Tag Archives: people

INDONESIA – Arrival and impressions

Da-da da-da do da-da do da-da, said I love your smile…

(Written by Steph, photos by Nick)

“What do you mean you don’t have a return ticket?” the man said with exaggerated surprise in his voice.

So I might have read that one of the Indonesian visa-on-arrival stipulations is that you must have a return flight. However, I had also read this about other countries and we hadn’t, thus far, encountered any problems.

The truth was that didn’t know where we were going to fly to next, and we also wanted to see if we liked the country before deciding exactly how long we would stay. That thing about honesty being the best policy did us no good here.

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“But you need a return flight.”

“Unfortunately we don’t have one.”

It was a game of ping pong that was likely to continue until suspended by the slip of a note being pushed across the table. A note with dollar signs on it. We had been warned by some other tourists that Indonesia was about as corrupt as it gets, only to have this confirmed by a German sat next to us in the waiting room for people pulled aside at border control.

He didn’t have a ticket, because he wanted to take a boat to Singapore – one that you had to book in Indonesia. As he had been in Indonesia before, he knew the drill and was ready with a little bribery money. Appearing from his turn in the office, he signalled we would be ok if we did the same. The thing was, we didn’t have any money on us. Absolutely nada.

As the conversation with the official progressed in a loop-de-loop, Nick started to utter something about an ATM. I stopped him with a hand on his arm, sensing a hesitation in the official.

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“Ok, I make an exception.”

As soon as he knew we had no money on our person, he obviously realised the futility in keeping us there. Sometimes having no money does pay.

So we had got through our first experience of bribery unscathed, but what would the rest of the country hold, we wondered. The three of us hopped in a taxi come mini bus for roughly 2 quid each and headed to Medan. There we would stay for the night before pressing on to Bukit Lawang in the hope of seeing orangutans.

The number 64 bus from our guesthouse in the Masjid Raya area to the Penang Baris bus station was just as cheap at about 35p each, and we marvelled at the ease of it. But nothing lasts forever, as they say…

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As we got off the local bus that took us to the bus station, we were immediately surrounded by a group trying to take our bags and load them aboard their mini van.

“How much?”

Not a popular question with these people. After we bartered them down to half what they quoted us, but still 2 and a half times the local price, they demanded that we pay the driver. It seemed that the 5 of them, though they had done nothing to get our business, wanted their commission. We had read that the 3 hour journey to Bukit Lawang should cost no more than a pound each. We also read that you should, under no circumstances, pay before you arrive. Their shifty demeanour and unfriendly demands did nothing to gain our trust. Sticking to our guns, refusal to pay upfront ended with us disembarking the bus and 5 touts and one driver with empty pockets.

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Five minutes later we boarded a different bus, and a similar debate ensued, only this time we had already been driving for 10 minutes. At this stage, Nick was getting quite irrate, determined that the driver know we knew the real price and that we had been warned to only pay on arrival. Suddenly the van stopped and our door opened. We were about to be thrown off again. But Nick was not backing down. Before I knew it, he was out of the van and squaring up to the driver. Fearing a game of fisticuffs was about to ensue, it was time to intervene.

“Right, we’ll pay you the 50,000R each (£2.50) but we will only pay when we arrive. Yes or no?”

The driver mumbled something.

“YES OR NO?!” I barked.

I got a reluctant “yes” before the two boys’ complaints subsided and we continued in silence. It wasn’t a great start to the day, but we had been warned that we might come against some hostility. Fortunately, this was our first…and last…negative experience of the place. Okay, bar the beyond basic room we stayed in, furnished only with a bed and a couple of cockroaches.

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The thing that struck us most was not these experiences, but the local people. Arriving in a Muslim country, I had done my best to be mindful of this and had covered my arms and legs, but I was still unsure how we would be received. The answer to that was in the Mexican wave of smiles that burst into life as we passed by, punctuated by the odd wave or thumbs up. Walking around the streets of Medan on our one night there, we ended up in a local cafe serving a sweet nutty sauce that you dip fruit in. We laughed and joked as we tried to converse. Everybody in that street cafe was warm and genuine.

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Moving on to find something savoury to eat, we were stopped by a group of twenty somethings, eager to practise English and tell us about their country. Kids smiled and giggled when you looked at them, and we wondered how few tourists must go through there that we were still such a novelty. Or maybe, Medan being a big and ugly city, tourists just didn’t wander about too much. Either way, we both felt strongly reminded of our beloved India and in this way, quickly connected to this new land.

Notes for tourists:

From the airport to Medan, trains are expensive (about 100,000r, which is £5 or 7.50 USD). We paid 120,000r (£6 or 9 USD) for a taxi between 3 of us, but we had to barter down from 150,000r. The journey takes about 45mins to an hour.

Accommodation is VERY basic in town. Cold Water is the norm, some rooms don’t have a shower, toilets are bucket flush, you might get a cockroach. BUT, they are super cheap. The cheapest ones are right by the mosque, which looks pretty, but believe me, it’s LOUD. At 5.30 in the morning when the call to prayer starts, you definitely know about it. We paid 700,000r for a double room (£3.50 or 4.75 USD). Get a fan – it’s HOT! The one plus was that the mattress was actually soft – a bonus after Nepal, Myanmar and Thailand! Our guesthouse was called Residence.

Turn left out of the front of the guesthouse and walk to the end of the road. When you meet the main road, cross to the other side and wait for the number 64 mini van going to Pinang Baris bus station. Give the driver money at the end (as do all the locals). We paid 7,500 each (about 35p or 50 cent).

Minivans from Pinang Baris to Bukit Lawang are privately owned, so you will need to barter. We read that you should only pay 20,000 each, but we paid 50,000r (£2.50 or 3.75 USD). It’s more than twice what the locals would pay, but we do earn more money, so I think that’s a fair price. I would reiterate what we read, which is not to pay any money upfront. Buses regularly break down (if this happens, you have to wait for the next mini van passing by to pick you up). You’ll be expected to pay for the amount you’ve travelled if so. If you’ve already paid, I doubt you’ll get a refund! Paying on arrival also ensures that you get taken to where you actually want to go. NB – the minivans stop about a couple of kms away from Bukit Lawang. From there you have to get a tuk tuk to the guesthouses.

THAILAND – The Golden Triangle Motorbike Loop: hill tribes, hot springs & a Honda PCX…

“Hill tribes, hot springs and a Honda PCX…”

(Written by Steph, photos by Nick)

We had arrived in the north of Thailand only a couple of days before our visas were due to expire. But a couple of days would be fine to get an extension…or so we thought. Ah. The weekend. It had been so long since we had endured a proper working week that we had forgotten about the fact that offices close on Saturdays and Sundays. So we would have to extend on Monday, the day our visa expired. Donning our smartest clothes, as advised on the net, we headed off down Chiang Mai’s superhighway towards the visa office, and crossed everything that we could whilst riding a bike.

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Without a hitch (bar recognising our own names as they were called out in Thai accents) we got our visas extended for another month. Now we were free to do what we had planned since the beginning – explore the north, full of jungle, waterfalls, tribes and greenery. Time to get back on the bike – quite literally…

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Days 1 & 2

It was only day two of our second motorbike trip in the north of Thailand, and we had already met some funny characters. It was Christmas holidays, and so the Thai middle class, who love camping even more than me and Nick, were still out in full force. We got to a hot springs, of which there are plenty in Thailand, to a setting of picturesque pools, small bridges..and children…everywhere. We opted for the hot spring pool with the least kids in, and dipped in an empty corner.

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“Jingle bells, jingle bells, la la la la la”

It was perhaps less than a minute before a Thai couple started talking to us. The guy’s English was minimal, but what he lacked in language, he made up for in laughter. He had a story and he was committed to trying to communicate it.  Oblivious to the stares of the more conservative eyes around him, he started clapping the back of his hand against the palm of the other; the next thing he was cradling an imaginary baby. We got the jist. As he got on his knees and mimed praying to Buddha, he reached his pièce de résitance, “Jingle Bells”; we were in fits of hysterics. He and his wife had been married a couple of years and had been trying for a baby. Camping was their romantic setting and Jingle Bells their prayer song to Buddha. We would have to take a note for future reference.

That night we rocked up at Wat Thummuangna, a monastery just a kilometre from the Myanmar border.  Nick’s friend Chris had told us he had stayed there before, but on arriving, it seemed like most of the people staying there had come to practise Buddhism. Funny that. Feeling a bit presumptuous, we did the obligatory tour before being offered some food and a bed for the night by a friendly monk. I have to say, it was the most glamorous room we have ever stayed in, though I’d hesitate to call it The Honeymoon Suite for obvious reasons. We made ourselves at home to the soundtrack of mantras being chanted, and in the spirit of things we decided we might join them for a while. How long would it go on for, we enquired. Oh, only three days…THREE DAYS?! People in the temple (built into the side of a cave) were literally falling asleep mid-chant, waking up and joining in again. For THREE DAYS! Forty-five minutes and my legs were going dead. The only Nirvana I knew about was in my CD collection.

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Days 3 & 4:

By the next morning we had racked up several offers from the monk – it seemed like he was taking his vows seriously and trying to give away anything and everything he owned – tiger balm, candles, snacks. However, “Thou shalt not take copious amounts of pictures of oneself” was evidently not in the Buddhist guide. As we sat together with him and his side kick – one very extrovert nun, he got out his phone to show us photos of where he’d travelled. This monk was a serial-selfier. Hundreds of pics and not one missing his face!

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Actually it was fascinating talking to those two, as well as a couple of other nuns there. What I hadn’t realised is that anyone can become a monk or a nun, and they can choose how long for. Each had their own reasons for being there, and each chose the length of time. One woman told us of her controlling Japanese husband she needed some space from, while our fun-loving nun had worked for the U.N. for a time and didn’t like what she found out. As for the reasons they shave their heads, stop wearing make-up, give up possessions, and meditate, I thought I might have had an idea. However, I wanted to ask those willing to do so what was their perspective.  Essentially, the fullest explanation I managed to wrangle was, “Because Buddha did.” Nuff said.

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We spent the next two days camping at Fang hot springs, right next to the pools. It was pretty idyllic, bar the smell of eggs from the sulphur in the springs. This is where photos sometimes do lie.

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Day 5:

The next day we headed up Doi Pha Hom Pok, the country’s second highest mountain at 2285m. So far Thailand had been tarmac heaven. Although we loved the smooth curves of the previous motorbike loop, it had admittedly been just a little too easy. Not that I was complaining – there’s no way I would have had a go on the bike otherwise (a brief 2 hour affair). We had ummed and ahhed about whether to both get a small bike for this loop (Honda Wave 120cc) or for me to take up my usual pillion position on a Honda PCX 150cc. As we approached the road leading up to this national park, I was pretty relieved we had gone for the latter of the two options! A steep dirt road, full of large rocks and uneven ridges led us up to the top, finally arriving at dusk. Just time to set up the tent and get some food…

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“Beer?”

We had asked for noodles. There were no noodles. Soup?  No soup. The cafe seemed to be strangely unoccupied, and instead, a national park guard was taking us on a tour of the stock room to see what we could find. It seemed they had had a big weekend and the cafe owners had gone to town to restock. Eggs and beer it was then. What more could a girl want? Actually, a thermal blanket for the brutal cold. The plan was to get up early to hike the last few kilometres to the summit – a hike that would start in the dark, last 3 hours, and get us there for sunrise. Bitterly cold, we renaged on that one.

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DAYS 6 & 7:

We stayed in a simple room next to the river in a lovely Thai town called Thaton. It’s the perfect place to take a 2 day boat journey to Chiang Rai, but we had the small matter of the bike we had hired. Instead we passed sunrise at the stunning, if slightly commercial, Monastery, Wat Thaton; swam in the river; and made a plan for the next day. We decided that, as wonderful as Thailand had been, we had only scratched the surface when it came to the hill tribe people there. There are 6 main tribes: the Akha, Karen, Lisu, Lahu, Hmong and Mien, but like everything in Thailand, these tribes were now increasingly merging with the mainstream – a Thai commodity in fancy dress. We had even heard that the long neck Karen tribes (so called because of the beautifying coils placed around their necks as children, which encourage their necks to grow long like giraffes) had sometimes been forced into commercial tourism – fenced in and peered at like animals in a zoo to make somebody else profit. Sounded like something we would be loathe to support. So how could we meet these groups on a non-commercial level? Surely they all lived somewhere hidden in the hills…

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“Turn around. It’s another one. “

Looking ahead we could see this was another army base, small but ubiquitous this close to the Myanmar border.  Nick had had the cunning idea of using google’s satellite imagery to try and pin point some extra small villages on the map. Unfortunately for many of the hill tribes, the Thai government has tried to relocate them from the hills, where they go about their traditional ways of life, to near roads.  Something about border control and security. Still, it gave us the chance of finding an authentic group, or so we thought. This was the third army base we had mistaken for a village on the map, and we only had one more place to check out…

“What now?”

We arrived on our roaring bike to stares of disbelief, or bewilderment, or perhaps a mix of the two. Entering the village there were perhaps 5 houses on either side, and one at the end. So, casually pretending we were just passing through wasn’t going to wash with them. Enclosed in their horse shoe village, we conspicuously dismounted the bike, looking around for a guise – maybe that old, “Let’s sit in a cafe and have a cup of tea” defence. Scanning from left to right, there was no cafe, not even a plastic table and chairs set up outside someone’s house as we had come across so many times before. There were people, and pigs. And maybe a few chickens.

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“Sawadee kaaaa”

We saluted the suspicious faces with the Thai “Waa” (hands together in prayer position, and a bowing of the head to show respect). Nothing. Nada. Zilch. Hill tribes have their own customs and language; had we been in any doubt, this confirmed that we were now looking at one.

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Unsure what to do next, we latched onto the kids. Even though they were shy, they seemed happy to entertain these strange people who had just invaded their village. The elder people were more cautious, although not unfriendly.  Obviously us turning up uninvited was probably quite bizarre for them, and with a communication barrier the size of the ocean between our respective lands, we weren’t able to convey anything about why we were there. Indeed, why were we there? I suppose were curious about a more minimalistic way of life and keen to understand what life was like for hill tribes in a society either trying to change or marginalise them. However, being there actually felt intrusive.

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Feeling like we should move on, we took a quick walk up the road first. Here we got a clue as to what these people hold dear and what they don’t. There a concrete building stood, with smashed windows, quite obviously abandoned. Venturing inside we found walls painted with colourful pictures, each next to the relevant word…in English. Whoever had opened this school, had seemingly tried, and failed, to introduce Western schooling to these people. As we so often do in our society, we assume that our ways are the best ways, not considering the fact that other societies live by a different set of ideals, perhaps contented to continue as they are.

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