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This wasn't my first trip to Malaysia, but my first trip lasted under an hour when I walked across the border to renew my tourist visa for Thailand. This trip was to be a bit more substantial. I went with Deb and Andrea from Tonsai. We took a bus to Hat Yai and a minibus across the border to Georgetown on the island of Penang. In Penang Deb got another 2 month visa for Thailand. We also ate some pretty tasty Indian food, wandered about, shopped, saw a movie (Tuksedo) and took a funicular railway up to the top of Penang Hill. At 800 M this was a good bit cooler than down in the city below.
The next morning Deb headed back to Thailand and Andrea and I took the ferry to Sumatra. This was a rather long trip on a refrigerated boat. Long enough to see some Thai karaoke (nobody was singing along though), Then "I know what you did last summer", "O", and "Home Alone", and back to Karaoke (top ten hits, vol.17). I couldn't completely follow the movies as the soundtracks were a bit too quiet to hear completely. I don't think I missed too much though. Getting off the ferry we met up with Paula and Mats and headed off to find a place to stay in Medan. Medan was dirty. Dirty air, dirty streets, and dirty guesthouses (I am sure there were some nice ones too). It looked like people just burned their trash in front of their residences which didn't help. Also the vehicles all seemed to be belching clouds of smoke. In addition I think nearly all the males in Indonesia smoke. "Dilarang Merokok" means "No Smoking" and must be one of the most ignored signs in the world. Clove cigarettes seemed to be particularly popular.
Breakfast consisted of some excellent bakery items, then we headed towards Bukit Lawang. After waiting well over an hour for the bus that was supposed to come every 40 minutes or so (and others had been waiting longer) we headed off with some guys who said they would hook us up with a minibus. Eventually one showed up and they started shoving people in. These really aren't particularly large vehicles, more like a minivan with 3 bench seats in the back. They are especially tight with 16 (4 more than he said would be in it) people in them and luggage all over the roof, but off we went after repulsing an attempt to raise the price on us. On the way we passed a burned out police station that had been the site of a shootout between the army and the police over a soldier who had been arrested and maybe beat, then the army came to avenge him or something. Anyway the place was a burned out shell and 8 people had died. Not the sort of thing that happens very often where I come from. The pressure on one of the rows was reduced when a guy opened the door and climbed up on the roof (as we drove down the road). We had to pay some perhaps mythical entry fee into Bukit Lawang and then we were there.
Immediately upon arrival we were swamped with touts, especially those for Bukit Lawang Cottages which is a place Deb had stayed until the people trying to get her to go on treks drove her mad and got nasty to her. So we avoided that place and ended up at Indrah Inn, which was a rustic place with a porch over the river and a pool table with some pretty torn felt on it. It seemed that everywhere we went we kept running into the same people wanting to guide us on jungle treks. Considering that we were paying under a dollar a night for the rooms and they could get hundreds of dollars for a trek, I can see why they were pushing them. Still it got a bit old after a few minutes, and believe me it went on a lot longer than that. Tim stayed there for over a month, and he said they were still trying to sell him treks.
Bukit Lawang appeared to be mainly lining the road to town and the river that ran out of the park. We were maybe a kilometer up the river from the end of the road. One of the main attractions here is the orangutan rehabilitation center. This is where they take injured, orphaned, and ex pet trade orangutans and attempt to return them to the wild. This is done in stages. Once they move out of the cages they can continue to get food at the daily feedings. The food consists of bananas and milk with the hope that this bland diet will help encourage them to forage on their own. I saw a number of orangutans in the trees and on the ground across the river near the center when I went swimming the first evening. After we finished swimming it started raining pretty hard and the water turned brown and rose a few feet.
One day I went tubing down the river with Andrea. We rented tubes and carried them a bit upstream. Then we hopped in and away we went. The current was pretty strong and we were carried along at a decent clip. There were a few pretty big standing waves and places where you had to pick your butt up so it wouldn't hit a rock. Also one dam we had to get out to walk around. These were truck inner tubes, not noted for their maneuverability, and the more you paddled, the more they would rub painfully on the inside of your arms. I also got a pretty good ab workout holding my head up to see what was coming. Eventually the rapids became less but we also had to contend with bamboo clumps that had been washed into the river. Not too bad, but a bit of a pain and potentially a strainer type of risk. Andrea was getting pretty sick of it at this point. We looked into getting out at one point but some picnicking locals seemed to be saying it was easier to keep going. We got out where a bamboo bridge crossed the river and headed across the bridge and through a small village and their rice paddies eventually to the road. There we waited a bit for a vehicle (minitruck packed full of people). We lashed to tubes to the roof and climbed up ourselves. We ended up sitting on the top of the cargo box with our feet on the roof of the cab. This was a pretty rural (but paved) road with a lot of stops to let people on and off, so we weren't going too fast. It felt sort of like being on a Mardi Gras float. Especially when the kids would yell and wave at you. I wish I could have gotten a picture (or even have a bucket of beads or candy to throw). In many ways the walk through the village and fields and the ride back was the best part of the jaunt. Carrying the tubes back up the river from the end of the road wasn't so pleasant though.
The next morning I went for a walk to the bat caves. I had only a vague idea how to get there, but it worked. The walk was through a rubber plantation and some corn and vegetable fields. I also saw some black and white monkeys. There was a little gatehouse by the entrance to the caves where they collected money and tried to convince you to rent a flashlight and a guide. No thanks I said and headed up the hill to the entrance. About 2 minutes later I realized some guy was following me. He shadowed me the whole way without saying anything except trying to stop me from climbing up one way (more specifically stopping me from going out a way that I climbed up), I don't think he felt like climbing. There were a series of passageways between sinkholes and collapsed roof sections. Not a lot of speleothems, but some nice big passageways and incredibly high humidity and a bit of a smell. Also a few bats. There seemed to be 2 sizes worth. The neat thing with the big bats was that their eyes glowed orange from the headlamp, an eerie effect when you couldn't see the bat. As I went down one passage a bat suddenly appeared heading for my face, so I ducked somewhat startled thinking that it would have easily dodged around me. Then another bat smacked right into my chest with a thud and flew away. So much for their vaunted sonar system. It looked like I could have explored more passages if I was willing to crawl and squirm through some mud and water, but I didn't know if they would open out again and I didn't feel like getting too mucky.
The next day we got up early to go see the orangutan feeding. It was cool to see them move through the trees. They are big enough that they can't do like squirrels and the smaller monkeys and just fling themselves at branches and grab hold. Instead they were much more deliberate swinging the trees or vines until they could grab something else to move onto. With grabbing hands and feet they still managed to make it look pretty easy. We watched them eat bananas (and carry them off too). The babies were particularly cute, and we were pretty close (within a few feet sometimes). I took a number of pictures, none of which turned out quite the way I wanted.
That evening we ended up at a local wedding party (the more people they can get to come, the more prestige?). It was interesting to see. One oddity was a woman who could dance rather actively with a water bottle balanced on her head.
We took a tourist minibus to lake Toba. This turned out to be the most normal transportation leg in all of Sumatra. Although evidently the bus failed to pick up some passengers who had to catch up to us at Berastagi. Among these passengers were Gerry and Din who ended up staying and travelling further with us.
Lake Toba is a caldera lake (one of the largest lakes in SE Asia, and supposedly the largest and deepest crater lake in the world) with a large (the size of Singapore) peninsula "island" in it. We took the ferry boat across to Tuk Tuk, the main tourist town on the island. The touts here actually were somewhat helpful in that they had little brochures and books with pictures of the rooms. We ended up with 4 of us getting beds in a dorm room at Bagus Bay (we were the only ones in it) for 5,000 Rp a night each. The exchange rate was somewhere between 8500 and 9000 Rp to the US$, so pretty cheap (although with some good bargaining we could probably have lowered it even further). The food unfortunately wasn't as cheap. This room was the second floor of a semi traditional Batak house with the upswept (buffalo horn shaped) roof. The bathroom had only cold water, but we could walk to a hot shower too. AHHHH. Especially as we were above 9000 meters and it could be rather cold. Especially at night or when it was rainy.
One day we went to the relatively non-tourist Siantar (cheap internet, food, and real banks). Getting back was a bit interesting. For starters it was raining, so walking around was less pleasant. We ended up trooping through a very tight covered market and trying to speak Indonesian very unsuccessfully. Whenever the locals saw Din (from Thailand) they unleashed a torrent of Indonesian at him. Eventually we managed to find a guy who stuck us on the right mini to the bus station where we found another crowded minibus back to Parapat fairly easily.
Bagus Bay had traditional Batak music and dancing performances from time to time. The dancing was fairly monotonous as the women mostly tapped their toes in time to the music and held their hands like they were praying with the fingers moving from pointing forward to pointing up. There was one bit where one hopped about with a bowl on her head, but that was the exception. The announcer for the performance was a little old man who played the bottle (he hit it with a stick) and had rather limited English. He also left rather long pauses between words at places where they were not needed. This made it rather hard to follow what he was saying. It was almost painful to watch. Then Paula and Gerry started looking at each other and nearly bursting into laughter… The singers were much more enthusiastic. They belted out Batak songs including yodeling and drunken staggering and seemed to enjoy it immensely.
One day here Andrea and Paula did some sunbathing. This seemed to be ok for Andrea, but Paula got rather crisped, and was in various stages of discomfort for some time. We rented motorbikes and drove around to the other side of the island and onto the mainland to some hot springs. It was a bit too hot at the time to want to get into hot water, so we swam in the lake instead. Then headed back. We stopped at the sign that said "Karaoke Museum". It was an old Kings house where the guy dressed us up as the royalty would have dressed. Unfortunately the kingdom wasn't more than a few square miles. There was no Karaoke museum, but at night they did have karaoke there.
The last day at lake Toba I was walking around when I ran into a number of groups of Indonesian students that wanted to practice there English. One group was nursing students who had a very wide range of skill in English.
The next morning was October 13th and we found out about the Bali bombing that morning. They had some sort of satellite news, but it wasn't CNN, and they weren't speaking English mostly. Still we managed to piece together mostly what had happened (as well as anyone knew at the time). The locals seemed to be sad, puzzled, and angry about it. Nobody thought that it was a local Bali or even an Indonesian group that had done it, and everybody thought that it would hurt tourism. We took the ferry into town to take a bus to Bukittinggi. We took a ratty minibus to the bus station and waited and waited. I picked up an "ice cream sandwich" from a vendor while waiting. This was a true sandwich, with the ice cream inside a bun!!! Actually not too bad. As soon as we got to the station the guy offered to take us there for a bit more in a mini bus. We said "no thanks, we'll take the bus". A bit later he started talking about how there was flooding between here and Medan and the other day the bus was 3 hours late. This kept on. Eventually we took a look at the minibus (it was a new one), and bargained them down to 11000 Rp each more to take the minibus. He argued that we wouldn't be packed into a bus, and we could stop wherever we wanted for dinner and at a hot spring if we wanted…
Not surprisingly, this was another trip that didn't go as advertised. For starters, the guy that drove us to the station and negotiated the trip was not the driver. Instead we got some leadfoot who couldn't speak any English. For some reason I wasn't particularly scared we'd run off the road, but I thought we might hit someone or an animal. Gerry was in the front seat which was the scary seat. He tried to get the guy to slow down, but without any luck. This was a driver who didn't see a vehicle he didn't want to pass. After it got dark we would be barreling along until he saw some taillights. Then we sped up until we were tailgating right behind them, then with a toot of the horn or 10 he'd try to pass. As in all of Asia this would just as likely be on a blind hill or curve. One section was particularly hilly and twisty and I was not the only one that started to feel somewhat nauseous. We stopped for a short break and when we were getting back in to drive on the driver threw some luggage in the back and 2 others tried to get in. wait a minute we said. Of course we couldn’t really communicate delicate things like it was ok if he wanted to pick up more people, but since we had chartered the vehicle we should be the ones who get any money from them… Not being able to communicate anything like that we declined to get squished in tight.
The next morning we got up pretty early and started looking for a bit more suitable place to stay. Supposedly this town has some of the cleanest air, but it seemed pretty hazy and smoky to me. There were a few big volcanos nearby but often we couldn't see them. Bukittinggi was the biggest town of the Minangkabau people. The market here was huge and was on a number of different levels as it spilled down the hillside. Unfortunately there was a lot of duplication so there were many stalls that sold pretty much exactly what their neighbors sold. The fried food at this market was particularly cheap, and often pretty tasty, although it could be hard to tell exactly what you were going to get all the time.
Another day trip was to Lake Minanjau. This is another crater lake and is supposedly very beautiful. Unfortunately it was so hazy we couldn’t see the lake from the crater rim. The things near the bus were pretty, but the postcard I saw was much more spectacular than what we saw. There were 44 numbered switchbacks down to the lakeshore. The bus we took here was like a normal bus that had been shrunk 15%. Everything was a bit smaller including the seats. We got off the bus in town, but unfortunately that was the wrong place for the beach. We wandered around to a gravelly river delta and swam there although there were a few questionable objects floating in the water. Then we headed back and talked with school children for a while and hit a restaurant. After about an hour, (others had been waiting 1.5 hours) looked for someone to ask how long the food would take and they said 20 minutes (We think their gas tank ran out and they ran off to get another, but never said anything to us). The last bus was supposed to leave from about 5 minutes down the road in about 30 minutes, so we ended up paying for our drinks and leaving. It turned out that there were plenty of minibuses making the run also, oops. That night some people wanted to drink. It turns out that someone had to sneak off to get "medicine" in this dry town.
Getting information about taking the ferry from Dumai was particularly difficult. It seemed that every person we talked to had different information, this was particularly suspect when they were trying to sell us one of these services or a competing one. Not only were the prices and times different, but one said there were 2 ferries a day, another said there was only one… Frustrating. We ended up getting a local bus and ferry tickets at the bus station. The night bus trip to Dumai was pretty uneventful other than a guy trying to get us to share a seat so he could have his own seat (about half the seats had only one person in them, so we didn't). The other thing that added interest was that I had spent almost all my Rp so I only had a few thousand left. This wasn't a problem though, as I had the tickets already and enough food to last me. At one of the stops some locals asked me why I wasn't buying dinner and I told them I had used up all my Rupiah, I kept talking to them a while and one returned from the restaurant with some excellent curry wrapped up in a banana leaf for us. Unfortunately when we got to the ferry office in Dumai it turned out that they wouldn't accept our tickets. DOH!. To make matters worse the nearest bank's ATM wouldn't take either of our cards. The jewelry shop money changers offered a horrible exchange rate and the bank didn't open until 9, and nobody really spoke any English… Well, this is what makes travel interesting right? By the time we had gotten money, the first ferry was full, but luckily there were 2. So finally we were on the ferry and on our way to Malacca.
Malacca looked like an interesting little town, but we just walked through it to the bus station and took a bus to Kuala Lumpur. We arrived in KL after dark. It looked more modern than any other asian city with a lot more car and truck traffic. We were still accosted by touts immediately. Oh well. After some dinner and walking around a bit we ended up staying at the place the touts took us to anyway. KL has had a lot of modern high rises go up including the Petronas twin towers which are the tallest twin towers and may have been the tallest building (452 M they said). In any case they are pretty big, one day we took the tour up to the skybridge connecting the towers. A concrete space needleish tower was even taller. There were also a number of relatively fancy malls. This was another location in Asia where I saw a fair number of well heeled and older tourists.
We were there during some sort of Hindu festival that seemed to involve chanting, incense, sitar music, oil lamps, and breaking coconuts. There was some sort of temple down the street from our guesthouse and it always seemed to be full. There were also some excellent Indian restaurants next to this temple where I ate off of banana leaves.
One of the most interesting things to see was one night at the street market in chinatown where the cd and dvd vendors would run when they got a warning about cops. Some vendors had everything on a cart with wheels and they would take off down the street pushing their table. Others had everything on a tablecloth and they would grab the corners and throw it over their shoulder to run. They said sometimes they would get raided a few times a day. They had scouts with walkie talkies to sound the alarm. It must have been a false alarm as they were back in less than a minute. They all seemed to have agreed on prices as they wouldn't bargain. I found it odd how some places seemed to be selling legitimate copies at prices that were comparable to in the USA, but in the same mall there might be places selling bootleg copies for about 1.25 a cd.
After a few days in KL I took a night bus to Hat Yai, unfortunately they showed a movie I had just seen "Enough". I made the mistake of taking a rather local bus from Hat Yai to Trang and another to Krabi, but I had plenty of time for a bit of shopping and the boat ride to Tonsai.
One of the nice things about Malaysia and Indonesia was that they used the Latin alphabet. This means that even if you had no idea what the word meant, you could still read it. This was particularly handy for street signs. In addition, unlike in Vietnam, the pronounciation was relatively straightforward. In fact I think the language seemed to be the simplest of any I encountered in SE Asia.
After talking to others that had travelled in Indonesia I think I agree with Tim's assessment that the culture seems to encourage not telling the truth and attempting to sweet talk people. This sure could be frustrating at times. However many people I encountered in Indonesia seemed to be genuinely pleased to see me and almost all of the younger people seemed to appreciate an opportunity to practice their English and ask questions about America.
Thanks to Deb, Andrea, Mats, Paula, Din, and Gerry (Big Daddy) for accompanying me on various stages of this journey, we made quite the International crew representing the UK, Canada, Sweden, UK, Thailand, and the USA.