Tag Archives: nature

Travel Guide: Kuching x2

I left Malaysia in the spring of 2015. I hadn’t been back until four girlfriends and I decided to take a quick weekend trip to Kuching, a wonderful town in Sarawak, one of the two Malaysian states on Borneo.

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I visited the area once before (though my photos are way better this time, thanks to a fancy camera) and was excited to go back. Other than booking flights and a hotel, the entirety of our planning took place in the airport.

Friends: What are we doing in Kuching?
Me: Seeing the orangutans.
Friends: Anything else?
Me: Eating. Drinking tuak.
Friends: Cool. Anything else?
Me: Last time, I visited the Annah Rais Longhouse. Really enjoyed it and would go back, but I really don’t mind. It’s a nice town to wander through.
Friends: Sounds good.

And that was that!

As promised and planned, Semenggoh Nature Reserve was the highlight of our trip. We arrived in time for the morning feeding, which begins around nine. I love rainforests (or any forests) and enjoyed the walk to the reserve’s feeding platform.

The purpose of Semenggoh is to teach rescued or orphaned orangutans how to live in the wild, so the orangutans really only come to the reserve for a meal when there’s no food in the forest. They mostly stay away during fruiting season. My last visit was in October and we saw groups of orangutans during both feeding times, but this time around wasn’t as lucky. We did see the resident crocodiles, though!

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We also saw some really cool pitcher plants, which are really fun to look at because a) they’re carnivorous and b) they come in a surprisingly wide array of sizes. We didn’t know it at the time, but we were going to learn more about them later in the day.

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One friend and I decided to leave the reserve on foot, doubling back on the one kilometer path we’d followed on the way in. The rest of the gang went ahead in a car and I thought we’d meet at the gate to decide what to do for the rest of the morning. Since we hadn’t seen any orangutans, we agreed to return to Semenggoh for the afternoon feeding but that was as far as we’d planned.

When my friend and I got to the bottom, however, our other friends were nowhere in sight. We asked the guard if he’d seen them and he gestured vaguely down the road, telling us they’d walked. One look at the two-lane shoulder-less highway convinced us otherwise. We waited 15 minutes and then, as if answering an unspoken cry, a man in a small purple car pulled up and asked if we needed a ride.

We looked at each other. Yes, we did. We got into the car and asked him to take us to the closest town in the direction of Kuching. The hornbill statue indicated that we’d arrived in Padawan and the man in the purple car, who may or may not have been a taxi/Grab, drove off.

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We went immediately to the closest hawker for bowls of soup and noodles and cups of strong coffee. After lunch, we saw a sign for a pitcher plant museum, so of course we went!

Padawan was also home to a wonderful market. I love markets in all forms and we leisurely wandered through it, wishing we could buy some vegetables and take them home. I was less enthralled with the fish and meat, but that’s local life.

The market was also exciting because the lady selling jewelry told us she’d seen our friends! They’d been looking for a short one and tall one, they told her, and that certainly described us. And truly, how likely was it that two groups of white women wandering through a wet market in a tiny town in Borneo didn’t know each other? The woman knew they were heading back to Semenggoh and we went off to join them. The woman didn’t know, however, how we should get back. There was no bus, she told us, and while I had my phone, I didn’t intend to turn it on to call a Grab.

Luckily, my friend talks to literally anybody and after we stood on a corner for a few minutes and tried making eye contact and looking friendly and in need of help, she walked up to a man and asked how to get a taxi. Someone else overheard and told us he’d give us a ride. We followed him to his white truck and hopped in. We looked at each other. All I could think was, “Oh gosh, her husband will kill me if she doesn’t get back!” How I stayed alive in that scenario, I’m not quite sure.

But the man was lovely and pointed out several landmarks along the way. He took us exactly where we needed to be and even agreed to take our money after we asked twice. After all, we would have paid a taxi! We were greeted by our friends and a really cute lizard!

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We saw another neat lizard later on . . .

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. . . and then were back in forest looking for orangutans. In Malay, “orang utan” means “people of the forest” and that’s exactly what they are. Watching the orangutans is breathtaking because it’s like watching evolution. It’s watching yourself in a different form. Watching the orangutans play and interact leaves no doubt that we are very close relatives and that they have been around for a long time. Visiting the orangutans at Semenggoh was, and remains, the single most amazing experience I’ve had in Southeast Asia.

We took a very long bus ride back to Kuching and agreed that we probably should have turned on the cellular data and taken a Grab, mostly because we were all hot and tired by that point. The walk along the water from the bus station, however, which we repeated in the opposite direction the next morning, was really lovely and I was not sorry to end the afternoon there. Orangutans and boats, all in one day!

In addition to being located on the Sarawak River, which I like very much, Kuching is home to brightly colored buildings and a few cat statues (because “kuching” is the Malay word for “cat”) . . .

. . . and a great array of street art. I liked that very much, too!

Our wandering through the street art district took us to a few lovely cafés and one of the proprietors suggested we check out the Textile Museum. We did, and were pleasantly surprised at the range of artifacts on display. Since we decided to have an easy coffee morning and not visit a longhouse, the textiles provided us with a glimpse of traditional life that I think is important for any trip to Sarawak.

And, of course, there were temples. We only stopped into one and it was lovely and colorful, which is really the best way I can describe the city of Kuching itself.

All in all, it was a great weekend. Kuching is a quick hour and twenty minutes from Singapore and there are cheap flights that leave after work. It was fun to be back in Malaysia both because of what I remembered (accurately and inaccurately) and what I’d forgotten. It’s fun to experience a bit of your own past every now and then.

But most importantly, this trip to Kuching was a great break from real life with a wonderful group of women. Thanks, ladies!

Travel Guide: Chiang Mai x2

After time in Hanoi and Sapa, my sister and I arrived in Chiang Mai, Thailand on New Year’s Eve. I was excited to be back as soon as we landed.

We dropped our bags and headed straight for Sunday Walking Street, one of Chiang Mai’s many night markets. It sells food, clothing, art, home decor, and just about anything else that one might need or desire. For those who love to shop, there’s a regular night market and a Saturday Walking Street, too.

It was busier than usual because of New Year’s Eve so we ducked out for dinner once the crowds became unpleasant. Once it was dark, we joined groups of locals and tourists setting off paper lanterns along the river, just inside the walls that cordon off central Chiang Mai from the rest of the city. (I’d love to go to the Lantern Festival one day.) Encouraged by a friendly Thai man, we scribbled messages on our lantern before finding someone with a candle who helped us light it. With his help, we held the lantern to the ground until he decided, seemingly arbitrarily, that it was ready to hold itself up in the sky. We let go and watched the lantern float up and over the river, following hundreds of others. Such a cool way to send off positive wishes for a new year.

A few hours later, we rang in 2018 from Zoe in Yellow, a Chiang Mai club that absorbed the parties from every bar on its street. Security and bartenders were kind enough to look the other way as all patrons wandered from bar to bar, dancing wherever the best song was playing.

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On New Year’s Day, we visited one of several massage centers in Chiang Mai where female ex-convicts are trained in the art of massage. Thai massage is very different from any massage that I’ve had (and I don’t always like being touched, so massages are infrequent) and I really enjoyed it. You’re fully dressed and the masseuse is right up on the bed with you, using her entire body to pull, twist, and stretch yours. She was contorted into as many positions as I was throughout the process. It was a new physical experience for me and a lovely way to spend an hour.

We spent the afternoon wandering around, the streets blissfully empty this time, and found some really lovely street art that basically exemplifies why I love Chiang Mai so much. It’s a small town with so much personality and so much good will. Really delicious cafés and coffee shops, too! We visited at least one every afternoon. Chiang Mai is laid-back, calm, and friendly, all of which were greatly appreciated after the hustle and bustle of Hanoi.

We also saw some of Chiang Mai’s many temples. They’re ornate, colorful, incredibly detailed, and very impressive. They can also get a little tiring and all start to look the same after a while. Since Chiang Mai has so many, though, one way of getting to know the city is by going from temple to temple and creating a mental map. That’s what I did the first time I was there and I was surprised at how much I remembered.

Visiting temples at night, however, was a new experience and a very different one. What is beautiful in the light can take on a very eerie, creepy quality in the dark. That was only enhanced by the man riding his bike in circles whispering, “Beautiful . . .” over and over.

We actually spent most of our time in Chiang Mai out of town and in the wider province. On our second full day we went on an excursion to Phuping Palace, the royal family’s holiday home, and Doi Suthep, Chiang Mai’s most famous temple. We were far more interested in the latter but I’m glad we saw the palace, too. We weren’t allowed inside but the gardens were lovely!

If you’re planning to go, one word of caution. Just like the Grand Palace in Bangkok, there’s a dress code that is more strict than the regular temple dress code. For men, it’s long pants (no shorts, even if they cover the knee) and a shirt that covers the shoulders. For women, it’s a skirt or long pants (no leggings, though fine in a temple) and a shirt that covers the shoulders (no scarves for this part, though that’s fine in a temple). Luckily, there are clothes to buy or rent if you’re in a bind.

After some time at Phuping Palace and a short drive, we reached Wat Phra That Doi Suthep and walked up 306 steps to reach it. Like every temple that we visited in and around Chiang Mai, this one was full of monks and worshippers giving offerings and saying prayers in the hope of a prosperous new year. Doi Suthep is actually the name of the mountain on which the temple is located and there were really beautiful views of the city from the summit. It was a cloudy day so I’ll keep those pictures to myself because they really don’t do it justice.

The primary reason I had wanted my sister to visit Chiang Mai was because of Elephant Nature Park. That’s what first brought me to Chiang Mai a couple years ago and I could not wait to share it with my sister. ENP is a rescue center for elephants previously in captivity from logging operations, circus performances, or as tourist attractions on city streets. ENP also has an expansive dog rescue program with its own set of volunteers. There are other animals living there, too, like cats and water buffalo. At ENP, no one rides the elephants. You feed them, learn about their individual personalities and life stories, bathe them when it’s warm enough (it is in September but some were wearing jackets in January!), and touch them if they’ll let you. It’s a beautiful place with beautiful animals and I was so glad to be back.

We spent our last day in Chiang Mai up in the mountains. We headed to Doi Inthanon National Park, which is part of the Himalayas and home to the highest mountain in Thailand that gives the park its name. The climate of Doi Inthanon is always chilly, hovering around 10ºC or 50ºF during the day, and I was glad for my jacket.

After about two hours of driving, we stopped at Wachirathan Waterfall. I grew up in upstate New York and spent summers camping in Letchworth State Park and this waterfall reminded me a little bit of home. I loved climbing down on the rocks to get as close to the spray as possible. We used to stand in the gorges trying to catch whatever fish darted around in there. We called them crayfish, but I’m not sure that’s what they were.

After some time at the waterfall, we took a quick drive to Kew Mae Pan Nature Trail, the real reason we’d come to Doi Inthanon. We hiked for two hours through the cloud forest, which was really neat because we’d visited Singapore’s Cloud Forest in Gardens by the Bay two weeks earlier and here we were in a real one! Normally, the guide told us, there’s a stunning view of the mountain range and nearby temples from the summit. The day we were there, however, was an anomaly. We could see . . . nothing.

Knowing what I was missing because of a photo from the guidebook, I was initially disappointed. And then I started paying attention to everything I could see and my emotional response, attitude, and interpretation of the experience completely changed. I started looking around and found myself feeling calm and peaceful. I felt wrapped up in mist from the clouds, hugged by everything around me. Only being able to see a few meters in any direction forced me to focus more deeply than I often do when I’m outside and there’s so much to see. With less distraction, it was easier to experience beauty and serenity in everything that there was.

While I could have happily spent many more hours hiking in the mountains, we followed the guide to the burial site of the ancient Lanna kings. As everywhere in Thailand, there were people praying and leaving offerings, which I always like to see. Religious devotion is always interesting to me because I grew up understanding it so completely. My thoughts have changed a lot since then.

Another major attraction of Doi Inthanon National Park are the pagodas dedicated to the king and queen. Normally, you can see them from the top of the mountain but we had the additional surprise of not being able to see them at all because of the fog. The guide shrugged and told us to wander around the gardens, which we did. It’s still amusing to watch monks taking selfies, especially when there’s nothing to see. As we wandered, though, the sun broke through the clouds and the fog cleared for just long enough to allow us to see what we’d come to see.

The King Pagoda was surrounded by really beautiful scenes of the life of the Buddha and was absolutely empty inside, which is unusual. I really liked the brown and gray with hints of purple, which is also unusual. Temples are so pretty when they’re simple.

The Queen Pagoda was decorated with purple mosaics. This I had never seen and this I loved. This queen loved purple, the guide told us. So do I.

After some time at the pagodas, we went to a nearby market just for a quick look. Though my sister and I told each other we weren’t hungry, we used that quick look to buy a cup of strawberries and another cup of gooseberries!

According to the guide, the last stop with this particular tour is usually the Sirithan Waterfall. Though smaller and initially less impressive than the first, I enjoyed listening to the water.

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However, since so many people in our group had asked about local livelihoods, he took us to a village that grows rice in the summer and coffee throughout the year!

Our visit to Doi Inthanon was such a great day and it was a little difficult to know that our trip was at an end. But it was such a wonderful way to say goodbye to a place I really love. Here’s to hoping I’ll be back soon!

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Travel Guide: Sapa

When my sister told me she was coming to visit, I knew I wanted to take her to Vietnam, but I also wanted to go somewhere I’d never been. We spent a day and a half in Hanoi before taking a very lovely night train northwest to Sapa to spend two days trekking with local Hmong guides. I first learned about the Sapa trek from someone I met on an airplane on the way to Hoi An a couple years ago and was excited to finally make it there!

We booked this part of our trip with the friendly, helpful, ever knowledgable people at Lily’s Travel Agency. They were very responsive via email and WhatsApp, which made the planning very easy on my end. Lily’s Travel works with Mao, a Black Hmong woman who leads Sapa treks, to provide a “backroads” trekking experience and an authentic look at the lives of the Hmong people.

Our train left Hanoi at 10pm and we arrived at Lao Cai station at 6am. It was very cozy and truly delightful to curl up with a book and listen to the sounds of the train. I’ve always found the whistle of a train to be simultaneously romantic, mysterious, and exciting.

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From there, we took an hour-long bus ride to Sapa where we met the spunky, warm Mao. Everyone we met in Sapa seemed to know her! Mao introduced us to several other local guides and to her sister-in-law, our guide for the next two days. Mao took a particular liking to my sister’s pink curly hair – but then again, who doesn’t?

Our trek started from the town of Sapa at about 8:30am to give us time to swap the glasses for contact lenses and have some eggs and coffee. It was sunny but cold and I was glad for my winter coat and gloves . . . and skiing sweatshirt . . . and thermal leggings. (My sister, on the other hand, had come from the very cold upstate New York and maintained that it was in fact rather balmy.)

I really love meeting fellow travelers and trekking in Sapa provided a great opportunity to do that. Our group included a Malaysian man, several Singaporeans, a French woman, and two German girls. Along the way, we met other travelers from the US, Canada, and Israel. I really enjoy knowing that people from all over the world were on the same trail on the same chilly but sunny day, happy to be where they were and excited for what they would see.

I also really loved that we were all guided on our journey by a group of Hmong women who were wonderfully knowledgeable, liked to talk and make jokes, and made for excellent company.

The trek took us through rice paddies that are dormant in the winter because of the weather. Winter in northern Vietnam is too cold and dry for rice to grow but I’ve been to rice plantations in Malaysia and can imagine what it looks like in the summer. For that reason, though, I loved seeing the landscape at a different time of year. It was beautiful just as it was.

We also saw our fair share of animals! Pigs, water buffalo, and dogs were all in abundance.

By the time we arrived at the homestay, also coordinated by Mao, we were exhausted and very glad to huddle up around a charcoal fire in a large stone bowl on the floor. Our crew for the night was a really lovely group – the German and French women we’d been with all day and an American living in Thailand who we’d met over lunch. One of the girls was brave enough to test the hot water in the bathroom located just outside the house. Thanks to her, we all took a hot shower! The hardest part was figuring out where to keep our clothes so they wouldn’t get wet. Except for my sister, we wore jackets, hats, and scarves indoors because any spot away from the fire was as cold as being outside. I slept in my jacket, too, but I think I was the only one.

It was really relaxing to sit and talk and get to better know the people we’d hiked with all day. Because of that, I’m glad we stayed in the more traditional of Mao’s two houses. Our homestay had a ladder to reach the unlit second floor loft, which housed cozy mattresses and quilts under mosquito nets. There were curtains on the main floor separating one room from the other, single lightbulbs to illuminate the kitchen and main sitting area, and a combination lock to secure the sheet metal door at night. Our guide told me that her home with her husband’s family is very similar to the house where we slept. We visited the newer homestay the next morning and while it was made of brighter wood, better lit, and had private bedrooms with doors and a staircase to the second floor, I feel that we had a far more authentic experience  than we would have otherwise. At any rate, it was an adventure and that’s why I travel.

And speaking of adventures, the second day of our trek was my first day of mountain trekking in mud and rain! The rice fields looked completely different and the mist all around us made for an experience quite unlike the sunshine of the previous day.

It was still pouring when we finally returned to the town of Sapa where we had arranged to spend a night in a proper hotel rather than taking the 9:30pm train back to Hanoi the same day. Since the downpour continued and we were cold, wet, and muddy, I am very glad we made this decision. I would not have enjoyed sitting on a train for eight hours under those conditions, let alone trying to sleep on one.

There isn’t much to do in Sapa, but we enjoyed a calm day of wandering. It was much warmer in town than in the mountains, which also very welcome.

That night, we were back on the train to Hanoi, already missing the mountains and the “trek life”, as my sister termed it.

I’ve been hearing wonderful things about Sapa since my first trip to Vietnam and I’m really glad that my sister and I could experience a new place together. After a couple days in Hanoi, we were off again, this time to one of my favorite destinations – Chiang Mai! Stay tuned!