Monday, July 5, 2010

Last Blog

Happy 4th of July!

I hope you are all full on burgers, brats, hot dogs, and shandy. I hope the fireworks you saw were spectacular, and the time you spent with your families precious.

I am looking forward to coming home to my own family, which, I know, have been holding their breath since I took off for Malaysia back in May.

Where have I been for the past week? Paradise. The minute I landed from Cambodia into Kuala Lumpur, I jetted straight to the bus station and managed to show up 5 minutes before the night bus to the Perhentian Islands left. The Perhentians are two islands with not much on it but snow-white sand and a couple of shacks serving pricey food and a place to sleep. I've been sleeping in a freezer- literally. It has air conditioning (which I've grown unaccustomed to) and the walls are made up of scraps of metal. But the ocean is unbelievable. Not too hot, not too cold. Just right for a dip after sunbathing all morning. In the afternoons I walk to the North end of the beach where there is fantastic snorkeling-right off the shore! No boat necessary! The water is so clear that I can see sea turtles on the bottom. Sea turtles! I am in Nemo heaven. At night the sky is crowded with stars since there is hardly any light pollution.

I took a snorkelling trip with 3 strappy lads from England (that is my attempt to speak their lingo) and we had an amazing time chasing sharks, sea turtles, parrot fish, and barracudas. The next morning I went diving. As most of you know, I am terrified of open water and nearly had an episode since this morning was particularly choppy. The waves were rough and I had to back roll into the water. As I was being tossed around, my bubble of anxiety clung to my head like plastic wrap, and I felt myself begin to hyperventilate. "I'm going to die I'm going to die I can't I can't I can't I can't" was going through my head a mile a minute. Everyone started descending as I fumbled around, forgetting everything I knew about diving (which one is inflate? which one is deflate?) until I took a deep breath and went under, where the water was 10 times more calm, and the coral full of life was waiting below us. It was like I was on Discovery channel- or in Finding Nemo- either one, I was blissfully happy. I saw stingrays, puffer fish, and bamboo sharks. A turtle dubbed 'Tripod' (it's missing a flipper) swam around us, and for 62 minutes, all was right in the world.

For Independence day, I didn't do anything too special. I looked at the stars while my English friends made firework-like sounds ("Happy 5th of July, Belinda!) and I cherished every moment of my laziness this past week, so grateful that I returned to Malaysia early and chose this sliver of paradise as my last destination. But there's only so much lying around I could do without feeling my energy and muscles drifting away, melting into the sand and being absorbed by the teal waters. (At this point, I had received an email from Planet Spirit All Stars reminding me that I am not yet a retired athlete, and I need to whip my ass into shape the minute I get home).

Currently, I am waiting for the night bus back to Kuala Lumpur, where Afiqah is waiting to pick me up and enjoy one last day in Malaysia before my long flight back to the states. Lucky for me, my godmother will be waiting in Hong Kong to keep me company for the 4 hour layover I have. I am looking forward to seeing her even though in Chinese standards, I am atrociously tan.

Well, this is it! Last blog. I hope you enjoyed it! I can't wait to talk to you all in person. I lost my cell phone somewhere between Malaysia and Thailand so I'm apologizing right now for not having your number anymore.

Enjoy the rest of summer :) Terimah Kasih (Thank you)!

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Oh My Buddha! Time to Go Already?

I have a feeling this is going to be a long blog. I have been taking many bus rides, which gives me time to think, and therefore I must write.

Travelling in Southeast Asia is really a huge test of your patience. If you are on a long distance bus, they stop every 10 kilometers to pick someone up along the way. They blast Malaysian/Thai/Cambodian karaoke music (which isn't good), and they stop frequently at rest stops. They pack people in on minivans until you can't breathe. They honk their horns every 2 seconds to caution fellow vehicles "Hey! Huge bus coming through on the wrong side of the road!" And when you are not travelling and you are finally at a destination where you think you can relax, tuk tuk and motorbike drivers aggressively hassle you to see if you need a ride 100 meters down the road. Try and say No, and they hassle you even more. If you pretend that you don't notice them, they clap their hands to try and get your attention. If you don't answer to "tuk tuk?" it turns into, "marijuana?"And then if you don't buy anything from the people who are offering manicures, massages, bracelets, and food on the beach, they get angry.

There's a saying in Southeast Asia: "Same same, but different." For example, if I asked what the difference between to the Khmer dishes of Chicken Lok Lak and Chicken Awok is, a local will answer, "both are chicken. Same same, but different". I mostly get this about my origin. All through my journey in Malaysia, Thailand, and Cambodia, about 15 times a day (no joke), a local will ask me, "Where are you from?"When I tell them America, they just laugh and say "No, you look Malaysian/Thai/Cambodian". Oh really? (Their eyebrows furrow in confusion) "Yes, same same, but different".

So it's no surprise that when I try distinguishing the countries that I've been to in my head, it's hard not to sum up that they are "same same, but different". It wasn't until I was on the back of a motorbike in Phnom Penh did I finally start opening my eyes to Cambodia. While at a stoplight, I noticed that the motorbike in front of me was carrying what seemed to me like 20 dead chickens hung by their legs upside down on each side of the bike. To my horror, one of the chickens perked its head up and looked at me, as if to say, "How's it going?" in such a calm fashion. But since then I've noticed many distinguishing characteristics of Cambodia compared to Malaysia and Thailand. First of all, it is a very, very, poor country. The roads are covered in dust that left your skin feeling gritty. There are only a handful of paved roads in this country- but that does NOT mean travelling is smooth sailing. Cows roam around like deer- even in major cities. A typical Cambodian house are made of slabs of wood and dried palms slapped together and balanced on 4 rickity wooden stilts. Beggars missing limbs from the leftover landmines painfully drag themselves through the sand, asking for money. Kids cling to your arms begging for "Just one dollar". I almost threw up when a ten-year-old told me he would give me "boom boom"for one dollar.

It was to my great relief that when I arrived in Kampot, no one aggressively greeted me with, "tuk tuk? motorbike?" There are not many tourists here, so the local Kampot residents stare at you with mild curiosity, and the children excitedly chase after your motorbike waving spastically and shouting "hello! hello!" No one is trying to sell me something! There are still touristy things to see here though. Boker National Park is famous for the eerie ghosttown on top of the mountain where a hill station was used for both the war against the French and the war against the Khmer Rouge. Mist hovers above the ground, and when the wind blows through the bullet holes in the walls, it sounds like a ghost howling. Unfortunately, the natural beauty if destroyed by the sounds of bulldozers and construction tearing up the jungle to make way for the 300 room hotel they are building on top. It's going to take 15 years to finish, so hurry up and visit Cambodia before then.

Today I took a trip into the countryside to visit some limestone caves. A bunch of perky kids greeted me at the entrance and offered to be my guide. A 15-year-old guided me through the cave, pointing out limestone formations that resembled a calf's head and a giant elephant. I wish I could show you but once again I have not brought my camera cable to the internet cafe. Then he takes off his shoes and points to this extremely small opening in the cave and says, "we climb in?"Umm....Can I fit? Apparently so. I put on my head light (thank goodness I bought one) and follow this tiny boy as he folds himself inside and contorts his body to squeeze through several openings until finally we come to an opening with shimmering limestone stalactites/mites. Holy cow! Afterward, I visited a less impressive cave where the main feature was the "bat cave" which just made me feel uneasy the whole time we were inside. Kampot is known for its pepper plantations, so I stopped by one to finally see how pepper grows. The lady excitedly grabbed a fistful of peppers for me to pop into my mouth. This woman had a fabulous smile, so how was I supposed to say no? Reluctantly I chewed on a handful of pepper balls and smiled as my eyes teared from the spice. I politely swallowed, and then quickly grabbed for my water...

On the way home, my motorbike driver, Mr. Sok which means "Mr. Happy"in Khmer, told me that it was my turn to drive the motorbike. Oh geez, I didn't think it would go well, but I got the hang of it quickly since we were on a really straight road. This is probably my most memorable image of Cambodia. The color of the grass was so vivid since it contrasted with the rust-colored dirt road and the blue sky. If I looked beyond the farms, I could see turquoise waters and Vietnam in the backdrop. I know I sound like a guidebook but it truly was stunning. Afterward, I walked around town mainly to find a seamstress who could sew my cloth purse (this is the 4th time the straps broke) and I met Sarad who magically took out a needle and thread out of his pocket. He gave it to me, and watched impatiently as I fumbled to sew up my bag. Finally he just grabbed it and did it himself. I told him I wanted to go to a market to buy some fruit and he gave me a ride to the town's market. In Cambodia, they don't shop in grocery stores. Their markets are outdoors with vegetable, seafood, meat, and fruit stands. I held my breath and walked into the market looking for a fruit stall. I bought half a kilo of rambutans (lychee-tasting fruit, but with soft spikes covering the shell) which cost me 800 riel (15 cents). I gave her 50 cents, and she laughed and said, "Too much! Wow, that would be really expensive". Obviously she hasn't been to Phnom Penh where I got half a kilo of rambutans for 75 cents.

Did I mention that the residents of Kampot have impeccable English? My theory is that instead of trying to sell postcards and bracelets to tourists, the kids actually go to school here. I was really impressed.

Ok, you have probably stopped reading at this point. This is what happens when I don't write often. Well, if you're still listening, can you help me? How am I supposed to celebrate Independence Day here?

Sunday, June 20, 2010

The Kingdom of Cambodia

What are my first thoughts of Cambodia? Well, the country STINKS. As in, every direction I turn my head I am overwhelmed by a stench similar to rotting meat. On my third day I came face to face with the culprit- inside of my spring roll. It is a vegetable that is very prominent in Cambodia. I immediately caught the waiter's attention, had him write the name of the vegetable down in the Khmer language, and now use it to make sure I never encounter the smelly thing again in a meal.

Other than that, Cambodia is a culture-enriched country, dusting itself off after a dark era of war and terror (which some may argue that the US is slightly to blame for). I roamed the streets of the country's capital, Phnom Penh, learning much about the country's history in the National Museum as well as the grim S-21 prison where they tortured and killed thousands of Khmer people. On the way back to my $2 a night hostel, I stopped at an air conditioned shopping center for some fro-yo and alas! Bubble Tea! The bubbles were 1/3 the size of American bubble tea but then again it was 1/3 the price...

Yesterday I arrived in Siem Reap, where the infamous Angkor Wat is located. Angkor is an ancient kingdom that produced some extremely impressive temples that are still standing today. I caught the sunset on time on top of the oldest temple (along with a gazillion number of other tourists), and then woke up at 4:30 AM to catch the sunrise today. The sunrise was absolutely stunning, and the three main temples I saw today were just as beautiful. By noon I was dragging my feet and felt pretty templed out.

I have a mission tonight: get back the $50 the keniving sales lady at the night market last night took from me. Cambodia finds it is more beneficial to use American dollars, so naturally the ATM spits out $50 dollar bills. Unfortunately for me, 2 of the bills stuck together when I was shopping last night. The lady spent a long time looking at the bill(s), where I thought she was examining to see if it was real. Then without a word she gave me change for 1 $50 bill without mentioning the other one. I am 98% sure that I gave her 2 because it was the only time I took my money out and according to my budget I am missing $50. The lady who works at my hostel said that she would go with me to the market together to see if the lady will be sympathetic with a native explaining the situation. Cross your fingers, cuz $50 can take me a long way in my trip.

Either way, tomorrow I am heading to a beach town (again) called Sihanoukville. I am not looking forward to the bus ride if it was anything like the one from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap. Every 2 miles we stopped, picked someone up, stopped, dropped someone off, all the while non stop honking the horn for 6 incredible hours. Not to mention the rock star baby screaming its head off behind me.

2 1/2 more weeks to go. Happy Father's day!

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Last Days in Thailand

Sawadee Kha (Hello)!!

I am sad that today was my last day in Thailand, but tomorrow I start my journey to Cambodia. I haven't even got a guide book yet, so I hope I stay awake during the flight to read up on what lies ahead of me!

Since the rainforest, I've been to a couple of islands on the east side of Thailand, safely escaping the monsoons of the west. Even though I wasn't a huge fan of Koh Pha-ngan's party atmostphere, the beach there was beautiful. The sand is powder soft and the water is crystal clear. I intended on taking a tour of the island, but sadly I took my own advice from my last blog and ate a burger, got really really sick, and just laid on the beach the whole time I was there. It was a treacherous couple of days between the rolling black outs and the intense pain in my stomach, but it was bound to happen sooner or later, and I've learned my lesson of staying away from western food for a while. As for the black outs, they sucked because the island would be pitch black for hours, but the amount of stars in the sky was amazing.

I headed to Koh Tao afterward which is known as the diving island of Thailand. Still too sick/weak to walk, I let some hotel hawker usher me to the first diving resort on the island called Crystal Dive, and I meekly agreed to dive only to receive the discount on the room. This island was ridiculous- if you didn't dive, you had to pay 4 times the amount for the same shitty room. Needless to say, the whole thing was so sketchy and in the end me and the girl I was rooming with got ripped off. I exchanged a few heated words with the guy, who got extremely flustered, and I couldn't wait to get off the island.

On a better note, I successfully survived my first dive in the ocean! Gosh, it was amazing. I was extremely apprehensive in the begginning, but Koh Tao was the perfect place to have the first dive- the South China Sea is eerily calm to the point where the surface looks glazed over. Visibility is 15-20 meters (as opposed to 0 meters in Lake Monona) and the water temperature was like 80 something degrees! I saw Nemos, angel fish, a sting ray, sea cucumbers, etc. Everywhere I looked fish surrounded me and I felt like I was in the middle of those Discovery Channel shows. I loved it and I can't wait to dive again.

Yesterday I had to kill the whole day until I took a night boat to Krabi (I'll explain later). I hitched a ride to a remote part of the island and basically had the beach all to myself. It was quite an uneventful day except when this bird attacked me- literally! I was standing on some rocks taking a picture and all of a sudden I hear "SQUUUUUUUUUACK" and then something soft but solid slammed into my head. I stood there in confusion until I heard "SQUAAAACK" again and the bird dove really close to my head. It continued to do so as I scrambled off the rocks- which I assume is where its nest is located. Geez, I was so alarmed that I moved to another beach- which was even more empty than the first. The thing about Koh Tao is that the dive sites are beautiful, but apart from diving the island doesn't offer much. During the day NO ONE is on the island because they're out diving- and all businesses have at least one westerner as the owner. Basically, Koh Tao is such a western community that if you arrived blindfolded you wouldn't have guessed that you were in Asia.

When 9 PM finally arrived, I hopped on a night boat- basically it is a boat with a giant mattress in it where everyone is designated a sliver of space to sleep on. There was no room for personal space whatsover, so between the guy kneeing me in the back on one side and having the other guy shoving his feet onto my space the whole time, I didn't sleep too soundly. I arrrived to Krabi this morning and since there is nothing to do in the town itself, I headed to a nearby beach and hey! why the heck not- got my first Thai massage. It cost me under 5 bucks and 3 mosquito bites and it was well worth it!

Tomorrow I am heading to the airport, and sadly it is only 7:30 PM and I can't stop yawning. Surprisingly, the hostel I am staying at tonight is my favorite hostel so far. It is painted and decorated as if it was Santorini, Greece. Not to get ahead of myself or anything, but it got me excited for a future trip to Greece...

Now do me a favor and drink a Shandy for me. I'm halfway into my trip already and it won't be long til I will join you for one!

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Mission Accomplished

I did it. I found Nemo! 3 of them actually, as well as some parrotfish, angel fish, and a bunch I can't name. I had went snorkeling in Koh Phi Phi about 3 days ago- or was it 4? or 5? I can't tell the days apart anymore.
In addition to snorkeling our boat took us to Monkey Beach. It was all fun and games until a monkey charged at me and began to climb my leg. I screamed my head off and shook him free. As far as I could tell, the monkey wasn't rabid/foaming at the mouth but I definitely concluded that monkeys are to be admired from a distance. Thankfully we didn't stay long, and we headed to Maya Beach, where they had filmed the movie 'The Beach' with Leo DeCaprio in it. I'm gonna have to go home and watch that movie now...

Moving on, I left Phi Phi (which was Spring Break central) and I intended on heading to a more isolated beach called Railey which is tucked away behind large limestone structures jutting out of the ocean. Unfortunately, they weren't kidding about monsoon season being as monsoon-y as imagined. I had to stay on the mainland and try to hitch a day boat to Railey, in which we had to attack the ginourmous waves and slosh our way to the island in the torrential rain. Soaked to the bones, all I wanted to do was lay on the beach, but I remembered that I only had a few hours to complete my goal of being on Railey: to rock climb those limestone karsts. It was challenging, and in the end my arms were so weak I couldn't write. But the views up top were well worth it, and by that time there were blue skies and calm, crystal clear water- as if the storm never had happened. I sucessfully headed back to the mainland where I had found a super awesome place to stay. For less than 10 dollars, I got a motel-like room with bed-bugless sheets, my own bathroom with HOT water, a mini fridge, and a TV! Luxury at its finest on my budget.

So now that we're caught up, I am currently in Khao Sok National Park- one of the world's oldest rainforests. It is such a ghost town here that most shops are closed. If you look up this rainforest online, you get to see beautiful pictures of lakes, waterfalls, and elephant trekking- all of which I didn't get to do because of lack of money. Luckily I made friends with some local Thai people who also acted as tour guides, and I "coincidentally" bumped into him as he led a tour for some Dutch couples on the trail, and I tagged along watching him magically snatch up lizards that seemed invisible to foreignors. To get a tour guide, you would have to pay 5 times the amount of entering the park alone. So to help me out, he told me what time he was leaving, and I bought my student ticket at the entrance and followed him as my unofficial guide. It's been nice to get away from the beaches for a bit and see a little more of what Thailand has to offer, but I'm getting terribly lonely and am looking forward to heading to Koh Pha-Ngan tomorrow where the infamous full moon parties are held (don't worry- the next one isn't until June 26th). Look it up on wikipedia if you don't know what I'm talking about- basically it's like Mifflin but worse.

I have one more night to endure in my rinkydink shack of a room in which it is so poorly built that there are 1 inch cracks between the floor boards. 24/7 mosquito repellent is a must, although I still got 15 new bites despite the amount of repellent I've doused myself in. Last night I was scared shitless when I heard creaking on my porch and scratching at the door. Was it a bear? A tiger? Nope, it was the neighborhood dog. But I slept with the lights on anyway.

I wish I could share some pictures but everytime I go online I forget to bring the cable to connect my camera with the computer. But hopefully you can only imagine the stuff I'm describing...

Until next time, eat a burger for me please!

Thursday, June 3, 2010

And Here Goes the Start of my Beach Bumming

Greetings from Thailand! Sorry I've been MIA- getting my lazy ass off the beach was hard to do the past couple of days. I reached my first beach in Malaysia 4 days ago in the island of Langkawi. I met great people- most who were from England enjoying their 'gap' year between college (aka high school) and university. There's no way in HELL I would have been able to travel alone back then! I spent a lot of time on the beach, and during the torrential 1-hr rain storms I would enjoy great seafood. 2 days ago I went on what I thought would be an easy bike ride to a beach 8 miles north of the one I was staying at. Unfortunately, the bike had no gears so when the road started twisting and turning uphill it was HORRIBLE. The sun was beating down, and then it poured, and then the sun beat down yet again. I motivated myself by picturing this beautiful, isolated beach in my head. But then I reached it, and it was trashy. Oh well, all I cared about at that point was resting my beaten body. After a while I realized there was no way I could repeat the trip back and pleaded a taxi to bring me and my bike back to my hostel.
After a gruesome 12 hour journey by ferry and bus yesterday, I am now in Phuket, Thailand- a tourist haven. This town has gotten so big that there are absolutely no backpackers here- only families and older couples. I was a bit scared because the language here is so different and I have gotten so lazy in planning ahead that I hopped off the bus with not much of an idea of where to go. I dropped the name of the only beach I remembered in Phuket called Kata Beach- and away I went on a moped taxi. I haven't been on a moped since Vietnam and I forgot how thrilling it is to zip through town on one. Kata Beach is beautiful- the waters are much clearer than Langkawi's. I was walking around last night and all of a sudden something was poking me and I realized it was a trunk....of a baby elephant! Gah! What I thought was a statue was actually a live elephant, and his trunk sniffed around my hands for bananas. I would have taken a picture of it if it didn't cost money.
Tomorrow I'm headed off to Ko Phi Phi- one of Thailand's most popular islands. Since I arrived in Thailand by boat, I only have 2 weeks before getting kicked out. So I am literally island hopping for the 2 weeks. Hopefully I'll do some snorkeling and if I'm even more brave- some scuba diving!

Friday, May 28, 2010

Cameron Highlands and some Penang

The last 2 days have been such a relief from the muggy weather. Cameron Highlands was such a tranquil place to be. Although there might not be much to do up there, I can see why backpackers end up staying a few weeks before they up and leave. In a half a day, I toured a butterfly farm, tea plantation, honeybee farm, strawberry farm, and rose garden. It sounds better than it actually was- half the butterflies in the butterfly garden were dead. Not to mention that it also had this mini zoo with snakes, spiders, and other weird insects- 50% of them were dead in their tanks, which the other 50% were...missing. It was a sunny day so we were warned at the honeybee farm that the bees were particularly active today. I took one look at the swarms of bees flying about in the garden and went straight back to the bus. But the tea plantation was excellent, and so serene. Here's a look from their cafe:

After the tour, I decided to go on a what Lonelyplanet called a "easy and quick hike"- it was supposed to take me past a waterfall and then back to a main road within an hour. Well, 2 hours later, I was still trekking through the jungly mountainside and the sun was threatening to set. I was grateful for my two adorable tourguides despite the fact that they knew no english:

Finally, my two local friends (ages 10 and 11) drew the line and decided to turn back. Shortly after I crossed paths with a Chinese Malaysian family where the lady exclaimed, "You're the young girl the other hikers were mentioning. Come, we were all so worried!" Apparently a few hikers I've passed on the trail mentioned that a young girl was walking by herself and someone needed to find her. Well, now that I was found, we were all quite lost since backtracking would take too long and we wouldn't make it out of the jungle before dark. So, we scooted our way down the mountain to a farm and found the main road. The family phoned to have another family member to pick us up. It took a half hour to drive back up, and at that point, the family was nice enough to invite me to dinner! I have concluded that Malaysians are super nice.

After a long needed shower, I joined fellow guests at the hostel's bonfire where stories were exchanged and guitars were being strummed. The fun quickly faded away when my nickname changed from "China Girl" to "Stupid American" so I headed to bed. Most of it was in good fun, but there were some serious problems when I couldn't name the neighboring states of Austria or describe what a weinershnitzal was. One guy from the UK only addressed me once to say, "Only 20% of Americans own a passport and 60% can't locate the US on a world map" and then he turned around to talk to the Germans. And I thought New Yorkers were mean.

I headed out early today and am now in Georgetown- a quirky town that comes to life at night on the island of Penang. My spanish is being tested to the max since the only other travellers on the bus were two friends from the North of Spain. We toured the city together when we arrived, only to bump into someone they knew (who was also from Spain) who invited us to his Flamenco performance at the ritziest hotel on the island. The hotel was charging $100 USD per guest to attend this dinner + flamenco event, but Raul (the guitarist) led us in and told the hotel attendants that we were his photographers (Sabil had his fancy camera with him) and we got front row. Not to mention free (and wonderful) food afterward. The spanish chattering was getting to be too much for me at the end of the night so I opted to leave early- only to have them fret over my safety to get back to the hostel. In conclusion, I was carted away on a trishaw (a bicycle like thing with a passenger seat in front) and was either ridiculed or, ridiculed by everyone we passed by.

The past 2 days have been so quirky that I jumped off the trishaw and came straight to my blog to write. I hope you are all amused and I would write more but the man in charge of the internet usage is staring me down and waiting for me to finish. Until next time, eat some cheese for me please- I'm beginning to miss it!