Monthly Archives: September 2013

Steaming Cup of Pooh Kopi

It is no accident that Bali, Indonesia is one of the biggest tourist draws of this part of the world.  The small island has everything going for it, from the beautiful beaches to the tops of the volcanoes, and everything in between.

We arrived from our flight out of Malaysia a couple hours later than scheduled at 9pm.  It took quite a while for us to break through the four layers of airport taxi drivers who charge “set prices” that are at minimum double what a metered taxi would cost, each layer like a barricade at certain distances from the airport.  Finally we found a taxi driver willing to use his meter for the 2 miles to Kuta town.  It was exactly a third of the price of the cheapest offer we had received from the airport taxis.

That night we found some true Balinese food, which is different from the rest of Indonesia for the simple fact that Balinese people are mostly Hindu, and the majority of Indonesians outside Bali are Muslims.  Pork is the major difference.  We had a soup at one vendor, followed by barbequed ribs, veggies, and rice at another.  The cheapest ribs I’ve seen in my life!

We didn’t plan to spend much time in Kuta since we wanted to see the island’s natural beauty rather than thousands of shops, but we had to check out the beach if nothing else.  If you never leave the beach, Kuta is fantastic!  White sand extended well beyond our eyesight decorated with turquoise water, surfers and surfer-wannabes, as well as everything you could possibly need sold under the shade of beautiful palm trees.

(Entrance to beach)

With only a month to spend in this vast network of islands, we moved on quickly to Ubud.  Ubud was much more our pace, not a mountain town but a bit of the same feel.  Not surprisingly, a lot of expats have settled here, and so there are some great vegetarian restaurants mixed in with the local varieties.  There are many communities in the area that try to keep their varying cultures alive through tribal dance performances, the tribes taking turns each night of the week with a couple per night.  We chose to see a “fire dance” on our first night in town, put on by a small community of a few hundred people.  It was said that nearly every adult of the community is in some way involved with the performance.  WHOA!  The performance blew us away.  All the music and sound effects were performed by a group of barely covered men who sat in three rings on the ground around a flaming stand.  Most of the characters danced out the story at the center in a style similar to the traditional dancing we saw in Cambodia and Thailand.  All but the masked characters were women, even the male roles.  The sound effects and narration was done in their language, but luckily we had received a pamphlet beforehand that explained the story, one of a banished prince and his princess and a lusty king who kidnapped the princess.

(Cultural fire dance)

That next day we took a walk through the Monkey Forest on the edge of town, more to see the old temple inside it than the thieving macaque monkeys. They have a reputation.  It was a very beautiful walk and the structures were covered in that bright green moss of Hollywood movie sets.  After the forest we did something we haven’t done for over six months: we spent time apart for five hours.  I was dying to wander completely aimlessly, something you can only do solo.  I also knew Bryan would enjoy doing his own thing even though he wouldn’t say so.  It was a really nice afternoon for both of us.  I bought a big baguette and honey, then found a tiny, secluded rice field on the edge of town where I had a picnic.  After that I ventured up a road heading out of town with a few high points and nice views.  I enjoyed a delicious “edemame juice”, or fresh soy milk in plain terms.  Bryan made a big loop around the roads that bordered the town where he had even better views, and he tried a local soup called Bakso, with meat balls and wontons, served by an old man pushing a little cart of it (we’ve been hooked on Bakso ever since).  He finished back at the room doing things I don’t understand on his laptop that he is so happy to have now.

(Looking through a broken wall onto a rice field in Ubud)

We rented a motorbike and headed toward Mt. Batur volcano and lake the next day.  Riding along beautiful fruit orchards, we had to stop at a fruit stand.  We bought tasty mandarin oranges, passion fruit, and some little purple things that we had never seen before that tasted similar to passion fruit.  At our highest point we were at the town of the same name as the volcano, overlooking the topless mountain, lake, lava flow, and a neighboring mountain from behind a beautifully aged temple.  We found a nerve rackingly steep and windy road down to the lake, mostly made dangerous by those who drive around blind curves on the wrong side of the road.  There was a tiny town next to the lake cozied between fields of jagged, black lava rocks.  Being that this was the closest we have been to a volcano, we were in awe.  We had a picnic of leftover baguette, honey, and fresh fruit on top of a lava rock with the volcano in front of us and the lake and mountain behind us.  It was refreshing!

(Mount Batur and Agung with lake Danau Batur on Bali)

On our return trip we were stopped by a police road block conveniently designed to catch tourists returning.  We had to either pay a $25 fine for not having an international drivers license, or a $5 hush fee.  Not feeling too good about it but having read about it online, we paid the hush fee.  We soon forgot about that when we stopped for the famous Luwak Kopi (Kopi is coffee in Indonesian), the most expensive type of coffee in the world, at Manik Abian.  You may have heard about it, the coffee berries are eaten by the nocturnal Civet, and then the whole beans are picked out of the Civet’s pooh.  Yup, pooh coffee.  Bryan had to try it (luckily I don’t drink coffee).  We were surprised that we first got a tour of the garden where they grew everything they used: two types of coffee, vanilla beans, coconuts, tobacco, ginger, ginseng, cocoa, and endless types of seasonings.  COCOA!?!?!? We stopped for Bryan, but I got to have my favorite thing too!  We saw how the pooh beans are cleaned, hand roasted over a fire, then ground by hand with a mortar and pestle.  We were brought a huge tray of sample coffees, cocoa, and teas for free and options to try other drinks for free.  The Luwak Kopi, of course, was not free, but Bryan ordered a cup at the bargain price of $5 and I requested to try the Chili Cocoa.  My cocoa, flavored by chilies, cinnamon, and cardamom, was a-maz-ing! Bryan liked the Luwak Kopi, but he didn’t think it tasted any different than any other good quality, bold coffee.  Overall the best coffee they brought us was a mix of their regular coffee with coconut cream and vanilla.  Even I liked it.  Sorry, we didn’t buy any of you the Luwak Kopi, even though $800 a pound may have been a good deal!

(Luwak coffee beans before being processed)

Our next stop was the town of Sengiggi on the island of Lombok, a bus-ferry-bus ride away.  We spent a couple relaxing mornings on the nice beach reading and watching distant surfers, followed by relaxing afternoons on the cute porch of our room made secluded by a beautiful garden.  The town really didn’t have much to offer, either in tourist attractions or anything for locals.  We only found one local place open for cheap lunch and three street vendors in the evenings, all else was western food.

(Bryan and I on the beach getting our photo taken with some Indonesian tourists)

From Sengiggi we were headed farther East only because we heard the SCUBA diving is comparable to the Galapagos Islands in South America, which is often considered the best in the world.  We booked our “overland” tickets to Flores island and the town of Lubuan Bajo, the gateway to Komodo island and where the Indian and Pacific oceans collide head-on.  The journey lasted 36 hours and began by bus to a ferry from Lombok to Sabawa, followed by a long bus ride at night across most of Sabawa.  The last hours of Sabawa got interesting.  Large buses couldn’t handle the roads ahead, so about two large busloads of people smashed into one short bus at 3:00am, luggage in a jumble on top.  Bryan was molded into an isle no wider than 12 inches with people leaning on him from all directions.  Me?  I was special.  I got the seat next to the driver.  Not the one you’re thinking of.  A rolled up tarp was placed in the four inches between the driver seat and his door.  My butt is more than four inches wide, that’s for sure.  I sat at an impossible angle with one leg over the other, hands holding tight to the oh-shit-bar in case the door latch decided not to hold, and one shoulder out the window to give the driver enough maneuver space.  Not long into the ride the driver decided he didn’t like the window open and I resorted to folding myself in half.  Being that we had no sleep and it was 3am, I was struggling to keep my droopy eyes open while terrified of what might happen to the 50+ lives on board if I fell asleep on the driver.  When my feet touched earth again, I laughed!  An eight hour ferry ride was the last bit to our destination.

Lubuang Bajo is a small fishing village undergoing a complete transformation to catch up to its recent status as major tourist destination, something it definitely wasn’t seeking out.  The town was nothing but construction looming over a tiny bit of old structures.  To make matters worse, we happened to arrive at the beginning of Sail Komodo, an event that filled the harbor with expensive sail boats and Naval ships, and a planned visit from the president (luckily after we would be gone).  After comparing every dive shop in town and every travel option for where to go next, we traded the opportunity to see the Komodo dragons for one day of three awesome dives.  Everything about our time under water was beyond belief!  It was more color and variety than I thought possible, with the collision of the two oceans creating conditions that attract a plethora of diverse life.  The diving was the most challenging we have done because the currents were strong, whipping us past the scenery like we were on an underwater train ride – only one direction possible, the one it chooses.  The things I was most impressed with are the things I don’t have names for: the soft and hard corals of every shape, texture, size, and color; the varieties of small, medium, and large creatures with patterns more intriguing than anything my imagination could design; and the way everything interacted and how obviously dependent every single thing was on everything else.  On the first dive we just went straight down and held on, literally, as we watched fish fighting the current and sharks weaving throughout.  The largest shark we saw was a grey reef shark, but it was hard to watch the sharks when everything was stunning.  On the last dive we were driven by the current until it just stopped, and we were able to go at our own pace and find some of the coolest things we wouldn’t have seen being whipped by, like tiny Nudibranchs and a large but well camouflaged crocodile fish.


For the sake of time, we took an hour and a half flight out of Lubuang Bajo back to Bali instead of the overland journey of two days that would have only saved us $40.  Bonus: we had our first experience in a twin engine prop plane.  From Bali we took a bus and ferry combo to Java Island where we will work our way Northwest toward Singapore.

(Making our way back to port after a day of diving around Komodo Island)

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Get up at 4:45 am, walk a few kilometers to a bus station, take an hour long bus to the airport, catch a 1.5 hour flight to Kuching International Airport, walk a few more kilometers to a bus stop, catch a bus that is (hopefully) going into town, and finally spend 2.5 hours looking for a place to stay.

We made it to Borneo, Malaysia!  Megan and I were walking into a week of real cultural adventures and were completely unaware of it.

We stayed at a nice little guesthouse, recommended by friends, which had a full kitchen and complimentary eggs/bread/oats so you could make your own breakfast.  I ate copious amounts of toast all week long!  Franky, who owns and runs the place, is a Malaysian of Chinese heritage.  She is a fast talking, super excited, and constantly on the go kind of person.  Franky was the key to our very memorable week.

(Us and Franky)

On our first full day we explored Kuching.  We stopped off at the planetarium and watched a show on life and evolution.  This was my first time in a planetarium and it was pretty awesome!  We were the only guests there and it only cost about 75 cents to see the show.  Afterwards, we made our way back to the guesthouse to cool down and relax.  Franky caught us back at the guesthouse and was super excited to take us to a Chinese Hungry Ghost Festival.  We had no clue what was going on but she said something about burning money, houses, cars, and seeing a “shaman” in a trance.  All I could think was they are going to burn a house and car!  We headed out with another couple in Franky’s car around 7pm to see this festival.  Upon arriving there were tons of Chinese people making their way to a small building that was so crowded and filled with incense smoke that we couldn’t make out what was going on.  Franky explained that people put their names into a queue so they can visit the shaman.  We didn’t fully understand what the deal was with the shaman, but he is apparently possessed by a spirit and can provide advice or knowledge to a current situation.  Because there were so many people that night, he was just blessing (or approving?) gifts to the spirits (ghosts) that each person presented before him. We found that they had a huge tent full of food offerings to appease the hell spirits; pig heads, shrimp, lobster, beer, liqueur, potatoes, pineapples, cakes, and so much more.

(Food offerings)

As Franky was explaining all of this to us over a nice plate of noodles covered in chili sauce (I went back for seconds), she decided to put Megan’s name into the queue.  Megan was completely lost at what was going on, but the other couple with us were freaking out because they needed to get back and pack for an early flight.  So we headed back to the guesthouse to drop off those two and crammed four others into Franky’s tiny car.  I think Megan was secretly hoping they would have passed her number by the time we got back, but it was going to be a long time before Franky and Megan’s numbers were drawn.  While waiting, the amount of Chinese people were slowly thinning out and we were able to see the shaman sitting at a table acting really strange, tongue sticking out and eyes closed, while stamping things people brought before him.  Typically it was some sort of paper, a couple of gutted orange peels, and a flag of some sort.  People took the orange peels, filled them with oil, put in a wick, said a prayer, and then set them in a pool of water to float.  Time to enjoy some more noodles and chili sauce.

(Orange peel candle pool)

Finally it was Megan’s turn around 1:30am.  Looking nervous she sat next to the Shaman who sort of stared at her, started rambling something in Chinese, and then quickly stamped the orange peels she brought.  People all around were entertained as we were the only foreigners at this festival.  Megan walked away unscathed but still had to wave the oranges over some incense while someone rang a bell, then she got to add hers to the collection of lit orange peels in the pool.

(Megan and the Shaman)

After that excitement we still had to wait for everything to come to an end, so we helped some others burn fake money.  They literally go out and buy stacks of fake, paper money to take to a festival and just throw into a fire, and they burn a lot of fake money!  Finally we reached the time to burn a house and car!  Woot!  Out of nowhere a guy walked around a corner carrying a big paper house.  Excitement gone…  There was a large square with a bamboo fence that we filled with a few paper houses, cars, shirts, shoes, and copious amounts of fake money.  There was so much it ended up being a pile roughly 10 feet tall within a 30’x30′ area.  It took an hour to fill.  The shaman came out and ran around the food tent chanting and then off to light the big pile of paper.  Once lit, people bum rushed the food tent to take the offerings no longer needed by the hell ghosts. Megan destroyed little kids, stealing their precious pineapples!  Not really, but we did end up with a lot of fruit, sweet potatoes, and some MSG coated goodies.

(Paper houses submerged in paper money in a bamboo cage)

A couple days later we got up pretty early to head to a nature preserve to see some orangutans!  The preserve has a viewing area to watch while rangers put a bucket of fruit on a platform for the semi-wild orangutans.  While waiting we watched the tree tops until we finally saw trees swaying back and forth.  Orangutans are like tree ninjas moving through the canopy.  We got to see nine of them, a few just little babies.  Later we took in some of the museums as they are free across the state.  That evening Franky surprised us with dinner, a vegetable dish with salted duck eggs.  To eat, you put a spoonful of the vegetables and egg into a lettuce leaf.  I called them Malaysian burritos.  After that nice dinner we went to see the waterfront at night.  In the central area we found a large tent set up for a formal dinner, and other tents full of local food vendors and tables.  Military and police were all over the place, and people were pouring in and out of the vendor tents carrying all sorts of good looking food.  Megan and I were quite perplexed at what was going on, and as we stopped to observe an officer took us into a tent where another officer handed us both some ice cream explaining everything was complimentary.  Free food! Again! We just barely stepped into the tent and an old lady, not speaking any English, led us through the crowd to a vendor and got us a couple of food dishes.  She was so excited to help us.  After that we grabbed a couple of drinks and then found a vendor handing out murtabaks!  Oh this has to be heaven.  With our arms full of food we found a place to sit.  Most scrumptious!  I am pretty sure Megan and I put a few pounds on after that.  The event was put on by the police and was free for everyone.  The Chief Minister of Sarawak showed up a bit later by a large police escort, and he got to enjoy the nice dinner tent.  Bet he didn’t get a murtabak.


The next morning we headed out to Bako National Park. We met a couple of Canadians at the bus stop that we shared the boat with to get into the park.  If you don’t stay overnight at the park it is said that it can be pretty difficult to see the infamous proboscis monkeys that are known for their rather large noses.  Stepping off the boat we had to follow a path to the headquarters to check-in.  Just in that short walk we saw three proboscis monkeys and a few bearded wild pigs.  Woot!  Seeing anything after this was just gravy.  Megan and I decided to take a nice hike to a cliff edge overlooking a beach, and got to see a ton of carnivorous pitcher plants along the way.  I was pretty excited to see these.  After heading back we took a small detour to check out another area where the proboscis monkeys are known to hang out.  Luckily we saw a handful more, yelling and grunting at each other.  Great trip!  When we made it back to town we decided to have some beers with the Canadians, which didn’t end until about 3 the next morning when we drug them back to their hotel.

(Proboscis monkey)

For our last full day we were supposed to go on a hike with Franky and a few others, but the others cancelled. In style, Franky had another event that she could take us to if we were interested.  It was a luncheon put on by the Ministry of Tourism for the Sarawak Homestay group.  The different homestays were supposed to bring tourists to the event for yummy free food and to watch a mock traditional wedding ceremony.  We ended up being the only tourists there.  Through the beginning of the event everything was going well as we got to see examples of different wedding attire from different villages.  Halfway through the event the Minister of Tourism gave a speech and had to promptly leave, but before heading out, he stopped by our table to most conveniently use us as PR puppets.  The reporters took tons of photos of him shaking our hands and talking to us.  This started a chain of events that we can only laugh about now.  We immediately were asked to have photos taken of us eating some of Sarawaks famous layered cake.  They wanted to use it for advertising, so you might see us on a billboard or tourists brochures in Malaysia.  After looking ridiculous while pretending to eat cake, Franky introduced us to some tribe’s people that she commonly takes her guests out to see in their village.  After taking a photo with them, the news people saw and asked to take more photos of us, but this time with us trying on their traditional garb.  This made for some awkward moments, but we were laughing the entire time.  In the middle of the photo shoot one of the national news channels came over and interviewed us.  I am not sure how much longer we took photos, but some Chinese Nationals that were guests of the event also had to be part of some our photos.  In the end we ate some really good food, had our photo taken way too many times, and even helped Franky collect little cake gift packages that were left on tables to take back to the guesthouse with us.

(Megan and I with a homestay village group)

After so much excitement, our day had to come for us to fly to Kota Kinabalu.  While waiting for the plane I walked into a duty free store, and Boom! Right in the middle of the newspaper stand was a big photo of Megan and I.  Of course I bought a paper, for now the best proof of what we went through.

Kota Kinabalu was just a junction point for us to fly into Bali, Indonesia.  We didn’t really do much there but tour the town and enjoy some different types of Malaysian cuisine.  Malaysia was a great time and I would consider it the easiest S.E. Asia country to get around in thus far.  There are a ton of photos from Kuching so be sure to check them out.