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Home Coming - Asia Trip 8/8

About 150 km to the west of Guangzhou is a rural community known as the village of Tung's clan. This is my ancestral homeland, the place where my father was born and raised. Although he has left for Hong Kong with a few brothers and sisters when he was young, they still maintain strong connection and return regularly to the village. On the other hand I am an urban boy born and raised in Hong Kong. I known very little about the village besides the occasional stories from my parents. I have only make one visit when I was small. I remember very little about the trip beside an impression that the village is a dirty place.

After so many years I suddenly have the urge to visit my village on the way. This was the last stop before I return to Hong Kong. I met with my parents in the nearby city Zhaoqing. It was many months since we have last seen each other. We shared a hotel room and went for dimsum the next morning before making the trip to the village.

Family Shrine

We are hosted by our cousins and nephews. They were really glad to have us visiting. It is not often for them to have guests in the village. So our visit has created some festive atmosphere. They have already finished harvesting the year's rice crop. So my nephews have a lot of free time to show me around. I have visited Tung's family shrine. The building was once collectivized but the ownership has since returned to our clan. What remains is a rather barren building.

Harvesting

I must have learned lot more about the world. My village does not seem so dirty to me this time. After a few weeks in China's backwater countries, even the squat toilet there failed to shock me. On the other hand, life remain poor in China's rural communities. For young people, the village seems to have little to go for.

* * *

From Zhaoqing I have temporary parted with my parent to take the high-speed ferry home. They would rather return by train because it only costs half as much. But after living minimally for weeks, this last trip is an easily justifiable splurge for me. After all it was an emotional moment. I wish to end the trip in a more romantic way.

The ferry ride can be described as calm and uneventful. We were seated comfortably inside the sealed compartment. Hong Kong movie was played during the trip. It has been a long time since I was surrounded by Hong Kong people all speaking Cantonese. Somehow this didn't feel so exciting.

As the ferry approaching Hong Kong, we sailed pass the site of the new airport, the new suspension bridges and finally the Central reclamation area. Upon landing at the China Hong Kong City terminal, I headed directly to Tsim Sha Tsui's waterfront promenade, to see the harbor, and to feel Hong Kong.

1996.11.17


2007.09.03 [, ] - comments

 

China - Asia Trip 7/8

Yunnan 云南

From the border town Hekou, I took an overnight train to Kunming, the capital city of the Yunnan province. Unfortunately the sleeper tickets have already sold out. So I have to sit tight in the hard seat coach for 16 hours. Fortunately this train was not crowded and it turned out to be not as tough as I expected. This section of railway is one of the most scenic routes people ever built. The train twisted slowly along the beautiful canyons, going through many bridges and tunnels in this mountainous terrain. I was marveled by the scenery until the night has fallen.

The train pulled into Kunming station at 6 am. It was still an hour before dawn and the temperature was very chilly. Indeed it has remained gloomy and cold for rest of the day. From Kunming I have planned to first take a detour to the west to see the ancient cities of Dali and Lijiang, then return here and continue the eastward journey on to Hong Kong. The overnight bus connection to Dali would not leave until the afternoon. So I have spent the few hours of layover wandering in the city, changing money, making phone calls and shopping. Yes, shopping! The city seemed to have an amazing array of consumer goods available at rather low prices. Over the years, China has come from a country of scarcity to become the new shopping paradise!

In Kunming, I have first experienced the developing country's cultural shock, the squat toilet! Once I got off the train, I went to the train station's busy public toilet. What I saw is basically a common trench with compartments partitioned by low walls on top of it. In the trench were many days of deposits accumulated. After traveled for a full day without using the toilet, I was in no position to object. So I did what I have to do - quickly! This was the initiation of what I would accustom to for my next two weeks in Yunnan. Only until I arrived in Guangxi would I see a flush toilet again.

1996.10.26

Dali 大理

It was cold and rainy in Dali when the bus dropped me off at dawn. The young attendant was still asleep when I arrived. I woke them up to check in. It was a nice and relaxing place with a large garden, pavilions and a Thai style bistro. The rate is only US$1.25 per person. It is certainly one of the cheapest place I have stayed.

The ancient Dali was once the capital of the Dali kingdom in the southwest China. Today it is a small town with charming old houses and cobble stone streets. It is beautifully situated with the Erhai Lake in the front and the Cangshan Mountains at the back. There is a tourist street where you can find cheap hotels, street side cafés and handicraft shops. There are so many tourists strolling up and down that locals nicknamed it "Foreigner's street". Also interesting is the market in the nearby town Shaping. The market is held on Monday in a large open area. They sell everything from grains, meat, cooked food, cloths to handicrafts.

I climbed the Cangshan Mountain to visit the Zhonghe temple. Unbeknown to me, a new cableway has constructed to bring tourists from Dali to the mountain. Indeed the cable lift sometimes passes directly over the hiking trail so that I could overhear the conversation from above. Zhonghe temple itself is a neglected little place at the cableway's terminal. Perhaps more interestingly is a foot path I found that extends in both directions across the mountain. The stone path is craved from the cliff and passes through many gorges and waterfalls. From there you will find a panoramic view of Dali and the Erhai Lake. I spent half a day exploring the path, which seems to go on as far as I can see. Then I came down by the newfound cable lift. The slow ride down affords a great view of the area.

The other day I have rode a bike to Erhai Lake and Xiaguan at the far end of the lake. It was a bumpy 3 km ride to the shore by a cobble stoned road. The ride was really not worth it as I find the shore a rather unattractive place. Luckily the rest of the trip was very good ride on a newly paved road run parallel to the main road. In Xiaguan I found the Erhai Park a pleasant place. It has an open view to the lake and the mountains. The spaciousness is a great relief to the crowded cities.

1996.10.30

Lijiang 丽江

The ancient city of Lijiang is in a valley floor amid the rolling mountains of Yunnan. Its well preserved old town is a real gem with old houses and cobble stone streets and a market square in the middle of the town. Open streams crisscross the city. People draw water for drinking and washing from these fast flowing streams. It seems surprisingly clear considers it is used by so many people.

Lijiang

The city has experienced a major earthquake earlier this year. People have spent an unforgettable Chinese new year camping outdoor in snow after the quake because of the danger in a damaged buildings. Although many buildings have already been restored, others were simply marked for demolition.

My bus from Dali to Lijiang ran thought a mountainous area. It has run into an unexpected problem and has broken down halfway amid the mountains. The driver flagged down a bigger bus for us. Despite it was already full, all of us managed to squeeze in somehow. When I finally arrived in Lijiang, I was again greeted by rain. Fortunately the weather was fine after that.

I stayed in the Lijiang hotel. The hotel has a shiny new wing used mainly by Chinese visitors. Foreign backpackers and myself, however, choose the old fashioned, communist style, blockish old wing. The dormitory I have stayed has 30 beds spread in a large hall. But it was only occupied by a few people. Other than the Karaoke music from the neighbor which went well into midnight, the dormitory is really not a bad place to stay.

Many inhabitants of Lijiang are of ethnic Naxi. They have developed an interesting looking pictographic written language called Dongba script. Many shops in the old town used it for their shop's sign. I also attended the performance of the Naxi music orchestra. The performers are mostly elderly over their 70s. The conductor Xuan Ke was a humorous man. He told stories in both Chinese and English of how they suffered and survived in the Cultural Revolution. He is very proud of his orchestra for preserving the ancient Tao music, which has originated but has since lost among the Han Chinese.

I had a great bike trip to Yunshanping, a plateau at the foot of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain (玉龙雪山), about 30 km away from the city with a steep climb. The weather was beautiful. Riding a lone bike along the lone road, I saw only shrubs and pine trees on this vast plateau. I love the emptiness and the solitude there. So there was quite an irony when I saw a Chinese sign elected on the road, proudly proclaim that "We will develop this place and push tourism into a new era"! Unfortunately on my way back I ran into a strong head wind. So strong that it turned the thrill of running down hill into a labor.

The sight of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, standing tall at 5500 meter, dominates the Lijiang area. But its elusive peak does not reveal itself easily. Even on the sunniest hour the peak seems always hidden in cloud. Sometimes I just sat in the hotel to stare at it, hoping for the last patch of cloud to disperse. But I had no luck to catch a glimpse even after an entire week there.

1996.11.07

Tiger Leaping Gorge 虎跳峡

Tiger Leaping Gorge is one of the deepest gorges of the world. From the top of the mountain to the roaring river below it is almost 4000 meter deep. There were few tourism infrastructures available and no vehicle access. A demanding trail of about 30 to 40 km passes through the gorge from the town of Qiaotou at one end to Daju on the other end. Most people spent an overnight in the Walnut Grove village in the middle. The trail is often subject to natural hazards like landslides. It was further aggravated by the recent earthquakes. The gossip in Lijiang gave many people a second thought if it is safe to go. Indeed the Japanese roommate in the Lijiang Hotel has just turned back from there midway because the trail was washed away by a major landslide. To go or not to go, I have struggled over it for a long time. At the end I am very glad that I have made it, for it is one of most majestic place on earth.

Tiger Leaping Gorge

The bus departed from Lijiang was bumping on a bad road for a full hour before climbing over a mountain pass. From there it opens up to a great view of the Jinsha River, the upstream of the Yangtze River. The river makes the first bend at Shigu and then flow into the gorge. The bus continued rolling for another two hours on the winding road before it finally arrived in the grayish town Qiaotou.

I have spent a night at a pleasant guesthouse. Being the only guy I very much hope to meet other tourists for the trip. But Qiaotou is not like a national parks headquarter. Hardly any people seem to go there for leisure. By the time I set off at dawn the next day, it was clear that I was going to make the trek by myself. Only until half way would I finally met a villager. He was very kind and we joined for the rest the way.

* * *

At the entrance of the trail to Tiger Leaping Gorge is a toll booth. Funny how I have started so early that it was still not manned. So I just kept the 10 yuan toll. The trail begins with a long climb passes several villages. One thousand meter below my feet is the roaring water of Jinsha. On the opposite side is a vertical cliff of the back of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain. As I was progressing I looked back frequently and found myself getting deeper and deeper into the gorge. Finally I was deep enough that I could not see the outside anymore. Once I was on the trail I found the safety concern a bit overblown. It is no more challenging than any other trails I have been to, except of course this is in a very dramatic setting.

Tiger Leaping Gorge Trail

I have arrived in Walnut Grove by early afternoon. The small village in the middle of the gorge has two guesthouses. I was the only visitor in my guest house that day. The adult owner, who is also a farmer, was working in the field when I arrived. His 12 year old daughter was left to run the place and attended me. More visitors have arrived next day and place become livelier.

The guesthouse is fantastic. Outside is an outdoor café overlooking the cliff (in rural China's terms, an outdoor flat space with some rustic furniture). The village was small, quiet and peaceful, an enchanting place that fits Shangri-la. I realized how silly I was to be preoccupied with the physical challenge of trekking through the gorge. This village should be the destination! No longer was I concerned about completing the trek tomorrow. I just stayed in the village for an extra day. Actually I regretted to have packed ultra-lightweight and left many essentials in Lijiang in anticipation for a tough trek. Otherwise I would have stayed much longer.

Sean&aposs Spring Guesthouse

I have spent some time exploring the area. From the village I have descended to the river. It was not too difficult but it did involve some climbing over big rocks. Down there the powerful river was storming the boulders making thundering noise. I have also gone scouting with the guesthouse's owner, Sean, for an alternate route to Daju. The problem of that time was that part of a trail was destroyed in a landslide (that was the reason the Japanese friend has turned back). To bypass it, a detour was made by moving a boat crossing further upstream. Ironically the new crossing used to be an impassable rocky shallow. It has only become navigable because the landslide has dammed the river and raised the water level. This is the testimonial how the nature continues to shape the gorge. When we left for the next day, we have the distinction to be the first tourists to trek through Tiger Leaping Gorge by the new route since the landslide.

Reluctantly, I moved on by the third day. This time we were in a bigger convoy with the two girls I have acquainted plus the owner of the rival guesthouse. We descended to the water along a steep and zigzagging path. The descend route is actually one of the best place to appreciate the vastness of the gorge. We crossed the river by boat and then climbed back onto a plateau on the opposite side. Looking back, the zigzag path appeared as a crack on a vast cliff face. Here we have already exited the gorge. The owner accompanied us as far as the opposite shore of the river. But the boatman was very kind to accompany us all the way out. It was another 2 hours of walk from the plateau to the village of Daju.

1996.11.04

Kunming 昆明

After two wonderful weeks in Dali and Lijiang, I went back to Kunming by bus. I stopped at midway in Dali to break up the long trip. I went back to my old favorite café to sip some coffee. While I have left for Lijiang for a week, I was delighted to found many old pals I first met one week ago were still staying in Dali. Later I left for Kunming by another sleeper bus. In the midnight the bus had a minor crash with a different bus. This resulted in a crack in our bus' windshield. It was a miracle that we get back to Kunming with only two hours of delay.

Kunming didn't give me good impressions on my second arrival. The bus spent much time in bad traffic in the morning before it was able to pull into the terminal. The first thing happened when I got off the bus was I stepped into a stagnant pond of water. The crowds and noises of the city were overwhelming to me. I escaped Kunming after staying only for one night.

After settled down in the hotel, I went to the West Hill for sightseeing. But after Dali and Lijiang, the sights in Kunming are pale in comparison. The West Hill does have a view of the Dian Lake, though it is no comparison to Erhai. The Taoist temple at the Dragon Gate and the tunnel craved in the cliff is a work of marvel. But there were just far too many tourists packed in a narrow passage for me to truly appreciate it. Chinese tourists go to sight seeing spots to pose for pictures. I was constantly getting in the way of pictures and they were not hesitated to ask me to make way.

Shilin (Stone Forest) is an area outside of Kunming famous for the many towering limestone spreading in the region. I have joined several others for a day trip by a shared taxi. Upon arrival I found Shilin almost like a theme park. The main park has so many improvements, like paths, railings and pavilions, built right amid the stones that it makes nature looks artificial. Loads of tourist are posing for pictures and making much noise. Even if I tried to get away in the labyrinth of pillars the noise echo around and reach everywhere. It made me wonder maybe I should not come at all. Fortunately Shilin is very large. All I need to do is to walk away from the main park. Further across the grassy field are several different groups of stones. There one will find no artificial improvements and no noisy tourists. Only then was I able to truly appreciate the Stone Forest as a natural wonder.

I returned to the hotel room in the late afternoon. Although I have already checked out in the morning I was sneaking back for a shower. My bed in the dorm room has already occupied by a new guy. But two previous roommates were still there. I had a good chat with the guy from Namibia before leaving. This conversation was perhaps my most positive experience in Kunming.

1996.11.09

Huangguoshu Falls 黄果树瀑布

My next destination Guilin is 30 hours away by train. The sleeper ticket was in such high demand that it was out of question to get it in short order. Hard seat ticket was still available. But rather than sitting 30 hours straight, I have decided to stop midway in Guizhou to visit the great Huangguoshu falls. This way the long trip was broken into two shorter legs that were less wearing.

The weather was again gloomy and rainy when the train arrived in Anshun station. The town does not look like an attractive place to stay. So I have decided my visit to Huangguoshu is only going to be a day trip and I would leave in the evening.

I often took advantage of overnight transportation to save on hotel expenses. This time I really pushed it to the extreme. Out of the four nights, three were spent on transportation. The first night on the bus from Dali to Kunming, then a night in a hotel, another night on the train to Guizhou, and this night on the train to Guilin. I have covered a long distance in a rapid pace. Yet I still managed to visit many major attractions on the way. If you ask me about shower, I have to say I did not have the opportunity to do it everyday.

I joined the minibus tour to Huangguoshu operating right in front of the train station. Being a rare Hong Konger makes me an interesting subject on this bus. Fellow mainlanders were very curious and asked me all sort of questions. They were particularly enthusiastic about Hone Kong's return to China in 1997. However they were disappointed that the border control would remain and they still cannot travel to Hong Kong freely after 1997.

Huangguoshu Falls

Our first attraction in Huangguoshu is the Tianxiang bridge park. It has a stone path that leads us through a series of minor waterfalls and lakes. There were so many tourists that it just reminds me of the touristy part of Shilin. The only thing interesting is the cavernous cave that we went next. However I was bothered by the strong spotlights setup inside the cave, presumably to make photography easier inside. I suspected that is also the cause of high temperature and stuffy air inside.

We went on to the main waterfall in the afternoon. At 77 meter high and 77 meter wide, it is an impressive fall. Again there were many tourists there all busy posing for pictures. From above, trails and tunnels bring us to up close to the falling water. Finally a path leads us to cross the fall behind the water. I had fun, got wet, but somehow felt it was anti-climax.

* * *

From Huangguoshu I went to the Guiyang train station in the evening. When I saw the crowd outside the station, I knew I was getting in trouble. Although Guiyang is a major city on the busy Kunming-Guangzhou rail line, trains were all full when it arrived here. Not only was it impossible to get a sleeper ticket, I cannot any ticket at all. I braved through the crowd to reach the ticket window, only to find it mostly unattended. When the attendant occasionally returned, she only minded her own business and entirely ignored me asking question in front of the window. Desperately I turned to the only viable source, the black marketeers in the station. I paid them a few times over the official fare for a ticket. But that bothered me less than the risk of end up with a fraudulent ticket. Unlucky I managed to get on the train without problem. Like most major train stations in China, Guiyang station was busy day and night. The waiting room only opens for passengers whose train is about to depart. My departure time happen to be 1 am. That means I have a few hours to spend but no place to go.

By midnight I have managed to get on the train. My ticket did not come with an assigned seat. Just as I have feared, the coach was completely full. Facing the prospect of standing overnight and for all 18 hours of the trip, I was surprised to find out there were black marketeers trading seats too. Although they seemed to be dubious people, I still paid them for the privilege. All the time I have worried a rightful owner of the seat might turned up to challenge my right.

Once I settled in, the journey has only just begun. Sitting overnight was one thing; dealing with the awful hygiene and rough people was another matter. Passengers conveniently threw trashes like fruit peels and peanut husks straight to the floor. Spitting on the floor was prevalent and was practiced by all five passengers sitting around me. Every once in a while the attendants would sweep the floor and invariably it snowballed into a huge pile of trash. Verbal fights broke out among passengers from time to time. In the midnight I was awaken by the commotion because a thief tried to steal from a passenger asleep. Even as he was caught he has not backed down and it almost ended in a fist fight. What a tense night on a train!

Such is the time when being a solo traveler is especially vulnerable because you have nobody else to fend for yourself. I hold off using the restroom for the longest time because doing so would surrender my seat and no one was looking after my baggage. The time on this slow moving train seemed to last forever. I was counting hours and constantly trying to boost my spirit, reminding myself there will be the sunshine at the end of this.

1996.11.10

Yangshuo 阳朔

Finally I got off the train in Guilin and then transfer to another minibus for Yangshuo. It was rather late when I got there. But at last I have survived that awful trip. I checked myself into a decent hotel and was delighted to find that it has a flush toilet, something I have not seen for a long time. I treated myself a nice meal and a beer at a café before going to bed.

Yangshuo is a small town but it has a niche of foreign tourists. The tourist street is lined with roadside cafés and souvenir shops. Some cafés has evening movie shows for western movies. It reminds me of Bangkok's Khao Shan road except it is much quieter here.

The town is right on the Li River, where people go to see the famous Guilin scenery. The water is shallow but exceptionally clear. The Li River boat trip is a big tourist attraction. Along the river we saw all kinds of peculiarly shaped hills and rocks. These karst formations are actually abundant throughout the Guangxi province and Guizhou province. But on the Li River the sight combined with its reflection on the river forms a particularly poetic scenery.

Yangshuo

The next day I planned to bike to the nearby Moon Hill. It is some distance from the town and the direction was sketchy. I have some doubt if I could find the place. But once I went out in the country I find it impossible to miss. The Moon Hill was out there on a wedge shaped hill punctured by a big round hole that gives it the name! I biked to the hill base, climbed to the hole and finally over to the peak of the arch above. Nobody was there and I have the hill all by myself. From the top it offers an excellent view of the area.

Yangshuo was essentially the last stop in my trip as a tourist. Although I do not have any commitment afterward, I have not lingered on any longer than the three days I have planned. Yangshuo is a nice place. But I did not have the same kind of attachment as I have found in other places. I was grateful for what I have seen and done so far. It was about time for me to complete the journey.

1996.11.14


2007.03.04 [, ] - comments

 

Vietnam - Asia Trip 6/8

Hué

After a long day's travel from Laos, my arrival in Hué was rather dismal. Feeling tired from the toil from a full day of traveling, I arrived in an unfamiliar place late at night but still have not found a place to stay. I was very hungry. The only food I had for the entire day was the small breakfast of Laos pork bun in the morning. Moreover I did not have any local currency in my pocket. A cyclo driver has picked me up. Helplessly, I let him circle the streets to find me an hotel. I was not very pleased with the gloomy guesthouse I ended up in.

Just as you can fall into despair easily, you can also pull yourself out fast. I found a post office that was still open at night. I managed to change money from there and finally have cash to pay my driver. Then I found a better hotel myself on a more cheerful street and have switched there. There were many food stalls on the street where I had a chow. After a good night's rest, the next morning I asked the hotel host to teach me some basic Vietnamese. My spirit has all came back. I rented a bicycle next door and was ready to explore.

Hué Street

Hué was the imperial capital of Vietnam for a century and half until the World War II. Therefore it is endowed with many historical sights. The center piece is the citadel of the Forbidden Purple City. Unfortunately most buildings in the Forbidden Purple City were already destroyed in wars. I have paid US$5 entrance fee and found there were little more than souvenir shops inside. I should have just taken a picture in front of its front gate, which is perhaps the best preserved structure anyway.

There are a number of emperor's tombs outside of Hué, each costs $5 entrance fee. I have since gotten smarter. I have visited only the Tomb of Thieu Tri, which was admission free but not much different from other tombs. It turned out to be a dull and crumbling site.

Cycling in Hué was fun. I went out on the first day despite the rain. The second day was even better with wonderful weather. Riding a bike means conversations can start in unexpected place. Several times I have some locals spontaneously came to ride alongside, enthusiastically practicing their basic English with me. I was lost on my way to the Tomb of Thieu Tri. Despite the language barrier, people tried their best to give me directions. At the end they even pedaled with me for 20 minutes to bring me there. Having your own bicycle also greatly reduces the endless hassles from cyclo and motorbike drivers. They were all over the streets yelling at tourists and trying everything to get them on board. (Some still tried me no matter what).

I have enjoyed the Vietnamese food very much. They were cheap and tasty. One of my favorite is the Vietnamese French sandwich. I bought one intended to be saved as next day's breakfast before I have boarded an overnight train. But a warm sandwich in my hand was just too tempting. I ate half of my breakfast right away even before I got on board.

The train from Hué to Hanoi took 16 hours. As a foreigner I was charged a premium price on train tickets. This amount to 3 to 4 times the price of a comparable trip in Thailand. I booked the more affordable 'soft seat' ticket. It turned out 'soft' does not stand for upholstered as I expected. The seat was actually a plastic mesh mounted on wooden frame. It was an uncomfortable 16 hours. My neck was hurt afterward.

1996.10.12

Hanoi

Hanoi's tourist center is in the old quarter of the city by the Hoan Kiem lake. The busy streets are always jammed with people, cyclos and motorbikes. I arrived by cyclo to my hotel. It was a narrow old townhouse. The dormitory was a long room with 5 beds and a bathroom with a small balcony overlooking the street. A dormitory bed costs only $3 a day. The business was so new that it was not even listed in my guidebook. Nevertheless people found their way here. Right at my arrival, I ran into the British guy whom we walked from Laos to Vietnam together. I have also found Matsumi, the Japanese girl whom I first met in Nong Khai in Thailand. We would later traveled to Sapa together.

Unlike the tree lined boulevard where the president's palace and foreign embassies are located, the old town where I was staying is bustling and chaotic. Hawkers and peddlers were everywhere, especially targeting tourists. Cyclos drivers rode by and called at you to get on their cyclos. Crossing the street with a continuous stream of traffic was made more precarious by these unpredictable cyclos. Peace was hard to come by on the street on Hanoi.

Hanoi Street

Hanoi is the capital of Vietnam. The late leader Ho Chi Minh's mausoleum can be found in the northwest of the city. Outside are the National Assembly Hall and a square. The layout is reminiscence of China's Tiananmen Square but in a smaller scale. Somehow the sights of Vietnam always evoke China to me. The Forbidden Purple City and the tombs all feel familiar. The uncomfortable train and the two tier ticket pricing were what I have experienced in China. When I saw people brushing their teeth in front of their house on the street in the morning, it reminded me of the same scenery when I visited Guangzhou while I was very young. I felt like going back in a time machine and found a vision of China 10, 20 year ago.

The Ho Chi Minh's museum was a delightful surprise. At the first glance it shows uninteresting historical pictures of the communist party, a collection of outdated house ware like electric fans, hot water bottles and copper wire cables boasted as 'technology' achievement. Just as I am about to dismiss the museum as an outdated institution, I was unprepared to find the avant-garde art on the upper floors. There were modern sculptures, artistic photographies and molten glasses sculptures next to the narration of the struggle and glory of Ho Chi Minh. It was Uncle Ho with a modern art treatment. Voilà, Ho Chi Minh museum!

1996.10.18

Halong Bay

Halong Bay is in the east of Hanoi. It is a natural wonder with over 3000 small limestone islands of different size and shape scattering in the sea. I find it one of the most magnificent sights of Vietnam.

I have joined a 3 days tour to Halong Bay. Here in Hanoi, many tourist cafés are often doubled as tour companies. There offered various tours at very attractive price. My trip included bus transportations to and from the coast, 3 days and 2 nights on the boat with all meals and park admission, all for only US$38. We had 2 young tour guides on the trip. They were studying English degree in colleges and were working with the tour company part time.

Halong Bay

There were many other boats departing from the harbor at the same time. Fortunately Halong Bay is so big that we have soon spread out and hardly see others again. We have reached an island and anchored nearby. The water was clear and slightly warm. We wasted no time and dived and swam in the beautiful bay. Indeed people loved the sea so much that whenever the boat anchored somewhere, people started to bomb dived into water from the top deck right away.

At night, we anchored by a bay. Great food was served on board. Despite the cabins with beds are available, most people preferred to sleep on the top deck for the fresh air and the starry sky. It got so crowded that I can only find space in the middle deck and slept with other Vietnamese crews. In the midnight a rain spoiled the fun. They all have to rush back.

On the second day, we sailed to the Catba Island National Park. There we split up into two groups as planned. The larger group went directly to the beach. A smaller group with meself and a few others went hiking in the park. Our guide tried very hard to persuade us that the park is not worth going and that we should all go to the beach. We ignored his advice and found it very scenic and very interesting.

After Catba Island, we also explored a cave and climbed a hill on another small island. They are not so interesting compare to what we have seen before. One time there were two boats stopping on the same island. We had 40 people in all packed on a tiny hill top.

The trip was full of Francophone couples and unfortunately we did not get to mingle too much. I met 2 British guys though. They were quite impressed in the $3 bargain hotel I have stayed in Hanoi. So I bought two new customers back to the hotel after the trip.

1996.10.17

Sapa

Sapa is a charming hill town near the China border. Situated on a mountain range, it has the view of the highest peak in Vietnam. Below are some beautiful valleys where many Hmong minorities live and farm. The few days in Sapa has left me one of the fondest memories.

Matsumi, the Japanese girl I first met in Thailand, and I make this trip together. We took an overnight train to the border and continued from there by bus. The train was practically crawling in the first few kilometers out of Hanoi. Even old women on bicycles have passed us! The soft seat coach was just as uncomfortable as the one from Hué, except this time it took only 10 hours.

Sapa Bridge

We arrived in Sapa in a cold and rainy day. After all these time in tropical countries, this was my first taste of cold weather. Since there was not much to do, a couple of us in the hotel spent the day drinking local wine and playing cards. Fortunately the bad weather only lasted one day. Otherwise, we have joked we would have intoxicated by cheap wine.

The weather was perfect the rest of the days. We went trekking almost daily, first with Matsumi and a friend and later by myself. We went down to the valleys to see a waterfall and the wooden suspension bridges. The golden rice fields looked so beautiful under sunshine. The other days I went for much longer treks by myself. I went to some villages, climbed over a mountain and visited a distant waterfall. There wasn't any map to guide me. Instead I used mostly my instinct and sometimes a high vantage point to find my path.

Sapa farm kids

Saturday and Sunday is the market day in Sapa. Many Hmong minorities from around came into town to trade. Most of them were either young girls or old women. They were rather gentle and shy. Tourists also flocked into town and were charmed by the ethnic cloths and handicrafts for sale.

On Monday the town became much quieter. The minorities have left. The tourists have left. Even Matsumi has left. Nevertheless I have decided to stay in this peaceful town. Eventually I have extended the trip to six days. Still I have found company. I ran into a Japanese friend again. He love Sapa even more and has booked 10 days straight. We have shared an excellent home cooked dinner at his cozy guesthouse.

Also in the dinner with us was a British girl. She was traveling in the opposite direction of mine, coming from China into Vietnam. I have traded my Southeast Asia guidebook for her China guidebook. Since Vietnam was the last Southeast Asia country in my trip, it makes sense to trade it for something that was going to be more useful for me. But we both felt lost because the books meant something to us. Mine has been a faithful guide with me for two months. Hers has accompanied her across China and Tibet. Nevertheless, I hoped it will be useful for her trip. (China turned out to be one of the best part of my trip, in a large part thanks to her guidebook.)

* * *

Perhaps because it was my last days in Vietnam, I was getting sentimental. I have a thought came into mind. Isn't traveling means a series of farewell? You visited a place for a short time. Then you keep saying goodbye to people, to places, and even to objects (like my guidebook) the entire time. All that remain are perhaps some memories.

1996.10.24

Lao Cai

Next morning the bus departed from Sapa at 6:00am. It descended slowly down the mountains into the border town of Lao Cai. Since it was still early in the morning and the train for Kunming did not depart until the afternoon, I lingered in the Vietnam side. I have my last chance to savor my favorite Vietnamese French sandwich and beef noodles. When it was about time, I walked across the bridge and I was in China.

1996.10.25


2007.01.22 [, ] - comments

 

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

 

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

 

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