Tuesday, 28 February 2017

Nothing is true

"Everything we were told in Indonesia turned out not to be true. Sometimes this happened at once. The exception was if we were told something would happen at once, in which case it turned out not to be true over several hours" -Douglas Adams, Last Chance to See.

The claim that buses out of Bukittinggi only run at night was wrong. There was a 1pm bus and it was full size and surprisingly comfortable. Although I could have done without the pink mood lighting and ballads. The first bit of the journey was very twisty and slightly nauseating, like accidentally turning on a TV when Piers Morgan is on, but after that the roads got straighter.

The views were breathtaking with limestone hills covered in jungle, rice terraces and fast flowing rivers. I tried to get a few pictures from the window but not sure how well they will work.

We arrived at Padang Sidempuan at 10.30, it would have been 9.30 but there was an hour break for the driver to have his tea. I was put in a tuk with instructions for "hotel, hotel" and delivered to Hotel Natama, a basic place where at least one receptionist spoke a bit of English.

No one else did though. I had to deal with them 'thoughtfully' turning on the TV and removing the toilet paper.

I was woken first by the middle of the night prayers, which seemed to go on for about a year. Falling back asleep I was woken by a knocking on the door. A boy who looked about ten was standing there with two breakfasts, each consisting of a cup of black tea and two slicesof untoasted white bread with strawberry jam.
He struggled to place it all down on the tv stand as I tried to explain I was only one person. Eventually I picked up one meal and handed it back to him.
I spoke to the receptionist who almost understandsEnglish and he told me to take a tuk tuk to the ALS bus station and wait two hours. However at the station my attempt to buy a ticket to Parapat was met with "Parapat, no bus" so I returned to the hotel and after finally making it understood where I wanted to go was told a minibus would pick up from there at 2pm. So now pretty much trapped here hoping it comes.
The good news is that all the indications are that it will only take 5 hours. Which by Indonesian standards is barely time to find a seat

Monday, 27 February 2017

Jakarta to Bukittinggi

I can't say Jakarta was very impressive, though I did like that there are commuter trains, saving me from the chaos of the streets.
I visited the historic centre, now called Kota, which was once the Dutch colonial city of Batavia. Sadly all that is left is a square and a few streets. I looked in a rather bizarre museum of puppets and then in the history museum.
This had two rooms with old maps of the city and intermittent English signs. The rest was taken up with rather plain wooden furniture. This was presumably historic but there were no signs indicating how.
After lunch in Cafe Batavia on the square I tried to get to the historic docks but gave up in a maze like light industrial area with sacks of metal bits and sheets of canvas all over the streets.
In the morning I flew to Padaang in Sumatra and took a blue bird taxi to Bukittinggi.  This turned out to be way up in the hills and so cooler than I've seen so far. Checked in to the De Kock Kafe and guesthouse, which I would probably like more if I hadn't been told all onwards transport runs overnight. 

Saturday, 25 February 2017


So, to solve my visa conundrum I went to Kuala Lumpur for a night. The first pleasant surprise was that there are decent taxis, no fighting off a scrum of drivers, no arguing over the price. I simply walked up to a row of blue taxis, gave my destination as Gambir station and he turned the meter on.
From Gambir there was a bud to the airport and then I was temporarily back in the first world, enjoying such luxuries as signs in English and shopkeepers who stayed in their shops, confident in the price tags doing their job, instead of chasing down the street shouting "For you special price".
I saw virtually nothing of KL taking a train to a small guesthouse, which had to my amazement UK plug sockets. I was so shocked I nearly forgot where I was completely and ordered half and half for dinner. Remembered in time though and went for the roti with dahl.
Rested and back in Indonesia I find myself liking Jakarta more than I thought I would. The streets are surprisingly walkable and there is less hassle than many places.Tomorrow I will have more of a look around. 

Thursday, 23 February 2017

Yogyakarta to Jakarta

I woke feeling much better and booked an afternoon trip to the Hindu and Buddhist temples at Prambanan. Then I strolled to the train station, enjoying the fact no one shouted at me and booked a train to Jakarta, because I really had enough of minibuses.
I waspicked up by a car with one other passenger, a lady in a hijab who turned out to speak good English and we discussed where I had been. It was nice to have a conversation with an Indonesian that wasn't about them selling me anything.
Prambanan was amazing, not that I understood all of it. One highlight for me was when they called the afternoon prayer from several mosques, while I was looking round. Yes I know it's a completely different religion but it just seemed to fit.
Afterwards I had an iced tea in the café and followed the signs for exit. To my surprise, instead of the carpark they led me to a side street, but the carpark entrance was clearly visible so I headed towards it.
Then as previously mentioned I was surrounded by four large men demanding that I go in one of their taxis.
Anyway I survived, and the original driver showed up at the hostel around 7pm to apologise for not realising there was more than one exit.
Bisnis class train travel is certainly better than a bus for eight hours, even if the aircon kept breaking. Then I took a motorbike taxi,  which was terrifying in the traffic to Six Degrees hostel.

Java is proving to be more of a challenge than I had hoped but at least now, apart from my visa hop to KL I have one base until I go to Sumatra. 

Tuesday, 21 February 2017

No Sleep till forever

No sleep till forever
That may be the most exhausting thing I have ever done.
First I had to take a minibus back to Kuta, which all transport in Bali apparently goes through. Then I was put in a car, no idea why I had to have a private car but it was all that was on offer. I started to nod off a few times but each time the driver would shout "Sir, sir you ok" so no rest there.
After two and a half hours we got to the ferry where I apparently needed a man to hold my tickets and point to a seat. In Java I was made to sit in the front because "aircon he broke" and the windows were open. The seat was that special plastic that sticks to skin and someone had thoughtfully fixed a handle on the door in exactly the right place to jam into me.
We stopped at a restaurant and then again after three hours when a new driver and a group of Germans got on.
An hour after that we left the coast road and began to climb steeply up numerous switch backs. The air got cooler and it began to rain. The driver experimented with turning the headlights off a few ti
Another hour and we were finally in Cemoro Lawang. I had to distract the driver after he scared a young woman by trying to follow her to her hotel. He responded by producing a single croc from under a seat and asking if it was mine. One of us was clearly crazy but I'm not sure which by that point.
Up for 3.30 to get a jeep, which of course arrived at 4 to a viewpoint for sunrise. No point really in the fog but the other few hundred people seemed to like it. One good point it was cool enough to wear a coat at least till the sun was up.
From there we drove to a large flat area of sand with a ridge above it. There was an option to walk to the ridge but I was feeling lazy and took a horse to the bottom of some steps. The steps were not high but I was out of breath almost instantly, maybe altitude?
My promised 9.30 bus never showed up so I jumped in a random minibus promising to get me to Probolingo, the nearest town on a main road.
From there it was a tortuously slow nine hours in a minibus that at least had aircon but was still nowhere near comfortable enough.
I arrived in Yogyakarta, checked in to what turns out to be a European style hostel, found my bed and lost consciousness.

Feeling much better this morning but I have definitely concluded that Indonesia is simply too big and slow to see much this way.

Sunday, 19 February 2017

Ubud and Batur

I took a very hot minibus to Ubud in the middle of Bali and immediately liked it. There are still lots of tourists, if anything the proportion may be higher than in Kuta, but it feels less like a tourist town. The tourists are in ones and twos rather than packs, the shopkeepers actually let you walk past and there are temples all over. I looked at one before getting an early night ready for a 2am start to see sunrise from the volcano at Mount Batur.
The views were stunning and the hike not that hard,  completely flat for the first 20 minutes but then steep scree. I became a little annoyed at the way the guides assumed all tourists are lazy and need constant stops and to be pulled up anything where you need to balance but it was worth it.
We saw a sacred cave and learned that once a year there is a sacrifice that involves drowning a dog in the lake at the bottom of the mountain. Not sure about that one.
Back in Ubud I realised how little time I have and how hard it is to book anything as a single traveller when I tried to arrange onwards transport to Java. It will take most of tomorrow and cost double the normal price to Bromo. Still the alternative involved a lot of waiting around bus stations being shouted at by taxi drivers and a lot more time.
Tonight, with any luck I will see the traditional dancing at the palace. 

Friday, 17 February 2017


I've been in Kuta for three nights now, which is enough as it's a bit too touristy for me. I did make the most of the experience though by trying a surfing lesson, which was really hard and visiting Sky Garden for the all you can eat and drink night. The venue was really large and impressive in its way. Shame about the music but what can you expect from a place that advertises having the 82nd best DJ in Indonesia.

I have decided the only way to deal with touts is to totally ignore them as even a quick "Hello, no thank you" seems to end in someone chasing me down the street shouting "Very cheap". The funny thing is that when I've gone into actual shops or cafés the owners are usually absent or busy with something and want me to wait. 

Wednesday, 15 February 2017

Country 41

I was up at the crack of dark to wait for a pre booked taxi,  who proved yet again that no taxi drivers in Manila actually know their way around.
From there it was a matter of multiple queues to get through and a mad dash to my gate, only to find the flight to Singapore was late.
I spent most of the day wandering around the surreal environment of Singapore airport, no I didn't get to the pool, which was in the other terminal.
Landing in Bali I had a traditional argument with taxi drivers about the fare before finally reaching my hostel. First impressions are that Kuta is very crowded, the streets are very narrow and everyone wants to sell something.
Thismorning I attempted to sort out a visa extension, however it required a reference from an Indonesian, then a wait of at least seven working days so I gave up the idea and solved the problem by booking a flight to Kuala Lumpur from Jakarta and back. Reducing the time involved to two days and freeing me up to actually see some of the country instead of having to return to the same office.
After that I've been mainly just trying to get my bearings and explore on foot. This isn't as easy as it sounds with motorbikes everywhere and people jumping out shouting offering everything from taxis to massas (massage).
I found the beach but in the rain wasn't that impressed then made my way to the memorial to the Bali bombing and back to the safety of the hostel.
Tomorrow, with any luck I will get a surfing lesson, then it's time to explore beyond this corner of one island. 

Sunday, 12 February 2017

Mount Maculot

Today for my last exploration in the Philippines I went to a nearby mountain called Mount Maculot. Information on it was hard to find being mostly based on tours from Manila but I decided to take a chance and get a jeepney to the town of Cuenca below it.
Luckily there was a roadside stall where you could hire a guide and sign in. The woman warned me that it would take 5 to 6 hours.

After walking up an increasingly steep road we struck off into the forest. For about 45 minutes it was relentless. Steep, humid and slippy, I used up nearly half my swear words. Eventually we emerged onto a more open ridge by a couple of wood and tarpaulin shelters my guide declared to be "Campsite".

Then it was a stroll along the ridge to the base of what they call The Rockies, a small rock outcrop with views over the lake, and an easy scramble to the top.

Returning to  the Campsite my guide asked if I was going to the summit, I said yes of course and we set off the other way along the ridge.

The way to the summit was like the first part of the hike but far more pleasant thanks to a breeze blowing. The summit itself, I'm sorry to say, was not spectacular. A muddy clearing in the woods, higher than the surrounding ground but without any views to speak of.
After that I was led onto the traverse and it got interesting.
For an hour and a half we descended ridiculously steep and muddy trails through the trees, slipping and sliding down. Well I slipped, the guide strolled casually down 45 degrees of wet mud with sandals on his feet and his handsin his pockets. In places the only option was to go hand over hand on a rope tied to trees and use it to lower myself down.
Eventually we reached the end eof the traverse at a grotto - a small statue of the virgin Mary in a little stone shelter. From there it was mostly steps down to the road.
I was about to apologise for being so slow when I looked at my watch. The 'six hour' hike had taken three and a half.

Taal heritage town

I spent today exploring the town. Several old houses are open to the public, mainly ones owned by people involved in the rebellion against Spanish rule in the late 19th century. There was a lot to take in but a few bits stuck. Mainly that the town was once where the lake is now but was moved about 300 years ago when the volcano erupted.  Also at least some of the moving may have been quite literal as apparently wooden houses were picked up by gangs of men and carried to a new location.
I also found out that it is nearly impossible to look at a Philippines museum without a guide, and that they really can't cope with the idea of a single person travelling. Judging by the museum guestbooks Philippinos who visit Taal never come in groups of less than eight and every conversation today at some point included "How many are you?"

Saturday, 11 February 2017

Tagaytay to Taal

Today was another test of endurance as I made my way from Tagaytay on the north side of Lake Taal to Taal on the south. The two towns are under 30 miles apart and linked by a lakeside road but despite that it is impossible to get between them directly by public transport.
Instead I had to get a bus to a town called Balayan, which as far as I could tell contained nothing but tyre shops. Then a tricycle across town to where the bus for Taal left from,  then another tricycle to where it actually left from. Finally a few hours in a cramped minibus. I amused myself by working out when Philippino drivers use the horn. Very roughly - If they see someone they know,  if they see someone they don't know,  if overtaking or being overtaken, if there is a junction or bend in the road, or if 60 seconds have passed and they haven't used it for any other reason.
On arrival Taal instantly joined Port Barton as one of my favourite places in the Philippines. The town is mostly old Spanish buildings or copies of them rather than the usual mix of concrete monstrosity, American mall and bamboo shack that is more typical. The Spanish influence goes further with a central square giving the town an actual structure. Something I hadn't even realised was missing in the other places I've been. Even the streets are called calles.
Other positives are the climate is mild again, numerous short flights of steps make much of the town effectively pedestrianised, and the fact I'm staying in a place done up like a stately home.
Even the street food is better. I've been disappointed that so many roadside stalls had ready cooked offerings sat congealing in the sun but here they seem to cook everything fresh. I had a beautiful vegetable spring roll and some small fluffy pancakes for a late lunch and went to look at the largest Catholic Church in Asia.
The cathedral was decorated for a wedding, which I assumed must have been earlier in the day due to the number of people wandering in and out with cameras so I went in.
There was a priest at the front muttering away, which I assumed was some sort of prayer of the hour. Until he switched to English for one phrase "You may kiss the bride". I'd walked into someone's wedding!  I left before anyone asked any questions. 

Friday, 10 February 2017

Around Tagaytay

Today was for exploring local sites and sorting things out. First I went to find a laundry, which turned me away because they had no price for less than 3kg of washing. From there I took another 'safety' tricycle to the People's Park in the Sky viewpoint. I rather liked the fact that this one had fixed prices on a laminated sheet so there was no need to haggle.
The park turned out not to be much of a park just a hilltop with a short steep road leading up to the structure at the top. The road was closed to traffic except a couple of jeepneys carrying school children but oddly despite being basically pedestrianised also had the first pavements I've seen in the Philippines.
At the top was what I can only call a structure. A large concrete thing that might have been a building without walls or a multi storey carpark. It had clearly been abandoned for some time and then recolonised by several small stalls selling t-shirts and baseball caps. The views though were spectacular, with the sea, two large lakes and a few mountains visible as well as the edge of Manila.
I got back to town on a jeepney,  which is like a cross between a bus and a jeep. It wasn't fast, at one point we were overtaken by a small terrier, but it was cheap and I enjoyed seeing the outskirts of Tagaytay as the locals do without anyone trying to sell me anything.
It stopped in the centre, where I found the second ever pavement, and a laundry that would take my small bag. Other than that the town seemed to be mainly fast food joints, both McDonald's and KFC and several Philippino imitations. Eventually I found a small stall selling fried rice, which was more to my taste especially as they cooked it in front of me rather than producing it from an unseen kitchen.
Overall though there is not a huge amount to see here so I returned to the hostel to relax and continue enjoying the milder hill climate that actually means I can sit outside without being drenched in sweat. 

Thursday, 9 February 2017

Volcano island

Today three of us from the hostel went to volcano island, which is a  volcanic island in the middle of lake Taal.
The first surprise was what the driver described as a safety tricycle. Instead of the usual motorbike with a sidecar the layout was like a Thai tuk tuk and the colour scheme was New York yellow taxi.
It took us down a steep winding road to a small office where they tried to sell tour packages but we held out for just the boat fee.
The island itself proved bigger than I expected with a village on the shore and a lot of horses. The walk up only took about 35 minutes but was hot, dusty and for much of the way viewless as the horses had turned up the path into a deep trench.
The view from the top of the path was worth it though with the crater below containing a smaller lake and then an island in an island in the middle of that.
On the way down the clouds actually appeared so it was slightly less roasting. Then it was just a matter of explaining to the boatman that we had paid return and no we wouldn't pay again, or give him cash as a 'souvenir'.

Wednesday, 8 February 2017

Moving on

Flying from Puerto Princessa proved a confusing experience. First you have bags inspected by a guard at the front door, then you take all your bags to a scanner. Next go back out past the scanner to check in and finally go back to the scanner again, this time only with hand luggage.
Once inside I was grateful there were only four boarding gates as the only information was on the printed signs next to them. There were tvs all over but showing what seemed to be adverts with the sound off, or at least random shots of people followed by a logo. With all this I didn't realise my flight was delayed until after it was meant to have left.
This time the hostel pickup in Manila worked so I avoided dealing with taxi drivers or the worst of the city and spent the evening in the gated village, which turned out to have a restaurant just round the corner. I went for a dorm room for the first time this trip but the other two occupants were permanently asleep so it was quiet enough.
Today I moved on to Tagaytay and after being mobbed by tricycle drivers found my way to Mountain Breeze hostel.
The city sits on a hill overlooking a lake and there is a cooling breeze. I think I'm going to like it here. 

Monday, 6 February 2017

The last of Palawan

In the end I did have to go out as nothing nearby was open for food. I ended up at a place called the bay walk,  which completely changed my perception of Puerto Princessa.
With a view across the harbour families wandered up and down two rows of outside cafés. It all felt welcoming and peaceful.
Then I got to sleep in an aircon room, I'd forgotten how nice it is to actually have a bedroom cool enough to lie under a sheet without drowning in sweat.
Today I did the underground river tour.  Apparently it's the longest cave river known that can actually take boats. To get there, first get to the launch point, wait for someone to explain what's take happening and finally take a boat across the bay. Then walk through the jungle, watch out for monkeys, to the river.  Wait some more for another boat, which will do a 45 minute circuit in the cave. The actual experience inside is carefully controlled, right down to the audio guide with headphones so the noise doesn't disturb the bats.
On the way back we stopped for photos by a limestone cliff towering over rice fields.
As it's a week day now the restaurants in this mall are open so I'm enjoying going for dinner without having to go anywhere. 

Sunday, 5 February 2017

The first set back

I was planning to go to Sabang for the underground river. As there was no direct route I was advised to book a minibus going to Puerto Princessa and get out when it stopped at the Salvacion terminal. It didn't stop or go near anywhere that looked like a terminal until reaching Puerto.
The bus station at Puerto Princessa was dusty, hot and above all a long way from anywhere. I got a tricycle and tried in vain to explain to the driver that I wanted to go to the city centre, where there were lots of hotels. He asked repeatedly for the address of City Centre Hotel. Eventually I got through that I didn't have a booking anywhere and he took to pointing at the widely separated hotels we passed. Eventually I gave up and settled on one by a quiet shopping arcade. I still have no idea what the centre is like or even if there is one rather than long roads lined with warehouses and what look like diy stores.
In fairness I seem to have fallen on my feet since they book underground river tours here and I got a large aircon room for the same I paid for a smaller fan room in El Nido. The bungalow in Port Barton was cooled by neither as the electricity goes off at midnight but instead had a sea breeze that was more than adequate.
The experience has left me a bit drained and I don't plan to do anything more today. 

Port Barton

 The journey alone is an adventure. You have to take a minibus, which drives round El Nido, apparently at random picking up people until it is full. Then it's off along the main highway, before turning onto a mud track that leads through the jungle. There are a few concrete sections along there but just enough to remind you what they look like and most still under construction.
I instantly liked Port Barton more than El Nido  (sorry holly) from the moment instead of getting off the bus into a crowd of touts we were delivered to a local official who gave everyone a free map of the town. Not that it is a town as there only seem to be three streets.
In El Nido the streets are packed with tourists, motorbikes, tricycles and booking offices. In Port Barton they are dirt tracks and dogs sleep in the middle of them.
The first place I tried was full and on first asking so was the second so I asked where might have space. The woman looked me up and down "You are one?" "Yes" "Ah wait" I sat down,  after a couple of minutes a man came out and offered me a beer. Ten minutes later he was back again "The room is clean now" so in about 15 minutes the situation went from no space to a bungalow room in a garden.
The boat tour the next day was another highlight. No guide with a prepared spiel "Hello mamsirs..." just the captain and a small boat. We visited two reefs, a beach, mangroves and an area with turtles. I just managed to see one swimming rapidly away.
The final stop was an island /sandbar about the size of a double bed above water with lots of large starfish in the water around.
Back on shore everyone getting off the boat was greeted by a group of tourists sat at a beach bar and offered a shot of their coconut rum. The food in Port Barton is also excellent, at least at Gacayan, where they do quality fresh Philippino dishes.  I could have stayed a good few more days but had to move on.

Wednesday, 1 February 2017

More El Nido

After the boat tours I decided to spend a few days on land. First I did what was advertised as a via ferrata and turned out to be a metal staircase with a hanging bridge in the middle. Great views from the top though. Tuesday afternoon, I then walked along the beach for an hour or so out of town until the hotels gave way to forest and there were no people about.
Yesterday was yet more exploring on land. I was up by 6 for Taraw cliff, which was probably my favourite activity. I didn't know what to expect as descriptions ranged from 'hike' to 'serious rock climbing' but it turned out to be a very nice scramble up the hill to a view from some pointy rocks and back down the same way,  including being roped for a short section of down climbing.
Sweating my way up in the heat knocked me out for a couple of hours but in the afternoon I joined Holly who had directions to some 'really good rainforest'. We never got as far as the deep forest but did find a little village away from the road and a viewpoint and shelter that she described as a 'prayer mountain'. Then we went to see her boat  at the non tourist end of town before I finally got to try a Philippines dish that wasn't meat and rice - a pork stew called silagong (?).
Today I hope to visit some waterfalls and then tomorrow I finally move on.

Overall impressions of El Nido. Lots of tourists and lots of rather disorganised tours. Stunningly beautiful but they really need to do something about the smell from the drains. It's hard to remember what it was like not to have sand in everything and hot weather, even when it rains.