Chiang Mai, Thailand: TESOL & Exploring

So much catching up to do! My MacBook crashed, leaving me with a $600 repair bill so blogging has been a bit of a challenge…

It has been almost 2 months since I said goodbye to my family in the Bali airport. I spent the first month in Chiang Mai completing a TESOL course through XploreAsia. Afterwards, I moved to Nakhon Ratchasima (Korat for short), where I am currently a Kindergarten TESOL teacher. Korat is a large city 4 hours northeast of Bangkok and the 3rd largest city in Thailand. It’s no Chiang Mai (I loved CM), but it has everything you need and then some (the mall has a 4D movie theatre, ice rink, and water park out of all things).

I have nothing but great things to say about the month I spent in Chiang Mai. Nestled in northern Thailand and surrounded by jungle and mountains, Chiang Mai is a popular backpacker destination.  The city is home to over 400,000 people and is always welcoming tourists. Streets are congested with motorbikes, tuks tuks, and songtaews which can make crossing the road daunting at times, however, unlike other large Thai cities, Chiang Mai has managed to retain a semi-authentic Thai feel. CM is no Bangkok.

Not to mention, the food is phenomenal and the options are endless: American, Indian, Burmese, Mexican, and of course Thai street food (try the Khao Soi- a northern soup/noodle dish or roti (fried bread) with banana and nutella). Cafes are also popular. They line the streets and many offer wifi making them a popular spot to relax and work.

My biggest piece of advice when visiting Chiang Mai? Get lost! Roam the tiny alleyways. You’ll likely stumble across hidden temples and tasty mom and pop cafes. Stop and take a moment to examine the colorful and quirky graffiti decorating the city walls.  Some pieces are rather bizzare, making you wonder about the artist and the inspiration.

Apart from exploring, there are a number of different things to do in the city center. On top of the list is shopping. Stop at the Night Bazaar (every night market) and take a look at the charcoal drawings. I bought two beautiful pieces for ~$30/each from an artist named Tanakorn (his shop is hidden in the back of a warehouse). Eat some Thai ice cream. Watch a live band. Go to a ladyboy show (it’s an experience). Expand your culinary palate! (I fell in love with iced butterfly pea tea). Last but not least, on Sunday night, make sure to head to the Sunday Night Market. Get there early and bring with some patience because the streets are always packed!

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Sunday Night Market
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Live band at the Night Bazaar
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Charcoal drawing coming to life
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Charcoal drawing (Artist: Tanakorn)

Another popular spot in the city for tourists (especially on the weekends) is Yellow Bar or Zoe’s. On Friday and Saturday night the bar is flooded with farangs (foreigners) and expats blowing off steam. Imagine a college frat party and you’ve got Yellow Bar; fun for a night, but I wouldn’t make it an every weekend thing.

There are also a number of things to do outside the city. Explore Doi Inthanon (highest mountain in Thailand) or Doi Suthep (famous wat), learn about rice farming, meditate with a monk, visit the Bua Tong Sticky waterfalls (you can hike up them due to a rare mineral deposit that allows you to grip the rocks), hike through the jungle,  visit a traditional Karin village, or my all-time favorite: hangout with elephants!

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Rice planting
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Jungle trek with flower crowns from our guide
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Trekking
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One of the many waterfalls
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Ice water
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Bua Tong Sticky waterfalls

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Wat Umong
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View from Doi Suthep
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Doi Suthep
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Doi Suthep
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View from Doi Suthep
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Doi Inthanon (tribute to the King Inthawichayonon, one of the last kings of Chiang Mai)
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Doi Inthanon
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Doi Inthanon
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View from Doi Inthanon (in the distance is Myanmar)

My favorite activity in Chiang Mai? Without a doubt the elephant tour I did with the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary. I chose the sanctuary for a number of reasons. Not only are they an ethical no-riding company but they offer a unique jungle trek option. If you have the time (and money), I highly recommend the full day trekking tour. The day includes feeding, mud bathing, and washing the elephants in a nearby river as well as trekking (with them) through the jungle.

That being said, I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to toss away your bucket list dream of riding an elephant and instead booking a tour with a no-riding company. The reasons for doing so are endless. Elephants are (literally) not made to be ridden. Their backs cannot sustain the weight for long periods of time and howdah chairs are even worse than riding bare back.

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Elephant Jungle Sanctuary

Even worse than riding the elephants is their treatment during the “pre-riding” or “training” phase. Elephants are highly intelligent creatures and can be very stubborn. As a result, trainers must break their spirit to force submission and make them “rideable”. They are often beaten with clubs, pierced with sharp bull-hooks, and simultaneously starved and sleep deprived. Many rescued elephants have battle scars as reminders of their tragic pasts.

My biggest piece of advice when looking for an elephant tour? Chose a company that does not offer riding even if you do not intend to ride them. Your money will still be funding a business that promotes elephant exploitation.

The most famous and respected company in Chiang Mai is the Elephant Nature Park which is home to dozens of rescued elephants. Many friends from my TESOL course chose the full day tour and absolutely loved it. Not only did they feed and bathe the elephants but they got to learn about each elephant’s rescue story.

The company I chose (Elephant Jungle Sanctuary) is another ethical elephant tourism company. It is newer, but it’s reputation is growing.

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Kisses
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All this little guy wanted to do was play…and step on my feet
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Kids from a local Karin village

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Teaching the little guy how to do a handstand

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Mud bath!
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Rinsing off in the river

My time with the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary was more than I could have ever imagined, however, there are two things I would like to mention as I’m not sure how to perceive them. During the trek, the guides used a stick to hit the elephants to keep them moving and to redirect them. The strikes weren’t hard (or often) but nonetheless, I didn’t want to force them to walk if they didn’t want to!

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The other instance was at one of the camps where we met a two-week-old baby elephant and her mother. The mom was chained up and swaying back and forth (a clear sign of agitation or boredom) while the baby stuck to her side, hiding underneath her belly and in between her legs. When I asked the guide the reason for the chains his response was curt, “To protect the baby.” What I understood from our broken English conversation was that they feared for the baby’s health if mom were to roam freely. The chains ensure the baby will get fed and the plan was to keep her chained for 2 months. I am not an elephant expert but this reasoning didn’t make much sense to me (baby elephants in the wild do just fine – how is this any different?)

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2 weeks old

(That being said) Overall, I loved my experience at the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary and would highly recommend booking a tour with them. While I would have liked to learn each elephant’s story (bonus if you book with Elephant Nature Park), the experience was a fantastic ethical alternative to elephant riding.

Ubud, Bali: Tegalalang Rice Terraces

The Tegalalang rice terraces are a must see if you visit Ubud. The entrance fee is a minuscule IR 10,000/person and the views are nothing short of amazing. I would, however, bring pocket change! The terraces are private property and “donation stands” are spread throughout (you are expected to pay).

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Ubud, Bali: Monkey Forest & Campuhan Ridge Walk

The Ubud Monkey Forest is a nature reserve and Hindu temple complex home to over 600 free-roaming macaque monkeys (also known as Balinese long tailed monkeys). The complex is a popular destination in Ubud, attracting hundreds of tourists every day.

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Go early (it opens at 10am) to avoid the crowds and make sure you read the safety recommendations before entering. The monkeys are harmless as long as you don’t do anything stupid and keep your wits about you…Tourists have been bitten and scratched in the past!

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A couple of things to be mindful of:

  1. Don’t look the monkeys in the eyes (especially the large males as it is a sign of aggression)
  2. Never run- they will chase you
  3. Do not panic and stay calm
  4. Be mindful of your belongings (One particular monkey loved fiddling with my watch. Another expressed interesting me every time I opened my satchel)

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Trying to mate

Because the forest is not enclosed, you will notice the monkeys roaming nearby streets. Many shop owners use slingshots as defense when they get too close or start to bother people. We witnessed one monkey grab for a woman’s grocery bag. She squealed, dropping it on the ground. Within seconds, dozens of monkeys were sprinting towards the free buffet, while the woman watched in horror.

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The following day we did the Campuhan Ridge Walk. It is free! Before motorbikes, villagers used the ridge walk to transport their goods into central Ubud.

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Campuhan Ridge Walk
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Rice paddies

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Along Campuhan Ridge Walk we met I Wayan Surana, a miniature painter. Miniature painting emerged from a small farming village north of Ubud (Keliki) in the 1970s. Paintings range from as small as 2 x 3 inch to as large as 10 x 15 in. Surana’s paintings run anywhere from $75-$30,000 dollars.

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Ubud, Bali: Bhuwana Hotel & The Ubud Market

Ubud is Bali’s cultural center. Known for its traditional craft and dance, the town is a popular tourist spot. It was also a destination in the book and movie Eat, Pray, Love.

From Nusa Lembongan we took a ferry to Bali followed by a taxi to Bhuwana Ubud Hotel, our accommodation south of the Ubud city center. Bhuwana is a beautiful and quiet hotel located in the Pengosekan region of Ubud. Surrounded by tropical gardens and rice paddies, the hotel’s mission is to promote healthy living and a connection with nature. Bhuwana means “Earth”.

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Bhuwana Hotel lobby
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Tropical gardens around Bhuwana
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Walking through the garden

Every morning, Bhuwana offers a free sunrise tour through a neighboring rice field. We were surprised to discover ducks living in the paddies. Ducks are an effective farming technology used in many Asian countries. Not only do they eat harmful insects, but their movements aerate the soil and their feces fertilize the ground. Kites were also strategically placed throughout the fields to keep animals and birds away.

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Sunrise rice paddy walk

A short 15 minute drive from Bhuwana is the city center and the Ubud market. Regardless of whether or not you are a shopper, the Ubud market is a must. It is the perfect place to practice your bargaining skills and hopefully build some confidence!

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Entrance to Ubud market
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Ubud Market
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Ubud Market
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Ubud food market

That being said, the market can be overwhelming…here are some tips…

  1. The second you make eye contact or point is the second you’ll have a vendor nipping at your heels. Be prepared! At first I felt rude walking away mid-sentence but you have to…otherwise you might as well get ready to camp out
  2. Keep your cool and don’t let vendors take advantage of you. Explore other stands to compare prices (and practice your bargaining skills) before you decide to buy. It’s easy to get caught up in the pressure and cave-Don’t do it! Hold your ground!
  3. Vendors will say, “Cheap price for you” or “Sale price.” Take this with a grain of salt. They say this to everyone-you are not special. It is their way of reeling you in and they are very good at it. Bargaining is a game and they know it!
  4. That being said, do be somewhat realistic. Offering 10,000 IR for a painting that is clearly worth 10x that can be offensive (my brother got yelled at a couple times for low-balling).
  5. My rule of thumb when bargaining? Cut the price in half and increase. I’ve also found that saying “price too high” and simply walking away is your best bargaining tool. 99% of the time they will run after you with a lower price. With the hundreds of stands in the market (selling similar goods), they do not want to lose your business.

Directly across from the Ubud market is the Ubud Palace. The palace isn’t all that impressive but it’s worth a quick pit stop and it’s free!

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Ubud Palace

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Nusa Islands: Snorkeling

The Nusa Islands are an escape from the hassle and hectic pace of Bali. Rustic and quiet, these islands are best known for their diving, snorkeling, and surfing. What they lack in amenities, they make up for in experiences. The reefs are only accessible by boat and as a result are in much better condition than other reefs in Bali.

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Cliff jump
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Crystal Bay (Nusa Penida)

We organized our snorkeling trip through Captain Newman, a very reputable guide on Nusa Lembongan ($12/person). He took us to 3 different spots around the islands: Crystal Bay, Mangrove Forest, and The Wall. Due to a strong current that morning we were unable to snorkel the 4th spot, Manta Ray Bay, which is a popular spot for the manta rays.

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Crystal Bay hidden beach (Nusa Penida)

The Wall was my favorite snorkeling spot out of the three. The reefs and underwater diversity were phenomenal– far better than anything I’ve seen in Hawaii or the Caribbean. The coral wall begins at the foot of massive sea cliffs, dropping down vertically to a depth of 180m. Beyond the coral wall is a steep drop off into the big blue. My biggest regret was not bringing an underwater camera!

Nusa Islands: Exploring

From Gili T. we took a 2 hour fast boat to Nusa Lembongan. Nusa Lembongan is one of 3 small islands (Nusa Lembongan, Nusa Penida, Nusa Ceningan) 30 minutes off of the southeast coast of Bali. Many tourists book day trips from Bali due to their proximity.

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Harbor

Rather than staying in Bali and booking day trips to the islands, we decided to book an Air Bnb on Nusa Lembongan (most developed island of the three). The whole process could not have gone more smoothly. Carla (the owner of Villa Mimpi Manis) was very helpful as was the staff who are responsible for the villa grounds and guests. Every morning we had fresh fruit delivered to our door and a large fresh water jug was always available. They also helped us organize a motorbike rental, return boat ride to Bali and snorkel trip (coincidentally we ended up accompaning Carla and her family/friends who were in town and staying next door at their other AirBnb).

The views from Villa Mimpi Manis were breathtaking… Settled on the hillside, the villa has a beautiful open view of the harbor. The upstairs room is completely open to the outside and cooled by the ocean winds: luxury camping!

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Villa Mimpi Manis
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View from the second level bedroom
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Villa staff (Komang’s team)
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Last day

Unlike Gili T.,  people get around the island by car or motorbike. Biking is impossible as the island is extremely hilly and the roads are narrow. As a result, we decided to take a stab at motorbiking (first time)! While an international drivers license is “technically” required, we were never asked to provide one. In fact, they didn’t even write down my name when I rented the motorbike…

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Exploring the neighborhood
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Jackfruit

We explored Nusa Lembongan (~2 hours to circle the island) and made our way across the suspension bridge to the smaller and more rustic Nusa Island: Nusa Ceningan. Ceningan is known for its seaweed farming and dangerous (but popular) Devil’s Tears cliff jump.

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Suspension bridge connecting Nusa Lembongan & Nusa Ceningan
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Nusa Ceningan

Now it was on Nusa Ceningan that our “oh so exhilarating” motorbike adventure made a turn for the worst. We were making our way to Devil’s Point when I took a wrong turn (oops) and led us up an unpaved path. We were making our way up the hill when I heard a loud squeal behind me. I turned around just in time to see a disheveled pile of hair emerge from the bushes. My parents had hit a large pothole, wiped out, and fallen (motorbike and all) into a cacti bush. Dad walked away with minor abrasions but mom skinned her leg pretty badly. The fall had taken off a thick layer of skin. Needless to say, we never reached the cliff jump…

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Gili Islands: The Night Market

Every night, Gili Trawangan has a busy night market with lots of local seafood. Located on the southeast end of the island in the downtown area, the market was a quick 20-30 minute walk from Alam Gili. On the way to the market we passed a bar selling psychedelic mushrooms. Ironically, another 20 meters beyond it was the police station. Drugs are highly illegal in Indonesia and the punishment is severe, however Gili T. (being the tourist party island), is a huge source of income…money > the law.

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The downtown was bustling: shisha lounges, discos, even a bar full of beer pong tables! A local tried to convince dad to play but he declined…party pooper…

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Shisha lounge
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Night market

To say dad loved the night market is an understatement. The market had everything from tuna, red snapper, grouper, lobster, prawns and crab to mahi mahi, egg rolls, fresh fruit juice, and Bintang (the only beer sold in Indonesia). Having grown up in Asia (Thailand, China, Vietnam, and Pakistan) the night market brought back a lot of childhood memories…he was a kid in a candy store!

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In his element
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Seafood
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Lobster
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Only beer in Indonesia

Gili Islands: Exploring

From Lombok we took a 30-minute fast boat to Gili Trawangan, one of the three Gili islands off of Lombok’s northwest coast. Each Gili island has a reputation: Gili Trawangan the “party island”, Gili Meno the “turtle island” and Gili Air the “honeymooner island.” Because of the island’s size (3km x 2km), people get around by cidomos (horse drawn carts) or bicycles. There are no motorized vehicles on the island.

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Cidomos

Two cidomos picked us up from the harbor and took us to Alam Gili, our accommodation on the quieter northern side of the island. Water on the island is scarce (it must be imported) and the days are hot. These horses work all day in the heat, pulling heavy loads of people and luggage behind them. Not once did I see them being given water…some were clearly undernourished…

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Riding in the cidomo

Alam Gili is a beautiful place to stay. “Alam” means nature and “Gili” is a reference to the island. The grounds are covered with vegetation unlike other accommodations on the island which have more a “open beach bungalow” concept. Not to mention, 30 meters in front of  Alam Gili is the best snorkeling spot on the island. We saw everything from pufferfish, parrotfish and trumpet fish to three spot angel fish and moorish idols. On our last day, I swam alongside a gigantic green turtle (100 years of life and good luck). Thanks to the lack of current I was able to keep up, surfacing and diving when he did-definitely a highlight of the trip.

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Front of Alam Gili 
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Our little home “Suite Fish”
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Local fisherman

In our room at Alam Gili we discovered a guest book which discussed the local culture on Gili T. Indonesia is predominantly Muslim, including this small “party island.” In their information book, they ask that tourists be respectful by covering their shoulders and knees, speaking softly, and being mindful of pointing as all are considered rude and impolite. While locals will never say anything to your face (saving face is a part of their culture), they find such actions deeply offensive.

That being said I found that 99% of the tourists on Gili T. are either oblivious to these customs or downright ignore them. Tourists walk and bike around in bikinis while locals are clothed head to toe. It is quite the contrast…I even saw a tourist walking down the street in a thong bikini. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for having a good time but be respectful and cover up a little. This is their home, not yours!

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Downtown
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Lombok: Mt. Rinjani Trek

Standing at an elevation of over 11,000 feet, Mt. Rinjani is the second highest volcano in Indonesia. Hikers can chose from two options:  Hike to the crater rim at 8,100 ft or hike to the summit at 11,178 ft. After reading numerous blogs about how difficult (physically and mentally) summiting is, I settled for the crater rim. Thank goodness I did.

From Yogyakarta, Java we flew 3 hours (layover in Bali) to Lombok. Hallo Trekker (our agency) was already waiting for us when we landed at the airport. Once again, Indonesian drivers will never cease to amaze me…for two hours we braced ourselves, gripping our seats and each other. At one point, the motorcycle in front of us smashed into the car in front of him. We slammed on our breaks early enough to avoid a double collision. However, what really shocked me was the aftermath…everyone drove off!

It took 2 hours to reach Senaru, one of two villages at the base of Mt. Rinjani where trekkers lodge (hikers chose from two climbing routes: Senaru or Sembalum). That afternoon we met Hans, the owner of Hallo Trekker, to discuss trek details. We were to hike for ~8 hours, camp at the rim, and descend the next day. Easy enough (so I thought).

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On our way

The beginning of the hike wasn’t terrible. It wasn’t a walk in the park and we had to focus on breathing but it wasn’t impossible. Devon was doing really well and managed to keep up with Angi (our guide). For dad, however, the struggle was just beginning. Three hours into the hike he threw up. Dehydration and physical exhaustion were taking its toll and he was unable to stomach any food. I had taken altitude pills the night before as a precaution but he had decided against it. Only half of his right lung is functional from an infection years ago (hepatic bronchial fistula) so the hike was much more difficult.

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Taking a break

Despite our exhaustion and aching legs, we still managed some corny jokes and hearty laughs on the way up. His “oh shit(s)” and “Erin, this isn’t good” comments were the highlight of my trek. If I received a dollar every time he asked other hikers/porters “how much farther”I’d be a millionaire. The best part about these pleas for help were the drastically different answers that ensued: “Ah man, you’re close – another 2 hours or so. You’re almost there” An hour later: “You’ve got awhile…about 4 hours.” Dad’s response? A frustrated lecture on how Indonesians don’t know how to tell time or distance interrupted up by the occasional “Shit.”

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Hiking through the clouds

The last mile of the ascent was rough. Not only is the trail covered in dirt and rocks (no traction) but it is vertical! No switchbacks. Every 10 yards, Dad and I had to stop to catch our breath and rest our burning legs. Meanwhile, porters wearing flip flops or in many cases no shoes at all (carrying 40 pounds of supplies) were hiking past us…

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Porter

During our final ascent I met a European couple who had summited earlier that morning and were beginning their descent down the mountain. I spoke with the husband first who was descending with the guide. It was very clear that he was frustrated with his wife who was unable to keep up.

I later came across the wife. She was covered in dirt and admitted to falling 3 times. Hiking to the summit was the hardest thing she’d ever done and had she known the difficulty she never would have done it. She admitted to crying three times on the way up.

We also met a very friendly group of Europeans- 2 Belgians, 1 Dane, and 1 German. We talked to them quite a bit during the ascent and at the crater rim. The German guy even gave my dad a pat of acknowledgement when he reached the crater rim. I think even he knew the difficulty, especially for an older guy.

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View from the rim
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Caldera
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We look nothing alike

The crater rim was stunning. From the rim you can see the summit, caldera, and crater lake. It is a one of a kind view that many argue is even better than the view from the summit.

That night we camped on the rim alongside other trekking agencies. For dinner our porters cooked  chicken curry and for breakfast they made banana pancakes with chocolate.  They had carried a gas grill up the mountain along with food (including a watermelon), water, sleeping tents, toilet tents, sleeping bags, pillows and even mattress pads. We camped in luxury!

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Camping in the clouds
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Sunset over our campsite
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Shout out to Angi who carried the Bintang!
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Sunrise over the other campsite
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Sunrise over Mt. Rinjani

Hiking down the mountain the following morning was a different kind of battle. We were extremely sore from the day before and controlling our descent  and trying not fall was challenging. Porters use gravity when they descend-many run down the mountain. We, on the other hand, were resisting it.

About 2 hours from the base of the mountain, we passed a German group ascending. One of the girls was struggling and her boyfriend was pulling her up the rocks. My dad’s response?  A very blunt, “She’s not going to make it.” I couldn’t not laugh-if only he had seen himself the day before!

Interestingly enough, I met Hans brother on the descent. He was guiding a French group. Hans employs a lot of family members including his brother-in-law (Angi) who was our guide. He started the company 2 years ago and it has grown immensely since from 30 treks the first year to 300 the second.  For anyone interested in hiking Rinjani I highly recommend his company: Hallo Trekker. They were very professional.

I would, however, like to clarify some things about hiking Mt. Rinjani. It is not a beginners hike, regardless of what you read online. You must be in good shape even if you chose the “easier” crater rim hike. Hike the mountain, enjoy the views (they are worth it), but be prepared!

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The finish line

Yogyakarta, Java: Borobudur & Prambanan

Yogyakarta is home to two very famous temples: Borobudur and Prambanan. Both are world heritage sites and popular tourist destinations in Yogyakarta. They are ~1 hour outside the city in opposite directions which can make for a long day if you decide to do both. Most people divide them into 2 days.

Borobudur is a 9th century Buddhist temple and one of the greatest Buddhist monuments in the world. Tourists can see the sunrise from the top of the temple but they must enter through Manohara Hotel and pay the extra fee. Piece of advice: pay it.

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Early morning at Borobudur
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Sunrise

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An hour away from Borobudur is Prambanan, the largest Hindu temple complex in the world. The grounds also contain a couple smaller Buddhist temples that are currently being restored. Unlike Borobudur, the area is more commercialized. Lacking the beautiful and simplistic landscaping of Borobudur, Prambanan feels a bit like an amusement park. Walking paths are wide enough for multiple golf carts and tacky souvenir shops line the streets. Not to mention, the exit is strategically placed; you must walk through a large food & souvenir market to leave. To be honest I was a little disappointed by Prambanan, especially having already seen Borobudur. Don’t get me wrong the temples were beautiful but the grounds lacked the “feel” of a world heritage site.

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Tallest Hindu temple in the world

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