Hong Kong, Macau and China

Author’s Note: This is a series of selected highlights from two years (1986-88) of budget backpacker travel through 15 countries and a half-dozen US States – hosted all along the way by national and local YMCAs – from the Pacific Islands to selected Asian countries including: Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Burma, The Philippines, Hong Kong, Macau, China, Taiwan, Korea, Japan – and the USA.

Colonial Hong Kong, Public Domain

Once again, the Mielke brothers would tempt doom and strike off together for more Asian adventures. This time, we met up in the flea-bitten but affordable traveler flophouses of Hong Kong, where we took day trips around the city, to the outlying islands, and over to Macau.

Entering China, we sailed up the Pearl River on an overnight ferry to Zhaoqing Prefecture, a spectacularly scenic part of southern China’s Guangdong Province where we rented bikes and cycled through open countryside and rice fields spiked with tall “karst” limestone mountains – each topped with a tiny temple.

Popular with Chinese tourists, the dramatic landscape around Zhaoqing is reminiscent of the world famous Guilin Prefecture, one of China’s most popular tourist destinations, but more laid back and much less crowded.

Celestial Star, the oldest Star Ferry vessel in service
By I, Leockh, CC BY-SA 3.0 Wikimedia Commons

But all of this had to wait until after my release from a three-day stay in hospital. Having just arrived from the States, Dave got a shock when handed a note at the hostel saying that I was in hospital – and set about finding his way to the hospital, with no idea what my condition was.

I had slipped in the shower and developed a nasty infection in my lower leg. But compared to my tiny box-like budget high-rise accommodation at Chung King Mansions — — well known as nearly the cheapest accommodation in Hong Kong, popular with backpackers with names like “Moonbeam”, the well-used sheets alive and itchy with the creepy sensation of minute critters crawling all over your body, and notorious for drugs and other criminal activities — my four-bed shared room at Hong Kong’s Queen’s Hospital was a superbly deluxe accommodation.

Compete with three good meals, color TV, round the clock diligent nursing care, a beautiful view of the harbor from my window, and excellent medical care that brought my infection under control within a few days. And at about $3/day for my in-patient stay (even as a foreigner), it was a much better deal than even the cheapest rooms at Chung King Mansions, and I was sad when I had recovered sufficiently to leave the hospital and return to my tiny flea-bitten hostel room.

View across Victoria Harbor from the Peak Lookout on Hong Kong Island. By PaddyBriggs, Public Domain

Hong Kong was like a huge, space-age Disney World – but in real life! A spectacularly beautiful, fast-paced city – you practically have to run to keep up with the masses of rushing pedestrians – and with a great harbor, night lights, and efficient public transport. Like a giant computerized machine all programmed to run smoothly – but expensive.

I was able to meet with YMCA leaders at the three YMCA centers while I was there – two on the Kowloon mainland, including the headquarters of the Asia and Pacific Alliance of YMCAs, and one spectacular high-rise residence on Hong Kong Island. As elsewhere in the region, the early Christian missionaries had done well – managing to acquire the choicest pieces of real estate.

Fortaleza do Monte (Portuguese for Mount Fortress), Macau

The lure of more unexplored territories took us on to Macau by hydrofoil across the channel to the oldest European settlement in the East — leased to Portugal as a trading post in 1557, then handed back over to China in 1999, and now a hugely popular casino and gambling center.

And with over half a million people living in a area of just 30.5 sq kms (about 12 sq miles), it is the most densely populated region in the world. It was intriguing to imagine this place 150 years ago with clipper ships and the early traders as described in James Clavell’s novel “Tai Pan.”

Armed with a simple phrasebook, we crossed the border from Hong Kong into Guangdong Province, China, and made our way up the Pearl River packed in with an overnight boatload of students – stretched out in open, box-like structures that separated our sleeping quarters.

Zhaoqing Gate, Guangdong Province

At the time (1987) all foreign visitors to China were required to conduct transactions with Foreign Exchange Certificates (FEC) issued by the Bank of China. Only certain, special “Friendship Stores” and specifically designated hotels accepted FECs, which restricted where foreign visitors in China could stay and shop.

Of course, this created a huge black market. Foreigners, fed up with the limited options available with their FECs, wanted to have the local currency to use in regular Chinese restaurants and shops. The Chinese too, wanted FECs so that they could buy the “luxury” goods — like Johnnie Walker Red Label and Marlboro cigarettes.

So, at the border, I exchanged a $20 traveler’s check for the equivalent amount in Chinese FEC, then promptly exchanged this on the street for a huge pile of small, torn and grimy bills – known as ‘The Peoples Money’ or Renminbi. 

Zhaoqing Prefecture, Guangdong Province, China

Riding local buses past steep, limestone mountains and the surrounding rice fields, we toured the area for 10 days, staying in magnificent old 1930’s era hotels, eating a wide variety of local food – not always sure what it was, and guzzling an assortment of excellent local beers –- all for about $15 US dollars.

When we arrived at the Hong Kong Border, I was informed that the Renminbi could not be taken out of the country.

Zhaoqing Prefecture, Guangdong Province, China, CC BY-SA 3.0 Wikimedia Commons

So I exchanged my remaining torn and grimy “People’s Money” notes for about five US dollars equivalent in Hong Kong dollars. Clearly the best deal yet for budget traveling – and a very pleasant experience overall!

Stay tuned for Asia-Pacific Tour: Taiwan, Korea and Japan – coming soon!

You can read more about Jim’s backstory,  here and here.



Asia-Pacific Tour: The Philippines (Part Two)

Author’s Note: This is a series of selected highlights from two years (1986-88) of budget backpacker travel through 15 countries and a half-dozen US States – hosted all along the way by national and local YMCAs – from the Pacific Islands to selected Asian countries including: Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Burma, The Philippines, Hong Kong, Macau, China, Taiwan, Korea, Japan – and the USA.

Island Girl and Outrigger on Boracay

A real back-to-the-Pacific feeling. After so many months in mainland southeast Asia, the Philippines was a welcome blend of Asia and the Pacific. Excellent sea food, crystal clear water for swimming, spectacular tropical island scenery and of course, beautiful women everywhere.

Considerable ‘popular culture’ American influence was evident in the slang terms and fast-food lifestyle, and some local traditions, like the favorite snack ‘balut’ (an 18-day developing duck embryo cooked in the shell) were a bit hard to take. But I was quite content to take the ‘good’ with the ‘bad’, and clearly had no complaints!

After our adventures in Hong Kong, Macau and China (stay tuned for these stories — coming soon) Dave and I were more than ready to return to these paradise islands for a much needed rest. I had almost forgotten the cheerful exuberance of the rural people here — especially the kids — all bright smiles and laughter. The easy, relaxed movement of the island women, the brilliant green of the rice fields, and the tiny bamboo houses along the quiet dirt roads, or nestled against the forested hills.

Dave relishing his ‘VIP’ accommodation

The 1986 “People Power” uprising had been confined to Manila, and although we passed a military tank downtown, all was calm again, and we weren’t aware of armed conflict anywhere outside of the capital.

From Manila, Dave and I headed south to our favorite island getaway — Boracay — arriving in time to bask in the late afternoon  breezes moving in the coconut groves and through tall stands of grass. Shadows lengthened along the wide, empty beach, as the sunlight streamed across a shimmering sea.

It had been well over a year since I left Samoa to hit the road with just a backpack, and I was tired of traveling. Digging deep for the energy to continue, I began dreaming about a long-term job somewhere that might lessen the pain of so many difficult departures. The strong breezes of the lingering typhoon would soon be ending — as would Dave’s holiday. But not so the adventures! It had been a much-needed relaxing time for both of us, and Jackie joined us on the island for a few more days before Dave’s departure.

Jim relaxing in the hammock

Indeed, it was really tough when it came time to leave Boracay, and my daily routine of invigorating morning swims along the long stretches of empty beach to Jonah’s Café for those delicious thick, banana-peanut shakes.

The fantastic tropical island beauty was so peaceful and relaxing in the breezy coconut groves. Waking up in our cottage by the sea, with freshly baked bread and boiled eggs and green drinking coconuts delivered to our door each morning, a fresh fish from the nightly catch, grilled and served with a salad for less than a dollar, and a full schedule of cross-island walks to quiet, white sandy bays, snorkeling in the clear waters, then lounging in the hammock in the soothing coolness of the late afternoon sunlight, with a guitar and some freshly tapped tuba (local alcoholic drink tapped from coconut buds) waiting for the stars to light up the night sky.

After visiting the YMCA in IloiloJackie and I took a ferry to Bacolod City on Negros Island and toughed out 10 hours by bus to Dumaguete (Jackie’s university town), where we caught a boat to Cebu Island. We visited the Cebu YMCA and the “Talasay YMCA Rural Community Development Project” before heading to Moalboal and Pescadores Island for more fantastic (and really cheap!) world-class scuba diving.

Jim and Jackie in ‘Philipino-ville’

Eventually, we caught a ferry to Tagbilaran Port on Bohol Island, and settled into our breezy cottage on Alona Beach (‘Alona-ville’ in ‘Philippino-ville’ as we christened it!) on Panglao Island, where we indulged in more swimming, eating, sleeping, guitar picking and tuba sipping in this island paradise.

A second typhoon to the north of us left a trail of rain and cold in its wake. On several occasions the tempest rolled in at night with a fury that threatened to blow our bamboo cottage down. But it held firm, and in the morning, the sea was warm and a welcome refuge as I fought off a certain turbulence in my brain. It was hard to see Dave go – damn it was hard. even as he was set adrift on a broken-down outrigger taxi, once again nearly missing his plane.

And soon I would be leaving Jackie as well — for the time being anyway. Parting was so hard, and the time had just flown by. But my visa was finished, and the Traveling Road Show was rolling on! I was so utterly filled up with all of this intense living — it hurt with each new experience, each new friend — because it was always just a matter of time before we would part. Alas — the same old traveling syndrome.

Stay tuned for Asia-Pacific Tour: Hong Kong, China and Taiwan – coming soon!

You can read more about Jim’s backstory,  here and here.


Asia-Pacific Tour: The Philippines (Part One)

Author’s Note: This is a series of selected highlights from two years (1986-88) of budget backpacker travel through 15 countries and a half-dozen US States – hosted all along the way by national and local YMCAs – from the Pacific Islands to selected Asian countries including: Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Burma, The Philippines, Hong Kong, Macau, China, Taiwan, Korea, Japan – and the USA.

The CIA Factbook

“Hey Joe!” “Hey Boss!” Why does everybody think my name is Joe? A naturally beautiful country with a pleasant Asia-Pacific mix, the Philippines is loaded with friendly, fun-loving and talented people — especially the musicians, who are truly amazing — and most major hotels have a live band. English is widely spoken as well, so it was easy to connect with the people and the place, even if it didn’t feel as different or “exotic” as some of the other Asian countries I had visited.

But after 500 years of Spanish rule and a further 100 years under the Americans, the culture seemed hopelessly buried beneath Catholicism and the most annoying aspects of American culture. Despite all this, I soon realized it would be easy to stay for awhile.

After a warm welcome at the YMCAs in the capital Manila and Baguio City in northern Luzon, I set off on a three-day trek through rugged mountain terrain in the cool, rain-washed air near the town of Banaue, and past incredible 2000-year-old hand-carved rice terraces reaching to the sky

Staying with the indigenous Ifugao people in pine-forested highlands near the town of Segada, I was led through a huge cave where we waded across ice-cold cascades and used ropes to guide us through dark, narrow crawl spaces. Back in the village, as the warm tropical rains subsided, the women used brooms to swat down mayflies from the swarms drifting lazily skyward, to add to our evening meal.

WWII ‘Jeepneys’ provide cheap public transport throughout the country

On Palawan Island, also known as “the last frontier” of the Philippines, roadside stalls sold hand towels (probably my most important purchase of the entire trip!) to wrap around our heads and faces to ward off the thick, choking clouds of dust as our WWII vintage ‘Jeepney’ set off from the provincial capital Puerto Princessa.

Barreling wildly along the dusty, rutted tracks, we roared through jungle-clad mountains, past tiny village hamlets and fields of ripe rice backed by sheer limestone cliffs, out to wild, deserted beaches and finally to the scenic port of El Nido, famous for its extraordinary natural beauty and diverse ecosystem.

Back in the capital, tanks rolled into Manila’s central business district, for the “People Power” uprising. Suddenly, shops closed and even the shotgun-wielding bank guards fled the scene — as we did — catching the last flight out before the airport closed. Traveling with Jackie, a local nursing student, we headed south for a month of island hopping through spectacular coastal mountains and braved wild, stormy crossings in dangerously overloaded ferryboats and broken-down outriggers.

Jim and Jackie on Boracay

Traveling by bus and boat to Mindoro Island, we gave Puerto Galera a miss, and continued instead to the much quieter Talipanan Beach, where we enjoyed some hiking and snorkeling in the crystal clear waters teeming with colorful reef life.

A spectacular Jeepney ride took us through the scenic coastal mountains south of Calapan City, and then by ferry and bus to the City of Roxas, where we embarked on a particularly hair-raising voyage in the midst of a rising typhoon. Clinging to the deck of a badly overloaded outrigger that threatened to disappear into the massive ocean swells, we eventually arrived at Tablas Island and finally, tiny Boracay Island.

Village kids in Ifugao Province, Luzon

Like Samoa in Polynesia, Phi Phi Island and Krabi in Thailand, Tioman Island in Malaysia, the Spice Islands of Indonesia, and so many other amazing tropical gems – so utterly magical with the seemingly endless exuberance of the rural people, especially the kids – all bright smiles and laughter, the easy movement of the island women, small bamboo houses nestled in the greenest fields of ripe rice, or tucked away against the lush, forested hillsides. Indulging in the sea’s calming surge, warm and gentle – almost therapeutic – and feeding my soul, as did the realization of the ocean’s vast, overwhelming power and mystery. It felt great to get fit and enjoy special friendships, and exchanging smiles and friendly hellos with everybody.

Dave relishing his island accommodation

But I was also eager to see my brother Dave who would be meeting me in Hong Kong for more adventures that awaited us there. I also had meetings lined up at the regional offices of the Asia Alliance of YMCAs, which is located in Hong Kong.

So, after a brief drift at sea in a broken-down outrigger, Jackie and I reached Tablas Island and boarded a Jeepney for another spectacular drive through the countryside. A plane brought us back to Manila to catch my flight to Hong Kong — and once again, it was killing me to leave. But it was comforting to know that soon I would be returning to this island paradise.

Stay tuned for Asia-Pacific Tour: The Philippines (Part Two)– coming soon!

You can read more about Jim’s backstory,  here and here.


Author’s Note: This is a series of selected highlights from two years (1986-88) of budget travel through 18 countries and a half-dozen US States – hosted all along the way by national and local YMCAs – from Samoa, Fiji, New Zealand, Australia, and Papua New Guinea, to Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Burma, The Philippines, Hong Kong, China, Macau,Taiwan, Korea, Japan, and back to the USA.

The CIA Factbook

Burma – the “Modern Raj”. Remnants of the British colonial atmosphere permeated the place. Rangoon was so green – like a garden. And not much automobile traffic, air pollution or crowded streets like in Bangkok. The former British colonial capital  also has the highest number of colonial-period buildings in Southeast Asia, and a remarkably intact colonial-era downtown area.

Aside from the busy tourist areas, the place was fantastic – really appealing,  with a very laid back atmosphere. It was like stepping into the past, and the people were some of the friendliest and most genuine I had ever met. Very helpful, kind and gentle folks – and all English speakers! Another legacy of the British colonial rule.

My Burmese visa was good for only 7 days – so it was a whirlwind tour. Three days with YMCAs in the capital Rangoon and in the up-country city of Mandalay – Burma’s  second largest city. I really would have preferred more time in Rangoon and Mandalay instead of racing all over the country. It was a good trip, but thoroughly exhausting with all the rushing around.

Reclining Buddha, Rangoon

Established under the British regime in 1897, Burma’s early YMCAs served mainly the British communities, and the educational programs were accessible only to those who could afford them. Since then, the YMCAs have focused on meeting the needs of the local people, including vocational training and educational programs that seek to empower all, especially young men and women to assume increased responsibility and leadership at all levels, while working towards an equitable society. 

In downtown Rangoon, I visited the 2600-year-old Sule Pagoda, an important religious, historic and political rallying site, and the Chaukhtatgyi Buddha Temple which houses one of the most revered reclining Buddha image in the country, and at 66 meters (217 feet) long, it is one of the largest in Burma. 

Karaweik Palace  By Ralf-Andre Lettau, Wikimedia Commons

Dominating the Rangoon skyline is the Shwedagon Pagoda — a gilded stupa  also known as the Great Dragon Pagoda or the Golden Pagoda — is the most sacred pagoda in Burma, and is believed to contain relics of the four most recent Buddhas including eight strands of hair from the head of Gautama the Buddha. 

Also in Rangoon, on the shoreline of Lake Kandawgji, the impressive replica of Karaweik Palace, a royal barge is actually a concrete structure in the shape of two enormous golden birds from Burmese mythology, with a Burmese style multi tiered, ornate roof structure.  

Traveling north to Mandalay, I visited the scenic hill station Maymyo, built by the British as a retreat from the soaring summer temperatures, and then boarded a river boat for a relaxing float down the Irrawaddy River to the ancient city of Pagan. A rental bicycle was perfect for touring the surrounding plains which are home to the remains of thousands of magnificent and well preserved 11th and 12th century temples, pagodas and monasteries.

Ox cart and pedicab

Sarongs, lassie yogurt, horse and bull carts, ornate temples, and pretty girls with powdered cheeks exuded a distinctive South Asian feeling, reminiscent of my time Sri Lanka.  The river boat also brought us back to the days of the British Raj – with the very disturbing protocol that seated all the ‘white’ foreigners in style on the upper deck – linen table clothes and all — while the local people were crowded unceremoniously into the dark and dingy lower deck. I was not even allowed to go down to say hello.

A desperately poor place, even the YMCA was forced to operate on the black market, and openly accepted my ‘street market’ currency. Indeed, I financed my entire 7-day trip with a fifth of Johnny Walker Red and a couple cartons of 555 cigarettes that I unloaded immediately upon arrival at the Rangoon airport to eager buyers for a substantial profit in the unofficial currency.

Sunset over the Irrawaddy River

This financial windfall covered all my expenses in Rangoon, Mandalay and Maymyo, as well as passage on the river boat, my guesthouse in Pagan, the return trip to Rangoon in a hot and crowded share-taxi over the rough, dusty, and pothole-riddled roads, and the purchase of some of Burma’s famous lacquer ware for gifts back in Thailand.

Fresh tropical fruits were available everywhere for a mere pittance, and my favorite all-you-can-eat “Vegetarian Thali” (an assortment of delicious vegetable dishes) cost about 30 cents.

Stay tuned for Asia-Pacific Tour: The Philippines – coming soon!

You can read more about Jim’s backstory,  here and here.


Author’s Note: This is a series of selected highlights from two years (1986-88) of budget travel through 18 countries and a half-dozen US States – hosted all along the way by national and local YMCAs – from Samoa, Fiji, New Zealand, Australia, and Papua New Guinea, to Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Burma, The Philippines, Hong Kong, China, Macau,Taiwan, Korea, Japan, and back to the USA.

CIA  Factbook

As the New Year began, I drifted north along the timeless, castaway beaches and quiet island hideaways of southern Thailand — waking up by the sea with the early morning sunlight filtering through bamboo slats of my bungalow and shimmering on the water under wide blue skies. From Bangkok, I made my way through the northeast and finally to the northern city of Chiang Mai where the YMCA put me to work for a few months teaching swimming at their new youth camp in the nearby town of Lampun.

It was absolutely wonderful to stay put for a while and become part of a community. Welcomed by many new friends at the YMCA and in town — living practically for free in a stately old teak wood house considered by the locals to be haunted with the spirits of two brothers who had killed each other there some years ago — and therefore impossible to rent to anyone but ‘naive’ foreigners.

Songkran Festival” – Thai New Year — the time for cleansing and starting anew. In April, at the height of the hot season, everyone goes around dousing each other with water. It’s actually pleasant to be constantly cooled off – drenched on the hot afternoons, and it involves everyone – you can’t escape it. You just have to surrender to the fun and festivity.

Akha mother and child

Trekking to remote ethic minority or ‘hill tribe’ villages, women adorned in high, ornate silver conical headdresses greeted us with big, red betel-nut-stained smiles, black teeth, and warm, loving eyes — naked from the waist up, a babe at the breast, and one or two others slung across the back. Our hostess emerged from the house, sweeping the dirt floor, wearing a skimpy black skirt. A number of younger women nearby were sewing handicrafts — all with heavy breasts ready for the multitude of kids in this tiny mountain village.

The men displayed a distinctly “back country” behavior – heavy drinking, smoking, domestic quarrels, good laughter – amid the harsh reality of life in the hills. The tribal groups typically practiced slash and burn cultivation to eek out their one harvest of mountain rice per year, denuding the hills almost completely of trees and filling the air with smoke and choking ash — with powdery, dusty soil in the dry season and mudslide flooded landscapes in the rainy season.

Jim and trekking guide ‘Lek’

In these remote villages, my limited Thai language skills were not much help, as most spoke only their tribal languages. My trekking guide ‘Lek’ led us through rice paddies and incredibly beautiful mountainous country to a Kwo Min Tang Chinese refugee village settled by descendants of Chiang Kai Chek’s followers who never made it to Taiwan from China, but instead settled in this remote corner of northern Thailand – and still speak only Chinese.

Coming down out of the hills to a Lisu village, we took a bamboo raft down the Kok River to the Thai border village of Tha TonIn one Lahu village, the rats had eaten all the grain leaving nothing to eat or plant. To bring in some cash, the villagers had begun hosted overnight village stays for travelers, which also included smoking opium.

The Lisu and Lahu tribes typically cultivated the opium and sold it to the Akha tribes, who became dependent on the drug, often resisted sending their children to school, and tended to be poorer and generally in more difficulty as a result. The tribal women typically carried the heaviest burden — tending the fields, looking after the kids, preparing food and other housework, and trying to keep the house from falling down while the men drifted away in opium induced stupors.

Staying with a Lahu Tribal family

One of the most extensive opium-producing regions of the world, The Golden Triangle is situated at the confluence of the Mekong and Ruak rivers where it spreads poppy fields across the mountains of three countries: Thailand, Burma and Laos. At the northern-most Thai border town of Mai Sai, I watched as Thai tourists eagerly crossed the the bridge over the Ruak River and into Burma for bargains in the riverside markets. All other foreigners were permitted to walk freely along the bridge, but only as far as the border, where we peered from a distance into a country that mysteriously barred us from entry. That would have to wait for another trip.

Northern Thai Girl

The “long-tail” boat swept along the Mekong River to within spitting distance of Laos, and then back to Thailand where I enjoyed a refreshing swim and a good sleep – anesthetized by the sound of its flow past my riverside guesthouse.

Watching the late afternoon sun light up the clouds over Doi Suthep – the mountain overlooking Chiang Mai — it was killing me to have to say goodbye. Nearly six months in Thailand. But I had stayed too long, and didn’t want to leave my friends – so many friends. It would be easy to stay – having found some of what I was looking for. Soon, I would return.

Stay tuned for Burma (Myanmar), coming soon!

You can read more about Jim’s backstory,  here and here.

Asia-Pacific Tour: Malaysia and Singapore

Author’s Note: This is a series of selected highlights from two years (1986-88) of budget travel through 18 countries and a half-dozen US States – hosted all along the way by national and local YMCAs – from Samoa, Fiji, New Zealand, Australia, and Papua New Guinea, to Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Burma, The Philippines, Hong Kong, China, Macau,Taiwan, Korea, Japan, and back to the USA.

Source: Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Two weeks in the west coast cities of Peninsular Malaysia were enjoyable, thanks to the wonderful YMCA staff in Penang and Ipoh who took me around. It seemed like we ate constantly – with great food everywhere, and with a distinctive Chinese influence. A fairly large Indian population is present as well, along with the majority ethnic Malay population.

Tea_fields_(Will_Ellis) 1
Tea Plantations, Cameron Highlands, Peninsular Malaysia By Will Ellis CC BY 2.0

On to Cameron Highlands in the center of Peninsular Malaysia. Taking in the cool, fresh mountain air, I hiked among the tall pines, through thick, moist bush and along the valleys and high rolling hills planted in neat rows of tea. Moving on to the capital Kuala Lumpur I stayed at the YMCA and near more great food in the section of town known as “Little India.”

But after a few days of the city’s hectic pace and modern shopping centers, it was a welcome release to wake up in my bungalow by the sea, with a cool stream gurgling nearby for bathing and monkeys in the trees trying to nail any passersby with well-aimed mangoes.

Pulau Tioman By Ferrazo Wikipedia – Public Domain

Pulau Tioman is a delightfully unspoiled island four hours by fishing boat from the southwest coast of Peninsular Malaysia. The people are gentle and wonderfully open to talk to. Based on the regionally unifying “Malayan” language, Malaysian and Indonesian languages are basically the same, so I was able to practice my recently acquired Indonesian language skills while in Malaysia.

It was one of most beautiful and mysterious islands I had seen since leaving the South Pacific. The forest so old, massive, and exciting. Just to stand in a wide empty bay, with clear water ringed with golden sands and granite boulders, and an ancient forest as the backdrop. Alone in the sunshine under the open sky with just the monotonous buzz of insects in the trees. Hiking over a jungle-clad mountain past water falls to the far side of the island, and coming down through breezy coconut plantations and into a traditional village setting was like walking back into the South Seas Islands lifestyle. 

On the cross-island trail — moving through the thick jungle with sweat pouring out, great monitor lizards swaggering off the trail, pythons in the trees, monkeys screeching and tropical birds calling – startled by a large cobra at close range. Cool waterfalls along the ridge refreshing an overheated body, and with lots of swim time in the sea – manta rays, sharks, schools of brilliantly colored fish and corals. And after each full day, returning home for supper with my Malaysian home-stay family – it was the perfect refuge.

Summiting Mount Kinabalu, Malaysian Borneo

At 4095 meters (13,450 feet) above sea level, Mount Kinabalu, located in Sabah, Malaysian Borneo, is Malaysia’s highest peak. The two-day climb requires one night on the mountain, then a predawn scramble up ropes and ladders to the summit for the sunrise over Borneo’s steamy mountains and valleys.

A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the mountain and its surroundings are among the most important biological sites in the world, with thousands of species of flora and fauna, including the endangered Orangutan and many rare carnivorous (insect-eating) plant and orchid species.

Pulau Sipadon, Sabah, Malaysian Borneo

From the mountain, I retreated to the warm seas at Pulau Sipadon off the east coast of Sabah, for some world class diving in one of the richest marine habitats in the world. Rising 600 meters (2000 feet) from the ocean floor, coral reef life abounds along with deep sea fauna, such as manta rays, hammerhead sharks, and is a protected nesting site for sea turtles.

Singapore — where West meets East – a pleasant blend of Indian, Malay, Chinese and Western cultures in a modern and rapidly developing regional center of commerce. Happy, friendly people living in a clean, safe environment, with all the modern conveniences of the West, yet rich in the variety of cultures, and with endless choices of cheap and tasty food. The YMCA was ultra-modern with a nice swimming pool on the roof, and also served as a destination for my next shipment of personal medical supplies from the States.

A stunning lineup in traditional Indian Saris

The affordable accommodation, great food, and fun and interesting new Singaporean friends from a variety of cultural backgrounds made the time fly, and nearly a month had slid by before I knew it. 

Pam and five other lovely Indian girls decked out in elegant saris escorted me to a traditional Hindu wedding. Jamaliah a Chinese-Malay, took me to Sentosa Island Resort and Singapore’s Botanic Gardens— the only tropical garden to be honored as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and Catherine, an ethnic Chinese and I enjoyed swimming, playing squash, and warm evenings in the park watching the Christmas lights under a full moon.

Someone told me there was a shortage of Caucasian models in town, and that the agencies were hiring. Many of the regular models had gone home for the Christmas holidays. So I had some photos taken and was soon out doing shoots for a modeling agency. It brought in a few extra bucks, but once again, sadly it had come time to leave – and I was on my way to Thailand!

Stay tuned for Asia-Pacific Tour: Thailand and Burma – coming soon!

You can read more about Jim’s backstory,  here and here.

Asia-Pacific Tour: Indonesia (Part Two)

Author’s Note: This is a series of selected highlights from two years (1986-88) of budget travel through 18 countries and a half-dozen US States – hosted all along the way by national and local YMCAs – from Samoa, Fiji, New Zealand, Australia, and Papua New Guinea, to Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Burma, The Philippines, Hong Kong, China, Macau,Taiwan, Korea, Japan, and then back to the USA.

Fort Tolukko, Ternate Island, Maluku

From Bali, I headed to Maluku, the fabled Spice Islands of Indonesia – and what an adventure it was! Our flight was canceled (not uncommon in Indonesia), but a military transport plane happened to be available, and flew us to the Banda Islands for a reasonable price.

Sailing on a variety of local vessels through deep, indigo-blue waters, schools of dolphin playfully welcomed us to each new group of jungle-clad islands – brilliant green in contrast to the azure sea and sky. These islands are fascinating both in their astonishing natural beauty, and because of the well-preserved 16th century colonial forts and estates. Amid this splendor is a pervasive Pacific Island feeling, but with the distinctive flavor of Asia.

Traveling with Michelle, a young backpacker from Scotland, we climbed volcanoes, explored colonial ruins, wandered through steaming jungles dimly lit up with rays of sunlight slanting through the misty silence, dove in some of Jacques Cousteau’s favorite haunts, and beefed up on delicious food liberally spiced with cloves, nutmeg and cinnamon, for which the islands are famous. It was especially enjoyable staying with the local people in their homes. There was very little English spoken in these isolated islands, so it was necessary and rewarding to do it all in Indonesian language.

Family Home Stay, Pulau Ay, Maluku

Continuing to the island of Java I visited YMCA youth development, education and leadership programs in the city of Yogyakarta, renowned as a center of education, classical Javanese fine art and culture such as batik, ballet, drama, music, poetry and puppet shows. We toured ancient temples and night markets rocking with loud music, mania and crowds – and with oddities like fried cow skin and steamed chicken brains (I didn’t know chickens had enough brain matter to eat!) and weird freak shows featuring dancing giants and dwarfs.

In Jakarta, a YMCA staff member took me for a hair-raising motorbike ride through the city – past the open sewers that line the sidewalks and streets, challenging the traffic and going up onto the sidewalks to get past particularly bad traffic snarls – leaving me pretty frazzled and well doused from head to toe in a layer of sticky black soot from all the automobile and motorbike exhaust. The distinctive divide between rich and poor stark, as we sped through poor urban neighborhoods – past people squatting, washing clothes and eating utensils, brushing their teeth, and shitting all in the same squalid river – and then past modern hotels and shining high rise office buildings.

Mount Merapi Yogyakarta
Mount Merapi, Yogyakarta, Java Island Crisco 1492/ Wikimedia Commons (CC-BY-SA)

By train and then by boat, we sailed along the beautifully rugged Sumatra coastline to Padang for the bull fights, and on to the coastal village of Air Manus (‘Sweet Water’) and to a guest house run by the friendly old caretaker ‘Papa Chili Chili.’ A spectacularly scenic bus ride north of Padang brought me to the cool, easy-going mountain town of Bukittinggi where I climbed a 10,000 foot volcano – the most active one on Sumatra

Unlike Yogyakarta’s dangerously active Mount Merapi – spewing fire, smoke and ash – this Sumatran ‘Merapi’ (literally means ‘Fire Mountain’) was dormant – for the time being anyway, and was one of the three volcanoes surrounding the scenic town.

A thick cloud of steam moved in just as my companions and I summited the cone, causing us to nearly lose our way on the poorly marked trail along a perilously steep drop off. When we finally made it down, the park ranger (belatedly) told us of the potential danger on top – and led us to a gruesome color photo tacked to his bulletin board of a foreign climber they found three weeks after he went missing. He had probably become lost in a sudden white out, just as we were, but tragically had fallen to his death. Lying in a jungle puddle his face was gone, totally rotted away.

Indonesian Sunset

I toughed out eighteen brutal hours by bus to beautiful Lake Toba a large natural lake occupying the caldera of a supervolcano in the middle of the northern part of Sumatra, but was content to skip overly commercialized Samosir Island in the center of the lake. About 100 kilometers long, 30 kilometers wide, and up to 505 meters deep, Lake Toba is the largest volcanic lake in the world.

My visa had run out, so my final days in Indonesia were spent basking in the quiet, local flavor of an obscure town far from all the tourists, where I enjoyed a fitting and wonderfully refreshing final evening – the sensual massage was like food to a starving man. She spoke not a word of English, but by then, I could ramble easily in the language. And like a bad habit, I was leaving again. But my last night in Indonesia simply added to the long list of outrageous experiences and fond memories, and a keen desire to return for more!

Stay tuned for Asia-Pacific Tour: Malaysia and Singapore – coming soon!

You can read more about Jim’s backstory,  here and here.

Asia-Pacific Tour: Indonesia (Part One)

Author’s Note: As a volunteer representing the YMCA of the USA, I met with YMCA leaders throughout the Asia-Pacific region and the USA to help strengthen cooperation among YMCAs for technical, financial and human resource development. This is part of a series of highlights from two years (1986-88) of budget travel through 18 countries and a half-dozen US States – hosted all along the way by national and local YMCAs – from Samoa, Fiji, New Zealand, Australia, and Papua New Guinea, and continuing through Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Burma, The Philippines, Hong Kong, China, Macau, Taiwan, Korea, Japan, and then back to the USA.

Source: Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Canoeists silhouetted against the morning glow moved out into the river. Balanced standing, and paddling their long wooden dugouts – the original paddle boarders!  A beautiful flight from the chilly highlands brought us to the border town of Wewak, on the northwest coast of of Papua New Guinea (PNG) where we soaked up the welcome warmth of the sea.

Tana Toraja, Sulawesi

Traveling with my brother Dave, the boatman steered us up the Sepik River to the village of Kambot – famous for its carved Story Boards. Wild, flat country, dusty and dry that time of year, and fortunately not too many mosquitoes. Staying in the village was very peaceful — bathing in the river, and the villagers were warm and gentle.  But the food staple ‘sago’ – made from the pith inside the trunk of palm trees was a bit lacking in substance and flavor, to say the least!

From Wewak, our plane arrived in Jayapura, the capital of the Indonesian province of Irian Jaya, where everyone on board promptly had their Indonesian visas canceled. Border disputes between Indonesia and PNG were common at the time, so my two-month Indonesian visa, obtained with considerable effort in the capital Port Moresby was instantly reduced to three weeks – just to spite the PNG authorities. I was politely informed, however, that I could simply ‘buy lunch’ for an  Indonesian immigration official anywhere along the way to have my two-month visa re-issued. Right…

A Balinese Funeral Pyre

But just one night in Indonesia, and the distinctive music, sweet smelling clove cigarettes, pretty girls, good food, and cheap prices had us fired up for Asia! The Pacific is truly peaceful and beautifully simple, but the promise of Indonesia’s intoxicating cultural mix beckoned. My meeting with the Yogyakarta YMCA on the island of Java was not until the following week. So we set off to begin exploring some of Indonesia’s vast archipelago of roughly 18,000 islands.

Flying from Jayapura to the bustling city of Ujung Pandang on the southern coast of Sulawesi Island, we headed north by bus to Tana Toraja – a scenic mountainous area known for its boat-shaped houses flanked by rice paddies, and elaborate funeral ceremonies. But the roads further north were really bad – entire buses seemed to disappear into cavernous ruts. So we retreated to Bali for some beach time, swimming, good food, and a massage before Dave returned to the USA.

Bali was much more touristic, but offered unique and fascinating expressions of culture at every turn including cremation ceremonies featuring enormous, elaborately carved pyres paraded through town and then burned. Food offerings are piled high and carried on women’s heads. Families often need time to raise the money for such elaborate rituals, so the deceased would be buried and then dug up later when sufficient funds were available.  

Climbing Mount Batur, Bali

The countryside was spectacular and great for hiking, with rushing cascades and sweeping arcs of rice terraces carved into the greenest hillsides. I often came across women bathing openly – as is the custom, and this simply added to the naturally beautiful scenes. I climbed smoky  Mount Batur, an active volcano that rises dramatically from within two calderas and a large caldera lake and then skied back down on one foot through the hot, fine ash using just one rubber thong (the other one had broken on the way up!)

Reaching the bottom of the volcano, I entered one of the heated pools hidden in shallow caves at the edge of the lake – and came face to face with a young maiden who promptly invited me in to share her bath and a shampoo – and then led me back to her village for supper and a bed for the night in her family’s home-stay. No one in the family spoke English, and as I became more proficient in the language, it was all becoming like something out of dream land.

Bunaken Island, Sulawesi

After two fruitless visits to a local Immigration office – well dressed, practicing my language skills, and professing a keen appreciation of Indonesia and its people – I was told that if I returned the next day wearing closed-toe shoes, I would have my visa. Apparently, my Birkenstock sandals didn’t cut it, and the shoes in local shops were all too small for my big foreign feet. Fortunately, another traveler loaned me his shoes – and I had my two-month visa!

Stay tuned for Asia-Pacific Tour: Indonesia (Part Two), coming soon!

You can read more about Jim’s backstory,  here and here.

This Side of the Reef (Part Three)

Author’s Note: Every weekend was an adventure. Swimming and diving on the reef in the lagoon, hiking and camping in the cool, dense jungles of the island’s interior, eating bat stew on the rim of an ancient volcano, becoming lost in a blanketing mist while swimming in a cold, bottomless crater lake, outrigger canoe trips to uninhabited islands, numerous adventures by trail bike, romance in the setting sun, and night-dipping under the shooting stars. Too many social commitments, too much fun, too damn many women and not enough sleep.

A fisherman coming in from the reef
A fisherman coming in from the reef

Once a month, I joined a group of ‘expats’ for adventure trips off the beaten track for overnights on uninhabited islands, treks into the interior of the two larger islands to hidden crater lakes, ancient lava flows, or for special birding excursions. I loved exploring the wild and mysterious jungle, as well as the boundless, clear sparkling sea.

One of the more challenging expeditions took us deep into the interior of Upolu island following razor-sharp ridge lines past spectacular panoramas across the island’s backbone and down to the sea – bush-whacking through the island’s nearly impenetrable interior. At viewpoints along the way, we could see down to Apia, and across to the other main island of Savai’i, with tiny Manono and Apolima  islands in between – white crescents of surf breaking on the barrier reefs far in the distance. 

We were climbing Mount Fito, the tallest mountain on Upolu (3,600 ft.) and extremely hard going through the dense, ever-changing, tangled undergrowth and rugged terrain. I mopped up the rear, hanging back, listening to the distant singing of bush knives ahead as smoky rays of sunlight slanted through moss-laden trees, cicadas happily buzzing high in the forest canopy.

Jim and Dave at Lanoto’o Crater

Reaching the rim of the volcano, the late afternoon sun lit up the huge forested crater. Pairs of elegant Tropic Birds – long white tail feathers flowing – rode the air currents inside the massive crater. As dusk fell, the trees came alive with huge bats or ‘flying fox’ (pe’a). In the waning light we hung our sleeping tarps while our guides blasted a couple of bats out of the sky, and made bat stew for dinner – tiny drumsticks of tender meat – not bad at all!

Accessible from the main cross-island road in the misty highlands, the trail to Lanoto’o Crater was a faint, rarely used track, shrouded by heavy clouds – dark, cool and damp. Scaling the steep, densely forested volcano, we slid barefoot down the precipitous inner crater wall to the perfectly round, emerald green lake below. Incredibly beautiful as it was mysterious and after a hard, sweaty climb up and a muddy slide down to the silent, misty shoreline, the cool water beckoned. 

Once while swimming across the lake, a heavy cloud cover descended, totally obliterating everything in sight. All was white except for the ripples of dark smooth water directly in front me as I swam. After momentary panic, I noticed my friends’ voices coming from somewhere on shore, and they guided me back to safety. On the way home, we flagged down a bus-load of well-padded women returning from a picnic who pulled me up to dance with them in the aisle – squashing me with their huge bodies as the weaving, top-heavy wooden bus lumbered around tight mountain curves. I was lucky to survive that one!

An entire roast pig filling the back of the jeep

The endless summer continued in full swing with my brother Dave’s visit – closing down raucous night clubs in Apia, trekking, swimming, diving, and visiting YMCA rural clubs (kalapus) in remote villages throughout the country.

We enjoyed tons of incredible food served by village girls seated before us fanning the flies away as we ate, followed by Samoan cocoa or the ceremonial beverage kava – a relaxing psychotropic concoction made from the root of a plant in the pepper family. Wonderful stuff that tastes like dirty dish water, but soon numbs the mouth, face and then the whole body. We endured the seemingly endless ceremonies, speeches, and tortuous hours sitting cross-legged on the floor, and returned home with Dave sharing the back seat with a huge roast pig – one of the many generous gifts from the villagers.  

Diving at the Apia town waterfront, with Mount Vaea in the background (1985)

At the time, there were no commercial dive operations anywhere in the country. But one of my friends had tanks, and the fire station had a compressor to fill them. At points along the coast where the surf was not so strong, we would hop over the reef for some ‘virgin diving’ in amazingly clear and wild waters teeming with sea life large and small.

Particularly memorable was the time I took a paraplegic friend for his first scuba dive. Jerry was from New Zealand and was in Samoa conducting research on services for the disabled in the Pacific. We suited up, wrapped Jerry’s weight belt around his ankles to secure his legs and he held tight to my stabilizer backpack while we descended together for an awesome dive. Jerry wrote about the experience later as part of his published study, describing how much the scuba diving had meant to him, including the wonderful liberating feeling of weightlessness underwater.

You can read more about Jim’s backstory,  here and here.

This Side of the Reef (Part Two)

Author’s Note: As a YMCA volunteer in Samoa (formerly Western Samoa) from 1983-1986, I experienced some of the highest, lowest, most frustrating and exhilarating times of my life. I was in love with the people, the place, and captured by the challenges and rewards of this work.

YMCA National Headquarters, Apia

Samoa was a fascinating introduction to a totally different kind of YMCA work than I had ever seen before. The traditional YMCA programs of physical education, youth clubs and camping were almost non-existent. Instead, the programs responded to locally defined social and economic development needs and priorities as perceived by the people themselves, and collaborated with other local organizations, government, and international agencies to meet these needs.

Founded in 1978 with the assistance of the New Zealand YMCAs, the National Headquarters of the YMCA of Western Samoa was located in the capital and only city of Apia. The local Rotary Club raised $10,000 for the construction of the YMCA headquarters facility, consisting of a large open meeting room with attached office, classroom and kitchen. The main fale (Polynesian house with no walls) was built in the traditional manner entirely without the use of nails. Instead, twine woven from coconut husk was used to bind the beams together.

Evening Training Program in a YMCA Village Club

YMCA programs focused mainly on rural development, vocational training and youth development in Apia, and in 40 village YMCA branches throughout the country. Leadership training seminars and field practicums covered topics such as farm management, small business management, marketing and credit unions. The YMCA Sales and Marketing Program helped local communities find overseas markets for their produce, and organized competitions to encourage increased crop production. Cash crops included taro, the starchy root staple consumed locally and exported to Samoans in Australia, New Zealand, and the USA, and kava, a mildly sedating and culturally important beverage consumed widely throughout the Pacific.

Carpentry and Building Construction Training

Trades training programs in carpentry, construction, furniture sales, and motor mechanics prepared young people for jobs in town, while vocational skills development for self-employment were promoted in the rural areas. Weight training and aerobics classes were offered along with a popular Social Survival Skills course to help prepare Samoans who were planning to move and settle in New Zealand for school or for work.

As the YMCA Public Relations Officer, my first assignment was to produce a newsletter by April which was four months away (high stress!) and I quickly realized the need to slow down and put any overly ambitious hopes for swift and immediate progress aside. Most importantly, I worked closely with my local counterpart at the YMCA, who would assume my responsibilities when I finished my assignment in Samoa.

Village tollgate and a determined toll collector

Traveling to villages around the country on a Honda 185 trail bike, I gathered stories and photos for the YMCA newsletter, ran youth programs, and enjoyed long, lazy lunch hours free-diving at Palolo Deep Marine Reserve on the outskirts of Apia, with fresh fish and chips, bananas, papayas, taro and palusami (baked taro leaves filled with coconut cream) washed down with a couple of young coconuts. It was my favorite refuge from the ‘fishbowl’ intensity that a small place like Samoa can sometimes feel like to a foreigner.

My job at the YMCA was really fantastic. But I  needed to work at relaxing more, and learn how to roll with various challenges, and the slower pace of life in general. So, whenever I was exhausted or just frustrated from taking my work too seriously, it helped to simply stand out on the far reef and shout into the wind – unleashing my pent up fury at the top of my lungs – relieved and recharged as my anguish merged into the thundering roar of the pounding surf.

YMCA Urban Youth Group

Samoa is a small place, and I was able to involve the YMCA in various collaborative efforts with other local organizations. With the Ministry of Health and other community organizations and businesses, the YMCA helped establish the first National Health Fair,  which is celebrated each year on World Health Day. The event kicks off with a ‘fun walk’ and includes free medical and dental check-ups, general health education on topics such as nutrition, sanitation and first aid, and a poster-making contest for the kids.

With the Samoa Red Cross Society, and the Ministry of Youth, Sport and Culture, the YMCA helped establish the first National Red Cross Water Safety Program in Samoa, and assisted an International Youth Leadership Camp involving young people from 14 Pacific Island nations. The YMCA also helped organize the annual Special Olympics and Games for the Disabled, and took the lead in establishing a National Suicide Awareness Campaign to address the epidemic of youth suicide that was spreading across the Pacific at the time.

Stay tuned for Part Three, coming soon!

You can read more about Jim’s backstory,  here and here.