The unexpected exceeds many expectations while traveling. There have been moments when we notice things or something happens and we blink and think “Wow, we never thought we'd see something like that.”
Exhibit A: After loading onto a very nice, air conditioned bus for an overnight trip across Malaysia, a Muslim cleric gets on the bus, says a very lengthy prayer (in Arabic, we presume), then walks down the aisle collecting money. Virtually everyone on the bus gives him money, except for us. He stops at our seats, looks at us for a while, says some more stuff, then continues on. Did he put a hex on us? Does he hate us because he knows we are American? Was he for real? We'll never know.
Exhibit B: We spent a few days at the Perhentian Islands, in the very northeast corner of Malaysia. One fine day, while swimming and sitting on the beach reading, a very large (and I mean LARGE, well over two meters long) monitor lizard cruises down to the beach, walks around, then goes for a refreshing dip, swimming through the water. The thought of a large, swimming, carnivorous reptile is a little worrisome while snorkeling.
Exhibit C: Who knew we'd be surrounded by large, sunburnt Russians on the Andaman coast in Thailand? In places, everything is translated into Russian. The televisions in bars are tuned to Russian programming. They must have good airfare deals this time of year.
Our traveling style these days is at a much quicker pace, staying in one place for typically no more than three nights or so, so we have spent many hours on busses, trains, and boats. From KL, we went to Perhentian Kecil, a lovely, if not “backpacker” style island with insanely clear water and fabulous snorkeling complete with beachside bars, thumping beats, and abundant booze (rare for Malaysia). From there, we scooted back across the country, on another overnight bus, then ferry, to the northwest corner to Georgetown on Pulau Penang, known for its Chinatown, Little India, and abundance of street food.
The goal was to be out of Malaysia before the start of Ramadan, the very important month of reflection and fasting for Muslims. During this time, Muslims only eat or drink one hour before sunrise, then again after sunset. Many eateries are closed during the day, which is quite dicey when you are (read: Chris is) hungry! However, although the majority of Malaysia is Muslim there is also a large Chinese population that turns out some exceptional food. Thank god for the Chinese! We left Malaysia on the second day of Ramadan, with full bellies.
Our basic routine has changed from “eat, sleep, surf” to “eat, eat, eat” for we are in Thailand and the food is incredible, cheap and abundant. Piles of Pad Thai, satay, noodle soup, crispy pork, and of course panang curry. We literally eat two to three lunches a day, moving from one food cart to the next, spending two dollars at each place. Chris' vocabulary has been reduced to “I think I'm ready for another noodle bowl.” Although it is generally the low tourist season for most of Thailand, we find it to be quite developed and touristy, something we are trying to get used to. There are some advantages to this, particularly that transportation is very organized and it is easy to figure out how to get from point A to point B. The downside is that things are more expensive and the locals hassle you to take a taxi, eat at their restaurant, braid your hair into tiny painful cornrows (never in my life will I do this), or whatever it is that they are selling.
The seas on the Andaman coast are rough, but what that means for us… WAVES. We did our homework and made it to a “surf spot” in Thailand and lo and behold, got two much needed wonderful little surf sessions today. We rented boards (we left ours in Sri Lanka for a month) from a goofy British dude named Lee and spent the morning surfing with him in what we would now call marginal surf. Sometimes it doesn't take world class waves to make your day. After not surfing for three weeks, we realize how much surfing has become a part of who we are. Withdrawal therapy may be necessary when we return to landlocked Central Oregon.
From leopard sightings to skyscrapers, we are on the move, full backpacker style. The swell started pumping during our last few days at Arugam Bay, or as our Kiwi friend Tom says, “the surf was gangbusters.” We went on exotic tuk-tuk adventures everyday, pulling over to watch elephants grazing at dawn, finding great waves, and eating piles of banana/chocolate/coconut rotis. Sri Lanka treated us so well, that we have decided to return in August for the last month of our journey. So we've stored our surfboards there and are now traveling light and fast. Okay, maybe not so fast… But two small daypacks and one duffle is a dream compared to that PLUS three shortboards. Taking a break from surfing (this is a YEAR in trim, after all), was a tough decision, but we are already enjoying the ride.
We took the long route back to Colombo, traveling by train and bus to the southern tip, then up the west side of the island. Our first night was spent in Tissamaharama, where we embarked on another half day safari, with the hope of seeing a leopard, as this area has the world's highest concentration of these animals. We had heard good things about a particular driver, Eka Deka, so we requested him to guide us through the park. We climbed into a very old British Land Rover, and proceeded to seriously haul ass out of town, passing cars, cars, busses, and other wide eyed safari goers. Clearly this guy has been doing this for a while and was hell bent on getting us to see as much as possible. Eka Deka did not disappoint and we were rewarded with many animals, including a leopard sighting. We pulled up to about six other jeeps that spotted the leopard walking off the road and into the bush. As all the other tourists sat there, scanning the bush, Chris happened to glance behind us, just in time to see the big cat saunter into the road, yawn, then proceed to lay down in the middle of the road, while about 30 tourists faced the other direction. For a few minutes, it was the two of us quietly watching the leopard lounge in the road, truly an amazing animal.
From Tissamaharama, we spent the next night in Galle, a 1600's Dutch colonial fort built on a peninsula on the southwest coast of the island. Unlike anything else we have seen in Sri Lanka, the fort was packed with narrow brick streets, colonial architecture, and small cafes and shops, giving it a very European feel. The fort, being a fort and all, is surrounded by a huge wall that is entirely walkable. From Galle, we bus hopped our way up the west coast, stopping in dry season surf spots such as Hikkaduwa and Bentota. Not to disappoint, our last travel leg of the day was on the most jam packed, sticky, sweaty commuter train. Ah Sri Lanka, we can't wait to come back!
We are currently spending a few hectic days in wealthy, modern, shopaholic Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. A quite pleasing city, with outstanding architecture, excellent public transit, cheap digs, and some incredibly humid heat. Fortunately, there are tons of air conditioned malls to get a reprieve from the sweatfest. We've spent a few days here, living the city life, sightseeing, riding public transit, shopping, eating street food, getting our fix of western food (Krispy Kreme and Pizza Hut, anyone?), and just doing some good old fashioned people watching. A very diverse city, from local Chinese and Malay, Chinese tourists, European backpackers, Aussie trash (we'll touch on that in another post), and Muslim women, faces covered in full burqas, buying designer hand bags. Consumerism really does bring the world together!
Since we are now on the slackpacker trail, rather than the surfer trail, so we are definitely hanging with a different crowd. Our “backpacker inn” in KL is quite a scene with a rather eclectic mix of twenty something Euros, a few dubious looking middle aged men, and a Japanese guy who sits with his MacBook all day, looking like he is doing very important work. The place is a funky, multilevel place, covered in original oil paintings with paper thin walls between the rooms and friendly staff.
Time to leave the city before we get hooked on junk food!
Sri Lanka is nothing short of fascinating and magical. It is a land where following wild elephant footprints to the surf break is oh so common. Where in a single bus ride, we pass colorful circus-like Hindu temples, pristine white Buddhist dagobas, loudspeaker blaring mosques, and Catholic churches, all on the same highway. Men ride old, clunky bicycles, tucking their lungi (a sarong-like skirt) up underneath them. Pick up cricket matches occupy the beach and roadside clearings. Locals whisper “the monkeys are coming” and hurry to close up their kitchens so they don't get ravaged by the critters.
We took a slow route through the center of the country, stopping in some of the higher altitude places amongst miles and miles of tea plantations. We came very, very close to going on a mountain bike ride, but nasty weather prevented us from pulling it off. Let's just say that Chris was frothing over the mountain bike potential. After spending a few more nights in the chilly hill country (yes, we were wearing long pants, and the worst part, shoes), we took more trains, busses and tuk-tuks to reach our surfing destination, at Arugam Bay, on the east coast of the island. Our last leg of the bus provided great views of elephants roaming in the wild. Katy let out a little yelp, stared wide eyed out the window, the locals stared at her, and everyone was happy.
It's easy livin' in Arugam Bay. A Sri Lankan surfers haven, it is packed with good eateries, cheap accommodation, a tuk tuk waiting on every corner – and lots of surfers. Lots and lots. It's the most crowded place we've ever surfed (that includes places in California, like Trestles and Huntington Beach), so, for better or worse, we are honing in our people skills! We're surrounded by Europeans, Australians, Kiwis, and Israelis on holiday. I digress… To date, in almost three months of travel in Asia, we have met five…only five…Americans amongst hundreds of South Africans, Australians, Kiwis, Israelis, Austrians, Swiss, Germans, Irish, Spanish, Portuguese, Czech, British, Japanese, Canadians, even a guy from Reunion Island. Do you know where Reunion Island is? I didn't, until now, so load Google Maps and look it up. We routinely have people asking why it is that Americans don't travel, and we spit out some weird answer while we look at our feet and mumble “it's a lot of things – fear, money, the fact that travel is not a strongly supported value in the US, and well, we just don't have a good answer.” All we can say is do yourself a favor and buy a plane ticket to somewhere, anywhere and see the world.
Back to Arugam Bay, and our two favorite pastimes, surfing and tuk tuk driving. The surfing here, albeit crowded, is a downright kick in the pants. The east coast is teeming with a bunch of known and not so well known right hand, sandy bottom point breaks. Cruiser rides, low fear factor, warm blue water, and absolutely incredible pristine beaches make for very good times. The air so hot, the clouds so low …oh wait, those are song lyrics. But it is hot and dry here during the day, but the evenings are perfect with a light breeze. Our second most enjoyable hobby is exploring the area in our own dirt cheap personal tuk-tuk that we are sharing with our new friend, Kiwi Tom. This is good for two reasons: 1) we can go wherever we want, whenever we want. 2) we get to drive a tuk-tuk, which is a completely functional yet hilarious vehicle. Three tiny wheels, handlebar steering, manual drive, complete with customizable horn sounds, fringe and stuffed animal accoutrements. Yep, its pretty fun. It does pavement, dirt, even a little sand. Unlike at home where we have “singletrack” or “doubletrack”, here we have “tripletrack”. We are working on the sound system, and perhaps installing a black light, to better pimp our ride, yo.
We are very close to the border of one of the many national parks in Sri Lanka, Yala East National Park, so the area is rich with animals and birds. We took a half day jeep safari one afternoon and saw incredible amounts of wildlife, including elephants, wild boar, wild buffalo, jackals, deer, mongoose, tortoise, many very large crocodiles, and tons of exotic birds. We feel incredibly lucky to see some of these animals in the wild before they are gone, as they are quickly losing habitat to development. Fortunately Sri Lankans seem to have great pride in their historical, cultural and natural resources and it appears to be a developing country that, despite years of brutal civil war and a devastating tsunami, has it together in many ways. We are quite impressed.
While we toil away our days in A Bay, we are planning the next leg of our trip, which makes us really feel like we have big WPP – White People's Problems. What should we do? Where should we go? Ideas?
Until next time…
Sunset cricket match. We are starting to learn the rules.
Lots of old clunkers like this.
Solitude while searching for waves.