South East Asia: Reflections On Six Months of Travel

Sunrise Over the South China Sea

After six months of travelling throughout South East Asia, we’ve come to the end of this leg of our journey. Where better to reflect on our experiences, and what we’ve learned, than relaxing in the heat of sun-kissed Perth for Christmas and the New Year before we set off again. 

First here are the crude numbers: 7 countries; 24,000+ miles; 50 hotels; 25 flights; 1000+ mosquito bites (Sam thinks that’s a conservative estimate!); 5 haircuts; 20 blogs; 100,000+ Chinese tourists (there may be some South Koreans in that estimate); 28 books read; 1000+ photos; and no arrests!

 Here are brief thoughts on each country we’ve visited 


To quote Frank S “if I can make it there…. I can make it anywhere”. Manic Vietnam is probably the best place to start a trip in S/E Asia –  it’s a complete shock to European sensibilities, especially the omnipresent motorbikes. But once you’ve adjusted to and embraced the mayhem, everywhere else will feel serene (except Phnom Penh and Jakarta). Sitting cheek by jowl with the vibrancy are gorgeous beaches, stunning scenery, a truly fascinating ancient and modern history, and welcoming people. For some reason Vietnam will always be a personal favourite for us, the wild child of S/E Asia, the tearaway younger sibling China can’t tame. Long may that continue. 

You need hands…Ba Na Hills


We only saw two cities in Laos and one of those was the dull capital Vientiane. So we have a lot more to see and learn about Laos. However, Luang Prabang was one of the stars of our journey, a beautiful town wedged between two great roaring rivers, with picturesque buildings and a calming atmosphere. We visited Luang Prabang out of season, which was probably a good thing as we hear it can be a bit overwhelmed at other times. We definitely need to return to Laos.

The Mighty Mekong flowing beside Luang Prabang


Like Laos we only managed two cities and again didn’t like the capital at all, but you have to go to learn first hand about the Killing Fields. Siem Reap on the other hand was another gem and not solely due to being the base for Angkor Wat explorations. It’s a lovely town and the people in Cambodia are incredibly friendly and warm. Of course Angkor Wat is astonishing – the range and beauty of the temples are unique, the crown jewels among the treasures of S/E Asia. It’s a must see and make sure you give it enough time. We spent five days exploring the temples and could have taken longer still.


Writing a blog on the experience of the Killing Fields was difficult: trying to find the right words and images to express anger and outrage alongside respect and humility.   Without question this was the most bewildering and upsetting experience of our trip so far. The sight of the tree where children were murdered will never leave us, nor should it. 



Good old Thailand – same same but different for us as we revisited some familiar haunts, but also discovered  new treats. In and around Bangkok has so much to offer, but the real surprises for us were the inexplicably low-profile ruins and temples at Sukothai, the jaw-dropping limestone karst scenery at Khao Sok National Park, and beach life at Krabi, all of which left us re-appraising our favourite Thai places. We also endured one night in the worst hotel of our trip, monkey-ridden Lopburi. Don’t go!

Ruins at Sukothai


Having briefly visited KL before we didn’t know what to expect from the rest of the country and were delighted with what we discovered. Multi-cultural, relaxed, great food and architecture. Plus you have the joy of the Peninsula (with another city highlight for us – GeorgeTown); and Malaysian Borneo which kind of feels like another country, but because it’s Malaysia is very accessible and manageable for travellers. Fantastic street art can be found in nearly every town and city. The wildlife and jungle is something else again. We’ve still got the central highlands and the east coast peninsula to explore, so we will definitely be returning. It’s a very relaxed place…..



We came to Singapore with a bit of a cynical “will it be clinical” mindset and left it starry-eyed. What an island! Take Hong Kong, stir in some Manhattan and add a dash of  Vegas with some great ethnic neighbourhoods and colonial charm thrown in. It’s not cheap but you can spend judiciously and have a great time. Soooo many highlights here but Gardens by the Bay is just remarkable. Anywhere that makes you wander around smiling like a wide-eyed kid has got to be great. 

Gardens by the Bay


We’ve visited three of the main islands (Sumatra, Java and Bali) and I still don’t have the foggiest idea of how to capture the essence of this country. I’m not sure the people do either. Maybe that’s its secret: the diversity of beliefs, peoples, languages, and the vast archipelago itself. It’s got it all, wild beauty, dense jungle, Borobudur, volcanic lakes, Balinese beaches and the most hospitable hosts. It has a horrible health and safety track record that can fray the nerves somewhat. Nevertheless it’s a really enigmatic place that has been fascinating to experience, and we didn’t make it to Komodo so we will be back to explore more.

Lake Toba

Mekong River

Okay it’s not a country but for several months it was a feature of our journey seeing it rolling alongside four of the countries we visited. From the deep red mud saturated delta in Can Tho, Vietnam to the bulging fast-flowing river crashing alongside Luang-Prabang, witnessing and boating along this mighty river fulfilled a lifetimes ambition. 

Dawn on the Floating Market on the Mekong, Can Tho

So, what have we learnt?

It would be easy to gush about all of wonderful experiences we have had – and there have been plenty. But we’ve always tried to balance the superlatives with some of the day to day realities of travelling in this region. Here are some random thoughts, compliments and complaints.

S/E Asians – the world’s friendliest people?

After you grow accustomed to the friendliness of the people of S/E Asia it is easy to take it for granted, but it’s such a warm welcome you get everywhere in this part of the world. Some of it is pure generosity, some of it is inquisitiveness, and at other times it’s amusement, but it’s always with goodwill and a smile on the face. Admittedly as travellers we encounter a lot of people in the service industry whose job it is to be welcoming – but just consider that proposition for a moment and apply it to London or Paris! 


Life’s a Beach

I’m not sure we are ever going to be able to hobble back onto the pebbled beach at home in Brighton and Hove after this trip. Talk about being spoilt!  The choice seems to be as endless as some of the stretches of beaches. Soft clean sand, warm crystal clear waters, and the sun beating down in what was often allegedly “rainy season”.  Having said that, it does pay to check whether you need to be on east or west coast of Thailand to avoid monsoon. The only cloud on this idyllic horizon? Litter. As the blog from Mui Ne (What a Waste) illustrated – when it’s bad, it’s appalling. Someone is making a lot of money from tourism and not re-investing in basic infrastructure. That needs to change.

Beautiful Quy Nhon

Travelling not Holidaying

A corollary to our beach time has been the understanding that we are travelling and not on holiday, which in turn means not feeling guilty about having downtime. Doing nothing is not only fine, it’s essential to avoid total exhaustion. Sleeping well and eating as healthily as we can has also been key to our wellbeing. We haven’t over-planned things, rarely booking flights or accommodation more than 3 weeks ahead. Occasionally that has left us nervously wondering where we will be sleeping next week, but wifi has improved out of all recognition here and its been very easy to get online, understand and sort visa’s and book hotels, flights etc with the minimum of fuss.

Borneo Sunset

Back-Packing or Flash-Packing?

When we meet people on our travels and tell them our plans they often say something along the lines of “how wonderful, backpacking through South-East Asia”. We haven’t corrected this assumption because it makes us sound very adventurous and hardy. However, backpacking we are not! The idea of spending one minute let alone a night in a hostel sharing the same bathroom and oxygen with a bunch of hairy arsed flatulent 20 somethings is totally out of the question! We are “mature” travellers and need some level of comfort and privacy. It turns out that as with everything in life there is a label for us – we are “flash-packers”.  And with the incredibly affordable cost of living in South-East Asia and a reasonable but not over-indulgent budget, it’s possible to lead a very comfortable “flash-pack” life here.  Back-packer or Flash-packer?

Travelling light

Japanese Occupation WWII and its Legacy

As we’ve worked our way through countries and cities, reading about their history the common thread of the impact of Japanese occupation has surfaced frequently. In some cases at high profile sites such as Kanchanburi, but also at the lesser known: the Sandakan Death Marches that was an act of mass murder. It’s made us realise how little we know about the WWII Pacific theatre of conflict. Inevitably what little we do know tends to focus on Allied forces, but time and again we discovered the brutality and terrible losses the indigenous populations suffered at the hands of Japanese imperialism. Their departure created vacuums that nationalists tried to fill, but not before dreadful, misguided campaigns by the French, British, Dutch and USA caused further suffering and enmity. Seeing the work of COPE in Laos supporting victims of land mines was for us one of the most eye-opening experiences of this legacy, the effects of which continues today.


One Road, One Belt…..a big cheque book and a lot of debt.

Anyone who has (inexplicably) read a lot of our blogs will have noticed a recurrent theme: an antipathy towards China and Chinese tourists. This isn’t borne out of some irrational jingoistic prejudice. More a case of speaking as we find. It’s no secret that many third world countries have welcomed Chinese investment with open arms – why wouldn’t they? The problem is that many of these projects are destroying the environment and further harming endangered species, for example the Threat to Orang-Utans in Sumatra and the damming of the Mekong in Laos that will change the nature of the River downstream forever: Impact of Dams on the Mekong River. In addition to the environmental harm the Dam collapse in Laos in July killed 39 people and left thousands homeless. What is more, China’s huge One Road, One Belt project seems to have a canny knack of channelling its benefits back to the homeland.

Having invested so much in South East Asia it’s little wonder that the new Chinese middle classes who are now holidaying abroad in their millions treat it as if they own it – they kinda do!  Their graceless behaviour neatly leads us onto another gripe….

All Hail Insta-Culture!

Now we have no problem with Instagram, in fact if you go to  #samjohntravelogue on Instagram (shameless plug) you will find a thriving collection of some of our favourite travel images. There are no selfies. You won’t see a picture of Sam blocking out a perfect sunset or a gorgeous ancient temple with a vacant smile and two fingers in the air. Worse still you will not see a picture of one of us sitting crossed legged in a meditation pose in front of an image of Bhudda while out of shot hundreds of irritated sweating tourists mill around waiting to do the same. It seems to be a growing problem:  Instagram Snappers Hogging NZ Beauty Spot

“When you think you’ve gone too far…go farther”

Democracy – it’s so overrated

There is no denying that there are some dubious political practices and situations in this part of the world where there have been abuses of power. Men who were once freedom fighters have slipped easily into the role of dictators, holding onto power despite shocking levels of inequality and grinding poverty. It would be easy to point to a lack of true democracy in some countries. However, the recent pantomime performance of western-style democracy in the UK, USA, and Australia does leave you wondering who, if anyone, is getting it right.

We didn’t have any particular desire to visit Myanmar but would not do so on principal given the genocide that has taken place there over the past two years. It’s also been disturbing to see a serious shift towards some rabid homophobia – particularly in parts of Indonesia – in order to win votes. 

Books, Books, Glorious Books.

One of the unexpected joys of our trip has been having time to read and enjoy books in a way that we could never do when working. Biographies, crime thrillers, philosophy,  and spy novels have all been devoured. It’s interesting to see the path that we’ve followed in selecting books, where one novel has led us on to another.  Sam has been much more eclectic in her tastes, currently devouring Michelle Obama’s ‘Becoming”, while I’ve become obsessed with George Smiley, enjoying the time we have to read every Le Carre book he appears in. 


What started out as a bit of an informal diary so that a few family and friends can keep track of us has turned into a monster! I’m a slave to it, constantly trying to source interesting stories, perspectives, and appropriate photos. It’s been great fun and it’s a brilliant way to keep track of what we’ve done. Comments and likes from readers is such a pleasant surprise. There have been times when I’ve got really frustrated with the limits of my vocabulary, and on one dreadful occasion I somehow lost nearly all of a blog I’d been writing for an hour or two. I crash out a rough copy then Sam patiently polishes it, correcting grammar, carefully editing and occasionally pointing out that “this paragraph makes absolutely no sense at all”. 

Working From Home

Jungle Wildlife

Last and most certainly not least we come to what we both agree is the highlight of our journey so far – wonderful wild animals. The sheer majestic beauty of lumbering Asian Elephants frolicking in rivers. Fireflies mysteriously lighting up a pitch black sky. Tree vipers lurking above our heads; Monitor Lizards scampering by our feet; Monkeys galore from the cute Dusky Leaf Monkey, ubiquitous long tailed macaques, and the downright bizarre Proboscis Monkey. Gibbons hollering and swinging through treetops. Sun and Moon Bears in their sanctuaries protected from poachers.


The highlight of the highlight? The moment after hours of trekking through the jungle we looked up and saw wild Orang-Utans just a few metres above us in the trees. It was overwhelming and very emotional.

Orangutan Mother and Child


Finally, we would like to say a bug thank you to everyone who has taken the time to read our thoughts, and send so much generous feedback. It really is appreciated and we look forward to resuming our musings in 2019 with blogs from our travels in Australia.

In the meantime Happy New Year and All The Best for 2019.

Sam & John xx




Enigmatic Indonesia: Our Week in Java

Borobudur – a place for quiet reflection

It’s been a strange time to be in Indonesia. Inevitably the local news has been dominated by the Lion Air crash into the Java Sea a few minutes after take-off from Jakarta. As more information emerges about the troubled history of the aircraft it does seem incredible that it was permitted to fly. We mentioned the Lake Toba ferry disaster in our previous blog – another local example of where safety seems to have taken second place to profit. Indonesia certainly presents travellers with food for thought. On the one hand this huge sprawling archipelago of islands offers the opportunity to visit unique, unspoilt and stunning scenery, incredible historical sites, jaw-dropping endangered wildlife, and meet the friendliest people imaginable. And it goes on and on and on….we still haven’t got our heads around the geography of thousands of islands that make up the country  – to explore Indonesia properly would probably take at least six months.

Indonesia: persevere and be rewarded with wonder

However, it’s the first place we’ve been to where we have been aware of heightened security – routine checks at hotel’s and shopping centres mean you get routinely screened walking into both whilst our taxis are stopped and the boot checked and the car scanned before being allowed to proceed to the the drop-off at the hotel lobby. Indonesia has been hit by numerous terrorist attacks over the years, many in areas popular with Western visitors, so these actions are both necessary and likely to remain in place. Meanwhile the road’s outside Cities can be horrendous, and certainly the worst we’ve encountered, with some hair-raising driving to boot. Add to this the seemingly slip-shod approach to safety, plus unavoidable natural disasters such as the earthquake and tsunami of recent months, and it leaves you thinking twice about where to go in Indonesia, how to get there, and how to travel on. We’ve moved from quite care-free planning to much more careful consideration of our itinerary.

A Glimpse of Bhuddism

Just a few days after the air disaster, we flew from a very small airfield in Sumatra to Jakarta. We are not overly nervous flyers, but on this occasion we both felt tense, and you could sense our fellow passengers unease by how quiet the plane was as we started to taxi for take-off. The mood wasn’t helped by an astonishing announcement from one of the cabin crew “Let us all take a moment to pray to god and wish for a safe flight.” We prefer to put our faith in having a plane and pilots that are fit for purpose  rather than putting our trust in some unspecified deity who – if you follow the logic of our steward – was untroubled about 190 people perishing in the sea a few days beforehand. The country and its people deserve better and need to find a way to ensure that Government and business delivers on promises of improved safety and accountability. I’m afraid that at the moment the reassurances all ring a bit hollow.


I Would Go Out Tonight But I Haven’t Got a Stitch To Wear

It’s not often you book a hotel solely on the basis of its name, but the Morrissey Hotel in Jakarta was too good to miss. We had visions of a bizarre boutique hotel inspired by the songs of The Smiths and all things Mozzer. Reviews were good and a hotel that provides an in-house laundrette warms the heart of bedraggled travellers – good times for a change.

Please, please, please let me get what I want.….but sadly, like the theme of most of his songs, heightened expectations were crushed, replaced with disappointment on arrival – no Smith’s knick-knacks, no pictures, no posters nor sign of Manchester (… much to answer for), not even Reel Around the Fountain piped through the sound system by the Pool. To be fair having a hotel located in the Southern Hemisphere but themed on lyrics of English northern misery probably isn’t the most brilliant marketing strategy. Loved the motorbike and sidecar on the forecourt though….

Nowhere Fast…#1

We were warned about Jakarta, but told to look beyond the mayhem to find its charms. So, on our first day we strolled to the striking National Monument celebrating the nation’s struggle for independence from the Dutch.

As we made our way to the monument tower we suddenly had a sense of deja vu – people smiling and staring at us. Before we knew it we were being asked to pose for photos with young and old alike.


It was a small taste of celebrity and we can confirm that the novelty wears off pretty quickly – just about as long as you can maintain a rictus grin on your face for shot after shot after shot….”just one more Mister”, “please Missus”. It’s impossible to refuse and flattering that anyone should take an interest.

That grin stayed stuck on my face for hours!

Inside the monument, circling a huge hall, was a series of really quite brilliant dioramas detailing Indonesia’s history and rebellions against colonialist oppression. Inevitably, the British managed to play yet another less than glorious role in this story after the departure of the Japanese from Java in 1945, so any hope we had of enjoying some moral superiority on the Dutch was short lived.

IMG_6447 3

National Monument

From our very lofty position on the tower viewing area, we spied Jakarta’s Mosque and Cathedral, conveniently located a few yards away from each other and we agreed to visit them the next day. On checking the map, I calculated that by hopping in a tuk-tuk we should take about 15 minutes to get there. What we hadn’t bargained for was a combination of Jakarta’s awful traffic – the worst we have encountered in the world – combined with a demonstration at the Mosque. So it was that we found ourselves in a tuk-tuk oven, slow cooking at about 40 degrees in seven lanes of standstill traffic,  breathing in horrendous fumes: the most uncomfortable experience of our trip so far. With nothing moving we agreed it was best to pay our driver and hop out, snaking our way between idling vehicles to the sanctuary of the pavement.

Nowhere Fast #2: Jakarta traffic

As we neared the Istiqlal Mosque, the crowds got bigger and we realised that it wasn’t going to be possible to see very much of anything, and we were feeling acutely “other”. In Indonesia the clothing is far more modest than in some parts of SE Asia and we always aim to respect the mode of dress, covering shoulders, long trousers rather than shorts etc, when the need takes. However, around the mosque this became more marked than in the rest of the city. Nobody was dressed in Western clothing and the few women we did see were wearing veils. Although we felt safe and nobody approached us, it was clear the demonstration was attracting large crowds, and today was not the day for two heat and traffic weary Westerners to request to take a look inside the mosque. We detoured to the neighbouring neo-gothic Cathedral which gave us a welcome respite from the stifling heat. The building has fascinating iron spires sitting on more traditional stone and some part of it is open to the elements as birds flutter around the roof space swooping over what was a growing congregation gathering for a mass. The proximity of the Mosque and Cathedral is no accident, being designed to highlight the Indonesian philosophy of harmony in diversity (the cannibals on Samosir Island didn’t get that memo!).

St Mary of the Assumption Cathedral

Two days in Jakarta was enough to get a bit of a feel for the Capital and a longing to be back out into the countryside for the highlight of our trip to Java – Borobudur. We flew to the pleasant town of Yogyakarta, or “Yogya” as its called locally and stayed in a lovely old colonial hotel in the town centre. Yogya is the base for trips to Borobudur and other local historical sites such as Prambanan.  On arrival we were asked an unexpected question: “Are you here to see Mariah Carey?” “No – we will never be anywhere to see Mariah Carey!” Mariah must be doing her “Ancient Monuments” tour (cue the take one to know one joke) as she was performing at Borobudur the day after our visit. Briefly I had unkind visions of her entourage descending on a windswept Stonehenge in November.


Borobudur is the largest Bhuddist Temple in SE Asia and is close to Angkor Wat in its beauty, if not on the same scale. Sitting on a hilltop overlooking lush jungle and distant mountains Borobudur was built in the 9th Century and remains in superb condition despite centuries surviving earthquakes, jungle and erupting volcanoes. Indeed it was lost to the jungle and covered in volcanic ash until being rediscovered in 1815.


What Borobudur manages to combine so brilliantly is a sense of impressive almost intimidating scale, combined with stunning intricacy, being adorned with kilometres of carvings telling the story of Bhudda that circle the temple layer upon layer. The detail of the carvings was remarkable – with a depth that made them truly three-dimensional….


…until you reach a higher level where Borobudur’s iconic bell-shaped Stupas sit:


..accompanied by over 500 Bhudda statues



It’s a remarkable monument that made the trip to Java so memorable.

From Borobudur we visited other local temples before heading to Prambanan, one of the world’s largest and most ancient Hindu temples. After Borobudur there is a risk that everything that follows will underwhelm, but Prambanan does not disappoint. Also built in the 9th century the temples celebrate the Hindu gods Shiva, Brahma and Vishnu.


Like Borobudur, the shape and silhouette of Prambanan casts an iconic image over the landscape which is truly breathtaking.


Once again the detailed decorations have survived the passage of time and like its more famous neighbour it has been lost, found, restored and rightly granted Unesco Heritage status.

After the heat, pollution, hustle and bustle of Jakarta, the mystical and spiritual treasures of Yogya shed a beautiful light on the glorious ancient history of Java.

Detailed stone carving at Prambanan

Going Solo

Java enjoys an unexpectedly good rail system, which we took advantage of by hopping on the local service from Yogya to Solo – just over an hours journey for next to nothing.

We do like our train travel 

Apparently there is something of a rivalry between Yogya and Solo when it comes to claiming the status of true historical capital of Java. Solo (aka Surakarta) has the distinction of hosting two royal Palaces both of which can be visited. Our favourite was Manakunegaran where you can stroll with your guide quietly thrilled in the knowledge that members of the current royal family might pop out from the adjacent residential quarters. Our guide told us that on occasion the King has met and chatted with visitors and had a cup of tea with them! The King is now a ceremonial one only and as far as we could make out has a real job – a refreshing model of royalty that would not go amiss elsewhere.

Manakunegaran’s Main Ceremonial Area

While not as grand as Manakunegaran, Keraton Surakarta boasted some fine looking guards in traditional attire who seemed to take a particular delight in brandishing their  swords, well you would wouldn’t you!

Sam looking regal while I worry about the proximity of those swords..

Our time in Solo wasn’t completely without incident as I managed to lose one of my bank cards. Unlike back home the ATM’s here give you the cash first, card second. As we withdrew some Rupiah from an ATM I was distracted by the promise of some rather tasty ice cream, took the cash and marched off in search of gelato. Presumably the ATM sat there with my card sticking out waiting for me to take it and after a short while duly swallowed it. On returning to the hotel I realised my mistake and ran back to the shopping centre where despite their best efforts the staff couldn’t locate my card. Given that we were leaving Solo the next morning I thought I wouldn’t get it back. However, the staff at the Mall checked the CCTV and confirmed that my card was in the ATM. The staff at our hotel then contacted the Bank and with just an hour to spare before we caught our train to the airport arrangements were made for me to pick up my card at the Bank. This was fantastic customer service from everyone involved who could not do more to help reunite me with my card. I know that in an ideal world this is how things should work – but let’s face it we rarely see things play out how we hope. It was another example of the fabulous hospitality and friendliness of Indonesian people. One of the many reasons that makes Indonesia a wonderful place to explore.

Rather than continue eastwards to Bali, our journey now takes us north and back to Thailand where we will spend two weeks with Sam’s holidaying sisters’s Tina and Sandra in Bangkok and Krabi. We plan to return to Indonesia in December….in search of Dragons!

Top Travelling Tips

We aren’t really ones for promoting particular products or services on our blog but its worth mentioning the incredibly convenient service Starling Bank provides to travellers. It’s an App only bank that offers the best rates in terms of charges and during the lost bank card dilemma rather than cancel the card, and trigger all sorts of logistical difficulties, I could simply press a button on the App that deactivates the card. Once I got the card back, I opened the App pressed the button to switch the card back on and hey presto everything was back to normal. Incredibly convenient and through the App the Bank provides loads of other features that are ideal for travellers. Plug over!


Next Up: Bangkok and Krabi




Calmer Sumatra: Indonesia’s Mystical Western Isle.


Here’s Looking At You Kid

Poor old Medan, the largest city in Sumatra, the western-most island of the Indonesian archipelago. Wherever followed Singapore had drawn the short straw. To be honest, even if we had hated Singapore we would struggle to take Medan to our heart – it’s such an unlovable city.

Things started badly when we jumped in our taxi for the hour’s drive from the Airport to the city centre. We don’t know when our driver last rested but about twenty minutes into the journey an alarmed Sam turned to me and said “I think he’s falling asleep John!”

Instead of panicking I maintained a David Niven like calm and undertook discreet inspection of his eyes in the rear view mirror which confirmed that he was driving with approximately 2mm of vision in his left eye, while his right eye, having satisfied itself that its partner could take the load,  was completely shut.

Thankfully at this point we turned off the “motorway” and ground to a halt in Medan’s crippling, choking traffic – never have I been so happy to be crawling along at a few miles an hour. The worst that could happen if our driver nodded off would be a gentle kiss on the bumper on  the vehicle in front.

Bizarrely this seemed to wake the driver up and he started completing his own facial…..while driving. Selecting from a small selection of tweezers stored in the driver door handle recess he gamely plucked away at offending hairs. Some of these were in quite an awkward spot necessitating him craning his head backwards so that his drowsy eye(s) were squinting at the interior roof, while continuing to negotiate Medan’s crazy traffic. I was directly behind our driver so couldn’t see exactly what was going on. Sam, however, had a front row seat and seemed to be mesmerised and appalled in equal measure. No matter how hard she tried she couldn’t look away.

The upside of an unappealing, traffic choked city are the hotel rates where you can get 5 star accommodation for under £50 a night. On entering our plush new home for the next three days we turned to each other and without saying anything telepathically agreed it was best if we didn’t leave this oasis of calm until check out.

Regular readers will have noted that by paragraph four or five of our blog we would have inserted quite a few photos bringing to life our words. Well, in this case if a picture speaks a thousand words, no picture speaks far more about the grottiness of Medan!

However, apart from the hotel it did have two redeeming features. Firstly the people are fantastically friendly – probably astonished to see tourists in their city – calling out “Hello’s” and “where you from?” Surprisingly none asked “why the hell are you here?”. As we clambered up and down pavements resembling bomb sites, dodging cars as we were forced into roads, a gentleman in uniform sidled up to us and with an apologetic smile said “Welcome to Medan” in perfect sarcastic English. Heartwarming.

As our travels in Sumatra unfolded we have discovered that they are amongst the warmest people we have met on our travels – which is saying a lot given how friendly people are in S/E Asia.

The other positive thing to report is Medan’s only tourist attraction – the home of a benevolent Chinese businessman that has been maintained and restored beautifully. Records show how he invested in local schools, education and welfare to develop Medan. We are glad he can’t see what’s become of his philanthropy.

Tjong A Fie Mansion

Things worked out quite well really as Medan’s lack of attractions gave us an opportunity to rest up after our hectic Singapore schedule.

If we can’t make any recommendations about Medan (other than “don’t go”), the rest of Sumatra has been fantastic, swapping an uninspiring City for some of the most wonderful wildlife we have ever seen.

We took a three hour car journey north to the small town of Bukit Lawang which sits on the edge of Gunung Leuser National Park. It was here on a one day trek into the jungle that we hoped to fulfil a lifetimes ambition – to see Orang-Utans in the wild.

All smiles…little did we know

Our guide was optimistic, but reminded us that there were no guarantees of seeing any, regardless of how long we searched. The heat and hilly terrain meant that we were certainly going to earn our sighting.

Rickety Jungle Bridge

After about three hours trekking we had fleetingly seen a giant squirrel (think dog in a tree and you’re 90% there) and two dullard peacocks who didn’t have the fancy feather display thing going on.

We came across three German trekkers and their guide who said they had no luck spotting our ape cousins either. Hot, bothered and disappointed we sat down and had some fruit, when something remarkably bad happened. One of the German trekkers pulled out a ukulele from her bag and started singing “Me and Bobby McGee”. Who in God’s name thinks “what shall I pack for the trek in the jungle today?  I know I’ll take my ukulele!” 

This was the most toe-curling exhibition of backpacker conceitedness we had encountered in five months of travelling. As we sat there, opened mouthed in horror and barely able to conceal our loathing, we have to confess that Sam wanted to stick the ukulele… can guess the next bit….and in deference to my own German heritage I longed to burst into a hearty out-of-tune rendition of “Deutchland Uber Alles”. I know that is wrong, but we were tired and fed up…..and we cant stand that song unless it’s sung by Janis.

Maybe if we had, karma would have dealt us a bad hand and we wouldn’t have achieved our ambition. As it was after a further couple of energy sapping hours and just at the point when I thought Sam was going to drop from exhaustion we came across a group of Kiwi’s (san ukulele) who were staring upward in awe. There about 20 feet above us in the trees were three Orang-Utans: a mother and baby, and a youngster (about 8 years old our guide judged).

What a beauty

This was a moment when we wanted time to stand still and savour the amazing creatures in front of us. The grace, power, dexterity and those eyes staring back at us, indifferent to our astonishment. Then slowly moving, next branch, next tree, onwards, carefully clutching her baby.

I really don’t know how long we spent with our necks craned upward, with crazy smiles on our faces, just wanting to say thank you to the Orang-utans for letting us briefly share their world. Our guide knew how much this meant to us and was thrilled to see us so happy.  There was an element of sadness in the encounter though as our guide said that the mother was trying to leave her eight year old daughter behind so that she would become independent, but the daughter continued to gamely follow her mother and baby sibling a few yards behind.

Having walked so far it was time to have lunch, but before we could sit down there was more commotion in the trees and our guide beckoned us up yet another hill, pointing to a family of white faced Gibbons swinging about in the treetops. Being much lighter than the Orang-utans, they can go far higher, and being more nimble they easily leapt from tree to tree. Orang-utans are a tough act to follow, but they were splendid, striking wonderful shapes high above us.

Hanging Around

Incredible body shapes

White Face and Hands

After seeing these funkiest of gibbons we sat down and had our much delayed lunch, overwhelmed, exhausted and very, very happy. We were told that our trek would end with a rafting trip down the river rather than a long hike home – music to our ears. On exiting the jungle and approaching the river bed a man greeted us with our “raft” – three large inner tubes lashed together with rope:

Your transport has arrived Sir!

Our guide said that it usually took about 30 minutes to float downstream back to Bukit Lawang, but in view of the recent heavy rain, the river was full, fast and it would be far quicker – he said this with a manic grin that didn’t leave his face for the next fifteen minutes. What followed was great fun as we careered down river, kangarooing up, down and over rapids with our pilots using just bamboo rods to steer us between rocks.


Stuck on Repeat

Our travel bible warned us that when travelling any distance in Sumatra you will usually experience a spine shattering journey at some point. So it was when we made the EIGHT hour journey by car from Bukit Lawang to Samosir Island on Lake Toba. To give you an idea of how bad the roads are in Sumatra the distance between the two is about 150 miles. You would think that meant we pootled along at 20mph – if only! Allowing for a couple of breaks we spent over 7 hours alternating between hurtling head-long towards oncoming traffic or bouncing up and down at 2mph over the most potholed surfaces (I can’t dignify what we were driving on with the term “road”). It’s hard to say which was worse, but this was a journey I wouldn’t wish on anybody with the possible exception of Indonesia’s Minister for Transport.

After a couple of hours our driver popped a CD on – a funny eclectic mix. As The Foundations “Build Me Up Buttercup” came on Sam said “oh I like this tune” – “you won’t in six hours” I replied. And so it proved as the CD was left on repeat replaying, I think, seven times. Whenever we hear any of those songs again it will remind us of that day. But you know what they say – no pain, no gain and as we neared our destination of Parapat, we got our first glimpse of Lake Toba and Samosir Island:


Samosir Island and Lake Toba

When we planned our trip to Lake Toba we were excited about the prospect of the stunning beauty of the volcanic countryside. However, we learned that as recently as June of this year a ferry sank on the lake with 190 lives lost. An appalling tragedy caused by overloading of passengers and sailing in bad weather. It’s the sort of avoidable disaster that seems to be too common in Indonesia. It was a sombre feeling crossing the lake on water that gently rippled beneath us.

The Ferry from Parapet

Lake Toba has a remarkable history. 75,000 years ago it was the site of a super-volcanic eruption that caused a mini-ice age, with ash being deposited as far as Africa. Toba is the largest volcanic lake in the world measuring a staggering 100km long, up to 30km wide and depths reaching 500 meters. Sitting in the middle of the lake is Samosir Island with its own claim to fame being the worlds largest island on an island.

Approaching Tuk-Tuk, Samosir Island

It’s created a stunning rugged landscape that constantly reminds you of the latent power rumbling away beneath our feet – brought home to us more prosaically by the advice on “what to do in the event of an earthquake” in our lodgings. In these parts it isn’t a question of “if” but of “when”.

The best way to get about the Island is to either hire a scooter for a day to investigate and look at the scenery from different angles, or get on the lake itself with a kayak – we spent a couple of days doing both.

Sam sporting her “Hello Kitty” crash helmet!

After a day whizzing around on a 125cc scooter, it was lovely to clamber into the kayak and enjoy the peace and quiet of the lake with only the sound of our paddles breaking the silence.


More often than not Lake Toba sits calmly reflecting all that looks down on it, while in contrast on its shoulders sit terrifically steep mountain-sides, dark and broody.

Lake Toba

The indigenous Batak people have a history as interesting as the geology on which they live. Isolated from other communities for centuries they practised animism: the belief in spirits in flora, fauna, land and humans. The real elephant in the room when it comes to the Bataks culture was their practice of ritual cannibalism. We visited a place called the “Stone Chairs” where Batak elders had sat in judgement on wrong-doers, some of whom would be killed and eaten for punishment. In more recent centuries condescending Missionaries of various faiths became a staple in the Batak Cookbook, until Dutch Colonialism brought it to an end. Booo!

Batak Wood Carvings


Distinctive wood carvings can be found throughout the Island, as can the unique Batak houses with their striking roofs, which are still in use today.

Batak Village Green Preservation

There was something quite “Wicker Man” about Samosir Island – and we liked it all the more for that. After the excitement of orang-utans, gibbons, rafting and spine shattering car journeys, it was an oasis of calm, quiet reflection –  watching the mood of the lake change with the weather.

Reflections on Lake Toba


Top Travelling Tips – Talc

In the five months we have been travelling, with the exception of our time in the Vietnamese highlands of Dalat, there have probably been only a small hand full of days when the temperature hasn’t topped 30 degrees. The heat and humidity finally got to Sam in Singapore when she complained of an unpleasant and unrelenting chaffing sensation. She stomped into a pharmacy (as far as one can stomp while chaffing) and asked for talc. I was initially perplexed by this having not used talc for as long as I can remember – but I didn’t dare question Sam’s motivation. What a revelation talc has been in our daily battle to manage the perspiration that springs from our pores, and of course reduce chaffing! Now, we begin our day with a liberal dousing of talc, that produces small clouds as we walk through the streets. We have no idea what people must think, but we don’t care – it provides some small but lovely respite. Can’t recommend it highly enough.

Next Up: Our next Indonesian Island: Java