South East Asia 2014-22

 

Indonesia

I arrived in Indonesia with my bicycle and stayed with my first couchsurfing host in Asia, she lived in the Kuta area of Bali.  She was really kind and showed me around the island, we ate some Indonesian street food and visited some of the tourist hotspots in the area.  Kuta is the main tourist destination in Bali, there are a lot of beaches and bars and the area is very westernised.  After a few days, I cycled north from Kuta to Ubud, taking some time to visit the monkey forest. Ubud is the second most popular destination in Bali, it is set up as a yoga destination with a lot of vegan restaurants and yoga retreats. There are also river rafting activities and waterfalls to visit in the area, but my favourite thing is the monkey forest. A temple in an area of forest on the edge of town, with a lot of monkeys living there.

While I was in Ubud, I stayed with a Canadian couchsurfer called David. He was working on an animated shadow puppet story in the style of the traditional Indonesian shadow puppets. It sounded like a great project and David seemed to be settled in Indonesia for the long term. After a few days staying with David, I headed east cycling down to the coast and taking the ferry to Lombok. Lombok is quieter than Bali, but the south of the island is popular with surfers. I was heading north, up and down the steep shoulders of this volcanic island. It was early in my cycling trip and this was a huge challenge, I ended up pushing my bike up the hills, slipping out of my flip flops because they were so full of sweat. Eventually I got to the north of the island and took the ferry to the Gili Islands. There are three Gili Islands, the most popular ‘party’ island being Trawangan. But I stayed on Gili Air to do some scuba diving for a few days before heading back to Bali on the ferry. Indonesia was the first country where I had a 3 month visa, but had to extend the visa each month at an immigration office. At the time, this was a really slow process unless you paid a fee for them to rush it for you. My first extension in northern Bali took almost a week.

After I got my visa extended, I cycled across the north of Bali and took the ferry to Java. I stayed with another couchsurfing host and rented a motorbike (scooter) to visit Kawa Ijen. Kawa Ijen is a Sulphur volcano in eastern Java. Many local men work there mining Sulphur and carrying it back down the volcano to sell. This is really unhealthy work as many of them don’t own the necessary masks and protective equipment. I got a small taste of this myself as I went past the signs that said ‘No tourists beyond this point‘, and I wandered down into the crater of the volcano to the mouth of the mine. It was fine walking down there, but coming back up, the wind changed direction and the gas cloud that rises from the crater was now blown over the path I was hiking on. I used my shirt to cover my mouth and nose, but the fumes still burned my eyes, nose and throat. I pushed on and got out of the crater to get some fresh air. I can’t imagine the damage that is done to the men who work there every day. It is a truly dangerous and difficult job.

From Banyuwangi, I took my bike to Yogyakarta by train. My visa was going to need extending again soon and I needed to travel quickly. I stayed with another couchsurfing host in Yogyakarta. We visited Borobudur Temple, a 9th century Buddhist temple in central Java. It was huge and completely covered in decorative carvings. We watched the sunset from the top of the temple before heading back to Yogya.

I extended my visa in Yogya, which meant I only had one month left to travel in Indonesia. One thing that I knew I wanted to do before I left the country, was to see some Orangutans. The Orangutans can be found in northern Sumatra and in Borneo. I looked at the map and couldn’t see how I could cycle the length of Sumatra, see some Orangutans and cycle back down to get a ferry to Singapore before my visa expired. Luckily, my couchsurfing host in Yogya had another house in Borneo and said she would be willing to host me there too. So I took a short trip to Jakarta, the capital city, before I flew to Borneo. In Balikpapan, we visited an Orangutan sanctuary and then started to travel up the east coast of Borneo so that I could get a new visa by leaving the country and entering again. We went to see a Dayak tribe on the journey north. The Dayak are the traditional tribal people who lived in the rainforests of Borneo. Now they do tourist activities like performing their traditional dances, or taking people of hiking tours in the forest. It was interesting to see the dances, but there was a strange sadness that hung over the older tribal members who were sat in traditional clothes, posing for photographs.

One of the best places in Borneo, in my opinion, is Derawan. Derawan is a group of islands off of the east coast of Borneo. The islands have hotel rooms on stilts, out over sections of coral reef. At night you can look out and see all sorts of sea life swimming around below you. We saw turtles, lionfish and lots of colourful fishes of all sizes. We did a lot of snorkelling and I had my first experience of swimming with Manta Rays. I had actually heard of one of the islands before leaving the UK. The island of Kakaban is an island on a coral atoll. There is a pool in the middle of the island which used to have direct access to the sea. But the pool is now closed to the sea and is home to a large population of jellyfish. These jellyfish have no stings as they have no predators in their habitat. Tourists can go out to the island and snorkle with the jellyfish, but the coral reef on the outer edge of the island is also spectacular and definitely worth a visit. Indonesia has so many islands and tourism is starting to spread as travel to the more remote areas gets easier. After seeing the dead coral around Bali and the Gili Islands, seeing the pristine reefs around Derawan made me scared for their future. I really hope that the government take steps to protect and preserve these areas. From Derawan, we headed further up the coast and took a ferry to leave Indonesia and head into Malaysia before my tourist via ran out.

 

Malaysia

We crossed the border into Malaysia and took a bus to Kota Kinabalu, we stayed with a couchsurfing host there and visited an island just off the coast from the city. When we arrived, there was a strange story going on. A group of tourists had taken a naked group photograph on top of Kinabalu. A few days later, there had been an earthquake. Some local people saw the photograph on social media and there was an uproar amongst the local community. They claimed that the tourists had angered the god or spirit of the mountain and that is what had caused the earthquake. The tourists were then arrested. Luckily, when the government in Kuala Lumpur found out about the situation, they stepped in and the story was cleaned up a little for the international audience. Instead of angering the god or spirit of the mountain, they were charged with public nudity and released, sent out of the area.

 

Brunei

While we were in the north of Borneo, we took the opportunity to visit Brunei. The small country is oil rich and is run by the Sultan of Brunei. He is a dictator and the country is an Islamic republic. Meaning that there is no alcohol available as well as pork products or any non-halal materials. But the people we spoke to were very happy to have the Sultan as their dictator. There are a lot of social schemes in place which help the population as they go through life. This included free education as well as money to allow them to get a car when they were old enough to drive. They were also given cheap land to build their houses. Personally I found it very strange. We visited a museum that was dedicated to the life of the Sultan, but it just wasn’t interesting for me. Pictures of him as a child, going to school, playing sports, doing normal things. I don’t know why these things are in a museum, but I guess if you own a country, you can do whatever you like. There are some beautiful mosques with golden turrets, as well as a water village, where the houses are built on stilts over the river. That is a lot more interesting to visit than the Sultan’s museum.

 

Malaysia

Before heading back to Indonesia, we flew to Kuala Lumpur. We stayed with an awesome couchsurfing host who was setting up working houses and offices for young people who wanted to live in a community and develop their businesses. It was a great idea and seemed to be going well. Kuala Lumpur is a really nice city with great food, very modern and quite westernised. Before we left, we visited the most famous tourist locations, the Batu caves and the Petronas Towers. After a few days exploring the city, we flew down to Singapore as our last stop on the way back to Indonesia.

 

Singapore

Singapore is very small but developed and westernized country. Many people in South East Asia want to move to Singapore so that they can have a comfortable westernised lifestyle while still being in Asia. I think it is a really comfortable place to live and I would have loved to live and work there for a while. The salaries are high, but so is the cost of living. Who knows? Maybe I will go back there one day. But from here we flew back to Indonesia.

 

Indonesia

We flew back to Borneo and took a short trip to Central Borneo to a town called Palangka Raya. This city was built with the aim of making it the new capital of Indonesia, so the streets are wide and the city is well designed. However, the capital was never moved there, so it is now run down and has the feeling of a city that was abandoned decades ago, but everyone just arrived to repopulate it. I didn’t find it a very fun place to visit. But there is a city further to the south called Banjarmasin. We stayed there briefly and went to see the market on the river. We had to wake up very early, so that we could take the boat taxi down the river and arrive at around sunrise. The views were beautiful and once the sun was up, the colours of all the boats, with all the fruit and vegetables they were carrying, made another beautiful scene.

We went back to Indonesia and I signed a one year contract teaching English for a company called EF (English First). Yogyakarta is a really nice city, it is the second most popular tourist destination in Indonesia and is a university city. The city center is always busy with a mix of tourists and local students. There are a lot of old temples to visit as well as traditional markets. These markets sell all manner of things, from clothes, antiques, exotic pets and traditional medicines. One of the strange traditional medicines that I saw was a fried bat. The sick person was supposed to eat it and it would help with asthma. But I think the main points of interest are the old temples which dot the landscape. These temples are a mix of old Buddhist and old Hindu temples. The most famous Hindu temple structure is quite close to the city center and is called Prambanan. It is made up of several tall temples which have been rebuilt and restored over the years as this area is known for it’s volcanoes and earthquakes. Very impressive indeed.

The company I was working for seemed professional enough and there were already a lot of expats working there. When you work for a company in Indonesia, there are two important documents that you need. The first is a visa, the second is a work permit. The visa must be a visa which allows work, not a tourist visa. The visa you have then allows your company to get a work permit for you to legally work in the country. All the teachers had given their passports to the company and we were all waiting for the documents to be processed. But one day, one of the teachers went to the office and asked for his passport because he would be attending his sister’s wedding in Australia. It was at this time that we found out the company wasn’t applying for our documents. Instead they had been bribing the immigration officials to give us new tourist visas every time our old ones expired. This was a dangerous position for us as we would have a permanent record of their corruption in our passports. As it turned out, I was very lucky. Soon after this revelation, the company was raided by immigration on the same day that a representative from head office was visiting. This meant that the head office now knew what this office had been doing. Any teacher without a contract was fired straight away. But for those of us who had contracts, we were to be paid our salary every month until the papers were in order. This meant that I was getting paid but didn’t need to work.

During this time of being paid and waiting for my documents, we took a trip to an island called Karimujawa, just off the north coast of Java. This island is really quiet and beautiful. I did my PADI rescue diver certification there and did some dives on reefs where nobody had been diving before. This was because my diving instructor was about to open the first diving center on the island and was scouting the reefs for nice dive spots. He invited me to join him and of course I accepted. One thing that I didn’t like in Karimunjawa was the captive sharks. Locals create large areas of ocean which are closed in with nets, then they put sharks inside so that tourists can swim with them and take selfies. The sharks are harmless, black-tip and white-tip reef sharks. It was sad to see them trapped like that, but when there is money to be made, there will be people who will be willing to do it.

I actually ended up living in Indonesia for five years. During those years I would go back to Bali any chance I got. The Indonesian government recognises five major religions in the country and celebrates the religious holidays of all of them. This meant that there were summer holidays, Christmas holidays, half term, end of term and seemingly random religious holidays scattered throughout the year. So every time I had a long holiday I would visit somewhere new, but for the shorter holidays, I would return to Bali. Bali is different from the rest of Indonesia as the people there are mostly Hindu. Whereas the people in the west are Muslim and the people to the east are Christian. Bali is just incredibly beautiful. It seems like every house is decorated with intricate carvings and shrines. The streets are littered with offerings to bring good luck to the shop and business owners. The local food is really tasty, with pork and alcohol being easily available. For tourists, there are lots of temples to visit, as well as traditional dances which are performed in the temples. The island is covered in rice paddies, with some of the landscapes looking incredibly impressive when the rice is in season. Terraced hillsides covered in green rice is really a beautiful sight to behold. Bali is definitely worth a visit and I would be happy to live there, maybe retire there one day.

During one of my long holidays, I visited an island chain called Wakatobi. It’s a chain of islands just south of Sulawesi. The name Wakatobi is made up of the first letters of the four island’s names. Wangi-Wangi, Kaledupa, Tomea and Binongko. The main island for snorkelling and diving is Tomea. But the airport is on Wangi-Wangi. We flew to Wangi-Wangi and took a ferry to a small island just off the coast of Kaledupa, called Hoga Island. Hoga is used by universities in the UK for their marine biology students to get some experience diving and doing research studies on the coral reefs there. There are huts that were built all around the island for the students to use when they are there. For the rest of the year, these huts are managed by the local families and rented out to any tourists who arrive. The huts are not very well maintained, but they are in beautiful locations. We stayed on the beach there for a few days, snorkelling and diving just off the coast. From there we headed south to Tomia. Tomia is one of the most pristine islands I have visited for coral reefs. You can see all sorts of fishes there as well as sea snakes. I got a lot of GoPro footage swimming around the reefs there. At the time, they were talking about building another airport on Tomia. While this will be great for the local economy, I am worried that the reefs will soon be broken and degraded. It is definitely worth a visit, but protecting the reefs there should be everyone’s top priority.

Another of my long holidays was to the island of Flores. Flores is a great spot for diving, but I would say the main draw are the Komodo Dragons. There are two island’s with dragon populations, Komodo and Rinca. There are a lot of live-aboard ships which you can stay on to travel around the islands to snorkle and scuba dive. Many of the spots are just amazing. One lunch time I was walking along a beach there when I saw a small group of baby black-tip reef sharks swimming along the shore just a meter or so from where I was walking. I am not sure what I was expecting from the Komodo Dragon experience. But when we arrived, we walked to the sign in station where I had to pay several different charges, for which I received several different receipts. These were for all the different taxes that had to be paid to the different departments of the government. I don’t know why they don’t just lump them all together and then split it behind the scenes. But that’s Indonesia I guess. We walked out of the office and as we walked around the corner, I saw my first dragon. It was a big fat dragon, sleeping outside the staff kitchens. I am guessing the staff through their scraps out for it to eat. It was fat and sleeping, so it was easy for people to take selfies with. We took a snort walk for around 30 minutes with a guide, but most of the dragons were actually around the camp. The most memorable experience from Flores was diving with Manta Rays. I had swam with them before, and I have been diving with them since, but the experience in Flores was the best. The Mantas were huge and were visiting a cleaning station. We just hung out on the sea floor watching them circle around us and hover over the cleaning station for their cleaning. We also took a drive out into the island to see some of the local villages. Indonesia is a huge archipelago and each of the islands has it’s own culture and traditional houses. You could spend a year backpacking Indonesia and still not have time to visit all the spots it has to offer.

For my last four years in Indonesia, I was living and working in a city called Balikpapan. I was working as the General Manager of 3 international schools in the city. This was a nice job and I really enjoyed renovating and improving the schools. It also allowed me to take the trips that I have mentioned earlier on this page. Unfortunately, my time in Balikpapan wasn’t without problems. In four years, we had problems with Immigration three times. This usually involved an unhappy parents paying a bribe to a policeman or soldier or immigration officer so that they would come and try to find a problem to force us to pay a bribe. The worst of these was the final problem, which played a large part in me leaving Indonesia. During this time, three of my teachers were placed in an immigration jail for a month without any justification. We had to take the immigration office to court and the court ordered them to release the teachers. This was a win, but all we really achieved was annoying the immigration officials. This meant that any applications we put through would have difficulties. My own visa was up for renewal and instead of processing it, they asked me to come back after it had expired already. This would have meant that I was illegally in the country and they planned to deport me. I left the city and tried to process my visa elsewhere. In the end it was too much of a problem and I decided to relocate to Vietnam. But between Indonesia and Vietnam I went to Thailand for a month. One of the last things I did before I left was to visit the Orangutan sanctuary one last time.

 

Thailand

I spent a month in Thailand, for Christmas of 2018 and stayed for the New Year. I landed in Bangkok and spent a few days exploring the streets, visiting temples and taking the river boat taxis to get a feel for the city. I ate street food for every meal and it was great. The city is huge and busy, so the air is quite polluted. After walking the streets for a couple of days, I got a cough which stayed with me for most of my time in Thailand. But I always enjoy wandering the streets of a new city, I find that it gives me more of a feel for the way people live and I can get some cool pictures of the strange sights in a new place. While I enjoyed the city and the visit gave me the opportunity to buy a new camera. I didn’t go to Thailand to spend time in a city, so I soon took a night bus out of Bangkok heading north to Chiang Mai.

Chiang Mai is a popular destination in Thailand. It is a quiet city in the mountains and is a university city. A lot of digital nomads and English teachers like to go there to work because it has a slower pace of life than Bangkok. In the mountains around Chiang Mai there are some national parks for hiking. But there are also Elephant Sanctuaries. I visited a sanctuary where old elephants are rescued from other tourism areas or farms. The elephants are fed and allowed to wander around a large area of countryside. I was so lucky that there was a young baby elephant there when I was visiting. I have heard that some of the sanctuaries aren’t as good as they claim. One of the ways to tell is if they let you ride the elephants. Riding on the elephants is not good and if a sanctuary is doing elephant rides, I am lead to believe they are not really sanctuaries. From Chiang Mai I headed to an even more relaxed place, a small village called Pai. Pai used to be a hotspot for hippy types who would go and live up in the mountains running homestays and getting stoned. Those days are fading away as tourism is picking up and the area is filling with bars and more expensive hotels and retreats. There are a lot of cool places to visit around Pai. Hot springs, waterfalls, temples and hiking trails. I really enjoyed my time in Pai, while it isn’t the same as it used to be, I would love to spend a few months relaxing up there some day.

From Pai, I took a bus back to Chiang Mai and got a single ticket to Koh Tao. The great thing about Thailand is how developed the country is when it comes to tourism. I bought a ticket online which included a flight, a bus journey and a ferry to Koh Tao, all in one payment. It almost went to plan. But I almost missed the ferry. Luckily the driver came back and collected me in his personal car and rushed me to the ferry port early in the morning. I couldn’t be upset that they had forgotten to pick me up because the sunrise from the ferry port was just so stunning. Koh Tao is a diving hotspot and many backpackers go there to do their diving courses as it is known to be one of the cheapest places in South East Asia to complete the training. I stayed there for New Years Eve and went diving there. To be honest, I think Indonesia had spoiled me. The diving there was just average for me as the reefs in Indonesia had been so pristine and full of life. That being said, I still enjoyed my time on the island. From Koh Tao, I headed to Krabi. As I got off the ferry and got on the bus to Krabi, I heard that there was a huge storm on the way. The biggest storm for decades. This meant that my time in Krabi was quite limited, as all the tourist boats were shut down and I couldn’t visit any of the islands. But the area was beautiful and luckily the storm missed the area I was in. Krabi was my last stop in Thailand before I relocated and moved to work in Vietnam for a while.

Vietnam

I moved to Da Nang in Vietnam and started work as an ESL (English as a Second Language) teacher. This was a bit of a change of pace from my previous job as general manager. It took me a while to adjust. But I only worked at this particular company for a couple of months before I applied to work in a bigger company with an office is a smaller town. Da Nang is quite a big city on the coast and is a tourist hot spot. The beaches are huge and very beautiful. The city is also surrounded by mountains which makes it a great location to go hiking and visit waterfalls. But I moved around 40km down the coast to another, smaller town called Hoi An. Hoi An is also a tourist hot spot, but is much more laid back, with a small ancient town center a short distance from a beautiful beach. The great thing about Hoi An was that the center is lively, but you can drive just a km or two out of town and feel like you are in a small village. Surrounded by rice fields and a quiet, slow paced lifestyle. I really enjoyed this time in Vietnam. Life was so comfortable with a nice job, good pay and a great balance between lively socialising and quiet relaxation. I settled into life there and things were good.

 

Philippines

In Vietnam, I only had holidays during Tet holiday (Chinese New Year). So for my first Tet holiday I took a trip to the Philippines with one of my friends. We flew to a beautiful island called Palawan and then took a bus to a town called El Nido. The area is surrounded by limestone islands that poke up out of the water. The islands are beautiful and tourists can go for trips to the beaches, kayak in the lagoons, but for me, the best is always snorkelling or scuba diving. We took some trips out to the islands and rented a small motorbike to drive around to some of the beaches around the island. The sunsets were beautiful and I hope that I can return one day, whether to live there for a while, or travel around the other islands. The Philippines is a beautiful place and I feel like I only scratched the surface.

 

Vietnam

When I returned to Vietnam the news had hit that Coronavirus was spreading. The Tet holiday was extended as Vietnam went into our first lockdown. Things changed quickly. The beautiful little town that we called home was suddenly quiet. Before, we could go to the beach, or to a bar, and half the people there would be tourists or backpackers. But now, there weren’t any new people to meet, no tourists or backpackers. But there was still a community of expats and digital nomads. We adjusted to this new pace of life as we also adjusted to the shadow of Coronavirus looming over us. But soon there were more changes and some of the digital nomads and other expats were refused new visas and they had to leave Vietnam. The town was getting much quieter and life was becoming dull. Coronavirus was ruining this town that I had loved so much in the first six months or so of my time there. Luckily, there were still some cool people left and even new Vietnamese people moving to town. So life still had some surprises and fun times in store.

Before Coronavirus, I had a plan to take a contract break from my job and travel around Vietnam on my motorbike for a month or two. So as Coronavirus started to wind down, I started to explore Vietnam a little more. I met a Vietnamese Digital Nomad and we took a trip to Da Lat together for Christmas of 2021 and the New Year. Da Lat is a town in the south of Vietnam which is surrounded by mountains and pine forests. We rented a small motorbike and went camping out in the countryside. This area of Vietnam is so different than any other that I had seen and camping out in the forests was a little taste of the life on the road that I hadn’t experienced for so long.

As the lockdowns eased and international travel started to become an option again. I made my plans to leave Vietnam and start to travel again. I made a plan that I should make a move to explore the Americas. But first I wanted to carryout the plan I had when I first started working in Vietnam. I wanted to take a motorbike trip around the country for a month. I quit my job and decided to travel the north of Vietnam. My friend who travelled Da Lat with me had driven her motorbike from Hanoi to Hoi An. So she would need to get it back to Hanoi. We decided that we would drive her bike back to Hanoi together. From Hoi An, we headed west into the mountains and took the Ho Chi Minh Trail north through the mountains. It was crazy how remote these areas felt. Small concrete tracks in the mountains, with nothing but dense forest and mountains as far as we could see. We camped and drove these roads for a few days before the Ho Chi Minh Trail became less wild and we were back in the towns and built up areas of the north.

When we arrived in Hanoi, we rented a stronger bike and took off on a loop around the northern regions of Vietnam. From Hanoi we headed to Ha Long Bay. This is one of the most famous places in Vietnam and is beautiful. But it reminded me of El Nido in the Philippines, except it was cold and not as sunny. We took a boat tour for a day around the bay and visited some of the islands. The city there is newly developed and seemed like a nice place to live and work. From Ha Long Bay we continued north towards the border with China.

On the border with China, there is a river with a huge waterfall. This waterfall is called Ban Gioc Waterfall. When you look across the river to the Chinese side, there is a big difference. The Chinese side is developed a lot more, with tourist decks and selfie spots. But even on the Vietnamese side the waterfall is impressive. We jumped a fence and hiked up the hill to get closer to the waterfall. We had been given this tip from some friends who had visited the falls before. The power of the water was crazy. It looked to still and clear, but the water was moving so fast that it would have pulled us out over the rocks and down into the river below.

Another of the really popular things to do in Vietnam is to rent a motorbike and drive around the Ha Giang Loop. Ha Giang is a city in the mountains, in the north west of Vietnam. People generally travel there by bus and then rent a bike in the city. They drive out of the city into the mountain villages and then drive back again using a different route. Making a loop. There are a lot of tour companies who will take groups of people on a loop. But some more adventurous people will drive there with their own motorbikes and explore the area alone. We drove up along the border with China, visiting small towns and villages along the way. The landscapes up there are amazing, with the tall steep sided limestone mountains similar to Ha Long Bay, except they are surrounded by terraced fields and small villages. It really is a special and beautiful area of the world. Whether people go with a tour group or alone, it is something that I would recommend.

My final stop in Vietnam was also one of the best. There is an area called Ninh Binh, which is more of the limestone mountains which are scattered throughout northern Vietnam. Except these ones are surrounded by a network of rivers and caves. Tourists can take a boat ride along the river and through the caves. We went at a really good time as tourism hadn’t picked up yet after the end of Coronavirus. For most of our trip, we felt like we were alone on the river. I don’t know what this area is like when tourism is in full swing. But for my time there it was really peaceful and beautiful. I would definitely recommend it if you have the chance.

After the trip around the north, we returned the motorbike to the rental place in Hanoi. I picked up my stuff and flew out of Vietnam. The next chapter of my travels will involve me being back on my bicycle and exploring the Americas.

Other useful links:

South East Asia Photo Gallery

Tony Gahegan

2 thoughts on “South East Asia 2014-22”

  1. Daron says:

    Tony, dont miss out diminishing Borneo on your South East Asian leg. Do a Sabahj to Sarawak ride. Cheers!

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