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Aitutaki Island, Cook Islands – Impresions

While staying on Rarotonga, fellow backpackers mentioned travelling to Aitutaki, the Cook Islands’ second most popular location. So, I booked a flight and went to see what it was all about.


The Island
Aitutaki is 45 minutes by small plane north of Rarotonga and is the main island of an Atol of 15 islands is a loose equilateral triangle, surrounding a much more defined lagoon. Indeed, many people fly to the island for a day trip, with an hour long tour of the island, and a half day lagoon tour.


The atol is vastly quieter than Rarotonga, with fewer locals also. Some tourists have said the locals live more poorly here, I think they don’t need the lavish housing of Rarotonga or NZ. The community is more friendly, not that those on Rarotonga aren’t, the Aitutaki community is just more friendly. And, if you stay more than a couple of days, you quickly become a member of said community. Unlike Rarotonga, Aitutaki has no dogs, so the cats have taken over, making it their island.

Lagoon Tour
On my first full day on the island, I was collected in the morning and taken out on the water with 16 others for a full day tour. We headed towards Honeymoon Island, stopping to snorkel on the way. Unfortunately my old waterproof camera decided not to work, but it was an enjoyable swim with some giant blue trevally and a rusted shipwreck.


Honeymoon island is the classic tropical island, and would be empty except for the Kite Surfing school in it’s only hut.


We crossed to Maina island, where we stopped for lunch, a fantastic feed of fresh tuna steaks, chicken and local salads, including the classic curried papaya.


It was then back onto the boat to our second snorkelling spot. We passed a 2000 year old Brain Coral as we swam along a series of bouys eventually meeting the boat in a metre of water. The bar opened and we drank beer as we floated in the warm water while a giant white trevally swam around us. Our third stop had to be cut short as the wind was picking up and the water was getting a little dangerous, but we got a quick dip to see some blue and purple coral.


We then stopped off at Tekopua island, also known as One Foot Island, for a walk around and another beer. There’s a post office on this little island, so I handed over my passport and got a stamp. It was then back to Aitutaki and the end of an excellent day on the bay. That night, the guys in the hostel, kite-surfers who had been there for two months, had cooked curried fish and curried papaya. As I said, community.


Scooter Adventure
With a day and a half to spare on the island, I called the hostel owner looking for a scooter and he brought me his personal one on loan. Unlike Rarotonga, you don’t need a licence to ride on Aitutaki, this gave me free reign of the island and I took full advantage.


I found some prime snorkelling sites, and got in on a couple, although it was murky in both.

I found some good cafes, the Koru Cafe at the end of the Airport Runway, and the Avatea Cafe at the other end of the Island, serving amazing fish tacos. I found my way to a Marine Research facility where they were breeding clams, both the small local ones and the giant Australian ones for repopulating the lagoon.


With the aide of the scooter, I climbed the two higher ‘peaks’ on the island, barely over 100m, but still providing excellent views. This is from Piraki…


… and the tallest at 124m, Maungapu.


Then as darkness fell, one of hostel mates snuck us into a local resort where some of his friends were performing after the local feast. It was nice to see the traditional dancing and music for the first time.


While I was only on the island three nights, I felt that was about enough to see what the island had to offer. I liked the quietness away from the crowds in Rarotonga, but in turn, it was a little too quiet for a tourist. Still, it felt like the real Cook Islands and not the tourist centre that is the main island.


Until next time,
The World Wanderer.

Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City by Scooter – Part 1

Riding a motorbike the length of Vietnam is becoming a popular way to see the country. After hearing about a fellow traveller’s motorcycle adventure from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City I decided to do it. So I bought a scooter in Hanoi and prepared for an adventure that would take the better part of three weeks.


Here’s a brief breakdown of my trip…

Day 1 – Hanoi to Ha Long Bay – 167km
Ha Long Bay is a tourist destination not traditionally part of the Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City route, but I added it anyway. It would give me a chance to test my scooter over long distance.

The main highway is well maintained and once I was out of the super bustle of Hanoi it was even relaxing. With my speed averaging between 50 and 60 kilometre per hour, a good speed without pushing the scooter, the trip took about 5 hours. With a terribly sore arse and only 5km short of my hotel I discovered I had a flat tyre. A friendly local offered to fix it for me for US$5.

Later, after checking into my hotel I went for a ride to have a look around the city and book a cruise.


Day 2 – Ha Long Bay Boat Cruise
It was a misty, overcast day for my cruise. But being the middle of winter all is forgiven. Ha Long Bay means literally ‘descending dragon bay’ and has around 1600 limestone monoliths scattered around it. While it was chilly out on the water and the skies grey, the views were still amazing. Mist hung around the monoliths giving the bay both an eerie and magical appearance.


The tour took us to some interesting places and we got to walk through the depths of Thien Cung Grotto, a large touristy cave system where many sections were lit up in colours.


We also visited a floating village, a fish market and a pair of small monoliths called Fighting Cock Rocks, which from certain angles look vaguely like a pair of chickens fighting.

Day 3 – Ha Long Bay to Ninh Binh – 175km
On several occasions during today’s ride it threatened to rain, but other than vaguely spitting, nothing came of it. Today, when my arse began to get sore, I stopped and got off the bike for a bit. Five minute every hour seemed to work well.

I arrived in Ninh Binh on time and after settling in the hotel, I headed out to explore. I found a place called Bich Dong Pagoda, which is a buddhist temple set into the side of a limestone mountain.


I followed a path into the cave, up a long set of stairs to a higher cave and a shrine, outside and up another set of stairs to another building which offered great views. A thin trail lead up around behind this building and ever curious, I had a look. Thirty minutes later, I’d climbed the jagged rocks of the mountain and stood at the top looking out over monoliths surrounded by wet rice paddies.


Day 4 – Ninh Binh to Thanh Hoa/Sam Son Beach – 64km

The weather has been overcast for much of my time in Vietnam, clearing up a little in the afternoons. Today, however, I awoke to blue skies. This decided my next stop. The beach. The ride was barely longer than an hour and as I arrived in Thanh Hoa, I discovered the huge Thien view Truc Lam Ham Rong temple and pagoda on a hill.


Then when I was settled into the hotel, where beyond the word ‘hello’ no-one could speak English, I was back on the bike and rode the 13km out to Sam Son beach. While the skies were bare of clouds, the beach was virtually empty. Winter. I rode around the Sam Son area for some time, discovering a large portion of the beach front is a construction zone. Dozens of brick buildings are in the process of being demolished, likely to build more resorts.


Day 5 – Thanh Hoa to Hong Linh – 174km

Today’s five hour ride was fairly straightforward. In the small town of Hong Linh, I arrived at my hotel to find the years had not been kind to it. Seven years ago, a flood struck the town, possibly flooding the lower levels and killing the hotel’s business. After settling in, I took a ride around town and stopped to admire the local catholic church.


Compared to the rest of Asia, Vietnam has a lot of churches. You can see their spires as you approach each city and town. In comparison, there are very few buddhist temples, although most houses still have shrines.

Vietnam North1

In Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City by Scooter – Part 2, I travel into Central Vietnam and explore the areas struck hardest by the American War.

The Lone Trail Wanderer

Koh Samui, Thailand – Impressions

Koh Samui is the largest of the three popular tourist islands off the east coast of Thailand, the other two being Koh Phangan and Koh Tao. These three islands plus Koh Phi Phi off the west coast make up Thailand’s main party zone.


While tourism is the primary funding source for the islands, the region’s party reputation seems to attract mainly early twenty somethings, who drink copious amounts of alcohol and do stupid things. This party reputation stems from the monthly Full Moon parties at Haad Rin, a beach at the southern tip of Koh Phangan. 40,000 youngsters invade the beach each month to indulge in a drug and alcohol fuelled party on the beach.


Our choice to stay at Koh Samui was because it has a somewhat better reputation and a slightly older tourist base. Unfortunately it still serves as a party zone during the week leading up to the Phangan Full Moon parties.

Sickness Strikes Again!
We booked three nights on Koh Samui over christmas as it’s near impossible to get bookings over New Years. After 8 hours of buses, ferries and local transport, we arrived at the hostel on the evening of Christmas Eve. We ate at a fairly popular local restaurant, but what seemed like a fairly standard pork schnitzel would see me throwing up for the better part of the night and on throughout Christmas Day.

It would seem that of the times I’ve been ill on this journey it’s been because of pork. While bacon seems fine, for the rest of the trip I’l be avoiding pork.

Scooters, of course.
With one of our two full days on the island spent in bed, I didn’t have much time to explore. To make the most of our time I hired a scooter and rode up the east coast to see what I could find. The bad weather that had plagued our Thailand visit continued, but thankfully I had a waterproof poncho, so I remained mostly dry.


At the northern end of the island, I found a pair of temples dedicated to buddha with associated giant statues.


While the Big Buddha statues were impressive, so were the temples themselves.


Near these two temples I found an artist’s store where he builds life-sized metal statues of science fictional creatures.


As the weather began to clear up, I rode south again to find some of the other hidden gems of the island. I stopped at Lamai beach, where the sea comes right up to the front of the resorts.


I climbed to a lookout over Lamai Beach for a different perspective…


And then rode to the southern-most tip of the island where I found the Laem So Pagoda.


Cleaning Station
Throughout Thailand, I’ve seen ‘cleaning stations’ on the street at the front of massage places. These cleaning stations are large fish tanks containing many small fish which suck on your feet, cleaning off dead skin and drawing out toxins. I’ve been intrigued by this and have wanted to give them a try. On my day’s journey, I located a place with a full cleaning pool…


Normally the fish are fairly small, perhaps 2 centimetres long and very thin. The fish in the pool were larger, perhaps 6-8 centimetres and the sucking sensation takes some getting used to. When a dozen of them suck on one heel it’s a strange feeling. When a hundred suck on each foot at the same time, it takes an effort just to keep your feet in the water. It has to be the weirdest sensation I’ve ever felt.


Next we head back to Krabi Ao Nang, a more family friendly beach area, for New Years.

The Trail Wanderers

Padang, West Sumatra, Indonesia – Impressions

For our final stop of in Indonesia we flew into the city of Padang in West Sumatra, a 90 minute flight from Jakarta.


Padang has only 1 million people and this small population is noticeable as soon as you arrive. The sense of being crowded that pervades Bali or the cities of Java doesn’t exist here.

Padang is a major transit point for surfers heading out to the island groups of Batu and Mentawai. Those locations are remote and beautiful but with limited power and amenities. Rainy season was just beginning as we arrived so we chose not to spend the money to visit these islands. Maybe on a return visit.


Padang has the feel of Bali without the tourists or the aggressive locals trying to sell us anything not nailed down. Padang beach is a well-known place for sunsets and has hundreds of food stalls along its length. Padang also contains many examples of Sumatran architecture, a style different to anywhere else in the country.


Padang Cuisine
On our first night we were introduced to a local cuisine simply called ‘Padang’ which has spread throughout Indonesia. On being seated, the table is layered with small plates of food.


There were usually several dishes of chicken, each cooked in a different manner. The same for fish, beef and vegetables, giving the meal a smorgasbord-like feel. At the end of the meal you’re only charged for what you eat, even if it’s only half a plate. A particular favourite was the Rendang, a spicy beef dish.

Angkot Kota
Padang has this public transport system common to other Indonesian cities. But unlike those other cities, Padang does it with more with style. The vans are modern, sportier and many even have spoilers, although by definition they don’t go very fast. And because of the loud Doof Doof music, you always know when an Angkot is approaching.


On our first day in town we walked along the waterfront for several kilometres before circling back along one of the major roads of the city.


Not long after we began walking we seemed to become local celebrities. People would honk horns, mothers would bring their children out to wave at us and school kids would call ‘Hey Mister!’ while going up for a high-five. Some people tried to start conversations but between their english being little more than ‘where are you from?’ and our Indonesian no more than ‘terima kashi’ (thank you) it never went far. For the most part we just smiled, waved and continued walking.

The Twin Lakes
With scooters available for hire at the hostel, we couldn’t resist taking a pair out for a day. To make the most of our time we took a long ride across the mountains to the twin lakes, Danau Diatas and Danau Dibawah. While it’s humid in Padang, once in the mountains things cool down pretty quickly.


We crossed the small mountain range and as we came down the other side I discovered my front tire had a puncture. We drove into a small town, waved down a local and was surprised that he could speak English. Five minutes later we were at tyre shop where the mechanic kindly fixed the puncture for 10,000 rupiah – about AU$1.

Not long after, it began to rain. Thankfully one of the local roadside stalls sold rain ponchos. Then, after three hours we made it to the lakes. Danau Diatas…


…and Danau Dibawah.


With the weather closing in quickly we spent little time at the lakes before deciding to head back. The rain got quite heavy, but this didn’t put us off as we were dry under our ponchos. While we had to be more careful on the wet roads, the journey was actually quite fun. Wipers would have come in handy on our full face helmets though.

The mountains protect Padang from the rain, so once we crossed back over the range it became drier and warmer. A most enjoyable day.

Padang Hill
In the mid afternoon of our final day in Indonesia we decided to climb Padang hill, at the end of Padang Beach.


While the hill only took ten minutes to climb, it was enough to soak us in sweat. The views of the coast line and the city were worth the effort, though.


But beyond the views, we discovered a shopkeeper and a large family of monkeys at the top of the hill. We hung out watching the shopkeeper fend off the cheeky monkeys with a long bamboo stick. This seemed to be a constant battle. As the rain began to set in for the day we headed down the hill.


After six weeks in Indonesia, it’s time to move on to a new country and more adventures. Tomorrow, Singapore.

The Trail Wanderers

Bali, Indonesia – Scooter Excursions

Scooter Excursions
By far the most common form of transportation in Bali is the motor scooter. Which are also happily rented to tourists… “You want rent scooter?” At RP60,000 (AU$6) a day, and less for multiple days, the scooters are very cheap.


Petrol is sold by small stores everywhere, usually in 1 litre vodka bottles that sit in racks out near the road. A bottle of petrol costs RP10,000 (AU$1) with 5 bottles filling a tank. A full tank of gas for a scooter will give a range of about 100km.

Driving in Bali
Riding a scooter in the built up areas can be a little dangerous, with cars, taxis, trucks, motorbikes and other scooters to navigate through, not to mention people and dogs. It doesn’t take long to get the hang of it though, although nothing like the locals who slip in and out of traffic at tops speeds on both sides of the road. Keeping up with them is suicidal so it’s best to just ride at your own speed and try not to crash. Not crashing is important as the bikes aren’t insured leaving you the repair bill for any damage done.

Crossing busy intersections can be a challenge and is usually done by slowly edging forward until the traffic stops and lets you go. There are traffic lights in Bali but not many and for most locals, red lights mean ‘go’ as long as there isn’t a larger vehicle in the way.


Police Stops and Corruption
The biggest danger on country roads are the Police Stops. While they occasionally pull over locals, they always pull over tourists. To ride a scooter you’re supposed to have either an international license or a local license gained from the central police station for RP250,000 (AU$25). Most tourists don’t have them, so when a tourist is pulled over without a licence the officer takes them aside and explains the fine system. Either pay the officer RP500,000 (AU$50) or get a ticket to pay at court for RP1,000,000 (AU$100). The police, however, prefer you to pay the RP500,000 which goes straight into their pockets. With low salaries, the police try to bolster their take home pay in this way as long as there’s no paper trail.

The way around this corrupt method of fines is to demand a ticket and thus create a paper trail. The other way is to only have a small amount of money in your wallet and to let them have it. My brother and I were only pulled over only once and purposefully had only RP50,000 (AU$5) in our wallets. When the officer demanded the rest we simply shrugged and said that’s all we had…for petrol. He sighed and said, “I tell you what… I let you off this time.” He took the money and let us go.

My brother and I hired scooters for two days and made the most of the time by going on long excursions on both days…

Day 1 – To The South

Garuda Wisnu Kencanu Cultural Park
An hour south of our hotel in Kuta is a private park housing a 23-metre tall bust of the hindu god Vishnu.


While the statue is quite prominent it’s only the beginning of the intended statue. Eventually, it’s to be 146 metres tall, gold-plated, with Vishnu on the back of Garuda, King of Birds. In another part of the park there’s the beginning of the statue of Garuda.


The park, while small, has many interesting features, including the Lotus Pond, which is an open area with rocky sides where walkways have been carved into the rock.

Pura Luhur Uluwatu
Our second spot of the day is a water temple built in the 11th century. Pura Luhur Uluwatu is on the south-western end of the South Kuta Peninsula in southern Bali and is one of seven sea temples built to protect Bali from evil spirits.


While the temple is situated on a clifftop it was very humid while we were there. We were also warned about the monkeys in the area as they will steal anything not bolted down. We only encountered one and he seemed content to leave everyone alone. Like all temples in Bali it is required that you wear either a sarong or a coloured sling of fabric.

Nusa Dua
On the south-eastern side of South Kuta is Nusa Dua which is a collection of 5-star hotels and calm beaches. The area was quieter than Kuta but the beaches were not as grand.


Day 2 – To The North

Goa Gajah
Our first stop of day two after driving through the traffic heavy roads of Bali’s provincial capital, Denpasar, was the Elephant Cave, near the touristic township of Ubud.


Built in the 9th century, the cave was used as a sanctuary. In the 1950s more of the surrounding area was excavated and a temple built around the site. Hawkers demand you buy a sarong when you arrive, but this is just a money-making scheme as sarongs are provided free at the entrance.

Gunung Kawi
Further north from Goa Gajah is the Valley of the Kings. Two sets of 5 death monuments are carved into the rock walls at this temple, which is dedicated to two different kings and their families.


On either side of the valley are numerous tiers of rice paddies.


Tanah Lot
Our last stop for day two is the most touristic temple in Bali, the beautiful sea temple of Tanah Lot. Tanah Lot means ‘Land in the Sea’ and is another of the temples protecting the island from evil spirits.


The site has crumbled over the centuries and was threatening the temple itself. The Japanese government stepped in to help Bali protect the area.

After 2 long days, 194km of road, and many hours of sore bottoms, our scooter excursions proved to be some of the most fun times in Bali. Something not to missed.

After three weeks on the island of Bali, it’s time to begin the real travelling.  Next we head to the island of Java and the city of Surabaya.

The Trail Wanderers