Unsurprisingly, given our plans and dreams in London 2016, it seemed fitting that we would spend the end of 2017 diving what is probably the richest coral reef ecosystem in the world.
In truth, it was simply good fortune and a last minute cancellation with Papua Explorers, that meant we ended up in the heart of Raja Ampat as 2017 moved in to a new year. It took some substantial reorganisation and planning for us to get to this remote location in West Papua, just after Christmas. But as a consequence of this rethink, we were able to spend a fantastic five weeks in Cambodia a country that had not been in our plans before – that’s the joy of traveling without a fixed agenda.
That change also meant we spent Christmas day in a hotel in Sulawesi that ran out of food, beer and cocktails on the day itself, but such is life on the road – and at least we were able to swim in the pool, relax and talk with family and friends around the world.
The beauty and wonder of this dive destination was well worth the effort of getting there though, and we had some spectacular dives in seas that were bursting with life. Even the journey from Sorong to our destination on the island of Gam, West Papua promised something special – a pod of over a 100 dolphins turned up to play in the speedboat’s wake.
The exceptional diversity of marine life in Raja Ampat is down to both it’s remoteness from large scale human habitation and its position between the Indian and Pacific Oceans, where strong currents ensure coral and fish larvae are shared between the two oceans. Even by the standards of the Coral Triangle, this is an abundant habitat and we saw fish, sharks and coral that we had never encountered before. Wobbegong sharks, Oceanic Mantas (one ‘dive bombed’ me!) and Walking Sharks stand out, but there was life everywhere, alongside the most beautiful coral I have seen.
We also stayed in a truly idyllic environment, with a spacious pondok (cabin) on stilts over the sea, where we fell asleep every night to the sound of schools of fish moving in the shallows below.
We had peace, calm, beautiful sunrises and sunsets, with exotic birdsong from the jungle behind us. Plus we had some great company from divers who had travelled from around the world to greet 2018 in this special place.
Diving locally almost every day ensured we could be conservative in managing our surface interval time and avoid any recurrence of Anne’s DCS. And staying in the centre of the marine park meant we were able to observe how the local villagers interact with tourism and benefit directly in preserving this marine eco-system, probably the most important guarantee for its continuing survival.
Full credit to Papua Explorers for their efforts to educate and learn from the locals as well as explaining to tourists both the complexity and necessity of action to ensure this paradise survives.
And what a paradise…
Farewell to Asia
Leaving West Papua marked a new year and a farewell to South East and East Asia, through which we’ve been travelling for over a year.
We are now in Melbourne Australia, reuniting with friends from what seems a lifetime ago when we were tram drivers here in the
early 1980s. And of course, summer in Melbourne is currently in a hot spell – lowest temperature last night, 28°C; it’s now a hot 42°C, as I write this.
Like all Melbournians we’re hanging on for the ‘cool change’, that will see a 20° drop in temperature in half an hour – it’s due about 8.00pm tonight.
As with other times in this adventure when we’ve caught up with family and friends, there are likely to be fewer blog updates and photos as we concentrate on friendship and shared moments. We do intend to travel this vast and beautiful country over the next few months though, and will share the wonder as we go.
Click ‘follow’ to see where our adventure takes us …
Dividing this post in two parts made sense. It allowed those who wish to skip the horrors of Tuol Svay Prey High School and the Killing Fields in Crossing Cambodia (it felt hard to write any more after that). And it means if your interest lies in Siem Reap, Angkor Wat and beyond, you can, in any case, find it here.
We traveled by bus to Siem Reap and stayed in Hideout Hostel . Cambodia, unlike Indonesia, is firmly on the backpacker trail and for the first time in months we encountered Irish, Welsh and British accents among the young travelers. The hostels have been great, with private rooms as well as dorms, and Hideout Hostel was a brilliant example of good value comfort -plus everyone was kind and friendly to us old folk (thanks for the pack of Irish tea.😊).
We purchased a three day pass to visit the temples in and around Angkor Wat, and hired a Tuk-tuk driver, ‘Tom’, to take us around. Motorbikes are banned in the vast temple area, and we figured bikes would be exhausting if we wanted to cover the outlying sites in thirty degree heat. Tuk-tuks (more spacious than their Thai equivalent) are by far the most efficient way to get around, plus money goes directly to locals.
There is a persistent urban legend claiming Angkor Wat is owned by the Vietnamese (grabbed by them when they overthrew the Khmer Rouge) and that none of the money collected from the 2 million annual visitors goes to Cambodia. As it is a World Heritage site, I thought it unlikely so I did some research (see https://www.lonelyplanet.com/thorntree/forums/asia-south-east-asia-mainland/cambodia/vietnamese-ownership-of-angkor ). That is not to say there is no corruption/criminality involved – Cambodia scores very badly on global corruption tables, but Angkor Wat is very definitely Cambodian.
The history of the building, discovery and restoration of the different temples is complex and fascinating, and there are plenty of places on the Internet and in books where you can read about it. Not here. Here you will get an impression of the grandeur and beauty of this unique World Heritage site, with little in the way of detail.
The foundation stone is a rusty red Laterite cut and fitted together without cement, and the sandstone used for the buildings was quaried over 50km away and transported by specially built canals.
An advantage of having a local driver is that you can wander when you like and meet up later to explore some more. We had a relaxing explore through the shady forest from the heat of the elephant terrace in Angkor Thom to Bayon, finding temples on the way.
Exploring and photographing the temples presented its own challenges. With over a million tourists a year, it gets pretty crowded and the extremes of light or a hazy, cloud covered day will dramatically affect the quality of a picture. But worst of all is the mass obsession with selfies. Is a photograph of a unique, 12th century temple in the middle of the Cambodian jungle of no value without a pouting face in front of it? I have seen countless tourists only taking selfies. Do they think family and friends will not believe they were there? Do they believe that a photograph of themselves in the same spot as Angelina Jolie or Harrison Ford is the only reason to visit such a historic, beautiful and spiritual place. Seeing people queue to take a selfie in ‘the spot’ and then leave without a glance around them is profoundly depressing.
Lucky to have grabbed this shot, one of the Temple cleaners taking a short cut
The first thing that impresses you about Angkor Wat is its size. The temple is made from 6-10 million blocks of sandstone (transported through 50 miles of jungle), including some that weigh 1.5 tons. The original site was larger than modern day Paris and it remains the largest religious building on Earth.
Then there is the detail, corridor after corridor of galleries containing beautiful carvings depicting ancient Hindu tales. There are literally miles of sandstone carvings illustrating scenes including unicorns, griffins, winged dragons, chariots as well as fierce warriors following an elephant-mounted leader. The gallery wall alone is decorated with almost 1,000 square metres of bas reliefs.
We visited Angkor on two separate occasions, and it worked well. We did the pre-dawn visit, along with everyone else(!), for ‘that shot’ of sunrise and then headed elsewhere to see temples before the crowds arrived. On our second visit we again arrived pre-dawn, but went straight into Angkor Wat, and had the place virtually to ourselves for an hour or so before the crowds came in. Consequently we had a calm reflective experience of the place, not something most visitors would be able to enjoy.
Moving on – Kampot
Feeling a bit ‘templed-out’, as no doubt you are dear reader, we headed down to Sihanoukville and from there by bus to Kampot. Sihanoukville is a sad reminder of where Cambodian tourism is headed, with scores of ugly casinos and girly bars, all responding to the massive influx of Chinese investment and tourism, aimed at making it the ‘new Macau’.
We checked in to a ‘party hostel’ in Kampot, Mad Monkey and really enjoyed our time there. Again we had a comfortable spacious private room, there was a pool and a good restaurant, but most importantly the people, staff and guests, were fab. While it is defiantly a party place, where young travelers go to meet and have fun, the rooftop bar closes down at midnight (the young-uns move on to party elsewhere) and it’s an easy place to chill out. We met some lovely people, shared travel stories over a few beers, relaxed and enjoyed ourselves. Hostel manager Darren, from the Lake District, looked out for us on the organised tours (booze cruise and mountain motorbike tour), and people couldn’t have been nicer – our team even won the Pub Quiz 🍺🏆🍺.
We hired motorbikes for a few days, to tour the local area. The roads aren’t busy for the most part, and it’s great to be independent. On the first day, Sunday, after a leisurely breakfast we went to the seaside town of Kep. It’s not the best beach in the world but it was lovely seeing locals hanging around on hammocks in the shade sharing picnics with their families.
We went on to see the salt farms, quiet with no-one working on a Sunday. It’s a harsh bleak environment, but we were soon surrounded by local kids, so my origami skills were deployed once more.
And then we stumbled on a small temple, deserted we thought, until we came across a monk on his mobile.
Our second day on motorbikes started well with an interesting visit to a pepper farm – Kampot being globally famous for its pepper.
Heading on from there, we decided to take a road to a cave in the mountains nearby. While the road (we’re talking dirt tracks here) may have existed on the map, it soon disintegrated into walking trails and dead ends. GPS indicated actual roads nearby but we struggled along tracks for two hours to find one. The few locals we came across indicated by sign language what direction to take (almost always back the way we had come). We were well and truly lost, and Anne was low on fuel. Our cross country bike skills were improving, but we were getting distinctly worried we might get stuck in the middle of nowhere. After nearly three hours, we got back to the pepper farm, sorted a bottle of petrol from a roadside shop and headed back to bitumen and our hostel. Relief.
Our final bike day was part of a hostel tour organised by Darren, up in to the mountains, to Phnom Bokor national park, with the mist hanging around us. It’s a strange journey, up a very well made road, with surprising, sometimes disconcerting sights. It was also one of the last strongholds of the Khmer Rouge, who occupied the area in to the 1990s.
The abandoned church below, built by the French in the 1920s, was occupied by the Khmer Rouge and used as an execution site for conscripted farm labour, who were no longer capable of working. It’s a sad, desolate place.
The old casino (originally French) is now being renovated and big money (thought by many to be controlled by Chinese and Vietnamese criminal gangs) is being spent on new casinos and hotel development.
From Kampot we have traveled down to Otres river village, a sleepy beach area outside of Sihanoukville for a bit of relaxation. Tomorrow we head to Ream National Park, staying in a hostel there. We fly out of Cambodia on the 22nd on an elaborate journey (via KL, Bali, and Sulawesi) to get us to Raja Ampat by the 27th for some diving at the end of the year.
More posts likely to be in the New Year, click on ‘Follow’ to find out.
Cambodia carries the weight of its history remarkably lightly, though it’s astonishing past is visible throughout this small country.
The vast complex of temple ruins, originally Hindu and then Buddhist, going back to the twelfth century (with many atmosphericaly emerging from lush jungle) is perhaps the most striking aspect of its past, and the reason so many tourists visit.
However it’s more recent history is infinitely darker. Following on from nearly 100 years of French colonial domination, it has the horrendous distinction of being the most bombed nation on the planet. In pursuit of its war in Vietnam the USA illegally dropped more ordinance on a country the size of England’s and Wales than were dropped in the whole of WW2 – including Hiroshima and Nagasaki. With 30% of that reckoned to be UXO, the impact of this is everywhere, with amputees of all ages working/begging on the streets.
Next the Cambodians endured the internal genocide of the Khmer Rouge and the horrors that came with it. Even after the Vietnamese toppled this murderous state in 1979, the aid and support needed to rebuild was blocked as Cold War warriors continued to recognise the Khmer Rouge in the U.N.
How then can a country that has endured so much and remains one of the poorest countries in SE Asia, be so peaceful, calm, helpful and friendly to its visitors? Smiling and singing seem to be a national pastime, families gather and socialise on beaches and river banks, sharing food and laughter. It really is a relaxed, enchanting place to visit.
Although this post is named ‘Crossing Cambodia’ we only have five weeks here, so our agenda is quite modest. Landing in Phnom Penh, we soon adjusted to the dual currency (Riel and USD), the unusual Tuk-tuks and the abundance of coffee shops in colonial buildings selling all manner of Western food. Eating real bread and lightly cooked eggs for breakfast was a welcome break from the dietary rigours of Sulawesi (see Sulawesi Penjelajahan* and More tales from Sulawesi).
We also took shelter from the heat at the Foreign Correspondence Club, an elegant bar overlooking the Mekong, that seems to have been plucked out of a Graham Greene novel. And in one sense it has. Despite the slowly turning fans and war correspondent photography (including some iconic images from ‘Killing Fields’ journalist Sydney Schanberg), the FCC was established after the conflict had ended. The owner delights in overhearing journos telling tall tales of the war, and legendary meetings in the FCC, when the club only opened is doors in 1993.
While in Phnom Penh we spent time in the national museum and visiting the Royal Palace, both were places of calm in a bustling city and a welcome contrast to the horrors of the Killing Fields and the S21 security prison.
Meditation and Browsing
Killing Fields and Security Prison S21
Note, this section of the blog is understandably upsetting, detailing as it does the genocide that destroyed so many lives in such a brutal manner. You may wish to skip through to the next section. I have split the Cambodia blog in to two parts. Clicking here will take you to part 2.
Tuol Svay Prey High School
In 1975, Tuol Svay Prey High School was taken over by Pol Pot’s security forces and turned into a prison known as Security Prison 21. With chilling bureaucratic efficiency, the 17,000 men, women and children who passed through this secondary school/torture centre were photographed before ‘confessions’ were extracted. From there they were sent to the Killing Fields (an orchard on the outskirts of Phnom Penh), their final destination.
For us, the real horror of what happened came through at the Tuol Svay Prey High School. The school buildings, the play area, the classrooms and the suburban life just outside set against the metal beds, the barbed wire, the instruments of torture, and photograph after photograph of those who perished. The audio story, told by survivors describes what happened and visitors wander from classroom to classroom in silence, observing the heart of darkness within humanity.
Barbed wire across the balconies prevented prisoners throwing themselves off.
The Choeung Ek orchard on the outskirts of Phnom Penh is where the victims of S-21 ended up. 17,000 people were killed here between 1975 and 1979. Now it’s a peaceful reflective place. The remains of many victims have been recovered from the mass graves, but in the rainy season, clothes and skeleton parts still surface. The building in the centre is a monument to all those who died in all the killing fields in Cambodia.
The Cambodians have told this story well, with dignity and wherever possible allowing the survivors to speak. If you go there, the story will stay with you.
Crossing Cambodia 2 – Siem Reap, Angkor Wat, Sihanoukville and Kampot is here
We flew from north to south for the second part of our journey through Sulawesi – from Manado to Makassar. Travelers had told us that the journey to the Togian Islands in central Sulawesi was easier from the south, and we also wanted to visit the mountainous region of Tana Toraja, with its unique traditional way of life.
Edwin, our guide from Minahasa (see Sulawesi Penjelajahan) recommended a Torajan guide, Gibson, who we met in Rantapau. His local knowledge gave us a fascinating insight into Torajan culture as we spent two days touring the area.
The Toraja inhabit the vast, rugged landscape of the South Sulawesi highlands. Although nominally Christian Protestant (imposed by Dutch colonial rule and evidenced by the numerous churches and cathedrals), the Toraja have an ancient animist faith that continues to determine much of their daily lives. Gibson recalled a local priest explaining to an anthropologist that his congregation were Protestant for one hour every Sunday, but animist for the rest of the week. They have an ancient caste system, centred around the extended family, their traditional home and complex rituals about death.
Although modern Torajans may have left the area and made money, for example in the Indonesian oil and gold mining industries, their position in society is not measured in modern wealth but where their family is in the ancient hierarchy. Torajans (loosely translated as mountain people) believe in a mythical land to the south, to where the dead must travel and much of their elaborate ceremonies centre around this transition.
Family homes, tongkonan, are built collectively in a traditional style, using interlocking, elaborately carved wood, with no nails, always pointing north to south. The roof is made of overlapping bamboo, styled to represent the bow and stern of a boat.
They are built on stilts and have similarly crafted rice stores around them. The rice stores are a sign of wealth and have a raised door and round pillars to keep the rice safe from rodents.
In tropical conditions, the bamboo roofs are soon bursting with life and need to be replaced every six or seven years.
Internally, the room allocation also represents life’s journey – the young sleep in the northerly-most sections, the elderly nearest to their final destination, in the south.
Buffalos are sacred creatures, and displaying buffalo horns is a sign off wealth
Death in Toraja
We were introduced to the Toraja view of death with visits to a series of cliff faces and caves where upper-class Toraja dead are entombed. The graves are guarded by tau tau (life-sized wooden effigies) carved in their image. These eerie, striking cliff cemeteries and caves are scattered throughout the region.
Bodies are put into graves once they have decomposed, meaning many generations will share the same space. The coffins (shaped like a traditional house) are carried to the cliff face or cave, and left to rot. Torajians have been outraged and offended to discover some of the ancient tau tau have been stolen and sold in the international art market.
The most poignant burial site we visited was a tree where babies were buried. Situated close to a Torajan village, only those children from the village who had died before growing teeth were buried. They had to be buried within an hour of death. They were placed in the tree in the foetal position, and once sealed the parents walked away without looking back. The sap from the tree was believed to nourish the child until it was ready to make the rest of it’s journey. It was a sad and peaceful place in the forest.
Thankfully most of these graves are decades old and our guide explained that UNICEF now provide a free healthcare programme for new mothers and babies in the region. Infant mortality has dropped accordingly.
One constant factor in our tour through the region was the importance given to buffalos, both as a sacred animal and a signifier of status. We saw them washed and pampered everywhere and found ourselves discussing the key discerning features of the most prized animals.
Unlike elsewhere in Asia, they are not worked; rather they wallow in mud and have their needs catered to daily – until the moment when they are brutally sacrificed, usually in a funeral ceremony.
As shown earlier, houses are decorated with buffalo horns to demonstrate traditional status and wealth. When we visited the market in Rantapau we were told that the most prized animals were sold for up to US$4,000.
The importance of death to the Torajan way of life is shown most clearly in extensive funeral celebrations, taking place over days, and normally years after the person has died, with the body remaining in the family home throughout. The funeral itself is a celebration involving hundreds and is more of a going away party than a sad occasion.
When a Torajan dies the deceased is not buried but is embalmed and stored in a traditional house under the same roof with his or her family. Until the funeral ceremonies are completed (often years later, depending on the family being able to raise the money for this most important celebration), the person is not considered to be truly dead but merely ‘a person who is sick’ or ‘asleep’. During this time, the deceased family member is symbolically fed, clothed, cared for and taken out, and is still part of the family until arrangements are in place to send her/him on their final journey to the land of souls.
The funeral we attended was particularly lavish and involved two deaths, a man and a woman.
Both were of the status to have tau tau, which means over 200 buffalos would be slaughtered on the final day and the meat distributed within the community. Pigs and buffalo are also slaughtered daily, to feed the large numbers attending.
Temporary accommodation needs to be built to house and feed the visitors, and the family members dress in elaborate traditional costumes.
Everyone is involved, it demonstrates the importance of family and community to Torajans.
The funeral procession involves carrying the coffin back and forth, with much laughter and good humor.
The Togian Islands
Situated only 40 km from the equator, in the Tomini Gulf, central Sulawesi, the Togian Islands are difficult to reach.
We hired a car for two days to make the journey from Rantepau – Tentena – Ampana (not a cheap option) in order to then catch the speedboat to Wakai. With an overnight stop there, we could catch the public ferry early the next day to the volcanic Pulau Una Una. We had met a couple in our lodging in Rantepau, Willi and Katja, who were heading in a similar direction, but they decided to take the public bus in order to save some money and maybe get to the Togians quicker.
The first leg of our journey, the 300km from Rantepau to Tentena took 11 hours to drive – two mountain ranges and a long section of the highway/roadworks reduced to a sea of mud in a tropical downpour, with a truck stuck at one stage, blocking the road.
After a night’s sleep in the Victory Hotel, Tentena, we got up early the next day to find Willi and Katja sitting in the breakfast area – they had just arrived! Their bus had broken down and the journey had lasted 20 hours. They decided to travel the next stage in the car with us and we got on well, sharing information and stories from our collective traveling adventures.
So, getting to the Togians is an adventure in itself, but there is a real sense of peace and isolation when you arrive, you really have ‘got away from it all’.
We spent our time in Sanctum Una Una, a dive resort with great diving just a short boat ride away. Our cabin looked out over the tranquil sea and the sounds we heard were rolling surf, the humming of cicadas and the burp of geckos.
With such a wonderful location, the other key ingredient is the people, and they were fabulous. Joni and Indah were so friendly and kind – we won’t forget the birthday cake for Anne, Indah😁 🎂😁. The dive guides, Dorian, Allie and Emiline shared their enthusiasm every day and even though Anne couldn’t dive she saw bump heads, schools of barracuda, turtles and beautiful coral while snorkeling.
Great staff, great guests and great crew. Thanks guys.👍
From the Togians we took a complex route back to Bali and checked in to our regular Denpasar lodging -for the fifth time this year I think! We’ve stored our dive gear with Made and Widuri in Jepun Segara and are touring Cambodia for a month or so. In reality we don’t intend to rush around too much, so it may be a country we will have to return to.
It was around 4.30 last night/this morning (8/11/2017), when the rain came crashing down on the tin roof of our cabin in the Togian Islands with the intensity that only a tropical thunderstorm can generate. The racket, compounded by the cracking of thunder and lightning directly overhead, overwhelmed the previous, gentler sounds of cicadas, geckos and rolling surf. We are in the shoulder season in Sulawesi, that period between the wet and dry where blue skies give way daily to clouds and intense rain that lasts for an hour or so.
We have been in Sulawesi since mid October, diving and traveling in remote areas with fascinating scenery and people. Though it’s not even close to being the biggest island in Indonesia – it’s about the size of England, with a population of around 18 million – it impresses you as an intriguing adventurous place, difficult to travel around but full of varied, unique traditions, and wild, untamed land.
Flying in to Manado, in the north, we headed out by boat to Living Colours dive resort on Bunaken island, under threatening skies. The storm, and darkness arrived as we hit shore, with the boat threading it’s way through the mangroves, intermittently lit by lightning flashes. The next day saw blue skies and lovely diving – healthy coral, plenty of fish and turtles, and good visibility. Daylight also revealed the beautiful setting where we were staying, isolated, idyllic, peaceful (and with great food ☺).
Unfortunately after our second day of diving (easy, gentle, multilevel dives), that evening, Anne developed a skin rash on her stomach that was tender and painful to touch. We were in contact with medical advice and insurers through the night and Anne took rehydration salts and painkillers. Diagnosed as mild skin DCS, thankfully it had disappeared by morning. However we took the boat back to Manado to consult the dive doctor there, who recommended Anne avoid diving for the next month.
So, our plans had to change. We stayed on at the resort, and I dived without Anne till the end of the week😢. We cancelled our diving trip to Lembeh and instead went back to Manado and booked a nice hotel, from where we planned to explore Northern Sulawesi – Tangkoko and Minahasa.
Tangkoko and Minahasa
Considering there is no developed tourist infrastructure, and given the variety of local languages, cultures, and terrain, the only way to properly explore the remote parts of Sulawesi is with a car and a local guide. We found a guide from Minahasa, Edwin, with
decades of experience, who explained so much about the local cultures as we travelled through a beautiful landscape of vivid green ricefields, mountains, lakes and volcanoes. The highlight on our first day was a visit to the Batuangas Dua Saudara nature reserve. It is now famous as the location of the dispute over the Macaque selfie, and we were hoping to spot some, along with the tiny nocturnal Tasiers that live in the reserve.
In the late afternoon we entered the forest and luckily found a troop of Black Macaque monkeys, crashing through the trees, eating, playing, fighting and having sex, before heading up to the canopy above to shelter for the night. Photographing them in the fading light and the gloom of the forest was challenging – they were moving fast, crashing through the branches, running along the forest floor, often disappearing only to reappear for a moment and then move on.
And let’s not forget those tiny, shy Tasiers …
Following our exertions chasing primates through the forest we stopped at a local Warung for dinner and the local speciality of Tuna head – tasty, but hard work.
The following day we traveled through Minahasa, to the Tomohon area, with its traditional stilted houses, lush, productive land and beautiful volcanoes and lakes.
We spent a lovely lunch watching birds feeding on the flowers, then visited Danu Linow volcanic lake, saw fish farms on the banks of Tondon lake, high in the mountains.
Tomohon Market – Pasar Beriman
Tomohon is famous for its market – Pasar Beriman, and there really is a staggering display of produce from local farms. Edwin had a long discussion with us about local customs in the consumption of meat so that we were prepared beforehand. We still found the scenes shocking though.
As a consequence I have placed that description, along with some graphic pictures in a separate file.
Don’t go there if you think you might find it upsetting.
After our journey through Minahasa, we headed back to Manado for a nights sleep before flying down to Makassa to explore southern Sulawesi and the Togian Islands.
Sulawesi was proving to be more varied and fascinating than we’d imagined. We will update the blog with stories from the south soon. Click ‘follow’ to get a notification of our next post☺ – and please comment/like and get in touch to your hearts content….
The grandly named Trans Flores Highway cuts through forests, climbs over mountains and skirts around volcanoes on its 550 kilometre route from Labuanbajo to Maumere. Although it’s a single lane highway throughout it is an impressive feat of engineering, with spectacular switchback routes crossing a wild, luxuriant, dramatic landscape of dense forest, landslides, ricefields and lakes.
For whole sections of the journey, signs of human habitation can be sparse. But the highway links the towns and cities with diverse, traditional rural cultures that seem unchanged in centuries alongside the five distinct linguistic and cultural groups that make up the islands population, from the west to the east.
This beautiful four day roadtrip (and our diving in Komodo, of which more later) plunged us right back in to South East Asia, after our brief visit back to England (see ‘Home & Away’ ) in September. It was a fantastic way to acclimatise to the adventure and excitement of travel, we were back on the road and in a spectacular landscape full of wonder.
In comparison to Bali, Java and certain sections of Lombok, Flores seemed less developed in terms of tourism, and the locals less reliant on this as a source of income. The overwhelmingly rural economy seemed productive and people looked to have larger houses, gardens and a sustainable way of life. Of course poverty is never far away, but the roads were full of children walking to school and we were met with lots of smiles and laughter.
Origami proved popular 😊
The land in Flores seemed productive. Vivid green ricefields stretched across valleys, fruit and vegetables were on sale in roadside warungs and the forests themselves were full of jackfruit, papaya, mangoes, cashew, macadamia, bananas and pineapple.
Of course much of central Flores is mountainous and pretty near impossible to cultivate. The terrain and the thick groves of bamboo, rising 20m+ mean that some areas are impenetrable.
We passed by some impressive volcanoes on our journey, some of them like Agung Inierie, currently active.
We also came across a tribe of monkeys, foraging for food, on our journey through the mountains.
Traditional villages in Flores
We visited a number of traditional villages including Bena, where housing is a collective endeavor, built and lived in by families, some of whom are said to originate from Java. Although declaring themselves Catholic, it was clear that this was a religion bolted on to the ancient adat/animist beliefs which governs their daily lives.
We were able to meet and interact with many people on our journey. The general lack of tourists and the company of Mr Donatus and Herman helped (along with a bit of origami for the children).
Their pictures and portraits capture the beauty and diversity of Flores.
Above and below are residents of the traditional village of Bena. In the full resolution picture of the girl below you can see the entire village reflected in her eyes.
We came across a festival/celebration on the way to Bajawa, we still don’t know what it was about, but everyone was happy!
Stopping for a coffee at a roadside Warung, we met this couple.
This family came running out to say hello when we stopped to look at the view.
Even Mr Donatus posed for a photo
And there’s always kids playing football …
… or marbles
On our final day of the roadtrip, we got up at 4.00am to see the sun rise over the stunning volcanic crater lakes at Gunung Kelimutu. The three lakes, Tiwu Ata Bupu (Lake of Old People) is usually blue and is the westernmost of the three lakes, Tiwu Ko’o Fai Nuwa Muri (Lake of Young Men and Maidens) and Tiwu Ata Polo (Enchanted Lake) are separated by a shared crater wall and are typically blue green or red respectively.
The lake colours are meant to change on a periodic basis, due to their differing connection to the volcano beneath, although it seems their colours have remained stable for some time. It’s a wonderful sight though, 1,600m up and a little chilly as the sun rises behind the lakes and the clouds swirl around.
It would be remiss not to mention our time with Scuba Junkie again in Komodo, where we spent six days of wonderful, exhilarating diving, prior to the roadtrip. The story of the diving is similar to our last post from Indonesia Here be Dragons and we once again saw the ocean’s beauty in an unspoilt, majestic environment.
One creature that deserves a mention this time around is the ‘black and gold sapsucking slug’, a rarity underwater, but with a name that seems somewhat unfair, given its beauty.
We also had some challenging dives, where the current (on a full moon) was the strongest we have ever experienced. Hooked on in the aptly named Cauldron, we struggled to avoid being swept away (I saw a snorkel fly by at one stage). Fish were being thrown around likes leaves in an Autumn storm.
We kicked hard to reach the shelter of the coral gardens and Anne needed help from dive buddy Daniel to get out of the current. I was doing relatively OK, until I realised that with my exertions to cope with the current, I’d used up all my air! Again Daniel was able to help, sharing his second stage for our safety stop. Bintang for the BFG at beer o’clock. 🍻
We are now in Sulawesi, diving in Bunaken with Living Colours and thinking about where next on our journey, as the wet season is beginning to arrive in this part of SE Asia.
Just realised, this blog post is without a sunset, that would never do. Click ‘follow’ to get updates, and comments are always welcome😊
It was Anne who first suggested a trip back ‘home’ as part of our journey, and it turned out to be a great idea. Of course home needs to be in parenthesis as our house is still rented out and despite all the wonderful family and friends we have been able to catch up with, the local haunts revisited and familiar food and beverages consumed, it still feels like we are ‘on the road’, although in a very familiar environment. Landing at Heathrow (yes there was light rain!), the Piccadilly line to North London where we’ve spent the last three decades brought a smile to both our faces.
We’ve spent just a few short weeks in these refreshing, cooler climes and now before we know it, we’re flying back to Kuala Lumpur later today.
So this blog post is not like the others. Whole sections of this part of our trip are not photographically recorded – those times were spent in the company of loved ones, family and dear friends, catching up, talking – often late into the night, and just hanging out with each other smiling, laughing and enjoying the moments. Inevitably there were people we failed to see or others where we only had a brief time to share stories of these last ten months. But that’s life and there’ll be plenty more to share when we finally return.
We managed to catch England and Scotland in the last throes of summer, so there were blue skies and sunshine interspersed with those grey days which will soon be the norm for the autumn and winter to come. It was wonderful to walk in the still green countryside and feel a cool breeze on a long warm evening. Fond memories to take back to SE Asia.
Of course we are visiting a country that has been crushed by seven years of ‘austerity’, a political dogma that has hurt so many and visibly damaged so much of the infrastructure that ordinary folk rely on. People stressed and depressed trying to do a job in sectors like health, social care and education, where funding cuts make it is impossible to deliver to those in need. Meanwhile wealthy politicians make light of the million plus people, many who are working hard every single day, yet rely on food banks to survive. There is a palpable viciousness here and the ticking time bomb of Brexit looks set to make it worse.
But for us, our thoughts are now all about the next stage of our trip, we feel lucky to have the chance of adventure and the resources to backpack the world. We feel energised by all the company of these last weeks and are keen to get back to diving again in Komodo.
Our flights from KL to Denpesar on Saturday and then to Flores the next day may yet be disrupted by the rumbling Mount Agung, that looked so majestic and peaceful just a few weeks ago. But that’s a story for the next blog.
After a few days in London, happily spent with Oona and close friends we flew up to Edinburgh to see Grant and Virginia – who were busy preparing a film shoot in the Outer Hebredies with Stella (looking forward to seeing the end result!). Edinburgh has its own character, steep streets with elegant Georgian gardens and buildings, all overlooked by the castle. And now the tram line is working, its easy to get to and to get around.
The Tower of Glenstrae
And then we were off out West, back to Glasgow by train and then on to the fabulous Tower of Glenstrae and our dear friends Maggie and Takki, where we like to think we started this adventure in November last year. This time our good friend Anne joined us, her first visit to the tower, and conversations, wine and whisky flowed long into the nights as old friends reconnected in a wonderful environment.
We made the most of the good weather with a trip to Mull, thanks to Takki for all the driving, and providing the brilliant walking weather!
After Anne L headed back to Glasgow, the weather stayed (mostly) kind and we explored Stirling (great castle) and the magnificent Kelpies, where again the stormy sky added to the dramatic environment.
A brief stop in Glasgow for haggis, neeps, tatties and some street art, then back to London town.
We enjoyed our time there, connecting with friends (thanks for the grand shed accommodation Julie!), organising our visa for the next two months in Indonesia and shopping for essentials. Then we spent a wonderful week of family time in Bristol – great to see Pam in good spirits, before heading to Stroud to catch up with Simon, Liz and family. Back to stay with Mary in London. And that is about it.
But as I said at the start this blog is missing the core part of our trip ‘home’. The hugs, the smiles, the craic and the loved ones – you’re with us in our hearts every step of the way.
Our plane is about to depart, goodbye London town… Asia, here we come!
In the past, maps were sketchy, illustrative affairs with missing detail, unchartered territory and oftentimes relied on rumour and superstition, when information was lacking.
It was the 16th Century Lenox Globe that first warned ‘hic sunt dracones’ when mapping East Asia, and certainly this could be related directly to tales of Komodo dragons told by local fishermen. More probably though, as with other maps outlining fantastic creatures, wild beasts and frozen seas, it was simply warning the intrepid traveller that they were about to enter unknown and uncharted territory and should expect the unexpected.
Now of course we travel with a digital map in our hand, where routes are already plotted and a search engine tells us whether dragons lie ahead before we set out. We search the globe seeking the new and exciting, while simultaneously clutching reviews and guides telling us where others have been before and what to do when we arrive.
Luckily, in defiance of Google Maps and Lonely Planet, as the ancient Greeks observed ‘No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man’. So for us, this section of our trip is unchartered territory, containing more mystery excitement and adventure – and yes, here there be dragons … and other wondrous creatures besides.
Towards the end of our time in East Bali, we again hired a car and travelled the less populous sections of this beautiful island in a 14 hour day of driving, exploring temples, coastlines and remote villages.
The luscious green rice fields, lakes and mountainous volcanic landscape of the Balinese countryside is spectacular.