Day 2 – 3: Delightful Dalat

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Day 2 and 3 of bike touring were not spent so much on a bike, as off it. Our desired destination, Dalat, a French inspired mountain town in the midst of the countryside, was 200km away, and a far stretch to reach, given the chaotic roads and steep hills. We asked Thanh about the possibility of throwing our bikes on a bus to get there and she got right to arranging for it.

After our morning bowl of Phó, we were once again escorted on our bikes, this time to the bus station. Thanh continued to look after us like a mother hen, and made sure we got on safe. Although it was 11am, we had a sleeper bus, and we spent the next 5 hours on its reclining seats watching it almost run over every vehicle in its way, glad to not be one of them. When we finally reached Dalat, we hopped back into the saddle, and rode into town a few kms away. This time, I asked for directions like a pro and we were able to get to our hotel without any major incident. The hotel was a splurge by backpacker standards, but included free bike parking and a steam room, sauna and jacuzzi. Of course, this was where I spent the rest of my evening.

The next morning, not eager to ride for a third day in a row, I befriended our hotel receptionist, Dyeng, and asked him for recommendations on what to do around Dalat. I indicated that I was interested in a local experience, and something that would give me a taste of the beauty of the surrounding areas I had heard so much about. He was quick to suggest his cousin, Thu, take me around – I’d get the local experience I was looking for, helping somebody, and it’d be half the cost of regular tours. “Ok, great. I’ll take it.”

Thu came in on her motorbike 15 minutes later and I knew I’d have a great day right away. She was sweet, spoke reasonable english and was born and raised in Dalat so knew it like the back of her hand.

Our first stop of the day was Pinhatt Mountain, in the outskirts of the city. I knew I was getting the local experience when we parked her bike 10 minutes away and walked to an obscure path, obsctructed by barbed wire, and slipped under it. There are clearly no trespassing laws in Vietnam. As we continued a 45 minute secluded hike up, I learnt more about Thu – her background, her family, her aspirations. She dreams of visiting the US someday to experience it’s beauty and it’s culture, while I’m trying to do the same in her country. At the top, we were rewarded with stunning views, had a filling lunch of Vu Sua (Star Apple or Milk fruit) and raisin bread, and headed back down, while I practised some newly acquired Vietnamese skills.

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IMG_5291 Over the course of the day, Thu showed me around through the rest of Dalat – some touristy stuff like the “Crazy House” and the “XQ Traditional Village” – a handicraft village where women embroider awe-inspiring scenes on silk , and some amazing stuff like coffee plantations and strawberry farms, a hidden coffee shop that overlooked the valley, and her home, where I was greeted by the rest of her family and offered home-grown avocadoes!

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In the evening, left to my own devices, I strolled around the little town and it’s beautiful, but busy market, people watching. All in all, Dalat was a fantastic and relaxing experience. Next leg: Biking to Nha Trang, coastal beach town!

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Day 1 of bike touring: A taste of Vietnam

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I awoke at 4am and tried to noiselessly exit from my cramped room, trying not to disturb my 11 (yes, that’s not a typo) roommates. I had barely managed to sleep at midnight, but I was excited. This was going to be the first day in a series of long bike trips from south of Vietnam, up north.

It all started with a vague idea of doing something adventurous -  something I hadn’t tried before. When researching Vietnam, I noticed a number of tours offering country wide biking trips. A big draw was the country’s supposedly flat terrain. However, I was not up for doing a guided tour so I decided I would do my own bike trip through the highlands and coasts of Vietnam, and get a taste of its culture.

I can’t explain how, but everything just fell into place. I found a great, experienced riding partner, Mike, who found me a second hand bike from someone that had just completed such a trip. Thank God (Vint Cerf?) for the internet. Only two days ago, I bought my bike, met Mike for the first time, and got accessorized. Today, I was ready to set out with my freshly packed panniers, caffeinated and eager.

My awesome ride

Our plan was to get to Dinh Quan, a little lakeside town, known for its picturesque views. Our path was fairly simple. Zigzag through the city roads, find the main highway (highway 1) and stay on it for a while before eventually making a cut to the more remote Ho Chi Minh road (HCMR), which would reward us with better views and lesser traffic.

We started off slightly before dawn to beat the heavy city traffic, me with 45lbs in tow. It took me bit to get used to the bike wobbling from all that weight, but eventually I got the hang of it, and we danced with the oncoming traffic from various directions making our way out of the city. We were equipped with fairly unreliable maps, and there weren’t many road signs, so we resorted to using a compass and our instincts.

Only when we stopped for breakfast, two hours later at a roadside Phó cafe, did we find out we were significantly off our planned route. This was the first of many incidents over the day where we got ourselves into trouble and relied on the excellent Vietnamese hospitality to get us out of it.

As we skirted around towns, trying to find the elusive highway, we stopped occasionally, stretching the navigational and language skills of locals getting them to point us where they thought we were going. Quite often, this led us further down the rabbit hole. Eventually we stopped at a gas station, and found a young guy who helped geolocate us on his phone, and even volunteered to escort us to the highway on his motorcycle. We followed him through hair raising traffic for 15 minutes. When we finally reached, we bid a grateful adieu, wished each other a happy new year, and parted ways.

In Vietnam, the right of way goes to the largest vehicle. As a result of this we were quite frequently run off the road. Motorcycles darted in and out, their passengers staring at us like we’d lost our minds, and giving us the occasional wave. On our right, frequent violators who rode the wrong way, would try to push us further into the road. Sometimes even children would run along or follow on their tricycles on the side, screaming “Hello!”. Needless to say, it was a stressful ride, and we were really looking forward to that cut into HCMR.

A few hours later, we heaved a sigh of relief as we saw a huge intersection that marked our turning point. And what a turning point it was. The roads were about half the size of the highway, with just about the same amount of traffic resulting in a very perilous journey indeed. We were pushed off the road and forced to bike through gravel and sand that were so loose, we risked skidding and falling right into the road.

Exhausted and not wanting this to be the last day of our lives, we decided to call it a day and start looking for places to stay. We were passing dusty little villages, and had little hope for our options. We came across a group of local boys one of whom spoke some English and tried to help us. After a really funny conversation about hotels, motels and Nha Nghi’s (motel in Vietnamese), he passed us over to a guy on his motorbike who motioned us to follow him to a “place to stay”. Reluctant at first, I eventually relented and said, “OK, let’s follow him”. As we did, I laughed when I heard the group of boys applaud for their friend who helped us communicate.

The man led us into narrow alleyways away from the busy main roads and into a beautiful little town, with bridges, surrounding gardens and quiet streets and eventually to an amazing little boutique hotel, where we were greeted by our wonderful host, Thanh. For $7 a night, with our bikes secure in our rooms, this was a steal.

Truly an amazing off the beaten track experience, we had a great evening. Since the only nearby cafe was still closed on account of TET, Thanh took me on her scooter to go get dinner, first to the deep ends of town, to meet her mother and pick up dinner for her sister and herself, and then to go pick up food from stalls for Mike and myself. We eventually joined Thanh, her sister, and her nephlings for dinner at their beautiful home, that would give most Manhattan homes a run for their money.

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Dinner!

When we all finally retired to our respective rooms in the evening, I took some time to think about my day. M  ike and I had covered close to 130kms over 10 hours on treacherous terrain through a country whose language and people we did not know. If the people had not been so helpful, and accommodating, our day could’ve ended very differently.

Today was a day with a lot of lessons. The kind of day that teaches you about trust, patience and kindness. The kind of day that restores your faith in humanity. The kind of day one hopes to experience during their lifetime. I’m glad I did.

The roundabout way to Buddha Park

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Since I last blogged, my travels took me to Borneo, peninsular Malaysia, Singapore and India. In India, I had more than my share of distractions with lots of festivities and idle family time, so it was easy to win back most of the pounds lost earlier in the trip. With barely a couple of days to the end of our stay, I caused some panic by nearly breaking Sriram’s nose attempting to do an assisted handstand. No permanent damage was done though and a few days later, we set out with our heads held high from Delhi towards Laos prepared to face our next set of adventures.

Our first stop was Vientiane, the sleepy little capital city of Laos. We arrived at it’s dusty streets a little past dinner time. Our guesthouse, Auberge Sala Inpeng, was a wonderful little oasis with its own garden in the midst of a little alleyway off the Mekong. Our first evening was very quiet; our only adventure being ordering a vegetarian meal “baw sai nam pa” (without fish sauce).

Over the next couple of days, we explored Vientiane at a languid pace, suitable to the nature of the city, scoping out the various temples (Wats) and the city’s prominent landmarks such as Patouxay and the Golden Stupa (Pha That Luang) interspersed with frequent visits to various cafes to explore the local food choices and more so for free internet access. Our evenings were spent sampling the burst of flavor that is the Lao cuisine, drinking the excellent and understated (compared to its lighter sibling) dark Beer Lao, and strolling along the Mekong through the night markets.

On the third day, feeling intrepid, we decided to take the public bus to Buddha Park (aka Xieng Khuan) instead of opting for the pricy private tuk-tuk or minivan options, in order to get the “local experience”. We were also assured by a random fellow traveler, who indicated to us that the bus stops just outside the park entrance.

We arrived at the final stop, just short of the border of Thailand where we were immediately surrounded by a throng of tuk-tuk drivers vying to take us to the Buddha Park, quoting unreasonably large prices by Laos standards. Our misguided information led us to believe that the park was in walking distance of the station, so in order to not let them get the best of us, we shirked them off.

We probably looked like we knew what we were doing since an English couple (James & Liz) who were about as lost as us, asked if they could join us while we figured our way out. While I chatted with them, Sriram who was trying to get our bearings, unwittingly almost crossed over to the Thai border on foot without a passport. Eventually, we decided to walk out of the station, still clueless yet faithful.

As we exited, we took a right at a fork based on directions someone at the bus station had indicated to us and walked down about a 100m when we came across another tuk-tuk driver. This time when we asked him to take us to the “Buddha Park”, he fervently nodded and asked us the equivalent of $0.50 per person, about a tenth of the price that was originally quoted to us. Feeling utterly satisfied with ourselves on striking a good deal, we agreed and hopped in, congratulating ourselves on our victory along the way.

As the driver sped on, we exchanged some travel stories. James & Liz had traveled across Laos, and we were curious to hear about their experiences. Sriram seemed to be the only concerned party regarding the distance we were traveling. Ten minutes later, as the tuk-tuk stopped to pick up more local passengers (none of whom spoke English), we casually inquired (with a lot of hand gestures and pictures of the park) whether they were also going to Xieng Khuan. It was only then that we realized, that the driver had no clue where we were headed. He had driven us 10km back towards Vientiane, in the opposite direction!

We got off and struggled to find random strangers (even kids) for directions to get back. Turns out, kids speak the best English in some parts of town. Eventually, we found a man who spoke “fluent” English (relatively) who informed us that we should cross the street and catch the same bus back to the station. Luckily, a bus happened to come just then, and we hopped on for a second shot at getting to the park.

This time as we reached, we all ashamedly hid ourselves from the tuk-tuk drivers we had earlier dismissed, and negotiated our way to the park. Finally, we found a tuk-tuk driver willing to take us for a little over a dollar each. After a long and bumpy ride on rough roads, we finally arrived at our destination and were amazed by the psychedelic, larger than life sized sculptures of Buddha, and other Hindu gods. Our not-so-local experience had been totally worth it!

Our way back was comparatively uneventful, but at the very least our journey to the park left us with a few laughs and a story to tell!

Losing my heart to Ubud

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It feels a lot longer than three weeks ago that I stepped off a plane to be greeted by the sultry, tropical climate typical of Bali. After clearing immigration, and confirming I was a millionaire in the country, I was immediately relieved of a significant part of that amount by the airport taxi stand. Clearly, I would need to work on my negotiation skills over the trip.

An hour’s drive later, through narrow roads zigzagging through motorbikes, I arrived at my destination; a community house in a small village called Petulu, 3km north of Ubud. As I entered, the place was swarming with backpackers and mosquitoes and I spent the rest of the evening getting to know them both quite intimately. The next morning, up at 4.30am due to jet lag and roosters, I decided to get an early start on exploring Ubud.

Ubud lies in the heart of Bali, in the center of the fertile southern rice fields. Fertility means much more than just an abundance of verdant rice paddies though – there is a huge flowering of the arts which happens throughout this magical town. Painting, batik, music, dance, gamelan as well as woodcarving, silversmithing and mask making – there’s something for everybody. From my tour operator who carves wood in his spare time, to the gardener who paints canvases when he’s done tending the community house garden, everybody is an artist in Ubud.

With a name that comes from the Balinese word Ubad, which means medicine, it has long been known as a mystical place with healing powers. Although more actively popularized since the release of “Eat, Pray, Love” – Ubud has long since been recognized as Bali’s cultural and spiritual heart. Scores of yoga retreat centers, spas and vegetarian and vegan options (even more than in New York!) line its streets, with hoards of delicious, cheap food to choose from.

My days in Ubud were spent taking in the beautiful rice fields and amazing temple views from the back of a motorbike, getting daily massages (at $6 a massage, who wouldn’t?), practicing yoga, taking cooking and woodworking classes, eating delicious food, watching traditional temple ceremonies and dances, climbing Gunung Batur, and making lots of new friends.

All that said, it’s not all rosy here. Tourists, heavy traffic and strays throng the streets – there’s filth amidst the beauty, chaos amidst the tranquility, and modern establishments (like Starbucks) replacing the semblance of a quaint old town. Still, you see what you choose to see. And I see that the place is hanging on to a magic that I can only hope will transcend the rapid changes taking place here – a magic that causes its visitors to want to come back over and again and for many, to move here to change their lives.

Paradise on Air

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There’s not much that sunny skies,turquoise waters, and white sands cannot cure. Getting robbed falls into that bucket. Spent the past few days at Gili Air, a lovely little island off the coast of Lombok – an island where you can lose yourself to life, which I believe is exactly what people from all over the world come there to do for a few days and sometimes end up spending years.

I arrived at Gili Air, windswept and disconcerted after my experience at Lombok and spent the evening seeking comfort from family. Therese and Jonas, whom I climbed Rinjani with, accompanied me to the island and we opted for the first place we could find – a homestay, which met the basic comforts but with a half unhinged lock, that in my paranoid state had me sleeping fitfully for the night.

The next morning, I scoured other places to stay with my sister’s help, and found some lovely little cottages near the beach. Forget the budget – this was going to be my splurge. After cleaning my disgusting belongings with baby wipes and dropping all my stuff at the laundry, I was back in the game.

I expected to spend just one more night at Gili Air but ended up there for four. My mornings were spent in the company of locals (Amir and Adi), Ocean 5 dive masters (Thanks Oliver and Mawi) and marine wildlife – sea horses, turtles (dude!), nemo (clown) fish, frog fish, nudibranches, lion fish, stone fish, feather stars and countless other species. And my evenings with four lovely ladies whom I met on my second night – dancing with the locals, grooving at a trance party with our very own DJ Matilda and talking under the beautiful starry nights laying by the beach. It was exactly the kind of therapy the doctor had prescribed.

Sometimes leaving for paradise (Bali) is hard when you think you’re already there, But the life of a traveler is one that is always in motion – and I’m excited about what lies in store.

Pirates of Lombok

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Its been a rough week in indonesia thus far. I arrived in Bali about a week ago, after a frenzied week packing and taking care of my indefinitely long list of things to do in New York , barely having the time to register what i was about to set out on.

Fast forward four days which i will write about later, i jumped islands to Lombok, to climb the famed Gunung Rinjani. I was accompanied by a danish couple, our guide, and some porters and we had a challenging but rewarding hike to the summit. After making our way down to the base, the operator informed us they’d been robbed the night before (something i later found out was not infrequent) by a group of bandits with foot long knives. At knife point, the employees were forced to hand over all valuables including our backpacks. And as if that weren’t enough, they stabbed one of the guys lethally, who is now fighting for his life in a hospital.

The operator, Rudy, and his employees after a thorough search of the tiny village found some our belongings in a pool of mud a few hours later and retrieved them. It was quite shocking to see the condition of everything – shred, torn or pulled apart, specially after a cold, wet night in the mountains. I lost everything of value including my laptop, phone, go pro, nook, sunglasses and with them 5 unsynced blog posts.

So all in all, its been a bit of a shocking start to the trip. At Gili Air now which feels much safer, and I’m beginning to get over my loss and will hopefully get around to rewriting my experiences from the first week again.

As some very wise people in my life remind me, I’ve set out to have new experiences on this trip. This is just a painful reminder that in life, you cant choose your experiences.

We live a privileged life back home and aren’t victims of desperation and violence. My thoughts go out to the locals who go out of their way to be nice to you and try to make an honest living despite all the terror that surrounds them.