Should I Go to Indonesia?

In the past month, Indonesia has been hit with several devastating earthquakes. Many of the people I met in Lombok and on the Gili Islands were surely affected by these deadly events. I’ve found myself thinking about our time there a lot.

Below is a post I began writing in Spring, but never got around to finishing until now. Through this post, I hope to inspire people to visit this beautiful island country and to better understand it as well. Whether you are an avid traveler, or simply dream of one day being able to travel, this post is full of all the reasons why I would recommend Indonesia as a travel destination for pretty much anyone.

In the last 4 years, I’ve done a lot of travelling. I’ve had a lot of experiences, eaten a lot of different food and met a lot of different people. From the Hongs of Thailand, to the Thar Desert in India, I’ve never visited anywhere that didn’t offer some sort of spectacular adventure.

Sometimes though, you find a country that offers more than just destinations and good food. Those countries captivate you and take a piece of your heart. They change the way you see the world. Cambodia did that for me, and it became the country I compared all other countries too. Now, Indonesia has also been added to that list, and today I’d like to tell you why.

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Cambodia had it all: Beautiful architecture, rich history and kind people

Diversity & Tolerance

Before going to Indonesia, I’d read a lot of things. I knew, of course, that Indonesia is the country with the most Muslims in the world. I also knew that for the most part, Indonesia’s a pretty peaceful place. We’d heard of some problems in Jakarta, so we avoided the city, but even there, you’re never in any real danger.

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We read ahead of time that some of the guides in the Bukit Lawang area could be pushy. We experienced nothing but awesome interactions with both of our guides, as well as every guide we ran into. When people asked us if we wanted to book a tour, we politely told them we already had. In many other countries, guides will keep hounding you and chasing you. In Indonesia, people politely wished us a good trip.

Similarly, Aceh province has a bit of a bad reputation, as its provincial government tries to enforce shariah law. There is a large group of fundamentalist Muslims in the area, and as a result, Indonesia makes news headlines with some of the things that happen there. The important thing to remember, however, is that Aceh does not represent all of Indonesia. Everyone we went in the rest of the country, we saw tolerance and friendliness.

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I was honestly very surprised by the diversity in Indonesia. Right from the moment we arrived in Sumatra, we saw it. On Samosir Island, you find Christianity and Batik culture. When you move to Bukit Lawang, you see more Islam. Jogjakarta is also primarily Muslim, but the world’s biggest Buddhist temple is nearby along with a very famous Hindu temple. Flores was Christian while Lombok and the Gili Islands had several mosques. There are all sorts of people in Indonesia, and contrary to some of the things I’ve read in the news, everyone seems to get along pretty well. They were polite and friendly not only with tourists…but also with each other.

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Many women in Indonesia wear Hihabs. I loved the way these ladies contrasted with the beautiful stone behind them

Ecotourism & Positive Tourism Experiences

Of course, ecotourism was a huge pull for me in Indonesia. All over the country, responsible tour operators are running businesses that encourage care for the environment and all the living things within those environments. With Bukit Lawang Jungle Trekking, we were able to experience Orangutans in their natural environment. In addition to learning about these beautiful primates, we also learned about the other flora and fauna in the area, and about what it’s like to grow up in Bukit Lawang. Getting to know Sardi and Jimmy was one of the absolute best parts of my time in Indonesia, and I feel good about having chosen Bukit Lawang Jungle Trekking for my tour, because I can see the difference they are trying to make their community better through a variety of initiatives.

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Bukit Lawang Jungle Trekking employs excellent guides who help protect the animals and the environment in Gunung Leuser National Park. This helps to protect beautiful orangutans, like this one.

Similarly, when we decided to go Komodo National Park, we looked at many tour operators before choosing Flores XP Adventure. While we did have some problems with the boat they rented, overall, Komodo XP was an excellent Eco Tour operator. Archer was very knowledgeable about the marine life, as were the rest of the XP crew.

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Manta Rays are just one of many marine species that live in these waters. Komodo National Park actually boasts some of the most incredible marine diversity in the world, so it’s very important that companies like Flores XP Adventures

Most importantly, Flores XP takes ecological conservation seriously. No garbage was left on Padar Island when we left. Archer stopped the boating crew from fishing more than once (they were not part of the XP team, but had been hired out because the XP boats were in for maintenance.). I like that Archer and his team followed the laws that were set to help protect this incredibly bio diverse area.

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The last thing I want to do is to mess with this kind of beauty!

Even Jogjakarta was a good destination for good tourism practices. Our hotel was run by two of the nicest people I’ve ever met in my life. Similarly, the staff at ViaVia, a fair trade store Dave and I discovered, went above and beyond to make our experience a good one. The money spent for our time at the two temples on Java was also put to very good use. The restoration and protection of both Borobudur and Prambanan was evident and we felt good about spending a bit more to be a part of preserving the culture on Java island.

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We were so happy to discover Viavia! Not only did they sell fairtrade goods, but the staff were incredible too!

The People

Which leads me to the #1 reason why I loved Indonesia so much.

If you ask most people who travel extensively, they’ll tell you that it always takes a day or two to get a handle on what things are suppose to cost. Currencies are different from country to country, after all, something that costs $2 in Canada, might cost 5000vnd in Vietnam.

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When I go to the ATM in Canada, they give me $20 and $50 bills. In Vietnam, you get 500,000 bills. Inflation is crazy!

Foreigners are also charged extra in many places, to the point where the practice has been dubbed ‘the foreigner tax’. When you combine that tax with a new currency, it’s a recipe for scams and rip offs. So, when we arrived in Sumatra, and everyone kept charging us 3500rp for water, we just assumed the real price was 2000.

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India had the highest foreigner taxes we’ve seen. Foreigner entry prices were usually 4-5 times higher than local prices, with even more additional fees added on for the use of a camera at those sights.

It took us a few days, but soon we realized that the prices we were being given, were legitimate. People in Indonesia simply charged us the cost of the water, without additional fees. It wasn’t long before we realized that even when vendors did bring up their prices a little bit for us in the market, it was never outrageous. We simply weren’t ripped off in Indonesia.

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I don’t know what these things cost, because signs rarely include prices there, but I can tell you that I’d probably pay the same amount for magic mushrooms as a local…if I ever felt like doing them, that is!

But the honesty we saw in Indonesia wasn’t even the thing that made our interactions with locals so good. What I loved most about the people in Indonesia was how incredibly welcoming and warm they were. Everywhere we went we were greeted and welcomed by locals. Every now and then someone would want a picture of us, but usually, they were happy just to say hello.

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This is one of my favourite pictures I took during our entire month in Indonesia.

The Negatives

Of course, no country is perfect. There were some things about Indonesia that I wasn’t crazy about. Their coffee, for example, was a bit disappointing. Although some of my favourite beans come from Sumatra, coffee culture within the country is not what I expected.

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Although coffee grows all over Indonesia (each bean on the map represents a coffee growing zone), they mostly sell their beans to other countries for roasting and production.

More importantly, while Sumatra, Jogjakarta and Lombok were full of honest and friendly people, The Gili Islands and Labuan Bajo were actually a bit disappointing. In Labuan Bajo (the capital of Flores island), the service industry is very lacking. We honestly felt that we weren’t wanted at our hotel. The employees were often absent, or sitting around, talking with friends, and any time we tried to order food or drinks, we were told they were out. Worst of all, the Wifi at the hotel wasn’t working (and Dave had a deadline to meet), although it was working everywhere else on the island. When I asked about it, I was told that I ‘should have gone to Bali’.

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The hotel looked fantastic. The pool was clean and the rooms were nice. Unfortunately, the staff really didn’t seem to care for their jobs or the tourism industry at all. We talked about this with our tour guide in Komodo and he said that although things are slowly changing for the better…this is just the way Labuan Bajo is. It’s strange because it’s SO different from everything else we experienced!

Gili T is well set up for tourists, but there, you encounter the ‘foreign tax’ that didn’t exist elsewhere in the country. The people were nice, but we were paying 3-4x more to do basically anything on Gili Trawangon.

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Boat prices were the same for everyone, at least, but with no cars on the island, the horse and buggy prices sky rocketed if there was even a bit of rain, if it was after dark, or if they could think of any other reason why they could double the price.

A perfect example of this was when I sent my post cards in Lombok. I had people dropping what they were doing to help me put stamps on all the post cards. We chatted and laughed together and raced to see who could finish first. When I tried to buy stamps on Gili T, the guy at the post office tried to tell me that the stamps were 4x the price I knew they should cost.

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I’ve been particularly worried about these people since the Quakes hit. They all worked at the post office and helped me send my postcards. Unbelievably friendly and warm people. Although we clearly had different beliefs and cultures…everyone was nice to everyone else. There was no element of discomfort or of judgement or racism.

To Summarize

One last thing that is worth mentioning, is that this was MY perfect trip. I love wildlife. I love ecotourism. I love culture and I love adventure. I also don’t mind getting dirty or being cut off of the internet now and then. Bukit Lawang was what some people might consider ‘rugged’ and a lot of work. That was very much part of the appeal for me. If you like staying in a 5 star resort with a saltwater pool and a swim up bar, Sumatra might not be the best place for you, and perhaps Bali is a better option.

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But if you do have an adventurous spirit….definitely consider booking with these guys! They made our trip such an incredible experience!

The way you travel will also affect your experiences in the country. I’ve heard from many people that taking long distance buses in Indonesia is a nightmare. Dave and I opted to pay a bit more and fly for time’s sake. We also rent motorbikes whenever possible so paying taxis and taking public transit was never really necessary. These are all things that can impact your holiday.

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Our flights in Indonesia were pretty spectacular as well!

So, should you go to Indonesia?

Yes….Because from Bali to Bajo, there’s something for everyone!

Weekends Away

One of the best things about living in China is the high speed train. Dave and I have no interest in buying a car in China, so the high speed train is how we get from city to city, when we need a break from Suzhou.

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Gee…I wonder why I don’t want to be a part of this wonderful driving experience?

This year, we’ve taken a record number of weekend trips that I thought might be worth writing about.

Cirque du Soleil

My hatred of Shanghai city has never been a secret, but I’ve recently grown to appreciate this metropolis, regardless of its overpopulation and pollution…

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I mean…I guess it’s a pretty enough city…

The event that began this new understanding of Shanghai was none other than a Cirque Du Soleil show.  Dave and I have seen 6 shows total now, so when we found out that Kooza would be playing in old Pudong…we booked tickets with our friends Kim and CJ.

 

Shanghai doesn’t get as many big shows as I wish it did (mainly because a lot of bands and musicians are banned in China), but now and then, they get a good one.  Linkin Park played Shanghai a few years ago, before Chester Bennington’s death.  Unfortunately, the concert took place while I was visiting family in Canada, which meant I missed my last opportunity to see one of my favourite bands perform.

Christmas with Friends

We’ve taken a couple of trips to Hangzhou this year as well.  Located about 2 hours away by high speed train, Hangzhou is a beautiful city.  It was recently the location of a G20 Summit, and is home to West Lake, which is both scenic and huge.  Hangzhou is the capital of Zhezhang province, Jiangsu’s neighbour to the south.

More importantly, Hangzhou is home to two of my favourite people in the world!  So, Dave and I, along with our friend Kevin, made our way down to Hangzhou for Christmas this year.   We enjoyed some excellent meals, a nice walk around West Lake, and time with good friends.  It was well worth the weekend trip!

Weddings in Hangzhou

A few months later, we found ourselves back in Hangzhou for Deb and Dedrick’s wedding!  We had another lovely trip in, and this time, we got to spend the weekend with our good friends Mark and Deb.  Mark and I play in The Sundaze together, and it was good to get out and cut loose in a new city with them.  And of course, my dear Kevin was there as well!

The longer you stay in China, the more people you meet.  Deb and Dedrick’s wedding was a really cool experience because there were people from everywhere there.  It was a beautiful mixture of North American and Argentinian culture, with guests from all over the world.

Moroccan food in Tianzefang

Finally, Shanghai itself can be an awesome little getaway.  When Dave and I went to Taiwan in April, we opted to spend the night in Shanghai before flying out the next morning to Taipei (Suzhou doesn’t have an airport).  We asked around for food recommendation, and my friend Andy told me of a good Moroccan place in an area of Shanghai called Tianzefang.

Tianzifang is lovely!  It’s a vibrant and interesting area that doesn’t feel at all like the Pudong I grew to hate.  It’s full of bars, unique shops and great international food options.

A month or so later, Dave and I actually made a special trip to Shanghai just to have another meal at Andelus, the Moroccan restaurant Andy recommended.  The following morning, we visited the very famous ” Lao Wai Park“.

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Shanghai’s Lao Wai (foreigner) Park, is an are of restaurants and bars that are very popular among expats.  The comedy group Mamahuhu did a series of videos there.  Dave and I had an amazing lunch at a little Vietnamese restaurant.  I can’t wait til we can visit again!

We also wandered around Shanghai for a bit during our last trip in.  We saw the largest Starbucks in the world while we were there.  There was a massive lineup, so we didn’t go in, but I did take some pictures.

There are so many more nearby places we want to visit before we leave China.  We have friends in Nanjing that we really want to go visit.  We also want to see Yellow Mountain, and of course we’d love to see more of Shanghai and Hangzhou.  The high speed train gives us so many opportunities for travel.  Now, to make the time!

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Here’s a photo of a dinosaur made completely of smoked meat….it was part of an art exhibition we saw while walking around the Starbucks.  Because….China!?

I’ll be writing lots over the next week, trying to catch up on all my Indonesia posts before we head to The Philippines!

Suzhou Foodies

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

Several of our friends won awards. Larry (on the right) owns the best Vietnamese restaurant I’ve ever eaten at. He’s also a great guy (and Canadian!)

So happy to have Miya back in Suzhou!!!

Larry and Lixia have become friends too 🙂

Some of the fabulous food we had tonight

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.

Sumatra – Bukit Lawang – Part 2

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.

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In fact, I wish Jimmy had arrived a tad earlier, so we could have asked him about this gorgeous little bird we saw while we were eating breakfast at the guesthouse!

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!)

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This was taken by a visitor back when the feeding platform was still open to the public. From what I understand, they are no longer feeding the Orangutans this way, but it’s still a popular hang out for them nonetheless.

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.

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Beautiful birds!

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!

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Quite the sight!

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.

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Nasi Goreng (Fried Ride) a la Jungle

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!!

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Who? Me????

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.

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)

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Seen here: Marie, barely holding it together. Sardi: Really hoping he wasn’t going to have to chase me down the river…like he had his flip flops…twice…as they slipped off my feet

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.

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!

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Mawan also prepared clean water for us for the hike the following day

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!)

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.

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I’m not particularly fond of macaques. There are hundreds of them living in Guiyang, and I’ve had them steal right from my hand! These guys weren’t as aggressive, but I wasn’t entirely trustful of them nonetheless

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”.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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.

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That night, after we’d had a chance to shower and rest, we head back to the clubhouse for Jungle Trivia! We were ‘Team Lao Wei’ (team foreigner), and we even won!

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.

You can also check out all sorts of cool initiatives they have going on in Bukit Lawang for eco-tourism, environmentally friendly alternatives and the school where they hook up volunteers to teach adorable Indonesian kids!

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Dave and I with our guides and Dodi, the co owner of the business (and Janine’s husband)

Sumatra – Bukit Lawang – Part 1

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.

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Click Here to learn more about this wonderful company! You can also click here to go to their Facebook page!

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.

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Visiting with the lovely Janine after our 2-day jungle trek

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.

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Including this volcano, which blew up in a pretty major way a few weeks later! (don’t worry, no one was hurt!)

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.

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.

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!

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!

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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.

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!

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.


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.

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I tried my hand at coconut carving. I didn’t do very well, but you can learn more about that here.

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.

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I took this picture on our way back from coconut carving. I really feel like it’s one of my most representative photos of the whole trip. People in Indonesia were so warm and friendly both to us, and to one another.

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).

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!

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Sitting down for dinner at the Guest House. For the most part, the guesthouse goes without electricity (it’s about 5km from town), but at night they have a generator for necessities. It’s a shame I couldn’t get a clearer picture, but I ‘m glad I thought to get one at all! It was such a perfect way to end Day 2.

Next time, I’ll be devoting an entire post about our Jungle experience with the Sumatran Orangutans, so stay tuned!

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Let’s just say… I made good use of my camera!

Sumatra – Samosir Island

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.

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Toba is one of our planet’s 3 supervolcanos

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.

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To put this into context…Mt. Toba’s eruption was 2800x more powerful than Mt. St. Helens’

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!

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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.

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.

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.

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.


Batak Culture

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.

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You can find Batak architecture all over the island.

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.

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.

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!!!

Day 25 – The Post Office

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.

It’s been an incredible 25 days.