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Laos - Asia Trip 5/8

Vientiane

I have crossed the bridge into Laos with Matthew, whom I have met in Nong Khai. We have shared a room in Vientiane and traveled together. The capital of Laos is more like a provincial town. The city is uncrowded with only low rise buildings, small shops and quiet streets. Most of the city is small enough to reach by foot. Here you would not find any pushy vendors or persistent hagglers like those in Thailand. Instead you would find children playing on the street, sometimes greeting to passing by foreigners with "sawatdee". It is a far cry from other bustling cities in South East Asia.

Vientiane street

Vientiane's Victory monument Patuxai resembles Paris' Arc de Triomphe. But the wide boulevards encircling the monument have little traffic. When viewed in detail it is a concrete structure with crude finishing.

We have visited Talàat Sâo, or the Morning Market. It has hundreds of shops selling everything from daily commodities to electronic appliances and jewelry. There were many money changers. For US$100 I have exchanged 93,000kip, all in 1000 and 500 denominations. This has fattened my wallet considerably. Indeed other people even carried around blocks of money in nylon bags. For food, you have to find it in the Evening Market, which actually opens all day. I liked its French sandwich (paté in baguette) for breakfast.

Matthew was an interesting character. He firmly embraces backpacker values such as frugality and a penchant for authentic local experience. He also has a principle that if a place can be walked to, he would not take any vehicle transit. One time we had a heated debate on the street when I suggested we should spend a few dimes to ride a tuk-tuk rather than walking a few kilometer of dusty road in the afternoon heat.

with Matthew in Vientiane

He was a reverse of me in the sense that after working in Hong Kong for some time, he gave it a miss and left for traveling (while I left Singapore to travel to Hong Kong). Me being someone from Hong Kong, I was constantly asked the mandatory question, "what do you think of Hong Kong after 1997?" Despite asking the question most people actually had a faint idea or interest in the state of affair. Matthew was the only one who understands. I had a mixed feeling about 97 and he was the only one I could have a discussion with any depth.

1996.10.02

Luang Phabang

Once the capital of the powerful Lan Xang kingdom, today Luang Phabang is a small town in the northern Laos with only 16,000 inhabitants. The city is situated amid beautiful mountain on the Mekong River. If Vientiane is provincial, Luang Phabang is more so. People are even more laid back. The sights are even smaller. The small royal palace museum opens only two hours in the morning.

There were incidents of attacks by anti-government rebels on the highway between Vientiane and Luang Phabang. Some tourists considered traveling by land not safe. While I usually downplay those threats, I have still opted for flying into Luang Phabang to bypass the road. Perhaps I should have researched the safety of flying first, for this flight was the scariest I have ever taken.

Restaurant on Mekong

When our plane approached the mountain city, it was covered entirely in clouds. Visibility was nil. The plane descended anyway. Perhaps it was guided by some sort of radar, I told myself not to second guess the pilot. Landing gears were lowered. It continued to fly for sometime. Then the pilot backed off and the plane climbed away.

So we hovered above the mountain for sometime. It was just as cloudy when it attempted the second landing. It still has no luck and it still backed off. The third time the pilot seemed to be more determined. Landing gears were again lowered. It continued to fly in cloud for sometime. Then the pilot backed off yet again. In the fourth trial we have finally descended through the cloud and landed on the narrow city between the rivers. The landing lasted about half an hour.

* * *

Pak Ou Cave

From Luang Phabang, we had an excursion to the Pak Ou cave, one hour upstream on Mekong. People have built a Buddhist shrine in the cave with hundreds of Buddha images inside. Actually the boat trip itself was more interesting than the cave and it was more scenic. We stopped by a village on the way to tour the brewing of a Lao Whisky. Lao lao is a strong spirit. We all have a sample of it.

Next day we went to the Kuang Si waterfall by a jeep. The waterfall is spectacular. We followed the guide to climb over the top of the fall and then got back from the other side. It was awful to walk across the muddy riverbed. One off us has lost a sandal to the river. The dirt road to Kuang Si runs through some villages. Village children were all excited by the passing vehicle and ran out to wave or to shout at us. The fields on hill side look beautiful.

* * *

During the long journey, I had a different sense of calendar. Days and weeks were often slipping by without notice. It suddenly occurred to me that October 4th was my birthday. My host of the guesthouse gave me surprise congratulations. I have turned 27 in Luang Phabang.

I decided to have dinner in one of the most 'luxurious' hotel in town. It was in a colonial building with tasteful decor and a beautiful balcony overlooking the street. The price was not much (alas so is the food quality). Almost all guests were tourists. Suddenly I had a reflection. I was reliving the colonial life when foreigners enjoy great living served by improvised locals. It was a bourgeoisie life in a communist country.

1996.10.05

Lao Pako

Flying back to Vientiane, I went straight from the airport to Lao Pako, a 'resort' village, about 50 km away by bus and boat. According to the tourist brochure, the bus trip should take one hour. In reality the bus made a stop in front of every shop on the way. Passengers got off to shop and came back with loads of stuff. Only then would the bus move to the next shop. 45 minutes after the bus has departed, we have traveled maybe 1 to 2 kilometers.

I got off the bus and change to a boat for a half hour ride. I had an embarrassing accident at landing. The boat dropped me off at a muddy ramp on the bank of the river. When I stepped off, one of my feet was immediately plunged into the clay soil. I had a big backpack on my back and a small backpack in front of me and one foot got sucked into the mud. It took a huge effort to regain my balance and to pull myself out.

The facilities in Lao Pako were very basic but comfortable. The bamboo house has a huge balcony for resting. There is a bar and a restaurant in a riverside hut. The few days in there, I mostly enjoyed walking in the nearby fields and villages. The weather was sunny and the air was clean. It was very quiet besides something seeing some naked boys playing in the irrigation channel.

Lao Pako was not always busy. However on the first evening there were 6 young people staying. So the resort prepared us a great buffet dinner in the riverside restaurant. We talked about Noam Chomsky, the secret bombing of Laos by the U.S. and so on. The Austrian manager joined us and shared his story of being in Libya while the U.S. has bombed it.

1996.10.08

Journey to Vietnam

After spending 10 days in the Vientiane vicinity (including Nong Khai), I was prepared to move on. In the next two days I took a long road trip stretching 800 km, spending a night in Savannkhet in the south and then continue on to Vietnam via the mountain pass at Lao Bao to arrived in Hué in central Vietnam.

Despite the impoverishment and other horror stories about appalling road conditions in Laos, the bus ride to Savannkhet was actually quite comfortable. The road was mostly paved. Perhaps the infrastructures were partly funded by foreign aid. I found many Japanese constructors working on various projects on the way.

I checked into a communist era hotel in Savannkhet. It was a grand but empty mansion. The rooms have many facilities but were poorly maintained. Their rate was very cheap for that matter.

My bus to Lao Bao departed at 5am the next morning. The bus was actually a converted truck. Benches were bolted to the truck bed as seats. There was a roof but no windows. When it rained, water came inside. Fortunately the rain was brief. There was no need to carry food. Whenever the bus stops, local people would surround the bus to sell food. I have had some delicious streamed pork bun. The road was dusty, as my T-shirt would testify. It was a white T-shirt during the departure in the morning. It became a brown T-shirt upon arrival.

We arrived in Lao Bao at noon. I was immediately surrounded by a mob of money changers, each holding a block of Vietnamese dong. I ignored them because the rate they have offered was so low. That was a mistake because it was my last chance to get rid of my leftover kip. There was no taker of Laos kip beyond that point. I should have known kip is a currency unwanted outside of Laos.

The Lao-Vietnam custom station is situated in a mountain pass about 2 km away from the town. I walked the mountain road with a British traveler, declining the motorbike transport offered. At the custom my companion has cleared in just 15 minutes. My passport, however, was looked with great suspicion. First an officer checked it. Then he consulted with other officers. Many more phone calls were made about it. Later another officer sped away on a scooter with my passport. Where was he going to I don't know. I looked at the desolated mountains around and thought this was not going to be a fun place to get stranded in. It was a big relieve when I was finally admitted after stuck at the custom for an hour and a half.

After completed the first 700km road trip in Laos, I thought the roughest part has already been passed. I could not be more wrong. The worst was yet to be experienced in Vietnam. While the Laos bus was converted from truck, it was at least a newer Japanese truck. The Vietnam bus was a wreck that looks like a relic from the soviet era. The entire antique dashboard has only a single speedometer, which was broken anyway. The seating benches were so narrow that it was tough to sit when the bus is not moving. It became a challenge to keep yourself balanced when the bus is running on the bumpy roads. The bus' windows open just below the eyeline so that all sceneries are blocked from view. The only good thing about this ride was the torture has lasted only two hours. After that I was transferred to another overcrowded minibus for another one and half hour. Toward the end, my butt has hurt so badly. I could only occasionally relieve it by lifting my body up a little from the seat using my hands.

1996.10.10


2006.12.31 [, ] - comments

 

Thailand - Asia Trip 4/8

Krabi

From Penang I headed toward the beautiful beaches of Thailand. Among the numerous destinations I have chosen the less traveled Krabi. The trip by minibus took 8 hours. But it required a few hours of layover in the border city Hat Yai.

While I was waiting in Hat Yai, I ran into a spiritual possession ceremony. Young men from a congregation were dancing and cutting themselves on the street, perhaps to show that they are possessed by spirit. They cut their tongues with things like knifes, choppers, swords, axes or even a saw. They really got themselves bleeding badly. Their blood was used to stain some small flags, which were sold as a charm to the onlookers. I found the scene very gruesome.

* * *

I arrived in Krabi in the evening. It is a pleasant small town. The night market on the waterfront offers fantastic food. Otherwise it is only used as the jump off point to beaches and islands nearby. I have gone to the Railey beach 40 minutes away by boat. It has beautiful beaches, reasonably priced bungalow and not too many tourists. I spent a lot of time swimming and sunbathing. When I was not on the beach, I would relax in one of many seafront restaurants doing some reading or writing.

Railey Beach

Railey beach is surrounded by many limestone cliffs. Rock climbing is a favorite activity. For non-climber like me I have found that some rocks can be reached by a trail. Unlike other hiking trails this one involves a lot of climbing, sometimes with the assistance of a rope. Once I reached the forested top it was very rewarding. I was alone to experience the exotic ecology up there. There is a valley amid the rocks that leads to a green lagoon. I did not stay for long though because the mosquitoes have basically driven me away.

* * *

So far I have found traveling alone is anything but lonely. On the contrary traveling solo is actually very socializing. You automatically have to open up to everyone, whether it is to other fellow travelers, your host or locals. I found the socialization is often the most rewarding experience in a trip. Nevertheless, this does not work equally well everywhere. Here on the beach most people were probably vacationing with someone already. There wasn't any good place to met people either. I have spent the time mostly with myself.

* * *

From Krabi I took an overnight train to Bangkok. I am rather fond of trains and I would use it whenever feasible. In this case it was a little bit complicated. Because Krabi is not on the train line, it took a combination of boat, pickup truck, big bus and minibus for me to get to the train station. Not only is it not convenient, it also gave me a lot of stress worrying about if I can meet the departure time. I also felt extra helpless when waiting for connections in unfamiliar place since I cannot speak the language. Unfortunately I have already purchased the train ticket while I was in Hat Yai. Had I know that there are travel agent here who can arrange train tickets and the connection I would have spent a little more for the convenience. In any case, I managed to arrive at the train station well ahead of time. From there it was a smooth journey to Bangkok.

1996.09.24

Bangkok

In Bangkok I was hosted by my friend Fredrick. He was on an assignment to Bangkok. I was staying in his hotel which is a few notches up from the budget accommodations that I used to go to. I postponed sightseeing for a day and indulged in the comfort of big hotel, swimming pool and air conditioning.

The best sight in Bangkok is no doubt the Wat Phra Kaew and the Grand Palace. The royal temples are truly magnificent. Perhaps that is why the place is so flooded with tourists. The national museum is also very interesting. It is so large that I have to be selective there.

So far Bangkok was the place I liked the least. Smothering heat, heavy traffic and air pollution has dampened my spirit. The constant bargaining for all things from shopping to taking tuk-tuk or even bargaining for 'Metered taxi' wore me down. I felt all this was done to rip off tourists. I was approached by two con artists on the street in a single day. One pretended to be friendly. He told me the place I was going to is closed (not true) and tried to divert me to another place, probably a tourist trap to make shopping money. I wasn't duped. But all that did not leave me with a good experience.

I really couldn't wait to leave for the next stop, Ayuthaya, the former capital of Thailand. Though I have to make a costly goof first. Thailand's railway has a great computer booking system. I purchased the ticket of the first train to Ayuthaya for about 100 baht. Then I found out the computer only sell tickets for long distance express train. Ayuthaya is only 1.5 hour away and is served by frequent commuter train. The price? 15 baht! Indeed there was one leaving in just a few minutes. I discarded my 100B ticket and jumped on the commuter train instead.

1996.09.26

Ayuthaya

Once the glorious capital of Thailand, Ayuthaya was left in ruin after sacked by Burmese 200 years ago. Today it is a small city outside of Bangkok. Half of the city is designated as parks and historical ruins. I rented a bike to go around and visited a few ruins. There were very few tourists in the morning. I sat alone in those deserted temple, imagining what it is like if they have not been restored and still covered by overgrown.

Ayuthaya

It rained heavily in the afternoon while I was biking. I was soaking wet. But the worst was that things inside my backpack, including my camera and my notebook, also get wet. After that I learn to waterproof everything vulnerable with plastic bags.

Thailand was so infested with mosquitoes. The next day when I left Ayuthaya by an overnight train, I arrived at the station one hour early. I thought I should do something rather than being a stationary mosquito target. So I sat inside the waiting room. I reasoned that with 30 people inside, the chance that me getting bitten is ... splash ... Before I could finish one sentence, I have already killed one mosquito on my lap. I looked around. Everybody was doing the same thing, waving and beating mosquitoes!

1996.09.28

Nong Khai

Thailand's rail line terminates at Nong Khai, a border town on the Mekong River. It is the gateway to the Laotian capital of Vientiane.

The town itself does not have many tourist attractions. I have visited the Sala Kaew Ku, a sculpture garden of an eccentric Laotian artist. He has combined the Buddhism, Hinduism and Western images into his giant sculptures. I found his work really weird. The fact that he used reinforced concrete as material also makes it hard for me to appreciate.

The guesthouse I have stayed has a nice garden restaurant overlooking Mekong and Laos. People going to or coming from Laos often make a stopover there. It was a great place to relax and meet people. I spent much time chatting and playing games.

Nong Khai

Nong Khai is also the place where you can 'buy' a Laos visa through some agents. On October 1st, I crossed the Friendship Bridge into Laos. This marked the second month of my journey.

1996.09.30


2006.12.30 [, ] - comments

 

Peninsular Malaysia - Asia Trip 3/8

Melaka

It was a long day traveling back from Sabah to Peninsular Malaysia. After 2 flights and 3 bus rides, I arrived in Melaka late in the evening. I did not have a hotel reservation by that time. But this was resolved quickly because the guesthouse people were gathering at the terminal snatching customers right off the bus. I was sent to a guesthouse that turned out to be a decent and clean place.

As the earliest trading port of Malaysia dating back to 1400, Melaka offers some interesting historical buildings and museums. The best is the Stadthuys, a Dutch era town hall now restored as a museum. I have also visited the ruins of an old church, a fort, a reconstructed Sultan's palace and the Independence museum. Perhaps the city has oversold its history a bit. I have toured everything in the small town center in half a day. This still left time for running errand, making IDD calls and getting a hair cut.

In the evening I went to dinner at the famous Portuguese settlement. Despite the name, I found it a tourist trap with little Portuguese atmosphere. Some expensive seafront restaurants are all there is. The pushy waiter came across to me as irritating.

After the rural experience in Sabah, I was really back to civilization in Melaka. High rise buildings, cars, department stores and convenient shops are all around. I went shopping in a huge supermarket, where mountains of merchandises started to give me dizziness. I felt lost. I really missed the days in the wild of Sabah. Fortunately, it was only two days before I went back to the jungle of the Taman Negara national park.

1996.09.11

Taman Negara

Taman Negara is Malaysia's premier National Park. At 4,343 square km, it boasts one of the most pristine primary rain forests in the world. It is only accessible by three hours of boat ride up the Tembeling River. (But in fact Stephen of the Jerantut Resthouse brought us there by a minibus on a dirt road under construction. So much for official direction.)

My trip to Jerantut, the gateway town to the park, was not without glitches. Despite starting early from Melaka, I missed the morning bus connection at Kuala Lumpur. The next bus was in the afternoon hours away. I did not intend to spend time in the noisy capital city. Even worst, the dusty, sun baked bus station is an inhospitable place to spend a few hours. Fortunately there was a Telekom shop nearby with air conditioning and plenty of seats. They wouldn't mind a quiet guest for a few hours, would they?

There I opened the first chapter of Ernest Hemingway's 'For Whom the Bell Tolls'. This would be my only reading for the whole trip other than guidebooks. Because I want to minimize the amount of baggage I have brought only one book with me. An exceptional novel that is.

I had to layover for a night in Jerantut. It turned out to be really worth it. The Jerantut Resthouse was run by an enthusiastic Chinese family who are avid travelers themselves. They gave the guests an excellent briefing on Taman Negara, how to get around and what to do there. Next day they provided us the minibus transport. As a bonus, he brought us to tour some plantations on the way. He shown us how the major economics crops of Malaysia, rubber trees, oil palm trees and coca trees, are grown and harvested.

* * *

I checked into a dormitory by Taman Negara before noon. These are basic lodging the local people setup right outside the park on the opposite side of the river. It gives backpackers great alternatives to the resort class accommodations inside the park. In the evening, the floating restaurants on the sandbar would be full of international guests. But for now, as I have learned, the best way to beat the tropical afternoon heat is to take a nap.

Later I went to explore the Gua Telinan (bat cave) by myself. The cave was dark, damp, narrow and slippery. I gathered the courage to walk (and crawl) inside. There I found a colony of hundreds of bats in a several chambers. They hanged themselves under the roof, or in some cases hanged under other bats. They are really cute little animals. Constantly shaking their head, they are like baby rats with wings. I crawled out and found my hands, legs, hairs and backpack all filthy.

Canopy Walk

Perhaps the most interesting activity in Taman Negara is the night walk. About 15 of us, led by our guide, set off in the dark from the park headquarters. Under his observant eyes we would discover the forest is teaming with nocturnal creatures in the dark. We have found fireflies, walking sticks, a scorpion and an owl with its big red eyes. He has taught us a trick; put our torch or headlight over our head. Suddenly we noticed many tiny light spots around. These were light reflection from the eyes of spiders and other creatures! He has also shown us a giant spider he have found nesting in a tree hole. The sight drawn a big grasp from some of us (despite he explicitly instructed us not to grasp beforehand to avoid scaring it away). Another amazing thing was glowing fungi. Too small to be seen in daytime, these fungi glow dimly in the dark and appear as a patch of green light on a dead log.

The next day, a few of us from last night went with our guide again for a jungle walk. He has shown us many jungle plants, edible fruits and medical plants. Lastly we went to the canopy walkway, a passage built high on the top of the trees. It is quite thrilling to walk on the wobbling walkway 50 meters above ground. From there you get a different point of view of the forest as opposite to seeing from the ground.

* * *

The next day I went on a recommended jungle trek by myself. The plan was to go 8 km in the morning to a fishing lodge, where I would relax in the cascade. Afternoon I would continue to the destination another 12 km away. There I would stay in a jungle hide. That is a tall observation tower built for people to observe wild animals from a distance. The next morning I would return via a more strenuous 11 km trail. I needed to carry all my food and water for the two days. It was a long trek but it was not mean to be particularly difficult. But due to some ill planning on my part, this has turned into a little jungle adventure.

It started off as a pleasant walk in the morning. I saw only two people on the way. Even in the popular cascade it was empty and I enjoyed it all by myself most of time. I took a nap in the empty lodge in the heat of the day. The trouble started in the afternoon. I was too relax and started late. When I reached the first river crossing, I naively waded through it. The water was waist deep and I came out completely wet waist down. I sat there wondering what to do with the wet jeans, wasting even more time I am going to need. Then I got lost for a while. By the time I found the way back, there was only two hours of daylight left but still 10 km to cover. Rather than turning back, I pressed on the hardest I can. For the last half hour I walked alone in darkness. At last I arrived at the second river crossing. There I found my salvation. There were people on the opposite side of the river. They were the other fellows staying in the hide that night. I was so weary; it took me a long time to cross the river step by step. They waited and brought me to the hide on the last stretch.

I got four more leech bites from the second river. I checked on myself after the crossing. I found one leech on my boot and another one sucking blood on my foot. The guys helped me to burn it off with a lighter. Including those from the first river, I got seven leech bites on that day. My ankles, socks and jeans were all stained with blood. I was both physically and mentally spent.

Once inside the refuge, I did observed some tapirs (a large mammal) coming to the salt lick at night. Otherwise I was too tired stay up to watch wild animals. Next morning I scraped the return trek and left by a boat with other people instead.

* * *

Instead of returning to the headquarter, I say goodbye to the guys from last night and got off the boat at the Nusa camp. It is an independent lodging a little bit upstream from the headquarter. Less convenient for activities, my plan was to stay for 2 days to relax and recuperate. I take my time to clean my bloody jeans and the muddy boots.

River Boat

About the leeches, it sounds like a little horror to find some wiggling on your body. But in truth, the bite does not hurt. Mine did not even cause itch. When I got back to town I saw many tourists with multiple bandages on their ankles. I felt a kind of comradeship with them.

At the Nusa camp, I have grown restless and made a short trek to the Abi fall nearby. There I could swim in its chilly pool. I left Taman Negara by river boat after 5 days.

1996.09.17

Penang

I have arrived in Butterworth by an overnight bus. From there it connects to the island city of Penang by ferry. The bus was comfortable besides that I have to endure a night of freezing air conditioning. Regrettably I caught no view on the ferry because the weather was hazy.

Penang is a laid back city. While there are no spectacular sights, it is pleasant to stroll around. I like the lush tropical green of the Botanical garden. The Fort Cornwallis is not much more than a grassy lawn by the sea. But it is still comfortable to lay there to enjoy the light breeze.

My favorite was always hiking. The Penang hill is accessible by a funicular car. To enjoy both I made a two hours hike uphill and then came down by the funicular car. Although the weather was hazy, the Penang hill still offered a good view of the island and the mainland. I had lunch at the old Bellevue Hotel. It has a beautiful garden with excellent view. But it was a little bit rundown and the food has poor value for its price.

Penang Food Stall

The three weeks Malaysia trip ended in Penang. I went to a local food stall to have the Hainan chicken rice again. It is my favorite dish since I came to Singapore. The last few Malaysian ringgit in my pocket I have spent it on a first run Hong Kong movie. Next stop Thailand would be a minibus away.

1996.09.19


2006.12.29 [, ] - comments

 

Sabah - Asia Trip 2/8

Mountain Kinabalu

I always enjoy the view from airplane. The coast of Borneo is covered by dense forests with winding rivers run between. Roads, houses and farmland are rather scarce until we flew further north. It is a largely undeveloped wilderness.

My first destination is Mountain Kinabalu in Sabah, East Malaysia. At 4100-meter, it is the highest peak in South-East Asia. However, according to Lonely Planet, it is one of the easiest mountains in the world to climb.

* * *

Right at the airport, I have met two Singaporean girls also heading to Mountain Kinabalu. We took a bus from the city to the park. The uphill ride took us from sweaty tropical heat to cool mountain air. We arrived after a three hours ride. Perhaps a little disappointingly, I found the mountain we have come to see was completely hidden in clouds. I have learned this is usually the case. Except for a short period at dawn, the mountain is almost always covered in clouds.

Mountain Kinabalu

I stayed in the hostel for the night. The place is clean and tranquil. All eight beds in the dormitory room were occupied. I met two young British there and joined them for tomorrow's climb.

We started early next morning. Another British and a Malaysian joined us. We started as a group of five plus a local guide. The trails are quite steep. I can barely kept up with the rest. Good that I have trained myself by climbing stairs in the weeks before. Foggy and cold, it was a different environment up there. The trees are short and the branches are curly like big, natural bonsai. There were occasional light misty rains. Parts of the trail have water sipping down in like a little stream. Now I know what a cloud forest is.

We reached the mountain lodges before noon, where we will remain for the night. Next morning we will scale the last 800 meters for sunrise at the peak. Besides the two lodges and an expensive restaurant nothing else is there. It was cold and the view was blocked. Many people simply went to bed after lunch. It was so quiet. The only sound I could hear was some birds' song in a great distance. Despite the cold and my shivering hand, I tried to stay outside to write some postcards. Suddenly the clouds were cleared and revealed the great scenery below. I hurried inside to ask my friends to help me to take pictures. Somehow this has also drawn people from the entire lodge out. The moment of my mountain solitude was dispersed with the cloud.

Next morning we started before 3 am. I lagged behind and soon split with my team. Nevertheless I was not alone since there were many other people climbing. We soon passed the forest and emerged on a barren slope. Under the full moon we appeared as little dots scaling a vast rock face. I paused frequently to catch my breath. The final leg was the steepest. I reached the summit half an hour before dawn. I found my teammates and other 20 or so climbers there. The wind was very strong. We took shelter in the gaps between the rocks until the sunrise.

Kinabalu Summit

Honestly the sunrise was not so dramatic. Clouds have partly obscured it. Nevertheless the view to the terrain below is truly breath taking. Later we went down on the same trail and got back to the headquarter at about 12. By then I feel completely numb, both in my muscles as well as my mind.

1996.09.03

Uncle Tan's

From Kinabalu was a 4 hour bus ride to Uncle Tan's lodge. But first I spent an afternoon wandering in the nearby city of Sandakan. There was really not much to see. They most interesting sight was finding baby sharks and stingrays slaughtered for sale in the wet market.

Uncle Tan greeted me in Cantonese from his house (my language is actually quite commonly spoken in Sandakan). He ran this guesthouse as well as some huts in the remote areas in Sabah. His natural tours attract backpackers all over the world. I was served late lunch in front of his house. It included curry chicken, curry cabbages, fresh pineapple, banana cake, etc. Indeed he would feed us all meals in the next few days, which is some of the best I ever had.

Uncle Tan's place was more basic than I expected. The bathroom was just a tin hut with a water tap and a large bucket of water inside. When I was taking bath, it started to rain. The rain turned into downpour and then followed by thunders and then the power went out. I waited in complete darkness for 10 minutes. Finally someone came with a flashlight and an umbrella to rescue me.

Turtle Islands

Turtle Islands is a national park comprise of 3 small islands off the shore of Sandakan. Sea turtles come to the islands to lay eggs throughout the year. Today we were boated to our first stop in the Pulau Liberan Island, where uncle Tan has some guest huts in a small fishing village. We spent an afternoon on the beach. The water there is not so great however.

The real event happened on the Turtle Islands in the evening. The park is very organized. Unsupervised visitors are not allowed on the beach. Instead we waited in a restaurant for the ranger to call us. Luckily it happened early that evening. A turtle has landed earlier. The ranger brought us to see the it lay eggs.

The greenback turtle was a large one but not so gigantic. It was laying eggs in a hole on the beach. They looked like a pile of wet ping pong balls in a sand hole. It stopped after about 100 eggs. Then it uses its rear flippers to shove sands to fill the hole. The eggs do not stay there because the ranger removed them to the hatchery. The turtle would rest for a few more hours before returning to the sea. We were allowed to touch it during its resting. Despite the spotlight and the tourists around it, the turtle looked tranquil.

Next the rangers brought us to the hatchery. The eggs were buried in a controlled environment for better hatching rate and to avoid predators. The rangers brought the highlight of the night, a bucket of newly hatched turtles. We all had a chance to hold these babies. They kept crawling tirelessly in our hand. We released them on the beach and saw them crawled toward the sea. Life in the nature is hard. A few did not make it to the water, despite our assistance. Some will be feasted by predators. The more lucky ones will grow up as adult and return some years later to the same beach to breed their next generation.

In our return trip we almost have a boat accident. Our boat was running at high speed in the darkness of the sea. Suddenly a big dark fishing boat emerged in front of us in our path. The boatmen dodged in the last moment.

1996.09.05

Kinabatangan Jungle camp

Returning from the Turtle Islands, I stopped by at the Uncle Tan's and then headed to the jungle camp by the River Kinabatangan. It took an hour by bus followed by another hour of boat ride in the river. They do not always have new visitor everyday. That day I happened to be the only one. We loaded the boat with supplies, which also known as great food, some gasoline and then off we went.

The boat first ran on the main river, then turned into small tributaries, then thru lakes and ponds, and then finally landed by a swamp. Here is the camp! A dozen huts dotted around a main shelter in the forest. Our huts are elevated wooden boxes enclosed on three sides with a thatched roof. Inside it has 2 thin and moldy mattresses, which we would cover with the clean bed sheet we brought in, plus the indispensable mosquito net.

Jungle camp sketch

Every morning I woke up to an enchanting bird song. The tunes I will still recall years later. It was only six in the morning but I never felt forced out of bed. Instead it was a jungle rhythm I naturally followed. We would row a boat to explore the surroundings. Proboscis monkeys were all around doing gymnastics or jumping from trees to trees. We even had the luck to spot a wild orang utan (an ape) chewing nuts on a tree. The hot afternoons are best spent swinging in hammocks or taking naps.

Fresh fruits and great meals were served throughout the day in the main shelter. People gathered around and shared stories. There I have learned everyone has already traveled for months if not over a year. Before that I have never imagined one can sustained a trip for such an extended period of time. This has changed my perception on traveling. I ran into my British teammate from Mountain Kinabalu earlier. He liked the relaxing atmosphere so much that he called it a vacation from vacation.

1996.09.09

P.S. From Uncle Tan's website I have learned that he has since passed away. I was deeply saddened because he was one of the friendliest people in the world. Uncle Tan, thank you for your hospitality! (2006.12.27)

2006.12.28 [, ] - comments

 

Journal of My South East Asia Trip

In 1996 I have led an overland trip from Singapore to Hong Kong through many countries in South East Asia. It was a wonderful journey. More importantly it was an inflection point in my life. After the trip I have settled in San Francisco.

I have kept a journal of the trip. Over the years I have made several abortive attempt to edit and publish it. This years marks the 10th year anniversary. I got a bust of energy to complete the project. The first chapter starts with "Goodbye Singapore".

2006.12.27 comments

 

Goodbye Singapore - Asia Trip 1/8

It was 5:30 in the morning when I left the house. Last night my landlord insisted to take me out for a farewell dinner. After that we had a long talk. I did not start packing until it was very late. After half a bottle of wine from last night and very little sleep, my mind was surprisingly fresh in the morning.

I boarded the Malaysian Airline shuttle bus to transfer to the airport in the Malaysian side of the border. The bus ran on a highway that bisects Singapore's tropical rain forest. Alone, I looked through the window. It was misty outside. The twilight was deep blue.

Today I was leaving the country I have lived for the past year and a half. Goodbye, Singapore.

1996.09.01

* * *

In 1995 I have moved from Hong Kong to Singapore to work for this small company. I have settled in quickly. Everything has worked out fine. I enjoyed the tropical weather and the relative spaciousness. Nonetheless I have never planned if it should be a short term or a permanent move. Then one day it has come to me that it was time to move on.

This decision has actually set myself free. Not longer was I fixated on career, I decided I want to spend some time traveling. While I had no specific destinations in mind, I wanted to start with the neighboring countries. An idea quickly emerged. I will travel all the way home to Hong Kong! Malaysia, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, and southern China, it will be an overland trip that also serves a purpose of transportation!

This time I have not bothered to find travel companions since it is unlikely for other people to join for an opened end journey. In any case, traveling solo turned out not to be a disadvantage at all. Not only was I free to make decisions for myself, I also have the pleasure to meet great many people. This often made the most memorable experience in the trip.

It was such a spontaneous idea. From conception to setting off was only one month. After giving notice to my company, my last month involves doing some pre-trip planning, arranging funds, selling off my belongings and shipping other stuff back home. After everything was taken care of, I set off from Singapore with nothing but a small backpack.

The following is the journal of my trip. For three months I have traversed many different cultures and landscapes. It is an experience I always cherish.


2 Sabah »
 

2006.12.27 [, ] - comments

 

Freakonomics Review

Freakonomics
by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner

Freakonomics is a fun little book that asked unconventional questions like "Is a gun or swimming pool more dangerous?", "Why do drug dealers still live with their moms?", etc. It studies the data using scientific and economics methods, then present us often surprising results. It is fun because it seeks questions with great curiosity and creativity. It is surprising because it shows a lot of conventional wisdom are actually wrong. The motto - morality represents the way people would like the world to work, whereas economics represents how it actually does work.

The most provocative story is no doubt the chapter on abortion. What causes the dramatic decline in crime rate across US since the 90s? The media cite all the usual suspects. Better economy, more police, more prisons, etc. Studies show they make only minor contribution at best. The real factor is the legalization of abortion since the 70s, Steven said. Without the abortion many of these children would otherwise born into households least capable to raise them. Eventually a disproportional number of them will turn into criminals. Abortion in effect greatly shrink the pool of potential criminals. If you think about this, it makes intuitive sense. Yet no press would even mention this as a factor (I first heard about this theory from this book).

Above all it shows that we can understand the world using objective, scientific method as oppose to the rhetorical reasoning that is all too common these days.

2006.12.13 [] - comments

 

Loss

Like many others I was drawn by the story of the disappearance and the search for the Kims family in the last few days. I was following update of the rescue effort almost in real-time via the news website. It was a big euphoria at first when the mother and the girls were found safe. But at the same time it was all the more urgent to find the missing dad who has left to seek help but has failed to return. When bad news finally came back that he was found dead, I was deeply saddened.

I was thinking why do I worry so deeply about a family I have not met? Why do I concern about them on a personal level? Because they are good, family people? Because I am also a new dad myself? Or is it because they were stuck in the wild waiting for us to save them?

The recent passing of my friend in another tragic circumstance still leave a heavy heart in me. Usually I am the optimist. In tragic situations I can see beyond the present sorrow and set my sight to the future ahead. From suffering I can often find compassion and catharsis. But these are tragedies that overwhelmed me. The losses are irredeemable.

2006.12.07 [] - comments

 

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