Kuala Lumpur re-visited (brought to you by Air Asia – sort of).

I keep coming back to Kuala Lumpur because it is the biggest hub of Air Asia, the region’s best low-cost carrier. Their rates are rarely beaten and the flights mostly feel like a full service airline, without “no reserved seat” policies or other Ryanair-like silliness (of course, you have to pay for any extra, like checking luggage or getting a glass of water). Their almost dedicated terminal in KL is quite efficient, but a little chaotic. Last week, for the first time in my life, I boarded a plane (via stairs), was asked for my boarding pass, and then told “sorry, next plane on the right”!


During my last stay here in December, I took a blog break and mostly enjoyed hanging around nice air-conditioned shopping centres, after having spent a few months in Yemen, Djibouti, Ethiopia and Zambia. The Berjaya Time Square is one of the most impressive shopping centre I have ever seen. Ten floors of consumerism heaven, mostly focusing on the low and medium priced brands.


The Christmas decorations I had seen two months ago were gone, and so were the insane crowds of last minute Christmas shoppers. All that had been replaced by the Chinese New Year lanterns and banners.


This was also the case in Malacca, about an hour South of KL, which has a large Chinese population.


Malacca has a long and complex colonial history. This photo is not particularly interesting, but it portrays that reality quite well. In the background, you have a Church built by the Dutch to celebrate the 100th anniversary of their conquest of this former Portuguese colony and in front of it, you have a fountain celebrating the reign of Queen Victoria! Continue reading

Getting Lego-ized with Janis Joplin in Singapore

It has become a bit of a joke – and a hobby – for me to tell people I meet while travelling that I will visit them in their hometown. This time, it was easy. I met three Singaporeans (a real one and two expats) in Ijen, Indonesia. Because of my intended itinerary, flying to Singapore or Kuala Lumpur both made sense, so off I went to the Lion City.


Coming from Java, I was looking forward to spending a few days in modern and wealthy Singapore, but I wasn’t expecting to see anything radically different from the last time I was there, in 2004. I couldn’t me more mistaken. Every single structure in this picture is new! The Marina Bay Sands hotel and casino was completed in 2010 at a cost of US$6.4 billion. This picture I took in drizzling rain with my damaged lens does not convey the size of this 2561 room, 1.3 million square feet structure. The boat shaped promenade on top of the three towers holds an infinity pool three times longer than a standard Olympic pool. Check out this Dailymail article for some impressive photos.


It took me a while to get my bearings around town and when I look at this picture of Singapore I took in 2004, I understand why.


This is a photo of the same area, but seen from the other side, further down (or up?) the river. Back then, I never would have taken this shot, because there was nothing to see in this part of town and few tourists would have ventured there, except by getting lost.


Behind the massive hotel now stand these “super trees”, which somehow produce electricity, shade the botanical gardens below and through a system of ducts, cool the garden’s conservatories. I didn’t visit, but the structures certainly light up the night sky in a unique way. Locals compare them to the trees in the movie Avatar. The blue horizontal light goes along a suspended pathway which allows you to walk in the gardens, high above the trees. The super trees themselves are 25 to 50 meters tall.

Of course, Singapore also comes with a sticker shock. I only bought one drink during my stay, a pint of beer. S$11 (CAN/US $9), during happy hour! It’s about S$14 normally. By comparison, I had a breakfast of sorts with my new Singaporean friends the week before in an Indonesian cafe frequented by tourists and sulphur miners alike. Between the 4 of us, we had 12 pieces of fried banana, a tea and 6 cups of coffee. The bill was $4.20, or about the cost of one cup of coffee in Singapore. Of course, this is nothing compared to the sticker shock you’ll feel if you want to buy a car. The Singaporean Government avoids catastrophic traffic congestion by making it very onerous to buy a car. There are massive import tariffs on all vehicles, and car registrations (in the form of 10 year ownership permits), are sold at auction. This year, the price at auction is about $65,000 – and you still don’t have a car, just a paper! Including all the costs, a basic car in Singapore costs a little more than the median price of a house in the United States. Continue reading

Java: I’ll stick to the coffee, thank you.

After using public transportation in Bali with little difficulty, I figured I would do the same in Java and save the huge mark-ups found in tourist-oriented transportation. It turned out to be an interesting experience, but not necessarily a good idea. The problem is that while Bali is (among other things) a place of art, culture and religion – which usually occurs where people live – East Java’s sights are mostly natural, and are located in the middle of nowhere, in places where locals seldom have a reason to go.

The attitude, as you transit from Hindu Bali to Muslim Java, also changes a lot, or so I perceived during my short stay (that and the fact that women become increasingly mummified as you travel West). Several of my fellow travellers had noticed the unusual driving habits of the Balinese. Traffic is rather chaotic, with rules hard to understand, if they exist at all. However, people get stuck in traffic, or blocked by somebody trying to make a U-turn, and they just patiently wait, often letting someone pass first. Not so in Java, where Middle-Eastern style, very aggressive driving – with all the accompanying honking and screaming – seems to be the norm.

Scams are also common and Lonely Planet described the Probolinggo bus station as one of the worst in all of Indonesia. I am a poor target for “porters”, since I have little luggage and it never touches the ground in those kinds of places, but someone did try to sell me a tour of Bromo National Park. It was a good price and an itinerary I liked, so I accepted. When I politely said I would pay at the park entrance, the very upset man mumbled a bunch of things and left angrily. So obvious.


I nevertheless made it to Banyuwangi and, seeing no other tourists, hired a 4×4 and driver for myself, so I could leave around 4 am and see the Ijen crater at sunrise. It was a fairly hard climb, but the cool mountain air was a refreshing change from the brutally hot and humid Indonesian coast. While not very conducive to taking good pictures, the mist made the place quite magical.


I often seek volcanic regions and, as I approached the crater, I recognized the kind of other-worldly scenes they create. With very little life on it – if any – the crater’s edge shows the kind of strange erosion pattern that generally only happens near volcanoes (glaciers can also “paint” some crazy landscapes).


The lake at the bottom of the Ijen crater is apparently the most acidic body of water in the World, with a pH of 0.5. I say “apparently” because I have seen the “most-acidic-lake-in-the-World” in many countries, including Costa Rica and Ethiopia, just as I have been to several cities claiming to be the oldest in the World. You get the point. The yellow area is where molten sulphur escapes, solidifies and gets broken in pieces by the miners. Tourists can go down but, uncharacteristically, I passed. I had a bit of a cold and even at the edge of the crater, the fumes were getting to me. And I was in a lazy mood, I guess. Continue reading

Diving and cooking in Bali, the island with only four first names!


I begin this story with a sad picture; the one which cost me a camera lens. While visiting the Elephant Temple in Bali, I slipped on a mossy and wet stone step. I caught myself with my left hand and raised the right one, keeping the camera away from the stairs, but smashing it on the stone wall. Now the focus ring is very stiff, so the autofocus motor can’t turn it, making the lens manual focus only. I had just bought this Sigma 18-250 Macro a month ago. A compromise lens to replace the three I was travelling with, and inconveniently sent back to Canada. Anyways, some sacred water statue things, forgot the details. Hope you enjoy the photo, it cost $600 to take.


Luckily, I had my little point-and-shoot camera with me. The Elephant Temple is really spectacular in the way it is integrated in its natural surroundings. Also, like old Buddhist temples in the rest of South-East Asia, it has the charm of still being used by devotees. I saw wonderful things in the great Inca and Maya archeological sites of Mexico, Belize, Guatemala and Peru, but it’s just not the same when the religion died centuries ago. On that note, in case you didn’t know, while the rest of Indonesia is predominantly Muslim, Bali is overwhelmingly Hindu.


Several temple complexes also have their own rice fields. These are generally not very big and don’t serve a commercial purpose. To the Balinese Hindu, they provide the rice used for special occasions or festivals. To the tourists, they provide beautiful scenery.


Devotees bathing in the holy water. Each one of the 17 sources has a specific use or meaning and symbolic offerings are placed on top (you can see the big piles on this photo). Nobody seems to care when non-Hindu visitors use the place. A few Westerners were bathing to the right, including a fat dude who was the only one around a particular source. My guide told me that one was only used by women, to ritually cleans themselves at the end of their menstruation cycle. I couldn’t stop laughing and, looking at this picture the next day, I think I caught the expression of the old guy in a tank top thinking: “What the…!”.


While hard to see in a picture, the bottom of this pond is a big cloud of bubbling grey sand. A natural water source comes out of the ground at this location and provides the temple’s water. I was told it is part of a larger underground source system which is also used for the commercial production of bottled water, a big business in Bali, since the tap water is not potable.


I had booked a day trip with a French woman travelling solo. I was at the company’s office and heard her being told there was a two person minimum for the tours, right after I had been told the same. The solution was obvious. We had the luck to visit this temple on the day of a festival, which seem rather frequent in Bali. Local women were busy setting up their offerings. From what I understood, temples are divided in three areas. Men and women worship together in the same area, but the other two areas, where all the preparation take place, are segregated. Women might be baking cakes on one side while the men butcher and cook animals on the other.


One layer of fruit, bag of doughnuts, one flat chicken, cake, offerings. There must have been literally a ton of food in the temple, and this might seem – from a non-religious point-of-view – as a colossal waste of food, but it is not. The food is only ritually offered. They set-it all up in the morning, have the ceremony, and then they take it back home for lunch.


The only thing as prevalent as religion in Bali is art (and taxi touts). Painting, sculpture, furniture design, clothing; you will find it all, and in all levels of quality from tourist shop junk to World class pieces. And the tourist shop junk is better than the best art in many countries. Knowing that, as a long-term traveller, there was no way I would buy a statue, I did not linger in the stores, but I certainly noticed the statues. I have no idea who this character is, but I know we don’t have statues like that in Canada!


This mural on Lembongan Island left me to wonder if religion could sometimes be too present!


On top of graphic and plastic arts, Bali is also very well known for its traditional dances. I went to one show in Ubud. Lasting an hour and a half, it was a tourist-oriented kind of medley, aimed at demonstrating a variety of styles in a short period. I was told a real traditional performance might get a little boring if you don’t understand what’s going on. As a matter of fact, while I got none of it, each movement of the dancers, each position of the fingers, orientation of the eyes, carries a meaning. They start as children and take years to master the routines. If you want to “express your inner self through creative dance”, I suggest going for something else.


Back on the topic of offerings. In Bali, they are everywhere: in front of any place people live or work, on anything that moves (car, boat, even motorbike), and, of course, on all the temples and the shrines people have at home. It is common for families to make 50 or 60 basket of offerings, everyday! While I was not planning to, I got to learn how to make them.


Basically, you use little bamboo needles to stitch together a basket from banana leaves, throw in a few flowers, and put the offering on top (some grass or shaved leaf, I forget). People often add something else, such as burning incense, a candy, some money. I even saw an Oreo cooky! Now, “why?” you ask, looking at the picture.


As it turns out, it was part of a class I enrolled in at the Payuk Bali Cooking School. I had only done this once before, a few years ago in Chiang Mai, Thailand. This one was a lot better, mostly because of the incredible chef, Ketut Budi. Until less than two years ago, he worked as a hotel chef. Then he decided to learn English and get in this business. He was incredible and I have rarely met someone with such a contagious laughter. We started by visiting the local traditional market and, after the offering-making interlude, we hit the kitchen. Here you see some of the ingredients for the multipurpose Balinese spices and the peanut sauce.


Same ingredients, a lot of chopping later. There were only three of us “students”, so it was very hands on.


However, this was luxury “hands-on”. I quickly realized that grinding peanuts with a mortar and pestle is a lot of work. There was no blender in sight, but there was much better…


Two assistants to take over! This is cooking at its best. You do all the fun things, and all the boring stuff, the getting things out and the cleaning, just happens magically.


The satay grilling. These are very different than Thai satays. The chicken is not cut into thin strips, but rather crushed into a chunky paste (using a bigger mortar and pestle, of course), mixed with spices of all kinds, and then formed in a small ball at the end of a rather large satay stick. Quite delicious they are.


And our creations, ready for lunch, in a beautiful open dining room overlooking a ravine with a river at the bottom:

– Vegetable salad with peanut sauce (Gado gado)

– Yellow rice (Nasi kuning)

– Balinese chicken satay (Sate lilit)

– Balinese fried chicken (Ayam Bumbu Bali) – not really fried, more like sautéed

– Steamed fish in banana leaf (Pesan be pasih)

– And braised banana saba in palm sugar (Kolak pisang)

You don’t go to such a half a day thing to actually learn how to cook. But, the market visit was interesting, as you get to see all sorts of unfamiliar things and also some of the products we use in the West, but in their unprocessed form. You also learn a few recipes and get a nice lunch. And for all you guys out there, in Bali as in Thailand, I was the only male customer.

A final note on our chef’s name. I learned that the Balinese have a very unique naming system. There are many exceptions so don’t take the title literally, but they mainly use only four first names, either for girls or boys. The first child is named Wayan, the second Made, then Nyoman and Ketut. If they have a fifth, he or she is know as Wayan Balik (“Wayan again”). Certainly unique.


While visiting a coffee plantation, I came across this evil-looking creature, the asian palm civet (paradoxurus hermaphoditus). I am certain some of you have heard of Kopi Luwak, a novelty, ultra expensive coffee. Basically, the animals are fed coffee beans. They digest the outer layers, but the final layer enveloping the bean remains intact and they are collected in the animal’s droppings, with the bean apparently favourably altered in some way.


After being washed and having their skin peeled by hand, the beans are roasted over a gentle fire.


And you get one cup of poop coffee. I will not claim to be a coffee connoisseur, so all I can say is that is was a good cup of coffee. Apparently, experts agree that the interest comes from the rarity and novelty, not from any remarkable improvement in taste. Would I pay over $100 a cup in a London restaurant? No. $5 a cup where they make it? Sure. By the way, $5 for a cup of coffee is insane in Indonesia. A few days later I stopped at a little joint frequented by sulphur miners in Java, along with three people from Singapore. We had twelve pieces of fried banana, a cup of tea and six cups of coffee for $4.20.


While visiting Lembongan Island, I saw a seaweed farm. I had always thought seaweed was harvested where it grew naturally. Not so in Lembongan. Locals tie pieces of seaweed on large nets, as this man is doing (when not stopping for a smoke break).


The nets are then fixed to the bottom of this shallow bay using large wood stakes. It really is an underwater farm, with each family allotted a “plot”.


After only 45 days, the seaweed is collected and dried, using the big fusion reactor in the sky. They sell it for $0.40 a kilo and it starts its long way to your ice cream (as an emulsifier) or your cosmetics (as an impressive-sounding ingredient).

Photo: Joey, my dive partner from Singapore, with a GoPro

Photo: Joey, my dive partner from Singapore, with a GoPro

This animal may look like a stingray, but that’s because you can’t see the head well. It is in fact a manta ray. The reef kind like this one can grow to more than 5 meters wide. I had only ever seen one before, in Thailand’s Andaman Sea. On that one dive, I saw 4. This picture got me seriously considering buying a GoPro camera.


Apart from my diving partner Joey, I met a ton of people in Bali. In fact, I had planned to post more often instead of infrequent, long posts, but I ended up going out for dinner with the people I met every night but the last. These two Chinese college teachers and I thought the boat was a good place for pictures. Unfortunately, we had the idea at the same time.


Julian, the artist from Germany. When on vacation, he likes to buy paint and offer various building owners to do something on the walls for free. This was the side wall of our hotel.


This is just a little thing he did while I was taking a short post-diving nap. But he is a pro. Big name companies like Adidas commission enormous murals from him. Check out his work.


And Karin, from Sweden, who learned that when you order pineapple chicken in Bali, you get a chicken and a pineapple! Like I did to my Australian friends a few months ago, I said I would see her in Stockholm (and to Julian that I would see him in Nuremberg). Not quite sure how this will happen, but it will. Incidentally, this morning I did it again in Java, telling Singaporean tourists I would see them in Singapore. However, since I am planning to go this week, that should be rather easy.


Meeting friends in OZ: Melbourne and The Great Barrier Reef

What a common thing it is to tell fellow travellers: “Call me and we’ll have a drink if you are ever in [insert city name]”. Rarely does it happen, but let it be known that I take these projects very seriously!

I met Piers and Rosie in Swakopmund, Namibia. We had similar itineraries, so we met up again in Etosha National Park, also in Namibia. A few weeks later, we were all in Livingstone, Zambia, rescuing a broken truck from the deep bush along with Piers’ brother Ollie, and we later went canoeing in the Lower Zambezi National Park. When they said they would be in Australia early in the new year, I said I would drop by to say hello, knowing I would spend a month there with my girlfriend right after Christmas. As it turns out, I had to drop by twice.


First, as soon as Michelle flew back to Canada, I flew to Cairns to meet Piers and Ollie on a live aboard diving cruise on the Great Barrier Reef. It was during the cyclone season and the weather looked pretty bad, but the company seemed unconcerned. I had come this far, so I went along with it. I boarded a small ferry ship which takes about 2 hours to transfer passengers to the mother ship, a 4 deck catamaran which stays for extended periods on the reef. People come on and off everyday. The transfer was pretty brutal. Most people were on the outside deck, in pouring rain, making full use of the vomit bags provided. I am lucky to never get seasick, but between the heat (broken air conditioning and too much rain to open the windows), the movement, the bad smell and people’s ugly green faces, towards the end, even I was starting to feel a little uncomfortable. It only went downhill from there. The blue square in the picture is the mothership’s rudder, at the bottom of the sea.


And this is the ship’s tiny tender, trying to push a ~75 feet, four deck catamaran off the reef it had crashed in. Really pathetic. I’m sure the crew could run a decent show under normal circumstances, but this was much more than they could handle. Of course, nothing changes the fact that the ship slammed in the reef. In the Navy that means a thorough investigation will be conducted. But in the meantime, the Captain is fired.

Nine of my ten planned dives were cancelled, but I got most of my money back. In the end, I paid $170 for a funny 2h boat ride (watching everyone else get sick), a nice boat ride back (watching the scenery), one night accommodation, four meals, one dive and a great story. For Australia, that’s good value. I had no hard feelings, as I could tell several people working for the company were quite professional, but the workforce in Cairns also includes a number of beach bums who never grew out of it. When things go wrong, they simply don’t have the judgement to make sensible calls.

My favourite moment came when the captain decided to move the mother ship, while the transfer ship was still there. He called from the bridge on the intercom and asked if the tender was well secured to the ship. One of the guys looked back and froze. Ollie told him: “Yes, it’s well secured, but to the other ship”.

Piers and Ollie had to leave, but I spent a couple of days in Cairns planning what I would do in February and then flew to Melbourne to meet Rosie. Having just moved back to Australia, she was shopping for a house and staying with her parents, who were kind enough to host me for a few days. I learned a lot about Australian politics talking to her father. Of course (as I mentioned in a previous post), since all I knew about Australia I learned watching re-runs of “Skippy the kangaroo” dubbed in French, I suppose teaching me lots is not that difficult.

Shortly after picking me up at Melbourne airport’s terminal 4 (a fenced parking lot where low-cost carriers drop off their passengers), she took me to a family party celebrating her grandmother’s 89th birthday. As Rosie said, “you’re not going to get this with a tour agency”. While I remember very few of the names of the 27 people I was introduced to, I can now confirm from first hand experience that yes, Australians do like their BBQs! And this was no hot-dogs-and-a-tin-of-cole-slaw affair, but rather a BBQ feast of lamb, beef tenderloin, chicken, sausages and a slew of other delicious things.

Number of times a Church’s sign made me laugh: one.


One of Melbourne’s most photographed buildings, the old train station, with an old fashioned tram conveniently passing by. The city also has a number of beautiful modern buildings, but my quick visit was short on photos, as Rosie took me on a number of death marches around town, and on a run around the hilly botanical garden. At first, I ran next to her, but then I though about the fact that downtown parks can always be a little dangerous, so I ran a few meters behind. You know, to keep an eye on her. Running up the big hills, I figured I needed more situational awareness, so despite not being tired at all, I cut my pace down and ran about 100m behind her. Everything stayed under control and we arrived safely back to the starting point. I pretended to breath very heavily so she wouldn’t feel bad about her slow running pace.


While Rosie made me discover a wide array of Melbourne cafes, bars and restaurants, I could not help noticing this Scottish restaurant chain. While we have many nicknames for McDonald’s restaurants in North America (McDo in my native Quebec), franchisees don’t actually spell them out on their banners. Here they do. Also notice the ride. While some people in Melbourne travel in wooden trams, the majority use carriages like this one.


The best restaurant we went to was called “Claypot’s Seafood Bar”. This is the entrance. You pick it, they grill it. Like good Westerners, we order too much and wasted half, but it was really, really good.


Once a week, Queen Victoria Market, by day a normal food market, turns into a food stall and drink extravaganza. I was lucky enough to be there on that day and we went, along with 10,000 of Rosie’s best friends. This picture only shows a small portion of the event. It was really packed, but since there were so many vendors, one did not have too wait to long in line to get food or drinks (of course, the women’s washroom was another story, but I didn’t go).


After sampling a few yummy things, I did what everyone should do in Australia and ate their Coat of Arms (kangaroo in my mouth, emu sausage in the bowl, along with an unrelated piece of crocodile). This is a national pleasure we Canadians cannot share. For an astronomical price, someone in Toronto’s Chinatown could probably set you up with some lion meat. However, if they say they can sell you unicorn meat, it’s probably fake, as they are extremely rare.


Australia has a great coffee culture, although I could not figure out what they call what, or the difference between a long black and an americano. In the end, I just ordered long blacks, with a little bit of milk on the side. I got a few puzzled looks, but I liked the coffee. The coffees also come with little faces and, if you put enough Bailey’s Irish Cream in them, they talk to you.


Rosie, after being served a coffee with no face on it. I can still feel the sadness, the bitter disappointment.

It is also with disappointment that, after nearly 6 weeks, I left the Australian continent (or Oceania, or Australasia, or whatever else you call the region encompassing Australia and New Zealand – even Wikipedia doesn’t know.) I bought what will hopefully be the last expensive plane ticket I buy for a while and flew 6 hours to Bali – Denpasar. Next post, Bali.