Friday, March 29, 2013

The Second Laziest Place on Earth: Pulau Weh

The largest Indonesian island is Sumatra. An hour's ferry ride northwest of Sumatra is the volcanic island of Pulau Weh. It's lush, jungle-covered hills are surrounded by a sea prized by any diver lucky enough to get here. I'd planned to visit the place ten years ago, but the Banda Aceh region was closed by the government due to "rebel activity." After the tsunami took 150,000 lives, government and residents put aside their differences and international aid flowed to the region. The tourists soon followed.

It cost me less than fifty bucks to take the evening flight from from Medan, Sumatra's largest city, to Banda Aceh. Finding a place to sleep was a bit more troublesome as the small city is not equipped to accommodate backpackers. Every driver wanted to take me to the expensive hotels (rooms costing $70 or more). I managed to find a budget hotel after a good hour of roaming the streets with a perplexed motorcycle cab driver who spoke no English.

I'd planned to spend two nights in the city, but by the middle of next day I was ready to leave. The devastation of the tsunami had been repaired but there were no really interesting places to see. I packed my bags and took the last ferry across the straight to the island of Pulau Weh.

From the pier, I joined a shared mini-bus to get across the island to the village of Iboih. The narrow road winds and twists along the steep hills and the driver had to negotiate his way past numerous motorcycles on the route. The road was in particularly good condition, with what looked like new paving. What struck me most was the method the islanders used to create fences; planting thin trees right next to each other and connecting them with wire. The result is a living fence that will not rot in the moist tropical air.

Note the construction of the fences.

At the end of the road we found a small set of shops and restaurants and a single mosque, all facing the tranquil beach. The five of us grabbed our bags and made our way along the street to the path leading up into the jungle. All the budget accommodations are located here.

The trail starts with a set of stairs that goes up along the tree-covered hill. Along the path are scores of wooden and concrete huts, ranging in price from five bucks to thirty. The places next to the shore are more expensive than those up the hill and air-conditioned rooms are the most expensive. Instead of leaving my bags at a friendly restaurant and exploring unencumbered, I hauled my kit along the path until I was nearly exhausted. I elected to skip the very last set of bungalows; a decision I later regretted because they had impressive views.
The beautifully maintained Yulia's Bungalows.

I spent the first night in a cabin right next to the path. It was great for meeting fellow travelers, but not particularly comfortable. I decided to check out but was unable to find the proprietor. I left a message with two other guests about my plans. I returned later and missed the owner again. Over the course of four days, I managed to miss the owner, Eric, every single time. When I finally caught up to him, he was pleased that I had not skipped town before paying my bill (of less than ten bucks).

My new accommodation was further along the path, a cabin right on the water's edge. I had eyed this particular spot the day before and could not believe my luck in getting it. At high tide, it was almost possible to dive into the sea from the balcony.
My home for nearly a week.

While the outside was beautiful, the interior was rather spartan with a simple bed and a single shelf unit. The mosquito net was a welcome addition and, despite being right on the sea, the fan was entirely necessary to sleep at night. After having used a communal facility the night before, I was pleased to learn my new room had an indoor toilet.
Bungalow interior.
The best part was the hammock hanging on the front porch. Over the next few days, that became my home. I'd wake up in the morning, go for a swim, wash, go to the beach restaurant for breakfast, then lounge away the rest of the morning. I'd sometimes go for a dip in the afternoon if it was particularly hot.

One of the island's original inhabitants.
There was a curious mixture of animal life on that part of the island. First and foremost were the cats. Every bungalow complex seemed to have a family of domestic felines roaming around. Most welcomed a scratch behind the ears, but the place up the hill from my room had a kitten that delighted in attention. Every time she saw me on the path, she'd come running. Occasionally, I'd carry her around on my shoulder. Once, I took her to the next door neighbor's complex, where I was planning to eat, and the local cats did not take kindly to this intruder, hissing and snarling. I ended up having to carry her back home.

I was quite surprised to discover a family of monkeys in a nearby tree. They'd come to the ground to gather fallen fruit, then return to the tree to eat. The local cats and dogs were very leery of the animals. The dogs are not particularly friendly, but mostly ignore the visitors. I had one that regularly slept on my porch. I noticed that a lot of other bungalows had their resident dog fast asleep on their porches as well.

The goats were my favorite. They're mostly shy and stay off the path, but now and then I'd run into a billy-goat that was happy to do some butting. This consisted of the goat charging my hand with his horns. I read about a guy who used to wear a helmet to to do headbutts with his pet goat.

I also spotted some wild pigs rummaging around one evening. I assumed they were domesticated pigs, destined for a future on the grill, until I remembered that the locals did not eat pork. Pulau Weh is a great place to be a pig.

A tree-lined drive along the ridge of Sabang town.
One of the main boulevards of Sabang town.
This is the sort of place that does not inspire, but pacifies. I rightly feared that I would have become a parody of Jimmy Buffet had I access to quantities of cheap rum. Banda Aceh province, though, is dry (although some restaurants do sell overpriced booze). My activities were limited in this little corner of the island, so I rented a motor bike to explore. The nearby town of Sabang offered the most interest. It was a harbor for the ruling Dutch a hundred years ago and much evidence of their occupation can be seen in the large houses built there. The Japanese took over just before the war and built numerous fortifications. These have mostly grown over or re-purposed, but a few remain as curious historic sites.

In the harbor, I had an opportunity to examine the curious style of fishing boat used by the people of Pulau Weh. A tall prow and a flat-back stern, the wedge-shaped vessel is powered by a two-stroke engine. It's distinctive "putt-putt-putt-putt" sound could be heard long before seeing the boats. I am told that they are not particularly stable in rough seas. They have beautiful lines, however, and the lovely paint jobs applied make them even more so.
The colorful and unique design of the Banda Aceh  region fishing boats.
The elegant design of Banda Aceh fishing boats.

On the way back to Iboh, I explored back roads. I received curious stares from both adults and children. Some of these villages receive no foreign visitors. At one point, I discovered a quarry. In a nearby village, I saw piles of gravel sorted by size. Further along, I saw them making gravel ... by hand. Using hand hammers, they'd chip away at the small boulders to make bite-size pieces suitable for construction.

I did a few dives around Iboh, though the water was not as clear as I'd hoped. The place is teeming with brightly colored moray eels and friendly sea turtles. I quite enjoyed exploring a tugboat wreck, but of most interest was an underwater vent from the island's volcano. Over an area of fifty square meters, bubbles of sulfur gas peculate up through the sand. The result is like a rainfall, only in reverse and with bubbles rather than drops. Swimming through it was a curious sensation, but the visual effect was ethereal. More than ever, I regretted not having an underwater camera.

My days were too often spent lounging on my balcony hammock, reading or watching tourists splash around in the straight. I noticed that when the tide turned, the sea would rush past the dock like a river. I joined another fellow in jumping in and letting the current carry us along. We'd then walk back along the shore and jump in to do it again.

The view from a cabin on the small straight between Iboih village and Rubiah isle.

There is a very small island about 200m north of Iboh. I had stopped there during a diving session. I could see the remains of concrete foundations. I was told the island was used a stopping point for Indonesians on the way to the middle east doing their Haj. One day, I thought to take a boat across to the other side and do some photography in the jungle there. After much investigation, I learned that a round-trip ticked cost fifteen bucks! Well, that's one way to make sure the island gets few visitors.

Pulau Weh only ranks as second laziest place because first is taken by relatively nearby Nias island. While in Iboh, I was required to walk five minutes to the nearby restaurants. Living on the beach on Nias, the fishermen would walk by and show you that morning's catch. Pick a fish and they deliver it to the guest house owner, who then cooks it and delivers it to you bungalow. Combine that with inexpensive Bintang beer, and you might not ever leave.

I did manage to escape Pulau Weh's grasp, eventually. I spent another morning in Banda Aceh where I took a short tour. During the tsunami, a large ship was washed well inland and a fishing boat came to rest atop of a home. These two sites have been turned into tourist destination, including a viewing pavilion adjacent to the ship. It felt strange, looking at these two anomalies and how they'd been transformed. I guess there are not many good things to commemorate from that horrible event, so they choose these oddities.

See more photos from Pulau Weh here.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Return to Phi Phi Island

Every time I return to a place of happiness, I'm disappointed by how much things have changed. I don't know why I continue to pursue these threads of dreams, but there I was, fending off the touts as I tried to sort out my ticket from Phuket town to Phi Phi island, a place I'd not visited since 2003 (scant weeks before the tsunami struck). Where before there were only a couple of average size boats going to the island, now there were half a dozen ships departing the dock ... all at 8:30 in the morning, for some reason. The ships were tied to each other so some passengers had to walk across the deck of one craft to get to the other. Then we had to wait for the outermost ship to depart before our own vessel could cast off. Why not stagger the ships in fifteen minute intervals? I would have been very happy to leave at 7:00.

Despite the slightly staggered departures, the ships arrived at Phi Phi's wharf at slightly more staggered times as some cruised faster than others. Still, we had to wait for the earlier boats to unload before we could berth. After paying a 20฿ water tax, we pressed through a gang of hotel touts to get to the "downtown" of the island. The mob packed into that first intersection looked like a strange combination of Times Square New Years celebration mixed with refuges fleeing some great disaster. The vast majority of the backpack-laden travelers were Europeans in their late twenties, sporting the most casual of beachwear. 

Chinese New Year is a not a good time to visit Phuket Island. I had tried to get reservations at my favorite hotels, but they were booked solid. A travel agent got me a room in a complex that consisted of little huts clinging to the steep hillside. The price was nearly sixty bucks a night, but it sounded delightful. So, I paid in advance, something I have never done before ... or ever will again.

The hotel was a hike from the pier and I needed to get directions a few times. Phi Phi had changed so much I had no idea where I was as I maneuvered through a twisting warren of shops and restaurants. My "hotel" looked lovely, each little cabin with its own little balcony, perched on the steep hill. I ignored the fact there was a large stinky catch-basin right at the foot of that hill. I handed over my voucher and was led back down the hill and presented a room right across from that very pond. The room was only slightly larger than the bed. Had this been going for ten or fifteen a night, I might have accepted it, but for nearly sixty bucks, I expected a view at the very least. The hotel assured me they had no more rooms available and offered me a free cancellation  I ended up in a nearby guesthouse complex with a rather large room and a view of the little valley for only 1500฿ per night (about $45). I could have just as easily have obtained a quiet room for half that price, but I was too lazy to wander around with my bags.

New cottages are piled upon each other
Phi Phi has changed quite a bit since my last visit; the proof of that was in the shiploads of tourists arriving twice each day. They all had to sleep somewhere and beautiful guesthouses were crawling up the slopes like concrete creeper vines. The number of accommodations had easily quadrupled since the disaster and there were plenty more buildings under construction. I was concerned mostly about the infrastructure. How were they getting fresh water? How was the sewage and garbage being treated? Speaking of garbage, there was plenty of that to go around. Look over any wall and you'll see either a lovely hotel garden, a ramshackle local's habitation or a garbage heap. Get up into the hills and the gardens and walls go away; there are just shacks and midden piles. 

The hills and beaches are the most pleasant parts of the most densely inhabited part of the island. I refused to pay the extortion rates the local boat drivers demanded to visit other parts of Phi Phi and I was happy enough to explore on foot. By the look of the little shops, a vacationer will spend most of their time eating, drinking, SCUBA diving, dancing and getting tattoos—in that order. I wasn't planning to eat or drink much, but I was rather keen to dive. Having snorkeled here before, I knew the waters were beautiful. After surveying half a dozen of the seventeen(!) dive shops, I concluded that they all offer the same two dives, charge the same prices and leave at about the same time. I picked the one that left a bit earlier than the others.

All of my diving companions were completing some part of a SCUBA course. I was the only one doing a "fun dive." I took exception to this label and insisted they call it a dive, "If you call it a fun dive, it sounds like you're not serious." They said the other dives were for classes so my dive was for fun. "You mean people don't have fun in the courses?" They could not refute my brilliant logic and gave in ... at least when I was in earshot. 

As the only diver not taking a class, I had my own guide. I hoped this would enable us to explore different areas, but we just did standard dives going to the same places as the classes. The locations themselves were good, but nothing terribly exciting. The guides assured me that the habitat had not changed much as a result of the tsunami, so perhaps my memory of beautiful corals and shoals of colorful fish were slightly embellished by time.

Phi Phi consists of two islands. The second, uninhabited island, is famous for having a small bay with a small beach that inspired the movie "The Beach." On my first visit with on a snorkeling tour, we visited the beach alongside a couple of other boats. The place was rather nice. When our dive boat entered the bay this time, I was reminded again how much things have changed. There were at least a dozen medium to large size vessels anchored in the cove. The small sandy shoreline was crowded with scores of beached speedboats on one side and numerous long-tail boats on the other. That left only a quarter of the beach for tourists to ... well, "enjoy" doesn't seem like the right term. Experience? I can't help but wonder how many of them saw that movie and imagined a beautifully secluded beach where they might frolic in the surf unmolested. Reality might suck, but once upon a time, that beach really was secluded and frolicable. 
Tourists flood over the side of the boat to splash around in the deeps. 
Back on shore, I walked the north side of the beach. It's filled with groovy hot spots to sit and drink while watching the sun set behind the hill to the west. The food at such places is pretty mediocre, but you're paying for the view and the style, not the food. At night, they put on fire shows to entertain the patrons. Further along the shore, there are still fishermen going about their jobs and a few Thais have set up their own little out-of-the-way beer stations. That side of the island is the most affected by tides; it's barely knee deep at low tide so the boatmen can repair their craft.
Taxi boats, pulled up on the beach, awaiting tourists.

The island really should be called Kitty Kitty island for the startling number of friendly cats inhabiting the place. They lounge outside the shops and homes and welcome a scratch behind the ears. Dogs are not as common here as in the cities, oddly enough.

I decided to leave the island after two nights. I figured that the 9:00 boat trip would be the least crowded as so few of the party-goers would get up so early. I was very wrong. There was quite a mob at the docks, though not as crowded as I had experienced in my arrival.  There were only two boats going out. I realized then that theses two had remained on the island overnight and the great flotilla was only now leaving Phuket town. With our baggage piled up in the stern, we crowded aboard these two boats and cast off. Our boat stopped just at the edge of the harbor. Racing toward us was a long, slim ship. The crew gestured to us to get away from the side of the boat. Apparently we were going to hook up with this vessel. They transferred a few dozen bags and then passengers from a nearby island climbed aboard our already crowded boat.

Surely we'd be on our way now? No. Another high-speed boat was racing in from another island. Their bags were piled on the lower part of the stern and few score more travelers joined us. There was no room inside so the newcomers were at the mercy of the sun for the next two hours.

Hopefully, this will be my last trip to Phi Phi. I could not bear to see it get more crowded.