A Travellerspoint blog

Michigan in Borneo?

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A short flight took me from Suyabaya in Java to Bajarmasin in South Kilimantan (Borneo). Being the largest city in Kilimantan, the third largest island in the world, Bajarmasin is criss crossed by a system of canals inhabited by residents on both sides, with 17 different ethnics. Along the urban developments like many modern cities, these inhabitants had been living for generations along Sungai Martapura and its tributaries. They live on these land for free but have to leave if government take the land for development.

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Daily life such as bathing and shopping involves around this river. You can find river cafes, ministore, mosholla (small mosques) along the canal and children jump in and out of river hitching a ride from cez (motorize canoes) passing by.
Every morning, there is a floating market where their river residents sell their produces and fruits in the traditional way. I met my guide at 5am, had breakfast at the river 'Starbuck' and made our way to the floating market. To my surprise, the presence of me and other local tourists did not seem to bother their traders a bit. It is also much less touristy and more peaceful than the floating market in Bangkok.

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After the floating market, we made our way to Palau Kembang where large tribes of long-tailed macaques congregate and reside close to a a Chinese temple. The dominant tribe stationed close to the pier in the morning where tourists get off and feed them with peanuts. The less dominant tribe come to the pier after the dominant retreat for the day.

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Located an hour out of town, Cempaka's diamond mines are owned by a handful of landowners and managed by a few decently-dressed men patrolling around large holes of muddy water 00105A.jpglocal diggers spend entire day in waist high water filtering wooden baskets of silt hoping to find tiny speck of the precious stones. These diggers are paid Rp 25000 ($2.5-3) per day and shared a tiny portion of the profits if a diamond is sold.

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During the multiple transit from colt (small and packed minibus) to small open trucks, my guide (ex-english teacher), Mukani, told me amazing stories about Australian and Arabic businessmen coming to Bajarmasin for cheap rough diamonds, ended up being cheated or mistrusted by the local people. We talked about health system and economy over mie goreng (fried noodle) at the local market after a long day.

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That night, a very strange thing happened. A cat that look exactly like my long time companion (only with very short tail), Michigan, appeared in the lobby of my hotel just when I was about to head back to the room for the night. Michigan had passed away 20 months ago. I could not help but gave her some affection. When I asked if she'd like to stay in my room, she followed me and we spent a cozy night together, with her never more than two feet from me. The next morning, she waited for me to bring sticky rice with fish. When she saw me packing, she slowly walked outside the room, disappearing from my sight, the same way she came into my life the night before.

Posted by shinenyc 22:58 Archived in Indonesia Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

Crater Trekking

sunny 30 °C
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A 13-hr minibus ride took me from Jogja to Probolingo. Of course, this include our bus breaking down. Luckily, our driver found a mechanic shop and found the parts he needs to fix the carburetor. We passed by many villages and towns in central and east Java. Since it is Saturday night, traffic was quite bad in some towns with families cars and motorbikes everywhere in a lively atmosphere. Because of all these, we arrived a few hours late at Probolingo, where we get another transfer to our hotels up on the mountain close to Gunung Bromo (~2300m). The French tourists impatiently complained about the delay and the dangerous driving practice of our excellent driver and demanded compensation. Without him, we probably would not even make it to Bromo for sunrise. It is completely normal for cars to pass others on the opposite side of the road here. Drivers here seldom honk except for signaling and gladly yield to one another during passing.

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Gunung Bromo is not the highest, but has the most dramatic scenery of all volcanos in Java. Crowds of tourists wake up before dawn and make their way up to a viewpoint for sunrise every morning. After only a few hours of sleep, I dragged myself out of bed and got into our Jeep. Within 30 minute, we were brought close of the summit of another mountain and was completely mesmerized by the most beautiful sunrise I had ever seen. Even more magnificent than Mt Sinai because of the surrounding volcanoes and sea of clouds.

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After sunrise, we were taken to the bottom of Bromo and had to walk on the sea of sand to the staircase led to the crater. The scenery here is equally breathtaking. Shadow of horses scattered among the foggy mist form a perfect picture. I slowly walked up to the crater while most others hired horses. A smoky crater reminds me how meniscus human being are. Longing to admire this natural power in its resting stage, I decided to trek around the enormous crater. It took me some time to follow the trail behind the crater to the lake and hilltop behind and another good hour to climb up and down along the narrow trail around crater edge. Without doubt, this experience is more satisfying than simply trekking up a volcano.

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After my adrenalin was gone, my body yearned for rest. I took a slow horse ride back to the simple hotel next to the volcano, had quick breakfast, showered, checked out and sat next to the horses to do some sketching before heading down the mountain back to Probolingo. Another bus to Surabaya where I would fly to Borneo, or Kilimantan early next morning.

Posted by shinenyc 08:28 Archived in Indonesia Tagged backpacking Comments (1)

The Best Coffee Culture

sunny 28 °C
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Although Indonesia is not as diverse as Malaysia or advance as Singapore. Nevertheless, it has a unique population with an older generation that is proud of and clanged to their history and a split younger generation that either embrace or silently revolting the conservative value of Islam in this society.

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I took a short flight and landed at the gateway city, Padang, on the island of Sumatra, from Singapore. Without much touristic attractions, I learn to best spend my time people-watching and visiting local markets. A friendly local took me on his motorbike to find a homestay/guesthouse when the airport shuttle dropped me off somewhere with no taxi in sight. I wasted no time to walk to the public park close by. Before sunset, children and family crowded the go carts and old video arcades corner while others practice football. Adults gather for volleyball and badminton. Being in the vicinity of families is comforting to me when I am traveling alone for a long time. There is also a very lively and crowded market with motorbikes and horses in between locals shopping everything from food to clothing. What a great way to be introduced to this unique culture. I had a traditional Indonesian dinner with over 10 single dishes with rice and tea for less than a dollar(us).

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The next morning, I took a local bus to a hilltop town called Bukittinggi, a popular local resort town. Coincide with the two-week Indonesia holidays, it took me a few tries to find a 1-star hotel. With cooler and dryer weather, it was a pleasure to walk around this beautiful town. After stopping by the panarama where rice fields populated in a deep canyon and a large tunnel city built by the Japanese during WWII, I headed to the local market for a local snack - satay on top of rice cake with peanut and curry sauce, then wandered around and watched local tourists and families enjoyed themselves in the large square in the lazy Saturday afternoon.

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A two-hour minibus ride took me back from Bukittingo to Padang where I would catch my next flight to Jakarta, the capital. From the train station there, I took an overnight train and headed straight to a medium city in central Java called Yogyakarta (Jogja). Arriving on a Saturday morning at 5 am during local holidays means virtually impossible to find accommodation. After walking around with my backpack for over an hour, I finally found a room to sleep.

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Since there are 57 universities in town with Jogja, it is the history, art and cultural soul of Indonesia. Galleries and cafes lined the busy streets next to local shops and restaurants. I felt in love with this rich and diverse atmosphere. History and modern society almost seem to exist in harmony in this quiet yet lively town. Unlike Vietnam, motorbike and motor cars share the streets with no honking. Traffic jam disappears before any agitation set in.

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The major tourist attraction here is the Borobudur Temple located about an hour ride north of Jogja. I took an hour of motorbike on winding roads through villages. Built about 1000 years old, it is a symmetrical structure carved with reliefs of stories of Javanese Buddhist lives. Local tourists carry umbrellas for the strong sun added touches of color to an otherwise monotone canvas of latticed stupas of headless Buddha on the six terraces. I reached my hand into the Buddha inside one of the lattice on the top terrace and made a wish.

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I visited the Mendut Temple close by which has a Buddha sitting on a chair, instead of the traditional crossed lotus position. Next, we rode to Gunung Merapi, an active volcano that erupted two years ago causing considerable damages to nearby villages and covered many ancient sites with dusts. Viewing the panorama from Kaliuburg only increase my thirst to hike up this magnificent volcano. While heading down the mountain, my motorbike driver stopped by a rusty house where groups of students stay for two months and work as volunteers to educate local villager handicraft, art, music or other fields of their discipline. It is a program that all university had to go through before graduation.

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The next morning, I visited an unusual place where most tourists rather stay away from – the hospital. The past few days, my arms and legs were bitten by insects and became very swollen. Instead of putting antibiotic cream, I decided to confirm with a doctor. The local hospital has a spacious waiting room with cafes and friendly staff registering each patient their information according to queue. Then we went up to a corner on the second floor especially for skin problems. I waited for a good 45-minute before seeing the doctor who confirm my suspicion and prescript me both stronger oral and exterior medication. I then went downstairs to pay for the doctor and administration fee (US$5), and medicine (US$25). After my bedbug episode in Malaysia’s jungle guesthouse two weeks ago, this is my second encounter to the blood-thirsty insects in this part of the world, targeting fresh and tasty tourist blood. It is just part of rough travel.

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Next I visited the local Bird Market, where not only all types of singing birds and pigeons are for sale, cages of lizards, monkeys, rabbits, even cats, snakes and bats are all over the floor. My heart became very heavy when I look into the eyes of these frightened and neglected animals. But this is also local culture and tradition that cannot simply be eliminated, even with authority and connection. I could not help but pray for the fate of these animals and hope they find a good owner.

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After the depressing stroll in the bird market, I passed by a Batik painter’s studio. Batik paintings, made with wax and special color chemical found mostly in nature, are famous in Java and sold all over the world. Batik artists acquire their skills over a lifetime. I sat down and talked to the artist for over an hour. While most paintings feature traditional patterns and subjects, more and more young artists use this traditional technique to express abstraction in the last 20 years, creating a large artistic community here. That night, I visited a neighborhood where families made sandals, handbag, and wallets for a living. Every Javanese welcome me with smiles and hospitality I could not find in large cities. That evening, I visited a couple who designed traditional Javanese dress. Of course, I took the opportunity to put on a wedding outfit and became a Javanese bride for a short time.

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On the next morning, I visited the sultan’s residence, Kranton, a small but elegant house for the 10th sultan and his family of five daughters. It also housed some of the international gifts and traditional batik from the beloved 9th sultan and his wives. Outside the palace, a very vocal prisoner gibbon was kept in a small cage inside a courtyard where the gift shop located.

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My day continued with a visit to the Hindi Temples at Prambanan. All the temples were built in the middle of the 9th century, around 50 years after Borobudur. With the main temples of Candi Shiva, Vishnu and Brahma and courtless smaller structure dedicated to even the vehicle cow Nandi, this complex looks surprising similar to Angkor Wat. Me and my driver, who happened to be also a history student, strolled thru the large complex, discussing colonial politics and modern Javanese religion. That evening, I enjoyed a wonderful performance at the open air theatre here for the love and war story of Rama and Sita, with live musicians, singers and the magnificent Candi Shiva in the backdrop.

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My last day in Yogya was spent in galleries. Among them is the famous Affandi Gallery in the outskirt of town. The eclectic complex includes his galleries, studio, residence, cafes. He and his wife were also buried among their beloved home and artwork. Affandi's work are mostly impressionism on portraits. His excellent use of colors reflect the atmosphere of the painting and mood of the artist at the same time.

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Then I visited the Clementi Art Gallery and a few other artist homes. Each with a unique style, it is a pleasure for me to be introduce into Javanese art. I love all of Jogja.

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Posted by shinenyc 09:03 Archived in Indonesia Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

Singapore - A Perfect Paint Job

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After saying goodbye to my many new friends in Malaysia, I took a comfortable night train from Jerantut to Singapore. My first impression of Singapore is not how clean the streets are, but how perfect each buildings in each complex are painted. With no water stain or minimum clothes hanging outside, every sight in the city looks like a brand new painting. No doubt about it, Singapore is definitely one of the most developed and efficient cities in the world. Given the relative small size, navigating through different neighborhoods and streets is almost painless.

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However, the mentality of its people is also somewhat very typical of big city, namely, 'we are better than the rest'. My Chinese Singapore taxi driver at the border asked me where I traveled before coming to Singapore. Before I finished telling him that I just traveled through Malaysia, he showed me a bitter face. Even my hostel owner kept telling me about how polluted Jakarta is. Although I don't think anywhere in this world is more merticulately crafted and better designed than Singapore, there is always a hidden egoism that I loathed when visiting large cities.

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My first visit upon arriving at my eclectic hostel situated at a residential complex is the Singapore Zoo. Truth to its fame, this cageless zoo is exceptionally well-designed and a great pleasure to visit. Each enclosure is designed to resemble the animal's natural habitat, down to the type of plant and soil. Visitor can walk into the kangaroo enclosure or tropical greenhouse and freely interact with its residents. Lemurs jumping on tree branches, bat flying and lizard patrolling less than a metre away. Even the Asian elephant show is narrated with educational and humorous lines that visitors come out with much more appreciation for these magnificent animals.

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The Night Safari, next to the zoo, is designed for visitors to see animal at night in their 'natural' habitat, allowing modern city people who cannot survive in the real jungle walk on paved concrete 'trails'. Compared to my jungle trekking experience in Bolivia and Malaysia, this night safari is a five-star establishment comes complete with mosquitoes, the only annoyance here.

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Sungai Brunei Wetland Reserve is my first destination on the next day. After having lunch next to a 5-feet monitor lizard, I started walking along the well-indicated trails along marshlands. A few herons, the beautifully-colored kingfishers, all type of lizards, even crabs are spotted in different locations. Crocodiles have been seen on some trails but luckily I did not encounter any, just a few more monitor lizards that run upon hearing my footstep.

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For a change after indulging myself in nature, I decided to head to Little India for dinner and walkaround. Compare to the rest of Singapore, Little India feels very lively. All of a sudden, heavy rain started pouring down. And of course, it is the day I took my rain coat out of my bag. So I, like many other, waited on the corner next to loud speakers blasting indian pop music for a good while before braving myself across the street to a vegetarian restaurant. After a cheap and delicious meal, I walked aimlessly into an eclectic indian creamery and had myself an expensive but unique indian ice cream topped with pistachio and other nuts.

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I decided to walk my dessert off by visiting the famous Sri Veeramakaliamman temple, dedicated to the Hindu Goddess Kali, the consort of Shiva, on Serangoon Road. The hindu figures outside this rather small but busy temple are detailed and lively, similar to the atmosphere inside. Streams of worshippers come into the main hall and get blessed by the holy water blessed by Kali's devotees.

Last but not least, I visited the national library, a modern architecture building, and ended my day on the busy Orchid street where shopping malls abound. Materialism still rules the majority.

Posted by shinenyc 09:50 Archived in Singapore Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

Up close and personal in the jungle

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I took a local bus from Jerantut to Kuala Tahan next morning. Ironically, the roads to Taman Negara, Malaysia's National Park, were lined with palm oil plantations. Oil is squeezed from the palm fruits and used for energy and many other products. Palm oil plantation owners are millionaires in the eyes of most local people.

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After checking in a private chalet, I crossed river Tembeling and stopped by the Department of Wildlife to register my stay. Then started to walk on the well-indicated trails to the popular attraction of the park, the Canopy Walkway. The park also built hides where people can stay over and watch animals at night. Walking on the canopy, I cannot help but compare it with the ziplines and treehouses high in the jungle from the Gibbon Experience in northern Laos.

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It took me almost 40 minutes to hike up Bukit Teresik (354m) where magnificent views of the jungle can be seen on the summit and 15 minutes to get the self-timer function of my new Canon G9 working. I laid down for a power nap and absorbed every bit of sound from the jungle residents. Once back down, another hour of trekking through mud and dense jungle took me to Limpon Simpon, an area where water was so clear that an utter welcomed me by showing off his swimming skill from far. Back to the resort, a family of wild hog ventured out for dinner.

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My night activity was river safari. Using a torch, my guide, spotted deers, owls and utters, in the dark canopy lighted up by a few fireflies here and there. 'Tigers had been spotted', he said, 'when they come out to the river for a drink, but very very rarely.'

Next morning, I visited Gua Telinga, a very narrow cave with a huge bat populations. Crawling with our hands and legs in bat dungs, we got up close and personal with these very cute mammals. Luckily, there were no snakes around.

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On our way back to the boat, we passed by an aborigine village, called Orang Asli, in Malay. These are subsistent people living in the jungle for hundreds of years. Although government nowaday give land and provide education to the children, many of them still lead a very simple life, except accepting income from the tourists. Back to Kuala Tahan, trying desperately to avoid the strong sun, I learned to play Camroon, the national game with wooden pegs played with fingers, with the local guides, until my fingers hurt.

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I woke up early to drizzles, anticipating the 2 day trekking on the Keniam Trail in the north of Taman Negara. My group includes people from America, France, Australia, Belgium and of course Holland. The trail was not difficult but very muddy. We slipped and slided our way through in many parts. Leeches took the opportunities for a buffet of tourists' fresh blood donation. Never sweat so much in my life, I was constantly soaked over the 5 hours trek (8 km)on the first day, until a highly anticipated wash in a small stream close to a large cave where we stayed overnight. Needless to say, most of us were exhausted and choked down the delicious chicken curry, mackerel soup and rice prepared by our guides. I slept away in Bob Marley's music, dreaming about seeing wild elephants that night since there were lots of elephant dungs at the entrance of the cave.

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Suddenly, pots and pans were falling on the ground. In the middle of the night, a civet cat sneaked into our cave noisily and finished our leftover rice in the pot. The thief were not shy at all. He kept eating on its 'stage' with spotlight shining on him, then slowing walked away after 5 minute pretending nothing had ever happened although everyone was woken up by his noisy intrusion.

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Waking up in natural cave was refreshening, although my back need a little adjusting afterward. We had toasts with jams and coconut butter, milo and nescafe for breakfast and headed out for another day of trekking in the jungle. The trail today involved more ups and downs but was equally muddy. We carefully jumped through old tree roots, dense vegetations, fallen tree trucks and shallow streams. After another 8 km, we are all relieved at the sight of our destination and the sound of our pickup boat. All I want was a cold shower.

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Posted by shinenyc 23:55 Archived in Malaysia Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

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