Saturday, April 30, 2016

Tour d'Borneo 5: Borneo Backroads

Why do we put so much trust our devices? I recently read a critique of this attitude aimed at millenials who put a lot of faith in what yelp, tripadvisor and google maps tell them about the world. Gone are the days, lamented the critic, of people asking each other questions, of people exploring without detailed reviews and online reservations, gone are the days of humanity's independence from the screens.

Whatever one might think of this critique, it seems pretty true to me. But have things really changed? 25 years ago, I was involved in the tourism industry in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, a place where hundreds of thousands of foreign tourists visited every year. More often than not, these travelers were reliant upon their Fodors' or their Lonely Planet. In fact, given that these were pretty much the only sources of information about SE Asia at the time, these guidebooks were even more influential then than their contemporary electronic equivalents.

I've seen it a 1000 times, but I still think it's odd to see
an 11 year-old riding a motorbike on a public road
What happens when you go to a place for which there is little to no information online? This is what I've been experiencing this last week here in Kalimantan Barat. Furthermore, the information that exists is often flawed. You saw in a previous episode where I tried to visit TripAdvisor's top-rated restaurant in Pontianak. It wasn't where it was supposed to be and the folks in that neighborhood had never heard of it. From my point of view, that was entirely okay. I just found somewhere else. My screen pointed me in a direction; I took it from there. When I got out into the countryside, there wasn't any information on the big travel sites at all. I did find some useful information though from a couple of fellow travel bloggers, Konni and Matt, a couple South African retirees who traveled a similar route to mine back in 2013. Things change in three years. The towns I visited in KalBar weren't as he had described them 3 years ago.

What? No street signs?
Point being, I couldn't find any information about whether or not you could get from Bengkayang to Merasap via these back roads I found on Google maps. I decide to try. When I got the point where I was to turn off, I stopped for some water and asked the lady at the roadside stall if I could get to Merasap down that road. She said no. I simply assumed she didn't have the benefit of Google maps.

The dotted yellow line was my adventure on the
backroads of Borneo.

See, it doesn't take much for google to put a line on a map and call it a road. This picture shows you one of the roads it told me to take. Now, had a dirtbike, a real motorcycle with knobby tires and meant to go off road, I certainly would have continued, but it was here I decided to give up on my original plan.

Google maps said go that way.

 By that point, I had already gone so far, I didn't want to go back the way I came, so I began to look for another way out. I knew that there was another major road some way off to the east; I also was seeing palm-oil-nut trucks and workers coming down the road towards me. They had to be coming from somewhere. If I just followed to most-worn paths, I would make it out of the palm-oil plantation and back to civilization.

The point of no return
If you remember back to when I was Naypyitaw, this I'll-make-it-eventually mindset when talking about Third World muddy roads has lead me into trouble in the past. Instead, I reached what I deemed a point of no return, and decided to return.

That's when I ran into trouble.

“I wonder what would happen if I went that way?”


See in the second half of Tour d'Borneo, Part Five.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Tour d'Borneo 4: Pontianak to Bengkayang

I had a decision to make. I needed to finalize my route for the Borneo loop. Although my original plan didn't involve any tight schedules; I had no hotel reservations or anything like that beyond my first night's stay. I was, however, a day behind my planned time for leaving Pontianak.

But to where?

You may remember this map from before I set out:

The original plan had me heading inland to the river town of Sanggau then north to near the Malay border at Karangan. The black line on the map indicated a road that I wasn't sure existed out of Karanga to Bengkayang. Thanks to the Kalimantan Barat Tourism Board and their map I picked up at the airport, I had learned that that road doesn not, in fact, exist.

Then there was the issue of the rain. It was the tail end of the rainy season, and the storms were still rolling in. Moreover, the motorbike I ended up with wasn't as nice as I had hoped I would get. It didn't even have gears, and when you're trying to climb hilly roads, you need to be able to shift into a lower gear.

So I decided to play it safe. Revised route map at right. Cutting out Sanggau and Karangan altogether. The revised route had me heading straight to Bengkayang out of Pontianak. I've also added a stop, Sungai Kunyit, where I'll be going tomorrow.

I was right about the rain. It was raining for about half my ride that day, sometimes pouring down in sheets. Despite this, I was enjoying the ride. There's something about being out on a country road in a country you've never explored before (or at least, not in 25 years). I was smiling and singing in the rain.

Rain! Do your worst!
And staying dry. The rain gear that came with my rented bike was great! With my eyeshields to keep rain off my glasses, my baggage securely bagged, and my gloves to keep my hands on the handlebars, the rain didn't bother me one bit. It certainly wasn't cold. I made it almost all the way to Bengkayang nearly completely dry. On approaching the town, the roads got worse. Huge pot holes made for small lakes in the road which was beginning to flood a bit. The rain didn't get me from above; the splashes got me from below.

Having made good time, I had time to explore the area around Bengkayang a bit. I went down a remarkable back road that lead to some wonderful scenery.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

The Tour d'Borneo 3: More Pontianak

I got a late start on Friday as the Golden State Warriors were playing a playoff game which started at 9:30 AM Indonesian time. So it was approaching noon as I headed out on my newly rented motorbike with a plan to tour the various sights that I couldn't reach by walking.

The first time I had to make a turn, I turned the wrong direction and ended up on a bridge I definitely didn't want to be on. I get freaked out by tall bridges. Fortunately, this one was relatively short and I managed to control my panic attack.

Where I ended up was someplace I was going to go eventually anyways, the oldest part of Pontianak, the site of the Sultan's palace and the oldest mosque in town.

While visiting the Sultan's palace, I got swarmed by a bunch of schoolgirls who were very excited to talk to a foreigner. I've said it before and I'll say it again, visiting a foreign country where you speak the language is so different from relying on other people speaking English. I was wearing my Myanmar t-shirt. They had no idea where Myanmar was. It was a fun exchange.

I arrived at the old mosque just before noon. In case you didn't know, noon on Friday in Islam is like Sunday morning in Christianity. Friday Noon is when you go to mosque, and given the prominence of this mosque, there were 1000+ followers come to pray. I got invited in, but I didn't want to intrude. Like I've said before, practically NO western tourists visit this part of the world, and so I feel a little responsible to create a good impression, or at least, not create a bad impression by standing out like a sore thumb in my shorts and t-shirt.

Burma AND Myanmar. Huh?
Next stop, the Museum of Western Kalimantan.  The Friday thing came into play again. In Indonesia, a lot of businesses close on Friday at noon at don't re-open. When I got to the museum at about 12:30, they were closed.

Fortunately (but not in the video), the security guard told me they'd be re-opening at 1 PM.  So I had a hamburger and went back.

At the end of the afternoon, I did a dance on the equator. Northern Hemisphere, Southern Hemisphere, Northern Hemisphere, Southern Hemisphere!

Enjoy the video.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

The Tour of Borneo: Part Two - Pontianak

The morning of my second day in Pontianak, I had the google revelation I mentioned at the end of my last blog. Why was a searching online in English for a motorbike to rent in a city where they don't speak English? When I switched to Indonesian, results! 
I contacted the office of the rental agency, and they said yes, they had motorbikes to rent. They asked whether I would like for them to deliver one to me. Oh no, I had to check it out first.

Indonesian police aren't as intimidating as I remember
Pontianak is a strange city when it comes to transportation as in there is apparently little to no public transportation. You don't see taxis on the road. The motorcycle taxis (ojek, as they're called here) are practically non-existent. There are a sprinkling of pedicabs (becak), and occasionally I've seen some run down old vans which serve as the city bus system. You have to have your own transport to get around here.

 The doorman arranged a private taxi ($6 for 3 miles? That's outrageous for Third World prices) to take me to the motorcycle rental agency. On arrival, I saw no motorbikes. The lady behind the desk asks, “Did you call earlier?”

I told her that had been me. Oh, she apologized. She didn't realize when she was talking to me earlier that they were all rented out. There should be one later that afternoon, if not tomorrow, she continued.

Well, damn.

What could I do? It was a good thing I had the taxi wait for me while I went in.

Siomay Bandung!
So, with nothing to do but just wait around (I had already explored the Pontianak within walking distance the day before), I found a restaurant that sells my absolutely favorite Indonesian food (Siomay Bandung), checked out the jacuzzi and pool facilities at the hotel and hoped my phone would ring.

It finally did. Enjoy the video. 


Friday, April 22, 2016

The Tour d'Borneo - Part One: Motorcycle Search

It's a Friday night, April 22nd. I began this Borneo journey on Tuesday, but I don't feel like it's really even begun. I haven't hit the road yet; I'm writing tonight from my hotel room in Pontianak, my third night here. Tomorrow, having finalized my planning and transportation, I hit the road for real.

I mentioned in the previous post that it was going to take me two days to get here from Myanmar. Due to flight schedules, I couldn't avoid a 13 hour overnight layover at the Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, airport. On the day of my flight out of Yangon, I began picturing myself lying on the floor of some lounge at 3 AM, wide awake, bored and uncomfortable. I made the good decision of booking at a hotel nearby the airport and made my flight to Pontianak, West Borneo on time and rested. Funny little boutique hotel there in KL; it was airplane themed. They upgraded me to business class.

When I got to Pontianak, I was grateful for not being so tired because I had an arduous task ahead. See, I made the mistake of not thoroughly investigating the availability of motorcycles for rent in the city of Pontianak. I figured Pontianak is a big city. I had googled 'motorcycle rental Pontianak' and found a dozen places that rented cars, so I figured I'd find something when I got here. My hopes were buoyed further when the hotel representative who was in the free shuttle with me informed me that the hotel could arrange a motorcycle rental.

On the road to the hotel, I saw dozens of motorcycle dealers, selling new and used bikes. I'd wait until the what the hotel could find for me, but I was pretty sure I'd find something I liked. I didn't just want any crappy little city bike; I was going up into the hills and jungles of the interior. I wanted something rugged, powerful and reliable.

Maybe Doraemon could help me find a motorcycle
At the Santika Hotel, which is a wonderful accommodation, after checking in, I inquired about the motorcycle rental. I was told to down to the front door and talk to the security staff; the rental was informal, just some guys the security guards knew. Oh. When I talked to them, they made some phone calls, but turned up nothing. They promised me they'd keep trying.

So, on my first afternoon and evening in Pontianak, I head out on foot to search for a bike to rent from one of the many many Such-and-Such Motor shops I'd seen nearby the hotel. 
This kid doesn't see foreigners very often, if at all, so I think he found me a bit scary.

Well, as you'll see in the video, I got to see a lot of Pontianak that day. I walked for hours, and although I enjoyed exploring a new and interesting city, I wasn't finding what I was looking for. You'll see in the video.

I just gave him a goofy smile and he relaxed.

The next morning, I had a brilliant idea. I think it may have even come to me in a dream. Why was I searching the internet for motorcycle rental here in this off-the-beaten-path city in English? I should be entering my search terms in Indonesian! Of course!

What happened next? Well, that will have to wait for the next blog, as that video isn't finished yet.

As I said, I am on the road tomorrow, so I do at least have a motorcycle.

Monday, April 18, 2016

On the Way to Deepest Borneo!

I'm very excited about this next journey. 11 days, 7 stops, and a proper loop which means I'll (barely) have to go back the way I came at any point on the trip. Here's a map of the plan I've photoshopped...

In Indonesia, West Borneo is called Kalimantan Barat, or just KalBar. I'll be landing in Pontianak, the regional capital on the 20th (I've got a 13 hour layover in KL that I'm not looking forward to), and my first goal is to find a place that I can rent a decent bike. Most importantly, something with rack on the back onto which I can strap my backpack. During my recent Myanmar tour, I had the bag essentially as a passenger on the seat which wasn't so comfortable. 

Then, I'll need to decide as to whether to drive the first leg to Sanggau or go by river boat up the Kapuas River. The Kapuas is Indonesia's biggest river and the largest river in the world located on an island. It would be interesting, but if it's like 12 hours, that's too long.

You'll notice that the third leg is in black. That's because Google Maps could not find a road connecting Balai Karangan and Bengkayang. But this detailed map from the Indonesian tourism board clearly shows there is...

Anyways, I'm not sure if there's a road or not... which is a plot point in and of itself...

I've read there are some lovely beaches in Singkawan and Pemangkat.

Other than that, I don't know what to expect. Wish me luck! 

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Thingyan is Over

Today was the first day in the last five that I could go out and not festivally drenched. None of the stores are open yet, as today is actually Burnese New Year. Happy year 2560 everyone!

As for day three, I'm just going to share the videos without too much comment.

Now, that ended pretty dramatically, now didn't it? What happens next? A knife was pulled, things calmed down and Thingyan continued.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Thingyyan 2016- Day Two

So my video yesterday of Day One of the Water Festival got criticized for not showing enough beautiful Myanmar women. I can understand that criticism. Myanmar women are perhaps the most beautiful in the world, and so I should be showing as many of them as possible. So, endeavoring to make the video more interesting, I made an effort today to record the beautiful women of Myanmar in their wet T-shirts without being overtly pervy about it.

Right out of my soi onto the main road, the first bit of revelers included this person. A Burmese Ladyboy. You don't see that many of them here. This place remains far more conservative than Thailand.

Next we have the queen of the float! She's definitely in charge of this truck.

Myanmar beauties come in many shapes and colors. Here's two in one framegrab that worked out well.

 There's girls trying look glamorous...

As well as working class girls...

Not all the women were having a good time, however. 

Of course, there were lots of other interesting framegrabs from today's festivities.

People living in the moment. Like I gotta make this phone call RIGHT NOW.

 Your humble blogger.

 Enjoy the video.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Thingyan Water Festival - Day One

Freeze Mutha Furinah!
It's that time of year again.  If you've followed this blog for the last few years, you may remember previous Thingyan festival. It's the one in April where everyone throws water on each other.

My first Thingyan was just a few weeks after arriving in Myanmar in 2014. I was so new to the place that I didn't really know what to make of it.

The waterproof aspect of my GoPro is ideal
for the water festival.

Last year, I was in Chiang Mai, a big tourist mecca in northern Thailand, and the festivities were just so far over the top, it felt more like an ordeal than a celebration.

I'm looking forward to this one. I haven't got much planned out for what I'm going to be doing, but Thursday is going to be the big day. Today, I was waiting around for some repairmen to do some fixes at the apartment, but they never showed. In the early morning, I went out for some breakfast, and the celebrations handn't really started. Then, in the afternoon, the power went out, and given that it was 104F in Yangon today, I simply couldn't stay in the apartment. So, I hopped on a bus and headed downtown.

Consequently, there are two distinct parts to this first Thingyan video. Back when I did my motorcycle tour vids, you may have noticed I played around a lot with using the fast-speed function of my editing software. With the first half of this video, I explored slow-motion. The second half of the video is much more up tempo as I visited the crazy party zone downtown.

Unlike in Thailand, here in Myanmar, the first day of Thingyan is designated as Children's Day. It's only the kids who are supposed to be throwing the water. I'll let you watch the vid and see how much that tradition is followed.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Vacation Earned and Lost

Tomorrow, I have to go into work for three hours, 12:30 to 3:30, to fulfill my final day of my non-teaching-week other duties. I'm going to be placement testing. I'll be the one who decides what level new students get put into as they enroll at my language school.

The Tungapuri Hotel in Nay Pyi Twa, the place I stayed
on my recent business trip.
It's going to be my 19th consecutive day working. Two weeks ago, I forwent my normal weekend to go up to Naypyitaw to do a big placement testing gig. A week ago, when all my colleagues were let go for our 5-week April leave, I'd agreed to hang out for another week to fulfill my non-teaching responsibilities. Tomorrow is Friday, and beginning Saturday, I'm off for an entire month. Paid vacation.

It's a bittersweet break. As I've mention many times before, my favorite aspect of my job is the time off. 10 weeks of paid vacation per year. Work 8 weeks, get a week off. Another 8 weeks, then 2 weeks off. As one of my main motivations for leaving Amerika was travel, this sweet schedule was awesome.

Alas, the business couldn't support this way of doing things, and so it was unilaterally decided that going forward, within the constraints of existing contracts, the 10 weeks would be shrunk to six weeks.

Room #1!
Well, damn. The best part of my job just got killed. My colleagues and I felt angry, fucked over, ignored. To a certain extent. Underlying this righteous indignation over the summary shrinkage of our benefits was the understanding that SIX weeks of paid leave would be fantastic in any other English language school around the world.  Certainly, 6 weeks paid vacation isn't anything any American company would offer back home. Yeah, we had the rug pulled out from under us, but the carpet beneath the rug was still quite soft.

Today's video is the chronicle of my weekend in Naypyitaw two weeks ago.

I stayed in Room #001 of the Tunga Puri Hotel, which wasn't at all was I expecting having seen the hotel from the road many many times during my previous stay in the capital.

Drawing in the dust of the Tungapuri's inactive
main building.
In other news, it looks like after the break, I am actually going to be re-assigned to Naypyitaw. I won't go into details, as I've been told this before, but if it all works out, I'll be back in the fresh air of middle Myanmar and driving my motorbike come May.


I thought I was going to retire there. I was the senior staff member. I'd been there longer than anyone. It. Is. Not. Fair.  But on the ...