Saturday, August 28, 2010


Written Monday, September 20, 2010.

After leaving Malaysia, we headed north toward Thailand.  It was my first overland border crossing in Asia, and it went really smoothly.  Some crossings, like Thailand into Cambodia, have a long-standing, well-deserved, terrible reputation for scams, bribery, long waits, and other travel hassles.  But Malaysia to Thailand was so easy!

We took an overnight train from Kuala Lumpur to Butterworth (still in Malaysia).  In Butterworth, we walked across the street from the train station to the bus station, where we got a ticket for a mini-bus bound for Hat Yai in Thailand.  At the border, we got out of the mini-bus, went through immigration (already had a tourist visa from Kuala Lumpur), and got back in the mini-bus.  In Hat Yai, we got some Thai baht out of an ATM and got onto another local mini-bus bound for Surat Thani.  By that evening, we were walking around Surat Thani, looking for a way to Koh Tao.  We bought tickets on the overnight ferry, and I slept like a baby in its mother's arms.  In the morning, we payed a small fortune for a pick-up truck to bring us from the ferry to a deserted bay on the far side of the island.  And what did we find there?

Totally worth the 36 hour journey.

There are so many beautiful tropical islands on this great dewdrop, but I've never had the pleasure of visiting one.  I'm so glad that we found ourselves on Koh Tao.  It was random, actually--I did a quick google search to find a place that wouldn't be terribly affected by the monsoon season.  Koh Tao, along with the more famous Koh Samui and Koh Phangan, are off the eastern coast of Thailand.  The full moon fell during our visit, so most of the backpackers left for Koh Phangan and the infamous Full Moon Party, so we had the place to ourselves.

The hiking was like the other hiking I've found in Malaysia and Indonesia.  The paths aren't very well marked, and no one really knows the way, but it was refreshing to wander in the woods for a day.

We also went climbing one day.  There is a local shop, "Goodtime Adventures," that rents out shoes, harnesses, draws, and ropes.  The gear seems to be ok quality, good enough that I felt safe using it.  According to Dave, some of the fixed anchors are suspect, core showing in static line (he brought this to the attention of the staff).  Lesson of the day:  know what you're doing.  This is why Davo built all our anchors.  :-D

The climbing is mostly granite slab.  There's just one technique:  SMEAR.  Seriously, there are no hands, and you don't need to think about any sequence.  Just slap your shoes on the super-rough granite and smear your way up the wall.  Toward the end of the day, I was getting the hang of it.  It was great to climb again, even for a day.  I've only climbed twice since leaving the United States.  It definitely made me think of my friends at home, and I was very thankful that the Gunks are only a 3.5 hour drive from Ithaca!

My other big adventure:  I went scuba diving!  This was pretty big for me.  Even though I used to like being in the water as a kid, I've gotten more nervous in the water as I've gotten older.  I get freaked out when I can't see what's underneath me, can't see my arms and legs in murky water...  basically, I'm afraid of sea monsters that might bite me in half.  :-)  As I stood on the edge of the dive boat and started panicking, I wasn't sure if I was going in the water at all.  I had to take off my fins and, with a white-knuckled grip, lower my self down a ladder.

Once I was in the water, it was great!  I had prescription goggles, so I could see everything.  The water was very clear, so no sea monsters could sneak up!  Plus, I had fins and was wearing a wetsuit, so I felt pretty well protected.

What a world, under the water...  just as there are so many insects, frogs, skinks, butterflies, birds, and all manner of critters in the forest, there are big and small fishes, sea slugs, prickly things, smooth things, skinny things, fat things, and every manner of critter under the waves.  I had never fully realized how much lives in the water!

Not only is there tons of wildlife in a reef, but the coral forms all manner of underwater shapes.  I imagine there must be entire mountains under the ocean.  I think of mountains all the time, but they usually have trees or snow on them.  Neat to think this exists under the sea (minus the snow).

Plus, scuba diving itself is really neat.  You can stay underwater for so long that you can really take the time to appreciate what's happening around you.

I probably won't dive again, but I'm really glad I did it once.  And that's what I can say about Koh Tao:  I'll probably spend a lot more time in the mountains than I'll ever spend on a tropical island, or even on a beach, but beaches and tropical islands are still quite nice.

Suggestions for visiting Koh Tao:

Monday, August 23, 2010

Yankee Girl in Muslim SE Asia

On Friday, I crossed the Malay-Thai border overland, ending two months of travel in predominantly Muslim Southeast Asia (Indonesia and Malaysia).

While the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan grind on, America is having a crisis of conscience and Constitution over the proposed mosque at Ground Zero. Muslim culture couldn't be more alien, frightening, or distasteful to a large percentage of Americans.

I said I would consider writing again if I had something interesting or meaningful to say. In this rather lengthy post, I'd like to share some of my thoughts and experiences as a Westerner in a Muslim culture. There is no substitute for getting on an airplane to live it yourself, but if you can't, the next best thing is hearing about it from someone who did.

From Ramadan McDonald's to my first copy of the Quran, this is a Yankee girl's experience of Islam in Southeast Asian.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Malaysia? What's in Malaysia?

Written September 22, 2010

I'll be honest:  the reason I ended up in Malaysia was because of a cheap flight.  Denpasar, Bali to Kuala Lumpur for about 100 greenbacks.  I needed to leave before my visa ran out, so I figured, "Why not?"

Malaysia was an interesting place.  Just like Singapore is the most un-Southeast Asian city in Southeast Asia, Malaysia is the most un-Southeast Asian country in Southeast Asia.

The standard of living is quite high; Wikipedia tells me that the per capita GDP is roughly USD$14,800, the only country in SE Asia to beat the global average of USD$10,500 (except Brunei, which beats even the United States).  And you can tell it's wealthy, too.  The public transit is clean, efficient, and relatively expensive.  People are well-educated; most speak at least two languages, as English is a compulsory subject in schools.  While I did see some people living on the streets in Kuala Lumpur, the city felt just as modern and clean as Singapore.

Malaysians are an interesting ethnic blend of Malay, Chinese, and Indian.  So even though Malaysia is an Islamic country, defined as such by the Malaysian constitution, there are significant minorities of Buddhists (~19%), Christians (~9%), and Hindus (~6%).  We were in Malaysia for the start of Ramadan, but it didn't affect our travel plans at all.  We simply ate in Indian or Chinese restaurants for breakfast and lunch.

We spent our time in three places:  Kuala Lumpur, Taman Negara National Park, and the Cameron Highlands.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Bali Highlights

Written September 22, 2010

Davo and I ended up staying two weeks on the island of Bali.  We considered leaving for another destination in Indonesia, talked about it, even made some tentative plans, but it never happened.  We ran into several ex-pats who were in a similar situation, except they ended up staying 5, 12, or 20 years.  We did escape, eventually.

Before this trip, when I thought of Bali, I thought of night clubs and bikinis.  Sure, you can go to Kuta, get shit-faced, and stay that way for a week.  It's Australian version of the Cancun spring break, and if that's what you're looking for, you'll be happy.  Unsurprisingly, we didn't go to Kuta at all.

We based ourselves in Ubud, the cultural capital of Bali, a place that seems to attract romantics, soul-searchers, and a lot of tourists.  If you've read Eat, Pray, Love, or seen the movie (which I haven't), Ubud is the place where the love part of the story happens.  It is a romantic place, the type of place that's made for honeymoons.  Or you can wear white linen shirts, open at the neck, and sip an organic latte while you wait for your yoga class.  It's the perfect place to write that novel you've been meaning to start, an ideal place to take a sabbatical, to sit around with a good book or to browse the myriad number of chic boutiques selling anything and everything with an "ethnic" flair, from stylish sundresses to faux antiques.

For me, Ubud was a great place to reflect on a lot of things.  It was quiet, yes, and touristy, yes, but it was a place where I could relax without spending physical and mental energy on being overheated, dirty, and stressed out, which pretty much sums up travel in the developing world.  Accommodation is cheap and plentiful.  Staying in a family compound is a great way to see the same faces again and again.  We stayed at Suartha's and Gusti's, and both were lovely.  There are plenty of people that speak English.  There are plenty of very nice places to eat, and even a few cheap and delicious mom n' pop places serving Balinese food.  This is a traveler/ tourist haven; you only need to show up.

The only tourist attraction in Ubud (actually, in Bali) that we visited is the Monkey Sanctuary in Ubud.  It's a nice walk in a green, shady part of the city.  Oh yeah, and there are tons of naughty, cheeky monkeys who will steal any food on your person/ in your bag and will do the freak-nasty in front of your ten year old daughter.  Very naughty, indeed.

The best parts of Bali, though, are outside the tourist centers.  Davo and I rented the crappiest car I've ever seen--seriously, the doors must have been made from aluminum foil, they were so thin--for three days in order to explore the countryside.  We drove up the east coast, across the northern coast, then came back through the mountains.  We passed little villages and rice paddies.  Everyone smiled at us.  It was very nice.

We also rented bicycles to explore the areas closer to Ubud.  While you can't see the lovely mountains, nor the beautiful beaches, it was a great way to see where the people who wash my clothes and serve my meals spend their lives.

We also rented motorbikes.  It was my first time riding a scooter, and it was AWESOME!  It was an automatic, so all I needed to do was ride.  I would definitely consider having a scooter (instead of a car?) in the United States, should I need a motor vehicle.  Seriously, who allowed this kook onto the roads?

The Balinese people are nice, as all people are.  Coming from Java, my impression is that the Balinese people aren't quite as outgoing and warm as the Javanese, who (unless they work in the tourist industry) immediately want to befriend you.

This island is predominantly Hindu, in contrast to the rest of Muslim Indonesia.  Religion is a part of everyday life here.  Balinese women make offerings every morning and again around 4 p.m.  On the sidewalk or at a doorway, they put out these little banana leaf and bamboo trays with flowers, bits of rice, and maybe a cracker.

I saw a really beautiful parade down the main street of Ubud, which was random and quite memorable.

There are dozens upon dozens of temples that permit visitors.  Unsurprisingly, the ones I enjoyed the most were the quietest ones that saw the fewest tourists.  They still felt like places of worship instead of roadside attractions.  Besides the formal temples, every family compound has a little shrine.

In my previous life in the United States, many people are religious, but I don't know many for whom religion is a daily or hourly fact of life.  I felt really privileged to observe these traditions in Bali, since they clearly mean something to the people here.

Monday, August 2, 2010


I got more response from my last post than I expected.  In retrospect, that post is the type of crazy, exploratory, off-the-cuff, stream of consciousness writing that I usually reserve for my personal journal.  If I had realized how many people read One Great Dewdrop, I would have put more effort toward clarity in my writing.

That's what follow-up posts are for.  :-)

Perhaps most importantly, I'm not depressed, nor am I discouraged.  Everything is exactly as it should be.  Which means I'm doing great!

I left the United States with a vague intention to chase the freedom that I felt while I was in Peru, "to have cultural experiences," and "to see the world."  Once I was out in this crazy, contradictory world, I learned that those reasons just aren't enough for me.  I am hoping to have experiences that are more meaningful and purposeful than 1.5 years worth of vacation snapshots.

As a result of our lack of planning and purpose, Dave and I found ourselves in Jakarta without a clue why we were there or what we wanted to experience in Indonesia.  So...  we bought a Lonely Planet guidebook to give us an idea of what was out there and how to access it.  *Gasp!*  We ended up spending most of our time on Java firmly entrenched in the tourist trail:  running from one photo opportunity to the next, visiting sites only because they were there and not because we had any real interest in exploring them, doing too much with not enough depth.  Let me tell you:  for me, this method of travel is misery!

Dave and I discussed points 2 and 3 around the time that I posted my last entry.  We reiterated that we wanted to focus on activities that we were really excited to do and to seek out experiences that we can only have outside the United States.  We reiterated that we are happier when we stay in one place for a while.  We reiterated that we are comfortable with the fact that we're going to "miss" sites and activities.  I don't want to do it all.  I want to do well whatever I do.

And now we have a general idea of where we will be and what we will be doing for the next few months!
...August:  peninsular Malaysia for hiking and trekking in highlands and jungles
...Early September:  southern Thailand for a 10-day meditation retreat and a week rock climbing
...Late September:  Cambodia to exploring Angkor Wat (it's crawling with tourists, but it's on my bucket list!)
...October and November and maybe part of December:  Nepal for more hiking and trekking

Regarding the fate of this blog, yes, most likely I will write again at some point (hey, I'm writing right now!).  Instead of reporting the useless, boring details of my days, I hope I will have something interesting, meaningful, or insightful to say.

In the meantime, I've got pictures to keep you entertained!  You should become a "fan" of my picasaweb site or subscribe to its RSS feed, so you'll know when I add new photographs.  I only post ~20% of the photos I take, but if that's still too many, I've started a "Greatest Hits" album of my favorites.  Here's the RSS feed.

Whoever and wherever you are, may you be well and happy.