Although we can divide our trip thus far into roughly four parts (Europe, South Asia, South East Asia, and East Asia), we’ve spent the vast majority of our time in Asia. We’ve had the time of our lives and I think everyone should visit Asia (if not travel it extensively). It truly has something to offer everyone, so I’ve made the following guide and tribute to the great continent.
India: just show up and something exciting WILL happen
Maldives: go sailing and snorkeling on remote atolls
Nepal: go trekking
Thailand: explore the entire country
Laos: travel and live on the Mekong
Cambodia: yes its cliche, but you HAVE to explore Angkor
Malaysia: take in the diverse cultures and food
Brunei: meet characters at the Pusat Belia (not pictured)
Echoing Joylani’s post a couple weeks ago, I’ve found that Indonesia is similar to India in many ways. This isn’t to say that its just like India, but its more similar than not. Demographically, the similarities are easy to grasp. India is first or second most populous nation in the world, 80% Hindu, 10% Muslim, and the rest being mostly Sikhs and Christians. Indonesia is the fourth most populous nation worldwide, with 250M inhabitants, 88% Muslim, 8% Christian, with the rest either Hindu or animists. Both nations are incredibly diverse ethnically and linguistically, but are ruled by Hindi-speaking, north Indians from Delhi and Bahasa Indonesian-speaking Javanese from Jakarta, respectively. Both are relatively poor and overpopulated. Both are fighting ethnic separatists; India in the northeast and Indonesia in its eastern islands. Colonial history and other similarities aside, the places feel similar too.
People are friendly. They’re more physical when they speak, with lots of pats on the shoulder or back (male to male only). Joylani said Indonesia is the true land of smiles, as everyone is always smiling. Children want their photos taken and adults will ask to take a photo of you, if you’re a novel foreigner like me. Everything is negotiable and flexible. People are always striking up conversation and asking questions. Its sometimes difficult to not be guarding with answers or defensive when speaking though, because like India, many people are trying to sell something. India and Indonesia are both overpopulated, poor countries, with similar economic challenges. You can’t walk past a shop without hearing, “Yes, looking…” or past a car without the hearing the oh-so-familiar “Taxi, taxi…I make cheap price for you.” Everyone is trying to sell you junk, from coconuts to textiles, and everyone is trying to overcharge you. Commission rules here. That’s why we’re a lot more defensive here, because people are friendly, but at least half of the time, they’re just trying to sell something. But the other half of the time, people just want to talk to us for the sake of talking, which hasn’t occurred to us in many other places.
The thing I like most about Indonesia though, and also something I appreciate about India, is its size. Not for size alone, but for the diversity that comes with that. Although not even close to India in terms of landmass, Indonesia spans a massive portion of the globe. Parts of it are visible from Malaysia, with other parts adjacent to Australia. Its not a place that can be visited just once, for there is far too much to see on a single visit. On this trip, we picked Java, Bali, Flores, and Gili Air off of Lombok. But we’ve barely scratched the surface of Bali, I could spend weeks more on Flores, and we haven’t even really seen Lombok proper. For every overpopulated city and town on Java, there’s a remote sparsely inhabited paradise somewhere else in archipelago. I still want to visit Sulawesi and the Molukus, if not for the diving alone, not to mention the farther flung places like Sumatra or Papua, or the literally thousands of other islands within Indonesia. And although Joylani said she didn’t want to come to Indonesia since before our trip began, its surprised her and exceeded her expectations, with her going so far as to say that that Malaysia and Indonesia are probably the two countries we’re most likely to visit again. It’s a interesting and diverse country, with friendly people, and a lot to see. I cannot think of many destinations that offer more of nearly anything than Indonesia and am happy that Joylani wants to go back for more sometime.
I’ve felt kind of reflective lately, which usually happens around times of transition. It’s the holidays, the end of this year, my transition from the first half of my 20s to the second half, the end of the South Asia portion of our trip, as well as the five-month mark of this whole thing. Relevant to this blog, I’ll summarize what I’ve been thinking about those last two topics. South Asia has been great. Exploring India has been incredible, “vacationing” in the Maldives was unbelievable, and trekking Nepal was fantastic. Thinking over everything we’ve done in the past four months is simply astounding. Even just thumbing through photos from the past four months silences me with a gratitude and thankfulness that we’ve been able to do everything we’ve done. It’s been a good time and I’m going to miss the places and experiences. Now, after a month in Europe and four in South Asia, we’re on to South East Asia. I’ve been wanting to travel around SEA for a long time. Although I’ve visited once, I’m ready to delve into this beautiful and historically-rich part of the globe. The region contains some of Joylani and I’s most anticipated destinations and we’re ready to begin Phase III of our trip: SEA.
As you may know from Matt’s last post, despite getting on the wrong train last night, we still ended up in Calcutta for what will truly be our last stop in India. We arrived early in the morning, just as people were getting ready for their day. As we left the train station, the sights before me matched with images painted in Dominique LaPierre’s book City of Joy. I saw families sleeping in the rail station, children begging (practically pulling a teacake, which was meant for them anyways, out of my hands), busy food stalls along the Hooghly River serving cheap breakfasts, hand-pulled rickshaws (the last in India), and men bathing at water pumps along the road throughout the city. I felt satisfied to be ending our India leg of our journey here, in such an iconic place—a place that’s iconic not for the sights, but for the people such as Mother Theresa and those she loved, captured so poignantly in LaPierre’s book.
It would be difficult to sum up India and do it justice while avoiding clichés, and I won’t try. Instead, here is a list of some things we liked over the course of our trip.
Top Five Foods
J: Sweet lassi, muesli banana honey curd, Keralan porotas with channa masala, tandoori butterfish, dal makhani.
J: Varkala (Never actually got the name, but it was on top of a family’s house, had hot water, a comfy bed, and a great ocean view from the balcony.)
M: Calangute (Also never got the name as it was a small place run by the family who lived next door. The water was hot, the refrigerator cold, and it was close to the beach.)
Most “Bizarro World”
J: Manali (This is due to many factors, one of which was the music store across the street from our hotel that would play the same 3 songs all day. I’ve never been so happy for a power outage. Other reasons Manali earned this ranking include: the many buildings are also hideously painted in obnoxious colors like purple, lime green, and pink; the mule operators union and random donkeys in the street; and randomly numbered shops lining the road up the mountain renting out cold weather gear—snowsuits that would make Harry and Lloyd happy and faux fur coats Cruella DeVille style. I could go on, but I won’t.)
“Sir, you’ve boarded the wrong train.” My jaw dropped and eyes bulged, as I realized what the train conductor had said. We were about two hours into our train journey from Siliguri to Kolkata, when the conductor got to checking our tickets around 10pm. The first worry that popped in my head was: where are we going then? We could be headed for Chennai or Delhi or anywhere…how are we going to catch our flight from Kolkata? Luckily for us, the train we boarded was also bound for Kolkata, albeit a different station. It had departed 15 minutes after the train we were supposed to get on. I still have no idea how we got on the wrong train. My best guess is that there were two trains on the same platform; sometimes in India, the platforms are really long and each end is numbered a different platform. My next worry was what about our seats/bunks- where are we going to sleep if we’re in someone elses seat? Fortunately, the conductor informed me, one of the seats was vacant and the lady that had the other one didn’t get on at the station she was scheduled to, so it looked like we’d be okay. We suspect perhaps she got on the wrong train too, since she was supposed to get on at Siliguri also. My last worry was about the conductor. We were ticketless and he could say that we had to buy new tickets, which are relatively expensive. If he told us that, I’d have to bribe him with a lesser amount and I didn’t want to have to deal with all that. Again, we lucked out as he said we were “officially” ticketless, but it should be okay. Considering we boarded the wrong train last night, I feel pretty fortunate to be in Kolkata today.
It is nice to be India again, particularly for the food and tea! Nepali food was quite lacking. Although we were able to get some good Japanese food and other tasty stuff while we were there, the local dishes lacked pizzaz and we always waited so long for food—even for something as simple as muesli with curds. We gladly welcomed our culinary return to India; for lunch today we ordered some tasty channa masala (garbanzo beans in a tomato based sauce) and chicken sheek kababs (ground meat wrapped around a skewer and grilled or fried—kind of like a sausage and REALLY good). Our food was on the table in less than 15 minutes. We were so amazed and then we remembered that we weren’t in Nepal anymore. On the downside, India is definitely much more littered and unsanitary…I won’t go into details about trying to find a bathroom yesterday with the help of an old Tibetan lady from the restaurant we were at. I forgot how it can be hard to find a toilet in India. At least that was one thing Nepal had going for it.
Anyways, where we’re at right now is Darjeeling, a name you may recognize from the tea bags sitting in your cupboard at home. We’ve had a good time here so far. It’s mellow; the shops on the top of the hill where we’re staying all close around 8pm, but that’s ok because we’ve been mellow too. When I say mellow, I mean lazy couch potatoes. Ok, so maybe not lazy because Matt is working on conquering a cold and not couch potatoes because our room doesn’t actually have a couch, but we have been watching a lot of tv. I guess you could just say we’re filling our quota for the next month or two and making up for this past month. We were able to catch an episode of The Office, some BBC, and lots of movies. Luckily for me, there has been a pleasant variety of chick flicks on the two English movies stations, so that’s mostly what we’ve watched (The Breakup, Just Like Heaven, Uptown Girls, Meet Joe Black). However, I think our favorite flick was the oldie but goodie, Kindergarten Cop. After all, who doesn’t like watching the Governator? I know what you’re thinking right now…“That is a lot of movies, sheesh.” But before you think we’ve gone completely inactive after the trek, let me add that in our two days here we’ve also enjoyed some of Darjeeling’s pleasantly good attractions: the zoo, the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute, and a tea plantation.
The zoo was small, but gave a chance to look at some amazing animals up-close. Immediately after entering we saw the most amazing birds—generally labeled as exotic pheasants (I can’t remember the specific names). My favorite one was covered in flame-like feathers. The most unique feature, however, were the feathers on its head that had a helmet-like appearance (think Darth Vader). It was hard to get a decent shot through the fence because it kept moving, but here’s the best one we got.
We also got to see some Himalayan black bears playing around, a couple of lions, wolves, and three varieties of leopards, including the rare snow leopard which had an unexpectedly thick tale.
In the middle of our zoo circuit we made a stop at the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute which is adjacent to the back entrance of the zoo. The institute houses a museum of all things Mt. Everest including information about the Himalayan range, newspaper clippings, photographs, and artifacts from famous expeditions, such as Tenzing Norgay’s goggles. Matt had visited the museum the last time he was in Darjeeling, but I think we both appreciated it more having just completed a little trek of our own (even though our trek was nothing compared to an expedition to Everest). It was humbling to see a scale model of the Himalayan range and realize that the mountains we circled on our trek only make up a miniscule part of the grand range. In addition to the museum, the institute offers various mountaineering courses and has had many alumni and instructors who have made successful Everest attempts themselves—including founder Tenzing Norgay.
My favorite excursion, however, was to a tea factory. The tea is so nice and hot here—it’s great! It’s the best tea I’ve had on the trip so far. Most of the places we’ve gone make the tea with loose leaves and serve it in a little silver pot with a little strainer to stick over your tea cup when you pour it. It definitely beats a tea bag, especially the lousy ones they throw in a cup of “hot” water in Nepal. And what’s a good cup of tea without some good baked items—also the best of the trip so far. This morning we had a delicious sweet scone (crispy on the outside and so soft on the inside) and a currant loaf with our tea. Matt says that besides the railroad the baked items on the hill stations are the other good thing the British left behind. I must say, they’re pretty tasty! Yesterday, Matt and I walked down to the Happy Valley Tea Estate to see just how the tea is processed before it gets into our cup. We went on a simple little tour with one of the factory workers. In a nutshell, how they make tea is: 1.) Pluck it 2.) dry leaves on a table 3.) dry leaves on another table with a little heat 4.) dry leaves though a really hot machine 5.) roll leaves with another weird looking machine 6.) sort out the little leaves from the big leaves, roll the big leaves again 6.) lay leaves out on a table for a couple of hours while they change color from green to brown 7.) sort out the sizes (and quality) of tea leaves with a tri-level shifter shaker machine. 8.) pack leaves and sell to tourists or ship to Calcutta where it is auctioned off.
I loved the tour because I drink so much tea and was excited to see where it comes from. According to our guide, all tea comes form the same plant (black, green, Darjeeling, etc.) and it is the processing (drying, fermenting, adding stuff) that makes the different varieties. So that’s the down-low on the tea and Darjeeling.
We took a miserable 16-hour bus ride from Kathmandu to Nepal’s eastern border last night. If you’ve read my last post, it should be clear that I don’t care how miserable the ride was- we’re out of Nepal and back in India. Here’s some things I’ve missed:
Food: India is hard to beat in the culinary department, but Nepal didn’t even come close. One, their traditional food is not bad, but it gets boring pretty quickly. With that, you’re limited to touristy foreign food offerings. Two, food takes soooooo long in Nepal. I like my food to be fresh and cooked, but Nepali restaurants take way longer than the time its takes to cook food to serve you. Almost invariably, everywhere in Nepal took a long time. Thirdly, chai. Yes, Nepalis drink chiya, a sugary milk-tea similar to chai, but it falls so much shorter. Indian tea (both chai and black tea) is always hot and good (Nepali tea is usually iffy on both)… and the tea guy isn’t gonna rip you off.
People: Its nice to buy fruit or tea or anything else without a listed price on the street and get a fair price. I didn’t have to ask the chai-wallah or the fruit-wallah “how much?” today. I just handed them a bill and they handed me back my change. Just trusting people to give me a fair price is such a relief. People help us and don’t ask for a tip or commission- they’re just helpful.
Language: Not everyone can appreciate this, but having Hindi as a fallback in case someone doesn’t speak English is nice. Also, everyone here speaks English at least in a basic sense. Nepal, not so much. Its probably has more to do with British colonialism than education, although we did have plenty of problems in Nepal with getting correct change (both in the average length of time it took and in accuracy).
Sure, its dirtier here, toilets are somewhat more difficult to find, and everything’s a little crazy, but the food is good, the people honest, and while crazier things get done easier and better. It definitely feels good to be back. At least for a week, before heading to Thailand.
It’s been a long journey, but we made it to Nepal. On the 23rd, we flew from Male to Trivandrum, where we caught an overnight train to Chennai. We hung out with Krishna, one of our California friends currently volunteering in India, who gave us a place to stay and took us around. See Joylani’s post for more on Chennai. Then on the 26th, we flew from Chennai to Delhi. Although living on a train for a couple days seemed fine to me, I heeded my parents’ advice to “spend the money” necessary to make my wife happy. Anyways, after our flight and a day in Delhi, we did have to get on another train bound for Gorakhpur, in UP. Although it left pretty close to on-time, we arrived in Gorakhpur a few hours late. From the train station, we shared a jeep with a Nepali family to the border. So on the 27th, we crossed the border from Sunauli (India) to Belahiya (Nepal), spent the night there, and this morning took a bus to Pokhara.
To summarize, our past week has taken us from the Indian Ocean to Himalayas. Two flights, two overnight trains, two nights hanging out with friends, and two border crossings is all it took to get from the Maldives to Nepal in a week. This isn’t to mention the two times we witnessed our drivers getting hassled by the corrupt Indian cops and having to pay bribes (once our rickshaw driver in Delhi and once our jeep driver from Gorakhpur to the Sonauli border), which Joylani was astonished to see. Like I began this post saying, “it’s been a long journey.”
Our last real stop in India on our way to Nepal was in Chennai. The reason for the stop was two-fold: say hello to a friend from home who is currently volunteering in India for the year, and to look for my great great uncle. Earlier this year, my Uncle Mike told me about Reverend Samuel Hamel, my great grandmother’s favorite uncle. He was a missionary in India, and believed to be buried in Chennai. The story was pretty vague, but after Matt and I decided for sure to stop through Chennai, I emailed my uncle to see if he knew of any other information about our distant relative. He was able to locate an obituary in the NY Times that let us know Samuel Hamel died of acute appendicitis on a train en route to Ramapatnam, AP, in 1912. Despite the lack of conclusive info on where he may have been buried, being the first member of my mom’s family to be in Chennai since Samuel Hamel, I wanted to at least make an attempt to find him, or at least more information as to his whereabouts. So our second day in Chennai, Matt and I headed to the Madras Cemeteries Board (also a tip from my Uncle Mike). They have a database of burials for several cemeteries in the city. I waited anxiously as the worker looked up my relatives name—could it be so easy? Just a search on an excel spreadsheet and viola! I would know the location of his gravesite? Unfortunately not. There was no information as to where he would be. Nonetheless, it was an interesting day—playing detective for a few hours as I looked up the location of the Cemeteries Board and waited for them to look up information on my request. Afterward, Matt and I walked around the cemetery to see what it might look like, wherever Samuel Hamel is buried.
As for the other part of our Chennai stop, visiting our friend Krishna, it was fun as expected. For the first time since leaving home, we spent the night in a normal residence rather than a guesthouse or in transit. Even before we got to his neighborhood, we were impressed upon arrival at the main train station, which seemed to have everything: multiple restaurants, book shop, pharmacy, even a medical station with a defilibrator. We discovered the convenience of luggage storage as we checked our bags for the day while we wandered around until Krishna was done with work. Not only was it fun to see a little bit of Krishna’s daily life as a volunteer…it was nice to just hang out in a residential part of town. Luckily for us, Krishna is no stranger to carnivorous ways, so when we went out to eat, there was always plenty of meat on the table. After seeing “Chicken 65” on the menu for the past month, we finally ordered it on Krishna’s recommendation. Like “Chicken Lollipops,” another Indian chicken dish, “Chicken 65” just didn’t sound too appealing to me, but it turned out to be great. A fulfilling visit to a Keralan restaurant and of course lots of chais completed our quick stopover in Chennai. We didn’t see any “sights” in Chennai, but hanging out with Krishna and his upstairs neighbors was all we needed to make the stop in Chennai fun and memorable. Thanks guys!
Matt and I discovered the goodness of the South Indian breakfast. It all started in Bangalore. (Which isn’t actually in Kerala.) We arrived early in the morning and, much to our chagrin, every restaurant we came across was closed until 9 or 10am. It was 7:30. Luckily, we didn’t have to wait too much longer to eat because while the next hotel we inquired at didn’t have a vacancy, at least it had a restaurant that was open for business. We set our bags down on the floor and sat down to order.
Rule #1: No menus
There was no menu, so we asked our barefoot waiter what the restaurant was serving for breakfast. The good places, the ones where there are just locals, don’t have menus. Or if they do, it’s a sign posted on the wall in loopy script that is indecipherable to our western eyes. This makes it necessary to ask what’s for breakfast. The waiter will list off a few options, or maybe just one if it’s a small restaurant. “Dosas, idly, uppom” our waiter said. We each ordered a masala dosa—a big, crepe-like pancake (a little crispier) rolled around warm potatoes and onions with a small bowls of masala and coconut chutney on the side. The masala is not a thick sauce, though it does have small chunks of tomatoes and onion in it. I like to open up the dosa and pour the sauce over the potatoes. The masala seeps into the potatoes and dosa, making it more pliable and easier to eat.
Rule #2: Eat with your hand
We were sitting in the upstairs AC section of a restaurant when I learned how to really eat with my hands. Looking through the tableside window into the downstairs section of the restaurant, I observed locals pouring saucy curries and veggies over platefuls of rice, then eating with their right hand. So how does one eat rice and curry without getting sauce all over your hand? The secret is: you don’t. Of course it gets messy. Meal time isn’t for daintily picking up a few grains of rice with the sauce strategically placed away from your finger tips, nor is it a time to artfully wrap a small piece of chapatti around a chunk of potato. Meal time is more about just going for it. The sauce and your fingers will meet. There’s no need to go for a napkin in between bites because the next will just coat your skin with curry all over again. (Just be sure to wash your hands before and after you eat—that’s what the wash basin in the corner of every restaurant is for.) Once I really learned how to eat without a utensil, it made eating those masala dosas easier and more enjoyable.
Rule #3: Know your breads
It is generally a good thing to know what types of food are offered where you will be traveling. This knowledge serves as a starting framework for a new cuisine, and makes ordering so much easier. In India, and many other places I’m sure, I’ve found it difficult to get a clear idea of what new dishes are from the waiter’s description. “ Saucy, with Indian spices,” is the usual response I get when inquiring about a dish. So anyways, if you should happen to go to one of those hole-in-the-wall, no-menu type places the next time you are in Kerala (soon, right?), it is a good thing to know your breads.
Dosa—made from chickpea flour. This one is a masala dosa.
Porota—our favorite discovery. This bread has several flaky layers but is slightly chewy in texture and always delicious.
Idly—made from fermented rice (I think…). These ones are part of a packaged meal we bought on the train.
If you’re like us, you may not be able to catch all the other options—masala, channa, veg curry, etc. but at least you can say: “Dosa” or “Porota” with confidence, and the waiter will just bring an accompanying dish to go with the bread. And in the restaurants where they only make one dish each day, the bread is the only choice you’ll have to make. That, and black tea, or chai?
Rule #4: Follow the locals
For a good breakfast, or any meal for that matter, it is good to look for the crowds. Where are all the other people eating? A busy restaurant generally means two things: the food is tasty, and (hopefully) the food should be fresher because its being eaten before it has time to go bad. The other important thing to look for is: where are all the Indians eating? Matt and I asked ourselves this question one day in Kovalam as we were sitting at a restaurant along the beach front. There were a few other people in the restaurant, but like the other places we’d passed along the way, none of the patrons were Indians. But we had seen dozens of Indian tourists on the beach. So where did they all eat? Finally we discovered the location of all the good food, up a hill by the local bus stand. We were relieved to have solved the mystery of where the Indians ate, now we could feast on our beloved porotas again (they weren’t even offered at the places we’d been eating). In addition to the availability of the porota, a local joint (often called “hotel” rather than restaurant) generally means there will be cheap food—at least cheaper than the tourist-oriented restaurants that line the main strip of each of the beaches we visited. It goes without saying that cheap is a good thing when you’re on a budget, but compared to the mid-range* restaurants frequented almost exclusively by foreign tourists, we liked the taste of the food at the cheaper* ones better (*no expensive restaurants were included in this study). Case in point: on our last day in Kerala before heading to the airport, Matt and I went to one of the hotel up the hill for a quick breakfast. As we crested the top of the hill the road we were walking on merged with another. We came upon a group of twenty local blokes sporting their button-up dress shirts and longhis. Wondering where they we headed, we quickened our pace as we realized they were headed the same place as us: where the locals eat.