Beaten BUTT not broken

Bustin’ our butts in Taiwan – The Sequel (July 2016)

Photos are here. Previous butt breakin’ adventure report here.

Video summary: (courtesy Rom)

“Pain in the butt”. Many use that phrase figuratively. I’ve had the privilege of using that phrase literally. That’s right – five years ago, armed with a heavy backpack (which also included a laptop), my friend Rom and I rode 3300m up a mountain in Taiwan on a mountain bike. My butt screamed in agony (see http://hikeinhongkong.com/bustin-my-ass-in-taiwan-%E2%80%93-vacation-august-2011-hike-bike/). So much so that I told myself that I’d never repeat that experience. 5 years have since gone by and here we go again! Human beings – sometimes we never learn. My friend B has this quote: “Smart men learn from other people’s mistakes, stupid men learn from their own mistakes, imbeciles never learn”. Am I an imbecile? (Don’t answer that!)

Many were supposed to go on this killer boot camp in Taiwan. But, after I sent out this Mission Brief below, only two remained interested. The same two of us – Rom and I. Surprise, surprise! History was going to repeat itself. As we got closer to our butt kicking adventure, my butt was worried. Worried enough for me to order a pair of cycling shorts from Shane at Lantau Base Camp. “It will fit you snug”, he said. The shorts also featured the LBC logo which would me make me “look fly”, he added. I was sold.
 
Original Mission Brief which invoked a grand total of 1 interested person, i.e. Rom:

  • On July 1st 2016 at 0600 HKT, cycle from Taroko (sea-level) to Hehuan (3300m) in one day – around 80kms
  • Upon reaching Hehuan (3300m) at an estimated 1830 hrs, switch to “trail running” mode and reach Xilai North Peak campsite at around 2200 on July 2nd (Saturday)
  • Rise nice and early in the Xilai North Peak campsite and at around 0400, make way to the top of Xilai North Peak (app 3700m). Estimated arrival time 0600. Estimated difficulty level: VERY DIFFICULT. Think 10x Sharp Peak
  • Come back to Xilai North Peak campsite at around 1100 on July 2nd (Saturday) and cycle back down to Taroko (ETA July 2nd 1600)

Since Rom and I were the only ones interested in punishing our butts to the limit (literally), we decided to add more adventure to the itinerary by including two motorbike rides too. The plan morphed into this.

Morphed Mission Brief:

  • Reach Taiwan on June 30th around 4pm. Rent a motorbike from Jeremy and ride to Taroko. Reach Taroko around 2130
  • On July 1st 2016 at 0600 HKT, cycle from Taroko (sea-level) to Hehuan (3300m) in one day – around 80kms
  • Upon reaching Hehuan (3300m) at an estimated 1830 hrs, switch to “trail running” mode and reach Xilai North Peak campsite around 2200 on July 2nd (Saturday)
  • Rise nice and early in the Xilai North Peak campsite and at around 0400, make way to the top of Xilai North Peak (app 3700m). Estimated arrival time 0600. Estimated difficulty level: VERY DIFFICULT. Think 10x Sharp Peak
  • Come back to Xilai North Peak campsite at around 1100 on July 2nd (Saturday) and cycle back down to Taroko (ETA July 2nd 1600)
  • Go for an extended motorbike trip to Wu Ling farm after returning to Taroko
  • Ride motorbike back to Taipei on July 2nd 2016

Basically, trail running, mountain biking and motorbiking. What more could one want from life??

And, this is how things unfolded.

2016-06-30, Hong Kong -> Taipei -> Taroko

  • We took China Airlines to Taipei. Our time sensitive plan was immediately stressed as China Airlines got delayed by an hour. This also put us in peak traffic hour at Taipei which contributed further to the delay. We had to go get our motorbikes from bike man Jeremy by 5pm in order to make it to Taroko by 9pm. That time looked unlikely now.
Rom and I preparing for the butt breaking adventure

Rom and I preparing for the butt breaking adventure

  • Very correctly, Rom filled out “kick ass cycling” as the purpose of visit on the Taiwan immigration form.
Kick Ass adventure is for sure the PURPOSE OF VISIT

Kick Ass adventure is for sure the PURPOSE OF VISIT

  • We got off the plane at Taipei airport around 5pm and hustled to make it to meet motorbike man Jeremy at 6.30pm. Rom made a excellent decision at the airport and suggested that we get a local SIM card. It was cheap and had unlimited data for 3 days. We also had a bet about our Jeremy. My bet, which I claimed was from years of experience of studying people, was that Jeremy was a Taiwanese guy. Given Jeremy’s aggressive responses and strict demeanour in all our interactions with him, Rom bet that he was too aggressive to be a Taiwanese guy. He bet that Jeremy was a gweilo.
  • Bike man Jeremy showed up on time at 6.30pm with one scrawny looking motorbike. I think it was called “The Wolf” or something like that. What a misnomer! He then disappeared for about 10 minutes and reappeared with another famished looking motorbike which looked Wolf’s even poorer cousin. Jeremy then gave us a highly stern speech on traffic rules and how we were supposed to care for Wolf and its cousin. The motorbikes had a cyclical gear system which was weird. After gear 5, it would switch back to neutral. Oh, and Jeremy was indeed a gweilo! I lost my first of many bets to come with Rom!
  • We were on our way at 7pm riding two motorbikes that wouldn’t cross 60kmh. We really wondered what speeding fines Jeremy was cautioning us against for two bikes that could barely cross 60kmh.
  • It got dark very soon after we started and we found ourselves riding in darkness on hilly roads within one hour of riding. At one point, in what looked like the middle of nowhere, we stopped for a pee and much to my annoyance, my bike, “The Wolf”, wouldn’t start! I struggled with a few kicks to the starter and was pondering next moves when a lady at a nearby home / eatery (probably the only construction in that area) saw me in trouble. I’ve always held the belief that there are many guardian angels looking after me and on this occasion also that proved to be true. The restaurant lady knew some bike mechanic guy and called him over. We would be late to Taroko but at least we now had hopes of getting the bike working again.
Rom's bike which would cause him many problems in time to come!

Rom’s bike which would cause him many problems in time to come!

Getting ready for a 190km bike ride from Taipei to Taroko

Getting ready for a 190km bike ride from Taipei to Taroko

A bit of a view in the darkness

A bit of a view in the darkness

Rom taking a photo of the city in the night

Rom taking a photo of the city in the night

Photo of me at the same spot

Photo of me at the same spot

The bike mechanic guy helping me fix my bike

The bike mechanic guy helping me fix my bike

  • Mechanic guy came while we had dinner at the lady’s place and the bike problem seemed to be fixed. (Some battery problem I think). Then came yet another challenge. My bike was running out of fuel and the petrol bunk shut at 9pm! To solve this problem, we used an innovative solution that hospitals use – transfusion! Rom might not donate one of his kidneys to me but he could certainly donate some of his bike’s fuel. Our mechanic guy “transfused” some of Rom’s fuel into my bike so we could make it to the next gas station which was quite some distance away!
Rom might not donate his kidney to me but he'll certainly donate some of his fuel!!

Rom might not donate his kidney to me but he’ll certainly donate some of his fuel!!

  • These teething troubles cost us quite some time. After many more hilly and steep roads, we managed to reach Taroko at 1.05am! Our plan for waking up at 5am the next day was in jeopardy!

2016-07-01, Taroko (sea level) -> Dai Yu Lin (2800m) on a bicycle

  • The original plan called for waking up at 5am and leaving by 6am to ride up 90km to the top of He Huan Shan on mountain bikes. After the intense and eventful motorbike ride the previous day, our bodies just wouldn’t wake up until 6.30am. We left Rihang’s (our guesthouse host) place at 8am.
Rom and I are featured on Rihang's fall from our butt breakin' adventure 5 years back!

Rom and I are featured on Rihang’s fall from our butt breakin’ adventure 5 years back!

  • Armed with a pair of LBC’s cycling shorts and some good podcasts, off we went to repeat our butt breaking adventure from 4 years back. Getting into Taroko National Park on a bike was for sure exhilarating. Memories of tunnels, gorges, windy roads and greenery from 4 years back returned. Within 2.5 hours, we were at Tian Xiang (400m) where I had my bowl of noodles.
Getting ready to begin our butt breakin' ride

Getting ready to begin our butt breakin’ ride

Cycling through gorges

Cycling through gorges

Taroko is a beautiful place

Taroko is a beautiful place

More greenery

More greenery

This is Tian Xiang (400m) above sea level

This is Tian Xiang (400m) above sea level

Rom came up with this idea to tie our stuff to the cycle instead of carrying them in a bag!

Rom came up with this idea to tie our stuff to the cycle instead of carrying them in a bag!

  • Familiar memories of butt pain became a reality again with the increase in altitude. Compared to 4 years back, we were more fit, carried less and had a better mountain bike. The cycling shorts we were wearing also alleviated the pain to some degree but not enough! At some point, I had to switch from listening to podcasts to playing music to keep motivation going. A couple of gels here and there gave me some boost but the energy didn’t last long enough for butt pain to return. I had a wild idea pass through my mind. When Michael Jackson sang “Bad”, he probably went for a bike ride because the first line of that song goes something like “your butt is mine…”
A picture as we were waiting for some roadworks

A picture as we were waiting for some roadworks

Clever selfie shot on the concave mirror

Clever selfie shot on the concave mirror

Another clever Rom shot

Another clever Rom shot

Cycling, cycling and more cycling

Cycling, cycling and more cycling

Butt pain returns

Butt pain returns

The smiles eventually wore off and they lead to...

The smiles eventually wore off and they lead to…

This is what you call a pain in the ass

This! This is what you call a pain in the ass

  • Amidst the pain in the rear and the strenuous climbs, there were many “I am so glad to be here” moments. On one of my frequent philosophical thoughts, I thought to myself that surrounded by nature and physically engaging oneself in a challenging self-chosen adventure somehow liberates the mind. It’s just you, mother nature and your butt. Nothing else matters. Thoughts like that kept floating in the mind as I kept cycling in a steady rhythm. Eventually, butt pain superseded all those thoughts.
  • Our very late lunch was at a place called the Pi Lu Sacred Tree. It was at an altitude of around 2200m and there was a cafe there playing covers of old English pop music. Getting off the bike presented an immediate relief to the rear, although only short lived as we soon had to get back on the saddle to ride up as high as possible in daylight.
  • Our friends from HK, Gulami and Chris, were riding up in scooters to He Huan Shan as we were cycling up. We saw them and for a moment I wished I was one of them instead!
Our friends from HK were going up to He Huan on a motorbike! I wished I was one of them!

Our friends from HK were going up to He Huan on a motorbike! I wished I was one of them!

Food near Pi Lu Sacred Tree. Getting tired

Food near Pi Lu Sacred Tree. Getting tired

Rom enjoying his lunch at the Sacred Tree

Rom enjoying his lunch at the Sacred Tree

These signs kept coming and coming. The ride seemed to last sooo long!

These signs kept coming and coming. The ride seemed to last sooo long!

Rom getting tired!

Rom getting tired!

Beaten BUTT not broken

Beaten BUTT not broken

  • After some more mammoth uphill climbs, it was 6.30pm and we reached a place called Dai Yu Ling which was only 8km away from He Huan Shan. That last 8km ride was supposed to be the steepest of them all and we knew it would take about 2 hours to ride up that part, which meant riding in the night and in the cold. It also looked like it could rain. We knew we had two hours of energy left in us but going up in the dark didn’t seem to be a wise decision. Also, spending the night in the uncomfortable Xi Lai North Peak hut seemed less than appealing. And so, we asked a lady in Dai Yu Ling if she had any accommodation for us. It wasn’t an emphatic ‘YES” but a slight nod. After asking her the same question one more time, she showed us into some sort of a secret lodge she had which became our humble abode for the night. And, what a fine decision it was for us to stay there as it started to rain cats and dogs soon after! Otherwise it would have been a case of cold He Huan rain!

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Rom showing off his ill fitting slippers

Rom showing off his ill fitting slippers

The smiles return as we are warm again in our Dai Yu Lin abode

The smiles return as we are warm again in our Dai Yu Lin abode

A celebratory CHEERS in Dai Yu Lin for having done 2800m on a bicycle

A celebratory CHEERS in Dai Yu Lin for having done 2800m on a bicycle

2016-07-02, Dai Yu Lin -> He Huan -> Xi Lai North Peak -> Taroko

  • After sleeping like a baby in Dai Yu Ling, we got up at 6am and were out the door by 6.15am. Rom deftly hung his stinky clothes on the bike hoping that the strong ultraviolet rays of the sun would kill the smell. I didn’t even attempt that. I sealed my dirty clothes from the bike ride in a ziplock back and wore my clean shorts and tee shirt which I had thoughtfully brought along. The catch was the my shorts didn’t have any butt cushioning so the pain on the butt came back soon after the contact was made between my rear and the seat.
Smiles return as the sun illuminates He Huan North Peak!

Smiles return as the sun illuminates He Huan North Peak!

Nature is stunning!

Nature is stunning!

The mountains of Taiwan beckon!

The mountains of Taiwan beckon!

The road to He Huan Shan

The road to He Huan Shan

  • The 8km ride up to He Huan was tough! It was so steep on occasion that my body started to play games with me. WALK AND PUSH THE BIKE, the body pleaded. The mind overruled that request and I switched on to low gear and steadily kept working the pedals.
I didn't push the bike at all! Proud to say that I rode it all the way!

I didn’t push the bike at all! Proud to say that I rode it all the way!

Our loyal steed

Our loyal steed

The He Huan Shan Road

The He Huan Shan Road

  • The scenery was spectacular. The smiles on our faces returned making us enjoy the success of our biking challenge. The mountains were majestic and the color of the landscape was a treat to the senses. There was a 1km downhill stretch near the top which lead us straight to the parking lot at He Huan Shan.
Our victory pic! 3300m of cycling!

Our victory pic! 3300m of cycling!

  • We didn’t have locks for the bikes but that didn’t stop Rom from improvising. He hung his dirty underwear on the bike which we were sure would serve better than the best lock money could buy.
Drying underwear on the bike is the best lock!

Drying underwear on the bike is the best lock!

Want to steal Rom's bike? It comes with his dirty undies

Want to steal Rom’s bike? It comes with his dirty undies

  • After having breakfast at a lodge on the top of He Huan Shan, we switched to Trail Running mode and started on our 20km run up to Xi Lai North Peak – 3640m above sea level. The first part of the trail is a steady downhill stretch flanked by grass and tall trees on either side.
Switching to trail running mode

Switching to trail running mode

The grassy part in the beginning which leads to Chek Kong Cabin

The grassy part in the beginning which leads to Chek Kong Cabin

Rom enjoying nature

Rom enjoying nature

  • 6km from the start of the trail leads to a small cabin called Chek Kong Cabin which is where we originally intended to spend the previous night. Good we didn’t. It looked cramped and dirty and could certainly not beat the shower we had the lodge in Dai Yu Lin!
Fresh forest mushrooms!

Fresh forest mushrooms!

Chek Kong Cabin

Chek Kong Cabin

  • After crossing the cabin, we climbed up the forest all the way to the exposed rock surface. There were many ropes in place and the climb required 4 limbs on many occasions.
We had to climb many of those steep slopes

We had to climb many of those steep slopes

The forest zone eventually breaks into this rocky surface

The forest zone eventually breaks into this rocky surface

We had to drink every now and then as we felt the altitude

We had to drink every now and then as we felt the altitude

  • The rock surface eventually lead to a meadow which was used a campsite for many hikers. The beauty of the area resonated with me.
Sign near the top!

Sign near the top!

The high altitude meadow

The high altitude meadow

Mountains everywhere!

Mountains everywhere!

Very close to the summit

Very close to the summit

The dance of the clouds

The dance of the clouds

  • The final stretch involved climbing up a very steep rocky slope of the mountain. It was a little bit like climbing up Sharp Peak – except it was about 20 times as long and 2 times more difficult. But, very doable at a gentle pace. If the weather is bad, it will prove to be quite a challenge. On this day though, we got lucky with the weather. It looked ominous but never rained on us!
The final approach

The final approach

  • It took us around 3 hours to reach the summit!
After 3 hours!

After 3 hours!

Panoramic photo of the summit

Panoramic photo of the summit

Rom on the summit

Rom on the summit

  • After spending about 10 minutes on the summit, we made it back to He Huan in about 2 hours. Our total trail running adventure lasted 6 hours 10 minutes and 20kms. After around 180km of motorbiking, 90kms of cycling (accumulated elevation of 3300m) and 20km of trail running, we were beginning to get tired – but we still had another 90km of downhill riding to go before concluding the trail running and biking part of the adventure. We embarked on the downhill cycle ride at 3.40pm.
Back at He Huan at around 3.30pm after a 20km trail run

Back at He Huan at around 3.30pm after a 20km trail run

  • There are very few thrills in life that can compare to a 3300m downhill ride at an average speed of 40kmh! The downhill ride was exhilarating to say the least but it also made me feel bad for the guy who cycled up all the way the day before! Not all of it was easy though! In sharp contrast to the previous day, what was easy the day before became very hard today! The uphills from the previous day became downhill sections today and vice versa. Luckily, there was only one hard stretch that lasted about 20 minutes but it felt like an absolute killer, especially when I thought that the hard stuff was behind us (literally). My ass still hurt from the previous day’s adventure.
Rom feeling like a kind on the downhill

Rom feeling like a kind on the downhill

  • We stopped at the same Sacred Tree for late lunch (it was about 4.45pom when we stopped for a quick lunch). As though perfectly timed, it rained quite hard for the twenty minutes during which we had lunch and just as we were about to leave, the rain stopped! Someone was looking after us!
  • I must have been riding at about 50kmh on occasions! The ride from 2000m down to 400m was an absolute thrill! It was 6.30pm by the time we got to Tian Xiang (400m). We then carried on riding at a very fast pace that Rom set in an attempt to reach our lodge in Taroko before we lost daylight. It was borderline but at about 7.30pm we entered Rihang’s house without having used any artificial light! A couple of more minutes and it would have been pitch dark! We made it back in about 4 hours from the top of He Huan Shan to Taroko in contrast to the 12 hours it took us to get up there! Gravity is really your friend!
  • Our bicycling adventure came to an end soon after that and Rihang took us out to a much needed dinner. We checked our flight timings to Hong Kong only to discover that we had to be at Taipei in the motorbike shop at about 11am the following day which meant leaving Rihang’s home at 4.30am in the morning to make the 6-hour motorbike ride back.

2016-07-03, Taroko -> Taipei -> Hong Kong

  • Getting up at 4.15am was TOUGH! The body wanted more sleep but we couldn’t afford to miss our flights. Also, the quality of the bikes we rented was questionable. After having experienced mechanical problems on the way to Taroko, we wanted to allow enough time to get to the airport on time should we face mechanical problems again.
  • We left at 4.30am as quietly as we could. Rom’s bike had starting trouble but we somehow kick started it into submission. A serene view of Pacific Ocean was enough to wake us up. It was truly a spectacular sight.
The Pacific Ocean

The Pacific Ocean

Rom taking a selfie shot

Rom taking a selfie shot

Pacific Ocean in the backdrop

Pacific Ocean in the backdrop

What a view!

What a view!

  • Then came Rom’s bike problems. The bike’s back wheel was wobbly which loosened the chain which in turn meant trouble shifting gears. To add more woes to that, the bike would suddenly stop when he used the clutch. And once it stopped, it required many kick starts to bring it back to action. We stopped at a mechanic en route to fix the chain but soon after the problems with the bike suddenly stopping got worse.
Rom's bike proves troublesome!

Rom’s bike proves troublesome!

More mechanical trouble

More mechanical trouble

  • Around 2.7km ahead of the meeting point, Rom’s bike completely stopped. No amount of kick starting could coerce it back into action. We had to call the bike guy and have him pick up his bikes right there. We were fortunate in that the bike didn’t breakdown completely in the middle of nowhere but an important lesson we learnt was that it is important to rent good bikes if one is to do a long trip! Given the quality of bikes we had rented, we were lucky to have made it back to the airport on time!
Something tells me Rom isn't going to miss his bike!

Something tells me Rom isn’t going to miss his bike!

  • After we returned the bikes, we headed straight to the airport and gorged on some lounge food. We must have helped ourselves to several courses of meals! We then boarded China Airlines back to Hong Kong to conclude our butt breaking trip to Taiwan!

Summary:

  • 400kms of motorbiking, 180kms of cycling and 20kms of trail running. All of it in 4 days. If this isn’t a butt breaking challenge, what is? Loved every minute of it. Fantastic adventure! Exactly what the doctor ordered!

 

Group pic at the summit

Climbing Mount Rinjani in one day – Lombok, Indonesia (June 2016)

After a cool friend’s real cool wedding party in Bali, we decided to climb Mt Rinjani in Lombok, Indonesia. Here’s our preliminary research on attempting to climb Rinjani.

The prep:

“Details on how to get there: get to Lombok by ferry or bus. 
 
Fast ferry (8am to 1.30pm) takes 2 hours and slow ferry (operates 24 hours) takes 4.5 hours. Port in Lambok is called Lembar. Takes about 4 hours to get to Senaru or Sembalun from Lembar by taxi. 
 

Then there are two options to climb Rinjani:

  • Senaru at an elevation of 600m close to Western side resort area Sengigi
  • Sembalun Lawang (1150m) eastern side. Closer to summit (we chose this route)

From Senaru, it takes 6 hours to reach the crater rim. 

 
From Sembalun Lawang, it takes 8 hours to the Plawangan II and 2638m via Posi 1/2/3. Stay at the campsite and leave at 3am for the summit”
 
And, here’s a photo blog of what transpired.

The beginning:
We decided to climb to Rinjani from Sembalun (1500m elevation) and return the same way. The very friendly owner at Rinjani guesthouse in Sembalun (where we stayed) told us that “this was not possible” and that it was normally a “one night two day” trip. He also told us that we had to have a guide. We hired a guide called Hasan for 400k (it became 650k later on when we told him at the crater rim that we wanted to summit). He told us that it would take us 8 hours to get to the rim and another 6 hours to get back. He had an athletic build and looked very friendly but didn’t really seem to believe or understand that we wanted to attempt to summit Rinjani in one day.

Landing in Lombok

Landing in Lombok

View of Lombok from the plane

View of Lombok from the plane

The bumpy ride to the start:
We paid 150k per person for the permit at the tourist guesthouse for the climb (we were told that they increased the price to 350k for visitors from the next day onwards) and then came a very bumpy 15-minute ride to the start of the trail.

Selfie at Lombok airport

Selfie at Lombok airport

Rinjani guesthouse

Rinjani guesthouse

In the pick up truck to the start

In the pick up truck to the start

At the tourist place for the permit

At the tourist place for the permit

Here’s a video:

Pos 1, Pos 2, Pos 3, Pos 4 … Base camp:
The start of the trail went through this green meadow which eventually lead to a little “hut” called “Pos 1”. It was not a hut where people could stay, more like a marker in the shape of a hut.

The meadow at the start

The meadow at the start

A selfie with Hasan

A selfie with Hasan

Hasan told us that it would take around 2 hours to reach Pos 1 but in reality it took only about 45 minutes. All the times quoted by the guide were “grandma” times, even at our walking pace.

The conversation Ollie had with Hasan at the start was classic:

Ollie: Hasan, is Rinjani’s someone’s name? What does it mean?
Hasan: Yes, it is someone’s name
Ollie: Really, who?
Hasan: Rinjani
Ollie: (What a great answer!)

Reminds me of an old joke.
Teacher: Who can tell me what John Smith’s wife is called?
Student: Me, me!
Teacher: Great! What is it?
Student: Mrs. Smith

A handsome guy going to Pos 2

A handsome guy going to Pos 2

Climbing up to Pos 3

Climbing up to Pos 3

Monkeys of Lombok. Different to their Shing Mun cousins with the pink butts

Monkeys of Lombok. Different to their Shing Mun cousins with the pink butts

The Base Camp

The Base Camp

Clouds, Clouds everywhere

Clouds, Clouds everywhere

Posing near the Base Camp

Posing near the Base Camp

Nice colours

Nice colours

The trail was relatively easy until Pos 3 after which there was a pretty sharp incline all the way to the rim of the crater, aka the Base Camp. The Base Camp was literally a big row of tents flanked by big piles of garbage on either side. From the rim of the crater, we were suposed to see a spectacular backdrop of a volcanic lake but our view of the lake was instead replaced by white clouds. But, not ones to be perturbed by the uncontrollable forces of nature, we still imagined the lake in the backdrop and took ample selfies! After all, doesn’t beauty lie in the eyes of the beholder?

Base Camp to the Summit:
Our guide who quoted 7 hours to get to the Base Camp, i.e., the rim of the crater, was pleasantly surprised to find out that it only took us 3 hours to get there. We told him that we wanted to summit which is when he said that our “program” at 400k didn’t involve a guide service to the summit. 250k more did it! (Our 650k -guide fee for the three of us- plus 150k -each person at the tourist center for the “entry ticket”- was still way cheaper than the 2M it would have cost to do the boilerplate “one night two days” tour). And about that “one night two days” Rinjani tour, I don’t think the money would have been so much a dampening factor for me, instead staying at the Base Camp amidst the smell of garbage, pee and you-know-what would have flushed that idea!

Our guide said it would take 3.5 hours to get to the summit from the Base Camp. Judging from recent experience, we thought it would only take a fraction of that time as the summit was only 3kms away from the Base Camp. But, this time he was right – it took us 3 whole hours! Why? It was like walking on quicksand at 3500m above sea level! Ollie’s Oreo package suddenly popped because of the increase in altitude. Imagine climbing up slushy 20cm thick lose gravel and mud in thin air! It was like a bike spinning on its wheels in desert sand. Also, quite frequently, a little detour from the main trail lead to a “tour de feces” and a “tour de tissue”. Yup, dried human excrement is what I’m talking about! So, imagine you’re a fast guy trying to climb up Rinjani and you take a little shortcut by the side of the trail, lose your grip and fall face down in the mud. Now, normally that would be a-ok and even good fun BUT if that side of the trail had dried human feces on it then that wouldn’t too much fun, would it? Now, I am not saying that that happened to me… (Or am I?)

Anyway, amidst this discussion of human feces, garbage, quicksand and slushy terrain, I want to make it clear that this was still a very enjoyable experience! The views of the ridge, the dance of the clouds, the pyramid shaped volcano, the jagged terrain with distinctive volcanic features were all highlights of this experience. And, when the clouds suddenly cleared at the summit, that was the biggest highlight of them all! Anyway, so back to the story…

Posing before getting to the summit

Posing before getting to the summit

Climbing this wasn't easy

Climbing this wasn’t easy

The volcanic terrain

The volcanic terrain

This is what we found on the summit

This is what we found on the summit

Group pic at the summit

Group pic at the summit

Views from the summit

Views from the summit

Views from the summit

Views from the summit

Dance of the clouds

Dance of the clouds

More cloud dance

More cloud dance

The Summit:
Our guide was much slower than us. Dom had some jet lagged moments where he slowed down and Ollie was using her poles like a cruising machine to get to the top. Not wanting to go astray on another “tour de feces”, I went steadily up the beaten path, one foot in front of another using Ollie as my metronome. I was also playing DJ and had Robin Schulz’s “Sugar” playing in the background. I also added my own vocals to it which I’m sure Dom and Ollie didn’t appreciate – although they were either too polite or too busy focusing on the climb to comment on my great voice. Speaking of which, I still don’t know what “sugar, how you get so fly” really means. I get “high” but “fly”?

Anyway, we plodded on and reached the summit, only to be welcome by more and more clouds. It also started drizzling. We took selfies holding a little sign that was on the summit which read “Ringani – 3726m”. We then high fived each other to celebrate our 3-hour walk through that quicksand like terrain. After that, Ollie started to walk down. Just as Dom and I were about to follow suite, the clouds started to clear. The sun then revealed its power and the majestic views no longer needed to be left to mere imagination. It was amazingly scenic – yet another wonder of Mother Nature.

The Summit

The Summit

You're looking at the crater

You’re looking at the crater

Summit back down to Base Camp:
The descent was such a memorable experience. It really felt like we were skiing on fertile mud! The shoes took in several ladles full of volcanic soil as I leaned backwards, spun my legs around in a cycling motion and let gravity do the talking! What took 3 hours to go up, only took 40 minutes on the way down! That’s the power of momentum on that trail!

And, nature had its little surprise waiting for us at the rim. Those clouds that begged us to imagine the views from the rim on the way up, dispersed gracefully to reveal that stunning lake in the backdrop. Some of the clouds danced around and artistically lingered in the air adding to the serene setting. Beauty didn’t really have to be in the eyes of the beholder. It was literally everywhere! The lake and the setting was yet another wonder of nature!

My shoe had plenty of volcanic mud in it on the way down

My shoe had plenty of volcanic mud in it on the way down

Coming down

Coming down

More Cloud Dance

More Cloud Dance

The beauty of the lake finally revealed at the crater

The beauty of the lake finally revealed at the crater

With the lake in the backdrop

With the lake in the backdrop

Admiring the beauty of the lake

Admiring the beauty of the lake

 

Video of the descent:

 

Back via the meadows to Sembalun

Back via the meadows to Sembalun


Base Camp back to the guesthouse:
I enjoyed this so much! It was a fab trail run down (quite technical at times with rocks and tree roots) all the way to Pos 4. Our guide was definitely getting quite an unanticipated workout. After Pos 3, however, I managed to twist my ankle not once, not twice but thrice! Luckily, other than some swelling, it was okay enough to permit jogging to the finish!

After clocking something like 25km of distance and 2600m of accumulated elevation for the day, we reached the village where our pick up truck was waiting for us. At 6pm, we were back at the guesthouse.

All in all, it took about 11 hours for the trip to the top of Rinjani and back from Sembalun.

At the finish! Back in the pick up truck

At the finish! Back in the pick up truck

The verdict:
I know I say this about pretty much every hike or climb I’ve done but this was also awesome! Friendly people, great views, solid exercise, amazing scenery and awesome company!

I hope the tourist office does something about all the rubbish on the trail and that nature takes cares of all the human waste near the campsite!

My biggest advice to everyone attempting Rinjani, follow your nose, stay on the trail and enjoy Tour De Rinjani, not Tour De Feces. Yup, no shit. That’s the way to go my friend.

Kick Ass vacation to Annapurna Base Camp (April 2016)

The prelude:
  • Switch on the news and you would hear *THOSE* times being mentioned over and over again. What times? Bad markets, bad economy, etc, etc, etc. All this pointed to one thing. It was time to climb a mountain
  • Enter my friend Milos. We sat down for hours together and plan. (Read: have two Tsing Taos by Mui Wo Ferry Pier)
  • The Annapurna idea is born
  • We immediately call in a favour and found ourselves a CPO (Chief Planning Officer). Enter Ramesh.
  • We created a whatsapp group where millions and millions of messages are exchanged. (Most of them irrelevant and junk, especially the ones from Roger)
  • Enter the final list of participants. Roger, Hannes, Dominic, Milos, Tilly and yours truly
Ramesh sends us the itinerary: 
 
  • 15 Apr – Arrive Kathmandu
  • 16 Apr – Depart for Pokhara By Road 7 hrs Tourist Bus or By Air 25 mins Flt and Arrange Trekking Permits
  • 17 Apr – Trek to Banthati 2000m
  • 18 Apr – Trek to Ghorepani 3500m
  • 19 Apr – Short Trek to Poon Hill Sunrise Breakfast and Trek to Chomrong 2500m
  • 20 Apr – Trek to Dovan 2700m
  • 21 Apr – Trek  to Annapurna Base Camp 4000m
  • 22 Apr – Trek back to Chhomrong
  • 23 Apr – Trek Back to Ghandruk Base and By Road to Pokhara
  • 24 Apr – By Road or Air To Kathmandu
  • 25 Apr – Sightseeing in Kathmandu morning and afternoon . Depart Kathmandu for Hong Kong
 
RECOMMENDED KIT :
  • 1.   Trekking Shoes
  • 2.   Walking poles
  • 3.   Light Down and Light Jacket
  • 4.   Track Suit – 1 pr
  • 5.   Thermo T Shirt/Inner
  • 6.   Basic medicines
  • 7.   Camera
  • 8.   Medium Thick Socks
  • 9.  Medium Carry Pack
  • 10.  Water Bottle
  • 11.  Energy Bar
 
RECOMMENDED START/END TREK TIMINGS :
 
  • 0600-0630 – Breakfast
  • 0700 – Trek Start
  • 1100-1200 – Stop for Lunch
  • 1300-1700 – Afternoon Trek
 
  • Trek to Ghorepani/Poon Hill Upfhill
  • Trek to Chomrong Uphill/Downhill
  • Trek to Annapurna Base Camp Uphill
  • Trek from Base Camp – Downhill
 
SCENERY :
  • From Ghorepani Poon Hill – Mount Dhaulagiri-Annapurna Ranges
  • From Chhomrong – Annapurna Ranges and Fish Tail
  • You will also see the national flower of Nepal Rhododendron blooming
As you can see from the strict schedule, Ramesh is an ex military guy. After we agreed on this itinerary, a million more of whatsapp messages were exchanged. Most of them (again) are useless and irrelevant. And, yes, many of them from Roger. (History repeated itself). Suddenly, we were there and it was April 15th 2016.

 
15th April 2016
  • I got a text from Milos: “Vince, I checked the bags from John, you want the bag with bras or the bag with bras ? your pick :-)“. Our man John Ellis form Gone Running sent us a bunch of used sports gear to carry to Nepal to donate to the community there. I got handed the bag with the most bras
  • Meanwhile we had news from Ramesh that our 5th member in our Nepal expedition, Tilly had successfully arrived in Kathmandu from Geneva. “TILLY COLLECTION” read the subject of the email. With Dominic already in Nepal on a “pre-vacation” vacation, our team was complete
  • Kathmandu airport was crowded and it took us almost 90 minutes just to get our luggage. The conveyor belt started and stopped and looked like a meandering river. Eager passengers starting crowding around every visible edge of the belt in keen anticipation of their luggage
  • Kiran, our guide and Ramesh’s tail running student, waited for us outside the airport to take us to our hotel. Unwanted helpers carried our luggage to the van and demanded a tip. We mistakenly thought they were Kiran’s friends. We departed with 120 HKD. Roger giving away 100 and I gave away 20
  • Ramesh called Kiran who passed the phone onto Milos. He made sure we had arrived safely
My artistic photo of the wing

My artistic photo of the wing

4 clowns leaving Hong Kong for ABC

4 clowns leaving Hong Kong for ABC

Kathmandu airport baggage carousel

Kathmandu airport baggage carousel

16th April 2016
  • 0540 was the assembly time at the hotel reception
  • Tilly bought some bananas and apples on the way to the bus stop and got ripped off. 50 HKD for some bananas and oranges. Even more expensive than Hong Kong. She really amazed me when she went back to the vendor after realizing this and got her money back after returning the apples and oranges. I would have been too scared to do that!
  • Bus journey was spent yapping a lot and boring Tilly. We saw a gruesome sight of an accident which made me recall how fickle life can be. One really needs to cherish every moment of it
  • Upon reaching Pokhara, we met Ramesh who took us to Hotel Pokhara where we were briefed. We got permits done for the upcoming Annpurna trek and enjoyed a warm dinner reception which Ramesh hosted for us
Taking an evening walk in Pokhara to the park

Taking an evening walk in Pokhara to the park

We are smarter than we look

We are smarter than we look

17th April 2016
  • We assembled for breakfast at 7am after a good night’s sleep – well, all except for Milos, who inadvertently happened to volunteer to be dinner for mosquitoes. He woke up with many mosquito bites on his hand and face
  • We bid a temporary goodbye to Ramesh and boarded our team jeep at 7.30am to get on our way to Birethanti (1050m)
  • Then came a steep stair climb all the way to Banthanti. Hannes, despite experiencing hip pain, converted some of his Swiss pride into muscle power and made it all the way to our humble abode for the night – The Green Hill View lodge. Which by the way isn’t a misnomer. Not like our Hong Kong style naming of buildings. Think “Chung King Mansion”. Mansion?
  • Hannes’ pain dwindled to the point where he even enjoyed locking me out in the bathroom
  • The view from our lodge was scenic. Very green and soothing
  • We had a sumptuous dinner in the lodge with ample servings of ginger tea. There was even an intense (and heated) debate about Hong Kong politics which took our sleeping time to 1030pm
Mint plant in Banthanti

Mint plant in Banthanti

Milos has some biting friends

Milos has some biting friends

Met Mr. Horsey in Banthanthi

Met Mr. Horsey in Banthanthi

18th April 2016
  • Ghorepani, I.e., “white water” at 2820m was the destination for the day. It took us less than 3 hours to reach this place. Our residence for the place was a cleverly named guesthouse called “See You” guesthouse
  • Having reached Ghorepani as early as 10am we took a little side trip upto Poon Hill at 3100m. It took less than an hour to reach
  • We saw a sign that read “Poon Hill” which reminded Roger of his most favorite topic – “poo”. Springing into action, he immediately hid the ‘N’ in “Poon Hill” to satisfy himself
  • We were back at our guesthouse at around 12pm and decided to order food from the menu. Roger had to warn Tilly about refraining from “outward expression of affection” as instructed by the last page of our menu
  • Dom and Tilly went for a bit of a walk afterwards while the rest of us decided to spend the afternoon taking it easy and relaxing. Their timing was a bit off because a thunderstorm wasn’t too far behind them! Fortunately, they made it back before the skies exploded
  • After yet another sumptuous high altitude dinner (I had rosti but Hannes told me with great conviction that his homemade version of it would put this one to shame), I went to bed while the rest of the gang played cards. The clouds cleared up revealing the bright moon and stars which meant that our 6am sunrise viewing plan from Poon Hill was back on
Nice tree in Ghorepani

Nice tree in Ghorepani

Our Ghorepani hut

Our Ghorepani hut

Hannes' suffers toe issues

Hannes’ suffers toe issues

Tilly has a new friend - Srijana (guesthouse lady's daughter)

Tilly has a new friend – Srijana (guesthouse lady’s daughter)

Started raining all of a sudden

Started raining all of a sudden

Beautiful rhododendrons on the way to Poon Hill

Beautiful rhododendrons on the way to Poon Hill

Met this guide on the way to Ghorepani

Met this guide on the way to Ghorepani

View from Poon Hill

View from Poon Hill

Swiss lady brought this Alphorn to Poon Hill

Swiss lady brought this Alphorn to Poon Hill

Group Pic on Poon Hill

Group Pic on Poon Hill

19th April 2016
  • Got up at 5am after close to 8-something hours of sleep. Felt like I was back in boarding school – the sound of someone yawning in another room, creaking of beds, shuffling of plastic bags and so on
  • I switched to military precision for my upcoming dump sequence. I was expecting a dirty toilet but it was surprisingly clean so I could put down my guard. I’ll stop describing the rest of the processes here
  • We went up race pace to the top of Poon Hill. The views were majestic – Annapurna 1/2/3, Daulagiri, Fish Mountain (Macchapuchhere). Spectacular
  • After a heavy breakfast (pancake with peanut butter), it was time to walk to Tadapani. Initially, it was a downhill course but boy did that change. The stairs we climbed put Lantau Peak and Sunset Peak to shame
  • Our lunch spot was another spectacular scene. And the lunch (macaroni with cheese) was yummy
  • Then came a longish walk to Chumrong. “Five minutes” was the theme of the day. Our next stop was always “five minutes” away. We left at 8am in the morning, reached Tadapani at about 12pm and it took us until 5pm to reach Chumrong which was at 2050m. Kiran suggested that we add another “5 minutes” to our day which meant that our stop was at Sinuwa, also at 2050mhumrong. “Five minutes” was the theme of the day. Our next stop was always “five minutes” away. We left at 8am in the morning, reached Tadapani at about 12pm and it took us until 5pm to reach Chumrong which was at 2050m. Kiran suggested that we add another “5 minutes” to our day which meant that our stop was at Sinuwa, also at 2050m
  • On the way to Sinuwa

    On the way to Sinuwa

    Flowers everywhere!

    Flowers everywhere!

    Roger suddenly borrowed my camera to take this great selfie

    Roger suddenly borrowed my camera to take this great selfie

    Want a hit man?

    Want a hit man?

    Poon Hill becomes POO HILL

    Poon Hill becomes POO HILL

    Walking through many green villages

    Walking through many green villages

    Our scenic lunch spot in Tadapani

    Our scenic lunch spot in Tadapani

    More beautiful rhododendron trees

    More beautiful rhododendron trees

  • Hannes’ pain got worse but he still managed to do the whole route without  any external help
  • During dinner, the conversation mainly revolved around Roger’s favorite topic again – poo. Tilly tried desperately to have the topic changed many times but invariably, as Milos put it, “all topics lead to s**t”. Roger’s need for a clean toilet outweighed his urgency to go for a dump
 
20th April 2016
  • The original plan was to hike up to Duerali (3100m) but Kiran was told that they had no rooms there. So, insead, we decided to go to Himalayan (2800m)
  • After a 7am breakfast (Muesli with fruits), we started making our 4-hour journey to Himalayan
  • The poo experience that Roger was after continued to ellude him until the afternoon, but soon after an intense hailstorm, Roger proudly announced that he had successfully relieved himself of some unnecessary cargo
  • We played poker in the afternoon and watched out the window as the rain continued its onslaught
  • After a heavy dinner (macaroni with cheese) it was time to retire for the day
Carpet of leaves

Carpet of leaves

We crossed many of these suspension bridges

We crossed many of these suspension bridges

While Hannes was stretching, bad boy Roger tripped him

While Hannes was stretching, bad boy Roger tripped him

Our humble abode

Our humble abode

Express mule

Express mule

Mary had a little lamb...

Mary had a little lamb…

Taking a pitstop

Taking a pitstop

First sight of snow

First sight of snow

21st April 2016
  • We were hoping for some bright skies after the intense rainfall the previous day
  • I woke up at around 5.30am and went outside. Fortunately, the skies were an azure blue. Roger woke up shortly after and greeted us with a morning fart. (When Milos farts he fondly refers to it as his “jet fuel exhaust”)
  • Today was the highlight of our ABC base camp expedition. The scenery was simply mind blowing. We left around 7.30am and reached Machupuchere Base Camp (MBC – 3700m) around 10.30am
  • The skies continued to be blue so we made the 1.5 hour trip to Annapurna Base Camp (4130m). Awesome. Magnificent.  Pick your adjective
  • On the way back to MBC (Fishtail Mountain), it looked like it was going to pour down but we luckily avoided the rain. At around 2.30pm, it rained cats and dogs. Great escape!
  • Lunch was a heavy rosti and post lunch it was time to play poker again and retire for the day
Wild flowers on the way to ABC

Wild flowers on the way to ABC

The beauty was amazing

The beauty was amazing

Stunning

Stunning

Had to cross this glacier on the way to ABC

Had to cross this glacier on the way to ABC

The view was spectacular

The view was spectacular

Majestic mountains

Majestic mountains

Dark side of mountaineering - Anatoli Boukreev is remembered

Dark side of mountaineering – Anatoli Boukreev is remembered

On ABC. Japanese expedition attempt to climb the south face of Annapurna

On ABC. Japanese expedition attempt to climb the south face of Annapurna

The high altitude hut

The high altitude hut

Unbelievable landscape

Unbelievable landscape

The remote hut

The remote hut

22nd April 2016
  • The plan was to descend all the way to Chumrong at 2800m
  • The mountains were beautifully illuminated by the sun as I woke up and stepped out at 5.30am. Part of me wished I had gotten up at 4am and made it back up to ABC for the view
  • We made the 24km walk back to Chhumrong beginning 7.30am
  • As we made our way, the skies behind us blackened. We got lucky again with the weather. It felt like we were taking the sunshine with us wherever we were going
  • Roger, while talking about an Australian guy who had fallen off Annapurna while attempting to change his camera battery, ironically, also fell down a slope when attempting to change his camera battery. Luckily, all he had was a minor scratch
  • The final stage from Sinuwa to Chhumrong was a tough stair climb but otherwise, it felt like a pretty easy day – especially as we are going from a freezing 3700m in elevation to a balmy and green Chhumrong at 2100m
  • The view from our guesthouse “Kalpana guesthouse” was lush and green! Cabbage plantations grew below and potato farms were planted all around
  • It felt amazing to note how a mere 20km of waking changed everything. From the views of tall, towering mountains to that of green and lush valleys, from frigid temperatures where you need several layers of clothing to that of balmy weather where a tee shirt and a pair of shorts would suffice. It felt like a journey from survival mode to living comfortably. Mountains are majestic but living there is another cold matter!
  • I thought about those guys attempting to climb Annapurna (apparently one in ten die). They must feel like what we just did (the hike to ABC camp) was pure baby stuff
  • Milos came out of the squat toilet (the only option we had) and declared that “he wasn’t sure where he was aiming”. Which made me conclude that I would defer jetissoning my excess cargo by one more day until we would reach Pokhara
  • The rest of the day was spent in a Swiss bakery shop and playing poker. Hannes was close to winning the game in the MBC hut but we found an excuse to stop the game before he could win it all
Morning view from MBC

Morning view from MBC

Eating at a bakery in Chhumrong

Eating at a bakery in Chhumrong

Mountains are beautiful but hostile terittory

Mountains are beautiful but hostile terittory

Great green views (and Roger)

Great green views (and Roger)

Chhumrong valley

Butterfly hovers around

Butterfly hovers around

From 3700m to 2500m in Chhumrong

From 3700m to 2500m in Chhumrong

23rd April 2016
  • Woke up to the sight of the beautiful Machapuchare (Fishtail mountain) at about 5.45am for our last 4-hour day of walking. Thought to myself how magnificent it looked from the comfort of our guesthouse in Chhumrong but as you go near it, the discomfort of being there rises with the altitude
  • We left the green Chhumrong at about 7.30am and reached Birethanti at about 11am, just in time for our taxi pick up back to Pokhara
  • Leaving Chhumrong and arriving at Pokhara felt very different. Difference between heaven and earth! It all meant one thing – our holiday was coming to a close!
  • The afternoon was spent eating and shopping. We went to a Tibetan market where Milos was pointing at a photo of the Dalai Lama and said that he had many interesting things to say. Then, all of a sudden from behind, a small Tibetan lady approached and said “he’s cool, right?” We nodded
Walking back to the jeep to get back to Birethanti

Walking back to the jeep to get back to Birethanti

Leaving gardens for Kathamandu city

Leaving gardens for Kathamandu city

About 40 mins away from our finiish

About 40 mins away from our finiish

This guy is a pro

This guy is a pro

24th April 2016
  • Headed back to Kathmandu by bus after a 6.30am breakfast
  • Some more shopping and plenty of eating ensued after an 8-hour bus drive that featured many close traffic accidents
Monkey Swayambhu Temple, Kathmandu

Monkey Swayambhu Temple, Kathmandu

Not every day may be good but there is something good in every day

Not every day may be good but there is something good in every day

A "cross" spider

A “cross” spider

Dom gets a cheap shave

Dom gets a cheap shave

Where's the wire? There is a method in maddness

Where’s the wire? There is a method in maddness

Spot a pigeon - Durbar square

Spot a pigeon – Durbar square

I'm buyin' one of these babies

I’m buyin’ one of these babies

25th April 2016
  • It was time to return to the hustle and bustle of Hong Kong for us and to Geneva for Tilly
Goodbye Kathmandu

Goodbye Kathmandu

When in doubt, have a burgur

When in doubt, have a burgur

What about 'em Taliban Soups?

What about ’em Taliban Soups?

Interesting things we observed in Nepal:
  • Villages were very, very clean. I was expecting some garbage near the villages but there was none. Most villages in the mountains were spic and span
  • Prices in guesthouses were fixed and controlled. No matter which guesthouse  you go to, the prices were the same for guesthouses at that altitude
  • People were nice and friendly. Largely,  there was no real attempt to ripoff tourists. This was more true after Banthati
 
Trip rating: 
  • Truly kick ass style. Great place, great company and a truly kick ass break
  • Learning lessons:
    • One week in the Annapurna region and another in the Everest region would have had more kick ass power
    • Never carry more than you need. 7 tee shirts weren’t necessary. Light but good rain gear and winter gear are necessary. Most other things are dispensable
    • A private car for 6 people would have saved time instead of the long bus ride to Pokhara
    • A small day pack and a normal rucksack would have helped to carry ad hoc stuff instead of just a big rucksack

Overall, another great adventure in another great place! Our planet is really beautiful!

 

DSC03655

Koh Chang “kick ass” trip (Feb 2016)

2016-02-04
  • Learnt at the check in counter that we actually had a business class ticket to Bangkok and not a cattle class ticket. I don’t know how that happened because I could have sworn we clicked on “Economy”. HKD 4013 for a return business class ticket from Hong Kong to Bangkok
Stylist business class travel

Stylist business class travel

  • Strategically and immediately made use of the business class boarding facilities including the business class lounge (might as well! Who knows when the heck I may fly business again!)
  • Saw Hannes’ Thailand Arrival immigration card where he had marked “Toilet Cleaner” as his occupation. He told me that he had been marking “Toilet Cleaner” as his occupation on immigration cards for 25 years! (No, he’s not a toilet cleaner in real life although I guess he does clean his own toilet). Apparently, it was just “Cleaner” first until the immigration officers in the Philippines questioned him. Then he thoughtfully prefixed that very accurate description with the word “Toilet” to make it “Toilet Cleaner” to give it full meaning. The immigration authorities in the Philippines were then placated
"Toilet Cleaner" marked as occupation

“Toilet Cleaner” marked as occupation on Hannes’ form

  • Buses to Koh Chang were full. After much haggling, we got an airport taxi for 4,700 Bahts. Some weird looking guy who looked like a pimp carried my luggage (without asking me) to the taxi and spontaneously asked for a tip. I told him I didn’t have any change and offered him the few coins I did have. He scoffed at me, I think he even swore at me, and off we went!
  • Took a ferry from the pier to Koh Chang after the four hour car ride. Ferry took less than 30 minutes to get to Koh Chang. First impressions: crowded, commercial and busy. It took a while to find our hotel “Magic House” which had an “ok” look to it on the outside. White Sand Beach, the beach we went to for dinner, was only a 10-minute walk away
On the Ferry to Koh Chang

On the Ferry to Koh Chang

Welcome to Koh CHang

Welcome to Koh CHang

Beach was 5 mins away from "Magic House"

Beach was 5 mins away from “Magic House”

  • After a sumptuous dinner by the beach, it was time to retire for the day
  • In the room at Magic House, during the night it felt like there was indeed some magic happening – black magic! I thought we had some sort of ghost rattling all the windows and doors. It felt like we were somehow in the midst of a severe storm. I barely slept because I felt like the shaking windows would come crashing down in shards of glass. The next day morning, after some examination of the premises with little sleep, we discovered that it was just the power of the wind in a tropical place combined with some shoddy construction work at not-so-magic house.
View from Magic House

View from Magic House

View from Magic House

View from Magic House

Selfie on the beach

Selfie on the beach

2016-02-05
  • The French host at “Magic House” (our humble abode which had nothing magical about it), made us some croissants in the morning. Hannes, who lives around a French neighborhood back in Hong Kong felt like he was at home. He even started to show off some of his French language skills
  • Got three scooters for 600 Bahts in total and went on a 110km trip around the island
Saw this bee on the elephant rock

Saw this bee on the elephant rock

Scooting away Exploring island on scooter

  • Riding about 20km away, we saw the scenery transition from being that of a busy, chaotic little city to that of a clean and green island. It was perfect for the soul and a “chillaxing” experience!
  • Later, we went to another white sand beach, I think it was cold Long Beach, where we had a filling lunch (I did most of the eating!)
This is what rubber feels like after a while

This is what rubber feels like after a while

Rubber Plantation

Rubber Plantation

One of many beaches

One of many beaches

  • Then we went past a temple that supposedly cost 18M Bahts to build. There was a 20 Baht entrance fee but I decided to have a buko (coconut) for that price instead. Had two in fact!

One of many bukos

18M temple

18M temple

  • I wanted to try my hands at firing some weapons in a shooting range we rode past but then, once we got there, it just felt wrong to shoot! (Yes, harmless I know but still!) I saw the guns again and the price tag to fire them. Something like 2000 Bahts for firing 16 rounds on a M4. I decided against it. I think it was because it felt like I was indulging in the art of needless destruction. Or maybe I was overthinking it. (What do you think?) I’m not sure I would have fired those things even if it was free. But wait, whom am I kidding! Had it been free I’d probably have had a crack at it! But I would have probably regretted it soon after, so it was just as well I decided against it!
  • There were two other beaches we drove past before refilling the scooter with more petrol and riding down two the end of the island
  • Got some glorious sunset views on the way back and by the time we returned to our “Magic House”, it was close to 6.30pm which meant it was time to end the day with some good food and beer.
  • I’ve got to say – the number of European tourists in Thailand is a pretty staggering number. In fact, the first currency I saw in the Money Changers was always Russian Rubble to Bahts!
  • History repeated itself during the night and the rattling of the windows and doors meant little sleep. The power of the wind was simply incredible. To add to the cacophony of noises, the asbestos roof of the structure opposite to us was vibrating like a tuning fork which meant even more noise and even less sleep than the previous night!
Gorgeous sunset

Gorgeous sunset

2016-02-06
  • We joined a 700B / pp snorkeling trip which involved being picked up at 8am from Magic House with the intention of taking a boat ride to four different neighboring islands for snorkeling
  • It was 9.20am before someone showed up to pick us up. We were then driven to a pier about 25km away where we boarded a rather crowded boat
Rather crowded snorkeling boat

Rather crowded snorkeling boat

Beautiful island en route

Beautiful island en route

Getting ready to snorkel

Getting ready to snorkel

  • The blue skies and soothing waters soon set the stage for a day out in the serenity of the sea
  • In one of the islands, I stepped on a “sea hedgehog” which was a rather prickly experience. Later on, I had to remove two needles from my foot. (Luckily there were only two). Back on the boat, I observed the foot of another lady who had more needles periced on the base of our foot than I could count! Nasty things those sea hedgehogs
Small fish to fry

Small fish to fry

Big fish to fry

Big fish to fry

Not sure what you call them but I had two needles stuck in my feet because of them

Not sure what you call them but I had two needles stuck in my feet because of them

Coral Reef

Coral Reef

  • After retuning home to Magic House at a about 7pm, it was time for yet another Thai food eating marathon and some live music plus beers for dessert
  • The wind returned in full vigor during the night as though it had been given some sort of a steroid boost. The upper floor of Magic House shook every time the wind swept through. It felt like a typhoon 10. With every fierce swoosh of the wind, it felt like a jumbo jet was passing overhead. Reminded me of a Batman quote: “what happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object?” Answer: probably a crumbling Magic House because its questionable construction work hardly makes it immovable. We had to rely on its magic to stay in one piece
2016-02-07
  • After putting countless amount of calories in the body, today it was finally time for some exercise
  • With Dom leading the way on a hiking route he found on Strava, we were on our way on our 20km hike. An old village lady came outside to charge us money for a public trail. When we refused to pay, she threw stones at us but we carried along as though nothing had happened
Impolite Driver complaint

Impolite Driver complaint

Not Waterfalls but Water Fulls

Not Waterfalls but Water Fulls

Tall beautiful canopy

Tall beautiful canopy

Some sort of grinding gizmo en route

Some sort of grinding gizmo en route

Dry mushroom

Dry mushroom

Hannes' team

Hannes’ team

  • Hannes got a quick team together (three stray dogs who seemed to totally love him). They followed us all the way and stood guard at every junction of the trail
  • At some point, we couldn’t find the trail anymore and had to turn back. On the way back, we somehow seemed to bypass the old lady and escaped being hit by stones again
  • After another great meal, we put on our engineering hats to try and fix the Magic House window. We struck many pieces of cardboard in the gap between the window frame and the window. The wind speed also dropped. Meaning, there was finally some “magic” 8-hour sleep!
2016-02-08
  • More exercise was needed after consuming way more calories than we were expending. So, today it was time for some mountain biking
  • We got three mountain bikes at a place around 4km away from Magic House. The shopkeeper’s neighbor was an Indian guy who spoke fluent Thai. While waiting for our bikes, I indulged in two more coconuts. I was boasting off my ability to speak Thai by using what I thought was the equivalent for coconut in Thai, “buko”. Later, after many confused stares and an embarrassing reminder of those stares by Dom, I realized that “buko” is the Philippines word for coconut, not Thai
  • We did 77km on the bike in about 6 hours (including lunch). There were some mammoth hills on the way where I was forced to push the bike up the hill whereas Hannes and Dom were like fish in water
Going Biking

Going Biking

Hannes and Dom trying Jinhwa's Frog Stretch

Hannes and Dom trying Jinhwa’s Frog Stretch

Coconut drinking marathon

Coconut drinking marathon

Beautiful scenery en route

Beautiful scenery en route

Beautiful scenery en route

Beautiful scenery en route

Red flowers at our lunch place

Red flowers at our lunch place

The lunch place

The lunch place

Saw this quote on a book

Saw this quote on a book

Temple decoration

Temple decoration

  • As usual, the evening concluded with food plus drinks and the night was relatively noise-free as the wind stopped its onslaught. However, the noise from roosters, construction guys, dogs and occasional traffic took its place
2016-02-09
  • It was time to see the crocodile and snake show before departing for Hong Kong. Hannes and Dom reminded me that it would likely be a disappointment – more of a freak show than an educational experience. We decided to go anyway (largely me)
Snake and Crocodile show

Snake and Crocodile show

  • And, what a freak show that was! Some guy brought out a cobra, a python and a coconut snake and started irritating them. Every time the annoyed snake would strike back in defense, he’d exaggerate the effect by making an alarmed sound. He then brought the snake to the audience (a grand total of 6 of us) and it was our turn to touch the snakes. I passed despite plenty of prodding and “no bite” protests from the guy. Just felt uneasy with the snakes. The crocodiles were then given a similar treatment. He used a bamboo stick to pry open their mouths and got them snapping their jaws shut quickly to create a hollow noise. He then prayed (the music changed appropriately – all port of the show) and then put his finger / hand and also part of his head into the jaws of the crocodile. What a freak show that was! Oh, by the way, when he was demonstrating the Burmese python to the 6 of us, it peed and pooped on him. Some whitish colored feces oozed out of the snake and dropped on the ground. Pretty disgusting to watch! It wasn’t really worth the 900B we paid for it just to watch the animals being disturbed
The finale - the guy prayed and kissed the croc

The finale – the guy prayed and kissed the croc

Putting his finger in the snake's mouth

Putting his finger in the snake’s mouth

Dom holding young croc

Dom holding young croc

There was this iguana in the cage

There was this iguana in the cage

This python pooed on him

This python pooed on him

Dom showing off his snake skills

Dom showing off his snake skills

Poking the snake to get it to bite

Poking the snake to get it to bite

Prodding the croc

Prodding the croc

Croc watched the show too

Croc watched the show too

  • After the snake and croc show, we made our 6 hour journey to Bangkok airport
2016-02-10
  • We arrived in style and it was now time to depart in style, by business class, back to Hong Kong
Summary: 
Thailand is quite a place. The pace of life drops, the warmth of the sunshine is soothing and the beaches are inviting. The people are largely happy, friendly and polite. (You get weird ones too but that’s outside the scope of this blog!) We had two “cold” days – about 17 degrees but other than that, it was the typical palm tree tropical weather. I’d give Koh Chang a 6/10. Although it had its pristine parts, it was also congested and full of tourists. Cat Ba in Vietnam gets a higher score from me as far as places go.

Sapa village

The Vietnam Adventure (Sa Pa / Cat Ba / Ha Long Bay) – December 2015

Photos are here.


 

2015-11-29 (Sunday)

  • took a plane to Hanoi which landed around 2000 HKT. Vietnam is one hour behind Hong Kong
  • took a USD 5 cab ride to the train station. Met lady from the travel agency who had our tickets to Lao Cai. After our struggle to find veggie food, I got her to say veggie food in Vietnamese and recorded it on my iphone for future use
  • took the train (Orient Express) headed for Lao Cai (50km from Sapa)
  • got ourselves into what looked like a fancy compartment. Very comfy. USD 80 for 2 people. Private cabin. We expected two more but that wasn’t the case
This is how you say “No Meat” in Vietnamese
Very comfy train

Very comfy train

2015-11-30 (Monday)
  • I learnt that Cai in Vietnamese is pronounced “Kai” and not “Chai” like Chinese
  • I learnt that Vietnamese doesn’t have any pictorial representation of the language. It’s pretty much like English with fancy up/down intonations. Kind of like the German Uberlong
  • got off the train nice and early at 0540, took a ripoff 200,000 Duong minivan ride to Sapa (only 50km away). Almost dozed off most of the way. Sapa struck me as one of the classic Indian hill-stations. Pretty, pristine yet chaotic because of traffic
  • soon after exiting the minivan, got accosted by countless locals who were getting us to buy homemade purses, bracelets, and so on. They also wanted us to go hiking in their respective villages. “Come to my village, most beautiful” was the broken record for the day
  • checked in into Phuong Nam hotel and went for a walk to nearby village called Cat Cat
  • Cat Cat was quite scenic and serene. Except for the constant “come to my village” and “please shop” sales pitches which just wouldn’t stop. One even waited for us to have lunch and almost twisted my arm into buying something. I refused but felt quite guilty after a while. (I still feel guilty as a matter of fact!) Should have simply made her day. Only a matter of HKD 20 or so after all! There was no need for a hard “I cannot be moved” stance
  • took a scooter (USD 5) and rode around. Saw clouds dangling above a valley. Looked spectacular

Check out this Hydro Grinder

Cat Cat Village

Cat Cat Village

Cat Cat Village

Cat Cat Village

Cat Cat Village

Cat Cat Village

Cat Cat Village

Cat Cat Village

Who is this handsome guy?

Who is this handsome guy?

Cat Cat Village

Cat Cat Village

2015-12-01 (Tuesday)
  • got up at 0700, went down to the reception and booked tickets to Ha Long Bay for Thursday evening on a sleeper bus. Also, booked our guide for the hike up to Fancipan (3100m) for Wednesday
  • had a sumptuous breakfast (again) and hired two scooters (again!)
  • first stop: Ta Phin. Very scenic and harmonious BUT (as usual) we got frequently accosted by local villagers who wanted to us to buy various things from them. To avoid them and to enjoy some peace and tranquility, we stopped at various lookout points on the meandering road where there was no one
  • After a pretty heavy lunch, we headed towards the next village for the day called Su Pan. More villages, more serenity, more picturesque landscapes. Ride was awesome
  • after Su Pan, we headed for our final village of the day called Topas. A gang of villagers tried to get us to buy something. We somehow escaped without departing with money
  • stopped at a Vietnamese style rural “cafe” and ordered some Chinese style tea. Some old looking guy invited himself over to our table and helped himself to some tea. I replenished his cup, Dom’s cup and my cup. Drank plenty of tea and left after an hour. Tea lady didn’t want money for tea (people are good and not everyone is greedy!) but to reciprocate I insisted on giving her something and gave her 20k Duong
  • my scooter then stopped because of mechanical problems. The old guy I had been serving tea happened to be riding his scooter and saw me. I gave him a “I-am-in-trouble-please-help” look and he immediately stopped, took a look at my scooter and discovered the broken spark plug. He removed his own scooter’s spark plug, made my scooter work and only asked us for HKD 20 for a new spark plug for his scooter. I was thinking to myself how goodness exists in the world when we look for it. Amidst all this news of terrorism, people killing people, etc, there is a lot of goodness that still embraces the society!
  • learnt that “Pho” is noodles in Vietnamese and “Bho” is beef. Had another great dinner and hit the sack for the relatively early start on Wednesday (7am Facipan trek)
Handsome guy...

Handsome guy…

Sapa village

Sapa village

Sapa village

Sapa village

Tea guy comes to the rescue to fix my busted bike

Tea guy comes to the rescue to fix my busted bike

Above the clouds

Above the clouds

2015-12-02 (Wednesday)
  • had a quick breakfast and met our guide Sam at 7am. Took a cab up to the starting point of the Fancipan Trail (pronounced the same way you’d pronounce “Fancy Pants” minus the “ts” at the end)
  • our guide Sam turned out to be the Vietnamese equivalent of a Nepali Gurkha. Went up and down slippery slopes like a friggin’ mountain goat. I had no hopes in hell of catching up to him. He was amazing!
  • met some tourists along the way who were going to do the hike in 2/3 days!!! It’s about five times as hard as Sharp Peak but anyone with a resonable level of fitness can do it within 10 hours!
  • took us a total of 3.15 hours to get to the top. It was a cloudy experience but we did have a trigonometric station to tell us where we were! One item checked off the list!
  • On the way back down, saw a couple of guys of guys from Australia who had just summited. “Beautiful view” the guy said to me referring to his summit views. I drilled further into his comment and figured out that all he saw was what we also saw – a blanket of whiteness!! But having come all the way from Syndey for this, it HAD to be beautiful!
  • took about 2.30 hours to come back down and we finished the whole thing in 6.42 hours. Got a medal and a certificate at the end!!
Met. Mr. Goat on the way to Facipan

Met. Mr. Goat on the way to Facipan

Dom and Sam (guide)

Dom and Sam (guide)

Dom and I

Dom and I

Hut 2: 2800m: On the way to Facipan

Hut 2: 2800m: On the way to Facipan

Up, up and away

Up, up and away

Fancipan: Construction site plus trigonometric station (they are building a cable car now!)

Fancipan: Construction site plus trigonometric station (they are building a cable car now!)

Coming back down to Sapa from Fancipan

Coming back down to Sapa from Fancipan

We got a cert plus medal for going up 3130m to Fancipan

We got a cert plus medal for going up 3130m to Fancipan

Coming back down to Sapa from Fancipan

Coming back down to Sapa from Fancipan

What a great looking guy

What a great looking guy

Fancipan: Construction site plus trigonometric station (they are building a cable car now!)

Fancipan: Construction site plus trigonometric station (they are building a cable car now!)

Hut 2: 2800m: On the way to Facipan

Hut 2: 2800m: On the way to Facipan

Hut 1: 2300m (on the way to Fancipan)

Hut 1: 2300m (on the way to Fancipan)

2015-12-03 (Thursday)
  • chilled out the first half of the day and took a sleeper bus to Ha Long bay in the evening. Destination: Cat Ba island which is off the coast of Ha Long Bay
Chilling out

Chilling out

View of Sapa town

View of Sapa town

Yes, the Amazing Hotel

Yes, the Amazing Hotel

Our hotel Phnom Penh

Our hotel Phnom Penh

2015-12-04 (Friday)
  • the sleeper bus to Ha Long Bay was a nightmare! Well, comfy sleeping berth but we had a noisy crowd with phones going off all the time. I could even smell cigarette smoke
  • the bus dropped us off in Ha Long Bay at 0330 whereas we were told it would take until 0500 for us to reach Ha Long Bay. Well, early to bed, early to rise I guess. We took a cab at some ungodly hour and reached the ferry pier to Cat Ba island at 0400. Next couple of hours were spent in the pier staring into the darkness and feeling the cold wind brush against our body. We could also hear the rain hammering the roof above us in steady intervals
  • I learnt that the town of Mong Cai was nearby and it bordered China’s Guang Xi province. Technically, I think we were just one hour away from China!
  • by 0600, darkness turned into daylight and it stopped raining which gave us our first views of Ha Long Bay
  • the “cruise” to Cat Ba island from Hang Long Bay was scenic – reminded me a lot of the jagged peaks of Guang Xi (like what you see on the RMB 20 note’s backdrop)
  • Cat Ba island by itself was serene, pristine, lush and soothing. Probably the highlight of the trip for me thus far. The air was refreshingly fresh and crisp and the landscape was invitingly spectacular. Jagged peaks surrounded the distant backdrop and mangrove trees occupying the foreground were resting beautifully in whitish-blue colored waters
  • the island was relatively big and the small town centre looked quite fancy with many 3-storey buildings and hotels
  • we checked into Bayview hotel by the seafront and rented scooters to ride around the island. It was drizzling rather heavily at times but still, this scooter ride was one of the best rides I’ve done. There’s no greater source of rejuvenation than to smell the fresh scent of air after rains have blessed the lush greenery. It took in as many deep breaths as I could
  • we stopped by a cave which doubled as a rather large hospital for wounded Vietnam soldiers who served during the war with America. According to an ex army guy who now runs a restaurant by the side of this cave, many bombs were dropped on Cat Ba and Ha Long Bay during that war. He also told us that many more such secret caves still exist all over Vietnam but the government won’t reveal their locations as that information is classified
  • day ended with some sumptuous dinner (as usual)
Arriving at Halong Bay at 0330

Arriving at Halong Bay at 0330

Welcome to Cat Ba

Welcome to Cat Ba

From Halong Bay to Cat Ba

From Halong Bay to Cat Ba

Cat Ba's greenery

Cat Ba’s greenery

Entrance to the hospital cave

Entrance to the hospital cave

I used to train with John Rambo back in the day

I used to train with John Rambo back in the day

Long entrance in the war museum cave

Long entrance in the war museum cave

War museum in cave. Wounded soldiers were brought in here during the Vietnam war

War museum in cave. Wounded soldiers were brought in here during the Vietnam war

Cat Ba's greenery

Cat Ba’s greenery

This guy served back in the day during the war but left soon after he found himself a chick (behind every man's success...)

This guy served back in the day during the war but left soon after he found himself a chick (behind every man’s success…)

Cat Ba's beauty

Cat Ba’s beauty

Cat Ba's beauty

Cat Ba’s beauty

Cat Ba's beauty

Cat Ba’s beauty

Cat Ba's beauty

Cat Ba’s beauty

Riding scooters through beautiful Cat Ba

Riding scooters through beautiful Cat Ba

Life is good

Life is good

2015-12-04 (Saturday)
  • today was the kayaking day. Checked into Outdoor Adventures at 0800 and got on kayaks at 0900
  • the scenery was amazing. A combination of Milford Sound views plus Guilin views. Spent quite sometime admiring the views and exploring secret lagoons. Kites were flying overhead and adding to the feel of the place. Loved it
  • after a day of kayaking, it was time for another sumptuous dinner plus a Vietnam adventure closing beer
Goin' kayaking

Goin’ kayaking

Where are my Hollywood offers

Where are my Hollywood offers

Dom enjoying his kayaking

Dom enjoying his kayaking

More kayaking

More kayaking

Another secret lagoon

Another secret lagoon

View of the bay

View of the bay

View of the bay

View of the bay

Cat Ba's Milford Sound like beauty

Cat Ba’s Milford Sound like beauty

Cat Ba's Milford Sound like beauty

Cat Ba’s Milford Sound like beauty

Floating village

Floating village

Kayaking

Kayaking

Floating village

Floating village

Loved the kayaking

Loved the kayaking

Cat Ba's Milford Sound like beauty

Cat Ba’s Milford Sound like beauty

Cat Ba's Milford Sound like beauty

Cat Ba’s Milford Sound like beauty

Cat Ba's Milford Sound like beauty

Cat Ba’s Milford Sound like beauty

Cat Ba's Milford Sound like beauty

Cat Ba’s Milford Sound like beauty

2015-12-05 (Sunday)
  • it was time to bring the Vietnam vacation to a close. Boarded a bus at 9am which took us to the pier. From Hai Phong Bay, we took another bus to Hanoi. We then cabbed it to the airport
  • a plane back to Hong Kong concluded our little jaunt in Vietnam
Sunny day photo of Cat Ba

Sunny day photo of Cat Ba

What a great looking guy

What a great looking guy

Bye Bye Hanoi

Bye Bye Hanoi

Summary:
  • stunning rice terrace, beautiful villages, serene islands and spectacular scenery. If this isn’t reason enough to visit Vietnam I am not sure what is!
  • my suggestion to fellow travelers would be to avoid the night buses if you don’t like cigarette smoke!