Asia 1997--Nuts and Bolts Travel Info--still relevant today!

Indonesian butcher pic

Malang, Java, Indonesia
Hard, dry info about Asia:
I spent two months in Sumatra (Indonesia), Malaysia, Singapore, and Cambodia.

Sumatra: The boat/bus from Batam to Pekanbaru is a typical Indonesian travel experience. It was my second time in Indonesia, and I love that country, but my one and only problem with the country is big: using transport in Indonesia is like being close to death. If you die in a bus crash you deserve to die because you voluntarily got on the bus. It is as simple as that. I am in the minority with this opinion, but whenever I finally arrive somewhere I feel like kissing the ground.

Poppies Guest House in Pekanbaru is said to be better than Tommy's, and the neighborhood is nicer and quieter. The owner there can arrange everything and anything. He even changed money at a better rate than the bank!

In Bukittinggi there is a good place above the main street next to the zoo called Aisha Chalik Guest House. It is in an old Dutch House; I paid 7000 rupiah for a single.

Lake Maninjau was a great surprise. It is nicer than Toba. The water is cleaner and warmer and there is a little village. The place is growing quickly. There are new places down by Rizal Beach bungalows 4 km out of town. I stayed at a very beautiful place called Parak Karambia Bungalows. The only problem was that the 5 or 10 guys who "work" there do nothing but hassle the women to sleep with them. Male travelers are seen as a threat and at best are ignored. In the future new places will open up further along the lake. It is easy to hitch back and forth to town, even at night. You definitely need a pocket flashlight to walk along the rice field terraces in the dark after a nice meal in town.

I played tennis a couple of times at the lonely-looking courts about midway between town and Rizal's. You can rent surprisingly good rackets and balls from the hotel across the street. The cost to rent the court depends on the time of day: the warmer it is, the cheaper it is.

There is a minibus from Maninjau to Parapat that is a real crusher. I tried to plead/bribe/beg the driver to go slower and more safely. It works only until someone passes him, and then the bigger issue of his threatened manhood appears and the road rally starts all over again. (My theory, anyway) The minibus company, Indowisata, offers a free night's stay in Parapat before you catch the boat to Toba, but the "homestay " is just a sectioned off area behind their office. You sleep about 10 meters from the Trans Sumatran Highway. After that grueling trip, it is a disappointment, or as a Pom more accurately said, a farce.

Bagus Bay Bungalow and Restaurant has an excellent dormitory in a Batak-style house for 3000 rupiah. Toba was extremely dead. Very few people at all were traveling in Sumatra in September, strangely enough. Bagus Bay had some life as they show lots of movies and have an amusing dance show some nights. If you go around Tuk Tuk in a circle in the narrow little isthmus on the straight road between the two bays a Dutch guy and his Indo wife have started the Berastagi Juice House. He married the cook from the Wisma Sebayak Guest House in Berastagi (and proudly says that the food isn't as good there now--He's right.) and they have settled in to start this business selling inexpensive fruit juices and some food as well. He'll proudly show you their wedding pictures if you ask.

In Berastagi the Sebayak empire has grown to a third guest house, the Sebayak International Guest House, very near the starting point for climbing the volcano. This is relatively more upscale and very peaceful with gardens and the whole deal. Cheapest rooms start at 20,000 rupiah.

I am the one and only traveler who likes Medan. I think I set a record by voluntarily staying there for 4 nights (Sarah's Guest House) It is filthy and hot and big and with no charm--but so am I! HA! I thought it was fun to hang out in the markets all day and speak Indonesian with everyone. EVERYONE will notice you. The closest thing to feeling like a rock star is to walk around the markets in Medan and smile. Everyone goes nuts when they see you and they go berserk when you are friendly with them and try to speak their language. Indonesian is very easy to learn. The US consulate in Medan is closed. In the steamy Medan post office there are computers where you can get online for 5000 rupiah an hour. It is open until 10 or 11 pm.

Do not go to Bukit Lawang on a Sunday. Everyone and their mother from Medan goes up for the day. I think it is kind of amusing to see all these Indonesians enjoying themselves, and I don't mind posing for a million pictures with everybody. However, when you see all the garbage they leave behind, it makes you sick. Worse, all the orangutans know that there is a lot of food, so they come down to the river. The people treat the animals horribly. They try and feed them fried rice, try to take pictures with them, touch them, pull them--one scumbag was hitting an orangutan and another threw rocks at one! Your blood will boil if you see it. Enough tourists pay enough money to see the orangutans get fed that a park ranger can be hired to keep Indonesians away on Sunday afternoons. On Monday mornings the orangutans are too stuffed from eating so much the day before that they don't bother coming to the scheduled feeding. Rumor has it that the feeding station will close soon and move. (An interesting fact: of the 120 licensed guides in Bukit Lawang, 30 have left the country to be with their foreign girlfriends.) I did a day hike. I thought one day was enough. Everyone rafts back on inner tubes and it looks like fun, but it can easily be very dangerous. In the guest/comment books in guest houses you read of guys who smashed their teeth or broke their knees or shoulders on these little rapids. At a minimum make sure they tie all the inner tubes together so you go down as one big raft.

Say goodbye to Pulau Weh. The government has big plans for that place; it will soon be unrecognizable. There were hundreds of construction workers on Gapang Beach, hammering away for upscale lodges. There is now a sign at the main road welcoming you to Gapang Beach that says at the bottom: "Lonely Planet: 'Gapang Beach: Dead coral'--NOT!!". Soon there will be an admission charge just to go to the beach. (There is already an admission fee to go to Iboih and Bukit Lawang.)

Gapang and Iboih are not so impressive, but the water is excellent. On a little boat trip I saw hundreds of dolphins. Snorkeling nearby I saw some enormous manta rays and in season it is possible to see whale sharks. The military airport at Pulau Weh is being expanded to handle civilian aircraft and scheduled flights to/from Phuket are planned. The island is big and there must be other nice spots. The main town of Sabang is quite pleasant and there are several food options, unlike the two main beaches. Sabang is worth a night. The Hotel Samudera above town has been remodeled with rooms now starting at 25,000 rupiah. In Banda Aceh I liked the Hotel Raya near the mosque, but they are steadily raising their prices. The cheapest room is now about 15,000 rp. I flew from Banda Aceh to Penang with Pelangi Air for $95, cheaper than is stated in their web site: i am not mistaken. That is very good considering the cheapest boat/bus combination via Medan is about $50 and a full day and night's traveling. There is a bemo you can take to the airport; a taxi is unnecessary. Banda Aceh looks close to Sri Lanka and India, and while there is an Indian consulate in Aceh, there is no transport. I met a guy who said it is possible to go by boat to the Nicobar Islands from Aceh, but it took a lot of time to arrange.

Malaysia: There isn't much to say about Malaysia that hasn't been said. It's weird arriving in a place where no one takes notice of you after the constant attention in Indonesia. Malaysia is still food heaven. Like just about anywhere in Southeast Asia, the key to enjoying yourself is to find enough things to do between meals. I met an Italian girl who was traveling with a rubber sheet to keep bedbugs away. It seemed crazy at first, but now I think that she was smart. In Malaysia it is difficult to find a place to sleep that doesn't have bedbugs. Look for newly-opened places. In KL there is a new guest house inside the railway station called Travelers Station (dorm beds 15R) It is pretty good. They have e-mail access, as do many cybercafes in KL and Penang (5-7 ringgit an hour to get online). Students with ID cards often get discounts. There are a few cybercafes in Penang clustered around the Midlands Shopping Center, far from town in a huge Western-style shopping mall. Any bus that says "Looking Good" (Really!) will take you there.

Normally STA Travel is a great place to buy plane tickets, but the new KL office is a disaster and poorly organized. If you don't believe me, see for yourself. They are down the street from Pudu Raya bus station.

I was there while the big currency devaluation was going on in Indo and Malaysia. Indonesia is so cheap anyway you hardly notice it, but in Malaysia it made a nice difference. The government has instructed big retailers to not raise their prices, so there were a lot of bargains. Mailing things home was cheap--half the price of Singapore. My seamail packages to USA took three months to arrive, just as they said.

Cambodia: I flew with Cambodian Airlines KL-Phnom Penh-Singapore for about US$ 220. Few people know that Cambodian Airlines exists, and they assume that you want Royal Air Cambodge. A company called Orient Thai Airlines seems to run it, and to make it even more confusing, I was on a plane that had both names on it. A few times a week a plane flies BKK-PHN-KUL-SIN-PHN-BKK. The L-1011 carries over 200 passengers, but only 20 or so were on my flight. I wouldn't pester the crew to ask about this, but I was lucky enough to sit in the cockpit for the entire flight, takeoff and landing! Landing is a real adventure in Phnom Penh in a late afternoon thunderstorm and with minimal help from the control tower because all the landing lights and most of the navigational equipment were stolen in the July coup. Visas are available at the airport for many nationalities for $20 and a photo.

Phnom Penh: Bert's Books is closed. I stayed at Last Home Guest House for $3 a night. Ask Saki, the owner, if they still have a dormitory for $2 a night. They have a big supply of books left over from Bert's, they are across the street from several airline offices, and they are down the street from a market; it's a good location.

Siem Reap:I took the boat to Siem Reap for $25 and flew back with Royal Air Cambodge for $55. If you are inside the boat in rough water you will also feel near death, because there is only one rusty door up near the front that they need two hands to open. If the water is smooth, sit outside on top. When the boat pulls in to Siem Reap be prepared for an unbelievable scene. A crush of a least 50 people, maybe closer to 100, is there desperate to take you to their guest house, to be your driver, and/or to be your guide. After five hours of worrying if the boat will turn over, you are in no mood for this. A couple of days after I arrived, I read in one of the several English-language Cambodian newspapers(!) that a lone Japanese tourist got off the boat, unsure of what he wanted to do and where to go, and a riot ensued. The police had to beat people off with sticks. It was almost as bad when I was there. The police had to club a couple of people to make room for us to get off the boat. Then we were got caught in a rugby scrum and somehow shoved into a van and off to town 10 km away. Anyone will take you for free if you stay in their place.

There are very few travellers in Cambodia. Many people have stories about trouble at night. Met an American girl who got mugged after accepting a ride from one of the ultra-friendly guys who lay on their motorcycles outside the Foreign Correspondent's Club in Phnom Penh. Siem Reap seemed very safe. Enjoy!

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