Photos from India

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Orangutans Everywhere

As of this morning, I only have three days left here in Borneo. After figuring out what I wanted to see around my last major town, Kuching, I went ahead and booked a flight back to Kuala Lumpur as well as another on to Medan, Indonesia a couple of days later. With nothing on the agenda for the afternoon I thought I would give the nearby Orangutan sanctuary a look. While the one in Sepilok had been thoroughly disappointing, I had heard so many good things about this place that I had to stop by for a quick visit.

It took a while to figure out which bus to take to get there but I finally succeeded and made it to the sanctuary. As I made my way down the path to the entrance of the facility, I saw several trees around me start shaking. I figured they were orangutans but I would have never expected four of them to come tumbling down to the ground to welcome me to their park. Feeling a bit intimidated and as the park regulations state not to get to close, I kept my distance a few steps back to avoid having my camera or backpack torn from me and flung up into the trees. It quickly occured to me that all of the orangutans who had come to greet me were in search of food. Knowing that I had about four banannas in my backpack, I began to wonder if they were like dogs and could smell food from a long distance away. Not wanting to risk it, I found the nearest trash can and deposited the bananas and found myself able to enjoy the show before me with a much slower heart beat.

As I took a few photos of the Orangutans wandering around the concrete path, a mom and her baby who was attached to her back entered the small souvenir store. The man working there was unsuccessful at chasing them out and the mother orangutan managed to steel a small stuffed baby orangutan which she quickly lost interest in when she discovered that it didn't taste very good. Eventually the man working managed to get the orangutans back into the forest with a few papayas but they didn't loom to far and kept up a pretty good show. Two young males were wrestling nearby on the ground and every time they decided to move to another spot, they seemed to enjoy rolling to it rather than walking. Tumbling down the path like circus performers the orangutans rolled past my feet as I smiled and took pictures. You would never believe that is there natural behavior but here they were, putting on a show for myself and the five other visitors to the park to see!

National Parks of Borneo

I spent the past two days visiting what I have found to be two of the most amazing places in Borneo. The first stop on my journey South through Sarawalk was a place called Lambir Hills National Park. A short bus from the nearby town of Miri dropped me off at the entrance to the park where I spent the day hiking before retiring to one of the chalets I rented there. After looking at the map and feeling pretty confident about my hiking abilities I headed out for what appeared to be a relatively easy walk through the woods to visit the many waterfalls that the park is known for. I will tell you what, was I ever wrong! What I thought was going to be a leisurely walk through the rain forest turned into a series of climbs and descents over the many hills that give the park it's name. With not much food and nowhere near enough water, I found it to be one of the toughest days of hiking that I have ever experienced. With the sun heating up the jungle and moisture from the forest floor filling up the air, it didn't take long before I was feeling exhausted.

Apart from the exhausting hiking, the 15 kilometers that I walked were absolutely stunning. Massive trees with roots spreading across the ground were everywhere you looked. Often times I could hear rustling high up in the trees that I knew to be monkeys but was never able to spot one. As for the waterfalls, each one proved to be more spectacular than the last. Clear water pouring over the edge of the jungle into a pool of deep green water below. With no one around, I was able to sit at the base of each of the falls and enjoy the sound of the water flowing while dunking my head in the water to help cool off.

The next morning after leaving Lambir Hills, I flagged down a bus on the side of the road and made my way down the highway to another wonderful spot called Niah national park. Niah is not only known for having an incredible cave system but it is also an important archaeological site where they discovered some of the oldest human remains dating back to 40,000 years ago. The morning I arrived, I think I actually didn't expect to be as impressed as I was by the time I left. I even went so far as to tell someone that I am kind of indifferent on seeing caves as they all seem to have such similar characteristics.

After a short hike along a boardwalk through the jungle, I arrived at the first and biggest cave. There were no lights inside other than the headlamp I was wearing and the occasional light from the men who were climbing high up on the walls of the caves to scrape off birds nest which are in turn sold to the Chinese as some sort of delicacy. Entering the massive opening and walking into the darkness, I could have never imagined the size of the chamber that lurked beyond. With a couple of holes in the roof and another large opening in the distance, I realized I was in a cavern that was over 300 feet high and even bigger all around. It wasn't completely open space, there were lots of different formations all around blocking you from the different parts but the cavity itself was enormous! I followed the path down along some rickety wooden staircases where I found my self in a small passage way that seemed to go on forever. I couldn't see further than my headlamp could shine and the only sounds were from the bats hanging nearby on the ceiling above. After walking alone through the complete darkness for about twenty minutes, the path gradually began to show itself in the light that was entering the back of the cave.

After leaving the main cave and exploring a few others, I made my way back to the park's headquarters for a much needed meal. The people at the park told me that it was a good experience to go back to the entrance of the main cave at sunset to watch all of the birds return to the cave and all of the bats fly out. With darkness fast approaching I headed back to the cave and arrived just in time to witness the show. While most of the bats were fairly small, the sounds of their wings echoing in the cave as they flew over my head were what made it so spectacular. Amongst the sounds of the bats wings flapping like some sort of prehistoric bird were the squeaks of the swifts that were returning to their nests inside. With only one other person nearby, it was an wonderful sight to witness at the end of another wonderful day in Borneo.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Bruneii (this is a country by the way)

I wasn't sure what to expect when I decided to pass through Bruneii on my way South to the Sarawalk province of Malaysian Borneo. All I knew was that it was a quiet country that everything shuts down early in and there was an enormous mosque in town built by the Sultan after oil was discovered here. Upon my arrival, I realized just how quiet the place was when checking into a hostel, there was no one to be found running the place. After finding a phone number to call, myself and a German guy I had met on the bus contacted a man who scheduled to meet us to check in a couple of hours. In the mean time, the German guy and I headed out for something to eat. Finding one open restaurant at six o' clock at night on a Sunday in the center of the capital city was quite surprising. We were joined by a young guy who was a teacher there in the capital city who gave us a little background and answered a few of our questions.

A few things I discovered about Bruneii is that there is no crime for the most part because the penalties are so stiff. There is no alcohol allowed in the country and if you are caught with it you go to jail and have an enormous fine. Gasoline here costs about 50 U.S. Cents a gallon. There are no taxes on anything. And lastly, there is absolutely nothing to do. Everyone here seems to be very bored.

I had heard that there was a nice rain forest nearby and inquired at the tourist information center about how to make my way there. The woman at the desk kindly told me that it had been privatized and if I wanted to visit on a day trip I would not only have to finds someone to go with me but we would have to pay about 150 U.S. Dollars each! I know this country is supposed to be a bit more expensive than the rest of Southeast Asia, but that is ridiculous!
Seeing my disappointment the lady told me that there most popular tour is up the river to see the probiscuis monkeys in the wild. The 2 hour trip she offered was about 50 dollars. I thanked her for the information and walked out of the store stunned by the costs of everything here. No wonder there aren't any tourists visiting Bruneii.

I still wanted to see the Probiscuis monkeys in the wild so I decided to take matters into my own hands. It was as simple as walking out the door of the tour company, waving to a boat in the canal and asking him how much it would cost me to go on a trip up the river in his boat and see the monkeys. It would up costing me all of about seven dollars. I did split the cost with the German guy I had met, but still for the two of us to pay fourteen dollars to do the same thing the tour company would have charged us a hundred to do is incredible. Once again, I succeed in avoiding the organized tour and come out on top. I private boat ride up the river to see the monkeys was pretty amazing. Buzzing along the mangroves with monkeys leaping from the trees all around us and no one to be seen for miles was amazing.

Rain in Kota Kinabalu

Rain, Rain and even more rain. Oh, and my legs are really soar from climbing the mountain the other day. /Fortunately the hostel I am staying at is quite nice. An entire floor is all open air living space with free Internet and coffee! Other than that, there is not much to see and do in Kota Kinabalu so I have become quite the hermit here only venturing out into the rain for a bite to eat here and there. That is all I have to say about my stay in Kota Kinabalu.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Southeast Asia's highest mountain

I am not quite clear on why Mount Kinabalu is called Southeast Asia's highest mountain. Burma, which is next to Thailand has a peak that is significantly higher but while the country is considered a part of Southeast Asia, the mountain that lies within it apparently didn't make the cut. The only thing I can guess is that so few travelers actually enter Burma, everyone just acts as if it does not exist. Therefore, Mount Kinabalu within the boundaries of the Malaysian portion of Borneo wins the title.

After floating around in the tropics for so long, I have been anxious to get my feet back on the slopes of a mountain again and give my neglected legs a bit of refreshing exercise. While I was looking into Borneo, I read about the grueling ascent on Mt. Kinabalu and was intrigued by the description of the tough climb through the rain forest followed by a strenuous final assault on it's granite peak. With an elevation change of over 2,600 meters (8,500 feet) in just eight and a half kilometers, it sounded like a challenging adventure that I was not going to miss out on.
With the rain pouring down as I sat waiting under the shelter of a decrepit looking bus stop on the side of the road, I began to wonder if the bus I had booked was going to actually show up. Several had already passed by around the time that I was supposed to be picked up and here I was passing the time by flicking the ants off of my backpack as they tried to discover what was inside. Wondering if my bus was going to show up I kept telling myself that this is Borneo and you are in the middle of the rain forest, it will show up. An hour late and just when I was about to stick my thumb out and try and get a ride for the five hour journey to the edge of Mt. Kinabalu National Park, the bus finally showed up.

When we arrived at the park, the rain was still coming down and now in the mountains the temperature had dropped significantly compared to the tropical heat I had left behind. Not knowing where exactly to go and not wanting my bags to be further soaked by the downpour, I dashed across the road to a small cafe just outside the park's entrance and took a moment to relax with a delicious dish of sweet and sour chicken along with a bowl of warm chicken soup.
Now I had read multiple times that I needed to book my accommodations on the mountain far ahead of time but I had decided to neglect the information provided in my handy dandy guide book and try to find a better price upon arrival. While space was not an issue, I did managed to discover that everything was manipulated by the park so the heavily inflated cost of the unheated dorm beds on the mountain was unavoidable. Frustrated by the cost of two nights on the mountain costing me more than a week's worth of stays anywhere else in Southeast Asia, I pulled out my wad of brightly colored money and apprehensively handed over the cash.

Curling up for a good nights sleep before the journey that lie ahead, I was happy to have a four bed dorm to myself. I turned off the lights and wrapped up in my sleeping bag keeping the fuzzy warm hat I picked up earlier in the day upon my head. Just as my eyes were closing, the door nob slowly turned followed by a flick of the light switch and in entered three Muslim men from Khota Baru on the Malaysian mainland. I said hello and accepted the fact that I would have roommates for the night but could never have expected the restless night that awaited me.
While the three men began shuffling through their bags, one pulled out some kind of portable radio and began playing music. Considering I was lying in bed trying to sleep and this should have been quite obvious to the three men, it was strange that they would have the nerve to turn on a radio and create even more noise as if they didn't want there to be any chance at all of allowing me to sleep. Frustrated, I rolled over and gave the one closest to the radio an evil look and without any words, I was successful in conveying the fact that they should turn the radio off, shut their mouths, and go to sleep.

Several hours later I was awoken by what sounded like an angry orangutan breathing and snarling in the corner of our room. Seeing that the door was still closed and knowing that I had left the Orangutans behind in Sepilok, I realized that the noise was coming from the man sleeping on the bottom of the other bunk bed. Snoring is a common problem with sleeping in dorms while traveling. Sometimes it is just slight and you can sleep right through it while other times it is down right outrageous. Still, I can usually grab my Ipod, turn on something soft and fall right to sleep. After confirming the source of the loud noises that had invaded my room I pulled my ipod out and turned the volume up as loud as I could bare as I attempted to drown out the snoring. With Van Morrison loudly singing and my ear drums ready to burst, I could still hear the horrible growling noises as if one of Mr. Morrison's backup singers had fallen asleep during the recording session. As the ipod wasn't helping this called for extreme measures which I have only had to resolve to using once before. I reached on the floor, picked up my headlamp and walked over to the bed of the man who was disrupting my sleep. Unresponsive to voices I grabbed him by the shoulder and gave him a good shaking. With a gasp and a terrified look, he awoke staring at me in fear. I apologized and told the man to roll over as he was keeping myself and all of the animals living nearby on the mountain awake. Although the man didn't completely understand my English, it was apparent that he knew what the problem was and quietly rolled over onto his side.

After making my way back to my bunk, I put my headlamp away, zipped up my sleeping bag and just as I closed my eyes I heard the snoring begin, this time even louder than before. Defeated and extremely tired I picked up my pillow and sleeping bag and made my way into the sitting area in a completely different building where I had seen a couch earlier in the day. With no one around, the only thing I had to do was turn out the lights, rearrange a few cushions and I was able to fall fast asleep.

The next morning I paid the ridiculously high park fee, the required insurance fee, and found a couple to split the cost of the unnecessary guide with me. At the checkpoint near the beginning of the trail, I told the couple that I was going to go on ahead as they were a bit older and had informed me that they would be pretty slow. Leaving the guide and the older couple behind, I began my assault on the mountain. The first days hike was supposed to be pretty strenuous with the elevation changing almost 1,900 meters (6,400 feet) in only six kilometers. According to the guides and the guide books it should take about six hours to reach the huts. As I marched through the rain up the muddy and rocky trail I could feel the strain begin. Ten minutes into the journey and I was feeling quite good about myself as I breezed past the first kilometer marker. Another fifteen minutes and there was marker number two. Not to bad to cover a third of what was to be a six hour journey in under a half hour or at least so I thought!

The third kilometer of my journey seemed to last a lot longer than the first two. I admit that I had definitely fallen off my initial pace due to the altitude making my breath so much lighter but I would have never guessed that it would have ended up taking me the same amount of time to travel the third kilometer as the first two combined. I accepted defeat and decided I was still making good time and marched on. With my steps gradually getting smaller and smaller and my heart beating faster and faster, I began to wonder where the fourth kilometer marker was. Maybe they forgot to install it? Even now as I write this, I am convinced that they did not space the markers out evenly as it had now been forty minutes since the last marker and I still had not marked another kilometer off my journey.

The fourth marker finally came around and the fifth one came up just as slowly as the fourth. I was feeling extremely tired but at just over two hours into the journey, I was only one kilometer away from the hut where I would spend the night! As I struggled to pull myself up over each rock and tree limb, I felt my legs burning beneath me. Walking at the pace of a ninety year old woman, I finally got a glimpse of the first of the huts on the mountain. Trying to find more information about where I would be staying and where the restaurant was, I began making my way up to the hut. I could see some people in the window and out came a man to greet me. He seemed to be smiling at me as if he knew me and when I pulled the hood off from my raincoat, he gave me a strange look.

Thinking I was his friend, a porter who was coming up that morning, he had come down to say hello. He asked me where I came from and I said that I had just come from the bottom of the mountain. The man didn't believe me when I told him that I left just after eight and here I was already up at 11:00 in the morning! He asked where my guide was and I informed him that I hadn't seen my guide since passing through the gate at the bottom of the trail. He laughed at me and after a short discussion about the hike, he pointed me to the main building where I could register for my bed and find something to eat. I slowly trudged across the path to the nearby building where I found the remainder of the people who had summited the mountain earlier that morning still finishing their breakfast before making the decent back to the bottom.

With no sign of my guide, my group or much less anyone else whom I had passed on my journey up the mountain, I tore into a pack of instant coffee I had carried up the mountain with me and gladly paid my one ringett for a cup of hot water. Now I could very easily have paid for a meal plan that the park was pushing but it would have cost me about fifty U.S. Dollars! Having already donated enough cash to support a Malaysian family for a month to the park, they were not about to get more money from me. I wouldn't pay fifty dollars back home for three meals at pretty decent restaurants so there was no way in hell I would be dishing that out for some rice, noodles and a few cups of instant coffee. At the bottom of the mountain I managed to secure several packs of instant noodles, a couple of cans of curry beef, three packs of instant coffee, several packs of peanuts as well as a couple of candy bars for just under about ten dollars. Not a bad savings I am quite proud to say!

As the rain continued to come down I finished my lunch and sat back in one of the uncomfortable plastic chairs to enjoy the pleasure of reading a few pages in a book I had been given a couple of days before. A few chapters later and over two hours gone by and the first of the people I had passed on my way up the mountain began stumbling in. Drenched in rain and extremely tired, most people looked as if they might collapse on the floor before making it to one of the tables in the restaurant. The room was gradually filling with people and there was still no sign of my guide or the couple that I had begun my journey with. I began to wonder if the they had run into problems or decided to turn back when at 3:00 in the afternoon, they finally walked in. I said hello and although I don't think he understood my humor, I thanked my guide for doing such a wonderful job of showing me the path up the mountain. He told us that we would all need to be awake at 2:30 so we could begin the journey to the summit in order to arrive in time for sunrise. Having read that this was pretty standard on the mountain, I didn't bother to argue that I would probably be able to reach the top without such an early start and I figured it would be quite nice to sit on the top in the pitch black of the night while waiting on the sun to emerge.

At about 2:00 in the morning the unheated hut I was sleeping in sprang to life. Gathering up their belongings, brushing their teeth and making cups of coffee and tea, everyone began gearing up for the final push to the summit. Around 2:30, the guides began showing up and taking off up the hill with their respective groups of travelers. With three o'clock fast approaching, there was still no sign of my guide nor the older couple who were staying in the comfort and warmth of a heated room at the lodge down below. As I stood staring off the porch into the freezing cold darkness with no one left in my frigid hut, my guide finally emerged from around the corner with the older couple at his side. I said hello and that I would see them at the top and began the final assault on Mt. Kinabalu.

Not surprisingly, it didn't take long before I came upon the mass of people who were only able to move up the mountain as fast as the slowest person up ahead. Like a human traffic jamb, everyone was virtually standing still, taking a few steps every now and then as people somewhere up higher took a break from their series of rests to take a few more steps up the mountain. Frustrated, I began stepping around and off the trail to pass by the mass of people who were doing more resting than climbing. After a twenty minute climb stepping over more people than rocks, I finally emerged from the pack and got into the rhythm of a smooth and steady pace up the mountain. Walking under complete darkness I could look back at the line of headlamps making their way up the mountain and it looked as if a giant glow worm was following behind me. By now the vegetation on the mountain had disappeared and all I could see was the slippery and wet granite surface along with the rope that I was to use to pull myself up the steepest parts of the climbs. Without any trees to block my view, far up ahead, there was still the occasional flicker of a few torches shining around and I was determined to be the first one up the mountain giving me just a few minutes to enjoy the summit on my own.

With my pace moving as slow as humanly possible, I somehow seemed to be gaining on the lights ahead. After passing the first couple of groups while they had taken a break for a rest, I could see that I only had one more group to go. With one and a half kilometers left, I came over a ridge and found the last group of climbers resting on a rock and eating a couple of snickers bars. I said hello and pressed on into the darkness. Beneath a starless sky I could barely make out the shapes of the jagged peaks that were now all around me. The only thing in sight was the face of the mountain I was hanging onto and the rope I was pulling myself up with extending as far as my light would shine into the complete black of the night.

Alone and in complete darkness hanging onto the face of the mountain I found myself thinking that this moment and this experience is exactly what I love about traveling and being in the outdoors. It is a feeling that I can't explain to anyone who has never been in a similar situation but if you have been there, you understand exactly what I mean. Looking up into the darkness at the face of the mountain ahead I thanked God for giving me the opportunity to be there, said a short prayer and slowly pulled myself up the remaining portion of the mountain.

Finding myself with nowhere left to go in any direction but down, I realized that I finally had arrived at the top. As I stood there catching my breath and was about to let out a primal scream of accomplishment to break the silence all around, I heard a quiet cough from nearby. Shining my torch in the direction of the cough, I found a Malaysian man wearing an id tag and nearby a couple huddled together trying to warm themselves from the chill of the biting cold and wind that surrounded us. Puzzled, I looked over at them and could only ask “What time did you leave to get up here???” They responded with a weary “Way too early.” I remembered waking up confused around 1:00 in the morning to people walking around and doors shutting and I asked if that was them and they confirmed my suspicion. After a slow ascent the previous day, the couple feared they would not make it to the top in time for sunrise and requested to their guide that they leave early. With me still lying in bed and a full two hours before I set foot on the trail, they had already begun climbing. The whole journey up only took me two hours as it was now five o'clock in the morning and these guys had a two hour head start! My hopes of having a few minutes to enjoy the summit alone were spoiled. Looking out into the darkness however, the couple disappeared and with only the sound of the wind filling my ears, it felt incredible to be standing there on the tip of the jagged and narrow peak, the highest point for thousands of miles in every direction.

Orangatans in the jungle

It's an amazing feeling to be sitting on the porch of my own private bed and breakfast tucked away in the rain forest of Northern Borneo. While there is plenty of space for more people to stay here, since I have arrived there have been no other guests. With beautiful handcrafted furniture on an enormous porch cooled by the falling rain and the slowly spinning fans overhead, it's an excellent place to immerse yourself in a book after a long day of trekking through the soaking wet jungle.

I came to Sepliok not only to visit the Orangutan rehabilitation center, but to hike through the rain forest and have the opportunity to see monkeys and wild orangutans swinging from the trees above. With it raining, as it tends to do in the rain forest, I made my way down the side of the road to the rehabilitation center to see them feed the orangutans that are living in the nearby forest. While paying the entrance fee and additional “camera permit” I inquired about the trails that I had read began there at the center. The woman informed me that I had to have a permit. I said ok and asked where I could get a permit. She told me to contact the forestry department. I said how do I do that? She said with the telephone. Seeing that this was going nowhere, I thanked the lady, paid the fees and entered the park.
Surrounded by a crowd of people decorated in brightly colored plastic ponchos they had purchased at the park entrance, an official looking Malaysian man came out carrying some bowls, a bottle of milk and a whole bunch of bananas. As he approached a small wooden platform Orangutans began appearing from the tops of the surrounding trees and making their way to the platform to consume their morning meal. With thousands of cameras focused on these three orangutans eating a few bananas, I figured it would be just about as exciting to see these apes in a zoo.

Finding exactly what I expected at the orangutan feeding show, I departed from the group and began my quest to find the trail I was told I could not enter. It didn't take long to discover the path and with everyone distracted by the feeding apes, I disappeared down the trail and took off into the jungle. Not far down the path I stopped to read a sign that confirmed that I had chosen the right path for my rain forest expedition. While reading the sign and checking my boots for any initial sign of leaches, I heard rustling in the jungle all around me. I at first spotted a pair of eyes staring at me before they again began moving. Suddenly there were more eyes and more movement when an entire family of about twenty monkeys burst from the bushes behind me and ran up the path on both of my sides before again ducking off into the bushes. Not ten minutes from the circus I was just watching and here I was finding the same animals in the wild. Such a beautiful sight to see.

As my journey continued on, I found plenty more monkeys along with various other jungle inhabitants but not surprisingly, I didn't find a single orangutan. They are supposed to be pretty elusive and quiet and the chances are pretty good that even if I managed to pass any of them I most likely would never have seen them. While the monkeys were pretty prevalent, the leeches took the prize for the most frequently spotted creatures along the way. I think I spent more time pulling them off of my shoes and pants in hopes of preventing them from their feast of sucking the blood from my body. As a rough estimation, I think I must have pulled two hundred and fifty of them off of me before my morning's trekking adventure was over. While I found the occasional one crawling beneath my rain pants, only two managed to partake in the pleasure of sucking on my blood. Tired of fighting the constant battle on the most leach infested path I have ever come across and having been successful in spotting plenty of wildlife along the way, I abandoned my ten kilometer jungle trek about half way through and returned to the comfort of my own private bed and breakfast for a nice afternoon of relaxing on the porch and writing in my journal.

Diving Sipadan Island

There is an island off the North Eastern coast of Borneo known as Sipadan. Sipadan island is supposed to be one of the top ten dive sites in the world. I am not sure who designates that kind of title or if it is something that can be self proclaimed but it seems to be pretty standard these days for anywhere you go diving. Even though almost everywhere I have been has claimed to be one of the top ten diving sites in the world, I had heard so many good things about this place that I decided a day of diving there would be a great way to begin my trip in Borneo.

After an hour long boat ride zipping past all of the fishing villages around Semporna followed by houses that have been built on stilts in the middle of the shallow bay we began to get into the clear waters surrounding the nearby islands. Cruising through the shallow spots it was easy to see all of the colorful coral everywhere you looked. Turtles were constantly coming up for air while the colorful parrot fish munched on the algae that covered the coral garden down below. So far the area around Sipadan was living up to it's reputation and I hadn't even gotten off the boat yet!

The diving turned out to be incredible! I can't say that many places in the world can even compare to the variety of sea life living there. During the first dive I was surrounded by thousands of giant barracuda swimming in a school all around me. On another there were so many different reef sharks I almost swam right into several of them without even realizing it! The most amazing thing I think I noticed about diving Sipadan was not just the overwhelming number of turtles but how tame they were. Many would be lying on the bottom or resting within the coral and would let you come inches from their face without even moving. Others while swimming would come right up to you allowing you to pet them on the head and rub on their shells. Along with all of the big stuff, the coral and tiny things were so overwhelming that it was difficult to concentrate on what I was seeing. At one point I had my nose about six inches from the mouth of a moray eel before I realized he was there! Sipadan truly has lived up to it's name as a top diving destination and I would recommend to anyone who is a scuba diver to make the journey to Borneo and dive Sipadan.

Monday, February 11, 2008

I don't wan't to leave Ton Sai!

Wow! What an amazing place Ton Sai has been. After enjoying a few days of diving and hanging out on the beaches with my friend Nina, she departed for Malaysia and I decided to become properly trained in the are of usin all of the ropes for rock climbing. I have always wanted to do more rock climbing but found myself sticking to bouldering (rock climbing at lower heights without ropes) as I couldn't be bothered with picking up another outdoor activity that required more time and more gear. Well here I am and it looks like I am going to have to make time and find a place to hang up a rope and harness back home as I think after a week of climbing in Ton Sai I have become completely addicted.
When I wasn't enjoying the rock climbing, I found myself lying in a hammock on the beach, enjoying the sun by day and the stars by night. A couple of days after Nina had gone, I decided to take a day off from climbing in order to stay out a little later at the bars and hopefully make some new friends to spend the rest of my days in Ton Sai with. After eating dinner alone, I noticed a group of Canadian girls who I met the night before eating at a nearby table. I asked if I could join them and after having a couple of drinks there, we all ventured down to the beach and pulled up a few of the comfortable beach chairs into the shape of a circle. As we all talked and enjoyed several beers while sitting around a small candle lit table in the sand, one of the Canadian girls began to stand out from all the rest. A beautiful blond haired girl named Christie, she was amazing to look at and absolutely wonderful to talk to. In the early hours of the morning, the group eventually broke up and everyone else made their way home. Christie and I however found a couple of hammocks and spent the rest of the night sipping on beers beneath the stars and talking about everything from our travels to our lives back home.
Even though we stayed out late, Christie and I spent the next day on the beach together and hiking to the nearby lagoon. She toughed out a steep climb and was completely covered in dirt by the end of it but seemed to still be having a good time. I knew that since she enjoyed getting dirty and being dragged up a mountain with me, she was definitely my kind of girl! Throughout the rest of my stay in Ton Sai, if I wasn't rock climbing, I was hanging out with Christie. She became a temporary girlfriend of sorts and it was nice to have someone to spend my days on the beach with as well as my time exploring the whole area. Now however, it is time to leave and Christie will be heading back home to Canada while I am left here to continue on with my journey. I am sad to see her go and will miss having her around. I now know how much more meaningful travel can be when you have someone you care about alongside you to share all of the incredible experiences and memories with.

Arriving in Ton Sai

After a short ferry ride followed by a quick hop around the corner in a local long tail boat, Jeno and I waded through the shallow waters onto the beach at Ton Sai. No piers, no resorts, just a long strip of sand with a backdrop of swaying palm trees and tall limestone cliffs in every direction. My friend Jeno recommended a place to stay so we both checked in and were given the keys to our huts that were tucked up under the trees with the beach just a few minutes walk away. Arriving at the front porch of my bungalow, I found it was already occupied by several monkeys who seemed to be making a lot of noise while standing over the remains of several beer bottles that they had manged to break. After a few loud noises and some flailing of my arms, I was able to run off my uninvited guests sending them back aloft to the trees above and allowing me time for a quick shower before meeting up with Jeno again for a dinner along the beach..
Jeno and I decided to grab a beer and make our way down to the end of the beach where there was a bunch of rock climbers enjoying the last bits of daylight for some difficult climbs underneath an enormous overhanging rock face. As I approached the face of the rocks, I noticed the face of someone who looked familiar. Standing on the beach, enjoying the show that the climbers were putting on was my friend Nina who I had met in Ecuador! I knew she was somewhere in Southeast Asia, but couldn't believe that I managed to bump into her again on the other side of the world! It's always good to see a familiar face somewhere so far away from everything you know and I was excited to have the opportunity to catch up with her and hear about everywhere she had been since I last saw her.
Nina, her friend Michael and I along with Jeno decided to have dinner at one of the little beach bars we had passed that was advertising free bar-b-q. We took a spot not far from the water on some of the large cushions that had been laid out on colorful grass mats surrounded by small flaming cans providing just enough light so that we could barely make out whatever it was that we would be eating. With Reggae music being played in the background we sat back and enjoyed a delicious portion of food from the grill and washed it all down with several cans of Chang, the local Thai beer. Even though this was my first night in Ton Sai, I could already see what an amazing place it was going to be and I was looking forward to spending many more nights on the beach here looking up at the stars and enjoying the cheap food and cold beer.

The island from "The Beach"

After leaving Phuket, I spent a few days relaxing on the island of Phi Phi Don and visiting the nearby island of Phi Phi Ley where the movie “The Beach” was filmed. Both were incredibly beautiful islands with steep limestone cliffs, white sandy beaches and clear water. While the main attraction here was a tough day of sitting on the beach followed by a few sundowners at one of the beach bars, the atmosphere however was still not quite what I was looking for. There was an overwhelming number of people trying to sell you tours to visit all of the other islands as well as the cost of everything was nearly double what I had seen throughout the rest of Thailand. While I enjoyed my days on the beach and seeing the amazing island of Phi Phi Ley, I felt like there had to be a place that was a lot more laid back and definitely further off the main backpacker circuit so I kept looking.
Staying next to me in another bamboo bungalow was a South African guy named Jeno. His consensus about Phi Phi was the same as mine. It was just too overdone and way too expensive. He told me he was heading back to Ton Sai which I had never heard of and after finding that it wasn't even in my guide book I was intrigued to hear more. Jeno's description was that Ton Sai was a small little beach with steep cliffs on both sides, there were a few places to stay and some nice bars on the beaches. Most of the bars were quiet with good music, hammocks and small cushions sitting right on the sand. Along with the laid back atmosphere, Ton Sai was also the place that rock climbers from around the world visit Thailand for. This sounded like my kind of place and I wanted to know more. The next day, I packed up my bag and Jeno and I jumped on a boat and headed for Ton Sai.