Deforestation for Palm Oil

Chances are, you consume a packaged product that contains palm oil every day. It is the most abundantly used oil in world, often hailed as the ‘miracle oil’ due to its efficiency and stability. But did you know that the palm oil used in your food, hair products, cosmetics and cleaning products are directly linked to major global issues such as deforestation, wildlife habitat loss, climate change and indigenous rights abuses?

Malaysia and Indonesia dominate global palm oil production. These two countries account for almost 90% of all palm oil produced worldwide, so during a trip to Borneo over the summer, I took some time to look into the impacts the palm oil industry has on the environment, and some considerations we can all take in the battle to save the rainforests.

The majority of palm oil is still produced ignoring sustainable measures. In central Sabah, the land looks baron. Dried up, arid. You can only imagine what this vast space once was. Plantations are constantly under construction, and land that was once rich in biodiversity is now chopped and churned in the cyclic regurgitation of palm plantations for the purposes of mass palm oil production and exportation. After several hours of driving through central Sabah, I stopped to capture this scene, where in all directions, palm trees stretch as far as the eye can see.

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In Northern Borneo, over 70 different species of palm tree are known to grow within the rainforest. These areas are the natural habitat of over 1000 different species of mammal, amphibian, bird and fish, over 100 of which are endemic to Borneo. However, sections of rainforest just like this have been cleared to make way for the sheer number of trees required to meet the global demand for palm oil.

In doing so, an unnecessary contribution to global warming is made. The process of photosynthesis within plants reduces the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. In addition to this, the micro-climates around these areas shift, due to the rainforest surface albedo (sun’s reflectivity) and the amount of water vapour released into the atmosphere.

In the midst of these new areas, palm oil mills release green house gases into the environment, as well as being responsible for other environmentally damaging pollutants such as palm oil mill effluent.

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Whilst the Sabahan Government have designated protected areas of rainforest, deforestation in line with the continuing expansion of the palm oil industry has already had a major impact on biodiversity and ecosystems. Destruction of habitat has lead iconic species such as the Orang Utan, Pygmy Elephant, Sumatran Tiger and Sumatran Rhino to the verge of extinction.

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Wildlife enthusiasts flock to the Kinabatangan river for a chance to see some of Borneo’s rarest animals. Species such as the Orang Utan are driven to the riverbanks as narrow strips of their rainforest habitat on the edge of the river are all that remain following large scale deforestation. In some areas, these strips of land are so insignificant, palm plantations can be seen just a few metres away from the water.

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Tankers transport palm oil far and wide around Borneo. Here, the tankers drive through an area completely consumed by palm plantations. 

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Instead of attempting to limit the supply and demand of palm oil, many such products are actively endorsed.

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These problems can’t be solved by a blanket cut in usage of palm oil though. Life just isn’t that simple. With the yield of oil per hectare up to ten times greater than other vegetable oils such as sunflower and soy bean oil, shifting from palm oil to similar products could have an even more detrimental impact on the environment, not to mention the many balancing socio-economic consequences.

So what can we do? First of all be aware of what we are consuming. Does the product use RSPO (Roundtable of Sustainable Palm Oil) certified oil? Is there an alternative product that eliminates the usage of vegetable oils altogether? Small changes can go a long way towards encouraging a large scale shift in the attitudes of sustainable palm oil consumption.

 

 

Tanah Torajah

*Warning – Graphic Content*

The Torajans occupy a mountainous area in South Sulawesi and are a group like no others. For them, life revolves around death, the most important thing for them is sending their loved ones to the afterlife with the respect that they deserve. Their funerals are expensive, elaborate and intriguing, but despite these fairly morbid undertones, they are some of the friendliest people I’ve ever met. 

Typically, a small funeral will be held straight after death, with the the main ceremony held as soon as enoug money is raised. Families may live with the deceased for months or even years before the funeral is held, during which time they must talk to, dress and even feed their loved one, otherwise they risk showing a lack of respect. 

At the funerals, animals such as buffalo and pigs are sacrificed. The animals carry the spirit of the deceased into the afterlife. The money spent on the elaborate shows of love and respect is staggering, with prized buffalo costing as much as a new house. 

In order to witness this, my first job was getting to Sulawesi. Not so easy from central Flores, but 3 flights later (at least one of which having a potential gasoline bomb on board) I arrived in the island capital, Makassar. I was only there overnight before catching a bus first thing in the morning, so I went off in search of a cheap hostel. The one I was supposed to be staying at – the New Legends Hostel – turned out to be under renovation and had been for some time. “No worries,” I was told by a nearby porter, “you can just stay here instead.” And so I was pointed towards their sister hotel next door, which had the facade and interior of a posh 4* hotel. And what do you know? It was a posh 4* hotel, quite a step up from what I’m used to. But thanks to a combination of the renovation, the off season and my polished negotiating skills (if I say so myself), I ended up staying for a massively discounted price. The first comfy bed and hot shower I’d had in ages!

In the morning my Ojek driver took me to the wrong bus stop, before darting through the traffic to drop me off at the main terminal just in time. Sulawesi is another of Indonesia’s large islands, and consequently, you’re left lengthy bus journeys. The ride from Makassar to Rantepao in the heart of Tanah Torajah took over 10 hours, but being in the bus was like flying business class with huge seats that offered a near full recline. 

We checked into a home stay and started planning out our stay. Every six days there is an animal market in Rantepao where Torajans descend from all over the area in order to buy Buffalo, pigs, fish, chickens and more, all of which will ultimately be sacrificed at the funeral ceremonies. The magnitude of the market was fascinating with hundreds upon hundreds of animals on show. It was however quite disturbing to see the conditions the animals are kept in. Buffalos tied through their nose to overhead lines so they are unable to properly rest, fish left out of water, and pigs strapped down to bamboo tables, squealing constantly in pain and in search of freedom. It is definitely cruel, it is definitely inhumane, and it is definitely a scene I couldn’t bear to watch, but this is a normal day for them and an important part of their traditions and so should not be judged from a foreigners point of view. 

What’s more disturbing is the idea that tourism in the area is driven by an interest to witness a funeral first hand. And I was there for this reason too. Foreigners are welcome at the ceremonies provided that they, like the locals, bring gifts for the family. OK, foreigners don’t have to bring a pig along for sacrifice, but cigarettes and sugars suffice. 

   
    
   
A local told us a funeral was going on that day, so we followed him to a nearby village. He was a trainee tourist guide and obviously had a bit more work to do, because instead of taking us to the funeral, he took us to a burial instead. 2 very different things. We sat there for hours in supreme hospitality talking with the locals, being fed bamboo roasted pork (fresh from the previous day’s sacrifice) and coffee before joining in with the singing of the hymns. Finally, the whole community walked through the street singing and chanting as the coffin was carried off for burial in the caves.

After a pretty heavy first day, we decided to take a day off from the morbid and went trekking through the local villages. There is more stunning scenery here, as I’ve almost come to take for granted throughout Indonesia, and as you climb further into the hills, the views just get better and better. The architecture is fascinating, similar to the Batak archaic true of North Sumatra, many houses are built with elaborate curved roofs, boast intricately decorated walls and for noble families, sacrificed buffalo horns are collected and displayed on the entrance columns. The houses are always aligned north to south. Smaller versions of these are usually present and are used for rice storage. With these structures in mind, you get the sense that this area is very wealthy in general, especially when you think about the money spent on the funerals as well. 

Further into the countryside are some revered burial sites. Families are buried together and tombs are carved out in the rocks and cliffs in the hillside. Some cliffs host tens of families whereas some of the smaller ones host just one. 

   
    
   
That night we got wind of a large funeral ceremony in the north – the funeral of a Nobleman. We went the next day for the first day of what would turn out to be a four or five day ceremony. Given the family’s status it was a huge ceremony and it seemed that everyone from the nearby villages was attending. 

I had no idea quite what to expect, but, along with a gift bag of cigarettes and sugar, we followed the crowd and found the ‘arena’. I call it an arena for lack of a better word – bamboo stands had been erected surrounding a rectangular courtyard with entrances at the north and south. You walked up a slight hill to the main entrance, past grazing buffalo, and makeshift 7-11 stands selling drinks and snacks. Pigs were carried and dragged in to the arena and ditched in the central area, whilst a group of mourners formed a circle around offerings of meat and drinks, chanting and dancing to the gods. On top of that the master of ceremonies read in a deep, booming voice. Combined with the moans of the near lifeless pigs and the general noise from everyone attending, this was one of the most haunting and eerie environments I’ve ever been in. I think it’s safe to say we all felt quite uncomfortable. 

The buffalo were sacrificed outside due to their colossal size. The sacrifice of the pigs was performed in the arena. I’d expected a more ritualistic approach to the sacrifice. Maybe an announcement, a prayer, or even a warning. The pigs were killed with a stab to the heart, right in front of where we were standing. It was a bit much for me, and for the ethics that I’ve been raised with, but again, it’s normal here, and kids were free running around the arena, unfazed by the blood, unfazed by the screaming animals, and unfazed as their elders started cutting up the meat. Some even started mimicking their actions. In a few years time I guess it will be their job. 

It was an interesting day. Very interesting. But never again. 

That night I ate pork, slow cooked in bamboo. I didn’t even feel guilty.

   
    
    
    
   
The next day we left Tanah Torajah and went north to the lakeside town of Tentena in Poso district. When I arrived in Sulawesi I had planned on visiting the Togean Islands – a group of paradise islands with fabled dive spots – but due to the length of time to travel up there and the infrequent and unreliable ferry schedule, I abandoned those plans in Tentena. 

Instead, my last few days in Indonesia would be spent in a beautiful, sleepy lakeside town. Sleepy, but with plenty of surprises to keep me occupied. First and foremost is Seluopa Waterfall – a huge network or waterfalls and rock formations that goes on and on up into the hills. We followed the river back as far as we could and were rewarded with several picturesque lagoons, hidden away in the jungle. We ended up spending the whole afternoon here, and by the time we got some lunch and went back to town we had just enough time to visit the local villages before watching the sunset on the lakeside beach. 

   
    
 I had to fly out from Central Sulawesi as I didn’t have the time to make the long bus trips back to Makassar, but this meant spending a night in Poso. Poso is known as an area of conflict, where historically the Muslim and Christians…lets just say they don’t really get on all that well. Since an attack in 2005 that killed a number of locals and severely dented their tourist industry, things have been quiet there. Poso town itself is safe, with any trouble areas spreading out into the countryside. There was some great street food in town, but I was a little put off by the wanted signs on the street corners. The people here were so friendly and were just worried that they will never be able to shake off the reputation the previous conflicts have given the area.  
  
It wasn’t how I would have planned to spend my last night, but, my time in Indonesia had come to end. I’d spent two months crossing six different islands, yet still hardly making a dent in the country. I think I could explore Indonesia for a lifetime and still be amazed at the new things I saw every day. I will definitely be back, I just need to figure out when. 

Flores

The boat that took me from Lombok and through the Komodo National Park docked in Labuan Bajo, a harbour town on the North Western tip of the island of Flores. Labuan Bajo is the gateway to the famous diving locations around Komodo, and as such has been fairly westernised. There is an odd mix of authenticity and expensive looking newly built cafes and restaurants along the Main Street, some of which extend up into the hills, overlooking the harbour and out to see.

I’d planned on diving here, which would be my first time since doing a discover scuba dive on Koh Tao some four months ago. I’m still not sure why it took me so long to get round to, but I am now PADI qualified, meaning that I can dive anywhere in the world.

There were a whole host of dive centres in Labuan Bajo, I chose to do my course under a recommendation of Manta Rhei, who are run by a Belgian family, as friendly as they are knowledgable. The whole experience with them was fantastic – my instructor Tino made the course seem ridiculously easy and most of all enjoyable, and the long trips out to the dive sites were spent relaxing on the luxurious sun deck of their new boat, whilst eating the incredible home cooked food or chatting to the friendly staff about all things fish.

As a beginner, I missed out on a few of the more renowned dive sites due to the strong currents making them more suitable to experienced divers, but elsewhere in the crystal clear waters I saw plenty of exotic species of fish, turtles, sharks and more. I’ll definitely be back to try out the more advanced sites when I have a bit more experience!


After a group of us from the Komodo boat trip had finished getting our fix from an assortment of various dives and courses, we decided to head in land to the town of Bajawa, located way up in the mountains of central Flores.  It was a long drive from Labuan Bajo, but as there was a group of us it meant that we could hire a car for a reasonable price and make a few stops on the way as we wove through mountain passes and along plateaus of lush green rice fields, including the fascinating “spider fields” of Cancar, which are shaped in the form of a spiders web. The scenery was amazing throughout the trip, and the streets on each village we passed through were lined with kids waving to us as we passed. As we stopped for coffee in a small village (I don’t quite remember where) we were soon surrounded by a group of children who just wanted a hi five and a photo. This ended up in a game of foot-volleyball, where by the end the whole pitch was surrounded by what seemed like the whole village, cheering us on and laughing as we fell over and inevitably lost to our opposition, who were no more than ten years old.



Bajawa is a small town and forms a central base to the nearby traditional villages, where bamboo huts are the norm and women with betel stained teeth sell macadamia nuts and hand woven scarves. These electricity free villages seem to be a step back in time, but are home to some of the warmest, friendliest people you’re likely to meet, where family and tradition are the most (or only) important things.

To get to these villages you need to ride a bike through some beautiful mountain roads, which I’d rate better than the Hai Van Pass in my humble opinion. Steep 180 degrees switchbacks are the norm on these empty roads, each one providing stunning views over volcanos and out to sea. The scenery seemed a little more colourful than in other places I’ve been, with reds and oranges sitting in between the vast green jungle. It’s probably why the Portuguese named the island Flores (Flowers) all those years ago when they settled.


 We drove down to the towns on the coast, stopping off at the black sand beach and in the hills around the bay, but my highlight was the natural springs, where hot and cold streams mix, giving a perfect place to swim and relax.



 We left a few friends in Bajawa and went further east to Ende, a small harbour town on the south coast with a spectacular back drop of volcanos. There wasn’t much to do here, and struggled to even find a cup of coffee, the one coffee shop we did walk past was shut, and looked as though it had been that way for months, if not years.

Ende was a base to travel on to Kelimutu, a nearby volcano famous for its three crater lakes, each a different colour. The colours are also known to change, nobody knows when or to which colour they will change next, but it is due to the bacterial content of the lakes. It is an important place for the locals spiritually, as it is believed that when people die, their spirits remain in Kelimutu forever, and which lake they enter depends on their age and character whilst alive.

Motorbike rentals from Ende were hard to come by, but we eventually left with a small, underpowered yet expensive bike to share between two of us. This caused many problems as we went weaving into the mountains, picking up two flat tires along the way. What should have been a two hour journey took almost 4, meaning we arrived late, after closing time.

We had to sweet talk our way in, and were eventually allowed to go up to the peak after paying the entrance fee (150k for foreigners as opposed to 5k for locals!), where the sun was already setting. Being there after closing time was eerie, we had the whole place to ourselves as the sun dipped behind the mountains and the sky filled red. Two of the lakes were a dim green, but the third was filled a sky blue, looking almost like paint. It would have been great to be there for sunrise, as the sun would come up over the two lakes at the front rather than disappearing at the back, but I couldn’t complain with the atmosphere we had.


We were driving home through the fog, in the dark, on a dodgy bike with a dodgy light, when we had our third flat tire of the day. This time we were in the middle of nowhere, not that any repair shop would have been open at that time anyway. Retracing our steps slightly, we came across a truck full of locals at the side of the road who, as it happened, were on their way back to Ende. In a comical mix of broken English, Bahasa and sign language, we managed to persuade them to put us and the bike in the back of the truck and take us home. A funny end to a memorable road trip.


I left Flores after just over one week, and had one more surprise at the airport. My friend managed to get on board with a cigarette lighter and half a litre of left over fuel that was bought as spare for the motorbike rides. It’s a good job this place is largely unaffected by the problems of the western world.



  

Komodo National Park

The only place on earth which boasts the natural habitat of the mythical Komodo Dragon, is the Komodo National Park, located in the Nusa Tenggara, Indonesia. The harsh islands of Komodo and Rinca are almost desert like, but combined provide the homes to almost 5000 dragons. 

I’d taken a boat from the north western tip of Lombok, which would sail around the top of Lombok, along the northern shore of Sumbawa before stopping off on the islands of Komodo and Rinca. It was to be a long trip. 3 days on the boat to reach Komodo, and a fourth to take us on to our final stop, the Harbour town of Labuan Bajo on the large island of Flores, east of the Komodo National Park.

There were 25 of us on the boat. Big enough to house us all for a few days but small enough to mean we’d sit on a combination of benches and the floor to eat our meals and crawl along on our hands and knees to reach our beds on the upper deck, who’s wood and tarpaulin roof stood at not much more than waist height. I’m giving the wrong impression, I loved the boat. I was lucky enough to share the experience with an amazing group of people, and, despite the small interior, the sun decks at the front and the top of the boat provided enough room for us to relax during the days and enjoy the sunsets and the star filled night skies later on. 

  

To break up the long trip to Komodo, the boat crew had scheduled in a few stops along the way. After we’d been woken up at 6:30am on the first morning (this would become a common theme) and eaten our breakfast pancakes, we swam to the shore of the nearby bay to explore an inland waterfall. My verdict was that I’d seen better, perhaps I’m getting a bit snobbish now and my standards have increased..? 

After climbing to the top of the waterfall and exploring the pools that have naturally formed there, we headed back to the boat which took us to our next stop – Satonda Island. This small island located off the north coast of Sumbawa was formed after a volcanic eruption on the sea floor, leaving a fresh water crater lake approximately 2 square kilometres in size just above sea level. It’s surrounded by a thin rim of land, with the highest point just 300m tall. Nowadays the lake water is salty. This is due to a tsunami caused by the mega volcanic disaster of Mount Tambora in 1815 – the biggest volcanic explosion in human history. The seas around the island are lovely, clear and blue, meaning a perfect place for snorkelling, rich in corals and tropical fish. 

By the afternoon we’d reached the eastern tip of Sumbawa, meaning we were out of the waters protected by the island, and in to the renowned territory of rough seas. So far the seas had been calm and enjoyable and I was having a hard time picturing the choppy conditions that so many people had described of this route. But by mid afternoon the waves had taken over and many of the boat were starting to feel the effects. When night fell it became even worse as you could no longer see when the waves would hit, instead we’d be rocked and thrown around without any warning. I decided to take a beer to see if that would take the edge off a bit, needless to say it was one of the least enjoyable beers I’ve ever had. 

After dinner (nobody ate much), most people decided to try to sleep it off, but by about 10pm we were through the worst. Looking out the side of the boat I could see yet another clear night sky full of stars, and looking down, the faint glowing orbs of phosphorescent plankton were visible when the waves crashed into the side of the boat. Those of us who were left up turned the lights off to fully enjoy this ethereal moment. 

When the sun came up, the boat was anchored in the calm waters of Manta Point in Komodo National Park, a polar opposite from the conditions the night before. Manta Point is just one of many fabled dive sites around Komodo, which is rich in a huge diversity of intriguing marine life. As the name suggests, it is common to see Manta Rays in this area, so after getting our snorkelling gear on, we all waited at the side of the boat, eager with anticipation as to what we might see. After sighting one or two Mantas, most people had jumped in. Avoiding the rush and the crowds, I waited further, and was rewarded when a group of 5 swam right past the boat. 2 of us dived right into the middle of the group, and for a few seconds were surrounded by the curious creatures before they dove fast and deep into the blue. We could only trail them for a short while before they were gone, but having been up close with huge creatures right on the surface was something special. 

So after 3 days it was finally time. We’d been warned that it was now nesting season for the Komodo dragons and therefore it was not guaranteed that we’d see any. Unsurprisingly, most of the dragons we saw were around the entrance area where I guess they know that food is guaranteed.

They seemed remarkably relaxed around a human presence given their cannibalistic nature. They feed on almost anything they can get their hands (or claws) on, from deer, water buffalo, humans (attacks are uncommon but have been known in the past) to probably the most alarming – their own young. They swallow everything, bones and all, and in one sitting can eat almost their own body weight. After this, they will not need to eat for almost a month. 

  
The mothers lay up to 30 eggs, and of those only a handful will survive – either due to the island’s conditions or because the eggs are eaten by other animals. Komodo’s live on their own, and so once hatched, the juveniles too are on their own. Until the age of around 5, the juveniles live in the trees to avoid being eaten by the adults who are at that point too large to climb.

When it is time to hunt, the dragons lie in wait. They are remarkably quick over land and can pounce without warning. Their saliva is so filled with bacteria that one bite is lethal to any animal, however, it can take up to 3 days for their prey to die once bitten. They use their incredible sense of smell to determine when their prey has finally succumbed, which they can track down up to 10km away. Of course this means that over dragons can smell the food, and so fights over dinner are very common. 

   
 We explored the islands of Komodo and Rinca for a few hours each, and probably saw around twenty dragons, ranging in age and size from juvenile up to the 3m long monstrosities that they can become. In addition to this the islands are beautiful. Dry and arid yet enchanting. From a vantage point way up in the hills, we looked out over our boat and over the numerous islands that together make up the Komodo National Park. 

  
  
Our adventure was almost over, but two surprises were left. The first was sunset over Rinca. As if it wasn’t breathtaking enough, when the sun finally disappeared and the sky filled with red, a colony of millions of flying foxes flew over our heads and into the distance of fading light. It was one of those moments where everyone just stopped what they were doing and watched as the display went on for almost 30 minutes. 

   
   
The final surprise was when the captain came down to the bottom deck, turned the lights off, and turned on a hidden disco light. The party went on until the boat had been drunk dry of beers. At that point, we crammed as many people as we could onto the top deck and enjoyed the company and the stars for one last night. 

Climbing Mount Rinjani

Gunung Rinjani. At 3726m above sea level, this active volcano falls just short of Sumatra’s Gunung Kerintji by a mere 80m, making it the second highest volcano in Indonesia. Situated in the north of Lombok, it can be seen from Sumbawa, the Gili Islands and Bali. The Balinese call it ‘The Seat of the Gods’ and this is probably the most apt description of the towering peak I can think of. 

There are many different trekking options for Mount Rinjani, with 2 different start points, numerous opportunities to stop along the way, and different length itineraries. I chose the 3 day, 2 night itinerary, which would take me from Senaru to the top of the volcano’s crater the first day, descend to the lake within the crater and up to base camp for the summit on the second day, and finally summit on the third day. 

I set sail for Lombok with a group I’d met on Gili Air, landing in the harbour of Bangsai. From here we had a 1 hour drive to the village of Senaru, situated in the northern foothills of Rinjani. I was instantly struck by how lush and green everything was in Lombok, with palm trees lining the roads and sprinkling out over the sprawling rice fields. One thing is for sure – it’s not like this back home. As we approached Senaru, the clouds cleared in the sky and we came face to face with our gigantic challenge for the first time, and I’ve got to say, I felt a little intimidated. 

  
Although there’s not much to Senaru – just a few shops and home stays climbing up the only road that passes through the village – it is situated in a beautiful area, with options to trek to numerous waterfalls through the beginnings of the mountainous rainforest. However, knowing what I had in store over the next few days, I chose to visit one of these, because it was only a 10 minute walk away. On the way down I passed a group of mischievous looking monkeys, so I got my head down, held onto my sunglasses and went on. Fortunately, this group were a little shiver than those in Bali. This was supposed to be the least impressive of the waterfalls around, and if this is actually the case, I feel like I must have missed out by not venturing on. See for yourselves. 

  

After stocking up on food the night before, and having a double breakfast, I felt ready to go. We were waiting for some more friends to arrive from Gili Air that morning which pushed our start time back from the usual 8am to 11am – we were going to have to climb fast if we were to make it to camp before sunset. 

Our route up for the first day was through the forest. The terrain was steep, sandy and full of rubble, so I soon abandoned my attempt to climb in flip flops, switching to my less comfortable but much more practical Sumatran jungle shoes. It was a tough time but with some amazing scenery, my only disappointment was of the amount of rubbish that gets discarded by many of the trekking groups. I was pleased to see that our group were all taking their rubbish along with them. As Chief Seattle said, “Take only memories, leave only footprints.”

As we neared the top of the crater rim, the steepness of some sections really started to take its toll. That combined with the speed at which we’d been climbing left me exhausted at out camp in day 1, but the views from our camp were more than worth it. On one side we had views down into the crater, and on the other, the remaining sun lit up the sides of the mountain above a perfect blanket of white cloud. When the sunset, the whole sky lit up orange against a perfectly flat horizon overlooking Bali’s Gunung Acung.
Four porters accompanied us on our trek, carrying all our camping gear, food and water for the three days. They each carry approximately 20kg worth of gear and manage to do the trek in half the time we do, leaving later after packing up camp, and rushing on ahead to start cooking the next meal. It really is astonishing how they manage to do the trek so easily. 

   
   
  
As night fell, so did the temperatures. We were at 2700m above sea level, way up above the clouds. With a makeshift campsite, I was amazed at the quality of the food we were being given, so we sat back and ate as the stars started to appear above us. The sky was perfectly clear, and with no light pollution around us, a full sky of stars was visible before daylight had even disappeared. As darkness surrounded us, we laid back and looked up, admiring the sight of the Milky Way stretching across the sky. 

   
 An early rise was called for the next morning, with another long day of trekking ahead of us. Unfortunately, no sooner than we’d gone to our tents for the night, the wind really started to pick up, leaving the inside of the tent flapping against my face and body as the tent struggled to handle to conditions. 

I think I finally managed to drift off after a few hours but woke up shivering in the middle of the night wondering why I could see the stars. The tarp had flown off the top of the tent leaving us cold, exposed and in need of a repair. Not the relaxing night I’d needed after the exhausting first day. 

When we woke up we were informed that if the wind was so bad the following night, we wouldn’t be able to attempt to reach the summit. But as the sun overcame the shadow enforced by the peak of Rinjani, the winds faded as we set off for our second day. 

The first half of the day was a descent into the crater. It was going well and we were well ahead of schedule when we had our first incident of the trek. 

We’d stopped for a water break when we heard a warning cry of “Rock” from above us, and turned round in time to see a large rock flying down the mountain side and disappearing into a section of long grass just above us. As it popped out, I had no time to react as it slammed into the back of my leg, knocking me off my feet and into a bout of intense pain. I was with a group who were able to check my injuries, but as groups above clambered to get a glimpse of what was going on below, a second, larger rock was displaced, this one came flying through our group at head height, only narrowly missing two members of our group who already stood on the cliff edge. I’d never been so scared in all my life, and even though I could barely stand, I was helped to my feet so that we could get out of the danger area before things got even worse. 

Although my first thoughts had been about how I’d get off the mountain, I was soon able to walk, or limp, along on my own, and after a long descent to the crater, my cuts were bandaged and I stretched out my leg. I missed out on a swim in the 6km wide, 200m deep blue lake, and also on a chance to bathe in the  natural hot springs which would have provided a much needed wash from the dust and dirt that stuck to every part of my body, but after a few hours rest, I was actually able to continue on the next section of the climb, and was counting myself very lucky. 

It was a few more hours worth of hiking up to our camp for the night, where we’d gain the same elevation as we’d descended that morning. By the time we were at the camp, my leg was sore, but was no longer hindering my walking. 

At our camp site, a local had set up a shop full of snacks, drinks and beers that he’d carried all the way up. I bought the most expensive pack of Oreos I’d ever found, but it was totally worth it for both me and the seller. 

We ate dinner that night with the most spectacular sunset view, giving a better dining experience than any Michelin star restaurant could claim. We were overlooking the lake as the sun set behind the cliffs of the crater that we’d been sat at the top of the night before. Eventually, the clouds rolled over the lake below leaving the sky an orangey red with the blanket of cloud reflecting these colours. It was truly stunning. But as darkness finally took over, we headed to our tents to rest before our summit attempt in the morning.

    
The wind had died down compared to the previous night, and at 2am my alarm rang out, and we layered up and set off with the aim to make it to the summit in time for sunrise. The stars were out in all their glory again and a crescent moon was glowing a dim red. 

It was a gruelling climb early on with steep rocky, sandy sections meaning you needed to find previous footprints to step in to avoid sliding back down. We found some momentum after a while and started to make some good progress. The climb was tough but manageable, until we hit the top section. This was so steep and full of loose volcanic rock that for every 2 steps you took up, you slid back down one. Many people resorted to climbing on hands and knees to overcome the challenge. By this point I was really struggling with my leg, putting extra pressure on it to make the ascent, but the end was in sight and the sun was starting to rise. 

I was exhausted, but made it to the summit just after the sun rose. Whilst nearing the peak, I could see the horizon being slowly taken over by an orange glow, with the mountain peak obscuring the actual point of sunrise.

The views at the top were unreal, the spirit in our group was exuberant, and I was thrilled to have made the summit, especially given the circumstances. We shared a beer as we looked down at the clouds and islands below, shivering through our many layers even though we were wrapped in sleeping bags we’d brought up with us. 

And the summit is where my story ends. After 2 and a half days of climbing we’d made it. Once our fingers had warmed up enough, we took one last group photo, along with one last breath of mountain fresh air and took in one last view of the panorama around us. 

All I can say is I won’t be rushing to climb Everest any time soon. 

   
   

Gili Air

East of Bali, and lying off the north western tip of Lombok are three small islands, colloquially known as “The Gili’s.” ‘Gili’ translates as ‘island,’ and although there are other “Gili’s” surrounding Lombok, if you mention that word, people will automatically think of this small cluster. The largest of these three is Gili Trawangan – known for its young, party atmosphere. The smallest is Gili Meno – known for its tranquility it’s a well trodden spot for honeymooners. Somewhere in the middle in terms of both size and atmosphere is Gili Air (pronounced I-err). ‘Air’ translates as ‘water,’ so I guess it’s rather imaginitvely named ‘Water Island.’

Getting to the island was an ordeal in itself. What should have been a mornings travel to the east of Bali and a short boat ride across ended up taking almost 12 hours. Half way into the boat trip, the steering rods snapped, leaving us bobbing in circles miles away from land. After 3 hours on the boat, we arrived back at our start point in Bali, confused, with a huge lack of information as to what had actually happened. It turned out we could either choose a refund or wait until repair. I waited, and so did only about 10% of passengers, and so when the boat started up again, the previously cramped boat turned into a space of luxury.

There are no roads on the island, no cars, no motorbikes, leaving a peaceful, relaxed atmosphere, no matter where you find yourself on the island. The locals offer a horse drawn carriage as a way to get around, but the horses seem badly treated, and as the island is so small, it is so easy to get around on foot. I arrived just in time to head over to the north west tip of the island to watch the sunset over Gili Trawangan and in the distance behind that, Gunung Acung, a towering volcano in the east of Bali.

There is not a whole lot to do on these islands, the picturesque white sand beaches are actually filled with sharp coral, but smooth sections can be found if you look, otherwise sun loungers and bean bags can be found in almost all bars and restaurants that fill the entire circumference of the island. It’s easy to stay on these all day and night, sharing a few beers and stargazing into the clear night sky.

Having said this, the snorkelling and scuba diving is stuff of legend. Many people come to the Gili’s to learn to dive due to the easy conditions and quick access to many dive sites, but, as the water in many areas is so shallow a lot can be seen just snorkelling. Turtles are commonly found in areas surrounding the three islands so I went out on a boat trip to see if I could find any.

The locals always seem to know where they will be, and we went out to a few sites and straight away I came face to face with a turtle. There’s just something about turtles that I find fascinating, and when one actually surfaced within touching distance I spat my snorkel out and started laughing in disbelief. I dove down to follow it when it went back under, but with a few effortless strokes it had disappeared.

I saw five turtles in total, a whole host of tropical fish and some extraordinary coral, all in perfectly clear turquoise waters. It truly was paradise. I can see why some people come to the Gili’s and don’t leave for weeks, but as always, it’s onwards and upwards (quite literally) to the next adventure.

Bali

From Java I continued my trip East, taking the ferry across from Ketapang to Gilimanuk, before a crowded bus ride down to Denpasar. The bus was allegedly air conditioned, but the only hint of fresh air came from the open door directly opposite me, as I sat sideways on the seat to better accommodate the 3 of us who had been made to cram into the 2 seats at the back of the bus. I guess the bus was about 50% over subscribed, but it only broke down once. All in all, I’d say it was a good trip. 

I decided to base myself in Seminyak for a few days, just a short drive from Denpasar and the immigration office which I needed to visit to obtain a visa extension, and a short trip up the beach from the hectic party resort of Kuta. 

The first thing that struck me about Bali was the amount of English people. I’m half way across the world and there’s a higher percentage of Brits here than in London. I didn’t like it…at first. 

Seminyak is probably one of the swankiest areas in Bali, everything has a very new age feel and the hipsters of Hoxton would probably feel right at home here in the numerous speciality coffee shops, bars and restaurants. Despite the vibe being very different to what I’d experienced so far in Indonesia, I had to take it for what it was, and soon started to enjoy the fancy, westernised area. 

After the exhausting end to my Java trip, I had a lazy day on the beach, surfing (without snapping the board this time) and enjoying a beer watching a spectacular sunset. There were plenty more of these over the week I spent here. 

As soon as Monday morning rolled around, I had my first trip down to the immigration office. Just as I’d been told I needed for entering the country, for extending my visa I was also required to show proof of onward travel, so just before I went down to the imigrasi, I logged on to sky scanner to book another cheap Air Asia flight, but, as I’d done this previously, and forgotten to cancel the flight, having not shown up at the airport meant I was now on their ‘null fliers’ list, so I guess I’m not flying with them again until I’ve paid some sort of fine. This time my dummy onward travel ticket was a ferry for the hefty price of £20. 

Aside from this, the visa extension process was easy. I had to make the 20 minute scooter ride three times, and 5 days and $25 later, I had an extra 30 days stamped in my passport. 

During these 5 days, I had a scooter and plenty of time to kill, so went off exploring the island and braving the trecherous road conditions of Bali, where scooters run wild on the pavements and vans force oncoming cars and bikes off the roads. All very exciting. 

My first trip was to the southern most tip, Uluwatu, where a Hindu temple stands at the top of the sheer cliffs, overlooking the gigantic breaks that makes this area a surfers paradise. When I left the temple to go and find the surfing hotspot, a group of monkeys were hanging out in the entrance to the car park. These clever little bastards have become so used to tourist visits that they know to look in people’s bags and pockets for food and drinks. One of them had clocked the bottle of water in my hand, and as I covered it from snatching distance, he decided to take revenge by jumping up to my face and snatching the sunglasses from off my head. I could only watch as he ran off, snapping the frames and lenses in revenge. As I watched on, his mate came behind me, snatched the water bottle that I’d been so careful to guide out of my hand, unscrewed the lid and started drinking. The little bastards. At least they weren’t my Ray Ban’s. 

I decided to leave before I lost anything else. On my way back, I stopped of at the Bali Cultural Centre, to see a performance of traditional Balinese dancing, where the dresses are ornate and the moves are so intricate they incorporate the movement of the eyes and of individual fingers. 

  
 
The next day was a day off from the imigrasi, so I went off in the other direction, to the centre of Bali. Pure Ulun Danu Bratan is a temple over looking a lake way up in the central highlands. The views on the drive up were almost as incredible as the views from the lake itself, and driving through the jungle terrain felt like a completely different island, far removed from the beaches in the south. Also in the highlands were a number of spectacular waterfalls, hidden right in amongst the greenery of the tropical trees.    

    

Day three, back to imigrasi for a photo shoot. Unfortunately I felt more like a criminal getting a mugshot than a model at a photo shoot in Bali. Once I’d been released, I went back down to the southern tip of Bali, this time to the east side and the resort of Nusa Dua, where the beaches are golden, the sea is blue, and the waves crash into the rocky jetties that lean out to sea. It has a totally different atmosphere to the resorts on the west coast, and is probably much more suited to family holidays and couples retreats. Beautiful, certainly. 

Another day in the highlands followed, starting off driving up to the town of Ubud. Ubud is a cultural and art filled delight and really requires a few days to take in everything there is to offer in this area. In hindsight I wish I had spent more time here, but I can’t get everything right. The land around Ubud is filled with luscious green terraced rice fields, sprawling off in every direction over the ups and downs of the highlands. For me, the highlight of this area was Gunung Kawi, a temple hidden in the base of a narrow valley with rice fields growing like cliffs up from the river. Sculptures had been exquisitely carved out of the rocky cliffs at the base of the valley, and made up the central focus points of the temple. 

    
I finally managed to pick up my passport on the Friday, and, fortunately my appointment time was in the afternoon, giving me just enough time to recover from the previous night of experiencing the chaos of Kuta at night time. As the afternoon drew on, I made it up to Tanah Lot, yet another waterside temple which they evidently love over here. I think Bali has too much of a reputation as a party island, but I saw enough to know how diverse this small island is, and just how intact culture and traditions still are. 

And more importantly I have now replaced my stolen sunglasses. 

Java

I arrived in Jakarta to start my journey east across Java and was met instantly by the mix of concrete and skyscrapers that make up this vast megalopolis. There are no green areas to the city, no parks, and the city’s attempt at a central square is a square kilometre of concrete, with a concrete tower rising out of its centre. This being said, I wasn’t in Jakarta long enough to pass a proper judgement, and was largely based in the central area. I managed to spend an hour or so in the national museum before closing time and the huge amount of displays about the different islands and cultures of this huge country certainly got me excited about the possibilities of what I could see and do during the rest of my trip east across Indonesia. 

  

My first stop after Jakarta was at the small beach town of Pangandaran located in the south of West Java. It took nearly a full day of train and bus journeys to get me there so on my first full day I chilled on the beach, watched the surfers and found a local guy to give me a surf lesson a few days later. He also happened to be selling the winner of best chocolate and banana pancakes 2015 (according to me) so all in all a good find! 

On the tip of the bay of Pangandaran is a national park which is home to a number of wild animals. When I arrived I found the price of entry had increased from 7000 Rupiah to 320000 Rupiah since my lonely planet book had last been updated, so I decided to give it a miss. I’ve already seen loads of monkeys on my trip and come sunset, six wild deer ran down the beach in front of me, miraculously not running into anyone as the beach had become packed in the evening as the locals rolled down avoiding the intense heat of the sun during the day. As the locals did start to come out, this meant that it was time for our celebrity status to start up as everyone wanted a photo with the few white people who were on the beach. 

On day 2 I took a trip to the nearby green valley and green canyon. The green valley was a lush river flowing through a dense forest area, littered with waterfalls and small cliffs to jump from. The largest of these was apparently 7m high (said the locals) but definitely felt higher on the way down! We took a boat ride along the river winding through the green canyon, spotting river dragons crawling along at the foot of the cliffs rising from either side of the river. On the way home we had just enough time to stop off at the turtle sanctuary – a temporary home for sick and injured turtles, where they are brought to recover before being released back into the ocean. Some of the turtles were huge, I picked a medium sized one up and could barely hold it. Hopefully I’ll get to see some turtles in their natural habitat before my trip is over. The day was rounded off with a few Bintangs (the main beer of Indonesia) around a fire on the beach. A good day all round. 

So the next day was my much anticipated surf lesson, and it started well as I got standing up on the board pretty quick. Unfortunately I started getting way too gnarly, way too soon, and split the nose of the board which ended my day early. It was probably for the best as I was already exhausted after a couple of hours fighting against the waves, which left me drinking coconuts in the sun for the rest of the afternoon. Not a bad alternative but I think I have some way to go before I can call myself a surfer. 

   

   

  

     

From Pangandaran was an 8 hour bus ride across to the city of Yogyakarta in Central Java. After a quiet first night I set my alarm for 3:30am as I hoped to get to the temple of Borobudur in time for sunrise. As it happens we were just too late in arriving, but saw the sunrise over the mountains in a quiet area way outside of the city. The temple was much quieter than I had imagined, especially if I draw comparison to Angkor Wat, as Borobudur is revered in the same way and is possibly the most revered Buddhist temple in the world. It’s too hard to try to describe how I felt with the early morning sun shining over the temple and the surrounding area, so I’ll the photos below do the talking. 

Prambanan temple is closer to the city and is aligned in such a way that the sun sets directly over the temple, seen from an impressive, long entrance path. So after escaping the mid afternoon heat in the pool I headed on to my second temple of the day. Prambanan was flattened by an earthquake in the 16th century and has been under a rebuilding process for years which is still incomplete. It was weird seeing the old designs of the temple being rebuilt and restored and looking much newer. I guess we’re used to seeing ruined remains or structures that have been warn away over time, but I guess this gives an insight into what the temples would have looked like when they were originally built all those years ago. 

  
    
    

  
I didn’t have any more time to spend in Yogyakarta, even though I more or less had the whole city to explore. The next morning saw another early start before we commenced a 12 hour bus ride to Mount Bromo in the east of Java. Another 3:30am alarm call later, I was stood at the highest point of the mountain waiting for the sun to rise, unfortunely I was joined by about 500 other tourists who were all squeezed like sardines into a tiny viewing platform. Luckily I’m tall. And even more luckily it was a perfectly clear night. When I arrived at the peak, the magnificent display of the stars were on show in an area well away from any unnatural light. I hadn’t seen the stars like this in such a long time, if ever. And then came the sunrise. After so many failed sunrise viewings in other areas of Asia, I was wondering if the early morning would be worth it, but in truth, it was completely mind blowing. 

   
    
   
  
I decided 3:30am wasn’t early enough for me, so the next night after I’d arrived at Mount Ijen, I set my alarm for 1am. There was good reason for this though, not just madness through lack of sleep over the last few days. Mount Ijen is one of only two volcanos in the world (the other being in Costa Rica) where a burning blue flame can be seen in the crater due to the chemical content of the volcano. As it is not very intense, you need to be there in the middle of the night.

After all of the recent early starts, when I arrived I wasn’t entirely sure if I was dreaming or if this was reality. First of all, we had a 3km trek up the volcano. As I looked round, the clouds were below me, illuminated only by the light of a perfect full moon in a clear sky. If anything, the blue flame of the volcano was quite disappointing, a small flame largely obscured by the sulphuric smoke pouring out of the mountain. But still this was nature at its most weird and wonderful and was an incredible experience. 

We stayed in the crater as the sun rose, and saw the sky slowly fill with orange above the warm lake at the centre of the crater. Throughout this visit, we made way for the workers, mining sulphur from the volcano. They take loads of up to 130kg on their backs to the top of the mountain, to be wheeled back down to where there is road access. Probably one of the hardest jobs in the world, especially given the harmful gases and dust they have to breathe in constantly. I tried lifting a 90kg weight and it was almost too much to lift, let alone carry to the top of the mountain. 

As I left for Bali, I reflected on the amazing things I’d seen in Java, and wished I could have spent longer here, but visa deadlines are visa deadlines and Indonesia is a big country! If the memories don’t last me a lifetime then the stench of sulphur and dust from the volcano that are now embedded in my rucksack and clothes certainly will. 

   
    
    
   

Sumatra

Three years ago, I looked out of my office window in Woking to see a Greenpeace protest unfolding outside the front of our office complex. Their message was to raise awareness over the destruction of the Sumatran rain forests, which one of the companies in our office complex apparently had a hand in.

Back then, I had no idea where Sumatra was, but now I find myself here today. To title this post “Sumatra” is a bit misleading, as I’ve only spend a short amount of time here, visiting areas towards the North East of this colossal island. Sumatra is only Indonesia’s third largest island, but, to put it in perspective, could fit the whole of Great Britain inside twice over. And this is just one of approximately 17,000 islands that make up Indonesia.

I’d left Myanmar over land, travelling to Bangkok before flying to Sumatras largest city, Medan. This whole process took almost 40 hours and left a lot of down time waiting at bus and air terminals. During this time I began to read about visiting Indonesia, places to go and visa requirements and found out that it was advisable to have an onward flight booked to avoid any sort of hassle on arrival. I’d already risked this in Myanmar and things had been fine and without knowing a date or a place I’d be leaving from, booking an onward flight is a difficult thing. But partly out of boredom and partly out of wanting to escape the need for a bribe at Medan, I spent a whole £12 on a flight to Malaysia (that I wouldn’t be taking anyway) just in case. Needless to say I arrived at Medan and the visa process was quick and easy and I found I’d just wasted £12…

After a delayed flight I arrived at Medan around 11pm, desperate for some sleep after an awful journey on a night bus the previous day. However, it took me a while to find a guest house with some availability, and I had managed to get myself an invitation to a wedding party the next day before even finding a place to sleep. So after finally finding a hostel, and sleeping for 12 hours, I went off to join in the traditional celebrations the next day with a group of people who had turned me away from a full guest house the night before. It was interesting to see the traditional ceremony, although I had to wear long trousers in 40 degree heat and had no idea what was going on for most of the time, but I still ended up dancing with the brides mum, the music only stopping briefly during the day for the prayer call from the nearby mosque. After the wedding my new friends took me on a family trip to the docks followed by dinner in town afterwards. A ridiculously friendly bunch.

The next day I set off on a trip to the village of Bukit Lawang, located next to the Gunung Leuser national park on the fringes of a vast jungle area. I’d signed up to a three day trek through the jungle, this being the place to go in Sumatra to see Orang Utans in their natural habitat. Although they are not kept in a sanctuary or housed near feeding stations, the orang Utans here are classed as semi wild, but still, seeing them swing through the jungle trees was an incredible experience, and their familiarity with humans means you can get right up close with them. Sometimes too close – as the famous orang utan ‘Mina’ chased us through a small portion of the jungle (her territory) only letting us move on when distracted by bananas and pineapples.

Over the 2 nights we camped in 2 separate locations, both by the river which flows through the jungle. The river was our source of drinking water for the time we were away, made fit for drinking by first boiling on our camp fire stoves. At night, we pretty much had to sleep on the bare ground with just a thin sheet. Not the most comfortable nights sleep ever but it almost added to the ‘jungle’ experience.

On the last day we took a leisurely ride back to Bukit Lawang on a makeshift raft made by tying several rubber rings together. This was a great way to finish as we bobbed along the river and through some small rapids back to civilisation.


  

The next day, I journeyed south from Bukit Lawang to Lake Toba with the same group of people I’d trekked with. This was a peaceful, relaxing spot with some stunning scenery as you wind down through the mountains towards the lake.

We stayed on an island within the lake, samosir island – nearly 60km across. It was easy to explore on some scooters though and we made a full day out to the other side of the island. The inhabitants of Samosir are descendants from the Batak tribe, an old cannibalistic civilisation whose traditions have fortunately died away somewhat today. We were able to learn about their old ways, see their traditional buildings and at one point, even join in with a traditional dance.

On the way home, we decided to go against the locals advice and ride over the top of the island – throw the mountainous jungle terrain (they said we shouldn’t go this way, not that we can’t). At first this road was very pleasant, taking us way up high to vantage points overlooking the whole island, and then on to a lake within the island within the lake within the island – wow. But the fun was short lived as the road soon disappeared and was replaced with a combination of mud and rocks. When we finally got back to a proper road and managed to refuel, we found out that the locals who have lived on the island their whole lives have never taken that route. Which I guess gives us some special knowledge that not even the locals have!


 We survived the ordeal though and soon I was travelling on to my final stop on my short tour round North Eastern Sumatra, the town of Berastagi. It was the 17th of August – Indonesian Independence Day, this year being the 70th anniversary. I’d originally planned to try to get to Jakarta to see the celebrations but plans had changed, and I was expecting a quiet day on the roads whilst the celebrations went on elsewhere. However, I was wrong, and as we drove through small towns and villages I found out that the roads were exactly where the celebrations were taking place, with marches and parades going on throughout the morning and afternoon. This meant diversions through narrow country dirt tracks with vans and minibuses going in either direction along these single track roads. What should have been a three hour trip took six, and was topped off when I had to get out and push not only a motorcyclist who had got stuck in the mud going up a hill, but shortly after that our own bus needed the same treatment.

I arrived in Beristagi to see the back end of the celebrations – the parades ending and marching off out of town again, a community singing and dance performance at the park and finally a game to see which group of people could make it to the top of a greased pole to win a selection of prizes.

There are two volcanos around the area of Beristagi – sinabung (which is currently erupting) and Sibayak. So I chose to trek up Sibayak. It was quite a cloudy day with the views over the surrounding area being somewhat obscured, but the views down over the mountain itself and into the ‘crater’ we’re pretty incredible and made the 5 hour round trip totally worthwhile, even if the strong smell of sulphur is still lingering in my nostrils.

There is plenty more of Sumatra to be explored but I think I have seen some of the highlights. I’m currently sat at the airport waiting to catch a flight to Jakarta amazed that I survived the bus journey back to Medan alive, but am looking forward to exploring the next island, Java, as I begin working east across Indonesia.


  

Yangon – The Golden Rock – Hpa-An

I finished my trip in Myanmar towards the South of the country, starting with its largest city, Yangon. I arrived early in the morning, fresh off another night bus and actually saw the first sunshine I’d seen in weeks. I was staying in a hostel in the central downtown area, and took the chance of having nice weather for a change to visit the Central Park which is also home to the independence monument – a timely reminder of the countries independence from the British in 1947.

There’s not a whole lot to do in the city in terms of site seeing, but more in the sense of soaking up the atmosphere. There are busy, narrow streets, filled with street vendors and pop up market stalls, vast colonial buildings and a much more personable feel to the city than I’d found in Mandalay. I took all of this in whilst walking up towards the Shwedagon Pagoda, the largest and most revered pagoda in Myanmar. Of course when I was almost halfway there the rain started up again, so I turned round and waited for the next day to make the visit a few kilometres north of downtown.

The next day I found some friends to go to the pagoda with, so it was probably for the best that I’d waited the day before. We headed into the city armed with cameras and found much more of interest in terms of the contrasting wealth and decay in he city’s buildings, streets and people. After a visit to the pagoda (we weren’t that impressed) we went to the nearby park – the largest one in Yangon, to find lakes green with algae and rubbish, and a lot of construction work around the whole area. It was quite disappointing when we were looking for a peaceful haven within Yangon, but fit with gritty feel of the city.

Downtown Yangon has been hit hard by the rain recently with many streets right in the centre flooded. It doesn’t stop people wading through water half way up their legs to get the the night markets and street food, but I noticed that not as many stalls were open as the previous night when the rains hadn’t been so heavy. In order to take a break from the rain we went in search of an ‘English’ style pub. It felt like I’d walked back into London with the way the place was decorated. There was English football on the TV, and they’d made the English experience even more authentic by pricing beers the same as back home…so we left pretty quickly.

  
    
    
 The next day I jumped on a bus to take me to Kyaikto, South East from Yangon, and from there up to the village of Kinpun – “base camp” for visiting the golden rock. The golden rock is another famous Buddhist site, this one being truly breathtaking to behold. It’s a giant boulder, almost 10m in height, balanced delicately at the top of a mountain overlooking the valley below. Over the years it has withstood many earthquakes and extreme weather conditions, and in high season, flocks of Buddhist make the pilgrimage to this holy site in order to show their devotion to Buddha, worshipping and encrusting the rock with gold leaf paper.

You can either walk up the hill (7 miles, 4 hours) or take a truck – a modified lorry with wooden bench seats which leaves when full to capacity (approx 40 people). This takes only 45 minutes to reach the top, and a lot less effort. The driver clearly thought he was Sebastian Loeb, tearing round corners, flying over peaks and rollers in the road and being extremely happy to stamp on the accelerator and brakes (on the way down it felt like we were on a roller coaster with everyone gripping firmly onto the railings of the bench in front).

At the top, the clouds were setting in for the day, blocking off what I’m told is a spectacular view of the rock over looking the mountain and countryside below. The clouds did give an extra sense of mystique to the sacred place, but I think it really lacked the atmosphere that would come along with the hundreds of pilgrims earlier on in the year. The only real downside was the face that someone had decided to build the worlds ugliest building right next to the rock, meaning every photo was doomed to having this ghastly eye sore next to this remarkable sight.

  
    
    
 It was only a few hours from Kinpun on to my final stop in Myanmar – Hpa-An. This was another area of the country that had been badly effected by the floods, and due to the miles and miles of flat country side, there was no where for the water to go. The countryside was beautiful, so green and with karst mountains rising up from the ground in every direction you looked. But the impact of the floods was apparent when visiting a pagoda which is usually a viewpoint out over the river and on to the mountains.

Instead, this pagoda had become a shelter to the hundreds of families from nearby areas who’s homes were now underwater, many of which I think we had driven past on the way to the town.

We saw more of the floods the next day with a trip out to the country side to visit the many caves and religious sites. The first of which required wading through water that at points was waste deep. Each cave we visited had many statues of Buddha and even large carvings etched into the rock faces. In one area, a total of 1121 statues line the road and stretch way off into the distance infront of you.

Hpa-an was definitely one of my highlights of Myanmar. I’d originally not even planned on visiting is country, but ended up staying for three unforgettable weeks. It will be interesting to see how the country adapts to the boom of tourism over the coming years, and this was for sure a great time to go to experience the authenticity of this country which up to now is still relatively untouched by backpackers and western travellers.