Manila's not-so-impressive domestic terminal
Manila's not-so-impressive domestic terminal
Mongoose
Mongoose

Our award ticket from Brunei to Sri Lanka allowed us to make a free stopover in Singapore along the way. We have both visited Singapore in the past so we didn’t have any particular sightseeing in mind, however, we were eager to dig into Singapore’s diverse food scene. Much like Malaysia, Singapore’s food world is a mix of Chinese, Indian, and Malay cooking styles and for being a relatively expensive travel destination, the food is comparatively cheap.

It had been a couple of years since I last visited and I remembered hearing all sorts of hype about the new Marina Bay Sands development on reclaimed ground near downtown. The development is supposed to be Singapore’s up-and-coming 24/7 entertainment district with shopping, theaters, a casino, museums, and a luxury hotel. The hotel is housed in three 55-story buildings that are bridged at the top by a “SkyPark.”

Although most of the complex is finished, public transportation infrastructure is still a work in progress as we discovered. Getting there was a sweaty schlep through a construction site in Singapore’s hot afternoon sun. For an orderly country like Singapore, this is way off the norm! Wandering around Marina Bay Sands was interesting enough but neither of us were willing to cough up the exorbitant SG$20 (US$17) admission cost to visit the SkyPark.

The following day we paid the Asian Civilizations Museum a visit. There was an absolutely massive line stretching out the door that we later found out was due to a visiting exhibit of terracotta warriors from China and because admission was free for the day. The wait was something like 90 minutes for the special exhibit but we found out way into their permanent collection and soaked up the aircon for a few hours. It is a fascinating museum and I particularly liked the video consoles that showed how some of the arts and crafts were made.

Black carrot cake (don't ask me about the name), a Singaporean favorite
Black carrot cake (don’t ask me about the name), a Singaporean favorite

As always, Singapore treated our bellies quite well. We made plenty of stops for snacks and meals at the food courts and hawker centers that fill just about every nook and cranny of the city center. On our last day we made the pilgrimage to the Maxwell Road Food Centre and I got a plate of chicken and rice from one of the famous stalls. I also ordered up some black carrot cake which is a strange wok-cooked savory dish that is a local favorite.

Departure board at Changi International Airport
Departure board at Changi International Airport

By mid afternoon on the third day we were growing tired of the hot weather and decided to head to the airport early. For those of you who haven’t visiting Singapore’s Changi airport, it is a sight to be seen. The airport has won piles of awards for being one of the world’s best. The usual passenger facilities like check-in areas, security and immigration are all well-designed and adequately staffed but what really sets it apart is what lies behind immigration. Loads of shopping outlets, free movie theaters, hundreds of free internet terminals, koi ponds, butterfly gardens, etc. Literally enough to keep one entertained for days on end.

We crashed out in some free massage chairs for a while next to a koi pond before making our way to Singapore Airline’s Silver Kris Lounge. We started at the lounge in Terminal 2 but it was very crowded due to some renovations that are taking place. Terminal 3 was much quieter and we made good use of the shower facilities and their speedy internet connection. I also made good use of their sushi and open bar!

The flight to Colombo was a short 3-hour hop on one of Singapore Airline’s new A330-300 aircraft. Amy had special ordered a vegetarian meal and I availed myself to Singapore Air’s “Book The Cook” service. Good thing I did “Book the Cook” because the menu was strikingly similar to what we had on the flight from Brunei. We didn’t know it at the time but the flight was to be our last taste of luxury (or even somewhat comfortable) transportation for the next few weeks!

Lobster thermidor
Lobster thermidor
Singapore to Sri Lanka
ArtScience Museum (left) at Marina Bay Sands
ArtScience Museum (left) at Marina Bay Sands
Cooling off with an ABC at Marina Bay Sands
Cooling off with an ABC at Marina Bay Sands
Singapore's much-visited Merlion
Singapore’s much-visited Merlion
Hindu temple in Chinatown
Hindu temple in Chinatown
A few of the many interesting treasures at the Asian Civilizations Museum
A few of the many interesting treasures at the Asian Civilizations Museum
Chicken and rice and sweet barley drink at the Maxell Road Hawker Centre
Chicken and rice and sweet barley drink at the Maxell Road Hawker Centre
Black carrot cake (don't ask me about the name), a Singaporean favorite
Black carrot cake (don’t ask me about the name), a Singaporean favorite
Departure board at Changi International Airport
Departure board at Changi International Airport
Regional business class seats on SQ's new A330-300 aircraft
Regional business class seats on SQ’s new A330-300 aircraft
Prawn salad
Prawn salad
Lobster thermidor
Lobster thermidor
Kenyan AA coffee and creme brulee
Kenyan AA coffee and creme brulee
The rather obvious routing from Singapore to Sri Lanka :)
The rather obvious routing from Singapore to Sri Lanka :)

Aug 262011

Once we finished our diving and snorkeling at Sibuan, we headed back to Semporna and bought tickets for the overnight bus to Kota Kinabalu.  Completing three dives that same day left me exhausted and I was certain that I would sleep like a baby regardless of the conditions on the overnight bus ride.  Naturally, I was proven wrong.

Yay, we get to travel in First Class tonight!
Yay, we get to travel in First Class tonight!

The bus left at around 7:30PM and by 9PM the air conditioning had stopped functioning.  Air con buses are great but air con buses with a broken AC unit are ten times worse than a bus without AC because the windows can’t be opened!  We spent the next few hours tossing and turning along with the other 47 people on the bus.  Around midnight we came screeching to a halt at some nondescript roadside eatery out in the middle of Sabah’s palm plantations.  Half the passengers and the drivers jumped out to take a break.  Since neither of us was managing any sleep in the sauna-on-wheels, we stretched our legs.  What happened next was quite unexpected.

Just as we were about to leave, the ticket guy from our bus came over and said we should move to the other bus.  Nobody else was moving but he said we could go “same seats, same seats” he proclaimed.  I double, no, triple-checked to make sure the bus was also headed to KK.  Indeed it was and he was just moving us because there happened to be open seats on their other bus (from Lahad Datu, another east coast city, I presume) and the AC was working.  I was mighty impressed by this gesture!

We arrived in KK at some horrid hour…3:30AM or thereabouts.   The second bus was much more comfortable from a temperature standpoint but the legroom was painfully minimal.  Making matters worse was the fact that they guy behind me wouldn’t let me recline my seat at all.  No sleep for me that night but at least we were out of Semporna!  Our hotel in KK was completely locked down so we had our choice between a 24-hour KFC and a 24-hour McDonalds.  We mooched McD’s wifi and enjoyed a couple of beverages for the next three hours.

Ferry boat for Kota Kinabalu to Pulau Labuan
Ferry boat for Kota Kinabalu to Pulau Labuan

Brunei, one of SE Asia’s more obscure countries, was our next destination on the trip.  Brunei has two small slivers of land on the north coast of Borneo and is home to about 400,000 people.  Huge amounts of oil have been discovered in Brunei and this has developed the country and made it one of the richest in the region.  Apparently, it is possible to get to Brunei overland from Sabah but it is a huge pain.  The easier route, and the one we selected, was to take a boat from KK to Pulau Labuan and then switch to a second boat bound for Brunei.  We left KK a little late in the day which unfortunately forced us to overnight in Labuan.  We found some decent Indian food there but there was little else of note.

The next day we made the quick one-hour crossing to Brunei’s port of Muara and caught a bus from there to the country’s capital – Bandar Seri Begawan.  Our immediate impression of Bandar Seri Begawan (BSB, for short) was that it is strikingly similar to Singapore.  Not in the sense of there being huge glamorous high-rises and crazy shopping malls – there isn’t anything of the sort, but rather, in the sense that the place was impeccably clean and well organized.  We just barely beat a tropical rainstorm to the hotel.

Downpour on arrival in BSB
Downpour on arrival in BSB

After settling into our room we walked to the city center and hired a boatman for a quick spin through Kampong Ayer, the nearby stilt village which many call the “Venice of the East.”  Apparently, Kampong Ayer is one of the largest stilt villages in the world and the nickname makes sense to me.  It is a bewildering labyrinth of canals and wooden houses and shops all strung together by wooden walkways.  What makes it particularly interesting is how the government has officially embraced its existence.  Our boatman kept pointing out schools, police stations, and even fire departments that were built into the village.  Additionally, many of the houses have drinking water and city sewage service.  Very cool!

From the boat, we also got a brief glimpse of the Sultan’s enormous palace which has 1,788 rooms!  It’s too bad we weren’t visiting Brunei a little later in the month because at the end of Ramadan, the palace opens for everyone to visit and feast.  One of the locals we met later in our stay told us that he goes with his family each and every year and that it is a party not to be forgotten.  If you are on Borneo for Ramadan, make it a point to be there – that was the message.

The Sultan's palace
The Sultan’s palace

The main attractions in BSB include the strikingly beautiful Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin Mosque and the Royal Regalia Museum.  The pictures of the mosque speak for themselves, it is an incredible structure and it is unfortunate that we weren’t able to visit the interior (closed to visitors during Ramadan).  The Royal Regalia museum was also quite interesting.  Photos weren’t allowed inside but you can imagine what is inside: all sorts of fancy royal clothing, huge parade chariots pulled by a 30 men, and of course the many gifts the Sultan has received from other governments.

On our second day in BSB we rode on a speedboat to Brunei’s Temburong district which is isolated from the rest of the country by a small piece of Malaysia (Sarawak).  The Lonely Planet highly recommended the ride even if we didn’t have a specific reason to go to Temburong and they were right.  The boat held about 20 people but had two 150-hp outboards strapped to the back.  Jetting through the narrow channels through the mangroves was lots of fun!  Once in Temburong we wandered a bit and then grabbed some cold drinks at a restaurant before heading back to BSB.

On the ride back, and I’m sorry I wasn’t fast enough to get a photo, we saw a huge crocodile sunbathing along the bank.  Now as a Floridian I feel that I am relatively well-qualified to make statements about the size of water-borne reptiles.  When I say huge, I mean HUGE.  This thing was far larger than the largest American alligators that I’ve seen back home.  The Wikipedia article on the matter informs me that water crocs can reach 20ft in length and top the scales at 2,000lbs – it also provides some scary narrative about their feeding behavior.  I believe every bit of it and I am sure glad that we weren’t kayaking the mangroves!

Seafood noodles
Seafood noodles

We found some delicious food in Brunei.  Much like Singapore, the local cuisine is a mix of Malay, Chinese and Indian foods.  As we often do in our travels, we quickly found a convenient and favorite place to eat and we returned for a number of meals over the course of our three day visit.  The roti canai cooked up at this place for breakfast was mighty tasty and we also had some excellent noodle dishes for dinner.

Only in Brunei can one find a control tower with gold all over it!
Only in Brunei can one find a control tower with gold all over it!

BSB’s airport is one of only two on Borneo that is served by Star Alliance airline (on their own metal, at least) and available for award redemption.  Since flying out of Kota Kinabalu would have involved backtracking to Seoul, we booked two business class seats on Singapore Airline’s twice-weekly widebody service from Brunei.

Massage chairs at Royal Brunei's Sky Lounge
Massage chairs at Royal Brunei’s Sky Lounge

Brunei’s international airports departure lounge has vaulted ceilings and some small koi ponds scattered about that gave it a slightly Changi Airport (SIN) feel.  After thoroughly exploring the curbside section of the airport, including the very nice rooftop “waving gallery” that has tarmac views, we headed through passport control to get showers in Royal Brunei’s Sky Lounge and have a few snacks.  The flight to Singapore was a short 2-hour hop and we had a good view of the Sultan’s palace shortly after takeoff.

Brunei
Yay, we get to travel in First Class tonight!
Yay, we get to travel in First Class tonight!
Ferry boat for Kota Kinabalu to Pulau Labuan
Ferry boat for Kota Kinabalu to Pulau Labuan
Downpour on arrival in BSB
Downpour on arrival in BSB
Fancy hotel room in Brunei
Fancy hotel room in Brunei
The direction to Mecca.
The direction to Mecca.
This is what happens when you go from an aircon building into the humid outdoors in BSB.
This is what happens when you go from an aircon building into the humid outdoors in BSB.
The Sultan's palace
The Sultan’s palace
Central BSB
Central BSB
Our ride to the Temburong district of Brunei
Our ride to the Temburong district of Brunei
Ginger drink
Ginger drink
Seafood noodles
Seafood noodles
Tasty roti canai for breakfast
Tasty roti canai for breakfast
Pizza Hut, even in Brunei!
Pizza Hut, even in Brunei!
Downtown BSB
Downtown BSB
There is a great observation deck on top of BSB airport.
There is a great observation deck on top of BSB airport.
Only in Brunei can one find a control tower with gold all over it!
Only in Brunei can one find a control tower with gold all over it!
Coi at Brunei's Airport - it's like a minature Changi airport!
Coi at Brunei’s Airport – it’s like a minature Changi airport!
Our plane for Singapore
Our plane for Singapore
Massage chairs at Royal Brunei's Sky Lounge
Massage chairs at Royal Brunei’s Sky Lounge
The Sultan's Palace
The Sultan’s Palace

Aug 242011
Pulau Sibuan
Pulau Sibuan

At the far eastern end of Sabah lies the town of Semporna, the gateway to Tun Sakaran Marine Park.  The park, which includes Sipadan Island, is widely regarded as one of the world’s best dive sites.  We arrived in Semporna on a hot and humid afternoon and without any specific plans as to how to visit the park or where to stay.  Finding some accommodations was pretty easy even through the tourist season is in full swing.  After some food, we dropped off our laundry at the laundromat and went shopping for a dive operator.

Singamata Reef Resort
Singamata Reef Resort

Most of the dive outfits have accommodations on islands in the park that you are allowed to use if you book dives and/or courses.  Mabul Island is the most popular and the most highly recommended places to stay (at least in the budget category) were booked up.  We came across a place called Singamata Reef Resort that seemed to be a nice alternative.  Instead of being on one of the islands in the park, it is located on a reef a few miles offshore from Semporna.  Their prices were reasonable (US$33 per person per night, full-board provided) and they still operated dive trips to the park.

We wanted to escape Semporna the very next day but our laundry wasn’t ready yet so we were forced to stay another night.  Laundry places in Malaysia are full service – you can’t wash your clothes yourself even if you want to!  Semporna isn’t exactly the nicest of Malaysian towns so we mostly hid out in our hotel room (with AC!).  The main activity for that day was a lunchtime visit to the open-air food market.  Semporna itself didn’t seem to have all that many restaurant options.  Maybe that was because it was Ramadan, or maybe that is because we didn’t know where to look.

Murtabak vendors
Murtabak vendors

The food-market had quite a bit to offer.  There were numerous drink vendors whose beverage selection covered every color of the rainbow.  There were also quite a few vendors with grills covered in fish and chicken.  Personally, I ended up grabbing a vegetable murtabak which is a stuffed roti served with curry.  Roti is a flakey flatbread made of flour and ghee that is cooked on a grill.  I also noticed that quite a few stalls were cooking up large pancake-looking things that were filled with peanuts.  To drink, I got a plastic bag of super sweet orange juice.  The problem with the market was that there was no place to sit and enjoy your food – it was purely a takeaway operation so we headed back to the hotel room and I very carefully tried to eat my murtabak and curry without spilling it all over the place.  A tasty lunch for about a buck.

Vegetable murtabak with curry
Vegetable murtabak with curry

The next morning we reported in at the Singamata office at 8am for the morning boat departure.  The ride out to the resort was less than 10 minutes and they quickly showed us to our room in one of the stilt-houses.  Amy and I chatted with a Swiss couple who were staying a few doors down and we learned that they were both dive masters staying at the resort.  For those unfamiliar, the basic setup for dive masters is they get free housing in exchange for leading dive trips.  It’s a good way to do lots of diving on the cheap but of course you have to pay for all those certifications first!

The view  out our room's door.  Qualifies as waterfront I would say!
The view out our room’s door. Qualifies as waterfront I would say!

At Singamata there are a couple of options for diving.  First you can just go diving at the “house reef” which is literally just below the resort.  These dives cost RM80 (US$27) and can be made more or less spontaneously, subject to dive master availability.  The second option is one of the full-day island trips where you get three dives, lunch, and boat transfer for RM300 (US$100).

Nudi branch
Nudi branch

Since it had been many years since my last dive, the dive masters recommended a check-out dive for the house reef that afternoon.  Four of us went that day, two dive masters (Eric and Nat from Switzerland) and another diver (also Swiss, I think).  We dove to about 12m and had a poke around for 41 minutes.  The coral in that area isn’t all that spectacular but as a “muck diving” site there was lots to see – mainly small creatures like shrimp and colorful nudibranch.  One of the dive masters has an underwater camera so I am happy to be able to share some photos from the dive.  Given our proximity to the town, visibility was quite good – around 10m.

On the second day we had hoped to do a three-dive day trip.  The weather overnight was absolutely miserable.  Violent thunderstorms, strong winds and plenty of rain.  When we rose it was still drizzling and windy and I didn’t feel comfortable going out to one of the islands, particular if lightning was a possibility.  We stayed behind and I completed another house dive late in the afternoon.

Pulau Sibuan
Pulau Sibuan

On day 3 the weather improved and we took the full-day trip to Sibuan Island.  The boat ride out was about 40 minutes and we completed two of the dives before the lunch break.  Amy split her time between snorkeling off the beach of the island and snorkeling from the boat when it took us to dive sights.  For me, the best experience of the day was getting to swim alongside of a huge green sea turtle (3-4 feet across the shell) while he/she grazed on the bottom.  Amy also managed to spot a sea turtle while snorkeling.  Other highlights of that day included a black frog fish which I never would have spotted had it not been for my able dive master.  Unfortunately the dive master didn’t bring the camera along on the day trip so I don’t have pictures of my turtle encounter.  Visibility for all three of the dives that day was quite good, at least 15m!

In the end we were very happy with the Singamata Reef Resort.  The food was nice, the rooms were clean and the location was a welcome change from the stifling heat in Semporna.  It’s too bad about the weather on day 2 as I gladly would have done another full-day dive trip. but we had to move on.  I am glad to get back to the diving hobby and hopefully this trip will carry us through other good diving locations in the coming months.

SCUBA at Sibuan Island
Semporna's food market
Semporna’s food market
I was intrigued by these peanut pancake things so I bought one.
I was intrigued by these peanut pancake things so I bought one.
Some sort of sweet pancake with peanut filling
Some sort of sweet pancake with peanut filling
Murtabak vendors
Murtabak vendors
Vegetable murtabak with curry
Vegetable murtabak with curry
One of the common shower annoyances: a broken showerhead holder. This one I fixedw ith bungee cords.
One of the common shower annoyances: a broken showerhead holder. This one I fixedw ith bungee cords.
Another nice traffic circle
Another nice traffic circle
The view out of our room's window
The view out of our room’s window
The view  out our room's door.  Qualifies as waterfront I would say!
The view out our room’s door. Qualifies as waterfront I would say!
Heading out on my first dive in many years!
Heading out on my first dive in many years!
Nudi branch
Nudi branch
Another nudi branch
Another nudi branch
Smile!
Smile!
Crocadile fish
Crocadile fish
Lizard fish
Lizard fish
Razor fish
Razor fish
Nudi branch eggs
Nudi branch eggs
Singamata Reef Resort
Singamata Reef Resort
Pulau Sibuan
Pulau Sibuan
Pulau Sibuan
Pulau Sibuan
Amy snorkeling in the “aquarium” at the resort
Amy snorkeling in the “aquarium” at the resort
Amy snorkeling in the “aquarium” at the resort
Amy snorkeling in the “aquarium” at the resort

Our mode of transport for the three days of the excursion
Our mode of transport for the three days of the excursion

Kinabantangan.  That’s a mouthful but it rolls off the tounge once you get used to it.  It’s the name of a river in northern Sabah that has recently been protected as a wildlife refuge.  It is indeed chock full of animals but the underlying reason is a bit sad.

Soon after we left the highlands around Kinabalu the land flattened out and we rode through endless fields of palm trees.  Malaysia is the world’s largest exporter of palm oil and much of it comes from Sabah.  As the demand for palm oil rose over the last century the rainforests of Sabah were cleared to make room for massive palm oil plantations.  One of the few areas untouched by this development was the sliver of land carved out by the Kinabatangan River.

We arranged a three-day, two-night trip with the Greenview B&B in Sukau, a little village along the river.  The tour included all meals, transport from Sandakan, accommodation and a smattering of boat tours and hikes.

Day 1 of the trip included a boat cruise in the late afternoon.  We motored along the river for a while and spotted a few hornbills flying about.  Eventually we turned down a narrow canal that emptied into the river.  It wasn’t long before we started to see monkeys – lots of monkeys.  The most common were macaques (both the long-tail and pig-tail variety) but the most popular among us tourists were the proboscis monkeys.  Proboscis monkeys, specifically the dominant males, have a nose of cartoon proportions that photographs well.

A male proboscis monkey.  The most famous nose in Borneo.
A male proboscis monkey. The most famous nose in Borneo.

After a long while staring at the monkeys, our boat driver received a call on his cell phone.  Yeah, we weren’t exactly way out in the wilderness.  Regardless, the phone call was to inform him that some of the area’s pygmy elephants had been spotted nearby.  I can’t say that I have received a phone call about elephants but it seemed like an everyday thing for the guides.  We sped off down the canal at a rate which  made me feel sorry for the other tourists who were just arriving.

A family of proboscis monkeys
A family of proboscis monkeys

Closer to the village we pulled up along the bank and saw some of the trees and bushes moving around.  Inside the guide promised were “some” elephants.  A short while later we heard the distinctive trumpeting of an elephant.  There was a rather large group of them in the forest but we could only see a few that were nearest the river bank.  Apparently, we were lucky to see them at all and they are definitely one of the rarest mammals we’ve seen in the wild – only a few thousand individuals are estimated to remain.  As adults they only stand about 2 meters tall, much smaller than normal elephants.

Borneo pygmy elephants
Borneo pygmy elephants

After a buffet dinner back at the B&B we went on a night boat ride.  We spotted quite a few owls, a reticulated python and a few kingfishers.  Photography was pretty tough but the guide’s spotlight helped us get a few good shots.

Reticulated python
Reticulated python

The next morning we rose early and took another boat ride.  Some eagles were out fishing in the river and we passed a “school boat” filled with kids on their way to school.  A short while later we got another glimpse of the pygmy elephants, this time it was an immature female.

Pygmy elephant, an immature female
Pygmy elephant, an immature female
Rollie-pollie bug...the size of a ping pong ball!
Rollie-pollie bug…the size of a ping pong ball!

We stopped at one point and went on a short hike through the jungle and found a number of huge insects.  When I think of a rollie-pollie I think of a small insect the size of a pencil eraser.  In Borneo, their rollie-pollies are the size of ping pong balls!  We also spotted some nicely camouflaged insects like this leaf bug.

A leaf bug
A leaf bug

All of the tourist material about the Borneo jungle gives some information about the leeches.  Fortunately for us, our visit was well-timed during the dry season and they are much less active.  We only saw one during our stay and it was happily attached to the back of one of the other tourists staying at our B&B.  Despite their vile reputation, apparently the leeches in this area really aren’t all that dangerous as they don’t host diseases like mosquitoes.  Nevertheless, I was happy not to have been bitten!

Night walk through the jungle
Night walk through the jungle

On our second night of the tour we completed a nighttime hike through the jungle behind the B&B.  We wore waterproof boots to deal with the muck and very slowly made our way through the jungle.   Thorny vines were the main bother and the mosquitoes really weren’t all that bad.

We saw some really crazy looking bugs during the night walk
We saw some really crazy looking bugs during the night walk

Overall we were only moderately impressed with the tour.  Then again, we have both been on some really good boat tours on this trip so the competition is a bit steep.  Being able to see the pygmy elephants in the wild was certainly the highlight for both of us.  Both the guidebooks and the local tourist literature flaunt the Kinabatangan as a haven for bird spotting but our tour, and I suspect many of the competing outfits, are just not setup for this kind of tourism.  There are simply too many people visiting a very small area of land.  This aspect of the tour left me disappointed.

Lots and lots of tourists visit the Kinabatangan
Lots and lots of tourists visit the Kinabatangan

The biggest take-away for me from these three days was the environmental impact of the palm oil industry.  What this industry has done to the landscape of Borneo is very sad and I will certainly be more conscious in the future when I see products at the store containing palm oil.

Kinabatangan River
Our mode of transport for the three days of the excursion
Our mode of transport for the three days of the excursion
After about an hour I concluded that this lifevest was far more valuable as a cushion than as a floatation device.
After about an hour I concluded that this lifevest was far more valuable as a cushion than as a floatation device.
Hornbills
Hornbills
A male proboscis monkey.  The most famous nose in Borneo.
A male proboscis monkey. The most famous nose in Borneo.
Oriental Darter
Oriental Darter
A family of proboscis monkeys
A family of proboscis monkeys
A female proboscis and her child
A female proboscis and her child
Bornean pygmy elephants
Bornean pygmy elephants
Borneo pygmy elephants
Borneo pygmy elephants
“The Lion King Photo” according to a Dutch guy on our tour.
“The Lion King Photo” according to a Dutch guy on our tour.
Plenty of geckos around our guest house
Plenty of geckos around our guest house
Reticulated python
Reticulated python
Kingfisher, the smallest species in Borneo I was told.
Kingfisher, the smallest species in Borneo I was told.
Early morning sighting of a red-haired monkey
Early morning sighting of a red-haired monkey
Boat cruise at dawn
Boat cruise at dawn
It's the school boat!
It’s the school boat!
Pygmy elephants again, this is an immature female.
Pygmy elephants again, this is an immature female.
Pygmy elephant, an immature female
Pygmy elephant, an immature female
Oriental darters
Oriental darters
Water monitor lizard - about 5ft long
Water monitor lizard – about 5ft long
Rollie-pollie bug...the size of a ping pong ball!
Rollie-pollie bug…the size of a ping pong ball!
A large hive of bees
A large hive of bees
A leaf bug
A leaf bug
It looks like smoke but it is actually fungi spores coming out of a log.
It looks like smoke but it is actually fungi spores coming out of a log.
Elephant ear - a type of fungus.  Literally the size of an elephant's ear.
Elephant ear – a type of fungus. Literally the size of an elephant’s ear.
A walking stick
A walking stick
Proboscis monkey
Proboscis monkey
Lots and lots of tourists visit the Kinabatangan
Lots and lots of tourists visit the Kinabatangan
A quick glimpse of a very shy otter
A quick glimpse of a very shy otter
Night walk through the jungle
Night walk through the jungle
We saw some really crazy looking bugs during the night walk
We saw some really crazy looking bugs during the night walk

Orangutans!

Asia, Malaysia Comments Off
Aug 162011
Central Sandakan's weekly market
Central Sandakan’s weekly market

Making our way from Kinabalu National Park over to Sandakan on Sabah’s northern coast was pretty easy.  We rose early and took a taxi from the lodge down to the highway and then waited for one of the KK-to-Sandakan buses to come down the highway.  The 4-hour ride came to 40 ringgit (about US$14) for a nice air-con bus with horrible movies blaring away.  Just as we were approaching Sandakan I caught sight of another fine example of Malaysia traffic circle ornamentation.  Behold:

Another fine example of Malaysian traffic circle decor.
Another fine example of Malaysian traffic circle decor.

The May Fair Inn in Sandakan was recommended by the Lonely Planet and we soon found out why.  It was located smack bang in the center of town and for RM50 (about US$17) we got a nice room complete with private bath, a very capable air con unit, a flat-screen TV, a DVD player as well as free reign over the proprietor’s absolutely massive collection of DVDs.  The owner even had the DVDs sorted into enticing categories such as “Stallone Movies”, “Van Damme Movies”, and “Giant Animals.”  We didn’t end up watching any while we were there but the room was spotless and had good lighting, loads of power outlets and a nice clothesline pre-strung in the bathroom for our laundry.

One of our best-value rooms to date.  May Fair Inn, Sandakan
One of our best-value rooms to date. May Fair Inn, Sandakan

Sandakan is a nice enough town but most people stay there in order to visit the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre which is a dozen or so kilometers outside of town.  After a hearty breakfast at a vegetarian Chinese place in the center we hopped on one of the local buses bound for Sepilok in order to make the morning feeding.

The center takes in orangutans and trains them so that they can survive in the wild.  The incoming apes are a mix of ones that were being kept illegally as pets and of ones that were orphaned.  We learned that on average it takes the center about 10 years to rehabilitate one of the apes.  A very expensive endeavor!

When a new orangutan arrives at the center, the staff performs rigorous medical checks and nurses the animal back to health.  Many of the animals that have been in captivity since they were very young lack even the most basic skills needed to survive in the wild – being able to climb, for example.  Over time, they slowly learn these skills from other apes at the center and from the human trainers.

Eventually, the orangutans are allowed to explore the nearby jungle, however, their dependency on humans tends to keep them nearby.  The center has set up a number of feeding platforms that reach further and further into the jungle and they use these to draw the apes into the wilderness.  Many of the individuals go completely wild and others remain semi-dependent for the rest of their lives.

Long beans, sweet potatos and, most expectedly, bananas were on the menu.
Long beans, sweet potatos and, most expectedly, bananas were on the menu.

It was ridiculously hot when we went out for the morning feeding.  High temperatures, high humidity, still air and direct sunlight made it a rather sweaty experience but we got to see some giant apes!  Aside from their striking human similarities, I really enjoyed watching them multi-task.  Eating, carrying two handfuls (or is that footfuls?) of extra food all while hanging from a rope?  No problem if you are an orangutan!

Another highlight was that one of the apes showed up with its baby.  Apparently it is common for rehabilitated apes to return to the center for food once they have reared a child.

Items of note: bananas in left hand, sweet potato in mouth and right foot, more bananas in left foot, baby attached at waist.
Items of note: bananas in left hand, sweet potato in mouth and right foot, more bananas in left foot, baby attached at waist.

Orangutans aren’t the only primates that you get to see at the center.  During the feeding some of the local macaques like to come in and steal some food for themselves.  Surprisingly the orangutans don’t seem to care all that much.  I saw one of the younger males take a swat at a macaque but other than that they seemed to coexist.  The macaques certainly know to keep their distance though!

The bandits (macaques) raiding the food.
The bandits (macaques) raiding the food.

After the feeding we walked over to the Rainforest Discovery Center which is an independently run park.  I thought it would be a bit swamped with people who were waiting for the afternoon orangutan feeding but it was surprisingly quiet.  After a stroll through the botanical garden we headed out on one of the many trails that lead off into the preserve.

The highlight of the park are the observation towers that you can climb to get a better look at the forest canopy.  They also have a number of canopy walkways strung up between the trees to get from tower to tower.  We saw a few birds there, including our first hornbill, but midday really isn’t the best of times for bird watching so the pickings were a little slim.  Overall, I really enjoyed the Rainforest Discovery Center and I would like to go back sometime either early or late in the day to better enjoy the trails and bird life.  As always, there are plenty more pictures in the thumbnails below.

Orangutans
Another fine example of Malaysian traffic circle decor.
Another fine example of Malaysian traffic circle decor.
Central Sandakan's weekly market
Central Sandakan’s weekly market
One of our best-value rooms to date.  May Fair Inn, Sandakan
One of our best-value rooms to date. May Fair Inn, Sandakan
Enjoying the views over Sandakan
Enjoying the views over Sandakan
Starting the day with noodles and satay.
Starting the day with noodles and satay.
A pig-tailed macaque coming in to steal some food.
A pig-tailed macaque coming in to steal some food.
Long beans, sweet potatos and, most expectedly, bananas were on the menu.
Long beans, sweet potatos and, most expectedly, bananas were on the menu.
Items of note: bananas in left hand, sweet potato in mouth and right foot, more bananas in left foot, baby attached at waist.
Items of note: bananas in left hand, sweet potato in mouth and right foot, more bananas in left foot, baby attached at waist.
The bandits (macaques) raiding the food.
The bandits (macaques) raiding the food.
Eating on the run
Eating on the run
An adult male
An adult male
Pitcher plants
Pitcher plants
Hornbill, very far away
Hornbill, very far away
A well-camoflauged lizard
A well-camoflauged lizard
The view from one of the observation towers
The view from one of the observation towers
This is the girly drink I ended up with that evening.  Tasted like bubblegum with a bit of milk and tapioca pearls at the bottom.
This is the girly drink I ended up with that evening. Tasted like bubblegum with a bit of milk and tapioca pearls at the bottom.


Aug 152011
Mount Kinabalu, cloudless at last!
Mount Kinabalu, cloudless at last!

After a couple of well-spent days in Kota Kinabalu we pushed west to the biggest attraction on Borneo: Mount Kinabalu.  The mountain, one of SE Asia’s highest, tops out at 13,435ft (4,095m) and this is made even more impressive by the fact that there aren’t any other peaks of comparable size in the area.  A short two-hour van ride was all that was needed to reach the park from KK.

Well maintained boardwalks all around park headquarters.
Well maintained boardwalks all around park headquarters.

Climbing the mountain is why many tourists visit Borneo but Amy and I were quickly turned-off to that idea because of the cost and because neither of us really fancied a two or three day slog up the mountain.  After paying for permits, guides and accommodations we were looking at around US$300 per person for the climb.  Instead, we stuck to the trails around the base of the mountain which still gave us a nice taste of the local wildlife.

Kinabalu Mountain Lodge - our digs for two nights
Kinabalu Mountain Lodge – our digs for two nights

For sleeping arrangements, we stayed at the Kinabalu Mountain which is about 2km from the park entrance.  Inside the park there are a whole range of accommodations that were just above our price range.   Rather recently a hospitality company secured an exclusive contract covering all the in-park housing and dining options and this seems to have driven prices up drastically.  Even the cheaper restaurant in the park was charging RM50 (about $17) for a barely passable lunch buffet!  No thanks.

Despite the hordes of climbers buzzing around park HQ all day, it was surprisingly easy to get away from everyone by hiking some of the lesser-known trails in the immediate vicinity.  We had read that there was a very informative guided tour led on some of these trails.  Honestly though, we were quite disappointed.  The walk was very brief (40 minutes) and the tour group was quite large.  Hiking on our own was a much better.

In addition to hiking around the park, I found some great bird watching right at our lodge.  The  lodge has a nice big front porch that overlooks the valley and all sorts of birds pass through at various times of day.  I didn’t do so well with identifying them but I did manage to capture photos of a few.

One hungry ashy drongo baby
One hungry ashy drongo baby

The evenings at the lodge were also quite entertaining.  As soon as the sun goes down all sorts of insects wake up and start their day.  I saw dozens of different types of moths as well as a few different giant beetles.  I have never seen such huge insects before!

The green bug on the right is what you or I would consider to be “normal size”
The green bug on the right is what you or I would consider to be “normal size”


Mount Kinabalu
Well maintained boardwalks all around park headquarters.
Well maintained boardwalks all around park headquarters.
Kinabalu Mountain Lodge - our digs for two nights
Kinabalu Mountain Lodge – our digs for two nights
View from the Kinabalu Mountain Lodge
View from the Kinabalu Mountain Lodge
They have some big bugs in these parts!
They have some big bugs in these parts!
A big walking stick hanging out at the visitor center.  Close to a foot long.
A big walking stick hanging out at the visitor center. Close to a foot long.
The green bug on the right is what you or I would consider to be “normal size”
The green bug on the right is what you or I would consider to be “normal size”
Vines the circumference of a volleyball
Vines the circumference of a volleyball
One has to be careful of these while hiking.  Some locals make bat traps out of these things!
One has to be careful of these while hiking. Some locals make bat traps out of these things!
Ashy Drongo (Dicrurus  leucophaeus)
Ashy Drongo (Dicrurus leucophaeus)
One hungry ashy drongo baby
One hungry ashy drongo baby
Broadbeak?
Broadbeak?
Mount Kinabalu, cloudless at last!
Mount Kinabalu, cloudless at last!
Fog rolls in from time to time.
Fog rolls in from time to time.


Kota Kinabalu is the capital of Sabah, which is one of two Malaysian states on the island of Borneo.  Amy and I have both been to peninsular Malaysia on prior trips and we were eager to dive back in to some of the local cuisine.  The food in Malaysia in an interesting mix of Chinese, Indian and Malay creations.  KK has a lively night market along the waterfront where a few dozen vendors setup restaurants under tents.  Most of these are serving up freshly caught seafood.  We indulged in the night market at least three times during our stay.

The waterfront at Kota Kinabalu
The waterfront at Kota Kinabalu

One of the oddities of Malaysian cuisine is the ABC or Ais Kacang that you can get from just about any drink vendor.  It’s somewhere between a drink and snack and consists of shaved ice, corn kernels, sweet beans and grass jelly all dowsed with a sugary pink syrup and condensed milk.  It sounds strange and they certainly look weird but they make for a refreshing snack in the hot weather.  Amy discovered a local variant that includes avocado that she quickly took a liking to.

Avocado Ais Kachang (more popularly known as Avacado ABC)
Avocado Ais Kachang (more popularly known as Avacado ABC)

Just off the coast from KK is Tunku Abdul Rahman park which is comprised of a handful of jungle-covered islands.  The regular ferry service to these islands makes them a popular day-trip for locals and tourists alike.  We went to Pulau Sapi (Pulau means “island” in Malay and many of the other languages in this area) for an afternoon of snorkeling.

The island’s popularity was evident when we arrived.  In contrast to the Cooks where we commonly had a couple hundred yards of beach to ourselves, here on Sapi we had about a hundred yards of beach to share with maybe 500 other people!  As afternoon wore on it quieted down as people returned to town.

Amy went snorkeling and was reminded of how warm water is in this part of the world – “like bath water” as she puts it.  There was a nice variety of fish but seeing them was hard because of the poor visibility.  I entertained myself with some reading and a short hike across the island.  I was hoping to see some birds but in the end all I spotted was a monitor lizard looking for food scraps behind the island restaurants.

Monitor lizards roam Sapi Island...I promise better photos in a future post!
Monitor lizards roam Sapi Island…I promise better photos in a future post!
Kota Kinabalu
The waterfront at Kota Kinabalu
The waterfront at Kota Kinabalu
The main drag in KK
The main drag in KK
In Sabah they like to fill their traffic circles with animal statues.
In Sabah they like to fill their traffic circles with animal statues.
Monitor lizards roam Sapi Island...I promise better photos in a future post!
Monitor lizards roam Sapi Island…I promise better photos in a future post!
Blended dragon-fruit
Blended dragon-fruit
Avocado Ais Kachang (more popularly known as Avacado ABC)
Avocado Ais Kachang (more popularly known as Avacado ABC)
Lunch at an Indian place served on a banana leaf.
Lunch at an Indian place served on a banana leaf.
Picking out some meat-on-a-stick at the night market
Picking out some meat-on-a-stick at the night market
Vegetarian soto mee hoon soup (noodles, fake chicken, cucumber and various spices)
Vegetarian soto mee hoon soup (noodles, fake chicken, cucumber and various spices)

Seoul Subway Map
Seoul Subway Map

We flew from the Cooks to Seoul by way of Auckland and Sydney – an 8,300 mile journey in total.  We had a 16-hour overnight connection in Sydney where we had hoped to make a quick trip down to the harbour.  Unfortunately, the weather was absolutely terrible with gale force winds and heavy rain.  In the end we didn’t venture far from the hostel which made the stop mostly a waste of time.  It was also an expensive one due to Sydney’s horrifically expensive airport transportation – the train from the airport to town (a 15-minute ride) costs close to US$20 each way!

Bibimbap, the Korean national dish onboard OZ602 from Sydney to Seoul
Bibimbap, the Korean national dish onboard OZ602 from Sydney to Seoul

The flight up to Seoul was our first with Asiana Airlines, Korea’s contribution to the Star Alliance.  Both the food and the service were exceptional and the passenger load in business class was only about 30%.  After passing along Australia’s coast we crossed Papua New Guinea and then a good portion of the western Pacific ocean.  For the second meal I went with the Korean menu and got to try bibimbap for the first time – some assembly required.  Fortunately for me, Asiana includes a brief set of instruction in English in the back of the menu.  The basic idea is to add rice to all of the provided fillings (meat, pickled veggies, mushrooms, sprouts and some small dried fish in this case), top with sesame oil and then mix until combined.  Quite easy and the result was absolutely delicious.

Seoul's Incheon International Airport
Seoul’s Incheon International Airport

In contrast to Sydney, Korea’s airport transportaton is affordable.  A little less than $4 got us train tickets from Incheon International to Hongik University in central Seoul – a 44 minute ride.  From there we had a 10 minute walk to our hostel that was made much easier by the map they provided.  Like many places in Asia, postal addressing is seriously wacky in Korea and most business cards include a map otherwise.

Hustle and bustle with lots of neon.
Hustle and bustle with lots of neon.

Seoul felt a world away from the quiet island we left behind.  Lots of people, lots of noise, and lots of neon.  We spent a better part of the first day wandering some of Seoul’s over-the-top shopping malls.  I made the stupid mistake of leaving my portable hard drive in Rarotonga (it’s being shipped home now) so I was in the market for a new one.  Fortunately, Korea has plenty of hard drives so that problem was easy to solve.  I also got to work on satisfying my craving of strange and exciting packaged food products which is one aspect of the far east that I love so dearly.

The Han River
The Han River

The landscape around Seoul is strikingly industrialized.  From the roof of one of the malls, I snapped this photo of the Han River which splits Seoul.  It looks like a black and white photo, doesn’t it?  Well it’s not…that was full color.  It was just a hot and hazy summer day.

Much like the Japanese, it would seem that the Koreans love their shopping and the country certainly has a good assortment of over-the-top department stores.  Usually they are 8 to 10 story affairs with a built-in grocery store and food court (basement), many levels of shopping (middle), and then a floor or two of fine dining (top).

On our second day we took the subway downtown to check out some of the sights.  I bought some seaweed rolls with pickled veggies to have for breakfast and we grabbed a bench just outside one of the major department stores.  As I was chomping down on my food we watched the growing mass of people eagerly awaiting the 10AM opening.  Eventually, two white-gloved employees from the store wheeled out a cart with fresh OJ, cookies and coffee to give away to the waiting horde.  What it a promotion?  I suspect not, probably just business as usually in a country that highly values customer service.  Free OJ to go with my seaweed!

Namdaemun Market
Namdaemun Market

A little later we stumbled upon the changing-of-the-guard ceremony at Deoksungung Palace so we popped in for a quick look around.   There were a number of traditional Korean buildings as well as a couple western-inspired structures that were built around the turn of the century.  There is also supposed to be a very nice art museum on the palace grounds, however, we had a lunch reservation we had to make.

Changing of the guard at Deoksugung Palace
Changing of the guard at Deoksugung Palace

Amy had read about a small obscure restaurant in Seoul that specializes in “Buddhist temple cuisine.”  Thanks to another blogger’s thorough description we had no problems finding Gamrodang which is very impressively hidden down a series of winding alleyways.  We selected their cheapest meal option, an 11-course meal which cost about $25 per person.  Each course was rather small but we were decidedly stuffed by the time we left almost two hours later!  The food was excellent and there were all sorts of strange ingredients I had never tried before.  Bamboo salt is one of the stranger things I have tasted!  Below is a listing of the courses.

  • White lotus leaf tea
  • Cabbage kimchi with cactus
  • Germinated brown rice porridge with pine mushroom
  • Salad with herb sauce
  • Grilled pine mushroom, grilled lotus root, grilled yam with pine needles + bamboo salt
  • Fried tofu with hot pepper paste
  • Vegetables wrapped in rice pancake
  • Assorted pancakes with vegetables + glasswort sauce
  • Spicy wild lanceolate root and pear with mustard sauce
  • Rice and cereals, Bean-paste stew with dried cabbage, wild greens and korean pickles
  • Dessert-rice nectar, Acacia with honey wrapped in millet pancake, Ginger cookie
11-course vegetarian temple meal at Gamrodang
11-course vegetarian temple meal at Gamrodang

On our third day in Seoul we visited Changdeokgung, a 15th century palace which is famous for it’s huge Secret Garden.  The garden can only be visited by guided tour and we followed advice in the guidebooks and reserved tickets in advance.  So far on this trip we have been very lucky with weather but that can’t be said for our morning in the Secret Garden.  Because of the rain we finally caved and bought umbrellas from a vendor in front of the palace.  No doubt he went home that day with a huge load of won!

The Royal Library in the Secret Garden at Changdeokgung
The Royal Library in the Secret Garden at Changdeokgung

The garden was quite nice although it was much different from what I was expecting.  Unlike a Japanese garden it was less landscaped and felt more like a natural growth of the forest.  The most notable structure inside of the garden is the Royal Library which looks out over a pond.  Pity about the rain because I am sure the garden is all the most impressive when the weather is good.  Either way, the garden is a nice change from the big city just over the wall.

After the garden we took the subway back to the hostel to grab our bags.  We decided to grab one more round of cold drinks at a convenience store before we headed off to the airport.  As always I scoured the shelf looking for the strangest thing I could find.  Eventually, I came across a bottle whose only English read “oriental raisin water.”  I thought that sounded promising so I threw down some won and made off with it.  It tasted nothing of raisins, grapes, or fruit for that matter.  The liquid was clear and light brown similar to tea.  After asking Amy for her opinion we concluded that it tasted like water that had been infused with the flavor of Rice Krispies.  I love how weird Asia can be!

“Oriental raisin water” (which tasted like Rice Krispies) and some other snacks
“Oriental raisin water” (which tasted like Rice Krispies) and some other snacks

Later that evening we flew with Asiana from Seoul Incheon to Kota Kinabalu in Malaysian Borneo.  It’s about a five hour flight to get down there and we flew on an A321.  Dinner was served shortly after takeoff and I plowed through some fried monkfish and a very nice German reisling.  Out the window there were bright lights dotting the ocean as far as I could see – squid fishing boats out in full force.  We encountered some pretty ominous t-storms over Manila but the crew skillfully threaded through them and we hardly had a bump the whole way down.  Arrival into Kota Kinabalu (KK for short) was right on time and it wasn’t long before we had our packs and Malaysian visas!

Squid fishing boats somewhere south of Korea
Squid fishing boats somewhere south of Korea
Seoul, Korea
Bibimbap, the Korean national dish onboard OZ602 from Sydney to Seoul
Bibimbap, the Korean national dish onboard OZ602 from Sydney to Seoul
Seoul's Incheon International Airport
Seoul’s Incheon International Airport
Seoul Subway Map
Seoul Subway Map
Nice big screens showing the position and number of the next train.
Nice big screens showing the position and number of the next train.
Technically correct, I suppose.
Technically correct, I suppose.
Hustle and bustle with lots of neon.
Hustle and bustle with lots of neon.
Canned coffee: one of my favorite treats in the far east.
Canned coffee: one of my favorite treats in the far east.
Some kids were really working these machines over.
Some kids were really working these machines over.
One of Seoul's many malls.
One of Seoul’s many malls.
The Han River
The Han River
A parade at COEX mall.
A parade at COEX mall.
Remember those giant rodents (capybara) we saw in Bolivia?  Well a cartoon version is now all the rage in the far east.  Meet Kapibarasan!
Remember those giant rodents (capybara) we saw in Bolivia? Well a cartoon version is now all the rage in the far east. Meet Kapibarasan!
Some department store food court fare.
Some department store food court fare.
Message received.
Message received.
Gimbap: a common Korean snack.  Seaweed wrapped around rice and a filling (often kimchi)
Gimbap: a common Korean snack. Seaweed wrapped around rice and a filling (often kimchi)
Quiet city street near our hostel (Hongik University area)
Quiet city street near our hostel (Hongik University area)
Namdaemun Market
Namdaemun Market
Changing of the guard at Deoksugung Palace
Changing of the guard at Deoksugung Palace
11-course vegetarian temple meal at Gamrodang
11-course vegetarian temple meal at Gamrodang
5 months and 20 days into the trip and I finally caved on an umbrella purchase.
5 months and 20 days into the trip and I finally caved on an umbrella purchase.
The Royal Library in the Secret Garden at Changdeokgung
The Royal Library in the Secret Garden at Changdeokgung
“Oriental raisin water” (which tasted like Rice Krispies) and some other snacks
“Oriental raisin water” (which tasted like Rice Krispies) and some other snacks
Departure board at ICN.
Departure board at ICN.
A “sunny” summer day in Seoul!  That white dot is indeed the sun.
A “sunny” summer day in Seoul! That white dot is indeed the sun.
Squid fishing boats somewhere south of Korea
Squid fishing boats somewhere south of Korea
Storms near Manilla
Storms near Manilla

Aug 072011

I am happy to report that our 8-day stay on the Cooks lived up to expectations.  We spent our entire visit on Rarotonga, the biggest island in the Cooks.  It’s a volcanic island with a jungle-covered center and beautiful beaches and reefs around its circumference, similar to Kauai but less commercialized.  It’s about 20 miles around the island and at the recommendation of a friend we booked a bungalow with Rarotonga Backpackers on the west coast.

Avarua harbour
Avarua harbour

Avarua is the nation’s capital as well as it’s biggest town.  Most of the restaurants, banks, and shops are in Avarua as is their humble parliament building.  Avarua’s lively Sunday market (Punanga Nui) is definitely a must-see since it is a good place to sample some local cuisine without breaking the bank.  Rarotonga wasn’t as bad as Easter Island but the restaurant menu prices were still quite high.  I ordered up a BBQ plate for NZ$10 and received an absolutely massive plate of meat and carbs.  It was about 50% larger than the biggest plates I’ve been served at L&L BBQ in Hawaii and by that I mean it was about 4 times the amount of food I want at one sitting!  It was a long and difficult battle that I eventually lost.

Our guest house (the Rarotonga Backpackers Hillside Bungalows)
Our guest house (the Rarotonga Backpackers Hillside Bungalows)

We actually had two different types of accomodations at Rarotonga Backpackers.  For the first four nights we stayed at their “Hillside” complex which was about a quarter mile inland from the coast.  Our bungalow was a outfitted with a bathroom, a kitchen and a balcony – that’s “self-contained” in Cooks lingo.  We couldn’t quite see the ocean over the palms but the view was nice enough.  Nightly rate was $72 New Zealand Dollars which works out to about $61 US dollars per night.  For the last four nights we moved down to their recently-opened Garden Bugalows which are closer to the beach but without a view.  The garden bungalows were a couple bucks more but I would say that the proximity to the beach made it a win.

Hillside Bungalow
Hillside Bungalow

Initially, getting around the island was a bit frustrating.  Our guesthouse picked us up at the airport just as promised but the rest of the time we relied on Rarotonga’s bus service.  There is a once-hourly bus that goes clockwise and another that goes ANTI-clockwise around the island.  The full circuit takes just shy of an hour, plus or minus.  Unfortunately, the posted schedules mean next to nothing as everything and everyone operates on “island time.”  On a few occasions we just gave up on the bus altogether and spent the subsequent hour or so walking to our intended destination.  During these lengthy strolls I pondered how I would model the bus arrivals as a stochastic process.  But I digress…

A bit of a revelation came to us on day 4 or 5 when the helpful staff at Rarotonga Backpackers suggested that we try hitching “like the locals do.”  Sure enough, that worked like a charm!  As an added bonus I got to talk to some locals.  One time I had some kids show me how they liked to catch colorful reef fish in plastic cups.  Another time I rode with a lady on her way to church whose only trip out of the Cooks took her to Boston for a seminar at Harvard.  Small world!

A closer view of Taakoka...we walked to it.
A closer view of Taakoka…we walked to it.

The main thing we occupied our time with during the visit was snorkeling.  You can snorkel just about anywhere around the island and there are very few off-limits areas where there are dangerous currents.  One day we took the bus over to Muri Lagoon on the eastern coast.  The lagoon is dotted with small islands and there is good snorkeling just past one called Taakoka.  The island is a few hundred yards off the coast of Rarotonga but knee-deep water made it an easy walk.  We just had to watch out for all the sea cucumbers and the foot-wide cobalt blue starfish that crowd the lagoon!

My goal for the day: cross-island trekking past “the needle”
My goal for the day: cross-island trekking past “the needle”

Another day I decided to tackle the cross-island trek.  Amy wanted to do some more snorkeling her fancy new prescription mask so I went solo.  After hitching my way up to Avarua I walked about 2km on a dirt road leading to the island’s interior and a sign marking the start of the trail.  It informed me that it should take about 3 hours to make the 5km crossing to the south coast.  The climb was quite steep and it became very obvious why all the guidebooks strongly advice against attempting it after rain.  The surface of the trail is almost clay-like and I am sure it turns into a muddy slip-n-slide with even the slightest precipitation.

Looking south from the ridge
Looking south from the ridge

I made it to the top in about 45 minutes and stood on the ridge of the island right next to this rock pinnacle they call the Needle.  You used to be able to climb the needle itself but a sizeable piece fell off it a few years back and now there are some very to-the-point signs advising against climbing.  I heeded the warnings and just enjoyed the view from the overlook – it was good enough.  The descent on the south side was much steeper but fortunately they have quite a few ropes in place that you can use to help yourself down.  Eventually the trail flatted out and followed a nice little stream past a waterfall to the coast.  Total elapsed time was just over two-hours.

From the miscellaneous island activities category I can say now say that I have been “jet blasted.”  I went down to RAR (isn’t that a great airport code?) one afternoon to catch an Air NZ 777-200 arrival.  There is a nice place to watch right at the end of the runway so that made for a fun diversion one afternoon.  I regret not sticking around for the departure.  Seeing a few hundred thousand pounds of aluminum and jet-A go from stationary to airborn in less than 7,500ft is surely a loud and exciting spectacle.

Another entry in the miscellaneous category came on our last day on the island.  I was staring out the window of our bungalow and happened to see a nice large coconut drop from one of the palms.  I went out and retrieved a relatively large green specimen and started to formulate a strategy.  Tools on hand included a kitchen knife, my hands and my feet.  Step one was to google how to husk a coconut.

I learned that green ones tend to be harder to open than their more mature brown counterparts but that they usually contain more coconut water.  The basic idea is to attack from the stem end and peel sections of the husk off one-by-one.  Having a nice sturdy prybar was highly recommended but I just had to make due with my hands.  I won’t lie, it was difficult and I probably looked a right idiot while I was working on it.  Start to finish it took over an hour but the results were worth it.  As an added bonus I didn’t detach any digits in the process!

From an eating standpoint we mostly self-catered.  Groceries were expensive and going back we would have brought a bunch of staples with us from the States.  Nevertheless, we still managed to keep to a pretty low budget with our grocery bill totalling NZ$87 (about US$73) for the week.  We primarily shopped at a nearby mini-mart and while selection was limited the prices were on-par with the bigger grocery stores in town.  Coconut cream was readily available so Amy put together some excellent coconut curries a couple of the evenings.  We also had our fair share of standard backpack cuisine: pasta, sauteed veggies, and toast.

Hermit crabs of all shapes and sizes
Hermit crabs of all shapes and sizes

All in all the Cook Islands left us impressed.  Given Air NZ’s nonstop flight from LAX and relatively reasonable airfares, I am surprised that more Americans don’t vacation in the Cooks.  It is much like Hawaii but has two big advantages, at least to me.  The first are the plentiful beaches – having a couple hundred yards of pristine white beach to ourselves was the norm (and it was high season when we visited!).  The second big win is the lack of commercialization.  The Cooks have strict rules against outside ownership so this has kept the big hotel chains at bay.  This gives the place a bit more character if you ask me.

We would love to visit the Cooks again someday to travel to some of the other islands.  Domestic airfares are a bit pricy but the other islands are supposed to have their own charms that are well worth exploring.  Lastly, I decided to put together a budget summary for those who are interested.  Perhaps some other travelers will find it useful someday.

Budget Summary (prices in US$):

  • Accomodations (8-nights): $497.35
  • Groceries: $72.25
  • Eating/drinking out: $64.58
  • Local transportation: $58.53
  • Total: $692.52 (or $43.28 per person per day)
    Cook Islands
    Our guest house (the Rarotonga Backpackers Hillside Bungalows)
    Our guest house (the Rarotonga Backpackers Hillside Bungalows)
    Hillside Bungalow
    Hillside Bungalow
    These mosquito coils came in very handy.  Manufactured by the “Blood Protection Company”
    These mosquito coils came in very handy. Manufactured by the “Blood Protection Company”
    A short walk from the guesthouse after breakfast
    A short walk from the guesthouse after breakfast
    The Sunday Market at Avarua
    The Sunday Market at Avarua
    A ridiculously over-sized BBQ plate at the Sunday Market.  Two steaks, two hotdogs, some chicken, noodles, coconut spinach and a pile of potato salad.
    A ridiculously over-sized BBQ plate at the Sunday Market. Two steaks, two hotdogs, some chicken, noodles, coconut spinach and a pile of potato salad.
    The aftermath...I barely finished half.
    The aftermath…I barely finished half.
    Avarua harbour
    Avarua harbour
    A sleepy afternoon at RAR
    A sleepy afternoon at RAR
    This seemed to be the closest thing to fast food on the island.
    This seemed to be the closest thing to fast food on the island.
    As the sign says, “The Parliament of the Cook Islands”
    As the sign says, “The Parliament of the Cook Islands”
    Muri Lagoon
    Muri Lagoon
    Taakoka Island
    Taakoka Island
    A closer view of Taakoka...we walked to it.
    A closer view of Taakoka…we walked to it.
    The snorkeling was pretty good just offshore from Taakoka
    The snorkeling was pretty good just offshore from Taakoka
    Hermit crabs of all shapes and sizes
    Hermit crabs of all shapes and sizes
    My goal for the day: cross-island trekking past “the needle”
    My goal for the day: cross-island trekking past “the needle”
    A small skink I spotted on the hike
    A small skink I spotted on the hike
    An Air NZ 767, bound for Sydney I believe.
    An Air NZ 767, bound for Sydney I believe.
    Looking south from the ridge
    Looking south from the ridge
    A plant that grows on a plant.
    A plant that grows on a plant.
    Tourists and locals looking to get jet blasted
    Tourists and locals looking to get jet blasted
    777 arrival from Auckland
    777 arrival from Auckland
    Our local grocery purveyor - the Tex Mart
    Our local grocery purveyor – the Tex Mart
    After an hour of hard work.
    After an hour of hard work.
    Fresh coconut water!
    Fresh coconut water!
    Later that day, a nice marinated fish salad (ika mata) from Trader Jack's.
    Later that day, a nice marinated fish salad (ika mata) from Trader Jack’s.
    Sunset on our last day
    Sunset on our last day


Map showing our routing across the Pacific.

After I returned to the States in early June, I had no specific plans as to where to go next.  The volunteer opportunity I had pursued in Africa all but fell apart so I really didn’t have a specific reason to head in that direction – at least not yet.  I spent hours combing through airline award charts and award seat availabilities.

The Republic of Palau, a small group of islands in Pacific, looked to be an awesome destination.  It’s an island paradise with all sorts of natural wonders to explore.  Continental operates its “island hopper” flight which makes stops at cool places like Truk, Kosrae and Kwajalein as it plies the Pacific from Honolulu to Guam.  I’ve heard that the flight is quite interesting but award availability was extremely scarce for the dates we wanted to travel.

Eventually, I came upon some nice availability for travel to the Cook Islands.  The Cooks are a popular destination for Kiwis and Aussies but are relatively unknown to North Americans.  Surprisingly enough it is possible to fly nonstop from Los Angeles to Rarotonga (the priciple island in the Cooks) once a week with Air New Zealand.  But why fly nonstop when you can go by way of Auckland (a 2000+ mile detour) on one of Air New Zealand’s brand new planes for the same price?!

Air New Zealand recently took delivery of Boeing’s latest addition to its 777 series, the 777-300ER, and made headlines in aviation circles with their innovative seat designs.  They have a “Sky Couch” product in economy, some very comfy looking “Spaceseats” in premium economy and a revamped lie-flat seat design in Business Premier.  As luck would have it, award space was available on NZ1, the flight operated by the new plane, so I snapped those up as fast as I could.  Using my United miles, business class tickets to the Cooks came to 60,000 miles and $2.50 in taxes.

Some bubbly and nuts prior to pushback
Some bubbly and nuts prior to pushback

After a bit more searching around I was able to piece together an exit plan for getting off the Cooks.  We would fly to Malaysia Borneo (Kota Kinabalu) by way of Sydney and Seoul with a stopover in the latter.  I know it sounds a bit roundabout but it is the most direct routing available using Star Alliance carriers.  Even so, it took a supervisor at British Midland to authorize the long routing.  The total worked out to 18,750 miles and $401 in taxes and fees for the business class booking.  Oh, and if anyone is wondering the total flown mileage on these two tickets is about 19,025 miles.  The Pacific is one huge ocean!

Dinner and a movie well underway
Dinner and a movie well underway

So…on to the flights.  Air New Zealand Flight 1 from LAX to AKL was incredible.  The new seats were easily the best business class seats I have flown and I would say they compete nicely with many carriers first class products.  In particular, the quality of the cushioning when the seat is in “bed mode” is superb.  The back of the seat actually folds forward to reveal a separate matress for the bed.  In most lay-flat seat designs the seat itself just goes flat and isn’t a true matress.  Another nice feature of the plane is the fact that the galleys are equipped differently so that the crew can actually cook (as opposed to reheat) food on the aircraft.  I had some great waffles for breakfast just prior to landing in AKL!

Waffles with strawberries and banana whipped cream for breakfast
Waffles with strawberries and banana whipped cream for breakfast

After some showers in the Koru Club we boarded one of Air NZ’s older 767 aircraft.  Nothing too exciting in terms of the seats or in-flight entertainment but the service was exceptional as it always seems to be on Air New Zealand.  The load was light that day (5 of 24 seats occupied in business) so it did feel a little like a private jet.

Our first glimpse of Rarotonga
Our first glimpse of Rarotonga

Arrival into Rarotonga was a nice firm landing runway 8.  I guess pilots don’t like to waste precious runway…especially then it comes to landing a widebody on a 7,500ft runway!  Much like Easter Island there are no jetways so everyone takes the stairs and immediately gets to soak in some of the great island weather.  A local band was playing in the baggage claim area and before we knew it we were through customs to meet the representative from our guesthouse.

Across the Pacific
Us and our shiny Air New Zealand 777-300ER
Us and our shiny Air New Zealand 777-300ER
My seat number, just in case I forgot.
My seat number, just in case I forgot.
Air NZ's new generation of herringbone suites.
Air NZ’s new generation of herringbone suites.
Some bubbly and nuts prior to pushback
Some bubbly and nuts prior to pushback
A tasty seared tuna appetizer
A tasty seared tuna appetizer
The chef's selection plate as a light main.
The chef’s selection plate as a light main.
Dinner and a movie well underway
Dinner and a movie well underway
Time for bed.
Time for bed.
Waffles with strawberries and banana whipped cream for breakfast
Waffles with strawberries and banana whipped cream for breakfast
There is nothing quite like I nice hot shower just after a long flight.
There is nothing quite like I nice hot shower just after a long flight.
Nicely appointed showers at Air NZ's Koru Club
Nicely appointed showers at Air NZ’s Koru Club
Some vegemite at the lounge.
Some vegemite at the lounge.
Climb out from AKL
Climb out from AKL
Our first glimpse of Rarotonga
Our first glimpse of Rarotonga
I love it when there is no jetway!
I love it when there is no jetway!

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