One of the coolest parts of being an expat is all the people you meet. They come from everywhere. I’ve met chefs from Italy, chemists from New Zealand, PhD students from Turkey and of course, musicians from Portugal, The Philippines and beyond… We all come from different backgrounds and are in China for various reasons, but we all have one thing in common… We’ve all chosen Suzhou as home away from home.
Dave and I at the “Red Dress Hash”. Everyone dressed up in red dresses and fundraised for an Orphanage here in Suzhou. We saw a bit of the city, spent the evening outside walking, and had a great time!
At the beginning of this year, I decided to put myself out there more. I joined several WeChat groups in an effort to meet more people and to become part of the expat community. I started with music groups, because it was something I knew a lot about. I’ve also joined writers’ groups, travel groups and most recently, a Foodie group.
Anyone who knows me knows that I love both cooking… And eating!!!
In the Foodie Group, we all post about our favourite restaurants. Now, whenever Dave and I want to try something new, we check out places that have been recommended by fellow Foodies.
Our most recent recommendation: a Singaporean restaurant in Suzhou Center
A few months ago, I wrote about our friend, Lixia, and her restaurant that specializes in Guizhou food. Before I knew it, I was getting messages from the other Foodies, thanking me for the recommendation. Since then, this tiny Chinese restaurant has become quite popular amongst expats.
Lixia surprised Dave with a cake for his birthday last month
Lixia is easily one of the sweetest and most hard working people I know, so when I learned about a Food & Beverage competition, I got in touch with the organizers and nominated Zou Guizhou for the “Best View” award.
Her award winning view
Tonight, we went to the finals for this award, at The W hotel here in SIP. Lixia won in her category, and we were able to celebrate with her. It was a really fun night filled with good food, great wine and fabulous company.
Kevin joined us for the evening. He is the one who found Zou Guizhou for us 2 years ago
So happy to have Miya back in Suzhou!!!
Larry and Lixia have become friends too 🙂
The best part of the night was when I realized how many people I knew at the event. A year ago, I made it my mission to become part of the expat community in Suzhou… And that mission has been accomplished.
After 2 nights in the Batu Kapal Guesthouse, it was time to set off on our over-night jungle Trek. Sardi arrived as we finished our breakfast, and before long, we were on our way. Jungle Trek – Day 1
On this 2 day trek, we were joined by a second guide, named Jimmy. Sardi explained that Jimmy’s English was better than his, and that Jimmy knew more about the surrounding area and could better explain all the flora and fauna we’d be seeing on our hike.
It wasn’t long before we started seeing wild life. Before we’d even entered the park, Jimmy spotted a Silver Leaf Monkey, far up in a tree. They’re quite shy, so I was happy to have a proper camera (with zoom) along with me.
As we entered the park, Jimmy stopped to tell us how to stay safe in the Jungle, and to warn us about 2 particularly feisty orangutans who were known to behave badly around humans. Many of the great apes found in this area of the park have been rehabilitated and set free after being in captivity, so it’s natural that not all the orangutans were going to be perfectly comfortable around people. (Personally speaking, I’m BARELY comfortable around people!)
Our next animal encounter was with a pair of Hornbills, who were high up in the trees, but very difficult to miss, as they were quite clumsy moving around and squacking at each other. They were super noisy, though I didn’t actually catch that on video.
I did, however, get a video of one of them eating a berry!!
While we were busy admiring these beautiful birds, Sardi went off on his own to ‘find me a baby orangutan’ (something he’d promised he’d try to do). When he called us over, I don’t think I could have possibly moved more quickly than I did!
There she was. A 3 year old juvenile, eating leaves and playfully hanging from the tree. I stood there and stared for a while, before Dave reminded me that I might want some pictures of her!
Soon, her mother came swinging by on the trees. She was much bigger than I’d thought she’d be, and she didn’t seem the least bit worried about the humans who were watching her child. In fact, she swung across a couple of trees about 6 feet from where I was standing. Sardi had to tell me to back up, because I was too close!
I would have stayed there forever if they’d let me, but after a while we had to move on. Jimmy guided us to an area where we could have some lunch, and we unpacked, pulled up some tree trunks and enjoyed some jungle food.
That’s when we started hearing rustling in the bushes….
There was never a shortage of fresh fruit on our tour, and as Sardi took out the passion fruit…and papaya….and bananas…the rustling got a little closer.
It wasn’t long before we spotted the family of Thomas Leaf Monkeys circling in on us. Now, I’ve mentioned these cute little primates several times, but I’ve waited until this moment to show you what they look like.
Because…they’re flipping adorable!!
These little ‘punk-goth’ monkeys spent the next half hour eyeing our fruit. We were on an eco-tour though, and part of being an ecotourist is knowing that you cannot feed the wild life. It’s bad for them and it can be dangerous for you. So, as much as I wanted to pass off some bananas to these funny little dudes, I refrained, for the sake and well-being of the jungle. I did take lots of pictures though!
I didn’t get much footage of them when we were eating (I actually wasn’t feeling very well at that point. More on that later…), but I did get an awesome video of them when we were at the guesthouse!
We continued on our Jungle walk, stopping now and then to admire a lizard or a tree that had been destroyed by termites.
This little dude was exceptionally cute
A tree hollowed out by termites
Unfortunately, I was really struggling at this point, because, as tends to happen when I go on holidays, my stomach hadn’t really been agreeing with the local food. My fussy stomach has forced me to miss out on adventures in Cuba, India and worst of all, in Laos…but not this time! I dragged my butt through that jungle (and thankfully, Sardi picked up on the fact that I was sick, and he and Dave kept close watch over me the whole way to the camp)
Reaching that camp was such a relief, I nearly cried. It wasn’t that the trail was particularly hard. It was a good level of difficulty and well worth the hike. But, when your body isn’t digesting food properly, the jungle might not be the best place to go. I wouldn’t change it for anything though…not a single moment. The Camp
As soon as we reached the camp, I got into my bathing suit and went and sat in the river to cool down. It was a lovely spot, quite sheltered and the river was very clean.
As I began to relax, Jimmy pointed out that I had a rather large friend heading my way, and I turned to see a meter long monitor lizard swimming lazily nearby. I would have bolted, but I was too tired, so I slowly wiggled my way away from the lizard. I don’t really think he cared much either way.
Some meter long monitor lizards were hanging out nearby. I didn’t get any pictures because I was busy recovering, but Dave managed to get a shot or two
A 3rd guide had been waiting for us when we arrived. His job was to bring our sleeping gear and food and to cook us dinner and breakfast. Even with my upset stomach, the food was great!
That night is one of my favourite memories of the whole trip to Indonesia. We sat out with our 3 guides and chatted about life in Indonesia, life in China and life in Canada. We told us about the frustrations we face living in the big city of Suzhou, and they told us about their 105 year old grandfather who demands that they fetch him mangoes whenever they see him (Sardi and Jimmy are cousins and their grandfather is toothless and more than happy to send his grandsons on quests for soft fruit!)
Our sleeping quarters
The jungle kitchen
I took this the following morning. Sardi was working on my orangutan stone necklaces
I don’t have any pictures of that night. It was dark, and I was tired, but if I I could have held onto that peaceful moment forever, I would have. The sound of the river was hypnotic and I found myself falling asleep long before I meant to. Jungle Trek: Day 2
Mawan prepared us a delicious breakfast of fruit and sandwiches the following morning. My stomach still wasn’t feeling too hot, but I had more energy and I wasn’t nearly as weak as I had been when I’d arrived at the camp the previous day.
We were getting ready to leave, when out of nowhere, a family of 15-20 macaques came parading through the river in front of the camp! They’d smelled the fruit and showed up, hoping for some left overs.
Most of them spooked easily and ran away when they saw us, but one particularly brave macaque hung around and nabbed some watermelon. I watched as he greedily shoved 1/4 of a melon in his mouth, all while looking over his shoulder, making sure none of his family members had returned to rob him of his trophy!
Soon, we were on our way back through the jungle. We took it a bit more slowly on our second day, with both guides now knowing that I wasn’t at 100%. Sardi found us wild cinnamon (it was disgusting) and we saw plenty more birds and even heard gibbons calling out in the distance.
Sardi disappeared again, and before long, he was calling us over because he’d found me another ‘orange friend’. This time, I got smart, and I filmed our walk to find her. I tried not to shake the camera too much, but I really wanted people back home to see how beautiful the forest was and how exciting it was to get your first glimpse of one of these jungle beauties.
Once I got a closer look, I asked Jimmy why she looked sad. I expected him to laugh at me and tell me I was projecting human emotions onto her, but he replied quite simply “Her baby got sick”.
Jimmy continue to tell me Juni’s story, while we watched her sit, lethargically in the tree. As I write this, I wonder if she’s been reunited with her young one.
As luck would have it, I caught a video of the only time she moved in the 20 minutes we watched her.
I’ll never forget her, I’ll tell you that much.
Eventually, we had to move on. We stopped for lunch, and our guides cut up some papaya for me (the only thing that was appetizing at that point), and before long, we were on our way to meet Mawan on the bank of another river.
Instead of doing more hiking, our trip ended with a rafting ride down the river back into Bukit Lawang! It was a tonne of fun, and it made me VERY happy that we still have our old water proof camera!
Jimmy keeping us on track (and away from rocks)
Me, Dave, Mawan and Sardi.
As soon as we reached Bukit Lawang, we were greeted once more by smiling locals. It’s such a gorgeous little town!
I even kept my wits about me and got a video!!
So, in short, if you are reading this because you are considering taking a tour with Bukit Lawang Jungle-trekking, contact Janine NOW! It was the experience of a lifetime, and I would honestly go back and do it all over again tomorrow if given the chance.
I’ll be back soon with a post about Jogjakarta and our stay on Java Island! A few more notes about Bukit Lawang-Jungle Trekking:
If you’d like to read more about Bukit Lawang-Jungle Trekking, you can go to their website here, or check out their Facebook page, here.
Ecotourism has become increasingly important to me over the last 4 years. When I know that my money is being put to good (both for the good of locals as well as for the environment), I enjoy myself more. So, when I began planning our holiday in Indonesia, one of the first things I checked for was “Eco-Tourism in Sumatra”. There were quite a few options to see Sumatran wildlife all over the large island, but one company in particular caught my attention.
I sent them a message and within a few hours I’d received a response from Janine, who proceeded to help me plan out our entire stay in Sumatra.
There were 2 parts to the tour I booked with Janine. Part 1 took us to Samosir Island, which we toured on our own. Part 2 of our trip was an eco-tour we booked in and around Gunung Leuser National Park. We were very happy to have hired a driver for the 7 hour drive to Bukit Lawang; the little jungle town just outside of the national park. Enok was professional, friendly and even made some interesting stops during the 7 hour drive from Lake Toba to Bukit Lawang.
We arrived in Bukit Lawang after dark and in the middle of a massive thunder storm. Our guide, Sardi, arrived with an umbrella for me and a flashlight for Dave and we got our first glimpses of this sweet jungle town.
It seemed like Sardi knew everyone. He greeted people by name as we walked past the restaurants and bars, and everywhere we passed, we heard a chorus of people welcoming us to Bukit Lawang.
A beautiful little town
I wish I’d gotten more photos of this sweet place
We walked over this bridge during the storm. I was terrified! It wasn’t so scary during the day
It was a fantastic way to start our 4-day Eco-Tour.
Day 1 – Getting To Know the Area
We spent our first day hiking through rubber plantations and visiting some of the area around the Gunung Leuser National Park. We saw some wild life while we were out and about and learned about the locals from Sardi.
Excited to get started on our first day
Our little trekking group for the day
A rubber tree. A liquid latex-type sap comes from the trunk. It reminded me of collecting Maple in Canada
The beautiful trail became familiar. We walked it many times.
There were 2 main activities planned for our first day. The first activity was to visit the Bat Cave. As you may have guessed, it is home to 2 different kinds of bats, who were equally cute and sleepy when we arrived. Sardi informed us that pangolins are sometimes spotted in the Bat Cave, which got me pretty excited!
The entrance of the Bat Cave
Pangolins are currently the most illegally trafficked animal in the world. They’re killed for their meat and their scales, which are used in traditional Chinese medicine. They’ve been hunted to the verge of extinction, and up until we reached the bat cave, I didn’t even know there were any of these interesting animals left in Asia!
Unfortunately, we didn’t get to see any, but it was still exciting to know that there was a possibility (however small). We also got to chat with Sardi about the poaching of pangolins in Indonesia. He told us that several of his family members had been poachers in the past, but was able to get them to understand the importance of protecting these animals and now, those same family members are working to protect them.
My hope is that you leave this post loving Pangolins as much as I do!
Look at that face!!!
Our second big activity for the day happens to be one of my favourite memories of our whole trip. Sardi lead us to a beautiful little spot on the river, where he spent the next hour preparing us an incredible Indonesian-style barbecue. Dave and I spent the time cooling off in the beautiful river, which was much needed after our hike to the cave. We even spotted a family of Thomas Leaf Monkeys while we sat and enjoyed the cool, clean water! It was quite the sight!
This is where we spotted our first Thomas Leaf Monkeys. I’ll be writing more about them later!
Sardi prepared some incredible bbq fish and chicken along with a gorgeous fruit platter. We all sat together beside the river and enjoyed his beautiful meal. We chatted about Sardi’s family and about our lives back in China. It was a gorgeous way to spend a few hours!
After lunch, we made our way to the guesthouse where we were spending our first two nights of the tour. It was a beautiful spot, and with no electronics with us (we left them at our hotel in Bukit Lawang), we were forced to just sit back and enjoy the peacefulness of the area. We walked around a little bit and enjoyed the stream that ran through the property. We spotted some more Thomas Leaf monkeys and laughed at their antics, as they played in the trees. It was the most relaxed I’d felt in months.
Dave and I, just coming up on the guesthouse
There were lovely little cabanas like this all over the guesthouse property
Some beautiful flowers outside our bugalow
The beautiful river flowing through the property
A gorgeously relaxing place to spend the evening
Day 2 – Sumtran Culture
Day 2 of our time in Bukit Lawang was spent quite differently from Day 1. The focus was more towards the local culture than the local wild life. It was a nice shift and it provided us with opportunities to try out some things we’d never done before.
We spent a lot more time with Sardi, walking through the jungle and even taking motorbikes through the trails. At one point, we reached a rather muddy area, and I noticed there was a woman (also on a motorbike), waiting patiently for us to make it through before she went herself. I laughed and told Sardi that if the same situation were to arise in China, everyone would try to go at the same time, and we would have scared any animals away with all the honking that would surely have ensued.
My favourite part of day 2 was our cooking class back at the guesthouse. We learned how to make traditional Indonesian dishes, such as Sambal, Tempe and, my personal favourite, Pepes (a way of cooking fish in banana leaf, over a fire).
We used many fresh vegetables and lots of spices
We even hand ground the Sambal by hand. They assured us it tastes better that way.
The GORGEOUS fruit platter one of our hosts put together for us
As good as the meal was, the company is what made it so great. There was quite a mixture of people at the guesthouse that night and we got to know them all a bit. In addition to the Indonesian staff, there was a woman from Switzerland and a woman from Germany, as well as a Dutch man who was about to begin a 7 day jungle hike. We sat around for hours, chatting about our travel experiences. Both of the European women were in the area doing humanitarian work, which was very appealing to me (perhaps, one day…). When it was time to go to bed, I was both sad to see the night end, but excited because the following day…our jungle trek to see wild orangutans would begin!
Next time, I’ll be devoting an entire post about our Jungle experience with the Sumatran Orangutans, so stay tuned!
Around 75,000 years ago, the world experienced its largest ever volcanic eruption. This event covered all of South Asia in about 15 centimeters of ash, and cooled off our planet for the next 6-10 years.
The sheer size of this eruption is difficult to understand without comparing it to other large volcanic events. I’ve always been fascinated by volcanos, and the Pompeii eruption in 79AD interested me so much that I ended up with minor in Classical History! But Vesuvius’ eruption had NOTHING on Mt. Toba.
Our first stop in Indonesia was to see Ground 0 of this disastrous historic event. Like Yellowstone, you wouldn’t necessarily know that you were on a massive volcano. This is because the last time Toba blew, it resulted in a crater lake so big that there is an island the size of SINGAPORE inside it!
Modern Samosir Island
Samosir island is located in Northern Sumatra, near the city of Medan (about 5 hours away by car). We got in touch with an tour company ahead of time, and arranged for a driver to pick us up from Medan airport. We’re really glad we went this route, because the car was comfortable and safe (as oppose to many of the other vehicles we saw on the road). We arrived in Parapat, a small town across the lake from Samosir, and before long we were on the ferry and on our way to our hotel in the little town of Tuk Tuk.
Not the comfiest benches…
I was so happy to be out in the clean, fresh air with the sun shining down on my pale skin!
Samosir is a popular tourist destination for foreigners and Indonesians alike. The island has many attractions, which has allowed beautiful hotels and bungalows to pop up all over the island. We got to see a lot of those bungalows during our ferry-ride.
On the Island
There’s lots to do on the island, especially if you rent a motorbike. We didn’t have much time on our first day, but we did drive into town from our bungalow and see some of the sights.
We learned that Samosir Island is primarily Christian
We saw egg shells placed on the tips of plants…(???_
And we learned the magic mushrooms are REALLY popular in Indonesia!
Our second day on Samosir was more eventful. We took a drive out to the island’s waterfall, but discovered that the trail had been washed away from a mudslide a while back. We tried to climb it anyway (in our flip flops…), but I eventually told Dave I was turning around with or without him, because it just wasn’t safe.
I took these shortly after nearly falling to my death….
Clearly, Dave wasn’t worried….
And clearly, I was FURIOUS!!!
This was the ‘trail’ up the mountain….
We also dipped our toes into Lake Toba, which is crystal clear and gorgeously warm. Unfortunately, it was quite windy that day and the water was very rough, so we didn’t actually get to go swimming.
There are a tonne of restaurants on the island where you can enjoy some Indonesian food. We found a restaurant that rated well on Trip Advisor and enjoyed a FANTASTIC BBQ meal from Joe and his wife.
Joe…cooking up dinner
Joe and his wife also sell corn to local farmers. I got a picture of my neice’s ‘Flat Stanley’ in the corn because I thought it was hilarious that there was an entire section of the restaurant closed off to dry the stuff!
The most popular thing to do on Samosir Island is to see the Batak culture and history. The Batak have lived on Samosir Island for hundreds of years (some say thousands…), and they have heavily influenced the area with their architecture and traditions. There are plenty of modern buildings that have been constructed in Batak style on Samosir Island, and you can see some old artifacts as well.
We visited 2 Batak historical sights. The Stone Chairs are the island’s biggest cultural draw, so we set out to find them first. We DID find stone chairs, but it turned out they weren’t the ‘right’ ones. Either way, they ended up being my favourite spot on the island. There was something beautiful about them.
The entrance to our first Batak sight
Some groovy stairs
The stone carvings were moss covered and beautiful
You can see why we assumed we were at the ‘Stone Chair’ sight….
Some more interesting carvings
We found the ‘real’ Stone Chairs later in the day. Their fame comes from the fact that ritualistic cannibalism was practiced at that particular sight. Criminals were tried and sentenced by the King, who consumed parts of their bodies after they were killed for their crimes. If you take a tour of the area, you are given all sorts of information about the cannibalistic rituals of early Batak people, but we went on our own and were spared the gory details.
The sight was beautiful though, and I’m glad we stopped by.
The entrance to the area
The ‘real’ Stone Chairs
My only regret about Samosir Island is that we didn’t have enough time there. It’s a gorgeously relaxing place to spend a few days, and I’d recommend it to anyone with an interest in culture or geology.
I’ll be back soon with my second post about our time in Sumatra. Spoiler: Orangutans will be involved!!!
Every year when we go on holiday, I spend time finding beautiful post cards that we can send back to our family and friends. I enjoy the whole process; choosing the cards, choosing who will be sent which, writing them out and even finding a post office to send them from.
That last part can be a bit of a pain. Last year, we had to resort to sending them from a hotel because we couldn’t find an open post office anywhere in Ho Chi Minh City. This year, though, we had a great experience!
I went into a small post office on Lombok island and was met by a smiling young girl who looked both excited and terrified to see me walking towards her.
It takes a long time to put 4 stamps on 25 post cards, so before long, 2 of her co-workers arrived to help. They were hilarious and made a competition of it to see who could get all 4 stamps on the most neatly and the most quickly.
By the time Dave came in to see why we were taking so long, we’d already taken some selfies and had some good laughs. They all thought it was very cool that we send all our friends and family postcards. I don’t think they’d ever seen anyone actually do that before!
Unfortunately, we had to carry onto our hotel for the night, because tomorrow morning, we leave Indonesia.
Gili Trawangan is a small island of the coast of a bigger Island called Lombok. Dave and I always try to spend the last week of our holiday somewhere relaxing, and this year, this is where we ended up.
Now, I knew Gili T had a reputation as a bit of a party island, but I was a bit. Surprised that how little there was to do OTHER than partying!
We did find some things. We spent 2 mornings looking for sea turtles (and found them both days!!), and our silver working class was a great way to spend the afternoon, but I think we would have gone a bit stir crazy if we’d stayed any longer.
As for the party scene, we did go “all out” last night, as it was our last night on the island. We ate some fantastic Indian food, ordered some terribly overpriced (but delicious) sangria wine and sat on the beach until midnight. It was a nice way to wind down the holiday!!
Back in October, we had a week off of work but opted out of our usual Golden Week holiday to avoid the stress of it all. Still, we wanted to do something interesting during our time off, so I booked us into an acrylic paint pouring workshop. It was a great experience and since then I’ve been keen to try any class I can!
In Bukit Lawang, a coconut carving class was included in our tour. The artist, Moon, was very talented and gave us lots of ideas to choose from. I tried to go with something simple, but I didn’t account for all the toes I need to carve (I chose to make a gecko necklace). It was a lot harder than I thought it would be and I realized quickly the value of all of Moon’s work.
I can’t take total credit for my final piece because Moon ended up doing a lot of it himself while I tried to cool down outside (it was stifflingly hot in his workshop). But I did do about half of it myself (mostly the sanding and finer details).
Today, on Gili T, we took another class this time for making Silver jewellery. Dave chose to make a ring and I made a pendant. We were also there with another lady who was making a ring that represented her 3 children. It was a tonne of fun and I found it quite a bit easier than the coconut carving.
We had a good afternoon and all 3 of us left very happy with our results.
Now, I have some jewelery from our time in Indonesia, and some great memories too!