different world all together. In one day we saw more foreigners than in the last month combined. On all ferries we took, we were the only ones, and now we knew why. From Labuanbajo we took a boat to Lombok, a private one this time. Small, wooden boat, for 20-30 backpackers... and we were the only guests. A privately chartered boat, with 4 people crew, 3 times buffet a day, tea and coffee, snorkelling and hiking, a stop in the Komodo National Park with the biggest lizards in the world... it was glorious. And it cost 20€ per person. We were incredibly lucky that the boat was empty, they take most of their passengers from Lombok back to Labuanbajo.

After Lombok we visited Bali and while its more or less resembles something like a cancer tumour, its a benevolent one, full of western cuisine and western luxury. Usually not my thing, but after that tour, I for once, welcomed the new, tourist overlords. Cinemas, burgers & chips, surf and tattoo shops everywhere. Perfect for a few days to get back into so called civilization, before heading to Java. Passing the impressive Ilren volcano, we went to Yogiakarta and Borobudur, both very impressive sights, and fully developed, too. It would have made a way easier introduction to Indonesia than Sulawesi did. And just one flight later, we stood back in Kuala Lumpur.

 

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After the chaos in Indonesia, we decided to take it slow for the rest of the trip. Heading north through the Cameron highlands, doing some hiking, a stop in Georgetown, diving on Kho Tao in Thailand, glorious, glorious Bangkok, among with Cairo one of my most favourite places in the world, further north to Ayuttaya and Sukothai, full of old ruins and temples, Chang Mai, where I stayed in the Buddhist monastery so many years ago (6 years ago, when I was on my RTW trip, time flies), the Chang Rei, with its white and black temple areas, and into Myanmar. They finally opened their borders and it was possible to visit remote places like the Golden Rock, a stupa made of 5000 tons of gold in Yangon, giant Buddha statues, and the 4000 temples of Bagan, including the curiously named "Nuclear Catastrophe Overcome Pagoda". I never quite found out what that was all about. In Thailand we also made a trip to a tiger sanctuary, and were allowed into the animal areas. Playing with tiger babies and petting something that's large enough to eat you, is quite an enjoyable experience.

 

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The rest of the tour was spend in Bangkok. Lots to see and do there, and a slow transition into sedentary living. Movie theatre, Jim Thompsons house, an anime convention and a snake farm were among the list, as well as countless temples, little alleyways and random meandering through the city. A very comfortable end to a sometimes bumpy trip. And this brings this chapter to an end. It was not quite the learning experience when it comes to using a packraft, but I wouldn't have had it any other way. If everything goes according to plan, where is the fun? :-P