Tag Archives: animals

Adventures with Meerkats

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Ostriches aren’t the only animal to visit in Oudtshoorn. Turns out this town, just north of South Africa’s Garden Route, is also a pretty sweet place visit meerkats too.

If you need a refresher, meerkats are cute little mongooses that live in the deserts and grasslands of Africa. Think Timon in “The Lion King.”

Better than the Disney cartoon, Meerkat Adventures takes small groups to see meerkats in their natural habitats. But the trip is not for those who like to sleep in. Watching these critters requires arriving at the site before dawn, when they arise.

After making the booking, tour guide and researcher Devey Glinister provides all guests coordinates and a pre-dawn meeting time from where he will guide the group via car to the viewing spot, which changes daily. He and his team study the meerkat families and know which hills they sleep in and where they move to.

Upon arrival, Devey and his team provide tea, coffee and a light snack (like delicious homemade rusks for dipping!) before settling around the hill and viewing the sunrise. From there, everyone watches with baited breath for the first meerkat to pop his head out, which could take anywhere from a few minutes to an hour or more.

My 4 a.m.-awoken, barely-functioning self fell asleep about three times in the waiting process, and I honestly don’t remember how long it took us to see our first meerkat, but I’ll guess somewhere around the 30-minute range. During the waiting time and after, Devey shares with you all kinds of information about meerkats, including the different family roles and survival habits. At some point, you watch the sentry, the first guard meerkat, pop out of his hill to check for predators, eventually followed by the rest of the family and the alpha at the very end. Together, the family grooms, basks in the sun and continues to watch for predators before moving on to start their day and the tour ends.

The whole process takes 2-3 hours and costs R 550 ($38.15). Great experience for wildlife lovers and those who wants to do something a little different on their trip. Vehicle required. For more info visit  http://meerkatadventures.co.za/home.html.

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Cape Town – Boulders Beach

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By far my favorite thing to do in Cape Town was visiting Boulders Beach – a small beach near Simon’s Town famous for its colony of African penguins. It gets its name from the large boulders in the sand and water, but really, no one cares about the damn boulders.

What people care about are the penguins, because:

  • They live on the beach not in the arctic
  • They sound like braying donkeys
  • Penguins!

Basics on what you need to know:

  • Boulders is located about an hour outside of the main city near Simon’s Town – accessible by car or MetroRail train (walk from Simon’s Town)
  • Costs R65 – about $4
  • Penguins are viewed from the boardwalk – you get close but not *that* close
  • It is recommended to pair with the Cape of Good Hope – about a 30-minute drive away

Photos below!

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Critter Control and the Adventure of Yoga Crab

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I’ve always been drawn to animals, and I’m usually excited when they seem drawn to me too. But not all the time.

During my training at the Association for Yoga and Meditation, I was always delighted to watch the langur monkeys playing in the ashram trees.

Does your yoga class include monkeys?

Does your yoga class include monkeys?

I was even more excited when they would occasionally make an appearance in yoga class itself.

"Downward dog!"

“Downward dog!”

While the monkeys mostly kept their distance, a few other creatures decided they wanted to visit with me personally.

During my time at the ashram, I stayed in a small bedroom on the main floor, half-way between the bustling village outside and the holy Ganges River down the stairs in the backyard.

My mornings were fairly routine. My alarm rang around 5:45 a.m., I would then drag myself out of bed, pull on my yoga clothes, grab a snack and walk sleepily across the hall to 6 a.m. pranayama (breathing) practice.

One day I got up as usual, grabbed my yoga pants off the chair and got dressed. But as I continued getting ready, I noticed a slight scratching sensation in my pants between my legs. In my half-awake state, I didn’t think much of it. But as I continued, pulling on my t-shirt, putting my hair up and grabbing a handful of the trail mix I usually kept on my nightstand, the scratching did too.

Finally, I put my hand below to “adjust” and was surprised to find a strange lump under my pants. In my groggy state, it took me a few seconds to realize what was going on. And when I did, I screamed, yanking my pants off as quickly as possible. My jaw dropped in disbelief as I watched a quarter-sized cockroach scurry away.

Let me tell you, nothing wakes you up quite as effectively as discovering a cockroach in your pants!

The very next day, I got up as usual, checking carefully inside all my clothes making sure there were no additional new friends creeping around. Luckily, the morning went smoothly.

It wasn’t until after breakfast when I went back to my room that I discovered this next to my bed:

Hello.

Hello.

Yes inches away from my pillow, less than a foot from where I rest my head at night, stood a six-inch wide crab, about the size of one of my hands. How long he had been in my room and what he planned to do now that he was there was beyond me, (though I think my snacks may have had something to do with it).

This time, I didn’t scream. I did, however, request help. The next thing I know, one of the AYM staff is chasing the little critter around my room with a broom stick, in a fairly entertaining cat-and-mouse routine. Finally, my classmate Janica stepped in to personally return the crab to his home, presumably back to the Ganges.

You can follow his journey here:

Playing catch

Playing catch

Gotcha!

Gotcha!

The journey to the Ganges

The journey to the Ganges

Almost home

Almost home

Bye-bye

Bye-bye

In hindsight, perhaps keeping snacks exposed in a hot, crowded climate near water was not one of my smarter decisions. Though, honestly, I think I’m lucky I faced the smaller critters instead of the monkeys ;).

Almost Tibet

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Almost Tibet

Tagong 1

As I prepared for the last leg of my trip through China and India, I came up with a plan that would enable me to travel throughout China and reach my final destination in northern India, without having to fly.

After traveling counterclockwise around China, I would continue west through Tibet then south to Nepal before reaching Rishikesh in northern India where my yoga course awaited me. Not only would I get through China and India, but I would add two entirely new and exotic places to my trip, all for what I estimated to be the same, if not cheaper, cost of flying. Brilliant!

Nepal had grown as a leading destination of interest after hearing universally rave reviews from fellow travelers. But Tibet, China’s isolated and controversial land in the west, had also risen to prominence after the sheer amount of excitement and curiosity I found in other travelers who also discussed the journey. Tibet, however, like Myanmar, also brought a whole new level of travel concerns.

An ancient land that had undergone centuries of various autonomous and non-autonomous rule, Tibet declared its independence in 1912 after the fall of the Chinese Qing dynasty. In the 1950s, Communist China invaded Tibet in an attempt to reclaim control of the land. Technically, the Dalai Lama, leader of the Tibetan Buddhism and the former political leader of the Tibetan government in exile in Dharamsala, India, supports a “middle-way” approach of Tibet being a part of China with a high degree of autonomy, but the issue remains controversial. The Chinese say they are developing the isolated land and saving its people from an oppressive feudal system, while those in support of a free Tibet accuse the Chinese of violating human rights, destroying Tibetan culture and forcing Tibetans to assimilate to the Chinese way of life. The conflict has led to numerous protests both inside and outside of Tibet and restricted access to the land by outsiders, despite growing interest by tourists.

Of course, a mere few weeks before my estimated departure, my brilliant plans were shattered. Protests in Tibet, including several monks setting themselves on fire, caused the Chinese to tighten travel restrictions, eventually prohibiting all tourists from entering the region altogether.

Anyone planning to travel to Tibet knows the borders open and close on regular, and often unpredictable, basis. But as I waited around Chengdu, hoping for a last-minute change, I found myself defeated. Tibet was not going to happen. Not this time.

But I still had more than a week left on my Chinese visa, and I was determined to make the most of it. After discussing alternatives with some fellow travelers, I heard about a small, mostly Tibetan village in Western China called Tagong. Located about 270 miles west of Chengdu, one of China’s last major cities before reaching Tibet, Tagong is a tiny village full of mostly Tibetan inhabitants that would offer a glimpse into the isolated lifestyle that was proving so difficult to experience.

After weeks of massive, crowded Chinese mega-cities, I was ready for a change. So I packed up my bags, bought a bus ticket and headed off.

The first step to reaching Tagong was Kangding, a Chinese city up in the mountains that serves as a jumping off point for many who plan to continue traveling west. The eight-hour bus ride to reach Kangding from Leshan/Chengdu is stunning, albeit, a bit scary at times. Rocky cliffs covered with dense green trees and shrubs surrounded us, topped with hovering mists that let us know we were high enough to enter cloud territory.

Kangding

Kangding

When we finally reached Kangding, I was pleasantly surprised to find the city quite charming. Tall green mountains surrounded the neat city streets, full of a combination of Chinese and Tibetan shops. But Kangding offered another surprise for me: it was cold.

I know I’m from Michigan, land of seemingly eternal winters, but I was not prepared for this. After nearly two years of hot weather, including 14 months in Malaysia which is practically located on the equator, this was quite a shock for me. To top it off, it was raining and nothing is as much fun as being cold except for being wet and cold.

So I put on my jeans, my sole long-sleeved shirt, my broken-zippered hoodie and each of the three pairs of almost-never-used socks I brought and hoped they’d be enough. And I set out to find a ride to Tagong.

Luckily I had made a travel buddy in the process. Daniel was from Germany, and after already having spent several days in Kangding, was ready to head to Tagong. So we hailed a share taxi and found ourselves crammed in the backseat of a minibus with two older Tibetan ladies and a Tibetan man. And it was one of the coldest, most dramatic bus rides I had ever been on.

Apparently old Tibetan ladies don’t get out much, at least not in cars, because these women were extremely prone to motion sickness. At an hour and a half, the ride wasn’t really that long, and though we were up in the mountains, it wasn’t that winding either. But for some reason these women insisted on keeping the windows down in the car, despite the fact it was about 40 degrees outside and raining. Daniel was kind enough to share his blanket with me, but even that wasn’t enough and we remained shivering in the back seat. And though we repeatedly asked the driver to talk to the ladies about closing the windows, they were apparently very adamant about not doing so, at one point even opening the windows all the way so it was a complete wind ambush in the back. Meanwhile, the ladies, with their rosy cheeks, braided hair and colorful Tibetan clothing, lay prostrate on the middle seat, like some Victorian English woman in the midst of a fainting spell. If I wasn’t so cold, I would have been very amused.

Once we arrived in Tagong, I was surprised and charmed at how quaint the town was. With a population of only 8,000 people, it was definitely the least populated city I had visited in China, and with an altitude of more than 12,000 feet, it was also the highest point I’d ever reached on land in my entire life.

Main street Tagong

Main street Tagong

Daniel and I opted to stay at Iya Drolma and Gayla’s Guesthouse, a cheap yet delightfully colorful and charming place listed in our guidebook. The only problem was, despite the high altitude and cold temperatures, there was no heat in our building. In fact, there was no heat in any of the buildings.

Trying to warm up at my guest house

Trying to warm up at my guest house


After settling in and enjoying a delightful warm foot bath, Daniel and I set out to eat and soon discovered the Khampa Café and Art Center, a cozy backpacker haven nearby that would become our second home during the next few days. Full of comfy couches, puzzles, books and a delightful combination of Western and Tibetan food, Khampa Café was the place to go to kill time between adventures or just relax and adjust to the altitude. After months of traveling, I was quite happy to bum around and do nothing for awhile.

I’m not going to lie, a significant chunk of my five days in Tagong were spent curled up in a blanket, chatting with other travelers, playing with the kittens, reading about Nepal and just hanging out at the café. And it was delightful.

But so was the town itself. Only a few blocks long, the town contained a few small restaurants, some generic clothing and hardware stores and several, redundant Tibetan scarf and jewelry shops geared at tourists. With my mad traveler shopping skills, I browsed several of the souvenir stores looking for the best deals for gifts to take home. I finally settled on a small shop owned by a young, friendly Tibetan man who, with his limited English, had given me the best prices. I happily purchased three scarves and five bracelets. It wasn’t until he had finished ringing up my scarves that he asked me to sleep with him, making very clear hand gestures of what he hoped would happen. Needless to say, I quickly left the store. And then found out I’d paid about four times what the scarves were worth. Awesome.

The real charm to Tagong, however, was not its town or necessarily even its monasteries: it was its grasslands. I had never seen anything like it before. Surrounding this tiny village on all sides were seemingly endless miles of rich, hilly green land with barely a handful of trees to break up the sea of grass. Every now and then a herd of yaks would graze, prodded along by a couple Tibetan men on horses. It was stunning.

Tagong Grasslands

Tagong Grasslands

I figured the best way to experience the land was on horseback and signed up for a day-long horseback ride with two other girls. Unfortunately, it had decided to rain the day of the trip, and I found myself, once again, piling on every layer of clothing I had to stay warm. The morning was brutal. My gloves, feet and most of my pants were soaked within the first 30 minutes, and I had no idea how I would last the day. The best part came around noon, when we got to have lunch in the tent of a Tibetan nomadic family.

As we entered the tent, the girls and I were quickly welcomed by the older Tibetan lady, her daughter and her young grandson and we crowded around the fire to warm up. Like many Tibetan people, the family were yak herders and moved their tent around the grasslands to coincide with the care of their yaks.

Life was simple. A kettle heated up over a small fire, while piles of blankets, clothing, buckets and food supplies were strewn around the surrounding grass. Though we could not verbally communicate with each other, the family was extremely hospitable. We enjoyed a basic lunch of Tibetan staples: bread, yogurt and raisins, Tibetan butter tea and tsampa, a not-so-flavorful soup of barley, yak butter and boiling water. Not so different than tsampa, Tibetan butter tea is a savory tea made of yak butter melted into a pot of tea and yak milk. While many Westerners don’t care for the taste, I thought it tasted like liquid brie, and I loved it. Apparently the heavy, salty tea and soup provide great nutrients for life in the cold, windy temperatures of the high altitude, and I’ve read that Tibetans can consume up to 40 cups of yak butter tea a day!

Our hosts

Our hosts

As we left the warm comfort of the nomad tent, we were rudely jolted back to our earlier mission of exploring the grasslands. It was even colder now and the rain had picked up, and we still had six hours to go! With our feet numb, clothing soaked and eyes half shut against the rain, we asked our guide if we could just head back. It was far too miserable to enjoy the grasslands. But we had gone too far and the only way back was to follow the original plan, so on we rode trying our best to remind ourselves we were on the adventure of a lifetime.

Thankfully for us, the weather gods showed us some mercy around mid-afternoon. Though it never got warm, the rain stopped, the sun came out and we found ourselves surrounded by nothing but sprawling green hills and grasslands. At that point, I think we were all glad to have stuck around.

But my happiness was short-lived. Apparently, the nice weather had energized my horse as well, who then decided to go for a vigorous run by himself. Now, I enjoy horses and prior to China, I had ridden them several times throughout my life, though rarely going more than a short trot or canter. While my heart raced with excitement to test my horsewoman skills, this horse had a mind of its own. My attempts to lean back on the reigned paired with “whoa” (I knew nothing else to say) only caused the horse to pause before taking off again even faster. When we approached a rocky area, I was reminded of Asia’s relaxed helmet policy and started to scream.

Our guide was not happy about this. Though he could barely speak English, I quickly understood that I was not supposed to scream at the horses. So things calmed down and we tried again. Sure enough, a few minutes later my horse decided, yet again, he needed to go for a run, and I found myself once more clinging on for dear life and screaming.

Me and my misbehaving horse

Me and my misbehaving horse

Now my guide was angry, but so was I, and I managed to communicate to him that he needed to get this situation under control. Luckily, we had come across one of his buddies who was herding yaks, and I found myself on a horse “leash,” with the yak herder holding on to my reins in addition to his. This ended up being amazingly fun.

Though my wings were clipped, I got to trot along with the yak herder as he did his job. When a few of the yaks strayed, I chased after them with the yak herder to get them back with the group. When they got distracted or slowed down, I found myself whistling along with my new guide to get their attention. While I was merely the tag-along, I felt like I, too, was herding yaks. And it was super bad ass.

By the time we made it back we were cold and exhausted yet exhilarated by the amazing adventure we’d had. I ended up paying for that adventure with a nasty cold over the next few days. But as I headed to the Chengdu airport – indeed, to fly to Nepal – I was grateful that, after weeks of experiencing the “mainstream” Chinese mega cities, I had found a little patch of rural China and experienced a little bit of Tibetan culture. Even if it was, only, almost Tibet.

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The Good, the Bad, the Bali: Part 2

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Despite the initial difficulty of entering the country and some frustrations of the over commercialization of the island, Bali had some truly incredible moments for me.

Me in my new sarong and sash next to a traditional stone carving at a Balinese temple

Our first day, my remaining travel buddies, Sarah and Michel, and I decided to hire a driver to see some of Ubud’s temples. I must say, compared to Thailand and other Southeast Asian countries, Bali’s temples are not that spectacular. Though situated in one of the world’s largest Muslim countries, Bali is actually Hindu mixed with some of the traditions and customs of its native people. Unlike the vibrant, glittery Buddhist structures in Thailand, or the colorful, heavily-ritualized Indian temples in Malaysia, Bali temples are mostly made of stone and are very basic open air complexes. One interesting feature, however, is that all the temples, storefronts, homes and structures in general have elaborate stone carvings of demons, meant to scare away evil spirits. It is also interesting to note that you can only enter a temple wearing a sarong and an accompanying sash, and women are not allowed to enter at all during menstruation.

Anyway, the first truly incredible moment I had in Bali was when I met Ketut, the medicine man in “Eat, Pray, Love” who inspired Elizabeth Gilbert to make her journey. I met Ketut a bit on a whim. A friend of mine had joked about trying to find him when I went to Bali, but I hadn’t seriously thought that would be a possibility. Imagine my delight when the man at the tourist counter told me that Ketut is still open for business and a mere 20-minute walk outside of Ubud! Seriously???

So the next morning, I giddily woke up, put on my new Bali sundress, and headed out to the home of Ketut Liyer: medicine man, palm reader, healer, painter, world-journey inspirer. When I arrived around 10 a.m., about an hour after he opened, there was already a sizeable line, though not as long as I would have expected.  There was really no one there to receive customers when I walked into his open-air compound, just a group of plastic number tickets nailed to a wooden post and people lazily sitting around. To my surprise, there was almost no mention of “Eat, Pray, Love” anywhere, except for one movie poster attached to the wall. (After chatting with other customers, however, I learned they had all come because of the movie, though sadly, very few had read the book :().

I took number 13 and found a spot in the shade to reread part of “Eat, Pray, Love” while I waited. Though I ended up waiting almost two hours to see him, I didn’t mind at all. There was something about being in the sunshine with a book you love that is just completely relaxing. And there was something extra special about reading a book that takes place in the exact location that you are in right now, especially when you are just feet away from one of the book’s “characters”! (I had a similar experience while reading the last Harry Potter book in London, when the characters escaped to Tottenham Court Road, the exact street I was on when reading the story!) I was completely calm and happy as a clam.

Me and Ketut, the medicine man from "Eat, Pray, Love"

When I finally got to see Ketut, my happiness soared even higher! Ketut was very flattering. To start, he told me I was “very pretty” with “sugar lips” and he could tell I was very smart.  Though I wasn’t planning on taking the palm reading too seriously, I was completely delighted to discover that I would live to be 100, have a long harmonious marriage, three children and be successful in whatever profession I chose, including public relations, “beauty salon”, business and journalism. (“You lucky, you lucky!”) Though I was happy enough just to meet the man, I felt pretty good about myself after I left, even after hearing the beginning of this next customer’s session which started with, “You so pretty, you have sugar lips…”

As the week progressed, I happened to run into three other customers that had been in line with me (mostly random encounters) and soon found out that they too would live to be 100, have a long harmonious marriage and be successful in their careers…What a coincidence! In fact, one lady who did IT told me that Ketut predicted that she would be successful in “IT, beauty salon and business,” and apparently, she had sugar lips too. Hmm…

In addition to my “fortune,” my visit to Ketut’s house brought along one other, though delightfully unexpected, positive experience: my first close encounter with a monkey! (You didn’t really think I could go to Bali and not talk about monkeys, did you?)

Me and Ketut's monkey, my first time "holding" a monkey!

So Ketut likes pets. In his compound (which now includes a homestay if you’re ever interested) he has a fairly extensive collection of exotic animals, though most of them are birds. As I was perusing, I noticed he had a pet monkey that wasn’t completely psychotic, and I got very excited! The monkey was chained to a post and seemed very eager to jump on to me, and after some reassurance from one of the compound’s staff, I let it…  IT WAS INCREDIBLE! The monkey was not violent at all, though very eager to check my hair for bugs… It kept walking around my shoulders and head picking at my hair and my sunglasses, though never scratching or biting. It was so cool! I felt very touched, because I think the monkey liked me too, because he kept trying to jump back onto me every time I shook him off. It was AWESOME! So now I am officially over my fear of touching monkeys and am proud to say that I have let wild monkeys stand on my lap and shoulders on several occasions since my experience at Ketut’s and plan to try to interact with monkeys more frequently in the future.

Cars, Cameron and Cherating

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With some of my recent trips, I haven’t had much time to actually write about life in Malaysia. Things have calmed down for a bit now, and I’m happy to say that life in Malaysia has been pretty good lately. This last month in particular has been really fun with lots of positive changes :).

The biggest change is that I finally bought a car. Yes, I am now the proud owner of a light green, 2002 Proton Wira, a medium-sized Malaysian car that was within my budget and not the size of a clown car. No more fighting to communicate with non-English speaking taxi drivers, no more long journeys on the LRT subway, no more staying at home because going out is too much  of a hassle, I AM OFFICIALLY MOBILE!!!

My car

Now, I’m not going to lie. For the record, I still HATE Malaysian drivers. Seriously, they are the most impatient, selfish drivers I have ever seen.  People cut you off constantly, motorbikes weave in and out of traffic without looking and everybody parks wherever they want, regardless of whether or not they are blocking traffic or visibility for others. I have woken up in the middle of the night at least three times now with an overwhelming fear that I would die in a car crash here. I wish I was kidding, but in the end, all I can do is hope for the best and triple check my mirrors :).

Me at the Boh Tea Plantation

Along with getting a car, I have also had the chance to explore deeper into Malaysia and see some really cool things. In March, I joined some fellow CouchSurfers on a weekend trip to the Cameron Highlands, a cooler area of Malaysia within its Titiwangsa mountain range that is a popular weekend getaway. With cooler temperatures, the area is full of tea, vegetable and flower plantations that offer breathtaking views and a welcome relief from the heat. We spent most of our time at the Boh Tea Plantation, one of Malaysia’s most established tea producers, and it was incredible. All around are hill after hill after hill of rich, green tea bushes, all manicured into neat little rows. The air is much crisper there with a vague scent of tea, and you just feel fresh as you breathe it in. I felt like I was in the Great Valley (where are my Land Before Time peeps at? :P).

At one point, we even got a glimpse of Malaysia’s former prime minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi (2003-2009) who was also enjoying tea that day. Though I really know nothing about him, it was still pretty cool :).

Last weekend I was finally able to check out some of Malaysia’s beaches with a weekend trip to Cherating, a small village on Malaysia’s east coast known for its surfing. My Malay friend Omar invited us to join him on his weekend surfing trip, and it was a blast! Omar showed us how to surf, and though we were pretty bad, we just enjoyed jumping in the waves! As a Michigan girl, what was especially refreshing was jumping into water that wasn’t freezing cold. Though not exactly crystal clear, the water was a perfect lukewarm temperature, making it irresistible and easy to spend the entire day in. I couldn’t get enough!

Me and the baby meerkat

Perhaps equally as cool as the surfing, however, is I got to hold some exotic pets! Yes, we all know my weakness for small, furry animals, and I was absolutely delighted when I discovered one of the village families had a baby squirrel, a baby meerkat and a baby monkey! Seriously, HOW COOL IS THAT??? I have always wanted to hold a squirrel (they just look so darn cute outside), but honestly, they’re much more rodent-like than I expected, and I was quickly disenchanted. The meerkat, however, was the sweetest little thing. It was like a small, grey “Timone” and would just sit inside of my hand, so cute! The monkey, however, was my favorite. If you’ve been reading my blog, you know that monkeys are kind of a big deal, but this was the FIRST TIME I was actually able to pet one! “Kiki” didn’t really like to be held, plus after my first monkey attack, not sure how close I wanted to be to its teeth, but I was able to feed him with a baby bottle and pet him a little, which was still really awesome!!!

So now I sit here, nursing my bright red skin, looking forward to this weekend’s trip to Perhentian Island in northern Malaysia. My face maybe sunburnt but at least it’s smiling :).

Thailand Part 4: Chiang Mai

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The final leg of our trip to Thailand was Chiang Mai…14 hours on the OTHER side of the country! And despite being forced to spend the night “sleeping” on the chairs in a freezing cold train cabin (all the sleepers were full), Josh and I were determined to go.

Way up in the north near the mountains, Chiang Mai is known for its beautiful scenery, culture and jungle treks. Though the city itself was nice enough (it did have some interesting temples), Josh and I quickly signed-up for a two-day tour, which included an elephant ride, trek, white water rafting, bamboo rafting and visits to local mountain tribes, including a one-night stay with them.

Now, for me, the main attraction of the whole thing was the elephant trek. Instead of a short, once-around-the-ring circus ride, we actually got to ride the elephants for an hour through a trail in the jungle, and I was delighted to get the chance to ride on the elephant’s neck without a seat! But the part that left the most impression on me (and my body) was the three-hour jungle trek up the mountain to the tribe.

I hate hiking.

For many on our trip, the trek was the main event, a chance to really get in the jungle and experience the wildlife of Southeast Asia. But after more than six months in Malaysia where banana trees and exotic plants are everywhere, the jungle trek to me was more like three hours of Stairmaster Hell in a sauna. Did I mention it was three hours UPHILL? And I learned a valuable lesson that day: yoga does not make you physically fit!

I stupidly thought a commercialized, group package tourist trap tour would take us through easy trails designed to suit those of all levels of fitness, but somehow I found myself climbing over rocks, uneven terrain and really steep hills. Frankly, the only thing I wanted to see in the jungle were wild animals or exotic bugs, but all living creatures appeared to be on vacation that day, which meant it was just us and plants. I know this whole rant sounds terrible and many people loved the trek, but who are we kidding? I am NOT a nature girl.

So after a long day hiking, sweating and building buns of steel, we finally made it to our destination: the hilltop tribe. I gotta say, it was pretty cool. Despite the pain flowing throughout my legs and feet, the mountains and the view from the top were beautiful, and the location is so remote you actually feel as if you’re on some real adventure and not some carbon copy tourist tour.

Our accommodation

Our guide led our group to a separate cabin at the top next to the village where we’d be staying: a two-room house full of thin mattresses, blankets and mosquito nets. Delightfully rustic! Then it was time for showers. I swear to you, if it wasn’t for the fact that I was covered in sweat and dirt, I’m not sure I could have done it. Even Josh, Mr. I-Don’t-Mind-Cold-Showers-They’re-Refreshing, found the liquid ice coming from the outdoor, wooden stalls to be a bit too refreshing. I think they were the quickest showers anyone in our group had ever taken! 🙂

After changing, we all enjoyed a really lovely evening together, sharing a nice local meal on the floor of the cabin then just relaxing and chatting. It was so dark outside, the stars were just gleaming. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many in my life. It was beautiful.

At one point, some of the village children came to visit us and sing us some local songs. Somehow, we found ourselves forced to return the favor and ended up singing “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” the only part of Christmas Day that actually resembled the holiday. It was all great fun, definitely my most exotic Christmas ever!

Thailand Part 3: Kanchanaburi

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So Kanchanaburi was one of those off-the-beaten-track places I found in my guidebook that caught my eye. It’s a couple hours away from Bangkok and Ayutthaya, but is unfortunately not on the main train route to Chiang Mai. But after reading about the city’s little gems and history, I was determined to go! Luckily for us, our guest house from Ayutthaya was offering a 9 a.m. minivan ride to Kanchanaburi, which would arrive by noon and give us a good day and a half to explore.

For those of you who enjoy World War II history, Kanchanaburi  is famous for its part of the “Death Railway” or “Burma Railway,” a 415km railway between Thailand and Burma (now Myanmar) built by Allied POWs and local conscripts under the harsh hands of the Japanese. The Japanese nearly starved the workers and forced them to work all day long in unsanitary conditions with regular beatings, and more than 100,000 men died in the process. Specifically, Kanchanaburi is famous for its Kwai River Bridge, part of the Death Railway and also the basis of the 1957 Oscar-winning film “The Bridge on the River Kwai” that tells the story of the bridge’s construction. (I still need to see it).

Petting tigers at the Tiger Temple

As interesting as all that was, the real draw to Kanchanaburi  for me was its Tiger Temple, a temple a little ways outside the city that lets visitors get up close to and pet tigers.  The “temple” (I didn’t actually see any Buddhas anywhere) claims to be a sanctuary for orphaned or displaced tigers and now also breeds its own cubs from birth. Others, however, say they are operating an illegal breeding program and say the tigers are abused.

While the tigers seemed to be treated well enough while I was there, it was quite an expensive outing for Thailand and the temple seems to be milking its attraction for every cent its worth. For 600baht, about $20, you go into the grounds individually with a guide (the temple is actually run by a mixture of monks and international volunteers) who walks you to about 20 different tigers, tells you where to pet it and takes your picture with your camera. The tigers are all “napping” at this point, and most don’t seem to notice you (and dozens of other tourists) are touching them. Most of them are also chained to a pole in the ground. The temple claims tigers naturally sleep during the afternoon, though others think they’re sedated, who knows…

I’ve got to say, it was pretty cool. Even though the grounds were full of volunteers/tourists and the tigers were chained up and “sleeping,” there’s definitely an adrenaline rush being that close to a wild animal that could potentially rip you to pieces. At one point, there were two tigers lying on a rock and one of them had just woken up. The guide kept telling me to grab their tails to take a picture, but I swear to you, the awake tiger looked back at me with this “touch it and see what happens” look. Let’s just say I moved on quickly :). What was more interesting than the little photo session was that you could actually go and visit the younger tigers and spend more time with them actually petting them, awake! The ones I found were chained up, and though they were only about six months old, were already the size of a large dog! And sadly, I found out later that if you get to the temple early enough in the afternoon, you can pay to hold, feed and play with baby cubs for 45 minutes! When I found out I missed the opportunity I was completely crushed, that would have been my dream! My only condolence was I got to pay to watch the evening exercises for the adult tigers where they put you in this fenced in area where you get to watch the volunteers play with the tigers as if they were big cats. It was kind of fun, but I would have preferred the babies :(.

The next day, Josh and I joined one of those packaged tours that would allow us to see lots of different parts of Kanchanaburi in one day. Many of the packages offered elephant rides or bamboo rafting, but since we were planning on doing that later in Chiang Mai, we opted to visit the seven-tiered Erawan waterfalls, which also happened to include a visit to the Hellfire Pass or Konyu Cutting, a particularly sad point in the history of the Death Railway. Honestly, I had no interested in seeing this Hellfire Pass and just wanted to play in the waterfalls, but in an interesting twist, the Hellfire Pass ended up being one of the most memorable parts of my visit to the city.

Me and Josh in front of one of the tiers of the Erawan Waterfalls

The day started with a morning trip to the falls, which I will admit, were quite stunning. There are seven main, large waterfalls throughout the grounds, and you have to hike a ways to get to each one of them. Each one has its own unique design and each was full of clear, light green water. Unfortunately for me, the pools were also full of something else: fish, and lots of them. For those of you that know me pretty well, I am extremely grossed out by fish and will not go into water if I see them around. So while Josh and most of the other tourists were splashing around, playing in all the pools, I was sitting on the rocks admiring the scenery and cursing those nasty little things who had the nerve to infringe upon my vacation. Hmpf!

Hellfire Pass

I actually found the second part of the day much more interesting. After the waterfalls, our guide took us to the Hellfire Pass, a part of the Death Railway through solid mountain that has a particularly brutal history. Before viewing the Pass, you go to this little museum full of information on the Death Railway, and it was fascinating! It talks all about the lead up to World War II, the details of the conditions of the POWs, the process of making the railway, the importance of the link to Burma and why it was so hard to make the railway because of the rough terrain. I could have spent an hour or more reading everything, and tried to, but our guide said we were pressed for time so I didn’t get to finish the story :(.

Anyway, viewing the actual Hellfire Pass is quite breathtaking, especially after reading the history. To start, you’re in the mountains, surrounded by bamboo trees and the scenery is absolutely gorgeous. But then you look up and see this solid wall of rock that has been cleared away to make room for this railway (which has since been dismantled) and you realize all the backbreaking labor that went into it. The men had to work 18 hours a day with rudimentary tools and clear through a 17 by 110 meter section of solid rock. It is called the Hellfire Pass because, at one point, the Japanese rushed the project’s deadline and forced the men to work through the night, with only the light of torch fires to guide them, suggesting a scene from Hell. Today, the Pass is remembered through several memorials and parts of the railway that have been left to preserve history. Of everything I saw in Kanchanaburi, I think that afternoon might be the thing that sticks with me most. In the end, I was definitely glad we took our detour!

Surviving Sarawak

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With the different food, water and climate, everyone said I should expect to get sick when I came to Malaysia, especially in my first few weeks. I was very relieved to find my immune system working full force with not even a cold in my first few months here. In fact, the only sickness I did get was after eating at a high-end Chinese restaurant at the Hilton, not the local street food. So it was just my luck that I got a bout of bronchitis right before my four-day work/holiday trip to Kuching, Sarawak, East Malaysia.

I’d been looking forward to this trip for weeks, ever since I found out I was being sent for work with the chance to stay back and travel for a couple days after. When I started feeling a pressure on my chest and coughing a few days before, I thought it was a cold and my stance against encouraging a global immunity to antibiotics as a result of over prescription stupidly prevented me from going to the doctor beforehand. It wasn’t until my ear refused to pop for nearly a day after my flight and my voice started sounding like Barry White that I realized perhaps I was wrong…

After two days working, resting and drinking as much hot water as humanly possible, it was finally time for my weekend trip. Let me tell you, after waking up throughout the night with a hacking cough, feeling exhausted and feverish, I was not exactly in the best situation to go out exploring Sarawak. But I was also not about to give up my semi-free trip, so I loaded up on cold medicine, lozenges and tea and set out.

Let me just say, Sarawak is absolutely beautiful! It is much cleaner and less congested than KL, and there are green hills and jungles everywhere. Sarawak is one of two Malaysian states that make up East Malaysia on the island of Borneo, which also includes the country of Brunei and parts of Indonesia.

To start off our trip, Jullian and I rented a car and headed out to a crocodile farm where they have lots and lots of crocodiles, as well as cages of other cool animals. The farm was pretty cool. You get to see lots of crocs in cages, and at feeding time, you get to watch them jump in the air for their food. They also have cages of monkeys (like Rafiki), snakes and ponds of exotic fish to look at while you’re there. My highlight, however, was the baby monkey who escaped from her cage to give me and the rest of the tourists quite as a surprise as we were walking down to see the crocs…

Way better than the crocodiles, however, was the orang utan sanctuary at Semenggoh Nature Reserve. The reserve, along with another center, rehabilitates orphaned or displaced orang utans to send them back into the wild. At the reserve, you get to enter into the park at feeding times when the orang utans come back to eat (the plan is for them to eventually learn to get food on their own). It was amazing! I gotta admit, the first 50 minutes were a bit slow. The orang utans came down about 50 feet away to eat,  and I was disappointed that they were so far. But in the last 10 minutes four orang utans came down to our side of the park, where they came within a few feet of us to get food from our park ranger.  They were hilarious too, just swinging all over the trees and trying to steal food from our guide, even when he tried to turn them down. I absolutely loved watching them, and they had to practically drag me away from the park. It was definitely an incredible experience.

Aside from wildlife, Sarawak is also known as being a major cultural hub in East Malaysia, especially with lots of local aboriginal tribes that are different than the Malay-Chinese-Indian ethnic make-up of Peninsula Malaysia. In between the crocodiles and the orang utans, Jullian and I drove out to visit one of the tribes in a longhouse in the middle of the jungle. A longhouse is literally what it sounds like: a very long house, sort of. Mostly made from bamboo shoots, a longhouse is a very long community building where the

Longhouse

whole village lives. Individual families have their own doors and units, but the outside is like a very long porch which is a common area for everyone. We didn’t get to stay very long, but we got to walk along the building, chat with the people, and check out the skulls room (many tribes were known for headhunting, where it was a mark of honor for a man to take the head of another person. They then save the skull and get a tattoo).

The next day, we were able to learn more about the village we just saw at the Sarawak Cultural Village. Like Detroit’s Greenfield Village, the Sarawak Cultural Village is like a living museum where you get to walk through replicas of the homes of aboriginal tribes where characters dress in costume, perform local dances, traditions and crafts and talk to you about the history. It was fun, you get to see a very different kind of history than I’ve been exposed to and watch a very cool cultural dance show in the end.

Tree house

One of my favourite parts of the trip, though, was just swimming in the South China Sea. Aside from a short trip to the beach at Port Dickson (not known as a very nice beach in Malaysia) this was the first real beach I’d been too while I was here. It was gorgeous! The beach was right next to the hills (or mountains? Can’t really tell the difference) so you can swim while watching the clouds descend into the trees. The water was fun too. Not exactly crystal clear, but the waves were pretty rough making them extra fun to jump into! The resort we stayed at was also pretty unique, we actually stayed in a tree house! Technically, it was a cabin on stilts that sits among the trees, but it was awesome. It came with its own bathroom and shower, air conditioning and a beautiful view of the beach and trees. The fact that the hot water was fickle and there was a creepy crawly shell/crab thing sharing the bathroom with us only added to its charm (sort of).

Now I’m back in KL on a sick day with a full course of antibiotics waiting for my body to recover. Less than three weeks until Thailand!

“10 Million Fireflies”

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Aside from monkeys, some of the other things I wanted to see in Malaysia were its much-acclaimed fireflies. When I was reading about the country way back earlier this year, I came across a side box in one of my guidebooks that mentioned a little village outside of Kuala Lumpur where “millions” of fireflies just light up the forest at night. Of course I had to go! So Jullian and I took a little road trip Saturday afternoon and headed to Kuala Selangor to check it out.

I have to be honest, the fireflies themselves were pretty underwhelming. Thanks to deforestation and the destruction of their natural

A firefly in Kuala Selangor

habitat, the number of fireflies has gone down significantly in the past 20 years so the site isn’t as amazing as it used to be. The trip to get there, however, is quite charming. To see the fireflies, you get in these old, rickety, canoe-like boats that hold about four people. It’s nearly pitch black outside, and the guide takes you across the water for a 20-minute ride along the mangroves where the fireflies are. Though not spectacular, the fireflies really are beautiful. They light up the trees and twinkle like Christmas lights, which was sort of nice since it’s the end of November. What was really interesting to see was how small they are. They’re only a few millimeters long and just a fraction of the length of American (or at least Michigan) fireflies. It was a very cool experience.

The real highlight of Kuala Selangor, however, was the MONKEYS! Before going to see the fireflies, Jullian and I headed to one of the village’s parks to check out the wildlife. Given my recent history being attacked by a monkey in the Batu Caves, I was a bit wearier of them, though still fascinated. In fact, when I saw the sea of macaque monkeys (the same as in the Batu Caves) sitting in the parking lot

Silvered leaf monkeys in Kuala Selangor.

and swinging in the trees as we drove in, I was a bit scared to get out of the car. But when Jullian told me there was a four-foot lizard nearby, I grabbed a stick and got out :). I was glad I did, because when Jullian and I made it to the top of the hill, I found a whole new breed of monkeys I completely fell in love with: silvered leaf monkeys! Unlike macaque monkeys that are brown, can be quite aggressive and have been known to kill babies, the silvered leaf or silvery lutung monkeys were quite gentle and definitely not afraid of humans. You can go right up to them and feed them, and they just come right up to you taking the food, some even climbing up on you to get to it. They are absolutely adorable too, with dark gray fur that’s almost like a Mohawk on top and these sweet little faces. I just adored those monkeys, I could have played with them all day. Sometimes I think I’ve gotten over the culture shock of being here, but the minute I see monkeys I’m in awe all over again. I hope I never lose that.

Aside from Kuala Selangor, the week brought about some other new experiences. Last Wednesday Malaysia celebrated Hari Raya Haji to mark the end of the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca. The event is basically a mass slaughtering of animals meant to commemorate the sacrifice Abraham made instead of his son (in their case, Ishmael). The men use knives to cut the throats of the animals, and the meat is divided among the animal donor, the family of the one slaughtering and those less fortunate.

Muslim men gather to slaughter an animal during Hari Raya Haji to commemorate Abraham's sacrifice.

So anyone that’s ever talked to me for more than five minutes would know that an animal slaughtering is not exactly an Erica-friendly environment. Though I am by no means a vegetarian, I am an animal-lover, overly-emotional and have a pretty weak stomach when it comes to blood. However, my curiosity got the better of me, and I decided to join Jullian and Kevin to visit the mosque of a friend where a slaughtering was to be held. When we got to the mosque, I saw a crowd of men on the lawn with about eight cows and goats tethered to trees (sidenote: Asian cows look different than American cows. Their ears are floppy, they have a hump and they’re more of a brown/gray color). As they went to slaughter the first cow, I kept my distance and took a little stroll around the grounds. When I came back, they had moved on to the goat, so I thought I’d focus my attention on the living animals and distract myself from the slaughter. What I didn’t realize was there had been a mistake in the slaughter of the first cow (they missed one of the jugulars) and the animal lay among the living cows, slowing bleeding to death. When I saw the cow’s gaping neck with the blood dripping down, I left the grounds as quickly as I could and burst into tears. I literally walked to the side of the road and began to sob, it was a very difficult sight for me to see. As I mentioned before, I am not a vegetarian and have no right to judge the killing of animals for food, since I am the happy recipient of the one who does it, but seeing that up close is a little disturbing.

When I headed back (yes, I headed back) they had just finished a goat and another cow, who lay dying on the ground (these two had been done properly the first time and the deaths were a lot quicker). What was particularly sad this time was watching one of the living cows go to the dying cow and actually start licking its face as if to comfort it. Again, it was all a bit sad. Interestingly, I heard from a Malay friend that if you feel sorry for the animal, you are not allowed to consume the meat it provides, since you are supposed to be grateful for what God has provided you. That is also the reason many women don’t attend the event. I think, even if I was Muslim, I would never be able to eat Hari Raya Haji meat.

Now I’m preparing for my next adventure, a four-day trip to Kuching, Sarawak in East Malaysia. Though I am technically going for work, the weekend is all mine! Can’t wait!