You’ve maybe seen the highlights of our busy December travels through Sumatra, Malaysia, Singapore and back to Bali in our Christmas update….. but these places and adventures deserve their own telling and photos… I’ve been working on a series of catch up blogs for our travels around Asia. This is the first.
When I started compiling this series of catch up posts, we’d just hit our 18 month travelling milestone and two days later we were taking our 46th flight and arriving in our 23rd country – India! But that’s a few posts further down the line!
It’s early December 2013. From the high-rise splendour of pristine, modern Singapore where we’ve enjoyed the OTT Christmas decorations in Orchard Road and meeting with Martin’s cousin and family, we’re expecting the relatively poor, Muslim, jungle island of Sumatra to give us a real change of scene! With a couple of weeks free and just £120 for 5 for a flight from Singapore to Medan, we can’t resist slotting in a visit to Sumatra.
With dreams of jungles and orangutans, and plans to visit Banda Aceh in the far North West, sadly known to most of us for it’s suffering during the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami, we step into Medan’s pristine and sparkling new airport terminal, which just opened in August 2013, to realise we’ve forgotten to keep Indonesian currency (or any other currency for that matter) to pay for our visa’s on arrival. They don’t accept card payments.
We feel a bit sheepish but find we’re permitted to send one of us out on a mission (while the officer retains our passports) to the ‘other side’ to find an ATM. Martin heads off and I stand around with the kids who are slumped on their rucksacks, waiting patiently. After about 20 minutes, he’s back but the machines haven’t accepted his cards, so I’ll have to go and try mine! I currently only have one debit card as I carelessly allowed an ATM machine in Bali to eat my other one a couple of weeks ago. I wonder if I’m going to have much luck and what will happen next if I don’t!
I walk past the immigration and customs officers to the busy hall. None of them seem to notice me. As I emerge the other side a waving, smiling chap runs over and asks me ‘Martin’s wife?’ then leads me around to the various ATMs until we have success! He tells me a tip of 50,000rp (the smallest note I have, £2.50) will do him just fine (I’m sure it will, this is a lot of money in Indonesia.) I ask him to wait for us again and we will see about taking a taxi with him.
You must leave Indonesia every 30 days unless you have secured a longer term visa in advance. There is a departure tax to pay, then another visa on arrival (for another 30 days, taking up another half page in the passports) and if you are as daft as us, you will also have to pay a hefty fine on departure (we were stung leaving Bali a few days ago as we made a mistake calculating our 30 days and it turns out we overstayed by a few hours! This resulted in another occassion having to pass through security in search of an ATM. We’ll be getting a name for ourselves with Indonesian immigration if we’re not careful!)
Our new friend finds us a taxi who’ll driver us into Medan, an hour away. It surprises me that the vehicles all appear to be shiny, clean and new 7 seater 4 wheel drives. The road is new and everywhere clean but when we finally approach Medan itself, we see the more typical, sprawling, busy Indonesian city we imagined and crawl through busy traffic, teeming with bemos and bikes and cars until we finally reach the hotel that Martin has booked.
It’s VERY posh! It’s a high security 5 star joint. We feel utterly decadent and completely shabby and under-dressed. But we really enjoy some luxury for two nights – the hotel has a half price weekend offer against what may anyway be one of the cheapest 5* hotels in the world already! The kids do some project work sitting at the smart desks in their room, we swim in the pool, enjoy the spa, the restaurants, the fancy bar and cafe with tasty cakes, get invited to dine in a private function (they probably felt sorry for us) and feel a bit weird looking out over bustling grubby city streets full of cars and tuktuks which we don’t really fancy exploring for once.
We do however get busy organising out trip for the next week and I have the surreal half a minute, adrenalin pumping, experience of an earthquake that rocks the hotel! It feels pretty extreme in our room on the 10th floor. I look out of the window to get a visual of the swaying cityscape, hear the coat hangers clanking in the cupboard, feeling unsteady as I walk across the room and wondering what to do! I stand glued to the floor for a minute or so and feel it steady again and the coat hangers become still!
I spend a couple of minutes Googling ‘live earthquakes’ before the details of an earthquake that is 5.8 (later reported 6) on the Richter scale just west of Sumatra pop up and my sanity is restored that I didn’t just have a funny turn and imagine the whole episode!
What was most strange is that people outside in the street didn’t appear to be reacting and when I go downstairs and talk to the rest of the family, a little later, they felt nothing and knew nothing of it at all! Later I realise that the hotel TVs constantly plays an earthquake safety procedure video as you enter your bed room which I’d hiherto ignored but now watch with interest just in case it happens again! Apparently, you are more likely to feel it in the high apartment floors than at ground level and this is such a common occurrence in Sumatra that people don’t really react to tremors at all!
As we’ve travelled the west coast of South America, the Pacific and now around Asia where there are major faultlines and frequent rumbles and tremors, I’m realising just how many earthquakes take place on a regular basis and how most of them go un-noticed by the world. Another even stronger earthquake across the other side of Indonesia took place a few hours earlier today and may have received a little media attention, but this one, whilst mentioned in the Quake news, doesn’t hit any regular headlines as remarkably there is no damage or casualties.
We have peered into a fiery live volcano, felt and watched live news of a major earthquake a few hundred miles away in New Zealand and seen countless tsunami warmings whilst hearng locals’ tell first hand stories of the regular smaller and occasional major tsunamis they’ve experienced. The Earth is fragile but I live in a relatively safe haven in good old Blighty, although even as I write this, I’m watching news of record high waves and railways and roads flooded and washed away in Devon and Cornwall and endless storms causing widespread chaos right across the UK!
I digress! Back in our fancy hotel in Medan…both evenings the kids have their ultimate treat – room service and movies whilst Martin and I head off and have a nice meal in one of the hotel restaurants.
Monday morning we head off on the 2 -3 hour bumpy journey out of the city through palm plantations and tiny villages and into the jungle to the little town of Bukit Lawang, entrance to Gunung Leuser National Park, tucked in a jungle valley and set along the banks of the rushing rocky Bohorok River. As monkeys run around on the overhead cables and trees, we walk down a mud path, across a rickety bridge and then climb an exhausting flight of steps to ‘On the Rocks’, our lovely guest house set on a ledge by the jungle. It comprises 3 or 4 simple bungalows and a small restaurant.
We spend a wonderful few days in the company of the Sumatran owners who feed us, guide us, play badminton with us, play guitar and teach us the incredibly catchy ‘Jungle Trek’ to the tune of jingle bells….which we proceed to sing for weeks:)
We go on an early morning jungle trek which is pretty tough … hot, humid, muddy and steep…and sadly not very fruitful in terms of spotting orangutans, but we end up at a feeding station just north of the village where they feed orangutans twice a day and bring less energetic tourists across the river and up a 20m path to see them. The feeding had just ended and the 8 or 10 tourists wander off leaving us to sit and watch two mothers and their babies hang around a bit longer and then, to our delight come and check us out at close quarters! Actually that’s quite intimidating and luckily our guide has some bananas to distract from them grabbing a camera or a bag!!
We spend a magical hour or so watching them watching us watching them until they get bored and effortlessly climb higher up into the trees and disappear from view.
We head to the river and make a fun crossing on a raft which one of our guides swims through the strong current to grab and pull across then they tow us over to the main village. We lunch at a nice cafe in the village before crossing the bridge and heading back up to On the Rocks for badminton and schoolwork! Ben has a Skype lesson with our new English teacher who is currently in Egypt!
Next day we have a brilliant hike and adventure climbing through a bat cave, via a pretty orphanage, housing kids who were orphaned in 2003 when a flash flood destroyed the town, killing over 240 residents – it’s incredible to hear how the town recovered and about the colourful orphanage which was established by two Dutch women. After our hike we hop onto a classic Sumatran raft, a string of massive inner tubes strapped together with ropes and we make a white water rafting trip with a difference! Amazing fun and when we reach a stretch that’s not too deep or too wild, we’re able to get out and float down on our own.
There are two little hitches – the water sweeps my feet away so fast that I land on a rock right on my coccyx… Ouch for days! And the current manages to wash Zoe’s new silver ring that she made in Bali right off her finger… big disappointment but these experiences are all part of life’s learnings!
We find that Sumatrans are unbelievably friendly and fun and many speak great English. We also discover there are several western women who came, fell in love and never left! We are also stopped and ‘interviewed’ by some bold, giggly and very friendly teenage schoolchildren for their English homework. This seems unusual but we’ll see how unusual I guess as we travel through other Muslim countries.
From Bukit Lawang we take an even more bumpy car ride to Tangkahan, further into the jungle and stay in another lodge at the junction of the Buluh and Batang rivers further south on the borders of Gunung Leuser National Park. We trek across a swing bridge to get to the Tangkahan Jungle Inn. There are a family of tiny kittens who the kids fall in love with, hug and play with any chance they get over the two days we stay.
Down a few steep steps is a little beach beside the river. Across the river is a crevice full of steaming hot water from a hot spring, forming a fantastic natural bath. There are monkeys in the trees and on the beaches. We have an amazing afternoon playing in the river and the kids are helped to get across or out of the strong currents by a couple of British guys we meet, Tom and Jake and the local lads from the lodge.
Ben comes up to use the bathroom the second afternoon and discovers a leach clinging to him under his swimming shorts… ‘Quick Mum, we mustn’t pull it off. Get some salt!!’ We sprinkle salt and watch it squirm and drop immediately from his leg. Some of Dad’s jungle training from way back in Brazil obviously stuck! In all the excitement and drama, I forget to take pictures!
Next morning we trek across to the elephant sanctuary with Tom and Jake and another English couple. We all trek down to the river and give them a bath. They are simply gorgeous and obviously enjoy a good scrub! Ben meets and get filmed with a small Indonesian film crew making a short documentary for tv next week but realises sadly that we won’t be in Indonesia when it’s screened:(
All of us opt only to wash the elephants rather than ride. Someone in charge has decided to inflate the costs by 300% in the last year – washing is brilliant fun and no one is too upset not to get a ride! We feed them bananas and get tickly kisses!
Then we jump onto another tube raft, float somewhat sedately back down to where or rivers meet and then hike to a waterfall before walking back upstream to our lodge and the hot spring!
It’s hilarious seeing the kids learning to master the river current to get across and back – I have to control my urge to restrict their freedom and it’s a relief to have an attentive guide and a locals around willing to jump in and help or lend a tube to them to play with! Their skill and confidence has come on it leaps and bounds!
And before we know it, they are saying goodbye to the kittens and our new friends and we’re back on the road and off to the airport. We’ve decided that the journeys north to Banda Aceh and south to Lake Toba can’t be easily squeezed in and we’ve just got cheap flights to Penang where there is a get-together of travelling families and we really really want to be part of it!