Tuesday, August 31, 2010


September 1st. Traditional back to school date for most and if I was at home I'd be heading back to work myself. As it is I'm spending my last day in Malaysia and - border crossing hassles nothwithstanding - should be in Thailand this evening. I've booked a hostel bus transfer thingie from here in Georgetown to Koh Tao and, all going to plan, I should be on the island at around 9am. I've had 2 days here in Georgetown and it's beautiful, quite different to Malysia's other UNESCO status city Melaka where I've just come from. Metaphorically speaking, if Melaka is the city which refuses to leave the house without its make-up on, Georgetown is the love child of Keith Richards and Shane McGowan - a wonderfully evocative old city, all crumbling edifices and a wonderfully unhinged appearance to it.
There's history everywhere you look and on every tiny backstreet you walk down. There's little need for a map here - you just wander aimlessly through the Chinese and Indian parts of town eating all the while from hawker stalls by the side of the road. If 2 days was excessive in Melaka it just hasn't been long enough here.
I'm staying in a place called Red Inn on Love Lane which is central to all of what happens here. My dorm is filled with people who'd rather stare at their Macs than chat but it's a wonderful place to spend a couple of nights nonetheless. My trip takes on a more hectic feel from here. I fly to Bangkok on September 14th which leaves me with 2 weeks to explore southern Thailand and once I'm there it'll be another swift hop skip and jump around the highlights of Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos before returning to Bangkok and onward.
Yesterday was Independence Day here - not that you'd notice - and everything was pretty low key. There was a parade of sorts which had a slightly apologetic feel to it. The Chinese and Indians kept their businesses open regardless - which is most business in this city - and it felt just like an ordinary day.

Monday, August 30, 2010


This one’s being typed on the hoof. It’s 10pm and a 7 hour bus ride from Melaka to Penang lies ahead. Normally this would be a source of discomfort but, shit, this bus was quite clearly designed by the Malaysian equivalent of Peter Crouch. There isn’t leg space so much as stilt space on here. Anyway, leaving Melaka behind having spent 3 days and two nights here. Spent my nights at the Jalan Jalan (Bahasa for travelling) guesthouse. Their dorm is a barrack-style institution but each bed has its own personal fan and this is essential down here. Weather has followed a consistent pattern each day - steaming daytime heat followed by a night of violent thunderstorms. If the thunder doesn’t wake you during the night, the conveniently positioned mosque next door will.
Reception is guarded by the affable Phil - an incredibly pale Dutch lad who hasn’t seen the sun since he got here it seems, probably some 5 years ago. He spends his day getting himself out of his head so that, by evening, his responses barely stretch to a nod as he watches a stream of DVDs with the volume turned up VERY LOUD INDEED.
What of Melaka then? Beautiful little city but if I’d known how little it was, I probably wouldn’t have booked a return ticket for 3 days. Melaka has, down through the years, had more men claiming it for a brief but ultimately worthless period than Katie Price. First there were the Portuguese, then the Dutch came sniffing and held the city almost apologetically, until naturally never wanting to feel left out in all matters colonial, the English took charge. But it’s the Portuguese influence which is still most apparent here, particularly with regard to some of the cuisine. The Dutch influence seems almost invisible except for the aforementioned Phil at reception, bonged out of his head.
Chinatown is where all the action is at in this city. The lengthy (and by night impossible to stroll down) Jonker’s Walk changes at the weekend into a bustling street market where you can buy anything from a Rubik’s cube to cute little wind-up drumming rabbits to almost anything you'd like to eat, but with noodles.
There’s a dizzying array of food stalls and Melaka has its very own distinctive Nonya cuisine - popiah (a spring roll filled with, eh, stuff) and a distinctive laksa are two of the specialities widely on offer here). It’s impossible to pass by a stall that doesn’t sell the local favourite - pineapple tarts. Each shop naturally claims to have the secret recipe for the best tarts but they all taste a bit meh to me.
Then there's Melaka's other ubiquitous feature - the trishaw. Tourist tat at its finest, the trishaws do a roaring trade escorting people around the various sights. They're impossible to miss, bedecked as most of them are in more shockingly bright plastic flowers and many of them kitted out with impressively loud speaker systems thumping out Bollywood-esque pop or - and perhaps this was just me - that vile Black Eyed Peas song on a loop throughout the day.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Ear wax

Seen last night whilst strolling down Jonker's Walk in Melaka. Clean out your ears? No problem, just this way. Deafness? Yes, we do that too.

Friday, August 27, 2010

No Trespassing......

......Malaysian style. If you trespass, we won't prosecute you. We'll save everyone the bother by shooting you in the head as you flee.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Kuala Lumpur AGAIN

Hopefully my last night in Kuala Lumpur, on this trip at least. It's a bit of a vortex on the Air Asia highway and serves as a useful base between Malaysia/Borneo/Indonesia.It isn't that I dislike the city - I'm quite taken by parts of it actually - but I've done it to death on this trip now and tomorrow sees me move south to Melaka.
You know you've spent too much time in KL when you use the Petronas Towers merely as an orientation point. This weekend is a national holiday here in Malaysia and Independence Day is on August 31st. Consequently accommodation's proving quite difficult to come by in some of the regions outside the cities. Urban areas disgorge themselves of people during the holidays as Malays make their way to the beach or to the Cameron Highlands for cooler temperatures.
The Cameron Highlands are on my itinerary also but only once the holiday madness ends. Melaka - a former Portuguese colony - is about 150km south of here, has great food, cheap accommodation so what's not to love?

Jungle Rats

As it turned out, leeches weren't the problem on the trek. Sure there were some - unseeing, worm-like creatures cavorting up your leg in search of blood. I'd chosen not to wear the leech socks Steven had given me figuring that my trekking pants and socks would be protection enough. Not the way it turned out. Leeches can attach themselves to your socks and are more than capable of climbing inside your sock and attaching themselves to your ankle where they'll remain until discovered. And once discovered, they're hard shifted, clinging on for dear life as your blood oozes down your leg.
There isn't much to do in the jungle after dark and so it has to be an early night. It's difficult trying to describe the sound of the jungle at night. There's the white noise of the crickets, the burr of the cicadas and other innumerable other unidentifiable almost robotic-like sounds. Think of a million mobile phones each with a different ringtone and you're almost there. Really.
But if the sounds of the jungle are calming, helping to ease me off to sleep, there are other sounds which emerge in the night which are less reassuring. 'Bed' for the night is in a sleeping bag on the wooden floorboards of our shelter atop a plastic sheet. I take great care putting up my mosquito net but being bitten is inevitable.
And then it begins. Having slept well for the first few hours I'm woken by a scurrying noise close to me I can't identify. I try to ignore it at first but it's clear that we have company, and quite a lot of it. Jungle rats. Pretty large jungle rats and well fed they are too, feasting on our sticky rice which had been left on the floor inside the shelter. There were 10 of them before we went to sleep and in the morning, there's just two left. They also have a penchant for candles too and David recounts seeing one exit stage left with a candle in his mouth. There's nothing to do but lie there and hope they don't actually begin crawling over my supine figure. To avoid this, I occasionally stamp my floor on the floor which disperses our nocturnal companions briefly but never for long enough.
Strangely though I slept well, drifting off again having convinced myself that I wouldn't end up with the same fate as the candle. And we were squatters in the jungle rats terrain so it's only fair that they feasted on our food, if not on us. That day we trek back the same way we came making it back to the village of Pa' Lungan just after noon. When I say village, I should clarify - it's a collection of wooden houses built on poles with one church (always a church - religion is very important to the Kelabits) and no shop whatsoever. People don't generally buy food - they grow what they need. From time to time people trek to Bario for general supplies but remain largely self-sufficient. There's also a village leader - a figure of authority whose responsibility it is to resolve disputes. However it seems Pa' Lungan's leader's a bit of a lush and spends most of his time getting pissed in Bario and gambling the not ungenerous allowance he gets as village leader. And according to David there's a whiff of a coup in the air.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Into The Jungle

The reason I've ventured this far into Borneo is to get myself into the jungle, trek as far as I can and see how much of a challenge it is. The heat and humidity at this stage are a given and not something that, in spite of my state of perpetual perspiration, I bother much about. What bothers me before I depart are the mosquitoes and to a greater extent the fucking leeches. I've never had the leech experience before and so I head pretty much into the unknown but you can see it in people's faces returning from the jungle - the leech faced.
Anyway, my route involves a four hour trek between the villages of Bario and Pa' Lungan. You can take a guide with you if you wish but it's not necessary as there's only one route which narrows the further away from Bario you go until finally you're on a muddy stretch winding its way to the next village. I pass through the village of Pa' Ukat after an hour's trekking, a village mysteriously empty of people save for a few souls working hard in the paddy fields.
I'm lucky in that the weather's dry and apparently the leeches aren't generally a problem on this stretch. I reach Pa' Lungan 3 hours after Pa' Ukat, staying in Phillip and Pauline's homestay for the night and grateful for their hole-free mosquito net above my bed. The following morning I meet with David, my guide for then next 2 days and he describes the route we'll be taking. As I breakfast I almost choke on my pineapple at the remarkable sight of a 70 year old man I'd spoken to the previous day marching toward the jungle with his hunting dog to his rear and spear in hand. That's spear! The villagers are keen hunters - they have to or they'll starve - and wild boar is what they're after. Word reaches us the next day that our man returned from the jungle with a 30kg boar in hand. Incredible.
Our first night we'll spend in a jungle shelter - I try to get a mental image of it as we walk but I'm too bloody preoccupied swatting flies, wiping sweat out of my eyes and all the time watching out for the leeches. Again though, fortune favours me as it's a dry day and David reassures me (obviously feeling that I need to be reassured) that the leeches are most numerous in wet weather. The terrain is pretty flat, marshy in places but overall pretty good going. On our way David points out the various plants and trees, chops at some bamboo from which we drink the coldest, freshest water, hacks at trees from which we taste the resin and pockets the wild spinach from which he'll make a soup later that night.
There's one climb which takes about half an hour and just after 2pm we arrive at our shelter - home for the night. It's essentially a shed with a roof but it looks good enough to me and my weary bones. There's a river nearby so as David gets a nap, I go to investigate. Dinner that night is a mixture of rice, a soup made from the wild spinach David had plucked along the way and some skin/fat from the wild boar and a tin of tuna pilfered from our lodging from the previous night. Jungle cuisine it isn't but we're both starving at this stage.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010


Bario sits at the base of the Kelabit Highlands, a highland plateau found in the interior of Sarawak and within a stone's throw of the Indonesian border. To call it isolated wouldn't do the place or the word justice. Curiously the village itself is artificially created, the result of the evacuation of several Kelabit villages during the 1960's Konfrontasi (link for Fonz because no doubt you'll google it) with Indonesia. It's quite the culture shock reaching it after the urban sprawl of Kuching and, to a lesser extent, Miri (possibly the world's most pointless city). Getting to Bario is an experience in itself as there are two daily flights aboard an 18-seater Twin Otter which is small enough for you to shout forward to the pilot that you'd like to land for a toilet stop. The flight takes an hour and deposits you in the land time hasn't quite forgotten but has tried very hard to.
The dirt roads are pockmarked enough to make a young Stephen Hendry blush and consequently cars are utterly useless here. It's a beautiful area though, with a cathedral-like quiet about the place and the fringes of distant jungle dotted here and there. Base for my first night here is with Stephen Baya and his wife Tine in their beautiful homestay Jungle Blues Dream. In the unlikely event anyone reading this is heading this way (or indeed in the unlikely event that anyone is reading this, period), their homestay is an oasis in an otherwise pretty primitive environment. Immaculately clean, Stephen and Tine create spectacular meals, sitting with their guests telling them about the area and advising on the best treks to take based on your fitness levels.
Based on Stephen's advice - he spent 5 years as a guide in the highlands and it was as a guide that he met his wife (that's a pretty impressive tip) I decide to to trek from Bario to Pa' Lungan, a neighbouring village (well, when I saw 'neighbouring', I mean 4 hours away) and from there on to a jungle shelter at Long Repbun, deep in the jungle and back again. The whole thing will take 4 days and 3 nights and it's the best I can do in the time I have. It'll mean missing out on the longhouse experience but it will throw me into the heart of the jungle which is compensation enough for me.

Beware of men bearing gifts of longhouse gin

So you're hungry, in a new city and it's getting late. I still don't know my way around Kuching but it's small enough to be able to ignore the map I'd grabbed at the airport. I wandered more out of curiosity in a new place than out of hunger pangs. Spotted a café across the way when finally the hunger pangs began to override the desire to seek out pastures new. When I walked in there was footie on the telly - bonus. The 'café' was more of a hovel selling cheap beer to thirsty Chinese who'd spent the day selling goods at the weekend market. They'd had an early start and clearly from the way they ordered beer in threes and fours, it was going to be a late finish too.
Found myself a seat and sat self-consciously down. This was clearly not the tourist end of town and the guy at whose seat I sat didn't seem remotely interested in engaging in any type of conversation, so much so he took a few more slugs from his beer and moved to the next table. 'Fuck you' I thought, decided to have one beer and leave and that would be that. Except it wasn't. The owner came over and I asked for a beer.
'One or three?' came the reply.
'Er, just the one, thanks.'
He brought two beers to the table and sat with me, his broken English sufficient to get us to the end of our beers. But before I'd finished mine off he went again, returning with two more beers. Except he'd barely touched his and poured most of his can into my glass. Hunger now forgotten - beer eh? - he continued to repeat this for 3 or 4 more rounds. Tongues loosened all round, the previously disinterested tables surrounding us huddled closer and got in on the conversation. We spoke, of course, the international language of drunkenness and the more we drank, the more fluent we became. At one stage, a guy sitting at the table beside mine disappeared momentarily on his bike, returning with a bottle in his hand. The famous longhouse gin. I asked the owner why he hadn't bought the gin at the bar to be told that it wasn't a liquor that could be sold legally over the counter.
It was agreed - by everyone but me - that I would try some so - bollocks to it - down the hatch it went. It didn't have any discernible taste but the afterglow remained long after. I picked up the bottle to glance at its alcohol content - I could barely read at this stage - and saw 60% proof and so I took out my camera to remind myself tomorrow of what I'd been drinking. Even now I'm not quite sure if we should have been drinking the stuff or removing paint with it.
But for the fact that Liverpool were playing the Gooners on the box - the Premier League is everywhere here - I'd probably still be there now. I made my excuses - it took all of half an hour - and stumbled home, somehow finding my way back to the hostel just in time to see the red mist descend on Joe Cole. As first nights in a city go, peerless.

Monday, August 23, 2010


The word 'kuching' means 'cat' and so it is that Kuching has become known as the city of cats. It is thrilling to be moving again, free of Bali - beautiful as it was - and knowing that I have a mere ten days here and much to see. Given that, I've decided to head to Bario to trek in the Kelabit Highlands. Mulu and its caves will have to wait for another time. Kuching itself reeks of colonial times, its beautifully maintained landmarks scattered along the river bank. There is none of the hustle of Java. Taxi drivers yawn as you pass, indifferent to whether you want a ride or not. I like it a lot. The locals are curious and unfailingly polite.
There's a huge Chinese influence here and in one of those vague moments I get when travelling, I momentarily wonder what country I'm in what with 75% of the signage in Chinese. Chinese people - as is their wont - own most of the businesses here and Chinatown is a small maze of stores and restaurants impossibly squeezed on top of one another.
On my first day here I pass an old man sitting quietly in a chair, his grey beard accentuating the character of his wizened face. I think of taking a photo but walk on. On my way past him later, the rain now teeming down, he gestures me to sit in the vacant seat beside him. He's quite comfortable in the silence but I make an effort to communicate by mouthing some inane sentence in Bahasa. He merely taps my arm with a smile as if to say 'Give it a rest son'.
He makes a gesture with his hand, disappears only to return a minute later with a can of beer in his hand. This one's for me. I gesture to return the favour but he reaches down beside his chair where he clinks his can into mine. When the beer's finished I offer again to buy him a can but he isn't having any of it and waves me off. He wanted nothing but someone to fill the chair beside him for 10 minutes - perfect.
On my second day I venture off to see the orangutan rehabilitation sanctuary at Semenggoh. As I sit waiting for the bus, one of the drivers approaches and sits beside me looking for nothing other than conversation. Within ten minutes it's time to board the bus and he's asked me to add him as a friend on Facebook. It's still difficult to shake off the feeling that when someone strikes up a conversation with you, they're looking for something. It's as unfortunate as it is inevitable having spent a month in Indonesia.
Semenggoh's home to some 25-30 semi-wild orangutans. The main attraction are not kept behind bars and are free to roam where they wish. I arrive there just before feeding time though it's hard to figure out where the wildlife ends and the humans begin what with people stepping off tour buses, shouting loudly and insisting on using flash in spite of having being specifically been asked not to as it'll startle the orangutans.
Our ginger friends don't disappoint either, approaching in ones and twos through the tangle of vines and trees. A mother and her child make their way to within touching distance of the throng, swinging freely just above us, her young clambering higher to escape from the chatter of the Russian women and their ice-hockey hairdos.
And yet in spite of the chattering masses it was impossible not to feel awed by standing beneath this bloody huge creature nonchalantly peeling bananas - that was news to me - and casually dropping the skins to the ground just below.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Headhunting in Borneo

I get bored easily. This is why I travel, for the most part. I figured out yesterday that I have less than a year to go on this trip. Ridiculous. So much to see and so little time, relatively speaking of course. And so on to Borneo, something I’m very excited to be typing. Indonesia was a great experience but I felt as if in the last 10 days I’d seen what I needed to see and was killing time on Bali, specifically Ubud. Nice place to kill time, sure, but there are only so many times you can do loops of Monkey Forest Road and visit the monkey sanctuary without pining for the road ahead.
Borneo promises much more of a walk on the wild side. I’m visiting Malaysian Borneo - the island is split between Malaysia and Indonesia with the Indonesians claiming the majority of the island - known as Kalimantan.
The Malaysian part is split in two also - Sabah to the north and Sarawak to the south. I’m basing myself in Sarawak, starting off in the capital Kuching for two nights, moving on to Miri which is a necessary evil if you want to reach Sarawak’s big two sights - Gunung Mulu National Park or - where I’ll be headed - the Kelabit Highlands. Bario is my base for hiking in Kelabit. I’m excited to visit it if for no other reason than the directions from the airport to the settlement of Bario - there is no town - is to walk for about half an hour from the airport and turn left at the T-junction. There are no ATMs, wi-fi or any of that technological nonsense in Bario so I can’t wait to base myself there for 5 days.
Borneo’s also famous for two other reasons. Firstly it’s known as the ‘Land of the Headhunters’, and it’s no myth. It’s a tradition which only died out as recently as the 1840’s. Today, Christianity largely holds sway with most of the indigenous tribes which is good for me as it means that I probably won’t suffer due to the fact that Ramadan has just begun. Secondly, Borneo is home to the longhouse tradition. Basically a longhouse is a traditional residence of the indigenous population of the island. The longhouse is a large communal dwelling built on stilts to raise it above the jungle floor which can house up to one hundred individual families. It’s a tradition which hasn’t died out and hopefully I’ll have a chance to visit a couple when I get to Kelabit.


Goodbye to Indonesia then. 30 days to begin the trip - probably 10 days too many, especially having not seen any of Sumatra, left me feeling in the last week and a half that I was just going round in circles. Which is exactly what I ended up doing of course. Indonesia’s amongst the easiest countries I’ve travelled in. Everyone - everyone - speaks enough English to make getting from one place to another easy and learning even a smattering of Bahasa - which I did - means that you can’t really go wrong here. Though it’s probably appreciated that you make an effort in the native tongue, rest assured you’ll be answered in English which is vastly superior to your pidgin Indonesian.
Java was definitely a little more frayed at the edges. In certain parts, you’re very much a novelty - the bullé - whilst in others your appearance inevitably draws cries of ‘Transport? or, just as often depending where you are, ‘Young girl? Yes?’ etc. Highlights in Java were watching brown sugar being made in a remote village in the hills outside Cianjur, Prambanan and Borobudur temples outside Yogya and walking around the Dieng Plateau for a day. But every day in its own little way was a highlight. It’s easy to become numbed to the fact that you’re in a completely different environment and utterly out of your comfort zone. It’s all about the little things - waking up in a brand new city with a map and little else to go on, a bus ride through the stunning countryside, the hundreds of short conversations you have with Indonesians which don’t lead to ‘You come see my shop,’ and lastly, the fact that in Indonesia a smile is always returned with interest. I look forward to using a currency which doesn’t scare the shit out of you. I don’t think that I’ll ever get used to keying in 1,000,000 (the Rupiah equivalent of €87) of any currency when I go to make a withdrawal, or paying 5,000 of anything for a bottle of water. Bring on the Ringgits!
Bali, as I’ve already said in another post felt like an entirely different country. Once you’ve become accustomed to being beeped at by taxis and those bastard Bemo drivers, you find yourself settling into the Balinese groove. Ubud - surely laying claim to the most at ease with itself city in the world - was a highlight here and Lombok will also be fondly remembered, simply for Rinjani and its seemingly never-ending scree at 5am with an air temperature of 4 degrees. Thanks for having me Indonesia.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Bring On The Dancing Horses

So to the Bali dance experience. It is one of those cultural things you’re urged not to miss and having just returned from it, I’m bloody glad that I didn’t. Tonight’s show took place on one of the many open space stages which abound in Ubud. The show itself was a performance of The Death of Kumbakarna and the story goes like this;
Upon the completion of the Situbanda Bridge, Rama and Laksmana, accompanied by his monkey army under the leader…….
…oh bollocks to it……this is what I managed to make out; There were 100 chanting men throughout the one hour performance, a white monkey character and a red monkey character danced like they were on a diet of All-Bran and laxatives for a week, there was a fight, two ape-like figures came on and shuffled around and a motley crew of other characters like something from Wanderley Wagon on acid wandered on and off at various stages. Three princesses trooped on and off at random intervals with bows and arrows and fired them at the ape-like figures. They seemed pretty pissed with the apes. It was like watching Flaming Lips without the fake blood. Extremely entertaining stuff.
I don’t know who won the fight or what they were fighting for but I really don’t think that was the point. The most entertaining part of the show was the incessant chanting - ’chak chak chak chakkity chak’ - of the 100 or so males who formed a choral circle around the action throughout. This vocal chanting is, apparently, unique to what I witnessed tonight - the Kecak or ‘Monkey Dance’. Bali, specifically Ubud can, do little wrong for me. The night ended even more surreally - a pile of coconut husks were piled high and set alight. Then, a man appeared astride a fake horse - making King Arthur’s steed from The Holy Grail look like Shergar - and he danced and pranced around the pile before bizarrely launching himself into the lit pile of coconuts. Again and again. This he continued to do for 5 minutes. With that, the lights went up and we tourists went home. Ubud’s been good to me.

You Know You're In Asia When....

I can picture these in Toolan's.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Down time

So Ubud has been my base for a few days now. It’s entirely possible to walk around the city of Ubud itself within an hour so after a day you’ve exhausted the sights to see within the city. I wandered into the monkey sanctuary the other day to check out Ubud’s primate population. There are no bars to keep the monkey population separate from the humans so you do get up close and personal. I witnessed screaming females, indifferent males, the old picking fleas off the young, bare arses cocked up in the air by all, endless tantrums, food fights and much unruly behaviour. And that was just the Australians.
I decided to check out the sights of the surrounding area, if for no other reason than to get back into the countryside. Mopeds are everywhere here - not much use if you’ve, er, mislaid your driver’s licence - but bicycles are a little harder to come by. Spotting some bikes outside a shop the other day I enquired within how much it would cost to rent a bike.
‘25,000 Rp’
‘Do I need to pay a deposit also?’
‘If you like.’
I didn’t. 11km from Ubud - and uphill all the way - is Gunung Kawi, a collection of stone shrines carved - a la Petra - into cliffs on either side of a valley. To gain entry to the temple within you must wear a sarong and there are plenty of old ladies at the entrance fighting with each other to supply you with sarongs of questionable quality. Anyway, Kawi is quite impressive for sure but not, I feel, somewhere that’ll live long in the memory. At this stage temples are inspiring the same indifference in me as European cathedrals.
The cycle there and back was worth it all though. Balinese pupils - perhaps Indonesian pupils in general - are marched to school singing and/or chanting what sounds like it might be the Indonesia national anthem. It’s an impressive sight watching them march along in their perfectly formed lines but I couldn‘t help wondering what they do for fun.
Balinese dance troupes are internationally renowned apparently and Ubud is a traditional dance hotspot so I’m going along to one of the performances tonight to see what I hope will not prove to be the Balinese equivalent of Riverdance. Now I’m genuinely not one for traditional dance of any description so there had to be a hook, and as I returned from today’s cycle, I saw it: ‘FIRE DANCE’ - the poster screamed and the pyromaniac in me knew that this was the dance for me. Culture, tradition and FIRE in big capital letters - who wouldn’t be drawn to it?
More on the dance show anon.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010


A few months after his arrival in Turin to play for Juventus, having recently moved from Liverpool, Ian Rush was asked for his impressions of his new life in Italy. His now legendary response was “It’s like living in a different country.” Good old Rushie - he had some nose for goal but clearly that nose rarely peeked into an atlas. I’m quoting Rushie now because those ill-chosen words are entirely true for the Balinese experience. Truly, it is like being in another country and, as Ian Rush would be unable to tell you, it‘s not. Bali is a bastion of Hinduism in contrast with Java’s all-pervading Islamic presence (Indonesia is the most populous Muslim state in the world - a mere 220 million) and Ubud personifies this Hindu sense of well being and harmony. There is no call to prayer here so you may sleep as long as you like and once you are up and about the place moves with none of the frenzy of Java’s cities or towns.
Rarely have I visited a city as at ease with itself as Ubud and consequently rarely have I felt as ease with myself on this trip as my time here. Though I hadn’t realised it yesterday when I’d booked the ferry to Ubud (via Padangbai), this is the exact place to bed down for a few days to ease the still aching joints from Rinjani - I feel as if someone used my ligaments as bungee cable. Ubud is a foot massage on a hammock while Sadé plays in the background. Ubud is the yin to, say, Jakarta’s yang.
From my serene accommodation to the touts in the street who truly can’t be arsed calling ‘Hey Boss’ to get your attention - instead holding up a sign saying ‘Transport Please?’ - to the sign in the bookshop earlier which read ‘Please Look After Your Karma And Don’t Steal. Don’t Ruin Your Next Existence’, this place is one huge sigh of relaxation.
At the bottom of the main street - Monkey Forest Road - there’s a monkey sanctuary which I still haven’t visited, but did pass it by earlier in a familiarising tour of the streets. Well, monkeys being monkeys, they don’t recognise boundaries as such, and one of them had made his way up the main street and began helping himself to the contents of a litter bin. Nobody batted an eyelid except for the tourists. This is Ubud.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Lombok back to Bali

Aching joints rested by the beach yesterday, today was all about travel. Having decided that peak season on the Gili Islands - three immaculate islands off the coast of Lombok - was not going to sit well with my plans, I decided instead to return to Bali, knowing that Sanur did not offer any true impression of the island. Ubud is 23km north of Denpasar but it’s a day’s travelling from Sengiggi, involving a reverse trip on the trusty old Lembar-Padangbai ferry.
The ferry journey did begin with some live entertainment though. A Dutch tourist had allowed some touts to carry his and his family’s not inconsiderable luggage aboard. Foolishly he hadn’t agreed a price and once the bags were deposited on board, one of the luggage handlers demanded 400,000Rp (almost €40) - nice work if you can get it. Well Dutch guy wasn’t having any of it and offered a maximum of 50,000Rp (€5) so let’s just say there ensued much haggling which threatened to turn nasty on more than one occasion. Dutch guy - let’s call him Dirk Kuyt - bawled at the tout; “Do you know who I am? I am DIRK KUYT! Do not fuck with me. Believe me my friend!” Dirk’s four kids were all in tears at this stage - Dad blamed the touts for this - “See what you have done! You have made my children cry!” Christ, some people will do anything to lower the price. Ultimately - and it took 20 minutes of screaming - a price of 100,000Rp was agreed and the touts reluctantly disappeared, probably muttering the Indonesian equivalent of “And I would have gotten away with it if it wasn’t for you pesky kids.”
Arrived in Ubud earlier this evening and if first impressions are anything to go by, this place is wonderful. As I trudged up the street looking for a bed for the next few nights, there appeared before me along the main street a huge Hindu parade with hundreds of locals dressed in traditional clothes playing traditional music and chanting songs, whilst the men bore enormous religious effigies on their shoulders. Like arriving in Dublin on Saint Paddy’s Day. Welcome to Ubud. Whether or not it was the goodwill or harmony engendered by the parade, I continued 50 metres up the road was stopped by a tout enquiring if I needed a room. He told me how much it’d cost so I asked for a look. I followed, expecting to see a room of similar proportions to my Yogya experience but, miraculously, he led me through a leafy courtyard to my room - white tiled, toilet larger than my room in Yogya, fan and breakfast served to my door whenever I request it in the morning. Yes please, I’ll take it. The only sound I can hear from outside are the crickets and the occasional chirp of a gecko. Beautiful. Ubud then - home for 3 days and it feels like a perfect fit.

Monday, August 2, 2010


Gunung Rinjani, at 3,726 metres, it’s easily Lombok’s highest mountain. The Balinese call it ‘the seat of the Gods’ and the Sasak population of Lombok visit it twice a year to honour the mountain spirit by bringing goats to the lake where they tether their legs together, place them on a bamboo raft and dump them, quite alive, into the centre of the lake. The spirits must be appeased it seems. Rinjani is also an active volcano and erupts intermittently as, inconveniently, active volcanoes are prone to do.
It also afforded me the first chance on this trip to do what I’m travelling for - head for the hills. As I’ve already posted about Senggigi it’s impossible to move down the street without being accosted by touts claiming their pre-eminence in hiking to Rinjani’s summit. Based on a Lonely Planet recommendation - not always a wise move - I went with Rinjani Trekking Club who, not surprisingly, also claimed to be the club with whom to lose your Rinjani virginity.
Day 1 began with a pick-up and transfer to the village of Senaru where our group - 5 of us including a Bavarian couple and another couple, he from Luxembourg and she from Indonesia - was taken through what we could expect in the ensuing couple of days. From Senaru we jumped into the back of a HiAce to the trailhead (1,100m) for registration.
We were underway just after 8, making slow but steady progress through three resting points. This, we were informed, was the easy part. If you one for omens you’d probably have turned back when after lunch we were greeted by the grim sight of what looked like a body being carted down the slopes by porters. We later learned that, fortunately, it wasn’t a fatality but it kept the mind focussed. It wasn’t our first casualty of the day either. Lombok is utterly overrun with mangy, feral mongrels - they’re absolutely everywhere. Well, on our way out our driver inadvertently took one of them out - poor old Fido - and seemed no more put out than as if he’d swatted a mosquito. He did apologise to us however, which was nice.
Part II was a much more challenging part of the day. Bellies full from lunch we had 800m of almost vertical slopes to trek before we reached base camp. We zig-zagged our way through an endless series of twists and turns, the only direction being upward and absolutely no flat sections to catch your breath. What drove me on whenever I flagged was the sight of our porters - 5 of them - lugging our tents, food and water for the night ahead. Not only this but as we stumbled in our Berghaus or Hi-Tec Gore-Tex boots, they sashayed their way uphill in their flip-flops, each of them carrying 30kg on a well balanced bamboo pole on their shoulders. Humbling. My thought process as I stumbled behind them, trying to keep pace, sweat stinging my eyes was ‘You cannot be fucking tired.’ Our guide was Shugah and - get this - he does the trek twice a week in high season and has climbed to the summit more than 250 times and, believe me, has the calves to prove it.
Base camp (more of a Dutch colony actually with Dutch people everywhere) was at 2,639m. You’d imagine the porters would be resting up at this stage but instead they swung into action - pitching tents, lighting fires and preparing dinner. Somehow they managed to create a divine nasi goreng with chicken and the ubiquitous egg (more about the egg in another post sometime) though, truth be told, we’d have eaten roadkill at this stage (sorry Fido but it was a long day).
I’d dearly love to say that I slept restfully that night, the exertions of the day enabling me to shut off quickly, but I didn’t so I won’t. Fuck, it was cold in that tent, but on the bright side, we were due to get a wake up call at 2.30am to begin our final assault on the summit.
Day 2 began with a hot cup of tea - ok, several hot cups of tea - and we were underway by 3am, seemingly the last to leave base camp. The great thing about climbing a godly mountain at this ungodly hour was the absence of heat. In fact, it was cold as hell and about to get much, much colder. We trudged, heads down for a couple of hours but it felt pretty good. Of course we couldn’t see the summit at any stage which was a good thing because then you could convince yourself that it wasn’t all that far away. It was practically one-way traffic on the way up which led - irritatingly - to bottlenecks along the way. One older woman in particular - bless her - was struggling, as much with tying her laces as with the ascent - and, as the song goes, it’s hard to get by when your arse is the size of a small country. So we waited.
We rested one hour from the summit and I was physically unable to stop my teeth chattering what with a gale howling all around. Up to that point progress had been slow but steady but for the last 300m or so it became a hateful slog. We had reached the scree we’d been told about - three steps forward and two steps back - and it was exhausting. With each step on the shitty volcanic ash surface, you stumbled and when you stood still to get a grip again, you slipped backwards, ending up where you’d begun. The profanity count multiplied at this stage but it didn’t matter because with the gale howling in our ears, my curses were carried away on the breeze. This did help in some way though.
But finally at 6am we hauled our tired bodies on to the summit - 3,726m high - and the fatigue and profanities were instantly forgotten. The sun rose at just after 6.20am and was as stunning as you’d expect and in my head this played. With the first shards of light we were able to see the active part of the volcano itself which had hitherto remained shrouded in the night and the lake below it. I looked at the lake, thought about those goats and turned back to enjoy the sunrise.