The ankle is feeling better and I’m off to Bangkok in a few hours. It should be a big change from Phuket. I really have no desire to see many of the islands in the area around here, which is what most of the backpackers usually do. It has been raining (which sort of ruins a beach experience) and I’ve been to more islands than I can remember since I’ve started my trip. Other than slightly different erosional features in limestone, it doesn’t really interest me.

The Bloggers Choice Award, that I’ve had a link to on my site for months now, is nearing its final stage in 2008 voting. If you haven’t yet, take a few seconds to toss a vote my way. I’m currently #1, but the voting has been very close and the guy in #2 just gets the customers from his hostel to vote for him, not real readers of his website, so I’m going to have to work just a bit harder. I got a little under 300 votes right now, and I have almost 700 RSS readers, so if everyone who reads were to vote, I’d have this in the bag. So, just like in Old Chicago, vote early and often.

There is also another award I got nominated for, and you can see a link on the right hand side for that as well. is a women’s lifestyle site, but I guess they found some love in their heart for a guy like me. I just got nominated, but I’m climbing the charts quickly, and the gap can be closed quickly with some help. It does require registration to vote, but it only take a few seconds. I’d appreciate any support.

While I’m on the subject of contests, as you all know I take a lot of photos. The ones I put on for my daily photo vary in quality. Some are artistic, some are just interesting snapshots. I keep getting requests, and people keep suggesting I enter various photography contests. I have no problem doing something like that, but I really have no idea what photos I should enter. I have a bunch I like, but I really don’t know which are the ones that would do well. Has anyone had any experience with photo contests? Are there certain ones that are worth entering? I’d appreciate any feedback you have.

One final issue while I’m doing housekeeping…If you haven’t noticed, I’m now using a third party system for my comments: Disqus (pronounced “discuss”). It should look and feel just like the comments always have, except now you can reply directly to a previous comment, and you can follow comment across other blogs which also use Disqus. I’ve been running it a few days now and no one has noticed. You don’t have to do a thing, but if you comment on other sites, then you get some benefit to claiming your email so you can comment across other sites. Its very slick.

Twisted in Phuket

I’m in Phuket for another day (maybe two) because I twisted my ankle yesterday. Its really swollen, but I don’t think any serious damage was done. I can put pressure on it and even stand on one foot without pain. I’m limping much faster than I did even earlier this morning. I just can’t flex it, and that is mainly due to the swelling.

I have no desire to walk around with my backpack with the ankle like this, so I’m just going to sit in Phuket a bit longer. It’s raining here, so there isn’t really much to do.
I sat on a couch today with my foot up watching pirated DVDs and processing my photos from Malaysia.

The best part of twisting my ankle, was that I did it in front of a message parlor in Patong. It was raining and I stepped off a curb onto the street and didn’t see how deep it was because of the water. I went down and the dozen or so girls in front of the massage parlor all had a good laugh at my expense.

I did complete my Rescue Diver certification with out any further puking, so I got that going for me. If you happen to stop breathing underwater while diving with me, I got you covered. Again, thanks to the crew at Sea Bees Phuket Diving.

Hey, Hey We’re The Bungles!: Purnululu National Park

Beehive domes in Purnululu National Park
Beehive domes in Purnululu National Park

On my swing through Western Australia, I made a stop at Purnululu National Park, home of the Bungle Bungle mountains. When I told people I was making the drive from Darwin to Perth, everyone told me I had to stop at the Bungle Bungles.

I wasn’t really prepared for how remote and hard to get to it would be. To get to Purnululu, you have to drive about three hours south of Kununurra, which is itself a day drive from Darwin. (800km/500miles) There are no real cities or towns anywhere near Purnululu. The closest thing to a settlement is the Turkey Creek roadhouse, which is nothing more than a gas station and a campsite. There is an abrigonial community near the roadhouse, but it is closed to the public.

Echnida Chasm
Echnida Chasm
Once you get to Turkey Creek, you are still several hours from entering the park. The day tour I took picked me up at around sunrise at 5:30am. We had a 4WD bus, similar to the sort I took on Fraser Island. Just going from the Turkey Creek roadhouse to the entrance to the park was a three hour drive, none of which was paved. From the park entrance to anything interesting in the park was another hour drive from the park gate.

The Bungle Bungles weren’t really “discovered” until the 1980’s. I put “discover” in quotes because it was known to the local aboriginals and to local ranchers, but they never thought it was a big enough deal to tell anyone about. In 80’s a television crew in a helicopter brought footage of the bee hive domes back.

Cathedral Gorge
Cathedral Gorge
The main reason why Purnululu is special is the erosional features. The Bungles aren’t a large mountain range. I’m not even sure you can call it a mountain range at all, but that is the term which is used. On the north side of the range, you can find Echnida Chasm. The chasm is just a split in the rock where it was cleaved apart. You can walk down the middle of the gap which rises up almost 100ft (30m). At some points, you have to turn sideways to get through because it becomes so narrow. After four hours of driving, Echnida Chasm was the first part of the park we visited.

After that, we packed up again and drove to the south side of the park to have lunch. It took about an hour and a half to get to the permanent camp which the tour service has in the park. We had lunch there and then went to the south part of the rang, where we were able to walk around the signature feature of the park: the Bee Hive Domes.

Picananny Creek
Picananny Creek
The bee hive domes are called that because a) they are domes and b) they are striped like a bee hive. Both of those features are fairly unique. The domes were created by erosion channels which flowed at 90 degree angles to each other. You usually only see erosion channels which are close to perpendicular to the face of a mountain, but here you see it on more than one axis. Despite how dry it was when I was there, Purnululu can experience so much rain during the wet season that they close the park.

I assumed the striping on the domes was due to different layers of sediment, but I was wrong. The bands are due to layers of microrganisms which gives the bands color. Underneath the bands, the rock is an almost white sandstone. There were a few places where the colored crust was broken off and you could see the sandstone underneath.

Tree reflected in water
Tree reflected in water
Also on the south side is Piccananny Creek, which is the main water channel during the wet season. It was dry when I was there, but you can see large erosional channels carved into the rock in the bed of the creek. You could also see what looked like post holes in the rock. This happens when a smaller rock gets trapped in a depression and the water swirls the rock around, scouring out a round hole.

The biggest feature in this area is Cathedral Gorge. It is an enormous water carved channel created by the creek. You can look at the walls of the gorge and see just how high the water gets during the wet season. (about 12ft/4m) The walls of the gorge are enormous and really give you the feeling of being small when you are inside.

From what I’ve seen, Purnululu is probably the premier attraction in Western Australia, however, it is so remote and hard to get to, it isn’t something I’d go out of my to see for its own sake. If you are making the trip from Darwin to Perth, however, you definitely need to stop as it will be the most incredible thing you’ll see along the way.

The Vomiting

Yesterday I went out on the dive boat to do four dives. I only ended up doing three dives. After the second dive, we pretty much stayed in one spot, between two big limestone rocks. When the boat is moving, it is pretty stable. When you stay in one spot, it rock back and forth, and side to side. The weather was windy and rainy, so the waves were pretty good sized. I didn’t get the impression they were using an anchor either. (which makes perfect sense. You don’t want to use an anchor if can avoid it, because the act of dropping anchor can destroy the reef. In an area with tons of dive operations like Phuket, that is really important)

As I have discovered previously on my trip, I’m pretty susceptible to sea sickness. Prior to my third dive, I ended up heaving three times off the side of the boat. (and just before there we did some rescue exercise which probably made me put off vomiting by a few minutes). I decided to go ahead with the dive, which turned out to be a good idea. Once you get below the water, all the waves and motion disappear. In fact, in terms of air management, it was the best dive I ever had. I finished the dive with over half a tank, which I’ve never done before.

Once I got back on board, I proceeded to spew three more times, this time painting the other side of the boat. I figured I had nothing left to give, but just like there is always most toothpaste in the tube, there is always more food in your stomach.

I ended up skipping the night dive, which sort of sucks because I have never done a night dive before and was sort of looking forward to it. My plan was to finish the course today, but I’m going to take today off and do it on Tuesday, taking some motion sickness pills before I get on board. (I’m getting ill even writing this).

In fact, I’m so turned off at the idea of going on a boat again, I think I’m going to go right to Bangkok and skip some of the islands nearby once my course is over.

Phuket Update

Thai Boxing Stadium, Patong Beach
Thai Boxing Stadium, Patong Beach
I’ve been here five days now. I’ve mostly been diving or doing course work for my rescue diver certification. I did get to Patong Beach once, and it was quite an experience. Tomorrow I’m going diving on a boat where we’ll be doing four dives in one day, including my first night dive. I’m doing my course and my diving through Sea-Bees, one of the best Phuket diving operations. I was referred to them by one of my readers, Allan, who had also taken his Emergency First Responder course there. They are a German run outfit, and unlike many of the diver operations in Phuket, are very professional and focused on quality over quantity. It is one of the better operations I’ve seen on my trip so far. I hope to have some photos from the dive boat in a day or two.

Sunset at Patong Beach
Sunset at Patong Beach
My evening in Patong was eye opening. You can find massage parlor girls hawking their services everywhere, almost as bad as what I saw in Saipan. You see tailors hawking custom made suits and shirts like you see in Hong Kong. And the ever present tuk-tuk drivers who are willing to drive you anywhere at an outrageous price. (The tuk tuks here are more modified small pick=up trucks, not tricycles like I’ve seen in the Philippines or Indonesia.

It was odd being in a place that was pretty much destroyed only a few years ago. I was able to identify a few of the places I saw in the Tsunami videos I saw taken in Patong. It really was the prefect storm. The tsunami hit at the very peak of the tourist season, on the day after Christmas. Patong was very close to the epicenter of the earthquake and the hills around Patong serve as a giant bowl to keep in the water and raise the levels. It really couldn’t have been worse. You see tsunami evacuation signs, but I can’t help but believe that if there was a real tsunami warning, it would be a mad house trying to get everyone here to high land.

Patong at night
Patong at night
Food prices here are pretty cheap, as is beer. Everything is pretty cheap except for transportation. This is the low season, so the hawker to tourist ratio is very high. I still need to figure out what the hell I’m going to do after Phuket. There are lots of islands in the area, but I’m not sure if I want to visit any of them or go right to Bangkok. I do think I’ll be going to Chang Mai, which wasn’t on my original itinerary.

Language issues are a bit more than what I experienced in Malaysia or Indonesia, but not so bad as to prevent me from doing anything. I’ve had lots of street food, but I have no idea what the name of the foods I’ve eaten, so I can’t really brag about my Thai food adventures.

Uluru and Kata Tjuta

Uluru at sunrise
Uluru at sunrise
Uluru (aka Ayer’s Rock) is probably the single most recognizable feature in Australia. While it is probably one of the bigger tourist attractions in the country, getting there is a challenge. The closest city is Alice Springs which is a three hour drive. While you can fly to Uluru directly, it is an expensive flight and most people go from Alice Springs, which is where my adventure started.

I don’t know why, but the economics of tours to Uluru is such that a three day trip is cheaper than a two or one day trip, so that is what I took. The tour was 20 people, mostly early 20-somethings from the UK and Ireland and two retired couples from the Switzerland and Australia.

We got picked up at 6 in the morning in a small bus that exactly fit 20 people. It also had a trailer which all our gear and the camping supplies were hauled around in. When I say “bus” it was closer to a school bus than a touring coach. It was extremely uncomfortable and difficult to sleep in, which is a big deal when you have to drive for several hours a day.

After making sure everyone was paid, we arrived at Uluru/Kata Tjuta National Park. Most everyone has seen photos of Uluru, but you almost never hear about Kata Tjuta (the first “T” in Tjuta is silent). Kata Tjuta is a monolith similar to Uluru, except broken up and slightly higher. You can easily see one from the other as they are only about 10km (6mi) apart.

In many respects, Kata Tjuta is just as impressive as Uluru. Because the rocks are broken up, you can walk around inside, between the rocks as opposed to just around it. While we were walking around Kata Tjuta, we ran into a bunch of different European church groups who were in Australia to see the Pope. None of the hiking in Kata Tjuta was very difficult. There was some vertical climb, but it wasn’t anything difficult.

Crowds at Uluru at Sunrise
Crowds at Uluru at Sunrise
After walking around Kata Tjuta for a few hours we got back into the bus and drove back to Uluru for sunset. The rock in Uluru is heavy in iron, which is why it is red in color. It also changes the shade of red through out the day as the sun climbs the sky. Every photo of Uluru you see is pretty much one of two angles. There are sunset and sunrise viewing areas so you can see the rock in the best light. Because the sunset and sunrise color of Uluru look the best, you only see photos from those two angles.

The sunset viewing area was packed. I think that many of the Europeans who were in Sydney to see the Pope visited Uluru on the way home. We had champagne (well, sparkling wine to be precise) as did many of the other groups. I’ve noticed this with many tours I’ve read about on my trip. Somehow, adding champagne and cheese to something makes it classy.

Me and my group at Kings Canyon
Me and my group at King's Canyon
The company that ran the tour had their own campground. We cooked dinner and made a fire. All the wood for the fire we had to collect from the side of the road earlier in the day because you can’t collect wood in the park. We slept on the ground in a combination mattress, canvas sleeping bag enclosure called a swag. Everyone went to bed early, save for the Irish girls and the guys from the UK who stayed up drinking until 2am. (stereotypes aside, all the Irish I’ve met on my trip drink a ton)

I barely slept that night because it got so cold. The temperature dropped to about 28F (-2C) and the sleeping bag really wasn’t up to that sort of temperature.

The next morning we got up at 5:30am to pack and get to Uluru by sunrise. Sunrise was just as crowded as sunset, except it was much colder.

Me at Kings Canyon
Me at King's Canyon
We then had the next several hours to walk around Uluru. Several guys did the hike up to the top of Uluru. There are all sorts of advisements about how the local aboriginals don’t want you to climb to the top, yet they have hand rails on the path and don’t actually ban anyone from making the climb. I kept looking for a reason why they didn’t want you to climb, but I could never find any straight explanation. At no point did I ever read anything which said that you shouldn’t climb to the top because it isn’t respectful of their traditions. They sort of imply it, but never come out and say it. They will say that is a tradition, and they will say you shouldn’t climb for reasons of safety, but they never say you shouldn’t climb because of their traditions. The local abrigional people own the land which Uluru sits and are heavily represented on the board which runs the park, so they could ban people from climbing if they wanted to, but they don’t.

After walking around Uluru, we got back in the bus and drove for several hours to King’s Canyon. The routine that night was the same as at Uluru, except that it wasn’t nearly as cold.

King’s Canyon was interesting, but as canyons go, was probably secondary to what I saw in the Blue Mountains, NSW and the rock formations weren’t as specular as what I saw in the Bugle Bungles. If you are into geology, some of the formations you’ll see in the canyon are very interesting. I could tell there were probably many PhD theses which came out of this place. We walked around the rim of the canyon (which isn’t all that deep),

When we got back to Alice Springs, I was tired from three days of walking, dirty from all the dust and sweat, and had a terrible runny nose from being cold. Uluru is one of those thing that you really should do if you visit Australia, but you have to work to get there. It is well worth the effort.

McDonald’s Malaysia: Golden Arches Over The South China Sea

Ayam Goreng aka Friend Chicken
Ayam Goreng aka Friend Chicken
This post was nine months in the making. Just as Malaysia is split into two distinct parts, my visit to Malaysia was separated by over half a year. I visited Sabah and Sarawak on Borneo in January and I visited Peninsular Malaysia in August. I could have written the post back then, but I wanted to wait until I at least passed through Kuala Lumpur before I summarized the Malaysian McDonald’s experience.

The first thing you notice at a Malaysian McDonald’s is that hamburgers are called beefburgers. At first, I didn’t know why, but eventually, it dawned on me. Malaysia is a predominately Muslim country (about 60%). Hamburgers are called beefburgers so there is no ambiguity that the sandwiches are not made with pork. As the A1 commercial used to say “what is hamburger? chopped ham? no, chopped steak!” You’ll never find any pork products at all in a McDonald’s in a Muslim country because the kitchen needs to be certified Halal. Every McDonald’s I visited in Kota Kinabalu, Kuala Lumpur, or Penang had a Halal certification.

While Malaysia is mostly Muslim, it is not totally Muslim. It is a multicultural country with a very significant Chinese minority. Unfortunately, the favorite protein source of Chinese is pork (I’m currently reading a book on KFC in China. They have the demographics in there). You’d think that Chinese and Muslim dietary habits wouldn’t fit well together, but they each share a common taste for chicken. There were two unique items on the menu in Malaysia: Bubur Ayam and Ayam Goreng. Ayam, as you can probably figure out, is Malaysian for “chicken”. Ayam Goreng is just fried chicken. They offer a regular and spicy version, and the spicy version is almost orange from the spices. Bubur Ayam is chicken soup, or as they call it on the menu, chicken porridge. It really wasn’t that different from the chicken soup my grandma makes, just a tad bit spicier.

The other thing which I saw back in January was uniquely Chinese: the prosperity burger. I saw it in Hong Kong as well as Bali. It is sort of the Chinese New Year equivalent of the Shamrock Shake. I had it Bali and it was actually pretty good. It had a heavy taste of black pepper and it sort of oblong shaped, like the McRib, but because it’s Malaysia, made of beef.

Like what I saw at McDonald’s Fiji, McDonald’s Malaysia menu reflects the diversity of the country. There are just enough tweaks in the menu to make it uniquely Malaysian.

Top 10 Places I want to go back to

1) South Korea: I don’t feel like I gave the place enough of a chance because of how cold it was when I was there. I developed a taste for Korean food, too.

2) American Samoa: I was there a week, but spent most of the time in a hotel room recovering from a skin infection. I’d like to go diving there and visit some of the outer islands.

3) French Polynesia: I went there near the start of my trip. My camera skills weren’t very good and I didn’t give it a chance because of the cost. I’d like to go to some of the outer islands and get out of Tahiti.

4) Vanuatu: It rained my entire time in Vanuatu. My flight to Tanna Island was canceled and I never got to do anything outside of Port Vila.

5) Papua New Guinea: I was way too worried about safety concerns. I’d like to go back and visit the highlands region someday.

6) Northern Japan: Because of the weather, I didn’t go farther north than Nikko in Japan. I’d like to visit Hokkido.

7) Micronesia: Hotels in Chuuk were booked when I tried to go there. I also didn’t get to visit Yap. I’d also like to take a boat to visit some of the more remote islands.

8) Fiji: This is one of the places that keeps cropping up in my memory. I’d like to visit other islands, but I’d also like to just go back to the places I was before.

9) Indonesia: I never got to Florez or Komodo, nor did I explore much of Sumatra.

10) Tasmania: I could have spent much more time in Tasmania and seen a lot more than I did. This was also a function of cold weather.

There Once Was A Man From Phuket

Well, the airport protest only lasted a day so I was able to get the next flight on Monday. It is amazing what a difference a border can make.

Phuket is only about 200 miles from Penang, and that 200 miles is a thin isthmus, but it is a totally different world. Thailand uses a totally different alphabet. It is based on Khmer which is based on Brahmic script from India. Unlike Malaysia, you can’t read a thing.

Thailand is 95% Buddhist, where as Malaysia is 75% Muslim. That makes huge differences in what you’ll see with foods and culture.

Unlike the rest of SE Asia, Thailand was never colonized by Europeans. Like other countries which were never colonized, (Tonga, Saudi Arabia) they still have a rather powerful monarchy. The king of Thailand is thought of very highly in Thailand. In the drive from here from the airport, I must have seen at least five large photos of him on the road. Also, lots of yellow, which is the color of the king.

Phuket is very touristy. It was hit very hard by the tsunami back in 2005. I haven’t visited any of the beach areas yet, but I’m interested to see how everything has sprung back. The cab driver from the airport did the thing where he stopped somewhere to try and sell me a different hotel. Didn’t work.

My goal is Phuket is to get my rescue diver certification done. I’ll need a CPR course on top of that. I hope to start tomorrow or the day after.