Saturday, May 31, 2008

Volcanoes and Dolphins

We flew into Surubaya (on east Java) a few days ago, and were the only tourists there. The city was dirty and crazy, but there is something so great about being completely off of the tourist track. I mean, no restaurants in the western sense of the word, no English anywhere, even just trying to find something edible for dinner at one of the street stalls was a challenge. For a longer time it would be really difficult, but for one night it is really exhilarating.

The next day we made our way by bus and minivan to Mount Bromo (above and left) which took about 6 hours. The ride to get there was gorgeous - wild flowers everywhere and hills filled with terraced farms. The coolest part was that every few minutes during the ride as we got higher the temperature went down 5 degrees. By the time we arrived in Mount Bromo it was actually cold!

Our hotel was perched on a ridge overlooking the rim of the crater of 3 active volcanoes--the view was astounding. The next morning we woke up at 3:30am to take a jeep to a nearby mountain for a bird's-eye view. Unfortunately it was too cloudy to see anything as the sun rose, so we went down a bit and were able to see it all.

Then we went to the base of one of the volcanoes and hiked up to the rim to look down into the bubbling lava. See below. It was truly incredible, but there is nothing like the smell of molten sulfur in the morning! Omelets, anyone?

The next day we started a very long journey to Bali. After an overnight bus and ferry we got to Lovina where we have been for the last few days. This little beach town is so empty that it feels like we have it to ourselves. The only drawback is that since they don't see much tourism, the locals try to sell you everything - "You want fruit, massage, fishing trip, sarong, transport, my first born?" - as you walk down the street. It's not as bad as Cambodia or even Vietnam because they are SOOO nice here. Seriously, the nicest people in all of Asia, but it's sad to see how the Kuta bombings and the tsunami have affected the country. But, people are still quite happy here and never miss a chance to play soccer on the beach during sunset (at right).

We woke up for sunrise two days ago to chase around some dolphins on a boat. They swam right up next to our little boat--it was incredible! We saw groups of 20 or so dolphins including some really cute babies just jumping and swimming around. And to top it all off, our boat driver was named "Bikul" which is pronounced "be cool." Pictures below. Sadly, Ricky Williams was nowhere to be found...

And here are some videos. Sorry for the shaky hand and the jumping around--and for the low quality. Youtube won't publish them for some reason so we're using blogger's video tool which isn't as good.

Tomorrow we are going fishing at sunset with him, which should be fun. Then we're off to Ubud, the cultural capital of Bali, with its art galleries, craft villages, art courses, rice field hiking, and temples. I (Deanna) will be taking a cooking class there as well as batik course and possibly some wood carving.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Southern Ma-laze-ia

We've spent the last week doing just about nothing... and it's been great. We're not quite road-weary yet, but it is very nice to take a break, unpack our bags and stay in the same room for 8 nights. We've settled in Kuala Lumpur on the main street of Chinatown, so we're constantly eating amazing and cheap street food (the duck has been our favorite). KL has a huge shopping mall culture. There's one area of town, Bukit Bintang, that is a collection of 15 full-size malls (each with a theme--electronics, clothing, housewares, etc), all with food courts, movie theatres, bowling alleys and air conditioning. So we've made it a point to visit as many malls as we can, basking in the frigid air. The mall at the base of the Petronas Towers (see right--the world's tallest buildings from 1998-2004) has EVERY western store we've ever heard of--from Famous Amos to the Gap, Hermes to Reef, KFC to Chillis, and Body Shop to California Pizza Kitchen. We've even seen every English movie playing here (6 of em, including Indiana Jones in IMAX). And everyone speaks perfect English.

So this has been a lazy week of singing the Big Mac chant ("Two all-beef patties...) to win a free Big Mac, going to the Indonesian Embassy three times, 5 trips to a fast-food sushi restaurant (gotta love the conveyor belt), beard shaving (see left--us on the sky bridge connecting the two Petronas towers) and relaxing.

Some highlights of KL were the Islamic art museum, in a gorgeous, well-lit building, all the beautiful mosques around town (see right for our favorite one) and just riding around town on the monorail and subways. See below for the Petronas Towers during the day and a fantastic ornate Hindu temple, the Sri Mahamariamman Temple.

We did manage to wake up at an early hour one morning to take a day trip south to the colonial town of Melaka. This town has a rich history of Chinese, Dutch and British rule, with churches, forts and temples to prove it. We spent a scorching hot day walking around the old town (with its great mauve buildings, some dating back from the 1750s, see left). Below on the left you'll see the famous Porta di Sebastian, at the entrance to the fort. Below on the right is a bonus picture of us with 3-D glasses on about to watch the 3-D film on the building of the Petronas Towers. Tomorrow we fly to Java, Indonesia, to check out some volcanoes en route to a few weeks in Bali. We'll check back in soon!

Friday, May 16, 2008

(Scuba) Diving into a new culture and country

As soon as you walk into Malaysia you can't help but be hit with a very unique and authentic culture. Immediately the smells, the way people dress and the genuine warmth and openness of the people you encounter are felt. It's hard in Thailand (especially in the South) to find moments that don't feel manufactured for tourists. That being said, we did manage to catch this picture (on the right) as we were on a ferry leaving Thailand. Not pictured are their cell phones and cigarettes.

After 4 transfers on different minivans (one complete with four roosters in the back seat--no joke), we arrived in Malaysia excited to experience yet a new culture and food. The blend of Indian and Chinese is just tops--when curry meets sichuan flavors you really can't go wrong. We spent our first night here in Kota Bharu at Zeck's Guest House. Zeck is the perfect hostel owner--friendly, informed, warm and willing to go out of his way to help. And his wife, Maria, knew the best spots to eat in town. She introduced us to Ayam Percik--chicken BBQed in a thin coconut curry. Mmmmmm...

The next morning we caught a van to the east coast to take a ferry to Palau Perhentian. We chose the smaller of the two islands to relax and go diving again. On first look (at right), this jungle island was paradise. Upon further investigation, it's just not the place for us. It only has electricity from 7pm to 5am, most hotels had colonies of bed bugs, but the piece de resistence was the monitor lizards.

We've grown quite accustomed to geckos by now. Ranging from 2" to 8", the geckos keep to themselves, eat flies and the occasional mosquito, and stay on walls near light sources. Not a huge problem for us. But, on our first night in the Perhentian Islands, we discovered two monitor lizards in our bathroom. The big suckers. The one of the left was about 3' long, but the two in our bathroom were only a mere 18". As we'd just come from two different beaches, we decided that after our dive the following morning it would be time to move on. A wise choice, as after Deanna handily scared them off with some bug spray, one came back later and haunted us all night.

The next morning we woke up bright and early (which is easy to do when the fan cuts out at 5am and the heat pours in), eager to jump in the water, where, strangely, the animals don't seem to bother us. Must be the wet suits... We had an incredible dive at a site known as "The Temple." We swam through a school of 500 yellow snapper, saw a three-legged turtle, bamboo sharks, a moray eel, two puffer fish (someday I'll get to try fugu), beautiful angel fish and what we've now named "the disco fish" as it looks like the colors inside Studio 54. Surreal and amazing. Next time we go, we're going to rent an underwater camera. But for now, enjoy the "before" and "after" pictures below.

After another quick night at Zeck's, we took an all-day bus through beautiful mountains up to the Cameron Highlands. Very similar to the Vietnamese city of Da Lat, Cameron is a cool respite from the tropical heat at lower elevation. This is the flower and fruit capital of the country. Today we went to a tea plantation (its aroma is second only to the wineries of Argentina and the garlic fields of Northern Thailand), picked strawberries, chased butterflies and brave Deanna played with a Rhinoceros Beetle. Yeah, did I mention I don't like animals? Enjoy the pictures below.

Tomorrow we're off to Kuala Lumpur to spend a few urban days before flying to Indonesia.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Same same but different -- Thai islands

Anyone who has been to SE Asia will know the phrase "Same same but different." It's quoted by every salesperson from fruit-stand hawker to hotel owner, and if you spend enough time here, you'll start to say it yourself. What it means is that any two things will be called the same for any purpose--generally the bait and switch. Like when trying to buy a small black t-shirt, the vendor will offer you a pink XXL t-shirt.

For us, we're at that point in the south of Thailand, coming from the Koh Tao in the Gulf of Thailand (east coast--pictured left) to Koh Lanta in the Andaman Sea (west coast). Buddhist to Muslim, party central to deserted, clear skies to overcast and rainy. Alas, it's still the same amazing Thai vibe, food and beaches. We spent a week on Koh Tao getting our scuba Open Water certification. Unfortunately we don't have any pictures of us in full gear as my camera isn't waterproof, but we do have some pictures below of our diving group (left) and with our awesome instructor, Yuki, who helped make this experience a highlight of our whole trip (right).

Now we're on Koh Lanta enjoying the quiet. The silence is golden. There is nothing going on here in Lanta except empty resorts (ours pictured right--all the bungalows are connected by a canopy of palm trees and orchids) and the crashing of the waves. The beauty of low season is that all the resorts are half price and the daily south-Floridian rainstorms help cool down the afternoons. Just what we wanted after a week hanging out underwater and on dry ground with other divers. And thankfully we're far away from the horrible tragedy in Myanmar. It's hard to imagine the death toll is approaching 100,000, but after seeing some of the delta shanty towns in Vietnam and the riverside huts in Laos, we can almost grasp the scale of one storm washing away town after town. Here's to their government letting more foreign aid in ASAP...

Tomorrow we leave Thailand (for the 4th time; this time for good) and cross over in Malaysia. Our first stop is, you guessed it, another beach. Palau Perhentian awaits, with white sands, rustic bungalows and the allure of more great diving. The island only has electricity in the evening so I doubt we'll be checking email much, if at all. Happy Mothers' Day to all our favorite Moms out there (Liz and Roberta especially) and we'll check in after several days at yet another same same but different paradise island. And just a reminder--next year's annual Cuatro de Mayo party will be held on my rooftop as per usual. On the left you'll see me celebrating in the lone Mexican restaurant on Koh Tao, aptly named El Gringo.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Majestic Ha Long Bay

We're decompressing (pun intended) in Koh Tao, Thailand for a few days now, getting our Scuba diving Open Water certification. We loved our first dive so much that we're going for four more. But let's recap our last experience in the water first. Ha Long Bay, yet another UNESCO world heritage site, is in the South China Sea, a few hours from Hanoi.

We booked our trip with a small travel agency back in Hanoi and all 14 of us set off by bus to Ha Long harbor. We boarded our junk and sailed off with a grand seafoad feast. Our group was great--we made some good friends on the tour, especially Graham and Feonia, who graciously invited us to stay with them in Australia.

We spent the afternoon cruising around the gorgeous limestone karst rocks, all covered in striking green foliage. The water was a beautiful blue/tourquoise, but unfortunately the skies were overcast so the colors didn't come out that vividly in our pictures--but it did lead to some lingering mist that left us speechless. Our first stop was the Hang Dau Cave island, with two monstrous caves inside one of the big karst islands.

From there, we floated for a while and dropped anchor right in the heart of the bay, with the karsts all around us. We stayed there for the night, with a few bottles of wine split among all of us, chatting the evening away. The following day we docked at Cat Ba Island, exploring some more caves, kayaking in the bay around Monkey Island and just relaxing. The last day of the trip we boated back to the mainland and returned to Hanoi. It was an incredible trip and the perfect way to end our 5 weeks in Vietnam. Enjoy all the pictures below!

Alright, time to get cracking on our PADI textbook to learn more about scuba diving. Tomorrow we dive again!