So, I saw a few gingers…

My second trip to the feeding platform couldn’t have been better. Aside from the four orangutans (mother & baby and mother & juvenile) that showed up, there were at least a dozen macaques (who later stole my lunch) and a few Thomas Leaf monkeys.

The smaller one is trying to steal the milk out of his mom's mouth.


Thumbs up!

Funky monkey.

Cheeky macaque.

On the trek that followed, I got to see a few more of the “funky monkeys,” a wild pheasant, and then the highlight – another semi-wild mother and baby who was less than a year old. We followed her for almost an hour (!) and saw her eating fruit, termites, and young leaves in that time. At first she was so high in the canopy we could barely see her (over 100 feet) but eventually she came lower and stayed near the trail for a while.

First view through the canopy

Watching her move was unlike anything I’ve been able to see at a zoo. Orangutans are experts at moving around in the jungle, but still they have to carefully pick each tree or vine to make sure it will support their weight and sway the way they want. It’s easy to understand their caution after a few days of jungle trekking!

Teaching baby to catch termites!

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The Orangutan Health Project

Around four years ago, I was browsing around online when I randomly searched for volunteer programs, specifically related to primate research, and came across the Orangutan Health Project (OHP). Sitting at my desk in Palo Alto, going halfway across the world to Sumatra to track wild orangutans sounded like pretty much the craziest thing I could do. Crazy enough that I decided to do it one day.

So aside from meeting my parents in Vietnam, the main thing my Asia travels have been focused around is this program. I flew to Medan, Sumatra from Penang, and had the easiest visa experience ever (again, ironic since I was nervous about getting into Indonesia in the first place). No hard photo or application necessary, the immigration guy joked around with me and I was the only foreigner there to get a visa on arrival.

Anna, an OHP project assistant – a recent UCSB grad from San Diego – was waiting for me as promised, and we picked up the other two volunteers: Stephen, a middle-aged Australian in the process of getting his teaching certification, and Jo, an Irish woman who works in the medical equipment industry. Both were on relatively short breaks (3-4 weeks) and mainly spending time on the program.

We arrived at “Coconut” – the OHP office, located in the midst of rice paddies in the village of Timbang Lawan (a few kilometers from Bukit Lawang).

So, the 12 days of the program consisted of a couple of days of helping out in the office, with tasks such as:

  • Entering field data into Excel spreadsheets. This proved to be more interesting than typical data entry when notes about the orangutans’ behavior were in Indonesian… Google Translate helped!
  • Preparing sample containers of alcohol and other preservatives (one of the main goals of fieldwork is to collect orangutan fecal samples).
  • Creating a Facebook Page!

Back in my element...

A couple of the things other volunteers helped with were baking silica gel (used to keep things dry in the field – a major challenge) and organizing/preserving plant samples (stuff the orangutans have been eating).

When choosing a program, I liked the fact that OHP is an ongoing research project, so the volunteer program is less about catering to the volunteers’ experience and more about collecting real data. But two weeks is a very short time to really contribute when it comes to this sort of work. In Silicon Valley, I got used to everything moving so fast that documents from less than a year ago were hardly relevant. But in doing office work here and realizing some of the data is from three years ago, and the samples we collect now might be analyzed next year, was an eye-opening reminder of how things work differently in other fields.

Aside from the office work, the main part of the program involved a six-day trek into the jungle, in an area near Bukit Lawang that is less commonly visited and where wild (as opposed to previously captive, semi-wild) orangutans are known to live. We were told that spotting them is far from guaranteed, but since the project is all about the behavior of orangutans who have lived their whole lives in the wild and may know more about self-medicating against parasites, these are the ones that need to be researched.

After a fun but uneventful practice trek near the orangutan feeding platform in Bukit Lawang (where sadly, no orangutans showed up! Actually a good thing meaning they’re finding enough food on their own…) we were ready to set out on the real thing.

To get to our campsite, we trekked for three hours – through a rubber plantation, where we saw a bunch of Thomas leaf monkeys – silly-looking dudes with mohawks and mutton chops that jump crazy distances, belly first, seemingly throwing caution to the wind.

After the plantation, we trekked mainly “along the river.”

When we finally arrived, our guides Wanda and Pendi arranged tarps on an existing bamboo frame to create a three-sided tent shelter that was to be our home for the next five nights. Another shelter served as a kitchen, where they put together some of the best meals I’ve had so far in Indonesia.

Unfortunately, after that first (delicious!) dinner, Jo was up all night sick and it hit me the next morning as I was all ready to start trekking. Both of us missed the first day’s trek, when Anna, Stephen and Wanda were able to find SEVEN orangutans (three mothers with babies and a juvenile) and collect FOUR fecal samples! Amazing for the project, and for them – but I wish I could have been there.

Back at the campsite, a large family of white-handed gibbons came by at one point and Pendi, who has a sixth sense when it comes to spotting wildlife, made sure Jo and I got up to see them swing around.

In the afternoon, an orangutan mother and baby also showed up within view of our campsite! It was great to see them, but they were across the river and only visible for a minute – and in my state I couldn’t look up for very long anyway. We saw them there again briefly the next morning (they must have slept there) and another day, we saw two or three more. Never close enough for a photo, though!

I got even sicker the second night, and after having the experience of being up all night sick in the middle of the jungle with no “facilities” to speak of, I could probably survive it in any setting… needless to say, I was out of commission for another day.

Basically all I looked at for 48 hours.

I learned to make my own “nest” like an orangutan – by the end of five nights, I figured out that layering the sleeping bag where my hips go and putting the thin sleep sheet over it was the best option. We were all pretty sore by the end of the trip anyway.

There was lots of time for reading...

We also played cards and were entertained by Pendi’s hysterical laughter every time he won, which was always.

The fourth day, I was determined to join the others for the trek, even though I felt faint after two days of barely sitting up. With the help of a little miracle in a pill (Immodium) I recovered and was about as ready as I could be for the trekking that awaited us.

Nothing is easy in Sumatra. “Jungle trekking” (at least away from the well-trodden trails closer to Bukit) means clambering up and down through the mud, often on all fours like an orangutan, hoping that whatever tree or root or plant you grab will save you if (when) you lose your footing, and not be full of thorns or stinging bugs or anything else you wouldn’t want to be hanging onto as if your life depended on it (it does).

Compared to other trekking I’ve done, a lot of it was physically easier, in that I didn’t get as winded or need breaks to catch my breath (it helped that Wanda is an excellent guide and took it really slow for our sake). But factoring in the mental aspect, that some parts were so steep every step had to be carefully planned and finding something to hold onto was a requirement, this trekking was some of the most challenging overall.

The two treks I ended up doing before we headed back down the river were challenging, interesting and fun – just being in the jungle is definitely an adventure. But we didn’t find any more orangutans, only saw their nests. So now that I’m done with the program I’m staying in Bukit Lawang a few more days, and trekking one more time near the feeding platform in the hopes of seeing some (semi-wild) orangutans. As Jo put it, “I won’t leave here before I see some gingers!” 


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A Taste of Penang

I’ve been in Penang for two days now, but spent much of today catching up with photos and blog posts and logistics I might not have time for in Sumatra, so I’ve only had a limited time to explore. That said, Penang is probably my favorite of the places I’ve seen in Malaysia. It’s basically all about funky old architecture, art and tons of food, and who can go wrong with that?

I’m not usually as comfortable with Indian and Chinese food as I am with Thai, sushi and other cuisines, since there are so many dishes I’ve never heard of and flavors and spices that are completely new to me. But I did have the best butter chicken and mango lassi ever at Kapitan, some Koay Teow (Chinese fried noodles) at a huge night market called Red Garden FOOD PARADISE, and even French toast that I swear is better than any I’ve had in San Francisco – with no hour-long wait and for a fraction of the price!

I also tried this in Little India, the "Thali special..." no idea what everything was but it was good!

Sooo buttery... and complete with thinly sliced bananas in the middle!

I thought I might do some shopping in Penang since I’m not sure what to expect when I get to Indonesia. In particular, I wanted another pair of pants for jungle trekking, since right now I only have one long pair while the rest stop at my knees. I learned the hard way that shopping for pants in Asia if you’re anything above a size 0 back home is one of the most frustrating and discouraging experiences imaginable.

So, this is me in a size "XL" outfit... I didn't buy it.

Any pants I found that did fit were made of some unthinkably awful synthetic crap that I couldn’t wear for more than five minutes in the air-conditioned store, let alone in the Sumatran jungle. So I’ll manage with what I have, I guess… I have half a mind to open a store for Western travelers in Asia that sells all the travel gear they stock up on at home since it’s so impossible to find here. Hmm…

One thing I did today that probably isn’t on most travelers lists is I walked a little (but not much) out of my way to find the Penang Jewish cemetery. There was apparently a small population of Jews in Penang that peaked around the turn of the century, with the last member of the community passing away this year. Now all that’s left is the cemetery. The gate was closed when I approached it but there were several men inside doing what appeared to be maintenance work.

I didn’t ask to come in, since I wasn’t sure what I was looking for. It’s a cemetery of people I don’t know. I guess it’s odd to realize I’m in a city where there is a Jewish cemetery… but no synagogue. I haven’t given much thought to the official Malaysian attitude towards Jews/Israel, since I haven’t encountered it directly at all – ironically, Malaysia was the easiest country to get into by far (“Here you go, 90 days, no visa necessary!”) and I’ve already done it twice. Nobody has batted an eye at the “Israel” birthplace on my passport, and of course when I’m asked where I’m from the obvious (and honest) answer is “USA”. I wonder, as I plan to spend I don’t know how long in Indonesia, whether the political realities will ever actually affect my experience of these countries.

Anyway, I’ll end my last Malaysia post on a more positive note. While I passed up really exploring Langkawi for extra time on Koh Lipe (which I don’t regret!) I did manage to stop by the one place I had to see before heading to Penang:

ME! (A luxury hotel on Langkawi island)

They gave me a little tour of my namesake...

It did look lovely. Maybe next time… who wants to join me?

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Koh Lipe: A vacation from vacation!

So Malaysia was interesting, foreign and different – but I decided that before traveling on to Sumatra I needed a more relaxing break in a familiar place. For me, that’s Thailand. I’ve visited three times now and can’t seem to get away. And Koh Lipe didn’t let me down – as soon as I stepped off the ferry and onto the longtail boat making its way through turquoise water, I knew I was back in the land of amazing Penang curry (not available in Penang…), awesome diving and Thai massages, and suddenly — I was on vacation. 

I’ve heard enough about Koh Lipe losing its charm, becoming overdeveloped, dirty and “inauthentic” (whatever that means) and not the same as it was 5, 10, 15 years ago when it was perfect and pristine and Thailand’s best kept secret. I may have missed the brunt of the high season, but Lipe is still the least developed of the Thai islands I’ve seen (Samui, Phangan, Tao, Phi Phi).

Does this look like a spoiled paradise… or just paradise?


Also, the many new businesses popping up around the island give it an energy I don’t find to be a bad thing. A couple of women from San Francisco came to visit Lipe eight months ago and decided to stay indefinitely. They’ve opened an SF-style coffee & book shop that looks like it’s been around for years, and serve amazing Western stuff they’ve already taught their Thai chefs to put together:

The only non-Thai food I had on Lipe... and I'd do it again!

My two favorite night spots on the island also each opened a month ago.  Home Bar is right in the middle of the island, and the owner, Nor, has spent a lot more time decorating the place with its reggae/Rasta theme than marketing. I checked it out during the day and came back one night with Maggie (a German girl I met) where we chilled with the one Russian couple already there. It’s crazy how it has such a good vibe even though it’s still empty!

Recycled toilets!

The other place is  Tattoo Bar, run by a tattoo artist called Mom (yes, Mom-approved tattoos) and his temporary assistant, a young Finnish guy, Henry. It’s right along the island’s “Walking Street” and it’s the only island bar that forces everyone to sit together by design, so it’s a very friendly spot.

As for diving, I only did one day trip, but the two dives were the longest I’ve logged – around an hour each! I’m glad I got to do a review before heading to Sumatra and other places there might be a smaller selection of dive shops. Koh Lipe is known more for small, colorful fish and rich coral reefs than for anything big and exciting, but it didn’t disappoint. The soft coral was the most spectacular I’ve seen, particularly at the site they call Stonehenge. We got attacked by what seemed like an endless “soup” of jellyfish on the way down, but even with stings all over our faces it was worth it. There were some huge porcupinefish with hilarious expressions who seemed very happy to be living on what looks like the set of Finding Nemo (there were tons of his relatives around, too).

Corals at Stonehenge. From Castaway Divers FB Page:

In the end, I spent six full days on Koh Lipe, more than I’ve spent on any other island. Normally I find that more than enough time to be on the beach, but toward the end of my stay I felt like I was just getting to know the place and would have been happy to stick around. I also learned that my dive instructor from two years ago and my cousin in Russia are both on their way to the island in the next few weeks! Who knows, maybe I’ll be back sooner than I thought…

Koh Lipe, from Viewpoint #2 on Koh Adang


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Pangkor Island and “Travel Days.”

After my third night at that place in the Cameron Highlands, my only thought was to move on as soon as possible. I joined a random guy named Matthew from the guesthouse who had the same thought, and we opted to hop on public transportation rather than take a tourist van directly to Pangkor island, a small island between KL and Penang (I decided last minute to go there rather than explore more of the inland towns).

This resulted in the adventure we were looking for, I guess. A full day of buses, taxis, ferries and confusion when we probably could have gotten from point A to B in half the time. But what do we travel for if it isn’t days like this?

At least the buses were pretty comfortable.

Here’s how we got from Cameron Highlands to Pangkor Island: From Tanah Rata, 11:00 bus to Ipoh, arrive at Ipoh local bus station but think there is no bus to Lumut from there (we were probably wrong), bus to somewhere near the “long distance” bus station, walk there in the rain, book a 3:30 (or 4:45, it’s unclear) bus to Lumut, taxi to Pizza Hut because we’re starving and saw a sign, Pizza Hut is closed, walk to nearby cafe, walk all the way back to bus station, arrive at 3:30, bus actually leaves at 5:15, find ferry in Lumut, 7:30 ferry, arrive in Pangkor after 8.

The funny thing is, after spending a day in Pangkor, I was ready to do it all over again… 

Let me clarify. Pangkor wasn’t a bad place! It was beautiful and relaxing, and my guesthouse was friendly and fantastic. But after one day, I had enjoyed the prettiest beach…

seen a bunch of wild hornbills (my favorite thing about Pangkor – who needs a bird park?)

been all the way around the island by motorbike, and seen a gorgeous sunset.

I already had the idea of getting to Koh Lipe, Thailand, from Langkawi, and I knew there would be more to do in a place with snorkeling, diving and beach bars so I decided to just book it there. I even (easily) convinced another random Matthew to join me for the next day’s journey.

From Pangkor to Koh Lipe: 8:00 taxi to Pangkor jetty, 9:30 bus to Butterworth, 1:00 bus to Alor Setar, one hour taxi to Kuala Perlis, just miss the 4:30 ferry and have to wait until 6:00, arrive in Langkawi after 7, taxi to main beach in Langkawi, find accommodation, book trip to Lipe the next day. In the morning, taxi at 7:45, boat at 9:30, arrive in Koh Lipe at 10!!! (Thanks to the time difference – Malaysia is oddly an hour ahead of Thailand).

These travel days weren’t as hellish as they may sound. The first might have been nicer without the rain or the confusion and delay in Ipoh, and the second would have been more pleasant if we didn’t have to wait an extra hour and a half for the ferry. But I had some great books to read both days, and honestly, is there that much of a difference between reading at a bus station and reading on a beach? Um, don’t answer that.

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Cameron Highlands (or “Meh”-lands.)

To get to the Cameron Highlands, I took a minivan to Tanah Rata, one of the main towns providing access to the area, which is known for its tea plantations, strawberry farms, and forest trekking.

Definitely beautiful... but not something you can see from town.

The "Mossy Forest"

I had kind of an odd time in the Cameron Highlands, mainly because I didn’t find the place I stayed to be very welcoming, and the town itself is nothing to speak of and pretty removed from the main attractions (you need a car to get around). Also, the food is mostly mediocre Indian and Chinese, not great compared to other places in Malaysia.

This photo makes the town look a lot cuter than it is... I took it after walking around on the side of the road for half an hour looking for a nice hill to watch the sunset. Didn't find one.

The main highlight of my stay was the early Thanksgiving dinner I helped put together with Sunny and Troy from the Bay area and Travis from Oklahoma. We visited the outdoor market in Brinchang (the other main town in the Highlands) and were able to get a surprising number of the necessary staples, down to the cooked sweet potatoes!

Travis decides on a piece of chicken for turkey day.

Our feast! Sunny and Troy blogged about it, too…

Anyway, I did a very short jungle trek with some French girls the first day, but it wasn’t great since I was wearing the wrong shoes and still getting over a sprained ankle from Cambodia, so I was paranoid about hurting it again. When I realized how little there was to do without a hiking partner or my own transportation, and how depressing I found the place I was staying, I booked a day tour to visit the must-sees and cut my stay to just three nights.

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Malaysia: Truly… Indochina?

While Alona and I were traveling throughout what is historically known as Indochina (Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia), we were constantly bombarded with commercials inviting us to “Malaysia, Truly Asia.” It’s funny that as soon as we left Cambodia, we ended up right in the midst of something I’d be quick to describe as Indo-China if I didn’t know it had another name — Malaysia.

I ended up spending less than two weeks in Malaysia (since I took a week’s break in Thailand) and I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface of the place. As opposed to most countries I’ve visited, where there’s one dominant culture to get to know, Malaysia is a jumbled mix of Malay, Chinese and Indian. All of these are pretty foreign to me, since I’ve never set foot in China, India, or even a Muslim country before. And aside from these primary groups, there are indigenous and foreign minorities, as well as tourists from all over the world – particularly Muslim tourists from Middle Eastern countries I may never have the option to visit.

As mentioned in the last post, I didn’t find Malaysia to be the easiest place to start traveling alone. It’s a bit more expensive than nearby countries so doesn’t draw the same backpacker crowds, and many of the destinations I visited (mainly Cameron Highlands and the islands) tended to attract couples and families more than single travelers. But I’m glad to have had a taste of Malaysia, and since Air Asia offers some of the easiest & cheapest transit options in the region, I wouldn’t be surprised if I came back.

Kuala Lumpur

Alona and I spent a couple of days living the high life in KL, since we didn’t properly celebrate her birthday in Vietnam (I was sick then) and the city is a relatively cheap place to splurge.

Bathrooms = the best part of nice hotels. @Traders KL.

Plate too big for the food = fancy. @Gobo Upstairs, in our hotel.

One of the poshest bars in KL, also in our hotel!

Petronas Towers = most impressive at night!

KL is enormous and we spent a lot of our time visiting specific attractions rather than wandering the streets (which can be exhausting in the heat of the day). There are definitely certain neighborhoods I’d like to see if I pass through again though.

At places like the aquarium and the bird park, we sometimes found the other visitors as interesting as the main attractions…

Posing for a photo.

We also spent plenty of time in the typical KL habitat…

Suria KLCC (giant shopping mall)

The Islamic Art Museum was impressive, even more for its own architecture than for the exhibits.


After Alona left for home, I had the opportunity to meet up with my friend and former “bus buddy” Irene, whom I met on a Green Tortoise trip across the US this summer! She lives by the Batu Caves near KL, but had never visited until we went together. Funny how that happens! The caves are a neat combination of cultural (Hindu temples and statues) and natural (caves, sunlight, crazy scheming monkeys) attractions.

It's quite a climb to get to the top...

The stairs and cave are *teeming* with monkeys, who are constantly scheming and stealing.

Natural spotlight!

Irene took me out for some Koay Teow and then accompanied me back to KL and showed me around Chinatown for more food stops. I started to wrap my mind around how the multiple cultures coexist in Malaysia. The Chinese community speaks mainly Cantonese among themselves, but Mandarin is taught in school – along with Malay and English, of course. Hard to imagine four languages being the *minimum* you’re expected to know (fluently…)

Irene introducing me to some local noodles.

Anyway, after an exhausting day in the KL heat, I decided I was ready to escape to somewhere cooler and more relaxed – the Cameron Highlands. 

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