Medan to Nias

Thankfully I woke up the morning of my flight to Nias feeling MUCH better than the day before. I still had lingering effects of the food poisoning, but I am able to eat a little food and don’t have the constant feeling like I am on the verge of puking. Getting from my hotel in Medan to the airport is one of the easiest sections of transport I will likely find anywhere during my stay in Indonesia. The train station is in the same building as my hotel, so all I have to do is walk downstairs and board a train that runs directly to the airport in 30 minutes. 

As soon as I get to the airport, the fact that Nias is frequented mostly by surfers is made immediately clear. In line to check in are a bunch of locals and then several groups of guys with their huge surfboard bags. One duo (from Brazil) is having some issue with check in. I couldn’t hear the actual conversation, but based on what was happening it seemed like an argument over the cost of checking their massive board bags. The locals chat me up as per usual. One of the kids said “you are very handsome,” which is either becoming a common courtesy or I am truly an attractive male to these Indos. 

The plane turned out to be dual propeller and fairly small, so extra bag fees made sense on this puddle jumper. Along with me on the plane were a few Germans, a trio of Aussies, and the two Brazilians having issues with check in earlier to go with the rest of the plane filled with Indonesians. There were only two seats on each side of the aisle, and as luck would have it I got a window. Being able to see Sumatra from the air was going to be a treat. 

Twin Prop puddle jumper. 

The window seat ended up being a bigger treat than I could have anticipated. The plane flew almost directly over an active volcano- Mount Cinabung (no relation to Cinabun that I am aware of). It is not a “spewing hot, red lava” type active volcano. There was a huge amount of steam and smoke coming out of the top, which was amazing to see from the air. I tried my best to get some pictures, but the condensation on the airplane windows blocked any attempts to get a good shot. 

The 50 minute flight was over in a flash. After getting used to 5 hour drives, an hour flight is nothing. The Gunung Stoli airport in Nias is tiny- just a single room. I meet the driver who was going to take me to the home stay I had booked in Sorake Beach. Little did I know that this would be a $40 cab ride- another one of those “nothing is ever explained” issues of the third world. It was booked from my home stay in Nias, and I thought they had arranged for my ride as part of staying there. Turns out that was definitely not the case. $40 is definitely a heavily tourist taxed price, since I could have paid $25 for the 6 hour drive from Medan to Lake Toba. If I would have known the entire fare would be on my tab, I would have at least tried to split the car with more people. Oh well- what was I going to do. The $40 is annoying, but hardly bank breaking. I just know it is hugely inflated for MR TOURIST MAN. There is NO WAY any locals would even pay one quarter of that for the same ride. 

V'cano. 

The highlight of the car ride was after we picked up another passenger. In what has become standard over here, the driver takes about 10 phone calls and can’t find the person he is supposed to pick up. At one point my driver put the car in reverse and just went backwards down the road for at least a half mile. I had no fucking clue what was going on, besides the fact that we were just backing up on the wrong side of the road. No big whoop over here- just slam the car in reverse until you get to where you want. We finally found our fellow passengers- a woman and her 15 month old baby girl. 

Roughly half way into the drive to my home stay, the I hear the woman say “Mister, mister” and handing her baby to me. I thought maybe the kid wanted to sit in the front seat with me? Uh, no. The mom was giving me her sleeping child because the mom had to puke. The woman had gotten car sick, unbeknownst to me, and needed to hand off her child ASAP. Thankfully the kid was sleeping because I don’t know how jazzed she would be sitting in the front seat with MR TOURIST MAN. So there I was- holding a random sleeping baby in my arms while the mom pukes in the back as we bounce down a two lane road in Nias. This was an hour after flying in a dual prop plane over an active volcano. At a minimum, adventure for the day has been accomplished. 

My home stay/ “surf camp” is by far the most basic (read: shitty) place I have stayed in during my trip. It is $35 a night which also includes 3 meals a day, coffee and water, which is far from expensive but not cheap for this part of the world either. The room has AC, but the amenities end there. There is a bed, a desk and bathroom but the bathroom doesn’t even have a proper sink and the toilet doesn’t actually flush. It has what I would call an Asian sink- a huge bucket with a faucet and a small pail to dump water. For anyone who has visited this part of the world, this would be a familiar sight. To “flush” you fill up the pail of water and pour it into the toilet until whatever contents you want flushed are gone. To shave, I held the pail in my hand to clean off the razor. The bed doesn’t have anything but a bottom sheet and two pillows. As basic as it gets, but that’s ok. On the plus side, the food has been great. Often the meals are WAY too big for me to finish. Last night’s dinner was an entire BBQ fish, salad and huge portion of rice. I ate about half of it. Having food poisoning a few days ago probably doesn’t help my with appetite. The location is also amazing- directly on the beach overlooking the ocean. There are far worse places to enjoy breakfast than a balcony with nothing to see but the ocean and waves. 

Decent view. 

The home stay is also the first place on this trip without any internet whatsoever. Which means I had the privilege of going to an internet cafe for the first time since… 1999? I wanted to catch the end of the Heat/ Pacers game, so I borrowed a scooter from the owner of the home stay and made my way in the rain to the local internet cafe. Of course I got a bit lost, so I showed up soaking wet to internet land. I did in fact get to watch the end of the Heat game (they crushed the Pacers to go to their 4th NBA Finals in 4 years). It was very weird to be in an internet cafe to browse the world wide internet tubes, but it fits well with the vibe of Nias which feels like 1999. 

I have the entire home stay to myself- at least the portion sectioned off for tourists. The owner and his family live in a separate (and much nicer) house about 30 yards away. My first night the trio of Aussies who were on my flight stayed here, but ultimately decided to be closer to the surf break. That was a great decision for me, as having three loud 23 year old Australians around every night was not ideal. Now I get my own personal fortress of solitude. Anyone that knows surfers knows that pretty much all they talk about is surfing. 99% of the conversation involves surfing- how the surf was that day, what tomorrow’s swell should be like, what time they are going to go out, more talk about the surf today, some talk about the other surfers in the water, comparing this break to other places they have been, and so on. I understand being so passionate about something, but I don’t share the same passion for surfing so I don’t like to talk about it ALL THE TIME. 

The locals in Nias, while still friendly, definitely don’t have the same attitude as the people in Lake Toba. I am not sure if the people in Nias have gotten jaded by all of the surfer tourists coming and visiting them, or if they naturally aren’t as friendly. While in Toba, I can’t remember any local asking me for a thing. They just smiled, waved, said hello, and laughed. Here, people openly ask for money. Today alone, at least 4 kids have asked me “you give me money?” After the kids ask for money they say “Please. Pleeease. Please, mister!” EVERYONE is trying to sell something. The kids are selling fruit and the adults are selling T-shirts or other tourist crap (statues and bracelets). It is clear that most of the locals aren’t wealthy, but no one seems to be starving either. It makes sense that they would see MR TOURIST MAN as MR ATM MAN, but being straight up asked for money after a “hello” isn’t a fun interaction to have dozens of times a day. It wouldn’t surprise me if a lot of the surfer tourists that come to Nias are here for a week and don’t mind throwing some extra dollars at the locals which would lead to the attitude they all have. 

The island itself is beautiful. I have gone on several long walks along the beach where I hardly saw any other people. Most of the tourists spend the day surfing, so the rest of the area of Nias I am staying at is pretty much empty. I walked way out into the ocean since there is about a quarter mile of volcanic tide pools. I have never seen anything like it- there is shallow volcanic rock for a LONG way into the ocean. As soon as the tide pools end there are HUGE waves breaking right onto the shelf. I went out as far as I felt comfortable to get some photos, and I was still legitimately terrified. 90% of the time it is calm and the water barely goes above my feet. But every so often the ocean gets angry and the waves come up to above my knees. This is when I get scared as shit, get into a squat for balance, and hold my camera bag over my head.  Getting taken out on the volcanic rock would NOT feel good, and my camera would get destroyed. After this happened a few times, I cautiously moved back a hundred yards. 

The sea was angry, my friends. 

Last night was Saturday, so there was a big local party right next to my home stay. All of the partiers were up late singing what sounded like the worst karaoke ever imaginable. I don’t even think it was karaoke, as it was the same few singers over and over. I can say without any reservation that the music was horrible. No wonder they normally play Creedence and the Stones at the local bars. 

My total stay here in Nias will be 7 nights, which should be super relaxing. Lots of writing, napping, and photography. The view from the home stay balcony is great- I can watch the big waves crash all day long. The sharp rocks are a bit much for me to try surfing here, which is blasphemous to any real surfer. “You went to Nias and didn’t even surf??” Even without surfing, I promise to have an amazing week. 


Leaving Lake Toba

The final few days in Lake Toba were incredibly relaxing, similar as the first part of my stay there. I ended up enjoying 6 nights at the Bagus Bay home stay. Staying longer than most people is a funny experience, as you see new faces come and other people you have seen regularly for a few days depart and disappear into the wind. Meeting fellow travelers is often an interesting experience. Most people have a pretty similar mindset (laid back, easy going, exploring the world). One night I was drinking beers and sharing travel stories (which is often where the conversation goes) with a guy from Poland, England and New Orleans. Meeting and hanging out with people from all over the world is fun, although I always know that these are friendships that will likely last only as long as I am in that particular location. Maybe we will exchange email info and perhaps become friends on Facebook, but seeing each other again is highly unlikely unless we our next stops on our respective trips are to the same place. 

One of the highlights from the last part of my stay in Toba involved a trio of young girls who had come to TukTuk on their day off. They said they were in school, and wanted to come and practice speaking English with tourists. I was hanging out at the home stay, as I did most afternoons, so they came over and asked if I would talk with them. Little did I know where the conversation would soon lead. 

They started out with the standard questions I get from most locals in SE Asia- where am I from, how old am I, where else I have been in Indonesia, where else I am going, how many days in Lake Toba, etc. They were giggling and laughing the whole time, clearly nervous about speaking English with someone. They did say they were nervous because I was so handsome, which was either them being nice for me agreeing to talk with them or they were being honest. Either way, compliment accepted. 

The girls kept asking if I had a girlfriend, and every time I said no they would point to one of their friends, say she is single too, and giggle for a while longer. Eventually they asked such an amazing question that I had to repeat it to make sure I heard it right. 

“Do you like… girls… buttocks?” 

“Do I like… girls butts???”

Unreal. Perhaps the most amazing question I have ever been asked. Many giggles ensued and they confirmed that I did indeed hear their question correctly. I answered in the affirmative- yes I do like girls buttocks. In return, I asked them if they like guys buttocks, to which they said yes. Eventually the chat with the trio of girls ended, we took some photos, and they were on their way. I doubt I will ever forget being asked if I like girls’ buttocks. 

I did spend a few hours one morning watching the NBA Playoffs, which was the first time I had seen even one second of this year’s playoffs live. At home, I would have watched at least 50% of every minute played, and 100% of certain games. This was the Miami Heat (one of my favorite teams) vs the Indiana Pacers (a good young team and the Heat’s current rival). The Heat prevailed as I watched on my barely working stream of the game. It was definitely better than not watching it, and another marvel of the internet. I was able to watch a LIVE NBA game taking place in Miami while I was eating breakfast in the middle of Sumatra. Pretty amazing. 

Overall TukTuk and Samosir island was a very memorable stop. It felt like a land frozen in time. While there are TVs and people have smart phones, most of the locals seem to subside on farming and overall live a pretty simple life. Tourism is definitely a big part of the economy on certain parts of the island, but there is a huge percentage of the locals that live without any daily interactions with any tourists. It is a trek to get to Lake Toba, but a worthwhile location. 

My last day in TukTuk ended up being my worst day of the trip by far. I woke up with mild food poisoning and feeling pretty horrible. It was my travel day, too, so the upcoming ferry ride and 6 hour car ride were NOT going to be fun. After sleeping in until check out, I managed to eat some fruit, yogurt, and cereal to at least get some food in my stomach. The ferry took me back to Parapat, which I survived without incident. After getting off the ferry, I got suckered into another taxi ride. It really isn’t that bad of a deal (about $6 for the entire car ride). The problem, as was the same in Medan, is that they won’t leave until there are enough people (or ideally the taxi is full). So I waited for about an hour at the taxi stand, sweating and trying not to vomit. What was supposed to be a 20 minute wait ended after 60 minutes, and the car was finally moving. Before we could officially head to Medan, one of the passengers had to first drop her (?) baby off in the area (no joke), and then we picked up two more people to fill up the car at 6. I was in the way back with no windows, so if it was vomit time it would be a mess. 

I was able to sleep a bit, and thankfully survived the car ride back to Medan without depositing any food in the back seat. There were come cold sweats, and I finally was forced to used a squat toilet at a rest stop (not an easy task), but thankfully no messes in the car. Private space is definitely a bit different here, as one of the fellow passengers in our taxi took roughly 7 phone calls and enjoyed the entire conversation (with lots of laughs) very loudly. Despite thinking for sure I would be the last to get dropped off, I was in fact first which was a huge relief. I checked into my hotel, cranked up the AC, and laid on my bed for a few hours before going to sleep. The next afternoon would be a flight from Medan to the island of Nias and I hoped to be feeling much better by then. 



Greetings from Lake Toba

Scroll to the bottom for all of the photos. 

Lake Toba

Third World speed and efficiency is definitely the name of the game in Indonesia. The pace of how things happen here is something I expected, but it is hard to completely turn off my First World expectations. The main problem is that I don’t speak Indonesian and most people don’t speak much English. I am living in their world, so I can’t complain (or at least not too much).

I had arranged a car to take me from Medan to Parapat- which is the small town the ferries leave from to go to Samosir- the island in the middle of Lake Toba. I showed up at the small travel office at 11- when they asked me to the day before. The cost was quoted as $75k rupiah (about $7) for my ride. Ideally, they fill up the car with 6 people so they aren’t losing money on the transportation. This makes sense to me- a taxi ride that loses money probably isn’t a great idea. What wasn’t explained to me the previous day is they WONT LEAVE unless they have 4 people. Right now we are stuck on 3 people- myself and 2 others. The woman at the travel office is calling all over, trying to find another passenger to get to Parapat (or presumably some place in between).

They start asking me to rent the entire car for a GREAT DEAL! Only $300k rupiah (about $26)! In a vacuum, that isn’t crazy expensive- $26 for a 5ish hour ride. However, I know they just want me to pay for the equivalent of 4 people, which to me is a bit absurd when they have already said I can get a ride for $75k. I sit around and read for awhile longer as the travel lady continues to call unknown phone numbers. Eventually, the waiting has become too much. It has been over an hour, and I need to get to Parapat by 7 pm for the last ferry to Samosir. So I tell them I will pay $100k (about $9- $2 more than they quoted me) if we leave right now. It turned out that the $2 got the gears moving, and we were on the road within a few minutes. Pretty amazing how loud $2 can speak over here.

First we had to pick up the two other passengers. This involved an hour ride through the crazy traffic of Medan. There are not many traffic lights, and the gridlock is truly impressive. We only went a few miles, and the driver had to ask directions a few times. Street signs are not very obvious here. There were funny things along the way, like a freelance traffic cop. It was just a dude with a whistle, helping cars through the crazy gridlock. The driver gave him $2k rupiah for his help. Interesting job.

After navigating the traffic/ gridlock and receiving help from some locals, the car made it to the other passengers- 2 local Indonesians. They got in, and for the next few hours there was hardly a word spoken in the car. I don’t know any Indonesian, and their English was very basic, so it was a silent car ride.

The roads here are not for the faint of heart. There is no such thing as anything resembling a freeway. To get from Medan to Parapat, it is a two lane road which everyone has to take. This means our car was going the same direction as busses, trucks, scooters, and bicycles. That doesn’t stop most of the cars from going around slower traffic at any opportunity. This is a VERY frequent occurrence, but for someone like me who isn’t used to the constant passing of vehicles it is a bit nerve wracking. Our car was constantly in the lane facing oncoming traffic. I am surprised there aren’t roughly 1 million accidents a day, but this is how people drive out here so it is totally normal.

We complete several hours on the road when our driver taps my arm and makes a “eating” motion to his mouth. Food? Yes, please. It is awesome what can be communicated with simple hand gestures. We stop at a hole in the wall place for some grub. The options are fish heads and other fish parts as well as some chicken. I opt for the chicken, they load it up with veggies, rice and sauce and it is lunch time. A visit from MR TOURIST MAN here at this random lunch spot causes many laughs, “Hello, Misters,” and plenty of photo opportunities. Besides enjoying some photos with the locals, my favorite part of lunch was that our driver at with his hands- something I totally respect. He dominated his entire meal without ever touching a piece of silverware or chopsticks. Baller. They brought us a small bowl of water to wash our hands post meal (I opted for a fork), and soon we were back on the road.

It took another 3 hours on the road, and countless amounts of weaving around slower traffic, to make it to Parapat. I grab my bags, give the driver $125k (the original $100k plus a $25k tip). I felt bad that he had to drive the 5ish hours back to Medan at that point. Parapat (at least by the ferry) is a tiny single road. I am soon hounded by a bunch of locals “Where you going? Where are you from?” I told them I was staying at the Samosir Cottages- one of the few places on the island of Samosir that had any sort of internet presence. I hadn’t paid any money to the Samosir Cottages, just had some email exchanges with someone at the property. It turned out that all of the locals waiting by the ferry were representing other properties. Since it is low season, they were desperate for people to stay at the property- meaning slashed prices.

Samosir Cottages had quoted me $200k rupiah for a hot shower room, and all these other places (which looked nearly identical by their pictures) were half that cost. I was already excited by $18 USD a night- half that for the same thing is even better. It was overwhelming being surrounded by these reps from all the different properties, as they were desperate for business. Eventually I decided to go to the property with the guy I liked the best- a 24 year old local (actually from TukTuk- the main town on Samosir island) named Roman. As a salesperson myself, I understand the job- but it was crazy to be surrounded by all these hungry sharks. I was comfortable with my decision, got on the ferry, and we made our way to Samosir.

We enjoyed a beautiful sunset during the ride, and offloaded onto the island. Roman showed me a few different rooms, and I decided to take the Deluxe room for a whopping $12 a night. Nothing spectacular, but it had its’ own balcony, queen bed and hot water. Sold! I meet some other travelers from across the globe (Holland, Poland, England), enjoy some food at my hotel, drink a few beers and relax. Roman eventually breaks out a guitar, and tells me to join him for Hotel California (one of his favorite songs). I say that I don’t know the words, but he says “Come on, you are from California!” He makes a very solid point, and at that point I can’t say no. With the magic of the internet I pulled up the lyrics to Hotel California, and everyone else got to hear our once in a lifetime duet. Despite my less than ideal singing voice, it was a pretty cool moment- people from all over the world drinking some beers and having a singalong to an old Eagles song.

The next day I rented a scooter (because of course) and cruise around the island. Samosir is REALLY big (or at least big for a scooter) and many of the roads barely qualify as such. There are long stretches without any paved sections- just rocks and huge pot holes. It is slow going with a little scooter. There aren’t too many roads, so I drive for awhile and take some photos along the way. After scootering for over an hour, I take out the camera to take a pic when I hear someone down the road. He calls me over, asks where I am from, and soon invites me into his grandmother’s house (about 100 yards down the road) for some coffee. I cant possibly say no to some local coffee. He also had a large bowie knife around his neck so I didn’t want to offend him.

I parked the scooter, and sit on the patio of a small wooden house. The local dude (his name is Theodorus) brings me a tasty coffee, and we have some sort-of conversation over the next 30 minutes or so. His uncles stop by, there are dogs and cats running around, and kids are watching TV inside. It is an amazing moment- enjoying coffee with a total stranger on a patio in the middle-of-nowhere Indonesia. The generosity and kindness from all of the locals is incredible. I finish up the coffee, have some more sort-of conversation, thank Theodorus several times, and get back on the scooter. It was a moment in time I will never forget.

Theodonus, a generous host. 

I ride the scooter for a few more hours and see so many animals along the way. The list included dogs, cats, oxen, goats, pigs, chickens, and rabbits. Eventually I returned to my hotel, eat some food, and take a nap. Then I meet up with Roman. We are going out to watch the Champions League Final, which starts around 2 am local time. First we go to a local bar with live music. Everyone there is Indonesian (more specifically Batak, which are the people from Samosir). The live music is all sorts of western favorites- Creedence, Rolling Stones, Maroon 5. It is always amusing to me that in every corner of the world they enjoy more or less the same music. Which brings up all sorts of questions- are they just not good at making pop music in Indonesia? Do they not even try? Do they know what the words mean to the songs they are singing along to? Lots of unanswered questions, but it is fascinating to see people sing along with songs 100% in English.

Around 1:30 we make our way to another bar/ restaurant that is PACKED in anticipation of the upcoming soccer game. The place is filled almost entirely with locals. I am likely the only foreigner in the place, which is a really cool feeling. Here I am, at 2 am, watching soccer live from Lisbon with a bunch of Batak people, without another westerner in sight. The game was pretty amazing, with Real Madrid getting the win in extra time. Real Madrid features my favorite player- Christiano Ronaldo- who is hated by most of the soccer world. This made watching the game even more fun, as Roman and some of his friends were rooting against Ronoaldo while I wanted him to win.

Road Oxen.

By the time the game ended and I was back in bed it was after 5 am. Definitely not an ideal time to be hitting the pillow, but sometimes you just gotta roll with it while on the far side of the world. It’s not like I need to wake up and go to work, or do anything really.

Overall, Lake Toba is a great place, and ideal for anyone looking to get (and feel) REALLY far away from the normal. It is super cheap ($10-12 rooms, $2-4 meals), the lake is beautiful, and the people are so friendly.

I will spend several more nights here before packing my bags, making it back to Medan (not looking forward to that ride) and hopping on a plane to Pulau Nias- an island off the west coast of Sumatra. It will be nice to be back at the beach after several weeks away.


From Malaysia to Indonesia

Scroll to the bottom for all of the photos. 

Before getting to the new world of Indonesia, a few final notes on Kuala Lumpur. 

So long, KL. Likely never see you again. 

- Apparently their superstitious number is 4/14. There was no 4th or 14th floor at my apartment building, replaced with a 3a and 13a. It's the little things. 

- The professional ladies of the night are very aggressive in the tourist area. One of them grabbed my hand and wouldnt let go until I pretty much ran away. They want money, and TOURIST MAN looks like ATM MACHINE.

- The sunglasses salesmen are even more aggressive than the ladies of the night. There was a pair who asked me to come into their little stand to take a look, I made the mistake of saying ok, then I asked how much, they asked how much my sunglasses were (about $30 USD), and then they offered a price of $25 USD for FAKE RAY BANS. I laughed and said no, and they quite literally held me and wouldnt let me leave. This was the hardest hard sell of all time. They asked me how much I would pay, I said $20 Ringgit (about $6 USD), but honestly didnt want anything. They of course immediately agreed to the price (these are fake Ray Bans were are talking about, so they likely cost about $1 to make). They held me and blocked my way out until I said no enough times and forced my way out of Sunglass Hut Jail. Never have I experienced a harder sales attempt than that.
 

- The drinks at the main bars in the city were extremely expensive. Bottles of beer were $6-8 and pints were about $10. That is NYC/ Tokyo prices. I wasnt quite sure if it was ex-pats, tourists, rich locals or some combo of the three paying those extreme prices. I only bought a few beers with dinner, and those were $5 for a big, double beer. Not insane, but not a good deal either. 

- I am still not sure if the extreme security (front gate with a security guard, key card for the elevator bay, key card for the elevator, iron gate, dead bolt door, apartment door) is because of paranoia or a high crime rate. Either way, I have never experienced such extreme measures to get into or out of a single residence. It was a bit discouraging to ever leave, knowing that it was a multi step and multi minute process just to depart the building.

Overall, I cant give KL a full stamp of approval. It is a big international city, the Petronas Towers are cool, and it is a good hub for the rest of SE Asia. Beyond that, only if you want to visit the real life Sim City (Apartments! Traffic! Shopping malls! Construction! A monorail!) would I recommend KL. 

After my Monorail to Train to Plane to Train trip (about 6 hours door to door), I safely arrived in Medan, Indonesia- which is in the northern part of Sumatra. My hotel happened to be quite literally AT the train station, which was the easiest, luckiest and most convenient location of anywhere I have stayed so far. I got off the train from the Medan airport, saw signs for the hotel I happened to book that morning, and thought "Is my hotel IN the freaking train station?" The answer is yes. Taxi from the train station averted.

I’m not sure exactly what I expected, but the word "Sumatra" makes me think of endless jungles and monkeys riding rhinos in the middle of the street. So far Medan reminds me the most of Vietnam in a lot of ways. Medan is Indonesia’s 4th largest city, so there are thousands of scooters zipping all over. Crossing any major street without an official crosswalk is a test of courage, as there is rarely a full break in traffic, meaning you just have to start walking and hope no one runs you over. The main form of transit are Becaks- basically scooters with a covered side car. ANYWHERE I go anywhere from a handful to dozens of handfuls of Becak drivers ask me if I want a ride. No thanks, Mr Becak Driverman. I dont even know where I am going. It seems as though half of the city is a becak driver waiting for a fare.

Medan Becak

Prices in Medan are more in line with what I like in this part of the world (again- reminding me of Vietnam). My nice, clean hotel is a bank breaking $27 a night. I just ate a chicken ramen meal for less than $2. My first meal was at a big shopping mall (I got lost and was hungry), and that set me back a whopping $4. The 40 minute train ride to the airport was $5, and my 4 hour car ride tomorrow to Lake Toba is $7. My hotel in Lake Toba will be either $9 (cold shower) or $18 (hot shower) a night. These are the type of expenses I fell in love with while in Vietnam. Thailand and Malaysia are definitely not expensive compared to the States (except for KLs booze, as previously discussed), but being able to get full meals for under $2 is awesome. Free food!

Medan is far from a tourist hot spot, and I am clearly  one of the rare MR TOURIST MEN walking the streets. Nearly everyone looks at me and waves, says hello, laughs, or does some combination of the three. They actually say "Hello, Mister" a lot, which is amusing. When I have my camera out, locals ask me to take photos OF them, which has barely ever happened to me before. They will clearly never see these photos (unless this website has gotten big overseas without my knowledge), so it is an interesting request.
 

Sure, I can take your picture. Big fans of Kaplan Visuals, huh? 

Walking around, I stand out like the sorest of sore thumbs. MR TOURIST MAN cant hide anywhere. Everywhere I walk around people stare, wave and laugh. When I sit down to eat people stare, wave and laugh. It is like they know what I am but they have never seen one of me in the wild. “There is one of those tourist men I have heard about!” I realize that isn’t true (I know the locals here have seen other white tourist men come through their city), but that is definitely what it feels like. 

A local and MR TOURIST MAN

It isnt clear to me if they are laughing AT me (look at silly MR TOURIST MAN walking in this heat with his stupid clothes and big bag) or laughing because I smile and respond (HAHA! MR TOURIST MAN TALKED TO ME!). Either way it is mostly amusing. I am genuinely curious as to what they are thinking. In a few weeks I will visit some relatives in Bandung on the island of Java, so hopefully they can explain people’s reaction to silly tourist man. There are definitely times when I would like to put on a LOCAL MAN mask and blend in with the rest of the people to be anonymous for a bit. Everyone has been insanely nice (sometimes to the point of awkwardness), but the staring and laughing doesn’t maintain its appeal forever. Especially when I don’t know their language. I am trying to remember simple phrases, but even if I memorize the "thank you" and "goodbye" phrases, it wont be enough to have a real conversation. 

The staring would also be much more off putting if people were hostile towards me, but all of the locals so far have been insanely nice. It is hard to get annoyed when everyone is just curious about the alien walking their streets. I have felt the experience of being the obvious outsider in other countries, but so far in 24 hours this has been the most outsider-y I can remember feeling. From the locals perspective, they likely don’t get THAT many tourists cruising the streets (most people come here for a day or two as a hub for other locations in Sumatra). I haven’t seen more than 5 other westerners, so either tourist men aren’t in Medan this time of year or most of the them stay in a different part of the city.

The tourist infrastructure here is also not to first world standards, which makes it both fun and frustrating. Fun because I dont see countless other travelers in their Full Moon Party tank tops. It feels like I am somewhere not on the well worn backpacker path, which is refreshing. It is nice to get away from areas that the rest of the western world visits on a regular basis. It is a unique feeling to be somewhere where I am clearly different from everyone else. It is frustrating because it is really hard to get easy answers about how to get from point A to point B. As I said, everyone has been overly nice, so they want to help. Often, they just don’t know the answers. Even asking about big tourist stops (like Lake Toba for example) get met with blank stares. Because there are not a steady stream of western travelers come through here, there are not streets lined with tourist/ travel offices that exist all over Thailand and many parts of Vietnam.
 Locals rarely leave whatever city they live in, and if they do, they aren’t going to the same spots I have read about on Wikitravel.

I have only been in Sumatra for a little over 24 hours, but I can already tell I will like it here. For anyone who enjoys getting off the well worn tourist path, looking up and not seeing one westerner anywhere in sight, eating $2 meals, staying in nice $20 hotels, and getting treated like a celebrity/alien then I recommend making it over here before it becomes the next Bali. 

Next stop is Lake Toba- one of the largest freshwater lakes on earth, created by one of the largest volcanic eruptions ever (estimated to be 70,000 years ago). Supposedly the roads to get there are NOT ideal which makes the journey extremely slow. Should be quite an adventure.

 

One Month on the Road- from the Real Life Sim City

For all of the photos from Kuala Lumpur, scroll to the bottom or click here: Kuala Lumpur

For the last 5 nights I have been in the massive, sprawling city of Kuala Lumpur. The best way I can describe this city is: Someone got REALLY high and played Sim City for 12 hours in a row, but never called in a Godzilla or Tornado. There are more construction projects than I have ever witnessed, there is no rhyme or reason for how the streets are arranged, and there is no "grid" system at all. The construction blocks of entire blocks, making it near impossible to walk around. Apartment complexes span multiple blocks with a seemingly endless number of 30 story buildings. Then there are things like a monorail running right down the middle of downtown, and more shopping malls per square mile than I thought humanly possible. There is a mall in the airport, in the train station, and on every other city block. I am pretty sure there is a mall inside one of the malls. The bars are also crazy expensive- $10+ for a pint. 

I can't give KL a big stamp of approval over other big international cities (New York, Tokyo, Chicago, San Francisco, Sydney off the top of my head are way better). Every place is worth visiting, but I don't think I will be returning to KL anytime soon. The highlight to me was riding the monorail and visiting the Petronas Towers, which is the most famous building in KL. It is funny watching people try to take pictures of the building with their point-and-shoots ore camera phones. The building is super tall, so fitting it all on a camera phone frame is nearly impossible. I have a camera cheat code called a fisheye lens. Good times were had. 

Levitation, holmes. 

Rise, my towers. 

It has been one month since I departed the friendly confines of California for parts unknown. Since then I have visited 6 islands and 2 countries, eaten an insane amount of noodles and chicken, and drank dozens of Chang beers and iced coffees. One quarter of the Ring of Fire World Tour 2014 is in the books. Looking back, it feels like I have been on the road for 3-4 times as long- in a good way. To know that there is still 3 months ahead of me living like this is a great feeling. 

I almost never know what day of the week it is, and rarely know the date. The only times I keep track of the date is when I am departing one location for another. It is a pretty incredible feeling, not even knowing whether it is a dreaded Monday or hump day Wednesday. Each day is just that- a day. There is no fearing work on a Sunday night, or waking up on Monday wishing it was Saturday again. 

I sleep until I want- which sometimes is until noon. I am not sure if there are some lingering fatigue issues from the chemotherapy and cancer surgeries, but I definitely do not have the same energy levels as I used to. My hope is that over time I won't be as tired or need as much sleep, but for now I don't push my body too hard. If I feel like more sleep is the answer then so be it. When I do wake up, the schedule is often unplanned, likely with a few things I would like to do or see. I am not a huge planner, so detailing each and every minute of the day is rare. It is more fun to let most days be their own adventure, offering up new surprises. I can spend an hour at one location taking pictures. I can stop in the subway to take photos for 30 minutes after my last stop without anyone complaining. 

Traveling alone also means there are some days when I barely say anything besides "Hello" and "Thank you" to a handful of people during any given day. At most places I have stopped, there are enough tourists around that I can start up some small talk. The conversations almost always involve some combination of: 
- where you are from. 
- how long you are traveling.
- Where you have been already.
- Where else you are going. 

If the conversation gets really deep, it might get to work, details about your home town/ country, or comparing different locations to each other (Vietnam is definitely cheaper than Malaysia). 

The hotels, food and drink have been super cheap as expected, although Malaysia is definitely pricier than Thailand. My guess is that the areas where the locals hang out offer much cheaper options for food and drink when compared to TOURIST ROW. 

There are times when I forget that I am quite literally half way around the world from home. Most of my friends and family are living 14 hours behind me and going to work everyday. 

Living the nomad life is incredible, but it is also not roses, unicorns and fairy tales 100% of the time. While it is all fun in the end, I do stress out planning on where to go and where to stay in the next city. Part of the problem is that there are so many options, and I have a hard time making a final decision. While getting to a new location offers excitement, it can be frustrating wandering around lost while just wanting to find the hotel. Other times I wish I could just get a strong internet signal in my hotel. Don't take good internet for granted, people! Or I wish I could turn on the TV and watch some NBA playoffs. Packing all my shit up every 4-5 days and lugging my crap to the next stop is not the most fun activity, either. All of these things are simply minor inconveniences (and FIRST WORLD TRAVELER complaints), but, if I could have it all, those things would top my wish list.

There are also items that KIA (Killed In Action) along the way. The biggest bummer has been the GoPro camera I had, which somehow got seawater into the supposed-to-be-waterproof housing. It turns out that salt water and electronics are mortal enemies, so while the camera showed signs of life early on it won't turn on anymore. A hair trimmer also bit the dust way back in Ko Muk. 

Overall, this life and lifestyle is incredible. No set times to do anything, unless there is a ferry to board or a plane to catch. I honestly don't know what day it is today, and that is amazing. 3 more months to go on the Ring of Fire World Tour, with plenty of new adventures to come.

Langkawi- Another island, another country

To see all the photos, scroll to the bottom of the post. 

My first stop in Malaysia was a 5 night stay in Langkawi- an island just south of the Thai border. One of my first activities was shaving off my beard. The hair trimmer I brought with me died in Ko Lanta, so I opted to just go full razor to the bushy beard. This is not something I would recommend. 

Before 

After

The highlights from Langkawi included: 

- Randomly, it was the annual Water Festival (a celebration of water?) the first day I got there. The set up was similar to a county fair, but in proper SE Asian style it was right on the beach. There was a mini stage set up with someone playing Radioheads Creep which was pretty weird to hear covered by a dude with a guitar and a mic in Malaysia. The food stalls had some tasty food and drink- I picked up some fried prawns (you can eat the whole thing- head/ tail and all) and a cup of ice cold coconut water. It set me back all of $1.50 for both. 

A celebration of water! 

- The Langkawi cable car. Situated in "Oriental Village," which is a super fake tourist stop, the cable car takes you to the top of a mountain. There is also a super cool looking Sky Bridge, but in typical SE Asian fashion it was under construction. The views from the top were still really cool, as you can see the many islands surrounding the main one of Langkawi. 

The sky bridge. 

View from the top. 

- I randomly found a night market, which are one of my favorite things to visit in this part of the world. There is insanely cheap food and this is where all the locals go. No other tourists to be found, so it feels so much more authentic compared to most of the places I normally find myself. The school girls all wear full head covers, which was something I had not seen before. The $0.50 coconut water was delicious. 

Smoked chicken. 

- There is a massive eagle statue at the main port. Very silly. Naturally I enjoyed it. 

- The highlight was a jet ski tour around the many islands of Langkawi. Jet Ski gets my vote for Most Fun Vehicle. That may change as jet packs become available, but for now there isnt anything more enjoyable than jet skiing around the open ocean. It was just a local guide and me cruising the ocean and visiting various islands. There was a massive fresh water lake on one, and a huge circle of eagles feeding on another. I also got over an hour of Jet Ski Play Time, which I did with a smile on my face the entire time. Living that Jet Ski Life. 

Jet ski guide livin that Jet Ski Life. 

Lake of the Pregnant Maiden


I decided to skip the island of Penang and flew straight to Kuala Lumpur, where I am right now. The regional flights over here are insanely cheap (one way flight was $40 for the 70 minute flight from Langkawi to KL). For the first time ever, I went to AirBnB to rent a studio instead of staying in a hotel. After touching down and grabbing my bag, I took a high speed train (100 mph with free internet!) to KL Central, and then a monorail to my apartment building. It is not a new city if I don't get lost while lugging all my bags, which of course I did. Wandering around lost with 40ish pounds of luggage in 90 degree heat is exactly as fun as it sounds. Plenty of sweat was unleashed. After a few circles and backtracks, I found the building. 

It is unclear if KL has a massive crime problem, but it is clear that the apartment building I am staying in has an unprecedented level of security. There is a main gate that unlocks with a key card, also staffed with a security guard 24/7. The key card also opens the door to the elevator bay. The key card ALSO needs to be used to run the elevator. Then there is a iron gate AND a door, each with its' own deadbolt, on the entrance to my block of studios (there are 4 in my area). Then finally there is one more lock on the front door to my unit. If you were keeping score, that is 3 key card uses, 2 deadbolts, 1 front door lock, and 1 security guard station. That is some serious security/ paranoia. 

Now 6 days and nights exploring the big city of Kuala Lumpur.



So Long, Thailand...

I included some of my favorite pics from Thailand at the bottom.

After 21ish days in Thailand, I have arrived in Malaysia. More specifically, I am on the island of Langkawi- my 6th island of the trip. I have yet to spend a night on the mainland.

Thailand was incredible, and I definitely recommend it to anyone looking for a hot, cheap, fun place to go with beautiful beaches really friendly people. My stops were skewed to the “more touristy,” as a lot of locals aren’t born and raised on the Thai islands.

The locations ended up being:

Phuket- 4 nights. Even by “touristy” standards, this place took first prize and the blue ribbon for Most Touristy. The majority of the population was Russian families or couples.

Ko Phi Phi- 3 nights. I was super happy I went- especially for the visit to Maya Bay (The Beach beach), but don’t need to go back anytime soon. Was worth visiting the one time in my life.

Ko Lanta- 6 nights. My favorite spot so far. The least touristy stop with the most locals. Lots of scootering around and enjoying cheap food.

Ko Muk- 4 nights. Tiny island that was nearly empty because it is low season. Half of the island has locals, and the part I stayed on had more dogs and hotel employees than visitors/ tourists. There was plenty of time I had the entire beach to myself.

Ko Lipe- 4 nights. Another small island with a cool walking street, really nice beaches and beautiful turquoise water. The nicest hotel stay so far, with a super friendly Thai staff.

My last night in Ko Lipe was really fun, as the family staff at my hotel invited me to join them for a home cooked meal on the hotel deck. The dinner consisted of whole cooked crab, a few different kinds of salad, and rice. The crabs were much smaller than traditional crabs I have eaten in the States. I struggled getting the meat out, and the rest of the dinner party was constantly laughing at me and my Crab Meat Removal Difficulties. There were 8 people at the meal, and only 2 other people spoke any English. They showed me how to get some of the crab meat out, but mostly they were just staring at me like I had never seen a crab before. The silly American has never eaten a crab!

It reminded me of a time many, many moons ago. I was around 12 years old, and I was eating sushi with a Japanese friend at his family’s house. I had enjoyed sushi before that point, and they had asked me what type of sushi I liked. “Spider rolls” was one of my responses, and they nearly died of laughter. They thought that I enjoyed sushi filled with actual spiders. This silly American eats sushi with spiders! What an idiot!

The morning journey from Ko Lipe to Langkawi was filled with a standard amount of me not knowing what the fuck is going on. Because I was going to Malaysia, there were some immigration procedures involved. They took my passport and kept going- somewhere. Where that somewhere was I don’t know. We were on the beach waiting for a longtail boat, so it wasn’t like there was some back office area to go to. Of course this morning was the first time during my entire 3 weeks in Thailand that it was raining. Not a huge deal, but standing in the rain and getting my bags all wet is not ideal. Eventually the immigration stuff gets worked out on the Thailand side, I get on the longtail that takes me to a small dock, and I get on the ferry that will take me to Langkawi. Because it was so stormy, the sea was nasty. It was NOT a fun boat ride- the ferry was leaning aggressively side to side. It was not comforting feeling like the boat could tip over (spoiler alert- it didn’t). I was happy that I didn’t succumb to sea sickness. Just in case, I did see there was a trash can within reach. Fortunately the boat ride was only about an hour, and magic- I am in Malaysia!

There is some more immigration to be worked out on the Malaysian side, so I wait for that. In standard 3rd world efficiency, the Malay immigration office literally has a stack of everyone’s passport who just came over from Thailand. They just start picking passports at random and calling out names. By the grace of the travel gods I see them pick an American passport, and instantly I guess that it’s mine (confidence was high that I was the only American). The passport indeed was mine (maybe they picked the USA one first to appease the great and powerful Barry Obama?). I am stamped and out of the immigration office in less than a minute.

I get some Malaysian Ringgits out of the ATM, get a taxi, and head off to my hotel.

Another island, another country. New adventures await. 

Freezing Lightning

Photographing lightning is simultaneously exciting, frustrating, and difficult- with a large dash of luck thrown in. There are amazing lightning storms in Southeast Asia. While I am no Randy Storm or Greg Tornado of the local news, my guess is that the super humid, tropical weather has something to do with that fact. Often times the storms are far enough away to give an awesome show without actually raining on my head.

My favorite photo from the night. 

Most of the nights I was in Ko Lipe featured amazing lightning storms off in the distance over the ocean. I love to watch the lightning- the clouds bursting with light like explosions. Every so often, the weather gods bless us with a blast of electricity that is visible- not hidden by the clouds. These are the images I am trying to capture.

Getting a photo of an actual lightning strike involves planning and a whole pile of luck. The way I set up the shots is often to have the shutter open for 30 seconds- meaning I cant move the camera for 30 seconds or it will ruin the shot. Basically, I point the camera in the direction of the most recent lightning and start praying. Then of course it is very frustrating when there is a blast of light in a different direction than the camera is pointed.

But when there is a BLAST of electricity exactly where the camera is facing, I let out a “please!” and hope that the image was caught. As you can see, I did capture some really cool actual lightning strikes. There are a few that I really like, although I have to improve my storm taking skills to really be happy. Not a bad group of photos from one night of storm watching. Despite what you learned in high school, freezing lightning is possible. 

Ko Lipe and the 9 steps to get here

If you just want to see the photos, scroll to the bottom.

Being in Thailand during the low season definitely has its advantages. The top of the list are huge price reductions (50-70%) on hotel rooms and huge tourist population reduction (percentage undetermined). The flip side to those positives is that various options for getting around southern Thailand don’t exist. For example, I was trying to get from Ko Muk to Ko Lipe (if you haven’t noticed a theme, “Ko” means Island). 9+ months of the year, there is a straight ferry line between the two islands. Low season unofficially begins on May 1st (only a few days before I wanted to go) and that same ferry line stops running. I knew that low season would make a few of the easy routes between islands a bit more difficult.

Overall, I don’t hate the extra steps of getting from one stop to the next while being a traveling wanderer. I would rather NOT have to utilize multiple vehicles to get from point A to point B, but they can also provide some unexpected fun. In this part of the world, it is not straight forward how to get from one place to another- especially when you don’t speak the language. My mastery of Thai consists of “Hello” and “Thank you.” Ben don’t speak Thai. Ben don’t speak Thai real good at all.

So instead of a single multi-hour ferry from Ko Muk to Ko Lipe, I would need to first get to the mainland and the city of Trang. Then from Trang I need to get to the port of Pak Bara, and from there I can get a boat to Ko Lipe.

Ko Muk was a really incredible location. Partly because it is low season, the island was nearly devoid of tourists. It was extremely relaxing and really cool to have an entire beach to myself. My last day on the beach even featured 3 topless sunbathing Swedish girls. You shall hear no complaints from me about that.

Other than topless girls, the pack of dogs continued to roam around, with Lebron, D Wade and Mike Miller coming to hang out with me when they were wrestling or searching for food. I felt bad for Mike Miller, who had a huge knot/ wound on his head. Seeing these wild dogs would likely be much harder for someone who is a bigger dog lover than me. Dogs are cool, but I don’t love them near the level of other people I know. If you want a nearly deserted island, save for a pack of wild dogs and local Thai people, put Ko Muk on your list.

So to get to Ko Lipe in high season, it would pretty much be a 1 step process:

1.     Get on ferry in Ko Mook, get off ferry in Ko Lipe.

In low season, it became a 9 step process:

1.     Side Car Scooter from my hotel to the pier

2.     Sketchy boat ride from pier to mainland. This boat was hardly a ferry, and definitely made me nervous. Everyone else seemed perfectly calm, so I took their relaxed nature as a good sign. After checking out the bottom deck and seeing the only seat was inches from the exhaust pipe, I opted to sit up at the front in the open air. There were guys sitting on the front of the boat with me who were chain smoking and chewing some sort of green leaf. I was unsure if it was tobacco or khat (the plant made famous in Black Hawk Down and Captain Phillips). They offered me some, but I politely declined. Under normal non-boating circumstances, I would be interested in trying it. However at that moment, I did not need to be either high or sick while on the Sketchy Boat ride.

Sketchy boat service. 

3.     Mini-bus from the port to the city of Trang. This was my first time on the mainland at any point in Thailand so far. Phuket and Ko Lanta are huge and don’t really feel like islands, but they are. It was completely unclear to me that there was going to be a mini-bus picking me up. Luckily, one of the workers from the hotel I stayed at was going the same route and flagged me over. I had been wandering around like the totally lost tourist that I was. The bus ride was over an hour, so fortunately I didn’t hire my own taxi or start walking.

4.     Got dropped off in Trang, and immediately swarmed by a few tourist salespeople. I told them I wanted to go to Pak Bara (and Ko Lipe) and within minutes I had a boat ticket ($650 bhat- about $22). I had just missed another mini-bus ride, so my other option was to take a 2 hour city bus to the city of Langu. Fine with me.

5.     Hopped on the back of a scooter- the tourist shop lady gave me a ride to the bus stop. The tourist shop lady told me to wait 10-20 minutes for an Orange bus. Eventually, an orange looking bus drove by and honked. I waved and ran on. Is this the right bus? I have no idea, but will find out soon. This was definitely a bus for locals. $70 bhat (about $2.25). Not bad for 2 hours.

Easy to understand bus tickets. 

6.     Fortunately I did get on the right bus, which after a bunch of honking and people getting on and off over the next 2 hours, arrived in Langu. As soon as I hopped of THAT bus, a man with a scooter asked if I needed to go to Pak Bara. Yes, in fact, I would like to go there. So I then got on the back of a scooter to go the 20ish minutes from Lagun to Pak Bara $80 bhat ($2.75).

7.     Got lunch and waited in Pak Bara for my speed boat that was going to leave about 2 hours later. Also bought myself a $4 Thailand Red Bull shirt. Pretty sure it is not officially licensed Red Bull merch. About 3 hours later, my speed boat left from Pak Bara.

8.     90 minutes later, the speed boat gets to a mini dock. I am pretty sure this is just a tourist scam, as we then need to pay another $70 bhat ($2.50) to THEN get on a longtail that will take us to the shore.

9.     I hop from the long tail onto the beach, and end my day like it started- in the side car bench of a scooter. For another $50 bhat he takes me to my hotel, and few minutes later I arrive.

Final total: 4 scooters, 3 boats, 1 bus, 1 mini-bus, about 8 hours, roughly $30 and about 9 hours.

While I would still have chosen to simply take a single ferry (and then the longtail and sidecar scooter, really making it 3 steps), it was an enjoyable day of experiencing a new, small part of Thailand. Having all the steps pretty much back to back to back (the only time I waited was about 30 minutes for the city bus and 3 hours for the speedboat) was entertaining. If I had to do something similar at home I would have been miserable, but out here in new territory it was fun. Also needing to constantly change vehicle kept it interesting. One 8 hour bus ride would not have been nearly as good.

I decided to splurge a bit for the hotel in Ko Lipe- $50 a night! I mainly wanted AC, as it gets so hot and a fan doesn’t often do much cooling off. The hotel is legit nice- the best I have stayed so far in the last 3 weeks. It is crazy that $50 is “expensive.” Having a nice place with solid walls that blocks mosquitos and provides Air Conditioning is a huge luxury.

The Ko Lipe hotel (called The Reef for anyone stopping through) is well furnished, clean, and is run by an awesome Thai family. On my first night they invited me to join them on the hotel deck for their massive BBQ dinner. Yes, please! There is also the unexpected bonus of 4 kittens that are only about 5 weeks old.

Hotel kitten. 

Ko Lipe is a cool island with one main “walking street” that is open at night- filled with bars and restaurants and connecting to Pattaya beach. Then on the beach itself are more bars and restaurants. The walking street is nearly empty during the day, so I am not sure if most people are out snorkeling/ scuba diving/ on day trips or just sleeping away the day. The beaches are nice, although has more trash than it needs, with super fine grain white sand.

Ko Lipe walking street. 

Another Thai island (Thaisland?)- the 5th of this trip so far. It hasn’t even been a month of travel yet, which is incredible. It feels WAY longer- in a good way. There are times I miss easily watching Game of Thrones or having a gym or a car. Overall, this trip is exactly what I needed- a long break from “normal” life back home in the good ol U S of A.

Tomorrow I depart Thailand and head to Malaysia. The first stop is the island of Langkawi. Time to learn how to say “Hello” and “Thank You” in Malay.


Ko Muk- just me and a pack of dogs

Ko Muk
May 4th 2014

If you just want the photos, scroll to the bottom. 

It is hard to even know where to begin as my 3rd night on the small island of Ko Muk comes to an end. Each island continues to offer new, fun adventures- each different from the previous stop.

Ko Lanta was an incredible place- one that I would recommend to anyone. The main caveats would be: if you REALLY want to party or you don’t want/ are afraid to ride a scooter then I would probably avoid it. If scootering up and down a nearly empty island, exploring beaches, stopping in for an iced coffee or meal that might set you back all of $5 sounds fun to you, put Ko Lanta on your list of places to go.

The taxi picked me up several days ago from my hotel in Ko Lanta to take me to Ko Muk. In typical 3rd world fashion, nothing was explained at all. We made several stops, picking up other people in the pickup/ taxi (the bed has benches) who were going to various islands in the Andaman Sea. I had no clue what was going on, so I for sure thought I was going to miss the ferry. Eventually the driver says “No problem. No problem- they wait for everybody” and my stress went away. Not that missing a ferry would be the worst thing in the world (boo hoo- another night in Ko Lanta), but once I am on the move I want to get the to the next destination.

It ended up that the ferry was leaving from the Old Town Ko Lanta pier, which I had visited a few days earlier. This boat was hardly even a “ferry” and more of a “small charter boat.” It was already mostly filled up, with the bottom section being occupied with Asians in life jackets. I wasn’t sure if the Korean ferry disaster led to the life-jacket-wearing from the beginning of a boat ride or if this was a normal thing.

Sitting on the bottom deck me feel a little sick, since it was SUPER hot and enclosed without much air coming through. Instead of suffering on the bottom deck, I went topside to enjoy the view and get some fresh air. My only worry about being topside for too long was getting scorched by the hot sun. I screened up, and enjoyed the awesome ride between all of the islands.

Topside instead of suffering in steerage. 

Before making it all the way to my hotel, the boat made a stop at the Emerald Cave, which is one of the main tourist stops on the island of Ko Muk. Here is where a big piece of the puzzle went together- all of those Asian tourists already life-jacketed up were waiting for THIS stop- the emerald cave. This is why they were on the boat- they weren’t going to Ko Muk or anywhere else. The cave WAS their destination.

Tourist line into Emerald Cave.

The boat captain said I could join them in the emerald cave for $200 bhat (about $6). Done! I handed over $200 bhat, changed into boardshorts and I was in the water. Sadly the GoPro was out of juice, so I didn’t get any pics. 99% of the tourists in their life jackets gather into a massive single file line going into the cave. There is about 100 yards of cave before you get to an open pool on the other side. The boat captain/ tour leader said I didn’t need a life jacket if I was a good swimmer, so I took his word for it and was more of a free agent in the water instead of a part of the life jacket procession.

Entering into the cave is spectacular. Looking back toward the ocean the water truly is an emerald color. It looks fake- like a Disneyland ride. After swimming awhile, the cave gets 100% pitch black so I wait for the guides and their flashlights. The single file tourist procession is moving slowly, and they are chanting something over and over (not even sure if it was in Thai or another language). I have no idea if they are counting- Something like “ONE-TWO-ONE-TWO”- or if they are saying more like “HERE WE GO-HERE WE GO” to follow the leaders voice. Whatever these slow tourists are saying, I just want to reach the other side and be free of their randomly kicking legs.

Before too long, the tour guide/ boat captain points and tells me to keep swimming. I see the literal light at the end of the tunnel, more incredible blue water, and swim ahead of group ONE TWO ONE TWO. The rock walls inside the cave are super sharp, and there is a section with high water so I have to swim underwater for a bit to avoid the jagged roof.

I enter the open pool at the end of the cave, and it is nothing short of stunning. After swimming through a cave tunnel with tourists and insane emerald water, you are treated to a shallow sand pool with massive rock walls all around. There are tourists abound, but that doesn’t diminish the experience. Especially since I didn’t even think I would be inside the emerald cave today. What a wonderful surprise to start the day after the stressful taxi ride to the boat where I thought I wouldn’t even make it to Ko Muk.

After giving the tourists ample photo taking opportunities, it was back into the cave to get back to the boat. I was perfectly happy to not have a life jacket, but in the dark section of the cave it is a bit sketchy- mainly because I don’t think the tourists can swim very well. There are thrashing legs all over the place- like a rogue water polo game in the middle of a pitch black cave water-tunnel. I also come up a bit early on the “duck under” section, banging my head nicely on the jagged roof. It didn’t feel like I cut myself, and I need to continue to the other side no matter what.

The emerald blue of the other side eventually appears and I make a bee line for the exit- not waiting for thrashing leg tourists to take me out. I make it back to the main boat, grab my bags and change to a long tail boat to get me to my hotel. The long tail pulls up on the beach, I hop out into waist deep water, put my bags on my head one at a time, and I have officially arrived on Ko Muk.

What a crazy, unique island this is. First off, it is really small. I walked the entire inhabited section in an afternoon, and I think I covered every inch of paved road this island has to offer. I saw a Saturday soccer tournament, complete with an announcer and a near post-game fight. I got stared at like an alien for the entire time, which is always high comedy to me. At home, you need to aggressively dress or look super odd to get the type of looks I got for half a day. And all I was wearing was an under armour shirt, cargo shorts and some nike running shoes. There might as well have been a third leg coming out of my ass based on the looks I was getting. 

The island is covered with all sort of animals. I have seen cats, dogs, the biggest spider of my life, chickens, more hermit crabs than I knew existed, normal crabs, plenty of birds, lizards, and unfortunately a million insects. I don’t know where those GOD DAMNED mosquitos come from, but they can just all go to hell.

At the hotel there is a wild group of dogs that live on the beach, too. I am not sure how big the entire pack is, but I would guess around 15 dogs total. There are 3 dogs in particular- 2 black haired puppy siblings and one other white haired mutt- that hang out at my resort most of the time, away from the rest of the pack. I have spent more time with these dogs than any other canines in my life. They are a pretty funny trio, and clearly not big or strong enough to hang with the big boys yet. I have named the two black haired ones Lebron and Dwyane Wade and the white mutt is Mike Miller. The main pack FIGHT on the beach- full on dog brawls. Most of the dogs have ragged ears and/ or scars from various dog battles.

Lebron.

D Wade

Mike Miller

It is low season in Ko Muk, and that means there are barely any guests. The hotel stays completely open, so it is fully staffed, but there are hardly any guests to serve. The restaurant/ bar closes at 8 pm. There is a restaurant on the cliff overlooking the beach that stays open later. If you would like $3 pad thai overlooking a completely deserted Thai beach, I know just the place.

I cant believe that it was only a few weeks ago that I was in Euro-Tourist mecca Phuket. Ko Muk is only a several hour ferry ride, but has clearly not yet made it onto the Tourist Destination List- lucky for me. I went out for a sunset swim, and there was only one group of fellow tourists to be found on an entire beach. The sunsets here are stunning (as they have been for most of my trip). To not even have more than 10 people on a beach to enjoy it is pretty rad.

Tonight I was also treated to one of my favorite activities- TAKE A PICTURE WITH THE WESTERN TOURIST MAN! First up was a huge group of about 15 people that wanted a pic with me. They all gathered around- parents and kids saddled up to the WESTERN TOURIST MAN for a priceless photo opp. It started with one guy and his camera phone, and soon expanded to 3 people all taking pics like an Asian tourist paparazzi. Then, just like Maya Bay, a second group wanted a pic with me. I will never know what sort of WESTERN TOURIST MAN scent I secrete, but I fucking love it. At this point, I also don’t think they believe I am a celebrity, although I could definitely be wrong. I also have no clue what they do with these pictures. God willing they make it onto Facebook or Instagram and get a lot of likes.

It would be nice to have a reliable internet connection here, as I realize how much I rely on fast internet to power a lot of the regular entrainment my life. The biggest bummer was not being able to watch the NBA playoffs (so many game 7s!). Missing the Warriors vs Clippers game 7 is pretty much a blasphemous act. When the internet runs on a single human powered crank, there is simply no way to make that happen.

Overlooking the ocean, at dinner tonight viewing a beautiful beach without a human on it, another song struck me at the perfect time. The song this time was Yellowcard’s Southern Air:

The sun lays down inside the ocean,
I’m right where I belong,
Feel the air, the salt on my skin,
The future’s comin on,
And after living through these wild years,
And coming out alive,
I just want to lay my head here,
Stop runnin for awhile…

It was too perfect for exactly where I am right now. I have spent the last several days hanging out with puppies, watching incredible sunsets on a deserted beach, seeing thousands of hermit crabs scamper around, stopping by a local Thai soccer game, going into a crazy cave, and taking pictures with locals. I am in no rush to go anywhere- thankful to be in this wonderful place on earth. Even after typing plenty of words tonight (enough to bore likely all of you except my parents), continuing to live the dream I had many months ago is simply incredible…

Frozen lightning. 


Hanging out with monkeys in Ko Lanta National Park

I did in fact end up going down to the southern tip of Ko Lanta to visit the National Park. Calling it a "national park" is an overstatement, as it is more of just a "park." Technically all of Ko Lanta is a national park, although people live all over so it is unclear exactly what the designation means. 

At the Official Ko Lanta National Park, there is a lighthouse, a rocky beach, a sandy beach, a park area with a dirt soccer field, and a 2 km walking trail. I went up to say hi to the lighthouse and walked around the 100% empty sandy beach. 

Empty beach dot com. 

Me and Mr. Lighthouse. 

After sitting in the shade for a bit to let my body stop profusely sweating, I wandered around the park for a bit. Then, to my pleasant surprise, some monkeys came to play. Well, they really came to eat as there were some Thai dudes with food. Despite all the signs saying DON'T FEED THE MONKEYS, it is definitely everyone's very first thing they do when monkeys show up. 

Just a regular old Monkey Picnic that you see back home all the time. 

I think monkeys are amazing, and before Thailand had only seen them in captivity- never just chilling in the wild. After getting whatever human food they could get, the monkeys wandered around the beach to look for more food. They caught and ate some mini sand crabs and cracked open some random nuts. I followed them around for quite awhile, since watching them was amazing. Eventually they wandered away from the beach and back to wherever their monkey house is. Before they got too far away, I turned on a shower hoping that a monkey would drink some water. My monkey whispering must have been strong that day, as one of the little dudes happily obliged. He scampered up to the top of the shower and enjoyed some fresh water. My day was made. The rest of the photos from the day are below. Click any image to start a larger slide show. 

Monkey happy hour.