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Monday, April 30, 2012

The Magical Island of Borneo

The three-hour flight from Chiang Mai, Thailand back to Singapore went by in a flash and before I knew it, I was punching in the door code to Jeff’s apartment.  A quick random fact:  I have been on a ton of airplanes over the course of my trip, normally, I don’t pick my own seats as that option costs additional money, however, for whatever reason, I keep randomly getting assigned the exit row.  Literally, on over 90% of the flights I’ve taken, I walk on the plane and there I am again, not sure if they for some reason see that I’m a young, American male and assume I’m a big guy or what but it keeps happening, no complaints though.

I walked into Jeff’s only to find him taking a nap at 8:00PM.  I quickly got him moving and we headed off to a nice little restaurant near his place for dinner.  It had been over six weeks since the last time we’d seen each other and we had much to catch up on.  We finished dinner and made our way to a small whisky bar Jeff had been inkling to try and sipped the night away on a variety of single malt scotches pretending to be older than we really were.  It was so great to see him again!

The layover in Singapore was a short one and in the blink of an eye, I was boarding yet another plane destined for Borneo.  Borneo is the 3rd largest island in the world, roughly the size of Texas.  It is divided up amongst three countries, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Brunei.  It’s been long known for it’s incredible raw nature and expansive rainforests, one of the largest in the world.  I’d heard of a place throughout my travels called Sipadan Island, supposedly one of, if not the top (depending on what website/magazine your reading) place on the planet to dive below the ocean’s surface.  A few days prior, I’d booked a flight to Kota Kinabalu, a seaside city with a population of 450,000 that contains one of Borneo’s main airports.  I arrived after a two and half hour flight and snagged a taxi to a hotel I’d found on Trip Advisor right near the beach for three nights.  After checking in, I made my way down to the waterfront to grab dinner just as the sun was setting.

The next morning I chatted with the concierge to see if there was a place in town I could rent a motorcycle for a few days.  Going off their recommendation, I took a cab to GG Rentals and decided on a new 150cc Kawasaki dirt bike.  The staff members at the shop were exceedingly helpful and gave me a map of the best places to check out over the next couple days.  After putting together a small day pack, I proceeded to ride about an hour north along the shoreline to a fancy 5-star resort where an orangutan sanctuary was apparently run.  Twice a day was feeding time where one could, for a small fee, watch them carry on in a natural, open environment.  The ride up was exceptional through some lush jungle, over some amazing looking rivers and through some interesting fishing villages.  I arrived to the resort just in the nick of time and was quickly ushered by a golf cart to the sanctuary.  After watching an educational video about how the sanctuary came to be and the great purpose it served, a small group of people and I made the fifteen-minute hike up to the feeding area.   

View overlooking one of the rivers of a bridge.

Once there, we waited while the workers yelled out the names of the various orangutans.  Within about ten minutes, we could see limbs shaking in the distance atop the tall trees.  Two different orangutans slowly came into view and down to the feeding area to indulge on a plethora of different foods such as coconuts.  I stood amazed at how human like their features and movements were.  After twenty minutes, I’d snapped enough photos and headed back to the motorcycle.  What an amazing experience!

The next morning, I woke up rather early as I had decided the night before where I was going to head that day.  Roughly 130 miles north was the very tip of Borneo, a place still rumored to be virtually untouched but having incredible beaches and scenery.  I filled up the gas tank on the dirt bike and opened up the throttle to a mind blowing top speed of 58 MPH.  I had assumed along the way there would be plenty of gas stations, but as sure as a bear shits in the woods, there wasn’t.  I found one elderly lady about 75 miles into the ride selling gas by the liter in plastic coke bottles.  I was running low on fuel so I pulled in.   She seemed happy to see me and I had attributed it to my charming good looks but after she told me the prices, I realized why she was smiled.  I soon learned I only had enough cash for one liter of fuel, about a quarter of a gallon, mind you once again I had assumed I’d be able to pull more out of an ATM, poor thought process. 

At about 20-miles before my destination in the middle of fields of palm oil trees, the motor started to sputter.  Before I knew it the motor quit and I was coasting to the side of the road, wonderful!  As I was coming to a stop, I had notice a hundred or so yards to my right a small hut with a couple of gentlemen working on cars.  I pulled the bike over and walked back down a path to these two guys place and said hello.  Surprisingly, they both spoke enough English for me to get the point across.  I asked them if they had any gas they could spare and that I wouldn’t be able to pay them for it.  I quickly understood asking an impoverished family in a poverty-stricken section of the world was not an argument I’d most likely be winning, as persuasive as I think I am.  He offered to drive me 20 minutes to the nearest gas station where I could fill up one of his fuel cans, a little in his truck and I’d be on my way.  Satisfied with my only option, I accepted. 

Narrow road all the way up to the point

Just before we hopped in his vehicle, he asked to take a look at the bike.  He popped open the fuel tank and to my utter embarrassment, I still had a decent amount of fuel left.  He looked to the side of the bike, and moved the switch on the fuel line from “On” to “Reserve”!  As a man who’s owned and ridden motorcycles for nearly a decade, I felt very emasculated and regrettably issued my thanks and scurried away down the road….

All was soon forgotten when I finally reached my destination at the Tip of Borneo.  The place was damn near empty, which was truly astonishing.  I know I’ve said this multiple times before but by God, this water, this sand, this everything, was the BEST I’ve ever seen.  I spent nearly an hour splashing around on this perfect beach, on a perfect sunny day all by myself and it was SO INCREDIBLY NICE!  Loved it!  After playing around for a while and getting a little too much sun, I headed to the nearby town of Kudat for a well needed meal and a fuel top off.  It took me another nearly three hours to make it back to my hotel, just in time to miss an impressive thunderstorm, which would’ve made my ride even more enjoyable.  I spent the remainder of the evening chatting with some Australians from my hotel in the lobby about their experience in the location I was headed to the following day, Sipadan Island!

Approaching the tip!

At the tip!

More tip action!

View overlooking the amazing beach and bay!

Crystal clear water!

Trying to beat the storm!

In the days previous, I’d called a variety of dive operations on the other side of Borneo where the island was located to try and find a place that could guarantee me access there.  The Malaysian government only issues 120 dive permits a day to the place in order to try and reduce the human impact on the environment there.  While that may seem like a fair amount, when it’s consistently ranked as the top place in the world to dive, the prestige brings with it a hefty crowd.  After reading a ton of reviews and speaking over the phone with the company, I settled on an outfit called SeaVentures.  SeaVentures had been in business for a little over ten years and it operated a former Singaporean oil rig that the owner had turned into a functioning dive resort and had it towed to its current destination, 20-miles off of Semporna, a city on the Eastern coast of Malaysian Borneo.  I jumped on a 45-minute mid-day flight from Kota Kinabulu in the West to Tawau in the East.  Once there, I took a taxi for the 90-minute ride to the seaside community of Semporna.  The city really had nothing to offer other than a few restaurants and shops supporting those passing through on their way to the islands.  I was forced to spend the night in a shady motel called the Travelers Inn before catching a boat to the SeaVentures oilrig the following morning.  

Gotta love the red lighting and paint peeling off the walls!

After the 45 minute speedboat ride, we arrived at the rig.  It was colossal.  It had over 30 spacious rooms and sat 40 feet above the waters surface on 6 massive steel pilings.  As I exited the boat onto a hydraulic lift that brought me up to the main deck, I was greeted with an ice cold cocktail and a bunch of friendly smiles from both the staff and clients already staying aboard.  I was quickly escorted to my room where I dropped off my belongings before coming downstairs for orientation.  The staff had already learned my name (probably because I was one of three white people out of forty) and their level of customer service in making you feel right at home was on point.  Within an hour of stepping foot on the rig, I was 60 feet below the surface doing a check dive.  The check dive was in place to assure the dive masters you had sufficient enough competence to dive out at Sipadan where the currents can be incredibly strong, thus making the risk for injury higher. 

My chariot awaits!

SeaVentures Dive Rig

Bar and common area

I made a total of three dives the first day including one dive after dark all around the rig itself.  The one I was waiting for would be the following day on Sipadan Island though.  I had to be downstairs ready to go the following morning at 5:30 AM for the 30-minute boat ride out to the island.  Seven others and myself made the trek as the sun was coming up and it couldn’t have been more spectacular.  The air was warm, the water clear and the sea relatively calm for open ocean.  At just past 6:00 AM, I plunged beneath the waters surface a few hundred yards off the shore of the island.  The island itself has an interesting story to it.  Beginning in the 1980’s , a few resorts sprang up on the small 13 acre island.  Jacque Cousteau, the famous ocean explorer and dive pioneer, had said in 1989 it was the most incredible place in the world, which garnered the place global attention.  One used to be able to stay on the island and have unlimited diving, there was no regulation.  However, in 2000, a group of 21 people were kidnapped and held hostage by a Filipino Islamic Terrorist group for ransom, resulting in one death.  After that, the Malaysian government had all the resorts torn down and removed entirely before imposing new rules saying staying on the island was forbidden and only 120 permits would be issued daily as well as diving only being allowed between the hours of 6:00AM-4:00PM, rules that were still strictly enforced.  The island itself sat atop a vast extinct volcano and just a few hundred yards offshore, the depth drops right off a cliff to nearly 2,000 feet, a sheer wall.  Over 3,000 species of fish and marine life call the small Sipadan area home making it one of the richest marine habitats in the world.

The three dives my group did there that day were absolutely incredible.  I saw countless turtles the size of cars growing to over 9-feet in length.  At first, when I saw them, I was completely shocked thinking they didn’t grow that large, it was insane.  We saw an abundant amount of sharks, barracuda, octopus and species of fish that looked straight up like aliens, things I could’ve never imagined in my wildest dreams.  Unfortunately, I didn’t have an underwater camera but a girl in my group did and was happy to share a few of her photos with me before I left.

Look at all those barracuda!

After returning to the rig and doing another dive right around it, I got cleaned up and had dinner with my group and a bunch of others staying there as well.  The live band started around 8:00 PM and I sat and listened to my Malaysian born dive instructor give a valiant effort in absolutely butchering the vocals to songs by Eric Clapton, Led Zepplin, and even some CCR.  My prayers were answered by luckily not having him have to destroy any Eagles songs.  Everyone drank the night away to great laughs, entertaining music, and some amazing conversations.  The following morning, I got a few more dives in before having to snag an afternoon boat back to the mainland.  I said my goodbyes to a wonderful group of people and brought with me some memories that will last forever, what a truly, truly special place!

I ended up taking a shuttle back towards the town a few hours away where the airport was with a couple from the dive rig.  They weren’t a part of the dive group that I was with but had been staying during the same time.  On the ride to the city, I was informed that they’d actually just got engaged the day before!  They looked to be in their early thirties and were from Kuala Lumpur.  Apparently, the girl had been wanting to go diving at Sipadan for some time and the guy finally surprised her with a trip.  During one of their dives, with the help of some of the dive instructors, the guy managed to propose with a sign nearly 100 feet underwater to which she replied with two big thumbs up!

The three of us figured out we were all on the same flight the following day back to Kota Kinabulu and we decided to meet up for dinner once we settled into our hotel.  We headed to a gigantic outdoor seafood market on the recommendation from our front desk and had a nice little stroll at sunset on the way their.  Once we were seated, I told the couple I needed to run to an ATM.  I discreetly snuck into the back, grabbed our waiter and instructing him to put everything on my card as it was a celebration of their recent engagement.  While that may seem generous, keep in mind, the food in SE Asia is CHEEEEAAAP!  Before I left, I’d instructed the couple to order whatever type of seafood and to just make sure to get enough for all three of us.  I came back about 10 minutes later as the ATM was a little ways away and I wanted to make it seem like I’d actually gone there.  A few minutes after returning, the courses started coming out.  Then they kept coming, and coming, and coming aaaaaand COMING.  Here were these two small Asian people who maybe weighed a combined 250 pounds and apparently the must’ve not been fed in three months with the amount of lobster, multiple species of crab, shrimp, oysters and other assorted side dishes.  I soon learned that the guy wanted to celebrate big since it was their first nice meal as an engaged couple and they were all too happy to have me apart of it.  The drinks kept flowing as I slowly started weeping at the undoubtedly growing tab.  The guy, bless his heart, finished the meal off by ordering a bottle of champagne to make a toast!  I couldn’t help but laugh and enjoy the moment. 

The server waited till the girl had left to use the restroom before bringing me the bill.  I quickly signed it without looking at the total as I didn’t even want to think about it and soon, the guy had a look of “Ahh shit” on his face.  I assured him it was fine and that I was just so thankful they included me on such a momentous occasion.  As much as I wanted to take the handful of cash he was desperately trying to hand over, I couldn’t in good faith accept it.  Good things always have a way of coming back around to you!

The next morning, the three of us shared a cab (he paid for it!) to the airport and boarded our flight back to Kota Kinabulu.  Once there, we said our goodbyes and went our separate ways.   The two of them were headed back to work in Hong Kong and I was once again heading back to the beautiful country of Singapore!  Borneo had proven to be a marvelous experience.  It is truly a magical place that is so raw and untouched in many aspects, it almost doesn’t seem real.  There are many places that I’ve seen in the last three months that I’m sure I’ll probably never see again, however, Borneo is most definitely not amongst those on that list!

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The Northern Thai City of Chiang Mai

After saying my goodbye’s to Keith at the airport as the taxi whisked him away to a different terminal, I made my way through security to my boarding gate at Bangkok International Airport, destined for Chiang Mai, 500 miles north.  Just before boarding, I hopped online and gave Caleb a quick phone call as I hadn’t spoken to him in over a week.  To my luck, he answered and I asked him if he had any recommendations on places to stay as he’d told me he’d be passing through earlier in the week.  To my utter surprise, he said he’d arrived by train to Chiang Mai in the early morning with a couple of girls from Vancouver, BC he’d met on the TWENTY SEVEN HOUR bus ride (puke) he’d just endured from Laos and already secured accommodations coincidently enough with an extra bed. 

Excited by the chance rendezvous after two weeks apart, I boarded the Thai Air flight and an hour and change later, I touched down in the beautiful city of Chiang Mai with the sun shining overhead as a welcome gift.  I snagged a taxi and made my way through traffic to the hotel where Caleb and I finally reunited!  We chatted for the next half hour or so, catching up on the highlights during our time away from one another before he showed me to the sweltering sauna he called a room for $8 per night.  He introduced me to the girls from Vancouver, Sarah and Amanda, before the four of us made our way out to a restaurant for dinner.  It was actually really nice to get an opportunity to have a conversation with people so close to home!  The food was amazing and the assortment of cocktails made for a really great meal.   One of the girls, Amanda, had recently got word from back home she’d passed a difficult real estate license exam of some sort that she’d been preparing for since after she finished her undergrad many months earlier and she informed us we were required to celebrate her amazing accomplishment!  Caleb and I made our way to a local 711, grabbed a large bottle of Raspberry Smirnoff (her choice), a few Red Bulls, and some Sprite and walked down to the street. I flagged down an open air tuk tuk driver and instructed him to drive around the bustling city for an hour while we chilled, listened to the music pouring out of the various bars and discos, conversed and celebrated away the evening! 

Our charriot awaits!

Amanda directing our driver on where to go! 

By the time we made it to the hotel later that night, we were all in less than favorable condition.  Caleb had a room on the upper floor while the girls had a room on the lower floor, a solid 20 degrees cooler.  I accepted the offer to join them and left Caleb to his steam room by himself.  I jumped in bed and before 20 minutes had passed, I realized falling asleep would be utterly impossible to accomplish.  I told the girls to hang tight as I left in search of an air-conditioned room at 2:30 in the morning.  I don’t mind roughing it now and again, but certain circumstances, I simply can’t, I HATE waking up to a hot room!  I didn’t have to walk far when I noticed a finely groomed hedge surrounding a large compound and swimming pool.  I made my way to the front desk and said I needed a room for three probably 13x as loud as I needed to.  They said they had a superior suite available and I tossed them my credit card and grabbed the key (I’d later regret not caring to ask how much) and opened up the door to an Antarctic blast of air.  My life had been restored.  I headed back to the old hotel, grabbed my new friends and said “Nobody puts baby in a corner!” (what?).

The next morning, I thanked God for my sauced up decision the night before as the cold air was the only thing holding my insides together.  I indulged in a complimentary first class breakfast and 6 liters of water before flopping in the pool where I remained for the next several hours trying to cool my core as I was dangerously close to a meltdown.  Sarah made her way into the light an hour or so after I did, however Amanda, being the one who celebrated the hardest, rightfully so, decided to have a day to herself under the covers.  At around 2:00 PM, I walked over to the old hotel to make sure Caleb hadn’t passed away in his sleep.  I asked the front desk if they’d seen him and I was informed he hadn’t moved from the room.  I opened the door to find a nearly nude Asian man laying on top of the bed beading with sweat and moaning in agony………(Caleb’s Asian, get your head out of the gutter!)

He didn’t look good, not good at all.  I couldn’t help but laugh at the situation as I told him where I’d just stayed and that I was irritated the down comforter wasn’t thicker as I’d become a little chilly when I woke up.  I told him when he got his life together to head over to my spot and we’d be relaxing in the pool.  Within the hour, Caleb showed up looking surprisingly refreshed.  He instructed Sarah and I (Amanda was still real sleepy) to get our big boy pants on as he was going to take us out on the town to celebrate Songkran, the Thai New Year!

“New Year time is a time for cleaning. In people from Thailand clean their house entirely. Cleaning the Buddha is also an important tradition during New Year. The Thais wash the idol of the Buddha with water and fragrance. This practice is considered to be auspicious. This brings good luck and prosperity in the household”.

Originally, locals would gently throw a little water on you but over time it evolved  into buying high pressure Super Soakers and spraying the bejesus out of each other.  The celebration in Chiang Mai lasted three days and this was the last chance to participate in it.  Thousands of people had gathered to drink and soak the shit out of each other and it was pure chaos!   At first, I really didn’t think it was going to be as fun as Caleb was making it seem but within minutes, the little boy inside of me came out and I purchased the largest and most powerful squirt gun I could get my hands on and began shooting people right in the face!  So awesome!  Sarah, Caleb and I literally walked the city hour after hour, stopping at various watering holes along the way while having some of the best fun I’ve had in a while!  When was the last time you had a squirt gun fight?!?!??!  Time seemed to blend together and before I knew it, I was back in my hotel, fast asleep in the frigid air under the covers. 

In the thick of things!

The beginning of the end....

I've never seen him happier!

Little man was my go to guy to fill up my gun!

Getting ready!

Got em'!

Chill out old man!

The following day, feeling rejuvenated from so much hydration, Sarah, Amanda, Caleb and myself hopped in a taxi and headed to a place outside of town called Tiger Kingdom.  We’d read on Trip Advisor about a place where you could go and actually play with tigers from little baby ones up to full grown, several hundred pound adults.  I’d done a ton of research on the place because I was really unsure about how humane this place could possibly be.  I thought to myself there was no way they’d let people into these cages unless these tigers were completely drugged up which would really bother me.  We arrived in under an hour to what actually turned out to be a very nice looking compound.  The tigers all had very large, very open enclosures that were kept immaculately clean.  We were quickly shuffled to the ticketing area where we were given the option to decide which size of tigers we wanted to play with.  I naturally chose the smallest ones with Caleb and girls choosing both the smallest and the largest.  We first went a large area where they kept the small tigers and after washing our hands, were allowed to enter.  The cubs were playful and energetic as they climbed all over us.  Our only restriction was we couldn’t touch their front paws or their faces as their bite was still extremely powerful.  We got to spend a total of 15 minutes handling them and it was really, really amazing!

I want to take him home!

Sleeping beauty!

I ended up opting out of the large tiger part due to the fact that I just thought the way they were behaving was unnatural.  They seemed SOOOO lethargic and unenergetic that I really feel like they had to be drugged.  After asking a million questions to a few members of the staff, to which they had a million answers, I still wasn’t convinced.  Caleb did manage to snap a few good photos of the big ones though.

After returning to the hotel, preparations were made for the following day of departure.  The girls were heading on to Southern Thailand to finish the remainder of their trip and Caleb and I decided on renting a couple of sexy looking sport bikes for a 750 kilometer ride around the famous Mai Hong Son loop through Northern Thailand up near the border of Myanmar (Burma).  Early the next day, Caleb and I picked up the motorcycles and said goodbye to the Canadian’s before venturing off through the highlands.  We had considered renting some larger Harley-Davidson’s to ride but after speaking with a few that had done the trip, they said we should really think about getting a sport bike due to the constant switchback style of road.  The bikes we ultimately settled on were a pair of new 650cc Kawasaki’s that the company assured us were the fastest bikes we could rent in all of Thailand, splendid!

We had prepaid for three days of rental as the shop owner said 250 kilometers per day was plenty if we wanted to stop and see waterfalls, hot springs, points of interest, etc.  After a few hours of riding and finally a steadily flow of adrenaline being pumped through our bodies, Caleb and I decided we’d seen enough sites during our travels and instead, focused on enjoying the riding itself.  On the first day, we rode just over 200 kilometers as we didn’t leave till right before noon.  We grabbed a hotel for the night in the quaint city of Mai Son and relaxed in our hotel room before calling it a night.

I woke Caleb up relatively early in the morning, as I knew it was going to be a lengthy trek.  We started the day on what would turn out to be one of the most exhilarating rides of my life.  The scenery and road quality is unmatched by anything I’ve ridden on before and I can understand why it ranks among the worlds best rides.  A quick look at some online specs revealed the bikes do 0-60 in under 4 seconds which forcibly plasters a smile on my face at all times.  I’ve watched throughout the course of our 3-month trip and countless days on rented bikes, Caleb go from a good rider to a great one which makes riding with him that much more enjoyable.  The ride was challenging meaning we had to constantly be thinking about how hard to lean, how much brake, what gear, what’s that car doing, etc.  It was extremely stimulating and I loved the hell out of it.  We arrived in a small, small town about an hour before sunset and checked into the only hotel on Trip Advisor.  The owner was a gentleman from Italy and he told us we were the only people staying there and had the entire compound to ourselves!  If only Caleb and I were gay, it would’ve been extremely romantic……

Twenty kilometers from the hotel stood the highest point in all of Thailand and we’d heard the views were otherworldly at sunset.  By the time we got back on the bikes, we had to make haste up the extremely curvy mountain roads to get there before it got dark.  Upon nearing the summit, we were stopped at a checkpoint with armed guards saying the road was closed, we were 15 minutes too late.  Shit!  Devastated as the short distance had taken us nearly an hour of hard riding, we proceeded to beg the two guards to let us go up.  Reluctant at first, their tune quickly changed as they removed a stack of bills from Caleb’s outstretched arm…….

Another few kilometers up the hill and we arrived at our destination.  The views were spectacular as we had one of northern Thailand’s most visited tourist attraction all to ourselves.  We ran around the different monuments like kids at Disneyland for the first time, snapping countless pictures along the way.

On our way up the mountain!

Nothing like being at a park at sunset with hearts in the garden and the only person in sight is another guy.....

Top of the world! 

We made the ride home in the dark taking an extraordinary amount of bugs to the face and eyes in the process.  A few drinks and some classic games of cards put Caleb and I asleep in short order.  The next morning, we were on the road by 7:00 destined for Chiang Mai once again.  We made one random stop at what turned out to be an incredible waterfall just a few hundred yards off the road.  The three-day trip ended up only taking us two and we were back at our hotel by lunchtime.  The rest of the day and night was spent poolside, catching up on our fading tans and napping, so, so badass of us.

This place was incredible!

The following day we both spent plenty of time planning our next moves as we’d once again be parting ways, this time for good.  Caleb was heading off to Bangkok before transitioning into Cambodia.  As for myself, I’d be making a return to my OCD paradise, Singapore!  Before we knew it, it was time for me to hit the airport and I gave Caleb my final goodbye knowing I wouldn’t see him till we reunited back in to good old US of A.  So long buddy and safe travels!