What To Do When in Asia

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)


Singapore: visit the Botanical Gardens


Indonesia: DIVE!!!


Vietnam: eat!


China: meet the friendliest people on earth


Korea: go to a baseball game


Japan: once again, EAT! (especially the seafood :) )

Here and There



A last look at Bali: the beach at Sanur

joylani 130pxDuring our last day in Bali we bought a couple of magazines and a newspaper.  The Jakarta Post went pretty fast, but we’ve both been taking our time going through the issues of The Economist and Newsweek.  It had been a while since we’d gotten any papers or even news online.  One of the features of the Newsweek is a special section on travel in the Gulf and travel fueled by oil money.  We both took our turns reading through the array of articles that covered things from $14,000 hotel rooms (yes, that price is quoted in US dollars, not Indonesian rupiah), luxurious air conditioned Bedouin tents in Oman’s desert, to $800 breakfast buffets, and both of decided that rolling in more money than you know what to do with it doesn’t sound so bad in terms of luxury travel. 

The last month in Indonesia was great, but it wasn’t without a lack of the comforts we’ve become accustomed to in other parts of SE Asia.  Ever since I dropped our soap holder between the shower stall and bungalow wall at the beginning of the year, we’ve been able to adequately scrub with mini-bars of soap provided by various hotels.  In Indonesia though, our supply ran out and we finally had to buy a full-sized bar of soap and dish.  Hot water?  Only at two of the places we stayed.  Until last night, we hadn’t had a hot shower since we left Ubud on the 16th.  During our stay on Gili Air we went without true fresh water for a week.  Nothing like a salty shower to rinse off that seawater. 

I’ve learned to cope.  Hot water isn’t necessary when the temperature inside your room doesn’t get below 85F most nights and a $2.50 pedicure is a good solution for feet that have been dusty for way too long.  This morning I used the fan in our room to blow dry my bangs that had dried haywire during the night.  Luxury is relative.  Perhaps the best thing of all, since arriving back in Malaysia, is that we sent out 4 kilos of laundry (that’s just about all our clothes plus two each of sleep sheets and towels) to be washed and dried by machine.  Talk about backpacker’s opulence; there’s just something wonderful about wearing a shirt that has shrunk back to its original size after way too many hand washings.  

This morning I got a chance to talk with my grandma on the phone and one of the questions she asked was, “Are you staying in a nice place?”  In fact, we are.  For a hostel it’s not too bad.  The good old Red Dragon (this is our third time staying at this swanky address) is located in the heart of Kuala Lumpur’s China Town in a renovated theater, as you can kind of tell from the sweeping staircase in the lobby and the theatresque walls in the interior.  The place has been carefully restored, though sadly without the addition of windows.  It continues to be cleaned (daily!), and I even noticed that they have fixed the broken shower holder since our last stay.  Also, when our AC didn’t work very well we were given a fan at no extra charge!  Finally, the sheets on two of the beds in our room have matching tangerine-colored sheets.  Always on the lookout for good design ideas and color schemes to take back home, I asked Matt how he liked the hue of the sheets; he responded (with a fist pump), “Goooooo giants!”




Travel can be one of the most rewarding forms of introspection.

-Lawrence Durell, Bitter Lemons


164_6445-4.JPGThe more we travel, the more we learn about both the world and ourselves. And as I’ve noted before, the more places we visit the more we learn about our travel preferences. One thing that becomes easier and easier is identifying the aspects of a place that we enjoy. For instance, on this trip, I knew I liked India and Nepal more than Thailand, Lao, or Cambodia. But I couldn’t put my finger on why. I theorized maybe I liked South Asia more because it is more familiar to me, maybe because its crazier a place, perhaps because its more different, or even because of food or cultural reasons. But Lao was really different and Cambodia was pretty crazy, I like Thai food and I’ve become pretty familiar with all three countries. But coming to Indonesia has helped me to identify what I like most about a place and travel in general. Its not crazy or totally different places like I thought, although I do enjoy those qualities in a destination.

What I love is adventure. There is so much adventure to be had in India, Nepal, and Indonesia. Being in Flores gave me the same euphoric feeling as when I’m in the Himalayas. An overwhelming sense of contentment and happiness, stemming from the knowledge and experience of being in a truly awesome place. Its tough not to be content while taking in the beauty of Flores, just as its difficult to not be awed by the grandeur of the Annapurnas. Also there’s something about being on the edge of the world, or the fringes of civilization at the least, that I enjoy. The edges of the world are seldom confortable, but usually extraordinary. I’ve made no secret of the fact that I like being away, and where is more away than some far-flung place. Unlike Joylani, I kind of enjoy the times when we’re out of phone and/or internet land. Remoteness appeals to me, although I’m still learning the reasons for that. I guess I’m just an adventurer.

Winding Down in Sanur

164_6445-4.JPGOur last couple days in Indonesia were spent in Sanur, a beach town in southern Bali. I didn’t particularly care for the place, as the beach was unremarkable (except that it had huge waves) and the town was mainly a tourist trap catering to upmarket holidaymakers. But we found a nice little homestay, with an eclectic mix of guests. On one side, our neighbor was an old Belgian guy and on the other a Indian Hare-Krishna for London, with some Indonesian couples filling the other rooms. We took some walks along the beach, going north and south of town. But otherwise, I did what I usually do in places that don’t particularly appeal to me. I caught up on some writing and blog-related work, spent some time at an internet café, and read The Economist and a Newsweek.

            I reflected a little on our time in Indonesia as well. Its been a great month, which I think has exceeded both Joylani and my expectations. Its more difficult travel than we’ve had lately, especially following Singapore, Malaysia, Brunei, and Thailand (which would rank as the four easiest Asian countries to travel), but we did okay. We only saw a fraction of all the cool places that Indonesia has to offer, so I cannot say that I’m quite ready to leave. But since Indonesia only offers short visas, we’ll have to be on our way. But that’s not to say that I’m sad to leave, for our upcoming destinations have me salivating, literally. A few days in Kuala Lumpur, where I’m gonna totally stuff myself with roti canais, satays, cendols, and teh tarik. Then on to Ho Chi Minh City, to begin our month in Vietnam where I’ll subsist on a strict diet of pho and bo bun. But back to Indonesia, its not a perfect place, but I like it. A lot people knock it, but I’ve found not many people have actually gone there either. I’d say that the majority of people I’ve spoken to that have actually visited Indonesia have liked it. Many countries are easier to travel and nicer in general, but there’s something exceedingly appealing about Indonesia and in the past month, its become one of my favorite countries.


Countries, like people, are loved for their failings.

-Yeats, Bengal Lancer

India and Indonesia


164_6445-4.JPGEchoing 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.

Flying vs. Overlanding



164_6445-4.JPGExactly two weeks ago we took the 70 minute flight from Denpassar, Bali to Ende, Flores. Just to illustrate how long it takes to get around in Indonesia, I’ve listed the rote and times of our return journey. Note that I’ve omitted Moni (roundtrip from Ende) and Gili Air (roundtrip from Mataram), so the following is actually the most direct overland/sea route between Ende and Denpassar:


Ende to Ruteng (10 hour bus)

Ruteng to LBJ (6 hour bus)

Labuanbajo to Sape (8 hour ferry)

Sape to Bima (1.5 hour bemo)

Bima to Mataram (12 hour bus)

Mataram to Lembar (.5 hour bemo)

Lembar to Padangbai (4 hour ferry)

Padangbai to Sanur (1.5 hour bemo)


In case you weren’t counting, that’s 42.5 hours in-transit (not including waiting times, walking, or intracity transport). Again, that’s taking the most direct land-sea route between the two cities. On one hand, we saw some of the most scenic and beautiful landscapes, mountainscapes, and seascapes that we’ve ever seen. On the other hand, it is a 70 minute flight.  

Good Gilis


164_6445-4.JPGIts always nice when you’re looking forward to a place and it far exceeds your expectations. Such is the case with Gili Air. One of the three Gili Islands off the coast of Lombok, Gili Air is like the other two in that it is a small island surrounded by a lagoon and reef and subsists on tourism and farming. There are no motor-vehicles on any of the islands and aside from the two bicycles I’ve seen, only horse-drawn carts ply Air’s sandy paths. We found a nice bungalow here, which in my opinion is one of the nicest sub-10 dollar rooms we’ve had on the entire trip (and under-10 bucks is where we stay 80-90% of the time). Nestled in a coconut grove with a few others and only 50 meters or so to the beautiful ocean, I’m pretty happy with our place. After ten days of roughing it across Flores, we came to the Gilis to do nothing; sleep in, lay around in hammocks, swim/snorkel, take a walk, eat well, etc. So far, we’re on task. Yesterday we did pretty much nothing after arriving, just a big lunch and even bigger seafood dinner split by a few hours of sitting at the beach and our bungalow. Today was: breakfast, relax for a couple hours, swim, lunch, swim, attempt to use the one internet place on the island (we gave up after ten-minutes, at which point Google’s homepage was half-loaded), relax some more, and finally an excellent fresh seafood dinner. On tap for tomorrow morning is either a walk around the island or some snorkeling. Decisions, decisions…Once it gets too hot, I think we’ll begin our afternoon of sitting around and talking at the beach or our bungalow. Nice room, beautiful beach, tons of seafood, cheap, what more could I ask for?

Made it to Gili Air


\"164_6445-4.JPG\"Clear blue waters, white-sand palm-fringed beaches, and undeveloped, Gili Air has all the qualities of a perfect island. It’s a good thing too, because stepping off the small wooden boat onto Gili Air’s beach was the last step of a 27-hour journey. We boarded a ferry at 7:30 am yesterday morning and of course it didn’t leave until 10:30. It wasn’t until seven hours later that we disembarked at the port of Sape on Sumbawa. From Sape, we took a hour and half bus ride to Bima, where we boarded an overnight bus which would cross Sumbawa, take a ferry across to Lombok, and then drive across Lombok and deposit us at Mataram. That whole part was not as bad as it sounds. Well, the ferry ride was pretty smoky and sweltering as we crossed a windless sea, but otherwise it was better than it sounds since we booked our travel from Labuanbajo to Mataram on one ticket. Although it costs a little more to book all the segments of our trip in advance, it lessened the headache of having to think during the journey and allowed us to avoid negotiating at every change of transportation. Plus, its what even the locals do, I figured it must be worth it. From Mataram, we took a 40 minute bemo ride to Bangsal harbor, where we walked the last 100 meters to the harborfront to buy a ticket and wait for the small boat to fill up. Twenty minutes later, we stepped off onto Gili Air. It’s a beautiful, undeveloped island and good place to relax for a few days after our recent jaunt across somewhat less comfortable parts of Indonesia.


I have discovered something delicious, and it is called a murtabak. I actually had one a month ago in Borneo, but didn’t know what it was. Essentially, it is just a pancake. But beware: if you order a pancake in Indonesia it will most likely be a flavorless gooey half-cooked bleh. Not so the murtabak. Tonight I saw it being made, so now I know how it all goes down. And it goes a little something like this:
1. Heat up a small frying pan to correct temperature (whatever that is).
2. Spread white colored batter evenly over pan (not as salty as Bisquick, nor as rubbery tasting as Krusteez, the consistency should be that to make a pancake of about half an inch).
3. Watch as bubbles appear.
4. Liberally sprinkle sugar and chopped peanuts over batter. Add some chocolate sprinkles if you’re feeling like a party.
5. Place lid over pan to aid in cooking. Note, do NOT flip.
6. When batter is done cooking, remove from pan, fold in half so that the golden brown sides are facing out and the peanut side faces in.
7. Butter the top if you’re feeling like clogged arteries.
8. Enjoy your murtabak. This is not just any old pancake.

Farewell Labuanbajo



\"164_6445-4.JPG\"Labuanbajo has been an interesting place to stay the past few days. Although my posts have focused on the spectacular diving and Komodo dragons, every day has begun and ended in Labuanbajo. It’s a small squalid little seaside town; dusty, dirty, and poor with a ramshackle little harbor. But at the same time, the view from the hills looking down into bay is amazing and the sunsets over the islands are a great too. I was going to write how everyone is really kind and friendly. But then we ran into this guy in town, Tony; short and stocky black guy with long dreadlocks. He recommended a hotel, which we ended up staying at. We saw him in town a few more times and our second to last night, he tried to sell us a boat tour to Rinca, which we said we’d think about. We ended up going through another middleman that offered a much better price. When he found out we bought it from someone else without consulting him, he was pissed and offered a few choice names and words for us, before he stomped off. So I couldn’t blog that everyone in Labuanbajo was kind. But then we saw him again and he came up to me, apologized, shook my hand, which turned into a hug before giving me a few pats on the back and reiterating he was sorry. So now, again, and in good conscience, I can say everyone in Labuanbajo has been very kind and friendly.


its a poor little town, like most on Flores and in Indonesia in general


but also like much of Flores and Indonesia in general, scenic