It's 1am. As my hostel mates finally quiet down, my alarm goes off. Mount Batur awaits. I'm in Indonesia for the second time in several months and I'm determined not to pass up a popular sunrise hike to the nearby volcanic crater. I lace up my running shoes, put on my raincoat and grab my headlamp before going downstairs. As I wait to be picked up I overhear two backpackers debate the merits of driving a scooter to MacDonalds for a late night snack. I make an educated guess that they've had one too many Bintangs tonight. Eventually, I'm picked up by a driver who clearly missed his calling for NASCAR. My fellow hikers are white knuckled and grumble about his ill-advised passing. It's clear they are merely "vacationers". As a "traveller", I can easily read, type or sleep through this kind of driving (although I know the sleeping part won't surprise anybody who knows me).
I pour back a lukewarm yoghurt drink and eat a strangely chewy Kit Kat bar. Breakfast of champions. Around 3am we drive through a busy market where Balinese are buying and selling vegetables, meat and everything in between for their approaching work day. We stop at a planation and fuel up on coffee and banana pancakes.
At 4am, my sneakers finally hit the dirt. The darkness still surrounds us and at 1000m above sea level, we need to bundle up. We're joined by Nyoman (pron. Yo-man), a local guide with a warm Indonesian smile and a few English phrases in his pocket. We set out for our two hour hike to the summit. As we make our way up the mountain, we are joined by more and more hikers. I look up and spot a trail of twinkling torches snaking their way to the top. Our pace slows to a crawl as we make our way up the steep, rocky and bottlenecked track wide enough for just one person. As even the fittest people in our group struggle to climb, it's easy to see why the trek is taking slightly longer than expected. This is lost on two French backpackers that quickly make it their job to complain about those in front of us. Although our guide has done this trek every day for longer than the frustrated Frenchies have been alive and assures us that we will make it to the top well ahead of the sunrise, they angrily call out "Allez!" to those ahead. After a few more minutes of their nonsense, I turn back, give them my best Dianne Murdoch glare, and tell them to knock it off. I kindly remind them that they are on holiday and need to chill the f*@k out. They heed my advice and we continue the climb in peace.
It's been seven months since I arrived in Asia. Seven months, eight countries, forty-three towns, cities or islands, twenty-three flights, and countless tuk tuks, jeepneys, busses, trains, tricycle and bikes. I'm used to lines. I'm used to the traffic. I'm used to the speed of life. I'm going to miss it. It all started on January 4th. My parents dropped off an entirely different person at the airport that morning. I look back at my photos to remember what I did, where I went, and who I met those first few months. Back then my hair was darker, my skin was lighter, and my soul was heavier.
It started to change when I arrived in Thailand. I travelled from beach to beach, enjoying the local beer and the warm sunshine. In no time at all, I was off to Cambodia where I met up with my parents. This was probably the most historical leg of my trip. We saw all the high points - Angkor Wat, the Killing Fields and Camp 21. I still think myself to have been incredibly lucky that I got to travel with my parents. I know others who will never be so fortunate for a variety of reasons. We capped off our trip together in Sihanoukville and after a tear-filled goodbye, I carried on solo. On a bit of a whim, I decided to try scuba diving. I had no idea then that in just six months I would complete seven scuba dive courses including my Divemaster.
In hindsight, Cambodia had some of the worst diving. Poor visibility, few fish, and very forgettable coral. Nevertheless, I loved every minute of it. What I remember most is climbing back on board the boat after my very first dive and other divers were going on and on about the interesting aquatic life they had spotted below. I couldn't relate. I’d apparently missed everything. I had been so blown away by the fact that I was breathing under water, I hadn't seen a thing.
Cambodia will always have a special spot in my heart for opening up an entire new world to me. I later learned that it wasn't just me who was impacted by my decision to start diving. Upon returning to my dorm room after my Open Water Scuba course, I overheard a few girls chatting about whether they should learn how to dive. I was on such a high that I immediately interrupted and started gushing about how awesome my experience had been. I insisted that they must try it as well. Three months later in El Nido, Philippines, I was checking into a dive shop. They introduced me to a girl who would be my buddy for the day. I didn't recognize her but she remembered me. "You're the reason I dive!" she exclaimed. Turns out, she was one of the girls in the dorm room that night. She has been exploring the underwater world ever since.
After Cambodia, I was off to Laos. I spent my time in Laos enjoying the outdoors - biking, hiking and tubing down the iconic river in Vang Vieng. Laos was beautiful, unspoiled by tourism and for that same reason it was also slightly difficult to navigate. Nevertheless, it was here that I met a group of awesome Aussies and Brits that I'm looking forward to seeing again soon. They have been on my case for months now for not visiting them yet. I'll be there "soon". I promise!
Next, it was off to Vietnam. Unfortunately, my visa aligned with the due date of my Master's research paper so I spent most of the month of March writing. Thankfully, Vietnam had plenty of good coffee shops where I could set up shop and work for the afternoon. Between writing sessions, I also did some diving in Nha Trang, had dinner with my diving friend Bruce who I'd met in Cambodia, and did a food tour from the back of a scooter. I enjoyed the food in Vietnam so much that when I went back for a week in August, I did a cooking class and I can't wait to try making the dishes at home one day!
From Vietnam, I headed south to Indonesia. I hadn't planned to go there having been before but now that I was a diver, I had to see what all the fuss was about. This is a place that I could happily go back to again. The people are so friendly. The food is delicious. And you can't beat the scenery. It was only made better when a friend from my hometown joined me for two weeks of relaxation in the sun. At least until I arrived in the Philippines, Indonesia was my favourite country. By far, Indonesia is still my favourite place to dive. While Nusa Lembongan has epic diving, Canggu has the best surfs to learn on in Asia.
I also made a short trip to Malaysia. As became the case more and more often around this time, this also wasn't part of my original travel plan. However, in order to get into Bali, I had to have a flight out. Before the check-in counters closed, I needed to decide where I would fly next. Given Kuala Lumpur is often a transit stop for most Asian flights anyway, it was the logical place to go. It just so happened that a friend I'd met in Vietnam would also be there for a wedding around the same time. We spent a few days on the island of Langkawi and then a few more on the beautiful island of Koh Lipe in Thailand. I had been to Koh Lipe back in January but it was a lovely spot to revisit.
Unlike Thailand, I can't say that I loved Malaysia. After visiting Langkawi and Kuala Lumpur, I was left feeling that the country was confused and maybe even a bit cold. As an amalgamation of Indian, Chinese and Thai peoples that seem to mostly reside in distinctly separate communities, Malaysia has no particular identity. It also seemed to me that places like Langkawi weren't sure whether they wanted tourism or not. After being open for just a few hours in the morning, most shops close at 10am and do not reopen until early evening, leaving tourists with very little to do, buy or see during the day. Almost every restaurant forgoes selling alcohol, yet the island is a Duty Free destination of epic proportions. One of the most special things about Langkawi is its beautiful stretch of white powder along the Andaman Sea. This beach could be as lucrative as the Thai beaches to the north but for some god-awful reason, they allow locals to drive trucks, motorbikes and trailers of jet skis up and down the beach. It's a bizarre thing as you lay in the sun sipping a mojito when suddenly a truck roars past you. If ever I search out a job in tourism, Langkawi could use some help.
What I thought would be the beginning of my last few weeks in Asia, turned out to be the next few months in the Philippines. I was nervous when I landed. Through my research, I had read horror stories about trying to navigate the 7000 islands. Poor infrastructure and a staggeringly large population makes travelling in the Philippines difficult. My fears were quickly assuaged, however, as I quickly realized that patience and flexible travel schedules go a long way. It also helps that Filipinos are extremely helpful and point you in the right direction without hesitation or looking for anything in return. In the end, the Philippines became my favourite Asian country. I spent the bulk of my time - more than two months - on Malapascua Island. It was there that I completed five dive courses and parted with a large chunk of my savings. The people were amazing and the diving was unforgettable. I dove with eagle rays, white and black tip sharks, frog fish, harlequin shrimp, Spanish dancers, cuttlefish, seahorses, orangutang crabs, and the majestic thresher shark (one of the few places in the world where you can see them). When it was time to carry on, I was sent off in style following an epic snorkel test with so many memories and great new friends. Just days later when a fire broke out on the island and burnt two of my friends' rooms to the ground, did my eyes well up thinking of them and the traumatic time they must be going through. While I spent most of my time on Malapascua Island, I also fell in love with places like Moalboal and Coron where the aquatic life and wrecks, respectively, were simply jaw-dropping. It is not a matter of "whether" I return to the Philippines, it is more a question of "when".
My trip around south east Asia ended with a few more random stops, including a weekend spent catching up with two old friends in Singapore, and returning to Indonesia to do a dive liveaboard in Komodo National Park. You can see the video from that trip here. It was an awesome way to mark my 100th dive. When I wasn't mesmerized by the aquatic life below, I was in awe with the beauty of the park, itself.
Now as I sit at the top of Mount Batur and watch the sun rise, the sun is also setting on my time here in Asia. I take a moment to contemplate the route I've taken to get here. Like the hike up the mountain this morning, I started out in the dark trying to find my way. The route was sometimes steep and rocky. I'm glad that I slowed down in places and wasn't afraid to step off the path in others. The views have so far been incredible and the journey isn't even over. Tomorrow I'll fly to Australia and begin the second half of my trip. I'm excited but I'm left wondering whether my heart will be coming with me or staying here in Asia. Only time will tell...