Saturday, 22 November 2008
Saturday, 1 November 2008
Sorry, this is going to be a long one, I really should update more often. For those who just want the précis: we finally left Bali, got through Java, and are now in Sumatra. We've passed the 50 day mark, and only have one week left in Indonesia. It's gone really fast, yet somehow it feels like years ago since we were in Bali. Probably quicker to just look at the photos and map.
So just after the last update (from Ubud), we went for another all-day scooter ride around central Bali and all the way up to the north coast. We saw a famous lakeside temple which appears on the 50,000 rupiah note, and monkeys right on the road. About halfway to the coast we had to cross a ridge with crater lakes on it (around Danau Bratan) when it suddenly started to rain. As in, we literally saw the wall of rain hit the road 20 feet in front of us, and a second later we were soaked. Riding along in a wet t-shirt - I never knew it got so cold in Bali! All up we did about 450km in two days, and with averaging about 30km/h, that's a lot of time on a scooter and it sure felt it.
From Ubud we headed back down to Kuta where we stayed for a few nights - figured we had to at least check it out. It was good doing the tourist spot last instead of first though; we didn't look quite so fresh off the plane, and already had an idea what things were worth, could speak some bahasa, etc. Turns out it's actually pretty good, who knew. Bizarrely, the prices for some things (eg food and beer) are the cheapest we'd seen anywhere!
I also decided I'd check out the Bali health care system by coming down with a fever, which they had to test wasn't malaria. Three days of tests and $900 later, turns out I didn't have malaria, dengue or appendicitis, but I did discover that the tourist hospital is actually quite good. Anyway they weren't sure what it was, but I felt better by then, so we hopped on an overnight coach to Java.
We crossed on the ferry at about midnight, and after a surreal 2am meal stop, we were dumped in Probolinggo at 3am to head up to Mount Bromo. It's a smallish volcano which is constantly venting sulphuric gas which as it turns out, is not the best smell ever. From there we took a mini bus halfway across Java to Yogyakarta (aka Jogja). After 20 hours on buses with no sleep, even washing with a bucket looked appealing.
In Jogja we stayed with a couchsurfer girl called Ciluk, saw a huge Hindu temple at Prabanan, met a bunch of funny uni students who took us to the beach, and we ended up hanging out with them for the next few days. It's easier to just look at the photos :)
On the way out of Jogja we visited Borobodur, one of the biggest Buddhist temples around, that was pretty impressive too, but hot. Also we had at least a dozen groups of people come up wanting photos with us, I guess foreigners are still a novelty.
From there we went to Semarang for one night, to stay with our mate Habibi (who we'd met in Bali and again in Lombok), in his university dorms. The next day it was another overnight coach trip to Jakarta where we stayed a few days with one of the girls we'd met in Jogja, at her family's house about an hour from the centre. Jakarta is basically a huge stinky city with open sewers and terrible traffic, and I don't think you could pay me enough to live there.
From JK we flew to Padang, which is halfway up Sumatra - saving ourselves a 30 hour coach ride. The Air Asia flight was surprisingly painless, dare I say pleasant. The check-in and security was faster than home, and the plane was a clean new A320. It was just like flying Jetstar - basic, but nice enough.
On the bus from the airport we met a girl who was an English teacher (and oil baroness in the making), who was really helpful, getting us a hotel and showing us around Padang. She left for her village the next morning and we spent the day exploring the city. They have these amazing public buses and vans driving around that are really done up with artwork, stickers, body work, lighting and sound systems. Most of them are basically crazy mobile discos.
So this morning we took a car to Bukittinggi, 100km north of Padang. There were 9 of us crammed in there and the stupid guy insisted on having his huge subwoofer (which took up most of the boot) cranked to ear-bleeding volume the whole time.
Anyway, there's a huge volcano lake about an hour from here (yes another one), so we'll get some scooters and ride out around it tomorrow. After that we're heading to Lake Toba, which is a crater lake so big, it has an island the size of Singapore inside it! Then to Medan, hang out with orang-utans for a while, until we have to fly to KL on the 8th.
That's all for now folks.
Saturday, 11 October 2008
Haven't had much time on the internet lately, since we've been on Lombok where it's patchy and slow.
After the last email, we left the beach hotel in Soka abruptly because some Swiss guys we met were leaving the next morning and we got a lift with them halfway back to Denpasar. From there we shot clear across Bali then a ferry to Lombok. The ferry took about 5 hours but then we were waiting in the harbour at Lombok for another 3 hours because there were no piers available.
We stayed in the quiet beach resort town of Senggigi for one night, and booked to do our dive training straight away. So the next day we got a boat to Gili Trawangan, one of three tiny islands just of the coast of Lombok. The gilis (which means "small island") are very relaxed, there are no cars, motorbikes, only pushbikes and little horse carts. We met a few cool people - Amin, a local who lived at our homestay, Sergey, a Russian kitesurfer who was also staying there, and Jay, a Brit who we had a night out with.
Since we'd booked with one of the smaller dive schools, it was just Ben and I on the course, so we got through it fairly quickly and got straight into open water dives. They have some amazing spots around the gilis, loads of fish, turtles, and a sunken barge to explore. The snorkeling just off the beach was great too.
After finishing the course and arriving back in Senggigi, we booked a 3 day hike up Mt Rinjani, a massive volcano which dominates Lombok (2nd biggest in all of Indo). There is a crater lake inside the volcano 6km wide, which has a smaller ash cone in the middle of it. The hike itself was incredibly hard, it didn't help that I was ill and ate next to nothing for the three days. At the first camp (elev ~3km) I suffered mild hypothermia because we'd stopped on an exposed ridge and my shirt was wet. The final ascent was at 3am to see the sunrise, but I couldn't make it more than an hour up. Ben got there in time to see the sun rise, and got some great photos.
On the last day coming down (which hurt a whole different set of leg muscles), we were trailing behind helping a couple of injured English girls, and ended up trekking through the jungle at night by ourselves for a few hours. Eventually we made it back to civilisation after 9pm, exhausted.
After Rinjani we spent a few days of well-deserved rest, then made our way south through the capital Mataram, where we met a local who showed us his village and a cock-fight. The next day we got to Kuta (Lombok) which is the polar opposite of Kuta Bali. It's a quiet, empty town, and the only thing in common is the good surfing. We hired a scooter and went into the countryside to find a local who we'd met on the ferry, and he took us to one of the best beaches I've ever seen. Mountains on both sides, perfect white sand, the clearest aqua water and nothing in it but waves.
Departing Kuta, we took the ferry back to Bali, and stayed in the port town of Padangbai. It's a horrible place if you're only there for the ferry, but nice once you get away from the port. Plus they have the coolest place to eat we've seen yet, Ozone Cafe.
The next day we took a few bemo (local bus) to Tulamben on the north-east coast of Bali, to dive the wreck of a US ship that was damaged in the war but sunk by a volcano: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/
We then headed back to Ubud to the Italian couchsurfer's place where we'd spent our first few nights. Yesterday we went for a massive scooter trip out around central Bali to the Mother Temple and a few of the volcano lakes up there.
Well that's about it, hard to believe it's been a month so far. Trying not to look at the shares or the exchange rates, doesn't sound like things are going too well in the real world.
Some new photos here, but I've been letting Ben take most of them so you might want to see his too.
(Photo and map links are on the right)
Sunday, 21 September 2008
Feels like we've been here a month now, can't see how we're ever going to get through this since Bali is about 1% of Asia...
We spent a few more days with Tia in Jimbaran (near Kuta) - it's nice to spend a few nights in one place. Last Sunday night we had dinner at one of the famous seafood restaurants which are actually on the beach - all the tables are just out there on the sand with the waves only metres away. Actually by the end of the night the tide started coming in and the bottom few rows of diners had the sea coming up under their seats, crazy stuff.
On Tuesday we visited the nearby cultural centre, where the main attraction is a massive statue of the god Wisnu and his ride, Garuda, which will be 65m high! In theory anyway, all they've finished so far are both heads and the hands, photos: http://picasaweb.google.com/
We also visited the amazing cliff-side temple and beach at Uluwatu, on the southern tip of Bali. That evening we went into Kuta itself for a look, didn't appeal much to either of us, it's full of clubs and tourists, but we did see the Bali bombing memorial.
As we were riding into the main strip of Kuta at about 1am, a guy in uniform jumped out at Ben while taking a corner, so we both pulled over. It was a police checkpoint and they wanted to inspect our papers. We both had our driver's licences but Ben forgot his international driving permit (we hardly ever carry them) and mine was not valid for bikes. Lucky Tia was with us, and she negotiated the "fine" down to 150,000 rupiah (AU$20) for both of us. This is standard practice here, they just wanted to make some cash, not to actually take us in.
On Wednesday morning one of the newborn kittens died, and on Thursday the other went too, so we buried the poor little things in the front yard near Tia's pet monkey. They were always very weak but we didn't know what to do for them :(
Also on Thursday we bid farewell to Tia and met our next couchsurfing host Arnantyo. He had graciously offered to pick us up from Kuta and drive us to his place in Soka Beach near Tabarnan. By "place" I mean "bungalow hotel" that his Dad owns and he runs. Since it is very quiet before Ramadan next month, he let us stay in one of the bungalows closest to the beach for free. In fact we are the only people staying here so we have the entire beach to ourselves. Since Soka is on the main road between Java and Denpasar, their main business is the restaurant, serving breakfast to the coachloads of people coming from the mainland. Otherwise he has over 60 staff with not much to do during the day, so Ben has been practicing his badly-pronounced Indonesian pick-up lines on the staff girls to everyone's great amusement :)
On Thursday night we went 10 minutes up the road to Balian Beach for dinner, where we met a Canadian surfer called Michael who owns the warung (restaurant/bar). He's lived in Bali for 8 years and had some great advice for us on what to see and what to avoid. We went back for breakfast today and he showed us the amazing house he's built here, with his Balinese wife and within view of the beach where he surfs every day. He's really cool, has a dream lifestyle, and had many useful tips for us.
On Friday evening we visited a bat cave down the end of the beach which almost looks man-made, and has a Hindu temple perched right above it (for easy access to their secret base no doubt), and at dusk watched thousands of tiny bats come streaming out to feed. Ben and I also organised a fire on the beach that night, but despite his best efforts none of the girls working at the hotel came down.
Finally, yesterday morning we organised to go out with some of the local fishermen from the village on the beach while they pulled in their nets. We had to get up before 5:30am and got back in about 8:30 but it was a unique experience to watch them work. They never usually take tourists out but we had a guy who lives in the fishing village negotiate a deal for us.
I can't upload new photos from here because the net connection is slow, but will put more up when we get a chance. Thanks for the replies from last time, it's always good to hear what's happening at home so keep your emails coming!
Monday, 15 September 2008
It's only been 5 days since we landed here but it feels like a month with so many new things to take in. The main things so far have been cheap food and beer, motor scooters, heat and monkeys. So many monkeys...
Couch surfing has been awesome, it's great staying with people that live here so you don't just see things that are in Lonely Planet, and you know how much stuff is actually worth. Made a few good friends and have offers to stay again on our way back from Lombok.
Ubud was our first couchsurf, with an artistic Italian couple who were really cool and living in an amazing open air house. We went for a walk through rice paddies, scooter expeditions at night through the fields, saw temples, and visited the awesome Monkey Forest - twice. There are no cages, you just wander around and feed the monkeys or they jump on you, check out the photos: http://picasaweb.google.com/
On Saturday afternoon we headed to Jimbaran (which is just south of Kuta and the main airport) to stay with a local girl, Tia. Yesterday we hired more scooters and finally got to spend the day at the beach, where I promptly got fried to a crisp. (Yes Mum I used sunscreen, and spent the whole time in the water or under an umbrella so I don't know how it happened). The beach was called Dreamland and although populated entirely by tourists, was appropriately amazing.
Today we braved the insane traffic to ride into Denpasar and see the animal market, where they have a bunch of monkeys and birds cruelly cooped up in cages or chains waiting to be sold. Tia bought a monkey from there a month or two ago to give it a better life but it died last week.
The traffic is absolutely mental, road rules are optional and all the space not taken by cars is filled with an endless stream of scooters. You just keep straight, watch the space in front of you, and hope to God everyone else knows what they are doing.
Anyway that was fun, and we're getting used to the heat although now I have to wear long pants and shoes since my legs are burnt and my feet blistered from sandals. Currency is still weird, since $1 is roughly 10,000 rupiah so there's just way to many zeroes on everything. Mie goreng and a longneck of Bintang (the standard fare these days) will cost about 25,000Rp or $3. Scooters cost $5 a day to rent, and $2 to fill the tank.
The plan is to spend a few more days in Bali, then head to Lombok (the next island over) and get our diving qualifications. Then we'll come back through Bali, across to Jakarta and on from there.
Until next time...
Thursday, 12 June 2008
I was reading today how NASA is planning to send a probe to the Sun, which got me reading Wikipedia's article on the subject. I thought I already had a fair appreciation for the topic, but some of the facts in there are simply amazing. Most of the figures are just impossible to wrap your head around. How's these for starters:
- The energy output of the Sun is equivalent to about 200,000 times the output of all the atomic weapons ever detonated on Earth, every second.
- The Sun is so perfectly spherical that even with a diameter of 1.4 million kilometers, the variation in diameter is only 10 km.
- Even including Jupiter, which is hundreds of times more massive than Earth, the Sun still accounts for more than 99.8% of the mass in the solar system.
- The Sun (along with the whole solar system) is moving through space, around the core of the Milky Way, at about 800,000 km/h.
- In about a billion year's time, the Sun will get so hot that all of the water and atmosphere on Earth will be evaporated and any life will be long gone. After about five billion years, as the Sun goes through it's death throes, it will expand to engulf the Earth itself.
- Almost 7 billion tons of mass are lost from the Sun every hour as the solar wind. This wind pushes out a bubble in intergalactic space that extends beyond Pluto.
- The visible surface of the Sun is a relatively cool 5000 degrees (Celsius or kelvin; it's all about the same at this point), yet the outer coronal mass is over 1 million degrees. Compare this to fusion reactors on Earth that operate at around 100 million degrees.
- By mass, the hot core of the Sun puts out a million times less energy than the human body.
- As the photons are created in the core, absorbed and re-emitted, it takes them tens of thousands of years to reach the outer surface of the Sun, then only 8 more minutes to reach Earth.
Monday, 24 March 2008
On Saturday we decided to check out a cool bazaar that I'd found on my last visit, problem was I didn't know exactly how I'd gotten there. I guessed it was around the Little India area, so we headed up there on the tube. After walking around in the heat for an hour we finally found it - nowhere near where we thought (it was the Bugis St markets for future reference - and metres from a train stop, d'oh). Across the road is the Bugis Junction mall which was worth visiting just to cool down. There's nothing like walking past a shopping centre in stifling heat and having a blast of super chilled air wash over you.
After an hour there we jumped in a taxi to the world renowned Singapore Zoo. Apart from the road to the airport, it was the first time I'd seen outside the city. Residential areas turned surprisingly quickly into dense jungle, which was parted by the clean, modern highway.
The zoo is built on a peninsula, and houses animals from all over the world, including polar bears! Highlights were the amazing rare white tigers and the dozens of crazy red-arsed baboons (possibly not the scientific name). Check out the rest of the photos for more.
Just as the three-thirty elephant show began, it started to rain. It steadily got heavier, until it was a full-on tropical downpour, and they had to call off the show. We were stuck at the elephant enclosure for an hour, although the elephants themselves didn't seem bothered as they played in the mud. As soon as we'd resigned to getting soaked, some guy came around selling plastic ponchos for two dollars. Genius.
We wandered around for another hour in the storm but most of the animals had been moved under shelter (as if cheetahs can't handle a little rain). The only ones left out were the hippos, giraffes and the polar bear, who was probably enjoying the relief from the heat. For those wondering, they keep him in a deep chilled pool and he has an air-conditioned cave, although he was actually born at the zoo. It was a bit of a disappointing end to the afternoon, since we missed a lot of animals like the big cats.
After catching a bus and train home, we spent a few hours in the hotel business club, and then walked over to Chinatown later that night for food. The Smith St food market was just closing up but we got a meal of fried rice inside a hollowed out pineapple plus a few cheap beers. I would have liked to explore more if we'd had time.
The next day was Easter Sunday and we only had a half-day before our flight home at 6pm. After a quick shopping expedition to Orchard Road, we headed back into the city to the famous Long Bar at Raffles Hotel, where the Singapore Sling was invented. Claire had the cocktail while I had a Tiger, which came to $45 (!) but I guess you've got to do it once.
On returning to the hotel just after lunch time, we packed and checked out in record time, took a quick taxi to the airport. Again, we didn't get much shuteye on the trip back, but the 8am arrival was timed well so that we had all of Monday to catch up on sleep.
It was such a short holiday it's still hard to believe it all happened, although I'm sure it was slightly more memorable than the original weekend in Newcastle would have been (sorry Novocastrians).
Saturday, 22 March 2008
Well, despite thinking it was too good to be true, we actually made it here. Tiger wasn't half as bad as I expected either, they're pretty close to Jetstar service-wise. They even gave us exit row seats for the Melbourne-Darwin leg without us asking. We weren't so lucky on the second leg, so I got very little sleep.
We got into Changi at 4am local time, with no real plan, although we had at least booked a hotel from Darwin (free wireless is great). However check-in wasn't until 2pm, and the first train into town was at 5:30am. The train system here is really cheap, clean and efficient - miles ahead of the Tube in London. For 6am on a public holiday, it was surprisingly busy.
At 6:30 we were wandering around a completely empty CBD with our bags, and took a few dawn photos:
After completely miscalculating how far it was to walk to the hotel, we arrived hot and tired. Even before 8am it's humid here. We were hoping they possibly had a shower we could use, and then wander around until we could come back later that afternoon and check in. The guy on the desk asked if we'd like to upgrade our room for an extra $100 a night, which we initially declined, but he explained we'd get breakfast included, free internet, and access to their business club that meant free beer all day. It didn't take too much convincing to take him up on it. He even said we could check in straight away (at 8am!) for that much needed shower, and could get breakfast today too. It was better than we could have hoped.
This room was apparently one of the best they had, and I never really appreciated what that meant at a 5-star hotel until we saw it. We were on the top floor (29th) and the room was incredible. Two bathrooms, big plasma TV embedded in the wall, full Bose sound system with an iPod dock, jacuzzi in the bathroom, a universal remote that even operated the curtains, and a shower with more controls than the space shuttle.
We explored the rest of the hotel and it was just as amazing. On level 11 there was an outdoor pool, gym, massage rooms, plus a rock climbing wall. The business club was just like the Qantas lounge - wireless, snacks and beer all day, as well as wine, spirits and cocktails after 6 - all free. Couldn't believe the deal the guy had given us; it was pretty expensive at over SGD300 a night, but we looked up the normal rate for suite online... $900 to $1650!
Once we'd gotten unpacked and cleaned up, we caught the train over to Orchard Road, the central shopping district of Singapore. It rained later, but we didn't notice at first, because all the shopping centres are linked with underground tunnels so you can avoid the heat.
At 5 we headed back to Boat Quay and took a bumboat tour along the river, which I'd enjoyed last time I was in Singapore. To find dinner we walked down the many restaurants along the waterside, only to get hassled at every single one by touts determined to show us their identical menus. It got very irritating, but you can play them off against each other, and haggle at least a free round of drinks and a big discount off the bill.
Back at the hotel we had a few quiet drinks at the "M Club" lounge and turned in for an early one, but considering we'd been awake almost two days straight I think we lasted surprisingly well.
The rest of the photos
Tuesday, 11 March 2008
I think I may have just scored two return tickets to Singapore for forty bucks...
Back at the start of the year we booked flights to Newcastle for a weekend in April, for our parents' birthdays. Usually we go with Virgin or Jetstar because Qantas don't fly direct to Newcastle, but this time we decided to check out the new Tiger Airways. Got a pretty good deal too - $40 each way.
In mid-February, Tiger sent me an email saying the flight times had changed, from Saturday morning / Sunday evening to Sat afternoon / Sun lunchtime. All their route schedules seem to be still tentative since they just started flying. Anyway, the change cut 5 hours off an already rushed visit, which was no good for us.
After they sent another reminder email and SMS asking me to accept the new times, I finally called them last Wednesday to cancel our flights. They don't usually allow cancellations, but it was their fault we couldn't make it, so I assumed they'd make an exception.
So I finally get through to an operator, who sounds like she's in Singapore. I tell her we can't make the new flight times and would like to cancel. She says "Tiger doesn't allow cancellations, but we can change the date or destination of your tickets, no charge". I said I'd have to get back to her when I'd checked out which other weekend we could go to Newcastle.
The next day I called back with new travel dates, and double check we wouldn't get charged any difference in fare. Again she said (and I'm sure it was the same girl) "yes, because we moved the schedule, you can change the date or destination for nothing". It started to sink in this time.
"Hang on, you mean we can change the destination?"
"Anywhere, like... Singapore?"
She was started to get a little irritated at this point, like this was some standard practice I was unaware of, and I was an idiot for not getting it. I said, OK, I'll have to get back to you.
Singapore is the furthest that Tiger flies from Melbourne. I looked up prices on their website - a single return trip was over a grand with taxes! Surely there was no way they'd change an $80 ticket into a $1000 one for nothing. Still, it couldn't hurt to try.
I called back later that day, and got the same girl again. Told her the same story (schedule changed, we couldn't make the new flights), and again she asked if I'd like to change the dates or destination. Hoping that the previous call hadn't all been in my imagination, I asked "can we change them to Singapore?". Yes, that was fine, when did I want to go? How about the Easter weekend? I must have checked about a dozen times that there was no change fee, and they wouldn't charge me the difference in fare, which she adamantly confirmed each time.
She put me on hold while she amended the dates, and seemed to take a long time doing so. I could imagine her checking with a supervisor who would then tell her she was mad, and of course they wouldn't give away free international flights.
But a few minutes later she was back, confirmed the new times, and said she'd email an updated itinerary. It was about this point the phone line started to break up (how convenient) when she said something like "Now you'll see a charge on there for $1000-something...". I didn't get the rest but it sounded like she was saying "but we'll waive that". I hoped that's what she said anyway, because she had never mentioned a price before now. So I said I'd check the emailed itinerary and call her back if there was a problem.
Here's what it said on the email:
Payment via credit card
Form of payment: Visa
Payment status: CONFIRMED
Card number: XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX
Payment amount: 162.80 AUD
Payments via credit account
Payment amount: 1,341.54 AUD
Payment amount: 819.00 AUD
I'm not sure what that "credit account" is about, but at least it doesn't say Visa. It's been a few days now and nothing has appeared on my statement yet so it looks like they really weren't kidding.
It probably won't be the most comfortable flight (Tiger's seat pitch is about the shortest around) but for nearly-free tickets, who can complain. Plus we have a stopover in Darwin which is almost exactly halfway, so that should help.
I kind of feel guilty about accepting over $2100 in flights, but they had plenty of chances to notice their error and back out. But if they kept insisting it was fine, who wouldn't take it?
Will post an update after we get back - assuming we don't get stranded at an airport somewhere...