The Viet Nam Journey

January 14, 2019 - Leave a Response
Overlooking Halong Bay from Cat Ba Island at New Year‘s Eve 2018.

Overlooking Halong Bay from Cat Ba Island at New Year‘s Eve 2018.

Viet Nam! The one country in South-East Asia really everybody seems to have an opinion about. After so many varying stories I was told, there was much to be excited about and still I was surprised. In the end I really didn’t know what to expect anymore (especially after having seen most other countries in the region (except for China and, well, the Philippines). But for the better!

Some claimed the locals were a lot less friendly and even quite grumpy towards foreigners (in comparison), others weren’t quite as condemning. Many said the food would be noticeably more expensive, others put their focus of complaint on the transport. The latter, however, would be much more comfortable and straight-forward than say, in Thailand or Myanmar. Also, is it perhaps worth booking hostel beds (and rooms) in advance?

Good morning, Vietnam! First day in Saigon (December 21, 2018).

Good morning, Vietnam! First day in Saigon (December 21, 2018).

Clearing up the Basics

Now, so what actually proved to be true? I’ll come straight to the point in a little bulletin list before getting into spicy details plus explaining my little 16-day itinerary from south to north.

  • Yes, I also found the food substantially more expensive than in, say, Indonesia, Myanmar or mainland Thailand and even more so than in Malaysia.
  • Buses are very straightforward and they are also quite comfortable (and relatively fast). Most buses (especially when traveling overnight) are sleepers. Just make sure you get a lower bunk bed. Not only is it a lot shakier up there, it’s probably also better for your phones. (Never before have I seen smartphones raining down in that high a frequency. Some didn’t survive.) Price-wise, buses are not considerably more or less expensive than anywhere else in SE-Asia (imho). For a sleeper from e.g. Da Lat (in Southern Vietnam) to Hoi An (in the centre) I paid 300,000 d (around €12).
    Accomodation is possibly the cheapest I’ve ever came across. Like, seriously cheap. If you’d pay more than, say, 120,000 Dong for a night in a hostel bed (about €4,80) that would already count as luxury for some. Rather expect to pay between 60,000 and 100,000 for a comfortable bed (between €2 and 4).
    Yes, I did make the acquaintance of quite some real nasty and almost heinous individuals and definitely more so than anywhere else in Asia (so far – maybe they shoot travelers on arrival in Papua New Guinea?). However, those unpleasant encounters almost always occurred in areas that were more or less spoiled by tourism. Still, some behaviour left me quite speechless. Even if there are language barriers, there should always be a way to make yourself understood in a peaceful way, even if only with gestures or just a little patience (something many Vietnamese seem to lack in general). Still, I met so many wonderful locals, no-one can claim that there wouldn’t usually be a smooth way out of things if one wanted to.
Food in Vietnam tasty – no doubt! It‘s also considerably more expensive than e.g. in mainland Thailand, Myanmar or Indonesia.

Food in Vietnam tasty – no doubt! It‘s also considerably more expensive than e.g. in mainland Thailand, Myanmar or Indonesia.

Concerning Cash

The local currency is the Vietnamese Dong (VND) and €1 buys you approx. 26,000 Dong (d) and a bit, hence I roughly calculated: 100,000 are about €4. Differently put: Multiply the price in dong by 4 and you get the right amount in Eurocents, e.g. 7 (thousand) Dong (d) times 4 would be 28 cents (and so on).

Overall I have spent some €220 for 16 days traveling through the country, having 7 major stop-overs (see below), that makes an average of about €13,75 per day.

Overall I’ve spent some €220 for 16 days traveling through the country on 7 major stop-overs (see below), that makes an average of about €13,75 per day.

The prices for transportation, food, etc. in the graphic above are given in Euro, but I exclusively paid in VND (the exchange rate for Euro or U.S. $ would be worse for you virtually all the time. It also (always) feels a bit awkward to see them use price tags given in dollars even when it comes to a bowl of noodles or a fruit juice. Didn’t they fight yankee capitalism to the blood still some mere decades ago…. ah, yes, I know – money rules the world and likely always will. 🤑😲🤮

Inside Saigon‘s touristic, but certainly beautiful old Post Office.

Inside Saigon‘s touristic, but certainly beautiful old Post Office.

The Visa Situation

The major reason (apart from time) for not getting into Vietnam already back in 2013 when cK and I were already on the Pancake Trail was the more expensive visa of (I can’t remember precisely now) some € 50 or so. All this has changed: Most Westerners can now stay in the country

  • for less then 15 days without a visa (for free!)
  • for up to one month (via e-visa, $ U.S. 25 (to be paid by arrival – if you pay in euro it’s also 25, but you’ll get some U.S. dollars back)
  • for up to 3 months (via e-visa, $ U.S.)

Travel Itinerary

So I arrived at Saigon Airport on the evening of December 20, paid for the 1 month visa (since I’d stay slightly longer than 2 weeks) and made my way to the city centre with bus nr. 109 for a mere 20,000 d. First thing I noticed about accomodation: You’re usually better off booking a bed in advance at most places – you’d actually pay more when just walking up to a place. Also, the desired hostel or guesthouse might quickly fill up. I never paid more than that very first night in Saigon, however: 110,000 d for a bed in a room shared with 5 other lads.

The Communist flag flying high above Saigon‘s town hall.

The Communist flag flying high above Saigon‘s town hall.

So what is it about the name? Well, the communist North won the war and ever since they marched into Saigon in 1975 they decided to rename the country’s largest city to honour their great leader Ho Chi Minh (who was already dead by then). It remains questionable if he liked a city to be named after him (he also explicitly wanted to be buried, but the communist leaders thought differently and today you can stare at his decaying body in a mausoleum in Hanoi (the capital), Lenin-style (I didn’t actually do that).

In various ways: Saigon is intense! – and I didn’t mind it, but found it quite sympathetic even. However, it probably didn’t hurt to have expected the worst right from the start (generally not being a huge fan of motorcycles). So I arranged myself right from the start and, in fact, found it quite amusing how busy everyone appears while utterly frantically (and recklessly) rushing through the alleys, honking around like there would be no tomorrow, coughing and spitting, but never really yelling (at least not on the street) and often enough transforming the foot path into an additional biking lane, too.

You should indeed always be prepared for the worst. Nothing ever happened to me, but I repeatedly heard stories of travelers having their cell phones snatched by some sneaky prick riding his bike on the foot path just when one would be checking directions. So keep your eyes open!

Having said so much: Most locals are not only honest, of course, they’re real fun to communicate (and sometimes even hang out) with. Walking along Tôn Dúc Tháng (a big alley at Saigon River) I got enthusiastically welcomed by a friendly “Good morning, Vietnam!”, reminiscent of the occasional war movie.

Street chaos in Saigon (Ho-Chi-Minh-City/HCMC) – you gotta dive into it and arrange yourself!

Street chaos in Saigon (Ho-Chi-Minh-City/HCMC) – you gotta dive into it and arrange yourself!

Places you shouldn’t miss in town:

  • Saigon’s (hyped-up) version of Bangkok’s Khao San Road: Bui Vien Street, an alleged “walking street” filled with everything the casual traveler would crave for (funky street food, dodgy massage offers, commie style T-shirts and LOTS of bars), just below 23/9 Park – obviously, “walking street” does not mean that you aren’t sharing the experience with your fair share of honking bikes and cars
  • the Museum of Fine Arts (feat. a fine selection of local art in three buildings
  • the Museum of Ho-Chi-Minh City (with some sweet views over the skyline)
  • the War Remnants Museum (being the biggest and most popular museum in town: touching photo exhibitions with lots of explanation on 3 floors plus a wide selection of tanks and airplanes just outside
    Taking some time out at Tao Dan Park and Le Van Tam Park
    the historic Saigon Central Post Office plus the Notre Dame Cathedral (just opposite)
    feeling like a proper tourist inside Ben Tanh Tourist Market (I at least had a real lovely fruit shake inside)
  • relaxing at the Botanical Gardens to the north of the city
  • getting lost in some back street and randomly talking to some kids or making conversation with curious locals

Two full days in vibrant, lively Saigon were enough for me, but the city has surely more to offer, especially if you feel like hitting the dance floor or get seriously wasted in some bar late at night – just take care of your cash, it easily starts growing legs (as Lonely Planet would phrase it).

Da Lat’s delightful and modern “city centre”.

Da Lat’s delightful and modern “city centre”.

Next on for me was Da Lat, a hill station being built by the French colonial rulers in the 19th century. By bus it’s some 7 hours up to the north, conveniently located in the much fresher South Central Vietnamese Highlands. It features an abundance of old French villas, surrounded by nature and a bunch of waterfalls. A very likeable place! I spent most of my time here wandering around and can highly recommend the following things:

  • walking to the old Train Station, passing by the city square (feat. funky buildings) and then surrounding Xuan Huong Lake, either checking out the Flower Park in the north or enjoying the tranquility of the island just below
  • visiting the so-called Crazy House, a fairytale-like gem designed by a famous Vietnamase architect named Đặng Việt Nga, who happens to be the daughter of some Communist official (which saved her long-time project from being attacked by the rather backward-oriented party dictatorship). You can also book a night in of the extraordinarily designed rooms here as the place also serves as a guesthouse, then having the whole fantastic construction (almost) all to yourself at sunset or sunrise
  • enjoying street food and being interviewed by excited locals and Asian visitors alike at the Night Market (around the city centre)
The fairy-tale-like “Crazy House” by Vietnamese architect Đặng Việt Nga serves also a guesthouse.

The fairy-tale-like “Crazy House” by Vietnamese architect Đặng Việt Nga serves also a guesthouse.

Kate and I out and about on a rainy day in Da Lat.

Kate and I out and about on a rainy day in Da Lat.

I stayed at a place called An Hostel and Café and ended up sharing a bottle of sparkling wine with a fellow traveler called Kate at Christmas Eve, a wonderful companion (and congenial converser) – the only problem being that she would be heading south towards Saigon while I was on my way up. (However, quite some travelers wouldn’t be deterred from Vietnam’s rather straight-forward geographic shape and instead travel up and down as the winds would carry them – provided they had the time.)

I sadly had to leave Kate (plus another like-minded traveler) behind already the following day. The two of them, though, would eventually team up and spend New Year’s Eve together in the big city (after having been to the coastal town of Mui Ne that I would have liked to see if it wasn’t for the limited schedule).

Next on was a night bus to Hoi An in Central Vietnam and I opted to stay somewhere rather off-centre in a place called Beautiful Moon Villa/Sky House (the owner is called Sky). Hoi An is basically most traveler’s darling since the city is so very approachable and charming at the same time. What people come here for is the Old Town (listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site) consisting of Chinese-style shophouses, offering everything from postcards and posters to food and clothes mingled with a dozen interesting temples, art galleries and tailor shops.

Chinese style lanterns in enchanting (if somewhat kitschy) Hoi An.

Chinese style lanterns in enchanting (if somewhat kitschy) Hoi An.

The already likeable atmosphere almost turns over-the-top kitschy by sunset when hundreds of multi-coloured Chinese lanterns are being lit up, various small boats start shifting romance-seeking tourists around, bumping into one another from one shore to the other. It’s quite the spectacle to watch really!

Just some 4 hours north of Hoi An (hence still very much in the country’s centre) lies the former imperial capital city Hue. While the tourist area just east of the city’s centre (across the so-called Perfume River) is not exactly appealing, it’s not a long way for escaping the tourist trap shops and restaurants (which feature ludicrous price ranges).

Vietnam’s last emperor Bao Dai, who abdicated when Ho Chi Minh rose to power, was reigning right from the former Imperial City (basically a citadel within a citadel that was incorporating a third citadel called The Purple Forbidden City) which has been heavily bombarded by the U.S. Americans during the war (that officially only ended in 1975 when the last Marines left the country). The reconstruction is far from being finished, but the place is still very much worth visit.

Inside the Imperial City of Hue.

Inside the Imperial City of Hue.

Shortly after arriving in Hue I got to know a Polish traveler from Gdansk (who was sitting in the same bus coming from Hoi An) – she told me about an abandoned water/amusement park that she heard about and wanted to visit. I was completely down by the time she mentioned the word “abandoned”, so we agreed to team up with another traveler and share a Grab (basically Asia’s Uber) to the place which was well-signed in the offline map app maps.me. We were eventually joined by just another curious adventurer called Shalom, a Mexican girl who I shared a dorm with in Hoi An’s Sky House.

So the four of us showed up at the old park entrance which was guarded by a dude in uniform who told us somewhat firmly that the park would be closed. After we were (sort of) pressing him for an “exception” he rather unexpectedly blinked at us, indicating to walk around the former entrance and try it from another side. We understood, backed off and found our way through some village lanes until approaching the first indicators of the old water park, overgrown statues and some sort of platform.

In the distance we saw some other people climbing along the abandoned stadium part and just when we were setting off to join them we noticed another uniformed dude on a motorbike coming for us instead. After some wild discussing we bribed the dude (paying some 10,000 Dong each), promised not to climb anything, “just taking photos” and off we went to the see the famous dragon statue and, some time later, the water slides and pools.

The dragon’s foot alone would have been worth the adventure.

The dragon’s foot alone would have been worth the adventure.

Taking photos at the water slides, some 15 minutes walk away from the dragon construction.

Taking photos at the water slides, some 15 minutes walk away from the dragon construction.

I later learned that the park allegedly closed down only in 2004 after being an economic disaster – the locals claimed that the whole thing was doomed to fail from the start as it was erected on top of an ancient grave yard. Then there was a series of lethal incidents during the construction work and, finally, one newspaper article reported that the area was, in fact, plagued by crocodiles (having escaped from the aquariums and now attacking the local population of water buffaloes). We were joking around about that, of course, but finding the aquarium tanks beneath the massive dragon statue dismantled certainly helped to arouse an appropriate ambience. We loved the place and I have no difficulty imagining it as a setting for a fun (trash) horror film.

That same day I was leaving Hue behind already and almost missed to get out of the bus when arriving in Ninh Binh, some 90 km south of Hanoi. First thing noticeable was how very much colder everything was that far up in the country’s north. I was still wearing short trousers, sandals and a wifebeater shirt when jumping into a metered taxi taking me to neighbouring Tam Coc (some 9 km away), often being referred to as Vietnam’s inland version of Halong Bay: vast limestone cliffs being surrounded by numerous rice paddies and delightful water ways, much more accessible and also much less touristic; I was keen.

Spectacular view over rice fields in the Tam Coc area (near Ninh Binh).

Spectacular view over rice fields in the Tam Coc area (near Ninh Binh).

That night it was raining heavily and I already feared for the worst, but the clouds were clearing up in the morning and after a lovely breakfast with my 2 room mates from Japan (Michita) and Israel (Martin, who arrived at the home stay just minutes before me), Michita and I decided to rent out bikes and explore the area. I was certainly not to be disappointed, especially not after having been on top of Mua Cave, that allows fascinating panorama views of the surrounding area (despite a rather smacking 100,000 d entrance fee).

You can also rent out a boat in Tam Coc and make your way to Trang An (and return), but the weather wasn’t inviting enough plus I felt that being on the limestones was a much more rewarding experience. At night it was drinking beers and playing chess with Martin before heading to bed and getting up early the following morning in order to catch the bus to the island of Cat Ba.

Overviewing the dozens of limestone islands at Halong Bay from Cat Ba’s Cannon Fort.

Overviewing the dozens of limestone islands at Halong Bay from Cat Ba’s Cannon Fort.

Cat Ba is situated just south of world-famous Halong Bay (some 170 km east of Hanoi), popular for its sheer endless amount of limestone/karst rocks popping out of the sea. Beautiful, I’m sure – but also overfilled with Chinese tourists and frantic locals trying to suck out ever dong of every traveler approaching (this is at least how I imagined it to be), so I was opting for the largest of the 1,969 islands instead, Cat Ba.

The plan was to meet up with a friend I got to know on a roadtrip through Southern Europe in 2015 and who now happened to travel through South-East Asia as well – then somehow squeeze in a visit to the rice fields of Sapa (close to the Chinese boarder) before spending my last day of this trip in the country’s capital. Obviously everything turned out just slightly different (just what I love about traveling, though).

An apparently abandoned hostel near the National Park.

An apparently abandoned hostel near the National Park.

The friend I was looking forward to meet made it to Cat Ba Island (together with her travel companions), but they felt like spending New Year’s at a more urban (and not quite so fresh) place, so they left Cat Ba Town before we were able to meet up. However, Shalom, the Mexican girl I got to know in Hoi An (viva la Pancake Trail!), meanwhile made it into town and stayed at my otherwise vacant hostel dorm.

Also, while exploring the remnants of Fort Cannon (including some abandoned lookout points and paths) I met a bunch of traveling Brits whose company was quite… refreshing). We all ended up dancing and sipping happy hour cocktails in some bar just on the town’s main road when 2019 kicked in. And that was it! May the new year bring even more unexpected twists and turns and – especially so – exciting and stimulating new input in the shape of inspiring human beings…

Celebrating New Year’s at some bar in Cat Ba Town.

Celebrating New Year’s at some bar in Cat Ba Town.

Bicycle discovery tour on New Year’s Day: verdant views all around.

Bicycle discovery tour on New Year’s Day: verdant views all around.

On New Year’s Day, Shalom and I were renting bicycles and exploring the actual treasures of the big island, passing by apparently abandoned (but beautiful) guest houses, lots of view points over inland limestone hills and caves (e.g. a place called Hospital Cave that was used as such during the war against the Americans).

On January 2nd we finally headed off to Hanoi and I scratched all plans of going further north: January simply isn’t the right time to see blooming rice fields in sunshine on multiple-day treks, so I opted for spending all my remaining time in the capital – and as mental as the people behave in traffic: it’s clearly been a worthwhile visit! I recommend doing (or seeing) the following when in town:

  • exploring the Temple of Literature – the country’s first university (est. in 1076)
  • the Hoa Lo Prison (nicknamed the Hanoi Hilton by U.S. American POWs), built by the French around 1900 to imprison and execute Vietnamese freedom fighters in a brutal colonial regime, later used for keeping American soldiers – the photos shown have a twisted aftertaste of Commie propaganda and should be taken with a large dose of scepticism
  • the area around Truc Bach Lake, especially the Tran Quoc Pagoda – there is well-sorted, but quite expensive English boom shop called Bookworm
  • reading a book in the tranquility of Bay Mau Lake (south of the Old Quarter) or inside the (small, but sufficiently charming) Botanical Gardens
  • discovering the backstreets around the B52 Lake, a pond in which a U.S. American B52 bomber was downed and is now slowly decaying (there is also a museum further south, named accordingly)
  • enjoying colonial architecture and more museums east of the Opera House
  • strolling around Hô Hoàn Kiêm, shooting time lapses of the Red Bridge and getting lost in the mad market frenzy between there and the Dong Xuan Market hall
The Tran Quoc Pagoda in Ha Noi, the country’s capital.

The Tran Quoc Pagoda in Ha Noi, the country’s capital.

Colonial architecture in Ha Noi.

Colonial architecture in Ha Noi.

I stayed in Hanoi for 3 days and nights and finally met my old roadtrip companion from 2015 – she and her friends were renting an Air B’n’B close to the opera and I spent one night there at a game night. Beer is cheap in Vietnam (compared to predominantly Muslim Malaysia and Indonesia), so we enjoyed our fair share. On my last full day in the country I got fully absorbed in the tourist market hole, making myself a present for some rather sweet 15 days in the shape of brandnew purple-coloured shoes. On January 5 I jumped on a shuttle bus to the airport and left for Kuala Lumpur (where I spent one whole night writing and editing). The day after I finally reunited with my good old travel companion cK in Sulawesi, two full weeks of island and jungle adventures ahead of us – but that’s another chapter.

The easy life in Tam Coc.
The easy life in Tam Coc.
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From Manado to Makassar: Backpacking Sulawesi

January 21, 2019 - Leave a Response
Sulawesi is all about volcanoes, lush green landscape and paradise islands – and then there are the ever-friendly locals: approachable and fun!

Sulawesi is all about volcanoes, lush green landscape and paradise islands – and then there are the ever-friendly locals: approachable and fun!

Sulawesi is a curiously shaped province within the Indonesian archipelago (that consists of some 17,500 islands in total) – conveniently located just north of Bali and Lombok (Nusa Tenggara), east of Malaysian Sabah and Kalimantan (Borneo), south of the Philippines and west of the Moluccas. It is the planet’s eleventh-largest island (176,600 sq km) – within Indonesia only Sumatra, Java and Papua are larger in territory and only Java and Sumatra are home to more people. That said, Sulawesi (with some 18,5 million) really didn’t feel overpopulated. However, that might easily be due to having spent some time in Vietnam just beforehand.

After Myanmar, Thailand, Malaysia and Vietnam, Indonesia is the fifth country on the list on this trip and my first time on the archipelago since 2015 when I visited Northern Sumatra. I first came to Indonesia after traveling around Australia for a year in 2006/07 – my good friend Donnie and I spent a month exploring Bali and Lombok, Nusa Tenggara (that includes the islands of Komodo and Rinca, home to the notorious Komodo dragons) plus Java. I utterly fell in love with the country back then and it again delivered this time – I would love to return some time, possibly for discovering Kalimantan (on Borneo) or Papua.

The k-shaped island with the red dot it is – surrounded by Borneo to the west, the Philippines to the north and Nusa Tenggara to the south.

The k-shaped island with the red dot it is – surrounded by Borneo to the west, the Philippines to the north and Nusa Tenggara to the south.

So while I was winding my way up from Southern to Northern Vietnam (December 20 to January 5), cK was already enjoying himself on Bali and Lombok before we finally reunited at Makassar Airport in Sulawesi’s very south west. The unusual overall shape is basically due to the amount of peninsulas (take a closer look at a map, it’s worth it) which makes you reconsider your itinerary thoroughly.

Despite various interesting destinations on any of the island’s legs we decided to start in the capital (Makassar), then head north while avoiding Palu and the rest of the west coast (due to the tsunami that hit the region hard in September 2018) and make our way to the Togean Islands, easily considered Sulawesi’s prime destination due to excellent snorkelling and diving, savage island coasts, an authentic Robinson Crusoe ambience and enchanting surprises like sweet Jellyfish Lake.

The trip couldn’t start any better really when we managed to avoid the usual taxi scam by hitchhiking into downtown Makassar where we booked a guesthouse in advance – however, the address given proved to be false, but our drivers hooked us up with just another guesthouse where we ended up staying instead (after lots of confusion and some fun conversations with Japanese guests).

Especially local kids were more than keen to either interview us or take selfies. Quite the action!

Especially local kids were more than keen to either interview us or take selfies. Quite the action!

Makassar‘s main tourist attraction: Fort Rotterdam.

Makassar‘s main tourist attraction: Fort Rotterdam.

Makassar provided a comfortable base for the first two nights, even though there isn’t overly much to do besides getting lost in back alleys or taking selfies with super-curious and highly approachable locals. The only real sight is centrally located Fort Rotterdam, a well-preserved example of Dutch architecture where you can walk along the original walls and take even more selfies with enthusiastic locals.

After the second night in town we got on a bus north into the rather peculiar region of Tana Toraja, famous for a stunning scenery, elaborately painted houses (originally used for rice storage) featuring boat-shaped roofs plus a once-animist people that has a certain obsession with bloody funeral ceremonies. We were offered to attend one of those, but happily declined since one is expected to pay a rather astonishing amount of money for that (in comparison).

Riding the bus to Rantepao in the Tana Toraja region.

Riding the bus to Rantepao in the Tana Toraja region.

On top of things again: enjoying the views from Rantepao‘s highest hill.

On top of things again: enjoying the views from Rantepao‘s highest hill.

However, we later met a very likeable European couple that was willing to attend the funeral and talk about it: lots of wicked chanting and elaborate dance acts, but also a shocking amount of cruel animal torture and slaughtering – e.g. pigs whose legs were tied together for general amusement, trying to jump around helplessly before being killed. Apart from that it was apparently most interesting to observe the social structure – it basically comes down to: The more buffaloes your family can afford, the better your stand in (the Toraja) society.

We settled in Rantepao and decided to explore the wider area by foot and bicycle (after virtually every scooter rental we turned to had trouble with their machines) – then my bike broke down half-way up a mountain (on the way to a place called Batutumonga) – luckily the only thing we needed to do was turn around and roll down for half an hour until we were back in town, passing cheering school kids and the occasional honking taxi driver.

Curious Toraja architecture: They originally used these houses to store rice.

Curious Toraja architecture: They originally used these houses to store rice.

We booked the bus ticket further north (to a place called Pendolo) at some dodgy backstreet agency whose owner was very keen to sell us a funeral tour. Also, we didn’t get bus tickets (or any sort of confirmation for the money we paid him). The morning of our departure his family told us he’d be in the hospital (did he talk about his own funeral?) and of course no-one really knew about the tickets we bought from him. As was to be expected, though, it all worked out just fine. South-East Asia, I love you for this (incalculable chaos).

After a bumpy 10-hour bus ride we eventually made it to Pendolo, a little village just south of Danau (Lake) Poso, a rather beautiful freshwater lake in Central Sulawesi. We arrived in darkness and picked the Pendolo Cottages to stay at – when following our landlord passing over a wooden bridge towards the bungalows, one of the boards bursted and I sort of fell through it – at least with one leg. Quite the experience. Nothing happened besides some scratches at the leg – the plank actually hit my eyes, but the glasses protected me. After we saw the cottage and negotiated a price our landlord returned with some tiger balm which made me smile big-time.

Having the most enchantable morning after breakfast on the bungalow terrace.

Having the most enchantable morning after breakfast on the bungalow terrace.

Collecting trash at Lake Poso and then enjoying a long lovely swim!

Collecting trash at Lake Poso and then enjoying a long lovely swim!

Since Rantepao I fell in love with a dish called Gado-Gado: basically rice with vegetables, tofu, sometimes tempeh and always peanut sauce. So once we headed out to hunt that down we rather surprisingly stumbled into a proper nightly fairground, complete with “giant” wheel, carrousel and even a spook hall (one guy accompanied us through and made sure we’d have a fun time). We also found some gado-gado that night.

After some great night sleep we awoke in paradise: our caring landlord served us fresh fruits and strong black tea for breakfast and cleared the bit of beach for us as well. I put up the hammock, we smothered ourselves with sun screen and off we went into the sea – only to discover it to be filled with (mostly transparent) plastic trash. Great! We made the best of it and spent the following hour collecting garbage from beach and lake – some dude from the adjacent cottages got his phone out and filmed us doing so (and hopefully makes it go viral on YouTube and his circle of mates).

One of those wooden bridges was rotten and I basically fell through when crossing it at night.

One of those wooden bridges was rotten and I basically fell through when crossing it at night.

More cottages in the sweet village of Pendolo.

More cottages in the sweet village of Pendolo.

The tranquil times weren’t too last unfortunately – when we returned from village (were we had lunch and also acquired for a bus towards the next target) we found the two surrounding bungalows occupied with other guests: two big and rather noisy Indonesian families (after all this was a Saturday we then realized). We didn’t actually mind the company, but it was lovely to have the beach just for ourselves for a change – and, well, they then started a karaoke session that kept on going well into the night. But this is Asia after all!

The day after was a Sunday and on Sundays there isn’t much going on in that part of the country (the Christians here take this rather serious), but the promised bus came and off we went to Poso (the city which gave the lake its name) where we changed into a night connection into our target city of the day: Ampana – the gateway town to the long waited for Togean Islands!

Making our way north through Central Sulawesi (passing through Poso and ending in Ampana from where we took the ferry to the Togeans).

Making our way north through Central Sulawesi (passing through Poso and ending in Ampana from where we took the ferry to the Togeans).

We arrived in Ampana basically in the middle of the night, being the only passengers leaving the bus and then making our way straight to the ferry terminal. The streets were pretty much deserted and so was the harbour area, but we did encounter some information giving us an idea about the accommodation prices on the islands: with 225,000 Rupiah (15 euro) per person about three times as much as we were used to from, say, Pendolo. And then there was an additional national park fee of 150,000 Rp. – to be paid for by day.

We would consider our options the following day, but first needed to find a place to catch up with sleep – we ended up at the Oasis Hotel nearby, but the place was as empty as the streets around. After some extensive sneaking around we decided to crash on the lobby couches, switched off the lights, closed the entrance door and fell asleep just when it began to rain heavily (the lobby’s back area was basically open, so some rain drops touched down on my face). Around 06:30 or so the hotel receptionists showed up, so we asked for a room, were given one immediately and kept on sleeping until it was too hot and humid to bear.

cK temporarily working for the harbour administration.

cK was temporarily supporting the harbour administration.

The following day we spent in town to acquire more information about the Togeans and how exactly to get there (and away from), find a wifi spot and then tried to catch as much sleep as possible in order to fully enjoy the island adventure. We were keen.

A local ferry took us to the rather unappealing town of Wakai before heading on to Pulau Kedidiri where we stayed at one of three guesthouse complexes named Leskiri Cottages. That same night we got to know a bunch of fellow travelers who we then successfully recruited for a trip to Jellyfish Lake the following day.

Our bungalow at Kediri Cottages

Our bungalow at Kediri Cottages.

The island dogs: our regular companions – steadily seeking distraction and new adventures.

The island dogs: our regular companions – steadily seeking distraction and new adventures.

I first heard about that funnily named locality from friends who went to the Togeans in early 2018, marked the place on maps.me and forgot about it again soon after. And now here we were – reading about it in guide book PDFs and on ad flyers lying around in the cottage lunch room. A tranquil lake filled with a stingless species of jelly fish peacefully passing through horizontally day by day. We just had to see it!

While sharing some happy hour cocktails at the Kadidiri Paradise bar (one of the competing cottages) we met Kristin and Delio, actors from Hamburg and Zürich, plus Joaquin and Antonella, globetrotters from Buenos Aires (who happened to live in Berlin for a year until recently). The morning after the six of us were on a boat heading to the lake, sufficiently equipped with water, snacks and fins (prohibited while swimming with the jellyfish, but obviously handy for some good snorkelling at a nearby coral reef).

Robinson Crusoe style beach near Jellyfish Lake.

Robinson Crusoe style beach near Jellyfish Lake.

Corals calling!

Corals calling!

The remaining time on the Togeans we spent hanging out on the jetty, at the beach, in hammocks, on comfy couches near the bar and discussing the life at home, the funky pleasures of traveling and what comes with it.

On the morning of our departure day we went inland to explore another beach close-by (called Baracuda Bay) and the bunch of local dogs happily accompanied us as if they were just waiting for some distraction. It’s been playing Robinson Crusoe all the way! Probably one of my highlights on this trip.

Baracuda Bay!

Secluded Baracuda Bay.

From Wakai we eventually got on the night ferry towards Northern Sulawesi and arrived in Gorontalo around 03:30 in the morning. We decided to walk into town (some 4 kilometres away), making several breaks in between, witnessing the sun rising above the usual accumulation of modest, but colourful mosques. It actually proved to be quite the hassle to find a transport to Manado, the last target on this voyage across the island. We went to two bus stations from where we hoped to catch a bus north-east, but we were only told to rent a car instead – that seems like an expensive idea, but this is South-East Asia after all! For 175,000 each (around €11) we squeezed ourselves into a private car with just another tobacco-addicted driver and off we went to Manado.

Unexpected roadtrip interruption due to landslide cleaning work.

Unexpected roadtrip interruption due to landslide cleaning work.

After some 10 hours and an unexpected interruption due to a landslide (the road needed to be cleared with help of chain saws and caterpillars) we finally arrived in Manado, Sulawesi’s second-largest city (with some 750,000 inhabitants). The name means something like “on the far coast” or “in the distance” and originally refers to a volcanic island just off the mainland where the town was originally located. The reason we were heading here (apart from the airport proximity) was another island just next-by: Bunaken. I got to know about it only some months ago, but was quite keen to get there because the marine life is supposed to be just spectacular.

However, we never made it to Bunaken since the ferry times were not in our favor and we didn’t feel like arranging an overprized private ferry for a mere daytrip. Instead, we spent our last full day on Sulawesi inland. A cheap and nicely crowded public bus brought us to a mountain town called Tomohon: fresh and cool air, attractively shaped volcanoes and a small, but highly sulphurous lake that changes colours (depending on the light) was all that we could ask for.

Volcano watching from Tomohon, a sympathetic town some 25 km inland from Manado.

Volcano watching from Tomohon, a sympathetic town some 25 km inland from Manado.

We celebrated our last day with cold Bintang beer, tasty donuts and an even tastier dinner – that included some spicy tempeh – back in Manado (where we resided at the popular Celebes Hotel). The morning after we were on a plane back to Makassar and I’m writing these lines now (January 21, 2019) while hanging out in the Bunk Backpackers close to Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA), having Pink Floyd’s Time in my ears (one of my favorite tracks on The Dark Side of the Moon). We’re all excited because later today we’ll be finally boarding a plane to Honolulu on the island of O’ahu – the first time for both of us crossing the vast Pacific Ocean. This new chapter of the trip, however, will be written at another day and another place…

The Togean Islands – this is Pulau Kediri as seen from the Kadidiri Paradise jetty.

The Togean Islands – this is Pulau Kediri as seen from the Kadidiri Paradise jetty.

Hawai‘i already on our mind... the next adventure is coming up shortly.

Hawai‘i already on our mind… the next adventure is coming up shortly.

Late Night KL Airport reflections

January 6, 2019 - Leave a Response
Writing elaborate travel blogs while hanging out at South-East Asian airports (instead of catching valuable sleep) really is the most enjoyable thing I could possibly imagine…

Writing elaborate travel blogs while hanging out at South-East Asian airports (instead of catching valuable sleep) really is the most enjoyable thing I could possibly imagine…

So I’m writing this while sitting (almost lying down now) next to my backpack and camera bag plus a dodgy power outlet at the departure hall of KLIA, short for Kuala Lumpur International Airport. It’s the middle of the night, I’m listening to Pink Floyd’s remastered version of The Wall, watching bunches of people either sneaking or rushing by (mostly the latter, though).

There is this slow moving (and slightly overweight) kung-fu master with a stylish Confucius beard and a comic print shirt looking at me while passing by the second time (that I notice him). There is this blond Western girl running along one way and returning another. A bunch of frantically excited Indians. Some hardcore muslims featuring a pasha male and his (at least to outstanders) subordinate wife almost being completely covered in black veiling. A happily smiling couple, possibly Japanese? Wherever they’re from, their mood is contagious. And Roger Waters sings: Why are you running away…?

24 hours earlier I was still deep asleep and snuggled up inside my hostel bed in Hanoi, Vietnam’s capital. I already knew I’d need as much sleep as I could possibly get before that day at the airport, doing nothing but write, write, write – all night long. Getting some food in between, a toilet break and a water refill. Noudle soup, cookies and a soup. Still tired. (I wonder how I possibly manage to survive 7-day long electro festivals in summer. Repeatedly. No real sleep for days!) 4 more hours until the bag drop counter opens; I better keep on writing.

So cK and I temporarily parted ways in Kuala Lumpur (KL) City pretty much 16 days ago, on December 20 last year. While he went on an early morning flight to Bali, Indonesia (to meet his girl), I was leaving the same day, but heading to Saigon (a/k/a Ho-Chi-Minh-City instead. I could have also opted for discovering more of Malaya, but I already saw most of what I was looking for in late 2015 (when escaping to KL from loony Indian madness). Back then I went up north on to the enchanting island of Langkawi and all the way south again to charming Melaka, but I couldn’t go to Pulau Tioman, a snorkel/diving island paradise just off Malaya’s east coast. It just wasn’t the season, the seas were too rough on that side of the peninsula. Well, guess what? It’s that time of the year again. So that is on the list still

Evaluating options: While I‘ve been to places marked red and orange (plus green and blue), purple marks the ones I still want to see some time in the future if I get the chance.

Evaluating options: While I‘ve been to places marked red and orange (plus green and blue), purple marks the ones I still want to see some time in the future if I get the chance.

I could have also gone down to Singapore and fly over to Java – finally seeing Anak Krakatau with my own eyes (before it would finally blow itself to pieces again just as it did before – the last time, infamously, in 1883).

Just some weeks ago Krakatau’s child (or “Anuk” in Bahasa Indonesia) caused a heavy landslide (and a follow up tsunami) that led to the death of some 300 people who were just doing their thing at some popular beach places right at the Sunda Strait (i.e. between the islands of Sumatra and Java). So probably not a good idea to head there right at this moment which is a shame really since I was always quite interested in seeing that particular volcano of which I heard and read so much when still being a child, devouring comic books that dealt with actual geological (and political) history.

The eruption (and consequent self-destruction) of Krakatoa in 1883 as depicted by one of my all-time favorite comic artists Don Rosa in the Scrooge McDuck story “The Cowboy Captain of the Cutty Sark”.

The eruption (and consequent self-destruction) of Krakatoa in 1883 as depicted by one of my all-time favorite comic artists Don Rosa in the Scrooge McDuck story “The Cowboy Captain of the Cutty Sark”.

So what about skipping Java alltogether and hitting Bali and Nusa Tanggara (the islands east of Bali that also include Lombok) instead? Well, I’ve been there as well (back in 2007 – at prime season, too!) and kinda didn’t want to overwrite my fading, but still utterly stupendous memories of very youthful and innocent adventures. Some day I will surely return to that (hopefully) still blissful island, trying to figure out how much I will still recall of Ubud and the monkey forest, personal encounters with exciting human beings, celebrations of friendship and bonding.

About the other surrounding regions: Indonesian Borneo (Kalimantan) is too big, too spread out and simply too intense for traveling alone at this point. Southern Sumatra: ditto. The Philippines I’d like to save up for something (and someone) special. And Sulawesi is up next already: The sole reason for spending all those hours at KLIA is me waiting for the “connection flight” to Makassar, Sulawesi’s capital – reunion with cK is approaching! About the real chance of there being earthquakes, a volcano eruption and even a tsunami: I was happy to hear that the first aid kit is still being unused, even untouched.

Having considered all of that, going to Viet Nam really seemed to be the best option to spend my 16 solo trip days at. Now, after having returned to where I headed off from I can thoroughly agree (to myself in some funny ego-perspectice twist): Time well spent. Read about the Viet Nam Journey in my next blog!

This giant hand belongs to the gigantic dragon that is the major attraction in an abandoned water park in the Central-Vietnamese city of Hue.

This giant hand belongs to the gigantic dragon that is the major attraction in an abandoned water park in the Central-Vietnamese city of Hue.

At the Centre of the Rainbow Light Circle

December 22, 2018 - Leave a Response
Double rainbow on our third summer roadtrip (August 2016) – as seen in the Masuria region of Northern Poland.

Double rainbow on our third summer roadtrip (August 2016) – as seen in the Masuria region of Northern Poland.

I’m writing these lines after a day full of sightseeing lying in my hostel bed in Saigon, Vietnam. In stead of coming up with Vietnamese travel tales, however, this is going to be a different sort of post – not really about traveling at all, but rather about the magic of reality (but traveling often enough covers both: magic and reality).

This post is largely inspired by the fabulous sixth book of British evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, called Unweaving the Rainbow. In fact, this post is about exactly that: unweaving rainbows, metaphorical so, but also quite literally. To begin with: Dawkins wrote the book as a response to the claim that science would “take away” from the magic of reality, that it would diminish the view of the world – wrapping it up with some sort of sober and overly rational scientific blanket. Dawkins argues quite the opposite: Unweaving the rainbow does not diminish the imagination, it actually enlarges the picture as a whole: To actually grasp what a rainbow really is and what else there is to it is not only marvellous, it can be quite mesmerising. And that is what this post is about.

A rainbow as seen from the windows of my flat in Berlin-Friedrichshain.

A rainbow as seen from the windows of my flat in Berlin-Friedrichshain.

So we all know how a rainbow comes into being, right? In short: It is caused by reflection, refraction and dispersion of light in droplets of water in the sky. When caused by the light of the sun a rainbow always appears in the opposite part of the sky. This is because the back surface of raindrops (which are roughly spherical) act as concave mirrors. The lower the sun, the higher the rainbow, but if the sun is higher in the sky than 42 degrees above the horizon we can’t see a rainbow at all. (This is why we see rainbows usually in early morning or late afternoon.)

So the light of the sun hits the rain droplets’ concave walls, then gets reflected, leaves the drops and will land at your eyes, but not before being refracted while moving from water back into air. We see the complete light spectrum (from red via yellow and green to violet) because there are so many raindrops, enough for all the colours to hit your eyes.

Steep rainbow curve as seen in Bergen, Norway in September 2018.

Steep rainbow curve as seen in Bergen, Norway in September 2018.

Now, the fascinating part (something I never really bothered pondering about, but it is really quite worth it). All those different raindrops being able to perform a complete spectrum for you to see from whatever angle means something else as well: The rainbow you are seeing is slightly different all the time, depending on your position. It is not only different for every single being who sees it, it is (consequently) also different for each of your eyes. You are always standing at the centre of your personal rainbow, piecing it together from different collections of raindrops. (So everyone around you is always positioned at the centre of their very own rainbow).

And when you are staring at a rainbow while sitting inside a car or train you do not actually see “the same one” rainbow, but a steady series of rainbows in quick succession.

“Observe the rays of the sun in the composition of the rainbow, the colours of which are generated by the falling rain, when each drop in its descent takes every colour of the bow.”

(Leonardo da Vinci, Treatise on Painting in the 1490s)

Every colour of the bow, Leonardo remarks – but a bow, really? The classic romantic portray of the rainbow is caused by the illusion that it is always pegged far away at the horizon, impossible to approach. But a rainbow only appears as a semicircle (or bow) because “the horizon gets in the way of the lower part of the circle” as Dawkins puts it.

Red rainbows (and sometimes even monochrome rainbows) are possible when the colours with shorter wavelengths like blue and green are scattered and thereby removed from the spectrum.

Red rainbows (and sometimes even monochrome rainbows) are possible when the colours with shorter wavelengths like blue and green are scattered and thereby removed from the spectrum.

So when we see a rainbow, we are in fact merely seeing a part of the whole. And the reason it appears to be so huge (and hence far away) is that our brain is playing tricks: It projects the image we receive with our eyes “outwards on to the sky” (Dawkins), an effect easily being imitated by staring into some bright light (e.g. a lamp) and stamping the after-image on your retina before projecting it onto the sky.

So how can we see an actual full-circle rainbow? The largest section of the rainbow we would be usually able to see is about 50 % at either sunrise or sunset. In order to see the rainbow’s lower half there would need to be raindrops below the observer’s horizon plus sunlight that reaches them. This can be achieved by watching a rainbow either from a (very) high building or an airplane.

It is easy to create a (little) full-circle rainbow yourself by creating a water mist e.g. with a garden hose while facing away from the sun.

Note the reversed colours of the fainter upper rainbow.

Note the reversed colours of the fainter upper rainbow.

Why are there double rainbows? One not seldomly sees an additional (yet fainter) rainbow (at 8 degrees higher than the first and with reversed colours) which happens when light enters the raindrops both through the upper and the lower quadrant – under the right conditions the light can then “be reflected twice round the inside of the sphere” (Dawkins).

So much for rainbows on blogposts from my side! Keep all that in mind the next time you happen to experience a double rainbow (and possibly a monochrome one).

If you want to get to know more about what else there is to be unwoven I can only recommend to get a copy of the book mentioned in the beginning (see picture below). I will end this post with the following (highly enchanting) words by Richard Dawkins while celebrating the birthday of a dear friend of mine. Thank you for inspiring so many of my days. Much love to you!

“We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Arabia. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively exceeds the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here.”

Roadtrippin‘ Europe over the years

December 16, 2018 - Leave a Response
Will we make it? Inside Karijini National Park, June 2007.

Will we make it? Inside Karijini National Park, June 2007.

It’s early (southern hemisphere) winter in 2007 and I’m lying around on some roadside parking spot in Western Australia’s Karijini National Park. I’m dreaming myself away devouring Jack Kerouac’s all-time classic travel/adventure novel On the Road, just about to realize that I’m basically living that dream at this very moment. Being on the pale blue dot a mere 20 years, but still – right now I am inhaling the hot air of infinite liberty and savage independence. Free as the burning Australian air surrounding my face and hair and every single burning bit of me.

I’m being surrounded by some wonderful human beings, too, and they’re sharing my enthusiasm about life and everything there is about it. All the small things from the gas cooker that helps us creating a basic, but superyummie traveler’s meal to the Australian Backpacker Atlas without which we wouldn’t be able to plan our trip in any decent manner. How long to the next gas station or roadhouse? Are there any sights on the way and what is that sweet town with the general store featuring an abundance of National Geographic copies called again that we spent some time in earlier?Flower inside Western Australia‘s Karijini NP (winter 2007).

Flower inside Western Australia‘s Karijini NP (winter 2007).

Then there is the almost incredible sunset light that fills up the entire sky in shades of pink, purple, red and orange. And that supremely enchanting letter of a girl that I got to know and fell in love with months prior to this very moment. I couldn’t possibly be happier. My fellow traveler Pierre (called “the Scaler”) coming from a place called Plaisir (next to Versailles just west of Paris) is about to prepare dinner tonight and my mate Donnie and I are willing to assist. I put the book aside and write some lines into my journals before getting up and heading over to where Pierre just started cutting tomatoes and onions.

The following quotation ends up in my diary that evening:

The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars.

Last day roadtrippin‘ after one year in Down Under / Sayin‘ farewell to the old 1984 Ford Falcon Station Wagon. We called him “FUCKUP” (refering to a German movie titled “23”).

Last day roadtrippin‘ after one year in Down Under / Sayin‘ farewell to the old 1984 Ford Falcon Station Wagon. We called him “FUCKUP” (refering to a German movie titled “23”).

Some seven years later I find myself inside a hammock hanging between two conifer trees overlooking a gorgeous little lake in Southern Sweden. The sun is setting again and I’m reading a copy of an Agatha Christie crime novel. Whenever I have too much of popular science literature (e.g. Dawkins, Dennett, Krauss, Singer or Chamski) I opt for Christie and she never fails to deliver.

I still think of backpacking in Down Under a lot, but I haven’t returned to the southern hemisphere ever since. Despite longer trips to South-East Asia and Central America (never longer than 2 to 3 months) I focused mostly on traveling across my beloved home continent, Europe. Being on the road steering one’s own car was always part of that (as is hitchhiking, though!) and Australia clearly prepared the basis for that.

Roadtrippin’ Sverige in August 2014: Relaxing in hammocks at the prettiest lake, far away from any civilzation.

Roadtrippin’ Sverige in August 2014: Relaxing in hammocks at the prettiest lake, far away from any civilzation.

I’m in Sweden now in a group of eight, sharing two station wagons with a Munich number plate – rental cars from a company based in Bavaria. Even though this is the first trip of its kind (many people in one group traveling for at least two weeks), there never really was a time without roadtrippin’: The girl I was in love with some seven years earlier and I did a good amount of hitchhiking in South-Eastern Europe (the Western Balkans) in 2008 and we were traveling across Sardegna in early 2010. My mate Donnie and I rented cars and traveled through England and Wales in 2010 and across the Scottish Highlands in 2013. But being in Sweden now was different. Having a large group of people together is clearly something special.

Prior to the trip we had no idea what to expect, of course, but we also failed to properly estimate the intersocial and interpersonal vibes. Luckily it all turned out rather harmonic and still utterly adventurous – to save cash we packed so much wine and liquor from Berlin that even two weeks were not enough to use it all up.

We would sleep in tents (or hammocks every single night), stay longer when we fancy a place especially much and simply move on otherwise – there is so much to see, but we mostly skip the bigger cities and focus on small towns and castles, lakes, forests and Stone Age places of worship. We would cook together each night, getting food and fruits on local markets and in supermarkets, sometimes struggle to find a good spot to spend the night at, but every bad decision proves to become a good story.

No matter the weather: Preparing dinner for everyone!

No matter the weather: Preparing dinner for everyone!

There are hilarious and highly entertaining games to be played, there are moments of (amusing) chaos and absolute bliss, there is music to chant to and there are silent times at night where one would wake up and wonder if we have company of some kind or if the noises are simply products of one’s vivid imagination.

Sweden proved to be the perfect place for this sort of roadtrip and the concept works to this day. We were a steady group of 8 individuals in August 2014 to start with and continued a tradition of traveling ever since. Some people would opt out at times, possibly return again at a later point, others would take their places, come and go. I cannot speak for my fellow travelers, of course, but for me personally at least these kind of trips are a consequential continuation of the life-shaping experiences I made while backpacking in Australia.

Lakeside serenity in Sweden (August 2014).

Lakeside serenity in Sweden (August 2014).

Ever since I strived to bring these moments of adventure and challenge, interpersonal connection and independence, harmony and warmth from down under to up above, from Australia to Europe.

In August 2015 we were a group of 13 featuring 4 cars and going south again instead: From Berlin we would be crossing through Czechia and Austria to Slovenia until Croatia’s Istrian peninsula and islands like Cres and Krk. Among the highlights were the Slovenian capital Ljubljana and Lake Bohinj inside the Triglav National Park plus the surrounding bays of Croatian Pola/Pula on Istria.

In 2016 we were a mere 7 people to start with, renting cars in Polish Poznan in order to go all the way to the Baltic countries (German car rental companies apparently never realized the Iron Curtain has fallen and the European Union has been enlarged already in 2004). During the trip we made the acquaintance of three fellow travelers who joined us for some time, one of whom actually became a close friend. Among my personal highlights were the forests, lakes and bays in Estonia plus its charming city Tartu, a cultural gem.

Contrary to the trip through Sweden the year before we had quite some bad luck with the weather this time – it would (too) often rain in the morning, so I needed to escape into one of the cars. Still, I would either sleep in the hammock or in the car, not a single time in a tent.

In September 2017, yearning for summer warmth, we were flying to Porto, Portugal’s second city, renting 2 cars for 16 days and having friends joining us for a limited amount in between or simply the second half of the trip, altogether a rather more lose bound of people that was more diverse than ever, sometimes making things a bit too complicated. However, bad choices (or decisions) make good stories and that alone was probably worth the trip.

Every one of the participating travelers probably learned a whole lot about themselves in those 2 weeks, possibly more than in the entire rest of the year. Who knows? Apart from cheerful city (night) life the most enjoyable bit of the trip was probably awakening right at the sea, covered in sunshine and surrounded by waves as unpredictable as the connections between certain individuals. And then there was the weekly pizza party place…

Those two roadtrip weeks in September 2018 were probably the most harmonic and fascinating ever since we began that little tradition and this goes all the way back to the people that were shaping the connections: So much passion and excitement, readiness to invest in adventure and to delight fellow adventurers. We were flying again – this time to the south-eastern edge of the continent: to Greece.

From Thessaloniki we first spent some days on the peninsula to the east before making our way south towards Delphi, passing Mountain Olympus. We were 7 people to start with, one was heading home after the first 9 days when 2 others joined in. This group of 8 continued happily crossing the Peloponnese peninsula passing the old capital of Nafplio and later Sparta and Olympia before getting into astonishing Meteora with its rock pinnacles and returning to Thessaloniki. This trip certainly fulfilled expectations and satisfied desires in many captivating ways.

Now, it remains to be seen where and how life will pull us into further destinations. Who will be part of it – what are everybody’s desires and expectations? One thing is certain: There remain many more fascinating places to be discovered on this continent, many more roads to be crossed, nights to be spent in hammocks and inside tents, veggie meals to be cooked and devoured, friendships to be built deepened and funky acquaintances to be made.

We do know what is possible after all those years, hence we can be certain: We’re right in the middle of it!

“Nothing behind me, everything ahead of me, as is ever so on the road.”

Apart from these larger (and much more organized) trips we did a lot smaller ones over the years, e.g. to Ireland (2015), Southern England (2016), Tuscany/la Toscana (2017) and the Canary Islands (2018). In 2013 I started filming these trips as well and I added some of the video links below.

There is something magical, too, about these rather short trips, even though they only last a couple of days (unfortunately! But if they were longer, I wouldn’t count them as ‘short trips’, I reckon). However, there is much to see and experience in only a couple days as well! Roadtrips like this, featuring a mere 2 to 4 people have something much more personal to it and they are usually anything from amusingly hectic to unexpectedly poetic, from being wickedly frenzy to utter joy.

On Thai Island hopping

December 16, 2018 - Leave a Response
Sunset light at Haad Mae, facing little Ko Amo at north-western Ko Pha-Ngan.

Sunset light at Haad Mae, facing little Ko Ma at north-western Ko Pha-Ngan.

I’m starting to write this post while playing chess on the world-famous full-moon party island Ko Pha-Ngan. We’re in the Gulf of Thailand, technically a shallow inlet in the western part of the South China Sea, a marginal body of water in the western Pacific Ocean. It’s a rather shallow gulf with an average depth of 58m and a maximum of 85m, resulting in relatively little salty water due to a strong river inflow.

Now, Ko Pha-Ngan (‘ngan’ meaning ‘sand bar’) is the middle-sized option between three relatively large islands in Thailand’s West. To the north we have small and rather compact Ko Tao (Turtle Island) and south of Ko Pha-Ngan is much larger Ko Samui (possibly meaning ‘safe haven’). All three are part of Surat Thani province, named after the city in Thailand’s south-west, worth at least a short stay for its rather lovely food market.

Ko Tao: snorkeling paradise at the twin rocks near Ko Hang Tao.

Ko Tao: snorkeling paradise at the twin rocks near Ko Hang Tao.

While we never really felt attracted to Ko Samui, the other two were hard to ignore: Ko Tao seemed cute plus an easy option and we indeed were far from disappointed when visiting it for some days in spring 2013 – one of the loveliest spots being the twin rocks near Ko Hang Tao (the piece of land to the north-west). Snorkeling (and scuba-diving) is superb and straight-forward, the people are relaxed, accomodation and food costs compatably low: perfect for backpackers on a budget.

Let’s explore some other Thai islands before continuing with Ko Pha-Ngan. The first ever island we went on to was Ko Samet, a superb choice when staying in Bangkok for a couple days before heading on to somewhere further.

October 2006 on Ko Samet: Proudly defending our first-ever Thai beach bungalow!

October 2006 on Ko Samet: Proudly defending our first-ever Thai beach bungalow!

In October 2006 (man, that is some time ago!) we had a stop-over in Thailand for a week (coming from Europe) before flying on to Sydney, Australia. After doing the usual sightseeing, devouring mango sticky rice and Pad thai at Khao San Road, hanging out in bars and doing some clubbing, too, we were ready to relax on a beach and jump into some waves.

Ko Samet is only some 200 km away from Bangkok, hence in easy reach (2,5 hrs by bus plus 20 min by ferry), located on the eastern part of the Thai Gulf. The T-shaped island features budget accommodation, white sands and especially cheap food! We couldn’t have been happier, but there was even more to it: We didn’t plan on it, but made it in time for the island’s Full Moon Party (a dance and fire celebration that originated on Ko Pha-Ngan, but spread over to various other places in the region).

Partying on Ko Chang, Northeastern Thailand (February 2013).

Partying on Ko Chang, Northeastern Thailand (February 2013).

Years later, when traveling further east towards Cambodia we went to Ko Chang (which translates into ‘Elephant Island’), the second-largest Thai island (after Ko Samui). It’s not very populated (compared to its size), but development has been steady ever since it was discovered as a tourist destination around the year 2000.

Lonely Beach on Ko Chang.

Lonely Beach on Ko Chang.

One of the more popular spots for backpackers on a budget is Haad Tha Nam and the bays surrounding Lonely Beach. It’s easy to rent motorbikes and discover the island’s interior where you can indeed encounter elephants (and lots of other wildlife) on jungle hikes. For snorkeling one should probably check on the islands further south, though: In 2013 we made it to Ko Wai where the corals were healthy still and you’d see an enchanting variety of marine life. We then headed on to Cambodia.

That same trip (coming all the way down from Northern Laos and passing one more time through Bangkok) we were keen for more Thai islands. In a magical little town called Pai (near Chiang Mai) we ran into a girl from Berlin who told us about an island on the Andaman Coast called Ko Phayam.

Inside in one of Yuppie‘s “Palm Beach” Bungalows (April 2013).

Inside in one of Yuppie‘s “Palm Beach” Bungalows (April 2013).

At the very south-western end of Ko Phayam she stayed with a Thai dude called Yuppie who speaks German fluently (having studied at the TU in Berlin in the late 1980ies) with a funky twisted Berlin dialect. I’m not the biggest fan of talking German outside German-speaking regions, but that sounded interesting to us somehow.

We chased the guy down and it was fun indeed – he turned out to be quite the character. His place is called Palm Beach Bungalows and we were given a little bamboo shack with a big double bed, a hammock, a toilet and shower and some sort of terrace. All we could have asked for – we were utterly content. Besides the fact that we were basically bound to speak German with him and his squad of Central European visitors and guests ready to smoke weed until they’re running low on cash. This was March 2013 and we stayed for three days.

The “Palm Beach Bungalows” on Southwestern Ko Phayam in April 2013.

The “Palm Beach Bungalows” on Southwestern Ko Phayam in April 2013.

In December 2018 we returned (this very trip I’m on right now) – mostly being curious about what has changed in those 5 years. The answer: Not overly much. They put up an additional pier at the main harbour and Yuppie extended his bungalow common area. He recognized us on the spot, no big deal. He gave us the very same bungalow and we again stayed for three days. There was no hammock this time, but luckily I brought my own.

Same place, 5 years later! (“Palm Beach Bungalows”, Ko Phayam)

Same place, 5 years later! (“Palm Beach Bungalows”, Ko Phayam)

Instead of hanging out at his place we discovered the rest of the island and wouldn’t regret the long hikes (having decided against renting motorbikes). If you end up on Ko Phayam (keep in mind that there are no ATMs) we suggest you stay at the northern bay called Ao Khao Kwai. One major reason: the fantastically looking Hippie Bar, made almost entirely out of driftwood. Quite the eyecatcher! And they fabricate fabulous mango lassies.

Ko Phayam’s Hippie Bar at Ao Khao Kwai, made entirely out of drift wood!

Ko Phayam’s Hippie Bar at Ao Khao Kwai, made entirely out of drift wood!

From Ko Phayam we went all the way to Ko Pha-Ngan, on the Gulf side (see above). Even though this island gets international traveler’s fame mostly for its full/half/blood/whatever moon parties, the fiesta bit of Pha-Ngan is actually focused around its south-eastern bit, at Hat Rin. We opted for something quieter and hence went up the north-western coast instead: Being based at Hat (or Haad) Yao we walked and hitchhiked our way up to Hat Salad and lovely Hat Mae that connects to stunningly beautiful Ko Ma.

Haad Mae, facing Koh Ma (Ko Pha-Ngan, December 2018).

Haad Mae, facing Koh Ma (Ko Pha-Ngan, December 2018).

Expect to pay around 400 Baht for a room with a double bed and private bathroom (close to the beach) and some 70 or 80 Baht for a veggie Padthai or Fried Rice. Thai islands clearly aren’t as cheap as they used to be! I remember ordering food twice (and triple) since it was so crazy cheap back in October 2006 when being on Ko Samet.

Due to rather bad weather (rain all day!) we eventually decided to leave Ko Pha-Ngan for good (including our all but dry and just-so clean laundry) and head down to the Andaman coast again, towards Krabi.

Limestone/Karst rocks in Krabi (Southern Thailand), here at Tonsai Beach (near Railay).

Limestone/Karst rocks in Krabi (Southern Thailand), here at Tonsai Beach (near Railay).

Krabi is most famous for its “mind-boggingly beautiful” (Lonely Planet) limestone/karst rock formations set in front of pristine clear beaches, making it the most popular region on the Southern coast. A taxi-ferry-bus connection (for about 750 Baht) got us all the way down just outside Krabi Town where we decided to jump on a minivan to Ao Nang (the closest beach) from where we took the ferry to Railay Beach which is not actually an island (separated from the main land by impressively sized limestone rocks), but it certainly feels like one. Also, the mini market and general food prizes ensure you continue believe you’re actually stuck on an island.

Being stuck on an island or what? Well almost (facing Tonsai Beach after having passed the smaller of two jungle treks, this one along the beach).

Being stuck on an island or what? Well almost (facing Tonsai Beach after having passed the smaller of two jungle treks, this one along the beach).

Now. Railay is beautiful, but it’s also quite crowded plus infused with quite a flashpacker scene (stylish Western wannabe-backpackers who are traveling for a week or two, having booked accomodation and tours in advance). If that’s not your thing you probably fancy escaping towards Tonsai Beach which is connected to Railay by boat, a relatively short jungle trek on the beach side and a larger and considerably more exhaustive jungle trek on the back (and inland) side. We didn’t know about the beach side connection when we crossed the backside – no fun with a fully loaded backpack.

Kayaking along the limestone rocks in Krabi.

Kayaking along the limestone rocks in Krabi.

Facing Railay Beach at low tide.

Facing Railay Beach at low tide.

Tonsai is lovely! We got ourselves a cheap-as-can-get Yuppie-style bamboo bungalow (for 200 Baht), then mingled with the very approachable and chillout crowd across the reggae bars and restaurants and soon hit the waters. The tides are important to take into account here. A close friend of mine was kayaking here some years ago and got stuck with the boat because they couldn’t get back on land in low tide. Also, Tonsai Beach is not exactly fun to swim in at low tide either (head for Railay West instead!).

Fire show at some bar along Tonsai Beach (December 2018).

Fire show at some bar along Tonsai Beach (December 2018).

Among the things you can do here:

  • Rock climbing! You can either take courses or connect with the super-enthusiastic climbing pros all around
  • Snorkel your away around the bays and enjoy the spectacular views
  • Do yoga and ecstatic dance courses in the morning and evenings in places around the main street in Tonsai
  • Take a kayak and paddle all the way to Phra Nang Beach, discover the caves and lagoons and limestone islands
  • Do day trips to small surrounding islands for more advanced snorkeling with marvellous beaches
Tonsai Beach in mid-day sun.

Tonsai Beach in mid-day sun.

We were running out of time eventually and had to choose between heading on to Ko Phi-Phi for heavy partying and The Beach movie views or taking a more relaxed approach on Ko Lanta further south. The general opinion was rather unequivocal here: We opted for Ko Lanta – a direct ferry was about 500 Baht and we took a shared taxi south to a place called Slacklines Hostel. (This is right where I’m writing these lines now, chilling in the hammock that I brought all the way from home.)

Inside our lovely bamboo bungalow at Slaglines Hostel on Ko Lanta.

Inside our lovely bamboo bungalow at Slacklines Hostel on Ko Lanta.

A storm is coming! Well, not quite as bad. Ko Lanta was good to us after all. I would not at all be surprised to return one day.

A storm is coming! Well, not quite as bad. Ko Lanta was good to us after all. I would not at all be surprised to return one day.

It’s December 16 (in 2018) and nothing could be further away than X-mas, snow and worrying about getting presents and the like. Instead I’ll be putting down the smartphone after having finished this blog entry, taking up my copy of Richard Dawkins’ Unweaving the Rainbow while listening to friendly cows mooing in the back mixed with some dubstep tunes coming out of the dormitory.

After having cycled all along the coast to Bamboo Beach (Ko Lanta, December 2018).

After having cycled all along the coast to Bamboo Beach (Ko Lanta, December 2018).

We rented heavy duty BMX bikes over the last two days (150 B each) and headed all the way down to two absolutely superb beaches called Khlong Chak Beach and Bamboo Beach, passing by at Tiger Cave (where a rather frenzy local kid attempted to dismantle our bicycles in a somewhat amusing way). Unfortunately we missed out on the Elephant trek, waterfalls, more caves and the national park in the far south.

However, enough reason to return at one point in life! And so are many more zestful islands that I can’t help but list at the end of this blog, perhaps as an incentive for anyone having arrived at the end or simply to myself (for future visits to Thailand’s south). Tomorrow morning we’ll head to the city of Trang from where we’ll get on a bus to Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia.

  • the Similan & Surin Islands for snorkeling safaris
  • James Bond Island and the Ao Phang-Nga National Park for kayaking
  • Ko Phi-Phi Don/Leh for snorkeling trips, the views, the party atmosphere
  • Trang islands like Ko Jum, Ko Muk and Ko Lipe for a bit more tranquility and more snorkeling/diving
Bamboo Beach in Southern Ko Lanta.

Bamboo Beach in Southern Ko Lanta.

Why You Should Visit Myanmar Now

December 3, 2018 - Leave a Response

Short answer: Because it’s almost too late for experiencing the country in its innocent freshly democratized state – it’s about to lose its roughness, so-to-speak.

This is not necessarily a bad thing, though. One example would be the steady decline of opportunities to ascend the hundreds of temples in the Bagan area for just another superb sunrise spot. As frustrating as this might be for the individual traveler (“But where is the adventure?!”), it’s actually good news for the in-numerous temples, pagodas/payas and stupas that are now being protected from curious backpackers and locals alike. One could erect viewing platforms instead, being fully aware that this will take away the Indiana Jones sensation. One thing is clear: The ‘golden’ and/or savage days are over.

Cycling around Bagan, steadily seeking a temple to climb up (for sunset views...).

Cycling around Bagan, steadily seeking a temple to climb up (for sunset views…).

Is it still worth visiting?

Absolutely! Myanmar remains the next big thing on the South-East Asian banana pancake train (possibly with Timor Leste and Papua New-Guinea to follow in the coming decade or so).

On a side note about that idea, Wiki-Travel remarks the following: Tourists in East Timor are [still] a rare breed. Simply traveling from village to village, you’re likely to hear choruses of “malay” (the East Timorese word for foreigner) and folks will want to engage you in conversation. One could spend several days just enjoying the feeling of being a very welcome stranger.

However, traveling in Myanmar is not only much more comfortable and convenient now than what it used to be maybe some years ago – it’s also cheaper. We talked to some guys who went there in 2015 and according to them accomodation was still much sparser (and more expensive). They also had to use U.S. dollar notes for higher expenses and these had to be in pristine conditions. All that has changed by now and Myanmar Kyat in basically any condition are the way to go!

Playing chess with cK while waiting for the pick-up for Pyin Oo Lwin to depart.

So it certainly seems, Myanmar remains to be your best bet to witness what a rather unspoiled place Thailand could have been like some 20+ years ago. I would describe it as a fascinating mix between the general chaos and insane honking theatre of India (but with a much lower population number) and the Buddhist serenity of Thailand (just as one would expect given the location).

Apart from various top destinations (as listed below) that can easily compete with Northern Thailand or even Angkor Wat and Tonle Sap Lake (in Cambodia), what stands out most is the people’s apparently infinite amiability towards foreign travelers. We received help when looking for shelter during rain, seeking vegan/veggie food options and also when the rental bike’s chain popped out. And whenever we encountered kids on main or back streets we’ve been waved at like in Cambodian villages. Highly enchanting!

Temporary moments of fame wile being photographed by lots of young locals in Mrauk U.

Top destinations

  • The temples and stupas of Bagan
  • Yangon: Shwedagon Paya, People’s Park and Kandawgi Park
  • Inle Lake and surroundings
  • The temples and villages around Mrauk U
  • The train ride between Mandalay and Hsipaw
  • The caves and fields around Hpa’an
  • The Myeik and Dawei Archipelago in the south (we missed on that, however – people we met were super-enthusiastic; this seems to be the next big thing when it comes to South-East Asian island hopping! Forget the Gulf of Thailand, one would love to shout out

Shwedagon Paya in Yangon for sunrise.

One of the larger temples in the Bagan area.

The village of Inthei/Indei near Inle Lake.

Also in Inthei: A whole bastion of stupas. They just can‘t get enough.

The visa and boarder crossing situation

It couldn’t be much easier these days – you need to apply for your visa online (hence it’s an e-visa) and it shouldn’t cost you more than $ 50 (if the page states more, you’re on the wrong one; this is the one: https://evisa.moip.gov.mm/noticetotourists.aspx).

Traveling in and out via land used to be a hassle, but is rather straightforward now; just make sure you got your visa approvak with you, at best printed out in combination with a passport photo. There are 4 entrance points from Thailand (but none from Bangladesh or China; India should also be open):

  • Mae Sot/Myawaddy
  • Mae Sai/Tachileik
  • Ranong/Kawthaung
  • Phunaron/Htee Kee

Cruising over the waters on Inle Lake.

Accommodation, food and travel costs

Myanmar’s currency is the Kyat (pronounced: chat) and 1,000 Kyat are around 60 Euro cents. Conversely, € 1 buys you approx. 1,750 Kyat.

We spent three weeks in the country and spent around € 370 (each) for everything (!) included, that is approx. € 18 per day. The average cost for a double bed with or without a private bath room was about 18,000 Kyat, hence some € 5 per person.

All this food for under € 2 – lunch at a highway restaurant.

Accommodation costs are still a bit higher than in Thailand, Cambodia or Laos, but the food is about as cheap: We usually spent around 1,500 to 2,500 Kyat for some fried rice or noodles with vegetables, sometimes served with peanuts and an additional soup (or brew).

Transport-wise the cheapest option is surely the train. For the bit between Pyin Oo Lwin and Hsipaw we paid about 1,200 Kyat (even though it is slow). Pick-up trucks are almost as cheap and buses most expensive (but still a real fair deal!). The bus connection between Mrauk U and Bagan e.g. was around 30,000 Kyat each (some € 17) and therefore rather pricey.

Opting for fruits and odd rice options when there would be only meat available.

Finally, how much is the booze? Clearly the most significant question because a cold beer at the end of a hot and sweaty day really can make all the difference. There are two major beer brands in the country: Andaman and Myanmar (motto: Brimming with Optimism) and we clearly opted for the latter. Now, a 640 ml bottle usually doesn’t cost more than 2,500 Kyat (€ 1,50), sometimes only 1,800 (when you’re lucky).

In Bagan and even more so in Nyaung Shwe (the major town and backpacker hub near Inle Lake) you’ll find cheap (and funky!) selections of cocktails, too – and the happy hour can be rather long!

cK watching over the Golden Rock at Mt. Kyaiktiyo.

Enter Myanmar: From Yangon to Bagan and down to Mawlamyine

December 1, 2018 - Leave a Response

We’re sitting in the air-con lobby of the Sandalwood Hotel in Mawlamyine, Southern Myanmar, and this is our last day in the country. Time to look back to those last 3 weeks traveling along bumpy dirt roads, fair beaches with redeeming ocean waves and stunning Buddhist temples.

Like most of South-East Asia, Myanmar is a relatively cheap country to travel with (more about that in another blog entry: “Why You Should Visit Myanmar”). 1,000 Kyat are about 60 Euro cents.

The last city we will have visited in Myanmar: colonial-era Mawlamyine, filled with memories of George Orwell and Rudyard Kipling.

We started in Yangon, the (by far) biggest city and former capital of Burma (the new one is called Nay Pyi Taw and was artificially erected in 2005 in a more central location, but there didn’t seem to be much of interest, so we skipped it). Contrary to what one could think (e.g. when comparing it to Bangkok), Yangon is a rather welcoming and easygoing city (with about 5,3 million inhabitants) – there are no motorbikes allowed in the centre which definitely made me happy.

We stayed for 3 nights (Okinawa Guesthouse, 25,000 Kyat for a room with one big bed and private bath), walked around for hours, saw e.g. Shwedagon Paya for sunrise (that’s the country’s largest temple area and a must-see (entrance fee: 10,000 Kyat), got lost in markets, ate funky fruits, jumped on the city’s dead cheap and wrecked-up circle line train filled with fun locals to chat with and bunches of other curious foreigners.

Yangon‘s Shwedagon Paya with its giant stupa and a bell-shaped dome.

The single one rainy day we experienced helped to get a glimpse of just how friendly the locals are: one house resident organized paste board for us to sit on when we were looking for shelter, a taxi driver offered us an umbrella and one random dude made sure we’d stay dry and jumped around in puddles to ask upcoming taxis to pick us up. We watched the scene in astonishment.

Our guest house was located close to Sule Pagoda, the central downtown paya, a roundabout with shops and food stalls, so that place was home for us for the time being. We soon figured that the most efficient (and filling) food option would be (of course) fried rice and/or noodles, at best at an Indian place (between 1,500 and 2,500 Kyat, remember: 1,000 Kyat are 60 Euro cents).

Erm, what?! 😲

More fun and interesting things to see are the train station (funky light installations at night), the British-built Minister’s Building (massive!), the splendid Kandawgi Park for sunset views of impressing Shwedagon Paya and the other side of the river (even though the people around the ferry terminals can become quite a hassle: Indian-style “Where from, sir?”), the town there is called Dala and you’ll be able to find some peaceful spots to relax.

Trying to figure our the Circle Line situation.

To get away from Yangon we booked a night bus at some agency near the train station and then took a taxi to the far-away Aung Mingala Highway Bus Terminal. Next on the list was the Westcoast town Ngapali Beach.

The bus started relaxing, but turned out to be quite the nightmare, as you would expect when used to traveling through India: bumpy roads, tiny seats, randomly switched-on light, noisy and spitting passengers and worst of all the ever-yelling sounds from a not-at-all-funny Asian comedy movie and/or accompanying tunes. Hell on earth. Well, we survived and finally made it to Ngapali (in early morning darkness), found a guest house to relax at and were promptly approached by one of the managing girls who really did everything to make us stay with them and we finally succumbed (after checking out other guest house/hostel prices): 25,000 K proved to be unbeatable.

Playing chess at Ngapali Beach while starring into the Gulf of Bengal.

One super-smooth day at the beach with some chess games were followed by a wonderful night’s sleep and another bus ride to Mrauk U the day after. That place name can apparently be translated into “monkey egg” and is being described as the country’s “second-most-famous archaelogical site” (after Bagan). It also said, we’d have them all for ourselves (with only about 5,000 foreign visitors per year). Sounded tempting to us.

This place, situated rather close to the Bangladesh boarder, was the last great Rakhine capital (between 1430 and 1784) and also one of the wealthiest cities in all of Asia, once serving as a free port and trading with the Middle East and much of Europe. 17th-century visitors even compared it to Venice, London or Amsterdam. However, you wouldn’t think any of that nowadays. The temples are scattered between fields and villages with friendly locals and smelling backroads.

Locals in front of Mrauk U temples.

We stayed at the Golden Star Guesthouse and paid 15,000 for a night (however, they didn’t charge us for when we arrived in the middle of the night). Nothing golden about that place. We rented bicycles and discovered the area, our favorite temples being Lay Myet Hna and a sunset viewpoint hill north of Mong Paung Shwe Gu.

Finally, Bagan. We again arrived in the middle of the night, but of course not right in the place, but somewhere outside, being dependent on a tuk-tuk. We decided to walk instead until the driver offered an acceptable rate and we jumped on. Entrance fee to the archaelogical zone was a massive 25,000 Kyat, valid for 3 days only (until recently: 5 days still).

One of Bagan‘s major temples.

Now, what is Bagan? Short answer: a former Burmese capital and now a huge flat area (26 sq miles) filled with lots and lots of temples and pagodas/payas/stupas of all sizes and various shapes! Also, it’s one of Myanmar’s main attractions and rightly so.

Travelers either stay in Old Bagan (closest to the temples, but not so cheap), New Bagan (south of the area and rather filled with resort places) or Nyaung U, a transportation hub and rather dirty (and dusty) town east of the temple area featuring many hotels, guest houses and bike rentals. That was our pick. The “Burmese-only” guest house we picked (and stayed at for 2 nights) – Linn Guest House – again only charged for one. We invested the money in brilliant and delicious Thai-style food plus water melon and avocado fruit drinks at our favorite food stall called “you & me”. We absolutely loved that place.

First sunset spot (see coordinates!).

Now, the temples – this is what you’re here for! We rented bicycles (which is perfectly doable), but most people opt for electric scooters instead and just dive into the massive maze of pagodas. You’ll find your way. Our favorite picks were the following: Ananda Temple (crowded, but beautiful and recently renovated) the area around Tha Beik Hmauk Hpaya plus Su Taung Py in the south (where we did some work-out, having the whole thing for ourselves.

We recommend the following two spots for sunset: a rooftop next to Myinkaba Temple (in the west) plus these coordinates: 21.176725, 94.873109).

The best sunrise spot we could come up with – leaving us quite satisfied.

However, the most exciting time to be in Bagan is at sunrise. Why? Because there are up to two 30 colourful balloons flying near-by the temples and make for an exciting atmosphere (and some sweet shots). The vast majority of temples and pagodas used to be open to the public, but were mostly closed in recent months. Several locals know some remaining spots, they won’t be secret for much longer. We met a French girl who recommended us the spot above (see coordinates). These places here are also worth it:

  • 21.176803, 94.881453 and
  • 21.168128, 94.884204

From Bagan we went on to Mandalay, Myanmar’s ‘cultural capital’ – however, don’t necessarily expect anything overly exciting. To us the city (with 1,1 million inhabitants and also the capital once) seemed rather dull. Our personal two highlights besides walking around and watching other Westerners doing their thing were:

  • our accomodation (a huge with room with a sweet private bath for 18,600 including a breakfast buffet – Nylon Hotel. Very friendly staff.)
  • getting up rather early and taking a tuk-tuk to Mandalay Hill (760 feet high) – you will need to take off your shoes when climbing up the hill for some 30 to 40 minutes. Probably lovely for sunset.

Inside our second guest house in Nyaung U while waiting for the bus to Mandalay.

A (much too long) pick-up ride (for real cheap) brought us to Pyin Oo Lwin, a former hill station founded by the British in 1896 as a summer capital for the colonial administration (until 1948). There really isn’t much exciting about this place, but one thing (and we missed it): the National Kandawgy Gardens. From the description it sounded to me very much like the Botanical Gardens in India’s Udhagamandalam (better known as Ooty and that place was astonishing and lots of fun!). Back to the Burmese equivalent: The Gardens feature orchids, a butterfly museum and 480 species of shrubs, trees and flowers – also wooden bridges, small gilded pagodas and some “bizarre tower” that we never saw. If you make it there, please visit and let us know what we missed!

Having a break on the Mandalay-Lashio train.

Having a break on the Mandalay-Lashio train.

Now, there was one more reason we went to that (otherwise rather unexciting) place: to catch the slow, but absolutely wonderful Mandalay-Lashio train that is riding right above the mighty Gokteik Viaduct, built in 1901, then the second-highest railway bridge on the planet (at 318 feet) – still being the longest in the country. The ride isn’t expensive at all, the views are amazing plus you’ll get easily into contact with locals. Also, the creaky sounds when crossing the Gokteik Gorge are amusingly scary.

Crossing the Gokteik Viaduct.

We jumped out in the town of Hsipaw (pronounced ‘See-paw’), famous for hill-trekking and popular among foreigners to simply escape into the surrounding nature, including Buddhist oddities like a tree that grew out of a pagoda and a Buddha statue completely made of bamboo. Most foreigners seem to end up at Mr. Charles Guest House (probably inside a pick-up truck right at the station), but the place is overprized and a bit off. We opted for the much cheaper and more central Ever Green Guest House.

One fun thing to do while in town is visiting the former Shan palace where a so-called sky prince was reigning over the region. We actually met the grandson of “Mr. Donald” who is the nephew of the last prince – he is awaiting visitors at the front gate to the palace that is actually a mansion. Find out more about the story once you’re here!

That tree that grew out of a pagoda.

That tree that grew out of a pagoda.

Hispaw probably was the northern-most point of our journey and we took another night bus all the way down to Nyaung Shwe at the Northern top of famous Inle Lake. Next to us were to girls from Iceland and France who already got out at Kalaw which is another popular place to do hiking towards the lake, but we wanted the direct way.

Now, what is so exciting about Inle Lake? There is a certain magic about this 22km long and 11km wide water: a combination of absolute kindness among the locals, a vast selection of guest houses, Indian, Thai and local restaurants, bars and cafés and an enchanting amount of fellow foreign travelers.

Nyaung Shwe harbour at sunset (Inle Lake).

Nyaung Shwe harbour at sunset (Inle Lake).

We spent three days in the area:

    Cycling along the western shore all the way south to a place called Inthein/Indein, passing by wonderful view points, waving schoolchildren, smiling farmers, stunning temple areas. On the way down we made the acquaintance of two girls from Bavaria who we were to share s boat with the following day.
Posing fisher man on Inle Lake.

Posing fisher man on Inle Lake.

    Really everyone and his grandmother is trying to sell you a boat trip around the lake, so that is what we eventually did, sharing the 24,000 Kyat (€ 13,50) among the four of us and discovering a whole variety of places on and around the lake, e.g. handicraft/weaving/silver/tobacco workshops, markets with fancy clothing and art and many, many more pagodas of all kinds. Ended the day having a huge Indian meal at our favorite place – it’s called Dosa King and we can only recommend it!
Our two “boat men” - these kids were trying their best to tell us stories about the lake surroundings.

Our two “boat men” – these kids were trying their best to tell us stories about the lake surroundings.

    Strolling along the town that could one day look a bit like Bangkok’s Khao San Road; it’s certainly filled with little sweet oddities (I seem to like that term), e.g. an Indian restaurant “Eminem-style” (the owner plastered the place with album covers, posters and so forth. Lovely. Before leaving the place behind we went into the local Shan palace which is a local museum now. Inside we couldn’t help it but started singing: “Here we are now / Entertain us!” but we certainly helped ourselves. Notice the type of hooks they used for hanging up pictures of serious-looking kings and their wives. So much for entertainment.
Cycling along Inle Lake: Lunch break in Inthein/Indein.

Cycling along Inle Lake: Lunch break in Inthein/Indein.

Another night bus (which was the best so far since we got upgraded to some sort of “VIP bus”) brought us to Bago (north of Yangon) from where we changed into a local bus and we eventually ended up at Mt. Kyaiktiyo which is best known for the Buddhists made of (or on) it: the Golden Rock.

Local legend claims the rock would be kept in place by a single hair of the Buddha (and there were actually quite some Buddhas, not just one, but that’s another story) – well, of course – a hair! The photos speak for themselves, I dare-say. Note the sign that says: “Ladies are not allowed to enter here”. What to make of it? Well, religion is by definition, it seems, a patriarchal mess, ethically (similar laws apply in Roman Catholicism as well as in Protestatism, the Orthodox Church, in Judaism and especially in Islam – Buddhism clearly is no exception).

The Golden Rock - and classical religious discrimination (here against women).

The Golden Rock – and classical religious discrimination (here against women).

That same day we made it to Hpa’an, a bit further south (pronounced: “Pa-an”), the riverside capital of Kayin State. While couchsurfing in Marburg earlier this year I got to know someone who just recently happened to be in that place and recommended the Soe Brothers Guesthouse. We happily followed the advice and didn’t regret it (do not accidentally end up at ‘Soe Brothers 2’, however).

There isn’t actually much to do (or see) in the city itself (though the Ye Pagoda is worth a look!), but the surroundings are absolutely stunning and worth at least one full day of attention. We spent that day cycling around the landscape, discovering caves filled with dozens of Buddha figures, look-outs, endless green fields and, true thing, even more amazing pagodas, e.g. on top of limestone rocks. We also let a bunch of monkeys devastate our bikes.

The front entrance of Yathaypyan Cave.

The front entrance of Yathaypyan Cave (near Hpa’an).

Best places on the list:

  • the view point near the so-called Bat Cave
  • the ‘hidden’ backsite near Yathaypyan Cave
  • the Chan Thar Gyi Temple
  • the Saddan Cave

We seem to fancy restaurants to return to and so far we always discovered a place that was worth it – in Hpa’an that happened to be a Chinese/Shan restaurant that simply prepared the best curry imaginable. It’s called Yadanah and you’ll find it here: 16.889868, 97.635328.

The Chan Thar Gyi Temple.

The Chan Thar Gyi Temple.

Finally we arrived at the very town from which I’m writing this travel blog now. Mawlamyine is famous for its colonial-era buildings and inspiring two rather well-known writers: George Orwell and Rudyard Kipling (the author of ‘The Jungle Book’).

Just last night (I’m writing this on December 2, 2019) we ascended the half-rotten stairway from Kyaik Than Lan Phayar Street leading up to Kyaiktjanlan Paya, the city’s tallest pagoda which happens to be quite wonderful for watching sunsets. Kipling once commented on the very walkway: “I should better remember what the pagoda was like had I not fallen deeply and irrevocably in love with a Burmese girl at the foot of the first flight of steps. Only the fact of the steamer starting next noon prevented me from staying at Moulmein forever”.

There is one more night bus to go: We’re heading to Yangon Airport and tomorrow morning already we should be arriving back in Bangkok. More adventures (and lots of Padthai) to follow.

Getting ready for Thailand: Having our first Padthai (while cycling around the limestone mountains near Hpa’an.

Getting ready for Thailand: Having our first Padthai (while cycling around the limestone mountains near Hpa’an.

Little Norwegian Roadtrip (August 2018)

October 4, 2018 - Leave a Response

It’s been a while since I visited the splendid Northern country of Norway (after a trip to North Cape in 2009 while living in Finnish Oulu and a NYE stop-over in 2011 with my best mate), so when I met the most inspiring person I could imagine at the time, Norway was quickly back on the to-do list.

We decided to rent a car from Gothenburg in Sweden and then drive north, all around the coast – skipping on the capital at first, but heading towards Fredrikstad and its Old Town first. Next were a nature reserve west of Nevlunghavn, the towns of Arendal and Kristiansand. We ignored most of the city there and focused on climbing around the island of Odderøya which was a blast, especially when discovering an old fortress.

We applied that concept to the town of Mundal and focused more on the nature just south of it, climbing rocks facing the sea before heading further West, towards Stavanger. Even there we were seeking out nature after an urban stroll, discovering the northern end of Hundvåg.

Climbing around near Mundal.

Climbing around near Mundal.

Via enchanting Høle and a ferry from Lauvvik we ended up hiking to Preikestolen at one point (a rather enjoyable 4h return walk) before heading North to Bergen, the country’s 2nd largest city – the way there was breathtaking really, the rainy weather only adding to the sublime atmosphere.

Hiking towards Preikestolen.

Hiking towards Preikestolen.

We had little luck with the weather in Bergen and didn’t stay overly long before finding a sweet place to park over night and heading on towards Oslo, the capital, soon after. Most noticeable for that rather long piece of road were a hidden little place called Måbø, the Gardnos Crater and various enchanting picnic areas along the fjords and lakes.

Rainbow in Bergen.

Rain without end in Bergen – that at least left us with quite a rainbow. 🌈🔥

Magical Måbø.

Magical Måbø.

After one sunny afternoon in Oslo (don’t miss out on Akershus Castle!), we made our way back to Sweden, catching glimpse of an old Stone Ship grave north of Tanumshede and found the most perfect spot for one last night camping out at some splendid lake called Färingen (seeking out a hidden cave called Astrids Grotta the following morning).

Akershus Castle.

Akershus Castle.

Stone Ship grave near Tanumshede.

Doing our thing at the Stone Ship grave.

Camping in Sweden.

Camping in Sweden.

We ended in Gothenburg, couchsurfing at one wonderful place with brilliant hosts who we basically hit the jackpot with, humour- plus music-taste-wise (Slagmalsklubben for life!).

While I had to fly back to Berlin the morning after, the Scandinavian adventure for my companion was just about to unfold, however…

Chilling out at Preikestolen.

Chilling out at Preikestolen.