Tagged: island

Sipidan + Mabul Island, Sabah, Borneo

 

I arrived in Semporna at 2pm. I only had one night there before heading out to Mabul Island in the morning, and after 2 early mornings of sunrise river cruises I needed somewhere to really relax. I checked into Best Bunk Beds, which is newish but had great reviews online. The hostel is one of the nicest I’ve stayed in. The girls dorm is spacious with 8 bunkbeds in a massive room. The attached communal bathroom is modern, and the dorm has floor to ceiling windows facing the water. There’s a communal space and big kitchen with a lot of Asian condiments to choose from, although I didn’t cook there. It cost $13, which is a lot, but other than a really crappy hostel this was the next cheapest. I was the only non-Chinese backpacker staying there but for my night of relaxing that was perfect.

I walked around the town, grabbed lunch at Restoran Bismillah, an Indian spot. I had a roti and a vegetable soup, which were both tasteless. I ended up pouring the roti dipping curry into the soup. 

I then went to my dive shop to pay. I signed up for Sipidan two months ago. Only 120 divers are allowed per day and there’s a long wait list to be able to dive there. I signed up with Billabong, the cheapest company to dive with. I paid $330 total for 3 days/ 2 nights, which included diving, equipment, accommodation and meals. I got 6 dives: 3 Sipidan, 2 Mabul, 1 Kapelai. Billabong was far from horrific; however, it’s definitely a backpacker place and not somewhere I would stay if I was on holiday. It was also full of big groups or Chinese tourists who were loud, and Muslim Malay’s; so that put a damper on the mood.
The one terrible thing about diving in South East Asia is all the Chinese divers. Every single one I came across should never have been given a license. They’re incredibly disrespectful of the nature and of other divers around. I got kicked and pushed repeatedly and more often than not it was so they could take a picture. They also touched and kicked all the coral and sea life, which is a no-no. It’s not safe to have divers like that around and I actually had my first under water panic attack because of it.  
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In the morning I had breakfast in my hostel then headed to the dive shop and then the shuttle ferry. The ride to Mabul Island took an hour. As we approached be island we slowed down and took a mandatory scenic route along the water hotels until we got to ours. Almost all the dive resorts are housed on stilts on the water. The fancy resorts look just like the glamorous pictures we see back home, and the cheap resorts look run down but still pretty incredible in the sense that they’re on the water. Billabong is a lilac color towards one end of the resorts; it was actually a great spot. 

When we arrived at the resort there were local gypsies selling crabs and shrimps on the deck. The crabs came in a chain, 4 for 20 rm (approx. $6,) and the shrimps were extra large in plastic bottles. I got crab with a Malaysian brother and sister who I shared the ferry with. 

I checked into my own private room which had an attached bathroom. The toilet didn’t have a seat and the shower was a mandy shower- a bucket and ladle. I actually like this method because it’s better than a shower than slowly drips water. There were two twin beds and a fan. The electricity on the whole island only works from 6pm-6am so each morning at 6am I woke up sweating from the heat. 

I settled in then headed out for my first dive of the day, which was at Kapelai House Reef off Kapelai Island. The site had bunches of man-made structures that looked like skeletons of houses. They were covered in moss and full of fish. On the dive I saw big turtles, the face of a moray eel hiding under a structure, trumpet fish, hornet fish, lion fish and stone fish, which look like a rock. The dive was 21 meters deep. 

Sometime when I’m diving I kick with my fins together, like a fish, because I can get places faster. During this dive I lost my hair tie and apparently when I did my fish kick I looked like a mermaid. I was then nicknamed the mermaid.
The second dive that day was Panglima Reef off Mabul Island. There was a slight current at the end of the dive and the visibility throughout was bad. Here I saw lion fish, nudibranch, stone fish, trigger fish, and big colorful cuttlefish. The cuttlefish looked like massive colorful caterpillars with black tentacles coming out of one end. The dive was 22 meters deep.
After diving I walked around the island with a few girls who were on holiday from Kuala Lumpur. The entire walk took us about 45 minutes but that’s only because we stopped a few times. There are two really nice resorts, one of which we stopped at for Magnum’s. Then there are some local shops and a big local village area before the cheaper dive resorts start-up again. 

When we got back to the resort I did the initiation and jumped off the resort bridge into the water. For over an hour guests (the non-Chinese,) dive masters and locals jumped and swam around our area. The sun set in the clouds but the colors were still incredible with the water village setting. 

That night was a bunch of people’s last night and we all drank local rum and listened to music on the bridge. I called it an early night because I wanted to be fresh for Sipadan; however, I ended up being wide awake for a few hours in the middle of the night listening to the rats on the ceiling.
In the morning I had breakfast then we left for Sipadan for the day. The boat was me, an English boy, a young unfriendly Russian couple, two Chinese men, and Otto and Oneal, the two dive masters. Since the British boy was only open water Otto was my dive buddy, which was awesome because he regularly took my GoPro and filmed for me.
First we went onto Sipadan Island to register for our permits. The island is incredibly small and while it used to have two resorts now those are gone and all that is there is a registration shack and a wooden shelter with a picnic table for each dive resort. When we arrived there was a big group of Chinese divers ahead of us. They had two flags and were doing karate poses and large group pictures in the check-in area.
Our first dive was at South Point. I saw an eagle ray, barracuda, white tip shark, black tip shark, gray reef shark, and turtles. We went 40 meters here. I had my first panic attack ever on this dive. I had been having trouble with my mask and it was continuously fogged even after cleaning it. We were in the blue at 40 meters and working with a slight current that was pushing me down and out. I was exhausted from continuously kicking, I couldn’t see a thing and all of a sudden one of the Chinese guys kicked me in the head because he wasn’t paying attention. Luckily I have my rescue training and did not completely panic but I did grab my dive master and we went up to 10 meters where I was able to breath again. I knew I’d be fine since I know what to do but it was terrifying being in darkness and not being able to breath in the moment.
I came up from the dive with a terrible headache from the depth and lack of oxygen. I’ve done that depth before but not in years. We relaxed for an hour in between dives and I put myself back together. 

Our next dive was at Barracuda Point, ranked one of the top dive sites in the world, and it did not disappoint. It was the best dive of my life. We saw huge Napolean fish, schools of humpheads (large fish,) massive schools of jack fish in tornado form (from the currents,) big turtles, and white tip sharks. Otto took my camera and filmed almost the whole time which gave me the chance to fully enjoy the dive. We went 21 meters but most of the dive was near the surface which also meant the light was amazing. I did the signature Sipadan move and swam inside the tornado of jackfish which was surreal. The fish move if you come near and they will reform around you. Otto shot a great five minute film which captures everything the dive offered. 


  

The most shocking and yet not so shocking part of the dive was seeing all the Chinese divers underwater with their massive cameras. I’m talking huge professional cameras with two large arms for flashing. The divers were standing on the sandy bottom of the water holding their cameras like walking sticks. It was the most ridiculous thing I’ve seen in a long time. 

We were all all smiles after that dive. We had lunch and I rested on the beach and I still couldn’t stop smiling.  For the last dive we went to Hanging Garden, a wall dive. Here we saw gray reef sharks, white tip sharks, big turtles and most amazingly a leopard shark. Otto found it sleeping in an alcove and called me over to come next to it. I was almost there when all of a sudden one of the Chinese guys pushed past me with his huge camera knocking me into the coral. For the first time the dive master took charge and signaled at the Chinese guy to get back and let me through. We were about a foot away when it woke-up and swam around us to escape. Another incredible experience. 

  

I went 40 meters on this dive too and although my breathing was affected I practiced on controlling it. Halfway through the dive I was hit by jellyfish particles and got stung on my legs, arms and face. 

Almost all the guests had left while we were in Sipadan. The only westerners left were me, a British girl who I had become friendly with, and two Danish girls who I kept thinking were Spanish. The British girl and I took a walk around the island. We stopped for chocolate strawberry Magnum’s and ate them on the fancy resort porch. We then went to a local shop so that I could buy a seashell chandelier I had seen the day before- I hope it survives the journey. 

 

It was a quite night of staring at stars on the bridge and listening to a local play the guitar. The next morning I slept in and then went snorkeling at 10:30am with the Brit. I only lasted about five minutes in the water. I was stung by sea-lice and bored; it’s hard to snorkel the day after diving at Sipadan. I relaxed on the boat for the rest of the time and watched all the Chinese snorkel, which was like watching the tv show were Chinese do obstacles and people laugh when they get hurt. 
There were five snorkel boats in the area and me and the Brit were the only non-Chinese and the only ones not wearing bright orange life jackets, or matching striped snorkel wetsuits. They all can’t swim, or at least think they can’t, plus are terrified of the water. Two women on my boat refused to let go of the ladder, and one boy refused to let go of the safety ring even though he also had a jacket on. One family held onto two rings and ropes while they all kicked to the coral area where they then proceeded to stand and walk around on the coral. Some of the them were walking on the coral under the resorts in their snorkel gear. I’m not entirely sure why the workers don’t stop them from doing this but it’s terrible how they are ruining the natural habitat. To top it off on the boat ride back one of the Chinese reached into the water and grabbed a starfish and all of a sudden a bunch of cameras were out. A few of us started screaming for them to drop the fish and they did, however, they did not understand why.
When we got back to the resort I checked out of my room, had lunch, and chilled out until 3pm when the ferry came. Brit and I went down the road to pick-up pastries from a local bakery, a window in her home. We bought four pastries for 50 cent rm each, about $.15. 
The ferry back was an hour, then we took a shuttle to the airport which was another hour and cost 30 rm each. I then waited at the airport for 3 hours until my flight to Kota Kinabalu. The flight was 30 minutes. When I got to the terminal I found a money exchange place to covert my Malaysia ringgit to Philippine Pesos. The lady at the counter asked me what airline I was flying before doing the exchange. After it was done she informs me that the terminal my flight is leaving from is actually a 15 minute (30 ringgit) taxi ride away that is not walkable. Cebu now flys from Terminal 1. I then had to exchange back pesos for ringgit. She tricked me so that I would have to pay the exchange rate and agent fee twice.
When I got to Terminal 1 I went to check-in to my Manila flight and I was told that I needed to show proof of a flight leaving the Philippines. I had not yet booked my flight home and was waiting for early week for prices to drop but now I had no choice. I booked the cheapest flight home, which is a day later than I wanted and over $100 more than it will be in a few days. 
My flight to Palawan left at 7:25am, and landed at 8:30am. I then waited for almost an hour at a restaurant nearby the airport for a shuttle bus to leave for El Nido. It was a 6 hour roller coaster journey north, part of which the driver had a friend sitting on his lap.

Seminyak/Kuta, Bali, Indonesia

 I stayed in Seminyak for my last three nights in Indonesia to be closer to the airport. I was planning to completely avoid the Seminyak/Kuta area, which is incredibly touristy, but I ended up having a great time there (in a Western way.) I stayed at M Boutique Hostel and spent most of my time hanging out there by the pool. There’s a cheap take-out local food spot right next door, and a cheap Warung down the road.

There’s not much to do in Seminyak and Kuta. There are tons of expensive western hotels, restaurants, bars, clubs, yoga studios, etc, but all of that is out of a backpackers price range. Seminyak and Kuta is where Australians come for vacation to treat themselves. Also, I never made it to the beach but I’ve only heard negative things in comparison to other beaches.

I traveled to Seminyak with the two NZ girls, the Canadian boy and a British guy who an NZ knew before from traveling. We all stayed in the 43 bed dorm that was actually nice because it was modern and compartment style. The hostel wasn’t full but there were a handful of people there that were a lot of fun.

The first night there we went to a local fancy restaurant for dinner. I had mixed vegetables with seafood and it came in a thick gravy. I was really excited to have large shrimp for the first time in a while but they were overcooked and rubbery. 

The next day I went to Potato Head day club with a group of people from the hostel. The bar has a large grassy lawn surrounded by tables to the backside and a pool towards the front that overlooks the beach.  

We relaxed in the pool and each had a Japanese Bloody Mary, a Bloody Mary served with ginger, wasabi and soy sauce. I only had one drink there because it was quite expensive ($12 for a drink) but there’s no entrance fee and you can stay without buying anything at all. 

  

We grabbed local food on the way home then lounged by our pool. That night I went next door and picked up rice, sautéed veggies and 3 pieces of chicken for less than a dollar. Eight of us then grabbed cabs and we rode the 20 minutes ito Kuta, where the nightlife is. We had planned to go to Sky Garden for free drinks but there ended up being a cover charge and no free drinks so we decided to go to Alleycats instead for cheap double doubles (red bull and vodka for $1.50 each.)

The next day we all lounged by the pool and around the hostel. One guy ordered in a massive amount of KFC and we all snacked on fried chicken.

Later that night seven of us headed back to Alleycats. This time I stuck to gin and tonics; the red bull vodkas were too much of me the night before. When the bar closed around 1am we all headed back and did some night swimming. The next afternoon I left Indonesia and flew to Malaysia Borneo. I had to pay 300,000 rp to immigration because I overstayed my visa for one day. But luckily they forgot to charge me the country exit fee so I saved 200,000 rp. 

Gili Trawagan, Gili Islands, Indonesia

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I took a wooden “ferry” from Bangsal port. The boat is also used to transport food to the island so it smelled like a grocery store. The ride was about forty minutes to Gili Trawagan, the bigger of the three Gili islands, which is where I stayed. There are no cars or motorbikes on the island; just bikes and horse and buggies.

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I got off the ferry and ventured through the muddy streets in the pouring rain to Gili La Boheme. I walked into the hostel and felt like I was in a Anthropologie store. It’s bohemian chic and definitely one of the coolest places I’ve stayed so far. There are multiple hang out areas, an outdoor TV nook, and a 24/7 make-it-yourself crepe station (I was only able to make 2 crepes successfully the whole week and the rest came out like bread pudding.) Across the street is The Yoga Place, which I had actually found on TripAdvisor before arriving. It turns out the owner of La Boheme also owns The Yoga Place, as well as Le Petit Gili restaurant, and a few other places in town. All his properties have the same look and vibe.

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That first day I took a yoga class at 4pm then a bunch of us from the hostel went to Le Petit Gili for happy hour and free tapas. I wandered through the nightly food market, which is in a lot right next to the restaurant. After the tapas I wasn’t that hungry so I just grabbed a grilled corn to go.

Every night, except Thursday, is a party night on the island. Bars are open and then at midnight everything shuts down except for one bar which rotates every night. That first night was Jiggy Jig’s, a dirty beer pong bar. I only stayed for one game, which I won for the team. The bar felt like university but not in the good way. I walked back and just as I stepped inside the hostel is started down pouring.

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The next day it rained all day. I went across the street to the Yoga Place to read and eat lunch in their elevated lounge area. I had an avocado salad with cous cous, which ended up being my addiction for the next few days.

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After lunch I went back to the hostel and we all just chilled out upstairs on bean bag chairs and played cards all day. Later that night we went to the night market for dinner. The market is full of grilled seafood stalls with whole fish, lobsters, squid, shrimp, crabs, etc. There are also stalls where you can get grilled meat/seafood skewers, and Warung stalls (pre-cooked local dishes). I “splurged” and split a grilled barracuda and a large squid with a German guy from my hostel. We haggled and ended up paying 100,000 rp ($8) for the whole meal which included rice and vegetables for both of us. Unfortunately I was disappointed by the meal because the seafood tasted incredibly fishy.

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The next morning I went back to the Yoga Place and had the avocado salad for breakfast. Six of us girls then walked around the island. The main road continues in a full circle around the island and should take an hour to do, but somehow it took us five hours. We stopped at Laguna Restaurant on the beach for a cocktail first. When we got off the main drag we took a quick swim, and later we stopped on the Ombak Sunset Swings (swings in the ocean.) The swings are awesome but the water was too high at the time so it was impossible to swing.

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Later on the six of us went to Gili Divers for happy hour and dinner. I had seafood pasta which had minuscule seafood but was still good.

The next day was sunny so we went to Egoiste restaurant on the beach to be on the beach. For lunch three of us ordered the avocado sandwich and we had the most ridiculous bread fiasco. The bread on the menu isn’t specified for that sandwich, but it is for every other sandwich. I asked for toast, like the Club sandwich had, and the other girls asked for panini bread, which was also on the menu. Five minutes later the waitress comes back and tells us she can’t make the sandwich because they’re missing ingredients; however, they can make the club sandwich and the only difference between the two is that the club has chicken. Once we establish that they do have the ingredients then she says they can’t make it because they don’t have baguettes, but none of us ordered it on a baguette. When the sandwiches finally do arrive mine is with toast and the other two are on baguettes.

We laid down on beds on the beach and relaxed. A little later I ordered an ice coffee which tasted like liquid tar. That restaurant was not doing it for us.

I went to yoga at 4pm then four of us went to dinner- my Swedish girl bunkmate and two girls from New Zealand who I had been hanging out with. We went to Regina Pizzeria which we had heard amazing things about, and the reviews were right. It’s real Italian wood-fire pizza with ingredients like home. I ordered the prosciutto fungi pizza with arugula and doused it with chili oil, just like home.

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After dinner we went back and watched Birdman.

On my last day the four of us had planned to take a early morning yoga class then go to Gili Air to hang out on a nicer beach for the day. However, when me and NZ woke-up at 7am and saw that it was down pouring we decided to skip Air and do the afternoon class instead. But even that plan got confused when the sun decided to come out at 10am. So we ended up beach restaurant hoping on the main drag instead. First I had my avocado salad, then the four of us went to Pesona so NZ could get her Indian fix. We sipped orange juice on cushions looking out at the water. Then we walked the drag past all the fancy restaurants that we can’t afford, and I started salivating for octopus salad and ceviche. We turned back and stopped at New Rudy’s for a snack and pineapple juice- this time lounging on mats in a little bungalow.

We went back to the hostel and ordered dinner from Le Petit Gili, which does free delivery. I ordered the pasta bolognese and this time has a pasta fiasco. The restaurant called back to say they can’t make it not because they don’t have the sauce but because they don’t have spaghetti. I asked if they had other pasta and they do have penne but it didn’t even occur to them to substitute it. The type of pasta is not even listed on the menu, and it does not say spaghetti bolognese, just pasta bolognese.

The locals in the hostel were eating Duran fruit and I finally tried it. Duran is banned in my public places across Asia because of the smell. I don’t think the smell is that terrible; however, it did taste a bit like seafood so that freaked me out.

After dinner NZ, Sweden and I went out. We stopped at the first bar that gave us a free drink coupon and watched a cat hunt crabs on the beach while we drank it. We then went back to Pesona and had a shisha. Halfway through the waiter brought us a cup with bubble liquid and a big straw which kept us entertained for a while. I loved watching the bubbles pop and seeing a smoke cloud randomly in mid air.

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After the shisha we wandered down the main strip and ended up at a small reggae hut bar where we sat for the rest of the night.

The next morning I left for Tulamben, Bali, on a speed ferry.

Senggigi, Lombok, Indonesia

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I took the Dmitri public bus from the airport to Senggigi for 35,000 rp. I had the driver drop me off before the town center, and I then had to walk off the main road down a long dark skinny alleyway that twists and turns to find the guesthouse (I only got lost once because the arrows point opposite directions.) I stayed at Indah Homestay, a lovely little guesthouse run by Suzanne from Holland and her Indonesian husband. All the rooms face inwards towards a garden and each has a little terrace as well; it felt nice, like I was in Florida or the Bahamas. The room was basic with a squat toilet and a fan.

[I arrived in Lombok too late to catch a ferry to Gili, so I stayed in Senggigi as a layover.]

I woke-up in the morning and had my included breakfast on my terrace- a fried egg, toast, fruit, spreads and tea. I then went back to bed to relax more before exploring.

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I walked across the street to get to the beach. The sand wasn’t pristine white and it smelled like garbage. I walked along the shore, around a bend of waves where local fisherman chilled as did the surfers. All along the beach there are fancy bungalow hotels although I do not know who would pay to swim at this beach. I then entered back through the port.

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I walked down the road which had a few cute restaurants to Orchid Day Spa, which I read about on TripAdvisor. I got a manicure (first one since NYE,) a pedicure (first one in almost two months,) and a massage. All the nail colors were bizarre, like pukey-looking reds, purples and pinks. While my nails were drying I saw someone getting a hair wash and decided I really wanted one too. Total cost for my 3 hours of relaxation was 145 rp ($11.)

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I walked back towards the guesthouse and stopped at Sunshine Restaurant (Chinese) on the beach for dinner and to watch the sunset. Both ended up being disappointing although it was still very nice to sit outdoors and eat. I ordered morning glory with squid and I couldn’t make out the difference between the minuscule pieces of squid and the garlic. As for the sunset, it was too cloudy but still colorful.

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After dinner I picked up some local gummies and went back to my room to catch up on the West Wing. Almost done with season 2 after five months.

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Mount Kelimutu, Flores Island, Indonesia

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I landed in Maumere at 3pm. I wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to talk down the price of a car (a lot) or if I would have to stay overnight and get a bus in the morning to Moni. One of the taxi drivers overheard me reject the price of 500,000 rp ($38)- I knew it was going to be a price like that. He told me he has a friend who drives a car of people for 100,000 rp so I told him to take me there. After waiting in his friends car for 20 minutes they both approached me and said it would actually be 275,000 rp. I said no and told them to take me to the bus station, but after negotiating we made a deal at 150,000 rp ($11.50.) I agreed for two reasons- one being that I was in the middle of no where in Maumere and I didn’t think they were going to drive me anywhere else, and two because if I stayed overnight and took a bus it probably would have cost me more than 150,000 rp.

I ended up being the only passenger for the majority of the trip; we picked up a local along the way. The ride took a little over 2 hours even though every website said it would take 3-4 hours. I finally found the tropical jungle I assumed all of SE Asia would be. The land in Flores is green lush mountains overflowing with palm trees, palm stalks, bamboo, sugar cane, etc. The road was skinny and winding, and my local driver blared Balinese and western dance music the whole time. As usual locals stared at me as we passed through villages.

In Moni I stayed at Palm Bungalows. I was the only guest and the bungalow was terrible mostly because of the bathroom which was the worst I’ve seen yet. It was private but un-usable. There was no running water in the sink or shower. The sink had a pool of floating ants in it, and the shower was an actual tub with floating spiders. The toilet was western but with no flush, and the garbage can of water must have been sitting there from the previous guest, whenever that was. It smelled terrible and there was a water bug living in the toilet tank that regularly made appearances whenever I wanted to pee. I did not get to wash my hands or body the whole time I was there. However, luckily I only stayed one night and it only cost 100,000 rp with breakfast- $7.70.

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The room was terrible but the owner Robert was an amazing host. I had dinner at the guesthouse with him and his two brother-in-laws (not his actual brother-in-laws but his male family members.) We had two red and white rice, sautéed greens, sautéed vegetables, fried mini fishes (you eat the whole thing,) fried edamame and crackers. The meal was cooked by the women of the bungalow who did not actually eat with us. After dinner we sat around talking and smoking cloves.

Moni is the small village below Mount Kelimutu, the Volocano attraction. On top of the volcano rests three different colored lakes (they all change over time and have been blue, green, white, brown and red.) Most recently they were green, blue and brown although the brown was apparently turning red. Every website said to get there for sunrise but as usual I didn’t do that. Also, it is currently rain season and Robert said now is not a good time to go for sunrise.

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I woke-up at 7am, had breakfast (an oil and sugar soaked pancake,) then Robert took me to the volcano for 200,000 rp- $15. We drove up in his brand new Toyota SUV with an added surround sound system and blue lights. He was very proud of his car but I thought it was terrible. A gas guzzler that’s too big for the tiny roads which meant we inched along, while listening to blasting western music. (Hotel California started playing which he thought was the Backstreet Boys.)

We got to the entrance and I had the pay the entrance fee of a whopping 150,000 rp; Indonesia tourists pay 50 cents. We parked and Robert joined me for the walk-up because I was the only tourist there. The cement stair trail took about twenty minutes to reach the peak. On one side there are two lakes, and on the third is on the other side, making it impossible to get a picture of all three together.

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The view was incredible, as were the size of the lakes on top of the mountains, however the lakes themselves were a complete disappointment. All three lakes were the exact same color, and deep turquoise. The color was sharp against the gray rock but it was the same color as the ocean in the Caribbean.

I took photos and posed for about one hundred photos with a group of local tourists. One of them insisted on taking a picture with me every place I moved to take my own picture; they were following me around the site. As much as I wanted it to stop there was no point in being rude since the area was deserted in so I played along.

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We headed back to the guest house and switched cars to a SUV pick-up truck. Before I got in Robert had four young boys vigorously clean the interior and exterior of the car, for me.
When then got in and drove to Ende,
picking-up a backpacker hitch hiker along the way.

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Robert took me to the airport and the earliest flight I was able to book was for the next morning. He offered his home to me and I gladly accepted. That day Robert, the Finnish backpacker and I relaxed on Robert’s porch. We drank fresh coconut milk made by one of his daughters, had a local lunch, and relaxed again. In the early evening the other backpacker left for the ferry and I made myself at home.

I bathed myself in their traditional shower, a concrete room with a huge garbage can filled with water and a pail. I was given a bedroom- a mattress on the floor and a fan, which was more than I would have asked for. We ate a big family dinner in the main room on a smiley face and a princess mat. Robert, his mother, his two daughters (10 and 14,) and his two nieces live in the house, and three of his male family members joined us. We shared red rice, fried river fish, sautéed cabbage, and an omelet.

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After dinner Robert and I went to Star One Pub and Karoke, a new club in town that he hadn’t been to yet. The club consisted of a main room, about twenty karoke rooms, and a girl viewing room. The viewing room had a one way mirror so from the bar we could see in at the girls but they couldn’t see out. The bar was filled with local girls who snuck in their own alcohol because the drinks were very expensive (normal club prices.) The bar is too expensive for regular locals but popular for business men especially from Java and Bali.

A local guy played piano and the locals girls sang karaoke. A few of them had amazing voices. We danced, drank Bintang by the pitches and sipped local liquor, a clear alcohol that tastes like a mix of whiskey, tequila and wine.

The next morning I took an early flight from Ende to Labuan Bajo.

Georgetown, Penang Island, Malaysia

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On Penang Island I stayed in the old historic UNESCO town of Georgetown on Love Lane at 56 Red Inn. The hostel cost about $8 for a 6-bed aircon dorm with a toast breakfast. Love Lane street is lined with guesthouses and sits in the middle of Chinatown; however, this Chinatown is not like any other I’ve seen. The building are all thin and double story with old European-looking facades. Georgetown is the artistic hippy section of the island and it shows.

I arrived in the late afternoon and went to Red Garden for dinner with some girls from my hostel. Red Garden is an outdoor food court with a stage for live bands. The exterior of the area is lined with food stalls from around the world. I had Thai food since it had been a while. After dinner me and one Swedish girl had a beer across the street from our hostel at a Beatles bar. Beer here is incredibly expensive- $4 for a bottle.

On my first and only real day in Penang I woke-up and headed to my first yoga class in over three months, at Sunalini on Love Lane. The class was $10 and not worth it. We did three poses and some stretching and that’s it.

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Afterwards I walked around the artistic part of Georgetown. The area has murals scattered randomly on the buildings, iron UNESCO sculptures, coffee shops, book stores, artistic stationery stores, vintage clothing stores, etc.

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Afterwards I walked through Little India which is right nearby. I ate lunch in Little India at Restaurant Sri Ananda Bahw An and got tricked for the first time as a tourist in Malaysia. I ordered the chicken curry which said $4. I was served the curry along with a leaf with 3 small heaps of vegetables, and two dipping sauces. At the end I was charged $7 because apparently the vegetables were extra. I assumed it was like Myanmar and you just got extra small dishes. Now I know.

Then I paid $3 to see Khoo Kongsi, a Chinese Malaysia house in the middle of Georgetown. The house is the oldest clan house and is know for having gold painted walls, wood carvings on the walls, paper lanterns and huge wooden furniture. I expected a large house, or at least that’s how it’s described, but it ended up just being the facade and one room. It was beautiful but a complete rip off for the money.

I spent the rest of the day wandering the streets and catching up on errands. I walked past the blue mansion that was a break taking shade of blue.

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For dinner I ate street food with a girl from Finland and a girl from Sweden who I also ate with the night before. We had Won ton mee, noodles with steamed and fried wontons in a dark sauce. I also got a tomato carrot juice. I had been wanting to try the fresh tomato juice and it was just as bizarre as I suspected- very watery.

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The next morning I took a bus to the Cameron Highlands with Sweden and Finland.

Cat Ba Island, Vietnam – Halong Bay

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To see Halong Bay we decided to stay on Cat Ba Island, which is directly next to the bay and not too touristy. We stayed at Cat Ba Hostel. Originally we booked a dorm but the hostel was almost empty so we convinced them to give us double rooms for the same price as the dorm, $3 each. I roomed with Scotland.

The town is very small. One strip of restaurants and guesthouses/hotels along the bay with vertical streets going inward towards land. Our hostel was at the top of one of the vertical streets. In the summer the town is supposedly packed with tourists and backpackers. There’s an island feel mixed into this fishing village. But now it’s deserted. We did get very lucky with weather but it’s still winter here.

We picked up two Brits on the ferry to Cat Ba. Now we just need an Irish and I’ll officially be with the whole UK crew.

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Our first day after checking in we walked to the beach, which is about a 10 minute walk from town. It was our first official view of the bay. We stayed long enough to drink one large beer but left because it really wasn’t warm enough to be there- the wind was too cold. On our walk back to town we stopped at an outdoor cafe/bar that was in the sun and out of the wind. We had a free cocktail then a few rounds of beer while sunbathing and playing pool.

That night we went to Good Bar, then Rose Bar, the two backpacker bars in town. Good Bar is on the third floor of a waterfront restaurant. The interior is stone and felt like the perfect atmosphere for a winter bar. The cocktails are legit made with fresh fruit juice, and they’re two for one. Rose Bar is the late night dingy spot.

Our second day we rented scooters- I rode on Scotland’s since I can’t bike. We drove through a small local town behind the touristy waterfront section. Up through the mountains on newly paved roads. We stopped at Hospital Cave, a small cave developed with during the war for Vietnamese to hide from bombers. The cave was 3 floors. The bottom floor is cement rooms- the meeting room, the cinema room, the washing room, the dining room, the hospital, etc. The second floor is a huge open cave, and the third floor (which we couldn’t go to) is a small room that generals used for their meetings. The floors are set-up like a labyrinth, so when you’re on the first floor you can actually be right below the third floor. Incredibly smart and spacious.

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After the cave we drove to the National Park. We did the short hike up to Nam Lam Peak- one hour total. The hike wasn’t too bad and the view was incredible. Lush green mountains surrounded us.

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We hopped back onto our bikes and tried to get to the Cannon before sunset. We made it but after learning it was $3 we decided against it. Not worth it after just being at a better view. So we decided to grab dinner at a local place in town. I had been excited to try the seafood which is supposed to be great on the bay but I was disappointed. I had Pho Tom, Pho with shrimp, but the shrimp were tiny and flavorless. Afterward we cleaned up and went back to Good Bar. I called it an early-ish night since we had to get up early the next day.

Up at 7:30am for breakfast and picked up at 8am for our day on Halong Bay. We drove to the port, which took less than 5 minutes. We boarded a boat and headed out to sea. The boat had an enclosed downstairs, and an open upstairs, half of which was a tarp we could lay on. We became friends with an Aussie and New Zealand girl on the tour, and the group of us spent most of the boat ride hanging out on the tarp. We drove for about 30 minutes past fishing villages (farms on the water) and landed on Monkey Island. We got off the boat directly on the beach and climbed up rocks to reach the top of the mountain on the beach. I wore flip flops which were awful to climb in (no warning there would be rock climbing or a hike.) At the top of the mountain there were two monkeys that joined us. One of them opened up a guys bag and grabbed an apple and piece of bread to snack on- the guy wasn’t quick enough to get them away.

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We hung out on the beach for about 30 minutes after the climb. I found 6 pieces of beach glass including an aqua piece. Most of the pieces are green; I’m assuming they’re from Saigon bottles.

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About an hour later we reached Halong Bay from Cat Ba Bay, although we couldn’t tell the difference. We canoed through Halong Bay for a while going through caves. After canoeing we had a seafood spread lunch on the boat. Steamed shrimp, fish, tofu, sautéed cabbage, spring rolls and rice. We then laid out on the tarp sunbathing for half an hour before the boat took off again. However, the boat only drive for about 20 minutes and then it stopped again for another 30 minutes. We parked next to another boat like ours and the workers all played cards and drank together. We just relaxed and played cards in the sun. The UK boy jumped in the water but it was too cold for swimming.

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On the way home (about a 2 hour journey) we stopped at one of the fish farms and were able to walk around. Imagine a very narrow (less than two feet wide) boardwalk grid above the water, and in each of the squares is a massive net keeping the fish in. The fish are raised here. We saw all types of fish, some tiny and some that looked like mini-sharks. The boardwalk pathway was staying afloat by sitting on top of plastic canisters. Needless to say it was a wobbly walk, and my fears were heightened when I tripped over my own flip flops.

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We went out hard that night since we didn’t have to wake up for anything the next day. First Oasis for half price daiquiris, then Good Bar where I drank 2-for-1 fresh passion fruit mojitos and the bartender split a cantaloupe shisha with me. I met a few Americans who are in Vietnam for a week on business- they’re in the shit business, engineers making toilets. We all went to Marigold Club, which was empty except with a few local men who insisted on taking photos and videos with me/us non-stop. Danced on stage for a bit then headed back to Good Bar until we finally got kicked out because it closed. A great night.

I woke up the next afternoon and headed down to the waterfront for lunch. I walked around the lake on the far side of town then settled into an outdoor table in the sun at My Way Cafe for some fresh seafood. I ordered grilled squid and a tomato salad. The squid was amazing- grilled with chopped garlic, ginger and chili peppers.

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After lunch I walked through the local market looking for my typical fruit snack and a big a sweatshirt for Sapa. The market was typical for a town, a small section for fruit and vegetables, and another small section for clothes and accessories. Most of the fruit didn’t appeal to me; there are no papayas in the cold and the dragon fruit wasn’t ripe. However, I couldn’t stand to casually walk through the market like I usually do. I was the only person shopping at that time of day and every single stand owner was screaming at my to buy bananas while throwing green unripened bananas in my face. It became too much to stand so I quickly left.

Across the street I ran into Scotland and we decided to go for massages. We went to Foot Therapy above Kiwi Bar and both got an hour back, neck and head massage. They took us to the top floor of the bar and we each laid down on an actual bed and got massaged.

That night all of us went for a big seafood dinner at Phong Phong Restaurant, which I found on trip advisor. I ordered boiled green vegetables and grilled scallops. The waiter first brought me out a plate of white cabbage dripping with oil. I sent it back saying that this vegetable is not green and can I please have the boiled spinach instead. Next the waiter brought me out a plate of steamed clams with sweet and sour sauce, yet another translation mistake. I sent back the clams for grilled squid, which was difficult since the waiter was convinced he brought me scallops. More than halfway through my squid the waiter brought me a plate of broccoli in oyster sauce. Not what I ordered either but I didn’t complain; the broccoli was delicious. The squid on the other hand was not. It was supposed to be grilled with a lemon garlic sauce and instead was grilled then doused with a sweet jam like sauce. The restaurant forgot to charge me for the broccoli but I didn’t tell them. The entire meal was slow and stressed me out, so I felt better knowing something was free.

After dinner we went back to Oasis Bar where I got a peppermint tea and a coconut- I took the day off from drinking. There was a “Marnie the dog” look-a-like there who was in a serious need of a haircut. I called it an early night and went home a little after midnight to read. Yes, that’s an early night.

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Koh Tao Diving, Thailand

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After a 3 hour ferry (where one of my sneakers flew off the boat) I was finally on the beach. I stayed at Big Blue Diving, which is in Lonely Planet but also highly recommended. The hostel is right on the beach in the center of everything, and the dorm beds are free every night you dive. Koh Tao is a small island with a few major beaches. I only stayed on and saw Sairee beach. The town was about 5 blocks by 2 blocks, lined with restaurants, bars and dive shops. The scene is all about diving, and then partying. However I found it hard to do both. My favorite day I did 5 dives, 2 tanks at 7am, 2 tanks at 1pm and 1 tank at 7pm. I didn’t think I’d enjoy diving that much but I absolutely loved it. Everyone at the hostel is there to dive and I almost felt like I was missing out if I didn’t do a dive. Everyone (including instructors) is in their 20s and 30s. Our hostel had a beach bar and restaurant, which was a scene everyday post the night dive. I met many people from all over the world but I found that it’s predominately German and British tourists.

My first day I relaxed but then it was time for diving. I started my Advanced Course my second day with Luke. The course was 2 days, 5 dives. Navigation dive (I learned how to use a compass and dive computer), Buoyancy dive (we practiced going through hoops in an underwater playground), Night dive, Deep dive (we cracked and played handball with egg yolks), and Wreck dive (a US ship donated from the war.) The night dive was really fun. I’ve always had a fear of night diving but it wasn’t bad at all. We each had our own flashlight, which allowed me to really see the colors of all the coral. Fish were sleeping everywhere and all the sealife seemed calm. We saw a massive turtle sleeping in a cave and after some banging we managed to wake it up. It came out and swam all around us and above us before returning to the cave.

It’s dirt cheap compared to the Caribbean. My Advanced course cost $250 total (5 dives, equipment, lodging.) I ususally pay almost that much for 1 dive back home. After finishing my Advanced course I decided to do my Rescue course for the hell of it. The course took 3 days- 1 day of First Aid (I’m now certified to do CPR), 1 day of practice and learning to rescue, and 1 day of real life sceniaros. I was the only one in my course and it was really hard but fun. The second we got on the boat each afternoon it was game time. I had an instructor (Scotty from Australia) and two volunteer dive masters who were all pretending to be in trouble. Drowning, dead, jelly fish sting, etc. I was constantly jumping off the boat and running around looking for floating devices. For my final dive I had to find my volunteers who were lost in the sea (my divemaster lost his buddy.) Asking him a million questions about their dive plan, and using my compass, I found the lost divers.

As entertaining as the course was I hope I never have to use any skills I learned. But the great thing is that I now feel a lot more comfortable to dive alone with one other diver, without a leader.

I took a yoga class in a large hut one morning. Serene. Before I went out on my last dive there were 4 tornados over the ocean. I had never seen a tornado before and it was incredible. All the locals even came out to watch.

Watermelon shake (watermelon blended with ice) Best Thing Ever

I am not doing well with Mosquitos over here. I am completely bitten alive all over my entire body. I have about 20 bites on my feet that got infected and I am now on antibiotics. All of my bites are blistering and don’t seem to want to go away. I’ve purchased the heavy duty bug spray, non-fragrant soap and eat garlic cloves everyday but nothing is working. I’ve never had this reaction before and I now know it’s a different type of mosquito here. Honestly I’m at a loss as to what else to do but I’m going nuts like this. I can’t even get massages because I can’t be touched.

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