My ‘Louis Vuitton’ Inle Moment

There was a beautiful picture hung on one of the walls of Golden Kite Restaurant, the restaurant that my mom, sister and I often went for dinner while we were in Inle Lake, Myanmar. The picture illustrated two slender wooden canoes, one behind the other. On one boat, there was a fisherman and his large cone-shaped basket. On the other boat, there were Louis Vuitton and his boatman. The fisherman and Louis Vuitton were standing very close to each other on their respective canoes. They looked as if they were engaged in some conversation of a lifetime. My impression was that this eye-catching image was taken in the early morning when the waters of Inle Lake were very calm and provided perfect mirror reflections. To me, the picture radiated a lovely sense of beauty, tranquillity and humility.

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My most cherished ‘Louis Vuitton’ moment of Inle Lake. Photo courtesy of my sister, Shuzytha Bidder.

I had one remarkable moment of Inle that I would unassumingly describe as my ‘Louis Vuitton’ moment. It was a rare, up-close encounter with one of the leg-rowing fishermen as the sun was just setting. I was sitting at one end of his wooden canoe while he demonstrated his unique skill of handling the large cone-shaped basket. While it would be wonderful to be able to understand what he was saying, I was genuinely happy and grateful for the amazing opportunity to have such an extraordinary meeting with the down-to-earth, leg-rowing fishermen of Inle Lake. This ‘Louis Vuitton’ moment of mine was so beautiful, cherished and personal that I would not trade it for anything else.20180213_165319

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The leg-rowing fishermen of Inle Lake have become part of the place’s attractions. While I feel torn about local residents being treated as tourist objects, I can’t help but feel drawn to seeing them for myself. It is not just their unique skill of leg-rowing that amazes me. It is the sight of them out in the vast and serene lake that gives me a great sense of beauty, tranquility and humility. Photo courtesy of Shuzytha Bidder. 

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Capilano Crush

I fell in love with Capilano Suspension Bridge when I first read about it back in 2013. The bit of information that stole my heart away was “it hangs high enough to weaken the knees of many a visitor” (Virtual Canada, 2008). It sounded like the 137m-long-and-70m-above-the-Capilano-River footbridge would give me one hell of an adrenaline rush. I was also slightly drawn to the fact that it is the oldest attraction in Vancouver. I mean are we all not sometimes attracted to such titles as the highest, the longest, the biggest, the smallest, the northernmost, the southernmost, the oldest…? I got a chance to visit Vancouver in the Summer of 2017.  Capilano Suspension Bridge was still very close to my heart even after all these years. I had rather high expectations for the Bridge — since it is bordered by a nature park, I expected to get some up-close, authentic experience with the nature, and that I would experience a feeling of adventure and excitement as I crossed the Bridge.IMG_1746I discovered that Capilano Suspension Bridge Park has more than meets the eye — treetop viewing platforms, story center that houses photomurals, artefacts and antiques of the past, Kia’palano that provides a glimpse into the lives of British Columbia’s First Nations people particularly on their relationship with the nature, and Cliffwalk which I quite enjoyed.

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Kia’ palano. Photo courtesy of Jason Newholm.

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Treetop viewing platforms. Photo courtesy of Jason Newholm. 

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The latest attraction of Capilano Suspension Bridge Park, Cliffwalk, which I quite enjoyed. It rivals its neighbor, Capilano Suspension Bridge, in terms of massive numbers of visitors. If you want to take a photo of you on the Cliffwalk or the Bridge, do it fast. Otherwise, you will hold people up. Photo courtesy of Jason Newholm.

However, the star attraction — Capilano Suspension Bridge — did not turn out the way I expected. While it did not appear different than in pictures, I did not experience a feeling of adventure and excitement as I expected when crossing it. Perhaps I was affected by the large crowds which I did not expect. So perhaps instead of immersing myself in the sights and sounds of nature, I was distracted by the sights and sounds of the throngs of visitors. In contrast to the way by which most fairy tales depict true love in the scene of the woman lifting her leg when she kisses the man, my knees were not weakened as I crossed Capilano Suspension Bridge. I guess the Bridge was not the one… or I just fell out of love.

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According to the information board in the park, Capilano Suspension Bridge can sustain the weight of more than 1300 people standing on it at the same time, or parade 96 elephants across the bridge at the same time. 

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At the length of 137 meters, Capilano Suspension Bridge is about the length of two Boeing 747 airplanes wingtip-to-wingtip. This is according to the information board in the park. In summertime, the crowds can be pretty intense. Photo courtesy of Jason Newholm. 

#VeryVancouver Experience -Seawall Biking

Canada was one of the countries on my getting-longer places-to-see-before-I-die list. Specifically, I would like to set foot in Ontario to experience the thundering roar and amazing mist of the mighty Niagara Falls, and in Alberta to immerse myself in the captivating nature of Canada’s oldest Banff National Park. My dream to see the country had finally manifested in the Summer of 2017. Neither Ontario nor Alberta was my destination. I was heading to Vancouver. My travel interests and activities usually revolve around the great outdoors. I find myself easily become bored by urban charms. My prior reading on Vancouver informed me of several interesting facts about this Pacific metropolis: it was chosen as the best place to live in North America (and number 5 in the world) in Mercer’s 2016 Quality of Living Survey (The Telegraph, 2017); it is one of the most ethnically diverse cities in the country (Tourism Vancouver, 2017); …and the most interesting fact for me is that Vancouver offers visitors outstanding opportunities for outdoor adventure in addition to its sophisticated amenities of a world-class city (exploreBC, 2017).

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With the views of the English Bay right before me, I wrote a postcard to myself, to be mailed home from Vancouver with love. Photo courtesy of Jason Newholm.

I came across a section on Tourism Vancouver website that described #VeryVancouver Experiences. I was fortunate enough to experience 4 of their 6 picks (huge thanks to my beloved friend, Jason): Vancouver’s Seawall, Vancouver by Water (took the Aquabus to traverse between stops in downtown Vancouver), Surf Up a Mountain (hiked up Grouse Mountain and took the Skyride back down), and Vancouver’s Urban Wilderness (biked and participated in the Scotiabank Vancouver Run in Stanley Park). While all of these activities were enjoyable, I had the time of my life biking in the spectacular 9km Seawall that runs counter-clockwise around the perimeter of Stanley Park.

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Lions Gate Bridge and our bikes. I am particularly fond of bikes with front baskets as if they fulfill some childhood fantasy.

It was not so much the things I saw that gave me much pleasure and satisfaction — Girl in a Wetsuit Statue, Siwash Rock, Prospect Point Lighthouse, First Nations Totem Poles, Lions Gate Bridge, English Bay, sandy beaches —though, I must say, the views of the downtown skyline were absolutely stunning.

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The stunning views of downtown Vancouver skyline.

Rather, it was the feelings that I derived from biking that meant significantly more to me. I loved to ride a bike when I was a child. I remember there was a great deal of fun in riding with the wind blowing through my hair. I was relaxed and my mind clear. I was so good at bike riding that I could sometimes do it without holding on to the handlebars. But for some reason I stopped riding a bike when I entered adulthood. I could not even recall the last time I did it. So biking in the Seawall brought back some fond childhood memories, memories that came with certain familiar, inexplicable, nostalgic feelings. I felt free like a bird. I was happy. There were quite a number of other bike riders that day. But because I was tremendously absorbed in my own feelings of joy, serenity and contentment, I could hardly feel their presence. It was as if I was exclusively locked in my own little bubble of happiness.IMG_1690

Gorkhi-Terelj Highlights

A friend asked me today “what is interesting about Gorkhi-Terelj, other than horseback riding and steppe?” I found it quite difficult to answer her question given the limited time I had to share all of my experience. My reply could be extensive as I regarded my trip as the sum of little experiences that had a beginning, an end, and all that was in between. Nevertheless, for the sake of answering her question, I simply replied “horseback riding, trekking, beautiful landscape, ger camp, and a lot more, actually”. When I got home, I felt I had done my Gorkhi-Terelj experience injustice, as if I had undermined the depth and breadth of experience that it had blessed me with. So I decided to make it up to it by writing this post…the highlights of my Gorkhi-Terelj experience.

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Watching the day go by in our ger. Photo courtesy of Jason Newholm.

1. Discover imagination

They say horseback riding sparks imagination. I couldn’t agree more. Jason and I did it on the second and third days of our stay at Ecotourism Ger Camp. We both did not have much experience but were excited about it. In fact, horseback riding was one of the experiences we looked forward to in Gorkhi-Terelj. While I delighted in our first horseback riding trip that took us through scenic valleys and hills with a winding river and groves of trees on a clear and sunny day, it was our second trip that verily ignited my poetic imagination. The place was blanketed by a sea of fog, which unfortunately obstructed a lot of our views of the surrounding landscape. We rode across the vast, open steppe of Gorkhi-Terelj in complete silence almost the entire time. I had no idea where we were heading to. I wondered what thoughts went through Jason’s and our guide’s minds. Jason was riding a bit ahead of us. I was riding right next to our guide, staring into space. My imagination transported me back to the historic era of legendary Genghis Khan. In my mind’s eye, I visualized our guide as Genghis Khan, and Jason and I were his right-hand men. We were traversing uncharted territories, fighting off formidable enemies, expanding the Mongol empire in every direction. At that very moment of ardent imagination, I felt a sense of strength, pride, victory, freedom, courage, power… when I was finally awaken to reality, I smiled, felt content, and thought “that must be what it was like to be riding alongside the Great Khan”. This impossible fantasy allowed me to enjoy the foggy ride more.

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Solitary ride across the vast, open steppe of Gorkhi-Terelj on a foggy day. Mongols have been traversing their country on horseback for thousands of years. Horses play such an important role in the life of Mongols that it is traditionally said “A Mongol without a horse is like a bird without wings”.

2. Hello, is anybody home?

Ecotourism Ger Camp is located in the middle of nowhere in Gorkhi-Terelj. While the meals provided by the family were hearty and delectable, we craved for junk food. The wife of the place’s owner told us that there was a small place within walking distance that sold what we were looking for. Were we not delighted to hear that! After dinner, we wandered toward the place. The night was falling and the air was chilly. We had no idea where exactly the place was. We based our search solely on one little clue given by the owner’s wife: red rooftop. We were warned against stepping into other people’s boundaries lest their dogs mistook us for thieves. We tramped along the vast and open grassland in respectful silence when suddenly that silence was shattered by the piercing sound of dogs barking. We stopped dead in our tracks. I was literally frozen with fear of getting chased by some mean dogs, worse getting bitten. I turned to Jason and suggested that we turned back. But having a greater understanding of dealing with a “barking dogs” situation, and a better sense of control over panic, he assured me that there was nothing to be scared of and that I should not run if a dog was really coming after us. We continued to walk, not giving up on our junk-food mission. After a while, we came upon a place that quite fitted the description of the owner’s wife: red rooftop. There was nobody outside. The place was dimly lit and very quiet as if nobody was home. We became hesitant. Should we try or should we go back? Jason’s rationale for trying was “we have walked this far so we might as well try”. Great point! We called out “hello, is anybody home”. We called out a little louder when there was no response. Suddenly, a door swung open, and a slight, elderly Mongolian woman emerged. We explained why we were standing right outside her wooden gate, but I think the word that caught her attention was “beer”. She then gave us a hearty welcome into her little shop. Against all odds, we found the place! We walked back to our ger camp feeling content and happy with our purchases — Coke, made-in-Vietnam Danish butter cookies, pickles, Mongolian beer…and more. We returned to the place a couple of times more that the delightful lady gave us some free candies to reward our loyalty! In retrospection, I realize this piece of my Gorkhi-Terelj experience — the walks, the little shop and its friendly owner, the gratifying moments of savouring our once-in-a-while convenience food —- is simple, unpretentious but profoundly memorable and emotionally invigorating. And what makes it even sweeter is that I did it with my most cherished friend.

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Enjoying pickles and our big bottle of Mongolian beer on a lazy afternoon. Photo courtesy of Jason Newholm.

3. Open bathing

Yup! River bathing. Ecotourism Ger Camp does not provide the luxury of proper bathrooms and sufficient water supply to wash our clothes and clean ourselves. It does not have to because there is a river nearby that we can go to for these basic activities. Jason and I had found our own little secret spot along the river. It became part of our daily routines to walk to our corner and wash our clothes, take a bath, unwind…the water was icy cold but after a sweaty day it was pure bliss. The sound of flowing water was also immensely soothing. Sometimes when I reminisce about my Gorkhi-Terelj trip, I experience a keen longing for the river, especially our little secret place, and all the indelible things that we did there.

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The River. Photo courtesy of Jason Newholm.

4. Sweet encounters

People come and go in Ecotourism Ger Camp. When we were there we met a number of visitors. Most of them were from the Netherlands, and most of them were stopping in Mongolia as part of a larger China – Europe train itinerary. Three particular pairs of travelers caught my attention, with whom I truly enjoyed conversations, and who had left quite an impact on me. 1) a father and a son. The father was sketching a beautiful face on his note pad. I could not help but pay him a compliment for his amazing work of art. That is how our conversation started. I found it profoundly enlightening to hear him talk about the art of sketching and how the ability whets one’s photography skill. 2) a young couple who did horseback riding with us on the first day. We were talking about our jobs initially but our conversation escalated into something more thought-provoking — the impact of tourism on fragile World Heritage sites. The lady was relating to us an emotional conversation that she had with an archaeologist in Angkor Wat about the damage caused to the site by the massive numbers of visitors. The conversation was tremendously engaging that I lost track of time. 3) an elderly couple who were definitely two of the sweetest, most intelligent people I have ever met. The air that hung above us when we talked was one that was calm, pleasant, inspiring. I remember asking what makes them great traveling together for so many trips. The wife’s answer, which I keep very close to my heart until today, was “because we take care of each other”. For some reason her reply deeply moved me. My trip to Gorkhi-Terelj was made significantly more meaningful because of my encounters with these beautiful people who taught me new knowledge, who discussed topics that I have always found particularly absorbing, and who reminded me of things that I, sometimes, am inclined to take for granted.

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The young couple with whom we went horseback riding on the first day.

5. Bert oh Bert!

Who is that? Well, Bert is the owner of Ecotourism Ger Camp. Why is he a highlight of my Gorkhi-Terelj experience? Honestly, he did not strike me as a person who was that friendly, or pleasant, or even good at customer service. Because he seemed to be always on the go, it was quite difficult for us to talk to him about payment, activities, and so forth. Every time we asked to settle the payment for our stay, he would brush it off and say “later”. I mean most business owners would be eager to have their guests pay as soon as possible, if not upon arrival. We could easily run off without paying, and there would be no worries about Bert charging our credit card later as the only mode of payment was by cash. I suppose this is one trait that makes Bert unique- in a world where distrust and mistrust abound, he trusts, he takes risks. On our last day he drove us in his seemingly old jeep to catch the bus back to Ulaanbataar. As we left the camp a little bit later, Bert was driving much faster to make sure we would not miss the bus (or perhaps he just drives fast all the time). The ride was bumpy and rough. We crossed a river. At times Bert made sharp turns that made my hair stand on end.  At one point his eyes seemed to be fixed on his vintage cell phone punching some keys. I feared for our safety. We arrived at the roadside pick-up point in the nick of time to catch the bus. That was when we finally got a chance to pay him. We never got a chance to get to know Bert better, but as we were saying goodbye, I felt a twinge of sadness. As we were boarding the bus, I caught my last glimpse of Bert who was already back in his always-on-the-go bubble. While he could improve his driving skill, he had given us one hell of an adventure, I must say. Most of all, Bert taught me sometimes we can let go and trust. Just as he trusted us with payment, I guess we could trust him in keeping his words, and perhaps his driving ability. As Jason said, Bert is a man of his words.

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Ecotourism Ger Camp. The building with blue rooftop is the dining place. Photo courtesy of Jason Newholm.

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Trekking the hills surrounding Ecotourism Ger Camp. Photo courtesy of Jason Newholm.

 

6. Stop and smell the roses

Well, I did not see any roses in Gorkhi-Terelj. But I am sure you know I am referring to the expression. Gorkhi-Terelj offers endless opportunities for visitors to keep themselves engaged and entertained. Nonetheless, Gorkhi-Terelj gave me something more, something “small” but which was nothing less than precious, something that was beyond “tourist stuffs” — it compelled me to slow down, notice, and cherish the little things that make life worthwhile. The time left after all the hiking and horseback riding and river bathing, we spent it on activities that we tend to take for granted because we are too busy — enjoying coffee and cookies right outside our ger camp, reading, filling in a journal, taking a nap, watching the kids play, taking in the beauty of sunset, waking up to sunrise, enjoying little moments of solitude… these activities are not quintessential tourist experiences, but they allowed me to truly unwind and recharge; to engage in solitary contemplation; to experience a deeper sense of gratitude and appreciation…

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Rise with the sun. It is one of the most rewarding experiences you can get in Gorkhi-Terelj.

 

 

 

 

For You I Will

Anyone who is planning a trip to Sandakan will most likely read about Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Center (SORC). It is often highlighted as one of the must-sees in this historical city of Sabah Borneo. Although the place now treats more than Orangutans — sun bears, gibbons, Sumatran rhinos and elephants — the star residents of the Center have always been the Men of the Forest.

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“Am I a great acrobat?” Photo courtesy of Jason Newholm.

My friend (Jason) and I certainly did not want to miss SORC while we were in this city known as the gateway to Borneo’s wildlife. We timed our visit to coincide with the morning feeding at 10AM. We arrived at the feeding platform slightly earlier and secured good spots that would allow us to have an excellent view of the Orangutans. 10AM arrived. No sight of Orangutans. The clock ticked further away from the appointed hour, still no sight of Orangutans. Perhaps the baboons could tell the plausible absence of the Orangutans for the entire period as several of them started to make an appearance on the feeding platform and unhesitatingly feasted on the buffet that was prepared for the great apes. What was supposed to be an Orangutan show had become a baboon show. The baboons did get polite and perfunctory attention from some curious members of the audience. With hesitation, people started to leave the site. Jason and I left but only to get some ice cream at the cafeteria. We returned to the site and continued to wait, still feeling hopeful that some Orangutans might just show up at the last possible instant. There was another woman who was also not willing to give up yet. As noon was approaching, the ranger finally, regretfully, requested us to leave and suggested that we come back for the afternoon feeding at 3PM. Alas, we were leaving for Kinabatangan River at 1.30PM. I was tremendously disappointed.

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I found myself laughing when I flashed on this baboons-taking-over-the-spotlight moment. I imagined they were saying “Ladies and gentlemen, we regret to inform you that the Orangutans are not coming today. But, much to your delight, we will run the show. Cheers”.

Fast-forward 3 days after our Kinabatangan trip. We were supposed to leave for the airport directly from Sukau. I did not feel at ease about leaving Sandakan without seeing Orangutans. I started to connect details in my head. Besides, we would have about 5 hours at the airport before departure. Feeling unsure about my last-minute plan, I turned to Jason and suggested that we gave SORC another try. He was hesitant but upon persuasion, agreed to go along with my plan. The plan was to have a minor detour. Instead of leaving for the airport, we would get off at SORC. The journey would take about 2 hours. We left Sukau around 8AM so we should be able to get to SORC just in time for the morning feeding. Any unplanned stops or delays could pretty much jeopardize our last hope of laying eyes on the great apes. Unfortunately, the driver did make a couple of brief stops. It was such a nerve-wrecking moment to keep checking the time and calculating the possibility of making it to the morning feeding. We finally arrived at SORC, around 10.45AM. We hurriedly made our way to the ticket counter but, once again, we were hit by disappointment — they were closing the gate as the Orangutans had all left the feeding platform. And once again, we were told to return for the afternoon feeding. And once again, we did not have the luxury of time to do so as we would be flying back home just before the afternoon feeding. We had a few hours to kill prior to leaving for the airport so we decided to walk to the Rainforest Discovery Center (located about 2KM from SORC) and learn about rainforest, and, if we were lucky enough we might just spot some wildlife.

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Ancient, dominant trees of the Kabili Sepilok Forest Reserve. Photo courtesy of Jason Newholm.

Still…I was haunted by the disappointment of not seeing any Orangutans. Various thoughts began to race through my mind…the most persistent one being this “since we are already here, we might as well try again at all costs”. Once again, I connected details and made a plan in my head. I looked back on similar situations encountered in some of my prior trips where we tried once again regardless of risk or expense. I silently asked myself if I ever regretted any of it. The answer has always been “it was well worth the risk”. I shared my thoughts with Jason. At first he was quite hesitant, but was once again convinced to go with the new plan which involved forgoing our 2.45PM flights, going back to SORC for the 3PM feeding session, and buying new tickets for a 6PM flight. This plan cost us a great deal of time and money, of course. Even with as much certainty as I could muster, there was this doubtful little voice that kept nagging at my mind, questioning “will it be worth it”?

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“Ladies and gentlemen, we apologize for our unexplained absence the other day. But all is well now. We are taking the show back from our baboon rivals”. Photo courtesy of Jason Newholm.

3PM was coming near. We made our way back to SORC. The day was hot and sunny. We were mostly quiet, entertaining whatever thoughts that were flooding through our minds. We quickly treated ourselves to some much-needed ice cream upon arrival at SORC. This was our third attempt so we knew what to do like the backs of our hands. As we were approaching the final check point to the feeding platform, it was the same guy who greeted us the first time we came. He smiled at us and announced the greatest news of the day “You were here before. You are lucky this time as the Orangutans are already on the platform”. It was not even 3PM yet! We got to the platform, and there they were, two seemingly carefree Orangutans moving about in a manner that hugely wowed their Homo sapiens admirers — upright walking, four-limbed suspension from branches, and tree swaying. Two slightly bigger Orangutans came and joined in the fun. We watched them perform their acrobatic moves in amazement. We watched them feast on their luxurious buffet of bananas, coconuts and leafy greens. Ahhh we could now leave Sandakan feeling happy and content. Answering for myself…was it worth it? OH YES, WITHOUT THE SLIGHTEST BIT OF DOUBT! So, dear Orangutans, now you know that for you I will!

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What comes to your mind when you look at this picture? For me, I see freedom. Photo courtesy of Jason Newholm.

The Journey Counts

My friend and I were heading to the Tip of Borneo. The journey would take approximately three and a half hours. A small part of me did not exactly look forward to the long drive, especially when the day was dark and gloomy. I certainly did not have high hopes of seeing sunset that the Tip is well known for.

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“The sea is a desert of waves, a wilderness of water” (Langston Hughes). Photo courtesy of Jason Newholm.

As the journey continued, the weather condition gradually changed to one that was sunny and breezy. My view of what lay ahead also began to become more positive, and I was able to relax into the beauty and slow pace of my surroundings. At one point of the journey we were greeted by a vast expansion of lush green paddy fields with Mount Kinabalu in the background. The sight was incredibly beautiful and peaceful. I have always found such scenery to have a therapeutic effect on my weary soul and mind. As we hit the little village called Menggaris, we made a brief stop to savor the local delight of smoked corn on the cob, and buy some local fruits (rambutan and manggis). When we finally reached the crossroads between Kudat and Kota Marudu, time was very generous to us so we decided to stop by my hometown where I showed my friend the high school I attended, the market, and my parents’ place where we had some cake and hot tea. We promised ourselves that we would treat us to some delicious crispy fried chicken today. So before leaving Kota Marudu for the Tip of Borneo, we stopped at a Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant to get our reward of the day.

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Lush green paddy fields and the iconic landmark of Sabah, Mount Kinabalu. Photo courtesy of Jason Newholm.

Soon we were at the Tip. It was shortly before sunset. It was a most cherished moment to be sitting side-by-side with my beloved friend as the sky was slowly turning red/orange, with the sound of waves crashing upon the rocks below as the music to our ears. At a moment like this, we naturally understood and appreciated the comfortable silence between us. We then drove to the beach where we spent the rest of our day till darkness fell on us. The vibrant colors of sunset painted the sky allowing my friend to take some of the most beautiful sunset photos I have ever seen, and… creating a romantic atmosphere to enjoy our fingers-licking-good fried chicken!

It was a wonderful day, and a wonderful way to end the year 2017. Perhaps that day taught me that I should slow down and enjoy the journey as much as the destination of whatever that I will be embarking on in the coming year. Also, who could have known with certainty that an ordinary dark and gloomy day could conclude with an amazing sunset? Life is full of unpredictable turns, ups and downs but that’s what makes it a LIFE, yes?

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The sun slowly dipped below the horizon, marking the end of a day in parts of the world, and the start for the other parts. Photo courtesy of Jason Newholm.

Amazon of the East

Roger Munns, an Emmy award winning cameraman, refers to Sabah’s longest river — Kinabatangan River — as the Amazon of the East. I recently made my third visit to this ecotourism paradise with my faithful travel companion, Jason.  My first visit took place in 2008 where I stayed in Bilit. I returned for my second trip in the same year where I participated in the Miso Walai Village homestay program. For my third visit, we headed to Sukau. One might ask how I could want to return to the same place time and again. One might also imagine that the experiences I had were pretty much the same (river cruising, wildlife viewing, cultural experience…). But as John Steinbeck said in his riveting novel — Travels with Charley: In Search of America — “A journey is a person in itself; no two are alike”. I couldn’t agree more!

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Kinabatangan River as the sun was setting.

The third visit was exceptional in its own ways. It began with a long road trip from Sepilok that was interrupted by a flat tire shortly after we passed the Sukau junction. While this unforeseen episode had interfered with the day’s plan to a certain degree, it had actually amplified the trip’s sense of adventure. It would make an interesting story to tell, a story that I would start with ‘under the scorching heat of Borneo, in the middle of nowhere flanked by palm oil fields that stretched as far as the eyes could see…’.

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An episode of flat tire to add a sense of adventure to the trip. Photo courtesy of Jason Newholm.

We arrived at our destination approximately an hour behind schedule. The first activity planned upon arrival was river cruising. Everything happened so quickly from the guides greeting us to passing out forms for us to complete. As we were picking up our life jackets for the cruise, one of the guides signaled my friend and me to a private boat while the rest of the tour participants were boarding the same boat. I thought that was a little strange but did not say anything thinking that was the arrangement they had made for us. As we cruised along the mighty river, we were fortunate enough to spot some wildlife —- macaques, hornbills, great egrets, snake, monitor lizard, the back of a crocodile, proboscis monkeys (and the “red chili scene” – if you don’t know and are curious, ask me personally and I will tell you what it is), and a few other types of birds whose names I could not recall. While it was quite disappointing that we missed our Borneo Pygmy Elephant friends, perhaps that would call for a future visit.

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Long-tailed macaques. Photo courtesy of Jason Newholm.

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My imagination told me this monitor lizard was enjoying her morning sunbath. Photo courtesy of Jason Newholm.

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A snake was cruising its way away from us. Photo courtesy of Jason Newholm.

Seeing those animals was a wonderful experience given the fact that there are no guarantees in wildlife viewing, and the knowledge that some of them are endangered species. I remember thinking “I am lucky enough to have seen these animals for I will not know if they will still be here years from now”. Learning about these animals from our guide added richness and depth to my experience. For instance, I now know the behavioral differences between long-tailed macaques and their pig-tailed counterparts, and the physical distinctions between male and female proboscis monkeys.

 

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A male proboscis monkey. Photo courtesy of Jason Newholm.

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A female proboscis monkey. Photo courtesy of Jason Newholm.

I found the learning portion of the experience tremendously enjoyable not just for the acquisition of new and refreshing knowledge, but also for this less ‘technical’ reason: I have been teaching for a number of years. I had missed being in a place where I learned instead of taught, where I was entertained instead of to entertain, where I was not in charge… it was also thought-provoking to see palm oil plantations along certain parts of Kinabatangan River. I remember reading about the conflict threatening the biodiversity and ecological integrity of the place. Staring at the source of the conflict right before my eyes, I got this sinking feeling despite being informed by our guide ‘things are going well today’.

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A Great Egret. Photo courtesy of Jason Newholm.

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Two Oriental Pied hornbills perched on the forest trees. Oriental Pied is the smallest of Malaysia’s hornbills, and the only one likely to be seen any distance from primary forest. According to HUTAN (a French NGO that studies orang utans in Sabah), there are eight recorded hornbill species in Kinabatangan River. Photo courtesy of Jason Newholm.

Dinner was an unexpected delight. Unexpected because instead of dining at the operator’s riverside restaurant (as I remembered in the itinerary), we were taken to a family of the indigenous Orang Sungai and had our dinner with them. The food was traditional and insanely delicious (plus I was starving) that I helped myself to three servings. Our guide jokingly said to me “you’re not a local Sabahan if you don’t eat this much”. I wish I had asked for the recipe of that divine river prawn dish! The interactions with the family were quite minimal, unfortunately. There were only the mother and her little daughter. With the mother, we talked about the food! With her little daughter, we had a ‘selfie’ time together (it was her idea of fun!). Still, I was certain that dining with a local family was more memorable than dining at a restaurant.

 

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Dinner at the home of an Orang Sungai family. Orang Sungai is one of the officially recognized native groups in Sabah. They reside mainly in the rural areas along the Kinabatangan River, Paitan, Labuk and Kudat. Photo courtesy of Jason Newholm.

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Jason and his newfound little Orang Sungai friend.

Before we headed back to the lodge, our guide announced another surprise – firefly watching. I felt a little strange about all these pleasant surprises — private boat, dinner with local family, and now firefly watching — but still chose to dismiss my feeling, assuring myself that they knew what they were doing. As we were finally cruising back in the penetrating cold of the night, our guide approached us and hesitantly asked me ‘when you requested for the tour, did you specifically ask for firefly?’, to which I answered no and told him what we were supposed to have in our itinerary. Later we discovered that the unexpected surprises were…all a big mistake! There was another guest whose first name was very similar to mine. The guide unintentionally ‘swapped’ our identities. Anyway… all went well eventually. The younger me might probably have complicated the situation but with age and experience I have learned to understand and accept imperfections and come to a compromise. Of course, Jason helped put things into perspective, a quality of his that makes him my perfect travel companion!

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Reflection of rainforest trees on the still waters of the mighty Kinabatangan River.

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Photo courtesy of Jason Newholm.

The second day of the trip was nothing less than amazing, only this time we were no longer in a ‘private tour’. Jason joked that we were “downgraded”! More river cruising and wildlife viewing, jungle trekking, visiting Gomantong Cave (its many creepy crawlies made it one of the most terrifying places I have ever been to) and enjoying the sight of thousands upon thousands of bats flying at dusk swirling in ever-changing patterns as they left the holes high in the cave. It was truly a sight to behold! We also joined in a brief yoga session led by that sweet lady in our tour group. I still remember one particular movement and practice it at times— the movement to soothe stiffness in shoulders and neck.

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Early morning river cruise. A lone Sungai fisherman on his way back from checking his crab traps.

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Morning jungle walk. Our guide told us the possibility of spotting animals in the day was low. We didn’t see any. But it was still interesting to see the marks left by animals (e.g. claw mark of sun bear on a tree trunk, footprints of wild boar, ”wild boar pool”) and learn about the ancient trees of Kinabatangan.

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The evening went quickly. We had a delightful conversation with a couple from Sweden, the couple whose itinerary was mixed up with ours. But the mistake was never brought up in our conversation (we doubted they were even aware of what happened). Our conversation started with Helena’s upcoming horseback riding trip in Iceland and expanded to a variety of topics. I found it particularly interesting to learn about other visitors’ travel motivations and patterns. I also thought this was part of the beauty and joy of travel — the opportunity to cross paths with people from near and far. The chances of meeting again in another place are slim to none but as one tells his/her travel stories, as what I am doing here and now, one may just remember the people met along the way and smile at the memories.

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Kinabatangan River at the peak of sunset. Photo courtesy of Jason Newholm.

This trip to Kinabatangan, and some of my prior trips, have made me realize that as I grow older and travel more, I am no longer interested in just going places and taking photographs. Very often, I search for deeper experiences marked by learning and interactions (with local people, with fellow travelers…). I often tell myself to have some deep interest and genuine curiosity about the world for it will take me far and make me wiser. I dare say the world is the best classroom one can ever have.

 

My Gibbon Experience

One of the highlights of my trip to Laos in 2016 was my participation in an activity called the Gibbon Experience in the Nam Kan National Park. Read about it, and you would know that the activity centers on two things: the world’s highest treehouses and the world’s highest and longest ziplines. I tend to attach romantic connotations to treehouses:  personal space, solitude of the forest, starry night skies, sounds of forest inhabitants, back-to-the-basics… Ziplining was not new to me. Having done Borneo’s biggest zipline a couple of times, I was quite confident about doing the Gibbon ziplines. Looking back on my entire Gibbon zipline experience, I would summarize it this way: I went with confidence, I whizzed through the forest canopies feeling absolutely defeated a lot of times, and I ended it with an elevated sense of capability and accomplishment …and some fun.

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That was me flying through the forest canopies like a gibbon! By ziplining we were able to go deeper into the forest without so much of up-and-down walking/trekking. Photo courtesy of Jason Newholm.

After several hours of trekking into the forest on the first day, we arrived at our first zipline. It was supposed to be one of the short ones. I chose to be the second last person to go. I watched those who went before me ziplined all the way to the other side. I repeated the safety measures again and again in my head. I still had my confidence, but as I was standing on the edge of the platform awaiting Valao (second guide)’s signal to go, fear started to creep in. My hands became cold. My heart raced. A few seconds later I found myself flying through the forest canopies. Honestly, I did not notice much of my surroundings as I was flying way too fast, and of course fear was an uninvited guest who would not go away.

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The vast expanse of Bokeo Forest. According to the Gibbon Experience team, their zipline project is a community-based project that is aimed at ensuring a sustainable future of the Bokeo Forest. In addition to employing more than a hundred local people, they help raise awareness of conservation. I just wonder how much of the money that participants pay actually goes to the employees (e.g. guides) and conservation.

The real bummer occurred when I came to a stop in midair. It was still quite a distance to reach the landing platform. Feeling a moment of sheer panic, I did what I was taught in the event of stopping in midair: crawled my way back to the end. After a while my arms became so exhausted that they hurt and I could not move on. So there I was hanging more than 100 feet in the air holding on for my dear life. Eventually Meng (first guide) had to hook himself to the line and crawl out to get me. Once I was at the landing platform, those who went before me tried to encourage me but I was seriously feeling defeated. This feeling was my faithful company for the rest of first day’s ziplines.

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Jason crawling his way back. 

The first night in the treehouse was rather pleasant – getting to know the other participants, playing some game, enjoying the beauty of nature at night (starry night skies, trees’ silhouettes, sounds of forest inhabitants) – but a large part of me dreaded what would come the following day. I wondered what I did not do right that I stopped before reaching the end. Did I incorrectly position my legs? Was my backpack too heavy? Was I not physically fit enough? Was it the fear?

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The treehouse in which we spent our first night. The only way to get to it (and all the other treehouses) was ziplining.

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One of the treehouses seen from the ground. Photo courtesy of Jason Newholm.

Second day arrived. My confidence level had plummeted to the lowest point. Fear got the best of me. I had never been the ‘weakest’ or the ‘last’ in group situations before. It was such a lonely feeling that everybody could make it except me. Still, I did not want to give up thinking ‘maybe it would be better this time’, and, I paid quite a lot of money for the activity so I might as well finish it. More ziplining. More hovering in midair. More crawling my way back. The good news was that the more I did, the closer I got to the end. I remember one participant said to me ‘practice makes perfect’ (I could not agree more!). I began to feel my confidence slowly coming back, and started to enjoy myself a little bit more.

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A small patch of treetops being illuminated by the last glow of sunset.

Darkness fell without much realization. The starry moonlit night was a quiet and peaceful time for me. My friend was just a few inches away from me. But most of the time we were silent. It was a perfect time to do nothing but appreciate being so close to the nature. The beauty of it all was so enchanting that it drew me beyond myself and into rapt fascination with my surroundings. I would want to have a night like this for the rest of my life! The entire scene was precisely a manifestation of my romantic notions of treehouses.

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Magical night scene- skies dotted with millions of stars, and silhouettes of trees near and far. Photo courtesy of Jason Newholm.
 

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Full moon. Photo courtesy of Jason Newholm.

The biggest challenge (for me) was to come on the third day: the longest zipline at the length of more than 500 meters. I reduced the load in my backpack as much as I could. The magical feeling that I had the night before was replaced by an overwhelming sense of fear and anxiety. I kept thinking it would be a very, very long way to crawl my way back if I stopped in midair. Not convinced with the weight of my backpack, I humbly asked Valao if he could help me carry it. Without any hesitation he agreed. While waiting for my turn to take off, I tried to remember all the do’s and don’ts of successful ziplining. A few minutes later I was up in the air again. It was such a long flight that at some point of it my fear/anxiety subsided and I started to relax and notice, observe and enjoy my surroundings more – the trees, the blue skies, the silence. I saw my shadow moving alongside me and thought it was cute. Finally I came to a stop, but was close enough to the landing platform. Although I did not make it all the way through, it was still a moment of great feat and happiness for me. Some of us went back and repeat the longest zipline. I did too! At one point I even went tandem with Meng.

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Beauty of the place at dawn. Photo courtesy of Jason Newholm.

So does my Gibbon story sound pretty much like a fairy tale that has a happy ending? I guess that is one way to look at it. On a deeper level, I would say the entire experience was rather spiritual for me. The beauty of the place was captivating, dynamic as it was always changing depending on the time of the day, and was able to gratify all of my senses in that I could see, hear, smell, taste and feel it. The wild and vast expanse of the forest environment humbled me as it reminded me of how small I was in comparison to the Universe. Gibbon ziplining was a physically, mentally and emotionally challenge that compelled me to face my own limitations. Coming out of it alive had to some extent elevated my sense of capability and self-worth and endowed me with a great sense of accomplishment. This is my Gibbon experience.

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The group (left to right): me, Maureen, Chad, Valao, Robert, Laura, Jason, Meng, Sarah and Anthony. Photo courtesy of Jason Newholm.

 

My Akha Diary

My friend (Jason) and I recently visited a place where he made a comment ‘this is like the Akha experience we had in Laos’. My thought immediately went back to November 16, 2016 when we started our 3-day trekking trip into the primary and secondary forests of Muang Sing. We decided to do it largely in hopes of gaining a learning experience into the culture and daily life of the Akha hill tribe.

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Oung and Lar Tue making a ‘bridge’ for us to cross the river. Photo courtesy of Jason Newholm.

It has been more than a year since the trip, but certain memories of it can never fade. They are timeless treasures of the heart. The first day mainly involved trekking through the forest.

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The dense forest of Muang Sing.

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The valley we were heading to.

There were four of us: our Akha guide named Oung, the head of the family with whom we would be staying Lar Tue (my spelling of his name might be questionable), Jason and I. Since we were far away from the hustle and bustle of modernization, peace was all around us. We had our lunch at beautiful waterfalls named Nam Keo Noi. I still remember how delicious and fulfilling the lunch was!

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Nam Keo Noi waterfalls where we stopped for lunch on our first day of trekking. Photo courtesy of Jason Newholm.

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Our first day’s lunch- rice, chicken, stir-fried veggies and Mandarin oranges. Absolutely yum!

One of the most beautiful experiences of this part of first day was seeing Lar Tue and Oung catch spiders in the forest (for dinner!). The happiness, joy and contentment that they seemed to exude were contagious. I remember feeling absolutely present in the moment.

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Oung caught a spider with a stick he created with his creativity.

I also learned one valuable technique of warding off bloodsucking leeches: applied tiger balm all over our shoes as the smell was too repulsive for those little monsters. During one of our rest stops, Lar Tue and Oung shared their local delicacy of bamboo rice cake with us. I enjoyed it so much that Lar Tue let me have one of his. What a joyful moment of sharing in the depths of Muang Sing forest far away from daily burdens and stresses, with two happy, generous, and funny Akha tribesmen!

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Bamboo rice cake that Oung and Lar Tue shared with us.

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Lar Tue’s village, that was where we would be spending our first night. Photo courtesy of Jason Newholm.

It was already late in the afternoon when we reached Lar Tue’s village. I remember having this so-close-yet-so-far feeling as the appearance of the village and all that was in it was not much different than what one would usually find in a typical village in Sabah – wooden houses, animal barns, vegetable farms…even the faces of the villagers. While most things seemed familiar to me, they were still pretty much foreign to me. I did not speak the language. I did not know how things were supposed to work there. In other words, we were worlds apart when it came to our cultural perspectives. I treasured both the similarities and differences as they both gave me a sense of familiarity and a sense of authenticity in my encounter with the friendly and lovely Akha people.

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Lar Tue’s village.

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Beautiful faces of the Akha people.

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Lar Tue’s home, where we spent our first night of the trek.

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Lar Tue’s wife preparing wild veggies for dinner (and for all the other meals).

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Dinner time – rice, boiled wild veggies, fish, peanuts, and deep-fried spiders.

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We visited the school before starting our second day of trekking. It was interesting to learn about the village’s school system. Photo courtesy of Jason Newholm.

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Lar Tue and his wife.

Another beautiful memory from the trip that never fails to make me smile every time I look back on my Akha trip is the second day’s trek through various villages, schools, sugar cane, rubber and banana plantations, paddy fields, and bushes. Most villagers whom we walked past were warm and friendly, especially the kids. At one of the villages, we were surrounded by kids. I had fun taking some wefies with them. They giggled and laughed as I showed them the results. It was certainly a heart-warming moment to see such simple gestures could still bring much joy to some of us.

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Showing the outcome of wefies to some kids in one of the villages we were passing through. Photo courtesy of Jason Newholm.

I remember being followed by a group of school kids. They were eager to speak to us in English. Jason did most of the work. I think they even talked about football. Our guide had to tell the boys to go home haha!

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Jason was surrounded by some school kids who were eager to practice their English, and ask all kinds of questions from Canada to football.

We were slashing long grass and branches as we walked through the plantations and bushes. In doing all this, Oung occasionally sang what appeared to me as a sad love song (later I discovered that indeed he was singing a sad love song!). Sometimes I tried to whistle in tune with Oung’s singing. More slashing. More singing and whistling. I was happy.

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Slashing the long leaves of sugar canes with a stick. Slashing. Singing. Whistling. Photo courtesy of Jason Newholm.

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Paddy fields after harvest, and a lone water buffalo. Photo courtesy of Jason Newholm.

Another unforgettable moment from the trip is the second evening spent with some Akha kids. We were strolling through the village. I must say the kids seemed to love foreigners! They followed us, and just like all the other kids we had previously encountered, they wanted to practice their English, asked questions, played games…

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Jason drawing a smurf on the dirt for his little Akha fans.

By the time we got back to our ‘homestay’, we had collected quite a number of little guests. I braided some of the kids’ hair. Jason took photos. We asked them questions. They did too. They also performed some dances for us. They kept us company until it was about time for dinner.

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Time for some hair braiding session. Girls were lining up for my free-of-charge service. Photo courtesy of Jason Newholm.

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My first two sweet little customers. One of them (on the right) did not have a rubber band so I decided to give her mine.

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The Akha version of Spice Girls (and a little boy). Photo courtesy of Jason Newholm.

Just before we departed, some of the kids came to say goodbye. Though the amount of time we spent with them was minimal, it was still sad to part. They were standing on/near the porch of our ‘homestay’ till they were out of our sight. That was the very last image I had of them. I remember having this conversation with Jason about what would happen to these kids in the future. Would we see them again? Would they still be in the same village years later? Perhaps some of them would move to the city? Getting married at a young age seems to be a common practice, so… or perhaps some of them would end up studying or working in another country? Whatever the future held for them, we had our best wishes for the kids who made our Akha experience that much more beautiful and meaningful.

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The last image I had of the kids as we were leaving.

There was so much more to our Akha experience. The encounter with some water buffaloes and what Oung did to scare them away… the same meal of rice, wild veggies and fish for breakfast, lunch and dinner… the taste of deep fried spiders… the Akha traditional massage… the overnight stay at Lar Tue’s home with some of his kids stealing glimpses of the two weird foreigners sleeping under mosquito nets… Oung’s attempt to say 1 to 10 in Japanese… the sum of all these experiences has definitely given me one of the most amazing travel memories, and the realization that interactions with local people can really add depth to the outcome of a trip.

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Our encounter with a couple of huge water buffaloes. Get out of their way! Photo courtesy of Jason Newholm.

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Jason, Oung and Lar Tue at the back of a Lao version of Tuk Tuk. We were on our way back to the town on the last day.

Mystery Unveiled

There is this one hill in the backyard of where I live. To most people, it is unromantically called “Bukit Botak” which literally means “Bald Hill”. My belief is that the hill is named so for its physical features. On a personal level, Bukit Botak is more than just a place known for hiking and sunrise/sunset viewing among the people who dare to mark their footprints on it. I sort of have developed a sense of attachment to the hill. For 14 years, it was a mystery to me. I had my very first glimpse of it when I set foot on a nearby university campus as a student. If a line could be drawn between the hill and my room, it would be a straight line. I remember staring at the hill at different times of the day, wondering what it would be like to be up there. That lone tree on the summit occupied the focal point of my mind. I imagined myself sitting underneath it on a beautiful, breezy day where beyond the bleak skyline there stretched vast solitudes, as Jack London the American novelist once said.

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Together we made it to the top of the hill. Photo courtesy of Frank.

With increased accessibility, Bukit Botak has seen visitors come and go. November 29, 2017 marked the day when I, finally, had my direct encounter with the hill. With some of the happiest-go-lucky people I know from work, I made it to the top of the hill and back. While the activity was quite physically demanding, the experience that I took away from it was largely emotionally. The hill had lost its mystery to me, the mystery that was, if I could put it this way, my silent companion for more than a decade. I said my first hello to that lone tree that painted much serenity to me when everything else moved so fast. With just a step or two as the dividing line between us, I thought it looked different compared to the way it appeared to me from a distance. I suppose sometimes, if not many times, there is a difference between how things appear to be and how they really are.

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The Lone Tree. You looked different from how you appeared to me from a distance, but still I was glad to have said my first hello to you. Photo courtesy of Frank.

I must say I was on the side of the hill’s visitors who claimed sunset from the top of the hill was magical. As the sun was dipping below the horizon, I was reminded of what a fellow traveler once said to me ‘’climb mountains not so the world can see you, but so you can see the world”. Bukit Botak is not a mountain but the implication was no different.

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Would your breath not be taken away by this kind of magical sunset view? Photo courtesy of Frank.