Friday, April 30, 2010

From jungle to city in 4 hours

Yup, that's all the time it takes to get from Kuala Tahan and the Taman Negara National Park to the capital city of Kuala Lumpur. Doesn't seem possible, does it? As I mentioned before, I was very glad to be back in a city, especially since I'm now away from all of the mosquitoes. (At one point I counted them - 12 just from my elbow to my wrist on one arm. And this was WITH mosquito repellent!) KL's a small city, though, only about 1.5 million so I'm off again tomorrow today yesterday (as it's now taken me three days to write this post for some reason).

Ah, but let me back up a second, shall I? The trip from Tanah Rata to Kuala Tahan was only 252 miles, but it took eight hours to get there. If you're doing the math, then you've already figured out that that's an average speed of only 31.5 miles per hour. Yep, it's pretty deep into the jungle. So why did I go there when anyone who knows me knows that I'm a city girl through and through? Well, why not? There's a lot of things I've done/tried/eaten/etc that I hadn't done/tried/eaten/etc before this trip, so I figured I'd keep goin with the roll that I was on.

Yeah, so, the jungle. It was jungle-y. Tropical rainforest (and why does spell check keep telling me that's wrong? Rainforest is so one word, I don't care what spell check says!) jungle-y. It rained quite a bit, even though it's now officially the dry season, and some travelers I'd met had run into some leeches. The big draw for me was the canopy walkway, a series of suspension bridges over the jungle that lets you get a bird's eye view of things. It was cool, but the Capilano Suspension Bridge that I saw in Vancouver, BC a few years ago was MILES ahead of it in coolness factor. After a few days I was pretty much ready to go and almost lost Rowan then as he was thisclose to going on a 9 day (!!) jungle trek; he decided last minute that the jungle wasn't "real" enough for him, lol, and that he'd leave, too. 

Monday, April 26, 2010

In the KL

It's late and I'm tired, so just a quick note to say that I made it out of the jungle alive (although the mozzies did try to do me in). Originally Rowan and I were going to go to Jerantut, just an hour and a half south of where we were in Kuala Tahan and then head to Kuala Lumpur tomorrow. But at the last minute we decided to make the whole trip today since it was only another 3 1/2 hours to KL.

The first thing I saw as we pulled into the city was the Petronas Towers all lit up and looking like crystal dripping chandeliers. Very cool. I said to Row, "Ahhh. We're back in a city!" His response? "It looks big and scary." Oh, alright. He didn't say those exact words, but he does think a city of 1 1/2 million is huge and he doesn't like it very much. Hmmm. This travel partnership may not last much longer. . .

Friday, April 23, 2010


The Cameron Highlands. Doesn't it sound vaguely Scottish? It's not, of course, it's in the interior of Malaysia and it's lovely. The scenery on the drive here on Wednesday was beautiful - big, rolling mountains, lots of greenery, windy roads, and fog/clouds drifting by. The other day I wished for cooler weather and I've certainly gotten my wish. Being in the mountains, I'd say it's about 10-15 degrees cooler, more so at night. I'd booked my room at Daniel's Lodge ahead of time and wondered to myself if my room would have a fan or A/C; it has neither, and believe me, it's not necessary! Daniel's is cool because it has a very pretty garden atmosphere, a nightly bonfire, super hot and very nice showers, and a movie lounge where you can choose from 1000 movies. 

Anyway, you don't really care about the accommodations, do you? The first day we got to Tanah Rata it was late in the afternoon so we just wandered around town, checking things out. There's really not much to see, so it didn't take long. For day two, Rowan and I decided to do some hiking. We picked up a trail map and set off for Trail 10, an easy-ish trek that was guaranteed to have awesome views. Let me just get it out of the way now and say that we made it back safely, but it was with no thanks to the map! Just getting to the trailhead was difficult and after we reached the peak (with the glorious views we were promised), the trail pretty much disintegrated. It was at that point that I realized that we'd made the number one hiker's mistake - we hadn't told anyone where we were going or when we planned to be back. Oops. We ended up coming out onto a main road, but we had no clue which road it was in relation to the crappy trail map we were looking at. And then it started pouring down rain. Good times! :-) Ultimately, I asked a person in a car which direction Tanah Rata was and he pointed towards where Rowan thought we should walk. Long story longer, the man ended up giving us a ride back into town and would not accept the money we offered him as thanks.

For day two in Tanah Rata, Rowan and I signed up for a tour that would take us to a lot of different sights, the biggest draw (for us) being the famed Rafflesia flower. Never heard of it? It's a parasitic flower meaning that it has no roots, stems, or leaves. It's one of the world's largest flowers, it blooms once every five years for one week only, and we just happened to be here for it. I couldn't have planned it better if I tried! Getting to this rare flower involved a 40km ride north, a stop to pick up a local guide, 5km of some serious off-roading, and (finally) a 20 minute walk through primary tropical rainforest. 

Our trek had us hot and sweaty, so we cooled off at a waterfall (which, for Rowan, meant stripping naked and jumping in; the rest of us just waded and rinsed our arms, legs, and faces) before going to a tea plantation. Apparently, a Scottish guy in 1929 decided that the Cameron Highlands had the perfect climate for tea growing. His family now has 3000 acres of tea plantations, and a tea factory and 200 workers to go with it. Our guide told us about tea harvesting and how the five varieties of tea (green, black, herbal, oolong, and white) all come from the same plant; the process of drying and fermenting are what makes them different. And let me tell you. I could barely focus on what he was saying because I was too busy ogling the scenery. Take a look at the accompanying picture to see what I'm talking about. It was crazy beautiful. The tea factory tour (boring) and lunch at the "tea'ria" (overpriced mediocrity) afterwards were both meh.

Next up was the butterfly garden which was actually pretty cool. Go have a peek at some of the things we saw - tons of butterflies (of course), rhinoceros horned beetles, king grasshoppers, huge stick insects, tortoises, orchids galore, all kinds of stuff. I was pleasantly surprised that it was as neat as it was because I was half expecting it to be kind of cheesy. Cheesiness was definitely in the cards, though, because then we headed to the strawberry farm. I suppose in season it would be cool to go here because it's a pick-your-own farm and there's nothing better than fresh picked organic strawberries. Unfortunately, they are out of season now so the strawberries were hard, white/pinkish, and tart.

It was a long day and, after all of that, I needed a nap when I got back to my room! A shower, some yummy delish Indian food, and a picture uploading marathon wrapped up my day.

Tomorrow an eight hour bus trip will have me dropped in the middle of the jungle and posting will be sparse for the next few days. Fair warning for all of you out there who like to worry when you don't hear from me. :-) Kuala Lumpur is on the agenda after that, though, so I'll be back soon! 

* * * * *
All pics - Railay, Georgetown/Pulau Penang, and Tanah Rata - are now uploaded, including the video of the fire spinners from the Rock & Fire show.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Foodie heaven **

Thanks to everyone who wished me a speedy recovery from my cold. I'm already well on my way, I think, as I had a lot more energy today than the past two days. And, my appetite is back in full force!

Upon my arrival in Pulau Penang, the first thing I did after dropping off my bag was to find a place to eat. It was after 9pm and I hadn't really had anything to eat since breakfast that morning before leaving Railay. And, um, I think I've pretty much been eating ever since then. :-) As much as I love Thai food, I was starting to want something else to eat, so I couldn't've arrived in Malaysia at a better time. One of the interesting things I've noticed about Malaysia so far is the diversity of ethnicities, with Malay, Chinese, Indian, and Thai being the most highly represented. Add in all of the foods from these various groups and I'm in foodie heaven. I kind of just want to walk around for days, point to things that look good/interesting/kinda weird, and eat eat eat.
(I have no idea what it was called, but it was delicious!) 

I did manage to take a break from eating today, just long enough to visit Kek Lok Si temple. It's not a particularly old temple, it was just built in 1890. (Which, sure, it's over 100 years old, but in the grand scheme of temples and ones that I've visited that were thousands of years old - this one is practically brand new.) It also happens to be the largest Buddhist temple in all of SE Asia. 

(At the top of the Pagoda of 10,000 Buddhas)

Kek Lok Si is perhaps one of the coolest temples I've seen recently, probably because it's a mix of styles that I've never seen before. Although it's spread out on a fair bit of land, it's two primary parts are the Pagoda of 10,000 Buddhas and the Kuan Yin statue, a bronze Buddha that is almost 100 feet tall. There's also loads of gorgeous flowers everywhere, Liberation Pond with the biggest turtles ever, and views galore. I noticed that there were lights everywhere and I kept thinking how cool it would be to see everything all lit up. When I got back to the guesthouse, though, and did some research, it looks like the lights are only lit for the 30 days following the Chinese New Year (which was in February this year - I missed it by thismuch). The only thing I didn't like about Kek Lok Si was the overabundance of crap souvenirs being sold pretty much everywhere you looked. It was kind of a shame, actually.

(Pulau Penang "resting" on top of a pagoda.)

** Edited to add: The title sounds vaguely familiar to me, but I can't be bothered to do a search to see if I've used it before. It's safe to say, though, that I love food and I love to eat. Any time I'm in a place that allows me to indulge, I'll consider it a foodie heaven. :-)

Monday, April 19, 2010

A monkey bit my ear (and other tales from Railay)

My body apparently was opposed to all of that blissed out happiness because I seem to have a bit of a cold now. I don't feel bad or anything, but I do have a cough that I'm hoping finds its way out of my body sooner rather than later.

Yes, so Railay was quite nice and a great way to finish up my time in Thailand. I had intended to make one other stop on the island of Koh Lipe, but I was having such a nice time that I figured I'd just stay in Railay until my visa expired. So what did I do exactly?

My cheeks actually ache after my week-long stay on Tonsai Beach. It was just such a chill, laid-back atmosphere, kinda like Rastafarians and Thais got together and had a love child. I stayed on Tonsai Beach, but there was also Railay East and Railay West beaches to trek to and explore. There were a number of caves that gave awesome views over all of Railay and hidden little lagoons that gave views of nothing but rising limestone cliffs and warm, blue green water. Rock climbing is HUGE here, so there was lots of that to watch; I wasn't quite prepared for six and seven grade climbs (where the highest and toughest grade is an eight), so I just did some bouldering instead. Bouldering is rock climbing close to the ground so you don't need ropes or other equipment (I actually did it in my bathing suit and bare feet which wasn't so bad except for the parts with super sharp rocks). It seems like it would be easy until you get up there and realize just how difficult it really is.

Are you familiar with Songkran? Songkran this year occurred on 13 April and is the Thai New Year (Happy 2553!). It's also the time for a huge water festival that happens throughout Thailand. I don't really know how it came about, but the day is all about soaking everyone around you with water. People run around with SuperSoakers and bottles of water, spraying it everywhere. Kids would have an absolute blast, but it's great fun for adults, too, especially when the temperature is in the 30's (90's F).

A place called Happy Hut kept the smile on my face. I've already talked about how much I love Thai massages and I couldn't resist getting a couple more this past week. They were the two best massages I have EVER. HAD. IN. MY. ENTIRE. LIFE. Seriously, they were that good. Now if only Laura could learn Thai massage, I'd be able to get them even when I'm back home. :-)

Things like coconut shakes and kittens that I got to pretend were my own for a couple of days were simpler pleasures, but smile inducing all the same.

Even the monkey who bit my ear had me giggling (it still hurt, though!). I'd seen a couple of monkeys that were being kept as pets while in Railay and it gave me two contradictory feelings: 1) Awesome! I've always wanted a monkey as a pet!, and 2) That poor thing should be out in the wild, not leashed to a chair outside a shop. Anyway, one particular monkey was looking for attention and literally threw itself at me as I walked by it. A bit scary, sure, but he was little and not particularly aggressive. He was really interested in my belly ring (and, side note: let me tell you how weird it is to feel little monkey fingers in your belly button!) until he discovered that I had hair. He jumped up to my shoulder and started playing with it, but was apparently distracted by the tasty looking morsel of an ear and decided to take a little nibble. Don't worry! No blood was drawn and I'm pretty sure I don't have any strange monkey diseases, lol!

This past weekend, 16-18 April, was the Krabi Rock & Fire 2010 show, a competition of rock climbers, slackliners (essentially tight rope walking that's close to the ground), and fire spinners. It was really fun and crazy to watch. I have some videos that I'll try to get uploaded in the next couple of days. 

I've even gained a travel partner, a British guy called Rowan. His plan was to skip straight to Indonesia for surfing because he didn't know anything about Malaysia. When he heard that Malaysia was my next destination, he decided to tag along.

So, to wrap up: Thailand was absolutely amazing and I will definitely come here again. It has everything you could possibly ask for. Culture, friendly people, great food, fairly easy language to pick up (and lots of English speakers when you're not quite there yet). It is more expensive and more westernized than other parts of SE Asia that I've seen, but I think when I come back and perhaps get off the beaten track a bit, I'll still see a Thailand that I very much love.

And now? I'm in Malaysia! Pulau Penang, to be exact, which is an island. Rowan and I will chill here for a day or two, let the sickness leave my body. I also read that Penang is the Silicon Valley of Malaysia, so maybe I'll be able to find a netbook. After Penang, I think we'll head to central Malaysia, into the jungle where hopefully we'll find some cool critters and cooler weather.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Blissed out happiness

(View from a cave)
(Hot and sweaty after a jungle hike)
(Limestone cliffs, white sandy beaches, and blue-green water - ahhhh)
Need I say more? Well, there's lots to report on, actually, but it will have to wait just a little bit longer.

Friday, April 9, 2010


Sorry about the jumbled incoherence of my last post. I'd like to blame it on exhaustion from my day of diving, but the more likely story is that I was doing eight million things at once (plus being tired).

So guess what? I love scuba diving! We did two dives on Thursday and two on Friday (today). I felt a lot more comfortable with the gear yesterday and didn't have any trouble breathing normally and steadily and maintaining control of my nerves so as to not panic. The only minor issue I had was with equalizing my ears. If you've ever flown and had your ears pop during take-off or landing, then you already have an idea of what your ears would feel like if you went 10-18 meters (30-60 feet) below sea level. Pressure in your ears is an easy thing to avoid and/or fix, but if you're thinking of a bunch of other things at the same time (like remembering to breathe!), it's also easy to forget about equalizing your ears. I was very proud of myself yesterday and was really looking forward to today's dives.

(Time for a buddy check before we hit the water.)
Today I was slightly nervous about the depth we'd be going to - 60 feet!! - but mostly I was just sad that we only had two more dives to do. My dive instructor gave me an Actifed tablet today to help with the sinus and ear pressure so equalizing my ears was no trouble at all. In fact, the last two dives were pretty much perfect. I felt comfortable, not panicky, was able to look around and take everything in, just perfect. Like I'd been doing it for years, lol. We saw all kinds of fish that I probably won't even remember the names of, but some of them included angelfish, butterfly fish, barracuda, and goby fish. The coolest things we saw, though, were stingrays and the LARGEST grouper I'd ever seen before. It was seriously massive.

(Our dive class - James, Katie, Alex, Brendan, me) 

I'm now an official, certified open water scuba diver! My certification is good worldwide and forever. I'm already thinking of where I'll be able to dive next. Malaysia? Indonesia? Australia? All are definite possibilities. Well, except for Australia which is a must. The whole reason I wanted to get my certification was so I could dive the Great Barrier Reef.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010


I arrived in Koh Tao yesterday and got to the hotel where I wanted to stay only to find that there was no record of my confirmation. It's kind of a long, uninteresting story, but the bottom line is that I'm staying at AC Resort, a hotel associated with the dive club that I'm using, Phoenix Divers. I'm sharing a room with Brendan, a guy I only just met here in Koh Tao. We're in the same dive class so we have an air-con room for free for four nights (and free breakfast, too). 

Dive class started pretty much right away, yesterday at 4pm. First we had to do paperwork and a medical history and such before we moved on to covering scuba diving basics. I started to feel not so nervous, probably because I was getting an understanding of how things work, what to do, and when to do it. We even had homework to do! ;-) And then guess who I ran into? None other than Rhian and Marina! Tuesday night was their last night and my first night in Koh Tao, so James (a guy in my dive class) and I had dinner with them and spent the night hanging out for awhile before James and I scooted out to do homework.

Today we spent more time in the classroom, but we knew that the afternoon would find us geared up and in the water. I still wasn't particularly nervous, I just knew that I was going to have to focus on my breathing and keeping it steady and normal. And, well, let's say I'm still alive to talk about it, but I was definitely the slow kid in my class, lol. For this first session in the water, we were only practicing skills such as finding a lost regulator (the thing that you breathe through), sharing air with your buddy, hand signals, that kind of thing. Basically, all those things that you need to know how to do in order to have a successful dive.

The internet cafe is about to close, so I'll go ahead and hit "publish post" before they kick me out, and I'll try to give me info tomorrow. Btw, the crystal clear water and sunsets are absolutely as amazing as the pictures would make them seem!

Monday, April 5, 2010

Back in BKK

I'm back in my beloved Bangkok, but it's a short stint this time around, 24 hours when all is said and done. I met a girl, Gemma, on the bus from Battambang to BKK and we decided to split costs on a room. Coincidentally, we had all the same errands to run today, too - new belly rings because we'd lost the old ones, new contact lenses, netbook computer purchasing. We were two for three, the netbooks are more expensive here than they are at home! We also stopped at the post office for me so I could ship some things home, and a mobile store for Gemma to get a new cell phone.

I was really hoping to see Sam again while I was here, but I haven't been able to make that happen. Sam, if you're out there, I'm sorry I missed you, dude! I was looking forward to seeing your smiley face again.

I leave in a few hours on an overnight bus to Chumpon and then will take a high speed catamaran to the island of Koh Tao. Wish me luck as this is where I will do my diving certification if I can get over the jitters. I'm encouraged by Gemma, though, who told me that she gets really nervous about snorkeling, too, but she really loved diving. I'll keep you posted.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Request for suggestions

A lot of people recently have made comments about my writing. More than one person has said that I should consider writing a book after my trip or doing some travel writing as a new career path. It's very flattering to think that people out there think my writing is good enough for that. I'm not yet convinced, but I think it would be a fun exercise and good practice to give it a go at some story writing.

Most of the posts I write are in more of a journal style which, I think, makes sense since here I am 10,000 miles away from home, letting everyone know what I'm seeing, doing, feeling, and experiencing. Here's where you, my readers, can help. If you have an idea for a story, let me know in the comments. Perhaps you're wondering about an aspect of my trip that I haven't commented on or you wish I'd said more about a particular topic. Just let me know and I'll see what I can come up with.

Also, you'll notice I made a little adjustment so that you can record your reactions to a particular post. Right now your choices are crazy, interesting, or cool, but I can change those, so if you have descriptors that you think are better fitting, let me know that as well.

Friday, April 2, 2010


I've enjoyed Cambodia so much and wanted to prolong my time here if I could, especially since my visa is good until April 14th. Battambang is my last stop, though, so if I didn't figure out how to extend my stay here, I was gonna be out of luck. Day one had me indulging in television, day two I saw some sights and the Cambodian countryside, and day three I slept in late for the first time in who knows how long and then spent a couple of hours talking to Stuart, a 60 year old British man who hasn't had a home since 1967. (Or, rather, he hasn't had a home base since then. He's been traveling for the last 40+ years!)

There's really not a lot to do in Battambang, though. Most of the city is closed by about 8pm and I'd already seen what there was to see. So how to prolong my time? Well, I said a long time ago that one of the things I wanted to do on this trip was volunteer and here I am, six months in, having not volunteered at all. I changed that today and was up bright and early to be ready for my 7:30am pick up to Cambodian Orphanage International. I'd arranged to spend the day there teaching and was looking forward to the opportunity.

CCO has 75 students ranging in age from five to 17 with classes grouped by age. The first class starts at 8am and the last class ends at 6pm. All of the teachers here are volunteers. 

This was a difficult day. Not because the children misbehaved or because they didn't want to learn. They were great - adorable, respectful, energetic, and excited about having a new teacher there for the day. Every kid who came into the classroom gave a little bow, with hands clasped under chin, and greeted me with "Hello, teacher." And although the heat certainly wasn't helping matters, that's not what made the day difficult either.

As I said, all of the teachers are volunteers. It's good that CCO has people who are able and willing to help, and who can give these poor and/or orphaned students vocational and educational training. The teachers, though, are teaching English and they can barely speak it themselves. One gentleman even told me that he had graduated from university with a degree in English; we were rarely able to understand each other. It was somewhat disheartening to see kids who are so excited about being at school and knowing that they are being taught by less than qualified teachers. 

Also, for someone who's never attempted to be in charge of teaching a group of children - wow, were my eyes ever opened to the challenges that teachers face. If teaching English abroad is something I'll really consider after this trip is over, I'll have to reach out to those people I've met along the way who are already doing it. Today the teachers basically said, "Ok, now you teach them something." I had never done this before and had no idea what to do or say and yet they trusted me and assumed that since I was a native English speaker then of course I was up to the job. I can't imagine that this is something that would happen in a proper school, but I'd have to find out for sure before I got myself involved.

So yes, it was a hot, difficult, and at times frustrating day. But it's something I'm glad I did because I really enjoyed meeting the students and teachers. It was another slice of the real Cambodia that I got the other day and I intend to seek out more volunteer opportunities in the months to come.

I miss

After six months of on the road craziness, adventure, chaos, and excitement, these are just some of the things that I'm dearly missing these days.

* Having my niece and nephews run up to me yelling "Aunt Shannon is here! Aunt Shannon is here!" and then jumping into my arms for hugs and kisses
* Red wine
* Being able to make a call whenever I feel like it - because a person popped into my head, because I thought of something I forgot to tell them, because I want to make plans to get together, because I'm bored or want to catch up
* Watching movies
* Hearing bless you when I sneeze
* Getting dressed up and wearing make-up and looking pretty (although, I gotta say, splashing your face with cold water in the middle of the day to cool down and to rinse off some of the dust and sweat? Pretty awesome. You can't do that when you're wearing make-up unless you want to start all over again.)
* Chat sessions with girlfriends lasting well into the wee hours of the night
* Lazy Sundays with mimosas, eggs, the crossword puzzle, and music in the background
* Hanging around the island in my parents' kitchen as we chat, cook dinner, and clean up afterwards
* Driving
* Impromptu indoor picnics with a selection of cheeses, a crusty baguette, proscuitto, a bunch of grapes, and a bottle of wine
* My dad's laughter and smart aleck comments
* Getting dressed in the morning and knowing I have more to choose from than just three tops, three bottoms, and a pair of shoes
* Watching my friends' kids grow up
* Thirsty Third Thursday with two of my favorite people in the world
* Not having to budget and account for every single dollar I spend every day
* Cooking regularly and baking my own bread
* Sleeping in a bed that's mine, all mine, with my sheets and my pillows and my smells
* Having more music to listen to than just what's on my iPod
* Having pets. When I settle down again, I just might need to get a dog or a cat.

This is part three of the six month anniversary series. Parts one and two were before that if you missed them.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Six months

Six months ago today, I set off for the "adventure of a lifetime." At least, that's what everyone kept telling me; I figured I'd have a really cool, fun trip, but I wasn't putting any labels or expectations on things. As it turns out, those people have been dead-on right so far.

Let's just get some numbers and random stats out of the way. I've visited 11 countries (plus landed in three others for layovers) and 44 cities (eight of them the capitals of their countries) on three continents. (Have you seen the Tracker Map? I've also added -finally- a link for it over there on the right. It's maintained by ToadMama and is pretty cool, so go check it out.) Even with all that movement, I still have nine blank pages left in my passport! I've slept on planes, trains, buses, and a boat, none of which had I ever slept on before. I've met people from 40+ countries and counting. I've read at least 20 books, but there are most likely others that I forgot to make a note of. There have been ten CouchSurfing hosts, six hosts gained through friends of friends, and countless numbers of hostels, hotels, and guesthouses (oh, ok, I just went back and counted: 34, but I may have forgotten one or two). Exotic animals? Yup, I've experienced those, too. I've ridden a camel and an elephant, pet a tiger, and been in super close proximity to lots of wild, sometimes aggressive monkeys. 

(A little of what my passport is looking like these days.)
Alright, alright. If you've been following along all this time, you know those things already. Maybe you're even saying to yourself now, "But Shan. How do you feel?" And it would be a good question, but one I'm having difficulty answering. Do I feel different or changed? Yes and no. Do I have a better idea of what I want to do with myself when I return to my "real" life? Yes and no. Let's see if I can explain myself just a little bit.