Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Happy 2009 Everybody!

Actually, this is in Macau, but it suits the themeOf all the party cities we’ve been through (Hong Kong, Macau, Bangkok, Sydney) we probably  hit the one dull one to spend New Year’s in. Luckily Julie was thinking ahead and booked us into a hung-over harbour cruise so the scenery made up for it. 

We started off the evening at the Patio Cafe whose patio overlooks downtown Auckland’s main drag – Queen Street.  It was fun people-watching as the crowds moved up and down from the harbour into town. We weren’t really that hungry so we just kept ordering rounds of appetizers after we discovered the biggest mussels we’ve ever seen – NZ green mussels are nearly 10cm long!  Since we didn’t have anywhere to go, we sat in the restaurant for hours, outlasting the other guests and waiting for the drizzle to end.

Auckland’s got it’s own version of the CN/Calgary/Sydney Tower, the SkyTower, and that’s where we wandered over to after dinner. There was a big crowd milling about and if you had tickets to the party then you were in, but we were denied at the door. We’d been through here earlier in the day and had spotted a small chapel that had been set up in the foyer where Elvis would be later. Julie got the great idea that we should go and get pictures taken in the chapel and send them home saying we got married by Elvis!  Unfortunately, like I SkyTower Cadillacsaid, we couldn’t get in the door. So no fake marriage to fool all you folks back home! But we did get to have our picture taken in the ol’Caddy parked outside that was to be used for the wedded people to “drive away in”.

Auckland plays host to some elite sailing competitions, and for one of them (the America’s Cup) the city revamped its harbour front and built it into what is now called the Viaduct. It’s a nice place, with a fancy Hilton hotel built over the water, loads of restaurants and bars, and parking spots for all of the big and fancy yachts that sail in here.  The Viaduct’s also got a reputation for being the place where young “bogans” hang out and cause a ruckus, so “mature” people tend to pass it off. But every time we’ve been there it’s been the “mature” people causing a ruckus. Go figure…

Anyhow, I digress… We found a small pub down there that had a live Ringing in the New Year with Lindauer bubbleband and no cover charge, and they were serving Crown Royal for the same price as Canadian Club (that’ll make any Canadian’s day!) so we hung out for a bit. Julie smuggled in a small bottle of champagne that we uncorked as we watched the fireworks go off from the SkyTower.  Happy New Year!


The next day we played tourist and went on a harbour cruise to Rangitoto Island. (Fullers Rangitoto Volcanic Explorer)Cruising Auckland's harbour on New Year's day It’s the youngest of the volcanoes in and around Auckland at just over 600 years old, which means that the Maori people who were living here at the time saw it erupt.  The island is essentially uninhabited now as it’s been turned into a park. That and there’s not much to do there since the ground is not dirt but crumbled lava rock.  the native Pohutukawa trees seem to grow quite well though and at this time of year they are blooming there bright red flowers, hence their nickname of “Kiwi Christmas tree”.

Oh, and I managed to catch the highlights of today Canadian Junior victory over the Americans on – Sweet as!  (Kiwi slang for “good”, “great”, “right on”, etc)

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Kia Ora! Welcome to Auckland!

A short trip across the Tasman Sea, or the “ditch” as they refer to it here, and here we are.  I had no idea what to expect when arriving here. As we flew in I saw the coast and beaches and then some trees and suddenly it was the city and we were landing. I had done next to no research on New Zealand before coming here, relying entirely on what Julie knew from her last trip here. So I didn’t even know where Auckland was situated, which would’ve explained why we saw beaches and then landed. Auckland’s located on a narrow isthmus of land between the Manukau Harbour and the Waitemata Harbour, or the Tasman Sea and the Pacific Ocean.  Realistically, if you flew in to almost any Kiwi city you’d land soon after seeing the beaches since the country’s just not that big. 

We were booked into a downtown hostel (Nomad’s Fusion Backpackers) and were treated to another uber-tiny room with a bunk bed. We’d also learn quite quickly that we were right above a couple of bars, so at night you either roasted in the sealed room, or slept with earplugs depending if you had the window open or shut.  Julie wanted out of there pretty quickly so she got right on task for finding us a place to live.  New Zealand’s answer to eBay – – provided most of our leads while scanning the bulletin boards at the surrounding hostels also gave a couple of clues.  In order to visit these places we did get to see a variety of neighbourhoods, learned that Auckland’s public transport system is annoying to use as Winnipeg’s and had to smile while backing out of a couple of places.

IMG_0014 It’s New Year’s Eve tonight.  We didn’t plan ahead and therefore missed going to the big party out in Gisborne. The Rhythm & Vines Festival is where you go if you want to be the very first in the world to ring in the new year.  Beyond that we couldn’t really find much to do and did feel quite isolated since we didn’t know anyone.

* “Kia Ora” = Maori greeting, literally “be well”

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Christmas in Sydney, Australia

Sydney pictures

After having such a lovely time in Melbourne celebrating Christmas early with our friends, it was almost a shame that we flew off to Sydney on Christmas Eve. It was more of a practical decision since hotels were cheaper over these days than over NYE.  Julie found us a really nice hotel in Pott’s Point near the famed King’s Cross area which is known for it’s neon-lit nightlife, travellers’ hostels and general rowdiness. Nearby though a new restaurant district has sprouted up and that’s where we were able to find a place open late on Christmas Eve for dinner. It was an intimate little French cafe whose garlic-breaded mussels were quite tasty – a hint of things to come in NZ..

Christmas Day – Canadian Christmas Eve

To make Julie’s mom happy (& my mom somewhat too, but probably mostly my Auntie Kay) we got up this morning and went to church. We attended a standing-room-only mass at the magnificent St. Mary’s Cathedral in downtown Sydney. It was a grand affair, with multiple priests doing their little bit of the show and choirs and thundering organs.  A strange sight was all of the girls from the hostels wearing their little clubbing outfits to a church – seemed a bit out of place.  Afterwards Julie phoned home on Skype to get a peek at the party going on back home. It was really good to see everyone and say a quick hello as people passed by the webcam. It made Julie homesick, and I would get my taste of it the next day when I kept my family up late in order to video-conference online.

But while everyone back home was digging into piles of perogies (you have no idea how much I miss kubassa and perohy right now!) weSanta hats & shorts @ Bondi beach headed off to the beach! Bondi Beach plays host to a massive  Christmas Day party every year – tickets for the actual event were sold out long ago, but there are thousands of people just hanging out on the beach.  And the weirdest thing is that I've never seen so many people sporting Santa toques as there were here. 

I was quite excited to tour this world-class city and see all of its sights. That meant we did a lot of walking around. Fortunately our hotel was within walking distance of most of the sights, so although a tad long, the walk from Pott’s Point to downtown takes you through parks and the Botanic Gardens with great views of the harbour and the bridge. Downtown Sydney got a bit of a facelift recently with new developments and other improvements to make it more people/tourist friendly. (Cockle Bay Wharf is a new one with loads of restaurants and bars and pretty people – sort of like Clarke Quay in Singapore.)  It is pretty nice downtown, especially near the ferry terminals with lots of people milling about. We wandered over to a big market where it’s basically a lot of Asian people selling cheap Chinese-made knock-offs but Julie did find some dresses for cheap and there are a couple local people who sell their crafts. 

Sydney is blessed with a lot of coastline and therefore a lot of beaches.  Bondi’s the one famous one. Manly is the other. Julie had been to Manly the last time she was here, but she mistakenly thought that the popular beach was the small dingy one near the ferry terminal. You have to walk across the spit of land to get to the ocean-facing good beach. The area of Manly is pretty cool: nice walkways, lots of shops and restaurants and a good vibe, plus there’s the sweet beach. Julie convinced me to rent a surfboard even though I’ve never even held one or had any sort of lesson. But we both gave it a shot. The surf here is like the biggest I’ve been in and for someone who’s not a great swimmer, it’s a bit intimidating.  After 30min or so of getting tossed around in the waves, I managed to catch the first wave I tried and rode it in to shore. With my confidence buoyed I paddled out again…and didn’t catch another one like that for a long time. Julie also gave it a shot but got tossed off the board and had a hard landing on the bottom which left her with a headache, and me with an hour' rental to use up. Eventually I could get myself to stand up on the board, but only after I’d basically made it to shore and the thing had stopped moving and I’d still fall off!  Sunburnt and beaten, we went home.

Our last day in Sydney we met up again with Kelly Stock and her friend Maria to do a little walk around Bondi Beach. it took us forever to get going - are we ready? i should pee. well, if you are then i will too. well if they’ve left I'll go get a drink. and so on. Funny really. But the delays got us in the end for as we started the hike around the point a mean-looking storm front rolled in overhead and the skies opened up on us.  A storm rolls in over bondi beachWe took shelter under a lifeguard stand and questioned the sanity of a guy standing out on the rocks jumping into the waves as they crashed up onto the rocks. At first, yes, he’s got a death wish. But then we see that he’s timing it so that when he jumps in, the surf is going out and then it comes back in and deposits him right back onto the rock he jumped off of. Oh, and then we see the waters turning black and realize that it’s the runoff from the streets and sewers.  We’d seen signs around saying “no swimming after heavy rains” and now we knew why. It’s gross to see the runoff turn the azure waters murky black along with the litter floating in it.

Our last night in Sydney, we went out for dinner to a Brazilian BBQ place. (For those who don’t know, this style of restaurant features unlimited meat. Servers bring around various meats, usually on large skewers, and slice off chunks for you. Fantastic!)  Julie’s friend Candice used to live/work down here and hooked us up with some of her old pals, Nathan & Gemma, who were quite friendly and gave us some tips for New Zealand.

On the 28th we left for Auckland, New Zealand.  It would end up being a bit of a silly move as we left Sydney where we could have seen one of the world’s premier fireworks displays on NYE while the show in Auckland was a giant let down.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Auzzie Auzzie Auzzie

G'day mate! A pleasant overnight flight on Singapore Airlines put us Down Under this morning and we found ourselves at the Greenhouse Backpackers in central Melbourne. And I finally learned what Julie had been talking about all this time through Asia – why don’t the hostels there look like hostels here? It’s true; these facilities are mass-producing backpacker experiences in a large-scale efficient manner. Big buildings taking up multiple floors, dedicated front-line staff, industrial stainless-steel kitchens and big common areas.  However it all comes at a price – I’m suffering sticker shock from Asia. That fact would become all too evident in a month when I went to pay our VISA bill. ouch. Should’ve spent longer in Asia.

Anyhow, I’m writing this half a year after the fact so this is going to be a super quick summary of 3 weeks in Oz.

First off, Melbourne’s a cool city and I was really looking forward to meeting up with a friend from MacDon who happened to be down there visiting MacDon’s Australia office.  Bruce & Julie & I met up one afternoon and had a great time hopping around pub to restaurant to cafe lapping up the tasty Auzzie wine.

We moved out of the downtown to a trendy little suburb called St. Kilda while we studied the maps to figure out how to see the Great Ocean Road and all the rest.  We debated getting one of these little campervans but after looking at how cramped they were inside we decided against it and just rented a car. We didn’t make it too far out of Melbourne that first day, nor the next day as we got trapped in the outlet shops of the major surf-wear brands in Torquay. Finally as we entered the G.O.R., it started raining and it didn’t stop for days so we were quite happy that we weren’t stuck in a van in the rain.  As such we aborted the Ocean Road and headed towards the wine regions of South Australia.  It’s a long freakin way! A solid 12hr day took us Wynn's Estates, Coonawarrafrom Lorne all the way up to Murray Bridge, with a short stop in the Coonawarra wine region near the South Australia-Victoria border.  We discovered a new blend Shiraz-Viognier in a little shop in Penula, but unfortunately it’s not exported.

I cannot describe how excited Julie Jacob's Creekwas to see the sign “Jacob’s  Creek” as we drove through the famed Barossa Valley wine region.  We sat at the tasting bar in Jacob’s Creek’s visitor centre for nearly 4 hours I think tasting their entire line-up. We got to know the fellow (a commercial pilot trainee) serving us pretty well and he offered to show us around Adelaide, but we didn’t have the time to do so. Suddenly we realized that we were running IMG_9204out of time and Julie still wanted to go to Wolf Blass and Penfold’s, so off we went!  I had  forgotten about the little 1/2 hour time change between Victoria and South Australia and if I’d have remembered I wouldn’t have had to try to drive as fast from one winery to the next. And we also probably would have stopped into Penfold’s instead of just taking a picture of the building.

Penfold's WineryThat half-hour time difference hit us once again the next morning when we awoke @ 5:30am to drive from Adelaide to the south coast to catch a ferry to Kangaroo Island. As we were leaving town I was trying to figure out why the clocks around us were all “off by 30 minutes” until I finally clued in and remembered the guide book saying that South Australia has it’s own time zone.  We had a lot of time to kill at Cape Jervis waiting for the ferry, and nothing was open to serve us breakfast.

Kangaroo Island is a large island south of Adelaide that’s home to many species of wildlife.   I saw my first wild ‘roo driving there – nearly hit them as they bounded across the road but we had to wait until the very end of our tour to see a kangaroo on kangaroo island. Just like deer, they don’t come out until late afternoon to feed so our bus driver pointed out the brown roos as our bus drove past them in the fields.  We opted for the bus tour of the island since getting your car over on the ferry is expensive and then we didn’t really know where to go, plus we were super tired after being up so early.  Australian Sea Lions @ Seal Bay, Kangaroo Island Seal Bay is home to a large breeding population of Australian Sea Lions and with a guide you can go down onto the beach to see them. It’s pretty neat. Especially when one decides to walk straight through the group of tourists.  A buffet lunch finished off with fresh fruit doused in island Nose to nose with wedge-tailed eaglecream set us up for the bird of prey show hosted by Crocodile Hunter’s cousin Dave Irwin.  Julie got up close and personal with a  laughing kookaburra while I got a visit from a little barn owl. I wanted to hold the eagle but apparently cannot do that.

The tour wrapped up with some views of rocks. Remarkable Rocks, but they’re just rocks. The landscape around them was more interesting to me.

So, now we’re heading back to driving along the southern coast of South Australia and we stopped in a lovely seaside town of Victor Harbour and stayed in a grand old hotel for a good price. It was a cool night so we were glad to have a big comfy bed complete with a mattress warmer.  We’re getting too spoiled I think!

Another big English breakfast started the day today – they make better English breakfasts here than in England! The bacon here is fantastic - Oh so good!  We made it all the way to Mount Gambier today, driving beside massive sand dunes in one spot, arid dried-up lakes in another before the landscape turned into hills and large tracts of pine forest.  The area around Mount Gambier is full of ancient volcanoes and sink holes and other limestone features.  WeJulie lauged that I convinced her to climb another mountain spent 2 days touring the area, climbing some mounts and descending into some caves too.   As a spur of the moment, we hustled to the coast south of town to catch a sunset and to see these little fairy penguins come ashore on the rocks at Cape Northumberland.



It took us a week, or more, but we hit the Great Ocean Road today under sunny skies.  This coastline is amazing and there’s fantastic scenery all around it, let alone the interesting formations worn into the limestone cliffs. We saw all of the highlights (12 Apostles, Loch Ard Gorge, London Bridge, etc.) and you can see them too by clicking into the smugmug photo gallery.

One activity that was suggested was the Otway Fly Treetop walk, which is like walking on a boardwalk except you’re 40m up in the tops of the gum trees. As usual we’re always making these plans when the day’s half done so we barely got to the place on time. We Otway treetop walk. Not the best footwear for a hike! pulled up to the gate at 4:25 only to read that “last entry at 4:30pm” so Julie hops out of the car and runs to the ticket office, which turns out to be like half a kilometre from the parking lot. I park the car and run in as well, but neither of us wore good shoes or warmer clothes. So we quickly walk through this forest preserve as the sun goes down making it quite cool in there. It’s a neat thing to do though and we’re glad we just made it! And speaking of just making it, I decided to take a short cut back to the main road and took us down this gravel logging road through the hills of the Otway Ranges. Saved some time I think, but it’s a heckuva windy road that requires full driving attention – let your passenger control the radio!

As you drive along the Great Ocean Road, there are a multitude of tourist traps, notably the helicopter tours. We’d watched the helicopters fly past while we were at the 12 Apostles and were debating taking a ride ourselves. We looked into it and we just could not justify the hundreds of dollars for a meagre 15-minute ride. We’d both been on helicopter rides before (Julie up to the Franz Glacier here in NZ, Andrew around Mt. Rushmore) so it wasn’t that click to view photos of our plane ride over the Great Ocean Road much of a novelty. While in Apollo Bay we saw a sign for plane rides though and they’re a lot more reasonably priced. So we booked with the pilot for a 45min morning flight along the coast in his Piper aircraft. It was a pleasant flight and a great treat to see all of the interesting formations we’d seen the day before but this time from totally different perspectives – once from the ocean side and from the land side on the way back. The coastline is so jagged in spots but rugged in others and the evidence of erosion so drastic.  We were lucky to have sunshine on the way out, but hit a bit of turbulence flying over the Otways on the way back.

Arial view of Loch Ard GorgeWith that highlight, we drove away from the Great Ocean Road having thoroughly enjoyed its scenery and fantastic landscapes.

Bidding farewell to the GOR 

Andrew had made contact with another former Mordenite who was living in Victoria so we made plans to drive up to Ballarat to visit his friend Kelly who’s teaching at the University there.  We managed to find her place tucked into the hills and we had ourselves our very first Aussie barbie!  It was a great visit and pretty cool to reconnect with an old friend was down here “dauwn unda”.

Melbourne, take 2

We continued crashing at friends’ places upon our return to Melbourne where we connected with Andrew’s friend Megan and our new friend Ted (whom we met in Mabul) and took off on another wine tour.  This time we explored the Yarra Valley just northeast of Melbourne. There’s heaps of great wine in this country, and even though I’m not a wine drinker, I’m slowly becoming one on this trip. Julie’s full on into it though, and our trunk (sorry, “boot”) is getting quite full of bottles! The worst thing about going on these wine tours is that you find a bottle that you quite like but then learn that you can only buy it directly from the winery.  (that’s our excuse for not taking any of it back to Canada to share!)

Julie and I haven’t done much cooking at all during this trip but we took control of Megan’s apartment and invited over Ted to join in our Christmas dinner, as all of us were ‘orphans’ for the time-being.  We ventured into the fantastic world that is the Queen Victoria Market in downtown Melbourne to source our ingredients. This is a fantastic market! Heaps of fresh fruit stacked in massive piles, luscious green veggies and big Mediterranean fellows shouting out their bargains - “cherries! 8 dollars a kilo!”  That night we all shared  in a super tasty meal of yearling beef roast with potatoes & veggies, along with various chocolates, Italian cake and 5 bottles of wine from the various wineries we’d sampled 2 days prior.  Super good time Christmas cheers!and a great bit of Christmas cheer down under.  And it was funny how word of our cooking spread to Canada and back so quickly, since Megan’s mom and my mom go to church together.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Welcome to Singapore!

We were pretty excited to go to Singapore – there’s such a mystique to the place. But in the end it failed to leave much of an impression on us, unlike the other big island Asian city of Hong Kong.

I’d read this article [36 hours in Singapore] and hoped to hit many of the places suggested. I guess there are a few main areas to see when here: the shopping overload that is Orchard Road, Chinatown, the CBD, Sentosa Island, and the Zoo.  It’s also true that Singapore is a clean and efficient version of the rest of Asia. It’s got a good transit system, the streets are clean, everything looks like it’s just been built or at least repainted and it’s highly regulated. We had an entertaining cabbie on the way in from the airport: he had conjured up all sorts of clever acronyms out of basic words like SINGAPORE, LOVE, LIFE and it’d make this story better if I could remember any of them!  But he also told us how to buy a car in Singapore is really expensive and the government makes you buy a new one every ten years through their Certificate of Entitlement program. It’s an interesting way to limit the number of cars on the road.

We did have a nice hotel booked [the Furama Riverfront] and we’d hoped to hit the town and go for a nice dinner or something like that upon check-in. Well, no.  We spent a few hours unpacking all of our bags and shaking everything out over the tub to get rid of all of the ants that we’d collected on Mabul. We were pretty glad that the freezing air in the cargo hold of the plane had killed them all as we really didn’t want to have to spend a day washing everything.

Monday 1 December

First stop today was Chinatown for lunch and some shopping. Pagoda Pagoda StreetStreet provided ample opportunity for last-chance Asian shopping.  From tacky souvenirs to oriental slippers and electronic gadgets, both of us found more than we were looking for. I got myself a wide angle lens for the camera (super cool as I’ve never seen add-on lens for compact cameras before) and Julie found some cute baby clothes for all those babies popping out back home.

As we’d learned in Europe, if you don’t have much time to explore a city, get on one of the open-top bus tours to cram it all in. Here it’s the HIPPO tour and starting in Chinatown it took us over to Little India, the Arab Quarter, through the CBD and over to the Raffles Hotel. Here we hopped off to grab a signature drink at the home of the Singapore Sling. This hotel is exquisite: from the impressive front facade and the uniformed doormen to the elaborate dining rooms and tranquil courtyard, this place knows how to do luxury. We enjoyed our super expensive cocktail and Julie convinced me not to spend anything in the gift shop.

Trying to get a photo of us having a S'Sling

We weren’t all that impressed with Little India, or the Arab Quarter. After being in Istanbul it just wasn’t “Arab” enough and I was seriously disappointed that there wasn’t one tailor in Little India out on the street trying to convince me to get a tailored suit, when I actually wanted one!

But we were impressed back at Clarke Quay with Brewerkz – they Beers @ Brewerks, Clarke Quayhad typical bar snacks like nachos! And the beer was good too. The server gladly brought out sample size portions of their beers and Julie found a real tasty raspberry beer that wasn’t too sweet. The staff was also real nice when it started to drizzle on us, gathering up all of our things and moving us under the canopy.

Singapore River Boat CruiseTonight we went on a boat cruise of the Singapore River from Clarke Quay down to the harbour through Boat Quay and the CBD to where the Merlion statue stands. This statue, the symbol of Singapore Tourism blends a lion and a fish together. (Based upon the Malay term Singapura for lion city and the city’s relationship with the sea)  It was a nice cruise and both it and the bus tours had good guides on them who provided entertaining history and stories about the city. We’d tell you some of them, but we forgot them already! 

We capped off the day with a special Christmas Lights tour of Orchard Road. Singapore pulls out all of the stops for Christmas and Merry Christmas in Singapore puts on possibly the world’s best display of Christmas lights and decorations. It’s just over the top really. This year’s theme was ‘candy’ that had light poles pretending to be candy canes and trees dangling lollies from their branches. It is quite nice though.

While down on Orchard Road, we wandered in to a little alleyway called Emerald Hill road that contained many trendy little bars tucked into old-style Chinese shophouses.  We tried to find some food, but couldn’t find table, except for the place that had martinis on special. While drinking our martinis, the waiter from the first place came over to ask us if we still wanted a table back at his bar! Sorry, we’ve got ourselves tied up here for now.

Tuesday 2 December

While Singapore is home to many high-quality museums and galleries, we instead went to the gimmicky theme park that is Merlion on Sentosa IslandSentosa Island. We took a ride down the luge – not a luge by Canadian description but rather more like a go-cart – which was pretty fun. Unfortunately the adrenalin rush from that ride didn’t last long and those martinis from last night were making us lethargic today. Fortunately Julie noticed a fancy spa on the island so we headed over there. Now I’m not a purveyor of spas at any rate, so  when I walked into the place and saw how ritzy it looked I immediately felt uncomfortable, made even worse when I saw the price list. egad! But Julie talked the salesgirl into granting us a big room for a couples massage complete with a mud bath, so here we go.  I’m not sure if I can properly describe what this place was like but Spa Botanica is a nice place with serene gardens, gurgling pools SpaBotanicaand their prized volcanic mud. Continuing on with my uncomfortable saga, we both went to get changed and the fellow in the mensroom  politely pointed out my locker, handed me some disposable underwear and a cup of tea and directed me to wait until the massage room was ready. So there I sat, in my polyester undies and plush robe, sipping tea while reading a yachting magazine. Until Julie bounded up to the outside door asking why I was sitting in here and not out there by the pool? “Because I thought we were having a massage now.” “Oh no, the massage isn’t for half an hour – come out and try the mud!”  Sure enough, she’d already plastered herself in this fancy mud and encouraged me to jump in and coat myself with it.  The mud is like clay and the spa prominently displays it on a pedestal. So I start smearing this mud all over myself and just about get finished when the masseuse comes searching for us. This wasn’t my most embarrassing moment ever, well, maybe it was.  It felt like you were a kid, happily playing in the mud, and then your mom comes along and sees you and says “what do you think you’re doing in there!”. That’s what I felt when the lady found me standing in the mud pool, covered in wet clay sporting stylin’ briefs. So she waits while I quickly try to rinse off the mud and follow her up to our massage suite.

This massage room was like a big fancy hotel suite, just no bed. Our first treatment (besides the mud outside) was a mud bath. They pour in this plant-based goo into the jacuzzi and in you go! The bubbling mud was quite relaxing and I thought that they might sell the goo but it’s probably best that people don’t try to run that through their jacuzzi systems at home. Oh, and the massage was good too.

We left the spa in a tropical rain and scampered to the Smith Street Food Market, ChinatownMRT station to get a ride back to the downtown.  We stopped off in Chinatown  for some food at the Smith Street food market. This covered street is lined with small restaurants and food stalls but was quite quiet tonight in the rain. After getting our fill of sweet’n’sour I pointed us to the Archipelago Brewery that’s brewing craft beers in downtown Singapore. I had my eye out for a beer tap handle for cousin Jim back home, but alas, their handles were plain wood with no adornments.

Wednesday 3 December

It was a nice sunny day out this morning so we opted to enjoy the rooftop pool at the hotel and pretend like we’re on a holiday before Bengal Tiger venturing across town to go to the zoo.  Singapore Zoo is a really nice zoo built in the open-concept style.  The apes are almost free to roam the entire place while other animals have quite large paddocks. My favourite was seeing a Komodo Dragon up close – it’s such a massive lizard – while other highlights were the Bengal tigers and aquatic show. It’s my opinion that San Diego Zoo is still the best zoo I’ve been to, but this one’s pretty good.

We’re flying out tonight, so on our way to the airport we stopped at this hawker market that I’d read about on NY Times. The East Coast Lagoon Food Village is a large outdoor vendor hall filled with hawkers shouting out their specialty dishes. Each of us picked a dish, and after I could barely choke down the one I picked I let Julie do the rest of the choosing.  Next door to the market was a small lagoon where I spotted some guys on wakeboards. I couldn’t see a boat but then saw that there were a bunch of guys on wakeboards and water skis being pulled along by ropes on a big conveyor system strung out above the water. Super neat.

So long Asia! It was a fantastic 3 months learning about the history, culture, food and way of life of these populous countries.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Nov.27-29 Following Jacques Cousteau's footsteps

We were tipped off to the wonders of Sipadan by my dive instructor Johann back in Phuket. On a scrap of paper he sketched out a map of the place and how to get to the little town of Semporna. And he warned us that the town’s not that nice – just go diving. He also recommended that we dive with Scuba Junkie. But that was a few years ago and I think it’s changed a bit.

Scuba Junkie review/rant first – skip down to the story below

There are other dive shops in town, and I wish I knew what they were like to dive with, but the Lonely Planet recommended Scuba Junkie and as a result their shop was packed and the others were vacant. Yet, reading other reviews (TripAdvisor and other blogs) and I’ll echo their opinions: don’t bother staying at the scuba junkie hostel. The dive shop and the hostel are apparently two different entities, and even though they’re across the street from one another, they don’t seem to communicate. We had booked our reservation via an email address we’d found on their website and had asked for their “VIP” room. When we got there they had given it away already and we were left with a standard one. Julie certainly wasn’t impressed with the conditions of the shared facilities, nor the fact that they just gave away our room because someone else showed up and paid for it first. What’s the point of a reservation?  They moved us into a better room for the second night, but after our day on the island we came back to find out that they’d done it again. Julie watched the kid type in our names into the correct room when we left, but when we came back it had somehow migrated into the dorm room column. We said goodbye and walked down the street and got a nice clean room in the Sipadan Inn for only a few ringgits more.  We also recommend eating at the Mabul Cafe on the main strip: it’s got a nice balcony overlooking the street and the food is pretty good.

First we dive Mabul, then we take Sipadan!

Man, were we ever SPOILED when diving in Phuket! wow. Big boats, buffet lunches, unlimited soft drinks, boat boys to handle your gear. Man, that was the life!  Here it’s a bit different. The Scuba Junkie dive masters are all here for the fun of diving everyday (I don’t think they really get paid, except for room & board) so it’s a lot more casual; for example on our first day we left a bit late since nobody really knew who was driving the boat. We had a pleasant fellow to guide us on our first day of dives at Mabul Island. Sure enough, do a back flip off the edge of the boat into the water and you’ll see sea turtles almost immediately. The turtles are the big drawcard for diving in this area.

Julie backflips off the boat into Mabul waters

Our first dive of the day was a wall dive at “Lobster Wall”, where you swim along an underwater wall at the edge of a reef that’s teeming with life.  Just stop for a moment and hover while you watch something extraordinary, like a crocodile fish, a turtle sleeping in a small cave, or position yourself for a close look at a small ornate ghost pipe fish. It’s all fantastic!

Second dive was the “AWAS” site which has some manmade reefs along a buoy line. This is Mabul macro diving at its best. The sand bottom hides all sorts of interesting creatures like a big cuttlefish getting cleaned by little banded boxer shrimp, scorpion fish, white-eyed eel, puffer fish, a dwarf lionfish tucked into a tangle of fishing line, and up towards the shore in the grasses we spotter these little tiny razor fish (so named because they look like silvery razor blades), black fin snake eel, anemone fish.

We broke for lunch on the jetty (pier/dock) to soak up some sun and rest a bit. We met a big German fellow who guided us across the island to show us the place he was staying at on the island. I had wanted to stay here instead of Semporna but Julie had misgivings about it. But after checking it out and being assured of the operating toilet, we booked ourselves in for the next night.

The most interesting creature was found in Froggy’s Lair: a big brown frog fish sat amongst some old metal and yes, I said “sat”. nudibranches It’s a fish with legs. Freakin’ weird. Also spotted some fancy nudibranches, which are like colourful snails but without a shell.

Really enjoyed the diving today, but both of us had troubles: Julie got cold (astounding given the 28 degree water), I had buoyancy issues (kept floating to the surface too soon) and both of us kept using up all of our air quite quickly.

Check out all of the pictures here:

Pictures of the marine life can be seen on the Scuba Junkie website.

Day 2 – life on the island is great, don’t mind the ants

We moved out of the sketchy SJ Hostel to the equally quirky Arung Hayat Lodge on Mabul Island today. Cost us extra for the boat since sunset over the Celebes Sea from our lodge we weren’t diving and had to pay them for the lift.

We spent the day lounging about until I felt something biting me while I was lying on our bed. I pulled back the sheets to find myriad parades of ants marching across the surface. So much for inspecting the place yesterday! Julie immediately got a can of ant killer from the young fellow minding the place, and after using up one can of spray he had to source down another in order for the rest of the guests to rid their rooms of the pests. One fellow that we got to know, Ted from Australia, had a rough night with the ants the night before and was showing the battle scars.

Some good snorkelling can be done just off the deck of the longhouse. We saw all sorts of little things, but went at low tide which made it hard to swim around. Just means you had to be careful of standing on something sharp (like a starfish, anemone or discarded metal). We snorkelled around the jetty on the other side of the island and saw loads more: eels (green & brown spotted), razor fish, bright coloured little orange fishes, a trumpet fish, anemone fish (it’s almost boring to find Nemo now!), a trigger fish bashing a rock (gives credence to the warning to stay away from these guys as they can knock you out) and some Moorish idols. Really neat.

Food’s all included here at the lodge, and it’s good. Fish every meal, but with a slightly different curry sauce each time - I’m liking it!

I almost forgot! The night dive with Uncle Chang’s. They’re the only operator on the island who’d take us out on a night dive without us having done the PADI night dive course. Julie was real eager to do a night dive and I’m glad I studied the book before going as it provided some confidence. We were given some small flashlights and then plunged into the darkness underwater. We dove the Tino’s Paradise location which is near the AWAS site from yesterday. Diving at night is a neat experience: a little stressful at first to get used to low visibility, but I thought it must be what diving in West Hawk Lake in Manitoba is like.

We saw some really neat things here in the dark. A parrot fish blows a bubble of mucous around itself to sleep in; the inert bubble keeping it from being sniffed out by predators. Some bright red hermit crabs scuttled away from our lights. Somehow our guide spotted a baby octopus in the sand, a big moray eel tucked into a crevice and a crocodile fish buried into the sand. At night it feels like you’re sneaking around in someone’s house, looking at their things, trying not to disturb anything. I hid my light for a bit and swished my arm through the water. Sure enough, a sparkling blue wake was formed by the phosphorescent plankton. Uber cool.

Day 3 - Pulau Sipadan

Sipadan is on the Canadian Government’s watch list. We got an email saying not to go here due to threat of pirates. In response to past attacks, the Malaysian government kicked everyone off of the island and stationed their army in the abandoned resorts. Sweet gig for those fellows! Either way, countless people flock here for the excellent diving. Sipadan’s trademark feature is that its reef wall drops off dramatically, plunging nearly 2000m straight down to the ocean floor. Warm currents of the Celebes Sea provide optimal habitats for sea life, and the lack of human disturbance on the island keeps it that way (diver numbers are limited per day).

Johann suggested we dive the South Point, North Point, Barracuda Point and Turtle Cave. Unfortunately our guide had done those points yesterday and didn’t want to do them again.

The Mid-Reef site was quite good and provided lots to see. So many green seat turtles, a couple white-tipped sharks, little nudibranches, scorpion fish, a big bat fish and a monstrous napoleon wrass.

Everybody who comes here will hope to be caught in the swirling tornado of a massive school of barracuda. We didn’t. But Barracuda Point provided us with a good opportunity to observe a giant  pharaoh cuttlefish resting on the bottom. It’s amazing to see these creatures change colour so quickly as they move overtop of varying surfaces.

marine life at Hanging GardenOur last dive at Hanging Garden I think was my favourite here. It’s an easy drifting dive along a big wall and there are so many things to see tucked into the wall. I nearly ran right into a crocodile fish hidden in the wall!

This diving trip was a great way to end our stay in Borneo. It’s such an amazing place: so much wildlife and diversity, friendly people, loads of good seafood, and it’s still pretty cheap to visit!

Tomorrow night we’ll be Singapore!

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Nov.24-26 Sabah Adventure Day 9-11

Our destination today is Kudat up on the NE corner of the state. Driving north from KK you go up through mountains and then back down into plains where I saw *gasp!* an actual combine harvesting rice, so obviously Malaysia is better off than Thailand or Vietnam where the harvest is still done by hand. For my brother Dave's curiosity, it was a New Holland 1545.

Further north we found a Rungus village longhouse and stopped in for a bit. Luckily we ended up at the homestay that Julie had found for us to stay. The fellow Jimis showed us around, cut us a coconut to drink and also some Tabu grass to munch on. I like the tabu - tastes sweet as you chew the juice out (don't eat the grass itself) and I would best describe the taste as the juice out of a young stem of wheat.

We booked a room for the following night and scooted off to catch the sunset at Tip of Borneo. Got there just in time to watch it, and it Click for today's picture slideshow was splendid! Then the little cafeteria shut down on us before we could order any food. The 2 old security guards couldn't speak any English but the sign for the homestay had a phone number on it. New phone to the rescue! We got a hold of the lady and she came right over (entire family and all) to open up a chalet and cook us some food. [After failing at getting Julie’s phone to work with foreign SIM cards I finally broke down and bought a cell phone for Rm90 on the HotLink network. Malaysia is really cheap for cell service and I am blown away by how many stores sell phones – there’s one every 20m it seems. With the phone I also surprised my mom with my first call home.]

Accommodation was basic (bamboo hut with mattress and mosquito net) but at least we didn't have to drive around in the dark searching for a place. Cost us Rm124 for the room, supper, beer and drinks. Bargain!

Julie decided it was about time to drink the bottle of wine we've been carrying around for a week, so under the spectacular starry sky we enjoyed the wine and our time alone on the point watching the fishing boats on the horizon. It was a magical moment.

After leaving the Sempang Mengayau we stopped at the beach nearby. Save for a few kids far away we were the only ones on the km of white sand. The waves were just right for a little body surfing and not bad enough to warrant the "Beware - Rip Tides" warning posted. It was a fantastic experience; being in the ocean so far away from anything, catching a wave and riding it in, and overall being so secluded. But then the rain came and spoiled our fun...

Due to the dreary weather today we just went to Kudat to see if we could find a cafe near the water. We ended up at an esplanade that wasn't busy at all but a vendor was open so we had some Tenom coffee. It's strong stuff: brewed in a bag (like tea) and mixed with condensed milk to sweeten it. [We ended up getting hooked on the stuff and sent a package of it home.] Julie played ball/catch with the little kids and we sort of got to know the couple who was running the place. We snacked on some fresh seafood rice before heading off.

Back at the Rungus longhouse was a neat experience. We had the place to ourselves and Jimis' mother-in-law took care of us: our dinner was satisfying (mostly vegetables for a change) and the room in the longhouse was OK. The longhouse is exactly what it sounds like: a long house with rooms running along one wall and a common materials used in the longhouse area running along the other half of the building. It's all made out of materials from the jungle - split bamboo flooring, bark walls and palm leaf thatched roof. Jimis arrived in time to describe the cultural show that was to take place. The dance they did and the attire they wore are very similar to N.American native peoples. And they even got us involved in the dance, hopping and twirling around. Highlight of the day was getting our own traditional scarf knitted by Jimis' mother that was quite beautiful (and a whopping 10 ringgits!).

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Nov.23 Sabah Adventure Day 8 – Time for Tea

On our way back from Sandakan to KK we stopped at the Sabah Tea Plantation that is nestled in the hills by the little village of Napalak. Over 6000 acres are managed by it but only around 1000 are in cultivation: the rest being reserved for original jungle. They've noticed that the jungle serves as an attractive "bait" for the insects to stay away from the tea leaves. This eliminates their need for pesticides thereby allowing them to say that their tea is Organic. To combat soil-based fungus they use Elephant Grass to soak up excess moisture and clean out the fungus.

We toured the tea factory and saw how the leaves are processed. Leaves are picked in the morning (using hand-operated trimming machine for regular tea or manual pick for the high-end organic stuff) and placed onto long troughs for wilting. They wilt until the next day which starts the fermentation process. After that the leaves are dried and crushed/rolled. They turn from green to dark brown and it looks and smells like the underside of a lawn mower. Then they are dried fully which stops the fermentation process and gives the tea its flavour. After that the tea is cleaned (removal of twigs and other stuff) and sifted to determine grade. Big leaves are for loose tea, smaller are for tea bags and the really fine stuff is for "teh tarik" (rope tea wherein the tea is not filtered).

Interesting thing we learned is that the same tea plant is used to make the black tea (Sabah's specialty) and green tea and the Chinese favourite Oolong. Difference is in how long the leaf wilts and how long the fermentation occurs. Oddly enough we didn't like the tea we had there even though we've been drinking Sabah Tea all week - mostly because they put too much sugar into it.

Kampung Luanti Fish Massage near town of Ranau

Our tour guide told us about this "fish massage" place just down the road. Julie had heard about it too so we went to check it out. This was one of the strangest experiences I've had. They give you some fish food, you wade into the water (Rm15 for your legs, Rm30 full body) and the fish start swarming around you. As they brush up IMG_8646 against you it's hard to remain calm. And then the guide tosses food around my knees and the fish swarm turns into a writhing mass and you cannot help but giggle as they tickle the backs of your knees. The fish are a type of catfish (Kelah?) and don't have any teeth. So the next trick is to put some food in your hand, make a loose fist and stick your hand in the water. You definitely get attention that way and the fish try their damdest to suck the food out of your hand. Most similar to feeding sting rays as they suck squid out of your hand But for those who haven't done that - imagine a fish sucking food out of your hand while making a slurping sound.

I went in first while Julie was changing so by the time she got there I was accustomed to the feeling and threw food in the water around her legs to make her squirm.

I wouldn't call it a massage but it is a neat feeling.

After we ran out of fish food we went up to the lounge at the office to hang out for a bit. Someone brought in some Durian fruit and we figured we'd give it a try since we see so much of it for sale along the roadside. We were told it smells bad but tastes OK. Well, it smells not too bad but tastes gross and has the consistency of egg salad. It tastes like fried onions & hard-boiled eggs, and gives you the worst after-taste when you burp it up later. Neither of us could finish one piece. Supposedly you get used to it after a while, the locals say...uhg.

After our nice morning the day sort of went downhill. First we couldn’t find this rafting place up the hills (reconciled later from a fellow who says rafting on that river is for families) and then we couldn't find a place to stay (again, driving around in the dark). We didn’t get lost, but did lose our way before eventually ending up back in KK and our reliable City Park Lodge.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Nov.20-22 Jungle adventures in Wild Borneo

During the drive from Poring to Sepilok I saw a sign for "Rafflesia Blooming" at the roadside, but the old lady sitting there wanted 20 ringgits (each!) to go see it. That and the rain started so we reneged on seeing the world's largest flower. (Supposedly it smells like rotting flesh to attract insects?)

Compared to the roads we drove on through the Crocker Mtn range where in many spots half the road has disappeared due to a landslide the main highway to Sepilok is a pretty good road and could do 100km/hr for spurts. Got pretty good at passing trucks quickly on winding roads! (You may not want to drive with us after this trip as we're definitely getting accustomed to Asian driving methods)

Julie found us a nice place to stay that’s near the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre: lovely woodwork and furniture set amongst the trees, good food and comfy bed. We highly recommend the Sepilok B&B; it’s quiet except for the jungle noises and the mosquitoes aren’t too bad.

It rained all day today instead of the usual mid-afternoon shower so we stood in the rain to watch 7 young orangutans come to eat the bananas and bamboo shoots. Even they don't like the rain; trying to hide under the trees or even putting banana peels over their heads. Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre As recommended, we hung around until tour groups left the viewing deck and saw 1 or 2 more come by for seconds. The feeding platform is about 10m away so the views are quite good. It's entertaining to see the young orangutans swing along the ropes to get to the platform. Also entertaining to see how they pull rank with each other when clamouring for food or a good spot to sit and eat.

While in this area it's quite popular to go into the jungle along the Kinabatangan River. The wide, muddy river (similar to MB's Red River) is Sabah's longest river and is home to much of Borneo's fabled wildlife. Unfortunately it's also smack-dab in the middle of the plains that are being overtaken with Palm Oil plantations. As we drove from Sepilok to Sukau I kept wondering when we'd start being in the jungle. It didn't happen until we were 500m from the river's edge. Our camp manager said that the plantations are getting as close to the river as allowed and it's really decreasing the animals' habitat.

Kinabatangan Jungle Camp is operated by husband & wife team of Robert & Annie Cheung who lived in Vancouver/Calgary for a little while in the seventies. Fairly expensive at Rm390 each for one night (includes 3 meals & 2 river cruises) plus Rm50 for optional night kinabatangan jungle camp cruise. Accommodation here was better than some guesthouses we've stayed in and nicer than most cabins in Manitoba! We chose the more luxurious jungle camp as opposed to famed Uncle Tan's camp which is the true jungle experience (trudge thru mud to get there and bathe with river water).

Here's a rundown of wildlife we saw:
  • Afternoon river cruise: Orangutan, Proboscis monkeys, Long-tailed macaques, Black and Oriental Pied hornbills, Wallace's eagle (?), Imperial pigeons, egrets, and a small black & yellow Mango cat snake.
  • Night walk: not much except 1 bird and a couple leaches. Was scary to be in the jungle at night, especially when we turned the flashlights off.
  • Night cruise: Broadbills, stork-billed Kingfishers (juvenile & adult), Fish owls, small crocodiles, oriental dart (similar to heron)
  • Morning cruise: same as afternoon cruise (proboscis monkeys, kingfishers, egrets, hornbills) but disappointingly not much else. Hoped to see snakes and monitor lizards but no luck.

When we were departing for the afternoon cruise Julie went back to use the toilet. While waiting I heard some branches snapping in the treetops. I followed the noise and spotted a female [?] orangutan feasting on the leaves. It was pretty cool. When Julie walked back I waved at her to look up as it was right above the path from the river to the lodge. Our boatman Razmir ran to the lodge to alert the others who came with their cameras. I chose not to photograph it instead just to observe it swinging through the branches. It's just a unique feeling to watch one of these in the wild as opposed to yesterday's feeding. As we cruised down the river I felt quite lucky to be here in the jungles of Borneo seeing all of these neat creatures. When Razmir spotted the small snake he managed to get the boat up close to it as I was very keen to look at it, even though he warned that it's poisonous. It was just a small one and was so coiled up around the branches I felt quite safe as I tried to get a better view through the branches.

The night cruise provided its own magic. Some more rain fell in the evening nearly cancelling the cruise but our boatman insisted it was clear on the river while it sounded like rain amongst the trees. We went out around 9pm and were greeted with a clear and amazing sky full of stars. The sight of the trees of the riverbank silhouetted against the starry sky was beautiful. Our 2 guides (one on the outboard, one on the spot light) were amazingly good at spotting the small birds sleeping in branches over the water. We got super close to the kingfishers, able to reach out and touch the tail of the juvenile. I felt bad that we woke them up only to shine a bright light in their eyes and scare them off. I got some great shots of the kingfishers and some broadbills, but could not photograph the small crocs or owls.

The facilities here at KJC are top notch, as is the dining experience. I’m beginning to think that I'm going to need to find an Asian cooking course back in winnipeg to make these dishes myself. It was unfortunate that we only had one night here in the jungle. 

The Next Day: 22-Nov

Upon getting back to civilization and most important, the internet, we plotted our next move at Labuk B&B (also operated by the Cheungs). We learned that we could not dive Sipidan until a week from now thereby scrapping our plans for a quick visit to Kuala Lumpur. So now that we’ve got an extra week to kill, looks like we’re going to see more of Sabah than we’d thought. Julie took the time to relax in their pool while I was introduced to the strong sweet flavour of Malaysian coffee accompanied by some fresh mango, papaya and watermelon. Oh so good!

We briefly debated driving across the state to Tewau and on to Semporna to go diving, but after experiencing the roads here during the past few days we decided against it. It would be better to spend a few days exploring than just driving.

Some interesting information about the Dipterocarp forest that used to cover the whole of Borneo, but now is drastically reduced 

Monday, November 17, 2008

Nov.17-18 Let’s go climb a mountain!

Through a little bit of trickery I convinced Julie to climb SE Asia’s highest mountain – Mount Kinabalu.

At the park office we met a German couple (Martin & Julia) who wanted to share the cost of a guide. Julie & I agreed and we set off on our climb at 10:30am, taking a shuttle from the gate to the starting point. The climb up took Julie & I 4h33m to get from Timpohon Gate to Latan Rata hostel. The climb was hard on me: I was sweating uncontrollably (even more than usual! It looked like I got rained on - even my pants were wet) and my heart rate was nearing 140bpm. The Germans said they occasionally climbed the mountains outside of Munich so they had developed a slow even pace that we could not match. It was too slow so we were the rabbits who raced ahead and then rested. (As per the story, we lost the race.)

The packed lunch that was provided contained strange items for a climb: fried chicken drumstick, 2 cheese sandwiches and a meat one, 2 roti rolls and a boiled egg. Asian stuff I suppose...but not stuff that we wanted to eat. [A word to the wise, save your money on the park’s food and pack your own; for all 4 meals you’ll need during the climb.]

The trail was pretty good given that 200+ people traverse it per day consisting mostly of a gravel/clay base with roots or planks to hold back the soil and act as steps. In some places you simply scrambled over rocks. The flora changed from tropical palm trees and bamboo at the bottom to deciduous trees midway to rocky scrub at the top (similar to what is seen in the Canadian Shield) and finally nothing near the summit. We had a little rain along the way otherwise great weather!

Just after 3pm we checked in to Laban Rata dorm, placed into a 4-person dorm with 2 Kiwi brothers Charles & John-Paul who were pretty cool. Temperature upon arrival = 11.5°C, went down to 8 during the night. Brrr! Glad they had heaters in the rooms, else we would never have been able to dry our clothes.

Julie had a nap and I wanted to at first since i was so drained, but after a snack the sun came out and I wandered about outside. During our climb we were always shrouded in fog so you couldn’t get a good view…but that all changed up here. I was above the clouds up here and the views of the valley below were amazing! And later on the sunset was absolutely spectacular. We had some really nice sunsets in Thailand, but the ones here in Borneo are award-winning.

sunset from Laban Rata lodge, Mt.Kinabalu

Day 2: Summit Climb

At 2am we awoke to start the summit climb. Why so early? because the aim is to be at the top for sunrise at 6am. I’m still amazing I got Julie to do this!

It’s weird navigating a rocky trail at night and I’m super glad I brought my headlamp while Julie rented a flashlight for 10 ringgits. And we also bought some gloves that are much needed at the top. The sky was clear and the moon was bright so once we were out of the trees the rock was nicely illuminated. Some spots on the rock Julie makes her way up the summit of Kinabalu face was tricky and you had to pull yourself along using ropes. One slip without the rope and you slid down a long way. Near the top the terrain levelled out and it was just a long march up a slope. In the thin air Julie was getting short of breath easily so we made many rest stop – or photo opportunities for me!

The Germans and Kiwis beat us to the top but we got there just before 6am to watch the sunrise. It was very nice and very rewarding. We spent about half an hour up here taking it all in before we got cold and started the descent.

You climb back down to Laban Rata lodge for breakfast before packing up your stuff and descending the rest of the way down. Julie had a lot of trouble going down since the descent is much harder on your knees and it took us the same time to go down as up, but we did it!

Summit of Mt.Kinabalu (Low's Peak), 4095m

Of course, the natural thing to do after a gruelling climb like this is to find the nearest hot tub. Fortunately Julie has a knack for sniffing them out. 15 ringgits got us our own private pool at Poring Hot Springs and the hot water felt good to relax in, but it did not prevent the incredible ache in our muscles the next day! Stairs were dreadful for 3 days. ouch.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Nov.15-25 Julie & Andrew's Wild Borneo Adventure

Kota Kinabalu, or "KK" to the locals is coastal town that was essentially obliterated during WWII so it is fairly new and we found some decent accommodation. I actually quite liked the City Park Lodge: our room didn’t have any windows, but the common room had free internet and it’s central location was handy.

KK is home to Asia’s largest market – the KK night market. I can’t say for sure if it is the largest, but it’s pretty huge. During the day you can buy everything from cheap Philippine pearls to fresh seafood. At night, you come for the food. Most of the area is covered by tarps strung up between the tables and booths of the vendors. For an average North American male like myself, you gotta watch your head else you’ll be caught by the guy-wires. The stalls stretch as far as you can see through the maze of tables, tents and strings of lights, and combined with the countless bbq’s bellowing smoke it makes for quite the atmosphere. With the smoke choking you and the hawkers yelling out “dua ringgit! dua ringgit!” and visually so much for you to take in, it can be a bit overwhelming, but also really exciting.

Each bbq vendor has a long table setup for eating at, upon which you’ll find a plastic cup upside down in a plastic bowl marking each place setting, and a stack of drinks available and various sauces and seasonings. The cup is for drinking (either the water in jugs or the drinks on the table, ask for ice) while the bowl is for washing your hands (use a lime to get rid of the fishy smell). Another small plate is provided for making your sauce using the red chilli sauce as a base: add in some soy sauce, salt, sugar and lime juice as you see fit.  I’m not so good at making sauces but on our second time there the Malay fellows next to me were quite impressed when I sat down and started eating with my fingers.

It took some time but we found a great deal on a rental car and  decided to make our own adventure (again). We took off down south to Kuala Penyu but missed the train to go see the scenic Padas Gorge and white-water rafting.

Along the way Julie saw a sign and we followed it to the end of the road (literally, it was flooded). So we hopped on a boat for a tour down the Klias River. It provided a great opportunity to see long-tailed macaques, proboscis monkeys, kingfishers and when the sun went down the fireflies lit up the Ligura trees like a Christmas tree. Pretty neat. The fireflies also seemed to like the tangled mop of hair on my head too. Back at the town,the guide's family then cooked us up some fantastic Malay food. There were two other couples on the tour with us, but since they came from KK, we took our time eating before venturing off into the darkness.

Now it’s dark and we didn't know where we were or where to stay. Once again, Julie spotted a sign for seaside lodges so we figured that was our best bet. And then the road got worse and worse as it got darker. Driving the little Toyota Vios down this potholed road probably broke some clause in our rental contract and finally I declared it's time to turn back. Good thing because the arrow on the last sign we saw was actually pointing the OTHER way after a local escorted us to it. Once again we're in the middle of nowhere along a crappy road and suddenly there's a fancy resort and the people working there are totally unfazed by our arrival. is really nice and we really want to recommend it to everyone  but the rooms need mosquito nets and Julie got scared from things scurrying in the walls. Otherwise it's a beautiful resort and a great beach and we were blown away that we found it.

Sabah Adventure Day 2: Crocker Mountain range

Just a commute day today through the mountains on our way to Kinabalu Park for our mountain climb. Took the "scenic route" which turned out to be a bit difficult. We stopped at the Kipandi Butterfly park (mostly to use it as a picnic spot but we did learn about the butterflies and other strange insects of this country) on the way into the Crockers. Great road during the day and nice sights right up until dusk when half the road would disappear or the tarmac was simply gone leaving potholes and ruts. This would become a recurring theme: good road during the day and then horrible road when dusk fell and we were trying to find a place to stay. We joked that if the road was bad enough we'd find what we were looking for since karma would say we deserved it.

We did manage to make it to the Kinabalu National Park today and upon getting there we learned that our room [at Hill Lodge] we had booked was leaking. No worries, because as a result of being late all the other comparable lodging was assigned, leaving us with an upgrade into a really nice chalet [the Peak Lodge].  We even had a guy come out and fire up the fireplace for us! Which was nice because up here in the mountains the temp dipped down to 19.5degC.  We awoke to fantastic views of the mountain, and Julie’s first glimpse at what we were about to climb.


Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Nov.12 Malaysia

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Our intro to Malaysia was a bit hurried as we were already overdue on our Thai visas and were forced to flee the country prior to really being ready to move on. My first impression of Malaysia was that there is bit more money here, but the culture was different and with the stronger Muslim presence made me feel uncomfortable in my normal beach/summer wear. We arrived in Georgetown, Penang after nearly 12 hours in a mini-bus and were not too impressed with the ride as were told it was a one-bus-all-the-way deal. Instead we got dropped off at some little office in some little city and told that there’d be another bus to take us the rest of the way. But it provided a chance for lunch and we made it across the border after paying our overstay fee of 1000 baht/day. Georgetown is an old city with some nice old temples/mosques/churches etc. but not too much to do really and the accommodation options were generally run-down & generally dirty.. We spent a day to plan our next moves and decided to fly to Sabah where we could experience some of the wild nature that Borneo has to offer, thereby skipping mainland Malaysia and the popular Taman Negara (a grand National Park filled with wild jungle).  Andrew had a friend in Kuala Lumpur who was not available for a visit which also persuaded us to head to Borneo. We did spend some time touring the place, taking a “funicular” to the top of Penang Hill for a great view of the city.The East Indian fellow at the hotel desk was quite excited to see Westerners “after seeing us in the movies” and was eager to show us the town. We ended up getting carted around to the sites and it improved our view of the town. We tried some Penang cuisine (Andrew liked the ) and then flew away early the next morning.


Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Oct.31-Nov 6 Week in Paradise

We finally made it to the west coast of Thailand, the coast that has made Thailand famous for vacationers seeking the perfect white sandy beaches & crystal clear waters. The Andaman Sea and many islands & coastal stretches here more than deliver. Now this is what I was looking for and why Thailand was at the top of my list of countries to visit in our world tour. So here is a run down of our week in paradise, feel free to feel jealous, but remember you are all living vicariously through us, so also find satisfaction in the great time we've had on your behalf!
Day one (Halloween): OK, so we couldn't care less that it was Halloween because we had just arrived to Phuket Island and we needed the day to explore. We rented motor bikes and toured the top beaches on the island (to decide which one we would move to the next day) and to learn about the many activities within reach of Phuket. We settled on Karon beach and found a nice room with a balcony overlooking the beach & the Andaman Sea. For 800 baht a night (less than $30) I'm not sure that we'll be able to leave! We spent our last night in Phuket town in our hostel room watching The Beach on our in room TV/DVD (not too much roughing it going on here!). If you haven't seen it (which we hadn't) it provides a fairly real view into the backpacker world in Thailand and features some of the most beautiful beaches. The "Beach" in the story was filmed on an island less than 2 hours east of Phuket, we hope to visit it.

Day two: I re-entered the underwater world with a refresher dive course (it has been nearly 10 years since I was certified) and got Andrew's feet wet. The warm crystal clear waters and spectacular sea life that make Thailand's west coast one of the top 10 dive spots in the world was enough to convince us that we would be doing some more diving here. To celebrate our terrific day we wandered up the beach to a spectacular restaurant where we dined on fresh seafood while the waves crashed on the rocks below. Tasty and affordable too, my crab meal was only 150 bat (about $5).

Day 3: We decided to slow the pace a bit and eased into the day with a continental brunch on our balcony. We made it down to the beach by 1:00 p.m. where I rented a boogie board & took on some serious swells. After catching a couple of big waves that carried me half way up the beach, nearly to the feet of the sunbathing vacationers looking on, I gained the surfer mentality, obsessed with catching the perfect wave. After a couple of good tosses, I took a break to enjoy a pomello fruit (local to Thailand, similar to a grapefruit but less messy & tastier-, maybe I'll import some seeds to North America). Andrew & I played some paddle ball as the tide came in around our ankles, signaling time to move on to the evening destination: a health resort in the south of the island where Sundays offer fresh fruit shakes and bevvies in the beach-front lounge with a live jazz band in one corner and trickling fountain in the other. This was one beach front locale where we opted not to sit beach front. In addition to the excellent live jazz we enjoyed the beverages (my new fav is gin & tonic which I drink only for the malaria-preventing benefits ;) and because wine is hard to find & very $$) and some terrific international cuisine. We were excited to see tortilla chips & salsa on the menu and some of the best baby back ribs I've ever tasted (I didn't say we were there for the health bit!). All this complete with potatoes (you can appreciate how happy Andrew was) and fresh garden salad with real homemade dressing (I think you understand what foods are hard to come by out here now). A perfect Sunday evening, save for the absence of the family from the hood of course (we missed you all!).

Day 4: Wow, is it only day four!? We woke early to travel northwest to a string of islands called the Similans in a national park only open 6 months of the year in order to protect the sea life & reefs. We spent the day jetting from one island to the next & snorkeling the crystal clear waters. We decided on snorkeling as Andrew won't have his certificate done until Thursday (day 6) and we couldn't pass up a visit to this national treasure. The sea life, beautiful beaches & interesting rock formations on some of the islands can be seen in our pictures.

Day 5: Andrew spent the day in class for his dive certificate while I spent the day doing what any girl would free of men- I went shopping and to the spa! If you have never tried Thai message, you are missing an experience!

Day 6: Another day out on (and in) the beautiful waters of the Andaman sea. We completed 3 more dives today so Andrew is now a certified open water diver. The dives were amazing: first dive to a sunken ferry where big schools of fish swam around us, second dive onto a colourful reef and the third dive along the rock face of an island jutting out of the sea. So many fish to look at! 3 dives in a day is a lot and made us quite tired. We look forward to doing some more diving in Malaysia after receiving some advice from our instructor Johann.

Day 7: La Gohn (Goodbye) Phuket, I will miss you! Today we will travel north & to Krabi, a beachside town on the mainland. Our time in Thailand is nearly up.