Irina Petrova

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Cambodia and Indonesia

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I went on this trip in August, 2014 but due to lack of time, willingness and probably a bit of laziness the travel report comes now, eight months later.

With Southeast Asia being a destination with so many wonderful options, we were initially hesitating a lot on what to put on our list as priority . It wasn’t easy, but in the end we came down to Cambodia, a quick Malaysia visit and Sulawesi, Indonesia.

In Cambodia we couldn’t go much further than Siem Reap and spent most of our time during our six days there visiting the vast Angkor Wat complex, wandering around the old market and did a one day trip to a local village. We stayed at a very cute hotel with marvelous garden – Golden Mango Inn, which I totally recommend for its helpful staff and location. They picked us from the airport and arranged for us a tuk tuk driver for each day of our stay, for incredibly good prices.

There’s a lot written and there are plenty of documentaries on Angkor Wat, so I won’t go into details, but I must say that it is really an impressive and huge site with lots of history, incredible Khmer architecture and a lot of mystery. It’s definitely one of those things that everyone should see before they die.

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One of the days we went on an ox trip to a village an hour away from Siem Reap. We left with our tuk tuk and then transferred on our ox cart. It was way slower than I’d expected it to be, and the sun was burning at 85% humidity, but even that didn’t stop me from enjoying the bright green valleys around us and the beautiful rice fields. I never got to understand the correct spelling of the village we visited, but it sounded something like Suong.

We first went to the house of Maoman and met his adorable family. An intellectual and ex teacher in the village, who was injured in a battle with the Red Khmers, and lost his arm Maoman now takes care of his family of 12 daughters on his own, growing food in his garden. We were welcomed very warmly with tea and some fresh fruits and spent some time talking with him about the war and life in Cambodia in the present.

Afterwards he took us on a little detour to the houses of his neighbors where we learned how to prepare a typical for the region flat rice dish with coconut water – Ambok, knitted palm leaf baskets for boiling rice, and in the last house we were official guests for brunch.

It was a beautiful experience getting in touch with all these local people, who even though not speaking any english, managed to show us their good heart, pure intentions and their simple, yet meaningful way of life.

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The rest of our stay we spent at the hundreds khmer massage spots and little shops around The Old Market and went to see a special Apsara dance show.

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We flied to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia and spent a day and a night in the city, and then took a flight to Makassar, Sulawesi, Indonesia.

Sulawesi, also called Celebes, is the third biggest island in Indonesia and eleventh in the world. It’s located in eastern Indonesia west of Papua and what initially caught my attention to visit it was it’s biodiversity. With a complex geological history, about 60% of the flora and fauna of the island are endemics, meaning they are not found anywhere else in the world but here. The island has some of the greatest diving spots in the world, thousands of wild beaches, high mountains, active volcanoes and vast jungles. All in one. So after I did an extensive research on it, since it is not very popular among tourists yet, I started to plan the itinerary with a lot of excitement. I can’t say that was an easy task, and it took a lot of time and uncertainties regarding our accommodation and transport there, but with a lot of patience and resourcefulness you can book your stays and learn how to get from point A to point B. You can’t book anything online, and because there is very limited or none phone signal and no internet at most of the places, the locals tend to go once per week to another village or city to answer their mails. The public transport on the island is slow and not in best conditions, so we decided to pay a little more and book a driver. I found Dodo The Pen Man being recommended by another traveller at Lonely Planet travel forum and booked a car with him through emails. Initially he told us that none of his drivers wanted to take us, since it was a crazy and rough itinerary for a very short time, but luckily in the last minute he found us a driver. He didn’t speak any english at all, but we managed (or not) with body language.

We landed at Makassar and Dodo was waiting to welcome us. It was about 8pm and we had a 10 hour drive ahead, so we left immediately. It was a big and comfortable jeep, so I totally recommend everyone traveling in Sulawesi to book one, instead of relying on local buses as many of the travelers we met on the way had done that and were regretting it. Most of the roads in Sulawesi are not good and are very curved, the trips are long and tiring, and there are no cafes, gas stations or anywhere to stop but jungles and forests. You do need to book a 4×4.

We arrived in Rantepao, Tana Toraja at 6am. Tana Toraja is a mountain region in the center of Sulawesi and the region’s population are indigenous ethnic group with long history, famous for their cult to death and funeral ceremonies. In Toraja you’ll see traditional villages with a boat-shaped architecture, cave and cliff grave sites and panoramas of rice field valleys and beautiful mountains. There is really something special, mysterious and a little dark about that region. In local mythology it is said that the first celestial beings descended from heaven here.

We stayed at The Torsina Hotel which has decent rooms and beautiful garden and in my opinion was the best hotel in the area. There aren’t many anyway, so whatever you choose you have to stick to it and not have high expectations. In general if you travel in Sulawesi, since it’s not a developed (and thank god) tourist destination, you have to get over yourself and accept what I would call the basic conditions of travel.

We spent the next day visiting some of the villages and cave graves sites and were “lucky”, some say to be able to see a local funeral ceremony, which I don’t recommend for the faint hearted. Five minutes after I realized that all those pigs and buffaloes were to be sacrificed and slaughtered in front of the whole village I found myself running out in panic through the mud eyes closed.

There is definitely a lot to explore in the region, and I regretted not planning more time for it.

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The next day at 6am we were already in our car with our non-english speaking driver and left for the final and most exciting destination of our trip for me – The Togian Islands.

The Togian Islands is an archipelago of 56 islands east of Sulawesi and west of Papua, formed by volcanic activity and surrounded by incredible coral reefs. Being a very difficult place to reach it has preserved its wilderness and beauty and one thing I can now also confirm myself is that the long journey there totally pays off.

Leaving Toraja at dawn, we drove through jungles and forests for 16 hours non stop until we reached Ampana, a village located on the east coast of Sulawesi. Needless to say the trip was a tough one, as the roads extremely curvy, narrow and dangerous at parts, but we made it to our bungalows (Marina Cottage) for the night.

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The next morning we got on the Nusantara ferry at 9am and finally started off for the last part of the trip leading us to heaven.

There were about 20 other tourists on the ferry and the rest were locals from the Togians. The ferry was also supplying food and water for the islands and we stopped at a few islands to unload. The Togian Islands are basically dense jungle islands and there is no agriculture whatsoever, so the population’s main food supply is fishing. The rest of the products such as meat, rice, fruits, vegetables, etc. comes from Sulawesi on boats. They live in wooden houses built over the water and their days are pretty lazy, given the fact that there is not much to do, or anywhere to go, and their lives are mainly spent on boats. Apparently the arrival of the ferry was a big event at each island, and all the families with their kids were gathered at the small ports to see us and say hi.

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After 8 more hours we arrived at Malenge at about 6pm. When we got off the boat a young indonesian boy (Ikbal) asked us in good english if we were Sifa’s guests after that he guided us to get on a smaller boat for four. I always imagined Malenge to be bigger for it was one of the the main “harbours” at the Togian Islands but in fact the whole village was just a few houses around the wooden deck.

Ikbal got us on the boat with Pan and the italian couple who were staying on our island too. So exactly at sunset the five of us departed slowly to paradise. It was a wooden, narrow, long boat with no seats, but it also had a low roof, so you could either sit in lotus position or lay (no seats either). The boat didn’t have any lights whatsoever so twenty minutes after we departed we were sailing in complete darkness. And that’s when I realized that this was the moment I’ve been waiting for. The meeting with the sky and nature. The sky was like I’ve never seen it before. The stars were so many and so bright, starting from right above the horizon everywhere I’d turn to. Being alone in the middle of the ocean on a small boat in complete darkness with a sky like this is indescribable. I laid back with my head on the border of the boat and surrendered to the spell of the moment.

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An hour later we finally slowed down apparently approaching the island. Little blinking lights could be seen and when the boat hit the sand we started to get off. I would never forget the moment I stepped inside the warm water to see one of the most beautiful things I’d seen in my life – the glowing sea plankton. Little lights the size of sand grains would blink every time you moved your feet in the water. We couldn’t see much of the island since it was completely dark. We walked through the sand to get to the open dining space where the rest of the guests had gathered after dinner, and after that we headed to our bungalow.

It was nine of us on the island the first night. Me and my friend, the italian couple, a swiss girl, a german couple and two french boys. The staff were Ikbal (23), the diving instructor, Pan (18) the boy for everything, two indonesian ladies who spoke no english, but made us amazing meals and took care of the kitchen, and an older man, who took care of the boats.

The second day it was five of us left, and by the fourth day just the two of us and Nora had the whole island for ourselves.

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Sifa Cottage was basically a small beach, probably 100 meters long and 50 meters deep on a wild island of steep jungle, called Waleakodi. There is no phone signal or electricity. There are eight small wooden bungalows spread right before the thick jungle forest, which pretty much covers the rest of the island. With nothing but a bed and a mosquito net inside, most of the bungalows don’t even have a bathroom. We were accommodated in one of them, but luckily there was another one available where we could move. The first one had exterior bathroom which was basically a small wooden construction with two barrels of water in it and when I asked Pan where is the shower he asked me in surprise – “No water?”. I sad – “Yes, but no shower!” Then he went in and showed me that basically you shower picking water with a bowl with one hand and well, with the other you wash yourself 🙂 I wouldn’t mind trying out that method of showering, it was not long ago when our great great grandparents were probably showering with similar techniques, but after two days of traveling on all sorts of boats, trunks (yes we also did a trunk of a lorry) and cars, I really wanted a better shower experience. So we moved to the bigger bungalow which had one of these wooden constructions aka bathrooms attached to it. There was something like a shower on the wall with water slowly dropping from it. I then figured the barrels and bowls would’ve probably been more effective, plus you could find all sorts of animals having a party in the bathroom every morning and it was rather stressful at first, having in mind you’ve barely awaken. By the third day we got used with all the bugs, lizards, bats, spiders, crabs and other animals we couldn’t identify.

On our first day after dinner we lit a fire next to the sea and gathered around it with some music and the local palm wine – arak, which Ikbal was so kind to go fetch for us from the gipsy village on an island nearby. He brought it in plastic bags 🙂

As I stepped a few meters away in the complete darkness by the sea, the magic happened . The hot sea water was blinking filled with blueish-green phosphorus plankton, and merging with the starry horizon above the sea created a breathtaking and enchanting world. I stayed there alone, staring, and completely hypnotised, feeling so small before the magical panorama around me.

To complete the scene and make it even more unbelievable, as I was standing there with my feet in the dark, blinking water, far away from everyone, I heard a guitar and a soft voice coming from my left. I recognized it was Ikbal. I started walking towards where the sound was coming from in the darkness, not seeing much more than two meters ahead of me, to find him sitting at the end of the small wooden pond. I sat next to him and it was so dark that we could only see our silhouettes. We didn’t talk and he just continued singing. At that moment it was as if the whole planet was gone and I was sitting on a rock, floating in the middle of the universe, surrounded by stars wherever I’d turn to. They were everywhere – left, right, up, down, in, and out. He was playing a slow, tender and soft song, which made the whole moment one of the most amazing and unforgettable I’ve ever had. The simplicity and yet rareness of this moment took me to a place of ultimate happiness and connection with the universe. It was a luxury, a gift, and I felt so lucky and entranced that I didn’t care at all in that moment what has been, or what was yet to come.

The wilderness of that place, its remoteness, and the sacrifices in the living conditions you’ll have to make, pay off with the most amazing gifts of nature, which in the end connects you with your real, true self, and gives you a chance to experience, or at least have a glimpse of our true essence as human beings, connected, not only with our planet, but with the whole universe. And especially with the sky, which always fascinates me with its mysterious beauty.

And just when I thought that this was the peak moment of my trip, I saw a firefly. I hadn’t seen one since I was a kid, and they carried a special sentimentality for me. Ikbal saw my excitement and asked me if I wanted to see more of them. Then he took me through the dark and we walked to the other side of the beach, through the plankton, below the starry sky and the boldest milky way I’ve ever seen. And when I saw it, I literally almost cried of happiness, emotion and overwhelming. It was a round and low, bushy type of a tree, that was covered with fireflies. There were thousands of them, and they were not moving, but each was sitting on a leaf and slowly blinking on and off. It looked like a tree from a magical fairy tale. There weren’t any on the other trees around, neither in the air. He told me they’ve been there for many years now, every night and even he can’t explain why always on that particular tree. There were crickets and it was warm. That was it.

After that night I’ve been going to the pond and then by the tree on my own every night until we left.

The days were full with many other nature wonders, and we were exploring the variety of animals, birds, crabs, flora, and of course the sea world. The thousands of species in the colorful reefs were more bold and surprising than what I’ve ever seen in any NG documentary or magazine. Different sizes of unique fishes in their elaborate patterns in smart and brave color combinations that only nature can deliver were only some parts of the incredible and astonishing discoveries that my days were filled with.

The food we ate was mainly fish, of course. They would fish for us every morning and every day it was a different one with rice and vegetables. We all ate at the same time and it was always fun between conversations about travels, sea world discoveries and card games.

The rest of the time we spent snorkelling, diving, reading books on the hammocks, playing with Jealous and Jungle, the two incredibly friendly and loving dogs, watching the sunsets – every day a new and different one, and spending time each on our own with nature. I was bare foot for 6 days. Never thought I’d say it but it was pure bliss.

I left, leaving a piece of my heart there, but also took a piece of that island with me and many times when thinking about it, I can almost experience the same things that I did there.

The three-day journey back home wasn’t as tough as I’d expected it to be, as my spirit was in bliss. This time we took a speed boat at 10am from our island to Wakai, another big port on The Togians which took us three hours. At 4pm we got on the ferry to Gorontalo, a northern port, which took us 16 hours. Arriving at Gorontalo at 8am we got to the airport and at 1pm we got on a flight to Makassar, and we took off from Makassar to Kuala Lumpur at 5pm for our flights to Dubai-Istanbul-Barcelona. We did the long ferry from The Togians to Gorontalo and not back to Ampana, because this way we could get on a flight from the north to the south of Sulawesi. The other way it would have been a 10 hour ferry to Ampana and 24 hour non stop drive to Makassar 🙂

Met some young indonesian friends on the ferry whose “seats” were on the floor in front of our “beds”.  For unknown reason they became very fond of me and didn’t leave me alone, but I truly enjoyed the pureness and simplicity in these relationships and the time spent with them, and although there was a three day long journey ahead of me, my heart was filled with joy and happiness.

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I almost forgot! The luggage scale at Gorontalo Airport… 🙂

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