2016 − Southeast & Central Asia

Although I've been traveling and posting blogs for years, there're still many places that I haven't seen. This year, I've returned to Asia to explore Malaysia, Indonesia, Mongolia and Tibet.

The village of Ban Pao in Isaan (northern Thailand) is my starting point and my base. I've been working with this community for the past few years micro-financing a mushroom farm. This year's project is a bakery.

When I travel, I rarely book anything in advance. I take whatever transportation is easily available: Planes and ferries for hopping between islands, and buses, vans, cars and ojeks (motorcycles) for going overland.

I won't manage to see all of Indonesia this year. To see a country of 17,000 islands, a 30-day visa with just one 30-day extension is not enough. I'll come back here again sometime. Indonesia is one of those places where I'm asking myself ... How come no one ever told me about this amazing country?

Meanwhile, now that summer has come to the northern hemisphere, I'm starting to think about Mongolia. From there, I'll go to Tibet. That will round out my travels for this year ... at least until October, when I'll start a new journey.

I'm still not tired of traveling. Why? Because travel is an endless source of education, inspiration, and opportunities to help others. I've created the blogs below to encourage you to leave home for a while, to embrace adventure, to discover new people and places, and to explore the amazing planet we live on.

In the photos below, click on any photo to enlarge it.

November 10, 2015 − Isaan

Travel doesn't have to be about flying from one World Heritage Site to another, checking places off your Bucket List, and taking selfies in front of famous landmarks. Often, it's more satisfying to live in a place long enough to get to know the people who live there.

That's what brought me to northeastern Thailand, also known as Isaan. I came here for the first time in February. In October, I returned for more steamy weather, spicy food and warm hospitality.

My village is called Ban Pao. If you look really hard, you can find it on Google maps. But I'll make it easy for you. Use the Google Map street view of my house to take a virtual tour of my neighborhood.

Isaan sits on a plateau, separated from the rest of Thailand by a range of hills. Isaan's rivers drain to the east, into the Mekong River. Bangkok is a 7-hour drive to the south. The tourist hubs like Phuket and Pattaya are even farther away − thankfully!

Historically and culturally Isaan is more Lao than Thai. The main language is Isaan, which is a dialect of the Lao language, although Thai is also spoken because it's the language used in government and education. Isaan is off the beaten tourist path. It's a good place to get caught up on my reading and writing.

Northeastern Thailand, aka Isaan

Ban Pao village, Kaset Sombun district, Chaiyaphum province, Thailand

My house in Ban Pao
Here's where I live in Ban Pao. I'm two doors from a noodle shop, where I can buy lunch for less than $1. I'm within 100 meters of the town market, a barber, an ATM, a hardware store, a convenience shop, and a cell-phone tower. With all these conveniences, life is still rustic enough that a frog lives in the bathroom, and geckos decorate the walls in the evening.
The frog that lives in my shower

My neighbor's water buffalo, Ban Pao Lake
There's a lake in front of my house, with a jogging path around it. Folks are getting used to seeing a farang (foreigner) jogging in the mornings.

From my upstairs windows, I can see mountains to the west and the south.

Life here is comfortable, as well as inexpensive. A haircut costs about a buck and a half. A beer is less than a dollar.

Still, the primary reason for being here is the people. Our planet is full of breathtaking mountains, beautiful vistas, inviting beaches, mysterious jungles, sparkling rivers, vast plains, et cetera. Yet, the thing that makes someplace unique − and special − is its people.

Pictured below are some of my friends and neighbors. They don't speak a lot of English, and my Thai / Isaan needs a lot of improvement. But we get along just fine. There are three people in Ban Pao who speak some English.

For generations, Isaan has been Thailand's Appalachia. The good news is that Isaan has started to transform from Thailand's poorest region into a fast-growing economy. The Industry Ministry supports industrial zones in Khon Kaen and Udon Thani. Private sector investment is growing.

On a very small scale, I'm part of this process. Over the past four years, I've been micro-financing the home business of a local family. First, I was helping them get a mushroom farm going. Our next project will be to start a small cookie factory, operated out of someone's kitchen.

The Isaan folks I've met have a solid work ethic and an innate sense of capitalism. Time, money and materials are never wasted. People are always looking for ways to produce products and make money. Everything is recycled and resold. Yet, they make time to relax and have fun when their work is done.

In most cases, all that's needed is a little bit of start-up capital.

The mushroom growing operation cost $1000 to get started. Within three months, they were selling $500 worth of mushrooms per month at local markets (at about $1 per pound). This income makes it possible for the young women to stay here and to send their children to school instead of going to Bangkok to work as prostitutes.

Mushrooms growing in plastic bags

Mushrooms for sale at the market
Markets are a major part of the Isaan culture. Every village has a weekly market, each on a different day. If you need something, you ride your bicycle or your moped over to the village that's having a market today. It's the same if you've got something to sell. Vendors move from village to village.

Ban Pao is big enough to have a daily market, where one can buy fresh fruits, vegetables, meats, poultry and fish. The food is all produced locally, of course. I eat a lot of organic vegetables and mushrooms. Naturally, one of the Isaan phrases I've learned is Sap lai!, which means delicious!

Volunteer kitchen crew
Since I'm the new guy in town, everyone was curious to know who I am and what my house looks like. So, I threw a party with the help of my friends. I let them choose the date, the menu, and the invitation list. The most auspicious date was chosen by a psychic who reads cards at the local market. The menu consisted of everything that's sold at the local market. I recognized most of the guests from the local market. As is true all over the world, a village market isn't just a commercial center. It's a social center.
All of the neighbors came for dinner
On the morning of my party, six women arrived loaded with food. They spent the whole day in my kitchen, cutting, dicing, chopping, slicing, marinating, stirring, boiling, grilling, stir frying, and, of course, talking. The place smelled wonderful. In the evening, we received about 60 guests, who descended like locusts and ate almost everything. What wasn't eaten was sent home in doggie bags. I was thanked and blessed heartily − with strings of small bills (i.e. money) tied around my wrist. Thus, I'm now officially part of the Ban Pao community. I'm greeted everywhere I go with Sawadee kap!.

How long will I stay here? Under current Thai immigration laws, an American with a tourist visa can stay in Thailand for a maximum of 90 days within a 6-month period. So, I can't stay here forever. I have to move on by January. Until then, my guest room is available. (hint, hint!)

November 27, 2015 − Festivals and celebrations in Isaan

One can learn a lot about people from how they celebrate life, death and everything else. Here in Isaan, Buddhism is the religion: It's part of daily life. Family is fundamental: Grandparents and children are always included. And from what I've seen this month, every event in Isaan involves FOOD.

Incidentally, the rainy season has ended, and we're now in the "dry" season − which simply means that it doesn't rain every day. Big thunderheads gather overhead on hot, humid afternoons to bring brief downpours, followed by cooler evenings. I like this weather. It's like perpetual summer. The only time I wear shoes is when I jog around my lake every morning before breakfast.

Thunderheads over Ban Pao on a hot afternoon

Gilded Buddhas at the temple

It's all about the food!

The 2nd cousin of one of my friends died. I was invited to the funeral. The deceased was young, unmarried, with no children. He died tragically. One might expect that this would be a sad and somber occasion. Yet there was plenty of music and celebration.

Families laughed and played in the shade of colorful tents trimmed with steamers. There was a flatbed truck loaded with huge speakers blasting amplified dance music. For the children, there was a carnival midway with a giant inflated slide plus a shooting gallery where kids could win stuffed animals.

In the middle of all this excitement, a team of chefs produced an all-you-can eat feast for about 500 people.

Incidentally, this "funeral" started at 7:00am. The feast was breakfast. I was told that mornings are the best time for funerals because morning is the happiest time of the day.

In memory of ...

Breakfast feast in honor of the deceased

The main rice harvest season has ended in southeast Asia. It’s time to thank the Water Goddess for a year’s worth of her abundant supply, as well as to apologize for polluting her waters.

On Wednesday night, we celebrated Loi Krathong, literally meaning "to float a basket". By the light of the full moon, krathongs, decorated with folded banana leaves, incense sticks, and candles, are floated out onto rivers and lakes throughout Thailand and Laos. The candle venerates Buddha with light. People put fingernails or hair clippings on their krathongs to symbolize letting go of past transgressions and negative thoughts. The krathong's floating represents the release of anger and grudges. Money is sometimes included as an offering.

Loi Krathong hostesses The lake in front of my house is the center of the Loi Krathong celebration in Ban Pao district, so I had a front row seat for this festival. A band stage was constructed across the street. The parade went past my front door. The fragrant, spicy smells from the food vendors were irresistible. Setting krathongs adrift on the lake
Beauty pageant contestants One of the key elements of Loi Krathong is the "Nopphamat Queen Contest" in honor of a 14th century princess who made the first krathong. Ban Pao put its nine loveliest maidens on stage for this contest. I don't know how the judges could pick the prettiest one.

The evening concluded with fireworks and hundreds of sky lanterns that looked like fluorescent jellyfish floating gracefully through the night sky.

At the end of the evening, I thought to myself "This is a great neighborhood to live in."

Speaking of neighbors ...

A village krathong ready to be launched

En route to the kitchen
A fellow who lives around the corner from me wanted to get rid of a turkey this week because it attacked his dogs, chickens, ducks and children. He was so pleased that I wanted to take the turkey off his hands that he killed and plucked it for me. All I had to do to get a fresh, organic turkey for Thanksgiving was to walk around the corner. What I served for dinner
Ban Pao district has a Brit, a Swede, a German. and two Aussies. As the only American living here, I felt a special responsibility to share Thanksgiving with my kind friends and good neighbors.

I bought most of what I needed for Thanksgiving at the local market. The hardest thing to find was cranberries, which I finally found in the frozen food section of an international grocery supermarket in Chum Phae, 35km from here.

I invited four families to come to dinner, none of whom had ever eaten turkey or pie before. This was also their first time eating cranberries.

I'm not really much of a cook, but the meal was a success. What my guests didn't eat was put into plastic bags to take home. Yay − no leftovers! Still, at the end of the meal, my guests asked if I'd like help making Christmas dinner. Such wonderful friends and neighbors. Stay tuned!

My Thanksgiving guests

January 11, 2016 − 3rd month in Thailand

If you stay anywhere long enough, two things usually happen:
  • You get to really know a place.
  • You start to feel at home.
In three months, I've adjusted to the Isaan culture, learned some of the local dialect, made friends in my village, and done the work I came here to do.

Yet, if I want to see our entire planet, I can't become too comfortable anywhere. Before moving on, I've spent my final month in Thailand seeing a few things that most tourists don't see.

Wat Rong Khun, Chiang Rai
Chiang Rai is Thailand's northernmost city. It has an infamous past and a colorful present. In the 19th century, the border tripoint of Thailand, Laos and Myanmar − known as The Golden Triangle − produced most of the world's opium. In recent decades, Chiang Rai has evolved into a center of artistic and social expression. Pictured above is Chiang Rai's "white temple". It's one man's privately-funded art project. The artist accepts no donations over 10,000 baht (~$300) to avoid being influenced by big donors. It gleams in the sunshine like the Taj Mahal. But unlike the Taj, admission is free.

A float at the ASEAN flower festival
I timed my trip to Chiang Rai for the annual ASEAN flower festival. With flowers everywhere, especially in the parks, the city smelled great.

On the river, barges adorned with flower sculptures competed for the Best Float award. I've seen a lot of parades with floats. These were real floats.

Mo Hin Khao, Thailand's Stonehenge
Northeastern Thailand boasts of having its own Stonehenge. At 175 million years old, Mo Hin Khao substantially predates human existence. This is a natural formation, of course, made of sandstone. Yet, for centuries, Mo Hin Khao has been revered as a holy pilgrimage site.

A neighbor shows off eels from his rice field

Shrimp, mushrooms and veggies ready for the bbq

Life in my village revolves around food. This is true for most rural communities. Every region has its own unique and − to us − exotic foods. Folks eat what's grown or caught locally. Everything here is organic, naturally.

In Asia, spices are the secret ingredient. Food is usually served over noodles or rice. There are no processed foods. Here in Isaan, I'm not always sure what I'm eating, but it's always fresh and tasty.

Through my travels, I'm lucky to have collected enough fauna in my digestive system that I can eat pretty much anything without consequences. Having happy organisms in one's gut is one of the keys to being healthy.

When I came to Thailand in October, I suffered from headaches and dizziness due to exposure to petroleum distillates while working in the US. After three months in Ban Pao, my system has been gently and completely purged. I've loved living in a place where I feel 100% healthy every day.

Noodles and fish balls make a good snack

Toasted frog, another local delicacy

Dinner with some of my "cousins" Eating well isn't merely a healthy thing to do, it's a social activity. I've enjoyed many evenings sitting on the floors of my neighbors' homes, cooking, eating and talking until late at night. My friends and neighbors now consider me to be a cousin.

One of the peculiarities about Isaan culture is the first names. First names are often simple monosyllables, which can be mistaken for common English words. Here are the names of some of my friends in the village:

Ai     Yu     We     It     Am     Ar     Man     Uh

When these first names get used in English conversations, we've had some amusing Abbott & Costello Who's on First? confusions, such as ...

Uh, Man and Ai repaired the tractor today.
We met Yu for lunch in the village.
It won't be here until tomorrow.
In Thailand, the king is revered as the father of the country. His birthday, December 5th, is a national holiday, and is celebrated as Father's Day.

In villages across the country, fathers are honored on December 5th with awards and special recognition. Everyone in Ban Pao attended an award ceremony at town hall, where nine gentlemen, nominated to be the best fathers of our village, were each presented with plaques. It was a touching and solemn ceremony, followed by fireworks, music, and of course food.

Thailand is a traditional and conservative country. Family values, social graces, community harmony, and prayers to Buddha are part of everyone's daily life. At the same time, Thailand has a relaxed attitude towards sexual orientation, in particular with respect to the Kathoey (Ladyboy). In Chiang Rai, I happened onto a Ladyboy beauty contest. This wasn't a quiet event hosted in a queen bar. This was a major public celebration held in the town square, complete with government officials and fireworks. Caitlyn Jenner and Chelsea Manning take note.

The winners of the Best Father of the Year awards

Lady-boy beauty pageant, Chiang Rai

Contestant #9

Santa (Marvin) and a helper
And let's not forget Christmas!

With perfect timing, on December 24th, my friend Marvin of Sausalito arrived in Ban Pao. That evening, he wore the red suit, sat by the tree, and handed out presents to the village children. It was such an exciting event that I only took three photos. Here's the best one.

About 50 children came to see Santa. None of them had ever seen a live Santa Claus before. They weren't sure what to do. With stunned faces, they got in line to receive their presents. Then, with renewed confidence, some kids got in line again ... this time to pull on Santa's beard to see if it was real. It was. This was a particularly convincing moment for one child, who then asked "When is it going to snow?!"

This brings us to the end of the year, and the end of my time in Thailand ... at least for now. Although it's wonderful to stay in one place for a while, I like the challenge, stimulation and education of travel. It's time to move on.

May 24, 2016 − 4th month in Isaan

Preparing a feast
Isaan is all about food. Whether there's a birth, a graduation, a wedding, a housewarming or a funeral, there has to be food − and plenty of it. These family feasts are community events where everyone who's related comes. Of course, in a small village, everyone's related to each other in one way or another, whether they're cousins, business associates or just neighbors.

Attending one of these community feasts isn't just a matter of eating. There's lots of preparation to be done, and everyone helps. Families like to outdo each other, with both quantity and quality − where quality is measured in the degree of spiciness of the food.

Sorting the chili peppers

A very HOT! dish
The dish shown to the left is a vegetable and fish dish. The primary vegetable is chili peppers. A year ago, I probably couldn't have eaten this dish. I now find this dish to be pleasantly hot. American food is going to seem very bland by comparison.

To the right are seven grandmothers (and one grandfather), enjoying the feast cooked by their children and grandchildren. This luncheon is the first meal of a 3-day feast. When this 3-day feast is over, the next one will begin at someone else's house. As I said, Isaan is all about the food.

A family luncheon

New construction, pouring a cement floor
During May, I provided some seed money and supervision for the creation of Ban Pao's first bakery. The construction crews here are hard-working and honest. Labor costs are low: About 1000 baht ($30) per man per day. Construction tends to be lightweight, since there's no need for cold weather insulation. Materials are not quite up to western standards, so they're cheap.

A simple shop with a roof, four walls, a concrete floor and a door can be built for about $2000.

Open for business
Coconut-mango popovers in the oven Folks in Ban Pao had never seen croissants before. Pizzas are exotic foods, found only in big cities.

With locals curious about foreign foods, and expats looking for a taste of home, business is good!

Take-out pizzas

My speeding ticket
My 30-day Thai visa runs out today. Rather than extend it again, I'm going to resume my exploration of Indonesia.

January 27, 2016 − Four stops around the South China Sea

Changing locations every few weeks works well for me. I have three hypotheses as to why this is so:
  • An occasional change of diet is good for my stomach. If I eat the same type of food all the time, my gut gets bored. New foods and spices wake me up from the inside out.
  • A change of venue gets me out of any ruts, routines or patterns that I may have developed. When I come into a new environment, I have to retune my awareness. This heightens my sensitivity and makes me more alert.
  • The best cure for the blues is to learn something new. Changing locations frequently is a sure way to stay happy, because I'm constantly having to learn new things.

I left Thailand on 12 January, when my 3rd visa expired. Thanks to discount airlines (AirAsia, Dragon Air, and Tiger Air) and AirBnB apartments, I found a low-cost way to circle the South China Sea, visit two places I'd never seen before, and end up in Vietnam for a good friend's birthday.


The Merlion, symbol of Singapore

Chatting with a fellow traveler
Until now, my only visits to Singapore were to change planes. Granted, Singapore is an excellent place to change planes. 100% of its air traffic is international. Passport control and immigration procedures are finely tuned. Singapore claims to be the world's most efficient airport: From the time your plane lands until you're in a taxi with your luggage takes about 15 minutes − faster than any other airport in the world? Maybe! Of course, I don't use taxis. In big cities, trains are faster than cars.

Singapore is like Disneyland. Everything is spotlessly clean. Uniformed workers sweep the streets and empty the garbage cans. Smoking and chewing gum is prohibited in public. There are information kiosks and signs (in English) everywhere. Mass transit is fast, well-marked and uses a single ticket. Food vendors offer every imaginable national dish in brightly lit cafés.

Singapore offers entertainment like Disneyland, too. At Madame Tussaud's wax museum in Universal Studios you can have your photo taken with a famous celebrity like Brad Pitt. Or, you can pay $10 to visit an indoor snow park and slide down a hill on an inner tube. Playing in snow for an hour was a welcome break from months of tropical weather.

Like Disneyland, Singapore is fun for two days. Then, it's time to move on.

Enjoying "winter" in Singapore

Hong Kong

Hong Kong viewed from Kowloon's waterfront promenade

Night market on Tung Choi Street
The last time I was in Hong Kong was 2012. I was pleased to see that, in spite of Beijing's recent efforts to control HK's free spirit, the city is still go, go, go. Like New York, the city doesn't sleep. Yet, unlike NYC, daily life in HK seems very real and down to earth. HK doesn't feel artificial the way Singapore does. Food, shopping, people, and commerce spill out into the streets in organized chaos. People go about their days getting as much done as possible. Conveniently, no one has to go very far to get things done. Sure, HK is incredibly crowded and very built-up. But this makes it a great walking and public transit city.

The food is wonderful. So is the shopping. I was tempted by reconditioned iPhone5's for $50 USD. Lodging in HK is expensive. The trade-off is the inexpensive and delicious hot meals available at any of the million or so noodle shops. Take the tram or hike to the top of Victoria Peak for the unforgettable view of the harbor. Nearby, Macau is shocking for its huge casinos that dwarf Las Vegas, with over-built modern architecture and garish neon lighting. To see what's happened to Macau, check out the photos on-line.

Smartphone scrapyard

Hainan Province, China

Sanya Beach, Hainan Province
At the bottom of China is a big island about the size of Vancouver Island, BC. The Chinese like to think of Hainan Island as their Hawaii. Sanya, on the south coast, is like Waikiki, with a hundred high-rise hotels lined up along a wide beach framed by palm trees, boardwalks, bars, restaurants and shops.

While Hawaii gets about 8 million visitors a year, Sanya gets more than 30 million tourists annually. 25% come from Russia, in particular Siberia. People come here to escape winter in cities like Beijing or Novosibirsk. Almost no one visits from anywhere else. I saw no Americans or Europeans here. I was surprised to discover such a busy tourist destination, completely unknown to the west.

The beaches were full of families. Offshore was the usual fleet of jet-skis plus ships full of people getting their SCUBA certification. China always impresses me by how many people there are everywhere, doing everything.

A floating SCUBA mega-school
40km from Sanya is the Nanshan Culture Tourism Zone, a Buddhist theme park. Completed in 1998, Nanshan is the only Buddhist site created in China after Mao's Cultural Revolution destroyed many ancient Buddhist temples. Nanshan is not a typical religious site. Shortly after I paid 150 yuen (~$23) to enter the park, I was confronted by ATMs, food stalls, drink machines, souvenir shops and tram rides. I saw a few young men dressed in orange robes, but they seemed more like janitorial staff than monks.

Nanshan Park was built explicitly as a tourist draw, yet it's becoming a destination for Buddhist pilgrimage and worship. The result is a kind of authentic fakeness. Though this might seem contradictory to westerners, it's perfectly natural to many Chinese. Nanshan "Temple" is a monument to contemporary Chinese society, in which ancient traditions are blended with the Communist party's plan for a harmonious present. Beijing plans to make Hainan Island a world-class resort destination on par with Hawaii or Bali. Thus, Buddhism, capitalism, communism and tourism must coexist in this peculiar corner of China.

GuanYin, the Bodhisattva of Mercy, 108m tall
(15m taller than the Statue of Liberty)

Hội An, Vietnam

Hội An's historic waterfront

Shopping for paper lanterns
The last stop on my 2-week tour around the South China Sea was Hội An, Vietnam. This port was the largest harbor in southeast Asia in the 1st century. From the 7th to 10th centuries, Hội An controlled the strategic trade in spices and ceramics, and earned tremendous wealth. Hội An's prosperity continued until the late 19th century, when the Thu Bon River silted up, halting Hội An's lucrative trade. During the Vietnam war, Da Nang, just 20km north of Hội An, was America's largest air base and the scene of heavy fighting. Fortunately, thanks to the cooperation of both sides, Hội An was virtually untouched during the war. Today, this town is a charming place to linger for a few days.

But I didn't come to Hội An to relearn its history. I've been to Hội An before. I came here to celebrate a good friend's birthday. We ate well and toured the town together. Happy birthday, Jason!

From here, I'm heading south to Indonesia, my next adventure.

Jason, Irit and me

December 14, 2015 − Western Malaysia

KL's iconic Petronas Towers

Merdeka Square: Birthplace of Malaysian independence 1957

Chinatown night market
An easy way to renew a 30-day tourist visa in Thailand is to leave the country. So, last week, I made a "visa run" to Malaysia. From Bangkok, it's an inexpensive flight. Malaysia is also a country I'd never been to before. As my ambition is to see our entire planet, I was glad to have an excuse to visit the southernmost country in continental Asia.

To get to Kuala Lumpur, I chose Air Asia and Malaysia Airlines. In light of recent airplane crashes and disappearances in southeast Asia, does this seem like a foolhardy choice of airlines? Actually, I felt quite safe flying these two airlines. The staff and flight attendants seemed especially attentive to passenger safety. It's often this way. The greatest risks come when people are complacent.

In Malaysia, I divided my time between Kuala Lumpur (a modern commercial center founded by tin miners in 1857) and Malacca (one of the oldest trading ports in southeast Asia). In both cities, I found plenty to see and lots to do.

KL Bird Park in Lake Gardens

Masjid Negara, Malaysia's National Mosque
Malaysia is an Islamic country. Its constitution guarantees freedom of religion, while making Islam the state religion. In the current climate of anti-Islamic rhetoric, I felt compelled to visit a Muslim country to see how people felt. Is Islam an evil religion? Are Muslims capable of living in peace with other people?

Walking around Kuala Lumpur, I saw many mosques, as well as Buddhist temples, Hindu mandirs, Taoist shrines, a few churches and shopping malls with Christmas trees. I talked with people about their religion, their feelings about other people's religions, and their views on the world's current political climate.

Malaysia is one of the calmest, most peaceful and unprejudiced countries I've visited in a while. So, what's the big deal? Everyone seemed to get along quite well as far as I could tell. If Malaysians can get along with each other, why can't we? Mt. Kinabalu More. again

Batu Caves, 13 km north of Kuala Lumpur

Xmas in KL

Sze Ya Temple, a Taoist temple
Every religion has something to offer. I especially enjoyed a rainy day inside the Batu Caves, which is a major Hindu pilgrimage site. Here, I was reminded of the wisdom of the Bhagavad Gita:

  • Whatever happened was good. Whatever is happening is also good. Whatever will happen, that also will be good.
  • What did you lose that you are crying for? What did you bring which you have lost? What did you create that was destroyed?
  • Whatever you have taken is taken only from here. Whatever you have given is given only from here.
  • Whatever is yours today will belong to someone else tomorrow. On another day, it will belong to yet another.
  • Change is the law of the universe.

Malacca River at night

Malacca’s unmistakable trishaws
From Kuala Lumpur, I took an air-conditioned bus to Malacca. The Straits of Malacca are famous for piracy, intrigue, exotic trade, and great wealth. Through the narrow passage between the Malay Peninsula and Sumatra, every ship traveling between Europe and the Orient must pass.

As a sailor, I found Malacca's naval history fascinating. Malacca started out as a quiet fishing village inhabited by Malays, but it didn't stay quiet for long. Malacca became an Indian sultanate in the 14th century. Soon after, the great Chinese Admiral Zheng He made it his primary trading port. When Europe recognized Malacca's strategic importance, Portuguese, Dutch, and English troops took turns conquering and then colonizing it. Finally, Malacca returned to being Malaysian again in 1957 when Malaysia declared its independence from Britain. The end result: This little town is full of history, color, and people from all over the world.

Although Kuala Lumpur is the capital of Malaysia today, Malacca was Malaysia's gateway for six centuries. Through Malacca's wharves came people from all over the world, bringing their foods, their cultures, their costumes and their religions with them. I was impressed by Malaysia's diversity. Malaysia is a true "melting pot", and a friendly one, too. Look closely at the smiling faces in the photo to the right. You might see a Caucasian.

My only complaint about Malaysia is its internet censorship. Many websites that I consider benign or normal are blocked. Naturally, these web blockages can be circumvented by using a VPN account. Still, it's an indication that Malaysia, like several other countries, is drifting towards the right in our current political environment.

With only one week, I was limited to seeing peninsular Malaysia. The other half of Malaysia lies on the north side of Borneo, several hundred kilometers to the east across the South China Sea. Hopefully, that'll be another adventure, perhaps in February.

A colorful mix of costumes, cultures and people

February 25, 2016 − Eastern Malaysia

There are two parts of Malaysia:
  • Western Malaysia, with Kuala Lumpur, heavy industry and maritime shipping
  • Eastern Malaysia, with rainforests, orangutans and crocodiles
These disparate halves of Malaysia are separated by 1000km of water, and have different people, foods, dialects and cultures.

So why is Malaysia one country, divided in two? In the 19th century, Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei were British colonies. After WW2, Britain sought to unify these territories ... who then declared their independence in 1957. Later, Brunei withdrew from the Malaysian Federation to protect its oil interests. Singapore was expelled for not favoring Malays over Chinese. What're left are two contrasting halves of Malaysia. It's an odd arrangement, but it seems to work.


Eastern Malaysia has two provinces: Sabah in the north, and Sarawak to the south, with the enclave of Brunei in between them.

Although 30% of Sabah has been taken over by palm oil plantations, the rest is rainforests and mountains. This is the Borneo that I came here to see, with its steaming jungles, exotic plants and animals, and its history of head-hunters.

The rainforest canopy of the Kabili-Sepilok Forest Reserve

The Kinabatangan River at dawn
Through these primitive jungles flows the Kinabatangan River.

This is a naturalist's paradise, full of species not found elsewhere. Tourists come here to enjoy comfortable safari lodges by the river, with dawn cruises to spot birds, jungle treks to learn about the plants, sunset cruises to see the monkeys and crocodiles, and night walks to find owls and sleeping songbirds. I recommend the Borneo Natural Sukau Bilit Resort, where I fell asleep at night listening to frogs, birds and monkeys.

A pitcher plant
There were colorful birds everywhere. I saw lots of exotic plants and animals. I learned to identify four types of primates:
  • Long Tailed Macaque
  • Silvery Lutung
  • Orangutan
  • Proboscis Monkey
I can't take credit for these primate photos, but was often close enough to see them this clearly.

The Orangutans (literally "forest people") are the show stealers among Sabah's primates. You can see many young Orangutans at the excellent Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre where orphaned or lost Orangutans are re-introduced to the wild.

Primates of Sabah

Mount Kinabalu, elevation 4,096 meters
Rising out of these lush jungles is a remarkable peak. Mount Kinabalu is an exfoliating granitic pluton, similar to Half Dome (2695m) of Yosemite National Park, but a lot taller. The climb takes two days.

Halfway up the mountain is a lodge where you get a hot meal and a few hours of sleep before the pre-dawn ascent to arrive at the peak for sunrise. Mount Kinabalu is one of the world's most dramatic peaks because it has no nearby peaks. The view from the top is spectacular. On a clear morning, you can see the Philippines.


To get from Sabah to Sarawak, I went through Brunei, checking another country off my list of countries that I've visited. Only about
100 more to go − yay!

Like Malaysia, Brunei is an Islamic country. But it's especially Islamic. All of the women wear hijabs (head scarves). You're never out of sight of a mosque. Alcohol is not available. Shops and houses are orderly. The streets are clean. Cars drive at the speed limit and allow pedestrians to cross at crosswalks. The buses run on time.

English is widely spoken. Folks are friendly and interested in talking to foreigners. Twice, I was invited to join families for dinner, to meet their sons and daughters, and to learn about their lives and goals. Brunei's youth impressed me as being traditional, practical and motivated. One young woman is studying for her degree in chemical engineering, so that she can get a job with Brunei's oil company, i.e. Shell.

Jame’Asr Hassanil Bolkiah Mosque

National Day Celebration, for His Majesty
By luck, I arrived in Brunei in time for the country's 32nd anniversary.

Everyone turned out for the big parade, complete with costumes, music, and speeches. Several thousand participants marched past the viewing stands, under the benevolent eye of their ruler, His Majesty Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah Mu'izzaddin Waddaulah ibni Al-Marhum Sultan Haji Omar 'Ali Saifuddien Sa'adul Khairi Waddien. How's that for a name? I wonder what his signature looks like.

Brunei's capital and only major city is named Bandar Seri Begawan, which means "Blessed Harbor". The city features high-rise office towers, manicured parks and 21st century shopping malls.

Across the river, about 20,000 people live in stilt villages known as Kampung Ayer. These are wooden homes, cantilevered out over the water, connected to each other by rickety boardwalks. Many of these homes lack sewage systems, yet the on-shore parking lots are filled with Toyotas, BMWs and Jaguars. This is how the people of this area have lived for at least two millennia. The Brunei government allows its citizens to live this way if they want to. Still, Kampung Ayer is a startling contrast to the glass and concrete of the city.

The stilt villages of Kampung Ayer

Kuching's old Square Tower and its new State Assembly


As with Sabah, most tourists come to Sarawak for the national parks, the wildlife and the beaches. I came here to relax and eat.

Sarawak's capital is Kuching. It's a large town, with a population of about 600,000. By coincidence, kucing is the Malaysian word for "cat". The city planners have milked the homonym for everything it’s worth, branding Sarawak’s capital as the "Cat City" and erecting kitschy cat statues to beautify the urban landscape.

Kuching turns out to be a very livable city. With a couple centuries of being a British colony as well as a Chinese trading port, Kuching has inherited a colorful mix of architecture, foods and people.

Here's a typical Malaysian food court, packed with shops selling fresh fish and veggies. You point at what you want, tell the cook how you want it cooked, sit down with a beer, and wait for your delicious meal to be delivered.

Invariably, folks at nearby tables invited me to join their happy family and big meal. I found Malaysians to be consistently friendly and hospitable.

Kuching's Top Spot Food Court

Last night of Chinese New Year at the Tua Pek Kong Temple
February's full moon marked the end of the Chinese New Year's season. In Kuching, this called for a night of with incense, karaoke, dragons and fireworks.

This night is a kind of Valentine's Day, when couples go to the temples to receive blessing for their marriage, and when single folks pray for a spouse. Interestingly, all of this goes on within the context of Malaysia's state religion: Islam.

From here ...

I've now seen a lot of Malaysia. From here, I'm heading back to Indonesia.

Last month, while traveling in Sumatra, I found ground transportation to be frustrating. The buses were crowded and unreliable. Many places I wanted to go were inaccessible except by private car or motorcycle.

Thanks to FindACrew.net, I met an Aussie chap who needs help sailing his yacht from Singapore to Darwin, and who plans to stop and visit lots of Indonesia en route. In March, I'll be sailing south through the Java Sea on a retired racing catamaran, designed by Bob Oram. I've been told that this ship can do the Kessel Run in 12 parsecs.

NOTE: If you're considering crewing aboard this yacht, DON'T !!!
Click here to read the experiences of some of Andre's former crew.

Sans Tambour Ni Trompete (12 meters, 6 tons)

February 7, 2016 − Sumatra

From Vietnam, I flew to Padang, Sumatra's third largest city. In contrast to the cool, breezy South China Sea, it's hot and muggy here. The beaches are lined with palm trees. Chinese isn't spoken. The most visible difference is the architecture − in particular, the curved, pointed roofs. I'd seen photos of traditional Indonesian architecture, but assumed that roofs like this were rare, found only on public buildings and temples. Actually, they're everywhere, such as on this private home in the Harau Valley.

There's a colorful David-and-Goliath legend behind Indonesia's roofs. The story begins with an imminent attack by a king from another island. Rather than pit two armies against each other, the Sumatrans proposed a fight between two bulls. When the time came, the enemy produced an enormous bull with terrifying proportions. The Sumatrans brought forward a half-starved calf, whose horns were tipped with sharp metal spears. Believing the giant bull to be its mother, the calf rushed to suckle and ripped the bull’s belly to shreds. The giant bull was soon dead, and the Sumatrans were the victors. Since that ancient time, curved and pointed roofs symbolize Indonesia's horns of victory.

Traditional Indonesian architecture
Getting to Sumatra was fast and easy. My AirAsia ticket from Vietnam cost about $100. (Discount airlines make travel in southeast Asia very affordable.) However, as with the rest of the Third World, ground transportation in Sumatra is an adventure. Getting from point A to point B is part of the fun of being in a place like this. In Padang, I rode in mini-vans like the one below. The driver patrols the neighborhoods looking for passengers. When every seat is filled, he heads off in a general direction, eventually delivering every passenger to the door of his or her home, school or office. Without bus stops, routes or schedules, it sometimes takes a long time to get anywhere, but you get to see a lot of the city.

A bemo, also known as an opelet

It's also fun to see what the locals drive. The roads are full of various home-made contraptions with 2, 3 or 4 wheels. Some are powered by gasoline. Some are pulled by animals. Many are self-propelled.

Naturally, I had to take a picture of this VW Thing. The owner was very proud of it, and enjoyed filling it with children.

1973 Volkswagen Camat (Indonesia)

Fishing boats on the Sungai Batang River

A fish farm on Lake Maninjau
Sumatra is an island. Consequently, fish is always on the menu here. Whether from the sea or from the lakes, it's grilled, baked, steamed, sautéed, fried − and always fresh and spicy.

I stayed a few days at Lake Maninjau. This is a collapsed volcanic crater, 17km long, 8km wide, and 400 meters deep. The lake makes for excellent swimming because it's deep, clean and geothermally heated. With an elevation 460 meters above sea level, it's a cool contrast to the steaming seaside of Padang.

My English students

Three village girls
If you stay someplace for a few days, you're likely to meet the locals and make friends. I was invited to teach English at a school in my village. I volunteered in the afternoons. It was nice to be welcomed into the community this way.

My students, ages 14-18, were well-trained in reading and writing in English. But, as is typical in schools throughout Asia, their teacher used a didactic system in which he did all the talking, while the students took notes and spoke only when called upon. As a result of this teaching method, the students hadn't learned to speak in English. Their teacher asked me to help.

The secret to teaching conversational skills is to change the classroom from teacher-centered to student-centered. The teacher's job is to guide the students to talk about themselves, and to ask each other questions. The less the teacher talks the better. My students were very shy for the first hour, but eventually started talking. By the second day, they wouldn't stop talking. Their teacher was delighted and said he'd learned a good lesson.

Traditional embroidery

Making pretzels
Sumatra doesn't see many tourists − which is good for me because I like going places that are off the beaten path. Fishing and farming are the primary industries, along with countless family-owned businesses. I visited shops where some of the traditional embroidery is created. Later, I toured a neighbor's pretzel "factory". I bought a bag of pretzels. Do you think I should've bought one or two of these embroidered dresses? They cost about $20 each.

Entrance to the beautiful Harau Valley

Cross at your own risk!

The world's largest flower
Sumatra is a nature-lover's paradise. Along the coast, there are endless beaches. The interior is lush and green. Deep canyons, carved by tropical rains, are filled with flowers, vines and jungles. The Harau Valley is what the Garden of Eden may have looked like.

There was a gentle path along the Harau River. But crossing the river was another story. I tiptoed carefully across the wooden bridge shown above. A minute later, a teenager drove her motorbike full-throttle right across it!

With the help of a guide, I found a Rafflesia arnoldii, the world's largest flower. It grows up to 1 meter in diameter. It blooms for one week, every year or two. Don't expect to find a Rafflesia at your local nursery, and don't give one for Valentine's Day. It's a parasitic plant. It has no stems or leaves. It draws nutrients from rotting vegetation and from insects trapped in its oozing center. It smells like rotting flesh. It's Indonesia's national flower.

What I'll remember most about the small part of Sumatra that I saw were the waterfalls. On one day, I hiked to six waterfalls − and swam in all of them. I continue to be amazed by how beautiful our planet is. I hope we can keep it that way.

March 15, 2016 − Sailing the Java Sea

I've joined forces with an Aussie chap who needs help sailing his yacht from Singapore to Darwin. His name is Andre Beaulieu (72), born in Montreal, now based in Brisbane. Andre and his friend Hazel have been sailing through southeast Asia for the past six years − until Hazel was made a paraplegic by a sudden onset of transverse myelitis. Hazel, returned to Brisbane. Andre, preferring not to sail 4000 miles back to Australia single-handedly, logged onto FindACrew.net and found me.

This 12-meter catamaran, named Sans Tambour Ni Trompete (STNT), was originally designed for racing. She's been converted into a cruising yacht with a galley, a gas range and oven, two refrigerators, a freezer, A/C, electronics, autopilot, wind and solar power, and two en-suite apartments, one in the port hull and one in the starboard. As I learned later, few of these appliances functioned properly.

I like sailing on a catamaran. Cats have a lot more interior/exterior space than traditional monohulls. Furthermore, cats stay flat in the water, even in a strong wind. So far, the winds have been gentle, steady and from the north, perfect for going south. Unfortunately, Andre is not a good seaman. I'm learning a lot about how not to maintain or sail a yacht.

NOTE: If you're considering crewing aboard this yacht, DON'T !!!
Click here to read the experiences of some of Andre's former crew.

Sans Tambour Ni Trompete (12 meters, 6 tons)

Singapore's shipping lanes
Andre and I left Puteri Harbour on the outskirts of Singapore two weeks ago. Getting out of Singapore was our first challenge. There were huge ships everywhere, coming and going in all directions. It's easy to underestimate how fast a super-tanker is going because, when you first see one, it doesn't seem to be moving. If you look closely, you'll see a bow wave. 5 minutes later, the monstrous ship will have doubled in size, which means that you have about 5 minutes to get out of its way. The Sans Tambour Ni Trompete has AIS (Automatic Identification System) which lets the big ships know where we are ... and lets us know how soon we're going to be rammed if we don't move. It took about 4 hours to negotiate our way through Singapore's shipping lanes. We kept our eyes open the whole time.

Indonesian fishing boats
Once we were away from Singapore, the scenery changed and so did the boat traffic. Our new challenge was to avoid the crab pots and fishing nets. The fishermen are friendly − provided you don't snag one of their nets.

While carefully avoiding crab pots and fishing nets, we accidentally clipped an unmarked sandbar and snapped off one of our rudders. Fortunately, a catamaran has two rudders and can be sailed with just one. But this would require a pit stop later on.
Indonesia has an estimated 17,000 islands. Many of these islands are quite primitive. Though inhabited, they get few outside visitors. A big yellow catamaran cruising by stirs up lots of excitement.

This is one of the first villages we saw. It's quite a contrast from the glass and steel of Singapore. The Bajo people live their whole lives on the water. Their houses are built over the water on stilts. Fishing is their main source of income and food.

As we cruised by, the villagers took photos of us as we snapped shots of them. Though tempted to come ashore, we opted not to tie up here. A six ton catamaran in a fast tidal current might pull down their stilts.

A Bajo village

Clearing customs on Belitung Island
Indonesia has a reputation for being a bureaucratic headache when it comes to yachting. Many sailors avoid Indonesia because of its inefficient − and sometimes unscrupulous − customs and immigration officers. New immigration rules went into effect this year which streamline the paperwork and allow it to be done in advance online. (bcbatam.beacukai.go.id/appyacht17ktrbc/form_mhn_vd_e.php) This is a big improvement over the former procedures which required visits and stamps from three different Indonesian ministries.

Andre (in the white shirt) and I cleared customs in Belitung Island, and were pleasantly surprised by the warm reception we received from Ilhom and Ivan, the local customs officials. After signing some papers, we invited Ilhom and Ivan out to the STNT for a drink and all was well.

Ilhom and Ivan were also very helpful in introducing us to their friends at the welding shop where we had a new pair of stainless steel rudders made, and in directing us to a place to buy 400 litres of gasoline.

Here's Andre installing one of our new stainless steel rudders, complete with a fresh coat of anti-fouling paint.

It took a week for the new rudders to be made. While Andre stayed with the STNT to supervise the construction of the new rudders, I flew 2500 km east to the island of Ternate.

A new rudder for the STNT

View from my AirBnB balcony in Ternate, looking towards neighboring Tidore Island
Why fly clear across Indonesia to the remote outpost of Ternate? Because Ternate was predicted to be the best place on Earth to see the total solar eclipse of March 9th. So, last week, Ternate was the gathering point for astronomers from all over the world.

Here's the crowd oohing and aahing over the pending eclipse. For the residents of Ternate, this was their first total solar eclipse and probably the only total solar eclipse of their lives. In all, there were about 5000 people gathered on the walls of this 16th century Portuguese fort to witness this event. It was very exciting.

The eclipse was so exciting that no one paid any attention to the volcano venting in the background. I'm told that the volcano lets off steam regularly, and that no one has been killed by an eruption in many years. So, no worries. Back to the eclipse.

Eclipse: T minus 30 minutes

Eclipse participants
Ternate is a long way from Indonesia's popular tourist destinations, such as Bali's temples, the Komodo dragons, Borneo's Orangutans, and Papua's dive sites. Consequently, Ternate doesn't see a lot of foreign visitors. On March 9th, the astronomers and eclipse-chasers formed the largest invasion that Ternate has seen since liberation from the Japanese at the end of World War II.

While most folks were interested in the eclipse, others were interested in the visitors. They wanted to practice their English. I was swarmed by everyone wanting to have selfies taken with me. By the end of the day, I'd added about 20 Facebook friends from the crowd of eclipse viewers. I also learned quite a few words of Indonesian.

Here's what the eclipse looked like. We've all seen photos of eclipses. But seeing the real thing is much more impressive. In the crowd of about 5000 people in Ternate, there was a great cheer when the sky turned black and the stars came out.

For Americans who have never seen a total solar eclipse, 2017 is your lucky year. Mark your calendar for August 21, 2017. There will be a total solar eclipse visible from Oregon to South Carolina.

If you live in Jackson Hole, Kansas City, St. Louis or Nashville, you'll be able to see this eclipse from your back yard. Check out the eclipse path of the 2017 eclipse to see how far you might have to go to see this eclipse. You might have to drive a little bit. But it's worth it. This was the first total solar eclipse I've ever seen. Total solar eclipses are awesome.

9:53am, March 9, 2016. Photo by Beawiharta/Reuters

Eclipse dancers in traditional Maluku costumes
March 9th was a special holiday in Ternate. For many people, this eclipse was a once-in-a-lifetime event. The city council pulled out all the stops for an all-day eclipse festival, complete with food, music, parades and dancers.

I've been in Indonesia for almost a month now. I'm most impressed by how pleasant, happy and easy-going the Indonesians are. Everyone I've met has a smile. Indonesia has become one of my new favorite countries.

The next day, all the eclipse-chasers flew back to Europe, North America, Japan and Australia. I stayed on for a few more days to enjoy a part of Indonesia few people see. From here, a 3.5 hour flight gets me back to Belitung Island and continued adventures on the STNT.

March 31, 2016 − Java

While crossing the Java Sea, I realized that my skipper, Andre, has been maintaining his boat on a limited budget for a long time. The engines are held together with zip-ties, duct tape and Epoxy. The hydraulic valve that controls the steering system leaks. The electrical cabinet has bilge in it. There's a crack in the starboard hull. Several hatches don't have latches.

One night, we were caught in a squall. Both engines failed. The steering froze up. The electronics shorted out. As the gusts increased, one of the main hatches blew off and bolts started popping out of the spreaders. There were no injuries or major losses, but we took on some water and had to limp into Jakarta without power or steering, covering the last 10 miles in 24 hours.

Andre, with his usual optimism, assured me that all these problems could be fixed in a week or two. I considered the situation and decided that it was time for a change of plans. I shouldered my bag, thanked Andre for the adventure, and hailed a taxi into town.

NOTE: If you're considering crewing aboard this yacht, DON'T !!!
Click here to read the experiences of some of Andre's former crew.

Goodbye to the Sans Tambour Ni Trompete
Sometimes, one has to make decisions quickly, and then move on. Was it a mistake to have signed on with this skipper? No. But it would have been a mistake to continue to sail with him, after I'd learned what I learned. This is the beauty of being free and spontaneous. When things aren't working, don't wait. Make a change and go a new direction. It's a wonderfully invigorating thing to do.

Jakarta's gridlock

One of Java's inter-city trains
I exchanged the fresh air and the tranquility of the sea, for the pollution and congestion of Jakarta. This city is famous for having some of the worst traffic in Asia. Walking is often faster than driving. So, I spent one day touring Jakarta on foot, and then rode out of town on a clean, air-conditioned and inexpensive train.

Java countryside
Being back on land allows me to immerse myself in Indonesia, to see the famous landmarks, to eat the food, to experience the culture, to meet new people, and to learn their language.

Every Indonesian island has its own dialect(s), yet there is a common language, called Bahasa Indonesia, which everyone can speak. Bahasa Indonesia may be the world's easiest languages to learn and use. There are few grammar rules. Verbs are the same in all tenses, for all subjects. Pronouns are simple. For example, the word saya means "I", "me", "my" and "mine". Bahasa Indonesia uses the same 26 letters that are used in English. The pronunciation of each letter is always the same, so spelling is phonetic and unambiguous. In a week, I've learned to read, write and have simple conversations in Bahasa Indonesia. What a smart language!

Like Sumatra, Java is beautiful and lush. Everything and anything grows here, thanks to daily thundershowers that water the rich volcanic soil.

Unique to Java is Wayang shadow puppet theatre. The puppets are crafted from leather, with handles and control rods made from buffalo horns. They are used to tell legends about gods, royalty, romance, intrigue and, of course, good and evil. The performances are accompanied by Gamelan music, played on metal drums, xylophones, bamboo flutes, and a bowed instrument called a rebab.

Wayang is a sacred shadow play, in which the puppet master is the priest. The screen is heaven. The puppets' shadows are souls. One must watch the shadows, not the puppets. The forces of light and darkness are in endless balance. The right is in constant struggle with the left. Sukarno, Indonesia's first president, was called The Great Puppet Master for his ability to balance the left with the right.

Wayang shadow puppet theatre

The temples of Candi Prambanan
In central Java, I relaxed for a week in Yogyakarta's old town, where many streets are two meters wide. Walking along streets without cars was a welcome contrast to Jakarta. Colorful Yogyakarta is a good base from which to explore Java's two most famous archaeological sites: Prambanan and Borobudur.

Built in the 9th century, Prambanan is the largest Hindu temple site in Indonesia. It has three main temples, dedicated to Vishnu, Shiva and Brahma. The central Shiva temple is 47 meters high. The bases of these temples are decorated with Indonesia's most outstanding example of Hindu art, illustrating legends, such as the abduction of Lord Rama’s wife and her rescue by Hanuman, the monkey god. Good stuff.

Candi Borobudur (click here for an aerial tour)

One of 504 statues of Buddha at Borobudur
Not far away is colossal Borobudur, the world's largest Buddhist temple. Completed about 50 years before Prambanan, Borobudur is a Buddhist vision of the cosmos in stone, designed as a walk-thru mandala. The base of the monument begins with a series of reliefs representing a world dominated by passion and desire, where the good are rewarded by reincarnation to a higher form of life. (At this point, the tourist − that would be me − climbs a short flight of stairs.)

As I ascended through Borobudur's 5 kilometers of corridors, I evolved from earthly passions to pure enlightenment. My guidebook told me that I passed 2672 stone panels, carved from 2 million blocks of andesite, illustrating a textbook of Buddhist doctrines, as well as aspects of Javanese life 1000 years ago − complete with ships, elephants, musicians, dancing girls, warriors and kings.

I was impressed. Borobudur is equal in stature to Angkor Wat, Petra or Machu Picchu. How could I have never heard of this place? I would consider the magnificent temples of Yogyakarta to be one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.

The Pyramids of Giza

The Ellora and Ajanta Caves of India

Petra in Jordan
So, what are the other six Wonders? Having now seen about half the world, I feel qualified to nominate my own list of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. The criteria for my list are simple: Built before 1492, amazing, and still in existence. If you're making a "bucket list" of places that you'd like to see, these seven sites might be a good way to start your travel planning. Now go ... and have wonderful adventures!

And if you feel that I've omitted an important site, please let me know.

The Great Wall of China

Angkor Wat in Cambodia

Machu Picchu in Peru
I've seen a lot of Indonesia in the past month, and have found that Indonesia is a very friendly and hospitable place. Indonesians as a whole seem friendlier, happier and more honest than their neighbors in Malaysia, Viet Nam, Thailand, Cambodia or Laos. Indonesians as a whole seem genuinely happy. Everyone smiles here. They're glad to meet and talk to strangers. When I ask for directions, I always get helpful information. I haven't encountered a single example of dishonesty. The taxi drivers haven't even tried to overcharge me. (grin) I've asked a few folks why Indonesians are happy, and here are some of the answers I've received:

Traditional (smiling) Javanese dancers
  • Indonesia's primary religion is Islam. Islam has a code of hospitality that welcomes strangers.
  • Islam discourages drugs and alcohol, so there's not much crime here. A low crime rate helps people to be trusting and friendly to others.
  • Indonesia is a mixture of many cultures and societies, none of which is a majority. Indonesians have learned to get along with and respect people who are different.
  • Indonesian society is very traditional. The family structure is strong here. Everyone looks out for each other, including strangers and travelers.
  • Indonesia has a population of 250 million, yet sees only about 10 million tourists per year, many of whom come here for a week and only visit Bali. Thus, white-skinned foreigners (bule) are a novelty everywhere except Bali. (Many people, especially students, have been eager to take selfies with me for the novelty of meeting a bule.)
Perhaps the explanation is a combination of all of these ideas. When I get to Bali next week, I'll be able to test this last hypothesis. In any case, it's a pleasure to be a tourist in Indonesia.

April 25 − Volcanoes, beaches and Bali

Our planet has about 500 active volcanoes, 78 of which are in Indonesia. In the past 200 years, volcanoes have claimed more than 230,000 lives. Most Indonesians live within 100 km of an active volcano. So, it's no surprise that more than half of the world's volcano-related deaths occur in Indonesia.

Mount Bromo, in east Java, is one of Indonesia's most active volcanoes. It's also one of Java's most visited tourist attractions. There's a Hindu temple on the flank of the mountain and a welcoming village 3 km away.

Sunrise view of Batok (2470m), Bromo (2329m) and Semeru (3676m)

Every morning, hundreds of tourists drive or walk to the summit of nearby Mount Penanjakan (2770m) to see sunrise light up Bromo and its neighbors. With mist blanketing the "Sea of Sands" in the caldera, it's an other-worldly image of desolate beauty.

Bromo was closed December 2015 to February 2016. At the height of its eruption in January, incandescent lava bombs were ejected high into the air. New ash emissions started on the day that I visited, but there were no lava flows or bombs. Click here for the latest news about Mount Bromo.

Bromo has erupted three times in the past decade. As a naturally curious tourist, I had to look down into the crater, to see and hear the roar of H2O, CO2, SO2 and H2S being spewed from the volcano's throat. Click on the picture to the left to see what Bromo was doing on April 4th, just before visitors were asked to clear the area and the national park was closed.

Next stop: Bali

Bali is one of those places that shows how fast our planet is changing. The last time I was in Bali was 1979. At that time, Bali's airport was a bumpy airstrip with a one-story terminal. Few roads were paved. Electricity went off at 10pm. I rented a thatched hut in a quiet village called Kuta Beach for $8/day. Today, Kuta Beach is 10 km of shopping malls, bars, restaurants and high-rise hotels. There's a 4-lane highway to the international airport. The neon signs glare all night long.

I avoided Kuta Beach and the tourists in southern Bali by taking the ferry from the east end of Java to the northwest corner of Bali. Although I arrived in Bali by a less-traveled route, I saw more bules (western tourists) in the first 24 hours than I'd seen in the past two months in Sumatra and Java.

I don't usually stay at resorts. But on Bali's north coast, I treated myself to the Taman Sari Resort. I lingered over breakfasts under the palm trees, snorkeled in a coral reef restoration project, and enjoyed Balinese massages at sunset.

From here, I began exploring "modern" Bali.

Danu Bratan Temple, central Bali

Offerings carried to the temple
I was pleased to find that much of the magic of Bali has been preserved. The people are as committed to their Hindu traditions and culture as always. The temples are maintained and blessed with daily offerings. Still, the paved roads, the ubiquitous ATMs, the 100% 3G network coverage, and the traffic are a reminder of the changing times.

Indonesia is a diverse country of many cultures. It's the world's most populous Islamic country, in which 87% of the people are Sunni Muslim. Yet, right in the middle of this archipelago is Bali, where more than 80% of the population is Hindu.

Balinese Hinduism is a unique blend of local animist beliefs and Hinduism. Almost every day is a holy day deserving of celebration. The Balinese event calendar lists 54 major celebrations in 2016, not counting tooth filings, marriages, cremations and other local festivals. Consequently, there are street processions, beating of gongs and drums, and offerings of fruits and flowers everywhere, all the time.

Dragon fountain
In Bali, gods and goddesses are present in all things. Every element of nature possesses its own power. A bird, a rock, a tree, a dagger, or a piece of woven cloth is a potential home for spirits whose energy can be directed for good or evil. There's an animist component to the Hinduism practiced here. Animals are everywhere. No wonder we see dragons. Look at the birds. Fanciful, fantastic, phantasmagoric!

Balinese Hinduism merges nature, art and ritual. Ritualized states of self-control are a feature of religion among the people, who for this reason are famous for their graceful and decorous behavior. Although this doesn't explain why everyone I've met in Indonesia is nice, perhaps this is why the Balinese are such gentle, happy people.

Wreathed Hornbill (Rhyticeros undulatus)

Balinese dancers in Ubud
From the north coast, I went overland to Ubud, in central Bali. Ubud is Bali's cultural center. This town of about 30,000 became a major tourist mecca after being featured in bestselling Eat, Pray, Love and being voted one of the top 10 cities in Asia by Conde Nast Traveler.

Many people come here for a few days and end up staying for weeks or months. Yoga and healing centers are some of the big draws. Ubud's Yoga Barn has about 500 visitors per day to its yoga classes, dances and other events. Ubud has a tradition of attracting eccentric artists, including the flamboyant Don Antonio Blanco, who called himself the "Dali of Bali." The Blanco Museum features his erotic art. When you've had enough meditation, yoga, art, culture and fine food, you can escape to the refreshing and cool Sacred Monkey Forest Sanctuary.

Bali is one of Indonesia's 17,000 islands, and is only 0.3% of Indonesia's total land area. Yet, of the 10 million tourists who come to Indonesia every year, a third of them come to Bali, and go nowhere else. The reasons for Bali's popularity are:
  • Bali is a beautiful, friendly and magical place.
  • Bali has excellent tourist facilities, for example ...
To the right is a small part of The ARMA Museum and Resort located in the middle of Ubud. This 20-acre property combines a vast art collection, with luxurious private bungalows and 5-star restaurants. Or how about the elegant The Dwaraka Royal Villas with its dance, art and cooking classes? As for me, I was happy with a bungalow by the river for $18/day including breakfast and a daily 60-minute Balinese massage.

Ubud is such a comfortable place to stay that it's easy to see why people come here and stay for weeks or months.

Agung Rai Resort, Ubud, Bali

The Green School, Ubud, Bali
Near Ubud is an experimental community called Green Village where a dozen homes and a school are built entirely of bamboo. The architecture is stunning. The village is 100% green, including its energy generation and waste disposal. I took a tour of the school, the bamboo factory and the homes. I was impressed. You can book a few nights at one of these fabulous homes on AirBnB, or have your own bamboo home built by Oktopus Solutions for $50k to $500k.

Speaking of schools, I've been studying bahasa Indonesian and now know about 200 words. It's an easy language to learn and speak. I can make myself understood, but I can't always understand what's being said to me because Indonesia has 700 regional languages, which are often very different from bahasa Indonesian. For example ...

Indonesian Balinese
Thank you ... Terima kasih Suk suma
Good day ... Selamat siang Om swasti astu
I get restless when I get too comfortable. So, after two weeks on Bali, enjoying fine dining, art museums, exotic temples, dance concerts, and daily massages, I needed a change. I took the ferry from Bali to the Gili Islands, which are east of Bali, near the island of Lombok. These islands are covered with palm trees, framed by white sand beaches, surrounded by turquoise water and colorful reefs, and small enough to walk around in a couple of hours. The three islands are ...
  • Gili Trawangan, known for its for all-night raves and parties
  • Gill Meno, which is primitive and lacks direct ferry service
  • Gili Air, a picturesque compromise between the first two Gilis

The beach on Gili Air, with transport to other islands

Bicycles and horses only on Gili Air
One lovely thing that the three Gili's have in common is that there are no gasoline-powered vehicles. This is a pleasant change from Bali, whose streets tend to be choked with traffic. It's blissfully quiet here at night. Almost everyone walks on the sandy streets barefoot. You only have to step aside occasionally when you hear the jingle bells of an approaching horse-drawn carriage. There are lots of comfortable beach bungalows for rent.

The table outside my bungalow

Sunset view of Gunung Rinjani (3726m)
Gili Air turned out to be a classic South Pacific beach paradise − a real getaway, where time stops. I met travelers who'd been here so long that they'd forgotten how many days or weeks they'd been here.

It was very easy to get into a beachcomber lifestyle. I went snorkeling every day. The reefs were in good shape, with healthy populations of tropical fish. Evenings were spent conviving with other tourists who'd washed up onto this island and were in no hurry to leave. From my table, I could look across the water to the island of Lombok. At sunset, Mount Rinjani would glow red with the fading sun. It's considered a magic mountain to the Balinese. I could have stayed here forever, but Rinjani started calling to me.

In a travel agent's office (which had a sand floor), I organized a 3-day, 2-night trek to Rinjani, complete with tent, sleeping bag, food, a guide and porters. The next day, I joined 6 other intrepid hikers eager to climb Indonesia's 2nd highest peak.

Gunjung Rinjani's crater lake
Rinjani is a spectacular mountain with a crater lake. When it erupted cataclysmically in 1257 AD, it blew 40 km3 of rock into the air. This makes it almost as big a volcanic event as the formation of Crater Lake, Oregon, when Mount Mazama erupted about 7,700 years ago. (Indonesia's more famous explosive eruptions, Tambora in 1815 and Krackatoa in 1883, were small by comparison.) What remains today after Rinjani's explosion is a geothermally-heated lake within the caldera, surrounded by hot springs, steep crater walls and sharp peaks. Rinjani is still active. It's currently rebuilding itself from a central vent which creates an island in the middle of the lake. The most recent eruption was November 2015.

One of our porters

On top of Mount Rinjani (3726 m)
It was a luxury to have porters carry the tents and sleeping bags, to setup camp each night, and to take down the tents in the morning. Our cook prepared traditional Indonesian hot meals for lunch and dinner, such as nasi goreng (fried rice) and mie goreng (fried noodles). The guide made sure that we didn't get lost. To reach the peak at sunrise, we started hiking at 2:30am. Having both a full moon and the Lyrids meteor shower was excellent timing. Rinjani turned out to be a challenging climb because the mountain is very steep, and it's covered with fresh volcanic ash. Wading through the ash to get to the top meant taking two steps forward, and then sliding back at least one step. This was exhausting, especially above 3000 meters elevation. At the summit, we witnessed the moon setting as the sun rose. Breath-taking and spectacular!

Singgigi Beach, Lombok
The final stop on this leg of my journey was a beach town on Lombok called Senggigi. I came here because it's off the tourist path. This is where Indonesian tourists come to play and relax. There are fewer crowds and the prices are lower here than on Bali. Bali and Lombok have many fabulous places to visit. But if you get away from Bali, you'll find uncrowded beaches and lower prices.

I've been delighted by how many scenic places there are in Indonesia, how easy it is to travel here, how reasonable the prices are, how delicious the food is, and how friendly and happy the people are. There's a lot more of Indonesia that I want to see, but my visa is about to expire. I'll be back soon!

June 1 − Kalimantan

Kalimantan is the part of Borneo that belongs to Indonesia. It's a vast jungle cut by meandering rivers. Its most famous residents are the Dayaks, known for headhunting, tattooing, stretched earlobes, blowguns and longhouses. Kalimantan's other ethnic groups are the merchant Chinese and the Islamic Malay.

Kalimantan has extensive natural resources. Rubber, oil, spices, timber, coal, diamonds and gold brought decades of intrigue between British and Dutch colonial interests, and made this island an early target for Japan in World War II.

Today, coal barges float down rivers lined with tin-roof shacks, while palm-oil plantations spread across the landscape. The great jungle recedes, never to return.

The eight provinces of Indonesia

Stilt houses make for interesting lodging

Palau Derawan
Just off Kalimantan's east coast is the Derawan Archipelago. The most populated of these 31 islands is Palau Derawan. It's a classic tropical island populated by stilt houses, souvenir shops and warungs (casual eateries) built out over the water. The water is wonderfully clear. The coral-sand beaches are white as snow. The snorkeling is good. When the tide comes in, Green turtles munch on sea grass and garbage. Long sand bars extend into the shallow seas and make for spectacular beach walks. Lobsters are on the menu. At night, the stars are brilliant.

Warm water, blue skies, white sand

Slash and burn to make room for palm oil plantations
To get to this tropical island paradise, one must drive through miles of burned out rainforests. Large sections of Kalimantan are being slashed and burned to make way for palm oil plantations. The tropical rainforests, once rich habitats for rare birds and orangutans, are being replaced by burned stumps and rows of palm trees.

Throughout Kalimantan, there is a sense of an ongoing plunder in which the local people benefit little, outmaneuvered by a shadowy collection of foreign businessmen and local government officials overseen from Jakarta. The burning in Kalimantan takes place in the dry months of September, October and November. The smoke from these fires drifts 1000 miles west to Singapore and Kuala Lumpur, where visibility becomes limited and the cities have to issue environmental health warnings.

Although numerous conservation groups are struggling to halt this social and environmental damage, and to save some remarkable wildlife, I'm lucky to see Kalimantan now and not ten years from now.

The mythical Lembuswana
I spent a couple of days in the exotic river town of Samarinda. With a name like that, I was expecting a charming place. Actually, it was a dirty, smelly city on the banks of a big, muddy river. This city has few quality hotels and thousands of rusting tin-roofed shacks spread over the surrounding hills.

Samarinda's main tourist attraction is an Islamic Center, built about 5 years ago. I've seen more impressive mosques. The odd animal shown to the left is a mythological creature that supposedly lives in the river. It brings luck and prosperity to the people who live here. With all the environmental damage that's taking place here, I think this animal is now extinct.

Samarinda's Islamic Center

Dayak mask
Kalimantan is home to the Dayak people, famous for their poison darts and tendency to cut off people's heads. These days, the Dayaks don't shoot poison darts any more or collect human heads, but they still make masks and dance for the tourists.

Every Sunday at 2pm, Pampang, 25km west of Samarinda, has authentic Kenyah Dayak ceremonies at its longhouse, one of the last places where one can see traditional long ears. I was surprised and pleased by how well-attended this dance concert was. There were only four western tourists in the audience, yet it was a standing-room only event with many Indonesian tourists.

Dayak dancers

Bananas everywhere
Like all of Indonesia, Kalimantan has delicious food. Bananas are everywhere − and are inexpensive. The fish is always fresh. Every warung has its own recipe for fried rice, peppers and chicken. Chinese restaurants serve up fish and spicy noodles. Street vendors offer a wide variety of mouthwatering fried fruits and vegetables. If you learn their names, you can get what you want:

Pisang goreng Fried banana
Molen Banana wrapped in dough and fried
Pisang aroma Molen, with spices added
Lumpia Veggies wrapped in dough and fried
Onde-onde Bean paste fried in coconut flour
with sesame seeds on the outside

Cooking a batch of molen
Kalimantan was underwhelming, and that's okay. If you travel enough, you inevitably visit a few places that you don't feel the need to revisit. Since every island in Indonesia is like a new country, I can be sure that my next destination, Sulawesi, will be different.

June 22 − Sulawesi

When I was young, there was a world map on my bedroom wall. Just above my pillow was a strange-looking island labeled Celebes. I often wondered if this island was a real place, or a playful creation by the cartographer − like the whales and dragons drawn in the corners of the map. Having just spent three weeks on this island, I've seen that this place is indeed real − and fantastic.

Sulawesi (known as Celebes until the end of its Dutch governance) is the world's 11th largest island. It has four distinct peninsulas, fringed with sandy beaches and coral reefs. Between its two northern penisulas is a calm, warm sea bisected by the equator and filled with a stunning variety of fish. The island's interior is crowded with steep mountains and impenetrable jungles thick with wildlife.

Isolated by deep water and rugged topography, native cultures evolved independently here: Tana Toraja with their elaborate funeral ceremonies; Mamasans whose lives revolve around the Christian church; Minahasans in the north who will offer you spicy forest rat and grilled bat; Bugis, the sea gypsies, who learn to swim when they're 3 days old and spend their entire lives on the water.

Sulawesi, formerly known as Celebes

Traditional Tana Toraja houses and storage barns
A visit to Tana Toraja is like a cultural documentary brought to life. Sweeping and elaborately painted houses with boat-shaped roofs dot terraced rice paddies where farmers work the fields alongside their doe-eyed buffalo. The horns of these buffalo will someday decorate the homes of their owners ... but only after suffering a violent and gory sacrifice.
Fruit and vegetable market in Rantepao

Toraja cliff cemeteries
The Torajans believe that you can take it with you. Thus, they spend a lot of time and money sending away their dead properly. Wealthy Toraja are entombed in cave graves, guarded over by life-sized wooden effigies carved in their image. Buffalo are sacrificed so the deceased can start new herds in the afterlife.

I attended a Torajan death ceremony. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, with emphasis on the word once. I was a vegetarian for several days afterwards.

10 buffalo were sacrificed for the deceased
The mountains and high forests of central Sulawesi are wonderful for hiking and exploring. I was frequently treated to sightings of horn bills and monkeys.

At the end of a day of hiking through dense jungles and along roaring rivers, I could always find comfortable − albeit rustic − homestays, cold beer, spicy food, and some of the most hospitable hosts I've encountered in months of travel.

The view from my porch at Mentirotiku Homestay in Batutumonga

Palindo megalith, in the Bada Valley
As if the lush jungle filled with noisy hornbills and shy tarsiers wasn’t enough, Sulawesi's Lore Lindu National Park is also famous for its megalithic remains – giant freestanding granite stones carved into stylized human figures. Covering an area of 250,000 hectares, this remote national park (a Unesco Biosphere Reserve) has been barely touched by tourism. The Bada Valley is literally off-the-beaten-path. In many places, the road is a washed-out river of mud and boulders, passable only by 4x4 with an experienced and daring driver. There is no beaten path to this destination.

There are dozens of megaliths in these remote mountain valleys. Archaeologists have guessed they were carved about 2000 years ago. However, every time that research teams have attempted to unearth clues about these megaliths, earthquakes, violent storms or fatal accidents have occurred. Consequently, the local authorities have prohibited further studies of these mysterious statues. Still, the megaliths are revered. Palindo, shown to the left, is a fertility god. Villagers come here regularly to make offerings to the spirits who reside within this stone.

Kadidiri Paradise Resort, Togean Islands

In the middle of Sulawesi, enclosed by land on three sides, is a deep, warm sea as big as Lake Superior, called the Gulf of Tomini. In the center of this gulf is an archipelago of 56 islands known as the Togean Islands. The Togeans are the only place in Indonesia where one can find all three major reef environments − atoll, barrier and fringing reefs − in one location. The golden beaches are soft, powdered coral. The water is calm. The reefs are teeming with corals and fish. The visibility is excellent. This is snorkeling and diving paradise. I spent 3 hours every day under water here.

Welcome to the Togean Island ferry

Man flying a kite a low tide

There are semi-scheduled boats and ferries that allow one to island-hop from one forested golden-beach beauty to the next. The fish is fresh. The hammocks are plentiful. The welcome is homey. There is no cell phone service or internet. (Aaaah!) Once I got here, I was tempted to never leave.

Most islands have only one or two family-run guesthouses that accommodate a dozen people. I stayed at three delightful and exotic island resorts during my week in these islands. When I die, I hope to come back to one of these places:

Togean Islands:
Poya Lisa, Bomba
Kadidiri Paradise Resort

Bunaken Island:
Bunaken SeaGarden Resort

Crystal-clear water

Happy island children

Rustic living at Poya Lisa Homestay

Dive boats ready for excursions

Dinner at Poya Lisa
Although some reefs are recovering from dynamite and cyanide fishing in the early 90s, the mix of coral and marine life is spectacular and unusually diverse, The more conspicuous residents include brightly marked coral lobsters (which are delicious), a colony of dugong, schools of dolphins, the occasional whale, lots of turtles, commercially important species of trepang (sea cucumber), and natural pearls. If you get tired of looking at sea life, there's a sunken WWII B-24 bomber near Kadidiri Island, which makes an interesting diving destination.

Sealife of Sulawesi's reefs

Liang Beach, Bunaken Island

Nice spot for a beer at the end of the day
Just FYI, there are professional dive shops on many of the islands offering basic dives for $35/tank plus the full range of dive courses and certifications.

I spent a few hours every day under water. I opted to snorkel. I've been learning to free dive, and have found it to be more relaxing than having to deal with all the heavy equipment required for diving. Furthermore, with skin/free diving, I can stay out for 2 or 3 hours without having to worry about running out of air.

All of the resorts I stayed in were homey, casual and inexpensive. It's surprising how few people were here in June. July and August are supposedly the high season. Any time of year seems to be good time to be in this part of the world.

This is where I wrap up my 4-month odyssey through Indonesia. What a remarkable country this is. Indonesia is huge, covering 3 time zones and 17,000 islands. I've loved the beautiful landscapes with puffing volcanoes, the lush forests, the inviting beaches and the teeming wildlife − both above and below the water. It's a remarkably varied country, with many unique and distinct cultures and languages. And did I mention that the people are friendly?

Until I came here, Indonesia wasn't on my "bucket list". Now that I've been here, I realize that it should have been.

Sunset over the Teluk Tomini (Gulf of Tomini)

June 24 to July 13 − Mongolia

Some countries are difficult to visit as an independent traveler. Maybe the roads are bad, the distances are huge, there's limited public transit, there are few tourist services (such as road signs), or there's a language barrier. Mongolia is all of these things. So, although I don't usually join tour groups, I made an exception for Mongolia.

Flying from Indonesia to Mongolia was easy. On arrival in Ulaan Baatar (Mongolia's capital), I visited guest houses and hostels to ask what sorts of tours were available. At Khongor Guest House and Tours, I found exactly what I was looking for: A 14-day expedition to the Gobi Desert and the mountains of central Mongolia, where the addition of one more passenger (me) would incur an incremental cost. I also found five wonderful traveling companions who appreciate adventure and good humor.

Take note fellow travelers: If you travel alone, and if your calendar is flexible, you can often find last-minute bargains and opportunities.

This expedition wasn't a luxury cruise, nor was it roughing it. It was somewhere in between.

We traveled in a Russian-built UAZ, an 8-passenger, 4-wheel drive van which combines simplicity, durability, high road clearance, and a spacious interior. The UAZ is the ideal vehicle for the Mongolia steppe, although it's not known for its styling or comfort. Most UAZes are painted dull grey, brown or olive green, and have hard bench seats.

  • The "Land of the Eternal Blue Sky" because it has over 250 sunny days every year.
  • The world's largest empire in the 13th century.
  • The world's lowest population density at 2 people/km2.
  • About one third desert.
  • 30% of the population is nomadic.

Sun Mi, Ori, me, Rashmi, Mr.T, Jeevan
Erka (our driver), Hong
Every night, we slept in a traditional Mongolian nomad tent, known as a ger or a yurt. These are well-insulated portable structures, perfect for keeping out the rain, dust and wind of Mongolia. Most of our gers had pot-bellied stoves which were nice on chilly nights.

We enjoyed hot showers every 2 or 3 days, and even a couple of soothing soaks in steaming, sulfurous water at a natural hot spring.

We didn't have to cook. We took our lunches at rustic family-run village diners. In the evenings, Mr.T (our guide) served us authentic Mongolian suppers using local ingredients − such as a freshly-slaughtered sheep.

A traditional Mongolian ger
During the summer, nomads set up ger camps in deserts and prairies to accommodate tourists and travelers.

There are 2-10 gers in a typical camp, with each ger having 2-6 bunks.

The only other structures are a cook house and an outhouse.

The couple who ran our first ger camp
Ger camps are a family operation: A man, his wife and their children manage the camp and greet visitors. The nomad family also manages dogs and cats, plus herds of goats, sheep, camels and/or horses. Though isolated from other towns or camps, these nomad ger camps are lively places.

Narrow passage through the Altai Mountains
Mongolian hiways are primitive. What look like roads on the map are just dirt tracks across rolling meadows, through narrow canyons, over gravelly plains, or down desert washes. Roads are created wherever travelers decide to go.

Because of the rough terrain, our journey was like riding a roller-coaster. In two weeks, we covered about 2500 km, 90% of which was off-road driving.

Happily, we had an experienced driver who knew the best shortcuts through the mountains (see photo to the left), how to avoid getting stuck in the mud (which was like quicksand), and how to change a tire (yes, we had one).

Nomad boy and his horse

The Gobi Desert showing sparse vegetation after early summer rains

Thunderstorm over the Gobi
The southern third of Mongolia is the Gobi Desert. Like most deserts, it's harsh, stark and bleak.

Of special interest were the sand dunes, some as high as 300 meters.

The dunes at Khongoriin Eis − 2 steps up, 1.9 steps back down

The two-humped Bactrian camel of central Asia
After many hours bouncing along dirt roads, we took welcome breaks to scale a granite dome, to walk around the rim of a volcano, and to crawl to the top of the sand dunes. (Mongolia has all these things and more.)

Riding horses and camels was even more fun, and used different muscles. The Bactrian camel, native to central Asia, is easier to ride than its 1-humped cousin in Africa and the Middle East. There's a hump in front to hold onto, and a hump in back to rest against. Their big soft feet are perfect for the soft sand. No wonder they're called the "ships of the desert."

As for the Mongolian ponies, they're a hardy breed. They can keep up a steady trot up and down rocky hills all day long, i.e. for longer than I can sit in a saddle.

Mongolia is famous for dinosaurs. Believe it or not, the Gobi Desert was a big, wet swamp 70 million years ago. In the early 1920s, an American adventurer named Roy Andrews visited the sandstone cliffs of the Gobi, and unearthed more than 100 dinosaurs, including Ceratops, Velociraptors, Ankylosaurs, and the fearsome Tarbosaurus.

The most remarkable of Andrews' discoveries was dinosaur eggs which proved dinosaurs' kinship to modern reptiles and birds.

Andrews and his teams camped here for more than two years and named the nearby mesa "Flaming Cliffs".

No one is allowed to prospect for dino bones today, but it's a magnificent place to watch a sunset.

The Flaming Cliffs

Ulaan Tsutgalan waterfall
Mongolia isn't all desert and prairie. Northwest of the Gobi are lakes, rivers, forests, and mountains.

The waterfall on the left is a scenic swimming hole. The sparkling blue lake to the right is part of an ancient rift valley, similar to Lake Baikal in Siberia, 400 km northeast of here.

Yaks grazing beside Terkhiin Tsagaan Lake (aka White Lake)
After two weeks on the road, it was time to return to civilization. Ulaan Baatar, Mongolia's capital and only major city, is home to 45% of Mongolia's 3 million citizens. There's a lot to do here.

Chinggis Khan Square, Ulaan Baatar
Marco Polo is one of my all-time heroes. At the age of 15, he left Venice and spent 25 years traveling to China and back. I've often wondered how he managed to travel safely throughout Asia during the late 13th century. The answer became clear to me in the National Museum of Mongolia where I realized that, during Marco Polo's travels, most of Asia was one country: The Mongol Empire, the largest contiguous empire in all of history.

Marco Polo learned to speak fluent Mongol. He was introduced into the court of Kublai Khan, headquartered in Beijing. Thanks to his association with the Great Khan, Marco Polo was granted a "golden passport", the bearer of which is entitled to safe passage, food and lodging. This passport − together with his language skills − enabled Polo to travel freely throughout the Mongol Empire, i.e. most of Asia and parts of eastern Europe. Today, this "golden passport" is featured on Mongolian currency.

I don't have a "golden passport" and the world is more fragmented than it was in 1280. So, I'll have to make do with an ATM card, email and internet where I can find it, language skills (which will always be important!), US dollars and an American passport, which are still warmly accepted in most countries.

A Golden Passport

Chinggis Khan's army marches to battle
With travel, as with many other things in life, timing is everything. Mongolia isn't a great place to visit in January. It's kinda cold and windy when the blizzards blow down from Siberia.

If you'd like to see Mongolia, be sure to visit during the Naadam Festival, held on July 11-12. It's Mongolia's Labor Day, 4th of July and Superbowl rolled into one.

Naadam starts off with an Opening Ceremony which is one of the world's must-see cultural spectacles, in which the grand history of Mongolia is acted out in full regalia. This show gave me goosebumps!

Singers relaxing backstage

Naadam Festival Opening Ceremonies

Archery, for both women and men
Naadam is a multi-day sporting event that's believed to have existed in one form or another for centuries.

The focus of Naadam are Mongolia's three national sports:

  • Archery tests wisdom.
  • Wrestling tests strength.
  • Horse racing tests courage.

The start of the elimination rounds of 1024 wrestlers

Dancing traditional Mongolian steps
The archery winners were seasoned warriors with faces lined from squinting at targets 75 meters away.

The wrestling champion looked like the Incredible Hulk and would probably do well in Japanese sumo.

The horse racing jockeys were brave boys between the ages of 9 and 12. The winning horses tend to be half-Arabian and half-Mongolian.

Winner of the 23-km horse race
Interspersed among these sporting events, there's plenty of music, dancing, eating and drinking. Naadam is a must-see world cultural event. Ulaan Baatar is an exciting place to be on July 11 and 12. Mongolia is a beautiful and friendly country. I'd recommend Mongolia.

July 14 to July 29 − Tibet

Tibet is one of those exotic destinations that people like to talk about, but few people actually go there. Why? Maybe because getting to Tibet involves a lot of red tape. I first tried to visit Tibet in 2012. I was all set to join two Canadians and two Brits for a 2-week tour. At the last minute, the Chinese government cancelled our travel permits, saying that tours must be comprised of tourists of the same nationality. I joked that the only difference between Canadians and Americans are their health insurance policies, and that Brits are just Americans who talk funny ... but the Chinese didn't buy it. All our ground work and preparation went for nothing.

This time around, I started my planning well in advance. I interviewed tour companies by email. I confirmed and double-checked all the Tibet travel permit requirements. I created an itinerary that would be approved by the Chinese and also appeal to adventurous travelers. Then, I emailed 47 American friends who I hoped would sign up for a trip to Tibet. (Although the Chinese government currently allows multi-national tours to Tibet, I opted for an all-American tour in case the Chinese changed their rules.) I received four yes responses to my Tibet invitation. Our tour was on!

The tour company I used was Tibet International Travels & Tours (TITT), based in Kathmandu, Nepal. Since all four of my co-travelers were coming to Tibet via Nepal, using a Nepal-based tour company simplified the planning, permits and logistics. Note that TITT has been replaced by Dream Tibet Travel & Tours. If I were to visit Tibet again, I'd book my tour with Tibet Tashidelek International Travels & Tours in Lhasa, and travel overland through China. The latter tour company sub-contracts to the former. Both are excellent travel agencies, familiar with the complications of getting to and from Tibet, and staffed by smart, friendly, English-speaking guides.

The bottom line of all of this is that independent travel in Tibet is not currently possible. Due to Chinese restrictions, foreign travellers must prearrange a tour with a guide and transportation. On the plus side, new airports, hotels and paved roads mean that this might just be the time to make the pilgrimage to Tibet.

The Potala Palace, Lhasa

The Jokhang, Tibet's most revered structure
Most western tourists enter Tibet via Lhasa. This is Tibet's capital, largest city, and primary airport. When your plane lands at Lhasa, you may notice that your ears don't pop. That's because Lhasa's elevation is ~4000 meters, or ~13,000 feet. Be prepared to be out of breath for a few days!

In the middle of Lhasa, on top of a steep outcrop of chert, sits the iconic Potala Palace, with more than 1000 rooms. Ten Dalai Lamas lived here for more than 300 years, overseeing the spiritual and secular lives of the Tibetan people. In 1959, Mao's army forced the current Dalai Lama into exile. Today, the Potala Palace is like the Taj Mahal. It's a famous monument to someone who's not there anymore. Tickets are booked on-line. At your appointed visit time, you queue up at metal detectors. From there, you're ushered through a prescribed visit route, with a fixed time for your departure from the site.

The other major attraction in Lhasa is the Jokhang Temple. Built between 639 and 647 AD, it's Tibet's most revered building. Today, it houses copies of the Buddhist statues that were put here 13 centuries ago. Pilgrims come to the Jokhang to walk around the temple three times, always clockwise as Buddhists do. It's a colorful and busy site, with burning incense, prostrating Tibetans, and busloads of Chinese tourists. Note that most of Tibet's temples and monasteries were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76). Since then many have been restored and serve as tourist attractions.

Spinning wool by hand
If you can look past all the Chinese tourists, you'll see the real people who live here, i.e. Tibetans.

The people of Tibet maintain their simple way of life, and observe the rituals of their Buddhism. They wear authentic traditional clothing, spin their prayer wheels, walk the routes around the monuments, recite their prayers, prostrate themselves in front of statues and holy sites, and greet you with a smile when they're done.

At the start and end of my visit to Tibet, I stayed at the Tibetan-run Kyichu Hotel. It's an easy walk from the Potala Palace and the Johkhang.

Walking the Barkhor circuit around the Jokhang

Pilgrims rest, Tashilhunpo Monastery
So why visit Tibet? Sure, it's the world’s highest plateau, full of natural and spiritual wonders. Travel in Tibet is especially pleasant thanks to the open-hearted hospitality of the Tibetans.

In spite of our language barrier, I met and talked with a lot of Tibetans ... and I liked them all. Tibetans are very welcoming. Their typical greeting − which was usually conveyed with hand gestures − consisted of ...

  • Please sit down with us.
  • Have a drink. You like it?
  • Where are you from?
  • Let's take pictures.

Gentlemen outside the monastery

Monks at the Sera Monastery, Lhasa
I didn't see a lot of western tourists in Tibet. Perhaps this is because it's difficult to arrange a travel permit.

I witnessed genuine religious observance, with a devotion and faith that belongs to an earlier age. Monks seemed happy while they debated religious philosophies. Pilgrims spun their prayer wheels with a friendly casualness and sociability.

Spinning the prayer wheels
To see the rest of Tibet required getting into a car. For the next two weeks, my tour group covered 3000 km. Five years ago, this would have been a bone-jarring and time-consuming ordeal. Fortunately for us, the industrious Chinese have paved all of Tibet's highways since 2011.

Traveling overland gave me a good sense of how vast Tibet is. Tibet is the same area as New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming and Montana combined. We were about to embark on a road trip equivalent to driving from Albuquerque, NM to Jackson, WY and back − the big difference being that the Himalayas are twice as high as the Rockies. Our main route followed part of an east-west highway known as the Friendship Highway, because of its link to Nepal.

Spectacular, scenic and stunning are hardly enough to describe Tibet's glittering turquoise lakes, wide plains dotted with yaks and nomad tents, snowy passes draped with colorful prayer flags, and breathtaking views of the Himalayas, especially the north face of Mount Everest.

The Friendship Highway from Lhasa to Kathmandu
The only annoyances on our journey were the frequent Chinese checkpoints along our route. We counted 16 between Lhasa and Mt Kailash.
One of many highway checkpoints

Highway lunch stop
All highways have roadside restaurants. Having a good local guide is the key to finding the best ones. Lamb was always on the menu. One thing I missed in Tibet were fruits and vegetables.
Potatoes, lamb and rice

Lunch for a yak
Tibet isn't famous for wildlife, but we saw lots of big birds (eagles, vultures) and four-footed animals.

Yaks were the most common animal we saw. It was fun to see big horn sheep scamper across sacred precipices.

Big horn sheep

Views from the Friendship Highway

Evening along the Friendship Highway
These photos were taken looking south towards the Himalayas. Several of these peaks are over 7000m (23,000 ft).

Bhutan, Nepal and/or India are on the other side of these mountains.

One of the highpoints of this trip − the highest point − was Mount Everest.

To see Everest from Nepal requires a trek of several days. In Tibet, the Chinese built a highway − with 97 switchbacks! − all the way up to 5200 meters (17,160 feet) to the base camp.

When we first arrived, the mountain was shrouded in clouds. We spent the night at a guesthouse and had great views of the mountain the next morning. Wow!

Mount Everest (8848m) viewed from northern base camp (5200m)

Foothills of Mount Kailash, near Darchen
From Everest, we continued west for two more days to Mount Kailash. Why drive so far to see a mountain that's only 6714m (~22,000 feet) high?
  • With four triangular sides, it looks like a giant pyramid.
  • It's the source of four of Asia's biggest rivers: Indus (Pakistan), Sutlej (India/Pakistan), Brahmaputra (Bangladesh), and Karnali-Ganges (India).
  • It's worshipped by more than a billion Buddhists and Hindus.
  • Walking the 52km pilgrim path (kora) around the mountain erases the sins of a lifetime. Cool!
For about 1,000,000,000 people, Mount Kailash is the holiest place on Earth and the center of their world. Many pilgrims walk 1,000 miles to get here. Then, they walk the 52 kilometer kora, clockwise around the mountain in a single day, carrying their picnics and small children as they go. The most devoted pilgrims walk the kora 13 times in 13 days. 13 is a magic number and entitles one to take a shortcut. 108 Kailash koras guarantees instant nirvana.

Our goal was to walk around Mount Kailash once, and to do it in three days. We had the added luxuries of driving to the trailhead, having porters to carry our gear, eating hot meals, sleeping in guest houses, and soaking in hot springs at the end of our trek.

This turned out to be one of the most satisfying treks I've ever taken.

Mount Kailash (6714m), Lake Manasarovar guesthouses in foreground

Prayer rocks at start of the Kailash Kora
The first and third days of the Kailash kora follow a gentle track through valleys carved by glaciers. Prayer rocks litter the sides of the trail. Mountain streams flow through lush meadows where yaks graze and pilgrims picnic. Waterfalls cascade from steep sandstone cliffs. Here and there is a temple, monastery or holy site.
Pilgrims starting up the trail, 52 km to go

Woman with pack horse
Thanks to the porters, I carried a day pack with just water, snacks and rain gear.

Children and grandmothers zipped past me when I stopped to catch my breath in the thin mountain air.

Yaks are also used for carrying supplies

Sunrise on Mt.Kailash, day #2

Gauri Kund (5608m), the "Lake of Compassion"

The second day of the Kailash kora is a strenuous climb with countless switchbacks up and over Drölma-la Pass. There's not much air at 5630 meters (18,500 ft). Humans can't live for sustained periods at this elevation.

The scenery was, of course, incredible. I was surrounded by gigantic spires of granite, laced with sparkling glaciers. Red, yellow, white, blue and green prayer flags decorated the trail. Turquoise lakes filled pockets on the sides of cliffs. The thunder of occasional rock falls echoed between massive peaks.

I was glad that I'd spent the previous 12 days at 4000+ meters to acclimate. I was thankful that Allison, one of my fellow travelers, had given me some cocoa leaves to chew on for my ascent. We were also very lucky with the weather. The previous day, the pass was snowed shut with a blizzard. Yet, when we crossed over the pass, we walked through fresh snow in the sunshine, with a soft, warm breeze at our backs.

Drölma-la Pass (5630m), highest point on the trail

The descent from Drölma-la Pass

Coming down a mountain is often as hard as going up. But with the exhilaration of having made it over the pass, I didn't feel the sharp rocks beneath my feet.

I set my eyes on the tents and tea shops waiting for tired pilgrims. There, at the bottom of the pass, it's a party atmosphere, with everyone sharing their tea, snacks and stories.

The Kailash kora was my favorite experience in Tibet. Walking a kora is the ultimate fusion of mind and body. It's a great way to see the breathtaking landscapes and sites of Tibet. And it's the easiest way to meet Tibetans on their own terms.

Teahouses selling drinks and noodles

Prayer rocks and yak horns at the end of the trail
Everyone in our tour made it to the top of the pass and back down again with nothing worse than a few blisters.

We picked up two other travelers along the way (Femka and Sharon) and celebrated at our guest house after our success.

Celebrating a successful kora with Allison, Alice, me, Hal,
Alex, Puchong (guide), Benpa (driver), Femka and Sharon
Although I prefer to travel independently, I had to join a tour group to visit Tibet. A lot of planning was involved. Travel is "work" after all. This tour worked out beautifully. I was delighted to have been able to hand-pick my tour group colleagues − all excellent people, and better friends than before. I might try organizing another exotic adventure like this in 2017. I've always wanted to see gorillas in the wild ... hmmmm.

As in the past seven years of travel, 2016 was another "Trip of a Lifetime". How many lifetimes can a person have in one life? We measure time with our memories of momentous events. We remember weddings, earthquakes, vacations to someplace special, etc. These memorable events are the landmarks of our lives, against which we measure time.

What happens when you have dozens of unforgettable experiences in a year? The year seems longer. Life seems fuller. Time seems to have slowed. No one completely understands what time is, but I think I've found a way to get more of it. The secret is to have unforgettable experiences. The travel that I've undertaken is stretching the fabric of time.

I'm now back in the US now to replenish the bank account, to catch up with friends and family, and to plan my next trip to someplace that I've never been before. I'm getting the hang of traveling now. Being a nomad is a simple life. But I can't imagine a richer life.

Having visited about 100 countries, I'm often asked which one I like the best. I can't choose just one place, so I've nominated my favorites and posted a music video on youtube. Click here to see my Top 15. Click here to return to the world map. Feel free to email comments or questions.