29 April 2009

Michael's Minahasa Highland Fling

Onong also helped us to arrange a mikrolet and driver so that we could spend a day touring the sights of the Minahasa Highlands. We had a really interesting day with our driver, Michael, and his uncle.

First stop was the "meat section" of Tomohon Market to see some of the more unusual local specialities from the butchers table. It included snake, bat, rat (on a stick just like in Monty Python's Life of Brian), monkey and even dog. Liz has banned me from putting any dog and monkey pictures on the blog so here's a some bats. . .

If you're wondering why they are all burnt, it's part of the de-furring process, they simply singe it off with a blow torch. I should point out that this happens after the animals are dead!

For those who are curious a whole dog will set you back 250,000 Rupiah, about £16. Michael did advise us that they only usually get dog in if there is a special occasion, like a party.

Then it was a drive and trek up Gunung Mahawu volcano which provided some more pleasant photo opportunities than the horrors of the market. The views from the top and the 2km walk around the rim were the highlight of the day.

For lunch we headed to Danau Tondano lake which lies 600m above sea level. The lake has many Fish restaurants on it's shores which breed freshwater lake fish ready for your plate.

We ended our tour with a visit to Danau Linow, a bright green bubbling sulphurous lake. This place, although pretty, smelt really bad - like rancid eggy trumps! You should consider yourselves lucky that blog-aroma hasn't yet been invented!

Tomohon and the Minahasa Highlands

After not seeing the tarsiers we ended our stay on Sulawesi with 3 nights at Tomohon in the Minahasa Highlands. We actually stayed in the village of Kinilow, 5km outside of Tomohon, at a fantastic place called Onong's Palace. In terms of "bang for your buck" (our room cost about £13 a night) it was easily the best place we've stayed on our trip so far. The resort consisted of a handful of traditional wooden bungalows spread over a jungle covered hill. The setting was really stunning with views of the Gunung Lokon volcano across the valley.

It was the first time in over a week that we had hot water, a TV and 24 hour a day electricity. It felt like we had finally made it back into civilisation after the wilds, that first hot shower felt like absolute bliss!

I had intended to climb the 1580m peak of the Gunung Locon volcano on our first day there but Onong advised against it as it had been officially closed for the last 9 months due to ash and sulphur releases. Instead we headed into Tomohon town to re-connect with the outside world via the internet. The trip to the internet cafe provided a bit old world / new world juxtaposition, we went there on a horse and cart!

That evening we had a rather interesting time at the Pemandangan Restaurant, highly recommended by the Lonely Planet. The restaurant is situated on a cliff a few kilometers from our accommodation on the road to Manado. It had great views over Manado and Bunaken Island . . .

. . . but no food! Instead we had to a console ourselves with a couple of warm beers before catching a mikrolet (beat up Indonesian van) back for dinner at Onong's.

25 April 2009

I Should Tangkoko . . . Or Maybe Not!

The second reason for us coming to Sulawesi was to try and see some Tarsiers.

Tarsiers are the worlds smallest primate and are only found on Sulawesi and in parts of the Philippines. They have huge boggly eyes, big flappy ears and unusually long fingers. They look something like a cross between an owl, E.T. and Gizmo from Gremlins. They may sound a little strange but they are possibly the cutest critter out there.

Apparently the best place to see tarsiers is the Tangkoko-Batuangas Dua Saudara Nature Reserve. So on Wednesday we left Bunaken Island and headed across the Northern most tip of Sulawesi to the Pulisan Jungle Beach Resort, which lies just outside the Tangkoko Reserve.

The accommodation at Pulisan was really nice. We had a lovely bungalow that was right on the beach front, looking out to sea across a jungle covered bay peppered with volcanoes. It was a really beautiful spot.

Sadly though the house reef, which lies just off shore, was destroyed in December when a 3 day tidal surge flattened the coral. This meant that most of the coral lay dead in the shallows or scattered across the beach. Handy for a few photos but not much good for snorkeling (or the fish).

We had intended to use Pulisan as a base for exploring the Tangkoko Reserve, but, and I'm not sure I can word this without offending the owner of Pulisan, the price of the excursion seemed like a bloody rip-off. The resort was really isolated, more so than at Bunaken Village, with no phone or internet connection to the outside world. The nearest road is a 15 minute trek through the jungle and the nearest town an hours drive away. This meant that unless you could get a signal on your mobile phone and had the number for a driver you were at the mercy of the resort owner for transport. This lack of competition for transport effectively meant that they could charge what they liked. The cost of the trip for 2 to Tangkoko was roughly £70 of which £10 was for the park entry and guide fee. This meant that the remaining £60 was for the 30 minute boat trip across the bay (in the resort owners boat). This seemed a complete joke to us. We could see the reserve across the bay and it was considerably less than the distance from Torquay to Brixham which costs a mere £6 return on the Western Lady! In the end we decided that we weren't going to be held ransom to the price so we didn't go and see the tarsiers. We'll have to make do with this picture instead . . .

In spite of our perception that the owner was charging extortionate prices for her excursions we still had a really nice stay at Pulisan. Instead of looking at tarsiers we spent our time exploring the coastline and relaxing on the beach.

Although the setup was very similar to on Bunaken, with all of the meals being taken in the resort, it didn't have that same clostraphobic feeling. The food was great and the staff were really friendly too. We particularly liked Bobby . . . the black macaque. He was a really friendly monkey adorned with a rather natty looking Hoxton fin type haircut!

One day though he got a little too friendly with one of the other guests when he escaped from his cage and jumped 6ft out of a palm tree onto a woman sun bathing. Here he is trying to get a little too close to me . . .

Pulisan also provided us with our first encounter with the traditional Indonesian bathroom known as a mandi. A mandi contains a large vat of water and a bucket. To flush the toilet you simply fill the bucket from the vat and pour it down the toilet bowl. If you want a shower it's bucket over the head time. No toilet paper in the loo? Bucket and your left hand (we always have a spare roll!).

22 April 2009

Bunaken Island

We'd had a great time in Singapore and were a little sad to be leaving when we did. It's a really great city with a fantastic mix of cultures that gives the place a really vibrant atmosphere. There's loads to see and do, the only advantage of leaving is that it's actually quite expensive. The back packer budget had taken a fair old hammering whilst we were there.

On Thursday (16th) we started out on the long 2 day journey to our next destination, Bunaken Island, a few kilometers off the Northern coast of the Indonesian island of Sulawesi. The first days travel was a fairly straight forward flight from Singapore to the Malaysian capital of Kualar Lumpur. We wanted to stay at or close to the airport in KL as we had an early start the following morning. We ended up getting a bit of a bargain with our accommodation. We stayed with Tune Hotels who have just opened a new hotel at the airport. Thanks to a special promotion our room for the night only cost us £10.

The advertising slogan for Tune Hotels says "5-star sleeping experience at a 1-star price" and they are not far from the mark. Although the room was tiny, barely much bigger than the incredibly comfy bed, it was actually lovely, with as smart a bathroom we've had anywhere. It was a slightly surreal evening though, hanging around the airport complex; loitering with a beer outside the 7 Eleven before dinner at KFC. It's a bit of a step down from Singapore Slings in the Long Bar and high tea in the Tiffin Room at Raffles!

After an early night we were up at 5 to catch our 4 hour flight to Manado on Sulawesi. Then it was an hours drive by pick-up from the airport to the harbour before a 30 minute speedboat ride to Bunaken Island.

We went to Bunaken as it is lauded as Indonesia's, some say the worlds, best dive and snorkelling site. Plus Liz saw some really nice postcards of the underwater critters from Bunaken last time she went to Bali! So did it live up to the hype?

Well it's undoubtably the best underwater action we've had so far on this trip. About 30m off shore is a breathtaking Timur reef which features a huge vertical drop off that goes from a depth of 2m down to 40m. The variety and condition of the coral is probably the best we've seen anywhere, there are supposedly more than 300 different types there. It's also the clearest water we've been in, the underwater visibility was easilly in excess of 20m. There's also a stunning variety of fish and other undersea beasties. Among some of the more unusual stuff we saw blue sea stars, christmas tree worms, yellow painted flute mouth, red fire fish, threadfin butterfly fish, long finned and hump head banner fish, horned/chocolate chip star fish, cuttle fish, moorish idol oriental sweetlips, palette sturgeon fish, golden sea squirt and (our favourite) the spotted box fish (apologies that this is just a list of fish, we don't have an underwater camera and Liz got bored trying to upload some pictures from the web because the connection was really slow!).

The snorkelling was really good and for us it comes only second to the Maldives.

The down side about going to Bunaken Island is the isolation. The island is tiny, it probably only covers a couple of square miles and has a dozen or so places to stay. Also there are no independent bars or restaurants so all of your meals and drinks have to be taken at your hotel, it's all just a little clostraphobic.

We stayed at a place called Bunaken Village which was actually really nice. The resort consisted of 8 small wooden huts in a garden right on the beach front. Our hut is in there somewhere . . .

It was run by Jochem, who quit the Netherlands 4 years ago and built the resort from scratch, and his wife Angelina from Java. The food was great and the staff were really friendly but the isolation got to us a bit, 5 days was a bit too long. It seemed that even Angelina was slowly going stir crazy and pining for the bright lights and excitement of Java.

15 April 2009

A Birthday In Singapore

I had a lovely day yesterday for my birthday in Singapore. We started the day with a little brunch party with my parents in our hotel room. We had champagne on ice (in a bin as our hotel wasn't posh enough for an ice bucket!), pastries, cake, some really ropey wine and even paper party plates! My parents also bought some birthday cards over from people back home which was really nice.

After sobering up we headed out for high tea in the Tiffin Room at Raffles Hotel.

It was a great afternoon where we all ate far too much and drank enough tea and coffee to float a battle ship.

We then had to say goodbye to my Mom and Dad as they flew back home after a their two week stay with us. We've had a great time with them and hope that they've enjoyed their time in Singapore and Langkawi as much as we have. Liz is now worried that they may have caught the travel bug and will be off buying backpacks once they get home!

We ended the day with a trip to the cinema to see the Nicholas Cage film Knowing, a film so appallingly bad it was actually quite funny. The film started off looking quite promising but then descended into something so absurd that M Night Shyamalan could have written it. Plus it had some really dodgy special effects in it too.

New Asia Bar

Despite the ridiculously high price of alcohol Singapore has an excellent bar scene. It's probably only second to Hong Kong of the places we've been to so far on this trip.

Our favourite bar has got to be New Asia Bar at Equinox on the 71st floor of the Swisshotel building. The views over Singapore from the top we're absolutely breathtaking.

The drinks weren't too bad either.

Although Liz's Merlion cocktail which was served in a ceramic Merlion was a little odd.

13 April 2009

A warning to our tenants

Whilst we were visiting the Ten Courts of Hell at Haw Par Villa we came across this rather stark warning for our tenants back home.

The punishment for the "crime" of refusing to pay rent is to be pounded by a stone mallet. If you're struggling to visualise what that looks like then here's some help.

Don't say we didn't warn you!

More Singapore

After 6 nights on Langkawi we flew back to Singapore to spend the last few days there with my parents before they headed back home. We've been busying ourselves by seeing a few more of the sights that the island has to offer.

First up was the Chinese Garden which was a lovely relaxing park featuring pagodas and a bonsai trees.

Not far from the Chinese Garden is Jurong Bird Park which is home to over 8000 birds from 600 different species.

The park was excellent and featured lots of unusual birds and some huge walk in aviaries which allowed you to get really close to the feathery little fellas.

Whilst we were there we got caught in the loudest thunderstorm we've ever heard. It was absolutely immense and made the ground and air shake for the best part of an hour. The rain that accompanied it was something else too and left this bird of paradise looking like he was a bit annoyed at having such fancy feathers.

The highlight of Singapore for us has been the Night Safari which is run by the same people as the excellent Singapore Zoo. The set up is very similar to the zoo with lots of free roaming animals and very few cages. The night safari consists of 3 jungle walking trails and a 45 minute jungle tour on a tram. It was just like being at Uncle Tan's but without the inconvenience of having to wash in dirty river water.

As well as the usual suspects like lions, tigers and elephants, there were also lots of really unusual animals such as pangolins, hog badgers, sugar gliders and giant flying squirrels (which some idiot bloke was throwing sticks at!). As per usual the one animal that we really wanted to see, the tarsier, we failed to spot. If we can't see one in a 6ft cubed enclosure, god knows how we are going to spot one when we go to Sulawesi and they have the whole of the 202,000 sq km island of to hide on.

As the safari takes place at night and you can't use a flash for photography we weren't able to take any pictures of the animals. Although we did get a photo of someone having a go at a fish spa!

One of the strangest places we've ever been to must surely be Haw Par Villa. It's a kind of Chinese mythology theme park that was built by Aw Boon, the owner of the Tiger Balm ointment empire. Even though the whole park is slightly crackers, the pinnacle of the strange must be the Ten Courts of Hell. A set of gory displays that depict the punishments for various sins including gambling, prostitution, cheating at exams and creating family disruption. Punishments included having your intestines pulled out, being grilled alive and being thrown onto a hill of knives. . . which is nice!

Today we had planned to go to Sentosa Island but had to cancel as I have developed a swollen left leg that looks uncannily like one of those rotating kebabs at the chip shop. We instead entertained ourselves with cocktails and a swim at the pool at my Mom and Dad's hotel (our budget accommodation doesn't have such luxuries)