A Travellerspoint blog

Getting there is half the fun, right?

Never a dull moment when you board the local bus...

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To tell you about the time we’ve spent in the Cameron Highlands (a Malaysian hill town known for its tea plantations and strawberry farms), I have to begin with the journey.

Originally, we’d read that we could get a bus from Melaka to a town called Tapah, then transfer to a local bus to bring us to Tanah Rata, the main tourist town here in the Cameron Highlands. That turned out to be old information; the bus had been cancelled. Instead we would have to take a bus to Kuala Lumpur (which we’d hoped to bypass altogether), and change buses at the station for one that would go directly to Tanah Rata. Altogether this was going to take about seven hours.

I should mention here that virtually every bus we’d ever seen in Malaysia so far has been large, clean—even shiny—and mechanically sound, even the local buses, so we had no reason to suspect that we needed to be particularly choosy about the company we bought our tickets from. There are dozens of bus companies here, incidentally.

We arrived at the Melaka bus station just before 10 a.m. after a warm send-off from Teng, the owner of Discovery Café, who gave us a free bottle of water and surprise gifts for both kids. That wasn’t enough time to grab the 10 a.m. bus, so we bought tickets for 10:30 instead. The plan was to arrive in KL by 12:30 in order to get seats on the 1:30 “Super VIP” bus to Tanah Rata. The trip from Melaka to KL is two hours. That would be cutting it a little bit close, but as always, I assumed it would all run pretty smoothly. right?

Of course, our 10:30 a.m. bus didn’t actually leave until 11 a.m., and as we approached KL, we ran into heavy traffic. We didn’t arrive until 1:15, and the bus dropped us off not at the bus station, which would have been logical, but right smack in the middle of a busy street several blocks away from the bus station. We were the last people off since Chloe’s backpack got snagged in the overhead rack, and by the time we were ready to go, there was nobody left to follow, the bus driver had disappeared, and we had no idea where the bus station was. So off we headed in a big rush, hoping to find our way there in time to board the 1:30 bus while wondering how we were going to fit lunch in (since the trip to Tanah Rata from KL is 4.5 hours).

Running and sewer-dodging down the hot busy street with our packs and asking passersby for information, we did manage to find the station after some initial confusion. We settled all the bags on a bench and then I went running to look for the counter to book our next batch of tickets. There were, get this, no fewer than something like 89 different counters. Each counter sells tickets on behalf of different bus companies, and only to particular destinations. The system was completely unintelligible to me, so I was depending on touts at every corner wanting to direct me to the window they were associated with. There were 3 counters selling tickets to Tanah Rata, and at two of them I was told there were no more seats available today, and certainly none for the 1:30 VIP bus.

At the third counter, I got lucky—there were still tickets for the 3:30 bus. That would get us there after dark, on a local bus, but at least it would get us there that day, sparing us the need to go looking for accommodation in KL. So I bought them.

That accomplished, it was time to find some lunch and bathrooms. Finding them gave us the opportunity to have a good look around the grimy KL bus station. Outside the filthy women’s bathroom, there was a frail little man crouched in a corner gagging. The food court was a repellent display of whole barbecued ducks hanging by their necks (and other delicacies), and Chloe would have no part of it (not that I really wanted any either). The toilets were the usual mess of watery floors, disagreeable odors, squat toilets, stained, soapless sinks and people clearing their throats and spitting. There were also people wandering around wearing face masks, which made me wonder if there was something I should know; maybe it was just ordinary H1N1 fear.

The kids and I decided to look out on the street for better food choices while Mark waited with the bags. At the end of the ramp from the bus station we narrowly avoided stepping in a puddle of vomit. The whole experience left me desperately wanting a shower, but I settled for some Purell, coated everyone in it liberally, and found a KFC across the street. I’m all for sticking with the local cuisine and avoiding American chains, but no matter how hard I try, I just plain don’t like authentic Cantonese food, especially the kind that is sitting out in display cases in the tropical heat for hours before you eat it, especially when the choices are dominated by stewed chicken feet and other unappealing parts. Just not a big fan of lukewarm organ meats, I suppose.

Getting back on the bus was just as eventful as getting off. Despite the profusion of bus platforms in and near the station, we were told to cross the street, head right, and wait at a DiGicellular phone shop for our bus to Tanah Rata. Wondering if we’d been tricked into buying tickets for a ghost bus, we dutifully crossed the street and waited—and sure enough, the bus did come; in fact, it left on time.

That was the good part. We boarded what has got to be the only nasty, dirty, squeaky rattletrap bus in all Malaysia. The entire inside was coated in a layer of soot. There was a hatch in the roof near our seats that leaked when it rained. It made ominous noises every time it rounded a corner sharply or went over a bump. Actually, to be honest, it was still a much, much nicer bus than many we’ve been on in other countries—for example, India. It wasn’t overcrowded. It just wasn’t up to what we expected of a typical Malaysian bus.

Nonetheless, the ride was uneventful until about an hour or two in, when all of a sudden, as we were tearing down the highway, there was a sharp, loud, sudden cracking noise like a gunshot and I felt a strange vibrating impact on my left elbow. I turned and saw a smash mark on the window I was sitting at, with long cracks reaching out from its centre in several directions. Half of the passengers stood up to see what had happened, murmuring and chatting, while the bus driver pulled over to the side of the road. There was some shattered glass along the edge of the window by my arm, but I didn’t seem to be hurt. I got out of the seat, along with Mark, and we moved one seat behind. The driver got out of the bus to see what had happened while all the passengers continued standing and speculating.

It turns out the hole in the window was made by a rock flung by a slingshot—and apparently this has happened before, because there were similar marks elsewhere on the side of the bus (although this was the first to hit a window). We drove on, and an hour later, at Tapah, the driver pulled into a repair depot, where mechanics inspected the damage and temporarily taped the window up with a sheet of black sticky paper to cover the cracked spot. Mark took photos of the window, which I'm in the midst of uploading; check the gallery later for that one and a batch of others, including one of the giant swimming lizard of Melaka.

The rest of the trip went relatively smoothly; we did arrive in the dark, but were able to pay a tout 5 ringgits to bring us to the hotel of our choice, where there was a family room available. More news about our stay here in the Cameron Highlands in a subsequent post!

Posted by The Rymans 21:38 Archived in Malaysia Tagged family_travel Comments (0)

Getting to know Melaka

Back in the land of open sewers

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We arrived in Melaka around 6 pm on Sunday, right smack in the middle of the biggest national holiday this nation enjoys: Hari Raya Puasa, the end of Ramadan. We were hungry and tired of sitting down after a five-hour bus ride from Singapore, so we headed straight out for dinner, equipped with a trusty hand-drawn map provided to us by the manager of our guest house. We followed the map religiously, but somehow managed to get completely, utterly lost as the sun went down. It was a particularly bad time to be lost, since due to the holiday, the majority of shops, restaurants and even hotels were shut down. After it had become completely dark and we were all starving and had no idea where we were, we ducked into a gas station to ask for help. The attendant, an elderly Chinese man, saw us coming, grinned at us, waved both hands while shaking his head, and said, "No English," even before we could speak. Optimistically, we blundered ahead anyway, trying every way we could think of to ask for directions to the night market (the one thing that was open in town and which we thought he might recognize). He just laughed and repeated, "No English!" So we left.

After another half hour spent retracing our footsteps, fruitlessly consulting several maps and wondering if we would ever find our way back, we stumbled onto Jonker Walk, a well-known street in Chinatown and the main route for the night market. That wasn't where our hotel was, but at least it was on the map. I would like to say we wandered the market for a while, but wandering wasn't really possible; there were so many people doing the same thing that it was more a case of pushing, shoving, and very slowly making your way forward, leaping into any open space as soon as it opened up. There were hawkers and food stalls everywhere so that the aromas of mysterious foods cooking hung thickly in the air and garbage from discarded foods and drinks littered the ground. There were bright lights and blasting music and more open sewers to dodge. Ciaran was getting jostled at every turn and couldn't see anything at all in front of him, but didn't seem to mind. It took nearly another half-hour for us to turn the corner into another street where we found cafes and bars with little plastic stools at tables out in the streets. We chose one and finally sat down, feeling we really deserved the beer we ordered.

The first thing we had noticed after checking in at our very rundown guest house (just one notch up from the hockey bag rooms at the Topi Inn, we all agreeed) was the smell of open sewers. We'd conveniently forgotten about them during our sojourn in Singapore. It had only taken us a day or two to get used to being back in the land of cleanliness and conveniences, and now it was going take us several more to get used to the real Asia again.

As a result, our first impression of Melaka was not favourable, but now that we've had a few days to check it out by the light of day, we're much happier. It was apparently designated a World Heritage city some years ago, and after a look around, it's not hard to see why. Apparently Melaka was a significant port and trading centre back when Singapore was just a fishing village (hard to believe when you compare them now!), so its history goes back to the early 1500s. It was first colonized by the Portuguese, then the Dutch and finally the British. There are remnants of its history in the buildings and architecture, particularly in the oldest part of the city where we're staying. We've been wondering which of the three colonizers was responsible for the bizarre circular streets leading in all directions that caused us to get so lost when we first arrived.

Another word about the open sewers: there are creatures living in them. Yesterday as we were walking along (single file, as we always do to avoid being run over on streets without sidewalks), I heard a giant splashing sound and turned sharply around, expecting to see that Ciaran had fallen into the gutter during one of his numerous gutter-jumping attempts (which we can't seem to subdue). He was still on the road, but was looking startled and wide-eyed. Since he wasn't in the sewer himself, we assumed he had dropped something heavy into it by accident -- but no, he had not. He said the splashing sound was caused by a giant lizard leaping out and then plunging back in. He's seen this twice. I missed it that time, and I would have wondered whether or not he was making it up, except that this morning I saw the creature myself, swimming capably along in the muddy Sungai River that divides the city: a giant lizard, at least four feet in length, slowly but surely swimming its way down the river. It gave us all a bit of a shiver, but we felt better to imagine all the rats it probably gobbles up.

We stayed at the Eastern Heritage Guest House for our first two nights in Melaka, but were not impressed with its windowless rooms, lack of mosquito nets, feeble bedside fans or single filthy shared bathroom, so this morning we'ved into better digs here at the Discovery Cafe. For the same price, we have air-con and a clean attached bathroom, so we think we'll stay an additional night. There is actually a public pool here in Melaka, but it's been closed all this time for the holiday and opens again tomorrow. Our plan is to see what else remains to be seen this afternoon, and spend tomorrow swimming and catching up on some school work before we head to Tanah Rata in the Cameron Highlands the next day.

We found a McDonald's in the new part of the city yesterday and are only partly embarrassed to confess to having eaten there. We could find little else appealing that was open during the holiday (the pig's organ porridge at the food court didn't entice any of us) and were in desperate need of some A/C and a place to sit. Ciaran got a Happy Meal that came with one of those lame little plastic toys that would normally keep him busy for about three minutes. In this case, he spent well over an hour playing with it and at one point declared that it was "the best toy ever" and that he would likely still be playing with it in India several months from now. I thought how low his standards have sunk to think of a dollar-store pinball-type gadget as the best thing he has to play with. Yikes. Wait until he returns to Ottawa and rediscovers Lego...

Posted by The Rymans 22:30 Archived in Malaysia Tagged family_travel Comments (1)

Easy street

A taste of home in Singapore

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I thought I'd try to offer some more details about our brief stay in Singapore before I move on to an update about how Malaysia is treating us so far.

For the first two nights, we stayed at a great hostel called Footprints in Little India, where the kids loved the bunk beds, air conditioning and general cleanliness. They also lucked into a big flat-screen TV with Playstation in the lounge area, and spent an hour on two separate occasions playing soccer with each other. That all ended when Ciaran nearly broke Chloe's arm during some dispute that I didn't witness, but it was good while it lasted.

On our first afternoon there, we headed to Sim Lim tower, a high-tech shopping mecca with about five storeys of shops all selling phones, computers, video games, watches and other electronics. We were so dazzled by the display after a month in one-storey Bali that we lost ourselves in that complex for about an hour. We were offered a spectacular deal on new Nintendo DS games, but left without buying anything more than a new adaptor for the systems so that we could start recharging them again. We decided to mull over the purchase of more games before taking the plunge.

We didn't have time to explore every neighbourhood, but had a good look around Little India and Orchard Road before heading to the zoo the next day. A zoo is a zoo -- I won't ramble on about every single exhibit -- suffice it to say that this was a highlight of the trip for both kids, second only to Waterbom Park in Bali. The best moment for both was being kissed by a seal named Carlos during a show near the end of our visit there.

While in Singapore, we ate mainly at Indian restaurants, getting nameless thalis in little corner shops and giant dosais in others. For his first venture into dosais, Ciaran tried a "cone dosai" which looked like a giant party hat (wide at the bottom, pointed on top) and was actually taller than him when it arrived at our table. We took photos but I haven't uploaded them yet.

For our third night, we stayed with friends Paul and Naomi at their condo quite close to the hostel. If the zoo was the highlight for the kids, our stay at Sunshine Plaza was the highlight for the adults: the best coffee, softest pillows and coldest beers we've had since we left Ottawa, topped off by cereal with fresh milk the next morning (unheard of here in the land of styrofoam-textured cold white toast and greasy omelettes for breakfast). We were planning to leave the next day on a 1:30 pm bus to Melaka, and were supposed to be at the bus station by 1:15. At 1:20, we were still back in Sim Lim buying those Nintendo games we'd been pondering (40 games for $50!!). We dashed back to Paul & Naomi's house, finished packing, and realized there was no time to walk to the bus station -- in fact, there was hardly enough time even to drive there, and in any case we'd used up the last of our Singapore dollars. Paul & Naomi saved the day by hailing us a cab and giving us some cash, and we made it to the station just in time. Many thanks to our fabulous hosts!

The bus trip to Melaka was peaceful and uneventful -- we got to listen to our iPods while the kids immersed themselves in their new games. Melaka itself has been a good adventure so far, but I'll save that for another post.

Posted by The Rymans 22:16 Archived in Singapore Tagged family_travel Comments (1)

Managing on the road

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Since I have four minutes of internet time left I thought some of you might like to know more generally how we're coping with life on the road. The kids are doing fabulously well, I have to say -- they're enjoying the trip and are extremely adaptable. Ciaran's reading is really coming along; he can now read the Wimpy Kid diary books by himself, which is a giant leap from where he began in August.

Our one weakness seems to be in keeping track of our stuff. We're leaving a trail across Asia. Since we left home, we've managed to lose a frisbee, Chloe's hat, Chloe's goggles, my watch, one of my sarongs, a bottle of shampoo and I think there were other things but I've lost track of my mental list somewhere along the way as well. Need to do a better job of that! Also, after all that dithering over whether or not to buy/take Nintendo DS's along with us, we took them but failed to bring along a converter, so were unable to use or recharge them throughout Bali. Of course we've put that situation right now that we're in Singapore by buying an Asian adaptor. Woo-hoo!

Posted by The Rymans 19:27 Archived in Singapore Tagged family_travel Comments (2)

Whizzing through Singapore

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Well, we survived Bali and have now turned up in Singapore. We've been here just two nights and will leave tomorrow for Melaka, Malaysia. I have about 12 more minutes of free internet here at the hostel before I get booted out of the system, so apologies for the quick, short and unedited entry!

Our last night in Bali was interesting. We headed out for dinner around 7:30 pm and had just ordered beers and milkshakes when the power went out. The power often goes out, but is usually restored within a minute or two. In this case, we sat in the darkness for several minutes before the waitress brought out candles, then sat there for another 45 minutes playing cards and waiting....but still no power. We left in search of a restaurant on a block that did have power, but it was a futile search: as it turns out, most of the island was in darkness. The kids had still not had their milkshakes, and were starving, so we found some peanuts, crackers and juice boxes for them and called that dinner.

Back at the hotel room, which was still in total darkness, we went to bed without fans or air-con. The rooms were like saunas (we had two separate rooms), which made sleeping difficult. Difficult turned to impossible, for me anyway, after Mark speculated on the possibility of the power outage being related to another terrorist attack, since by then it had been out for several hours. We were wondering if we might run into problems leaving the country the next morning.

The power finally came back on around midnight, nearly five hours after it had first gone out. But we'd set the alarm to go off shortly after 4 a.m., so I never really did get to sleep.

The flight to Singapore was just 2.5 hours long and totally uneventful. Our first impression of Singapore is that it seems a paragon of organization and efficiency. Every travel-related task here is just a breeze. The kids are also loving it. I sent Ciaran to brush his teeth the first evening and told him not to worry about bringing his water bottle along with him, since he could just use the tap water here. He said, "Mom, I LOVE Singapore!" Chloe, for her part, has decided she'd like to live here some day. It's clean, fun, and far more interesting than Ottawa, she figures.

We spent yesterday at the Singapore Zoo, which was a great hit with the kids despite monsoonal downpours for much of the day. We're having dinner with friends of ours who live here tonight (hi Paul!) and then tomorrow we're off by bus to Malaysia. More news when I have more internet time!

Posted by The Rymans 19:18 Archived in Singapore Tagged family_travel Comments (0)

Getting out of Dodge

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I've finally stumbled across a broadband connection and so have just uploaded about a dozen and a half new photos from the last few weeks. I'll just put one or two on this page; if you want to see more, check out the photo gallery (look for the link, I'm sure it's here somewhere!).

Since our last entry, we’ve been through the resort town of Sanur briefly and have now turned up in Nusa Lembongan, a tiny island about an hour by ferry from Bali. We’re all much happier here without all the animal life that plagued us in Padangbai, from enormous cockroaches to rats, bats and bedbugs.

Padangbai itself is actually a cute, mellow little place. When we visited 11 years ago, it was really more of a fishing village and jumping-off point for ferries to the Gili islands and Lombok. There were a few small budget hotels and restaurants, a nice beach we remembered known as the Blue Lagoon, and that was about it. Since then, it has evolved into a destination in its own right, with dozens more hotels, restaurants, shops, money changers and dive operations. Most of the hotels front a stretch of beach where the fishing boats tie up, and there are backpackers and divers wandering around all over the place. It still has a great, easygoing vibe.

All in all, not a bad place to be. But we chose to settle in at the Topi Inn, which was our main mistake. We liked the sound of it—it was supposed to be an open, breezy place with hammocks strung up here and there, common areas, a book exchange and “enthusiastic” owners who arrange cultural workshops and so on. When we emailed to make a booking, we were told by the owner that we could only do so by paying for the room in full ahead of time for as many nights as we wanted it. This involved traipsing around Ubud for ages looking for the local branch of BNI Bank and then figuring out how to deposit money into the Topi Inn owner’s account. We needed two rooms for four nights, at a cost of $28/night (a third of our daily budget), so once we had made our deposit, we were committed.

The Topi Inn was everything the guide book promised in many ways – there were hammocks, open common areas, excellent food, helpful staff and so on. But the rooms themselves were beyond grim. There were just five of them, all situated on the second floor directly above the kitchen, all about the size of a school locker. Constructed out of wood and bamboo, they offered zero buffer from the noises and smells of the kitchen—we went to bed listening to the sound of vegetables being chopped, pots clattering about, cooks chatting, music playing and other travellers in the common area skyping their boyfriends back home about overdoing the mushrooms. If someone so much as scratched themselves or blew their nose in a neighbouring room, we could hear it.

Chloe and I began in a squalid, tiny windowless room with bunk beds and an attached bathroom, but that was the only room without a mosquito net, so we moved the next day into a different, equally tiny room with a net. We lucked into a window this time, which made the room almost bearable—although now we had given up our bathroom and how had to use the shared ones. Mark and Ciaran were stuck in a cell of a room with no window at all where the temperature seemed to hover constantly around 40C and kitchen smells hung constantly in the air. (No bathroom for them either.) Mark likened it to being locked inside a hockey bag. The only upside to Mark and Ciaran’s room was that they didn’t see any cockroaches (of course, that doesn't mean anything, does it?). As I think I mentioned earlier, Chloe and I got quite a shock in our room when a spectacularly large one skittered out of our toiletry kit and ran under the bed. There was no way Chloe was going to bed after that until we’d checked every nook and cranny with a flashlight—as she put it, she wasn’t taking any chances. I didn’t tell her this, but I saw two more of these creatures in the shared bathroom (which, incidentally, was often filthy, out of both toilet paper and soap, and was the only bathroom for about 12 guests).


Enough about the bad hotel, though—we did also have some fun in Padangbai. We began by checking out the Blue Lagoon, but after Chloe and I got tossed around in some powerful waves and came out with coral cuts, we decided it wasn’t a very family-friendly place. We swam instead at a beach we found about 15 minutes away with white sand and crashing waves. Well, I say “swim” but that’s a bit of a stretch; the waves were so powerful and large that swimming wasn’t really safe or possible. The main upside was the lack of rocks and other travellers. The kids amused themselves by staying near the edge of the surf and letting it bowl them around. I went in once or twice but gave up after a giant wave tossed me up like a small cookie with enough force to actually tear off the bottom of my bathing suit and then spit me out onto the sand, scuffed up and with a mouthful of saltwater.

The third day was the charm; we hired a fisherman to take us out snorkelling at a small, much calmer bay called Teluk Jepun.

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We had decided our next destination would be Nusa Lembongan, which is reached by ferry from Sanur, so we left Padangbai for Sanur, spent just one night at a lovely, cheap little homestay called Keke’s, and arrived here in Nusa Lembongan a couple of days ago. I’m still feeling somewhat the worse for wear from Padangbai…a bit sunburnt, with itchy mosquito bites and bedbug bites, coral cuts that are still healing, and a mild but mysterious rash on my arms. Also, I keep waking up with both of my entire arms so asleep that I can hardly even feel my fingers. Yesterday it took most of the day for my fingers to feel normal again. Today has been slightly better but it’s still sort of annoying. My fingers and toes are all somewhat swollen, probably from the heat. Of course, everyone else has adapted to the heat very well. I seem to be the only one with this problem.

Nusa Lembongan is a sleepy little island where the main economic pursuits are salt production and seaweed gathering. We were initially shown to a set of basic rooms here at Mainski Resort that looked about as appealing as those at Topi Inn – no mosquito nets, windows that didn’t lock or close properly, crooked, chipped furniture and so on. We had paid for these ahead of time too (we don’t learn, do we??), so right away we had a sinking feeling: shit, we’ve done it again! But we were able to remedy the problem this time by upgrading to a more expensive room with air-con. The pool here is a bit murky and there is far too much seaweed for the ocean to look appealing, but the kids are enjoying it.

Yesterday we explored the nearby village a bit and lucked into some cock fighting. Perhaps that’s a strange way to put it, but since none of us have ever seen cock fighting before, we were interested. That is, Mark and I were interested; both of the kids were appalled that a) cock fighting happens at all and b) we would want to witness it. Chloe in particular was outraged, saddened, disgusted, and of course disappointed with her parents, and stood outside the temple looking upset the entire time.

It was fascinating, actually; it was really well-organized. A small group of men in sarongs, hats and matching white shirts were clearly in charge. They stood in the ring giving instructions and assessing the various cocks to establish which pair would give a good fight. Meanwhile, a good deal of betting was going on—if you wanted to bet small money, you were part of the outer ring, while those on the inside bet larger amounts -- as much as $2,500, we were told. (The owner of the winning cock collects 10 per cent of the money wagered.) Most of those watching were men—probably about 150 of them—many of whom had brought along their own roosters in bamboo cages for later matches. The air was filled with the sounds of men shouting out bets and spitting betel juice, organizers calling out instructions, and dozens of caged roosters crowing raucously. Every so often a rooster would become agitated enough to tip its basket over onto one side (and Chloe would edge into the temple and right the basket).

When the white-shirted men had finally selected the two cocks that would fight in the first match, each rooster was fitted with a blade on one foot, strapped on by its owner. After the blades had been strapped on, the cocks were placed in the ring and started going at each other, pecking and clawing. Any time one rooster went down, a bell would clang. After just a few minutes and several clangs of the bell, they were both down; their owners put them back in their baskets, and the first one to regain its feet was declared the winner. (We were all relieved that nobody died, although Chloe insists she saw a rooster with a leg torn off.) I didn’t personally see any blood, but I’m short so I'm not assuming that means there wasn’t any. Apparently this cock fighting will go on almost all day, every day this week, until it moves to another island--so it's a bit of a main event here on Lembongan just now. We were also told the best roosters are those from Thailand because they can fly, which gives them an advantage.

Chloe was never so happy to leave a place, and warned us later that night not to blame her if she “woke up whimpering” from a nightmare related to cock fighting. We did reflect after the fact that maybe taking the kids to a cock fight was not a top parenting choice—but it certainly made for an unusual morning.

Today is our last day in Nusa Lembongan, and we spent a few hours snorkelling again. We had made our arrangements on the beach yesterday with a local fisherman, and the plan was to visit nearby Mushroom Bay, which has a beautiful seaweed-free beach, then do some snorkelling. But the fisherman, Helly, showed up this morning and said going to Mushroom Bay would not be possible because the swells were too big and a boat had already sunk this morning. We thought maybe old Helly was just trying to make his own life easier by taking us to a nearby mangrove area instead, but we later found out that the story was true -- in fact, the boat that sunk had two kids on it from our hotel, according to another traveller I talked to this morning. We went out anyway, but only to the mangrove area -- very choppy water and strong currents, but lots of fun nonetheless. Both kids are becoming expert snorkellers! We'll spend the rest of the day hanging out by the pool and trying to fit some school work in. Ciaran has got us set up with some dinner plans -- we're joining a New Zealand couple we've met who have a kid named Jed the same age as Ciaran.

Tomorrow we’re off to Sanur again early in the morning by ferry. We’ll have three days there before we fly to Singapore, and we plan to spend one of them at Waterbom, a big water park in nearby Kuta that is supposed to be a blast for kids. We figure it’s the least we can do for them after the hockey-bag hotel room, bedbugs, cockroaches and cock fights.

We have no easy internet access in Sanur, so this may be my last update from Bali. We’ll be in Singapore for three days from Sept. 17 to 20, then off to Malaysia by bus.

Posted by The Rymans 00:49 Archived in Indonesia Tagged family_travel Comments (4)

Trekking in Munduk, roughing it in Padangbai

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Apologies upfront for those who take their verb tenses seriously: I began writing this in the present tense while I was still in Munduk, and finished it several days later here in Padangbai, and haven't got the battery power left right now to edit and make it all consistent. I'm also still hoping to get photos up at some point....not sure when, though!

To pick up where I left off before: At the end of our long, expensive drive from Ubud to Munduk, we were excited to be shown our room at the Puri Alam Bali Hotel: it has a queen-sized bed in the main room and two twin beds in a second room. Two bedrooms! What a find after squeezing into a single room with one of the mattresses on the floor for 10 days in Ubud. The bathroom is also a cut above average. The staff are a little unusual; the hotel has eight rooms, but I’ve only ever seen two people working here, whether at the front desk or the restaurant or cleaning the rooms. One of them has the air, bearing and mannerisms of an undertaker: he speaks slowly, quietly and soothingly, with little expression in tone or on his face. It’s rather as if he’s trying to hypnotize you while he speaks. I suspect that along with running the front desk, cleaning the rooms, and taking the food orders at the restaurant, he also cooks the meals. Strangely, he keeps asking us to order our food at least an hour before we’d like to eat it. Last night as we settled our dinner bill, he asked if he would like to order our breakfast ahead of time. Usually by the time the food arrives, it is nearly completely cold…even the eggs. Cold fried eggs, yum! I think that’s because Mr. Sepulchral is single-handedly juggling sixteen different hotel-related tasks, literally trying to be in all places at once. If you see him at the main floor reception area and mention that you’d like to order lunch, he says sure, go ahead up to the restaurant. So you go ahead, but no one’s there. You grab a menu, take it to your room to look it over, and return to the restaurant—and there he is, notepad in hand.

Today, our first full day in Munduk, we decided to hire a guide and go trekking. We were assigned Ketut, whose English has apparently been deemed “intermediate.” (The price list for guides assigns different dollar figures depending on their level of English. A guide with no English costs $3 per hour; for intermediate English, $5 per hour. If you must have a guide who speaks “experienced” English, the price is $7 per hour. We decided that no English at all was probably going to be a little bit pointless, but we were too thrifty to spring for an expert.)

Ketut—whose name means that he is his parents’ fourth child—turned out to be just fine, and led us on a three-hour walk that took us first through orchards of clove, coffee, cacao, guava, papaya, avocado, vanilla and jackfruit before leading us through rice fields and home again. We picked at least one of each fruit we could reach—lots of cloves (we could see large sheets of those drying in the sun in front of farms we passed), a few guavas, and cacao pods. He was able to explain, sometimes with the help of comical gestures, some of the plants’ various healing properties. Guava, for example, is eaten to treat diarrhea while another leafy plant whose name I forget can be squashed, soaked in water and then the water extracted to combat the opposite problem. The kids just loved Ketut acting out irritable bowel syndrome.

Ketut was particularly good with Ciaran. They began the walk holding hands, joking and chatting, and Ketut ended up carrying him about a third of the way on his back and later on his shoulders. He has a four-year-old son himself and seemed to easily strike up a rapport. We met his family as we walked out of town towards the trail.

We tried different treks on each of our remaining two days in Munduk—one that took us up to what is reputed to be the largest banyan tree in Bali (and it really was impressive) and another that took us on a tour of several waterfalls. We managed those ones on our own. Descending from the banyan tree trek, we ran into a gaggle of school kids. Communicating mainly through gestures and our rudimentary knowledge of how to translate Indonesian numbers from one to ten, we managed to exchange names and ages. Chloe then took out a piece of looseleaf paper and made an airplane, and passed it along to one of them. That seemed to start an airplane-making frenzy (they had some of their own paper, since they were on their way home from school), and we continued behind them on the trail, catching and throwing paper airplanes, for about half an hour.

All of this was a few days ago, and now we’re back on the coast, in Padangbai, formerly a quaint fishing village but now transformed into something of a backpacker mecca. There are a few beaches nearby and some snorkelling to be done, but we all got too much sun today so we’re putting that off another day. The most interesting feature of our stay in Padangbai so far has been this guest house we’re staying in. We thought we’d save some money by staying at this quirky, cheap little place with just five rooms above a popular café. Well, the café itself and all of the guesthouse’s common areas are actually fabulous…but these rooms. What can I say? They’re really more like lockers in size, and about as breezy; the walls are bamboo, so you can hear everything through them. They’re located above the kitchen, so well into the night and again early in the morning you can actually hear chopping, slicing and banging of pots going on, and smell the foods cooking. Today when we came home from dinner and I opened a toiletry kit in my room to get some toothbrushes out, a gigantic cockroach went skittering out of the kit and under the bed. Chloe nearly jumped out of her skin. Ciaran reassured us that he had seen just such a creature at Ray’s Reptiles and it was all good.

Also on the subject of interesting wildlife, there has been a bat in here both of the last two evenings, and we saw our first rat while walking home from dinner. It came out of a sewer and ran into a garbage pile and we could hear it squeaking as we went by. Lovely! I tucked the mosquito net in pretty thoroughly before getting into bed tonight. We have two more nights here before we move on to Sanur and possibly Nusa Lembongan – hopefully to better rooms in both places.

Posted by The Rymans 06:55 Archived in Indonesia Tagged family_travel Comments (2)

Getting to Munduk

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I have lots of great new photos, but they'll have to wait another day because the internet speed all over the island is horrifically slow and just now I don't have two hours to wait while all the new pics upload! Also, my computer time lately has been pretty limited so I'm posting this without much editing...please excuse typos and rambling!

Our last few days in Ubud were quiet. Chloe was recovering from a classic case of “Bali Belly” (nothing serious) and Ciaran came down with a high fever, headache, vomiting and body aches—all the classic symptoms of, well, just about everything that would worry you, from malaria to dengue fever to influenza to minor mysterious viruses. He recovered in about 24 hours, so in the end we chalked it up to either food poisoning or a virus. He took it all in stride and has been emailing his friends to boast that he got to have Gatorade, Sprite and ginger ale all in one day.

He recovered just in time to accompany us on what turned into an all-day shopping spree on our last full day in Ubud. Ubud is a souvenir paradise as well as being the artistic heart of Bali, with galleries and artwork sprouting up everywhere, so we went on a bit of a blitz and then spent the last part of the afternoon getting it all shipped home. Altogether we sent home about 12 kg, which cost $60 by sea and will take several months to arrive. There are shops here that specialize not just in taking your money and stamping your package, but in custom wrapping your items as well. In our case, we were shipping a few paintings, including one fairly large one that was several feet long when rolled. So the shopkeeper who put together our parcel had his work cut out for him: Leaving his shop wide open with the four of us sitting on its front steps (we marvelled over how this would never happen in Canada), he took off down the street with our rolled-up paintings and returned about 20 minutes later with them safely contained in a solid plastic roll. Then he proceeded to carefully and painstakingly dissect two large shipping boxes and reassemble them into a single box long enough to accommodate the roll. We piled everything else in on top of the paintings, after which he cut, carved and taped some more until the box was just the right size. By then an hour had elapsed; it was 4 p.m. and he was due at a ceremony, so he had to stop his work. He told us that the next step would be to wrap the box in white plastic, tape the address on and, finally, send it off. We had to take his word for it that these last steps would actually happen.

The next morning we had breakfast with Jipi, a Canadian ex-pat who’s taken up residence in Ubud and has been living there for more than a decade. A mutual friend had put us in touch. It was fascinating to get Jipi’s take on how Ubud has developed since we were last here a dozen years ago. It turns out it’s not just my imagination or a case of rose-colored glasses: the place has changed dramatically since then, he said, with a tremendous increase in traffic and development. Rice fields that used to line Monkey Forest Road have been turned into hotels, motorbikes clog streets that used to be pedestrian-friendly, and tourists continue to multiply: this summer, he said, there were a few who had to sleep in the field across from the library because every single room in town was booked. He had similar stories of the transformations of other small towns we remembered enjoying last time around.

While in my opinion the proliferation of motorbikes is the scourge of Bali, the kids object more strongly to the scattered wrappers, water bottles, cigarette packages and other bits of garbage strewn along roadsides and clogging the gutters—even here in Munduk, town of orchards and waterfalls.

We left for Munduk right after breakfast. It began as a straightforward enough transfer: an overpriced ($35) two-hour ride in an air-conditioned Jeep Kijang. But our driver, Made, had other ideas. Why not stop off at the Bali Reptile Park on the way? The kids would love it. And if we agreed, he could take us on a small detour to “the best view in all of Bali” – as long as we were okay with paying him an extra $10 to cover the additional cost of gas. Since those two stops added at least two hours to our journey, everybody was starving by 1 p.m. and we were obliged to stop for lunch. Of course, Made knew just the perfect spot for us: a place in a little village named Pacung with a spectacular view. By the time we were seated, we felt bound to stay for the soggy, greasy, buffet slop that cost us a shocking and exorbitant total of $34 (up until now in Bali, we’ve been able to feed the entire family for somewhere between $8 and $12 per meal). Looking at the guidebook later on, we discovered that drivers who bring guests to this restaurant often collect half the cost of their lunch. Total cost for the day: $35 for the transfer to Munduk, $30 to enter the reptile park, $10 for the detour to a view and $34 for lunch. It’s going to take a while to earn that all back. We wondered at the end of it: Have we gone soft??? We may need to bring a healthier dose of skepticism to our dealings in the future. It’s proving more difficult than we expected to slip back into flinty backpacker mode after a decade of living large on short holidays.

While the ridiculous lunch was undoubtedly the most frustrating of the many expenses, the reptile farm was a close second, at least in my opinion. The one thing that I thought might justify the expense was the reputed presence of a Komodo dragon (according to our guidebook, which also said the park contained numerous species of reptiles from across Indonesia and Africa). But after we had bought the tickets and entered the park, a guide told us the dragon was no longer there. Aside from one or two caged snakes, including a king cobra, we saw nothing but crocodiles—dozens and dozens of them, every shape and size, either beached on rocks and looking completely dehydrated, or lying still in shallow, swampy-looking concrete pools. The visit was narrowly saved by the fact that we happened to arrive just in time to catch the daily show. Up on a type of large concrete stage, two Indonesian men seemed to be working some sort of magic with four or five large crocodiles. After completing a ritual involving prayer, flowers and incense, they started herding the giant beasts onto the concrete stage from the neighbouring pool with long bamboo poles, poking and prodding them as if to irritate them on purpose. Then one of the men would take a sip of some mysterious liquid, spit it onto the crocodile’s snout in a forceful spray, and perform insane feats, like sticking his head inside the crocodile’s mouth or lying down on top of it or, in the case of the baby crocodile, picking it up bodily and waving its arm at the crowd to scattered applause.

When the show was over, we wandered the rest of the compound in search of exotic reptiles from multiple continents, but could find nothing but dozens and dozens of crocodiles. The one item of interest was actually a plant whose leaves flattened and closed when you touched it.

I suppose maybe the plant and the show could have been worth the $30, but that’s where I draw the line. It was after the reptile park that we agreed to a detour to a tiny village named Jatiluwih, home to the aforementioned best view in all of Bali. There’s no denying the view was spectacular: off in the distance we could see the island’s largest volcanoes, just partially shrouded in early afternoon cloud cover, and it was truly a stunning vista of terraced rice paddies, coconut trees and forest. It was just annoying because from that point onward as we headed north to Munduk, we saw that view again and again, and it was often more spectacular (not to mention unobscured by power lines, which had made it difficult to get a good photo in Jatiluwih). To top it off, as it happens, we’ve decided we actually have the best view of all from our hotel balcony—free of charge.

Posted by The Rymans 05:41 Archived in Indonesia Tagged family_travel Comments (2)

Heading for the hills

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It's been a quiet last few days here in Ubud, although we shopped up a storm yesterday and sent off a 12-kg package of souvenirs. There is quite a bit more I could say, but a car will be waiting for us in about 10 minutes so it will have to wait. We're off to Munduk, a really small village in north Bali at about 1,000 metres, where the focus will be on trekking and getting some exercise and fresh air (and escaping all the traffic!). I doubt we'll have internet access there, so there'll be no more updates or photos for about a week. More news later!

Posted by The Rymans 18:36 Archived in Indonesia Tagged family_travel Comments (4)

Ciaran’s Hat Trick of Dangerous Activities

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First of all, thanks everyone for the comments you’ve been adding. For now, it’s all I can do to keep up the blog posts and upload the odd photo, so I haven’t been able to reply, but we do all like to see the comments!

I titled this entry “Ciaran’s Hat Trick of Dangerous Activities”—but strictly speaking, it was more than a hat trick. In a nutshell, today he rode in the front seat of an ancient pick-up truck with no seatbelt, later bounced around for miles in the flatbed back of the same truck, and finished off his day with a ride on a motorcycle in the dark with no helmet. He also drove a mountain bike (also without a helmet) that was too big for him down winding roads through several villages alongside all the usual traffic I’ve been describing lately, and accidentally startled a likely-poisonous snake while hopping across ditches near a rice paddy.

Before anyone starts to wonder what finally became of him after all that, he’s now safely tucked into his bamboo-frame bed, snoring away. As we crossed the bridge from Monkey Forest Road to our guesthouse in the dark, reviewing the highlights of the day, he speculated that this might actually have been one of the best, luckiest days of his life. “But imagine how much better it could have been,” he added, “if I got to go play hockey somewhere in Asia now.”

You can take the boy out of Ottawa…well, for a little while, anyway.

All of these most un-Canadian opportunities today came out of a decision we made to join a group of people on a bike tour of rural Bali north of Ubud. The tour was organized and promoted by Augustus, who we know as our breakfast waiter here at Nick’s Pension. Loosely, the program consists of being driven out to a large temple (Gunung Kawi Temple) for an hour-long guided walk around it, followed by nearly three hours of cycling along back roads and trails, stopping frequently at sites of interest, such as spectacular views of rice paddies carved into steep mountainsides or ancient, enormous banyan trees with tiny temples built into their bases. Over the course of three hours, we biked our way nearly all the way back to Ubud, to Augustus’ family home, a traditional Balinese villa complete with its own temple. There we were treated to a tour of his home, a nearly hour-long explanation of Balinese Hinduism, castes and naming traditions, and dinner—a glorious feast consisting of at least eight or nine different Balinese village foods, from plain rice to satays with peanut sauce to chicken curry and a salad of minced jackfruit, chicken, vegetables and spices. And of course, Balinese tea before and after dinner, as well as bananas from Augustus’ own backyard and oranges from the north for dessert.

The day got off to an interesting start when we ran smack into a cremation procession on our way to meet the minivan that would drive us to the starting point for the bike ride. We had been told about this likely procession by a few different people, who seemed to be promoting it as though it were a rock concert or really fascinating busker act: “Hey, you’re going to be in Ubud around August 27? You might get to see a cremation!” Or “Oh, are you heading down Monkey Forest Road around noon? Keep an eye out, you might catch a cremation ceremony!” The Balinese seem to understand that their elaborate ceremonies and rituals are fascinating to outsiders, and are quite willing to share them. As it turns out, the deceased was a grandmother in a family that runs a nearby homestay called Sania’s House. The relatives had assembled just underneath the bridge near our guesthouse to scatter the ashes in the stream below, and they were proceeding back up the alley to the main road when we came across them, with the women at the front all bearing tall baskets of fruit and flowers on their heads. (It’s strange to put it this way, but I guess you could say we lucked into a cremation ceremony.) We brought up the rear, following them all the way up to the main road.

“I think Bali would be a nice place to die,” Chloe said cheerfully, after observing the fruit baskets, the flowers, the incense, the sarong-clad women and the ceremony by the water.

By the time we found ourselves at the meeting point for the trip, everybody else was there already, so we piled into the minivan and got going. It was a bit of a rocky start, since both kids had been complaining of stomach problems, and we were facing a 45-minute drive to our departure point up and down winding mountain roads with nearly constant hairpin turns. Both kids were stuck in the third-row seat where the windows don’t open, with me wedged in between them, so I spent the drive doubting the wisdom of agreeing to this outing. Despite my misgivings (which had more to do with anxiety over being vomited upon in the backseat than with anything else), we arrived with all of our clothes clean and headed off to our temple visit.

To enter the temple, we all had to don sarongs and sashes; the kids loved the ceremony of that. We listened for a while as our guide described the cremation process. When he said that sometimes a family will bury a dead relative for as long as three to five years before exhuming and cremating the body, Chloe abruptly changed her mind about the wisdom of dying in Bali. At the temple she also had her first real encounter with an authentic Asian public toilet. This one was not just any old filthy squat toilet, with mandi and scoop for flushing; it came complete with a wizened little old lady sitting in front of the row of toilets with a donation box. Cost to use the toilet: 1,000 rupiah (about 10 cents). In exchange, you are given a swatch of toilet paper, and had better hope you took enough in with you. I explained most of this to Chloe in advance, so her transaction went relatively smoothly (she tried at first to make off with the entire roll), but she was not impressed with the state of the toilet.

Eventually we exited the temple and hopped on our bicycles, only to find that the one they had in mind for Ciaran was going to be too big. He couldn’t drive it at all at first, since he couldn’t quite reach the handlebars. After some adjustments, he decided he could manage, but it was still going to be difficult going up and down the steep hills. We briefly thought of letting him sit on the back of my bike, but ruled that out when it looked like his toes would get caught in the spokes. In the end, the only solution was to have him ride in the pickup truck that would be shadowing us for the afternoon. Mark hopped in with him, and off we went. We met up regularly at the scheduled stops for explanations and photos. I expected Ciaran to be disappointed, but I think any grumpiness he may have felt about not riding a bike was countered by his excitement at getting to ride in the front seat of the truck. Later, his lucked improved again and he moved to the open back of the truck and, well, you know the rest.

The bike ride was fabulous and scenic, and gave us a different perspective on village life in Bali. Chloe loved how kids her age would yell hello and wave to her as she drove by. I imagine Balinese girls don’t do a lot of bike riding, because our guide marvelled continuously over the way Chloe managed the hills, standing on her pedals with elbows sticking out, refusing to give up and walk up. “She looks like a man,” he said at one point. Meanwhile, Ciaran was high-fived and played with everywhere he stopped.

But the highlight of the day was dinner at Augustus’ house. The kids were champs, and ate nearly everything on offer. We had a chance to meet two of Augustus’ three children, Made and Nyoman, who introduced themselves shyly to Chloe and Ciaran. Before long the four of them were playing, trying to see who could strike the most comedic yoga sitting pose and then wiggle across the floor with their legs all tucked in.

Of course, it wouldn’t have been a typical day if it hadn’t ended strangely. After dinner was over, we were all delivered home separately: Chloe and Mark in different minivans, and Ciaran and I on the back of Augustus’ motorbike. I must say it was a lot of fun zooming down the Ubud roads on the back of a motorbike in the dark with my hair flying in the wind, helmet free. Ciaran and I arrived first, and let ourselves into the room. For some reason, it didn’t occur to me that I should wait out on Monkey Forest Road for Chloe to be delivered (from Monkey Forest, you have to make your way down an alley for about 200 metres, then cross a bridge to our guesthouse). I was thinking Chloe would be arriving at the main entrance to the hotel, and could make her way to our room on her own. As it turns out, she was standing around by herself on Ubud’s busiest road for about 10 minutes before Mark got dropped off in the same place. Then they waited together for 10 more minutes for Ciaran and I to show up, becoming increasingly worried when we didn’t. Needless to say, by the time they strolled over the bridge and up the path to our room, Mark was not amused. But all’s well that ends well, right?

P.S. Apparently there are recent news reports that a passenger ferry just off Bali capsized the other day, killing a dozen or two people. You have probably figured out by now that we weren’t on it!

Some photos from the day

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Posted by The Rymans 20:36 Archived in Indonesia Tagged family_travel Comments (2)

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