Malaysia

On first impression, due to its similar cultural constitution, Malaysia appears to be a poorer and larger version of Singapore, but on close inspection, it is not. A very large amount of the population is Muslim, which gives everything a slightly different allure. Women walk around wearing the hijab, at certain hours cities fill-up with the imam’s calls for prayers and alcohol can sometimes be difficult to find. Not that Islamic countries around Asia are a rarity, but Malaysia was the first one I got to experience and I must admit that albeit it sort of lacks many positive aspects that I have found during my visits to other countries where this religion prevails, namely architecture, art and vibe, the cohabitation with more conventional Asian cultures is interesting.

Kuala Lumpur

Dressed for the mosque
Dressed for the mosque

Abbreviated as KL by its inhabitants and the Singaporeans, its your typical bustling Asian metropolis but this time with a Muslim twist to it. My bus from Singapore arrived much earlier than I expected and dropped me along with two younger Germans in the middle of the city and a long ways from where I had booked a bed. Early in the morning, the Imam’s first  calls filled up the air, waking in the process all the workers from the countryside, who not able to afford a room in the city, have to sleep on cardboard boxes in parks and alleyways. After a couple of kilometers’ walk we made it to the hostel but not able to check in for a long time still, I collapsed on a couch on the lounge and completed my night there.

The steps to the Batu caves
The steps to the Batu caves

Originally, I had booked three night at this hostel, but not entirely convinced KL was worth staying so long in, I preemptively cancelled my last night, which turned out to be a smart move. An afternoon spent walling in the city’s central park, a visit to the national mosque, where I had to endure an Islam conversion speech that would make anyone with the slightest bit of knowledge of logic and basic human psychology cringe and that was it for my first day. On the second day, I went to Batu caves, an Hindu complex on the outskirts of town, visited some caverns and upon heading back to KL, made a detour through the Petronas Towers and the modern downtown area which unsurprisingly was just a very large shopping mall. Funny story, while walking in the Chinatown, I ran into a fellow traveler I had met more than two months ago in Beijing, quite an unlikely coincidence but contrary to what my wannabe Islam teacher would have wanted me to believe, not a miracle.

Inside the Batu caves
Inside the Batu caves

Kuala Lumpur is dirty, messy, noisy and badly polluted (the amount of thrash floating around after a rain storm was staggering) so I quickly got fed up with it’s dense urban environments, but one of its definitely positive aspect was again, the food, which is good, varied an cheap and the only moment of which I did not enjoy so much was the time I seriously choked on a piece of bread in the middle of a restaurant. Regardless, I began considering my options pretty soon into my stay in the city and soon found the destination that would give me the contrast in my travels I needed so much: the Perenthians. Two islands several kilometers off the eastern coast of peninsular Malaysia, with cabins set in nature, hiking, beaches and diving. With this new destination in mind, I began searching for accommodation there but soon had to give up as the options were either too expensive or unreachable. Disappointed, I turned off my computer and was soon engaged in a conversation with other travelers about the things travelers usually first speak about: their travels, where they have been, where they are going, and things in between. There, I learned that the Perenthians shut-down entirely during the monsoon season and might at the moment only be partially open and also that most had really good things to say about Penang, an island on the west coast and the location of Georgetown, and old British colonial hub now a UNESCO world heritage site and a foodie’s paradise. With this fresh new travel intelligence in mind, I figured that I could go to Penang for some days, which would get me closer to the Perenthians, would give me more time to contact hostels there and should I not be able to reach the islands at all, would at least get me nearer Thailand.

Penang (Georgetown)

A six hour bus ride, which was made longer by incessant stops to let the Muslim passengers carry on their praying duties, and I found myself in Georgetown. Not as pretty as I thought but given the amount of night markets and restaurants, the food scene looked promising.

A food stall at the night market in Georgetown
A food stall at the night market in Georgetown

Upon entering my dorm to set my backpack down before heading for dinner, I ran into Mike (his real name is Mikaj) from Vancouver, one of my roommates. Within one minute, I had established that he wanted to go to the Perenthians, that he had med two girls that came back from the islands saying that they were indeed partly open and that he had spent the last two weeks in Penang because he liked the food and got too lazy to move anywhere. Both coming to the realization that each other was exactly what we needed, me the information that he had and him a kick in the ass, we quickly came to an agreement that in two days we shall leave for those much sought-after islands, but keep on looking for places to stay there.

Two weeks in Georgetown though, there must be loads to do here, so I asked Mike what his recommendations were but sadly he had none in particular, he just felt that the vibe was great, and that he had discovered a luxurious hotel into which he could sneak in to enjoy the pool and jacuzzi without the staff having second-thoughts about him being a customer. I told him lounging around water surfaces was not my thing, but we still got a laugh out of this case of inverted racism. Penang is very touristic and outside of Georgetown, it’s resort after resort, but it was touted as having a great national park so I decided I should check it out and then afterwards take a walk around town. The park was somewhat of a deception, but the city tour provided an explanation as to why Mike had qualified the place as “chilled-out”. No hustle-bustle, lots of street life, sidewalks (an all to often absent concept in Asia), excellent food, a good crowd of backpackers and a city that is big but not unmanageable by foot. Back at the hostel but exhausted from a long day of walking around in the Malaysian heat, I sat down for a beer with Mike and Adam (from Sweden) which turned into two beers, which turned into three beers, which turned into a night of drinking and talking about diving between me and Adam as Mike had stuffed himself with too much Indian food and retired much earlier than us. As I am writing these lines more than two weeks later, I have had the chance to spend numerous evenings having many of those Asian beers and the curious fact about them is that if you stay away from the cheap brands, you will not get a hangover no matter the amount that you drink. You will certainly wake up dehydrated and tired, but no headache, no nausea. Perhaps these brews have been engineered specifically not to give tourists bad morning afters? So that they can have many and still be able to go out and spend money around the next day? I am digressing.

Colonial Gorgetown
Colonial Georgetown

Fearing that I would be out of reach of an internet connection in the Perenthians, I spend my last day in Georgetown doing some work and that night, Mike and I hopped in a night bus to Kuala Besut, the coastal town from which the ferry boats depart. Obviously, Mike and I were unsuccessful at securing any affordable bed on the island, but we reminded ourselves that just showing up somewhere hoping for a place to stay always ends up working out in some way or another.

Pulau Perenthian Kecil

The buses in Malaysia are actually quite roomy. With only three seats on the width, there is ample space for the elbows and shoulders. Still, in spite of a sleeping pill, I could never quite get proper rest and spent the majority of the night waking up to change position only to realize that sitting was the only option.

View of coral bay at Pulau Perhentian Kecil
View of coral bay at Pulau Perhentian Kecil

I arrived very early at the ferry dock and after a bit of waiting, was on a small craft hopping waves towards Pulau Perenthian Kecil (“small stopping point island” in Malaysian). The ride was certainly bumpy, and indeed some other passengers appeared not to have a particularly enjoyable cruise, but it was nothing compared to what I had experienced in the past. Once on the island itself, me and Mike set out to explore the area to see what our lodging options were and as expected, there were not that many: some cabins and a resort. We reserved a chalet at the one that seemed to be the most sensible choice regarding location and price, but had to settle for a double bed which we would have to share. At 40 ringgit (6.6 $CDN)  a night between the two of us, no big deal.

Contrast
Contrast

While scouting beds, I had also stopped by the three dive shops that were there as well and booked an afternoon dive with one of them so a quick nap and a short lunch later, I was in the water with the local marine population. The visibility was not great, not more than 10 meters, but the diversity of wildlife compensated and I got to see during that dive more species of fish and invertebrates through all my time in Honduras. Satisfied with the experience and the price (30$ for a dive), I booked another dive for the following morning, which was set to happen on Sugar wreck, a cargo ship that capsized twelve years ago during a storm and is now resting on its side in 20 meters of water at about 30 minutes by boat from the island, weather permitting of course. The season having just started, the seas could still be a bit rough and visibility poor, but that morning, mother nature decided to cooperate and made the dive possible. At a 100 meters long, Sugar wreck was to be the largest ship I would have ever dived on so I got pretty excited.

Once under, I was sort of disappointed that I could only see down to a couple of meters but soon had my attention diverted by the sheer size of the boat, all the junk that was lying around it and how nature had reclaimed the ship. The site of the sinking, originally a flat sandy plain, was now teeming with corals, anemones, bamboo sharks, carpets of sea urchins, barracudas and cuttlefishes. Even lion fishes, one of which visibly annoyed by this early morning intrusion, decided to get between me and the rest of the group, delaying my passage to the point where I almost lost them and challenging my buoyancy skills by forcing me to hover between walls of urchins, pieces of rusty metal sticking out and the roof of the cargo hold. How much more impressive must this dive have been in better conditions, but definitely satisfied, I would dive two other times around the island, but with another shop, not that the first one was inadequate, but I like spreading my business around. Although I would not be going back to Sugar wreck, I was the only customer on one dive, which really afforded me the time to properly look at things. I also did not get a chance to visit the other wreck, which apparently was guarded by a titan trigger fish with a very bad temper.

East beach
East beach

Mike occupied his time between napping and lounging on the beach so occasionally, I would join him for a game of frisbee or volleyball. The west side of the island, not yet open and essentially deserted, provided us with a lot of room to throw things at each other. Night time activities, as is to be expected in such a place, pretty much revolved around drinking and making friends at one of the few beach side restaurants or at the bonfire which some locals would make every night. Nothing unusual there, but what set this island experience apart was that the community was very small so you could make acquaintances one night and see them the next day. Soon enough, Mike and I had made buddies with a large portion of the foreigners, composed overwhelmingly of Scandinavians (and Finnish + Estonian), which made our efforts at building hype towards the Sweden-Canada Olympic hockey final that much more easy.

Normally, I would not care much about a hockey game, but the fact that I was in Malaysia on an island surrounded by sand, palm trees, tropical water and Swedish people made the whole event too extraneous/exciting to pass. So the night of the game, our cabin neighbors, a Swedish couple, had arranged with a local convenience store owner who happened to have a satellite TV to show the game. He probably had never head of the sport, but knew very well that so many customers at once would mean good business for him. Both them and Mike and I spread the word around that we should all meet there so at the rendez-vous time, the little shack was overflowing with Scandinavians and three of us Canadians, as we had only been able to find one other fellow country-woman. Naturally, we had a bet going with some supporters of the opposite team and naturally, we came out winners. Two beers per goal of difference, so six beers (Canada won 3-0), which we happily took over to the bonfire on the other side of the beach. The night ended with an infructuous quest for nesting turtles on the west-side beach and a swim, which I quietly sat out on the beach, because one person leaving the party without the others knowing could cause a major panic; someone had to play the lifeguard.

Inside the fishing village
Inside the fishing village

Mike had drank himself out of commission for the next two days, but I thankfully had managed my alcohol intake pretty well and only felt tired for the impossibility to sleep in the morning heat but otherwise fine. Well enough to go diving again during the day, hike to the fisherman’s village on the southern tip of the island and certainly sufficiently in shape to make it to the bonfire that night again. The following day was built around the same structure of diving, beach and bonfire, but that would as far as the routine went, I had to leave the next morning.

Coral bay at sunset
Coral bay at sunset

I had expected the Perenthians to be more “rural” than they actually were. For instance, before leaving I had told those who might need to get a hold of me that I would be disconnected for the next couple of days but to my surprise, the Internet had made it there and in fact, there were a lot of modern luxury that had reached those islands so much so that it was possible to indulge in a full-fledged resort experience. Still, the island (in its pre-high season state) provided to be an ideal compromise between size and amenities. For those that wanted a true “cabin on the beach” experience, all it took was a short taxi-boat ride to another more remote beach. And if you felt more social, the small crowds gathering at the handful of restaurants for the evening barbecues were a good way of making some interesting encounters. It suffices to say that my time on the Perenthians has been the highlight of Malaysia for me.

Moving North

Malaysia is split in two between the actual continent and the island of Borneo. Obviously, it was not practical for me to the latter as well, so sadly, there is a whole part of that country that I missed. I might come back to it if ever I do go to Indonesia, but while I’m immensely glad of having passed through Malaysia, I found that it generally lacked in charm and that at the end of the day, there was not a whole lot of things to do or places to go that seemed appealing to me.

Anyhow, I left the Perenthian Islands on the first ferry with two ladies that were both going up to Thailand, very relieved to be tagging along to someone that knows the way since that time, it was a pretty complicated journey and I had not done my homework. As for Mike, he replaced me with a Norwegian “friend” he had made himself earlier during his journey and that happened to be arriving on the very same ferry that was about to take me back on the continent. Let’s say that I fully understand why he did not seem terribly unhappy to see me go.

I’m sort of thrilled to go to Thailand, partly for the hype that has been building up during my whole trip but also for the fact that my time constraints are far looser here that they have been so far. I’m only suppose to meet a friend visiting me from Canada in Vietnam mid march and in Thailand itself, I should meet-up with two different travelling buddies, Rimas, my old diving instructor whom I saw in Hawaii and Jesse, an American I befriended while in Seoul.

At the Thailand - Malaysia border
At the Thailand – Malaysia border

Singapore

Singapore is simply fascinating. It’s like few other countries in the world, first because it is the largest city-state there is, but also because there four distinct cultures, Indians, Chinese, Malaysians and Westerners all seem to cohabit in relative peacefulness and mix themselves to form the social fabric of this peculiar nation. Earlier in my travels, when I was in Seoul, I met these two Singaporean girls, and not that we spent a lot of time hanging out back there, but I found their depiction of their homeland very interesting and told them I may come one day.

And after two months, that day finally came. When it became time for me to leave Hawaii and come back to the Asian continent, I figured I had some days to spare before I had to be in Thailand and the tickets to everywhere in South-East Asia were really expensive. Except for Singapore. For those reasons, I decided to take the long way up to Thailand and visit this little island of ultra-modernity.

Hindu template in Singapore's Chinatown
Hindu template in Singapore’s Chinatown

The city

Singapore could be a foretaste of what the big western cities will be like a couple of decades from now, where the rising price of gas will have put a halt to urban sprawling and where the cost of real estate will have made densification and public transportation the way to go and car-centric designs obsolete.

The Singapore skyline
The Singapore skyline

The city is clean, well urbanized, parks, sporting facilities are abundant and the transportation network is cheap and efficient. Not one piece of trash on the ground, not one cigarette butt, not one act of vandalism, not one advertisement taped to a telephone pole. However, there is this lingering feeling of mistrust in the air, this coldness in spite of the searing hot weather. In many regards, Singapore is an example to follow and in many others, not. The state appears to be really repressive, fines are hefty; any misconduct and civil disobedience I bet is dealt with in a swift and brutal manner. In fact, upon entering the country, in bright big red letters on the customs form is written: Drug trafficking is punishable by death in Singapore. You get the idea.

Still, if me make abstraction of the barely tolerable temperature, aimless wandering in downtown Singapore is pure pleasure, a feast for the eyes, with great architecture everywhere, a bunch of colorful Indian shops selling their wares or a Chinese kitchen catering to its daily load of customers, the city is as I said, fascinating. On one street I was randomly walking on, I came across a mosque, an Hindu and Buddhist temples and I would not be surprised if there was a christian church nearby. Thanks to my Singaporean acquaintances, I also got to see what the city is like outside of its core and away from the shopping centers. While everything remains very much the same, the architecture takes a very communist turn. Understandably, there is not a whole lot of space in the country so the lower classes, those that cannot afford the exorbitant cost of property ownership, are stacked in large concrete apartment blocks. From what I understood, if you do not have a family it’s not really possible for you to buy a house until you are 35 years old and once you do, you can only sell it after five years. As for rentals, I imagine the waiting lines are very long. Consequently, both of my 29 year old friends were still living with their parents.

Singapore’s colonial past and cosmopolitanism certainly has made it stand out among other Asian cities, in the end however, there is only a couple of days’ worth of sightseeing to be done there. Unless you have a very deep wallet and a taste for shopping, the cost of activities is sort of prohibitive as is the nightlife; it starts to feel very artificial pretty fast. No other traveler lingers either. Some are just arriving from elsewhere, some are returning home to their respective country, but no one remains there for a long time.

The Lavender hawker center
The Lavender hawker center

The food

When I questioned my Singaporean friends about one aspect of their country/city they really liked, they were unanimous: the food. As you might have predicted, so many cultures cohabiting leads to a wide variety of cuisines and fusions, certainly, but in Singapore, it’s also the format into which it is delivered, its accessibility and let’s not forget, the price. It appears that the inhabitants there don’t cook very much for themselves. All over the city you can find large food courts, or hawker centers, set up very much like those found in shopping centers except that they do not consist of your very popular fast-food chain, but of many small specialty kitchens. One serving Korean food, the other Chinese noodles, one dedicated to turtle soup, Indian fare, halal dishes, freshly pressed juices, etc. and in the middle, a larger stall catering to your need in beverages. The diversity is staggering, the one near my hostel must have housed at least 30 kitchens and for a good couple months I could have gone there without having the same meal twice. At a handful of dollars for every dish, no wonder it’s Singapore’s highlight.

My time there

Hanging out
Hanging out

Not so careful reading between the lines will give you a good idea of how my time in Singapore was spent: walking around and eating. Well, eating does not normally count as an activity since you’ll most likely be doing it three times on any given day, but in Singapore, my daily routine got structured around it, walking to the spots where the best restaurants were and always looking forward to the next meal. I did obviously hung out with my friends. We went out one night for Malay food, then translated to a nearby bar for a couple beers and subsequently headed for someone’s apartment (her parent’s actually) for some more drinks and discussions. There, the plan became to climb a hill for a view of the city and possibly a sunrise, but exhausted at 3 am, I took to taking a nap on the floor. At 5, they woke me up to go to this park but once there, no chance, it had been abandoned for some years so whatever viewpoint there might have been, either we could not find or had been overgrown with vegetation.

The Marina Bay Sands
The Marina Bay Sands

I made it back to my hostel at 9 and went to bed without bothering to brush my teeth or anything. Still, I managed to make the day a rather productive one by visiting the Singapore modern art museum and touring the Marina Bay Sands and Garden’s by the Bay, both very impressive in their own regard. At that moment, I already sort of had enough of the city and needed to move on so I booked a bus ticket to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia for the next evening. The next day, more wandering in the city and at the end of the afternoon I met my friends one more time at a small live-music type of event at a park in the city for a beer. Coming back in time for one more last-meal at my local food court, I boarded my bus for Malaysia and in no time I had left Singapore but not without marveling one last time at its impressive skyline and gigantic shipping port.

Manila, the Philippines

Downtown Manila

The Pacific ocean is wide, wider than a look a world map would suggest. My travelling time to Singapore from Honolulu was to be 23 hours first through a 11 hour flight to Manilla and then a 3 hours and a half flight to Singapore with a good 8 hours of layover in between. Since spending the better part of my day killing time in the Manilla airport international terminal did no sound very appealing, I decided to pass the customs and go walk around the Filipino capital for a couple of hours.

A local market in Manila
A local market in Manila

I had to negotiate my taxi ride pretty hard with several threats of opening the door and getting out but eventually I managed to reach the city. My apologies for being an asshole tourist mr cab driver, but the fact that I’m leaving from the airport does not justify multiplying your fare by 8. The make a short list short, all I had time to visit was the Rizal park, the Intramuros (old town), a UNESCO world heritage church and the Chinatown. Add to that a few intrusions into the local life at markets, street food stalls and churches and that was it for my excursion into Manila. Much to the disappointment of all these very feminine looking men that seem to have a keen interest in me, that was all I could cram into the couple of hours I had away from the airport.

Jeepneys, Manila's most popular way to get around
Jeepneys, Manila’s most popular way to get around

Manila, being situated in a developing nation and having had a long history of Spanish colonial rule, had much in common with state capitals of Central-America I found. It smells, its dirty, its hot, save a couple of nice older buildings, its full of ugly, circulation is a huge mess, manifestation of abject poverty are abundant (the amount of street children…) and I bet it can be visited in a day or two. But on another level, its exhilarating to be in and its an overwhelming feast for the senses. It’s definitely a departure from Honolulu and a nice foretaste to what is coming my way in South-East Asia. I’m travelling again.

See you another time Philippines.

Hawai’i, United States

What am I doing in Hawaii? Those that read my articles on Japan will have a good idea. For the lazy rest, let’s just say that some things are worth (ahem! women …) changing your plans for. So after a long flight from Taipei and back through Osaka, Japan, there I was in America.

Where am I?
Where am I?

Honolulu

Downtown Honolulu seen from the Diamond Head
Downtown Honolulu seen from the Diamond Head

And America it felt. For the first couple days, it felt strangely good to be in known territory again. Stores I am familiar with, a culture and a language I can understand, food that in spite of its lack of refinement, is only done properly in North America. Only for the first couple of days though, because soon enough, the large roads, oversized pick-up trucks with mags, poor public transportation, poor urbanization and a sprawling suburbia soon made me remember why our cities have such a bad reputation around the rest of the western world. Honolulu is no exception, it is just another American metropolis with daily traffic jams, sketchy neighborhoods and homelessness issues. Close inspection will reveal an Hawaiian twist to things, but if it was not the many hours of flying over the water, you would think you’re actually on the mainland. Downtown Honolulu really is many people’s idea of an idyllic place, which is why plane loads of foreigners and american retirees flock there when the weather on the northern hemisphere gets chillier. I even met my uncle, who along with my aunt has been snowbirding a couple of weeks out of the Canadian cold in a rental condo for the last couple of years. Literally steps away from the famous Waikiki, I did not really bother asking them how much their rent was, but I bet it was way beyond my current means. Also beyond those of most Hawaiians for that matter as a only few kilometers away the upscale hotels and shops abruptly fade to expose the harsh reality of city life in America.

Chinese new year celebrations in Honolulu's chinatown
Chinese new year celebrations in Honolulu’s chinatown

Honolulu boasts a couple of nice museums and monuments, but its flagship attraction is definitely Pearl Harbour, the site of the eponymous attack by the Japanese in 1941. It takes at least two days to properly visit. What I managed to see on the two occasions that I managed to wake up early enough to make it worth the trip was the USS Bowfin, a WWII submarine, the USS Missouri, a battleship and the pacific aviation museum, which made for its lack of quantity with quality restored warbirds from the golden era of aviation. Otherwise, the Japanese might have you believe that Waikiki is the place to be and indeed, while they used to drop bombs on this island they now drop big dollars and invade by the thousands every week, especially in this area where it is said that they spend on average 500 to a 1000 dollars a day, While the famous beachfront street makes for a nice evening stroll, there is not much to it if you’re used to the concept of American style shopping or think your hard earned money shall be spent on something more worthwhile.

The island on which Honolulu is, O’ahu has a bit more to offer and Melissa and I devoted many afternoons driving around it to sample some of its foods, check some parks, beaches, skydiving (wanted to try but the weather was not on our side), etc. I wanted to take her out scuba diving as well, but it was too logistically complex so one weekday I woke up at 05h30 and went on my own. While certainly more expensive than your average tropical country, the quality of the equipment and overall level service left very little to be desired. I would not say the same about the diving itself though, to which I would only give the OK mark. The reef appeared to be in decent shape, the dolphins and whales were at their usual posts along the route to the wreck (an upside down landing barge) but there was just not much to see down there.

Close encounter with a sea turtle
Close encounter with a sea turtle

On the second dive, I found myself face to face with a sea turtle as I was exiting a swim trough. It was hiding immobile in a corner so the other divers had not seen it and when came the time for it to go back up for a gulp of air, it had to swim through a large cloud of divers into which a couple she bumped during here ascension, leaving them very surprised when they noticed who they had collided with. Much to the amusement of the Japanese group that was following us at a shallower depth. It’s hard to properly convey facial expressions with a full set of scuba gear on, but laughter is one that gets across pretty easily.

The Big Island part 1

Hawai’i, the state, is an archipelago and Hawai’i is its largest island. There are eight overall, and having exhausted all that I felt like doing around Honolulu, I had to go visit another and picked the most obvious one for three reasons. First, because it’s the one with most if not all of the active volcanoes on it (when you see images of Hawai’i, chances are they were taken there); second, it had one specific dive I really wanted to do. Third, because I friend I had made while in Honduras was staying there. To save some confusion, the Hawaiians have decided to name their eponymous land mass the big island, because it is big; go look for yourself on Google maps. Big enough so that it takes several hours if not an entire day to circumnavigate it by car, hence the absolute necessity to rent one because public transportation, as in most places on this continent, is lacking: consisting only of a couple of buses that circle the island every day. Also warned by Melissa and longing for the cathartic sensation provided by the open road, the decision was an easy one and I rented a set of wheels that I picked up in Hilo (the largest city) the morning after arriving on the island.

Desolation in the Volcanoes National Park
Desolation in the Volcanoes National Park

Once at the wheel, I immediately set out for the volcanoes national park, where the most active volcano on the island has been spewing gases and molten rock for as long as the records go back. No luck this year though; activity had receded so lava flows have hardened into a thick crust and no longer dump themselves into the ocean into a spectacular show of smoke and light. Still, past eruptions provide for a spectacular scenery and a lot of it can be viewed from the comfort of your vehicle or a short hike. It was already late in the afternoon, so with a map of the park in hand, I set out on the road down to the coast, stopped at a few craters and made it to the end, where the road has been covered by a lava flow that occurred in the 1980s. I timed everything so that by the time I would be back at the visitor’s center, night would have fallen and it would have become possible to see from a distance the glow of the lava lake inside the Kilauea projecting itself on the fumes. However, a thick fog had settled, making that impossible.

This is where the road ends
This is where the road ends

No worries, by leaving at this moment, I could arrive in time for the end of the free amateur stargazing session happening every night at the visitor center of Mount Mauna Kea, Hawai’i’s highest peak at 4205m and home to numerous telescopes. I had hoped that due to it’s altitude, the mountain would be free of weather obstruction but no luck again, the clouds had beaten me. A break in the cover let me see Jupiter and its Galilean moons, but that was it. Nonetheless content of having enjoyed such a great view of that planet, I got in my vehicle for the journey home. The thickness of the fog made the drive back a very long (but eerie) one where I often had to slow down significantly and put the four flashers on. In the end, I arrived at my hostel safe and sound but too mentally exhausted too do anything but watch TV with the receptionist and listen to his ramblings about conspiracy theories and generally stuff people that waste way too much time on the web like to talk about.

Inside a crater
Inside a crater

Having not seen enough of the Volcanoes national park, I set out for my second visit, which this time I dedicated to on foot rather than on wheels exploration. Walking inside and around volcanic scenery is as one would expect, spectacular, and I wish I had had all my camping equipment with me to go for a longer trek away from the crowd of day visitors. That night, I was suppose to meet Rimas (my diving friend from Honduras) on the other side of the island, so after a quick stop for a responsible wine tasting session at a local winery, I got behind the wheel and drove to Kailua-Kona, where after dropping my stuff at the hostel, I joined up with him at a local bar. You meet dozens of people on a weekly basis while travelling, a portion of which end-up on your Facebook account and an even smaller percentage you even stay in touch with, knowing however that the chances of you ever seeing them again are slim to none. Thus, it felt special to encounter Rimas so far from where initially came to know one other. He was my diving instructor in Utila, Honduras so it took me some minutes to do away with the student/teacher relation we had over there but once I had adjusted, we picked up were we left and had many stories to recount as the only constant within both of our lives had been travelling. For that night, I had booked a room at an affordable but very inconveniently located hostel; Kona, being a resort town, is very pricey. But for the remainder of my stay, Rimas kindly offered me an inflatable bed in his living room, which I gladly accepted, sort of expecting he would make that proposition, but too polite to ask for it outright.

Diving with Manta Rays

Having been shown videos of the famous Manta ray dive of Hawaii by a french guy while in Tokyo, it was clear I could not leave the big island without having swimmed with the “peaceful giants” myself. Rimas’ girlfriend, Sarah, was working as an instructor at one of the local dive shops and told me they offered it and went out pretty much every night. The next day upon awakening at my hostel, I grabbed the phone Melissa had kindly let me use while in Hawaii and called to inquire about availability for that same night, because the dive happens after sunset. The manta ray dive is simple in concept: a lot of people hold a lot of very powerful underwater torches, like flies to light, the plankton gets attracted in the beams and the mantas to the plankton.

Getting ready for the second manta ray dive
Getting ready for the second manta ray dive

We headed out in the middle of the afternoon, stopped along the way to watch a whale that was putting up a show for us and first dived the site at daytime. On the way up, a manta ray was spotted in the blue, a very good sign according to Sarah, because it meant more were around. Came back on the boat, had some sandwiches and waited for the sun to set while spinner dolphins were, well, doing spins around us. Nothing really would have prepared me for the awesome spectacle that was to come. There is an always eerie feeling of being underwater at night, with others waving beams of light all around, but what made the experience unbelievable was those large, several meters across, manta rays looping in the beams to gulp the congregating plankton, in the process getting so close that sometimes I had to duck out of the way or got brushed from behind. If only the surge had not been so strong. The only rock that I had to grab on already being a poor anchor, I soon noticed that my bare hand had been centimeters from a sea urchin. From there, I attempted to hold it between my legs, but to no avail, I still had to paddle around to keep myself stable and as a consequence exhausted my air fairly fast. For those of you that are interested in getting a video approximation of what it was like, click here.

Not so sure if we’re really doing a service to these animals by making feeding so easy for them, but listening to the staff explaining how it lets the dive community keep a close eye on the population by reporting each different sighting of an individual using a web tool, I convinced myself there was some good in it. Every manta ray sports a specific pattern of dots on its belly, which make them recognizable as each has inherited its own little name and apparently, those that have been diving the area for a long time know all 200 of them. A true relation of interdependence when you think about it: no manta rays, no divers; no divers, no money; and on completion of the logical loop: no money; no manta rays. Such is the reality of wildlife conservation on this day and age.

The Big Island part 2

Wanting to do some more hiking the next day, I brought up a Google map view of the area on my laptop and realized that the cinder cone of the nearby volcano was actually climbable. Great! Drove there, but nowhere was the entrance of the park to be found. Went back and forth, even asked local shops, no clue. Frustrated, I headed for my plan B, which was basically just a beach with some paths around it but too absorbed with my previous failure, I simply checked out the beach and went back to Rimas’ apartment. All hope was not lost, I could still go stargazing! There I called the tourism information center at the Mauna Kea observatory to ask if the skies were clear enough but once again, no, the cloud layer was again obstructing the view. Rimas’ came up with a great alternative: drink.

The landscape in the middle of the Big Island
The landscape in the middle of the Big Island

Full of good intentions the night before, I did not manage to wake up as early as I wanted on my last day, so I had to cancel my initial objective of going back to that stupid park and devote the remaining time I had with my rental vehicle to crossing the island back to the other side. Again, beautiful scenery, but the jungle had given way to a barren high altitude valley between the imposing Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa. I was making good progress, so I figured time permitted for me to climb again to the Mauna Kea information center to enjoy the view at daytime, which I did and to my surprise found they had a telescope aimed directly at the sun. So for the very first time, I got to see with my own eyes solar flares and black spots, but through a filter of course. I was told that going further up to the top, where all the bigger telescopes are, required a 4×4, but I saw a few cars making the ascension and some other tourists confirmed that it was indeed possible. If I did go, I would need to extend my rental, but according to my interlocutors, the view was well worth it. Upon asking the astronomer on duty if he recommended it, his answer was a categorical no. Towing from 4000 meters high down to Hilo starts at a 1000$, rental places forbid it and tough it is possible by car, making it up with the underside of the vehicle unscathed requires a healthy dose of skills a chance. That settled it.

Driving in the middle of the Big Island
Driving in the middle of the Big Island

Satisfied with all the driving around that I did, I decided not to extend my rental and drove back to Hilo, surrendered my rental vehicle and got to the airport where I sat and worked for a good 8 hours while waiting for my flight back to Honolulu. A bit of productive time never hurts. It boggles me with it’s not possible to ferry between the islands, but as explained by Melissa, the service used to be available, but the airline companies lobbied hard and in the end managed to convince the lawmakers that ferries were worse for the environment and had the passenger ferries’ operating licenses revoked. Go figure.

Going halfway around the world for girls

At a restaurant with Melissa
At a restaurant with Melissa

The things we do for the ladies… If it was not for Melissa, I bet I would probably never have gone to Hawaii and for that alone I am grateful. While Honolulu is not my idea of a nice city, the big island definitely had a lot more to offer that I expected and I’m certain the other ones would be worth paying a visit to as well. I’ll be blunt: the overall appeal of Hawai’i is far lesser that any other place I’ve been so far, but as you might have guessed, sightseeing was not the priority, it was things that fall outside of the scope of this blog.

So in the end, I did not do much that is worth recounting on this post, I really lifted my foot of the pedal when it came to seeing and doing things. Not meaning that I did not spend any quality time there, quite the contrary, but It’s just as well that the pace slowed down because I needed a break. I needed a bit of boredom and sedentarity to feed the travelling bug. Once I got back from the big island, I was ready to head again into the Asian vortex and within a few days had booked my plane ticket to Singapore.

Taiwan

A superstitious item store in Taipei
A superstitious item store in Taipei

Even the Taiwanese people identify themselves as being Chinese. As a matter of fact, the official name of the country is the Republic of China, which also very much pleases their mainland big brother, who in effect still considers the island of Taiwan to be one of its provinces. All aspects of the culture are strikingly similar, so is the official language and there seems to be consensus among part of the population that one day reunification should occur. However, only under certain conditions, namely that actual China shifts to a democratic political system and cleans up its act when it comes to human rights, freedom of press and wage disparity.

This confirms my original impression that Taiwan was an improved version of China, where people are more welcoming, friendlier and helpful; where cities are safer (not that the continent was particularly unsafe) and cleaner; where tradition and modernity mix in interesting and anachronistic ways; where in general, the inhabitants make you feel that they are happy and grateful you are visiting their country. Owing to its smaller size, one cannot really expect as much variety as can be found across the Taiwan strait when it comes to sights and people, but this also means that distances are smaller and consequently that travelling around is not as much a grueling task as it is in China.

Making a stop in Taiwan was not part of my original plans, but upon hearing positive comments from a variety of people I had met up north and noticing it was halfway between Japan and South East Asia, I figured I should break my journey south in two and explore what this little island is all about besides manufacturing computers and cell-phones.

Taipei

Taipei 101
Taipei 101

Taipei may be the capital of a bustling economical power, it has managed to stay relatively relax and in spite of the spurious growth that has affected most Asian urban centers in the past decades, is well urbanized and pleasant to walk around. True to my travelling habits, lots of urban exploration on foot I did. First to find my hostel. Due to strong lobbying by hotels, hostels are not allowed to advertise at all their location. All you get is an address and mine pointed to the fourth floor of an apartment building. Not really knowing they were so hard to find, I had decided to use the “show up and see if they have room” technique. Luckily, as I was climbing the stairs, the owner was going down so in the end I managed to secure accommodation for my stay in Taipei.

The Long Shan temple
The Long Shan temple

Over the next days, I simply walked around the city and visited a museum or two, checked out the famous Taipei 101 and walked some more. Obviously, I also entered some temples, which to my surprise are generally very extravagant in this country as a whole and a nice departure from those I had seen thus far in Asia. The hostel was practically empty so I spent most nights being productive in front of my screen, but one evening my roommate, Shab, a girl from the UK, offered me to follow her to a Couch Surfing meetup, where through the famous website/social network, foreigners gather around at a bar to exchange about various things related to not being home at present. The following evening, we linked up with someone we had met at that meetup to have some drinks and plenty of them were drunk, the last ones on the steps of the Chiang Kai-shek memorial, which even at 3 am looked impressive.

After four nights, I had decided I had had enough of concrete and cars and left the capital for a more nature oriented experience. David, the owner, had been very thorough in his briefing of all that there is to do for a stranger in Taiwan and strongly recommended that I go to Taroko National Park. Upon him suggesting that it was possible to rent scooters and ride them around mountainous roads I was pretty much sold.

Hualien and the Taroko National Park

Scooter!
Scooter!

After short train ride to the east coast of the island, I disembarked in Hualien, a regional capital and my basecamp to the Taroko National Park, famous for its mountainous landscapes and spectacular gorges. It was too late to go there when I arrived so all I did for the remainder of day was to borrow a bicycle from the hostel and ride it around the city. As planned, the next morning, I got up as early as I could (still late by most people’s standards) and got to the scooter rental shop that I was recommended by the hostel, the only one that will rent machines to foreigners.

The kind of road that you can expect in the Taroko National Park
The kind of road that you can expect in the Taroko National Park

Riding a scooter is quite easy and instantly I got the hang of it. Much easier than motorcycles in my opinion, but that also makes them very treacherous at high speeds as their small size and wheels do not provide as much stability nor braking power. Still, scooters should be driven like their bigger counterparts, in other words, not like bicycles with engines. They are not as fun, but provide a convenient way to get around, especially that my objective was at least 20 km away and the park being set in a gorge so essentially linear, this also meant that sights and trails could often be separated by several minutes of driving.

The Taroko gorge
The Taroko gorge

Aside from having to share the road with massive convoys of Chinese tourist buses on occasions, I had a blast riding on the only and sometimes single-lane road that winds its way up the gorge. Along the route where different trails and sights and I managed to see the better part of them; I even found a natural hot-spring that you could bathe in for free. Everything that I saw was just spectacular but about the trails themselves I’m slightly ambivalent as most were in such a state I never even got close to be able to call was I was doing hiking. Some high heeled tourists were probably very relieved that there was pavement everywhere, but I was sort of expecting a closer to nature experience. Then again, with the amount of visitors the park gets and its geology, classic dirt paths would not last very long. Whatever, I got to walk on several scary suspended bridges and found trails far away enough from the helmet wearing hordes (yes, some had helmets on to protect themselves from falling rocks) and surrendered my scooter after two days pretty satisfied of having admired such spectacular landscapes, especially while driving in them.

Journey Hostel in Hualien
Journey Hostel in Hualien

One last night at the hostel where I stayed up very late with the staff, their friends and some guests drinking all sorts of alcoholic beverages and that was it for my time in Hualien. Funny anecdote: Chinese people, during their very of first class of English in school, get baptized with a name foreigners will have an easier time remembering. Most opt for something classic like Kelly, John and so on, but some choose to elect their own and one Taiwanese girl that night had picked Jelly. Jenny? I replied. No, Jelly, as in jellyfish, or jellybean (incidentally the comparison she prefers). Sure that could provide to be an hindrance to finding serious work abroad, but in her case, it befitted her personality very well and if anything, with the kind of job that would employ her, a silly name could actually provide to be an advantage. Her real name was Jin Xue and I’m most likely not writing it correctly.

Kenting National Park

Located at the very southern tip of Taiwan, Kenting National Park was another thing David back in Taipei strongly recommended in his lengthy and thorough tourism briefing. Apparently, you can do surf there and given the large quantity of surf shops, it was probably the case, but not really into gliding on the surface of the water and bragging about it for hours afterwards, what closed the deal on Kenting was the fact that you could do diving there … and rent scooters.

Kenting National Park
Kenting National Park

Different park, same formula. I rented a motorized two-wheeled mean of transportation as soon as I could and got to all places that were apparently hikable in the park. Once again, where I was hoping for a good solid two hours of proper trails, I got half an hour walks in the park on concrete or brick layed pathways. Since most Taiwainese and Chinese live in cities and are not really used to moving themselves around on uneven and loose surfaces, they come very poorly prepared for actual hiking, both physically and logistically speaking. It seems to me that given their long history of civilizations and millennias of human influence on the landscape either through road-building or agriculture (rice cultivation being the most obvious example), the Chinese have lived removed from true wilderness for much longer than the average North-American. For this reason most go to parks for the same reasons that they go to zoos, to get a glimpse of nature in a safe, controlled and convenient environment. It was not bad per se, but travelling all this way just for this would have been thoroughly disappointing.

A cemetery (full of dead scooter drivers maybe)
A cemetery (full of dead scooter drivers maybe)

In Taiwan, there is so much scooter traffic that the authorities thought wise to build special lanes for them which on some roads materialize themselves as bike-paths sized side roads where all the small engined two-wheeled traffic gets channeled. Quite dangerous if you ask me. Motorcycles go as fast as cars and in consequence require nearly as much space for breaking and for reacting to unexpected events or obstacles on the road. Coupled with the tunnel-vision effect created by speed the requirement for space is even further justified and since people in Taiwan drive like idiots, close calls are a normal occurrence. Crashes? not as common as one would expect. I passed a lady with a severely damaged leg she broke while swerving to avoid a truck that suddenly pulled into the motorcycle lane, but that was it. I guess you get good at driving like an idiot.

Anyway, for supper, I went to the nearby night market, which are quite the thing in Taiwan and very popular with both tourists and locals. A large number of small stalls set up shop along the street or in a dedicated lot and sell a wide variety of food from all over Asia. The one in Kenting was quite conservative as it catered mostly to tourists; the most original food you could have there was fried oreos, the rest was generally your average Asian fast-fare. In Taipei however, I was told that at one night market snakes could be ordered.

The inside a of temple
The inside a of temple

Second day was diving day. Woke up really early, drove to the dive shop and found out I was the only customer. Excellent, this meant I would be diving alone with their divemaster. I got my equipment, which was in poor general conditions but working fine otherwise, hoped on the car and we drove to the first dive site, which was located in a artificial cove created by a large wave breaker. Popular with snorkelers, the site apparently boasted a wide variety of hard and soft corals along with a good population of fishes and other creatures of the sea. Compared to other places I have been, it was nothing to write home about, the flora and fauna appeared to be in rough shape and there was thrash all around. The highlight of the dive were a giant clam, very large pufferfish and some clown fishes swimming around in their anemone habitat. Otherwise, most would have found the dive to be somewhat boring but since I get a kick out of breathing underwater and had not been diving for some months, I enjoyed it. Next dive was done at a deeper site, which provided interesting topography and wildlife and was in fairly good conditions due to its remoteness from human activity but once again, nothing extraordinary except for a sea turtle, which according to the divemaster, are quite a rare sight these days. Having been accustomed to hanging around with sea turtles, I found the sea snake more exciting to watch. it may sound like I was let down but in reality, I’m quite thrilled with having had the opportunity to experience Taiwan’s underwater world. The majority of animals and plants look similar to those I got accustomed with in the Caribbean, only differing slightly in shapes and colors, but there definitely were some newcomers to my repertoire. If only the divemaster would have known their name in English, but sadly, a bunch of Chinese characters are not of much use to me.

Not a bad view!
Not a bad view!
Taking a break at the grasslands
Taking a break at the grasslands

The afternoon was devoted to riding the scooter around the area, but out of the touristic roads. The driving was quite spectacular and so was the scenery. A stop at the Sichui grasslands scenic area to stretch the legs provided me with the best views of Taiwan I have had on my entire trip, the lighting was perfect, it has just rained so all the vegetation was glittering with water droplets and thick clouds were rolling up and down the hills. In the distance, I realized that the many abandoned concrete buildings I had been passing on the way there were part of an expensive decommissioned military complex occupying the whole top of a nearby hill, with coastal gun batteries protected by large bunkers and radar arrays. Had I had the time and prior knowledge of this place, I really should have trespassed for a bit of exploration. After I got back to the hostel, I worked for some time and then went for food at the night market again. This was my last night in Kenting but given my discoveries of the day, I wish I could have spent a bit more time in the area. It always pays to veer of the beaten track once in a while.

Tainan city

Unsure of what my next move would be, I decided not to return to Taipei just yet. I could go to Hawaii, get stuck a couple more days in Taiwan and then go to Hawaii, or have some weeks to spare, go somewhere else than Taiwan, and then go to Hawaii. In every cases, it was best to spend whatever time I had left in the country to visit another place, even if it was for a couple of hours. That morning, I woke up to find that in fact, Melissa really had enjoyed my company in Japan and wanted to see me in Hawaii, so I quickly booked my plane ticket and proceeded to Tainan, a middle-sized city that apparently had a nice old quarter.

The "small" night market in Tainan
The “small” night market in Tainan

At least that is what I remembered from David’s briefing. He had circled Tainan on my map and wrote a bunch of Chinese characters near it. Once there, no old quarter to be found, but the lady at the hostel kindly redirected me to the night market, apparently the largest one in Taiwan, where after dawn every day of the week stalls set up shop to provide clients with food, carnival type of games and cheap clothing. Indeed the market was big and it took me a solid hour to explore it. Later on during the night, I befriended an Indian guy who told me he had been to two markets this night. What? I asked the staff that had provided me with directions about this conspiracy and her answer was that I had gotten to the small one. The other, the largest in Taiwan for that matter, was only two blocks away. Whatever, the market I visited fitted the bill so I did not really bothered going again. Let’s go for a drink the Indian guy proposed and so we did. Himself a software engineer as well and working in Taiwan, we had some interesting discussions … but not about computers.

Night market scene
Night market scene

That was it for Taiwain. Up at the crack of dawn the next day (Sunday the 19th), bus to high speed train station, high speed train to Taipei, flight to Osaka, flight to Honolulu and at 9 am I landed in the Hawaiian capital, crossing the international time delimitation and going back in time to an extra long Sunday.

In retrospect

So you want to experience China but not the Chinese? Go to Taiwan. So you want a country you can actually properly visit in less than a month? Go to Taiwan. So you want cheap and tasty food? Again go to Taiwan. So you are in Asia but don’t really know where to go next. Go to Taiwan. Enough said.

As for myself, I’m off to Hawaii, where I intend to soak in the island lifestyle and not do (comparatively) much for the next couple weeks. It’s an unplanned destination, but after all, what is travelling? An escape from the ordinary.

Back in Japan! At the Osaka Kansai airport
Back in Japan! At the Osaka Kansai airport