Archive for the ‘traveling’ Category

Jamaican Joint Venture
March 23, 2019

Shortly before flying on from Norman Manley International at Kingston, Jamaica‘s capital.

Shortly before leaving Jamaica behind from Norman Manley International at Kingston, the island’s capital.

The funky island of Jamaica was the last place we visited together – after some 4 months and 8 countries: wild mojito-soaked nights in México, splendid days of roadtrippin’ on the islands of Hawai’i, snorkeling in Sulawesi, train rides in Myanmar, relaxing in hammocks on Thai islands and enjoying conversations with warm-hearted people in Communist Cuba.

We were quite unsure, initially, what Caribbean islands to pick for that leg of the trip and high on the list were e.g. Puerto Rico (for its mysterious Isla de Mona) or European overseas territory like Martinique, Guadeloupe or Saint Martin? Or maybe even the Bahamas? It all turned out to be a rather pricey last step-over and we were on a budget after all. So we finally opted for the two biggies Cuba (for its history) and its Southern neighbour Jamaica (for its relaxed vibes), leaving the island of Hispaniola for another time: I remain being highly curious about the République d’Haïti as well as the República Dominicana.

Frenchman‘s Bay at Treasure Beach on Jamaica‘s South Coast.

Frenchman‘s Bay at Treasure Beach on Jamaica‘s South Coast.

While our days in Cuba passed away, I began pondering about if Jamaica really would be as relaxing as its reputation. Wait, what actually is its reputation? A Google search of “reputation of Jamaica” actually throws up things like:

“I wonder why Jamaica has such a bad reputation” / “Is it safe for tourists?” / “Is Jamaica dangerous?” / “Flawed paradise: Catching the buzz of the real Jamaica”

Unsurprisingly, it dawned on me that those last days that cK and I had together might not be quite as relaxing as we would have wished for. Well – perfect! Who needs to relax here? We want adventures! Also, my beloved sister is a well-traveled expert on Jamaica and she happily supplied us with information on transport costs, food and street wisdom. We felt ready for the low-budget challenge once we were through airport security and immigration, enjoying free internet after those abstemious Cuban days.

Ocho Rios, on the northern shore.

Ocho Rios, on the northern shore.

Before getting into personal travel details, here are some general facts and numbers on the island that locals apparently refer to as “the rock”:

Jamaica’s national tongue is a variation of English called Jamaican Patois, Elizabeth II. is officially still the head of state (but the island gained independence from the UK in 1962) and its 3 million inhabitants are spread along 10,000 sq km (Belgium, in comparison, is about three times as large: 30,700 sq km). The currency is the Jamaican dollar and € 1 buys you about 140 Jamaican $.

Itinerary

A short flight from Holguín in Cuba took us to Montego Bay on Jamaica’s northern shore. Research told us that hostels would be rather expensive (the most expensive on the whole trip, in fact, since we slept in the car on O’ahu and Kaua’i) – we decided to look around once in town, starting with the Reggae Hostel. Now, getting into downtown was an issue – the airport is about 4km away and after the ATMs refused both our credit cards and the taxi drivers tried to charge us the dumb tourist prize (20 U.S.$ instead of 1$) we decided to walk. However, we didn’t come far – another (much friendlier) driver let us jump into his car for a buck each. The Reggae Hostel actually did turn out to be the cheapest: we paid 16 euro for a dorm in a bunk bed.

Montego Bay‘s Reggae Hostel was the cheapest pick in town.

Montego Bay‘s Reggae Hostel was the cheapest pick in town.

What to do in Montego Bay? Well, we walked around quite a bit, got familiar with people, prizes, street concepts and explored: from the post office at Barnett Street to Pye River Cemetary and back after shopping groceries in Mega Mart along the Howard Cooke Boulevard.

Also, we experienced the classic Let-me-sell-you-dope incident: (Just another) Dude approaches us on the street: “I know you guys from the hostel, how do you like it, I can tell you are looking for something special, let me show you around, come come, I bring you to the best local bar!” We didn’t really feel like heading home yet, so followed suit, being fully aware that it’d be hard to get out of that situation again (easily). Just the way he tried to sell us his weed was remarkably funny: “This is good mountain weed, black soil (or was it brown?) and you better buy right now, because it’s Thursday and it’ll be more expensive again tomorrow!” We actually did feel a little paranoid that evening in the hostel: Is he possibly working here?

Negril Beach, a fabulous place to watch the sun set above the sea.

Negril Beach, a fabulous place to watch the sun set above the sea.

After two nights in MoBay we took a Route Taxi towards Negril Beach, mainly because we wanted to see the sunset above the ocean one last time. Route Taxis are an easy and straightforward way to get around the island, especially outside Kingston (which is mainly served by buses) and the prizes are set, so there is nothing to worry. For Negril we booked a place online (and paid a mere 13 euro), did indeed enjoy the sun setting over the sea (at least some of us did) and took it real easy. Very enjoyable.

Next on the list was a place I was looking forward to most: Treasure Beach on the south side. Lonely Planet described it as a “unique part of Jamaica that gets all the facets of the quintessential Caribbean experience exactly right.” Whatever that was supposed to mean: I was keen. cK organised accommodation via Air B’n’B (for 14 euro each), but it was no different from a regular guesthouse. A sweet one, though! There were quite some travelers in the rooms around us and most of them spoke German, so we ignored them altogether and simply had a fabulous time ourselves. Contrary to what we’ve heard, the beaches were sweet and the currents big fun!

In front of the Gee Wiz Vegetarian Restaurant in Treasure Beach: likely the best food on the entire island.

In front of the Gee Wiz Vegetarian Restaurant in Treasure Beach: likely the best food on the entire island.

By the way: If you like good (and especially vegan) food, there is one place in town you definitely shouldn’t miss: the Gee Wiz Vegetarian Restaurant. That night my gut was the happiest on the island, I’m sure of it!

Later that night we were watching what is likely the world’s most famous Jamaican comedy: Cool Runnings, a 1993 movie (by Jon Turteltaub) telling the real story of Jamaica’s bobsleigh team’s running at the 1988 Winter Olympics in Alberta, Canada (they didn’t win). Bad decision, good story!

As sweet as Treasure Beach was to us: We needed to head on because time was running out. Three days before splitting ways we went to Kingston, Jamaica’s capital (680,000 inhabitants, founded in 1692). There would have been rather cheap accommodation options, but we decided to use Couchsurfing and that actually turned out rather nicely. Our host was a 39 y.o. mother of two named Melissa who worked nightshifts in a dancehall bar. We weren’t exactly good at communicating with each other, but that might have had various reasons, e.g. the incredibly loud volume of the speakers. However, we did end up at her place at one point and spend our final 3 nights there as well. It’s been all rather uncomplicated luckily – a rather unusual, but nevertheless most interesting CS experience.

The Little Dunn’s Waterfall near Ocho Rios.

The Little Dunn’s Waterfall near Ocho Rios.

Three nights meant two full days for us – on Day I (March 12) we got up when Melissa’s daughter played the flute in the morning and there was no return to peaceful slumber. We then headed Downtown and from there took a bus to the city of Ocho Rios on the north coast in order to do some hiking and see some waterfalls. It’s been lovely to see the island’s lush interior, but in retrospect we should probably have gone to Port Antonio in the district of Portland instead. Well, next time… I guess?

Also, we (rather literally) had a hell of a trip since just next to us on the bus was a crazy dude who free-style preached to his busload of sheep about how Jesus helped him to get through bad times and how important Christ is for each and everyone. One of those things that make you realize how Jamaica is often not only not relaxed, but actually very strenuous and certainly not cool. It’s a relatively poor country after all and it really has its more than fair share of issues and economic downsides.

Watching the splendid-coloured waters while walking along the highway...

Watching the splendid-coloured waters while walking along the highway…

The city of Ocho Rios wasn’t exactly overwhelming (and most of the locals not really a charming bunch), but walking in the outskirts was a welcoming distraction. We walked west (along the highway) towards the Little Dunn’s River Falls, but even there some kids tried to charge us quite a ridiculous tourist prize to get down to the coast, so we relaxed at an alternative entrance. Again, if you face the choice, you’re probably better off with Port Antonio and Portland instead!

Day II was exclusively Kingston! We started off with seeing the National Heroes Park (if you leave Jamaica without having heard of Sam Sharpe and Norman Manley you failed!), then walked all along the city to Emancipation Park and finally arrived at 56 Hope Road, Kingston 6: Bob Marley’s former place of residence and also home to the Tuff Gong reggae record label, a museum since 1987 (Marley died 1981 in Miami, aged only 36).

The Bob Marley Museum in Northern Kingston.

The Bob Marley Museum in Northern Kingston.

We walked all the way back into Downtown again, passing Trench Town and some curious places like Rock City (that rather reminder me of Detroit). At that point we were definitely ready to leave “the rock” behind. Fun fact: We kept on being asked about where we’re from and the answer “Sweden!” was already firmly established (we’d sometimes say “He’s from Finland, I’m Swedish”). People just loved it! Sweden really seems to be the thing – popular all around the planet. That makes me wanna see the country of northern bliss again… (as if 2009, ’14, ’17 and ’18 had not been enough!). At Treasure Beach, however, one Jamaican saleswoman actually responded in Swedish: “Åh, jag pratar lite svenska!” – we smiled surprisingly and quickly hushed away.

White Stripe happens to be Jamaica’s national beer. You’re certainly better off smoking a spliff.

Red Stripe happens to be Jamaica’s national beer. You’re certainly better off smoking a spliff.

Costs

Jamaica was rather expensive country in comparison – not so much when it comes to food and transportation, but definitely concerning accommodation – it’s rather comparable to the U.S. or Australia here. Luckily, however, we were able to couchsurf in the capital – that drastically reduced costs to a tolerable medium.

This is what we spent in total (in U.S.$) over 8,5 days.

This is what we spent in total (in U.S.$) over 8,5 days.

Jamaica in comparison to the other countries visited so far on this trip.

Jamaica in comparison to the other countries visited so far on this trip.

“Hello there!” – turtles inside a city park in Ocho Rios.

“Hello there!” – turtles inside a city park in Ocho Rios.

Crossing Castro‘s Cuba
March 14, 2019

After almost three wonderful (and way too quickly passing) weeks in México we found ourselves on a plane from Cancún to La Habana (a/k/a Havana), Cuba’s notorious capital city. So what to expect? We heard about the beauty of the Old Town, saw pictures of impressively beautiful old cars and we knew that there would be two parallel currencies floating on the island: the local Cuban peso (CUP) plus a so-called ‘tourist’ peso, the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC).

What sounded confusing at first turned out to be rather uncomplicated, though: the CUC is nothing but the U.S.$ in disguise, it’s basically the exact same (because its value is bound to it, like the Danish krona is bound to the euro), but they decided to call it Cuban Convertible Peso. Same thing. I just called it “dólar”. One dólar/CUC is worth about 24 to 25 pesos/CUP and you only really need it to pay for accomodation (prices here are always given in CUC) and transport with either the tourist bus company Viazul or a private taxi (the latter being only slightly more expensive, but much faster).

It’s just impossible not to be impressed by the amount of those crazy beautiful old-school cars all over the island.

It’s just impossible not to be impressed by the amount of those crazy beautiful old-school cars all over the island.

Everything else you can pay in pesos really and that is pretty much what we did. If anything, it was actually more confusing for the locals; we sometimes got more many back than we should have. All due to their double currency game. It was fun.

Immigration into the country proved straightforward: We paid some 361 Mexican pesos, i.e. about 16 euro, for our Cuban Tourist Visa just before getting onto the flight in México, then sorted out the money situation in Havana and refused to take an expensive taxi to Downtown (basically everyone else did, but we had time). Instead, we wandered around in the area, talked to some security dudes who wouldn’t tell us about the local bus, but it eventually popped up and off we were, paying a mere fraction: 3 pesos (12 cents) each.

Just about to leave our last “casa particular” in the city of Holguín.

Just about to leave our last “casa particular” in the city of Holguín.

The most common thing to do for a budget backpacker in Cuba is to stay in so-called Casas particulares, basically a homestay. They’re as cheap as a hostel in México, but you get a private room with bathroom and usually enough space to spread out even. Sometimes there would even be space for 4 people, so you’d save more in a bigger group. For Havana we secured one for the first 2 nights online and paid 11 $ (in CUC) together per night.

So there is plenty of cheap accommodation in Cuba and also the street food is very affordable – eating-wise it probably doesn’t get much cheaper than on this island really. Water can be an issue, though – you simply don’t easily find big (1.5l) bottles or even 5l containers. And if you do, they tend to be quite overprized.

Now, the biggest deal on Cuba is transportation. As mentioned above, there are mainly 2 possibilities for foreign travelers: Either you take a Viazul bus for relatively little or you hire a private taxi. The buses are cheaper, but definitely take their time. Also, you have to book them well in advance. Since we only had 10 days, we simply decided to pay for all transport beforehand when figuring stuff out at the Havana Viazul Bus Station. And it actually proved to be a good idea, even if it took away the usual freedom of coming and leaving as one pleases.

Itinerary

So our travel schedule looked like this: We’d spend 3 nights in La Habana, then take a taxi to the city of Trinidad (for 30 $ each), stay for 2 nights, bus on to Camagüey (15 $), stay 2 nights, bus to Santiago de Cuba (18 $) and, after another 2 nights, finally head on to Holguín (11 $) – from there we’d take the weekly flight to Montego Bay in Jamaica.

And that is what we sticked to – we didn’t regret it. Now, we considered to see other cities, of course – Cienfuegos and Santa Clara e.g. were hot candidates – but we just didn’t. If we hadn’t had a flight from Holguín, we might as well have substituted that with Baracoa, but well, one simply can’t see it all. Next life! But, well, Cuba is one of those places that one would is excited to see evolve and revisit in, say, 20 or 30 years. Vamos a ver!

Curious street art in Santiago de Cuba.

Curious street art in Santiago de Cuba.

Ambivalent thoughts

I really didn’t know what to expect of visiting a country that is in many regards stuck in the past due to its Communist approach, especially of economics – so that left plenty of room for surprises and we welcomed them! Both of us were born into a Communist state (the German Democratic Republic or GDR/DDR in short), but it collapsed when we were too young to notice anything (I was apparently sick in bed the day the wall came down and hence my parents couldn’t head out to see it just then).

In many ways, strolling through the streets of Cuba and watching buildings of former glory and grandeur having fallen to pieces made me think of the GDR – it basically was how I always imagined Berlin and other cities like Erfurt and Leipzig to look like in the 1980ies (and 90s). Not enough money left to maintain once beautiful houses and living quarters. Also, close to no commercials and no advertisement. Not a great deal cars on the road (but the ones we saw looked both spectacularly beautiful, but also run-down).

Taken from our shared taxi towards Trinidad.

Taken from our shared taxi towards Trinidad.

The so-called “supermercados” or convenience stores were sparsely equipped, mostly with only one brand per product (no need for competition in a planned economy). As mentioned before, there often wouldn’t even be water bottles left and early in the day people are cueing up in front of bakeries and other shops in order to get their share of bread and (delicious and cheap-as-sugar-hell) cake.

We later learned that under beloved revolucionero Fidel Castro (who died in late 2016) Cubans weren’t even allowed to own computers, cell phones or DVD players (until Fidel’s brother Raúl took over the island’s reigns in 2008).

Turning into Che on the markets of Trinidad.

Turning into Che on the markets of Trinidad.

Now, what does and did all that do with the Cuban people and what do they think of their country and the general situation? I happened to have some interesting conversations with some people (mostly our hosts) and their opinions were are pretty much unanimous: “We’re anti-imperialist, what the U.S. do is wrong, what Putin does is right (the E.U. is basically Trump’s wagging tail and can’t be counted on); there is lots of violence in countries like México and Colombia and our kids are safe here in Cuba”. There is something to all that, of course, but I don’t want to dig too deep at this place (it’s a travel post after all). It makes one think, however.

There seems to be a general tendency of painting things black and white – it’s either/or. We also noticed an unequivocal tendency to reduce the country’s history to basically two events: the fight for independence from Spain (under heavy influence from beloved national hero José Martí, political theorist, writer and poet – similarly idolised like Abraham Lincoln or México’s Benito Juárez) that was finally achieved in the late 19th century. And then, of course, the notorious revolutionary struggle in the 1950s that led to the abdication of the corrupt military (and U.S. backed) government under authoritarian leader Fulfencio Batista and its 1959 replacement with a socialist-turned-Communist regime headed by the Castro brothers Fidel and Raúl plus a 31-year old doctor and revolutionary from Argentina named Ernesto “Ché” Guevara (who finally died on just another attempted revolution in the Bolivian jungle in 1967).

cK hanging out in just another wonderfully old car on some Havana side street.

cK hanging out in just another wonderfully old car on some Havana side street.

From 1965 on, Cuba has been governed by only one political force, that being the Communist Party of Cuba, under factual rule of only two individuals (until this day), one of them becoming a world-wide icon for the anti-imperialist cause, beloved by many, despised my many others.

Having said all that, Cuba is a very interesting place to travel to and the more Spanish you speak the better (as is probably true for anywhere in Latin America) – we met people of all kinds and characters, some of them being seriously annoying and frustrating; others absolutely enchanting (like our last host in Holguín). We met the sweetest and most charming people, e.g. in a food stall in a small village near Playa Ancon (south of Trinidad) or in the Museo Histórico 26 de julio in Santiago de Cuba.

For various reasons we at one point decided to answer the ubiquitous question to what country we’d be coming from with: “Suecia!” (Sweden) — here you see us indicating to a photo of famous Swedish prime minister Olof Palme (inside the “Museo Histórico 26 de julio”).

For various reasons we at one point decided to answer the ubiquitous question to what country we’d be coming from with: “Suecia!” (Sweden) — here you see us indicating to a photo of famous Swedish prime minister Olof Palme (inside the “Museo Histórico 26 de julio”).

There were people with a great amount of wit and humour and then there were some lads who lacked all of the above completely, but nevertheless giving us an interesting insight into a generally still deeply conservative society. And that was probably to be expected from an island that deliberately ignores calls for gender equality and, generally, a more relaxed and laid-back view on things – among other things being isolated by the U.S. travel embargo that seriously needs to be removed (something sadly not bound to happen under the current mean joke of a president in the White House).

One last word about the bookshop situation: it was depressing! Communism definitely does not make for well-sorted bookshops – you might still want to check out how a Cuban bookstore looks from the inside. In case you’re already oversaturated with stories about Fidel Castro, Che and the glorious 1950s, you’re unlikely to linger for long.

A better title might have been: “Fit in old age! – with Fidel Castro”.

A better title might have been: “Fit in old age! – with Fidel Castro”.

City reflections

While the capital, La Habana, was by far the most interesting place to explore, it was also the most touristic and that had consequences for the locals’ attitude: it wasn’t exactly laissez-faire. Also, everything from fruits to snacks was much more expensive in the Historic Quarter than at the more local area we stayed at (west of the Paseo del Prado/de Martí).

Trinidad turned out to be equally filled with tourist groups (considering its compact size), hence we were happy to rent out bikes and spend a considerable amount of time at Playa Ancon, some 12 km south of town. In case you happen to end up here and read this: Make sure you don’t miss on the Loma de la Vigía viewpoint (we sadly did).

Street art in La Habana Vieja.

Street art in La Habana Vieja.

The friendliest and most sympathetic places to us were Camagüey and Holguín, both situated on the island’s Western side. Our host in Holguín confirmed: “Oriente es lo mejor. También, todos los presidentes son de aquí.” – well, it’s true: the Castro brothers have been born some 70 km west of Holguín, in a village named Birán,

Finally, Santiago de Cuba was an interesting mixture of everything. Even if it sometimes says, it would be in competition with the capital – it’s not; Havana is much bigger and plays on a completely different level. However, Santiago was an essential stepping stone for Castro’s Communist revolution (it is also here that he first attempted to overthrow the Batista regime on July 26 in 1953).

A real Cuban vaquero!

A real Cuban vaquero!

Costs

Cuba can be an expensive place to visit, but it absolutely doesn’t need to. Accommodation and especially street food are incredibly cheap and even transport doesn’t have to be an issue if you plan accordingly (and are okay with paying a little more for a taxi in case you missed the bus). Stay away from tourist places and eat where the locals eat. There is e.g. pizza for 5 to 10 pesos (less than 50 U.S. cents).

Transportation costs in Cuba were highest due to the relatively long distances. Other than that: Nothing to worry about accommodation and food costs (as long as you don‘t crave government-run restaurant food!).

Transportation costs in Cuba were highest due to the relatively long distances. Other than that: Nothing to worry about accommodation and food costs (as long as you don‘t crave government-run restaurant food!).

Across México: From CDMX to the Yucatan
March 7, 2019

The mysterious beauty of a cenote, a sinkhole with a fascinating geological history – this one being located right in the centre of Valladolid in Yucatan State.

The mysterious beauty of a cenote, a sinkhole with a fascinating geological history – this one being located right in the centre of Valladolid in Yucatan State.

We arrived in México Ciudad (nowadays shortened to CDMX) on February 6, 2019. after many weeks in South-East Asia and on Hawai’i this was our first step into Latin America and it would turn out to be one of my most favourite destinations so far. We had 18 days to spend before heading on to Cuba from Cancún Airport and there was a whole bunch on our list – after 2 days in the capital I was already sure I’d definitely want to return.

Zócalo in México Ciudad, probably featuring the country’s biggest flag.

Zócalo in México Ciudad, probably featuring the country’s biggest flag.

Ciudad de México (CDMX)

Having arranged a couchsurfing place beforehand (while still in Kaua’i) we made our way into the vast metro network of the capital and ended up in the district of Del Valle; our host lived at the metro stop Insurgentes Sur (about half an hour south of the the city center). We didn’t do much that first night, but drank wine with our host and her mom and cooked dinner. Also, this was the first time ever that we had a separate room each while couchsurfing, big luxury.

We spent three full days in the capital, splitting our time equally between three areas: the Centro Historico (day 1), Parque de Chapultepec (day 2) and Coyoacán (day 3).

Our first day of sightseeing began at the metro stop Juárez (named after likely the most famous and popular president México ever had, Benito Juárez) – from Alameda Central we made our way along the old and highly enchanting Palacio Postal, Zócalo and the Catedral Metropolitana to Templo Mayor and its museum, quite the gem and enough to relit interest in the old Aztec, pre-Spanish culture. Shortly after we got out, heading east towards the markets along Calle Moneda I was running into a former couchsurfer of mine, who recognized me on the spot; very delightful, Katerina!

Inside Templo Mayor, just before entering the museum.

Inside Templo Mayor, just before entering the museum.

Further sightseeing highlights that day were the Plaza 23 de Mayo, the Plaza Garibaldi and the Plaza Regina where we were being mesmerised by a rather fascinating street performance. Also, if you happen to be on Zócalo (the city’s main square) around 18:00, you can witness how soldiers take down the enormous national flag in one big ceremonial act.

First thing on the list for Day 2 was to arrange bus tickets to Oaxaca Ciudad for the day after (we meanwhile decided to spend one extra day in CDMX) – it’s not exactly straightforward buying tickets online with a non-Mexican credit card, so we were heading directly to the Terminal de Autobuses de Pasajeros Oriente (TAPO) before our actual day of sightseeing was about to begin. We took the metro to Insurgentes, then walked along the Avenida Paseo de la Reforma towards the Parque de Chapultepec and actually spent some 4 hours in the excellent Museo Nacional de Antropología, really one of the best museums I ever visited and absolutely worth every minute of your time and attention.

Worshipping el maíz – art depicted in the excellet Museo Nacional de Antropologia.

Worshipping el maíz – art depicted in the excellet Museo Nacional de Antropologia.

After the museum we explored more things in and around the park:

  • the Tótem Canadiense
  • the water installations (around the Monumental Xochipilli)
  • the Fuente de Tláloc (in front of Diego Rivera’s Cárcamo de Dolores)
  • the cactus gardens just behind (at the Museo Jardin del Agua)
  • the Parque España and its counterpart, the highly enchanting Parque México

Somewhere around there we had dinner, got ourselves some beer and walked down the street as if we were smoking a spliff (apparently it’s illegal to drink alcohol on the streets in México). We then took the metro all the way to the stop Coyoacán and walked down into the district with the same name to meet Tere, a couchsurfer I hooked up with before, and her brother Alejandro. Brilliant and highly stimulant conversations followed; the feeling emerged that we will meet again some day. Some time later our couchhost Arlet joined the party and we soon moved on to another bar in the area; however, cK and I were quite too exhausted from one long day of sightseeing.

cK relaxing in el Parque Frida Kahlo in the arty district of Coyoacán.

cK relaxing in el Parque Frida Kahlo in the arty district of Coyoacán.

Our final day in CDMX was to be focused on the very district we had beers the night before, Coyoacán – it happens to be where the famous Mexican painters Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera had their homes, a very liberal and artistic minded area. We originally planned to get into Frida Kahlo’s house (turned into a museum ever since her death in 1954), but it turned out to be not only overpriced (250 pesos on a weekend day), but also terribly crowded. Instead, we decided to spend the time exploring more of charming Coyoacán, simply inhaling the stimulating spirit of art and raison d’être. We would not be disappointed at all, that place is packed with sweet surprises and wonderful street art. We especially fancied hanging out at the Parque de Frida Kahlo. If you happen to be here at night, I would recommend visiting a bar called El Jarocho.

Other things we did and see that day worth mentioning:

    the Parque de los Venados
    the Cineteca Nacional
    the Museo Casa de Leon Trotzky (we haven’t actually been inside, though)
    the gardens around the Museo de las Intervenciones
    exploring more of the area just north of the Centro Historico, especially around Plaza Garibaldi and the Plaza 23 de Mayo

That was it for in the capital – later that evening on February 9 we jumped into the night bus towards Oaxaca Ciudad from TAPO in eastern CDMX.

Colourful houses in Oaxaca Ciudad.

Colourful houses in Oaxaca Ciudad.

Oaxaca

My personal expectations of both the state and its capital were reasonably high (due to the stories of my good friends Josie who happened to travel the area about a year earlier) and I was not to be disappointed in the least. Oaxaca delivered all the way and I utterly fell in love with it.

We arrived in Oaxaca Ciudad in the early hours of February 10, watching the sun rise while entering the Chocolate Hostal in la Calle de los Libres. I picked the place for good reviews on Booking.com and I also fancied the name. A friend from Sweden (who I visited in Bern in the summer of 2013) later wrote me that she had stayed in the same place just a mere weeks earlier.

Up on the terrace of el Chocolate Hostal – it‘s really all about being at the right time at the right place.

Up on the terrace of el Chocolate Hostal – it‘s really all about being at the right time at the right place.

It was the perfect place for us by all means: With us waiting at the reception for a slightly confused hostel receptionist to get his stuff sorted was a traveler from Portugal named Roberto – a very peculiar, but likable character; the three of us ended up in the same room and I kept on sleeping until the sunbeams were hitting my face from a window towards the rooftop. I woke up hearing the sounds of a guitar being played and later went up to have a look at the source of it. This is how I got to know Julie, a girl from around Freiburg who now lived in Leipzig to study education – a very sympathetic street musician and artist. Her companion was a fellow traveler from Seattle, Washington, in his late 30s named Tim.

After cK and I spent a majority of the day wandering around the city, among other things listening to an open air concert in front of the Catedral de Oaxaca, I again made my way up to the rooftop terrace and then ran into three Austrian girls (named Gloria, Veronika and Miriam) who cK and I immediately connected with. That same night still the five of us rented a car for the upcoming 24 hours. After cooking dinner together I got up to the rooftop and spent the rest of that enchanting day chatting with Julie, Tim, and a young traveler from Argentina who provided us with the finest hierba.

Veronika and cK enjoying the view at Hierve El Agua (near Mitla in Oaxaca).

Veronika and cK enjoying the view at Hierve El Agua (near Mitla in Oaxaca).

Next thing early morning, cK, the Austrians and I were driving towards Hierve El Agua, a set of natural rock formations that were being created by fresh water springs whose water is over-saturated with minerals like calcium carbonate. Apart from four other travelers who set up tents at the cascades we were the first people at the site and it was quite the sight. If you decide to go, you should definitely come as early as possible.

When driving back to Oaxaca, we passed through the attractive little city of Mitla, where we visited parts of the ruins north of town plus the Parroquia de San Pablo. On the way out we took a dusty sideroad and suddenly faced the first ever tornado (rather: a whirlwind) any of us has ever seen. Sweet and incredibly rapid!

Hanging out in the rather refreshing lagoon at Hierve El Agua.

Hanging out in the rather refreshing lagoon at Hierve El Agua.
Hanging out in the rather refreshing lagoon at Hierve El Agua.

After shortly stopping at Santa María del Tule (to see the age-old Arbol de Tule) we still tried to make it to Monte Alban, the original city of Oaxaca and now an archaeological site about 9km to the west from Oaxaca’s central square. We arrived right in time for the guards to close the gate and enjoyed the sunset over the city instead. Later that night we invited a young German artist into the hostel, Fabienne, who was about to be our couchhost for the 3rd night in town.

We joined a “free” walking tour the following day and made it to Monte Alban in the afternoon, hitching a ride in the back of a regular car (the five of us all squeezed together), enjoying the scenery almost completely devoid of other people before heading back to town to have dinner inside the Mercado 20 de noviembre. We more or less accidentally ended up in a back-alley of the theatre where they showed Giuseppe Tornatore’s 1988 classic Cinema Paradiso (in O.V. with Spanish subtitles) on a projector. We highly enjoyed watching the spectacle (they had to restart the movie repeatedly due to technical difficulties) and organized some cans of beer that had to be carefully refilled into plastic bottles since Mexicans (quite like the Polish) are apparently so afraid of their citizens being drunk that they thought it a good idea to make drinking in public illicit. They caught us twice and we almost had to leave the open air cinema, but somehow managed.

Driving out of Mitla.

Driving out of Mitla.

The girls left that night towards CDMX and cK and I settled over to couchsurf with Fabienne who rented an apartment in the north-east of town. After visiting a bunch of art galleries and the city museum, getting lost in a bookshop and trying hard to find some purple dye and peroxide to colour our hair and beard we set off to catch a minibus towards the coast the next night. At the bus station of Transportes Villa de Pacífico we also met Roberto again who left the city together with us.

We arrived in Puerto Escondido in the early morning of February 14, didn’t book any accommodation in advance, but found two empty beds for us at Puerto Dreams Hostel, immediately falling asleep (I don’t even know if I was able to sleep in that minibus at all) – Roberto booked a bed at neighbouring La Escondida Hostel, but couldn’t check in until some time in the afternoon (but used the time to head down to the beaches). There was a Valentine’s Party at an associated hostel (Puerto Dreams Surf House) that ended in the pool at one point – and cK got himself a proper vaquero hat.

Puerto Escondido – not so hidden anymore.

Puerto Escondido – not so hidden anymore.

After one lazy day at sweet Playa Coral in Escondido we took a late afternoon bus to Mazunte, but quickly realised that the last colectivo for the day was long gone, hence got stuck at the highway crossing before finally hitching to the beach and our pre-booked hostel called Dharma Spa (acceptable for a night, but otherwise not worth bothering). The next morning (February 16) my good friend Micha from Berlin arrived in Mazunte as well and I met him at the beach while cK was riding the colectivo to Pochutla to acquire information about bus connections and prizes from the coast to San Cristóbal de las Casas in the state of Chiapas.

Micha was rather spontaneously booking a trip to México as well, like us starting with the capital (though a couple days later), but while we had already booked a connecting flight from Cancún to Cuba he was bound to return to CDMX. However, there was a sweet spot that just fit perfectly in both our itineraries and we used it to the fullest. First thing we did was organising new accommodation and we got lucky with a room directly at the beach, not far from the peninsula and Punta Cometa – the 3 of us paid 500 pesos for the night.

Watching the sunset with Micha and cK at Punta Cometa.

Watching the sunset with Micha and cK at Punta Cometa.

Our house in Mazunte – directly at the beach.

Our house in Mazunte – directly at the beach.

Right after we carried the backpacks over from the hostel we jumped into the water and there we met Julie and Tim a second time – they hitchhiked from Oaxaca Ciudad to the coast and based themselves at a work-away place in Puerto Escondido. Josie happened to be in Mazunte as well (in late 2017), so she was with us in thoughts when we ascended the peninsula for watching the sunset later and then ending the day with some hours of dancing to catchy, albeit quite familiar electro tunes in a night club just next door.

We took it easy the day after and eventually boarded a colectivo to Playa Zipolite some 5km further down the coast, a famous hippie hideaway, especially famous for its nude beach. Micha and I were just dropping out the water when we ran into Julie and Tim one final time. A good hour later we were already on our way to Pochutla where we got onto the night bus to Chiapas, having said farewell to Micha after a short, but splendid interlude. I can only hope that it won’t be too long until I see marvellous Oaxaca again.

Watching the sunset from our favorite viewpoint San Cristóbal de las Casas.

Watching the sunset from our favorite viewpoint San Cristóbal de las Casas.

Chiapas

A bunch of people who we met in Oaxaca recommended us the Puerta Vieja Hostel in San Cristóbal de las Casas and, as it turned out, that was indeed an excellent choice. We slept in an 18-bed dorm, spent a good amount of time in the hostel playing table tennis, had a superb vegan breakfast (even though I had to wait an eternity for it) and prepared a dead-cheap and supertasty dinner that was enough to fill our bellies a second night as well. On the evening of February 18 I booked my return flight to Europe (from Lima in Perú to Madrid in mid-May).

The day after, on our second sightseeing stroll, I once again ran into someone who recognised me from Couchsurfing – a Berlin-based traveler who just spent about a fortnight in Chiapas, most of the time in an area called El Panchán near the ancient city of Palenque.

Celebrating our 100th day on the road together.

Celebrating our 100th day on the road together.

Street wisdom in San Cristóbal de las Casas.

Street wisdom in San Cristóbal de las Casas.

Later, while cK had his beard trimmed at a local barber (who very sympathetically asked him all about the Berlin Wall, currently reading the ever-famous Diary of Anne Frank) I was buying myself a Spanish copy of Albert Camus’ El Extranjero (L’Étranger) and beginning to devour it on the city’s main square, the Plaza de la Paz when an old man was seating himself next to me, keeping me busy with eagerly asking a hundred questions. Quite enriching.

That night, coinciding with our 100th day on the road, there was a full moon party at the hostel and we happily indulged to the never-ending supply of utterly delicious mojitos that the owner himself was keen to distribute among the hostel guests. After some relaxing time in the hammocks we eventually found ourselves dancing with a group of British girls that caught my eye some hours before when still sitting on the city square answering the old man’s questions. There was a certain sense of extreme frivolity and excitement in the air that was about to burst any minute now – we clearly couldn’t have had a better time then right there, right then.

But we also had a bus to catch – as difficult as it was to break away from a rapture of pleasure and delight we actually managed to enter the night bus towards Palenque. The mojitos, unfortunately, as refreshing and enjoyable as they were, would now get back to us with a vengeance: When having a stop-over in the city of Tuxtla Gutiérrez the ADO personnel simply wouldn’t allow us to reenter the bus because we were to drunk (which manifested in varying degrees between the two of us). Either way, together with a traveler from Argentina (likely due to her foursquare persistence) I managed to obtain two new tickets to a follow-up coach and after another change into a smaller bus in Tabasco’s Villahermosa we finally arrived in Palenque in the early forenoon of February 20 – tired, exhausted, destroyed. After a short walk and a small, but energizing breakfast we hailed down a colectivo to the Zona Arqueología de Palenque.

The ruins of the forgotten city of Palenque.

The ruins of the forgotten city of Palenque.

WikiTravel writes about the ruins, they would “still evoke some of the wonders that the early Spanish visitors must have felt” when coming across the area – well, we were probably arriving a bit too late for that, but either way: due to generally rather late opening times (08am) that peculiar sensation of being an early-day explorer will be denied to even the keenest early bird. This is in strict contrast to the absolutely mesmerising experience in Guatemala’s Tikal where it was (at least in 2011) still possible to enter the ruins in early morning mist with just enough darkness, utterly undisturbed by the chatter of toured groups and, even more relieving, of the trash-selling vendors who can literally “ruin” the sensation – to my knowledge they are still prohibited in Tikal (my all-time favorite Maya city experience).

However, wandering along the temples, even in a rather doubtful bodily condition was a wonderful experience and utterly worth the 75 pesos (plus another 36 for the national park fee); unlike to what we were about to pay for upcoming temples on the Yucatan Peninsula (see below).

While walking to El Panchám.

While walking to El Panchám.

Since the Museo de Sitio is included in the entrance fee, we visited that also – despite being close to taking a nap lying on the ground behind some installations. Most impressive was probably the sarcophagus room (the tomb of ruler Pakal who was in power between 615 and 683).

On the way out of the National Park we paid a short visit to El Panchám, found it to be an attractive (hippie) place to while away a couple days and returned to the city of Palenque to buy groceries, use the supermarket’s wifi connection and to withdraw money that was calculated precisely to last for the remaining couple of days in México and then entered just another night bus towards the Yucatan.

Ancient (and once completely covered) Maya ruins at Ek Balam, just north of Valladolid (Yucatan).

Ancient (and once completely covered) Maya ruins at Ek Balam, just north of Valladolid (Yucatan).

Yucatan Peninsula

To claim I had a good night sleep would be pushing it, but I felt sufficiently arranged for another day of sightseeing – enter Mérida, capital of Yucatan State. It was early morning of February 21 and still being in the bus cK realised that he was being pickpocketed over night. Some sneaky asshole must have pulled out his bag, taken his new smartphone (freshly purchased in Hawai’i) and a good amount of the cash that we have just withdrawn a few hours earlier. Sweet morning, ya!

Luckily, cK still had his old phone ready in the backpack and we were soon out and about to explore the city. The bag drop within the ADO bus station was ridiculously expensive (a 100 pesos), so we were opting for a hotel and found one close to the center; the owner was a gem and since he didn’t ask for any money for keeping our luggage, I gave him a tip. Still in the hotel, cK noticed that they were also stealing his (cheapo) sunglasses from within the baggage compartment (which basically means that the ADO bus boys were responsible for it).

Art exhibition in Mérida, capital of the Yucatan.

Art exhibition in Mérida, capital of the Yucatan.

An endless sight of beautiful doors and windows in all colours and shapes...

An endless sight of beautiful doors and windows in all colours and shapes…

Mérida, despite boasting a population of about 850,000 people, has a rather compact city centre and we enjoyed discovering its treasures: art galleries, enchanting parks, an endless amount of picturesque doors and windows of a hundred colours, arty cafés and boutiques. After some hours of strolling around we hit the bus one more time and finally made it to Valladolid, some hours further to the east, the central city to a whole lot of Maya ruins and, even better, to an excellent selection of freshwater sinkholes, better known as cenotes.

There is quite a selection of hostels in town, but the prices vary strongly and we opted for a place called Guacamaya Hostel where we paid 300 pesos for a double bed (first time ever that we stayed in a sort of “double bed dormitory”). We shared the room with 4 other travelers from Argentina, none of whom spoke English (as was to be expected): 2 girls called Ana y María (one more klischee fulfilled) and two guys named Maximiliano and Jonathan, quite an interesting as well as amusing couple. We felt immediately comfortable in Valladolid and especially the central park (Parque Francisco Cantón Rosado) was a delight to walk around at after sunset.

Ancient ruins and the advantages of getting up early: not a single other soul in sight.

Ancient ruins and the advantages of getting up early: not a single other soul in sight.

After some intense consideration of where to go to see more Maya ruins we eventually decided against world-famous Chichen Itzá and for the much lesser known Ek Balam site – not an easy decision: While the temples around Chichen Itzá are surely stunning and breath-taking we also didn’t feel like tourist groups and vendors and then there was Ek Balam popping up which was almost as expensive as the C.I., but featured a pyramid on top of an ‘acropolis’ that one was actually allowed to ascent. The die was cast.

We actually managed to be the first two visitors in Ek Balam (originally known as Talol) and had to wait about 30min until it was finally 08:00. When we were there they charged us 413 pesos for the entrance (which is heaps even for European standards), but expect to pay even more in the upcoming months and years. Nevertheless, the view from atop the pyramid, the lack of tourists and vendors, the ability to freely climb around before any security shows up and also the abundance of iguanos on and around the temples was actually worth it. Also, there is a cenote close-by (and it happened to be the first one we ever visited – hooray!). To visit that one, though, you’ll be charged another 50 pesos. Still, worth it.

We later hitchhiked back to town and visited Valladolid’s city cenote (for a very acceptable 30 pesos entrance fee) which was clearly worth every minute. This whole cenote business is actually worth a blog post in its own right since their story of origin is so fascinating.

cK watching an iguana lazily chilling in the shades in Ek Balam...

cK watching an iguana lazily chilling in the shades in Ek Balam…

...before jumping down inside the cenote nearby.

…before jumping down inside the cenote nearby.

The last stop on our Méxican journey was the town of Tulum, some two hours south of Cancún in the state of Quintana Roo. There is not much to say about that last bit: The place is acceptable, but I wouldn’t think of returning there: It’s packed with tourists (mostly U.S. Americans, but also bunches of Argentinians and Europeans), the cenotes are utterly overprized and the beaches mediocre. It was an okay place to spend our last night at before hopping on the plane from Cancún to La Habana on the Communist island of Cuba. But that’s another story – waiting to be told while sitting in a Viazul bus making its way to Santiago from the pretty town of Camagüey.

Last view on México while on the plane towards La Habana, Cuba.

Last view on México while on the plane towards La Habana, Cuba.

Costs

Not surprisingly, México was second in line when it comes to costs: much cheaper then Hawai’i, but also clearly more expensive than Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam (plus Thailand and Myanmar, even though I haven’t tracked the details for that trip).

From O‘ahu to Kaua‘i: Roadtrippin‘ Hawai‘i!
February 9, 2019

The Asian chapter of this trip ends in Līhuʻe, the airport town on the so-called Garden Isle, Kaua’i. One could consider the Hawai’ian archipelago the midway point between Asia and the Americas for reasons like the people’s ethnicities or maybe the introduced species from both sides, but definitely the location. Technically it is located in Oceania, along with other Pacific islands such as New Zealand and French Polynesia. Culturally it’s a fun and actually very interesting mix-up between Native Hawaiian mythology and stereotypical U.S. American consumerism – among Safeway and Burger King you’ll find the remains of Polynesian sanctuaries, between luxury golf courses hide ancient walls and of course the names of localities, streets and the islands themselves have a very Oceanian ring.

Before coming here we have never heard of the Kingdom of Hawai’i (that existed between 1795 and 1893) or even King Kamehamea I (called the Great), its founder. Some two weeks (and a bit) after we set foot on O’ahu, the archipelago’s most populated island, while waiting for our American Airlines flight towards the American mainland, I finally know why the name ‘Hawaii’ is being shared by both a major island here and the state as a whole: The king that united the archipelago simply chose the name of his home island and that happened to be Hawai’i, or, as it is known today: the Big Island.

But let’s start right at the beginning: After two weeks backpacking through Indonesia’s Sulawesi region we left South-East Asia with a flight from Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia’s capital) to Osaka in Japan and then headed on to Honolulu. Among Hawaii’s four major islands we picked O’ahu for the culture (e.g. Pearl Harbour and the Japanese attack that led the U.S. enter World War II in December 1941) and Kaua’i for as much nature as possible (saving more romantic Maui and much bigger Hawai’i for another time in the future).

Looking down on the Na Pali Coast from the Kalalau Lookout in Kokee State Park – just in time for a rainbow before the clouds swallow everything up.

Looking down on the Na Pali Coast from the Kalalau Lookout in Kokee State Park – just in time for a rainbow before the clouds swallow everything up.

Costs and spendings

We have been quite aware of the price-shock we were about to experience after all those months traveling through Myanmar, Vietnam and Indonesia – but now, reviewing the budget situation while hanging out in the airport, it really wasn’t all as bad as we anticipated. We decided to get our own transport (hence rented cars on both islands) and cut accomodation costs with camping in state parks (having permits for about $10 per person per night) and doing couchsurfing. In the end everything turned out slightly different from what we expected, but clearly not for the worse.

We would end up staying in tents for the first two nights on O’ahu (in Malaekahana State Park) and from then on basically slept in the car – the 3 last O’ahu nights, however, having found a couchhost (named Mark) that let us hang out and stay on his farm some 40 minutes drive away from the big city. That place was a delight really – even though it had no running water or electricity Mark provided a comfy mattress within a shack on a hill that came with magnificent sunrise views over Honolulu, Pearl Harbour and the sea. Mark wasn’t blind to our keen sense for adventure and enthusiasm and provided us with a brush cutter to clean the overgrown driveways on the farm. Fun all the way really! Also, he was quite keen himself in letting us know about his permaculture and housing long-term plans – good man.

We didn’t manage to find a host on Kaua’i, but instead decided to leave notes on hostel blackboards looking for fellow travelers to share the ride with us – we still had a tent to spare that we never used again in fact (one couple responded, but we didn’t actually manage to mingle). Either way, with accomodation costs cut we now only needed to worry about food and transport.

Public transport is supposed to be quite sufficient on O’ahu – however, relying on buses on an island where you really want to be as independent as anyhow possible was not really an option for us. And we most certainly didn’t want to stick to Honolulu and Waikiki just because there are buses running throughout the day. Hence we rented cars!

Truffles, our fancy rental car (a Toyota Camry) n O‘ahu.

Truffles, our fancy rental car (a Toyota Camry) n O‘ahu.

Leaves us with the food situation. Most food on Hawai’i needs to be imported from the mainland which probably explains why it really is quite expensive, even for European standards – it rather even reminded me of Norwegian standards. We sticked mostly to big supermarket chains like Safeway and Walmart (preferring the former) plus Longs Drugs (a pharmacy/supermarket hybrid) – quickly realizing that it’s quite worth getting a (free) membership card. Outstanding offers guaranteed! It’s actually hilarious how they push their customers to buy stuff in larger-than-life amounts in the U.S. – you can’t just get a small package of chips or a single can of coke. Nah, you should rather get a dozen cans for a crazy discount! Or two huge packages of chips for the price of one. Really not surprised about the ubiquity of obesity.

Soon after arriving on day I we went down to Waikiki Beach just to see what all the hype is about. It‘s sweet, but the high-rises in the back don‘t invite to stay.

Soon after arriving on day I we went down to Waikiki Beach just to see what all the hype is about. It‘s sweet, but the high-rises in the back don‘t invite to stay.

O’ahu

The island of O’ahu counts around a million inhabitants, more than all the other islands combined – featuring Honolulu as the state’s capital. First thing we did after arrival was getting the car, a dark blue/olive coloured Toyota Camry, and heading to Waikiki Beach for refreshment. Still in Indonesia we organized two camping permits for the first two nights at Malaekahana State Park (on the island’s northern side) and managed to arrive just in time before darkness. We figured it’d be a good idea to have the first nights safe in order to get an idea about how easy it’d be to camp in the wild or sleep in the car.

Noticeable: Coming from Asia and being used to pits filled with (mostly plastic) trash it’s been a more than pleasant surprise to again realize it’s possible to have both: picture-perfect beaches plus a clean and stainless environment. Utterly enchanting!

The Kualoa Regional Park and Jurassic Valley – the extraordinary landscape provided the background for various Hollywood movies. One can see why.

The Kualoa Regional Park and Jurassic Valley – the extraordinary landscape provided the background for various Hollywood movies. One can see why.

We explored the north coast first and that included:

  • Walking to Kahuku Point, O’ahu’s northernmost point
  • Swimming at Backyards Beach in Waiale’e
  • Visiting the Old Sugar Mill in Waialula and grocery shopping in Haleiwa
  • Having cold beers while watching the setting sun at Waimea Bay

There was so much more to discover and among our favourite places were the following:

  • La’ie Point (Wayside)
  • the Kualoa Regional Park (close to the Jurassic Valley where the shot Jurassic Park and King Kong
  • the Japanese Byodo-In Temple (where cK saw his first-ever black swan)
  • the PillBox hike – both the sunset views as well as the people’s cheerful moods were extraordinary
  • Sandy Beach, just north of the Halona Blowhole
  • Hiking to the top of Diamond Head and overviewing the Honolulu coastal and sky line
Almost arriving at the top of the Pillbox Hike in South-Eastern O‘ahu...

Almost arriving at the top of the Pillbox Hike in South-Eastern O‘ahu…

...featuring a fabulous sunset right over the valley behind.

…featuring a fabulous sunset right over the valley behind.

After two rather fresh nights in the tent (directly at the ocean) we switched to sleeping in our rental car that we lovingly named “Truffles”. Before meeting Mark (our couchhost), we spent another two nights outside in the car which proved to be rather a hassle on the second night. We ended up in the rather populated Kailua Bay area and decided to try our luck on a Church-owned parking lot which would be closed by a barrier at a certain time, thinking we’d be all safe and sound there until morning. But then a car showed up around 01:30, seemingly from nowhere, and some dude made us leave. We rather apathetically rolled down towards the Safeway car park and continued sleeping for another 2 hours, before security chased us off – again. This time we weren’t as deep asleep luckily and rather unimpressed went on to our last resort: a residential area where we finally got enough rest until the sun was rising again. Certainly a rather difficult night, but nothing really happened after all and we felt awake enough in the morning.

Watching humpback whales breeding from Makapu‘u Lookout in South-Eastern O‘ahu.

Watching humpback whales breeding from Makapu‘u Lookout in South-Eastern O‘ahu.

We would have no further issue with sleeping outside in the car over the entire remaining time on Hawai’i. Mark later told us that one option would be to park the rental car close to the airport and then catch some sleep in the baggage claim department – so in case you’re running low on cash or simply want to avoid those ridiculously high accomodation costs on the islands that might be your thing. We most certainly preferred the car – additionally, being on the road again in a warm climate with a beach and inland adventures never too far away reminded me strongly of traveling in Tasmania (or anywhere else in Down Under really). Helping Mark with doing some farm work helped to retrieve memories from back in the days, as well. Utterly delightful.

Honolulu proved not exactly to be a city to funk out about – sure, there are a bunch of good-looking 19th century Gothic-style buildings, but we really weren’t here for that. Especially from a distance one would notice how much of a concrete monster that place actually is. However, the busy markets of Chinatown were a delight – especially when having the opportunity to compare it to South-East Asian equivalences.

Working with the brush-cutter on Mark‘s farm.

Working with the brush-cutter on Mark‘s farm.

All of the above is true about Waikiki as well – there really is not much of a need to spend more time than necessary at a beach surrounded by grey and boring high-rises. We never returned after day I.

What did interest us instead was seeing the notorious Pearl Harbor, headquarter of the U.S. Pacific fleet in the late 1930ies and ’40ies before being attacked by the Japanese on an air raid in December 1941. The infamous loss of the majority of battleships (in particular the U.S.S. Arizona) and hundreds of marines being trapped within the exploding ships made the U.S. join World War II immediately afterwards.

Inside Pear Harbor, inhaling U.S. and world history.

A collection of newspaper reprints in the gift shop.

A collection of newspaper reprints in the gift shop.

Especially interesting and well presented was a mandatory introduction film that was filled with background information about the reasons and incentives of the Japanese. Right after that we joined a boat tour to the memorial of the U.S.S. Arizona which remains at precisely the place it has been sunk, allegedly still trapping those crew members that could not be rescued back then. All that free of charge.

Our last day on O’ahu we spent hiking: a 9 km return trail to Kaena Point, the island’s westernmost bit. The views were stunning and at the windswept end of it we saw nesting sea birds as well as relaxing seals, enjoying the good times of life while rolling around in the sands.

Watching Honolulu from afar at Diamond Heads (O‘ahu).

Watching Honolulu from afar at Diamond Heads (O‘ahu).

Kaua’i

Flying over to the Garden Isle was a straight-forward affair – Hawaiian Air was playing soothing music, security was rigid as usual, but actually fun and the only thing we thoroughly craved for was having a long shower as soon as we had our new car. And what a car we were given! Instead of a regular hatchback model (or similar) they actually provided us with a pretentious and larger-than-life 4-wheel-drive SUV (a Ford Explorer). We didn’t complain, but simply downfolded the 2 extra backseats and drove off north from Lihue, the airport town towards Kapaa.

The island of Kaua’i is not only slightly smaller than O’ahu (1,421 compared to 1,545 sqkm), but also much less populated: 67,000 people instead of 953,000! Hence we reckoned it to be much easier to find a place to sleep in some backstreet overlooking the ocean. And indeed: we didn’t face problems a single time! It’s been as easy as one could wish for – riding an all-terrain vehicle made things noticeably easier, however.

First night on Kaua’i: Magical sunset above the charming, if touristic town of Kapaa.

First night on Kaua’i: Magical sunset above the charming, if touristic town of Kapaa.

We stayed on parking lots, directly at the ocean, in front of old, but stylish cemeteries, next to horse ranges and caves and also close to the island’s highest (and wettest) point.

It’s not actually possibly to surround Kaua’i by car since there is no actual ring road. This basically meant that (somewhat like on O’ahu) we would drive first to one side (the northern end) before heading down while passing through Kapaa and Lihue (the two biggest towns) to see the southern side. Apart from the slightly exhausting traffic (jam) situation between those two places (unlike on O’ahu there is no real multilane highway on Kaua’i) we got ourselves into another more serious situation.

Roosters are ubiquitous on Kaua‘i – and this is our second car in the back; we called it “Mr. Kouch”.

Roosters are ubiquitous on Kaua‘i – and this is our second car in the back; we called it “Mr. Kouch”.

In short: There were road work signs beyond a town called Hanalei that we happily ignored (which we shouldn’t), so we ended up in some slow-riding car convoy on our second night that brought us closer to the famous Na Pali Coast (which we planned to hike on the following morning). Once the traffic around us cleared up we would drive into some side road, ready to finally open up two (still) cold bottles of beer. But there was a catch to it and the lady driver from the car that has followed us into that side road explained it to us rather excitedly: Due to a heavy flood in April 2018 most of the northern coast line is off-limits to non-residents and especially to tourists.

Not only did we not know this, we were actually facing quite a severe penalty if someone would catch us in this part of the island. The Na Pali Coastal Trek is closed ever since last spring and wild boars would happily jump around and multiply instead. Also, quite a bunch of meth addicts would not be amused about intruders (especially since quite some locals actually lost their houses due to landslides) and we heard stories of travelers being robbed and seriously injured. In conclusion: We were heading out of the area as soon as the 9pm convoy was being ready for departure – when we were actually being waved out at the end of it (since our car lacked the necessary sticker) we could luckily explain the situation and were send away with the following words: “Please don’t come back.” Word!

The lighthouse of Kilauea.

The lighthouse of Kilauea.

Now, that was a rather unexpected start to it all, but the remaining 7 days were enchanting and filled with beauty and stunning views. This is the list of things you might want to see and do when here:

    get down to Secret Beach on the north coast and get lost in thoughts while watching the waves go wild
    have a relaxed swim and lots of snorkeling at Anini Beach Park
  • Get a rooster shirt at some Kapaa shop and enjoy the town’s architecture
  • See the Wailua Falls and try to find a save way down to the river
  • Hike along the stunning cliffs between Makauwahi Cave and Shipwrecks Beach (in the south)
  • spend some time along the colonial-style buildings of Hanapepe
  • See for yourself where James Cook was landing on the Hawaiian archipelago in 1778: at Waimea Bay
  • Take the dirt road to the Barking Sands at Polihale Beach and spend the night there (that sunset was marvellous!)
  • Last, but not least at all: Enjoy the stunning views of grandeur within the Waimea Canyon State Park, also: do some hikes! (at least the one to the Waipo’o Falls
The Wailua Falls.

The Wailua Falls.

We made not have made it to the Na Pali Coast, but we did manage to see it from above – there are some fabulous lookouts and hikes just north of the Waimea Canyon at the Kokee State Park – from there you actually see the coast from above and if you’re lucky combined with a rainbow. That area is declared to be one of the wettest on the planet!

I’m writing these last bits of the blog being squeezed inside a metro in México City, being enchanted while thinking of those blissful Hawaiian roadtrip days and moments – it feels almost surreal now while surrounded by Mexicans and quite a different culture all along.

Stunning views at Waimea Canyon National Park...

Stunning views at Waimea Canyon National Park…

...and our last sunset on Kaua’i at the Salt Pond County Park near Port Allen.

…and our last sunset on Kaua’i at the Salt Pond County Park near Port Allen.

From Makassar to Manado: Backpacking Sulawesi
January 21, 2019

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.

Not the most expensive place to travel in: This is what I paid for in 14 days.

Not the most expensive place to travel in: This is what I paid for in 14 days.

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.

The Viet Nam Journey
January 14, 2019

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.

Late Night KL Airport reflections
January 6, 2019

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

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

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

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.