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The Slow Descender

November 29, 2010

Note: all of the underwater photos in this post are by Anne Lesage

I learned to dive in the Semporna Archipelago.  The tiny island of Sipadan is considered to be one of the best dive sites in the world.  The island sits on top of near vertical walls of an extinct volcano rising hundreds of meters from the ocean floor covered in corals upon corals, surrounded by a diverse treasure trove of dive sites, some of which are drift dives where you get carried along, quite swiftly at times, by the current.  And crazily enough, I dove there after two days of an open water diving course at nearby Sibuan Island.  I had a few uncomfortable moments, but like the wimp I am I grabbed onto the dive masters hand, he helped me out, and it was all good.

Here follows a short rundown of learning to dive in the Semporna Archipelego, Malaysia.

Sibuan Island

my first dive (picture by Lena Amanda Koch)

Day 1: Sibuan Island, First In Water Day of Open Water Course

My very first dive I see a giant turtle and clown fish (aka Nemo).  My instructor, Jim from Barcelona, demonstrates diving skills which I then perform in the water.  I’m lucky enough to be his only student that day, so it’s very relaxed and comfortable.  Sibuan Island has a few shacks on stilts surrounded by the softest white sand and coral.  Between dives I buy a young coconut for 1 ringet (about 30 cents) from a boy who lives on the island.  He swims from shore to the boat with the floating coconut and a machete.  He hacks off the top with the machete so I can drink the coconut milk which isn’t very milky.  It’s cool clear liquid, sweet and sour – refreshing.  Once all the liquid is gone he splits it in half with the machete so I can scoop out the creamy young coconut meat.  Jim takes a nap and I hang out with the crew.  Then back in the water for my second dive.  The colorful corals are especially bright when the sun shines.  The water is bathtub clear.  I see a few sea gypsies – people with no nationality or identification who live on the water their whole lives.  It rains hard and I feel sorry for the sea gypsies. 


Jim napping

the crew

Day 2: Sibuan Island, Second (Final) In Water Day of Open Water Course

During my second day of diving class, on the first dive, I FORGET HOW TO BREATHE.  That sounds impossible, but I’m very talented.  When scuba diving you have to breathe in and out completely through your mouth to the regulator hose, never through your nose.  If you do breathe through your nose, air bubbles go out of the mask and let water in, filling the mask and making you blind until you empty it.  I couldn’t convince my nose to stop breathing.   Jim helped me to calm down, think about my breathing, and the second dive was calm and enjoyable.  I finished demonstrating all of the necessary skills, and became a certified Open Water Diver.

Day 3: Sipadan Island Fun Dives

SIPADAN!  First dive Barracuda Point, strong current.  I feel like I’ve been thrown into the deep end.  My open water class didn’t prepare me for the fast current which after we surfaced they informed me was called a “drift dive”.  I had a baby freak out and the divemaster held my hand for a while.  See tons of schools of……well lots!  I’m not good at identifying fish yet, I’m like a baby looking at shapes and colors.  I do remember sharks, turtles, eels, nude branches, and a striking variety of coral.  Second dive is the Hanging Garden.  Swimming under a rock overhang with corals coming out “hanging down”…… favorite dive yet – very relaxed, no current, no breathing issues, HAPPY.  Third dive the Turtles Tomb Cave; cyclones of fish schools; turtle skulls. 

Day 4 Rest Day on Mabul Island

Mabul Island

Day 5: Mabul Island Fun Dives

Three dives, all comfortable, I feel like a “real diver” now.   First dive Kapali House Reef; loads of wrecked ships and sunken house frames from houses on stilts.  The wrecks are home to giant groupers – really giant like my size.  The groupers have a football sized gaping oval mouth filled with tiny fish swimming in/out/around.  I am diving with a guide and two other divers who are more experienced than I – Anne from Paris and Ada from Barcelona.  Anne takes underwater pictures.  She actually dives for a living – she’s a police officer / diver in the Seine River where the visibility can be zero, and is very much enjoying the clear waters here.  We do two more wall dives around Mabul. 

bubble coral

cool fish

me with diver and underwater photographer extraordinaire Anne

By now I have come to think of myself as The Slow Descender.  Yes, I have no pride.  Either I have more ear pain than most people when descending to scuba dive, or they all have a way higher threshold for pain than I do.  Others have better described the child-like wonder of being underwater hovering among the fish and corals, so I’ll spare you, but I will say the effort and discomfort in learning to dive is very worth it.

Phase II

November 29, 2010

Hello my dear blog readers,

Sorry it’s been so long since I’ve updated the blog.  I was in Vancouver at the end of October, and I spent most of November in Washington DC with Ian, so nothing really “travel blog” related lately.  I’ll be hitting the road again for Phase II of my RTW on December 8th, heading down to Oaxaca Mexico.  Then in February Ian will join me for a few weeks in Colombia, where we plan to find the Ciudad Perdida (that’s lost city haha).  I return back to DC on April 12th.

I’ve been very productive over the past month…..catching up with Tyra by watching an America’s Next Top Model Marathon, making up for cheese deprivation after 3 months of cheeeseless Asia, and Finally sorting through ALL THOSE PICTURES.  I’ve posted several new albums to Flickr.

I’m also sorting through some half finished blog posts and hopefully I will be posting several over the next week.


Monk Spotting

October 19, 2010

I love monks. Not literally, that’s gross, but I like to hang out in places where I might get to see or talk to monks. Monks are happy. They’re often bashful and sweet. Sometimes the ones who speak English want to practice. In a place like Cambodia where a huge portion of the economy is based on tourism, it’s refreshing to have a conversation with a local that’s not part of a commercial transaction. Monks don’t make me feel like a walking wallet. Plus, you just gotta love a guy in a bright yellow toga.

I usually don’t take pictures of the monks I chat with because that might spoil the moment. But I have taken a few. Here are some favorites.

monks at Banan Wat, near Battambang Cambodia

Notice the monk at right with the cell phone. He was using it to take pictures. Monks on cell phones are common in Cambodia and Tibet. I wonder if they get a special rate?

monk hitting bell near Kratie Cambodia

This monk was beating a bell that looks like (is?) a pipe fitting. It was so loud that I jumped and covered my ears the first few times he hit it. The banging was in accompaniment to another monk chanting in a nearby temple, on top of a mountain in a forest in the late afternoon.

monkbrella, Phnom Penh

October is a rainy month in Cambodia. Many monks carry sunny yellow umbrellas that match their robes. I don’t buy many souvenirs, preferring to travel light, but I am considering buying a monkbrella. Yellow really isn’t my color, but I think it would brighten a rainy day at home, and remind me of my monks.

In unrelated news: I’ve been on the road nearly 6 months, the halfway point of my trip! I will be in Vancouver in a few days to visit family and friends. Then in November I’ll be back in Washington DC to visit Ian in what my friend March has termed a “conjugal visit”.

Angkor Wat is All That

October 11, 2010

I hadn’t planned to go to Cambodia.  Then I got an email from intrepid traveler Nasreen who I’d met in Jordan saying she was also in SE Asia.  I suggested we meet up, and she suggested Angkor Wat as being a “must see”.  So, here I am in Siem Riep.     

I’d just finished reading Paul Theroux’s excellent new book from a trip he did in 2008 called Ghost Train to the Eastern Star.  There’s a chapter with an atmospheric account of his visits to Siem Riep and Angkor Wat.  Regarding the ruins: “An assertive Asiatic Gothic, lends them tremendous power – power magnified by the way they have been eaten away by time, pitted by centuries of bad weather and neglect (reminded me of Petra in that way)……Even with tourists in silly hats scampering on its steep stairways and yelling to each other from cupola to cupola, the ruins epitomize sanctity, harmony, and radiance……….the gentleness of the people made it easy to linger (in Siem Riep).” 


temple complex from “Tomb Raider”

The temple complex used in “Tomb Raider” is a maze of unrestored temples covered in moss, parts falling down, trees forming part of the structure, uneven rocks underfoot, and dark rooms with shafts of light coming through ornately carved stone openings.

We spent 3 days exploring the ruins in our chariot tuk tuk, driven by a sweet giggly young man, codename Sam.  Apparently his real name is too difficult for foreigners.  I really love the tuk tuk.   I was thinking to myself as we drove around the countryside between temple sites:  What would Ian say if I shipped a tuk tuk back to the US?  I really want one.  I’d need to buy a motor bike to hook it up to.  I wonder if he’d drive me around, so I can continue my new favorite activity, being driven around the countryside like a queen – breezy, cushy padded seat, no windows so maximum view, not too fast very comfy pace.   Sam is a great driver, wonder if Ian would feel threatened if I imported him along with the tuk tuk?

Sam and Nasreen


me at Bayon

On our last day in Siem Riep I returned in the late afternoon to the temple of Bayon.  Sam asked me why I wanted to go back, and was it my favorite temple.  I said yes it was my favorite.  He said it was his favorite too, because of the smiling faces which are a combination of king and god (Buddha).  He was happy that I wanted to go back because that meant I really liked it and maybe I would return to Angkor Wat somedayon another visit. 



smiling faces of Bayon

me at Bayon

You Can Do It Part II – Jungle Survival

September 30, 2010

Mado took me for a few short walks in the jungle around the village of Pa Lungan so I could learn some jungle survival skills.  Most of them require a machete.  I don’t usually carry a machete.  Guess I’d better not get lost.

Sources of drinking water include pitcher plants, bamboo and water vines.

striped pitcher plant with open lid

Water can be drunk from a closed pitcher plant which is filled with cool filtered water, but not an open one.  When the closed “lid” of the pitcher plant is squeezed around the rim it pops open.

red pitcher plant with closed lid

The hollow inside bamboo is filled with sweet water.  You can either cut a drinking hole with a machete or 2 small holes (one for drinking and one for air) with a smaller knife.  Then use a thinner piece of bamboo as a straw.

bamboo with “straw”

Mado chopped down a large piece of bamboo, about 4” diameter, and then chopped out a section with 2 segments.  Each segment was filled with water, and he carried it back to Pa Lungan as a type of water bottle.

Mado with bamboo “water bottle”

drinking from a water vine

For food, he showed me 2 types of edible palm trunks, and ferns.  The palm is very starchy, but the ferns are delicious.  My other favorite food from the area was miniature lily pads sautéed with onion.  It’s quite similar to spinach, but with a more crunchy texture and delicate flavor.

edible palm trunk

edible ferns for sale in the Kuching market

You Can Do It Part I – Bario to Pa Lungan and Back

September 22, 2010

Yes, you can do it, if you have a map.

first page of You Can Do It map

I took photos of this lovely hand drawn map of the “Buffalo Trail” at my guesthouse in Bario so I could walk myself to the remote village of Pa Lungan, without hiring a guide. And I deleted the second page because it was blurry, without thinking to retake the shot. A 5 page map with the 2nd page missing is not very useful. That 2nd page had the critical information about which path to take past Pa Ukat village. It was Sunday and absolutely everyone in the village was in church, so I couldn’t ask directions. I took a wrong turn resulting in an hour long detour until I finally met a boy skipping out on church who set me right.

Pa Ukat and rice paddies

dried fern and flower

On the 4 hour walk I passed through jungle, swap, rice paddies, stream crossings and clearings filled with ferns taller than me. After the boy who gave me directions, I saw nobody on the trail for 2 hours. Then a small group of people with a buffalo pulling a load passed me, and I didn’t see anyone else until I got to Pa Lungan. There had been a torrential rain the day before and parts of the trail were so muddy that my shoe got sucked off twice. I arrived encrusted in mud.

the trail through giant ferns

the only sign on the trail between Pa Ukat and Pa Lungan

I stayed a night in Pa Lungan with Mado who taught me some interesting things about the jungle which I’ll post about in a few days.

rather aggressive looking buffalo blocking my way

Pa Lungan

On the walk back to Bario I got a nasty leech bite next to my belly button. Leech bites aren’t usually a big deal – they bleed for a long time like maybe 8 hours because the leech injects an anticoagulant, but they don’t hurt. You don’t even feel the bite. I’d had several previous leech bites and they weren’t even visible once they stopped bleeding. But this one was different.

When I untucked my shirt I saw the dark iron colored grapefruit diameter stain on my shirt in the belly button area. Then I saw the puncture wound – dark black and the size of a mechanical pencil eraser, and a 2” long thread of partially congealed blood. I saw with relief that the leech wasn’t still hanging around inside my shirt or belly button. It must have dropped away bloated with its fill of my blood. More worrisome than the bite was the red ring that encircled it like a bull’s-eye. That’s what made me think it might be infected. After 4 or 5 days the bull’s-eye started to fade and I stopped obsessing about it.

Leaving Bario my flight was delayed for 2 hours and a friendly local woman with a group of teenagers asked me to join them for lunch. I thought how nice. We chatted for a few minutes about where I was traveling and then she asked me if I was a Christian. Turns out she’s a church youth group leader.

In 1973, a spiritual revival took place in Bario and the Kelabit as a community embraced Christianity wholeheartedly, becoming actively involved in spreading the revival to other parts of Sarawak.*

I said, “I’m not religious.”

“But you know there is heaven and hell.”

“I don’t believe in hell.”

“There is a hell.” This was followed by a monologue on the revival and her faith in Jesus.

Finally I said, “I know you believe that, but I don’t.” The monologue ended and praise Jesus, I had a non-religious conversation with her less-fervent daughter for the rest of the meal.

Other details I learned about the church are that they believe in the speaking of tongues, and that going to church in Bario is considered by some to be a tourist attraction (not one I’m ever going to witness) because it’s so intense.

Despite the attempted conversion, the vampire leech bite, a diversion on the wrong trail, and the Rob Snyder** “You Can Do It” earworm, my walk in the beautiful countryside around Bario was the highlight of 3 weeks in Sarawak province.

*Note 1: source

**Note 2: I’m very disturbed by the earworm I got of the craptastic Rob Snyder saying You Can Do It from The Waterboy.

Rob Snyder is the worst successful actor I can think of. One of my heroes, Roger Ebert, agrees. His “Your Movie Sucks” reviews and book were started with the hilarious Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo 0 stars review.

Sharp Dressed Man

September 18, 2010

I was lucky to be in Lhasa during the Yogurt Festival.  Lots of people were dressed up in their best clothes.  These shots were taken on the walk up to the Drepung Monastery. 

I love the detail of the feather on his hat.  My Grandpa Wright used to do that.

My Favorite Walk: The Barkhor

September 16, 2010

Just over 1km long, the Barkhor Circuit circles the Jokhang Temple, on the streets of Lhasa’s old town.  The Jokhang is Tibetan Buddhism’s holiest temple. 

I walked the circuit a few times every day on my first visit to Tibet 9 years ago.  I am back in China, Tibet specifically, to do the Barkhor.  It’s simply the happiest place I’ve ever been and I wanted that feeling again.    

On arrival driving through Lhasa I have a sinking feeling seeing all the new buildings.  Chinese built concrete and big panes of glass versus the Tibetan style whitewashed mud brick with black trim and multi colored lintels.  There are also many new “fake old” buildings made of concrete brick with white paint.  I’m not fooled – they don’t have the right surface texture and patina of mud brick being repainted every year hundreds of times.  The walls are too straight.  I can’t explain why one building has soul and the other doesn’t.  I’m not a superstitious or sentimental person, but that’s how I feel about Lhasa.

Jokhang Temple, incense burner and people doing the circuit

It is late afternoon.  I drop my bag in the hotel room and walk quickly through a zigzag of narrow market streets to the circuit so I can do it once before it gets dark.  And with relief I see that it is the same.  I think nothing can kill it.  The giddiness of the pilgrim is a hard thing to dampen.  Religion is life in Tibet, and I’m so happy to see that hasn’t changed.

Tibetan with prayer wheel

Pilgrims and locals walk the circuit passing 4 large blackened incense burners.  The juniper incense strongly scents the air with the austere subtly sweet smell of wood and fire.  Each burner puffs a large plume of white smoke into the sky.  The most serious pilgrims carry wooden blocks and wear thick aprons because they prostrate themselves, their belly down on the ground, after every single step.  Many people carry prayer wheels that they keep spinning continuously.  The sound is a low buzz because everyone is murmuring their own private prayer.  I ask if it’s a set prayer and am told no, everyone prays their own thing, but they must pray for others and all living creatures, not for themselves.  They believe that this gives them merit and a chance for a higher level in the next life (there are 6 levels).  I think of it as Buddha points.  I’d just received news that my new nephew had been born but I didn’t know his name yet, so to join in the spirit I say “bless baby Tambre” over and over (his name is Oscar).

After completing the circuit, pilgrims stop in front of the temple to pray and do prostrations.  Then they join the packed line of people to enter the temple and pass through the various chapels containing holy statues and objects.  Inside the air feels and smells warm and thick, but it doesn’t stink which is a minor miracle given the grime of centuries of crowded pilgrims rubbing every surface.  Besides bodies the other scents are incense from burners on the ground, wax burning in hundreds of “yak butter” lamps (now all wax I’m told), and offerings like barley wine.

front of Jokhang prostrations

Why do I, as a non-religious agnostic person, love the Barkhor?  It is Tibet condensed in 1km.  Everyone is so happy to be there building up credit in their Buddha banks.  It’s very crowded and you can’t help bumping into people, but when the bump happens a friendly smile instead of an “f-you” is exchanged.  I am happy to keep bobbing along in the sea of murmuring Tibetans.

view of Barkhor Square and Circuit from top of Jokhang

Michelle’s Questionnaire

September 13, 2010

Most travel writing is full of lists, like top rated places to eat and 500 places to see before you die.  I’ve only done a few on the blog – one recent ode to Singapore and an older post about pick-up lines.  Now it’s time to do a serious list.  Here are answers to the questions that Michelle posted in comments a while back.  Thanks for the great questions Michelle!

1. What has been your favorite food so far (and from what country)?

  • Southern Africa: the Indian food in Durban
  • Middle East: Syrian pastries – the one that looks like a nest is my favorite.  Syrian deep fried cauliflower and salads
  • Central Asia: Nepali milk tea and spicy buffalo momos (dumplings).  Good and cheap!

2. Least favorite food

  • Southern Africa: corn meal porridge called nshima in Zambia, pap in South Africa
  • Middle East: mutton everywhere
  • Central Asia: yak meat in Tibet.  Even Tibetans say that Tibetan food isn’t good and to eat in the Chinese restaurants.  Honorable mention goes to the fermented bean curd in China, which is more revolting than yak, but yak is worse because it’s the only thing available on many menus and therefore inescapable

3. Most rewarding experience so far 

  • Southern Africa: walking through the villages in Zambia
  • Middle East: talking to the people in Aleppo Syria who were so friendly
  • Central Asia: walking the pilgrim circuits in Tibet – Ganden Monastery, Drepung Monastery during the Yogurt Festival, and the Barkhor Circuit

4. Favorite place visited – any place you would go back to with more time?

  • Southern Africa: Botswana, Chobe river area because of the elephants everywhere
  • Middle East: I need to go back to Petra Jordan with my husband.  Also the Hagia Sofia in Istanbul which may be my favorite building of all time
  • Central Asia:  Lhasa, Tibet.  This is my second visit.  It’s not easy to get to, but I will definitely be back a 3rd time if I can.  It has the best atmosphere of anywhere I’ve been because of the open hearted Tibetan people

5. Has there been a “been there, done that, was nice but probably wont be back” place?

  • Southern Africa:  Fish River Canyon in Southern Namibia.  If you’ve been to the Grand Canyon, there’s really no need to go there
  • Middle East:  I became very jaded about seeing crusader castles and roman ruins.  One or two great sites is wonderful, more becomes too much.  At one point I remember passing by a very impressive hilltop crusader castle and Jade saying that she really didn’t need to go inside, and I said “I don’t give a poo about castles”.  Spoiled!
  • Central Asia:  Western China has many sites of “1000 Buddha caves”.  You really only need to go to one, and that’s the Magoa Caves near Dunhuang

6. Most breath-taking views

  • Southern Africa: Drakensburg National Park, South Africa, Amphitheatre hike
  • Middle East: Wadi Rum Desert, Jordan
  • Central Asia: The Karakorum Highway, Western China near Kashgar

7. Funniest moment

  • Southern Africa: the Fo Shizzle elevator incident
  • Middle East: posing as the Sex in the City girls in Wadi Rum Jordan.  The cheesy pick-up lines from the men in Turkey
  • Central Asia: Grape Valley, so bad it was good, and the condom incident at the Seman hotel

Welcome to Malaysia

September 11, 2010

Early morning subway ride to get to the airport, you know the drill – check in, security, wait around for an hour and a half.  It’s a short flight from Singapore to Kuching on the island of Borneo, East Malaysia.  Eric from the Fairview Guesthouse picks me up.  He asks if I want to try a local food called laksa.  Yes please!  Jade and her relatives had given me a list of things I needed to try in Malaysia, and that’s one.  Eric takes me to a very simple food court for laksa and so begins my love affair with the dish that I’ve eaten every day since my arrival – that’s 9 days so far.

Eric with a bowl of laksa

Laksa is a soup with vermicelli noodles and broth of coconut milk, curry, chilies, and lime.  It’s a flavortastic combination of sweet, acid, spicy and creamy. The soup is topped with chicken, bean spouts, prawns and strips of omelet.  It’s very popular for breakfast and lunch. 

After the laksa Eric also treats me to rojak and iced katcha – 2 favorites I’d tried in Singapore.  Over the next few days various locals I meet declared themselves to be a:

  • foodie
  • food snob
  • walking food directory

They’ll give opinions on which city in Malaysia or Singapore has the best laksa, or rojak, or whatever.  Now I begin to understand the food obsession of Jade a little better.  She spent the first 13 years of her life on Borneo.  Malaysia’s food obsession is like hockey in Canada.  I have come to the right place.

Later the same day I take a boat cruise.  Even though I’ve taken a ton of sunrise and sunset shots on this trip, I’ve managed to restrain myself from posting them until now.  I was treated to the most gorgeous sky and I just have to post a few!

I will be in East Malaysia for about a month.  My first day was certainly an auspicious beginning.