Smoking and sensationalism

Shortly before I left for my trip, I had the chance to watch the latest Vanguard documentary, entitled “Sex, Lies and Cigarettes.” It’s now available on Youtube, with Indonesian subtitles to boot. Check it out before reading this post, if you have the chance.

When I first saw this piece, I had an immediate, visceral reaction. How could Western tobacco companies be so shamelessly exploiting this developing nation? What could I do about it when I arrived in Sumatra? What would I write about it for my blog?

Throughout my time in Indonesia (ten weeks in eight provinces) I took note of what I saw around me relating to this issue. And, politically incorrect as it may be, my general conclusion by the end was… this is it? This is what all the fuss is about?

First, let me state that I do not support “big tobacco” and in general, I’d love to see smoking become less prevalent around the world. But after witnessing the reality on the ground in Indonesia, I was able to see how sensationalist the documentary is, how it’s been edited in ways to make certain points that may not be valid, and how it fails to look at the problem within its cultural context, giving it an ethnocentric perspective that appeals to the western viewer.

Here are some points the documentary tries to make, along with my related impressions from Indonesia.

1. “Smoking is extremely prevalent in Indonesia. Virtually everyone smokes, and a significant number of young children are starting to smoke.” Indonesians smoke. I heard this not only from the documentary, but also from guidebooks and friends who had been in Indonesia before. Stepping off the plane in Medan, Sumatra, I expected to be engulfed in a huge cloud of cigarette smoke. I was so sure everyone would be smoking that I was surprised to see only a handful of men lighting up outside.

But as I spent more and more time in the country, I noted many other people who were not smoking. Three brothers in their twenties, not one of whom smokes. A driver on an eight-hour bus ride not smoking out the window or taking a cigarette break. A 19-year-old martial arts master who’d never even think to pick up a cigarette.

None of the expert cigarette rollers at the Sampoerna factory smoke. It might cut down on their efficiency…

Imagine my surprise when I finally went to an authoritative source to discover that Indonesia is nowhere near the top of the list when it comes to per capita cigarette consumption. I thought it might have been overlooked until I noticed it all the way down at number 52! That puts countries like Australia, Israel, and yes, the US – ahead of Indonesia in cigarette consumption. This can be explained by the fact that there is a double standard for smoking in Indonesian culture – traditionally, men do it and women don’t.  Of the several Indonesian women I met, just two were smokers (ironically, I saw more foreign women smoking in the “health and wellness” hub of Ubud, Bali, than anywhere else on my trip). It’s pretty remarkable how few Indonesian women smoke these days, considering the ubiquitous tobacco advertising and foreign influence.

As for children? The youngest child I saw smoking was around 14, and he was the lone smoker among his group of friends. While I’m sure younger kids have tried cigarettes (they may be doing it more behind closed doors), there is less visible evidence of underage smoking than I have seen in places like Quebec or Israel.

Teens hanging out after school in Yogyakarta. No cigarettes…

2. “Tobacco companies aggressively market their products in Indonesia. Most of this advertising is coming from the West, exploiting a population that is largely unaware cigarettes are harmful.” It’s true that tobacco advertising in Indonesia is everywhere. On major roads, it seems like 90% of the billboards are cigarette ads, and competing tobacco companies practically wallpaper rural towns with their promotional posters. But according to the documentary, Marlboro signs are everywhere and the poor Indonesians have no idea that being a “cowboy” might give them cancer. In my experience, the vast majority of tobacco advertising in Indonesia is posted by – surprise! – Indonesian tobacco companies. The largest of them, Sampoerna, has been owned by Philip Morris since 2006 – but it still operates within Indonesia and has a long history in the country. Kretek (clove cigarette) smoking was developed in Indonesia, has been around for decades, and was originally considered to be a medical treatment.

Popular coffee shop in Aceh, fully sponsored by Sampoerna tobacco & decked out in cigarette ads.

In the documentary, we see the reporter flipping on the TV in his hotel room and watching cigarette commercial after cigarette commercial. In fact, these commercials may only be shown after 9:30 PM.  In my experience, the majority of local channels were far more likely to be advertising baby formula. As for the population being unaware that cigarettes are harmful, prominently placed on every tobacco ad (often helping me identify them as such) is a government warning nearly identical to the one we’ve had in the US since 1985. The message conveyed by the documentary – that the health hazards of smoking are still largely up for debate in Indonesia – seems off the mark and almost offensive considering the presence of these warnings.

3. “Young people are specifically targeted by these marketing campaigns.”  Most of the tobacco billboards and other display ads I saw barely included more than the name and logo of the company. Few images of people and never cartoon characters or anything else specifically targeting children. The documentary takes issue with tobacco companies sponsoring big concerts and other events that might attract youth. The reality is that tobacco is one of the biggest industries in Indonesia – one of the few that can afford to sponsor these events. Indonesian tobacco companies also sponsor free city tours and disaster relief after volcanic eruptions. They may be using every opportunity available to bombard the public with their advertising, but I’m not sure the fact that they’re sponsoring concerts along with everything else means they’re intentionally targeting young children.

By writing this post, I don’t mean to discount the fact that smoking is a problem in Indonesia and that the country could use more regulation when it comes to tobacco. Since the strongest, unfiltered, more “traditional” cigarettes are smoked largely by the oldest generation and educated young people seem not to smoke as much, I do think there’s hope for Indonesia to eventually follow in the footsteps of the US and European countries that have taken significant steps to combat the problem. But comparing my observations with what was presented in this documentary will definitely make me look at other journalistic works with a more critical eye.


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Back in the US! No worse for the wear…

So, my Asia jaunt ended about two weeks ago when I took a 30-hour trip from Singapore to Washington, DC, including a 7-hour layover in Doha, Qatar. It was a long trip, but not quite as hellish as it sounds. For around $40, I was able to use the Oryx lounge in Doha, which provided fun snacks such as za’atar croissants and fresh dates. I even took a shower there and managed to nap for a couple of hours on a makeshift 4-foot-long bed created by pushing two chairs together.

Immigration and customs at Washington Dulles took longer than ever (well, definitely longer than in most of the other countries I’d just visited) and by the time I got outside to wait for my ride, I was feeling pretty out of it. The only reason I ended up chatting with the other people waiting was because I needed to borrow a phone to get in touch with my sister and let her know I’d arrived.

I first turned to a guy to my right, who was around my age and carrying only a small backpack. I noticed he had bandages all over his arms and legs and couldn’t help asking, “Wow… what happened to you?” Expecting one of the usual backpacker misadventures – a motorbike accident in Vietnam, a drunken night at the full moon party – I was shocked to hear that he’d nearly been abducted in a taxi in Guayaquil, Ecuador the night before, and that he’d managed to escape with his passport (and his life) only after wrestling with the driver and two other guys and jumping out of the moving vehicle…

But he didn’t have a phone I could use. So I turned to the people to my left, an older couple with big suitcases. They did have a phone for me. After I used it, they asked me where I had just arrived from. When I said Singapore, they said that’s where they had been too. But they hadn’t planned to be there. The reason they were coming back from Singapore was because their cruise ship had caught fire. They had been stranded at sea for several days (“with no air conditioning!”) before being ferried over to Singapore.

As I got into the car to head back to Rockville, I couldn’t help feeling fortunate to have made it back home in one piece!

Anyway, I realize I’ve been more of a full-time wanderer than a full-time blogger during my travels… Now that I have some down time, I’m working on filling in some of the gaps and summarizing my experiences, so I should have more to post here soon. If you do read these posts, feel free to let me know – it definitely motivates me to write more when I hear from you!

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7 things Japan does better

I spent three weeks in Japan at the beginning of this month as a break from southeast Asia. It was my first time in the country. In many ways, Japan felt like another world – a more convenient, efficient, aesthetically pleasing one than the one I’m used to in the US. Here are some of the things I’m going to miss about Japan that should be adopted by every other country in the world as soon as possible.

1. Heated seats. It’s the little things that matter, and the joy of finding that my seat – be it on the toilet, train, metro, or rickshaw – is radiating heat (especially when the air is freezing) is enough to brighten my day. In particular, heated toilet seats are amazing, probably because we’ve been programmed in the West to expect uncomfortably cold porcelain.  

Your heated seat may even sing to you…

I was surprised that even the seat of the human-powered rickshaw I took was so toasty warm, and later realized I was sitting directly on cloth heating pads. And because the seats of the cable car gondola in Hakone aren’t heated, they hand each person a cushion before the ride to spare our bottoms from the cold leather. Maybe the Japanese are as concerned as the Russians that you’ll sit on something cold and be unable to bear children? (If you’re not Russian, don’t ask…)

2. Timely transportation. In Japan, most things run like clockwork. Trains and even buses come and go exactly at the scheduled time, and you get used to things being reliable. What impressed me even more was that the one time I observed a delay, instead of one late train causing a massive system-wide jam (ahem, Caltrain) the following train was delayed half as long, and things were fixed after that.  

Also, of all the somber things I learned in Hiroshima, it was pretty shocking to hear that the trams in the city started running again three days after the place was reduced to radioactive rubble.

When one train is late in Japan, the trains behind it quickly make up for lost time! No excuses.

3. Need change? No problem. I understand why many of the countries I’ve visited frown upon large denominations of currency – a tuk tuk driver in Bangkok might not make 1000 baht (~$30) in a week, so he’s unlikely to have change when you hand him that much money. But in many places, it gets ridiculous. You can’t pay with a bill worth $5 in parts of Thailand or Indonesia without getting complaints. And in the US, where it shouldn’t be a problem, I always feel the need to gingerly ask “Can you break this…?” if I want to pay with anything bigger than a $20. Often, the answer is no, or the bill is scrutinized for five minutes before they determine I’m not associated with the mob.

Well, welcome to Japan, the country where you can hand over 10,000 yen ($120) to pay for a pack of gum and get nothing but a smile, a few crisp bills, and a handful of (very valuable) coins in return. My first night in Tokyo, I arrived late and had to take a short taxi ride from a metro station to my hostel. I only had 10,000s (that’s the smallest denomination available at ATMs) and handed one over to pay for the ride. I was surprised, not only that it wasn’t an issue to pay with this much cash, but that all I got back was a huge handful of coins! Later I realized that one little 500 yen coin is worth $8…

Just found the equivalent of $15 in my pocket, nbd.

4. Taxis = VIP. Still on the subject of taxis – that first ride was quite an experience! I thought the lace-covered seats, automatic passenger door the driver pushes a button to open, and general feel of being chauffeured  around in a fancy, retro-chic town car might be unique to the cab I had chosen. But no. These are the standard features of taxis all over Japan. And I love it.

Each company has its own symbol on top of the cab. I liked the heart-shaped ones. <3

The cab I ended up taking in Kyoto – an electric car with a female driver!

Ok, so they could be a little cheaper (the fare in Tokyo *starts* at 700 yen – almost $10!) but it’s nice that taking a taxi is a quiet, comfortable, classy experience and that the drivers are generally trustworthy and serious about their jobs – not refusing to turn on the meter, chatting away on the phone, swerving through traffic at a breakneck speed, or doing any of the other things they do in many countries around the world. I’d actually go so far as to say the handful of cabs I took in Japan felt even more “VIP” than the Uber town cars in SF… and compared to those, Japanese taxis are a bargain!

5. Hot drinks, corn soup, and every other random awesome thing you can think of  – in vending machines. Most people have heard that vending machines are a thing in Japan. Well, the rumors are true – they are everywhere. The Japanese have made transactions easy by letting you pay a machine instead of a human for almost everything from museum tickets to ice skating admission to street food to train fares over $100. You may have to hand the ticket you get to a person afterward, but things move a lot faster with the machine processing the transaction.

Long line of vending machines in Shinjuku, Tokyo.

Since my trip fell in the dead of winter, I especially appreciated the fact that hot drinks were as readily available in the ubiquitous vending machines as cold ones. They come in plastic bottles and metal cans, containers we in the West have been taught aren’t for hot drinks – but somehow, it works out fine. Aside from the typical drinks (tea, coffee, cocoa…) most machines offer hot lemonade (?!) and corn soup (?!!)

Is it a cold winter day? Reach for a plastic bottle of refreshing, hot lemonade…

Every company wants in on the lucrative corn soup in a can business.

I tried both. The hot lemonade was a little odd. I drank the whole thing, but I didn’t get it again. Maybe other brands are better than Minute Maid.

The corn soup, on the other hand, is amazing. The corn usually settles on the bottom, and some brands have just a few kernels while others have a lot more, but the broth is nice – sweet and warm and not too watery. I would often grab a can of corn soup when I was starving but too busy sightseeing to get a proper meal. It’s the perfect cold-weather snack, and I think I’ll miss it back home!

6. The bento box. Now that we’re on the topic of food… I discovered the train station bento box phenomenon relatively late in my trip. I wanted to head to Nara from Kyoto pretty late in the day, and was stressing over where to eat and how much time it would waste when someone told me to grab a bento box and eat on the train. I’d heard of these, but somehow failed to notice them even though I’d already been through half a dozen Japanese train stations. The box comes in pretty wrapping (like everything in Japan), so it feels like you’re giving yourself a little present. Inside is a little tray with different sections for food – there’ s a rice section, and most of the other stuff is vegetarian with some seafood and maybe a tiny bit of meat. At least, that’s what was in the cheaper boxes I got. I have no idea what half the stuff was that I ate, but it was all pretty good (the general trend in Japan). The main things are that it’s cheap (you can easily get a box for under $10), fast (they are pre-packaged) and it’s real, wholesome, filling food. This is true fast food, America. Watch and learn.

Don’t ask what it is, just eat it.

7. Visual menus. So apparently Japan just knows how to do food right. Ordering a bento box is easy, because all the options are displayed as plastic models under the counter where they’re sold. Not only is this a major help for foreigners who don’t know Japanese, but it’s great in general – you can look at the food and decide what you’re in the mood for. This visual menu thing isn’t limited to bento boxes – many eating establishments in Japan have plastic models depicting everything from sushi to udon noodles to hamburgers.

Assortment of bento box models at the train station.

If they don’t have these models, the menu will almost always have photos of the food listed. It’s great to know exactly what you’re going to get instead of (to take the clichéd example) being shocked by the snails on your plate after ordering escargot. I guess visual menus also serve to make you hungrier than you already are, which can’t be bad for business.

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Finding the positive in paradise…

So I already went into detail about how the south of Thailand in high season isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. But given that the setting was not ideal, I managed to have some pretty great times over the three weeks I spent there. Here are some highlights:

Seeing Sveta on Koh Lipe

It’s not every day you get to meet up with your second cousin from Moscow on an idyllic Thai island. Once we managed to find each other (it took a few attempts), we spent some quality time snorkeling, beach bumming and sharing buckets. I got to meet Sveta’s boyfriend Maxim and the other couple they were traveling with, Denis and Sasha.

It was also nice to practice speaking Russian for a week and to have some company on an island full of couples and families. Unfortunately, Sveta and her friends each got sick in turn so we had to adjust some of our plans, but we had fun in the end.


Diving around Phi Phi

When I arrived on Koh Phi Phi, I was almost ready to leave – the place had changed so much and was dirty and chaotic. But my first day on the island I got up before 7 (when most of the partiers are just getting to bed…) and went on two dives with Viking Divers. I rented an underwater camera for the first time and spent the day honing my skills. Fortunately, we saw so much I had many chances to get a decent shot.




We saw tons of turtles, lionfish, stingrays, eels, clownfish (Nemo!) and other fun things, but my photos of those weren’t as good.


Camping on Bamboo Island 

When I first visited Phi Phi four years ago, I took one of the many day trips around the island to see beaches and go snorkeling. My favorite place was surprisingly not the famous Maya Bay but this tiny island I’d never heard of, Bamboo Island. My dad later said it was his favorite beach near Phi Phi too. All I could think of when I visited for an hour was how cool it would be to visit the island for a longer period of time, to be there when the day-trippers were gone.

So when I got to Phi Phi and met Sarah, an Italian traveler who was equally disenchanted with the state of Phi Phi itself, I mentioned that we should look into camping on Bamboo Island. All over town, touts were selling trips to go camping at Maya Bay, which is apparently just an extension of the party on Phi Phi. Bamboo Island wasn’t mentioned anywhere. But while I was out diving, Sarah took a walk and at the quiet western end of the beach managed to find Suleiman, a man of many trades – one of which is taking people to camp on Bamboo Island!  For the price of a (high season) mid-range room on Phi Phi, we could get a private longtail trip to Bamboo Island, all meals, snorkeling, national park fee and camping included.

After delaying the trip a day due to bad weather (by the way, “dry season” in Thailand is far from rain-free) and the fact that Suleiman had some other customers to take camping, we were finally off. Another woman, Anna, joined us just for the afternoon. On the way to Bamboo, we went snorkeling in quiet Nuy Bay and Sarah jumped off a 6-meter boulder (“cliff”) with Suleiman (Anna and I decided we were too old/chickened out).

Nuy Bay

Cliff jump...

Around 5, we arrived at Bamboo Island. We “checked in” to our tent at the park ranger station, although we would end up sleeping under a mosquito net on the beach. The next 16 hours or so were nothing short of magical. Aside from Sarah, Suleiman and me, there was one couple with their guide, and aside from that, some park rangers. There seemed to be fewer than 10 people on the whole island.

After a delicious dinner of Thai curry and several kilos of fresh crab, the main events of the night included:




It’s funny, but finally being away from all the noise and partying on Phi Phi, with nothing but the waves crashing on the beach and the moonlight, I couldn’t sleep all night. Maybe my goal was to enjoy every minute… The lack of sleep didn’t stop us from touring the island in the morning before the first speedboats arrived around 9. The island can be circled by foot in less than 45 minutes.

A beach without people?!

I did some snorkeling off the beach and saw some interesting fish (coral was nothing to speak of) but it was a little awkward while the water was so low. We headed back midday and stopped at Mosquito Island to check out a secret cave where Suleiman and his family collect swallows’ nests. Aside from taking tourists camping, Suleiman’s occupations include free-climbing for expensive swallows’ nests, cleaning up the beach, fishing and being a pirate.

Suleiman & Mosquito Island

After one last stop at monkey beach (which was actually cleaner, prettier and less overrun with aggressive macaques than I remembered from last time) we arrived back at the quiet end of the beach on Phi Phi. We might have been gone for less than 24 hours, and been under an hour away by long tail, but it felt like we’d been on a different planet for a week.

I’m still amazed we were able to do this trip from Phi Phi, and wonder if the option will still exist four years from now – or if Bamboo Island will become as popular as Maya Bay or the Similans for camping and lose any semblance of being undiscovered. In any case, I’m glad we got the chance to experience it now.


Off the beaten track on Phi Phi 

So, mainly because of the camping trip, I ended up staying on Phi Phi for five nights (four not including Bamboo Island). This was longer than I’d planned, but gave me time to explore the island and discover that on the edges of the chaos, there were still some hidden-away gems. Here are some of the good things you can still find on Phi Phi:

  • The food.  I had the best Pad Thai of my trip (and maybe my life) at Suleiman’s family’s place (“P.P. Fisherman House”) on the western edge of Loh Dalum beach. There was also an excellent restaurant called the Orange Place on the quiet eastern road near the mosque. There’s street food and markets selling things like (amazing) mango/sticky rice, and even if it’s a bit pricey by Thai standards, it’s all very good. There actually are locals living on Phi Phi, and because it’s such a small place, they live side by side with the mess of tourists. One of the perks of this is the surprisingly authentic, tasty food.
  • The quieter streets, beaches and bars. The farthest east and west streets cutting across the island were remarkably quiet and pleasant to walk along, without all the crazy bike and backpacker traffic of the ones in the middle. That’s where we found bamboo bungalows, much like the ones I stayed at on Koh Lipe – we were able to stay at the clean, comfortable Chong Khao bungalows for 600 baht (a steal on Phi Phi) and the Gypsy bungalows on the other side of the island looked nice too. Good to know these places still exist on Phi Phi. As for bars, Sunflower bar and the bar at the very eastern edge of the beach (P.U.?) were chill places to watch the sunset. While it’s the opposite of quiet, Stones Bar had the best fire show hands down, and Sarah and I went there so many times we started to feel like we knew all the performers.

  • Phi Phi viewpoint in the morning. I missed seeing the viewpoint last time I was on Phi Phi and was determined to make it up there this time. It was quite a climb, and I did it before breakfast around 9 AM. But it was pretty cool to be up there with less than six other people…



Railay is known as the “climber’s paradise” and since I’ve never been a rock climber, I didn’t think about stopping there before. But it was one of my favorite places in the south this time, and I wish I’d had more than two nights to hang out. Compared to Phi Phi, the atmosphere was more relaxed and chilled out and the people were much less drunk and disgusting. The evening entertainment at the “Last Bar” was fantastic, mainly thanks to this one guy who probably is the best singer, fire dancer *and* DJ in Thailand. Seriously, it’s a little scary how much he excels in everything he does.

Did I mention he's also fun to look at?

The views are absolutely gorgeous, and I did try rock climbing, which was pretty challenging but also satisfying and exhausting – in a good way.

Easier to stop and smile than to find the next foothold...

If I’d had more time i would have loved to take a sea kayak around the nearby limestone formations. Also, I stayed on Railay East, which was the better (backpacker) side of the peninsula, but I’ve heard that Ton Sai (a short boat ride – or swim – away) has the bamboo bungalows and hippie vibe I’d probably enjoy even more. Maybe next time!


Khao Sok National Park 

To top off my stay in the south (and a big part of why I stayed as long as I did) I joined Wicked Diving for an unconventional trip to dive in the lake at Khao Sok National Park. I’d always wanted to see the park, and after wondering what it would be like to diving among submerged trees at the Tonle Sap in Cambodia, I figured it would be an interesting experience. The lake in the park was created artificially 30 years ago, so there are trees and even villages underwater (the villages are too deep for recreational divers to explore).

The scenery was even more beautiful than I expected – rock formations similar to the ones at Railay and Phi Phi, surrounding a clear lake. Riding on a bamboo raft or a kayak on the still water was amazingly serene. We stayed in floating bungalows right on the water that creaked and moved as people walked on the attached boardwalks.

Diving was interesting – definitely different from what I’m used to. I learned I don’t need much extra weight at all when diving in fresh water. We saw underwater continuations of the limestone formations we could see above water, cave entrances, trees that would seemingly appear out of nowhere through the green foggy water, and a bunch of friendly (or blind enough to seem friendly) catfish. At one point, I lost the other divers for a minute and it was pretty spooky to be surrounded by dead trees and green light with nobody else in sight (turned out they were just above me, the only place I forgot to look).

Aside from diving, we got to check out the Coral Cave, named for its formations that look a lot like coral – almost like diving, but without the water! On the way, we hiked for 30 minutes on a somewhat muddy path through the jungle, and I managed to get the goriest leech bite to date (once I finally had forgotten to worry about them). At this point, it barely fazed me when I looked down to see what I thought was sticky mud in my croc was actually blood…!

Anyway, the park was a beautiful setting and somewhere I’d definitely return for more time if I was with the right company. It’s not a place to meet new people, but the plus side is that it’s far from overrun with tourists. It’s also as popular (maybe even more so) among Thai visitors, giving it a different vibe than most destinations in southern Thailand.

So, that’s all I’m going to write about the south of Thailand for quite a while, hopefully. Now, will I ever write a post under 1500 words again?


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Don’t go back to the islands… (in high season!)

I decided to come back to Thailand after my visa expired in Indonesia, mainly since my cousin Sveta was visiting from Russia and I thought it would be cool to meet up so far from both our countries and show her around Ko Lipe (where I’d already been). I conveniently forgot two little words that make all the difference in southern Thailand: high. season.

Actually, the major tourist destinations in Thailand divide the year up into as many as five different “seasons” – here’s an example. Late December into early January is considered peak season, meaning both prices and numbers of tourists are several times low season rates. My first two trips to the south of Thailand were in low season – June and September. Both times I found there to be quite enough tourists and remember thinking, if this is low season, I don’t want to see what high season is like. Well, now I’ve seen it… Never again.

Yes, I'm saying I won't come back to THIS... but hear me out...

Before moving on to some of the highlights of the past three weeks (despite the season, there have been several!) here are some general impressions of the places I’ve visited this time.

 Ko Lipe

When I visited Ko Lipe at the end of November, it was almost too empty. Walking down “Walking Street” you were bombarded by endless cries of “Massage! You want massaaaage?” and hosts inviting you to dine at their empty restaurants. So I figured a few more people wouldn’t hurt.

Well, the island was full this time – apparently not as crowded as it had been on New Year’s, but I had to walk along the beach with my stuff after discovering the place I stayed last time (that doesn’t take reservations and has 30+ bungalows) was full. Most of the other accommodations were full or had a room available but only for one night, and I had to tell them exactly how long I wanted to stay so they could take other reservations after me. Frustrating. (I ended up moving back to my favorite place when they had space the next day.)

I wouldn’t say Ko Lipe felt overly crowded (it was still easy to find quiet stretches of beach and businesses were only crowded at peak times), but the type of people visiting Lipe in high season are almost entirely couples and families and short term visitors rather than travelers/backpackers, making it a hard place to meet new people. There were also a huge proportion of Russians. Apparently the Russian invasion is a recent phenomenon in Thailand, possibly related to changes in visa laws. All I know is that in the past three weeks, I’ve heard enough Russian that if I was blind and didn’t know better, I would think I was on the shores of the Black Sea rather than the Andaman.

So, while it was great to hang out with Sveta and her friends, after another six days on Lipe I was tired of feeling like a total anomaly as a solo traveler and got on a speedboat to Phi Phi (as the lone solo traveler…) knowing it would be a change.

Ko Phi Phi 

I ended up having a good time on Phi Phi, but when I first arrived part of me wished I hadn’t come. As much as I craved some sort of “backpacker scene” after touristy Lipe, Phi Phi is pure chaos. Unrecognizable four and a half years after my first visit (which was in low season and before the island had fully recovered from the tsunami). The bars/businesses are all in different places, the town is about five times the size and there are even more times the number of people. While there were tons of Russians on Lipe, there were tons of, well, everyone on Phi Phi – Russians, Israelis, Swedes, Italians, Brits… only Americans seem smart enough to avoid the place these days.

High season on Phi Phi...

The narrow streets are packed with pedestrians, with locals zooming around on bicycles and other locals wheeling tourists’ luggage around on metal carts, screeching “beep beep beep” every five seconds if they don’t have a bell. The beach I don’t remember hosting bars at all last time now becomes a mini Vegas/full moon party every single night, with mostly mediocre fire shows (compared to before), horrible blasting pop remixes (who decided Adele’s “Someone Like You” should be a dance song?) and an average age of 20.  The music can be heard from almost anywhere in the main part of the island.

The Phi Phi "strip"...

It’s almost fitting that my first experience back on Phi Phi was to finally arrive at the place I thought I had booked online (the one I’d stayed at last time for a fraction of the price) only to realize that there are now two different resorts with “viewpoint” in the name. I then had to walk back past a sewage treatment plant to an empty reservoir and up a bunch of steps to get to the right place. After a couple of nights there, when I spontaneously decided to stay one more, I had to switch rooms to one without air conditioning or hot water – for over $50 a night. It’s like they’re doing you a favor by having rooms available at all…

Khao Lak

So I originally wanted to book a liveaboard diving trip to the Similan islands, but all the trips with Wicked Diving were fully booked and I decided I wanted to do a trip with them specifically. They did have space on a special trip to go lake diving at Khao Sok National Park, a place I always meant to visit. So I found myself passing through Khao Lak not to do the typical nearby dives but just as a stopping point before Khao Sok. I hung out a few days afterward to do some snorkeling and see what I was missing (I found it to be fine, but not spectacular, and the Similans to be much more touristed and accessible than I had imagined when I first heard about them).

Khao Lak itself is also overrun by Russians, although Swedes may still outnumber them here. It is full of resorts and the people who like to stay at those resorts (sometimes for weeks at a time). Unlike Lipe or Phi Phi, the beach isn’t much to behold, yet the resorts have sliced up the real estate so that a simple walk along the beach will have you trespassing on private guest-only property with no obvious way back to the main road. The food here is also some of the priciest and worst I’ve had in Thailand, catering too much to all the foreigners.


So, is that too much complaining about paradise? The past three weeks haven’t been all bad – far from it – but I’ll save the highlights for another post.

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How many languages does it take to climb a volcano?

For my second (and only full) day in Berastagi, I planned to climb Mt. Sibayak, the smaller of the two volcanoes near the town. Being in the highlands, Berastagi actually gets cold at night, and it was an effort to get out of bed for that reason, so I wasn’t ready to go until late in the morning. Since I hadn’t met anyone else planning to climb that day, I wanted a guide for both safety and company – but my guesthouse couldn’t get ahold of an “official” guide at that late hour. So they told me Vedro, a young guy who works for them, could take me instead.

I’d met Vedro the day before, and we had a friendly, if limited, exchange. But while he is making an effort to learn English, he’s just starting out, so his English is at about the same level as my Indonesian!

So, three hours up a volcano, trying to make conversation with someone using the dozen words you know. Talk about a learning opportunity… to get an idea of how the day went, here are some of the words I learned:

hujan (rain)

kabut (fog)

dingin (cold)

licin (slippery)

mendaki (climb)

jauh (far)

Yeah, so maybe it wasn’t the best day for views, or a good idea to climb with no rain gear but I probably learned more Indonesian over the course of a few hours than during the rest of my trip.

Vedro leading the way

When we got near the top and stopped for lunch, a Russian couple around my parents’ age was passing by on their way back down. Since they were the first Russians I’d come across traveling (hard to believe now that I’ve spent a few weeks in Thailand…) I struck up a conversation with them – and suddenly found it much easier than usual to speak Russian, a language I actually know!

Funky fumarole.

As we arrived at the crater, it started to pour, so we only checked out the steaming fumaroles and enjoyed the sulfur smell for a few minutes before skipping through newly formed rivers on the way down. Forget any chance of a view… all I could say was “air panas! air panas!” (hot [water] springs!) over and over again in anticipation of the springs a two hour hike away.


Note to self: a sweatshirt is not a poncho...

We finally got to the springs and soaked with the Russians for a couple of hours, as we watched local Karo Batak people come and go, fully decked out in their most ornate sarongs and headdresses for Christmas. It was pretty neat to see an authentic example of local costume in such an everyday setting (hot spring/swimming pool) when many people take special tours just to see locals who dress up for the sake of the visitors.

Some of the outfits on women waiting for the bus back to Berastagi... we saw more unique-looking headdresses at the hot springs but I didn't feel comfortable taking a picture in a bathing place.

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Chanukkah in Sumatra

A few things to know before reading:

  • In Indonesia, there are six officially recognized religions. Judaism isn’t one of them.
  • According to Wikipedia and Google, there are just a handful of Jews left in Indonesia, and they live either in Java or a remote part of Sulawesi. Not on Sumatra.
  • Israelis are not allowed to visit Indonesia on an Israeli passport.

Upon arriving in Berastagi, I immediately met an American couple at my guesthouse who invited me to join them on a trip to the local hot springs. On the way, I found out that Ady (Arkady) and Tanya are from New York, are both Jewish, and that Arkady was born in Russia (of course). They also graduated from SUNY Binghamton, my mom’s university. A chance encounter of Russian-American Jews in the middle of Sumatra on the third night of Chanukkah… we decided we should celebrate and say shehechiyanu that evening.

After sitting in a local minivan for an hour waiting for it to fill up with passengers, we were finally off to the hot springs (more like hot swimming pools) – there are several of them in Berastagi thanks to the nearby volcanoes. We soaked for a while and were ready to go around six. Unfortunately, six is also when the last bus heads back to town, and we missed it. So we walked along the road and saw a (nice, new) pickup truck approaching.

Ady: Can you take us… (gesturing with his hands to make it look like an intersection)?

Driver: (blank stare)

Ady: You go, main road?

Driver: We’re going to Berastagi, I’m not sure what you mean by that thing you did but we can take you to town if that’s where you’re going.

He has excellent English.

Driver’s two friends make room for us girls in the cab, Ady gets in the bed of the pickup. We take off.

Driver: So, where are you from?

Tanya and me: America…

Driver: How long have you been traveling?

Tanya: We’ve been in Sumatra a week.

Me: I’ve been here for two weeks…

Driver: Ah, so you’re traveling on your own?

Me: Yeah.. I’m just traveling with them today.

Driver: So… are you all Jewish? 

Umm… what?! 

Tanya: Uh… yeah… we all are.

Me: Umm… how did you know?

Driver: (laughing) Only I will know this. Because I’m the same as you. I’m a Jewish!

The driver looks like a typical Sumatran. This is crazy. Tanya and I raise our eyebrows and exchange glances, while he laughs and chats with his friends in Indonesian.

Me: Really? Wow… what’s your name?

Driver: Gidon! In English, that’s Gideon.

Me: That’s a Hebrew name. Where did you get a Hebrew name??

Gidon: I told you, I’m a Hebrew! So what kind of Jewish are you, crypto? Or Ashkenaz?

Ok, what? Could he be for real?

Us: Yeah, Ashkenazi…

Gidon: So you study the Talmud? The Torah? I know other Jewish here. They are all crypto – secret Jews. I also know some from Switzerland, they live in Berastagi. You could meet them – they can give you wine from Israel, Carmel wine.  You know Rothschild?


Over the course of the conversation, we determine that Gidon (if his story holds true) had at least one Dutch Jewish ancestor, is pretty well off after working as a “trader” all over the world (like all Jews, he said), and that his 21-year-old daughter recently traveled to Japan. Gidon says Jews are everywhere; he knows all about the Israeli backpackers in Thailand, India and Australia, and says he has encountered “plenty” here in Sumatra who are traveling on secondary passports. (Side note: I’m convinced that if diplomatic ties were ever fixed between Israel and Indonesia, the country would be teeming with Israelis in a matter of months.) He tells us we shouldn’t always say we’re Jewish here, other people may not understand. He also says he knew we were Jewish because he smelled [sensed?] it.

We soon get to town, bid Gidon and his friends goodbye and jump out of the truck to process the crazy encounter (and tell Ady about it). We stop in a convenience store to find candles and the ones they have are small and colorful, perfect for Chanukkah. Back at the guesthouse, we stick them to a ledge on the roof with melted wax and light them over the city of Berastagi, North Sumatra.

We end the night eating cucumber sandwiches with mayonnaise (Russian zakuski), drinking vodka cocktails with mangosteen and playing durak and Yaniv with a new set of cards.

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