Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka – Istuti!

Sri Lanka was one destination we were super excited about and so glad we added to our itinerary. We made the epic journey from an island in the north of Malaysia to Colombo, Sri Lanka in the same day. It was a bit too much for the kids and a melt down or two was in order by the time we touched down.

Our first stop was a beachside town called Negombo. It was about a 20 minute drive from the airport. Luckily Negombo is an easy place to spend a couple of days and unbeknown to us at the time, the most ‘cosmopolitan’ place we would visit on our our journey through southern Sri Lanka. That bucket of beers with the fireworks ( Murray’s FB post) would not be repeated… ha ha… instead we got used to sipping tea.

Moving on from Negombo we planned a circular route through the southern end of Sri Lanka with a bit of beach, hills, trains and well we had no idea what else we might see. Unawatuna was the first stop, but before we hit the road we went on a quest to buy a rice cooker for our visit to an orphanage. Buying a rice cooker turned out to be a comical experience. Firstly , our tuk tuk driver was was slightly baffled with our request but delivered us to a small electrical appliance shop. The not-so-busy shop employee proceeded to show us the three different models on offer. I quizzed him on the ins and outs of each model as I wanted to buy the biggest and best and after much deliberation decided on one. “Sorry madam, we no have”…. “ah ok then I’ll have this one” I said pointing at another… “sorry madam, we no have”….. “ right then, how about you just give me the one you have?”. He could have saved a lot of time if he just said that in the first place! We quickly paid, naturally the computers weren’t working to give us a receipt, and we hopped back into our tuk tuk with our rice cooker. The Orphanage was an eye opening experience. The kids were delighted to see us. We were greeted with huge smiles. They showed us their writing ( kids were aged 3-5) and sang us some songs. Admittedly the language barrier was difficult but you don’t need to translate a smile and a laugh. These kids who had so little gave so much in return.

We arrived in Unwatuna, a sleepy sea-side village that was probably a little busier in high season. Our accommodation was right on the beach but in all honesty, from what we saw, it doesn’t compare to beaches in Australia. Like other parts of asia, with dense population and poverty, garbage is a problem and infrastructure is limited. To put it into perspective though, this part of Sri Lanka was hit heavily by the 2004 Tsunami. Whole communities were wiped out and they have had to rebuild from scratch. It gave us a glimpse into how horrific it would have been on Boxing Day 2004.

Unawatuna, however, offers an unforgettable experience to visitors, and that is a trip to a turtle hatchery. There are plenty to choose from and they are home to a lot of injured or disabled turtles as well as babies. Fishermen collect the turtle eggs and bring them to the hatcheries. The eggs are buried in protected sand pits. One turtle can lay up to 150 eggs. Once the turtles hatch they are kept in the hatchery for 3 days to build some strength then released back into the ocean. We were lucky enough to see 1 day old hatchlings and release some 3 days old babies back into the ocean. Sri Lanka is a very ‘hands-on’ country. You are encouraged to get involved, touch, see and involve yourself in everything. We experienced this at tea factories where the kids were encouraged to feel the tea that was being processed for commercial production and at this particular hatchery. We basically carried our tiny turtles ( named Sandy, Shelly , Shelly, Rip-tide and Survivor) to the beach and let them go. There were no rules, no supervision, just us and the baby turtles. It was an amazing experience and one we will never forget. We hope our little turtles are some of the lucky ones who survive until adulthood and come back in 30 years to lay their own turtle eggs.

We then hit the road and head towards Yala National Park where we read that we might see some elephants and other animals in the wild. What we didn’t realise was that we would start to see them on the road , until we passed an elephant in a truck.

Arriving at the Cinnamon Wild in Yala felt like stepping into a different world. We were inside the National Park. It was rugged, sparse, very brown and well just ‘wild’. There wasn’t anything around the resort other than more wilderness. On our way to our resort cottage we paused to read a sign that basically said if you come across an elephant at night then run for your life. Ha ha … surely a joke right? The staff at reception also advised us to request an escort between our room and the restaurant/pool in the evening and early morning. I don’t think it actually sank in until we were sitting around the pool later that day and Brooke pointed to the lake behind us and said ‘elephant ‘. Yes, there was an elephant taking a stroll. Not to mention the crocodiles in the lake and the deer and water buffalo too. And there were no fences.

The next morning we went for a stroll around the resort and noticed all of the animal poo on the paths. Some were alarmingly large. On the beach we also noticed a large amount of animal poo. Unfortunately Murray noticed one animal pat a little too late which the girls found hilarious. We also booked a safari and set out at the crack of dawn in a Jeep to hopefully get a closer look at some of these animals. Within the first 15 minuets we were literally stopped in our tracks as a family of elephants crossed the dirt track in front of us. We were close enough that we could almost touch them. The safari guide didn’t seem too alarmed- they were a bunch of females with a baby. Apparently quite safe. A short while later we came across a male ‘tusker’. Apparently this was cause for concern as male tuskers are typically aggressive. Our guide kept a good distance and asked us to pass all belongings into the lockable front part of the Jeep. This sounded like a good idea until I realised that the guide himself would be safely locked in his safe compartment while the rest of us were unsafely hanging out in the open back section. Another few jeeps had also arrived on the scene and unfortunately for one, theirs got a little too close to the tusker who decided that he was going to have a poke around in their back section, while they could only hope he didn’t take too much of disliking to them personally. Luckily all ended well and no humans were harmed. We were considering ourselves pretty lucky at this point to have come across elephants, come face to face with a male tusker, spotted mongooses, toucans , water buffalo, deer, crocodiles and wild boar. The ‘big’ sighting of the day however was waiting for us on a lone stretch of dirt road, the leopard. We were told that it was rare to see a leopard however I am convinced that this big cat could sense a fellow cat lover ( or a Jeep full in our case). Our guide drove straight past it until I shouted out ‘leopard ‘ and sure enough it was sitting in the brush waiting for us. I was so shocked I nearly forgot about my camera until it sauntered behind our vehicle and disappeared. It was bright orange and black, big, majestic and just gorgeous. Being a cat- loving family we were all thrilled to have been in the presence of this magnificent creature. We joked about bringing it home and wondered if our Teddy Bear would still be top-cat. Hmmm , probably not! We finished the safari off by watching about a dozen elephants frolicking and bathing in a water hole. They are quite agile for a large animal, rolling around and playing with each other.

We spent four luxurious days at Cinnamon Wild just in awe of our surroundings, swimming in the beautiful pool, indulging in the buffet and spotting wildlife. We walked around the little resort cottages taking photos of monkeys and lizards. It was all fun and games until we stumbled across a lone wild boar. It probably stood about knee height and had a long pointy snout. Murray shimmered past the wild beast with Maya and Brooke in tow. He signaled for me to follow with Sienna but I swear it looked at me and was about to charge. Needless to say Sienna and I raced for our lives weaving through little cottage gardens. At one point we thought we were safe only to come face to face with about a dozen of them. Had he called his mates? Were they all after us now? Sienna and I by this stage were nearly hyperventilating ducking and weaving in every direction. We were spotted by a resort guide and escorted home. Apparently the wild boar are ‘quite harmless ‘ and like to eat the berries on the trees in the resort. Hmmmm … one for the wild boar. It wasn’t such a laughing matter however when later that night an elephant decided to come for a drink at the resort bar. Thankfully we were tucked up safely in our cottage but another guest showed us photos of the elephant strolling past the pool, through the bar and towards a guest’s car. It then started tearing branches off trees and lifted the car off the ground trying to get to some fruit inside it. That sign we saw on the first day …. it’s no joke.

Our next stop on our journey was a hill town called Ella. It was picturesque and our homestay was literally on the edge of a mountain looking down a ridge. We went and saw the famous 9 arch bridge, over the railway track, visited a tea factory and chilled out at Cafe Chill ( they served beer). We then hopped on a train (7 hour journey) to the next stop, Kandy, or as Brooke and Sienna call it “that lolly place”. The train took us through tea plantations and small villages. You could hang out the window and wave to local villagers. It was an unforgettable journey through some of the prettiest scenery we have ever seen. The main attraction for us in Kandy was the Pinnawala elephant orphanage. You might have thought we had seen enough elephants by now but this place was quite special. It was home to about 50 orphan elephants and twice a day they are taken to a nearby river for a bath. We were lucky enough to witness this incredible event.

Overall Sri Lanka has been one of the highlights of our trip so far. We experienced things we couldn’t have imagined experiencing before we arrived. The Sri Lankan people are so warm and generous. They invite you into their homes and lives and treat you like a part of their family. The one word my Sri Lankan friend taught me before we arrived was ‘istuti’ , pronounced is-tooti. We used it a lot. We had a lot to be thankful for. Sri Lanka feels like a country in the infant stages of tourism. Go there before it is over run, over developed and you are not encouraged to get your hands dirty so to speak. We are already planning our family reunion at the Cinnamon Wild when the kids are older. I’ve got a score to settle with a wild boar.

Next stop Singapore where we might catch up with Kim and Don 😉

Special thanks to my gorgeous friend Nelu for helping to plan this trip to Sri Lanka.

Cameron Highlands · Malaysia · Penang · Perhentian

Malaysia – Penang to Perhentians

After coming off the high of Koh Lipe we weren’t sure how we were going to cope with being back in Malaysia. The beaches along Malaysia’s west coast (from what we had seen so far) just didn’t compare. We made our way back to Langkawi and over to Penang ( on bargain flights costing $3 per person – thanks to Air Asia Mega Sale!). We spent 5 days in a 3 bed apartment in Batu Ferringhi enjoying more space and a pool. We also hit the local Tesco and stocked up on some groceries. Having done most of our food shopping in a 7/11 so far , Tesco was like a food wonderland. Murray headed straight to the ‘non halal’ section to get his bacon fix and I was finally able to buy fruit, vegetables, pasta and other staples to cook a meal at home. Our apartment in Batu Ferringhi was also right opposite one of the nicest Shangri-La hotels I have ever seen. The Shangri-La is a bit out of our price range this trip but it didn’t stop us from wandering in there each day, swimming in their pool, drinking glasses of wine ( wine is ridiculously expensive in Malaysia, but happy hour at the Shangri-La was $4/glass) and using the kids adventure zone. I’m pretty sure the staff there thought we were guests of the hotel. Naturally we were staying in room ‘250’ if asked.

Batu Ferringhi is also near Georgetown, a small town full of British heritage architecture as well as Chinese shop fronts. We strolled around the streets admiring the famous street art work and stumbled across China House which had the most impressive display of cakes I have ever seen. We ordered tea, scones and jam and were in heaven.

Moving on from Batu Ferringhi we headed inland and up into the mountains. After hours of winding roads and several vomit bags later ( Maya again) we arrived in the Cameron Highlands. The temperature was cool ( around 20 degrees) and the scenery was spectacular. We spent the next few days wandering around tea plantations ,strawberry farms, bee farms, butterfly farms and lavender gardens. It was well worth the visit ( despite the vomit) just to soak up the beauty of the place and to enjoy some cooler temperatures.

Unfortunately for us we picked the busiest weekend of the year to visit Cameron Highlands after a national election and change of government. The new-old (he’s 92 and a former PM of the party he just toppled) Prime Minister, Mahathir, had announced a 2 day public holiday and a 4 day long weekend. It seemed that Cameron Highlands was the place to be. Strangely we did not come across many Western tourists, and none with blond hair and freckles ( yes, photos galore).

After a brief stopover in KL , which was starting to feel a bit like home, we boarded a plane for Kota Bharu; a very Muslim part of Malaysia and a place most tourists bypass. We were staying the night solely so we could stock up on food before we headed across to the Perhentian Islands. I knew we were going to be spending a week in a place without shops and limited food options, so it seemed sensible to hit Kota Bharu mall for biscuits, fruit, chips, nuts and anything else we could possibly carry. Once again we were the token foreigners.

The following day we took a car to Kuala Besut and boarded a small boat out to Perhentian Besar. Life jackets were randomly handed out. Everybody received one except Murray, myself, Maya and Brooke. Did we look like we were all strong swimmers, except Sienna? Why were adults given life jackets over kids? The mind boggled but fortunately we arrived safely on the island.

A quick fuel stop at ‘Belinda’s Cafe’ ( how could we not) and we were shown to our bungalow. We were lucky in that we chose a great spot for us – plenty of space for the kids to play while we sat on the veranda, a couple of cafes within 50m and the most amazing beach to swim/ snorkel nearby. In all honesty Perhentian Besar has been my favourite place so far. It is much more low-key compared to Koh Lipe. There are no shops, no massages, no loud music and very few people. Instead there is white sand, coral you can snorkel to off the beach, giant sea turtles you can also swim to off the beach, kayaks to hire and the most amazing crystal clear blue water you have ever seen.

Life is very simple on the Perhentians, but very satisfying. It also helped that we had AC and hot water. The kids all got to see loads of sea life, swim and snorkel every day, feed squirrels and play with other kids. Maya did her school work by the sea sipping fresh mango juices.

Perhentians are a little tricky to reach , hence why they are so pristine and quiet , but we are very glad we put this amazing spot on our agenda. My advice, give Langkawi a wide berth and head to Koh Lipe or Perhentian Islands if you are looking for an ideal island experience. I hope to come back here again one day – it is nothing short of paradise.

Next stop…. Sri Lanka

Koh Lipe · Thailand

Thailand – Koh Lipe – postcard perfect

We always planned to go to Koh Lipe but we had no expectation as to what we would find. As soon as we stepped off the boat into the sparkling blue water ( literally – there was no jetty) and walked up white sand beach to the immigration office ( concrete area with plastic chairs) we knew we had reached somewhere special.

Koh Lipe is only a stone’s throw from Malaysia but it is a world apart, being part of Thailand. Our ferry took us as close as it could to shore before we boarded a small Thai motor boat to bring us across the reef and onto the beach. We then stepped into the water and lugged our bags up the beach as we waited for the Thai Immigration Officer (guy in a plain T shirt) to give us back our passports. He didn’t seem to be in a hurry. Once he called out ‘Australia’ ( there was only one other Australian in our group) you were required to present yourself in front of him for inspection ( or ridicule) and he gave you personal directions to your lodging. I was relieved when he said to us “4 minute walk up beach , that way”. Phew, I was hoping 4 Thai minutes wasn’t the same as 4 Malay minutes, and thankfully he was about spot on.

Our first impression of our new lodgings was good considering our accommodation was on the cheaper end of the scale ( about $80/night for a 2 story bungalow). The bar and restaurant were beachfront ( literally sand under your feet) and the island’s main drag ( Walking Street) was a 2 minute stroll up the beach. Our accommodation was nothing flash – there was no AC , hot water or television , but the location and scenery more than made up for it.

Admittedly the days spent on Koh Lipe all blurred together. We swam in the warm blue sea, did some schoolwork by the beach, searched for hermit crabs, built sandcastles, ate pad-thai , went for walks and read books. When it was too hot to walk we caught the island taxis around and bought icees to cool off. The girls made hermit crab houses each day in the sand and held their little captives hostage until it was time to swim again. At night we ate seafood on the beach and soaked up the vibe of walking street.

For a little island in the middle of the Andaman sea it has quite a unique vibe. Mornings were fairly quiet with a smattering of people taking advantage of the cooler weather to swim, run and walk. Afternoons, the little island seemed to wake up with shop owners starting to roll up their doors for business. By night time walking street was jam packed with tourists and shop fronts offering souvenirs, fresh seafood and cheap massages. The bars along the beach also lay out mats, tables and oil lights and the music started playing. There are plenty of laid back beach bars and trendy modern pool bars. If you were lucky enough to catch a weekend ( or a full moon party) the music lasted until the wee hours. By morning the beach was swept, spotless and ready for a new day.

Now the idea of a 7/11 on the island might make you cringe but I can honestly say that I have a new appreciation for this franchise. 7/11 has been our saviour on more than one occasion when nothing else is open. The Malays don’t like to start their business day until about 1pm and it seems on Koh Lipe the Thai’s are similar. The 7/11 on Koh Lipe is open 24 hours and offers a wide selection of pretty much everything you need and plenty of stuff you dont need. They will make you a fresh cup of coffee ( or an iced drink if you prefer) , they stock pre-made ham and cheese sandwiches or croissants that they also put into the sandwich press for you, they sell cups of ice to keep your drinks cool and of course cheap beer and cider. Certainly there are some strange items for sale ( snail slime face cream, wt??) but overall 7/11 has come to our rescue more times than I can count. The other saviour was the best icee shop I have ever seen. It was our treat at the end of a hot day.

We finished off our stay on Koh Lipe with a snorkeling tour of nearby islands, a beach sunset dinner and night swim with shimmering plankton. I also checked out some ‘nice’ accommodation on the island for when I come back here again one day ( with a bigger budget). You can’t fly to Koh Lipe , in fact you can’t get here without getting your feet wet, carrying your own bag up the beach and waiting your turn for the Thai guy on the plastic chair to call your name , but it’s worth it. This place is THE postcard with the blue water, palm trees and white sand. Put it on your bucket list – you won’t be disappointed.

KL · Malacca · Malaysia

Malaysia ( East Coast) – say cheese!

Malaysia is probably one of the easiest Asian countries to travel as a tourist. The roads are good, the tourist buses are luxurious, the food options are great and nothing is too far to get to. The Malaysians also take pride in ‘the biggest and the best’ -meaning a lot of the tourist attractions are world class ( often with a hefty entrance fee). Whilst in KL we visited the Aquarium, Petrosains museum, Petronas towers, a butterfly park and of course KLCC Park. I had read about KLCC Park being something you wouldn’t want to miss if you had little kids and I could see why. The grounds were immaculate and the kids area was something else. Slippery dips, swings and climbing equipment as far as the eye could see. In addition there was a huge fountain-pool to cool off in.

The only down side ( which actually turned out to be quite a laugh) was what I refer to as ‘the b with the whistle’. I made the mistake of wandering over to the fountain area while the kids were still playing in the play ground. Big mistake. Whistle-lady started blowing her whistle loudly, glaring and pointing at me. What the heck had I done wrong? Surely this was a mistake? Was I wearing the wrong clothes? Was I meant to pay a fee? No. I was simply an adult without an accompanying child in the fountain area. Whistle-lady chose to communicate only through her whistle, gestures and pointing at a sign I hadn’t bothered to read. I went back and retrieved the children just to prove I was ‘legitimate’ and explained my faux pas to Murray ( who thought it was hilarious). We then proceeded to get the whistle treatment twice more ( once for venturing too close to the water with our thongs on and once again as Murray got blasted for sitting on a see-saw with Maya- yep no adults allowed on the equipment). The rest of the afternoon was spent laughing as every other tourist who came into the park got a whistle blast and walked away a bit puzzled as to what they had done wrong. It was a bit like watching magpies swoop. Fun times.

Our week in KL flew by super quick before we hopped on a bus to the port city of Malacca. Our apartment had an uninterrupted view of the Malacca Straights and was only a few minutes car ride into Jonker Street. Jonker street is full of Chinese colonial shop fronts selling antiques, handicrafts, Chinese medicines and weird-wonderful selection of local delicacies . It almost takes you back in time with its merchant-town charm. That is except for the lit-up becaks ( Hello Kitty, Frozen etc) blasting cheesy music and the arrival of the Korean and Japanese $2 shops. These are found everywhere throughout Malaysia.

We also visited a local museum which claimed to be an upside-down house. We entered the house and were whisked from room to room and told to pose as our photo was snapped. The kids loved it of course. Murray and I chalked it up to being another ‘Malaysian cheese factor’.

After Malacca we flew straight to Langkawi ( island on the western tip of Malaysia). Langkawi is spruiked to be an island paradise and in parts it is very beautiful, but at the same time it is a bit grotty, overdeveloped and smelly. Our accommodation was a little below the standard we had got used to so far in Malaysia (Maya was not impressed) but it was cheap. The main tourist attraction is the Cable Car/ Skybridge sitting atop a mountain and for those scared of heights (aka Murray), it is a fear conquering experience. In the cable car noone was allowed to touch the bolted-closed door ( Murray’s orders) in case it flung open mid air and we all toppled out. Maya was instructed to hold his hand as he walked the Skybridge ( looked like he was walking a tightrope) and noone was allowed to go near the edge of the bridge ( which we ignored). All in all it was very impressive and a memorable experience. I even bought the ‘family snap’ , which we don’t normally do, to immortalise the moment when we are back home! We also visited a crocodile adventure land where we got to ‘fish crocodiles’ which involved dangling bits of chicken at juvenile crocs from a fishing pole , and we won’t forget the croc show where the crocodile handler kissed and put his head inside the crocs mouth ( accompanying dramatic music playing in the background).We were told the croc was 42 years old which the kids made sure everyone in the park knew was the same as mum. Other highlights of Langkawi were parasailing, cheap beer and dinner by the beach. I probably wouldn’t choose Langkawi if I were planning a 2 week luxury holiday, but it’s been an easy stop over for us and nice to be back by the beach. We look forward to returning to Malaysia and seeking out more cheesy experiences, although can’t say I am tempted to try the ‘oreo cheese cake’…hmmm, is there such thing as too much cheese? Why yes there is.

Indonesia · Sumatra

Sumatra – Bukit Lawang and beyond

We arrived in Bukit Lawang exhausted and in desperate need of some time to re-energise. This was largely due to our 4 day stay in Yogyakarta where noise travelled through paper-thin walls and lucky us, on Good Friday the Christian church service commenced at 4am and was right next door to our hostel. On top of that our flight to Medan was delayed 12 hours, the AC in our hotel room for the night didn’t work and the city doesn’t seem to sleep ( very loud). Oh and we forgot to give the kids their travel sick tablets for the following day’s drive into the jungle …. need I say more.

Bukit Lawang was literally like a breath of fresh air when we arrived. We stayed on top of a river which was beautiful, amazing and SO loud. Murray and I woke up during the night thinking it was thundering down with rain only to discover it was the noise of the river. We could sit on our veranda for hours and watch the monkeys playing in the river and it felt like the furthest place from Sydney on the face of the earth. We swam in the river, went for walks and enjoyed the isolation. On day 3 we bravely signed up for a jungle trek in the hope that we would see some orangutans in the wild. We were not disappointed. The jungle trek was one of the best and most memorable days so far. Admittedly the first half hour of the trek was a bit dicey. We climbed up a mountain edge that literally dropped off at points with no barrier. I could see the look in Murray’s eye ( it basically said – wtf are we doing here.. and with our kids??). Before the jungle trek Murray had Jokingly said “if we don’t see an orangutan I’m going to get one of the guides to dress up as an orangutan and jump around”… ha ha, funny right? … well maybe not so funny for him when I heard Maya tell the guide “my dad said that if we don’t see an orangutan…” Hilarious.

Danger aside, we saw orangutans up close and got to feed the charismatic native funky monkey. Brooke’s initial claim that ‘ the jungle is boring’ quickly changed to ‘can we come back here again tomorrow?’ The girls got to hand feed these amazing creatures, who with their human-like fingers, gently took all of the fruit we had to offer. To top it off, we rafted back to the village on big blow up tubes, down rapids, veering dangerously close to rocks only to be careered away by the trusty bamboo poles used by the chief river guide ( who was probably about 14 years old). It was a blast.

After Bukit Lawang we stopped in a place called Berestagi for a few days. It was memorable, but not in a great way. Our hostel was joined to an amusement park, which could only be described as odd. The girls enjoyed it but all Murray and I could think about was whether we were going to survive. The most bizarre ride had to be the train with broken laser guns that you pointed at the cute cartoon like animals and shot dead. On top of that , we were the only ‘bule’ ( white person) in town and our photograph was in demand. I had to pretend I couldn’t speak a word of Indonesian ( or English come to think of it) just to push through the crowd of ‘photo please? ‘ .

Our hotel had an amazing buffet breakfast, Asian style only.. and oh the phone call at midnight just to check we still needed our driver the next morning was bizarre. They also tried to fit us into a room with 2 king single beds .. what the?

Needless to say once we arrived back in Medan ( not a city I could ever live in – if you’ve been there you might relate) I could have dropped to the lushly carpeted floor of the JW Marriott and thanked Allah that we were back in a hotel that understood us and our western ways. We spent a day swimming in the pool , wandering around an air conditioned mall and stuffing ourselves on pasta and nachos. Not a single soto ayam ( Indonesian chicken soup) was consumed that day… thank goodness.

Indonesia, you have been wonderful and trying. We love you and we shake our heads in wonder at the same time. We plan on returning to Bali at the end of the year, which is a world apart from the rest of Indonesia. Medan , I think we can safely tick you off the bucket list.

Next stop , KL, Malaysia…


Sumatra – palm trees and plastic bags

If you know anything about Sumatra you might think of a large island in Indonesia known for its rugged tropical terrain. A place where jungle, lakes , waterfalls and volcanos are in abundance . Home to the Sumatran tiger and the orangutan. Well we witnessed most of the above on this leg of the journey but it wouldn’t be right to gush about the natural beauty of Sumatra without mentioning what was apparent as soon as we left Medan.

This was the sheer volume of palm trees where the rain forest should have been. Now don’t get me wrong, I love a palm tree. Preferably on an island, with me on a hammock, sipping a cocktail, not in danger of being knocked out by a falling coconut. This was different. We travelled kilometre after kilometre wondering where on earth the rainforest had gone. Instead we passed palm trees as far as the eye could see in every direction, and loads of lorry trucks carrying the precious nuts to make palm oil. Now of course I had read about deforestation in Indonesia, slashing and burning to make way for palm oil plantations, weak environmental laws and the knock on effects linked to global warming and animal endangerment. Reading and seeing with my own eyes turned out to be two completely different things. It’s real. Rainforests are disappearing and palm trees are taking over. I realise there is a local industry that benefits from palm oil employment opportunities but it is just so sad. Thank god there is still some rain-forest left, but for how long one has to wonder?

The other blemish on the landscape of Sumatra was the amount of litter lining almost every road we passed, namely plastic. I am not exaggerating when I say there wouldn’t have been a single stretch of road without plastic litter , presumably thrown out of car windows by passing motorists. Local people seemed oblivious to this eye-sore. Shop fronts and houses ( well, dirt patches) were dotted with plastic garbage. No one seemed to be bothered by this. Certainly there didn’t seem to be any effort to clean it up. Even the spectator Spiso-piso waterfall in north Sumatra has a steep walking track to its base that was covered in plastic litter.

Now don’t get me wrong, Sumatra is an amazing place , and the little jungle town we stayed in called Bukit Lawang was very tidy, but wow, what has happened to a society that has become so complacent to littering and a world so hungry for palm oil? I guess it’s easy to turn a blind eye when it’s not our backyard being destroyed.

Rant over …. our trip into the jungle will be a separate blog


Yogyakarta – just another busy city?

Yogyakarta was one of those stops that had to be done. I spent 12 months here in 1996 studying at the University of Gadja Mada and embracing all that Yogyakarta has to offer – perhaps only as a 20 year old could. I was apprehensive to bring the family here because of the memories I had of Yogya and knowing that the short glimpse we would have over 4 days wouldn’t really scratch the surface. You see, Yogyakarta is a special place but if you arrive as a tourist you might see nothing but a big, dirty , overcrowded city, like most other big cities in Asia.

Murray admits his first impression of ‘Jalan Sosrowijayan ‘ – the street we were staying in, was a bit ‘what the hell?’ It was narrow, dirty and didn’t look like a there might be suitable accomodation even remotely nearby. The traffic arriving into the main drag was horrendous and as I excitedly pointed out our new home, he wisely withheld judgement. Luckily when we arrived at Bladok ( our hostel) we were greeted by friendly staff who somehow recognised me from all those years ago ( Murray was a bit suspicious of that but I assured him it was because our gang used to eat there a lot being the only joint in town that served baked potatoes).

It turned out to be an easier stop over than I imagined. We strolled down Maliiboro street, wandered through the Sultan’s palace and water garden , spent an amazing afternoon exploring Borobudur ( largest Buddhist temple in the world) and hung out at Malioboro Mall where we could eat McDonalds and hit the Kids Zone.

Yes, it was different in many ways. The becak drivers seemed to have upgraded to motorised vehicles and old buildings had been replaced with new, but the biggest difference was the vibe. Strangely, there were very few western tourists ( we could count the number we saw on one hand). The place was once an international backpackers haven but today seemed to be left off the traveller’s itinerary. Humbly though , the feeling, the energy of being in ‘authentic Indonesia ‘ was still there. It’s a place where you need a bit of Bahasa to get by, where people want to take your photograph ( or just take a selfie as you walk behind them), where your kids are treated like rock stars and fussed over especially when they say a few words in Bahasa, where people remember you. Could I ever live there again? No , sadly I don’t think so. It’s busy, it’s chaotic, it just seems like hard work at every angle.

I’m glad I got to return and show my family where I lived and studied for a whole year. Looking at it now, twenty years later, I am a bit in awe of that fearless 20 year old.

Where to next? Bukit Lawang, Sumatra …

Gili Air · Indonesia

Lombok and Gili Air

Leaving Bali wasn’t easy. Especially knowing that we were leaving behind family, hot water and room service. We also opted to fly rather than take the fast boat across ( mainly because boats and I don’t always mix) to Gili Air. This meant that we stayed overnight in a town in Lombok called Senggigi. We booked home-stay type accommodation and were picked up from the airport by Steph, the owner of the home-stay. During the car ride our very accomodating host overheard Brooke complaining about how hungry she was and decided to take us to lunch so we could try a traditional Lombok meal called ‘nasi balap’; which from what we could gather was rice, spicy coconut, peanuts and beans. The girls had pretty much lived off hot chips and spaghetti so naturally I was concerned about how we were going to navigate this politely. Lombok is known for its chillies and spicy food, our kids don’t do spicy. Thankfully Maya ate a respectable amount of her meal telling Steph how delicious it was. Phew! Brooke ate nothing of course.

The next morning we took the public boat across to Gili Air. This involved lugging all of our bags and 3 kids onto a crowded boat packed full of local produce to deliver to the cafes and restaurants. There was no peer/ jetty and no one waiting to help us at the other end. Thankfully we were able to grab a map and work out where we needed to get to. Fortunately it was only a 15 minute walk to our accommodation, Rosie’s Garden, which felt more like 15 hours in the heat carrying our bags. There are no cars, taxis or motorcycles on Gili Air. Mental note, on the way back we would pay for a horse and cart.

We all agreed it was worth the effort when we were relaxing by the beach, drink in hand, watching the sunset. Gili Air is completely unrecognisable from my last visit over 20 years ago. I remember an island without fast-boat access, a scattering of accommodation options, no electricity and evenings spent on the beach talking with the locals and watching the shooting stars. The girls refer to my frequent recollections as ‘in the olden days…’ ha ha. Now days, most of the coastline is developed with beach-side bars and accommodation. There are cafes, shops, spas and pretty much everything you could possibly need. There are also boat loads of tourists on the islands. The food and drinks weren’t cheap ( by Indonesian standards) but the quality was good.

Gili Air has been a bit of a highlight so far. We rented a glass bottom boat for a day and snorkelled with the turtles and fish. We stopped off at Gili Meno for lunch and a visit to a turtle hatchery where eggs are collected by local fisherman and brought there so that the young turtles can hatch and grow ( about 1 year) until they are released back into the ocean.

Maya also took to snorkelling like a true mermaid, diving under the water to get a closer look at the sea life. She didn’t want the day to end!

Besides enjoying a slower pace of life, we played on the beach, rode bikes, watched the sunset, ate chargrilled corn and enjoyed island living. It was definitely a welcome escape from the business of Bali and just what we needed before bracing ourselves for Yogyakarta.

Bali · Indonesia

Bali – relaxing start to a trip?

Bali was the promise of relaxation, cocktails by the pool and shrugging off the stress left over from regular routine and planning a lengthy trip. It didn’t disappoint, but relaxing holiday? Not entirely. Anyone who has been to Bali and has ventured outside their hotel knows that there is chaos and danger at every corner. If the cars and mopeds aren’t trying to run you over as you cross the street, the sellers and hagglers are trying to wear you down and make you buy some ugly trinket or fake handbag you don’t need. On top of that the heat smothers you like a blanket leaving you drenched in sweat within minutes of stepping outside your air conditioned room and the kids start whining ‘how much further?’ before you have taken even left the hotel premises. All of the good parenting mantras you said to yourself when you woke up ( we won’t eat too much junk food today, I’ll order vegetables for lunch and I definitely won’t drink alcohol again) are forgotten immediately as you offer an icecream bribe to get to the corner of the street. Oh , and I’m going to need that cocktail when we return.

Did I mention that we started our relaxing week in Bali with my sister, her three girls and my mum ( aka nan)? Thank-god for nan who quickly became the leader of our tribe. Nan , a Bali-guru, who visits Bali at least 2-3 times a year made sure we didn’t catch the wrong taxi, get short-changed by the mini-mart cashiers or taxi drivers ( my sister tried to pay $21 for a $2.10 taxi ride – easy mistake) or get overcharged for a fake pair of adidas shoes. Nan knew what restaurants to eat at, where to watch the sunset whilst sipping on a cocktail and where to buy the cheapest souvenirs. She had us and the six kids rounded up and safely across the street each and every time.

Yes, there was plenty of hanging out at the pool and the drinks service was great and to be fair when you have someone to clean your room daily, someone to cook you meals and even someone to give you a massage when you need one I guess it was relaxing. Anywhere you go with three kids, heat, overcrowding and traffic chaos is unlikely to be a walk in the park ( a lush green park with a cool breeze that is). We are slowly adjusting to the new chaos and the new parameters for relaxing. Bali, we love you , we will be back. If you were too relaxing we might not be prepared to move on to the next busy, hot and chaotic spot!

Where next? Lombok and the Gili Islands.

Getting started

Why Asia?

A lot of people have asked “why asia?” Well, for starters, if we were to plan something similar across Europe we would probably be back in a few short months after our money ran out. In Asia, our dollar will allow us to travel a lot further for a lot longer. The other main reason for Asia is because of my (Bel’s) love affair with the region. It started in high school when I was introduced to Bahasa Indonesia and continued through university as I completed a Bachelor of Asian Studies majoring in Bahasa Indonesia and spending a year in Yogyakarta ‘studying’ Indonesian. In the year 2000 I then did a similar gap year to the one we are doing now with my bestie, Fi. We like to think of it as our ‘beach and bar tour of South east Asia’. This time round it will be a little different. Probably won’t drink so much, may skip the full moon, half moon, quarter moon and every other party Thailand has to offer. We also aim to be awake before midday each day and I dare say jumping on the back of random motorbikes might be a bit tricky with the three kids. Then again never say never. I am especially looking forward to revisiting some of the places I travelled 17 years ago , getting a fresh perspective and seeing it through the kids eyes. We have also planned plenty of new experiences for us all. I am hopeful we will make it to Sri Lanka if the political situation settles down and can’t wait to experience Hong Kong, China and Taiwan for the first time. Asia is crazy, vibrant and completely different to our life here in Australia. It is also exciting, affordable and reasonably close. It’s somewhat familiar ( to me anyway) and I can’t wait to get started. Indonesia here we come. Let’s hope I can still remember some of the lingo..

Getting started

Planning for 10 month trip – get stuffed!

Whoa.. getting ready for a 10 month trip is not simple. Well it might be if we didn’t have to pack up a house, relocate pets, arrange alternate schooling, work out a budget, a travel plan and not to mention how to fit all of our stuff into two backpacks.

What has been the most stressful part of the planning process? Packing up the house hands down. Sorting through our stuff and working out what we needed and what was just taking up space.  I estimate that we ended up letting go of about fifty percent of our stuff. Stuff that had just accumulated over the years. Stuff that wasn’t actually needed and wont be missed. Why did we have cupboards stuffed full of stuff? We had enough linen to open up a Bed Bath n Table. Let’s not mention the serving platters and salad bowls. Our hoarding was strategically hidden in boxes and behind cupboard doors. Not only was it cluttering our physical space but our mental and emotional space as well. As I went through every draw, every cupboard and every box I sorted into keep/ throw/ regift piles. I won’t lie, it was cathartic , it was freeing it was satisfying to let go of our stuff.

Now I am not going to pretend that we still don’t have way too much stuff. I am sure that when we return and unpack box after box I will be bewildered at how much stuff we still have. I will say that presently there is a bit more mind-space to appreciate that our most valuable possessions cant be bought in a shop; that we can can live happy fulfilled lives without accumulating stuff. We are going to meet people on our journey who compared to us don’t own nearly as much stuff as us. Hopefully the kids will see that other kids happily exist without IPads and doll collections. Ideally we would have been able to gift some of our stuff to these people, but two backpacks, five people… there’s just no room for the stuff!